99 Words of Sorrow

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Maureen Rostad


Photo Credit: Sarah/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Jeremy died on December 21, five years ago to the day.

Raindrops hung in the air almost like nature was hanging them on an invisible Christmas tree. The forecast told of a massive rain torrent later in the day, an uncharacteristically warm winter. Her heart felt much the same as the humidity, and unshed tears hung around her neck.

A brain aneurysm, the doctor said. Dead before the ambulance could navigate through the narrow roads of rural Pennsylvania, up the side of the mountain and down again to the gravel road that eventually led to her house in the middle of nowhere. She remembered cursing that house then, hating the little rundown farmhouse on a little rundown farm, their diamond in the rough. How unfair it was, she thought, as she wept beside him, while she was silently aware of the seconds that passed, knowing that no doctor could revive him after so many. The true anger at the house came later when projects piled upon her, a leaky faucet here and a door that refused to latch there. Several walls still had imprints of her fist through the drywall, another project incomplete.

Jewel knew that she needed to move on from his death. The logical part of her brain knew that her life, being replayed over the same way each year like Groundhog Day, was not normal. Like she went through the motions 364 days per year only to live one day. But some unknown, some obsessive need or grace or whatever made up the cosmos, told her to keep doing it.

She found herself outside of the local electronics store, drawing the curious eyes of those entering as she hugged herself. The air smelled raw, scrubbed out like a toilet. A rarity that this store, when so many other locally-owned ones failed, would stay in business, and yes, even thrive. The owner was kind of a celebrity, some gamer, winner of some huge online Xbox thing, said he always wanted to own an electronics store that catered to other gamers. Like D&D meets Best Buy.

Jewel tended to avoid this store, preferring to go out to the strip mall even though it was a longer drive, because she normally had to dodge hopeful gamers buzzing around the store like mosquitoes to a mudhole. The owner runs some kind of gaming podcast, and if some gamer does something fantastic, whatever that means, he doles out fifteen minutes of fame. Or, more exactly, a podcast hour.

But this store was the first stop.

She stepped through the automatic glass doors, still hugging herself. She was immediately assaulted by a young girl dressed like an elf, her nondescript brown hair clinging to her green Santa hat with static electricity. The elf smelled like freshly-baked Christmas cookies. Jewel briefly wondered if it was a perfume. The girl handed Jewel a postcard and then walked away to descend upon another customer, feet jingling all the way.

Jewel looked at the postcard.

Christmas Contest!!!!! Win a brand-new Nikon D850!!!!! Sponsored by J&J Jewelry Store!!!!!

Despite the morbidity of her mood, Jewel smiled to herself. Five years ago, almost to the hour, her husband had picked out a Nikon camera, an earlier model to this exact camera. Her Christmas present.

J&J, huh? she thought. Jeremy would have liked that.

Tell us why you should win in 100 words or less, the postcard said. The best reason wins this award, a fabulous high-end digital camera. See fine print for details.

“It’s my Christmas gift, five years late,” she wrote, scribbling out a short story about her dead husband’s brain aneurysm in 99 words. 99 words of sorrow on a card, she thought. 99 words of sorrow, take one down, pass it around…

She looked around for the elf.

Jewel went about the rest of the morning perfunctorily, her legs deadened down like coal filling a stocking. Out for breakfast—the super special: two eggs, any style, toast, bacon, and pancakes—a second place set for him. She received more than one sympathetic look from other diners who thought she was being stood up.

If you only knew, she thought.

Then to the jewelry store. “Jewels from your Jewel,” she said to him, every year, as she handed him a watch, all wrapped up. Even though he knew what was inside, he still managed to act surprised.

“I love it!” he would say, and then he would kiss her.

As she paid the bill on a man’s watch, her cell phone made a blip to notify her of a text message. You’re the winner of our Christmas Contest!!!!! Stop by the store before closing to claim your prize!!!!!

The woman behind the register waved the receipt for the watch in Jewel’s face, letting out a short breath.

“Thank you, Jeremy,” Jewel said to herself, as she turned around and walked out of the store, forgetting the receipt.

The clouds begin to threaten the horizon by the time Jewel pulled into the electronics store’s parking lot, and fat, angry raindrops splattered onto her face as she rushed through the glass doors, making her look like she was crying.

Jewel had to make some sort of statement about how wonderful it was that she won a brand-new Nikon DSLR camera. For the podcast. She was not sure about announcing Jeremy’s death to the world, despite the fact he had been gone for years. But the deadened part of her stomach, the blackness inside of her, dissipated just a little as she told the microphone about his death. By the time she was done, that part of her was not gone, but she felt a little better. The store owner was gentle, asking her only a few questions, and he gave her a hug when she was done. She cried on his shoulder. To her surprise, he handed her a business card. With his cell phone number handwritten on the back. A few moments of awkwardness passed because she had no idea what to even say to that. She stuffed it inside of her pants pocket, gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, and briskly walked away before he could, or rather, she could, respond.

The temperature had dropped while she was in the electronics store. A light dusting of snow clung to the parking lot, but the rate of snowfall threatened even the most frenzied of last-minute Christmas shoppers. They walked quickly to their cars, dashing around like reindeer.

The snow is a new beginning, she thought, as she, too, galloped to her car.

Ten minutes later, Jewel plugged her phone into the car cigarette lighter. Her car inched along the only real road the township where she lived had, barely half a mile from the electronics store. It moved with all the other shoppers who were unfortunate to get stuck in a surprise snowstorm. She briefly thought about turning around and asking to bunk inside the store, but she was scared that the owner might have already shut everything down, and then she would be stuck even further from her house. She was even more scared that she would have to talk to the store owner.

Since she was not moving, she dug around her middle console until she found a power converter, a noisy device that let her plug in regular three-prong plugs into the second cigarette lighter. She managed to open up the camera box, find the battery and the charger, and plug everything in. Her car only moved a foot. Might as well capture the snow, she thought. Since it’s going to take me a year to get home.

Jewel predicted several feet of snow, given that they had been expecting so much rain. She again cursed living out on a farm. Fortunately for her, Jewel stockpiled almost everything, including wood for a fire. Not really a farmer, but more of a homesteader, she learned her lesson long ago to always be prepared. Especially about the snow. The last time they had this much snow, she was holed up for two weeks without power. It was their first year of marriage, and she thought they would starve before she could get to the nearest store.

She looked outside. The wind battered against her car and created snow flurry cyclones. She looked at the Nikon’s screen. A slight charge—the battery must have been pre-charged. She waited until she could pull off to the side of the road, since the car was not going anywhere. She grabbed the camera and went outside.

Jewel almost abandoned her mission when a force of cold air hit her in the face, making her feel as though her sweater had a million holes and whipping her hair around her face. The man behind her lurched forward to take her place in case she changed her mind, blaring his horn and giving her the finger. She aimed the camera and took a picture of him. Click, click, click. She was almost afraid that he was going to get out of his car and wallop her, right here on the side of the snow-pummeled road, but he seemed to forget her as he looked forward, his fists grabbing the wheel as if he would lose control of the car going less than a half mile per hour. Her eye wandered towards the trees on the horizon. She looked at the screen between every series of photos.

She turned around and faced her car, and she turned the camera around too. Click, click, click. She missed herself completely. Click, click, click. She got the top of her head. Click, click, click.

There! She got herself.

And something… else.

Her blood momentarily warmed her torso as her fight or flight response kicked in, but it faded as she tried to puzzle out what was in the camera LCD screen. A shadow? No. The sun glinting off the snow? No. Some kind of brightness, but it was undefined. Not shaped correctly for a flash, and it was too bright for a flash anyway.

As if, instead of casting a shadow, she cast a light.

Was that even possible? A weird aftereffect of all the snow?

She twisted around, almost slipping on some stray patch of snow, but nothing was there. She frowned. She could barely lift the camera back up because her fingers were shaking from both the cold and the fright, but she slowly went through the pictures again. Yes, something was definitely there. What was it? A spot on the lens?

She scrolled through the earlier pictures, trying to figure out if the lens was bad, but whatever it was only showed up next to her selfies.

She tried again. This time, she tried to have her face off to the side of the screen. Click, click, click. Yes, something was definitely there. And it was still near her face, not in the same spot as it was previously. Not the lens. Just to make sure, she snapped several, random photographs. Nothing.

Must be the sun hitting the snow and my face at the correct angle, she thought. Whatever it is, I can’t stand here all day.

Taking a long look at the wintry scene around her, willing it to give her answers, she went back inside her car. Several people honked at her as she navigated back into the lane, but she ignored them, her mind on whatever she had in the photographs.

The wind picked up speed, creating noises against her car like ghosts in a scary black-and-white film. Jewel was momentarily blinded as she crept along, the brightness of the snow sending dancing sparks around her vision.

The brightness faded as the clouds blotted out all natural light, as if God himself did not want to witness the ensuing blizzard. By the time she reached the mountain pass, almost all the sun had been drained off the winter wonderland. Her anxiety increased in the same measures. She turned on her high beams, but they were useless. The snow came down faster than the lights could melt it. Her windshield wipers were on the fastest speed possible, but they were not fast enough.

Her fists were knotted up on the wheel just like the man she made fun of earlier. Her house was less than a mile away, but she felt that she would never get home. She turned off the side of the road momentarily to cry, windshield wipers matching her frightened breathing.

After several long breaths and wiping the tears that continued to fall, she gave the car some gas.

The wheels spun.

She tried again, and the wheels spun some more.

She knew that she was on the verge of a full panic attack, but she did not know what else to do. She gave the car some more gas, this time almost flooring it. The car rocked back and forth, and out of whatever snow pile she was in.

Just as she let out a breath that she did not realize that she was holding, the car skidded. She instinctively grabbed the wheel and turned it to the right, away from the rock face. The tires had a mind of their own, and she head-on collided with the mountain.

Jewel did not know how long she sat in her car, confused. Her breathing bordered on screaming until she realized that she was, in fact, screaming, and she had to force herself to stop. She realized that 911 would be just as useless today as it was five years ago. She would die here in this very spot because no one could, or would bother to, transverse the mountain pass. Her mind obsessively fixated on her body, found two weeks from now, frozen solid even as the snow melted.

She could no longer feel her own feet, and she realized with renewed panic that the heat in the car had escaped faster than she thought it would. She spotted the camera, thrown onto the passenger side floor. She took several minutes to grab it, the cold inside of the car acting as a wall to her inertia. Her body screamed at her, what left she could feel of it.

When they find me, the camera will be frozen to my fingers, and they will have to throw it out. This thought made her giggle inside of her head, a morbid thought spiraling out of control just like the situation she was in.

I better move, she thought. Otherwise I’ll die here.

Jewel grabbed whatever she could: her cell phone, the camera, an extra blanket she found in the back seat. She used her feet to push open the car door against the snow that had piled up outside. The top had not frozen yet, and her feet landed, compacting the snow as she put her weight on them. She cautiously made her way to the trunk, the rational part of her mind that was left demanding that maybe she had something else warm that she could wear. Yes, she had a coat. She stood in the middle of the mountain pass, snow wailing down on her as she put it on.

Jeremy’s old college letter jacket. It smelled like him. Instead of the overwhelming sadness that she got, the kind of sadness that made her rest against a wall with her hands on her knees because it punched her stomach like an MMA heavyweight champion, she felt happy. Safe. Jeremy was helping her get home.

She looked around, but everything was blanketed in white and cold, and she had a renewed sense of panic because she did not know what to do now. All at once, tears fell again, fat droplets of water like the raindrops earlier. She scrubbed them away, thinking that they might freeze inside of her eyes.

He’d want to record it all, she thought, almost gleeful over the absurdity of taking a final picture of herself before she froze to death in the middle of the road.

Her mind would not let that go, and not knowing what else to do since she did not know where she was, she gave in to her own insanity.

Jewel fiddled with the settings until she found the delay timer and the burst shot. She carefully set the Nikon on top of the trunk. Pressing the buttons, she hopped over to the edge of where she hoped the road was, and she smiled at the camera. She waited a few seconds, not hearing anything, and started to go back towards the camera when it finally clicked. She went back to her spot, pasting another smile on her face. Let the police figure that one out.

She slushed her way back to the car, retracing her own footsteps, and checked the LCD screen. She almost dropped the camera, the strap catching on Jeremy’s jacket buttons. preventing it from sinking into the snow or smashing against the car. She made a wet, strangled sound. She waited almost a minute, the LCD screen shutting off on its own, convincing herself that she was spooked because it was December 21.

She tried again, picking up the camera by its strap and turning the screen back on.

She was in the photos, as she expected to be, but the background was not the frozen ice land of the Ninth Gate of Hell. Rather, it showed a spring background, right before the trees bloomed, the wisps of grass and leaves evident.

She thought perhaps the camera had some kind of mechanism to trade pictures, like a built-in Photoshop effect, but beside her was the same whitish figure. Perhaps a person? Whatever it was had its own light source, as the sky was fading as if on an electric dimmer. Not bright like a flashbulb or a lampstand, but it was definitely glowing, like a lit paper lantern floating down the river during the nighttime Toro Nagashi festival.

“Jeremy,” she whispered. She grabbed for something to steady her, a sharp jerk momentarily startling her as she hit the car, a wash of overwhelming sadness hitting her.

Jewel sat against the car, turning on the screen every time it blinked off. Her fingers long ago had lost any feeling in them, and they felt almost like stubby pencils instead of living flesh. Just to spook her some more, her headlights suddenly blinked, then faded out. She was left in the ensuing darkness.

She stared at the springtime scene, so vivid against the vanishing light of her current situation. It was like a guiding post to safety. With sudden comprehension, she understood that she was looking at her house in the background scene of the photograph, a very short distance over the edge of the road.

She got up from her half-crouch. She steeled herself with fake confidence, breathing in and out with deep, steady breaths. The cold air filled her lungs, washing away her panic. Jeremy had sent her this camera to let her know that he had not left her. He was there, inside of the camera. And he was helping her get home.

She looked out toward her house. She saw a small bump that passed as her roof even though she did not recognize anything else because of the snow. Everything was white, white, and more white, with only trees sticking up from the ground to announce that they still lived even in the cold.

I have to jump, she thought.

Flicking on the camera, she tried to figure out if she would make it, or if she would die from a broken back. She debated the two choices, follow the road until it led her to her house, or jump and trek across the field, the more direct route. Looking down at the camera gripped in her hand, she took a picture.

“You led me this far, Jeremy,” she said to the camera. “Tell me what to do now.”

In answer, the camera showed her the snowy bank.

She aimed the camera up the road, the longer way home, still unsure. A black screen. As sure a sign as any.

“Okay, Jeremy.”

Jewel flicked the Nikon dial to “movie mode” and pressed the button to start recording. She wanted Jeremy to guide her the rest of the way home. Or to record her death as she fell off the side of the road.

“Why did you leave me?” she yelled. The only answer was the camera adjusting itself, auto-focusing whatever it was looking at. The snow. Maybe the white would burn out the camera’s bulbs.

“Why did you leave me?” she yelled again. She wanted nothing right now but to be back within her house, the holes in the walls be damned. She would take her unloved house in disrepair over this snow.

She wrapped her blanket around herself, hugging herself. The air smelled sweet, as if it knew that the snow raging around her would melt away her sorrow. She shifted the camera to her left hand, sticking her right hand in her pocket momentarily to give it some warmth.

Right before she jumped off the side of the road, she curled her hand around a business card.

pencil

Maureen Rostad is a freelance writer and attorney based in South Central Pennsylvania. You can follow the daily adventures of her and her dog, Joe, on Instagram. Email: miheui[at]gmail.com

Eidolon

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Lou Nell Gerard


Photo Credit: Laurent Sauvebois/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

It was subtle. Rerouting her commutes to and from work. She considered her routing as a means to avoid road construction, school bus stops, garbage trucks on pick-up day, the mainstream uptight crazy traffic, or simply enjoy a scenic route. Of course, now that it was dark on her way to and from work, she couldn’t rationalize “scenic” anymore. She considered being able to enjoy a full episode, rather than mere snippets, of Rufus Roundstone’s Noir In the 21st Century as a side benefit of, rather than the reason for these extended commutes.

Beryl loved film noir but was often too tired after getting home from work to stay awake through a movie. A friend suggested podcasts during her commute. Beryl was skeptical. How could a podcast recreate lighting, Dutch angles, haunting tendrils of cigarette smoke—all essential in creating noir’s ambience? Nevertheless, she decided to give it a try. She was surprised at the abundance of noir podcasts available. She tried a few but Noir In the 21st Century was the clear winner. Rufus Roundstone’s voice was the voice of noir. Imagine a voice that combined the timbre and characteristics of James Earl Jones, Laurence Fishburne, and George Sanders. The content varied. Re-imagined classics (The Maltese Falcon, Marlowe, Spade), neo noir, interviews and special intros with the likes of Noir Czar Eddie Muller. Perfect.

She normally struggled against the onset of winter, but now she welcomed the drives in the dark and the rain. It helped make up for what she considered the limitations of audio only. The quiet metronome of her fore and aft windshield wipers blended with the foley work in the podcast. She was in her own private little theater complete with a heated seat. The extended trip home helped ease the transition to what she considered her weaker side. Beryl was an extremely talented designer and she knew it. At work she was strong, independent, decisive. Once “outside,” in public, even at home, it all seemed to fall away, a superhero stripped of her powers. She was prone to anxiety attacks. Decisions almost shut her down.

*

Hec had not noticed that Beryl arrived home later each day. First, that was Beryl, born fashionably late. Also, the seasonal switch flipped. The shorter days of winter made him feel perpetually late. Leaving work late, getting home late, eating dinner late. So, he dismissed Beryl rolling in after dark as part of his own perception of lateness. He wasn’t overly alarmed—until their daughter asked, “Hey dad. ‘Sup with mom?”

“What do you mean, Abb?”

“She’s, well…” Abby looked around in an exaggerated manner. “Um, not home yet, right?”

“Abby, it’s not that late, just your perception now that it’s cold and gets dark early and—”

“And almost nine o’clock, Dad.” She shoved her watch up under his nose.

Hec looked at Abby’s watch. He checked his own. His face didn’t match the reassuring words. “Ah, Abb, you know what a workaholic she can be. She’s probably on some kind of a roll with this latest design project of hers.”

“Ya, well, she better not be late Thursday.”

“What’s Thursday?”

Abby made fish mouth and her eyes rolled, feeling her dad was a little clueless. “Only their big annual gala party? The one we’re invited to? The one where she’s getting that surprise doodah thing?”

As Hec watched his daughter’s gestures he lamented to himself, she’s been watching too many teen sitcoms and melodramas. “Right, right, right! They are giving her the Imagine Design Award. More than just a doodah, Abb. They don’t give those out lightly. This is the first in five years.”

*

The morning was dark with gusts of wind that rocked her Nissan Leaf a bit. The wind gathered the rain and pelted the car making percussive splashes. Perversely, by noon it was unseasonably sunny and warm. Beryl took advantage of the weather to run her car through the wash and vacuum it during her lunch break. She wanted to get in the habit of keeping it nice, and though still new, the dash had collected dust and she’d started to detect a faint, unpleasant odor. If she didn’t know better, she’d say there’d been a smoker in the car. She shrugged her shoulders thinking, “Maybe a salesman or someone on a test drive? How rude. But then, why am I only just noticing it?”

She enjoyed the conveyor ride through the car wash; the rainbow-colored foam sprayed out and ran down the windows, the wax had a familiar and reassuring scent, and the jet blower sounded like a small jet engine starting up. The conveyor spit her and the Leaf out and she rolled across the lot to the quarter vacs. She wasn’t the only one taking advantage of this unprecedented, balmy day. Beryl got out and admired her first new car. She’d chosen the Deep Blue Pearl exterior with black cloth which was shot through with blue threads, a nice complement to the exterior color. She opened all doors, took out the floor mats and hung them on the available clips. “That’s odd,” she thought, as what looked like bits of cigarette ash floated out and off the front and back mats. She plopped her Ziploc bag full of quarters near the coin slot, dropped several in and began to vacuum. She started whistling music from The Barber of Seville. She ended up singing lyrics from the Rabbit of Seville.

She had to use her fingernails to unweave some long blonde hairs from the cloth upholstery of the back seat. She frowned and tried to remember if she’d had anyone with hair that length and color in her car. Abby was the only one she remembered sitting in back and she had inherited the dark red hair of her mother. She shrugged and decided it must have been there from some other customer, maybe took the whole family on a test drive, maybe the smoker’s family. “Still,” she thought, “you’d think the detailers would have cleaned up better before handing over the keys.”

*

The drive home that night was under a clear sky, but the coldest yet. As soon as the sun had set, the temperature dropped like a hammer blow. Beryl shivered as she felt the contrast of the cold with the rapidly warming seat. She pulled out of the parking lot and decided to take the route around the lake, then started episode six.

The sound of rain, a car door thud. Beryl swore she felt the car shift slightly. She wondered if the gusting winds of morning were returning. She imagined she smelled wet wool.

“OK, so you found me Delilo, what’s the score anyway?”

“You coulda shaken your hat off before getting in at least, Dill, you used to be a gentleman.”

“Well, this gentleman doesn’t appreciate being strong-armed into a car, although I do appreciate being outta the rain and I thank you for that.” A groan. “Where’d you get those guys anyway? A heavyweight two-for-one sale?”

“Distant cousins needed a leg up with employment.”

