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2. The Curious Incident of the Cow in the Nighttime.
Five Weeks before the Stars Threw Down Their Spears
“A dead cow?” Karen asked, her voice reaching for new levels of disgust.
“A mutilated cow,” Michael responded.
“Potato, potato,” she said with the requisite pronunciations. Before Michael could say anything else she said, “I’m not going back to Lucky Point. Our little group can go wherever you want, but Lucky Point is off limits.”
“The cow wasn’t found at Lucky Point. Don Willis found it in one of his fields.”
“His fields are right next to Lucky Point.”
She was about to say something else, but Mr. Adams had brought the class to order. Today, they were going over the periodic table. Chemistry wasn’t exactly in Michael Ridge’s wheelhouse, and apparently remedial chemistry was just as bad. While Tyler and Ben learned about the mysteries of the physical universe in AP Chemistry, Michael had to suffer through the realization that even the lowest level of this particular physical science was above him.
But he didn’t care. He had Karen all to himself for fifty minutes. Chemistry was the only class they shared.
Michael spent the entirety of the class trying to figure how to convince her to go check out the cow. After that fateful night two years ago, Michael became obsessed with the paranormal. He had even formed a club “The Consortium of the Curious.” Printed its newsletter out of his basement. At present the club only had four members, counting himself, and the newsletter had a readership of five, the Consortium members themselves and Tyler’s mom. The group only had two rules: (1) They would investigate any odd occurrences that happened in—or, now that they had driver’s licenses, around—Terrace Park, and (2) they wouldn’t step foot in Lucky Point again. When the bylaws were being created, Michael wanted to point out that all the weird stuff in Terrace Park happened at Lucky Point, but he held his tongue. And with results. The Consortium had, in two years, visited nine haunted houses, investigated fourteen UFO sightings, and interviewed one man who claimed to have been abducted by aliens. This fall they planned to take on the legend of Ivaylo, but Michael’s interests didn’t favor vampires, they were exclusive to aliens, and the cow was winning.
The bell rang, and Mr. Adams wrapped up his lecture. When half the class had left he said, “Mr. Ridge and Miss Fletcher, come see me before you leave.”
Karen sent a glare toward Michael as if the edict had been his fault. He threw his arms up in a gesture of surprise to indicate this wasn’t his doing. The two of them walked up to the elongated desk at the front of the room. The desk itself was elevated as if Mr. Adams were a judge and was about to give his ruling.
Mr. Adams, though a very nice man, wasted no time with pleasantries, “The two of you are in danger of failing my class.”
“I can explain—” Karen began, but she was cut short by Mr. Adams.
“Miss Fletcher, I’m not interested in explanations. What I am interested in, however, is what the two of you are going to do about it.” Mr. Adams continued, “I know chemistry isn’t for everyone, but honestly, it’s not the worst. How are you doing in math?”
They both shrugged their shoulders.
“I’ll tell you how you’re doing in math. You’re both passing. After I spoke with your other teachers, I find out that you’re at least passing in all your other classes, and in some of them, you’re doing better than that. What is it about my class that the two of you find so uninspiring?”
Michael supposed it was a fair question. He had no trouble in any of his other classes, and come to think of it, he wasn’t entirely aware he had been doing so poorly in this one. In fact, Mr. Adams was one of his favorite teachers.
“I’m just not very good with science.” Karen said breaking the one-way conversation.
“I find that very hard to believe, Miss Fletcher, considering you pulled a B in Biology and had to dissect a frog.”
The point was fair, but Michael and Karen both knew she had Ben do all the cutting.
“I think,” Mr. Adams said amid Karen’s mumbling, “I think some extra credit is in order. I want you both to write a five page essay on a topic of your choosing. I’m not out to punish either of you; I know you’re good kids, but I don’t know what else to do at this point. I’ll make it easy on you. All you have to do is use the scientific method, and I’ll look the other way if it isn’t exactly related to chemistry. Lord help us if either of you decide to become chemists anyway. I’ll even let you do it on one of your ghost hunting sessions as long as you use science. None of that pseudo-stuff, okay?”
