“Daddy come get me.”
It’s four words a parent never wants to hear. I’ve always been worried about these calls. Being her father never gets easier. I don’t even ask her what is wrong. I don’t need to because she’ll tell me what happened when I get there.
“Are you someplace safe right now, baby?”
“I don’t know. Please hurry.”
She might be crying, it sounds like. She gets upset a lot. Most teenagers do… But she almost never cries.
“Hide. And keep your phone on okay? I’m coming now, I’ll call you when I’m close.” I say.
I take off my apron as a dozen burgers sizzle on the flattop grill in protest, I take off my stupid paper hat too and look around the kitchen. Jimmy is the only one back here with me. He’s slow. He can’t manage the rush alone. Glancing next to me, I can see about three of his orders of fries in the grease. They’re floating there already and too brown. He can’t even manage the fryer alone. This will be bad. It’s Friday and there’s no place else in this shithole town for date night. The place is about to have a hospitality meltdown. It doesn’t matter. It’s just teenagers making puppydog eyes at each other in the dining room. It’s just handjobs and blowjobs in the parking lot. It’s just food. I glance around for Drake but don’t see him anywhere.
He’s probably out by the register, flirting with one of the waitresses. The teenagers aren’t the only ones who try to get lucky around here. He has a wife, but she doesn’t know…probably doesn’t care. Drake is a shitbag and this diner in this shithole is just where he belongs. Not me. Not us. Not anymore.
I see Jimmy before I leave the kitchen. He’s coming around the corner from the dish machine. I look at him, like I feel sorry for him. In a way I do. This is going to ruin his day. He can’t be much older than my Veronica. I think that I hope his parents come running to help him if he calls them for help. The idea of them staring panicked and frantically running around this messy kitchen trying to bail him out of my mess is more sad than funny, so I don’t laugh. I know they won’t come here to help him. Most parents aren’t like me and it’s not the same mess… but it’s a nice thought to hope they’re willing to help their kid like that.
Jimmy looks at me, then to the apron; to the crumpled disposable hat in my hand and back to me. His eyes are wide and rolling around, scared, like I’ve startled a rabbit at night. Like he understands and like he doesn’t all at the same time. Like he wants to run and hide but hopes if he doesn’t move nobody will see him.
“You better go find Drake,” I tell him. My tone is quiet. Somber. I place my hand on his shoulder and give him a pat, then I walk toward the exit at the back of the kitchen and leave.
My rusty Pontiac is parked next to the dumpster. The exhaust fan for the kitchen is spewing out that greasy kind of smoke that comes out of the back of these places where most everything is fried. The lot behind the diner is disgusting. There’s bits of trash and lettuce leading from the back door to the dumpster, black puddles mixed with a sheen of cooking oil that shines like a rainbow as the dim yellow light that hangs over the door reflects from it.
I get into my car and fire the engine to life. The radio is set to the local oldies station and the Beatles are playing.
“Yesterday.” I mutter. “all my troubles seemed so far away, too Paul.”
I hit the gas and turn out of the lot just as Drake comes flying out of the backdoor screaming at me in the rearview mirror. It makes me laugh and I wave at him as I pull out onto the highway. I feel bad, but only just a little. Veronica is more important than this ridiculous job. Than anything else in this little town.
I call her cell phone as I drive. I need to know exactly where this party is so I can pick her up. When she answers, I can hear her sobbing on the other end.
“Shhhh, honey.” I say, “everything’ll be fine.”
“Daddy please hurry. It’s different this time.”
“You’ll see when you get here.”
“Where exactly are you? Where is here?”
“You know that old mill off of Webber Street? The one you can see from the road? There’s a dirt road that heads out to it just past 3rd or 4th Ave. I’m not sure which one. Might be between them. You’ll see the bonfire when you come up.”
She breaks into another sob.
“Please hurry,” she whispers.
I try to stay calm as I’m panicking a little inside, but I can’t let her hear that outta me right now.
“I’m hurrying honey.”
She hangs up with me and I drive a little faster. I turn onto Webber. It cuts through the center of town. All roads lead to Webber. I can’t drive too fast because Sheriff Downs is probably out here somewhere, her writing hand itching for giving tickets. I only drive a little over the limit, but I’m looking around for her police car and thankfully, I don’t see it. Before I know it, I’m passing 3rd Avenue and nearly passing the little turnoff that leads out to the mill. It’s not marked. Just a one lane dirt path that heads out into darkness. The moons just behind the main building and pretty full. It’s an old wooden structure, left abandoned out here to slowly rot by the elements. One day, it’ll sag and fall completely back into nothing. Veronica and I won’t be here anymore by the time it does. It looks so lonely out in the distance, like a quiet sentinel on the horizon guarding the relics of this little town’s past. As I make my way closer it only looks more strange and haunted.
I pull around the crumbling building, to the back of it. There’s a half dozen cars and two beat up trucks parked haphazardly back here and a small bonfire, surrounded by camping chairs, a huge log and a small pile of crushed beer cans off to one side. I don’t see anybody out here, but there’s a lot of blood.
I haven’t even put it into park yet when out from the shadows, something slams against the passenger side of my car. The impact is so hard I think I must have hit something, but I hear hands snapping at the door handle and when I look up, there she is. My baby girl. She’s a mess. Her blonde hair is dark and her face looks as gaunt as a ghoul in this moonlight. I lean over and unlock the door for her and she tumbles inside, slamming the door and locking it behind her.
