The Massacre of Sin
The unassuming dome of Mt. Jericho was the only reward for a southern ride along the Blue Ridge Parkway, yet more accidents were caused by its scenery than the curving roads that led to it. The group passed at least six parking lots for the more popular trail heads before Owen pulled the truck onto an exit. The pavement lasted only as long as it took for the road to snake out of sight of the highway.
“Is anybody else starting to wonder if Owen's taking us to his special murder place?” Robbie asked.
“Shut up. The parking lot's just up ahead.”
“Kinda like the exit was just up ahead...and the gas station was just up ahead...”
Owen didn't have to look at his face to know he was grinning. “Keep it up, asshole. Just remember that only one of us brought a stove.”
From the passenger seat, Robbie mimed pushing buttons in the air.
“Speaking of which, you did remember to bring the wind shield for that, didn't you Peter?”
“Are you kidding?” asked Robbie. “You do realize this is the guy that keeps matches in his underwear, right?”
“It's the inside pocket of my hiking pants, you jerk. Not my underwear,” Peter replied from the back. “You'll be thanking me when we get stuck out on a hike one time and you need some heat.”
“And you would be the one to get me lost on a hike.”
“Bite me.” Peter held up one end of the map while Allen kept the other end up with his knees. “Did we cross over Crooked Creek yet?”
“We just did,” Owen answered.
“What's this green box mean?”
“It's nothing. It's just a...”
“It's a...umm...campground...kinda thing.”
“Campground?” The three of them answered in chorus. Peter then took the lead. “You told us this place was out of the way!”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Calm down,” Owen said. “It is out of the way. The campground's not really used. They rent it out to churches sometimes, but I've never seen anyone there.”
“I don't feel like racing anyone up the mountain, dude. I tore my knee up last time trying to beat those other hikers to camp.”
Robbie leaned over to Owen and whispered, “We've secretly replaced the normal Peter with an elderly quadriplegic woman. Let's see if Allen notices.”
The laughter of the others drowned out Peter's attempt at a comeback. He shook his head and folded the map, making sure to look down so that they couldn't see his grin.
Owen pointed up ahead. “Hey, this is it.”
They pulled into a parking area that was empty, save for a trashcan attached to a pole and a small sign post at the entrance to the trail. Owen eased the Jeep into a spot near the sign. Peter could barely wait for the car to stop. He opened the door and hopped out onto the gravel. The first breath of mountain air was always his favorite. The cold air was like a shot of medicine to his lungs. He grabbed his bag from behind the back seat and set it outside the car. By the time the others had gotten around to doing the same, he'd already changed into his hiking shoes and begun to explore the area.
“I think that's the entrance to the Appalachian Trail spur right over there,” he said, pointing past the sign.
“What gave it away, Columbus?” Robbie said. “It's, like, the only trail around here.”
“Yeah, but it's weird to see it in person after reading about it for three months.”
“We should get moving,” said Owen. He slung his backpack over one shoulder and reached into the car to pull out his hiking poles. “We only got about three hours left before sundown. It's kind of a late start. Shut up, Robbie.”
“I didn't say anything!”
“Anyway, me and Robbie'll go up first to make sure we get there before anybody else comes through. You guys are still cool with that, right?”
Peter and Allen nodded.
“Okay.” Owen put his other arm through the strap and motioned for Robbie to go ahead. “We'll see you guys there. Remember, if you get lost, just stay where you are. I gotta come back down later to grab a couple of fire logs.”
“Alright. See you in about four hours,” Allen called after them. They entered the trail and quickly disappeared around the corner.
“How much you wanna bet they think it'll actually take us four hours?” he asked Peter.
“No doubt. Let 'em break an ankle. Besides, we got pictures to take.”
Peter lifted the camera hanging from his neck and peered through the viewfinder.
“Look,” Allen said. “I know you probably want to get up there faster. I appreciate you lagging behind with me. I'm too fat for my own good these days.”
“Shut up. You are not.”
“C'mon. I put on fifty pounds in two years!”
“Well this pack weighs at least that much, so now we're even.” Peter jostled the weight between his shoulders. “But if you still want to thank me, you can let me have one of your hot dogs tonight.”
“Nuh uh. Don't think so.”
“Worth a shot, I guess.”
The two of them finished gathering their things and took turns snapping pictures of themselves in front of the trail head before starting down the path. The hike wound around the base of Mount Jericho as it gradually rose above the carpet of pine needles. The sound of rushing water was everywhere. It paralleled their walk until the path broke away near a waterfall cascading off ridges high above.
Peter kept the lead in the early goings. After months of studying, he was fairly certain that he could keep them from getting lost on a spur trail. He kept a slow pace to make sure that Allen stayed close behind, but also to protect his knee. They were moving at about a mile an hour, which would get them to the top just before sundown. Plenty of time to collapse by the fire and cook a couple of hot dogs.
“What's that?” Allen called from behind him.
Peter looked up to see a fork in the trail on the ridge above. He dug the map out of his back pocket. The trail looped around like he’d thought, but he couldn't see any side trails. Since there were no signs in Wilderness areas, he'd have to decide on his own. Both appeared to go up the mountain.
“Which one are we supposed to take?”
“I don't know,” Peter answered. “Owen said there'd only be one trail.”
“The one you want is on the left, young man. But the one you need is on the right.”
Peter jumped at the sound of the voice. He turned around to see two men standing on the path behind them, each carrying a messenger sack over their shoulders. The taller of the two had gray hair, but his facial features and smooth skin said he was much younger than he first appeared. The second man stood slightly behind him. He leaned forward to see his friend's face.
