Author’s Note: This story has not been through a complete second draft yet.
It’s near the end of July when it begins. The threat of school is still a few weeks away, the air conditioning blasts in every house and eggs could fry on sidewalks, but autumn is near. You know it, you can feel it. For as hot as it is on a beautiful Saturday, standing on your back porch looking at the green fields grown up to the round hay bales that Mr. Rawlett has yet to collect, you can feel a fresh breeze that sends a distinct chill along your arms, raising pimples.
There’s already a small scattering of leaves that crush under your feet in the yard or in the parking lot of Day Brother’s Market when you and your mom stop for eggs and milk and, maybe if you plead just the right amount, a comic book and a Slush Puppie (a Suicide, all the flavors mixed together). You notice that familiar crunch by accident, it sneaks up on you, and you smell age on the air and you realize the days have grown just an inch shorter. Some people, your mom for instance, will say the little bit of leaves blown on the wind and skittering over the pavement and across the lawn when you get home are just dead from the heat. But it’s like your grandmother says, “The trees are gettin’ ready for Fall,” and you wholeheartedly agree. Fall is coming.
Spring and Summer have their adventures, and Winter has the most holidays that provide a reprieve from the doldrums of academia, but Fall has Wonder and the Unknown. It has a golden enchantment. Fall has Halloween and that certain evening light that no other days have which all seasons envy. Autumn has the feeling of Time itself passing, making you believe you have to live it to the fullest before it slips away into the grey recesses of Winter. Fall is primal and mysterious, and it speaks to you.
Summer drags its feet and this one has been as distinguished and undistinguished as any you remember. It’s had the usual things you don’t particularly like, such as the family reunions which are full of people you don’t really know and only see once a year. Your mom and grandmother tell you that you have to go because it may be the last time you see Great Great Aunt Betsy, yet they remain cryptic on whether it will be her or you to perish in the next year. Poor Jess Davis, your best friend, has to go to a reunion all the way, as his dad says, “in the butt end of Mississippi.”
There’s mowing the grass, which you don’t mind too much except on those sweltering days when even mowing in the shade dries your breath. And there’s cutting the weeds around the house, which you despise, but is mandated by law. You caught ten kinds of hell when you sprayed weed killer around Granny May’s house and accidentally murdered her snowball bush, and she and your mother feel the need to remind you of this every time you weed.
But Summer is full of those things you love, too. Catching tadpoles in the creek, the cold water rushing around your legs, and throwing firecrackers leftover from the 4th of July under the bridge to hear the BOOM! Luckily, Granny May lives down the road and around the curve and just diagonal from her lives Jess. Before he and his family moved to Lois Holler (Jess eventually became native and pronounced it Holler like everyone else instead of Hollow), you sometimes found yourself thinking during summer vacation that it would be nice to get back to school to see some friends.
You and Jess have nights of The Andy Griffith Show, The Twilight Zone, and The Benny Hill Show. You have VHS copies of Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead that Jess borrows from his older brothers along with purloined issues of Easy Rider and Heavy Metal. Yet, as July finds its close and your mom begins the first murmurings of “shopping for school clothes,” you yearn for candles burning in jack-o’-lanterns, monster faces in windows, Ichabod Crane fleeing the Headless Horseman (because Colonial America defines Autumn for you thanks to Mr. Irving), and you imagine silhouette witches swooping down from a full moon night sky.
By the time this summer has its final laps in sight, you and Jess find yourselves sitting on bus No. 20, with Mr. Delford still at the helm even though he’s two years from eighty, on a rainy afternoon after the first full day of eighth grade. You two have most of your classes together, at least most of the boring ones anyway, at Garner Heath Middle School. You are both excited about this being the last year for you at good ol’ Garner Middle. Jess is convinced that his brothers, the twin towers of Aaron and Wesley Davis, the senior football stars and the kings of Lois Hollow Central High School, will drag you and him to all the parties.
“We’ll be the coolest kids in school,” Jess says.
You remain skeptical. “I don’t think they’re gonna let us tag along to anything.”
Mr. Delford hits a pothole on Madison Street dead center and the whole bus shakes and rattles. An elementary kid falls into the aisle and the phlegmy bus driver says into the mirror, “Find a seat.”
Jess says, “I’ve been trying it out, I’ve talked to a few girls. They know who my brothers are.”
“They know who you are, too,” you say.
Bus No. 20 lets out at Farrar Trailer Park and at the top of the hill on Belmont Avenue which is the last stop in the city limits. Mr. Delford does the posted thirty miles per hour until the river bridge and then he shifts gears and puts the pedal down. There’s only a handful of kids left on the bus and the next stop isn’t until Langenship Road for you and Jess.
The bus turns on your road and the second house set back from the road draws your attention. You point it out to Jess. It’s the home of Annie Duthers, known in the neighborhood as Chainsaw Annie since she makes her money clearing land and timber and cutting wood for folks. There’s a sheriff’s car parked in her driveway and a deputy is talking to the widow Duthers who is wearing her customary overalls and denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up in the drizzle.
You and Jess stare out the window until the scene is out of sight.
Jess speculates, “Maybe she killed someone.”
“Not Annie, she wouldn’t let’em take her alive.” You know the neighborhood grapevine will be alive with details and all calls end with Granny May.
When the bus stops for Jess, you both flee it with Mr. Delford saying “See ya in the morning,” and run the other direction to your granny’s house.
Granny May is sitting on her front porch in a polyester dress, a purple one with giant white and red blooming flowers on it, and she’s rocking in her squeaky chair. There’s a small bulge to her bottom lip and she’s holding a foam cup with a paper napkin folded in the bottom of it for her to spit snuff into (she dips Rooster brand powdered snuff, which she calls her cocoa, which you and a long line of kids before you, inevitably, have sneaked some of at some point and you all got sicker than a dog on granny’s cocoa). A smiling scarecrow and hay bales with gourds decorate her yard, it’s all the Halloween decorations she allows because she doesn’t like that scary stuff. Granny May has always preferred Jerry Lewis to Alfred Hitchcock.
You run up onto the porch, not quite drowned, rain dripping from your bangs. The bus rolls away and Mr. Delford honks the horn.
Granny May throws her hand up. “Y’all sound like a herd of buffalo.”
“Sorry, Granny,” Jess says, because everyone calls Granny May ‘Granny.’
“How was school?”
“The sheriff’s at Annie’s place,” you tell her, ignoring school which was a lot less interesting and, generally, of little consequence.
Granny May rocks and spits into her cup. “Yeah, she found somebody on her place.”
“She found a dead body?” Jess goes white and you feel fine hairs raise on your neck.
“Lord, no,” Granny May grunts. “You kids, I swear. She found where somebody had been camping out in her back field.”
“Oh,” you say, let down by the clarification.
“Looks like they’d been there a while,” she says. “Don’t know how long. I’m just glad you two didn’t run into whoever it was, I know y’all go back there. Make sure you lock your doors. To think somebody could just be hiding out on your own property like that. Probably watching us come and go. Lord, Lord, I’ll have nightmares tonight.”
“Did they catch who it was?”
“No. They didn’t see anybody back there. Don’t think they’d been gone long, though. Sheriff says the coals in the campfire were still kinda warm. To think they were back there cooking on an open fire and Annie didn’t even know it. She needs to cut down all those trees. It’s a shame, people doing that and we gotta clear everything off, just cut it all down. We can’t see anyone sneaking up on us, though. That’s what the world’s come to. Strangers just moving on your own property like it’s theirs.”
A car crunches gravel. It’s your mom and she stops, her window already down. “Need a lift?”
Granny May shakes her head. “You better take it. I don’t think you should be out walking alone. Especially in the rain.”
“Granny, it’s-” you start but it’s useless. She’s already made her mind up. The world has gotten worse and is doomed for the fiery depths of Hell.
“Things have just gotten so bad,” Granny May says. “The world’s just worse and worse every day.”
Jess runs across the road and up his drive to home and you jump in your mom’s car.
Granny May stands at the porch railing and spits her snuff into the flower bed. “Lock your doors,” she yells at your mom. “I’ll call you later.”
Your mom nods to her mom. “What’s she talking about?” she asks as she cranks the window up.
“Somebody’s been trespassing on Annie’s land.”
Your mom doesn’t say anything, you both know Granny May is probably already dialing the telephone to spread the gospel of the end of days. As you stare out the window at the trees and fields that cover the road to either side the short distance home you wonder who may be hiding in the brush just out of sight, or flush on a tree branch, watching you like a hunter in a hide. How long have they been there and do they know you by now, do they know the names of all your family and Jess’s family?
Around the curve and you’re home, you have the door open before your mom even stops the car and she yells at you all the dangers of doing that. “I knew a kid that did that and he fell out and his own mom ran him over by accident and killed him.”
