Under The Stars
“Thanks for coming. I’m sure my father would have appreciated it.” Robert forced his lips into a smile as the elderly couple made their way through the door. Norma and Gene Halloway lived next door, and had known Robert’s father for twenty years. They’d stopped over after the funeral, plopped down on the couch, and proceeded to tell every story they knew about John Northrup. Robert smiled and nodded and refreshed drinks, stuck in his suit and tie until eight o’clock, when Gene stood and said they’d let him try to relax.
After the door was shut, Robert tore the tie from his neck and flung it onto the back of his father’s easy-chair. He collapsed into the worn seat, the smell of his father wafting up from the faded corduroy, and propped his feet on the coffee table. If he’d been there, John Northrup would have cleared his throat and given him a look of disapproval, but he wasn’t, and Robert was too tired to care.
Robert pushed the seat-back and threw an arm over his eyes. His suit jacket scrunched up between his shoulders. He knew he should get up, hang the suit and shirt, and get into something more comfortable, but now that he was lying down all the will to move drained from his body. “Screw it.” He kicked off his shoes – a minor concession to his father’s ghost – and waited to fall asleep. The sooner this day was over, the better.
He remembered his father’s last call. He’d been hunched over his desk reading some bullshit memo when the intercom buzzed. The receptionist said it was his father, asked if he wanted to take the call.
“Robert? I need you to come down here.” John’s voice sounded far away and fuzzy, like he’d called from overseas instead of Indiana.
“Come down? Why?”
“I can’t explain, Rob. It’s important.” The line hissed and came back. “Please, Robert.”
He scanned the next week of his calendar and grimaced.
“I’m sorry, Dad. I have a huge deadline next week. Can it wait until after then?”
Static filled the line for a long time. Then his father said “Forget it,” and hung up.
Gene Halloway called a week later. John had been found in the garage. He’d hung himself.
Robert shifted in the chair. The half-empty bottle of bourbon still sat on the dinner table next to a thin manila envelope. He dropped the footrest and clambered to his feet, peeled off the jacket, and tossed it onto one of the chairs around the table. He rolled up his shirt-sleeves and poured a glass. Then he broke the seal on the envelope and dumped the contents.
Two scraps of paper slid out onto the dark wood. The officer had said they’d been found in his father’s breast pocket. One he recognized; it was a piece of his father’s stationary. The other was an old map, yellowed and ragged along the edges. Someone had highlighted a route, marked one end with an X, and drawn in another line labeled “Rt. 542”.
Robert set the map down and unfolded the other paper. Four wavering lines of text were scratched along the top.
This map took me to the stars. I watched them for hours.
They’re so pretty in the dark.
I wanted to show them to you. You can still see them, if you look.
He sat there for a long time, reading the note over and over. He picked up the map and traced the highlighted line with his finger. Without thinking, Robert downed the last of his bourbon, grabbed his phone, and dialed. Candace answered on the third ring.
“Hey, sweetie. How are you holding up?”
“As well as I can, Dee. How’s the trial coming?” He smiled, not wanting worry to show in his voice.
“It’s going well. I still think Rick could have covered for me, though. There hasn’t been anything he couldn’t handle. I hate that you’re down there dealing with this by yourself.”
“It’s ok. Really. You’re just an associate. It’s a miracle they let you go to trial.”
She sighed, and he could almost see her shake her head and roll her eyes.
“Rob, it’s your father’s funeral. That should come first.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m alright. But something came up, and I need to stay a bit longer to take care of it.” He was amazed at how cool his voice was.
“I thought you hired a lawyer to take care of everything?” A note of alarm crept into her voice.
“I know, but Dad left something. It might have something to do with why he–” Rob sucked in a deep breath and held it for a moment. “Anyway, I have to look into it. Just a day or two more.”
There was a long pause on the other end, and then she said, “Okay, but don’t be too long.” Worry still filled her voice, but Robert relaxed. She had agreed. She wouldn’t raise the issue again. Not until he got home, anyway.
“I won’t be, love.”
Two days later, Robert climbed into his father’s old pickup and drove out of town. Within five miles, the road was swallowed by corn fields, broken only by the occasional house and outbuilding. He followed his handwritten directions until he saw the sign for Route 542 and turned off. The pavement turned to pitted gravel. Loose rocks rattled off the undercarriage, and he could hear the heavy grind of the wheels on the road. He watched for the sign marking Donovan’s Way.
