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The Sigbee Depot, (Part: III of VIII)

Abner’s legs began to burn from the effort of holding perfectly still in front of the depot building. The moon’s silver light cast an incandescent glow around the open area where he was hiding—half-crouched—between the building’s brick façade and the defunct train tracks. To his left, bushy weeds crowded in amongst the rusted rails before disappearing into the leafy darkness of the trees surrounding the abandoned complex. Large overhead doors—meant for driving cargo loaders through—covered nearly the entire front of the building except for a single pedestrian door halfway down the wall.

He had only been ten feet away from the lone door when it suddenly swung open, forcing him to freeze as the tranquil night exploded in bright orange light and the steady roaring of a running motor from within the building. He watched as the same tall man the boys had seen earlier emerged from the doorway, still holding the lantern. The man hadn’t noticed him crouched beside the building—almost close enough to touch—and now Abner could see his features clearly.   

The man looked to be in his late 40’s, with dark, close-cropped hair. His angular face was covered in a coarse stubble except for where his thin lips were drawn into a taut pink line. He wore a pair of safety goggles pulled up onto his forehead, and Abner could smell the bitter aroma of medicine intermixed with stale cigarette smoke coming off his lab coat.   

Abner watched as the man briefly stopped to tuck some loose papers under his arm, then—as suddenly as he had appeared—the man left. Still gently swinging the little lantern, he walked back to the other building and away from Abner, his shoes crunching on the gravel underfoot. He had only gone a few steps when the door beside him swung closed, and the noise made Abner gasped in surprise.

The lantern never stopped swinging though, and soon it and the man disappeared around the adjacent building, allowing the darkness to pour back into the empty depot yard. When he was gone, Abner finally sank to the ground in exhaustion, groaning quietly in pain. A moment later, as he sat there rubbing his legs, Elbert materialized from the darkness, crouching low as he trotted closer.

“Jesus,” he whispered as he came up to him, “is that close enough? Can we get out of here now?”

Abner rolled his eyes and got up to his knees. “No, I told you: I want to see what he’s doing in there. You didn’t have to follow me back here—I told you that too.”

“I followed you because you’re going to get yourself into deep shit—or worse,” said Elbert, getting angry.

“From a guy in a lab coat and goggles? I think I’ll be okay. What’s he going to do if I just sprint off into the woods? Nothing. He wouldn’t even know who I was. I don’t plan on it coming to that though, I just want to know what he’s doing in there.”

“Fine. Have it your way. I’m out of here—I’ll be back at the truck,” said Elbert.

Abner scoffed under his breath and said, “whatever, if you’re going, go now then because he’s gonna be back any minute.”

Elbert just let out an exasperated huff and turned back for the corner of the building. Maybe he’ll learn a lesson this time, he thought as he slipped back around the corner, still crouched over. He glanced around the edge of the building one last time and saw Abner slip through the door of the building. Idiot, he thought before pushing into the weeds.

*****

The abrupt change from darkness into light burned Abner’s eyes, and for a moment he was blinded as he entered the depot building. He slowly closed the door behind him, and—as his vision returned—looked around the room. A bare bulb overhead was the only source of light, its orange glow fading to darkness just past the entranceway. Now inside, he saw that the entire building was little more than a brick shell, and he could sense the vastness surrounding him.

At once he saw the source of the humming noise he and Elbert heard from outside: on the far side of the room, a portable generator sat running, its pale blue exhaust drifting high above to the ceiling. An electric cable ran from the side of the generator to a small metal box mounted to the wall, and Abner guessed the man was piggy-backing on the depot’s old wiring to power the building using the generator.

There were a few old pallets and broken crates scattered around the floor, but otherwise it looked as though the large building was empty. What industrial debris did remain was blanketed in the thick gray dust that only accumulates in decades of stagnant air. All around the floor, piles of bird droppings—each one generations in height—stood like testimonial monuments to neglect and abandonment. Confused, Abner was just about to turn and leave when he saw footprints in the dusty floor leading away from the doorway.

Following the footprints with his eyes, he saw they led to a small room no larger than a broom closet set against the wall. Abner followed the prints over to the room, glancing back over his shoulder as he crept closer. The noise from the generator echoing inside the building made it impossible for him to hear anything else, and he was afraid the man would be back at any moment.    

When he got to the door, he pressed his ear against the wood in an attempt to hear any clues from the other side, but there was only silence and the reverberating hum of the generator. Grabbing the door handle, Abner twisted it slowly, surprised to find that it was unlocked. As he opened the door, a cloud of damp, musky air hit his face, causing him to lean back in recoil. Just inside, another bare lightbulb hung down from the ceiling by a wire, its dim light swinging gently back and forth in the tight space.

Rather than the small storage closet Abner been expecting, a short flight of heavy wooden stairs lead down to a basement deep beneath the depot building. At the bottom of the steps, just out of sight, another lone lightbulb illuminated what looked to be the beginning of a narrow hallway. Closing the door behind him, Abner carefully descended the steps, leaning close to the wall as he crept lower.

As he had suspected, the stairs led to a long, brick-walled hallway with a dirty tile floor that looked as though it hadn’t been cleaned in decades. Resembling a shadowy tunnel, another light at the far end revealed the hallway’s length and he guessed it to be that of the entire building above. Evenly space along the walls, heavy wooden sliding doors with thick metal latches stood like guards on promenade. Each door’s latch was secured to the wall with a type of large brass lock that Abner had never seen before.

He glanced back up towards the door at the top of the steps one last time and then turned and walked into the darkness beyond the glow of the stairway light.

*****

Elbert was still mad when he finally got back to the truck. He had made better time on the return trip, not even bothering to keep quiet once he was a short distance away from the depot. He had glanced back occasionally in the thin hope that he would hear Abner crashing through the dry weeds behind him, but each time he only heard the soft rustling of the leaves and the distant cries of those animals that prowl the darkness.

The truck keys were under the gas cap where Abner had left them, and Elbert unlocked the truck before climbing into the passenger seat. He’s such an idiot, he thought, he isn’t going to do anything but get us both in trouble…  or worse.

As he sat there in the dark cab thinking, his mind returned to the thin man with the lab coat carrying the lantern back and forth between the depot buildings. Maybe Abner is right—maybe—but if he is, then that’s all the more reason to get away from here. The more he thought about it, the angrier he got. This was nothing more than Abner’s typical selfish behavior.

Stillif he is right, then he’s likely in more danger than he even realizes.

Suddenly, his anger began to subside, replaced instead with guilt. He realized that what had originally been intended to teach Abner a lesson could very well get out of hand, and quickly. Abner seldom knew when to quit—often relying on Elbert to provide balance and reason—but this wasn’t the same thing as shaving Mrs. Buxley’s cat.

Come on, Abner, he thought, just get back to the truck so we can get out of here. He stared through the window into the night, hoping to see the silver moonlight reflecting off Abner’s brown hair as he bobbed through the high brush, but the leafy bushes only rocked and swayed with the breeze in the moon’s pale light.

*****

Part: IV

Part: V

Part: VI

Part: VII

Part: VIII

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Coming Friday, July 17th: “Number 8,” (Part: I)

Hello again! With “The Ferry” having ended its run, my plan for this week was to do a one-part apocalyptic sci-fi story. It’s one that’s been kicking around in my head for quite some time now, and too many stories tend to clog up my brain. So, with a trusty #2 pencil, I sat down and wrote out the synopsis—for the sake of coherency—and then dove right into typing. About halfway through the first draft however, I was struck by a thought: I cannot be the first person to come up with this.

Science Fiction isn’t my usual wheelhouse, so even though the story doesn’t require too much knowledge of space or physics, I just can’t say how original it is. To that end, I simply have no interest in doing a story that’s already been done before. So, I’ll look into how close others have come and then perhaps circle back.

In the meantime, the entire ordeal delayed the start of my next tale, “Number 8.” In the hopes of adhering to my usual Friday night release schedule, I was tempted to rush through things in order to get the opening down and posted. Then I realized that would be silly; no one is clinging to the edge of their seat waiting for the start of my next story. Instead, I’ll just take my time and do it the right way. Next Friday seems like a reasonable target.  

Lastly, after “Number 8” concludes, I was thinking of trying something a little bit different. I absolutely love reading and learning about the many different urban legends around the country. I think that almost every town or village has at least one creepy story or another that gets told time and again—sometimes stretching back for hundreds of years! My plan is to pick various ones, and then write some stories centered around their antagonists. Who knows, if I ever find an editor, they might even make up a separate book. So, if you have any urban legend nominees, please be sure to drop me a line and I’ll check them out.

As always, thanks for reading. I hope that you’re all well and safe!  

Regards,

-LDW     

*****

“The Ferry,” Part: IV (Conclusion)

Click here to start the story from the beginning.

While Sam waited inside the Plymouth, anxiously wringing his hands on the steering wheel, Hadley used the combination of idling headlights and incandescent lantern glow to shuttle a few last-minute items from the hut to the ferry. Whistling a cheery tune, and with the deft sureness of familiar work, the ferryman first deposited a burlap sack of animal feed beside the bench on the starboard wall, then, on the next trip, a stack of empty fruit crates that wobbled with each step, threatening to topple overboard until being lowered precariously down to the deck.

Ignoring the colorful ferryman for a moment, Sam regarded the lantern hanging on the far side of the remote river crossing. Despite the distance and the fading light, it was surprising that he hadn’t noticed the worker on the opposite bank before now, especially as it had appeared every bit as deserted over there as it was on this side. Even more baffling, from what little he knew about the fairly straightforward world of river ferries, one operator was usually sufficient for the task at hand. The redundancy of employing two men to do the job of a single person was precisely the reason that places like Hazlehurst got trampled under the efficient feet of progress, Sam reasoned.

And if the other operator is anything like Hadley here—now unhooking the skinny chain that blocked the ferry’s loading ramp, letting it drop limply across the gravel road—then this is probably about the only kind of work that he’s cut out for as well. Maybe the TWA will have something that even these two can manage to do for a living.   

Satisfied that everything was finally in order for the day’s last trip across the river, Hadley moved to the back of the deck. Stealing a glance at the distant lantern, he turned around and motioned for Sam to pull his car aboard, urging him closer with his left hand while using the right to shield his eyes from the harsh headlights. As the car’s tires came into contact with the metal loading ramp, Sam felt the old barge sag lower into the water, groaning in protest as the piecemeal deck boards rubbed against the inside of her rusted hull. Slowly creeping forward, when the car reached the approximate center of the deck, Hadley held up a hand and shouted, “Whoa! That’ll do right there, friend.”   

Turning off the car, the echo from the engine raced across the diminutive waves as Sam contemplated staying in the driver’s seat for the short trip across the Oostanaula. It would spare him from any more frustrating and banal chatter with Hadley—good for several reasons—and he could finally eat his meager supper while he worked out what to say to Ellie Garnett that would convince her to sell Sam her land along the river. It was already far later into the night than he’d originally planned on being there, but he was too close now to give up. With a little luck, he could be delivering the good news to Mr. Bennet first thing tomorrow morning.

After that, we’ll see how people treat the guy who saved this agency, he thought to himself with beleaguered satisfaction. If this isn’t enough, I don’t know what is.      

His mood finally improving at the prospect of soon reaching Miss Garnett’s, Sam decided that he’d get out of the car after all. It would likely be a short trip across the river, and besides, Hadley might even slip up and unknowingly reveal some information that could aid him in his upcoming pitch to the land-rich widow.

Transplanted from the wrought-iron hook on the outside wall of the hut, the boxy lantern now hanging from a similar mount at the bow of the ferry gently rocked and swayed in cadence with the gradual listing of the hull. As Sam climbed from his car and walked into the bubble of light—carefully stepping over the up-curled ends of several loose deck boards—Hadley greeted him with his usual buoyant energy.

“Now juss’ check this out here, misser fancy pants, an’ you tell me you ever seen somethin’ so quick an’ clever.”

Sam ignored the veiled insult for the moment and watched as Hadley bent down to the ferry’s deck beneath the lantern. Grasping a small metal handle, he lifted a trapdoor lid to the crawl space below. After nimbly climbing down into the hole, he crouched beside a large motor that appeared to be leaking oil from every gasket and fitting meant to contain it. Curious, Sam knelt down to the deck, watching as Hadley performed a ritual of tightening loose bolts, twisting tiny knobs, and fastening wires where, presumably, they belonged.   

While homemade, and indeed clever, to Sam it looked like a pretty simple machine. A cable entered into the crawlspace via a hole in the bow just below the deck but well above the waterline. The cable then passed through a set of nearly-touching wheels, down-and-over a pully, and then back up again before disappearing into the pitch-black darkness of the crawlspace and finally making its escape through a matching hole in the stern. The pullies were attached, using trussed metal brackets, to the top of the motor where the driveshaft extended.

Finished with his mysterious pre-operation tasks, Hadley glanced up at Sam with a proud grin. “You ready to hear ol’ Eda sing?” he asked with theatrical showmanship. Curious, but decidedly less enthused, Sam just nodded affirmatively.  

Hadley then grasped a handle on the face of the motor and—grunting sharply with the exertion—quickly cranked it around in a circle. Startled into action, the engine belched a cloud of black smoke that escaped through the gaps in the deck boards before disappearing into the night sky—and then fell silent again. Mumbling to himself despairingly, Hadley repeated the ballistic cranking a few times until—with one final plume of noxious exhaust—the motor rumbled to life.

Sam stood and took a few steps back in order to allow Hadley to climb from the noisy crawlspace. Back on deck, the ferryman dropped the trap door shut with a bang, muffling the throaty engine below. As more exhaust seeped through the deck boards, he quickly flashed Sam a wink before moving closer to the bow. Mounted just below the railing, four skinny levers protruded from a metal box affixed to the wall. With a glance over his shoulder at the riverbank, Hadley pulled the lever on the far left of the little box.

At first nothing happened, but then a high-pitched squeal pierced the night as Sam felt a vibrating hum beneath his feet. Briefly startled by the sudden commotion, he watched as the ferry’s loading ramp swung upwards into the night sky, climbing higher and higher until it slammed into position with a noisy clank. In the darkness, a shower of gravel and riverbank mud plopped down into the water, as though confirming that they were now indeed unmoored from terra firma.  

With quiet satisfaction, Hadley stole a sidelong peek at Sam before turning back to his control box. Gradually easing the second lever up, there was another penetrating metallic squeal—lower in pitch this time, but now sustained—and the ferry lurched forward with a bump and was underway. Soon, as the inky waves splashed against the faded and chipped red paint, the little brick hut near the water’s edge began to fade into the total blackness.   

“So, whatcha think?” said Hadley, raising his voice over the grumbling engine below deck.

“It’s very nice,” replied Sam politely, “did you design and build it yourself?”

The ferryman beamed with pride for a second but then shook his head. “Nah. Well, almost.” He glanced down to the floor quickly and then back up again. “But I helped ever’ step of the way. It’s my cousin got a brain fer things like this,” he said, gesturing vaguely at the hatch by their feet, “but not me—oh no, sir. But, ‘fore me an’ him put a heart in the ol’ girl, we’s had to use mule-wheels on both banks to get Eda over and back. Now juss’ look at ‘er go.” Hadley’s expression told Sam that he likely never grew tired of the glacial trip across the river.

Sam motioned with his chin to the distant lantern and asked, “Is that him up ahead then? Your cousin?”

Without looking, Hadley just laughed a loud, shotgun-blast guffaw and said, “Oh no. Percy left us years ago. Met hisself a city girl and split fer the north. I guessin’ he needed a bit more excitement in his life. I tried to tell him; I says, ‘now what’s more ‘citin’ than crossin’ the ‘Oos at a rip-tearin’ flood? Ya dang near need two pairs of drawers juss’ t’ get there and back!’” He laughed at his own joke—no doubt for the hundredth time—and said, “But naw, whenever I hear from Percy, he always asks about Eda.” His eyes narrowed conspiratorially, and he added, “I think he juss’ misses the big ol’ bitch,” and then erupted into another raucous bout of laughter.  

Sam chuckled kindly and said, “I’m sure that he does. Well you certainly seem to enjoy it, that’s all that’s important.” A part of him was beginning to feel a little bit guilty that his chief aim in Hazlehurst was, in all likelihood, going to ruin this simple man’s life. The ferry clearly meant more to Hadley than just an ordinary job—it had become his entire identity. Sam briefly contemplated turning around and heading back to the city. He could always just tell Mr. Bennet that the widow had said “no” to the deal—a very plausible outcome from the onset of his journey.

No. This sale could be worth a hundred Hadley’s, he reminded himself. I’m not standing in line at a soup kitchen all because one or two bumpkins can’t accept reality.    

“Yessir, I do enjoy it well and goodly,” Hadley was saying, beaming with pride, “I’ll be here takin’ care of these folks right up till the day they toss the dirt on top of ol’ Hadley.”

They were now approaching the midpoint of the river, bookended between the opposing banks under the cloudless sky and innumerable dots of starlight. The moon had slowly begun to crest the ridgetops that formed the horizon, and its silvery light reflected off the surface of the water like so many bolts of lightning.  

As the ferry motored forward, Hadley’s attention had been transfixed on the lantern at the far landing, watching it expectantly as though it were about to say something of great importance. Then, soon after the ferry ambled through the middle of the river, Sam watched as the phantom light began to swing from side to side in long, slow arcs.

“What’s that mean?” he asked Hadley, still standing beside him at the controls. But the ferryman didn’t immediately answer. Instead, he plucked their own lantern from its holder overhead and, in an equally languid manner, swung it back and forth in reply.

“Just making sure things are in order for our arrival is all. No need to fret now mister city.”

His voice was steady and even, if not slightly more subdued than normal. Still, something about the way he said it struck Sam as curious, though he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

Returning the lantern to its holder, Hadley gripped the second lever and slowly nudged it further up. The humming beneath Sam’s feet grew louder as the ferry gathered a slight amount of extra speed. By all means, save the speed for right before the end, thought Sam, sarcastically.

As they neared the far bank, the waiting lantern—hung on a dead tree from the nub of a broken limb, Sam now saw—cast a familiar orange glow across the landing. Though still too far away to discern much detail, he could plainly see a man standing beside the lantern..

If Hadley’s in charge of the operation, I don’t even want to meet the man who would be in his employ.

Sam decided then and there that upon reaching the landing he would get in his car, fire it up, pull off the ferry, and not stop driving until he was at Ellie Garnett’s house. When he did manage to leave town—likely after sleeping in the backseat along the road someplace—he would locate and then use the bridge, never having to speak to either ferry operator again.

Unprompted, Hadley spoke up without taking his eyes away from the impending lantern. “Yes sir, Mr. Bennet, I most certainly plan on taking care of these folks right up until my last breath. And now, the way I see things, the world is just one big mess out there. Bunch of politicians and businessmen like yourself thinking you’re the next messiah—going ‘round trying to fix everyone’s problems. Now you want to come up here, dragging the stench of your greed and failure with you.”

That’s it, thought Sam with sudden alarm and confusion, his voice! The drawl; the pronunciation—

As the ferry eased towards the bank, Sam didn’t notice that Hadley was no longer beside him—he was mesmerized by the man waiting patiently beside the dead tree in the amber light. It had been daytime when Sam had last seen the man, but even from the deck of the ferry there was no mistaking Israel’s hulking frame. Looking like a matchstick in his hand, the wooden axe handle gleamed in the light. 

“It’s like I told you Jerry, up here, we can absolutely stop the march of time.”

*****

Hadley set the basket of fresh rolls on the table—adding to the mountain of food already present—before taking a seat on the long bench. Dishes of fried chicken, greens, chopped potatoes, pies, and other assorted items were pinning the red gingham tablecloth down against the breeze wafting up from the river at the bottom of the hill. All  around the picnic table, a dozen conversations were happening at once, as pockets of laughter, gasping disbelief, and general merrymaking floated up into the sunshine. 

Ellie Garnett had just slapped Timmy Dewitt’s hand away from a strawberry pie—with the playful admonishment that the young man had better eat some ‘real food’ before his dessert—when a brown cloud of dust appeared on the road at the end of her long driveway. As dishes were passed around and the jovial chatter continued, Sheriff Ermine pulled his olive colored patrol car beside the front porch before shifting it into park. Climbing out, he adjusted the brim of his hat against the sun and strolled over to the lively supper.

“You joining us today Martin?” asked Ellie with an inviting smile from the head of the table. Her salt-and-pepper hair was tied back casually in a ponytail, and a thin strand of pearls adorned her neck. Like most Sundays, she had on a floral-print summer dress—this one with tiny purple and red flowers—and the thin fabric ruffled in the breeze.  

“I’m afraid not today Miss Ellie,” said the sheriff, “but next week perhaps.”

Ever the gracious host, Ellie just smiled and nodded. “Well if you’re not here to help eat up all this food, am I to presume this is a business visit then?”

“Eh, I’m afraid so ma’am. I got a call from down in Atlanta earlier. Some sheriff…eh, Parker, I think he said his name was…anyway, he tells me this hotshot real estate whiz down there sent one of his lackeys up this way a couple days ago. Says he was coming up here to talk to you. Thing is, he never made it back to the city. Nobody’s seen hide nor hair of the kid. It’s like he just…poof…vanished into thin air.”

Ellie digested the news for a moment, and then said, “That’s the strangest story, Martin. But, nobody from the city has stopped by here—certainly not to buy the house,” and she laughed dismissively, causing a few of the other supper guests to chuckle as well.

Sheriff Ermine nodded and looked around the sprawling property. The main house was large, though far from the largest or grandest in Hazlehurst. Rolling meadows and pasture fields extended away from the two-story building like a fertile carpet draped across the earth, oozing down to the Oostanaula River below. The view had certainly improved over the decades, as more and more of the Garnett’s trees had been felled in order to build the town. These days, there was nary a house or structure in Hazlehurst—right down to Mr. Copper’s new chicken shed—that hadn’t been built using Garnett lumber from Garnett trees; always free, and always abundant.

“I about figured as much.” The sheriff’s eyes scanned the busy table until they found what, or rather who, they were after. Settling on Hadley—halfway through a juicy slice of watermelon—they narrowed inquisitively before he asked, “What about you Hadley, you seen a maroon Plymouth driving around town anywhere?” 

Swallowing a mouthful of melon, Hadley wiped the juice from his lips with the back of his hand and then shook his head. “Nuh-uh Marty, sure ain’t.”

“I noticed that the sign and the barrier blocking off that old ferry road is missing again. You wouldn’t maybe know anything about that?”

Making a show of being deep in thought, Hadley again shook his head. “Nope. But what this town really needs is something more permanent closing that road off.” He scoffed loudly and added, “That little ol’ wooden blockade and rinky-dink sign ain’t no dang good. One day someone’s going to wind up getting hurt down there.”

The sheriff was unconvinced but played along. “Oh? Is that what you really want Hadley? To make sure that no one can ever reach your precious ferry again?”

The table had grown quiet as the various supper guests from town stopped to listen to the tense exchange.

“Well, maybe not for good,” said Hadley, trying to sound indifferent. “It’s a historical landmark after all. It should be on a registry or something.” Several of the men seated near him laughed under their breath as they avoided eye-contact with the sheriff.

“Don’t count on it. In fact, one day you just might get down to the ‘Oos and find ol’ Eda drifted away.”

Hadley flashed a cold stare at the sheriff. “Well I certainly hope not, Marty.”

Just then, Israel emerged from the house carrying two pitchers of lemonade, trudging down the front porch steps like an animated mountain. As he strode through the grass to the table, Sheriff Ermine took a cautious step backwards to make room for him to pass by.

“Just the other fella I was looking to see. You had a maroon Plymouth come into the station in the last couple days, Izzy? Fella from the city behind the wheel. Might have been askin’ about Miss Ellie’s here?”

Israel carefully set the pitches down on the table and then turned to face the sheriff, wiping his wet hands on the front of his overalls. Racking his memory with sky-turned almond eyes, his expression was just as confounded as everyone else’s.

“Hmm. No sir. Had a lady in a Packer stop by yesterday. She had herself a leaky tire. She was passing through to—”

The sheriff held up an impatient palm. “—Save it for your customers, Izzy.” Looking around the table, he said, “Alright. I expected about as much. Listen, if any of y’all see anybody matching that description, you know how to find me.” There was a chorus of agreement around the table, and sheriff Ermine just rolled his eyes before tipping his hat to Miss Ellie. “Ma’am. Y’all enjoy your supper now.” With that, he walked back to his patrol car, and before long another earthen comet soared across a sea of green.  

*****

Joy Duncan carefully balanced the coffee cup on a thin saucer as she placed it down in front of her husband. The summer had already been stifling in Knoxville, but Percy still enjoyed a cup of coffee after dinner while he read the newspaper. In the next room, amidst the intermittent hums of white noise, the disembodied voice of the radio announcer dramatically detailed some growing European unrest or another.  

“Oh, did I tell you?” Joy began, still wearing her apron, as she took the seat opposite Percy at the kitchen table. “Ginny rang earlier. Apparently Jerry sent one of his underlings out to Hazlehurst for that property you mentioned to him. Well it’s the darndest thing, but the boy never made it back to town, she says. Like he just up and vanished.”

Percy lowered the newspaper that he’d been reading and looked at his wife with strained indifference. “Oh?” he asked, “ well why didn’t the drunken idiot drive up there himself—like I told him to?”

Joy laughed, “Who knows, Jerry always has to make things more difficult than they are.”

Percy stared down at his black coffee thoughtfully for a moment. “Yes, I suppose that’s right. Well, did she say if he was going to go up himself then?”

“Oh she didn’t say, but I would assume so—you know Gerald. You should put him in touch with your cousin. He can help show him around, keep him from getting lost too.”

“You didn’t mention Hadley to your sister, did you?”

Joy sighed with exasperation. “Oh, Percy, my word; I’ll never understand why you’re so secretive about your roots. But no darling, I didn’t mention Hadley.”

Satisfied, Percy smiled and took an airy sip of his steaming coffee. “Good. I just want him to be surprised is all, Hadley’s a special breed. But don’t worry, I’ll be sure an’ let him know to keep an eye out.”     

*****

The End.

Thank you.

-LDW

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“The Ferry,” (Part: III)

Click here to start the story at the beginning.

From the road intersection at the top of the hill, Sam caught glimpses of the Oostanaula as it eluded the surrounding peaks and shouldered its way through the dense river valley foliage. Reflecting the peach-colored canopy of the evening sky, tiny river waves sparkled against a field of green like ants on a picnic blanket. As the noisy Plymouth rumbled towards lower elevation, an opaque cloud of brown dust followed behind it like a comet’s tail.    

Sam had been rehearsing what he would say to the widow since leaving the service station. The only way for Mr. Bennet’s gamble to pay off was for Sam to not only buy the land—which already seemed like no small feat—but at a modest price-per-acre to boot. If his boss was correct however, and no one else was privy to the TWA’s plans for the dam, then he at least saw no reason to offer any more than one normally would for such remote mountain property.

Dodging several treacherous potholes in the gravel road, Sam pictured himself standing on Mrs. Garret’s front porch. He had to raise his voice in order to be heard over the timbre of the engine and the gravel stones peppering the car’s undercarriage like a fusillade of bullets.  

“Evenin’ ma’am. Peach of a night we’re having, isn’t it?”

What? Oh boy, that’s no good at all.

“Hello there Miss Garret, my name is Sam and I’ve come all the way from Atlanta just to purchase your property. And I’m not taking ‘no’ for an answer, either.”

Nah—too boorish.

“Ma’am, wouldn’t you prefer to live someplace smaller and easier to manage? Somewhere you can just relax, and enjoy your own twilight years?”

Hmm. That’s still not it, but maybe something along those lines.

Before he could cobble together another potential greeting, both car and driver slipped into the cool shade of the riverside vegetation. Here, any gaps of sunlight left between the slender oak trees and bushy hemlocks was plugged with an over-abundance of leafy plants and shrubs. Boring a tunnel through the flora, wayward limbs stretched out into the thoroughfare and tapped the sideview mirrors as the car grumbled past.

After a short distance, conjured out of the gloom, the road was forced to negotiate around an enormous moss-covered granite boulder that had likely tumbled from the surrounding heights long before mankind elected to carve a route through the area. As Sam came around the bend, (reaching for the procured half of chicken sandwich on the passenger seat), he suddenly stomped down on the brake pedal causing the car to skid a few thunderous feet before halting to the bouncing squeal of its shocks.  

Had it been any later in the day—and as such, darker—Sam may have driven right past the little brick hut, over the deck of the waiting ferry, and straight into the Oostanaula River beyond. As it was however, despite the apparent lack of signs announcing of its approach, the Plymouth’s distinct waterfall grill came to rest scant inches away from the rusty chain spanning the road beside the hut. As a skittish flock of blackbirds scattered from the crown of a shagbark tree, the comet’s tail overtook the car at last, continuing of its own volition to the river’s edge before disappearing over the sparkling water for good.     

Sam exhaled a ragged breath at the close call and climbed out of the car in order to survey the landing. Other than the dilapidated ferry boat—currently tied-off to a locust pole with its loading ramp laying on the riverbank like a giant opened maw—and the hut no bigger than a tool shed, it didn’t appear as though anybody was around. There were no other vehicles parked nearby; no little group of locals cloistered around the boat launch as they awaited the slow trip to the far side. Only the cicadas welcomed the gathering evening with their high-pitched warble, absorbed in the busy lives’ of bugs and thus indifferent to his plight.  

Stepping over the low-hanging chain, Sam walked the remaining twenty feet to the rusting barge. With the majority of its blanched red paint flaked off, his first reaction upon seeing it up close— dutifully bobbing in the water—was surprise that it did in fact appear to be floating. About half the size of a flatbed train car, he couldn’t imagine safely squeezing more than two automobiles onto it at once. The wooden deck, a patchwork of mismatched boards hastily scabbed down, was barren save for a few coils of rope and empty fruit crates. Haphazardly affixed to the starboard wall, a narrow bench was the only seating available for the slow, eighty-plus yard trip across the Oostanaula River.    

Turning over his shoulder to glance at the darkened little brick hut, Sam had been expecting someone to come out and greet him. “Hello?” he called out, startling the reclusive treetop cicadas into silence. “Is anyone here?”     

Well this is just wonderful, he thought to himself as he impatiently dug his watch out.

It’s 7:15, Where the hell is everyone? Maybe the ferryman fell asleep.

Leaving the rickety boat behind, Sam decided to briefly investigate the hut before turning his car around to drive back to the service station. Perhaps Israel would still be on shift and knew of another way across the river. As he strolled across the tranquil ferry landing, gravel crunched loudly underfoot, and the stony echo rippled through the surrounding trees like the waves from the fish in the river, rising to feed on the bugs that haunted her surface.

Reaching the hut, Sam stopped out front. The handcrafted door appeared as if it had already been rotting in the shady river air for decades, any ideas for a fresh coat of paint having long-since been abandoned. Next to the door, a small single-pane window was the only other access into the little structure—though its burlap curtain was drawn shut, concealing the interior from Sam’s view. Not hearing any noise from the other side, Sam rapped his knuckles against the wood.

“Hello? Is anyone in there? You’ve got a customer out here.” He banged on the door more determinedly with the bottom of his fist, but still nothing stirred from the other side.

Come on, I don’t have time for this hillbilly crap.

Grasping the doorknob, Sam had just begun to twist when a man’s voice startled him from behind, and he flinched with a jolt.  

“Well ‘lo there, friend!”  

Caught off guard, he spun around quickly to face the surprise stranger. Rooted close enough to smell the combination of dried sweat and wood-smoke, a reed-thin man in homespun trousers and a stained and sun-faded blue shirt was smiling ear-to-ear. His greasy light brown hair—amateurishly chopped in all the approximate locations of a legitimate haircut—was brushed over to one side, nearly covering his right ear completely.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to give ya’ jump! M’back teeth were floatin’ an’ I had to step off fer a bit.” The man’s green eyes seemed to sparkle and pop with cheerful enthusiasm, and his smile—still plastered across his face—never flagged as he spoke.

Sam cleared his throat to compose himself and said, “Oh, yeah—that’s no problem. I didn’t hear you walk up is all. I was just having a look around while I waited.”

The man gave off a loud puff of laughter and said, “You done seen it all now, friend!” He swept his arm around the deserted ferry landing. “There she is—the lass’ workin’ ferry in all of Walker County.”

Sam humored him by the taking one more survey around the landing and then nodded appreciatively. Even the ferry itself appeared unimpressed as tiny waves lapped indifferently against the rusted hull.  When he turned back, the man’s bony hand was thrust out at him. “Say, I didn’t catch yer name, friend.”

Stammering, Sam hesitantly took the man’s unwashed hand. “Oh, S-s-s—” Thinking back to his conversation with the service station attendant, he decided to err on the side of caution. “Bennet, Gerald Bennet. Most folks just call me ‘Jerry’ though,” and he gave the proffered hand a few polite shakes.

The man’s smile grew even wider still. “Name’s Hadley… but you can just call me ‘Hadley,’” he said before firing off another short guffaw at his own joke.

Kill me now, Sam thought to himself behind his best salesman smile.

“Pleasure to make your acquaintance Hadley. Say, I’d like to catch the next ferry, if that’s possible.”

Nodding enthusiastically, Hadley said, “Why sure it’s possible. That’s why I’m here, ain’t it?”  

“Oh, great. Alright, well shall I just pull on board, or do you have to—”

“Whoa—where’s the rush? We can’t leave just yet,” said the man, as though such information were obvious.

Confused, Sam looked around the deserted landing again and asked, “We can’t? Well how come?”

Hadley motioned with his chin as he pointed over Sam’s shoulder. Turning around to follow the dirty finger, a hand-painted tin sign nailed to an oak tree was barely visible as it struggled to resist the leafy tendrils of a kudzu vine:  

Last Ferry Departs at Dark

Baffled, Sam groaned internally and looked up beyond the treetop awning. The peach colored sky had molted into a flaming orange-and-yellow smear as the sun continued to lose its grip on the day, though there was still enough light to see the landing on the opposite riverbank.

Swallowing his frustration at the further delay, Sam forced the geniality into his voice. “Okay. So what time is ‘dark’ around here anyway?”

Another loud, clipped laugh burst free from the ferryman, and he wordlessly stepped around Sam on his way to the front door of the hut. When he opened the door, the auburn twilight cast a feint glow on the dusty wood-plank countertop and few chairs set along the inside wall. Beyond the shaft of dim light, inky-black shadows hid the rest of the interior from view.

Sam waited outside the door as Hadley disappeared into the shadows, listening as the man bumped into several unseen objects while he opened and closed various drawers and cupboards. Finally emerging, Hadley was carrying a large, unlit lantern by its handle. Hanging the lantern from a wrought-iron hook on the outside wall of the hut, he at last stopped and pointed to the extinguished wick. “When I have t’ light that there, it’s time to go.”  

Sam laughed incredulously and pulled out his watch. “Haven’t you people ever heard of a clock? You really ought to know the exact hour, like a proper schedule. That way people can make arrangements.”   

“Hee-hee! Arrangements? Clocks? What good’s a clock out here?” Pointing to the watch in Sam’s hand, he said, “Tell me, at what hour do the flowers open up and spread their bright, color-y petals? Or the fox; what clock does she consult ‘fore she knows to take fer her den?” Leaving Sam at the hut’s doorstep, he breezily strolled over to the Plymouth and leaned against the maroon front fender. Plucking a smoke-stained corncob pipe from his trouser pocket, he stuck it into the corner of his mouth without lighting it. After a few thoughtful and impotent draws, he pulled it out again and jabbed it towards Sam.  

“For that matter, what fancy timepiece does the rooster check before he announces the break of the morning sun? And I never, in all my life, heard a’ mighty ocean tides obeyin’ the hands of a clock.”

Sam sighed defeatedly, “Okay, I get your point. What about if I paid extra, would you be willing to bring me over—right now?”

“Th’ ferry’s free, friend. Don’t cost no penny to pull Eda across the Oos’.”

Sam thought that Eda was perhaps the dumbest name for a boat that he’d ever heard, but then, considering the shoddy vessel, he deemed it fitting.

“I understand, but I’m offering to pay you to leave right now. You can have me over to the far side and back before full-dark. And then that’ll be the last trip of the day.”

Hadley just shook his head apologetically. “’Fraid I can’t do that. Like I said, th’ ferry’s free. Besides, the next trip is already the last trip.” His eyes narrowed skeptically, “You’re sure in a big hurry to get ‘cross, mister.”

I’m not falling for it this time, Sam thought to himself.

“Yes, I am. In regard to a very important and very private matter.”

Brushing aside the insinuation, Hadley just stuck his pipe back into the corner of his grin and said, “Suit yerself. But iffin’ you was in a hurry, you ought’ve taken the bridge. I can’t say as where your headin’, but it’ll get ya to most places on the far side of the Oos’.”

Sam was dumbfounded, and his lower jaw dropped open like the ferry’s ramp. “What?” he asked, anger flashing across his face. When Hadley only gawked back at him in confusion, Sam explained acidly, “The man at the petrol station told me that this was the shortest route!” His voice had grown louder than he realized, though he wouldn’t have cared if he had.

Despite his visible fury however, Hadley only chuckled. “Izzy? You sayin’ you asked Izzy for the shortest way to where yer headin’, and he sent you right down t’ here? Hah! Well now, don’t be mad at ol’ Israel—he’s one hundred percent corrr-rect,” he said, breaking the single word into two. “But, now, the shortest doesn’t always mean the fastest, does it?”

Sam stomped through the gravel towards his car, yanking the door open in a huff.

“Whoa friend, easy now. Where you off to in yer big rush?”

Sam stopped beside the open door, “I’m going to drive back up and then take the damn bridge, like I should have done in the first place!”

Hadley’s face got serious, and he said, “Oh, now I’m ‘fraid that’s no good ‘teether.”

“What?” asked Sam, exasperated. “Why the hell not?”

“Well, see, when you ass’d him, Izzy was right, and this here ferry was absolutely the shortest route—just not necessarily the fastest. But, now that yer here, and seeing as the day is so late already, this here is now the shortest and the fastest.”

“So it would take me longer to go back up to the bridge than just take the damn ferry, is that what you’re saying?”

Hadley withdrew the pipe, nodded and winked. “Precisely, friend.”  

Releasing a dejected sigh, Sam shut the car door again. “Fine. I suppose I’ll just wait here after all.” He walked over to front of the car and leaned against the bumper as the resident crickets commenced their first chirps of the evening. To no one in particular, he said, “This has been one doozy of a day, let me tell you.”

“Well then, ’s a good thing its almost over. That’s what momma always used to say when I had a bad day. ‘Haddy-bug,’ she’d say, ‘thank the good lord in heaven that tha’ sun drops on good days an’ shit days alike,’ pardonin’ my language of course.”

Without looking over at him, Sam nodded. “She’s got that right, sounds like a smart woman.”

The ferryman’s mood suddenly changed, and Sam could sense a dimming to the electric aura that surrounded him. “Was,” he said simply, “she died when I was little. Fever stole her right after breakfas’. It took a long time for the sun to go down that day too. Thanka’ th’ lord those kind are far and few, huh?” His voice had grown softer, more subdued.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize… my condolences.”

Like the passing of a rain cloud though, after a brief moment of silence Hadley rebounded to his former cheery attitude. “No worries, friend. S’all water under the bridge now—hey, that’s a funny play on words. Besides, t’whole towns my real family. Yessir, ever last one of em’ come by here sooner ah later just to say ‘hello’.”  

“Can’t ask for any more than that I suppose,” said Sam, considering his own casually indifferent familial relationships. “So what’s the story with this ferry anyway? Why don’t y’all just build a regular bridge down here like the other one?”

Hadley laughed again, almost spitting his pipe out onto the ground. “We never asked for that one,” as he motioned to some vague location upriver. “One of those silly gover’mint projects meant to put the lazy city folk to work and get money in poor folks hans’. They all come out here with their big trucks and machines, huffing and puffing from all the hills. Damn near killed half of em’ just puttin’ it up!” His next outburst of laughter sent some anonymous nocturnal critter scurrying through the underbrush in alarm.  

Sam suspected that Hadley might be embellishing the story a bit, but he decided to let it go—mountain folk were notoriously proud people, especially when it came to their urban neighbors. Instead, he asked, “Don’t y’all feel cheated though?”

“Cheated? Outta what? Another silly ol’ bridge?”

“Well no, all of it. It isn’t just about bridges. I mean look at this,” gesturing towards the rickety ferry, “this is the twentieth century for crying out loud! Nobody uses ferries to cross a simple river anymore. It’s archaic. It’s borderline primitive. It—”

Gasping offendedly, Hadley’s lilting voice turned stern. “Now hold it right there, friend. We may not zip around town in your smoky cars all day long and run e-electricity cables all over the place like a cat’s cradle, but we sure ain’t no pree-mates. Just like that silly ol’ bridge upriver—what’s everyone gonna do when it breaks and falls right down into the Oos’? How they gonna get t’ the other side then? It don’t take no genius to throw up a stupid ol’ cement bridge. We was all fine ‘fore it, and we’d be fine wit-out it.”

Sam stood upright from the bumper, suddenly balking at the ferryman’s stubborn traditionalist attitude. “Any bridge that’s been properly constructed will long outlast any ferry,” he said, gesturing to the boat with a jerked thumb. “I’d rather drive across a bridge that had been built—”

“Ain’t no bridge on all the Oos’ gonna outlive Eda, I personally—”

“—who cares, Eda’s just going be buried beneath the reservoir in the end anyw—”

Hadley abruptly stopped talking, looking stung. Cocking his head to the side skeptically, he asked, “What you mean ‘’neath the reservoir’?

Son of a bitch!

“Oh. Nothing, it’s just a figure of speech that folks say around the city.”

Hadley’s eyes were still narrowed, but he said, “Hmm. Ain’t never heard that one ‘fore. What’s it mean?”

Sam again found himself scrambling to contrive an answer. “You know, ‘buried beneath the reservoir,’ like… ‘nothing can stop the march of time,’ and all that stuff.”

To his surprise, Hadley exploded with another burst of laughter. “Oo-wee, I like that. ‘Under the reservoir,’ shoot. But mister, real life or city-talk, some things are just different up here. We abso-lootely can stop the march of time.”

Yeah, just wait and see about that—friend.

“If that were the case, you’d have been able to stop that bridge. But you didn’t. It went right on up anyways.”

Sam’s flippant remark was met with granite-like silence. The ferry landing had become almost completely draped in darkness, and only the feint outlines of familiar objects alluded to their precise location. He could hear Hadley boots crunching on the gravel as he walked closer, the solid outline of his wiry frame stopping directly in front of him. The pungent aroma of body odor and smoke filled Sam’s nostrils before trickling down the back of his throat.   

As the last weak rays of sunlight drained from the land like a fading dream, Hadley’s eyes flashed their brilliance only inches from Sam’s own. Was the man going to sock him? Could he really have gotten that offended? Despite the muted tension though, Sam refused to turn away. Then, Hadley raised his hand through the insidious gloom and gently rested his fingertips against Sam’s chin before slowly pushing his head to the right.  

There, on the far bank, hung a burning lantern. Sam stared at it in confusion for a moment until the striking of a match startled him, illuminating the landing in its phosphorous flash. Turning to look at the source of the sudden light, he saw Hadley finish setting the wick ablaze in his own boxy lantern, still hanging from the wall of the hut.

“Well looky there mister big-city,” he said, grinning broadly in the orange lantern light, “time t’ shove off.”

*****

Click here for Part: IV (Conclusion)

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“The Ferry,” (Part: II)

Click here to start the story at the beginning.

Sam paused in the shade of the office building, clinging to the last few inches of protection before submitting to the abusive sunlight. Fishing his watch from a vest pocket, he tried to calculate how long it would take to drive up to Hazlehurst, nearly fifty miles to the northwest. Resigned to finding his supper along the road somewhere, he gave the tarnished dial a few unnecessary twists and tucked it away again. The ‘particulars’ that Mr. Bennet had claimed Doris would supply didn’t amount to much, and the anemic folder was currently pinned beneath his arm where it had already begun to absorb sweat from the early-afternoon humidity.  

Wading into the insistent flow of foot traffic, he allowed the human current to carry him the three blocks to his Plymouth. Once there, he tossed the moist folder onto the seat through the open passenger window, stopping to glance at the address scribbled across the front.

Sam had been replaying the conversation with Mr. Bennet since leaving the office, dissecting and analyzing each nuanced word for any unspoken clues regarding the bizarre assignment. He must have been lost in thought—staring, as he was, at the automobiles and streetcars weaving and darting around one another; each no doubt blaming the other for the hectic traffic—when a man’s voice pulled him from his reverie. At first sounding as though coming from a great distance, the hazy words were soon quite loud and clear, mere inches from his face.  

“Hey, pal, I said, ‘are you okay?’” The man’s breath smelled of cheap cigars, worsening the busy thoroughfare’s nauseating petroleum-tinged cloud of automobile exhaust.

Shaking his head to dispel both the earlier conversation and the presently unpleasant odor, Sam turned to look at the source of the mental intrusion. The man was older—the damp, pinkish skin around his neck and chin already beginning to lose its youthful tautness—and wore a well-tailored off-white linen suit and crème-colored fedora. Coupled with the soft features of a lifelong businessman, symmetric rows of shiny teeth peeked out from behind a smile that carried a mixture of pity and encouragement.  

“Huh?” asked Sam, visibly confused.

“You look like a fella who’s just gotten some bad news. Keep your chin up though; things’ll get better soon, kid.” The man’s voice was thin and nasally, though it still bore the confidence of one that could legitimately divine the future.

‘Kid’. Again with the kid. Sam just took a step back and nodded agreeably, “Yes, I’m sure you’re right.” Tipping his hat kindly to the stranger, he walked around to the driver’s side of the car and climbed in before the man could reply. Then, as he aggressively stomped down onto the starter, he’d never been so relieved to hear the massive engine roar to life and muffle the din of the modern world.

I’m going to show every last one of ‘em. They’re gonna see just what this kid can do. Mr. Bennet, Doris, Greer, even this clown—still mooning at me from the sidewalk.

