K. J. Pedersen

(Contact me at KJPedersenmanga@aol.com)

       The following is a work of fiction. Any similarities between these characters and living individuals is entirely coincidental. This story contains a graphic sex scene between young men. If this offends you, go somewhere else.


A solitary cottage stood at the edge of the woods a mile back.

James O’Riley had fallen asleep at the wheel and ran off the side of the road into a shallow ditch. That was enough to jolt him back to reality, but failed to arouse anything more than a sleepy protest from his companion, Ash Lockyer, who was still half-asleep in the passenger’s seat.

Why the rush?

James was too tired to continue any further. An attempt to reach their destination before morning was to tempt fate. That’s when he recalled the lonely cottage huddled against the trees in the darkness.

It took a moment to negotiate his way out of the ditch he’d driven into, but as soon as he was free, James turned the light pickup truck around and headed toward the cottage. He figured he would park the truck on the gravel driveway beside the cottage and catch a few hours sleep before he continued toward his next job and new home.

Sleeping in the cramped cab of a parked pickup wasn’t enjoyable, James knew from experience, but there really wasn’t any other option. It was better than waking up in a hospital bed. Or not waking up at all.

They should have left earlier, James knew. Much earlier. Or, they should have spent the night at Helena or Wolf Creek. But they hadn’t. James thought he could drive the distance between Idaho Falls, Idaho and Great Falls, Montana with no trouble at all. He’d driven that many miles before all at once. Many times, in fact. He had a vagabond’s spirit, after all, and to be on the road was just about his greatest desire.

The cottage came into view and he turned the truck onto the gravel path. There were no lights on — neither inside nor outside. The moon was particularly bright though, and in that light, James saw the cottage was a comfortable, modern-looking building, and well maintained.

Beyond the cottage, there was a small lake. One watery finger of that body clawed at the cottage. There was, staked and tied to the shore, a floating wooden dock at the very point of the inlet, and to it a rowboat was similarly bound by rope. The two bobbed together silently upon the undulating, darkened waters.

This was somebody’s vacation home — perhaps a fishing cottage of a sort.

There were no other cars around though.

Perhaps there were no occupants at the moment. It was September, after all. Why should there be anyone here then? Summer was over.

He parked the truck between the lake and cottage and thus concealed their presence to any traveling the main highway. He turned the motor off and settled back into the seat. It was no use — he tried to make himself comfortable, but couldn’t. The constant rustling and shifting though awakened James’s young friend. (And this from a boy who had just slept, more or less, through driving into a ditch!)

Ash opened his eyes. “Where are we, Jay-jay?”

James had a way of collecting nicknames, though he always introduced himself simply as James. His mother, habitually, called him Jamesy, as had Stephen, one of the few boyfriends he’d stayed with for more than a few months. Other boyfriends and one-night stands had called him Jim, or Jimmy, or Jayme. But Ash had called him Jay the first night they met — and slept together — and that had, in turn, evolved into Jay-jay.

“Nowhere,” James said.

Ash yawned. “Do you know someone who lives here? One of your past boyfriends?”


“It’s only two-thirty in the morning?” Ash said.

James nodded.

“Are we going to sleep in the truck?”

“Do you have a better idea?”

Ash looked at the cabin, turned to James, cocked an eyebrow meaningfully, and said, “Looks empty.”

James shook his head vigorously. “Fuck no, Ash. No way am I breaking in so you can a have a bed to sleep in.”

Ash opened the passenger-side door. “Have it your way then,” he said and offered James his most mischievous grin.

James threw open the driver-side door and ran after Ash. He grabbed his shoulders and turned him around. “Ash, don’t you understand how dangerous — ”


“If there’s someone home, man, and they have a gun....” James’s eyes bored into the boy’s. “Listen, if you were home out here in the middle of nowhere and someone came to your door in the middle of the night — ”

Ash shook his head. “Nobody’s home.”

“You don’t have an ounce of sense,” James said.

“I was sensible enough to hook up with you,” Ash replied.

There was a certain logic to that. James watched out for Ash; protected him. He was ten years older than the lad. Well, nearly ten years older as James had recently turned twenty-eight and Ash was less than a month away from his nineteenth birthday. Sometimes, their relationship was like that between an older brother and younger brother. And then there were other times James sensed he was beginning to understand what it was like to have a wild, irresponsible teenaged son. Ash was really very immature for his age — at least in certain respects....

“Little fool,” James muttered under his breath while Ash trotted along the gravel path and up to the cottage’s back door.

