Emily Crane had lost another four pounds, bringing her total weight loss to sixteen pounds, and she felt good about it. Of course, she still had a long way to go--her goal was to lose eighty-five pounds--but she tried not to think that way. It was a day-to-day process, a one-day-at-a-time endeavor. As soon as she started thinking about how much she had left to lose, it became overwhelming and she became discouraged, and when she became discouraged, she wanted to eat.
She was returning home from her T.O.P.S. meeting. T.O.P.S.--Take Off Pounds Sensibly--was a weight loss support group she met with every Tuesday night. On that particular Tuesday night, she had left the meeting early, right after the weigh-in, because she had a splitting headache. All she wanted to do was go home, take some aspirin, and sink into a hot bubble bath.
That was not entirely true, that was not really all she wanted to do. What Emily really wanted to do was stop at the Carl's Jr. on the way home and get a Double Western Bacon Cheeseburger.
T.O.P.S. met in the neighboring town of Seaside, and Emily lived sixteen miles south in Big Rock. It was an inconvenience to drive over to Seaside every Tuesday, but it was worth it to her. She needed desperately to lose weight, and she could not do it on her own. She needed the kind of support she couldn't get from anyone but other women struggling with their weight. Hugh tried to help, but she knew his heart was not in it. Hugh's heart was not in much of anything lately--that was why she wanted so badly to lose a total of eighty-five pounds.
They had not made love in over a year--close to a year and a half now. It made Emily sad to think about it, made a knot form in her chest, a soggy, thick knot, and her throat burned with gathering tears. They used to have so much fun together in bed. They'd been married for twelve years, and for most of those years, everything had been perfect, especially in the bedroom. But three kids and a lot of afternoon snacking later, Emily had packed on the pounds, and the incidents of lovemaking had grown farther and farther apart. She gave Hugh credit for one thing--not once had he ever mentioned her weight gain. He did not criticize her for it, or make snide remarks about it, not even when they fought. Emily knew other women at T.O.P.S. whose husbands were cruel about their weight, husbands who publicly ridiculed their wives, humiliating them and hurting them so badly that they only wanted to eat more--a vicious circle. But not Hugh. Instead, he'd simply become less and less affectionate. Hugs and kisses became more scarce, and it had been a long time since he'd affectionately grabbed her ass or tickled her or playfully squeezed her breasts. She missed those little things, and she was determined to get them back.
Overall, it had been a good marriage, even though much of the life had gone out of it in recent years, mostly due to her laziness and her weight gain. She spent her days at home with Jeannie, their youngest at three. Donald, six, and Annie, eight, got home from school in the afternoon. Emily spent most of that time on the couch, eating while she watched old movies on television, and while Jeannie puttered and played around the room with her. There were days when she did not lift a finger to do any housework, and as a result, her once immaculate home looked dusty, cluttered, and a little too lived-in. Sometimes, Emily missed the early years of their marriage, when it had been just the two of them, herself and Hugh. Back when she was still a slender one hundred and nine pounds. She'd had a great body back then: Petite and compact; full chestnut hair that cascaded past her shoulders; clear, large brown eyes. Now her eyes seemed to have shrunk--her round fleshy cheeks had given them a piggy look that she hated. She had no illusions, she knew she would never be that svelte one hundred and nine again. But she planned to slim down to some semblance of her former self, for Hugh if for no other reason. Of course, she sometimes wondered what she would do if she met her weight-loss goal, and Hugh still had no interest in her. Had he fallen out of love with her? He was still considerate and treated her well--he left little notes for her on the fridge, and every once in awhile, he brought her flowers for no reason at all. Emily took comfort in that, and clung to the hope that, once she'd slimmed down, things would go back to normal and they would have a sex life again.
Clouds obscured the moon, and the night was dark and misty. It had been raining since Christmas--about three weeks straight--with no end in sight. Emily drove along Seaside Trail, a two-lane road flanked by lush woods on both sides. Fat-trunked redwoods towered overhead, and to her right, it was possible to catch glimpses of the ocean in the occasional gaps in the strip of woods during the day. Mixed in with the occasional patches of towering redwoods were scattered Douglas-firs, bay laurels, and a few spruce trees along the edge of the road. Below them, thick green ferns and other foliage carpeted the mossy woods. But none of that was visible in the dark of the misty night--it was, instead, sensed. She could feel the thick woods around her.
Emily reached up and rubbed her right temple with two stiff fingers, traced small circles over it, pushing hard. The headache was only on the right side of her head, behind her eye.
