First six chapters below, full book here.
Between sticks and suburbs, a forgotten town, cradled in stone, veiled in mist. Timber sign on a hammered post at the outskrits read: Harrowhane. Before it, a stoop-shouldered wayfarer with a heavy satchel slung over right shoulder. The traveler halted, shielded his eyes against the newborn sun and surveyed the settlement. The buildings were saltbox or vernacular style, old and sunken, without discernable symmetricality of placement, as if the constructs arrived by maelstrom. Gardens peaked through peeling pickets and decaying ivy twined unlit double hung windows. Everywhere, the scent of leaves, dead and dying. A few early risers strode the maze of masonry in work stained clothes and did not speak. The distance was dominated by a massive pillar, an intricate wind faceted stone, vortical, jagged and eumycetic. The itinerant watched the effulgent sphere move toward the monolith, as if drawn to it, and shifted to the nearest house, a small red two story affair. A middle aged brunette with coffee eyes in front of it, heading inside. Beautiful and awkward as a desert fowl on a glacial fjord. Name in the paper protruding from the mailbox: Lyla Summers. She carried a shopping bag and a large, flat rectangular object wrapped in rough brown paper and struggled to keep her balance on creaking wooden steps.
Summers looked to the disheveled man before her porch. “No. Thanks though.” A shy voice, soft and high. Too young for her face. “You new here too?”
The man nodded, curtly, definitively and gestured to the battered pack he carried. “Huntin’.”
Summers forced a smile, disgusted, as much by his appearence as his trade.
“Well,” the man continued with a mock salute. “I’ll see ya.”
“I hope not,” Summers muttered as she watched the hunter decant and returned to her labor.
The door opened. Wes, a fresh faced man, stood at the threshold, eyes to the departed, then the struggling woman.
“Who was that?”
“A hunter, appearently.”
“What’s he hunting?”
“I didn’t ask. I’d rather not know.” She pivoted to fit the unwieldy parcel in the narrow doorway, which thudded against the jam, as the bag smacked against her lap and split nearly open. “Damn it.”
“Its not gonna fit. Gotta angle it up. Lemme-“
“I’m fine.” She raised her bundle, turning it clockwise, but dropped the grocery bag and stumbled, driving the rectangular parcel into the doorjam. A snapping sound. The package bent to a V.
Wes and Summers looked on in despair. “No, no, no,” she groaned, crouched, and set the torn parcel aside, contents revealed, a painting. When the groceries had been retrieved she rose and slumped into one of two abraded wicker armchairs on the sun bleached patio, head in hands, holding back tears.
“Hey, its alright,” Wes assured softly.
She jerked, vexed by his pity. “Its not. Its ruined.”
“Should have let me help.”
She glared. Wes sighed and gingerly picked the odd angled illustration off the ground. “Only the frame is broke. Look.” Reluctantly, she swung her head round and stared at the fractured frame.
He was right, the painting was undamaged. Relief flooded her face and together they retreated from a rising, bitter gale to the shade of the house. She set to peeling tableaux from canvas as Wes returned to his previous station in the kitchen where he had been awaiting eggs to prepare an omlette. The pleasing aroma of the meal filled the abode, and by subtle degrees, Summers’ anxiety dissipated as steam from the stove.
“So when is it?” She heard him call from the kitchen. “The art thingy?”
“Art thingy” she muttered, amused, shaking her head. “Its a gala. End of the week. This Sunday.”
Muffled footsteps. “I poured you some coffee. With that disgusting pumpkin cream you like. You’re gonna turn orange if you keep drinking that stuff.”
A chuckle, then, “I’ve gotta get a new frame.”
“What?” He met her by the door as she donned a purple stocking cap and flannel coat. “Now? But I just-”
She closed the door in his face.
“-made breakfast,” he stated to the wood paneling.
