Tommy Jenkins Went to Hell - Part 3
When John returned to the cottage, it was well past 3 in the morning. He didn’t stop to talk with Evans, as the both of them were tired and, frankly, sick. John promised to see him in the morning ready to go. The house was dark, save for one lantern sitting on the sill of an open window from the living room that Jane set to wait for his return. Inside, Jane was asleep on the sofa, Josiah curled under her arm cradling a stuffed toy fox. Silas and Isabella must have gone to bed.
He set his bags and outdoor clothes down by the front door and slid off his shoes. He would clean it up in the morning. Jane and Josiah looked peaceful. They must have fallen asleep waiting up for him. He took Josiah from Jane’s arms and carried him to his room. He passed Isabella’s door first, which was shut, but a soft, yellow light glowed from under the doorway. John sighed. He’ll talk to her later. He passed Silas’s door next, which was ajar. Inside, he saw the slow rise and fall of the boy’s shoulders and heard the soft snores from within. Silas always did sleep soundly. Even as a baby. The third room on the left was Josiah’s. John pushed open the door softly with his toes and set Josiah down on his back in his crib. As John pulled his arms back, Josiah stirred. He hated the crib, and now that he could talk, he voiced those feelings loudly and daily. Jane often let him sleep with her on the sofa or in their bed. It didn’t bother John, really, but he did often press that the boy needed to sleep on his own otherwise he’d never learn to be independent. But Jane always protested.
“Why would he need to be independent when he has me?” she would say.
John would just shake his head and let her be, because in all honesty, he did enjoy the little warm body curled into him between him and his wife. Josiah, though he was two, still had that baby smell. Odd as it may be, there was something comforting about it. Sure, Josiah would have to grow up eventually, but it ached him to see the growth already between his other two—Silas turning five that year and Isabella already seven, almost eight in a month. He wished they all still had their baby smells.
After putting Josiah to bed, John went to Jane on the sofa and gently shook her awake.
“Would you like to go to bed?” He asked.
She groaned and batted him away weakly.
He smiled and let her be. He wasn’t going to bed, either. Instead, he headed to the kitchen first to grab some bread and jerky, then settled in at his desk in the back study. The study was a small room, added on with a wood frame and stone walls when he was a child. It used to be his father’s, as was the mahogany desk and the leather recliner that was purchased brand-new from the furniture supplier. He pulled out a black leather-bound notebook from the bottom drawer and opened it to a blank page.
He couldn’t get away from the gnawing feeling in his stomach. Why couldn’t he remember the night of Peter’s disappearance? Why is Isabella being secretive? Where is Tommy? And why does it all feel connected? He scribbled in the journal, writing down his questions and possible answers to them, then scribbling the answers out that didn’t make any sense at all until the entire page was covered in scratched out scribbles and only the inked question remained—WHERE IS TOMMY?
There came a knock on his study door. John flinched and caught his breath.
“It’s open,” he said, closing his notebook and laying his pen on top it’s soft leather. The door opened slightly and a small figure in a white linen gown stepped through the doorway.
“Isabella. What are you doing up?” He sat back in his chair and took his reading glasses off, placing them to the side of the notebook. Isabella’s eyes shifted from the notebook to John.
“Did you find Tommy?” She asked in a soft voice.
“No,” he said, sighing, “We didn’t find him. We did, however, find a dead deer.”
Her eyes widened—whether surprise or fear, John would never know. Isabella stepped forward in the silence that followed John’s comment, and she sat upon his reclining chair. She lifted the footrest and pushed the seat back to lounge. She stared at the low ceiling. She rested, but John did not. Isabella was acting stranger—stranger than usual. No matter how much John thought about the events from when Mrs. Williams pounded on their door to just then when Isabella entered the study, there was one detail that protruded like a light against the dark.
“You didn’t tell them about Marwos,” John said.
Isabella tensed, forced her shoulders to relax, and then shrugged. She did not look at him.
“What happened after Tommy got sick?” He knew she was hiding something. It was obvious. Her nervous glancing and fiddling fingers that have not stopped messing with the hem of her gowns since he had come home earlier were a telltale sign of dishonesty.
A pause. Then she blinked. Then she said, “We got separated. And then he ran away.”
“He ran?” Questions flooded his mind. “What made him sick? What separated you?”
She shrugged again. “I don’t know. He just got sick all over the floor and ran. I don’t know where he went.” Shards and splinters. She wasn’t giving anything more than fractured information. It was frustrating John. That was not her. That was not something Isabella did. Do children often lie to their parents at a certain age? He thought it started around twelve or thirteen, but seven was supposed to be a golden age of obedience. Or so he thought. Thinking back, he lied to his parents around her age, didn’t he? When he was hiding something, certainly. And she was hiding something.
“You lied to the sheriff,” John said, trying to pry more information out of her.
Restless shoulders, restless lies. Another shrug. He was not going to pretend to understand her anymore. She knew better, and if she didn’t, she would learn now.
“And you lied to Mrs. Williams. And to me. Why would you do that? You realize that Tommy’s life is in danger? He could be starving right now, or dehydrated, or worse—he could have fell into the lake and drowned. He could have been eaten by the coyotes. You both know those woods are dangerous. And worse—you went into Marwos? People don’t come back from there, that’s why it’s off-limits, do you understand? There are sinkholes and cliffs and predators. Grown men do not go in there. There was no reason for you to.”
She cried then. Balled fists to her eyes, she sobbed in his recliner. She tried to speak, to apologize, maybe, but all that came out was a stream of huffs and hiccups and coughs. He waited and watched her cry patiently. Her fit would pass, but he was not going to let up. He was her father; there was no reason for her to lie to him about anything. She was seven; what was the worst that happened? They saw something and got scared and separated? Probably. She lost him and it was lucky that she had made it out to the church for Mrs. Williams to find him. John’s heart sunk to think if it happened the other way around. It wasn’t a pleasant thought—a sudden morbid relief came over him that his daughter was able to survive while Tommy did not. Best case was that they both made it home, but what if that wasn’t possible? What if it was a sacrificial situation? Was Tommy a hero who placed himself in the sight of danger to save Isabella? Or was he merely the weaker of the two who fell prey to a terrible predator of Marwos? He did not know. Part of him really did not want to know, but just as something bothered John about the situation, it was swallowing Isabella up and making her spit up over herself sobbing in his recliner.
“Isabella,” John said in a softer tone as her cries died to soft hiccups, “what happened to Tommy?”
“Tommy—” she said, taking deep breaths between her words, “went to—went to—”
“Yes, where did he go?”
“Tommy went to hell.”
Tommy Jenkins Went to Hell - Part 2
“He said he was sick,” Isabella repeated to Sheriff Evans. He loomed over her with his arms crossed while stroking his black mustache. She leaned back on the Jenkins’ cream striped sofa, refusing to break eye contact with the tall man.
“So, you let him walk home alone? What did you do after he left?”
She shrugged, “I stayed in the woods. I was just playing.”
“When did you decide to head home?”
“The sun started to go down. I headed back the way we came—from the church.”
“And that’s when Mrs. Williams found you?”
Evans sighed, closed his leather-bound notebook, and tucked a shiny black fountain pen in his shirt pocket. “We’re going to head out for a search party. Mr Jenkins, you’re coming with me. Mrs Jenkins, I recommend calling all the friends you have to join the search. Mr Bernard, please escort Miss Bernard home and join us this evening. The woods around Redwater are not small, nor are they safe. So, please bring extra ammunition. We head out in an hour.”
Everything after that happened quickly. Before their boots left the front door, Maria—Mrs. Jenkins—was on the phone calling their neighbors. Yes, hello, operator. Parker residence please. Cathy, hello, my Tommy is missing.
John and Isabella biked home, and when they arrived, John set the bicycle against their cottage and strode inside to grab his Springfield hunting rifle and extra ammunition. Jane was in the living area, patching a hole in one of the boy’s trousers while the two toddlers sat on the floor with whittled wooden cars and people between them. John did not make eye contact, but he saw from the corner of his eye, Jane was watching him. And then when Isabella came through the door behind him, she tensed.
Isabella turned and headed to her room, closing the door behind her. Jane set her sewing on the side table next to her sewing chair, and stood to follow John into their bedroom where he kept his collection of guns. She found him deep into their closet, shuffling through an ammo box, the hunting rifle already strapped about his shoulder.
Jane cleared her throat, “Can we talk?”
“Yes, what is it?” John said, emptying the ammo box on a shelf in the closest. He couldn’t find the damn .308 shots.
“I spoke to Mrs. Williams when she returned to the church. She said she brought Isabella home. Did she say anything to you?”
“We talked briefly.” It was true. There weren’t many words passed between Mrs. Williams and John. Most of it were looks of acknowledgment. Mrs. Williams expected—entrusted—John to settle Isabella’s wild and out-of-character behavior, to snip it in the bud once and be done with it. And that was John’s intention until Isabella began to speak instead of avoid his gaze. Now, the top priority is finding Tommy, because if he didn’t, there would be a whirl of consequences beyond what any eight-year-old child could imagine.
“Tommy is missing,” she said, lowering her voice and inching in towards John as if this was a secret only she knew.
“I know. I’m headed out with Joseph and Evans. We’re going to go find him,” John said, loading a round into the rifle chamber, stuffing the box of located .308s into his jacket pocket, and securing a tweed golf hat on his head to keep his hair out of his face.
“You’re leaving right now?” She asked. “Are you… leaving her here?”
John turned then to face his wife, unpleased with her tone. It spoke of something he was in the dark about. It held fear. “Yes,” he said cautiously, “I’m not taking her with me.”
Jane’s hands lowered from her chest to in front of her skirts then and she looked down. “I understand. It would be silly, right, to take a chlid into the woods at this time of night?”
“It’s just that—,” Jane dropped her shoulders and laced her fingers together, still refusing eye contact with John, “I talked to Mrs. Williams, and she told me that when she found Isabella that… that she didn’t see Tommy leave the woods.”
“What exactly is that supposed to mean?”
“He’s too young to be going home by himself.”
“Eight,” she said. “Mrs. Williams just thought it was odd that Isabella wasn’t with him. She said she saw them head into the woods but only found Isabella…”
“Jesus Christ, Jane, do you have something to say? Tommy is missing right now, and I need to go find him. Just speak.”
“No!” She said, throwing her hands down at her side, tears welling into her eyes, “You don’t understand! Mrs. Williams said that when Isabella came back she seemed confused. She didn’t know where she was, and she said that—that her eyes...” her voice dropped to a strained whisper, “they were glowing blue.”
John scoffed, “That’s ridiculous. Trick of the light.”
“No, Jane,” he said, frustrated that Jane would even suggest anything so… so… unnatural. “I’m not going to sit here and listen to gossip. I’m going to go find Tommy, and you’re staying here with the children. We are not discussing this again.”
He headed out, fully strapped and packed with additional ammunition, his medical bag in the event that they find Tommy scathed, and a filled oil-lantern for the dark. Before he left out the front door, he paused in the living room to kiss the foreheads of his young boys and to glance back at Isabella’s closed door. He could swear he heard a soft sobbing from between the cracks. But he did not have time to console her. He needed to leave. He needed to find Tommy.
By the time John arrived to the search crew outside of the church, there was a group waiting on assignments from Sheriff Evans. The night had already fallen and stars rose in the black sky. The moon was only a waxing crescent, teasing no assistance to the men out searching that night.
Sheriff Evans stood on a stump facing the group of men, back to the woods, and holding a lantern up. He addressed the twenty-or-so men waiting for direction.
“Listen up. We’re looking for Thomas Jenkins. Skinny, eight, brown hair. He’s been alone for about four hours now, wandered around Redwater woods since before the sun went down. He was last seen headed towards the church, but we fear he did not make it that far. At this point, he will be hungry and tired and scared. Check in trees—we know the boy’s a climber—and check under bushes. Check anywhere a seventy-pound kid could hide.
“If you find him, notify your group leader to set off a flare. If he is noticeably injured, set off two flares and Dr. Bernard—he’s over there, wave, please, thank you—will come runnin’. Please make sure the area is safe from predators. Do not touch the boy if you find him. Leave that up to myself or Dr. Bernard. There are four group leaders—Charles, Kareem, Eisenhower, and Jones. Assign yourselves a minimum of five to a group. Leaders, grab your flare pack before you head out. Let’s move.”
The crowd dispersed, shuffling to find a group leader and begin the trek through the woods. John found himself next to Kareem who was counting heads and then explaining the section of Redwater that they would be searching. He discussed techniques, and reiterated good places to check for the boy. Kareem had an efficient team. While John wasn’t particularly close to the men in that group, he did know them all to have good reputations; they were men of good deeds and good intentions as far as everybody knew.
First, of course, there was Aditya Kareem who’s family immigrated from Bengali a decade ago. His family, which consisted of him, his father, and his two younger brothers, and their respective wives and children. His mother and sister, however, stayed in India. They settled in Blackrock as farmers, and while there are racist folk about town who swear up and down that Kareem’s family are always up to no good, John always knew them as peaceful. They threw the occasional grand party that unsettled their neighbors a half-mile out, but John supposed it was jealousy that unsettled them more than the complaint of noise because there were no better summer squash and potatoes in the entirety of Redwater County than that of the Kareem’s.
