18 Oct The Caney Creek Monster
“The Caney Creek Monster”Written by Ashley Fontainne Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 29 minutes
Seth stares out the small window into the dark night, unable to sleep. Again. Ever since returning home, his sleep patterns are a jumbled mess. Growing up on a farm turned him into a morning person and he went to bed early, never experiencing trouble sleeping. He kept the same pattern in college, but now, he’s plagued with bouts of insomnia at night and fighting the urge to sleep during daylight. He hates being back in Locasia County. No, he fears being trapped in the dank hellhole forever, forced to live a dull, repetitious existence plowing the ground, praying the insects or a draught or other natural disasters doesn’t destroy all the hard work, until the grave calls him for the next journey. He will not die in the heart of the Mississippi Delta country like his parents. No way. Calloused hands and leathered skin from hours spent working outside in the scorching heat and bone-chilling winters holds zero interest for him. He wants the cool confines of a plush office, crunching numbers as a CPA, and that’s what he’ll do, no matter what happens.
The roots of the inhabitants run deep and long, like the namesake mighty river. The entire region lives, breathes, and dies farming, mostly rice but a few cotton and sugar cane fields remain. Newcomb Ranch is one of three cotton farms. Unlike the rest of the region, the county is profitable and relatively crime free, yet the most boring place imaginable. Over the years, some adventurous souls slipped through the cracks and escaped, unwilling to live around the stubborn, old fashioned etiquette and slower pace of an area stuck in time. Like Seth, they wanted fast lane lifestyles only found in the bigger cities, but those escapees were few and far between. Most stayed because their roots tethered them to the fertile soil. Some feared being ostracized from their family or destroying the hearts of those who loved them by leaving. A few took the risk, just like he did, but paid a steep price for the decision. He deeply wounded the relationship with his parents and shattered the one with his high school sweetheart, Bethany Rhodes.
One of his mother’s favorite sayings tickles the corners of his mind: Once the first breath is drawn in the town, the bond is sealed. Forever.
He will break that seal. Period.
His gaze shifts to the walls. The home he grew up in was built in 1925 by his maternal great-grandfather, and one of the handful of houses that survived the flood of 1927. The memories of helping his father update the plumbing and electrical work when he was a small boy, and his mother’s ridiculous stories about duty, honor, family stability, and keeping the sacred land out of the hands of people intent on destroying it, makes his chest pound with grief.
It has been nearly six months since his parents died and his emotions are still as raw as the day he got the call.
The disastrous visit to the local diner the day before the dual funeral pops into his mind. Anger rumbles throughout his body. Junction City, Mississippi is still full of strangely stoic, quiet men who ignore, or simply put up with, the gossipy women with mouths eagerly dropping the latest juicy stories. The topic of rabid discussion that day had been about the deaths of Dane and Sheryl Newcomb, and the grousing harpies knew damn-well Sean and Seth were within hearing range. It took all his intestinal fortitude to contain himself from telling them what low-life, heartless creatures they were, yet somehow, managed to hold his tongue, knowing a tirade would be a waste of time. The latest victims of the Caney Creek Monster will keep them gabbing well into their graves. Their tongues might give out before their chubby bodies expire.
After the funeral attended by almost the entire population of the county, which is less than two thousand, the Newcomb farmhouse filled with mourners and food; enough vittles to take up every available nook and cranny in the kitchen and spill out into the barn. He chuckles in the darkness while recalling throwing out the casseroles and cakes brought by the gossipy women after everyone left. He refused to put one morsel into his mouth prepared by their hands.
Rolling over to a more comfortable position, he releases a cleansing breath. The probate of his parents’ estates ends next week, on the same day, oddly, Sean turns eighteen. He’ll stay until his brother’s graduation, but then, put the house and farm up for sale, take the insurance money left to them, which is plenty to pay for a four-year degree for Sean, and his own, now that his scholarship is toast, and then whisk his naïve brother away from a life of misery and the clutches of his new girlfriend.
Ever since the day Seth returned home, he and Sean had been at each other’s throats. Grief from the sudden, tragic loss tore their lives apart, and haunting, disturbing dreams about what lurks in the forest near Caney Creek plague him every time his eyes close. The brotherly relationship took a turn for the worse after Sean broke up with Charlene and started dating a young woman who moved into town a few weeks after their parents’ death.
Natalie Runsford works at Jerry’s Diner, is twenty-one, like Seth, and the most beautiful woman he’d ever set eyes on, but there is something eerie about her that rubs him the wrong way, overshadowing her beauty with a veil of darkness. Whenever she is nearby, it sets his nerves on edge, especially when catching a glimpse of her ogling Sean like she is starving, and he is a smorgasbord to gorge herself on until satiated.
He fears the striking beauty will pick Sean’s bones clean. His baby brother puts on a tough façade, all brash and full of bravado, but the truth is that he is heartbroken and vulnerable after becoming an orphan.
No way will he let that happen. He promised his father the day Sean was born to take care of him, and he was a man of his word. Sean is his responsibility now, and no matter what it takes, he will break the bonds tethering them to Junction City or die trying.
Despite the nervous energy thrumming throughout his veins and fear of experiencing yet another horrific dream, his eyelids grow heavy as the steady hum of the ceiling fan lures him to dreamland and the scar on his neck warms from within.
