Black Frost by John Conroe

Black Frost

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Chapter 1

Once upon a time…

Sorry, just kidding. I couldn’t resist. As I think back, I can remember the first day I started to feel something was wrong. Standing that morning in my usual spot, I looked down at my grandfather’s house below me and thought about death. A natural enough thought, given the time of year. Halloween was just past and the last of the autumn leaves were barely hanging on, waiting for a stiff breeze or a cold November rain to rip them off their trees.

Nature was killing off green things in preparation for the long, cold upstate New York winter. Frost glittered on almost every surface that I could see, the sun not yet high enough to melt it back.

A half mile in front of me, I could see my daughter’s school bus turning down Brown Road, following its regular route, one that would end at Ashley’s middle school.

Looking at the skeletal branches, mostly bare, and the distant fields full of stubby, shorn brown corn stalks, death was an obvious thought. The two-year anniversary of my wife’s passing would be here in January, less than two month’s time. To be honest with you, I would have thought of death even had it been July and the cornfields were knee-high with green. I pretty much think of death every day.

But I’m losing focus, already drifting from the important stuff.

Let me just say that death had played a big role in bringing me to that position that November morning, high on the hill we call Bear Mountain. Death and the recession. To make short out of long, it happened like this: I lost my wife to a sliding snowplow on an icy road. I lost my job as a mortgage originator to the economic collapse, and I lost my grandfather to a stroke.

My unemployment meant that I had to sell our four-bedroom colonial at a fire sale price. I was lucky to get it sold at all. Without a job and with the family home gone, it looked like Ashley and I would have to move in with my parents. But then my grandfather, Robert Moore, Senior, died rather suddenly of pneumonia. Or so we thought.

My father, Robert Moore, Junior, disclaimed the house, barn, and forty acres of land, allowing it to pass to me, giving us a home that was familiar and still in Ashley’s school district.

All of which left me here, standing on the top of Bear Mountain and looking at my grandfather’s—now my—home. It’s not really a mountain, just a large hill, a small up-thrust of granite, very common in the foothills of the Adirondacks. My grandmother had christened it Bear Mountain not long after marrying my grandfather.

Grandpa had come running in, excited by finding a black bear track on the hillside, the muddy pugmark of an early spring bear passing through on its way to its summer range. The name had stuck and also became the name of Grandpa’s knifesmithing shop.

My reverie on death was interrupted by the lively bark of my companion. Looking at the hilltop behind me, I spotted the brindled bundle of energy, quivering and barking at an untidy lump of gray on the ground. Charm was sixty pounds of pitbull mix and my constant shadow during school hours. When Ashley was home, Charm left me like she owed me money. As far as she was concerned, the sun rose and set on Ashley Ting Moore.

But just now, she was making hell’s own racket, an unusual behavior in the once-abused dog. I approached her and whatever she had found, the indistinct gray lump resolving into wispy fur and a long, ratlike tail. The ‘possum was most thoroughly dead, a condition that would normally delight Charm, who loved to roll in stinky things.

The animal looked deflated, really just scraps of fur, flesh, and bone. But the blood on the ground was fresh, as were the bits of flesh on the skin, although the body looked like it had been picked over for weeks, not hours. There were no tracks in the bloody mud around it.

Puzzled, I poked it with my utility knife, a four-inch blade of my own design. The cause of death was obvious based on the inch-wide crescent bite marks that had literally hollowed out the carcass.

I’d grown up running these woods in the summers, hunting the hills with my father and grandfather, during deer, partridge, and turkey seasons. I knew every track, every predator that roamed this land, and nothing made wounds like the ones I was seeing. Not finding any other clues, I snapped a couple of pictures with the camera in my cell phone, then strolled around the top of the hill to see what I could find. At the very top of Bear Mountain is a granite outcropping that was rounded and smoothed in the last Ice Age. Some force of nature, be it seismic or ice, had cracked the big chunk of rock from the top down. The resulting crevice is four feet wide at the top and about a foot at the bottom, making a natural little chasm on our hill. As a kid, I had played cave explorer in that dark, rocky nook, able to crawl much farther back than my current size would allow. There was some disturbance in the sandy soil at the bottom of the crack, but nothing as clear as a track. I took one last look around, shivered in the chilly air, and continued my morning stroll, brindled dog in tow.