Avoiding any further eye-contact, Sam eased his car into traffic while pretending not to notice the patronizingly sympathetic grin on the man’s face. If you only knew, buddy, he thought to himself as the throng of humanity absorbed the would-be good Samaritan in the rear-view mirror.

A few miles to the west, Marietta Road would take him out of the city, leading further into the mountainous regions in the north of the state. As he drove along the crowded streets—bristling with men and women much too in a hurry to be bothered with courtesy—it was hard to imagine that so many Americans were struggling just to survive.  

Unlike Georgia’s rural communities, Atlanta had not only persisted despite the collapse of the stock market, in some respects it had actually continued to grow in size and population. A large part of this growth was due to the invasion of the boll weevil two decades earlier. Prolific eaters and breeders, the weevil’s voracious appetite was responsible for destroying much of the state’s cotton fields. Combined with a plummeting demand and record droughts, for years before the depression there had already been a steady exodus out of the rural farming communities and into the bigger cities where work was easier to find and poverty easier to share in.   

Now, on every corner and stuffed in-between, towering brick structures rose in constant competition with one another for sunlight and reputation alike. Previously undeveloped land—characterized by the many hills and fraught with rocky soil—was being painstakingly and enthusiastically cleared in order to make space for the newly homes and businesses that would no longer fit within the constraints of the traditional city limits.     

Slowing as he approached the busy intersection, Sam studied the faces of his neighbors as they whisked by one another. Beyond the proud and stoic expressions, there was an intrinsic tint of hope lying just beneath the surface. These were a people accustomed to repairing, rebuilding, and enduring. Whatever the future might hold for Bennet and Associates, Atlanteans were determined that their city would emerge from the current global crisis stronger than it had previously been. Accelerating away from the resolute survivors, he wondered what his own future held. Perhaps the man with the cheap-cigar breath was right, and things would indeed improve.   

A short time later, as the city’s ever-expanding skyline bid a silent farewell, Sam was finally able to turn his full attention to the job that lie ahead.

*****

As brick and glass gave way to granite and pine, only a few wispy clouds shared the cobalt horizon with the looming peaks in the distance. Beyond the Plymouth’s passenger window to the northeast, the imposing Blue Ridge Mountains threatened to continue their southernly advance and swallow Atlanta whole at some unknown time of their choosing.

In contrast, straight ahead in the distance, the section of the Appalachian Mountain Range currently growing in Sam’s windshield only caught Georgia with a glancing blow—narrowly slashing across the state’s northwest corner like an errant paintbrush stroke. Beyond the soaring tops and jagged ridgelines, the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee welcomed those willing to make the arduous trip.

In the shadows of both great ranges and scattered throughout the many foothills, dozens of little mountain towns dotted the map. Even in the best of times, life in these tight-knit communities carried its own unique brand of hardships, and these days many were further reduced to a primitive subsistence lifestyle.

Driving by shotgun houses and modest single-family shacks, malnourished and dirty-faced children rushed out to the road in order to see the big car thunder past, the innocence of youth temporarily shielding them from the harsh and inescapable reality that awaits. This far out from the city, there were still benefits to having large families—where many hands made for lighter lifting—and as such it wasn’t uncommon to pass four, five, even six or more children working and playing around the yard, unwitting apprentices to the craft of hard labor.

More often than not, the youngsters would run alongside the car, leaping over red ant piles and side-stepping the rhododendron bushes until they stopped, precious energy spent, and collapsed to the gravel in a satisfied huff, smiling as they waved goodbye to the stranger.

While the sun poured out its last drops of oppressive heat, Sam kept the nose of the Plymouth pointed deeper into the hills. Like a maroon schooner, both car and driver crested over top of lush, verdant waves, climbing higher and higher into the endless sapphire sky before plunging down again into the cooler depths of the valleys and draws.

With no need to dig his watch from his pocket, both Sam’s stomach and the Plymouth’s fuel gauge agreed that it was going to be time to stop soon. He’d been tracking his own noisy progress on a coffee-stained map sitting on the passenger seat beside him, stealing glances and tracing his finger along the curvy black line as he passed various signs and waypoints. If he was correct, Hazlehurst was only one—possibly two, if Rocky Point still existed—towns ahead, and he plead with his grumbling stomach and flagging fuel gauge to hold out just a bit longer.

After a few shallow hills, his resolve was rewarded with a collection of signs—some of which appeared crudely handmade, and thus of questionable legitimacy—heralding the arrival of Hazlehurst: “Just Five Miles Ahead.” Then it was four; and then finally three. Before being needlessly informed of the two-mile mark, on the left side of the road he saw the sun glinting off the cylindrical glass globe of a fuel pump, quietly supervising a trio of dusty utility vehicles in the gravel parking lot of a service station.  

The once-relentless sun had at last begun to sag lower as Sam pulled his car alongside the lone pump. Switching the engine off to the relief of his ear drums, the ghost of the mechanical roar momentarily haunted him, wandering around the halls of his head before being driven away by the mountain songbirds and cicada bugs trilling in the treetops.  

As far as service stations go—especially compared to Atlanta’s full-convenience marts—there was nothing remarkable about this one. A small, squat building with a flat roof and high façade proudly declared that they not only sold gasoline, but indeed that it was “Gulf” brand gasoline. The white-washed siding looked as if it received a fresh coat of paint at least every other year, and generations of thick, dried rivulets were visible all the way from the parking lot.

Guarding the customer entrance and a pair of large plate-glass windows, a row of log pillars supported the pitched roof over the building’s front porch. Scattered around the dusty planks, a mismatched assortment of chipped and sun-bleached wooden chairs sat empty in the pre-evening light; all except one.

As Sam climbed from the car—stretching his cramped legs and lower back with a stifled groan—a barefooted man in overalls stood up from a warped rocker and plucked his wide-brimmed straw hat off a nail on the service station wall. With a genial expression that looked grateful for the distraction, he walked out from underneath the shade and down the short flight of steps before ambling over with a gate as languid as the thick air.

“G’afternoon, sir. Well, p’haps I ought say ‘good evening’ instead,” said the man pleasantly, as he tugged a rag from his back pocket.

Taller than Sam by at least four inches, his muscular shoulders and broad upper-back looked as though they were carved from the surrounding mountains. Where it wasn’t hidden by the fabric of his sleeveless overalls, his burnished copper skin glistened with the sheen of a man who spent most of his daytime hours outdoors. Beneath the straw brim of his sunhat, curly black hair concealed stowaway drops of sweat, temporarily delaying their eye-stinging decent.

Meeting the man’s friendly look, Sam returned the greeting, “Hi there. Fill it to the top if you would. And be sure to mind the paint, please.”         

Now that he was within spitting distance of Hazlehurst, Sam wanted to go through the information that Doris had given him before leaving one last time. While the hulking service attendant saw to the gas, oil, and bug-splattered windscreen, Sam re-read the gossipy details about Ellie Garnett’s simple country life. With any luck, it would be a quick negotiation and he’d soon be on his way back to Atlanta—and his hero welcome for single-handedly saving the company.

Just then a thought came to him. Even with the address, Sam could spend hours crisscrossing the hills and hollers looking for the widow’s place. This wasn’t the city, where roads and buildings were laid out according to the will of men. Here, seasonal weather patterns as much as falling rocks could determine which path a route took. Asking a local for some help might potentially save him untold hours’ in delays and frustration.

Turning first to the service building, an open side-door revealed a handful of locals kneeling or crouched on the floor in a semi-circular huddle. The focus of their attention, a man with mahogany colored hair and skin as tanned as boot leather, threw a pair of dice against an unseen target, triggering a raucous chorus of cheers and gripes. As pennies changed hands, the huddle rotated to allow a slightly younger looking man in a newsboy hat to throw.   

Thinking better of it, Sam turned to the man currently wiping oil from the Plymouth’s engine dipstick with his greasy rag.

“Say there, pal, you lived here your whole life?”

The man, visibly surprised, looked around quickly as if Sam had been speaking to someone else. Confirming that it was just the two of them there, he shrugged to himself and said, “All ‘m life. Was born and raised by Cutler Pass.”

If Sam had been expected to know what or where Cutler Pass was, he didn’t. Not wanting to sound rude however, he simply nodded and went on, “Oh, right. Perfect then.” He glanced over to the open side-door, but the gambling locals had yet to even notice his presence. “Let me ask you something, you ever hear of an Ellie Garnett? Now, she’d be an older lady, in her 70’s as a matter of fact. And she’s a widow, so no—”

“Yes sir, I know her,” then, correcting himself, “well, what I mean to say is that I know of her. Her place is on the ‘Oos, upriver…” Pausing to do the math, he quickly abandoned the effort and finished, “Well, a few miles from here ah guess.”

Perfect, thought Sam triumphantly, though he choked down his excitement.  

“Great, great,” he said nonchalantly, “say—think you could point out the shortest route there?”

When the question was put to him, the man’s almond eyes turned skyward, deep in thought again. Then after an uncomfortable amount of time, he said, “Yes sir, I think I could do that.”

Waiting expectantly, Sam urged him on with raised eyebrows. Catching the hint, the man continued, turning to point further up the very road that Sam had come in on.  

“About… six or seven hills thatta’way,” he said, hand undulating as he pantomimed cresting the hill tops, “you’re gonna see three big magnolias in an open field on your left, like at Calvary.” He swung his arm down pointedly to demonstrate just which side of the road he meant. “Turn there, an’ then follow the road down t’ the ‘Oos. When you get to the ferry—”

Sam cut him off, “I’m sorry—what? Did you say ‘ferry’? Like a boat that goes back and forth from bank to bank?”

The service attendant looked perplexed, “… yes sir…”

“You mean to tell me there ain’t no bridges over the Oostanaula?”

“You ass’d the shortest way, the ferry the shortest way,” said the man, beginning to look worried at having offended the only customer in sight.

To his visible relief, Sam just chuckled out loud. “Right you are, and if taking a ferry gets me those two-hundred acres then I’ll ride every damn ferry in the state.”

The attendant cocked his head quickly, “Two hunned acres, sir?”

Sam’s eyes involuntarily widened. Shit, that’s no good, he thought to himself.

Recovering—and trying his best to downplay the flippant remark—Sam said, “Well now, maybe. There’s a lot of things to discuss with Miss Garett first, and these types of things can get very complicated…” He was getting anxious to get out of there now. The last thing he needed was a bunch of locals banding together to drive off a carpetbagger from the city.

His first conversation in town and he’d already been careless with his tongue. Thinking it unlikely for the service attendant to tell anyone, he still had every intention of being back on the road to Atlanta before it could matter much.

The service station attendant just nodded slowly and said, “Well uh, like I was sayin’, when you get to the magnolias—”

“Yes-yes, ‘turn left; down to the ferry,’ then where?” injected Sam, suddenly in a rush to get back on the road now that he’d tipped his hand.

“…Oh, uh,” the man stammered, flustered in the shadow of an ageless and cruel power imbalance, “at the far bank, follow the road up the hill. At the top, keep to your right an’ stay on that road. It’ll follow the ‘Oos a ways, then you’ll come to Miss Ellie’s gate. There’s a big pine stump right out by the drive.” The man spoke with his hands, the calloused palms bending and veering along with the description.

Finally.

Flashing a gracious smile, Sam said, “Hey bud, I appreciate that. Say, what do I owe you?”

Turning to glance at the gauge on the pump, the man said, “Two and seventy-five, sir.”

Digging his billfold from his pocket, Sam asked, “While I’m at it, you got anything to eat around here? I’m just dying to try some local food.” Stealing a glance at the dice game still underway, he added, “I really don’t want to bust up their game just for a bite though.” In truth, he no longer trusted himself in the midst of so many Hazlehurst residents not to spill the beans. If he did, that lot wouldn’t be so easy to mollify.  

Looking perplexed, the attendant gave a little shrug and said, “I still have half a chicken sandwich for my supper, if’n you’d like?”

Without pausing to consider it, Sam said, “That would be lovely in fact.”  

The man disappeared into a small shed beside the service station before quickly emerging with a paper sack. With one last peek inside, as if to farewell to the food that he would no longer get to enjoy, he handed it over to Sam.

In return, Sam gave the man four dollars from his wallet and said, “No need for the change, get yourself another nice supper.”

The attendants eyes widened in alarm. “Oh gosh no, sir, I can’t keep all that. For half an old chicken sandwich? No sir, no sir. It wouldn’t be right.”

Sam held up a hand to stop him, “It’s fine, really, you’ve been very helpful.” What he didn’t say was that the money was from the Bennet Agency’s petty cash fund, used for incidentals such as this.  

City or mountain town, a poor man with a large sum of money that he wasn’t able to easily explain could be a dangerous thing. With his only defense being that he sold half of a sandwich to an out-of-town stranger, the man’s concern was more than justified.

As if to quell his fears, Sam added, “If anyone gives you a hard time, just tell them to ring Jerry Bennet in Atlanta, the switchboard gals know the plug.”

There was a spark of understanding in the man’s eyes, and he said, “So that’s you sir, Mr. Jerry Bennet?”

Sam opened his mouth to correct him when a rowdy cheer burst from the little service building. He turned and witnessed a collection of hands materialize from the shadows and slap the back of a scrawny youth crouched down to his haunches. Just then, a thought came to him.

“Yep, that’s right. Jerry Bennet, at your service,” said Sam, flashing his best—albeit thus far only marginally successful—toothy salesman smile.

Nodding, the man tucked the money into his pocket, if not fully convinced then at least open to the possibility that he might get to keep the tip. “Israel, sir,” he said by way of post-scripted introduction.

Tipping the brim of his hat, Sam quipped, “Well Israel, it’s been mighty fine to meet you, and I thank you for the help.” With that, he tossed the paper sack onto the seat and climbed back into the car. Having no need to pull the choke out, he stomped on the starter and the big engine roared to life, scattering the chatty songbirds on the electricity line overhead. Momentarily reminded of the world beyond their dice game, a few of the local men inside the building glanced out at him, and Sam nodded back congenially.

Pulling away from the service station in a cloud of ochre colored dust, he glanced at the mirror several times to see Israel standing beside the gas pump like a rooted tree, his frozen stare watching the maroon Plymouth crest the little green waves of the surrounding hills until one final steep descent sealed off the view for good.

A short time later, as he passed more of the intermittently scattered houses and sprawling river valley fields, three distinct trees growing in a staggered row appeared in an open meadow on the left side of the road. The thick, dark emerald leaves with an almost waxy appearance told Sam without a doubt that this was the turn that Israel had mentioned. As he departed the main highway, pulling onto the packed-dirt road that ostensibly lead down to the ferry, Sam allowed himself a short moment of victory. I’m coming for you Mrs. Garret, like it not.

*****

Click here for Part: III

 

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“The Ferry,” (Part: I)

The metallic pecking of typewriter keys ricocheted off of the exposed-brick walls before escaping through an open window and out onto the sidewalk of Peachtree Street. Free of the building’s oppressive interior, it quickly evaporated amongst the passing chatter and noisy traffic of Atlanta’s bustling downtown district. The originator of the clacking, Ms. Doris Mitchell, sat with her plump ruby lips pursed and her brow furrowed, deep in concentration. On the desktop beside her chirping Royal, a small fan threatened to upend a few sheets of paper as it pushed the mid-summer air around the room, thick with humidity.  

From an uncomfortable wooden chair opposite the desk—and near enough to smell Doris’ unfinished lunch of catfish and okra—Sam Sullivan looked around the room apprehensively while he waited.   

“Did Jerry happen to mention what he wanted to see me about?” he asked over the clicks and lacks, trying his best to sound nonchalant.  

Doris abruptly stopped typing with a final blast, as if to punctuate her displeasure at being interrupted.

“Mr. Bennet,” she started in her nasally voice, presuming the small-talk for insubordination, “just said to have you here at one o’clock. He didn’t make me a partner for god’s sakes.” With that, she adjusted the wire-rimmed glasses atop her pudgy cheeks and resumed the obnoxious clacking.  

Nodding pleasantly, Sam drew a slow, deep breath. This woman is the biggest pain in the ass in all of the world, he thought to himself. What have I ever done to her? If she thinks her job is so damn hard she should try going out there and selling something in this mess.

Of the numerous real estate agencies in Atlanta, only two or three could compete on the level of Bennet & Associates—a source of both pride and consternation to Gerald “Jerry” Bennet. Specializing in downtown commercial properties, theirs was one of the few markets to successfully weather the economic crisis, even if those businesses did frequently change hands.

With lousy company and no hope for an inside scoop, Sam decided to pass the time by trying to fathom a reason for the impromptu meeting. At twenty-two, he wasn’t only the newest member of the agency, he was also the youngest. Even worse, with his dirty-blonde hair and youthful blue eyes, people often remarked that he looked as though he were fresh out of high school. In a business where the customer only trusted experience, it was a constant battle for him to be taken seriously. 

In truth, it had been nothing short of a miracle for him to land a job at the prestigious agency soon after graduating from Emory, (an accomplishment that was due in larger part to his father’s choice in squash partners than his own GPA). That was why in an economic collapse so destructive that it was already being dubbed “The Great Depression,” getting fired now would—in his mind at least—be tantamount to a death sentence.  

Just as Sam was dreading the thought of moving back into his parent’s house in Mableton, the frosted glass door beyond Doris’ half-eaten lunch swung wide open, further upsetting the nervous paperwork trembling before the fan. Standing in the threshold and still gripping the door handle, Mr. Bennet fixed Sam with his intense gaze before narrowing his eyes like a fox approaching a sleepy hen house.

“Sullivan. Inside. Now.” With that, he cocked his head towards the sunlit interior of the office and turned away.  

While his boss wasn’t a very physically imposing man—standing only an inch or two taller than Sam but with a slightly thicker build—he was infamous for his foul temper and mercurial fits.

And he seems to be in a fine mood today, Sam thought wryly. Jumping to his feet, he fired off a reply so hasty that it came out as one long, barely-intelligible word: “Yes-sir-Mr.-Bennet-right-away!”  

Doris didn’t bother to look up from her typing as Sam hustled past her desk—seemingly the one person in Atlanta who didn’t get rattled around their boss when his ire was raised. Following Mr. Bennet inside, he took his time in shutting the door behind him in the hopes that his pounding heart would settle. Before he turned around again, the company’s namesake was already leaned over the large conference table by the windows, propped aloft on splayed arms.

Overhead, the wide blades of the ceiling fan churned sluggishly in a vain attempt to dispel the muggy air from the spacious office suite. Indicative of their failure, fat beads of sweat had broken out across the patch of scalp left behind by Mr. Bennet’s retreating salt-and-pepper hair—now forming an Alamo in the redoubt above his ears. Standing upright to dab at the bald spot with his handkerchief, he jabbed a finger down at the table as if he were squishing picnic ants.

“This, Sullivan, is the future. Our future. Our only future. You, me, the other guys; hell—even Doris, cranky bitch that she is,” he said as his eyes darted to the door with a hint of trepidation. Sam released his breath in a quiet sigh of relief; it didn’t appear as though he would be fired just yet.   

Dark patches of sweat had been steadily growing around Mr. Bennet’s armpits and collar, turning his baby-blue shirt a deep navy color in those spots. Hanging down at his sides like a bloodhound’s ears, his suspenders flopped around with every jerky movement. Without stepping further into the room, Sam craned his neck in order to peek at the intended target of the outstretched finger.   

Strewn across the surface of the conference table, maps of every size and color depicting the state of Georgia lie in messy piles. Neatly manicured digit still jabbed down, Mr. Bennet’s eyes widened impatiently. “Well? Am I going to hold them up like a puppet show? Get over here, dammit.”  

Sam scurried across the room and joined him at the table. Standing next to his boss, he could smell the traces of liquor seeping from his opened pores. Mr. Bennet’s penchant for drinking had been a poorly-kept secret within the company for quite some time, and lately things had only gotten worse. According to the office gossip that Sam was rarely included in, what had begun with just a splash mixed into his morning coffee had—over the course of the widening economic gulf—matured into a full-blown drinking problem.

“Dams,” said Mr. Bennet simply, his bloodshot eyes looking to Sam expectantly.

Waiting for more information before he could reply, Sam just arched his eyebrows.

Exasperated, his boss asked impatiently, “What do you know about the TVA?”

“The Tennessee Valley Authority? Not much sir, I guess. I know they’ve been going all through the south building dams on the rivers and such. They say it makes electricity, but honestly I don’t see how.”

Those’re the pricks,” said Mr. Bennet, grinning and nodding enthusiastically. “Look at this.” Amongst the many others on the table, spread out before the two men was a large colored map of the state. In the region north of the city—where the Appalachian Mountain range seeped into Georgia from neighboring Tennessee—erratic-looking x’s, circles, and lines dotted the paper.         

Sam leaned over the table, desperately hoping that something would jump out as being the obvious source of his bosses excitement. Beneath the persistent finger, and within shouting distance of the Tennessee border, the little town of Hazlehurst appeared to be under siege from an invading army of chicken-scratch shapes and doodles. More puzzled than ever, he stood upright again before looking over with an expression of neither confusion nor understanding.

“There. Right there.” Mr. Bennet’s finger jabbed up and down on the paper, leaving sweaty little smudge marks behind. “My idiot brother in-law up in Knoxville has finally been good for something. I wish it’d had been when I asked him to hold that money from the Portman deal in his account, but better late than never I suppose.”

From the other side of the window, a staccato of car horns and angry shouts suddenly rose up as traffic congealed at the busy intersection. Unsolicited, a shabby looking man in a threadbare straw hat stepped off the curb and waded into the quagmire, arms flailing overhead for attention. After a few arcing windmill motions, the pedestrian-turned-traffic-mediator quickly had things rolling again, and soon everyone went back to their busy and not-so-busy days.  

Returning his attention to Mr. Bennet, Sam shrugged and said, “I’m afraid I still don’t understand sir.” The little scribbles and symbols on the map might mean something to his boss, but to him they were as good as ancient hieroglyphics.   

“I didn’t think you would. Here, come on over here.” He turned away from the maps and walked over to the pair of matching leather chairs beside a Pecanwood coffee table. Plopping down with an airy sigh, his bedraggled appearance made it seem much later in the day than it was. Unlike the zeal that had started the meeting, his countenance had become more somber and detached. 

Dutifully following, Sam stood by the adjacent chair until Mr. Bennet made an ambiguous gesture with his hand, after which he sat down apprehensively.

“I’m going to be honest with you Sullivan—I mean really honest.” Instead, clearing his throat, he leaned forward and opened the wide drawer on the front of the coffee table before withdrawing a brown cork-stoppered bottle. He held the bottle up to his ear, shook it, then removed the cork with his teeth and spat it onto the hardwood floor. After taking a long pull, he grimaced and shivered as though a chilly draft had crept up his spine.  

“Things aren’t so good,” he said matter-of-factly, sweeping his arm through the air like he was presenting the room.

Sam waited for him to continue and, after another quick tip of the bottle, he did.

“People always wonder how we’ve managed to stay afloat through, well, you know—” he said, cocking his head towards the city beyond the window. “Truth is, for the past few years it’s mostly been a bluff. A scarecrow. A paper tiger. Not the Fuller account; not the Bradley account; none of them were really enough.” He chuckled out loud to no one in particular as his head rocked back and forth.

Sam was taken aback, and he said, “I don’t understand sir, we’ve been closing properties steadily for as long as I’ve been here. Just last—”

Mr. Bennet snorted loudly and the percussive ridicule bounced around the brick walls as it sought escape. “And how long has that been? Nine, ten months?”

“Seventeen, sir. Next Thursday, anyway,” he said sheepishly.

Mr. Bennet’s eyes widened momentarily and he gave his head a quick shake. “Right. Anyway, all our recent closings might have kept us from standing in those godawful lines at the soup kitchens, but we’ve been hemorrhaging green since Hoover parked his Quaker ass in Washington.”

Sam blurted out, “We’re broke?”  

“Yes. No—well, almost. At least we very likely will be if you blow this.”

“’Blow this,’ sir?”

Without offering any to Sam, Mr. Bennet poured the remainder of the booze into his mouth and tossed the empty bottle back into the drawer before kicking it shut. He then sprang back to his feet and returned to the conference table. Trailing behind like a puppy, Sam wondered how many other bottles lay hidden around the office.

Back at the map, the two men stood side by side looking down at the besieged Hazlehurst. “Dr. High-and-Mighty up there in Tennessee claims that the TVA intends to build one of their hydro-electric dams on the Oostanaula,” said Mr. Bennet, pointing out the skinny blue line with his index finger. “You know how much them federal ninnies are paying landowners for their riverside acreage? A fortune.” Turning to look at Sam, the familiar spark of passion once again twinkled in his eyes. “A fortune I intend to share in,” he said with a tipsy smile.

Sam was nodding thoughtfully but in truth he still had no clue where exactly the conversation was heading. Hazlehurst was at least a three hour drive from Atlanta by automobile—far beyond the reach of his boss’ metropolitan influence. Even worse, he’d never heard of anyone trying to undercut a public works project before.   

Mr. Bennet lifted the edges of a few maps on the table until he found a sheet of lined paper. Picking it up, he handed it to Sam and said, “Meet Ellie Garnett. Seventy-three. Widow. No children. No family—ah, ‘kin,’ they call it out there, you’ll want to keep that in mind—and owner of two hundred of the most pristine acres of land straddling the Oostanaula you’ve ever seen. Land that just happens to be the only feasible place to build one of those stupid hydro-electricity dams.”

Sam skimmed the page and read the ancillary details of the old woman living in the middle of nowhere. Slanted, messy handwriting divulged Ellie’s home address (Pine Hollow Road), which bank held the deed to her land (Rockingham Union), the manner of death her husband suffered (brain tumor)—even which grocer delivered her sundries (Harper’s).

Sam was confused. It wasn’t necessarily uncommon to gather useful private information when considering buying or selling a property, but it was uncommon to see such intrusive practices directed at an individual person, let alone an elderly widow living so far from the city.       

“Is this what your brother gave you?” asked Sam.  

In-law. If that man were my brother I’d have pushed him down the steps as a baby. About told him as much to his face once, too. Now, don’t you worry about all that,” he said, tapping the paper in Sam’s hands, “you just worry about your piece.”

“My piece?”

“Ellie, Sullivan. Get your powdered ass up to Hazlehurst and buy us that land. If she dies without leaving it to anyone the state is gonna claim it. I don’t know about you, but the government paying itself with its own money to do its own work seems pretty foolish to me. We’re going to get that old bird’s acreage and then sell it to the TVA for a fortune.”

Sam was mortified. “Me sir? Are you sure I’m the right one for this? Shouldn’t Dawson, or even Greer—both of those guys have tons more experience and’r way better at closing than me. If this is so important, wouldn’t you rather someone else handled it?”

“Nonsense, Sullivan. Where you from again, middle of shitsville-noplace, wasn’t it?”

“Uh, no sir, it’s Mableton.”

Mableton was just outside of the city to the west, but it was always fashionable to look down on someone less cosmopolitan—and, by extension, less sophisticated—than yourself.

“Same difference. Those are your people out there; you’re one of their own. Who better to charm the lace knickers off the old gal, huh? Besides, the other boys look too… old, and too… city. I don’t want Dawson’s greasy hair dripping on her front porch or Greer’s flashy suits and motor-mouth scaring her off. You have a trusting face, Sullivan. Now we’re gonna to use it to get rich.”

The gravity of the situation weighing down more and more, Sam made one last attempt to demure, saying, “Be that as it may, sir, I still don’t know as though you want me handling an account like this. If I were to screw it up—”

“You’ll what, get fired? Let me tell you something,” he said, putting a firm hand on Sam’s shoulder, “if you don’t go, I’ll do more than fire you, Sullivan.” Then, eyes flashing with predatory hunger, he said, “Don’t blow this, kid—we need this one.”

Withdrawing his hand, he gave Sam a puzzling wink before turning to walk over to his desk on the opposite side of the room. Halfway there, he stopped and called over his shoulder, “Doris has all the particulars, grab them on your way out.”

Lying bitch, thought Sam. “Um sir, when were you expecting me to leave?”

Taking a seat behind his desk and without look up, Mr. Bennet replied, “I wanted you gone five minutes ago.”

Still reeling as he struggled to process everything, Sam just nodded and turned for the frosted glass door. As he exited the office in a stupor, he could hear Mr. Bennet feverishly riffling through his desk drawers.

*****

Click here for Part: II


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“State Road,” (Part: VI – Finale)

To start the story from the beginning, just click here!


For a brief moment as the attic floor gave way—the brittle wood noisily succumbing to the force of his falling weight—Paul feared that he might continue dropping through the air for an eternity. As it was, his short trip ended on a threadbare settee positioned in the southwest corner of the darkened second-story master bedroom. Amidst a cascade of plaster dust and splintered boards, he caught the bottom two-thirds of the antique chair squarely on his right shoulder, bounced once, then promptly landed on the floorboards with a breathless wheeze. The trusty aluminum flashlight, prized from his grip upon impact, spun in dizzying circles as it skipped across the floor until coming to rest against the baseboard.

Paul’s first thought as he lie there hungrily gulping in the stagnant air was gratitude that he hadn’t been more seriously injured. Then, rubbing his shoulder where it had impacted the floor, he thought of the old woman he’d seen in the attic, picturing her colorless face frozen in the grimace of a painful death. Even before he had tripped and fallen he’d known that it was the orphanage’s matron that Maria had tearfully described seeing in the downstairs parlor earlier that night. Have two people ever gone so crazy that they see the same delusions? he nervously wondered.

At one point, amidst the settling dust and his ragged breaths, Paul heard what might have been his name being called out from somewhere beyond the quiet bedroom. The muffled lone-syllable didn’t sound like Maria’s voice however, and it was soon engulfed by the passing thunder like a small fish that had strayed too far from the safety of the reeds. Placating himself with the notion that it had only been the wind, he decided not to start shouting back yet—just in case.

Groaning as he slowly worked his way to his knees, Paul sought out the little flashlight from across the room. As he got to his feet, he brushed the remaining debris from his messy brown hair and shoulders while stealing furtive glances back up at the hole he’d created in the ceiling. Seeing only impenetrable darkness, he walked around the foot of the bed and made his way through the bedroom over to the absconded light. After retrieving it—and from the safety of the added distance—he pointed the light up into the attic. As he’d expected though, all that could be discerned were several of the ubiquitous cardboard box towers comprising the dusty labyrinth above.  

Thinking he should return to Maria in the parlor, Paul was just starting to leave when his light glassed over the papers that he had found hidden away inside the mattress earlier that evening—now messily strewn about the dirty bed-top where he’d tossed them. Beneath a few sheets of the neatly-typed, bureaucratic child transfer documents, he saw the edges of what looked like a handwritten letter.

Curious, he reached down and brushed the impersonal paperwork aside as he withdrew the lined sheet of paper. It was folded into thirds—clearly intended to be stuffed into the smallest of envelopes—and Paul gingerly opened the brittle top flap. Holding the flashlight between his neck and shoulder like a telephone receiver, he had to squint in order to make out the narrow-set cursive handwriting:

Dearest Ms. C. LeClerant,

 I’m afraid your most recent letter has left me thoroughly concerned. I know there’s no need to remind you not only of the very serious nature of our work, but also it’s vital importance. I’ve always admired your prudent disciplinarian methods in the past, and so I have no reason to doubt that you will soon nip this current problem in the bud.

On a personal note, like me, you may find it easier never to picture the boys as anything other than what they are: civilized society’s cast-offs. You and I are bestowing upon them a purpose to their lives that fate originally deemed them unworthy to receive. Any program would be a privilege for such a lowly lot, but the KM program is a true blessing.

As for the boy, (Danny I believe you called him), do with him as you wish. If, as you say, you find him to be useful, then by all means keep him there with you to aide in your endeavors. One less specimen won’t slow progress a bit at this point. Only, please ensure the others arrive at the railyard on schedule.

I’ll close with a word of caution. Our project must remain secret—at all costs. The fate of mankind may very well depend upon it, and on that you will simply have to trust me. Be strong Ms. LeClerant, if only for a little while longer.  

Warmest Regards,

Dr. W. Oberth       

Upon finishing the letter, the corners of Paul’s lips sagged into a frown. At the window beside him, the early summer storm continued to throw itself against the glass, filling the room with its electric-blue light. Clearly the missive had been saved for a reason, though he couldn’t imagine why. Additionally, while it seemed the matron running the orphanage was up to some nefarious dealings with this Doctor Oberth, there simply wasn’t enough information to say whatexactlythose dealings were.

And what did he mean about ‘the fate of mankind,’ Paul thought to himself.

Thinking to show the letter to Maria, he re-folded the fragile paper into thirds and slid it into the back pocket of his trousers.     

*****

Caught indecisively between Paul’s yell from upstairs and the last place she’d seen the little boy sobbing in the parlor, Maria didn’t notice the heat from the oil lamp in her hands until her thumbs began to burn where they contacted the globe. Startled, she gasped and then adjusted her grip on the lamp before walking over to the foot of the stairs, turning back occasionally to inspect the discarded teddy bear lying before the fireplace.

“Paul?” she timidly called up the steps, still not wanting the attention that undoubtedly came with a raised voice in a darkened house. Her right foot hovered threateningly over the first step, only gently coming to rest upon the wooden tread when she was certain no other recourse would present itself. There was a mousey creak of protest beneath her heel, but one-by-one she continued to climb towards the second floor landing.  

At the top of the stairs, the antique lamp oozed its orange glow up and along the floral wallpaper, softly expelling the darkness before it like a shepherd urging his sleepy flock of ewes forward. To the left, at the far end of the hallway and hardly visible at such a distance in the murky light, Maria could see an ornamentally engraved wooden door. Just the sight of the door—standing like a gladiatorial challenger at the end of the long, shadow-laden hallway—made her uncomfortable. If she was to be honest with herself however, it had sounded like Paul’s cry had come from that direction. Of course it did, she thought ruefully.    

Wrestling a moment of near-panic, she briefly considered commencing her search with the less ominous-looking rooms first, gazing down the long row of doors to her right that surely concealed innocuous storage closets and bathrooms. With the possibility that Paul might be injured however, she knew there was no time for her to gradually acclimate to her fear. Gathering her courage with a deep, nasally breath, Maria slowly started for the carved tree effigy at the end of the left hallway.

The only trustworthy light came from her lamp, casting its amber bubble of protection around her as it obliterated sinister pockets of darkness. Underneath her trembling footsteps, the old floorboards cried out in alarm, forewarning their inanimate neighbors of the approaching interloper.

When she was just twenty or so feet from the door—the finer details of the bass-relief Magnolia carved into its face nearly visible—the sound of a child crying once again unexpectedly arose from the dark recesses of the house, seeping into the night like a slow leak through a boat hull. Freezing mid-breath and mid-step—her left shoe poised expectantly on the ball of her foot—Maria stared straight ahead, too terrified to even consider turning around.    

*****

Paul was quickly sifting through the remaining papers on the bed, looking for any additional letters that may shed more light on the strange history of the orphanage, when he heard a queer noise. At first he thought maybe an animal was trapped in the house, wailing pathetically on its quest for escape. Or perhaps the heavy winds outside were tormenting a loose shutter, pushing it back and forth in a noisy confrontation. As he listened a little while longer though—and with the noise continuing to grow in volume—he was almost positive that what he was hearing was the sound of a child crying.

The cries didn’t emanate from any specific area though, coming instead from every corner of the stately room, gradually filling the air like an insidious fog.   

Paul hurriedly waved the flashlight around the floor—kicking bits of broken plaster and shattered boards with the toe of his shoe—until he found the fire poker lying beneath the little pile of rubble created by his fall. Snatching it up, he simultaneously stood upright as he spun in a circle, intent on confronting the owner of the ethereal sobbing. His breath still bated however, he found no source at which to strike—only the monkish expressions of the forgotten furniture positioned around the room.  

Growing increasingly louder, the wailing began to close in around him on all sides as it crowded into the master bedroom like unruly patrons at border-town bar. Not knowing what else to do, he crossed the room with apprehensive but determined strides towards the heavy door leading out into the hallway.  

*****

Maria knew that she wouldn’t last very much longer—couldn’t last much longer. The crying was so loud that it was as if the little boy were only inches away, unabashedly wailing through the rotted features of what remained of his young face. Sobbing quietly to herself in desperation, she very badly wanted to cover her ears and squeeze shut her eyes, as though such acts alone would cease the deafening wails.

Why is this happening, what did we do so wrong? she plead internally to no avail.

Then, with a wave of bold indignation surging through her veins, she thought, No more. We have to get out of here. I don’t care about the storm, or the swamp—or what Paul says.

Trying her best to ignore the haunting sobs, Maria was determined to find Paul and escape before it was too late. Forcing the disembodied cries to the harmless reaches of the back of her mind, she again started forward. 

*****

Paul stood poised to strike, his muscles tensed like an ornery rattlesnake sheltering beneath a palmetto bush, as he waited for the source of the loud sobbing to suddenly crash through the heavy wooden door. He knew that he might only get one chance to fight off whatever was coming for him and he had every intention on making it count. As the wailing rose to a full-blown cacophony, he felt a tiny trickle of fluid escape his right ear, spill over the top lip of the canal, then run down to form a fat drop that hung from the lobe.

The source of the crying was incredibly close now, seemingly just on the other side of the bedroom door. Then, as he watched with a newfound sense of horror, the brass handle in front of him began to twist. It jiggled and twitched slowly at first, almost bashfully, but then with quick, halting jerks that never quite managed to rotate enough to unlatch the door. Overcome with a bout of violent courage, Paul inhaled deeply, grasped the handle himself, and yanked the door open.

***** *****

Sebastian Tippet had only been working with his four-man road crew for less than a fortnight and already he hated it. The hours were long, the days usually scorching hot, and the back-breaking work seemingly endless. In just that morning alone, his spartan team had cleared nearly five miles of fallen trees and limbs along the desolate route through the Okefenokee swamp following last night’s storm.

His fellow crew members—all local men that Sebastian had met just weeks ago—were already calling it the worst storm in a century. That’s why that morning when Mr. Paget read off the team assignments, his heart had sunk when his was selected to work such a hot and humid stretch of remote dirt road. To Sebastian, it seemed like an incredible amount of time to waste on a disused old state road when there was plenty of work to be done in town.   

Now, currently standing on the covered front porch of the abandoned house and drinking tepid water from his canteen, he held his hands up to his face in order to shield his eyes from the bright sun while he attempted to peer through the gaps in the boards covering the windows. The sweat from his dirty-blonde bangs soaked into the parched wood of the barrier, releasing the faint odor of age and rot.   

Craning and twisting his neck for the best possible view, Sebastian stole tiny peeks of the gloomy interior of the house. Even though most of what he could see was in an advanced state of decay, he still couldn’t understand just leaving it all behind when the previous owners had left or died. He was just sizing up a small entryway table through the cracks—thinking it might serve as a passable eating table for his rented, one-room hut behind the post office—when Butch Tisdale hollered at him from their work truck down on the muddy state road.

“Tippet! Get your ass back down here, boy! If lounging around shady porches cleared roads, the whole damn county would be paved in gold!” he thundered,  his barrel-chest and beer-soaked belly  heaving as they threatened to rupture the faded red suspenders holding his trousers aloft.  

Stealing one last gulp of warm water, Sebastian screwed the cap back onto his canteen and trotted down the porch’s rotten steps.

“Sorry Butch, I just thought I might score some free stuff to help me get settled.”

Butch just laughed loudly and rolled his intense brown eyes. The other two men on the road crew, Rory and Elias, dropped their heads and chuckled quietly as they busied themselves kicking wet clumps of red-dirt and chasing ants with the toe of their boots.

“Look Tippet, I know you’re new to these parts so let me give you some free advice: stay the hell away from that place. There ain’t nothin’ good ever gone into there, and there ain’t nothin’ good never come out neither. Now get your ass in the back of the truck and maybe we can get another five miles done before supper.”

As Sebastian climbed into the back of the pick-up with Elias—the second most junior crew mate—he stole one last glance at the large abandoned house set back from the road. “Hey,” said Elias in a low, conspiratorial voice, “you see anything good in there?”

Sebastian just shrugged as, inside the cab of the truck, Butch jammed the shifter into gear and let off the clutch with a lurch. A cloud of pungent black smoke belched from the tail pipe and drifted up into the lush green canopy overhead.   

“Nah, I couldn’t see much. A nice little table right inside, but I couldn’t get through the boards covering the damn door. Other than that, it just looked like a bunch of old crap. Oh—hey, I saw a teddy bear in there that Butch might like,” and the two laughed at their ornery boss’ expense. They had only driven a short distance before the leafy embrace of the swamp again enveloped the house, gently cradling it in their timeless limbs as it disappeared from view.  

Inside the foreboding orphanage, just over from the one-eyed teddy bear and concealed from the front porch, Paul’s feet twirled in slow, lazy circles high above the parlor. The thick hemp rope, creaking dryly in the steamy air, was tied off to the railing of the second floor balcony with the same girth-hitch knot that he’d used to secure countless peanut crates as a youth. On the floor below the knot, a trio of cigarette butts sat crumpled beside piles of their own ash, the little gray heaps twitching in the current of a renegade draft.  

Also hidden away from casual observation was the dusty beige sofa upon which Maria reclined, its tall upholstered back shielding her from view. The quilt had been tenderly replaced over top of her motionless body and pulled all the way up to cover her raven-black hair. Just below the hem of the blanket, deep scarlet blood had soaked through the fabric above her left eye where the fire poker had fatally struck.

*****

The End.

LDW


From the Author: Well, there’s “State Road.” I truly hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. I had a classic-feeling ghost story itch that demanded to be scratched and now I’m satisfied. Besides, KM 426 had to come from somewhere, right? Now, no more Sigbee. No more KM project. (If you want to pick up “The Sigbee Depot” at Part: I, just click here).

Up next, I invite you to join Sam Sullivan on his journey from metropolitan Atlanta into the rural foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Set during the waning days of the Great Depression, Sam hopes to curry favor with his crotchety new boss and solidify his position within the prestigious Bennet & Associates Real Estate Agency. In a world full of chance encounters however, he soon begins to wonder if the deal of a lifetime might also end up costing him everything. Stick around.

Lastly, a plea. If each of my readers told just one person about my page and stories, then I could reach a global audience in mere months. All I ask is that if you enjoyed this or any other tale, please, tell a friend. Sending love from Sweetgum Hill.

-LDW


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“State Road,” (Part: V)

Click here to start the tale at the beginning.

Maria woke suddenly, her green eyes fluttering open to reveal the bleak details of the downstairs parlor. Offset by the subdued orange glow of the lamp, flashes of unruly lightning squeezed through the gaps and cracks of the boarded-over windows and illuminated the room in unpredictable bursts. With each deep breath, her nostrils filled with the earthy scent of the damp blanket lain across her supine body.

“Paul?” she called out into the dimly lit room, her voice still groggy with sleep. When there was no reply, she tried again, louder this time. “Paul? Where’d you go?”

As Maria’s words echoed throughout the cavernous parlor, the only response was a distant rumbling of thunder that rattled the glass in the downstairs windows. Groaning to herself as she sat upright, she was quickly forced to close her eyes again—her skull felt as if it had been split down the middle with an axe, the shooting pain behind her forehead throbbing just below the surface. Reaching up carefully, her fingertips found the angry welt beneath her raven colored hair from hitting the floor earlier.   

As she searched her memory, Maria could recall the storm gathering as her and Paul had been driving home. They had decided—Paul had decided, she reminded herself—to take the shortcut through the swamp on the desolate State Road, which is when they wrecked the car and sought shelter at the abandoned orphanage. Moving chronologically through the night’s events in her mind, she came to the wall of old photographs, and then to the matron hanging by her neck from the balcony. A jolt of fear surged up her spine only to evaporate at the blink of her eyes.      

I must have been out of my mind, she thought to herself. That couldn’t have been real. Paul probably thinks that I’m insane. Heck, maybe I am.   

As Maria listened to the rain splash against the side of the house in heavy sheets, she realized just how badly she needed to use the bathroom. Where on earth did Paul go? He was supposed to stay here with me. She wanted to wait for him to return before seeking out a toilet, but when a few minutes passed with still no sign of him however, she decided that it was too urgent to delay.

Getting up from the sofa, her body felt achy and stiff. After stretching to get her blood flowing again, she took the oil lamp from the table and looked around the parlor while wondering which direction might lead to the nearest toilet. The hallway on the other side of the room—where Paul had disappeared earlier to find the old quilted blanket—seemed like the best place to start, and so she deftly wove her way through the scattered furniture as she crossed the room at a quick shuffle.   

“Paul?” she called again, peering down the long hallway before listening carefully for a reply. But the darkness merely gazed back in cryptic silence. Along the wall, the first door that she opened only contained several shelves that had at one time been used to store the cutlery and linen for the dining room. Presently, generations of mice and other vermin had chewed away at the brittle fabrics, building elaborate nests and leaving behind their tell-tale droppings. Promptly closing the door and moving further down the hallway to the next, her heart leapt when she saw the lamp’s flame reflecting off the porcelain toilet of a half-bathroom.  

Quickly stepping inside with the lamp, she closed the door and warily looked around the little room. Besides the toilet, only a sink and tall cupboard occupied the bathroom—all three of which were blanketed in a grimy coat of dust-soaked mildew. Covering her mouth and nose to avoid the smell, Maria carefully lifted the lid of the toilet with her foot.  

Surprisingly, but for a small pile of dead leaves at the bottom, the inside of the toilet was empty. Without stopping to consider the possibility of any further unsavoriness, Maria hiked up her dress and crouched down to urinate. When she finished, she didn’t bother looking around for bathroom tissue—knowing she wouldn’t dare to use it even if she had found any. Instead, she tore a long, jagged strip of fabric from the hem of her dress to use as improvised toilet paper. At the very least, Paul’s little shortcut cost him a new dress, she thought sardonically.

Afterwards, as she stood in front of the tarnished mirror to compose herself, she felt as if she’d aged ten years in a single night. The dark bags beneath her bloodshot eyes only alluded to the sheer exhaustion that she felt throughout her entire body. Slowly turning the handle on the sink faucet, she grimaced as a trickle of dark brown water splashed into the basin. Then, from somewhere on the other side of the bathroom door, she suddenly heard a noise that sounded eerily similar to a child crying.  

