This story is my entry for the "This Post Blows My Dress Up Contest". For the curious, I also posted a few notes on the story's origin (spoiler alert!) below.
Ralph groaned, trying to stretch his legs out. He was barely awake, and nothing was making sense. It was dark, but he was awfully cramped. He vaguely remembered taking Susie to the drive-in, but the date had been a disaster. They were both awkward, not sure what to say. And the movie! It was awful, a Western as dull and aimless as the dust the horses kicked up. With no distraction, the silence between them grew heavy and thick.
Then, during the break, when they’d gone for candy, Cokes, and popcorn, a bunch of creeps standing by the counter had scared Susie.
Their voices were loud, showing off. “...a steel hook. The killer was some guy missing a hand!”
“Then he got a couple of dumb kids parked under the trees right over there.” A tall boy with dark, slicked back hair jerked his thumb in the direction Ralph and Susie had just come from.
“Yeah? What happened?”
“Nobody knows for sure. The sheriff found their car the next day. It had blood all over the inside, and scrapes on the roof and door handles from the killer’s hook. But they never caught him.”
Susie was tugging at his hand. “Ralph, I don’t really feel like anything. Can we go back, please?”
He really wanted a Coke, but he just nodded and walked her to his car. She locked her door and hugged herself, shivering. “Do you think...”
Ralph didn’t let her finish. “Susie, if your folks thought it was dangerous, do you think they’d have let you come out here with me?” He tried to make his voice reassuring.
Still, while talking, he quietly locked his own door. He’d heard a few whispers. Something happened out here a few years ago, something no one ever talked about. The sheriff seemed to spend a lot of time out this way. Some guys said they’d seen a big man with a loose sleeve, on the fringes of town at twilight. And there were other stories about a killer with only one hand who roamed these woods. So he wasn’t sure what to think.
He didn’t tell Susie any of that, of course. He just leaned back in his seat and talked, calming her. She answered once or twice, a few words. They’d rolled up the windows, and the air grew heavy and warm. His eyelids felt heavy, too. Then what? He must have driven Susie home. Hadn’t he?
A sharp scrape, then another, sliced through his fuzzy thoughts, shocking him awake. Icy tingles raced down his spine. He was still in his car. Susie was slumped at the far end of the seat. There was that noise again! He set his hand on her shoulder and shook her as he whispered hoarsely, “Susie, wake up!”
Her head flopped to one side. Was that a shadow on her throat, or bruises? He shook her again, harder. “Susie! Susie! Wake up!”
She didn’t move or even groan. Was she breathing? His own pulse thundering in his ears, he couldn’t be sure. Slowly, he reached for the front of her sweater, face hot. He felt a wet, slightly sticky patch under his finger, and jerked his hand back. Without thinking, he flung open his door and raced out into the dark, arm up to ward off the branches that slashed at him. He swerved to avoid the trees, feet skidding on thick layers of needles.
He nearly fell more than once. Finally, he could go no further. His breath rasped in and out, and he couldn’t hear if anyone followed. His mouth was dry, and he longed for that Coke. He bent over, trying to catch his breath. He strained to listen, but the night was full of small sounds. Any one of them could be the killer.
One corner of his mind wailed that it didn’t matter. Little Susie was dead. He’d never watch her walk down the street again, dark hair swaying. He’d never again see her clear blue eyes spark with mischief. But another, sterner part grimly reminded him if he didn’t escape, the killer would get away with what he did to Susie. That was a reason to live at least a little bit longer.
Ralph went on quietly, determined to reach town and the shelter of the sheriff’s tiny office. After a while, it occurred to him that he might just be wandering in circles under the pines. Without a view of the sky, he had nothing to steer by. Still, he ought to keep moving. That way, he had at least a chance of stumbling on the road back to town. Not long after deciding that, he heard a soft sound in the distance.
He moved toward it as silently as he could. His heart pounded, blood rushing in his ears. As he approached, the noise became clearer, a thin whimper. Ralph thought he might faint. The killer must have found someone else while he was blundering around. He wanted to rush in, but he stooped and felt around until his fingers touched a jagged rock. He pried it loose from the soil and gripped it tightly.
He crept forward until a dry stick snapped under his foot. He froze. A quavering voice broke the silence. “Please... just leave me alone. We never did anything to you.”
“Susie?!” The rock fell at his feet. All of a sudden, Ralph remembered hearing her mother complain that Susie slept like the dead. Another time, he might have laughed.
“Ralph? Is that you? I thought you were dead!” The next moment, she was in his arms, clinging to him, sobbing. He held her until his shoulder and most of the front of his shirt were soaked.
