The woods will never tell what sleeps beneath the trees.
Or what's buried beneath a rock, or hiding in the leaves.
'Cause roadkill has its seasons, just like anything.
It's possums in the autumn, and it's farm cats in the spring.
June 15 1998 Gordon's Creek
The sun winked a heliograph off the water. A red and white bobber plopped in. It broke the glassy sheen into a rippling bulls' eye and spurred the dormant whirligigs into action. The undulations tapered, and once again the water was mirroring the cloudless sky in shades of earth.
The man at the other end of the fishing line sat on his crumpled lumberjack shirt. He twitched the cheap fishing pole from one hand to the other. The afternoon sunshine hammered on his bare shoulders, continuing to bake his skin a darker shade of shoeleather brown. He tilted his head to the sky, closed his eyes and took a deep breath through his nose.
The smell: a slight musk coming off the water. The sounds of creaking trees, of cicadas calling to each other in their alien language, the feel of the cork handle in his calloused hands and the sun-baked mud under his makeshift cushion, these things were the few constants in his life, and he cherished them like very little else.
And he was taken back thirty years, to when he was a young boy pulling perch and sunfish out of the brown water: his father at his side, stoic and broad-shouldered, smoking an unfiltered cigarette and reading a dog-eared paperback.
A slight breeze kicked up, pleasantly cooling the sweat on his shoulder blades. Somewhere behind him, Maddy trudged graceless through the bracken.
The pond, fed by Gordon's Creek, hidden in the Arklay Forest: a secret Eden, whose location was known only by a surveyor for Linn-Gordon Mining and his four sons.
Darius Connor opened his eyes. He was crying. It happened a lot lately. A branch cracked a few feet away. He heard Maddy giggle as she approached him, He blinked the few tears away.
The pond, known by his four sons and one granddaughter.
"Hey, Kiddo." He swung an arm out and caught her at the waist, drew her closer.
"I was trying to sneak up on you," she explained, smiling.
He smiled and laid the rod aside -it was too hot, the fish weren't biting- and looked up at the skinny girl with mousy-brown hair and glasses. Her gingham top was flecked with dead leaves and burrs.
Clumsy, like her old man.
"Well, you'll have to try harder than that." He looked down and blinked away another tear. "Your Pop's clever like a fox." He tickled her sides with his other hand.
She giggled and slipped out of his arms, brushing the leaves out of her hair.
"You want to try some more fishing?" He gestured at the other fishing pole.
She looked at the pole reluctantly. He knew that her heart wasn't in it. Maybe if the fish were biting she would have been more willing to give it a try.
Her mother hated fishing.
"Maybe in a little while," she said as she unscrewed the cap on a bottled water. "Could I borrow the binoculars?"
Her language skills were very advanced for an eight year-old. At least, that's what her teacher had written in her last report card. If she could only get those Math grades up to par.
"Of course." He brushed a bluebottle fly off his arm. "They're in the backpack. Just don't wander too far."
"How far is too far?" She took a single sip of water and replaced the cap.
So much like her old man.
"If you can't see me, then it's too far."
"Okay," She wandered back toward the overstuffed rucksack and began sorting through the various outdoors impedimenta.
He watched her for a few moments.
At his side, the fishing rod came alive. He snatched it up and yanked, but there was no resistance on the line: too late. He sighed and reeled the hook in.
Perch were not an easy fish to set properly. They nibbled away at the bait, ate around the hook like little surgeons. He cast a withering glare at the severed nub that had once been an earthworm on the end of the lure.
"Bastard!" He thumbed the lid off the old margarine container full of mud. He felt his anger swelling inside, but swallowed it back down and took his frustration out on another worm, repeatedly skewering it on the barbed hook.
"Try eating that one." He flung the tackle into the water.
He looked back, toward the girl as she blundered forward with the binoculars up to her small face.
-Don't do it today, it's too nice a day-
He slumped his shoulders at the thought.
A month ago Maddy's mother had asked for a separation. They hadn't told their daughter yet.
It hadn't come as much a surprise to Darius; he and his soon to be ex-wife had never really loved each other. He met Vicky Larson at a night club shortly before his deployment to Kuwait. When he returned home, she waiting for him, with their daughter swaddled in a fleece blanket. Maddy was so small, with tiny pale-blue eyes.
And so Darius left the Army and took a job as a process man for Umbrella Chemicals. He and Vicky pooled what money they had and took a mortgage on a ramshackle Victorian. She thought the place looked creepy, but he and his brothers had done a decent job fixing it up over the summer. It would never be a mansion, but it was no longer the worst house in the neighbourhood.
And they tried like Hell to make it work.
He couldn't fault his wife for being unhappy, for being unwilling to spend her life with a man she could barely tolerate. Darius had no intention of sleeping on the Murphy bed in his billiards room for any longer that he had to either.
"I'm tired of faking this." she told him in a calm voice. "I deserve to be happy, and so do you. I'm tired of having to tiptoe behind your back… and don't tell me that you haven't been sleeping around as well."