Goosebumps spread over Seth’s entire body. His feet feel strange. Looking down, he discovers he’s standing in wet mud, naked, and outside in the darkest part of the night. Moonlight streams through the gnarled trees surrounding him from every angle, illuminating the forest like floodlights. The chill of the night air breezes across bare skin and the hair on his arms, legs and torso stand erect. His nose twitches while taking in all the scents of the woods. The mold, the damp pine needles, the rotting leaves and mud hit him all at once. He catches a whiff of something else; something he has never smelled before yet seems to instinctively recognize.
He winds seamlessly through the tangle of underbrush and vines, steps sure and steady. The moon’s silvery rays light up the path and he can see every detail, from the tiniest leaf to the farthest limb, as his feet glide with ease and footsteps silent. The scent is stronger now. His ears pick up the sounds of the forest which make no sense—these things are impossible for him to hear. A squirrel high above in the trees hunkered down in its nest for the night. Scurrying feet to his left he somehow knows is a small field mouse scuttling through the leaves on its way to a cool den. He detects heavy, raspy breathing up ahead from some creature—type unknown but obviously large—judging by the respirations.
He moves deeper into the forest. A man’s faint voice drifts across the air and he senses pain and fear.
“Do as you wish, you foul, unholy creature.”
Horror pounds inside his head. It’s the voice of his father. Legs pumping in a flat out run, feet barely touching the wet ground, he zigzags through the underbrush, anger igniting his muscles. The forest whizzes by in a blur as he charges through it. His father’s words were forceful but mixed with raw terror. Hearing them fills him with blinding rage.
In seconds, he spots a break in the tree line, and his father’s body on top of a mound of damp grass to the right, his mother’s eviscerated corpse less than ten feet to the left. His father’s clothes hang in tattered pieces; large sections of flesh have been ripped away, breath coming in great gasps. He turns his head, eyes wild with fright until recognizing his oldest child.
Seth’s leg muscles contract and propel him across the open area from the edge of the tree line. In one giant leap, he is right next to his father’s trembling torso.
His father looks up at him, eyes full of pain and sadness. “The torch has passed on and we ain’t needed no more. What it wanted from us; you must not give. End it, son, take care of the land, and your brother.”
An inhuman, piercing scream rips through the forest behind him. The sound is so loud the ground beneath them shakes from the intensity. Spinning around, fury pulses through him, followed by a feral roar bursting from his lips as he runs toward it.
His mouth fills with hot, rust-flavored liquid and spills out down his chin, soaking his neck with its sticky heat. Warm flesh gives way underneath a strong bite, the sound of tearing pieces away makes his heart pound with glee. Hunger for more overrides everything else. The scent, and taste, of blood drives him mad with rage. He digs deeper into the exposed flesh, tearing and pulling chunks off the writhing body.
The thing shrieks louder than before, and now he’s aware it isn’t human.
The Night Before Halloween
“Seth, come on! It will be a blast, and God knows after the horrible last several months, we deserve some fun. Besides, you look like shit. A night out in the fresh air is exactly what you need to perk up. The moon’s bright, I took the Jeep’s top off and it’s gassed and ready, the road’s curvy, beer cooler full, and Natalie is waiting.”
Staring into his brother’s vibrant blue eyes, gaze pleading with traces of worry, Seth takes a deep breath to strengthen his resolve to say no yet hesitates. His brother hasn’t wanted to spend time with him for months, so should he cave and go? Confusion tickles the back of his mind while contemplating a response.
The Newcomb boys burst into the world as two alpha males. Their sibling relationship is tenuous at best, nonexistent when both were in the throes of puberty at the same time. Their father had a dark sense of humor and liked to say they were two tomcats with their tails tied together, fighting over who had the bigger set of balls. In private after a sibling spat, his father would seek him out, explaining Sean looked up to his older brother and feared he wouldn’t live up to being a straight-A student, class president, homecoming king, and jock who lettered in three sports and received a full ride to college to play football, always ending the conversation by reminding him of the promise he made to take care of his little brother if anything ever happened to them. He honored the request even though sometimes he hates the responsibility, but he is a man of his word.
Sean’s features are exactly like their mother’s and his build the same—lean, strong, yet never far away from wiry—and the combination makes him a natural with the ladies yet poorly suited for athletics other than baseball due to inheriting her height of five-foot-eight rather than Seth’s sizeable six-foot-two frame, courtesy of the paternal side of the family tree.
When Seth left for college, Sean became Locasia County’s reigning Newcomb hunk. The separation allowed their relationship to repair, but less than two years later, everything ripped apart after the death of their parents from a freak encounter with a bear while in the woods. Both sets of grandparents passed on when the brothers were little, leaving Seth with no choice except to drop out of college, return home, and petition the court to become Sean’s guardian until he turned eighteen and finished his senior year of high school. Driven by a sense of duty to honor his parents overrode the frustration at having to play babysitter to his little brother and put his own life plans on hold and return to the tiny berg he’d been desperate to flee, especially after the horrible breakup with Bethany. The fact his parents’ demise is now part of the local legend doesn’t help, either, or that the friends he grew up with steered clear of him like he’s cursed, which physically hurts.