The other men had their own good standing in Blackrock for other reasons. Edward Moore, or Eddie as he went by since he was a kid, started out at a little thieving boy coming from a hard family, but as he grew up, he made amends with those he did wrong and now works at the tannery fixing up saddles and reins and other goods for the locals. He’s never needed much help from John, but they always shared a short word when they ran into each other. Oscar Perez was also a kind fella. His family had roots in Blackrock before it was ever even known as Blackrock. He was about fifteen years younger than John and a head shorter, but he packed a dense body and a hell of a punch. The Perez’s were down on Isley as cattle ranchers. They were not people to mess with, and most folk often didn’t considering their insurmountable generosity—Abuela Perez was John’s favorite to work with seeing that she always had a meal prepared for him every time he made a house-call to check on her. Lastly, the group consisted of Jesse Campbell, the youngest of the entire gathering of search party members. He was always a cautious boy and stayed quiet and out of the way as he grew up. It was rather surprising to see him there that night considering he learned his prudent ways from his mother after his father passed away in a hunting accident when Jesse was just knee-high.
Being around these men was comforting to John because although he did not know them well, he did trust their reputations, and trusted that they wouldn’t miss him if he slipped away once they neared Marwos, thinking better of his intentions and abilities to survive the dark wilderness alone.
When they began to head into the woods, John followed. Kareem’s team was to search the closest to Marwos. He thought that if he fell behind, he could break off and head into that section alone. He hoped to find Tommy intact, but something deep in his gut told him that it wasn’t going to be the case. Something in Isabella’s voice from earlier that day, and Jane’s comment—her eyes were glowing blue. What could it mean? It most certainly could have been just a trick of the light, but what if it wasn’t?
God, what was he thinking just then? Demons and devils didn’t exist as much as the holy folk of the town believed they did. He wasn’t going to let superstition get in the way of what could be a real medical emergency. Marwos had wolves and coyotes and bears and cottonmouth snakes. There was a real danger lurking in the depth of it and if he truly got lost out there, he could have been gone by then.
No. John shook his head. He wasn’t going to think about it. Tommy could also have just climbed a tree and was waiting out the night. He was a smart kid, after all.
They entered the tree line. It was dark. Without the aid of the moon, the only light they could make out was the shadows and highlights from yellow flames of lantern held up high. As they broke apart from the rest of the party, the echoes of crunching leaves and snapping twigs underfoot echoed alongside the yells of Tommy’s name. The farther they got from the rest of the groups, the more Kareem’s group spread out, covering ground with about ten feet between the five of them. After a half-hour trek from the church, they made it to the edges of Marwos and changed course, deciding it would be best to comb the woods to the edge of the road.
“If the boy has any instinctual direction, he would have gone that way and taken the road home. But that’s a two hour walk back to his house, so it’s a clear chance he’s on his way there now,” Kareem said. He had a point. Even if Tommy got lost, there was a chance he headed west around the lake. If he did, and he continued to follow it, he would have ran right into the main road which would have brought him home.
As hopeful as he wanted to be about him heading towards the road, John still felt the urge to check deeper into the woods. He wanted to tell the group his thoughts—his sinking feeling, but to find the right words without being suspicious was impossible. Nobody went into Marwos. Even Evans thought it was unreasonable to think that Tommy would have made it that far. However, knowing that Isabella admitted to it… John wondered if Tommy never made it out.
He stopped in his place, lowered his lantern, and backed away from the group who prepared to spread out to comb through towards the road. He blew out his light and backed towards Marwos slowly, crouching behind the trunk of a thick pine to wait for the group to get far away enough to forget about him. No one looked back. No one cared that John was missing. They only searched for Tommy.
John stood. He turned, shuffled in his pocket for a new match, lit his lantern, and then walked towards Marwos. Marwos was not a large section of woods, but it was thick. Thorns and poison ivy grabbed at pant legs and loose fabric. There was an illusory defined barrier between the strong, stout white pines and the lanky, clasping slash pines that made up the difference between the Redwater woods and Marwos. John stepped across that boundary and felt the earth shift under him, almost as if it shied away from his footfalls. He continued forward.
When Isabella said they went into Marwos, John wasn’t sure at first what she meant. Sure, it wasn’t a grand forest, but it did stretch for a squared two miles, with three-quarters of it’s land sparring off the encroaching white pines, and the other quarter jutting out into the lake as a peninsula ever-reaching toward the island in the center of Redwater Lake, toward Death Island.
The main attraction of Marwos for peculiar children like Isabella and Tommy—like John, Joseph, and Peter—was the island. Protruding from the water like an alluring hill, it invited imaginative children who felt the threat of the name was no match for their invincibility that childhood granted them. It was a place far away from the adults where they could just be themselves. Most adolescences and teenagers stayed away from the island because it was a mile-swim in black, copperhead-infested water with the only reward being a place to sit under a speckled canopy of mostly dead trees. But to young children? It was a pirate island. It was a good strategic location for guerrilla warfare, a place to make camp, to pretend a game of deserted island in the middle of the wide, blue ocean that they only heard of from the few travelers that marched in and out of town and from those stories that grandpa used to tell when he lived in Virgina.
Death Island was adventure.
But it was hard to get to. Between traversing through the thick undergrowth, thorny vines, and out-maneuvering the predators that lurked there, you also had to get past the booby traps set up by the formidable landowners, the Walker family.
John knew by then the people that they were, which meant that they’re rather kind and unfortunately mistaken as ill and barbaric pagans due to their dark skin color and familial roots originating in southern Louisiana, but though they could be obstinate and boisterous, they were often considerate of the townsfolk and made it their duty to protect wandering children from the dangers of Marwos and Death Island. In fact, they did well enough to ward others away by spreading the name “Death Island” and warning people of the dangers of the area that the last time any child had gone missing due to those woods was thirty years ago when Peter disappeared.
The irony was not missed on him.
As John progressed between the lanky trunks and bushy undergrowth, an eerie feeling crawled down his spine, tingling his neck and sending shivers through his arms. He had hoped he’d never have to be there again. He may not truly remember the events that took place the night that Peter disappeared, but the feeling of Marwos was not forgotten. It was a feeling that he didn’t belong there; and not just because it was nature and he’s never really felt “at home” in nature settings (he was a man that loved his house and manicured gardens), but it felt that the woods simply did not want him there.
Past a certain point, it grew silent. Only the crunch below his boots and the drumming of his heart could be heard. An acrid scent rose from the ground, like a mangled mix of decaying fauna and fungus feasting on remains of lost souls, both innocent and not. It unsettled John to think that below his feet was topsoil rich with nutrients sucked from life that once was crawling through that very forest perhaps only decades ago, but the bodies now lay disintegrated by acid spat by ravenous bacteria and unforgiving fungi.
John inhaled deeply, holding in his breath. He wasn’t going to think about death. Instead, he was going to make a plan. He had a feeling that the children were attempting to make it to Death Island. With that in mind, he followed the overgrown path through Marwos that led to the peninsula. He hoped if he stayed on the path and kept his ears piqued, he could pick up a sign of Tommy perhaps hiding in a tree or under a bush. So, with his lantern held high, he took large steps forward, hiking over fallen trees and brambles. The path was expected to be less clear, but even John can make out crumbled leaves and stamped dirt. It was an animal path, taken by both hunter and prey. It was familiar. It was the very same path. It was odd. Underneath the looming pines, John felt like a kid again. Everything seemed so large and intimidating, and while John felt very out of place in those woods, it was all so exhilarating. His hands shook with the same excitement he felt all those years ago running behind Peter and Joseph towards the peninsula.
Yet the dark frightened him. It made him jump easily. It made him paranoid of what could be watching…
A low growl resonated through the woods. From behind him? John turned. The lantern swung on it’s iron handle. Orange light illuminated the unfamiliar backs of the trees and allowed the shadows to dance in rhythm with the squeaking swing of the lantern. He stepped backwards, and the darkness approached him, thick and shadowy, encroaching in his bubble of light. Every step back resonated two footfalls, and John knew that both were not him.
A snarl behind him. He snapped back around to face the path towards the lake. In the motion of the flame, he caught sight of a moving shadow dashing across the path to the other side of the trees. A wolf? Larger than a coyote. Faster than a bear. John moved the light to the left side of the path to illuminate a larger area, perhaps it would scare whatever was hunting him. Nothing. He moved it to the right, and in the bushes between two pines he saw bright, fiery blue eyes.
The lantern went out with a howl from the beast.
John dropped the lantern, shattering the glass on the forest floor, and ran.
He ran back towards the road. He leaped back over the fallen branches and trunks, over bushes and brambles. Something snagged at his pant leg and ripped through the fabric, scratching his leg. He felt the sting of a slice, but kept going. His chest heaved, his ribs burned, and he suffocated taking in mouthfuls of iron-scented decay all around him. His head screamed, but the woods were still so, so eerily quiet other than the slap of branches from his face and the heavy panting from his lips.
He wanted to look back. Was it a trick of his mind? Was he just getting farther from his investigation because of the fear that he tried so hard to bottle? It was an illusion. It had to be. He needed to know. John looked back, and when he did, he did not see the shadowy blue-eyed figure as he did before. Nothing. There was nothing. He tripped. He jerked forward as he tried to bring his foot up to continue his run, and he fell. Caught on the roots. The palms of his hands scrapped against hard rocks, and the tender meaty flesh of them stung. He tried to push himself up, but something slithered under his pant leg from his exposed ankle and wrapped around his calf, cutting into his flesh with pokes like thorns from a vine. He felt it twist and rope itself around him. He gasped.
He turned on his side and reached for the small knife he buried in his left coat pocket. It wasn’t there. He shifted and felt in the right one. Gone. Gone. Gone. His heart thrummed against his ribcage so deafeningly loud against the quiet of the woods. The vines continued to tighten against his leg, now to his knee, like a snake does to it’s prey.
What if it was a snake?
John managed to turn on his back and sit up. He pulled at the strap of the Springfield on his back and aimed it in the dark near his foot. He couldn't see a damn thing! He aimed a little higher and shot.
As he did, a red flare rose high into the dark sky. A second red pop followed it.
And in the momentary illumination of his rifle shot, he did not see vines or roots or the snake his was fearing. He saw the wolf with it’s foaming jaws snapped around his leg. It’s blue eyes stared at him wild with rings of yellow around the pupil, but then once the flash of light disappeared, so did the blue.
In that moment, John leaped up and ran towards the flare—towards Tommy—without thought of the path or what else might get him because anything, anything at all, would be better than that wolf, or whatever it was. Even if it meant Tommy might be hurt, anything else was better than staying in Marwos.
When he reached the location where the flares went off, a murmuring gathering had already formed around the area. This annoyed John to no end. He was the doctor. They should not be crowding the boy if he was found, let alone if he was hurt.
“Move aside,” he announced, pushing himself through the crowd of men.
John stepped into the center, but he did not find Tommy. He saw a carcass. Heath Charlie, the one who found the body, whimpered on the ground at the feet of the crowd.
“I—” he stammered, “I’m s-sorry.”
John grabbed a lantern from a man near him and held it above the bloodied mass in the center. It was not Tommy. It was a small deer, from what John could tell by the tuffs of brown fur left over with a similar hue to that of Tommy’s hair color. But it was short and coarse, where Tommy had wavy locks that touched his shoulders bore from a rat’s nest on his head. And one small hoof laid half-covered in leaves near, but detached, from the ankle of the thing. The rest of it was unrecognizable.
It was a heap of bone and organs and blood.
“I thought—” Heath stammered again, “I thought it was him.”
John shook his head, “No, it’s not. It’s time to move out. It’s been long enough. Where’s Sheriff Evans?”
Evans pushed through the crowd, finally arriving onto the scene.
“Good God,” he said, putting his hand to his mouth and nose.
“Indeed. Evans, it’s time to call it. We should head back and try again in the light.”
“I think that’s the right call, John,” he said eying the mess on the ground with a disgusted, yet intrigued look. Evans took a moment longer to look at the carcass before whistling and announcing the departure with the groups. Team leaders were to make sure everyone was accounted for before heading back. They would all regroup in the morning at 7 when the sun was out and Tommy would be easier to see.
“Hopefully,” Evans said, “Tommy will be home before then.”
Then he left, stepping around the carcass and heading back towards the church. After once last glance at the thing on the ground, John followed. An exhaustion settling over him, but with more questions than he had when everything began.
Tommy Jenkins Went to Hell - Part 1
John stands at the front door of his wooded cottage. Joseph’s words from earlier that day gnaw at the back of his mind. Isabella’s death was not your fault. But how can Joseph be so sure of it? He wasn’t there when she died. Hell, John only arrived on scene to cradle her in his arms for her last breath. And he was only there by accident. Does the blame not fall on him for being an absent parent? Does it not fall on him for not recognizing the strange circumstances that befell his daughter—circumstances that she was never able to free herself of? John thinks Joseph is wrong. While he may not have struck the blow that took her life, his lack of action to help her meant that her death, yes, was very much his fault. Isabella deserved so much more than he gave her, and now she’s gone and he has nothing but guilt and the house he raised her in.
