ROCK GARDEN

Both scenic and deadly.

Josette stepped off the bus and onto the sidewalk of Engles. She balanced Houston on her hip as the toddler squirmed to look around the immediate vicinity. This little patch of dirt was far enough away that Jeremy wouldn’t find her, and Josie was honestly surprised this place even had a bus stop.

An old man in a faded-blue denim shirt, rugged blue jeans on him, walked up and eyed her with mild suspicion.

“Josie?” he asked.

“Yeah…” smiled Josie.

“I’m Henry,” replied the old man. “Herny Farnsworth. I’m your ride.”

“Oh, good,” said Josie. “I was afraid I’d have to call Carol again.”

“She sent me up here to wait just in case,” said Henry.

“Oh…” said Josie in uncomfortable reply. “I hope you didn’t wait too long.”

“Only an hour,” smiled the old man.

“Oh…” said Josie in yet another uncomfortable reply.

The old man, Henry, bent down and gave Houston a smile.

“So this is the little pup, huh?” he said. “It’s been many a year since Carol and I have had a little one in the house.”

“Oh, we won’t be any trouble,” said Josie nervously. “I promise I’ll help around the house…”

“Oh, don’t you worry ‘bout that,” grinned Henry. “Now, I’m not being rude, so don’t take offense, but we have to go, so let’s get a move on. Carol’s got a room all set up for you, and she’s eager to meet you two.”

“Okay…” replied Josie.

She followed the kindly gentleman as he traveled down the street to a nearby parking lot. He walked up to a large red truck and motioned her around to the other side.

“Carol went ahead and bought one of those car seats for the little one,” said Henry. “You’ll just have to squeeze him in back there. It’s a tight fit inside here, but he’ll be just fine in the backseat.”

“Oh…” said Josie. “Thank you.”

She buckled in Houston and then took to the front passenger seat. It was indeed a tight fit, but that was more than fine, because she had not expected such hospitality from two strangers, and she did not want to screw up this whole arrangement.

Her friend, Loren, a middle-aged woman that had worked with her at a dollar store, that store Josie’s former place of employment…Loren had set this whole thing up, and it was turning out far better than Josie had originally estimated.

They drove through the small town of Engles after that, though there really was nothing much to see. It was a small town like any other but significantly smaller, so what Josie was going to do out here to pass the time was already in question, and she didn’t even have a phone anymore for obvious reasons. She did not want Jeremy tracking her.

None of this would have happened had Dave not abandoned them. He had just up and disappeared a couple of weeks back, and then Josie had started receiving threatening phone calls from Jeremy and his crew. That meth-dealing thug had first demanded where Dave was, but that had stopped a few days ago. Now he was threatening her about money, so whatever was going on, whatever Dave had gotten into, was enough for Josie to pick up and leave with Houston.

Dave had said that he had come into some money, that he was going to take all three of them to live somewhere better, but that had turned out to be fiction. It was clear now that Houston’s father had taken whatever money he’d come across and run, leaving Josie and their son to fend for themselves.

Without a second income, she couldn’t afford to pay the rent for the trailer they’d been living in, and coupled with threats from Jeremy and his crew, there was nothing else left to do but run, herself. So, this little deal she had worked out with Loren was better than nothing, though she did not relish the thought of living with strangers for a while. Now she and Houston were here in Engles, riding to who-knew-where in some stranger’s truck.

Henry made small talk as they drove through the surrounding countryside, but other than fields of corn and soybeans with some cattle dotted here and there, there was not much else out here, out here in the country away from anything city-worthy.

The elderly Mr. Farnsworth seemed to know what was on her mind.

“It’s nice and quiet out here,” said Henry. “You’ll find the occasional drunken brawl in town, maybe some petty theft, but us folks out here don’t have much to worry about come any danger-like. It’s a good place to retire, though I can see how young folks would get an itch’un to leave. Yeah, Engles is pretty small, so the bus stop’s mainly for people leaving it, not coming to it.”

“Uh, huh…” said Josie uncertainly.

“Our property is a good place, though,” explained Henry. “Owned that farm for as long as Carol and I have been married, though we don’t actually farm it anymore. It’s a real nice place for walking and hiking, but there are a few rules to follow.”

“Rules?” asked Josie.

She wasn’t too keen on taking orders, but these people had been kind enough to take her and Houston in, so a few rules were okay for the time being.

“They’re for your own safety,” explained Henry. “We don’t keep pigs, cattle, or horses anymore…too much work for us old folks…so there’s no danger there, but there are wild animals around the neighboring woods that can be a problem. Coyotes, mainly, but they can be extremely dangerous in packs, especially for a little one like Houston.”

“Oh,” replied Josie. “We had raccoons back where I lived, but they were mainly a nuisance.”

“They’re still a nuisance,” chuckled Henry. “We have old Pete to drive them off, but don’t worry about him. He’s a good dog, and he likes kids, so you don’t have to worry about him.”

“Oh, that’s good,” said Josie.

“There’s the old shed out back that has our work tools,” said Henry. “That’s got a lot of old, sharp equipment, some of it rusty, so you’ll want to avoid that.”

“Okay,” replied Josie.

Henry grew quiet for a moment, so Josie looked over to him for a brief inspection, but the old man’s weathered face darkened as a serious look washed over him.