“Does their parole officer know what they’re doing?”

“Don’t get cute, Dill. You’re no good at comedy. Got a little job for ya.”

“I don’t do your kinda job anymore, Delilo, you know that, trying to stay on the straight and narrow.”

“Yeah, well, do this one last job for me and we’ll forget about that debt your wife is building up at my place. By the way, try to keep her out, OK? I’ve never seen a dame so unlucky. Kinda makes me feel sorry for her.”

“You never felt sorry for anyone, Delilo, not even yourself.”

Sounds of shifting and a stubbled chin being scratched. She thought she smelled a faint scent of some aftershave, like something her grandfather used to wear.

“Didn’t realize I was so impressionable.”

Beryl grinned to herself, enjoying the added sensory experience her imagination was creating.

“It’s an easy enough job for you, Dill. Walk in the park.” A wood match striking, the scent of cigarette smoke. “This dame’s not even spilled milk, no one going to cry over her… passing. One of those spoiled rich dames likes to go slumming. Enemies in both camps. Cops want her on a murder rap.”

“Let ‘em have her.”

“Uh-uh. Knows something she shouldn’t.”

Beryl heard breathing, the sound of cigarette smoke being blown out—she could smell it, then it seemed a bit of smoke wafted into her peripheral vision. She felt the car shift a bit.

“So, the whole debt forgotten? Can, oh, what’s his name…” A finger snap. “Biegler! He still your mouthpiece? Can he write up an agreement, call it an insurance policy for me that’ll stick?”

“Biegler can do that in his sleep. But you gotta keep your wife outta my place, or let our bouncers keep her out. We usually keep the hands off the ladies.”

A snort. “She’s no lady. Not since she got that ring on her finger… sure had me bamboozled. Be my guest, toss her out, better yet, don’t let her in. You know what she’s like after a few drinks… or at least you oughtta. She is still your sister, you know, or had you forgotten?”

“Half-sister.”

“Don’t quibble.”

*

At home, Beryl got out of the car. When she turned to close the door, she noticed a damp-looking spot on the back seat. She opened the back door to pat it, assuring herself it was probably a shadow, but no. The seat was damp. There was a small puddle on the floor mat too. An almost electrical spike of fear shook her from the inside out; she felt a bit of a chill. She took a few deep breaths to shake it off, but that brought the scents of aftershave and stale cigarette smoke. She backed away shaking her head. Her heart was racing and her hands shook so she almost dropped her phone. “No, no, no. Come on, be rational, Beryl. Maybe there is a weakness in one of the window seals that the car wash breached. Take a deep breath and start a list for the dealer.”

*

Hec was in the kitchen when she entered. It seemed overly bright to her. She squinted and blinked a little.

“Hey Hec, where’s Abb?” She hoped he wouldn’t detect the quaver in her voice.

“Fed and in bed, Beryl.”

“Not our Abby? It’s only—”

“It’s 9:45, Beryl. Abb and I’ve had dinner. Your plate’s in the warming drawer. Glass of wine?”

Beryl checked her watch, the clock on the oven.

“Hec, I’m so sorry I didn’t call. I was down in my zone on that new design.” She was ashamed at how easily the lie came.

Hec shrugged, turned toward the wine glasses and asked again, “Glass of wine?”

“Uh-huh, thanks.”

*

During the drive into work the next day Beryl was running a bit late, but managed fifteen minutes of the next episode. That night, a filthy, relentlessly wet night, she picked up where she had left off:

A woman’s voice. “But, you don’t know me.”

“I don’t need to know you.”

It was Dill.

“What have I done to you?”

“Me? Not a thing, doll. As far as I know you are a perfectly swell dame—though outta my league. Seems like a waste.”

“Look can’t you put that thing away? It might go off.”

“It will go off darlin’.”

“Why, why?”

“Better ask Delilo.”

“Raimy?” A little snort and bright chuckle of relief. “Some kind of joke, huh? OK, buster, what’s the hook?”

“No hook.” Gun blast.

Beryl jumped. It surprised her how loud it seemed. She heard echoes of a muffled sound, a female “umph” and the rustle of someone slumping, only it didn’t come from the speakers. The smell of cordite wafted from the back seat, then the sound of a wood match and the acrid smell of tobacco. She checked her rear view mirror. There was an ember and a column of smoke. She swerved onto the shoulder, hitting the brakes, eyes snapping forward. She felt and heard that deep drone, like the throat singing she experienced with her panic attacks. One side of her neck and jaw tightened; she could hear her own heart pounding; she struggled to force herself to breathe. She forced her eyes up.

She felt herself talking, but didn’t quite believe it. She didn’t recognize her own voice.

“Say, put that out mister and don’t toss it out the window either.”

She felt something cold against her neck; she assumed it was a gun. Her hair lifted. Someone blew on her ear. Her hair dropped back down. She shivered, felt the cold sweat of fear in her armpits, yet her palms were relaxed on the wheel.

“Anyone ever tell you that you have a lovely neck?”

She started to nod and tried a furtive glance in the rear view mirror.

“And don’t get any ideas, get rolling again and keep those green eyes on the road and we’ll all be pals, Irish.”

“How far we going?”

“Not as far as I’d like.”

Her voice sounded more familiar to her now. “My husband and daughter. They’ll be worried.”

“I’m sure they will, darlin’, but by the time they get around to doing anything about it, you’ll be on your sweet way home, no harm done. But, you sure you wouldn’t consider forgetting that family right now and coming home with me, Irish? No? Too bad. I’m a sucker for red hair, green eyes, and those freckles. Take this turnoff down Five Mile Road. Wanna guess how far Five Mile Road goes?” He chuckled.

Beryl slowed and veered right, slowed some more as the roughness of the road surprised her. Her teeth were chattering but she didn’t feel cold. Her hands were now shaking. Her insides were doing flip flops—forget butterflies, she felt like some alien was about to emerge though her abdomen.

“OK, check your odometer, in three miles you’ll see a turnout on the left. Use it for a U-turn but stop before you get back on the road. Watch the edge, it’s steep.”

She did as she was told. When stopped, she tried to get a look in the rear view mirror.

“Careful now.”

She felt the cold barrel of the gun at the back of her neck again. She closed her eyes, wished she was practiced at prayer.

“Hey.” The gun tapped against her temple gently. “You better try breathing. Just keep your eyes forward and your hands on the wheel.”

She heard the rear door open, some sliding, a thud. The car shifted with a weight change, shifted again. Whoever was in back slid across to the passenger side. Footsteps on gravel and something heavy being dragged, then nothing but the wind outside the open door. Footsteps headed back to the car. Another weight shift, the rear door closed. She heard heavier breathing.

“Dame didn’t look to weigh that much. I guess death is like the camera, puts on the pounds. OK, you can head home. I’ll tell you where to drop me and remember, eyes straight ahead, in fact, let’s see you cock that rear view mirror to the side. Thatta girl.”

“Who are you? What are you?”

“Eidolon.” The voice, bored, carried a ‘no more questions’ finality.

Eidolon. It rang a faint bell. Where had she heard that before? She heard a voice saying it, a different voice, not the voice from the back seat. Professor Dorelle. Yes, Ancient Greek Lit. Homer, Euripides, Helen of Troy, Trojan Horse, all that. A shade, a spirit-image of someone dead or alive. She felt a chill. It was all she could do not to look back.

“OK.” The voice from the back made her jump. “Know where the Greyhound station is?”

Beryl nodded.

“Drop me there.”

*

Back home, Beryl pulled silently into the garage. She sat staring.

The door from the house to the garage burst open.

“Beryl, what the hell? I was worried sick. Abb, too. I looked for your phone. What were you doing way out on Five Mile Road? Listen to me, like a fishwife. Come here, you.” Hec pulled her to him and squeezed. Rubbed his nose in her hair, sniffed deliberately a few times then pushed her back to look her in the eye. “Did you start smoking?”

Beryl shook her head; her lips were quivering.

Hec figured she was cold and led her into the house. “Here, go put on your flannel-lined jeans and a big sweater, I’ll flip the basking machine on—you can eat near the fire. I kept your dinner warm—again—had to feed Abby. She’s in bed but I’m sure she’s not asleep. Better go assure her. She’s still a little girl in a lotta ways, you know.”

“OK, Hec. I’ll wash my hair before I eat.” Her voice was low and rather monotone. She paused without looking around said, “I’m not smoking Hec. You know me better than that. I had to meet someone after work, chain smoker.” Another lie.

She tried to use the shower to come ’round. “Buck up, girl. Something has just triggered your vivid imagination in a powerful way. Remember the make-believe murder mysteries you used to solve as a kid while all your friends were playing with dolls? Creepy dolls.” She shuddered and grinned at the same time. “I’m talking out loud to myself. If it happens again, I’ll go see a trick cyclist.”

She knew the water and steam in the shower was hot, still she shivered deep down. Finally gave up trying to stop shaking. Grabbed her big towel, then climbed into her hooded Turkish towel robe.

*

Beryl went directly to work the next morning, no scenic route, no Noir In the 21st Century. She tuned to a favorite internet radio station. An eclectic university campus non-profit.

*

“Daaa-ad?”

“Yes, Aaaaaa-Abb.”

“D’ya think you could take me shopping after school today? For a-a d-dress or something?”

“Ah, you want to dress up for Mom’s award dinner? A dress, Abb? You? Really?”

“Don’t make fun, Dad. Yes, I-I d-do, I think it’s im-important.”

He felt bad, teasing her. He should have known how hard it was for her to ask. Her normally well-controlled stutter had resurfaced. “Sure, sweetie.” He put one arm around her shoulder and squeezed. “I’ll cancel office hours with my students today. Meet you at the car after final bell?”

“Yip!” She launched herself at her dad and wrapped her arms around his neck and her legs around his legs—used to be hips. Hec marveled at how quickly he went from having a little girl to a long tall beauty.

“Want to go over to Anya’s for a hair trim and a blow out too?”

“You’re th-the b-best dad ever.” She squeezed, then hopped down, giving him a peck on the cheek. “B-but she b-books up like crazy. What if she can’t f-fit me in?”

“Remember, she’s also Auntie Anya, I’m pretty sure we can work something out. In fact it might be better—get your dress first, see her after the salon closes. She might want to check out your dress before styling your hair.”

*

On the way home, Beryl dismissed her reluctance to continue the podcast. The night was cold and windy, a freezing hard rain, with intermittent hail. She turned right, to the proverbial dark side of town and beyond, not left toward home. She checked her clock and figured she still had time to listen to one episode, get home and ready for her team’s big gala that night. She’d arrive fashionably late, she grinned—it was almost expected of her now. She resumed the podcast. She felt she’d lost her place somehow. There was the sound of hard rain and wind being thrown against the windows. At a stop, the rear driver side door opened. A gloved hand covered her side mirror, the car shifted as someone got in… aftershave… the door closed, the light turned green. Beryl sat frozen.

*

Brenda put on her white gloves and polished Beryl’s award. She admired it from several angles trying to decide which direction it should be facing for the unveiling. Settling on something she liked, she draped a plush deep blue velvet cloth over it. Brenda was proud to be on Beryl’s team. This was the highest award their company offered and it was rare. This was a design award, awarded by designers.

“Oh Brenda, Mr. Halliday wants to be sure Beryl has no inkling she’s getting this tonight.”

“Not as far as I can tell, Lucas, and I never thought of her having much of a poker face.”

“…and she will make it tonight?”

“She won’t be on time, but yes. I’m certain she’ll be here.”

“OK, we’re doing the presentation between dinner and dessert service. She should be here by then.” Lucas looked around the banquet room. “Looks good.” He nodded, “Well, the band has arrived, sound system is a go, I’ll just go peek in at catering.”

*

“Don’t attract attention now, Irish. We’re this close.”

“Close? Close to what?”

“You tell me, doll, you tell me. I’ve got ‘em bound and gagged just like you wanted. What’s next?”

Beryl chilled from the inside out, her heart raced, her head felt like it would implode. “Who? What do you mean ‘like I wanted’?”

“We arranged it this morning. Don’t you remember? Your kid and that husband of yours…”

“What do you mean? This isn’t happening, Beryl. Pull over, deep breaths, turn around drive straight home…”

“Hey, Irish, I thought you said it was you and me from here on out… ‘straight down the line’ you said… anyway, rigged it so his car broke down on their way in to school… funny him teaching in the same school she attends. Along comes me, a good Samaritan, to give ‘em a lift, right? It was real smooth. Your kid, she’s sharp… had to move and talk fast to stay ahead of her. She knew my ‘shortcut’ wouldn’t work, had to pull off sooner than I wanted. Still, got ’em bagged and gagged. Introduced ’em to my dear wife. They can just go hungry together, most likely they’ll die of exposure first.”

Beryl went from chilled to flushed, she wanted to fling off all her clothes as she felt them tightening around her and such burning heat. “You’re not real.” Her voice cracked.

“Hurts to the quick, Irish. I feel real enough, that kiss last night was real enough.”

“You yourself said ‘Eidolon’. No, no, no, Beryl. Don’t make him more real by talking to him. Turn off the podcast. Sing something. Sing something. Music heals me. Rabbit of Seville, come on.” She was pulling off the road, couldn’t even come up with a tune, her hands were shaking, her whole body was shaking, tears dropped from her chin onto her chest, she could hear her heart pounding. “Hec, oh Hec, what have I done, Abby, my baby, you’re OK, this isn’t real.”

She felt a warm hand pull her hair back behind her right ear, a caress lingered on her neck just below the ear, the familiar scent of aftershave, she felt her shoulders relax, her hands released the wheel. She leaned into the caress, took in a deep breath, she relaxed and a smile spread across her face. Her head pressed into the warm hand, she rubbed her own cheek in his palm, then reached across and put her left hand over the back of his, kissed the palm. She rubbed a stubbled cheek with the back of her right hand. “Ah Dill, Dill.” She felt herself talking. Heard herself, but her voice sounded sultry, husky, like a smoker’s voice. “Gimme a drag, huh?”

Dill pulled the cigarette out of his mouth, turned it around and slid it between her lips at the side of her mouth. She took a deep drag, blew upward; a long spiral of smoke smashed against the headliner of the Leaf and spread out like a thunderhead. “You sure no one will find them?”

“Sure I’m sure, doll, but you decide. They can starve in each other’s company for all I care.”

“We could get some cash for ’em… Dill, our money won’t hold out forever… I bet Delilo isn’t as hardhearted about his half-sister as he makes out. Hec’s family is filthy rich and they adore that granddaughter of theirs.” She pulled out onto the highway.

“Isn’t that a bit risky? You know, they might have a harder time pinning it on us if we all just disappear. Blackmail, doll… I dunno.”

“Blackmail beats murder. We go for the payoff, then disappear. Never to be heard from again. You and me, Dill, straight down the line.”

*

The annual dinner carried on as these things do. Brenda, Lucas, and particularly Mr. Halliday kept a watch, at one moment on the door, at one moment on their watches, at one moment on the lovely sculpted award hidden under the cloth, at one moment on the three empty chairs where Beryl, her husband Hector, and daughter Abby were to be seated. The empty seats, the unused place settings were an irritation to Mr. Halliday. Beryl was often late, but this, this was rudeness, the annual gala. Of course, she didn’t know about her award so she couldn’t be blamed for snubbing it. The surprise was that Hector hadn’t managed to get her there and he knew about this award. He always managed somehow to deliver Beryl at least “fashionably late.”

Finally the plates were cleared and the speeches had begun.

Lucas bent down to whisper, “Mr. Halliday, Brenda and I have both called Beryl’s and Hector’s cell phones multiple times. We get no answer. I’m a little worried. I hope they haven’t had an accident or something. This really is not like them.” Lucas was, in fact, considering calling the police or local hospitals.

Brenda squatted down to add, “Mr. Halliday, if they don’t arrive, I suggest you unveil her award anyway. The art department put so much into it, it is a lovely design in and of itself. You can make a joke about her tardiness. It’s practically a signature for her…”

Dan Halliday nodded. “Fine, fine.” He made a whisking motion as though batting at a gnat to dismiss Brenda and Lucas. He could not disguise his irritation.

*

“Slow down, doll. Get us killed, you’ll get them killed too… that long slow death you’re trying avoid. Though I hear that hypothermia can be pleasant after awhile, after the first phases of cold they feel warm, even flushed, they start taking off their clothes and even try to burrow into a small dark space…”

Beryl pulled into an access road for a campground closed for the winter.

“I’m a city boy born and bred, Irish, what are we doing here?”

“Don’t get cute, we gotta make a plan, I mean, how do we ask for the money? How do we arrange the pick up?”

“We don’t have time for cut-out letter ransom notes. Phone calls? Too easy to trace.”

“Unless… how about we use a burner phone, even two or three? Make the calls from them. Have the money transferred via phone into, I dunno… your wife’s account is too obvious. Can’t use Hec’s either.” Beryl started to tap her nails on the steering wheel.

“Biegler.”

“Biegler?”

“Delilo’s mouthpiece. He might do me a favor… for a cut.”

“Why’d he help you burn Delilo?”

“Honor among thieves, doll? Really?”

Beryl shrugged her shoulders.

“I bet I can get a nice little packet from Biegler. Burner phones, credit card account in some name or other ready and waiting, IDs, offshore bank account. We could get outta the country, and still get the money. Delilo will be quick. He’ll also be ready to retaliate. What about your in-laws?”

“They’ll need time to access their accounts, I guess, I dunno how their money is locked up, bonds, stocks, bank. Probably need a day. So… you know how to contact Biegler?”

“Know where he lives. Head back to town. Just before city limits, take Majestic toward the lakes. Slow down, you’re not driving a race car you know.”

Beryl grinned, feeling she had the upper hand. “You’re not scared are ya, Dill? I just love the twisties, although you’re right, this isn’t the car to do this road justice.”

Just then she hit some black ice, her Leaf spun and slid. The air bags didn’t go off for some reason. Her head hit the steering wheel hard. When she came to, she felt blood on the side of her forehead, grabbed a tissue. There was blood on the passenger window which she couldn’t figure out. She didn’t recognize the road she was on or her direction. The freezing rain didn’t help.Thoroughly disoriented she shook her head to try to clear it, then grabbed her phone to pull up directions for home. The shoulder was only slightly canted and it was easy for her to get turned around and back on the road.

She smelled cigarette smoke and aftershave. It puzzled her. The rain had completely given way to hail that was bouncing off her hood like ping pong balls. As she entered known streets and landmarks, she saw Hec’s car on the side of the road. She smiled, he was out looking for her. She pulled up behind him and jumped out into the hail. As she got up to the driver door she saw no one inside. She felt the hood of the car, cold. She felt a deep chill, heard the voice from the podcast: “Still, got ’em bagged and gagged. Introduced ’em to my dear wife. They can just go hungry together, most likely they’ll die of exposure first.”

pencil

Lou Nell Gerard’s, “Derecho,” placed 3rd in the 2018 A Midsummer Tale Narrative Writing Contest. It was published in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal (September 2018). “Fixies Adrift” won Gold in the 2014 Three Cheers and a Tiger Mystery Writing Contest. It was published in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal (June 2014). Other published work includes Wetlands’ Role in Water Quality Enhancement (City of Bellevue, Stream Team News Splash, 1989), “Secret Dreams” (Rider Magazine, Women’s Forum, 1986). These and her blog, Three Muses Writing, reflect her enthusiasm for motorcycles, road trips, movies, music, plays, paintings, and books. Email: lng-writing[at]gerards.org

The Grave of Samuel Seymore James

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
M. Luke Yoder


Photo Credit: denisbin/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Preservation of the dead. That’s why I take grave rubbings.

Isn’t preservation the reason we created gravestones in the first place? To preserve the proof of the people we care about?

I imagine the first burial marker was the turned earth that hid the body. But the earth is ever changing, and humans are ever sentimental, so we needed more permanent signs of death. Mountains. Landmarks. Rocks. At first, it was a small pile of stones that wind and water wouldn’t wash away. As we evolved, those piles became pyramids and monuments and henges for the great; for the mediocre, short words of remembrance etched on small granite or limestone or marble slabs: name, date, epitaph. I think it’s sad that the mediocre, the most common human lives, are the first to vanish, eroded and effaced by weather or vandals or lack of care. We will forever know where the memories of our Pharos, Presidents, and Poets are housed, but the proof of Samuel Seymore James of Huger, South Carolina, 1781-1806, Beloved Husband & Faithful Fisherman, might moulder to obscurity if not for rubbers like me. In a way, I keep the dead alive.

But many cemeteries and plantations and old properties with old graves no longer allow rubbings. They argue rubbing hastens the decay or someone may break fragile stones even with best intentions. And I understand: gravesites are solemn places for the safeguarding of our past and the one true promise of our future. They are as concerned for preservation as I am. We need archival proofs, however. In time, those cold carved letters on stones and marble slabs will be erased and return to mere rock, and those names will vanish from the earth. Without archival proof, those weathered words may as well be written on the dirt and the rain. So I continue to rub, whether I should or I shouldn’t. Some cemeteries still allow rubbing from anyone, but I’m not concerned for those graves: they have their archivists and plenty of them. I seek lonelier treasures.

Which is why Samuel Seymore James’ grave is so important to me. It’s the loneliest thing I have ever seen.

