Scalp Collectors: All in a days work

Scalp Collectors: All in a days work

The jeep roared across the desert plain, tires crushing the skulls of a forgotten people, killed long before the birth of the two men in the jeep. The driver and the passenger wore ragged uniforms of flannel and leather, goggles wrapped around their necks just in case of a dust storm. The rusty pieces of metal served as dog tags hung halfway down their chests. On each tag was a number that was tatted on to top of their right wrist. Jones, drove like always, Kramer sat passenger, smoking a rolled cigarette he made before getting into the jeep. Specks of tobacco still lingering on his pants. The contract was to collect from a neighboring settlement, with a high price that could be distributed between the two of them. Jones had his fear since they only had seven bullets between them, 3 for Jones’s .45 and 4 in Kramer’s 9mm magazine. They still had the knives, elegant and fine, or brutal with dash of gore. All good Scalp Collectors had their knives.

“So, what happened with that girl?” Jones asked, flipping the strands of long hair off the front of his face.

“I don’t know. I didn’t like her feet.” Kramer said, scratching his thick but short beard. The hit a small hole and threw them around in the vehicle. It lacked doors on both sides or even seat belts so they held on as if lost in a sand storm. This was common place in the desert.

“What, she has like mutant feet?”

“Nah, not like that. They were kind of manly. A little bigger than mine.”

“Well, it’s not like you were going to get a foot job, or suck her toes or some shit.” Jones said, smiling. They would often talk on their journeys. Usually, about anything even during the scalping process. The job itself was common place for the both, their conversations kept things interesting.

“Nah, not with feet like that. It would be like getting a hand job with toe thumbs.”

“Didn’t that happen to you? Jones asked.

“Fuck no! I broke up with her too! We spend all day looking at broken shit, I don’t want to come home to a girl who looks like broken shit.”

They both laughed. “We are going to hell.” Jones said.

“Nah, I think we already did.”

“And we can do anything with impunity.”

“Yup!” They fist bumped as they approached a sign that read, “Meadows Sanctuary, No Guns, No Knives!”

“Why the hell do they always write Sanctuary on their signs? That won’t stop us, nor would it stop anybody else from attacking them.” Jones said.

“Like we are not going to bring weapons.”

The jeep slide through the entrance gate. One guard tower stood with nobody in it. “Real fucking safe.” Jones said, shaking his long hair back.

They rolled down the street, kicking up dust as they did. The street was crowded with old rusted cars and ragged buildings. Most looked completed with old pieces of metal and rotted pieces of lumber. Kramer doubted that any of the cars still functioned, but something sat sour in his stomach as they drove on. “If no one in the guard tower, you think someone picked this place off already?”

“No idea.” Jones replied as her drove the jeep into the middle of the town square. Burned out buildings surrounded a fountain. A statue once stood in the middle of the fountain, but had since fallen over. Only the legs remained and a plaque that read, “Ghost t,he First Survivor.”

“Ghost?” Jones asked. “That hero from the beginning? Wasn’t he a legend?”

“Thought so. Wasn’t he that albino guy who killed a bunch of cannibals or something?”

“Something like that.”

Jones parked the jeep in front of the old fountain. Kramer slid out of the vehicle, taking a look down into the old fountain and saw how dry it was. He spat into the bottom and adjusted the gun on his waist. “What about you, man? Any girls lately?”

“Fuck no,” Jones said, tying his hair back. “There was this one that followed me back to my place and started stealing my booze.”

“What do you mean?”

Checking the cylinder of his revolver, Jones replied. “I was all drunk down at the Way Station. Some older lady was talking to me about how her boyfriend was cut to pieces by some Head Hunters. Well, I was trying to go home, but the bitch followed me back to my place. I had just shut the door and was taking my boots off when she just kind of walked in and instantly took her top off.

“What!?” Kramer said, laughing.

“I mean this wasn’t anything good either. She probably had like 15 years on me and her tits hung in different directions. I yelled at her to get out, but she walked over to my bar and started grabbing all the jars of liquor I had and ran out the door topless. She left her shirt and everything at my place. She was fucking gross, man. Boils on her neck and cheeks. I’m sure there was one on her nipple. It was like she bathed in a tub of radiation. She wasn’t even worth a scalp.”

“Man…” Kramer said laughing.

They found a town hall sign sitting outside an old white house. It was rare to see a three-story building still intact in the world anymore. It could have been a nice property years ago, but the siding on the home was faded and falling off, accompanied by every window being broken. The dead grass was long and yellowed in the dirt. The skeleton of a young tree still stood like a corpse of hope. It somehow tried to grow in this world but was prematurely killed, thanks to dehydration. Very common in these parts of the world.

“We need more bullets.” Kramer said, wiping sweat from his brow. “Don’t get payed enough for this shit.”

Jones just scratched his head. “Especially if Head Hunters are inside that building. We got to spot them if they feed us a line.”

Kramer took the gun from his left and let it hang lazily from his fingers for a quicker draw. “Let’s just walk in. If anyone is even in there.”