“Drive.” She says quietly.
Her face is staring out the windshield.
“Honey where are the other kids that were out here with you?”
She’s staring straight ahead and her eyes go wide.
“Daddy, just DRIVE!”
Someone is coming out of the field beyond the slowly dying light of the fire. His eyes are sunken holes of darkness. Blood stains his cheeks like melted candle wax. I throw the car into reverse just as something hits my side of the car. The face that looks in on me is collapsed in on itself, more of that melted wax all over it, coming out the girl’s eyes and her ears like syrup. She tries to scream but she can’t, opening up her mouth desperately like she wants to make a sound. Her teeth are smeared with blood so thick and sticky I can see it stringing together like her mouth is filled with strawberry jam. Her neck is crushed like one of those beer cans in the pile. Another kid comes crawling out of the shadows built by the dying embers of the bonfire. His legs are twisted the wrong way around and he’s crawling on his chest towards us with just his hands. The girl begins to bang her head against my window hard, and I put my foot on the gas.
“Put on your seatbelt.” I tell her.
The tires spin for a moment and the car fishtails. When they catch a groove in the dirt and take hold, we’re spinning toward the line of the other kid’s cars and I jerk the wheel, but not enough. I nearly slam the front of the Pontiac right into the back end of a dark colored Chevy, but we miss the head-on collision with it at the last moment. The bumper of the truck runs along the driver’s side of my Pontiac and the sound of metal on metal makes my stomach churn. The driverside mirror is clipped off in the struggle with the truck and then we’re free, spinning around the side of the old haunted mill in the dark.
Veronica’s breathing is almost as heavy as mine. She’s shaking and I’m trying not to.
“What in the godlovingfuck?” I mutter, “what happened?”
Veronica’s teeth are clenched when she replies. She’s trying not to cry, but she’s only 17. There’s only so much she can do to avoid it and she’s trying to be strong, but I can see the tears running down her cheeks in the blue light of the full moon as it falls in through the back of the car. She looks just like a little girl again and my heart hurts to see the tears wash away her years, like tears always seem to do.
“He seemed so nice at school. They all did. They always do.” She was choking back a sob. “He touched my leg. I told him no. I told him not to. They were all just watching it happen. Every one of them. He tried to do it in front of all of them. He put his hand on my chest, so–so…”
So she screamed. Not a normal scream. The Hurting Scream. I’ve seen it happen once and I know she can’t control it. Screamed something awful when she came out of her mother. I was trying to be there on time to see her born. I got the call from my mother-in-law at the hospital. Called me at work and told me I better get there quick. My wife was gonna need me. My daughter was gonna need her Daddy. She sounded bitter about it all, because she never liked me much. I hurried, but I was lucky I didn’t make it on time. Veronica came out screaming. I ran up to the room just in time to watch everyone inside die through the window. Dawn, her mother, the doctor and the nurse. They were all holding their faces as their eyes boiled inside their skulls and leaked out onto their cheeks like ghoulish jack-o’-lanterns. Then slowly, they slumped to the floor one by one.
They were all dead. It’s not logical, but when I think about that day now, a part of me wonders if I somehow knew what happened because I waited until she stopped screaming before I went into the room.
After that, the whole hospital was thrown into chaos. There were about to be too many questions I couldn’t answer, so I did what any father would have. Nobody saw me take her and leave.
It doesn’t happen with every scream. She’s a teenager, all teenagers do is scream. The Hurting Scream is different. We’ve moved three times this year. I don’t want to lock her up in her room. She’s just a kid. I want her to have a normal life, like a normal high school girl. She’s got to experience something of the world before she’s out in it alone. I don’t know if I can do that if other parents don’t teach their boys to keep their hands to themselves. Teach them that “no” means no.
“He put his hands up my shirt.” She was crying again.
“I know honey. Shhhh. It’s okay. You’re okay. I’m here.”
The dirt road is spewing up clouds of dust behind the car. I’m trying to keep my eyes off the mirror, but it’s hard with four of them chasing us close behind, painted red by the Pontiac’s tail lights.
“Daddy! Look out!” Veronica says, but I react too late.
Another girl with dead candle eyes emerges from the trees and tall grass on the right side of the car, leaping into the road and I swerve. We miss her completely but the car veers violently from the path and the front end wraps around a tree. We’re both fine and moving frantically to unbuckle ourselves now. We get out of the car and start to run.
I guess what I don’t understand is why things are different this time. How are these kids able to chase us through the dark. Why aren’t they dead? Every other time she’s called, I’ve always come to get her and I’d show up, she’d be covered in blood and the boy would be dead. This must be six, seven kids that heard her Hurting Scream. They’re chasing us through the field as we run towards the road. Every one of them with injuries that they shouldn’t have survived–skulls and bones crushed into deformaties. Ears ruptured and eyes melted away. How can they chase us at all?
Veronica makes it to the road before me, her tiny legs move her much faster than mine. My lungs burn and my arteries are pumping acid through me. She runs out into the street just as a Ford is tearing down it. The truck is new and when its driver slams on his breaks it comes to a quick halt. She falls to her knees and the driver rushes out to her, to see what he can do to help. I want to shout out to him, tell him no! Tell him to get away and keep his distance, but I know it won’t do any good. He wouldn’t ever listen and she’s too scared. The only one who can help her now is her Daddy.
As he leans down to her level, he places his hand on her shoulders and I cover my ears…