You figured out long ago your mom and Granny May (like mother, like daughter– but you’d never say that out loud) had a story about someone for every occasion, and none of those someones ever survived.
You slam the door even though the car’s already stopped and say, “Okay, okay, I won’t do it again,” which is what you say every time. As soon as your mom arches an eyebrow you flee the car, your backpack slamming about as you run. You can hear the telephone ringing inside and it will keep ringing until the door is unlocked and your mom answers it to assure Granny May that you’re both still alive.
After the conversation, your mom puts the phone down, sighs, and shakes her head to ward off the worrisome old woman she knows she’s on her way to becoming. She relates everything Granny May already told you, but you listen for anything that may be new information. Your mom sums it up with, “Keep our eyes peeled, I guess, and call the law if we see anybody suspicious.”
She will call Jess’s mom, and spread the news even further afield.
Be on the lookout.
You and Jess can do that.
It’s Sunday morning, a lazy October Sunday morning, and for a change there’s no church today due to Brother Tom, the pastor at Center Free Will Baptist Church, is convalescing from a collapsed lung and there’s no deacon or assistant pastor at the little country chapel. Last Sunday there was Sunday school and prayer and this week you’re happy, too thrilled your mom thinks, that services were dismissed because you got to stay home and watch the Lone Ranger, the old black and white episodes that are much better than the color episodes (just like Andy Griffith). The icing on the cake is tomorrow starts an abbreviated week of school, Fall break is coming to resuscitate you. Only three days of school this next week thanks to the Lois Holler Fall Festival (they actually put ‘Holler’ on the banners and leaflets) that consumes the town next Friday and Saturday and coincides with Halloween this year.
The Sunday edition of the Lois Hollow Standard has come and your dad has fished it from the ditch at the roadside. “We have a box especially for the paper, why can’t that little idiot put the damn paper in it?” he fumes. That idiot is Jerry Firsh whose orange ‘72 Chevy Vega Panel you heard coughing down the road earlier in the morning, the wired-shut hatchback clapping over gravel and bumps. Your dad describes Jerry as a twenty-four year old burnout with the higher brain function of broccoli. The few times you’ve talked to him, you think he’s pretty cool.
Your dad’s hair is mussed from the wind. You can hear the porch swing croak on its chains and the clack of the plastic skeleton hanging from the hook where your mom’s dead fern used to suffer. The front page carries the same headline as the Friday edition and is nearly word for word the same front page article:
“VANDALISM HALTS HATCHERY-
Plain Gate Farms, the largest chicken hatchery in Lois Hollow and Norris County, is still closed due to vandalism. Owner Rob Liggett discovered the facility forcibly broken into last Friday morning and thousands of dollars of chickens killed. The walls of the building had been smashed through. ‘There was dead hens everywhere, it was a sea of’em,’ Liggett reported.”
Your dad shakes his head. “I don’t know what it says about us when murdered chickens make the front page of the paper. Two issues in a row. I pay for this,” he shakes the paper, “this slim volume of murdered trees and wasted ink.”
“There was a lot of them, though,” you attempt to justify the page one coverage. “What tore through the wall?”
He folds the paper and offers it to you. “Read it and find out.”
“Nah,” you decline and head out the door. You can hear your mom calling, “You put a jacket on.” You jump off the porch and take to your bike, a red Murray with rugged wheels. You kick up a personal dust cloud down Langenship Road and around the curve in the opera of birds and wind shear you glide into the shaded yard of Granny May’s house.
You lean your bicycle on the side of the shed which houses the remains of Granddaddy’s ’36 Roadster, still, after all these years. He had bought it brand spanking new and had it all of a week before he got drunk and ran it up a tree. He kept it as a reminder whenever he felt the urge to take a swig. When he died four years ago, Granny May had considered burying him in it until Glenn Gurshin of Gurshin Funeral home quoted her a price. Granny May smiled at the funeral director and said, “Levon didn’t love it that much.”
Granny May is in the kitchen. She has sausage, bacon, and scrambled eggs on the table and when she sees you charging through the back door, she tells you, “Biscuits are in the oven. You eat yet?”
“No, ma’am.” You saved it for Granny’s house. But she already knew that.
She takes the biscuits out of the oven, they’re plump and golden, and she drops one on the plate that was waiting for you. You slap on homemade strawberry jam, deciding on that instead of Granny’s peach preserves, and you pile the plate with two sausages, four sticks of crisp bacon, and a mound of scrambled eggs.
Granny May pours you a glass of milk. She has her Sunday paper also and has the coupons ready to be cut. With her silver scissors that weigh about a ton she hedges in on a coupon that will save her ten cents on a two pack of Irish Spring. “It’s a shame about Brother Tom, that lung collapsing like that,” she clips.
“Yes, ma’am,” you say. “Momma says it’s probably from all his smoking.”
“Could be, yep,” she lays the Irish Spring coupon to the side. “Maybe he won’t be so long winded now.”
You almost choke on your biscuit and jam, but she doesn’t bat an eye.
“He likes to talk and go on and on. The Sermon on the Mount didn’t take as long as he does to preach it,” she attacks fifty cents off Hamburger Helper. “Does your mom know Kroger is gonna have beef roast on sale?”
You roll your shoulders and even though she doesn’t see it, she knows you rolled them.
“I’ll tell her when I call her,” Granny May says.
You clean your plate and chomp four more sticks of bacon.
“Did you get enough?” Granny May asks as you take one more stick of bacon.
“Yes, ma’am,” you say and you remove your milk mustache with the back of your arm. “That was good, Granny. We were just gonna have cereal at home.”
“I’m thinking of baking a cake,” she says and you both agree that lemon would be fine. She’s decided she’ll call your mom and let her know she’s gonna fry chicken for lunch and y’all can just eat with her. “I don’t guess your momma has plans to cook today. I thought I raised her better than that.” Granny May tells you to be careful as you head back out the door.
Jess is jumping the railing of their front porch as you fly down the gravel drive. Today you and he are going to be searching the back field and along the creek for any signs of whoever had camped at Chainsaw Annie’s place. Your mothers only think y’all are staying to the yards, close to home. Neither of you have bothered to correct them because you know they’ll squash the idea. Your dads probably know better, and Mr. Davis gives you both a “Be careful” as you ride out.
You can feel the clock ticking, the countdown to Monday began last Friday at three when the final bell rang and you ran like hell to the bus (“Run to the hills, run for your lives,” played in your head as you beat across the pavement to No. 20). You have to make up for Saturday, Jess’s parents drug him, not quite kicking and screaming, but against his will nonetheless, to see his Grandpa Bill at the nursing home in Lawrenceburg. It was an all-day thing, always is, and they didn’t get home until late. There was definitely no search party to the woods, which was okay with the both of you being so late at night. And since Friday night was for decompressing, for unwinding from all the homework and structure of algebra, history, and social studies, that leaves only Sunday for you to scour the countryside on your own neighborhood watch/vigilante posse.
At the gate to the back field you park your bikes and climb over. Mr. Davis used to have dairy cows, but sold them all not long after the Stanley factory closed and left him out of work. The money held them over until he was hired on in Bridgeton at the rubber mill. The barn roof was ripped off last year during a particularly severe storm, but Mr. Davis left the fencing intact under the assumption he was going to get back in the dairy business one of these days, or maybe the beef business, but Jess was of the mind that his dad only said that to irritate his mom.
“I’ve been thinking,” Jess says as you walk through tall brown weeds.
“What?” You swing at the weeds, let the wind blow them against your hands. The sun is warm, but the wind makes you rethink not wearing a jacket or at least a long-sleeved shirt like Jess.
“Maybe the intruder-” that was a Granny May term, your dad says bum, your mom says vagrant- “maybe it’s just Crazy Ray.”
You stop cold and you feel stupid that you hadn’t even considered this theory. Of course, Crazy Ray. You want to slap yourself for missing the easiest answer.
“That’s brilliant,” you admit, “it’s so obvious.”
Neither of you know the full truth about Crazy Ray, but you are more than familiar with the legend of “Crazy” Ray Bailey. He was born and raised right here in Lois Holler. He was what people referred to as soft in the head or simple minded, but wouldn’t hurt a hair on a fly’s head. Or so they believed. This is where the story becomes murky and most likely diverges from the truth.
A grown man with the mind of a child, Crazy Ray wasn’t always treated with the utmost kindness, and some say not even treated with the tenderest of love from his parents. When their house burned to the ground, it was only Ray who survived. He had a habit of wandering the Holler, mostly after dark to avoid people. He wasn’t home when the house went up in flames in the middle of the night, he was sleeping in the old abandoned Fly Family Manufacturers building just off the town square. There was wide speculation that he had lit the match that reduced his home and parents to cinders.
