Need to catch up? Chapter 1 is here!
Ellie’s dreams were plagued with glowing red eyes and tall, shaggy monsters. They chased her through the corn field, the ears grasping at her, slowing her down. She ran until she couldn’t anymore, and just as she fell to the ground and they reached out their blood-stained clawed hands to snatch at her, she woke up gasping. Her heart pounded in her chest. Her hands were clammy and too hot. She kicked her covers off and lay in the dark, willing her body to calm down.
It was just a dream.
After a few moments, she shook the dream off as best she could and got up to start her day. Despite her fatigue, she got her chores done, milking the goats and collecting eggs. The dream was long forgotten by the time she kissed her mom goodbye. Ellie biked to work, traveling down the long dirt road from their old farmhouse into town. She got there with two minutes to spare.
When she got to the corner store, she was awake enough to help folks coming in for cigarettes and beer. What people needed beer for at seven in the morning, she had no idea, but she wasn’t one to judge, and their purchases kept her in a job.
Two hours into her shift, and the place was deserted. Ellie sat on the stool behind the counter, looking through the geocaching website she loved, looking for new caches to find. She’d already found all the local ones, though, so she widened her search.
It was getting a little late in the season to go after new caches, but after the coming winter was over, she swore she’d get back into her old hobby. She missed traipsing around new locations, GPS in hand, trying to find the tackle boxes or plastic totes people hid in remote places.
Searching for Harmon’s treasure wasn’t fun. It held the weight of a deathbed promise and the heavy memories of Harmon laughing and living on his property. While geocaching and treasure hunting seemed the same on paper, one was a fun frolic through the countryside, and the other hurt.
Ellie wrapped her arms around herself. She was so, so very tired. Surely, it wouldn’t hurt to rest her head on the counter for a bit…
The door dinged open. Ellie jumped, picking her head up off the counter so fast she cricked her neck, and in walked Robbie Kinkaid. She hadn’t expected him this morning, although looking back, no one had said what time he was getting to town. But she hadn’t prepared herself. She realized she was still clutching her phone, and she stored it under the counter.
“Hey El Bell,” he said. He smiled his crooked smile, one of his dimples showing.
“No one calls me that anymore,” Ellie said with a smile of her own. She rounded the counter and hugged Robbie. His strong arms encircled her, warm and familiar. Ellie’s stomach fluttered, despite her head telling her not to get carried away. He probably wasn’t staying, and more importantly, he had a girlfriend. Robbie pulled back, but left his hands on her hips.
“Then clearly no one in this rinky-dink town knows a good nickname when it presents itself.”
Ellie’s smile faded, and she stepped out of Robbie’s reach. There was nothing she hated more than people dumping on her beloved town, even if they were born here. They only got to do that if they stayed.
She leaned against the counter, and took him in. She hadn’t seen him since he left for good six years ago. His hair was longer, but it was the same bright red she remembered, a complement to Adrianna’s slightly darker shade. His college hoodie in the school’s blue and red colors clashed with his hair, and sadly hid the muscles she’d felt just a moment before. His bright blue eyes looked tired, but excited.
“You look good, Robbie.”
“You too, El Bell.” The silence between them grew into an uncomfortable, palpable thing. So many unsaid things hovered in the air, but they were best left that way.
Another customer came into the store, and Ellie went into employee-mode until Mr. Jones had bought his Camel Lights and was safely out of the store. Robbie lurked around, pretending to decide between Mentos and Sour Patch Kids.
“Victoria and I broke up,” Robbie said. He plopped a bag of chips down on the counter instead.
“Sorry to hear that,” Ellie said. She wasn’t sure anyone had ever told her the girlfriend’s name, but somehow the name Victoria fit the woman she’d built in her mind when Robbie had first broken up with her. Ellie punched his purchase into the register, avoiding his eye. She couldn’t handle this right now.
“Yeah. Thanks.” Robbie ran a hand through his hair and handed her some money. Ellie slowly counted his change out, the air growing thicker by the second. After a few more silent beats, Ellie held his money out to him, but Robbie said, “Keep the change.”
With a parting smile, he left, the bell clanging behind him. Ellie stood clutching the money long after he had left. She felt affronted at him acting like leaving his change was a gentlemanly thing to do. Did she look like she needed—she looked at her hand— a dollar fifty in change?
This wasn’t the reunion she’d expected, not that she’d spent much time thinking about how it would go down. But… there was obviously something still there between them. She stared at the counter, trying to figure out what the hell just happened.
She’d come to terms with their breakup years ago. Robbie left for college the summer before her senior year, and he’d only come back for one break before forsaking this town for good. What did he mean by telling her he was single again? Six years was a long time to wait for anyone, and she certainly hadn’t.
Sure, she hadn’t dated much since him. It was a small town with a smaller dating pool, and when word got around that no one could hit a home run with her, the dating pool pretty much dried up. Everyone out here either wanted kids, or were going to have them anyway because that’s what people did.
Ellie wanted no part of any of that. No sex, no kids. She had her mom and her two best friends, and even though she knew she’d like a partner someday, she was content as she was for now.
Robbie coming home threatened all of that. Their relationship had been soft and special. The summer before he left contained some of the fondest memories of her life. But they weren’t starry-eyed teenagers anymore, and they barely knew each other now. Him barging in here to tell her he’d broken up with his girlfriend shouldn’t mean anything to her.