Staring into the mirror at her own distorted reflection, Maria’s heart began to race. Maybe it was the wind, she told herself, or just Paul, goofing around as usual. Then, as if in response to her flimsy attempt at brushing off her fears, another loud sob arose from somewhere in the house’s darkened downstairs before fading away, lost in the deep bass of another passing thunderbolt.

No. I don’t know what that is, but it’s not what it sounds like, she told herself, again and again. Aside from her pounding heartbeat, the bathroom was unnervingly silent, and Maria strained to listen for any clues beyond the thick, wooden door.

She stood quietly for a moment longer until it appeared the crying had stopped—if it had even been there at all. See, she encouraged herself, what’d I tell you? You have to keep it together, Maria. She picked up the lamp and slowly opened the bathroom door. Out in the hallway, her slender shadow danced along the walls and ceiling, flickering in rhythm with the tiny flame. She briefly considered calling out to Paul again, but—for reasons that she couldn’t explain—she felt it best not to draw any undue attention to herself. With no other choice, she decided to go back to the parlor and wait for him to return from wherever he had gone off exploring this time.

Just as Maria walked around the corner back into the parlor, she stopped abruptly with a sharp cry. On the opposite side of the room, a little boy was sitting with his back to her in front of the fireplace, sobbing to himself. Lying on the floor beside him, a stuffed teddy bear glared at Maria with a single button-eye and a lopsided half-smile. Herself a third grade schoolteacher, she immediately guessed the boy to be around eight or nine years old, though it was impossible to be certain in the poorly lit room.   

Dressed in a long, shabby sleeping gown, he sat cross-legged with his head bowed while his tiny shoulders pitched and heaved with each fresh sob. To her ears, the cries weren’t the kind that came from accidently stubbing your toe or banging your elbow against the table. Despite his youthful appearance, the haunting moans were deep and mournful; the sort that spring forth from even a short lifetime of senseless hurt or profound sorrow.  

Maria was no longer certain of what was real and what was becoming her unbridled imagination. She’d never before felt so powerless and impotent over her own mind. With a sense of resignation that felt like slipping beneath the surface of a deep pool, she decided to confront her delusions head-on.

“Hello?” she called timidly from the other side of the parlor. “Hi. What’s your name? Excuse me, little boy—do you live here? Are your parent’s home?”

If the boy heard anything however, he chose to ignore it, his pitiful sobs continuing to emanate from afar. Where the hell is Paul? she thought angrily as she looked around the room.   

“Hello? Are you okay? Do you need me to get your parents?”

The boy abruptly stopped crying. Without turning to face her, he said “Miss Celia says I don’t have parents anymore. She says the world didn’t want me, and so now she has to take care of me.” His voice was fragile and weak, barely audible over the heavy winds buffeting the house.

At the mention of the name “Miss Celia,” Maria immediately thought of the woman in the photographs, and then of her hanging from… No! That wasn’t real—it didn’t happen… But, if that wasn’t real, then what was this?

Not knowing what else to do, Maria decided to keep talking in the hopes that Paul would return at any moment. “So, you live here with Miss Celia then? And the other boys?” She tried to keep her voice light and airy, but there was no hiding the steely tension behind the words.

Still facing the derelict fireplace, the little boy said meekly, “For now.”

Maria was confused, and she asked sincerely, “’For now’? Are you going to live at another home soon?”

With his back to her, the little boy sniffled loudly and said, “Some do. But Miss Celia says I can maybe stay here if I’m good.”

“I see. Well that’d be nice. Do you like it here?”

“No,” he said matter-of-factly, “but it’s better than where the others go.”

“Oh? Why’s that?” asked Maria.

The little boy suddenly tensed, and his voice sounded incredibly small and frightened. “We’re not supposed to tell.”

Hearing those words, the hair on the back of Maria’s neck stood up in a chill. Swallowing hard, she asked, “Hey little buddy, where’s Miss Celia now?”

The boy hesitated, as if deciding what he should or should not say. Finally, he simply quipped, “She’s in the attic.”

Maria’s heart began to beat loudly inside her chest, the blood rushing through her ears like the water pouring from the roof of the house. “What’s she doing up there?”

The little boy turned around slowly and Maria gasped in shock. In addition to fat chunks of his lips, the pallid skin around his eyes appeared to have rotted completely away, the gaping sockets and torn flesh exposing shiny bits of adolescent teeth and muscle. Where lively eyeballs had once absorbed the awe and wonder of the world, now empty caverns of putrid flesh glowered over at Maria. In a low and menacing voice, he said, “Disciplining Paul. You guys aren’t supposed to be here.”  

Then, before Maria could respond, she heard Paul yell from somewhere upstairs, accompanied by a loud crash. She turned to look up towards the second floor landing, but the little lamp couldn’t penetrate the darkness. “Paul?” she yelled up to the balcony. She was just about to ask the ghoulish-looking boy what the matron had done, but when she turned back he was gone. Where he had just sat crying in front of the fireplace, only the dirty little brown teddy bear remained, peering up at the ceiling with its steadfast button-eye.

*****

Part: VI

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“State Road,” (Part: IV)

Click here to start the story at the beginning.

Maria could hear Paul calling to her from the darkness, his voice distant and detached like a ship’s horn in the fog. She wanted to cry out to him, to scream his name until her lungs burned from the effort, but when she opened her mouth, only a feint gasp escaped.

“Maria…Maria?” A low rumbling overtook his words, smothering them beneath a tide of foamy noise that receded as suddenly as it had arrived. 

The disembodied baritone of her own name continued to fill the air, drawing nearer with every beat. If she only knew where he was, she would run to him. Scream, she commanded herself. Yell, shout, clap—anything!  

But, like her voice, Maria’s limbs rebelled her authority. Paralyzed, she was no longer even sure of which direction was forward or back, up or down. “Maria…hey…” The sound was incredibly close now, piercing the abyss that had enveloped her.

*****

“Baby, hey—there you are. Lord, you scared me.”

Illuminated by the solitary flame of the oil lamp, the parlor slowly came into focus. Paul was nervously smiling down at her and the look of relief on his face flickered in the wavy orange light. Just beyond the boarded-over windows, the storm outside continued to rage unabated, furiously beating against the old house like an army of invaders.

Maria tried to sit upright and Paul quickly put his hands on her shoulders. “No, no, no,” he said, “just lay back. You had quite a nasty little fall.”

“What… I did?” she asked. Though still groggy, Maria could vaguely recall her and Paul driving home in the storm along the desolate State Road, and then crashing into the trees somewhere amidst the vast swamp. The images of their grueling trek to the abandoned house flashed in her mind’s eye just as the lightning had been flashing in the night sky above them.

Paul smiled warmly, “It’s been a long night, it just caught up with you is all. But you’re okay now.”

Gradually, the details began to materialize, teased from her memory like a shy dormouse from his hole: the dirty beige sofa she reclined upon, the wet, mildew-scented blanket covering her…       

As she lay there slowly remembering bits and pieces of the evening, the wall of old photographs suddenly popped into her head. Then, just as abruptly, the crystalline image of the matronly woman with the cameo appeared, hanging by her neck from the stout rope as the dark Victorian dress twirled listlessly above the floor.

“Paul!” cried Maria, as she shot upright with a jolt.     

The outburst caught him by surprise, and Paul said, “Whoa, what is it? What’s going on?”    

Maria’s face was milky pale, and her wet hair was strewn about her head in messy black clumps. “I saw her, Paul. Oh my god, I saw her. I remember she—I remember…” She covered her mouth with her hands as fat tears welled up in her eyes.

“Who? You saw who? Where, Maria—what do you mean?” Paul grabbed her shoulders and lowered down to meet her terrified gaze.

“The lady from the pictures,” she said, pointing over to the far wall with a trembling hand.

“Huh?” Looking alternately between the wall of black and white photographs and Maria, Paul’s face was a mask of confusion. He stood up from the sofa and walked over to the tidy rows nailed along the floral wallpaper. Using his flashlight, he briefly studied one of the earlier photographs. In the picture, the matron’s face was still youthful and taught, with none of the deep furrows that would eventually carve their way into the porcelain-smooth skin around her eyes.  

“Her? You mean you saw this lady? I don’t understand. What are you talking about?”

Over on the sofa, Maria was still upright, hugging her knees for warmth as she stared at the undulating flame of the oil lamp. She didn’t want to say it out loud, as though her silence would prevent it from becoming real. She squeezed her eyes shut as tight as she could, but when she opened them again, the little orange flame still danced merrily atop the lamp.   

The parlor was silent for a moment. Then, her voice wavering on the brink of collapse, Maria said, “She was hanging from the balcony. At first I thought it was you, but she… she jumped over the side.” Stopping to absentmindedly wipe her nose with the moldy blanket, she continued, “She said, ‘they weren’t supposed to tell,’ and then she screamed at me to get out of here. Her face, Paul… her eyes…” Having managed to say it, Maria finally broke down and began to sob.

Paul rushed over and wrapped his arms around her. “Hey, it’s okay. Shh-shh, there’s nothing there now, see?” He gestured towards the balcony across the parlor but Maria refused to look, keeping her face buried in his chest instead.  

After a few minutes, her crying lessened enough to speak. Looking up at him, she said, “I’m not crazy. I know what I saw. She was there.” Her voice faltered, but the thought of being too easily dismissed hardened her resolve, and she stifled the cry before it could leave her throat.

Paul’s face was sympathetic, and he said, “I never said you were crazy. Listen to me; it’s late, we’re in the middle of nowhere, our car is wrecked somewhere out in the swamp, this house, the storm—this whole night’s crazy, but not you.”

Though he sounded sincere, Maria could see the pity in his expression and she felt patronized. “I saw her, Paul!” she insisted. 

“Okay, fine. I believe you,” he said firmly, “but she’s not there now, she’s gone. So please, just lay back down. It’ll be morning before you know it and then I’ll figure us a way out of here.”

She wasn’t sure if he actually believed her or not, but there was no sense in continuing. Besides, maybe she really was mistaken. It does sound crazy when you say it out loud, she thought. Perhaps it was like Paul had said, and the extraordinary events of the evening had just conspired to play tricks on her mind, casting illusions borne of her own subconscious. No, she thought to herself as she laid back again, pulling the quilted blanket up to her chin, I know what I saw.

Suddenly feeling very tired, (emotionally and physically), she looked up to Paul and said with a weak smile, “Maybe you’re right. It’s been such a dreadful evening. I suppose I’m just not cut out for this type of adventure. Only, won’t you stay here with me now? Please?” Her arms felt as heavy as bags of flour as she struggled to keep her eyes open. Maybe I’m dreaming after all, she thought to herself unconvincingly.

Paul took her hand in his own and said, “Of course I will. I’ll be right here; you just need to get some rest now.”

The parlor grew dimmer as the noise of the storm began to evaporate like a hazy mirage. “I mean it Paul, don’t leave me alone.” Her words trailed off though, fading beneath a chorus of distant thunder.

“I won’t sweety, I promise.”

*****

Paul sat on the sofa with Maria while she slept and the storm continued to assault the house. He was playing a game of his own making where-in he would aim his flashlight at an object somewhere around the room, then, turning the light on, see how close he was to hitting his target. After landing a direct hit on a tarnished candle sconce along the adjacent wall for the third time however, he grew bored and had had enough.

Feeling around his wet jacket, he located the pack of cigarettes in the inside pocket. The carton was damp from the rain but thankfully not soaked all the way through. It was always risky to smoke around Maria, something he avoided at all costs, but she was still sound asleep—and these were unique circumstances. He looked over at her peaceful blanketed form beneath the quilt, rising and falling with soft, rhythmic breaths.  

I wonder what she actually saw, he thought to himself as he studied her tear-streaked face. Whatever it had been, Paul had never seen her so terrified before.  

Somewhere on the far side of the house, the wind was violently battering a loose shutter against the wood siding, the repetitive thumps echoing throughout the dark and vacant rooms. Paul was sifting through his matches, trying to find one dry enough to light, when suddenly a loud bang shook the house.  

Startled, he looked up just in time to see thin tendrils of plaster dust falling through the air in the hallway beneath the balcony. Well, that sure wasn’t the storm, he thought to himself. Unlit cigarette still dangling from his bottom lip, Paul stood up without taking his eyes off the ceiling and slowly walked over to the balcony. Aiming his flashlight up to the second floor, the beam passed over bland oil paintings and water-stained floral wallpaper, but nothing out of place.

Then, shinning the light towards the opposite end of the upstairs hall, Paul froze. He’d come from that direction earlier, so it would have been impossible for him to miss the wooden ladder protruding from the ceiling down to the floor.

*****

On the second floor landing, Paul leaned against the balcony railing taking long drags off his cigarette as he stared at the hinged ladder a few feet away. Only a pair of crushed butts at his feet from the previous smokes marked the passage of time, they too having been nervously consumed while contemplating the mysterious new arrival.  

He was certain that it hadn’t been there when he was upstairs earlier. Pointing his flashlight up into the attic, all he could see were boxes stacked one atop of another. Maybe the trap door was just hung up before the storm knocked it loose, he reasoned. He glanced down into the parlor where Maria was still asleep on the sofa and then back to the ladder. Stubbing his cigarette out on the handrail, he tucked the fire poker under his arm and grabbed ahold of a dusty rung before starting to climb.

*****

Inside the attic, the storm’s fury was jarringly loud. Each time the thunder rolled through, bits of dust fell from the exposed rafters overhead into Paul’s hair. Looking around with his flashlight, he felt as though he’d ascended into a maze of boxes. Stacked nearly as tall as he was, the brown cardboard rows formed meandering aisles that wandered off in every shadow-laden direction.

Stopping at the nearest wobbly tower, Paul took down the top box and set it on the floor before opening the flaps. Blowing away a small dust cloud, he shined his light inside to reveal a pile of white button-up shirts. He reached down into the pile thinking there may be something else buried deep below, but all he found were more shirts. Tossing them back into the box, he walked further into the attic.

Pausing at another stack of boxes, he again took one down and opened the lid. Rather than more white shirts however, the box contained what appeared to be a collection of children’s belongings: toys, tattered comic books, a worn-out baseball mitt, and other personal affects. Now even more curious, he opened the lid to an adjacent box only to discover the same thing: more kid’s possessions.  

As he was studying a hand-carved toy train, turning it over in his hands to see where it was made, something towards the rear of the attic toppled over with a loud clatter. Startled, Paul dropped the train back into the box and quickly swung his light in that direction. It was impossible to see over the ocean of boxes though, and only a wafting cloud of dust alluded to the source of the noise. 

“Hello?” he called out, “is somebody there?” Only the storm replied however, whipping heavy sheets of rain into the roof above his head. He scanned the sprawling attic with his light, hesitantly probing the shadows.

As he slowly made his way down the aisle of boxes towards the settling cloud of dust, he kept the fire poker poised overhead, ready to deliver a lethal blow to any territorial raccoons or squirrels. Nothing leapt from the shadows to attack him however, and before long he was standing over a toppled stack of boxes, its contents a kaleidoscope of toys strewn around the dirty floor.  

The boxes had originally been stacked against the far wall, just another integer comprising the labyrinthine aisles. When Paul stepped to the side however—shinning his light behind what remained of the still-standing row—he noticed something that struck him as odd: a narrow walkway had been made between the boxes and exterior wall of the house. Towards the end of the little path, a small, dirty brown stuffed bear sat propped against a stud in the wall. Studying it in the glow of the flashlight, it didn’t look as though it had gotten where it was by accident.

Shimmying between the boxes and the wall, Paul eventually made his way back to the toy bear. He hadn’t been able to tell before, but the walkway ended at a crude cave made out of the boxes, indistinguishable from the aisle on the other side. Even more strange, it appeared at one time someone had been hiding in the cavity—several thick blankets arranged in a comfy pile still bore the dust-filled impression of a child’s sleeping body.

Turning his attention to the stuffed bear beside the makeshift bed, Paul noticed that it had seen better days. Not only filthy and stained, the left button-eye was missing and the embroidered line comprising its mouth had started to unravel, leaving behind only a half-smiling “J”. To Paul, it looked as though it’s previous owner had carried it around with them religiously.  

As he went to put the bear back where he had found it, another loud crash erupted from the maze of boxes in the direction he’d just come. Startled, Paul dropped his flashlight to floor where it landed with a loud clang. Quickly reaching for it, his eyes followed the beam of light to the wall. There, carved into the brittle wood of the wall stud was the solitary word: “SIGBEE”

Paul snatched the light from the floor and shot up, fire poker at the ready. As he scanned the darkened attic however, nothing seemed amiss. Leaving the stuffed bear and nest of blankets, he carefully made his way out from behind the boxes. “Hello?” he called again, trying to hide the tension in his voice. But still there was no reply.

Cautiously, Paul crept back down the row of boxes towards the ladder. As he came around the last tall stack, his heart stopped—the ladder was folded back up, sealing off his retreat to the second floor below. Somewhere in the darkness behind him, another box-tower suddenly toppled over with a crash. He quickly spun around, but the cardboard columns only mocked him with their silence.

Now more determined than ever to get out of the attic, Paul decided to try and force the trap door and ladder back down into the hallway below. Turning away from the endless sea of boxes for the door, he suddenly screamed. Close enough to embrace, the matron in the Victorian dress sneered at him malevolently, her corpse-like face illuminated in the white glow of his flashlight.

If she had been attractive in life, death had clearly been unkind. Intense, bloodshot eyes bulged from their dark sockets, and her parchment-like skin exposed the squiggly blue veins traversing her pale face. Her neck was unnaturally long as well—jutting out sideways at a queer angle where the abrasive hemp rope had left a scarlet burn around it. Opening her mouth, the chipped, yellow teeth parted in a snarl as she croaked, “They weren’t supposed to tell…”

Stammering, and desperate for more space between him and the ghastly apparition, Paul quickly backpedaled. He had only taken a couple of erratic steps backwards when his heel caught some unseen object that refused to give way. With no time to catch himself, he fell to the attic floor on his back. As the force of the landing knocked the breath from his lungs, the weak boards gave way, sending him crashing to the second story floor below.

*****

Part: V (link disabled until May 22nd at 8 p.m.)

Buy me a coffee?

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“State Road,” (Part: III)

Click here to start the story from the beginning.

Paul helped Maria negotiate the broken boards strewn around the porch, holding her soaking wet hand as he guided the way with his flashlight. After reaching the safety of the house, he wedged the front door back into place, grateful to finally escape the storm that continued to rage into the night.

“Oh, thank god,” said Maria, hugging herself tightly for warmth. Chilly rainwater dripped from the hem of her dress, forming an inky black puddle in a ring around her feet.  

Standing beside her in the entryway, Paul wiped the thin rivulets of water from his face with the back of his arm before using his flashlight to scan around the dusky house.

“Whoa—” he exclaimed under his breath as the weak beam glassed over the previous occupant’s belongings. They appeared to be untouched, dutifully waiting as if their owner might yet return at any moment.  

“Are you sure people aren’t living here anymore?” asked Maria, her eyes following the light around the room.  

The inside of the house, like many erected in those parts of the map regularly beset by the hot, steamy air of the sub-tropics, was open and spacious. From where they stood they could see a majority of the downstairs, save for a few rooms still yet hidden away behind closed doors. Directly in front of them was the deserted remains of a sitting parlor—a matching set of moldy sofas and upholstered chairs casually positioned around ornately carved wooden end-tables.

Just past the dusty furniture, a stairwell led up to the second floor hallway where the balcony offered a commanding birds-eye view down into the parlor. Despite the less-than-ideal location and its current condition, it was obvious that the house had once belonged to a distinguished family.

“I’m pretty sure no one’s coming back,” said Paul, stepping into the parlor. “Look at this stuff. I don’t think anyone’s lived here for twenty years—at least.”  

Maria had to admit that it looked as though they might be the first ones to step foot inside the house for quite some time. A thick, fuzzy layer of gray dust coated every surface while abandoned cobwebs rippled in the drafty air currents wherever their builders had once deigned fit to construct them. On the walls, colossal oil paintings displayed picturesque rural sceneries: a turquoise stream meandering through the foothills; a squat, chunky windmill stoically braving the relentless prairie gusts; a supplicated weeping willow bowing obediently at the edge of a glassy pond.

“It’s weird,” she said, “I wonder why they left everything behind. I’m starting to get a little creeped out.”

“What? There’s nothing creepy about it. The last owner probably died without leaving it to anyone. Or maybe the family is fighting over everything in probate. Either way, it doesn’t matter—we’re not here to rob them.” Paul searched the walls with his flashlight and said, “I don’t expect there’s a working phone, but at least we can ride out the storm until morning and then figure out a way to get out of here.” He reached over to the light switch on the wall and flicked it up, correctly assuming it to be a pointless gesture.

Shining the flashlight onto the sofas in the sitting parlor, he said, “Here, sit right there and I’ll see if I can find us some towels or blankets or something. It’ll be better once we’re dry.”

“You’re not leaving me here alone,” said Maria quickly.

Paul didn’t reply, searching around the room with the light instead. “Ah—” he said, walking over to a long credenza set against the left wall. Resting atop the dusty cabinet, a glass oil lamp glittered under the beam of the flashlight, casting a translucent shadow on the walls. The oil inside had long ago evaporated, but when he opened the credenza doors he quickly found what he was after.

Holding the flashlight under his chin, he filled the lamp with the bottle of oil from the cupboard before using a match to light the wick. The resurrected flame sputtered to life, filling the parlor with a guttering orange glow as Paul set the lamp on the small table by the nearest sofa.

Turning back to Maria, he said, “There, now you’ll be perfectly fine. If we don’t get you dried off though, you’re going to get sick. There’s got to be something around here that we can use.”

“Me? You’re soaked to the bone as well,” said Mary, downplaying her misery.

“I didn’t throw up Miss Estelle’s gumbo all over the floorboards either,” replied Paul, referring his parent’s matronly personal cook.    

He gently led her over to a dirty beige sofa near the fireplace, easing her down as the chilly water continued to drip from her dress onto the hardwood floor. The warmth of the lamp felt good on her face and she held her hands up to the glass, letting the heat radiate through her cold palms.

Paul looked disapprovingly at the crumbling fireplace and said, “If I didn’t think we’d burn the place down I’d start us a fire. The chimney’s probably packed with more junk than a racoon’s pockets though.” Looking around the parlor, he spotted a hallway towards the rear of the house, presumably leading to the kitchen. “One second,” he said, crossing the room with the flashlight before disappearing around the corner of the hall.      

Maria could hear him rummaging around, opening and closing various cupboards and doors as he wandered further and further away. Outside the house, lightning continued to flash through the gaps in the wooden planks covering the downstairs windows. With each strong gust of wind, the old manor groaned and creaked in protest, its ancient boards voicing their objection to the storm’s relentless assault.

Paul suddenly reappeared holding an old quilted blanket aloft. “Success! This should work for now at least. I found a linen closet by the kitchen and this was the cleanest one.” He walked over to where Maria was sitting on the sofa by the oil lamp and wrapped the quilt around her. Rubbing her arms, he asked, “That feel any better?”

Maria smiled back at him and said, “Much better, thank you.” She sniffed the old fabric tentatively before scrunching her nose. “It smells a little funny.”

“I’m not surprised, lord knows how long it’s been sitting in there. Oh, also, as you can imagine—no phone. No food either, and I definitely don’t suggest opening the icebox.”

Maria laughed. “I don’t even want to know. But that’s fine, I’m not very hungry anyway.”

“Yeah, me either.” Paul stood up and walked over to a large framed painting hanging on the wall. In it, a sandhill crane hunted amongst the tall reeds along the edge of a pond, its serpentine neck poised to strike at some unsuspecting prey beneath the lily pads. “I wonder who used to live here,” he said as he scrutinized the painting.

Still holding her numbed fingers to the lamp, Maria said, “I know. It’s such a shame, the house was probably gorgeous once upon a time. Now it’s all just going to rot into the ground out here.”

“Tell me about it. I think I’m going to have a look around, see if I can figure out who these people were.”  

“No, just stay here and wait with me, Paul. You don’t know anything about this place. You could go wandering off and end up getting hurt.”

“Relax, I’m only going to snoop around a little bit, I didn’t say I was going to start remodeling the place. Just stay in here and warm up some more. Who knows, I might even be able to find us some dry clothes.”

Maria knew there no point in arguing with him. Even if she could convince him to sit and wait with her, he would just be restless and irritable until he finally got his way. Besides, she figured, the house was big—far bigger than their own—but still not so large that they shouldn’t hear one another if they yelled.

“Fine,” she said begrudgingly, “but be careful—there could be all kinds of wild animals living in here.” 

Paul thought for a moment and said, “You know what, you’re probably right.” He walked over to the fireplace and took an iron fire poker from the rack of tools beside the wood cradle. Testing its weight in his hand, he remarked confidently, “Yeah, that should work just fine.”

As he bent down and kissed her forehead, Maria thought his face looked like that of a child, who, about to embark on some grand adventure, couldn’t mask his excitement. At what age do men stop being boys? she thought to herself.

“Just holler out if you need me, okay?”

Maria smiled back up at him, “I will. Just be careful, Paul—please?”

“Yes ma’am,” he said with a wink. With the flashlight in one hand and the fire poker in the other, he walked back out of the parlor towards the rear of the house.

*****

Maria pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders. Even though her dress had soaked through most of the quilted cotton, it was comforting to feel its weighted embrace across her back. Taking the lamp from the table, she carried it over to the far wall, adorned with faded old photographs hung every few feet along the floral wallpaper like soldiers on parade.

The first picture that she came to was taken from the road out front looking towards the house. In the photograph, a pretty, middle-aged woman stood amongst a semi-circle ring of boys, the oldest being no more than ten and the youngest likely just out of diapers. Judging by their clothes, Maria guessed the photo had been taken many years ago, perhaps around the turn of the 19th century.

The woman in the photo had on a dark, full-length Victorian dress with the skirts flared out in a pleated hoop. A ruffled white lace collar billowed out around her slender neck, spilling down and stopping just above the cameo brooch worn above her right breast. The tightly coiled bun of dark hair atop her head was a perfect pairing for the stern expression on her face, as she stared into the camera lens with could only be thinly veiled contempt.

For their part, none of the young boys with her in the photograph were smiling either. While not wearing uniforms per say, they were all dressed in similar dark trousers and white, short-sleeved button-up shirts. One of them, (a gangly youth no older than nine or ten years old with wild shoots of hair that jutted out in all directions), wore a pair of threadbare shoes, but the rest stood barefooted in the sandy red-dirt.  

Making her way along the wall to the next photograph, Maria noticed that it was incredibly similar to the first. Also taken from the road looking up at the house, the black-and-white image showed the lady wearing the same dark Victorian dress with the same severe hair bun. Standing in the familiar semi-circle around the woman, the shoeless boys also had on the near-matching trousers and white button-up shirts, as in the previous picture.

The boys themselves, however, were different. Gone was the gangly youth with the unruly hair; replaced, as were the others, with a different assortment of boys possessing their own vacant expressions and haunted eyes.

Maria was studying the mysterious faces in the photo when she felt a draft rush through the room.

“They weren’t supposed to tell…”

The whisper was so feint and fleeting that before Maria had even spun around she began to doubt that she’d heard anything at all.

“Paul?” she called out loudly. For a moment, the only response was the muffled storm outside, blowing the rain and absconded leaves against the house. Then, suddenly Paul appeared on the balcony at the top of the stairs.

“Yeah?” he replied, startling Maria and causing her to jump.  

“Oh! Damn it Paul, you scared me!”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to. What’s up?”

Maria hesitated, afraid of sounding foolish. “Did you hear something? Like talking or anything?” She tried to sound light-hearted about it, but she detected the uneasiness in her own voice.

“No, nothing. It’s still coming down pretty bad out there though. There’s no telling what kinds of noises a house like this makes in this type of weather.”

Maria nodded as she pulled the quilt tighter around her chin. “Yeah, true. It was probably nothing. It is pretty drafty down here, I just wanted to make sure you weren’t trying to say something to me.” It wasn’t her best cover, but under the circumstances, it’d have to do.

Paul shrugged. “Nope. I didn’t say anything.”

“Oh, hey,” said Maria, as she gestured to the photographs on the wall with her head. “I think I know what this place was.”

Paul made a face like he was pretending to think and said, “Let me guess, some kind of orphanage or boarding house?”

Maria laughed in surprise and asked, “How’d you know?”

Paul stepped back from the mahogany handrail and theatrically bowed at the waist. Standing upright, he laughed and said, “Okay, okay. I found the bedrooms.”

“Bedrooms? What do you mean?”

“There’s a couple of bedrooms up here down at the end of the hall. Thing is, they look more like prison cells than bedrooms—metal bunk-beds, bare walls, the whole works. I figured it had to be along those lines.”

Something about it all seemed strange, but Maria held her tongue for the time being, at least until she had something more substantial to support her concerns. “Find anything else helpful, detective?” she asked sarcastically.

“Nah. But I’m going to check out the other wing of the hall and see what’s down that way.”

“Alright, but please don’t go too far,” she asked, trying not to sound desperate for protection—protection from what, she still wasn’t sure.

“I won’t,” he called down obligingly before blowing her a kiss and disappearing back into the murky shadows of the empty house. 

When he’d left, Maria returned to studying the photographs along the wall. The third picture was like the two that preceded it—the spinsterish Victorian woman flanked by the joyless boys in their bare feet, taken out front of the house. Now though, time had begun to announce itself in the furrowed skin around the woman’s eyes, and thin tendrils of silver accented the tightly drawn hair-bun.

Maria looked at the cameo brooch on the lady’s chest, leaning in closely to study the ivory, curly-haired silhouette by the light of the oil lamp. Standing upright again, she caught movement on the balcony in the reflection of the picture-frame glass. Thinking it was Paul, she was just about to call up to him from over her shoulder when the person abruptly threw themselves over the handrailing towards the parlor floor below.   

As Maria watched the reflection in horror, she immediately recognized the dark Victorian dress, still bearing the cameo brooch, as it fluttered loudly through the air right before jerking to a halt with an angry snap. The thick hemp rope made a dry, creaking noise as the noose tightened further around the old woman’s slender neck—the matured face from the pictures contorting grotesquely in the flickering lamp light.

Swinging lazily more than a dozen feet above the parlor floor, the laced walking boots twitched involuntarily as the woman’s tongue began to protrude from her mouth. Her eye’s, so callous and cold in the photographs along the wall, now bulged ghoulishly from her face.   

Frozen with fear, all Maria could do is watch the image of the lifeless body hanging from the balcony, slowly twirling at the end of the rope. When the woman’s corpse spun around, it suddenly stopped facing Maria’s direction. The bloodshot, malevolent eyes rotated in their sockets and met hers through the glass reflection. “They weren’t supposed to tell,” the spinster croaked in a raspy, forlorn voice. Then, the old woman’s expression suddenly flashed to seething rage, and she bellowed, “Get out!”  

*****

Paul made his way down the hall, walking carefully to avoid stepping on any rotten floorboards. His flashlight barely penetrated the darkness around him as he went from door to door, checking to see what was behind each one. Most led to storage closets of one kind or another, their dried out and antiquated contents uniformly besieged by mice, mildew, and bugs. At the far end of the hall, an oak door with an elaborate carving of a tree on its surface guarded what he guessed to be the master bedroom suite.

He twisted the brass handle and swung the door inward, holding the fire poker aloft in the event that any animals had decided to take up residency. When nothing rushed out to meet him, he stepped inside and scanned the room with his flashlight.

A massive four-poster bed along the far wall dominated the spacious master suite. Opposite that, tall wooden cabinets flanked either end of an expensive-looking vanity in front of a large bay window. Unlike downstairs, the windows on the second floor were uncovered and Paul watched in the bursts of lightning as the trees along the muddy state road lashed about wildly in the rain.

Other than the furniture, the master bedroom was spartanly adorned. Only a few smaller generic-looking oil paintings hung on the walls, and none of the tabletops had any pictures on them. Discarded articles of clothing, now indistinguishable beneath the layers of dust and rot, lay scattered on the floor. He crossed the room to the vanity and began searching through the drawers, not sure what he expected to find.

Rifling through the contents, nothing stood out to him as being unusual or abnormal: some bolts of fabric; a couple spools of ribbon; a few old books written in what appeared to be German, but nothing scandalous or even very informative. Closing the last drawer, he walked over to the bed. It felt as though he’d been awake for days already, and the plush comforter looked inviting— even in its shabby state.

There’s no harm in taking a little break, he thought to himself as he tossed the fire poker onto the blanket and plopped down. The bed springs squeaked loudly as a gray cloud of dust billowed up around him. Coughing, he waved a hand in front of his face to disperse the moldy fog. On second thought… As he went to stand back up however, he felt something lumpy from within the mattress.

Curious, he pulled the bedcover down, exposing the heavily stained mattress underneath. Using his fingers to tear a hole in the thin fabric, he felt around the insides until he brushed over the mysterious object buried deep within the stuffing. When his fingers closed around a stack of papers, he pulled them out and sat back down on the bed to look them over. Holding the light under his chin again, he began unfolding the top page:

STATE OF GEORGIA YOUTH SERVICES

As he quickly scanned the other folded sheets of paper, he realized they were transfer orders for the children coming to the orphanage. Page after page provided the scant details, either all that were known or all that were pertinent, of scores of young boys—presumed ages; medical concerns; race; problems with either schools or police, and similar information. Paul looked at the fresh hole torn into the mattress. But why would they be hidden away in there? he wondered.

Suddenly, from the hallway, Maria’s bloodcurdling scream in the downstairs parlor pierced the tomb-like silence of the house. Dropping the papers on the floor, he looked at the open door. “Maria!” he yelled, turning to run to her. Before he could move however, the bedroom’s ornate door slammed shut with a deafening blast.

*****

Part: IV

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“State Road,” (Part: II)

Click here to start the story from the beginning.

As the blue Chevy Corvair plunged further into the dense forest of the Okefenokee swamp, overhead, the storm was quickly maturing into a tempest. Jagged, neon bolts of lightning raced across mottled gray clouds, each time briefly exposing the sea of trees shimmering beneath a torrent of water right before the deep rumbling of thunder rattled the car’s windows. In the driver’s seat, Paul was clutching the steering wheel with both hands as he leaned in close to the windshield, his eyes narrowed in concentration.

“Jeez Paul, maybe this isn’t such a good idea,” said Maria from the passenger seat beside him, bouncing whenever they hit a new pothole in the dirt road.

Pausing to allow a droning clap of thunder to pass, he replied, “Oh, it’s fine. It’s only a storm. Besides, I don’t think I could turn around even if I wanted to—which I don’t.”

In the years since he had last driven down it, the old logging road had become choked with vegetation, creeping closer and closer inward until, in most places, the route was scarcely more than a single vehicle wide. Towering high above them, ancient oak and cypress trees jostled and swayed in the gusts, their leaves plucked off and carried away on the blustery currents.

Maria had to raise her voice in order to be heard over the clamor of both the storm and the car’s tires splashing through the deepening puddles of muddy rainwater. “Well, maybe we should just stop and let this pass. I’d rather get back home late than be stranded out here for god-knows-how long.”   

Paul pretended to regard her suggestion for a moment and then said coyly, “Actually, I’ve got a better idea…”

As he stepped down harder onto the gas pedal, the force pulled Maria back into her seat. “What are you doing?” she asked incredulously, the trees zipping past the window in a blur. Holding on to the armrest with one hand, she placed the other on the dash to brace herself.  

“Look,” he said, raising his own voice over the roaring engine, “it’s like taking off a band-aid—the quicker we’re through it, the better.” The car’s rear-end was slipping from side to side as dirty brown fountains of water erupted into the air with each new puddle they plowed through.

“No, Paul. Slow down—are you crazy? We’re going to crash!” The headlights were bouncing wildly, shining alternately from the muddy road in front of them to the shimmery green canopy above.     

“Okay, okay, I’ll ease up a little bit.” The car slowed slightly, but the trees were still passing by so fast that Maria was afraid she might get sick. As they sped across the swampy forest floor, her stomach felt as though she were riding on a boat, bounding endlessly atop whitecapped waves and devoid of any mooring to the earth. She swallowed hard to force the bile back down— unsure how much longer she could grit her teeth against the worsening nausea.

Strong winds continued to buffet the car, pushing it first in one direction and then another as the raindrops swirled chaotically in the beams of the headlights. Cresting a shallow rise, a large oak limb, high above the road and brown with death, suddenly snapped free from its massive trunk and plummeted toward the ground below. Before Maria could shout, and with no time to stop in the slick mud, Paul instead stomped down on the gas pedal, narrowly slipping the Corvair beneath the heavy branch as it crashed to the road, splashing mud up onto the car’s rear window.

“Shit, Paul—stop the car!” Sacrificing her hold on the dashboard, Maria’s hand flew to her mouth.   

“Stop?” he asked excitedly, the rush of adrenaline visible on his face. “Did you see how close that was? It’s a good thing I was going as fast as I was!”

Maria couldn’t fight it any longer. Doubling over quickly, the vomit erupted onto the floormat at her feet, forming a thick puddle of its own making. Even before she was finished, she could feel her nausea beginning to subside.

“Whoa!” Paul cried out in surprise, recoiling towards his door. In doing so, he jerked the steering wheel to the side, quickly turning the car at a sharp angle. In a desperate attempt to stay on the road, he overcorrected the wheels, revving the engine so high that the noise drowned out the storm entirely. The muddy surface offered no purchase however, and soon their car was spinning in a wobbly circle as it glided over top of the goop.

With bile still fresh in her throat, Maria could only watch in horror as the trees outside the windows melted into a blurry wall of muted greens and browns, erasing all sense of direction. Then, powerless to stop it, the impenetrable wall of foliage rushed up to meet the car. Saplings and weeds slapped loudly against the doors as it tore through the underbrush, angrily scraping against the paint and glass. Just as she realized that they had mercifully missed any of the sizeable trees, the front corner of the car clipped a tall slash pine with a sheet metal-crunching blast, stopping it dead.

*****

Heavy rain continued to drum on the roof of the car as the motionless headlights shined onto a large honeysuckle bush just beyond the hood. Inside, Paul rubbed his head and said in a foggy voice, “Shit, hunny—are you okay?” He leaned over towards Maria who was holding her arm and wincing in pain.

“Yeah, at least I think so. I banged my elbow on the door when we hit the tree but it doesn’t seem broken.” She flexed her arm open and closed a couple of times and then turned to look at him. There was a thin trickle of blood running down the left side of his forehead from a cut above his eye, but otherwise he seemed equally lucky.

“Oh, your head…” she said, squinting in the dark interior of the car.

Paul reached up and gingerly touched the small cut before holding his fingers up in dim light to see the blood. His mind had begun to clear again, and he said, “It probably looks a lot worse than it is. I must have knocked it against the steering wheel.”

“Well thank goodness it isn’t bad,” she replied, looking around them into the dark forest, “but now what do we do?” Outside, the storm seemed to be growing stronger still, with lightning flashing from every corner of the sky in brilliant bursts.

After briefly assessing the scene through the glass, Paul turned the car off and said, “Hang on, let me check it out,” before grabbing for the door handle.

Maria clutched his arm quickly. “You can’t go out there,” she said with alarm.

“I just want to see how bad it is. It’ll only take a minute.” He leaned over and kissed her forehead before opening the door and scrambling out of the car. The sheer chaos of the storm swallowed him instantly, as stinging drops of rain lashed angrily against his face in the wind. All around him, the concussive rumbling of thunder seemed to be coming from every direction at once.

Struggling to keep his eyes open, he had to lean against the stricken car as he staggered to the trunk. Opening it, he quickly rifled through the contents, first by groping blindly in the dark and then aided by lightning, until his fingers brushed against what he was after. Taking the old flashlight out, he slammed the trunk closed and headed back to the front of the car, still bracing against the gale.

Shining the light onto the Corvair where it met the tree, he was relieved to see that the damage wasn’t very bad. The metal was crumpled in on the corner, but the weeds and underbrush had slowed them enough that they hadn’t been going very fast when they hit the tall pine. Seeing Maria’s worried and distorted face through the rainy windshield, Paul forced a confident smile and gave her a thumbs up.

Suddenly, a powerful gust of wind passed through the trees overhead, blowing his wet, brown hair backwards. What sounded like a volley of gunfire erupted throughout the forest, as heavy limbs and treetops snapped off and fell to the ground—each crack accompanied by a chorus of crashing leaves and twigs before ending in a loud thud. Shit, Paul thought to himself, this ain’t good.   

As he staggered back around the front of the car, thinking of what to tell Maria, lightning flashed across the sky. Startled, he looked up just in time to catch the glint of a reflection through the trees in the distance. Squinting to see through the wind and rain, he had to wait for another bolt of lightning to illuminate the forest. When it came, he saw the angular peak and protruding walls of a second story box window poking through the leafy canopy less than quarter mile away.

*****

Climbing back into the driver’s seat and closing the door, it was like leaving an alien world as the howling wind disappeared. “Okay,” he said, turning to Maria as he wiped the water from his face, careful to avoid the fresh cut, “do you want the good news or the bad news first?”

“I’d be incredibly surprised if you managed to come back in here with good news, Paul.” He was the most competent man she knew, but at present, their mounting problems seemed to be far beyond even his usually very capable hands.

“Well, then you would be wrong,” he said, smiling. “But, since you didn’t pick, bad news first it is. We’re stuck,” he said matter-of-factly. “I mean, really stuck. Even if the car will drive, which I don’t think it will, we’re still buried in the mud up to the fenders. I can probably get one of the Bannefort boys to pull me out with a tractor, but obviously not until the morning.”

Maria groaned in despair. Then, as her foot sloshed in the vomit on the floor, she groan even louder. “The morning, Paul?”

“But—” he cut in quickly, “the good news is that I can see a house from here.”

Upon hearing that, she perked up immediately. “A house? Really? Way out here?” she asked in rapid succession, her voice a combination of incredulity and relief.

“I know, it’s crazy. Why on earth would anyone want to live all the way out here?” He turned in his seat to look out the rear window towards the direction of the road and said, “Look there—just wait.”

They didn’t have to wait long, and soon the forest flashed with bright light, erasing every shadow and darkness at once.

“There,” he said quickly, pointing at the glint in the distance.

“I saw it,” she said, “how far away is that?”

“Not far. Less than half a mile at the most. We can’t stay here though; with these trees and tops coming down, we’re just as likely to be crushed to death.”

“Oh, no! You can’t expect me to walk all that way. I’m wearing heels; heels that now have vomit all over them—I’ll never make it!”

“Yes you will, even if I have to carry you. I’m sorry, but we really don’t have much of a choice. We can use their phone and ride out the storm in safety. Personally, I can’t believe our luck.”

*****

With every step that she took, the fashionable mauve heels that Maria wore to supper earlier that evening with Paul’s parents sank into the soggy ground of the state road, forcing her to limp and lurch along awkwardly. They had retraced their path of destruction through the vegetation back to the road with Paul keeping one arm wrapped tightly around her for safety as he used the other to guide the way using the flashlight.

Thankfully, the distance to the house was even shorter than he’d guessed, though in the storm, every inch of the way was contested by the heavy wind and rain. Finally reaching the spot along the road that they had seen the glinting off the window, Paul and Maria both stopped and gazed in the direction of the woods, patiently waiting for another bolt of lightning. When it flashed, illuminating the clearing, their hearts sank immediately— their source of refuge and rescue had long ago been abandoned.  

Less than a hundred feet from the road, tall weeds and leafy bushes had sprouted up in nearly every inch of open space around a white two-story house that sat brooding atop a gradual rise. The upstairs windows facing the road were exposed, glimmering under a sheet of heavy water, but those on the lower level beneath the covered front porch had been haphazardly covered with boards, crudely nailed over the glass.

From the road, the house had a peculiar look to it, as if something were off, but only slightly so. Paul couldn’t place his finger on what is was however, and the last thing he was going to do at that moment was voice any concerns to Maria, and so he just brushed the thought away for the time being.  

Shouting over the rain-soaked wind, Maria asked, “Great, so now what?”

Using his hand to block the stinging cold drops from his eyes, Paul said, “Come on, let’s at least check it out, we can’t stay out here.”

A short flight of wooden steps led up to the sprawling front porch that wrapped around the entire ground floor. The crumbling handrail running along its outside edge was missing several spindles, and the aging façade smiled back at them like a gap-toothed child. Just like the dilapidated structure they both served, the steps and porch were both slowly rotting in the humid swamp air, their moldy white paint peeling off in long, jagged flakes. Dead leaves and other detritus littered the floor, collecting in small, wind-swept piles along the exterior wall of the house. 

Grateful to be out of the rain, Paul carefully crossed the rotten porch. When he reached the front door, he had to step over a pile of broken and discarded boards, their rusty nails pointed up into the air menacingly. Grabbing the tarnished door handle, he jiggled it to see if it was locked. When it didn’t move, he twisted harder, wondering if perhaps it was only seized with rust, but it still refused to turn.  

“What are you doing?” asked Maria from several steps behind him, hugging herself for warmth. Her wet hair was pressed flat around her face in shiny black ribbons, dripping from the ends. “We can’t just go inside.”  

Paul’s eyes widened indignantly. “Why not? Look around, no one lives here anymore! We’re in the middle of the worst storm in a hundred years, our car is wrecked, and we’re stranded somewhere in the middle of the ‘Fenokee—I’ll burn this damn house down if it gets me out of here any quicker. At least in there we’ll be safe.”

Not waiting for her to reply, Paul pulled hard on the door handle in an attempt to yank it open. When that didn’t work, he stepped back quickly before lunging forward and throwing his shoulder against the wood. There was a dry cracking sound, and he rocked back again before slamming into it even harder still, feeling the heavy door shudder beneath the blow.

With only a hundred and seventy pounds at his disposal, it still took several more ramming’s before the latch finally shattered through the old wood in an explosion of brittle splinters—sending the door, and Paul, flying into the house. Stumbling to maintain his balance, he skid to a slippery stop in the entryway as a dense fog of stagnant air escaped through the open door.

“There,” he called back out to the porch from within the darkened house, “that wasn’t so hard, was it?”