James had left home at eighteen, right after high school graduation. He’d had no desire to spend another night under his parent’s roof. It wasn’t that his parents were cruel or anything else along those lines. No, theirs was merely an unhappy home ... and thoroughly dysfunctional.

In the ten years that followed, James supported himself. He followed wherever available work led him and saved every penny he could manage to. Most of the time he was able to find construction jobs, though he worked once, for about six months, in a distribution warehouse in northern California. He led the life of vagabond and had taken up, however briefly, residence in every western state, including Hawai’i, but excluding Alaska.

James was a hardened, stern-faced — but very handsome — young man. He was frequently mistaken as straight by other gay guys, but never had any trouble finding a partner. Along the way, he’d hooked up with a number of guys, usually close to his own age. Many of these, he’d had for boyfriends and lovers, and not just one-night stands, but left them whenever his spirit was filled again with wanderlust.

And then, seven months ago, in Boise, he met Ash.

“Look!” Ash called through the stillness to James. “Nobody’s here.”

“Sshhh!” James replied viciously.

“Dude, Jay-jay, nobody’s home,” Ash called again and just as loudly.

“How do you know that?”

Ash pushed the door open. “It’s unlocked.”

“That doesn’t mean shit, Ash,” James said and motioned his friend off the porch. “Get down here — right fucking now!”

Ash grinned again and called into the cottage. “Hey, anybody home?”

James bounded up the steps and grabbed Ash by the elbow.

“No power, man,” Ash said. “No electricity!”

James watched Ash flip a switch just inside the door up and down, again and again. It was the porch light. Nothing. Then he tried the next switch, that to the kitchen lights. Again nothing.

“See, Jay-jay, no power.”

Ash stepped into the cottage.

James was reluctant but followed his boyfriend inside.

“Look at this place!” Ash said. “Nice, huh?”

The moonlight was bright enough that the two boys didn’t stumble about inside, but could see everything clearly enough: The kitchen table and chairs; the pictures on the walls; the microwave and coffee-maker; the refrigerator.

“Dust,” Ash said and pushed his fingers along the top of the microwave oven.

James ran his fingers along the top of the table. There was dust, though just a fine layer, on that surface too. “We should go,” he said after a moment.

Ash turned and gave a James a nasty look with a furrowed brow. “What for?”

“Because someone lives here.”

“I bet they were evicted.”

“Really?” James said. “Then why is the furniture still here?”

Ash didn’t have an answer to that, smart-assed or otherwise.

James watched his boyfriend open drawers and cupboards. It was funny that Ash had capture his heart. No, not just funny, but unbelievable considering everything else, and how little they were alike. But he loved Ash. He couldn’t even begin to explain why. James loved the lad in a way he had never loved anyone else. Not even Stephen, who he had so much in common with, had he cared for as much.

Where James’s family life was merely unhappy, Ash’s had been downright abusive. It was bad enough to begin with, but when his parents and older brother — and particularly Seth, his brother — discovered he was gay, it got worse.

Much worse.

Ash dropped out of school at seventeen and ran away almost immediately thereafter. He escaped Caldwell and went to Boise. There he lived on the streets, hung outside a local gay bar almost every night, and went home with any college-aged boy that would take him. Some of the boys took pity on him, gave him money and a place to sleep for a few nights. Of course, it wasn’t just pity that motivated them, but Ash’s open offers of sex.

That’s how he managed to survive that first winter.

Then seven months ago, James met Ash at Fire and Ice, a club that allowed anyone older than eighteen admittance because the dance floor and bar were separated and had separate entrances. James’s friend, and occasional bedmate, Nate called the place “Club Twink,” a reference the fact that most of the guys that frequented the club were high school seniors and college freshmen and sophomores.

With apologies to Nate — whose attempts to get laid failed one after another that night — James took Ash home for sex ... only to let him spend the night. The next night, Ash showed up again ... and the next ... and the night after that too. It was then James learned Ash was homeless.

James allowed Ash to stay with him. Ash was James’ first live-in boyfriend since Stephen.

“Look how neat everything is,” Ash said to James as they left the hallway and stepped into the living room.

“We shouldn’t be here messing things up then.”

“I need to piss,” Ash said. He pointed to a closed door. “I bet that’s the bathroom.”

