How Hard the Ground

“No matter how hard the ground, beauty finds a way out.” Dan Baldwin

Even at slightly after one in the morning, the air out here is neither hot nor cold. Tepid, maybe. I like that word. The air is tepid, and fueled with a particular kind of dread.

It’s the fear of the expected. The ripe anticipation of knowing what we’re about to see, and knowing we can’t look away. We can’t just gawk and go on about our business. This is our business.

Red, blue, red lights slash in rotation through the moonlit darkness. They chase each other across the ground and up over the scrub brush.

We’re in the desert on an anonymous tip that came in a little before 10 p.m. There are still a few folks out there who support us. Not everyone’s afraid of us.

All around are scrub mesquite and creosote along with a few reddish prickly pear cactuses. Here and there, a dying yucca. Now and then, a withered fishhook barrel cactus. The kind of stuff that grows where there’s no gentle rain but maybe a deluge two or three times a year. Everything is harsh.

Nothing thrives out here. Old or new, ancient or modern. Growing or recently deceased and interred.

Small rocks glint everywhere in the moonlight.

The ground is mostly flat, mostly imbedded with rock of every bland color. Mostly a chalky off-white, but also tans, browns and every shade of black—all pitted like little moons with impact craters.

To my left front is a growing pile of dirt and rocks. To my right front is another. In front of me, side to side, stretches the hole that originally held all that.

The tip said she was at least three feet down. Said it would be easy digging. He forgot to mention the rock.

The sounds, human and otherwise, that fill the air are quiet. Respectful without meaning to be. Even the quiet rumbling of the river, some forty feet to the west and three hundred feet straight down.

If I killed somebody out here, that’s where they’d end up. Over the edge, a quick brush of the hands and no looking back. But somebody took the time to do all this.

Two vehicles are parked some twenty and thirty feet to the east of the grave.

The far one is a brownish-gold SUV, with Sheriff slashed diagonally across both doors. It brought me and the deputies to the scene.

This side of it is the white meat wagon. It’s the source of the red and blue lights. For some reason Mitch Billings left the emergency overheads on.

This side of the meat wagon are three men.

Mitch is next to the driver’s door, the driver’s side rear-view mirror to his back. The guy’s meaty and has a gut, but he’s not fat. Mid to late thirties and maybe 5’9”, close-cropped hair and a flat top. He’s the boss.

His arms are folded over his chest, and a camera dangles by a strap from his left hand. He doubles as the county crime photographer. As he talks quietly to the two other men, he alternately leans up on his toes, back on his heels.

The second guy is skinny as a rail and a head taller than Mitch. Mid to late twenties. Hair to his collar. His hands are shoved into his pockets, his butt leaning against the meat wagon. He’s bored, but he bobs his head now and then to prove he’s paying attention.

The third is the youngest by at least a few years. Probably in his early twenties. Close-cropped hair with just enough to comb on top. He’s a little shorter than Mitch but meatier than the other guy. He leans on the meat wagon with his right shoulder and his head bent slightly forward, like he’s paying attention. He probably is.

Or maybe he’s just avoiding looking at what’s going on to his left. His hands were in his pockets too. His fists are clenched.

Behind him, a nylon stretcher, poles together, is leaned against the wagon just ahead of the back bumper. Behind that, the white tailgate extends away from the back. It’s swung open sideways to the driver’s side.

The guys are all dressed in the black trousers and white shirts of the coroner’s office. They all have a little badge, and all they have to do is cart off the bodies.

2

Me, I’m Jack Tilden. I’m the director of this evening’s symphony.

I’m dressed like I’m always dressed. It’s always brown or grey trousers, a brown or grey jacket and tie, an off-white shirt, and a brown or grey fedora. Tonight everything is grey.

Down in the hole in front of me are the two deputies. Their current task is another reason I’m glad I’m a detective. My job is to watch and listen as the deputies work. I can do that.

The guy to the left is Pete Mason. He’s in jeans and a t-shirt and a brown and green Sheriff’s Department ball cap. On his feet are brown combat boots with thick hobnail soles.

A sweat stain stretches down the back of his t-shirt. It forms an elongated V from his neck to his belt.

The other one is Joe Mangum. He’s in jeans, a western straw hat and a long-sleeved khaki shirt. The sleeves are rolled midway up his forearms. Sweat and dirt glint in the hair on his forearms. His shirt’s soaked from beneath his left shoulder halfway down the side.

