by Christian Riley
Chris Riley lives near Sacramento, California, vowing one day to move back to the Pacific Northwest. In the meantime, he teaches special education, writes cool stories, and hides from the blasting heat for six months of the year. He has had over 100 short stories published in various magazines and anthologies, and across various genres. He is the author of the literary suspense novels The Sinking of the Angie Piper and The Broken Pines. For more information, go to www.chrisrileyauthor.com
More TTTV stories by Christian Riley
Her name is Georgia, she’s my peach, a laugh sweet as honey and with eyes like wine they could make you handsome drunk just looking at them. She knew that about herself, my wife did. And I think that fueled her, kept her spirit on the move—in a good way. Perhaps that’s why she was always running. Life is one big race, so they say.
In the summer of ‘04, pushing into our late fifties, we got the sudden urge to retire. We left Seattle proper and moved to the outskirts of Aberdeen. The town’s motto, Come as You Are (a tribute to the late Kurt Cobain), sat well with Georgia and me, even though we missed the Nirvana scene by about two decades. We “came as we were” anyway, and the town seemed all the better with us living in it.
A fat salmon creek splits the forest not a half mile from our new house. That’s where Georgia would run past me, the earliest part of the day on the rise. In the spring I’d set out there in the dark, pole in hand, while my wife stretched her legs on the porch. We’d kiss each other before parting, chuckle a bit over this whole thing, the enchilada of retirement gifting us both with endless days of freedom. And always, about an hour later, Georgia would come trotting along the riverbank, scaring the fish away with her pretty little stomps—one more mile towards her next 10k, or marathon, or whatever fund-run she had her sights on. And sometimes, before she arrived, or sometimes after, I would catch a fish.
“Are you going to make love to me when you get home?” She would say that right there on the riverbank. Two old people going at it like rabbits, day and night, whenever we wanted—it might seem crude, but truth told, our best lovemaking occurred once we retired. After thirty years and three kids, it was like Georgia and I suddenly met up again. As if we were two vines that had raced up one of these tall redwoods, and once we got to the top, it was just us and the sunshine.
There’s always a “but” in life—the old Murphy’s Law in motion, now and then revealing its ancient cogs and gears, and contriving grease, slick as gore. I thought I had a good handle on recognizing the signs when something was about to go wrong. Georgia and me, we had our share of life’s miseries, nothing nobody hadn’t seen before, of course. But as I continue to think about it, the little girl who startled me on the trail one morning, jumping out of the bush like some critter, announcing in a piccolo voice that the forest was ancient…
We came here to Aberdeen as we were, but now I feel that wasn’t enough. Life is one big race, dammit. Maybe that’s why Georgia decided to run and run, and then run some more. Like she was chasing her own shadow, or perhaps running for her life—I don’t know. What I do know is that her grave might never get filled. Not properly, that is. Georgia ran into the forest one day and never came out. That was six months ago, and it sickens me to think about the possibilities, wide as the sky, as to what happened to my wife. With any luck, she’s still running.
Last night I got drunk. It’s an old habit, makes a visit from time to time, kind of like cancer. I’d been thinking about Georgia and listening to country music. Things just sort of fell in line. Anyway, amid my slurry, I thought I saw my wife out the kitchen window. Crazy, I know, but I swear I saw Georgia out there, standing on the trail that leads to all that wilderness racket. Could’ve been the alcohol dimming my wits, but it sure looked like her. Seemed so real.
Mostly it was her eyes, pleading a hole into my head with such gravity, as if to say, “Here I am, Hank. Can’t you see me? Come and save me.”
But when I ran out there, it was just the night, cold and silent, like a grave.
I took a drive into town this morning to get some aspirin for the headache. Stood in line at a Starbucks as well, my temples drumming a 4/4 counter rhythm to the blues album they were playing in there. Outside, the wind was having a time. The sky was a gray ocean, verging on black—just seconds until the apocalypse. The storm had me thinking again about those detectives, how they reminded me of molasses in the wintertime. Why didn’t they come after me the way they do in the movies? Why wasn’t I their main man, their suspect in the disappearance of my wife? And how do they know I didn’t bury her out there?
But they know… They know something.
The rain came down just as I stepped outside. I ignored the blasts of wind and icy pelts from above, my attention resting solely on the flyer stapled to the pole in front of me. It was the advertisement for a Skokomish Pow-wow. There was this illustration of a girl with long hair, wearing a long robe, and damn if she didn’t remind me of that girl in the forest. I pulled the flyer and folded it, jammed it into my back pocket.
