Kudzu is a problem.
It's everywhere. The only respite from the stuff is the wintertime, when the emerald leaves wither and the vines fade into a dark topaz landscape. Originally brought into the new world by settlers looking to prevent erosion, it is now as ubiquitous as it is annoying.
Get deep enough into the mountains, though, and the kudzu fades away. Eventually, it will reach up from the edges of town and claim its place in the old Appalachia that thrives just out of street lights' glow.
The creeping sprawl of a few towns in the last several decades has brought with it modern conveniences such as cable television, running water, and reliable electricity. Trailing along, though, is that goddamned kudzu.
My city has spread a little each year, until it finally swallowed up a mountain that used to be deep woods. Paved roads and subdivisions soon claimed what once was wilderness; poor mountainfolk got bought out for small fortunes that let them relocate closer to the National Forest, or, in some cases, inside it. Others took the money and ran, reinventing themselves down in Atlanta or Athens or Macon.
On this particular mountain, though, there is a lone holdout. An old, weathered clapboard house stands sentinel against the changes of time and modernization. An outhouse is still in use, and all the water is hand pumped from a deep well that's existed since the civil war. The surrounding six acres are thickly wooded but bordered by a six-foot privacy fence. It was installed by the developers after the lady who lived there asked nicely. Rumor has it, it was installed about a month after she asked nicely and was ignored; after the lead developer's wife came down with a mysterious fever and boils, somebody local did the math and didn't make the lady in the woods ask twice. After the fence was built, that guy's wife was nearly instantly fine with only minimal scarring from the boils.
Kudzu covers the outside of that fence, but doesn't climb over it. It stops, seemingly in uniform, an inch from the top.
Not a vine of the stuff grows within those six acres.
There's a single opening in the fence that allows a rutted dirt road to snake in through old oaks and walnut trees up to the front door of the cabin. It was on that winding drive that I found myself driving one Saturday. I was desperate. I hadn't grown up in those mountains, but I'd moved into them about ten years prior. I'd been around town long enough to hear rumors and see firsthand the weirdness of the kudzu. Hell, my oldest kid on a dare his sophomore year in high school, livestreamed on his Facegram running up, grabbing the fence, and lifting himself up to peer over into the woods beyond. He doesn't know I was watching, and the people watching didn't know he peed himself. His mom told me when she did his laundry. Teens in the Halloween season get up to some dumb shit sometimes, and messing with that lady who lives in the woods counts as seriously dumb stuff.
So what was I doing driving right up to her doorstep?
I needed help. The job I'd had for twenty years had given me a severance package and my last day was coming up. I was too old to start over and too young to retire. I figured, fuck it, why not try some old southern hoodoo?
She wasn't at all what I expected. I guess too many Disney movies and Hollywood productions had steeled me to expect some bent old crag with giant warts and a hunchback.
She was gorgeous. I mean, really. Determining her age was impossible. She could have been 40, she could have been seventy. She was a white lady, but a dark complexion. Like maybe somewhere in the line there were Cherokees, which wouldn't be surprising given the area. Long, straight hair with a few streaks of white. The brightest, sharpest, iciest blue eyes I've ever seen. She greeted me with a smile on her front doorstep, and invited me to sit in an old rocking chair her grandfather made by hand. She didn't even ask me why I was there until we'd chatted for twenty minutes and shared a cup of coffee brewed on a wooden cookstove.
"I heard you help people," I said, not really knowing how to begin when she finally looked at me questioningly after discussions of town and the weather wrapped into an almost comfortable silence.
"Sometimes, sugar," she said in her thick Appalachian accent that added "r" to "wash" and pronounced "creek" as "crick."
I explained my problems in a rush, vomiting words as fast as I could and feeling foolish for sitting in this heavily forested piece of land out of time.
"I can help you, baby, don't you worry none," she smiled, and her teeth were surprisingly bright and white. I guess I expected dark, jagged yellow crags.
I think I did expect them to be sharp, though, and I wasn't surprised when they were.
She continued. "There is always a price. Mine is easy. One day, I'll need a favor, and you'll do it."
I went for levity. "I've seen this movie before. You'll want my firstborn, or something, right?" I laughed, but it was a hollow sound that she met with silence.
"No, Mike. I know you already have Amber and Jimmy. Jimmy has quite a following on the social media, and he's so good at baseball! I know you and Lucy must be proud, y'all done a real good job with them kids."
My blood turned cold and she just grinned wider. I have no idea how she knew the names of my family.
After a pause where she held her grin, she spoke again. "No, sweetie, this aint like the movies or them fairy tales. Well, I reckon it is more like a fairy tale. The real ones. With fairies, not dancin mice or beauties sleepin in the woods. Naw, this here is older than that mess y'all grew up on. I'll do a thing for ya, and come a time, you'll do a thing for me."
I agreed, and we shook on it. When I pulled my hand away, I noticed a little well of blood on the meaty part of my hand, like when somebody checks their sugar. I never even felt whatever stuck me, but I damned sure noticed when she licked her hand clean.
She just gave me another wolf smile and my blood went a little cold. I made excuses and went home.
Two days later, the company offered to rescind the layoff and slide me into a promotional position over in another division. I didn't know until I'd settled into the new gig that the last guy died in an armed robbery later the same day I'd visited the old woman.
I told myself for years it was just coincidence.
I never visited the lady's house again.
I tried not to think about her, and that teeny tiny wound that left a scar on the palm of my hand.
It was hard to ignore that little spot, just a freckle, really, when it began to itch like mad when I opened a plain brown box that was addressed to me. It wasn't delivered by the post office, but was dropped on my front porch by a guy who moved too quickly for the Ring camera to make out his details.
Inside were two things that made my heart stop. One was a shiny stainless steel revolver, a little snub nose. It was loaded. The other was a note with a name and address circled. Scrawled in a handwriting older than electric typewriters were the words "Payment due by" and a date two weeks into the future.
I've seen the man whose name is on that paper. I've driven by the address several times. Tomorrow is the date on the note. The itching on my palm has gotten so bad that I've hardly slept the last two nights. I'm about to kill the headlights and coast into that man's driveway.
It looks like somewhere, somebody else is about to get a promotion at work. When I'm done, I'll throw the gun into a patch of kudzu way out near Sylva.
Kudzu is a problem, but I trust it to keep my secrets.