I can’t see Joe’s feet, but he’s probably wearing round-toed western boots. Probably with the dogger heels.

The guys are earning their sweat. They both have shovels. They’re bent to the task in a hole they’ve been working on for fifteen or twenty minutes.

The shovels clunk, scrape and chink on rocks. The shovel handles leap into the rotation of the lights. They sweep up, then over and down. Up, then over and down. A discordant kind of rhythm.

Moonlight and red and blue flashes glint off hands and knuckles over and over again.

Now and then, the deputies grunt softly. Now and then they curse.

An almost ethereal whump sounds as each shovel load of dirt lands on a pile, one to the left, one to the right. The piles peak a little taller each time. Each time a few rocks clatter quietly down the far side.

And the smell that hangs in that tepid air is as quiet and uncomplicated as everything else here. It’s simple, and it’s stark.

The strong, acid stench of rotted onions.

It evokes a childhood memory.

For a moment I’m standing in an old onion field. One that was picked over two weeks ago and everything healthy shipped to market. Only the dead and dying left behind.

Then picked over again ten days ago by the poor. Only the dead left to rot.

Then plowed under last week to make the ground ready for the next crop.

It’s a stench that lingers on your tongue.

And it isn’t onions at all. It’s beauty unearthed.

The deputies are getting close.

3

I wet my lips with my tongue, then reach inside the left lapel of my jacket. I fish a pack of Camels from my shirt pocket.

Even now I can’t look away. Even knowing what’s coming.

By rote memory I turn the pack up and tap out a cigarette. By feel I catch it between my thumb and forefinger, put it between my lips.

I return the pack to my shirt pocket and pull my lighter from my trouser pocket. I strike the lighter, another raspy, hushed sound.

My palm lights up as I focus beyond the flame and inhale some nerve.

It’s all right, I know. Just keep your distance. I’ve seen a lot of these and they’re all the same.

But no. Each one belongs to itself. Each one is different.

Just as I slip the lighter back into my trouser pocket, Joe says, “Oh.” It’s more a sigh than a word.

Pete stops. He looks over at Joe and nods. Quietly he says, “Yeah. I’ve got her too.”

There’s an inadvertent moment of silence.

Then a shovel scuffs on the other side of Joe as his shoulders hunch and twitch. The reds and blues flash off his khaki back.

The underside of his shovel scrapes lightly on a rock. It screams in the night before he tips the handle lower. Then he twists around, looks over his left shoulder.

I don’t see his face, but I catch the motion as he turns. I’m still looking past him.

“Here she is,” he says quietly. “We’ve got her.”

He says it like an official announcement. Like I didn’t know. Or maybe like it was a rescue mission.

In a way I guess it was.

I have to look at my feet for a moment, and I nod and take a drag. Then I look over at Mitch and gesture with the cigarette.

He says something to the guys, then starts toward us. He stops at my side, looks down and to the left, then moves around the hole. Now it’s a grave. He starts taking pictures.

The flash alternately enhances the moonlight and scares off the reds and blues.

When he’s through, he glances at me and nods.

I look at the deputies, then gesture again with the cigarette.

Both their faces are aimed up at me now. Is this what it’s like to be God? Am I waiting for a prayer?

As if they need to hear me say it, I say it. “Okay. Bring her up.” I pause, then, “Just go careful.”

That’s someone’s little girl. It’s someone’s wife, daughter, sister, mother.

I don’t have to say that part.

Joe knows. He nods and sighs as he turns his head back to the front. He lowers himself to one knee.

I can’t tell you whether he’s near her right shoulder or her left. The slope of the side of the hole lets me see a shadowy orb just past his side. But I can’t tell whether it’s her face or the side or back of her head.

At the other end, Pete knows too.

He half-stands and tosses his shovel up on the far side of the hole. A little harder than he meant to.

It screeches a little on rocks when it lands. It slides.

Then he crouches again, heels together in the small space, and bends forward with both hands extended. He has to grasp the ankles.

He lifts them a little, gently. Shakes them a little. Only a little.

Dirt rolls off bare calves, bare thighs.

In my periphery, a shooting star, falling. A grain of something, plunging to the earth. A flash, extinguished.

Mitch crouches to my left, raises his camera. It flashes a couple of times, blinds the night.

Pete lifts again, shakes again.

Some cloth shifts and more dirt falls away.

The way the body refuses to bend—so she’s buried face down. Still in her clothes. A skirt or a dress. Blue, maybe.