Getting back to the household, I stopped in the kitchen long enough to get a fresh cup of coffee from the breakfast pot, then headed to the barn to check the forge.

School days follow a pattern, as they do in most households. I get up first, dress for the day, then wake Ashley—a job that combines the skills and danger of snake handling with zombie reanimation. I honestly don’t recall being that hard to roust from bed, but maybe my father’s drill sergeant approach was just more effective than my own more gentle method.

Once she’s up and showering, I head down, turn on the coffee, feed the dog, and start breakfast while watching the morning news. When Sleeping Beauty finally makes it downstairs, we eat, chat about the day, and then make her lunch. It’s a team effort, her on sandwich duty while I gather drink pouch, chips, and dessert. I’ve offered many times to let her buy lunch, but she always refuses. My guess is that the long wait in the lunch line cuts into chat time with her buddies.

When her lunch is put together, we both head outside; her to wait for the bus, and I, in theory, to light the forge. While I do actually light the fire, I spend more time watching her from the grimy, carbon-streaked window to make sure she gets on the bus okay. I’m not allowed to wait with her, as that would leave her so embarrassed that we would have to move to the West Coast to make a clean start. Instead, I entrust her to Charm’s careful guard while I lurk in the gloom of the workshop, unable to concentrate on anything but her safety. Once she’s on the bus, Charm meets me halfway down the driveway and we begin our morning tour of the property, a ritual that happens rain, snow, or shine.

That morning, I found the coals burning red, the three-inch billets of stainless steel I had left nestled in the firebox just reaching a dull cherry hue. I turned on the blower, quickly bringing the metal to an almost white-orange, the color of critical, the temperature where the steel becomes nonmagnetic. Then I pulled a chunk of steel from the fire and began the rhythmic work of hammer and anvil that would shape the metal for its future life—in this case, as cooking knives for a chef in New York City.

My grandfather’s forge had been a godsend in many ways. First, when I became unemployed after losing my wife, my grandpa had asked me to help him with the forge. At the time, I had been shocked he would do so, as despite his eighty-nine years of age, he was still spry and capable. But looking back, it was obviously his way to help me, one proud man discreetly providing financial and mental help to another proud man.

I say mental help because forging steel into useful blades is a very Zen-like business. You need to picture the metal in three dimensions, then form an image of what you want it to look like. From there, it’s a gradual coaxing process, convincing the steel to move where you want it to. The steady work of hands and mind is much different from the stress of originating mortgages; working paper, phone and numbers to get approved loans. The work in the smithy was as therapeutic as it was helpful financially. The old skills I had learned as a boy, hanging with and helping my grandpa, came back quickly, tempered and smoothed by age and life experience.

When he died, I took over completely, using the income to supplement the Social Security death benefits that Sarah had left behind. I had a third source of income that took up time in the afternoons and some evenings, but it was more irregular.

None of this seems important to you, but trust me, this backstory is important if you’re going to understand what has happened.

About two hours into the morning work, Charm lifted her head from her paws and looked at the door of the smithy, silently announcing a visitor. By habit and lifelong training, I put the current piece back in the forge and picked up the fighting ax that was one of the first things I ever made. I moved closer to the door, strategically positioned for when it eventually opened, and I got a look at the white-haired head framed in the opening.

“Hi Dad,” I said, noting his slightly widened eyes.

He wasn’t really shocked to find me within his danger space, a modern tomahawk in my hand. He was, instead, pleased, although the only sign of it was a slight quirk at the corners of his mouth, just under the white mustache that lived on his upper lip.

“Hey Ian, how’s it comin’?” he asked.

“Good. I’ve got some roughing out to do on one more blade, then I can come in for a coffee break and help you,” I said. My father had come over to go through some more of Grandpa’s papers.

“Good enough. I’ll get a fresh pot brewing,” he said, reaching down to pat Charm on the head. As he backed out the door, the muscular little dog looked at me, seeking permission to go with him.

“Go ahead, go get him!” I said. Her response… a tail wag, a doggy grin, and a brown blur out the door.

Threatening your father with an ax is not normal behavior in most parts of the world. The fact that he approved of my actions is even stranger, unless you know my father.