James looked at the pictures on the living room walls. In the moonlight, he had to squint and the details became evident. Most were wedding pictures of the bride and groom. The couple was young, in their mid-twenties at the most. The groom had straight ash-blond hair, combed perfectly — he was a clean-cut lad with a shy smile. The bride, a pretty lass with soft, full brown curls and hazel eyes, smiled gently. Her happiness seemed to glow outward through the image. There were other pictures too: A bouncing, hyperactive dog with a black and white coat; a little girl dolled up in a dress like the bride’s — a bridesmaid, no doubt; another bridesmaid, a beautiful young woman with blonde tresses and full, sensuous lips; and the groom’s family. James knew it was the groom’s family because in most of the photos they stood nearest him with their arms about him. Besides, the father looked like the groom. It seemed only one side of this newly wed family was represented, and James wondered where the bride’s family was.

Ash peed loudly and when the noise the constant stream made ended, James walked into the bathroom himself. Ash watched James pee then.

“Do you mind?”

“No,” Ash replied in a quiet voice.

“No. Of course not.” James was sarcastic. “And why would you?”

Ash ignored that, and said, “This place is kind of cozy, don’t you think, Jay-jay?”

James shrugged. “I guess. Too girly though.”

“Yeah, those curtains — ”

“Frilly-fuckin’-shit,” James said and laughed.

Ash felt a metal cylinder under his foot, through his tennis shoes, in the shag bath mat. He reached down and picked it up. “What’s this?” he asked James.

James took the small brass object from Ash. “A spent bullet casing.”

“Give it here,” Ash said.

James was unnerved by the discovery, but handed it back to Ash.

“You were right, Jay-jay,” Ash said. “Whoever lives here owns a gun.”

“I told you, runt.” James asked then, “Do you want to go now?”

Ash shook his head. “Nobody’s here. Who cares?”

Adjacent to the bathroom was the bedroom. Ash stepped across the threshold without a worry or thought beyond sleep. The bed was made. He ran his fingers along the dresser. Dust. Then he picked up a silver-framed photograph.

“Look at this, Jay-jay,” he called.

James walked into the bedroom and came up behind Ash. “What?”

Ash turned and handed the frame to James. “Cute couple, huh?”

“I don’t care;” he said, “they’re straight.”

Ash laughed. “Don’t be mean.”

James grinned. “Yeah,” he admitted finally, “I guess they are a cute couple.”

He held the frame, enjoyed the weight of it in his hands, admired its beauty. It was a custom piece. The center, open portion of the frame was shaped like a heart. Underneath the heart, the silver was fashioned to look like ribbon. The names Jeremy and Sarah were etched upon the ribbon under the photographed hugging newlyweds. So this clean-cut young man was named Jeremy, and his pretty, smiling wife was Sarah. And this was their home. Or, at least, their home away from home.

James set the frame again upon the dresser.

“As long as we’re here,” Ash said and pulled the sheets and blanket down from bed.

James nodded. “As long as we’re here.”

Ash kicked off his shoes and then sat on the bed to remove his socks too. “Close the bedroom door,” he said.



“You little prick,” James said but did as he boyfriend asked. “Better?”

Ash nodded.

“If you think we’re going to fuck, Ash, you’re dreaming,” James said. “I’m going to sleep.”

“That wasn’t really what I had in mind,” Ash said. “Fucking, that is.”

“What then?”

Ash took off the rest of his clothes, but left on his white, ratty briefs. Actually, they were James’s white, ratty briefs, but he’d put them on that morning because his clothes had yet to be washed. James was pissed. They were moving, and Ash hadn’t done any of his own laundry.

While not very tall, Ash had a powerful, wiry little body. His torso and arms — delts, biceps, pecs, abs, and lats — were all well defined. His thighs and calves were well-shaped and strong. James was much taller, bigger, and stronger than his eighteen-year-old boyfriend, but his body was not anywhere nearly as well defined.

“Hold me, Jay-jay.”

“I always hold you.”

“Why are you so — so irritable?”

“Fuck, man, I’m tired.”

James blushed. He was ashamed of himself, ashamed of his irritability. He knew, deep down, he had a mean-streak ... a violent streak. But he kept it under control. Still, it was there, and showed itself by coming to the surface through sarcasm and putdowns.

Eyes lowered, James undressed. When he had stripped down to his white, ratty, department store brand briefs, he reached for Ash, pulled him down onto the bed, held him close, and kissed him tenderly on the forehead and then his eyelids.

“I really do care for you, Ash,” he said suddenly. “I need you to know that.”

Ash propped himself up on his elbow and smiled.

“I know,” he said.

