Edition 18: The Calling By John W. Oliver
Josiah has struggled to keep his distance from his family for a long time. But when cousin Zeke abducts Josie’s son, and the woman he loves is on his doorstep begging for his help, he is drawn back in again. A dark and supernatural tale about the dark secrets families keep and what we do to protect those we love. This work has also previously received an Honorable Mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest. SY
“Josie! Zeke’s taken Sammy,” Connie banged the screen door of my trailer, just in case I hadn’t heard her.
I opened the inner door and squinted out into the bright Nevada sun. My nostrils flared at her scent. I shoved the roast beef sandwich into my mouth, took a big bite and chewed.
“What do you mean he’s taken the boy?” I asked through my mouthful.
“He said he’s taking him home for his second blooding. Whatever the hell that means.” Connie fought back a sob and gave me a look that demanded an answer. She was caught on the fine edge between breaking down and blowing up.
I swallowed and paused before taking another bite. The force of the calling throbbed through me. I hadn’t stopped eating all day. My mouth watered at the sight of Connie. The Calling always enhanced my hunger, and I did my damnedest not to succumb. I tightened my fist, bread oozing between my fingers, and willed myself to take slow even breaths.
“You said my cousin’s going home?”
“Yeah.” She wiped her nose with the back of her hand.
“And you know where that is?”
Connie glared at me and crossed her arms. “No, he’s never said a thing. Not in five years. He’s just as much a tight-lipped bastard as you.”
I looked into the distance and imagined Zeke driving his battered Jeep with the boy sitting next to him. The Calling would be singing through his blood just as it was through mine. Only he’d been drawn in and had taken Sammy along. Of course, Sammy wasn’t his to bring, but I’d made it clear I’d never set foot on the Mathis homestead again. My freezer was stacked high with steak, hamburger and roasts. Fuel for my effort to resist. He was just taking the initiative and acting the proxy, like he’d always done. I gnashed my teeth into my sandwich and tore at the meat to ease my growing agitation.
Connie reached out for me, but the screen door remained between us. Her lacquered nail trailed down the fine mesh.
“But you know, Josie,” she said. “You know where Zeke took him.”
“I don’t know if I’m the best person to help, Connie. There’s a lot going on that you don’t know about.”
Connie pressed a finger into the screen, dimpling the surface with the tip of a nail. “I know you’re not the best, but I’m afraid you’re the only one. Who else knows more about what Zeke plans on doing than you? You’re not backing out on me now. You’re not getting off this time.”
“You don’t know what you’re asking.”
“Yes, I do. I’m asking you to help get Sammy back. It’s the least you can do for us, you bastard.”
I stared down at her scared bloodshot eyes, inhaling her delicious scent. If she only knew that I wanted to sink my teeth into her succulent flesh. But she still wouldn’t have backed down. Her son had been stolen. She’d do anything to get him back. I admired her tenacity. I always had.
“I’ll go after the boy,” I said.
Connie stepped forward, ready to open the door between us, “Oh, thank—”
I raised the remnants of my sandwich. I watched the pulse throb in her neck for a moment before stepping back. “You’re not coming though,” I said. “You have to stay.”
“But, he’s my son.”
“And what if he comes back on his own? Someone has to be around in case he does.”
“But nothing. Either you stay or no one goes.” I took another bite and inhaled the juicy fragrance of the meat, willing the scent to overpower Connie’s. I stood there chewing for a long minute. Once I swallowed, I said, “If you knew what was good for you, you wouldn’t want to be anywhere near where I’m going.”
“But Sammy’s going there.”
“And that’s why I’m going after him.”
Connie turned in a huff and stalked off. I had no intention of letting Sammy go through what Zeke and I had when we were his age. And if I could keep Connie away from all that, so much the better. I would’ve wrestled the devil himself for either of them.
And with the calling pulling me home, I was afraid I’d have to do just that.
I was speeding down the highway, staring at the frigid peaks of the Sierra Nevada. They loomed on the horizon, the setting sun hanging just above them, highlighted by its crimson light. Soon, the old Chevy pick-up truck would be chugging up their winding ways, bringing me closer to home.