“Then there’s the Circle,” he said quietly.

“The Circle?” asked Josie.

“Yeah…” frowned Henry. “Just…stay away from it.”

“Okay,” said Josie in obvious confusion. “I…I mean…uhhh…what…am I…staying away from?”

“The Circle is out in a field on our property,” said Henry. “You’d know it if you saw it, and you will see it…It’s impossible to miss…It’s all white sand smoothed out in spiraling circles, and there are a bunch of large rocks in it…boulders, I’d guess you’d call ‘em…Just…stay away from it.”

“Okay,” replied Josie. “Is it…like…a pet project of yours?”

“No,” said Henry, and there was a tinge of resentment mixed with bitterness in his old voice. “No, it is not. In fact, I’d get rid of it if I could, but that’s not going to happen. There’s no telling what would happen if I tried to do that. Best just to plant trees around it again. Never should have cut down those trees in the first place.”

“I…see…” said Josie in more confusion.

“It’s dangerous,” said Henry. “Just trust me when I say that, and stay away from it…and don’t let the little one anywhere near it, understand?”

“Okay,” breathed out Josie. “I mean, I’m not…”

But she was cut short.

“I’m not joking,” said Henry in a deadly serious tone. “Keep an eye on your boy when you’re out there. It’s nice to walk around the property, but just…stay away from the Circle. Don’t let him anywhere near it.”

“Will do,” nodded Josie.

Henry was strangely quiet after that, but the drive to the old couple’s residence did not take long, and that was good, because Josie was left wondering just exactly what it was she had stumbled into.

**********

Josie sat down next to Carol in one of the elderly woman’s old-fashioned, outdoor wooden chairs.

She smoothed the creases out of her new white-and-blue print dress, mainly because she did not want to get it dirty. She was not used to wearing dresses, but the old woman had given her several upon arrival, so she had felt compelled to wear them, at least for today, if only out of courtesy.

“You’re not used to wearing dresses, are you, dear?” asked Carol.

“No, Mam,” said Josie nervously. “It’s blue jeans and T-shirts where I come from.”

“Well, there’s nothing wrong with being a little old-fashioned every once in a while,” said the old woman. “You’ll get used to it.”

“What I’m not used to is…uhhh…this,” said Josie.

She motioned toward the large wooden container before her that was currently filled with cream, that container a butter churn, the cream inside ready to be churned.

Carol gripped the plunger of her own butter churn and nodded once at Josie’s.

“It’s not difficult to learn,” she smiled. “It can be hard on your hands, and it will leave you tired, but you’ll get used to it.”

The old woman took to churning with her plunger, and Josie tried to imitate her as best she could.

“We don’t raise cows anymore,” said Carol. “Nope, we don’t have any cattle anymore, so we get our cream from our neighbors down the road.”

“Why is it that all country folk churn butter?” asked Josie. “I thought that was just a trope on TV and in the movies.”

Carol laughed and shook her head no.

“I don’t know about that,” she chuckled, “but most people don’t do this. I took it up as a way to pass the time. It gives me something to do when I’m not quilting, and the exercise is good for me…but it’s not something that everyone in the country does…It’s like riding horses. Everyone from the big city thinks we ride horses everywhere. We had horses years ago, but we don’t have them anymore, and a lot of folks ’round here don’t. Too expensive to care for.”

“Oh…” said Josie as she turned a mild shade of red. “I didn’t know.”

They continued to work at churning their cream, and Josie silently admitted to herself that it was new and interesting to do this particular activity, if not tiring. It was like being at some kind of old-fashioned farm camp.

“I had a horse when I was younger,” nodded Carol, a slight smile on her face. “His name was Outlaw, probably the most overused name ever for a stallion, but I loved him so. I rode him I don’t know how many days out in these back fields, but I lost him one night when he escaped the stable. Someone forgot to lock it…probably me. He got out and wandered too close to the…the…N…Never mind that…He died in an accident, and I’ve had other horses, but they never matched up to him.”

Carol’s face darkened at the mention of her beloved horse’s death, and this made Josie curious, but she did not want to press the old woman on the matter, so she swiftly changed topics.

“So…quick question…” said Josie nervously. “Umm…What are we going to do with all this butter?”

Carol laughed and shook her head in amusement.

“Yeah, there’s a little more than we can use here,” she said. “I actually tub it up and sell it down at the local grocery store. I keep a tub for myself, but…you know how that is. Unless you’re making cakes, you don’t really need a ton of butter.”

“Yeah…heh…” said Josie. “I figured it was something like that.”

It was Carol’s turn to suddenly change topics, and she nodded toward Houston in attention of the toddler. The little boy was sitting on the porch while sifting through a variety of shiny glass beads and various colored buttons that Carol had given him, the toddler sorting them out into their respective piles of similarities.

“I was afraid to give him those,” said the old woman. “You know how little ones are, but you said this is what he likes to do.”

“Yeah…” nodded Josie. “He won’t try to swallow any of them.”

“Houston doesn’t talk much, does he?” asked Carol in slight confusion. “I don’t think I’ve heard him speak up a lot.”

“Houston’s autistic,” explained Josie. “He’s on the spectrum, so he doesn’t talk a lot. He likes to do what he likes to do, and sorting things is a favorite of his.”

“Oh,” said Carol in strange interest. “I didn’t know.”

