Buffys Lost Summer
To the casual observer, the bodies would have simply looked like they had been haphazardly arranged, tossed about like flakes in a snowglobe, blood spattering wherever there happened to be a clean surface. It was the eyes that were really disturbing; despite the ragged condition the bodies were in, the eyes still looked alive. Watching. Accusing. Judging. The flashbulb on the camera went off, and Sheriff Jimmy Branson flinched. The effect of the flash made it look like those cold eyes had blinked. The crime photographer hesitated for a moment before moving on to the next angle.
The hayloft was explosively hot. Branson would have wiped his brow, except that he had this sudden, irrational fear that the moisture on his forehead wasnt sweat, it was some other liquid, cold and sticky and red. He was in no hurry to find out one way or another.
The eyes were still there, but the skin below the upper jaw had been torn right off their faces, leaving a grisly display of bone and teeth. Still, Jimmy recognized the couple: Curtis Fenster and Jolene Williams. He could even picture the scenario, before hell came through the barn door. Curtis and Jolene, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. Curtis and Jolene, lying in a hayloft, F-U- Well, somebody put a stop to that. Something. Some thing that snatched the life right out of these two teenagers and left the remains to rot.
He couldnt shake the feeling that he was being taunted by whoever had done this. The third and fourth mysterious deaths in the last week and a half, and all had the same conclusion, the same bloody end. The Reverends not going to like this, he thought grimly.
To the casual observer, the bodies would have simply looked dead.
These days, Jimmy Branson dreamed of being a casual observer.
Okay, boys, well do this the right way. Somebody get the stakes outta my trunk.
* * *
The Heartland of America. The Grapes of Wrath. The Great Plains. When farmers settled here all those years ago, didnt it occur to any of them to plant something other than corn?
Buffys words didnt seem to affect the cornfield. The stalks swayed in the slight breeze with a haughty grace. Right then, the Slayer would have given anything for a hill. A small rise in the land. A really big rock. Something to break the monotony of flatness that surrounded her. She could swear she could see the horizons horizon from where she stood. At least she wouldnt have to worry about vampires sneaking up on her like they did in St. Louis. Buffy still felt slightly scandalized by that whole situation. The one vamp had been practically naked. Talk about distracting. But she had gotten his attention in a big hurry. The Slayer shuddered, remembering how she had spent a half hour washing that hand afterwards. Nope, if anyone or anything came at her now, shed probably have enough time for a quick nap and a manicure. Like that car down the road. It was at least three or four miles away, and it looked motionless from her vantage point. Not for the first time that day, Buffy wished she had a bike.
Even a skateboard would be on the happy side of helpful, she said to herself. You could probably push off once and coast all the way across the state. The car was slowly drawing closer, and the sun glinted off its windshield. Her stomach rumbled. She wondered if anyone would notice if she hopped off the side of the road and snagged a corncob from the adjacent field. I mean, theres just so much of the stuff. Buffy was uncomfortably aware that she was sweating in as many embarrassing places as could possibly exist, and wasnt it about time for her next period? She glanced down at her running shoes, her shabby, pathetic, ragged running shoes. The rubber sole was starting to separate from the rest of the shoe, and it wouldnt be long before she would be flapping along like a duck. And the smell She winced.
The car was close enough that she could make out the cherries on the roof, and her heart sank. She hoped the cop would just give her a ride to the next county or something. She hoped the cop didnt have her FBI wanted poster handy. She hoped the cop wouldnt want something more than what she was prepared to give. Buffy looked around herself and sighed. Not exactly the place to be inconspicuous.
The police car pulled to a stop, and the drivers window rolled down. Buffy found herself looking at a young, tired man with a Sheriffs hat on his head.
Well, started the Sheriff.
Well, replied the Slayer.
For the last five minutes, I tried to work out in my head what I was goin to say, but now that Im here and youre here, I cant remember any of it. Has that ever happened to you? His mild tone caught Buffy off-guard.
Uh, pretty much every day Im in school, sir.
