Part Two: Jenny

“Are you sure this car’s safe to be on the road?” Jenny asked. “It reeks like exhaust and body odor.”

Randy Marshall turned his head, a mischievous grin eating up his face. “Iron Betsy? She’s the safest car out here. She’s put up one hundred and seventy-seven  thousand accident-free miles.” He proudly slapped his hand against the dash. “She’s never let me down.”

Tom Vesey leaned forward from the back seat and brought a hand down on Randy’s shoulder. “Well, she might just give all of us carbon monoxide poisoning tonight.” He sat back and put his arm around Suzy Barnes, his girlfriend of three weeks. The town’s adults had written the three of them off as reprobates and they were young enough to revel in it.

Jenny, however, proved to be the exception.

She grew up a daddy’s girl and losing her father affected her deeply. For fifteen years, she was the perfect child: well-behaved, straight-A student, never a hint of trouble. Now, a switch had flipped and the upstanding young lady was hanging out with the metalhead burnouts. While they relished the role they had been thrust into, she willingly dove in headfirst. When they turned out to be good kids, it came as a welcome surprise and she scolded herself for ever believing otherwise.

“Yeah, you guys keep talking about my car, but don’t doubt my words.”

“Whatever you say, boss,” Tom said with a smirk.

Randy slowed the car as it approached a King Grocer truck. “Oh yeah? Watch this.” He pressed the clutch, dropped into fourth gear, and floored the accelerator. The engine screamed in protest, sputtering and backfiring. Tom burst out in a fit of laughter.

Jenny gripped the seat on either side of her knees. “Maybe you should just slow down and get back behind the truck.”

Randy’s face was set and determined. “Have a little faith.” The pitch of the engine grew higher, its volume gaining intensity. Randy shifted back into fifth and returned the accelerator to its previous position. The car sped into a no-passing zone and closed in on the drop of a small hill.

Tom reached out, his finger pointing dead ahead. “Dude, what’s that?”

“What’s—“ Randy stopped before finishing the question. A green light filled the roadway below the hill and it was moving toward them.

“Get back over!” Suzy said, her voice clashing with the engine and creating an ear-splitting symphony.

Jenny squeezed her eyes shut; her hands threatened to tear the seat apart.

A cold fist slammed into Randy’s gut. He chanted a single word repeatedly: “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon.” The car wheezed before finding a small reservoir of power, just clearing the big truck’s front bumper. Agitated, the driver laid into his air horn and flashed his high beams. The teens laughed, more from relief than any genuine amusement.

At the height of their mirth, a black car crested the hill, its twin beams filling Randy’s car with a green brilliance. He joked with Tom and Suzy about their near miss with what he called “The Devil Car.” Jenny didn’t join them. Something about that car filled her with raw, primal fear. She stayed quiet until they reached their destination, an old campground outside the Grey Smoke Woods.

Randy grabbed a case of beer from the trunk, and Tom a plastic bag filled with chips and jerky. The girls joined them and the quartet made their way toward a picnic area. Towering pines lined the path, swaying gently in a summer evening breeze. An owl hooted from somewhere in the shadows, causing Jenny to jump. She’d been here before—always during the day—but the night’s growing darkness left her feeling uneasy.

“This is it,” Randy said as he placed the beer on one of the tables. He turned around, arms extended, and smiled. “Just look at this view.”

Jenny joined him, craning her neck to look skyward. A large, circular opening in the trees gave a pristine display of the stars. She turned quickly when something cold tapped her shoulder.

“Want one?” Randy held out a can of beer. “It tastes like ass, but it’ll get you buzzed.”

Jenny chuckled. “Tastes like ass?” She took the can, popped it open, and took a drink. Her face wrinkled up, twisting into a cartoonish scowl. “Yeah, I get that.”

They took a seat at the table and spent the next hour drinking and talking. While the conversation shifted between topics, their boring little town was a constant. Jenny planned to graduate and move to Raleigh for college. She wasn’t sure yet what she would study, but she needed to put miles between herself and this place. That feeling never really existed in her, but the past year had whittled away at her and she felt getting away was best.

Randy and Tom also planned a relocation to the state’s capital in the hopes their band—The Wilted Souls—would gain exposure. Suzy would continue her role as their manager, a position she proved adept at after negotiating a cut of the bar when they played Frank’s Tavern a few weeks back. They’d need a new bassist—Billy Grant was determined to chase his dreams in California—but how hard could finding a bass player be? Their spirits were high, their heads filled with the hopes and dreams that only existed in youth. Even with the loss of her beloved father, Jenny viewed the future as being full of possibility and carrying no limit as to what she may accomplish.

Jenny finished her second beer and walked to a trash can next to a pair of porta potties. Nine crumpled cans rested on top of a pile of fast food wrappers and empty cigarette packs. The sight raised concerns; nausea from the smell of the chemical toilets made it worse. “Hey, Randy, how many have you had?”

He squinted, his synapses firing off as he attempted to remember how much he consumed.

“Jesus,” Tom said. “Do you need me to go and get you an abacus?”

The boys found this hysterical, but Jenny simply rolled her eyes. Randy took a swig, finishing off his current beer. “That was my last one, scout’s honor. We can stay out here a while longer and talk. By the time we’re ready to head back, I’ll be good to go.”

“I can drive,” Tom said. He turned to face Jenny, fell off his seat, and landed in the dirt. This brought on another bout of raucous giggles.

Seeing the distress on Jenny’s face, Randy looked her in the eyes. “I’ll be fine, I promise.” He thought about stating that he’d successfully driven home after heavy imbibing but decided against it. He walked over and put his arm around her shoulders. “I’ll even let you give me a sobriety test before we get in the car.”

