“Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?”
“My mommy and daddy had a fight.”
“Was anybody injured?”
“Can you give me your name, son? And your age?”
“I’m Lance. I’m eight. I can’t reach her.”
“Alright, Lance. Take a deep breath and tell me what happened.”
“Mommy and daddy fought, there was a loud bang, and daddy left. I can’t get the door open, and there’s red coming under it. The cats are inside now.”
“Do you know how badly hurt your mommy is, Lance?”
“When I cry, she always comes to see me. I cried a lot, and she didn’t say nothing.”
“Lance, I want you to stay near Mommy, and I want you to know that police are on their way. Can you tell me something? Do you know where your father went?”
“No. He drove off real fast.”
“What kind of car does daddy drive?”
“A big one. It’s red. I’m afraid that he’ll come back.”
“Okay, Lance. I’m going to stay on the line with you until someone gets there. What else happened today?”
“Daddy found out that I was playing in the well.”
- - -
The Jack In The Box had opened a week and a half ago in Mercury, California but Chris hadn’t been. It was while he was sitting in the cruiser in the drive-thru line, waiting for lunch to be handed to him, that he got the call to check out a 9-1-1 dispatch up at the Gehlert ranch. He frowned, fired up the lights and siren. His tacos and potato wedges would have to wait for another day.
Mercury was one big dust bowl. When the sun was up it was a pit stop for people on their way to San Francisco, or Reno. When the sun went down, it was a town nobody knew existed save the meth addicts and cattle ranchers who laid their heads there at night. California State troopers took care of the speed trap out on Rt. 80 and anything else exciting. But Chris was a people person and he liked that aspect of the job. Just last week, he’d responded to Mrs. Lonnergan’s call that there was a dead cat in her driveway. Chris stood over the stiff hunk of brown fur, practically baked into the cement, noting that one of its ears was black, the other brown, and asked old Mrs. Lonnergan for a shovel and a trash bag. Officer Chris Corey wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
The Gehlerts lived right on the edge of town, headed west on 80, not too far from the town dump, where Chris had taken the cat’s body some weeks prior. Chris drove down the tree-lined driveway of the Gehlert’s ranch, his stomach growling at him for not waiting just a minute longer at the Jack In The Box. He stepped out of the cruiser and surveyed the property. It was quiet up here. The ranch grounds were scattered with odds and ends, mostly trash, some husks of burned out cars. Probably items they’d taken from the nearby dump, no doubt. Chris jogged up the stairs running their names -- the wife was Audrey (he had known her from Central, where they went to high school) -- Harry was her husband, and he knew they had a kid... he rang the doorbell, which didn’t make a sound, so he knocked loudly. “Mercury Police. Open up.”
He heard a voice that belonged to a young boy -- “Someone’s here now,” it said. The latch on the door opened, and the boy stood there with a portable phone in his hand. He was shaggy, and had a thin sheen of grime to him, like he’d been playing outdoors in the dust. “Hello,” he said. The boy spoke plainly, with a calmness that betrayed any obvious sign that he’d just called 9-1-1.
“Did you call the police?” Chris asked. The boy nodded and opened the door further. “I need help. I know she’s behind there, but I can’t push it open.” Chris entered the house and took in the wicked smell of cat piss and the sepia-toned way the light was in here. “What’s your name, son?”
“I’m Lance,” the boy said. “And my Mommy’s just through here.” Lance led Chris through the kitchen to a dark hallway where a brown door stood only an inch or two ajar. There was a puddle of deep red seeping from underneath it, and half a dozen cats that were padding through the puddle, meowing mournfully. One of them was lapping at it with its tongue. Chris shooed them away, kneeling to inspect. There was a distinct smell of gunpowder about. “Lance, I want you to stand back, okay?” Chris’ stomach growled again as he pushed against the door. Something heavy and unmoving was blocking it from the inside.
“I couldn’t reach her, I think there’s still time,” Lance was saying. Chris’ heart was pounding in his chest. He knew what was on the other side of the door, and he didn’t want the boy to see. “Just -- stay back, okay, Lance?” Chris braced himself, careful not to step in the blood, as he forced his weight against the door, pushing it a few more inches, just barely enough for--
Lance scurried past Chris and squeezed through the space in the door. His tiny kid shoe smeared some of the blood as he did -- “Hey, Lance, don’t--” Chris grappled for him, trying to shove the door open enough so that he could enter -- and as he did, his arm brushed up against something stiff and wet. Chris recoiled, his hand came back soaked in blood. He could hear the kid whispering behind the door, Chris pushing with all his strength... when suddenly, the weight holding the door closed was lifted and Chris burst inside.
