“Where the fuck are you?“

The son of a bitch had been here, I had only to look at the hell he had wrought on this place. Tables that had been adorned with plates of eggs and bacon now wore a slick gloss of crimson. Glasses of OJ were speckled with gobs of brain tissue, flecked with bone. Blood pooled on the floor and dripped from the ceiling, still warm and not yet congealed. He was close.

Old wood creaked beneath me as I stepped over the remnants of a waitress, her long, slender neck cut from throat to spine. The scarce light danced across her sightless green eyes, blinded emeralds gazing at some far off, spiritual destination. Sorry, sweetheart, you deserved better than what you got.

Then again, so did most people who had the misfortune of crossing paths with this denim-clad devil.

Blood trailed from her corpse, leading toward the kitchen. I followed, stumbling into a scene that brought burning bile up my throat. I had found his art, his grand gesture. This type of foul sight wasn’t new to me—I had been following him for hundreds of miles—but this one was the worst yet.

A man, mid-30s, lay bisected on the counter. Split in two at the waist, his lower half straddling his face, he was left in a pose of self-fellation. His left arm was draped down, a hand caressing the matted blonde hair of a nude woman. Her breasts had been flayed and cut open in a crisscross pattern that left a result resembling the blooms of a Sweet Betsy.

Just as the man reached for the woman, the woman reached out to a teddy bear. Stained and torn, the bear’s head had been ripped away. In its place was the head of a small girl, no older than three, teetering precariously close to falling off. The rest of her body was propped up against the back door. The stuffed animal’s missing head was resting atop the raw stump of the child’s neck leaving behind this grotesque mockery.

The deathly silence was broken by the sound of tires throwing up dirt and rocks. He’s here. The bastard is here. The reassuring weight of my sidearm urged me forward as my boot knocked the rear door off its hinges. There was a growing dust cloud trailing a speeding car that had been liberated from one of the victims. The truck I had been following for days on end sat engulfed, tendrils of flame licking the corroded metal of its body.

Couldn’t make out any details of the vehicle. Good for him, he’s given himself another advantage. Unnecessary, asshole. You don’t give a shit about anything. That’s advantage enough. Twisting this once peaceful diner into the macabre canvas laid out before me was a testament to that. Any lingering doubts about his sanity were wiped away. Left behind was the most basic mode of operation: eat, sleep, kill.

This is one dog in need of putting down.

The tint of the sunglasses gave everything a surreal aura. This was magnified by the knowledge of what had taken place behind me. The realization set in that I was chasing a void of humanity. Following it was the concern that it was seeping into me. Maybe I’ll embrace it.

By some small grace, the tires on my car were intact. I must have been closer to him than either of us realized. Then again, he may have finished up and waited in the hopes of seeing my reaction. He was getting off on every second of this. I suppose I did too, though in a completely different way. The heart beating in my chest still felt empathy.

For the time being, that is.

A western wind blew in, kicking up sand. As the grit swirled thoughts turned to the countless battles time had witnessed here. Fights for land, fights for life, fights for no reason other than the shedding of blood. We’re fucked, every single one of us. You can dress it up and old way, place a silken ribbon on top but, make no mistake. We bleed each other dry. The ties of civilized society are as thin as the hair on a baby’s head. Once those are severed, watch out.

A booming thud echoed across the desert as the truck’s gas tank finally yielded to the fire. With any luck, it would spread to the building and burn it to the foundation. God rest the souls of those inside but no one needed to see what had become of them. There are two cans of gas in my trunk that would help. I’ll need those. Service stations are few and far between out here and cutting over to a highway cost time and miles that I can’t spare.

Keying the engine, my eyes find the fuel gauge. Half a tank. That’s the best news I’ve encountered in a week. Better yet, it means I can afford to push it for a hundred miles or so. Easing onto the sun-bleached asphalt, I catch sight of the burning husk. The steering wheel bangs my chest as I skid to a stop.

The passenger door of the truck is open.

Knocked ajar by the explosion of the fuel tank? Maybe. My roiling gut said otherwise.