They walked side by side. Kramer trying to hide the limp in his leg where shrapnel hit him in the knee. Kramer always used to drive them to the jobs till that bomb went off. His leg gave out quite a bit and made it difficult to step on the gas pedal. It was one of many scars that were drawn over the bodies of each collector.

“You fucked that girl didn’t you!”

“Fuck no!” Jones replied. “God damn, all the booze in the world couldn’t get me to do that!”

“You have picked some winners, just saying man.”

“Like you never been there.”

“True, true.”

They walked the steps up to the town hall, barely glancing at the skeleton that sat in a chair as they did. The door swung open on its own and the head of a spear appeared in the darkness. The Scalp Collectors drew their weapons with lighting speed. They had been there, done that more than they care to.

“Drop your weapons and step out,” “Kramer said. “We are Scalp Collectors, show yourselves!”

“It’s alright Corey, drop the spear.” A woman’s voice said from the shadows.

A worn woman stepped into view, dressed in a dirty pink blouse, gray strands of hair were spread, throughout her brown hair. The Collectors had seen leather that looked better than her skin. Her eyes were aware, but tired all the same. “I am Gretchen, leader of Meadow’s Sanctuary. What brings collectors out this far from your safe zone?

“Contract to fill. One male, dead or alive. We mean to let him live if everyone cooperates.”

“If we don’t cooperate?” Gretchen asked, trying to show her strength.

“We take all your scalps.”

“Dead or alive.” Jones added.

Gretchen stepped more into view. They lowered their guns a bit. “Who is the contract for?”

“Arnold Jay Fletcher. Under Violation of propaganda publishing some 20 years ago, resulted in a riot that killed 7 of The Queen’s men.” Jones said this without a stutter. Kramer did most of the talking, but Jones memorized all the data.

“We follow no Queen but myself.” She said, a cold look overcame her leather like face.

“Treason, is it?” Kramer asked. “You know we could probably get more for your scalp if we say we got that leather from a cow.”

“Truth.” Jones agreed.

For a second they steadied the weapons higher, but shook with a magnitude of a fear they have once felt before. Jones saw from the corner of his eye that two more of her people had come out from around the building, spears in hand. “Give up Arnold or I will turn around and shoot both of your men in their spineless guts. You can’t trick us.”

For a moment, neither of the men thought she was going to give in. “Fine,” She finally said. “Stand down. We don’t have the fire power anymore to stop them. Follow me Skin takers!” She walked passed them down the steps with her head held high, as if this was to show she still had the power. Her spearmen followed her at her sides and the Scalp Collectors walked closely by.

“What happened to your firearms?” Jones asked. “You said you do not have it anymore? Was is Head Hunters?”

“No, it was a gang of your Skin Takers. Dressed and acted just like the both of you.” She didn’t show her face as if to hide her discomfort. A chill could be heard and felt from her voice that made both shiver somewhere deep within them.

“Scalp Collectors deal with skin, not theft.” Jones said.

“Well, maybe you should remind these men of who they kill and what they take.”

Jones looked over all five of the spearmen and saw they all had scalps. “They didn’t take any scalps, did they?”

“Just the guns and a couple of the children’s virginities.”

Kramer and Jones stared at each other for a slight second. They would keep this in mind later.

“How many?” Jones asked.

“Seven,” spearmen Corey said, “All had bigger guns than both of you. All took our guns and by night they took churns with some of the children and a couple of the older girls. Killed a couple of them that fought back. Still had their way with the bodies though.”

“You all just stood there and did nothing?” Kramer asked.

“They killed five of our own men from a great distance. Blew their fucking heads open.”

“Now I only have these five.” Gretchen added. “I admit we reacted poorly.”

“Got that right.” Jones mumbled. He felt Gretchen’s glare without looking.

They came upon on an old house that looked in better shape than the other ruined houses. Kramer thought it still looked like a piece of shit, but better than most. Jones checked all the windows, looking out for any snipers that Gretchen declined to mention.

“I’ll go in and get him,” Gretchen said. “Stay here.”

“Hell no! I’m coming in.” Kramer said, adjusting the grip on his gun. “You cool out here?” he asked Jones.

“I’m sure they would like to see my knife tricks if they get panicky. Drag his ass out of here. You guys are going to want to see Kramer scalp this guy all savage! You are in for a treat!”

They walked the steps into the house, Gretchen leading, with Kramer bringing the rear.

Jones sat back and looked at the spearmen who all eye fucked him raw. They all were skinny with scars and patches of hair across their bodies. Either shirtless or wearing the remains of once a shirt, Corey was a part of that category.

“So, what do you all do for fun around here?” Jones asked and felt the tension thick in the air. “You guys have any movies, like an old projector to show all those films they used to make a long time ago?”

“We don’t have electric anything.” One of the spearmen answered. He had a large gap in his mouth where his two front teeth were missing. Jones didn’t know what color those teeth were, but he guessed they were as brown as the others.

“Yeah, it’s a true wonder to live in a safe zone that our Queen gives us. It’s just as dangerous as this place, but it does have lights. Freezers to keep meat longer, and a movie is played every night. Giant walls to keep intruders out. It is real nice.”

