The Lad Who Poked the Devil in the Eye
Chapter 2: School Tales

Copyright© 2016 by Vincent Berg

Ten days previously, a single Suburban drove down a lonely road on a new-moon night so dark it was difficult discerning anything outside the headlights' glare.

The two denizens of the back seat wrestled with impatient expectations. It was a long evening, and the drive home seemed endless to Otis and his sister, Geraldine. They'd spent the evening at a cocktail party thrown by their father's co-workers. Not knowing any of the kids, the entire experience was strained. The children who knew each other teased and flirted, ignoring Otis and Ger, as she preferred to be called. The trip home didn't improve anyone's mood.

Otis stared out the window at the inky darkness surrounding them.

Ger nibbled on her fingernails, a nervous habit which drove Otis and their mother, Kelly, up the wall. Ger's evening was worse than Otis'. While he'd been ignored, at least there were kids his age. She'd been stuck babysitting the five and under kids, while struggling for inclusion by the older children who wanted nothing to do with her. Noting she'd bitten her nails to the quick, she sat on her hands. "When do we get home?"

Their father, Liam Cruz, sighed, glancing back in the rear view mirror. "We're almost home. You've driven this road hundreds of times. You should recognize it by now."

The party was his idea. He knew the kids had few friends and thought this get together would allow them to build friendships. Yet they seemed more distant and his coworkers weren't pleased either.

"We're near the Applebee's," Otis answered, staring out the window.

"Oh," she conceded, frowning though no one could observe it. "It's dark and I can't see from back here." Their response exemplified one of her biggest issues with her family. She'd been a late addition. Her friend Alice's brother insisted she was an accident, so she fought to appear older than she was. The age difference between her and Otis left her with no one she could spend time with at home. Like her brother, she'd learned to play quietly by herself to avoid further ostracism.

"Don't worry," her father said, glancing back, "we'll be home soon."

"Of course, you could always walk," Otis mumbled under his breath.

Ger bristled. As much as she disliked being seen as the youngest, she hated the negative attention her older brother attracted. "Oh please. Stop yakking to yourself. People already think you're schitzo."

Otis' head snapped around to glare at her. Ger's hot button was the accident of her birth, but Otis' was this singular habit.

Their mother spun around. "Ger, behave! You know your brother isn't sick. He just has an unusual way of entertaining himself."

She stuck out her lip, crossing her arms. "I don't care what you call it, when someone talks to himself, he's nuts!"

"That's not fair," Liam said, glancing back in the rearview mirror. "We've explained this before. Schizophrenia develops later in life, in the late teens or early twenties. Your brother's done this since he was young. He's not ill, he's ... quirky."

Kelly twisted around, restrained by her seatbelt. "Besides, he hardly does it anymore. You can't criticize someone for something they've changed. It's like someone criticizing you for being little. You're too old for that critique."

"I don't care," Ger insisted, returning her brother's stare. "The only people who hold talk when there's no one around are crazy homeless people sleeping on park benches."

Otis surrendered his war of wills to his sister, staring back out the window. "I only do it 'cause there's no one else to talk to." He was too self-conscious about his odd behavior to withstand anyone else's condemnation of it. He knew how strange it was. It was why he avoided people. All it took was a single slip-up, and he'd become a laughing stock and lose the few friends he had.

Kelly turned, raising her voice. "Ger, I'm telling you for the last time—" Her voice halted as she threw her arm across her husband's chest in a futile attempt to restrain him. "LIAM, look out!"

Otis glanced up in time to observe a tall, hunched-over figure lurch in front of the car. Liam slammed on the brakes, yanking the wheels to one side as the car slid. The brakes squealed and the Suburban struck something, producing a disconcerting thump accompanied by the sound of broken glass and tearing fiberglass. Liam grasped the wheel as the car ran off the road onto the rough uneven shoulder.

"What was that?" Kelly asked, glancing back.

"Did we hit someone?" Otis said, hoping for some gruesome excitement to share at school.

"I hope not." His father got the vehicle under control, bringing it to a stop. "More likely a deer or small bear."

"Deer aren't that tall!" Kelly dug through her purse. "I'll call 911."

"Don't. If it's nothing, we'll look stupid and annoy the local cops. Let me check what it was first." Liam put on his flashers and got out. "Stay in the car."

He ran down the road, trying to determine what he'd struck, but was stymied by the dark night. A sudden light illuminated the roadway. Glancing back, he saw Kelly grinned triumphantly, holding her phone up.

"Thanks. Can you see anything?"

"No. I don't hear anything either. You'd think something that big would cry out when it was hit."

Another light lit the far side of the country road. Turning, they saw Otis shining the keychain flashlight. Liam bit back his reprimand, figuring it was too late to shelter him. He was glad for the assistance, noting Ger's quiet stare from inside the Suburban. "Kelly, you check the right side, Otis, you take the left. I'll search for debris in the center." As an engineer in charge of a large department exploring local oil reserves, Liam was used to taking command.

Otis waved something over his head. "I found broken glass!"

"I located the skid marks." Liam knelt in the middle of the road, running his hand over the surface as ineffectually as his wife's restraining hand. "It's got to be around here."

