Three


by Janna Layton


The young woman had melded with the rocks. The sharp black stone cut into her ribs, hip, thigh until the pain blended with everything. she was as much a part of the rocks as the mussels and limpets near her face. The ocean lapped at her legs but never quite washed the blood away. One hand made a weak fist.

“He’s here, we know he’s here. Jimmy saw him. Saw someone.”

Except for his mother, who was in bed and glassy-eyed with the pills she’d taken, and his grandmother, who was sitting with her, all the adults were talking in the kitchen. Jackson was sitting the living room, and the head of the black lab mix—his brother Miles’s dog—was in his lap. He stroked the dog’s sloping skull, played with the soft ears. The dog moved its head away. Jackson tried to move it back, but the dog growled softly. It was dark in the living room. It was dark in all the rooms. Only a small light in the kitchen was on. Jackson could see it reflected in the glass of the framed print of a cottage on the living room wall. He could see his aunt’s silhouette in the glare of the glass. She had been the one to turn off all the lights as soon his uncle ran in and announced the killer was in the area.

“Isn’t it more dangerous in the dark?” someone had said.

So they had turned the stove light on.

“We’re going out,” said one of Jackson’s cousins. “If the police won’t do anything, we will. That girl is missing, and now Miles is dead? Someone’s out there.”

“Fucking feds. Won’t even search at night,” someone muttered.

Jackson got up and started toward the kitchen. His brother’s dog stayed on the floor, so Jackson tugged his choke chain collar to make him follow.

“I want to go,” he said.

That only brought bitter laughs and his aunt’s horrified refusal. His father said nothing and kept looking at the floor.

“I’m almost thirteen, and Miles was…is. I mean is. My brother.” He hoped his father would put his hand on his shoulder and say he could come along.

But he was told no, and the men all left except one cousin who stood out on the porch with a gun. Jackson stood at the screen door. To the right of their little house was nothing but the darkness that signified the rise of the mountains with their hiking trails and ocean views. To the left were the lights of the few other houses on their unpaved road and the yellow lights from stores and parking lots below and beyond that. His cousin saw him looking and told him to stay inside. Jackson turned back, dragging his brother’s dog by the collar. He went to his room. He brought the dog in, but as soon as he let go of the collar it left, padding back through the hallway.

 

The horse was black, and the rider was draped in a black cloak. Water dripped from the rider’s hair to the broad, slick sides of the horse and then to the forest floor, where it disappeared in the dampness of decaying leaves and evening fog. She was the first, the rider thought. She was the first and she had waited. Through the murky water she had watched as the sky turned blue to red to black to red to blue to red to black. Over and over. Sometimes a bird or fish or drowned squirrel passed by. Then, finally, she heard the gunshot, the one that was final, and knew she only needed to wait for one more arrival of blackness.

 

Jackson turned on the camping lantern he kept in his room. He changed clothes, putting on his camo pants and a navy blue shirt with a star on it. He tried to tie a black bandana around his head so he would look tougher, but couldn’t get it to look right.

Then he went into Miles’s room. It smelled bad, like old sandwiches. Miles said his room was off-limits to everyone—no exceptions—but Jackson had snuck in a few times. The room was cluttered and dark, but that made it more exciting. You didn’t know what could be hidden in there. Once Miles had caught him looking at his naked women magazines and had thrown him out, thrown him against the hallway’s opposite wall. Jackson wondered if he could go into Miles’s room anytime he wanted now.

Most of the family’s guns were in their parents’ room, but Miles liked to keep his close. Jackson took a handgun from Miles’s desk and left. In the hallway he listened for his aunt. He could hear her in the kitchen, talking to someone on the phone.

“Three, that makes it a serial killer. That girl whose car they found yesterday is probably dead, let’s face it. They found that Mexican girl in the reservoir, what, two years ago? Now Miles, and they don’t think it could be the same guy? They have the nerve to ask if it could have been a suicide? Some sicko’s obviously hiding out in the woods, and they don’t want to deal with it.”

Jackson looked to his parents’ room, where his mother and grandmother were. The door was still closed. Earlier he had heard his mother’s voice in flat moan saying, “He was only twenty-three years old. A baby, a baby,” but now no sounds came from the room.

He took his brother’s dog’s leash off its hook carefully so the metal parts wouldn’t jingle too loudly.

“Come on, buddy,” he whispered to the dog as he clipped the leash to the choke chain. “We’re going to find the guy that killed Miles. We’re going to find the serial killer.”

Half dragging the dog, he slipped out the back door.

