The breeze gently moved the sheets, showing off their pristine whiteness, as Kathy hung the laundry to dry on the clothesline stretched across the back yard. The sun shone warmly enough to let her remove the light jacket she'd worn against the morning's chill. The sensation of heat on her arms was welcome.
She gazed with pleasure around the neatly kept yard, its newly-planted garden just showing signs of the coming crop of vegetables to be harvested at the end of summer. She looked forward to the canning chore. She took pride in filling the winter cabinet with the products of her labor.
Jocko snoozed beside the steps, his 'fetch it' ball never far from his grey muzzle. He had long since forsaken all puppy pleasures, except that of leaping to chase the ball thrown by his indulgent family.
Her basket finally empty, Kathy put it on the porch steps and went around to the back of the toolshed, to help Jim restack the woodpile. Ax flashing in the sunlight, Jim stood in shirt sleeves, rhythmically splitting strips of kindling from a piece of aged hickory.
"How's it going?" she asked.
"I'm about finished." He threw her a quick smile. "This should be all the wood we'll need before the nights warm up as well." He threw the ax down and wiped the perspiration from his brow. "Didn't you make a batch of iced tea this morning? I could sure go for a big glass of it."
"Sure, I'll go..." she stopped, turning her head as a sound reached her. "Did you hear that?"
"What? I didn't hear anything," he said. "Not much out here to listen to, unless you're partial to the sound of corn growing."
"No, it was something else," Kathy insisted, then was silent as a high, thin wail sounded again. "There! It sounds like a baby crying!"
"Don't start that, Kathy."
"Listen to it, Jim. It must be right around here somewhere."
"Kathy, stop this! You know it can't be a baby. It's probably some animal caught in a trap." Jim started toward the sound, calling over his shoulder as he hurried, "I'll try to free it, and then call Boone. I've told him before not to set any of his traps around here."
Kathy went after him, half-convinced that they'd find some poor creature torn and bloody from jaws of steel. What they found was a baby. It was wrapped in a light blanket and lay under a low shrub at the side of their driveway.
Jim stood as if rooted when he saw the small bundle. He looked out over the split-rail fence of their yard, trying to spot some dust cloud along the gravel roads that would indicate a vehicle had passed recently enough to have just left the child. There was nothing to mar the idyllic landscape.
Kathy bent quickly to pick up the infant, holding it to her bosom and gently soothing it as she walked toward the two-story house. As she mounted the steps, Jocko woke from his sleep with a start, and growled, hackles raised.
The sound of the screen door chattering as its long spring slammed it loosely against the frame brought Jim's attention back to his wife and the child she had carried into their home. He hurried after Kathy, instinctively holding the door open long enough to allow Jocko to enter, as well.
"Look, Jim," Kathy invited, her face radiant. "It's a boy, and he's beautiful! Every fingernail is perfect, and he has ten chubby little toes and everything!"
She had placed the baby in the center of the kitchen table to loosen the blanket around him and examine her find.
Jocko slowly approached the table, head low, a steady growl still rumbling from deep in his throat.
"Now, stop that, Jocko," Kathy gently chided. "You mustn't scare the baby. You make friends with him."
"No need for that," Jim said, reaching for his phone. "I'm calling Ezra."
"What for?" Kathy's face already set in a stubborn line. "I can take care of the baby."
"That's not the point." Jim's gaze locked with his wife's equally determined one. "When you find an abandoned child, you have to contact the sheriff. It's the law."
"But, it's Sunday. He and Harley are probably still out on the river, fishing for bass. You know they are; they asked you to go along."
Kathy made a face at her husband as he left a message. Law enforcement coverage for their town over the weekend happened only after leaving a message for the sheriff, to collect and answer whenever he got around to it. Everybody was good with that. There was never bad trouble around here.
Kathy's face brightened when Jim finished the call without mentioning the baby. "See, Jocko," she said to the dog, who had moved to stand with his front paws on the table's edge, staring intently at the baby lying beyond his reach, "if you're quiet, you don't scare the baby. Look at him watching you with his big blue eyes."
The dog gave his mistress a quick lick on the hand which had just stroked his head, then looked back at the intruder. Jocko strained to get nearer to the pink flesh, his lips lifting nervously from his canine incisors. The baby lay watching the animal with an unblinking stare before waving his pudgy fist nearer to the bared teeth. Jocko snapped, lunging as close to the fingers as the table's edge would allow.