“I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you boys,” the man continued. Everything he said was book-ended with a smile. “My friend and I were just on our way back to camp.”
“It's okay,” said Peter. “We just didn't hear you come up, that's all.”
“Are you all headed up to the shelter?”
“Just the two of you?”
Peter looked at Allen. “No,” he said. “Our friends went up earlier to make sure we got some space in the shelter.”
“Oh, I wouldn't worry about that,” the man replied. “We don't get too many thru hikers around here during these months. You ought to have the place to yourselves. And pardon me for being rude. I'm Zachary Maxwell.”
“Peter Ellis.” He shook his outstretched hand. Allen followed suit.
“You're a preacher?” Peter asked.
Maxwell glanced down at his collar and came up smiling. “Father Maxwell, at your service. You've got quite an eye.”
“I was an alter boy when I was little.”
“Still a member of the flock?”
“It's alright. You don't have to answer that one. But as you know, the doors to the church are always open to God's children. Speaking of which...” He turned and put his hand on the other man's shoulder. “I'd like you to meet Moses. Moses has a hearing disability, but he can read lips perfectly.”
“Okay,” Peter replied. “Hello, Moses.”
Moses nodded and stepped behind Father Maxwell.
“He's just a bit shy of outsiders. He warms up to you after he gets to know you. And on that same subject, have you boys eaten?”
“No,” said Peter. “We were going to cook some hot dogs when we got to the top.”
“Well you all must be exhausted from the drive. I'm sure you're hungry.”
“I guess so. We didn't really get a chance to stop and eat lunch because we were a little late.”
“Then allow me to invite you to have dinner with us before you go. The parish always cooks more food than we need, and I'm sure the two of you could use a good meal before you start your camping trip.”
“Well...” Peter looked at Allen, who had his eyes locked on Father Maxwell's shoulder bag.
“Moses here could lead you up later, if you're worried about finding your way in the dark. Or you could spend the night. We could even send someone for your friends.”
“I think we ought to get going,” Allen said. He spoke more quickly than normal.
Peter shrugged. “I don't know. Maybe we could grab a small bite.”
“No, I really think we need to head on.”
“Is... everything alright?” Father Maxwell asked.
Peter eyed his friend before answering. “Yeah, it's okay. Allen's right. The others will be looking for us soon, and I've kind of got my heart set on a hot dog cooked over the fire.”
The preacher's smile faded slightly. “I see. Well, if you change your mind, Peter, I and the rest of us would enjoy having your company. Just follow this path until you see the sign of the sparrow. That will show you the way home.”
“Thanks a lot,” Peter replied. “Maybe we'll see you again when we come back down.”
Father Maxwell let his grin widen. “I do hope so.”
They shook hands again—except for Moses, who shrank further behind the preacher—and the two boys began the climb up the trail. Allen walked with his head down. “Are they still watching us?” he asked.
Peter looked back. The two men were still at the trail junction. Father Maxwell waved slowly.
“Yeah, they are. What the hell's going on with you, man? We could've gotten some good food.”
“Didn't you see what was in his bag?” Allen hissed. He talked just above a whisper.
“No,” said Peter.
“It was Sudafed. A whole fucking mound of it.”
“And that little deaf guy had something clanging around in his bag too. I bet it was the chemicals.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I'm talking about METH, dude. The kind that's made out of pseudoephedrine, aka Sudafed. What, do you live in a cave? This part of the state is like a hot spot for meth labs.”
“You can't be serious. How do you even know that's what it was?”
“I know what Sudafed looks like, Peter. I had to take it every other day for six months before I had that operation on my nose, remember?”
“Yeah, but Allen, this guy's a preacher.”
“So? Don't you read the papers? Those are the ones who do this shit the most!”
Peter shook his head and waved him off. “You're dreaming.”
“Dreaming or not,” Allen replied. “I want to get out of here as soon as possible tomorrow morning before those kooks come looking for us. Last thing I need is to tangle with some speed freak.”
Conversation between them fell idle as the slope of the mountain increased. With the sun dipping below the tree line, Peter and Allen trudged up the path, one driven by what lay ahead and one by what lay behind.
“So, there I was in the barn with this guy's daughter, right? And I'm roundin' third base, about to go home, when we hear her dad yelling for her outside the window.” Robbie paused to take a sip from his flask. “I'm tellin' you, dude. I was about to shit myself. I've got this perma-woody thing going on because this girl's a freak and had me take some of her dad's Viagra stash. Farmer Nelson, meanwhile, is on the other side of this doorway. Anyway, we start scurrying around and we're looking for our clothes and I'm like, mouthing to her, 'I can't find my pants!' Then she gets this look on her face and she points behind me. I turn around and see my jeans hanging from the jaws of a horse. Not only that, but the fucker must've smelled the gum in my back pocket because he'd chewed a hole the size of Texas through the back of the damn things!”
The other three boys were laughing too hard to finish their food.
“Now I'm whispering obscenities at this horse, and I'm tugging as hard as I can to get my pants away,” Robbie continued. “I finally wrestle it free and then this girl's pushing me down the barn, saying, 'Quick! Go out the back before he comes in!' Meanwhile, I'm hopping on one leg, and I can't get my jeans over my junk because Mr. Happy is still high on Viagra. So, I'm like, 'screw this' and I turn the jeans around and stick it through the new hole in my pants.”
Peter wiped his eyes. “Stop, dude. You're making my jaw hurt.”
“But that's not all!” said Robbie. “She shoves me out the back door in my new pair of chaps—shirtless, I might add—and who is standing there to greet me? Her freakin' mother. I couldn't believe it. All I could do was stand there. She looks at me for a second and then shakes her head and she's like, 'Just go.' It was the worst thing ever.”
