Charlie was in the lead, with his girlfriend Emily close on his heels. His friend Jose, a bear
of a man with a soft heart that was in stark contrast to his rugged exterior, brought up the rear.
"Sara? Where are you?" Charlie called out for what seemed like the hundredth time since they joined the search for his sister. The search party, a formidable force of nearly twenty men and women, spearheaded by the town sheriff John Huxel and his two deputies, combed the woods on either side of him. Everyone was focused and determined to locate the young girl who had been missing for two days.
Charlie wanted to pull Emily close to him, but didn't. He needed the comfort of her touch, to feel her reassurance that everything would be all right, but he was afraid. They hadn't been getting along lately and the stress of dealing with Sara only seemed to widen the rift between them.
Charlie felt bad for thinking such selfish thoughts. Sara was who mattered right now, not his relationship with Emily.
Memories of happier times when he and Sara were growing up flitted across his mind. It helped ease the anxiety a little if nothing else. If he closed his eyes he could see them as freckle-faced kids dancing in their backyard, or splashing around the cold waters of Lake Huron by their parent's cottage, or whining to their mother that they wanted the latest toy.
But then those happy times vanished, wiped away by the cold reality of walking through the desolate woods, frantically looking for his kid sister.
"Sara? Are you out there? Sara?"
Jose a came up behind his friend. "Don't worry," he said. "We'll find her. Huxel is a good
man. He knows what he's doing. He's organized searches like these before." He paused, just to make sure his words of comfort were sinking in. "Do you remember when he found the Hatherly kid who wandered away from his house a few years ago? He found him the next day huddled next to a culvert pipe, cold and hungry, but alive. Trust me, Charlie, he knows what he's doing."
Charlie stopped and pulled a bottle of water from his coat pocket. He took a long drink, followed by a few deep breaths.
He felt a light tug on his shoulder, but when he turned his head there was nobody there. Emily had moved on to his left, a full ten feet away, and Jose had fallen fifteen paces behind him, chatting with one of the deputies. There wasn't anyone closer to him than Emily was.
A sliver of fear, laced with confusion, wormed its way into his brain, but he ignored it, reasoning that it must have been the stress he was under. Finding Sara was what mattered, nothing else. Just thinking about what might have happened to her cut into his heart.
Huxel suddenly shouted, an ear-splitting shriek that both startled and excited him. "Over here! Over here! I've found something!"
Instantly, a dozen searchers shifted their course toward where the sheriff was standing.
Charlie dropped his bottle of water and rushed over as well, fear and hope swelling his gut.
Sheriff Huxel was crouched down over a natural depression when Charlie reached him. His sweaty face was pinched in an expression that could only be interpreted as an odd mixture of surprise and anger. He already had a pair of latex gloves on, the bright blue rubber adhering to the contours of his hands like a second skin. He looked up into Charlie's eyes.
"I'm not sure yet but I think we might have something here." His words were laced with indifference, the anger having dissipated. "It looks like a fragment of bone." He held up a small dark object that appeared to be part of a rib cage. He rolled it between his fingers and thumb.
Charlie fought with the possibility that the bone belonged to his sister.
Huxel slipped the piece into his pocket and stood up. "I'll send it to the lab as soon as I can," he said quietly. His face was rigid with duty. "For now though, we need to keep searching."
Charlie watched the sheriff walk away through the brush. He had an uncomfortable feeling about the man, like he was hiding something. There was no basis for his suspicions, but he couldn't deny them.
Movement caught his eye then. A figure, slim and dark with shadow, leaned out from behind a dense copse of trees in the distance. Charlie looked around at the others, but no one else seemed to notice.
"Sara?" he mumbled before he could stop himself.
The figure stood still for a few seconds and then vanished behind the trees.
Charlie felt sick to his stomach. Part of him wanted to run toward the area where he had seen the figure, but another part didn't. If in fact it was his sister, she surely would have answered him.
"Charlie, are you all right?"
It was Emily, her pretty face pinched in concern.
Charlie turned and looked at her. "I'm, I'm fine, it's just that I saw someone, and..."
"It was Sara," Emily replied without hesitation. She's here, in the woods. You need to go to her."
The odd response caught Charlie off-guard.
Emily's expression grew long, stretching her pretty features into a cold visage. She put her hands on Charlie's shoulders and spun him around. "Go now, Charlie, go and find Sara. She's waiting for you."
Charlie felt himself being pushed along. He stumbled, but Emily kept nudging him through the brush. He tried to protest but didn't have a chance to; he knew where he was being led.
The woods had grown dark, defying the fact that there was still daylight left. The trees seemed to sway in slumber, hypnotically allowing an unnatural breeze to gently bend their branches. Shadows hid in every crevice, crouched between heavy trunks like living things.
