“Oh, I have no doubt you’ll be wanting to see me tomorrow,” he said. He sounded innocent enough but I wasn’t sure of anything in this place. Everything felt ominous.

He wiped his mouth with his napkin and placed it neatly on the table. He got out of his chair and turned to Sarah, “Please thank your husband for the lovely meal. It’s time for me to retire. Still in a bit of pain.”

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“Yeah, what happened with that?” Dex questioned, also getting up and facing him.

Shan eyed him distrustfully. “Chest pains.”

“Your heart?”

“Yeah,” he said. He sent a furtive glance at Sarah. “My heart.”

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And then he was gone, the cold wind from outside gusting in as he closed the door, making the napkins on the table rise and fall. Of course, now it was us and Sarah.

She knew it. She sighed and slowly got up. “All right. I’ll leave you kids to whatever you are doing. Wasting our time by the sounds of it.”

We didn’t say anything. There wasn’t anything to say. We just looked at our hands and waited until she was walking upstairs before we made any movements.

I exhaled. I felt like I was holding my breath for the last few hours.

“Dude,” Maximus agreed.

Time to get cracking. We told Will and Bird we were going upstairs to gather our equipment. We still didn’t speak, feeling that there were too many eager ears in this house, until we got our equipment in the Jeep.

“I’ll take my own car,” Maximus said. “I’ll be staying at the hotel again anyway.”

He got in and drove off. I climbed into the passenger side of the Jeep. Time to get to the bottom of this.

CHAPTER TEN

Even sitting in the Jeep, away from prying ears and eyes, I still didn’t feel all that safe.

“Are we meeting Maximus at the bar?” I asked Dex, staring out the window, watching the shadow of Will go about in the kitchen.

“Yup,” he nodded, texting Maximus as we spoke.

“And where is Bird meeting us?”

“I assume he’ll come find us at the bar too,” he said, pulling the car into reverse, then rolling out along the bumpy road until we were under the Lancaster’s’ gate and on the open road.

“Just to clarify, we aren’t really doing night shots are we?”

He shook his head. “No m’am, we are not.”

The black desert rushed past my window, that unfathomable darkness stretching on as far as I could see. The headlights provided the only light, illuminating just the grey, gritty pavement as we rolled over it. Inside, the glow of the dashboard and consoles sparkled like tiny beacons in the pitchy interior. I felt like I could see our car from a bird’s-eye view, a tiny moving dot of light surrounded by nothing but never ending emptiness. It gave me the shivers.

“Perry?” Dex asked.

I looked at him, his face shadowed, his expression obscured.

“What do you think?”

It was hard to say. Where to start?

“I think,” I said slowly, tracing my fingers along the window pane. “We might be in over our heads.”

And it didn’t feel good. I felt like we were running out of time and losing our grasp on the situation. And the more I thought about that, the more scared I was to go back to Portland with a big fat FAIL hashtag.

“If it makes you feel any better, I think we’re fucked too,” he said bluntly.

No. That did not make me feel better.

I sighed, having to ask, “How come?”

He started laughing. Really laughing. Hard enough so that he was shaking in his seat. I stared at him, dumbfounded and a bit disturbed.

When he calmed down, he sputtered, “For one, I’m having a hell of a time trying to keep my mind thinking straight.”

“You seem like you’re doing OK,” I told him truthfully.

He looked at me sharply, such a contrast to his laughing fit. So when he said with lowered voice, “I’m not,” I believed him. I nodded, unsure of what to say to that.

He continued though, voice slightly more upbeat, “For another reason, Maximus is fucking me off.”

“Huh?”

“For another reason,” he went on, “I think we may be dealing with more than just one thing here and I don’t even know what one of those bloody things is. And finally, I think every single person at that ranch is lying to us.”

At least we were on the same page.

“I think Bird is on our side though,” I pointed out.

Dex shook his head. “I can’t trust him. He’s already gotten to you.”

“To me?”

He shot me a long sideways glance. “Yeah. You. What was all that business in the room about? You said you’d tell me later. So tell me.”

“It was nothing.”

“Fuck, Perry!” he boomed, hitting the steering wheel with his hands. “Just fucking tell me!”

Whoa. Where the hell did that come from? I knew it drove him nuts when I didn’t tell him stuff but seriously...

I crossed my arms and looked out the window. Anything I would say would only fan the flames. I heard him sigh and knew he was relenting.

“I’m sorry. I just…it hurts when I don’t know what’s going on with you.”

“Hurts or it bothers you?”

“Fine. It bothers me,” he admitted.

“Because you like to know everything?”