And being home did not help the guilt that sat heavy in his heart. He has to remember that the house is just a house, and the land that was passed down from his great-grandfather when they settled in the area is just land. The original house was made of logs and nails, but over the generations it became an architectural conglomerate of logs, bricks, and stone as the family expanded and more children were born into the Bernard name.
Now, as time goes on, it is only occupied by John and his immediate family. The elders passed and his siblings and cousins moved on to other towns and cities as they tried to break the generational curse that was rumored to linger on the land from the spilled blood of Caddo natives. John was the only one foolish enough to stay, passing the name of Redwater off as the color of the natural land instead of giving into the tales of the battles long fought between the natives and the white men.
The expanded cottage sits on 140-acres of land, half covered in uncorrupted woods, while the rest was transformed into crop and livestock farmland, enough to sustain his family and for Jane to sell around town for a small profit.
John places his hand on the front door handle, feeling the sun-heated iron under his palm. He lingers there for a moment, eyes fixed on the fist-sized pockmark that serves as a reminder of the day he lost his daughter to the Devil.
Seven years ago, John sat across from Him in the form of eight-year-old Isabella; and he was lost for words. He could only stare at her, brows furrowed, elbows propped on the dining table, and fingers laced in front of his mouth. He watched as Isabella squirmed under his scrutinizing gaze. Her thin, pale fingers played nervously with the hem of her yellow Sunday dress. She refused to make eye contact with him, finding the brown slats of the log walls much more interesting.
John wholly appreciated that Mrs. Williams was discreet about the situation. What he did not appreciate was that she pounded the front door so hard that she left those pockmarks in the aging wood that he shall notice until the day he dies. She said she had found Isabella at the edge of the woods near the church, saw dark mud and leaves against the bright dress, and dragged the girl home before anyone saw them. John apologized for the inconvenience of it all, and Mrs. Williams scoffed at him, only saying that she hoped he could beat the devil out of her. Mrs. Williams was an elderly woman, wise in her years, and tough, but mostly forgiving of first mistakes. She believed in hard work and learning, but did not stand for repeated offenders and those unwilling to “make room for Jesus in their hearts.”
But that had been the first signs of any trouble within the confines of Isabella’s mind. Before that day, she was kind and courageous. She was headstrong, certainly, but always acted with the best intentions and other people at the center of her care and attention. That’s why John knew that when he confronted her about her and Tommy’s adventures in the woods that day, that the responses spewing from her lips were not formulated by Isabella.
The warmth of the handle begins to burn under his palm. He just needs to open the door. He hasn’t been home in the past two weeks—since Isabella passed in his arms—and he can only imagine the science experiments growing within the pantry of vegetables and fruit and leftover bread, but he can’t avoid the house any longer. The Donahues were nice enough to let him stay, but he felt the tension growing as he lounged on their living room sofa and ate at their small dining table cramped between them and their four children.
John sucks in his breath and pushes the door inward. The mid-afternoon light floods in behind him, illuminating the main living area of the cottage. The main room is a large rectangle, with a bench and a hat rack off to the right, a sofa pushed against the far wall, and miscellaneous décor that the Bernards have accumulated over the decades. It lived up to it’s cottage name with organic oak furniture, an array of books covering a plethora of subjects (both fiction and non-fiction), and homemade crafts like pottery, whittled figures, and wood-burned frames hosting Bernard artistry. While John does not live up to the Bernard name, giving his life to science and reality, Jane blossomed when she married into the name twenty-five years ago.
At that time, John’s parents still lived in the house, before they decided to move an hour away to Dixon to be closer to John’s ill sister, Joanna. His grandparents had already passed two years before his parents moved, and once they were gone, the house was left to him and Jane to use and tend to and to fill with a family of their own. They were unsuccessful for nine years. And in that time, Jane used her creative gifts to paint and tailor and harvest the land. John used that time to work.
And when Isabella was born in 1894, John continued to work.
But between his house-calls and faraway medical conferences, he found time to build, too. Isabella’s room was the first door on the left down the hall from the main living area. The bed frame, the vanity, the dresser—all of it was John’s handiwork. He was proud of it down every last crooked nail or screw. The boys also had rooms of their own down that hallway. Silas’s room was adjacent to Isabella’s, because he was the second eldest, and then Josiah’s next to his. There was one last room at the end that John and Jane always wanted to fill with another little Bernard, but Josiah seemed to be the last blessing. Or he was until Jane confessed to a surprise pregnancy just six months back.
At that time, John was ecstatic. He was thrilled to hear the pitter-patter of little feet running around the cottage again.
But now, he stands at the closed door to the empty room and realizes that the house was never going to be graced with little feet of a Bernard ever again. In fact, it’ll only have echoes of the ones that were there before. He opens the door to the room. It sits empty, as it always had, but with a thick layer of dust on the floorboards. He decides that this was going to be the best place to sort Isabella’s things. One-by-one he was going to sort her stuff into this room in piles—things to throw away, things to donate, and things to keep.
In order to do that, he would have to actually go into her room. He doesn’t want to. He stands there in front of it, places his hand on the knob, and just stares at the upside-down cross etched into the wood. He remembers the day Jane found it and she screamed. So, so loud that John heard it from down the path as he was on his way home. So much had already happened between the day the Devil “possessed” Isabella and the day she etched the cross into the door. However, in all honesty, the cross never bothered John.
John is not a Christian. Not like Jane is. He’s a man of science and pessimistic reality where things can be proved and experimented. He’s never cared for religion or spiritual philosophy, though, he admits that over the past several years, his orthodox belief in science has been tried over and over again; and the many attempts that these otherworldly forces have made to crack at his rigid foundation has slowly began to be successful.
Over the years, they have caused him nightmares and doubts and hallucinations of blue fire and deep, guttural voices echoing on the wind. In the past, he has been able to push these to the side of mind tricks played on him by his own irrational fear and the religious trauma that had been inflicted on him since he was a boy. But now, they mock him again. He hears a noise. Nothing threatening—no—but unsettling. It’s his own voice, floating into the front living room from the kitchen. John moves from Isabella’s door and goes closer to the voice, to hear it clearer. When he enters the kitchen, he sees the ghostly silhouettes of himself and Isabella at the dining table. Across the way is the phantom of himself, unable to process what Mrs. Williams had told him earlier that day, and he was unable to accept the state of his daughter as she sat direct from him.
It was Spring of 1901. Her hands were in her lap, tangling her fingers in the hem of her dress that was caked in mud and debris. Her shoes were also covered in mud, leaving a trail of thick, wet foot prints from the door to the kitchen table. The yellow bow in her hair was crooked and entangled with twigs. She looked as if she had been in a war in the woods.
John’s voice echoed, “Isabella, what mess have you made?”
She had looked up to him then, her doll-like eyes wide and, if he had not known any better, terrified. She was not actually terrified in that moment—not of John, anyway, and not of the consequences of her action—but of something else John was not privy to at that time. Looking back, he can see now that her eyes gave away a secret. If he had known that day what she did, would he have acted differently? Would he have done more to protect her? The Lord talks about forgiveness, and that he finds that he is quick to, but would he have truly forgiven her so quickly if he had known the depth at which she opened her heart to the darkness she found that day?
“What did you do to your dress?” John asked.
Her eyes went wild for a moment, appearing to be a fright (although he realizes now that it was excitement rising from her). Her hands wrung at the dirty hem.
“It was Tommy’s idea,” she said quick.
“The woods. I’m sorry, papa. We went to Marwos—we didn’t get far…” She slouched in the chair. Her dress rode up around her shoulders, gaping at the neckline. Her chin touched her white-laced collarbone, and she looked up at John with her doe-like eyes. She knew she wasn’t allowed in the woods, let alone Marwos. It was private property. It was dangerous. There were coyotes and poison ivy. There was a sickness that hid in the trees that John has felt in his bones since he was a child. Until much later in his adult life, he had never stepped more than a couple feet underneath the canopy of the white pines that dominated their town, surrounding their cottage, and lining the main roads that led in and out of the countryside. Rumors of native curses or not, something spread within the woods in Blackrock, and even worse, the looming aged pines of the Marwos property seemed to be the source of John’s irrational anxieties.
“I don’t care whose idea it was,” He said firmly, “just… where did Tommy go? Did Mrs. Williams bring him home, too?”
She shook her head.
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Isabella, where is Tommy?”
“He went home sick.”
John forced a disappointed sigh. It wasn’t like her to be difficult. Strange and silly, certainly, but not secretive.
“I’m going to have a word with Thomas’s father. We’re going to head over there to make sure he got home safe, and you are going to apologize to Mr. Jenkins for encouraging this behavior. This is not going to happen again, do you understand?”
She stared at the table, her fingers no longer fidgety. A frown sat on her face.
“Isabella, do you understand me?”
“It was only a goat.”
John cocked his head, flustered, “Wh—excuse me?”
“My dress. It’s goat’s blood.”
He saw it then, in the lamplight from the five-point chandelier above the table. The light casted an amber hue to the room, but upon closer examination he could see that the stains he had mistaken for mud were not quite the right consistency. Or maybe not the right color. The waters of Blackrock tended to have a reddish-brown tint due to the natural clay deposits that sat at the edges and bottoms of the rivers and lakes, but the thought of those stains against the bright yellow of her dress turned from mud, as he initially thought it was, to the blood she claimed it to be. And now the stains looked much, much redder.
“It’s... not yours?” What kind of question was that?
She shook her head. Then blinked and corrected herself, “Maybe some of it is.”
He was baffled. He was so unbalanced by the confession after struggling with her silence for what felt like hours that he wasn’t sure what was true anymore. First Marwos, now a goat, and Tommy got sick? Images pieced together in his mind about what could have happened, but the range of possibilities made him dizzy. He wanted to sit down, but no. He had to make sure Tommy got home safe.
John ran to the phone and dialed the Jenkins’ number. The operator picked up.
“Joseph Jenkins, please,” John said.
“One moment,” the operator said.
And then a frantic voice picked up on the other side, “Sheriff Evans? Did you find him?” The voice was Joseph.
“No…,” John said, “It’s John Bernard. Tommy isn’t home?”
“No, he’s not. How—how did you know I was looking for Tommy?”
John went silent for a moment as his heart dropped. Tommy was missing. Isabella might have been the last person to see him. “I’m coming over,” John said, “We need to talk.”
Latex Allergies and Black Sabbath T-Shirts: A Ghost Story
Out of all the dumb decisions I’ve made, this by far has to be the dumbest bullshit decision of all dumb bullshit decisions. I want to love him—I do—but right now, all I feel is a disbelieving resentment towards him and reprehension towards myself. How could I have been so stupid?
On the dark, wooded side road of 65, Chris Sandoval and I sit in a humid, leather-wrapped, ugly little Grand Prix that his grandfather “fixed up.” The car “stalled.” I knew we should have met at the theater like I suggested; but no, he insisted that he pick me up like a gentleman. What a load of shit.
God, I’ve been so captivated by him since day one of meeting him in the chat room—by his strong jaw under the short beard in the photos and his typing speed and his cajoling words and his appetizing voice over the phone. We had talked for months about everything, until he finally said he’d love to meet me, to get to know me better. I agreed. I wanted to see the side of himself he bragged about. He said he’s the best at Battleships and that he makes the best sushi. I wanted to see if those are true. So, I said yes, you can pick me up. And really, I wanted him to.
But now here I am, 10 o’clock on a Friday night on the side of the road with the man I only just met an hour ago. He’s a lot taller than I imagined, and his arms are a lot wider. I shouldn’t have lied to my friends about knowing him—we've been friends for years, I said, from college. And they believed me. God, why would they believe me? Between the two of them, they should know I don’t go on dates, let alone to see a sci-fi film. Now, because of their lack of incredulity, I’m going to be dead and buried in the woods somewhere. He could be a serial killer. I don’t know; I never asked.
Our conversation lulled a while ago—after ranging from the weather to his grandfather’s car hobby to future plans (him getting his master’s in engineering at some college I forgot the name of, and me posted in some artist gallery far, far away from here, with him, I said. If he’d like that.)
After five minutes of trying to turn the engine over, he stops and leans back into his seat, sweat beading on his forehead and under his nose.
“Fuck man, it’s hot in here,” he says, pulling at the collar of his dark gray button-up. He loosens two buttons from his neck, exposing the top of a black undershirt. His sleeves are rolled to his elbows, displaying two armfuls of artful tattoos. From the side, he looks down and over at me with hazel eyes, roaming top to bottom, lingering at my chest and legs. I had thrown on a Black Sabbath t-shirt and short denim overalls thinking that there are enough layers and buckles to get through that if something starts, I would have enough time to stop if I changed my mind, yet his eyes are looking through me as if I’m naked. He is looking at me for what I can be to him.
