The Darkness Before the Dawn
Trackers stand by blood.
Always have. Always will.
As Jacob Tracker broke open a new roll of quarters, he did not know why those thoughts should have stuck in his mental filter. They came out of nowhere, just the way customers occasionally did on this, the graveyard shift at Jimmie Jack?s, a combination gas station and convenience store in Soldier's Crossing, Alabama. What he did know was that those words, or words to that effect, belonged to his father, Clarence Tracker, who said them a few months before his sixty-second birthday?his final birthday, dying a week later of a massive heart attack in the front seat of his pickup in the parking lot of the local textile mill, where he had just completed an overtime shift. That was five years ago. To Jacob, it seemed like yesterday.
His father died having failed to clear the Tracker name from a cloudy legacy extending back to the War between the States and even before, to a time when the Trackers became infamous for the ruthless and violently effective ways in which they pursued and recaptured runaway slaves. It was a cold business. These earlier Trackers were bounty hunters, and they accumulated a small fortune for their efforts. The inglorious defeat of the Confederacy changed all that. But the attendant ?bad name? haunted the family like the proverbial ghost of the proverbial Southern mansion.
Folks said the Trackers suffered under a family curse.
No one truly knew the source of it, though many speculated. Some, for example, believed the gods of social justice were punishing the Trackers for the years of mistreating slaves and harboring an antipathy toward the black race in general. Others whispered of the Trackers having been involved in a conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln?hadn't Jefferson Jackson Tracker, himself an aspiring actor, befriended John Wilkes Booth? they reasoned?the family receiving, justifiably perhaps, a sentence of inevitable doom or at least dissolution. Still others passed along for decades a dark rumor that when Sweet Gum plantation, the once elegant home of the Trackers, had been converted to a Confederate hospital very late in the Great Cause, something vile had occurred: unspecified acts of violence so horrid and perverse as to stain the Tracker family forever. No Tracker since that monumental war had gained more than modest success financially or otherwise, and over the years some Trackers had been shunned as outlaws, murderers and reprobates.
Most, like Clarence Tracker, simply never amounted to much. As his son Jacob was painfully aware, Clarence had fallen short of making his mark, of making a name for himself as a building contractor. His heart had been set upon Jacob and his two other sons, Daniel and John Taylor, known as ?J.T.," joining him to form Tracker & Sons Construction. It didn't happen. A father cared; his sons were indifferent. So the man harbored just one final request: help your blood. A Tracker should always be there for another Tracker.
His elbows propped on the cash register counter, Jacob embraced his father's call. But he could not shake the feeling that, like his father and other Trackers before him, he, too, seemed destined to be a failure, his future as bleak as the empty tarmac beyond the glass door of Jimmie Jack's. He was twenty-four, had earned an associate degree from the local community college, and was not without ambition. Yet, he was unmarried, lived with his mother?an ageless beauty filled with melancholy and secrets?and had virtually no career prospects. Jimmie Jack's was not even the bottom-most rung on anyone's corporate ladder. Nevertheless, Jacob did have two ambitions: to be a successful country-western songwriter in Nashville and to win the love of Brianna and live happily ever after with her.
Brianna. Lovely Brianna.
There was a forbidden stirring in Jacob's blood. But he couldn't help it. Brianna, divorced from her abusive husband, Spence McVicar, drove Jacob crazy with desire, and her sweet little daughter, Emily? dear, tiny ?Em??ripped his heart up as easily as if it were made of Spanish moss or camellia blossoms. God, he adored that elfin creature. And she was the light of her mother's life. So hopelessly and emotionally loyal was Jacob to Brianna that he dated no one, thus causing him to have to deflect suggestions that he was gay?like his cousin, Franklin Tracker.
Sadly, Brianna's heart was off limits, and Nashville might as well have been on the moon.
Jacob felt trapped. Unfortunately, it was little consolation that all his blood relatives lived in and around Soldier's Crossing, including his brothers and their families, his uncles Douglas, Winston, Calvin and Warren, his cousins Roy Dale, Mattie Lee, Janie and Royal, his nieces Sharelle and Brianna and his nephews Benjamin, Josh and Tyler.