"I can't make out a thing," Kelly complained, surveying the scrub brush, dry dirt and cacti with her phone.

"We definitely hit something, though maybe only a large sagebrush or tire."

"That wasn't any sagebrush." Kelly examined the surrounding terrain for any sign of an injured animal. "And how would a tire roll in front of us?"

"Well, it was something, it wouldn't just disappear."

They searched for several more minutes before Liam pulled out his phone. "I'll call the police. They'll tell us what we should do."

"911. What's your emergency?" the male voice answered.

"This is Liam Cruz of Dry Gulch. We hit something on Old Sumner road, just short of Abner Lane."

"Was anyone hurt?"

"We weren't, though we have no clue what we struck. The front end of our car is banged up, but we can still drive. What should we do?"

"If there's no sign of anything, there's not much you can do. It'll be a while before we can get someone out there. You weren't drinking, were you?"

"No, I was at a cocktail party, but didn't drink because I was driving."

"In that case we'll examine the area. You can take your family home and have your car checked. We'll contact you later for a statement. It was probably nothing. These things happen. What's your number?"

Liam gave their home phone and address, as Otis continued searching. Only he wasn't rummaging for a body, he was examining the side of the road for distinguishing marks he could find later. As the only excitement they'd had recently, he wasn't about to let a gruesome discovery go unexplored. He needed something to tell his friends.

Otis slipped down the stair in his stocking feet, carrying his tennis shoes. The sight of his father stopped him cold.

Liam smiled but cocked his head, surprised to see his son. "What are you doing up?"

"Uh, nuthin'." Otis had hoped to escape the house unnoticed. While early for him, considering he was on vacation, it wasn't for his father, who had to drive to work.

"This is the first time I've seen you up this early. What's got you so excited?"

Otis bit his lip, thinking fast. "I wanted to get to Jayden's. The accident is the first real excitement I've had to talk about all summer. I want to see him while I still remember the details."

Liam grinned, remembering his early adventures. While his teenage years were a touch wilder than his son's, he was happy Otis was satisfied with such pedestrian thrills. "Well, don't be out too long. The police will be by soon, and they'll want your and Ger's observations."

"Okay," Otis said, seeing his opening. He was out the door before his father changed his mind.

"Wait, have you had... ?" Liam pressed, leaning out the door before realizing it was a lost cause. His son was already off on his newest adventure, entering the wooded glade by the house even as Liam spoke.

"Ah, here's the site." Otis dropped his bike in the dirt beside Old Sumner road. He tended to talk to himself when alone, partially the result of being raised far from any close friends. The sound of his own voice reassured him and helped him think through his issues. However, it was something he knew to keep to himself—aside from his sister—who tormented him about it.

He retrieved the belt he marked the site with the night before, threading it back through his belt loops. Once done, he reviewed the area. "Not much evidence of a boogie-man," he observed. He wandered into the road, kicking a piece of headlight. Seeing a dark stain on the asphalt, he knelt in the center of one lane, poking it with his finger. "That's an odd color for blood. Fresh blood is crimson, oxidized blood is black, but this is a haphazard splash of dark bluish-green." He ran his open hand over it, checking if it had an oily feel. "Actually, it's darker," he corrected himself. "Like the result of a small chemical spill. Maybe it's from a leak in the van after the accident?" He shook his head. "Nah, that's unlikely, it's the wrong color. Oil and transmission fluids are different shades of black. Brake fluid is pink. This isn't the same." Otis scratched his head, evaluating the possibilities. "I've never seen anything that shade before."

He walked along the roadway, glancing at the orange cliffs in the distance and the wide open desert between them. "I doubt the police have investigated the site yet. If they had, there'd be police tape or at least tire tracks by the side of the road. There's no sign of either." He stopped, reviewing the scene once again for anything he may have overlooked. "Chances are a lone vehicle accident off in the country wouldn't merit much priority. With just a few cops monitoring this area, they'd be unlikely to get to it soon."

Spinning in a slow circle, he took in the surroundings. "If I was a fugitive, running for my life, there aren't many options. Anyone injured wouldn't live long exposed to the sun and without water. What's more, a fugitive would want somewhere to hide. Since there aren't any circling buzzards, we can assume he found shelter." Otis glanced back the way he'd come before turning back. "They wouldn't head into town where someone might spot them and investigate. That only leaves one option, and the local sheriff wouldn't examine it either."

He crossed to the edge of the street and nudged the sage grass with his boot. "Man, this is so cool. Just imagine, a fugitive fleeing the scene of an accident, taking his life in his hands to avoid recapture. This story will make me the coolest kid in school. With luck, it'll buy me a little grace concerning my unpopular traits. It's a hike there and I don't know how long it will take to investigate once we reach the site." Otis fetched his bicycle, mounted up, and rode off across the dusty plain heading for a specific mountain peak in the distance.

Otis wiped his brow, studying the trail before him. "Man, this is hot!" Otis developed the habit of talking to himself years ago. With no one else to hang around with, it was like having an imaginary friend. He couldn't talk to Ger. Any time she learned anything about him, she never let him forget it. She berated. He rattled the canteen, listening to the water slosh inside. He glanced over his shoulder, but seeing no one, continued his discussion.

