Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Chapter 5: Sutter

Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park in South Dakota is probably one of the most unique experiences anyone might encounter. This was on my mind as I drove through the majestic landscape. Little did I know that unique experiences awaited me and not in the breath taking beautiful way the Badlands did.

The rugged beauty of this land draws tourist from around the world, and this day was no exception. People were stopping along the roadside to gaze out into the vast landscape of cliffs, boulders, ridges and peaks. This area is a rich bed of fossils as at one time ancient mammals roamed freely. The park is now 244,000 acres of protected land where bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs and black footed ferrets dwell. Oh, and rattlesnakes. Yeah snakes.

Interstate 90 is north of the park but I had chosen to drive highway 240, otherwise know as the Badlands Loop Road, which weaves your car through breath taking views and features convenient stopping spots along the way. That's where I was right at the moment, pulled along side the road, gazing in wonder at the reddish hillsides. Some tourists had started climbing atop a large formation and I caught my breath as a shoe slipped and the young man slid backwards a bit. Fearless as only young men can be, he laughed and started climbing again. I hate heights. Even climbing a little ways up would have me shaking.

I kept searching the hillsides for sheep or some other form of wildlife but in the vastness of the land it was hard to make out anything. Then I noticed some dark shadows swirling about on top of one of the mesas. Frowning, I squinted trying to make out the shapes or forms. Sheep? No they seemed taller somehow, although height was hard to judge from this distance. There were several of them and they swayed and moved almost in a uniformed manner. There was a rhythm to the movements, almost dance like. Shaking my head, I looked again, trying to focus harder but they had evaporated into the air, and no matter how I searched I couldn't seem to bring the shadowy figures back into eyesight. I shivered as the air was growing cooler as day faded into evening.

Sutter, South Dakota

It was a little before eight when I pulled into Sutter and it had me wishing I had not lingered so long in the Badlands, It's difficult enough finding a decent, cheap place to eat or sleep along major highways but I had left those behind long ago and finding a place in a town this size was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.

It wasn't difficult maneuvering the empty streets. Empty streets at eight o'clock didn't bode well for any "night life" in Sutter South Dakota. Smiling to myself I realized I had just traded a small town in the mid-west for an even smaller town in the north-west. I saw a Budweiser sign lite up ahead and pulled over to the side of the street. The Owl, looked like the only hopping place in town, but at this point I wasn't picky and bar food sounded just fine to me.

Inside the bar was crowded, with wooden benches along the booths. People stopped talking and looked as I walked in. Surely they had tourists at times, I thought. I can't be that out of place here. It didn't take long for them to become engrossed in whatever had occupied their thoughts prior to my arrival and I slid almost unnoticed into a corner booth. Corner booths are my favorites, with my back to the wall, facing the door. They had always been my preferred seating. I said "almost unnoticed" because the guy at the bar still had his eyes on me. I wasn't beautiful but I wasn't ugly either so I was used to a few stares but I couldn't figure out exactly what his interest was. He didn't nod, smile, or send over a drink so I just ordered a burger and fries along with a Budlight and settled into my little corner.

I felt ravenous and chomped on the burger with delight, dipping the long crispy fries into ketchup and shoving them into my mouth licking the ketchup off my fingers. Suddenly a hand holding a napkin appeared in front of my face. Looking up I saw it was the guy from the bar, offering me a napkin out of courtesy or disgust, I wasn't sure. He wasn't bad, as far as rugged older men go. His hair was still dark and his green eyes bore into me. He slid onto the bench opposite me without asking permission.

"Kane Jasper" he said offering me his hand. I wiped the ketchup from my fingertips and took his proffered hand.

"Annie McGee." I said never taking my eyes from his.

He waited and I waited too, for what I wasn't exactly sure.

"You just passing through or spending the night?" he asked and I raised my eyebrows at his boldness.

I had no intention of telling him my business and even in a room full of strangers I didn't fear him. So I used a trick I had learned long ago and answered the question with a question.

"Why do you care?" I spat out with a little more venemancy then I actually felt.

He tilted his head back and laughed, which then served to really tick me off. I glared at him then ignored him, shoving a few more fries into my mouth while paying a bit more attention to the ketchup. He sat there just watching me eat.

"There's some rooms to rent above the coffee shop over on Voshell" he said as he wrote down a number on the back of a napkin. "Call Trish and tell her I sent you over. It's late for Sutter but she will meet you there and open up."

