Paul was beat up bad. His nose had been moved right of center and twisted about an eighth of a turn off plumb. His left eye was swollen shut, with blood caked all over that side of his face. The right side of his head had blood in his hair and his beard, but his right eye was slitted open like he was asleep or in a coma. I knew he’d seen me when that eye gave an almost imperceptible twitch at me as I looked in at him.
The man in the black suit stood beside the chair and beamed down at Paul. Then he looked at me, a smug grin filling his otherwise bland face.
“Do you see now what happens if you resist?” he asked me. As if to emphasize his point, he reached down and twisted Paul’s nose. Paul flounced in the chair and let out a low groan. The man laughed.
I couldn’t help myself. I rushed to Paul’s defense.
I sprinted from the water fountain and past the janitor’s closet. My friend bellowed, “NO!” and struggled to rise up. As soon as I was into the restroom, I felt something hit me from behind and reach an arm around my neck.
As I sputtered and tried to knock the ambusher off my back, Paul surged forward like the cornered, angry hillbilly he was. With lightning speed, he tackled whatever it was that was trying to choke me unconscious. In the collision I got spun around and slammed into the sink, but Paul managed to knock the new attacker off of me. As I bounced off of the plumbing I saw that it was yet another one of those bastards in black.
I’ve been in more bar fights than I can count with Paul, so I knew the drill. There were two of us and apparently two of them, which meant that we each got one. Generally, when you’re brawling a fight ends pretty fast once one side has more fellas still fighting than the other side does. Given that Paul was in pretty bad shape, I figured that I would need to take care of my man real fast before Paul’s prior beating got the better of him.
I threw a haymaker at the man who brought me in, my grandad’s knife still clutched in my fist. He ducked my punch easy enough, but as he did I swept a leg at him and plunged the knife down. He was too quick for me, though, already stepping forward past me toward the door out of the ladies’ room. He moved impossibly fast and smooth, and as he went he reached into his jacket where I was sure he had a pistol holstered.
Paul was on the ambusher like some kind of crazed monkey. I’d seen my buddy fight with the sort of reckless aggression that comes from too much whiskey before, but this time he was fighting with a zeal that came from knowing that the only way out of his predicament was to kill a man with his bare hands. Paul’s tackle had carried them both past the janitor’s closet and water fountain and into the doorway to the men’s room. My buddy was biting his opponent on the ear and kneeing him in the groin. The ambusher was giving as good as he got, pounding at Paul’s head and neck with the edges of his hands. Paul shrieked in wordless fury.
I started to leap at the fellow I was fighting to try and do unto him as Paul was doing unto the ambusher, but before I could move the man had whipped a snub-nosed pistol out and pointed it at the pair wrestling in the other doorway. I ran after him, but he was too fast. The BAM! BAM! BAM! of three shots echoed off of the walls of the restrooms and along the length of the exhibition hall. My ears rang, and I paused in foolish horror as my friend and the third man wearing black died together.
The man with the smoking gun spun on his heel to face me before the echoes had even died away. We were no more than six feet apart, him at the men’s room door and me at the ladies’ room door. Between us was a water fountain and a janitor’s closet. Some oddly calm part of my brain noticed that the janitor’s closet was full of weird, beeping equipment rather than mops and buckets and brooms.
The man smiled as he leveled his gun at me.
“Your colleague had been Read, so he was expendable.” His wisp of a voice seemed quiet after the bark of his gun. “My colleagues are always expendable. Now it’s time for you to be Read, Mr. Carpenter. Cooperate, and perhaps I will permit you to live after we are done. Resist, and I will beat you senseless and then kill you when the Reading has concluded.”
He took a step toward me. I skittered out into the exhibition hall.
Have you ever killed a man with nothing but a pocket knife and your bare hands? Have you ever dodged and retreated as he came at you with his pistol drawn? Have you realized as you backed away that you were too valuable alive for him to kill and that was why he was only shooting at your legs? Have you felt a bullet burn across your left thigh, just grazing your vulnerable flesh with a hellish pain but causing no serious harm? Have you ever played a slow game of cat and mouse with a strange little man in black as he stalks you through old display tables and partitions, with him talking to you the entire time about your “Reading” in a thin voice that sounds like something from a few dimensions over? Have you ever finally jumped on him in the little alcove where the quilts used to be displayed during the fair? Have you ever choked him with your left arm around his throat while you plunge your granddad’s knife into his gut, dragging the blade up and down and back and forth until you feel it hit bone, over and over again, while the man gurgles and thrashes and sprays his blood, oh so much blood, all over the concrete floor worn smooth by decades of fair goers?