“It’s okay,” shrugged Josie. “There’s a lot of misinformation on autism, but I’m learning about it.”

“Well, that’s good,” nodded Carol. “You’ve got to look after your own. We watched our daughter, Gloria, like a hawk after Henry Jr…Can’t be too careful.”

“Henry Jr?” asked Josie.

She had asked the question without thinking, not realizing what effect it could have.

Carol grimaced and shook her head no at the query.

“He…disappeared,” frowned the old woman. “He was only five. Went wandering out of his bed at night and left the house…Just vanished. Everyone around here searched everywhere for him, but they never found a trace of him.”

“Oh…” said Josie with wide eyes.

“That was…oh…fifty years ago now,” said Carol. “Time dulls the pain after a while, but you never forget…No, you never forget.”

Josie had no response to this. She had not expected to hear of terrible tragedy while churning butter, so she said nothing.

They continued with their task for several minutes after that without saying anything, and it was awkward, so Josie did her best just to lose herself in the work.

She would have continued on like this were it not for the loud barking of a dog in the distance. That barking jerked her head up from her appointed task, mainly because it had startled her out of her own stewed worries.

“What is that all about…?” she asked, but then she noticed something far more important.

Houston was not in visible sight anymore. There was only a pile of correctly separated beads and buttons where the little boy had once been.

“Houston?” asked Josie in instant panic. “Houston!”

She stopped churning, stood, and looked this way and that for any sign of him.

“Come on,” said Carol in a firm, commanding voice.

The old woman stood up and quickly walked to the end of the porch, walking toward the sound of the barking dog.

“That’s old Pete,” said Carol with a strange conviction in her tone. “He doesn’t bark for no reason.”

Josie followed the elderly woman out to the back field, trying not to let her panic overwhelm her.

“Houston!” she called out. “Houston!”

The old woman made a beeline for the distant barking, so Josie followed her without question.

They made their way through the knee-high grass to the dog, a big red mutt with a pinkish nose, and the old dog immediately bounded toward them in both greeting and urgency.

“What is it, boy?” asked Carol.

Josie could see slight movement in the grass ahead, and then she spied the brown hair of her only child, so she rushed forward to get him. Houston was sitting in the grass, but he appeared unharmed, so she scooped him up without further thought or ado.

“What were you doing?” she breathed out. “You can’t run off like that! It’s dangerous…”

She looked up but stopped speaking as she noticed the area they were next to, this new, unnoticed feature of the field a mere twenty feet away. There was a large circle ahead of them, a very large circle, a great, big circle of white sand that spanned about a hundred feet in diameter.

Josie could make out the large, jagged boulders dotting here and there within the circle, those boulders resting upon deep lines drawn in the sand, those lines spinning round to converge in the center of this weird piece of field art.

She felt a strange sense of foreboding rest upon her, as if she were in imminent danger, though she could not put her finger on why.

Carol walked up to her from behind, so Josie turned to address her, but the old woman did not look happy.

“We have to keep a better eye on him,” said Carol. “It’s a good thing old Pete said something.”

“I’m sorry about this…” began Josie.

“Don’t apologize to me,” said Carol as she shook her head no. “You didn’t know. I know how it is to get distracted by work, but it’s too dangerous to let the little one just wander off.”

“I…I know…” said Josie. “I…I thought…”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Carol with another shake of her head. “Let’s just get away from here and back to the house. We need to go back. We don’t come out here, and we’re too close to the Circle, way too close. That’s why Pete was barking.”

She turned around after that and started back toward the farmhouse, a sense of finality in her firm tone.

The big red dog, Pete, did not follow Carol back. He simply stared at Josie with big brown eyes and whined, unmoving from his sitting position, as if he were waiting for Josie to move before taking off, himself.

Josie did not know what to make of any of it, but she was a guest here, so she would do as ordered.

She started back toward the farmhouse when the sound of a crow startled her. She turned back to look for the bird, and she spied the ugly black thing as it perched upon one of the boulders in the so-called “Circle”.

Josie shook her head and continued back toward the house, Houston balanced on her hip. She was already agitated because of what had just happened, and some stupid bird was not going to agitate her further, or so she thought.

She heard a loud squawk in the distance, not the normal cawing of a crow, and she turned to look back toward the Circle, but the ugly black bird was gone. There were a couple of feathers floating through the air where it had just been perching and nothing else, no other trace of it.

“What the…?” she whispered to herself.

“Josie!” called out Carol from the distance.

“Coming!” called back Josie.

She hurried back to the farmhouse, but the whole incident with Houston had shaken her, and she was going to have to question her generous hosts about this “Circle”, because if the strange work of field art truly was dangerous, she wanted to know why.

**********

Josie sat down for dinner at the Farnsworth’s family dinner table. She had helped Carol cook, though she, herself, was not much of one. Nevertheless, she had managed to learn quite a bit during the time it had taken to make their nightly meal.

Houston was in an old wooden highchair that had been generously provided by Carol, something the elderly woman had stored away a long time ago and never disposed of. The little boy sat next to his mother while eating select bits of boneless chicken breast off his plate, because Carol had insisted on feeding him first.

Josie sensed that the adults were not supposed to eat yet, so she waited patiently for her hosts to give the okay.

The old man, Henry, closed his eyes and clasped his hands in prayer.

