It took a long time for Michael to fall deep enough asleep to where Terry felt sure he could do what needed doing without waking him up. He slid off their old mattress carefully, then tucked all the blankets around Michael so he wouldn't get too cold if it turned out he had to spend the night alone. He left his keys and wallet on the console so Michael could find them, just in case. Pressed a goodbye kiss to Michael's hair. Just in case.
His zippo, he kept in his pocket. He grabbed the sage they'd salvaged and their supply of rolling papers. Buddy rolled better joints than him - Buddy rolled better joints than anybody - but Buddy was still snowed in at that bed and breakfast, where Terry told himself he was safe and sound and drinking in front of the fire. Terry rolled himself two dozen undoubtedly foul sage cigarettes and, after brief deliberation, pocketed seven and left the rest for Michael. He wasn't going far, and he only needed enough for one way.
He took an eighth in hand and opened the door carefully before stepping out onto the warped wood floor, just inside their protective circle. With one last look at Michael, he closed the door just as carefully as he'd opened it. Every sound was a risk, but he didn't want the cold getting in.
Keeping his eyes fixed on his shaking hands, he lit the first sage cigarette. It didn't taste as bad as he'd expected, but that wasn't saying much. When he was sure it wouldn't go out, he made himself look around the bar. Nothing. At least, nothing now.
There was no point wasting time. Either burning sage would keep the thing off him or not. If not, well, maybe it'd be satisfied with one.
Heart pounding, Terry stepped over the line. If it was coming, it didn't come instantly, and that was about all he needed. He couldn't resist making one last round with the box of salt, shoring up the perimeter where it looked thin. He made sure to leave the box inside, where Michael could get to it safely.
It was a longer route, but he went out the kitchen door in the back. No direct line to the bar, no chance of letting in a gust of wind to blow a hole in their circle.
The night was calm and bright. He couldn't have wished for better. A full moon. No wind to blow the sage away.
He should have no trouble making it to the crossroads.
Puffing nervously, Terry began to walk, setting a slow, steady pace. He rounded the bar and came to the washed out end of the gravel road they'd come on. His first sage cigarette was burning down and he pulled a second out of his pocket and lit it on the end. Six left. He started down the road, gravel crunching under his boots.
In this moonlit flatland, he ought to be able to see straight to his destination and a good ways in every other direction too. But the corn looming up on either side of the narrow road was too dense to see through and too tall to see over. Maybe a thousand yards down, there was a bend on the road. Another two hundred after that, the last road they'd passed. It had only been a dirt track, but Terry supposed - hoped - that it would do. What was the saying - that God marked the sparrow's fall? Surely anything watching crossroads at midnight would mark a summons even from this little nowhere road.
Something rustled in the corn to his left. He spun towards it, but all there was to see was the slight swaying of the corn that had been disturbed. For a minute he stood there frozen, staring and half expecting something to come out of the corn at him the instant he looked away.
Pain stung his fingers and Terry realized with a jolt that the sage stick in his hand had burned down to almost nothing while he stood there like a deer in the headlights. That broke the spell. He fumbled for his lighter and another joint. Five.
It wasn't even anything unusual that had happened, Terry scolded himself as he sucked on the joint, coaxing it to catch - animals ran around every night, they weren't about to take the night off for his sake.
Now, Flopsy, Mopsy, turns out we got Terry Gordy planning to walk through our field at midnight and we don't wanna scare him, so make sure to stay in your burrow and don't cause no disturbances.
A rabbit or a stray cat. Hell, a coyote. Whatever it was got spooked and ran, so it probably wasn't rabid. It didn't sound big enough to be a bear or a mountain lion, if they even had those around here. And if it wasn't either of those and it wasn't rabid, it wasn't anything he needed to give a damn about.
He was about to turn back to the path when something caught his eye. No movement, just a shadow at the edge of his peripheral vision. Slowly, forcing himself to keep breathing, he turned.