He lied and told her that he hadn't.
So that was that, lawyers were consulted, contracts, and custody papers signed. Everything was very civil, free of the stereotypical pettiness associated with divorce. He found an affordable two bedroom apartment downtown and bought some used furniture at a consignment store.
There was only one thing left to do: the hardest part.
More tears formed at the corners of his eyes. Fifteen days from now, he would be seeing his girl every other week.
He could hear a ton of branches twisting and snapping. Maddy's clothes were going to be ruined; Vicky would freak.
"Don't go too far, sweetie." he called absently.
He bent forward and gazed at his reflected image in the murky water. He was a bit soft around the waistline, craggy faced, but still handsome. Vicky was right, he did deserve to be happy. What he feared was that his happiness would come at the expense of his daughter's.
Maddy's thin scream pulled him out of his introspection with more speed and violence than he could yank a perch out of the pond.
He dropped the rod and leapt to his feet, scanned the treeline. She screamed again, to his right, and about fifty yards in. Her thin frightened scream transformed into a painful shriek that could barely be registered by a human ear
That scream spurred Darius into action. He charged forward, caught his own shadow on the hardpack: a small, powerfully built man cannonballing through the deadfall.
He zeroed-in on his daughter's cries, could see movement ahead. "Hold on, Sweetie, I'm coming!"
Branches whipped at his bare arms and chest; he didn't feel them. His heart was pounding double-time. His legs pushed him forward with impressive speed.
He could see the Maddy's cotton candy pink sneakers kicking, a large brown shape on top of her: too tall and skinny to be an animal. A few more steps forward and it was clear to him that a man was holding his girl down, was attacking her.
A fucking pedo.
Something switched in his mind. He was no longer Darius Connor: father, husband, and cooling tower systems operator. He was once again PFC Connor. One of his squad mates was in trouble and needed backup. The enemy needed to be eliminated.
With soldier's efficiency, he darted a hand into his back pocket, found his Buck knife, flicked out the four-inch blade. He had taken a life during the Gulf War; he had no doubt he could do it again.
-This guy's dead!-
"GET OFF OF HER!" he shouted at the attacker: a thin man dressed in a filthy brown sport coat and corduroy pants. The guy smelled worse than fish guts left in the hot sun. He was probably some psychotic drifter. It didn't matter much to Darius. He would be worm food soon enough.
The man didn't budge, didn't pay attention to his warning. Maddy had her arms to her face and was shrieking. Was that blood he saw on her?
Darius launched himself at the man, tackling him. They both tumbled off the girl, the derelict ending up on top of him.
It was then that he realized there was something wrong with this attacker. From an early age he wrestled and fought with his brothers. He had taken hand to hand training in the Army. It never felt like this. This guy felt wrong: cold, and hard, like the rubber on a tire. And that smell…
The drifter's hair fell away from his face; for the first time Darius had a good look at the man, and it froze him solid.
During the war, he and his platoon had come across an Iraqi T-62 that was hit by an A-10's cannon. The commander and radio man were blasted from the wreckage, laying in the sun for days, staring at the sky with hollow eye sockets and wizened faces.
This man in the woods looked exactly like those corpses, except he was alive.
He, or perhaps it, unhinged it's jaw and bit down on Darius's forearm. He didn't register the pain. PFC Connor was engaging the enemy, whatever his enemy was.
He still had the Buck knife in his other hand and began stabbing at the diseased man on top of him, aiming for the chest.
Again and again, he thrust the knife forward, each time he heard a slight thuck as the blade hit his ribcage. Strangely, his attacker didn't react to the fact that he was being gutted, and Darius was too busy to realize that the man wasn't bleeding.
Body blows weren't doing anything; the man was still clamped to Darius' arm. He balled his hand into a fist around the knife handle and punched the man between his shrivelled eyes with every bit of strength he had. The force peeled a flap of skin off the man's forehead, and he was driven back with a mouthful of flesh from Darius' forearm.
At his side Maddy was still screaming.
"GO BACK TO THE TRUCK!" he twisted and hollered at her. "RUN!"
There was a massive pinch at the side of his neck.
Before he had time to react, the living corpse had clamped his jaws somewhere in the neighbourhood of his carotid artery and ripped it open. Darius was still too wired on adrenaline to feel much pain, but as he felt the hot thick blood spilling down his side, he knew he didn't have much time.
He had to kill it first. Had to make Maddy safe.
"RUN!" He drove the blade's entire length into the man's throat.
He was feeling light headed; things were slowing down.
"RUN!" Maddy was still at his side, shouting for him.
Another good hit with the Buck knife, upward under the chin. The handle slipped from his weakening grip.
"….Run…" He shoved Maddy; she stumbled away from him.
Things were starting to darken at the edges of his vision, like the final cut scene in an old movie. He grabbed the man, who was biting into him again. It didn't matter now.
There was a faint blur as Maddy bolted down the cut line, to his Ranger.