She was in the middle of a yawn when a ding from the dashboard made her look down at the lights. The "check engine" light was blinking.
The engine died.
Her power steering died with it, and she had to struggle with the wheel to pull her metallic green Volkswagen Jetta onto the shoulder to the right. Gravel crunched under her tires as she brought the car to a stop.
"Shit," she said.
She turned the key in the ignition to start the car again, but nothing happened--the engine did not make a sound.
"Oh, shit," she said, her voice higher, more shrill. On the verge of tears, she took in a deep breath to steady herself, let it out slowly. She pounded a fist on the steering wheel once, then reached over to the passenger seat for her purse. She reached up and turned on the light above the rearview mirror, then unzipped her purse and plunged her hand in, groped around for a moment, then found her cell phone. She flipped it open, pushed the button with her thumb to turn it on, then put it to her ear. The phone beeped three times, and she heard no dial tone.
"Oh, no!" she shouted.
The cell phone's battery was dead.
"I knew that, dammit!" she said. She'd been meaning to recharge the phone, but she used it so seldom that it had slipped her mind. With a lugubrious sigh, she threw the phone into her purse, then sat there for a long moment, staring out the windshield at the beams of her headlights, which melted into the misty, murky darkness up ahead. She killed the lights.
A car drove by going the same direction she'd been going, and a couple of minutes later, another came the opposite way. She turned on her emergency blinkers.
Tears stung Emily's eyes. She sniffled, but tried to hold back the crying. She took in a deep breath and said, "I'm screwed."
She was getting out of the car when she heard it, and it made her freeze where she stood, in the open door of the car, made gooseflesh crawl over her shoulders. It had come from the woods to her right and had been very distinct--a howl. She frowned. It had to be a dog, that was the only explanation--but it had not sounded like the howl of a dog. Not really. Not at all. It was a full sound, but piercing, a resonant cry. A chill trickled down her back like ice water.
Emily got the long, heavy Mag-Lite from the backseat. She leaned in, popped the hood, then closed the door. She went to the front of the car and shone the light onto the engine. Gravel on the shoulder crunched beneath her feet, and the Jetta's emergency lights blinked on and off with a soft clicking sound.
She laughed coldly and muttered, "What am I doing?" She knew nothing about cars and had absolutely no idea what might be wrong with the Jetta. Even Hugh's knowledge of cars was limited. They relied on Phil at the Volkswagen dealership in Eureka when something went wrong with the Jetta.
Facing the front of the car, Emily pulled her denim jacket together in front--it was shudderingly cold.
Something moved in the bushes to her left, the same side from which the frightening howl had come, and she took a step back from the car and turned the flashlight on the woods. The bright beam pierced the darkness and passed over some heavy ferns and thick tree trunks. The night smelled of the sea, and in the overwhelming silence, she could hear the whisper of the surf beyond the strip of woods.
As she lowered the light, he rushed out of the woods, tattered clothes dangling all around him, a shadow that quickly took on features--wide silver eyes that weren't right, somehow, they were wrong--
No, that can't be, she thought.
--and then he was on her.
Emily shifted into a murky, dream-like state as he grabbed her arms and his fingernails dug deeply into her flesh, piercing her denim jacket and her blouse and her skin. He reeked of filth and the stench of him clogged Emily's nostrils.
He spun around, dragging her with him, and threw her into the ditch. She landed on her side and rolled halfway up the ditch's other side. Pain exploded in her ribs as she landed on a large rock. She fell still in a puddle and cold water shocked her through her clothes. She dropped the flashlight, which sent its beam this-way-and-that as it rolled back and forth in the ditch's water. For a moment, he was gone--
--then he was on her again, and she heard him growl as he tore at her clothing, ripping it loudly. She managed to scream as cold air touched the bare, wet parts of her body exposed by her attacker. Emily kicked her legs and flailed her arms, but when she tried to scream again, it caught in her suddenly dry throat like ground glass and remained lodged there.
He continued to make low growling sounds in his throat, and something warm and wet spattered her face. It was spittle--he was slobbering on her as he growled, a sound punctuated by the clack-clack-clack of his jaws snapping shut repeatedly.
The flashlight, in its final rolls back and forth just above her head in the ditch, passed its beam over his face, giving her a glimpse, just a glimpse, but it was more than she needed--his face would haunt her dreams for the rest of her life. The face simply was not ... right. It was wrong in some way she could not yet define, in some way that her brain refused to process.
Long stringy dark hair, with silver eyes--they were eyes that did not look human, like the rest of his long face.
That was it--his face was too long, too narrow, somehow misshapen.