My grandfather was a welder by trade, but his son, Bob, Jr. spent his entire career in the employment of the U.S. Government, working for a little organization with the initials DEA. In fact, he started with the Bureau of Narcotics & Dangerous Drugs and then was carried along into the federal merger that created the Drug Enforcement Agency. So I grew up living in five different cities across this great nation. And growing up DEA is quite a bit different than the normal American experience, whatever that is.

DEA households are well kept and tidy, but there is never a name on a mailbox. The houses all have alarms that are used faithfully, and there is always, always, always a dog. Could be a little Shih Tzu, a Pekingese, or a Great Dane; it doesn’t matter. As long as it has all of its senses.

DEA children are constantly coached in things like situational awareness, household security, and never telling anybody anything personal or private. Cars are backed into the garage, ready for an emergency exit. Drug dealers are notoriously unforgiving on both agents and their families.

My father took it further, by having me take martial arts lessons in every city we lived in. When I was six, I knew enough about gun handling to safely unload a weapon, if ever I came across one unattended. At ten, I could hit the center ring on a standard target at seven yards with almost any handgun you could name—and I had a lot of practice time, as Dad was almost always the firearms instructor for whichever field office he was working out of.

Each summer, I would spend three weeks at my grandparents’, helping with the forging although I also roamed the hillside and woods on the little farm. So I grew up with a rather intense education in modern survival, one that would one day be put to full use.

So, now in my middle years, these reactions are pretty much hardwired into me. My wife, Sarah, never really understood it. Conceptually, she got the point but couldn’t really grasp the mindset that I had grown up with. I tried to explain it to her, the fact that I never knew if my father would come home, or if some drug lord would come after me or my mother in revenge. She would nod, but I don’t think she fully got it. I guess you would just have to live it.

I finished the rough work on the blade, then left it to cool slowly. The morning’s work set aside, I headed into the house, entering the kitchen door. The farmhouse is really a collection of add-ons, centered on the original two-story footprint. The additions are all one story. There are two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs in the original structure, a living room and kitchen below. The other, newer parts consist of a dining room, family room, sewing room (which became an office after my grandmother’s death), and a second full bathroom. That’s the one I use.

I found Dad in the office, working his way through three untidy file cabinets that we hadn’t tackled yet.

The little room had a small worktable with one drawer and a measuring straight edge painted on top, the filing cabinets, a small fireproof safe hidden under a fake cabinet, and a tiny end table that we used as a printer stand. My laptop sat open on the table, which was as close to a desk as the house had. The sight of it reminded me of the pictures on my cell phone and I immediately sent them to my email address.

Dad had pulled the single chair over to the cabinets, the nearby garbage can already overflowing with throwaways. After waiting a minute or so for the photos to make their way through the digital network, I opened my email service and brought the pictures up on screen.

“Dad, have you ever seen bite wounds like these?” I asked.

He spun around fast, then relaxed when he saw I was referring to just photos on the computer. I’m pretty sure my tone would have been different if the bite marks had been on me.

He frowned as he studied the photos. “Where did you get these?”

“Dead possum I found up top the mountain this morning. Actually, Charm found it,” I answered, reaching down to pat the wide, wedge-shaped head next to me. She was tucked in the corner where she could stay close without getting stepped on. Charm loves my dad, he and I being the only two males she is comfortable around.

“Hmm, I’ve never seen anything like them around here, but they remind me of a Discovery Channel show I saw about the Amazon. Piranha make bites like that.”

Now that he said it, the similarities were obvious. Crescent-shaped, cookie cutter bites. I Googled piranha and found pictures that seemed to match.

“What the hell would do that around here?” I asked, baffled. “Unless somebody’s been stocking the brook with South American fish.”

He was still frowning, but after a long pause, he stood and went to his black, soft-sided briefcase near the door.

“Before your grandfather died, he started to act… well, strange. You probably didn’t have a chance to notice, with all you went through,” he said gently. “But nonetheless, I thought he was becoming senile.”

He stood up, a leather-bound book in his hand. I recognized it as my grandpa’s journal.