Josie did not know what to do, so she simply listened.

“Lord…” said the old man. “Lord, thank you for this bounty you have bestowed upon us, and thank you for watching over our guests today. Please, continue to protect your faithful children from the darkness that lurks ever near us…Amen.”

“Amen,” repeated Josie.

His prayer seemed rather disturbing to her, though she did not have the nerve to ask him about it. However, that didn’t mean she wouldn’t eventually broach the topic.

They ate for a few minutes before Josie decided to ask anything, though she knew what she wanted to ask was probably a source of contention.

“I…I have a question,” she said nervously.

The elderly couple stared at each other with a knowing, worried look, but it was Carol who spoke up for the both of them. The old woman turned her anxious gaze upon Josie and gave her a slight frown.

“You want to know about the Circle,” said Carol.

“Y…Yes…” replied Josie.

“It’s dangerous…” started Henry, but Carol shushed him.

“She already knows that,” said the old woman. “We should tell her everything.”

“Okay…” sighed Henry. “Have it your way.”

Carol frowned, shook her head, and then turned her attention back upon Josie.

“The Circle has been here since the natives lived on this land,” said Carol. “Where it came from or who made it, I’ve never been able to find out. In fact, we didn’t even know it existed until we bought the land from the Sutherlands, back when we were newlyweds.”

“Oh…” said Josie. “But…you can clearly see it. You can probably see it from satellite pictures…Why hasn’t anybody ever heard of it?”

“All of this area was thick woodland back in the day,” explained Henry. “We cut down those trees to make space for planting…That’s when we discovered it.”

“The Sutherlands never warned us about the Circle,” said Carol. “We…learned that the hard way.”

“Why?” asked Josie in confusion. “Why is it dangerous? It just looks like a neat, rock-garden-type place.”

“That it does,” said Henry. “It’s fairly safe during the day, but…”

“You don’t go anywhere near it at night,” nodded Carol.

“Why?” asked Josie. “I don’t understand…I mean, who maintains it? You must have to fix it after it rains…”

Her sentence died in her throat as Henry shook his head no.

“Those circles out there?” he asked. “Those ruts in the sand? We don’t have anything to do with that.”

“Then how…?” began Josie, but Carol answered that question rather abruptly.

“It’s the stones,” nodded the old woman. “They move at night. They’re asleep during the day.”

Josie had to do a doubletake for her ears. She was not quite sure she’d heard right.

“Excuse me, what?” she asked in surprise.

“The boulders out there move,” said Henry. “It’s hard to believe, I know, but it’s the truth. If you go out there tomorrow, you’ll see…They’ll all be in different places.”

“I’ve kept a log over the years,” said Carol. “I’m not good with sketches, but those stones…they move in patterns. I don’t know what it means, but…they’re never in the same place twice in a row.”

“And the sand there?” asked Henry. “We don’t know where that comes from.”

“We really don’t,” shrugged Carol. “It’s just always been there, and it never seems to get washed away by rain, even in downpours.”

“Uh, huh,” said Josie with wide eyes. “If all of that’s true, then why haven’t you shown other people? You could make a lot of money off of tourism with something like that.”

“It’s too dangerous,” said Henry firmly.

“But why is it dangerous?” asked Josie. “I know plenty of people that would like to see it…”

“No,” said Carol with a shake of her head. “Anything that goes into that circle isn’t coming out again. You might be able to enter it safely during the day, but you won’t get out alive once nightfall hits.”

“Oh…” said Josie uncertainly.

It occurred to her that her hosts, though both nice and generous, were clearly crazy. She wondered, however, if their insanity was only limited to the Circle story or if it ran deeper than that.

“You know that horse I told you about?” asked Carol. “Outlaw, my favorite horse I had when I was young?…I found his body out by the Circle. His head was gone. There was one of those boulders in front of poor Outlaw, but there was never any sign of his head. He got out of the stable one night and…that was all that was left of him the next morning.”

“Oh, wow,” breathed Josie. “We’ll…uhhh…We’ll stay away from the Circle, then.”

“That’s the smart decision,” nodded Carol. “Henry is going to replant trees around that cursed place this year. I’m sure you can help us with that, right? That should hide the Circle again…We should have never cut down those trees around it in the first place…You can help us replant some trees, right?”

“Sure,” nodded Josie. “Sure, I can help you with that.”

But she had no intention of helping them with that. No, Josie’s only intent was to find somewhere else to hide from Jeremy and his crew, because this old couple, nice as they were, were both nuttier than a fruitcake, and that meant they weren’t exactly safe to be around.

**********

Josie exited Henry’s truck and gave him a reassuring, if false, smile.

“I’ll be right back,” she said as she unstrapped Houston from his car seat.

“Take your time,” smiled Henry. “I don’t mind waiting.”

“Thank you,” said Josie. “I’ll just be a minute.”

She scooped up Houston and walked to the entrance of the little convenience store they had parked next to.

She was going to have to get someone to lend her their phone, because she needed to make other arrangements for somewhere to stay. The Farnsworths…were not going to work out.

Josie walked into the convenience store and looked around for anyone who seemed even vaguely trustworthy. She spied a couple, a middle-aged gentleman and a young lady who looked to be in her early twenties, and one look at them quickly convinced her that they had to be a father/daughter pair.