 

There was a little girl in the forest. Her skin and hair and clothes were dark, so all that could be seen were her white shoes. She sat between a bush and a tree, her knees pulled to her chest, her forehead on her arms. She hadn’t moved. She had heard many different sounds—the screams of hawks, the cries of owls—but she hadn’t heard footsteps, at least. As long as there were no footsteps, she was safe. But now she heard something else. It was the sound of something walking, but heavier and kinder than footsteps. A horse. A horse coming closer. When the horse stopped, she looked up.

It was in front of her. A large black horse with a rider in a black cloak. The horse lowered its head, and she reached up and touched its soft nose.

Then more hooves approached from the opposite direction. Lighter hooves. The girl looked to her left. A small pony approached. Its body was gray and dappled like stars through fog. She had ridden a pony once. It had been in a metal ring in a parking lot. The pony had been brown with a black mane and tail; its eyes had always stayed half-closed. She had loved the pony, but she didn’t like to remember it because the memory had a parking lot. Parking lots were bad now: asphalt scraping her legs, empty cups and chip bags blowing by, broken glass glinting in summer sun, distant cars, no one coming. The pale fingers in her mouth had tasted like sweat.

“Jasmine Yates,” said the rider.

It was a girl speaking, an older girl. Her voice was kind.

“I don’t want to go back to the parking lot,” Jasmine said.

“No, Jasmine, we’re not going there. We’re going far away.”

The pony came closer and stretched out its stubby neck to nuzzle her.

“This is your pony,” said the rider.

Her pony. Jasmine touched the pony’s nose, which was softer even than the horse’s. The pony’s eyes were not half-closed like the parking lot pony. They were alert but gentle. She wanted to ride it, but hesitated. She hadn’t left the spot in the bushes for so long.

“It’s all right, Jasmine. The bad man is gone,” said the rider.

Jasmine stood up and brushed off her pants. She put her arms around the pony’s neck. It was warm and soft and strong.

 

His brother’s dog tried to dart to the road when Jackson stepped outside. Jackson pulled it away behind the house, hoping it wouldn’t start barking and alert his family. It nipped him, but kept quiet. Luckily, the back yard was all dead grass and dirt, so their feet made little noise.

When he felt he was far enough away from where he could be seen, Jackson headed over to the side of the road and started walking up the hill. His father and uncles and cousins had gone up this way. They had said the person was in the woods near the reservoir. They had seen something black, something moving. They had heard noises. Jackson clutched the dog’s leash in one hand and the gun in the other. He’d been to the shooting range with his dad and Miles many times, and he always pretended he was shooting down bad guys and monsters. Now it’s for real, he told himself.

The dog kept stopping to pee on things, kept pulling Jackson off the path to smell trees and rocks.

“Good boy, you track that killer,” Jackson said.

A serial killer was in the woods. He had killed the girl who was in the reservoir two years ago and the girl whose car was found by hikers yesterday. The car had been driven deep in the woods and into a ravine, probably by the serial killer. Last night the news had kept playing footage of policemen looking at the car. They also periodically showed a picture of the girl, who  had been missing for a week. She was pretty and blonde and held a dachshund.

“Maybe she’s still alive,” Jackson had said to Miles. “Maybe we can rescue her.”

“She’s stupid cunt.”

“But if we saved her, she’d have to reward us.”

“Who’d want to save a bitch like that?” Miles had said, throwing his empty beer can at the TV. It bounced off the wall.

Then Miles had gone to his room and slammed the door. He did that sometimes. He’d get mad and stay in his room for hours. Or he’d go out for hours in the woods, never taking Jackson with him. Still, Jackson imagined him and Miles going into the forest and finding the blonde girl tied up. He would hurry to cut the ropes around her wrists and ankles while Miles would circle the area looking for the bad guy. The killer would come back and there would be a shoot-out, but they’d win. The girl would be so grateful. She would kiss them with that smiling mouth from her news photo.

But now Miles was dead too. His body had been found not far from their house by a jogger that morning. He had been shot in the head, his gun beside him. Maybe he had gone off to rescue the girl after all. Maybe he had thought it was too dangerous for Jackson, even though he was almost thirteen.

It was hard to believe it had only been that morning, that his mother screaming on the floor and the cops showing up and relatives filling the house had all happened in one day.

Suddenly the dog stopped, body tense, ears pricked forward. Jackson raised the gun in front of him, ready. He listened for footsteps, but heard nothing. Then the dog let out a soft bark and darted into the darkness. The leash was gone from Jackson’s fingers in an instant.

