I'm about to publish a horror novel called In the Depths of the Valley on Kindle. Written almost two years ago, it tells the tale of a love-struck teacher named William Jameson, who makes a covenant with a graveyard creature that doesn't turn out too well (spoilers). This book is sort of a reliving of high school; Mr. Jameson teaches in a small town, and his students have similar adventures to my own at that age. In preparation for its publication, I'm sharing a short chapter. The main character in this chapter is Doug Hepburn, a good ol' boy cop, who is engaged to Loretta Mendez, the object of Will's affection.
Doug Hepburn sits in his patrol car, listening to the sounds of the night while sipping from a thermos half-full of beer. He’s parked on the side of the highway, lights off, radar gun sitting unused in the seat next to him. Every couple minutes the silence is disturbed by the roar of a passing car, headlights glowing around the wooded hillside like will-o’-the wisps, and Patrolman Hepburn stirs from his drinking and fumbles for the radar gun. They are always speeding—late night gamblers, truck drivers, hillbillies—but Hepburn rarely chooses to chase them, not when he’s drinking. The humidity is nearly unbearable, and the night brings no breeze. Hepburn takes a cigarette out of his shirt pocket and lights it with a match. His head aches a little, and the air is draining all the moisture out of his body, but he likes sitting by the roadside alone. Sometimes he talks to himself, a habit he’s kept secret for years. Loretta doesn’t know that he drinks and smokes and talks to invisible people, which is fine with Patrolman Hepburn, because there are things that shouldn’t be shared with anyone, he believes, even your fiancée. There is a front, a professional face, as well as a home face, the face of tenderness, and then there is the true self, the private self, the self that is inward and raw and unintelligible, the part that speaks with screams and ground teeth, with kicks and punches thrown at shimmering whispers, things that float and smile out of the gloom, horrors with no form and malevolent purpose, seeking souls that are lost, hungry, and sad.
The radio kicks on, mumbling police jargon, ruining the stillness. Hepburn chucks his beer can out the window and hears it clatter down the bank and into the river. Smells drift up from it, stagnant odors of mud and rotting fish. "Cesspool," says Hepburn to something off in the corner of his vision. "Slough, skeleton, fall into a heap." It vanishes as soon as he speaks, but it isn’t really gone. Neither is the smell.
Patrolman Hepburn opens the door and gets out of his car. It is a rural wasteland out here, the river to the south, a road traveling up a steep hill to the north, woods going east and west along the highway back to town. He takes his pistol out of its holster and twirls the gun around his index finger. I could shoot at the next car, he thinks, walking across the highway. Broken glass and fast food wrappers crunch beneath his boots, the trash of pigs, of fat, useless gluttons content to feed out of troughs. It’s hard for him to talk to them, the porcine beasts, whenever he has to pull them over, hard to look at them, to take their licenses out of their greasy hands. He puts his gun back in its holster and starts to climb up the hill.
The hill’s elevation increases quickly, and soon Hepburn is panting. He remembers running this hill during football practice in high school as part of a hellish conditioning routine designed to weed out the weak. Though still young, he’s not quite in the same shape he was, and this fact enters his mind as he wheezes up the incline. What am I doing? Where am I going? Patrolman Hepburn isn’t really sure. He seems to be seized by strange impulses more and more these days, impulses that come out of the fuzzy nether regions of his brain and steer him with unknown purpose. There has to be a purpose, he thinks, Doug Hepburn not being a man who believes in random occurrences. In his lucid moments, he thinks back to his one-way conversations and impulsive behavior and wonders if he suffers from schizophrenia or some other brain disorder. Can you tell if you’re crazy? he thinks, stopping near the summit to rest and breathe. The night answers him with the throb of locusts, pulsating like a wild beating heart. Up here at the top Hepburn can see acres of forest and the blinking lights of a barge crawling up the winding Ohio. Is this what I came for? A nice view? A mosquito lands on his forehead, but he doesn’t attempt to kill it. A deer carcass rots a few feet away, filling the night’s air with rank, sweet fumes. Hepburn considers investigating it, maybe to push it off the shoulder, but he pinches his nostrils and doesn’t move. I should be doing something better, he thinks, without pondering what. Coach used to make us run till we puked, then we’d go and do drills, which you never could remember, you stupid bastard. Never got the patterns down. He spits to his right, aiming at the deer. Headlights climb up the hill, moving in-between lanes like a drunken snake. Drunk sonsabitches, Hepburn concludes as a beater truck rushes by. Loretta can make sense of it all; she’s smarter than me. She can take care of the mumbling and the shapes. I don’t even need to tell her because she knows when something’s wrong.