An hour passed along rolling hills and bad roads. Ahead, he saw a thick line of trees. The road didn’t appear to turn. Twenty minutes later, he drove into a dim forest that showed no sign of ending.
I must have passed it. He checked the mirror. I should just go back. What’s the point? Knowing what’s out here won’t bring him back.
He was so focused on whether to turn back that he almost missed the sign peeking out from behind a massive fir. He slammed on the brakes and turned into the skid of his rear tires.
The ‘road’ was little more than a pair of ruts cutting through the trees. Ferns grew between the tracks and obscured the way forward. Robert looked back the way he’d come, then down at the map clipped to the air vent. He swung the steering wheel over and turned in.
The cab filled with a hushed whisper of the undergrowth brushing along the doors. The truck lurched as he drove over shallow ditches and deep potholes. The X marked a spot just past a tight bend in the road, so when the tracks brought him through a sharp switchback, he slowed to a crawl and scanned the roadside.
Robert saw the trail just as he passed it. He pulled off the road and shut the engine down. After a long moment, he popped the door open and stepped out.
The air was still and warm on his face. Sunlight filtered through the trees, casting bright spots on the truck. A bird sang somewhere ahead, and the buzz of insects filled the air.
Robert reached behind the driver’s seat and pulled out a battered red duffel bag he’d found in his father’s broom closet. The nylon was tattered and stained black with oil, but the straps were sturdy enough to hold a flashlight and a few bottles of water. He stepped around to the back of the truck and stood at the mouth of the trail. It extended like a tunnel for ten feet before disappearing around a bend. He glanced back at the truck, dust-coated and battered, shook his head, and walked into the woods.
Within half a mile, the foliage around him grew so dense he couldn’t see through the trees on either side of the path. It gave the impression of walking down a narrow hall with textured green walls.
Minutes stretched into hours, and the trail gave no sign of changing. It wound through the forest at a steady decline. Robert stopped and took a long drink while he turned to look back up the trail. It twisted its way uphill for twenty or thirty feet before curving out of sight.
What was he doing out here? He tried to imagine his father working his way through these woods. John Northrup had been sixty-seven when he died. He walked a mile a day, but this kind of trek would have been monumental. As it was, Robert’s calves were sore, and there was no telling how much farther he had to go.
The forest grew dim and cold as he went. Robert’s watch read just after one in the afternoon, but the mid-August heat had evaporated. He shivered and rubbed at his arms. There’d been a thick flannel jacket in the hall closet of his father’s house, and he wished he’d grabbed it. His breath misted before his eyes. Still, it wasn’t too bad as long as he kept moving.
His foot came down on a stick with a dry snap, and the sound echoed through the woods. Robert stood still, hearing nothing but his own heart pounding in his ears. When had it gotten so quiet? At the road, the woods had buzzed with the sound of birds and insects. Now, no matter how hard he strained, he heard nothing.
“What the hell?” He glanced down at his watch and his jaw dropped. The numbers flickered, flashing so fast he thought of the read-out on a gas pump.
It’s time to get out of here. He turned, took one lurching step, and froze.
The trail wound uphill for another ten feet and disappeared into a wall of brush. A puckered line ran down the foliage where the trail ended like a half-healed scar. The only sound was his breathing.
By the time he turned back down the path, the puckered line was gone.
Robert found the clearing an hour later. Fading light slanted through the canopy, glittering off dust motes like snowflakes. Small piles of worn stones, pitted and mossy, were strewn about brown grass. Off to his left, a massive stone column lay broken on its side, enveloped by moss and vines. He scrubbed at his arms and sighed, spewing a jet of cold mist.
A gray spire of stone stood in the center of the clearing. Ancient carvings covered the surface, the angular marks worn away to shallow scars.
Robert circled the clearing. The trail didn’t pick up anywhere, and by the time he circled back around, it was gone completely. Despite the cold, his back and armpits were clammy with sweat.
He circled the clearing again, spiraling closer to the center. He found a stone half buried among the ferns that had been hollowed out into a bowl. A narrow trench snaked through the vegetation from the bowl to the spire.
“Why did you come out here?” he whispered. He stepped closer to the stone spire. Deep pits marred the surface and disfigured the markings. He traced his finger over one of them and something…shifted inside.
Robert lurched back. Blackness seeped up to the surface like oil, filling every inch of the stone. The markings disappeared. Robert reached out and touched it. The stone was completely smooth, like polished onyx. A light flashed on the surface, and then another. Robert glanced at the canopy, expecting to see sunlight, but the sky had gone dark. He looked down and gasped.