When they had stopped laughing, Owen walked over and set an extra tall can of beer in front of Robbie. “I don't even think we need to vote,” he said. “That's hands-down the most embarrassing thing I've ever heard. You win.”
Robbie picked up the beer and kissed it.
“What time are we at?” Peter asked. The moon was already high above them.
“About midnight or so.” Allen stood and patted his gloved hands together. “I think I need my coat after all. I'm gonna go grab it and take a leak.”
Peter watched him disappear into the darkness of the small house. The stone structure was little more than a one-room building with a wooden loft inside. They had decided to sleep up off of the floor mostly to avoid the mice, but also in hopes that any heat left in the place would rise to the top. He saw Allen crawling around through the top window.
“So, did those guys down there try to convert you to their voodoo?” Owen asked.
“It's not voodoo. Look, just because you guys aren't religious doesn't mean the ones who are have to be crazy.”
“Ooooh. Somebody's touchy! Or was somebody touchy with you back in Catholic school?”
Peter chucked a stick at Robbie.
“Seriously,” Owen continued. “Do you think they're one of those weird cults? There's tons of them around out here. Allen told me about the bag of drugs, too.”
“We can't just assume they're doing drugs. Allen had no idea what was in that bag. It could've been candy for all he knows.”
“It wasn't candy.” Allen came back to the fire ring and sat down on the log. “Promise. I just walked down the trail some and I could see their lights. I'm pretty sure there was smoke coming up too.”
“Yeah, imagine that. Smoke coming from a trailer on a cold night.” Peter shook his head.
“Well, if they've got a fire going, they're morons. Just thinking about heat will set one of those labs off. The second those fumes reach the flame, it's...” Allen made an explosion sound and mimed a mushroom cloud.
“Just let it go, alright? They're not hurting anybody.”
“I didn't realize you were so religious, Pete,” Owen said.
“I'm not. It's just...” Peter looked up to see their eyes on him. “I mean, my dad was a preacher. When I was little, my Mom used to tell us stories about all the things he used to do for people and how he used to be this guy that everyone really looked up to. She used to go on and on about how he was this great man.” Peter took a drink of whiskey from his bottle in an effort to regain composure. “They're not all whackos. That's all I'm saying.”
Robbie's voice had lost its playfulness. “Sorry, man. I didn't mean anything.”
“S'okay. You didn't know.”
They sat for awhile without talking. All eyes were focused on the fire.
“So,” Allen said obviously eager to break the mood. “What do you think those putzes at work did without us today?”
“Probably shit their pants. At least we left Maury with them in case the servers go down.”
All four broke into laughter.
“Yeah, Maury's on the case,” Allen said. “How much you wanna bet Owen never gets us all time off again?”
“Hey,” replied Owen. “I've got those VPs trained. They know that if they want us to fix their stupid e-mail problems ten times a day, they have to let us off at least one Friday a quarter.”
Peter felt his attention to the conversation waning. Any mention of his father tended to do that, but he wasn't about to let his vacation be brought down. The quickest way he could forget, he thought, was to get some sleep. The walk had seen to it that he was drained of most of his energy, anyway, and the alcohol had seen to the rest.
“I'm headin' in,” Robbie said, beating him to the punch.
“Yeah, me too.” Peter capped his flask. “You want to put the fire out?”
“Nah, just leave it. It'll burn out in a couple of hours.”
They gathered up their belongings scattered around the fire and made their way into the cabin. Owen grabbed their cooking utensils to wash them in the nearby spring while Peter and Allen scoured the map one last time to plan the next day's route. Robbie made it his task to hang the food bag, and he let it be known that the only thing bringing his contraption down was a flying bear with titanium jaws. Too tired for his jokes, Peter was the first to make his way up the ladder to where their sleeping bags lay. After suffering through the first few moments of shivers without his warm clothes, he managed to drift off into a welcome state of rest.
Peter awoke, eyes wide, to the sound of scratching.
He poked his head out of the cocoon of his sleeping bag and glanced around the loft. The other three boys were all asleep. Peter sat still and listened. He heard the scratching noise again, this time clearly coming from behind him. He turned over and saw his maps and a guide book sitting in the moon's light on the floor. One of his maps moved. A pair of eyes hovered over the back corner.
“Go on!” Peter whispered. He swatted at the pile and the mouse disappeared into the shadows. He picked up the map. From the looks of it, only a small piece had been chewed on. Peter shook his head and grabbed the entire pile. He crawled over to his backpack leaned against the wall and unzipped the front pocket to place them inside.
Exhaustion started to pull his eyes shut again. Just before retreating back to his sleeping bag, he looked out the window and saw someone walking slowly around the edges of the front clearing. Only part of their body was visible in the moonlight. Peter felt a panic building that he quickly moved to subdue. This is the Appalachian Trail, he thought. Tons of people use this thing.
But not in the middle of the night, another voice said.
Peter watched as the person stopped suddenly, and then moved into the full light of the clearing. It was a girl—teenager, by the looks of her. He marveled at how little she was dressed for the conditions. She wore a short-sleeved white dress that came down to just above her bare feet. Dark hair hung past her shoulders, eclipsing most of her face. Peter moved to the side in case she looked up. The girl meandered toward the fire. The dying embers held her attention as she began to circle it, moving in a sloppy gait as though she was so deep in thought that she couldn't be bothered to direct her legs. Every once in a while she would bring her hands up to dig her fingers through her hair.
