“Ma,” Emma called into the house as they all tramped inside. They’d cast uneasy looks and agreed it was best not to touch the deer. “We took care of it.”
There was no answer as Emma set the shotgun carefully in the hall gunrack, heading into the kitchen.
Errick wiped the spring mud from his shoes on the mat, aware that Pa was staring at him.
“Well at least you didn’t hide under the bed pissing yourself,” Pa said offhand, which Errick took as a deep compliment, a little smile tugging at his lips.
Yes, see, I’m no coward.
Emma returned, looking puzzled. “Ma,” she called down the hall that led to the bedrooms. The silence was unnerving, and her expression turned from worried to complete panic. She raced down the hall and Pa followed, still clutching his shotgun. Errick found himself once again stuck behind the crowd. He could see over Pa’s shoulder though, see that Mrs. Stehlen was on the floor, and his heart sunk deep into his belly, doing obnoxious jumping jacks there. Emma was bent over her when she stirred, coming to. Pa let out a long breath, laying his shotgun on the bed and struggling to his knees.
“Martha,” he said softly, “what happened, are you alright?”
Mrs. Stehlen sat up, rubbing her forehead. “I felt ill, I wanted to lay down,” she answered vaguely.
“Pack a bag Emma,” Pa said firmly, “We’re staying in a hotel tonight.”
Emma started to argue, but he gave her a look that made her quiet. She however refused to waste time packing. “It’ll all be here when I get back Pa.”
So they all piled into Pa’s work truck, Pa insisting they stick together, and also that Errick ride in the back with Mrs. Stehlen, for obvious reasons.
“If you touch her inappropriately, she’ll deck you son.”
Errick believed that. Emma gave him a look of commiseration, before ducking into the front seat. It was really getting dark now, and his skin prickled as they left the long, well packed driveway, truck swaying and vibrating over the dips and bumps of the less than perfect forest road. He stared hard out the window, rubbing his empty eye socket, it didn’t feel like it had taken kindly to the intrusion of river water, but better that than dead.
Evening was falling pitch black now, sucking the last of the suns glow from the distant mountains, but there was a soft light from the cars interior lights, just enough to see his reflection in the window. I look terrible. Is that mud on my left brow? His hand wandered there, then staid as a red flash caught his eye. It was gone before he could look twice, so he continued to rub at the dirt distractedly. There it is again! Tail lights maybe, hunters.
“Is there another road close by?” he asked out loud.
Pa’s head turned slightly. “Why?”
Errick’s throat clenched like it was suddenly dry and parched, the red was back, only it wasn’t tail lights, definitely not. It was a set of eyes. Emma’s description of them being red and glowy didn’t quite do them justice either, they were more like molten, volcanic fire. He couldn’t look away until they blinked out, then he turned frantically to Mrs. Stehlen. “Did you see-”
Mrs. Stehlen was staring at him, but she was, like the imagined tail lights, definitely not Mrs. Stehlen. Her body was still there, sure thing, he registered her conservative skirt and burgundy top, a pretty necklace resting delicately atop. That all ended at her neck, everything above was darker than darkness, black hole sort of dark, punctuated with those terrible, terrible eyes.
Errick didn’t know his hands could move so fast, unbuckling and pushing himself up and against the door. He would have crawled right out the window if he could. The truck bounced, that was a big bump, then lifted, tilting, back rising.
Pa cussed from the front seat. “What in God’s name.”
Well he could tell him what, but not right this second, right this second he was trying very, very hard not to piss himself, and that took a lot of focus.
“I see you!” the voice rang through the cab with a strange skittering echo, like it was falling through the ripples of time and space, dizzying him. It was high again, like a shrill shouting. He wanted so bad to cover his ears, no, not just that, to dig the sound out, scrape it away. The truck was lifting back, then front, then back, like a teeter totter, like a toy being played with by a child, so that Errick had to hold tightly to the seat belt, just to keep himself from falling towards the thing.
It had other ideas, unbuckling, letting Mrs. Stehlen’s body bounce and launch here and there. He was faintly aware that Emma was also staring from the front seat, all twisted around. Mrs. Stehlen’s body launched towards him, rolling with the truck, face coming close to his, eyes inches away. His hand caught her shoulder like second nature, stopping it from getting any closer. It was issuing a sort of sucking noise, like it was pulling in air through severely deformed airways, and had to work very hard at it.
