Hello, readers. How are you?
About a week ago, I received an email from Tom Strelich (his website is here), author of Dog Logic (which can be purchased here) and one of the judges of the Summer 2018 Owl Canyon Press Hackathon writing contest. I didn’t win the contest (terrible for my ego) and as it took place over the summer, I had naturally forgotten all about it. The email was a surprise, but when I read it, it transformed into the best kind of surprise that leaves you breathless and dancing in your underwear through your empty house in absolute triumph. The email was filled with positive feedback and a remarkably kind offer to review my novel on Amazon and Goodreads, Her Beautiful Monster. He wrote:
You have a really good voice, and those are rare (I read amost 500 short stories for the Hackathon and trust me, good voices are rare!). From the first few pages I knew I was in good hands. The characters were great and you pulled off one of the most difficult balancing acts for a writer, to make them recognizable and sympathetic yet unique. You’re a really good writer and I strongly encourage you to keep writing — you owe it to your talent and the reading public (the fraction that doesn’t go for pulpy genre stuff anyway).
You also might consider growing your story into a larger work (e.g., chapbook whatever those are, novella whatever those are, a binge-worthy boxed set, or just a novel). I ended up doing that with the short story I wrote for the original proto-hackathon —it became the first 3 chapters of Dog Logic, the novel I spun out of it which went on to win several awards and is usually in the Amazon top 10 or so in its category (well, maybe top 20 on some days), so miracles do happen. Or, just cook up a whole new novel from your mother wit, you’ve got the chops for it.
This award-winning author did not have to email me. The fact that he did restores my faith in humanity, which means more than my faith in my writing talent, but it restored that too! His criticism was completely valid. His notes said: “…really good voice but the story isn’t as strong as the voice, but worth an email.” I remember worrying I was rushing the story to fulfill the contest’s deadline, and I remember pouncing on the first idea that came to mind, so the story definitely was not as strong as it could have been, as it should have been as an entry for a contest.
But I thought I’d use this sign from the universe to love myself as a writer more than I have been lately, and to share the story with you.
“In the Pines”
No coverage, not even one bar, the battery was dead anyway. It was still daytime, but there was an overcast and the sky had a perfectly even dullness, so there was no way to tell what time of day it was, much less which direction was north or south or anything else for that matter. A two-lane blacktop road snaked up into the distance and disappeared into some trees, or a forest if you wanted to get technical about it. It also snaked down toward some lumpy hills and disappeared there as well. What sounded like a two-stroke chainsaw could be heard in the distance, but it was impossible to tell whether it was up in the forest or down in the lumpy hills. This had been happening more often lately. Two different ways to go, with a dead battery and no bars, and nobody left to blame.
Madeline turned back to survey the 1985 Cadillac El Dorado. There was nobody to blame, that was true, but if she had to blame anybody, it would be definitely be Steve. He was perched on the hood of the El Dorado, smoking a cigarette. His flannel shirt blew open in the breeze to reveal a dark green V-neck shirt. His jeans were fashionably stressed and if Madeline had been in a better mood, she supposed Steve could have been considered handsome. But they had been traveling together too long for Steve to be anything but a douche bag. He’d led them here, to the middle of nowhere in West Virginia from the comfort of their cozy shore town in New Jersey, with minimal forethought. It was infuriating.
Here Steve was, pulling over not to ask for directions like he should, but to smoke a cigarette. He never smoked inside the car as a rule because he was worried it might depreciate the value. How that could possibly matter now when the two of them were on their way to deliver it to a buyer was beyond Madeline. Steve’s ad on Craigslist had been abundantly clear; all sales were final and as the money was already in Steve’s bank account, all they had to do was drop off the car and then fly home.
But that was the problem with Steve. He was always focused on the wrong things, the most random details. He had this wild and romanticized idea that this trip would be something Jack Kerouac would be proud of, that he’d learn all the secrets about the universe and his identity. Steve had had a rough go of it lately. He was in between jobs with no prospects of a real career. He’d come out of college with $100,000 worth of debt and a B.A. in English. Steve refused to be a teacher, so where did that leave him? He didn’t know, and the older he became, the more he convinced himself there was nothing special about him. Over beers at the local watering hole that they had been going to since their senior year of high school with fake IDs, Steve confided in Madeline that he was positive this level of mediocrity he was experiencing was as good as it was ever going to get. The defeated way he had turned from her and drank to keep from talking had nearly broken Madeline’s heart. She knew it was mostly self-serving, melodramatic bullshit, but she didn’t want her oldest friend to feel so sad.