Peter's head snapped around to look behind him as he heard a loud creak. It turned out to be Robbie flipping over in his bag. A quickly-formed snore let him know that he was still asleep. Peter considered waking the others, but decided against it. He turned back to the window.
The girl was staring at him from beside the fire.
Peter felt the air still in his chest. He watched as the girl's mouth begin to move. Her stare never wavered as she continued speak, but he could hear no sound despite the thin window panes. Her hands shot out from her sides. In a decisive act far removed from her distorted gait around the fire, she picked up a still-burning ember in her hand and hurled it toward him. Peter jumped to the side as it crashed near the window. It broke through the bottom section, sending chunks of glass and red-hot wood chips spraying across the floor. He grabbed his boot and stamped out the embers.
“What's going on?” Owen asked. Robbie and Allen both lifted their heads beside him.
“I don't know,” Peter replied. He could barely contain the level of his voice. “There's someone outside!”
Owen shot out of his bag and began to throw on his clothes. He fumbled for his boots.
Behind him, Peter heard the shuffling of feet. It was followed by another crashing sound as something hit the outside wall. This time he could hear the words coming in from the window's hole. “CLEANSE!” the girl croaked. Her voice strained to a high pitch, she repeated the word again just before she sent another log of wood flying toward the cabin.
Robbie ran to the window. “Hey! What the hell are you doin'?” he yelled.
There was a brief pause before the girl let out a wild scream that sent Peter's hands over his ears.
It stopped almost as abruptly as it had begun.
“Oh my god.” Robbie's mouth hung open in a gape. “Owen just laid that girl out.”
The three remaining boys quickly grabbed their coats, socks, and shoes and poured outside once they were on. Peter's body shook as much from nerves as it did from the cold. He stepped out of the doorway and saw Owen standing above the girl's writhing body. He spoke to them without looking back.
“I hit her hard up high with my shoulder and her head fell on that rock. This girl shouldn't be conscious.”
They formed a half-circle around her and watched her seize on the ground. A patch of blood was visible below the girl's head. Her movements became less frantic with each second passed until they saw an awareness return to her eyes. The girl began to breathe faster as she rose.
“Burn,” she hissed. Her tone was guttural as she spoke. “Burn! THE WRATH OF THE LORD IS UPON YOU!” Her voice rose into a blurred scream. “SINNERS BE DAMNED! SINNERS! SINNERS! SINNER--”
With a quick left, Owen dropped her once more into silence.
Peter pushed him to the side and took the headlamp out from the pocket of his coat. He flipped it on and focused the light on the girl's face. She was still breathing, albeit in short bursts. He leaned over and let out a gasp as the light hit her eyes. Bloody capillaries had completely suffocated the whites around her pupil. Muscles on her face and neck twitched as though they were constantly being shocked.
“We've got to get her to a hospital,” Peter said, turning off his lamp.
“Are you insane?” Allen shrieked. “This girl tried to kill us!”
“There's something wrong with her, I think—”
“You're damn right there's something wrong with her. Peter, she was picking up wood out of the fire with her bare hands!”
Peter stopped short, but not in enough time to push Robbie out of the way.
In one swift movement, the girl grabbed a rock from the fire ring and swung it toward Robbie's head. It connected with his temple and he dropped to the ground in a heap.
She screamed and raised the stone above his head to strike again. It was halfway down when Owen grabbed it and ripped it away from her. Without hesitation, he brought it straight back toward her, knocking her down with the blow. The girl's face was bloodied and warped. Her nose had been moved toward the corner of her mouth. Still, she continued to scream through the blood gurgling in her throat. One jerked movement back toward the fire was all it took for Owen to end her consciousness with another blow.
He stood over her for a moment with the rock held sideways, ready to strike again. Peter and Allen could only look at each other.
“Robbie...” Owen said, still looking at the girl.
The mention of the name snapped Peter out of his trance. He turned on his headlamp again and knelt beside Robbie's still body to put a hand on his chest, hoping to feel it move. Peter counted the seconds until he got to ten with no breath.
“It was self-defense,” Owen mumbled. He continued to hold the rock. “She was going to kill Robbie.”
Peter felt his eyes beginning to water. “I think he's already dead.”
Owen broke his stare for the first time and followed Allen over to Robbie's body. Allen knelt down and took his gloves off to feel for a pulse. After a moment, he ran his fingers through his hair and shook his head.
“Oh, Jesus,” Peter said. He couldn't stop his tears. “I can't believe this is happening.”
“It's those cult bastards,” Allen said. His chest was heaving as he looked back and forth between Owen and Peter. “You saw how that girl was acting. She was a fucking meth freak. I god damn told you guys we should've left!”
“What are we going to do?” Peter said quietly.
“We're gonna go down there and beat the crap out of your little friends,” Allen answered.
“I didn't know!”
“Bullshit, you didn't know!”
“ALL RIGHT!” Owen had regained his composure and stepped between the two of them. “We have to get Robbie out of here,” he said. “And I'm gonna need both of you. Okay?”
Peter and Allen looked at each other, then nodded.
“Okay. First thing we need to do is grab something that we can use as a weapon. And forget the rest of the stuff in the cabin. We're leaving that here.”
Peter was about to say that he'd brought a hatchet when shrieks rang out from the darkness in waves from all sides of them. Most sounded far off, but a few seemed dangerously close.
“Oh, no...” Allen stared out into the trees.
Owen pushed them toward the cabin. “Go! GO! Grab anything you can find!”
Owen and Allen ran into the cabin while Peter took a final look at the blood-stained dirt surrounding him. Some of it had splashed onto his coat.