At home now, the loneliness has yet to grow old. As fresh as the day before, and it doesn’t matter what kind of day that is—rain, or shine—this patch of gloom seems bent on staying. I consider it might eventually fade, at least shrink a bit, let some light in. People say it will. People like my kids, the mail carrier, a few friends—they keep telling me to get out more, meet someone, that I have years ahead of me.
Most of the time I don’t listen. I’m still consumed by the biggest jigsaw puzzle life has drummed up. I keep thinking I’ll find a clue, but that gets me thinking more about Georgia, and then I start hoping.
I went to that Pow-wow earlier, and now it’s late. I’m in my living room with a whiskey-buzz and a crackling fire. Why don’t I just blow my brains out here and now? I could get my .45 and snuff the gloom once and for all.
Because I found something, that’s why. A talisman, the man had said. Or was it a totem? It doesn’t really matter, only that, for once, I have a clue. An obscure clue, sure, but tangible all the same. It seems I have something to chew on now.
It’s an ugly coyote that fits in my palm, made of green soapstone. The head is all wrong, as big as its body. And then the eyes: painted red, red on green. This is the ugliest piece of work I think I’ve ever seen. But the old man said I needed it, that I should buy it on account that, “The forest is ancient, the Coyote is a thief… some things run together.”
Those were his exact words, and they came out of thin air. I hadn’t said a word to him, just walked up and looked at his booth of trinkets.
I took it as a sign. I questioned the man some more, asked him what he meant, figured he knew something definitive about me or my wife. I mentioned the girl in the forest, and those limp-dick detectives, then the old Indian went squirrely on me. He fell back into his shaman shtick, answering my questions ambiguously, if at all. He knew something it seemed, and he wanted to tell me as much, so I thought, but he was too damn scared. And to understand that a man whom I’d never met before was for no apparent reason afraid of me… Oddly, it left me thinking of cold hands lying against warm flesh.
I did some digging around at the library. Nothing momentous about local Indian legends, but a shitload of empty graves in this town. I found a ten-year-old article where a reporter likened Aberdeen to Alaska, in that “people just go missing here.” Lots of cold cases over the years, and many, if not most, of the ones I read about, involved the outskirts of town. The surrounding forest.
I guess that makes sense, if it’s a serial killer. I’ve got a lot on my mind, though, and some things don’t fit into that equation. Could it be the work of the Trickster? Yeah, I read about him also: Some Indian coyote lurking about, fucking things up for people. It seems Mr. Murphy runs in more than one circle.
Myths and legends are for shit, anyhow, but I believe there’s something to that little girl, that old man, the “ancient forest” and those useless detectives. This is my real equation, tough as algebra.
And I must be certifiable about now.
I know that forest like the back of my hand, but it was a lot different last night. I woke up under a redwood canopy, bed and all—the first clue that I was dreaming.
A white goat stood beside a stump chewing on fungus and mold, eyes half out of its head. It gave a throaty bleat, its stomach popped like a balloon, and then it wandered off, casual like—my second clue, and final proof.
The trail started at the foot of the bed. I followed it through the forest, observed bodies hanging from branches, big and small, human and otherwise. I had this grim notion that I was looking into the contents of empty graves; except the faces were there, legitimate, and with stares not yet dead.
I looked for Georgia, high in the branches. I called her name and scanned the woods, searching for something, anything. I kept down the trail until I came upon a rustic shack, an oil lamp swinging from the eaves. Screams were coming from inside, muffled shrills. The whole thing zoomed in, and then I was standing on the porch, my face pressed against milked glass. I couldn’t make things out, only silhouettes inside. There was one hanging against the back wall, tossing and squirming, another one sitting in a chair, running something sharp on a grinding wheel.
The back wall screamed again, but all I heard was Georgia’s voice, felt it in my gut. I gave a solid kick to the shack’s door, without effect. Then I gave another one, and another, and that’s how my dream ended, with me kicking and her screaming, and everything drowning under that grinding wheel.
The next morning, I went looking for the old Indian who sells trinkets. It only took me a few hours to find him. There’s a couple of New Age stores in town, and for twenty dollars, I bought myself a name.
Henry Fall was standing in his driveway, sipping coffee, when I drove up. I stepped out onto gravel, and he gave me a curious, thinking look. I could tell he was trying to place me. That took only a few seconds, and then his face went three shades lighter.