More ripping as her clothes were torn from her body. Then she felt his fingers under her panties, and he tore through the panties with his sharp black claws, ripped them off of her and touched her most private place.
He's going to rape me! she thought.
And then she screamed, a long ragged scream that was swallowed up by the night's silence, a silence that towered over them like some invisible dome, holding her scream down, keeping it from reverberating or carrying, smothering it. She tried to close her legs, but he was already between them.
She was dry and it hurt, but he was soon lubricated by his own fluids, and she continued to scream and fight as he pounded into her again and again.
He panted furiously and continued to slobber on her, releasing a low growl each time he exhaled.
He laughed then as he thrust into her harder, a deep, throaty laugh, nails scratching her and drawing blood. His long hair fell down over her face. His smell enveloped her like a filthy, oily blanket. Something happened to his throaty laughter--it became deeper, rougher.
Emily's hands began to claw the ground, searching desperately for a weapon, for something, anything she might use to stop him, to get him off of her.
The thing on top of her screamed. It was a sickening sound, a sound that made her wish she were unconscious so she did not have to hear it. The ragged scream collapsed into a howl.
The howl ... the one she'd heard earlier ...
Her right hand found something on the ground beside her. It was hard and cold, made of metal. She closed her hand on it and swung her arm back, then plunged it forward. She drove the metal object home hard, and something crunched beneath it.
The long howl stopped.
Her rapist stopped moving.
He collapsed on her heavily, suddenly still and silent, not even breathing. He was so heavy on top of her, she found it difficult to breathe. But he had stopped. He was still inside her, but he had stopped slamming into her.
Is he dead? she wondered. What did I do to him?
She remained there for an endless time, unable to move at first. Then, when she did move, her movements hurt, as if her entire body were raw. Emily tried to crawl backward, out from under him. When that did not work, she put her hands on his shoulders and pushed. She threw her whole body into it, all her weight, and heaved him off of her to her left.
When his body hit the ground beside her, it expelled a long, gurgling breath, its final sound.
Then she crawled backward, away from him, until she reached the flashlight. She rolled over and closed her right hand on the flashlight as she struggled to her feet. Her torn clothes dangled from her in wet tatters, and dirt and gravel clung to her exposed skin. She turned around and shone the beam down on him.
The long, dark hair looked unwashed and matted. Dark stubble grew all around his gaping mouth, covering the lower half of his face. He was a man of medium height, pale, arms spread at his sides. His filthy clothes were torn and tattered into strips. His right eye was no longer silver, and there was no longer anything wrong with it. It was open wide, like his mouth, a blue eye, perfectly normal. There was, however, something wrong with his left eye--something protruded from it. She stepped toward him, bent down, and turned the light on it.
It had a fat black handle, caked with damp earth. Emily reached out, closed her hand on it--the black handle was plastic. She pulled on it, not very hard at first, and it did not come out. She put a little more strength into it, and it came out with a wet sound. It lifted his head off the ground for a moment, then his head flopped back down as it was released.
It was a long rusty corkscrew--with the man's left eyeball impaled on the end, something long and wet and jiggly dangling from the back of it.
Emily gasped and dropped the corkscrew as she stumbled backward. Her right heel hit something--a rock embedded in the ground, maybe--and she fell backward, flailing her arms for balance, trying to come out of the fall.
The back of her head struck the edge of the paved road hard, and blackness overcame her.
* * * *
Hugh Crane closed his hands on Vanessa Peterman's round breasts and his thumbs flicked over her nipples, which stood rigid beneath them. Vanessa straddled his lap in the back seat of her white Chrysler 300 with darkly-tinted windows, which was parked in his driveway. She bounced up and down on him.
The children were planted in front of the television in the living room, enraptured by the Cartoon Network, or the Disney Channel, or Nickelodeon, or whatever it was they'd been watching when he'd left them there. They were avid television watchers, and he knew they would stay right where they were, their attention focused on the screen, until he called them away.
Vanessa made high-pitched sounds behind tightly closed lips, and her hands closed on his chest, her fingernails clawing him through the cotton of his unbuttoned shirt as she came. Hugh quickly followed her, crying out short, staccato sounds as he thrust his hips upward, driving himself into her.
It was the second time for him--he'd lost count of Vanessa's orgasms. She was wildly orgasmic. It was one of the things about her that drove him crazy.
They both gasped for air afterward, their skin moist with perspiration in spite of the night's biting cold. She fell limp against him and he embraced her with weak arms. Their scents mingled--his cologne, her perfume, their sweat. The air in the cab was heavy and warm, and the tinted windows had fogged up.