Tracker blood was everywhere. Family. Jacob needed it, of course. But he needed something more. On a chilly January night, one deep and dark and lonely, Jacob needed to be galvanized by something. He needed to feel alive. But there were deadening cleanup chores to do: fresh coffee to make, rest rooms to mop, gas pump tallies and cash register totals to record. And any second his cousins Janie and Mattie Lee would be wheeling in with a morning delivery of the Montgomery and Birmingham newspapers, and his Uncle Douglas would be at the back door with the day's supply of milk?whole, nonfat and chocolate ?goo-goo??as well as cream and other products from the Good Neighbor Dairy, an inefficient enterprise that Uncle Douglas operated, managing somehow to avoid going bankrupt over the years. Invariably the man would remind Jacob that he needed a partner to run the dairy??I'm gone give first shot at it to blood," he would often say.
Jacob started to change the tape in the store's video camera and thought of Brianna.
My God, she was so beautiful: her thick black hair and ice-chip green eyes and full, young breasts and world-class bottom and legs, and the package was especially tempting when tightly contained in her Mr. Pancake waitress outfit, white with gold and black trim. Jacob glanced at the clock. In another hour she would be off her shift; he had agreed to give her a ride home because her worthless old Chevy needed a new alternator. He couldn't wait to see her. But he would have to.
Wind rattling the glass doors pulled him from his pleasant reverie.
Janie Tracker slammed through one of those doors and tossed a bundle of the Montgomery Advertiser toward the counter.
"You ever seen anything like this wind?" she cried. "Warm one like the middle of summer. Strange as can be. Came up all of a sudden. You want to know what I think it is?"
Jacob could feel some of the sudden and curiously warm air. He knew Janie would hold forth regardless of his response. She was loud and opinionated, a large-boned and not particularly attractive woman. Like her sister, Mattie Lee, she was in her late thirties and unmarried. Both lived with their father, Winston, who in thirty-five years of service had not risen above the position of assistant meat department supervisor at the local Piggly Wiggly. Both women, however, doted on him, long ago concluding that no other man could possibly caress their heart like their daddy. Jacob knew that Mattie Lee, shy to the same degree as Janie was forward, would be waiting for her sister, sitting out in their rusting SUV, with a loaded revolver in her lap, much too timid to ever use it, but somewhat comforted by its presence. She believed all manner of wicked men were afoot in the wee hours of the night.
"Janie, I think computers are responsible for it," said Jacob.
"No, it's not that." She paused for effect. "It's that global warming?that's it. Mattie and I watched a thing about it on Oprah yesterday. Weather's gone go crazy, they say. The polar ice caps gone melt and flood New York City and Miami, and Charleston and New Orleans gone be lakes you can sail a boat on." She turned to face the glass again. "Look at that wind kick up dust. You hearin? it howl?"
He was. It was an unnerving sound. But he went on about the routine business of counting Janie's copies of the papers and duly recording them, and as he was doing so, his Uncle Douglas swung in from the back room with a dozen quarts of milk.
"Mornin?, Jake," he said. "Your aunt Mollie and I aren't gone claim our offspring no more. We give up on ?em." He typically had a friendly twinkle in his eyes even when serious.
Janie hollered a good-bye to Jacob and exchanged a ?hey? with Uncle Douglas before clambering away. "Global warming," she added. "Y?all see if the whole dang planet don't wash on away." She braced herself for the wind and then was gone.
Jacob turned his attention to his uncle Douglas.
"You got problems with your boys?"
They weren't boys, of course. Franklin was approaching thirty and Roy Dale was Jacob's age, though shiftless and unable to keep any kind of job, including one helping his father at the dairy. Roy Dale was married to Jessie, whom everyone knew ran around on him. She was a barmaid at the Hollow Log Lounge, a questionable establishment owned by Jacob's uncle Calvin. Jessie and Roy Dale had a boy, Jeremy, who had yet to speak a word, though he had started kindergarten. Franklin was another matter entirely. Despite the fact that his parents frowned on his homosexual lifestyle, Franklin was at least more responsible than Roy Dale. He lived with an older man, Myron Florence, who was his lover, and together they ran the town's only antiques store, a place they called The Treasure House.
"Mainly it's Roy Dale," said Uncle Douglas. "He's done been influenced too much by your brother John Taylor. I mean, what good can come of that?"
Jacob wasn't sure that any good could come of it. His older brother was a drunkard and mean to boot. Jacob had always feared him and constantly felt sorry for his sister-in-law, Miriam, a saintly woman, and their two boys, Josh and Tyler.
"I heard Roy Dale's helping John Taylor rake down Sweet Gum," said Jacob. "You sorry to see the old Tracker homestead destroyed like that?"
