As today is All Hallow’s Eve eve, and I was very been busy last week teaching the Master Class workshop here on the coast, I thought the best thing to do with this particular blog was to just give you a wonderfully terrifying story to read for free.
And so I shall. The following story is called “The Hook” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
Allyson Longueira is publisher of WMG Publishing. She is an award-winning writer, editor and designer.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
When my daughter heard the story, she was ten. Her first sleepover, far from home, at her friend Anne’s cabin on Lake Nebagamon.
I’ve been there; I can picture it.
Eight girls clustered together on the screened-in porch. Carly is tired; she has spread out on the porch swing, her back against the slates, a musty blanket pulled over her legs. Nights on Nebagamon are cool, the rusty smell of the lake nearly overpowering. Moths bat against the screens, and mosquitos squeeze through the tiny square holes. Buzzing and absent-minded slaps accompany the crickets harmonizing outside. The girls are armed with two buckets of popcorn, s’mores, and three brands of sugared soda that my wife and I don’t allow at home.
They use a flashlight because Anne’s mother won’t allow a campfire on the lawn. The girl with the light shines it on her face, close so that her features are distorted, and tells a scary story. Most, in Carly’s opinion, are dumb, like the one about the guy who sleeps in a haunted house, sees something white at the foot of his bed, grabs his gun and shoots off his own toe. I think she doesn’t understand the story; she says she understands it too well. She believes the man deserved what he got for sleeping in a haunted house in the first place.
She forgets—or perhaps she’s too young to know—that all our houses are haunted, in one way or another.
Each girl tells a story, some tell two, and none of them frighten her. None of them except the Hook.
You’ve heard about the Hook. These days, it seems everyone has. Some books on urban legends say the tale was devised in the 1950s to scare teenagers away from parking, to prevent them from having inexpert sex in the crowded back seat of their parents’ car. It doesn’t seem like the sort of story to scare a ten-year-old, particularly a naive one. Carly’s friends laughed, not the response the teller wanted. But Carly, sensitive, aware Carly, remained awake all night, staring at the star-filled night sky, slapping mosquitos and listening for the scrape of a hook against metal, afraid that a murderer was on the loose, afraid that he would come for her.
Children are so attuned to the world around them.
I could not comfort her when she came home. I couldn’t even hold her. I left her to the warm, enveloping arms of my wife, who gazed at me over our child’s head with something akin to sympathy mixed with something closer to anger.
You see, the tale of the Hook, is not, as urban folklorists would dream, a myth designed to stop teenagers from illicit behavior. Nor is it simply a tale children tell in the dark. The Hook has its basis in fact. I should know because it’s my hook two teenagers found embedded in the door of their car that hot August night.
A murder no one sees fit to remember. Crimes of passion I can never forget.
If she finds this record, my wife will be angry. It is, in its own way, a confession that will blow our lives apart. She will have a right to her anger, since she has kept me safe for more than forty years. Carly is the child of our old age; an accident that happened because we thought my wife was going through menopause. We discovered our mistake too late; the symptoms of menopause became the symptoms of pregnancy, and we found ourselves the parents of a child we felt inadequate to raise, but one we couldn’t part with. Carly is not our future, but our redemption, and because of that, it is her discovery of our secret, however obliquely, that forces me to write this.
I work in the room we call my office but which is really the attic. Its sloping ceiling follows the roofline. Two small windows open on either end. Through them, I can see the yard and the neighborhood beyond. So quiet, so suburban. So seemingly safe. What would my neighbors say if they knew the truth of my past? What would I say if I knew the truth of theirs?
No one is allowed up here but me. The books that line the walls are my books, the desk my desk, the stereo my stereo. This is the only room in the house with a lock on the door. We made the decision decades ago, when we learned that I needed privacy almost more than I needed freedom, that I needed a place to hide when pressures got intense, that I needed a prison to bar me from society on those days when I frighten everyone—including myself.