*****

Part: III

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“State Road,” (Part: I)

Paul lit a cigarette from the pack in his shirt pocket before flicking the match through the narrow gap of the car window. Outside, the last few coral rays of evening sunlight were being slowly engulfed by the brooding clouds of a late spring storm. He aggressively shifted the Corvair into fourth gear and exhaled a puff of light blue smoke through the crack in the window.      

“Okay Paul, we’re out of there. I think you can relax now. And for god’s sake, roll that window down more.” In the passenger seat beside him, Maria was theatrically waving her hand in front of her face with a disgusted look. Even though she was only half serious, she still hated the cigarettes. After spending an entire afternoon with his parents though, she knew there was no way Paul was going to wait until they made it back home.

Cranking the window a little lower, he said, “Why does he have to complain so damn much? I’ll tell you why, the bastard doesn’t have anything better to do. That’s what old croppers do when they finally retire—sit around making everyone else miserable. Thank god for Nixon being in office or he’d still be bitching about the leafhoppers and wireworms.”

Maria laughed, brushing her windswept jet-black bangs from her eyes. “Is that what you’re going to do when you take over someday and eventually retire? Sit around with your piles of money being a cranky old codger?”

It was Paul’s turn to laugh, despite himself, and he said, “Well, first of all, I’m still convinced Julius Tarver is going to outlive us all purely out of spite. But if by some miracle he doesn’t, at least I’ll have you to put a smile on my face. I mean, how bad can I get, right?” He grinned at her as he squeezed her knee with his hand. “Besides,” he said, “if I never see Oak Hill again, it’ll still be too soon. Brian can manage just fine without me for a while.”

Outside the car, a light rain had started to fall, pattering softly on the windshield as they sped through the gathering darkness. An isolated drive at the best of times, their blue sedan was the only vehicle on the rural highway this late on a Sunday evening. Paul flicked the remainder of the cigarette from the car and cranked the handle to raise the window, shutting out the wind.

“You know Brian hates that place just as much as you do,” said Maria, “you saw him at supper—he looks miserable there.”  

When their father had finally decided to retire the year prior, Paul’s younger brother had moved back home to manage the day-to-day operations of the Tarver family peanut farm. Originally purchased at the close of the Civil War, the sprawling property located just outside of Hickox, Georgia had produced enough wealth over the years to last several Tarver generations.

Paul scoffed and said, “True, but he also needs the money more than I do. Besides, why am I the one that’s supposed to abandon my own company to go back and scrape peanuts out of the ground? Maybe things would be different if dad were gone already, but with him alive, even retired, it’d be nothing but a pain in the ass. You saw him tonight, could you just imagine him looking over my shoulder every day, butting into everything I say and do? No thanks. To tell you the truth, I have no idea how Brian does it.”

Maria was accustomed to Paul’s dark moods after visiting his parents. More often than not, the two and half hour drive back to their home in Valdosta was long enough for him to vent his frustrations, and so she just did her best to listen empathetically. Today however, they had already left the estate later than they’d planned, and the approaching storm looked as if it were about to slow them down even more.  

Paul glanced up at the marbled gray sky, shaking his head as lightning flashed deep within the clouds, illuminating the desolate landscape. “This one’s going to be a doozy. It’ll take us all night to get home.” The accompanying thunder vibrated the car as if to punctuate his statement.

“We can always just turn back and stay at Oak Hill—just for the night?” Maria regretted the words as soon as they left her lips, scrunching her face at her own stupidity.

“Ha! I’ll sleep in the mud on the side of the road before we stay there. I could just see the look on dad’s face when we pulled back into the drive. ‘Afraid of a little rain, are you?’ Meanwhile, he hasn’t even driven a car in twenty years. That’s how big of an egomaniac he is, he wouldn’t even see his own hypocrisy.” Suddenly a thought came to him, and he began looking around the landscape through the windshield. “Actually, you know what—we’re not too far from that old logging road that cuts through the ‘Fenokee. I’ve never taken it all the way through, but that’d definitely save us some time,” he said.

The vast Okefenokee swamp stood like a botanical barrier between Paul and his childhood home. Whenever he made it back to the mental safety of the swamp’s west side it was as though a hefty burden had been lifted from his shoulders. In normal circumstances, him and Maria would simplyHighway 57 around the north end of the swamp, bypassing the desolate twenty five mile-wide bog. Tonight though, Paul desperately wanted to reach the Julius-less side of the swamp before the approaching storm stopped them dead in their tracks.

“What old logging road? I don’t remember any other roads to Valdosta from here,” said Maria from the passenger seat, grateful for the change in topic. Although her and Paul had been married for three years, they had begun dating as freshmen while attending college together in the same city they would eventually call home. At the time, she had been enrolled to become an elementary school teacher and him to earn a degree in business; not, ironically, to assume the family company, but to escape from underneath it.

In the years since however, they seldom came back to the little town and, when they did, he was never keen on lingering long enough to show her around before rushing back off, leaving the dusty brown patches of dirt in the Corvair’s rearview mirror.    

Paul leaned over and popped open the glove box, rifling through the contents with one hand as he kept the car on the road with the other. “Aha—” he said, taking out a folded and tattered map. “Here, open that up.” He handed the map to Maria who took it with a confused look.

“It’s not really a road, per say—not anymore at least. Years ago, back around the time my dad was a kid, the state cut a swath through the ‘Fenokee to chop down all the good trees. Once they got what they wanted, they just let the road go to hell. Eventually, it got to the point that no one even wanted to take their car down it because they were getting too beat up. And trust me, it’s not the kind of place you want to get stranded.”

Maria looked through the windshield at the ominous sky and asked, “If it’s that bad, do you think we should risk it with this weather coming?” She held the map up to the window, trying to use the last remnants of cloud-choked twilight to read as she flipped to the section showing the Okefenokee swamp. She understood Paul wanting to get home as fast as they could, but the way he had made the route sound had worried her.

Running a hand through his wavy brown hair, Paul said, “Look, even if we take it slow and easy, we’ll still shave off an hour’s worth of driving—at least.” He took the map from Maria and switched on the interior light. Studying the faint lines for a moment—his eyes alternately shifting between the map and the road—he tossed it down into his lap with a huff.

“Okay, well, it isn’t on here, but I know the turn-off is just past the Bannefort plantation. After that, it’s a straight shot through. It’s not like you can make a wrong turn once you’re on it.”

Maria didn’t say anything, and for several minutes they rode in silence as the rain began to fall heavier outside. Fat drops were smearing the dusky fields through the windshield, and Paul switched on the wipers.  

A few miles later, despite the poor visibility from the rain and darkness, as they came around a shallow curve Paul pointed and said, “There—”

The twin headlight beams illuminated a spilt-rail fence running alongside the highway. They continued driving along the fence, paralleling a freshly planted soybean field, for half a mile until they reached the corner. Slowing down, Paul didn’t bother to use the car’s signal as he turned left, crossing over the opposite lane and pulling onto the narrow gravel road, now slick with fresh mud. He stopped the car as rain poured down in heavy streams, rumbling on the roof overhead.

Lying on the ground next to the corner post, barely visible in the high grass, was a rusty metal sign, beaten with age. Amidst a smattering of bullet-holes and flaking white paint, the gray, sun-bleached wordscould still be read with considerable effort: “State Road 8.”

Paul grinned with nostalgia, “Yep, this is it. God, it’s been years since I’ve been down this road. Brian and I used to sneak some of dad’s pipe tobacco and cruse down here to smoke it. Actually, I remember buying a jar of ‘shine off Billy Meadows and bringing it out here with Shirley—”

“Paul,” said Maria, cutting him off, “think carefully before you finish that story.”

“Ah, good point.”

Just past the hazy glow of the headlights, empty soybean fields continued on either side of the gravel track for a short distance before slamming up against the dark and imposing edifice of the Okefenokee swamp’s forest.

Staring at the foreboding wall of trees in the distance, Maria asked, “Are you sure this is a good idea, Paul?”

Paul shrugged, “Against the prospect of getting stranded at Oak Hill overnight, I think it’s a wonderful idea.”

Checking to ensure that the windshield wipers were running at full speed, he eased the car forward into the dark and pouring rain.    

*****

Part: II

From the author: It’s exciting to be starting a new tale, especially with so many new readers on board, (750+ new fans since “The Sigbee Depot” debuted a little over a month ago). If you’re new here, you can also find me on Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn— each with varying degrees of success and failure on my part. As always, thank you to everyone for reading, commenting, and sharing my stories with those around you. I set out to build something that I wanted to exist in the world, and because of you it does. Please keep up the fight.

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The Sigbee Depot, (Part: VIII of VIII)

In the seven years that Dr. Wernher Oberth had been in the United States, he’d never been so horrified. It wasn’t necessarily unusual to find the random lost hunter or curious local history buff wandering around the depot grounds, but even those numbers had dropped dramatically since hanging the “No Trespassing” signs years ago. Witnessing enough governmental bureaucracy before Berlin fell, the doctor correctly surmised that most people—to include the town officials themselves—would just assume that some low-level employee of the now defunct railroad had hung them for safety and obey.

Ever since the executives of the Consortium placed him and his modest lab at the depot in order to be near the freight station in Atlanta, the remoteness of the location had always been the site’s greatest defense. It was so isolated, in fact, that the closest anyone had ever come to the basement door was the teenage couple that he’d unexpectedly stumbled upon two summers prior. They were parked in front of the main depot building, kissing passionately in the front seats, when he’d exited the front door mere feet away. It had been late at night and the couple didn’t noticed him—preoccupied as they were—while on the dash radio, Billie Holiday drowned out the hum of the generator as she purred about her lover man.

Caught off guard, Dr. Oberth had just stood there like a slack-jawed statue until the building’s front door slammed shut, startling both him and the amorous couple. Looking up with shocked, coffee-saucer eyes and seeing him—nearly seven feet tall and holding his trusty lantern—they’d screamed at the top of their lungs while the young man frantically fumbled with the ignition before peeling off in a cloud of chalky red dust. As the car drove away though, the doctor had memorized the license plate, which he then promptly reported to the Consortium Department Chief as required in the handbook.

A few days later, in his laboratory beside the depot that also served as his quarters, the doctor overheard a report about a horrific automobile accident involving two local teens on his little shelf top radio. At the time, although the radio announcer had said that it appeared the driver lost control of his vehicle and went over the side of the Hatchery bridge, Dr. Oberth knew that the real reason the teens were dead was because of his phone call. After that incident, he’d felled several large trees down across the overgrown dirt track that had once been the only road in and out of the depot property, virtually eliminating unexpected trespassers. Even the two new “Project Supervisors” the Consortium had sent tonight to collect the status update on his work had been forced to walk for nearly a mile through the dark woods to reach the spartan lab.

Such precautions were necessary of course; not only to protect his work from the people, but also the people from his work. Since the end of the war, when the Americans had found him in the bombed-out ruins of his Berlin laboratory, his life has been dedicated to the KM biological weapon series. Currently, the prototypes were still far too volatile, too hard to control. But, he was getting closer—426 was proof of that. He only needed more time.

Now however, his worst nightmare was becoming a reality: outsiders had found their way down into the secluded basement cells. The problem might not have been so terrible but for the fact that it happened on the same night as the new supervisor’s initial visit. He already didn’t like the short American with the greasy, curly hair—making his snide remarks about the lab—and the quiet, older man—clearly in charge of the pair—had been making him nervous since he’d arrived at the site an hour earlier.

All the doctor had wanted to do was hand over the month’s bio-data readings and quickly get the stodgy Americans out of there, but now—standing at the top of the stairs and watching the two young boys turn and run back down the hallway—that was no longer going to be a possibility. He was pragmatically weighing his options—trying to decide how best to proceed—when the basement erupted in a series of deafening explosions. The blasts were concussive in the enclosed space and for a moment the doctor was back in Berlin, huddled inside his laboratory as the cement walls shook from the falling bombs.

“No, stop! Stop shooting! Do not wake them!” In his excitement, the doctor’s accent had gotten thicker, and he pronounced the w’s with a heavy vee sound. He was frantically grabbing at the men’s arms—trying to get them to cease firing—but they both easily shrugged him off and continued shooting down into the hallway.

To Dr. Oberth, it felt as if the shooting would never stop, and each new explosion threatened to send him running for cover out of instinct. Eventually though, both pistols only made metallic clicking sounds as their hammer’s fell onto empty cylinders. Acrid blue smoke hung in the air as the doctor leaned back against the wall, breathing deeply as he tried to calm his nerves.

“Do you fools have any idea what’s behind those doors? Well, do you?”

The curly haired man didn’t reply, he just peered through the smoke down into the basement as a billowing cloud of dust formed. The older man lowered his gun slowly and looked at Dr. Oberth. “We were briefed,” he said coolly, “but which do you think is more important right now? Whatever you have behind those doors,” he gestured down the steps with his head, “or the obvious security breach?”

“There is nowhere to escape down that way. Besides, it was only two youths,” the doctor said, bristling at the unspoken suggestion but trying to remain professional, “perhaps instead of foolishly shooting them, you might be kind enough to simply acquire them for me. 426 is closer than I’ve ever been, but I’m still not there yet. I need more trial subjects and I haven’t received any new ones in over a year.” The doctor squinted down into the smoke and dust and said, “Those two will suffice for now.”

The supervisors both looked at each other and shrugged. Tucking his pistol back into his belt, the older man said, “I’m out of bullets anyway, and I’m not walk—”

The first scream was always the worst. Dr. Oberth was used to their chilling cries, but when other people heard them for the first time, their reaction was always the same. With thinly veiled satisfaction, the doctor watched as the color drained from the curly haired man’s face—so much so, that even his thin, arrogant lips turned a pale blue color. Instinctively, the man’s pudgy hands flew up to cover his ears and, as the piercing scream continued, his chubby jaw opened in horror.

Likewise protecting his hearing, the older man was only slightly more brave. As he stared down into the darkness, his light blue eyes narrowed suspiciously and he clenched his square jaw as though he were preparing for battle. When the first prototype attempted to break out of its cell with a forceful crash against the door however, the doctor could see the thin fabric of his trousers trembling like an autumn leaf on a tree.

As the hallway erupted into a thunderous cacophony, the two rookie supervisors looked at each other in wide-eyed terror. The older man turned to the doctor and shouted over the din, “Do something! Make them stop!”

Long since used to the blood-curdling screams, the doctor no longer covered his own ears against the noise. Tonight though, there was something different about their cries, and he ignored the pleas of the two frightened supervisors as he strained to listen more closely. He’d never heard them so angry before. Even earlier, when they had gotten worked up into a frenzy—no doubt the work of the thoughtless trespassers, he now thought to himself—he had been worried that he wouldn’t be able to calm them back down before it was too late.

Turning back to the supervisors, he said, “I’m not sure if I can. That’s what I’ve been trying to report to Headquarters for the past year; they’re too unstable. They won’t listen to me as they did before they were multi-genetic coded specimens.”

The curly haired supervisor stepped closer and began to yell over the noise. “Listen asshole, I don’t care—”

The older gentleman cut him off with a raised hand and looked at Dr. Oberth incredulously. “Why did you let them get so big, then? If they’re as unpredictable as you say they are, they should never have lived this long.”

Anger flashed across the doctor’s face. “’Let them’? Do you know the first thing about genetic splicing? The complications? Of course not, you’re just like everyone at the Consortium— all you want are the killing machines with no thought of how hard it is to create.”

“Watch it,” said the man with the gin-nose, threateningly.

“Or what,” the doctor asked, motioning down the hall, “you’ll replace me? I don’t think so. I’m the closest thing that the Consortium has to a solution.”

The two supervisors looked at each other and chuckled noiselessly amidst the booming. The older man smiled smugly and said, “Do you think this is the only KM lab? Hell, KM isn’t even the only program within the Consortium,” and both men laughed again.

Dr. Oberth tried to conceal his surprise. All this time, he’d been led to believe that his lab was leading the way for the Consortium’s clandestine operations. After tonight, he would demand a meeting with the directors to set things straight. “That may be true,” he said in an attempt to sooth his pride, “but if my prototypes manage to break through those cell doors—a possibility that grows increasingly likely by the minute—neither of you will live to see any other program.”

Without waiting for a response, the doctor walked past the men and stood on the first step. Peering down into the noisy hallway below, he yelled at the top of his voice, “Sei ruhig!” If the creatures heard him however, then they chose not to obey. Shaking his head, he turned back to the suits. “This might be bad,” he said with his heavy accent, not bothering to mask the worry on his face.

He tried several other commands—ones that had worked on different KM models at different stages of development—but the creatures appeared to be feeding off of each other’s hysteria. Each time one beast became louder and more aggressive, a sympathetic wave spread down the hallway as its siblings joined in with renewed rage. Standing there listening to the pattern of hostility, the answer suddenly clicked inside the doctor’s brain.

“That’s it,” he shouted as he turned back to the men. “They must be alone! All this time, how could I have missed it? The most vicious of the genetic material came from solitary hunters such as jaguars, vipers, and the like. But, between the human and wolf material, they’ve developed into pack creatures.”

His face dropped into a confused look, and he seemed to be talking out loud to himself. “But then, shouldn’t they see me as the leader? By all estimations, they should view me as their creator, their Papa.”

The greasy man broke his concentration, “Hey asshole, now isn’t the time. Shut these damn things up so we can go take care of those kids.”

“I told you, I’m not sure that I can.” He turned back to the hallway, desperately searching his memory for another command. “Du wirst mir gehorchen!” The words disappeared into the darkness, swallowed whole by the banging of doors and inhuman cries. At first there was no noticeable change. Then however—to all three men’s surprise—one by one the creatures began to settle, and the screeching and pounding faded in intensity. As Dr. Oberth peered down towards the intersection in the distance, a smile crossed his lips.

*****

Elbert was desperate. If he were wrong, or ran out of time, then it was almost certain that he’d die down in the basement. Even worse, he was starting to wonder if Abner was actually looking for something to lower back down to him or not; he may have simply made it to the front door and never stopped. Elbert remembered the strange look on his face before they separated and he still wasn’t sure what to make of it.

That particular problem wasn’t important at the moment however, and so he pushed it out of his mind in order to focus on the task at hand. If he failed to buy him and Abner some time, the men would quickly figure out where they had escaped— and then simply hunt them down outside. Their only hope was if he could distract the men long enough for the boys disappear into the pitch-dark woods surrounding the depot where they couldn’t be followed. If by some miracle he made it back to the room and there was no sign of Abner… Well, I’ll just have to cross that bridge if I make it that far, he figured. As he raced back down the adjacent hallway, he could still hear the men talking at the stairs. There’s no turning back now, he said to himself.

*****

Catching his breath after climbing to the top, Abner sat on the ground just outside of the chute. He was so relieved to finally be out from the basement that he was starting to almost believe it had all been just a bad dream. As he listened to the generator humming on the other side of the building, his eyes glanced over to the front door. Thinking about the men and the terrifying creatures downstairs, he imagined himself dashing through the door and out into the night—his leg muscles tensing at the thought. He wouldn’t stop running until he reached his truck. Then, he figured, he probably wouldn’t stop driving until he ran out of gas.

But, Elbert… he told himself, hoping again to forge the guilt into courage. He stood up and peered back down the chute but there was still no sign of his friend, only the dirty basement floor below. Sticking his head down the shaft to listen, all he could hear was the rushing of the air. How long has it been, he wondered, one minute? Two?  

*****

Still standing at the top of the stairs, the doctor had at last succeeded in calming the many different KM prototypes still housed in their cells. He sighed with a mixture of relief and satisfaction before turning to the Consortium men. “There, now would you quietly secure those two trespassers? You can wound them, but please do not make the wounds mortal, the process is… hard on the host.”

The men nodded and shrugged as if to say, “easy enough,” before slowly descending the stairs. At the bottom, the hallway looked longer than it had appeared from the top of the steps, and the man with the round nose patted his pockets to double-check that he was indeed out of extra bullets. Leading the way, the older gentleman slowly walked towards the sound of dripping water in the distance. When they had made it halfway down the hall, he stopped and looked back to Dr. Oberth.

“Up ahead, where does that hall to the right lead?”

Dr. Oberth just put a finger to his lips and slowly shook his head.

The white haired man looked confused, but he took the doctor’s answer to mean that it wouldn’t be a problem and resumed the slow advance. The trio had only gone a few more steps when the intersection in front of them erupted into a fiery inferno with a loud whoosh! The corridor went from murky darkness to blindingly bright as angry flames belched towards the men, licking at their shoes as they back-peddled and shouted at one another in a hasty retreat.

*****

There had been less lantern fuel remaining in the can on the table than Elbert had hoped, but it was enough to temporarily stop the goons. As he listened to the men yelling in confusion—arguing with one another as they scrambled for safety—he raced back down the hall towards the storage room. Flinging the door open, he heart immediately dropped to not find anything protruding down from the chute in the ceiling.

Damn it, Abner, he thought as he ran over to the hole. Looking up at the depot roof above, he called out as loud as he could. “Abner! Abner! Hurry up! Where are you?” The door was still open and—as smoke began to seep into the room—he could see the flames in the distance. Despite the initial blaze, the flames now were quickly dying. He started shouting frantically up into the chute for Abner, hearing the panic in his own voice.  

Stopping to cough from the smoke, he glanced out into the hallway again and saw that the flames were almost entirely out. Maybe Abner ran after all, he thought to himself. Oddly though, rather than feeling abandoned or betrayed, as he would expect, he actually felt proud—almost defiant. Good. Go, Abner. At least these goons won’t get the both of us. Come back with an army and make the bastards pay.

When he finally accepted what needed done, in a sense, he felt relieved, as though the entire macabre game could end at last. As he crossed the room to the open door, it seemed as though it were someone else’s body moving, and he was merely spectating from afar. From his mentally detached position, he watched himself step through the doorway and out into the hall, illuminated by the wispy flames of the rapidly dying fire.

*****

 “Any other surprises we should know about, genius doctor?” The man with the gin-nose was sweating even more profusely now as the black smoke billowed overhead, escaping through the aging gaps and crevices in the basement ceiling.

Dr. Oberth was unimpressed, however. “They can’t have too many tricks left. Stop being a damned kleinkind and get back down there and get them,” he said as he jabbed a pale finger down the hall. The evening’s events had made him bolder than he would normally be towards the Consortium men, but there was too much at stake and he was losing patience. His work was not only vitally important, it was also incredibly dangerous. And tonight, everything seemed to be spiraling out of his control. I will not have another Berlin, he thought to himself bitterly.  

Resuming the lead back down the hall, the white haired man had reached the half-way point when he stopped. Just around the corner ahead, he heard what sounded like a wet gurgling noise. The noise reminded him of something heavy being pressed down into runny mud. He craned his head to listen and realized that the noise was getting louder. Whatever it was, it was coming closer. He turned back and looked questioningly at Dr. Oberth. When he did, he saw that the doctor’s face had turned as white as a sheet as he stared in horror towards the empty intersection.

“What is that,” asked the shorter one, his voice starting to tremble. The doctor didn’t reply though, and only a weak whimper escaped his lips.

The man with the neat white hair turned back to the intersection just in time to see a massive clawed foot stomp down on the floor and smother the last tiny cluster of flames. As KM-426 stepped into view, his grotesque body seemed to fill the entire intersection. Dark globs of viscous fluid oozed to the ground in wet plops as it snapped its crude snout full of pointed teeth menacingly. Black, soulless eyes bore holes into the three men as 426 reached a deformed claw up to the light bulb and squeezed. There was a short popping sound, and then that end of the corridor went completely dark.  

As the men started to backpedal in horror, 426’s heavy footfalls shook the ground as it started to advance closer. Reaching out to the sides with boney fingers, it scraped the wicked-looking nails against the walls as it slowly approached, digging in so deep that heavy chunks of brick crumbled to the ground. When it reached the first pair of opposing pocket-doors, the beast stopped. Then, without taking its soulless eyes from the men, 426 slashed down simultaneously with both claws and the heavy metal locks clattered to the floor.

The monster advanced a few more threatening steps towards the men before both doors flung open so hard the walls shook as the doors slammed into their recesses.

“Shit, shit, shit—” The greasy-haired supervisor tried to pull his partner in front of him, but the taller man resisted and shoved him back between himself and the monster. The pudgy man stumbled rearward a few steps before trying to lunge back into the safety of the group, but it was too late.

With speed that seemed impossible for a creature of its size, 426 darted forward and wrapped a boney claw around the curly-haired head before jerking him back. The man tried to scream but the creature squeezed his skull so quick and powerfully that his neck twisted sideways as his lower jawbone snapped neatly in half with a sharp cracking sound.

The short man’s legs kicked briefly and then went limp as he hung there, suspended in the air by the 426’s grasp. The beast reached out and grabbed ahold of the man’s arm, and there was a quick blur of movement accompanied by a wet popping sound as the limb was torn clean from the torso. While a thick stream of blood poured from the gapping socket, 426 briefly regarded the appendage before tossing the limb over a shoulder to the eagerly awaiting siblings. When it landed on the floor with a limp thud, the two immediately snarled and snapped at each other over the bloody limb.

When the monster dropped the greasy man’s lifeless body to the floor, his older colleague decided to go out fighting. Brandishing his empty pistol by the barrel like a club, he charged towards the waiting beast. Dr. Oberth knew that it was a foolishly suicidal move but even if he had been able to speak—which he was too scared to do—his scientific curiosity wanted to see how 426 would react; he wasn’t disappointed.

Before he even managed to get within striking distance, there was another murky blur of movement and, like a magic trick, the older man was suddenly being restrained by the arms by the other two beasts. When he realized what was happening, the man looked up at 426 as if to plead for his life, but before he could speak, both arms were simultaneously torn from his body. Bright crimson fountains of blood spurted onto the dusty walls as he finally began to scream, standing there before the three monsters like an armless Greek statue.

426 regarded the screaming human quizzically for a second and then reached out and wrapped a massive claw around the man’s face. As the claw quickly squeezed tight, the screaming stopped and spongy gray matter burst all over the beast’s grotesque hairy body.

Dr. Oberth had been slowly retreating further back the hall, making it all the way to the stairs. When the older man’s headless corpse fell to the floor with a sickening thud though, he knew there was no use. All three creatures began advancing towards him, their black eyes fixated on his every move. As it passed each door, 426 swatted the locks away as if they were mere playthings. Soon, amidst the bodies of the Consortium men and shattered locks, the hallway was filling with different prototypes.

Some of the early versions had slightly longer snouts, some shorter. Several of them, the result of a particularly misguided winter project, had a single hooked talon for hands. One especially unpleasant KM prototype was even engineered with hooved feet, the same hooves that were at that very moment clunking through the blood on the basement floor as they drew nearer to the doctor.

*****

Elbert made it back to the storage room and slammed the door shut behind him. Unstrapping KM-426 had been the scariest thing that he’d ever done in his life, but he somehow got the feeling that the monster had a bigger bone to pick with the men in the hall than with him and Abner. He’d gambled his life on a gut-instinct that he couldn’t explain. Now though, if he couldn’t find a way up the chute and away from the depot, he was certain that he’d be next when 426 was done with the others.

He raced back over to the hole in the ceiling but there was still no sign of Abner. Desperate, he tried calling back up to him but there was still no reply. He thought he heard a short scream in the hallway, but he didn’t dare to investigate. Suddenly, everything got eerily quiet, and the only sound was his own heartbeat thumping loudly in his chest. He sensed someone or something standing on the other side of the door. Even though he couldn’t see it or hear it, he knew it was there.

Slowly, he took a step towards the closed door, half expecting it to fly open at any second. As he watched the handle, it almost looked as though it were turning, ever so slightly. He swallowed hard, ready to accept whatever came through with as much courage as a frightened and exhausted boy could muster.

Just then, from behind, a loud clanging shattered the silence as a heavy wooden post slammed into the floor from the chute above. On the other side of the door, there was a startled shuffling sound, and the handle stopped turning.

Elbert didn’t waste any time. Running over to the thick post, he jumped up and grabbed ahold of it close to the ceiling. Without looking back at the door, he scrambled up as quickly as possible, kicking little bits of rotten wood down into the empty room.

Upstairs on the main level of the building, as him and Abner hurried to reach the front door, they could hear the blood-curdling screams in the foreign language over the running generator. Even though it was impossible to know what the tall man with the lantern had been shouting, to Elbert the cries sounded more heartbroken than anything.

*****

Abner and Elbert sat in the back of the sheriff deputy’s patrol car sipping from cold bottles of Coca-Cola. In the warmth of the morning sunlight, Sigbee patrolmen were scouring the empty depot property, calling out to each other from the bushes and dilapidated old buildings. When the boys had recounted their story from the night before, Sheriff DeKalb had acted more than a little disbelieving, but he did agree to check it out when the sun came up. Now however, Elbert was starting to feel foolish and crazy: they should have found something by now.

The sheriff finished his conversation with one of his men and wiped the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief before walking back over to the patrol car with the boys inside. “My guys have searched over the whole place. There’s clearly been a fire down in the basement, just like you boys said, but that’s pretty much it. We did find some trash and broken bottles, so my guess is that it was just some other kids, out here having a good time away from the grown-ups. Hell, they probably didn’t even know y’all were out here too.”

Part of Elbert had been expecting this, and he had already stopped listening. He knew it wasn’t their imagination or the night playing tricks on them. Shaking his head, he just dropped his eyes and waited for the sheriff to be through. Before he looked up though, his eye caught something unusual.

Abner had never liked his sincerity to be questioned, and Elbert could tell that he was getting irritated. “Look, sheriff, I know what we saw, I know who—”

Elbert cut him off sharply. “Abner— just, never mind. It’s probably like the sheriff said, we just got confused is all,” he said dismissively. He looked up at the sheriff, using his hand to shield his eyes from the sun. “It was dark and windy, sheriff. Seeing it all in the daylight, everything looks a lot more normal than it did. I’m real sorry for dragging your guys out here.”

There had been no wind the night before, but the sheriff simply looked at Elbert and smiled with satisfaction. “Now that’s better. You boys wouldn’t be the first kids to think they stumbled onto something nefarious while out exploring this town’s history. Truth be told, though, the imagination is far scarier than the things that go bump in the night. I’ll have Deputy Sanders give you boys a ride home. And in the future, remember, this is no place for kids to be messing around. It’s too dangerous out here.” With that, the sheriff slapped the top of the patrol car and adjusted his wide-brimmed hat. As the deputy’s car pulled away, the sunbaked gravel crunching underneath the tires, Elbert forced himself not to look down at the crimson blood on the sheriff’s shoes.

*****

The End

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  I truly hoped you enjoyed reading this story half as much as I enjoyed writing it. Next week: Some short-cuts can take a lifetime: The premiere of “State Road.” And, as always, don’t forget to find The Written Revolt© on Instagram. Thank you again to all of my readers and supporters around the world!

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The Sigbee Depot, (Part: VII of VIII)

Time stopped as Elbert’s head filled with the sound of his own rushing blood—a throbbing pulse that echoed down deep, reverberating off the marrow in his bones. There was a metallic, coppery taste on his tongue, but when he tried to swallow, his mouth was so dry that the gulp became lodged in his throat like a clod of dirt. Frozen immediately behind him in mid-step, he felt a warm puff of air on his neck as Abner let out a frightened whimper.

At the top of the stairs, the two strangers both had on dark, poorly-tailored suits with matching slender neck-ties. Elbert could tell they had been walking around outside as their shoes and trouser cuffs bore the ubiquitous pale-red dust of the vacant Sigbee Depot property. Standing to the left of the man in the white lab coat, the shorter of the newcomers had already been perspiring from the warm Georgia night air, and his curly black hair was pressed flat against his forehead in fat loops. Just above his rounded nose—pink and swollen from too many years of cheap gin— cold eyes narrowed menacingly towards the boys before darting sideways at his partner as his lips curled up in a sneer.

Still holding onto the handle after closing the door behind him, Elbert nearly mistook the other stranger for his Biology teacher. Most likely the eldest of the three men, his cottony-white hair was neatly parted to the side, and Elbert sensed an unnerving air of authority about him. While not as tall as the man in the lab coat, he was still of an above-average height and his athletic build belied the crow’s feet and grooves worn into the surface of his tanned face. Without returning his partner’s shifty look, the man calmly let his hand slide from the doorknob. As it fell, he allowed it to brush away the front of his jacket while smoothly withdrawing a large pistol in one deft movement.  

Seeing the gun, Elbert’s heart sank; if there was any hope that the strangers might help secure the boys’ safety, they were now dashed. Taking his partner’s cue, the sneering man quickly—though far less gracefully—yanked his own pistol from beneath his suit coat with a satisfied grunt. Standing between the strangers, the tall man with the lantern recoiled in surprise at the night’s turn of events—thankfully though, it appeared as if he himself had no gun.

The sight of the two sinister looking black revolvers glinting under the stairwell light jolted Elbert into action. Turning quickly on the balls of his feet, he grabbed Abner’s arm and pulled him back down the hallway. “Run!” he yelled, his fingers clutching the fabric of Abner’s shirt.

They had only gone a few fumbling steps when the hallway exploded in deafening blasts accompanied by flashes of brilliant white light. Angry slaps hit the wall beside Elbert’s head with a percussive crack as bits of shattered brick peppered the air. Behind them on the upper landing, the tall man in the lab coat began to shout frantically—his thick accent rising shrilly over the gunfire.

Despite the tall man’s efforts, the gunfire continued, and, as the boys raced further down the hall, more bullets buzzed past—ricocheting off of the walls and floor with violent smacking sounds. Still pulling Abner’s shirt to the intersection, Elbert swung around the corner and collapsed, huffing for oxygen. He scrambled back against the wall as he tried to control his breathing, gasping in hoarse gulps of musty air. 

Amazingly, neither boy had been hit in the erratic fusillade, and at any second they expected to hear the heavy footfalls of the men racing down the hallway after them. But as they struggled to catch their breath, the only sound they heard were the unseen endless drops of water. As Abner cautiously peeked around the corner, he could barely see the trio of men through the billowing cloud of brick-dust and smoke that filled the hallway; oddly, they were still at the top of the stairs.

“Oh, thank god—they stopped,” said Abner, panting softly. “Holy shit, who the hell are they?”

Elbert’s ears were still ringing from the gunshots and in between puffs of air, he said, “I don’t freaking know, what are they doing?”

Abner quickly peeked around the corner again and said, “the doctor-guy is yelling at them, pulling them back. They’re all arguing about something, they haven’t even come down the—”

He was suddenly cut-off by the sound of a high-pitch scream from back down the same hall they had just escaped. The piercing cry quickly grew in volume—rising impossibly loud—and both boys groaned as they dug the heels of their palms down over their ears. Then, as if someone had flipped a switch, the screaming abruptly stopped.

The boys looked at each other with renewed alarm in the amber haze of the subterranean intersection light bulb. Before either could speak though, a loud bang shattered the silence as a thick wooden door slammed against its frame—the heavy metal lock clanging back down against the aged planks with a dead thud.

Suddenly, from a different room along the hall, another shrill cry rose up briefly before being clipped off. There was brief pause again—only the drip-drip-drip into the unseen puddle—before a second loud blast rocked the basement.    

Then, like the tide reclaiming the sand, one by one the heavy doors came to life as a chorus of chilling screams flooded the air—so loud that the boys could feel the waves passing through their bodies. Soon, the entire basement became a cacophony of crashing doors, slamming locks, and inhuman cries as Abner squeezed his eyes closed as tightly as he could. Trembling, he felt an urgent tugging on his arm, and at first he resisted for fear of removing his hands from his ears.

“Come on!” Elbert was yelling over the noise as he pulled Abner with both hands, “let’s go! We have to get out of here!” Behind them, some of the doors sounded as though they were about to break into splinters, the cracks and pops of the dry wood echoing in every direction.

Reluctantly, he removed his hands from his head and followed Elbert back towards the room with the green light. “There’s nowhere to go down there,” he called after him as the darkness enveloped them both. Elbert didn’t reply however, and he continued shuffling down the murky hallway. They quickly passed the room with KM-426 inside—the ethereal emerald glow still oozing out from beneath the door— without stopping, and soon it was becoming difficult to discern anything in the fading light. As they continued down the hall, they could hear the creatures wailing and slamming against the doors behind them as the men shouted at one another over the noise.

“Whoa—” said Elbert, halting suddenly, but it was too late and Abner bumped into him from behind. Reaching the end of the hallway, they were stopped in front of another door. This one was unlike any of the other doors along the basement walls though. Rather than the heavy wooden planks and thick metal fasteners, it was more of the ordinary sort, and almost boring by comparison.

Elbert reached out gingerly and touched the doorknob. The rusty metal was cool beneath his fingertips and he could feel the tremors of the enraged monsters, manically trying to force their way out from their cells. He leaned his head against the door hoping to hear a clue from within the room, but the commotion further down the hall overpowered any other noise. Gripping the knob, he started to turn slowly it when Abner suddenly seized his wrist. “Hang on. How do we even know what’s in there?”

Elbert glanced down the hallway before looking back over at him. “What choice do we have,”  he asked flatly.

Abner let go of his wrist and took a step back. Sucking in a deep breath for courage, Elbert twisted the knob and flung open the door. A rush of cool, sweet-smelling air swept through the boys as it escaped from the room, but otherwise, the inside was silent. At first, neither of the boys could see anything, and though they could sense the room was larger than the one holding KM-426, only inky shadows peered back at them. “Screw this,” said Elbert, as he began feeling his hand around the inside wall.

Finding the switch, he flipped it up with no real expectations. Surprisingly however, there was a short buzzing sound before a naked bulb in the ceiling flickered to life, drenching the room in a soft yellow hue. Inside, several industrial-sized metal shelving units stood stoically against the walls, their shelves empty save for a thick coating of gray dust. In the corner, a collection of worn-out brooms was leaned against the wall, their straw bristles long ago having been nibbled short by the resident mice. The rest of the sizeable room was vacant, and anything of use or value had likely been cleaned out when the depot closed down.   

“Shit,” said Abner dejectedly as they stepped inside, “it’s just an empty storage room.”

Elbert was quiet for a moment and then said, “shh, hang on—do you feel that?” He cocked his head to the side as he lifted his hand in the air. “It’ a draft.” He searched between the shelves, waving his hand around as if he were trying to feel for something that he couldn’t see. Abner only stood there watching, a confused look on his face.

“Here,” he called from the opposite corner of the room, still holding his hand in the air, “look!”

In the ceiling above his head, a crude trap-door had been installed over a rectangular opening not much larger than person.

“What is it,” asked Abner as he shut the door to the room and hurried over.

“It looks like some sort of a chute, like a dumb-waiter or something. They probably used it to lower stuff down into the basement rather than take the stairs. It doesn’t matter, right now it’s our only chance out of here.”

Elbert reached up towards the trap-door but the hasp was just beyond range, and his fingers barely grazed the metal. He tried standing on his toes to get as tall as possible—stretching his arm until his shoulder-socket strained—but it was no use. After he began jumping up and swinging wildly at the latch, Abner put his hand on him and said, “here, let me try.”

He was only an inch taller than Elbert, but it was just enough for his fingers to reach the latch. As he swayed back and forth on his toes, he pressed against the aged metal with his fingertips but it was frozen hard with rust. He grunted loudly as he leaned what little weight he could into the hasp, but it still wouldn’t move. Exhausted, he dropped back down flat-footed with an angry huff. “It’s stuck,” he said, “I can’t get it.”   

“Wait, help me move this closer,” said Elbert as he rushed over to one of the big metal shelves. If they could use the shelving unit as a ladder, he reasoned, they might be able to climb out before the men can find them. The boys got on opposite ends and tried to lift the heavy metal unit, but it didn’t even so much as budge. They were both grunting while they jerked and tugged, but it held fast in place. Crouching down, Elbert looked under the unit and growled in frustration. “Damn it, it’s bolted to the dang floor!”  

Abner just leaned back against the wall and slid to the ground, his chin resting on his chest. Further down the hallway, they could hear the tall man alternately shouting at the two strangers and then to his creations; imploring one group to wait and the other to settle down. Not willing to quit, an idea suddenly came to Elbert and he sprang to his feet. “Hey, come over here, hurry up.”

He raced back over to the trap door and dropped down onto his hands and knees. “Stand on my back,” he said urgently.

Abner climbed on top of his back, wobbling as he struggled to keep his balance. From the floor below, Elbert asked, “can you reach it now?” Abner’s boots began to dig and bite into his shoulder, and he had to grit his teeth to keep from crying out in pain.

Abner grabbed ahold of the rusty latch and finally pried the hasp apart. The door immediately swung down, showering them both with years of accumulated dust and bird droppings. He hopped down off his back, coughing as he brushed dust from his hair. When the cloud dispersed, they gazed up through the hole in the ceiling with relief as they felt the cool breeze on their face: there, far above, they could finally see the tin roof of the depot building.

Elbert wasted no time basking in the modest victory, however. “Okay, now you climb up. Then when you get up there, find something to lower back down to me.”

Abner glanced over at the closed door: outside in the hallway, the noise had begun to die down. Now, only intermittent banging could be heard amongst a staccato of half-hearted cries. When he turned back to face Elbert, he looked exhausted and the color had drained from his face. “It’s no use, we won’t make it—they’ll be here any second. We’re going to die down here; I knew it.” His voice had begun to falter and the last few words came out in a trembling whisper.

Elbert grabbed him firmly by the shoulders and looked into his eyes as they began to well up with tears, “no, hey—listen to me, we’re not. We’re not going to die down here. When you get up there, I need you to find something to lower back down to me; a rope, a board, a pole, anything. You understand me? Say it back to me so I know.”

Abner took a deep breath and shook his head to clear his mind. He swallowed hard and, when he finally spoke, there was only a shadow of the old friend that Elbert remembered. “I-I’m going to find something, and then I’m going to lower it back down to you, Elbert.” He was nodding slowly, and Elbert briefly searched his eyes for sincerity before nodding his own head in reply.

“Okay then. Come on, hurry up.” Dropping back down onto his hands and knees beneath the chute, he looked up at his friend and nodded curtly one time. Abner stepped onto his back and began climbing up into the chute as far as he could, but the smooth interior walls left nothing to hold onto. He knew that if he could just grab the upper rim then he could pull himself up, but it was still just beyond his reach.

“I need to get up a little higher,” he said, grunting as more dust rained down on Elbert.

Struggling to maintain his position on his hands and knees, Elbert said, “okay, move closer to my shoulders.” Once Abner did so, Elbert growled with exertion as he started to rise up, arching his back carefully to keep Abner from falling. Seeing dizzying stars, it felt as though his hamstrings and tailbone were going to explode. His knees started to buckle painfully inward as flecks of spittle flew out of his lips. Just as he was about to collapse from the effort though, Abner excitedly cried out, “I got it!”

Immediately, the pressure lifted off his back as Abner’s feet wiggled and kicked further up into the chute. When he finally reached the top, Abner pulled himself over the edge and called back down triumphantly, “I’m up!”

“Good! Now look around; there’s got to be—” Elbert stopped mid-sentence and looked over at the door as his eyes narrowed. He could hear the men still talking excitedly in the distance, but their muffled voices now sounded more in agreement, and there was no longer any screeching and banging from behind the doors.

“What is it?” called Abner down from above.

“Just hurry up and find something,” said Elbert without taking his eyes away from the door. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“Wait—what? Where are you going? No, just wait there, let me find something.”  There was panic in his voice again, and Elbert looked up at him sharply.

“If I stay, we’re both dead. Find something and lower it back down. If you don’t see me again in five minutes, or you hear something bad, get the hell out of here. Get back to town and bring whatever help you can find.”

“’Bert, no, wait—”

“Do it!” he quickly shot back up at him. “Do it or nobody will ever know what’s going on down here. They have to know, and you have to tell them, Abner.” Looking up at his terrified friend with tears streaking down his dirty face, his expression softened, and he said more gently, “don’t worry, I don’t plan on dying down here. Now go. Find me something to climb up. I’ll be back as fast as I can.” And with that, he trotted off, disappearing from Abner’s view.          

*****

Part: VIII

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Are you on Instagram? If so, be sure to find me at The Written Revolt© where I post daily updates along with photos, (most of the pictures are by other—insanely talented—artists). From all around the globe, I love and appreciate each and every fan of my stories. Without you, the darkness would be far too lonely—even for me.

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The Sigbee Depot, (Part: VI of VIII)

As the man passed back through the intersection, Abner watched the glow from his lantern overpower the weak light bulb overhead. Moments ago, he’d been mortified as he was forced to listen to the commotion at the other end of the hallway, breaking into a nauseated cold sweat at the thought of what could be happening to Elbert. The lantern light quickly faded away, and a short time later the door at the top of the stairs closed, plunging the basement into eerie silence once again.  

What did that son a bitch just do down there? he thought to himself, his fear and guilt turning to anger. 

Frustrated, he slammed his shoulder into the large pipe that was trapping his foot. There was a sharp pang of pain, but—to his surprise—the pipe wiggled to the side a little before settling back into place with the sound of crunching dirt. Momentarily dumbfounded, he sat there in the dim light and looked at the pipe. Tentatively, he leaned his shoulder against the rusty metal and rocked back before quickly slamming forward again. Another jolt of pain shot through his arm as a shower of dirt and dust rained down onto his head—but the pipe had moved even more than the first time.

*****

Elbert stayed crouched in his hiding spot for several minutes after the man in the lab coat had left. The apparatus was still on, recording the vital data, and the screen illuminated the room with its pulsing green light. Only a few yards away on the hospital bed, he could hear KM-426’s slow, sedated breathing, and the raspy exhales softly reverberated off the walls around him. On top of the machine, the ink-needle continued to swing back and forth across the paper, scratching with its familiar dutiful enthusiasm.

He’d only gone down into the basement to find Abner, afraid that his friend would get in over his head as he normally did, but now he was the one who needed help. Crawling out from behind the machine, he carefully walked to the middle of the room, watching the sleeping creature for any movement. He needed to find a way out of the room, and ideally before the man returned. At the same time though, he also wanted to learn what was happening at the depot—certain that nobody in town was aware of the late night laboratory.  

The tall man in the lab coat had taken most of the papers with him when he’d left, and now only a couple of sheets lay scattered on the tabletop. Picking them up, Elbert held them to the screen’s green light in order to read, but the writing was too feint to make out the words. He briefly considered flipping on the light switch—as the man had done earlier—but the last thing he wanted was to wake the wretched monster on the bed beside him.   