I unbuckle and resist the urge to put my feet up on the seat to get comfortable. I feel useless. I know next to nothing about diagnosing car problems and don’t know the area enough to offer advice. Instead, I just stare at him. I shouldn’t, I know, it’s kind of rude, but I can’t help it. There’s so much potential built into just this one man, and it calls to me like a promising siren of future stability and safety I yearn for.
He doesn’t seem to notice me staring. Instead, he’s trying the ignition again. The car sputters and wheezes and then stops. It won’t turn over. He grunts and hits the wheel, cursing under his breath. His hands grip around the wheel, and he lays his forehead against the top. Some of his pushed back hair fell forward, covering his eyes and exposing little black studs in his earlobes.
“I’m really sorry about this,” he says. He looks defeated. There was an inflection of sincerity in his voice. Maybe I had overreacted earlier. He really can’t be that bad of a guy. Not if he loves Battleships and sci-fi and sushi.
“It’s okay,” I squeak. “I wasn’t really interested in seeing Independence Day anyway. I’m not a huge fan of Bill Pullman.”
“You take that back,” he says. He is facing me now, with his cheek against the wheel. His face plays a hurt pout, but his eyes are gleaming with a teasing smile. “Well, then what are you a fan of?”
“Oh, I’m more of a Robin Williams and Bill Murray kinda gal.”
“Oh, yeah. Give me Jumaniji and Ghostbusters any time of the day. It gets me going.”
He laughs then, an affable and genuine one. It sounds so much better in person. So much richer and real. He turns to me then, that smile on his face. His gaze makes me want to pull him in closer, but before I can, I feel his hand slide over mine—so large and encompassing. He drops it down to my upper thigh and wriggles his strong fingers underneath my overall shorts. At this moment, I contemplate my choices. Location isn’t ideal. I was hoping for something softer, something less humid. I was hoping to be able to take off my Converses and shower afterward. How would we fit? He’s so tall—his hair almost brushes the top of the roof—and there’s no room for me to straddle him with the center console...
I want to say something, to tell him maybe we should wait; I want to do this, but just not here. Tell him that; use those exact words.
I say, “Isn’t this your grandfather’s car?”
“What?” He pulls back a little, flustering. “I mean, yeah, sure, but who cares? I drive it; it’s going to be mine anyway.”
Stupid. I ruined the moment. I didn’t mean to upset him. I don’t want the date to go this way. I put my hand over his and lean over the console to him. I grab at the front of his shirt and try to reach him with my lips to shut him up, to shut the doubts up. He doesn’t need to feel flustered or embarrassed. No, that’s not what I want. I want him to kiss me. And he does. He meets my lips, then pushes me back into my seat, one hand on my thigh and the other on my cheek. Yes, yes, I say, but maybe not out loud. He presses so hard into me. No more thinking. Just shut up. I let him guide our mouths and our hands. The seat collapses back under the both of us; he can’t fit but he tries—he tries so hard—to fit himself on top of me in that tiny leather seat, but only his torso can reach across the center console.
As Chris begins to slither his hands deeper into the sides of my overalls, a sudden crack bursts across the windshield, shattering it into a web of fractured glass. I yelp.
“What the fuck?” He says, snapping back to his seat, a red flush across his face.
I pull my seat up, slowly returning it to its upright position. I sit for a moment, staring at the crack. It sounded like a screech—like a bird. I saw something, Chris, I want to say. I saw a face, but he won't believe me. Hell, I don’t believe me. It was quick. It was a shadow. A bird? Probably.
Chris sits in his own seat with disbelief, hands wrapped around the steering wheel. He’s staring at the crack, just as intensely as I had. His chest is heaving, eyes fluttering. In a quick motion, he grunts a furious scream, throwing his left fist to the side, and landing it on the driver’s side window. The glass shutters under the force.
My own heart beats loud, deafening, pounding into my head. He just punched the window. I don’t know what to do. I’ve never seen him angry—what do I do? I sit as far back into my seat as I can, practically melting into it. Eventually (it feels like) his hands fall into his lap. He slouches forward, head again on the steering wheel.
It comes out so, so softly. “I’m sorry,” he says.
Touch him. Tell him it’s okay—you've seen anger before. It’s understandable. Put your hand on his shoulder.
“What do you think could have broken the windshield?” I say.
“I don’t know…” He shrugs, looking at me with a new sprout of uncertainty, cutting through a confident, concrete guise. “Should I go check?”
I shake my head no.
He nods, “Okay. Do you want to go check?”
“Are you kidding me?” In his moment of doubt, a fury began to spread over me—one that takes hold of the fear that bubbles low in my chest. He’s unbelievable right now. He’s a man. He should go check. What if there’s danger? What would I do? “It’s dark, it’s muddy, and something just cracked your windshield. Why in the absolute hell would you think I’m getting out to go check?”
He shrugs again and gives a nonchalant shake of his head, “Just a thought.”
“Of the many, I’m sure.” I know it’s mean, but I’m not a mean person, really. He just needs a push to get there and go be brave. One of us should check and it’s not going to be me. At my retort, his eye twitches, just once, quickly, as if he’s contemplating the audacity of me. He rolls his eyes. Oh, that eye roll. It stirs something low in me. A breath catches in my chest. I want to see it again—to push that button. But I should probably apologize.
Instead, I lean back in my seat and look in the side mirror, realizing that we are very much alone. I say, “Don’t you think it’s weird that no other cars have come by in a while?”
“There’s a light,” he says, nodding towards the woods, ignoring my observation. I follow his gaze to a white glow peering through the tree trunks. Silhouetted by yellow lines of light, I can make out shapes of statues and headstones. My eyes adjust, and I see that the light is from an outdoor sconce on the side of a shack—like a guard shack, maybe, or a gravedigger’s shed. I can’t really tell.
I shake my head furiously. No fucking way.
“No!” I say, “Don’t tell me there’s a fucking cemetery!”
He laughs at me, an unbelieving chuckle with a raised eyebrow.
“Okay, look,” I justify, “I’m not scared. I’m not. But I’ve avoided zombies this far into my life, and I’m not going to run into them now. That Dawn of the Dead festival last year doesn’t count.”
Chris shrugs and rolls those eyes again, then drums his thumbs against the steering wheel in some sort of nervous tick. He stares out at the cemetery, lips quivering before saying, “Why, uh, why don’t we go check the shack? See if there’s a guard on the... on the graveyard shift.”
His little smirk sends my stomach roiling. “Was that supposed to be a joke?” I say, “In a situation like this?”
“Jokes are best in a situation like this,” he says. “Are you coming or not?”
I shake my head again, “I’d rather die in the car.”
“Suit yourself,” he says as he unbuckles and braces some kind of courage to open the car door. When he does, a cold wind blows into the car, sending chills across my arms. A waft of decomposition flutters in behind it. I shiver. It’s July. It’s July. There is no such thing as a cold wind this time of year, and yet my bare arms are covered in goosebumps. Oh, I don’t like this. Something is out there. I’m safer in the car, right? I stay in my seat and my leg bounces anxiously as I watch Chris step further into the woods. He’ll be back, right?
As I wait, I look around the car at the leather seats and the waxed dashboard. Everything is free of dust and trash and fur (which is astonishing because I saw those pictures with his husky). The car is kept so clean; it feels wrong to breathe so I hold in my breath, afraid to disturb the environment of Chris’s things without his permission. On his mirror, he keeps an oval locket I never noticed before. I shouldn't, but I reach up and click it open. In the depths of it are two photos, one on each side. The left is a young girl and the right a young boy. The boy looks like him. They look like siblings. He never mentioned a sister to me. I want to ask about her, but what if it’s a touchy subject? Would he leave me if I insert myself too far into his life, into his future? Or is he open to the idea of us together past the first date, past a one-night-stand? We’ve talked so much over the last several months, and I was able to consume so much of his life, but never did we get any step further than the first meeting, the first date. Who knows what the future holds, he said. Just gotta see what happens.
Something bubbles in my stomach then—call it fear, call it premonition, but it forces me to call out to him.
“Chris, wait,” I say, my hand opening my own door. “I’m coming.”
Against my conscious will, my body moves to follow him. I don’t want to stay in the car alone—not with the sticky humid seats or the cracked windshield. At this moment, I don’t want to be anywhere without him. I follow him like the light, like some safe security I didn’t know I needed.
The leaves and twigs below us snap and crinkle under each falling step, amplified by the silent ambiance of the woods. Among the conglomeration of decay and rot of fauna and fungi, the humid air carries a sharp, acrid scent. I can only assume it’s from the cemetery. We now stand at the back of it, staring at a couple dozen blank headstones facing East. The light of the shack illuminates only so much in the surrounding area, leaving pockets of looming darkness at the edges of its reach. It’s hard for me to describe the feeling that envelopes me as I stand at the edge of the cemetery. I’ve never been a superstitious person. Nor religious, for that matter. But something is gnawing at me—some unseeing burden weighs on my shoulders, pulling me towards the center where the building sits like a gravitating planet orbiting, swirling, and spiraling out of its own control. I suddenly want answers to questions I never knew I had asked.
First, Chris steps into the invisible boundary of the cemetery, heavily, but now certain—some kind of confidence was gained in the presence of our impending, absolute death. My feelings falter a little about him and about the situation as I watch him stomp through the grass keeping to the sides of the graves and staying on a vague gravel path that leads to the door of the shack. He traverses respectfully through the graves, almost gracefully, in fact. Not a serial killer, after all. No serial killer respects the dead.
We approach the shack and see that it’s in good condition (better than I expected, to be honest). It’s resurrected with multi-colored cobblestone and topped by a shingled roof. A singular square window sits plainly next to the door. I try to peek in through the window, to find the source of that pull, maybe, but between the glare of the sconce and the darkness inside, I can make nothing definitive out except a small, blinking red light in the far back.
He knocks on the door. I didn’t expect an answer, and I’m not sure if he did either. At this distance, it’s clearly a groundskeeper’s shed, smack in the middle of the cemetery. So far away from civilization, I shouldn’t have expected anyone to be out here guarding or caring for the area at night. There isn't really a threat of vandalism; it isn’t that nice of a cemetery. Yet so, so far away. And I am so alone with him. And I am standing right next to him as he squats and jiggles the handle and pries at the lock with something buried between his palm and fingers.
He’s breaking in. I see that, but it does not stop my mouth from asking, “What are you doing?”
He looks up at me with a toothy smile—the one I fell in love with in his photos—as the lock on the door clicks and opens under his touch.
“There’s probably a phone in there,” he says, pushing the door open.
Okay, I’ll admit it. I know this is wrong. I see his intentions. Red flags are waving in my face. Yet some fiendish part of me still wants to know what his weight will feel like on top of me. I want to know what his sweat smells like and how his flesh tastes between my teeth. Against my moral fibers (if any existed at all), I step into the shed after him.
A fluorescent light buzzes overhead, singular and positioned in the center of the ceiling. The shed is relatively clean and orderly, with tools and boxes on shelves and pegboards. While clean, it’s still a shed and small and cramped with a wooden floor. And a phone. His hunch was right. Sitting on a weathered desk with a shitty rolling chair in the back of the shed is a baby blue landline with an “emergency phone numbers” list taped to the right of it.
He looks down at me, grinning, and puts the phone up to his ear. The dial tone roars throughout the shed, and he sets the phone back on the hook.
“I can call for a tow, but we’re going to have to wait for it,” he says, leaning against the desk.
I laugh, partly annoyed, but partly relieved, too, that the immense pressure of impending doom had stopped. This is it. Simple as that. Car breaks down, we call for a tow. Cemetery looks scary, but we walked right through it, didn’t we? No hiccups. No hands plummeting up from the graves to snatch at our ankles. It’s safe, and I’m safe. Safe with him. I look at him, now, locking eyes. He doesn’t waver under my gaze. Sturdy. Confident.
“This was your plan the whole time, wasn’t it?” I ask.
“No,” his face falls, “Why would it be? This would be a terrible plan.”
I nod. No plan, no pressure. No doubts lingered any longer in the back of my mind. I turn from him and bolt the door behind us. Nothing is going to ruin this. No black birds, no zombies. He calls 911 and asks for a tow to be dispatched. He gives them the name of the cemetery, though don’t remember seeing the name of the cemetery on our way in. Easy thing to miss, I suppose.
When I turn back around, Chris is standing right in front of me. So close. He places a loose strand of my short hair behind my ear. I can’t seem to move. My body is shivering, but it’s so warm in here under the light and in his presence. So safe.
My breath comes out in wavering exhales. I have to ask, “Why here?” Of all the places we could go. We could wait, really. Oh, but I don’t want to. Not now, not when this opportunity rests simply here between us. The walk back to the car now felt too far of a walk, too far of a time to wait to have him.
“We have an hour,” he says to me, planting his soft lips on mine. “I promise it wasn’t supposed to be this way.”
Between our kisses, he says something about not having a condom and something about a latex allergy, but I don’t hear him. My mind is dizzy with some aerosol version of his scent overshadowing any clear thoughts that attempt to tell me to stop.
