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Friday, September 6, 2013

A Cold Night Somewhere Else...

       Even though it was the dead of winter, a small tent revival had come to the sleepy town of Louisburg, Ohio, and despite gusting winds and long nights, it had gathered a small and devout crowd. The large canvas monster that the traveling group had pitched had sat silently for three long days before opening its doors on the dusk of third night, inviting people inside with the promise of portable heaters and warm drinks to enjoy whilst their souls were being cleansed.

            Sherriff Judah Dyre was himself devout, but the thought of huddling in a tent listening to the ramblings of a self-appointed savior loaded with a whole lot of spiritual fire wasn’t exactly what he thought of as a good night. Besides, he had two or three tasks that he really needed to finish that night, since the week had been uncharacteristically busy.

            He drove out to the ranch of Simon Blue, a cup of coffee in his hand and the heat blaring, a scowl on his otherwise handsome, farm-boy features. Blue had reported half a dozen of his cows as stolen, which in and of itself was quite the feat, but even more interesting was that Blue reported that the cow tracks had led off into the frozen prairie out behind the town in such a pattern as to suggest quite the stampede.

            When he pulled up, he found Blue out on his front porch in a down parka, an expression as dark as Dyre’s coffee on his face. Judah climbed out of his car and waved, “Hey, Simon.”

            Blue didn’t mince words. Before Judah had reached his porch he grunted, “Now my dog’s gone.”

            “Your dog?” Judah asked, trying to keep the surprise from his voice. During the last week, half a dozen dogs and twice as many cats had gone missing from around the town, even though the temperature was the shady side of zero during the nights.

            “I opened the door and the damn thing lit out like his tail was on fire.” Blue shook his head, “Lit out the same way as my cows.”

            “Can you show me the tracks?” Judah asked, “Maybe they just ran off.”

            “I don’t know why…it is suicide out there. I thought they’d have more sense than that…then again, they are cows. But Bucky? He’s a smart dog, I don’t know what he went off for.”

            Judah pulled out his notebook, “The tracks?”

            “No good. The wind took ‘em.” Blue crossed his arms, “Guess there’s not a whole lot you can do, is there?”

            “Well, we can keep an eye out for them. Hopefully they will come back when they get hungry.” he didn’t mention the possibility of them freezing to death.

            “Sorry for calling you all the way out, Sherriff.” Blue shut the door behind him and locked it before walking back with Judah to his car, “I’m going to that revival. I don’t know why, but I feel like maybe it would be a good idea to get down there and get some things off my chest.”

            Judah nodded, “Need a lift?”

            “Naw, thank you. I got my truck. I’ll follow you out.” he climbed into an ancient truck and on their way back into town, Judah thought back over the strange events of the week.

            It had started with one of the local farmers’ chickens disappearing: only four of them ever turned up, and they had been shredded beyond recognition by something big. Then, two teenagers ran away, leaving behind all of their money and worldly belongings without so much as a note. Their parents had been convinced that they had run away to get married, and so Dyre had put out a statewide APB on them statewide and had awaited the arrival of the FBI to help locate them. Neither the teenagers nor the FBI had yet to turn up.

            Then, two horses had gone, and then, in a mass hiatus, the dogs and cats disappeared within a single night. Animals were in general becoming scarce in Louisburg, and so Dyre had issued a warning for the feed in the town and had sent it to a nearby lab to be analyzed.

            He pulled up to his office and parked on the road, even as Blue sped by in the truck. The street itself was pretty much abandoned, as almost everyone had headed down to the tent just before dusk. For a second, he just sat and listened to his engine ping before he let out a long breath, started it up again, pulled out behind Blue’s truck and followed the modest main street, his mind too busy focusing on the events of the week to think about where he was going. All he knew was that the thought of holing himself up inside his office behind a sea of paperwork was the very last thing he wanted to do, mostly because he had no answers for the questions that seemed to get more and more pressing as the minutes wore on.

            The rumbling of the car’s engine was soothing, and Dyre realized that he was exhausted. The past few nights and yielded little sleep for him, and now he sank into a sort of trance, and found himself lost, driving beneath the overcast and heavy storm clouds that rumbled in the distance, illuminated only by the crackle of lighting still trapped within, the weak final rays of the sun too weak to penetrate them. The barometer dropped, and Judah’s skin prickled almost as if he were sweating in the bitter cold.

            He was jarred out of his trance by the sight of a dozen cars huddled together like grazing cows by the tent, and he was a little shaken by the fact that he had almost involuntarily wandered to the revival. He threw the car into park and hurried to join the line of people trickling inside like ants, but at the last minute he veered to the left to confront an older, yet strikingly handsome man in a clerical collar that peeped out under his thin jacket.

             “Hi there, are you in charge?” Judah asked, his voice strangely weak in front of the priest.

            “No, I’m just here to help.” the man extended a hand with slender, avian fingers which looked so fragile and perfect that Judah was afraid he’d shatter them in a handshake, “I am Caleb. Can I help you?”

            “I’m the local sheriff, and I’ve been investigating some strange occurrences around the town,” the sun’s rays peeked through the overpowering storm for a split second, and when Judah glanced away to look at it, Caleb seemed to shrink and age in the corner of his eye, as if he had grown exceptionally tired and sickly. Judah’s eye snapped back at him, and Caleb looked as upright and quietly beautiful as he had before.