“Those walls also keep you in.” Corey said, rubbing at a large sore on his shoulder, picking at it with a yellowed fingernail.

Jones had never thought it that way. His queen had always been good to them, providing them with contracts to make the land a safer place, showing that crime will not be tolerated. Since he was born, the walls kept Headhunters, walking corpses, and rabid animals out. As a child he felt safe, but now that he was older, it was the gun that kept him safe, and that little bit of paranoia that hung in his brain, kept his fingers on the handle of his revolver.

“GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!” Kramer yelled, dragging a short, round little man out onto the porch. The little man, Arnold, matched the contract description. The details were very elaborate, especially when it came to the pointed wart under his left eye, sticking out like a cone. His finger nails scratched at the porch as Kramer dragged him to the dirt. Gretchen stepped out of the doorway, her arms crossed with distaste.

“You got the wrong guy! I aint ever but had love for The Queen!”

“Maybe now you do, but 20 years ago you called her a robot!” Jones expressed. “Scalp him.”

Kramer removed his knife. A long crude thing that shined under the broken sun. The blade was zigzagged, almost like a lightning bolt. It was the same knife he had used since he started hunting scalps.

“Now, this will hurt a lot,” Kramer explained. “But if you don’t squirm too much, it will come off  quick and easy as those sheep skin condoms you all wear. You know, the ones you make from the intestines. So, we will begin at the middle of your forehead and pull it all the way to the middle of your skull and cut it free. You cool with that?”

“No I am not at all!” Arnold said, tears begin to roll down his face.

“Let us begin.” Kramer said and dug part of his knife into the middle of the forehead. Fresh beads of blood rolled down his face and Kramer jerked his knife to an angle and began skinning up. The little man squirmed and yelled in pain, but he couldn’t alter Kramer’s skill. He was a pro at what he did.

“Jones, how do you feel about those sheep skin condoms?” Kramer asked, working the knife farther up the skull.

“I don’t know. He replied. “I only use the latex ones back at home, or none.”

Kramer laughed as he got to the hair line of Arnold. The skin was peeled back from his forehead, looking like a bloody rag, pushed into a roll. “I mean isn’t like fucking the animal too, since your using its guts to keep you-.”

“GOD, THIS FUCKING HURT!” Arnold interrupted.

Kramer dug his blade into the skull, scratching at the bone. “Can’t you see we are having a very important conversation here?

“I hate it when people interrupt us!” Jones agreed. “I am getting sick of his sobbing. Hurry up and finish him off!”

Kramer ran the blade across the top of the skull, the zigzags in the blade helped cut and peel back. He made it look as simple as slicing a hunk of butter. Kramer was a little uneven, but when Jones would perform the procedure, he was straightforward and had a perfect rolled scalp by the end of it.

One final slice and he cut the scalp away from the skull, dropping Arnold into the dirt. His bloody face caked the dirt and he looked like a ragged mess, shaking and sobbing like a child. Jones reached into a leather baggy that hung from the side of his belt where he kept the powder. “Keep rolling in the dirt like that you are gonna get a nasty infection. Hold still, this powder will clean it and stop the bleeding.” Jones took a handful of the salt looking mixture and slapped it across the open head wound. Arnold yelled so loud he made both Scalp Collectors step back with laughter. The power caused a burning sensation across his skull, white bubbles foamed over and rolled down his face as he screamed like a child. For a split moment, Kramer felt sorry for the poor man, but the he looked down at the fresh scalp and the feeling went away. They were about to get paid.

“Is that all?” Gretchen asked. She was still standing on the porch with her arms crossed, a look in her face like she wanted to draw blood.

“Of course!” Kramer said. “Best be leaving.”

Jones looked back at all the spearmen, but they looked away in utter disgust for what they just witnessed. Arnold had calmed down to just a light sob. Shock had quieted him down some.

They were on the walk to the jeep and Kramer threw their payment at Jones. “What do you think, like three thousand credits?”

Jones rubbed the skin between his fingers and looked over the fine black hair. “He’s got some silver coming in, got to count for something worth a damn.”

“Yeah, might actually get to buy some more fucking bullets.”

Hoping into the jeep, Jones rolled up the scalp and handed back to Kramer so he could start up the jeep. “If I hurry I can get us back by dark. Maybe get some tacos at the pub?”

Before Kramer could answer Gretchen walked in front of the vehicle with her arms crossed. Her spearmen surrounded the car, spear pointed as if to block them in. “New development.” Jones mumbled.

Kramer stood up and pointed his gun at Gretchen. “We got a problem?”

“I just wanted to let you boys know that you are not welcome here ever again. Just a little warning of what’s going to happen if you come back!”

“I will tell you what’s going to happen. Jones and I are going to shoot each of these savage motherfuckers in their dicks and rape them with their own spears. Jones will run you over and spin the tires across your rubber face. Then we are going to scalp all of them, drive home and have steak for dinner. How does that sound?”

Jones smiled and all the spearmen frowned. Gretchen held her ground and didn’t let up. Kramer and Jones admired her at that moment.

“You seem certain of yourselves. Tell me, what are you going to do about those rogue scalp collectors? Will you let them dishonor the codes you live by, or are you going to deliver them The Queen’s justice?”