Me neither. And I’ve been on the receiving end of the criminal justice system often enough to know damn well not to post a confession to something like that on an internet bulletin board. That sort of shit can be used against you. Even if you have problems a whole lot bigger than being charged with a gruesome murder, that’s nothing you want to risk.
So let’s just cut to when I left the fairgrounds.
The sun was already getting low in the southwest behind a thick layer of gray clouds when I opened the door of the exhibition hall. I looked close, but none of the clouds seemed to be zipping around or spinning in an uncloud-like manner. I thought about appropriating the black sedan that had hauled me out to the fairgrounds in the first place, but it exploded and started burning as I approached it. I assume it was another of those self-destruct mechanisms that them sons of bitches liked so much, probably triggered when the last man wearing black died of 100% natural causes in the quilt alcove of the exhibition hall.
Then there was the sound of an explosion inside the building, and pretty soon it was going up in flames, too, even though as far as I knew it was mostly just metal and concrete. I could hear the sirens a-coming as I shimmied under the fence over by the livestock barns. There’s nothing but farms and timber ground on that side of the fairgrounds, so that was my best route the hell out of there.
It was getting real cold as the sun set, but I made it to a cave I know about south of town. Paul, Ralph, and I found it once when we were camping, so now I guess maybe nobody knows about it but me. I camped there again that night as the weather turned cold and the snow started to fall. I was damn cold, and I was shivering from both cold and terror for the entire sleepless night. If I’d been out in it, I don’t don’t know whether the cold or them Visitors or them fuckers in black would’ve got me first.
I didn’t dare go get my truck for fear of what would be waiting for me there, so I started walking the next morning. Hiking sucked, on account of I didn’t have the right clothes for the weather. Plus, between being a bloody goddam mess and leaving footprints in the snow, I was as conspicuous as all hell. Fortunately, the snow stopped later that morning, and it got just warm enough for me to avoid hypothermia. Better yet, late that afternoon I found a cabin that contained some pants, a flannel shirt, and even an old coat that came close to fitting me. Nobody was home, so I helped myself. That night I used my old clothes to start a fire, and I made sure to burn them all real good.
The winter was hard, but I made it through it with a lot of foraging and only a little bit of larceny. Living got easier once spring came, because the warmer weather brought tourists out to camp and fish and hike in the hills. It’s easier to take what I need from tourists than it is to take it from other mountain folk. I just don’t feel as guilty stealing from an outsider. Plus, I reckon that even if tourists do manage to see a wild lookin’ mountain man stealing their bologna, that’s just going to add to the mystique of the entire Ozarks region, but any locals who see me rummaging through their iceboxes are more likely to shoot me than they are to tell people a story about seeing Bigfoot.
I have to keep moving, but I can’t move far. On one hand, there’s that damn geofence around the hills that’ll blow up that device in my noggin if I ever leave the Ozarks. On the other hand, if I stay in any one place for too long, those damn saucers find me. I discovered that the hard way. Early in the spring, I spent over a week in a little valley down in an Arkansas state park. I don’t want to say precisely where it was, but it was a nice place with a river full of fish, blackberry bushes taller than me promising a bountiful summer harvest, pawpaw trees growing thicker than I’ve ever seen, and one of them Ozark caves to shelter me from both weather and space aliens. There wasn’t a town for miles, and not even the hiking trails came close to my little spot. It was a calm place. I thought maybe I could stay there and make it a lonely home, but on the eighth night I felt the tingle start on the back of my neck. I doused my fire quick and hid as deep in the cave as I dared to go. I stayed underground all night, and every time I peaked outside there was a damn gray saucer darting around over the trees in the moonlight, spooky and quiet like it was looking for something. Or someone.
I took off the next morning when I hadn’t felt a tingle for an hour or so, cutting across ridges and around mountains where the oaks had leafed out just enough to give me some cover against anything looking for me from above. The sun hadn’t finished burning off the dew by the time I’d made it to blacktop and had my thumb out to hitch. A trucker took me north just past the Missouri line before he had to turn off to deliver his load. I thanked him and ducked into the woods again as soon as I was out of the cab. Maybe there was a boring little sedan with three men in it following the trucker from a distance, but I was running into the woods too fast to look close enough to be sure.
Sometimes I can get myself cleaned up to go into a small town library. They’ve got computers hooked up to the internet, so I can use them to tell people about what’s going on here. I’ve tried to hide my IP addresses and all that other internet bullshit, but I don’t know if it’s worked or not. I’ve never been much good with computers. If I’ve fucked it up somehow and you can figure out where I’ve posted my stories from, please don’t tell anyone, and don’t you dare come a-lookin’ for me.
It’s dangerous out here.