Ah, well, dont call me sir, Im not old enough for that. Fact is, Im not even comfortable with people calling me Sheriff. My uncle, Ive known the guy all my life, and when he calls me Sheriff, I always want to turn around and look for the person hes really talkin to, cause it cant be me. Whats your name, miss?
Buffy found herself smiling at this rather good-looking young Sheriff, and surprised herself by telling the truth. Buffy Summers. But if you dont want to be called sir or Sheriff, then what do I call you? Guy?
Jimmyll do for now, I think. My friends call me a lot of names, especially when Im tossin em in the drunk tank, but Jimmys a good name. I like Buffy, too. Dont hear that one around here much.
So, Jimmy, is there anything I can do for you?
Well, you dont live around here, do you? Buffy shook her head. And youre hitch-hiking somewhere, correct? She nodded. Im afraid youre going to have to come with me. Hope you understand.
Buffy sighed and walked across the road to the police car. It was what I expected, anyway.
Why dont you ride up front with me? You seem like a nice enough girl.
She went around to the passenger side and got in. So, where are we headed?
Jimmy reversed direction and sped down the highway towards town. Were off to see the Reverend.
* * *
the Wonderful Wizard of Oz!
The Reverend stood at the window, surveying his kingdom. Behind him, a big-screen television was showing the classic movie. It always brought him back to his youth, even though as an adult he was very aware of how much of an acid-induced head-trip experience Oz really was. He hadnt dropped acid in what, twenty years? Not since his second year of college, just before he got booted out for failing all his classes (and wasnt there the small matter of the deans underage daughter? Yes, there was ). Back when he was making money peddling a little freedom from everyday life, giving the empty-headed sheep false hope while he lifted a few dollars from their pockets. Faith, thats what its all about. People have this obsessive need to believe in something. A Christian God, free love, a utopian society, cheap drugs, the ultimate salvation of the soul. Back then, he sold faith by the ounce.
Now, he sold faith by the bushel.
He looked out his window and saw five hundred acres of fertile land, corn mostly, but there were some other crops mixed in. A fence fifteen feet high with barbed wire on the top surrounded the farm, and the Reverend could see the sun beating down on three dozen teenagers working in the fields. Wayward souls, he would call them during his televised sermons. Misguided youth who just needed a firm hand to guide them in a positive direction. Pulling weeds. Raking leaves. Harvesting crops. A hundred other chores to keep naughty hands occupied.
They came from all over the United States, but most of the kids were locals, their parents too willing to discard their own responsibilities for the promise of discipline and order in their childrens lives. Oh, the speeches he gave were convincing enough, declaiming the appalling state of popular culture today, raving about the value of hard work and dedication, giving the excuse those parents want to hear: that its not their fault their kids are rebellious and disrespectful. Its not their fault their kids want to have minds of their own. Its not their fault their kids are into drugs and skipping school and sex and rock n roll. And yet he always left the impression that the disciplining of their children was something best left to a man who was so close to God, he could smell the leather of His sandals.
Of course, the money was more than welcome, too.
Back in the day, he would hustle drugs, guns, and other contraband, always on the run from the law, always wondering whether the knock on his door was friendly or deadly.
Now, he hustled faith and discipline, and it all looked as squeaky-clean as June Cleaver. He made as much money from the farm as he did from his donations, and he owned this town as well as any man could hope or dream. He surveyed his kingdom, and he thought it was good. It was fine. Damn fine.
* * *
Whats the fence for? In case some corn husks make a run for it?
If Buffy was uneasy before, now she was on edge. Jail would have been a rough deal, but it would have also been a quick stay. This place, with the big fence and the bored-looking guards at the gate This looked long-term. Not that she was particularly worried about staying a while; she assumed that she could escape from just about anything, but her concern was whether or not she would have a posse on her tail. Dodging bullets wasnt her idea of a good time. Lets not forget about what she might find, either.
God, Ill bet Ill have to save the day again. Curse my superhero tendencies!