Although, that could have been twisted legend passed down from sibling to sibling and kid to kid. According to Granny May and others, such as the newspaper, it was faulty wiring that sparked the fire. Either way, “Crazy” Ray Bailey went to live with his younger sister on Raus Road in a little community called Dolittle. That didn’t stop Ray from his nightly excursions, and it wasn’t long before he wasn’t coming home at all. He preferred living in the woods on a perpetual basis, and one of his favorite places was the nature trail of H.V. Warner Park.
“Crazy Ray will get you.” That was a common refrain and not just on the playgrounds and schoolyards where his legend ran bloody and rampant. Some kid was always ready with a tale of how Crazy Ray snatched unsuspecting kids playing in the park or hiking through the thicket of the nature trail. “Roasts them and eats them.” He was forever harrying down a victim.
The police did roust him from the park on occasion, when they could find him and catch him. To your knowledge he was never charged with murder, but that may have been because he ate all the evidence. You are sure Crazy Ray didn’t kidnap children or abduct adults and have them for dinner, but your parents never forgot to tell you to be careful when at the park and they never let you go on the nature trail alone.
“Would he come out this far? That’s quite a ways,” you ponder.
Jess replies, “I don’t see why not,” and you find that to be ironclad logic.
Across the field and through the brush you stand on the creek bank. The decision is made to head downstream, towards Annie’s place. By the time you get to the edge of the Davis’s land, you and Jess are less than thrilled to have found nothing, not even a candy wrapper or beer can. You follow the creek and see the barbed wire that marks Mr. Winn’s land. You both reconsider going forward, Mr. Winn is peculiar and you don’t want to raise his ire by him catching you on his land again, even if the reason is for neighborhood safety.
This far back, you hear a truck rattle along New Hope Road and an idea dawns on you. Where would you hide if you were Crazy Ray?
Jess hears the truck too and he’s struck by the same notion. “The church,” you say a second before he can spit it out.
You backtrack, excited, and you cross at the sandbar on mostly dry ground since the water is low, using the rocks to cross the rest of the way. On the other side, you scurry up the bank and the field you cross is thicker and greener, full of flies, gnats, and thistles. Finally, you come to the tended churchyard. Approaching from the rear, you see the weathered headstones that mark each grave in the small cemetery.
New Hope Church has been closed for years, longer than you or your parents have been alive. Granny May can remember attending services here when she was young, and “It was old even then,” she’s reminisced. No sooner are you in the midst of the graveyard when the wind stirs the dead leaves and sends them whirling across the graves. Branches crack in the gust and you’ve grown cold to your soul despite the heat at your temples as the vibrant, violent, trim of the trees lean and sway.
Jess is kicking at rebellious weeds that evaded the groundskeeper’s blade, checking out the ancient markers and finely sculpted mossed gravestones of mourning angels and patient grim reapers. You stop, stand in the wind that rushes the field to the hills, the leaves dancing their circles and dropping like kids with pockets full of posy.
You scan the country, inspect the hills, the wavering shadows of the woods, you have that gnawing unease that you’re not alone, that there are eyes on you, watching from distant recesses and crannies. The idea begins to prickle that you shouldn’t be here when you notice that from a tree situated beside the old community graveyard hangs a rope, a noose at its end, and it convulses in the wind, a dirty grey pendulum. From other kids, you reckon, a scare tactic or a souvenir from the high schoolers that trek out here late at night to drink beer, cop a feel, and see if any of the stories about New Hope are true.
The noose swings back and forth. Maybe it’s saying “No”.
Jess cups his hands at a cracked window. You join him to look in. Dirt and grime have marred the glass, a thick green and yellow layer distorts your view, but you can make out dilapidated and upended pews. Graffiti is painted across the walls and a lonely bale of half destroyed hay is in a corner with its guts strewn about the floor. Two windows are boarded over on the opposite side.
Jess follows you quietly to the front door. You rattle the knob. It’s unlocked, whoever the caretaker is has long ago stopped padlocking the door because trespassers kept cutting the lock or prying it off or breaking out windows to gain access. The door pushes open easily, without a sound, no squeak, no whisper, no groan, which surprises both of you, and that stale barn smell, the odor of decay and mold and a house shut up for centuries, waltzes to the threshold to greet you.
You and Jess wait for the other to cross inside. You bristle, still feeling eyes on you, maybe just the trees or birds or squirrels, monitoring your every step and bead of sweat.
Jess cranes his head around the jamb, none too eager. The tales of New Hope Church you’ve grown up with are on both your minds. You don’t have to utter a word, you both know them by heart.
New Hope Church closed its doors sometime back in the fifties from what you can gather. All you know is what Granny May has said, “Ike was in the White House.” It has sat abandoned ever since, passing to whoever owns the land. It’s been used for storage, Mr. Rawlett kept hay in it for Euless Cathey when he owned the property, and it hosts the homecoming on the grounds (second weekend of May every year, on the dot) when the last sparse remaining relatives of those buried here, and some history-minded Holler locals, plant flowers that won’t live and polish tombstones and spread out picnic blankets to eat bologna sandwiches and succotash.
But mainly New Hope sits forlorn, some odd piece of the little chapel crumbling with each passing day. It’s no wonder then at the legends that sprung up around the old church, brought about mainly by neighborhood gossips and curious, frivolous, teenagers– two groups that your granny has always maintained are, actually, not that different.
“I’ve seen the lights,” your dad has told you before. “Lit up like a revival meeting.” Others have confirmed the phenomenon. Reports have varied on the color of the lights, you’ve heard white, you’ve heard a pale blue, and Jess has even been told of a purple, otherworldly, luminance. Sometimes the lights are said to only burn when the Preacher is at the pulpit.
The Preacher. He’s top on your mind, even in the middle of the day, as you look into the dank interior of New Hope Church.
Up and down New Hope Road people have heard the Preacher pounding the pulpit and delivering sermons of fire and brimstone. Cory McCullough, a friend of Aaron Davis’s who used to live just over the hill in the closest house to the church, heard the preaching late at night more than once. He didn’t like to discuss it and he’d go white if you ever asked him about it. “Probably kids, probably what I heard,” he’d say and quickly change the subject. He was happy, though, when his family moved to the other side of the county.
Mr. Rawlett claimed to have seen the Preacher. “With my own eyes,” he’d tell you. It was when he stored hay in the church for Euless Cathey. “I got the bales packed in their good, no help either, it was just me, it was a small load, I give you that. But I’s by myself. I closed it up and put the lock on it like Euless wanted, like it’d do some good. Anybody wants to get in there, they’re gonna get in. I started my truck up and I didn’t get out the drive before it went dead. I tried it and tried but that motor wouldn’t turn. I happen to look up and in the rear-view mirror I saw him, he was comin’ down the steps. The Preacher, sure as I’m standing here right now. He wore a black suit and an old flop hat. He didn’t look like a monster, but you could tell he didn’t look right either. His eyes, hell, they were coal black. I laid into that ignition and my truck finally started. I peeled out of there, sure enough, and I won’t go back by myself, I tell ya that right now. I got outta there, left the Preacher standing there waving that Bible to shoo off my sins.”
The New Hope Bible was the most famous of the church’s legends. It was said to rest on the pulpit and became heavier the further it went from the church. Many stories abounded of people trying to steal the Bible, dragging it across the yard to toss it in the trunk, only to have the tail end of the car dragging the road before they made a clean getaway. Allegedly, successful thieves met a grisly end and the Bible always mysteriously found its way back to the church and its place on the pulpit.
A rattletrap truck is coming down the road and Jess drags you, in a fugue, inside and slams the door as the truck reaches the church. You can’t risk getting caught, but you’re not sure you wanted to cross the border into New Hope Church either. This wasn’t a good idea, you fully realize that now, yet you can’t contest the force that pulls you in or the reason behind it.
The truck passes in a slow crawl crunching gravel. Jess is watching through a gap in the door. You let your eyes adjust to the natural light that finds asylum in the chapel. You think a rat scurries in the dark along the wall, at least you hope it’s a rat, and your muscles tighten throughout your body, making knots the Boy Scouts haven’t discovered. It’s stifling inside and you miss the breeze. Your shirt clings to your back and you feel filthy standing here breathing petulant air. Jess is standing so close you can smell his Right Guard.
You place your foot forward. The board feels weak, depresses under your weight. You sidestep and you’re walking down the aisle between the two rows of pews. Jess shuffles behind you, when he sniffles you nearly jump out of your skin. You navigate the holes in the floor, the broken boards and trash, until you’re at the front, at the altar, looking up at the pulpit. A cross is carved in it, beautiful back in the day most likely, but vandals have done their work carving names and loving devotions, writing curses, profanities, and blatant blasphemies.
“Are you going up there?” Jess asks.