“Peter, come on!”
He turned and hurried through the door.
“Where's the hatchet?” Allen called down from above.
“It's hanging on the side of my bag.”
A moment later, the hatchet dropped down from the opening to the loft. Peter went to grab it and his hand gripped the shaft at the same time as Owen's.
“You better let me take this,” he said.
Peter knew what he meant without being told. With no time to argue, he let his end loose.
“I want you to carry this,” Owen said, handing him a mesh sack. “It's strong and it's light. I think you can put a rock in here and take people down with it.”
“Take people down? I don't know if I can do that.”
“You can!” Owen leaned forward and lowered his voice. “I need you to do this, Peter. Allen's big but he's not strong enough to handle using it over and over again on the way down.”
“Owen, what are we doing?”
“We're getting Robbie and we're getting out of here.” He stepped back and let his voice return to normal. “You hit anyone you see with this thing and I'll do the rest, alright? Just keep your eyes forward and look out for us. Go grab one of those rocks out there to use. Biggest one you think you can swing.”
Peter took the bag, reluctantly walking back outside while every nerve in his body felt like it was firing at light speed. He looked around and then jogged over to the fire pit, making sure not to look to the side where the bodies lay. There were only a few stones in the fire ring that he felt like he could carry. He picked up the nearest one. It was rough and jagged around the edges. The thought of it hitting someone's head made him queasy, but Peter shook the thought free as he dropped the rock into the bottom of the fabric's netting. This is insane, he thought. I shouldn't be doing this. There was a drawstring at the top, which he pulled taught. He wrapped it around his wrist and found that his hand gripped the weapon almost perfectly.
Peter turned to run back inside, but stopped after only a few steps. A heavy-set man stumbled out of the woods and caught his balance just at the edge of the clearing. His chest was heaving just as the girl's had been. There were scratches all over his face and arms that looked like claw marks. As soon as he focused on Peter, all movements stopped except for his eyes, which widened to reveal the blood-tinged ovals beneath.
Oh, God no.
Peter made himself speak. “Owen...”
The man charged forward at the sound of Peter's voice, screaming so loudly that it seemed like his lungs might be forced out of his chest. Peter moved backwards and started to raise his weapon when the hatchet whizzed out of the cabin's side window and caught the man flush in the forehead. It fell to the ground, leaving a bloody rectangle brand in its place.
It stopped him for only a moment.
“What are you waiting on, Pete? HIT IT!”
Peter gripped the netting and moved closer to the man. Before he could stand upright, Peter swung the rock around, but nerves had drained his arms of energy. The shot glanced harmlessly off the man's shoulder. In an instant, the bloody eyes were on him, and it froze Peter momentarily. The man reached for him, yelping about the sinner in his midst, and Peter had little time to let nerves stand in his way. He swung once, then again, harder, and a third time before the man went down to one knee. He took one more shot that smashed into his neck, and Peter swore that he heard a cracking sound. The man fell to the ground. His arms jerked at his sides, but the rest of him was motionless.
The other two boys ran out of the cabin. Owen bent down to pick the hatchet up off the ground and wiped the blood from the base. “I guess this isn't much of a throwing axe,” he said. He looked at Peter like a parent tending to their child. Peter felt some anger at the thought. There was part of him, though, that found it comforting.
“You better turn around,” Owen said.
Peter nodded. Still trying to catch his breath, he walked a step back toward the fire and let the rock slip down to the ground. A moment later, he heard the awful crunching sound as the hatchet found its target. There was a brief pause before he heard footsteps coming toward him. For a moment, he didn't care whose they might be.
“Let's get going,” Allen said. He stepped past Peter and lifted Robbie's torso off the ground, bringing it to rest over his shoulder.
Owen was behind him. The hatchet was still in his hand. In his other was a knife, which he offered to Peter.
“You should take this,” he said. “Just in case. If we meet up with anything else, Allen and I will try to take them out, but...”
Peter took the knife before he had a chance to think. He stuck it through the loop in his belt.
“Which way are we headed?” Allen said. He carried a much larger hunting knife in one hand while the other steadied Robbie's body on this shoulder.
Owen listened as more shrieks rang out from the woods. It was a chorus of haphazard whelping mixed with screams of rage aimed at the heathens all around them. This time, most of the voices sounded closer.
“We could go back the way we came,” Allen offered. “That way we could see what's ahead of us.”
“And they could see us, too,” Owen replied. “I think we ought to cut through the woods.”
“I agree,” said Peter. As much as he wanted to get down quickly, he knew the woods were a better choice. “I don't think they can see any better than we can.”
“And one is easier to handle if we find them rather than having them all gang up on us on the trail.” He looked at Peter. “Which way's the best?”
Peter looked past the cabin. “That way,” he said, pointing to the mound of rocks behind the building that sat at the edge of the woods. “It's pretty steep, but we can follow the water from the spring down to the river at the bottom.”
Peter looked them both in the eye, and then nodded.
“Alright.” Owen inspected each of their weapons, then continued. “Let's go.”
Peter started out behind them, but was quickly hurried to the front. The rock hung at his side. He lifted it off the ground and hoisted it over his shoulder to make sure that his arm didn't get too tired. It was only a few steps later that he felt the first twinge of pain from his knee. Not now! he thought. He tried to disregard it, but there was no ignoring the fact that the pain always worsened when going down steep hills. Just the same, he switched the netting to the other shoulder to take the weight off.
After making it over the rocks and to the bottom of the slope, the three boys were suddenly encased in darkness. Clouds had momentarily drowned out what little moonlight could have made it through the rhododendron thicket they'd entered. Peter looked around and finally found where the spring water had filtered over the rocks. It was now a free-flowing stream. He motioned for them to follow.