"No, Jocko! Bad dog!" Kathy cried, snatching the baby from the tabletop. "Jim, put him outside."
Once out the door, Jocko scratched against it a few times, whining for re-admittance before going down the steps to his usual resting place. He turned around and around before settling against the corner formed between the wall of the house and the latticework which protected the area below the steps. He lay with his head on his paws, but didn't close his eyes. Instead, he watched the grassy expanse before him, as if to see what was causing the faint slithering, scratching sound which approached.
Jocko raised his head when the hatchet blade appeared at the edge of the area where his use had worn away all growth. As the weapon moved even closer the dog sat up, pressing his back tightly against the house. He nervously lifted first one foot, then the other, as the hatchet came into full view and slowly rose until it was balanced on the bottom of its wooden handle.
It struck before Jocko made any outcry, burying itself deep within his neck. Jocko's blood fountained out, staining the earth, as his legs spasmed briefly before he slumped in death, eyes wide in fear.
From the moment Jocko was expelled from the kitchen, the baby stared after him intently. He braced backward against Kathy's supporting arm, head wobblingly erect, his right arm gesturing toward his departed adversary.
"Did that bad doggie frighten you? He'll just have to stay outside until he learns not to scare a little boy. You are so brave! Yes, you are," Kathy cooed.
The baby seemed to mimic her with an atonal chant of his own. He continued to stare at the doorway, waving his arm in increasing arcs, until suddenly seeming to tire of the exercise. He looked again at the woman holding him and chortled, as if pleased with himself.
"Oh, you are a charmer," Kathy said. "Are you telling Jocko he can come back inside if he'll behave like a good dog?"
"Kathy, for Pete's sake!"
"Don't be a spoil sport, Jim." She walked away from her husband, nestling the baby closer to her bosom. "We'll just ignore him, won't we, Pumpkin? He's just an old meany spoil sport. Why, I'll bet he was never as cute as you are... He's just jealous!"
Kathy leaned her head against the infant's, expecting to smell that scent of young skin so near her. She nuzzled against the small neck and shoulder and started to take a deep breath. She abruptly straightened, wrinkling her nose in disgust. The baby smelled like meat left out to rot.
"You need a bath, young man," she said with mock severity, "because you stink! We'll have to start that just as soon as we feed you. How does that sound?"
Kathy stood in the living room, bouncing the laughing baby boy in her arms. "Isn't he a good baby, Jim? Why don't we ask Ezra if we can take care of him until his parents are found?"
"I don't think that's a good idea, Kathy. We don't have anything we'd need. Besides, there are official homes in the county..."
"Oh, come on. We can fix up a drawer for him to sleep in, and you can go get some disposable diapers and some baby food. Here, you hold him while I go look in the cabinet. I think I still have a bottle or two left from before."
Jim accepted the baby reluctantly, holding him as if afraid the infant might break within the well-muscled arms. "I thought you gave all those things to Melissa," he called after his wife.
"Well, I did give her most of it," came the muffled reply, as Kathy rummaged through the upper shelves of her kitchen cabinets, "but I came across a couple of things later. I figured I'd just keep them until we saw her again; not make a special trip. Here it is! I knew I had one."
Jim scarcely heard her as he found himself staring deep into the calm eyes of the baby. Something within him twisted with the pain of not holding his own child. Kathy had carried their daughter for seven months into the pregnancy before complications had ended all hope of having children. The adjustment had been difficult for both of them. He had dismantled the room which was the nursery with an almost savage efficiency. He wanted nothing left to stir old hurts. His nephew now slept in the crib that had been chosen with such loving attention to detail. Jim found he wouldn't want the child he now held to lie within it, anyway. He fought down a desire to rid the house of the strange child's presence, but couldn't restrain the shudder that shook his large frame.
"I'll take him now," Kathy said from beside him, her approach unnoticed. "I've got some milk heating for the bottle."
Jim handed the baby to her, glad to be rid of the slight weight. "I don't want to keep him here," he said firmly.
Kathy looked up from the child, surprised at the tone he'd used.
"It's just...I don't know. There's just something wrong about it. How'd he even get here?"