“I took this the day we found him… I didn’t want you to remember him as crazy or anything, but maybe you should read it. Maybe you should keep an open mind and see what you think. And Ian…” His light blue eyes drove home his serious intent. “I want you to keep your eyes and ears open!”

I snorted. “Dad, I always do… as if I had a choice.”

His mouth twitched in what might have been a smirk but then straight-lined into serious mode again.

“I mean, keep an eye and ear out for stuff like those bite marks, wiseass.”

“Why, Dad? What do you think made them?” I asked.

“I have no idea, but keep a watch and read your grandpa’s journal. We’ll talk about it some more then.”

“Alright. Listen, why don’t I throw some lunch together? You look like you have this under control.”

I retreated to the kitchen to ponder his words. Dad wasn’t prone to alarmism and completely lacked the imagination that I had shared with my grandfather. That he would react that way to a strange wound on a possum carcass was out of character.

I put together a couple of thick ham and Swiss sandwiches, cracked open cold cans of Diet Pepsi, and set out some potato chips, all under the watchful eyes of Charm, who was hoping for scraps. Dad wandered in at my call. We spent lunch talking about the last pieces of Bob, Sr.’s estate, then Dad packed up his papers and headed to the door.

“Ian, where’s your grandfather’s shotgun?” my father asked suddenly, pausing in the doorway.

I pointed to the coat rack in the little entryway by the back door, where we were standing. It was solidly screwed to the wall, hand-crafted of pine, with a rather boxy top and six coat pegs below. I touched the hidden lever on the back and the front of the long rectangular top popped open on springs. Inside the narrow space inside lay my grandfather’s social shotgun, just as he had left it.

My father reached in, grabbed the gun, and broke the action open, pulling out the round from the top barrel. He handed the shotgun to me, not looking up from his examination of the shell. After a moment, he held it up from my inspection.

“Steel shot—BB size,” he said, his white eyebrows arched.

“Steel? Why would Gramps use steel?” I asked. I hadn’t looked at the gun or its load of ammo since moving in.

For those of you new to weapons, steel shot is usually used for waterfowl, to avoid leaving poisonous lead in the waterways. Leastways, that’s the old use for steel shot. We’ll have a new need of it now.

Looking at the three-inch shell, it was clearly labeled steel shot, BB.

“That’s a pretty good question, Ian,” my father said, then waved as he headed out. I watched him walk to his Ford Expedition, his right hand unconsciously tugging his light jacket down to cover the butt of the .45 he habitually wore, even in retirement. I automatically reloaded the round into the shotgun and put it back in its hiding spot, latching the coat rack lid shut.

I cleaned up from lunch and looked at the clock. There were a few minutes, I decided, to look at the journal before I needed to get back to my knives.

I started with the last entry first. We had found Grandpa dead, in his bed, on May 28th. The last journal entry was the night before.

May 27- Was outside this morning , looking up at the house, noticed hole in the guest bedroom mesh. Climbed up on roof and found that they had cut a small opening. Chilled me to the bone. Didn’t think they could get through steel mesh! Don’t know if any got in the house. I repaired hole and reinforced. Checked house, no sign. Pray I didn’t miss one.

It didn’t make much sense, especially the part where my eighty-nine-year-old grandfather climbed on the roof. It made me wonder if that exertion was the cause of the stroke that killed him.

I have a very clear memory of the day we found him. I was coming over to work on our latest knife order and my father was just coming over to check on Grandpa.

When we entered the house, the sense that something was wrong was immediate and palpable. The coffee wasn’t made, and there was no sign he had been up for breakfast. Grandpa was up every day by six o’clock, day in, day out, for as long as I could remember.

We called to him, but there was no answer and the house felt empty of life. Part of my brain was telling me that the worst had happened while another part was worried he had fallen and broken a hip or something. My father didn’t say anything, but his face reflected similar fears.

By unspoken agreement, we entered the bedroom together, immediately seeing my grandfather, in bed, lying on his back, hands clasped over his stomach. His mouth was open, wider than natural, rigor mortis holding him that way. Two paths of dried blood trailed down his cheek and chin, pooling in a congealed mass under his head. His eyes were blessedly shut. Death was obvious.