For fifteen years, I’ve taken rubbings from countless sites. Piles of archival boxes and hard plastic document tubes rise from the floor of my apartment. I’ve rubbed stones and revealed names and dates indecipherable to the eye from weathering. I’ve recorded hopeful goodbyes inscribed on crumbled white obelisks tucked away in a decaying cemetery corner. I’ve taken rubbings from a collapsing antebellum family complex marking the death of a dozen children, each vulnerable to the diseases that plague mankind. I’ve found and documented our names and fears and hopes of death before nature or man could erase them, and I’ve brought them home with me on paper and cloth rubbed with colored wax. I’ve seen it all. But the grave of Samuel Seymore James haunts me to this day.

While visiting cemeteries in the area one steamy summer, I pried a story from old Huger locals. Deep in the wilderness, there is a small grave site, unknown to any from off. It was, as they said, a local legend, preserved by a vengeful magical creature, as if the stones were erected that very morning rather than centuries ago. They would not take me—one visit was enough for each of them—but they told me about hidden markers along the way and gave me detailed directions, the same they’d pried from their grandparents when they were younger and bolder. They admonished me to return as soon as I could.

I hiked seven hellish hours to the grave, prepared to camp for the night. The paths often took me through flooded lands and cypress swamps. Snakes rattled at me. Alligators slid from logs to follow me. Tall pines and sweetgums and shade oaks drenched in Spanish moss gave me no relief from the close heat. I was ripped at by piercing thorns and hounded by insects that thirsted for blood. It was brutal. I understood why those locals refused to accompany me.

I stumbled to the grave site at dusk in a putrid film of sweat, covered in welts from the giant mosquitoes that arose in those stagnant, humid lands. My clothes were torn and bloody from long briars, my hair was matted from grime; I imagine I looked like some filthy being borne from those wild swamps that nature allowed to live. What a contrast I was to the grave of Samuel Seymore James.

Tucked beneath an ancient sprawling live oak with heavy branches drooping to the ground, I saw two gleaming white stones rising out of the leaf litter like incisors. It was as if nature decided against decay and allowed the markers to remain as unblemished as the day they were set. A pair of alabaster hands, one from each stone, stretched and clasped one another through space, binding the graves. When I looked closer at the hands, I could see words etched on the back of each, in a perfect Gothic font: Together in Eternity.

The left marker bore Samuel’s name and date of death. The edge of each letter was sharp and crisp, without hint of moss or mold, so pristine I thought it a wonder I didn’t hear the pinging of hammer on chisel as I approached earlier. I was amazed a grave so old and isolated could be so clean and free of weathering.

The right marker, just as pure, bore a name as well: Edith Anne James. Unlike Samuel’s grave, there was no epitaph or date of death: 1785–. Samuel was buried here alone, forever.

A loneliness I’d never felt before, or have experienced since, rolled over me in an instant and settled on my bones. In the fading light, I stood at Samuel Seymore James’s grave and I wanted to weep. The grave was so far removed from everything else in space and time and companionship that I was struck with the grandeur and sadness of it all. Buried alone, here, in a place so far removed it’s a wonder it exists at all. I took the rubbings of the stones and the clasped hands binding them among the crying crickets and flickering fireflies long after the sun disappeared.

I didn’t sleep well that night. In the fitful heat of my tent, I imagined I could hear Edith Anne wailing, wandering outside my tent, seeking her beloved Samuel and her rightful final resting place beside him. I could not dissuade myself that this grave was the loneliest on earth, hidden from the eyes of others, and destined to remain hidden until nature, if it was within its power, did away with it.

I returned home feeling I’d taken my most important rubbings. I placed them in an archival box and continued my work for years, knowing that no grave would need more proof of existence than Samuel Seymore James’s. I’d trekked through hell to take those rubbings. I could say that if I should die tomorrow, I’d die happy having brought Samuel Seymore James out of the wilderness, returned to life, and having captured the spectre of his beloved Edith Anne and her unfulfilled promise to him as well. Despite the terrible hike, I was satisfied my passion for preservation drove me to his grave and gave me such a sad, haunting story as that of two lovers long dead and separated for eternity.

But now I have to go back through that hell once again.

I received a call last week and I’ve been digging through my archives ever since. Thousands of rolls and sheets and I cannot locate the rubbings for Samuel Seymore James: not with the other Huger rubbings nor in the archive box for Charleston and Surrounding Area.

The call was from the American Institute for the Preservation of the Dead. They are a historical advocacy group that insists rubbings are a vital method for safeguarding the burials of the past. They won a grant from the Smithsonian and want to take their message on a tour to raise awareness for rubbings and the importance of preservation. The representative who contacted me knew of my work through other rubbers and mutual friends. The Institute would be thrilled for me to submit my most important rubbing for approval. The award for the twenty-five works chosen would be a one-year gallery tour throughout the country for advocacy and a prize of one thousand dollars. I told the representative I knew the exact rubbing I would submit and that I would send it soon.

That was six days ago. I’m now convinced, after having exhumed nearly all of my past work, against all odds I misplaced the rubbings of Samuel Seymore James. There is no reason I should believe I committed such a crime, but there it is. They are nowhere to be found.

I thought about submitting others. I have a beautiful rubbing from Boston I did on cream cloth and purple wax with a date of 1713 and a tearful poem yearning for positive judgment on a life lived. But it wasn’t the same. I know what I’d had with Samuel’s grave. I cannot bring myself to submit another sample in its place. I am certain I am, in all of Creation, the only human to have taken a rubbing of that grave, and the importance of its preservation is undebatable. The rest of my rubbings can burn for all I care.

I’m sure I can find the grave once again.

I live three hours from Huger. It’s winter now and the drive should be easy. Winter in the South is different than most people expect. They expect it to be mild, but not cold. They are wrong. It doesn’t snow much in Huger, but there are countless days from December to March when the cold is as close and heavy as a hide blanket and the clouds press down upon your shoulders with weight. You can’t help but hug yourself to hold on to the heat being pulled from your chest. And when it rains, the damp lasts for weeks beneath the feeble sunlight that manages to filter from the heavens. Darkness falls early on those days and the dawns are slow to return. It’s one of those looming mornings as I drive through Huger.

I think about the story of Samuel Seymore James often. Every grave I’ve visited since has evoked the memory: I see him kissing Edith Anne goodbye that late August morning and heading into the forest to find a secret fishing hole. I see the hurricane clouds and flooding winds, the oak branch that fell on him after he lost the path home in the darkness and rain. Edith finds his body herself. She buries him beneath the oak and spends everything she has on the gravestones. The few people who trekked into the wilderness to witness the ceremony said Edith refused to leave with them. She sat on the ground at her own gravestone, silent, tracing patterns on the smooth surface with her finger. She was broken, they said. So some stayed with her. But Edith Anne never got better. They built her a shelter and found her food and soon she was alone.

When one couple took it upon themselves to return from guilt, Edith Anne was gone. Two days later, the couple died in a house fire. A man traveling through the forest to Jamestown noticed small piles of stones which lead him to the grave; he camped at the site on the way up but he never returned home. His body was found beneath the oak. Just twenty years ago a Ranger found two Wiccan lovers dead on Edith’s grave. Visiting the grave now is a dare that few local children still rise to. But no one ever goes back twice.

And so the locals told me the story of Edith Anne James, alive still in that wilderness, caring for the gravestones and punishing those who leave her.

The locals told the story with such conviction that when I first stumbled to the site that long ago summer, I wanted to believe it as well, seeing those stones absolutely unaffected by the very same nature that attacked me every step I took toward the grave. There Samuel lies, below two shining white beacons of stone that defy degradation and decay. Edith Anne is there, too, somewhere, the magical source of that defiance. I wanted to believe that wave of loneliness crashing over me in my sweaty exhaustion was Samuel’s and Edith’s. I wanted to believe it all. But while that abject feeling of loneliness is incomparable to anything I’ve experienced since, my reverence for the story has waned. Evidence soon proved otherwise.

I found many examples in the literature of gravestones in near-perfect condition after over one hundred years, stones that nature just doesn’t touch, due to differences in material or local conditions or a variety of other rational variables. Despite decades and centuries of heat and floods and droughts and deep chills, despite the enduring press of nature upon all things in this world, there are exceptions immune to that press. There are things in existence that resist the inevitable laws of nature, and the grave of Samuel Seymore James appears to me to be one of those special examples. I’ve found other examples on every continent and within every other climate. There is evidence in this world our markers can endure those laws to which all other things must succumb. And isn’t that why we created gravestones in the first place? Preservation! Isn’t that wonderful enough in itself to justify returning through hell for a rubbing, despite a local legend and the natural part of me that still wants to believe that legend is true?

I think it is. I thought it was the moment I was contacted about the award and I still do as I see signs for the Wadboo Trail a few miles north of Huger.

The Wadboo Trail is an old horse path that meanders through the forest for fifty miles. It was cut out before the Revolution and farmers, travelers, and enthusiasts have been using it ever since. This is the main passage I will follow to reach the first pile of stones.

I park in the small gravel lot at the head of the trail, empty as last time. I sit basking in the final warmth I’ll have until the campfire I build tonight. The head of the trail is wide and paved in pine straw, but it soon narrows and becomes ribbed in places with exposed roots and fallen branches. Despite the hellish heat of my last trek, I enjoyed a brisk pace and admired the scenery until I left the trail at the first pile of stones, a rough footpath that’s noticeable if you know where to look. But after are the swamps and muck that pulled down on me like I was wading through hell with little hope of reaching the grave. Swamps tend to ebb in the winter, and I hope this is true today. From there, the land rises to dry and is choked with greenbriers and thickets to the grave site.

I’m going to camp through the night. There’s not enough sunlight in the day now to avoid it and hiking in the dark is unthinkable. I can reach the grave site well before dusk but I’ll return in the morning. I have two battery lanterns that will give me enough light to work in the dark, but with the fire I plan on building to stay warm, I may not need them.

I tug my hat over my ears and open the car door to pull on my stuffed backpack. The cold slaps my face. I can see my breath. The sound of crunching gravel radiates a few feet and dies close in the heavy air. There is no wind, but wind would be a mercy if it lifted these pressing clouds from my shoulders. I feel like I’m in a cold, grey box stuffed with cotton spun from the dampness. A mist seeps from the sodden ground. It’s as quiet as a fallen blizzard. I stand up straight, shrug my backpack right, and pass between the two short wooden rail fences that mark the cold beginning of the trail.

I can’t see the tops of the pines for the low clouds. The mist is so thick I can just make out a few magnolias scattered about the edges of the trail. All I can hear are my winter clothes swishing with my steps, my boots crunching the pine straw and dead leaves on the trail, and my heaving breath. I walk to the rhythm of these sounds and it takes my mind off the depressing conditions: I plan on making quick pace to the first marker. This will give me more time to navigate the swamp waters and will also keep my temperature up besides. I still shudder when I think about this hike in that hellish heat in the past, but I suspect this gross day will do its best to beat it.

In quick time, the first marker appears just as it was before. I find the footpath, but it’s more crooked and rugged than I remember.

The trees are older and closer together here. More oak and sweetgum. Spanish moss hangs like curtains from the branches; dank green moss and gray lichens grow between the bark. If I didn’t know those swamps still awaited I’d take my time to make sure I didn’t twist an ankle to breaking. But those swamps do await. So I do my best to follow the winding trail and keep the pace. My cheeks are numb and my lungs sting from the cold.

I am alone with my marching sounds. Swish, crunch, breath. Swish, crunch, breath. Now at the edge of my hearing, softer but higher pitched than my cadence, I can hear a pinging. As if someone struck a bright cymbal or triangle. I don’t know what is, but I incorporate the sound into my march. Swish, crunch, ping, breath. Swish, crunch, ping, breath. I fall into the rhythm and quicken my pace.

I trip on an exposed root. I grab a branch to steady myself, but it snaps off and I land on my hands and knees. One nub on the branch punctures the palm of my hand. It hurts like hell. I scream and the sound dies close, smothered by the mist and clouds. When I raise my hand to examine it, I leave a bloody handprint on the detritus and exposed roots.

The wound is deep. I wrap a bandage around my wrist to stave the blood. I clean the wound with water. A large splinter of the nub is still stuck. I yank it out and scream again. Soon, the bleeding slows and I dress the wound. It may not be enough, but I’m not stopping. The grave is too important. I start the hike once more.

I’m lost in the swamp. My wound has broken open. I’ve also twisted my knee. I don’t have time to stop now, not with dusk already settling in. Winter dusk is not like summer dusk. Especially on cold, disheartening days like today. In the summer, the colors dusk throws into the sky are brilliant: purples and reds and yellows tossed from below to bloom on the belly of the slow, darkening heavens. In the winter, dusk is more like closing your eyes to die; the light slowly fades in the gray until there is nothing left to see. And when the darkness finally comes, it comes quick. I should not rest, but I must. This hike has been far worse than my first.

It’s as if nature redoubled its efforts from long ago to prevent me reaching the grave of Samuel Seymore James.

The land rose and sank in places I could not remember. The footpath twisted through the dense woods in an unimaginable and illogical way, turning back upon itself and forking madly. It was more maze than trail. I could still find piles of stone markers, but there were fewer than I remembered and I found them at odd intervals. At one point I thought I saw someone sneaking in the mist. They didn’t answer my calls; I twisted my knee when I left the path to find them. Branches scratched at me and roots stubbed my feet. I finally stumbled to the edge of the swamp. And still, I could hear that ping, out there somewhere, hidden within the mist and clouds that enveloped everything.

I was exhausted. I forced myself deeper into the swamp. I couldn’t find the next stone marker. There was nothing but cypress trees and vines and that damned mist obscuring it all. I tried to find the source of the ping, but it was difficult to know the direction beneath those dampening clouds. I’ve been unable to find my way out of the swamp since, and now I don’t think I ever will.

I’ve torn something in my knee. Blood runs down my wrist, soaking the tourniquet. It drips from my fingers into the water when I rest my arm by my side. I can’t keep warm, no matter how hard I hug myself. I redress the wound in the dying light, but it won’t help. The bleeding won’t stop. And the pinging won’t either.

I rest on a small dry area between two cypress trees. I think of my favorite rubbings: the one from Boston; an eighteenth-century angel fighting Satan in Louisiana; a severe slab of marble from Boise, 1896-1945, with a tasteless joke and an etching to match. These were all fine examples, examples that need to be preserved, and any one of them or countless others were good enough to win one of those awards. I could’ve submitted any of them and won. But the grave of Samuel Seymore James called to me, and for that I am lost.

What would my gravestone look like, if someone should chance upon my body? I imagine aspects of each of those rubbings coalescing into my own gravestone, erected in my name, here. I’d have a witty epitaph. Something to make people laugh. Above my name, a quote on preservation and the innate need for humans to create things that remind us of those we miss the most. I imagine sculpted adornments and effects that would make anyone who stumbled upon it ask themselves: who the hell was bold enough to die out here? And, at moments, I imagine Edith Anne visiting my grave to keep the unrelenting weathering forces of nature and time at bay, as she did for her beloved these last two centuries.

I imagine these things and it makes me smile. But I know the truth. The only things that will mark my grave are my possessions and the small portion of my bones that don’t get carried off by alligators and other scavengers. Those things will mark my grave for a time, but nature will claim those, too, with hurricanes and floods and larger tides. I imagine this tiny island I lie on now will be gone in five years, and my bones and belongings will fall to the swamp, carried away to wherever nature wishes. Soon, there will be no trace I lived and died. There will be nothing to stop the weathering of my grave and no one near enough to preserve my existence.

This is why we build monuments to the dead, in hopes that we can defeat nature and, in a way, live forever. But that won’t happen for me. I die as we died before, when nature hid us from the universe as soon as it could and we didn’t know enough to do anything about it. Before henges and pyramids, before piles of stone.

There is little light left. The pinging is as fast as it’s ever been. My eyes are heavy. It’s no shame, to die like this. In the name of preservation, I tried. I look to the dusk horizon, as close as it is, and I hope to see a color. Any color but gray. Purple. Red. Yellow. Something. But all I see is that damned mist and those awful clouds above. I can’t tell if darkness is here or my eyes are finally closing. I’ve lost a lot of blood. The pinging stops. As the last bit of light leaves, I see something strange.

I fumble for my light and flick it on: it’s a white tube that wasn’t there before, propped against a nearby cypress.

I slide back into the cold water. My knee screams and I almost sink. I manage to hold the light on the object and I splash to it. It’s a plastic document tube. Written along its length, in black Gothic letters: Preservation of the Dead.

I carry it back to my island and set the light on the ground. I unscrew the cap. I pull the rolled cloth from the tube. It’s the rubbing of Samuel’s grave.

It’s my rubbing. My cloth, my color of wax, and my signature; Samuel’s name, date, and epitaph. It’s mine, except for a message written in the margin, in the same letters as on the tube: This is Your Award.

I’m not alone. I shine the light about. The clouds are lower. The mist swallows the light and spits it back at me. I hear a splash behind. I swing the light around; a figure wades into the mist. I shout, but it’s pointless; it doesn’t look back. I chase as fast as I can.

I can’t keep up and they won’t slow. My leg feels like it’s going to snap. I’m dizzy from losing blood. I keep the light enough to spot glimpses of the figure through the mist. I can’t scream anymore. I can barely breathe. If I falter, I won’t have the strength to continue.

The ground starts to rise. I claw my way onto land. There’s another document tube. Beyond, the figure stops. I crawl to the tube and twist it open. This time, I see the impression of two hands clasped, rubbed in red wax: Together in Eternity. In the margin, again: This is Your Award.

I beg for the figure to stop and to help me. Instead, it disappears into the mist. I roll over onto my back and try to scream at the clouds. My voice dies in my throat. I can’t tell if this is real or an irrational dream; I’m not certain I want to know. The ping starts once more. Clearer. Closer. I shine the light in the direction I know it’s coming from and I see a familiar pile of stones.

The grave isn’t far, now.

I force myself to my feet, but my leg gives and I fall. I crawl forward on my hands and knees. I hit snaking vines of greenbrier and deep thicket. The thorns catch my clothing and pierce to my skin. I can feel blood dripping from my head and ears. Vines wrap around my ankles, denying my efforts to continue. I pull myself, digging my hands in the soil and using roots like ladders. I hold fast to the light and I see a clearing. More vines seem to reach out at once to bar my way; they tangle my limbs and twist me around. A thorn stabs my throat. I am being torn apart. I bellow loud and pull as hard as I can. I squirt out onto the leaf-littered ground beneath the oak like I was pushed.

I crawl to the grave site. My body is throbbing. I imagine I look like some pathetic creature, spewed from nature like excrement from disgust. A thing that has no choice but to go where drawn. A mindless maggot seeking by instinct.

I shine the light at the grave.

The figure is hunched over Edith’s marker, striking the stone ping ping ping ping ping! Just behind it, on the ground, another document tube. A wave of absurd terror rolls over me and I want to weep. I know what awaits. I know, and still, I must see. I find a stick to prop myself to my feet and limp to my fate.

Ping ping ping ping ping!

The white cloth inside this tube isn’t mine, but I wish it were. As illogical as that seems, I wish it were.

There are words written once more: For Loving Samuel as much as I do. But above the epitaph, an image of my own face, as if the cloth was placed over my sleeping eyes and rubbed with some ethereal red wax while I dreamed impermanent things.

The pinging stops. The figure stands and turns. My light shines through it now, a spectre transparent like a fine mist rising from the ground. I cannot see if the creature is man or woman from the pulsating shimmer that springs up in a halo around it like dawn. But I know. In my bones, I know. It unleashes a sound of happiness so pure I wonder how it is that I was ever frightened of dying out here in the first place; my doubts of returning to the grave vanish in the flood. The rubbing was worth it. For Samuel, it was worth it.

And then Edith Anne reaches out and pierces my chest with an incorporeal hand. My heart seizes and I can’t breathe. I drop the light and fall to my knees as she screams in delight.

The last thing I see is my gravestone, pure white, next to Samuel’s. Name, date, epitaph: Dedicated Preservationist.

I wonder, will it weather?

pencil

M. Luke Yoder is a writer from Charleston, SC. Email: mlukeyoder[at]gmail.com

Rotten Fruit

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Vanessa Levin-Pompetzki


Photo Credit: PJ Nelson/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

It is winter when the tree blooms. Sarah watches it out of her kitchen window, her breath fogging up the glass. The sight of it sets her pulse galloping.

“Andrew,” she calls, picking up the pot of coffee and pouring another cup. Her husband, shivering in the cold morning, comes to stand beside her. They watch the tree as Andrew takes several gulps of coffee. The silence—the knowledge that sits between them, heavy as all three of her babes piled in her arms—hurts nearly as bad as remembering.

“I’ll tell the kids not to eat the fruit,” Andrew says. He moves away without another word.

Sarah stays by the window until the coffee grows cold in her hands. Her brain is a pit of snakes, writhing, reminding.

Let all of your fruit born in winter be rotten.

The words, heard nine years ago, are fresh as the snow fallen that morning. Sarah thinks of the woman—the witch—of her white hair and brittle hands, and she wants to take her children into bed, keep them there till ice thaws and their other trees bloom.

All three of her babes were born in winter.

Josephine, days before Christmas.

Andy, during the last snowfall of a particularly hard winter.

Elizabeth, on a day so cold wet eyelashes froze together.

And every time Sarah gave birth she feared what she might push out between her legs—a child black with rot, a screaming mouth full of maggots. Or perhaps a child shrunken and wrinkled, already dead inside of her.