Putting the papers back down where he found them, he continued to search the table for clues: a can of lantern fuel, some matches, discarded syringe needles, a couple of half-worn pencils—but nothing surrendered to his curiosity. It’s not here, he thought to himself as he looked around at the cryptic machines, whatever and wherever the answer is, it isn’t here.

Just then, the rhythmic breathing under the bed sheet halted momentarily before resuming again, deeper and more deliberately, as though each breath were a conscious decision. Shit— he thought with dread as the bottom of his gut dropped away. Remembering what the man had said about not responding to the first injection, Elbert suddenly wondered just how long the medicine would continue to last.

Backing away from the table slowly, he could hear the restraining straps begin to groan under tension as each new deep breath stretched them tighter. He didn’t dare to make a sound for fear of drawing attention to himself, watching the bed in mute horror instead as the room again began to fill with the same gagging stench as earlier.

Under the sheet, the breathing began to sound like a low-pitched snarl, growing louder as the fabric sucked against the snout before puffing back out like a ghostly bubble. The needle in the corner began to increase its tempo, pausing less and less at each end as the scratching paper bore testimony to the horrifying reality: KM-426 was waking up.

The metal bedframe creaked loudly as the beast tested the straps, flexing its enormous muscles under the thin sheet. Elbert could feel icy panic creeping up his spine as the snarled breath grew more determined. The smell was almost too much to endure and he pulled his shirt over his nose to staunch the rotten odor. The needle was swinging back and forth wildly as the green line jerked up and down on the monitor in a frenzy.

Elbert hastily searched the room for somewhere to go but his original hiding spot was still the only place that he could find—and he didn’t think it would take the creature long to notice him there. On the bed, the snarling grew louder, and he watched as a large wet spot appeared on the sheet over the freakish head while the enclosed room began to thunder with the noise.

Desperate to do something, Elbert racked his brain for ideas. Suddenly remembering the man’s earlier examination of KM-426, he tried the only thing that would come to his panicked mind:

“Eh… err…,” he began to say, his own voice sounding strangely unfamiliar in the room. “En…, en—entspannen! Yeah—entspannen,” he said in a trembling voice that he prayed sounded as calm as the man’s had been. KM-426 was still growling noisily though, so he repeated the same word a couple of times, louder with each try.

To his surprise, the boisterous growling abruptly stopped, and the sheet laid motionless on the bed. Astonished, he thought to himself, could it really be that simple? Just as he had been about to congratulate himself for his quick thinking under pressure though, the rollers on heavy wooden door suddenly began to squeal.     

Shit— he thought as he raced back over to his hiding spot, wiggling feet-first back behind the machine, this nightmare won’t ever end. Wake up, Elbert. Wake up!

He pressed his eyes closed as hard as he could as the door banged to a halt, but he wasn’t dreaming. When he opened them again, he was perplexed to see the green haze still filling the room. Where’s his lantern… he wondered as he waited for the man to enter. Oddly however, there was no movement, and the scratching needle was the only sound in the darkness.

Then, from within the shadows, he heard his name.

“’Bert?” whispered Abner cautiously from the doorway of the room.

 Recognizing his friends voice, Elbert let out a loud involuntary sigh of relief. “Oh thank god, Abner!” He quickly crawled out from behind the machine and the two boys spontaneously hugged. “I thought I’d never see you again. How’d you get the door open?” he asked.

“What do you mean? It wasn’t locked. I saw the green light underneath but I wasn’t sure until I heard your voice, ” said Abner. He dropped his eyes, “look, I’m real sorry. You were right, we shouldn’t have come down here. I know this is my fault. I never should have drug you into this mess, and I promise—I’m going to make it up to you one day.”

At first, Elbert didn’t know what to say. He’d never heard a genuine apology from Abner before, and for a moment he wondered just what had happened to him while they’d been separated. An awkward silence hung in the air until he softly cleared his throat. 

“I can’t believe I didn’t even try the door,” he said quietly, almost to himself. He knew Abner was sorry, there was no need to make him feel any worse. He looked at his friend’s green-lit face and said, “It doesn’t matter, no one made me follow you down here. Besides, you were right too.” Turning to the side, he swung his arm in a swooping gesture towards the bed, revealing the hulking mound still lying motionless beneath the sheet.  

Abner squinted in the darkness as he slowly walked closer, stopping just before the bed. “I heard these all up and down the hall. They were trying to get out—to get to me. What are they?”

Emboldened by the reunion, Elbert wordlessly leaned forward and drew the bedsheet down, exposing the beast’s giant head. Even in the dim light, Abner could see the grotesque features as the onyx-black eyes stared vacantly up at the ceiling. Gasping quietly, his hand involuntarily flew over mouth to stifle a cry.

“I’m not really sure,” said Elbert, tilting his head to the side as he studied the monster. “The man called this one KM-426, but that doesn’t mean anything. I think he’s creating them somehow. He’s trying to make it so he can control them—like, so they obey him.”

On the bed, the creature continued its deep, inhuman breathing, and the air made a low whistling noise as it passed through the cage of pointy teeth. Thick liquid had been slowly oozing out of the ragged ear hole—forming a gelatinous puddle on the mattress below—and the stench of rotten meat grew more and more revolting.  

“But why, I wonder,” said Abner, thinking aloud as he studied the beast with a frightened fascination. After a moment, he couldn’t withstand the smell anymore, and he pulled his shirt over his nose.  

“I dunno. If it’s the government, I’d say Korea I guess. But this sure as heck ain’t a government lab.” Turning away from the beast, he looked at Abner and said, “that only leaves a few other possibilities, and all of them mean we need to get out of here—and fast.”

Holding his breath, Elbert gingerly drew the bedsheet back over the monster’s head, careful to keep his hands clear of the mouth and its rows of sharp teeth. Then, just as the sheet was about to cover the hideous face, the empty black eyes quickly turned and met his own.

Elbert froze, unsure of what to do next. The monster didn’t make a sound or try to move, and they stayed locked eye-to-eye for what seemed like an eternity. To his surprise though, Elbert didn’t feel the terror that he would normally expect of himself, if any such circumstance could be conceived. Oddly overcome with courage, he stared deeper into the glossy abyss’ just inches away. As he did, he became certain that KM-426 wasn’t looking at him with malice or rage. It was almost a look of…

Pity, he thought to himself, it’s not angry, it’s sad.

“Let’s go,” whispered Abner impatiently from the doorway.

Elbert didn’t immediately turn away, feeling as if the black eyes were trying desperately to communicate something to him. There were no answers to be found in them though, only more questions, so with an almost apologetic look, he slowly finished covering the horrific face with the sheet. “Alright,” he said with a hint of inexplicable sadness, “let’s get out of here.”

*****

Outside in the hallway, Elbert rolled the door shut, choking off the green light until they were once again cloaked in darkness. “Is there any way out of here other than back down that hall?”

“I don’t think so,” answered Abner, slowly shaking his head in the darkness.

“Okay, well then here goes nothing.” Leading the way, Elbert walked back towards the light at the intersection, feeling better with every step that took him away from the monster in the room. He paused just before the turn and listened for the man down the other hall. Not hearing any footsteps, he whispered, “let’s go,” and slipped around the corner with Abner in tow.

Down the main hallway, only an eerie silence emanated from behind the other heavy wood doors. As they crept forward—now cautious of both the tall man and what was penned-up in the little rooms—they tried their best to avoid making any noise. Soon they made it to the midway point and, as the stairs came into view, they began to move faster. When they reached the bottom of the steps, Elbert started to think that they might actually make it out of the basement—then the door up top swung open.

The two boys just froze like a pair of animals caught in the headlights: there at the top of the stairs was not only the tall man—lantern still in hand—but now he’d been joined by two other men as well. The tall man had been saying something as they walked through the doorway but he stopped mid-sentence when they saw the boys. Caught off guard, the trio halted dead in their tracks, staring back down the steps in mutual surprise.

*****

Part: VII

Part: VIII

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The Sigbee Depot, (Part: V of VIII)

Elbert paused in the intersection at the end of the hallway, wondering which direction Abner might have taken. Overhead, the naked light bulb only managed to cast an anemic glow a dozen feet in either direction, and the inky darkness consumed the basement beyond where he stood. Taking a deep breath to calm his nerves, he could taste the musty earth as stagnant air filled his lungs.      

He was just about to turn left when something that he hadn’t noticed down the hallway to the right caught his eye: a hundred feet further back into the shadows along the left wall, an ethereal green light spilled out from one of the rooms. While the hazy emerald glow wasn’t bright enough to illuminate the hall, it was still obvious to Elbert that there was an open door down there.

That’s probably as good a place to start as any, he said to himself. Of course, he might have missed the green light like I did and gone left instead… damn it, Abner—where are you?  

But before he could decide, the door at the top of the stairs opened before noisily shutting again. Elbert’s stomach sank and—without thinking—he quickly ducked out of the intersection, slipping around the corner to the right. With his back pressed against the brick wall, he could hardly hear the man’s footfalls as he descended the wooden steps into the basement over the pounding of his own heart.

He glanced back across the intersection—briefly wondering if he might have missed something in that direction as well—before turning back towards the green-lit room. Well, that settles that, he thought to himself. He couldn’t make it back through the intersection without being seen, and the longer he waited, the closer the man got.

With no time or options, Elbert raced into the darkness of the hallway towards the green light, cautiously holding out his hands for any unseen obstacles. Reaching the doorway, he rushed into the room without slowing down—and then froze dead in his tracks.  

Inside, the room wasn’t much larger than his own bedroom at home, and most of the space was occupied by large medical-looking machines set against the walls. One of them, a tall, boxy machine sitting in the corner, had a rounded glass screen on its front like a miniature television, glowing with electric green light.

On the screen, a thin line bounced up and down, leaving a wake of jagged, pointy peaks and valleys behind. Atop the machine, a small roll of paper was unspooling into a metal tray while an ink-needle scratched back and forth, erratically tracing an identical zig-zagging line to the one on the screen.

Elbert heard the man’s footsteps out in the hallway as he frantically looked around the room for somewhere to hide. Seeing a darkened space behind the boxy machine in the corner, he hoped for the best and rushed over. Quickly wiggling backwards into the impromptu hiding spot, his eyes locked onto something large rolled against the far wall sandwiched in-between a pair of smaller, dormant machines.

It was difficult to see inside the dimly lit room, but he was almost certain that he was looking at a type of metal bed—like he had seen in the hospital a couple of years prior when his Aunt Clara had needed hip surgery after losing her balance and falling from her front porch.

Elbert’s mother had forced him to spend a week’s worth of afternoons in the hospital sitting at her bedside while she convalesced, and he could tell that this bed was similar: a thick metal frame mounted on four small wheels, it could be manipulated into different positions as needed.

On top of the mattress, a dirty white sheet lay draped over a hulking mound. The mound was so large and misshapen that at first, Elbert just assumed it was more equipment for the lab—then his heart stopped as he watched the lump slowly rise and fall with the barely perceptible movement of respiration.

What the—, he thought with alarm as he watched the sheet quietly move.     

Just as Elbert’s brain began to make sense of what he was seeing, the man walked through the doorway with the hissing lantern, filling the room with harsh white light that burned his eyes. As he sank lower into the shadows of his hiding place, the man set the lantern on a small table before turning the dial on the front, diming the globe until it went out completely. For a moment, the green screen was again the only source of light in the room until he walked over and flipped a switch on the wall, and a pair of short fluorescent bulbs sputtered to life overhead.

*****

Abner strained to listen further down the adjacent hallway but there was only the sound of dripping water, echoing in the dark. If he was right, and the first person that he’d heard pass through the intersection had been Elbert, then the second had definitely been the tall man. That meant that while he stayed wedged behind the pipes, they were down that basement wing together—and there was nowhere for Elbert to escape.

The pain and tingling in his legs had stopped a few minutes prior, and now there was hardly any sensation left in them at all. He feebly tugged on his stuck ankle once more, but his strength was ebbing and he could barely mount the effort.

Frustrated and scared, he leaned his forehead against the old rusty pipe and began to sob quietly in the dark. Fat tears dropped from his eyes and landed on his folded knee before soaking into the dirty blue denim.

I should have listened to Bert, he lamented to himself in the dark, now look what I’ve done; me and my best friend, trapped down here with some crazy scientist or doctor—and whatever the hell is in those rooms. Idiot, I am such an idiot.

The last time Abner had been inside of a church had been at his own baptism seventeen years earlier. While his parents were professed Christians, they weren’t practicing ones, or even very good ones for that matter. The baptism itself might never have come about had it not been for his maternal grandmother storming down from Atlanta and—in her insistent, southern-matronly way—declaring that Abner would indeed be washed in the blood of the lamb, or she’d know why.

Since then, Abner had always wrestled with the idea of God, reluctant to commit to such an obstinate lifestyle without definitive proof. In a town like Sigbee however, it didn’t pay to voice your doubts about the almighty, and so he’d always kept his skepticisms to himself. Now though, desperately stuck in the dark recess behind the pipes in the basement of the depot, Abner began to pray.

*****

The tall man stood at the table next to the hospital bed shuffling through a few loose sheets of paper. As he scanned the pages, he casually walked over to a small machine on the far wall and pushed a red button on the front. When he did, a soft whirring noise started as a pair of large audio tape reels began to spin clockwise.

“The date is still May 10th, 1952 and the time is now twenty-three thirty-five,” the man began in a clinical tone. “So far, subject KM-426 is responding as the others have. Heart rate and breathing are slightly elevated, but normal. Brain function appears to be present and within the target minimum.”

He spoke with the cool indifference of a professional, and Elbert could hear a heavy accent in his voice. He thought it might be European, but the only European people he’d ever heard speak before were at the picture shows—and they weren’t even actual Europeans.

The man set the papers down on the table and walked over to the bed against the wall. He gently lifted the sheet away from the head and slowly pulled it down towards the foot of the bed. When Elbert saw what was underneath, bile rose in the back of his throat and he had to muffle a frightened gasp.

There on the hospital bed was the most grotesque creature that Elbert had ever seen. Although nearly twice the size as normal, the body had the basic shape of a human,: two arms, two legs, a torso, something of a head, and yet nothing about it seemed human to Elbert.

Completely naked, wispy black hair covered the entire body—too sparse to conceal the thick veins throbbing overtop bulky muscles. Looking at the three wide straps restraining the beast, Elbert feared that they might not be enough if it decided to try and get up.

Beneath coal black eyes that stared vacantly up to the florescent lights, the creature’s nose and mouth formed a stubby, pseudo-muzzle that protruded out from the face a few inches. Elbert realized for the first time that the thing had no ears on its head—only a slimy red gash where an ear would normally be found. Had it not been for the slow rising of its chest, he might have assumed it was already dead—or at least very near death.

With the bedsheet pulled back, the overhead lights bore down into the empty black eyes until—slowly at first—its head began to rock back and forth. The room began to fill with a pungent stench that reminded Elbert of a combination of the deer that would sometimes get hit on the highway by his house—rotting under the hot sun for days—and horrible body odor. The man calmly studied the creature for a moment and then continued:

“Like the others, KM-426 responds negatively to any light stimuli, and I suspect his ability to see in total darkness is equally proficient if not more so.” The man reached forward and gently lifted the ragged flap of skin that served as the creatures upper lip, exposing two rows of long, needle-like teeth. “The gums appear healthy—,” the monster snapped its jaws at the man’s fingers with lightning speed, and the crack of the clenching teeth echoed out into the hallway. Experienced with this sort of thing however, the man quickly jerked his hand back before casually returning to the table as the beast laid its head back down.

“KM-426 still does not recognize me,” the man continued, talking to the recording machine, “and, like the others, I suspect that I’ll have no actual control over him. By all accounts however, 426 is a very capable killing machine, perhaps our best one yet. Strong, fast, able to see in the pitch-dark—blood-thirsty. Yet I still can’t get them to remember who I am.”

The man bent down and peered over into the bloody ear hole and said, “I’ll conduct more thorough auditory tests tomorrow, but it appears as if 426’s cochlear transplant was a success, and he should hear as well—if not better—than his predecessors.”   

On the bed, KM-426 was growing agitated, and a wet, throaty growl arose from the snout as it continued to rock its massive head slowly from side to side.

Entspannen,” the man murmured softly as he shuffled through more papers on the table. But if his attempts to mollify the beast had worked in the past, they didn’t seem to be working now, and the giant head began to shake more deliberately. Holding his breath in a mixture of fascination and terror, Elbert watched as it started to move its shoulders up and down as though it were trying to free an arm from the bindings.

With strong, hairy fingers, the beast opened and closed his hand repeatedly and Elbert could hear the sinister blade-like nails as they buried deep into its own flesh with a sickening ‘squishing’ sound. Soon, a stream of thick, dark fluid was slowly oozing from the clenched fist and onto the bed.

The man tossed the papers down on the table and walked back over as KM-426 continued to buck and thrash—so forcefully now that the bed jerked into the air with each new attempt. Wordlessly, he took a syringe from the top pocket of his lab coat and held it up to the light. Satisfied, in one fluid motion he swooped the needle down and poked it into the creature’s upper arm before pressing the plunger down.

The man stepped back to wait for the injection to work as the brute continued to strain and shudder under the straps. Elbert could hear the ink-needle on top of the machine start to scratch back and forth wildly across the paper, going faster and faster as the beast struggled.

After a minute with no change, the man furrowed his brow and pursed his lips before extracting another needle from his lab coat as 426 began to cry out in a warbled, high-pitched scream. Hiding behind the large machine, Elbert pressed his hands over his ears to lessen the pain of the noise, but it seemed to go straight through them.

“Interesting,” the man said loudly over the commotion as he held the syringe up to the light like he did the first, “30 cc’s of ‘Infirmiticol’ is normally enough to render a subject near-comatose—but there doesn’t appear to be any effect at all on KM-426.” As the screaming continued, he poked the fresh needle into the same bouncing arm and pushed the plunger down before pulling it out and tossing the spent syringe onto the table with a sigh.

Almost instantly, the thrashing began to subside as the pen above Elbert’s head swung slower and slower, eventually returning to its normal steady rhythm. “60 cc’s of ‘Infirmiticol’ succeeded in returning KM-426 to a sedated state,” the man said with a hint of amazement, “that’s more than double the amount ever needed in the past.”

The man stood there, patiently looking down at his creation with a puzzled and hurt look on his face and Elbert didn’t know if it was professional or personal, but he had his suspicions..

“You’re getting bigger. You’re getting stronger. You can see better in pitch darkness than any other animal on earth and hear a cough from four kilometers away. You’re a damned walking nightmare—a killing machine… so why won’t you listen to me?”

Even resting quietly on the hospital bed, KM-426 was a revolting mass of dark hair, large muscles, and fearsome weaponry, so Elbert was grateful when the man tenderly pulled the sheet back over top, concealing the horrible animal again. After switching off the recording machine, the man took a pack of matches from his pants pocket and lit his lantern again.

Elbert would wait until he left and—after giving him some time to walk away—try to find Abner so they could get out of there. As the man flipped off the light switch on his way out however, Elbert heard a noise that made the blood freeze in his veins: the strained squealing of the pocket door rolling closed. Paralyzed, he couldn’t do anything but sit there and listen as he was shut inside alone with KM-426.

*****

Part: VI

Part: VII

Part: VIII

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The Sigbee Depot, (Part: IV of VIII)

Abner slowly walked down the dark hallway towards the light at the far end. He listened as he passed each door, but the only sounds he heard were the distant hum of the generator upstairs and water dripping into a puddle somewhere further up ahead.

When he was halfway down the hall, he stopped in the dim light to examine one of the large tarnished brass locks hanging from a door. Lifting it away from the wall, it was much heavier than any he’d seen before, and he tested its weight in his hand for a moment. On the bottom, instead of the normal slot for a key, there was a square hole, and he tried to picture what any such key would look like. There were no markings or numbers anywhere on the lock, and he wondered where it had been purchased—certainly not in Sigbee’s little hardware store.

The door itself was what his mother always called a pocket-door: mounted on overhead rollers, when opened, it receded into the wall without taking up any space. Constructed of thick, solid wood planks fastened together in a metal frame, Abner guessed the door weighed more than he did.

He was still holding the strange lock in his hand when he heard the now familiar thud coming from the building’s front door. Glancing quickly at the stairs, he dropped the lock, letting it fall back against the door with a sharp crack that echoed down the hallway.

Suddenly, the heavy wooden door sprang to life, crashing against its frame with such force that fine particles of dust blew into Abner’s face. The planks shuddered and trembled as someone or something thrashed and pounded from the other side in a frenzy to break through. Shocked, Abner let out a cry and began to back away, staring wide-eyed at the door as it shook under the fusillade of blows.

As he backed into the middle of the hallway, a high pitched wail rose from beyond the door. To Abner, it sounded like a cry of mixed rage and desperation, and the piercing howl—partly muffled by the door—made the hair on his neck stand up. He put his hands over his ears as he continued to retreat, blindly backpedaling until he bumped into the opposite door on the wall behind him.

When his head hit the thick wood, white light flashed in his eyes and he had to lean back against the door to steady himself. Before he could recover though, the door was struck from the other side, crashing and rattling so hard that its own heavy brass lock jerked skyward. For a terrifying moment, Abner was afraid it would crash inward as he leaned back. Pushing away from the door, he scrambled back into the middle of the hallway.

As he looked around desperately for somewhere to hide, the banging abruptly stopped. The darkened hallway went silent for a moment before a nearly identical wail arose from beyond the door, even louder and more tortured than the first. Then, like a wildfire consuming a swath of forest, soon the entire length of the hallway was a cacophony of the thick wooden doors slamming hard against their frames and the inhuman screams coming from the rooms beyond.

Abner knew that the man in the dirty white lab coat would be coming down the stairs at any second so—as there was no other way to go—he raced further down the long hallway. Reaching the lone light at the end, he saw that the hall actually ended at a T-intersection. He quickly looked left and right down both new routes, but each was a dark abyss beyond the limited range of the anemic lightbulb overhead. For no particular reason, he turned left and ran around the corner just as he heard the stairwell door open at the other end of the hall.  

*****

Elbert stood next to the truck with his fingers still resting on the silver door handle. As he peered across the moonlit vegetation towards the Sigbee Depot, he brooded over how much he didn’t want to go back down there to find Abner. In fact, what he wanted was to go home and never come back to this place again. All he would need to do is walk a little further out to the main highway and then catch a ride back into town with the next passing car.

If the prospect of landing into hot water with his parents—or the cops—weren’t reason enough to leave, the creepy man with the lantern was plenty convincing to Elbert that they shouldn’t be there. Whoever the man was, and whatever he was doing, he clearly didn’t want anyone else knowing.

Elbert had every reason to believe that the man could be dangerous. There might even be other people there with him, people inside the buildings that the two boys hadn’t seen. For all he knew, whoever was in there may even have ways of knowing when trespassers were snooping around, and…

Settle down, he told himself, you’re getting all worked up over nothing. You’d know it if Abner had been caught, he’s got the biggest mouth in Georgia.  

Looking towards where the depot stood in the darkness, he strained to see anything that might offer a clue as to where his friend was, but the night surrendered nothing. Damn you, Abner, he thought to himself, you’re going to get us both killed one day.

With a deep sigh of resignation, he let go of the door handle. With any luck, he would run into him somewhere in the brush and be spared having to return all the way to the depot. Elbert tucked the keys back under the gas cap and returned to the bushes.

*****

Abner pressed up tight against the wall just around the corner of the hallway as whatever was being held behind the doors continued to fill the basement with their unnerving screeching. As his heart drummed loudly in his chest, he heard the man bang on a door at the other end of the hall and shout something in a strange language. Abner listened as the man went door to door, pounding on the wooden planks and yelling the curt foreign words at the other side.

After a few moments, the screaming and pounding died down before finally stopping altogether, replaced by the steady hum of the generator above. Abner could hear the man’s footsteps approaching in the empty hallway and he knew that he only had moments left to hide. Racing a short distance into the darkness, he found a shallow recess in the wall where a pair of large steel pipes extended up into the ceiling. Squeezing into the recess behind the pipes, he slid down to the floor to make himself as small as possible.

His heart was pounding in his chest as the footsteps came closer. He suddenly felt incredibly exposed, certain that as soon as the man came around the corner, he would spot him. The footsteps seemed to echo unnaturally loud as the man reached the end of the hall—now close enough to again smell the combined aroma of cigarettes and medicine—and then stopped.

The seconds ticked by like hours as Abner waited to discover which direction—left or right—the man was going to take. If he came left, he was almost guaranteed to see Abner crouched in the recess behind the pipes. If he did—there would be nowhere for Abner to run.

Thankfully, the tall man turned right, and Abner breathed a sigh of relief as he heard his footsteps recede down the other hall. He knew he wouldn’t have very long before the man returned, and he went to stand up in order to sneak away while he was gone. When he tried to get up however, he found that he couldn’t move as his foot was tightly wedged in between the wall and one of the pipes.

Apparently, when he had quickly crouched down in the recess, he put enough weight on the foot to jam it in place, but now—so low to the floor—he couldn’t exert enough force upward to prize it loose. A cold flash of panic washed over him as he frantically pulled on his ankle, but it wouldn’t budge.

 He tried twisting to adjust his seating for more leverage, but there was no extra space between the wall and the pipe. He strained until his eyes watered and it felt as if his ankle would break, but his foot still held fast. Exhausted and scared, he slumped back against the wall.

*****

Elbert made it back to the depot in time to see the tall man, still carrying his lantern, walk back into the main building where Abner had gone. He crouched in the bushes and considered what to do next. He couldn’t go inside, not now that the man had returned. Disheartened, all he could do was hope Abner had heard him coming with enough time to hide.  

He decided to sneak back around to the front of the building to see if he could hear anything from inside; with luck, Abner would manage to sneak back out without being seen. Clouds had begun to move in, and the pale light from the moon ebbed and flowed as they traversed the sky.

Across from the depot building, Elbert found a large bush beside the train tracks and slid underneath the leafy branches to wait. He could still hear the generator humming inside the building, but otherwise the only sounds were the crickets that shared the bushes with him.

He lost track of just how long he had been watching the door when it finally opened with a flourish. To his relief, the thin man didn’t act as though anything were out of the ordinary, and he began his all-too-familiar loping walk back to the smaller building on the edge of the depot yard. Elbert watched as the man walked around the side of the building and disappeared, and the yard was again bathed in darkness.

Leaving his bush, Elbert scrambled to the door in a crouched run. He glanced back once more to the smaller building and then went inside. Like Abner before him, the bright light and generator noise was disorientating, and it took him a moment to get his bearings.

He looked around the large open room with confusion; there didn’t appear to be anywhere for Abner to have gone.

“Abner—” he whispered loudly, but there was no response. Damn it, he thought to himself, looking around. He spotted the path worn through the dust on the floor and followed it to the small room. Putting his hand gently on the handle, he listened for any sounds from the other side.

When he heard nothing, he opened the door and quickly stepped through, closing it behind him. Standing at the top of the stairs, he decided against calling down for Abner; he didn’t know where, or even if, he was down there—nor did he know if he was alone. He descended the steps as quietly as he could, looking back and forth from the door behind him to the hallway to his front.

 At the bottom of the steps he saw the doors lining both walls leading into the darkness before reaching the lone light at the far end. Walking softly down the hall, he listened to the generator humming upstairs. Other than water slowly dripping into a puddle somewhere, the hallway was as silent as a crypt.

*****

Abner thought he heard a door close in the distance, but he couldn’t be sure. He remained as still as possible in order to listen, but his heart was pounding too loudly in his chest and all he could hear was its rhythmic thumping. The tall man had left only a few minutes ago—walking by close enough to smell again—and Abner didn’t expect him to be back so soon.

In the darkness behind the pipes, once again he again pulled hard on his ankle but it still wouldn’t come loose. His legs had been bent tightly for so long now that it was as if his muscles had gone completely dead. He knew that the man in the lab coat would be back before long, and he swallowed hard to fight down the panic. With a frustrated grunt, he stopped pulling on his foot.

Sagging back against the wall, he heard a noise in the hallway and he was certain this time that it had been footsteps. Like before, the man stopped at the end of the hall just out of sight and Abner held his breath again in fear of being found.

To his surprise however, the door at the top of the stairs suddenly opened again—definitively this time—and he heard the man closest to him scurry around the corner to the right. While Abner still couldn’t see him, he could hear his quick breathing at the start of the other hall.

Wait—who the hell is that? he wondered to himself, though he already knew the answer.     

*****

Part: V

Part: VI

Part: VII

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The Sigbee Depot, (Part: II of VIII)

Abner and Elbert lay motionless on the ground, straining to see into the dark clearing along the train tracks. They were tucked into the last few remaining bushes and skinny trees just before the Sigbee railroad depot, where they had watched the light bobbing from the roadway. A handful of buildings thirty feet in front of them made inky voids in the starry night sky, but otherwise it was difficult to see what remained of the small complex.  

“This is close enough,” whispered Elbert from halfway under the bush beside his friend. The breeze had picked up and the night air was filled with the rustling of leaves high in the treetops. “There’s nothing between here and those buildings,” he said, “we can’t get any closer without being seen.”

Abner leaned closer and whispered, “I can’t even tell if this is where the light was. Stop worrying, we can still get a little closer be—” his friend cut him off with a hiss and he froze mid-sentence. Turning to follow Elbert’s gaze, he watched the small white light materialize from behind the furthest building.  

Now, so close, they could see that the light had been coming from a small lantern as it swung lazily in the hand of a tall, thin man. The little glass globe cast a hazy glow on the ground, and only the lower half of the man was visible in the dim light. As he walked to the adjacent building—which happened to be the one directly in front of them—they could see he had on dark slacks and what appeared to be a dirty white lab coat.

They were too far away for the tall man to spot them, but when he opened the door to the building the boys could hear a low humming sound before it closed quickly behind him. Elbert waited to be sure no one was coming behind the man before he whispered, “let’s get the hell out of here.”

“Hang on,” whispered back Abner, “did you see that? A lab coat—I told you so. What in the world is he doing way out here? And in the middle of the night. You don’t even see anyone out here during the day—ever.”

Elbert was growing more impatient and he couldn’t hide the fear in his voice. “Yes, I saw it,” he said, “whatever he’s doing, it can’t be good. You wanted to find out what the light was, well now we know—it’s a lantern being carried by some guy doing some weird shit in the middle of the night, and in the middle of nowhere—now let’s go.”

“Just wait, we’re fine. Besides, if he knew we were here, he’d already have busted us. And how can you just crawl away now? He might be up to something bad. You want to just run away because it’s a little scary?”

“Yes!” whispered Elbert without hesitating. He heard Abner scoff under his breath in the darkness. “What?” he asked, insulted, “if you’re so damn worried, then when we get back to town you can call the cops.”

Abner just ignored him and instead said, “I’m going to get closer and see if there’s a window I can see in. I want to know what he’s doing in there. How’d he even get way out here?”

“Are you crazy?” snapped Elbert, louder than he had intended; but he was too late.

Abner glanced one last time to the building that the tall man come from and then crawled out of the bushes. He crouched over and quickly scurried towards the darkened edifice in front of them. Tall weeds had grown up against the brick and he pushed noisily through the dry stalks before reaching the wall.   

He had unknowingly been holding his breath, and now he let it out in a long, ragged gasp. He could smell mildew on the old brick as he pressed close up against the depot building. The hum they had heard coming from inside when the door was opened now sounded like a soft purr through the wall. He was trying to listen for any other clues when the weeds started to shake and rustle behind him.

“Damn it, Abner,” whispered Elbert as he hurried to get up against the wall in the dark. “We’re going to get in trouble; or worse.”

“I didn’t tell you to follow me—go wait in the damn truck if you’re scared.” Abner looked up at the building, checking the walls for a window. “I don’t see any windows on this side.”

Elbert didn’t want to leave him there though, and not only because the thought of walking back to the truck alone in the dark terrified him, though it did. “If this is an old freight depot for the railway, then they would have stored surplus train equipment and hold-over cargo. They probably didn’t want too many ways to get in.”

“Yeah—well there has to be some way to see inside there. I’m going down this way,” said Abner, jerking his head towards the end of the building, “stay here if you want.” Then he turned and started off along the wall into the darkness.

Elbert just cursed himself under his breath before he turned and followed his friend into the dark.

Halfway down the wall, they passed a rear door leading into the building. The door had no window however, and when Abner put his ear to it he could hear nothing more than the same faint hum from within. He slowly reached up and tried to turn the tarnished handle, but it was either locked or frozen inside with rust.

 When they reached the far corner of the building without finding any way to see inside, Elbert hoped that would be the end of it and they could leave. He might even be able to convince his friend to come back during the daytime when they could see better.  

But before he got a chance to suggest it, Abner disappeared around the corner, his brown hair shimmering in the moonlight.

Watching him slip around the building, Elbert made up his mind not to follow. Abner wouldn’t quit until he was in trouble or hurt, and he was tired of saying, “I told you so.” He had just decided that he would return to the truck alone and wait when he heard the door clang shut on the front side of the building.

Abner—he thought with alarm.

*****

Part: III

Part: IV

Part: V

Part: VI

Part: VII

Part: VIII

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If you enjoy my stories, please consider buying me a coffee so that I can sit around writing more for years to come. I'm a man of simple tastes, but I do enjoy a cup while I write. Thank you!

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The Sigbee Depot, (Part: I of VIII)

“See,” said Abner, pointing towards the inky horizon in the distance, “right there.” The two boys lay prone on a small rise just beyond the roadside ditch. As they watched from beneath a starry night sky, a faint speck of light bobbed across the murky ground for half a minute before abruptly disappearing.

Two nights before—when he first spotted the light—Abner had been sitting on the side of the same road in his broken-down truck. While he weighed his options: hoping someone passed on such a remote road—and so late at night—or walking back to town for gas, he had stepped off the road to urinate. Gazing absentmindedly into the vast darkness stretching out before him, he saw the tiny light in the distance.

After he’d finished urinating, he stood and watched the little light for nearly half an hour until a car finally passed and gave him a ride back into town. When he returned with a gas can the following day, all he saw in the distance were a few small brick buildings; so old and neglected the plants and foliage had begun to pull them beneath a sea of leafy green waves.

Finding Elbert in school the following morning, he told him about his breakdown, and about the light. After hearing the story, Elbert had admitted that it was strange, but he was prepared to leave it at that. “Do you know what’s over there?” asked Abner at their lockers, excitedly grabbing his shirtsleeve.

Elbert tugged his arm free and said, “I didn’t think anything was out that far.” He shut his locker door as a group of kids passed by, and Abner waited until they were out of earshot before continuing.  

“Well there isn’t really, not now anyway,” said Abner, grabbing his own bag as they left for class. “But, years ago, that’s where the old Sigbee railway freight depot was,” he continued. Elbert just nodded noncommittedly, but Abner went on anyway, “so, who do you suppose is back there in the middle of the night? And what on earth can they be doing?” he asked excitedly.

“It’s probably just some kids screwing around or something,” said Elbert flatly. Over the years, he had developed a sixth sense for Abner’s wild schemes, and the hair on his neck had begun to prick up. “Whoever it is, they obviously want to be left alone,” he said, hoping to end the conversation as he walked into class.

Sitting down behind him, Abner tapped him on the shoulder and leaned over his desk. “I heard,” he said in a low voice, “that when the depot was active, the government used to run a laboratory out there. And that they did all these weird experiments on mental patients before shipping them away somewhere out west.”

Elbert turned around in his seat and rolled his eyes. “Why would the government do secret testing on mental patients at a railroad depot in crummy little Sigbee?” he asked. The teacher walked briskly into the room and shut the door with a loud bang, causing Elbert to jump in surprise, and he turned back around.

Before sitting back down in his own seat, Abner quickly said, “because of all the crazies around here,” and laughed at his own joke. The teacher shot him an icy look and he abruptly stopped laughing. Sitting upright, he ran his fingers through his straight brown hair with a sheepish look on his face.

As he always did however, Abner triumphed through sheer endurance of will, and by lunch Elbert listened self-loathingly as his friend explained his plan to return to the roadside and see if the light would make another appearance.

Now, as he also watched the dim white orb bound across the shapeless night landscape, Elbert had to admit that it was weird—but he had already known that. “How long did you say the depot has been shut down?” he whispered.

“Daddy said it’s been thirty years or so,” said Abner, whispering back. “If you look over there in the daytime, you can’t hardly tell there was ever anything there at all. Just some tracks disappearing into the kudzu and brambles. The weeds and sumac’s all grow’d up through everything,” he said, flicking a bug from his arm in the dark.

Elbert began to crawl backwards, still on his stomach. “Okay, like I said, I agree, it’s strange—let’s go,” he whispered.

Abner grabbed his arm in the dark to stop him and said, “whoa—where are you going? We didn’t figure out what it is.

“We didn’t say we we’re going to figure out what it is. We said we’d see if it was here again. It’s here again—let’s go,” whispered Elbert harshly. Even though the sun was down, it was still warm, and clumps of dirt were sticking to the sweat on his arms.  

Abner gasped quietly in the dark and said in an equally loud whisper, “what do you mean ‘not figure it out’? Of course we have to figure it out!” 

A part of Elbert had been expecting this, and he cursed his own naivety. There was no reason to try and discover the source of the light—Abner simply wanted to do it because it was there to be done. He could insist, stomp his foot and say, “no, I will not go,” but Abner would go anyway, and when—not if—he got himself into trouble, Elbert would feel responsible.

He wouldn’t be responsible, but he would feel it all the same. Besides, whatever the source of the light, it was almost certainly a simple explanation: workers repairing the old depot in the cool of the dark rather than the hot daytime; kids drinking beer, smoking dope, and necking; maybe even a hobo taking advantage of some free real estate, even if the train hasn’t been by the depot in nearly half a century.

Elbert sighed, blowing a hot puff of dust from the ground. “Fine,” he said, “but as soon as we figure out what the light is, we leave—I mean it.”

“Deal,” said Abner, his smiling lips showing pale teeth that shined with moonlight.

*****

Part: II

Part: III

Part: IV

Part: V

Part: VI

Part: VII

Part: VIII

Buy me a coffee?

If you enjoy my stories, please consider buying me a coffee so that I can sit around writing more for years to come. I'm a man of simple tastes, but I do enjoy a cup while I write. Thank you!

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The Pellman House (Pt. III of III)

Nora and Claire both screamed when the widow’s body stopped tumbling, looking first to the corpse and then back to one another. Nora was already crying loudly as she raced down the cellar steps. At the bottom, she turned her head to avoid seeing the lifeless face and ran to where Claire was crouched by the secret cache in the floor. “Oh no, oh no, oh no,” she kept repeating with her hand over her mouth.

Claire stood and grabbed Nora’s hands, “what did you do?” she asked with a mixture of astonishment and horror. Everything was happening too fast and she was close to breaking down. At first, she had feared the worst when Mrs. Pellman caught her crouched over the open hiding spot; now though, their problems were unimaginably greater.

Nora quickly settled down enough to speak, and she said, “I don’t know—I panicked. I saw you sitting down here with all of that money in front of you, and then her standing in the doorway…” She trailed off and shook her head as though trying to erase the memory from her mind.

Looking over at Mrs. Pellman’s body, she asked, “we can still fix this though, right? No one knows we were here. Besides, how long will it be before anyone comes looking for her?”

Claire’s mind was still reeling from seeing Nora push the woman down the steps and she didn’t hear her question. “What?” she asked, rubbing her eyes. The color had drained even further from her normally porcelain skin, and dark circles had formed under her eyes. 

“I said,” Nora repeated, “we can fix this,” and she gestured with her head towards the body. The more she thought about it, the more confident she became that they could still get out of there without anyone finding out. She hadn’t wanted to come today in the first place, but she was the one who killed Mrs. Pellman, and so there was nothing to do now but try and get them out of the mess she helped make.

Claire’s eyes widened in disbelief and she cried, “how, Nora? Look at her—she’s dead!” She let go of Nora’s hands and sank back down to the cool dirt floor.

Nora knelt down and looked at Claire. “Listen,” she said calmly, “the widow has no family; no one’s going to come here looking for her,” she brushed a strand of red hair from Claire’s eye and said, “besides, I have an idea.” She looked over into the large hole with the stacks of money inside. “We can just take the money out and then put her in here,” she said, looking back over to Claire.

Actually, that might work, thought Claire, feeling a glimmer of optimism. “Yeah…” she said, slowly coming out of her shock, “that might actually work. If you didn’t know to look down here, you’d never find it.” She got up and walked over to a stack of boxes on a nearby workbench. Picking one of the boxes up, she dumped the contents onto the bench and a returned to Nora. “Let’s put the money in here,” she said.

“Perfect,” said Nora, quickly taking the box. Both girls knelt around the hole in the dirt floor and began pulling the stacks of money out and putting them into the box. The bundles were comprised of different denominations of bills haphazardly bound together with an assortment of rubber bands. While some of the stacks looked to have newer bills, most were older and the bright green paper had turned a matte olive color over time.

More than one box was needed to carry all of the bundles and Claire returned to the stack on the bench for another. Neither girl glanced towards the body as they worked, focusing instead on the vast sum of money in front of them. “How much do you think is here?” asked Nora as she tossed the last bundle into the second box.

“I couldn’t even guess,” replied Claire, flipping through a bundle of bills. “These aren’t even the same bills in each bundle. There’s twenties, tens, fives—it’s going to take us years to count it all,” she said with a smile, and then added, “let’s get it up to the car and get out of here.”

Nora looked over to Mrs. Pellman’s body and said, “we should probably take care of her first.” She suddenly realized that they would have to touch the old woman’s body, and she had to fight the bile back down into her stomach.

Claire followed her gaze and nodded. “Yeah, okay—let’s just get it over with,” she said stoically and stood. Both girls walked over to the body and stopped, looking down at it. “How do you want to do it?” asked Claire.

“I don’t know,” said Nora with a shrug, “I guess we could each just grab an arm and drag her.” The cache was only a couple dozen feet away, but it wasn’t the distance that caused the girls to hesitate—neither wanted to be the first to touch the dead woman.

Finally, Nora inhaled once deeply for courage, and quickly bent down and grabbed the widow’s left arm and lifted it. The frail body didn’t weigh much, and it jerked upward as though it were a puppet on a string. Nora looked over to Claire as if to say: well?

*****

A few minutes later, Claire lowered the top to the secret floor compartment. There was more than enough space inside for the widow’s corpse, and the dirt-colored lid settled smoothly back into place. When it clicked closed, it became nearly invisible on the floor. To be safe, both girls scrapped their feet over the cracks to blend them with the dirt before standing back to admire their work.

“Not a word of this for as long as we both live—right?” asked Nora. Claire just looked at her and nodded before grabbing one of the boxes. Unlike the widow, the boxes were heavy and she strained to lift it. Wobbling, she made her way shakily up the steps. When she got to the upper landing, she had to set the box down to rest.

Nora had carried the other box to the foot of the steps and she did the same, dropping her burden with a thud. Panting, Claire called down, “Jesus—we should pull the car closer.”

“I like the way you think,” said Nora from the bottom of the stairs. She quickly climbed the steps—taking two at a time—as she fished around in her pocket for her keys. At the top, she stepped around the other box and said, “but let’s go carefully, I want to make sure no one showed up while we were down here.”

Claire nodded and slowly opened the door to the hallway. Both girls creeped back down the hall, through the sitting room, and to the front door. When they reached the door, Nora grabbed the brass handle and twisted, but it didn’t turn.

“Turn it harder,” Claire told her, sounding urgent.

“I am turning it harder—there is no harder; it won’t budge,” snapped Nora. Claire reached around and tried twisting the handle but it wouldn’t move for her either. “Satisfied?” asked Nora when Claire gave up, “it’s stuck somehow.”

“Screw it,” said Claire, turning away, “we’ll find another way out.”

 The girls retraced their steps through the sitting room hoping to find a back door out of the house. Beyond the basement door they had come from, the hallway was a dark tunnel ending in a soft white glow. Nora lead the way down the hall towards the light at the end with Claire walking behind her, hand on her shoulder.

The light turned out to be a mud room with a door on the right wall leading into the kitchen as well as a door on the rear wall. Like the front door, this one also had a window. Beyond, lofty pecan trees dotted the yard, their tall, sinewy limbs rocking gently in the spring breeze.

Nora grabbed the knob and turned, hoping it was unlocked. It wasn’t however, and—also like the front door—she couldn’t see any lock mechanism on the handle. There was a deadbolt above it on the door, but it was already unlatched. She put both hands on the handle and turned as hard as she could—arching up on her toes as she groaned under the effort.

Neither the door nor the handle budged. Once again, Claire shouldered Nora out of the way and grabbed the knob. She strained as she turned as hard as she could, her red hair falling down over her eyes in sweaty clumps.

“It’s no use,” said Nora, “it’s not moving.” She looked around the mud room and spotted a cast iron door-stop in the likeness of a little black yorkie. Picking it up, she walked back to the door.

Claire grabbed her arm, “whoa—what are you doing?” she asked with an incredulous look.

“I’m tired of screwing around,” said Nora, “we need to get out of here—we’ve been here too long as it is.” She tried to pull her arm free but Claire tightened her grip.

“A broken window is going to draw more attention,” said Claire, “there has to be another way out.” She grabbed the iron yorkie from Claire and tossed it down, clanging as it hit the floor. “Come on,” she said, and pulled Nora’s hand after her.

The girls made their way back to the front of the house to the sitting room. Claire quickly pulled the sofa away from the window and it scrapped the wood floor loudly in the crypt-like house. Throwing the lace curtains back, she tried to lift the window. It didn’t move, and she reached up to unlatch the locks but saw that they were already open.

Both girls groaned loudly in exasperation. Nora pulled her shirt away from her chest and asked, “why is it getting so damn hot in here?”

Claire turned away from the window with sweat beading on her face. “I don’t know,” she said, “is the freaking heat on or something?” She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand and looked around. “Let’s keep trying,” she said, and walked off.

The girls went from room to room, but each window was the same: frozen in place as if they were locked, even though the latches were wide open. By the second room their clothes were soaked through with sweat. Nora’s black hair lay flatly against her head in wet clumps.

