"I plead the blood."
Those were the last words seventeen-year-old golden boy quarterback Clay Tate heard rattling from his dad's throat when he discovered him dying on the barn floor of the Neely cattle ranch, clutching a crucifix to his chest.
Now, on the first anniversary of the Midland, Oklahoma, slaughter, the whole town's looking at Clay like he might be next to go over the edge. Clay wants to forget the past, but the sons and daughters of the Preservation Societya group of prominent farmers his dad accused of devil worshipwon't leave him alone. Including Ali, his longtime crush, who suddenly wants to reignite their romance after a year of silence, and hated rival Tyler Neely, who's behaving like they're old friends.
Even as Clay tries to reassure himself, creepy glances turn to sinister stares and strange coincidences build to gruesome rituals, but when he can never prove that any of it happened, Clay worries he might be following his dad down the path to insanity...or that something far more terrifying lies in wait around the corner.
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.50(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Age Range:||12 - 18 Years|
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The Last Harvest
By Kim Liggett
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2017 Kim Liggett
All rights reserved.
People call this God's country, but you can't have God without the Devil.
I see it in the cutworms threatening to take over the crops and the katydids with their bright-green wings fluttering as they drown in the troughs.
When I'm riding the combine like this, watching the sun rise over the fields, I can't help thinking about my ancestors who claimed this piece of shit parcel in the 1889 land rush. The majestic display of color and light must've felt like God himself was rising up to pass judgment on them every single day. I know it's just a bunch of particles making the light rays scatter, but it still gets to me. An Oklahoma sky will make a believer out of anybody.
I pull my sleeves down over my frozen knuckles and concentrate on annihilating the wheat in front of me. The last harvest of the season. Man, I hate wheat. It's so old school. Soybeans — that's the wave of the future. I kept telling Dad, but he was too stuck in his ways. Now he's really stuck. Six feet under.
I glance at the Neely Cattle Ranch on the western edge of our property, and a sick feeling twists my insides. I tell myself it's only an abandoned barn now, but I swear I can feel it pressing in on me, like it's trying to suffocate me. I'll never understand why they didn't burn it to the ground after what happened. After what Dad did.
"Just keep it together, Clay," I say to myself as I twist my cap around and crank up the music. We need the money and I'm already behind schedule. I had a hard time getting the combine going again this morning. Dad's the one who was good at all this. Sometimes I catch myself daydreaming about what my life would've been like if it never happened. I'd still be playing football, looking at colleges, going down to the quarry to drink beer with my friends.
As I make my last turn to head back home and get ready for school, I catch a glimpse of something moving low through the wheat. I rise up in my seat, peering through the dusty windshield, watching it move back toward the house, when I hit something solid. The cutting blades grind to a halt, making the combine rock forward and stall out.
"Come on," I groan as I pull out my earbuds.
The sound of screaming guitars fades as I slide out of the cab and trudge toward the front of the harvester.
Hope I didn't run over my little sister's bike. I've been looking everywhere for that hunk of junk. I thought about getting her a new one, roughing it up a little, telling her I found it out by Harmon Lake, but Noodle's sharp. Dad put it together for her sixth birthday last year — wasn't worth a dime, just a bunch of scraps from mine and Jess's old bikes. Guess it has sentimental value.
As I lean down to look under the cutting platform, a musky copper smell flares in my nostrils. There, stuck in the blade, is a gnarled hoof. My stomach lurches; my throat feels so thick I can barely swallow. Frantically, I dig around in the discarded wheat stems to uncover the rest of it — a newborn calf, throat slit wide open, bright-red blood splattered against golden fur. My eyes well up as I try and find a pulse, but it's no use. It's just a heap of warm blood, bone, and fur.
"Jesus!" I stagger back, tearing off my work gloves to try and get away from the sweet repulsive odor, but it's all around me ... inside me.
Pacing around the combine, I scan the fields, searching for an explanation. We don't have any cattle around here, not since Mr. Neely shut down the ranch last year. Did I do this or did somebody kill it and ditch it here for me to find, like some kind of sick joke?
Bracing my hands against my knees, I stare down at the calf, its eyes black as tar, and all I see is Dad lying on the breeding floor, arms outstretched, his last breath rattling in his throat.
"I plead the blood," he whispered.
He looked terrified — not of death, but of me.
The wind rushes over the crops, pulling me back. It sounds like sandpaper scraping against skin.
I take off running back toward the house.
I know it's only the sun chasing my shadow, but I swear, it feels like the Devil himself is right on my heels.CHAPTER 2
"You're late," Noodle says, completely out of breath, her lopsided pigtails bouncing around like they have their own motors.
"I know, I know." I hand over my cap and field jacket.
"Gloves?" She hangs everything on its proper peg.
I grasp the banister, feeling the worn wood beneath my fingertips, the dead calf still fresh in my mind. Noodle can't find out about that. No one can. Not until I figure out where it came from. This town doesn't need more reason to think we're monsters.
