Crota

Chapter 1

The Harley Davidson’s engine sputtered, chugged and tried to cut out. Buddy Jerworski looked down, watching in horror as the speedometer’s needle fell toward zero.

“Shit!” he said, downshifting to a lower gear and revving the throttle.

The bike slowed, the engine sounding like a drowning swimmer gasping for air. The headlight dimmed. The engine gave a final cough....

And died.

“Shit,” Buddy said again as he coasted to a stop. He pulled off his helmet and goggles, staring at the motorcycle in disbelief.

This can’t be happening. Not tonight. Not now —

He glanced at his watch. 5:40 P.M. In less than an hour he had a date. Linda Chapman didn’t go out with just anyone; she didn’t have to. With the face of a goddess, and the body of a tramp, she could take her pick of any boy at Logan High School. She usually did. It had taken him a month to work up enough courage to ask her out, and then he had nearly fainted when she said yes. Of course, the only reason she was going out with him was because he rode a Harley.

“How could you do this to me, you traitor!” Buddy shouted.

The Harley, a 1948 panhead, was his pride and joy. When he first bought it, it had been nothing more than a rusted frame, dented tank and five cardboard boxes of greasy parts. It took two years of hard work and every penny he could scrape together to restore the big bike to running condition, but it was worth it. The first day he rode the Harley to school he became the envy of all the other kids. He was the king, the streets and parking lots his kingdom.

But Buddy wasn’t feeling so kingly now. He slapped the bike’s gas tank in anger. A hollow twang sounded.

Oh no.

He leaned forward and unscrewed the gas cap. It was too dark to see down inside the tank. He shook the bike, but heard nothing. No splashing... no gas.

“Great. Just great. Buddy Jerworski, you’re an idiot.”

He had no one to blame but himself. If he hadn’t been so anxious to impress Linda, he wouldn’t have taken the bike out for a test spin. Even then, it was inexcusable to take off without first checking how much gas was in the tank.

I’m dead.

He replaced the gas cap and buttoned his denim jacket. The temperature was dropping fast. Not much longer until it got dark. Turning, he gave a long and rather hopeful look back down the dirt road. If only a car would come along, he might be able to hitch a ride. He’d driven down Cemetery Road many times after dark, but never walked it. He wasn’t looking forward to doing it, either. It was spooky enough in the daytime.

Lowering the kickstand, he leaned the bike to the left and stepped off. He was still a good four miles from town — too far to push a five-hundred-pound motorcycle. He couldn’t just leave it, though. Harley Davidsons were major theft items, especially an original panhead. Maybe he could hide it.

Fastening his helmet and goggles to the seat, Buddy pushed the Harley off the road and down into the ditch, carefully laying it over on its side. Climbing up the bank on the opposite side of the ditch, he entered the woods in search of fallen branches to cover the bike. Three trips later, an armload of leafy branches a trip, he was satisfied that his motorcycle wouldn’t be spotted by anyone driving by.

Darkness set in as he labored, turning everything beyond the narrow graveled lane into overlapping layers of shadows. The forest came alive with the calls of cicadas, free frogs and a boisterous bobwhite. Overhead, the first stars of the evening poked their heads through an ebony blanket.

He wiped his hands off on his jeans and checked his watch; 6:15 P.M. He would need a miracle to make it to Linda’s on time. He turned around and looked both ways down the road, hoping for the welcome sight of an approaching car. The road was empty.

“Just my luck,” he said aloud, the ache of despair gnawing his stomach like a hungry rat. Visions of Linda Chapman’s firm little body pressed tightly against him began to fade as reality set in. Shoving his hands deep into his jeans’ pockets, he started walking.

Why me, God? Why is it always me?

Buddy had taken only a few steps when he heard sounds of movement coming from the woods, near where his bike was hidden. The noise startled him. He stopped and turned around, but didn’t see anything.

It’s just a rabbit, you dumb shit. No reason to get upset. Just a rabbit crashing through the underbrush. The woods are full of them.

But it sounded too big to be a rabbit.

Okay then, it’s a dog. Probably some farmer’s mutt out chasing rabbits.

Bending over, he gathered up a handful of rocks from the road’s edge, just in case the dog had a bad attitude. The sounds drew nearer, causing his imagination to conjure up visions of vicious bulldogs and slobbering Dobermans.

Buddy decided to avoid any possible confrontation between himself and the dog — or dogs. Tossing the rocks in the direction of the noise, he turned and started jogging down the road, heading toward town.

He’d gone no more than half a mile when, rounding a curve in the road, he glanced behind him and spotted something moving near the road’s edge

What the hell is that?