"Just a sip, it has to last all day, but then, I've walked this route multiple times and never had any trouble. Besides Mom laying into me for missing dinner, that is."

He nudged more of the sparse grass aside. "We're on the right track. There's more of that stuff. We've been following a trail of these markings: some soaked into the sand, some splashed across the shrubbery." He knelt and rubbed the substance between his fingers. The stains in the dirt were mixed with grit, providing a rough surface. Those on the plants still retained some moisture, but didn't provide any more clues.

"The color's fast. It stains the fingers. It's oily too. Too bad the ground's too hard to leave footprints." He wiped his hand in the sand, the coarse material scraping it from his fingers. "Still, it doesn't tell us any more than the last one did." He stood and strode off, replacing the cap on his canteen. "We're clearly on the right track, though."

He paused a short distance away, nudging the loose dirt with his toe. "There may not be any footprints, but what the hell is this?" He scratched his neck, examining it. "It's the third time I've seen it. The first couple times, I thought it was nothing. But if it's this frequent, along this trail, it's got to be significant." He knelt, examining it in more detail. "It looks like the inside of a chicken pen, like twenty chickens were scratching for feed in a one-foot oval. Only there ain't any chickens 'round here. They wouldn't survive long in the desert." He stood again, staring into the distance. "Still, what could it be? I guess we'll never know until we get there and find out."

Shrugging, he set off again, leaving the odd tracks behind. "It's unlikely to encounter one mystery while we're investigating another. They must be related. I'll need to be careful. I'm investigating something unknown. Whatever it is, it may be dangerous." He grinned, considering the implications. "Hot damn! I hope so."

"These other animals weren't quite as cautious." He kicked a dead mouse out of his path, its carcass dried hard. "That's what you get for taking the heat of the desert for granted. Dad taught me well enough to come prepared. Good thing I brought the extra water. The person I'm tracking might need it. Don't forget, there's a stream. Even if I didn't bring enough, we can refill there. Still, it's barely a trickle. If we need to clean up, it'll take more than what a little hole in the rock can produce."

Soon, a single orange cliff rose before him. Sheltering his eyes from the glare, he studied one particular spot. "Can't see anything unusual, but that's the wonderful thing about this hideout. It's invisible from a distance. Without entering, no one knows about it. Even the locals who explored it as kids can't find it. Most have forgotten about it, and without remembering the exact location, it's hard to find amongst the other buttes in the region. Though I'm unsure how this particular outlaw knows where to head. Unless he's from the area, he wouldn't know about it. If he didn't, there's no way to locate it before dying of exposure." Otis shrugged, kicking a tumbleweed out of the way, watching it bounce across the uneven terrain. "That's why I spent so much time here. It's a terrific escape from the family, especially Ger. She can't tag along if she can't find me. It's the only place to be alone and talk without attracting attention. Still, if I grow any taller, I only have another year, at best, until I can't visit fit in anymore. Then I'll forget about it like everyone else."

The obscure cavern entrance was just a fissure in the side of the mountain. Otis was small enough to squeeze through, but the clues he'd observed left him dubious. Whatever led him here was wounded, which meant it was likely dangerous. It might also attract other animals, which presented additional dangers. Propping his bike against an outcropping so it wouldn't be noticed, he lay on his stomach and slid along his side inside the stone fissure.

He grunted with the effort, the rock pressing against him on both sides, the sharp edges scraping his flesh through his clothes. He knew enough to wear study clothing, having done this many times. Each time it was tighter than he remembered. He squirmed around the twisting passage, which took time. He also did it in complete darkness, worsened by the glare from behind him casting shadows over what little he could see. The fissure—while narrow—was high, so he had no problems breathing. As the small crevice opened up into a larger cavern, he collected himself, sitting and dusting himself off before standing. He always carried a small penlight for this purpose. Creeping forward, he scanned the ground for clues of someone hiding. The silence was pronounced. There weren't any more stains, but his light showed more of the same tracks, making him more cautious. Something was decidedly odd about his 'fugitive'. Either it was St. Francis reincarnated, or it presented a threat he didn't understand. Edging around another corner, he detected the glow. Shutting off his penlight, he noted the glow changed frequently, meaning whatever held the light was active. Moving closer, he could make out sounds, but they were nothing he recognized. Instead it was like a hissing series of clicks, like several snakes trying to swallow children's clickers. Taking a deep but silent breath, Otis edged around the corner, his heart stopping as he did.

Before him lay, under a rack of strange equipment, something utterly alien. It was huge. If it stood, Otis guessed it might tower seven or eight foot tall. If he'd encountered it outside, he'd be terrified. But lying where it was, holding its side and moaning, it tugged at his heartstrings. As foreign and frightening as it was, it was hurt, ailing and in need of attention.

The creature pulled up into itself, trying to flatten itself against the wall of the cavern, difficult to do for a creature so large. Its hands fretted, poised over a strange device Otis recognized as a weapon, but didn't touch it.

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