Vanessa laughed between gasps. "That was hot," she breathed. "So hot."
"You're hot," he said, his voice trembling just a little.
She laughed again. "We sound like Paris Hilton." She put on her goofy Paris Hilton face and spoke in a breathy, brainless voice: "That's hot."
It made him laugh. That was the other thing about her that drove him crazy--she was smart, and she made him laugh a lot. He put his mouth to her ear and whispered, "You do it to me, Vanessa, I'm serious, I've never known a woman who's done to me what you do."
They sat there for a long time, winding down, their breaths steadily coming slower, their heartbeats gradually slowing down.
Hugh lifted his left arm and looked over Vanessa's shoulder at his digital watch. It was eight forty-nine. Emily usually got home from her club by nine fifteen, nine thirty.
"It's late," he said.
He flicked the switch on the door that rolled down the window, but nothing happened.
"What're you doing?" Vanessa said.
"Trying to roll down the window to check on the kids."
"It won't work unless the ignition's on." Vanessa slowly rolled off of him to his right, until she was sitting beside him. "What time is it?" she said.
He told her. "We should wrap this up." Hugh sat up and reached down, pulled up his pants. He raised his hips off the seat, pulled them all the way up, and fastened them, zipped up the fly, fastened the belt. Then he slowly buttoned his shirt up.
"I need to shower before she gets back," he said.
"Sure you don't wanna try to go one more time?" Vanessa said.
He laughed. "You kidding? My dick is raw."
She leaned over and kissed him, then started to pull herself together.
Inside the house, the phone sounded its high, shrill, chirping sound.
"Oh, shit," he said.
"That's probably for me, and the kids will come looking for me."
"Run in and get it, then. I'll wait."
Hugh opened the door and got out. As he walked to the front door, he checked the windows. The vertical blinds were still closed--no one peered out at him.
The phone continued to trill.
He broke into a jog, went up the front steps, and into the house.
Annie was heading for the phone.
"I'll get it," Hugh said. He picked up the receiver, put it to his ear. "Hello?"
"Is this Hugh Crane?" a woman said. Her voice was pinched and she sounded officious.
"Yes, it is. Who's this?"
"You're married to Emily Crane?"
Hugh frowned. "Yes. Who is this?"
"I'm calling from Sisters of Mercy Hospital, Mr. Crane. Your wife is here, in the Emergency Room."
His forehead relaxed and the crooked frown lines disappeared as his face went slack. His eyes widened a little. "Oh, my God, is she all right?" he asked, then realized what a stupid question that was if she was in the Emergency Room.
"Why don't you come down here, Mr. Crane? She's been asking for you."
"I'll be right there."
He dropped the receiver back in its cradle, then stood there a moment. A list of possibilities scrolled through his mind--a car accident, a shooting, a heart attack, a stroke, on and on they raced through his head, bringing with them pangs of guilt that shot through his chest like ice-cold bullets.
Hugh turned around and clapped his hands once. "Okay, kids, get your coats, we're going out."
They whined in response, annoyed to be dragged away from the television.
"Come on, get your coats on, let's go," he said. Then he remembered Vanessa in the car outside. "Oh, shit," he muttered. He hurried out of the house, went to the car, and opened the door. "You've gotta get out of here," he said.
"Emily's in the hospital, I've got to go to her."
"I don't know."
"I'm sorry, I--"
"Thanks, but you should just go, okay?"
She scooted across the backseat toward him, and he stepped back so she could get out. Vanessa stood taller than Hugh. Auburn hair cascaded over her shoulders and part of the way down her back. She bent down to kiss him.
Hugh pulled back and hissed, "Not out here, dammit!"
She frowned as she stood up straight, then turned and got back in the car, behind the wheel. "Okay, I'm going."
"I'm sorry, I'm a little, you know, I'm--I don't know what's wrong with Emily, and I'm upset."
Vanessa pulled the door closed, started the car. She lowered the window and he bent forward, gave her a quick peck on the mouth.
"I'll call you, okay?" he said.
"Okay. I hope it's nothing serious."
She raised the window again.
Hugh hurried back into the house to get the kids and his black leather jacket.
* * * *
Sisters of Mercy was a small hospital on a hilltop overlooking Big Rock. There were a couple broad weeping willows in front of the hospital, a patch of lawn, a huge statue of the Virgin Mary in front of the entrance.