But she gave birth to three beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed children who said please and thank you and (almost) always listened to her.

And now, seven years after Sarah pushed Josephine, red and screaming, into the world, the tree bloomed. Tiny green shoots press out of spindly branches, reaching toward a gray sky. Sarah pulls the curtain over the window, heads upstairs to wake her children.

The next day, the tree’s leaves are full and there are small, pretty, baby apples hanging on its branches.

Sarah sends her children out to play in the snow—“don’t eat those,” she warns them, and they nod dutifully.

Inside, she cleans the house. Every five minutes she runs to the window—every time her children are far away from the tree, launching snowballs at each other. Andrew, chopping wood beside the barn, doesn’t take his eyes off them.

Sarah cannot stop thinking about that day nine years ago. It is branded into her, a wound that never heals. Remembering is ripping the scab off, letting it ooze again.

As she cleans the kitchen, suds soaping up and bubbles popping, she is reminded of the smell of his skin. Harshly clean, like he had come to her straight out of the bath. Perhaps he had.

Sarah gets down on her knees and her bones begin to ache, her hands red and raw.

He had tasted of sweet salt, like he had nervously sweat on the drive over, let it dry before knocking on her door. They were never ones for words. Their version of talking had been lips between thighs, soft “oh god”s offered up to heaven. Whether in pleasure or in asking for forgiveness of sin, Sarah has never been sure.

When her children come inside, their cheeks are red as ripe apples.

They chatter to her about their game over dinner. Sarah smile and nods, but she sits at the table in a spot where she can see the tree out the window. She swears its leaves grow even as she eats.

If she closes her eyes, she can see his skeleton suspended in dark earth beneath the tree. She wonders—as the tree has grown, have his bones moved with its roots? The image of a root snaking through a skull’s eye is stuck in her mind.

“I’m going to cut it down tomorrow,” Andrew tells her. When she thinks of Andrew with an axe, she doesn’t think of him next to a tree but standing over a pool of blood. A body, empty.

“Good,” Sarah says. She rolls over to sleep and the full moon shines in through their window. It is hours before her brain quiets enough to let her go.

The next day, Sarah breaks a plate. It isn’t a snap-in-half kind of break—it’s a shatter, send-shards-deep-into-crevices kind of break.

“Go outside while I clean this up,” she tells her children. Josephine bundles up the younger ones and they troop outside.

Sarah crouches and digs out ceramic shards, grateful that she can’t see the apple tree for a moment. Earlier she saw that its apples were round and glistening in the cold morning light.

He had gone into town, but Andrew promised the tree would be gone by afternoon.

Just as she is getting the last of the shattered plate off the floor, there is a loud clatter as someone runs back inside.

“Mommy,” Elizabeth sobs, and Sarah is up in a heartbeat, tossing the plate remnants into the sink. Her youngest is crying, snot and tears mixing. Her mouth is black.

“Elizabeth?” Sarah says, her voice high.

“I don’t feel good,” her daughter says, throwing herself forward into Sarah’s arms. Elizabeth sniffles. “Mommy, I’m sorry.”

“What happened, pet?” Sarah asks. Her voice is calm, hand steady as she touches her daughter’s hair.

“We ate the apples,” Elizabeth says.

Sarah’s heart stops. She takes her daughter by the shoulders and wrenches her away, crouches down to look at her. Elizabeth’s blue eyes are dark, like a cloud has passed over them, and black liquid oozes slowly from one corner of her mouth.

Elizabeth pulls an apple out of her pocket—it has one bite taken out of it. The apple’s insides are made of mold.

“Did everyone eat this?” Sarah demands.

Elizabeth’s sobs have quieted to hiccups. She nods. “It was Andy’s idea,” she mumbles, but Sarah knows better. Elizabeth, her sweet, youngest daughter, has long been the troublemaker. The one who steals cream from the fridge, feeds the cat pieces of cheese, climbs far higher in the trees than she knows is allowed.

Despite the panic crowding her lungs like one too many cigarettes, Sarah goes to the door and opens it.

“Andy! Josephine! Come inside, please!”

She doesn’t quite understand how normal her voice sounds. How even it is. It is what she sounds like when she calls them in every day.

There is a choking noise from behind her. Sarah whirls around to find Elizabeth hunched over on all fours, black sludge pouring from her mouth.

“No!” Sarah cries, running, but before she can reach Elizabeth, her daughter is back on her feet, and it is not her daughter any more.

“Mommy,” Elizabeth says. No, Sarah tells herself, this is not Elizabeth. “Mommy,” the thing says again. Its eyes are black and dripping. Its mouth is a gash in its face.

“Hi, pet,” Sarah says, but this time, her voice shakes.

Behind her, the door rattles, and two voices drift through. “Mommy?”

The voices are wizened and old, voices of throat cancer and strep throat, of sickness and phlegm. It is the voice of the witch—of his mother—when she cursed Sarah so many years ago.

Elizabeth—what was Elizabeth—lunges. It moves faster than a child. It screams like a mountain lion in heat.

No time to think, Sarah moves. She opens the door right as Elizabeth runs at her, lets her youngest slam into her two eldest, closes the door behind them. If Elizabeth is lost, surely her other two are as well. Surely they will come after her.

Sarah turns, heart ready to vomit itself onto the floor, to find all three of her children looking up at her through the window in the door.

They look hungry.

She yanks the curtains closed, throws the bolt across. She runs around the house, locking every window, blockading every door. Her mind sings her a song—all of your fruit born in winter be rotten, all of your fruit born in winter be rotten. She can hear them, scraping at the doors, screaming.

“Mommy!”

“Mommy, I’m so hungry!”

“Help me! Help me!”

The shrieks, the noises. Not all of their windows have curtains. Her children peer inside, their eyes black as a moonless night, searching.

Sarah is about to let them back inside—to finish what she began, to end the cycle, to let the rot take her. It is already inside of her. It has been inside of her, festering and growing, for years.

But there is a sound from the driveway. A car, pulling in.

Andrew.

 

Ten years ago, Sarah and Andrew married in a quiet ceremony. Sarah’s parents were eager to get her out of the house—only daughter, a burden. Andrew had a farm, inherited from his family. Means to take care of their daughter. They pushed her out, eagerly put her hand in his during the ceremony. Sarah kissed him on the lips and felt nothing in the pit of her stomach.

But him—him. She met him at the market when summer was at its fullest. He sold her a basket of peaches, and she told him that she would bring him a jar of her peach jam. She brought him one a few weeks later, and he invited her to come see the harvest of plums he had not yet brought out from his truck—they fucked twice in the backseat, once fervent and needy, the next quiet and slow, with the kind of eye contact she had ached her whole life for.

Between laundry and starting dinner, a whole afternoon before Andrew was due back, he would come by. He drove a red truck—Sarah loved the flashiness of it, like a bright fall apple during a hard Canadian winter. He would knock, all politeness, and she would let him in, lead him to the bedroom. Kissing him was inviting summer into her mouth.

But Andrew came home early.

Sarah heard his truck, pulling into the driveway, and her fear was a worm in her throat. She leapt out of bed, yanking on a nightdress. Beside her, he tried to get dressed, fumbling with buttons.

“Who’s here?” Andrew’s voice demanded. It had taken him longer than she would have thought to run inside, but when she came out of the bedroom she knew why.

Andrew stood in the kitchen, dark eyes glinting, axe in hand.

 

Sarah rushes to the window to see Andrew arrive, peers out—her children, or what were once her children, rush toward his truck.

Sarah sees his lips move as he gets out, calling to the children before he can see them. She wants to warn him, wants to say something, but there is still a bit of her old lover lodged in her brain. She will never scrub the blood from her mind, never forget how the soft moan he made while dying was just like the one he made in her bed.

Was it worth it? Andrew had asked her, eyes dark as the bottom of their well. She saw nothing in them. Was it worth it?

When she thinks of the decade of ice between them, of the scent of blood, of the way he smells after sex, Sarah does not open the window. She does not call to her husband—she does not warn him of their children, rotting from the inside out.

She watches as he sees it. Their eyes, black as his own—their mouths, grinning mold. She watches her middle child, named for his father, hand Andrew a half-eaten apple. Andrew stares down at it. Sarah watches him grapple with what lies in front of him.

Rotten fruit. Crazed children. Are they children? He takes too long to figure it out, to realize that Sarah’s dead lover’s mother has cursed them into a horror story. To remember the words Sarah repeated to him after she heard them. Andrew does not hear those words in his sleep—he does not begin each winter with a chest of glass.

The children rip into him. Sarah flinches at the sight—teeth in neck, blood spurting onto snow. Her husband’s blood is so hot it melts the snow down to the ground. The sight makes her think of her children’s art projects, of the way they paint with abandon. She hunches over, her lunch splattering into the sink.

There are screams. She cannot tell whose they are. When she raises her head, looking out, they are done.

They stand over their father’s body, pulling flesh from him. They try to eat, then spit him out, then cry. Great sobs, black tears streaking down their cheeks.

She can only hear the high keen of her eldest. Josephine, standing over her father, looks down at his body and screams, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!”

Sarah stumbles away from the window. She looks around, wildly. They will come for her next. Does she let them? She wonders if his bones can hear—if he heard her children kill their father, if he can hear them now, screaming. She wonders if he wanted this, or if he would apologize. He was an apologizer. Sorry, Sarah, let me, he would say, press his lips to her inner thigh. Sorry, Sarah, that my mother cursed you and your children.

Innocent. They were innocent.

She begins to sob, sinking to the floor of her kitchen. She stays there for a long time, longer than she should. She should keep an eye on them. She should watch where they go. She should be prepared. But she sits there, tears seeping into her dress, unable to move.

A knife would be good, she thinks after it’s been quiet a while. She yanks open a drawer, finds her best knife. Grabs the second best, two. No, a cast iron pan instead. That might not kill them. She could knock them out, call the doctor—

No, no. Fuck, the doctor won’t be able to fix the problem of a nearly decade-old murder and the rotting fruit of her loins.

There is a loud splintering noise.

Sarah struggles to her feet, the knife in one hand and the cast iron pan in the other.

“Mommy?” a voice says. Her boy. He comes in first. At five years old, he already looks like his father. Same dark hair, but her blue eyes. What a heartbreaker he will be, she thinks, as if she has smudged the black away in her mind. Her baby walks toward her.

“Mommy?” he asks again. He blinks at her. His mouth, black, gapes open.

“Andy, come here, honey,” Sarah says.

Her son leaps at her, and Sarah swings. It’s a decision that takes a moment—her affair can have no more consequences. It has to end with her, with them.

She hits Andy in the side of the head and he flies across the kitchen, hitting the wall with a thud. Black sludge oozes from his head, drips from the pan.

Her daughters step into the kitchen.

Elizabeth tilts her head like she used to when she was a baby.

“Mommy,” she says. She is holding a fresh apple in her fist. “I’m hungry.”

 

Days after Andrew and Sarah buried her dead lover beneath the apple tree, his mother came calling. She drove her son’s truck, the one Sarah had driven back to his house in the dead of night, her lungs hot as coals.

When his mother climbed out of the truck, Sarah knew it was over. She was the picture of fury. The cold wind whipped her hair around her face, a halo of snow white. The slam of the truck’s door echoed like a gunshot.

“Sarah,” the woman said.

Sarah did not know her name.

His mother was silent until she stood right in front of Sarah. She was tall, thick, angry. She was the kind of angry that makes you a murderer. Sarah had seen it days before in her husband’s eyes.

“I know what you’ve done,” the woman said.

Sarah tried to look confused. “I’m sorry,” she said, cocking her head to the right. “Have we met?”

The woman’s hand shot out and grabbed Sarah by the wrist. She pulled and Sarah fell forward, so their faces were inches apart. Sarah could see every line in her face—was assaulted by the eyes of her lover. Gold rimmed in hazel.

“Do you know that they call me a witch?” she hissed.

Sarah decided pretense was done with, and she nodded.

The woman—the witch—let go of Sarah’s wrist. “It isn’t a fairy tale,” the witch said. When she reached out again, this time she had a knife in hand—Sarah flinched, stumbling backward, but the witch just laughed.

“I’m not here to kill you, girl,” the witch said, “just to reap what’s been sown.” She grabbed Sarah’s arm and sliced a cut across her wrist, soft and shallow. Sarah’s blood dripped, hot and red, into the snow.

“Let all of your fruit born in winter be rotten,” the witch said. When she let go, Sarah fell, clutching her wrist.

The witch cut herself then, letting her own blood drop atop Sarah’s.

“I didn’t mean to,” Sarah said, then. She clamped her mouth closed. She wished the witch would cut her tongue out. “I didn’t do it.”

The witch stood, wrapping her bleeding wrist with a strip of cloth. Her anger seemed to have bled away, laid itself out on the white ground. She looked almost sad. Sarah watched as her eyes flicked toward the apple tree.

Andrew had dug a hole in autumn, planned to plant a tree by the house come spring for the children he was certain they would have. They dumped the body in first, put the tree on top of it. Cold soil from the barn. The tree wouldn’t survive the cold, sure. But for now it was serving its purpose.

“I don’t imagine you did,” the witch said.“But you started it, see?”

Sarah did.

 

She gets in her dead husband’s car. The keys are still in the ignition. She puts her knife, black with blood, in the passenger seat. When she looks into the rear view, to back out of the driveway, she’s surprised to find that her own eyes are still blue.

They match the sky.

It is a five-minute drive to her dead lover’s mother’s house. The witch still drives his truck, a red apple resting in the driveway. Sarah sits in Andrew’s truck for a moment, and she finds that she is the kind of angry that makes you a murderer.

She thinks of Elizabeth’s last words—I’m hungry.

Sarah is hungry.

The witch’s front door is not locked. She is sitting in front of a roaring fire, covered with blankets. Sarah’s hand clenches around the knife.

“Sarah,” the witch says, turning to look up at her.

Same white hair, same eyes. Sarah looks down at her and into the past. The witch stares into the fire. “Been waiting for you,” she says.

“You’ve reaped what I’ve sown,” Sarah says.

“Yes,” the witch says.

Sarah wrenches the old woman’s head backward, drags the knife across her throat. The blood that spurts is red—like her son’s was when Andrew sliced into him with the axe. The blood streams down the witch’s body, soaking her blankets. The woman makes a gurgling noise and Sarah can only think of her children, of the only good thing Andrew gave her.

She grabs the dead witch by the hair and hauls her out of the chair. The body thuds to the ground, vacant eyes watching as Sarah sits herself down. She watches the fire pop and sizzle, the knife still hanging in her hand. She knows the blade will rust but she can’t bring herself to clean it.

Something is digging into her thigh.

Sarah shifts in the chair, reaches into her pocket, and pulls out the bitten apple Elizabeth had handed her.

Its insides are white and crisp.

Something snaps in Sarah’s chest. The curse is over. She wonders if her children, dead in her house, are bleeding red instead of black. She wonders if she were to peel back their eyelids, she would find eyes the color of a summer sky.

The witch, on the floor beside Sarah, smells of shit and metal and blood. The fire is hot against her skin. She wonders if she should cry, but finds that there is nothing left.

Sarah takes a bite of the apple.

It tastes like fall.

pencil

Vanessa Levin-Pompetzki’s favorite thing to do is weave together imaginary worlds (often with magic), but she also frequents used bookstores and enjoys a good cup of tea. She lives in South Carolina with a very inconsiderate cat. She received second place in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal‘s A Midsummer Tale contest, won a mini-contest with On The Premises, and has been published with Twisted Sister Lit Mag. Email: v.levinpompetzki[at]gmail.com

Us, Alone

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Meredith Lindgren


Photo Credit: James Gates/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

The sky did not lie that morning, clouds covered it as some indecent warning of that which can never be prepared for in adequate fashion. They would turn the world white. They blanketed even the ground and hung down as if in some attempt to find reflection.

It was a year to the day since Amelia hadn’t lived.

Nick and I needed to go into town to get some supplies.

We could stay there. Or we could go right through.

We could go right through the next town and the next town and the next. We could go and never stop, but we won’t.

We’ll return to our one room cabin with a loft for the bed, open to the bottom floor. Separation, but no privacy, except the bathroom.

We almost expanded the place last year.

We started to.

The cats, Mittens and Boots, watched us from the window of the loft. They would not go outside again for days. Country life is sometimes simple, but never more so than city life.

Before we left for town, we cut as much wood as we could. More money for food. We broke down building supplies.

As the morning passed the sun did not come and the cold did not go, it worsened. The sun hid its place in the sky, dim and evenly dispersed, an indicator of day.

We piled the wood up next to the stove. It almost covered the door. If the weatherman was right, in a day’s time we wouldn’t be able to leave the house anyway. The birds and small animals skittered frantic, never far from their nests and holes.

We got into the car.

“Do you have the list?” Nick asked.

“Won’t matter,” I said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

It meant that the shelves would be picked. We would get what we could. The wood should have been cut the day before, the supplies acquired, but our mare, Joan, had begun to birth a foal. Though we had attended the birth and given it our best efforts and lost sleep, we lost them both. We should have done better.

Death comes in threes. Last year had been unseasonably warm. The first two deaths had been chickens, taken by coyotes. We didn’t talk about the third.

Amelia.

A year later, death had come again. Two down. No telling who the storm would take. I turned to Nick.

“It’s all up here,” I said. I pointed to my head and grinned.

“Can you tell me where it is in the house so I can go get it?”

“It’s also in my pocket,” I said.

“Can I see it?” he said.

I showed it to him.

He looked at it. “I don’t know why we had to do all that,” he said.

There was no reason. Numbness drove me. I felt none of the urgency I should have. This had been true for some time. My notice of it was occasional.

He started the car. “I love you,” he reminded us both without looking at me. He squeezed the steering wheel.

“I love you,” I said back.

I didn’t look at him. I looked at the day. I looked at the year. I looked away but it all looked the same.

The truck tried to make it up the hill. More and more the truck tried to make it places. It made a noise. Chunky, like everything fixed inside it had come loose.

It sputtered. Something tight contained, connected to the other noise in an indiscernible way. We ignored it because we didn’t have time for something like that.

The car hissed and steamed. It died.

Much as it could for something that had never been alive.

“Shit,” Nick said. He hit the steering wheel. CPR for cars, it never works. For CPR to work, you have to break ribs.

Cars have no heart or breath to start. No ribs to break. There were no numbers attached to their deaths. They die alone without envy of our threes.

We got out and looked under the hood.

“There’s a coolant leak,” he said. “We need to patch it and put in more coolant. Otherwise the engine will get too hot and will just run itself into oblivion.”

We were just between the general store and our home. Two miles in either direction.

We didn’t have any coolant or patches. He undid the stick that held the hood up. It slammed back into place. The first flakes fell onto it, melting with the heat left by the engine in some strange taunt.

We looked in both directions. The birds had not yet stopped their calls, beseeching nature not to run her course. More snowflakes were quick to follow.

“We won’t make it to the store and back,” I said.

“No. We won’t.”

He turned to walk home. I followed.

I had a hat with flaps, but my ears were numb within five minutes.

Don’t get me started on my nose.

I tried to walk up close with Nick, for warmth, but it was hard to keep up. He was walking as if trying to lose me.

By the time we got home the birds were silent. It had snowed four inches. About one every ten minutes. We started a fire. We stood in front of it. There was nothing to say. The fire popped and crackled. Boots and Mittens wound around our ankles.

We sat at our table and shared a can of chili for dinner. If all had gone as planned, we each would have gotten our own. He went up to the loft and there produced a bottle of whiskey from the depths of his bottom dresser drawer.

“I was saving this for the next storm,” he said.

“This storm.”

“Yup.”

It raged outside. The wind howled, stealing any other sounds.

I took a drink straight from the bottle. There was no reason to be fancy. It was warm in my chest, my blood coming alive.

“We should take a look at what we have,” I said.

“Won’t change anything,” he said.

“It will help us ration,” I said.

“That it’d do.”

He lifted the bottle, tilted it. It was less than half full.

“I might switch to the cheap stuff.”

“Smart,” I said. We were past the point of caring about quality.

He got the bottle I had known about from out of the cabinet. It was no fuller than the other. We would have picked more up at the store. Even with both, the whiskey wasn’t going to last us the storm.

“I might be okay for now,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

The electricity went out. A log cracked in the fire. We went to bed. To say we made love ignores the other feelings we made as our bodies worked and writhed in expression that may well have been meaningless for all it told us about each other.

I searched his face for my own feelings, but it was too dark.

A log cracked in the fire.

I searched his movements for my own and though he stirred inside me, the only feelings I could discern were my own.

Once done, we separated, some mystic push away from each other. We came back together for the warmth. Our limbs did not intertwine.

Weightless, I could feel our stillborn daughter between us. I had all year.

She had been fully formed and came out with my body’s leftover heat. Perfect. Nick hadn’t been gentle as he had pressed his two fingers into her chest, one’s not supposed to be for CPR to work.

It was hard to say if we had her in common anymore.

Two feet of snow kept the doors shut. Wind howled.

I listened to the absence of the steady gentle hum of electricity, sudden and noticeable when it was gone. The world was too unstill for it. Unsaid things moved around inside me like Amelia had. A light snore formed in Nick’s throat.

I woke to blank light and silence. Each lay upon the world, equally distributed across all surfaces. Snow fell onto itself. It reached past the sill, filling the window. The wind had ceased. The birds were silent. Nick was silent.