Tens of thousands of lights shone out from the black stone. They looked like stars. Something thrummed inside. He felt it in his stomach like the low buzz of a bass amp and took a step back.
I don’t care if the trail is gone. He took another step, eyes wide and frantic. I’ll run through brambles if I have to. He tried to take a third step, but his leg was stuck. Something pulled at him—toward the stone. Robert locked his knees, whipping his head back and forth. His arm dragged up, palm out, and the pressure increased until his shoulder popped. He staggered forward until his hand met the smooth surface.
The lights swarmed to his hand. They pulsed with his heartbeat. A voice whispered in his ear. It spoke in guttural, unintelligible words. He grabbed his wrist, jerking on his trapped arm and wincing against the tearing pain in his palm.
Callused hands bit down on his shoulders and squeezed. He sucked in air to scream, but before he could utter a sound, they shoved him into the stone.
Candace drummed her fingers on the steering wheel and sighed. She’d been sitting outside the Arrivals terminal for almost an hour before Rob stepped through the doors with a red duffel bag slung over his shoulder.
His eyes widened when he spotted the car. He approached with his head down. Rob yanked the door open and slung the bag into the back seat. Candace flinched, the strap of the bag flailing past her face.
“Easy there!” She laughed and ran a hand through her hair. “You almost took my eye out.”
Rob fell into the seat and pulled the door shut.
He said nothing, just sat there with one hand cradling his head. He didn’t even buckle his seatbelt. Candace waited another moment, then started the car and eased away from the curb.
Rob bolted the second she pulled into the garage. By the time Candace shut off the car and climbed out, he was up the back steps and unlocking the door. She pulled his red duffel from the back seat and slammed the door. The bag was light and something clinked inside.
She got halfway to the back door and froze. Where the hell is his luggage? He’d left with his black nylon garment bag and a large, roll-on suitcase. She’d never seen this bag before. It smelled like old dust and motor oil. She bit her lip and peered back at the car.
Inside, Rob sat at the table with his back to her. She went around and sat opposite him. He didn’t look up.
“What’s going on, Rob?”
He squirmed in his seat and picked at the front of his shirt, but he kept his eyes fixed on the table.
Candace paused, bit her lip. “Did you find something?”
His eyes flinched. Candace wasn’t sure what to say, so she said nothing.
“Please, Dee. Don’t worry about it.” Rob folded his arms over his chest.
“Don’t worry?” Candace leaned forward over the table and held out a hand. “Rob, of course I’m going to worry. You just lost your father. You need–”
“I needed you there!” He slammed his palm on the table and Candace flinched back, jerking her arm to her chest. Now his eyes were fixed on hers; they blazed in his ashen sockets. Then they widened and dulled, and his mouth drooped. “Dee…I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.”
“It’s ok.” She spoke in a dull monotone around short, quick breaths. She forced herself to take a deep breath.
“Dee, I’m exhausted.” He came around to her, bent down and grabbed her hands. His skin was cool and clammy. “I’m sorry I said that. I love you. I know you had to be here. I just need some rest. I’m going to sleep in the guest room, tonight, ok?” He stood and turned toward the hall. “We’ll talk in the morning, I promise.”
A moment later, the door clicked shut. Candace let out the breath she’d been holding. She grabbed her keys and slipped out the front door. She needed to cool down, and a walk sounded perfect.
Candace woke with a jolt and sat straight up in bed. She reached for Rob, only to find a cold hollow where his body should have been. She sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. The clock on the nightstand read just after four in the morning.
She swung her feet out of bed and crept down the hall to the guest bedroom. She couldn’t hear anything through the door. She twisted the handle and edged it open. A faint smell drifted out, like dirt and decaying leaves. Rob sat on the bed, hunched over staring out the window. He muttered under his breath.
“They’re coming. The stars.” He rocked back and forth, shaking his head. “No. No, I can’t. I can’t.” He stopped mumbling and she heard a dry snap, like a twig breaking underfoot. She took a step into the room and froze. She bit her lip and looked back to the hallway.
He promised we’d talk in the morning. She inched the door shut. A moment later she was back in bed, wide awake. She lay there a long time before sleep took her.
Candace woke with the sun beaming through the blinds. She rubbed her eyes and sagged back into the pillow. Her back ached, and her pajamas were sticky with sweat. She sighed and untangled herself from the sheets.
The guest bedroom was still shut. She tip-toed down the hall and eased the door open. All she could see of Rob was a tuft of dark hair sticking out the end of a mound of blankets. She watched him for a moment, then shut the door.
