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“Children of Summer” by John Stadelman

Kevin sat with his face in his hands. The interrogation room at the Dune Shore police station was fucking freezing—the concrete walls and floor sucked up warmth and left only entrapping cold. This was what he’d escaped into.

But had he actually escaped?

Two cops stationed across the table. The one whose name he couldn’t remember stirred coffee in a paper cup, while Lieutenant Bowen sat with his arms crossed, waiting for Kevin to speak.

Kevin removed his hands. “You won’t believe me.”

“Try us.”

“You’re gonna think I’m lying or fuckin’ crazy.”

Bowen’s tone softened a bit. “You never know, Kevin. But we can’t decide that until you tell us what happened out there.” Playing the friendly cop. Kevin didn’t buy it because he knew how that game worked, same as it had up in Kenosha his whole life. He’d only fallen for it that first time. Since then, when they’d picked him up for everything from possession to, once, just walking down the street too late at night, he’d learned to shut the fuck up and wait for his public defender.

“I want a lawyer.”

“Nobody’s coming in until eight.”

“What time is it?”


“Then why the fuck are you talking to me?”

The anonymous cop stirred his coffee. Bowen didn’t take his eyes from Kevin’s. Everything about the lieutenant was plain: his face, haircut, a body not too big or too small in his pressed blue uniform. Bland, even. A vanilla template kind of guy.

“If you didn’t do anything wrong, then why not tell us what happened?”

“Because I know how you work. You don’t want the truth, you’re just looking for enough evidence to twist around on me.”

“Well, think about how it looks to us. A call comes in about screaming and gunshots out in the preserve. We find you out there, piss-drunk with an unregistered .45 Smith & Wesson in your hand, and both of your buddies dead. I figure I can say before forensics confirms it that the round in Mr. Harrison’s chest belongs to that gun.”

Through the one-way observation window over Bowen’s shoulder, Kevin’s reflection stared back at him. Haunted and old, dried out. Looking more like sixty than twenty-eight. He returned his face into his hands. The back of his head still hurt, a dull ache steadily migrating to the front under the fluorescents.

“Or, we can talk about the knife sticking out the back of Mr. Wilder’s skull. Want to tell me whose fingerprints are on the handle, or should we wait for forensics on that, too?”

“I didn’t kill them.”

“Then who did?”

“The kids.”

Bowen uncrossed his arms, leaned back and dragged his hands down his face. A slow, tectonic movement.

“What kids?”

They’d got him talking. He should’ve shut up and waited for the lawyer.

He was going to burn for this. No matter what evidence they turned up at the crime scene or didn’t, no matter if they found other people saying that they’d actually seen those kids fleeing… guys like him didn’t get the benefit of the doubt. They weren’t innocent until proven guilty, they were just guilty. Of getting high in the privacy of their own homes, of being too close to the wrong place at the wrong time, of walking down the street too late at night.

He stared into the camcorder perched on a tripod in the corner. Its steady red eye judged him.

It was over, his fate sealed, but by something much worse than these guys. Being locked away in prison was the best of his options. The other well, the children of summer were still out there. . That they wouldn’t let him live. Their green eyes held so much more power than the camcorder’s single red one.

All he could do now was tell it. Let it get down on record before Bowen and the lawyers and the press screwed it all around and around against him. Kevin had the sense of being a kind of record himself—the only one who’d made it out alive, who’d seen the kids and could attest that they existed. A faint, creeping doom soaked into him.

Because they would come for him.

He touched the side of his head, near his temple. A red circle hid under his hair, not as angry now but still simmering, throbbing. The cops hadn’t seemed to notice it, but nothing would change if they did. They hadn’t commented on the string of dry bloody beads across his throat, either.

He sat back and crossed his arms, mirroring Bowen’s pose.

“Fine. Fuck it.”

* * *

They’d gone down to Chicago for the weekend—he, Lyle and Carson. First to a Bulls game that Friday, then stumbled into Lyle’s cousin’s apartment in Humboldt Park: a nest of smoke and broken appliances, people lethargic from what they put into their veins or manic from what they smoked. Carson nodded off with the shooters, Kevin and Lyle went nuts with the smokers. A Saturday bender. Sunday afternoon lying around the living room in the previous days’ wreckage, gathering strength for the journey to Ogilvie Station and the 8:48 Metra back to Kenosha.

On the train. A compact length of blue leather seats, listless dull walls and the stately bars of luggage wracks. They sprawled out on the second level. Carson curled up on the double-seats at the end of the aisle, his phone dead since Saturday afternoon, no charger. Kevin and Lyle took fold-out aisle seats facing the narrow drop into the first level. One of Lyle’s girlfriends called him and, he being half-deaf, put her on speaker. An argument ensued in broken English from her—she was Dominican, lived in Chicago—and Lyle’s broken Spanish about why he hadn’t gone to see her while he was down here. Kevin put on Disturbed to block it out, playing through his phone speaker because he didn’t have earbuds. He hoped the battery on his phone would last. It didn’t.

The conductor, a joke in his tucked-in pressed white shirt and dark slacks, cap and incessant hole-puncher, kept coming around and telling them to quiet down. They drank PBR tallboys from paper bags.

The night beyond the windows an obsidian weight, speckled through by suburban lights thinning as they rode north.

Kevin had known Carson since high school—a year behind Kevin, placid and boring, the H just made him duller. At least in the past , hanging out in detention or skipping class, partying in what would today be called trap houses or chilling around a bonfire, you wouldn’t’ve strained to hear him, and what he said would’ve had substance. Kevin wasn’t really sure why Carson came down with them—Lyle invited them both—but he suspected it had something to do with how quickly Carson bought shit off the people at the apartment and then spent most of the weekend nodding off. Maybe Chicago had better shit, who knew? He’d shot up in a stall in the Ogilvie bathroom, then in the train bathroom right before they left. Cata-fuckin’-tonic. As good a way as any for killing the next hour-and-a-half.

Lyle he’d met on the snow-shoveling crew. This was Kevin’s first winter at it—after getting fired from the cook job at Dominos that his PO had found him, he’d gotten on at a moving company but was supplementing himself with seasonal gigs that paid cash: landscaping in the summer, snow-shoveling in the winter. But there hadn’t been much snow yet, so mostly they just salted driveways and sidewalks, waiting for the dregs of February to bury them. But Lyle was there, working one minute for every five he spent talking. About ten years older than Kevin, he looked twice that age. Leathery skin dried by decades of smoking, teeth rotting out, stringy gray mop-water hair scrunched down under a Packers beanie. But he had the energy of a high schooler, working long hours out in the cold followed by skipping around Kenosha and Racine to see girlfriends who either didn’t know about each other or didn’t care. Kevin once witnessed him go three full days without sleeping, just working and partying. Kevin, his back going bad at twenty-eight, couldn’t keep up for long. Hell, he’d almost not come down to Chicago—Lyle’d pestered him for a full week and Kevin figured it was less about Kevin himself and more that Lyle didn’t want to go alone. Not from loneliness, more that he never stopped talking and needed an audience. And he commented on most everything that crossed his mind.

But nowadays, he was the best Kevin could hope for.

