Dylan didn’t know what about “doom,” “cursed,” and “death and dismemberment,” they didn’t seem to understand. Ever since he could remember, he had been living and working at his dead-end station at the edge of the woods, warning people not to go any farther, but they still did. Inevitably, the police and forensics team would follow.
“I told ‘em,” he would tell Kerrigan, the local sheriff.
“I know,” she would reply and order coffee, then say something witty, like, “Were you ever young?”
“No,” he would say. He liked mono-syllabic answers, especially if they were foreboding.
The first time they met, Kerrigan walked into the station, stamped snow off her boots, and before she even introduced herself said, “I swear, there’s no way four bodies could have that much blood. A whole goddamn acre of forest around the cabin painted red. And it’ll be there until thaw.”
“I warned them,” Dylan said.
“You did?” she said. She opened a bottle of Coke and leaned against the counter. She wasn’t sheriff, then, just a rookie cop with bright red hair and infinite indifference. “Why? Has something bad happened up there before?”
Dylan shrugged. “Don’t know. Just had a feeling.”
A month later, a film crew of five went into the forest after stopping at his station, buying beer, supplies, and paperback novels. Two days after that, Kerrigan was back with ten police cars and five ambulances that carried back the lesser portions of five bodies.
“You know,” she said, hands on her hips, staring out the windows at the evergreens laden with snow. “I don’t remember there being wolves in these woods.”
“It’s cursed,” Dylan explained, counting down the drawer. It was late and Kerrigan was straggling behind the others to get coffee.
“How do you know it’s cursed?” Kerrigan said, turning to him.
“What, besides the bodies?” Dylan asked. He looked up. “A feeling, I suppose. In my gut and bones. Every time I see people go by, I know it’s the last time I’ll ever see them.”
Spring was a bad season. They came to swim, camp, hike, fish, hunt, throw wild parties and orgies, meditate. Some came reclaim ancestral land. Others to get away from it all. Then there were the travelers “Just passing through.” There were ghost hunters, too. Families, friends, and strangers. No one ever went alone and no one ever came back. They were always younger than Dylan, and sometimes much younger.
During the hottest part of the summer, four college students went camping. A week later, Kerrigan led a team out and found them tied wrists to ankles in a circle, their entrails piled in the middle on top of which sat a few branches twisted into something meaningful.
“Another fucking witch,” Kerrigan said, once again the last to leave, leaning on the counter and idly working on a crossword. She was a Lieutenant and already had streaks of grey in her hair at the age of thirty-two. She looked up at him. “So, what do you usually tell them?”
Dylan thought about it for a moment. “I usually tell them doom and death. Things they don’t want to know or see. Their end. You know, that sort of stuff.”
“You’re being too vague,” Kerrigan said, sipping her coffee. “Give specifics. How do you get kids to stop making faces? You say it’ll stick that way. Then you say there was a little boy down the street whose face was stuck scrunched up like this and so he couldn’t see for the rest of his life and nobody wanted to talk to him because he was a freak.”
“I’ll try that next time.”
Soon, Dylan discovered he had a knack for specificity. In fact, he found that he could tell people so much about their lives and their eventual demise, that they would usually leave more afraid of him than whatever grisly end awaited them. It was a latent gift that grew and blossomed with every doomed unfortunate who walked through his door. Eventually, it was fun to guess and find himself correct about people’s birthdays, favorite colors, professions, habits, hopes, obsessions, sex lives, darkest secrets, allergies, life stories. And their deaths, of course.
No one ever listened. And whenever he called Kerrigan to tell her, it was always too late.
“I’m starting to get as many complaints about you as I am about the murders,” Kerrigan told him a year after he’d started trying his more direct tactics.
“There is something very wrong with you.”
Kerrigan was elected sheriff the next year. Law enforcement agencies around the country courted her and she attended forensics and investigation conferences around the country. Sometimes, she asked if Dylan wanted to come with her, to see the cities and share his valuable skills, but he always declined. He never felt comfortable leaving his station behind.
“I’m thinking of renovating the place,” he told Kerrigan one day, after the ambulances had left.
They were sitting outside on the untreated, grey warped wood of the porch, sipping coffee and smoking. Kerrigan looked up over her shoulder at the rundown, weird, creepy gas station that was always too hot or too cold. “I thought you liked it this way?”
“I do,” Dylan said, “but times are changing. I think it could use some linoleum. The bathroom, at least, really needs some work done.”
“My aunt’s an architect. I’ll have her come down and visit you.” Kerrigan stamped out her cigarette and sighed. She was completely grey now. Five years ago, she moved to an apartment in the middle of town and Dylan heard rumors that she never turned the lights off.
“You know, there hasn’t been a single murder or violent crime in town since I became sheriff?” Kerrigan said. “It’s all these kids. They come in from all over, but never here, and get themselves killed. I never even meet them, usually. I just clean up after them.”
Dylan didn’t say anything. He knew she’d keep talking if she wanted to.
“Have you ever been out there?” she asked, gesturing vaguely at the woods. “I mean, you seem to know all the horrible things out there, but have you ever been…?”
“No,” Dylan said. A breeze picked up and the trees shivered. “I’m not stupid enough to go there.”
“That’s what I thought.” Kerrigan stood up and stretched, then walked to her car. Over her shoulder, she said, “I think we should go camping some time.”
After she left, Dylan wrote his life story in one of the dollar, tiny Spiral notebooks from the shelves. It didn’t take long. He didn’t remember a time when he wasn’t at the station, telling people they shouldn’t die. He barely went in town, and the only people who visited him were Kerrigan and the doomed.
He ended with Kerrigan’s last comment, “We should go camping sometime.” It sounded like one of her jokes, her attempts to sound indifferent when she cared far too much, just like him. But she wasn’t afraid, and he was terrified.
A car went by in the night, tearing into the woods without even stopping at the station. The next day, one of Kerrigan’s deputies walked in and asked Dylan if he’d seen the sheriff. She hadn’t shown up at the office and she wasn’t at her apartment.
As he drove his beat-up Ford down the road, away from town, and into the shadow of the trees, Dylan wondered why he’d never bothered to guess at Kerrigan’s future. He decided that she just didn’t want to know.
No one ever went alone into the woods. Kerrigan had, but Dylan knew that he was now her second and he had no idea what was going to happen. He thought about the word “doom” and “cursed” and realized he had been saying them so long that he really didn’t know what they meant anymore.