“Thank you Mr. Adams. You won’t regret it,” Karen said.
Michael said nothing, the dots quickly connecting themselves. They were no sooner out the door when he said, “Let’s figure out what happened to the cow.”
“He never said we had to do the project together.”
“I’ll write the whole paper. Just come with me.”
“Michael Ridge are you begging me?”
He considered it for a moment.
“Don’t make me get on my knees,” he said.
“I’ll save you the trip. There is absolutely no way I’m going anywhere near a dead cow. I’ll repeat my sophomore year first.” She looked at him and must have felt pity because then she said, “I’ll think about it.”
Before Michael could say anything, she waved good-bye and left him alone in the hall.
In Michael’s next class—English—he told Tyler about the dead animal. Tyler didn’t require near as much subterfuge.
“When do you want to go?” Tyler asked.
“Tonight. A couple hours after school gets out,” Michael responded.
“I’ll pick you up after football practice.”
Michael nodded, and Mrs. Schneider went on with her lesson on poetry. Today, she lectured about William Blake. His interest piqued when the teacher said something about the Proverbs of Hell, and one line: “The weak in courage is strong in cunning.” The tiny aphorism made him think about himself or at least think about himself in a way he would like others to think about him. Tyler and Ben both had sports, football and baseball respectively. Michael only had his mind, and if Mr. Adams’s science class told him anything, it was that he wasn’t going pro any time soon.
But cunning? He liked the sound of that.
Once the final bell rang, Michael rushed to Ben’s locker to try and get him on board with the plan.
“I can’t. I have tennis practice.”
“Tyler’s coming after practice.”
“Sorry, dude, we’re playing under the lights tonight. Practice isn’t until eight.”
“You can still make the Consortium meeting tomorrow night, right?”
“Yeah,” he grabbed his backpack, shut is locker, and started to leave. “Hey, Mikey, you need to chill out a little.”
“Thanks for the tip,” Michael mumbled once he was relatively sure Ben couldn’t hear him. Michael realized that as they were getting older, his other friends’ interests were shying away from the paranormal. Tyler had football. Ben now picked up tennis on top of baseball. Michael, however, became more concerned when he realized that Ben was turning into a genuine, all-American, preppy athlete. Once the girls caught on, Karen was going to be constantly jealous, and Michael wasn’t looking forward to that.
Michael sulked out of the school building and walked toward the armory, pondering the lives his friends had created for themselves. He briefly entertained the notion of picking up a sport, thought better of it, and continued wondering about a future where everyone changed.
The National Guard had an armory two blocks from the school. The building was situated against a slope that led up to the Terrace Park golf course. The armory stood three stories, but the top one was the only level that peeked over the hill.
Michael moved quickly around the side of the building. A tiny alleyway was formed on the west facing side of the building between the wall and the hill. He had a meeting scheduled.
“Do you have the money?” A boy roughly Michael’s age asked. He was dressed in a black jacket and wore a T-shirt that said, “If you’ve ever slept with someone with writer’s block, you may be at risk.” Michael could see his own scowl off the kid’s Foster Grants.
“Knock it off, Jape.” Michael said.
“I’m working on my noir act, you know, for one of my stories. Just work with me here.” Japheth Brown replied.
Japheth Brown was hand’s down the weirdest kid at Terrace Park High, though if pressed Michael wouldn’t be able to tell you why and that in itself was part of the problem. Japheth’s grandfather, Barnabas was a mystery writer of some acclaim. He’d written something like seventy books, and his grandson planned to carry on the tradition. The only problem was he spent most of his time plotting and reenacting his own scenes that when it came time to actually write them, most of the spirit was lost. Michael had once even volunteered to help him with one of his drafts. He never volunteered again.
“Fine.” Michael relented to Japheth, knowing this wasn’t going to work any other way. “Do you have the cigarettes or not.”
“I got’em,” Japheth said, readjusting his voice, “but do you have my money.”