"I must've left them behind." I peer down the hall toward the kitchen to make sure no one's listening. Mom's hunched over the stove, still half in a dream, using all her concentration to keep the bacon grease from escaping the cast-iron skillet, and Jess is too busy being miserable to give a flying crap. If that girl doesn't end up on the Maury show, it'll be a miracle.
Noodle tugs on the hem of my shirt. "How many acres did you finish today?"
She purses her lips as she pulls two gold stars from her sticker bag, placing them in the little squares on the sheet of poster board she "borrowed" from Sunday school. Each square represents an acre for the harvest. We need every penny this year. One hundred and thirteen acres all squeezed into early mornings and after school. It's a hell of a lot of work to handle on my own, and if the first frost beats me to it, we'll be shit out of luck.
Noodle does the math, tapping out the remaining acres on the side of her leg. She counts everything. I read somewhere it's a form of OCD, but I think she's just too smart for her own good.
"Can you keep a secret?" I crouch down so I can look her in the eye.
She knots her hands on her scrawny waist. "You know I can."
"Hey, what happened to your finger?"
"Just a paper cut and no changing the subject."
I rub the back of my neck. "I had a little engine trouble this morning ... nothing I can't fix." Her glance veers toward the window, and I know exactly what she's thinking. "Don't worry. I'll catch up. And don't be going out there." I reach out to muss up her wispy light-blond bangs; she ducks out of the way. She doesn't like anyone touching her hair anymore. "I'll take care of it after school. Deal?"
She zips her lips and locks them, pressing the imaginary key into my hand, before skipping off to the kitchen.
"And put a Band-Aid on that, okay?"
A fly buzzes past. I watch it as it lands on the bare wall above the mantel in the living room, where the crucifix used to hang.
It takes me right back to that night.
Dad came home from the Preservation Society meeting all wild-eyed.
"Ian Neely knew ... they all knew," he said.
Mom just thought he'd gotten into Charlie Miller's homemade rye again, but I knew he wasn't drunk. He was alert, too alert, like he was operating on pure adrenaline.
As he lifted the heavy metal crucifix down from over the mantelpiece, he kept saying, "The golden calf ... it's the sixth generation ... the seed." He stared right at me when he said it with a look of disgust. Mom tried to get him to calm down, but he shoved her against the wall and stormed out of the house. I followed him to the edge of the untilled wheat, grabbing on to his arm to stop him. He turned, clutching the crucifix tight to his chest. "I have to stop the evil before it's born," he said, his eyes drilling me in place. "God forgive us, son."
There was no moon that night. No stars, like they knew what my dad was about to do, like they couldn't bear to watch.
"Fifteen minutes, Clay," Mom calls from the kitchen.
Letting go of the memory, I rush upstairs, turn on the faucet, and strip off my clothes. I'm shivering my ass off waiting for the water to heat up, though it never makes it past lukewarm. One of the many perks of living with three girls. I step in the tub and tug the plastic curtain shut. The sound of the rusty metal loops scraping against the curtain rod reminds me of the hoof jammed in the cutting blades. It sets my teeth on edge.
I try not to think about it, but for the life of me I can't figure out how the calf got there. Since the Neely ranch closed, the closest cattle ranch is two towns over in Monroe. It had golden fur, the same color as the wheat. Just like my dad talked about before he died. I've never seen a calf that color before. It couldn't have been more than a day old. No way it could've wandered all the way over here on its own.
Unless someone put it there.
Wouldn't put it past Tyler, Ian Neely's son. It's more than bad blood. Ever since Dad died, Tyler's always staring at me in this strange expectant way. Maybe he's just waiting for me to lose my shit like my dad did. Maybe everyone is.
Grabbing a towel from the rack, I coax it around my waist; it's still pretty stiff from drying on the line. I shuffle down the hall to my room. Besides the thick black garbage bags taped up over the windows and the pill bottles cluttering my bedside table, it looks just like it did before. At first, the garbage bags were just a way to keep out the light, but then it became this weird thing, almost like I wanted to preserve everything inside. Sometimes I think about taking it all down — the mementos, the posters, the football trophies — but I can't bring myself to do it. Dad took me to every practice, stood on the sidelines for every game. Outside this room, people can say whatever they want about him, but in here, he's still just my dad.
Peeling back a corner of one of the garbage bags, I peer out over the crops. Hammy's out there pacing the perimeter of the wheat. For a second, I wonder if he somehow got to the calf and dragged it out into the field, but that mutt hasn't set foot in the wheat since Dad died, almost like he's scared of it.
We've run over plenty of animals in the fields. It's awful, but that's life on the farm. One time we even found a black bear. We figured he must've tried to make a den out there. But seeing the newborn calf rattled me. With good fucking reason.
I try not to read too much into it. Noodle says that's the trouble with me: I keep trying to make sense out of everything.
"Clay?" Mom hollers up the stairs. "Five minutes, okay, hon?" The sound of her voice makes me wince. She tries so hard to keep it light and sunny, but it just reeks of desperation, like she's one step away from being sent to Oakmoor.