The cab baked with spring heat. Even with both windows down and air rushing through, sweat rolled down my arms and dampened my shirt. The Colt revolver tucked into the back of my pants felt sticky against my skin.
I hoped I wouldn’t need the gun. I hoped to avoid the bulk of my family by coming in through the back. If anyone found out what I was up to, they wouldn’t take too kindly to me breaking tradition. After all, just about everyone in the family had been taken young from their mothers and introduced to Old Abe.
In spite of the heat, I shivered. The forefather of the Mathis clan, no one ever looked forward to seeing the old man. Yet, we were drawn to him every few years. After the last time, I had sworn not to return no matter how strong the calling. I tried to banish the images of my cousins—Becky and Sarah—being offered up to him. I tried to forget the sounds of their screams as he crushed their bones and consumed them. That had been the moment—the one atrocity out of countless others that had come before—I’d decided to leave.
I adjusted the side-view mirror and looked at the cars trailing behind me. A sporty little Mazda hung about a quarter-mile back; its blue paint dulled by desert grit. I knew the car. It belonged to Connie.
Connie had the spirit of a grizzly mama, but if I let her wander in on her own, she would face the same fate as my cousins. I supposed that was why most of us loved and left them—just like Zeke. If I left her trailing me, she’d follow me straight into the wolves’ den without a clue.
I fished another sandwich from the cooler beside me and took a large bite. I chewed, contemplating my options.
Off the main highway up in the Sierra Valley, I pulled in at Jack’s Meat Shack. A single lamp stuck out from the front of the building, dimly illuminating the dirt lot where everyone parked. I stepped out of the cab into the crisp mountain air and watched Connie’s Mazda drive past. I figured I would give her a few minutes to settle in.
My stomach rumbled. The Calling urged me to continue on, farther up the valley. First I wanted to stop in for something to eat. Jack’s fare always did a great job at sating my hunger. I patted the hood of my truck like an old horse and stepped up to the front door of the Shack.
The inside didn’t amount to much. It never had. A couple of high tables with stools stood in the center of the dining area along with a counter circling around the outer wall, the front door cutting through it. People didn’t hang around the Shack. They were in and out, back to work. But if you wanted the best food that used to walk around on its own, there wasn’t a better place.
Jack stepped up to the register. Built like a two-by-four, the man hadn’t put on a pound since I’d first met him some twenty-odd years ago. His gaze lingered on me for only a moment before he moved over to one of the cookers.
“Roast beef on rye. No greens. Light on the mustard,” he said. Not a question; a statement.
“Yep, that much hasn’t changed.”
The man picked up a hunk of meat still dripping with its own juices and set it on a slicer. With the flick of a switch, the blade whirred to life.
“Nope, not much ever does.”
I peered over and watched him work. He moved the shuttle back and forth in mesmerizing smooth motions, letting thin slices of roast beef drop into his hand.
“Zeke come through here?” I asked.
“Just before noon. Brought his boy with him. I remember when the lot of you were this high. Doesn’t seem that long ago.”
I nodded. I had met Old Abe only a few hours after I had met Jack. The two were forever tied together in my mind. Old Abe and Jack. The Pit and the Shack. Fortunately, Abe wouldn’t be up and about until late. I still had time to get to Sammy before he met the old man.
Jack continued on. “There’s been a lot of you Mathises about in the past few days. They’ve been raising quite a ruckus around town.” He raised a curious eye in my direction. “It’s been a while since your last reunion.”
“Not long enough,” I said. “Not long enough for my taste.”
He flicked off the slicer and plopped the pile of meat directly on top of the bread. My mouth watered. Once he was through, he handed me the honking sandwich. I tore a bite out of it. Juice dribbled down my chin as I savored the taste.
Once I emptied my mouth, I said, “Thanks, Jack.”
“Think nothing of it.”
“You mind if I pass out the back?”