Charlie smacked his foot into a moss-covered stone and pitched forward. His hands landed in a shallow puddle of muck, the sodden algae clinging to his fingers and palms like unstirred paint. It felt cold and slimy.
He looked up, expecting to see Emily, but instead saw Sara.
His heart shriveled in his chest.
"Sara? Is it really you?"
She gazed down at him with emotionless eyes. A mosquito the size of a penny buzzed near her head and landed on her cheek, but she didn't swat it away.
"Where have you been?" Charlie asked. He found himself wincing from the sight of the mosquito on her face; it was feeding.
"I was never missing, Charlie. As a matter of fact, you're the one who is missing."
The puzzling words drifted around inside Charlie's head like lazy plumes of cigarette smoke in a jazz club. "What?" was all he could say.
The mosquito's abdomen was expanding with blood, taking on a distinct reddish hue.
"We have been searching for such a long time," Sara continued, " but food is so hard to come by in the desolate surroundings of the cosmos."
Charlie forced himself to his feet. His head spun but he ignored it, instead focusing on his
sister. "Sara, please, we need to find the others. We have to let them know that you're safe."
He reached out a hand to brush away the little bloodsucker on his sister's face.
Oddly though, she leaned away from his gesture. It was as if she didn't want the foul little insect harmed.
Charlie stepped forward, coming to within a foot of his sister. He tried to read her but it was hopeless. Her face betrayed nothing of her character or intentions. It was a blank slate, an empty page, a painting of indifference.
Charlie continued staring at his sister. He didn't know what else to do. She looked like his sibling, but her face seemed gaunt, shrunken somehow, as if she were being drained of life.
At that moment Charlie's world collapsed. Everything he knew, everything he believed in came crashing to a halt, a painful reminder that sometimes simply not believing in something doesn't always protect you from it.
He heard voices behind him, many voices, voices that he recognized. Emily, José, Sheriff Huxel, and many others, the members of the search party among them, were all standing in neat rows. They looked like soldiers at attention, their faces emotionless, their bodies rigid in the still and relative peace and quiet of the woods.
Charlie's eyes darted from person to person. There was Jolene Bankor, the nice lady who ran the Bicentennial Restaurant in town, and Tank Lunet, the high school football star who was rumored to have been offered an athletic scholarship to Macomb State, and little Josie Welch, still cradling her beloved miniature dachshund, or more accurately: what was left of it.
"What's going on?" Charlie demanded in as strong of a voice as he could muster. He whirled around to face Sara.
Her face was gone. Raw meat, punctuated by a pair of dried-out eyeballs and two rows of
blood-streaked teeth, was all that remained of the once beautiful face of his little sister.
"Searching for such a long time, such a long, long time."
Charlie watched the mouth gyrate up and down as the words, slick with menacing intent, trickled out of the orifice.
"Get him," a gravelly voice said. "Get him and hold him down."
It was Sheriff Huxel.
Charlie turned around and saw Huxel, still clutching the bone he had found, marching toward him with several of the others close behind, Emily and Jose among them.
Charlie backstepped, and predictably, tripped on a stone. He crashed to the forest floor, landing hard on his rear end, and immediately looked up into the leering faces of his would-be captors, Huxel and his faceless sister at the forefront.
"Hurry," Sara rasped through the mess that used to be such a pretty face. "Mark him now. The one meant for him will be here shortly."
Charlie felt a sliver of white-hot pain lanced his side. His eyesight immediately began to fade then, the images of his antagonists blurring a haze. With the dwindling strength he still had he reached around and felt the wound.
It was so tender to the touch that he instinctively pulled his hand away, but not before he felt what it was jutting from his body, not before he understood what was happening to him.
It was a piece of bone, the same piece that Huxel had uncovered earlier, he surmised, and now it was in his body, a beacon of some sort to guide something to him.
"It won't come out," Emily said with the same cold conviction of a warden telling an officer to pull the switch on the electric chair. "It came from our master contact here on your planet. Each piece of his body is meant for someone." She tilted her head to the side an inch, perhaps two. "And now your match will find you."
Charlie then felt an uncomfortable sensation spreading throughout his body, numbing him as it went. It was like a million tiny needles probing every part of him.
A figure nudged its way to the front of the crowd. It was a young girl, bright red hair trailing down to her shoulders, framing her freckled face. She wore a vague hint of a smile.
It was little Josie Welch.
She tossed aside the bloody pile of fur she had been stroking, and bent down, coming to within inches of Charlie's face. Her breath stank like an open grave. "Don't worry, Charlie," she drawled through perfectly-white teeth, "You don't have to worry about a thing. I have plenty of pieces to dole out, billions in fact, enough for every person on this planet."
Charlie couldn't even close his eyes to retreat into darkness, and as he stared at Josie, he saw something in the air behind her, something that was flying straight for him.
It looked like a big mosquito.