I type with my left hand, sixty words a minute with the thumb, forefinger and pinky. A virtuoso performance that my professorial colleagues at the university never cease to marvel at. The prosthesis is obvious at moments like this. The rest of the time, it hides beneath the long sleeves of my dress shirts, the even longer sleeves of the dark suits my wife buys and dry cleans. I come home each night dusted with chalk. Sometimes a line runs across the back of my jacket. My wife shakes her head as she brushes me off, my daughter laughs at my clumsiness, and I find joy in those details, joy in the way life’s small pleasures add up into even greater ones.
There are days I don’t even think about my past.
There are days.
But not many.
On the tenth of October, 1954, I murdered Delbert Glaven.
I sliced open his throat with the hook at the end of my right arm.
I was fifteen years old.
On the twelfth of October, 1954, I was arrested.
On the sixteenth of October, 1954, I escaped from jail with the help of two friends, one of them a deputy sheriff. They returned my bloodstained hook to me, and attached it with electrician’s tape before I disappeared across the countryside.
On the thirty-first of October, 1954, the sheriff’s department found my hook imbedded in the door of Edna Wilson’s Nash Rambler. Mrs. Wilson’s son, Tom, was hysterical with terror. His girlfriend, one Anna Mae Connelly, spoke not a word, not about her disheveled clothing, or the bruise on her left cheek, or the child she birthed and abandoned exactly nine months later.
Edna Wilson’s Ramber, if it still exists, is half a continent away from Lake Nebagamon. Half a continent, and forty years away. The world has changed. I have changed. I speak in sentences now instead of fragments. I have good diction and use middle-class English instead of the slurred dialect of that long-ago time. I look in the mirror and see nothing of the tall, gangly boy I had been. Nowadays six feet is not such a great height. Many of my students tower over me and, if the genes tell, my daughter will too.
The world has light in it now, while I think of the past as darkness, unrelieved darkness.
Yet my past catches up to me in stories little girls tell in that darkness, a flashlight distorting the features of their cherubic faces.
October nights are cool in the south. Cool and damp, with a touch of frost, a touch of winter-to-come. Southerners hate the winter. They think they suffer through it more than the rest of us, that their delicate skin, used to sweltering summer nights, heat so thick it is a live thing, makes them even more susceptible to cold.
They are wrong, for they have a protective layer that inures them to everything. Cold, pain, emotional distress.
Everything, and nothing at all.
I grew up in New Orleans (Nawlins, as I called it then, before the precise pronunciation and flat vowels of the Midwest coated my voice), and had never been farther north than Slidell until I was thirteen. That year, I ran away from home, thinking that life in cosmopolitan New Orleans had prepared me for everything.
It had not.
It had certainly not prepared me for cross-country travel, with a pack on my back, a hook taped to my arm, and an APB notifying every peace officer within shouting distance of my presence. I slept on the ground, and woke with hard frost on my face. I hoarded the fifty dollars cash them good ole boys gave me, and only twice did I venture into the small towns that lined my backcountry route.
Twice was once too many.
On October 31st, I went into a town whose name I learned only later, when the news reports appeared, went in for some food and a jacket if I could find one, and a night on a bed provided by the Sisters of Charity, or whatever mission was operating in that dark place in those dark days.
I had thought I was far enough north to escape the news. I had thought no one would be looking for me outside of Louisiana. I was young, I had never seen a movie, read a book, or watched television. I thought I was invincible.
I was wrong.
When I left the general store, my pack heavier for the cans of pork ’n beans and the packages of jerky that would carry me through, the store clerk called the local sheriff. He and his dogs never found me, but the radio station interrupted its programming every fifteen minutes with a bulletin about the “deranged escaped murderer with a hook” who was haunting the countryside.
I heard the first report from that Nash Rambler’s radio, a tinny announcer’s scared voice filtered across an unnamed lake on Halloween night.
But I get ahead of myself.
The story, as my daughter relates it, is this:
A couple is parking on an abandoned road near a lake. They have the radio on and hear a special bulletin about a crazed murderer with a hook for a hand who has escaped from the local penitentiary. The bulletin says anyone who sees such a man should flee, and then report to the police.