“What the hell!” screamed Claire in frustration. She looked to Nora as if to say: okay, you win—break the damn glass. Nodding in agreement, Nora walked off towards the hallway. When she returned to the mud room, she picked the door stop up again and swung it quickly at the window.

Nora recoiled—expecting the glass to shatter—but the iron dog just bounced off the window and back at her. Stunned, she steadied herself and swung again, only harder this time. Again, the dog bounced back as though it struck a tree trunk and not than a pane of glass.

The sweaty girls looked at each other with rising panic. Claire took the door-stop and swung her arm in a wide arch at the window. There was a loud clang as the dog glanced off and the momentum spun her in a wobbly circle.

The effort, combined with the oppressive heat, soon exhausted both girls, and they crouched on the floor. It was getting increasingly difficult to breath, and their panting came out in dry and ragged puffs. Nora climbed to her feet before grabbing Claire’s hand and pulling, “come on,” she said, “we have to get out of here.”

Both girls staggered back down the hall to the front parlor, leaning against the wall for support as they went. When they finally made it to the sitting room again, Claire sat down on the floor, groaning softly as sweat poured from her face.

Crestfallen, Nora sank to the floor and leaned against the wall under the window. Looking over to Claire, she said, “if we don’t get up right now—we never will. The cellar is our only hope,” she gasped, pausing to catch her breath, “it has to be cooler down there.”

Claire didn’t reply, she only nodded weakly as globs of sweat splashed off her face and onto the floor. Both girls struggled to their feet and shuffled to the hallway. When they were only a few feet from the cellar door, Nora stumbled and collapsed onto the hard floor.

Claire had to lean Nora against the wall as she open the door. When it swung open, she hefted Nora back up from behind, and guided her onto the dark landing. Her strength was fading fast—too fast—and she was starting to wonder how she would manage to get them both down the steps when her and Nora’s feet hit the box of money at the top of the steps.

Both girls were too weak to even scream as they tumbled face first down the steps. A chorus of thuds—punctuated by the dry sound of cracking bones—echoed throughout the house. When the girls came to rest at the bottom, Claire lay on her back. Her wide-eyes gazed into the darkness of the cellar as Nora rested on her arm, her neck bent at an impossible angle and her black hair covering her face.

*****

The breeze slipped through the open downstairs window and gently pushed the lace curtain. “Honey,” the man called from the other room, “did you see this crown molding in here?”

“I did sweety,” his wife called from the parlor. She was seated on the sofa discussing loan options with the real estate agent.

The agent, a well put-together woman with bright red lipstick, looked at the man’s wife with a smile and said, “I think he’s falling in love,” with a perky laugh.

When the man walked back into the room his face beamed in a wide smile, and he said, “I love it. I mean, I love it. This is it—the house. We’ll take it.”

The man’s wife was just about to speak when a tabby cat wandered into the room, oblivious of the humans inside. The man, still smiling, bent down and scooped the cat up. “And who might you be, little buddy?” he asked, looking into its apathetic eyes.

The bubbly lady just giggled good naturedly, and said, “oh him, he comes with the house,” and all three of them laughed as the lace curtains danced along the walls.

*****

LDW

The Pellman House (Pt. II of III)

Nora and Claire ascended the wide steps leading to the porch in silence. At the top, a small brown sparrow—patiently building her nest under the porch eave—spirited away into the sky with a noisy fluttering of wings. As they stood looking at the broad front door, both girls listened for any sound coming from the other side. Hearing none, they glanced at each other and shrugged before turning back to the door.

Knock,” Claire hissed in a whisper. Nora was just about to protest when the white lace curtain covering the door’s window shifted from inside. There was a metallic clicking sound, and then the heavy door opened a few inches releasing the faint aroma of flowers and burned cooking oil onto the porch. Although it was a sunny morning, most of the curtains were drawn over the windows so that only a murky mosaic of shadows stared back at the girls from within the house.

Claire was just about to speak into the cracked opening of the door when a smiling face materialized from the darkness. The widow wore her salt-and-peppery gray hair drawn back in a tight bun—though a few wispy strands had escaped and hung limply over her brow. Vibrant eyes glowed from behind the thick lenses of her thin gold-rimmed glasses, and she said in a sweet voice, “hello? Oh, I wasn’t expecting any callers today.”

Claire looked at Nora and then quickly back to the woman, “oh, no—I’m sorry—hi, my name is Claire, and this is Nora,” she said waving her hand at her friend. “We’re doing our senior project at Buford University, and we were just wondering if you had a little time to help us by answering some questions?”

There was a pause before the silvery-haired lady said, “oh, that sounds wonderful sweety—but I don’t see what I could have to say that would be very helpful for that, I’m afraid.”

Claire had expected her to say something like that, and she’d already rehearsed an answer ahead of time: “well, our project is about people who’ve lived in Monroe County for a long time… and there aren’t many people around here who’ve seen as much local history as I’m sure you probably have,” she said in an attempt to flatter her.

The old woman’s smile did indeed get wider, and she said airily, “that may very well be true. Well, I don’t know. I don’t have many visitors these days so the house isn’t very presentable… but we could sit out here?” She opened the door a bit further and gestured to a pair of white rocking chairs on the porch.

Nora hadn’t anticipated the possibility of sitting outside and for a moment she felt cold fear stirring in her belly. What difference does it make though, she thought, Claire can just ask to use the bathroom after a little bit—and then I won’t even have to go inside the stupid house.

 Like Nora, Claire was also caught off-guard by the woman’s proposed change of location. Unlike Nora however, when she panicked there was no compensatory follow-up thought, and she instead blurted out, “oh I’m sorry—I just hate the bugs out here. They get right into my eyes and stick to my makeup. I’m really terribly sorry,” and she waved her hand around her face as though she were shooing away the tiny nuisances.  

Nora didn’t see any bugs—and she was sure that Claire had just blown their chances—but to her surprise the widow quickly said, “oh, I understand dear. When I wore makeup more often I was the same way. I don’t wear it these days so I suppose I’ve forgotten how terrible they can be.” She looked from one girl to the other and said, “you both seem like sweet girls, I suppose we can go inside where it’s cooler and sit.” The widow opened the door completely and then turned and slowly shuffled into the dimly lit house.

Claire followed after the woman, and then Nora, who closed the door behind her. The lady led the girls to a small sitting room not far from the front parlor. She gestured to a beige couch that looked as though it had been built in the last century. The two girls sat down on the sofa as the woman went over to a careworn rocking chair, tucking her light blue checkered dress under her as she sat.

Nora looked around the room. The window curtains were made from an intricately woven and delicate lace that sifted the light coming in, transforming it into an incandescent glow that filled the air with soft white light. Every piece of furniture that Nora could see appeared to be as old as the house—or at least as old as the widow was.

Despite what the lady had said at the door, the house was surprisingly tidy and it reminded Nora more of a museum than a home. Somewhere in another room, a grandfather clock ticked to the passing time and the sound carried through the downstairs. Claire took a notebook and pen from her bag—brought along to enhance their subterfuge—and brushed her red hair behind her shoulder before she cleared her throat. “So, maybe we should just start with your name and… maybe a little background about yourself?” she said.

The widow seemed not to hear the question though, and she instead said, “oh dear, I’m afraid it’s been so long since I’ve had guests I must have forgotten my manners. Would you girls like some sweet tea?” and she began to stand back up again.

“No—that’s okay, we’re fine,” Nora cut in quickly. She didn’t want any more proof that they were at the house than was necessary. It was bad enough that Claire had let a perfect opportunity slip through their hands while they were on the porch.

The woman smiled and sat back down. “Okay, perhaps in a little bit then. Now, what was it you asked, my dear?” she said to Claire.

“Oh, I was just saying that maybe we should start with your name, and then maybe a little bit of your background?” Claire asked rhetorically, moving to the edge of the couch. She didn’t have many questions to ask the lady memorized, so she was hoping that she would drag her answers out the way old people tend to do. Her plan was to talk for a few minutes, excuse herself, and then let Nora take over while she quickly searched the cellar.

“Well, my name is Lottie Pellman,” the widow began, “but of course before that I was Lottie Erlander. I was born right here in Monroe County—our house was over by where the landfill is now—and my Vernon and me got married as soon as we graduated high school.”

A slender tabby cat sauntered into the room and rubbed its ribs on the ottoman. “That’s Taffy,” said Mrs. Pellman when the girls looked at the cat, “he came with the house,” and she laughed softly at her own joke—her gold-rimmed glasses bouncing up and down.

Claire had been scribbling half-hearted notes as Mrs. Pellman talked, and she looked down at her notebook and asked, “so you and Vernon—Mr. Pellman—moved in here when you got married then?”

The widow began to gently rock in the chair and answered, “oh no, we had to live with my parents at first. Vernon worked as journalist for the Monroe Gazette back then and his pay was lousy. When we decided to look at some houses one Saturday afternoon, we stopped here. Well, Vernon just fell right in love with the place.”

Taffy, deciding that Mrs. Pellman would be sitting long enough to be worth his while, hopped gracefully up to her lap—spun around once—and lay down. The lady gently pet the cat’s head and continued, “he said from the very first day that this house never wanted him leave—he loved it that much. In fact, both our parents—and me, I can admit now—thought he was a little crazy when he quit his job at the Gazette so he could be home more.”

Mrs. Pellman smiled at the fond memory and went on, “But that’s just what he did. Woke up morning and just quit the paper.”

Nora leaned forward and asked, “so what did he do for a living afterwards?” Claire’s claims of a fortune hidden in the cellar seemed less likely if Mr. Pellman simply sat around the house for sixty years.

The widow nodded understandingly, “oh, Vern didn’t have to work. We had a little bit in savings, but unfortunately soon after we moved in both my parent’s passed in an automobile accident. They left me more than enough money to support us. Vernon sold articles from time to time to newspapers and magazines around the country, but mostly he just worked on the house,” and she looked around the room as she motioned with her hands.

Claire perked up at the mention of an inherited fortune and threw both patience and caution to the wind. “I’m really sorry Mrs. Pellman,” she said, “but my stomach seems to be acting up—is there a bathroom that I can use?”

Nora hadn’t expected to be thrust on stage so quickly, and she took the notebook from Claire with a flustered and confused face. Mrs. Pellman didn’t suspect anything unusual however, and she answered, hand outstretched to the doorway on the opposite wall, and said, “of course, sweetie. Just go through there and down the hall. It’s the last door on the right.” Claire shot Nora a conspiratorial look and walked out of the room.

 Much of the rest of the house was dark compared to the sitting room, and it took Claire’s eyes a moment to adjust in the dim hallway. Rows of pictures lined the walls; some were of a boy at various ages while others were family portraits, taken together. Several, Claire noticed, were photographs taken of the house from different vantage points on the property.

She slowly made her way down the hall—not wanting to switch on any lights in case it drew attention. She quietly peeked into the doors along the walls as she crept, careful not to make any noise. The first door led to a coat closet and the next to a small spare bedroom. But when she opened the third door, she immediately felt a damp subterranean breeze and smelled an earthy odor. Claire stole a glance back down the hallway and slipped through the door into the darkness beyond, shutting it softly behind her.

*****

Nora sat on the beige sofa and looked at Claire’s notes with amusement—she hadn’t even spelt “magazine” correctly. “So… Mrs. Pellman,” she said awkwardly, “what else can you tell me about your childhood that people might find interesting?” She didn’t really care, but Nora wanted to keep the old lady talking for as long as possible, and childhood stories seemed to be the best way to do it.

Mrs. Pellman smiled again and tilted her head, “oh, I don’t know. I don’t guess there was much very interesting about it, really. Monroe County has always been pretty small, and I’ve spent most of my life here—with Vernon. He used to like to make up little projects for the house, whereas I enjoyed working outside in the garden—or even just sitting out on the porch with my knitting.

So, she does knit, Nora thought humorously, wait until I tell Claire. It seemed that no matter what the girls had tried, the widow always circled the conversation back to the manor. Fine, she thought, if you want to talk about the house, talk all about the house then. “Did Mr. Pellman do all of the work on the house then?” Nora asked.  

The widow shifted slightly in the rocking chair and Taffy hopped down and left the room in search of a quieter napping spot. “Oh yes,” Mrs. Pellman said, “well everything that he possibly could. He hated other people working on it—always said they were too rough on it when they worked.”

Nora didn’t even want to begin to understand what that meant, but she needed to find a subject that the woman would chat at length on. She tried again and said, “your husband must have been very handy to have around then.”

Mrs. Pellman just laughed and said, “oh yes, dear—nothing escaped his attention for long.”

*****

Claire felt along the wall until she found the light switch. She flipped the switch up and a pale orange light bulb sprang to life in the cellar at the bottom of the stairs. She carefully walked down the wooden steps until she stood on the earthen floor. The cellar was expansive, extending back in every direction until it disappeared into inky darkness beyond the reach of the naked bulb.

The first thing she noticed was that there were no windows down here that opened up to the ground level above. The next thing she noticed was the size of the cellar. Holy shit, she thought, where do I even begin? There were pieces of old furniture stacked against the walls in places with cabinets and work benches dotting the open room like grazing cattle.

Claire walked around the room looking for somewhere obvious that Mr. Pellman would have hid the money. Not seeing anything that stood out, she hurried over to a cabinet and began searching it—trying her best to not make noise but still move quickly.

*****

Mrs. Pellman had just finished telling Nora about a squirrel infestation in the attic that she and Vernon had dealt with one winter when she suddenly said, “dearie, I hope your friend is okay—she’s been in the lavatory for a while now,” and looked toward the empty hallway.

A shot of cold fear climbed Nora’s spine and her mind raced to conjure a response. She said, “I’m sure she’s fine—we had a large breakfast is all,” and smiled with a look that she hoped said: who hasn’t been there, right?

The widow wasn’t listening however, and her head was turned as if to glean some noise in another room. Without speaking, she stood up from the rocking chair and smiled at Nora curtly before turning to shuffle out of the room.

Nora screamed inside of her head. What do I do now? she thought—beginning to panic. “Oh, Mrs. Pellman, where did you and Vernon get all of this beautiful furniture from?” she asked. But the old woman didn’t reply as she shuffled out of the room, and Nora’s question trailed off into the air.

*****

Claire was on her third large wooden cabinet when her shoe felt something unusual in the hard dirt underfoot. She gently tapped her heel on the floor again and heard a dull echo in response. Looking down, she could see that the floor did look different where she was standing—the color looked slightly darker than the surrounding area. She scraped her foot on the floor to clear the dirt away—but no dirt moved.

She quickly stepped down in different spots on the floor and—to her surprise—after a few tries one section of the floor popped up as if lifted by hidden springs. The “dirt” on the floor here was some grainy textured dark brown paint she had never seen before on top of some sort of trap door. She quietly squealed in happiness and got down on her knees. Reaching under the lip of the floor-turned-lid, she tried to lift it. Thankfully, the lid was light and she easily managed to swing it open.

Dug into the cellar floor was a large cavity the size of a bathtub. The orange light overhead barely penetrated inside, but Claire could make out dozens of bundles of bills held together by rubber bands. She sat there frozen—there was no way to guess how much money was in the floor below—until the spell was broken when the widow appeared at the top of the stairs.

“Hey—” she cried from the upper landing, and Claire gasped as she reeled around.

*****

“Mrs. Pellman—Mrs. Pellman,” Nora called after the lady as she went down the hallway. They were busted, she knew. A million possibilities raced through her mind as she followed behind her, and when she threw open the cellar door, Nora panicked.

Everyone had been so cruel to her when she had moved to Monroe County in the 3rd grade; everyone except Claire. As they grew up—and even Nora didn’t know why—Claire had never left her side and never let anyone mess with her. Claire wasn’t the easiest friend to have, but she was Nora’s only friend—and now she was about to let her down.

Nora stood behind the old lady at the top of the stairs. She could see Claire down in the cellar—crouched over a large hole in the floor in front of a cabinet. Inside the hole, Nora could see the bundles of bills piled in haphazard stacks. Seeing that the money was real, she began to panic even more than before. It was real, she screamed inside her head.

“Hey—” the widow yelled in shocked anger down into the cellar. Claire turned in surprise and looked up at her on the upper landing—Nora standing behind her with a look of astonishment on her face. Claire’s mind scrambled to come up with some excuse—any excuse—but nothing would come.

Before she could explain, Claire watched the widow lurch forward—pushed from behind—and fall down the stairs. There was a loud cracking sound as her face hit the steps, and when she came to a stop at the bottom landing she stared up at the orange light bulb with unseeing eyes.

*****

Part: III

The Pellman House (Pt. I of III)

The acorn dropped a few feet, hit a branch, and then tumbled down onto the roof of the car below with a plop. Inside the car, the two girls jumped before laughing nervously at their own skittishness. Nora swept her jet black bangs from her eyes and, with a hint of skepticism, said, “I don’t know, this seems pretty risky considering it came from Pinky.”

Claire rolled her eyes in exasperation and inhaled deeply to compose herself. “He’s got no reason to lie to me,” she said, “besides, like I told you, all his uncle’s know about it too.” Both girls turned and looked out of the passenger window to the large plantation-style house set back from the road.

The red-dirt driveway leading up to the stately manor could easily be confused for a rural side-street if not for the large, swooping iron gate in front of Nora’s car. The gate wasn’t closed, but it wasn’t open either; instead, hanging there ambiguously between either terminus as though it were unsure if you were welcomed within or not.

Outside the car, it was a clear, warm spring morning, and the house sat framed between a pale blue sky and the verdant live oak trees that flanked either side of its broad front porch, the tall Roman columns towering two-stories high.

Nora leaned back into the seat and asked, “and the money is down in the cellar? You’re absolutely certain?” She knew better than to blindly follow Claire—they’d been best friends since the 3rd grade—but the story, if true, was worth considering. Claire just nodded without taking her eyes away from the house in the distance.

Nora could feel herself slowly giving in to the idea; she had already been having daydreams about what she would do with the money if Pinky’s story was true. Still, she wanted to go over everything one more time—secretly hoping that she wouldn’t hear anything that might make her back out. “Okay, please,” she said, “one more time from the beginning; so you and Pinky were at The Rail. He was drunk…”

Claire cut her off with a quick turn of her head—her long, claret-colored red hair swishing through the air. She clenched her jaw once quickly and said, “Fine, one more time—and he wasn’t drunk.” She shot Nora a sharp glance and leaned back in her seat. “Last weekend, when you left me at The Rail, Pinky offered to give me a ride home,” she began.

On the weekend in question, Claire had been in the middle of another of her infamous all-night drinking binges when her friend—and ride home—had wanted to leave. Nora had never seen much sense in arguing with a drunk—and even less in arguing with a drunk Claire—so she had left her there and gone home. “Anyway…,” Nora said waving her hands in a peddling motion to move her past the still-sore subject before Claire got angry all over again.

Anyway, when we drove by here,” Claire said, jerking her thumb towards the house, “Pinky started telling me about the stories his uncles used to tell each other when they all got together to cook out and drink. Pinky said that the old man that lived here, Mr. Pellman, hid all of his cash somewhere down in the cellar. I guess the old man’s father lost all their money back in ’29 when the market crashed, and after seeing what that shit did to him, he didn’t trust banks to hold it. His father eventually made everything back, but it took him his entire life. Anyway, like father like son, and the Pellman fortune is just sitting down in the cellar.”   

Outside, another acorn landed on the roof of the car, though this time neither girl jumped. Claire continued, “Pinky said that Mr. Pellman paid for everything that he bought with cash: clothes; cars; everything. I guess him and his wife only had one kid, but he died in the war. Then, a few months ago, the old man died—heart attack or something—and now it’s just his widow in there.”

“Pinky says they didn’t have any other family and hardly no one ever goes up there except for the market boy when he brings groceries.” She paused and looked up to the house before continuing, “and now all that money is just sitting down there in the cellar while she does needlework by the window.”

“Does she really do needlework?” Nora asked with a confused look. The idea of an old woman knitting by the window suddenly seemed very funny to her, and an unwanted smile began to creep over her lips.

“How the hell do I know?” Claire said in frustration before adding, “Whatever she’s doing in there, it can’t require that much money. Besides, she could die tomorrow and no one would ever know that money is down there. It’s actually better for us to get it out of there—what if they tear the house down?”

Nora didn’t think they would tear such a beautiful house down, but she didn’t want to say so. Instead, she said, “but how did Pinky’s uncles hear about it? Who told them?” She knew she was risking Claire’s wrath by having to explain every little detail, but something still seemed off with the whole story. A car drove past them as they sat parked on the side of the road, slowing down briefly as it went by on the narrow road before speeding back up and disappearing around a bend.  

Claire’s answer came out more subdued than Nora was expecting, and she said, “years ago, one of his uncles did some plumbing work at the house. Over time, the old man and Pinky’s uncle got friendly and I guess it came up. Pinky says he grew up hearing stories about the Pellmans all the time,” she said, and then added, “the house too—I guess it’s a special house or something.”

Claire’s story was the same as the preceding versions, and afterwards Nora had to admit to herself that it did seem possible: some people don’t use banks; some old people don’t have any family; and all old people die.

 “And your plan is for us to pretend to be doing a college paper on senior-citizen residents of Monroe County?” Nora asked, squinting skeptically at Claire. For Nora, this part of the plan was the most important. She was a terrible liar, and the slightest probing from the old widow would cause her to come unstitched like a skirt hem.  

“Exactly,” Claire replied chipperly, “all I need you to do is keep the old bag distracted while I slip down to the cellar and find it.” She absentmindedly twirled her red hair around a finger as she studied the house from inside the car.A thought suddenly came to Nora and she said, “wait—how are we going to get out of there with the money? We can’t just walk out carrying her life savings in our arms.” Nora had never seen a large sum of money before—except on television—and she had no idea how much, if any, was in the cellar, but it seemed like a practical concern.

“I already thought of that too,” Claire said with a smirk, “I’ll just find a way to hide it outside of the house, then—at night when it’s dark—we’ll sneak back here and get it.” She beamed with a look of satisfaction at having thought of such a detailed plan. Claire had surprised everybody—herself included— by simply graduating high school, and “detailed thinking” wasn’t her strongest personality trait.  

“Suppose you can’t get it outside, then what?” Nora asked. She had already decided she would go along with her friend, but only because she didn’t expect Claire to get further than the front porch. If the Pellmans were as reclusive as people said they were, then the way she saw it, Claire was nothing short of delusional for thinking the widow was going to let them wander around her house.  

Claire squinted and tilted her head to the side insultingly, “It’s one old woman, Nora. I think the two of us can figure that part out if it comes to that; it’s not exactly Fort Knox,” she said. She glanced at the house before turning back to Nora, “so what’s it going to be? You in or out? I can just get Lucy to come do it with me…”

“No,” Nora said quickly, “I just want to be sure we’ve thought of everything, is all. I don’t want to get in there and have her bust us.” The other, unspoken, reason was that Lucy didn’t deserve any of the money, if it was there. Why Claire even continued to talk to the slow-witted girl was beyond Nora. Other people said it was because Lucy was the only person who could make Claire look smart, but Nora wondered if there wasn’t something more to it.

Claire smiled victoriously, “so you’re in?” she asked.

Nora just nodded slowly, an unconfidently weak smile on her lips.

“Okay then,” Claire said, “let’s go.” Without further discussion, she hopped out of the car and walked over to the half-open gate. Leaning into the heavy metal bars, she managed to swing the gate until it was completely open. She stood by the metal gate post looking at Nora behind the steering wheel and then waved her hand in an arching come here motion.

Nora started the car and pulled onto the dirt driveway. Little red dust puffed from under the tires as she stopped next to Claire. “Going my way?” she said, laughing at their old inside joke.

Claire laughed aloud, “as a matter of fact I am, pretty lady,” she said, and skipped playfully to the passenger door. A moment later they were creeping down the long drive beneath the watchful gaze of the sentinel pine trees that lined the dirt strip. As the antebellum mansion drew closer, the girls craned their necks up at the windshield to take in the entire view.

Nora followed the driveway as it formed a big loop—a stone birdbath bubbling at the center of the oval—in front of the porch. She stopped the car in front of the house and a large cloud of red dust swept past the car, carried on the breeze. In the silence within the car, Nora heard a tapping and it took her a second to realize that she was the source—her fingers nervously thumping up and down on the steering wheel.

“Relax,” Claire said, looking up at the imposing white edifice. “Besides, what’s the worst that can happen?” she asked rhetorically before opening her door and stepping out.

*****

Part: II

The Keep (Pt. I of I)

A company of voices, each talking loudly over one another, traveled through the stagnant night air and into the opening high atop the keep. They came to rest inside the man’s ear as he sat at his table, reading patiently by the guttering light of a candle flame. Looking towards the open window with its high stone arch, he swept his pewter colored hair behind the offended ear and tilted his head to listen.

He had envisioned this very moment each day—a hundred times a day—and yet, now that it had arrived, it was all wrong somehow. It wasn’t long enough; he needed more time. The throng of voices was nearer now, moving like a leviathan through the narrow streets of the sleeping town. Why couldn’t the whole world be like this town? he thought.

His mind—that last companion—refused to be seduced by any naïvetés that they may pass him by like a summer tempest, bound for a different runaway enshrouded in a different keep. They were here for him and him alone. With him in hand, they would be gone in an instant. Without him, they would never relent. He gently closed the book on the table in front of him.

When the voices reached the broad oak door at the lower level of the keep, their individual shouts combined to create a unified, undulating bellow. Those closest to the door began to pound on the thick barrier, their angry fists and small tools thumping, menacingly but harmlessly, far below. Heavier tools soon found their way closer to the door, and the night sky was filled with the sound of wood pounding against wood, drowning out the threatening shouts.

The man stood slowly from his table and walked to the window. Looking below, speckles of torch flames illuminated the faces of his former contemporaries in convulsions of shadow and light: bakers and bankers; doctors and dancers; priests and presidents, their castes temporary forgotten in the spirit of the hunt.

They won’t stop until they have their prize, he thought, like the hound after the hare, or the falcon in pursuit of the field mouse, their singular focus—brief as it may be—is as undeniable as the tide. He stepped away from the window and returned to his table. Papers were piled into neat stacks, the stack themselves covering nearly every inch of the surface. I could burn them all, he thought, looking over to the fire blazing in the hearth. No, that wouldn’t do any good, he thought and turned away from the table.

The keep had been built so long ago that its original purpose was forgotten. When the man first fled—making his way from crack to crevasse in the hostile landscape—it had sat empty, and the gentle townspeople had quietly looked the other way as he occupied the tower’s top floor. The lower door was strong, it had been built to deny those who would impose themselves. With its thick oak beams bound together with rolled steel fittings, the door was twice the height of a man and would accommodate a horse and cart with ease. Still, the man knew that before the sun could chase the stars to bed, the heavy door would fall.

The man crossed the single room to the little door on the far wall. The pounding on the heavy wood below echoed up the spiral stone stairwell, and he closed the door to shut it out. The upper door was a miniature facsimile of the one below and would not defend him for long, but he still felt better when its thin iron latch was locked from within.

Would they all be down there? he wondered. Maybe it would only be some of them, the more zealous, perhaps, he tested his reason. No, he knew, if one came, it’s the same as if they all come. And those that haven’t come yet, will. No one stays gone forever.

Outside, the pounding below became more urgent. Their anger for him mutated into anger for the heavy wooden barrier, and soon the shouts were of equal scorn for both the door and the man beyond. The crowd grew in numbers, with new, smaller groups of vigilantes arriving, eager to participate in the hunt.

The man walked over to a small trunk on the floor beside his bed. Removing a few items from the top, he opened the lid. Inside were the remains of the person they came for—the man they had come to bring back to their world. He reached in and pulled out a shirt and a pair of trousers. He looked at them as the candlelight splashed shadows around the small room and remembered how the coarse fabric felt on his skin.

Would they be kinder if, when they saw me, I looked like them? he wondered. He removed his soft cotton night clothes and put on the attire of those down below. It can’t hurt, he thought, tossing his night clothes onto the bed. I’ve done nothing wrong though, he thought in his own defense, I was never meant to live there—I was never meant to live with them.  

Below, a new sound dominated the night and for a moment all pounding and shouting ceased. The labored groaning and creaking of crude wheels signaled the arrival of the machines. He had once built such machines. He operated them, directed their use, and designed bigger and better ones when possible. It wasn’t only fair to bring them—it was fitting. Like the Israelite army with their Ark, the machines were the gods of those wielding them below.

The man looked once more around the room. He walked back to the table and picked up one of the stacks of paper. Not these, he thought as he held them, they can’t have these. He walked over to the hearth and tossed the letters onto the burning logs. That’s it, he thought, and pulled the chair into the middle of the room, facing the door, and sat down to wait.

The loud pounding below suddenly changed in pitch. Instead of the dull thumping as before, now the wood screamed out in shrieks as the heavy oak beams began to split and splinter. Emboldened by their progress, the people chopped and hacked with renewed vigor. Soon the breaches grew longer as large swaths of the door finally surrendered, unable to endure any longer.

The man brushed his hair behind his ear again and crossed his leg over his knee. He could hear their hurried footfalls climbing the smooth, worn, stone steps. Quickly, they were at the small door at the top of the keep. They paused for a moment and one tentatively checked the handle from the other side. Finding it locked, they became incensed and clawed angrily at the flimsy wood.

Inside the room, the man stole one last glance around the world he had built for himself. He had built it alone, and he had built it away from them. While it had been all he ever wanted, it was all they had forbidden. They who knew no depravity, no sacrilege. They who built gods to sacrifice to themselves and worshipped perversions masquerading as mere indulgences. They who gorged themselves on decadence and overdosed on opulence.

And he had left—that could not be forgiven or forgotten.

The door on the far wall shuddered with exhaustion. As the latch began to bend—perilously close to coming unmoored from the wall—the man stood up. He would meet them on his feet and, whatever followed, they would at least be forced to say that about him.

The door burst inward in a shower of wood splinters and angry faces. They flooded into the room like a rogue ocean wave—undeniable and unreasonable. He could smell the smoke from the torches mixed with their sweat, and their screams drowned the world out in blinding sound as the first man reached him.


The man woke with a shock and sat upright, panting in the dark room. He waited for his breathing to return to normal before he swung his feet onto the cool stone floor. Standing, he walked over to the arched window and looked out over the sleeping town below. A dog barked from somewhere on the far edge of town and he listened to its owner yell for it to be quiet.

Somewhere, over those black hills, they’re coming, he thought as the breeze toyed with the ends of his pewter hair. It may take them a week, a year, or a decade, but they’re coming, he thought to himself and walked over to his table to light the candle.

Outside, a brown leaf—its own life a bittersweet memory to the tree—surrendered to the soft night breeze and scrapped noisily across the stone patio until it came to rest against the heavy oak beam of the door below.   

*****

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Good Timing (Pt. II of II)

Randy and Dewey sat in the car beside the nonworking gas pump. Randy wasn’t sure why they had stopped, and his eyes shifted around the empty parking lot. The store was closed and the only thing available was a soda machine by the front door, its dim light flickering erratically. Neither men spoke for a moment, and the only sound was the ticking of the engine as it cooled down in the chilly air.

Dewey raised his hand and squinted to check his watch in the faint glow of the dirty awning light bulb. Satisfied, he snapped his fingers once and opened the door. “Sorry boss,” he said, climbing out, “but I gotta take a leak—now’s your chance too.”

 He grunted as he stood upright, stretching his arms over his head. The cold air filled the interior of the car and Randy could see his breath again. Looking over at Dewey, he watched him slip his keys into his pocket and adjust his jacket.

“You know, I think I’m good,” Randy answered.

Until now, he hadn’t taken much time to consider his benefactor. He seems nice enough, he thought, studying Dewey briefly. But then, also… He couldn’t pick out any one thing specifically, but the man seemed …off, he concluded.

Dewey leaned down and peered into the car, “you sure?” he asked. When Randy just nodded in response, he flashed his toothy smile and gave him a wink. “Suit yourself,” he said cheerfully and stood back up. When he shut the door, the sound echoed into the dark until it became lost amidst the silvery pine needles and nocturnal birds of prey.

As Dewey walked away, Randy’s sense of uneasiness began to grow. Back on the road, a car drove past the service station and the headlights flashed briefly across the parking lot as it sped by. When he saw Dewey disappear around the corner of the building, Randy casually scanned the dimly lit car for anything that might tell him more about the man.

There wasn’t much in the open to see—at least nothing that should make him suspicious. Other than a tube of chap stick, some toll-booth stubs, and what looked like fast food napkins, folded at the bottom of the cup holder, the interior of the car was surprisingly clutter free. Randy started to think that maybe he was being paranoid. Still…, he thought.

He stole a quick glance at the building but Dewey had not reappeared. Reaching down to the glove box, he pushed the little button on the front and the door swung down. Inside, other than what looked like the owners-manual, there were just a few loose spare fuses at the bottom. He shut the glove box quietly and sat back. It’s just the night, he thought, laying his head against the seat. Hell, anyone would be creeped out here in th—a hand slammed on the roof of the car like a gun blast and Randy jerked upright.

When the door swung open, Dewey poked his head in and asked, “still here?” with a grin. The open door was letting the cold air back in and Randy tucked his hands under his arms.  

“Yep, I’m good,” he said with a weak smile. Dewey nodded once quickly and stood back up. He reached into his pocket and came out with a small handful of change and began sifting through the coins as he walked over to the dying soda machine. Randy watched him drop some coins into the slot and punch a button with his knuckle.

As he climbed back into the car with the can of soda, he said, “the last few miles are always the drowsiest,” and shut the door. As the car pulled back onto the road, leaving the vacant service station behind, Randy felt his apprehension begin to ebb. They rode for a while in their now-familiar silence, and before long the orange and white lights of Sparksville appeared on the dusky horizon.

When they made it to the edge of the town Randy let out a sigh, grateful to finally be home. “Again,” he said turning to Dewey, “I can’t thank you enough, really. I meant what I said by always drawing the short straw. If you hadn’t stopped, I’d probably still be out there walking,” he said with a short chuckle.

He turned to look out the windshield in order to guide Dewey to his turn when the streetlights began to blur; wobbling left and right at first until finally losing all focus. He shook his head—sure the exhausting night was finally catching up with him—but it seemed to only make things worse.

“Like I told you—right time, right place is all,” Dewey said as he turned onto a narrow residential street. Older two-story, single family homes lined the road, set back behind a crumbling sidewalk. Most of the houses were still dark at such an early hour, but a faint light could be seen in several. “Yes sir, I have a knack for timing,” he said as they paused briefly at a stop sign before continuing. The muted jazz music on the radio went into a saxophone solo and Dewey tapped along on the wheel.

Randy’s tongue felt like it was swelling in his mouth. He was just about to say something when his shoulders began to slump. He fought to keep his body from going limp, but his limbs wouldn’t obey and they began to loosen. Panicking, he realized that something was seriously wrong—and it wasn’t exhaustion.

He felt icy terror creeping up his spine and it took all his effort to force his head to turn. He looked at Dewey with a face of slack horror, staring wide-eyed. He tried desperately to speak—to say anything—but his throat wouldn’t conjure the words. It felt like he was sinking to the bottom of a deep sea and he couldn’t move to get back to the surface.

Dewey turned and looked into Randy’s panicked eyes and winked. “Of course, nothing works every time,” he said as he wove through the dusky pre-dawn streets, “you have got to be patient. You have no idea how much coffee I’ve dumped out over the years,” he said as he turned into a dirt driveway, sheltered by the hanging branches of a live oak.

As the car turned, Randy couldn’t fight the momentum, and he slumped against the door. His brain was screaming—to move, to run, open the door, anything—but all he could do is watch, frozen, as the car pulled into a tidy garage. As the large overhead door began to close on the chilly darkness beyond, Randy could hear Dewey snapping his fingers softly to a jazz beat. Then he sank to the bottom of the sea.             

Good Timing (Pt. I of II)

The Impala’s glowing taillights set the billowing dust ablaze, engulfing Randy in a gritty red cloud. Without taking his eyes off the car, he put his arm up to his face to keep from choking. Well, shit, he thought as he spit the dust back onto the shoulder of the road. His suitcase had been yanked from the backseat and tossed unceremoniously onto the gravel while she had been shouting—demanding that he get out of the car. Now, as the silver moonglow replaced the fading taillights, he sauntered over to the small case and scooped it up by the handle.   

A perfect end to a perfect weekend, Randy thought sarcastically as he wiped the dust from his suitcase and began walking. What had been a genius shortcut back to Sparksville an hour ago had instead turned into a freezing death march alone through dark and shapeless fields. I should have just kept my mouth shut for two more hours, he thought when a large bird screeched from the trees beyond the field beside him. He blew into his hands to warm them and picked up his pace, his still dusty suitcase bouncing against his leg.   

 Randy had lost track of how long he had been walking when he saw the white glow of headlights ahead. She didn’t make it far, he thought triumphantly as the car got closer. But his victory was short-lived and he saw the headlights belonged to a pickup truck rather than his Impala. It sped by in a cloud of dust, showering Randy with bits of gravel that bounced off his suitcase and jacket. Well, shit, he thought again with a sigh, his breath making a misty cloud in the cold air.

He had just resumed walking when he heard a low rumble in the quiet of the night air. This time, however, the vehicle was coming from behind him. Turning, he saw the incandescent white glow of headlights growing in the distance. When the car got close, the bright light blinded him and he raised his briefcase to his eyes while he used the other to try and flag the driver down. Both worked, and the car—a newer-model sedan—pulled onto the shoulder of the road just past where he stood holding his suitcase. 

The car sat idling patiently as Randy walked up to the passenger door, coughing up fresh dust. The window was down and quiet jazz music escaped with the heated air into the night. He looked into the darkened car and—hoping his voice didn’t sound too desperate—asked, “any chance you’re heading toward Sparksville?”

The interior light switched on and revealed a neatly dressed man about Randy’s age in the driver’s seat. His wavy dark hair was pulled back behind his ears and the early signs of crow’s feet ringed his brown eyes as he flashed a toothy smile. “I sure am,” he said, “hop on in—I’ve got plenty of room,” and he patted the empty passenger seat.

“Thanks, mister,” Randy said, as he quickly tossed his suitcase on the empty backseat before climbing into the front. Shutting the door, he turned the window crank to close out the cold air and settled back with a sigh. The stranger turned the interior light off and pulled back onto the road. “Whew, you’re a godsend, bud,” Randy said as he rubbed his hands together for warmth, “I’m not sure how much longer I could have walked this damn road. It’s cold as shit out there too.”

The man let out a short laugh and said, “The name’s Dewey—Dewey Page. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” then paused before adding, “that’s all there is to it, really.” Grinning, he winked and held out his hand in the dim light for Randy to shake.

Randy took the offered hand, smiling back. “Well I appreciate it. Next time I’ll wait until the vacation’s over before I pick a fight,” he said, chuckling. “Or at least do it in the summer,” he added flatly with raised eyebrows.

Dewey laughed politely and then a thought suddenly came to him, “oh, hey” he exclaimed, reaching behind him to the back seat. He felt around in the dark without taking his eyes from the road. He finally found what he was searching for and produced a battered green thermos. “No cream or sugar, but it’s still hot,” he said offering the thermos to Randy. Randy’s eyes widened happily when he saw it and he took it from Dewey.

“That’s perfect,” he said with a smile as he unscrewed the cap. When he poured some into the makeshift cup, he raised it to smell the rich aroma before taking small tentative sips of the hot drink. “This is the first break I’ve caught in a while,” he said aloud, but to no one in particular.

“No problem at all,” Dewey replied anyway, “everyone hits a run of bad luck every now and then,” and he looked over to give Randy another wink. He drove with his arms outstretched and both hands on the steering wheel, occasionally taking one off to snap his fingers along with the soft jazz beat. “Me? I think I’m luckier than most—always have been—that’s why I like to make a difference in people’s lives when I can,” he said, and then began to softly hum along with the radio.

Outside, gray orchards of ink-black pecan trees lined the road like sentinels, their leafless limbs clawing the starry sky just beyond the glass. “Not me,” Randy said and shook his head, “if something can go wrong for me—it will. I’m like a magnet for trouble and misery,” he said with a low laugh.

 “In high school, after two weeks of begging, I finally got Missy Adams to agree to go to the Homecoming with me,” Randy continued, unsolicited. “Except, when we get to the dance, she tells half of the wrestling team that I felt her up in the car. I didn’t, of course, but who do you think they believed? To this day it’s still the worst beating I’ve taken—and that’s a competitive list,” he said and took a sip of coffee.

Dewey laughed loudly once before catching himself, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh—I mean, I was only laughing about that last part; that’s a horrible thing to do.” He paused for a moment before saying, “You know, I hate to admit it, but I guess I was no saint myself in those days,” he said with a wry smile.  

“I remember in 10th grade,” Dewey continued, “I found out from my cousin that Lenna Blaylock was going to this fat camp over the summer. See, Lenna had everything going for her, money, brains, and a beautiful face, except that she was…” and he took his hands off the steering wheel and held them out in a circle in front of him. “Lot’s of guys came close to scooping her up, they just couldn’t get past her size,” he said as his fingers tapped the wheel in beat with the radio.

“Anyway, I started writing her letters over the summer while she was at this camp. Nothing serious at first, but then towards mid-August I was laying it on thick. By the time she came back in the fall, she was the best looking girl in school—and she was madly in love with me.” He paused to listen to the radio DJ announce a song, but then turned the volume down even lower before looking over at Randy with a grin.

“Unfortunately,” Dewey went on, “I guess she got too comfortable with me, and before long…” and he mimed the big stomach again. “Ah well, it was on to the next. That’s the thing—the next one always comes along,” he said, smiling as he shot Randy another sideways wink.

Randy just nodded absentmindedly and watched out the window as the shadowy fields finally melted away and the car plunged into the pitch-darkness of a pine forest. He couldn’t feel it outside, but it still seemed colder in amongst the trees where the moonlight didn’t penetrate. The two rode in silence for a few minutes while the radio softly murmured a jazz number.  

Randy finally spoke—partly to break the increasingly awkward silence—and said, “then, in college, I finally managed to rush the beta sig,” he said, waving his hands dramatically in the air. “And how long did that last? A week,” he hissed, answering his own question. “They had a big party at the house right after we moved in—booze; girls; dope, the works. Eventually, it starts to get pretty late at night and I guess the music was pissing the neighbors off. Someone finally called the cops to complain about the noise, even though most people had already left,” he explained.

Dewey nodded silently in the driver’s seat; lips pursed in a frown as he listened. “When the cops showed up,” Randy continued, “everyone scattered and left the music still blaring. Except that no one bothered to tell me. I walked out of the upstairs bathroom and face-first into a cop—joint in one hand, bottle of Corona in the other,” he chuckled to himself and ran his fingers through his hair. “Needless to say, they traded my scholarship in for a student loan and that was the last party I ever went to.”

Bits of loose gravel were hitting the underside of the car with tiny metallic clinks as they drove deeper into the pine forest. After a pause, Dewey said succinctly, “bad timing,” and snapped his fingers as if to emphasize his point. Randy just nodded once more in the dark and the two returned to the now ubiquitous silence. The DJ on the radio repeated the station’s phone number for sleepy listeners to call in their requests. When he finished, this time it was Dewey who broke the lull in conversation.

“When I was in college,” he started, smiling at the memory, “I was the one selling that dope.” He looked over at Randy and smiled revealing neat rows of white teeth. “You wouldn’t believe the people I sold it to. See, that’s what always interested me,” he said raising his finger in the air. “Students, sure—but I’m talking about faculty, senior faculty too. And the families—oh man—if half those people knew who was buying dope from me…” he trailed off, shaking his head.

“Never got caught—not even once,” Dewey continued, “you had to have a nose for it… for all the risks that you couldn’t see. You couldn’t just rush headlong into every deal because it looked like an easy score,” he said in a serious tone.

Outside, the moon was hanging low in the sky and it occasionally poked through a random gap in the dense pine limbs. Inside the car, Dewey went on, “Not many people lasted very long in the business back then. They were just too impatient—and you needed to be patient,” he said, jabbing his finger at the steering wheel, “you had to have a knack for the timing.”

Randy wasn’t very interested in the nuances of the illegal drug trade, but out of politeness he nodded solemnly anyway. Outside, the headlights lit upon a small metal sign advertising a self-service gas station—”one mile ahead.” When it finally came into view, Randy could see the lone wooden building set back in a small clearing on the left side of the road. A single bulb—dimmed by a layer of dirty cobwebs and dead insects—beneath the metal awning struggled to illuminate the two silver gas pumps.

The empty gravel parking lot was bathed in the yellow warmth of a sodium light perched high atop a cedar pole. The station was closed, and the inside was dark except for the hazy white glow of a soft drink cooler. Randy wondered if the station was even in business anymore but Dewey pulled in anyway, easing little sedan up to the first pump before cutting the engine off.


Part: II

Repentance River (Pt. III/III)

Across town, Wesley sat at the kitchenette table inside the cluttered little camper. There was an open cigar box on the table in front of him and he stared at the contents with unseeing eyes. The aging camper hadn’t been the only thing his father had left behind when he skipped town—leaving Wes to figure out a hard world on his own. The only other thing of value he had inherited was kept hidden in the cigar box, now sitting atop the chipped formica table. His old man had probably not intended to leave it, but that’s the risk you take when you orphan your son in the middle of the night.  

He looked around the cluttered room with a growing feeling of disgust. Beer cans and fast food wrappers littered nearly every surface, and where they weren’t laying, dirty clothes—inside out and crumpled—were strewn about. Often, at night he could hear the mice foraging for food amongst the foil hamburger wrappers and empty potato chip bags.  

How many opportunities like this come along in a lifetime? he wondered. He was tired of living this way. It wasn’t just the crammed camper with its leaky roof above the front door. He was tired of being forced to play a bad hand in this life. First his mother and then his father—left without warning; without reason. Then school had been nothing more than a long string of failures and disappointments. His low grades drew increasing ridicule that escalated into open hostility from most of his peers and the faculty. In the end, he had made it out of there against all odds—thanks to Rodney.