Josie walked up to them as the pair perused an aisle stocked with cans of soup and other such goods.

“Excuse me,” she said quickly. “I don’t have a phone, and I really need to make a call. Could I borrow your phone for a second? I need my sister to come and pick me up.”

The pair took one look at her and Houston and immediately acquiesced. Having a small child with you did have some advantages.

“Here,” said the young lady. “You can use mine.”

The young woman unlocked her smartphone and handed it over.

Josie smiled in return and quickly dialed the number she had memorized as a last resort, and this was indeed a last resort. Most people didn’t know phone numbers off the tops of their heads anymore, but Josie had this one down, and it was definitely, one-thousand-percent, a last resort.

The phone rang a couple of times before it was picked up, which was a miracle in itself, because she had been fairly certain that Caitlyn would not pick up an unknown number.

“Hello?” asked Josie’s younger sister on the other end of the line.

“Caitlyn?” asked Josie.

“Josie?” asked her sister. “Where have you been? I haven’t heard anything from you…It’s like you just disappeared.”

“I had a friend from work set me up with a place,” said Josie. “It’s not working out, though.”

“That sucks,” said Caitlyn. “What happened?”

“I’ll tell you in a minute,” said Josie. “I need someone to pick me up from here, because I’m not taking the bus again.”

“Where is “here”?” asked Caitlyn.

“I’m in a little town called Engles,” said Josie. “I’m staying with an old couple, the Farnsworths. They’re nice people, but…they’re a little crazy. I’m not sure it’s safe to stay with them.”

“Why are you out there?” asked Caitlyn. “Never mind. I already know why…Why didn’t you just go back to Mom and Dad?”

“No…” said Josie firmly. “I can’t go back there. I can’t do that…Look, can you pick me up or not?”

“I’ll pick you up,” said Caitlyn, “but where are you going to go?”

“I’ll figure something out,” said Josie. “Please, just come and get me.”

“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” sighed Caitlyn. “This place isn’t out of state, is it?”

“No,” replied Josie.

“Good,” said Caitlyn. “Because I really don’t want to make an interstate trip.”

“It’s not that far,” said Josie. “It doesn’t matter…Look, I’ve got to go. I’ve got someone waiting for me. I’ll talk more about it when you get here.”

“Okay,” sighed Caitlyn. “See you when I get there.”

Josie ended the call, gave the young lady back her phone, and walked back out of the convenience store, Houston in hand. She had not wanted to call Caitlyn, but her younger sister was the only option she had left, so that was that.

She returned to Henry’s truck, strapped in Houston, and took to the passenger seat.

“All finished?” asked the old man. “Did you find what you were looking for?”

“No,” sighed Josie. “They were all out. I’ll try again later.”

“Oh,” said Henry. “That’s a shame.”

“Yeah,” replied Josie. “It really is.”

She did not like lying to the kindly old man, but at the same time, she did not feel the Farnsworths were entirely safe to be around.

**********

Josie walked with Houston balanced on her hip, trudging along with him through the field next to the Farnsworth’s home. She wanted to take one last look at this so-called “Circle” before her sister arrived.

She had not informed the elderly couple that she would be leaving, but she would think of something once Caitlyn showed up. She felt bad about giving them the runaround with this; they had been truly generous to her, but she had that feeling in her gut that things weren’t exactly what they appeared to be at this homestead.

She threw those anxious thoughts aside as she walked toward the Circle.

She got within ten feet of the strange, overgrown rock garden before stopping, because though she had the urge to enter it and look around, that old superstitious fear caused by peer pressure forced her to hesitate.

She did not like to be bullied by superstition, something she had always considered ridiculous, but she noticed something that would normally be impossible without major cooperation from numerous people, and this only added to her hesitation.

“What the…?” she breathed out.

The boulders, all of varying size, width, and weight, were indeed in different places, but she wasn’t entirely sure.

“That can’t be right,” she frowned. “This has to be my imagination.”

She could swear that they had all moved several feet counterclockwise, because she remembered the previous location of the big boulder where the crow had landed, but all of the rocks were still evenly spread out, so that couldn’t be right…It couldn’t be.

Josie took her time walking around the giant work of field art, but she did not get far before she spied the corpse of a dead animal, or at least, what was left of one.

Half of a racoon, the back half, was right outside of the Circle, the front half gone…just gone…with flies buzzing around the open meat of what was left.

Josie walked up and inspected the dead animal, but the stench of it drove her back a bit. In front of the thing was a smaller boulder, one on the outer edge of the Circle, but other than that, there was nothing else nearby except field grass and dirt.

She had a strange fear strike her, that fear of the unnatural, so she slowly backed away, turned, and headed back toward the house. Whatever was going on here was too much for her, and whether or not the Farnsworths were crazy, this place was starting to spook her in more ways than one.

**********

Josie stood out on the porch with Carol, Houston in hand. Henry was currently in the house, and old Pete was somewhere off in the neighboring woods, so it was now just the three of them, a trio of figures with a backdrop of an old country farmhouse that would have looked good in a painting.

The sun was setting, and its descent behind the eastern trees was quite beautiful, something scenic in a rustic setting that Josie was not used to. She held onto Houston as she viewed it, breathless at the sight of it.

The old woman must have noticed Josie’s expression, because she commented upon it a moment later.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” asked Carol. “It can get lonely out in the country sometimes, but when you have all of this around you, the natural beauty of it all, it makes it all worthwhile.”

