Sentinels

By: Charlie Mitchell
April 30, 2019

Just in time for Walpurgisnacht — celebrated on the last night of April, when witches meet on the Brocken mountain and hold revels with the Devil, according to German folklore — we are pleased to present an original horror story by HILOBROW friend Charlie Mitchell. Illustrations by Mister Reusch.

Clocked out and sitting on the Chevron curb content with the quiet of the night, I heard that chortling growl of the sunbeat teal Bronco before John Eby pulled up.

I hopped in and was welcomed by the familiar scent of old hay and cigarette smoke that hung thick on the seats. The radio crackled with some kind of bluegrass; late shows did not abide by Top 40.

“I got Coors in the back, grab two,” he said with a poised hand, eyes fixed on the road.

“Cheers,” I said, cracking open two cans sheathed in cold sweats. I took a healthy pull. I lit a cigarette and handed the second can to John.

“Did you hit up Clint?” John asked.

I cranked the window down, letting in a howl of black wind and exchanging smoke. “Yeah, no dice. He’s gonna spend the night with Tina.”

“That damn Judas,” he grumbled, smirking.

“Which trailhead is it gonna be tonight?”

“Redlynch Road.”

I coughed. “Jesus.”

John balked, then lit his broke-back cigarette while steering with knees. “Hey, don’t let the name turn you off. You been to Shadow Mountain and Mosquito Creek, neither are half-bad spots. There’s a burial mound some way up the trail, so it’s pretty damn well outta use. Coulda been some crazy hermit who shat in an outhouse who named it.”

“Or some hillbillies that like to play wizard in cute white robes — can’t deny the sort of baggage a name like that holds.”

He chuckled and raised a hand. “Fair enough, bud. I reckon it ain’t parallel to ‘Shadow Mountain’.”

John sped with the usual confidence of a seventeen year old at night. The side mirror was red with dust dervishes in the taillights as we skirted out of the town’s muted light. We were silent and alone on the road, radio still crackling faintly, flanked by shrouded ranchland only hinted at by a half moon. The scene is stunning during the day, even if the lands were labelled by crazy hermits who shit in outhouses; but these lands have blood in them too.

Taking a turn of the gravel, John slowed the Bronco as the wheels started dipping sharply into wells and gapes of the dirt road. My only concern was the dip cup in the center console sloshing side to side.

The radio guttered and cut out to static.

The road narrowed to a path that yawned up and straight into the opaque black of the foothills without turns, wide enough for a single vehicle and framed by aspen copses cast in lunar silver. The autumn air spared a few rattling gold leafs, but the white bark’s glint rendered them into gnarled skeletal hands that scraped the dusk on either side of the path. That was unusual. Mountain paths usually make switchbacks to reach the top.

The headlights reflected something pallid in the middle of the path some distance ahead.

“Whoa whoa, stop.”

John braked, cutting the Bronco’s momentum hard, lurching forward briefly before settling back. The dip cup finally breached over but our attention was somewhere else.

“What the fuck is that?” his voice came out low, his linebacker frame hunched over the wheel.

The high beams caught a barn owl sitting in the center of the path facing the Bronco. It was slim, maybe the size of a cat, tawny and snow white with a heart-shaped face.  Its feathers were unruffled and indistinct. Everything was still, the only sound in these autumn hinterlands being the low rumble of the Bronco and the passing murmur of wind outside our windows. It just sat there with the motionless patience of something carved out of stone.

“What in the san-fuck…” John’s voice came out only as a whisper this time as he slowly reached forward and put the Bronco into first.

The Bronco prowled closer and closer, dipping with the path’s concaves, but the owl never shifted.

We stopped dead. Those hollow eyes looked past the headlights, seeming to stare straight at the two of us. I felt my mouth go dry and did not trust my eyes to blink. John was breathing with his lips parted, eyes never leaving the barn owl.

I know why I didn’t make the argument to throw the Bronco in reverse. Not to say some penchant for bullshit was out of question, but what pushed me forward was curiosity. I had only seen bison, with all that confidence in their bulk, bear down on cars. You look hard for owls. They stay nestled in trees and fly in total silence, not to mention are nocturnal birds — and this one stared straight into the headlights, still as the grave.

John turned to me; he was mostly dense shadow, broken only by the cigarette ember burning at his lip. There was a pause as he found the words.

“Figure the truck’ll just pass over, right?”

I hesitated. “Yeah.”