“I don't like this,” Allen whispered. “These leaves are too noisy. They're gonna hear us.”
As though answering his fear, three separate cries erupted from the slope in front of them. They were followed by others in the woods behind.
Peter started forward again, but was held up by a hand on his shoulder. He turned his head and saw Owen lift a finger to his lips. He pointed through the bushes.
Four small shapes were stumbling around below the neighboring trees. They watched what little they could see from the cover of the rhododendron. Peter felt his eyes adjusting. He soon wished they hadn't.
“Jesus,” Owen said. “They're just kids.”
Two of the group—the boys—were moaning senseless phrases as they crossed paths with the girls, who looked roughly half their size. The oldest might have been a teenager. The youngest, barely old enough to be in school. They were prone to random whelps as they cased the forest floor. Peter thought he could make out more scratches like the ones he'd seen on the man. It seemed like they were tearing their own skin off, little by little.
The youngest one stopped suddenly. She held out her hands and let out a soft whimper before she fell to the ground. Her body twitched twice, and then was still. None of the others seemed to notice.
“What do we do?” Allen asked.
Owen saw one of this children's heads turn. He waited until they'd gone back to walking before he answered. “Let's move off to the right. That's where the water's going.”
“What if they hear us?”
“Then we make sure they can't call the others.”
Peter let the thought sink in. He looked at his hands and wondered for a moment if he'd be able to use his weapon. His arms felt weak at the thought of it. So much death already.
The rhododendron bushes kept them undercover as the water circled down and to the left. They suddenly found themselves passing into a thin grove of saplings with nothing taller than their waist to hide them. Two steps into the clearing, a twig snapped. They froze, and all heads turned toward the children.
The oldest one was peeking out from behind a tree. He said something underneath his breath that sounded like, “Heathen.” It brought the remaining two to his side. Together, they walked out. Their faces were blackened by shadow, but Peter imagined what expressions they wore. Their eyes would be wild, frantic, and drenched in blood. Their faces would be covered in wounds by their own hands. It was an insanity that boiled out of control as it looked for a way to escape its mortal binds.
Allen let Robbie's body drop to the ground just as the older child selected two large branches off the ground. The pieces of wood were thicker than their arms, but the boy snapped them below his knee like twigs. Peter was sure it had broken a bone. When all three had their weapons, they moved forward as one.
“Now!” Owen hissed. “Before they can yell!”
Allen was off at the first sound of his voice. He raced toward the tallest child with the knife brandished forward, and in an instant, Allen was down on the ground. One of the children had thrown his stick, and it must have caught him up high. He rolled on the ground, clutching his face.
The children were on him before Owen and Peter could act. The smaller ones latched themselves around his legs and began to frantically bite whatever they could get their mouths on. The older one stood above them with a log raised above his head.
Owen's charge was picked up by the boy and he answered it by emptying his lungs with a high-pitched shriek. “HEATHENS!” he called out to the sky. Before he could utter another word, Owen silenced him with one swing of the hatchet. Peter couldn't tell where it hit, but the boy's voice was reduced to a strained gurgling.
Allen cried out in pain. Peter ran to his side and grabbed one of the boys by his tattered shirt. He pulled until a strip of fabric came off in his hand, but the boy continued to cling to Allen and gnaw on his legs. Peter choked up on the netting until his grip was just above the rock. With hands that no longer felt weak, he aimed at the boy's midsection and found his target. His mind held a rampaging mixture of guilt, anger, and fear as he swung again at the convulsing body at his feet.
Allen managed to free himself of the other child when he caught the girl with a well-placed kick to the mouth. She fell beside Owen, who was struggling with the older boy. Peter joined the fight by taking a shot at the boy's legs with the rock. He felt it connect and smash through the muscle. The boy didn't flinch. Owen, meanwhile, was trying to move his hands up around its throat. As they drew closer, the boy began to thrash wildly and cried out like an animal in the last throes of battle.
It was enough to ignite a series of shouts and cries in response. The woods became awash with frantic movement. From all sides, they were bombarded with manic screams and echoes of “SINNERS! SINNERS!”.
With his hand clutching his face, Allen tugged at the back of Owen's shirt. “Let's go!”
But Owen, like Peter, was stuck in place with an eye fixed on the ridge above them. Standing on the rock was a man holding one of the last burning logs from their fire. He raised it like a trophy in his hands and let out a discordant cry that reverberated around the forest. The fire from the wood began to chip off in flakes around his shoulders. The man continued his guttural call as his shirt and pants slowly became spotted with flames. He was soon joined by other men and women that had emerged from the woods. He stood for a moment in a pause, the burning general at the center of his army. As the fires grew around him, Peter could make out the strained and ragged features of the man who had been introduced to him as Moses.
For a moment, the forest was still. With a simple step, the chaos began.
Allen moved backward when the army on the ridge began to grow. His movement was caught by one of the recovered children, who sounded the alarm. Now almost completely engulfed in flame, Moses led his people in a frenzied charge down the mountainside. It seemed like they cleared half of the ground between them before Peter and the others could react.
Allen stopped to grab Robbie's body.
“Just leave him!” Owen screamed. All three children were close at his heels.
Peter managed to dig the headlamp out of his pocket and slap it on. He grabbed the rock in both hands and took off in the same direction as Allen and Owen. It felt like they were already losing the race. Every time they ducked under a branch or dodged a tree limb, the voices from behind sounded closer.