“If we find them, we will scalp them too, but we are going to do it for us, not for you.”

“Well the leader had long white hair and two crosses tatted on both of his cheeks. He forced me to watch as he raped my daughter. Make it painful.” Gretchen eyes watered as if she was seeing it all over again.

Jones and Kramer eyed each other. Jones nodded and Kramer lowered his gun. “Let them through!” Gretchen yelled and the Scalp Collectors rolled by, kicking up dust and decay from a world once lived.

Once they were out of the Sanctuary Jones finally spoke. “Allocer.”

“The Great Duke himself? How the fuck are we supposed to handle him? The Queen lets him control thirty-six settlements. He could have an army after us even if we mention his name!”

“I know! I know!” Jones said. His head shaking the entire time. “We can’t let him get away with that shit.

“The last time we took on a gang of more than 10 we nearly died. The scars are still pink, and we both do not have anywhere close to enough ammo.”

“We could invest the entire scalp into ammo. We can skip the donation to the Dwellers.”

“Are you fucking kidding me? That is our ticket out of here! One missed payment might come unforgettable.”

“Imagine how much more credits we can get from killing rapists!” Jones said,

“We can’t risk it. This could backfire on us and The Queen might want our scalps. It would be us against the world and eventually some fuck could come along and feed us to the reaper.”

They drove in silence for several minutes. The sun was beginning to settle in the west and they were nearly home.

“I would be fun though.” Kramer said. “You know, taking them all on.”

“All in a day’s work. Let’s wait on it for now. We are close to buying our way in with the Dwellers.”

“True,” Kramer said. “Did you mention something about tacos earlier?”

“Yeah, they sound good.”

“They won’t be as good as Big Mikes. Remember when we shared the 20 pack?”

“Yeah, but then we found out he cooked human babies in the meat.”

“Oh yeah…” Kramer said and grabbed his own throat. “We did get a shit ton for his scalp and an extra bonus for his skull.

“A job well done, but someone needs to feed the reaper.”

(Chapter 2, Missionary Position coming soon!)

Scalp Collecting aint easy, Ya’ll

Scalp Collecting aint easy, Ya’ll

This is an update rant (because the whiskey told me so) about all of my upcoming projects…..Since the buzz is literally in my finger tips, I believe this to be the proper time to sum up all of my work…..

Stories We Tell Our Dead: This is my collection of short stories with a novella (The Glass Spider) included. This was originally suppose to be a serious collection with a lighter tone, but I said fuck that and took it from a nice PG13 to a NC17. Should be out soon!

Scalp Collectors: My free novel that I am releasing chapter by chapter on this blog. It is about 2 guys who live in a wasteland of a world and collect scalps for their government. A dose of spaghetti western, mixed with some apocalypse, and a dash of horror. It only makes the best dark comedy!

A Life on Mended Wings: A story about a 20 something trying to survive in the world. A novel filled with theories, criticism, broken hearts, sex, booze and personal hell. Though the book is fiction, it is all based on real stories from my own life.

A Sliver of the Moon: A horror mystery about a detective who is investigating a town where victims are being ripped to shreds by a beast. Sounds typical but I promise you it is not that simple….

Maybe or Maybe Not: I have tons of material I am working on. A novel about people who are trying to survive against a giant bird, another story about a guy who works as a DJ in a strip club, a story about a museum of monsters, and lastly, a secret novel called, Red Autumn Hill.

Do these sound interesting? Do you even give a fuck? We shall find out! Thanks for reading and keeping it all alive. From the bottom of my lonely heart I do appreciate all my support!

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Sample Chapter: One Day Sober

Sample Chapter: One Day Sober

Alrighty….This is a chapter for my upcoming novel (The Devil in the Details) I am polishing it up and making last minute changes, but most people don’t really know what its about or the feel of it. Here is a taste……..

One Day Sober

 

For once in his life, Hoagie’s sleep was undisturbed. Tossing and turning, waking to the sweat stained pillow, fresh tears rolling into his white beard. His wife Meryl would wake up and try to comfort him on those nights, anything from holding him to small whispers of reassurance. Meryl was a strong woman and that is why he married her, but he found it hard to believe she never had a nightmare about their dead daughter.

He laid awake trying to remember what part of the dream lingered in his head the night before. Willow, his only child. Hoagie saw her in his dreams most nights, usually they consisted of how he found her, blue face submerged in the pool. She was only eight at the time and nowadays she would have been 34. The dreams he tried to repress but last night’s had got him thinking.

“Did you have a nightmare?” Meryl said. The sun was coming through their bedroom window and lit up her bright face. Hoagie could still see traces of the young woman he fell in love with in college. Her hair was blonde with many gray streaks, but her light brown eyes still showed so much life. Meryl’s cheeks were wrinkled now but the smile still powered through all of it. Hoagie pulled his arm around her and cradled her in their bed.

“Wouldn’t call it that,” He said. “I did see Willow though.”

“Tell me about it.”