The next day, Madeline woke Steve with his favorite breakfast sandwich from the local convenience store. As she plopped down on his bed and tempted him with sausage and egg and cheese on a perfectly toasted bagel, Madeline told Steve this trip might be exactly what he needed to mix things up and get some perspective. She offered to tag along, citing that she could use the different locales for her photography.
But really, the main reason Madeline had agreed to accompanying Steve was because she was sure he’d end up dead without her. He had basically confirmed her fear when, at the last gas station they had stopped at to fill up on fuel, he had thrown out the directions he had printed off of MapQuest. It was a genuine accident – he had only wanted to clean up a bit and dispose of food wrappers, straw wrappers, candy wrappers and the like – but it seemed like a fatal one now that they had no GPS. There was no service on their phones and Steve did not own a standalone GPS, which irritated Madeline to no end considering all the traveling he claimed to do.
They hadn’t spoken since the revelation of the discarded directions, and Madeline would be damned before she would be the one to break the silence. She stood a few feet in front of the car, staring off into the distance, sizing up their options. She had seen the movie “Deliverance,” had even watched “Wrong Turn” through her fingers, and knew they were in trouble. Aside from inbred mutants, Madeline disliked the distant sound of chainsaws coupled with isolation. Though it was warm, she shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. Which would it be, the forest or the hills? As Madeline gazed into the distance, she considered grabbing her camera from the backseat and snapping a few shots. A landscape like that would make a badass album cover or, at the very least, a nice picture from some real housewife’s living room. A crow squawked in the distance and Madeline shivered again. Crows were harbingers of death, and Madeline thought that was a bad sign.
The engine roared to life behind her, and Madeline knew that was her nonverbal cue to climb back in the car as a dutiful but silent copilot. She wouldn’t argue with Steve about the destination, deciding to let him choose and deal with the consequences, deciding to be content with observation and silent judgment. Reaching to turn on the radio, Steve also seemed fine with not talking, with just driving. He twisted the radio knob to move the dial until he found something that wasn’t buried beneath irritating static.
Nirvana’s rendition of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” played through the speakers, and Steve turned it up. He had always loved Nirvana, partially evidenced by his penchant for flannel which had not ended in the 90s. A little too young to genuinely appreciate the artistry and bravery of the band, Madeline was still familiar with the song and its many variations. It had been a crucial element in her favorite murder mystery series on television; it had been the murderer’s favorite song and the clue that gave him away in the end. The reporter unknowingly hot on the trail of the murdered had ended up in his apartment, drinking wine and about to get cozy, when the murderer told her to wait just one second while he set the mood. The murderer went to a room in the rear of his apartment and started playing the song on his record player. It was the same song that had been found playing at all of the murder scenes and suddenly the reporter realized she was in real danger. Long story short, she killed him by plunging a pair of kitchen scissors in the murderer’s eyes.
That association, and the delightfully disturbing lyrics that were vague enough to be terrifying because they left so much to the imagination, aided Madeline in coming to the conclusion that the forest was not the way to go. She turned to tell Steve, but the music was loud, and he was singing along at the top of his lungs. My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me/ Tell me where did you sleep last night/ In the pines, in the pines/ Where the sun don’t ever shine/ I would shiver the whole night through. Steve must have felt Madeline’s eyes upon him because he turned and flashed a gorgeous smile, the kind of smile that could all together kill the tension between them. It was the kind of smile Steve used whenever he needed to end an argument and ensure his victory. When Madeline refused to smile, he lowered the radio and asked her what was wrong.
Madeline said that she thought it’d be best to veer towards the hills instead of the forest up ahead. She told him the sunshine wouldn’t be able to shine through the thick boughs of all the pine trees, and she knew that wasn’t the vibe he was going for.
Steve wasn’t buying Madeline’s offered rationale. For one thing, the day was overcast so Madeline was full of shit on at least one count. Steve pointed this out to Madeline, and furthermore, Steve wanted to know why Melanie was really so against taking the road that led into the forest.
Madeline simply stated it was a feeling she had and that more and more articles were writing about the science behind intuition so if Steve had no strong feelings about it one way or the other, then he should just listen to her. Madeline leaned back comfortably in her seat but shot furtive glances at the radio.
Steve knew Madeline very well, an advantage of being in someone’s life since grade school and asked her if the song was freaking her out. He had come close to the truth, too close for comfort, and her cheeks burned red. She insisted that had nothing to do with it, but then quickly wondered what difference it would make if it had. After all, Steve believed in signs and omens; he had chosen this particular buyer out in the middle of fucking nowhere because the letters in his name added up to nineteen if you could fucking believe it. What a weirdo.