Buddy came to an abrupt stop, watching as something big and dark crossed the road behind him. He caught only a glimpse, just a blurred shape, before it disappeared in the darkness cloaking the ditch on the left side of the road.

Cocking his head to the side, Buddy listened carefully. Above the singing of cicadas and frogs he could hear the sounds of leaves crackling and sticks snapping. The sounds grew louder, closer. Whatever was in the ditch, it was coming his way.

Jogging now was out of the question. The thing that followed him was big, a lot bigger than any bunny rabbit — bigger than a dog. His heart started to jack-hammer with fear. He took off running.

The road curved to the left, then back to the right, straightening out as it reached the iron bridge that spanned Lost Creek. Halfway across the bridge he stopped to look behind him. What he saw caused his legs to weaken.

He was still being followed, the mystery animal less than half a mile away. No longer content with moving amongst the underbrush, it ambled down the middle of Cemetery Road.

The animal did not move with the hurried run, stop, sniff, run-again movements of a dog. Instead it walked straight down the center of the road, never looking around, confident in its surroundings. Unchallenged. The movement of a predator.

“A bear!” Buddy sucked in air. There weren’t supposed to be any bears in central Missouri, especially not in this part of the state. The last time anyone had seen a bear in Hobbs County was almost fifty years ago. But it had to be a bear; it was too damn big to be a dog.

As he stood on the bridge watching, the bear must have looked up, for all at once a pair of large, slanted eyes shone in the darkness. They didn’t just reflect light; they seemed to glow, as though each was an amber lens behind which burned a brilliant flame. As far apart as the eyes were, the head must have been enormous. And an enormous head could only be attached to an even bigger body.

Buddy had seen enough — more than enough actually, more than he wanted to see. He turned again and fled.

Four miles to town. I’ll never make it. How close is the nearest house? Two miles? A mile and a half? Maybe I can climb a tree, wait it out till someone comes along. Can bears climb trees?

He rounded another curve in the road at a dead run, his side hitching with pain. Off to his right was the old Catholic cemetery, its weedy ground and ancient markers guarded by a crumbling wall of stone and a black iron gate. The gate stood open, as it always did, bent on its frame.

The cemetery! I can hide in there!

He sprinted into the cemetery and raced up the graveled drive. Past the Johnson family crypt, with its matching pair of winged angels; past the burial plots belonging to the Kellings, the Smiths and the Brandymeyers. He reached the center of the cemetery, pausing to catch his breath at the giant metal cross — a cross that always seemed to glow at night, no matter how late it was or how cloudy the sky.

From the cross he made a mad dash for the oldest section of the cemetery, hoping to hide amongst the crowded gravestones and overgrown weeds. Passing the first row of markers, he dropped to his hands and knees and crawled. Three rows later he stopped, his back resting against a cold granite headstone.

Buddy placed a hand over his racing heart. It felt like a drug-hyped rock drummer was doing a solo on the inside of his chest. Any faster and he’d have a coronary for sure.

Be calm. Be calm. I think you lost it. You should have lost it; you just broke every track record ever set at Logan High. Buddy Jerworski — track star.

Had he lost it? Had the bear given up the chase? There was only one way to be sure. Like it or not, he had to take a look. With trembling hands, he shifted his weight forward and peeked over the crumbling tombstones.

The teenager’s heart sank. The bear with the funny yellow eyes hadn’t given up. On the contrary, it had followed him into the cemetery. He watched, hardly breathing, as it paused at the Johnson tomb to examine the cornerstones and steel door. The bear stopped again at the giant metal cross, sniffing the monument’s base like a dog at a fire hydrant.

Was the bear sniffing for him? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, it obviously wasn’t pleased with what it smelled. He watched in awe as the creature rose up on its back legs and slapped the cross.

Ka-wap!

The monument tilted to the left.

“Je-sus Christ!” he whispered.

It’s a bear. It’s gotta be a bear. That’s it — it’s the biggest fucking bear in the world, and it doesn’t like crosses. I’ll bet you it doesn’t care much for teenagers either!

The bear turned its head, dropped back down on all fours and continued toward him.

Panic-stricken, Buddy looked around for a way out. Behind him dense woods closed in on three sides of the cemetery. He considered making a dash for the trees, but it was much too dark to hope for a speedy flight through the forest. That left only one direction to choose from. Only one way out.

Keeping low, he studied the front half of the cemetery. Rows and rows of granite grave markers stuck up from the ground, flowing down the hill like dominos. Buddy noticed they stopped about fifty feet from the stone wall guarding the front of the property. At the far right corner of that wall stood a metal utility shed, where lawnmowers and grave-digging equipment were kept. Buddy knew the shed would be locked, no help there, so he focused his attention beyond the wall. Across the road, a pale light shone in the darkness — the soft filtered glow of a bedroom lamp from an upper-story window. Old Man Sharkey’s house!