Hoagie knew that Meryl loved to hear his stories, he had always been a story teller and his requests were famous. When he is drunk at the bar he will go on about anything, some people did see him as the town drunk, but everyone seemed to love him anyways. Hoagie loved people and wouldn’t harm a soul and some of his stories came straight out of his heart.

“She was standing across the room playing with the pictures on the desk. She moving them around and I watched her and I didn’t think I was dreaming. Willow had her hair tied back and she was wearing this little yellow dress. I had never seen that dress before. When she looked at me she was smiling. She came over to the bed and kissed me on the check. I wrapped my arms around her and felt the cold. I grew scared for a minute but then she reassured me. ‘Don’t worry daddy. You can come see me real soon. I won’t be cold anymore.’ I wanted to speak but no words would come out. Her face was just a beautiful as it was all those years ago. Still our baby girl. She walked to the doorway and said, ‘I will see you soon daddy.’ She walked out and disappeared and that’s when I woke up.”

“That’s much better than the usual dreams,” Meryl said. “Did you drink a lot last night?”

“I wondered that for a minute, but what was strange is, I caught a drink with Ronnie last night, but only one. When I came home you were already in bed and I pulled out that 18 year scotch and had a single glass. Normally I can’t sleep without a buzz, but I did last night. It was like something in the air didn’t want me to have a hangover.”

“Maybe your drunken dreams are why you have nightmares all the time, you know?” Meryl said turning to him. “You are a good man to the bone and even your drunken self is still likeable. You know I have never been hard on you for your drinking. I think maybe you are just growing old.”

“I think my white beard and hair already prove that. I don’t think that’s it.” Hoagie said. “I think I am going to quit drinking.”

“When?”

“Today. My drink last night was the last one. I have always had thoughts that maybe my drinking with Ronnie had really helped push him to the bottle.”

“You can’t put that on yourself,” Meryl began. “That boy had been through hell with his momma dying and his dad’s accident last year. You know better than anyone that Gary Queen wasn’t afraid of that bottle. He could drink a case of beer to himself and he wasn’t the happiest of drunks.”

“No, I think I kind of hated that man a little bit. I would have never have treated Willow the way he treated Ronnie.”

“I think it’s great you look after him.” Meryl said smiling. “He is like the son we never had.”

Ronnie Queen was a boy in his twenties that Hoagie has known his entire life. After Willow died, Hoagie and Meryl moved from Champaign, Illinois to the riverside town of Talon, Illinois right by the border of St, Louis. His first week here he met a man at a bar known as Gary Queen. A mean Texas drunk who had a scar down the side of his head. At the time his wife, Joanna was pregnant with their first and only kid. Hoagie and Meryl have seen Ronnie grow since he was a baby and into his mid-twenties now. Ever since Gary died last year, Ronnie moved into his dad’s house with his dog and became really reclusive. Only Hoagie visits with him and he only shows his face in public when he’s working or down at the bar.”

“Is Ronnie going ice fishing with you today?” Meryl asked.

“No, boy’s working. Sucks too, because the weather for ice fishing this year has been shit.”

Meryl got out of the bed, “Well, I’ll make you some breakfast and some lunch to take with you.”

“You’re the best, you know that right?” Hoagie said.

As she walked towards the doorway she turned and said, “You couldn’t do any better.” Her smile matched Willow’s. She headed down the stairs. Hoagie sat up in bed and looked over at the pictures Willow had been playing with. He stretched and heard all his old bones pop as he stumbled over to the desk. His legs weren’t as good as they used to be.

What Hoagie did notice was that Willow had moved Ronnie’s picture from the back towards the very front right next to hers. Those photos had never been moved and now Hoagie could see a dust line from where the picture used to sit. Ronnie’s photo was angled so it blocked a photo of him and Meryl from their wedding, Now, Ronnie’s photo stood out with Meryl and Willow around him.  He did not have the urge to ask his wife if she had moved these. No reason to fill her mind that their daughter was a ghost.

“I will see you soon daddy.” Her voice still echoed in his mind. He kissed her picture and sat down, but still left Ronnie’s where Willow had left it, blocking Hoagie out of view point and in that moment he saw the faces to the three people he cared about the most, Meryl, Willow, and Ronnie.

Hoagie wondered into the upstairs bathroom and brushed his teeth. He admired the fact his eyes weren’t bloodshot and that he didn’t need to throw up. When finished he got dressed and headed downstairs where Meryl had already got some bacon fried. “Did you want any eggs to go with this?” she asked.

“Afraid not. I think every ice fisherman in town knows this may be our only day to fish this year. I can’t wait around too long.” Hoagie grabbed a piece of finished bacon, crisp and nearly burnt. Hoagie’s favorite kind of bacon.

“I got a turkey sandwich for you on the table right there. Make sure you grab a bottle of water to take with you! Don’t forget your tackle box this time!”

“I know. My head wouldn’t be screwed on right without you, dear.” Hoagie said, shoving more bacon into his mouth.

“It still isn’t but I can manage with a few broken things.”

“Love you too.” Hoagie said, wrapping his arms around his wife. “Seriously, I do.”