He left the area, which turned him into an outsider in the eyes of the entire community.
His parents won’t be remembered as kind-hearted, hard-working farmers who never missed an opportunity to help a friend or neighbor. Instead, they will become local lore as two more victims of the Caney Creek monster; names spoken in hushed whispers by children telling scary stories or gossiping adults fearful of venturing into the woods.
Sean snaps his fingers inches away from Seth’s face. “Hey, where’d you go? Did you hear what I said?”
“Containing my irritation at you is where I went. By the way, I look like shit because of wicked insomnia and horrible eating habits, but you aren’t fairing much better. Have you peeked in the mirror today?”
Sean rolls his eyes.
“I’ll go on two conditions.”
“You leave the beer and drink after we return, and it’s just the two of us. Natalie can come over later.”
“Give me a break, dude! I look rough because Mom’s not here to cook for me. You and I both suck in the kitchen, and you don’t sleep or eat much because you’re worrying about me. You need to stop. Just because Mom and Dad are dead doesn’t mean you get to boss me around.”
“According to the probate court, I’m in charge until you reach adulthood.”
“Don’t even try that legal bullshit.” Sean’s dark brown eyebrows furrow with anger, turning his cheeks deep crimson. “I’m an adult and can do as I please, just like you did when you were my age. Do you have any idea how many times I heard Dad chew you out for coming home drunk as a skunk? Too many to count, that’s how many. Besides, I’m a better driver than you. I’ve never wrecked a vehicle. Admit it—you don’t want to go because you hate Natalie and you’re like everyone else—afraid to get anywhere near the woods because of the big, bad bear that killed Mom and Dad.”
Keeping his anger in check, Seth rises from the kitchen table, putting the dirty dishes into the sink. “You’re still a minor in the eyes of the law until next Friday. You know I totaled the Chevy because something ran out into the road, and I dodged it. I’m not afraid of anything except being trapped in this dying town again, and I don’t hate Natalie.”
“Your face tells another story. Hate’s literally beaming across it.”
“I’m just not fond of her. She’s trouble, bro. Women like her are predators on the hunt for prey with money and the libido of a tomcat. Think about it: people don’t move to Junction City, they flee. Weeks after Mom and Dad passed on, she moves here and strikes up a relationship with you. Trust my instincts on this, little brother. She’ll sink her claws into you, get pregnant, and before you know it, walk away with half of everything Mom and Dad left us.”
“You’re jealous because Natalie took a shine to me and not you. She’s the hottest thing this town’s ever seen and it’s driving you crazy she only has eyes for me.”
Seth’s temper flares. There is some truth in Sean’s statement. Yes, the first time he saw Natalie working at the diner, the attraction was immediate, but when she took his order, the vibe exuding from her was creepy after brazenly asking if he would like to go back to her place when her shift ended and have his mind, and body, blown. She had leaned closer and sniffed the air before crinkling her nose and backing up, immediately rescinding the offer. The way she looked at him made his skin crawl. A week later, she hooked up with Sean. He didn’t have the heart to share the strange interaction with his brother, who is still reeling from the breakup with Charlene, so he kept quiet.
He opens his mouth to protest just as headlights bathe the kitchen. Both look out the window, stunned to see Sheriff Gilmore’s cruiser.
“What’s he doing here?” Sean whispers.
“I was just going to ask you the same thing. Did you get into a fight at school or confrontation with a teacher again?”
Bootsteps thunder across the front porch seconds before loud knocking makes them both jump.
Seth makes his way to the door, Sean right on his heels, takes a deep breath, and opens it. “Evening, Sheriff.”
“Evening, boys. Sorry to show up here unannounced. I tried calling but got no answer.”
“House phone’s still out after last night’s storm; cell reception is always iffy since the towers are in the adjoining county.” Chill bumps sprout across his skin. A home visit from law enforcement is never a good thing.
“I figured as much, and you know the topic of new cell towers is a sore subject in this area, though I don’t understand why. Anyway, what I needed to talk to you about required a personal visit, and there’s another important matter to discuss.” Seth opens the door, and the lanky man removes his hat and steps inside, nodding toward the couch in the living room. “You both should take a seat.”
Nerves on edge, they comply and anxiously perch on opposite ends of the couch.
“I know it’s taken quite some time to get the final results, but determining the correct answer required two tests, which added more time.”
Seth’s eyebrows furrow. “I don’t understand. It was a bear, right?”
“Coroner Wilkins originally concluded a bear was the culprit, yet based on what I noticed at the scene, my money was on a wolf. The coroner insisted it was a black bear, but I’ve hunted all over the woods for years and never seen one. Ain’t never seen a wolf, either, but those are moot points now. Both of us were wrong.”
Sheriff Gilmore rubs his forearm. The weird tattoo full of odd lines, circles, and triangles that Seth always thought was freaky, looks fresher, like he’s had the colors re-inked. He takes a deep breath while recalling the day he received the phone call that changed his life from the same man. “Then what was it?”
“We sent off saliva and hair samples found on their remains and sections of the claw marks from a tree near their campsite at the edge of the creek. The reports were sent to a zoologist in Jackson, twice, as I mentioned. According to the DNA results, a strange, genetically rare, black puma, better known around these parts as a panther, killed your parents.”
