Josie remembers the water droplets crashing and thudding onto the tile floor of the shower, the heat barely fogging up the ugly, cracked mirror. Her mother’s frantic voice crying and shouting over the phone hanging limply in her hand, getting further and further away along with any sense of normalcy. The weight of her brother Hugo’s murder sucking her down into the watery abyss of her mind, threatening to take her along with him.
Rivulets of rain streaking down the bus window captivate her attention now, anything to distract from the anxiety of a most unexpected homecoming. Passing buildings become more familiar with every mile put behind them; the small town of Pleasant, Illinois took root deeper within Josie than she realized, summoning back it’s lost daughter. Tearing away a frigid hand from a freezing window, the young woman looks ahead at the impending stop. It remains isolated, the color sucked into the air until all that remained was a bleached husk; cold and alone, just like Josie.
The driver sets her bags onto the curb with steady hands and kind eyes before departing and leaving Josie truly alone in her hometown. Oppressive grey clouds hang above all of Pleasant, syphoning the life away from the town. The unmaintained roads remain as desolate as Josie remembers them; life shies away from the ugly parts of Pleasant. Hoisting her bags onto her shoulders, the nineteen year old treks towards the house she violently left over a year prior.
Icy water hits her face and hands, causing deep shivers; a scarf covers half her face, leaving behind only wide almond eyes and midnight black bangs. A sob racks her chest, feet carrying her past sunny memories with Hugo. For once, Josie relishes the neglect Pleasant affords to this section of town. Her tears are private, not to be shared or seen by anyone else.
An engine nearby spurs her into walking faster, to wipe the wetness from her eyes. The sound of the engine getting closer, tires slowly rolling over cracked asphalt, surprises Josie only momentarily. Until the sedan pulls up next to her, slowly creeping alongside her, does she turn to look at the intruder of her grieving.
He’s different yet unchanged; the moustache is new but the devious twinkle in his hazel eyes remains bright and constant. His hat remains to the side, his badge shiny and proud on his department issued jacket. Josie can’t remember the last time Toby Johnson looked somber, if he ever felt it at all. Pity flashes before diverting his gaze to the steering wheel, his fingers anxiously tapping. A nervous habit passed down from father to daughter.
The deputy exist his car, taking slow steps towards the teen on the sidewalk. Their eyes remain focused on each other, weary animals sidestepping one another to avoid confrontation. She cannot hide the distrust, wouldn’t want to stash it away even if she could.
“What are you doing here?” Josie asks, knuckles blanching around the straps of her bags.
Rolling his eyes and scoffing, Deputy Johnson reaches to forcibly take the bag out of his oldest’s grip. Josie steps backward, letting his hand circle around nothing. Anger bubbles deep within her, awakening.
Josie grits through clamped teeth, “I asked what you’re doing here.”
She senses more than sees her father’s jaw tighten with growing anger. She knows she’s playing a dangerous game with him, normally would just ignore him and continue walking. But nothing has been normal since that phone call. Josie smirks as he pinches the bridge of his nose in an attempt to calm down—she likes getting under his skin, feels strangely proud of bringing him so close to violence with only a few words.
“Your mother’s at home; she hasn’t left the house in a couple of days, according to your brother. Bert told me you were comin’ in so I figured I’d take you home. It’s cold and raining, so don’t be stubborn and just get in the car Josie,” her father explains. Running a pale hand down a pale face, the deputy silently pleads.
Barely audible, he whispers, “I know how much you hate water. Please...just get in the car.”
Josie’s rich brown eyes narrow with cold anger, yet yanks open the passenger door to get in. Tossing the bags with more strength than necessary into the backseat, twisting around and buckling herself in before Toby opens his side. Head held high, spine perfectly straight, Josie unwaveringly gazes through the windshield.
A humorless noise escapes Toby, more scoff than chuckle. The alcohol on his breath reaches her nostrils, angering her further. Josie feels his eyes on her, assessing what a year in a big city like Chicago can do to a small town girl. Skin crawling under his stare, Josie pulls her coat tighter around her as the car shifts gear. Her mother’s home inches closer with every street, the hard knot of anxiety in Josie’s stomach tightening.
It’s only once a young brown boy with shoulder length hair darting towards her does Josie realize she’s back at her mother’s house, standing in the front yard with her father beside her. She’s returned home.
Her youngest sibling Roberto crashes into her, wrapping his arms tightly around her middle. Arms automatically hug him back, hands soothing the jet black waves as his tears stain her jacket. She pulls him back, recognizing the button shaped nose and the prominent hazel eyes while seeing the changes in him. He’s grown and lost most of the soft parts of himself. No longer as round, his face shed a majority of his baby fat; Josie sees Hugo staring back at her.