A silence beyond sleep.

I did CPR. I broke his ribs. I touched his heart, but not hard enough for it to start beating and bleeding and all the things it had done again.

I did nothing.

I started after he’d stopped making his own warmth. Like her, any heat he retained was borrowed from me.

At what point he died in the night, there’s no way for me to tell.

I tried to call emergency services. The lines were down. We didn’t have cellular phones. We lived beyond service.

I screamed. I cried. There was no witness to any of this. I realized that I had the luxury of unobserved grief. I could cry all day or not at all. I could say that either had occurred.

Upon this realization I stopped.

I started some breakfast for myself. I got the fire going with the embers left in the stove. Heat spread through the room.

I would need my strength to get Nick out of the bed. At some point I would need to lay down again. It was the only surface in the house for it and I wasn’t going to give it up for a corpse.

I ate plain oatmeal. We were out of butter and sugar. Each were things we had intended to get at the store.

I fed the cats the parts of Joan and her dead foal that we had had time to cut out and wrap up. Whether the hide and the bulk of the meat from either animal would be salvageable would be clear when the snow was gone.

When I was done, I went up to the loft. I put my hands under Nick’s armpits. I lifted to no avail. I got his head and shoulders less than an inch off the bed, even using all my strength. I collapsed onto my side.

He turned to me.

“Hello, handsome,” he said, just like the night we met.

“You’re dead,” I said.

I had not said that the night we met.

“Do dead men talk?” he said.

“No,” I said. I believed it at the time.

“Well then,” he said. “Let’s start over. Hello, handsome.”

All the gestures and facial expressions remained the same. The human mind is a wonderful thing. This conversation didn’t seem like something to do, but he repeated himself.

“Hello, handsome,” he said.

“Handsome, but I’m a girl,” I said again. It was what I said the night we met.

“It’s the golden rule,” he said. “Treat others as you want to be treated.”

“I do. Or, I do try,” I said. The first night I had just giggled.

“You shouldn’t lie to the dead,” he said. “We know.”

He went back to being dead. I no longer had anyone to talk to. It was a relief. Now I could get back to moving him.

I did not put my hands back under his armpits, but rather his shoulder and hip. I rolled him. He hit the ground with a great thud.

I lay across the bed.

It felt so normal. This was something I’d do after changing the sheets.

It felt so abnormal. Someone had died here just few minutes before. Minutes adding up to hours in all likelihood, but a blink in time however dissected.

I shifted so that all of me remained on my side.

I looked over to the empty space next to me. I could feel the inanimate nature of the body that lay just beyond my sight. Still I lay as time existed outside of me. The snow obscured any of the sun’s telling. It piled on and on in silence. Tears ran gentle down over my nose, outside my control and like all things without a sound.

It was only when I stopped that he sat up.

“Why did you let our daughter die?” he said. He had never been so straightforward as to come out and ask.

“Why did you?” I said. I had never been so straightforward as to come out and ask either.

“Me,” he said. “You were the one carrying her. What did I do?”

“You were never there for me. You were never there for us.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“You weren’t there for me,” I said. “For us.”

“Excuse me for trying to make some money so that I could support us. Besides, you’ve said as much before, but what more could I have done? Climbed in your skin and lived life for you?”

“Don’t be absurd.”

“No. You don’t be absurd. You’ve said I wasn’t there for you, but what more could I have done?”

“Something. You could have talked to me. Helped me when I was sick. Brought me food. That’s what you could have done. There’s an in between living life for me and what you did which made me feel alone. It made us feel alone.”

“She never got the chance to feel anything. And I wish I could have carried her inside me. I wouldn’t have been so proud. I wouldn’t have tried to do so much.”

I had continued to work a lot.

“Maybe I did do too much. Maybe I wouldn’t have had to if you hadn’t been hungover so much. You were always somewhere, drinking with your friends, leaving me alone. Us alone. She would have lived if I hadn’t felt so alone.”

He collapsed back to where he had been all along.

“What?” I said. “Don’t you have anything to say for yourself?”

He lay down again. There he was on the floor, broken ribs. Flat lack of breath or muscle tension.

I got up and changed the sheets. I wrapped him in the old ones.

I laid back and let the silence overtake me. The eeriness of the unexpected. I waited for him to speak again, but he didn’t. The snow kept falling. The hidden sun made for a day without time. I was hungry.

I made grilled cheese and soup. Warm food helped keep the house, body and soul warm. Something a person needed in a storm like this.

I started bleeding after lunch.

My period, right on time.

Part of me had hoped I wouldn’t, that some part of Nick would live on. This time his absence would be expected. That would make it tolerable.

Pads were something we would have bought at the store.

I didn’t worry about what Nick would think as I cut up a towel, our brown one that was fluffy and soft, but wasn’t as new as some of the others. I didn’t care about his judgement as I stuffed it in my underwear.

It would work fine.

The phone lines were still down.

I paced in the dim and sourceless light.

The plan had been to talk to each other and read. I picked up my book but couldn’t focus. Tears came again. They couldn’t last the possibility that this time they were not for him, but rather for myself.

I paced and paced at a steady pace, faster than the hours crawled on. Darkness came on. The wind started again, the snow did not stop. Nick could sense the evening.

“Are you going to sleep with me in here, like this?” he said.

“I don’t think I can.”

“Are you going to stay up all night? My mourning widow until morning?”

“Even sleepless mourning widows are removed from the body.”

“What next then? Are you going to push me down the ladder? Aren’t you afraid that I’ll break? Don’t you love me too much for that?”

Did I?

“You’re supposed to,” he said. “You can blame me all you want, but love goes far to keep things alive. I could never tell how much you loved anything.”

I dragged Nick by his feet. I stopped at the edge of the ladder.

The sheet had fallen off of him. I pushed him. He hit the rungs. His body hit the rungs. He was gone. The way it hit the floor was more solid.

I could never tell how much he loved things either and for a second, it was me that was dead and he was standing above me broken body that he had just pushed down the ladder. I was him and he was me. It was so vivid, it had to be true. It was nothing like the night before when he’d been separate inside me.

It passed. We were ourselves again. In our little home.

The outside world was so far away, it might as well have not existed. I continued to sit and watch him, lifeless. I looked down on him from above, bloating and bruising. His eyes were open. No more could I feel him watching me, either from above or below. Even though I wanted to believe in Heaven.

It was a grey dusk that came. And with it a hunger. And with it a girl. She was ten, an age Amelia had never reached, but I recognized her. There were his eyes, my hair, his chin, and my cheekbones.

His lips parted to say, “Why didn’t you want me?”

She was gone, but I said, “I did. What are you talking about?”

I went down the ladder and put the sheet back over Nick. I went to get the bottle of whiskey that would be my dinner. Not having to share anymore, I only needed the good stuff. Boots sniffed at the sheet.

“Boots, don’t,” I said. “Don’t, Kitty.”

But I didn’t move to stop her. I watched her sniff about.

“How long are you going to let her do that?” he said.

Boots moved to chew on his toes. I shooed her away. She would drift back and I would have to deter her again.

I put more of the cut-up towel into my panties.

I drank the rest of the bottle and passed out to her chewing noises.

It was dark when I woke. The cats were curled up, warm beside me. Out the window, I could stars in the sky. The clouds were gone, the snow had stopped.

I was hungry. I had to step over his body to make my stew. I had to put wood in the fire to keep it going.

While it heated I dragged Nick from the base of the ladder. I did not take him far. I didn’t want him in the kitchen area or too close to the stove. I lay him down by the window where he would stay cold. I ate.

“You could offer me some,” he said.

“There’s more,” I said.

He sulked.

“I could heat it up for you,” I said.

“Is the phone working yet?”

“What you don’t want to hang around the house with me? You think it’s boring to be expected to do nothing, to just sit there looking pretty?”

“You still think I’m pretty,” he said.

I’ll admit, though I didn’t when questioned, that did make me curious. I went over to the sheet and lifted it. Even in the dim light of the fire I could see, his blood had begun to pool as gravity dictated. I poked at his back.

“You have blood pooling,” I said.

“It happens,” he said. “It will happen to you.”

I didn’t tell him, but it wouldn’t happen to me like that. Whatever happened, I wouldn’t let it happen to me like that. Bones had broken in the fall. They floated around inside him, banging against his ribs. His skin was bruised.

“Only after I die,” I said.

“You don’t have to rub it in.”

I smiled.

“Do you think you’ll be blamed?” he said.

“I think I’ll be questioned. Blame must placed.”

“I want you to be blamed,” he said. “It’s your fault. You killed me.”

But I didn’t. I hadn’t. I turned to go upstairs. Amelia stood at the top, six, now.

“You told more than one person that you didn’t want children,” she said. “You told your best friend when you were my age. You told your first boyfriend. And your second. You told me.”

“I told you that you were changing my mind. By the time you were here I wanted you more than you can imagine.”

She turned into the sun which was rising.

I went back to bed. I laid down, hoping to get back to sleep. I didn’t want to be awake any more than I had to. The sun would be an unwelcome guest.

Though I couldn’t get back to sleep, I searched for a connection with widows who would stay up all night. Who reach for their absent husbands in the morning. I moved my hand across his pillow in motions I imagined they took.

His warmth would have been welcome. He was bigger than the cats. I had to go to the bathroom.

I cut off more of the towel. I threw what I had been using away. The cats had chewed the others, sucking out the juices and shredding the fabric. I picked up the pieces.

The snow filled the downstairs windows, dipping under its own weight in the middle. Light flowed from the loft.

The cat had bit Nick’s toe. It was red with blood, but it was not bleeding.

I went to the bathroom and cut up more of the towel.

When I came out, Nick turned to me and asked, “Would you have married me? If it hadn’t been for her? I’ve always wondered. When I do things right, sorry, did things right, it seemed like the answer was yes. But otherwise, I don’t know. It was pretty iffy.”

“I might have married you if I hadn’t gotten pregnant, but not when I did.”

This left him still and deflated.

I made myself a breakfast identical to what I had eaten the day previous. I had enough of yesterday’s lunch and dinner to do the same, but we would see.

Mittens rubbed against my leg. He looked up at me.

“You’re thinking of feeding me dry cat food, aren’t you?” he said. It was the first time he had ever spoke. “Don’t you ever want more,” he said. “I want more.”

I patted his head. I would give him some of Joan’s foal, so much like my own human child, when it came down to it. He had a point.

But first I would feed myself.

“I agree with the boy cat,” said Boots. “Sometimes I want more.”

“You may not forever,” I said to her agreeing with the boy cat.

She rubbed against my leg in the same way he did. One difference was that I was secure in the fact that she wouldn’t spray the walls. As though she could occupy a space, but did not need to own it. Lines did not need to be drawn.

Not in her mind.

She was naïve.

“You can have some of Joan’s foal,” I told her. “Both of you,” I told them.

Nick sat up under his sheet.

“You again,” I said. “I’m tired of you.”

“Sorry to be an inconvenience,” he said. “I’m curious about whether the phones are up again.”

They weren’t, nor did we have electricity. The storm was over, but I was still waiting.

“We’re still waiting,” he said.

“So we are,” I said. I ate in front of him. I didn’t offer him any.

I let the cats sniff my spoon. They did not eat any.

“You’re practically feral at that point,” my mother said.

“You’re not dead,” I said.

“The dead are easier to be haunted by. Anything we say might be something that you want to say to me, but can’t. That will occur to you in the future.”

She was right.

“I know I’m right,” she said. The first time one of them responded to my unsaid thoughts.

To ignore them was to ignore my own mind. There was silence from all of them with this revelation.

The cold white world provided no supplement. All life beneath the placid surface. Death which would not be found in nooks and crannies picked by animals that had wanted nothing more than to survive the storm.

Inside was the home where I did the same. The dead man in the corner. The ghosts dissipated. Silent cats padding along, searching in corners for food until I would give them some.

I looked up as if I was a small animal waiting for food to be delivered. Rather than becoming accustomed to the quiet, it grew. It seeped in through my eyes, nose, mouth and ears. It exploded in my mind.

They all came back again.

“If you had wanted me more, I would have lived,” Amelia said, though she was a baby now. Too young to be talking.

“See, even she agrees,” Nick said.

“It might be for the best,” Boots said. “You can’t even feed your animals on time.”

I got my coat.

“Plus, it seems awful, this predicament you’re in,” my mother said. “But with the grades you got and your basic looks, this may be as good as it gets for you. Although you do need to find another man, as soon as you can. And for the love of God, keep the baby alive this time.”

I got my boots and snowshoes.

I opened the door to the outside. Snow piled in. I would have to dig my way out. They would talk to me the whole time. They were talking as the snow fell in.

“Great, now we’re all going to die,” Mittens said.

“I don’t mind,” Nick said. “It will preserve me. In certain cultures, you would have been expected to throw yourself on my pyre in mourning. This works, though.”

“What kind of mother are you?” Amelia said.

“The kind that would kill her own mother,” my mother said.

“You’re not even here,” I said.

I went up the ladder to the loft. I looked out the window. The drop was about six feet from the sill. How bad it would be would depend on the density of the snow.

“If I was here, you’d find a way to kill me,” my mother said.

The drop would be fine. I emptied the cash out of Nick’s wallet and put it in my own.

“Now you’re robbing me,” he said. “My mom was right.”

His mom was always so nice. What did she say about me?

It was all in my mind.

It wouldn’t stop.

It was all in my mind.

It was all my mind had made out of something.

I lifted one leg and then the other out of the window. I sat on the edge. Only my bottom was still inside. There was no heat to the day. I hopped down. I sunk about a foot into the snow.

I stepped out from the cavity I created, up onto the surface of the snow. Even with the snowshoes I sank into it with every step, but kept walking. They called to me from the window.

Taunts and apologies.

There was no one to hear them.

The world was bright in a way that had to be witnessed. Brightness like that could not be imagined. I would be snow blind the following day, but that was okay. In town they would have been plowing the roads until they couldn’t. They would have started again as soon as possible.

I wouldn’t need to see to take the next bus out of there. I would take it to the next town. To the next town then the next.

Even far into the white that I hoped was the road, I could still hear them yelling from the cabin.pencil

Meredith Lindgren graduated Summa Cum Laude from Metropolitan State University of Denver in Colorado with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. She has worked as a childcare worker, a radio co-host and currently an appointment setter. When she is not setting appointments, she spends her time talking herself out of secluded cabins in the woods. A previous Three Cheers and a Tiger Winner, her work has appeared in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal and Subprimal Poetry Art. Email: suavegossamer[at]yahoo.com

Helping Hands Retreat

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Red Lagoe


Photo Credit: Antony Theobald/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Clouds of dust lifted from the concrete and swirled in the red glow of Sarah’s tail lights as her car crept down the broken pavement leading to the retreat. After an entire day on the road, with a watchful eye on her rearview mirror, she was still not confident that Wade was not following her. Trees and thick shrubbery lined the narrowing road, and a deep ditch on each side made it too difficult to turn around to go back.

As her stomach grumbled and fear of being lost began to creep in, her headlights revealed a chain link fence stretched across the road. The gate was wide open for her to drive through, but she let the car roll to a stop. An aged plank board sign sat off the side of the road with white block letters that read: “Helping Hands Recovery Retreat.”

She released her breath in relief and drove through. The road became gravel and the trees and shrubbery cleared into an open field of weeds, so far as her headlights could see.

A clopping sound came from behind and Sarah pressed on the brake to come to an abrupt stop. It was the sound of galloping hooves. She twisted around in her seat and spotted the silhouette of a large man on horseback. He climbed off his steed and hurried to the gate to close it behind her.

Her heart sped up. She couldn’t see his face, but could feel the icy glare coming from the dark outline of the man as she pulled her car away from him toward the welcoming light of two houses.

As Sarah bounced her focus from the man behind her to the houses in front of her, a paunchy woman in a purple winter coat came from one of the rustic structures and walked up to her car. Sarah rolled down the window.

“Welcome to the Helping Hands Retreat, dear.” She oozed with kindness and gentility.

“I don’t know if I’m in the right place—”

“Of course you are.” Her voice was sugar-sweet and comforting.

“I had a brochure for Helping Hands Retreat, but this doesn’t look like—”

“You need help,” the round-faced woman said. “A chance to get back on your feet. To start over, right?”

“Something like that—” Sarah was on guard and reluctant to trust this woman. She was reluctant to trust anyone.

“That’s what we do, dear. You’re in the right place. Come in. You just missed dinner, but we can get you a room for the night if that might help.” She interlaced her white-gloved fingers and held her hands near her heart.

Sarah, exhausted from an entire day on the road, and needing shelter from Wade for the evening, brushed her skepticism away and accepted the woman’s offer, whether she was in the right place or not. “That would be wonderful,” Sarah said.

“I’m Mary,” the woman smiled.

The premises were not as upscale as they appeared in the brochure, but Sarah didn’t care. Perhaps it looked better in the daylight. She followed the small waddling woman to the steps on a simple rectangular house. Each of the three steps crepitated beneath her feet as she climbed to the entrance.

There was no time to pack a bag when she left home that afternoon, so Sarah arrived at the retreat empty-handed. The cool mid-November air chilled her skin, and reminded her of the bruises that Wade left on her arms. He would find her soon. He always had a way of finding out where she was.

*

Mary left Sarah in room number four, gave her a key to the room, and a welcome package complete with a fresh towel, toothbrush, toiletries, and a set of hat and gloves to keep warm. The package gave her a feeling of indignity—like a homeless person—but that’s what she was now. Eight rooms stretched along one side of the hallway inside, similar to a hotel. On the opposite side of the hall was a shared bathroom and a common room, but all of the guests had retired for the evening. Strange to Sarah, considering it was only seven o’clock, but she was so thankful to be away, that she washed up and retreated to her room for the evening without any questions.

The room was drafty and cold, and the gentle sobbing of a woman could be heard through the wall.

The soft blue glow of moonlight seeped in from behind the curtain of her private room, exposing shadowy lines—bars on the windows. A further peer into the darkness outside the window revealed a large open field fully illuminated by the moon. It was at least thirty acres to the edge of the property where the fence laid. Plenty of room for the horseback riding that she had seen on the brochure.

As she dreamed about her potential new life, she felt it again—an icy stare. Eyes watching her. She tried to shrug it off as paranoia about Wade following her, but it persisted. She closed her curtains and walked barefoot across the creaking wooden floors and froze in the middle of the room. The feeling was still there. From under her right foot, she could feel a gentle upward pressure from underneath the floorboard, then a swift sound of scuffing below. Sarah gasped and jumped to her bed, staring down at the floorboards as the clunking, slithery sound from under her room waned. Her blood pumped through her veins so hard, she felt sick to her stomach.

“Hey!” Sarah said toward the floor then leapt from the safety of her bed to run to the window. A shadow, consistent with the shape of a person, darted out of view around the side of the house.

“Did anyone see that?” Sarah said through the walls, but there was no reply.

Screaming began only a moment later. The deep, throaty voice of a man that sounded like it belonged to a giant, was crackling and crying out from somewhere outside the house.

Sarah shoved her feet into her shoes and left her room, then crept down the empty hallway to the outside door, and gripped the knob. It wouldn’t turn.

“Hello?” She spoke with a firm voice, while she held the door knob within her shaking palm. She shook it harder, but it was locked from the outside.

Sarah backed away from the door as the realization of the surrounding danger kicked in. It was a familiar feeling. It was the feeling she got before Wade would go into a rampage. Her vision would tunnel, her heart would throb harder, and she would become still as she awaited his outburst. But nothing came.

She went back to her room, trembling with fear, and then climbed into the bed awaiting her fate.

*

In the morning, sideways light from the rising sun glared through her window and through the lattice woodwork on the crawlspace beneath the house. She peeked through the cracks of the floorboards to see the dusty brown earth below, and enough room down there for a grown man to crawl underneath.

“Coyotes,” Mary said when Sarah asked her about it, standing in the doorway of her room.

“I didn’t see any paw prints,” Sarah cut herself off from the argument, and jumped to her next concern, hoping to inquire without setting off any red flags. “Mary, is everyone here okay? I thought I heard someone screaming last night.”

“Honey,” she leaned in closer. “I’m not gonna lie. The people that come here have problems. They got demons to work out, and sometimes those demons get the best of them. That’s why we have bars on the windows and such.”

“So there are dangerous people here?” Sarah watched as those people passed by her to exit the house. Most kept their heads down and didn’t look, but one gray-haired woman peeked from under her silvery strands to give her a glance.

Mary continued. “Everyone that’s here has got their sins they gotta atone for.”

“I’m not here because I sinned.”

“You don’t sin?” Mary smiled.

“I…” Sarah was careful with her choice of words. “I’m here because I’m escaping an abusive relationship. I thought that’s what this place was.”

“I see.” Mary shifted her weight and tilted her head. “You poor dear.”

“Am I in the wrong place?”

“Of course not. You see… you escaped a horrible man, didn’t you? But to do that, what did you have to do? You cleaned out the bank account maybe? Took his car?”

“But there was no other way. How did you know—?”

“It’s my job to know. Come now.” Mary guided Sarah outside into the cold dry air. Her tiny gloved hand pressed between Sarah’s shoulder blades to direct her to the next building.

“Where’s my car?” Sarah asked, crossing her bare arms to keep warm.

“Well that wasn’t your car, was it?” Mary smiled. “It was Wade’s car.”

