Floating about five yards out from the shore was a leg. It was bloated and far too white. It looked unnatural as it turned in a slow, lazy circle. Tiny darters swam around it and shimmered sunlight from their scales. Soggy feathers of black and white floated around the severed limb.
There were a couple vans parked in a clearing nearby with people wearing what appeared to be scrubs. They nodded at Gloria and Benny as they passed by.
“We instructed our people not to touch anything. We didn’t want their touch tainting yours,” Benny explained. “Not that I think it matters.”
Bill felt Benny's outward cynicism, but Benny’s underlying belief was a more powerful force in his aura.
Bill nodded. “That’s probably for the best. I know what I’m looking for: a face, a name, anything identifying, right?”
“That’s right, Bill, anything,” Gloria agreed.
“Well, the less touch involved the better, then.”
A snake squirreled over the surface of the water on the opposite side of the pond. A fish jumped near it leaving a circle of ripples. A wave of nausea rolled through Bill as Gloria handed him a pair of thick rubber waders from the trunk of the rental car.
“Don’t make me do this,” Bill said it quietly. His cheeks burned with shame. He wanted to act like a spoiled child and curl into a ball while screaming "I don't wanna! I don't wanna! I don't wanna!" but he knew this was not an option.
Benny acted like he didn’t hear Bill.
Gloria shook her head as she slipped into her own pair of waders. “Let’s go.” She stepped out into the pond.
The water in the pond seemed even hotter than the humid air. It offered no cooling respite. Bill trudged through the mud, the treaded boots on his waders sticking in a half foot of mud. He heard a sucking, squelching sound with every forced step.
The sun seemed too bright. He saw stars and thought he was going to pass out.
Gloria wrapped her hand around his upper arm and held him steady. He felt her touch and felt her courage, and it filled him. The scene around him clarified. His vision grew a little more focused, and he shook the cobwebs from his mind. Her touch was familiar, and in that familiarity, he found comfort.
The leg was directly in front of him. It was severed just below the hip and above the ankle. It was just a leg. There was no foot, no body. Bill took off his glove and reached his hand out.
“Go ahead, Bill. Do your thing,” Gloria whispered near his ear.
Her aura pulsed with determination and this fed his resolve.
He reached out and wrapped his fingers around a little knee.
A starburst of pain filled Bill’s head. The sun remained overhead, but it grew dark. Nighttime descended over reality. Stars dotted the sky. A silver crescent moon sat in the clearing over the pond. The moon’s reflection danced across the rippled surface.
The sounds were different. There was a single lonely hoot of an owl, the screech of crickets, and the trilling songs of night birds.
There was also a little girl screaming.
Bill saw her fighting. She was being pulled by her hair. Her thin arms and legs waved about in the air, and she struggled to get a handhold on the dirt road. Her nails scraped against the rough soil.
She fought a good fight, and Bill felt her desperation and, worst of all, the glimmer of hope that everything would be okay. He knew it would not be. He already knew how this story ended. Like all lives, it would end in tragedy. This young life would be snuffed out and gone forever.
Bill struggled to focus his attention on the figure pulling the little girl. It was a blur. The figure wore black. A black track suit, maybe? He couldn’t be sure. The face shook back and forth at such a quick speed he could make out no discernable features. It was just a blur. Yet, in the blur, he saw the sparkle of teeth and a sick, sick smile.
In the hand not dragging the girl, the figure held a felling ax. He dropped her to the ground and lifted the ax above his head with the butt end pointing down. The figure swung the ax handle down with a grunt. The wood connected with her temple. The girl stopped screaming. She lay silent and still. It would appear she was peaceful and sleeping if not for a pool of blood crowning outwards from her head.
The figure pulled the ax back into the air, twirled the handle with a flourish, and then brought the blade down with precision at the point where leg met hip. The leg fell free from the body and the girl bled. She would never cry again. Bill thought there might be some comfort in that, at least.
Bill had seen enough. His body shook with uncontrollable tremors, and he knew elsewhere, where the sun shined and agents stood milling about watching him, he was retching and vomiting. He could taste it on the back of his throat, but it was very faint and far away.
Bill tried again to see the face, but nothing was there, just a blur of indistinguishable features and a Cheshire Cat grin of gleaming white teeth. Something like wings erupted from his back and fluttered. Feathers rained down.
Bill focused on the direction that the figure had come from when carrying the screaming child. Down the rutted dirt road, he saw eight bright lights glowing: a pair of headlights and four spotlights atop a roll bar. It was a jeep, maybe, or a truck. He could not be sure. The darkness hid it too well. All he could see were the spotlights, and they were blinding.
The pain in his head rose. A buzzing filtered through his head and grew louder. The world wavered, and he felt himself fall into the water. A pair of arms – small but strong – grabbed him, and he knew he was being pulled to shore.
He had done his job. He had seen all he could see, but it was not enough. He worried it would never be enough.
“Bill? Bill? Are you okay?”
Sunlight filtered orange through his closed eyelids. He stirred and tried to open his eyes. The light was too bright. He had to shut his eyes once again. There was a soft hand, a familiar hand, running fingers through his hair.
“What is it? Is he okay?”
He heard the voice. He knew the voice. He wondered who she was talking to? He wondered where they were? Did their parents know they had skipped school? But that wasn’t right. That was long ago and far away now.
And then he remembered: He knew what he had seen was her memory, from her eyes, not his. It was a different perspective. It was good to know that Gloria thought about him sometimes, too.
He opened his eyes again and let the world come back into focus. His head was in Gloria’s lap. A young man wearing scrubs stood over him and was checking him out with a pen light. He ran the pen light back and forth across his face.
“Can you follow the light with your eyes, sir?”
Bill did as he was told.
“He seems to be all right.” The young man turned his face to Gloria. “But you should probably get him to a doctor as soon as you can. I’d suggest an MRI. I don’t know for sure – as you know I don’t really treat the living that often these days – but I think your guy here may have had a stroke.”
Bill felt something wet on the side of his face. He reached his hand up and touched himself. He pulled his hand away and looked at it beneath the bright sun. A crimson streak stained the skin. He could taste blood in his mouth.
“I ink I bic my ong,” Bill said as best as he could.
Gloria nodded his head. “Yes, you bit your tongue. You started shaking out there and then just… fell over. You were spazzing out. Does that always happen?”
Bill shook his head. “I donno.” He squinted his eyes as he tried to remember. “I pass ou whe I saw a foo.”
“That’s right. You passed out when you saw the foot. But does this happen every time? Was that the first time you ever passed out?”
Bill nodded his head.
Benny stood over him and blocked the sun. “You think you can stand up?” He reached down with a meaty hand.
Bill nodded his head and took the big man’s hand. He felt compassion there and it comforted him. He felt strength in that hand, and it was enough to help him get back to the car. Once there, he closed the door behind him, put on his seatbelt, rested his head against the cool glass of the window, closed his eyes, and fell back asleep.
In his dreams, he heard the echoes of little girls crying out to him for help.