Uncle Douglas scratched at his graying crew cut and squinted at Jacob, and yet there was an unmistakable glint in his eyes. "Not one damn bit," he said, and finished stacking the quarts of milk in the refrigerator section before heading back to his truck.
Thankful his uncle hadn't brought up the subject of a possible business partnership, Jacob scribbled a note for his boss, Jimmie Jack Bonner, regarding a need for a larger milk order during the middle of the week. Jimmie Jack would amble in around six o?clock with a report on how his latest diet was going. At a pound or two over 400, Jimmie Jack had decided within the past year to lose 200 or more and, accordingly, had tried on diets the way women try on shoes?one right after another. To mention only a few, he had experimented with the Grapefruit Plan, the Protein Power Plus, the Green Tomatoes and Okra Slim Down and the current system: the Fried Catfish Once-A-Day Guaranteed Loss Plan. None had worked. Not yet. Mostly because Jimmie Jack was not willing to forego his daily six-pack of beer, claiming he needed it to keep from getting dehydrated. But he was a pretty decent boss, and he positively envied Jacob's tall, thin physique. Jacob heard the wind shriek again. He glanced up. The tarmac looked desolate, like something from an end-of-the-world movie. It was time to load up his clipboard and check the pump numbers for each of the three types of Southern Star gas. He heard his uncle Douglas banging around bottles and cartons out in his truck before the din suddenly and curiously halted. Dawn was approaching. Maybe with it the peculiar wind would die down?or so Jacob reasoned.
Brianna was suddenly in his thoughts again. This time, an image of her from summer wearing a black bikini at the Tracker picnic out by Moon Lake. Dear God, she filled that bikini deliciously. Above each cup of the bra and the edges of her panties, there was a filigree of lace; the sight of it had given Jacob an erection despite the subsequent blush of shame he had felt for lusting after his niece. A mouthful of his aunt Mollie's potato salad had soured on his tongue and he had ended up drinking too much beer in an attempt to drown his salacious thoughts.
The memory of Brianna's bikini dissipated like the head on one of those beers....
The wind was pushing someone across the tarmac toward the door.
Jacob blinked. It was almost as if the person?a man, a stranger?weren't taking steps as he hurried to the doors. It was almost as if he were generating the wind himself. The man wore a long, dark coat with the collar hiked up around his face as if he were very cold. Jacob played his usual mental game of trying to anticipate what this customer wanted: cigarettes or snuff, or maybe a loaf of bread or a six-pack of beer. Or condoms.
Meeting a new customer was always fraught with inscrutable possibilities.
Especially on the graveyard shift. Jacob knew there was also, of course, a chance he'd have a gun pulled on him and be robbed. Jimmie Jack had repeated the same advice like a litany: ?You get in that sitcheeation, best give up the money, son. Ain't worth gettin? all shot up?you know what I'm sayin??"
The wind screamed loudly. The man stood at the door as if something prevented him from entering. It was unsettling to see him just standing there with the wind buffeting him. Jacob lowered his clipboard and stepped out from behind the counter. He felt hot needles of discomfort thread down one leg. He suddenly thought he recognized the person, but wasn't certain.
"Josh?" he called out.
Yes, it certainly appeared to be. Yes, Jacob's nephew, Josh, a young man of sixteen. He was trembling or perhaps shivering?Jacob couldn't determine which.
"Josh, come on in."
When the young man slipped inside the store, the wind calmed.
Then ceased completely. The hair on the back of Jacob's head stood up.
There was something wrong with Josh. That was obvious. Jacob recognized the coat as being John Taylor's. Then he noticed something more.
The coat glistened slightly in the fluorescent light because it was blood soaked.
"Jesus, what happened to you?"
Josh quickly raised a hand to keep Jacob away. But he did not speak. He had a cigarette lighter and raised it and started mechanically flicking it on and off; he appeared to be fascinated by the small flame. The lighter was out of place, because Jacob knew that Josh didn't smoke, that he had tried, in fact, to get his father, John Taylor, to quit, often going so far as a younger boy to hide the man's matches and lighter.
In momentary shock, his thoughts racing, Jacob studied his nephew, a bright, sensitive kid who had aspirations of one day becoming a doctor. Jacob, who had read some of Josh's dark and brooding poetry, liked him and his younger brother, Tyler, and often went to the movies with them?fantasy and science fiction being their favorites.
"Stay right there, Josh. Just stay right where you are."