But this astute observation only heightened Josie’s guilt about leaving.

“Yeah…” she said unhappily.

“What’s wrong, hon?” asked the old woman.

Josie felt that twinge of regret stab into her. She needed to say something about how this situation wasn’t working out, but she also didn’t want to hurt the old couple’s feelings.

“It’s just that…” she began, but she stopped as she viewed lights in the distance.

Someone was driving down the old gravel road that led here, here to this property out in the middle of nowhere.

“I wonder who that could be?” asked Carol absentmindedly.

But something was wrong. There was more than one set of vehicle lights on the way, at least three pairs, something Josie had not been expecting.

Henry stepped from out of the doorway of the house and walked up next to them.

“We have visitors?” he asked.

A black truck and two old cars pulled up to the house, and Josie’s eyes went wide as she finally realized what was going on.

“Oh, no…” she said under her breath.

They stepped out of the vehicles, Jeremy and his crew, and Josie knew she was in trouble. She could not even call the police…She didn’t have her phone with her.

There were all five of his thugs with him, Brayce, Eric, Donovan, Josh, and Lorn, all five of them the scum of the earth as far as Josie was concerned.

Even worse…Caitlyn was with them.

Caitlyn was pushed forward by Jeremy, and Josie could tell in the fading light that her sister was crying…Her younger sister had bruises on her face.

Caitlyn cried out as Jeremy shoved her to the ground. He pointed a pistol at Josie and her elderly hosts as he kicked over Caitlyn, the young woman crying out in pain as she fell flat to her face in the dirt.

“Did you think I wouldn’t find you!” he shouted.

“Hey, now!” started Henry, but he stopped his forward progression as Jeremy pointed his gun at him.

“You stop right there, old man!” yelled Jeremy.

The other five with him withdrew their own handguns and walked forward to match his position in a line right in front of the house, right before the porch.

Caitlyn whined and quietly sobbed from her prone position in the dirt, and Josie wanted to help her, but her first thought was for the safety of Houston.

She clutched her little boy tightly to her as Jeremy stared her down.

The young man adjusted his backwards ball cap and pointed his pistol at her.

“Where’s my money, Jose!” he asked, and his tone was not friendly.

“I…I don’t…” stammered Josie.

Jeremy planted his booted right foot onto the back-right pocket of Caitlyn’s blue jeans and pushed down into her bottom. Caitlyn shrieked out again in protest, and the sound of her pain cut through Josie like a chainsaw.

“I’m not going to ask again!” yelled Jeremy.

“D…Dave ran off with it!” sputtered Josie. “He’d said he’d gotten some money, but he abandoned me and Houston, took the money, and ran! Why do you think I’m out here! I have nowhere else to go!”

She didn’t want to cry, but she felt tears spill from her eyes anyway.

“Dave?” asked Jeremy. “Seriously?”

He laughed as the rest of his crew joined in with him.

“That junkie didn’t have the money,” he said with a cruel grin. “And he didn’t “abandon” you.”

“What?” asked Josie in confusion.

“Where do you think he went?” asked Jeremy. “He was stealing meth, my meth, and he was pocketing the cash off of what he was selling. Then, he had the grain to go and steal every last penny from the vault…That’s right…He made off with our shipment fund…That’s fifty-K, sweetheart…Nobody robs us…Nobody…But he won’t be stealing from us anymore…Who do you think buried him?”

Josie’s lips turned downwards in both shock and anguish over this realization.

“You…You killed him?” she choked out.

The group of six laughed once more.

“No one’s going to miss that meth-head,” said Jeremy. “The only ones who will miss him are his trailer-trash girlfriend and his retard kid…Now, I know he gave you the money, Jose, and I want my money. Don’t make me tell you again.”

He pointed the barrel of his gun toward the back of Caitlyn’s blonde head.

“No, wait!” cried Josie.

The sun finally set behind the trees in the distance, and lights on various poles automatically turned on around the farm as darkness flooded over them.

“One last chance, Jose,” said Jeremy.

“I don’t know about any money…” began Josie, but she was cut short.

“I know where it is!” spoke up Henry.

Josie looked over at the old man in surprise. There was no way he could possibly know where that money had gone.

“Is that right, old man?” asked Jeremy.

“Yeah, young feller,” said Henry in defiance. “Now you just hold your horses there. That money you want is buried out back.”

“Oh, really?” asked Jeremy.

“Yeah,” frowned Henry. “You just need a shovel. It’s out back. There’re the farm lights out there, so it’s easy enough to find.”

“Right,” frowned Jeremy in return. “You’d better not be lying to me, old man.”

He turned and directed one of his crew, Lorn, toward the back of the black truck.

“Get the shovels,” he said firmly.

Lorn stuffed his gun back into his jeans, walked to the truck, took two shovels out of the truck bed, and walked back with them.

“Everybody, get moving!” yelled Jeremy. “That means all of you!…You lead the way, old man.”

He reached down and pulled up Caitlyn by her dyed-blonde hair. The young woman shrieked as she was forced to stand, and Jeremy pushed her forward without mercy.

“All of you, move it!” ordered Jeremy as he waved on Josie and her two elderly hosts.