The pain in his knee grew with every step. They leaped down from the top of a stone overhang, and Peter's leg buckled underneath him. Almost as soon as he hit the ground, a woman jumped out from the trees in a full sprint and pounced on him before he had time to grab the rock. She clawed at his face with wild blows. The woman reached down to grab a stick, and Peter could only watch as she raised it above her head. Then, from behind, he saw an arm come around as the hatchet drove a wedge through the left side of her face. She fell backwards. Owen ran over to yank Peter to his feet. His clothes and face were splattered with blood.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
Peter couldn't answer.
The river joined with its tributaries to form a section of rapids nearby, and the three of them fled toward the sound. Peter found himself falling behind. He tried to push himself to run harder, but his body wouldn't respond. He began to feel panic taking over. To his left and right, he could see orange flickers of light on the ground and trees. He heard the footsteps gaining amidst the symphony of animal shrieks. Tears started to flow. Ahead of him, his lamp's beam flashed from side to side. Something had caught up to Allen and clung to his legs. Owen went to help, but was ambushed from behind by two others.
It was then that Peter realized he’d forgotten to grab his weapon. He fumbled to retrieve the knife from his pocket. The footsteps were almost on him now, but he couldn't bring himself to look back. Instead, he tried to run in the direction of Allen and Owen's cries. He found them both covering their heads as they were bombarded with blows. Peter grabbed the first person he reached and tried in vain to rip them away. Their bodies were as hard as rocks. Owen managed to free himself of one, only to have the man jump back off the ground to continue the attack.
Behind him, a man's voice screamed. Peter turned just enough to see a flaming arm swooping down toward him. It struck him with full force along the back, sending him forward through the darkness. His body bounced off a tree, and then the ground fell out from beneath him. There was a moment of weightlessness followed by a crushing pain at his side. His arm had carried the brunt of the impact as he was cast down into the rapids. Peter's field of vision shrunk as he dropped down from the top of the rock into a gap between two boulders. He was caught in the middle of the boulders and couldn't move. Only the shock of the frigid water kept him from losing consciousness.
Up on the mountainside, he could hear the fight continue. Allen's voice carried down to him. “Please...” he yelled. “Please stop! Oh God, no, please!” The shrieks grew louder as the people around him continued to attack. Peter could do little to help. With a shattered arm and a body being slowly frozen by water, he could only sit and listen.
“NO, STOP! God, please, no.” He was crying as he tried to fend of the blows. “I...I don't want to...I don't want to die...I don't want...”
Allen's pleas stopped abruptly.
Peter felt all control slipping away. He brought his right hand to his face and began to sob in heavy bursts. Through his tears, he saw Owen's body flung against a tree downstream. Owen tried to fight back, but Moses and the others managed to grab the hatchet away from him. Peter couldn't close his eyes fast enough before witnessing the fatal blow.
The victors howled in delight.
With the feeling in his extremities almost totally lost, Peter didn't notice himself become dislodged from the gap in the boulders. His body rushed past the onlooking eyes of his pursuers, and he could hear them cry out in frustration as they ran alongside him. He gasped for air as his body tumbled down the rapids. He found himself in a pool temporarily, and he had enough time to bring his head above water. Men and women dove in after him, not looking out for the rocks below. Most of them hit hard and fell into the water. Others managed to avoid injury enough to paddle toward him. Their arms smacked against the surface of the pool as though they were trying to bring him closer.
Peter reached out with his good arm and did his best to move down stream. He found himself yanked forward by a strong current. He was soon airborne as the water took him over one edge, smacked him against a boulder, and then sent him flying down a longer cascade. Peter sank into the pool at the bottom of the waterfall, barely conscious enough to keep the water from filling his lungs. He floated to the surface and saw them all running around the top of the falls. The sheer rock face sent most of them scrambling around the sides. Some threw themselves over the waterfall and were dismantled by the rocks below.
His legs soon found solid earth as the water carried him further away. Peter managed to stand up. His eyes—blurred and beaten by the ride—searched for a place to go. He saw something off to his left—a single light that caught his eye. He pushed himself toward it, only barely aware of the legs moving beneath him. He told his body to run, but it could only give him a few steps at a time. The light seemed close enough. Still, he wasn't sure that he could outpace the monsters running down to find him.
He kept his eyes on the light despite the frenzy he could feel building behind him. If he looked back now, he didn't think he could start moving again. There was a simmering feeling inside him that said he was only prolonging his pain. It would be better to stop. Necessary, in a way. Or I could end it myself, he thought, but the idea wasn't welcomed for long. Suicide was still a sin.
Peter could hear some of the followers in the woods around him. Were it not for their uncontrollable screams, they might have heard him dragging his leg through the leaves. He tried to quicken his pace. It was starting to feel as though he was falling forward more than he was running. Then, he saw the light come into focus. It was a small tent lamp like the one he sometimes took camping, and it rested on the sill of a small cabin's window. He felt packed earth beneath his feet. Somehow along the way he'd wandered onto a trail.
When Peter stepped into the small clearing leading up to the house, the woods became alight with rage. Men and women from everywhere around him converged on the site. The door was almost in his reach. He began to cry, not because he'd lost hope, but because some still remained.
With an army of people nipping at his heels, the door to the house cracked open just as he reached for the knob. The inside was coated in only the faintest of lights, but it was enough to make out the image of Father Maxwell in the shadows. He beckoned for Peter to come inside.
He could almost feel the heat of the people's breath on his neck as he collapsed through the doorway. Peter heard something slam behind him. He looked back to see Father Maxwell pushing a metal bar across the width of the door, locking it. “There,” he said in a calming voice. “That should do nicely.”
