[From time to time, I write a story based on an image in an hour or your next one’s free.]

Courtesy of Shorpy.com

Courtesy of Shorpy.com

Paul swept his arm against my chest suddenly in the darkness and cried, “Stop!”

It was the middle of nowhere. Once, it had been somewhere – the site of one of those old-school shopping malls that had a roof over the whole place unlike the town centers of today. It had gone out of business about ten years ago when I was little and now it had been torn down. All that was left was a huge concrete puzzle piece with weeds growing through the cracks, not that we could see it that clearly.

“This is the spot,” Paul said. “Right here.”

“What spot?” I asked.

Paul scanned the old asphalt with his flashlight, not really looking up to talk to me. “Where Hatchet Harry learned how to hunt.”

“Hatchet Harry? That was the guy’s name? Was that supposed to be scary? Because a hatchet is like two feet long.”

“That’s what’s scary about it. You can swing it real fast because it’s small and light. When a killer swings an axe, he gets maybe one shot before it gets stuck in the victim’s skull.”

“That sounds like enough.”

“Yeah, if all you want is one victim. But Hatchet Harry could split one head and then go on to the next. You know why?”

“Because a hatchet didn’t get stuck, fine.” I pulled the sleeves of my hoodie over my hands and hugged my arms close in the chill.

“So the year is 1957. Billy Joe Hargett and Norma Bea Valentine were parking out here in his – “

“Why do victims always have two names? Nobody with one name ever gets killed by a psychopathic killer.”

“You mean like Cher?”

“No, I mean like…Dave. Or Harriet. It’s always Billy Joe and Norma Bea.”

“I can’t help their names, okay?” Paul motioned back to the pavement. “Now help me out here. Imagine a 1955 Buick Century parked right about here, the windows steamed—“

“Is that a car? Because I was, like, negative forty years old when it was built. Was it pulled by horses?”

“No,” he sighed. “The windows are steamed because, well, Billie Joe has his hand under Norma Bea’s blouse and she has her hand in—“

“And Hatchet Harry comes and chops them up, the end. I get it. Creepy. Now let’s go back to the car, okay?”

“You don’t know anything. First, she sees something in the distance, a shape moving out of the trees. He tells her it’s probably a deer. Then it comes closer, but now it’s waddling close to the ground and she knows it isn’t a damned deer. It keeps coming closer, kind of duck-walking, which would be silly if it wasn’t for how determined the thing seemed to be. Straight line, right from the trees to the car, a weird shape because silhouetted in the faint light, she can see—“

“A hatchet,” I said. Goddamn, the Goth boys could be boring even if they had the cool leather dusters.

“No, it’s a fucking claw. And she sees that the thing has two of them, like a crab. A land crab. Like one of those creatures from the Pleistocene.”

“Wait. She was a paleontologist?”

Paul wasn’t stopping. In fact, he was getting excited by the story, which could actually be cute because that’s when he dropped the fake British accent and his speech impediment came out. Some of the other kids made fun of him for it, the way his vowels all sounded like they took his whole mouth to say, but you know…it made him different. Good different.

“So she’s awwll pounding on Billie Joe’s showwlder, telling him to look, but by then it’s too late: the creature is right by the backseat of the car on the passenger side, peeling it open like a can of sardines.” He held up his hands and pinched the fingers together like claws. “There was this screeching noise and that thing ripped it right open. Then it clicked two chitinous blades on the back of Norma Bea’s neck and pulled her screaming from the–”

“Wait. What happened to Hatchet Harry?”

“Well, that’s the thing. Hatchet Harry, he’s this escaped mentaw patient living in a shanty in the woods, sleeping on a cot under a blanket of sewn together human pelts. And he knows what that clicking means: it means the crab-thing from the swamp is gypping him two perfectly good human victims.”

“Hey—“

“He can say ‘gypping’ because he’s a mentaw patient and it’s 1957.” Paul finally took a breath. “So he goes running toward the crab-thing because, fuck, there are only so many people who come out to the lover’s lane. But when he gets there, the crab-thing has already torn them awwsunder and all Hatchet Harry can do is sputter and stamp his feet as it drags them back into the swamp.”

“And?”

“And what?”

“The story ends with Hatchet Harry jumping up and down like Yosemite Sam?”

“No,” Paul said calmly, regaining his accent. “It never ends. Because Hatchet Harry learned a valuable lesson that night: to work in total silence and speed.”

I heard a click seemingly echo from the woods. It made me roll my eyes. I couldn’t help it.

“Apparently not total,” I said.

The clicking noise came again and Paul turned quickly.

“Quit it,” I said.

“It was the beginning of an unholy symbiosis. Now all Harry has to do is wait for the crab-thing to come from the swamp and then he can come in and finish the job. They’ve been in competition ever since, and nobody to this day knows who has more victims.”

A branch snapped and so did something else. No, it didn’t snap. It clacked together hollowly.

“They work together,” Paul said quietly. “The hunter and his faithful dog. But which—“

I shoved him to the pavement and ran headlong to the car.