Damn! Why didn’t I run that way?

Could he make it? It was a long run: down the cemetery’s drive, across the road, over an old wooden bridge at the beginning of Sharkey’s driveway, then up the hill to the house. There was also the problem of getting around the bear. The damn thing was only a few rows of headstones away from him.

Was it a bear? Doubt suddenly entered his mind. He couldn’t see it clearly in the darkness, and only assumed it was a bear because of its size. But bears weren’t that big, were they? Sure, there were a few monstrous grizzly and polar bears in the record books, but Hobbs County, Missouri, was not their natural stomping grounds. And what about the eyes? Whoever heard of a bear with glowing eyes? Come to think of it, whoever heard of any animal with glowing eyes?

Buddy didn’t want to think about the eyes. When he did, it caused his body to go cold with fear. He couldn’t afford to freeze up. Time was running out. But how long should he wait before making his move? If he waited too long he might find himself hopelessly trapped. Then again, maybe the thing would walk right past him, leaving the area between him and the road open. Did it know where he crouched? Could it smell him?

Looking back toward the front of the cemetery, he noticed the leaves on the trees opposite the road start to shine. The gravel lane in front of them grew noticeably brighter.

Headlights! A car was coming!

He glanced to his left. The hear was only about one hundred yards away, and coming closer. It was now or never.

With teeth clenched, he jumped up from his hiding place and started running.

Buddy heard a crash to his left.

I’ve been spotted.

Faster he ran, faster than he had ever run in his whole life. Head down, arms pumping, tennis shoes kicking up dirt, Buddy flew down the hill. He reached the driveway, slipped on the loose gravel, almost went down. The road ahead of him brightened. The car was closer. Too close!

The vehicle was coming too fast; he was still too far away. It would pass by before he reached the road. The driver wouldn’t even see him.

Buddy screamed and poured on a burst of speed. He reached the road, stumbling out of control into the blinding glare of lights.

There was a roar, a choking cloud of dust and the screech of brakes.

Sickening pain slammed into his hip, exploded through his body. He went airborne, his feet racing to pass his head.

He landed on his back with a thud, the air violently expelled from his lungs. Blackness rushed over him.

The blaring of a horn faded, leaving a sharp ringing in his ears. He thought he was going to pass out, but he didn’t. His eyes uncrossed, blinked, and focused on the headlights above him. He didn’t move, didn’t even try.

“Oh my God,” said a voice somewhere in the distance.

A door opened and closed again. Gravel crunched as someone came around to the front of a pickup.

“Jesus H. Christ,” the voice said, closer now. A man’s voice. Deep. Rough. “What are you, crazy? My God . . . Listen, kid, take it easy — don’t try to move. I’ll get an ambulance. Is anything broken? Where does it hurt?”

The questions drifted through Buddy’s mind like cloud formations. He tried to focus on what was being said. A moment passed before he could speak.

“I’m okay,” Buddy answered, his voice barely a whisper. “Really, I’m okay.” He wiggled his toes and slowly straightened his legs. His right leg was numb from the impact but didn’t appear to be broken.

Thank you, God.

“I didn’t see you,” the man said. “You ran right in front of me. You sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah, I’m sure.” The pounding in his head started to ease.

“Here, let me help you up.”

A pair of hands reached down and slowly pulled Buddy to his feet. The face staring down at him was tanned, deeply lined and covered with a coarse brown beard. The bill of an orange hunting cap protruded like a porch above a pair of dark brown eyes. The name Jim was sewn over the left pocket of a camouflage shirt.

Buddy bit his lip, fighting back tears as the numbness in his hip and right leg faded out to some very real pain. Once the swelling set in, which it would, he probably wouldn’t be able to walk for days.

“What the hell’s the matter with you, anyway?” Jim asked. “You trying to get yourself killed?”

“Something . . .” He swallowed and tried again. “Something’s chasing me.

Remembering why he’d been running, he turned and looked toward the cemetery. The metal cross still leaned at a funny angle, but there was no sign of the bear. The truck must have scared it away.

Like a levee breaking, the teenager’s strength suddenly drained out of him. He slumped against the hood of the truck.

“What?” Jim asked. He loosened his hold.

“Something was chasing me,” Buddy repeated, thanking God for the warmth of the engine, and the lights.

The burly man stepped back and looked both ways down the road. “What? Where? I don’t see anything.”