Mitch takes another picture. Another. Says, “Okay.”

Pete lowers her ankles, lets the toes of her white canvas boat shoes rest.

The dirt has turned them tan.

He leans back out of the way.

Mitch shoots a few more pictures, then stands and moves behind me to my right.

I take another drag on the cigarette, then expel a stream of smoke. Inside it, I say to Pete, “Easy, now. Easy.”

The back of Pete’s head nods as he shifts, twisting his body to the right. He adjusts his position with a step, too, moves his left foot across her feet to the other sloping side of the hole.

It was a silly thing to say. None of this is easy. None of it can be. But she’ll still come out of the ground more gently than she went in.

4

A friend of mine wrote one time, “No matter how hard the ground, beauty finds a way out.”

The line accompanied a picture he’d taken of a pretty little wild flower. A pretty little weed.

Guy’s weird for taking pictures of nice things, pretty things. Things that persevere against all odds.

Like little flowers pushing their way up, striving through rocky, hard soil to reach the air.

Life wants to live. Beauty strives to be restored to the light.

He didn’t know how right he was.

To the right, Joe’s still down on his right knee. His left is bent up almost under his chin. He arches his back, swings his shovel up and to the right.

It lands in a creosote bush on the other side of his pile of dirt and rocks. A few dry twigs snap, return to the earth.

He turns back and his shoulders twitch in little repeated movements as he dislodges her right shoulder.

Then he twitches again and tosses something underhand, behind him.

It turns out to be a fist-sized chunk of rock. It flies up out of the hole.

Something about the chunk of rock catches my attention as it flows through a low arc.

I track its progress, and for an instant in the moonlight there’s a bright yellow face. It’s a few inches above the ground. Petals surround a mottled center. A thin stem extrudes up from black olive drab leaves. Those spread in a flat circle on dirt and small rocks on the ground.

And the face, stem and leaves disappear as the rock hits with a satisfying thump.

No matter how hard the ground, beauty finds a way out.

But there’s no guarantee the ground won’t come back to spoil it.

5

A few minutes pass, and Joe has the shoulders and torso free of the rocks. Free of the soil.

Did you catch that? The shoulders and torso. That’s distance.

Did I say I’ve seen a lot of these? Did I say they’re all the same?

Distance does that.

But each one also belongs to itself. Each one also is different.

Every shooting star is a different grain of dust.

A few minutes pass, and Joe has her shoulders and torso free of the rocks. Her shoulders and torso are finally free of the soil.

He and Pete begin to shift someone’s little girl into the right position so they can bring her up.

They lift someone’s daughter gingerly.

They turn someone’s sister gently on her side.

They lift someone’s wife carefully, at the same time.

They ease someone’s mother down to rest on her back.

Mitch moves about in a different dimension, takes a series of pictures.

When he’s through, to nobody at all he breathes, “Okay.” Then he looks at the meat wagon, shatters the night with a few rapid fire snaps of his fingers.

The two men there straighten and look at him.

He points toward the stretcher and wags his hand at them.

The young one picks up the stretcher and the two start toward us.

The taller guy looks at the other one and utters a short laugh at something.

I jerk my head around and frown. Quietly, I said, “Hey.”

The taller guy looks at me and his smile evaporates. He averts his gaze.

Silence pervades the night again.

Rocks crunch beneath the men’s feet as they approach.

I step back and gesture toward the ground at my feet. It’s level there, and not so rocky. The ground on the other side of the grave is occupied. A mesquite and a creosote bush. Both scraggly, in need of rain.

The younger guy steps past me, offers one end of the stretcher to the other one.

Together they pop it open and kneel alongside the grave to receive the body.

Joe and Pete lift the body clear of the ground and the other two take over. Pre-chastised, they move her gently into position above the stretcher.

They lower her onto it just as gently.

It’s my turn to crouch. There’s no distance now.

A blue skirt and a white blouse. No belt. The white canvas boat shoes I thought I saw earlier.

A necklace of some kind just above her collar bone. The pendant, if there was one, is behind her neck. Dirt and rough pebbles mar her dark brunette hair.

She’s probably around twenty-five.

There’s a large, horizontal dent in the flesh of her forehead above her left eye. There’s another, diagonal dent in the flesh from her left cheekbone to her jaw. Other, smaller indentations dot her forehead and the other soft tissue on her face. No bruising though. Not there.

So at least she was dead before the killer put her in the ground. At least that was something.