“I’ve missed you,” Bert tells her, voice laced with heavy emotions. Her vision blurs as her head shakes up and down, acknowledging his confession while bringing him in for another embrace.
Placing a kiss atop his head, Josie pulls away, offering a comforting smile. “Let’s go inside, yeah? I wanna see Mami.”
Setting foot into her childhood home is stepping into a time machine to two years ago. Josie sees Bert and Hugo making knots in the living room, sees Celeste reading a book on the couch with their mother. She doesn’t attempt to stop the tears that fall.
Everything is the same. Everything is shattered.
“Josefina!” comes the familiar lilt of her mother’s comfortingly accented voice. Ester Mares Wilson immediately rushes to her oldest daughter, a tall and slender woman. Her bushy black hair engulfs Josie; the scent of strawberries wafts from her mother’s curls. The teen hugs back fiercely as her mother sobs.
“Hey Mami,” Josie says as her mother pries herself away. Turning towards the door, Ester politely acknowledges and thanks her ex husband for bringing home their oldest.
“Don’t worry about it, Ester. Just take care of yourself. Bert, I’ll see you later buddy—we can still practice your knots and go hiking,” Toby says, still lingering at the door. Trepidation radiates off the man, something caught in his throat that can’t make it out.
Before she can make a comment, the last remaining Johnson child emerges from the corners of the house.
“Celeste,” Josie breathes, looking at the sister she hasn’t seen in over a year.
The sixteen year old pays no attention to her sister, instead marching straight up to her mother. The teen looks frightening, black lipstick and heavy black eyeliner bringing attention to her emotionless face. Celeste’s long hair swings freely behind her, a healthy sheen adding to her quiet beauty. Wide round eyes stare intently at their mother, egging the older woman on to say something.
Ester wrings her hands, eyes locked on the ground as another sob racks her shoulders. A deep breath in, a deep breath out, ribs inflating and deflating as the seconds tick on in silence. Finally the immigrant woman speaks.
“I know what I’m asking of you is not fair,” Ester begins, shiny eyes finally looking into Josie’s own. Her mother’s voice breaks; the young woman closes the distance between her mother, embracing her so as to give strength. “But I need you to go get...H-Hugo.”
She answers without hesitation, because she knows she was going to have to do it anyway. “Yes, Mami. I’ll go get Hugo, I’m sure Papi can drive me.”
Unexpectedly, another voice fills the silence hanging around the house. “I’ll go with her too,” declares Celeste. Her coat is already on, keys in hand as she walks towards their father and out the door.
Placing a kiss on her mother’s cheek, Josie follows her sister and father outside. They stand on the porch, staring off into the street and encroaching darkness. Rain stops falling from the sky, small pinpricks of starlight filtering down through the clouds.
Toby kicks at the ground, clearing his throat to gain his daughters’ attention. Again he wears that look of fear, that look of holding something back.
With a roll of her eyes, Josie demands he spit it out, whatever it is. Celeste and her cross their arms across their chests, looking at their father with thinning patience.
“Your brother...Hugo. They think an animal is responsible, maybe a cougar or a wolf. So just...be prepared for that,” Toby tells them. He walks off to his car without another word.
Josie and Celeste follow, off to collect their brother. The eldest Johnson daughter hopes they return with answers.
Light fades away, casting the forest in sinister shades of yellow and brown. Long, slender shadow fingers chase the fallen leaves, bare branches swaying in the late autumnal breeze. Birds chirp and flutter above, squirrels running on skinny branches. All is silent as the hunter lightly, carefully, presses a foot down, eyes locked on a deer a few feet away.
The loud crack of a twig snapping reverberates throughout the lonely forest, alerting the deer to a malevolent presence. The hooved animal takes off, leaving behind a flurry of dried leaves. The hunter curses, turning to see what cost him his prey.
Yet there is nothing. Not even the birds or squirrels. All signs of life vanished around the hunter, leaving him truly alone in the wilderness. Fear pumps through his bloodstream, eyes wide, grip on his rifle loosening as his hands become sweatier. Head swiveling left and right as a foot steps backwards, away from the lifeless bit of land.
Leaves rustle in the distance as a low growl fills the air. A soft pounding on the ground, a slight vibration on the cold earth. The hunter runs…
Straight into the body of a ginormous four-legged animal, covered in slime. Dazed, on the ground, the hunter looks at the wolf-shaped skeleton regarding him. Puckered bits of sickly white flesh lock onto his eyes.
Jagged needle teeth and razor sharp claws tearing flesh asunder in the isolation of the woods.