Sylvie sat straight up in bed, heart racing.
Just a few seconds ago she had been asleep. She could still feel the lines pressed into her face from the pillow. Could still remember some of her dreams, although they were fast turning into broken threads. Something about a mission to Mars. And Rocco Morris, her favorite Hollywood leading man. He’d been there? Or they’d been going to rescue him? Ah, it was all gone now.
Why was she awake? Sitting straight up in bed. Something was giving her the danger sign.
There was no sound. The room was still. Early morning light, gray and weak, cut in through the gaps in the curtains. Nothing was out of place.
Except Nate was also sitting up in bed. He looked just as half asleep and confused as she did. They looked at each other.
“What was that?” Nate asked in a soft mumble. It was barely past seven. They had left the abandoned coffee shop and come back to the room just past midnight, not turned off the lights until one. Sylvie didn’t know what Nate’s plan was, but she figured she was going to sleep most of the morning. She wasn’t hungover, exactly, but had had enough of that terrible light beer the teens had hidden to make her mighty tired.
“I don’t know,” Sylvie said.
Nate lay back down and pulled the covers over his head. Whatever it was that had woken up Sylvie and scared her shitless had only barely woken up Nate. “Sounded like-”
A scream. From outside, not near but not far either. High pitched. Unmistakably made out of fear. Nate sat up again in bed, this time looking the way Sylvie had felt the first time. Sylvie was already out of bed, pulling her jeans on. She ran out the door, leaving it open behind her, hearing Nate scramble to catch up.
She couldn’t see anything going on in the motel. All of the doors were still closed, although there were four different faces peering out of windows. Her breath fogged in front of her and goosebumps popped up all over her arms and shoulders but she didn’t even think of going back in for another shirt.
“What was that?”
Asche was below, shirtless, jeans on but unzipped, showing black underpants. His hair standing in every different direction there was.
“I don’t know, I don’t…the Two Step.”
She was running for the stairs before Asche could ask any questions. He hadn’t bothered, though. By the time she reached ground level he was already halfway across the street running.
Once they were in the parking lot they could hear hysterical sobbing. Treat was where Sylvie had seen her from the balcony, sitting on the front end of Errol’s car. Her head was in her hands, her back heaving up and down. Sobbing, yes. Also trying not heave. Anymore. There was already a pile of something that vaguely resembled eggs on the dirt in front of her.
“Treat,” Asche said as he reached her, careful not to step in the mess. She didn’t even look up. Just pointed. Back, around the side of the Two Step. Sylvie and Asche glanced at each other, then made for whatever was ahead.
Coco was standing near the back of the building, one hand keeping her shawl closed around her, the other holding a cigarette. Her eyes were watery, but she was holding herself up, back straight, firm resolve. She gave them the tiniest of unhappy smiles as she saw them approach.
“I figured Treat would have alerted somebody with that caterwaul,” she said. Her voice was thin and sounded far less cultured than it usually did. “It would seem we had a death in the Pasodoble last night.” And she pointed her cigarette around the corner.
He was dead, all right. What was left of him. He lay in a crumpled heap up against the side of the building. His head was caved in on one side, destroying the eye and covering the rest of his face with blood. Huge pieces of him were missing, chunks torn out of his side, his upper arms. His left leg was just clean gone at the hip, bright red muscle visible through the torn jeans. The pool of blood he was sitting in seemed large enough to include every drop that should have been in his body. He was only recognizable as a man because of the large boots. And the belt buckle.
The belt buckle in the shape of Tennessee.
“Oh, God,” Sylvie said, squatting next to the body. “This is Dixie.”
“What?” Coco asked, her voice high pitched, at the same time Asche asked, “How can you tell?” His voice didn’t sound very strong, either. Sylvie only pointed at the belt buckle.
“What’s going on?” Nate rounded the corner and came into sight before Sylvie could tell him not to. He stopped, looking at the mess with a halfcocked look, squinting eyes. “What is that? Is that a scarecrow? Oh…oh, no.”
Nate took a few steps back but, to his credit, didn’t seem close to throwing up.
“What on earth did this?” Asche asked no one in particular.
“Looks to me like an animal attack,” Coco said. “Probably a wild cat came in off the desert. They get bold when the food runs low.”
“Have to be a really big cat,” Sylvie said, trying to gauge the size of the chunks taken out of the man. Out of Dixie. Shitfire, who was going to tell Errol?
“Oh, dear,” Coco said mildly. “It would appear Nate is taking this about as well as Treat.”
