It occurs to me, as I cover Elizabeth with my jacket, that I’m an idiot. I should have tried to make it to the car, to see if there really is a barrier. I know I walked up to the house with no problem. Maybe whatever stopped her from leaving wouldn’t have stopped me.
But that would have left her alone, defenseless, in this shack. Unless I took her with me, and that would have slowed me down.
Elizabeth groans, and I put a hand on her shoulder. She’s burning up. I feel that even through the fleece. Then she shivers and tries to pull off the jacket. I grab her hand to stop her. Her skin is clammy. I want to check the bandage I put on her, but she’s passed out again. Better to let her alone. The bandage isn’t much, just my folded-up undershirt pressed to the wound with our boot laces wrapped around it and tied tightly, but doing something, not matter how useless, made me feel better.
I get to my feet. We’ve been huddled on the dirt floor for maybe an hour, and it’s cold and my body is stiff. Merllyn Sanger hasn’t tried to chop his way in. He might be swinging from his front porch for all I know.
I peer through a gap in the weatherbeaten boards that form the walls of this place. No sign of Sanger. It seems like it’s getting lighter outside. Or maybe it’s not. It seems like it is, then I blink and it’s back to dark again. I’m not completely confident that we’ve even been in here for an hour. Usually I’m pretty good at estimating time, but here . . . it’s like waiting in the doctor’s office with no phone or magazines.
I turn to see Sanger is now within arm’s reach of me. He has the ax raised above his head. Our eyes lock. Then he grins and brings it down.
I throw myself back against the wall. The boards creak in protest. The ax blade thuds into the dirt about an inch away from my left foot. I grab the expandable baton from my belt. Elizabeth hadn’t packed hers; she thought it was overkill. I flick the baton open and pivot my right side toward Sanger. He hefts the ax. I backhand him with the baton, right in the jaw. His head whips to the side and he staggers, but doesn’t fall. I’m disappointed–and disturbed–to see a lack of blood or missing teeth when he turns his head to me again. So I slug him in the face again.
I manage to drive him back and give me breathing room, so that’s good. Elizabeth is still down, and that’s better. I swing at the side of his left knee. Any other person would be down, but this nightmare is still on his feet. I hit him again. And again. And again. Eventually, we’re at the opposite end of the shack, and his back’s against the wall this time. I put all I have into the next strike, a Mickey Mantle swing-for-the-fences blow that connects with the side of his head. He finally drops the ax.
Then I charge him, ram the baton against his throat, and put all my weight on it. I’m half-hoping and half-scared that I’ll decapitate him.
His face doesn’t turn purple. He doesn’t struggle to breathe. Actually, he’s not breathing at all. We’re chest-to-chest, and there’s no rise and fall on his end. I’m doing all the panting.
I think I’m wasting my time and energy.
Maybe I should try for the ax. I can see it down by my left foot. Grab it, swing it, knock off his head.
How did he even get in here? I searched the place earlier for an exit point and had a nice little panic attack when I found nothing.
He’s snarling, his eyes are bloodshot, and his breath stinks like the grave. His hands are curled around the baton and touching mine, which is awful, because they’re fever-hot. All I want to do is let go because he stinks, and my right shoulder is throbbing, and I really don’t know how long I can keep this up–
Then he disappears with a POP. I fall forward. My knuckles scrape against the boards and I drop to one knee. I see someone in the corner of my left eye and think Sanger has teleported over there now, why not, that’s probably how he got inside earlier.
I raise the baton, see Elizabeth leaning against the wall, and drop it. I get to my feet, unsure for a moment if she’s a ghost or not. She’s white enough. She’s also holding a rusty horseshoe. I move toward her, and she grimaces and slides down the wall to the ground. I follow her down.
“I know, you had him.” Her voice is weak. The smile that follows is weaker.
“What’s with the horseshoe?” I can’t think of anything else to say.
“Found it in that pile of crap over there. Touched it to his hip. It’s made of iron.”
“You need to watch more TV, Mercy.”
“So you’ve said.”
“Ghosts don’t like iron. According to Supernatural and Being Human. It drives them away. Doesn’t kill them though. You need to get Netflix.”
I move to her side and put my arm around her. She hangs on to the horseshoe. Eventually, it gets lighter inside the shack, and the shack fades away. We’re sitting in the field again. The house is gone. The barrier too, I expect.
Elizabeth shrugs off my arm. “Did you tie shoelaces around me?” She’s looking down at her chest. The horseshoe is gone.
“Well, I had to secure the bandage somehow.”
“Bandage?” She’s untying the laces. She has her color back.
“My shirt. Wait, let me help.”
“Ow. OW! It’s stuck. It’s stuck, wait, dammit!”
“Well, the blood’s dried, and that’s why it’s sticking. Stop squirming. Let me peel–”
“Just . . . screw it, just rip it off.”
I do. She’s not happy.
I am, though. Her wound’s gone. There’s dried blood and a bright pink jagged line where the gash was, but that will fade after a while. Her shirt’s ruined, but her jacket will cover up the hole and bloodstains. And the jacket is waiting for us in the car, along with the heater.
While we’re lacing up our boots, she says, “Now I get the pipe.”
She stands up, points back to where the house once stood. “There’s a metal pipe over there. I nearly impaled myself on it earlier. I thought it was from the house, like a gas pipe or something, but it’s iron. I bet you someone had the same idea, that iron keeps ghosts away. They were trying to keep the house from coming back. Only they put the pipe in the wrong spot.”
I get to my feet. “So we need to move the pipe. Do you remember where the house was?”
Now that it’s daylight, and we’re surrounded by weeds and empty McDonald’s drink cups, I’m having a hard time remembering where everything was. Was the shack right where we’re standing, or was it a few feet over to our left? And did she point to where the house was, or did she mean to point in the other direction?
I’m thoroughly confused, but Elizabeth heads to that pipe like it has a big flashing red light on top of it. Maybe to her it does.
– – – – – – – – – –
This place gave me the creeps. What I wanted most of all was to run to the car, dive inside, lock all the doors, and drive the fuck away.
With David, of course. He had the keys.
Despite that feeling, I walked to the iron pipe. David followed. I kicked the pipe. It didn’t budge. I sighed. My back hurt. The last thing I wanted to do was wrench the frigging thing from the ground. I pressed my boot against it and pushed. I felt it move. I switched to the other side of it and repeated.
When I figured it was loose enough, I wrapped my hands around it and pulled it free. Then I turned around, suddenly unsure exactly where the house had stood.
Was my back to the car? Yeah. Good. I had taken a step or two back from the pipe and had landed on the house’s front porch. So, one or two steps forward, and I should be at the porch.
I took a couple more for good measure and then stabbed it in the ground as hard as I could, despite the pain that exploded from the ax wound. The wound itself was healed, but I’d have pain in that spot for days. Sleeping on my back would be an impossibility.
I straightened up with difficulty, my jaw clenched. David held his right shoulder and looked miserable. The words walking wounded darted through my head, from some book I’d read or something, and I laughed, because I was tired and the oddest things strike me as funny when I’m tired.
He cocked an eyebrow. “What’s so funny?”
“I have no idea.” I chuckled. “Well, this has been a swell night, but I think it’s time to go.”
We trudged to the car. David patted his pockets for the keys. Then he winced and looked over the car’s roof, to the field. “Hell. You remember where that shack was?”
My heart sank. “No. Come on. No.”
Then he grinned and held up the key ring. “Gotcha.”
“Asshole! I’m freezing my ass off right now!”
He laughed and unlocked the doors.