Summers paused on the porch. A speck of color to the right drew her attention. On a weathered fissure of the porch railing, where the wood had cracked, a blue feather protruded. Held like a dollar bill in a clip. Wavering in the wind. She hadn’t noticed it before. It wasn’t there yesterday. She pondered, plucked the avian remnant from its receptacle and spun it between small smooth fingers. Beautiful. It seemed improbable that it could have blown into such a precise position. But what was the alternative, that someone put it there? If someone did it wasn’t Wes. Summers jolted up.
Memories frothed from decadal fissures, summoned by the cerulean tuft like grains of iron to a vast magnet. A pensive stillness gripped her, followed by fear. She did not want to think of him. The page had turned on that chapter of her life. She was determined not to reread it. What was the point? She already knew the ending.
Summers put the quill in her pocket and forded the dirt footpath from the porch, which cut sharp left from the house, followed it past Casey’s Antiques, with its suit of armor and cutlass visible through the smokey panes, the Wyatts’ crumbling house, stone in back, wood in front, Carruthers’ Clothing, the perpetually lantern lit Junebug Cafe, and came before the austere contours of Bligh’s hardware store.
She paused in the middle of the road. On the far northern stone spire, a figure stood, backlit by sun, sex lost to distance. The silohouetted percher appeared to be looking at the town. At her. A chill wind swept in from the ancient geomorphic edifice and coiled about the buildings, like a great and phantasmal centipede. Summers pulled collar taunt to gird against the elemental onslaught and noticed a portly uniformed man with a seven pointed star at his breast, coming down the road. He met her before the storefront and tipped his wide brimmed hat, plucking a half smoked cigarette from between metal speckled teeth. “Mornin miss.”
“Morning, Mr. Scarp.” She never called him sheriff and he did not seem to mind.
“Heard ya gonna be at Barnes’ shindig this Sunday,” the old lawman continued with what appeared to be genuine interest.
“Yeah,” she replied absently, glancing to him then back to the stark incline. He followed her gaze to the grim obelisk. The high observer was gone, as if carried off by the wind.
“What is it?”
“Someone, standing on the stone.”
He put a hand on his belt and pursed his lips. “On that old thing? Nah. Was probably a bird. Them turkey vultures get big enough to carry a dog, nearly snatched one a mine couple months back.”
“That’s awful. Was your dog alright?”
“Was after I shot the sum bitch.”
“Well, it wasn’t a bird. On the stone.”
“Might a been one a Barnes’ kids. He’s got so many I’ve lost track. His eldest likes to clamber.”
“Jeffery? Yeah. Could be.”
“Well, I’ll see ya Sunday.”
With a smile and another tip of his brim, he was off down the road.
“You sure it wasn’t a trick of the light, Ly?”
Summers nodded from where she sat on the couch hunched over the coffee table, on it, a newly reframed canvas. Wes sat down beside her, keeping his steaming coco far from the artwork, which displayed an idyllic woodland scape, an empty treeborne birdnest with a single shattered egg in the foreground, and at the base of the tree, a small, dark centipede scurried over a root.
“Someone was up there. Maybe it was the hunter.”
“The spire is over two miles away and around seventy feet high. You telling me he ran all the way from our house, through the whole of town, and climbed it in the ten or so minutes you spent inside before you went to the store, just so he could stare at you? It takes me twenty minutes to run two miles.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Scarp said it was probably one of Barnes’ kids. Jeffery, maybe.”
“That makes more sense. They live closest to it.” He stared at her intently and his visage bore folds of concern.
“Are you feeling alright?”
“I found a feather.”
“Ok.” Wes arched his brow, waiting for further explaination.
“From a bluebird.” Summers slipped the colorful quill from her coat pocket and held it before the man. His face betrayed disinterest but he took it and feigned fascination.
“Bluebird is what he used to call me.”
Wes tensed, jaw set, brow creasing. “The guy you were gonna marry?”
She had mentioned him only once before when he had sorted through her things in preparation for the move to Harrowhane and noticed a stack of fantastical drawings signed “HK.” She had told him to throw them in the trash.