Jack motioned me to go ahead. After laying some money down by the register, I pushed the counter-door open with my hip and walked through the kitchen. Jack started cleaning the slicer without another word as the back door banged shut behind me.
I proceeded past a trailer set on blocks and came out on the street behind. I circled the block, searching for the Mazda and eating my sandwich. My tension eased as I gorged. Just a block past Jack’s, I found the car parked alongside the road. The tilt of the driver’s seat mostly obscured Connie, but by the light of the rising moon, I could see her shadow. A shape I knew well.
I rapped my knuckles on the window. Connie jumped in her seat and let loose a muffled cry. She glared as she rolled down her window. I crouched and grinned.
“I thought you were going to wait,” I said.
“If I waited on you, Josiah Mathis, I might not see Sammy until kingdom come.”
I took another bite and let her words get lost in my chewing. Once I swallowed, I said, “There’s no point putting you off now.”
“Really?” I noticed that she’d taken the time to put herself back together. Her make-up was touched up. Hair freshly brushed. I couldn’t help wondering if she had done it for herself, or with any notion of trying to lure Zeke back.
“If I left you here, there’s no telling what you’d get up to.”
The corners of her lips turned down. “Why do you always insist on pushing, Josie?”
I shrugged. “Cause I care too much to keep you close.”
She frowned and turned away, fumbling with her purse on the seat beside her. “I guess that means I’ll be riding with you?”
“I suppose so.”
She rolled up her window, and I backed away from the car. When she stepped out—her jeans framing her ass just right, a white blouse hugging her frame, a little black purse draped over her shoulder—she looked good. Together, we started toward the pick-up.
“So this is where you’re from,” she said.
“Yes and no.” I pointed toward a ridge to the north. “The Mathis ranch is out that way. I grew up out there with Zeke and a passel of other cousins, getting into more trouble than a ‘coon in a chicken coop.”
“That’s a lot of trouble.”
I snorted. “Well, get ready for a handful. Mathis boys make angry rattlers look like saints.”
Connie shot a curious glance my way, trying to gauge whether I was pulling her leg.
I undid the top few buttons of my shirt and pulled it aside. I revealed a slight indentation in the skin of my shoulder. “Zeke bit me here when he was twelve. He has one on his arm where I bit him back.”
Connie drew a finger along the crescent shape. I suppressed the shiver that threatened to run through me. “You’d said that was some kind of animal bite when I asked…before.”
“I didn’t want to air out family business then.”
She pulled her finger back, and I closed my shirt.
“I wasn’t family? Back when we were together?” she asked.
I shrugged, knowing I didn’t have a good answer. “Let’s just say I was afraid to let you in too close.”
She snorted. “Ain’t that the truth.”
Connie stared at me as we circled around the tailgate of the pick-up. I opened the passenger’s door for her, but she stood where she was, just out of arm’s reach.
“Is Sammy going to be like that?” she asked.
“If he stays with Zeke, there’s no question he will. If he stays on with you though,” I shrugged, “there’s no telling. I’ve never known a Mathis boy raised outside the clan. Now, if we don’t get a move on, we might not have a chance to find out.”
Connie gave me a determined nod and climbed into the cab. I shut the door behind her and circled around to the driver’s side. I could tell by the way her eyes followed me that she had more questions. However, as I started the truck, she kept silent, somehow sensing I wasn’t ready to answer.
The Mathis blood sang in my veins, calling me farther north. I had a hard time concentrating with Connie’s scent filling cab. Though Jack’s sandwich had been good, there was nothing like having fresh meat close at hand.
I pulled off the winter-battered road onto a narrow track I hadn’t been down for over a decade. Between the faint light of the moon and the headlights, I picked my way, trying not to slide off into a gully. As I worked my way farther off the road, I could tell by the angle of Connie’s shadow she was staring at me.
“The ranch is out here?” she asked.
“Not exactly. This is the backside of the property. The ranch house itself is miles off.”
“We’re still headed to Sammy, right?”
I nodded. “I just didn’t think you wanted to meet the rest of the family.”