The battery-powered lamp in the window cast a yellow haze on the faces plastered against the glass. They were stacked four-deep at least as they pawed and scratched to get inside.
“Don't worry about the windows,” Maxwell said. “They're made of bullet-proof glass. With so many hunters around, you can never be too safe.”
Peter tried to roll over. He cried out in pain when his arm fell down, hitting the rough stone floor.
“My arm,” Peter said through clinched teeth. “And my leg.”
Father Maxwell walked behind him and placed his hands beneath Peter's arms. “Let's get you onto the couch.”
Peter could hear the muffled screams coming from outside. It was the first moment of reflection that caused his tears to roll again rather than the pain of being lifted into place on the couch. With his eyes closed, he saw the faces of his friends whose lives were taken in front of him. He saw the faces of the woman by the fire and the children in the woods. It was as though his brain could only now replay and comprehend everything that led to his rescue. The emotional tidal wave began to suffocate him. Peter's whole body shook.
Father Maxwell laid a blanket on top of him. “There, there,” he said. “The worst is over now.” He paused for a moment before speaking again. “You look as though you could use something to eat and drink. I'll see what I can do.”
Maxwell moved into the shadowed rooms of the back part of the cabin. Peter did his best to regain his breath. As he did, he began to notice the putrid aromas in the air. They were nauseating.
“I hope this is all right,” Father Maxwell said as he entered the room. “We held Communion tonight, and this is the only thing I had left in the house.” He placed a wooden floor tray next to the couch. “I'm afraid wine and bread are the best I can do at the moment.”
Peter grabbed the glass and downed it in an instant. He didn't realize how thirsty he was until he saw it. The bread, however, wouldn't go as easily. His throat felt raw.
Father Maxwell's head was bowed slightly. He mumbled words under his breath and ran his fingers in a crossing pattern above Peter's body. “Amen,” he said.
Peter lifted his head. “I couldn't......hear you.”
“I said, 'Body of Christ, Blood of Christ,' Peter. I hope you don't mind if I treat this as your own Holy Communion.”
Peter shook his head.
“Seeing you at my doorway is a gift from God, I believe. It's proof that He always leads the ones who believe—his children—back to the safety of His home. Do you believe it was chance that we met along the path yesterday?”
Once more, Peter responded by shaking his head. He felt as though his mind was beginning to separate from reality. He struggled to keep his attention on Father Maxwell's words.
“It was a sight for sore eyes to see a follower in these parts. I've been at this for a long time. I know how surrounded we are by the wicked. In some ways, I feel like a shepherd,” he said. “Tending to my flock all these years. It hasn't always been easy. We live in a time when the Lord's work is persecuted. You know this, don't you, Peter? How many times have you been the victim of ridicule over your beliefs?”
Peter thought he heard footsteps on the roof. “We have to get out of here,” he said.
Father Maxwell placed a hand on Peter's arm. “Your suffering is near an end. I have heard God's words flow through me. He assured me, Peter, that the rule of the wicked was drawing to a close, and that I would be a leader in this change. But he left me with a test. A test of faith and a test of will. How best could I lead my flock against Satan's army? And I found the answer, Peter. I found it in the place where I should have been looking the entire time: I found it in Christ.”
Peter felt the pressure of his thoughts begin to recede. As the fog began to lift, he pushed up on his good arm until he was eye level with the priest. “Tell me,” he whispered in between labored inhalations. “Tell me you didn't do this.” He somehow found the energy to sit up as he waited for a reply.
“It is not our place to question the will of God. It is our duty to do it.”
A well of strength began to boil inside him. He could barely keep hold of the thoughts that now ran through his head. Peter looked past the smiling face of Father Maxwell and saw an image that stopped the rising tide momentarily: in a swath of light, he could see glass jars joined by tubes on top of a table. Beneath them were metal canisters, stained around the edges and leaking fluid onto the floor.
He was hit with another burst of nervous energy. His body was screaming for him to act. Peter ran his fingers though his hair. “Allen was right,” he said in a strengthening voice. “You were...you were making drugs.”
“It was the will of God, Peter, that I use the tools of Satan to defeat his warriors. And with the help of God, those weapons were made more powerful.” A smile stretched across Father Maxwell 's face. “My. It looks like your energy has returned.”
Peter looked down at his hands. Even the fingers on his broken arm were trembling. “What did you... What... What did you do...to me?”
“Blood of Christ, body of Christ. Life from His life. Strength to wage the battle against sin.”
With no pain left to chain him, Peter rose from the couch. His eyes were losing focus. He felt himself letting out high-pitched whelps instead of the words that had been bottled inside.
As his thoughts began to spiral out of control, he heard Father Maxwell's voice speaking to him. “Now go forth,” he said. “And punish.”
Peter's eyes stretched wide as he struggled to retain his control. In a last-ditch effort, he lunged sideways toward Maxwell, but soon found himself on the floor. Pictures began to flash across his vision. He saw Allen, and Owen, lying dead on the forest floor. There was Moses screaming to the sky. He saw Robbie in the front seat of the car. He saw the sun shining through the clouds. He saw friends from long ago. There was a house, and a woman, and a child running to meet a smiling man in the doorway.
In the remaining vestiges of his sanity, Peter recovered the picture of his matches still hidden in his pants pocket. Part of him thought to retrieve them. Whether or not he did, he couldn't tell. Reality was a memory growing more faint with each second passed. More visions danced through to cloud his efforts.
There was an impulse to reach out to the floor.
There was a memory to run his hand across it.
There was a rage that fell upon him like nightfall, and a sound with no memory to decipher the meaning.