It was the master bedroom. The window hung open, one of the curtains billowing in the light breeze, the other torn off the rod as if someone had fled through the window. Sitting on the bed was Lance and a very frazzled looking woman who Chris recognized as Audrey Gehlert, Lance’s mother. Her shirt and jeans were covered in blood, her skin pallid. She was breathing in short bursts, like she’d just run quite a far distance to get here. The boy was stroking her blood caked hair.
Chris stood in the doorway, face contorted in confusion. “Ma’am, are you injured?” he asked. She met him with a vacant gaze, then looked to the boy. “Lancy, you called the police?” “I couldn’t reach you,” the boy said sheepishly. Audrey kissed him on the head. “My sweet boy.”
“Mrs. Gehlert, I need to know what’s just gone on here.”
Audrey scrunched her brow. “I... I can’t remember, really.” There was a shuffling sound behind her and Chris turned to see the back of the door splattered with blood and viscera. Bits of bone and grey brain matter were a patina across the wood, scattered also with buckshot fired at close range.
Chris reached for his walkie. “Officer needs assistance out at eight-eight-eight Mercury Cross Road.” There was a squawk from the other end -- He knew Fat Ron (Chris only called him that because it was true), the other officer on duty at this hour would be at dispatch.
“Be out there in twenty, Chris. Everything okay?” Chris paused, gazing at the blood on the door, then the woman and her son sitting on the bed. “I, uh, don’t really know. Just hurry.” Chris exhaled.
The cats were back, lurking about. One of them pushed the door open with its snout and lept into Lance’s lap on the bed. Chris flinched when he saw it. One ear black, the other brown. The cat purred knowingly. A heavy air seemed to permeate the bedroom, but the moment was cut short by the squeal of brake pads and the crunching of gravel from outside. Lance began trembling and Audrey looked at Officer Corey, her eyes suddenly clear. “He’s home.”
- - -
Harry Gehlert, a tall, broad-shouldered man, stood outside in the driveway eyeing Chris’ dusty police cruiser, his hands held behind his back. Chris exited onto the porch first and the man turned to meet him. Harry, the father, revealed his blood-splattered shirt, yellow under the arms. Chris immediately drew his service pistol -- “Show me your hands, sir. Slowly.”
Harry flashed a smile at Chris as he removed his hands from behind his back. He carried what looked like a piece of smooth stone, about the size and shape of a bar of soap. “Drop it!” Chris screamed. Harry silently refused. “Drop it, or else!”
The father began to chuckle a bit. “Corey, right?” he asked. “You really don’t got any idea what’s going on here. Trust me when I say that.”
“My partner is on his way so I’m going to need you to drop what you’re holding. I’m going to place you in handcuffs, you’ll have a seat there on the hood of my car, and we’re going to talk while we wait...” Audrey and Lance arrived on the porch behind Chris, the boy still trembling. Harry eyed them.
“I see he fixed you up pretty,” the man said to his wife. Audrey nodded. She pulled the boy close to her. “It’s not right, Aud. Our boy’s just not right. And you and I both know -- that the stone giveth, and the stone taketh.”
“Drop the rock, sir,” Chris reminded him. Finally, Harry did drop it into the dirt. Chris approached pistol first, eyeing it as he made his way toward Harry. The rock was pocked with strange markings, inscriptions. He holstered his weapon and fished for his cuffs, instructing Harry to turn around. But Harry didn’t turn around. Instead, he let Chris get in close enough to smell the man’s body odor, his reeking breath. “I never wanted it to be like this,” Harry said.
“Turn around, sir. I’m not going to ask again--” The boy’s father lifted his boot into Chris’ crotch, stunning him with an electric pain that spread from his groin up his spine. Harry unholstered Chris’ sidearm. Chris, lousy with agony, barely even registered it. The man pressed Chris’ pistol to his abdomen, into the place where his bullet proof vest left a gap near his belly button. He fired the pistol three times, each one muffled by Chris’ shirt. The officer screamed out in pain.
Harry marched forward toward his wife and son. She tried to run, so he shot her in the leg, and she tumbled down the front stairs of the porch. On his way forward, Harry knelt and picked up the rock he was carrying earlier. The boy, Lance, remained frozen on the porch. Harry aimed the gun, but didn’t fire on the eight year old. He shouted something Chris couldn’t hear, and the boy reluctantly came down from the porch. “The stone giveth, and the stone taketh,” he said, and this time Chris could hear him. Harry swung the rock, and hit the boy over the head with it. Lance fell into the dust. Harry, his father, continued to bludgeon the boy while he lay in the driveway.
Faintly, Chris remembered that he had felt hungry when he arrived. Now, his belly was on fire.