Rodney. He owed his friend a debt that he could never repay. And yet, no one knew just how dark and lonely it was to live in his shadow. People liked to reminded him of just how much worse his life would be without his friend—how much further down the slope of society he’d have slid if not for the lifeline that was his friend. But he knew better. Everyone he knew had their breaks come early in life: the family; the money; the brains; the looks. His big break just took longer to get there—but it had arrived at last. He emptied the contents of the cigar box into the army bag and threw the empty box across the little room.


A light rain began to tap on the thin roof above them before Rodney finished telling Sadie what happened on the river. “Well, what do you think?” he asked, his face a mask of worry and exhaustion. “Do you think they’ll find out that you found it?” she asked. Rodney thought for a moment, “I don’t imagine anyone will ever find the body. And no one saw us going in or leaving the channel—not that I noticed anyway. If we can get in and then out again without drawing too much attention I can’t see how anyone would know it was us. There’s dozens of people on that river on any given day. We just have to be careful spending it. We can’t spend it around here, not like it is anyway. But that’s a problem to worry about later.” “Okay,” she said, “but if anything looks or feels wrong, get out of there. Don’t even think twice—just leave the money and go. I don’t want anything happening to you, no amount of money is worth that.”

Rodney smiled as confidently as he could and walked over to kiss her. “Don’t worry, I’m not taking any extra risks,” he said, putting his hand on her stomach, “but this money is going to help us get out of this place,” he said looking around the trailer’s living room. She just smiled uncertainly and nodded. He could see the worry on her face but he knew that she would trust him, she always did. Rodney leaned over and kissed her once more before he bent down to kiss her belly, “I’ll be back soon,” he said as he crossed the room. When he opened the door, he turned back to look at Sadie, still on the couch. “Love you,” he said with a wink and walked out.

Outside, the rain had strengthened, now coming down in fat drops. He sat in his truck with one thought running through his head in an endless loop: why did it have to be Wesley there with me? He loved his friend like a brother, but this was a high-stakes game, and Wes—big as his heart is—was anything but stable or dependable. He’d have to make sure that he understood that they needed to keep the money a secret, and that meant no big spending. Good luck with that, he thought as he let out a groan in the empty truck cab.

The truck’s headlights raked across the camper windows as Rodney pulled into the drive. Before he could stop, Wes came out of the front door carrying the duffle bag, taking the porch steps two at a time. He climbed into the truck, tossing the bag on the floor as he got in. “What’d Sadie think?” he asked in the dark cab as Rodney backed out of the driveway. “She’s happy about it, nervous, but happy. We just have to be careful doing this last part and then everything will be smooth sailing,” Rodney said.

The rain began to fall in heavy sheets as they drove to the head of the old logging road. “You know, I’ve been thinkin’,” Wes said as they drove, “I’m going to bury my half under the camper for now—just until the dust settles and all, and we’re sure things are cool.” “No,” Rodney said at once, “we’ll keep it all together for now. I don’t want to start splitting things up yet. Too many lose ends.” “Well, what are we going to do with it then?” Wes asked with a hint of anger to his voice. If Rodney noticed, he didn’t say anything, answering instead, “I’ll keep it at the trailer for now. Don’t worry—it’ll be safe. I’ll find a good spot.” Just what I expected, Wes thought as they drove through the rainy night.

The roar of the deluge drowned out the truck’s engine as it came to a stop on the logging road next to a wide patch of ferns. Both men got out—Wes with the army duffel over his shoulder—and stood in front of the hood. Rodney had to raise his voice over the rumbling of a million raindrops slamming into a million leaves, and he nearly shouted, “If we stay in a straight line, the river is right through there. With any luck, we’ll come out right by the cove.” Wes’ face was a stream of water and he just nodded and stretched his arm out as if to say: lead the way.

They had been walking for so long that Rodney was beginning to get worried when the trees finally gave way to the chest-high grass of the riverbank. He waved his dim flashlight around the bank looking for some sign of where they were when he spotted one. An elm tree had long ago lost the support of the dirt bank below it and now leaned out over the water. Rodney knew the slanted tree was only a short distance downriver from the cove and he picked up his pace as he walked.

When the two reached the cove, the log was exactly as it had been when they left. Both men looked around the woods out of nervous habit and then rolled the log away. The dirt was still soft and in the rain the hole had turned to mud. Wes reached down into the quagmire and felt for the case. His hands locating the handle, he pulled it to the surface and set it on the ground as globs of thick mud ran off the sides. Wordlessly, Rodney reached over and grabbed the case, hauling it to the edge of the water to rinse it.

Setting the case down under the outstretched limbs of a hemlock, the men sat side by side and opened the briefcase. The shock looking at so much money was almost as strong as the first time seeing the neat stacks of banded bills. Water was dripping on the bundles and the men rushed to stuff them in the duffel bag, grabbing the blocks of hundred dollar bills with wet hands. Once they were done, they gathered rocks to fill the briefcase for weight before Wes threw it as far as he could out into the cove. The pouring rain boiled the river’s surface as the silver case sank below the inky water.

Neither men spoke as they walked back through the dark woods to the truck. As usual, Rodney led the way and Wes followed behind just far enough to not get hit by any branches that whipped free of the man in front of him. They made better time on the way back out of the woods, and before long the truck’s glass glistened from Rodney’s flashlight.   

Rodney stopped by the driver’s door to dig his keys from his front pocket. The rain continued to fall in waves, as if a great plug had been pulled from the heavens above them, and the squall almost entirely muffled the pistol shot. It was dark—and raining—but at such a close range Wes couldn’t help but hit his target. Rodney’s head jerked to the side as his body fell limp in the mud by the truck,  keys still in his hand. Wes watched his dark figure in the rain but there was no movement. He nudged Rodney’s leg with the toe of his boot, but the body just settled back lifelessly.

A short distance into the woods, Wes sat on his knees quickly digging a shallow grave. The rain had stopped and the moonlight broke through the clouds in patches of pale light. No one came out this far so it wouldn’t need to be deep—just enough to not be noticed. Keep the money at your house, he thought as he dug angrily, why, so you and Sadie can leave town like my mom and dad? Just ditch little ol’ Wes and sail off into the sunset? Oh no—it’s my turn this time. You, Sadie, this river, this whole town can kiss my ass; I’ll be sure and not write.

The first pink glows of the morning sun began to warm the sky beyond the windshield as Wesley pulled into the gas station. He had been listening to the news but there was mention of any missing persons or any money disappearing. He reached into the bag and pulled a couple bills from one of the stacks of money before exiting Rodney’s truck and strolling into the store. He was still wearing his wet clothes from the night before and was starving from the long walk and the drive out of town.

“Thirty on pump five,” he said as he grabbed a basket inside the store. He walked around brightly lit mart tossing various things into the basket: chips; candy bars; a 6-pack of beer—everything he thought he would need for the long drive ahead. He didn’t plan on stopping until he hit an ocean and the fewer rest stops along the way, the better. I can make good plans too, he thought as he tossed a can of Vienna Sausages into the basket.  

He set the basket down on the counter and emptied the contents as the man behind the register scanned the bar codes. When he was done, the man behind the counter said, “with the gas it’ll be $66.37,” in a disinterested tone as he bagged the loose items. Wes handed the man one of the bills as he began picking the bags up. Outside, a newer Buick sedan pulled into the station and stopped at one of the pumps, but it’s windows were tinted and Wes couldn’t see inside the car. The driver just sat in the car without getting out to pump any gas or come inside. There’s no attendants here, buddy, Wes thought, but the car was beginning to make him nervous.

The hair on his neck began to stand up as he stared at the car longer. Why isn’t he getting out? he thought. He suddenly felt very certain that the car was here for him. Maybe it was the cops, alerted by Sadie after Rodney never returned. Or, maybe it was whoever the money belonged to. His mouth became parched and he was tempted to open one of the beers in his bag, but he remained frozen—staring at the motionless car.

The man behind the counter spoke, snapping Wes from his trance. He didn’t hear him though, and without turning away from the car outside just said, “huh?” The man now sounded annoyed rather than bored. “I said,” he repeated, waving the hundred dollar bill in the air, “there’s something wrong with this bill. It isn’t real—not even a very good fake.”

Wes stood motionless, still staring at the car. Not even a very good fake. And his world went dark.


Repentance River (Pt. II/III)

The two men crouched in the shade staring at the body beside the river. The birds high above in the canopy had returned to their musical gossip, the men below deemed harmless. “This is like one of those movies,” Wes said. “Like the ones with the mob bosses and drug things.” Rodney was only half listening, but he said, “drug things? What drug things?” “You know, the gang things,” Wes said, getting frustrated as he struggled for the word. “Cartels?” Rodney asked. “Yeah—cartels; like one of those drug cartels.” “I don’t think there are any cartels in Georgia,” Rodney said flatly.

“What do you think is in it?” Wes asked. “Well there’s only so many things you handcuff to your arm,” the boat captain replied, standing up. He walked over to the body and looked at it. The dead man wasn’t dressed flashy—but not shabby either—wearing sneakers, blue jeans, and a button down shirt. The type of clothes that wouldn’t attract much attention—if that was your aim, Rodney mused. He looked at the muddy and dented case. There were two small combination lock hasps by the handle. It wouldn’t be hard to open—if he wanted to. But whatever was in the case was likely why this man ended up dead in the river. Someone would probably come looking for the case. They could be coming here now.

“Go to the boat-box and grab the two biggest screwdrivers you can find,” Rodney called over his shoulder. He needed to know what was inside. Wes came back a few minutes later and handed him the tools. He knelt down and picked up the handcuff chain, sliding the screwdrivers into a link at opposite angles. Grunting, he pried apart the link and the loose end of the chain slid to the mud. The men carried the case a short distance from the body and knelt down under the thick limb of an oak tree.

Rodney tried the latches but—as he had expected—they were locked. He placed the tip of the screwdriver under the hasp arm and pried up. At first the thin metal bar only bent upward, but then it popped free with a metallic clink. After doing the same to the other latch, he set the case on the ground. The men glanced nervously at one another before Rodney raised the lid. They both gasped when they saw inside, the noise piercing the silence of the woods.

The entire case was filled with stacks of hundred dollar bills. Yellow and white paper bands around each bundle read: “$10,000.00”. Rodney quickly closed the lid and looked around the forest—suddenly certain they were being watched. A short distance upstream, a fish splashed as it snatched a bug from the surface, but otherwise the only sounds were the birds high above. Wes reached over and opened the lid again. “Holy shit,” he exclaimed, “that has to be a million bucks!” “I don’t think it’s a million,” Rodney said, “but it’s a lot” He’d never seen so much money in his life—and he knew immediately that it could only lead to trouble.

“I think we should leave right now and tell the police,” Rodney said a few minutes later as they stood by the boat. “No way,” Wes replied in shocked horror, “this is our ticket—our big break. We take the money and we get the hell out of here, look around man—no one even knows this dude’s here!” he said waving around the woods with his arms. Rodney shook his head, “Think about it, man. Do you honestly believe whoever was supposed to get that briefcase is going to forget about it? No, they’re out there looking for it right now and eventually they’re going to figure out this guy went in the river. I don’t plan to be anywhere near here or that case when they do.”

“Think about Sadie; you owe her,” Wes continued, trying another tack. “You told her you’d buy her a house by two years after the wedding, right? What’s it been now, three and a half—four years?” “Five,” Rodney said evenly and spat into the water. “And what about the boat note,” the shorter man continued, “and the nets? How long until those are paid off?” There had been more expenses than just the boat and the nets of course, but Rodney had never wasted time explaining that type of stuff to Wesley; he wouldn’t understand half of it anyway.

He stood by the boat—one foot on shore and one in the water—thinking about his options. Not only was the money not his, whoever it did belong to was almost definitely a bad apple—one man was already dead. But Wes was also right; he had expected the fishing business to do a lot better than it had been. The river just didn’t harbor the same amount of fish anymore. Sadie would never leave him over money—she was a better woman than that—but, he did owe her more. He hated himself for being so weak.

“Ok,” he finally said, “but not because of the loan or the house… Sadie’s late.” It took a moment for Wes to understand, but then—dead body and money forgotten for the moment—his face beamed and he rushed over to hug his friend. “That’s great news, man! We have to celebrate!” Wesley’s celebrations were why Rodney had waited so long to tell him in the first place. Never quite outgrowing the bonfire-and-beer lifestyle from high school, Wes still liked to party until the sun chased him to bed—responsibilities be damned. “Absolutely man, but first we need to deal with this,” he said, jerking his head towards the dead man’s body on the water’s edge, now attracting fat black flies.

Wes walked over and grabbed the case before returning to the boat. “Wait, hold up—,” Rodney said stopping him just before the boat, “we can’t just leave him here.” Wes turned and looked at the body, “what do you want to do? We can’t bury him—we don’t even have any shovels.” Wes was right of course, but Rodney had other reasons for not wanting to bury him: he wanted to get away from there as fast as they could. “I have an idea,” he said, “why don’t we give him a sailor’s burial?” As usual, Wes had to chew on the words for a bit but then he understood Rodney’s thinking. “But what are we going to sink him with?” he asked.

Five minutes later the two fishermen had their spare boat anchor tied around the dead man’s legs. They each held a long stick in their hands, the ends of which were tucked under the man’s torso. Rodney began to count, “one… two…” On three, both men raised their sticks and the body rolled back into the water before quickly sinking out of sight in the muddy channel. “It wouldn’t take much to find him—but you’d have to know to look here in the first place,” the captain said, glancing around the woods.


Rodney and Wes were still a mile from the marina when Rodney cut the motor off. Behind the treetops, the setting sun filled the early evening sky with brilliant orange light that reflected off the tiny wave caps, blanketing the river in a thousand tiny flames. “We can’t go to the marina—not with that,” Rodney said, nodding towards the big fish cooler they carried on the boat’s deck, now with the briefcase inside. “Why not?” Wes asked, his face glowing in the twilight. “Because, if someone thinks to look for that guy in the river, where’s the first place they’re going to check? They’re probably watching the docks right now just waiting for someone to come ashore with that thing,” Rodney explained, “I got a different idea.”

He yanked the motor to life and then turned the boat around, heading back upriver a short distance to the two men’s favorite spot. When they pulled into the small cove, Rodney steered the bow to the bank. Years ago, they had found the cove when they first started fishing the Drake river. They still dropped anchor every now and then when they wanted to take a break and cool off in the water or nap in the shade. Wes tied the boat off and turned to Rodney and asked, “so let me get this straight. You want to bury the case here… and then come and dig it up after dark?” “Yep,” Rodney replied, quickly carrying the briefcase to the shore. He stopped and studied the woods around them before spotting what he was looking for. “Here,” he said, “under that log back there. Help me roll it over.”

The ground under the mossy log was soft. They managed to quickly dig a large sized hole, scraping the ground with the big screwdrivers from the boat-box before scooping the loose dirt out by hand. Once the briefcase was completely buried they rolled the log back on top. “Now don’t forget which log it is,” Rodney joked as they caught their breath. “Oh, don’t worry—I won’t,” Wes replied, taking his gloves off.

Rodney went over his plan one more time as they packed their things back into the boat. “The old Perry Mill logging road is about half a mile through those woods—and it’s a shitty walk. Other than that, you can’t get into this cove except by boat. We’ll wait until it’s good and dark, then we’ll drive down the logging road, walk through the woods back here, and dig it up. Then we’re back home before the sun’s up—and nobody saw us with anything.” Like usual, Wes left the decisions to Rodney. To his credit, he knew he wasn’t very smart—as some people went out of their way to point out his entire life—but he knew how high the stakes were for both of them now and so he had no problem letting Rodney call the shots.

It was almost dark when their boat pulled into the slip at the small marina. Only a few other fishermen were still around along with a family loading a speedboat onto a trailer, a large inflatable inner-tube strapped on the back. Rodney went to get the truck and trailer as Wes began quickly piling their things on the dock. After loading the boat onto the trailer, they sat in the truck in the parking lot. Rodney was trying to casually look around before leaving and said, “you see anyone you don’t recognize around here?” “Recognize?” Wes asked incredulously, “I don’t know the whole damn town, Rod.” Rodney sighed, “I mean, do you see anyone that looks out of place—like they don’t belong here?”

Wes looked around the nearly deserted marina, “what about that truck over there, by that building; in the dark—see?” Rodney leaned over and followed Wes’ eyes to the building. “That’s the truck the marina uses for cleaning out the shitters,” he said before turning the key and pulling away. On the drive to the edge of town where Wes’ camper was parked both men watched the rearview mirrors to see if they were being followed, but no lights materialized from the darkness behind them.

The gravel in the driveway crunched under the truck’s tires as Rodney pulled to a stop. The dented little camper was the only thing Wes’ dad had left him—when he left him. Like his mother ten years prior, his dad had gotten into his car one night, left, and simply never came back. It had been right before graduation and—while he never said so—Rodney felt that it must have been especially hurtful for Wes. As hard as life could be for a boy growing up in a camper, it only got harder when he was left to fend on his own. Rodney’s parents had tried to help as much as they could—some groceries here, some hand-me-down clothes there—but the pride of young men is often not easily broken, and their lot can be unnecessarily difficult at times.

Rodney turned the truck off and said, “I’ll be back in a few hours. You got a backpack or a bag—something like that?” Wes nodded, “I have an old army duffel bag, if that’d work?” “Okay, yeah, bring it,” Rodney said, “we’ll put the money in that and then sink the briefcase to the bottom of the cove. Remember, don’t say a word about any of this to anybody. I’ll be back in a few hours to get you. And Wes, please, don’t get drunk—there’s plenty of time for that when we get this thing done.” Wes nodded again before getting out of the truck and walking to the camper sitting on the edge of the woods.

On the drive to his trailer, Rodney thought of different ways to tell Sadie what happened. He didn’t think she would say to get rid of the money, but she would probably not grasp the risk either. He wanted to make sure that she understood that they had to keep the money quiet for a while, but without terrifying her at the same time. He was prepared to leave everything here behind and run if strange people started showing up in town—now he wondered if Sadie would be as well; she would be leaving more behind than he would be.

Sadie was on the porch when he pulled into the driveway. Their trailer sat on quiet wooded lot just past the last gas station on the way out of town. You could see the orange sodium light by the gas pumps from their front lawn, but otherwise they had no neighbors nearby. “You’re back late—must have been up to your neck in fish,” she said with her wry smile. Together since the 10th grade, she had stuck with him through the hard times as the fish grew scarcer. She was no stranger to bad days on the river and assumed he’d stopped off for a drink after baking under the hot sun all day. “You could say that,” Rodney said, climbing the steps to kiss her. “Why don’t you come inside for a minute.”   


Part: III

 

Repentance River (Pt. I/III)

Miniature waves bobbed over the surface of the river until finding their way to shore where they lapped against the side of the aluminum boat. The boat—anchored in the shallow water a few feet from the bank—was loaded with ropes, traps, and a large cooler that sat in the center of its deck. On shore, her modest crew of two lay under the outstretched limbs of a Willow tree letting their lunch settle. It had been humid all morning and the thick river air made them slow in returning to their work.

When they finally did stagger to their feet, the shorter man said, “if I’d known it’d be this shitty out I’d stayed home—handful of cats ain’t even worth this crap.” Rodney had heard the same complaint before—nearly every hot day with no fish in the traps—so he just let Wes vent his frustration. They had been friends since middle school and Rodney knew it would blow over soon enough, so there was no need to risk adding fuel to the fire with any attempts at levity. Wes’ grumbling trailed off as he waded through the water to the boat and tossed his lunch bag and water jug inside.

Rodney followed behind, waiting for his friend to climb over the side of the boat before pulling the anchor from the mud. The fish were a lot scarcer this summer, he thought as he coiled the wet anchor line. They had been scarce last year too. In fact, they had been declining for as many years as Rodney could remember—with any fish over a couple of feet being a rare treat these days. There were just too many people fishing the same water and even the prodigious catfish couldn’t compete with the insatiable demand. Once aboard, Rodney pulled the rope on the side of the motor and it roared to life in a cloud of blue smoke.

They had traveled upriver for just over an hour when they passed a side channel. Rodney let the motor throttle down to an idle and their wake caught up with the little boat, lifting it high in the air as it passed under. “We drop back there before?’ He asked—jerking his head towards the channel—as the boat settled. Wes turned to look before answering, “Last year, wasn’t it? Goes back a ways and then forks, I think.” It was possible that Wes did in fact remember this particular channel—out of dozens along this stretch of the Drake River—but it was more likely he was talking out of his ass, Rodney figured. But, he was the dummy who had asked.

Rodney turned into the channel, keeping the boat idle low in fear of submerged obstacles like stumps and sunken logs. “Climb up to the bow and make sure I don’t hit anything”, he called to Wes. Rodney watched him stumble as he climbed over the fish traps before settling in at the bow. Why would I have to tell him that, He thought, After all this time? They had been catching and selling catfish to several restaurants in Ashcroft since high school. After graduation Rodney turned their small-time hustle into a full scale operation—taking out loans for a better boat and newer nets.

Like usual, when Rodney started the business Wesley was never far away. He had nowhere else to be and his merely graduating high school had defied the modest expectations of those who knew him. Rodney would probably get more done with someone else working on the boat, but he felt responsible for his friend—who he viewed more as a little brother than just a friend.

Something scraped the bottom of the boat causing it to lean to the side and Rodney shot a look at Wes. “That felt high enough to see,” he called over the boat’s motor. Wes just shrugged and gave a sheepish look before resuming his dubious watch. The boat went around a bend before opening up to a wide pool.

 “Hey, stop-stop, what’s that?” Wes asked, pointing towards the bank. Rodney followed his gaze and saw something caught under a low hanging branch that sagged down into the water. “I dunno,” he replied as he turned the boat in that direction. It looked familiar but he couldn’t think of what it reminded him of as he steered the boat closer. Something dark blue was pinned against the branch. As the boat drew near, it came to him: A leg. It looks like a human leg, he thought.

He saw the shoe—tangled in a clump of bright green leaves—confirming his instincts at the same time Wes realized what was under the branch. “Holy shit, man! That’s a body,” he nearly yelled. “Hey—,” hissed Rodney, “keep it down!” He suddenly felt like they were being watched from somewhere in the dense woods that surrounded them. He aimed the bow of the boat at the bank upstream of the body, and Wes hopped ashore with the bowline before tying it to a sapling on the bank.

Once on the bank the two men walked slowly downstream to where the leg floated in the water, bobbing up and down gently in the current. “What the hell is he doing all the way out here?” he asked, pulling his cap off his head. “I dunno,” Rodney said, “he must have washed down the channel from the river. It stormed a few nights ago, maybe he came down when the river was high.” Dead bodies turning up in the Drake river wasn’t unheard of, though neither men had ever seen one themselves.  

Wes started to walk down the short bank to the water’s edge and Rodney grabbed his arm, “whoa, where you going?” he asked. “I’m going to see what the hell happened,” Wes replied, tugging free from his grip. When he got to the water he leaned over the edge, peering down beneath the limb. “We have to get him out,” he called back to Rodney. “What? No way, get back in the boat and we’ll let the police know when we get back to the marina.” “What if it’s someone we know?” Wes persisted. Rodney thought about that for a second. If they got back and reported it, and it turned out to be someone they knew, it wouldn’t look good to have left them there, rotting in the water—Ashcroft was still a small town.

Rodney sighed, “Ok, hang on,” he said and returned to the boat for a length of rope. When he got back he walked down the bank to Wes, rope in hand. Up close, he could only see pretty much what he saw from the boat. One leg, clad in a sneaker and jeans, poked out of the water at a queer angle, pinned to the branch by the current. The other leg—and presumably the rest of the body—hung below the surface, just out of eyesight in the murky water.

“Here,” Rodney said, handing Wes the rope. “What? I’m not tying it to him, you do it—you’re better at knots than I am.” “Better at knots?” Rodney said incredulously, turning to face him. “Wes, buddy, we’re dragging him out of the river, not lashing him down for a storm.”

Wesley finally conceded—as he always did when he couldn’t think of a rejoinder quick enough—and took the rope. He made a loop in the line and gestured for Rodney to take his other hand to hold him steady. After Rodney braced himself, Wes leaned out and tossed the loop over the exposed sneaker on the first try. Both men leaned back towards the bank and Wes pulled the rope slowly.

When the leg pulled free from the branch it spun out into the current and was almost swept away. Wes pulled the rope taught however and the body began floating perpendicular to the current, steaming to shore like an unlikely submarine. When it got close to the bank Rodney saw that Wes would need help getting the body out of the water and grabbed the rope behind him. Both men backed up the shallow bank, pulling the body ashore as they went.

When the body was lying on the dirt the men let the rope down and walked up hesitantly, glancing around the trees occasionally. The body belonged to a man—most likely around middle age, though it was hard to be certain as the face had swollen in the water. The eyes and tongue protruded comically from the bloated face and Rodney would almost laugh if it weren’t so disgusting.

“See if he has a wallet,” Rodney told Wes but when he refused, Rodney didn’t push him. He held his breath and bent down to pull the body over but it just flopped back over face up each time he tried. “His arm’s caught,” Wes said, stepping to the edge where the man’s arm and hand disappeared into the water. He used his rubber boot to nudge the arm hoping to free it, but it held fast, stuck to some unseen obstacle below. Wes glanced up at Rodney before bending down and grabbing the shirt sleeve. He pulled lightly at first, and then when that failed he began tugging harder.

The arm came free with a pop—dropping Wes on his butt in the mud. He grabbed the sleeve and pulled again but this time it moved. As it came to the surface the men saw a silver cuff that gleamed in the sunlight. The chain disappeared into the murky water, and Wes glanced back at Rodney—who just gave a wide-eyed shrug—before pulling on the chain. Soon, a large briefcase came to the surface, the dull silver glowing brighter underwater as it rose. He dragged the case onto the shore and sat back down in the mud panting.


The two men crouched on the bank staring at the body with the case chained to the arm. “This is like one of those movies,” Wes said. “Like those ones with the mobster and drug things.” Rodney was only half listening, but he said, “drug things? What drug things?” “You know, the gang things,” Wes said, getting frustrated as he struggled for the word. “Cartels?” Rodney asked. “Yeah—cartels; like one of those cartels.” “I don’t think there are any cartels in Georgia,” Rodney said flatly.

 “What do you think is in it?” Wes asked. “Well there’s only so many things you handcuff to your arm,” the boat captain replied, standing up. He walked over to the body and looked at it. The man wasn’t dressed flashy—but not shabby either—wearing sneakers, blue jeans, and a buttoned shirt. The type of clothes that wouldn’t attract much attention—if that was your aim, he mused. He looked at the case. There were two small combination lock hasps by the handle. It wouldn’t be hard to open—if he wanted to. But whatever was in the case was likely the reason this man ended up dead in the river. Someone would probably come looking for the case. They could be coming here now.

“Go to the boat-box and grab the two biggest screwdrivers you can find,” Rodney called over his shoulder. Wes came back a few minutes later and handed him the tools. He knelt down and picked up the handcuff chain before sliding the screwdrivers into a link at opposite angles. Grunting, he pried apart the link and the loose end slid to the mud. The men carried the case a short distance from the body and knelt down under the thick limb of an oak tree.

Rodney tried the latches but—as he had expected—they were locked. He placed the tip of the flathead screwdriver under the hasp arm and pried up. At first it only bent but then it popped free with a metallic clink. Doing the same to the other latch, he then set the case on the ground. The men looked at each other briefly before Rodney raised the lid. They both gasped when they saw inside, the noise piercing the silence of the woods.

The entire case was filled with stacks of hundred dollar bills. Yellow and white paper bands around the row of bundles read: “$10,000.00”. Rodney quickly closed the lid and looked around the forest. Further upstream a fish splashed as it snatched a bug from the surface—but otherwise it was quiet. Wes reached over and opened the lid again. “Holy shit,” he exclaimed, that has to be a million bucks!” “I don’t think it’s a million,” Rodney said, “but it’s a lot” He’d never seen so much money in his life—and he knew right away that it meant trouble.

“I think we should leave right now and tell the police,” Rodney said a few minutes later as they stood by the boat. “No way,” Wes replied in horror, “this is our ticket—our big break. We take the money and get the hell out of here. We never tell anyone what we found and we live like kings.” Rodney shook his head, “Think about it, man. Do you honestly believe whoever was supposed to get that briefcase is going to forget about it? No, they’re out there looking for it right now and eventually they’re going to figure out this guy went in the river. I don’t plan to be anywhere near here or that case when they do.”

“Think about Sadie,” Wes continued, trying another tack. “You told her you’d have her a house by two years after the wedding, right? What’s it been now, three and a half—four years?” “Five,” Rodney said evenly and spat into the water. “And what about the boat note,” the shorter man continued, “and the nets? How long until those are paid off?” There had been more costs than just the boat and the nets of course, but Rodney never wasted time explaining that stuff to Wesley; he wouldn’t understand half of it anyway. He stood by the boat—one foot on shore and one in the water—thinking about his options. He hated himself for being so weak.

“Ok,” he finally said, “but not because of the loan or the house… Sadie’s late.” It took a moment for Wes to understand, but then—dead body and money forgotten for the moment—his face beamed and he rushed over to hug his friend. “That’s great news, man! We have to celebrate!” Wesley’s celebrations were why Rodney had waited so long to tell him in the first place. Never quite outgrowing the bonfire-and-beer lifestyle from high school, Wes still liked to party until the sun chased him to bed, responsibilities be damned. “Absolutely, man—but first we need to deal with this,” he said, nodding his head towards the body now attracting fat black flies.

Wes walked over and grabbed the case before returning to the boat. “Wait, hold up—,” Rodney said stopping him just before the boat, “we can’t just leave him here.” “What do you want to do? We can’t bury him—we don’t have any shovels.” Wes was right of course, but Rodney had other reasons for not wanting to bury him: he wanted to leave as quickly as they could. “I have an idea,” he said, “why don’t we give him a sailor’s burial?” As usual, Wes had to chew on the words for a bit but then he understood the idea. “But what are we going to sink him with?” he asked.

Five minutes later the two fishermen had their spare boat anchor tied around the dead man’s legs. They each held a long stick in their hands, the ends of which were tucked under the man’s torso. Rodney began to count, “one… two…” On three, both men raised their sticks and the body rolled back into the water before quickly sinking out of sight in the muddy channel. “It wouldn’t take much to find him—but you’d have to know to look here in the first place,” the captain said, glancing around the woods.


Part: II

Part: III

The Siren Street

The man sat down on the bench and placed his small bag on the ground by his feet. There would normally be more people walking by, but winter had arrived early in Georgia and the sun was yet to rise high enough to warm last night’s chill. Today, the only ones on the sidewalk were those that must be—their jackets pulled tight to their necks against the frosty air as they darted in and out of the little shops along Broad Street. He could feel the cold metal bite through the fabric of his pants but he made no effort to get up. There were worse things than being cold.

A young lady pulled into the parking space beside his bench before getting out—toddler in the back seat sleepily finishing a juice box—and running into the coffee shop. She emerged a few moments later and smiled sheepishly at the man before getting in her car and quickly driving away. The man tucked his gray hair behind his ears and adjusted his brimmed hat. Cups Up Café. At one point—twenty years ago—it had been the 2 Cream Café. Maybe it was fifteen years, he thought as a quick gust of wind blew the hair out from behind his ears. He wondered if they still offered two creams.

Long before becoming the celebratory sounding café—or even the one that offered a modest variety of creams—it had been a hardware store. When the man had just been a boy his father had brought him down to the little Ashcroft Hardware and bought him his first gun—to the objection of his mother. “Now Paul”, his father had said to him in a serious voice, “I don’t want to hear about your mother’s birds coming up missing from the feeders or Ms. Wolcott’s cats disappearing.” It was a single action .22 caliber rifle with a bolt-action and a wooden stock—and at the time he had certainly been planning to shoot Mrs. Wolcott’s cats. He had always hated cats.

Ms. Wolcott’s cats lived to old age however—which is more than can be said of Ashcroft Hardware. Once the bright and cavernous lumber store went up across town Mr. Drexel decided it was a good time to retire and abruptly moved with his wife to Arizona. When he closed the little store and drove off, people speculated over their coffee cups—cream options unknown—as to what would come along next to try and charm the discerning consumers of downtown Ashcroft: a cigar shop; another greasy diner; someone even speculated it would be a barber shop. Such is life for the ancient brick buildings on Broad Street—always ready to transform their identity, like a theater performer, in the hopes of pleasing the public.

The first rays of the morning sunshine crested the top of the tall downtown buildings and warmed the old man’s face letting him briefly forget about the day ahead. A garbage truck pulled to a noisy stop on the street behind him and a pair of men hopped off the back. With practiced efficiency, they emptied and then replaced the bags in the two public trash cans before the truck pulled away. The man checked his watch but when he tucked his hand back under his warm jacket bottom he realized he hadn’t even looked at the time. It didn’t matter; he already knew that he was early.

At the end of the block a car tried to slip through the yellow light before—realizing they weren’t going to make it—screeching to a stop. The noise cut through the cold air and the man quickly turned to look. Drivers passing through the intersection stared accusingly at the car as they past, its bumper jutting into the crosswalk. He watched the car until the light changed and it drove off down the street—going a more modest speed now, he noticed.

The man conceded the stop lights probably cut down on accidents—when people didn’t try and run them at least. Like many of the shinier things along Broad, they weren’t always there. Progress came to the busy street slowly over time—the tendrils of modernity advancing quietly so as not to attract the attention of the old guard. Too much change too soon scared people—it scared him. He never knew if he would be equal to the next challenge.

When the pocked brick road surface had been covered with asphalt, few people cared—the brick was as costly to maintain as it was hard on the cars. And when the stop lights first went up people were glad to see the cars along the busy family street slow down. It wasn’t until an out of town business suit pulled Ashcroft Savings and Trust to the ground to make room for a new car stereo shop  that folks realized—too late—that some things were best left as they were.   

He was in high school the night he and a buddy—Dicky “Glass-jaw”—drove down to the same intersection as the chastised would-be light runner. A crowd had already gathered despite the short notice and late hour, and young people out looking for a good time filled the sidewalk on both sides of the street. Dicky rode shotgun as Paul pulled his fathers red Thunderbird alongside Harlan Banton’s Bel air at the intersection. Dicky had been drinking too much and he hurled a steady stream of insults at Harlan until the scarf had been dropped. When the race ended, Paul had beat Harlan to 2nd Avenue and the spectating teens were cheering for him as the cops arrived.  

He had watched the blue lights arriving from down the block and quietly and quickly left before the officer could make sense of the scene. Following the race, he had been a minor celebrity in school and it seemed as if everyone wanted to congratulate him. He guessed there were more than a hundred people who there that night but not a single one ever gave him up to the cops—not even the vanquished Harlan; a testament to his own character. This town used to be like that. “Virtues can be pulled down like old banks”, he lamented to the old street.

More people began to crowd the sidewalk now, and the man listened to the myriad of variations for “good morning” that the town was capable of mustering. Professional looking business-people often just said “’morning” as they passed pedestrians going the other way. Ironically, the younger people usually gave more enthusiastic and sincere greetings to the strangers they met. Hearing one rhetorically ask the comparatively verbose ”how you doin’ this morning” was not uncommon.

It was on Broad Street that the man had stood—18 years old and terrified—as the Greyhound bus hissed to a halt. The town had been too small for him and he wanted to make his own way in the world. When the bus hissed again to a stop four years later, he had lost the chip on his shoulder and resolved to never leave again. The Greyhounds don’t drive on Broad anymore—there’s too many cars parked; both legally and illegally. You have to take a public bus now to the Greyhound station across town. Progress wasn’t always convenient.

After he left the Army, the old man had led Maggie by the arm down Broad Street: stopping for a float; going to see a movie; browsing the aisles of the used bookstore. At the end of the busy street, Rotary Park has beds of colorful perennial flowers that spring from the ground in the warm months. Beneath the backdrop of ancient Live Oak trees, the flower’s hues shine impossibly bright in the sunlight.

After a year of dating, its where he got down on his knee and asked Maggie to marry him. She had said yes and every year on their anniversary he had returned to the park to pick her some of the enchanting flowers. Even when she no longer knew why he brought them to her—or who he was—he dutifully put the delicate stems in glass vases with all of the care of a temple priest.

A woman wearing a heavy jacket came out of the coffee shop and sat down on the bench next to the man. He scooched over further even though it wasn’t necessary. The lady set her coffee on the ground and started digging in her purse. “I can never feel my fingers in the cold,” she said, her voice muffled behind a scarf. The man smiled and turned to her, “Me either. But you know, I never minded the cold. I like the changing of seasons.” She gave a short laugh at that. “I can live without winter. Except Christmas—Christmas I like.” But the man didn’t reply and she found whatever she had been searching for in her purse before grabbing her coffee and standing. “Well, have a great day”, she said before turning to walk off. “You do the same,” he replied. Have a great day, he thought, even I can’t make this one great.

He sat there thinking about what the lady had said. He liked Christmas too. He didn’t always, but when he and Maggie had Jessica it had been impossible not to. They used to bring her down to Broad Street at Christmas-time to look in all the shops. The store owners would all put their nicest and most desired gifts in front of the big windows by the sidewalk. At each stop Jessica would look through the tall glass and squeal with delight, insisting this gift would be the one she asked Santa for—before moving on to the next window and repeating the performance, to both Paul and Maggie’s delight.

When she got older, Jessica marched down the old street in the Christmas parade with the school band—her lips blue from the cold but still smiling at her parents as she walked by playing her drums. He had drawers filled with photographs of her marching with the band. They didn’t do a Christmas parade anymore; people stopped showing up and it was no longer worth the tremendous effort required to put it on. The man searched his memory for a quote about societies that—to the chagrin of their elders—gave up on honoring their timeless traditions, but snippets of phrases all just ran together in his head. I’m getting too old, he thought. If I were a bank they’d have come for me already.

Halfway down the block—at the building that was once Ashcroft’s only pharmacy—a man walked out to find his car blocked in from the street. His face twisted into an angry scowl as he looked around wildly for the offender. He didn’t have to wait long though and soon a second man emerged from the same building. Paul couldn’t hear what they were saying, but both men had their arm’s outstretched in incredulous indignation. Neither were looking for a fight however, and the offending man got in his car and left. The first man managed to steal a victorious look before driving off as well. I’d have punched him, Paul thought. ‘Youth is wasted on the young’—that one was Shaw. I think.

There were certainly more people along Broad Street than when he was younger. Ashcroft thrived while other towns wasted away—their residents seeking greener pastures in those villages that knew how to tear down a bank. What had started as a blessing eventually turned into a curse—at least according to some Ashcroftians—when the town could no longer comfortably hold the influx of people. Rent and property prices soared and the streets—designed for horses and buggies—brimmed with all the finery of modern automobiles.

Jessica lived in Florida now and she said her town was never crowded—not even at Christmas. Her husband was a big-shot land developer and they lived on a sprawling property close to the Gulf. People didn’t fight for parking spaces and there were no stop lights to almost run. When Maggie died, Jessica plead with him to move in with her and Anthony. For almost a year he managed to resist, preferring instead to keep living in the small one-room apartment overlooking Broad Street.

Soon though, the public bus will hiss to a stop and he’ll climb aboard with his small bag. Then a Greyhound will hiss and finally he’ll nap. When he wakes—Jessica promises—he’ll be in the warm sunshine. No more busses. No more sleepy toddlers with their juice boxes.

He had always wanted to die unexpectedly rather than after some long, drawn out illness. He wasn’t good at saying goodbye. When Jessica had left for college he cried the whole day without shame. It was the same the day she moved away to Florida with Anthony. When Maggie had died, it was in her sleep and while he had expected her to go sometime, it hadn’t been then. The loss devastated him but at the same time he was glad he didn’t have to say goodbye. Now, thankfully, there was no one here left to say goodbye to. They had all moved or died—their stories paved over in the town’s collective conscious like the crumbling brick beneath the street.

The man heard the hissing of air brakes as the bus pulled to a stop several blocks down the street. Shivering passengers climbed on, thankful to escape the chilly morning air. The next stop was his and then he would have his turn to escape the bitter wind one last time. He watched the few remaining people climb aboard before the doors swung shut. The man stood up and felt the blood flowing back down into his aching legs. He picked up his bag as the bus approached, its front sign simply reading: “STATION”. Even the busses had given up trying.

As the bus pulled to a stop in front of the bench the man looked down the street. Walking towards him from the next corner was Maggie and Jessica, walking hand-in-hand and wearing the matching floral Easter dresses that Maggie had bought in Eaton. Both girls had matching toothy smiles as they walked towards him, shopping bags in their free hands.

The man stood there for a moment, small suitcase in hand, waiting for them to come. “Is this stop you?” The bus driver broke his reverie and the old man turned to look up at him. “Oh, no. Sorry,” he managed. Without waiting for a response, he turned to shuffle the short trip to his apartment. He never did mind the cold. The bus driver wordlessly shut the double doors before pulling away. He knew the man would be there tomorrow.   


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Between the Door and the Darkness

Jesse stood in front of the vacant office door reading an old safety bulletin. It had long ago turned yellow from the warm, dry air inside the mill. He strained to read the writing—now faded light gray with age—but he could only make out a few words. He had a lot of things he needed to be getting to—unimagined adventures awaited him if he would only turn around start walking. Instead, he remained frozen, day after day, inside the dusty brick building, staring at the door with the brittle piece of paper tacked to it.

It wasn’t his fault— he was, after all, imbued with sufficient courage for the task, thanks to me. He would do whatever I told him to do; but I wouldn’t let him move. More accurately—I couldn’t let him move. I knew where he was going when he left the building—I knew where he was going for the rest of his day—but right now he was stuck there reading about the virtues of steel-toed boots, and I was getting desperate to get him on the move again.

In the delivery ward that is writing fiction, I’ve brought a depressing number of stillborn tales into the world. Once the spark of an idea lands in the dry tinder of my creativity, I rush to encourage the baby ember to grow by getting it down paper—or its modern equivalent. If you’ve ever built a fire then you know to have kindling wood close at hand in order to grow the flame once the burning ember has done its job. If you find yourself lacking kindling at the crucial moment you’ll never see more than a little flame that recedes as fast as it appears. My fictional stories were the same way: the main characters plunged headlong into the plot only to find after a couple of chapters that there was no more wood to keep the blaze alive before they faded into the cold darkness of my desktop miscellaneous folder. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t encourage the little flames to grow and the plots flickered briefly before going out in a wispy tendril of smoke.

When the idea for The Lark came to me, it stood out in my mind because of its completeness. For once it wasn’t just a segment of the story but the entire story. I may not have had all of the little details that kick the plot-can down the road—and in some cases I still don’t—but the major story points were there; it was certainly enough to get started with confidence. When I began writing, everything went down smoothly in the beginning. The ideas fell easily from my head to my hands before being transplanted onto my monitor to read and tinker with. I had more than enough material for the first two chapters with plenty left over that I planned to work in during future edits.

I knew the part of the story where my main character explores the empty steel mill would require a lot of environment description—even if I maintained a spartan descriptive narrative—and I hunkered down for the long haul of relating a larger-than-life place. I studied turn of the century steel mills by watching grainy videos and reading articles authored by enthusiastic members of the steel milling community. I studied old pictures and described what I saw in them out loud, alone in my garage writing space. Because it was my story I also knew that some antagonistic event would set off a chain reaction, culminating with young Jesse leaving the mill. But what I didn’t know—and what was keeping Jesse frozen in place—was what that event looked like.

When I realized that I was stuck I was heartbroken. Things had been going well for me and I was further into a story than I had ever been before. Now poor Jesse was reading a safety bulletin on steel-toed boots and it looked as if he were doomed to spend eternity in literary purgatory as a result of my hubris. I had to get him away from the door and moving. I made several forays into unknown territory—writing sloppy prompts and shaky plot turns. They all ran on for several paragraphs before either crumbling under the weight of their own incoherency or becoming watery story lines that threatened to put poor Jesse—and the reader—to sleep. Each attempt was the word-craft version of beating a square peg into a round hole; they didn’t work and Jesse’s legs were wearing out. I attempted to dilute the story, trying in vain to stretch the plausibility thin enough for Jesse to get the hell out of there and onto something more interesting. But the flimsy structure wouldn’t support his weight and he went tumbling back to the bulletin on the door.

In an effort to come up with a solution by viewing my story problem in the periphery, I decided to work on other things. My blog is an invaluable tool in this regard. I’m most comfortable when I’m writing, so a dead-halt such as this one would otherwise have sidelined me if not for Ten Lines In. When I can’t—or don’t want to—work on my book I turn to my blog and its seemingly endless supply of inspiration. I trusted Jesse to be there when I came back and I turned my full attention to my site and to adding the type of content that I always intended to have—content like this essay. After a couple of days working on smaller projects not only did Jesse pop back into my head unexpectedly, but I saw with perfect clarity why he was on his way at long last. I sat down and at first the words flew by, then—when I looked up at last—the pages had flown by. It seemed as if even fictional Jesse wasn’t immune to Newton’s first law, and once finally on the march the story carried forward under its own momentum. Now that I’m again able to relax and split my time between both the book and the blog, I plan to work on Ten Lines In more than I originally expected to when I created the site. My sincere hope is that the quality of the book and the blog both continue to improve—and more people continue to enjoy them.    


The Sweetgum Campaigns

There is a sweetgum tree just outside my garage door that’s very likely older than my house. When I’ve stood on the roof while hanging decorations or retrieving errant toys and looked up, the branches still towered over me like a cathedral. In the fall, it’s the last tree in my neighborhood to lose its leaves, clinging—like me—to the warmth of summer for as long as possible before surrendering to the cold. Long ago, the tree got the notion to claim more of the yard for its own and a second sprout had poked through the dirt next to the first. Now, a slightly thinner facsimile of its sibling, it leans lazily out over the front yard in quiet rebellion. A third attempt to proliferate ended in a public and graphic act of suburban flora-infanticide when I judged that we had enough sweetgum for one yard.

Despite our history, I have no great affinity for the sweetgum. In my youth I earned a technical diploma in Conservation which, with my love of the outdoors, has brought me into contact with a variety of the American tree species. And while I’ll concede that each fills a subtle niche in the grander ecosystem, I can think of little good to say of the liquidambar styraciflua. When it comes to propagating, no eastern tree is as obnoxious as the sweetgum. Rather than offer a delicious fruit or nut in exchange for an opportunity at continued lineage, it elects to arrogantly drop egg-sized balls covered in pointy spikes. In an added affront, the medieval looking seeds fall year round providing no relief from the agonizing choice of either raking them up or listening to them tumble angrily under the lawnmower before being ejected in a fusillade.