He relaxed and smiled. “Well. Its not a very fitting nickname.” She wasn’t amused and seemed hurt by this declaration but said nothing and stared at some indeterminable spot on the heelworn carpet.
“Come here,” he pulled her close and pressed lips to delicate neck. She didn’t respond and untangled herself from his embrace, looking uncomfortable, annoyed. Wes leaned back against the cushion, one hand picking at the fraying armrest. “You think about him often?”
“I don’t like dwelling on the past.”
“You’ve been acting strange lately. Thought it might be why. You never tell me when something is bothering you.”
“My paintings haven’t been selling.”
He was surprised to hear this, of late she had not appeared in want of cash. “Well, its not about the money right?” She didn’t answer.
Wes awoke at dawn to a strangled cry. A bad dream hanging over him like a precarious anvil. Into fresh clothes, then to the porch, door clattering wide.
Lyla stood on the aged patio timbers in nothing but an oversized t-shirt, clutching the jam, staring at the floor, shaking.
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
He came behind her and halted, mouth falling open.
Before the door, on the welcome mat, lay the corpse of a bird, naught but sinew and marrow, save a single blue feather ensconced where a heart once beat.
Wes moved from the threshold around the artifact with the caution of one side stepping a rattlesnake. He dashed down the steps and surveyed the yard. Nothing but mist rolling down from the crenellated northern mount as froth from a gargantuan maw. When he returned to the porch Lyla was still staring at the gruesome totem. There were tears in her eyes as she whispered, “It was him.”
“That is mighty unusual,” the Sheriff stated with a quiver of amusement after Wes finished his story.
“Its not funny,” Wes snapped.
The old man’s demeanor soured and he leaned over the table with a scowl. “I look like I’m laughing, boy?”
“Cuz I ain’t.”
Wes held his tongue as the Junebug Cafe server moved to their table and set their drinks then scurried off.
“I don’t mean to be testy. I’m just,” Wes ran hands across flush face and blond locks before continuing. “Out of sorts.”
The old man leaned back, chair croaking. Kindly. Patient.
Wes inhaled deep and cast his gaze about the crowded, quiet establishment, distentangling yarn of thought. Mr. and Mrs. Casey at the middle table, as usual, talking with one of the young female waitresses and her giving a patient smile, the errant boy Jeffery Barnes showing something on his phone to a tittering floral skirted redhead his age, and in the far back corner, a man with a ballcap and sleek white puffer jacket, dipping biscotti in vin santo and scribbling notes in a battered tome.
“Lyla came from a small country town, not dissimilar to this one. Moved to the city with me after she finished school. All the time we lived there she was unhappy, though we wanted for nothing. I had a good job, but she couldn’t find success from painting. After a couple years I suggested we move out to the country. Get away from the bustle for quiet and mountain air. Big fish in a small pond. She agreed, and for a while it seemed she liked it. Sure you noticed how much brighter we were when we arrived.” The sheriff nodded. “But the more time passed, the more despondant she became. Even after her paintings started getting traction in town. Didn’t make sense. She never said much about what was on her mind, but now she rarely even talks to me. Runs around town at odd hours. Always worried. Has constant nightmares. Wound like a wire over this gala coming up. Then these gifts started appearing. I’m afraid she’s going to have a panic attack. I gave nearly everything for this. My job, my house, friends, family. I don’t know what to do. I just want to make her happy.”
“I understand.” The sheriff fiddled with his wedding band. “Any idea who might be behind these gifts yall been gettin?”
“I’ve no idea. Lyla thinks its her ex.”
“And who’s that?”
“Man named Harmon Kessel.”
“Don’t sound like you buy her theory.”
“I never met him, but I know from what she told me he grew up in the same town as her, that’s halfway across the country. So, what, he drops his work and drives half across the continent to leave some bits of bird on my doorstep just to freak her out?”