Josie’s heart pounded in her chest as she followed Henry and Carol out around the house, Caitlyn, Jeremy, and the rest of Jeremy’s thug crew following closely behind.

Jeremy was probably going to kill them all, and there was nothing she could do about it. The only thing Josie could think of was to run toward the nearby woods, but she’d be running with Houston in hand, which would make it more difficult for them to escape without getting shot.

She held a faint hope that Henry had already thought of this, that the tree line was where he was leading them all, but this was not the case.

Henry continued walking out through the back field, walking with a stiff purpose, that purpose directed solely at the Circle. The farm lights on the outlying poles shone down upon the ominous, overgrown rock garden, lighting it up for all to see.

“Where are you going, old man?” snarled Jeremy.

“It’s just up ahead,” replied Henry. “It’s in the middle of those boulders there.”

“Is that right?” asked Jeremy.

The group walked up to the Circle and stopped right before it.

Henry waved one hand out toward the center of it.

“Buried it right in the middle there,” he said firmly. “You can all go out there and see for yourself.”

“Uh, huh,” said Jeremy, his voice rife with suspicion.

He walked up and pushed Josie forward from behind. She cried out as she stumbled forward, but she stopped and regained her balance just before reaching the line of white sand that constituted the edge of the Circle.

“You go in first,” growled the young man.

“What?” asked Josie. “But I…”

Jeremy pointed his gun at the back of Caitlyn’s head, and the young blonde cried out in fear.

“Do it!” yelled Jeremy. “Do it, or you’ll be wearing your sister’s brains as a sweater.”

Josie shook as she started to hand over Houston to Carol, but Jeremy stopped her.

“Uh, uh,” said the gun-wielding thug. “He goes with you.”

Henry walked over to her and nodded once.

“You just walk right on in to the center,” he said confidently. “Once they see it’s safe, then you can come right back. Just avoid the rocks, and you’ll have no problems.”

He handed something over to Houston while petting the little boy’s head, and then he pressed something into Josie’s free right hand.

Josie stared down at the small stone in her hand, and Houston held up a similar one, inspecting it as if he did not have a care in the world.

“You know how you feed the little one first?” asked Henry under his breath. “You always feed him first. You don’t take food from him. We don’t take food from our little ones. An adult won’t take food from a little one.”

Josie had no idea what the old man was going on about, so she wiped at her eyes and simply nodded yes in reply. It was becoming clearer and clearer to her that the elderly couple was just crazy, and unfortunately, that was of absolutely no help right now.

“Quit talking!” growled Jeremy. “Get moving, Jose! I want my money!”

Josie’s tears continued to flow as she stepped into the Circle and onto white sand.

She stepped over the deep ruts in the sand as she headed for the center of the Circle. There was something about Henry’s warning about not touching the boulders that stuck with her, so she continued on toward the center while walking around the large rocks.

A low rumble occurred beneath her feet, a vibration of sorts, and she could actually feel the sand shift beneath her a bit, but what this meant, she did not know.

“Keep going!” yelled Jeremy.

Josie winced as she felt a slight pain in her right hand. The small stone in her hand felt slightly hot, and it began to get hotter as she walked toward the center of the Circle. She looked over to Houston, but her little boy just kept switching his stone from one hand to the other, studying it with an intensity he had never shown before with any other ordinary rocks.

Josie opened her right hand and looked down at the stone resting in her palm.

The skin of her right hand was turning red where the stone rested, and she felt as if it were burning her, but she held onto it, because Henry’s instructions were all she actually had to hold onto when it came to making it out of this situation alive. The old man had to have a plan, something he’d thought of, or he wouldn’t have led them all out here, and these stones had something to do with it.

Josie stopped in the center of the Circle, this huge circle of spiraling white sand dotted with ominous-looking boulders, and she looked back toward the armed group of thugs, wondering what was next in Henry’s plan, hoping desperately that the old man knew something that would save, at the very least, her little boy.

“It’s right there!” called Henry. “It’s right where you’re standing! You asked me to bury it, and that’s where it is!”

“All right!” yelled Jeremy. “Get back here!”

Josie walked back through the Circle, wary of touching any of the large boulders around her, but by the time she had made it back to the edge, her right hand was throbbing with a burning pain.

She stepped out of the Circle and quickly tossed her small stone back to the white sand behind her.

Houston continued to switch his stone from one little hand to the next, and she knew he would be reluctant to give it up, so she did not try to take it from him. She did not need a scene, not right now.

She stared down at her right hand to briefly inspect the large, bleeding, red welt on her palm, that welt covered with a fine coating of white sand. She ignored the pain of it as she brushed that sand off on her jeans, intent on hiding this little fact from prying eyes.

Something very strange was going on with these stones, something dangerous, something horrendous even, and there was an inkling in her of what that might be, but if that were true, impossible as it seemed, then Henry did indeed have a plan to get rid of Jeremy and his crew, and that plan was a permanent one.

“All right, everyone!” yelled Jeremy. “Let’s grab the money and go!”

He waved everyone forward but gave a nod toward Brayce.

“Stay back and watch them,” he said. “The old man couldn’t have buried the money very deep. This won’t take long.”

Brayce turned and pointed his pistol at them as the others walked into the Circle.

Jeremy grabbed a shovel from Lorn and walked in with the rest of them.

“Let’s get this done!” he yelled.