She turned and grabbed Hoagie’s bearded face and kissed him deeply. “I know you do. That’s why I chose to stick around so much.” Her smile warmed Hoagie’s heart. He saw so much of his daughter in her face. Some beautiful things could be hidden in the deepest places. It was in these moments that Hoagie could sense his daughter was still alive. Her spirit was in their love, the very love that created her in the first place. It was a constant cycle, a rotation that his heart went through with his family. He knew that when they all are dead and buried, they would find each other in another life and live through all the pain and joy again. Hoagie wouldn’t trade anything else in the world.

Hoagie knew Ronnie was haunted by the deaths in his family and what the boy never understood was how Hoagie always tried to explain it to him. The only way he got over Willow’s death was by the love he shared with his wife. He saw the pieces of his daughter fall from their companionship like a massive puzzle he could put together. Ronnie shared no love with anybody and the only girl that ever loved him was thrown away after his dad died. This angered Hoagie and Meryl to death. Ronnie and his ex-Stephanie were together for so long. They almost saw her like another daughter. It was these tragic turn of events that bothered Hoagie the most about Ronnie. Some things you just couldn’t teach certain people. He always tried to tell Ronnie, “It takes life and death to help us break free.” But he never understood. Hoagie guessed that he would have to keep telling the boy. At moments he wanted to tell Ronnie to do some real soul searching.

Willow’s death still haunted Hoagie’s dreams, but that is only because he found her dead and those images can’t leave his mind. In his nightmares he still feels guilty for an obvious accident. It’s nothing he could have been prevented. It’s the dice God rolled for their family. That is what Walter, the pastor used to say. Walter was no longer the pastor these days. He recently stepped down to spend more time with his family. Hoagie didn’t blame him.

The bacon was scarfed down in minutes, washed down with coffee. He grabbed his supplies and was heading out the door. Meryl grabbed his arm, “Bring back dinner.” She kissed him and Hoagie went on his way.

He felt the sun touch his face and Hoagie wanted to get lost in it. Most January days were always so gray. The sun could always help represent a good day and he knew Ronnie was kicking himself for missing this. Work was important in some matters of Hoagie’s life, but he would drop his job if his life needed a change. When Willow died he quit being a teacher. The drive and the passion was lost because of this invisible veil that was thrown around a room of teenagers. He knew one day she would become a teenager and he might have been her teacher, as the years would grow closer to this it began to drive him crazy. So, Hoagie quit and moved himself and his wife into Talon for a new start. Meryl worked as a florist in town and Hoagie took a job down at one of the factories down by the river. He mostly did assembly line work with little trinkets like pens and such. As the years past he took a shift manager position which worked out well when he would roll into work with a hangover. Then a couple years back he took over as the lead floor head, where he mostly just managed the place for the owners. Paperwork at a desk felt good for Hoagie. His aged body just didn’t have the strength it once did.

This beautiful Saturday wasn’t going to make him think about work. Hoagie jumped into his car and drove down to Crowclaw Lake. A strange lake with it being the shape of a bird’s foot. Talon was a town full of abandon coal mines, now they were deserted tunnels, some of which were turned into a lake.

Crowclaw Lake. Hoagie had heard people around town referring Talon as Crowclaw. He assumed there wasn’t much of a difference. The town had its share of a strange past. Hoagie looked into a lot of it in his early days when he was curious to learn of the strange town. Native Americans had left the area for unknown reasons. They were quoted as saying the ground had gone sour. This was a lost to the white settlers in the area, since they were able to grow crops a few miles away from the shore of the Illinois River. The river itself was full of fish and the land was full of wild game. It wasn’t until the town began to grow did it all become a little strange. It started with a man who killed his entire family with a pitchfork, before locking all of his life stock in a barn and burning it down with a barrel of gun powder. He revealed to the town that a mysterious man in a fancy suit had told him to murder his family and his livestock for they were “tainted.”

When Hoagie had discovered a hidden pond known as “The Pit,” he had to investigate its history. That was when he learned about the witch burnings that occurred in the town. Children had apparently gone missing and the town went insane. After the mining was finished and the lake was filled, the mayor at the time was found dead by the water. A crow’s foot was stuck in his throat, he had apparently tried to eat the bird. It was then they began calling the lake, Crowclaw.

The mayor’s widow was so upset she drown their children in the lake and hanged herself from a tree nearby. They eventually cut the tree down when they built a park there and it became known as “Widow’s Park.” Hoagie thought of how fascinating and creepy the town’s history was. Talon had blood, thick, red, and dripping in the pages of the town’s history book. Every time he walked passed Widow’s Park, he had to stop and think about all the dark history in that very place. He almost wished the tree would still be there. It would almost be too real for him.

Yes the town was dripping in red. A few times Hoagie borrowed some books from the library to take home. He would sit in his favorite easy chair, with a drink and read all the horrible tales the town had. There was the disaster in 1874, where a Ferry boat exploded right out by the riverside when travelers got on. It was loaded and ready to go when it erupted, killing everyone on board. They said barrels of bourbon were in the storage and maybe a small flame from a lantern may have erupted them. The school burning on 1901 was a fascinating one. 57 children were burned up inside. No reason for the flames was ever given. Hoagie’s personal favorite of the dark tales was the one of a giant bird. A giant bird had attacked a small child in 1904. A boy was walking to the newly built school when a bird flew down and picked him up. Reports say the bird had a wingspan of over forty feet, with a black body, a white ring around its neck and rows of razor sharp teeth inside of its needle sized beak. The bird had flown off into the woods with the boy and his body was never found, nor was the bird ever seen again in Talon.

