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Blood Mask

Chapter One

Something Wounded

. . . calling to report an emergency situation here, something wounded in the underbrush, maybe an animal but maybe a person . . .

The call comes in to the Shale River Mountain State Park Emergency Service at 10:20 A.M., April 2, 2003. In a hiking area of white pine and serrated shale outcroppings above the Shale River, at the western edge of the park, hikers report having seen something crawling in the dense underbrush on the riverbank, approximately twenty feet below the hiking trail. The creature had seemed to panic at their approach, crawling frantically into the underbrush to escape. They'd called to it, "Hello? Do you need help? We won't hurt you . . ." -- wanting to think it was an injured deer, or a coyote or stray dog, though it more resembled a human being, possibly a child.

Crawling into the underbrush on all fours.

At this time of year the Shale River Park, as it's commonly called, is mostly deserted. Upstate New York thirty miles northwest of the Hudson River at Newburgh, it has the feel of late winter and not early spring. Most of the snow has melted except at the highest elevations but fresh snow has fallen during the night and is slow to melt in the morning. Ice crusts form on small ponds and puddles. The light is razor-sharp, hurting the human eye.

One of the hikers descends into the underbrush, slipping and sliding, thorns tearing at his jeans. "Hey! D'you need help?" There are outcroppings of shale underfoot, weirdly shaped like steps, treacherously sharp-edged. There are patches of marshy soil that suck at the hiker's boots. Below the trail the river isn't visible but the sound of its rushing and plunging, swollen with mud-colored water, is deafening.

Whatever is fleeing the hiker is crazed with fear, forcing itself through such dense underbrush. The hiker gives up the search. Seeing on thorns at ground level, bright blood glistening like glass beads.

No way to tell if it's animal blood, or human.

Something wounded isn't found until 12:05 P.M.

The hikers have moved on. Several park rangers have been searching the underbrush without luck. There's a blood trail, but it's confused and doubles back upon itself and leads into a thicket impossible for an adult male to penetrate without equipment. Then, one of the rangers thinks to investigate a park services cabin about fifty feet away, a shuttered little building resting on cinder blocks. When the ranger squats to look below it, into a shadowy space no more than six inches in height, he sees what appears to be a human figure.

Calling, "Hey: who's there?"

The figure is lying very still. But the ranger can hear him, or her, breathing.

It isn't an adult male but possibly a boy, or a small-bodied woman, or a girl, lying on her side, knees against her chest, face hidden. A swath of what looks like hair. A very pale, bare foot.

The ranger identifies himself. "I'm not going to hurt you, I'm trying to help you. D'you hear me?"

The breathing has become quick terrified panting.

"Let me help you, O.K.? Here -- "

The ranger stretches an arm beneath the cabin, to his shoulder. Grunting with the effort, blindly groping.

"Hey! Damn."

A muffled cry. The girl has kicked at him.

The ranger calls to the others, who come to investigate. After twenty minutes of effort, they manage to pull out from beneath the building a struggling, seemingly deranged adolescent girl: Caucasian female approximately fifteen-to-eighteen, weight one hundred five, probable assault victim, needing medical attention, raving & delusional, schizophrenic/meth overdose. There is no I.D. on her person, she doesn't respond to questions, has to be considered dangerous. Her blood pressure is abnormally low but her heartbeat is rapid and erratic so emergency medics can't give her a sedative until it has been determined at the hospital what drug or drugs might already be in her bloodstream.

The girl is strapped to a stretcher. It's presumed that she has been raped, beaten. Dumped and left to die in the Shale River Park.

"Jesus! Watch out she don't bite you."

Blood Mask
by Joyce Carol Oates, writing as Lauren Kelly

  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense
  • paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0061119040
  • ISBN-13: 9780061119040