Deciding not to squabble over the whole ordeal, Michael handed Japheth a five dollar bill, and Japheth handed him a pack of Marlboros.
“You want one?” Michael asked trying to ease some of the awkwardness.
“Sure.” Japheth said falling back out of character.
The two boys walked out from the nook and into the strip of trees next to the golf course.
“What’s new?” Japheth asked taking a long drag. Michael decided he must be half in and half out of character and decided not to comment on the sheer volume of smoke the sixteen year old had just consumed. Without coughing.
“Nothing much. Going to go see a dead cow in a few hours. You want to come?”
“Nah, I can’t. I’m on the climactic scene of the novel I’m working on. I think it’s the best one yet.”
Couldn’t be hard, Michael thought. “Jape, can I ask you something?”
“Do you believe in aliens?”
Without warning, Japheth sat on the ground—Indian-style—and pressed the tips of his fingers under his chin. Then he shut his eyes. He sat like that for a moment, and Michael didn’t bother him; he wanted to finish his cigarette, and he had to admit he wondered where this was going.
After a few more minutes Japheth said, “I suppose it would be silly not to.” And that was it. Michael didn’t even get to ask a follow up question before Japheth shot back to his feet and bid farewell to Michael. Literally. After he was a few feet away, Japheth turned and said, “Hey, what’s the index today?”
Michael reached into his khakis and pulled out an index card, walked over and handed it to his friend. The card read, “Over the ‘moo’n.”
“That’s a good one,” Japheth said. A few moments later, he was gone.
Michael mumbled “farewell” under his breath and decided he sounded like an idiot.
It felt good.
Dinner was waiting for him at home. “Your father and I have already eaten,” his mother said. She didn’t seem angry about it, but something was off. Then he remembered it was Thursday, which meant his father would be out at Woody’s. He always ate and ran on the nights he met the guys for beer. His mother looked at him for a moment as if she were going to say more, but instead, she kissed him on the forehead and went off to her room.
Michael ate the spaghetti his mother had made and went to his room to change clothes, still not entirely sure what one wore to a cow’s funeral. Or autopsy.
A half an hour went by and then he heard a car pulling up. He ran down the stairs to let Tyler in. He opened the door. Karen stood with her arms across her chest wearing a different skirt from the one she had on at school.”
“I thought about it. I asked Tyler to pick me up.”
“Is that your special dead cow skirt?” he asked, immediately wishing he didn’t.
Luckily Tyler stepped in. “How’s this going to work?”
Michael explained that his grandpa and Don Willis grew up together. Michael figured it best to just go over there and tell the truth. His version of the truth: they wanted to see the cow for a school project.
“Do we need to bring anything?”
“Only your eyes, my friends,” Michael said, sounding slightly like Japheth, “only your eyes.”
They drove out to the farm, and on the way they passed Lucky Point. They hadn’t been back since that night two years ago. Michael figured it was fear, but Tyler wasn’t afraid of much, and in his presence Michael figured he’d probably do just about anything. But they hadn’t been back all the same. Michael swore he saw Karen shiver. He asked if she was cold, but she just said, “no,” and looked away.
They pulled into Don Willis’s driveway at about quarter passed eight. Michael told Tyler it would be best if they went after dinner, but before dark. The September evenings still held more daylight in Indiana, but would soon be replaced by the early sunsets of winter.
The two boys walked up the steps of the house, but Don Willis came out before they even reached the door.
“Aren’t you Byron Ridge’s grandson?” the old man asked.
“I thought so,” he said, “I suspect you kids are here to see the cow. She’s around back in the field. Go out about fifty yards or so. Look for scavengers.”
“Thanks.” Michael said.
“Oh, and boys, don’t touch her,” he said, either mistaking Karen for a boy or realizing she wasn’t about to touch the any carcass any time soon.
Michael assured him they wouldn’t, and they went off around the house.
“That was easy,” Michael said.
“Yeah,” Tyler said. “I didn’t think we were really going to get to see it. I figured they’d have taken it by now.”