She smiled, but his words did little to alleviate the roiling in her gut.

Suzy smacked her palms onto the table and pushed herself to her feet. “Before this evening goes any further, I need to use the little girl’s room.”

“Fair warning”—Jenny scrunched her face—“you might want to avoid these.” She hooked a thumb at the portable toilets and waved a hand in front of her nose.

Tom smirked. “Looks like you’re going pioneer-style, sweetheart.”

“No, it looks like we’re going pioneer-style.”

“I don’t have to pee.”

“And I’m not walking into those woods by myself.” She reached over and smacked Tom on his arm. “Come on, I really need to go.”

Tom gave a dissatisfied grunt and got to his feet. They walked ten steps before Suzy turned back to him. “Can you grab some toilet paper for me?”

“From in there?” Tom asked, pointing toward the toilets. “No way.”

She dropped her head, stuck out her bottom lip, and gave him puppy dog eyes. “Please?”

“Fine.” He stormed off and opened the door of the nearest porta-potty. “Nope,” he said, quickly slamming the door shut before moving to the other.

“I’ll pray for you,” Randy said.

Tom flipped him off, opened the door, and stepped inside. “Oh, my God!”

“What is it?” Jenny asked.

“Are you okay?” asked Suzy.

Randy took a step forward. “Yeah man, are you all right in there?”

A few seconds of silence passed before Tom burst out of the door, a wad of toilet paper wrapped around his hand. He walked over and handed it to Suzy. “If you need more, you’re going to have to go in there yourself.”

She leaned in, gave him a kiss on the cheek, and together they walked into the dark woods.

“Okay, wait here,” Suzy said. “I’ll be back in a minute.” She scampered off behind a tree and melted into the shadows.

“Hurry up,” Tom said. “It’s creepy out here.”

“Aww”—Suzy’s voice took on a mocking tone—“little baby need mommy to hold his hand in the dark, scary woods?”

“Okay, have fun out here by yourself.”

“You wouldn’t leave me.” Suzy waited for a response; her smile faded when none came. “Tom? Tom!” She scrambled to finish and clean up. Her heart beat faster with the realization that she was on her own.

As she moved to stand, her foot slipped out from under her. She fell forward, landing on something soft. Warm liquid enveloped her hands as she tried to push herself up. For a moment, she thought she had fallen into a puddle of her own urine, but she quickly recognized there was too much fluid. Her anxiety turned into terror and she called out for Tom.

Jenny sat across from Randy and listened to him talk about his musical plans. She’d heard it at least a dozen times before, but she didn’t mind. Despite his tendency to drink a little too much, he was a good guy, one of the few she’d met in her young life. She felt comfortable around him, thanks in no small part to the fact that he had never tried to pressure her. He had always chosen to let things play out in their natural course, come what may.

It occurred to her that he had never tried so much as to kiss her. She pondered on that, his words fading into the background as her attention wandered. Retreating into her mind, she began asking herself if he even found her attractive. Not one to let self-doubt weigh her down, Jenny propped herself up and leaned over the table, her lips pursed.

The gesture took Randy by surprise but, once his shock faded, he leaned toward Jenny. Electricity coursed between them as their mouths drew to within an inch. Just as they were about to touch, they heard Suzy cry out. They sat still, looking at each other, and tried to determine if what they heard was real.

“We need to see what’s wrong,” Jenny said. The words came with a false confidence that belied the fear running through her.

“Hang on a second,” Randy said. He ran over to the trunk of his car, returning with a flashlight in hand.

The pair sprinted through the woods, following the jittery, yellow beam of light. Soon, the sound of crickets ceded to hysterical sobs.

“We’re close,” Randy said.

His words proved prophetic. Ten seconds later, they found the couple. Suzy was clutched onto Tom, her makeup smeared. Randy stopped dead in his tracks when he saw the front of her shirt. From top to bottom, the front was covered in a shiny, red liquid.

“Oh my god,” Jenny said. “What happened? Are you okay?”

Suzy looked up, her eyes as big as frisbees and filled with the distant emptiness of shock. “I-I don’t know. I fell on something and—“

“We need to check you out and see if you hurt yourself,” Jenny said.

“We already did,” Tom said. “I couldn’t find anything on her. She says she’s not hurt.”

Randy stared past his friends. His eyes caught sight of something just beyond them, something lingering at the edge of his flashlight. Without saying a word, he walked past them.

Jenny turned her head when she saw him step away. “Where are you going?”

A low whine was the only response he could muster.

“Randy, what’s wrong with you?”

He raised his free hand and pointed. Less than fifteen feet from where they stood, he had spotted the object Suzy had fallen onto.

“Oh, Jesus Christ, Man,” Tom said.

“What is that?” Jenny asked.

“A deer,” Randy said, his voice dry and weak. “What’s left of it, anyway.”

The animal had been torn open, its entrails spilled onto the earthen floor of the forest. One of its back legs was missing, ripped free by whatever killed it. It looked as if the deer had been struck by a tractor-trailer and dragged for half a mile before falling over a cliff lined with jagged rocks.

His stupefaction breaking, Randy moved the light away from the gruesome remains. He stopped when the beam found another deer, its condition grimmer than the first. His mouth watered as hot bile danced up in his throat. He swept the light around, counting three more carcasses before returning to the first.

“We need to go, now,” Jenny said.

Randy looked her in the eye. Under the scant moonlight, his face looked gaunt and green. “What the hell happened out here?”