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Colton could see the machine-carcass at the ravine’s bottom, sprawled over the tangle of twisted bark at the base of a ribbonwood tree. It was dusk. That day, early in the afternoon, they had taken three rabbits and a snake in the same hour--Lisa the three rabbits, and Colton the snake, with the butt of his rifle. It was a gopher snake as long as his forearm (and no mice anywhere all day).

The air smelled sweet and mildewy from buckwheat soaked and re-soaked by rain. He and Lisa followed the edge north until the slope was more manageable before zigzagging down between trees. Lisa went ahead, carrying her thirty-caliber in one hand and pushing branches away with the other. 

“Take it home?” she said, crouching over the carcass. It was like a person's, except without a face.

“Yes,” he said, “and open it.”

 

#

 

Twilight came as they crossed the scrub field adjoining Tom McCarr’s hundred acres. His lit windows were visible a quarter-mile north, beyond a line of trees, straddling a mound of granite split with wide dirt-filled cracks. For the last twenty years Colton and Lisa had supported him--Colton primarily. Colton didn't know how old McCarr was, as most people who had lived through the years McCarr had lived through hadn't had the inclination to keep track.

The thing’s head bounced against Colton’s shoulder as he walked across patches of yellow grass. After twenty minutes they reached the dirt path, the compacted bank of a tiny late-January watercourse, and followed it to their claim at the end. Their house had a loft and a root cellar, and forty feet east, within a crescent of eucalypts, was the goat pen with its two old Nubians and panels of sheet metal and metal hand rail. Nearest was the dry well.

Lisa turned the sheets on her bed while Colton laid the machine-carcass on the wax floor and grabbed a knife and a sledge from the corner. A shot rang from McCarr’s house as Colton got to one knee.

“Late for him to be up shooting,” Lisa said.

You know how he is."

Another shot.

The sledge met no resistance. The head popped like a light tube and lay flat. He cut through rubber and pulled apart shards of ceramic skull. In the rubber folds he found a small brown hard thing, like a peach pit, connected to a loose weave of hair-thin electrical wire ending in what looked like the end of a piston coming from the top of the neck. He could tell from the weight that the skeleton was plastic. No copper anywhere.

The third shot was barely audible.

“He’s shooting from inside his house,” she said.

 

#

 

Many years ago, McCarr had been in the habit of target shooting at night, thinking it would make him that much better a shot in the daytime, when enforcement tended to come. Back when Sam was still alive, Colton had offered to help McCarr build a new house at the base of the hill, where it would be easier for Colton to bring him milk and vegetables, but McCarr had refused each time, on grounds it also made the house more accessible to light vehicles. The drought had lent him a framework of habits.

Colton saw slow movement through McCarr's paper windows. They passed a stone berm bristling with sorghum and wild grass. Lisa crouched behind Colton with her thirty-caliber pointed for the near window while he rapped on the door.   

The door hitched open and McCarr stood in his long-johns, sweat spots dark under his arms and under his old man breasts.  He looked at Colton, and he looked at Lisa, and she shouldered her gun.

“Shit, girl,” McCarr said.

“Well?”

McCarr pointed his old scowling face at Colton, went inside. 

Yellow lantern light moved on the faces of the white bodies heaped in the far corner. McCarr sat on the floor against the wall. 

“I found a dead one of ‘em a couple hours back,” Colton ventured. “No face on it.”

“Where?”

“Ravine.”

McCarr nodded.

“You saw ‘em come?”

“I was outside.” McCarr also took a gun with him to shit. “They were running up from that way. Good bit of smoke coming from the far side. You didn’t see it?”

“Why’re they in the house?” Colton asked.

McCarr blinked. “What?”

“You got ‘em in the house.”

“Didn’t feel like burying three machines tonight, Colt.”

“So you dragged ‘em inside?”

McCarr stared at him with cloudy eyes. “What happens when they find a billion dollars in vandalized hardware on my claim, Colt? Man my age, can’t work? They’ll just feed me pills. They don’t even have to get a room ready for that.”

Colton asked, “What did you shoot ‘em for?”

“Their faces. It was all people I killed."

A pause.

“Drought?”

“Mostly.”

Another pause.

“You got any alive?” Lisa asked.

Something between rage and confusion flashed on McCarr’s face then. Colton was surprised at the question too, but he had also known McCarr for twenty years. It was enough for Colton to grab the rope to the root cellar door and pull it, and after the door slapped earth the three of them were silent.