The other reason Kevin was ambivalent about going down was because he wasn’t supposed to leave the state of Wisconsin for another two months, a parole violation. . But hell, he’d been good—or hadn’t been caught being bad. He deserved some fun.

Somewhere around Winnetka, about halfway back, Lyle hung up on the Dominican girlfriend. He shifted around in his seat, bumping into Kevin, and stared around at all the families, the couples young and old coming back late from a Sunday in the city. He made eyes at the girls.

“Shit,” he said to Kevin, “how was what’s her name? That skinny one?”

He meant a girl at the Humboldt Park apartment who’d disappeared into the back bedroom with Lyle on Friday night, then with Kevin on Saturday. They couldn’t remember her name.

“She do that thing where she…” Lyle illustrated with his hand. Kevin laughed at the looks it got them from the nearby passengers.

“Them city girls,” Lyle said, shaking his head. He kicked the railing. He’d had a little bit of something-something left over this morning, smoked it at Ogilvie in the stall next to Carson. Still steadily tweaking. Kevin was hardly even buzzed—the tallboys were just supposed to sustain him.

“Them city girls,” Lyle said again, in a voice of minor wonder. He sipped his beer.

The mid-December night through the windows, existed in dour negativity. The tracks ran close to the lake, but there remained a stretch of voided wild land between the two: brief patches of old snow dirtying the forest and wetlands. Kevin had learned all about those wetlands in school and then forgot it. Vague recollections of a field trip to one of the beaches on a chilly, gray afternoon, the seventh-graders told to identify shells or birds or some shit. Kevin had snuck off with Ryan Wilkins and Zack Dorgraffe to smoke cigarettes and throw rocks at birds and at each other.

God, he fucking missed those days. Not the ones as a kid as much as the high school years, when he’d had the energy of Lyle and gave even less in the way of fucks. Going to school like three days out of the week, most of that spent in detention because when some other kid talked shit to him the teachers only heard Kevin clapping back. Blackout nights, garage parties, bonfires that felt different in the autumn than on summer evenings. The music had been better then, too. Disturbed, Korn, Linkin Park, Five Finger Death Punch. Smoking out bedrooms, sheds, alleys. Skating. And the girls. Tara… she’d been the most consistent, they’d had a more or less exclusive thing going for a year, before Kevin dropped out. Sometimes when they’d hung out they’d just talked, watched movies, fell asleep with their clothes on. Then she’d moved to St. Louis for college and that was it.

The older he got, the harder it was to find people like that. Mostly they were burnouts like Carson who were good because nobody else was around, or they were in prison or under house-arrest or on strict-ass parole. Or tweaked-out borderlines like Lyle. Or they were young—too young. High schoolers, who were okay when Kevin ended up chilling with them, but it was like with Lyle: mostly he just didn’t have the energy to keep up. They were like Kevin’s crowd from back then, the miscellaneous who didn’t fit into the assigned roles of sports kids or smart kids or alt kids—just the leftovers, the ones nobody wanted, except that now they listened to metalcore that was way too fast to enjoy and trap-rap that he could only appreciate when he was too high to do anything else. The guys were generally cool, looking up to Kevin or at least deferring to him. The girls seemed to tolerate him, but they certainly weren’t into him, which was fine because he wasn’t a fucking creep like Lyle.

But hey, there were girls he knew from his own high school years still as wild as they’d been before getting knocked up by deadbeats, and there were always the strangers in bars. He loved strangers, even just talking with someone he’d never meet again. That was one of the many reasons why this Chicago trip was such a success. It was good to switch shit up sometimes—even though he had little desire to permanently leave the Kenosha-Racine area, he wouldn’t mind coming down here more often. There was more to do there than in Madison, and people weren’t stuck up like they were in Milwaukee. Something freeing in the anonymity of a big city, where you were just another asshole on the sidewalk. Maybe that was what brought Lyle down. It was close enough to the old days.

He missed Tara, but it was Ryan Wilkins and Zack Dorgraffe who left bigger holes and those couldn’t be filled by pretenders like Lyle and Carson. Ryan’d gone off into the Army and last Kevin heard, was stationed in Germany. Last year, Kevin found out secondhand that he’d come through town without hitting him up.

And Zack. He and Kevin stuck together after high school—they’d split a place but then Kevin did his time. Halfway through that bid, Zack stuck up the wrong asshole in an alley and bled out with a bullet in his gut. The prison board hadn’t let Kevin attend the funeral, because Zack wasn’t family.

It was like everything had moved on, the momentum of the world throwing Kevin away and he fought that progression to find a semblance of the old. God, what he wouldn’t fucking give for everything to be like it once was. To reverse time, bring Tara back from all her delusions about being better than all this, same with Ryan, and to pull Zack out of the grave, brush him off and hand him a forty.

If it’d all moved on, then Kevin was just a worthless fucking shade, a monument to a brief flash of joy in an otherwise shitty life.

* * *

At Waukegan, the conductor said up to them, “This is your last warning. Turn off the music or put your headphones in. And lower your voices, too. There are children on board.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Lyle said. Kevin cracked the last beer.

After Winthrop Harbor, with the dark expanse of the North Dunes Nature Preserve out the east-facing windows, the conductor returned, this time with his buddy for backup.

“I’ve warned you repeatedly. You’re getting off at the next stop.”

“What’s the next stop?”

“Dune Shore.”

“Oh fuck that, dude, we’re going to Kenosha.”

“No, you’re getting off my train.”

Kevin sat back with a grunt-sigh as Lyle leaned forward and pushed it.

“C’mon, we need to get home. I got work at six in the morning.”

“I don’t care. If you don’t get off, we’ll call the police and they’ll pick you up in Kenosha.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

The train slowed, sailing gently along the tracks. Kevin couldn’t afford the cops getting involved, running ID’s, making phone calls.

What bullshit. They only had one more stop after this. Not even ten miles from the state line.

The train stopped. The conductors motioned toward the doors.

“C’mon,” Kevin said. “We’ll find another way home.”

“Hell we will! It’s—”

“Lyle! Now.”

Lyle smoldered for a second, selected and dispersed a few curses at the conductors, then kicked Carson to wake him up.

“Let’s go. We’re evicted.”

They trudged down the narrow steps onto the first level, then through the sliding doors into the exit compartment. The conductors followed. The passengers listed to Lyle rant.

“—want my fucking money back. I paid for a ride all the way to—”

The outer doors opened and let in the night air, icy and dry.

Nobody got on. Kevin, Lyle and Carson were the only ones to get off. As the doors closed, Kevin and Lyle flicked off the conductors and expelled a tremendous bout of swears. The main one returned the gesture and called through the closing gap, “Assholes!”

“Fuck you!” Lyle screamed. He kicked the doors with a flat thud. The train glided forward, picking up speed so that the faces staring out at them, warm and secure under the greenish tint of the train’s interior lights, flashed together into a blur.

Then it was gone, just the dinging echo of horns dying away north. Across the tracks to the east stretched forth the entirety of the open, dark preserve. The lake-wind carried on , crisp and taunting, but the station stood mostly silent. Winter silence, a stillness like nothing is left alive in the world.

Kevin lit a Newport as Carson sat on the curb. Lyle kicked and stomped, swore, spat in the direction of the train.