He started nudging the Bronco forward again. I heard nothing like a flutter of wings, at best a rush through the remaining leafs, before a convent more of barn owls neatly assembled around the first.

Both of us jumped and John slammed the brakes harder this time. Three barn owls hopped up on the hood, sitting as motionless as gargoyles, watching us. John’s right arm shot out, patting his seat frantically then fumbling with the handle of the glove compartment. It dropped with a pop, and his shaking hand gripped tight on a revolver. I think in a different circumstance I would have given John shit, told him that the West was still wild, but not then.

I heard earth moving underneath us, a low reverberating droning that I cannot compare to anything I have heard in the natural world. It was followed by something, many things, pounding on the Bronco’s doors from every angle. I felt my heart and lungs wrenched and wrung by an icy grip. The pounding began low then worked its way up towards the windows. Then I saw them.

I sat frozen as hands, frenetic, grasping swathes of them, flailed into view and enveloped the Bronco from the ground up. At first I only saw fingers and palms through the window; hairless, as if they were carved out of ivory. Their sinewy wrists came out of the path itself underneath us. They began to clamp down on the hood, alabaster white in the headlights, lolling upwards before slapping down blind yet finding grip. The Bronco began sinking as if it were lodged in a mire. The hood warped wherever a hand impacted.

Several hands latched onto my right, clamping down before I could roll the window up. The glass began folding and cracking underneath their palms.

“Get out!” John screamed, but I heard him faintly. I tried saying something, anything, but my tongue became a lump of sand in my mouth. The revolver bellowed twice, blowing away two of the writhing hands on John’s side before he squirmed out of the window. A smell of cordite from the gun and a keening in my ears. I pulled my legs up and tried to dive out of my window.

I sprang out and a hands shot out and put a vice on my ankle. The grip was frigid, as if the blood in my calf froze into black ice shrapnel. I impacted hard on the ground, landing on my stomach and knocking the wind out of me. I kicked, flailed, panicked with my ears still ringing and the alien drone still pressing.

Finally free and on my knees I looked back and saw more hands raking the dirt inches away from my leg. They scratched out feverishly, a thicket of wrists, a raking swarm of fingers. I only saw the top half of the Bronco as it was pulled down into oblivion by the alabaster hands. The owls were still perched on the hood, watching me as the truck sunk into God-knows-what.

I ran for more than my life. Fear placed me entirely in the pumping of my legs, the draw of my lungs, the cold sweat beading everywhere. A dozen sparrows were all beating their wings to escape my ribcage. I stopped running when coughing overtook me. I threw up the Coors, heard it splatter on leaves. I found myself alone in the silence of the woods, trying to find my night-eyes. I wandered in that moonlit dark outside of time itself, too afraid to call out to John or even snap a twig underfoot.

My head snapped towards two more gunshots out in the night. A breath passed, then a third gunshot.

I began running again through the aspen thickets towards the gunshots. The woods were eerily quiet, the droning long ceased. This time I called out to him. Eventually I saw a lighter flash through the brush.

“Psst!”

I still stepped gingerly as I approached John. He clapped me on the shoulder without any zest, and gestured down towards something made vague in the night. I couldn’t see his face but his voice was as out of gas as could be.

“I thought I saw one of the owls flyin’ at me so I shot at it…” He trailed off, at a loss for words. I took out my Zippo, which was enough to see what no part of me wanted to.

The ignition revealed an old naked man distorted on the ground. A pool of blood, ink black in the flickering light, soaked into the mulch from a rend at his neck.

I gripped my hair. “Fuck, man.”

The blood pulsed out of his leathery skin with each heart beat, each slower than the last.

“Fuck.”

When John gripped me hard on the shoulders I realized he had been saying my name over and over again. The Zippo dropped and the fire died.

“You’re shakin’ worse than a Mexican space shuttle.”

I shook free of his hold, hurled back to the hand that grabbed my leg.

“Don’t touch me.”

“Okay, hombre.”

“How’re you not losing your shit right now?”

John paused. “‘Cause all my shit’s done spent,” he said, and forced a laugh.

I pointed at the bleeding body. “Owls or not, that is a man you shot dead, John Eby.”

“By God it was an owl. I know it ain’t easy to right now, but we gotta think this out.”

“John,” I growled, stepping forward, voice rising. “There’s no one else out here but us, we’re it! You didn’t shoot a fucking owl!