            “Strange occurrences?” Caleb looked slightly concerned, and he put a hand on Judah’s arm, “Was someone hurt?”

            “No, not that we know of. Just a lot of…disappearances. Animals and the like. Have you had any trouble while you‘ve been in town?” Judah’s question seemed silly even to his own ears, and he was suddenly overcome with the desire to wander inside with the others and let the warmth of the heaters and the comfort of solace wash over him. He shook his head and tried to maintain eye contact with Caleb.

            The priest shook his head, “No, nothing like that. One of our number came down with a cold, but that’s hardly anything unnatural, is it?”           

            “No, not at all. Thanks for your time.” he blinked as he noticed the sign over the tent’s entrance for the first time, and he couldn’t help but frown, “That’s a strange choice for a title.”

            Caleb glanced up at the sign above the door and a strange smile flitted across his face, “It’s from Philippians in the Bible.”

            “’Find your own salvation through fear and trembling’?” Judah shuddered, “That’s a bit dark, don’t you think?”

            “Well, we thought it was fitting for the theme of our sermon.” Caleb gave him the same smile again, and Dyre felt strange chills rush down his spine. He turned, suddenly thankful to be free from Caleb’s gaze, and when he had reached his car he sped away quickly, anxious to get home to bed.

He pulled up to his office and fumbled with his keys, and it wasn’t until she was practically upon him that he noticed a woman staggering down the sidewalk. He turned to face her when she fell against him, babbling wetly.

“Calm down! What’s wrong?” Judah pulled her away from him and held her at arm’s-length to examine her when he recognized her as Janice Focault, the local grocer. She was weeping uncontrollably, and making strange hiccupping noises, and just when Judah was going to push open the door and get her a warm drink to calm her, she practically vomited a torrent of blood onto his face.

Judah stood frozen in horror as Janice wept over the stump where her tongue had once sat, and gestured wildly towards the direction that the sheriff had just driven from, her eyes huge and wild with terror. The strange smile on Caleb’s face flashed back into his mind, and a realization flooded over him.

At the tent, Caleb ushered the last of the stragglers inside with a kind smile and then turned to the man standing half hidden in the shadows behind him, “Everything is ready, Zuriel.”

The man stepped out and gave a wide grin, and drawled with a strangely pleasant Southern accent, “Excellent. Let's put the fear of God into our flock.”

            Dyre hadn’t waited for the paramedics. He had sat Janice down in a cell with wads upon wads of gauze in her mouth and a quick, muttered torrent of assurances before he ran to the car and tore up the road towards the revival.

            When he arrived, the place was deadly silent, with only the thunder in the distance to offset the loud breaths that Dyre was gasping as he hurried to the tent flaps, mentally reassuring himself that he’d only been gone a few minutes, and that nothing too terrible could have happened in so short a time. He was very wrong.

            He pulled the flaps open, and he noticed immediately that they were far too heavy, drenched as they were in blood. He pushed it open, and immediately the stench flooded out to meet him: urine, blood and fear was pungent and thick on the air, and he soon discovered why.

            At first, Judah’s mind refused to process that the stacks of gnarled, twisted meat were the townsfolk, people he had known since his birth and, in some cases, since theirs. The flesh and muscles had been haphazardly torn from the bodies, and even though its spore was still heavy in the air, there was little to no blood left inside them, leaving them a weird, blue-white and pink.

            At the center of the tent were the hearts of the victims, piled up like some sort of strange offering in front of three eight-foot crosses that had been thrust into the ground, each of them bearing gruesome remains. On the first was just the torso of Simon Blue, his intestines and ribs trailing down and hanging in the space where his hips and legs once rested, a look of hideous surprise and anguish still locked onto his strangely unsullied face. The second one bore only hands and arms nailed into a roughly humanoid shape, with a strangely out-of-place mismatched pair of feet hanging at the bottom like a sick joke.

            And on the center cross were two nails, still sullied by clinging flesh where hands had been torn free from it, with the words “So close, Judah,” scribbled in blood.

            Dyre stood trembling, unable to fully comprehend what was transpiring before him when he suddenly heard something shifting in one of the few patches of unsullied snow near the edge of the tent. He pulled out his pistol and hurried over to it, his teeth clacking together too hard for him to speak.

            On the floor crouched two little girls, twins actually, who Dyre had watched grow from mere infants. They were beautiful children, with wide, dark eyes and russet locks as well as bright smiles that seemed to illuminate even the coldness of winter midnight. Their father, Travis, had been heavily into drugs and had only managed to clean himself up after the twins’ mother died and he had been left alone to care for them. Whenever he had spoken of them, Travis had looked much like he had before the drugs had aged him: he adored them and had done a better job raising them than his abusive father had done for him.

            It was strange then to see Travis’ intestines strung between the two giggling girls as they reached tiny, nimble fingers into the hole in his throat to tear free pieces of flesh and suck out the bile.

            They heard him approach and spun to face him, their eyes burning with a hideous, otherworldly fire. They moved differently, more like feral animals than six-year-old girls, and Dyre immediately recognized their smiles as the same one that Caleb had flashed him: one frozen cold yet as hot and terrible as a predator’s breath on the back of one’s neck.            

            Before he knew exactly what he was doing, the sheriff pulled the gun from its holster and fired. Not once in his life had Judah Dyre missed his mark, and this time was no exception.

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