Steve agreed that he did believe in signs and omens but argued that Madeline was misinterpreting this particular sign. What if the song came on the radio because they were supposed to be in the pines? Had she ever considered that?
Madeleine said that was easy for Steve to argue because he wouldn’t be the girl shivering in the pines. Steve only shrugged, offered no real response, so she fell silent and was happy imagining it was Steve’s head caught in the driving wheel that was mentioned in the lyrics. She wasn’t sure what a driving wheel was, and the context clues from the song led her to deduce only that it had something to do with a train.
The song ended and was replaced by some soft rock songs. Melanie was staring out the window, gazing at the landscape flying by. Steve was working his way through their most recent candy purchase. They drove on like that for a while, each silently stewing, as they traveled into the forest, into the pines.
At some point Madeline fell asleep, ironically wondering what it was about traveling by automobile that made passengers so sleepy, and she only woke up once she realized the car was no longer moving. She sat up straighter, momentarily concerned by the pain in her shoulders and back. She regretted not clearing off the backseat and stretching out to really get comfortable. Madeline was going to turn and yell at Steve for stopping and for keeping all of his shit on the backseat. Apparently, the nap hadn’t eased her crankiness.
But when she turned to look for Steve, the driver, to see what was going on, he was no longer inside the car. That explained why they were stopped. Steve was standing outside the car, his door still open, so that all Madeline could see was his waist and legs. She asked him what was going on. She wanted to know why they had stopped.
Steve lowered himself so he and Madeline could make eye contact. He looked annoyed, but only mildly so. He encouraged Madeline to climb from the car and to see for herself. He then stood and resumed staring, dead set on offering Madeline nothing. She resigned herself to taking his advice and climbed from the car. More than curiosity, Madeline was eager to stretch out and ease the throbbing pain.
There was a train stopped on the tracks before them, but there was no closed gate with flashing red lights and there were no dinging bells. There was no aluminum sign painted bright yellow. There were no warning signs at all, which was incredibly weird. There were also no signs as to why the train was stopped. Madeline asked Steve what was going on, and he was a little crestfallen to admit that he didn’t know. Steve asked her if she saw anything weird.
From her current vantage point, Madeline thought everything looked perfectly normal. So Madeline took a couple of steps forward and then let loose a blood-curdling scream, knocking herself on her own ass. She scrambled backwards until she hit the front bumper of the car, screaming for Steve.
Steve rushed over, asking her what was wrong and if she was okay. Madeline didn’t have words, couldn’t find them at the moment, so she raised a trembling finger and only pointed at the driving wheel located directly in front of them. Inside was a severed human head. Its eyes were wide with shock and horror, most likely both, and its mouth was open to reveal toothless gums. Its hair was shaggy and its beard was curled just beneath its chin. It was grotesque and horrible and Madeline wanted to turn her face away and bury it in Steve’s firm chest, but he was moving closer to the train. He wanted a better look. Madeline told him he was a lunatic, and she tried to tell him this was just like the song, almost exactly like the song, but he wasn’t listening to her rambling.
Steve kept telling her to calm down and he walked closer to the train’s driving wheel with the surprise inside. At first, he thought some kind of improbable and horrific accident had occurred. It was, after all, a railroad crossing with no warning signs of any kind. Essentially, that made the place a death trap. But Steve and Madeline were okay, and Steve kept telling Madeline that. He looked closer and he realized that the victim wasn’t decapitated by the train because there was no way the head would be so in-tact, so pristine. Aside from the bulging eyes, the head looked like it could be reattached no problem and the guy could go back to dancing in no time.
The laceration that had separated the head from the body was neat and even, like it had been made by someone with steady feet and solid ground, operating with deliberateness, the way a lumberjack might begin to cut down a tree. Steve considered telling Madeline all of this to calm her down, but he was too confused and concerned by the scene, and there was no way telling her the specifics of the grotesque scene before them would have worked to comfort her anyway. He called over his shoulder to tell Madeline to get back in the car, but he kept his eyes on the severed head. He was desperate to know how the head came to be where it was, and he wanted to know if someone put it there, and most importantly he wanted to know why this was happening. He had no one to discuss things with, because all Madeline could do was gibber and cry and hold her disbelieving head in her hands.
Suddenly, the sound of a working chainsaw was louder than everything else. It came from the other side of the train, from just a few feet away, and it was enough to send Steve running to Madeline’s side. She was screaming hysterically again, had not moved from the front of the car, and he didn’t bother to shush her. Moving with urgency, he helped her to her feet and told Madeline the plan was to get the hell out of there, to get back to where there was cell phone service and he could call the police. Madeline nodded, unless she was shaking so bad it only looked like she was. Steve was being as gentle as he could, but he wanted to move fast.