“I think I met the Trickster,” I said, closing the door to my truck.
“Did you, now?” The old man turned and shuffled back toward his house. “Coffee?” he asked.
We stood on his porch a few minutes later, not saying much. His property was a parking lot for junk: an old refrigerator, fifty-five gallon drums, scraps of steel, a few cars. I wondered what the plans were for all those eyesores. Ironically, just gazing into the collection of refuse left me feeling quite comfortable. Maybe that was the plan.
“So you met the Trickster, eh?” Henry asked.
“I think so… Except he wasn’t what I expected.”
“That thing about the forest and coyote running together—what did you mean about that?”
He said nothing right away, just stared at something in his yard. “I read about your wife in the paper… Knew the police would sit. They won’t chase no coyote. Not this coyote, at least.”
“Look, I’ll be honest. I think this coyote business is a bunch of crap. I had a dream, that was all. But you know something you’re not telling me, and that ain’t right.” The old man looked at his feet. “She’s my wife, Henry. The mother of my kids.”
He looked up then, and said, “In our legend, the Coyote is a loping fool. But he never took people. Around here, though,” Henry gestured to the nearby forest, “he’s a different sort. Something about this forest has turned him bad. He took your wife, and that is why they stopped looking for her.”
“Oh, come on. You can’t expect me to believe that. That’s nonsense.”
The old man gave a shrug. “Believe what you want—I’m just saying; nobody wants to dance with this coyote.”
“What the hell am I supposed to do, then?”
He narrowed his eyes on the horizon. “I guess I could tell you something.”
Henry told me what to do, and what the hell, I got nothing to lose. He also told me about the girl in the forest, said she was a spirit guide, and the daughter of the first woman the Coyote had taken. Like I said… nothing to lose.
I’m on the couch with my .45, a blaze and a buzz to boot, so I think I’m about as ready as I’ll ever be. I pick up the totem, pop it into my mouth, chase it down with a pull of whiskey. Then the world freezes over.
It’s the couch this time, resting under the canopy. I hit the trail and look around, find the bodies in the trees now skeletons clanking in the wind. I come across the shack, still there, its oil lamp dead as coal. Everything about the place speaks of erosion and solitude. My stomach clenches—am I too late?
At the window it’s darkness inside, a few angles of light and shadow, the sculpted corners of an abandoned abode. I’ve got the urge to step off the porch, but then the word Trickster scampers through my head… So I chamber a round and kick at the door, and this time it’s an explosion of wood and steel.
Nothing dark about the room except for what I see in the corner. The ceiling is dripping with fire, and there’s a wave of heat that reaches out, squeezes my neck like a clamp.
It’s Georgia I see, naked in that corner, hands shackled high, a coyote half inside her, squirming at the jagged hole in her gut. She looks at me, her face a twist of agony. Her eyes say it all: Here I am. Can’t you see me? Please Hank, please come and save me.
I grab the tail and give a violent yank. I hear sounds against the cacophony of fire: a damp suction, the tear of gristle, cracking of bone, and cries. Georgia goes limp as the Coyote turns and bites, its snapping jaws red with gore.
I don’t hesitate. I put a bullet in its skull, splattering brain onto the floor.
Then I reach for my wife. I break her chains and take her into my arms, like a firefighter, walk her out of that hell for good.
“I knew you’d come for me, Hank,” Georgia whispers, as I settle in the forest, my back against a redwood. I’m holding her like I’ve done forever and always.
We sit there for a time, the shack now a smoldering pile of ash. I swear I can feel Georgia’s heart beating. Her breath is a summer dance on my chest, and I’m wishing my life away.
But the moment is just a day.
She doesn’t say anything more before she leaves; nothing can rival the look in her eyes. And when Georgia goes, she runs. By God’s grace, my wife runs.
The knock at my door wakes me up. I find the day to be sunny, a little less of the old gloom—once the detective tells me where they found her, that is. Not them, really, only some hiker in the woods. Georgia was six months into the ground, but the forensics team solved the case. Dental records hardly lie.
It turned out a broken ankle took her down, down into an inescapable chasm of muck and rock. That’s how the case will be written, at least, how it’ll close. And my wife’s grave will get properly filled.
I still miss the hell out of her, though. I always will. But it’s damn comforting to know that Georgia’s now waiting for me over there, across the finish line.