“I heard something... And I couldn’t wake you. I thought...” His voice broke.
“I was scared silly!”
“I know. So was I!” Ralph drooled sometimes when he slept sitting up. That must be what he’d felt. Face burning again at the memory of where
he’d felt it, he said nothing more.
“Let’s just get out of here!”
They wrapped arms around each other as they walked, slowly, over the soft carpet of needles. Once, Ralph stopped and found a stick to probe the ground with, after Susie nearly tripped on a jutting root. They talked in hushed voices, and their laughter was shaky at first, but fear had shattered the barrier between them, and they were so caught up in each other, they noticed nothing else until they came to a small clearing.
The faint gleam of starlight permitted a glimpse of a tall house from the last century, dark and shuttered. It seemed intact but lifeless, except for an owl darting past the small cupola down towards where they stood.
“Look! That’s the old Lemmer place.”
Ralph’s older brother had made him shudder for years, spinning tales of the deserted old house and the ghosts that lurked there. No one remembered the name of the wealthy eccentric from New Orleans who built it. His whole family died of something dreadful right after they moved in. Then a rancher named Lemmer bought it, and after all the Lemmers were wiped out by the Spanish flu, nobody wanted to live there anymore.
“Yeah, I guess it is.” His mouth felt even drier than before.
“Want to look around a little?”
Ralph nearly choked. Still, he didn’t want to sound too afraid, not when Susie wasn’t. “You think we should?”
“I mean, I know this sounds silly, but after thinking a killer dragged you away, it’s hard to be afraid of a few ghosts. Besides, I’m thirsty. Maybe the pump in the kitchen still works.”
“Some water would be nice.” He meant that. In fact, the more he thought about the possibility, the less he feared ghosts.
“Good, as long as we’re careful.”
Ralph was already starting toward the house.
“Ralph, wait!” She ran to catch up with him, and snatched his hand to hold him back. “It has been sitting empty a long time. Some of the boards could have rotted.”
“Oh. Right.” He hesitated. “In fact, no one around here would dare go in, but if a tramp was passing through, he might not know about the place. He might think it was a good shelter.”
Susie nodded. “I didn’t think of tramps.”
They slipped through the clearing and up onto the rear porch. Ralph was able to ease the door open with no trouble. The area beyond seemed to be a sort of hallway or pantry. Ralph stepped inside and fumbled along the shelves near the entry. He kept his exclamation soft. “Thought so!”
“What is it?”
“A candle and matches, so we can see in here.”
“It is dark, isn’t it? Even worse than the woods.”
In reply, Ralph struck a match and held the flame to the wick of the dusty candle. It sputtered, then caught, and he curled his hand around it. Thick dust lay everywhere, but there were scuff marks leading here and there. Ralph jerked his head at them.
“See? It looks like tramps do use this place.”
“Now I’m a little afraid again. But I am thirsty.”
“We’ll just look around a bit first, be sure no one else is here.”
Susie clung tightly to his hand as he led her deeper into the house. By instinct, he followed the scuffed trails that already existed. They crossed the huge kitchen. Ralph could see the pump against the far wall, but he wasn’t willing to risk the noise he knew it would make until he was sure they were alone. They stepped into a wide hall that seemed to run all the way to the front of the house.
They stopped, at the same moment, and looked at each other, faces pale. A noise, almost too faint to be heard, troubled the air here, a deep regular sound like the beating of a vast heart. It was more a vibration than an actual sound. Ralph wondered if it was only his own heart again. Susie must have thought of the same thing, because she gave him a gentle nudge forward.
With every step, the noise grew slightly stronger, kathunk, kathunk, kathunk, kathunk....
At Susie’s strangled whisper, he looked around. The skirt of her thin dress was billowing, blowing up to offer sudden glimpses of her legs. He looked away quickly, then wondered where the wind was coming from. Glancing at her feet, he saw a grate set into the floorboards, the kind used in old houses to allow heat to rise from one floor to another. The deep thumping seemed to come from there as well.
“What is it?”
“Just a heating grate. But why is there warm air coming out of it?”
“I don’t have any idea! Let’s get out of here, Ralph!”
Before he could answer, the thumping sound suddenly grew louder. Now, it sounded like machinery. Ralph squeezed Susie’s hand while pinching out the candle with the fingers of the other hand.