If they had found her, they would’ve fed her to Old Abe as an appetizer, if they didn’t tear her to pieces first. Zeke leaving her behind might have been his way of saying how much he loved her. I frowned at the thought. How did bringing her along show how much I cared? I concentrated on the road as it circled around rolling hills and beneath spindly pines, trying not to let the question bother me. After a while, I stopped the pick-up in the midst of a cluster of trees.
“This is it?” Connie asked.
“Nope, this is just where our ride ends.” I slipped out of the truck. The cold mountain air raised bumps down my arms.
Connie clambered out of the pick-up and moved around next to me. Even though she wore a sweat jacket, she rubbed her arms to keep warm. She hadn’t expected to be caught up in the Sierras where winter hadn’t quite ended.
“So what’s the plan from here?” she asked.
I reached around for my gun and pulled it out, keeping it aimed at the sky. Connie hugged herself tighter.
“You know how to use one of these?”
“Yeah,” she said, and then inhaled deeply before she continued. “Daddy took me out shooting occasionally.”
I offered Connie the grip. “Use both hands. Aim for the chest. And stay back. If anyone’s closer than three steps away, they’re too close.”
She stared at the gun. “What do you mean? I should shoot them? They’re your family.”
“Precisely.” I didn’t feel like explaining the gun wasn’t likely to kill any of us. Just knock us down for a bit. Mathises were built tough—like our forefather. Just not as ugly. Well, most of us at least. “Now take it.”
Tentatively, she took hold of the handle. She held it like she wanted nothing to do with it.
I turned back to the truck and pulled out a thick, black Maglite from beneath the seat. I flicked the light on and off to make sure the batteries had held their charge, and then tossed my keys on the floorboard. Connie watched my every move but didn’t utter a word. Once I started heading off into the woods, she fell into step beside me.
I kept the light off, trusting memory and moonlight to guide us. My hand found Connie’s. To keep her close, I told myself. I listened for the sounds of anyone lurking out in the night, but all I heard were crickets chirping.
This close to Old Abe, I could feel the heavy beat of the calling. It thrummed deep in my soul. I forced myself to slow my pace. The Mathises who lived around the ranch wouldn’t be feeling the Call quite as strongly as those of us that had moved away—like Zeke and myself. He would be down by the Pit, readying for the boy’s initiation. I thought about how it had been, going down into that hole with my dad to meet that thing. Hopefully, we could keep Sammy from going through the same experience.
Connie squeezed my hand. “What’s wrong?”
“Just memories. Things I’ve been avoiding.”
“Is your family that bad? Is that why you never talk about them?”
“They just…are.” I continued to walk as I spoke, determined not to meet her eyes. “I guess the reason I don’t like talking about them is I don’t want to admit that I’m anything like them.”
I gave her hand a sharp squeeze and hunkered down. Ahead, light shone through the trees. I listened hard, but I couldn’t hear anything new. I advanced, keeping myself low and pulling Connie along behind me. As we drew nearer, I picked out the shape of a parked Jeep, its headlights cutting farther into the night. By the way Connie’s grip tightened, I knew she had seen it as well.
Something stirred in the cab. I kept a firm grip on Connie’s hand. It could’ve been Sammy, but without knowing where Zeke or anyone else was, I didn’t want her rushing out. After several seconds, the figure rose—a boy standing on the bucket seats of the Jeep.
“Zeke?” Sammy called out. “Where are you?”
At the sound of his voice, Connie tore from my grip and rushed across the distance. I followed, resisting the urge to shout. We were exposed enough without yelling. If only we could close on the boy and shut him up…
But then Sammy turned toward his mother and shouted, “Mommy? Where did Zeke go?”
Before he could say anything more, Connie wrapped her arms around him, muttering “hush” and “everything’s all right” between her own sobs. I kept my back to them, my attention focused on the night. I was happy we had Sammy, but Zeke was out there and that made me a whole lot of nervous.
“We have to get going,” I said over my shoulder.
Connie inhaled a deep breath, getting herself under control. “Honey, we have to go. Just hold onto Mommy.”
“Is Zeke coming?” Sammy asked.
