When Fox got back to his mom's, twenty minutes after Emma had left him in front of the water tank, he again heard the long inhuman screams that sent a shiver of terror trickling down his spine like tiny droplets of ice. He couldn't quite place what it was about those screams that frightened him so, but he knew that whatever made those sounds wasn't something to tangle with. Again, he took Bo in the house with him.
Percy fingered the gashes on Emma's arms and back. He smiled. "I think you know you deserve this. Don't you know that, Emma? I love you. I can't let you run around on me. It hurts me that you even want to."
She's not going to stop. You'll have to catch her. I'll tell you when.
"I don't, Percy. I don't want to."
There's your confession, ol' boy. Now you need the solid proof. That way you won't be in trouble. You can say you were blinded by rage.
Percy just smiled and handed her a flannel shirt. "Wear this until they fade like the others."
"Yes sir," Emma answered, and donned the flannel.
The next day, Emma slipped up behind Fox as he shot another goal and whispered, "Nice shot."
Fox could hardly contain the grin that threatened to surface as he turned around. "What are you doing?"
"We need to talk." Emma laughed and rolled her eyes at him when his expression turned lecherous. "Not like that. I mean we really should." She tugged at her long flannel shirt and shook her head as if thinking. "I have to show you something, actually. Can you come up behind the church?"
Fox nodded and Emma moved away. He waited a few minutes then followed, as usual.
Percy watched Fox leash the retriever and head off on the opposite split in the road.
Just a little more, ol' boy. But that will do for now.
Satisfied, he turned around and went back home to get his rifle. He had some squirrels to kill.
"What's wrong, Em?" Fox asked as he approached. "Don't you think it's a little much, two days in a row?"
"Percy's gone hunting squirrel. The kids are at Mom's." Emma ruffled Bo's fur around his ears as she spoke. When she finally looked up at Fox, she said, "I want to tell you something."
She leaned her back against the church, still giving Bo's ears a rubdown. She was quiet for a good five minutes, and Fox thought she'd forgotten what she was doing. Her eyes took on a faraway look, a haunted glaze that unsettled him.
"You asked me why I stayed married. Why I stayed unhappy. You remember asking me that?"
"Yeah, I remember."
"I didn't think you'd know who I was. That day when I came walking up and you were shooting ball. But I could feel you watching me." She stopped and looked Fox in the eyes. "How far do you want this to go? Me and you."
Fox, caught off-guard by the question, stared at her, his mouth agape. "I don't know, Em. I mean, I didn't think we had other options."
"So you're content to just keep having an affair? If that's what you want to call whatever this between us is."
"No." Fox shook his head. "It kills me, seeing you now. He's a bastard Em. I don't know why you married him or why you two ever got together in the first place." He reached for her hand, but she pulled away. "You don't want this? Us? You want nothing beyond what we have now?" He laughed. "I don't believe that."
"I didn't say it either." Emma sighed, a defeat-laden exhale that held all her anxiety, all her tension. Fox could hear it. "I'm going to tell you, but you won't believe me. Then, I'll show you. I have proof."
"Proof of what?"
Emma shook her head. She didn't understand, Fox could see that. It was that thing that was too big for her, too complex for her. And for him. Maybe for anyone.
"When we were in high-school, Percy was the only person that paid any attention to me." She laughed and shook her head. "Sad that my problems are still connected to my school ages, but they are. Anyway, Percy was that guy for me. It didn't seem to make sense for me to say no. I'm always so scared of everything, always have been. He was so sure of himself. So alive, you know?
"Anyway, when he said he wanted me, I said okay. He'd take care of me and my life would be less complicated. And after that, I sort of got lost. I became an extension of him rather than being my own person. Then about four years ago, I left him. Percy. He slapped me and I went to stay with Mom." Emma looked down at her hands and pressed them together to stop their violent trembling. "But I went back. He came to see me, told me he knew I'd seen a lawyer, and that I might have been thinking about moving on. Said there wasn't no need for that. We could work it out. Said he loved me more than life and he wanted to fix it." She paused. "I thought we did work it out. So I went back home."
"Obviously." Fox wasn't sure where she was going with this. "And?"
"And he was the same as always. Exactly the same. Until we went out to the bar. I love to dance and he took me dancing and drinking. We were having fun. I started dancing with some other girls, you know how we do. But then this guy..." Emma shook her head. "And when we left, Percy choked me. He choked me until I passed out and when I woke up, there was the guy. He'd tried to dance with me and the other girls, and I'd stopped, moved away, but it wasn't enough." She closed her eyes. "When I woke up, Percy had him split open from the chest down. He skinned him like a deer."