Jimmy was rambling on about something, and Buffy decided to start paying attention. Who knew perhaps she might learn a few things about this flytrap.
and it might be hard work, but the Reverend says, you know, hard work and discipline strengthens the weakest soul or somethin like that. Hey, at least its outdoors, right? He glanced over at the teenager and caught the raised eyebrow she was throwing at him. Anyway, the Reverend will straighten you out. Give you purpose, you know?
Great, like I need more of that.
At the end of the road, she could see a large house, a brightly-painted red barn, a long, low bunkhouse, and a pristine white chapel. But what was that, just beyond the barn, off to the right? She squinted. The sun flashed in her eyes, and she decided that it was something metal lying flat on the bare ground, just a few dozen feet from the cornfield. Her imagination offered up hundreds of possibilities in an instant, but she had the sinking feeling that she would find out for herself soon enough.
As they pulled up to the house, a tall, lanky man with black jeans and a white shirt came out to greet them. His cowboy boots clicked on the paved driveway. The indifference in his eyes did not match the smile on his face.
Jimmy! he cried out in a booming baritone. What have you found for me on this fine August morning?
Jimmy took off his hat and nodded his head quickly. Well, Reverend, this is Buffy Summers. She was hitchhiking on Route 9, and
The Reverend came up to the Slayer and held out his hand. Pleased to meet you Buffy, is it? You can call me the Reverend. She took his hand reluctantly, and shook it firmly. His attempt at crushing her grip was unsuccessful. He frowned. Indeed. From the look of you, Id say youre on the run from something or someone. Youve got the aura of a person with a past too painful to confront head-on. Now that youve joined our little family, perhaps you might discover the value of discipline.
Buffy smiled sweetly. Gosh, Headmaster Willie, but I only plan on staying long enough to take a few pictures and buy a couple of cheap souvenirs.
The Reverend cocked his head to one side as if studying an unusual and strange sight. My, but youve got a nasty tongue. Perhaps I should let you in on a few of the rules here at the farm.
Let me guess. No molesting the corn?
Jimmy! he exclaimed with some spirit. Youve found us a very sick young woman. It is quite lucky for her that we found her in time, so her soul can be healed. Now listen, Miss Buffy, because it only gets said once. You will remain at the farm until we decide its time for you to leave. You will do the work we assign you, you will eat when we give you food, and you will sleep when we tell you to sleep. Very simple, actually.
Can you control when I have to pee, too? Cause Im really tired of managing that responsibility.
Buffy waited for the slap across the face that never came. Instead, the tall mans smile grew wider.
Oh, this will be a pleasure, I have no doubt. Every night, we have services in the chapel, which you will attend without fail. Buffy glanced at the chapel, and was struck by the metallic cross on the roof. It seemed to shimmer in the heat. Jimmy, would you show her the barracks? Shell need time to get ready before tonights broadcast.
The Sheriff began leading the teenager away with a nervous grin, and the Reverend called after them: And Jimmy? Guard against those impure thoughts, please.
Jimmys hand jumped off Buffys arm as if it was a hot stove.
* * *
Darkness settled on what had been a long day. Buffy lay awake in her bunk, staring at the rafters. She still felt dusty from all the weeding she had done that afternoon. Every time she shifted, a few more grains of sand made their presence known. She wouldnt have minded the work, really, if she had been paid for it. Hard work clears the head. No, it was after the workday that felt like forever stretched on a string. The broadcast.
And I say to you, brothers and sisters, I say that Satan himself has infected the minds of youth today with the temptations of the seven deadly sins. Satan is everywhere, my friends and neighbors, and he is sly, sly and cunning as a ferret in a chicken coop. He knows that when it comes to our children, we are weak and unwilling to follow the path of the righteous faith. He knows that when it comes to our children, we are uncertain and afraid of what they might become. He knows that when it comes to our children, we are lenient and undisciplined. So what does he do? He tempts our young with video games and profanity-laced movies. He encourages our young to talk back to their elders, to be disobedient to even the smallest requests, to listen to the devils music and rebel against their loving parents.