"I don't know, Jim, any more than you do. But it's not the baby's fault. Maybe his mother had no job, no husband, nowhere to turn for help... Whatever the reason, we can't take it out on the baby. He needs us," Kathy argued, "and we're going to take care of him...at least until Ezra comes," she added, placatingly. "Now, why don't you go up to the convenience store for some diapers? I'll see if this young man's ready for a bottle."
Jim frowned, but could think of no argument that would change his pretty wife's mind. In a foul mood, he stormed out the front door and spun the truck tires as he pulled out of the driveway. It would be a fast ten miles to the store.
Kathy heard his anger, but smiled indulgently as she poured milk into the baby bottle. She knew he'd have calmed down by the time he got back. He always did.
She tested the temperature of the liquid on the sensitive skin of her wrist before settling into the old maple rocking chair in their bedroom. She'd thought she would never know the pleasure of feeding an infant in that chair. And he was such a happy and alert little boy...watching her all the time...and that little smile...
Jim had driven beyond his first irritation when a wave of foreboding washed over him, leaving him badly shaken. He braked to a stop, knuckles white, cold beads of sweat standing out on his forehead. Something was wrong. Something unbelievably vile was threatening his whole life. He had to get back...right now, or it would be too late.
He turned the pickup around, ruthlessly driving it through parts of the weed-filled ditches, not caring about the stress to the aging machine. It could be repaired, if needed...just so long as it held together long enough to get him home...
Jim pulled to a sliding stop in the gravel driveway. Nothing seemed changed; the sun still shone brightly on the fluttering wash, no sounds disturbed the tranquil scene. But still, he felt something was wrong.
As he came around the truck bed toward the back porch doorway, he saw the crumpled form of Jocko, ax still buried in his neck, lying open-eyed in a pool of dark blood. Stunned, Jim started toward their pet, then turned and raced up the steps, shouting his wife's name. His momentum carried him through the kitchen and into the dining room, where he stopped.
Everything seemed normal...the sunlight streaming through the lace-curtained window made the table top gleam. The rug still showed signs of a recent vacuuming. Nothing was out of place.
"Kathy?" Jim could hear his heartbeat pounding in his ears as he waited for her reply. "Kathy, where are you?"
"Come on up, darling," he heard a voice call, softly.
Relieved, he went to the doorway. "Are you all right?"
"Come on up, Jim."
As he climbed, Jim could hear the baby. He was making a soft hooting noise, as if he was full and dry and happy...just making noise for the fun of it. From the doorway to their bedroom, Jim could see the back of Kathy's head as she sat in the rocking chair, her honey blond curls in contrast to the soft brown hair of the child snuggling against her neck. One pudgy fist was entwined in the golden hair which spilled across her shoulder.
"Thank God, you're okay!"
A slow chuckle came from the chair. "I'm fine."
"What happened to...," Jim took a step into the room and stopped, as he was struck by the unmistakable smell of blood. Heavy, cloying, it hung in the air like a physical presence. Jim felt as if he were choking. He gasped for air, unable to fill his lungs, as he realized his wife hadn't moved. She sat motionless in the rocker, not even turning her head in his direction.
"Why don't you come closer, and get a good look?" came softly to his ears as the baby lifted his head from Kathy's shoulder. A strand of her hair clung to the sticky red substance smeared obscenely across the infant's features. A grin stretched and changed as the child's face altered and became a monstrous visage, spittle threading downward from sharp teeth, horny claws replacing fingertips that had rested against nurturing flesh.
The creature raised itself from Kathy's body, tearing fresh wounds as it clawed its way upward, a laugh filling the room.
Jim had only time to ask, "What? What are you?" before the thing was on him.
COUNTY STUNNED BY GRISLY DISCOVERY
UPI—Markham County residents were shocked today at the discovery of the bodies of a young couple. Authorities are not releasing the details of the deaths, pending an investigation. Foul play is suspected, but no suspects have been named, and no motive has been revealed.
The young woman barely glanced at the headline as she hurriedly snatched the soggy newspaper from her doorstep. Alice could hardly wait to get inside, where it was warm and dry. She was looking forward to a relaxing twenty minutes in the bathtub before putting supper on to cook. Hal would probably arrive at eight, ready to consume three days' worth of her grocery budget, before retreating with the newspaper until all the dishes had been cleared away and washed. No doubt, he would read aloud the more interesting items. That was the extent of his contribution.
Alice was juggling her purse and umbrella in the steady rain, trying to fit her key into the door lock, when her attention was caught by a faint sound...like a baby crying...