"He killed the guy?" Fox asked. It's not that he didn't believe her, he knew very well that all men were capable of killing. It just seemed so bizarre. "Just cut him up?"
"No. He didn't just cut him up." Emma opened her eyes to look directly in his. "He ripped him to pieces."
Fox was speechless. He knew Percy was a big guy, strong, too. But strong enough to rip a man apart?
"You don't believe me," Emma said.
"It's not that --"
"Don't worry about it. I know it's hard to grasp. I barely believe it happened myself. But then I see it again."
"Percy's a jealous man, Fox."
"I guessed as much."
"He doesn't like anyone coming near his woman, his flower."
"Yeah. I thought we were going to scrap that night at Reggie's."
"He'd have killed you." She said it with such certainty. Did she have no faith in him at all? He thought he could handle Percy, if the need arose.
"I wouldn't bet on that," Fox said, not bothering to disguise his hurt.
"I would. I'd be a millionaire if I was the betting type." Emma knelt down eye-level with Bo and snuggled with the dog. "I love animals. They're so soft."
"What are you trying to tell me, Em? Are you saying he's some kind of serial killer?"
Emma laughed, a snarling bark that startled him and Bo both. "That would be a blessing."
"I don't get it!" Fox growled between clenched teeth.
"Neither do I." Emma shook her head and stood up. "Percy's not who he was when we got together."
"No one ever is."
"I'm saying he's not just any man, Fox. He's different." Emma took off her flannel shirt and held up her arms.
He couldn't breathe. Couldn't equate what he was seeing with what he knew he saw yesterday. Yesterday, Emma's skin had been perfect, unmarked except for those stretch marks.
Now, hundreds of slashes marred her pale flesh. And not fresh ones, either. They were knobbly and scabbed as though weeks into healing.
"What is that?" he asked. "It wasn't there yesterday, so what is it?"
"It's what he does when he feels threatened."
"Threatened by what?"
"Like he'd going to lose me." Emma re-buttoned her shirt and shrugged. "And when I disobey him. They'll be mostly gone by tonight, though. Twenty-four hours exactly and they look like stretch marks. Barely there. You never even noticed them, did you? I call them my ghost scars."
Fox couldn't move. Couldn't think. What was she trying to say? His mind refused to take in what she'd told it, regurgitated it into the nearest waste can in the corner. Filed it under number thirteen. The bull shit file.
But his eyes weren't lying to him. He could see the new-but-old-looking marks on her. "What in the hell is he?" He paused, then added on a whisper: "What are you?"
She shook her head. "I don't know."
"What are you asking me, Emma? Do you want to run away? What do you want me to do?"
She smiled, but it wasn't pretty or shy. The way her lips pulled back looked more like a grimace than a real smile, and the upturned tilt at the corners of her mouth made it downright fiendish. "I want you to help me kill him." He couldn't answer. "Please. I can't do it by myself." She looked down and her voice took on a pleading tone. "I'm not strong enough alone."
He saw her as she'd been the first time they met in the woods; scared and broken and trapped. He saw her as he had that night at the party. In his mind's eye and right in front of him, her eyes revealed that cold hopelessness she felt. He could see it, and he could feel it. His mouth still couldn't form the words.
So Fox nodded.
Percy lifted his gun, aimed at the squirrel sitting high in the branches above him.
Oh, such treachery, the voice said.
"Huh?" Percy said aloud. He muttered a low curse as the squirrel chattered and clambered away through the trees, out of sight and range.
Something's up with your woman, ol' friend. She's making plans. Plotting against you.
"What do you mean?" Percy asked.
Instead of telling him, the voice showed Percy a scene. His wife and Fox Thomas, holding each other close. They spoke in hushed tones, talking of his death as if it was something they could pull off. Percy snarled and his rifle blasted in no particular direction.
And the voice laughed at him.
"How'd it go?" she asked when Percy came through the door. She nodded to the bag in his hand and stood to reach for it. "How many did you get?"
"Four." Percy handed over the bag, a slick little grin playing on his lips. "All big, too. I skinned 'em out in the woods, but you'll need to gut 'em. My knife went dull."
"That's okay. I don't mind." Emma turned for the kitchen and was almost at the door when Percy spoke again.
"Saw me a fox earlier. Thought about gettin' it, too."