The machine in McCarr’s cellar had an old woman’s face halfway through forming, the skin half-transparent. The winding-river lines that had once separated three ceramic plates still showed through the rubber skin, and the mouth opened, and the not-yet-tongue reached up, like a parrot's.

 

#

 

Colton studied the smudged face in the moon as he and Lisa trudged over cool grass. 

Already, the thing looked so much like McCarr’s dead wife. Colton wondered whether it would speak, and if it did what voice it would use. Maybe it would use an old lady’s voice, like the one Jolene had had. Maybe it could use anyone’s voice, anyone’s face.

The dry well was almost level with collected, windblown earth. Colton and Sam had started to dig it during the drought, when Lisa was a baby. McCarr had survived, his whole family had, because of what he’d gone out and taken, kept in that root cellar. In the end his two sons had taken off with both McCarr’s and Colton’s horses, and enough food for a day’s travel.

While Lisa slept, Colton kept one lantern going and got on his knees on the floor and examined the peach pit at the end of the trail of loose wires. It was metal, faceted endlessly like squeezed foil. The mechanism was still there. He could fill the head with wood pulp, scrape out a skull with a chisel and a little bit of water, make it work again. He could find clay. It did not need to speak so long as it walked and sat and tilted its head toward open windows and opened its hands to the wind the way Sam had. Sam had been his quiet one. There were lots of things he could do.

An inch of rag burned in the lantern before he got tired. He slept on the floor next to Lisa’s bed.

 

#

 

No gunshots came before he woke up. The light and shadows were wrong, and the air was too warm. It was early afternoon. He’d overslept. Wasted half the day because of McCarr. 

He heard a shovel cutting dirt outside. Lisa’s bed was empty.

The fog was gone and the day was cool and bright. Lisa stopped digging when she saw him; she’d started digging out the dry well. So far she was about eighteen inches down, and earth was piled next to her like wheat flour.

“Gonna scout a bit,” he said. “Set some traps.”

Sweat dripped from Lisa’s face as she nodded. “Ravine?”

“Yup.  McCarr come by?”

She only shook her head, sank the shovel.

 

#

 

Pine needles slipped through the canopy and through the dusk light and landed in his hair. He climbed into the ravine and walked its length. There was not even a downed craft; the machines had merely fallen out, slipped from their arc from one city to the other. After that he started home, bitter about the short, useless day. Before leaving the forest he rigged snares from the lowest branches of some scattered trees, wishing he’d kept the gray head intact for reference. The sun set behind him as he crossed the slope empty-handed.

 

#

 

Lisa was out of sight when he got home, the windows lit. She had covered the well with long pieces of firewood; over the firewood she’d stretched burlap and sprinkled mulch.

Inside the house, voices rose and fell.

Lisa was sitting on the bed and didn’t smile when Colton walked in. McCarr and the thing were at the table. A very old dress sagged on the thing’s body.

“Evening, Colt,” McCarr said.

“McCarr.”

Colton was usually the one who paid the visits. McCarr was near seventy and didn't trouble with the distance.

“Good evening, Colton,” the thing said in a woman’s controlled voice.

“Hello.”  

It made what could be called a smile. “I was just telling your girl about how Tom swooped in and stole me from Santa Fe, years ago.”

“I made a country girl out of her,” McCarr said, looking uncomfortable.

Colton sat on the floor. “Good to take a captive when you can. You get ‘em any water yet, Lisa?”

Lisa just stared at the thing. 

McCarr quietly said he could get his own water.

“Why you wearin’ a dress?” Lisa asked.

McCarr was blushing.

The thing, Jolene, looked down and shrugged. “I thought I’d make the gesture. I know it doesn’t fit, but for him it’s like old times.”

“You grow a cunt under there too then?”

After they left, Colton took their place at the table, and Lisa pulled her thirty-caliber from the shadowed spot at the corner of the clay fireplace and laid it on the floor next to the bed.

 

#

 

Two days later Colton took the broken machine he’d found in the ravine and left it among the ribbonwoods, because the rubber skin had started to dry out. Mornings, he scouted in circles radiating from the ravine; evenings, he sat at the table and whittled and looked at the walls.

A week after McCarr came, as the lantern burned, Lisa asked, “when you wanna go over there?” 

Fruit she had spent the last week harvesting and canning was stacked in jars against the wall.

“I don’t,” he said.

“It’s been a week.”

He snorted.

Her eyes were half-lidded.  “You saw him. Walked his ass over here. I’m not waiting for him to die.”

Colton considered that.

“Let me ask you something,” she said.

"What."