I need to clear my head. She changed, found her running shoes, grabbed the spare key, and headed out the door. The air was still cool, and she fell into a steady pace, focused on her breathing, her footfalls, her posture. Her mind drifted.
Three miles later, covered in a slick sheen of sweat, she rounded the corner onto her street with a smile. The first ideas of what to say when Rob got up had bloomed around the second mile, and now she was certain things would turn out right. The smile vanished with the roar of an engine and squealing tires. Rob’s car ripped out of the driveway and jerked to a stop. The gearbox clunked, and he took off in a haze of smoke.
She sprinted the rest of the way home and found the note on the bed.
I need to be away right now. It will be better for both of us.
I finally understand.
I love you.
She dialed his cell immediately. After two rings, she realized she could hear it buzzing in the guest room.
“Shit!” She ended the call and tossed the phone onto the bedside table.
The day passed in a blur of worried glances out the window. She called his friends. She called her mother. No one had seen him. She waited up as long as she could. When she woke, propped up on the couch with a sore back, she hauled herself to bed. She promised herself to call the police if he wasn’t back in the morning.
Her alarm buzzed—it was still dark outside. The smell of dead meat rolled over her when she opened the bedroom door. She swallowed hard and covered her face with her shirt. The guest bedroom door hung open. She inched toward it but stopped when she reached the entry to the dining room. Rob sat at the table, his hands out of sight and his eyes closed. She heard a dry snap and his lips twisted—then he looked up.
Candace gasped and pulled her clenched fists tight to her chest. His eyes were dark gray pools set in milky yellow.
“Robert, we need to talk.” It took every bit of effort she had to keep her voice calm. “I know you must be going through hell, but you’re scaring me.”
Robert said nothing.
She edged over to the table and sat across from him.
“Rob, please, talk to me. You don’t have to do this alone.” She held her hand out for his.
Robert stared down at her hand and grinned. Blood trickled between his teeth.
Candace gasped and pitched back in her chair. Robert brought his hands up and the reek of rotting meat filled the air. Jagged shards of bone jutted through the skin of his fingers. The fingertips dangled like ornaments. He shot out his hand and grabbed her arm. The bones jabbed into her wrist.
“There’s something I need you to see.” His grin widened, pulling his lips tight over his teeth.
Candace jerked her hand back and flung herself toward the hallway. Robert leapt to his feet and his chair clattered to the floor. He flexed his hands. They crackled.
“The stars are coming, Dee. Let me show you.”
Candace backed into the hallway and forced her eyes away from his ruined hands. They fell on the lamp next to the bed. She turned, took two steps down the hall, and sharp fingers clamped down on her shoulder. She screamed and batted at his hand. Something heavy crashed into her head. She didn’t remember falling. She looked up through a narrowing tunnel of black, and all she saw were those dark eyes blazing down from pools of yellow.
Candace woke in darkness with the smell of oil and gasoline in her nostrils. The world seemed to bounce and jostle. The roar of an engine filled her ears. A rag had been stuffed in her mouth, rough and oily, with a strip of tape holding it in. Her wrists were bound behind her back. She kicked and screamed until her throat was raw. She lay there, curled up as much as she could, sobbing and defeated. Exhaustion overtook her and she passed out.
She woke to the sound of a slamming door. Gravel crunched underfoot, she heard a jangle of keys, and then the trunk popped open.
A shadow moved in the dark. Sharp, grasping hands pulled her into the night air. The smell of rot was overpowering. She gagged and struggled to swallow, terrified of throwing up with that rag sealed in her mouth.
After the pitch dark of the trunk, her eyes drank in the starlight. They were on a narrow track with weeds growing between the wheel ruts. Trees loomed on both sides. She looked up and caught a glimpse of the stars through the canopy. Robert slammed the trunk shut and pushed her toward a small path, just visible in the gloom.
“Walk.” Robert’s voice was unrecognizable, dry and rasping. When she didn’t move, he shoved her. The bones of his fingers jabbed into her back, and her skin writhed.
The canopy grew dense and solid as they moved into the woods. Candace slowed to a crawl. She could barely see the faint outline of the trail. Robert grabbed her shoulder and pushed her along, turning her with sharp twists of his wrist. They walked like that for hours.
The trail led to a wide clearing deep in the woods. A smooth, black column stood at its center, gleaming in the pale moonlight. Stars reflected off its surface—no, not reflected—the stars shone out from inside.