Hanging in the middle of the road, about twenty yards back the way he came, was the scarecrow. It swayed slightly, as if in a breeze. There was no breeze. Even the tiniest gust would have felt like an arctic gale with the cold sweat Terry was in. There was no breeze.
A sudden, terrible claustrophobia gripped him. He'd come far enough that all he could see in any direction was corn. Corn, and the scarecrow. It was waiting between him and the bar, though, and if he made a break for it, maybe-
The rotting burlap where a face would be drooped, elongated, like it was opening a hidden mouth impossibly wide. Terry spun in blind terror, meaning to sprint for the crossroads.
It was Kerry Von Erich who saved his life. He got about three steps before his boots, those stupid cowboy boots Kerry had given him for Christmas, slipped out from under him like he was trying to run on ice instead of gravel. It wasn't the worst landing he could've taken, he got his hands up to break his fall enough he didn't knock himself silly or bust his nose, but it still hurt like a son of a bitch.
The pain wasn't what worried him as he scrambled to his knees, the right one throbbing in protest. He'd lost his sage in the tumble and wherever it had landed he didn't dare waste time searching. He fished another joint out of his pocket and lit it as fast as his skinned hands could manage. Four.
And suddenly he realized what it had really been doing behind him in the road. It had wanted him to run - to run as fast as he could, right out of the protective cloud of sage smoke and into clear air. He looked over his shoulder. It was still there, still contorted into a grotesque silent scream, but no closer.
After a moment's deliberation, Terry sat down on his butt and pulled off the boots, tossing them aside. Those boots had proved themselves about as trustworthy as Kerry himself. This time the fall had been lucky, sure, but he didn't intend on a next time.
Slowly, shaking all over, Terry climbed to his feet, feeling the cool gravel through his socks. He couldn't let it get him like that again. He had to keep his wits about him. Almost guiltily, he snuck one more peek behind him to see if it was still there. It was gone. That was almost worse.
It can't get at Michael. It can't get at you. There's nothing can happen that should make you panic.
Easy to say, he thought grimly.
This time he counted his paces, keeping a deliberate rhythm. He was too scared to trust himself not to speed up if he didn't. Besides, it was hard to judge distance any other way. He thought he must be half way to the bend by now but all he could see was an endless corridor of corn.
A hundred paces in and everything looked just the same, like he hadn't made any progress at all. And wasn't that a nasty thought, that maybe he hadn't. For all he knew it was changing things on him. For all he knew he'd walk until he was out of sage without ever reaching that bend in the road.
Two hundred. His fear was making the road seem narrower, making the corn seem to lean in over him. The creepy touch of a spiderweb on his face made him flinch and swat it away, before the significance of it froze him in his tracks. We drove down this road.
His sage was burning down and he lit a new one absently. Three. If that even mattered anymore.
Think, think. If it made a new stretch of road, then it had to put them cobwebs up. Cobwebs on a new road don't make no more sense than cobwebs we drove right through. And that was something, wasn't it? Maybe it changed the road and maybe it didn't, but either way those cobwebs were there for one reason and that was to scare him, to make him sure the road had changed.
That got his feet moving again. The least he could do was call its bluff.
By four hundred paces, he could finally see where the corn closed over. It could be a dead end, part of his mind insisted, but as he got closer he could see that it was the turn, right where it should be. Relief flooded him.
As he rounded the bend, the feeling turned to miserable dread. It was waiting for him, planted between him and the crossroads. There was a small gash in the burlap of its head, just big enough that he could see rotting flesh inside.
Steeling himself, Terry lit his third to last sage cigarette. He'd need all the protection he could get.
"You might scare me, but you can't stop me," he said aloud, clenching his fists. He took one step forward, then another.
The burlap split further with a sickly ripping sound and Terry realized it was because the dead thing inside it was moving its jaw. He kept walking. It was staying at the same distance, he saw, it could put on whatever Texas Chainsaw Bullshit it wanted but it couldn't do a damn thing else.