Harry Gehlert stood over his son’s body. Chris could see bits of bone and the boy’s hair clinging to the blunt end of the rock. Harry dropped the rock, put the pistol to the side of his own head, and pulled the trigger with a muffled spray of red mist. Chris’ world view became as narrow as a pin hole, then all he saw was black.
- - -
Chris awoke to the sound of rushing water. He was being dragged through dense trees by someone. “Come... fucking... on... now--” It was Audrey who pulled at his collar. Chris mumbled and his resistance told her he had regained consciousness. She stopped dragging him. Chris could see the Gehlert’s farm house through the trees. He turned, noting the pain in his abdomen, and saw that Audrey had dragged him toward a boarded-up well at the edge of their property. The ring around it was cemented with smooth, round rocks, each one pocked with those strange engravings. A conspicuous indentation where one of the stones was missing. Chris could hear the rushing water from inside the well. It sounded clean and clear and crisp.
He wondered how long he had been out -- how long before Fat Ron showed up? “Okay, listen to me. There’s something inside the well. It didn’t work for me or Harry. But it did work for Lance. Whatever it is -- it might work for you, too.” Chris shifted his weight painfully, and before he knew it Audrey had rolled him over the edge of the stone ring. His abdomen flared with pain, his legs unable to work properly.
The well was dark and deep, and Chris didn’t have a chance to debate. He felt his center of gravity topple forward, he scraped the back of his head on the inside of the well, flipped, and watched Audrey recede away from him as he fell. The water was warm and flowing from an unseen source. It rushed over Chris’ body and this is what he saw:
- - -
Three men are covered in soot and sweat. They dig together with shovels and pick axes. One of them stops digging as water begins bubbling up through the sand. Later the three men argue over the muddy pit they’ve dug in the sand. One of them produces a flint lock pistol and executes the other. He flees on foot. The third man, now alone beside the pit, weeps for his fallen friend as his blood runs over the sand and into the pit.
The dead man’s hand twitches.
- - -
Chris found that he was out of air. He opened his eyes and could tell that he was under water, a tiny pin hole of light above him. Chris swam furiously to the surface, gasping for oxygen, and saw that he was inside a cave with a great underground river flowing through the heart of it. The sound it made was deafening. He pulled himself to the edge of the river, cringing at the pain still in his gut.
Chris looked up, and saw that the pinhole of light belonged to the underside of the Gehlert’s well. A series of steps cut into the rock led up to the well, these steps covered in similar markings that the stones were drawn with. There was a tingling in his abdomen and he looked down--
The three bullet holes that Harry Gehlert had put there were flexing open and closed, like pulsating mouths. From one was expelled a bullet, as if from lips who didn’t care for the taste. Then the other two spit up the invading pieces of metal and they lay there near his belly button in a pool of watery blood. Chris watched as the holes stopped cupping open, and simply closed over themselves. His legs, previously useless from whatever was severed, now felt strong and sturdy. Chris stood up and felt something familiar in his gut. He was hungry again.
- - -
“Audrey!” He shouted up. There was a meek moan in response. “Audrey, I’m coming up...”
It was a long struggle, but Chris paced up the length of the well using his back for support, his legs for leverage. He reached the lip and pulled himself free -- and immediately saw Audrey lying in the dust, her leg soaked with blood from where Harry had shot her. The dusty ground around her was also soaked through, and her skin stood out pale in a sheen of sweat. “Look at you,” she croaked. “Good as new, huh?”
Chris looked down. His hands were shaking. He could faintly hear a siren approaching in the far, far distance. Fat Ron would be here momentarily.
But he also knew that the way Audrey was bleeding, the way the ground was soaked... she didn’t stand a chance in the time it would take for an ambulance to arrive. So Chris knelt down to comfort her as best he could. He laid his hand on her forehead, brushed some of the matted hair away from her face. She felt cold to him -- but then he could feel a warmth rush up to meet his touch, as if a fire was lit from deep inside her. Her breathing became less shallow. Chris jolted his hand away from her face, looking intently at the wound in her leg. It was gone, erased, closed up. His mind made the connection, but slowly, as the siren grew louder. Audrey smiled at him.
“You’ve got it now,” she said. Chris looked down at his hands again. They were no longer trembling. “Lance,” she said. Chris helped her to stand. Together they crossed the property to where her son’s body lay, his caved head already buzzing with flies. Some of the cats had taken to circling Lance, the brown-and-black one that Chris swore he scraped up from the driveway of old Mrs. Lonnergan was quietly cleaning some of the blood from its paws. Chris looked away, the siren reaching a crescendo behind him. He knelt down and slipped Lance’s tiny pant leg up, exposing his calf. Because Chris thought he needed to touch skin to make it work. He knew a lot more now than he did just this morning, and isn’t life strange like that?
Chris gripped the boy’s tiny leg and heard the rushing of water somewhere very far away.