And so on for a whole hour. Basically, Buffy surmised, the Reverends message was that no young person could be trusted, because they were the pawns of Satan. Having actually met some real pawns of Satan, this message failed to impress her. She wondered if this white-collared psycho had even met a demon. She smiled as she thought of a few scenarios involving the Reverend and a cabal of vampires. Of course, shed have to break up the party eventually, but not before he had been turned into an undead creature. More fun that way.
Buffy sat up and peered into the darkness towards the sound. What? she whispered.
A shadowy figure was crouched beside the back door, beckoning cautiously.
Im not getting any sleep anyway
She slipped out of her bunk and moved silently towards the rear of the barracks. All around her, teenage boys and girls slept quietly or at least, they seemed to. Buffy was reminded of how much she detested silence. She reached the back door, and a light-haired girl a couple of years her junior turned the knob and crept outside. Buffy followed with quick, graceful movements. She could just make out her partner in crime dashing towards the barn, and a few seconds later, they were inside the wooden structure.
We can talk here, I dont think this building is miked. The girl started climbing the ladder to the hayloft.
Buffy watched the girls progress, hesitating at the base of the ladder. Everybody knows the true purpose of a hayloft. No offense, but youre not my type.
The girl glanced down and shook her head. Dont know until you try Anyway, I want to show you something. She reached the top and disappeared from view.
Buffy sighed and went up the ladder. My names Buffy, by the way. Nice to meet you.
The girl was sitting on a bale of hay, patiently waiting with a lit candle in her hand. She nodded. Rachel. You look like a girl who can take care of herself, so I thought I would tell you whats up with this hell-hole. See anything strange up here?
Buffy was about to make a snide remark when she saw something on the wall to her left. Something faded, and brown, and She reached out and scraped at the stain with her right index finger. The Slayer closed her eyes; you see dried blood enough times, you know it like you know your own skin. She sat down hard on the floor and opened her eyes.
Curtis and Jolene. They had been sneaking out here for about a week, and then something ripped them to pieces. Rachel moved her gaze up to the ceiling and drew a ragged breath.
Im sorry. They were your friends?
Rachel nodded. They they were the last of our group. Im the only one left. But, well, Ive gotta tell you a few things about the Farm first, so you understand.
Buffy made herself comfortable on the wooden floor.
The candlelight made Rachels face look like a constantly-shifting mask. First thing they dont tell you is what happens if you try and escape. Did you see the Hole?
Its a dirt hole, ten feet deep, in the ground with a metal door covering it. You try and escape, you spend a week in the Hole. They give you a few scraps once a day, and a cup of water every other day. Its not a place you want to go.
Yeah, if you get caught.
Oh, if you do escape, as unlikely as that is, your bunkmate spends a week in the Hole, and everyone else goes without food and water for a couple of days as punishment. Thats the Reverends way of making us police ourselves. But thats not everything. Did you eat supper tonight?
Buffy shrugged. I picked at it, but I wasnt really hungry.
Thats good. They put drugs in the food.
Some kind of super-Prozac, near as I can figure. Makes you all happy and docile, and the desire to rebel and disobey disappears faster than the morning mist. Didnt you notice at suppertime how everyone was all Stepford-like?
I guess I had assumed that everybody was tired from the days work. Buffy gave Rachel a sharp look. How did you find out about this?
Rachel sighed and gazed sightlessly at the far corner of the hayloft. Curtis He took sick one week back in the spring, and I guess they must have been afraid to keep giving him the drug, cause he was really feverish. He woke up early one morning, wandered down to the kitchen looking for something to drink, and he saw them preparing breakfast. He saw them take a small pellet of white powder and sprinkle it in the scrambled eggs. After that, well, he made Jolene stop eating, and then Jolene told me about it, and then I told Ray and Charlie But theyre all dead now except me.
So you think youre next? You think that the Reverend had your friends killed?
Rachel shrugged her shoulders and tried to look indifferent. I dont know. I heard what happened to them, how their bodies were all mangled and stuff She shuddered. I cant believe someone would actually do that to people.
Buffy frowned. Not necessarily someone. Maybe something.