A recent thing that Hoagie had experienced was the missing girl, Marissa Lynch. A girl in her late teens that was seen ice skating around different frozen water holes in Talon. She had been seen everywhere, from little ponds that farmer’s owned, to Crowclaw Lake, and it was rumored even at The Pit. Hoagie had seen the girl many times before she vanished. A real pretty girl he thought. The town seemed more devastated by her loss than most. Her family moved away out of depression. The same way Hoagie and Meryl moved away when Willow died. The pressure could be too much to handle and the only cure was an escape from reality. The body was never found and the worse was feared. Her family declared her dead and a tombstone was erected in the Talon Cemetery. Just another reminder of a missing girl, so gone that even the ground was estranged of a body. Hoagie shuddered at such thoughts. These memories led to him thinking of Willow, decomposing in a tiny little casket.

Hoagie’s mind tended to wonder. He always had to retrieve it or the depression would sink in and he would become thirsty. Today was the first day sober so he had no intention of breaking the seal so early. Never in his life did he ever think that he would be trying to get sober. Meryl never pushed him to, and no one ever said he should. He did have a reputation as a town drunk, but even Hoagie knew he was a fun town drunk. He did do some things that he was glad he couldn’t remember, like the time he pissed in the corner of a bar as he apparently said, “To mark his territory.” He was banned from that bar but that didn’t seem to bother him much since the owner was arrested for apparently having some involvement in some sex trafficking. The bar was closed and reopened as “The Talon Pub.” Terrible drink prices, so Hoagie never went back.

Usually, Hoagie went drinking after a day at the lake. Today was not that day. Ronnie will probably be a bit confused that he quit drinking. He wouldn’t see as much of the boy now. He would have to have Meryl invite him over for dinner soon.

As Hoagie approached the lake he grew excited. This place was his sanctuary and his home of a good time. The lake was vast and a popular fishing place for everyone in town. Hoagie had pretty good luck with the walleyes out on some of these points. Three years ago, he caught his biggest walleye through the ice. Gary Queen laughed at Hoagie trying to wrestle the fish out of his hole. It seemed rare at times to see Gary laugh. Normally he would just complain. If there was one thing Hoagie could clear up about the late Gary Queen was that man spent most of his talking in the field of complaints.

If Gary was still alive he would be out there for sure. That man never passed up a good Saturday for ice fishing. Gary told Hoagie that the only reason he moved to Illinois was for the different weather seasons. He claimed the deer hunting and fishing was much better in Illinois over Texas. Hoagie didn’t have much of an opinion on it. The outdoors were ways of dealing with stress, something he used to do with his grandpa when Hoagie was a little boy. He just enjoyed doing it as a hobby, plus Meryl was an extremely good cook with wild game. He could appreciate a woman who could take a simple rabbit and make it into a fine dining quality dish.

The drive took Hoagie off from the city and farther into the country where it was mostly farmland and wilderness. The roads whipped around with tight curves, whitening the knuckle of every driver who flew around the curves. With not much reaction time Hoagie usually got a kick out of this. The adrenaline of his youth still flooded him to take things to the limit. It did feel good to be young some days. Today was the perfect day to feel like this. Passing the sign that read, “Widow’s Park” Hoagie pulled into one of the parking spots, trying to be extra careful parking in between the lines since the snow and ice was still thick in some parts of the spot.

Getting out of his truck he walked towards the ice, noticing the several cars in the parking lot and seeing the ice shacks out in the middle. That was fine by Hoagie because he was going to take one of the points instead. Stepping on the ice Hoagie walked, almost following some coyote prints that have left their mark in the fresh powder that was still on the ice. The trail took him to the point he wanted to be with the prints heading off onto the bank. Hoagie wondered if the wildlife every really benefited from a frozen lake. Easy access for a predator on the hunt, but what if they little guy just fell in? He doubted it happened often, but couldn’t be sure on the survival. Falling through ice was something Hoagie had never done before and he didn’t plan on starting it at all.

Hoagie dragged his ice shack behind him. It slid easily on the ice, his auger and bucket were sitting on top. Sometimes he found it difficult to put the shack up by himself. Gary and Ronnie usually just sat on buckets even on the coldest days. You could envy someone like that, Hoagie thought. Gary Queen was especially good in terrible climates. He got hurt a lot but he could sit for hours in the pouring rain. The outdoors never seemed to bother the man, just everything else that was around him, like his only child.