Once we figure out her name, I’ll be sure to tell the family.

The only bruising is around the ligature marks. The thumb prints. The crushed larynx.

I straighten and gesture.

As the men lift the stretcher and move away, I glance around behind me. I need to find that rock.

There it is. I lift it gingerly, lay it to the side.

The yellow flower is crushed, bruised. Maybe it’s dead. Maybe it’ll be back.

Behind me, I hear Joe and Pete gathering their shovels. I turn around, say, “You guys ready to head back?”

They both nod and start for the SUV.

I glance one more time at the grave, then back at the flower, and send a thought its way.

No matter how hard the ground, beauty finds a way out.

* * * * * * *

 

Ice Scream

Warning: This is a psychological-suspense horror story. It contains strong mental images.

Susan Jice-scream-180ordan jerked awake, naked and frantic and chilled. Her eyes were wide, her breath caught in her throat. But she was dizzy. Groggy. Like dreaming of being in a dream.

She found her breath, and in it, relief. A nightmare. It was a nightmare. Only a nightmare.

And it was vibrant. As she left the IGA, she looked over her shoulder. She smiled and said “I will” to Mrs. Johnson on Register 3.

There were only the two registers out front, but Mr. Minister, the new manager, called the paper-fed calculator in his office Register 1. An odd man, Mr. Minister, at least according to whispered gossip from Mrs. Johnson on Register 3.

“Transferred in three weeks ago,” she said, “from somewhere down south. Omaha maybe, or Oskalusa—something like that. I seem to be here all the time,” she said, and laughed. Then she said, “But I’ve seen him only once myself.” She shook her head. “Very odd.”

Mrs. Johnson was sweet, everybody’s mother. With her husband “lifted up by God” a year ago and her own kids grown and gone long before—a daughter to New York and a son to LA—she adopted everyone in town who was younger than she.

At the register, she scooped up the box of ice cream the way she scooped up everything and peered at it over her reading glasses. Then she looked at Susan. “Y’know, they say this stuff is bad for you, but I just don’t believe it. Anything this good for your soul has to be good for your body.” She laughed, rang it up and bagged it, then spun the carousel of plastic bags so Susan’s was right up front.

Susan smiled and nodded. To make conversation, she said, “That’s how I figure it.”

But it wasn’t how she figured it. Not really.

She was tired after a full day of work, and she was just a bit on the grouchy side. She only wanted to get home and put her feet up for awhile.

She’d been home once already. She put together a quick supper, then served Stanley in his usual position on the couch. But afterward, as she reached to mute one of the seemingly endless streams of “side effects” that contraindicated whatever drug they were selling on TV at the time, Stanley went into the kitchen.

A moment later the freezer door slammed. “Well damn,” he said and stomped back into the living room. “We don’t have any ice cream? Are we out?”

Susan didn’t bother saying yes. He had eaten the last of it two days earlier. He even put the container in the trash afterward instead of leaving it on the counter as usual.

She also didn’t bother asking why he hadn’t stopped at the IGA on his way home from work. He would mutter something about that being her responsibility. Only one thing mattered. He wanted ice cream, and they were out.

So Susan glanced at him as he slumped back into his place on the couch. She patted his thigh and said, “I’ll go.”

Then she got up, donned her warm slippers and her heavy coat and drove to the IGA. It was better than listening to his snide comments or putting up with his pouting and icy silences the rest of the evening.

But Mrs. Johnson liked to gossip, especially in the evening when few people came into the store. So after the ice cream passed Mrs. Johnson’s inspection and she bagged it, Susan turned away before she could get started.

Still, Mrs. Johnson always had a kind word for everyone, even if they didn’t hang around to chat. She watched silently as Susan quickly gathered her bag. But as she approached the door, Mrs. Johnson raised one hand. “Now you say hello to Stanley for me,” she said.

And Susan looked back, smiled and said, “I will,” then pushed the door open.

It was dark outside already, and mid-November chilly. The smell of ice was on the air and the wind was just that cold. But no matter. She’d be home in fifteen minutes. Ten or twelve if she hit all the lights. And tomorrow was Saturday. Stanley would be up and off to the golf course early, and she could sleep in. Still, she relished the thought of sitting on the couch for a couple of hours, letting brain-dead sitcoms and forced laugh tracks wash away the day.

As she crossed the parking lot, she wasn’t paying attention.

She opened her car door and leaned in to set the bag in the passenger seat.