“Yeah, what about Zeke?” my cousin said. He stepped into the light of the Jeep, a shovel propped on one shoulder. His shirt sleeves were rolled up, and sweat soaked through the front. Where I had put on a few pounds in recent years, Zeke was still hard muscle. Still, he both had the same dark Mathis hair.
“Dammit, Josie,” he said, with a big grin across his face. “I thought you weren’t going to come.”
“I guess I changed my mind.”
Connie yelped. Her face went pale.
“I see you brought her along. I wished you hadn’t done that.”
I shrugged. “It couldn’t really be helped.”
Connie stepped forward. Sammy held in one arm, his legs wrapped around her hip. In her other hand, she pointed the gun at Zeke.
“You’re damned right I’m here, you son-of-a-bitch.”
Sammy looked around, his eyes wide with fear and confusion, taking everyone in—his mother, Zeke, me. He balled his tiny fists in his mother’s jacket.
“Connie,” I said. “Mind the boy and put the gun down.”
“Oh, fuck you,” she said. “Listen to you, pretending to be all concerned about our son. Do what you’re good at and mind your own business.”
Zeke smirked. “You see what I’ve got to put up with?”
“Don’t rile her up anymore than she is. She has every right to be pissed. No matter what our excuses might’ve been.” I thought about my fear of turning mean on her and Sammy. Of answering the calling and stealing Sammy away and leaving her alone. Of waking one morning and seeing nothing more than a slab of meat beside me in bed. I looked down at the ground, ashamed of how my fear had left me frozen.
Connie backed away, keeping the gun leveled at Zeke. “Just stay where you are,” she said. I moved to follow, but she swung the gun from my cousin to me. “You get to stay too. I know where the keys are.”
“Connie.” Zeke took a step toward her. “Let’s just talk this out. There’s no need for you to go running off.”
She turned the gun back toward Zeke. “Why? It’s not like you didn’t run off yourself.”
Zeke took another step. “If you don’t let Sammy go,” he said, his voice now a glowering threat, “the Mathis clan will hunt you down, even if we have to go to Old Nick’s gates. And when we find you, you’re going to wish you had simply walked away.”
The gun shook. Connie stared at Zeke like a cornered hare facing down a mountain lion.
I advanced on my cousin. “Let them go. The boy’ll be better off with her.”
“Nah, you’ve got it all wrong, Josie. You’ve always did.” Zeke continued toward Connie, his steps slow and deliberate. “The boy’s a Mathis. He has no other place.”
Connie stopped backing away. She stood frozen under Zeke’s attention. When she spoke, her voice quavered. “I’m warning you one last time.”
“Ah, come on. Set the boy down.”
The gun erupted. The muzzle flashed in Connie’s hand. She spun on unsteady legs and toppled to the ground. I winced as Sammy hit the ground. Zeke grunted like someone had socked him. He grabbed his gut and wavered on his feet for a couple of seconds before he collapsed.
I rushed to Connie and knelt beside her. “Are you okay?” I asked, my voice sounding distant to my numb ears.
Sammy rolled over and stared at me towering over his mother. He let out a muted yelp, scrambled to his feet and ran.
“Sammy,” I called, but the boy didn’t stop.
Connie rose at the sound of her boy’s name. She didn’t even give Zeke a glance as she raced after Sammy. I started to follow, but after a moment’s consideration, I knelt by Zeke instead. He furrowed his brow as he looked up at me.
“How’re you doing?” I asked, knowing how bad it sounded even as it came out of my mouth.
I nodded and glanced to where Sammy and Connie had vanished. I noticed the Colt lying on the ground where Connie had dropped it.
“Get on and go after them,” Zeke said. “I’ll be fine. Just stop being scared and take care of business.”
“Yeah,” I said as I stood. “I’ll do that.”
I took off down the trail towards Old Abe’s hole, leaving Zeke and the gun behind. If we ran into the old man, bullets wouldn’t do any good. I scanned the brush and called their names, hoping they hadn’t gone inside and knowing that was where I was being drawn myself. After a few minutes, I was rewarded by a response from Connie. I headed toward her voice.
