CHIGGER - IAN WITHROW
The Silverado pulled in behind the parked police cars that lined the side of Forest Service Road 256. Sam Finley got out, finished his cigarette. Made his way to a group of police officers huddled near the blockade. Each officer held a Styrofoam cup and a look that said they were too young to be here. Sam’s detective badge was out by the time he reached them.
“Where?” he said.
The one with the buzzed haircut pointed to a gravel road that went off into the woods. He looked like he was going to be sick. The others stared at their shoes. Sam went past them without breaking stride.
The gravel road took him through a hallway of pine trees, up a short incline. The cabin was a small A-frame number, with a short porch and a sign over the front door. The Hobers, it read in charred letters. A cloud went over the sun. Everything was under its shadow.
Billy Kane was on the porch, badge pinned to his denim jacket.
“Sam. You’re not going to believe this one.”
“Who found ’em?”
Billy gestured to a roundish man standing over a fresh pile of vomit a few yards away. “Name’s John Chambers. Has a cabin nearby. Found the kid in the kitchen. Said he was lying on the floor, moaning all kinds of crazy things. About chiggers.”
“Chiggers? The little bugs?”
“Yep. Chambers found the body soon after.” Billy wiped his mouth, grimacing.
“Wasn’t much. Mostly skin.”
The inside was living room, kitchen, bathroom. An officer stood in the corner taking pictures. It was humid. Mid-July heat cooked the unventilated cabin. All of it smelled of slaughterhouse.
“Bedroom?” Sam said.
Billy pointed to a closed door.
The kid was sitting on a wicker chair in the living room.
“What’s his name?”
“Tate,” Billy said. “You want to see the uncle first?”
“No. Kid’s pretty messed up?”
“Royally. He was wrapped in that blanket when I got here. Still hasn’t stopped shaking.”
Sam approached the kid. Beneath the blanket he was shirtless, wearing green shorts. The bloodstains were brown. The kid didn’t look at him. His eyes were fixed on something beyond the wall.
“Tate Hober. Can you hear me, son?”
“Bring one of those chairs from the kitchen, would you, Bill?” Billy crossed into the kitchen, careful not to step in any evidence. The evidence was strange. Like something had already walked through it. Billy returned with the chair and a cigarette between his lips. “I’m going outside,” he said.
Sam waved him away. He set the chair in the kid’s line of vision and sat down. The kid looked young, maybe fifteen. Covered in blood. Red streaks ran down his cheeks like war paint. His St. Christopher medal stuck to his chest.
The kid’s eyes looked through Sam as if he wasn’t even there. His teeth clattered together. Sam put a hand on the kid’s shoulder. The kid flinched. Eyes focused.
“My name is Detective Finley.”
“You want to tell me what happened here?”
“Happened? What happened?”
“That’s what I’m asking.”
The kid frowned, confused. Sam glanced around the room. Saw a set of fishing poles stacked in the corner and a fly fishing vest hanging nearby.
“You go fishing this morning?”
“Yeah, fishing. We went fishing.”
“Where’d you go fishing?”
“Up the Blackfoot.”
The kid shook his head. Scratched beneath the blanket. “No. Just fishing. I got nothing. Uncle Rich said he got a bite, and tha...that’s all. Just one bite. We came home.”
“What happened when you came home?”
“Just one b-bite.”
Sam returned his hand to the kid’s shoulder, this time with sympathy. “Did you and your uncle get in an argument, son? Maybe he called you a name? Maybe popped you a few times and you didn’t like it?”
“No one likes to be bullied. Everyone’s going to understand if yo—”
“What? No. We didn’t fight. We never fought. He had a bite. A big one. On his arm. He k-kept scratching at it. Kept saying that it hurt like a bitch. Hurts like a bitch, Tate, get me some of that ointment it hurts like a goddamn bitch!” A tear rolled down the kid’s cheek.
“Something bit your uncle? What, like a horsefly?”
The kid wiped a second tear. Smearing the blood. “Kept scratching at it. I got him ointment and he went in the bedroom. He wanted to lie down. H-he didn’t close the door. I could see him lying on the bed, rolling around. Scratching. I-I think maybe he was crying. I went to the kitchen, to clean up dinner and he...he started s-screaming...and...and chan-changing...”
“He started to change?”
Billy returned. Sam acknowledged him with a glance, eyebrows raised. Billy mouthed a word. Sam nodded.
“His skin...it f-fell off...”
“What exactly bit your uncle, son?”
The kid shook his head.
“Was it a bug? A chigger?”
Something flashed across the kid’s face. He closed his eyes. He was screaming before he opened them again.
“Chigger! God, he was a chigger! And he was on me, oh, God, Mama! Mama! He was on me! Mama! I want Mama! Oh God, he was on me! Mama!”
The blanket slid from the kid’s shoulders. A baseball-sized welt protruded from his chest, oozing fluid. Sam shot up from his chair, motioned for a police officer.
“Jesus, get him out of here!”
The officer stared at the kid, wide eyed. “Where?”
“Town. He needs a goddamn doctor. Go!”
Sam and Billy stood on the porch as the sirens faded away.
“Ever see anything like that?” Billy said.
A tree branch cracked in the woods. Sam froze. Something heavy thumped away into the trees.
“What is it?”
“Nothing. Thought I saw...never mind.” Sam said, and slapped the back of his neck, at the slight pinch of an insect’s bite.
Irish Times Crime Fiction column, February 2018
13 hours ago