Clutching each other as they rose, turning to walk to the passenger side, they were stopped dead in their tracks by the presence of a patrol car. The lights were flashing but there was no sound, and it was parked perpendicular to the road so that the scene was blocked from view and so that Madeline and Steve could not make any kind of exit. The chainsaw had cut off and the only sound seemed to be the sounds of their own breathing. Madeline asked who it was in a trembling voice, but Steve only shrugged. He whispered to Madeline to stay quiet; he was too busy wondering when they patrol car had pulled up, and why the officer hadn’t said anything.
Then the driver’s door of the patrol car clicked open. Madeline gasped and clung tighter to Steve. An imposing-looking man in a khaki uniform with a tell-tale gold star winking in the sunlight climbed from the car. He was wearing reflective aviators, the kind that cops in horror movies set in rural towns always seemed to wear. His mouth was a straight line and with his eyes hidden behind mirrors, it was impossible to tell what the lawman was thinking. Steve didn’t like the uncertainty of it all; Madeline could tell by the way he held onto her. She couldn’t blame him as she didn’t like the way the lawman was behaving. It didn’t make sense.
Instead of running over to see if the kids who had just discovered the severed head were okay, the officer stayed standing on the far side of his car, allowing it to separate him from the terrified couple before him. He greeted them with a thin smile, said howdy, and then asked them what the trouble was. Hadn’t he heard them scream?
Madeline might have laughed if she wasn’t so scared. Steve spoke from beside her, saying they were lost and happened upon the railroad tracks. He gulped before he added that there seemed to be a severed head in one of the driving wheels.
The officer nodded and stepped back from his patrol car, firmly shutting the door. He walked over to them and while doing so, he told them he knew about the situation, that someone had called it in only ten minutes ago. Then why would he have asked what the trouble was? Madeline twisted her head from one side to the other, searching for a nearby residence. There was nothing, just pine trees as far as the eye could see with only the serpentine road running through them. Who could have possibly called it in? Madeline didn’t want to believe the uniformed officer was lying, but what choice did she have? She pulled Steve closer, stopped just shy of climbing inside his shirt.
Steve didn’t say anything, only listened. He knew something was off, but the officer took the silence as a cue to keep talking. The officer told them this was the second severed head reported in just as many months. He explained that as long as he had been on the force, there’d been whispers and rumors about the Butcher Brothers.
The Butcher Brothers were a pair of brothers in matching overalls that didn’t go for shirts or shoes but expected superior service. The one thing they hated more than anything else in the entire world was being wronged, cheated, scammed. Anyone trying to put one over on them was an enemy to be annihilated. The Butcher Brothers deemed any kind of trickery as an insult to their intelligence, which honestly didn’t amount to much but still seemed to count for something to the Butcher Brothers.
The word on the street, or the unpaved roads that served as thoroughfares to and from the dying nearby town, was that the most recent victim (present company excluded) was supposed to bring the Butcher Brothers a car, some kind of rarity, a real collector’s item. The officer explained the car was a lemon, and that the whole deal was nothing more than a sham. The officer had been the one to find the head just a mile or so from where they now stood, and the body was just a few yards farther than that.
Madeline could barely listen, let alone look. All she saw was dark green fabric, and all she smelled was Steve’s cologne and cigarettes. She heard what the officer said, but she didn’t want to process any of it or understand any of it. Madeline only wanted to climb back inside the El Dorado with Steve at the wheel and drive home. She had been short with him, but she would take it all back, especially if he could get them home.
The officer was looking at them curiously, the way a housecat watches a fly she’s been mercilessly toying with instead of outright killing it. He took a few steps closer, and Madeline could hear his bootheels thud against the pavement with a soft but satisfying crunch. He rested his hands on his hips and took in a deep breath like he was settling in and getting comfortable. He asked where the flatfoots were from anyway.
Steve laughed without any humor and gulped. He said they were taking a road trip and were trying to do it the old-fashioned way with maps and atlases, but they got lost and all turned around. Steve asked if the officer would be kind enough to point them back to town and they’d be out of his way. The officer turned from the couple to survey the El Dorado. He asked what year the El Dorado was. Steve was shocked by the question. He couldn’t understand what the year of the car had to do with anything. He lied and said he didn’t know.
The officer didn’t say anything. He stepped even closer and had taken a particular interest in Madeline. He asked if the little lady was alright. Madeline didn’t answer, so Steve spoke up and told the officer seeing the severed head in the driving wheel of the train had understandably shaken her up. Steve continued and said Madeline’s distressing demeanor was all the more reason for them to get the hell out of dodge. He tried another laugh and this one sounded more authentic. Steve asked again for directions back to town.