Seth’s mouth gapes open. When word gets out, which it will in this small town, it will be more fodder for generations to talk about the Caney Creek Monster, which isn’t a monster after all. He’s stunned that it was a panther, yet it brings up bad memories. “Are you serious? We learned in school they have been extinct in these parts since the early 1800s.”
“I am serious, and obviously, the textbooks were incorrect. It appears to have struck again. I’ve got my men out combing the bottoms, along with a passel of armed rednecks, looking for it.”
Seth and Sean exchange confused glances. Seth clears his throat. “Why do you think it’s struck again?”
“Charlene Matthews is missing. There were claw marks and tracks on and near her vehicle identical to the ones I saw before at the scene where your parents died.”
Sean’s face blanches to the point where he’s almost translucent. “Oh, my God! What happened?”
“When Charlene didn’t come home, her father started calling her cell, but she didn’t answer, so he went out looking for her and found her empty car in the back lot of the high school. Charlene’s phone, purse, and gym bag were inside and blood in the driver’s seat and on the ground. That’s when he called us. Raymond Pryor brought his hounds, and they picked up on her scent, but then lost it. Found blood on the trail and more large paw prints leading down toward the creek, and then nothing. The dogs picked up another scent that drove them into a frenzy, and all they’re doing now is running around in circles chasing it just like they did the night your parents passed on. My conclusion is that we’re dealing with the same cat. Sean, I know you and Charlene dated for a while, and thought you two would like to join the search party and be involved with hunting down the creature that killed your parents. I hope once we destroy it, the legend of the Caney Creek Monster will die with it, too.”
Seth’s head spins. His skin feels clammy like when a child with a fever. The brand on his neck throbs in time with his rapid heartbeat.
Sean rises from the couch and races to the gun cabinet. “Of course, we will.”
“Fair warning, boys: this is just an exercise in searching, not rescuing. The amount of blood is fresh, and substantial. Charlene couldn’t survive after losing that much. No one could. Get locked and loaded and follow me. We’ve got a big cat to slay, which will finally debunk centuries of monster lore.”
While Sean’s back is turned, Sheriff Gilmore nods toward the front door. Rising to his feet, ignoring the flutters of worry inside his mind while Sean loads the guns, Seth follows the lawman outside. “What’s really going on?”
“I think Sean’s too young to handle it, but you need to know. Rest assured, no one has seen the report except me, and I’m only telling you the truth. Gotta make sure nobody knows so rumors won’t start spreading like a stinky fart on a windy day. Secret keeping ain’t in the genetic makeup of most everyone in this county.”
“No shit.” Seth chuckles bitterly. “What does a strange, genetically rare, black puma really mean.”
Flashes of worry, unbelief, and fear dance behind the man’s eyes for a split second before regaining his composure. “I’m sticking with human error on the zoologist’s end, no matter who asks, and will believe, until the day I pass on, he read the results incorrectly or mixed our samples up with another. He said what we sent, both times, mind you, contained all the genetic markers of a female human and panther. He’s wrong. Period. It’s a female puma, not some abnormality straight outta the bowels of Hades, and that’s what we’re gonna kill. A big cat. End of story.”
The undercooked chicken dinner rumbles and churns inside his stomach while watching the distraught sheriff return to his car.
“Will you drive while I finish loading?” Sean steps out onto the front porch. “Keys are already in it.”
Seth is behind the wheel of the Jeep following Sheriff Gilmore down Main Street while Sean holds the loaded rifles. He passed eight separate billboards touting the benefits of new cell towers built by Cohestra Industries, and all the graffiti painted on them, full of red x’s and circles with lines drawn through. Obviously, a large portion of Locasia County was against the company installing new towers in the Delta and destroying the natural environment.
During the drive, his normally chatty brother didn’t say a peep. When feet away from the entrance to the school, Seth detects the familiar odor of Charlene’s obnoxious perfume, immediately reminding him of the times he used to tease Sean about his cute girlfriend who smelled like she used a bottle of perfume each day as shampoo. How odd that with all the other competing scents, he can detect it.
Pulling into the crowded parking lot full of trucks, cars, and bright floodlights casting yellow beams into the dark forest behind the school, he’s bombarded with two additional odors threatening to send him into a frenzy. One belongs to Bethany, and his chest aches. He doesn’t want to see or talk to her, especially now. His gaze scans the lot, and sure enough, there she is, sitting on a tailgate with Charlene’s parents, red hair tied into a ponytail, face flushed from tears.
The other makes his entire body tingle, hair stand erect, heart thump, and unexplainable anger course through his veins. No, it’s not possible. I’m just overtaxed from lack of sleep, constant worry, and horrible eating habits. That was not the same stench from the dream.
The sound of dogs yapping intermingles with people yelling Charlene’s name, yanking him back to reality.
Sean grabs his arm. “Wait. Give me a second to pull myself together.”
“You don’t have to do this, bro. Go sit with Charlene’s parents and Bethany. I noticed them when I pulled in. They all look scared and judging by what the sheriff said, Mr. and Mrs. Matthews will need all the support possible if things turn out as he suspects. I got this.”