Stopping cold, I caught sight of footprints. These weren’t the big boot prints I’ve been following, the same boot prints that led away from the driver’s door of the truck. No, these were slightly smaller. Sneakers. A glint of light reflected off of a needle just outside of the open door. Crusted blood coated the steel tube. This pricker had been used repeatedly.

Someone was with him.

Was it voluntary, or had he grabbed a hostage? The latter seemed unlikely, given his proclivities. It also isn’t in his nature to work with a cohort. Whatever’s going on is new. I don’t like it. There’s enough instability and unpredictability at play without variables like this.

This new unease drove my heels back to the car. White lines blurred into a solid stripe as miles faded into the rearview. Thirty or so had gone by when a road sign appeared on the horizon. Slow down, a voice in my head urged. Slow down, pay attention.

My foot let up on the gas before I realized it was happening. The car rolled to a stop along the shoulder. Sandy pavement crunched under my feet before my mind caught up to what was going on.

“Shit.”

The sign shook and tilted as the wind buffeted it. Smack in the middle—pinned by a knife—was a note:

Copper,

What’d you think? I gotta say, kiddy necks aren’t as easy to cut through as you’d think. Guess it’s just more flexible. I say it’s a trade-off since the little ones are easier to fool. I’d love to hear your thoughts. After all, that piece was just for you. So thankful you came into my life. See you on the road!

-TG

The bastard’s never left a note before. The messes he leaves behind are usually statement enough. My hand groped the miscellaneous objects in my pocket, emerging with a pack of cigarettes. Hands cupped, I lit one and looked at the note, now lying on the ground. Holding it against the end of my smoke, I drew in and set the paper on fire.

“Fuck you, TG.”

HOOOOONK!

My head whipped around as the horn grew louder. It’s him, he’s going to run my carcass flat into the ground. All of the wind in my lungs gushed out as I threw myself onto the ground. He might hit the car and hurt me, but he won’t take me out, not like that.

“How’s the sand taste, pussy?”

A pickup—raised to a ridiculous height with enormous tires—idled in the center of the road. The question had come from the driver, some teenage dipshit with a pockmarked face. Two other dipshits were in the cab with him while four more sat in the bed of the behemoth. Three of the ones in the back were girls, all the right age for making the type of decisions that could ruin your life if not end it outright. I ambled towards the driver who appeared ready to throw hands.

“Calm down, chief, I’m not coming for a fight.”

One of the dipshits in the cab let loose with an abrasive and high-pitched laugh. My restraint was fading.

“Wouldn’t be much of one, you old fuck. I lay one of these on you and you’ll be out fucking cold,” he said as he waved his fists around.

“I’ll have to take your word on that. Have you seen anyone else out here in the past hour?”

“Your sorry ass hitting the dirt was the first thing we’ve seen all morning and, baby, was that beautiful.”

Another round of obnoxious laughter filled the air.

Apparently, these clowns aren’t receptive to being a part of anything constructive. Easing towards the truck bed, I honed in on a young woman with red hair. I handed her a photograph.

“You look a hell of a lot smarter than those guys. If you see this man, run. Put as much space as you can between you and him, okay?”

She nodded. While she looked a little apprehensive, I could see the message had landed. God forbid they run into this maniac but, if they do, she’ll make it. The jackass driver threw out one last barb before peeling out. Christ, he’ll get them all killed trying to show off. The redhead kept her eyes locked on me. I threw up a hand, she did likewise.

Please, God, if I see any of them again, let them be alive and in one piece. That thought was shoved away by a pain like a white-hot needle punching into my eye, dropping me to my knees. Dirt and gravel tore at my legs through worn denim as I clawed at the ground. The fight proved futile, the body weak. Blinding desert sunlight surrendered its turf, usurped by an all-encompassing void.

. . .

Mister, a voice called, muffled as if the source had been buried in a shallow grave. Tiny fragments of rock sliced into my face, the weight of my head too great for my neck. Slowly, I was pulled out of a dream. In it, I was dead and this living nightmare was over. A shock of pain, bright enough to light the night sky, stomped its way from my head to my back.

Its strength told me that I was indeed still alive.

God damnit.

“Mister?” The voice was back, wavering yet gaining power. A small weight pressed my shoulder, fingers grasping my arm as the voice’s owner tried to turn me over. Every movement lit up new nerve endings.