She pushed back against Robert, ignoring the flare of pain as his fingers ground against her shoulder blade. Robert grabbed her and something jerked between her hands. The rag split. She reached up and tore the tape from her mouth and spat out the wad of greasy cloth. She took one step and then he shoved her to the ground. She flailed with sluggish, numb arms and crashed face-first into the dirt. Her forehead hit something hard and blood streamed into her left eye. She struggled to crawl.
Robert grabbed her by the arm and dragged her toward the spire. She saw a hollowed out stone, like a bowl, and then he flipped her onto her back. He knelt with his knee digging into her mutilated shoulder, and she screamed and thrashed under his weight. He set the red duffel next to her and pulled open the zipper. He pulled out a long, gray dagger. It was stone, chipped and marked. Candace’s eyes went wide.
“Robert, no! You don’t have to do this.”
Robert nodded his head. “I do. You don’t understand.”
“No! You don’t! Please, Robert. I love you. Don’t do this!” Tears streamed from her eyes, dripping down into her ears.
“It’ll be over fast, Dee.” Robert smiled down at her with glassy eyes, still and unfocused. “Then we can be with the stars.”
He brought the stone dagger high over his head, and she jabbed her free hand into his throat. His eyes popped in surprise and he fell back gasping for air. Candace scrambled to her feet. Robert looked up at her with a blood-soaked snarl. She took one step toward him, pivoted, and kicked him in the face. He fell back, insensate.
Then something came out of the woods.
It crept along on four writhing limbs. Candace stood, frozen in place, while it scuttled through the thick ferns and hauled itself upright on the spire. The stars drifted to its touch and it cocked its head sideways. Intent. Focused. The stone went black. It turned to look at her with orange eyes that glowed despite the dark.
When those eyes fell on her, Candace screamed. The cold air burned raw in her throat. Its mouth twisted into something like a grin—she spun and ran.
She was twenty feet up the trail when it crashed through the edge of the clearing behind her. It plowed through the brush in a cacophony of snapping branches and whipping leaves. Candace pumped her legs, kept her eyes fixed on the narrow strip of dirt in front of her, praying that it didn’t disappear in a sudden turn. Her lungs burned from the cold. She heard ragged panting close behind her.
A root snagged her foot and she crashed to the dirt, pain flaring in her shoulder. She flipped and tried to bring her hands up. The thing scrambled up the path, less than five feet behind her. It dropped to all fours, creeping toward her in sudden, jerking movements. She clambered back, feeling for something, anything. Her hand brushed past a rock, then darted back. She jammed her fingers into the dirt, prying at the edges. It crawled over her, its face inches away. It reeked of stale sweat and dirt and old crypts. It grinned wide, revealing jagged teeth.
The rock came free.
Candace slammed it into the thing’s head. Pain flared in her back, but it fell sideways, its arm pinning her to the dirt. She wriggled free and rose to her knees. She brought the rock down hard again. And again. It laid slack, its eyes open and unfocused, its head sunken and wet. She dropped the rock and sagged to the ground. She lay there, wracked by sobs and shivering. When it passed, she staggered to her feet and limped up the path.
By the time Candace stumbled back to the road, the horizon was a pink blister. Dew coated the car and dripped from the open trunk. She used the sleeve of her shirt to wipe the moisture from the driver’s side window. Gelatinous black chunks filled the seat and a crust of dried blood coated the wheel. She sucked in a deep breath, covered her face with her shirt, and opened the door.
She spun and staggered off the road, expelling the thin contents of her stomach in rough heaves. When it was done, she took another deep breath and ducked her head into that reeking space. The keys were gone. She lurched back and slammed the door. She glanced up and down the road. It was nothing but two thin tracks heading in either direction. With a last glance at the head of the trail, she headed in the direction opposite car.
A farmer in a rusted pickup found her wandering, head down and shuffling, just after noon. She screamed and drew back like she’d been burned when he touched her arm. Thick scabs circled her wrists and dried blood blackened the shoulder of her shirt. He coaxed her into the passenger seat and drove straight to the nearest hospital.
The police found Robert’s body four days later, slumped next to his car. His throat was shredded, most likely by his own finger bones, according to the coroner. The path into the woods died after thirty feet.
The hospital released Candace a week later. Her parents took her straight to the airport, and then to the house she’d grown up in. She slept in her old bed under faded posters and threadbare sheets. Days passed, turned into months. Details began to fade. The nightmares weren’t so frequent. They only came on clear nights after the moon had set, when the stars shone down through her window.