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Chapter Two: Council of Peacocks

July 30th

Driving down the dirt road, Josh removed his sunglasses when the sun dropped below the tall pines.  They left Ottawa only two hours ago but this felt like an alien world: pristine and pure.  Beside him, his girlfriend, Jan, admired the tree-covered mountains of the Laurentians.  The six of them were going to the cabin Jan’s parents owned on Lac Manitou.  The SUV was filled with enough food and alcohol to tide them over for the three weeks they planned to spend in the woods.  Jan’s parents paid for all of it.  Money was no object, as long as Jan spent it somewhere else. 

“Jesus! You drive like an old woman.  We should have been there, like, five hours ago.”

“What are you? Twelve?” Josh glanced in the rearview mirror at his best friend.  Brian was a thick-necked brute with hazel eyes and short brown hair.  On a good day, he verged on charming.  Today, was not one of those days.  “Just chill and have another drink?”

“Way ahead of you.”  Brian smiled and sipped vodka from a Tim Hortons' cup.  “It’s not the same though.  These cups make the vodka taste like ass.”

Josh shook his head. “And yet you still drink it.  Says volumes about you.  Since I’m an old lady, did you wanna drive for a bit?  Oh wait.  You can't.  Someone lost their license because they were stupid enough to drive drunk.”

“Correction.”  Rebecca, Brian's girlfriend since 10th grade, looked up from her cell phone.  Her long, curly brown hair was pulled away from her face to deal with the heat.  She sat directly behind Jan.  “Someone was stupid enough to get caught drinking and driving.  I'm sure he's learned his lesson.  Does anyone else have service?  My phone just died.” 

“Maybe it's a sign to put your phone away.”  Matt stopped making out with his new girlfriend, Tonia, and leaned forward from the back row of seats.  “And for the record, Brian’s not really the learning type.  Anyone know exactly how many times he’s smashed his car into the garage?  Anyone?  Cause you know, I can’t.”

“Twice.”  Brian turned around in his seat and faced Matt. “I did that twice.  And it’s not like I broke the garage.  Bunch of puritans, that’s what you are.”

Josh reached over and squeezed Jan’s hand.  She smiled and squeezed back. Then his smile slipped as he remembered the problems back home. For the last six months, his parents fighting was on a whole new level.  Mom accused Dad  of having an affair. Dad claimed it was only work that took him away from home. Considering what dad did, it was feasible.

“You’re doing it again.”  Jan put a hand on his neck and massaged the tension away.  She was nearly the physical antithesis of Josh.  Every feature on her face hinted at prestige and class.  Josh’s features were soft and boyish, almost feminine.  She kept her black hair in a short bob; his was a thick, blond tangle.  The only attribute they shared in common was their light blue eyes.  “We agreed no wallowing until we return to civilization, remember?”

Josh turned to her and smiled.  “Sorry.  Thanks for noticing.”

“Not like you’re hard to read Mr. Wilkinson.”  She released his hand and checked her cell. “You’re easily the worst liar I’ve ever met, which is just fine by me.  I have no signal either Becka. Must be a dead zone.”

“Is there coverage at the cabin?” Tonia said as she checked her phone.  “My parents will freak if they can’t contact me.”

“Unfortunately, there is.”  Jan put her phone away.  “We’re supposed to be getting away from all this crap. Otherwise, what’s the point in camping?”

Moments later, Josh reached down and turned up the music.

“Hey, what’s up?” Jan asked.  “Don’t like my singing?”
“Were you singing?”  He pretended to wince as Jan slapped him. 

“You know I was.  You always do that – turn up the music when I’m singing.”

“Really?  Must be a coincidence.  I just love this song.”

Brian kicked the back of Josh’s chair.  “Since when do you like One Direction, man?  Just tell her the truth.  No?  Fine, then I will.  Every time you sing Josh gets so blinded by his love for you that he just can’t drive straight.  That’s why he’s turning up the music.”

“Oh please.”  Matt threw a book at Brian’s head.  It missed and hit Josh.

 “Come on guys! Trying to drive here.” Josh yelled into the rear-view mirror.  The horseplay wouldn’t 
normally bother him.  Maybe Jan was right.  Maybe he was letting things back home get to him.

“Oh yeah,” Rebecca said as she grabbed Brian’s cup.  “All this traffic makes it really dangerous. What do you think you’d hit? A moose?”

“Either that or a tree.” Josh brushed his sweat-damp hair from his forehead.  “I’m not trying to be a buzz kill.  Just stop the flying shrapnel, okay?”

Josh turned off onto a road marked with a hand-painted sign.  On one side of the road, he caught glimpses of the lake.  The trees pushed in further on the road, blocking out even more light. 