One of the shapes is by the deer carcass, sniffing and pawing at the dead meat. This one has a long head and a snout with heavy jaws full of triangular teeth, white and glowing even in the murk. Hepburn is scared of this one; it has a bad vibe to it, the whisper of decay allowed to fester and bloom. "Fungal, reptile, diseased," babbles Hepburn suddenly, before clamping a hand over his mouth. The creature snickers—its laugh is raw and dirty, infected somehow—and Hepburn gets the sense that this one is worse than his other hallucinations, this one knows, it knows and thinks and walks and talks without words, and then it’s moving toward him on hairy paws (they never move toward me, they always linger just out of sight) and Hepburn stumbles further up the hill, trying to remember something about bears (do you run up the hill or down the hill?) as his heart races and legs climb. What can I do what can I do what can I do he thinks, never looking behind him, he can’t look at it, that would be the worst thing to do, he has to put some distance between this thing and him, so he sprints across the road, pausing suddenly to stare as great moonshapes appear out of the darkness, climbing as he climbs. Let them see me let them see me, he thinks, frozen wide-eyed as the twin satellites grow closer and closer. He wants to look away, but he cannot move, some wire has been clipped and he’s as dead as a stone, dead as that deer the thing was eating, and when the moonshapes greet him he’ll be on the shoulder like the carcass, life ebbing away and leaving only bloat, stink, and carrion. It’s what I want, he realizes, listening to that inner self that waits and speaks to shadows. Rubber squeals and the moonshapes veer away from him, and Hepburn sees for just a split second it, the nameless carrion eater, black and vague and eyeless as it hits the front of the truck and slides beneath it. The truck stops and a man gets out, yelling and cursing, coming at Hepburn, who is staring at the darkness lying motionless beneath the front tires, and all of a sudden the wire connects and he’s Patrolman Hepburn and a gun is in his hand and the man is silent and holding his hands up.
"I was running," he says, pointing beneath the truck with his gun. "You hit it."
"Hit what?" says the man. He’s wearing a trucker hat and a flannel shirt with cigarettes in the pocket.
"Tell me what you see under there," says Hepburn.
"Am I under arrest?" asks the man. "I was just driving, I wasn’t crossing the road in the middle of the—"
"Look under the goddamn truck and tell me what you see," interrupts Hepburn. The man is more or less a kid, a thin trace of a mustache visible on his upper lip.
"Was it a dog?"
"Tell me what you see."
The man complies, moving awkwardly to his knees to peer beneath the vehicle. Hepburn waits, his pulse rising, positive that it will lash out with those triangular teeth and seize upon the man’s throat, he’s almost hoping for it, for validation for years of formless shapes and disembodied voices and words that come bubbling up out of some hard, dark place. His gun is trained, his finger on the trigger. If a truck couldn’t kill it, how could a bullet?
"There’s nothing under here," says the man. "I don’t see nothing."
"You sure?" says Hepburn, nausea spreading from his stomach.
"Positive," says the man, turning to look at him. His eyes have disappeared, leaving only sunken skin, and as he smiles Hepburn sees that his teeth are jagged little triangles, stained red and covered with bits of flesh and bone. Thank Jesus, thinks Hepburn as he pulls the trigger.