The officer looked Madeline up and down and then he nodded slowly. He told them that if they went back the way they came, and made the first left onto a gravel road, it would take them all the way back to town. He tipped the hat on his head and walked back to his car so he could move it. Steve gingerly walked Madeline to the passenger side of the El Dorado, whispering a mile a minute that they were going to be okay and that they were going to make it through this as long as they stuck together and stayed calm. Once they were in the El Dorado, and the police cruiser was off to the side, Steve accelerated backwards and made a K-turn.
Madeline was crying softly and Steve promised her it was almost over. Hunched over the wheel, Steve was searching frantically for the turn off. Madeline asked why this was happening to them. Steve had no answers. All he could do was reach over and take Madeline’s hand in his. He brought it to his mouth and roughly kissed the back of it, promising against it was all right and that it would be all right.
In about ten minutes, Steve saw gravel and breathed a sigh of relief. He turned left, going deeper into the pines. The sound of the tires rolling across the tiny stones was music to his ears. To comfort Madeline, he released her hand and squeezed her thigh softly while smiling bright. Steve told Madeline they were on their way, and they’d be home before she knew it. He told her he’d get her whatever she wanted, whatever she needed. Steve told Madeline he’d spend the rest of his life making it up to her if he had to. Madeline turned to him with something like hope etched on her face.
But Steve slammed on the brakes as a wild-looking man came ambling out of the pines. He stopped in the center of the gravel road, forcing Steve to stop right where he was. The man, clad in ripped and filthy overalls but lacking a shirt and shoes, turned to face the car. A crooked, insane smile was plastered across his face and when he turned, he also raised a chainsaw high above his head.
Madeline and Steve screamed until their breath ran out. Madeline was hitting and slapping Steve, demanding that he get them the fuck out of there. Steve told her he was going as fast as he could, and as he turned to reverse, the second Butcher Brother slammed his fists on the trunk of the car. Steve hit his brakes once more and Madeline was beside herself. She was pulling at her own hair, imploring that he keep driving and if he killed the fucking psychopath behind them, then so be it.
The Butcher Brother behind the car scrambled to Madeline’s side of the car. He wrenched the door open before Madeline even knew what was happening. He reached for her hair and meant to pull her from the car. Steve held onto Madeline with one hand and accelerated forward, pushing the pedal down as far as it would go. The Butcher Brother in front of them dove out of the way and the one assaulting Madeline fell by the wayside as they sped forward.
Steve didn’t slow up one bit, not even so Madeline could shut her door. He sped until gravel met pavement. He sent the tiny rocks spewing into the air and the tires squealed as he made a hard left onto the highway. Cars beeped and drivers cursed him, but Steve kept driving for another ten miles or so, until they left the small town the Butcher Brothers called home.
The pair pulled into a gas station and parked beside a pump. Steve turned to Madeline and stupidly asked her if she was alright. Her forehead was bloodied, and her face was a mess of smeared mascara and snot. She looked so pitiful that Steve felt his breath catch in his throat. He thought he might cry. He took her into his arms and he apologized, and he kissed the top of her head. All Madeline said was that she wanted to go home.
The pair walked into the store attached to the gas station and asked to use the phone. The confused cashier handed over his own phone and asked if everything was okay. Madeline started crying again. Steve wrapped an arm around her and told the cashier he was calling the police because they had been attacked. The cashier paled and said he’d be back in a moment with the manager. Steve nodded and told the voice on the other end that he needed a patrol car immediately. He couldn’t say where he was, but he could tell the operator where they’d come from and what happened.
Madeline stepped away from Steve and towards the glass windows that made up the entrance of the store. There was a crowd gathering outside, gawking at the El Dorado with the dent in the trunk and the front doors open and the out of state plates. The police would come but Madeline didn’t think the crowd would disperse. If anything, she feared the crowd would grow and swell and then Steve and Madeline might never be able to leave.
But the police were able to make the crowd scatter. They promised to file an incident report and took their contact information to keep the pair updated on any future developments. Steve and Madeline were free to go. Steve purchased a carton of cigarettes and an atlas. Madeline purchased some candy and before they left, she took Steve’s picture beside the El Dorado. It was a handsome portrait, better than an album cover or average landscape.
They made their way through the crowd, and back to the El Dorado. And as they approached it, a crow flew directly over their heads and landed on the hood and then looked at them. They stood some distance away and watched the crow watching them. Another crow flew directly overhead and landed beside it. The first crow squawked and then both flew away. They watched the crows disappear, looked at each other, and then got in the El Dorado. Only one way to go this time, with five bars and full battery.