Some kind of raw fire in my gut had finally hit the point of bursting. I roared, screamed, threw my arms out to the side, raging against the black wild around us and whatever other secrets it hid, against the fact that logic had lost its rhyme and reason. The sound was not human. I stumbled and sat down with my back against a tree. John sighed, crouching down across from me and put a pinch of chew in his bottom lip.

“You curious as to why he ain’t got any clothes on?”

I said nothing.

“The cut of it is,” John said, spitting to the side. “Is that my truck’s gone and there’s a dead body here — and we’re up shit creek.”

He stayed crouched there for a while silent in thought. “We tell the sheriff that someone stole my truck.”

I could have hit him right then. “I doubt a ‘stolen car’ chalks up to killing a man; and someone’s gonna find that body. You’re never seeing that truck again. No goddamn way we talk to the sheriff about any of this.”

“So what, then? Just walk on out of here? Walk away from whatever the fuck all that was?”

“You almost got it,” I said, staring at the corpse’s outline.

We had no way to tell how long it took to dig that grave. John found a patch of soft dirt amid the roots of an aspen, sloping downwards. We clawed out the dirt with our bare hands in silence, without a single word of complaint uttered. My fingernails bled and cracked. After we dug out a space for him, we hauled him over. John held him by the feet and I by his arms, careful not to get blood on me, but most of it had already run out into the soil. Once more I took out the Zippo to look at him — he was wiry and small, with calloused hands and deep laugh lines. John and I eased him down, shoved the mounds of dirt back in, and covered the burial with leaves and fallen branches.

We stood over the shallow grave.

“You got any words for him?” he asked.

“No,” I said, and looked at him for a while. “You ’n’ me, we’re never gonna have words for him, or any of this shit, ever again.”

*

The sun had not yet peeked over the eastern hills as we trudged over sagebrush and prairie dog holes, hopping horse fences here and there, still a few miles from town. Dew drenched my jeans from the knees down. Clumps of last night’s fog began to burn off the ranch steppe with the first rays of daybreak. The meadowlarks began singing.

I got my first good look at John and myself. We were thrashed, well dusted, covered in burrs, and wordless. The revolver tucked into the front of his jeans and his torn flannel rendered John into some kind of Jim Bridger. Coming out of the aspens, we were the ghosts of mountain men ourselves. As the adrenaline wore out I was aware of my impact falling out of the Bronco, the ache in my muscles, the cuts on my bare skin from our dash.

We crossed a field and hit a paved road that led into town as the sun sat right above the eastern ridge, and stood still as we came to the crossroads of departure. John and I stood apart and appraised each other in silence. For a moment his face contorted las if he had words fit to break loose from deep, deep inside. I turned my back on him and walked home before I could have heard them.

His sister Christine said she and their old man were brewing coffee when John walked through the door of their low-slung ranch house. John had told his folks that the car was stolen when we were asleep. Mr. Eby asked his son why his revolver only had two rounds left, why we came back with out a tent, sleeping bags, blankets, let alone a backpack. He looked at his son’s face, at his hands black with dirt and bloody fingernails, and asked what happened. When John walked down the hall to his room and shut the door, Mr. Eby just sat down.

I snuck into my own home before Mom and Dad rose for work. The old plywood door still creaked with even the gentlest effort, the dog still whimpered and pawed at my knees when I tried to soothe her. I showered, saw a scarlet handprint on my shin, then crawled into bed. When I laid there, of all things I pretended that I had not buried someone. It is a funny thing, when your body craves sleep — that most precious reset — but whatever ricochets around in your skull demands otherwise. If someone told me that was the definition of Purgatory, I would be inclined to believe them.

The last Eby I ever spoke to found me while I was having a break on shift. I sat out back the Chevron in a rusted folding chair and tried to light a cigarette. I saw a jerry can tipped over that had oozed out oil that congealed into a nacreous sludge of green and purple. Past the concrete the oil stained, it seeped into the sour weeds. My hands shook so bad that I hit the Zippo’s flint wheel four times before I lit the cigarette.

“Honey, you know it’s bad luck to smoke at gas stations,” John’s mother stated while hovering around the corner a stone’s throw away.

“You scared the hell outta me, Mrs. Eby.”

“And bad for you, to boot,” she scorned, shaking a finger at my face and walking towards me.

“You started younger’n I did,” I said with a forced smile.

She returned the smile but it was a sickly response. She stopped and stood near the toppled jerry can. There was no eye contact and she held her hands together in front of her. Deep rings sagged underneath her eyes — as I am sure they sagged beneath mine. That smile looked needed, but a stranger to the lines on her face. She paused before she spoke again and we regarded each other. Cars and trucks ripping down the main road in front of the Chevron sporadically occupied the space.