“I’m gonna kill that piece of shit if I ever see him again. Next time on the train. Mark it, motherfuckers, I’m gonna kill him.”

Kevin waited for Lyle to wear himself out. He stared first to their one side, toward the dim, sleepy lights of town. Then the other way, out into the preserve.

* * *

“Go call up the Metra people,” Kevin told Lieutenant Bowen. “Those conductors, they left us one stop away, just left us out there. If they hadn’t, we’d all be home right now.”

“You were kicked off where?” Bowen looked at the other cop, who was writing in a pocket-notebook. “Look up the Metra schedule, see when they came through here. Get the names and contact info of those employees.”

“It was like nine-thirty,” Kevin said.

“How do you know?”

“Because that was the time on my phone when it died. I remember ’cause I was on it trying to figure out who to call for a ride, right after we got kicked off.”

“And Mr. Wilder’s was already dead, correct?”


“What about Mr. Harrison’s?”

“He had one of those portable chargers, but it went out when we were on the train. He kept calling people, trying to get us a ride.”

“Then what happened?” Bowen asked.

“Then we saw the bonfire.”

* * *

He’d finished another Newport in the time it took Lyle to calm to a simmering rage. By then Carson had been informed, piecemeal through their rants, about what had happened.

“That’s stupid,” he offered.

They moved into the tiny waiting station, a shed-sized brick building on the east side of the tracks. Smell of cold concrete, the wooden window sills were etched over in illegible graffiti done in pen and knife. A stand of free books. Lyle paced furious circles and Kevin stood with his hands in his coat pockets.

Lyle had a girlfriend who was supposed to pick them up at the Kenosha station. He called to get her to come down, but she didn’t answer and so he included her in the scope of his curses. He spun on Kevin. “Who can you call?”

“Told you already, my phone’s dead.”

“Shit, you know anybody who lives here?”

“Nope. You?”

“Yeah, but they don’t like me. Carson, what about you?”

“My uncle used to live here, but he’s dead now.”

“Fuck good does that do us, then?”

“I don’t know.”

“Unless he’s gonna rise from the grave and come give us a ride?”

“Nah. He’s buried in Kenosha.”

Kevin brayed and, despite it all, Lyle grinned. Carson still had a little bit of life left in him after all.

“We can walk,” Kevin said. “How far is it?”

Lyle looked it up on his phone. “We take Sheridan Road, it’ll be a seventeen-mile walk. Six hours, that’s what Maps says.”

“Well fuck that. You got Uber?”

“Yeah but I got like a one-star rating, so nobody’s gonna pick me up. You?”

“No. You need a card for that.”

They didn’t think about asking Carson, and Carson wasn’t paying attention. The way he shook, he was probably regretting shooting up everything he had on the way here. He distracted himself by looking through the bookstand.

The Metra app told them that the next train wouldn’t arrive until six a.m.

“Guess we’re walking,” Lyle said.

“We’ll freeze to death.”

“No we won’t, ya bitch. It's twenty degrees out there.”

“Don’t call me a bitch.”

“Well, you’re the one scared of walking through the cold.”

“I’m not scared of shit,” Kevin said. “I just don’t want to do all that, then get like an hour of sleep and have to go into work.”

“Nah, you’re young and tough. It’s not the cold or the walk.” Lyle grinned. “You scared of the dark?”

“Fuck you.”

“No, fuck you. I’m your elder. Respect me.”

“I’m not respecting shit. Act like an adult and I’ll treat you like one.”

With that, Kevin stepped back outside for another smoke. He ambled down the platform, to where the tracks crossed the road. Lyle came out after him.

“I don’t know who the fuck you think you’re talking to—”

Kevin turned and faced him straight-on. He had a half-foot and about fifty pounds on Lyle… but Lyle was crazy, which counted for a lot. Kevin wondered if he could actually fade the shithead. He figured that they’d find out.

“I’ve been disrespected enough today,” Lyle said, “and no kid’s gonna give me shit for a joke—”

“Well, old man, maybe you oughta come up with a better fucking idea instead of walking seventeen miles back. I don’t want some cop to pull over on us on Sheridan and run my ID.”

“Then why’d you come down here? That’s your fucking problem.”

“It’ll be yours too, if you get me caught.”

“Guys.” Carson had followed them out.

“What, you gonna fuck me up from inside?”

“Either before they put me back in, or after I get out.”

Carson pointed past them. “What’s that?”

Lyle lifted up his coat, jacket and shirt to show Kevin the .45 tucked into his waistband. Kevin had forgotten about it.

He wrapped his fingers around the grip. “Wanna try me?”

* * *

“So the pistol belonged to Mr. Harrison?”

“Yep. It’s his fingerprints you’re gonna get when you run it.”

“And not yours?”

“No,” he lied.

* * *

Kevin tensed.

“Before you get all shitty with me,” Lyle said, “you stop and think maybe we could just follow the train tracks? Nobody else’s gonna be on those.”

Carson stepped between them, his beanie-crowned head blocking Lyle from view.

“Check that out,” he said. He pointed again, behind Kevin.

Southeast in the distance across the flat dark flickered a distant light. Its arms whipped and reached up, and up, and up.

“So what?” Lyle said. “It’s a fire.”

“Bonfire,” Kevin said.


“So it’s fucking warm.” He looked at Carson. “What d’you think?”

It was a rhetorical question. He didn’t care what Carson thought, because Carson was just a follower, backgrounder; pointing out that fire was the most independent thing he’d done all weekend. Kevin had already made up his mind. He was cold, tired and pissed off. He didn’t wait for a reply.

“Come on.” And he led them east, toward light and the promise of warmth.

* * *

“So you see this fire,” Bowen said, “and don’t think that maybe you shouldn’t go there?”

“I told you I was cold and tired and pissed off. Not like we had any other options.”

“You couldn’t have gone into town? Sounds like Main Street was a closer walk than that fire. Even at nine-thirty on a Sunday night some places are still open. Restaurants and cafés. Bars.”

“Fuck your town,” Kevin said. He hoped to get a reaction and was disappointed. So he elaborated. “Three guys like us walking around, and you wouldn’t have found some reason to fuck with us? Like I said, I was trying to avoid attention, at least on the Illinois side of the line. Lot of good that did.

“But honestly? I wasn’t thinking. I was pissed at Lyle, pissed at being thrown off the train like trash, and it was all like living on the street again. You ever had to do that?” He looked between their impassive faces. “Thought not. When you’re out there, you don’t think like you would if you had a roof to get back under. It becomes fucking survival. Towns are tricky because cops will fuck with you, just ’cause you can’t do shit about it. Bartenders and waiters and cashiers all take one look at you and before you even open your mouth to order something they got their minds made up. They kick you out if you’re taking too long to finish your food, or coffee, or beer, even if you aren’t causing trouble. If you stand up for yourself, they call you guys. Fuck your town, yeah, but fuck towns in general. Cities like Chicago, at least there you can disappear.”

His reflection in the observation window stared back dry and brittle as old rolling paper. His headache was blooming through his skull.

“You know where it’s safe? The middle of nowhere. Like barrel fires, camps out in the woods, whatever. I’ll take my chances with strangers in the wild before I walk into a town.”