And something hit her from behind.

How she got home, through an evening of TV and into bed, she had no idea.

But here she was. Her mind was cloudy but otherwise she was fine. Too much ice cream, maybe. Sometimes it had that effect if she overdid it. Had she eaten ice cream?

She closed her eyes, opened them, tried to see. But everything was black.

She was still locked in the nightmare outside the store. It was dark in the parking lot. Something hit her from behind.

She closed her eyes, drew a long breath through her nose, tried to scream herself awake.

But only a muffled sound came out. Her lips were thick. Or something.

She instantly regretted making the noise. It might wake up Stanley.

She lay very still, waiting. But he didn’t wake up. The bed didn’t move.

Well, that proved it. It was only a nightmare. It had to be a nightmare.

Maybe she was dreaming of dreaming of waking up from a nightmare.

She rocked her head side to side, tried to wake herself up.

It didn’t work. Maybe she should wake up Stanley. Then he would wake her up. In her dream she grinned.

She tried to fling her mouth open, draw a breath, scream louder.

But something stretchy-sticky sealed her lips, muffled the sound again. She frowned. Something warm—snot? blood?—leaked from her nose and down across her lip.

As her nostrils flared, she found her nose was sore. When had that happened? And there was something crusty on her upper right cheek. Dried blood?

Was she in the hospital? Had she been in an accident or something? Maybe she was in the hospital and they’d put something in her mouth to help her breathe.

And both her hands were numb too. Somewhere. Like they were disconnected.

She tugged to find them and fire raced through her shoulders.

What was that?

Panic began to well up inside her.

But it’s a nightmare. It’s only a nightmare. Isn’t it? Or I’m in a hospital. Yes. A nightmare. It has to be a nightmare, and I’ll wake up any second. The clouds will clear and I’ll wake up. Probably it’s time to get up anyway.

She smirked. This is ridiculous.

She tried to sit up, reach for the edge of the bed. She would sit up and reach for the chest of drawers. That would steady her even if she was dizzy. She’d grab the chest of drawers and—

But where were her hands?

She was dizzier than she thought.

Her shoulders burned. But why?

She nudged hard right, tried to nudge Stanley. If she could touch him, wake him up—

But he wouldn’t be in her nightmare. Would he?

Okay. I have to find my hands. She followed her chest to her shoulders. They were aching. Check. Good. So she was waking up. Aches don’t happen in nightmares, do they?

She followed her arms down along her sides to where her elbows were bent. They were aching a bit too. Well good. Serves them right. Then along her forearms, wedged behind her back and—

Behind her back? Her hands were behind her back?

She checked. They were tingling. Her hands? Something was tingling. They were there, maybe, lumped behind her back. That would explain them being asleep.

But how are they behind my back? How in the world did I manage that?

She tried to move them, but something tugged, pulled at the fine hair above her wrists.

Taped. They were taped. Are they taped? That doesn’t make sense.

And my eyes. She shook her head. I thought my eyes were open but they must still be closed. Probably. Everything is black. There would be some light, at least, if I wasn’t still in the nightmare. But why are my wrists taped in the nightmare? Unless I’m in the hospital. Maybe they’re actually beside me. Maybe they had to restrain me.

Either way, it’s a nightmare.

Breathe. I have to breathe. Wherever I am, I have to wake up.

She closed her eyes, calmed herself with thoughts of waking up, and opened them.

Still nothing but black.

She wanted to reach up with her fingers, make sure her eyelids were open. But she couldn’t find them.

Okay. Okay. There has to be light here somewhere.

She took another breath, then another. Turned her head left. Still black.

Turned her head right. Still black. But closer? Stanley?

No. It didn’t feel like Stanley in her mind.

Maybe he already got up. A wall?

But the wall wasn’t that close in the bedroom. There was Stanley, then the wall. Not close enough to sense it in the dark. Wow. A really bizarre dream.

I need something real. She looked back to the left. The chest of drawers. Right over there. The light—moonlight, starlight—would show her the edges of the chest of drawers. She polished it only a few days ago.

But there was nothing.

Only black.

Her perfume. The bottle leaked a little around the spritzer. She hadn’t mentioned it to Stanley. He’d want to fix it or throw it out. She liked the smell of it when she first woke up. It set on the chest of drawers next to the eyeglass cleaner and the microfiber cloths.

She took another breath. The scent of the perfume would direct her. It would bring her out.

She breathed deeply.

Onions. Old onions.

