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Part Two

  The leaves whisked past Olivia’s face, tearing at her skin and eyes as the woman led them soundlessly through the rows of corn. The girl looked back at the barn, orange glow flickering beneath a steadily gushing cloud of smoke. It was the jolt she needed to regain some semblance of stability; she pulled hard enough to free herself and remained firmly in place as the woman bounded a few steps before turning around.

  “What are you doing?” the woman asked, clearly angry at the transgression.

  Olivia fought back a sudden bubbling of timidity. “I am not going one more step until I know what happened back there!”

  The woman huffed, then took a step toward the girl. “A serial killer is after you.”

  Olivia blinked. “What?”

  The woman gestured toward the vague location of their destination. “Can we go now?”

  “Why is a serial killer after me?”

  The woman put her fingers on her temple and shut her eyes, most likely to hide an eye roll. “Does it fucking matter?”

  Olivia threw her hands in the air. “Of course it matters!”

  The woman sighed and took a deliberate step in the girl’s direction. “He wants to kill you.” In a snap, she closed the distance between them and latched onto the girl’s wrist.


  “How’s that for motivation?

  “You’re hurting me!”

  “Is that good enough to get your ass in gear?”

  The girl lashed out with her free hand. The woman released her before the blow could connect, causing the younger to stumble. After several panicked breaths, the girl theatrically rubbed her wrist. “The campers?”

  The woman cleared her throat and took several steps past her charge, gazing in the barn’s direction. “Yes.”

  “They were burned… and the barn…” Olivia muttered. She cast a glance at her companion. “All that dressed as a firefighter?”

  “Yeah, he’s a wacky guy,” came the woman’s wry response. She turned and once more passed by. “Unless you want to find out more about the things he finds amusing, I’d suggest we get to a landline.”

  The girl looked at the distant inferno’s glow, then back at the woman who hadn’t stopped walking. She followed at a distance. “Don’t you have a cellphone?”

  The woman shook her head. “Wouldn’t work.” She gestured to the sky. “His presence screws up the signal.”

  Something occurred to Olivia and she sprinted forward. “Hey!” She skidded to a stop and spun, grabbing the woman’s shoulders. “You shot him.”

  Her icy expression did not change. “Yup.”

  “Three times.”


  “After hitting him with a… cop car…” Olivia released the woman from her grasp. “Isn’t that… enough?”

  The woman blinked before resuming her path.

  A new, swirling fear took root in Olivia’s gut, sending worms of hot panic up her spine. The violence at the barn had been numbed by adrenaline and shock; this new revelation, one that defied her innate desire to unpack and understand it, carried the same nebulous dread as her first, real sighting of the unreal firefighter. It was something reptilian, something existential, and her irreligious upbringing had failed to prepare her to fathom something so thoroughly alien. At the same time, however, she doubted spirituality would have served to do much more than offer an explanation just as implicitly wrong as the inability to find natural cause.

  The girl struggled for words, finding that English lacked the descriptive power for the flux of thoughts burbling away in her mind. When she found enough baring to produce something remotely intelligible, it was positively lean: “Who are you?” While the night had been surreal, at least her savior appeared human enough to respond to the question with something less threatening than a nigh-invulnerable, bipedal wall of anger and axes.

  “A survivor,” came the curt response.

  The dismissal made the hackles on the girl’s neck rise in aggravation. “Hey!” Olivia shouted. The volume made the woman visibly wince, but she did not turn. “I’m talking to you!” she forcefully iterated.

  “Keep your voice down.”

  “Lady, you owe me your name.”

  At this, the woman whirled around and closed the distance. “I owe you nothing for saving your life,” she hissed. “You owe me quiet.” She turned and strode away.

  Defiantly, the girl folded her arms. When the woman did not turn, she called out, “I will not go—”

  The woman abruptly stopped short, throwing her hand in the air and turning her head to the side. She quietly slipped through a row of corn, her eyes darting along the fire-hued horizon. The girl waited a few moments before slipping through the stalks, rustling the leaves louder than her guide. This earned her a nasty look.

  “If you would just—”

  “Shhhhhut. Up.” Somehow, the sibilance mixed with a distant rustle of leaves, making it seem—however briefly—that it was the cornfield itself that was telling Olivia to remain quiet.

  And then, the girl heard it: a choking, desperate moan. Punctuated with hacking sobs, it struck an instant chord with Olivia. Although it was distinctly human, the sound’s impact reminded her of a dog’s yelp of pain, as both resulted in an identical sensation of her guts clenching. Empathy compelled her to listen harder, not for the grisly details, but to pinpoint where the sound was coming from.

  “What is that?” she whispered. Part of her still wanted to push against the woman’s need for quiet, but the situation more clearly called for discretion.

  The woman did not answer. Instead, she put her hand on Olivia’s shoulder and pushed her, gently, down. The two ended in a crouch, carefully parsing the voice from the night’s subtle soundscape. As time passed, the voice resolved, and pinpricks of recognition stabbed at the girl’s stomach. “Please, god, please,” were the first real words to distinguish themselves above the whimpers.