“I’m just…she just…oh, shit. What a freaking nightmare. This is my fault!”
A rock of concern forms inside Seth’s gut. Leaning closer, he lowers his voice after looking around to make sure there is no one within hearing range “Did something happen between you two today?”
“Yeah.” Sean swipes a hand across his damp eyes while nodding. “Charlene followed me out to the parking lot after chemistry class. I forgot my English book and suddenly, there she was, right behind me. She gave me a hug, said she missed me, begged me to take her back, and that she wanted our first time to be with each other. She kissed me and things got intense before taking a nosedive minutes later.”
Seth’s heart flutters, and he’s somewhat shocked his perpetually horny teenage brother was—or perhaps still is—a virgin, just like he had been until college. The memory of the last blowout argument with Bethany only days after graduation roars back, including the accident on the way home, but he buries it. Now is not the time to rehash past troubles. “What happened?”
“We, you know, slipped into the back of the Jeep, got naked, and started fooling around. I knew it was risky, but I couldn’t control myself, and neither could Charlene. We were like animals, but right before we did the deed, the condom ripped and then, there was Natalie.”
“Oh, shit! Did they get into a fight?”
“No. Natalie banged on the windshield to get our attention, but then stood there glaring at us both like she was willing fire to shoot from her eyes or something while we scrambled to get dressed. By the time we finished, she was gone. After class was over, I went by the diner, but they said she called in sick, so I drove over to the house she rents from Mr. Renfro. Her car was gone, so I blew her phone up, but she ghosted my calls and texts until right before dinner; sent a thumbs up and CU@9sharp. It’s why I wanted you to go with me tonight in case things got heated when I ended our relationship. You know, act like a buffer? I know she’s pissed off and hurt because we’ve…done stuff…but never all the way. After the encounter with Charlene, I realized how much I still love her and decided to stop seeing Natalie. I just can’t figure out how she knew…she was supposed to be at work. It’s not like she goes to school with us or has friends here keeping tabs on me.”
Seth’s anger rises. He knew Natalie was trouble, and part of the blame sits on his shoulders for not intervening sooner. He cocks his head, realizing the dogs stopped barking, which is weird. “It’s called stalking, bro, and nothing you just shared points to Charlene’s disappearance being your fault.”
“Wrong. I went back inside the building and left her outside by herself. She wanted to touch up her makeup and pull herself together, and like a fool, I left her alone because Natalie was gone. When school let out, I didn’t notice anything wrong. I mean, Charlene’s car was here, but there certainly wasn’t blood on it like the sheriff mentioned. I left her alone and look what happened!”
Seth glances up and notices Sheriff Gilmore walking toward them but stops after being flagged down by a deputy emerging from the woods. “You need to tell him, bro.”
“Why? He already told us what got Charlene, and Mom and Dad, was a panther, so why should I put myself in such an awkward position? I’m still reeling from two deaths and now, potentially another, so the last thing I want is people I’ve known my whole life looking at me like I’m tainted or some type of monster. You hate it here and want out, but this is my home. I don’t want to leave, so the answer’s no. I’m not saying a peep and ruining what’s left of my life.”
“Someone else may have seen you and Charlene together, which means you were possibly the last person she interacted with before disappearing. What if the person tells the authorities? What if Charlene’s still alive? She may tell them when questioned about what happened, and then the police will grill you for not mentioning it first. If she’s dead and an autopsy performed, traces of your hair or skin may be found, and again, you’ll be grilled. I think it’s best to be upfront and share what you know.”
“Fuck. My life is over no matter what I do. How am I supposed to go on without Mom, Dad, and the love of my life? My own brother hates me, so now, I truly am all alone.” Sean’s head dips low as he fights back tears.
“You’re my flesh and blood and I love you, even though you’re a pain in the ass sometimes.” A wave of brotherly love sweeps over Seth. “You’ll never be alone because we’ll tackle this problem, and anything else we encounter, together. That’s a promise I will never break.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, dude. I lied before about where I was the night Mom and Dad died.”
“Okay, so where were you?” Seth’s stomach clenches. He knows what’s coming next and on instinct, his fingers seek out the small brand on the nape of his neck, hidden by the hairline.
“I wasn’t in Greenville picking up farm supplies—I went with them. Dad said he and Mom had some family rite of passage they wanted me to take part in before my senior year began, which I thought was weird, but then I remembered they did the same thing with you, so I figured it was just Dad’s dark sense of humor luring me to agree to some bonding time. Anyway, I came back home and left Mom and Dad in the woods. I ate something that gave me a horrible stomachache, so Mom told me to go home, rest, and we’d try the next weekend. If I had sucked it up and stayed, I could’ve shot the beast before it got them. I’m sorry I lied to you. It’s why we’ve been fighting so much. I’ve been smothered in guilt ever since and was scared you’d hate me.”
“I’ve already told you how I feel, and nothing you shared changed that.” He glances over his shoulder and frowns. “Sheriff Gilmore’s talking with Mr. and Mrs. Matthews, and he looks upset. Something’s wrong.”
A blood-curdling scream pierces the night. The dogs howl in response.
“No, not my baby! Not my baby girl!”