“I think it’s gone now. You must have scared it away.” He straightened up. “Listen, mister, I’m telling you the truth. It chased me into the cemetery. That’s why I was running.”

Jim eyed him suspiciously. “You on something, kid?”

Buddy’s shoulders slumped. Why did every adult in the world think teenagers were always on something? Just because he ran in front of a truck didn’t mean he was stoned.

“No, I’m not on anything,” he answered, his voice cold. “And I haven’t been drinking, either. I’m telling you, something chased me into the cemetery. I saw your headlights and made a run for it.”

“Okay, okay. I believe you,” Jim said. “Settle down a little. You say something was chasing you. What was it?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know . . . a bear, maybe.”

Jim grinned. “Son, I hate to say it, but there aren’t any bears around here.”

“Try telling that to the bear,” Buddy said sharply.

“Listen, kid,” Jim said, staring at him. “I’ve been hunting in these parts for over twenty years, and I’m telling you — “ He hesitated. His voice softened. “All right, if it’ll make you feel any better, I’ll have a look around. You wait here.”

Buddy almost laughed; he wasn’t about to offer to go with him.

Jim walked back around to the driver’s door of his truck and reached in through the open window. He pulled a lever-action hunting rifle from the gun rack. He also grabbed something out of the glove box. Walking back to where Buddy stood, he cocked the rifle and flipped off the safety.

“Here,” he said, handing him the paper sack. “You look like you could use some of this. Just don’t go telling anybody I gave it to you.”

The bag contained an unopened pint bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Buddy removed the bottle and broke its paper seal. Tipping his head back, he took a big swallow. The whiskey burned his throat and forced tears to his eyes, but it made some of the weakness go away. He started to take another sip but decided against it and slipped the bottle back into the sack. He’d better not get drunk; he still had a motorcycle to get home.

He watched as Jim walked about three hundred feet down the lane, carefully looking to the cemetery side of the road. He didn’t go into the cemetery, nor did he stray beyond the glow of the truck’s headlights. A few minutes later he returned.

“You on the level about this?” he asked, laying his rifle across the hood of the pickup.

Buddy nodded.

“Well, whatever it was, it’s gone now.” Jim scratched his beard. “I’ll give the wildlife agency a call in the morning to see if anyone else reported seeing anything unusual. Maybe it was a bear.” He started to turn away, then stopped. “By the way, what in God’s name are you doing out here at night anyway?”

“My bike broke down about a mile back, and — “

He stopped. All of a sudden there was a strange crackling in the air about him, like the sensation during an electrical storm when lightning is popping everywhere and the air is filled with electrons.

“You feel that?” he asked. The hairs on his arms stood straight up.

“Yeah,” Jim nodded. “Must be a storm brewing.”

Buddy looked up. The sky was clear.

A sharp breeze came up, blowing dust across the road and making the branches of the trees swing and sway. Oddly enough, only the branches of the trees in the immediate area moved. Trees farther away stood strangely motionless, as if no wind caressed their foliage.

Terror grabbed him by the gut. He knew, without really knowing how he knew, that the thing from the cemetery was close by — that it was coming for them. He wanted desperately to run, but his legs refused to obey.

“What the fuck — “ Jim picked up his rifle and stepped away from the truck. He was watching the branches of the trees on the opposite side of the road.

“It’s coming . . .” Buddy whispered, his voice cracking. He wanted to hide, to cover his eyes so he wouldn’t see, but he couldn’t move.

“What did you say?” Jim turned back around. Something rose up behind him.

Amber eyes blazed in a head of monstrous proportions. The creature was close enough now that Buddy could see every detail of its powerful body, every line of its hideous face. It was definitely not a bear. He tried to scream a warning, but only a soft hissing of air escaped his constricted throat.

Jim, hearing movement behind him, spun around. Black claws sliced the air.

Something splashed across Buddy’s face and upper body. Warm. Wet. He licked his lips, tasted blood.

Jim dropped the rifle and took a staggering step backward. He turned around and stared at Buddy, stared through him, his eyes wide and glazed. He tried to speak, but didn’t — couldn’t — because he no longer had anything to talk with.

Jim’s coarse brown beard was gone, as was the lower half of his face and part of his throat. Only thin strips of muscle and tissue remained where once his lower mandible had been. His windpipe lay exposed in the severed throat, gurgling with blood as it struggled to draw in air. There was one final dying gasp as the big man fell forward.

Buddy looked away from Jim, his gaze riveted on the monster just beyond. A funny bubbling noise erupted from his stomach as his bowels turned loose, filling the seat of his pants. He knew that he was going to be more than just late for a date. He screamed.




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Updated Monday, 13-Mar-2017 13:31:45 PDT