“John is something out of sorts — he isn’t eating, if he comes down for supper at all, and the boy’s barely said a handful of words in the past week.”

“I haven’t spoken to John much recently myself.”

“I don’t even know if he’s going to school when he leaves in the morning. Christine tells me she hasn’t seen a hair of him in the halls.”

“It’s a darn big school, Mrs. Eby. They design ‘em after prisons so that each of the wings are locked off and Christine is still a freshman. I know I must’ve at least passed John in the halls this week,” I said, looking her in the eye as I sold the lie.

She looked at me with eyes of cold iron. The smile was gone, and I averted my eyes.

“You boys haven’t been the same since John’s truck was stolen.”

I took a drag off my cigarette and did not look at her. Mrs. Eby came close and knelt beside me, and spoke warmly.

“I know something happened out there, honey — I know you boys are in some kinda pain. I can read it on your face just like on his. Trucks is just belongings, John can always just work up for a new one, but if something else happened out there then please, please talk. Don’t play that strong cowboy shit, doesn’t do anyone any good.”

“I’m okay, Mrs. Eby.”

I heard a shaky exhale from her. She stayed there a few seconds more, then rose and walked briskly back around the corner to the front of the Chevron. Another truck ripped by on the main road. After it passed, I heard sobbing around that corner muffled down to a tone that ate me alive.

***

ORIGINAL FICTION from HILOBROW: James Parker’s swearing-animal fable The Ballad of Cocky The Fox, later published in limited-edition paperback by HiLoBooks; plus: a newsletter, The Sniffer, by Patrick Cates, and further stories: “The Cockarillion”) | Karinne Keithley Syers’s hollow-earth adventure Linda, later published in limited-edition paperback; plus: ukulele music, and a “Floating Appendix”) | Matthew Battles’s stories “Gita Nova“, “Makes the Man,” “Imago,” “Camera Lucida,” “A Simple Message”, “Children of the Volcano”, “The Gnomon”, “Billable Memories”, “For Provisional Description of Superficial Features”, “The Dogs in the Trees”, “The Sovereignties of Invention”, and “Survivor: The Island of Dr. Moreau”; several of these later appeared in the collection The Sovereignties of Invention, published by Red Lemonade | Robert Waldron’s high-school campus roman à clef The School on the Fens | Peggy Nelson’s “Mood Indigo“, “Top Kill Fail“, and “Mercerism” | Annalee Newitz’s “The Great Oxygen Race” | Flourish Klink’s Star Trek fanfic “Conference Comms” | Charlie Mitchell’s “A Fantasy Land” | Charlie Mitchell’s “Sentinels” | Joshua Glenn’s “The Lawless One”, and the mashup story “Zarathustra vs. Swamp Thing” | Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri’s Idoru Jones comics | John Holbo’s “Sugarplum Squeampunk” | “Another Corporate Death” (1) and “Another Corporate Death” (2) by Mike Fleisch | Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Frank Fiorentino’s graphic novel “The Song of Otto” (excerpt) | John Holbo’s graphic novel On Beyond Zarathustra (excerpt) | “Manoj” and “Josh” by Vijay Balakrishnan | “Verge” by Chris Rossi, and his audio novel Low Priority Hero | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD (1.408-415) by Flourish Klink | EPIC WINS: THE KALEVALA (3.1-278) by James Parker | EPIC WINS: THE ARGONAUTICA (2.815-834) by Joshua Glenn | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD by Stephen Burt | EPIC WINS: THE MYTH OF THE ELK by Matthew Battles | EPIC WINS: GOTHAMIAD by Chad Parmenter | TROUBLED SUPERHUMAN CONTEST: Charles Pappas, “The Law” | CATASTROPHE CONTEST: Timothy Raymond, “Hem and the Flood” | TELEPATHY CONTEST: Rachel Ellis Adams, “Fatima, Can You Hear Me?” | OIL SPILL CONTEST: A.E. Smith, “Sound Thinking | LITTLE NEMO CAPTION CONTEST: Joe Lyons, “Necronomicon” | SPOOKY-KOOKY CONTEST: Tucker Cummings, “Well Marbled” | INVENT-A-HERO CONTEST: TG Gibbon, “The Firefly” | FANFICTION CONTEST: Lyette Mercier’s “Sex and the Single Superhero”

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