When Ash first moved in, aside from the sex, James could barely tolerate his company. He was cute, but vapid. The boy was functionally illiterate and had little to say of any consequence. He bored James. And there too were his mood swings brought on by his horrible sense of self.

Ash was a self-described piece of human-waste.

Such self-inflicted putdowns not only made James sad, but angry.

After two or three weeks, James could stand it no longer. He nearly threw Ash out, homeless or not. And then there was the matter that Ash was on meth.

One evening after work, James came home to find Ash taking meth. He was enraged. He hated drugs. He saw what they could do; what they had done to friends he’d had and since left.

They argued, and then in flash of anger, James pulled back his fist as if to strike Ash. No, not as if to, but to strike him.

The look in Ash’s eyes as he shrank away from James and cowered — it was a look of terror James had never seen before in the eyes of someone he knew. It scared him. It was a look he wanted to forget.

Yes, there were things James was ashamed of — shooting a neighbor’s dog in the hindquarters with a BB gun when he was twelve; stealing videos from a local grocery store when he was sixteen; fucking his boyfriend Mike’s straight-but-curious little brother without a condom when he was nineteen — but drawing back his fist to strike Ash was something he had not been able to get past. If he had believed in God, which he didn’t, it would have been the one thing he would have wanted forgiven.

James left Ash alone in the apartment that night. He spent the night with Nate. Something had to be done about his relationship with Ash, and fast. Then it occurred to him that Ash wasn’t truly dull. He may not have been exceptionally intelligent, granted. But he was not stupid either. And so James and Nate spent the night (in bed) talking in the dark. They hatched a plan. James carried it out, knowing that if he didn’t, Ash would have to leave. And James definitely did not want that, to return him to the streets.

The meth had to go, there was no question about that, but the plan James and Nate devised was more thorough.

Ash hated the intrusion into his personal life at first, but had no choice but to go along with it. Every night before going to bed, except when they went out to Fire and Ice, James insisted Ash read to him, at least one chapter from a novel every night, or a longer entry from the encyclopædia. The following morning, he had Ash write a synopsis of the chapter or entry and insisted Ash give it to him by time he came home from work.

Ash did as he was told. At first, he wrote the most incomprehensible gibberish. His spelling, punctuation, sentence and paragraph structure — at first so awful — improved over course of the next five months or so.

Finally, Ash came to enjoy reading and writing.

And with that, James’s impression of Ash was rehabilitated.

“You’re dozing off, Jay-jay,” Ash said and fell onto his back beside his boyfriend.

“Wait, Ash,” James said. “Get up again, like your were, propped up on your elbow.”

“What for?”

“You have a beautiful face,” he said. “I want to look at you.”

Ash smiled.

James propped himself up in kind. He leaned forward to press his lips to Ash’s. It was a gentle kiss. James felt tears in his eyes. Why was he suddenly so emotional? God, he really needed to show Ash that he cared for him, and not just say so when he felt guilty.

He was too harsh.

And so James looked into Ash’s light brown eyes, and returned the good-natured, bright smile. He reached forward and ran one hand through the boy’s shaggy, loose, curly brown hair. It was the color of milk chocolate. It was soft to the touch. He touched Ash’s lips then, felt the natural pout, the fullness of them.

Ash blushed and pulled back shyly.

Then James laid back again, exhausted, and pulled Ash into an warm, tender embrace.



Moonlight poured through the bedroom window and spilled its silver light upon Ash and James. The bed covers were down low, wrapped about their waists.

The smaller, younger boy laid in his friend’s embrace, content, loved.

The larger, older boy held his friend protectively.

James had an erection, and in his half-wakened state, he pressed it hard between Ash’s buttocks. He tugged at the boy’s briefs and pushed them down around his thighs. Then he pushed his briefs down around his own thighs, wrapped his arm around the lad’s mid-section, and pressed his cock into the cleft once more.

Ash responded immediately by rolling into James, so they were chest to chest. Their cocks touched and both of them were now fully, painfully erect. Their lips met and James forced his tongue into Ash’s mouth. They kissed and James rolled onto Ash.

Now more fully aware of what he was doing, James struggled to free himself of his underpants. A moment later, Ash’s briefs joined James’s on the floor.

They were naked and groping.

James was over Ash, their chests apart, their thighs together. James’s hands were on the boy’s waist. He pressed his cock against Ash, in that sensitive space between his scrotum and anus. In response, Ash lifted his hips and put his legs up. James grabbed his ankles. Finally, Ash let his legs rest on James’s shoulders, and James held his thighs.