They both glance behind them in time to see Mrs. Matthews collapse into her husband’s arms. Two deputies carry a black bag to a patrol unit. The men out searching for Charlene gather by their trucks, and several shut off the floodlights. Soon, they pack up and drive away.
“Oh, my God.” Sean looks like he’s about to faint. “Was that…Charlene’s body?”
“Looks that way.” Seth’s shoulders sag. “I’m so sorry, brother, and I’m here for you.”
Both exit the vehicle.
Sheriff Gilmore joins them at the back of the Jeep. The stress of the evening aged him well beyond his sixty-plus years. He points toward the dark forest to the right. “I sent the others home. They’re all too upset to be tromping through the woods with loaded guns. We’ll take this section. Gut instincts tell me that’s where we’ll find it.”
“Charlene’s dead, isn’t she?” Sean’s voice cracks with grief.
“Yes. I’m sorry, son. Deputies Jenkins and Miller bagged up part of her remains. The cat literally tore her in half, leaving the upper portion of her torso by the creek, where they discovered it. They haven’t found the other half. The funeral will need to be closed casket for sure. God almighty.”
Seth’s stomach twists into a knot. No wonder the dogs stopped barking.
“This isn’t happening. I can’t…deal…Mrs. Matthews needs me. Come by and pick me up at their house after you’re done.” Sean hands Seth the rifle, turns, and runs toward the front of the school.
A streak of lightning splinters across the dark sky; eight seconds later, it is followed by a loud crack of thunder.
Sheriff Gilmore sighs and then nods toward the woods. He hands him a whistle. “Time to shoot and bring back the cat’s corpse. Hopefully, its demise will give everyone some closure. If you run across…what’s left of her…blow this. We need to hurry before the storm hits and turns the bottoms into a muddy nightmare.”
Another blood-curdling scream pierces the night except this time, Seth recognizes it from his nightmares.
It isn’t human.
“That was our prey calling us out for a duel. Let’s go.” Sheriff Gilmore chambers a round in the high-powered rifle.
The duo remains silent while carefully picking their way through the muddy woods, nerves on high alert, gazes scanning for any signs of movement as droplets of rain pelt them. After thirty minutes of walking, they split off, Seth heading south toward the creek and the sheriff north. Seth cannot believe this is happening. The violent death of the young woman is yet another stain on the hearts of the community, and an additional reason he cannot wait to escape. He will convince Sean to leave. He isn’t sure exactly how to go about that, but he will think of something once he has a chance to settle down and think. Maybe Sean will be more willing to leave since the people he loved are dead.
The brand on his neck feels like it is on fire, just like the night it was seared into his flesh. The memory of that evening, and the horrible nightmare centering on his mother around the campfire deep in the woods, filters through his mind, making his chest tighten…
“My son. My firstborn. You are a man now, and with adulthood come grave responsibilities.” Her voice is quiet yet firm, southern lilt stronger than usual. “Tonight, you will understand your purpose upon meeting your spirit guide. All Native American tribes believed in totems. They are animal guardians that come to a person during a time of great stress or when near death, which are when the heart and soul are most open to the connection. When it happens, the person’s true self emerges. Mine was a white panther, considered a supernatural deity from the Underworld by most of the Southeastern tribes, like the Choctaw.
“The Underworld houses creatures constantly in battle for control of the Upperworld. When battles rage between the two worlds, the panther had the ability to control certain natural elements, including earthquakes, thunderstorms, and water. The panther was feared because it destroys enemies in violent ways using nature against its own creation. It was often associated with war, yet my totem was a protective guardian. To see one meant you would be blessed with courage, power, and valor.”
He chuckles at her crazy tale but stops when she pulls something from the fire and walks toward him. The end glows reddish orange as she closes the gap between them.
“As with everything, there is light and darkness. When your totem comes, the result is dependent upon your heart. If it is pure, the totem will help guide you down the path of light. But, if your heart is dark, you will embrace the moon and the powers of the night, becoming a great warrior, feared by all, but guided by the forces of darkness that will eventually destroy you.”
She touches the skin on his neck with the burning red ember and for a split second, his mind gridlocks, stunned by her actions and the intense pain. He casts a stunned glance over to his father, who sits, rigid, staring into the fire.
Tears stream down her face. “Do not fear, my son. You have been chosen. Your heart has been judged and found to be pure, and the ability to skin-walk will be yours one day when the torch passes from me to you. You are blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh, and when the time comes and you choose to accept this path, your old life will pass away. The new one will begin, and you and your descendants will be blessed with this duty, just as I was.”
He’s furious and screams, “What duty, Mom? Skin-walk? You aren’t making sense!”
She ignores his tirade. “Your duty is to stand guard of this ancient place and keep it safe from outsiders. The journey will be rewarding in some ways, harsh in others. When your time comes, you must leave behind all you know and step forth into a new existence without fear or hesitation, and you must swear your allegiance and be willing to sacrifice your life to protect what we hold sacred, until the time comes for you to pass the duty to your children. If you die without descendants, the duty will pass along to Sean. Skin-walking cannot be explained with words. It must be seen.”
