A continuation of this month's pitch, a second round of horror stories, each rooted in a modern anxiety.
“Jesus loves me, this I know,” the little boy whispered. Ben glanced over at Lacey, who sat half-turned in the passenger’s seat, a little smile on the edges of her lips. She looked up for a moment, and he could see the sigh of relief, unspoken, in her eyes.
“For the Bible tells me so.” One of the boy’s hands clutched the edges of a blanket they had wrapped around his naked body. The other moved gently beneath it, rubbing across his bare chest and belly.
“It doesn’t mean he’s not in shock,” Ben said. They had found him a few miles back, sitting Indian-style on the edge of the road by a tobacco field, staring at the sky. Naked as the day he was born.
“At least we know he can talk,” Lacey said, her smile quavering. “That’s got to be good, right?”
Ben nodded. “I hope so,” he said. They hadn’t seen the long scrapes on his sides and knees until they had stopped. So soon after Eric's death, someone else's son needed them.
“He must have fallen out of the bed of a pickup truck,” she said, staring at the child. “They do that in the country, you know, they let them ride back there with no protection at all--”
“And no clothes?”
“I don’t know, Ben!” she snapped. “What’s your explanation?”
He shrugged. “Could have fallen off his bike. Got a concussion. The clothes hurt him, so he crawled out of them, left them somewhere.”
“Little ones to him belong.” The voice was quiet, measured as it bounced up and down in pitch with the song.
Lacey turned back to the boy, perching her hands on the top of the seat like a kitten in play-pounce, her seat belt twisting around her. “Hey,” she said, her voice a sweet whisper. Ben watched in the rearview as the little boy looked up at her. His eyes were a sallow ochre where they should have been white.
“They are weak, but he is strong.”
Lacey kept smiling as the boy watched her. His face was flat, expressionless. “What’s your name?” she asked him.
“Does your heart ever want to jump out of your chest?” the little boy asked back.
“Sometimes,” Lacey said, barely stumbling over the question. “When I get excited. Is that how your heart feels right now?”
“That’s the way my heart feels all the time,” the boy told her matter-of-factly.
Lacey took a deep breath, then reached up with one hand to twirl nervously with a strand of hair at her temple. “Do you know what happened to you?” she asked.
“I think it’s my soul,” the little boy said. “I think it wants to get away from my soul.”
Ben glanced at Lacey. Her face had grown a little whiter. “Do you feel dizzy?” he said to the boy in the back, raising his voice so the child could hear him. “Do you remember anything at all before we found you? Did you have a blackout?”
“Let him answer!” Lacey hissed. She closed her eyes for a second. “I mean, one question at a time. Don’t confuse him.”
The boy’s hand was moving a little faster, more insistent beneath the blanket. “Jesus loves me, this I know,” he started again.
“Maybe we should pull over,” Ben said. Farmland stretched out as far as he could see, tobacco on one side, corn on the other. It went on like this for hours, he knew. There would be a small town at some point, maybe a store by the side of the rode, but little more until they reached the coast. The coast, where they used to go when Eric was young. Just a normal family, playing in the waves. And now they were taking his ashes. He gripped the steering wheel tighter.
“Honey,” Lacey said. Ben looked over, but she was talking to the boy. “Honey, where are your parents?”
“Sometimes,” the boy said, his hand moving harder than ever across his stomach beneath the blanket. “Sometimes, I can feel it down in my guts, churning, churning like there are snakes down there, fighting to get out!” He lurched forward suddenly.
“Ben!” Lacey cried.
The little boy looked up, smiling for the first time since they had picked him up. “It’s okay, though,” he said. “I know they can’t get away.”
Lacey turned to her husband. “What’s wrong with him?” she whispered. Her eyes were pleading green. He mashed his lips together and shook his head.
The boy let out a sudden grunt, then another. “JESUS, BEN!” Lacey shouted. He looked up. The little boy’s face in the rearview was grimacing. He turned in his seat, just in time to see the blood soaking through the blanket, to see the blanket fall away. To see the chest hanging open like it had been torn apart by wolves. And the boy’s hands... the boys hands playing in it, reaching into it and pulling as he giggled wildly between gasps.
“They can’t get away!” the boy howled, his shrill little voice piercing through Lacey’s screams. “They can’t get away!”
"Jesus," Ben whispered. "Jesus!"
A loud bang broke the air as the car slammed into a pothole and veered to one side. He pulled frantically on the wheel. The brakes shrieked. The boy shrieked. Lacey shrieked. For just a moment, all the noise became one, a single piercing ring in his head. In that moment, he felt weightless.
Then the world came crashing down. The car smashed against the ground on one side, then over, then back then over again. He could not keep count. A full minute passed before he realized that they weren’t rolling any longer, that the car was at rest. Lacey hung over him, her head bent to the side, the sky open through the window beside her. He looked back. Grass pressed against the driver’s side window. He took a deep breath, then carefully released his seat belt.
Standing was difficult. He tried to step carefully, to not break the glass of the window, but his left ankle caved and he fell, cracking it with one knee. The glass sliced him across the kneecap, and he cried out. He struggled back to his feet, more carefully now, and looked Lacey in the face. Blood trickled out of her nose, and the top of her head was bleeding where it had struck the ceiling.
Her eyes were open, but looked at nothing.
“Oh god,” he whispered. “Oh god.” He pushed past her, pushed her door open and climbed out over her, slipping against her blood or his, pawing across her as best he could. The car groaned and threatened to turn over again, but it stayed on its side as he flopped to the ground.
“Oh jesus, oh christ!” he muttered to himself. Tears slipped down his cheeks, mixing with the blood and sweat, burning where they found new cuts and gashes. He sat on the ground for a minute, rocking back and forth, shivering and sobbing. Then he pushed himself to his feet and looked back towards the road. About thirty feet away, the boy’s body lay across the crop rows. He steadied himself and limped over toward it.
Blood was everywhere, mixing into the dirt, sprayed across the green of the tobacco. The boy stared back at him, a little smile on his face. Ben dropped to his knees as the boy reached out a hand.
“They can’t get away,” the boy coughed, glancing down at his open abdominal cavity. Ben wretched to look at it, seeing it like that, the body’s machinery strewn across the field like broken car parts in a junkyard. The boy touched his face, forcing Ben to look back to him. “But I can,” the little boy said.
Ben closed his eyes for a long moment. Then he dragged himself to his feet and turned away.
“I don’t want to bring it up,” George said one night, at the end of a neighborhood party. A little too much wine had been served. “But I don’t know how you lived through that. First Eric, then Lacey. Jesus, Ben, that must have been hell.”
Ben looked his friend up and down for a moment, then smiled. “It takes time,” he said. “It takes a lot of time, but you move on.” George rubbed one hand over the back of the other, looking vaguely embarrassed to have mentioned it. Ben shook his head, then leaned closer.
“I’ll tell you a secret, though,” he said. George looked puzzled, but Ben motioned him closer, conspiratorially.
“Your soul learns to live within your body again, eventually. But my heart...” He paused for just a moment. He shook his head. “Sometimes it just wants to jump out of my chest.”