You hadn’t thought about it, and you say so.
“I’ll go if you go,” Jess says. Adding, almost reluctantly, “I got your back.” He has contracted the same condition of cotton mouth as you.
The wind still stirs. Trees ruffle outside sending shadows to war. The church shudders, the murk isn’t bothered by it. You step up to the raised stage where the pulpit waits. It smells worse up here, like a wild animal, something born to run the woods and roam the timberlands. At the back you see a blanket crumpled on the floor and hanging from a crooked nail in the wall is a dark blazer.
The compulsion grabs you and you take the jacket down from where it’s been neatly stored. In a shaft of light you look it over. It’s not old. It looks like the Sears special your dad has hanging in a Snow White Dry Cleaner’s bag in the back of the closet and only wears to weddings and funerals. This one smells musky, covered in hairs. You sniff it. It smells woodsy and canine.
“Look at this.” Jess points to a Bible behind the pulpit. “Do you think…” Neither of you say anything.
Hurriedly, you toss the blazer back on the nail. “Let’s get out of here,” but you didn’t need to say it, Jess is already heading for the door.
“Do you think it gets heavy? You think it’s true?” Jess asks as he opens the door and the light blinds you, makes you blink away black spots.
“Don’t be stupid, of course not,” you say, not convinced and not wanting to know the truth. You know it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie lest you get bit.
You slam the door and the fresh air is assaulting after the stifling interior. The leaves are too shrill as they are tossed about, your breathing too wheezing as you run, not waiting for Jess who lingers for one last parting glance through a window. You cross the cemetery, pushed by the wind, and wait for him and then pull him down behind dried shrubs and nettles.
Jess wants to ask what the big idea is, but you hush him with a stern expression, motion for him to wait…to watch…be patient.
Moments pass. The wind has its way and you watch that old noose in its turbulent throes. Across the field, someone emerges from the woods. A man. From here, he doesn’t look the way you’ve imagined a hobo or a vagrant to dress, from this distance he looks professional, a baby blue shirt, you can make out a yellow tie, dark pants that match the suit coat hanging in the ruined church. His dark bushy hair sprouts wild atop his head and he walks with a limp, but not quite a limp, a halting gait, unsure of his steps, like your mom’s cousin Annalee with MD.
You make sure you and Jess are well hidden, peering through the bushes. You hold your breath when the man stops. His eyes pass over the headstones, the far off trees. Does he look at you and Jess? Is he sniffing the air? Does he meet your eyes? Maybe for a brief second, but the man doesn’t know it, only you. The man goes on and when you hear the church door close, the wind has carried the sound to you as though you were standing there shutting the door yourself, only then do you run and neither you nor your best friend look back.
Safely in Jess’s back yard you discuss the next action. Breathless, hearts jumping, you brainstorm against an oak on the leaf-crisp ground.
“The right thing,” Jess says, “is to tell. Call the police.”
“Yes.” You fully agree.
“But we’ll get grounded for sure.”
Again, you fully agree. You can’t avoid the inevitable.
You both agree to bite the bullet on this one. Jess tells his parents and while his dad is on the phone with the sheriff’s department, his mom is scolding the both of you: “What were you thinking? You could have been killed! You both know better! You’re both old enough to know better! What were you thinking?”
After Mr. Davis hangs up the phone, Mrs. Davis immediately snatches the receiver from the cradle so hard it echoes out a ring. She’s not just going to call your parents, she’s going to talk to your mom. She stabs the buttons furiously enough to crack a nail and that makes her angrier. Hoping not to press your luck, you ask kindly, respectfully, in the most pleasing and imploring tone you have if she will give you a minute’s head start. Mrs. Davis doesn’t answer, she doesn’t even look at you, can’t look at you in her present state of mind, and Jess, defeated, says, “You better git.”
You run with your bike and jump on halfway down the Davises’ driveway and pedal to your house until your knees hurt. You get a cramp in your right leg just as you roll into your front yard. When you see your mom standing on the porch, arms crossed and brow furrowed, you get the flight impulse but you know she’ll just hunt you down.
“What were you thinking?” she bellows while you try to walk off the leg cramp. You don’t have to answer, she answers for you: “You weren’t thinking.”
“You weren’t thinking!” and that’s that. Once Granny May finds out you know it’ll be the end of days, she’ll never be allowed a moment’s peace knowing you’re out doing “plain stupid, just careless things like this.” Your mom continues her greatest hits. “You know better! You coulda been killed! What am I gonna do with you? This is why my hair is going grey!”
She spends over an hour talking to your granny and while they are still researching and debating why you are the way you are, a deputy sheriff, the new one just transferred in from Davidson County, pulls in the driveway and your dad steps out to talk with him. You watch them from your bedroom window and in the twenty minutes that they chat, they look up at your window at least three times and each time you get caught spying and duck out of sight. When you chance to spy again, your dad and the deputy have vanished.
Your dad calls you downstairs. Deputy Ferguson wants to speak with you. He wants to hear the whole story, from beginning to end, and you comply, nervously. He writes it all down in a little black notebook, slicing a stubby pencil across the paper, flipping pages to check and recheck information. You describe the man, you close your eyes and give every detail that you see.
You finish and open your eyes. Deputy Ferguson notes the final details. He closes his notepad and nestles it in his shirt pocket. “We searched the area,” he says. “We didn’t find anybody. We’re still looking of course.” He smooths down his salt and pepper temples. “This guy is long gone, though. A drifter more than likely, they come to town and stay awhile then head on to the next town. We don’t need to take any chances, though, these drifters and the like can be dangerous fellas. You understand what I’m saying?”
“Yes, sir,” you answer and see your mom go weak. You were nearly killed, she will tell you later.
“You don’t go back out there, okay? You or your friends.”
Your dad says, “I don’t think we’ll have to worry about that. Will we?”
“No, sir,” you say.
Your statement (what feels like an interrogation, only lacking the lamp shining in your face) takes mere minutes. Deputy Ferguson shakes your hand and tells you to stay out of trouble (the advice of every adult) and then he shakes your dad’s hand and is out the door. What’s left of your day is spent dusting, vacuuming, mopping, sweeping the front porch and then the back. If your dad hadn’t already raked the leaves, you’d be doing that and you wouldn’t put it past your mother to dump the leaves on the yard again just to complete the punishment for nearly getting killed.
After you finish the slave labor, after washing the dinner dishes, you welcome the solitary confinement of your room. You read comics, you surf the five channels (sometimes an available sixth) on the little color TV your jailers gifted you three Christmases ago. You turn the knob on the Zenith knowing there won’t be anything on worth watching until much later, it’s still too early this Sunday evening. It’s not until eight o’clock that Channel 17 is showing Dracula: Prince of Darkness. Your mother does her tsk-tsk at the movie when she checks on you to make sure you’ve not escaped out the window on a bed sheet rope. At ten, your dad says lights out and you switch off the television set. You hear your mom and dad talking, the scuff of their feet on the hardwood. They grow quiet. The house settles in for the night.
You’ve relaxed your mind and feel yourself drifting in the dark. You pull the covers to your chin in the comfortable coolness and over the frog croaks and night whistles you hear the distant faint notes of howling.
You wake gradually to crisp morning light. The clock radio on your nightstand reads 8:22 in its structured red digits. An arrow pierces your heart as you fight the blankets to stumble out of bed: Late for school! But wait…why didn’t your mom wake you when the alarm didn’t? Where was your dad flipping on the light and pulling your covers back to say, “Final warning, up and at’em?”
You descend the stairs two at a time, half tripping at the bottom. The last time they didn’t wake you for school was when your great grandmother, Granny Argie, had passed away, and the itching fear of death is on you and all you can think of is Granny May. You’re so distracted with worry that you didn’t even notice your dad until he catches you mid-trip.
“Whoa, hold up.”
“What’s wrong?” you ask, too scared to ask who died. “What’s going on?”
He grips your shoulder before putting his arm around you to guide you to the living room. You know something is wrong, very wrong, as he pulls a chair out for you.
“Where’s mom? Is Granny May all right?”
He says, “They’re both fine.” His face tells a grim story before his words, “There’s been an incident. Something happened.”
You don’t interrupt, you wait.
“Your mom and granny are over at the Davises’. Jess is okay. His brothers…they didn’t come home last night.”
You feel heavy and hopeless as you hear the news. It wasn’t uncommon for the twins, Aaron and Wesley, to stay out late. Mr. and Mrs. Davis gave them quite a free reign. Both boys worked, spent most of their time hunting and fishing and camping when not in school or on the football field or at their jobs. No one knew they were missing, your dad tells you, until Mrs. Davis got up at five and saw Aaron’s truck wasn’t parked outside. The twins weren’t home and she woke her husband.
