Something was terribly wrong.
Billy Sothern had sat and pondered this single fact for hours leading into entire days. It had been on his mind ever since he’d gone up on the ridge with his dogs.
Dirty, unshaved, his hair wild and golden whiskers covering his young face, he suddenly became tense at the thought of his dogs. Where were his dogs?
“I killt them all,” he said to no one, for he was alone in his house. “Naw, naw,” he whispered. “I couldn’t have killt my dogs. Not my very own dogs. How can a man run a decent hunt without dogs? I love my dogs.” Sothern closed his eyes and tried to remember.
“I did,” he finally said. “I killed all of them. They attacked me. Why would they do that? Why would they turn on me like that? I had to do it.” He turned in his chair and looked down at the big mug of coffee on the dining room table. The coffee was thick and black and had gone completely cold. He’d brewed it that morning—hours before—and now it was all cold and unfit to drink. The sun was almost gone in the sky.
“What the hell?” He asked no one. How had he sat there in the kitchen of his little house for so many hours? Had he even called in sick to work? He couldn’t recall.
“They attacked me,” he said again. “I was just minding my own business, and all of the sudden they were on my ass. I had to do it. Nobody can blame me for defending myself.” He stood--as if to make a point to some absent jury. “Right? See? It was nothing but self defense. Anyone could see that.”
“It wasn’t me they were attacking,” he whispered. His right hand, dry and dirty, went to his mouth, taking his chin and feeling the hard stubble. “It was something else, but it wasn’t me.”
Sothern stumbled away from the table and he walked down the short hallway to his bedroom. The lights were all off and the sun was going down and only the reddish light of late afternoon filtered through the trees and over the high ridges that loomed over the tight little valley in which his house was located. Outside, the nearby creek gurgled relentlessly—he could hear it plainly through the open windows. Air that had gone from cool to cold, bordering on bitter cold, was filtering through the rooms.
“How did I kill them? I didn’t shoot them. I didn’t even have my gun with me,” he said. “I don’t remember having a gun. How did I defend myself, then?”
Suddenly, the room was very cold. Far colder than the wind coming in through those windows. Colder even than the water in the creek flowing outside.
“You didn’t need no gun, Billy.”
Sothern spun and looked back to the table from which he’d just risen. Someone was sitting there, someone he recognized.
“Oh, shit,” Billy said. Sitting there at his table was Phil Rickley, and waiting silently on the other side of the room, just as he had always done, was Phil’s brother. “You’re dead,” he said to the ghost.
Rickley smiled, his teeth rusty with dried blood, his eyes still bugging from the pressure of the impact of his car against earth. “Well, heck yes, I’m dead! Don’t I look dead?”
“Yeah. You damned sure look dead, Phil.”
The ghost got up from the seat and walked the few steps separating him from his host. He smiled again. “You don’t flinch, man. I like that. You always did have guts. Even back when we was in high school. I never could make you jump.”
“No, I reckon not,” Sothern said, looking past Phil to the silent brother who merely stood, facing in the other direction, apparently looking out into the forest through the open window.
“Yeah, I had to admit in those days that you had guts, Billy. You know, I wanted you to run with me and the boys. Tried like hell to get you to ride with us. But you never did.”
“No,” Billy said. “I never did.”
“Why is that, Billy? Why didn’t you hang with us? Me an’ the rest?” His face had taken on a more serious shade.
“Well, look how you ended up, Phil.”
The ghost snickered. “Hell, you do have a slight point. But look how you ended up. How you like your own current situation? How’s that workin’ out for you?”
“I don’t know what you mean. What situation are you talking about?”
The ghost came up very close to Sothern, and still the other man did not flinch, did not step back. Those golf-ball eyes peered into the face of the living fellow, examining him, measuring him. Rickley was so close that Billy should have been able to smell him, but all he could smell was the forest around the house, the water flowing down the creek, the drying and fading scents left by his dogs, who were all now dead and gone.
“I almost believe you don’t know what situation I’m talkin’ about,” the ghost whispered. “But you do. You know goddamned well what I mean.”
“First of all, you see a ghost sittin’ at your dinner table and what do you do? Do you run? Do you scream? Do you question your sanity? No. Your senses are all wired up just right, and you damned well know it. You know it better than you would have known it a couple nights ago. And what happened then? What happened, Billy?
“What did you do to your dogs, Billy? I know you loved them dogs. Where are they? What did you do to them? What’s that up there on old Tater Patch Mountain rottin’ away? All scattered on the ridge where you left ‘em?”
“That was…self defense. They went crazy. I had to do it.”
For an instant, it seemed as if Rickley was going to raise his hand and place it on Sothern’s shoulder. But he didn’t do that. The idea passed between the two—man and ghost—but nothing happened. “Of course you had to do it. Of course it was self-defense. But them dogs was bound to go after what you are.”
“What I am? What are you talking about?”
“Come on, goddamn it! Admit it! Admit what you are.” The expression on the ghost’s face had passed from mildly amused to something bordering anger. His scarred and bloody brow knitted into a frown. The mask was dark and hideous.
“I’m just a man,” Billy Sothern said. “I’m just a man. I don’t know what got into my dogs. There’s no explanation for it, I tell you.”
“I’m here to tell you, Billy. Don’t pull that holier-than-thou crap on me like you used to do in high school. Like your shit don’t stink or somethin’. I’m telling you that things have changed. You ain’t no better than me, now. In fact, you might even be worse.”
“No!” There was something in Billy that wanted him to strike out at the dead man standing impossibly in his house, but his arms were frozen to his sides, his hand limp and not clenched into the fists he wanted to throw into that bloodied face. “I’m better than you.”
“Hell no, you ain’t. Not now, if you ever was. You’re somethin’ else, now, boy. Like how you didn’t used to see a nigger when you looked at that fuck Ben Whittaker. It was only us Rickleys who could see that! It flat ate my daddy alive that nobody else could see those apes for what they was. It was witchcraft, Billy. And now things are goin’ to be different. Now there’s somethin’ to be done about it. And you’re goin’ to help do it!”
By now, the sun had set. The skies were dark, save for the bare indication of pale light filtering over the ridge that stood watch over the deep valley in which Sothern’s house was couched. Sothern wanted to talk, to argue, to explain himself. But his throat was suddenly unsuitable for speech. His lips were now incapable of forming coherent syllables. His tongue was not then needed for making human sounds.
“There’s a reason for this, Sothern! There’s a reason for everything. You’ve got a purpose in this life, now.” He raised his wet arm and pointed toward the window, cold wind blowing at the simple yellow curtains there.
What had been Billy Sothern was now on all fours, tearing at the floor, eyes burning like embers, his face twisted into a snout, his teeth now tusks suitable for tearing. Hands were no more, gone to paws, Fingers were claws. His mind was missing in action. In place of coherent thoughts there were only images of rage, of violence, of crimson moments of assault, of attack, of bloody murder.
Phil Rickley stood aside to let the huge thing roar past him, through the open window, into the moonlit night.
“That’s what you are now, Billy Sothern. That’s what you are.” The ghost glided out of the house, his brother in tow. “Go do your work, Sothern. We all have our parts to play.”