He sat back and rubbed that angry red circle on the side of his head. To help prove his point, he wanted to lift up his hair and show them where the muzzle of the .45 had been pressed up against his scalp, burning him, to illustrate something about the desperation he’d been put into. Once they denied that—and they would, because acknowledging it would chip away at the case they were building against him—he’d snap back at them that they were just proving his point. But that wouldn’t matter to them.

“Fine,” Bowen said. “Then what happened?”

* * *

Lyle wouldn’t shut up.

“This is sketchy shit, boys. We oughta go into town.”

“I’m not doing that.”

“Then we should start walking home.”

“Not doing that, either.”

“What if that’s some rich-kid bonfire? Buncha entitled shits who call the cops soon as they see guys like us?”

“Whatever, man. They got a fire and maybe some beer.” His plan was to see what was up, hang out there as long as those people stuck around—and if they left at the sight of him, then he’d just keep the fire going—then pop back into the station building until the next train arrived. He’d come into work late and just take the chance that his boss wouldn’t be pissed enough to call his PO.

But also, who cared? Kevin would just say he was sick, and safe within the boundaries of the great state of Wisconsin.

“What if,” Lyle said, “it’s just some random shit on fire?”

“Then at least we’ll be warm.”

They fanned across the two-lane road that arrowed from the tracks, sneakers clomping on the asphalt. Their breath three soul-clouds, puffing out into the night. No cars drove by.

What small ambient town-sounds they’d heard by the tracks were long dead—now, it was just the wind. And Lyle’s non stop bitching. But he still followed Kevin, and Carson followed them both. Kevin had a pretty good idea that if Lyle actually did walk off on his own, Carson would stick with Kevin. That had its own comfort to it.

They passed a sign announcing a marina at the end of the road. Lyle snorted.

“We could steal a fucking yacht and sail back. Always wanted to be a pirate.”

Kevin led them off the road, cutting through a wide band of switchgrass sheathed in frost. The arms of winter-naked forest closed in on either side.

Silhouettes materialized against the fire, growing taller and wider and gaining animation and voice. The ring of light encompassed a wide fifty feet wavering at the edges. It cast lucid shadows over the oaks, gyrating with the same chaos-motions of those figures in its orbit.

Heat kissed Kevin’s numb face, reminding him what it was to feel the blood livening under your skin. Music from somewhere, good music. Disturbed, “Ten Thousand Fists.” Hell yeah.

They walked into the light and took everything in, and were taken in by the kids, who’d arrayed themselves as close to the epic conflagration as they could get, beers in hand and the tips of their cigarettes and blunts exhaling tributaries of smoke into the greater flow of the bonfire’s river-column. Or they sat on blankets, groups bundled together around bongs and hookahs and little coke-striped mirrors. Dancers—mostly girls, mostly together, elicited hoots and calls from the boys. Crumpled beer cans and shattered liquor bottles popped in the fire. And passing between them all were fifths on their way to an empty fate.

Kevin said, “What’s up?”

* * *

So you walk up to these kids partying. A bunch of teenagers.

“Yeah, yeah,” Kevin said, “I know. Creepy me and creepy Carson and creepy Lyle. Call it what you want.”

“I was going to call it sad.”

* * *

It happened pretty naturally, given Lyle’s charisma. Although later, Kevin would know that Lyle had nothing to do with it.

The guys came over first, a solid group surrounding them, a barrier between them and the fire—between them and the girls. But after some quick talking, jokes, an explanation, the tension eased.

“Yeah, fuck those train people,” one of them said. He was one gaunt string of muscle wired through with an energy that crackled in every direction. He held a fifth of Jack. “They kicked me off at Waukegan once because my foot was on the seat. Didn’t even ask me to take it off first.”

Kevin laughed, because the same thing had happened to him and Ryan once.

They gathered around the fire, passing fifths—Jack and Wild Turkey, Svedka and Burnett’s, Sauza and 1800—and were handed cold Millers from a bottomless cooler.

“You kids go hard,” Lyle said. “ I love it!” He clinked fifths with another boy and they slammed back.

Kevin asked the guy next to him, “Why are you out here? It’s pretty cold for this.”

“Is it? I’m sweating, man.”

And Kevin realized that he was sweating, too. Sweltering. He took off his outer coat.

He hadn’t really paid attention until now, but nobody was wearing anything long-sleeved. Instead it was T-shirts and tanks and shorts. Looked like one or two—including the wiry boy—wore swim-trunks. It felt like summer.

And at the other end from where they’d entered, a patch of exceptional darkness was cut in half by a surface of glassy water. A large pond, ringed by reedy dune-grasses and fluffy bushes, standing out against the brittle foliage on the opposite shore.

“You been swimming?” Kevin asked.

“Yep, it’s the best way to start the season,” one of them said. This one was built like a linebacker.

“You’re crazy,” Kevin said. He turned to tell Lyle how crazy they were, but Lyle had walked off a little way with some of the other guys, dipping their heads around a dirty glass pipe. With a lurch Kevin wanted to head over and have himself a rip, but he hesitated and didn’t know why. The wiry boy hit it and passed, and out of everybody here he looked like he needed it the least—like giving steroids to a grizzly.

“Only way to live,” the linebacker said, “is crazy.”

“You go to school here?”

“Nah, we’re just passing through.”

“Passing through? Where do you live?”

“We don’t. We’re passengers, man, riding the celestial lines over the Earth.”

Kevin peered at his eyes, looking for dilation, for evidence of whatever psychedelic shit he was on.

“What do you take?” the linebacker asked. He nodded to the group around the pipe, coughing and guffawing and clapping each other on the back. The wiry boy turned up his head, baring his chest to the moonless night, and howled. Lyle joined him.

“I’ll take whatever,” Kevin said. “What do you got?”

The linebacker handed him a colorless pill.

“What’s that?”

“Don’t matter. It’s whatever.”

“Fair-the-hell-enough.” Kevin washed it down with Wild Turkey. Then he took off his other coat because it was so fucking hot in the firelight. Lyle’s herd migrated toward the pond. Carson sat on a blanket with another group, heating up a spoon. Kevin started that way, to remind him to use his own needle. But a group had gathered to shotgun PBRs and the linebacker pulled Kevin over there.

“Show us how it’s done!”

Kevin, dripping foam down his beard, was the first to launch his empty can into the fire and toss up his hands. The kids he’d raced against couldn’t finish theirs, and stood around laughing and awkwardly sipping beer from the key-punched holes in the sides of their cans.

“I been doing that shit since before any of you were born! Gotta learn how to suck it up without breathing.”

One of the kids threw up off to the side.

“Yep, gotta get rid of that gag reflex, too.” Kevin went into his pack for a Newport but it was empty. “Fuck.”

“I got you.” A girl handed him a pack that had barely been touched. “Keep it.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, we got a whole carton.”

Marlboro Reds. He hadn’t smoked these since high school.

Puddle of Mudd was playing, golden nostalgia cresting on a sonic wave. “Oh shit! This is the classic! Carson!” he called to the limp, nodded-off body on the blanket. “Remember them?”

To the kids, he said, “You got great taste in music. The metalcore and trap-rap your generation listens to is ass. My generation had the best music. Best games, too.”