“Fuck, yeah, Ash,” James hissed and pressed his fingers against the soft, tight nub of flesh between Ash’s legs. Then he pressed the tip of his throbbing, erect penis against it.

Ash knew James wouldn’t fuck him. But he always touched his asshole anyway and drove the boy wild with unfulfilled anticipation.

James had given up on fucking and sucking years ago, when he was nineteen, Ash knew. And though Ash wanted desperately for James to fuck him, he knew it was unlikely to happen.

“Fuck me,” Ash begged as he felt James’s cock push ever so slightly into him.

“I’m going to live to be a hundred,” James said and maintained the pressure against Ash’s opening. That was his usual response. Then he added, for the first time, “And so are you.”

When James was nineteen he fucked a guy named Eric without a condom. Eric was his boyfriend Mike’s little brother. Eric was straight, but very sexual, and very curious. At the same time, James was also messing around with a cute older guy — maybe twenty-six or so — named Zach. They had oral sex frequently; James always swallowed. Then Zach tested HIV-positive. James was terrified he would too ... and that he had infected Eric.

James’s test came back negative, but the fear never left him.

“Oh, God, Ash!” James cried out as he pumped his hips against Ash’s, harder and harder with each thrust.

Ash wrapped his legs around James’s waist and let his boyfriend do what he pleased. James was bigger than Ash and rough. Ash just let the feelings carry him. And even though Ash wanted to be filled with it, the sensation of James’s erection against his own was awesome.

James’s long, dark-brown hair fell forward and tickled Ash’s face while the hair on his chin scratched. James pulled back after a moment. They looked into each other’s eyes. Ash searched James’s ice-blue eyes for feeling beyond lust; James searched Ash’s for understanding.

James knew what he was doing and carefully made love to Ash so the boy came first. And then, satisfied, James came too.

They lay side by side, exhausted, covered in sweat and semen. James grabbed the sheet and cleaned their semen from their bellies with the smooth fabric, and then immediately felt the pinch of regret. This wasn’t his bed, it wasn’t Ash’s, this wasn’t their bed, it was where they slept, Jeremy and Sarah, the newlyweds.

As was his habit, James got up, retrieved his briefs, and pulled them on again. He returned to the bed. Ash, as usual, slept in the nude. He wrapped his arms around Ash.

He had his doubts about having Ash join him as he wandered. When he left Boise for Idaho Falls in July, he felt for the first time in years a twinge of regret that his wanderlust was such. (The last time he’d felt that way was when he’d left Mililani, Hawai’i and Stephen.) Leaving Boise, he’d miss Nate. And he knew he’d miss Ash even more so. But when he told the lad he was leaving, Ash said he would not allow it.

“And how to do propose to stop me, runt?” James had demanded.

Ash replied in a steady, defiant voice, “I don’t need to stop you; I’m going with you.”

James went to protest, but relented when a simple question crossed his mind: Why not?

So, when it came time to leave Idaho Falls for work in Montana, he again had his doubts about taking Ash with him. Ash was irresponsible; more a kid, a boy, than a man. He had taken Ash though, half-thinking it would have been better to have left him.

But now as the laid together, after this weird experience in the middle of nowhere, the doubts fled him.

“I love you, Ash,” James said. It was something he seldom admitted aloud.

Ash pulled James’s arm tighter about him and sighed. “I love you too, Jay-jay.”

James was euphoric and usually emotional. He didn’t understand why. It didn’t matter. He let his emotions and words run freely. “It’s just us two now,” he said as Ash fell off to sleep again, “for the rest of our lives.”


James was awakened by urgent, frantic clawing at the bedroom door.


A clean-cut young man with a shy expression and ash-blond hair, perfectly-combed, pushed open the door to the sheriff’s office.

You fucked her in our bed, Jeremy!

His hands trembled and he shoved them into his pockets as he approached the front desk.

Sarah knew what Jeremy had done — he’d slept with Jessie. He was happy with Sarah, but had fucked her friend from college. Jessie had been a bridesmaid at their wedding for Christ’s sake! How could he have cheated on his wife after only one month of marriage? What was it about Jessie that had made Jeremy lose his mind — was it her blonde tresses or her full, sensuous lips?

“I need to talk to the sheriff,” he said.

The secretary said, “Has there been an accident?”


“Sheriff McKenna is in a meeting with the mayor.”

The clean-cut young man pulled his hands from his pockets and set them upon the counter. They trembled. He tried to conceal the fact, but the more he tried, the worse the jittery movements became.