Before he has time to respond or even blink, his mother changes. In a split second, the person he knew morphs into a gigantic white panther. Raw power exudes from her, bathing his entire body with intense heat. She is bigger than the buffalo he remembers seeing as a child at the Memphis Zoo. There is no sound, no pain-filled yelps, or shrieks of agony. Her clothes didn’t rip to shreds and fall to the ground, they simply are gone. The change happened in the space of one full breath. The great beast stands less than two feet away, eyes unblinking and huge mouth slightly open, exposing long fangs and a pink tongue. With a gentle movement of her head, which is bigger than a buffalo’s, she nudges him to stand. On trembling legs, he does and touches the face, drawn by an unexplainable connection. The interaction overtakes his mind with a blur of information and then he faints.
Upon waking the next morning, the events of the previous evening were never mentioned, but he did have the brand on his neck. He concluded none of it happened. The entire night had been a weird dream, and he must have moved too close to the fire when sleeping and burned himself…
Recalling the encounter three years prior makes him shudder. He’s only been back in this wretched county for less than a year and craziness is threatening to overtake his mind, just like it nearly did before he moved away. He misses his college buddies, the challenging classes, the sweet girl named Sarah who he’d just started to pursue, and of course, football. The hatred for the area where he grew up grows exponentially with each minute.
What is it about this place that’s so…odd…so hard to escape the tight grasp on his soul?
Shaking the vivid, clearly insane memories away, he stops and takes a deep breath, saying a silent prayer for Mr. and Mrs. Matthews. Enduring the death of his parents is difficult, but he cannot begin to fathom losing a child, especially an only child, in such a horrific way. Charlene had been the center of her parents’ world. One minute she’s alive, and the next, ripped to shreds. He asks for God to comfort the Matthews and Sean. Charlene’s tragic end will haunt all of them for the remainder of their lives.
A weird electrical sensation slithers up his back. The strange jolt causes him to stop and look down, wondering if he stepped on some buried cable or wire. He jumps backward, sickened to discover it’s the lower portion of a body.
He’s bombarded with the stench of Charlene’s rancid blood, and other odors that simply cannot be.
His head spins, filling his ears with an eerie whooshing sound. The clouds part. Moonlight bathes the small glen in silvery beams.
The familiar scents of Natalie, Bethany, Sean, and the strange aroma from his nightmares overwhelms him.
Simultaneous noise from each side of his position makes his hair stand erect. Uncontrollable fury barrels throughout his body, followed by a deep, throaty growl bursting from his burning throat. Heat and power thrums in his flesh, making it difficult to keep his grip on the rifle.
“You forgot someone back at the school.” Natalie’s heavy southern drawl from his left makes the brand on his neck throb.
He recognizes her scent, but it’s also mixed with the one from his nightmares, which is impossible.
“You are a horrible brother for leaving him unprotected, and a traitor to your kind for leaving the Delta unprotected. I smelled how pathetic you were the day we met. I almost threw up! You reeked of weakness, unlike Sean. His personal scent is divine. Pure. He almost tainted his pureness today with that cheerleading whore, but I made sure that temptation is permanently gone. Sean’s all mine, now. After slaughtering your parents, the only thing standing between him and I protecting, and ruling, the Delta, is you. He cannot shift until you’re dead, just like you couldn’t when your parents were still alive.”
Sean’s body arcs in mid-air, collapsing into a heap less than five feet in front of him, right next to Charlene’s remains. He whimpers yet appears to be unconscious. Seth rushes toward him but halts when Natalie steps out from behind a cypress tree. She’s naked, body and face covered in blood. After smiling, she licks her lips.
He raises the rifle, aiming directly between her eyes.
Bethany leaps from the right, landing in front of him, blocking Natalie. “Don’t let her get into your head, my love.”
In stunned awe, his gaze bounces between both women. How in the world did Bethany clear over forty feet? What the fuck is happening? Did Natalie just infer she killed his parents, or is he hallucinating? Why is Bethany here, and why does she look, and smell, so different?
The nightmares replay inside his mind and something inside him instinctively knows they were more than dreams—they were premonitions or glimpses of the past. He’s frozen with disbelief and horror. Time slows to a crawl.
“Get away from them, you bitch!” Natalie screams, face contorting into something unrecognizable as she drops into a crouch.
He feels the heat radiating from her and suddenly, the body is gone, replaced by an enormous black panther.
Instead of speaking, Seth hears the words inside his mind.
“You had your chance, Bethany. Seth doesn’t want you or to embrace his responsibilities! He left the Delta and turned his back on his birthright. He cannot wait to leave again; he doesn’t want to be here. Sean does, and he is the perfect mate for me. You already know the four of us are the last of our kind. Trust me, I wouldn’t be here if my territory remained, or an available mate was close, but both are gone; ravaged by those who do not understand the power underneath the sacred ground and murdered the last remaining male. Cohestra has their sights set on destroying this untouched oasis by installing towers and a water treatment plant. I’m left with no choice except to kill all those who support the greedy corporation’s plans before there is nothing left to save! Leave, now, and I’ll spare your life, but not Seth’s. He must die so Sean can embrace his destiny.”
“No! This is our territory, and we will protect it with honor and no loss of human life unless necessary. You don’t belong here. This is our fight, not yours. Go back to the swamps of Louisiana. Now!”