“We’re more into the old stuff,” the linebacker said.

“You look like somebody.”

“Everybody looks like somebody else, man, so eventually we all look like each other.”

Lyle was back from the pond and had flanked himself with two of the girls. They play-slapped his chest, giggling, six arms moving like creepers closing the space between them. Kevin knew in the back of his mind, in this compartmentalized observation room that knew people and how they are, that some of the boys must be watching the exchange, jealous and glowering.

Maybe it was a trick of the inconsistent light, paired with the drinking and that whatever-pill and the music and the entire vibe, but Lyle’s leathery skin looked even drier, more lined. His hair brittle like a used mop-head left out in the sun. Stooping over the girls not because he was taller but because he’d developed a crook in his back.”

Kevin drank it away with another PBR. Or was it a Miller? He looked for the celestial lines they were riding.

“Why stop here?” he asked the linebacker.


“Like, how’d these celestial lines get you to this middle-of-nowhere shithole? You’re young, so go to Chicago or Milwaukee, somewhere exciting.” He drank, then considered. “I mean, you’re risking the yacht police or whoever running you off.”

“Fuck the yacht police, and fuck the cities,” the linebacker said. He looked like Zack Dorgraffe, from back in the day. No… he was Zack, before he’d bled out in an alley with a bullet in his gut. “Thing about the cities, right—” He put that familiar arm around Kevin’s shoulders, pulling them together into something confidential. “—is that there aren’t as many people there thinking back to the Good Old Days. I mean, yeah there are, but there’s just something about the small town, right? It sucks all the suspicion out of the people who’re stuck in the syrup of nostalgia. More importantly, it sucks the fight out of them. Cities have shit going on, there’s always something to look forward to. But towns are always the same—so small and slow that it’s right there in your face, how things used to be. Small-town deadbeats are trapped in that.”

Lyle and the girls were kissing. A couple of the boys were talking among themselves and shooting them looks. Including the wiry one.

“What it really is,” Zack said, “is that out here it’s a lot easier to attract the losers and burnouts. Even though people like that are more like… like when you want pizza really bad but have to settle for a Hot Pocket instead.”

Everybody watched Lyle and the girls, now.

“Sad little nostalgia freaks aren’t our pizza. The real juicy shit is in the youth, the girls and boys who have all their lives ahead of them and yet live like they’re going to die when the sun comes up—camping around a fire like this, drinking like this and sneaking off into the dark to feel the grass and pine-needles on their bare backs… but hey, when you’re starving, you take what you can get.”

The boys advanced in a loose formation.

“It’s the empty areas out here that are the best. Cities have them, too, like abandoned buildings and industrial parks, but this is a prime spot. Visible to the people who want to see it, but far enough away so that by the time anyone else hears them screaming…” He rolled his hand through the air, pushing Kevin along to the logical conclusion.

“… nobody will be able to get to them in time.”

The girls pushed Lyle to the ground.


Ryan, wiry and taut and cranked out from the glass pipe, headed the battalion. Moving with direct intent.

“Hey…” Kevin grabbed Zack’s arm but Zack stayed put, and the only awareness he had that Zack was as immovable as a boulder came from that observation room in his mind—and that place was sealed off. Far away from the control room.

Lyle screamed.


“Don’t.” Zack angled him away like he was a child, weightless, because he’d been built like a linebacker even if the coaches hadn’t let him onto the field during open tryouts. They moved toward the fire. “Look at this, instead.”

“I don’t want to…”


Kevin stared into it. Lyle’s screams became part of the fire, like the crickets from the bushes, the cool slap-whoosh of the pond against the slice of beach. Like Puddle of Mudd playing from somewhere, and the cigarette smoke like the weed smoke like the hookah smoke, like the perfume of sharp liquor and flat beer aerating into the wind. The voices are energetic, laugh-shouting, immediate. Young. Tonight is the night, the only night. Life is the summer night.

“Are the celestial lines in there?”

“Sure,” Zack said. “Sure.”

Sun-yellow coruscations, knife-sharp. Nerve-endings wired from a synaptic vein-blue core, and there was white fire below that, inside of the earth. Pure being lived in there. Pure being and it hungered.

Another hand on him, but gentler this time. At its touch, Zack’s went away and Kevin felt lighter, but still held down.

Tara walked around and faced him. Backlit by the fire, the sides of her face gleamed but the center was dark, and yet Kevin knew she was as beautiful as she’d been when she was his.

“I’ve missed you,” she whispered.

“I want you.”

“Did you love me?”


Her hands explored him. One hand found his throat.

“Do you want to live forever?”

His throat hitched. “I don’t… I don’t know…”

She kissed him, but she tasted sour. Like her lips were slices of lime, juicy but acidic, and then Kevin felt that same sensation on the side of his neck. He pulled away and Zack met his eyes. They held him there, and Tara brushed his hair from his face.

“You don’t want to live forever,” she whispered, and hers wasn’t the intimate warm breath he’d missed for so long, but cold as granite shaped to his name. “You don’t deserve to.”

She made a fist in his hair and yanked his head back, exposing his throat. Zack licked it with a sandpaper tongue.

Her eyes scintillated green as the July canopy. Her face stretched and split, chin touching the hollow of her throat. From it emitted stagnant decay, a dead bloated animal sliced open and belching clouds of rot.

“You’ll keep the chosen alive.”

Tara leaned down to kiss him again—down, because she had grown tall and withered as the trees that stood outside the firelight. His entire head would fit in her mouth.

Then explosions rocked the night, punching blistering holes of reality through the trance, pop-pop of a gun going off. The girls pinning Lyle to the ground rolled off and Lyle himself rolled away and scampered onto one knee, holding the side of his face between blood-slicked fingers. He swept the .45 around to encompass the green eyes that ringed him. His pants around his ankles, exposing a comedic hard-on peeking out from a bushel of gray pubes.

“No no no!” he yelled. “You lizard-people can fuck off right now!” He fanned the pistol around them, sporadic, eeny-meeny-miny-moe meets Russian roulette. They backed away. One of the girls he’d been under was still on the ground. She held her stomach, which bled worse than Lyle’s face. She hiccupped, eyes lightening back toward normal, mouth opening and closing in silent pleas like a beached fish drowning in open air. One of the boys reached for her.

Lyle pointed the gun. “No! Back off!”

“She’s dying!”


Tara and Zack wrapped Kevin into a complicated wickerwork grip and held him between them and Lyle. “We’ll kill him first!” Tara screeched, her breath rancid and hot in Kevin’s ear.

“Go ahead!” Lyle said. “I fucking hate that guy!”

He got to his feet and used his bloody hand to pull up his pants. A gash of cheek was missing and his molars gleamed through, tiny in the firelight.

Tara nodded toward the side, drawing Kevin and Lyle’s attention to where Carson lay drugged-out on the blanket. More green-eyed people, their faces stretched as thin as their bodies, and yet still beautiful, always beautiful, rolled him onto his stomach. One dangled a strange knife over the back of his head.

A thrill of panic raced through Kevin.

“No! He didn’t do anything!”

Carson was comatose in his high, sailing off into some private bliss. Riding celestial lines beyond any chance of coming back.