“I need to talk to him,” he said.

The secretary looked at him for a moment, at his trembling hands. “Are you okay? Has there been an accident? Do you need to see a doctor?”

“You don’t understand!” the young man cried. “I murdered my wife and dumped her body in the lake.”


Sheriff Samuel McKenna brought Jeffrey Watkins, the department’s newest addition, with him. If there was a body to be discovered, McKenna figured it was best now to let Watkins experience first hand that the line of work he’d chosen could be ugly.

McKenna saw the cottage ahead. He pulled onto the gravel driveway that led past the cottage to the lake.

An old pickup truck was parked there between the cottage and lake. He noticed the left front tire was flat. He stopped the cruiser and got out. Watkins did the same. The younger man headed out toward the lake.

McKenna recalled the conversation with the trembling, clean-cut young man. The man, Jeremy Swanson, had described how, in desperation, and fearful of his adultery being discovered by his family, he had argued with his wife when she confronted him. How then, without a rational thought in his mind, he went to drawer beside their bed and pulled out the handgun he kept there for protection. He’d shot her in the forehead, he’d said, and then dumped her body in the lake.

Watkins was standing on the dock.

McKenna knew very well county works would have to be called out to dredge the lake’s bottom for the young woman’s remains.

“What do you think?” Watkins called.

“Check the house,” McKenna said. “I’ll check the truck. It looks like it’s been abandoned.”

The truck’s bed was covered with a blue tarp. McKenna pealed it back and found cardboard boxes and duffle bags underneath. He opened the nearest duffle bag. It was stuffed full with dirty clothes. Then he opened a box. There were books and magazines inside. It looked like the owner of the truck was moving.

How long had the truck been parked?

“Sheriff,” Watkins called again, “I think you should come up here.”

McKenna joined Watkins on the cottage porch. The back door was ajar, just a foot or so. He pushed it open and shouted inside, “Anyone there?”

There was no answer.

But then it struck to two police officers — the smell of rotting meat.

Watkins, motivated by sudden fear, and lacking experience, reached immediately for his sidearm.

McKenna touched the younger man’s forearm. “That isn’t necessary, Jeff.”

They stepped into the cottage. The smell of rotting flesh was overpowering. Watkins covered his nose and mouth with one hand. His eyes were wide.

McKenna proceeded into the living room. Nothing was out of place. Then he stepped into the hall. One door was closed. The other was, like the back door, slightly ajar.

That door, the one ajar, was scored deeply. There were scratches upon its surface and it looked like it had come between a desperate animal and its prize. But the scoring was not like that made by a racoon or dog ... these claw marks were wider.

The odor in the hallway was worse still, and McKenna knew what lay on the other side of the bedroom door. He was surprise though by what he found. There wasn’t just one corpse, but two.

The first was a young man, tall and sturdy, with long dark hair and hair upon his chin. The second was a younger man, a slight fellow, a pretty-boy with shaggy, curly brown hair. The first was dressed in white briefs; the second was naked. Both were decaying. Their chests were scratched apart, scored so deeply in places that bone shone through.

Their throats had been torn out.

Watkins’s breath seized, and then a burst of air, and his voice: “Sam — oh, Christ Almighty!”

McKenna had never seen anything like this first hand. It sickened him. But his training was thorough. From the state of decay, he knew the two young men had been dead for at least two weeks.

“Better call the county for an ambulance,” McKenna said. “We’ll need back up too.”

Watkins didn’t reply exactly, he just nodded.

Then McKenna returned to the hallway. He turned the knob to the closed door and pushed it open. This room was a bathroom.

And there between the tub and toilet was a third corpse. This one was putrid, its flesh blackened and waterlogged. It was a young woman with full, brown curls, dressed in white cotton pajamas. Immediately, McKenna knew this was Sarah Swanson. The state of decay led him to know it unequivocally; she had been dead for months, since June. The condition of the corpse was consistent with every word Jeremy had spoken.

McKenna looked around the room.

On the bathroom mirror above the sink, in smears of blood, was written a single word:


Suddenly hesitant, McKenna rolled the corpse over. There was a single bullet hole in the center of the forehead. Its eyes were open, the irises and pupils milky white. The face, from the nose down, was covered in dried, flaking blood. He looked at the hands. There were slivers of wood under its peeled back nails, among other things.

The corpse had an open, gaping mouth, and between its teeth, as under its nails, there were strips of flesh.

Flesh pulled from the two corpses in the next room.