Bethany’s enraged voice reverberates off the trees, making the ground shake as her body morphs into a snow-white panther. The two beasts face off, circling each other, snorting, chuffing, saliva dripping from their fangs.
Sean stirs, diverting Seth’s attention. His brother opens his eyes, sees the unbelievable sight in front of him, and tries to scramble away. The black monstrosity from Louisiana growls, swiping her paw across his face, missing his jugular by millimeters, claws ripping open his cheek. Sean yelps in agony and falls back to the ground just as Bethany’s new body pounces on top of what had been Natalie.
The scent of Sean’s blood pushes him over sanity’s edge. White hot fury courses through his veins. The rifle slips from his fingers as intense energy pulsates throughout his entire being, erupting into a fiery inferno. A loud roar bursts from the inner depths of his soul. Just as he thinks his heart will explode or he’ll combust into flames, he realizes his visual trajectory is different, and he can see, hear, and smell, everything.
He’s much larger than the female counterparts. Power surges through him unlike anything he’s ever experienced. Lightning streaks across the sky, followed by rumbling thunder, yet there are no clouds above.
Feral instincts take over. He leaps into the air, white paws splayed out, knocking Bethany off, landing on top of Natalie. They fall to the ground while his fangs sink through the thick fur around her neck, burying deep into the flesh. Powerful jaws clamp down, crushing the artery, back paws eviscerating the liver, stomach, and large intestine. Bethany rejoins the fray, and within seconds, Natalie Runsford from Louisiana, stops moving. After taking a final, ragged breath, she’s nothing more than a shredded mess of fur, flesh and gore.
Seth’s still in a blood frenzy, but Bethany appears to be more in control of her altered body, and pads over to Sean. She lowers her mammoth head, licking his wound gently, but Sean doesn’t respond.
In the space of a few seconds, Seth realizes everything his mother told him the night in the woods is true. The argument with Bethany after graduation is clear now—what ran out in front of the Chevy was her after she transformed when he refused to remain in Locasia County and marry her. All the nightmares were premonitions of things to come and the dormant power in his veins.
The urge to sleep during the day, nighttime insomnia, hunger for undercooked meat, ability to smell things he shouldn’t be able to finally make sense. His destiny is to protect the land, and his brother, and he’d been subconsciously fighting against his fate and eventually fled, convincing himself he’d be trapped inside a life he didn’t want yet was forced to live.
A hard choice to make, but a duty he can no longer ignore.
Just as he embraces the responsibility, he catches a whiff of death. Throwing his head back, his heartbreaking roar pierces the night, followed by a deluge of rain.
“My love, I’m sorry.” Bethany whispers inside his mind. “He lost too much blood.”
The words of his mother ring inside his mind: The journey will be rewarding in some ways, harsh in others. When your time comes, you must leave behind all you know and step forth into a new existence without fear or hesitation, and you must swear your allegiance and be willing to sacrifice your life to protect what we hold sacred.
Bethany’s padded feet make no sound on the damp ground as she walks over to him, rubbing her head against his, a deep, throaty purr making her vibrate. Love and power pass between them in a way he never considered possible.
No, it’s more than love or power. It’s a bond. A mystical seal that can never be broken.
Lost inside the connection with his mate, he doesn’t hear, or smell, Sheriff Gilmore, until it’s too late. Just as his head turns to the right, burning pain explodes through his chest milliseconds before the repeat of the rifle.
“Run!” He screams to Bethany inside his mind, but she doesn’t move or answer, and when the scent of her blood reaches his nose, he understands why.
Filled with all-consuming rage, ignoring the pain in his chest and blood cascading from the wound onto the ground, he lunges. In mid-air, another bullet tears through him, blowing out his left eye. His body lands with a heavy thump on the muddy ground inches away from the lawman. He tries to move but cannot control his body.
“I misspoke earlier when I said we’ve got a big cat to slay. I meant to say cats. Don’t fret, son. Your death, and the others, will finally debunk centuries of monster lore. I’ll make sure to tell everyone when I came upon such foul beasts, they were eating all of you, so I did what any good law enforcement officer would do—I blew them away. When that foul Louisiana creature arrived, I knew all I had to do was be patient and eventually, all of you would gather together, and I was right.”
Seth cannot feel his extremities. Darkness descends over his vision, and he can barely make out the features of the evil man. Death is seconds away, but that pales in comparison to the extreme sorrow and shame bearing down on him for letting everyone he loves, and the entire Delta, down, all because he was too scared to accept who he really is.
Sherriff Gilmore takes several steps backward. The tattoo appears to be lit from underneath his skin, pulsating in time with a rapid heartbeat. “Thanks to the extinction of you and your kind, my stock in Cohestra will make me rich beyond my wildest dreams. Locasia County was dying and in desperate need of reviving, but the Caney Creek Monster, or excuse me, monsters, had to be slayed first.”
Seth’s heart shatters. I’m sorry, Momma; Sean; Bethany. So damned sorry. The entire demise of my family, and the county, is all my fault.
Sheriff Gilmore lowers the barrel, jamming it into Seth’s forehead. “This is my sacred duty—a knight who accepts his birthright and kills the beasts.”
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableCraig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
🔔 More stories from author: Ashley FontainnePublisher's Notes: N/A Author's Notes: N/A
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