“Get the fuck off me!” Rolling onto my back, pistol in hand, I forced my eyes open and the gun into soft flesh. It was the redhead from the truck, her eyes walking the line between concern and terror. In this state of pure humanity, I saw that the girl, who I had pegged at eighteen, was at least five years younger. Her lips trembled and I realized that my pistol was still at her ribs.

“I just wanted to see if you were okay.” Her voice was apologetic despite her having every reason to rip into me. Then again, I was a strange man who held a gun on her. Returning it to its holster, I pressed my palms into my eyes.

“Where are your friends at?”

“Those assholes aren’t my friends, they were just giving me a ride.”

“So why are you here?”

“I watched you while we drove away. I saw you fall down and when they wouldn’t turn around I made them let me out.”

“I’m fine, go home.”

She pushed out a bitter laugh, far too bitter for someone her age. As my eyes adjusted to the sun, her face was equal parts youthful and haggard. Just the same, she was a kid and the business I was up to wasn’t fit for a kid and I don’t need the responsibility.

“Okay, shithead.” She turned, walking westbound along the shoulder with a backpack slung over her shoulder. She’d made it twenty feet before raising a hand and raising her middle finger. “Glad you’re not dead.” Her hand dropped back down to her side, her thumb hooked outward.

Legs akin to gelatin wobbled and swayed as balance slowly returned. I looked back towards the girl, intent on offering her a ride somewhere safer. It would slow me down but I didn’t want another death feeding on my conscience the way this road feeds on lives. Double vision cleared in time to see her getting into a dusty, light-colored sedan. A moment stretched out during which I was sure that the driver was Death, the car a modern incarnation of his pale horse.

“Hey.” The word stumbled out awkwardly, catching in place on the thick layer of dust that blanketed my throat. A fractious coughing bout brought tears to my eyes. They cleared just in time for me to see the car vanish among waves of heat distortion. Whether it be with a devil or an angel, she was gone. Godspeed, kid.

Falling into my car my hand found a bottle of water, warmed by the sun. Anxiety bloomed as I searched for a small, leather satchel. It had been in the glovebox, hadn’t it? Of course it had, goddamnit, it always was. Where, then, on God’s green fuck was it? The throbbing slowly returned, a steady build of pressure that settled behind the eyes and threatened to blow them out of my skull.

A fist came down on the dash, then another, a shambolic drumroll of knuckles. Each blow sent a bolt of fresh pain up my arms to my temples. Sounds grew muted as my vision became dim. Am I dying? Is this how it ends?

Throwing myself forward, my forehead struck the steering wheel. Rage overtook anxiety as a howl carried pained anguish into the empty wasteland. Another fist came down, smashing the grates of a dash vent. Shards of plastic tore into flesh, drawing blood poisoned with defeat. Deprived of what I sought I became an animal, thrashing around as some electric current flowed through my body.

A realization came, its calming effect as sudden and jarring as a jet slamming into a mountainside.

Under the seat

Running my hand along the floorboard, some sharp edge tore a gash along my palm. The pain was replaced by ecstasy as my fingertips touched the smooth case. Snatching it up, I unzipped it to check that its contents were intact. Like some holy book it opened, displaying its divine innards. Tucked safely under an elastic strap were six vials, each filled with a clear liquid.

The opposite side held an inhaler, dried blood forming a strange patina along its top. Unscrewing the device’s bottom, I removed one of the vials and placed it inside. A small light on the device flashed red before turning solid blue. I placed in one nostril, ignoring the ichor, and inhaled. Outside shadows slowed to a crawl as a fine mist cooled my head and soothed the ache.

My head, suddenly heavy, fell against the headrest. The car’s ceiling—complete with sagging headliner—disappeared, giving way to endless sky. I must have fallen asleep because the canopy overhead was a deepening shade of purple. Shimmering starlight cascaded through the velvety canvas. A sense of weightlessness enveloped me as gravity gave up its grasp.