Everything happened so fast after that. You could count on Emma to have a gun, you could also count on her to save your skin. That she did. Blood splattered on his face and neck, taking off in rivulets down the front of his shirt, as Mrs. Stehlen’s head finally reappeared from the darkness. The truck began vibrating, then lifting, not like before, straight up, both sides, and he had the sensation that he was on a roller-coaster ride. It got pretty high, then ground to a halt, like whatever was controlling it had run out of steam, only having enough to throw the truck forward, break neck.
A tree did the duty of stopping the truck, wrapping the good steel bumper around it, shattering the windshield in a thousand tinkly pieces, and he was flying backwards, really flying, if only for a second, taking out the glass of the back window, his large frame getting lodged there.
Ouch, think my ribs might be broken. Shoot, that’s smoke, it’s on fire. Errick felt his body, locating his position, he was only half lodged, he could pull himself out, if he didn’t, well that was that, he was a goner. So he grabbed at the cold truck roof and pulled. The first pull did nothing but incite panic in him. He felt weak all of the sudden, how could he not pull himself free? The panic helped though, made him pull harder, like a deer trying to escape an alligators jaws. The colder yet truck bed met him with a thud that reverberated through his whole body, letting him know keenly that he was injured in several places. He could see in the headlight that remained that Emma and Pa were still there, stuck, if alive.
An urgency flooded him, a terrible urgency, if he didn’t get them out. All the beautiful moments he had spent with Emma flashed before his eyes. What was life without her, she was both silk, making his days pretty and light, and steel, exciting him, taking him on adventure after adventure.
Damned if he could remember how he got out of the truck bed, but just that it was hard to do. He tried Pa’s door, it opened, but only because the frame bending had popped it out. Errick unbuckled the old man, relieved when he responded. Fireman’s carry was more work than he bargained for, but he took him to the edge of the woods and raced back, limping at an insane pace. His knees complained as he crawled over the seat towards Emma, unbuckling her right away, she, unlike Pa, was unconscious, or dead, please don’t be dead Emma. Her side of the car had taken more of the tree, and the dashboard was tight against her legs, not too tight he prayed, pulling at her knee gently to see if the leg was lodged. It wasn’t, but it was tight, so tight he was afraid that he’d scrape skin off on the twisted wreck. He got his arms up under her arms, tugging her limp body upwards, the resistance made him nervous, so he changed tack quickly, going back to carefully pulling at her legs. It was agonizing, slow, too slow, but out they came, without any long deep scrapes that could open arteries.
Then and only then was he able to pull her out with any semblance of ease, half carrying her, half dragging her to the treeline, flames hot at his back. Pa was standing, barely, and waved him on further into the forest.
The explosion lit up the ground and trees, and Errick felt himself falling, eye trained on the rocks and leaves, so beautifully lit, how gorgeous, as he took a face full, the smell of decay and damp earth filling his nose.
Black, a weird silence, that isn’t silence, just incomprehensible jumble.
The entrance wound for the IV gave off a dull pain as Errick’s hand jerked, making blood backflow and tinge the clear liquid. Emma’s hand was on his shoulder.
“Lay back, don’ get up, it’s ‘k, it’s over.”
His eye focused on her, blurry at first, then clearer. She was beautiful as ever, hair falling around her shoulder, lips plump. Jeez, that’s a big black eye though. She’d changed into pants and a comfortable shirt that hung loose over her breasts. “Emma,” he struggled with the words, but he had to say them, now. “Will you marry me?”
Emma looked briefly like she might fall over with surprise. “I, well,” she gave a laugh,”of course!” She was blushing to his surprise. “An’ Pa likes you an awful lot now,” she added as an aside, stroking his hair lovingly, “I might ne’er find another man Pa likes again.”
Errick couldn’t stop grinning like an idiot after that, even when they told him he wouldn’t be getting up for at least a week. He tried very hard to look sad when they told him the fire had spread, that it had probably burned the cabin by now too, raging on, even then he was grinning on and off.
Pa settled himself in one of the visitor chairs once everything was quiet again. “You’re a lucky man,” his eyes were hard, all manly steel, I’m not being sentimental, I’m telling it like it is, see. “The only reason they found us in time was because of your car, they were looking for your body.” He stopped, staring at his knees, lumping up in his throat what he really wanted to say, not small talk. “Thank you, for saving me, for saving Emma,” then, this was harder yet, “you’ll make her a good husband.”
Read more short stories by theherdlesswitch here!