The tear was wide enough now he could see the jaw fall lopsided, hanging by a slick gray tendon. And, spilling out beside it, a shock of yellow hair- Terry fixed his eyes on the moon. He didn't have to watch this show.
A garbled, awful moan, reached his ears. Pleading without a tongue. And there was something else about it, something worse. Terry clapped his hands over his ears, counting his steps aloud to drown out that familiar rasp.
Every twenty steps he looked down, just a glimpse, to check his position. He tried not to see the mangled shape hanging in front of him, changing and twisting. Why? he wondered bitterly. If it hasn't made me run yet, it can't think I'm gonna, so why?
Just to dish out whatever punishment it could, maybe. He could understand spite and malice plenty. He pushed on, checking and counting, counting and checking.
Finally, there it was, the little dirt track running right behind the base of the post. Terry sighed in relief as he stared up at the moon and counted out a last set of steps. He was here, it could go after his heart all it wanted but he was here. When he looked down a last time it was gone. Maybe it'd come to the same conclusion.
Shivering, Terry stepped into the center of the crossroads. He couldn't even feel the cold but he couldn't seem to stop shaking. There wasn't much left of his sage cigarette so he pulled out another and lit it with the ember. One left in his pocket. It would have to be enough.
All alone out here in the corn, it was hard to pretend the thing chasing them would be reasoned with. He would beg - not Michael, take me, I won't fight, just please not Michael - but it would never stop with its job half done. If nothing happened before the last joint went out, all this would be for nothing. Leaving Michael by himself would be for nothing. Being all alone out here when it came for him would be for nothing.
Terry stared up at the moon and waited, watching the wisps of sage smoke drift away with time and hope.
"Well, hello, Freebird." It was a pleasant, homey voice - Georgia, he thought, but that wasn't quite right.
Terry turned slowly, casually, wondering if the owner of that friendly voice could see his thoughts right now and know he'd noticed that whatever it was hadn't made any footfalls on the gravel road. "Hello."
A smiling man in white slacks and a Hawaiian shirt stood in the center of the crossroads, looking around serenely. "It sure is a peaceful night, isn't it? I was just out here, looking at the moon and the stars, enjoying how peaceful it is, when I saw you here at the crossroads. And I thought, ain't that something? One Freebird flown off all on his own, standing at the crossroads on a peaceful night like this."
Some people - Michael - could talk their way around the very devil himself as naturally as breathing. Terry kept his mouth shut.
"Maybe you're just-" the man paused to shrug "-walking around out here, enjoying the moonlight. But then you surely wouldn't be all alone." His knowing smile sent gooseflesh up Terry's arms. He shouldn't have let Michael cross his mind, not even for a second, not in front of this thing. Too late now, and maybe it wouldn't have mattered anyways. He didn't know what it was he was dealing with here, he was so far in over his head he couldn't see enough light to know which way was up.
With a casual ease that did nothing to help Terry's rising panic, the apparition continued, "No, you being a fugitive from justice, I do believe you came out here looking for mercy." He spread his hands in front of him, smile widening. "And mercy you have found."
Terry swallowed hard, mind racing. "Wouldn't think the devil would care for justice. Or the Von Erichs."
"Oh, maybe not," said the man agreeably. "But you got to think the devil, he knows what you boys got coming for you. And when it gets you, he just might enjoy that part." His eyes sparkled in the moonlight. "Sometimes justice got a way about it, you know what I mean?"
The shudder that ran through him wouldn't be suppressed. People threw around the phrase skin-crawling a lot but Bam Bam had never known it to feel so apt as now.
"I came here to make a deal."
"Of course you did." The man's grin seemed impossibly, unnaturally wide. "You came here to sell your immortal soul to stop what's coming for you and yours." He held up a hand as if to fend off a protest, but Bam Bam couldn't have said anything right then if he wanted to. He couldn't breathe, let alone make a peep.