Jacob ducked his head into the back room and hollered, "Uncle Doug, get up here quick. There's trouble." He didn't wait for his uncle's response, and when he turned around, Josh was at the counter staring up at the ceiling at the video camera. He continued flicking on and off the cigarette lighter. When the young man spoke, his voice was tinged with fear, though otherwise flat and even slightly disembodied.
"Can it see me?" he said.
"Josh, my God, are you hurt? There's blood on that coat."
It blazed through Jacob's thoughts that it could be the blood of a deer John Taylor had forced Josh to help him dress out.
"Can it, Jacob? Can it see me?"
"Sure it can. The tape's about to run out, but it can see you. What's with you? What's wrong, man? What's happened?"
The young man leaned forward conspiratorially. His breath reeked.
"It was in the walls, I think."
"What was? What's happened? You and your dad have been raking down Sweet Gum, haven't you? Where'd that blood come from? Did you cut yourself? I can take you to a doctor, Josh."
When it looked as if the young man might faint, Jacob started to reach for the phone, but then stopped as he caught sight of the video monitor trained on the counter area. Something clicked in his throat.
The monitor did not show the presence of Josh.
"Jesus Christ," Jacob whispered.
He looked at Josh and was almost crushed by the expression of sadness in the young man's eyes.
"Jacob, I think it was in the walls." The young man hesitated and drew even closer to the counter, and Jacob found himself mesmerized. The cigarette lighter flicked on and off twice more, and Josh said, "Daddy's dead and he's up walking around and he did something to me and I think this is about blood and family. You got to help, Jacob. You have to help blood. Save Tyler and the others."
Jacob was gasping a bit for air. He called out once more for his uncle, but still received no response. He then managed to calm himself slightly and to speak slowly and in a controlled voice. "Josh, it's OK, man. We'll get help and?"
Jacob gave out a grunt of surprise.
The transformation squeezed all the air from his lungs.
It began with Josh's eyes?the sudden eerie redness, like eyes caught in a camera flash?and then the teeth, the canines spreading into fangs and then the trickle of blood from one corner of the mouth, like innocent drippings from a kid's melting Popsicle. Then the fingers?the nails suddenly growing an inch or two and sharp as knifepoints. And then the voice, lower, raspy?not Josh's voice at all.
"Jacob, do you know what's out there?"
The silence was palpable.
Jacob grunted again.
Josh, or what was once Josh, turned to walk away. Incredulous, Jacob suddenly could not move, could not speak. He could only watch as the young man hesitated, then wheeled around and reached for the hard countertop, slicing a fingernail into it and leaving a deep gash. Jacob stumbled back away from the counter and then continued watching, terrified, as the young man used the same finger to cut open his own forearm and suck hungrily at the blood.
Jacob could feel his knees start to buckle.
In the next instant an invisible force seemed to push the young man through the glass doors without breaking them. Then Jacob heard the young man speak, not aloud, but telepathically: I'll save myself. You save the others, said the voice.
Staggered and shaken beyond anything he had ever experienced, Jacob moved out from behind the counter as the young man continued to advance to the pump area and settled there beneath the overhead bank of lights at #4 lead-free regular. At the glass doors Jacob, quaking so badly that he had to grasp one of the door handles for support, stared at the young man. The wind rose again and a sickly yellow light filled the air like an unnaturally long stroke of lightning.
The young man lifted the pump nozzle and with an eager attentiveness began to douse himself with gasoline, finishing the process by sticking the nozzle in his mouth and filling it until it splashed out like someone drinking from a water hose on a hot day. And then with preternatural quickness, the young man flicked on the cigarette lighter and held the flame to his lips.
Much too late, Jacob yelled at the top of his lungs for the young man to stop.
And one word filled Jacob's thoughts as he watched an incredible scene unfold.
A flame spewed from the young man's mouth, like one from a fire-breathing dragon. And then the dragon burst into a ball of flames, and Jacob began running toward the back room, knowing it was already too late to switch off all the other pumps. He ran out of the rear of the store and into the darkness, and behind him the night thrummed with heat and a chain of fiery explosions.
Parked behind the store was the Good Neighbor Dairy truck.
Behind the steering wheel was his Uncle Douglas. But there was nothing friendly in his eyes; they matched the eerie, glowering redness of Josh's. He was staring at Jacob. Then he spoke and his voice was thick with blood.
"Know what's out there?" he said.
Losing consciousness, Jacob crashed to his knees.
And the night continued to roar.