I found her standing at the edge the Pit. A hole in the ground with a trail—worn by generations of Mathis boots—descended into the darkness. No light shone from within, and I didn’t dare shine my own inside. Not yet for fear of drawing unwanted attention. When the family went down there, we went together with pomp and ritual. No one went into the Pit alone.
“Sammy’s down here,” Connie said. Her voice sounded distant. “I couldn’t reach him in time.”
Testing my luck, I flashed the light into the crack. There was no sign of the boy, but the calling beckoned me to step inside.
“We need to find him before Abe does.”
I grimaced at what I was about to say. “Abraham Mathis. The seed from which the Mathis clan sprang. He’s generations old. He eats anything he can catch. Even little boys.” I didn’t go on. About how the Mathis clan fed its less desirable members—namely all its women—to the old man. As it was, I was afraid I’d said too much.
“You mean some old lunatic is down there hunting my son?”
I nodded. It seemed like an accurate enough description.
“What are we waiting for?” She started to step down into the cave.
I wrapped a hand around her arm. “Hold on.”
She wheeled about and stood with her face in mine. “You’re not telling me I’m not going.”
I cupped her cheek. I fought not to chomp down on her tender flesh. Connie glowed when she was angry.
“No, I’m not,” I said. “Just let me go first.”
I stepped around her and into the cave. I could feel her staring at me, but I didn’t look back. After a few seconds, she followed.
I focused the flashlight on the dirt track in front of us, occasionally sweeping the beam across the damp, gray walls. The temperature dropped quickly, and the cave closed in. I strained to hear any movement in the darkness, but all I could detect was the scrape of our feet.
The descent seemed to take forever before the walls opened up, leaving us surrounded by empty blackness. I had never figured out which was worse—the constricting tunnels or the void of the chambers. If given a choice, I would’ve chosen neither. I angled left, knowing, inevitably, we would run into a wall. And once we did, we circled the chamber searching every crack until Sammy’s scream punctured the silence.
“Sammy!” Connie rushed forward, but I blocked her path.
“Get out of my way. Sammy needs me.”
I put a hand on her shoulder. “You’re not going to do Sammy any good if you fall down some crack. This hole goes down a lot deeper than either of us want to know. Stay behind me.”
Without waiting for an answer, I pressed toward the source of Sammy’s scream. I followed a tiny stream that snaked beneath our feet down a narrow passage.
As we drew nearer, Connie called out, “We’re coming. Mommy’s coming.”
“Mommmmy!” Sammy’s voice echoed up the tunnel.
No longer able to contain herself, Connie dodged past me and down the passage, her shoes slipping across the slick rocks. I cursed and rushed after, the flashlight illuminating her backside. I called for her to stop, but she didn’t listen. Not until Old Abe came into view.
She slid to a stop.
Calling Old Abe a man was much like calling Godzilla a freaking lizard. No eyes, no arms, no legs—Abe was a humongous mound of flesh with a toothy maw hidden somewhere beneath. He oozed through the clammy recesses of his hole in the ground, consuming just about any living thing caught in his wake. Bones of his prey stuck out from folds of fat and muscle—rats, squirrels, coyote, even larger bones—decorating him like primitive jewelry.
In front of him, Sammy struggled to pull free from the old man. The folds had swallowed the boy’s arm to the elbow. The ancient Mathis was playing with his food. In time, he would absorb the child into his flesh, crush him with the weight of his mass and suffocate him. Watching the old man eat was never pleasant.
“My God,” Connie said, her hands pulling at her hair, “what is that?”
“That’s my great, great, great grandpap,” I said, moving up behind her. I wrapped an arm around her shoulders and cradled her against me. When I spoke next, I struggled to keep my voice even. “I’m sorry, but once he takes a hold like that, he never lets go.”
Connie dug her nails into my arm with both hands. “What do you mean?” she said in a low voice. “Shoot the sucker.”
I shook my head. “I left the gun up top. With all that blubber, it wouldn’t do any good.”