"Now, I know that a romantic man, he might be tempted to say something like, 'Mr. Devil Man,'" the man said, accent sliding over to Chattanooga easy as anything, "'that ain't been mine to sell for going on half a dozen years now and I never did no deals with something belonged to another man.' But if that romantic man really believed his loving soul to be any sort of protection, why, I think he would be at home, sleeping in his bed with the one he loves, all nice and peaceful, instead of sneaked out to the dadgum crossroads like a thief in the night. You know what I mean?"
He'd already known it was reading his mind, Terry told himself. But it was one thing to know something could in all likelihood see his thoughts and it was another thing altogether to hear it read them aloud.
For a second he was sure it would be like in a nightmare, that he was so scared he wouldn't be able to make a sound. But his voice came out clear and he asked, "You got anything on sale?"
The man laughed like an old friend had surprised him with a new joke, slapping his knee with delight and holding his sides. "Oh, that's good, I like that. Something on sale." He shook his head, still chuckling. "Now, I don't usually do this, you understand, but you got me in such a good mood I may just have something in your price range tonight, Freebird. How do you feel about doing a little favor?"
His sage cigarette was nearly burnt out and Terry took the excuse not to answer. He pulled the last one from his pocket and lit it.
"That's real clever with the sage," commented the man mildly, "real clever way to do that. I just hope you brought enough of those so you won't run out before we can come to terms, Freebird." A vision of black spreading over the man's eyes like ink and his grin bulging out with multiple rows of teeth forced its way into Terry's mind. Shark, shark, shark. "Now, about that favor, I don't mean right this instant," he continued, when Terry didn't answer. "But one day I might send someone around your way in need of a little help teaching the children or digging a hole or some such odd job. And it wouldn't be nothing of any harm to you or your beau or your other one," he said, making a show of weary amusement. "I say that because I can see you're smart enough as to ask." He paused, looking at Terry with a gleam of interest in his eyes. "I wonder, do people give you credit for that?"
Smart enough as not to say nothing back to that, too, Terry thought, looking back at him with the same blank, nobody-home expression he put on when some promoter he didn't want to talk to no how tried to go behind Michael to negotiate with him. Then, Was that a trap to catch me or a trap to get me cocky?
The man's eyes crinkled a little more with his smile. "Well, like I was saying, one day somebody'd ask you for a favor. And it could be any time or anybody, but you'd know when it was the right one. So you'd do them that favor like we agreed and everything'd be square between us. Now, can you say fairer than that?"
It was exactly the kind of bargain you didn't want to make with anything you met at a crossroads at midnight, and this thing knew he knew it, and probably also knew he was desperate enough that it didn't matter. "And what would you do?"
"Well, you surely know it ain't some monster you can fight, else you'd be out burning cornfields instead of talking to me. I don't doubt that you would happily burn all of Texas if you thought that would protect your own. But it's been in your dreams. You can't fight some dream thing that's not real. I imagine that must be frustrating to you, being as you are." Bam Bam didn't nod, but he imagined that wouldn't have mattered even if this thing wearing a man-suit couldn't read his mind. "I could make it real, make it something that could be destroyed or stopped. Now, that don't mean you will stop it, or that it won't get you or your man first. But if you want me to stop it for you, well," he said, chuckling, "you know the price."
"If you make it real enough I can kill it, I'll do you a favor just like you said. And no bullshit, I ain't no lawyer but you been in my head this whole time and you know what terms I mean to agree to."
The man laughed again, ending in a sated sigh. "I wish we could have done bigger business, Freebird, I surely do. Maybe some other day."
"But we have a deal?"
The man spread his hands and smiled. "It's already done. Though if you wanted to stay and coversate a while, I wouldn't be opposed." It was night and he was scared, Terry told himself. But, God help him, for a second it looked like that smile had too many teeth. "I enjoy birds. Freebirds, whippoorwills, shrike birds, vultures.... But you surely want to fly on home to your nest," he continued, with an easy chuckle and a flash of smile. "I never did hear of a little margarita salt and brick dust keeping anything real away. You know what I mean?"
Terry was already running.