“About six…Cha– Annie Duthers was out on Bethel Mills Road, she was going to clear some trees for Larry Winthrop. She saw Aaron’s truck parked on the side of the road.” That was the twin’s favorite fishing spot. The Big Spring River cut through that neck of the woods. Annie would say to people that something felt off, she recognized Aaron’s truck and seeing it there that early in the morning gave her an odd feeling. It just didn’t seem right to her.
“Annie found them,” your dad says. “They think maybe a bear or bobcat or– they don’t know really.”
You fill in the blanks your dad leaves. Annie found what was left of Aaron and Wesley Davis.
“Your mom and Granny May are over at Jess’s house right now. He stayed out of school, we thought you should stay out, too. Get some clothes on and we’ll head over. I know Jess needs you.”
You take a moment, feel the first warm sting of treacly tears.
“You okay?” your dad leans to you.
You nod, backhand a teardrop. Your dad puts an arm around you, squeezes. You can smell his Pinaud-Clubman aftershave and find a measure of strength in it.
“Thank you,” you tell him.
Mr. Davis is leaning against his truck when you and your dad arrive. He has that look of confusion grown men of their generation get when things like this happen, that look of not knowing whether to cry, scream, or pray so they stay silent trying to disappear in full view. Mr. Davis claps you on the back and says, “I think Jess is in the house,” because honestly none of you know what to say to each other. You head inside and your dad stays with Mr. Davis. You hear one of them say, “I heard it may rain tonight.”
The air in the Davis house smells the same, but you can taste the bitter weight of grief. Your mom and Granny May are in the den with Mrs. Davis. Mrs. Davis smiles so big when she sees you. She clutches your hands tightly, still holding her wet handkerchief. You think of saying, “I’m sorry for your loss,” because it feels appropriate, but it also feels dumb to say it so you don’t say anything but “Hi.”
“Oh, I’m so glad you came,” Mrs. Davis says. “I’m just so glad,” she sobs and holds the handkerchief to her mouth.
“I think Jess is out back,” your mom says as Granny May holds Mrs. Davis.
Granny May is praying silently with her mouth to Mrs. Davis’s ear. You watch her lips move, hear her breath, catch a couple of words.
You pull your hand free and you know you have that expression of confusion that your dad and Mr. Davis have, it’s carved onto your brow and lit in your eyes.
You find Jess sitting on the back steps. He looks up at you and his eyes are puffy red. You take a seat beside him. “Hi,” he says.
The telephone rings inside and it sounds like Granny May who answers it.
“How are you?” you ask. He shrugs.
The phone rings again after a time.
“People keep calling,” Jess says. “Rings off the hook.”
You pick at a splinter on the step. “It may rain tonight.”
Jess uses his shirt tail to wipe his eyes. He does a quarter turn to try and hide it from you.
“Did you see the Dracula movie last night?”
“Yeah,” Jess says. “There’s another Christopher Lee one coming on tonight.”
“Satanic Rites. I’ve never seen that one,” you say. “Maybe we can watch it tonight, if everyone says it’s okay. If you want.”
Jess nods. He straightens his back then hunches over on his legs once more. “My mom and dad talked to the sheriff this morning. They made me leave the room, but I listened in.” Out of instinct you both turn to see if anyone is at the door. It’s empty. “They think a bear attacked them.”
“That’s what my dad said,” your voice drops low. “Or maybe a bobcat or something.”
“That’s what the sheriff said. He said it was most likely a bear,” Jess tells you. The damage done, you know, would be the concluding factor. “He said they’ve had a couple of reports over the summer of bear sightings.”
“My dad read about that in the paper.” You remember the sighting, on Hillwood Road, not too far from Bethel Mills. “A black bear.”
Thin stretched cotton clouds slide through the sky. You fake a cough to cover the awkwardness.
“They showed me my first horror movie,” Jess says. “I was five years old. I think. The Fog was on Channel 4, it was the Friday Night Movie. Coulda been a Saturday, but I think it was a Friday. They were watching it in the living room, we were all on the floor and I was hiding in Wesley’s Boy Scouts sleeping bag. I was scared to death and I kept begging them to change the channel, turn it to something else. They wouldn’t do it though, they told me if I didn’t want to watch it I could go to my room or go play somewhere else. I wanted to be in there with them. I kept begging them and Aaron said it was all fake. Him and Wesley said all the fog was dry ice and it was all make-up, all the blood and stuff. I started watching it and I loved it. I had nightmares, but I loved that movie.”
You say, “It’s a good movie.”
People come and go from the Davis house. Friends and neighbors stop in to offer their condolences and drop off casseroles, cakes, and buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Your mom and Granny May intercept all but the family members that make it past your dad and Mr. Davis outside. Sister Eugina, Brother Tom’s wife, makes it beyond the defensive lines and sends the love and prayers of herself and the recuperating reverend. You and Jess wander the property, going wherever Jess’s feet and inclination take you. There are moments when he’s with his mom that they huddle and cry, and then the weird silences broken by odd bits of general conversation when the two of you find yourselves in the front yard with your dads.
You and Jess pass the day as knock-abouts. You learn in the evening that the sheriff met with Dr. Albert, the county coroner, and they’ve concluded there’s no need for any of kind of autopsy or further investigation. Dr. Albert’s proclamation: “Bear attack if I ever saw one. A particularly vicious one.” Mr. Davis, looking bewildered to be indoors, makes the call to Glenn Gurshin. Mr. Gurshin tells them to be at the funeral home at eight the next morning to make arrangements.
Jess asks, “I don’t have to go do I?” He licks his lips, he trembles. He doesn’t look like a deer in headlights, he looks like a kid lost in a grocery store surrounded by strangers.
“Not if you don’t want to,” his mom says.
Granny May puts her arms around you. “They can stay with me tomorrow.”
Your parents converse in their secret language of looks. Your parents all agree. Mr. and Mrs. Davis make more phone calls, so many people want to be updated, so many want to know know know all the tiny details and the Davises repeat the same recording of “We’ll call when we know more.”
When Mr. Davis calls Principal Carver, Principal Carver tells him that Jess is excused for the rest of the abbreviated week. He says to let your parents know that you’re excused as well. There’s no part of you that feels like rejoicing. All of you have one more meal of condolence food. The tide of visitors has dried up for the evening and the Davises’s phone rings less and less.
Your mom finds you and Jess in his bedroom, you are both flipping through comic books and issues of Discover. She looks as tired as everyone else, her face droops. “If you want, y’all can spend the night with Granny May. Jess, your mom says it’s okay if you want to.”
You wait for him to answer. He says, “Okay. As long as no one minds.” He looks at you for affirmation.
“It’s good with me,” you say.
You follow your mom into the living room while Jess packs a few things. The floor seems to creak with every step you take. Mrs. Davis hugs you hard, kisses your cheek with cold lips. When she speaks, her voice is hoarse. “You boys be good.”
When Jess steps in, she hugs him longer, harder, as she sniffles and cries some more. “If you need me, call.”
“I’ll be all right, mom,” Jess says.
Mr. Davis is on the front porch with your dad. They swat at the insects that have come to circle the porch light. Mr. Davis shakes your hand firmly. He hugs Jess and tussles his hair, kisses him on the side of the head. “Be safe,” he says.
The guest room at Granny May’s was your mom’s childhood room. All your mom’s stuff is packed away and it’s your vacation spot. You take the floor and give Jess the bed, usually you Rock Paper Scissors for who gets what. You’re both tired, too tired to consider the Hammer picture on Channel 17, too tired for talking or attempting stupid jokes. You fall asleep listening to Jess cry, muffled by his pillow.
You wake early the next morning to the heavenly smell of bacon and the clang of skillets and pans. A genuine smile stretches across Jess’s face that’s contagious enough for you to catch it. Granny May has a buffet laid out and you both eat until it hurts, only pausing when you hear Mrs. Davis’s car leaving across Langenship. You and Jess look out the window and you make out his parents’ silhouettes in the streaks of sun across the windshield.
“Finish your breakfast,” Granny May says with a rub of your shoulders.
After breakfast you and Jess are knock-abouts again. Your mom has called from work asking after you both and Granny May assures her y’all are doing just fine. You wander the place, drifting through the house, the disused barn. You look over your grandfather’s old car in the shed and talk about fixing it up when y’all get older, how it must have looked back in the day. You and Jess discuss everything under the sun, except Aaron and Wesley, though it anchors every word that comes out of your mouths.
Finally, just before lunch, the phone rings. Mr. Davis is calling from the funeral home. He and Mrs. Davis are going to do some shopping, if Granny May doesn’t mind, and she doesn’t, and he informs her of the arrangements. Visitation tonight, funeral tomorrow. It’s quick, it’s soon, they want to get it over with and not drag it out, and Granny May understands that, and you do too, because no matter what this is something Jess and the rest of you will live with for the rest of your lives.