His fingers fumble at the buttons on his shirt, pulling them apart painstakingly slow, but they all eventually come undone like a puzzle we’ve both been trying to figure out all night. Underneath his button-up is a Black Sabbath t-shirt like mine, the tour name loud on the front with a Dehumanizer album cover. He pulls it off over his head with one hand on the back of the neck. A single swoop and it now lays on the floor flat beneath his button-up.
I let him guide me down to the floor, on top of his clothes, and let him take off my own, one overall button at a time. I can’t think while he does this; I can only feel him and his hands over me, sliding my overalls off and then my shirt up, exposing my unconstrained breasts. He kisses down my body and pushes apart my legs.
This is it. This is that pull I felt toward the shed. It was the thought of him and me—us alone together where we couldn’t be interrupted or looked down upon. Kids, they all think, still so young and naïve. Devil-worshipers, they said, with their tattoos and piercings and rock music. It was always something while they knew nothing. There was always something more.
But he takes all of that away. There’s no uncertainty with him, just a clear sense of want he wants. Chris melts into me, his aura merging with mine. I feel the emotion first before I can name it. I admit I was cautious about it. I felt like I was using the word “love” too loosely, too lightly. But no, this has to be real. There is no other way I can explain it as he props himself above me. This is right.
I wrap my arms around his neck, focusing on his movements, but as I do, I can only stare up and out of the singular window of the shed.
And it’s there that I see him watching us. I try to cry out but my throat closes up and my heart races. The bastard found me again. I tell Chris to stop—Jesus Christ, listen to me—but my voice doesn’t come out. My voice is trapped and I’m trapped under Chris. I tap his shoulder quickly, but he doesn’t stop. I look away, unable to bear his gaze any longer, and try to wriggle free, but Chris is so large and so strong and I’m not. I look back to the window and the face is gone. I’m no longer safe. Not when he’s around. I don’t want this right now. Not while I can feel him watching us. A wave of warmth spreads over my face as I feel the pressure of embarrassment rising through me, from my stomach and chest.
I tap Chris again, furiously, this time on his waist.
“Stop, stop,” I say, finding my words. His body lowers heavier onto mine, and his hand slides firmly over my mouth, pinky sitting just below my nose. He continues and I’m so fucking helpless. I try to move, but my shoulders are pinned by his, and his mouth is on my neck, and his hips are on mine. I try to push at his wrist that’s over my mouth, but he presses down hard enough that my teeth are imprinting on the inside of my lips. I try—I really do—to get him to stop. I try to scream, to bite his hand, to knee him, but nothing works. He has me pinned down, and now his face is Chris’s face and I want to vomit. I taste the weed on his breath mingled with cigarettes and Corona. This is not what Chris tastes like.
“Please,” I manage to choke out between his fingers, tears falling on either side of my face.
At this point, I feel his teeth on my earlobe and his hot breath down my neck. He says, “Tell me you’re mine. Say it.”
I can’t do anything but cry then. I just want to go home. I want to go back to the shitty car to before this happened—before he arrived, before the hand, before the threat. I want to love the smell of Chris, the feel of him, but I need to escape because right now this is not Chris. He would never do this.
He pushes down again, brutely, and hisses, “Say it.”
I gag, “I’m yours. Please. I’m yours. Let me go.”
He smiles—God, that fucking smile—and lifts himself up, releasing his hand, and it’s Chris again. His smile falls and tired eyes focus on me, shifting out of some sort of trance. It takes a moment for him to ask, “Why are you crying?”
I saw him. But I can't tell you. He’s here, and I don’t know how, but he is and he can hurt you and it’s all my fault. I should have said no. No, I don’t want to meet you. I can’t have you as much as I want to. I can’t because of him, and he’ll never go away. I can’t make him go away.
Chris stares at me as I bawl into my arms. He waits for an answer, and when I don’t give him one, he falls back onto his heels and throws his hands in his lap, frustrated. “I’m sorry,” he says.
That’s when the window shatters. Shards of glass spray across the room, and Chris grabs me, curling me into his chest. He gasps, angrily. Chris didn’t see it happen as I did—him as a shadow, an enraged aura, his fist breaking the window in an effortless punch (as it always had been so effortless to him).
“Jesus fuck,” Chris says. He then stands, pulling up his pants over his boner, clasping it behind his jeans button. He turns, standing in front of me, shielding me from the window. His back is sliced with small shards of glass still sticking into his flesh. I stare at those glistening shards, wanting to reach my hand up to pluck each of them out and tell him I’m sorry. It’s my fault.
Chris calls out, “Who the fuck is there?”
There’s no answer. Of course, there never is going to be an answer. There isn’t anyone actually there, stupid. He was staring at me, but you didn’t see him. No one ever did. He’s like a hungry shadow, always so gluttonous and hidden behind what he wants you to see.
“I’m so sorry,” I say, wiping tears away with the back of my hands and arms, spreading little black mascara streaks all over them. “I should have told you about him.”
“About who?” Chris turns. His face is scrunched in a mix of confusion and anger and panic.
I shake my head, “I’m so sorry.” He’s going to hurt you and it’s all my fault.
“We’re getting the fuck out of here,” Chris says, looking back at the window again, scanning. He holds out a hand to help me up. I put my overalls back in place and throw on his button-up and he slides his t-shirt over his back as carefully as possible knowing that those shards are only going to dig deeper.
“Let’s go,” he says, then grabs my hand and throws the door open, pulling me behind him as we run back through the cemetery towards the car. I stumble over mounds of graves I didn’t notice before and knock my knee into a crooked headstone. As we run, I feel him behind us. He’s there. He’s somewhere. I turn to look—God, I know I shouldn’t have—and he’s there in the cemetery, staring at me from inside the shed from the shattered window, skulking as he always did.
Suddenly, the car is in front of me, and I’m yanking the handle as the door locks and unlocks and finally it’s open and slamming at my side. I look to my left and Chris is there, turning the key, praying that the engine comes to life. Sputtering, sputtering, wheezing, cough. Nothing. He tries again.
I scream. He's at Chris’s window, mouth gaping, eyes just as black as they always were. He's screaming at us. The window bursts in, scattering more glass. And then his hand is around Chris’s throat, and his head is pressed firmly against the headrest.
I scream, “Let him go!” But no, he doesn’t listen to me. No one really ever does. I try to punch at him, but I can’t seem to hit anything solid. He ignores me and continues gripping Chris’s throat until his face turns purple and his eyes fall into the back of his head. Chris’s body goes limp in his seat, and then he disappears.
At least, I think he did. I do not want to wait to find out. I lean over Chris, open his door, and push him out of the driver’s seat while a stream of “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” pours out of my mouth. His body crumbles onto the black pavement, and I try to close the door, but his foot is still in the car. I wrestle it out, then slam the door closed, and turn the key. The car sputters to life. All of the gages and meters light up, and the seatbelt chime dings at me. The headlights burst, beaming onto the highway. He’s there again, staring at me again with his hungry eyes. He mocks me with a grin. He’s not supposed to be here. He’s gone. He needs to be gone.
“Go away!” I scream, pounding my palms against the steering wheel. I smash the accelerator down and something crunches under the tires. And as I run the car into him, his body slams against the grill, rolling onto the hood of the car, and over the side in a chorusing crunch of thin metal. While I do not want to, my eyes flick to the rear-view mirror, and I see Chris's lifeless body in the road, pushed to the center. But he’s gone.
I drive until I come upon the first gas station. I pull into one of the spaces by the door and park. The attendant looks at me from the front windows, craning his head to get a better view. What do I do? I don’t know how to get home from here. I am not going back that way. I can’t. It’s then that everything collapses. I sit in the driver’s seat and cry. I left Chris there. I didn’t want to leave him. God, why do I always have to leave people? Why won’t he just fucking leave me alone? I escaped and yet every corner I turn, every shadow in the distance, and every man I meet, he’s there and he’s mocking me and telling me that I’m his and he’s not letting go. Chris could have been everything he was not.
I’m tired of this. I’m so tired, and I can’t do this anymore. I wipe my tears away with the sleeves of Chris’s shirt and let out a sigh. It’s time to do something.
After a minute, I get out of the car and pause to look at the front of the Grand Prix. I stop and stare at the body-sized dent in the hood. Oh, Christ. I can’t. I turn and continue into the store to ask the attendant for a phone. He’s young and curly-haired and freckled, and he stares at me for a moment with light brown eyes before handing over a cordless phone accompanied by a concerned look. I tell him thank you and take it.
“Are you okay?” He asks.
Jesus, why do they always have to ask? I try to smile at him, to say, yes, I am just fine. But my face contorts from a smile to a frown to a sob. Walking away, I catch a glance of myself in the sunglasses mirror. My hair is wildly messy and black mascara is running down my cheeks, leaving watery streaks all the way down to my chin. Chris had kissed off any lipstick I had applied. It would have been nice, really, to get to see him in the morning. I yearn for something I never had with him, but can’t you imagine? Us cuddled on his couch watching Saturday morning cartoons with fresh pancakes and orange juice? I choke on a laugh.
Then I pause, whisking those thoughts away. I contemplate the weight of the phone in my hand. Who do I even call? No one would answer me at this time of night. No one would listen to me unless they saw him like I did. I’m also currently in the possession of a car that isn’t mine and wearing the button-up of a dead man. Yes, officer, I could say, it’s technically a stolen car. But it’s Chris’s. And he’s gone now. I didn’t even get to meet his family. It would have been so simple, wouldn’t it? To just be accepted into a new life. But fucking Christ, what good does it do to think on it now? I need to get back to him. I need to bury him. I need to bury all the dead.
I hand the phone back to the cashier, undialed, unsoiled. Then I turn down the short aisles of snacks and convenience store-priced home goods. I grab a few things. Of course, I do. And then I lug them around the store with them tucked under and balanced on top of my left arm while I use my right to touch things—to touch everything. I need to know what is real, so I run my fingertips along the polypropylene chip bags and the plastic toilet paper wrap hard enough that it makes a squeak. Then I reach the fridges and open a door and touch every single cold drink deliberately and intimately before seizing a Cherry Coke bottle by the neck and hauling the things to the counter to pay.
The ruddy cashier looks at the stuff, then he looks at me. I dare him to say something. I dare him to ask. I wait for it. I want it. Say it. Say it, now.
Beep. He scans the things. One by one, he grabs each item as if they’re individually dangerous. They’re not, I assure him with a glance and a smile. This does not persuade him, but he scans anyway, because, after all, what else is he going to fucking do? He finishes scanning, and then I pay, and then I haul all of my stuff to Chris’s car and organize it by potential need. The Coke is first, obviously, and that sits between my warm thighs to make it a drinkable temperature. Then in the passenger seat I separate everything—tall, black household trash bags, Gorilla duct tape (very expensive at gas stations, actually), fresh set of driver gloves, gallon of drinking water, set of 3 tie-dye colored handkerchiefs, a small container of Clorox clothes bleach, and the largest bag they had of teriyaki beef jerky.
Satisfied with the haul, I turn the ignition and back out of the gas station. I drive back. Which, oddly enough, feels like a shorter distance than on my way there. But as I approach the cemetery, I notice the roads again were quiet. Abandoned. I turn the brights on. They flash and illuminate the entirety of the road in front of me where I see Chris’s body, unmoved. And just behind him is… him. Unscathed. Staring at me. Smiling at me. He knew I’d come back.
My knuckles turn white gripping the steering wheel and my shoulders tense. I rev the engine. It’s time. It’s time to bury the fucking dead.
The Funeral of Isabella Bernard
“I’m sorry for your loss, Mr. Bernard.”
A woman’s voice rings through John’s head, yet he does not look at the speaker. He stares instead at the casket in front of him being lowered on a strapped pulley into the ground six feet down until it lays beneath their feet. He does not respond to the woman, instead he tosses a handful of soil into the grave and backs away to wait for the funeral ceremony to begin.
He looks to his left to see who spoke to him, recognizing the stranger as the new Bible study teacher: young Miss Thatcher, the replacement of Mrs. Williams who “took a holiday” weeks ago and has not yet returned. Miss Thatcher only appeared around town within the past week or so, to get acquainted, he supposes. The new teacher feels vibrant with an optimistic glean in her ocean-blue eyes. She stands facing the open grave; her back kept straight in a corseted, dark gray dress tied about her frame, and a black wide-brimmed hat embellished with dark flowers and lace atop her petite, triangular face and yellow-blond hair. He thinks her to be overdressed for the occasion considering corsets are a dying fashion, and her hat is useless because the sun does not shine on this day.
No, the day on which this atypical circumstance commences brought typical spring weather: on-and-off rain with an overcast sky of gray rolling clouds, leaving the mud wet and the air sticky. Not quite the right kind of day to wear a summer sun hat.
With as much politeness as he could muster towards a stranger, he responds, “Yes, thank you. Isabella was our eldest.”
When he catches her eye, she smiles politely. He supposes her condolences are benign; they haven’t formally met other than a glance at the grocer or a passing on the street while John commuted to work. His job as the town’s only medical doctor requires him to get to know everyone’s business, and hers requires to be there—at the funeral hosted by the local community church.