I pull on some boxers and a T-shirt. For the millionth time, I think about selling the farm. Mr. Neely offered a while back, enough to get us out of town. But it feels like I'd be betraying Dad, betraying our entire family history. We weren't Sooners like some of the other families in neighboring counties. We didn't steal the land by camping out before the land rush and hiding in the brush like little assholes. My family started at the roundup and fought it out with the best of them. We got the best parcel, too. Dad always used to joke around that our family used up all their luck getting this land. Either that or they made some kind of deal with the Devil. Besides, Noodle'd be crushed if I sold. She has this crazy idea she wants to run the farm someday. It's not that she can't do it; when she puts her mind to it, Noodle can do anything. I just want something better for her.
"Clay?" Mom hollers.
"Coming." I pull on some fresh jeans and a flannel and grab my backpack. No time for breakfast so I snatch a handful of bacon, kiss Mom on the cheek, and give Noodle a high five as I head out to the truck.
I open the driver's-side door to find Jess scrunched down in the cab with her army surplus boots pressing up against the dash. I slap her feet down. "No way, Jess. Take the bus with Noodle."
"I'm sick of the bus." She sighs as she settles into the seat. "Please, Clay." She bats her thickly coated eyelashes. They're all clumped together like black sticky webs.
I want to tell her to get lost. The drive into town is the only peace I get, when I can turn up the radio and pretend nothing ever happened. But I hold my tongue. Maybe this one time, she'll talk ... open up.
"Fine." I shoot her a sideways glance and rev Old Blue to life. "But you're not wearing that to school." I take off my flannel and toss it onto her lap.
She puts it on over her tank top and too-short skirt like it's the most exhausting thing she'll do all day.
"You need a haircut." She pops her gum. "Unless you're trying to look like a surfer girl."
I grab my cap from the dash, pulling it down low. I used to keep my hair buzzed for football season. Haven't cut it in over a year. It's not some dramatic protest or anything, just haven't gotten around to it. No need.
We reach the end of the long dirt drive, and a guy in a brand-new F-150 with tricked-out radials drives by, giving me the reverent head nod. Townie. Most people look at our farm and get all nostalgic. They don't see the termites eating up the barn or the endless crops I'll have to work. They see the American flag and apple pie and John fucking Mellencamp.
As we pull onto Route 17, Jess fiddles with the radio dial.
"We both know you're never going to find a song you like, so what's the point?"
"Because it bugs the crap out of you?" she snaps, and then turns off the radio. She knows I hate the silence.
Instead of kicking her out on the side of the road, I try to think of our time together like POW training. If I'm ever captured behind enemy lines, I'll be immune to certain forms of torture.
Just as I'm working up the nerve to ask her how she's doing with everything, she rolls down her window and closes her eyes. I wonder what she's thinking, but I don't ask.
I used to love this time of year — football, the scent of burning leaves hanging on the brittle morning air. Now it just reminds me of what happened. Of death. Tonight will be the one-year anniversary. I don't need a calendar to remind me. I can feel it, the memory buried deep within my bones. I wonder if Jess can feel it, too.
I turn right onto Main Street and that sick feeling swells in my stomach as we pass the Preservation Society. The gleaming white paint, the manicured lawn edged with orange, yellow, and rust-colored flowers. People think it's all ice cream socials, deb balls, and ribbon-cutting ceremonies, but there are secrets, too. I think my dad uncovered something ... something big. He'd been acting strange for weeks, staying up all night poring over family Bibles and tattered documents, but it was that final meeting with Ian Neely and the Preservation Society that sent him over the edge.
The last time I set foot in the place was right after Dad's funeral. Mr. Neely said he wanted to talk to me man-to-man. He told me everything happens for a reason, that it's all part of God's plan. "Clay, we all have our roles to play," Mr. Neely had said. "And you're very important to the Preservation Society. It's time for you to take your place on the council. It's time to move forward, into the future."
Something about his words felt wrong. Like putting weight on a broken bone.
"I don't have all day, Grandpa." Jess drums her black nails on the edge of the window.
I press on the gas.
Some people say Jess's gone goth, because of the nail polish and everything. They say she's headed for a fall. I just hope it doesn't take a world of hurt to bring her back to us.
"Pull over," she says.
I stop the car in front of a boarded-up house with a foreclosure sign out front. "Why? We're four blocks away from your school."
I decide to take a more direct approach. "Why. Am. I. Dropping. You. Off. Here?"
"Duh." She rolls her eyes as she gets out of the car and slams the door shut. "Because I don't want to be seen with you."
"Then ride the bus!" I yell back at her.
She doubles back to lean against the open window. "I don't get you. You have a car. You're going to be eighteen in a couple of days. Nothing's stopping you from leaving."
I take a deep breath, reminding myself she's just a kid, trying to get a rise out of me. "Except a family I have to take care of."
"We both know you could've sold the farm to Neely."
I look up at her in shock. I had no idea she knew about that.
A sly smile curls the corner of her mouth. "I thought so. We would've been fine. You just don't have the balls to leave. You're going to live with Mom forever like that perv from Psycho."
"Have a great day, Jess!" I lean over and roll up the window. She gives me the finger and kicks my truck as I pull away.
Excerpted from The Last Harvest by Kim Liggett. Copyright © 2017 Kim Liggett. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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