She twisted around and stared up at me. “You mean you’re just going to let your son die without even trying.”
I stared back, unable to respond.
Connie spat in my face and ran over to Sammy. She knelt down beside the boy and spoke into his ear. After several seconds, she started pulling Sammy, struggling against the immense strength of the old man. Her efforts wouldn’t amount to much, but it was more than what I was doing. Sammy was already up to his shoulder. I suspected the old man was rushing, hoping to catch Connie unaware and get two easy meals.
Before I could say anything, I heard someone tromping through the water behind me.
“Move it,” Zeke said and shouldered me aside.
He charged by in a faltering run. Shovel raised, he buried the tip into the old man. He then drew it out and plunged it in again, into the flesh around Sammy’s arm.
“Let . . . go,” he said, pausing to speak between each stab.
I stared at my cousin. Shot and still fighting, he was everything I wasn’t. He always had been. I dropped the light and rushed forward. I ducked under Zeke’s arm and knelt beside Sammy.
“Hold on,” I said and wrapped his free arm around my neck. I encircled an arm around his waist and pulled, taking care to keep the pressure even and not yank the boy’s arm from his shoulder.
Zeke continued to swing the shovel. Tattered bits of flesh splattered us. The old man started to emit a low whine. I had never heard him make such a noise. The hair on the back of my neck rose. All I wanted to do was run away. However, I stayed rooted to my boy.
With each strike, Sammy’s arm came free—inch by inch. Feeling his impending freedom, the boy started to struggle. A growl rumbled in his throat. He was close to letting loose, earning the legacy of his Mathis blood. I pulled harder, hoping to get him free before that happened.
Sammy redoubled his efforts as if he felt my urgency. His growling deepened. Old Abe trembled, and suddenly I became very aware of what was about to happen.
I glanced over my shoulder. Zeke’s face was contorted in a grimace of pain and anger. I had seen the look before when my cousins had lost themselves in a fight. Fortunately, Old Abe was the focus of his ire and not myself. And Connie was clear, standing farther back. Arms wrapped around herself.
Suddenly, Sammy let out a loud cry and sank his teeth into Old Abe.
“No!” I screamed and jerked Sammy away. His arm came free, and I dragged him back. But he flailed in my grip, struggling to return to the old man.
“Help me,” I called to Connie. “Talk him down.”
Without hesitation, Connie was there, her arms wrapped around her boy. Sammy calmed, but by the blood smeared across his mouth, I was afraid it was too late. The boy had consumed Old Abe’s flesh. He was now cursed twice. By blood inherited and blood consumed. Now he was a real Mathis.
“Zeke,” I said, “we’ve got him. Come on.”
My cousin glanced back at us. He was still in the grip of the battle lust. I moved to place myself between him and Connie and Sammy, in case he decided to change targets. He bared his teeth. He was covered in blood and gore from belly to britches. Both his own and the old man’s. It was a wonder he still stood.
“It’s okay,” I said. “It’s all over. Sammy’s fine.”
His eyes started to gain focus. He lowered the shovel, but before he could step away from Old Abe, the old man slid on top of him like an avalanche.
“No!” Connie screamed.
I wrapped an arm around her, afraid she might get to close to Abe. Instead, she collapsed against me and sobbed against my chest. Sammy clung to her leg, but he hadn’t lost the wild look in his eyes. I put a comforting hand on his back to include him in the group embrace.
Old Abe slowed to a stop, and I saw no sign of Zeke. I inched everyone away from the old man. When we reached the flashlight, I picked it up.
No matter what happened between Connie and I, I knew I had to stay with them. I had to help Sammy deal with the endless hunger inside of him. The same hunger I struggled with. And I needed to be there when the calling drew Sammy home.
John W. Oliver writes horror and fantasy fiction when he’s not playing with toy soldiers. His previous fiction can be found in Dark Discoveries and Robots Beyond. He is also a co-host on the podcast, Comics Squee, and member of the HWA. He is living in Southern California with his wife and multiple quadrupeds.