Sarah’s blood turned cold at the sound of his name and her survival instincts kicked in with the new looming threat. Though she wasn’t sure what was going on, she knew how to protect herself from unpredictable people. Until she could figure out what to do, she would keep her head down and be compliant, like she had done with Wade for all those years.

She entered a cafeteria space with a wood stove in the corner that did not generate enough heat to keep the drafty old building warm. Five guests were already seated and eating at the two round tables. They were still wearing winter hats and mittens while they shoveled the food into their mouths without exchanging words. Sarah, with Mary still perched beside her, approached the breakfast bar and was scooped a meager pile of scrambled eggs by the gray-haired woman. She was wearing green latex-free gloves and a hair net. She looked to Mary, then back to Sarah.

“This is all part of it,” Mary said. “We all do our part to be helpful in our community. Helping hands…”

“Are clean hands,” the gray-haired woman muttered the words in a reflexive way.

“Thank you,” Sarah said and sat at a table with three others.

A man with spiky black hair poking out from under his hat and weeks’ worth of beard growth rocked in his seat across from her. He kept his hands tucked between his knees and his eyes on the pile of rubbery yellow eggs before him. His gaze broke from the eggs when Sarah sat down, and he stared at her pale and bruised hands.

“Sh-sh-she didn’t wash her hands!” He backed away from the table with his hands tucked into his armpits. He stood up, looking around the room in a panic, “She didn’t wash her hands!”

“I washed them,” Sarah insisted.

“Now, Jacob,” Mary approached him from behind.

“It’s not fair!” He yelled with spit strung between his lips.

Sarah looked around the room as the other guests stared at her. “I washed them—”

“Jacob!” Mary raised her voice and lowered it as soon as he took his seat. “Don’t worry about when she washes her hands. They’ll get washed after we do our chores for the day, because helping hands—”

“—are clean hands.” Six voices from around the room said it in consonance.

*

After breakfast, Sarah was given a thick flannel work shirt and a pair of heavy duty work gloves. “Come on, dear,” Mary said, and led her outside where the other six other guests of the retreat were pulling weeds along the entrance road.

A large man on the back of a brown-and-white horse sat near the entrance with his arms crossed and a shotgun slung over his shoulder. All of the guests were wearing the same black-and-red flannel that Sarah had on. She pulled weeds and piled them neatly into a wheelbarrow, and caught the gray-haired woman staring at her. Her large round eyes were backlit with urgency. Some warning hid in the intense glare, but her lips remained shut.

Sarah continued to keep her head down, pulling weeds with the others, hour after hour, wondering what was going on, and how she was going to get out of this place without incident.

Her nose turned pink, and her fingers numbed from the icy air, so Sarah removed her work gloves and rubbed her hands together. The motion caught the attention of the woman with gray hair, and she watched as Sarah blew warm, moist air onto her skin.

Mary was burying tulip bulbs into the earth near the buildings, when she broke the silence to cry out, “Tom!”

The man on the horse looked in her direction, squinting to see her pointing to the westward wall of perimeter fencing. A coyote was pacing at the fence line.

Tom nudged the horse with his heel and trotted off the gravel road, away from the open gate, and took aim at the coyote in the distance. It was too far, so he edged closer, and took aim again.

As he did, the man with the black spiky hair shifted his twitchy eyes back and forth, then darted toward the gate. Dust kicked up behind his boots as he sprinted along the gravel, unnoticed by Tom and Mary. They were both focused on the coyote, but the guests and Sarah swung their attention back and forth between the running black-haired man and the man with the gun. It seemed like a smart idea—to run—but Sarah knew better. There was nowhere to run to, not with a man on horseback and a gun nearby. She knelt down and went back to picking weeds, waiting for her opportunity, while the black-haired man escaped the open gate.

The shot gun fired, blasting up a chunk of dirt at the coyote’s feet, scaring the critter away.

“Damn,” Tom shouted, disappointed with his miss.

“Tom!” Mary yelled again, this time pointing toward the runner, and Tom spun his horse around to chase him down.

Everyone was staring as that horse closed in on his pursuit, but Mary redirected them.

“Come on folks,” Mary said, “I think that’s enough of that for today. Let’s go back to your rooms for a while.” She gestured for them to follow her as Tom chased the black-haired man into the woods outside the gates.

Sarah got in line with everyone else and walked back to her room, concealing the terror within. The gray-haired woman went into room three, next door, still with grave warning in her eyes.

Sarah paced her room until the sound of a gunshot in the distance, and a bullet cutting through the air, made her freeze mid-step. Her feet were heavy on the floor, like gravity could yank her through the wooden planks.

Sarah dropped to the floor to inspect the wood and the cracks between. They were old boards that bowed under the weight of her feet, and the rusty nails that held them in place were eroding in their holes. She pried on a board where it appeared to be weakest, and the edge lifted up.

Her fingers would not fit between the spaces to get enough torque on it, so Sarah dug into her welcome basket of supplies and used her toothbrush for some leverage. She wedged the board upward, and the nail came with it, wiggling out of place with minimal effort. She got to work on the second board—three would be enough for her frame to squeeze through. The boards came loose and she stuck her head into the space beneath the house. It was still too light outside to make a run for it. She needed to run under the cloak of nightfall.

She was sick to her stomach and her instincts told her to run—to get out, but she had to be smarter. It had to be the right time. She placed the boards back into position and waited impatiently on her bed as the daylight lingered. There was a knock at her door.

“Sarah, dear?” The soft voice was absorbed by the old wooden door of her room.

“Yes?” she asked, as casual as possible.

Mary opened her door and Sarah stood to greet her.

“What a day, huh?” Mary smiled and stepped one foot inside her door. “I want you to know that Mr. Lewis is alright now. Tom caught up with him and he’s resting in his room now.”

“I thought I heard—”

“The gunshot, right?” Mary rolled her eyes. “Coyote. There’s been some with rabies reported in these parts. Tom saw another one and took a shot. Poor Mr. Lewis could have been seriously hurt out there.”

“Mary, may I ask—” Sarah kept a kind, respectful voice.

She unclasped her white-gloved fingers and spread her arms apart as if she were an open book.

“Why wasn’t he allowed to go?”

“Mr. Lewis was a violent sex offender before he came here. We can’t let people wander off. They are in our care.”

“So, what about me?”

Mary took a step back and folded her hands back together. “You?”

“I’m not violent. I’m not a danger—”

“But you’re not perfect.” Mary’s voice lowered and her face dropped with an earnest message. “Everyone thinks they don’t sin.”

“I don’t think that,” Sarah argued, “but I don’t deserve to be imprisoned.”

“You don’t deserve…” she laughed. “It’s not about what you deserve. It’s about cleansing our hands of our sins and becoming a better community in the process, because helping hands…” She paused and waited for Sarah to reply.

Sarah hesitated, but did as expected. “Are clean hands?”

“That’s right. Dinner is at six o’clock. Tom and I will stop by for hand-washing just before that.”

“Hand-washing?”

“Hush now. It’s been a long day.” Mary left.

The sun set at five o’clock and Sarah sat against the wall on her bed and waited for the sky to darken.

“Don’t worry,” a voice made its way through the wall from the adjoining room number three. It was the gray-haired woman.

Sarah got to her knees, palms and ear to the wall to listen.

“It hurts bad the first time, but you get used to it,” she said.

“What?”

“It hurts. It still hurts. Just don’t run and don’t fight.”

Don’t run. Don’t fight. Sarah had spent too many years enduring attacks from Wade. Fight or flight should be a natural instinct, but instead she cowered and stayed, for far too long. She couldn’t do it anymore. She was determined to run this time—or to fight if she had to.

“He watches us from under the house.” The gray-haired woman was solemn and desperate.

“Who?”

“Tom.” Her nervous breathing could be heard through the wall. “He comes after dinner and tries to watch us undress. When he gets caught, he gets his hands washed.”

While the gray-haired woman talked, Sarah knelt down to remove the loose planks from the floor. Twilight was darkening and the moon was rising in the east above the tree line. Heavy feet clomped on the stairs out front—two sets of feet—and Sarah lowered her body into the crawlspace with her only chance to run. She returned the planks to their position, haphazardly, and crawled toward the open latticed board at the edge of the house. The front door opened and Tom and Mary could be heard walking down the hall.

Sarah crawled out from under the house and crouched down to be sure to stay out of sight, but curiosity and the light from room number one, drew her to investigate. The curtains were almost shut, leaving a two-inch gap that allowed a strip of light to escape from the window and onto the ground. Sarah peeked inside, adjusting her position with precision over the gap to see part of Tom’s body standing in the room. A five-gallon bucket was placed on the floor and the guest in room one removed his work gloves to expose a set of raw, burned hands. They were pink and shriveled.

He trembled, with tears escaping his eyes, as Tom held his forearms and Mary placed a cloth in his mouth. He chomped down on the fabric as Tom forced his hands in. The bucket sizzled and bubbled while the man in room one screamed through the cloth between his teeth. The acid ripped through his flesh and splattered onto the floor, hissing. Sarah backed away from the window, and for a brief moment, she considered performing a heroic rescue—rushing inside and fighting them off, or perhaps she could find Tom’s gun and…

Instead, she ran. She sprinted across the blue moonlit field toward the entrance gate that was wide open. She would come back with help. The cold air sliced through her lungs as she made her way off the property and down the beaten old road. It was at least two miles to the next road, if she remembered correctly. Get help—she chanted under her breath, and with each step, she pushed harder and faster.

In the distance, there was a set of headlights, but the ephemeral beacon of hope vanished when Sarah considered that the driver of that vehicle may someone that couldn’t be trusted. She darted off the road, into the ditch, and took cover in the thorny brush, as a pickup truck blasted by, music thumping, heading toward the retreat.

Sarah had never been so terrified, not even when she was with Wade. Not even when he had held her by the throat, threatening her life. Sarah pressed forward, and after several minutes, her run slowed to a jog, and she wondered at what point she’d hear the sound of hooves galloping up behind her. But she never heard them.

 

The man in the pickup truck left his music blasting as he pulled through the gate of the Helping Hands Retreat.

“What the hell?” He said as a little woman shuffled out of the house toward his vehicle. Tom stood in the doorway, holding the five-gallon bucket, as moaning sounds of pain poured out behind him.

“Welcome!” she said.

“I’m looking for my wife.” The man scowled.

“Are you now? You must mean Sarah.” Mary smiled. “She’s inside. We’ve been taking good care of her.”

“Have you now?” His arrogance and belligerence was transparent. “Did you know she took off with my car?” Wade got out of the truck and put his hands in his pockets while Mary guided him toward the house.

“Come. You’re just in time for dinner. Let’s wash your hands.”

pencil

Red Lagoe graduated from Cazenovia College in 2001, but did not pursue her passion for writing until a decade later. In 2011, she gave up the nine-to-five life, and pursued her passion for writing by creating her first children’s book, Drips. Since then, her non-fiction article has appeared in the astronomy publication Reflector. When Red is not entertaining her kids, she can be found stargazing or writing. She is exploring a variety of genres including speculative fiction, horror, thriller—and even some romance—by writing novels and short stories. Email: redlagoe[at]gmail.com

The Dead of Winter

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Catherine J. Link


Photo Credit: 一帆 尹/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

William Savage rode ahead of the covered wagon on his favorite stallion. He liked the way he looked on the back of the shiny black horse. Part Friesian, part Arabian, the horse was strong and tall. He had named him Destrier, and felt like one of the knights of old as he blazed trail. His fantasies kept him from getting bored and from getting discouraged.

He’d had a massive covered wagon built for his family. It had two stories. A lower section for storage of food, clothing, and valuables. An upper berth for sleeping, and a back porch where the servant could churn butter and prepare food on a sheet iron stove. The wagon was so heavy, it had to be pulled by four yoke of oxen.

The man who’d built the wagon for him had a reputation for being hot tempered and dangerous. His mother had come from the depths of the woods along the Rappahannock river. She was a witch, people said. The morning they left, she had come to cast a protective spell over the wagon. The sight of the hag frightened Savage’s wife, Mildred.

“You’re gonna need this magic,” she’d said to him. She was ancient, nearly bald, wrinkled, with no teeth, and she smelled of some kind of strange herbs. “You’re a fool. No one takes his family west this time of year. You’re gonna need protection more than most.”

Savage shoved her away from the wagon, causing her to fall in the dirt. “I’d be a fool if I believed in your hocus pocus. Get the hell away from here.”

Her son charged at Savage, ready to kill him, but his mother pushed him along down the street. “Never you mind, boy,” she said. “I’ll handle this.” She gave the wagon the evil eye and spit on it.

“We won’t be seeing them no more.” Then she cackled, sounding completely insane.

Savage didn’t want to go west. He had to. He’d gambled his fortune away, and part of his wife’s, and now he was running from unpaid debts. After paying the wagon builder, nearly all the money was gone. He had to leave town before someone killed him, and before his wife found out what he had done.

Keeping the over-burdened wagon in sight behind him, Savage blazed the trail in front. It was hard going, and the weather had thwarted him every step of the way. He often lost sight of the trail, especially when parts of it were obscured by blankets of snow. He had studied the map so often, he should have memorized it by now, but he didn’t and so edges of the map were starting to tear, even dissolve, in his hands.

There had been too many delays. He wanted to be in California before the dead of winter, but it did not happen. They were moving slowly, plagued by one disaster after another. Broken wheels, collapsed springs, sick animals, and then Millie had the baby early. She nearly died, and needed a doctor’s care for several weeks.

At least we’re moving now, he thought, but when he looked behind him again, the wagon was at a standstill once more.

“Damn it all, Ben. What the hell is wrong now?”

Ben FitzJarrell was his hired hand. He sat next to William’s young wife. She looked miserable in the wind driven snow. Mildred was embarrassed by her husband’s habitual rudeness.

“Don’t shout at Ben. It’s not his fault we’re lost,” she said.

“I never said we was lost, Mr. Savage. It’s the oxen. They don’t pull together,” Ben said. “Who ever trained these here animals for ya’ll didn’t know what they was doing.”

“Mr. Parker and I trained these animals,” he said smugly. “What, in your illustrious opinion, is wrong with them?”

“They don’t seem to understand commands, and they don’t pull together. A couple of ’em wanna go their own way instead of following behind.”

“It’s not them, it’s you,” William said. “You need to shout so they hear you. Let them know you’re the boss. Lay into the goad if you have to.”

“Being mean ain’t the same thing as being boss,” Ben muttered under his breath.

“We’ll be coming to a small town up ahead. Copper Ridge,” William told his driver. “We can spend the night there, and continue on in the morning.”

“Good,” Mildred said, sounding hopeful. “You can ask if we’re going in the right direction.”

The snow got worse before evening. By the time they made it to the shabby mining town, Mildred’s hands and face were nearly frozen. She wept silently, clutching their month-old son to her breasts, trying to keep him warm. Ben’s wife, Lollie, was hunkered down in the back under a layer of blankets, weak from a miscarriage. Mildred’s father, Quilla Parker, was staring off into space, hardly breathing.

“Are you all right, Papa?” Mildred asked him. He grunted once, letting her know he was still alive. Since his stroke a few weeks back, all he could do was grunt.

They pulled up to a building that looked like a stiff wind could knock over. It had a sign in one small filthy window, barely visible behind grime and ice. “Boarding House.”

William ran up to the door, and knocked. A wrinkled old woman smoking a pipe answered. They chatted for a moment and he came back with a smile. “Hot food and a warm bed for the night,” he said. “Mildred, you and Lollie go in. Papa, Ben, and I will take care of the team.”

When they entered the drab house, warmth enveloped them like a hot westerly wind. It was wonderful, but it hurt all the same. It stung nerves that had been frozen into numbness. Lollie was barely able to stand.

“Let’s get this young ‘un to a bed,” the old woman said. She looked at the infant in Mildred’s arms. “That her baby?”

“This is my son, Sampson,” Mildred said. “She lost hers. How did you know?”

“I wasn’t always this old,” the woman replied sharply. “I had some babies in my time. Lost a few, too. I know what it looks like, having seen it on my own face.”

Mildred took Lollie into a sparsely furnished room and made her get into bed. She laid Sampson in the bed with her. She went into the bedroom she would share with her husband and laid out some night clothes. She looked around at the crude furniture, the whitewashed walls, the uncarpeted floor, wondering where the baby would sleep.

“No fancy cradles this town,” the old woman said in what seemed like a rebuke. She was carrying hot soup and sandwiches on a tray. “You’ll have to tuck him in a dresser drawer like everyone else in Copper Ridge does. We’re not very refined in these here parts.”

“A drawer will be fine,” Mildred said.

She crawled into bed and waited for her husband. A few minutes later Savage entered the room, dripping melted snow.

“We found a livery stable just down the road. Papa’s staying there with the team.”

“He should have a bed, and some warm food,” Mildred said angrily. “You shouldn’t have left him there.”

“Someone has to stay with the animals and our belongings,” he said to her, defensive. “I’ve been in the saddle all day. Besides, he wanted to do it. His way of paying for the free ride.”

“He’s my father,” Mildred said sharply, “He does not not have to pay for anything. Remember that, William. I brought a fortune and a respected family name into this marriage.”

“Of course my dear. I simply meant that you dote on him too much, Millie,” Savage said. “He’s old, and he won’t be around much longer. I don’t want to see you hurt when that happens.”

He bent to kiss her lips. She turned away from him.

“Get Sampson out of that thing,” Savage said, venting his anger elsewhere. “No son of mine sleeps in a drawer.”

The morning came and they were on the road again. Mildred was furious with her husband.

“Ask for directions,” she’d told him while they were still at the boarding house. “I don’t think we’re going the right way.”

“See this,” he’d held the slowly melting map directly in her face, nearly hitting her nose with it. “This is a map made by Hastings himself. I watched him draw it. It goes from the Midwest to California. I don’t need to ask for directions.”

“Ask for directions,” she said insistently, knocking the map away from her. “The next time you shove that in my face, I’ll rip it to shreds.”

Lollie came out of the house carrying Sampson.

“I’ll take him,” Mildred said.

“I’d like to hold him a while,” Lollie said weakly. “It feels good to hold him.”

“Of course, dear,” Mildred said. “You can sit up on the seat with Ben and me. There’s plenty of room for three.”

The snow had stopped. There was a bright sun out this morning. The wind was cold, but the sun brought a much needed cheerfulness to their trip.

Nearly four miles from town, Mildred noticed Savage looking confused. He studied the map drawn by Lansford Hastings, then rode his black horse away from the trail to the left. Then he rode to the right. He looked at the sun, scanned a small book, The Emigrant’s Guide to California, also written by Hastings, then he looked at the map again.

He rode back to the wagon.

“We are going to turn here,” he said. “Hastings wrote that this road is an acceptable detour during winter. The snow is minimal along this part of the state and the Indians don’t bother emigrants.”

Ben had a doubting look on his face. “I don’t know, Mr. Savage…”

“I do know, and we are turning here,” he said stubbornly.

“Did you ask for directions?” Mildred asked him.

“See this map, this book?”

“Just answer my question,” Mildred said. “Did you ask for directions?”

“No, I did not. I’ve never gotten us lost before, and I won’t this time,” he replied. “Would you please learn to trust me.”

Savage rode up ahead, leading the way.

“Don’t fret, Mrs. Savage. It don’t matter much which way we go,” Lollie said.

“It matters very much,” Mildred said. “A wrong turn and we’ll be lost.”

“It don’t matter,” Lollie said, holding little Sampson on her lap, staring at his small face and balled up fists. She played with his fingers.

“Why do you say that?”

“We’re in the hands of fate. Your baby is alive, mine is dead. Who knows what tomorrow will bring, or who will still be alive to see it. We all have our fates to suffer.”

Weeks later they found themselves in the mountains. One day seemed very much like the next.

They lost the sun about midday. The clouds darkened and rain began to fall. Soon the rain turned to snow and wind made the snow dance in flurries. Savage was in a panic. He could no longer find the trail; landmarks on Hastings’ map were no where to be seen. The mountains were getting steeper and it was getting colder by the minute. He rode back to the wagon.

“Are we lost?” Mildred called to him.

“We’re stuck in a snow storm,” he said. “We should wait it out. Let’s make camp.”

“Where we gonna camp, Mr. Savage?” Ben asked, shouting to be heard over the wind. “Ain’t no good shelter around here.”

“True,” he said, looking around at the terrain. “Let’s go on till we find a good campsite.”

The snow fell in a thick sheet of white. It was almost impossible to see where they were going. William Savage tied his stallion to the wagon, and he rode now on the seat next to Ben. He had his wife take the baby in the back and crawl beneath the blankets, sharing body heat with her father and Lollie.

“I think we’re lost, Mr. Savage,” Ben said.

“We are not lost, goddamn it!” Savage yelled.

Suddenly, something charged the wagon. Obscured by the heavy snowfall, and the gloom of dusk, it was hard to see. It stood on its hind legs, taking a swipe at the lead oxen. The injured animal groaned with pain and fought the yoke, trying to flee. Ben shouted for the team to turn, “Haw! Haw!”

Then the creature attacked the wagon, roaring loudly and taking swipes at Ben with one huge paw. Claws raked down the man’s leg, opening him from knee to ankle. He screamed in agony. Savage shot at the creature with his pistol. It was so close, he could not have missed. It ran off toward the tree line.

“What was that?” Ben asked.

“It must have been a grizzly bear,” Savage replied. “You’re bleeding badly.”