Sylvie looked up from the body to Coco, and then to Nate. Except Nate wasn’t standing there anymore. He was behind her, running back to the motel, already hitting the stairs and taking them two at a time.
“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised he hasn’t seen a dead body before,” Coco said. “This one is particularly terrible, I must say.”
For a few seconds Sylvie considered letting him go back to the room and works things out for himself. Probably he was running back to the room because he was too good for just throwing up in the dirt, no, a man of his intellect needed to toss his cookies in something porcelain. She wanted to stay with the body until the authorities showed up. Maybe it was just a big hungry cougar. Maybe it was something closer to her level. Maybe it was a job.
Like Nate was a job. She inwardly sighed.
“Coco, can you-”
“Go,” she said, waving at him. “I and this strapping young man will take care of this.”
Sylvie smiled a thank you at her and ran off.
Behind her, she heard Asche asked, “When you say take care of this, do you mean call someone or get a couple of shovels?” She was too far away to hear the answer. Either of them were possible.
The front door to their room was standing as open as it could possibly go, straining against the hinges even, but for a few seconds Sylvie thought Nate may have just run right past and gone somewhere else. The room was silent and still, not even the mini fridge humming in its corner. Sylvie waited a few seconds, listening, and finally heard. Hitched breathing coming from the closet in the back.
Once the door was pulled open she found him. He was sitting in a ball on the floor, knees to his chest, arms around his knees, head down. A stream of unintelligible muttering was winding its way up and out. Ever so slightly, just a little bit, he was rocking back and forth. All told, Nate was locked in a weapons-grade panic attack.
Sylvie sat down next to him, moving slowly, unsure of exactly how to get him out of this.
“Nate.” She kept her voice soft. “Nate, breathe.” That seemed stupid. “Tell me what you’re thinking.”
She didn’t think it was going to work. Slowly, though, his mutterings got loud enough that she could make out words.
“…animal attack…she said it was an animal attack…it looked like an animal attack…animal attack…”
Sylvie didn’t understand. Then she did, and felt ashamed for not understanding immediately.
“Do you think you did this?”
Nate flinched at the words.
“I could have. It was an animal attack…I….It…What if I did what if I ki…what if I did that what if that was me…”
“Nate, look at me.”
Sylvie waited a few seconds. When he kept muttering, she put her hands on his and squeezed them.
“Look at me.”
Slowly, still muttering he lifted his head, eyes squeezed shut, hair falling forward. It was good enough for now.
“How many nights since the last full moon?”
“I don’t know…can’t remember…maybe it was last night…oh, God…”
“It wasn’t last night, Nate. Take a breath and think. You can remember. When was the last full moon? Don’t say that. Just think for a few seconds.”
Maybe he was thinking, maybe he wasn’t. Sylvie couldn’t tell. He kept his head up but he was still rocking a little and his eyes were tight. She gave him time.
“Twenty-three nights…twenty-three nights, twenty-three, the full moon was twenty-three nights ago, Christmas, twenty-three.”
“Right. Twenty-three. And how many nights are between full moons?”
“Twenty-nine,” he said. “Sometimes thirty.”
“But never twenty-three,” Sylvie said. “It couldn’t have been you, see? Last night wasn’t the full moon.”
The muttering had stopped. So had the rocking. But his eyes were still shut and his arms were still wrapped around his legs, so tight.
“Nate, open your eyes and look at me.”
He did. They were half crazed and terrified.
“Tell me. Tell me why it wasn’t you.”
“What about twenty-three?”
“Last night was twenty-three nights since the last full moon,” he said between hitching breaths. “The moon isn’t full again for another six nights.”
“Good,” she said, patting his knee. “Now, say it until you believe.”
Nate nodded. It took a few times, but by the end of the fourth time his breathing had slowed and his grip on his legs had lessened. The wild look in his eyes was just replaced by exhaustion.
“I didn’t kill him,” he said.
“No, you didn’t,” Sylvie agreed.
“But it could happen,” he said. His voice was climbing in register. Tears welled in his eyes and almost immediately overflowed. “Promise me you won’t let me kill anyone. I don’t want to kill anyone.”
She hugged him, patting his back, shushing him, doing all the things instincts told her to do for a crying person. To her surprise, he hugged her back, gripping her like she might fly away. Sylvie didn’t try anything more to get him to calm down. While still hysterics, these sounded like the kind that could only be fixed by letting them run and run until there was nothing left.