* * *
Sheriff Jimmy Branson watched the marshmallow slowly melt in his hot chocolate. The other guys sometimes made fun of him about that. Coffee, now there was a mans drink, but hot chocolate? Thats for kids. The marshmallows didnt help. He rested his weight on his elbows, leaning over his cup on the diners counter, watching the white lump swirl slowly around. Jimmy was the youngest Sheriff in the history of Nebraska, and he had the Reverend to thank for that, but lately he had been feeling twice his age. Tragedy can do that to you, if youre not careful. Takes your innocence and na´ve beliefs and crushes them into a bloody pulp. He remembered playing in the cornfields as a young boy, running up and down the rows, pretending that he was fighting in a great battle, dodging bullets, jumping foxholes, engaging the faceless enemy, just like his father did in Vietnam. Then his dad had died, hit by his neighbors tractor, and there went one layer of innocence, ripped out of his soul and tossed to the wind like a candy wrapper. He remembered working odd jobs, making barely enough to put food on the table, when the Reverend had stormed into town and rescued him from poverty, giving him a job as a security guard. Four years later, he was the Sheriff, and now, hardly a year into his tenure, he had to see teenagers torn apart like shredded paper. There went another layer of innocence. He wondered how many layers were left. He wondered how the Reverend knew about the stakes. But, mostly he wondered about the young girl he had picked up the day before.
How many times had he fallen in love before? Twice? Three times, maybe? Not counting the little game of kiss and tickle with Arlene Day last year at the Christmas party, for all the good that did anyone, least of all him. Still, his mind kept jumping back to that first moment, when Buffy had looked him square in the face, with no sign of backing down. He was young yet, sure, but Lord, the fire in that girls eyes was enough to light the whole state of Nebraska.
Man, he thought, you dont fall in love that fast. Takes months, years of getting to know somebody before you could honestly say you loved them.
He knew what went on at the Reverends farm; hell, hadnt he worked there for four years? Jimmy started thinking about ways to rescue Buffy from the prison that he had brought her to, perhaps in some heroic, life-saving manner, and shed fall into his arms and proclaim her undying love He groaned inwardly. This was getting ridiculous. He couldnt start falling for every pretty girl that crossed his path. Im the Sheriff, for crying out loud. Get a grip on yourself, man.
He looked down. The marshmallow was almost gone.
So was his resistance.
Jimmy turned to see a beautiful, dark-haired young woman sitting beside him, and she was stunning, with legs that went on for days and a smile that could catch the attention of college boys two states over. What is going on here?
Maam? Oh, how quaint. At least you didnt call me honey, or baby, or a few other names Id like to forget. Her smile belied the irritation in her voice. From her purse she pulled out a photo and showed it to him. Have you seen this girl? Shes a friend of ours, well, not a friend of mine necessarily, but a friend of a friend, and she went missing a few weeks ago.
Jimmy needed only a moment to scan the photo, but stared at Buffys smiling face for several seconds, satisfying a need that he didnt even realize he had. He looked up at the gorgeous brunette. Im sorry, maam, but I havent seen her. If you give me that photo, I can show it around to my deputies, see if theyve spotted her round here.
The girl hastily returned the photo to her purse, and Jimmy could barely hide his disappointment. No, its the only one Ive got, sorry. Thanks, though. She got up to leave, and Jimmy noticed the small group of strangers standing outside.
Hope you find her, he said with a forced cheerfulness.
Me, too, she replied, echoing his tone of voice.
He watched her leave, a sinuous walk to the door, a graceful pull on the handle, and she swept herself outside. Suddenly he was sure that she knew he had been watching her walk out, and he flushed with embarrassment. Her friends clustered around her, and Jimmy spotted another young girl, a cute, slim redhead. Buffy must be from California, he thought, to have friends as good-looking as that. They all piled into a van parked on the street, and for a brief moment, he felt the overpowering urge to run out and stop them, to tell them, yes, he had seen her, he knew where she was, lets go rescue her together.
But the cold, stern face of the Reverend popped into his minds eye, and his rash impulse quieted to a whispering nudge.
My will be done, Jimmy, on Earth as it is in Heaven.
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