Michael didn’t ask if Tyler meant the aliens or the county.
The field behind the Willis farm was a pasture for grazing, so all they had to watch out for was manure. A few minutes into the walk, the air confirmed they were on the right track.
“That’s disgusting,” Karen said. She pulled a scarf from somewhere in her skirt and held it up to her nose.
They only had to walk about thirty more feet to find the animal. Though there weren’t any scavengers to guide them. The ominous lump stood out like a boil on the skin of the field.
The cow had been slit open from its neck to its stomach. “Stem to stern,” Michael’s grandpa would have said. The most striking feature, however, was that all of the internal organs were missing as if someone had hollowed the poor thing out. Michael’s grandfather had told him some animals killed the cow, but seeing it firsthand, he immediately knew that wasn’t the case. This was an actual cattle mutilation.
Michael had read about them before. Supposedly aliens came down and mutilated any number of animals, though they seemed to have a certain proclivity for cows. The first time he had read about it he decided it didn’t make any sense, but he later conceded that neither did UFOs taking people, so maybe there was a secret agenda after all. The problem was this cow looked exactly like the man he and Tyler had seen in the woods two years ago, and it wasn’t aliens who had done that. He didn’t think so anyway.
“Tyler, are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Michael asked.
“Only if you’re thinking this isn’t an ET’s handy work.”
“It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Why out here? Why away from Lucky Point?”
“The farm’s pretty close.”
Karen stopped the routine. “What are you two talking about?”
“How about we tell you in the car because I don’t want to repeat our previous experience,” Tyler said and pointed toward the horizon. The sun was making its slow descent; the sky had already turned a hazy purple and there was a chill in the air. Way out in the distance, a figure stood like the one the two boys had chased before. This time too far away to tell if it was the same man or just someone looking to see the dead thing in the field.
They walked back to Tyler’s car trying not to break out into a run. They periodically looked back to see if the figure moved. Or disappeared. By the time they got to the car, the dusk had taken over, and they couldn’t see the phantom, whether he was there or not.
Once back in the car, Karen said, “Seriously guys, what’s going on?”
Michael said, “You know that day in the woods you won’t talk about? I might know what happened. But it’s weird,” he paused, thinking about how to proceed. “Karen, I’ve never asked you to talk about what happened that night, but if any of this rings a bell, will you please just tell me?”
She nodded, and he told his story.
“The day after you and Ben went missing I had to go over to your aunt’s house with a detective from the police station. He was mostly nice, but I think that’s just because he knows my mom pretty well. He knows me pretty well too I guess. Anyway, the prevailing theory, as I’m sure you’ll remember was that the two of you had run off. We were only fourteen, but I guess when it comes to boys and girls, it’s never too early to start worrying. The problem was they were looking in the wrong places.
“Since everyone thought you’d run off together, no one wanted to spend any time looking at Lucky Point. That, and Tyler and I told everyone we’d seen you leave.”
Michael had also not told the search party, or the police, about seeing Karen in the woods mouthing something over and over again while a meteor froze in the sky. He decided it was best to leave it out of this story too.
“Tyler and I got together the next day, and we joined the search. It wasn’t until we saw a cow in one of the fields that I remembered the bone you were teasing Karen with. All at once, everything seemed to make sense—the bone, the woods, and most importantly the story about the Indians. I had this crazy idea that if the Indians had been around to hunt, there certainly must be bodies somewhere. So I thought, what if it wasn’t a cow bone after all, what if we desecrated some sort of burial ground.”
“And you thought if you gave the bone back—” Tyler indulged him.
“Then Karen and Ben would come back.”
Tyler fidgeted with something on the dash of his car. “There’s one thing wrong with this story.”
“It’s crazy!” Karen practically yelled.
“Fine,” Tyler said, “there are two things wrong with the story. And for my contribution, I’d like to point out that I know what a cow bone looks like. The bone came from a cow.”
“But you don’t know what happened next,” Michael said.
“I give up what happened next?”
“Ben and Karen came back.”