The announcement makes the girl nervous.
“I think we should leave,” she says to her boyfriend.
“Nonsense,” he says. “What are the chances of the murderer turning up here?”
The girl reluctantly agrees. She lets the boy kiss her some more, then, unable to shake the feeling, says, “I really think we should leave.”
The darkness of the woods, the silence, the seclusion are getting to the boyfriend as well. “All right,” he says. He starts the car, puts it in reverse, and backs away, all in one motion.
It is that motion, he says, that saves his life. For when he gets home, he finds a hook hanging off the passenger side door.
It all changes with time.
What I remember is this:
The moon was full. I had made camp beneath a large tree near the edge of a lake. The water lapped against the shore and, despite the air’s chill, the night sky had a beauty I had never noticed before. There had been a frost two days before, and all the bugs were dead. I had seen no animals.
I was alone.
Except for the car across the lake.
The car didn’t bother me. It was a Nash Rambler, and its driver was obviously young. The blaring radio had announced the car’s arrival long before I heard the crunch of tires on gravel. The car parked near the water’s edge. The windows were steamed, the chassis shook, and I knew the two occupants were much more interested in each other than they were in me.
Besides, I got to hear Opry music, mixed with some early rockabilly. I had escaped the law once again. I had a meal of jerky, mixed nuts, and freshly baked bread. Everything seemed perfect.
Until I heard the slap.
I didn’t know it was a slap until the second one, followed by a thud, and a woman’s voice screeching in anger mixed with terror.
I bent back over my meal, telling myself it wasn’t my concern. But the third slap, ending with the trailed-off scream, decided me.
That, and the bulletin cutting into the wailing guitars.
The bulletin about me, the escaped convict. It didn’t matter that I was merely accused, nor did it matter that I had escaped, not from a penitentiary, but from a jail. What mattered was my crime, and the fact that I had killed a man by slicing his neck open with what passed for my hand.
It made me sound crazed.
Perhaps I was.
I crept along the lake’s edge, not caring that my feet broke brambles, that the echoes, carried across the water, announced my presence. The radio was too loud, the couple in the Rambler too preoccupied with their struggle to notice me.
Until I rapped on the window with the pointed end of my hook.
Here it all gets jumbled. Every time. Perhaps a shrink could separate it out. I cannot.
My hands on his shoulders. Hands. Shoulders. Yanking him back. He turns, face shrouded in darkness. Lit by the dials on the dash. Air steamy. She gazes up at me, the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen, despite the cut lip or perhaps because of it, gazes at me with fear and thankfulness and relief.
I pull him off. He falls to the pavement. She gathers her ripped clothes together, slides up the hood. He slams and locks the door. She reaches for the passenger side. He turns the key in the ignition. I circle around, grab the passenger door, as he shoves the car in reverse.
Mud slicing through the air.
Awful ripping pain.
Awful bone crushing pain.
And I am on my knees in the dirt.
On the pavement.
In the wilderness.
Near the laundry.
My right hand cradled against my chest.
The blood seeping from the rips in my stump.
It is, some say, the devil’s own luck. My future wife finds me, drags me to her cabin, hides me when the law comes searching for me. They find my camp, my stuff. They question her, and she says nothing. She is a young woman, on her own at her parents’ second home, proving that she can spend a weekend alone.
She keeps me there for nine months, sneaking in from town to feed me. She nurses me to health, and plans our escape.
We go north, get new identities, enroll in college, become real young people with no pasts and important futures. We marry but do not procreate.
Except by accident.
My wife saw everything, or so she says. She heard the scream, came to the clearing, saw me pull open the car door, yank the Wilson boy up so hard he hit his head on the rearview mirror. The girl scrambled up, grabbing her clothes, while he recovered, slammed and locked the door. I ran to the other side, grabbed the door handle as the car peeled backward, covering me in dirt and leaves and blood.