“Do people actually live up here?” Tonia pushed her glasses back into place and stared out the window at tall pine trees on either side of the road.  “We haven’t seen a car or house since we left that creepy gas station.”

“What’s the matter?” Matt put his arm around Tonia and passed her a wine cooler.  “Afraid this is going to turn out to be a little Quebecois Chainsaw Massacre thing?  Of course people live here. And not the crazy hillbilly type.  The guy in the cottage next to ours has a helicopter pad.  Tons of celebrities and millionaires buy places out here.  You couldn’t ask for a safer place.  Or maybe,” he said leaning forward, fingers curled into claws.  “Maybe there are cannibal fur traders just waiting in the woods to…”

The front two tires blew out.  With a loud hiss and pop, the SUV swerved off the road.

A sudden rush of adrenaline negated Josh’s exhaustion.  He fought with the steering wheel to get the SUV back on the asphalt.  He knew it was a losing battle even before they hit the tree.  Luckily everyone was wearing their seatbelts.  Aside from the burn of the seatbelts against their chests, there were no injuries.  The vehicle, however, was totaled. The front end was wrapped firmly around an evergreen.

“Damn.”  Matt’s voice was quiet.

The engine sputtered and died.  The wind blew through the trees and birds called out from unseen places. Josh turned off the ignition.  He looked over his shoulder at Brian and Matt.  Without a word, the men got out of the vehicle to inspect the damage.
“This can't be happening,” Matt held his head with both hands.  He looked up and down the street.  There was still no sign of other cars.

“Your dad is so going to kill you.”  Brian walked to the front of the SUV and stared to the crunched metal.  Slowly and repeatedly, he shook his head.

“How bad is it?” Jan got out of the vehicle, rubbing her chest where the seatbelt hit.

“Get back in the car,” Josh said.  He inhaled deeply and knelt to inspect the tires.  When he stood, he held two foot-long shards of metal.  They were black and tapered, shaped like long feathers. On the wide end was an etching of an peacock.

Matt knelt down and inspected the front tires on the passenger-side.  “Crap. There’s some over here too.” 
Jan stared at the daggers still stuck in the passenger-side tire.  “It's possible they were just lying in the road.”
Josh gave her a very steady look.  Then he turned to study the woods.

“Crap.” Brian’s eyes went wide.  "Rebecca, stay in the car."  He surveyed the woods on the other side of the road. 

Matt looked at Tonia and just shook his head.

“Pull those things out,” Josh said.  "You're going to need them."

“Stop, Josh.  You're freaking me out."  Brian’s eyes were red. 
“Good.  We need to be scared.  They've done this before.  If we don't think straight we're as good as dead."
“What about you, Josh?” Matt asked.  “You’re smaller than either of us.”

“There’s not enough for all of us,” Josh said.  “I can take care of myself.”

 “But…?” Matt said.

“Let it go.”  Brian took one of the daggers, all the while staring at Josh.

“Oh?  Had many encounters with crazed woodmen who trap tourists?”

“Not exactly.  Let’s just say I have a few secrets.  We don’t have time for this.  This is the point in the movies when the disposable teens split up.”

“And the body count starts.” Matt went pale as soon as he realized what he had just said.  He backed up until his shoulders were firmly against the side of the SUV.  Tonia knocked on the window and he whirled around.  Opening the side door, he passed a shard to each of the women.  “We probably won’t need these.  Just to be safe.”  Matt smiled.  It was thin and unconvincing.

“Safe?”  Tonia pressed a hand against her stomach, repulsed as she took the blade.

“We can’t stay here,” Jan walked over to Josh and grabbed his arm.  “We’re sitting ducks.  They’re probably watching us right now.  What if they have guns?”

Josh kissed her on the cheek.  “If they had guns they probably would’ve shot the tires out.”

“You’d have to be a pretty good shot to hit the tires of a moving car.”  Jan studied the metal in her hands. 

“Sharp objects on the road make for better odds.”

Rebecca stepped out of the car, blade in hand.  “Don’t you think we’re, like, overreacting or something.  Maybe these things just fell off a truck or something.”

“Shut up.”  Josh held up his hand and whispered the word.  It was enough to quiet everyone.  He walked up the road, eyes down.

“Wait up!”  Jan raced after him.  “Where are you going? You know we shouldn’t split up.”

 “They shouldn’t have gone into the tires like that.”

“What do you mean?”

Josh stopped and turned to her.  “Sharp pieces of metal lying in the road they would tear a hole in the tread. They wouldn’t get stuck in like that.”

Jan shook her head for a moment. Then she nodded and folded her arms across her chest.  “They went in the side of the tires.”