 

The young woman on the rocks continued to lie curled on her side. The waves kept coming. She could feel an object clasped in her hand. What was it? It was hard and cold. She remembered when she saw the moon. It was a marble. After the man had left she had still been in the dirt, alone with the burning pain of her wounds. Her cheek was pressed into the ground, and she was staring out towards the trees through a mostly decayed short picket fence. On her side of the fence were old beer bottles and faded plastic toys. Among the toys closest to her she noticed a marble. It was clear with smoky gray swirls like a little planet or galaxy. She wished she could go inside that world, safe and alone forever.

The rotting trailer was behind her. Had the man gone inside it? He might come back. He might come back again with the gun and stare down at her with those dead but crazed eyes. He might not be done with her yet. She reached out and grabbed the marble and ran.

 

Jackson was alone in the woods. He had tried to find the dog, but now he stood perfectly still. He didn’t know where the trail was. He couldn’t hear his uncles, cousins, or father. The serial killer could be watching him from up in a tree or behind a bush. He tried to breathe as quietly as possible. Tears formed in his eyes.

“Mom,” he said softly, too scared of alerting the serial killer to call loudly.

Then he heard something. Maybe it was a raccoon. No, it was bigger. It was bigger and coming towards him, quickly. The serial killer was coming towards him.

He fired the gun.

 

The rider on the black horse headed in the direction of the ocean, and she remembered a red swimsuit with sequins, her mother, her siblings, the smell of sunscreen, a cooler of sandwiches, an uncle rescuing their beach ball from the tide. That had been during the day and long time ago, but the waves still sounded the same, both wild and steady. Jasmine, on the pony, was behind her. Sometimes they could hear men in the forest, and sometimes the men ran towards them, whispering to each other, but the rider told Jasmine that nothing could hurt them now.

“Just one more,” said the rider. “And then we can leave.”

There would be no more stagnant water. No more bushes. No more leaves sticking. There wouldn’t be fish floating by with their blank eyes like echoes of the face she had seen when she turned around.

 

Jackson couldn’t make his body stop screaming and crying, even when his father and uncles and cousins found him. He couldn’t draw enough air into his lungs before his muscles locked and he had to breathe out a cry. His father was shaking him and everyone was yelling questions at him.

“I thought it was the killer,” he finally sobbed, turning away from Miles’s dead dog.

 

The young woman kept rolling the marble in her palm. Hard, cold. She could press it against the bones of her hand until it hurt; she could let it rest smooth and perfect on her fingers. She was vaguely aware of the hooves, but they blended in with the sound of the sea. She only turned her head when the hooves stopped.

She looked up at the horse and rider. The rider pulled back her cloak and she could see her face. Another young woman. Or perhaps a girl. Fifteen, maybe. Vaguely familiar.

“Natalia Thompson,” said the rider.

Natalia slowly sat up, blood trailing where the rocks had cut her.  “That’s my name,” she said. “I’m supposed to go to college in the fall. I have a little sister.” She paused. “Is my sister all right?”

“Yes,” said the girl on the horse.

She used her left hand, the hand not clutched closed, to scoop up water and rinse the blood from her legs.

“What do you have there?” the girl asked.

Natalia opened her hand and looked at the marble. The moonlight reflected on the gray swirls, making it look even more like some other world.

“It happened by an old trailer, out in the woods,” said Natalia. “I drove up here for a hike. I saw him and started to walk faster, but then he ran and tackled me. He had a gun. He brought me there. It was out of sight of the trails. Someone had lived there once. I kept thinking someone would show up. A couple looking for privacy, kids wanting to smoke pot, a lost dog. But no one did. Afterwards, I saw this marble in the dirt. I picked it up. I don’t why. I picked up the marble and ran, or thought I did.”

She looked at the marble and then crushed it in her hand, letting the tiny shards fall into the ocean.

“What’s your name?” she asked the rider.

“Isabella Montez.”

Then she remembered the face copied on sheets of paper stapled to utility poles. She remembered the news footage of a black tarp near the reservoir.

“Hello, Isabella,” she said.

More hoof beats approached and a mare appeared, a pinto with expanses of chestnut.

Natalia stood up, then looked for a moment at where she had been. The sharp rocks, the cold saltwater, the steadfast mussels and limpets.

She turned to the horse, a mare with a white and amber face. One dark eye of kindness, one blue eye of understanding. She pulled herself up onto the warm back and looked at Isabella beside her on the black horse. From the shadows came a small girl on a small pony. She couldn’t remember any sheets of paper or news footage for the girl. But here they all were.

“Are you ready?” asked Isabella.

“I’m the last of them—of us—aren’t I?”

“You are. There won’t be anymore.”

“Good. Yes, I’m ready.”