She turned back, her expression bland and uninterested. "Yeah? It wasn't rabid, was it? If so, you'd better go do it now. I don't want the dogs getting rabies."
"Nah, it wasn't rabid. Didn't look it, anyway. No foam or nothin'." Percy shook his head. Emma gave a quick nod and went to gut the squirrels. Once she was through the house, and out of ear shot, he added, "It was ruttin' after a bitch."
The following Sunday, Percy sat working over the squirrel skins in his basement, to keep them supple and soft, when the voice spoke.
It's time, ol' boy. Everything is in place. Go get him.
Fox waited for Emma by the water tank, like every other Sunday. She was a little late, but not by much. He'd called her house the night before, and when Percy answered, he hung up.
But Percy called back.
Luckily, Mark had answered the phone. He slid Fox a look that was disbelieving and cold, but he'd covered for his brother. Brotherly love goes a long way.
"Yeah bro. I hit the damn off button with my cheek. You want to get up to somethin' tonight? I'm bored as hell. I got a couple bucks; what say we get lost in a bottle of Jose?" Mark waited, not lifting his gaze from Fox's. "Sounds good to me. See ya after while."
Fox had breathed a heavy sigh of relief just as Mark collared him.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing? Are you goddamn blind?"
"Stay out of it."
"No, you stay out of it," Mark said. "Out of her. Do you think no one sees y'all? For fuck's sake, the whole holler is running off at the mouth about you mooning over Emma. You best be glad that mother fucker ain't heard nothing out of the way."
"There's nothing to hear." Fox started to shove past his younger brother, but Mark held him firm. His brother apparently wasn't the weak boy he once was.
"Tell that to someone who ain't known you all his life. You might be able to fool that big idiot down the road, but this is me you're talking to. I'm your brother, Fox and I can see it all over you. You got a bug. Now's the time to get the fuck over it, Fox. He'll kill you."
"I can't." Fox was smaller, thinner and not as thick in the chest, but he lifted Mark off his feet and set him aside. "There is no getting over it. No way around it." He'd put a hand on Mark's shoulder. "She's in my head."
"Emma? You're fucking kidding me! I mean, yeah she's got a helluva little body --"
"She's got a helluva mind, too. She's more than what you see walking by the house, Mark. Maybe I'm the only one in this god forsaken place to see it, but she doesn't belong here. She doesn't belong with him."
He'd started to leave and the last thing Mark said haunted him.
"She doesn't belong with you either."
Didn't she? Or maybe the better question was, did she? Thinking about it now, with his ass in the dirt and his heart wherever Emma happened to be on her way to meet him, he thought she did. But was it just the excitement? Was it just because she was married? He didn't think so, but he had to admit that the danger gave him a thrill.
But was that all he wanted?
No, he decided. It wasn't.
A hand gripped his shoulder and his mind returned to the present. He reached up to take it in his when the grip tightened. He looked up to find a pair of piercing green eyes boring into his.
"Hello Fox," Percy said. "Fancy seeing you up here."
Emma hung up the phone. Her mom didn't feel good and didn't want to let the kids stay through the day. On Sunday, the kids had always stayed with her mom and went to church for morning and evening service.
Fox would have to wait until next week.
"How ya doing Percy?"
"None too good, Fox. None too good at all." Percy didn't take his hand from Fox's shoulder. Didn't let go even when Fox tried to move away.
"What's wrong, man? Anything I can do to help?" He tried to stay calm. Tried to remember that this was just a man.
And not just a man, if what Emma said was true.
When Percy spoke again, he sounded strange, strained and rough. As if fighting to contain himself. "I got a bone to pick, Fox." That hand, impossibly strong, impossibly huge for a human hand, clamped down on the pressure point and Fox felt the blood drain from his face. He was going to pass out. "But I think a change of venue is in order."
Color swirled into the edges of Fox's vision, followed by gray. Fuck me, he thought, just as the world went black.
Emma sent the kids outside to play when Percy emerged from the basement with the now soft and dry skins of the squirrels. He gave her that look, the one that told her he was in a particular mood. He slid up behind her and caught her around the waist. "Got somethin' for ya," he whispered and the happiness in his voice made her heart race in fear.
"Oh yeah? What's that?" she asked.
"It's in the basement. Go look." He moved away, toward the door and yelled for the kids to go on to the neighbor's. Sara and Jake had called and wanted them to come play. He turned back and frowned when she hadn't moved. "Go on. I'll be down in a minute."