The world below felt insignificant, as did its worries. The man I had been chasing shrank, nothing more than a bully frying ants with a magnifying glass. So much time spent carrying the weight of playing hero that its absence promised to catapult me into orbit. I wanted up here to be my forever, the ills of man to never again touch my doorstep.

It was a beautiful thought.

“You’re no hero.”

The words came out of the inky night like an arrow piercing the bubble that carried me towards the heavens. There was no one around to witness my plummet back into this godforsaken patch of sand and rock. Tears formed and froze in place by buffeting wind. With no control from my brain, I turned into a sitting position and braced for the coming impact.

Sitting up in the driver’s seat, there was no sound save for the anvil clang of my heart.

You’re no hero.

The voice was feminine, its source unclear. A look around verified that I was alone in the car. The bright moonlight—it was indeed night—revealed no specters outside. A glance at the device showed the light was again flashing red. Jesus, how much had I done? Checking the leather case revealed that only the single vial was missing, a small comfort.

“Why haven’t you stopped him?”

I jerked in my seat, the light from the gauges leaving trails as my eyes fought to focus. “Who the hell are you?” The question was out but I knew the answer before it left my lips. It was a young woman, mid-20s perhaps, with green eyes bright enough to cut the night. It was the waitress from the diner.

Ice slicked my heart as I tried to keep my eyes on hers. The last thing I wanted to do was let them drift down to her neck. Having already borne the sight of her earthly remains, I had no desire to revisit that image.

“You fancy yourself a hero,” she said, ignoring my wandering eyes, “but you haven’t actually done anything, have you?”

My hand slipped down to the center console, reaching for the device. It sat in a cupholder, its blinking light casting a soft, red glow along the inside of the cylinder.

“Look at me!” Her voice boomed, seeming to come from the car’s speakers as well as her mouth. She repeated the command, the words almost gurgled.

Oh God, oh Jesus, oh fuck.

“Look what he did to me,” she said, a finger tracing a line along her neck. When the digit reached the dead center of her throat she paused. She spoke with eyes that showed that she was coming to grips with what happened to her. Her anger returning, she began her refrain again. As the volume increased, she pressed the tip of her finger into her throat.

Cold tendrils of horror chewed into my brain. I saw the wound, the same slash that I had seen when I found her body in the diner.

Ice slicked my heart as I tried to keep my eyes on hers. The last thing I wanted to do was let them drift down to her neck. Having already borne the sight of her earthly remains, I had no desire to revisit that image.

“You fancy yourself a hero,” she said, ignoring my wandering eyes, “but you haven’t actually done anything, have you?”

My hand slipped down to the center console, reaching for the device. It sat in a cupholder, its blinking light casting a soft, red glow along the inside of the cylinder.

“Look at me!” Her voice boomed, seeming to come from the car’s speakers as well as her mouth. She repeated the command, the words almost gurgled.

Oh God, oh Jesus, oh fuck.

“Look what he did to me,” she said, a finger tracing a line along her neck. When the digit reached the dead center of her throat she paused. She spoke with eyes that showed that she was coming to grips with what happened to her. Her anger returning, she began her refrain again. As the volume increased, she pressed the tip of her finger into her throat.

Cold tendrils of horror chewed into my brain. I saw the wound, the same slash that I had seen when I found her body in the diner. The finger went in deeper, pressing into her neck and altering her voice.

“Your life is shit, that’s why you’re out here, chasing a ghost you have no intention of catching.”

Another finger went in, then another and another until her entire hand disappeared. My ears filled with a dulled ringing. I can only imagine the sounds that were issuing from my passenger. She began to laugh as she wrenched her trachea free and dropped it. My disgusted expression brought a bout of laughter out of her.

She touched her bloody hand to the windshield, her finger strokes deliberate. Fixated on her opened throat, I became lost. The dark void I saw seemed to house a galaxy entirely its own, encompassing the vast expanse of space. The movements of her hand were careful yet frantic. My growing curiosity wasn’t strong enough to peel my eyes from their target.

The flesh around the cut began to rip free, expanding the gash until it circled her neck entirely. My pulse quickened, air fought its way out of my lungs. Vomit was on my shirt before I realized it was on the way up. The light began to fade as her head slipped free. It fell into the back seat, her spine trailing behind.