“Oh, like you don’t? Like you’re not asking me every five seconds what I’m thinking? You think I don’t notice you staring at me?”

I blushed, suddenly thankful for the dark interior.

“I’m not…staring. I just, well, you’re tough to figure out sometimes and you know that, so whatever.”

“And so are you,” he pointed out. “So we’re even.”

I wondered if that’s what that remark on the side of the road meant.

“Look,” I said. “When I don’t tell you something it’s not because I’m hiding it from you…maybe I just don’t think you’d care. Or maybe I think you’d think it was stupid, or ridiculous or maybe it would change your opinion of me. In the worst way.”

Even though explaining that put me in a semi-vulnerable state, it felt good. As good as it felt in the bedroom the other day. I wasn’t sure why it was so hard for me to just say things to him. Why I had to keep on this rollercoaster of wanting to be on the same page and then hiding bits of myself away from him. I wanted him, I wanted his thoughts and his fears and his feelings but I didn’t want to give away a single ounce of myself.

“You need to get out of that head of yours,” he said.

That was true.

“Anyway,” I ignored him. “Bird had just said I would basically attract trouble wherever I went. That spirits or whatever sensed something in me, I don’t know what, and that they were attracted to that. They wanted me and would always be trying to get me. Hence the stronger rock activity, the fox, the crow and the snake…”

“You were afraid to tell me that?” he asked, surprised.

“I don’t know. It makes me sound…self-important. Like I thought I was special.”

“Do you think you’re special, Perry?” he asked seriously.

I winced. “A little bit. Maybe more in the Special Olympics kind of way.”

He smiled and turned his eyes to the road. “You are special, kiddo.”

“Thanks,” I said sarcastically.

“And not entirely in a Special Olympics way. And you know it. I know it. I’m not sure in how many different ways but I know we’ll find out. I think you’ll be very useful.”

“By offering me to the Gods?” I joked. He didn’t reciprocate, smile or laugh. I narrowed my eyes, feeling a weird vibe coming off of him.

“You can’t be serious,” I said. “I was joking.”

“There’s an off chance we may have to use you as bait,” he admitted, not looking at me.

“What?!”

“I said off chance,” he said defensively. “I don’t know what’s going to happen but after the lighthouse it’s pretty obvious you’re partly responsible for attracting the weirdos. You’re like a ghost magnet. Why do you think I like having you around?”

My mouth dropped momentarily. “Because I’m awesome.”

“Oh, well that too.”

And that was exactly why I didn’t ever want to give a single ounce of myself away to Dex. He lulls me into a false sense of security and then treads all over me. Damn him and his stupid mustache.

“Great,” I muttered and leaned against the window, the lights of Red Fox not getting any closer. How freaking far was this damn bar from the ranch, anyway? I didn’t remember the drive being so long.

We traveled in silence for a few more minutes. I had no interest in talking to him for the rest of the evening. But eventually I had to remark on the fact that we were nowhere near the bar.

“Did you take a wrong turn?” I asked.

He shook his head and peered at the instrument panel. The compass said we were headed southeast. “How could I have taken a wrong turn, we never got off the road.”

“Well, we’ve been driving for at least twenty minutes and I could have sworn the town was ten minutes away.” I looked out the window uneasily. The road curved to the left and the lights were becoming distant.

“I think we should turn around,” I said even though behind us looked just as lost and bleak.

Dex reached into the cup holder and handed me the phone.

“Call Maximus and explain we’re going to be late.”

I did just that as Dex kept driving forward. Now the lights of the town were completely gone, swallowed up by the nebulous night.

“How could you have taken a wrong turn?” Maximus said, voice crackling on the other line. “I’m already at the bar.”

“I don’t know, I’m not driving.”

“Well I’ll be…,” he trailed off as he thought it over, the muffled sounds of the bar jukebox coming through. At least it sounded a bit more bumping than it was the other day. “I don’t know what to say except to turn back the way you came and start all over again. I’ll go find Bird and let him know.”

“OK, I’ll call you in a bit,” I said and hung up as I heard him saying “be safe,” his tinny voice so small in the car.

“Turn around,” I said to Dex. “Now.”

He sighed looking mighty pissed off. It must have been hard for him to admit that he did something wrong. Though I really didn’t see how he could have screwed up driving down a road.

He brought us to a crawl and did a slow U-turn. As he brought the Jeep around, our headlights swirled through the dark and focused on the road heading the other way.

There was a large buck standing in the middle of the road.

We both gasped and Dex braked. Where the hell had that deer come from?

We were maybe four feet away from it. It was like it had been following us – stalking us – down the road and our turn had caught it off guard.

But that was impossible.

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