Susie didn’t answer. Ralph suspected she was too frightened even to make a sound. He wished he could reassure her, but he needed to know what was going on first. He crouched down, over the grate, and tilted his head. The rhythmic noise was muffled again, but a faint glow outlined the opening. Ralph held his breath and crouched lower. Susie was crouching beside him, clinging to his hand.
The light grew brighter, and a moment later, two men came into view, one of them big and ugly, his right arm ending in a hook that gleamed in the light of the lantern swinging from it. The other man was younger, slender and handsome. Ralph thought he’d seen him around town a few times. Both men leaned against a stone wall. They were both sweating, and seemed weary.
Ralph didn’t move, and he felt Susie stiffen beside him. The shadows near the ceiling of the basement below were probably thick, but he feared any movement might draw the attention of the men standing there. He tried not to breathe, terrified he might suddenly need to sneeze. Snatches of conversation drifted up to them.
“...why you keep spreading stories about a killer with a hook for a hand.” The big man was scowling.
His companion laughed. “It keeps people from coming anywhere near this place, doesn’t it?”
“What’s the difference? Everyone believes the house is haunted. And when the sheriff’s boys did search it, a few years ago, they never even suspected another room down here, did they?”
“You never know when some kid might sneak up and maybe see one of us coming or going. If they said anything, the sheriff’s boys might decide to take a harder look at this place. And none of us want to get caught at this racket and spend years in prison.”
“Why didn’t you think of that before you got so carried away the sheriff’s boys had to go nosing around here?”
“I told you, she was just a tramp! How was I to know anyone would care what happened to her? And it worked out, didn’t it?”
“Yeah, well, be more careful next time you get carried away. Dump your leavings somewhere else, especially with those stories you keep telling about me.”
“What difference does it make? Even if they find another body, there’s no evidence to connect it to you. If they look at you, they won’t find anything except a decorated war hero trying to live on too small a pension.”
“Anybody finds a body around here, the first thing they’ll think of is look for a man’s got a hook, you idiot!”
The younger man shouted him down. “So they look for you, they find no evidence you could have done it, then what? You got an ace in the hole! They figure some kids saw you, made up a bunch of crazy stories, that’s all!”
“I still don’t like it, you understand? When we’re done here, when we’ve got enough cash, I’m going to Tahiti, someplace like that, find me a nice girl. You stay away from there, from anywhere near where I am!”
“Yeah, sure. I’m heading for Monte Carlo, anyway, so you got nothing to worry about.”
The thumping grew louder again, for a moment. A third man came out, his back to Ralph and Susie.
“This run’s nearly done, fellas.”
“If we were printing something better than ones and fives, a run wouldn’t take so long.”
“We’ve been over this before. Folks look more closely at bigger bills. Take them more seriously. This is the safest way to do it.”
“Yeah, yeah. So you need us to come back and help with the rest of it, right, Tate?”
“That would be a lot more useful than standing out here arguing with each other. Sammy will be here soon to run the new batch into the city.” The third man turned, and Ralph saw the face of the sheriff clearly. Susie squeezed his hand.
All three men walked back the way they’d come, and the rhythmic thumps grew louder, then became muffled again. Ralph was stiff from crouching, but he rose silently and drew Susie up beside him. He struck another match, lit the candle, and they crept back through the house as quickly as they dared. Ralph paused long enough to return the candle and matches to their place, and they slipped out and ran across the grass.
They ran down the middle of the road, away from that place. He only slowed when he saw she couldn’t run any further. Neither of them spoke, but Susie clung to his hand. They staggered to the trees and sank down behind the broad trunk of a pine, hugging each other. Susie wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him, letting her lips linger.
“We can’t tell anyone, you know. No one would believe us, and then they’ll
know that we know...”
Ralph nodded. “I thought of that, too. I hate to let them get away with it, but we’re out so late, everyone will think we just made up a silly story as an excuse. I’ll bet they could say we ran away together, and nobody’d look too hard for us.”
“It will just have to be our secret, between us.”
“At least when I thought there was a killer out there, I figured I was safe if I could just make it to the sheriff’s office. Now... I don’t know where we’re safe. Maybe we ought to run away, soon as I can get some money together.”
Susie didn’t agree but she didn’t protest, either.
They shrank back into the shadow of the tree as a long black car roared past. When it was out of sight, they got up and began walking, staying just in sight of the road, but far enough in to stay hidden. At last, they reached the drive-in. They were both exhausted, and sank into the worn leather seats of Ralph’s huge old Packard gratefully.
Before he started the engine, Ralph glanced at the big clock set into the dashboard. It read four o’clock. He glanced over at Susie.
“What are we going to tell your Ma and Pa?”