Built at the founding of the town, the church’s structure was erected in 1811 made of gray stone and brick. The church itself has tall, thin arching windows and a steeple to match a subtle Victorian style. And they stand behind the church in is it’s graveyard. Once an empty field, it is now filled with headstones of the dying population of Blackrock, Texas. So far it holds an expanse of three generations of families, from great grandfathers to children born at the turn of the twentieth century.
It is not a large group of people who joined the funeral; outside of John, his wife—Jane—and their two younger boys, they were joined by the obligatory church group, Jane’s widowed sister, Laura, and a few folks of the town who have required John’s assistance within the past years and swore to be “there for him” if ever he need them. Sure enough, they appeared uninvited to his daughter’s funeral.
Leading the ceremony is the church pastor, Francis Connelly. A short man of stature with a stocky build, Connelly is not an intimidating man by sight, but by ear instead. His unlikely voice, ever so deep and powerful, booms through the graveyard, amplified by headstones and silence. He stands in a plain black suit with his arms folded in front of him, tucking a bible in his hands. He begins.
“Good afternoon, friends… family,” he starts, eyes connecting with each and every person that stands around the grave with their solemn, wet faces as he continues, “Our sister, our niece, our daughter, Isabella has gone to her rest in the peace of Christ. May the Lord now welcome her to the table of His children in heaven. With faith and hope in eternal life, let us assist her with our prayers. Let us pray to the Lord also for ourselves. May we who mourn be reunited one day with Isabella; together may we meet Christ Jesus when he who is our life appears in glory.”
Every word that spews from Connelly’s mouth just feels like polished shit. Isabella deserves better than fabricated eulogies given by church-going folk with facades and feigned sadness. One day they raise their pitchforks and torches, and then the next they wish to meet her in heaven.
She would hate this, John thinks. The committals, the eulogies, the poems. The sad, sad faces that look at the casket, wipe their tears, and then look at the ground in front of their feet, staring blankly at the blades of grass—counting them, perhaps, as one would count sheep—as the pastor drones on about eternal life and picnicking with God. It was hard not to imagine, really, what it would be like to picnic with the Lord, sitting by his side in a white flowing gown, hair down, and shoving a ham and cheese sandwich down your throat and toasting with red wine. In that image, John sees the teenage Isabella with her blond locks spilled about her, leaning back onto vibrant green grass as she looks up to God, who she knows for certain does not exist, and laughs with him.
“O Lord,” Connelly continues, “because God has chosen to call our sister Isabella from this life to Himself, we commit her body to the earth, for we are dust and unto dust we shall return.”
Ashes to ashes. The Great Giver of Life takes what he pleases, doesn’t he? John scoffs at the thought. He didn’t mean to. It came up out of him like a cough would, unsuppressed and untethered to etiquette and delicacy of the environment. It cost him a couple glances from others around the grave, and one smirk from Miss Thatcher, but he otherwise does not care what these people may think of him or his daughter. The idea that these folk’s opinions mattered was lost on him the very day they threw their stones without patience or understanding; the very same day they decided to shove their noses to the sky and turn their backs on him and Isabella. John shakes his head, pushing away the venomous thoughts that crept into his mind. They’re simple, John, remember that. They’ll cast their stones ever which way their shepherd demands.
“God of holiness and power, accept our prayers on behalf of your servant Isabella; do not count her deeds against her, for in her heart she desired to do your will. As her faith united her to your people on Earth, so may your mercy join her to the angels in heaven. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
A surge of “amen” spreads through the crowd as Pastor Connelly ends his prayer. One of the “amens” stood out, loud and tearful, and John looks across the grave, locking eyes with Jane who gave her golden honey-brown eyes to their daughter. Jane is wearing a plain black dress with buttons up the front and a long black veil sewn into a bowler. The veil does nothing to hide her furrowed brows, and accentuates her forlorn look so that one would assume she was in grief over the loss of their daughter, but John knows better. She’s angry with him and with the Lord. She’s angry at Pastor Connelly for never being able to truly cure their daughter of her sickness. John does not blame her for being angry, but he does blame her for everything else.
At Jane’s side, stands his two boys, Josiah and Silas. They both took after their mother with golden eyes and fawn-brown hair. Freckles speckle their cheeks and foreheads, running down their neck and arms. She had them dressed in black tweed suits and newsboy caps and black dress shoes. Seeing them like such little gentlemen pulls at John. He misses them so much. They look so tall now, being seven and ten. He almost doesn’t recognize them since his last memory they were toddlers yet, running naked through the house. He wonders what they like. Do they play sports at school? Or are they artists like their mother? These are things you should know about your children. Christ, John, what else have you missed. God, they grow up so fast. He wants to go over to them, to hug them and bring them back home. Everything he didn’t get to do the first several years of their lives because he was so caught up in everything else.
John looks back to Jane, but then she looks away from him, tears in her eyes. She takes the hands of their two boys and pulls them away from the grave, walking off as the burial of Isabella is concluded.
The gathering begins to clear, people departing in groups to seek out others around the graveyard and perhaps to sneak back into the church to indulge in the lunch reception the church offered. John looks to Miss Thatcher who continues to stand next to him, and returns a soft politeness, “Thank you for your help with the funeral arrangements. I was told you put together the bouquets.”
Miss Thatcher smiled, a pinkness rising to her cheeks, “Oh, you’re very welcome. I saw her portrait and thought the golden mums would look lovely next to it. She was an awfully beautiful girl. I’m so sorry she passed so young.”
“Yes, we all are,” John says, looking away for a moment to let a darkness pass over his face—one he felt and knew he was not going to be able to stop—before he looks back to her with a modest smile.
“Despite today,” he decides it’s best to change the subject, “are you enjoying your time in town?”
Miss Thatcher smiles and nods, “Oh, yes, very much so. Everyone has been so nice and helpful.”
“That’s good to hear. It’s one of the benefits of small towns. I heard you were transferred here from Charleston? Why the change?”
“Well, it’s a long story, but I have family here that took me in. I used to work as a bible study teacher there, and so I just transferred. The children have been lovely; much kinder than the city children.”
What an odd tale, John thinks. She’s so young and bright, he can’t imagine she truly comes from a city so far away. Other than her fashion, she fit into town quite well—already making friends and impressions on the folk from what he’s heard. She seems a little too nice for it all.
“Do you have children?” John asks, a devilish curiosity peeking.
She blushes, “Oh, goodness, no. That would be improper because I am not married.”
John nods, “Right. I suppose you don’t know what it’s like to lose a child then. You not being married and all.”
Her smile falters and she blinks at him. She gives a little shake of her head and a flustered wave of her hand, “I offer my condolences for your loss, Mr. Bernard. God bless you.” She takes her leave then, gathering her skirts in a hand to maneuver around the wet ground that sopped mud all over her shiny little boots. A sheep and their shepherd, after all.
Her place at his left side is replaced by a looming man in his early 60s whose power is just as mighty as the roundness of his stomach, Mayor Harold Raymond Parker of their little Blackrock. He stands as the latest of a long line of elected officials under the Parker name, and quite the largest, with a squinting face and balding gray hair that slumps around his temples.
“How’s the family, John? Holding up?” His voice rolls through the air, thick and heavy, loud enough for the remaining group to hear his concern in the Bernard family’s wellbeing.
“They're well, Harold,” John says, “Jane and the boys are staying with her sister in Dixon until we can get things in order.” Like the cleaning of Isabella’s room and the rumors about her death.
Harold claps John’s shoulder. “I understand. Good on her for continuing her womanly duties despite this. She’s a strong one. You seem to be doing alright there, too. But, John, I want you to take some time off. Use it to grieve and get your family…uh,” he shrugs his shoulders and rolls his hand around on his wrist, searching for the right word until he lands on “situated.”
Situated. The word hung between them like the elephant in the room, like the baggage John knows is there but refuses to acknowledge.
Harold nods, realizing the end of the conversation and then sets his hand on John’s shoulder again, giving it a squeeze, “I am sorry for your loss, but I hear that Jane is with child! Life goes on, it seems.”
“It does,” John says, then the mayor gives one last smile at John and turns to leave. John wonders how much Harold knows. He wonders how much Miss Thatcher knows that she wasn’t letting on. She has been in the town for over a week. Her job as the community bible study teacher requires her to talk to many people as John’s own job does. News gets around. Rumors spread like sickness. He wonders what contagion spread this time.
Everything starts to feel suddenly overwhelming. The questions hang in his head like a weighted blanket of snow, heavy and wet with ice. The look on Miss Thatcher’s face—she was trying too hard to be polite, tip-toeing around the real questions she wanted to ask him.
How did Isabella die, John? The whole town wants to know. In fact, I heard that—
Life goes on.
John’s chest tightens, burns like acid, leaving a sour bile taste on his breath. He wants to scream at everybody that still buzzes in the graveyard like flies. Eyes of the dead watch him by the grave, waiting for him to do something spontaneous in his solidarity now that no one was talking to him, offering their condolences. Would John sob at Isabella’s graveside now that no one was watching? He does not cry. How stoic. How strong. How strong, indeed? He isn’t going to give them the satisfaction of tears.
He was the last to see Isabella alive, I bet—
“I know you’d rather I didn’t offer condolences,” a voice speaks behind him, thick with a tired drawl. “And so I won’t.”
“Hey, Joseph,” John says.
Joseph Jenkins, a man John has known since childhood, stands next to him now. He does not look at John, nor does John look at him, but together they stare at the freshly covered grave of John’s daughter. And in that moment of silence, while they stand together as people who understand each other’s pain, the clouds part momentarily, opening an opportunity for forgiveness and childhood memories.
“Thank you,” John says, “For letting us bury her next to Tommy’s grave.”
Joseph shrugs, a weightless movement it seems now that seven years have passed since he lost his boy, “He would have wanted it, too.”
Considering all things, John isn’t sure that was true, but he’s not going to voice these thoughts. He wouldn't voice the doubts to anyone except Isabella herself who knew Tommy much more thoroughly than anyone else in town.
“They were good friends,” John says instead, keeping the conversation light and meaningless. Joseph nods. Neither of them were men of many words, and John doubts that anything more would come of the conversation, but he does admit that he is happy Joseph is there. After so many years of their friendship idling in the open, he felt an unusual bond between them now at the loss of both of their children. It sickens him, certainly, but he’s glad to share this bond with no one other than Joseph. A pang of regret strikes him when he looks over to Joseph and sees a contentedness on his face—or a complacency? How long had it been since he really talked to Joseph? Has he been losing people this whole time, he thinks, without even realizing it?
“Do you remember,” Joseph says, breaking John’s thoughts, “the stuff we would get up to when we were kids?”
Oh, boy, did he. John chuckles, “The nonsense we did.”
“Our children were no better than us, were they? The late nights, the antics, and the backtalk! Poor Mrs. Williams! It’s no wonder she didn’t just toss them onto the street every Sunday.”
“Just like she did to us?” John laughs. “That same day is when we went off into the woods…”
“And went to the lake.”
Joseph smiles, glancing over at John for the first time that day. It’s the first smile John has seen on his face in a long time. It falls, momentarily replaced by a devious smirk filled with memory. He says, “Death Island,” letting the weight of those words press into John’s chest.
“You almost died that night,” John says. “When we jumped into the water.”
“I still refuse to swim in lakes. God, I don’t even know how I let you talk me into going out there. But all I really remember is the three of us swimming out there, and then we camped on the island. What were we playing? Pirates?”
John laughs then, remembering parts of that day with a little nudge. “Yes,” he says, “Pirates. I had made a map with Petey, and we went searching for buried treasure. As if any real pirates would have wound up in the middle of Texas.”
They laugh together for a while, remembering as if they were boys again running around on the island with their stick swords and their bags full of snacks, fake pirate maps, and a pair of Petey’s dad’s binoculars snatched from the old man’s study from back home. The island itself wasn’t anything impressive—just a small stretch of dead and dying trees in the middle of Lake Redwater—but when they were kids, it was everything. It was freedom and promise of adventure, just a climb over the hills and then a hike to the lake, and then a swim to the most dangerous, snake-infested, tide-fearing, pirate cove the boys had ever seen.
But then, John stops laughing. He remembers the maps, vaguely playing, and then he remembers it getting dark—so, so dark—and he got scared. He remembers the feeling more than anything of that night. He remembers a weight in his chest, and then a crawling sensation down his neck. It was a suffocating feeling, like when he dove below the water and counted while holding his breath. He wanted to outlast both Joseph and Petey so bad. It would prove to them that he was better, that he was fit to be their leader. But he got to forty-four seconds, then shot up out of the water, coughing, scared and lightheaded. Dizzy and disoriented. It was the same feeling from that night, but he doesn’t remember what caused it. Something happened and then they ran. But what were they running from?
“Wolves,” Joseph says, answering the very question John had.
“Do you remember what happened to Petey?” John asks, looking at Joseph.
Joseph squints, hard against the sunlight. “That’s odd. I… don’t quite recall.”
Odd indeed. He doesn’t understand the feeling, but something began to itch within him, an irritation burrowing under his skin. Something is wrong about that night. Why can’t he remember? John shakes his head in frustration. He can’t shake the feeling that something isn’t right about it or about anything, actually. The day feels off, and not just because he is at a funeral, no. Something is wrong.