“You really think he shot ‘em all outside?”

He knew. He was no idiot, no matter what McCarr thought. 

“You never shot nobody on purpose,” she said, looking straight into him. “You never went into nobody’s house and killed them and took their food. And you never led somebody else's second chance into your house and killed it either. You hear me? He don’t deserve to have that. We do. We need to know if it can be undone. He owes us that much.”

 

#

 

The bottom half of Colton's pants was wet with grass dew. Fog collected in the low spots and water dripped from clustered leaves and crooked branches. The moon was near gone. It would be cold enough to hail if enough air slipped over the mountains at once; a slow wind carried the smells of greasewood and wet pine and wet sand. He and Lisa followed the outer line of trees to the southern end of McCarr’s hundred acres, the side that fronted the mountains, so they wouldn’t be silhouetted.

They passed a bulldozer scoop halfway-lined with very old mattresses and fitted with gun targets. Through the south-facing windows, McCarr was a gray flicker. Colton and Lisa separated twenty feet from the house. Colton went for the front.

He crouched on the far side of the front door.  He concentrated on dewdrops on the ground until he heard Lisa tap on the back door.

The first shot punched through the wall above his right shoulder. He heard the front door swing open, heard dirt under feet. He held his gun and aimed. McCarr swung an old gun arm around the corner; the shots went very wide. Colton shot six holes into the side of the house. He could not tell if they came out the other side. More dirt under feet. Fast steps, too fast. McCarr was gone.

From the trees: four shots, then two, then two, then one.

He brushed past the house’s front door. His eyes found the table with its knocked-over chair, the open root cellar. The house was already cold from the open front and back doors, as though it had been empty a long time. The shots stopped before he trudged down the grassy hill behind McCarr's house, with the sorghum bending and turning in the light breeze. He saw Lisa coming out from between trees before she saw him. One of Lisa's forearms was across the thing's mouth and the other was across its abdomen and it was kicking.

 

#

 

They kept the dry well closed the first week. Colton laid boards across its opening and piled slabs of concrete on top of those. Lisa thought, and he thought too, that if they kept the thing isolated for long enough it would lose Jolene's taint.

Its voice did gradually fade in volume, slipping like thinner and thinner sheets of tin from between the wood and concrete. By the end of the first week they could only hear it during the very darkest part of the night, and only when they were standing over the well.

After it fell silent they left it in another week.

Enforcement never came. Colton speculated that the thing would be too expensive to recover, but really there was no way to know. The dead machines were among McCarr's trees, Colton assumed, drying out. 

 

#

 

Even after Winter came, the machine wouldn't let Colton call it Sam. It wouldn't be called anything but Jolene, and it wouldn't ask for anything but Tom McCarr.

In November, they took her to McCarr's hundred acres and left her among the trees with burlap over her face. She appeared at their door two days later, mid-morning, wearing the dress McCarr had put on her those months before, holding a femur, asking for McCarr.

Colton buried the femur within the circle of eucalypts; Lisa shot Jolene in the face with her thirty-caliber and left her motionless in the dry well.

The next morning, before the sun crested, Colton heard Jolene's tin-sheet voice asking the dewdrops and miles of bristled earth for Tom McCarr.

 

#

 

Lisa refused to do any more to Jolene; it was Colton who dragged her out of the dry well another day later. Her rubber skin was stiff with cold as Colton brought the sledge down. Replaced inside was the wired peach pit of wrinkled metal; Jolene's head was an egg stuffed with ball bearings.

 

#

 

Jolene's head bounced on Colton's shoulder as he walked arcoss patches of yellow grass, his breath eddying white. The granite that straddled McCarr's hill glittered with frost under a sky the color of frozen bird skin. McCarr's paper windows were mostly flaps.

He dropped Jolene into the root cellar and pulled the trap door shut. The house was otherwise much as it had been in the moments after McCarr had stepped out of it for the last time; Colton closed the front and back doors before leaving. He did not hear any movement in the lines of trees around the hill as he walked home. The machines McCarr had shot were there, he knew. He dreamed that night, and again some nights after that, that a machine with Sam's face in white rubber was breathing at him around a rubber parrot tongue and forcing bones down his throat.

 

#

 

Leaves grew fat and green from winter rain and deer nuzzled Spring grasses on ephemeral watercourses and Colton shot at every white thing he saw.

At night he listened.

One by one, he smashed the bones that appeared on their doorstep that Spring, including the femur, covered in dirt.

 

____________________

 

No More Room in Hell: The 2014 Halloween Horrorquest

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