The first thing you notice when your dad swings a right into the parking lot of the funeral home is that the sign says Gurshin-Culbert Funeral Home. Mr. Gurshin has acquired a partner in the mourning business. “I think that’s his nephew,” your dad says circling the lot. At a quarter of five (visitation with the family is from 5-8) he has to hunt for a space: Lois Holler has turned out to honor its stars.
A crown of sweat itches your scalp in your Sunday best. You tug at your sleeves, pull at your collar, check to see if wet spots have spread at your pits. It feels good outside, and the relative comfort of the funeral home interior doesn’t last for long. The press of people, sweaty teen boys in ill fitting suits, girls in swishing dresses and ruffled lace cuffs, kids running and weaving, the bodies occupying too small a space, sucks the air out of existence. You recognize a lot of the other miserable faces from school, from class, from the hallway, and you know that some of them, most of them, are here just to say they were here.
Your mom signs her and your dad’s names to the guest book then hands you the pen chained to the stand. You scratch your name on the line below theirs, the oven in your collar baking your face. There’s no parting of the waters, your dad leads the push through the masses, but the tides fight back and you’re jostled, compressed. Finally, you’re at the front of the chapel. Jess and his parents are surrounded. The faces are concerned, some smile, some cry, there are hugs, handshakes, laughter, and conversation everywhere, a room of conversation that drowns out the chintzy music that tinkles from the corner speakers. And behind the Davis family are two blue coffins, closed of course, spotlighted by recessed soft beams of white and blue and pink. Aaron’s casket has a full blue rose spray, Wesley’s is red roses. LHCHS banners hang on the wall.
“Let’s get outta here,” Jess says.
You follow him through the sweltering kettle of spectators and tourists down a side hall to a kitchen area in the rear of the building. This room is just for the family, and you meet Jess’s aunts, uncles, various cousins, that filter in and out to grab a bite of food (the tables and counters are covered with more casseroles, more buckets of chicken, cakes, pies) and respite from the heat and the powdery reek of flowers and postcard perfect arrangements of carnations and baby’s breath.
There is a constant crackle of conversation echoing down the hall. Jess drinks a soda and says, “I just want to go home. I don’t even want to come tomorrow if all these people are going to be here. I don’t want all of’em here.”
Maybe it won’t be as bad, but you don’t say that, you say nothing, because you know tomorrow will be even worse. You spend the rest of the time with Jess in the back kitchen avoiding Lois Holler. You barely talk, you both pick at chicken and pastries in dread, being polite to whomever comes in and enduring the niceties of the old folks. It’s an hour before your dad and Mr. Davis find their way to your hideaway. They slump there with you, and you all speak words about nothing, just words to keep your heads above water. At nearly eight your mom says it’s time to go.
The night passes like every other night before it. It’s the same though it feels different, but you know it’s really you that feels different. You feel sad and bewildered, and you know it’s much, much worse for Jess, but the night remains, the dark does its job of replacing the day and you sleep somehow.
The funeral is worse than you could have ever imagined. Your dad is determined to beat the traffic so you get to the funeral home two hours before it is scheduled to begin. You discover others had the same idea, and your dad nabs a space by the skin of his teeth. You and Jess stare from the front door at the cars and trucks filling the parking lot. They park across the street at other businesses, they park along the shoulder of the road. Lois Holler closed its schools (some nameless someone eventually thanks Aaron and Wesley for the extra day off) and classes have reconvened at Glenn Gurshin’s House of the Dead.
It’s standing room only in the chapel. The over-abundance of flowers in the halls are removed to make room for the on-lookers. Elbows rub elbows on the pews and benches, shoulders press to shoulders to squeeze more people in. Crying babies, complaining kids, gossiping adults, heat, music, perfume, fragrant flowers, a dirty diaper, a fart, sweat. By the time Brother Tom begins his sermon (he takes his time, still getting used to one lung) you’re ready to puke. You can see Jess down from you, he’s on the first row sandwiched between his mom and her sister. He alternates between green and pale. Granny May brought a paper fan that promotes Farm Bureau Auto, Home, and Life Insurance, but it does little good for either of you, all you manage to do is stir warm air.
Songs play, gospel, which you’re sure neither of Jess’s brother’s listened to. Aaron and Wesley were rock ‘n’ roll, outlaw country. Led Zeppelin, Hank Williams, Jr., “Born To Boogie”, “D’yer Mak’er”. You cry through it all, just as your friend does. Jess looks back at you, once, before he buries his face in his hands and his mom can only hug him in her own grief. Mr. Davis moans from his soul and your mom and grandmother each have your hands because the sounds of sorrow are coming from you as well. People you know have died. Two friends, more or less, two people not much older than you. You and your friends, your generation, are not immortal or invulnerable. You and all of your classmates, every person seated in this chapel looking at these two coffins that hide their own horrors, will slip from this mortal coil. There is no escape from that, it is another fact of life that has meaning to you now. Only time will tell if any of Lois Holler’s other children have had the same revelation.
The Davis family remains seated as visitors file past the coffins for final good-byes. You follow the line behind your mom, holding Granny May’s hand. You touch the coffins and walk on. Your dad is one of the pallbearers so you wait in the car with your mom and Granny May. It’s a while before your dad and the others bring out the first casket. Wesley is loaded into one of two waiting hearses. The pallbearers go back and bring out Aaron. Jess and his parents exit holding each other, an attendant helps them to their car.
Willow Hill Cemetery is practically across the street, but the slow crawl down Madison Street to Lynne Parkway to the main entrance stretches the clock, and going five to ten miles per hour over the single lanes of Willow Hill makes you feel heavier as you approach the dank pits that are yawning to swallow two boys (kids, youths, contemporaries, neighbors) you knew. Heavier and heavier, weighted down, you check to see if the trunk of the car is dragging the ground. You think of New Hope Church. The Bible. The coat. You think later, later would be a better time, to ask your dad how heavy the caskets were, if they were heavier than when he helped carry Grandpa Levon which he had described, in private, as being “the heaviest thing he ever had to lift,” though you deduced, at the time, it must have been the casket because Grandpa Levon wasn’t a big man.
There are cars as far as the eye can see. Hordes of school kids are walking across the cemetery towards the grave site. You’ve never seen so many people moving like this. They traverse the rolling landscape and stagger like extras in a Romero film. They’re coming towards you and soon you’re surrounded by the shambling town.
Jess and his family are seated in folding chairs beside the twin graves. You are seated behind Jess. The caskets are laid into place side by side. Sister Eugina helps Brother Tom to stand. “When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The cranks shout as the caskets are lowered and the workers concentrate on their jobs. Mrs. Davis is wailing. Mr. Davis is squinting teardrops onto her neck, mumbling words. Jess hugs them, heaving with sobs. You look to Granny May beside you for direction, you want to say or do something or run. She nods slightly and places a hand over yours. She wipes her own tears.
The lowering devices are moved out of the way once the caskets have come to rest at the bottom. Workmen pull back the tarps covering mounds of dug soil. They let the Davis family toss roses into the graves before they begin shoveling. Dirt and gravel skitter across their smooth surfaces. People are milling about, everyone wants to shake a Davis hand or hug a Davis body. You’re choking on your heart, it’s hung in your throat, so you just nod to people as they pass, limply shake the hands of the few who offer.
You push through and stand a safe distance at the graveside. Aaron’s is filled in, a worker stamps down the soil with his boots. Wesley’s is half full. You watch dirt falling into place. You run your shoe over the remainder. The exodus out of Willow Hill is continuing like flood waters receding.
Your family and Davises part ways with hugs, kisses, and crying. Your dads shake hands, Mrs. Davis crushes you in her arms. You half pry yourself from Mrs. Davis’s clutches and your mom takes your place. You and Jess shake hands, nod, carbon copies of your dads. Willow Hill is all but empty, the last of the crowd has left. The graves are filled in, covered in gladioli and chrysanthemums. Piling into the car you throw a hand up to Jess. Leaves float and you scratch an itch at your neck. The feeling of being watched is on you. Cold beads of sweat freeze on your face.
After lunch at Dairy Queen, you’re at home watching a scratchy VHS of Return of the Living Dead you recorded off TV (careful to pause out the commercials). It feels like a Sunday, Granny May said so on the ride home, and your parents both say it at some point during the remainder of the day. Your mom told you it might be best if you let Jess and his family have some time to themselves. “They’re tired,” she says, “they need to rest. Give them a little breather.” You didn’t argue. After the brain eating zombies, there’s an assortment of other monsters, human and not, to tick off the time. The horrors on screen don’t register, you just want noise in your inner sanctum.