What?

She took another breath, deep, searching for the perfume. It had to be there.

No perfume. Old onions. And damp-earth. Muggy.

She frowned. Where am I?

The basement? With onions? Why are there onions in my nightmare? What am I doing in a basement with onions?

Okay. Okay. Breathe.

She could turn. Roll onto her left side and turn. Put her feet on the cold tile floor. The cold tile would wake her up.

She twisted, tried to reach for the edge of the bed with her left ankle, but the right one came with it.

Her ankles were bound.

Panic rose again. No! That can’t be!

She calmed herself.

No. No, it’s only in the nightmare. I’ll wake up.

She reached again, this time with both feet together.

The sharp grating of the links of a chain fired fear up along her spine and cleared away some of the confusion in her mind.

She was awake. She was awake the whole time.

But she couldn’t be awake. What happened at the store. What happened in the parking lot. It’s a nightmare! It has to be a nightmare! I’m home in bed! Or I’m in the hospital. I have to be!

But grating? Chains wouldn’t grate against the soft edge of the mattress, would they? Her mind was making up the chains, that’s all. After all, chains wouldn’t grate against the covers and—

Only she was bare. There were no covers.

And there was no mattress beneath her.

No! She rolled her head hard left, pushed down, and her cheek contacted cold steel.

Hospital steel. A gurney? A gurney. I’m in a hospital. But with onions?

I must be in a hospital. That’s it. The icy roads. Black ice. I was in an accident and I’m on a gurney in a hospital. And they taped something to my mouth. Something to help me breathe or something. The onions are my mind playing tricks with scents.

But they put a mattress on a gurney, don’t they? Or some sort of a pad? Or a sheet? Or something.

She pushed her cheek against the surface again. Still cold. Still steel. But maybe a gurney.

She listened. The wheels would turn against the floor. They’d clack. And the nurses would talk, but quietly.

Listen. Listen closely.

But there was only the sound of empty black.

She closed her eyes again, hard, then opened them wide. Wake up!

Still black. Still black.

A sharp click, and light flooded over her.

She slapped her eyes closed against the light. Stanley playing a trick. She should have known. Her eyes still closed, she tried to sit up.

The chains grated.

A man’s voice, husky, jovial. “Ah, I see you’re awake. Welcome back.”

Not Stanley! She tensed, naked, no covers. She opened her eyes, tried to lean up to cover herself.

“No. Lie back.”

She lay back, closed her eyes, opened them. The light illuminated a dirt and timber ceiling.

In a hospital?

A face came into view above her face, but upside down. Probably the gas passer. She was in the OR. Had to be.

The face was round, almost a unibrow. Close-cropped hair. No white paper hat? Jowls, pink, smooth round cheeks.

She frowned. He shaved too close. But who is he?

Small black, close-set eyes, a pug nose, hair in his nostrils. A slight smile.

“I’m Jonah. It’s good to meet you. And you are—” He held her clutch purse up where she could see it. He took out a card. Her driver’s license. He looked at it, flipped it away and it slapped lightly to the floor. “Ah, Susan.” He drew out the first syllable as if it had three U’s in it. “Yes, Susan.” He clapped his hands lightly beneath his double chin and turned away. “Just relax, Susan, all right? And probably I’ll let you go.” He turned away, moved off toward the other side of the room.

She wanted to ask who he was, why she was there, but the thing was still on her mouth.

The nightmare continues. She frowned, rolled her head left, followed his progress.

A table. A bench. A stool. In front of a dirt wall. That can’t be right.

She strained her neck, pressed her cheek against the cold steel to bring her back to the hospital.

Up close, inches away, the raised rounded edge of a steel table. Farther, the dull silver of a concrete floor. A red onion net bag on the floor near the table. Onions!

She remembered what he said, frowned at his back. Let me go? Home? Is he a doctor? Maybe she’d already been through the surgery. Maybe he was talking about discharging her and—

Finally her mind released the nightmare defense.

Her eyes grew wide and she stared at him. Oh god. Oh god! It’s not a nightmare! I’m awake! And I’m naked! But it made no sense. Am I in hell? But what did I do? What did I do?

He turned around and smiled, a small half-moon blade in one hand at the end of a short silver handle. Calmly, he said, “You aren’t trained in medicine, are you?”

She frowned, trembled, and shook her head. Why would he ask me that?

He held the tool up near his smile. “This, my dear, is a scalpel. It’s good to learn new things, isn’t it? Of course it is.”