The basement door was open and she started down. A muffled groan put urgency in her descent.
Fox opened his eyes and saw her by the steps.
Then someone ... no, something moved behind her. And just as suddenly as she'd appeared, she was flying through the air toward him. She slammed into the wall and crumpled in a heap beside him. "Em," he said on a groan. "Emma?"
"You two are a real case, you know that? You'd think she'd know by now how to behave, but no. She's just stupid enough to think she can fool me." Percy's voice. Well, almost. Fox tried to sit up.
The thing stepped down from the stairs.
Fox felt insanity press at the edges of his mind, but he fought it back. The thing's mouth twisted as it spoke in a face turned ugly and savage by a force Fox couldn't understand. Mr. Hyde, he thought over and over; a macabre mantra in his mind. Percy, or what Percy had become, resembled the fabled, mindless, evil counterpart of Dr. Jekyll, but the strange intelligent light in his eyes differed from the pictures in books; this was a monster with the mind of a man.
"I knew I smelled a fox on her that first time she came home late," it said. "Didn't think my little girl had it in her. I have to say it." Fox blinked at the misshapen thing before him as it spoke. Percy's eyes, the only part of him that still looked even remotely human, lit with pleasure. "I especially didn't think she'd go off to bang a puny little cocksucker like you."
It moved to Emma and with three, quick swipes, slashed through her face. Her cheeks lay open and bleeding, then just as quickly, the blood slowed to an ooze, then it stopped.
She woke up enough to put up her arms in defense of the next succession of attacks. By the time Percy was done, her entire body, from forehead to mid-thigh, had been flayed open. She didn't make a sound, didn't shed a single tear, or cry out for help. She simply looked at Fox with wide, pleading, pain-filled eyes.
The longer Percy took after her, the weaker he seemed. Soon the wild flailing dulled to nothing more than playful slaps.
Percy couldn't sustain the monster inside him for very long. Fox knew it as surely as he knew what he had to do. As much as he hated to do it, he had to wait. If he could just hold off until the monster was weak enough.
"I told you I was a jealous man, Emma. I told you." Another half-hearted swipe at her back and Percy's twisted and deformed mouth fell wide in a screech. A shriek.
It was what Fox had heard every Sunday when he went home. The thought of Emma being flayed like this every time they were together made him sick.
The thing in front of him writhed, and its screams became more human by the second. This was what it sounded like to hear a demon flee its host.
Fox understood. He knew what Percy was -- could see it. Jealousy was an emotion that ate away at the souls of men and instead of trying to fix his jealous nature, Percy had let it in. He had embraced the demon.
And it had grown.
Fox sat up. His head didn't spin anymore and his stomach had stopped flopping almost entirely. He pushed himself to standing just as Percy dropped to his knees, clawing at his chest. Screaming, shrieking in an inhuman, bird-like voice that shot through Fox's head. He could feel something stir in him, a need he didn't understand or recognize until he was acting on it.
Fox wanted to kill.
Emma pulled herself up and shouted, "Not yet!"
Fox was stunned to find a hammer in his hand, was shocked to find himself swinging it down, claw first, at an almost entirely human head. Percy's head.
The metal claws sunk in with a sickening thud. Percy's eyes went wide and he slapped out, catching Fox in the gut. Percy turned on him, arms already bulking again with hellish strength.
Fox took a deep breath. He'd acted too soon and would pay the price. Huge claws gripped his upper arms and pulled -- the pain was overwhelming. It felt like he was being torn to shreds.
A low, rumbling sound whirred through the air, followed by a high-pitched, whining buzz. Behind Percy, a blood soaked Emma stood, sawing at the monster that used to be her husband with an electric hedge trimmer. As his body halved, a black mist rose up to surround Emma in a wicked arc -- a black rainbow.
Percy's torso tumbled free of his body at last and Emma dropped the hedge trimmers. She stood, drenched in blood, chest heaving, arms trembling.
Fox watched her, amazed at the sight before him as the gashes still marring Emma's entire body knitted closed before his eyes. His own wounds burned with white heat and he looked down to find them healing over. Percy was dead ... had to be. The healing had begun already. He looked back at Emma, who wore an expression of strange calm that smoothed her face, a natural and happy glow. It was over. He knew it and apparently, so did she. Emma was free.
"Fox," she said. Her head shook, as if she couldn't voice the relief she felt. Her eyes closed, and she smiled.
And finally, after years of forcing back the tears that incited the monster's anger, Emma cried.
-- The End