“Might not live in that town any more.”
Wes worked his jaw, annoyed he’d not thought of such an obvious the possibility. “Maybe. But we’re still about as out in the middle of nowhere as its possible to be. Wherever he lives its gonna be a long drive. People just don’t do that sorta thing.”
The sheriff bobbed his head and assumed a pained expression. “How’d they part, her and this other fella?”
“I dunno. She’s never talked about it.”
“Surely she said why she thought he’d do something like this?”
“Only said, he wasn’t the kind of man to let anything go.”
Scarp cleared his throat and lowered his voice. “Was she seeing someone before they split?”
“The hell kinda question is that?”
“One I gotta ask.”
“You know her. She’s not that kind of girl.”
“You know to a certainty?”
Wes glared at the old man, offended, struggling not to say something he’d regret. “I know to a certainty because I know her.”
The old man held up a hand. “Aight. You know what he looked like?”
Wes shook his head. “I can ask her.”
At that moment, the scraggly haired hunter with weighty pack and ragged coat appeared through the mist beyond the wide windows of the cafe, headed toward Wes’ house. His large body bent as if from some dire accident and carried by a strident, uneven gait, suggestive of impatient purpose. It was only then Wes understood Lyla’s trepidation at the outsider’s presence, for he appeared, in the cloying pall, as some wild apparation, bestial as the wildlife he hunted.
“What do you know about him?” Wes gestured to the window. The sheriff glanced over his shoulder.
“He’s a trapper. Eli Halloway. Somethings been attacking Barnes’ cattle, so he brought in help. More n that I don’t know.”
“This weirdness began after he arrived.”
“You let me worry about that.”
For a moment they sat in silence, sipping their coffee and listening to the soft music playing over hidden speakers. The longer Wes sat the more nervous he became, and the more nervous he became the more his head cluttered with unanswered questions. Why was Eli headed to his house? Was he the one who left the feather and the carcass, if so, to what end? Had Eli met Lyla before, had she merely forgotten about him? Was there something she wasn’t telling him? Did the trapper have some dark designs upon them? Shouldn’t someone follow him? Why was the sheriff so damn blasé about the whole affair?
Wes bolted from his chair, nearly knocking it to the floor, slapped two dollar bills on the table and took off out the door as Scarp called out with a tremor of irritation, “I told ya I’d pay.”
Outside the cafe the air was cold and the early morning mist had condensed to an impenetrable fog over the old stone streets. Wes jogged toward his house, sticking tight to the middle of the road to avoid colliding with the townsfolk coming and going from buildings. The hunter was waiting on the front porch of the red house, a booksized parcel in his hands.
“You Wesley Reece?”
“I am. Can I help you?”
The hunter turned to the form emerging from the omnipresent shroud.
“Tried knocking. No one home. So I decided to wait.”
Odd, he thought, Lyla would have answered if she were in. Perhaps she went back to bed. Or maybe she went off to Serena’s or Barnes’ place. “So I observe. Its Eli, right?”
“That’s right, sir.” He clattered down the porch steps and proffered the parcel. Reluctantly, Wes took it. It was heavier than it looked. A book by the feel of it.
“Caint say.” The man walked off. “Was to deliver it to you.”
“Who sent it?”
“Caint say.” The hunter vanished into the fog.
“Wait. Hey. What do you mean you can’t say? Hey!” Wes looked around self consciously and cursed. He turned round and sat the leftward wicker chair and glanced for the first time to the package. No postage. He unwrapped it to reveal a thin white box inside of which lay an illustration on a thick sheet of paper. The artwork was done in graphite and depicted two women whose faces were the faces of birds in lascivious, cannibalistic embrace, above whom stood a man with four hands extended over them and his eyes were not in his head, but his palms. The image, like the packaging it came in, was unsigned. He flipped the picture over and went stiff as he read the words composed of newspaper clippings immaculately glued to the back.
Bluebirds can’t be trusted.