Josh nodded.  “I doubt they’d be in the sides if we ran over them. Help me look.  If someone threw them, there could be others lying around.” 

Brian walked over from the SUV.  “What’s going on here Josh?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is this like the last time?”

Josh stopped.  “What last time?  What are you talking about?”

Brian opened his mouth, then sighed and looked at the ground.  “Never mind.”

“No sign of any others,” Jan said. 

Josh wiped the sweat from his forehead. “Means they must be really good shots.  Didn’t miss once.”
Brian stiffened and his eyes went wide.  “Either that or they ran up to the road and got them back already.”
Josh looked at his best friend and his girlfriend.

Jan started to back up. “We should get back.”

Josh nodded.

They all walked quickly back to the SUV.

“Are we going?” Rebecca asked. 

“We stay,” Brian took her in his arms and kissed the top of her head.  “It’s not much but the vehicle is the only cover we have.  That and the trees.  Besides, it’s not impossible that another car could drive by.  I’m not holding my breath, but it could happen.  In theory.”

Josh reached into the car to grab his sunglasses.  “Why did we take this way again?”

Jan rolled her eyes.  “You wanted to try a different route than last year.  See new scenery.”

“Looks like you got your wish.”  Rebecca shook her dagger at Josh.

“Yikes.” Josh bit his lip and winced.  “Sorry.  Let’s try to get this off the tree.”  He opened the front passenger door, stepped inside and reached over the wheel.  He turned the key a quarter turn until he heard the steering wheel unlock.  Then he put the gear in neutral and slid back out.  “Tonia, take the wheel.  Everyone else, come help. The way it’s lodged, we’re going to need you.”

Within seconds, Tonia was craning her neck to look out the rear window while the other five pushed on the front of the car. 

She never saw what hit her.

“Jesus Christ!”  Brian screamed as the driver’s side window exploded.  Glass fragments blasted everywhere.  Instinctively, everyone covered their faces and closed their eyes.

Josh dropped to the ground.  He pulled the others by their shorts and beltlines until all were lying flat in the underbrush.  Matt wheezed, an asthmatic sound.  His body went through a steady string of spasms.  As he stared into nothing, his lips worked their way around Tonia’s name.

“Stay.” Josh gripped Jan’s shoulder, making it an order rather than a plea. He crawled on his stomach toward the road, each breath was hot and painful.  “Please don’t be dead,” he whispered to himself.  He hoped it’d been a rock, a bird, anything but another of those shards.  A shard would mean blood and death.  He got off his stomach when he reached the road, using the SUV for protection.  He opened the passenger door as quietly as he could and peeked inside at Tonia’s body. 

“Blood and death.”  Her neck was twisted at an unnatural angle. The impact had snapped her spine.  A six-inch black blade – identical to the ones in the tires – had slammed into the lower left section of her skull.  A part of him, a dark part that spoke to him more often than he wanted to admit, told him to take the shard out of her head.  It was a weapon and he was going to need it.  One thought of Matt and he knew he couldn’t do it. 

He climbed into the SUV and pushed Tonia’s body back up in the driver’s seat.  He crouched down near the floor and used her body as cover.  He wasn’t a big man.  Her body wouldn’t have been much protection for Matt or Brian.  

Josh moved to roll down the driver’s side window. When his fingers touched glass fragments on the window control, he realized what he was doing.  There was no window anymore.

“Brian,” he said as calmly as he could. 

After a moment he heard a very quiet answer.  “Is she…?”

“Not now.  Keep Matt down.  Don’t let him see this.  I want you all to stay on your knees but try to push the van backwards.  I’ll steer.”

“Are you crazy?” Jan said.  “You’ll be killed.”

“Not.  Now.  I’m okay.  Don’t think about what I’m doing. Just focus on pushing this thing backwards.  Do it now.”

He didn’t expect it to work.   The four of them, even Matt, were on their knees pushing the vehicle off the tree.  The SUV shuttered then, unexpectedly, it pushed off the tree forcefully.

“Stay down,” he said out the window.  “Use the trees for protection.  We know where they are now.”  He lied for their peace of mind more than anything.  Panic would get someone else killed.  He turned the key in the ignition.  The engine sputtered and complained.  “I need a miracle now.  Right now.  Come on.”

The engine sparked into life.  He was in the middle of breathing a sigh of relief when he saw movement out of corner of his eye.  He looked into the woods.  Three dark shadows raced toward them.

Josh yelled out the window.  “Get in!  Now!”  Maybe it was something in his voice or some sound they heard from the woods but they all followed his lead.  Still crouched over, they raced through the side doors.  Josh didn’t wait for the doors to close before he drove off.

Continue to Chapter Three

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