  “Chet?” she whispered to herself.

  This prompted the woman to look in her direction. “You know him?”

  Olivia nodded. “I was talking to him when the barn was locked up.”

  The woman turned back toward the noise, then grabbed Olivia’s arm. “We need to move.”

  The girl shirked free from the woman’s grasp. “And leave him?”

  “Yes,” she growled.

  “He’s hurt,” Olivia insisted.

  “We can’t do anything for him.”

  “Stay away,” Chet pled, his voice wafting through the stalks.

  The words made the two freeze in place.

  They waited, unmoving, unbreathing, until Chet once again formed words: “Fuck off, man.”

  He was louder than before.

  “It’s got him,” Olivia said, her voice quaking with panic.

  “We need to go,” the woman insisted, once again grabbing the girl’s wrist.

  Olivia snaked free of her grasp. “Let go of me!” she shouted as she stumbled down the row in Chet’s vague direction. “Ch—”

  The woman tackled her to the ground, cutting her off. Before she could protest, a hand clamped down on Olivia’s mouth. The girl squealed and grunted, trying to buck the woman off, but she held firm. Exhaustion set it, and she found herself barely able to budge under the weight pressing her into the dirt.

  Without warning, prickles erupted over her skin, and her heart quickened. The same smoky fear from the barn crept over her, drenching her in a sickly feeling of inhuman malice. Her heart stammered, feeling much too big for her chest. Even without the woman preventing her movement, her bones became too heavy for her. Olivia found herself gasping and choking at the same time.

  With this, the weight on her relented enough to allow her a normal breath. “Stay down, stay quiet,” the woman whispered in her ear before removing her hand and sliding onto the ground next to her.

  At first, Chet’s continued whimpering was the only sound. But then there was something new: a distinct rustle of dense fabric, tinged with metallic accents that probed all manner of surfaces. Occasionally, a row was penetrated by the unseen malefactor, the fibrous stalks brushing against the swaddled body. Next, heavy, deliberate footfalls that even the dirt of the cornfield couldn’t hide joined the chorus.

  Finally, the row next to their hiding spot was invaded, bringing with it the final flourish of the aural tapestry: the firefighter’s partially muffled, rasping breath. It was a putrid, gurgling, ragged, damp thing. Olivia remembered the torn oxygen hose and couldn’t help but imagine thick rivulets of bloody saliva dribbling down the tube. It took herculean effort to keep from gagging at the visual.

  How it—he—survived seemed an impossibility hearing the laborious aspiration. Whatever kept him moving, whether spite or pure force of will, was immeasurably horrifying.

  The firefighter paced ever-so-slowly up and down the row, coming within what felt to be a hair’s breadth of Olivia. Tears dropped from her eyes into the dirt as she took in a slow, quiet lungful of air, and held it. Next to her, the woman had remained impossibly still and silent, her body heat the only thing that indicated that she was there at all.

  The firefighter turned and headed away from them, up the row. Slowly, Olivia turned to her companion, her chest burning. The woman slowly, carefully shook her head. The girl held on, even as she felt her body betraying her as it yearned for air. Then, with a crash of stalks that betrayed the swift speed with which the unseen predator moved, the firefighter was gone.

  The woman wasted no time getting to her feet. “Get up,” she quietly ordered, already moving in a crouch toward the school.

  Olivia pushed herself upright, head light from lack of oxygen. On shaky legs, she closed the distance between them. “What about Chet?”

  “Keep moving.”

  “That’s not—”

  The woman stopped and stared stonily into Olivia’s eyes. “No matter what you hear, you follow me. You do what I say, when I say it.” A beat. “Is that understood?”

  The adrenaline had kicked loose a rebellious question. “And what if I refuse?”

  As if in answer, Chet started screaming, pulling Olivia’s attention away. At first, it was a series of intelligible no’s and pleas for lenience. Then, it quickly devolved into staggered, inarticulate protestations.

  When she looked back at the woman to beg with her to go back, she found that those stony eyes hadn’t diverted in the slightest. “Follow me and don’t look back.” The order was firm, but there was something to that last part that hinted at something more. Without a moment’s hesitation, the woman turned and quickly moved down the rows, maintaining her hunched posture. Behind them, Chet’s screams had grown more persistent, though they were losing their former volume.

  Obediently, Olivia followed the woman.

  Disobediently, she looked back.

  Much closer than the fading barn fire, a new glow had silently burst into brilliance from within the cornfield. The smoke was oily and thick with accelerant, tinged blue and toxic. The effluvium merely hinted at the pyre beneath it, with only the occasional snake of whitish-orange tendrilling skyward. It was simultaneously hypnotic and repulsive, the twisting smog with accents of sickly flame insidiously burning itself into Olivia’s mind.

  At some point, the girl realized that Chet had stopped screaming.

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