It’s evening before you know it, you didn’t notice the fading light, the soft brush of wind against the walls. The VCR stopped long ago. You are lying on your bed, contemplating the ceiling and the walls and autumnal world just through the window. The house pops and breathes as you feel the change of night come on. Your dad, in his underwear and t-shirt and the blue bathrobe you gave him on his last birthday, scuffles his slippers down the hall.
“Fine,” you sit up. “Are…you going to bed?”
“You betcha, I’m gonna sleep ten hours before work. We had sandwiches for dinner. If you’re hungry, you know, make one.”
“Maybe later.” You weren’t hungry until he mentioned it.
“Your mom talked to Jess’s mom. I’ll take you guys to town, for the festival. Y’all decide what day. If you and Jess want to go. If he doesn’t feel like it, I’ll take you.”
“Okay, thanks, dad.”
“Sure thing.” He switches off your television, moves the rabbit ears around. “You know I love you, right?”
“Yeah,” you answer.
“Just checking,” he says. He pauses in the hall. “You love me, don’t you?”
“Probably,” you respond and you exchange winks with your dad.
Your mom has taken vacation days for the week, she feels she needs to be here with you just in case you need her. You ride your bike, read, watch Donahue, whittle a stick to a stake then make it a knife. You don’t talk to Jess until Thursday evening. He says he’s good, and some traces of his old self, and his humor, are evident in his voice and manner. His day was spent with his parents, they went to Murfreesboro, Nashville, anywhere the car and the day took them. As long as they drove, were out of the house, they were able to breathe easier. They loitered shops at malls and picked at food at restaurants with schmaltzy music and chummy conversations from patrons and clerks. “We stopped to see my dad’s Aunt Edna. She’s old and keeps tripping over her two Chihuahuas. Her house stunk for real. I hate those dogs.”
He’s helping his mother clean the house from top to bottom, sorting through stuff. By stuff, you know he’s talking about Aaron’s and Wesley’s stuff. He clears his throat talking about it and then moves on to plans for the Lois Holler Fall Festival.
Neither you nor Jess, or your dad truth be told, care for the crafts or clogging or blue grass bands and barber shop quartets at the gazebo on the town square. You want cotton candy, Jess wants boiled peanuts, and all your dad has his heart set on is roasted corn on the cob. Forget the artisans, your yearly destination has always been Teal’s Haunted Woods ever since either of you could persuade your parents to take you. And once they got their driver’s licenses, it was Aaron and Wesley who took you the last few years. The four of you going through the haunted woods, running from hockey masked madmen and chainsaw wielding lunatics. It will be a pilgrimage this year. A proper memorial for you and Jess to pay your respects.
“What about Saturday? It’s Halloween. You want to wait and go then?” you ask Jess.
“Well, I vote Friday,” he says. “I say on Halloween let’s build a fire in the back yard, tell ghost stories, and carve some pumpkins. My dad bought a couple for us.”
“Awesome,” you say to finalize your holiday plans.
Friday morning your mom wakes you at 7:30. You don’t remember what you were dreaming, but you wake with the memory of the smell of deep cool earth. Eyes blinking to focus, you’re alert: “What?” you ask, afraid. She calms you, nothing is wrong. Jess is at the door. He has an arm load of horror movies and a box of microwave popcorn, extra butter. His mom (probably coaxed by your mom) said it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to get ready for Teal’s Haunted Woods by stocking up on all the horror you could before tonight. “We can watch horror movies all day,” Jess says and you’ve never heard a better idea.
You spend the day watching all your favorites while, you’re certain, your mom is shaking her head downstairs with a grimace knowing these movies are full of violence, profanity, Satan, and bare breasts. You watch Night of the Living Dead, Friday the 13th Part V, and the first two A Nightmare On Elm Street movies. You work through lunch, chomping popcorn, drinking grape soda, and discuss what you’ll watch tonight after the haunted woods. You’re both sure Jess’s parents will let him stay over, maybe Halloween night too.
When you check the clock radio you realize it’s almost time for your dad to get home. Running down the stairs and landing the jump from the third to the bottom, you hear your dad’s truck rumble in the drive. He comes in from the amber evening with his old green domed metal lunch box that belonged to his dad and was full of historical, and anecdotal, dents and scratches. Your mom, meatloaf in the oven and making tea, kisses him and asks, “How was your day?”
“Not too bad,” he says.
He sets his lunch box down and returns the hellos you and Jess give him. “I could smell the corn coming through town. My Lord I’m starving.”
“Dinner will be ready shortly,” your mom says.
“What time does the Haunted Woods open?”
“Dark,” you tell your dad.
He checks his watch, looks at the sunset outside. It’s 4:30 and the sun is descending fast. “Let’s go,” he says. He gives your mom a peck on the check.
“You’re as bad as they are,” she tells him.
“Fall only comes once a year,” he says. He’s tried roasting corn on the cob the way they do at the festival, but, as he says, it’s just not the same.
You pile into his truck. The weather is comfortable, but you have a jacket tied around your waist because once dark descends it’ll be cold indeed. But right now the windows are rolled down in the truck and the wind is rushing through the cab while Waylon Jennings is on the radio wondering if the wolf will survive. Traffic is lined up and the sun is a hint on the horizon when your dad parks in the Big Spring Shopping Center, just off the square. Your dad agrees to going to Video Corner (home of the rent three for the weekend, get a fourth free). You and Jess select The Lawnmower Man and Critters 4. Your dad has Thunderheart and Basic Instinct. You and Jess give him an unbelieving look, but your dad doesn’t even blanch. “Your mom wants to see this,” he says of Basic Instinct.
Tossing the movies in the truck, you three set out. A band is blasting from the courthouse lawn. Vendors are set up with their wares along the sidewalks, in the middle of blocked streets. People are dancing, singing off key, picking through locally made trinkets. The smells, though, they fill the air, barbecue, popcorn, hamburgers, hot dogs, candied apples. Your dad is a bloodhound and cuts a straight course to a roasted corn stand near city hall. He buys three ears. “What do y’all want?”
Y’all want nothing, at least not food, not yet. You’re ready for Teal’s Haunted Woods. Running the gauntlet will create your appetite. One ear down and two to go, he taxi’s you across the river bridge to Mink Slide Road and a left at Opossum Trot and there’s Judas Teal’s farm. He died about six years ago and his widow, Deedee, directs the action now. The trail runs along the back fields, a winding path through the woods, the barn, and circles back to the front farmhouse. You never know where someone will pop out and rev a chainsaw or a clown will drop from a tree amid a nauseating strobe light.
When you get to Teal’s, your dad is on his last ear of roasted corn. He’s juggled the corn and the steering wheel, and won as usual. You slip your jacket on while your dad buys the tickets, three since he’s decided to tag along this year. “It’s no joke in there,” you tell him, but he insists he can handle it. There’s not a heavy crowd just yet, but there’s a few and they know who Jess is and offer their condolences. Both of you pull your hoods on wishing a cloak of invisibility were a real thing.
The entrance to the woods is thick with trees, skeletons and mutilated dolls hang from contorted limbs. A shackled skeleton in a cage is suspended from a branch, rattling bars and clanging its chains. Players in full-bodied werewolf costumes are crawling through the underbrush. You can see them thanks to the lights affixed to the trees, the accent lights from the ground spotlighting hair-covered rubber hands pawing the branches, fanged mouths moving awkwardly. The attendant is on her walkie-talkie, waiting for the all-clear of the previous group so you, Jess, and your dad can go through.
Your dad zips his coat, turns up his collar. His corn is long gone. “Y’all sure you want to do this?” he eyes the creatures crawling the ground in the brush to a soundtrack of howls, screams, and screeches.
“We do this every year,” you say.
“Is this your first time?” Jess asks him.
“It’s been a few years,” your dad says. “They’ve definitely amped it up.”
“You have no idea, dad. They go all out.”
“Better and better every year,” Jess says.
The woman’s walkie squelches then comes the all clear. “Enter,” the woman says, “at your own risk. It’s not for the faint of heart.”
“Well thank you,” your dad chides her.
You and Jess lead him through the entrance. Jack-o’-lanterns menace flickering grins and scowls along the path and the werewolves prowl just out of sight, snapping twigs, panting, giving predatory growls. Your dad is pressed close to your back. You almost stumble from his pushing, but he catches you.
Jess whispers, “And now-“
In the curve a light comes on and Leatherface jumps out with the rev and smoke of his chainsaw, slicing the night, the noise careening ear to ear, bone to bone. Your dad lets out a scream and pushes the two of you past as the player dances with the chainsaw, the burnt fuel lodging in your nostrils.
You and Jess are laughing. “Did you scream?”
“What?” your dad chuckles. “Just playing along.”
“You screamed worse than a school girl,” you laugh.
