In the forest, leaf sweet darkness, a woman pleaded.
‘Jesus,’ she cried. Then quiet.
Against instinct, Aiden headed to the silence, afraid and alert. Old mute woods, deep night, oak and ash chromed with moon. Fennel spiced his nostrils. Soothed his dusty throat. He tasted the scent and scouted on, sleek and slow in the scrub.
On a dell bank, the woman lay limp and torn. A girl curled in the brackenfern. Aiden approached her, twig breaking steps, and her arm rose.
‘No more,’ she said, her eyes buried under foul swelling.
‘It’s all right.’ Aiden knelt and lifted her head on his thigh. ‘I’m here.’
‘My teeth hurt.’
‘You’re a brave lady.’
‘Tooth fairy will fix it.’
‘Funny,’ she said, and her last breath spent on his arm.
A far ridge, a man loped black against the moon, a curved utensil in his hand, swinging with his stride. ‘Beast,’ said Aiden. He parted congealed hair from the girl’s cheek. Laid her down. Stained and slack in the dirt.
Back at the tent, he retched in his sleeping bag. Sacrilege scenarios breaking his rest. Daybreak, the rain clawed, breezeless on the door mesh. Birdsong and ripe June smells. Aiden rose naked. Peed on a shrub. Squat at a brook and shaved in the humid downpour. He towel pat his face and lit the single burner. Brewed up coffee. He poured a cupful and filled a flask. Spread jam on a raisin scone and ate it with his brew. He had planned to list his provisions but decided against an inventory in the wet. There was plenty, he was sure. Maybe a healthy week’s worth. He dressed, topped a water flask, packed his rucksack, and continued up country.
Midday the rain died and the sun hurt and birds piped high on summer.
Near dusk, he picked up on a trail. A rut of trodden stems bending off through dense woods. He dropped the rucksack and studied his map and compass. The ordnance showed forestry and rivers and hills. The odd farm. Nearest town was nineteen miles west. He knelt and unclipped the rucksack. Frisked out a can of pilchards, a tin opener and fork.
Dusk cast. Sun sunk and moon thin in a lilac sky. He fastened up and followed the track. Fatigue hurting. He had been thinking of pitching for the night but felt exposed now in open plain. The path seemed recently flattened and he thought it prudent to trail it for a bit, see where it led, if anywhere.
In woodland dark he parted hickory and scanned the log cabin. A glacial moon varnished the roof in a polar hue. Smoke wicked from a brick chimney. There was a chair on the porch. A low fence squared a garden. Aiden sat under the bush and watched. The cabin looked warm, serene, a home. A candlelit window ghosted with shadow. He imagined people. Well people.
He glanced at his watch, the luminous dials at eleven. Normally he’d be camped now. He fetched a flask from his khaki trousers hip pocket. Uncorked it and swigged a nod of whiskey. Resumed his surveillance. Another swig, the alcohol hit. He sank in cushion leaves. Wished his wife’s presence. Exhaustion crept and his eyes closed and the flask spilled.
The shotgun nozzle bunt Aiden’s chest. Moonlight on his face. ‘Fart and you’re weed feed.’ The old man wagged the single barrel and held up a rope. ‘On your belly.’
‘I was passing.’ Aiden fumbled at his rucksack. ‘I’m heading for Vinton.’
The gun cocked. ‘My twelve-gauge says belly.’
‘I didn’t do anything.’
‘Your diseased ass is on my land.’
‘No.’ Aiden slapped his chest. ‘I’m a negative.’
The old man sniggered and stooped over him. ‘You’re a snake, son. Sneaking and peeping on my home. Waiting for bedtime.’
‘I’m immune. I swear.’
‘Sure you are. One in fifty thousand. Don’t insult me, son.’
‘There are six hundred negatives in Ohio. My brother told me. He was a doctor.’
‘And you happen to be one of them.’
‘That would make two on my doorstep.’
‘What are the chances? Two here in the middle of nowhere.’
‘Slim.’ Aiden dusted nettles from his elbow. ‘Say I was a virant. Doesn’t make me a snake. Most are decent people.’
‘Who rots decent, son?’
‘Those that pass with family in their homes.’
‘Hmm. It’s the creepers I hate. Crawlers like you. Gutting anything that moves.’
‘I’ve seen it.’
‘Spite, that’s what it is. Thrill kills before they reek.’
‘I tried to help.’
‘Truth is I can’t tell a snake from a saint in this light.’ The old man lowered the barrel at Aiden’s crotch and waved the rope. ‘On your guts and hands behind your back.’
‘My eyes are clear.’
‘Belly or buckshot.’
Aiden rolled onto his stomach, his face in the dirt. ‘I’m a damned negative.’
The old man crouched, a knee on the spine, shotgun tucked under his arm. He bound Aiden’s wrists. ‘We’ll see in the morning. A spit of pus and you’re in the grave.’
(This is the opening of my novel EDEN DUST. The remainder of Chapter One and Chapter Two is published in Unthology 4 by Unthank Books. You can order Unthology 4 from Amazon. Or the Unthankbooks website)