“Kill the junky,” Tara said.

The blade disappeared into the base of Carson’s skull. He flexed as if at the end of a strenuous orgasm, then they let him go and he flopped and shuddered as blood blackened the back of his head and his coat and spread over the blanket.

Kevin knew he was screaming but barely heard it. Tara and Zack forced him to his knees and another strange blade, this one in Zack’s hand, nested up against his throat.

“Last fucking chance, lecher,” Zack said.

Lyle didn’t seem to know what that word meant, but he got the gist.

“Go ahead, bitch. Shit, I’ll kill him.” He trained the gun on Kevin. “Whatcha think, Kev? Want it to be me, or them?”

The things—that was all Kevin could think of them as—looked around at each other. Their eyes shifted. It was subtle, but Kevin’s adrenaline-rush gave him twenty-twenty vision. He noticed everything. The way their eyes glowed and dulled seemed to be in response, in conversation. They talked with them. Plotted with them.

Carson had gone still. His blood trickled from the handle of the knife. It stuck out at a slant, jaunty angle like a switch on the back of a toy. They stroked him, opening and closing their elastic, gaping mouths in mute appraisal.

The girl lying on the ground moaned, clawing at the grass.

“Please,” one of the boys said. He reached for her again and Lyle shifted the gun onto him.

“Let the bitch die. If I had enough bullets I’d kill you all.”

He circled the bonfire. They moved with him—Zack and Tara dragging Kevin around, keeping the blade kissed to his throat.

“Here’s what’s gonna happen,” Lyle said. “I’m walking the fuck on home. You can have Kev, and you got Carson too already, so be happy with that.”

“You know we can’t let you go,” Tara said.

“Nah, I think you can. Because she’s only got maybe a couple minutes of blood left in her. That’s about how long you got to decide to let me go before I start shooting again.”

“You don’t have enough rounds for all of us.”

“Nope. But I’ll take a few of you with me because hey, guess what?” He jerked the pistol at the girl on the ground. “You can die.”

The fire crackled. Crickets sang and the water lapped, underscoring the humidity.

A shadow grew behind Lyle. Kevin opened his mouth to warn him and the blade pinched into his throat, freeing a beaded necklace of blood under his jaw.

Tara left him with Zack and walked to the bonfire. She stared into its mesmerizing dance.

“Don’t you want to know what we are?”

“I don’t give a fuck.”

“Most people do.”

The shadow behind him was Ryan, bare-chested and wiry, each footstep the soundlessness of a snowflake lighting onto barren ground.

The girl screamed. The green of her eyes had yellowed.

“Looking like she’s gonna go,” Lyle said. “Looking like we all are, then. Or a lot of us, at least.”

“Barring a few exceptions,” Tara said, indicating the girl, “we’re immortal. We don’t need to lure sacrifices to us, but we prefer it. Clearing out the filth, a little bit at a time.”

“Filth!” Lyle shouted. “That’s all we ever are! To them conductors and the people laughing at us when we got kicked off! You aren’t different from any of the privileged-ass—”

Then all was blistering light as the bonfire swelled and exploded, encapsulating Tara and blinding Lyle backward into Ryan’s grip.

And Tara stood before them, a cleansed and bronzed idol. Her declaration hissed around the fire, incantating its frenzied dance into the livid magnitude of lightning synapsing across the chaos-face of the lake, the fury of a September storm.

“We are the chosen. Children of summer and bringers of fire.”

They rushed Lyle.

“In its light we are beautiful, and in the winter dark we are wraiths of ice and death.”

Lyle sunk, an island beaten down by waves of rising and falling fists and bare feet. They vied over each other, snapping their rubber mouths, eyes flashing a venomous, sickly, acidic display.

“We do not need the sacrifices of the weak and feeble, we desire them.”

Ryan emerged waving the gun overhead and shouldering through them. They skittered from his path.

A few had gone to the girl. They carried her over to Carson and set her down on top of his back. She planted her lips around the wound and suckled. The blade cut into her lips but she didn’t seem to notice, drank her own blood with Carson’s, gnawed at the skin over the knobs of his spine.

The fire shrunk with the same suddenness with which it had exploded, returning Tara to a normal body—or one less monstrous than before. With it went the doom-laden severity of her voice, back into something closer to human.

“We would have just killed you,” she told the wrecked, lumpy mess groaning with Lyle’s voice. “But you insult us.”

Kevin had been meek and helpless in the face of this. But call it stubborn or stupid, he finally found enough of himself to speak.

“You’re not them. Not Tara, or Zack or Ryan.”

Tara hissed, “And you’re barely Kevin.”

Zack threw Kevin down next to Lyle. The grass soft and dewy, the earth beneath it pleasant and cool.

“Please…” Kevin moaned. He was crying. He hadn’t cried since prison.

They gathered around, and their eyes forming a ring of pinpoints flashed and communicated with anticipation.

Lyle, despite his injuries, pulled himself onto one elbow and spat blood to clear his mouth.

“I ain’t begging.”

A sharp wet snap. The girl had cracked Carson’s spine. She dug her way through the vertebrae into the marrow, her motions vaguely sexual.

Ryan tossed the pistol between Kevin and Lyle.

Kevin looked at it, shining against the flames.

He looked up at Lyle, who stared at the pistol, too.

Then Lyle looked up.

Kevin would never know what came over him—maybe there had been more words spoken, explaining the last chance they had to make it out alive. Or maybe he just intuited it, or maybe they had him under a spell and he only thought that he would be let free, if he won.

If he won.

Lyle’s hand shot out like a cobra and whipped the pistol up but Kevin grabbed the side of it with one hand, slipping his finger behind the trigger while he clamped his other hand onto Lyle’s wrist. Their arms shook. The pistol titled down toward Kevin’s face. Incredible, he half-thought, how even after they’d beaten him into a pulp, Lyle still had this strength. Of course he did. Kevin had once watched him go three days without sleeping, just working and partying. A man like that, pushed this far, wasn’t going to just give out.

Then a kick from Ryan knocked their hands wide and the pistol skipped across the grass. The momentum knocked the men sideways and Ryan laughed like hissing. The spectators drew closer.

Lyle was already crawling toward the gun. The flames grew, as if excited.

Kevin dug his hands into the cool earth, got to one knee.

Then the back of his head blasted through with pain—previous experience told him he’d been punched from behind—and he fell back down. He just wanted to lie there and writhe. He pulled himself forward. The fire watched. And grew.

Ryan kicked Lyle in the ribs. Lyle cursed and slumped down long enough for Kevin to close the gap between them. Lyle grabbed him but Kevin shook him off. Ryan squatted in front of the gun as Kevin reached for it. He expected Ryan to throw it this time. Or pick it up and shoot him through the head.

A weight crushed his back, and Lyle locked his fingers through Kevin’s hair and yanked his head away, hindering his reach and exposing his throat. Ryan’s face mawed open, eyes only for the necklace of blood that Zack’s knife had drawn forth.

Kevin knew he could just give up. That he probably should. What desperation he clung to was buffered by the knowledge, from that same powerless observation room through which he’d watched everything happen, that they wouldn’t let him go if he won.