Ronnie was a lot like his father. He seemed miserable for a good amount of the day and he spent a lot of his free time in the outdoors. There were times where Hoagie was thrown off guard by how Ronnie could swear and drink like his late father, they even looked alike for the exception of Ronnie’s dyed hair and his eye color. Hoagie would say Ronnie had his mother’s eyes but Hoagie saw something else in him. They weren’t as bright as his late mothers were. They were a dark green, almost the color of evergreen leaves in the heart of the summer

Ronnie also had something else different from his father. He had heart, something Gary always took for granted and the one thing his mother broke. No matter how much shit occurred in Ronnie’s life, Hoagie knew there was a brilliant person inside of him. It came out during the times he was most comfortable. Hoagie attended both his father and his mother’s funerals and he never saw the boy cry. He mourned on his own time he guessed but the thoughts did cross his mind. Is something hiding deeper within him? What is he holding in? What is behind those eyes?

Meryl treated him like her own son and Hoagie always appreciated that. He was a good kid with an even better head on his shoulders. Gary and Joanna Queen went to their graves without ever knowing who their son truly was, but that’s because they weren’t his parents, Hoagie knew Meryl and himself were. They gave him the care he needed, but something’s they could never fix.

When Hoagie was a teenager, he got angry at the world when his grandpa died. He once spent an entire weekend hiding in the woods. He had no food and was drinking out of a nearby creek. Hoagie did a lot of soul searching that day and really found himself. He would feel and hear his grandfather’s voice telling him how to live. It was like a vision quest that Native American’s used to do. He wondered if Ronnie should attempt the same.

It seemed as if a heat wave had fallen across the lake as Hoagie began nearing his position. It felt hard to breathe like the air was thick and heavy beads of sweat was glistening down his face. Unbuttoning his coat, he pushed on trying not to sweat too much. As soon as he lays still the air will freeze it too him. He wished Ronnie was here at that moment to take the load off of his back. Stopping for a minute hoagie sat on the shack and took his bottle of water out of the bucket and slammed half it down, a little bead of water had fallen into his beard. Hoagie wasn’t feeling much better as his stomach tossed and turned the liquid. When he stood up he felt a bit dizzy, but he kept on, marching to the next stop. A chore it became for him to lift each leg up to take another step, a process he has done a thousand times before that was becoming a hassle.

“Boy, I sure am getting fucking old.” Hoagie said. He tried to never swear around Meryl. He never understood why men swore around women at all.

A slow aching pain was occurring in his shoulders and began to grow rapidly. Hoagie still trekked on with nothing but his desire to fish to help motivate him to his destination. The dizziness was growing worse and the pain in his shoulders was moving to his chest. Feeling weak all over Hoagie could feel himself falling before it happened. He fell face first down onto the ice of the lake. Fresh powder of snow greeted his left cheek when he landed. Hoagie tried to pick himself up but he had become short of breath and the dizziness was worse.

He tried calling for help but he couldn’t spare the lack of oxygen to get his voice going. The pain in his chest was becoming fearsome and he rolled over to get to his little cell phone that was laying in his bucket. Hoagie almost never used it, but he was going to need to get to it to call for help. Dragging himself up onto the bucket, he knocked it over, spilling the contents out onto the ice. His poles rolled and his tackle spilled all around in front of him, the sandwich Meryl made him, and his phone slid the farthest away from him.

Hoagie launched himself at the phone, it was a black flip phone and he opened it to turn it on but couldn’t remember what the button was. By the time he got the phone’s logo to appear on the screen, Hoagie could no longer read it, his vision was blurry and he could barely breathe. His chest was made of fire as it felt like everything was collapsing inside of him. Hoagie had to lay his head back down on the ice, not because he wanted to, but because he had no choice too. He closed his eyes wishing Ronnie was here to help him. He was such a good boy.

“Daddy what are you doing? Wake up!”

Hoagie opened his eyes to see Willow standing over him. Hoagie jumped up and wrapped his arms around her, feeling her soft skin, smelling her beautiful hair, he kissed her warm cheeks multiple times. “I told you I would be seeing you soon daddy!”

“Oh, Willow!” it was all Hoagie could say. The image of his daughter made him unaware that the pain in his chest was gone or that all of his strength was back. His little girl was in his arms after all these years.

“Daddy can you teach me how to fish?”

Hoagie was shocked by this. “You really want to fish? You never wanted me to take you before.”

“Yeah, well you have to bait my hook. Worms are gross.”

Hoagie stood up and held her little hand. He almost couldn’t believe she was real. “Let me grab my stuff and I will show you how.” Hoagie said, sobbing wildly as he did.

“No, daddy!” Willow began. “This way! I know a better place. We can catch fish all day, but you have to bait my hook and take the fishes off my pole. Fish are gross!”

“Anything you want sweetie. Anything you want.”

“Is Ronnie gonna be alright, daddy?”

Hoagie was taken back for a second. Was he dreaming? Honestly he couldn’t tell. “How do you know Ronnie?”

“You’re always with him. You think about him a lot.”

Memories of Ronnie flooded back to him, the boy had heart and could conquer anything. “He is going to be fine sweetie. You don’t worry about him. He will find himself, he just has to.”

“This way daddy!” Willow yelled as she ran, tugging on Hoagie’s arm. He ran and they both laughed as they ran into the bright distance. Hoagie had no idea where he was, but Willow was with him and he had never been happier.