“I know that. She’s in the backseat,” Tyler’s eyes widened, “you aren’t telling me it’s not them are you. Like they came back different.”
Karen punched him on the shoulder.
“No,” he said. “Ben and Karen came back, and everyone in town pretended nothing happened. Hell, we pretended nothing happened. What I haven’t ever told you is that I went back to Lucky Point after the search ended the first day. It was still light out, so it didn’t seem that intimidating. I would have invited you along, Tyler, but I thought you’d think I was crazy. Or at least, the kind of crazy that isn’t normal for me.
“At first, I thought I was crazy, too. I snuck out of the house while the whole town was looking for a couple of kids who went missing, and here I was going to the one place I already told the police they didn’t need to look. I’ll admit I had my doubts. Then I saw Karen’s suitcase. It was right there in the spot she had made earlier. Right there. I couldn’t believe it. I ran over to it. Felt it. I hoped touching it would make everything seem real.
“I opened it, and there was the bone. I figure you must have slipped it in her suitcase so she’d find it when she got home.”
“Guilty.” Tyler said.
Karen punched him again.
“See?” Michael said.
“See, what?” Tyler asked.
“You put the bone in Karen’s case. They left. The woods wanted it back.” For a minute Tyler thought Michael was going to say, “the wood’s gets what it wants,” but he didn’t.
“Anyway, I grabbed the bone out of the suitcase, threw it into the woods, and then they came back.”
“And we just came back?” Karen asked.
“Well, I had to go look for you for a minute, but I found you and Ben lying on one of the banks of the river, on the other side of the woods.”
“I’ll admit,” Tyler said, “I’m intrigued, but you honestly want me to believe we desecrated an Indian burial ground and as punishment, a band of ghost Indians stole two of our friends. Friends who by the way had already left. If these ghosts of yours wanted to take anyone, they should have taken us.”
“I didn’t say I’d worked out all of the kinks.”
“I’ll say. You’re looking over the biggest one of all—the dead guy.”
“What dead guy?” Karen asked. “You two never said anything about a dead guy.”
“You’ve never said anything at all,” Tyler said.
Michael told Karen the story about the gutted man. He conceded that the presence of the talking corpse had never really fit together with the Indian burial ground theory, but he had remained optimistic. After all, his friends did show up when he’d thrown the ghosts a bone.
“Fine, if it wasn’t a burial ground, then what happened out there? Karen would you care to share?”
She didn’t say anything for a while. A few times it looked like she might, but something was conflicting her. She finally said, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“It couldn’t possibly have been worse than the dead guy thing,” Tyler said. His attempt at encouragement almost brought about a smile. Almost.
“I just know it wasn’t Indians,” she said.
“How?” Michael asked.
She remained quiet again. Finally she said, “Because I saw a woman, and she wasn’t an Indian.”
“What did she—” Michael started. He didn’t get to finish. Karen ignored him, and she rushed through her story.
“After Ben and I left, we made it about halfway home when Ben decided it would be a good idea to go back. He convinced me that you and Tyler were secretly going to stay behind, and we were going to scare you. I wanted payback after the whole bone thing.
“Back at the woods we heard some yelling. We could tell it was Tyler. That’s when things started to get weird.
“The woods lit up, and I mean bright, like Fourth of July bright. I look up in the sky and there is this asteroid thing going through the sky. At first, I think it’s going to hit us. I imagine the entire woods just exploding. I may have screamed at that point; I really don’t remember. Then it stopped. In midair. Just stopped. I turn around to see what Ben thinks is going on. You know how he likes astronomy and all, and he’s gone. Ben’s gone, and there’s a freaking meteor just hanging out above my head. I’m not sure what to do at this point. I mean who would be, right? All I can think of in that moment is that I have to get home. So I start to run away.
She paused. She wiped something out of her eyes.
“The only problem is every time I run I end up back in that clearing where we were hanging out earlier.