And yet her heart fluttered and wanted to return to the past.
There is no going back, Ellie reminded herself. There’s only one foot in front of the other, into the future.
Ellie thrummed with energy by the end of her shift. She wanted to grab her bike and ride until she collapsed, but she had to go to Rory’s house and sit still and brainstorm. But everything in her screamed at avoiding stillness.
She pulled her phone from her pocket as she waved goodbye to Edgardo Alvarez, the relative newcomer to town who had the shift after hers. She didn’t know him well, but he seemed nice enough. For such a small town, having an enigma work the next shift was strange, but folks around here didn’t ask many questions.
It was one of the things she loved best about Linewood. If Edgardo wanted to be a loner, everyone would let him. They’d talk about him when he wasn’t there, sure, but they would leave him be for the most part. But if he didn’t show up for work one day, someone would go to check on him. And if he needed help, there was no power in this county that would stop folk from giving it to him.
Ellie paused next to her bike and texted Rory that she’d be late. She might not be able to ride until she dropped, but she could at least work off some of this energy.
The air was chilly, but not unpleasantly so. She biked slowly down Main Street. Mrs. Mason, her old high school English teacher, waved as she crossed the street with her five kids and golden retriever. Tom Butler, the owner of the town’s only bar, paused in his sweeping to nod at her as she went by. Familiar faces, loved ones, friends, acquaintances, all flowed past as she pedaled her way through town.
A strong wind kicked up and blew her long brown hair out behind her as she left town behind. The open fields beckoned. Hay bales rolled up and waiting to be gathered sat in a field to her left. A barren field, long since harvested of soybeans lay to her right. Harmon’s farm was further out, and Ellie fought the desire to bike past it.
Every time she went there, she half expected Harmon to be sitting on his porch, straw hat on his head, smoking the pipe he loved so much. His little piece of luxury in this cold, hard world, he used to call it.
His long road to a cold grave, Ellie thought of it now, though the scent of pipe tobacco was still enough to bring back all the loving memories she had of him. It was strange how something that turned out to be so awful was enough to bring back the warmth of her time with him.
She turned down a small dirt trail through the Mason’s corn fields. The corn stalks lay scattered on the ground, remnants of the harvest season. She could just see their corn maze off in the distance. Ellie wanted to be excited for Halloween night when the Masons would open their home and their maze to the community, but she couldn’t quite manifest the feeling.
She and her mom used to pick Harmon up in their old beater car and bring him out for the festivities. He would protest about his age and the lateness and all the people, but Ellie would never take no for an answer. And Harmon always had fun.
Ellie didn’t know how she was going to get through the party this year without him. She had two weeks to build up her courage and fortitude.
She really didn’t mean to, but before she knew it, she was pausing at Harmon’s property line. His fields were still full of unharvested corn. He died before he could pay the folks who would have done it, and Adam couldn’t be bothered to make the arrangements himself. The waste bothered Ellie, but she also loved the cover the corn gave her at night. So, a blessing after all.
Lost in her thoughts, Ellie turned to leave, but the feeling of being watched crept over her skin, raising the hair on the back of her neck. Her eyes scanned the field and something dark caught her eye. It sat back behind the thick wall of corn stalks, so she couldn’t get a good look at it from the road, but it lurked in the field, massive and real. Ellie knew the creepy feeling she had was coming from being watched by whoever that was. Thinking it was some local kids causing mischief, she lay her bike down in the dirt, and walked into the corn to check it out.
This was how women in horror movies always died. Ellie dismissed the thought as soon as it flitted into her brain. This wasn’t a horror movie. She wasn’t a heroine or bait. She was just a woman in a small town corn field in the middle of the day.
Or so she thought.
As she trudged through the dead corn, pushing ears of corn out of her way, she headed to where she’d seen the form, but in the time it took her to discard her bike and enter the field, it had disappeared. She paused, turning in a slow circle, the corn towering over her. The air was claustrophobic. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she wasn’t alone, but she couldn’t see anyone.
“Hello?” she called. Her voice sat in the air, heavy and out of place.
Rustling and snapping stalks pulled her attention to her left. She pushed the corn out of her way and moved toward the sound. When she reached a row with a bit more space, a hulking form rose over her. It pulled itself to its full seven feet. Its eyes, set in a canid face, glowed red. The creature’s hot breath curled in the cool air. Shaggy black fur hung from its too long limbs, and its hands were tipped in wicked-looking claws.
Ellie’s heart raced, and she balled her hands into fists, bringing them up before her in some semblance of a defensive position Ellie thought maybe she learned in a women’s self-defense class in high school, but the creature didn’t move.
The monster was real. The stories were real. Her dreams last night… those were real too, though this monster was doing significantly less chasing. She glanced down at its claws, but she couldn’t tell if they were blood-stained. She did not want to die in this field. She wondered how fast it could run, if she could make it back to her bike in time. If it could move faster than she could bike.
Woman and beast stared at each other for what felt like an eternity. Finally, the monster took a step forward, reaching one of its clawed hands out toward her, just like in her dream. Ellie found her courage, broke eye contact, and ran for the road.
She grabbed her bike and rode without looking back until she stopped shaking from fear and started shaking from exhaustion.