A clown comes running by in a strobe light, “Ahh!” like a mad banshee with a machete. All three of you are startled, the clown’s sinister laugh and elongated face pulsing in the strobe. You run along happily, this time, and wait for your dad to catch up, laughing once you have your breath and point out the bodies hanging from the trees. Dummies are strung with rope made to resemble intestines.
You continue down the trail. There is Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, the classic lineup. You know that in the barn will be a mad butcher and other scenes of torture. You come to a new exhibit first, a glowing graveyard with zombies crawling up from the earth, ghosts moaning and flapping their sheets in the branches.
Your dad asks the both of you, “You okay.”
“Yes,” you and Jess reply and you can see that Jess is telling the truth, nothing is bothering him and this is what the both of you needed.
Beyond the graveyard, the underbrush and thickets are alive with orange and white lights. Carved pumpkin faces cast their evil glows. The ghostly moaning and creaking haunted house sounds are muted to be replaced with the huffing of the werewolves, the scurry as they crouch and crawl along the ground.
“They look impressive,” your dad whispers, and you hear that tinge of nervousness in his voice, something totally foreign you’re sure you’ve never witnessed before. His hand is on your shoulder and his grip is strong.
“You can let up a little, dad,” you shrug your shoulder to ease the vise. He removes his hand but grasps the back of your jacket. He has Jess’s too.
The werewolves are impressive in the glimpses you catch of them. White, black, brown, grey fur, dark eyes, but still just people in a costume. You catch glimpses of the fabric folding on their flanks. The howls come over speakers hidden up high. Your steps have slowed, you and Jess shoulder to shoulder, and you’re suddenly glad your dad is holding a handful of your coat.
The path has narrowed and the werewolves are crawling through the dirt, shadows scurry across your face. You stop on the trail. Werewolves cross the path, sprinting quickly from side to side. The players howl and snicker. One stops and looks at your group. This werewolf is different. His costume isn’t bulky like the others. This one is thinner. The fur of the face is darker, the snout is strong, the fingers long and flexing. It wears a shirt and pants, shoes. He sniffs the air and looks at you. In the orange and yellow light you recognize the blue shirt, the tie hanging loose around his neck.
This werewolf tilts its head back and howls. The noise pierces your ears and you’re not sure they aren’t bleeding. Jess has put his hands over his ears.
“What the hell?” your dad pulls you both behind him reflexively.
From the shrubs you hear someone say, “Who was that? Cool.”
The werewolf stares you down. You see the glow of his eyes, the festive light reflected. They shimmer and shine. Then it dashes into the woods.
The trees shake above and the lights go out. Only the flick and dance of the jack-o’-lanterns light the path.
“Is that part of it?” your dad asks as someone in the bushes says through their mask “Uh oh, what’s happened now?”
Your dad pulls you and Jess. “Let’s go.” He pushes you in retreat back down the trail when another howl rips the night.
“What’s going-” Jess sputters, but your dad pushes you both, saying, “It’s okay, just go. They’re having technical difficulties. Blew a fuse or something.”
You stop causing your dad and Jess to stop and half trip. You think listen but your dad and Jess already are, you can see their heads cocked in the orange tinged dark. Something is running up the trail. Your dad yells, “RUN!” and you break free from him and dart off in the dark. The path is well worn, cut and cleared for screaming teenagers and squalling kids, and you beat foot down it. You hear Jess’s footsteps and his lungs working overtime beside you more than seeing him. He’s a dim flash in the light of the jack-o’-lanterns. You will your legs, concentrate on the ache of cold in your chest and the fall of your feet. Your dad screams out and you stop. Jess begs you, “Come on!”
You wait. You hear thudding steps coming quickly. That’s when you’re tackled. At first you think you’ve collided with your dad or one of Teal’s players, but you know it’s not any of them from the stink and heat of the fur and then the pain as the creature bites at your shoulder. The teeth, the sharpest of things, slide through your flesh with graceful ease and a chunk is torn out of you. You think you scream, you’re not sure, your brain is saying you are but you can’t hear it. You do hear the chomp of jaws and the smack of tongue on lips and the beast is hunched over you, its weight holding you snugly pinned beneath it.
In the bright blight of the graven faces, you see its face. It slurps at the blood pooling in your wound. It may be grinning. The creature, the werewolf, licks your face, and then opens its mouth and has another bite of you.
You know you are screaming now, screaming with all your might, and lights are dancing and bobbing all around. Something whistles and strikes the beast in the side of the head as it swallows another piece of you. It yelps and the pressure holding you in place is lessened.
There are screams, thuds, feet thumping, growls and howls, but you can’t tell what’s real and what’s fake. The pain, the immense agony that is running through your body, that’s real. You raise your hand meaning to touch your shoulder, but you can’t, you just don’t have any strength left in you and the hand falls to your side. The world is darker, darker, and when it can’t become anymore so, it grows darker still. Voices are yelling, crying, screaming, and you hear some of them calling your name.
You feel two things: warmth and hunger. You open your eyes to see the daylight of Halloween. This window of Lois County General Hospital has no blinds or curtains and your stomach grumbles. You’re famished and your neck is stiff when you turn your head.
Your mom and dad are sitting at the bedside and your mom blurts out your name when she sees you’re awake. Her high pitched sound scares your dad and he nearly falls out of his chair where he was watching a muted TV. His head is bandaged.
Your mom is pressing the nurse call button and crying. “Oh, thank God, thank the Lord,” she says, cupping your cheeks and kissing your forehead.
“You gave us a scare,” your dad says. “How are you feeling? Don’t move too much, okay.”
“How’s Jess?” you ask.
A nurse comes over the intercom and your mom yells that you’re awake. In no time two nurses and a doctor are standing over you. They poke, prod, examine. You open your mouth for the tongue depressor, widen your eye for the pen light. You feel…okay you tell them. A little sore. And when the doctor and a nurse remove your bandaged shoulder, the doctor sums it up with, “Not as bad as we initially thought. A couple of minor scratches and bruises, but all in all, you’ll live. Whatever it was didn’t get its chompers in you,” he smiles. He checks your dad’s head from where he fell in the chaos and cracked it open.
“How is Jess?” you insist. The doctor smiles. “He’s okay. He got lost in the ruckus, but he’s fine.”
He was treated for shock and nothing more, babbling a wild story they say and your dad looks down at the floor. Jess was sent home last night.
The doctor says, “I’ve called the sheriff. He wants to ask a few questions,” he tells your parents. “He’ll be here soon.” The doctor looks at you. “I think you’re gonna heal up nicely. You made it out by the skin of your teeth. All the blood that was on your clothes…well, we were all relieved to find out it wasn’t coming from you,” and he leaves with his nurses.
Your dad suggests that your mom use the lobby phone to call Granny May. She starts to protest until you ask if she’ll get you something to eat. “What do you want?”
“A double whopper with cheese.”
Your dad sits in the chair by the window. He winces, holds his head. “I bled like a stuck hog.”
“Head injuries do,” you say. It’s a bit of knowledge you learned from a movie and that was backed up with testimony from your health sciences teacher.
“We talked to the sheriff last night. Jess had quite a tale. Haunted woods and all got to him. I think he was scared out of his mind, what with his brothers and everything, you know. I know I was. I honestly can’t remember much before waking up in the ambulance. I got knocked down and it’s all kinda fuzzy. Crashed head first into a tree. Feels like I broke my damn neck. What do you remember? Did you see it?”
“I’m not sure,” you lie. “I remember something jumping on me.”
“Yeah. From the guys that knocked it off, it was some kind of wild dog. They think. They couldn’t see too well.”
“You don’t remember anything?”
“No, I’m afraid not,” your dad says. “The sheriff thinks this may be what attacked Jess’s brothers and not a bear. They’re gonna have a hunt, see if they can find it or drive it out.”
“Maybe they will,” you say.
Your dad squints through pain, making a drunk smile. “On the bright side. Guess what?”
“Last night one of the deputies found that guy y’all saw over at New Hope. Homeless guy, down on his luck. Lost his job and was just passing through. Just a vagrant. They picked him up out on 41A, walking out of town. The sheriff said they put him on a bus.”
“So he’s gone.” You twitch your nose at the antiseptic smell in the room. The odor of your dad, the single slice of burnt toast he had for breakfast from the cafeteria downstairs, the sweat around his neck and the soap he used to wash his hands. You pick up the lingering smells of your mom and the hospital staff. You smell them out there, hear them breathing, flicking pens, the swish of their clothes, their conversations, words ebbing and flowing. You can smell the lingering scent of Jess Davis and his family. You are attuned to the wild fear that possesses your best friend.
“Good and gone,” your dad slouches in the chair. “I’ve got the worst headache.”
You have no urge to smile, but try. You lose it when your stomach grumbles. You’ve never been this hungry before.