“Here I am. Fourteen years old. The guy who’s supposed to walk me home has disappeared; I can’t seem to find my way out of the forest even though it’s not that big; and there’s this shooting star mocking me in the sky. And that’s when I saw her. She was an old woman, probably in her seventies. She wore this gray dress. Lord knows what kind of fabric it was. The thing looked like scrub brushes sewn together. Her hair hung down past her shoulders. Reminded me of dreadlocks. That woman’s poor hair probably hadn’t been washed since the Depression. I almost felt bad for her. Living out there all by herself. I’m sure she doesn’t have running water as sure as I know she’s never heard of conditioner.
“Then she just points at me and says—
“Moros is coming?” Michael interrupted her.
“More what? No, she said, ‘you can’t stop me.’ I didn’t even know I’d been trying. That’s when I blacked out and woke up on that sandbar with Ben. You know the rest from there.”
Michael had an uneasy feeling she was leaving something out. He didn’t blame her though, he left the part about seeing her out too. He hoped growing up wasn’t going to continue to be a series of leaving things out to your friends. He wondered what it would be like if more and more of his life was left out of conversation. At some point, you wouldn’t know who you were anymore, he figured.
“Have you ever seen her again?”
“No. I figured she just lived there. There’re a couple of cabins back there.”
“What about your blackout? The falling star?”
“I have no idea. Ben didn’t see any of it. He can’t remember anything from that night. Now do you see why it was easier just letting people think we ran off together? Sure, some people think we’re delinquents, but how would I explain what happened? I wanted to just forget it all. Pretend it never happened. Then when I got home today I found this.” She handed Michael a folded up newspaper. He opened it up to the front page. There was a headline: Man Killed in Animal Attack. The story went on to describe how an as of yet unidentified man had been attacked in Knox County, which was across the river from Terrace Park. There were no details other than the fact he’d been savagely attacked and that his body had been found on the same sandbar where they found Ben and Karen. There was a photo of him with a caption urging readers to come forward with any information on the identity of the individual.
The face stared back at Michael from the paper, and Michael could hear the words again Tyger! Tyger! burning bright, in the forests of the night.
“I just want everyone to forget about that night, and now this is bringing it back up. I mean our names are even mentioned in the article, and we don’t have anything to do with it. That’s why I decided to come with you tonight. If something is going on, it involves us. And if everyone in this redneck town is going to be in my business, I’d really like to know what my freaking business is.” She paused. “Michael, what’s wrong?”
“That’s the man from the woods. That’s the man Tyler and I saw. The talking corpse.”
Michael’s head filled with questions. Who was that man? Who was the woman Karen saw in the woods? For a whole year he’d contented himself on what two of his best friends were basically calling the silliest—but maybe not inaccurate—theory of the century, and he had to admit, after saying it out loud twice, it was beginning to sound a little far-fetched. He thought about it for a moment.
“Ivaylo,” he finally said.
“Lord, that’s worse than Indians,” Karen said.
“It makes sense. They’re saying he was attacked.” Michael had another thought, “And the cow! The cow suffered from some sort of attack too. No animal did that. You guy’s both realize that right. An animal doesn’t hollow out another animal that precisely.”
They both agreed.
The thought they might be able to prove Ivaylo’s existence sent shivers down his spine. The fact it didn’t explain the shooting star, the old woman, and whatever Moros was didn’t seem to bother him. He pictured the headline for the Consortium’s newsletter now: Ivaylo Hunts Again.
Tyler brought him back down to earth. “You’re forgetting something. Ivaylo can’t leave Terrace Park. Remember vampires and the running water thing.”
Michael considered the point. “Maybe he threw the corpse in the river, and it drifted to the other side.”
“Sadly, that’s the most rational thing you’ve said tonight.” Karen said and flashed him a smile.
“So, what are we going to do about this new development?” Tyler asked the group.
“I say we call an emergency meeting of the Consortium tonight. The article says that the man was attacked by an animal, but that’s what they said about the cow. We need to find the body.”
“And how do you propose we do that?” Karen asked.
“I think I might know someone who can help.” Michael said.