Todd is grateful for this warm morning air. He knows summer heat and humidity are right around the corner, but ever since he and Maria began dating, life has been, well, magical. This morning is one of the most yet.
The sun has barely poked its first rays over the eastern Badlands. The sky glows with a bounty of colors as he and Maria enjoy their morning stroll alongside her little Yorkie, Kelso. He’s a goofball of a dog, but Todd is as much infatuated with Kelso as he is Maria.
This particular morning they’re walking around the House of Japan Gardens. A quaint little area with cherry-blossom trees, a veiny spiderweb of footpaths, and four miniature ponds that geese love to frequent. The main features are the old-fashioned, arcing, red, Japanese garden bridges that cross the ponds, leading to grass mounds perfect for a picnic — when not covered in goose excrement.
As they stroll through the vein-like walkways, the pair take a fork on one of the paths. Kelso, ever the curious pup, goes to sniff the bush in the center of the intersecting stony paths. Maria gives him a quick tug, pulling up on his harness, and calls for a ‘heel.’ Only, the little goober remains persistent. His attempts become increasingly more desperate as he tries to get his sniffer into that bush. Thankfully, it seems that a training treat from Maria’s fanny pack is motivation enough to distract Kelso and bring him back to her side. However, not without engaging in one last stare-down against that pesky bush.
Todd looks back wondering what the little guy smells. Maybe some birds or squirrels have taken up refuge in there. Though it’s more likely some lazy asshole just shoved their garbage between the branches. Or another dog marked it, or —
Wait what was that?
“Did you hear that?” Maria had heard it too.
It sounds silly to Todd, but he could have sworn he heard — giggling.
“I don’t know. Maybe?” He looks down into her big caramel eyes. “It kinda sounded like . . .” He looks back to the bush as the path bends around one of the ponds. “Ah, never mind. I think it’s just a bit early and we’re hearing things.”
“Oh, my big baby. Are you spooked handsome?” Maria laughs and playfully nudges him with her arm.
He knows they have to be a funny sight. She’s all of 5’1” in her running shoes, while Todd stands nearly seven feet tall. But she’s been good for him. It hasn’t been a long official relationship, but it’s been the best he’s ever had. Their ritual involves walking Kelso early in the mornings, which has been helping his knees and hips more throughout the day. They still ache, but nowhere near as bad. He feels loose and has managed to even drop a few pounds.
“As long as I have you, I can never be spooked, my beautiful Latin goddess.” He leans down and offers his lady a kiss, which she takes with a fervor that lets him know what’s in store when they get back to her house.
“Where have you been all my life Todd Powell?”
“Right here. I’m kinda hard to miss!” It’s one of those moments of shared laughter that seems to sync the entirety of the couple’s worlds.
Now hand in hand, they follow Kelso’s lead as he tugs against his harness to take the bridge over one of the ponds. It’s a bit darker here, as a large grove of blossoming trees blots out a patchwork of the morning’s rays.
A fluttering sound catches Todd’s attention. It looks like Kelso may have heard it too because they both turn and look around them in a state of confusion. All Todd sees are the groves of cherry blossoms and large drooping willows.
As they continue their venture, Todd’s head remains on a swivel until he hears a shattering cry from the woman beside him. It’s a piercing screech that slices through the early morning air. Her legs come out from under her. Thankfully, Todd’s reflexes are quick this morning, and he somehow manages to catch her by the armpit before she wipes out entirely. Frozen in mid-descent, he notices the sheer terror carved into her face.
“I slipped on something.” She huffs out through ragged breaths.
Todd looks around and can sort of make out something on the bridge a step behind them. It’s a pile, but the shadows and early morning hues make it hard to discern anything beyond an amorphous blob. Todd’s first thought is goose droppings, but the ambiguous mass is too large and curiosity eats at his fingertips, which slide into his pocket and grasp his aging cell phone. He flips out the antiquated device and turns on the flashlight to get a better look.
Instantly, Maria gasps loud enough that a group of robbins decide to flutter skyward at the minor disturbance. She rips Kelso back to her side, keeping him close. “Dios Mio! Is that what I think it is?”
Todd crouches his giant frame down to get a closer look. His knees pop like a firecracker going off. What he finds as he settles on his heels, is a pile of — meat. Red meat. It looks too lean to be from the usual suspects, but maybe someone dropped their groceries, and its shape has just morphed while sitting out overnight.