The rest of the morning was a blur. I remember placing the 911 call, but it wasn’t an emergency, so Dad and I waited downstairs for about twenty minutes for a sheriff’s deputy to arrive. Cause of death was determined to be a stroke.

It took two months to clean up the house, and another month to get the deed signed over. I repainted and re-carpeted, seeking Ashley’s input on colors and textures, trying to make it ours. I, of course, took my grandfather’s room and Ashley got the guest bedroom. It was late August when we moved in. The sale of our old house had closed two weeks before, so we only spent a short time at my parents’ house before taking up residence at the farm. The day we moved in was also the day we got Charm. My father can be a bull in a china shop when he gets an idea, but this turned out to be a stroke of genius. Taking Ashley to pick a dog from the pound had completely redirected her discomfort with moving into the house her great-grandfather had died in.

Charm had been a rescue dog, plucked from an illegal breeding mill by ASPCA officers. She was on death row when Ashley spotted her in the kennel. The attendant told my father that she had refused to interact with anyone since her rescue. She told him it was a waste of time for Ashley to try to go in her pen. Ashley proved her wrong in about four minutes flat.

My grandfather’s writing seemed strange… not outright crazy but odd. Who were they and how could they get into the house through a screen? Why had he put heavy mesh over every window, something I had been wondering about since I moved in. Why would anyone bother the old man?
I looked at next most recent entry.

May 26 – Heard noises outside last night. Found tracks of one of the big ones near the kitchen window. Can’t tell if it was the green one or the white one. Sprinkled steel filings all around the house. The tracks never go near the barns where the forge is.

Okay, that was sounding more than slightly crazy. I couldn’t figure out the part about the green or white ones and why he would sprinkle filings around the property. I went back another day.

May 25 – Witnessed another aerial fight today. Just at dusk. One of the big flyers was hunting something (mice? Chipmunks?) near the garden, and a group of three green Tinks attacked it. Thought the bigger one was dead right there, but it managed to tear apart two before it got stung. Even then, it killed the one that stung it before it died. Those teeth are nasty! Bodies gone as usual.

The part about teeth caught my attention. If he had been discussing a bird of prey, he would have said beak. I had no idea what Tinks was, but I was hooked. I flipped back through the entries, scanning for the first problems. The first strange entry was in early April.

April 4 – I’m starting to think I’m seeing things. Last couple of days, I’ve been seeing hummingbirds or maybe large dragonflys (at least that’s what I told myself they were). Just quick flashes, never a solid look. Today one of the bug-like ones landed on the clothesline post, the one nearest the garden. I watched it from the kitchen window. About four inches long, green body, tannish brown legs, dragonfly wings. Not a bug! Looked like that little fairy girl in Peter Pan, but not! I probably shouldn’t be writing this down. My son will commit me if he reads it!

The phone rang. Caller ID read Academy MMA. I picked up, “Hello?”

“Ian, it’s Tom. I wanted to see if you have any time tomorrow? Between ten and twelve?”

Tom Yelos ran a mixed martial arts school in town and from time to time provided me with my third source of income.

“Sure, Tom. I’m clear then,” I answered, looking at the school calendar on the fridge.

“Let’s say ten then. I’ve taken on a new guy and I need the master’s advice!” he said lightly.

I laughed. “Okay, Grasshopper. I’ll be there!”

Tom and I had met at a recreation league soccer game when our kids were six. His daughter Lindsey had been best friends with Ashley ever since. While watching our kids swarm around the ball, kicking like dervishes, we had gotten to know each other. When he told me he ran MMA classes, I had expressed an interest and explained my background.

If you haven’t heard of mixed martial arts, you’ve been hiding, ‘cause it’s the biggest thing in combat sports since boxing. Combining aspects of both striking arts (think karate, boxing, muay thai) and grappling arts (wrestling, Brazilian ju-jitsu), the sport is vastly more exciting to watch than boxing. It’s rapidly sweeping the nation.

Tom had invited me to visit his school and the day I took him up on the offer, he had been training a young lightweight fighter for an upcoming amateur bout. I’m not the best fighter on the planet—I mean, I can hold my own—but I would never have made a good professional fighter. But what I can do is identify fighters’ weaknesses at a glance and help them improve. I demonstrated this fact that day as I watched Tom work with his fighter. I pointed out that young Ben’s aggressive forward-leaning stance was leaving too much weight on his front foot.