He started toward her, still smiling, his elbow bent, the scalpel raised to shoulder height. “For instance, I feel a particular bent to learn human anatomy.”

Again she frowned. Why is he telling me?

He gestured toward her with the scalpel. “Your anatomy, specifically. So I’m going to have to cut you a bit, you see.”

Her eyes wide, she rocked her head hard, side to side, tried to say No. But only the same muffled sound came out.

He stopped next to her. “I wish I had some sort of anesthesia. I used to be quite fond of whiskey, but the doctors finally convinced me it was bad for my health.” He laughed and shrugged. “And it’s difficult to get the real stuff without a license. The anesthesia, I mean. If I were you, I would prefer ropivacaine. But you know how the government is with their regulations.”

He leaned forward, looked at her closely. “But we’ll get along without it. We’re going to have a good time, you and I.”

Outside the IGA, she’d opened her car door and leaned in to put the bag with the ice cream in the passenger seat. And something hit her from behind.

He did it. He hit her from behind. He shoved her hard across the car. She hit her nose on the inside of the passenger door just below the window. Her eyes watered and she was dizzy.

He lifted her legs and dropped them in the passenger side floorboard. There were a few goat heads in the floorboard. Stanley never scraped his shoes on the driveway before he got into her car. And a few of them stuck in her left knee.

Then someone—this man—grabbed the back of her hair, tugged hard on her head and slammed her face against the door again. And everything went dark.

That’s what was wrong with her nose. That’s what was wrong.

It wasn’t a nightmare. It happened.

He studied her eyes, watched as the fear crept into them, and smiled. “Ah, you remember something. Was it good for you? I do hope it was good for you, Susan.”

She forgot about the tape on her mouth, tried to ask, “Where am I?” but again only the muffled sound came out.

He held up one hand, his index finger to his mouth. “Shh. Shh. I thought you might be a talker, you see.” He gestured toward her mouth with the scalpel. “Hence the tape.” His voice quieted to a sinister whisper. “Now then, let’s get down to business, shall we? The sooner we begin, and all that.”

He leaned forward and reached with the fingers of his left hand, smoothed some hair from her forehead and wrapped it behind her left ear, then looked at her eyes. “I only want to make one incision, Susan. Just one.” He held up his left index finger. Then he touched the base of the scalpel to the front of her left underarm. “I’ll start here, you see.” He traced the path as he said, “And I’ll draw a little red line back up over your shoulder.” He smiled again. “Okay?”

She shook her head vehemently.

“Tut tut, none of that. As we’ve already established, it’s important to learn new things. Now, if you don’t move during the procedure, we’ll call it done and I’ll let you go.  All right?”

She stared at him.

He frowned. “You aren’t being very polite, Susan. I said all right?”

A hesitation, then she nodded quickly.

“That’s better. There’s a good girl. It’s like a little game. You don’t move, you don’t attempt to say anything, and I’ll let you go. And you’ll have a nice scar from the bad man to show your grandchildren someday.”

Grandchildren? She didn’t even have children yet. Stanley hadn’t decided they were ready. And at 24, she still had plenty of time. At 24 she was still a young—

He pressed the tip of the scalpel into the soft flesh of her underarm.

“Mmmfff!”

He jerked the scalpel back. Straightened. Looked at her. His lips were pressed together in a tight, thin line.

After a moment, during which he took three long breaths and seemed to be trying to decide something, he said, “All right. Well, that was probably the first time you’ve been touched with a scalpel, eh Susan? So we’ll let that one go, all right? We won’t count that one.”

He wagged his left forefinger at her and canted his head. “But any more like that, young lady, and— Well, I might not be able to let you go.” He laughed lightly, then leaned over her again. “Now, are you ready?”

She nodded frantically and pressed her teeth and her eyelids tight together.

He inserted the tip of the scalpel again.

She remained rigid against the searing pain as it sliced upward through the muscle of her left shoulder.

But when he’d moved it a little less than an inch, she had a mental image of herself walking into a hospital with her left arm in her right hand. The image caused her to shudder.

Again he straightened, but quickly, angrily. His voice was controlled, but only barely. “You just don’t listen, do you, Susan? Like all the rest, you never—you never listen!”

“Mmmfff!” she said, her eyes pleading. In that sound she tried to transmit that she would be good. She wouldn’t move. She wouldn’t make a sound. She wouldn’t do anything. She swore she wouldn’t. Just please let her go. Please.