With that he slid out of the bench, nodded to me, and disappeared out a side door. I stared at the closed door for a long time, wondering who he was. The number was a little smudged on the napkin but not being sure whether I had a choice or not. I stuffed it into my purse and went back to the cheeseburger and fries.

I looked around The Owl and found about what I'd expect, groupings of three or four people talking while casually sipping a beer, after all this isn't wine country. I'd catch a snippet of conversation every now and then but it was the tone of one conversation that caught my attention. It was sober and serious.

"It wasn't an accident, I'm telling you. Why would she be on the water tower?" the man in the dark blue shirt spoke a little too loudly, those around him paused their own conversations to listen. They didn't even try to hide it, just stared wide eyed at him and waited for more.

"She never went there. I mean she was TEN....not fifteen. Besides that her mamma says she was scared of heights." his voice caught in his throat and he took a swig of beer, as if to wash down the emotion.

The others didn't respond, whether because they agreed with him or because they had nothing to add, wasn't clear. Just then the barmaid brought me my check and glancing at the time, I settled up and headed out into the growing darkness.

After driving around a few random streets I realized there wasn't much here in Sutter. I doubted I'd stay long. I felt restless and bloated from eating too much greasy food so I parked the car under a street light and decided to walk around the block before giving Trish a call about that room. I needed some exercise after too many hours on the road and it would probably make me sleep a whole lot better.

I'd just turned the corner, down the street from my car, when I felt it. That uncanny sense of something in the darkness following me. I brushed it aside as a stray cat or maybe even a possum. I kept walking but suddenly felt a little more vulnerable than I should have in a tiny town like this. Hearing some rustling behind me and I picked up my pace. Whatever was back there picked up it's pace too. The corner seemed a long way off but I couldn't turn back toward my car as whatever was in the darkness lay between me and it. There was a street light at the corner and I planned on trying to get a glimpse of whoever was following me. I wasn't sure I wanted to.

The corner glistened like a beckon and I had an uncanny flashback to the lane, remembering how I had focused on the end of the bushes with both dread and curiosity. Some unknown emotion welled up inside me, filling me with a sense of fear that threatened to overwhelm me. I shook it off. Letting past emotions cloud my mental state wouldn't help just now, when I needed all my energy and wits to escape whatever trailed me in the pending darkness.

Finally at the corner I swung around abruptly and that's when I caught sight of the bulky hunched shape charging toward me. I gasped and spun around, running. I ran but so did he and he seemed a whole lot more used to running than I did. I thought about screaming, but decided not to waste precious air as there were no lights on the small side street. I didn't look back but I knew he was gaining on me,

I felt something brush the back of my shirt, the sharp claw sliced neatly through the thin fabric and an icy chill coursed through me. Hearing the ragged breathing I doubled my effort and managed to pull away. I felt disgust and nausea. I wasn't really in shape. I'm not a runner and I suddenly felt surprised at my burst of speed.

I turned a corner sharply and ducked into a doorway of a tall, brick building. I pushed into the crevice at the top of the steps and hoped I had gotten far enough ahead of him that he hadn't seen my disappearing act. My heart was beating so hard I felt sure he could hear it. I saw him in shadow, pause, appearing to listen. I tried to make myself as small as possible, he cocked his head and took two tentative steps in my direction. He sniffed the air and I shivered.

Pushing back even further I thought he appeared beast like, seeking my scent and as if hearing my thoughts he peered intently through the darkness right at me. I pushed back, felt the door give, opening, I scrambled into the foyer and gently pushed the door. I couldn't get it shut for fear of making noise and attracting his attention. I paused for a second, focusing on breathing then put my eye up to the tiny opening and looked out.

He stood at the bottom of the steps, closer than he had been previously, The sound of his steps had not reached my listening ears. He was bulky, with massive arms that hung loosely by his side. He was still, gazing at the door. When he raised his hand, holding it palm forward toward the door, I could see fingernails that were long and sharp. Sharper than any I had seen on a person before. No wonder they had sliced through my shirt as surely as a razor blade. He sniffed the air again, turning his head first to the left and then to the right. I felt certain he knew I was inside the door. Trying to calm my breathing, I waited. He took one more step toward the door and then looked up into the dark sky. Unexpectedly, he turned and loped off.

I pushed the door shut and stood up looking for a latch or lock, hand quivering. Running my hands up and down the door frame, panic welled up inside me when I realized the door didn't lock. The strong wooden door was thick but did it really offer protection without a lock? Right now I wanted a strong deadbolt, maybe two but instead there was just bare wood. I felt the urge to get away, to put some distance between me and the evil that lurked outside in the darkness of the night. Moving from the foyer as quietly as possible, deciding it would be safer deeper inside the structure.