Hugh drove the blue RAV4 around to the Emergency Room entrance in the rear of the building. Back at the house, he'd told the children that Mommy was in the hospital, and they had not stopped grilling him ever since. They wanted to know why she was there, what was wrong, what had happened, and he kept telling them he didn't know, until finally, he'd snapped at them and told them to be quiet for the rest of the ride or they all were gonna get it. They fell silent. He could hear Donald and Annie whispering in the backseat, while Jeannie sniffled quietly in her safety seat.
Inside, he went to the front desk, carrying Jeannie, with the other two trailing along, and told the woman there who he was and why he was there. She told him to come into the back. Hugh herded the children through swinging double doors in the Emergency Room, where a tall doctor with dark hair and a mustache approached him.
"You're Mr. Crane?" the doctor said.
"I'm Dr. Lattimer. Look, your wife has been--"
"What's wrong with her? What happened?"
"Calm down, Mr. Crane, please. She needs you to be calm right now, okay?"
"Okay, okay. What happened?"
"It seems your wife's car broke down on Seaside Trail. She was attacked there. By a man. She was not too badly beaten. But--" He took a step closer to Hugh and lowered his voice to a murmur. "--she's been raped, Mr. Crane."
"Oh, my god. Is she--what was--do you know who attacked her?"
"Well, she managed to defend herself quite well. She killed him."
"Her attacker is dead."
Hugh clenched his teeth as he felt rising up in his chest a warm swelling of pride for his Emily, then he said in a hoarse whisper, "Good."
"It might be a good idea to put the children in the waiting room for now."
Hugh took them out to the waiting room and told them to sit still and wait for him. There was a television suspended high in a corner, playing the news. He went to the front desk and asked the woman behind the frosted-glass window if it would be possible to change the TV to cartoons, or something else the kids might be interested in. She came out with a remote and switched channels until she found Scooby Doo. She told Hugh not to worry, that she would keep an eye on them from her window. He went back through the swinging double doors.
Emily was lying on a gurney, dressed in one of the flimsy white, blue-speckled gowns they make patients wear in hospitals, the kind that ties in the back. A thin white blanket was drawn up to her chest. Her beefy right forearm was resting across her forehead. A pale green curtain had been drawn around her to give her privacy.
The moment she saw him, she dropped her arm and sat up, her mouth and eyes open to their limit.
"Oh, Hugh, oh God, Hugh!" she said, and her face screwed up as she began to cry. Her arms reached out to him and he bent forward and embraced her, held her close. His hands moved over her back, over the rolls of fat she'd been trying so hard to lose. She pushed away from him and looked up into his eyes. As she spoke, her voice gradually grew louder and louder. "Oh, Hugh, he-he, his face was--he didn't have--his eyes, Hugh, his eyes!" She stopped talking long enough to sob a couple of times. She gripped his upper arms, squeezed them hard. "He growled at me and, and he made this sound, this high screaming sound, luh-like he was trying to, I don't know, trying to howl, like some kind of animal, and his eyes, my God, his eyes, they weren't right, Hugh, something was very wrong with his eyes and his face because it changed, his face, it changed!"
"Calm down, honey, please."
Tears rolled down her already moist round cheeks. "And his eyes, there was something wrong with his eyes, they were--"
"--silver, his eyes were silver--"
"--calm down, now, okay?"
"--silver, Hugh, oh Jesus, his eyes were silver!"
The curtain pulled aside and Dr. Lattimer peered around its edge.
Hugh turned to him. "Doctor, do you have something to calm her down?"
He nodded, then disappeared.
Emily continued to babble and cry, her sobs fracturing her words. She went on about hair and eyes and teeth and nails, and Hugh wondered if she'd been attacked by a man or an animal. But she'd been raped--how could an animal rape her?
The curtain pulled aside again a few minutes later, and a nurse came in with a syringe.
"This is just some valium, Mrs. Crane," she said, "to calm you down."
"No," Emily said, "you've got to listen to me, this man, he wasn't a man, he was something else, he was, wait, listen to me!"
"Calm down, honey, and let her give you the shot, okay?" Hugh said.
The needle went into her inner elbow, the plunger was depressed.
A moment later, Emily slowly laid back on the gurney, her head on the pillow. Her chest rose and fell with frantic breaths, but those calmed, and she put her right forearm across her forehead again.
"Hugh," she whispered, "he was ... he wasn't right, he ... he wasn't human." She closed her eyes then, and her breaths came evenly, slowly.
"Don't be alarmed," the nurse whispered. "She's been through a lot."
Hugh nodded as the nurse left.
He looked down at his wife and wondered what had happened to make her say such crazy things.