When Ben laughingly invited the “old man with the big mouth” into the ring, I showed him the proof by foot sweeping him. Then I corrected his stance and he promptly submitted me after four long minutes of sparring.

Tom offered me pay for helping him tune up his fighters before bouts. My talents even extended to watching video of their opponents and offering hints on their weaknesses as well.

The day was getting older when I got off the phone, so I left off Grandpa’s journal and went back to the smithy to draw file the mornings’ work. Two hours of filing had the blades in good shape and left me enough time to clean up, grab Charm, and head to Ashley’s final soccer game of the season.

Chapter 2

They lost by one stinking point, but Ashley played a great game and was in high spirits as she came off the field with her BFF Lindsey in tow. Ashley plays midfield, having the right combination of fast and slow twitch muscle fibers to be able to sprint to the action but endure the endless back and forth running. She and Lindsey make a dangerous pair, the black-haired midfielder feeding passes to the aggressive blonde forward.

The day had warmed considerably and both girls were wiping their faces as they laughed about a squeeze play they had put on a particularly nasty player. That girl had been very free with illegal trips, elbows, and shoves. The terrible twins had sandwiched her, hard, in one play, putting an end to her fouling.

“Dad, can Lindsey stay over tomorrow night? It’s Friday,” she asked.

I glanced at her blonde buddy, who gave me a huge smile that I didn’t buy for a second.

I narrowed my eyes at both of them in mock consideration of saying no. They already knew it was a foregone conclusion that I would say yes. Hell, I’d give Lindsey my car if she wanted it. Nobody had been more in Ashley’s court when her mother had died than Lindsey Yelos. I literally thanked God daily for giving my daughter such a good friend. I nodded and they laughed and then hugged goodbye.

“What did Coach think about your final game?” I asked.

“She said we played well. Shen School is one of the toughest teams in our conference. Here,” she finished by handing me a slip of paper. There is a never-ending stream of such messages from teachers, coaches, or PTA members, constantly flowing home. This one detailed the soccer banquet the following week.

I took a moment to study my girl. At thirteen, she stands five feet, two inches tall, just a couple inches shorter than her mother had been. She would likely grow to be five-five or so, according to her doctor.

Ashley takes after her mother in looks almost completely, a favor from God perhaps. Blue-black hair, and the Asian features of her mother’s native China. Her eyes are almond shaped, but green like mine rather than her mother’s dark brown. Ashley is beautiful. That’s not just a proud father’s opinion, but one shared by anyone who sees her—including every boy in school. It’s the kind of effortless beauty that lowers other girls’ self-esteem on sight.

“Got a lot of homework?” I asked as we trudged to my SUV.

“Yeah, I got slammed!” she admitted.

We loaded her book and sports bags into the back of the FJ Cruiser and climbed in. She was instantly greeted by a frantic Charm, who had had to wait in the car. The school doesn’t allow dogs on its fields. Ashley took charge of the music, plugging in her iPod and picking a Lady Gaga song to blast on the stereo for our five-minute drive home.

“What’s for dinner?” she asked when we pulled onto our long driveway.

“I was thinking a grilled steak, potatoes and onions in aluminum foil and… corn?” I said. We grill year round, even in the arctic cold of January and February.

“Italian dressing on the potatoes… and bacon, before you roll up the foil?” she clarified.

“That was my plan,” I said.

“Works!” she agreed.

I took care of dinner while she took a few minutes to unwind and play with her dog. Charm is very enthusiastic about the game of fetch, so while I started the grill and prepared the steak and potatoes, Ash threw her a tennis ball. The steak was searing nicely when I heard Ashley’s yell and Charm’s yelp.

I have no conscious memory of leaving the grill, I was just suddenly running full out with my heart in my throat. I skidded around the back corner of the barn to find Ashley holding Charm, frantically checking her over.

“Ash? What’s wrong?” I demanded.

“Charm got into a hive of some kind,” she said, her hands ruffling the fur under the powerful little dog’s steel link collar. “I don’t think she got stung; it must have just surprised her is all.”

“Where is the hive?” I asked.