So he didn’t know why he snapped his elbow backward into Lyle’s face and grabbed the pistol and rolled around. Didn’t even have the chance to look at Lyle, not really, pop like a boom and Lyle deflated, made a sound kind of like screaming and clutched his chest, and it seemed that everything else really had gotten to him because then he was still and dead with the fire reflecting in his blank eyes.

It didn’t register to Kevin, at the time, what he’d done. Mostly it was just that the back of his head hurt.

And that now he was the only one left. He was alone with them.

Ryan and Zack and Tara, not actually them and yet they were… because they lived forever in the days that Kevin long for, and in that sense, it was like nothing had ever changed. They’d remained within the firelight, while the world beyond in the passage of seasons and years shrunk into an unending, worsening winter. One summer night Kevin had wandered away from the fire, and had been lost ever since.

But now he was back. To die was sad, and after having returned to them for only this short time. He’d take this little bit, though. Because really, was it any worse than the slow freeze-death in the uncaring world outside of this fire?

He’d known, as soon as they’d thrown the gun to the ground, that he wouldn’t be allowed to leave. So why did he bother fighting Lyle?

Not because he wanted to live. He just didn’t want Lyle to be the one to kill him.

The girl had rejoined them, her bare stomach now flawless and copper. Her only marred features were her face, made-up in drying blood, and the knife-cuts stretching like razor wire-gashes across her lips.

Some of them fell onto Lyle, splaying him out and tearing through his clothes to get to his skin and what lay under it.

The rest of them moved in on Kevin. They didn’t rush, like they had with Lyle. Kevin was grateful for that, because it gave him time to raise the pistol. He closed his eyes and touched the muzzle to his temple—it was searing hot and left a burn there—and pulled the trigger.

An empty click. He opened his eyes as Ryan opened his hand and tilted it. Bullets rained, tinkling against each other, into the grass.

And then a warble rose from the void beyond the fire. Incessant, demanding. For a moment—the only time in his life—Kevin was actually glad to hear sirens. But then with hurt and rage he realized the cops were trying to take even this—dying in the summer—from him. And that brought him back.

The blue-white lights and the fans of their headlights bumped over the open stretch of the preserve.

The children of summer hissed and their eyes flashed through a sick green spectrum.

And then they scattered, retreating out of the light. For a moment, Kevin hoped that they would lie in ambush and put on a show of spectacular violence for him, a death row dinner.

But as they stepped into the winter they changed in a way they hadn’t yet, in a different direction from their terrible beauty within the firelight. Skin drying out taut as corpses in dry tombs, they stooped and their spines twisted and they thinned into a mockery of the oaks between which they disappeared shivering and wretched.

And Kevin was left alone. Until the police reached him.

* * *

The dents in the stainless-steel interrogation table reflected back the stark fluorescents. Puddles, pockmarks of light, the static fire. Kevin had mapped them since reaching the part where the kids had turned into something else. He ignored his reflection in the one-way glass.

“You’re right,” said the cop whose name he couldn’t remember. Confusion rippled through Kevin—there was no way they actually believed him—until he followed up with, “You are fucking crazy.”

Kevin finally looked up. He expected disbelief, mixed with condescension. The unnamed cop definitely wore that face. Bowen, though… he looked sad. Pitying.

That other cop flipped back through his notes.

“So they put that knife through the back of Mr. Wilder’s neck?”


“And one of those… kids… drank his blood? Like a vampire?”

Kevin groaned. “No, goddammit. They’re something else. Called themselves ``Children of Summer.”

“But they drank Mr. Wilder’s blood.”

“The one girl did, yeah. Ate some of him, too.”

“And what happened next?”

“I already told you. Her bullet wound disappeared.”

The cop flipped through his notes, found the right page and skimmed through what he’d written. “And they killed Mr. Harrison, too? Just shot him? Instead of using their what—claws and teeth?”

Kevin paused and knew that pause wouldn’t help. They’d been trying to read him this whole time, even though he’d told them nothing but the truth. Except for one thing. He tried to keep steady, to not tense up,avoid their eyes, or stare back at them too much. But when he’d said that after jumping Lyle, one of them had taken the gun and shot him in the chest and then put the muzzle to Kevin’s head, he realized that he’d dragged his fingers along the dents, dipping into the pockmarks of light in the table. And that he’d looked at his reflection in the observation window a little too long.

They either already knew he was lying, or suspected it enough to have made up their minds. They wouldn’t even watch the camcorder footagein the corner to be sure.

The cop closed his notebook. “Mr. Jones, why the elaborate story? I mean, I’ve heard some crazy ones over the years: ‘It was the guy with face tattoos none of us ever saw before.’ That kind of shit. But this.” He shook his head. “This tops it. I mean, come on. Just, come on.”

“I don’t care,” Kevin said. “Charge me or hold me until my PO shows up. I got no problem staying right the fuck in here where it’s safe.”

The cop snorted, but Bowen titled his head to the side. Tapped his fingers on the table.

Kevin spoke directly to him, this time.

“I know it sounds crazy, and maybe that’s what I am. Or maybe it was just the shit they gave me in that pill. But I know what a bad trip feels like, and it ain’t like that. And actually, I don’t feel bad about Lyle. He fucking deserved it. I think they saved some poor girls he would’ve run into in the future, even if they don’t care about that. Know who didn’t deserve it, though? Carson. Yeah, he was a junky, but at least he only hurt himself.”

Kevin returned to the table’s topography.

“But maybe they saved Carson from himself.”

He was tired, so fucking tired.

“They changed when they left the fire. Stopped being summer kids. More like… I don’t know. But that fire… the fire!” He jolted upright. “It was like their fucking source. Like they were moths or June-bugs smacking into a porchlight. You put it out, right?”

Bowen drummed his fingers on the table. The other cop stirred his coffee.

“Fire department’s having a hard time with that,” Bowen said. “It keeps popping back up.”

The other cop grunted.

Then the door opened and a third one stuck his head in.

“We have a problem.”

“We’re busy,” Bowen said.

“It’s important.”

* * *

Bowen stepped out into the hallway, closed the door behind him and faced Sergeant Watkins. “This had better be an emergency.”

But he already knew it had to be bad. Watkins was probably the most professional officer on their small force. At night, he ran the station like clockwork; even Bowen found him draining at times. But it meant that if Watkins had pulled him out of an interrogation, then they’d either gotten a serious break, or things had gotten worse.

Bowen already knew it was the latter. It usually was.

This was the worst crime to happen in Dune Shore in years, and until the chief got in it was Bowen’s show, and his accountability. A double homicide in the preserve—even if only a half mile from town—meant jurisdictional juggling with the state Department of Natural Resources. Their CPOs were already on-site, and although everybody was acting in good faith, that many boots on the ground meant a higher contamination risk at the crime scene. Something was bound to fuck up, and Bowen knew—just knew—that it would happen before the chief showed up. Gravity pressurized blame down to the bottom ranks, and it could bury Bowen.

But he wasn’t expecting what came next.

“It’s about the bodies,” Watkins said. He scratched his cheek and looked at the floor. His professionalism cracked and revealed a core of uncertainty that spoke to the severity of what he had to say. “They’re… ah…”

“They’re what?”


Bowen stared. “What.”