Not satisfied to merely litter my yard with malevolent looking balls of frustration, this particular sweetgum has also been engaged in a prolonged assault on my truck’s paint with a steady flow of sap from high above—like the desperate defenders of some long lost castle rampart pouring oil on the heads of barbarian invaders. I should have seen it coming, of course. While I don’t speak or read Latin—that dusty relic of a language prized by the scientific community— I have been known to make an educated guess every now and then, and the two words in the tree’s binomial name are easy lifting: liquid and ambar. Sounds like “sap is going to drip on your truck if you park underneath it” to me. If you’re not eating pancakes or chinking the gaps of a wooden survival canoe, sap is the most absurd natural substance I’ve come across. People like to inform me of the many wonderful, folksy things they enjoy doing with different tree saps. I’m content to miss out. Not missing out are the ants who gather around each drop like hoofed beasts at a sub-Saharan watering hole. Invariably, every now and then one breaks ranks and breaches the interior, forcing me to wage a scorched-earth campaign with bug spray and traps—such is the cost of a shady parking spot in the sub-tropics.

Like many suburbs in the eastern United States, ours is amok in the ubiquitous eastern gray squirrel—or Sciurus carolinensis if you want to sound like a Hogwarts alumni—and while I hunted them mercilessly when I was young, I enjoy having them live in the trees in my yard. They remind me that the world is not all brick façade and high-capacity power lines. And while they will happily make fluffy nests high up in the pines or the maple, they have no interest in living in the sweetgum. I’ve often waited for some expat squirrel to arrive in the neighborhood and, seeing no good trees available to build their new home, take the sweetgum at a bargain price. But they just crowd in with their new neighbors—nest alongside nest—and avoid the sweetgum as though there was a history to the tree known only to them. They will climb up it; run around the branches; chase one another; throw sticks and spiky balls down from above. But when the sodium light at the end of the drive comes on as dusk, back home they go to the pines— skipping across the lawn before a local cat out on the prowl notices them. The sweetgum, it seems, has few friends at the Mill Pond suburb.

The tree will be here, just outside the garage door, long after I’m gone; at least I hope it will. My wife has always wanted to cut it down, afraid that it may fall onto the house in the middle of one of our many violent storms. Cut down an entire tree? In my own yard? She knows me well enough though that it’s never escalated into a serious discussion on the subject—and I live with the irony of defending a tree that I despise. But trees are trees: I’ll prune them; trim them; shorten them; even transplant them when necessary. But cut one down? Never. Besides, any tree that manages to fall uphill deserves a roof for its martyrdom. When I sit here to write, I look at the sweetgum a lot. It isn’t a particularly interesting looking tree. Nor is it very aesthetic, as far as trees go. But I invariably lose myself in the deep channels of its bark. I’ll watch the birds come, act belligerent for seemingly no reason, and then flit off for a view without a man at a desk. There’s something peaceful about watching trees—you don’t have to be John Muir to appreciate it either. Not even the cantankerous sweetgum can manage to look homely when its rustling leaves glimmer in the breeze. I’ve grown comfortable in our stalemate—like two old battleship captains who can self-confidently appreciate the pluck of their adversary having lasted so long. I’ll rake the balls, and those that I don’t will be randomly discharged around the lawn in pyrotechnical fashion. I’ll wash the truck and I’ll kill the ants. I’ll defend its honor to my wife—assuring her of its vitality and vigor. I’ll ensure the cycle doesn’t end. Someday, perhaps the sweetgum will reward me with inspiration, but if not, that’s fine too.   


The Back of the Woodshed

My mouse cursor flew down the computer screen leaving a wake of highlighted text in its path like a digital comet. One thousand, one hundred and twenty three words: over a thousand hard-earned scraps of storyline; words representing a mountain of time spent researching and fact checking; words with plot details that I can’t easily include otherwise. Such an amount of text would have fetched me a respectable bounty in the past. The highlighted paragraphs stared back me from the monitor like helpless children after a disaster—praying that the worst has passed with my cursory editing session the day before.

Delete.

 I’m getting better at recognizing my own garbage.

It wasn’t the words that were garbage—they had all been carefully selected from amongst their peers for their precision of effect. The material was also not at fault—while neither an academic nor historical text, it covered the general operation of a turn-of-the-century steel mill accurately and succinctly. Sadly, the sickness was more terminal than either of such symptoms, and amputation my only recourse. It wasn’t an easy decision to hit that Delete button, but I couldn’t argue with the anonymous person’s accusing words on my phone: I hate when authors cop out by using a flashback to fill holes in their plot. Damn.

I remember how triumphant I felt when I had worked out how to provide context to my main character—a young boy on his own—in a setting where most of the things around him should be alien and unrecognizable. Easy, I thought, he took a field trip when he was younger. So, I sat down and over the course of an evening wrote, then re-wrote, one thousand, one hundred and twenty three words describing the smelting furnaces, crucibles, rock crushers, and all other machines and materials required to make steel from iron ore. My reasoning was that the boy in my story would be able to have a richer interaction with his surroundings if he at least had a general working knowledge of the different components. I was willing to stretch the fabric of plausibility to its tearing point before I read those words—but afterwards I couldn’t argue their aptness.

My clever flashback to the field trip was merely a band-aide on a bullet hole—just how much could the boy learn and retain about the complex process of milling steel in one second grade trip? Sooner or later he was bound to need to workout the unknowns of his environment and then I would either be back where I started or forced to insult my readers by bestowing a near-genius level of memory retention on an eight year old boy. I won’t say that all such readers deserve better—invariably some are likely to be foul people with a small dose of bad literary karma heading their way—but I respect my work too much at this point to try and sidestep the thorny patches I’ve made. After all, I’m here to get my hands dirty and scratched. Besides, there are plenty of words—stacked neatly in my head awaiting their turn—to write the book the correct way: by crafting the story. 

If you’ve never highlighted a large piece of your work and deleted it, consider yourself temporarily lucky. It’s probably less satisfying than crumpling up sheets of paper and throwing them into the wastebasket as most of our predecessors did, but, like hanging up on someone from a cell phone, the ease and abruptness mercifully shortens the suspense. Even though I’m retired and working from home on my writing, my days are as plagued as anyone else’s by all of the little fires that pop up underfoot from a ground that always seems to be smoldering. Indoctrinated as I am to military life, early mornings have always been the rule. Whether in garrison or some remote location on the map, the Army has a perverse obsession about getting an early start to the day. Unlike my time in the service however, writing requires more mental alertness of me than can be mustered at such early hours and I have returned to the nocturnal hours of my youth. The words that I led out behind the woodshed and put out of their misery took me an entire evening’s writing session just to get down on the screen—saying nothing of the time spent researching.

I consider myself fortunate to have been raised at a time and in a place that shop class was offered at my school. Among the many lessons that I learned there—lessons that I have applied a thousands times over, unlike algebra—I can vaguely recall glassing over the smelting processes for iron and steel. If, however, you were to put a gun to my head and told me to write about them factually in a fictional story, well, it’s unlikely the outcome would be good either way. When I realized I was going to write about late 19th century steel mills in America, I knew I would be well-rewarded for a simple internet search. I watched YouTube videos. I sat through PowerPoint presentations crudely crafted by college students and industry insiders alike. Like any other literary dog fresh on the trail of interesting research information, I wandered off on sidetracks: common and brutal injuries of steel mill workers; the collapse of the industry around America’s Great Lakes region; the advancement of the smelting furnace over time. When the orgy of classic steel making information ended I had far more material than I needed for several books—my story isn’t even about steel mills, they just feature in it. Poor Jesse would need to be William Kelly, (he’s considered to be the father of modern steel production—not that you’ll ever learn in it my book). I even went so far as to tuck the excess information away for future use.   

No; the words brought to die on the alter of quality writing did not give their lives in vain. They gave them so that the finished work will—hopefully—be more coherent and thus, more enjoyable. They died so that the other words, those left behind to carry on the burden of telling the tale, might live. The only way that I, novice writer that I am, could move on from the loss of such worthy words was to memorialize them—and I hope I have done so here. I had to go back over this post like any other of my work: cutting here; adding there; weighing each turn of phrase to ensure precise meaning. I wanted it to be a worthy memorial. The end result: one thousand, one hundred and twenty three words—exactly what I lost.

*****

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Where Saws Once Roamed

When I first cut and assembled the heavy boards into a coherent object, I was building a utility table—upon which I mounted a table saw and bench-top wood planer. Both the saw and the planer were given to me by an elderly neighbor as a token of gratitude for mowing his lawn, and their unexpected appearance in my garage inspired the hastily constructed work bench. Before that, the thick wooden planks were an integral part of a back porch on a house in rural Alabama, and when they were offered up for free I happily drove the thirty minutes to get them.  Such is the humble pedigree of my beloved writing desk—now a cherished member of my inner circle—and in its twilight years, the work I ask of it is much lighter.

If I asked a group of writers to describe their idea of a perfect writing desk, I imagine many of the answers would be the similar—or at least be a smattering of opinions on similar characteristics of said desk. They would likely wax poetic about intangibles—using words like soul—and itemize in specific detail those things which are necessities for them. Few, if any, would know to suggest that you lay a thin sheet of plywood over the top to cover the sawdust vents that you had once sawed into it; fewer still would recommend that piece of plywood be shoddily cut and only cover two-thirds of the table’s surface. I wonder how many would be in favor of a desk that you could comfortably tuck your legs under? Mine, a table with a lower shelf designed to hold saw blades, clamps, and other carpentry tools, forbids any such comfort. I’d also love to get the crowd’s consensus on the effect of visible screw-heads and staples—and their impact on the overall aesthetic of a good writing desk. My own is peppered with exposed hardware meant more for stability than charm—it never occurring to me at the time to try and achieve both.  

Not even a grazing discourse on writing desks can take place without also discussing where such desks get put. Most writers are familiar with the famous E.B. White photograph—taken in his spartan boathouse, only the barest of necessities visible on the table-top—and resonate with his choice of location even if their own space bears no resemblance. I remember years ago seeing a photo of Stephen King reclining in his chair at his desk. In stark contrast to the Charlotte’s Web author—who could have abandoned the boathouse in a breath without leaving a trace— King’s office looked like the last redoubt of a lifelong hoarder, with hardly an open space available on the crowded desk. Neither having the luxury of a boathouse, nor the disposition to accumulate clutter, my own desk can be found where you would expect to find it if you were familiar with its history: my garage.

I’ve never explored too deep into why famous authors choose to write where they do—if such information is even available. Perhaps White enjoyed the picturesque view from the large window overlooking the water. Maybe Mr. King wanted to have an exhaustive supply of information and amusement at his fingertips. Whatever they were, they had their reasons—as intimate to them as all ours are to us. My own reasons for using my garage as a writing space are as practical as my choice of desk. Just as I can go out and buy a new, (more task appropriate), desk, so too could I claim some corner of the interior house and declare it the sovereign land of my budding craft. But I would always be an interloper, forced to cede territory on a regular basis to a hundred different caveats at the hands of my busy family. The garage is my domain however, home to the tools and materials required to maintain the infrastructure of our beige, single-story suburban home.

In the eleven years that I’ve lived in my house my garage has, at one point or another, been: a woodshop; an auto mechanic garage; a roller-hockey rink; a children’s birthday party location; a gym; and in general, a sanctuary for me. It’s where I have been my most creative and my most daring. It’s the place where I’ve suffered a thousand little failures in private only to show the world the few times that I achieved modest success. When I decided to improve my writing to the point that other people would actually want to read it, I knew exactly where I wanted to work. Unbolting and storing the saw and wood planer that shared the table in the center of the garage, I pushed it up against the far wall and stood back to admire it; that’ll work, I thought to myself. The large hole in the center of the table needed covering, which I did with a piece of scrap wood. And having been purposely built large, I was happy to see that I easily covered most of the ugly surface with the things I want close at hand—practical or otherwise.

My one complaint about my desk is the view, (I’ve since adapted to not being able to tuck my legs underneath). I don’t get envious when I see the gracefully elaborate desks and tables of my peers—as a rule I avoid most finery—but ten minutes of gazing out my open garage door is all it takes for me yearn for a view of anything other than the houses across the street of my sleepy cul-de-sac. On a good day, looking south as I must in the windowless room, I can occasionally watch the arrival of a visiting thunderstorm—usually traveling from deep in the Gulf of Mexico before passing by overhead—but most times the scenery is limited in scope and lackluster in content. Like many suburban neighborhoods in America, mine is full of the little daily dramas that unfold while the normal segment of the population is off at work and school. Delivery vehicles creep past, their drivers squinting to read the faded house numbers. Various dogs, having slipped loose from their domestic confines, patrol the street looking for scraps of food and the random love that’s best left to animals. On Thursdays the garbage truck comes, and amid a cacophony of revved engines, hydraulic pumps, and banging plastic cans, the men compete their halting tour of the neighborhood and the show is over. Cars drive by, some fast and some slow, sirens crescendo into earshot before fading away to their own problems. And all the while I sit here—occasionally writing.

Some writers may find my taste in location to be too distracting—and indeed I have a television, radio, the internet, and middle-class America outside to compete for my attention—but I’m not opposed to distractions, only selective about those that I allow: Seinfeld—yes; kids fighting—no thanks. Here, in my sanctuary, I’m surrounded by all of my favorite things, neatly stored and organized to my specific liking: a cavalry saber mounted on a wooden display plaque (a gift from one of my platoons), hangs on the wall above my prized 1969 Bear Kodiak recurve bow; a basket of floor hockey sticks leans against a small workbench next to my fly fishing rods, waiting for my youngest son to come out and ask to play; the metal detector that I lucklessly bring to the beach stands near-by, taunting me with memories of soda can tabs buried deep beneath the sand. The list goes on for thirty-six years’ worth of accumulated things—all moonlighting now as occasional welcomed distractions from my labor.

One day I may find the perfect writing desk, (some drawers would be nice). I also might buy a house with the perfect view at some point, though I couldn’t say what that view would be of. Ultimately, the desk and the garage need no further improvement. Neither were ever intended to be temporary substitutes awaiting a more proper replacement. Both are crude things—utilitarian in nature—and that was, and continues to be, my real need of them. They’re places that embody action and progress, which is the exact approach I require for the heavy lifting that is the improvement of my unskilled work. They were also intended to be places of respite where I could escape the battering winds of the outside world and focus on what I’m determined to be without feeling the need to qualify or justify it to others.

 Now, though, I can sense them getting closer and wonder if my desk, built as it were for the shaping of lumber, will indeed be sturdy enough to withstand the weight of their presence. While they know my name and wonder where I’ve gone, they know nothing of the reincarnated desk and the versatile garage, and the things that stay hidden the longest are those which no one knows to go in search of. I know can’t hold out forever—nor do I plan to—but I’m grateful for the delay.  And while I wait, I’m safe at my desk, tucked into the recess of my garage while heavy rain lashes the large aluminum door, and I’m perfectly content.   

High Society and the Art of Hating My Work

I can still back out, he tested himself. I can go to school, tell them my story, and no one will know any different. I got to see the stained glass at least. Maybe that’s enough exploring for one morning. But the words fluttered harmlessly back to the ground as soon as they materialized, and once a gap in the rushed morning traffic presented itself, he stepped off the curb and jogged across the street, his backpack jarring into him as he trotted. When he safely got to the other side, everything immediately felt different. It reminded him of when he had to stand up in front of the class and work out a math problem, or give a book report, and everything looked simultaneously familiar and alien. He knew where he was, and where he was going, but he was used to only seeing this area from the other side of the street, or the backseat of his mom’s car, and it took a moment for him to get his bearings. If he stayed on Mill Road long enough—past his destination—it would cross over the old railroad tracks before merging with County Road 217, so he knew he wouldn’t miss the turn.” –The Lark

When I first learned to fly fish, I started out looking like most people do when they decide to undertake such a humbling sport: awkward and frustrated. When my rod, reel, and the thick nylon line that carried the fly gently to the water arrived, I assembled the parts and went into my back yard ready to master the cast in an afternoon. I wasn’t a complete novice – I had watched several YouTube videos and read a couple of books authored by those considered to be leaders in the field of fly fishing, in addition to being a lifelong angler – but I also knew how maddening many people said the sport was for them in the beginning. Determined but cautious, I walked into the middle of the yard and pulled the bright yellow line from my reel, letting it pool in loose hoops at my feet like the professionals on my computer screen had done. Within minutes I knew that I was in trouble; this was a lot harder than they made it look.

While the men on the screen had effortlessly rocked their rod forward and back like a metronome, their line flew aloft in wide, graceful loops, unrolling overhead in front of them, first ten feet, then fifteen, then twenty, and on and on, until their line floated to the front and rear in an impossibly slow and fluid movement. In contrast, my own line sped forward like a runaway stagecoach team —like me, its driver not equal to the task—cracking like a bullwhip as it ended its wild run just short of my neighbor’s fence. Within minutes I had made two decisions: I was going to master this, at least to the degree that I could actually fish, and I wasn’t going to step on the water until I had. A couple of weeks later, as I walked along the banks of the Chattahoochee river for the first time with a fly rod in hand, while I in no way resembled a professional angler, I was able to actually fish; I even managed to bring a couple of small panfish to shore.

Today, many years later, I don’t think I could replicate my shoddy casting from those early days if I tried; such is the magic of practice. When I first decided to try writing as a profession, my approach wasn’t much better. Unlike learning to cast a fly rod however, there were no landmarks along the way with which to gauge my progress – or rather, the quality of my progress. Unlike my line tangling around my rod, or wrapping in an unnoticed tree limb, my entry into freelance writing was more accommodating. Almost immediately I landed a gig ghostwriting for a parenting blog. The lady who served as my editor was incredibly merciful; just how much so I wouldn’t realize until I had learned to recognize truly horrible writing, which mine was. The articles were the common parenting blog sort: what vitamin to choose, why to go jogging as a family, where to take the kids for vacation; to name a few. Looking back again, the money was surprisingly good—especially considering the amount of editing my articles required. Like many people who find themselves churning out low quality work, whitewashed as it were with “SEO Optimized” jargon, I burned out. I closed my computer, buried my articles in a series of desktop folders, and walked away.

While I was on my hiatus from writing, I continued to read. I re-read books that I had once loved and forgotten and I read books suggested to me by friends and strangers. When I finally came back to writing I brought the cadence of the words those books had with me. Why was their writing so good, and mine so bad? I poked around the basement of my computer until I found my old articles from the parenting blog and some other work I had managed to land. When I read them, I was horrified and embarrassed – they sounded so crude and unrefined. Whatever subject I was writing about wandered around the pages like an untended puppy. Prepositions ended sentences as though I received a bonus for doing so. This wasn’t the type of writing that I was passionate about, and it wasn’t the quality of writing that I felt I was capable of.

I started from scratch, determined to re-enter the literary world as a semi-legitimate writer rather than the imposter that I felt I was. I wanted to learn why someone else and I could write the same thing, but in their version it sounded concise, confident, and pleasing, whereas mine would come out wordy, fluffy, or ambiguous. When I started writing again, this time for myself only, I scrutinized every paragraph, every sentence. Armed with my dictionary, thesaurus, and marked-up copy of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, (which, if you don’t own a copy, you’re needlessly handicapping yourself), I learned how to better re-write, which for me was a far more difficult and important task than simply writing. I would write a paragraph and then go back over it, removing redundant adverbs, replacing lazy adjectives, making two or three words do the work previously done with five or six, and then later I’d come back to it and do it again. Like a manager of employees, I no longer set my workers to task and walked away. I came back to supervise their progress: replace a loafer here, send in a crew to bolster a shaky sentence there. I asked people to read what I wrote, nervously awaiting their feedback as I’m sure we all do. It didn’t happen overnight, and I’m not out of the woods yet, but I’m finally beginning to enjoy reading what I’ve written.

The paragraph at the opening of this post embodies that process, so new to me. I’ve lost track of how many versions there were of this sentence or that. It started as a windy volume spanning nearly half of the page. It was then whittled down to a few sentences that absolutely needed to remain before being built back up again, only supported by a few crucial lines. No longer preoccupied with the bounty of pennies each word would bring, my writing relaxed and I was able to adopt a smoother and more efficient writing style that not only looks readable, but now takes less time to write and edit.

Don’t mistake my newfound confidence for hubris. I have never compared my work to someone else’s, unless it’s to judge my own worthy of even being called by the same name. I can spot truly bad writing of course, but I don’t consider my own to be “better”—some good ideas get poorly executed and some stories get buried under the burden of bad style. My own grammar still carries the little errors that allude to my educational pedigree. I still miss typos, even after reading them five times. I still wander off on storyline tangents, only to come back and delete entire pages later that day. I still cringe before posting articles on my blog, afraid someone will accuse me of trespassing where I don’t belong. Believe me when I say: my only competition is the last thing that I wrote. But, I would rather aspire to be a great writer and fall short than aim to be a mediocre writer and succeed.

*****

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The Lark

Prologue

The water was deeper than the boy had expected—rather, the stick he was using to gauge its depth had not accounted for his weight, and now he was sinking into the silty bottom of the aptly named Mud Creek. With each step he submerged deeper into the muck and water but it was too late to turn back for the safety of the bank. Besides, there was no other way to go: if he followed the edge of the creek north, it would lead to an endless and impenetrable swamp, if he went south, he would be back at the mill, which was out of the question, and to the west was the heavily trafficked Stein Street—where he was certain to be noticed. His only hope was to cross the wide, opaque depths of Mud Creek and trek east through the thicket until he made it to County Road 217, or Split Street as it was colloquially called by locals.

When the icy water reached his navel, he let out a short gasp as he scrambled to stand on his toes in an attempt to escape the cold, but it was in vain and he just sank back lower into the mud. He was nearing the middle of the creek and the current was now pressing against his body in a relentless surge, urging him downstream. He looked up across the water and noted with a mixture of dread and exhaustion that he was still a good thirty yards from the far bank—and the swollen stream showed no sign of easing. Despite the chilly water, the sun overhead caused him to sweat and the salty drops ran down his dirty face in steaks, stinging as they got in his eyes. The effort of resisting the current and pulling his feet from the mud with each laborious step was sapping his strength. He dug his stick into the bottom to steady his balance before reaching up with a wet hand to wipe the sweat from his eyes. Some of the chilly creek water ran down his face and into his panting mouth, cooling his hot breath. Tastes better than I expected, he thought to himself before resuming his slow battle across the raging creek.

When he had first entered the water, he tried holding his backpack over his head to protect the contents. It had worked for the initial few shaky steps into the creek, but as the water began to increase its speed—and balance became more demanding—he was forced to return the heavy bag to his back and leave the books inside to fate. Now, in the middle of the channel and with the water nearing his chest, the force was pushing sideways against the bag and the boy struggled to stay facing forward. Twisting his body against the current he repeated his mantra in his head as he trudged forward, sinking deeper still: stick down, lean into the current, right foot, left foot, lean into the current, stick up, stick down, trying to force his body to adopt the rhythm. The swift water swirled around his torso—creating little brown eddies at his sides that darted off downstream—as he made slow and determined progress.

When he was only twenty five feet from the far bank the boy started to plant his left foot down into the muddy creek bed—only this time rather than sinking into the mire beneath the water his sneaker was stopped by something hard and unyielding. With his other foot and wading stick planted deep in the mud, the unexpected resistance disrupted his momentum. The boy’s left sneaker slipped forward off the buried obstacle and his center of gravity was lost. In a flash his defense against the strong current collapsed: with no solid purchase on the creek bottom, his left leg immediately surrendered to the rush of water and his body spun around until he was facing downstream, leg still outstretched underwater like a weathervane. The sudden pull caused his right foot to slip from the mud as well, and in an instant he pitched forward and was swept downstream.

His backpack—already filed with water and books—immediately betrayed him and dove for the bottom. As he struggled to the surface, his head fighting to stay above the fast moving water, the creek bank rushed by in a blurry swath of green. Coughing up the chilly water, he tried to drag his toes into the creek bed in an effort to slow himself, but the mud below yielded to the slightest attempt to hold fast and the current again forced his head under before he was able clamber back to the surface. His wading stick was no longer any help—rather than stop him it only caused him to spin towards the current, water crashing into his face, before pulling free of the mud. After the second attempt he quit trying it altogether. 

How much have I drifted already? A hundred yards? Two hundred? The boy tried to guess how close he was now to the Drake River, the large and slow moving terminus of Mud Creek. Surely he wouldn’t drift that far. He refused to consider what he would do if he did, in fact, reach it. Now, at the mercy of the current, he quickly figured his odds and knew there was no other possible option. Inhaling one last deep breath, he allowed himself to be pulled beneath the surface where at least he would not have to fight gravity and the current. With his eyes closed against the brown glow below the surface, he released his grip on his stick and let his arms fall limp as his body twisted to face upstream. To the boy’s relief, the relentless current immediately pulled the backpack from his shoulders in a jerk before sweeping it away. Thank god; if I survive this I’ll get new stinkin’ books, he thought, suddenly wishing he’d tossed it earlier.

Able to control his body again at last, the boy turned underwater in the direction of the far bank and began to frog kick, keeping the current on his right side as best as he could. Breaking the surface for a gulp of fresh air, the rush of the creek thundered in his ears. Water buffeted his face—going into his eyes and mouth—as he continued to stroke, but he could tell that for the most part he was moving in the right direction. It was easier for him to swim under the surface where the splashing water didn’t blind and choke him, but not being able to see was unnerving, and he sensed unseen obstacles rushing by in the darkness. A new rhythm emerged to replace his previous cadence: Up, exhale, kick-stroke, inhale, under, frog-kick, frog-kick, up. His progress across the creek was slow—how far he had already drifted downstream was anyone’s guess—but it was still progress. Just before his burning lungs and muscles gave out, the water relented at last.

The current, so obnoxious and strong just moments ago, now leaned against him with an apologetic softness as the creek made a lazy arch around a bend. Letting his legs sink down, he found that he was finally able to firmly plant his feet in the muddy bottom. He no longer had his wading stick to aide in balancing, but the creek had also claimed his heavy backpack, so he was able to keep his heading without difficulty. He walked towards the shore while scanning the bank in search of something that would tell him where he was, but just what he expected to find, he didn’t know. It was pointless of course; he wasn’t bound to recognize anything—he had never been this far downstream before. Abandoning any hope of that, he started looking for a place along the vegetation-choked bank where he could easily climb out of the water. The shore he had embarked from was a gentle slope to the water’s edge, like a gradual and muddy beach. This far downstream however, the bank rose up in a wall of crumbling dirt nearly as tall as him. The bushes crowded to the creek’s edge, towering shoulder to shoulder like lumbering animals gazing down at a watering hole.

Standing in the now waist deep water and staring at the brush, he selected a likely route up the muddy wall and into the woods beyond. He no longer cared where he was along the creek so long as he could get out of the malevolent water before it killed him. He had lost his backpack and, looking down, he saw that his clothes were ruined; there’s no hope of hiding things now, he thought with finality. The boy looked at his watch: 12:30 p.m. His classmates would all be leaving the cafeteria—stomachs full of food—to go back to the comfort and safety of the classroom. I should be with them, he thought, suddenly remembering his own lunch inside his backpack. Not out here—wherever here is.  He pushed through the now benign current with deliberate steps towards the likely breach above. Reaching the ankle-deep water of shore at last, the boy kept moving—relieved to be out of the abusive current once and for all. In one fluid motion he quickly hopped upward, arm extended, and grabbed ahold of a stout bush by the trunk with his wet hand. He let the sapling hold his full weight for a moment, testing its strength before committing to the climb. Tightening his grip, the boy dug his ruined sneakers into the muddy bank and began to ascend.     

Chapter I      

As the first rays of the morning sun slipped past Jesse’s bedroom curtain, he could hear his father’s truck backing out of the driveway—it’s tired springs protesting with a chorus of groans as it lumbered onto the still-sleepy street. Without opening his eyes to the sun, he listened to his mother hurriedly gathering the last of her scattered belongings before racing out the door. “Jesse!” she called from the kitchen as she shut the refrigerator with a clang. “I’m leaving, Jesse,” she persisted louder, drawing out his name. “I’m up, mom” he called from his bed as he raised a hand to his brow to shield the abrasive sunlight. “Have a good day, I love you. Remember not to eat too much after school, we’re going to the Obermann’s for dinner when your father gets home,” she called out as a hurried goodbye. Jesse groaned, not the Obermann’s again. His mother would insist that he spend the evening playing with their daughter, Maddie. Jesse had tried on several occasions to explain to his mom that a twelve year old boy and a nine year old girl do not play similar things, but it was always met by her typical hard stare that meant the subject was not open for discussion.

Sitting up in his bed, he simply said “Okay” in a raised voice and swung his feet onto the floor as his mother shut the kitchen door behind her before leaving for work. He had all day to think of a way out of the Obermann’s, he reasoned. Jesse was used to preparing for school alone each morning. For all of his life his parents had worked during the week—leaving in the morning before he had to be at the school and coming home long after he returned in the afternoon. When he was younger there had been a kaleidoscope of babysitters to see him off each morning and greet him dutifully at the end of the day: family members, college kids on semester break, even at one brief point a cranky, silver-haired spinster straight off the movie screen. Eventually his parents had either decided that the job of safeguarding him was not much worth paying for, or that Ashcroft was not a town that parents had to worry about their children being snatched off the street on their way to and from school. Whatever the reason, Jesse had come to appreciate the mornings where he had the house to himself and used the silence to slowly ease into his day. He hated the chaotic weekend mornings—or the days with no school when his aunt or grandmother watched him—and he was met with a fusillade of questions and demands as soon as he got up.

 He walked to the hallway bathroom still rubbing last night’s sleep from his eyes and turned on the light inside. Looking into the mirror through squinted eyes, his disheveled reflection stared back at him. Sandy brown hair was sticking up in erratic angles and a pillow crease ran across his lightly freckled cheeks reminding him of a scarecrow. After washing his face and brushing his teeth, he tossed the towel on the edge of the sink and went back to his room to get dressed into the clothes he had laid out the night before. He pulled on his jeans and buttoned his blue and white plaid shirt before slipping into his shoes and taking the bookbag from his desk chair. Scanning the room one last time to ensure he didn’t forget anything he walked out, shutting the door behind him.  

Downstairs in the kitchen Jesse poured cereal into a bowl before sitting down at the table and adding milk. Like most days, sitting in the empty house with the morning news anchors murmuring the latest catastrophes on the television in the other room, he wished again that his father would let him get a dog. Dogs weren’t people. Their morning demands get a pass, he thought, chewing his cereal. He occasionally brought the subject up when he thought the timing was good. He didn’t expect the notoriously stubborn man to relent, but he also didn’t want the subject to slip into obscurity either. 

His father had worked as a linesman for the power company, Ashcroft Electric and Power, since before Jesse was born. Most days his schedule was regular, leaving in the mornings before Jesse woke, and home at night before anyone suffered too badly awaiting supper. On occasion a storm would blow a tree down over a power line, or someone would dig without having the area surveyed for buried cables, and he would need to leave on emergency call-outs. Thankfully most emergency call-outs were at night or on the weekends, times when Jesse’s mother was there to be home with him. Even at twelve, when a strong storm raged in the night, he still felt better with his mother there.  

Landing a job at Sterling Credit Union right out of high school, Jesse’s mother had worked her way up from lowly teller to branch manager—all while attending night classes at the community college. A kind and caring lady, she was also determined to succeed in life, and that meant that sometimes Jesse got lost in the shuffle. Because of this she made it a point to set time aside each week just for the two of them—going together to get ice cream, or to see a movie—but most days their contact was limited to abbreviated conversations about their day at the dinner table. But Jesse didn’t feel forgotten or ignored the way some of his friends did. He spent most of his time reading books about adventures in far away places. The stories engrossed him so much that hours would pass by without him realizing it. He sailed on the high seas aboard cursed pirates ships and he fled from scoundrels along the Silk Road. He narrowly escaped the ancient ruins of Teotuhutacca and he dove to the bottom of the Indian Ocean to recover lost treasure. When the selection at the school library began to dry up, his mother had taken him to get a card at the Ashcroft Public Library, and he always had several books signed out.  

 Rinsing his bowl under the sink faucet before placing it in the dishwasher, Jesse looked at his watch: 7:30—right on time, he thought. He went back to the refrigerator and took out the paper bag holding his lunch and added it to his backpack before walking out the kitchen door, closing it behind him. As he stood on the outside steps—his hand still on the door handle—Jesse felt behind the railing until his fingers found the small nail sticking out of the backside, concealed by a holly bush. The brass house key was still hanging there, as he expected it would be. His father had it made at Mr. Moody’s hardware store just for him when he started walking to school and it had been one of Jesse’s proudest moments.

Giving the door handle one last quick turn to ensure it was locked, Jesse hopped down the short flight of steps before walking out to the sidewalk. Most of his friends rode their bicycles to school, especially the ones that lived further away than he did, but Jesse neither owned nor wanted a bike. He enjoyed the solitary walks to and from school on his own. He used the time to organize his thoughts for the day in the morning, or to map out his evenings after school. He replayed conversations with girls in class, winnowed down his Christmas list, and hummed his favorite songs all while making his daily treks.  

Jesse’s parent’s house sat halfway down Price Street in one of the oldest sections of Ashcroft. Small, single family, two-story homes lined both sides of the street flanked by thick,  towering hardwoods that cloaked the sidewalks in shade. The neighborhood—while far from being the wealthiest section of town—possessed a quiet, working-class dignity. The neighbors lawns were kept trimmed, usually by the homeowners themselves or a local boy who didn’t mind a little hard work in exchange for some spending money, but never by a professional lawn company—those were for Ashcroft’s more prosperous north and east ends where people had enough extra cash each month to pay for the luxury of manicured grass without the burden of manual labor or unsupervised children operating power equipment in their yards. The tidy houses with their wood siding were painted different combinations of muted pastels, giving the street a cheerful look even on cloudy days.

An aging cement sidewalk paralleled the street on both sides, jutting up in broken sections where the roots of the mature trees demanded passage. Jesse skipped over a large protruding piece as he left his driveway, heading for the end of the block. The patches of sun created by the gaps in the tree canopy felt good on his face and he almost wished he had worn a t-shirt instead, knowing the walk home would be much warmer. An occasional car passed by, splashing the puddles from last night’s rain, but otherwise the street was empty. He listened to the birds overhead in the tree-tops calling to one another as he walked along—trying to avoid stepping on the cracks like the game his friends and him played when they were little. Up ahead, situated on the corner of Price and Stein streets, was the Mount Zion Assembly of God church. The stately church, where he was himself baptized, was also his first and only turn on the nearly 2 mile route to the Robert S. Stein Middle School.

Approaching the corner, Jesse stopped under the outstretched limbs of a maple to wait before crossing. The traffic on Stein Street was heavy with people rushing to work and school—most of them distractedly finishing some last minute task as they drove. He turned and looked at the towering two-story church behind him. The white paint on the wooden siding was starting to peel up along the edges in spots and the black trim was faded to a charcoal gray where the sun bore down on it. He saw that the lawn was still well cared for—bright green and glistening wet from the morning’s sprinklers. The walkway leading up to the double front doors has been repaired several times over the years but was otherwise in good shape. The church had been there almost as long as Ashcroft itself, though Jesse could see that it had aged with more grace than the surrounding houses.

His gaze trailed upward to the small stained glass windows perched along the upper eave, noticing for the first time how the sunlight caught the colorful grooves, animating the pictures: a dove shimmering in flight clutching an olive branch in its claws; a glittering sheep resting happily on a lush green hillside; fiery hands folded in prayer. He had always known the little windows were there of course, he had actually seen them more times than he could count. While his family did not attend church regularly—his baptism seemingly the result of outside familial pressure—he had walked by the church every day this school year, not to mention all the times he saw them from the back seat of his mother’s car. Until today however, he hadn’t stopped to appreciate the stained glass and their simple beauty in the sunshine.

Craning his neck around the side of the church, Jesse saw that the windows continued at least as far down as the length of the church’s east wall. Facing Stein Street, the east side of the church was obscured from both the roadway and the sidewalk by a long hedgerow that had, over the years, grown to reach as tall as the second story windows containing the clergy’s administrative offices. Jesse noticed that between the outside wall and the hedge was just enough room for a person to walk comfortably. A well-worn footpath showed signs of regular use, likely by the groundskeeper, and Jesse walked the short distance over the grass from the sidewalk to the church corner, looking up for the vibrant glass pictures as he went. Cars continued to zip past, unseen for the wall of greenery, but his attention was transfixed skyward—here, a chalice of glowing gold, next, an angel backlit by yellow rays of light. The images—with their simple design—seemed to be lifted from the walls of the church and suspended midair, gleaming against the blue sky.

 Jesse reached the far southern end of the church’s east wall not realizing how far he had gone—walking the hundred or so yards in a bemused trance. Having already traveled this far, he stepped around the back corner of the church, looking up along the high wall as he did for more stained glass. Now that he had seen how amazing the windows looked, he found himself compelled to see them all.

It was apparent to him that the back side of the church was not intended to be seen by the average worshipper. In contrast to the simple but still classy front of the church—awash in sunlight and open air—the back was a dreary facsimile; cloaked in near-constant shade that prevented the grass from growing beyond sparse patches, the white building was stained an ashy gray from the unchecked spread of mildew. Unlike the longer east and west facing walls, the front and rear of the building was narrow. Jesse couldn’t see to the far side however, as an enclosed rear entryway jutted out from the back of the church and blocked his view. Looking up, he saw only a scattering of regular windows belonging—he assumed—to additional offices and storage areas. For obvious reasons the builders had not bothered to install the colored glass back here where the church property served more for utility than reverence. With the rush of excitement for the stained windows abating, Jesse stood there and evaluated his surroundings.

The noise of the traffic was muffled even further back here and Jesse didn’t see anyone around—not even the groundskeeper, whom he expected to appear at any time. Tucked into the trees beyond the empty maintenance parking area was a dilapidated white shed, its door hanging crookedly on the hinges. Whatever garden equipment hadn’t been stored inside the shed appeared to be stacked against the outside wall and Jesse could see old flowerpots and loose hand tools left to rot under a layer of dead leaves. A slow breeze rustled the leaves on the trees overhead as he walked towards the shed nestled into the wood-line.

Stopping at the door of the little shed, he examined it closer. It didn’t appear that anyone had entered the shed for a long time and rusty brown trails snaked away from the old nail heads holding the siding on. Dead sticks and leaves blanketed the ground with skinny plant stalks poking up in irregular spots. The door—sagging to the left as the rotting wood loses its hold the upper hinge—had an old metal padlock on the hasp above the handle. It wasn’t like the modern locks he was familiar with, their shiny silver and brass parts inspiring trust and confidence in their strength. This one was aged with rust that turned it a dark brownish-red.

Stepping closer, Jesse lifted the lock away from the door. On the front were raised letters  but he couldn’t make them out. Sticking his thumb into his mouth to wet it, he rubbed it against the letters in a circular motion. Still a murky brown, he could barely make out a few letters: – – G – Y, and just below that: ST – – L. The letters and the size of the words reminded him of something familiar. The answer was on the tip of his tongue but he had to think hard before it would materialize. Of course, it came to him, Rigby Steel.

 Founded before the turn of the 19th century, Rigby Steel was one of the reasons Ashcroft could be found on the map. Just how much the town owed it’s lineage to the mill was still a debate regularly taken up by some of Ashcroft’s older residents, with second and third generation descendants still milking the now abandoned mill for any residual local notoriety. While certainly not the only big business of the bygone era to propel the town towards prosperity, it was surely the oddest.

Stories from the days when the mill was active were still told around supper and coffee tables alike. Occasionally, you could hear one told around a campfire or lantern if the story was the superstitious sort—of which there were many. Most, however, were cautionary tales that urged listeners to beware of abusing their power or to treat their employees well; Mr. Rigby being the arch-typical codger who was known for the harsh working conditions he created.

 Jesse’s father would occasionally tell him about the mill’s founder, Adolphus Rigby, a stooped over and crotchety man with poor hearing—the result of a life spent amongst the thunderous forging of steel—that caused him to speak in a constant shout. No one knew whether Mr. Rigby was joking or serious when he talked, his outlandish remarks always being delivered with the same shiftless scowl. A known reclusive, the steel mogul seldom left the sprawling mill, choosing instead to orchestrate operations from within his office perched high atop the four-story brick building. His nervous employees were constantly fearful of his famously mercurial mood swings; paternally cajoling them to meet a deadline one minute and then berating them with a red face for a minor error the next, spit flying from his lips in angry explosions. In the final year of his life, the long-since-widowed Mr. Rigby had slept at the steel mill—refusing to leave for any reason—and a small bed had been carried up the many stairs to his spacious office.

Later, when the mill had closed during the years of Jesse’s father’s youth, it was Adolphus’ grandson, Quinn, unexpectedly at the helm. The patriarchal Mr. Rigby and his wife had only conceived two children—with one of them dying from the Spanish Flu before making it to her first birthday—and Quinn’s father, Walter, was considered to be as unlike his dad as any son could be. Forgiving where his father was spiteful, empathetic where he was cold, and optimistic where the old man was suspicious, everyone in Ashcroft expected a bright future for Rigby Steel.

After returning from college, Walter began to slowly assume operations as Adolphus’ health worsened. New ideas learned in college upstate about modern manufacturing processes were applied—and productivity soared. More workers were brought in and more buildings went up as the mill expanded. It was a period of growth and prosperity—not only for the mill, but for Ashcroft as well. Sadly, it would be a brief period before the town was plunged into a long and draining recession.

One day, while he was out inspecting the mill, a rusty cable-hook pulled free from its mooring in the aging brick wall, the hasp popping out in a puff of red dust before falling to the floor far below. The bulky metal hook was used to lift the heavy pallets containing the steel parts after they were forged. It had been secured high against the wall where it would not interfere with the workers and vehicles down on the floor below. His back to the danger, Walter hadn’t seen the massive hook the size of a car tire as it swung down—gathering speed on its silent path towards him. The doctors later said that nearly every bone in his torso sustained damage, with most of them shattering under the impact. Shards of razor sharp bone had severed his spine and—mercifully—his death had been instant. The decline of the mill that followed however was a slow and melancholy era that never really ended entirely.  

Letting the lock settle back against the aging door, Jesse looked at his watch and his eyes widened in shock; it was 8:15. He was late. No, he was beyond late. If he walked through the doors to the school right now he’d still be late—and he had almost two miles to walk. Time had gotten away from him while he was studying the stained glass windows and there was no getting it back again. As he stood there contemplating potential excuses to tell his teacher and parents, a foreign but exciting idea came over him, and he set any fear of reprisal aside for a moment. Or…, he thought, I could go over to Rigby Steel and explore around. Trying the idea on for a second, he continued, I’m already late, what’s a little later? Looking again at the weathered lock on the door, Jesse imagined exploring the abandoned steel mill. As far as he knew no one had been back there in many years. 

Considered an unnecessary hazard by many Ashcroft residents, most preferred to forget that it still stood at the end of the gravel drive—obscured now by a mature stand of woods. Jesse had occasionally heard stories of some older kid or another having braved the danger and snuck back, but the speaker was always once or twice removed—never the actual boy alleging to have gone. Those stories always ended with the unknown kid narrowly escaping some unseen malevolent presence that inhabited the site; which type of haunting depended on the personal taste of whoever was telling the tale.

 Jesse didn’t believe the parts about the ghosts—that was childish stuff—but he loved hearing the kids describe the old buildings their “friends” had supposedly been able to explore. He pictured massive steel forging machines from antiquity, frozen in disuse but poised to thunder back to life on command as though the workers had simply left at the end of their shift expecting to return the next day. He suddenly wanted more than anything to see the old Rigby Steel Mill and its old brick buildings. The growing idea of going on an actual adventure himself was beginning to take root.  

He had never purposely ditched school before—he had never even been late. On the rare occasion that he was too sick to attend there were never any suspicions raised about his sincerity. The mill wasn’t far away from where he was now, he knew. He had seen glimpses of the sprawling complex behind the trees and sumac bushes from time to time as he rode by in the car, but he had never gone up Rigby Lane to the closed metal gates—now secured with a rusty chain looped around its bars. If he left now, he could go explore some of the mill and still be at school by lunch period. He could tell Ms. Gertson and his parents that his stomach had begun to hurt this morning and that he was afraid to stray too far from the safety of the bathroom. He would still be there for half of the day—so it wasn’t even a full-fledged skip, he thought.

He imagined his mother’s face if he happened to get caught. Perhaps someone would drive by and see him on the road so late in the morning when he should be in school and heading in the wrong direction. His father would be furious when he found out. He didn’t spank him often—Jesse rarely warranted it—but it was not unheard of and something like this would guarantee at least a few swats. And that likely only be the beginning. There would be no more tranquil mornings. The parade of babysitters would return without delay. The brass key would be removed from its little nail behind the railing, Jesse no longer being worthy of it.

Still, he pictured the heroes in his favorite books: exploring ancient tombs; discovering unknown places; recovering secret knowledge once lost to the ages. Ashcroft was often an insufferably boring town to him—not like the places in his books. Most people simply conformed to whatever behavior or tastes were currently in style and went about their lives. It was rare to see anyone express too much individuality, and those that did were considered to be bad apples of one sort or another.

It was still some time before Jesse realized that he was no longer considering whether or not to go. Adjusting the shoulder straps tighter on his bag, he turned and headed back for the street corner—and the Rigby Steel Mill.


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Author’s Note: I have no real intentions of posting my book in its entirety on here—that would be absurd for a number of reasons. Still, I do plan on continuing to post excerpts over time for the purpose of feedback. Like anyone who has ever told a story, I hope you enjoyed what you’ve read so far. It’s still in rough shape and each review brings about one minor tweak or another—but they’re getting further and fewer in between so I wouldn’t expect any major shift to the plot. If you did enjoy it, then I would shamelessly ask you to hit the like button and maybe even nonchalantly spread the word about the blog, (but don’t make it look obvious). I look forward to getting this story out there.

          

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