They all walked into the Circle toward the center, Jeremy and the other four, and they did not stop until they were at the place where Josie had just been.

“It’s time to get some payback,” said Jeremy.

He took his shovel and drove the blade into the sand, right in the center of the Circle, and with the driving in of that blade, the mayhem began.

Josie jumped a little as she heard the high-pitched, shrill scream of Donovon, a scream so unlike a man that it curdled her blood, but she could not look past the startled figure of Brayce to see what was going on.

“Hey, what!” yelled Brayce as he turned around toward the Circle, pistol raised and ready.

Henry took that opportunity to ambush Brayce from behind, pushing the young man forward with a rough and forceful shove. Brayce stumbled forward to land on his hands and knees within the first ring of the Circle, and then something happened that Josie would have never believed if she hadn’t seen it with her own two eyes.

Brayce raised himself up on his arms in an attempt to stand, but a large boulder slid through the sand on its own accord and ran over both of his legs. The huge rock did not stop sliding, moving as if pushed by an invisible force as it traveled along the concentric rut that circled inwards toward the center.

Brayce screamed as blood spurted out from the two stumps that were left of his legs, that sanguine life spilling out to stain the white of the sand beneath him. He raised his left hand in reflex as another boulder sped toward him, and then he was gone, a slight stain of red on white sand as more white sand billowed out from beneath the boulder that had run him down, sand billowing out from it like a miniature desert storm.

Josie watched in horror as the boulders of this giant rock garden traveled in a circle along the ruts in the sand, speeding along as if by a will of their own.

She heard Josh screech in pain from somewhere on the other side of the Circle. She could see him off to her right, blood spraying from his missing right arm, the young man staggering in shock and terror, and then a speeding boulder ran him down, nothing left of him after that but sand, billowing sand where he had once been.

Her attention was taken by the screaming figure of Eric running toward them, though the gun-wielding thug only made it about ten feet. The young man tripped and fell as he stumbled over a rut, and then a boulder ran right through him, not over him but through him, and there was only half a torso with legs left after that, his intestines spilling out onto the sand, and even that torso vanished as another boulder took what was left.

Lorn dropped his shovel and bolted, but he was immediately run over. His head popped off like a cork as his entire body disappeared beneath a particularly large boulder. Josie could actually make out the surprised expression upon his face as his head rolled to a stop in one of the inner ruts. Another boulder ran over that head a second later, and then Lorn’s head was gone too, disappearing in a burst of white sand.

Jeremy screamed as he dropped his shovel and pulled forth his gun from the back of his jeans. He fired around himself in wild abandon as he screeched out a curse, firing at the speeding rocks moving in a circle toward the center, ever toward the center.

Josie ducked down along with Henry, Carol, and Caitlyn as shots rang out in the night. She clutched Houston closely to her as she kept low, praying no bullets would strike them, especially her son.

“Head down, baby!” she choked out as she held him tightly.

But she did not follow her own advice.

Josie looked up to see Jeremy scream one last time as the various boulders within the Circle closed in on him like a vice, all of those large rocks attracted to the center as if pulled there by some kind of gigantic, supernatural magnet.

A fountain of blood sprayed up as the boulders converged upon the center, and then the heavy stones moved away from that center in a clockwise motion, moving away from a center of concentric circles with nothing in it, not even the shovel that Jeremy had brought with him.

**********

Josie hugged her younger sister goodbye.

“I’ll get your phone to you,” said Caitlyn. “I’ll ship it here, but…are you sure you want to stay here?”

“Yeah,” breathed Josie. “I think it’s better for Houston and I. The Farnsworths said I could stay as long as we want. They’ve been really kind to us, and they actually want us to stay.”

“Okay,” shrugged Caitlyn. “I’ll let Mom and Dad know, but…you never know…maybe it’ll change their minds.”

“I doubt it,” frowned Josie.

There was nothing more to say about that. That was an old wound, and Josie did not want to reopen it.

Caitlyn gave Houston a kiss on the forehead and then turned toward the entrance of the bus.

Josie took one last look at her sister before the young blonde boarded the bus back home. Caitlyn was a little beat up, but the young woman was tough, and after everything they had both just been through, she was only going to get tougher.

After her sister’s sendoff, Josie carried Houston back toward the lot where Henry was waiting with his old red truck.

She walked up to the truck, opened the door, and strapped Houston into his car seat. She got into the truck, picked up the small fishbowl off the floor from between her feet, sat that in her lap, and buckled in.

This fishbowl was important to her, something she had just come into possession of, but it held a value to her beyond words, so she held onto it like a security blanket.

She gave a worried look toward Henry after that, but the old man only smiled at her.

“Don’t you worry about a thing,” he said gently. “Carol and I know people that will make those boys’ vehicles disappear…No one will ever know they were out here…You see? You’ve got nothing to worry about. You and Houston are safe here.”

Josie stared down at the contents of the fishbowl in her lap. That bowl held a flat mound of white sand, and in the middle of that sand was a single stone, Houston’s stone, narrow lines spiraling out from the center of that sand to ring around the sides of the glass bowl.

Josie smiled as she stared down at the little stone, because she now had some new protectors in her life, guardians that could make any threats to her or Houston disappear forever.

Yes…They were definitely safe here.

Rock Garden Copyright © 2021 Matthew L. Marlott

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