“That was no bear like I ever saw before,” Ben said. “Did you see its eyes? They glowed like hot coals.”

Savage did not answer. He turned the wagon and headed for some boulders. It was a windbreak, and would have to do for the night. They made a fire in the small stove in the back of the wagon. Savage made Ben lay down as he examined the leg. It was sliced open down to the bone.

“He needs a doctor, Mr. Savage,” Lollie said.

“Papa can sew him up,” Mildred said. “He’s done it before.”

“We can wrap some bandages around it to slow the bleeding, then we can head out again at first light,” Savage added.

It was impossible to sleep. Cold tortured them mercilessly. Ben shivered with pain and chills, while the women huddled around the wailing babe, trying in vain to keep him warm. The old man stared at his son-in-law with hatred in his eyes. Savage stared back at him, knowing that the old man knew why he’d needed to run, and that he was to blame for them being here, lost in the mountains.

Savage had managed to doze off sometime in the night, but then a roar filled his ears. Something was right outside the wagon, only a thickness of the canvas away from his head. He grabbed his rifle and opened the front flap.

The bear had returned. Was it a bear? He wondered at what he saw. It stood on its hind legs, walking like a man. Its eyes glowed red in the night; its sharp teeth flashed like a demon smiling and it screamed in fury as it attacked the oxen. It clawed at one, relentlessly hacking at its hind quarters. It ripped off a leg and a haunch, and stood up in a victorious pose, holding the meat above its head. Then it ran off, leaving a trail of gore on the ground.

“Shut up!” he yelled at the screaming women, and when they hushed, he could hear a roar from somewhere in the darkness.

Ben bled to death in the night. The ground was too hard to dig, so they made a cairn for him out of stones, using the sheets he had bled in for his shroud.

“I wish we could do more, Lollie,” Mildred said.

“He’d still be dead, so what good would it do?” Lollie replied.

Savage and Parker rearranged the oxen in the yoke, replacing the lead animal. When they went to cut meat from the mutilated carcass, they found almost nothing of the animal left. It had been taken in the night.

They traveled west for a few hours, and, finding an area where the oxen could graze, they decided to stop. The under-fed animals needed rest and food.

“This is a pretty spot,” Mildred said. “Where are we?”

Savage studied the map, trying to make sense out of the landmarks, but the truth was he had no idea where they were. This river wasn’t even on Hastings’ map.

“Looking at these mountains, we must be in California, and probably have been for a long time,” he said.

“Are we going over more mountains, Mr. Savage?” Lollie asked.

“Yes, we just follow the map,” he said with confidence that he did not feel. “And if we don’t get snow tonight, then we should have an easy day tomorrow.”

Lollie awoke just before sun up and crawled out of the wagon.

Her screams cut through the silence, jolting Savage awake. He grabbed his rifle and leaped from the wagon.

“What is it?” he asked, “What do you see?”

All Lollie could do was scream and point. There on a large rock was the head of her dead husband. It had been torn from his body. Strewn around the boulder was shredded clothing and bones. His bones. The meat had been gnawed away and the larger bones had been cracked and sucked dry of marrow.

The women cried in horror and his father-in-law stared in terrified silence.

“The bear did this,” Savage said, knowing that was a lie. He looked at Parker, who was slowly shaking his head. “Yes, the bear did this. Let’s get him re-buried.”

“Leave him where he lay,” Lollie said. “They’d just do it again.”

“They?” Mildred asked. “Who do you think did this?”

“Demons,” Lollie answered, almost matter-of-factly. “The old witch gave us the evil eye. That’s an invitation for demons to come.”

They headed away from the river, traveling as fast as the oxen could go. They put in a full day of travel, and camped in a canyon, out of the winter wind. The sky threatened rain, but so far they remained dry and able to enjoy an enormous campfire.

“This should keep animals away from us,” Savage said.

He saw Parker scratching in the dirt and went to look.

Traveling in circle. Passed this same canyon before. Savage kicked the message with his boots, not wanting Mildred to see it. “Don’t be absurd,” he said to the old man. He wondered if the Parker was right.

Morning came and two of the oxen were gone. Gigantic footprints told a story of more than one creature having entered camp. Almost like a challenge, a large bone was tethered to one of the yokes. It looked like it might have been a human bone. Savage wondered if it had been another piece of Ben.

“Nnn brrrrs.” A strange sound came out of Parker’s mouth. “Nnnnn brrrrs!”

“Now is not a good time for you to start talking, old man,” Savage said heartlessly, “I know it’s not a bear, but should we scare the women? It’s probably Indians toying with us.”

“No!” Parker said clearly, shaking his head.

“What do you think? Evil spirits, or some other crap?” he asked angrily. “Only men do this kind of thing. So be on your guard. If you see what looks like man or beast, kill it before it kills us.”

The mountains were steeper and the snow more relentless. Day after day went by when they could not find a trail. They suffered from the cold, a lack of sleep, and only the meager fires they made out of damp green wood gave them any relief at all. They kept moving, but at a terrible price.

Lollie did not wake one morning. Two weeks after the death of her husband, she lay dead in the same bed. We’re in the hands of fate, Mildred heard her say. We all have our fates to suffer.

Again, they built a cairn of stone, unable to cut into the earth. Mildred wondered if Lollie would be left to her rest, or would she, too, suffer desecration.

She had her answer the next day when they came out of the wagon in the morning to find Lollie’s head laying among the ashes of the campfire. Huge foot prints circled the camp and bones that had been gnawed and cracked were tossed around carelessly.

“Cover it up, please,” Mildred begged.

“There’s no time,” Savage said. “We’ve got to move as quickly as we can. Get in the wagon.”

Leaving Lollie’s bones strewn around the campsite, they headed west. Savage yelled at the oxen, goaded them, and even took a whip to them to get them pulling as hard and fast as they could. Weak from little food, the animals struggled in the deep snow.

The oxen finally stopped, unable to go any farther. Snow came down heavily. The family gathered in the back of the wagon. There was a small fire in the stove, but not enough to fight the freezing temperatures. Morning found the group passed out in a deep slumber, the kind you don’t wake up from.

Before midday, the child died. The old man died. Mildred was nearly gone. Savage alone was in and out of consciousness. He opened his eyes but saw nothing but white. He felt hands on him, carrying him out of the wagon.

“Praise God,” he said.

He awoke to a cup at his lips. Something warm was being poured into his mouth. He started to gulp greedily.

“Take it easy, son,” a man’s voice said. “You’re gonna be alright.”

He opened his eyes and saw that he was in a small dirty cabin. It seemed to be filled with people. There was a warm fire blazing in the hearth, and a pot of something that smelled wonderful was being stirred.

“Who are you?” Savage asked.

“That’s what I was just about to ask you,” a man said. The man looked very thin and weak. “Are you from Sutter’s Fort?”

“No,” he said. I was taking my family to California, from the east,” he replied.

“Hastings’ map, again,” someone else in the room said. “Another mouth to feed.”

“Why did you even bring him in here?” a woman asked. “Now you know what’s gotta be done. Makes it that much harder to do.”

“We had to know for sure,” a male voice said. “Besides there’s no real hurry. We’ve got the cattle and the others.”

Savage sat up and looked around. He saw children with swollen bellies and sunken eyes sitting on a rug in front of the fire. It was a bear skin rug, complete with head and claws. Its dead eyes glowed red in the firelight. He saw enormous hand woven snowshoes hanging from pegs on the wall. Knives and machetes hung from hooks over the hearth, still dripping blood.

Old people as thin as skeletons, and adults looking half-starved all stared at the black cast iron caldron, watching it boil, sniffing the air as a woman stirred the contents. The woman was Mildred, and she had her back to Savage.

“Millie,” he called to her, and the woman turned. It was not Mildred. It was another woman, wearing her dress.

“Who are you people?” he asked, starting to panic. “Where are my wife and son?”

“You are the last alive,” a man said to him, patting him gently on the shoulder. “Don’t you worry. We’re gonna take real good care of you. I’m Lewis Keseberg,” the man replied. “And we’re what’s left of the Donner Party.”

*

“That was a terrible story for you to tell the kids,” Katie said as they went into their tent. “How are they supposed to get to sleep now?”

“We’re on vacation. They’re not supposed to sleep after a good campfire story,” Joel said. “It’s tradition.”

Katie crawled into their sleeping bag fully clothed. She was freezing. “Is it also tradition to go camping in the dead of winter in Colorado?”

“No, but we can make it one,” he replied, crawling into the bag next to her, naked. “Why are you still dressed?”

“Never mind that, just tell me that you asked for directions at the Ranger’s Station. I want us to be able to find our way out of here in the morning.”

“I did not, but I’ve never gotten us lost before. Trust me.”

pencil

Catherine J. Link is an artist: painting, sketching, photography and writing. She teaches art out of her studio at home, and mentors students, judging during the Visual Art Scholastic Events every spring. She has loved writing since she was a kid, and has written poems, short stories, and a couple of books, but she has never attempted to have anything published. She does it for fun. Email: kajalink[at]embarqmail.com

The Hands of Fate

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Ellis Sinclair


Photo Credit: Maigh/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

A black Volkswagen Jetta sped along Country Road 47, an isolated two-lane road that ran parallel to the interstate, after two hours wasted on the highway. Devin and Jenna were traveling from Athens to spend Christmas week at a cabin he rented in the country. Devin drove with furious glee since taking the ignored exit and Jenna, with a book in her lap, watched the barren pines pass like rows of gray frozen skeletons.

“This is so much nicer than the highway,” she said.

Devin laughed. “Yeah, I’m doing sixty on an open road. Suckers!”

“Be safe. I don’t want to crash on some backwoods road where a family of deranged hillbillies will rape and eat our corpses.”

“What the hell kind of book are you reading?”

“It’s hard to read when everything’s so beautiful.”

Pine trees transformed into apple orchards stretched across a clear and ice-covered landscape. Sunlight reflected through the snow in a kaleidoscope of shimmering colors: blues, yellows, reds, oranges. An aged wooden sign covered in frost caught Jenna’s attention.

Welcome to Arcadia

They passed an abandoned chapel with a cemetery at the base of a hill. The tops of random headstones littered graveyard, peering above the snow cover. The town was an island surrounded by an ancient wood.

“Talk about an antique,” Devin said. “This place is set in amber.”

Jenna pressed her nose against her window. She watched a house rise above the woods and homes around it.

“Drive slower,” she said.

“Why?”

“Just do it.”

They stopped at the intersection of Main and Polk Street.

“Turn this way.”

“We need to get to the cabin. I don’t want to lose our deposit.”

“We have until six and it’s not even one yet. Turn here. I want to see something.”

Devin huffed but knew he had to satisfy her curiosity or the rest of the trip would degrade into a bitter fight. “Fine, but after this we hit the road.”

Jenna became more excited as they coasted toward the large house. “I don’t believe it,” she said. “Stop, stop, stop.”

Devin parked in front of the aging home.

“I can’t fucking believe it!”

Jenna grabbed the book from her lap and opened the cover. The inner-fold of the dust jacket had the author’s bio, but instead of the author’s photo was the picture of the home.

“This is it!” she said. “This is the house!

“Yeah?”

“It’s the house,” she said.

“So?”

“Abraham Grabowski is a complete hermit. He doesn’t do book signings or anything. He never leaves. There aren’t even pictures of him. His publisher doesn’t even know what he looks like.”

“That’s stupid.”

Jenna shook her head and grabbed her phone. “I need this for my blog.”

She jumped out of the car into the snow.

“Where the hell are you going?”

“This is obviously a sign I was meant to come here.”

“We can do this on the way home!”

“I’m not risking it. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

She shot a video with the home behind her. She meant to post it to Snapchat, but she didn’t have any service. She recorded anyway and figured she’d upload it at the cabin.

“Hey, horror bookworms. If you’ve been paying attention to my blog at all, you should recognize the house behind me. That’s right my nerdy little nasties—it’s the home of the one and only Abraham Grabowski. I’m going to see if anyone’s home. Hopefully, I’ll have some more footage to come. Your Ghastly Girly signing out!”

Devin turned the car off and trudged up the lawn. “This might be the house, but it doesn’t mean he lives here. Hell, the guy might not even exist.”

“It’s worth a shot. Look around, everything in his books is here. This is the town he writes about. This is where all his stories come from. This is the epicenter.”

“This is crazy.”

The front door to the home opened and a young woman stepped out. “Excuse me,” Wendy said.

“Sorry, if she disturbed you,” Devin said. “We’re leaving.”

However, Jenna bolted up the stairs.

Devin followed.

“This is it, isn’t it?” she said.

“Jenna!”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Yes, you do. Don’t say that. This is it. This is the house. You know who lives here. Who are you?”

“Jen, you’re acting crazy.”

“You shouldn’t be here. You should be going.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Devin said. He took Jenna’s arm.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. We can go in a minute. Just tell me I’m right. I know I’m right.” Jenna noticed the sound of a door closing inside. She hopped to look over Wendy’s head and saw an older woman standing beside a staircase.

“Wendy, who’s at the door?”

“Nobody, Miss Catherine.”

“Nonsense. Nobody’s nobody at Christmastime. Let them in.”

Jenna glanced to Devin with her eyes wide open and a grin stretched across her face. Catherine greeted them in the foyer. The hypnotic rhythm of typewriter keys tapped through the floorboards.

“I apologize for our assistant,” Catherine said. “We like our privacy and Wendy does a good job.”

Jenna couldn’t speak. Her senses were choked—soaking in the details of the home. “This is it,” she muttered. “It’s all here. Everything from every book!”

“I can see you’re a fan,” Catherine said.

“More than that,” she said. “I actually write book reviews and Mr. Grabowski’s books are one of my favorite topics.”

“Oh, a journalist.”

“So, this is the place she thinks it is?” Devin asked.

“That and so much more.”

Catherine asked Wendy to make some tea and returned her attention to her guests.

“We can sit in the study. I do enjoy company.”

Bookshelves lined the walls, filled with leather-bound manuscripts and wooden boxes. Devin and Jenna shared a loveseat while Catherine sat in the armchair.

“Do you help Abraham with his books?” Jenna asked.

“Abraham’s the writer, as you can hear.”

The clack of the typewriter hadn’t stopped since they entered. Catherine held her bony and withered hands up.

“And, these hands create the death scenes,” she explained.

“Death scenes?”

Wendy returned to the study with a tea service.

“Wendy, my dear. Bring one of the displays to show our guests.”

“Certainly, Miss Catherine.”

She brought one of the boxes to Catherine. She opened the lid to reveal an intricate diorama.

“Oh, my God,” Jenna said. “That’s Marlon from A Cry in the Night. That’s amazing.”

“Very good,” Catherine said.

“She’s read every book,” Devin added.

“I’m actually finishing Babylon right now. How long have you two been working together?”

Wendy returned the diorama to the shelf.

“Since the beginning. I’m convinced that fate brought us together.”

“Is it possible for me to meet him?”

“Anything’s possible if Abraham ever comes out of that basement. These winter months are when he’s most productive. Once you hear the typewriter going, it rarely stops.”

Catherine sipped her tea, undisturbed by the mechanical keystrokes firing away like a machine gun from the depths.

*

Devin insisted on leaving after one cup of tea. On the trek back to the car Jenna stopped to take a few more photos of outside the home. When she was content, she jumped in.

“Why don’t you have the car running?” she asked. “Get the heat on, I’m freezing.”

“What do you think I’ve been doing since I got in here?”

Devin checked his phone for the time. “It’s three o’clock. My phone’s not getting any service. Can you call the cabin and see if they’ll hold our deposit?”

“No service for me, either. It hasn’t worked since we got here.”

“Damn it!”

He slammed his hands into the steering wheel.

“Don’t get mad. Try and see what’s wrong with the engine. I’ll see if they’ll let us use their phone.”

Devin popped the hood and Jenna ran up to the home. Wendy answered.

“Hi again,” Jenna said. “Can we use your phone? Something’s wrong with our car and I’m not getting any service.”

Wendy led Jenna to the kitchen.

“Wow, a landline. I haven’t seen one of those since I would visit my grandmother’s house.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, but we rarely leave the city.” Jenna let out a humiliated and exhausted sigh. She took the phone from the receiver, but there was no dial tone. She pressed down the cradle three times, but nothing. “Does your phone not work?” she asked.

“It goes in and out around here.”

“Damn.”

“It’s pretty dead in the winter around here.”

“Do you have a car? Maybe you can drive us to the next town so we can find a phone?”

“We don’t have a car and anyone with a car has already left for the winter.”

“I was gonna ask if other people lived here, because we haven’t seen a sign of life.”

“Anyone that hasn’t left just digs in.”

The basement door opened and closed. Catherine entered the kitchen.

“Why, Jenna, I thought you and Devin left.”

“I know. I’m sorry. For some reason our car won’t start. I wanted to use your phone.”

“Ha! Good luck. We basically live on a frozen island.”

“Man, Devin’s going to be pissed.”

“Why should he be upset? We aren’t that bad of company.”

“No, it’s not you. We rented a cabin and if we don’t contact them before six we’re going to lose our deposit and I feel like it’s all my fault.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. One day you’ll learn that some events are out of our hands. If you can’t get your car started, I insist you stay here the night. We don’t mind.”

Devin came inside. “I don’t know what’s wrong with it,” he shouted. “Any luck on the phone?”

“Phone’s dead.”

“Damn it.”

“Devin,” Catherine said. “Jenna told me about your plans and I feel awful that you stopped here and now can’t go. Let Wendy know how much the deposit was for the cabin. We’ll pay for it. We have plenty of money.”

Catherine looked back to Jenna.

“Perhaps the phone will be working tomorrow,” she continued. “It goes in and out all the time. Wendy, get the guest bedroom livable. I’m going downstairs for a little while longer.”

*

Catherine returned to the basement. Jenna explored the study with Wendy following her like a doe-eyed lost child, brushing against her softly and asking endless questions. Devin struggled in the frigid temperature with the car, but was lost with mechanics. When nightfall descended, he returned inside with their bags. Wendy and Jenna were in the kitchen chatting, laughing. The scent and warmth from a well-used kitchen filled the home.

“What’s for dinner, ladies?”

Wendy hovered over a cooking pot, stirring the contents. Jenna glanced at Devin with a playful grin. An open bottle of wine rest on the table next to her.

“We’re having sausages with boiled cabbage,” Wendy said.

“I hope you were taking notes,” Devin said.

“The recipe’s a secret,” Jenna answered.

*

The white noise of the typewriter filled the pauses between the conversation.

“He really never stops,” Devin said.

“When a story grabs him, it becomes his obsession.”

“Is there any way you could tell me what the book is about?” Jenna asked.

“I don’t even know if he knows, yet. He says it depends on what the characters do. I mean he knows what the end result will be but he never knows exactly how they’ll get there.”

Dinner ended with empty plates, followed by dessert.

“Wendy, dear. Thank you for dinner. It was delicious.”

“Thank you, Miss Catherine. I just follow the recipes you give me.”

“Yes, yes, but it’s the subtleties that transform food into cuisine, just like the nuances that augment words into prose.”

Catherine paused.

“It was very good,” Jenna said. “Wasn’t it, Devin.”

“Oh, yeah. The best sausage and cabbage I’ve ever eaten.”

“My dear, you are more than a cook, you are a chef de cuisine.”

Wendy nodded in thanks and Catherine let out a satisfied sigh. “I believe it’s time for me to go to bed,” she continued. “Wendy, make sure our guests see their room.”

“Of course, Miss Catherine.”

“Thank you again for your hospitality,” Jenna added.

Catherine retired upstairs, followed shortly after by Wendy, Devin, and Jenna. Wendy stopped at the first door by the stairs.

“This is where Miss Catherine sleeps,” she said.

“Just Catherine?” Jenna whispered.

“Her and Abe don’t sleep in the same bedroom?” Devin added.

Wendy shook her head. The next room had an open door. It was cramped with a large bed, a mirrored dresser by the door and a chair by the window.

“This is my room,” she continued. “If you need anything, come see me.”

Ahead of them was a third room with two windows that gazed across the archipelago of little shingled roofs.

“This is where you’ll be sleeping tonight,” Wendy said.

“Do you hear that?” Devin mentioned.

Wendy and Jenna turned to him standing in the doorway. They waited for him to answer his question.

“It stopped,” he continued.

“What stopped?” Jenna said.

“The typing.”

Jenna paused and glanced to Wendy. “Does this mean we might get to see Abraham?”

“No,” Wendy answered. “Abraham stays downstairs when he’s writing and he’s always writing.”

Wendy left them alone. Jenna and Devin gazed across their room.

“Separate beds,” he said. “Not quite the romantic getaway I planned.”

“Welcome to a simpler time.”

“You wanna push them together?”

“Their house, their rules.”

“Do you think it’s weird they don’t sleep in the same room?”

“Yeah, but my grandparents lived in separate rooms for the last twenty years of their marriage. Look, as long as Abraham keeps putting out books, I don’t care where he sleeps.”

“Well, I’m going to use the little boy’s room. Did she give you the money for the deposit?”

“Really, you’re going to ask that now?”

“Hey, she offered. I was just curious.”

“No, she hasn’t.”

“Let’s find out how far the next town is tomorrow. If we can get there maybe we can use a phone and maybe the cabin hasn’t been rented so we can still have a vacation where we can share the same bed.”