“What do I do, Joseph?” John says aloud, eyes fixated on the freshly filled grave at his feet. It didn’t feel right knowing that Isabella is laying in front of him below the earth. He buries his head in his hands for the first time that day. He tried so hard to hold himself together, but the weight of it all began to push him down deeper and deeper until he feels that he, too, should be six feet down with his daughter. Nothing makes sense, and he was so tired—too tired to think about it all now and what he needs to do. Isabella’s death wasn’t natural, no matter what the coroner said. He’s dissected bodies and done autopsies. He knows what a natural death looks like, and that wasn’t it.
But pieces to solve this are missing. People are still missing. But this isn’t the time to delve into decades long cold cases that the sheriff decided weren’t worrisome enough to dig into.
Joseph nods, “Best thing to do right now is rest. It’s been a long two weeks. And I will tell you that it doesn’t get easier. Every day I think about Tommy and what I could have done different to make sure he got home safe. But it still happened the way it did, and thinking on it like I’ve been just don’t help nobody. Isabella’s death was not your fault, and you’ll feel better once you accept that. So, you go home. You tell Mr. Parker to call in some other city doctor for a few weeks, and you rest. And John?”
They look at each other.
“Please call me if you need anything.”
Why Was Your Life Hidden Within the Walls of a Modern American Home? - Edited!
You went missing on July 16th, just two days before your twenty-seventh birthday. Two weeks later, I was standing in the amber glow porchlight of a neglected gable front house, unsure if the key you gave me would fit in the lock.
Three days passed since I crossed through the threshold of that seemingly innocuous front door, and now I am sitting at the small, round breakfast table with my back pressing against the far wall of the cramped, wall-papered kitchen.
I found a box of old photos stashed away under the belly of the bed in the upstairs master bedroom. I’m sorting through them now under the dim light of your old kitchen. I don’t know if you intended for me to find it. I don’t know if you intended for me to be here alone for days, cranky and bored and uncertain. With my back straight against the chair, I sip at a forgotten coffee that had been poured when I first set the box on the table. Cold and bitter. My head aches; a dull pounding above my right eye. I’ve been sorting through this box for hours now—a discolored paper carton, the brand Staples scratched out and replaced with photos underneath in thick black marker. Your life is separated into piles upon this weathered breakfast table. Years sorted with years, and unnamed faces stacked on the edge, teetering, threatening to topple over for as large as the stack has grown. Who are these people, Cass? Why am I finding yellowed photos of you hanging about them, laughing, your arms wrapped around shoulders and waists, kissing and holding hands? Look, before you start, I’m not jealous. Your life outside of me is your own, and I have no right to question it, but why did you never tell me?
Warm tears swell in my eyes, and I blink them away. I stand, scraping the legs of the aged wooden chair against the laminate tile-illusion of a kitchen that hadn’t been renovated since the early eighties. I pour the rest of the cold coffee down the drain, stale mocha lingering on my breath, and watch as the creamy brown liquid splatters against the sides of white porcelain sink. My natural instinct is to wash it out, but I do not. I want the sugar to stain the memories here, the ones you had without me.
There was also a box in the closet of the master bedroom. I didn’t grab it before—my hands were full of the first carton—but I am going to it now, climbing the creaky staircase carpeted with burgundy-colored shag to hide the discoloration of alcohol stains. While the carpet may have hidden splashes of berry-flavored red wines and margarita mixes that we used to sneak and drink on the small roof balcony (hiding from your parents and scolding older brother), it was useless against concealing the musk of dust mites and wet dog. I reach the top of the stairs and place my right hand on the wall, tracing the textured beige paint with my fingertips as I head towards the master bedroom. I dare not look behind me at the room that lay on the left side of the upstairs. The door is cracked open, but I fear that if I go there, if I peak in, that I’ll see you as I always did—sprawled upon your childhood bed. I wonder if your old bedspread is still on it, the sides tucked under the mattress like a hotel bed because your mom had some weird obsession with straight lines and order. Will you be waiting for me as you were before, in knitted crop tops and low-waisted Levi’s? Part of me wanted to turn around, to fling open the door just to see you again, to share myself with you again on that bed, the same place where we shared our first kisses and first touches before we even knew what we were.
I stay my course and open the master bedroom’s closet door. Within the wood-paneled closet—really? Wood-paneling? —I move aside pleather jackets and felt dresses to reveal the carton buried under two sets of Mary-Janes and a fallen turtle-neck sweater. The box is labeled Sera.
Cass, who’s Sera? Were they important to you? They must have been, considering the designated box, but you never told me about them—you never brought them up when we talked about exes—but maybe you did, and I wasn’t listening. I was lost in the sound of your voice, but never in the words you spoke. Did Sera listen to you, Cass? Did they love you?
I tear the lid off, scotch tape ripping down the sides of the weak cardboard construction. There is a photo album on top, pink and gold and frilly—not your style, or I thought wasn’t your style—and miscellaneous objects, miscellaneous junk. I dig through the box, setting the album to the side (I will deal with that later), and I just find shit. Dusty clothes, disfigured origami animals, an orange tabby cat beanie baby, its once-soft fur matted around the sides of its belly, a dead Tamagotchi, and letters. So many folded letters in girlish, bubble pencil, “To Cass.” I open one. A love letter, sickeningly syrupy and gooey like a pack of warm Gushers, the sides of the notebook paper letter is embellished with pink hearts drawn in sparkling gel pen and cat doodles. How cute. How disgustingly cute.
I fold the letter back up and place it into the box with the rest of the senescing junk. Why do you keep any of this? Did you store it and forget about it? Packaging up all of your memories of this person and stashing them away deep into the mess of an old closet of an old house you never planned to revisit. Is that why you sent me here; do you wish to store and forget about me until one day when you’re feeling nostalgic, you can turn the lock on the front door and find my skeletonizing remains sitting on your living room couch? I hope you find my gouged eyes reflecting in the old family tube TV whose wires were long ago chewed by a rodent, a rodent that also chewed the valves of my rotting heart, his tiny furry body stashed away within the closet of my ribcage.
I shove the box away from me and stand, tucking the photo album under my arm to add to the rest of the photos downstairs. I should leave it. It’s probably not worth the heartache. I take it anyway.
Before I head downstairs, I stop and look into the open bathroom on the right, in the middle of the two upstairs bedrooms in the short hallway. I see myself in the gold-rimmed mirror, face dark from the back-lit illumination of the gable-window that overlooks the foyer. I’m a mess—a crying, blotchy mess. For a moment, I don’t recognize myself—the deep brown eyes are not mine, nor is mellow-brown hue and maroon-tinted cheeks. There are bags under my eyes, a gauntness to my structure, and a tiredness down to my bones. I peek at the scar above my right eye for just a small second before feeling like someone else is staring back at me. My heart flutters, sudden anxiety peaking, pulsing through me as I remember the childish tales of Bloody Mary. In a rush, I shut the bathroom door and flee downstairs to the confines of the kitchen. It was silly, I know, but you know I believe demons are real.
The album slips from my hand onto the table as I head to the coffee maker. Still warm. I fill a clean cup and add some sugar and lean my lower back against the countertop, staring at the table. The album calls to me. I can’t pull my eyes from it. Do I really want to know, Cass?
Against my better judgement, the album lid opens under my fingertips. Yellowing photos, some with water stains. Some photos from a Polaroid, some that look like they had been printed from a Walgreens, grainy and blurred. Dates from as early as 1996. Prom. Prom dresses, but you were in a suit. I remember you that night as I watched you—from a distance, I think?—as you busted the stalest, cheesiest moves on the dancefloor in a navy-blue Guess suit and your tawny beige hair slicked back. You wore those stupid gold-rimmed glasses with the red lenses, remember? They fell off during your version of “Hammer Time” and you didn’t stop dancing until you slipped on them, snapping the frames and cracking a lens. You cried in the bathroom for an hour after that. The album also has college photos, ’98 and ’99—first day and last—happy you and happy friends, laughing, smoking joints, playing some sort of lute that I can’t truly identify, open mic night, SNL live shows. You and Sera.
Did you have fun? Did you meet Sera and make new memories as I laid on white polyester sheets? Wrinkle-free, they say, yet my skin still molded into the folds while I was under, barely conscious throughout the days while you were out and about living a life you never really wanted to share with me. I remember this revolving door, Cass, of doctors and nurses. Beeping and scans, white lights and antiseptic mixed with chocolate pudding and little pills. I saw so many pity-filled faces, yet I don’t remember seeing you. Where were you, Cass? And where are you now?
I squint at the blurred faces. Why does Sera look familiar? Did you introduce me to them? They’re with you in every single picture. Yeah, they’re with you in the prom photo under the balloon arch. They’re in a muted, metallic green dress, sheening golden under the floodlights. Golden leaf headband in their dark brown hair, feathery bangs hanging right above bright brown eyes. Golden eyeshadow and body glitter gleaming like metallic sand over a Saharan dessert sunset. They look so... healthy. I can’t help it. My eyes drift to their forehead. No scar. I nod. That’s what I thought. I flip an album page and they're there again with you at college—the two of you posing in front of a boxy black Impala. God, you look so fucking happy.
The coffee mug went bottoms up, attached to my lips, downed. I stare at the white popcorn ceiling as the mug settles back onto the table. My eyes fall to the front door across the way on the left side of the house’s front wall. My eyes drift farther into the open-floor living room, to the bay window and the dingy dog bed. They meet a set of brown eyes staring back at them. I yelp, hand jumping to mouth. My hand falls. It's just me. It’s just a mirror. I thought... I thought I had taken that down? The octagonal one in the living room? Your mom loved that mirror. I took it down the first day I got here, afraid I’d see ghosts behind me by the microwave. I look over myself again. Thin dark brown hair, darker eyes. Golden yellow light shimmers on beading sweat over ochre skin. Pale, muted scar. It’s almost as if it’s gone now. I can barely see it. Premonition bubbles with bile in my stomach.
The photos. I look over them again. Cass, who is this? A doppelgänger? A face-stealer? A Skinwalker? Who am I to you? Did you find a replacement?
No. Fucking hell. Who are you? And who are you to think that you can use me this way? I just want the fucking truth, Cassandra. Why did you go? After all that time, why did I wake to find an envelope on my hospital bedside table with this address on it and the key inside? Why didn’t you tell me anything at all? Who the fuck is Sera?
It needs to come down. Now. I strut across the room and try to tear the mirror off. Digging my fingertips behind the frame, I tug. Black-painted nails snap, peeling back flesh in the process. I scream as sharp pain runs through my knuckles to my wrists. I pull back. Fingers red and bloodied. It must come down. Down. Now. I throw the porcelain coffee mug at the sneering face of the mirror. I shatter it. One throw.
The lights above the breakfast table flicker. I glance over at the five-bulb chandelier, yellow-gold and dust-covered. The lights go off.
Thud. It came from upstairs, from your old bedroom. Like a door slammed. Footsteps. Cass, there are footsteps upstairs. I’ve been alone for three days. Cass, where is Sera now?
It’s echoing now. Down the carpeted steps. Frames on the staircase wall clatter under each step. It’s in the kitchen now, Cass. The chair moves. Then the photos scatter through the air, swiftly off the table, furiously fluttering. Oh, God, Cass. Wailing. It started sobbing. No, maybe that’s me. I can’t tell. Someone’s crying, Cass, and I can’t fucking see. I hear it tearing up the photos. The chair is bumped. The chair is thrown, clattering against the fridge, smashing the coffee pot. It’s screaming. The lights are flickering again, strobing.
I stumble back, slicing my feet on the shattered mirror. I feel the wall behind me and inch towards the front door. Locked. The door is locked. The door is locked. The door is locked. I fall to my knees, trapped. It’s going to get me.
The chandelier bulbs flash; they release a high-pitched buzzing that gets louder and louder, then pop pop pop. Filaments disconnecting. It’s dark again.
Bang. Deafening, I tense, body paralyzed for a moment as my head absorbs a sharp echo of thunder, as lightning illuminates the first floor through the scattered windows. My ears are ringing.
I saw a shadow, Cass. Only for a moment. It was at the table.
In the dark, I feel the pitter-patter of raindrops against the living room windows. The rain is coming in. Slowly, the chandelier light grows from dark to dim, two bulbs survived. The chandelier sways slightly over the table. There’s blood splattered on the window, Cass. The one facing the table. Rain is coming in from shattered parts of window.
There’s a shuffle in the kitchen, Cass. I can’t really see over there. I want to cry. I can’t move. A figure emerges from the kitchen—the shadow—illuminated now by the chandelier. It’s you. It’s you, and you’re crying. You look scared. Do you have the right to cry? To be frightened? Where the fuck have you been?
Before I could unleash the wrath of pent-up questions that boiled inside of me, you extinguish all of that. From wet, red lips you say:
“Sera? You came home.”
I choke on a scoff, “Who’s Sera?”