But he was beyond listening for intent. “Oh, I see. Talking is what’s important to you. More important than anything, eh Susan? You want to talk?” He quickly raised the scalpel as he yelled, “Here! Let me remove the tape!”

He slashed down with the scalpel from near her nose to her jawline on the left side, slicing cleanly through her cheek and the tape.

She jerked her head to one side, and as he slashed again the scalpel hit just below her right nostril and sliced cleanly through the tape and both lips on right side.

She screamed, and this time the sound came out through her left cheek and through her gashed lips. Blood flowed in two streams down past her ear on the left and her jawline on the right and onto the table.

“And now you want to scream? Susan, you are untenable! But if you don’t want to play fair, here! Scream!”

He raised the scalpel, brought it down, slashed her left breast from the top to the areola. “Scream, Susan!”

She screamed and arched her back against the agonizing pain. More blood spattered out from her cheek and lips. Blood from her left breast ran down over her abdomen and side.

He held the scalpel aloft. “Be still!”

But she screamed again, then twisted hard to the left.

He slashed her right breast. “I said be still!”

She screamed and struggled hard to the right.

He slashed at her chest below her breasts repeatedly, but missed as she moved, laying bare her rib cage with three or four gashes on either side. The flesh hung in quivering red strips. “Be still, Susan! You’re spoiling it! You’re spoiling it!”

He stopped for a moment, and she looked at him, her eyes wide, pleading. She shook her head hard side to side, then nodded. She tried her best to lie still beneath the fire running all over her body.

He sighed and leaned over her. He gazed closely into her eyes, then smiled. Without warning he brought the scalpel forward and plunged it hard into her abdomen, then twisted it and held it tightly as she squirmed. “Do you understand, Susan? I wanted you to lie still!”

Still looking at him, she tried to draw her legs up, but the chains tugged at her ankles. Blood gushed from the rips in her cheeks and lips and torso.

Could she still escape? Maybe she could still escape. Slowly, she released the muscles in her thighs, allowed her legs to settle gently to the table again.

He raised the scalpel and glared at her.

She lay still, staring at him. At his eyes. Hatred. Such hatred. What did I do?

Again without warning, the scalpel descended and he slashed wildly at her hips and her thighs.

But she didn’t move other than with the force of the blade.

She kept her eyes trained on him.

It was too late. It wasn’t a nightmare. It had never been a nightmare.

I’m going to die. I’m going to die. But what did I do? What did I do?

Something about the fetal position. Shouldn’t she be in the fetal position?

He stopped for a moment, the scalpel hanging at his side as if he was tired.

The fetal position. She tried to tense her muscles and they all screamed. She tried to roll onto her left side quietly, without upsetting him further.

But the chains tugged at her again.

Oh. Oh yes. The chains. He put the chains on me. They must be necessary. But what did I do?

She relaxed in her original position, stared up at him, her eyes glassed over with acceptance.

Quietly, he said, “I only wanted you to lie still, Susan. That’s all I wanted, you see.” He took a heavy breath, hesitated, then said, “So shall I end it?”

Her cheeks, her face, her breasts were on fire. Her hips, her thighs, her abdomen. I’m going to die. Please, no more. No more. Yes. Yes sir, you should end it. Please. Please end it.

But if she told him, if she even nodded, he would torture her further.

He raised his voice slightly. “I said should I end it, Susan? I think you have learned your lesson, so you may answer.”

She stared at him.

I didn’t do anything. I didn’t do anything.

Gently, she shook her head side to side. For added defiance, she risked a sound, tried to say No.

His face wrinkled into a rage. “Well it isn’t up to you, is it, Susan? It isn’t up to you! Understand?”

Behind the tape, she managed a slight smile.

In a single motion he stepped forward and plunged the scalpel between her ribs just to the left of her sternum.

Her body lurched. “Unh!”

He glared at the wound, the blood pumping out in a pulsing stream, then stabbed her again. Then again. Then again.

When he finally looked up, Susan Jordan’s eyes were vacant.

A broad grin burst across his lips and he began swinging the scalpel side to side, in rhythm, as if conducting an unseen choir. Quietly, as if taking care not to wake his victim, he sang, “And on into the ground we go, as into the town we go.”

He dropped the scalpel on the table next to her left calf, turned and walked toward the exit.

* * * * * * *

Note: This story is also the first chapter of my new psychological suspense crime thriller novel, Jonah.