She did not know I was wounded until I passed out.
When I awoke, she had already decided that I was falsely accused, a hero, a man who deserved her love and loyalty for the next forty years.
But she did not see it all. No one has seen it all, or knows it all, not even them two good ole boys who busted me out of jail. Busted me out for guilt, because they couldn’t stomach seeing me going down for something we all did.
When I am feeling rational, I pass it off to hormones.
When I am feeling truthful, I know it is more.
Too much beer and not a little loneliness. That’s what I remember from those days. That, and discovering that my buddy Scott actually worked for the sheriff as a sometimes deputy, as a more often janitor. Scott swore not to tell that I was a runaway, and I swore not to tell that he carried a non-regulation gun and a then-illegal Swiss army knife, hidden in his sock.
I would like to say it was their idea. Or, barring that, I would like to say we all came on the idea at once. But it built over time. Scott said he knew of a place that hired out women by the hour, and with his connections, his gun, and his badge, we could get one for free.
But only one, he thought. So we decided to share.
The night blurs into a haze of cigarette smoke and Okie music, a bar with a pool table and no patrons, and too much beer. A girl with the face of an angel, whose no somehow became yes, and whose escape outside became an enticing dance, leading us to the Promised Land.
Scott started, taking her on the hood of a green Ford, while the other guy, whose name is lost to traitorous memory, had one hand over her mouth. She squirmed and pounded and screamed, and somehow that seemed right to me, impatient me, so I grabbed Scott by the shoulders with my two good hands and pulled him off, shoving him aside so that I could take my turn.
And as I did, I didn’t even notice the headlights in my face, or the fact that the girl started to scream. I just thought the other guy was getting ready for his turn. But the hands on my shoulder weren’t his. They belonged to Delbert Glavin, the girl’s brother, who pulled me back and beat me black and blue, and stomped on my right hand so hard he broke all the bones from my wrist to my fingertips.
The doctors couldn’t save it. They cut it off. And gave me the hook instead.
Delbert’s sister disappeared, and no one discussed the incident for the shame of it. He didn’t press charges—how could he when it was clear—in those unenlightened times—that just by being in that bar she was asking for it?
And so when I got out of the hospital, I somehow thought the wrong was visited on me and not on him, and certainly not on the girl whom we saw as nothing more than a piece of ass, nothing human certainly, nothing with any more feeling than a blow-up doll bought mail order.
So I tracked Delbert Glavin down, used my new weapon to rip open his throat, and let the law come after me.
And my friends saved me, as I knew they would.
So what was I doing, opening that car door, crazed murderer that I was? Hero’s journey, Campbell would have said, from ignorance to enlightenment. God, the Christians would say, had given me a second chance to redeem myself, and I took it, saving a poor girl from the very thing that caused it all.
But I remember the emotion, the charged adrenaline that shot through me when I heard that scream, and the blurred memories that still combine when I think of this. And I wonder, hands on shoulders, why I was pulling the Wilson boy aside.
I think altruism became part of my nature when pain ripped through my right arm a second time. Only a fool would fail to realize that no moment of hideous pleasure was worth the price of hand.
Only a fool would need to learn that lesson twice.
I’ve been a good, fine upstanding man for forty years. A man who minds his own business, a man who looks the other way when he needs to, a man who leads his life and no one else’s. I have been unusually blessed.
Or unusually cursed.
This daughter of mine will be a world-class beauty. I have kept my distance from her, hoping to protect her from that thing which is her father. And I can continue to do that until she is old enough to go out on her own. Then she must make her own choice, live her own life, in the world that spawned me.
And I fear for her.
Oh, I fear for her.
Because she is bold, and she is bright, and she will not heed warnings told by schoolgirls in the dark.
And she needs to.
They all need to.
And that knowledge is punishment enough.
Copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Urban Nightmares, edited by Josepha Sherman and Keith R. A. DeCandido, Baen Books, November, 1997
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and Layout copyright © 2012 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Gilles Glod/Dreamstime
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.