“In the crack of the old shed foundation,” she said, pointing at the concrete remains of the old tool building. Under my grandfather’s close supervision, Dad and I had torn down the rotten wooden part of the old shed a year ago, but the cinderblock and mortar footprint still stood.

Approaching cautiously, I struggled to make out anything in the thick shadows. The daylight was fast waning, as it does in November. I might have seen a brief flicker of motion deep in the crevice, but it was too dark for details. After observing for a moment or two, I headed back.

“I can’t see anything without a light. I’ll take a look after dinner,” I said. “Tell me what happened.”

“I threw the ball and it bounced into the crack. Charm raced over and stuck her nose in, but I knew I would have to get it. But before I got there, she jumped back, shaking her head and yelping. I saw a couple of… bugs, I guess, swarming around her, and then they were gone,” she explained.

“You guess they were bugs?” I asked, puzzled at her choice of words.

“Well they were awfully big, but they buzzed like bugs, so they must have been.”

“How big? Like this?” I held up my thumb and forefinger an inch apart.

She shook her head. “No, much bigger! Like this,” she said, her palms held three or four inches apart.

“What color were they?”

“Dark, maybe a greenish color.”

“Green?” I asked.

“Yeah, maybe, but with lighter legs. I don’t know; it happened fast,” she said, frustrated like usual when she can’t get the details exact on something.

Charm didn’t appear any worse for wear, so we trudged back to the house just in time to flip the steak before it could char. Ashley went inside to start her homework, her furry pal right beside her, while I finished making dinner.

As I pulled the aluminum foil packet of potatoes and onions off the hot grill and onto the same platter as the t-bone, I couldn’t stop thinking about the description Ashley had given and the entry in my grandfather’s journal. Another thought occurred to me as I entered the house, taking a last look around the gloomy yard… It was way too late in the season and too cold for bees or hornets of any kind to be active.

After dinner, while Ashley tackled her math, I took a close look at Charm’s neck, struggling to keep the wiggly dog still. I found a particularly good scratching spot on her back and she stilled long enough for a careful inspection of the heavy choke chain collar. Link by link, I looked, checking the thick, furry neck underneath as well. Just near the part of the collar that held her tags, I spotted something foreign. At first I thought it was a twig, stuck to the aluminum rabies tag, but then I noticed it was sharp and greenish in color. Grabbing the tick tweezers that we keep handy, I pulled it off and then rummaged in the junk drawer, at last finding my grandfather’s old magnifying glass.

It resembled a bee’s stinger, blown up about a hundred times. Over an inch long, the black tip glistened wetly, the other, thicker end seemingly burned off. I moved to the kitchen sink to catch the better illumination from the overhead light but fumbled the plastic tweezers, dropping the stinger into a dirty steel colander. It hit the metal, sputtered like a drop of water on a hot skillet, and was gone—evaporated into smoke.

“Whatcha’ doing, Dad?” Ashley asked.

“Er, thought I found a tick on the fur bag over there, but just dirt,” I lied, not wanting to sound crazy to my thirteen year old. Teenagers always think their parents are nuts; they don’t need any additional proof.

“Oh… well, can you help me with this problem?” she asked, her attention back on her math book.

“Sure, honey,” I replied, looking in vain for any remnant of the stinger.

After getting through her math, I grabbed a flashlight and a can of Raid Hornet spray. Thinking of my grandfather’s journal, I cautiously made my way back to the old foundation, approaching slow and stealthy. There was nothing to see, either in or around the crevice that Ashley had pointed to, although the sand at the bottom of the hole was disturbed. Nothing clear enough to call a track or sign, but disturbed, nonetheless.

Shivering for a moment in the frosty night air, I glanced back at our little Bear Mountain. At that moment, a greenish light flashed, like lightning, but close to the hilltop, lighting the trees around the crown. Puzzled, I watched for a moment to see if it repeated, but nothing happened. I shuddered one of those full-body shivers you get from time to time, the kind that have nothing to do with temperature. My grandmother used to say they were the result of someone walking on your ancestors’ graves. She’d say it in a spooky voice, then laugh and ruffle my hair. Still thinking of my grandparents, strange lights, and cold weather bugs, I headed back into the warmth and light of the little farmhouse.

Copyright John Conroe