The floor sloped slightly forward and there were benches on both sides of the carpeted aisle. There were large windows on either side of the room but in the vast blackness of the room I couldn't see much. I looked forward and picked up the outline of some plants, the white flowers on them shone in the otherwise ebony landscape. Peace Lilies. At the front of the room, on the rear wall, hung a large rustic cross. It was then I realized where I was. I had taken refuge inside a church.

I sat in a pew toward the front of the church and tried to calm myself. With shaking hands I touched my back where his nail had sliced through the fabric. It was clear that I had escaped by only a tiny margin. The lump in my throat made it difficult to swallow. My parched mouth, as dry as the Badlands, almost hurt. I shivered. One misstep, one stumble and I would have been in his clutches, most likely ripped to shreds. Was he a rapist? A killer? What had made him pause? Some sound on the street? Why had he left when he was so close to me?

I had felt his breath on me and his eyes had bore into me through the darkness. He knew where I was. I sat and listened, trying to sense whether anyone else might have made their way inside the church. Had he had come in through another door, hoping to catch me unaware? I heard nothing but silence. It was almost as if he wouldn't or couldn't come inside. I shook my head.

"You've been watching too many damn movies." I thought,

Then I felt the book on the pew beside me, I picked it up. It the dim light the title was obscured yet I knew what it was. Not a hymnal left carelessly on the pew but a Bible. I opened it and felt the air move when the pages fall open between my fingers. It felt warm to my touch and my heart felt lighter. I couldn't see to read the pages but I stroked them as they slid between my fingers.

As the first rays of sun filtered in through the stain glass windows, I pulled myself up from my spot under the pews. I had robbed a couple of pews of their cushions and rabbited under the pews in a den of sorts. I hadn't thought I'd be able to sleep but I had finally cascaded into the first dreamless slumber I had experienced in weeks. My body ached from the night spent curled in a ball so I sat in the pew for a long time before leaving. It was risky because someone might show up at any time.

The more I thought about my story, the crazier it sounded. I wondered if I had just gotten spooked by some homeless or mentally ill man, letting my imagination make more of it then was really the case. Regardless, I looked both ways before sliding out the narrowly opened front door and starting down the street in hopes of locating my car. I had zigged and zagged so much that I wasn't exactly sure where I had left it.
Across the street I noticed a small shop with a large cross engraved on the window. It glistened and something in my mind nudged me toward it. As I stood there, a hand flipped the sign in the window from closed to open. It seemed like an omen so I headed across the street and into the shop.

It was the kind of shop you might find anywhere, crammed with books, statues of saints and ornate crosses. The lady behind the counter was wrinkled with age but her blue eyes sparkled knowingly. She smiled at me as I glanced around.

"We just got in some lovely jewelry." she said pointing toward a display case in the back of the shop.

Nodding my thanks, I wandered toward the back. There I found what I had been hoping to find. Crosses. All kinds of crosses; gold ones, silver ones, plain ones, ornate ones; glistening on chains. A rustic looking one caught my eye. It was a burnt bronze cross of medium size, rugged looking and hanging from a leather rawhide necklace rather than a fancy chain. It seemed old even though I figured it was just a reproduction of some earlier work.

The lady had wandered back to the display and quietly opened it up. She handed me the cross that had caught my fancy. It felt heavy and warm in my hand. I liked the rustic texture of the metal in my palm. Rubbing it with my fingers, it seemed even warmer and reassuring somehow.

"I'll take it" I said surprising myself more than the lady. I hadn't even asked the price or glanced at the tag. In the end, it didn't matter. It was pricey but not out of my price league so I left the shop with it around my neck rather than wrapped in plastic in a bag. I felt better for no other reason than the warmth of it nestled next to my skin.

I smiled as I finished walking back to the car. I know objects, themselves, don't protect us from evil. "Or do they?" I shook my head. Where had that come from? In my mind, or at least up to this point, I had always accepted the cross not as protection itself but as an outward symbol of God, the one providing the protection.

I frowned for a minute. Last night, the church had saved me; not perhaps the structure itself but what then? The man's beliefs about the church? Or perhaps, after all, he had simply lost track of me and thinking the church locked had given up.

I slipped into my car planning to head out of town but ended up at a local coffee shop instead....

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