He can see where Maria’s heel caught the edge of the pile and she slid forward. The slick trail had to have been close to a foot in length. No wonder she was startled.
“Todd, I don’t like this. I think I just heard someone — giggling.”
Todd nearly leaps off his feet at that word — giggling.
With a cautious strength, he rests his hand on the small of her back. He wants her to know he’s here for her.
“Listen, if you’re out there, this ain’t funny!” He looks back to Maria and takes her hand in his. “Let’s get movin’, we got a long day ahead, anyway.”
She smiles up at him. She is quite possibly the most emotionally strong person he knows, behind Ghini of course. But, even though Maria does well to hide her fear, Todd can see the panic pressing against her soft round features. He’ll be the strong one. Getting them back home without issue is his main priority right now. He knows it’s all probably nothing, but quickly takes a photo of the meat pile, feeling that if it isn’t nothing, and therefore is something, he’ll need to prove it to someone.
As he steps off the bridge, he knows he’s heard that giggling again. Maria must have heard it too because she looks up at him. Deep, doe-like eyes widen with a clear expression of worry and fear. He keeps a tight hold on her hand, and she returns the favor. He cannot help but appreciate how strong the tiny woman’s grip is.
Suddenly, there’s that fluttering sound again. It’s subtle and quiet, but unmistakable. They increase their pace, and Todd does his best to not let his strides get too long. But Maria’s no slouch and hurries her short, powerful legs with a fervor that seems all too common of women who share her stature.
WOOOF! WOOOF! WOOOF!
Kelso’s barks shatter the heart-pounding silence before quickly turning to a guttural growl. The sun peaks over the hills, showering the little pathway in a sea of warm golden glow. Just then, two young women, more like girls, materialize from the shadows. Despite thinking how young the pair are, Todd’s first observation is that they are significantly overdressed, wearing thermals, vests, and stocking caps on this warm summer morning.
Kelso continues to bark and growl. His ears pin straight back against his skull as his lips inch backward into a snarl. Maria holds his leash tightly, fighting off the dog’s continued desire to press low and forward toward the two girls.
One of them, young and dark-skinned steps forward, “Good morning. How’s it going?” She has an unsettling sneer on her face.
Todd places himself between the girls and Maria, who has managed to wrangle Kelso to her side. Todd is not sure what this is, but the situation feels wrong. Like one false move could mean life or death. It’s a sense he’s honed throughout his lifetime. “We just walking. What you and yours doin’?” His nerves confound his mind into shortened bursts of words.
Maria screams before Todd realizes anything has happened. Slowly, his mind registers a tight burning pinch in his thigh. Something hot eats away at his nerves as if he’d just poured rubbing alcohol or IcyHot all over a series of deep cuts. That’s when he looks down, finally noticing that the other girl is right there in front of him.
In his space.
Dark curly black hair hangs just above her shoulders. She looks familiar, but he can’t place her. Where would he know a little white girl from? Maybe one of the boys’ basketball games?
“Hi there. I’m Sierra. And, you and I, we’re gonna be friends.”
Todd looks down past the girl’s unsettling grin to see her pale fingers end at his shorts. No, not end. Her fingernails are completely buried into the meat of his thigh. There’s an unsettling fluid pumping beneath the surface of her fingers. It’s like something out of a nightmare. Whatever the liquid is, looks to be flowing toward the fingernails concealed within his quad. He can feel it pulsing and burning as it enters his bloodstream, like a hot injection.
This can’t be real!
The last things he sees before blacking out, are Kelso hightailing it out of the park with the leash flapping behind him, and the other girl — the little sister with the sneer on her face — standing over Maria, whose luxurious cocoa-colored hair lies in the grotesque meat pile, while her caramel eyes seem to drain of their natural luster.
He only thinks about what could’ve been. This woman whom he’d thought was helping him find happiness. A life he could tell his best friend, Ghini, about. He’d had images of one day going on double dates with Ghini and some new man in her life, all the while Maria and he would let little Jeannie babysit…
Instead, there is the reality of the moment. Maria’s hand limply rests across her throat. A deep dark scarlet courses between her fingers, while a faint and final gurgling cough worms its way across her lips.
The little sister’s hand is held high. As if in slow motion, Todd notes her fingertips, capped with tiny barbs, which drip that same visceral red. Each drop appears to glow as they fall to the Earth below, reflecting a similar color from the silhouetting sky’s first dawning lights.