“It wasn’t our fault, at least. They were logged at the coroner’s office, but then the call came in that they’re… well, just gone.”

* * *

Kevin heard them stomping off down the hallway. The other cop didn’t acknowledge it. They were discussing who he could call and Kevin kept stonewalling. Who was worth calling? There was nobody left. He’d just wait in the holding cell for his fucking PO, and a stressed-out public defender to get assigned once they pressed charges. He was tired. And sore from where Ryan had hit him in the back of the head. The effects of the beer and that mystery pill had worn off and after reliving everything for these guys, on camera, he was just empty.

But when he closed his eyes it happened all over again. Carson’s deflated body. That girl writhing over him, slashing her lips open on the blade of that strange knife. The taste of Tara’s lips like slices of rotting lime. The slight twitch of the pistol in Kevin’s hand when he’d pulled the trigger.

He wondered if the cops would make anything of how old Lyle and Carson now looked. Then again, they were—no, no they’d been—users. That kind of thing aged you pretty fucking quick. And they’d be more focused on the mutilations, anyway.

And shit, they hadn’t even said anything about Kevin’s hair, gray as ash and dirty snow. The wrinkles canyoning his face, the spots on his hands, the stoop to his back. His lips, where the thing that had disguised itself as Tara had kissed him, drawn in and chapped. A husk. He was a husk.

The room felt warmer.

Being exhausted kept him from caring, so he could look at these things without much emotion—especially without revulsion and fear. That observation room in his head, blocked off all night, had stopped working from simple sensory overload. He’d killed a man and was going to prison for killing two. But that didn’t seem important.

Maybe the one thing that actually reached him was the rapid agony when he’d pulled the trigger on himself—when he’d believed that it was finally over.

Do you want to live forever? the thing disguised as Tara had asked.

Kevin rubbed wrinkled fingertips along the necklace of dried blood spots that the knife had left on him.

I don’t know.

He’d thought he would die inside the ring of firelight, inside the summer.

And yet here he was, out in the cold again.

Green eyes. Green eyes in the glass. Over his shoulder.

Flashing to the rhythm of speech, biological Morse code.

They’d been here for a while. How didn’t matter, or why they’d waited until now to show themselves. It was Kevin’s second chanceto die in the summer.

The cop was still pushing him about calling someone.

“Hey,” Kevin said. “You better leave.”


“You smell that?”

The cop wrinkled his nose. “Yeah. What the hell is that?”


* * *

Bowen was bewildered but mostly pissed off, yet the county coroner on the other end of the line was panicking, scared.

“I left the room for maybe thirty seconds,” he said. “There’s no way anyone could’ve walked in and taken those bodies. Not without me hearing them.”

Bowen squeezed the handle of his desk phone hard enough to crackle the plastic casing. He fought to keep his voice level.

“Beyond that,” he said, “did you notice anything odd. Anything at all, I don’t care how small, or unusual. Anything.”

Silence, drawn out long enough for Bowen to know that the coroner was debating with himself.

“C’mon, Wayne,” he said. “You can tell me. This is a weird night, and I’m about ready to believe anything.”

A nasally sigh. “Okay. For a second or two when I was in my office, I thought I smelled… smoke. Like from a campfire.”

Even though Bowen didn’t believe Kevin Jones’s story, he still wanted to be sure that Jones was responsible for the killings. But enough small things didn’t add up. For one, the amount paraphernalia left at the campsite indicated that others had been there.

So after Bowen told the coroner he’d send somebody over, he put out an APB to his patrolmen to stop and question any juveniles they found outside tonight—whether on foot or riding around. He rattled off a quick list of suspicious characteristics: if they displayed signs of intoxication or agitation, and/or smelled like campfire smoke, then he wanted them brought in for questioning. It wouldn’t be pretty and there’d be some rightfully infuriated parents, but Bowen suspected that more than a few witnesses had run off once the gun came out. Some of them may have even seen the shooting.

And he added the profiles of a couple of repeat offenders, the bad kids who would’ve been out at a party like that. Then he called the sergeant out at the crime scene, with the intention of reassigning somebody to round up those particular kids. But as the phone rang he thought about Jones’s panic—the only real display of emotion through what, to his credit, looked like authentic shock—so instead he found himself asking, “Is that fire still going?”

“Yeah,” the sergeant said. “It’s the weirdest damn thing. FD’s been at it for the whole, what, hour and a half they’ve been out here, but it just keeps coming back. It isn’t growing, which it should be doing if it isn’t dying down. And it flared up, too, maybe ten minutes ago.”

“Did you notice anything else?”

“Nah. Perimeter’s secure, evidence techs are finishing up and the CPOs are just here for show. But you know Tom Boyd, one of the volunteer firefighters? He said he saw someone out there on the other side of the pond. Said—and this is his word—they were lurking.”


“And I sent Riley over to look, but he didn’t find anyone.”

“Send him back out with the CPOs. I want to know for a fucking fact that nobody’s out there.”

Bowen hung up, sat back and thought about who would take the bodies. And why.

A minute later he left his office for the interrogation room. He wasn’t done with Jones.

* * *

Hot as hell in here. The cop’s face sheened with sweat.

“Are you threatening me?”

“Just trying to help you.”

The eyes in the observation window had materialized bodies, young and beautiful. Tara, Zack and Ryan stood among them. In their arms they held what was left of Lyle and Carson. Old, drained husks that they didn’t need, toys they couldn’t stand having taken from them.

Smoke rose from their bodies.

“I’m sorry,” Kevin told the cop. “You should’ve left.”

And then it was summer.

* * *

Smoke curled out from under the interrogation room door. Bowen shouted back for help. He yanked at the knob but it burned his palm and didn’t give. He ran around into the observation room as the fire alarms flashed, screaming into life.

It was like standing in front of a theater screen depicting a live feed of Hell. Flames curled over everything, incinerating, biting, feeding. Through the blaze and thick smoke he stared at a form of bubbling skin patched black and red, slumped face-down over the table. The detective.

Two cocoons of fire laid out on the table had gone up like dry kindling. The missing bodies.

The flames opened, and a wraith of orange and red shot through with vibrant green streaks stood—no, was held up by the conflagration itself. Something flickering and mutilated danced there, and it looked through the glass and into Bowen.

He ran from the room, convinced that he’d gone absolutely, perfectly crazy.

* * *

By sunrise both fires were out. The interrogation room resembled the blackened inside of a concrete kiln. In the far corner, the camcorder lay melted and warped.

And the bonfire out on the preserve sat now as a spacious jumble of ash, the wind carrying it away in swoops and fans over the plain, bored face of the lake. The encircling grass was brittle and frost-sheathed scuzz, the oaks naked as death, the pond frozen over. From the windows of any Metra train crawling by north or south, there was nothing about this spot to differentiate it from the rest of the shriveled world, the winter on the shores of the lake and its passive immensity.

John Stadelman is a writer from North Carolina now based in Chicago. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia College, and his fiction has appeared in Full Metal Horror, Schlock!, Lovecraftiana and elsewhere, and he is currently at work on a horror novel. Although he doesn’t believe in ghosts, he’s pretty sure he saw a Chupacabra one night on the North Side. Stalk him on Twitter at @edgy_ashtray.


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