Devin took a change of clothes and meandered down the hall. Jenna gazed down to the street. Devin’s car was parked beneath the streetlamp. She undressed away from the window, facing the wall. After removing her top, the door opened. Jenna turned but was startled to see Wendy.

“You shouldn’t stay here,” she whispered.

“I’m sorry?”

“We should leave tonight.”

“Tonight?”

“I have a car,” Wendy continued.

“I asked if you had a car earlier.”

“I couldn’t say anything. It’s parked on the edge of the woods. The keys are inside. Gather your things. We can leave, right now.”

Jenna sighed. “I’m tired and it’s too late to go anywhere tonight. We can leave tomorrow.

Devin entered. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said.

“It’s okay. Wendy was just making sure we had everything we needed.”

Wendy nodded slowly and exited.

“What was that all about? She seemed a little into you.”

“I still got it.”

“Okay, we can stay an extra night, but only if I can watch?”

“You’re an absolute pig. You’re just lucky I love bacon.”

*

Jenna awoke to a chill that swept across her body. She wasn’t accustomed to sleeping alone and slid out of bed to join Devin. However, he wasn’t in bed and the mattress was cold.

“Devin?” she whispered.

The home was silent, even the mechanical chug of Abraham’s typewriter was quiet. Jenna glanced out the window and saw the car was no longer on the side of the road.

“What the hell?”

Jenna crept along the hall. Wendy’s door was open and her bed was empty. From out of the silence of the home, the cellar door closed. Jenna peered over the banister but found no one. “Damn it, Devin,” she said.

Jenna rushed downstairs and pressed her ear against the basement door. She struggled with what to do: knock, enter, yell. She chose to enter. A banker’s lamp illuminated the underbelly of the home. An unmade bed below rested the steps. Flush with the far wall was a workbench with small intricate tools, fabric, boxes, wood, and clay. With her final steps, she discovered a writing desk with a typewriter and a stack of paper next to it. One sheet was clamped into the carriage half-typed.

“Devin,” she said. “Are you down here?”

Before escaping the basement, Jenna decided to investigate the upcoming book. She looked over the two dioramas Catherine left on the bench. The first appeared to be the study upstairs, intricately designed down to the tiniest detail, but with the figure of a man dressed like Devin, hanging by his feet from the ceiling. A bucket rested below him to collect the blood that coursed from his gaping throat. The next box looked like the front of the home and the edge of the street. Across the snow-covered ground, drag marks and a trail of blood led to the street, but it was unfinished, the body was missing.

The slide, crash, and ding of the typewriter shifting to the next paragraph. Typing soon followed. She read along as each letter was hammered into the page:

*

Jenna gasped for air as the prisoner spirit cried out to her, “Run.”

*

Jenna clambered up the stair and fled the basement in the desperate hope of finding escape. She stopped at the door as the typewriter continued to tell its tale. A slow-moving shadow in the study coaxed her attention. Light from the street lamp sprinkled through the front room. Devin’s body hung from his feet in the center of the study. An occasional drop fell from his gaping throat as the gentle motion of the home swung his body from side-to-side over a cooking pot.

Jenna burst from the home but a bloody trail of drag marks led from the steps across the lawn. In the middle of the street Wendy’s corpse lay slumped and twisted in the street. The word DISLOYAL was written with blood in the snow. Jenna ran back through the house to the door in the kitchen that led to back of the home. She could find the car Wendy had mentioned.

She stomped through the snow mounds toward the woods. Her feet and body were frozen to the point that she no longer felt cold. Frozen moonlight blanketed the world. The bony arms of the trees reached out to her in waiting and wanting. When a flash of light from a torch appeared from within the shadows, followed by another and another. From the darkness, robed figures emerged, their faces obscured.

“Winters are long but our homes remain strong by feasting upon the body and the blood!”

A collective voice followed.

“The body and the blood!”

“We must feed the spirit!”

“And, the spirit will feed us,” the group countered.

A light feathery snow began to fall.

“Don’t cry, my dear. This was meant to happen; our lives are forever guided by the hands of fate.”

*

A knock rattled on the front door of the old home. The winter continued its frozen onslaught. Parked in the street was a red 1998 Toyota Corolla. A cheery-eyed dark-haired girl hopped in glee when the door opened. She looked back to her friend, Ally.

“I know this may sound strange, but is this the home of Abraham Grabowski?”

“You have the wrong house.”

Catherine descended the stairs.

“Who’s at the door?” she asked.

“No one. I was just telling them to leave.”

“Nonsense, Jenna. No one is no one. Let them in. You know I love guests.”

pencil

Ellis Sinclair is a recent graduate from the University of Central Florida. As a freshman in high school, he was hit by a car while riding his bicycle. This event and a series of bizarre experiences guided him to writing. He grew up in a poor neighborhood. He worked overnight at a gas station which allowed him to read and write as much as he wanted. He has a wide range of interests with writing and some of his favorite writers have been: Hemingway, Stephen King, Alan Moore, Steinbeck, and Philip K. Dick. Email: ellissinclair[at]outlook.com

Bittersweet

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
John Howe


Photo Credit: Laura Taylor/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Laura Taylor/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

A few stubborn oak leaves clung to desolate branches and rattled in the December wind as the man called Stutters unlocked the front door of the shop. It was Saturday afternoon in the small, coal-blackened town of Glenwood and children careened here and there, some wearing worn-out Halloween costumes, some donned in makeshift winter apparel. They all ran toward the candy store when Stutters illuminated the open sign. The children checked their empty pockets and glanced nervously across the street at the Chase house.

Mr. Chase waited for them, hands trembling, a disturbing smile on his ashen face. He owned Chase Mining Properties, the largest employer in the area, and though he no longer actively presided at company headquarters, his power among the townsfolk was strong. He waved as the children noisily approached.

One child after the next obediently jumped up on his lap and received handfuls of coins that the old man kept in a wooden cigar box. “Who wants candy?” he said, his voice nasally as they took the money and wriggled atop his outstretched knees. “There’s plenty for all—patience, children, patience.”

The last girl meekly stood, afraid to jump into his lap. “You come with me, Sally,” he said, as the others ran off. “I have a special treat for you.” He held out his hand and smiled. She hesitated but grasped the withered hand.

The man called Stutters scurried about and handed treats to the rambunctious children: chocolate, caramels, bubble gum, taffy. He absently glanced out the window as he worked. The children paid for the candy and ran to the street, tearing wrappers and devouring as drably-dressed mothers watched from tenement windows. The mothers didn’t notice, or didn’t care, when the children threw the wrappers on the ground and ran into the store for more. The mothers also knew where their children got the money and they remained silent for it wouldn’t do to alienate the man who signed their husbands’ meager paychecks.

Stutters walked outside as the children raced off and a vociferous wake faded amid the yelling and tugging at one another; children in search of mischief and disruption, fueled by their sudden sugar rushes. The candy man bent and picked up the discarded wrappers and watched warily as Sally emerged from the Chase house. She walked slowly to the store, eyes downcast, a five-dollar bill in her hand.

“Cherry drops, please,” she said quietly and held out the bill.

Stutters rarely spoke but he felt the need. His words were garbled, his lips wet from the effort as Sally looked up at him in incomprehension. The candy man tried in vain to make himself understood, but finally, he handed her the treat and smiled, his mouth lopsided. The girl tried to smile, but failed.

Nobody knew the candy man’s real name. Another batch of children, crueler than this lot, had titled him Stutters years ago, when he was first hired to work in the candy store. He would try to speak and the children would howl with laughter and imitate him cruelly. His eyes would narrow but the crooked smile always remained.

As Sally walked away with her candy, Stutters shook his large head. He detected movement across the street and noticed Mr. Chase watching from his window as the little girl walked. The two men made eye contact and both frowned. The fury in the older man’s eyes was unmistakable as his curtains swung closed.

The day passed with a handful of customers stopping by to purchase various goodies in small quantities. Without the children, the store would likely close, and this troubled the candy man greatly. There was speculation about the coal running out and the future of the town was said to be bleak. Stutters cared little about the coal but he did care about the store and the children that visited. He also cared about their well-being and Mr. Chase seemed, to Stutters, to be in conflict with this view. There was no concrete indication, no direct evidence, to support his thoughts, but Stutters was concerned. Though there was little he could do, he vowed to keep watch.

*

Stutters completed the inventory list and filled out order sheets as the sun sank lower and shadows danced on the glass candy counters. Walking home, he skirted the dust-strewn lot of a long-defunct Dairy Queen choked with brown hemlocks somehow taking up root in the cracks of the asphalt. Mr. Chase waited with a group of hard men that smoked unfiltered cigarettes and drank from bottles concealed by paper bags, their hands dark with coal dust. Stutters stopped when, as one, the men blocked his path.

“Glenwood don’t need no candy man,” a bearded man said through lips that barely moved. Chase watched, standing to the side, his arms folded, a twisted sneer on his face.

Stutters’s lips moved rapidly and spittle sprayed, but he said nothing. The men roared with laughter.

“If you’re smart, you’ll get the hell out of town,” another man said.

“He ain’t smart,” the first man said, moving forward. “He’s dumber than a box of rocks.”

Stutters turned to walk away, or run if need be, but he was grabbed by multiple hands. With gnarled fists and steel-toed boots, the men made it clear that the town no longer needed a candy man. Mr. Chase finally signaled and they stopped, their faces shining with sweat from the effort as Stutters moaned, curled on the potholed asphalt. A police cruiser passed but did not stop. The officer kept his eyes forward, his hands tightly clenched on the wheel.

From a low, black rocky hillside the group of neighborhood children watched, eyes downcast, no longer boisterous. They were silent as their fathers and their uncles and their mother’s boyfriends laughed nervously and coughed, the exertion getting the better of them. Mr. Chase looked around, satisfied for the time being, and was the first to leave. After the other men left, the children gradually disbanded and walked alone to their tumbledown houses with stained aluminum siding and crumbling roof shingles. The mothers wore aprons and let their children come in while supper simmered on the stoves. Sally stayed, sitting atop the hill of blackened coal waste and silently wished for the candy man to get up. She longed to go to him, to help him, but she stayed put. She always stayed put.

Broken, Stutters got slowly to his feet and limped unsteadily to his rented room above the Widow Reed’s garage. He tended to his wounds and packed his few belongings in a worn duffle bag. On the scarred, yellow laminated kitchen table, next to the unplugged toaster, he left the rent money. Locking the door carefully, Stutters walked slowly through town, holding his side. People avoided his eyes. Mothers fretted and tended to household activities. Children watched from windows, tears streaking their dirty faces. Men looked off the other way and kicked at the dirt and drank from their bottles. Inside the Chase house, the lights went out one by one.

*

Two weeks later, the men of Glenwood sat on folding chairs in the front yard of the Chase house. The grass was brown, the snow gone, but more was predicted soon. They drank beer from plastic cups, courtesy of a keg of Old Style provided by Chase himself. They talked amongst themselves and waited. Finally, Mr. Chase came out and cleared his throat.

“Gentlemen,” he said, wheezing. “We all know why we’re here.” He paused as murmurs grew and faded. “Tom Clander’s girl was found yesterday.” He held up a framed picture of Sally and looked at it, frowning. “I swear to you that the animal that did this will pay.”

“Now hold on there, Mr. Chase,” Sheriff Carter said. “You can’t go taking the law into your own hands.”

“The hell he can’t,” a man said. As one, the men’s voices rose and the sheriff backed away.

“As I was saying,” Chase said, glaring at the sheriff, “There’s no sense tiptoeing around this tragedy. We, the people of Glenwood, have a duty to do the right thing.”

“And what duty is that, Mr. Chase?” the sheriff said, trying to keep a presence.

“Tell me, Sheriff,” Chase said. “Do you, or do you not, have a suspect in custody?”

“You know we don’t.”

“And why’s that?” Chase said.

“It don’t work that way and you know it,” the sheriff sputtered. “It takes time.”

“Time is something of an essence here, Sheriff, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes, it is,” Sheriff Carter said, “but we can’t go running around willy-nilly.”

Chase walked up to the sheriff and stared into his eyes. From an inside pocket of his expensive overcoat, Chase pulled an envelope from the First National Bank. He tapped it menacingly on the sheriff’s badge. “You were saying, Sheriff?”

The lawman blinked and lowered his face. Finally, he turned and walked away.

Chase waited until he rounded a corner. “I think I speak for us all when I say it was that goddamn candy man that did it.”

The men nodded weakly and mumbled to themselves. No one spoke.

“And I say it’s up to us to do something about it,” Chase said.

Tom Clander pushed through the crowd, his eyes red, a half-full bottle of Wild Turkey in his hand. “I agree with Chase,” he said loudly. “Somebody’s gotta pay, and if he says the candy man did it, then the candy man did it.”

“But how do we know that?” a man said as all eyes turned to him. “I mean, what proof do we have?”

“I’ll tell you what proof we have,” Clander said, taking a gulp of whiskey. “Who the hell else could it be that killed my little girl?”

The men drank from their cups and lit cigarettes. They watched as Clander broke down and as Chase put an arm on his shoulder to offer meager comfort.

The children held school backpacks and listened from the sidewalk in front of the boarded-up candy store. They overheard the talk, some convoluted, some clear. They shivered in the cold, conflicted and silent and looked to Branson Wilcox, the oldest of them all.

Branson looked down, his shoe drew a circle over and over on the concrete. Slowly, he raised his head. “Who the hell else could it be?”

The children nodded to themselves and started to walk home. They moved slowly and avoided each other’s eyes. Many thought about Sally and her mutilated, naked body that had been found in an old tool shed at the mine. Some gave thanks that it hadn’t been them.

The mothers watched from windows as their children approached. They wrung their aprons and said nothing as the sons and daughters came in and took off their winter coats. They needed the paychecks that their husbands brought home every other Thursday, and they knew the income would no longer come if the mine closed.

Nobody objected when the lynch mob was formed.

pencilBy day, John Howe designs steel buildings and manages construction projects for a design build firm in west Michigan. At night, he succumbs to his passion for writing short fiction and has had stories accepted and published by Horrified Press, EMP Publishing and Toasted Cheese Literary Journal. John enjoys experimenting with many genres but his writing strengths often lead him toward the darker side. Email: john[at]deltadesignsystems.com

The Wran Song

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Robert James


Photo Credit: Bill Rogers/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Bill Rogers/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Maren sat by the fireplace, knitting grey lines into a zigzag pattern against a black border. It was a random pattern, brought into the world for a single purpose: to forget the others.

Her chair rocked in rhythm to the cadence that consumed her small cottage, squeaking under the weight of her ancient frame. It started in the fireplace quietly with a pop-hiss, but gained momentum until her feet, the chair and her needles were moving in unison to its pulse. When the iron knocker hit the wooden door across the room, she almost didn’t notice the click-clack of its call.

She stopped and stared at the door. Too late for all that, she thought. Especially tonight. She went back to her knitting, and savored the warmth of the roaring fire.

The door rapped twice more, refusing to be ignored.

She walked over to the window next to the door, peeling back the curtain to peek outside. Five children were assembled in a staggered formation, right through the heart of her slumbering garden, up the cobblestone walk to the front gate. They had made themselves quite at home, leaning against the stone wall like they were settling in for a revival. Their costumes were typical for Saint Stephen’s Day shenanigans, but their eyes were odd, kicking about on that cold line between mischief and mayhem.

She opened the front door just far enough to see onto the front porch. A young girl stepped forward through the thin blanket of snow, her feet crunching on what was left of autumn’s languishing color. She stopped just short of the porch and started to sing. Her voice was sweet and the tune slow, the words lilting together like a prayer at a funeral.

Wran, wran, the king of all birds,
Saint Stephen’s Day, was caught in the furze,
Although he was little, his honor was great,
Jump up me lady, and give us a treat.

Maren had never heard the tune sung like this before, and she couldn’t remember the last time a group of children had the courage to knock on her door to sing it. She listened as the words mixed with the light melody, spinning together on the porch in front of her. Maren was so mesmerized, she didn’t even notice as the tune brushed past her cheek and breezed into the cottage.

Miss O’Brady’s a very good woman,
A very good woman, a very good woman,
Miss O’Brady’s a very good woman,
She’ll give us a penny to bury the wran.

“A penny to bury the wran, Miss O’Brady?” The girl held out a small, dirty hand.

Maren opened the door further and looked closer at the children in her front garden. Filthy imps. “Hmmph,” she chortled, “I don’t see a wran anywhere. The parade’s already been through, you know. Shouldn’t you lot be at the ceili with the other neighborhood children?” she asked with narrow eyes.

One of the boys by the gate walked up the path and threw a lump of feathers onto the porch with a thud. Three motionless birds were tied together at the neck. The girl turned, and the children gathered outside her gate, singing the next verse in unison. Maren shuffled onto the porch, grabbed the bundle of feathers and lofted it at the children, scurrying back into the cottage as fast as she could. She slammed the door, shoved home the deadbolt, then peeled back the curtain to watch the children as they glided up the lane. They were heading to the grove of trees across the pasture where the four of them had taken him all those years ago. Is this how it started for the others? As they disappeared into the chill darkness, she heard a voice behind her. It was a man’s voice, his voice.

“Hello? Who’s there?” she spun around to confront the danger surging up and down the back of her neck. She waited and listened, but nobody replied. Ambling over to the fire, she adjusted the orange embers with a fire poker before settling into her rocking chair. As she eased back into her rhythm, her mind wandered, recalling that special day when he proclaimed his love for her.

“I know a way we can be together forever,” he had said, placing a sparkling sapphire locket around her neck. None of the others received such shiny measures of his devotion. To this day, the locket made her feel special, wanted. Maren sighed, remembering how he kissed her hand and smiled from one corner of his mouth. She wanted to give him more, to give herself over to him completely, but he never asked.

She took a deep breath and focused again on the random pattern of yarn resting on her lap. The fire crackled and the clock on the mantle clicked tirelessly forward. She had used that clock countless times over the past fifty-two years, trying to figure out how long he had suffered. When she was still a young woman, she would count the ticks of the clock while holding her breath. Two minutes, three, one time almost four. He didn’t deserve it, she would tell herself, filling her screaming lungs back up for another go.

Just then, the fire went out, and the hearth went cold, the only trace of its existence a small wisp of smoke that curled up the chimney. The entire house seemed to shudder in protest as the temperature plummeted, and a chunk of plaster fell on Maren’s head. Whispers materialized in the room around her, a confused chattering that grew steadily louder, until they roared with a mixture of agony and ecstasy. A thud came from the coat closet in the corner, and the door began to shake, rattling its hinges. With a rumble and a shriek, everything stopped, and Maren was left alone with the sound of her breathing.

Muffled groans and rattling chains came from the closet. Fire poker securely in her left hand, she walked over to the closet, and poked tentatively at the door. She reached out slowly, unsure if she should look inside, but the door burst open without waiting for her courage. It was them, all three of them, chained together at the neck. Their half-rotted bodies were twisted and broken, but she could make them out plain as day. Mangy whores. There was Hannah with her blonde curls, Bridget with her heaving bosoms, and Claire, as always, with her thin little legs spread wide for the world.

“It’s all your fault,” Maren exploded, “you ruined everything!” She hit each of them viciously with the fire poker, then planted her heel into what was left of Claire’s face before slamming the door shut. She held back a tear. No, not for them, she thought, not a single drop for their petty vengeance. They had scattered like dust after he came back the first time, when they saw what he had done to Hannah. No matter. One by one, they all got their due—even on the other side of the world—and always on this day.

“Maren,” he called again, this time from the bedroom. It had been so long since she had heard his voice, but it sounded like yesterday. The light clicked on in the bedroom, and a sharp pain rippled through Maren’s chest.

“Hello?” she whispered.

She walked towards the bedroom, right past the now-motionless clock on the mantle. The old cigar box sat on the bed. It must be him. As she opened the lid, a tear slid down her cheek. She took out the photo first. As headmaster, he was in the center of the mass of children, within reach of his four favorites, smiling confidently. The piece of his shirt was there, too, stained with dirt and blood from the blow to the head that had subdued him. The others thought they could get rid of him, like a cold or a bad dream, bury him away to be forgotten. But he didn’t stay away. It’s time. It’s finally our time.

She pulled out the locket and held it in her hand. Even in the dim light of the bedroom, the sapphire shone brilliantly. She put the locket around her neck and secured the clasp, walking from the bedroom and out the front door into the damp chill of the December night. She ambled up the lane and through the pasture, just as the children had earlier, her bare feet squeaking in rhythm against the snow. She walked steadily ahead until the trees surrounded her, right into the center of the thicket, to the big oak tree where they sent him thrashing and gasping into the ground.

As she neared the sacred spot, the locket shone brighter, and she felt the heat of the stone warming her chest. A form materialized out of the mist, and she stopped. It was him. His face was twisted, pale, and his eyes hazy, but it was him. Her heart fluttered. He pointed down towards a fresh hole in the ground and a smile curled up from one corner of his black lips. He looked at her just the way he had that sweet afternoon when she was fifteen years old. Sobbing tears of joy, she slid into the cold, damp earth, and lay down on her back.

Maren giggled, held a deep breath, and awaited the darkness of his embrace.

pencilRobert James is an emerging author of dark fantasy, horror, and supernatural thrillers. His short story, “The Keeper’s Secret,” won first prize in Tell-Tale Publishing Group’s 2015 Halloween Horror Party Scary Story Starter Contest. Everyone has demons. Escape yours at RJFiction.com. Email: RobertJames[at]RJFiction.com