A Man Named Ezra Davis
It’s called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. Or, in simple terms, the Recency Bias or Frequency Illusion. It’s the circumstance that you start noticing the same object or phrase wherever you go. Most people experience this when they play “punch buggie” and suddenly a surge of Volkswagen Beetles emerge from seemingly nowhere, or when they run across a new word in something they’ve read and now they don’t understand how they’ve never seen the word before. For me it was a man.
He first appeared in the parking lot of my workplace. We had just locked up and only the cleaning crew lingered in the building. A chill whistled in the night air, initiating the late summer dying down and being replaced by discolored flora and sepia décor.
A man stood by my car. He wasn’t touching it, just standing by the rear driver’s side door. Despite parking my car under a lamp, shadows enshrouded his face. I stopped about twenty feet away and yelled at him.
“Hey,” I said, “Who are you? Get away from my car.”
He made no effort to move. Instead, his body flickered under the lamp. I didn’t blink.
My fingers fumbled around my keychain, seeking the pepper spray. Something smelled harsh, like composting soil. I kept my hand from my nose. “Get away from my car. I’m going to call the police.”
Behind me, car lights scattered the darkness around us. A car door opened. My co-worker Janina called out, “Hey, are you okay?”
I turned. Their head poked out from atop their door as they stood half out of their car. I turned back. He vanished. My fingers tightened around the pepper spray as I scanned the nearby lot. Without turning back, I called out to Janina, “Yeah, I’m okay. Just wait until I get in my car?”
I stepped towards it cautiously. As I got within a few feet of the door, I jumped, pulled the handle, slid into the driver’s seat, locked the door, and started the engine. The tires squealed as I pulled out of the parking lot with Janina following behind me. I drove home, but while I drove, my eyes flitted to the rear-view mirror. He was not in my car. I checked. Double-checked. It was okay. It was going to be okay.
He surfaced more and more after that. I called him stranger man. I’d see him on my way to work, admittedly in better light, standing on the sidewalks. He looked normal in the sun. Like a tall, brown-haired man with tan skin. Not unattractive. He appeared on my way home, during lunch rushes at the nearby sushi place, and during quick grocery store stops. We live in the same town, so generally I wouldn’t be surprised. But what got me was that he always stood still. Standing still and staring at me. He never arrived or left. He never followed me—physically, at least; he never chased after me or walked. I never saw him walk. He just stood, and I walked until he was outside of my line of sight, and when I came back around, he was gone. When I first started seeing him around town, I screamed. But after a few months, he became a normalcy. Compost scent and all.
I tried not to look at him too closely, for every time I did, he seemed to get closer to me without moving. Like my eyes dragged him closer. Maybe that wasn’t true. It certainly felt like it. Yet, he also seemed to hover. Not off the ground, but his presence was looming. Energy pulsed through him, shifting parts of him. I looked away. He disappeared.
Months later, I saw him on the news. His photo popped up next to the anchor’s. Car accident. One dead. His vehicle had rolled over off the highway, down into the ditch. It rolled five times before finally landing upside down in a local soybean field, the one right off the highway exit. His vehicle was the only one involved. No one who saw the accident reported it, if anyone had seen it at all. Some passerby called it in. The news said the police were still investigating. The autopsy reported clean—no traces of alcohol or drugs in his system at the time of death. Maybe it was suicide. Or maybe there was a bee—he's probably allergic to bees. Either way, he lost control of the vehicle and rolled. Hit his head and died.
After the car accident, I called him the burning man. He continued to follow me, stagnant and stoic. Yet, instead of compost, he smelled like fire. Well, no. More like burning, fire burning wood. Like charcoal. Like a grill being prepped for Fourth-of-July burgers by one of your neighbors. You could only see the smoke above the tree line, but couldn’t tell which neighbor you had to curse for not inviting you to a cookout with people you never knew and never cared to know. The scent was inviting, but then it turned vile. Still burning, but melting. Rubber. Melting rubber like a trash fire, you could feel the heat pulse from the flames of tires and cured furniture broken and slashed. The scent that rolled off of the burning formaldehyde stung your eyes and dried your throat, catching your breath deep down into your lungs. You couldn't breathe that stuff in. It was poisonous, it could kill you.
Since the accident, I had only saw him once. That one time to take in the reek of rubber and burnt leather. I told him off. I yelled at him, “Go away!” While retching. He left. The smell still lingered, but he took the hint. I only saw him once more after that.
I now call him the melting man. I thought he was gone for good. But there he stood, right in front of me. He just stared. My knuckles tightened on the steering wheel as I faced him again, headlights spotlighting him like I played a technician and he played a showman.
First started a low moaning then slap... slap... slap. He moved towards me. From the center of the street he walked towards me, or I should say trudged, for each step forward appeared to take great effort, slow and painful as he pulled one leg from behind him and slapped it on the paved road ahead. Slap. He was quite literally melting, the skin of him sagging in rolls like sap down a trunk, like river sludge in massive folds. His skin bubbled and popped like hot tar, pouring from him and sticking to the pavement as he moved forward, pulling his legs from the ground. Slap... slap. I inhaled, long and deep. He was coming for me. My stranger man. His bulging eyes reflected revenge, and in them I saw the pile of burning metal. A little red Beetle in a soybean field.
What I Don’t Understand is: What Goes Through Your Feeble Mind?
I don't get it.
Four years of psychological study, and I still don't understand you.
As I stand at the podium at the front of the class, watching these kids, I think about you and your words that have been riding through my mind on this 8-track minecart, going around and around...
You need some goddamn peace and quiet.
But I stand here, supervising. These kids are laughing. They're talking about passions, about relationships, and future plans. These kids are dreaming and sharing their dreams with their peers. Laughs fill the room. Mulitple conversations at one time, strung together by words and sentences that create this web of connections and vulnerability and trust. So complicated. So intricate by design...
And yet you need some goddamn peace and quiet.
The Mind Lobby and Other Intricate Places
Welcome to the ever-changing architecture in the main structure of my mind. The entrance to this structure is, in fact, a door: plain, wooden, unlocked, with a shiny chrome knob. When you open the door inward, you step into a beautiful, high-ceiling foyer. It looks pristine—sparkling, clean, and maintained.
Like a hotel lobby, it is long and rectangular. Cream and brown walls prop up the high ceiling that is latticed with red-colored wood, dangling antique chandeliers embellished with bronze cages and long yellow bulbs. Maroon-and-cream-striped chairs sit upon large, antique floral rugs with matching poufs, corralled around low coffee tables. To the left and right of these chairs are potted broadleaf lady palms and arecas full of life and invitation.
The floor design, with large cream, brown and blue squares lead you to the service desk and its pegged corkboard of intricate antique keys—some keys are large and bulky, some are small, the size of a fingertip, some are bronze, black iron, silver, nickel, pure gold, pure pyrite. And some are fragile like freshly baked butter biscuits waiting to crumble under the slightest pressure while turning a locking mechanism it wasn't specifically designed for. There is no service desk attendant. You're free to grab a key, any key, all the keys, if you will, and use them as you wish.
To both the right and the left of the central service desk, there is a grand staircase. It is blue and brown and cream marble, like the tiled floor of the Mind Lobby, and decorated with a maroon runner rug. With stairs on each side of the service desk, there are tens (or twenties) of tentacle-warped stairs, moving and squirming, like an ever-evolving, never-ending paradox designed by the love-child of M.C. Escher and Kandinsky's Composition X. Please, chose a stair to follow with that key you grabbed, if you want to.
I see that you have a handful of keys. That’s okay, too; that’s why they’re there. If you’re ready, we can make our way up. One step at a time, please, because there’s a lot to see. First, you may notice the sign: The Staircase Gallery. It’s kind of like the inside of an open skyscraper with hundreds of floors and hundreds of more doors. The staircase in the Gallery goes up and up... It appears endlessly, but time has the control for the hourglass that is life, and eventually, the sand stops.
As you go up, pay attention to the walls and the oil and acrylic painted portraits, both large and small and extra-large, that are hung delicately in heavy, carved wooden frames. They’re antique, so please don’t touch, though some portraits have been newly added to the Staircase Gallery. Watch these portraits as you progress, and you’ll see them change. Faces that may have originally been painted with pleasant features have been repainted with thick, heavy acrylic plastered over smiles and smiling eyes that turned sour. Some portraits have been burned. Others have cracked frames or frameless canvases that are frayed at the edges; they have simply sat and collected dust, abandoned but not really forgotten. I agree with you, yes, that there are a lot of portraits; they’re so closely hung together that it’s almost impossible to see the walls at all. A lot of these portraits are just blank faces without real stories behind them, and a dozen others are so covered with dust that you can’t make out features anymore—like lost memories. I can assume, of course, that these people have their own stories, but I’ve long forgotten them.
On the flip side, there are these golden portraits. They’re cleaned so regularly that they stand out like an animated object in the background of an old cartoon movie—you know, the ones with the stagnant, painted backgrounds? These are the ones that I’ve nurtured over time because they’re precious to me—my closest friends, my spouse, my grandmother. They’re the important ones, and they deserve the best in this Gallery. Speaking of the best: let’s go further, and I’ll show you The Tapestry.
On the way there, you’ll find new beginnings defined by red strings tied around doorknobs that link to other doorknobs. These strings follow the walls around portraits and go up and up... Some of these strings are tied to posts at bridges long burnt that were built over raging rapids one does not dare to cross anymore. Other strings are strong and woven, intertwined with mutual friendships and passions that form into ropes and safety harnesses.
You’re allowed to ask me about the red strings. That doesn’t require a key. You’ll notice that some begin as ropes and fray at the end—torn, sliced, or burned through—dangling lifelessly over the knob of a locked door, while others that begin as a single thread have grown and intertwined with others that bring life to a multi-shaded tapestry of friends and newfound family. This tapestry is the main display in the Staircase Gallery. It hangs heavily on a wooden rod, patiently waiting to be added to. It’s beautiful, yes, because it depicts my hope for the future and the pride that I have in those I love.
You’re passing a lot of doors on the way up. Some are hidden, so don’t feel bad about not seeing them—they were hidden for a reason or two. There are a few that aren’t so secret, though. Do you see the black iron gate with curled spikes on the tips and embellishment of decaying vines and wilting roses? Isn’t it enticing? The thick, black chains and palm-sized lock should not be a discouragement to access. You have a key, remember?
Behind the tall gate, there is a garden with hedges that reach the open, blue sky. It is only the front-entrance garden with a labyrinth-like path that leads to a distant, decrepit mansion. I recommend watching the ground. Some areas are covered in tall grasses, with both friendly and unfriendly snakes, while others are paved and well-trodden.
Notice your surroundings—this gives you clues on how to get out of the labyrinth the correct way because now there is no gate behind you. Follow the tall hedges. They’re so tall, in fact, that no matter your height, you can’t see over them. It’s possible to get lost a time or two, but please persevere and you will make it through.
I’m sorry about that body, there. Please don’t think too hard about it. It's not the only one you will come across. There are many dead and decaying bodies here, and like this one, some have already skeletonized, while others are fresh and still and haven’t had time to assimilate into the worms and roots of this garden. Some of these bodies you will find early on in this labyrinth, while others are closer to the end. They all make me sad, like lost friendships and suffocating flames of potentialities. Don’t loiter in one place for too long, either; you are not the only one here.
When you make it to the white concrete front steps of the dilapidated mansion, congratulations. It was once a beautiful piece of Victorian-inspired architecture in my childhood. It is still maintained in some areas—like the study and kitchen—but other areas have been locked, boarded, and neglected, acquiesced to the earth.
The kitchen had been newly renovated to adopt a form of enlightenment-modernist style, with sharp angles and unique curves, almost minimalist if not for the use of bronze, wood, and rivets, and long yellow bulbs that cast antique shadows on the pinks and creams of the walls. The kitchen is fully stocked and clean, except for a small pile of dishes in the sink and rising yeast dough under the stove light. In the kitchen and to the right is a sliding glass door—it leads you out and back to the black wrought-iron gate that you were so hesitant, like many others, to open.
The other doors of the mansion are locked. Those lead to rooms that have been forgotten—lost passions, crumpled ideas, discarded sketchbooks; sad, broken dreams that were tossed into the wastebasket of wasted time that is flooded with stagnant, weightless regrets. It would be useless to explore those. It’s best to let them be and head back to the Staircase Gallery.
There is this other door in the Gallery—I see you staring at it out of the corner of your eye—it’s cracked down the center. I would agree, yes— it looks like a medieval dungeon door reinforced with black iron slabs and bolted with a slide lock, and a key lock, and a padlock. No, you don’t have access to any of those keys. Please, leave that door alone and ignore the black liquid that’s pooling at its base.
I’d like to take your hand now. Don’t worry, my hand is dry and warm, and soft and smooth with clean trimmed nails and a beautiful ring with small leaves and a clear stone. Accept it, and I’ll show you my favorite part. The Museum. I love to walk it with my friends. If you’ve come this far, you’re my friend.
It’s not a linear museum. It’s an organized palace, with wings and rows and grand halls. There is no door to the museum. Its large, open archway is perched on its own platform in the Staircase Gallery. The Museum starts in the art galleries. It has a long, white hallway in front of us and rows of open wings to the left and right. Each wing is organized and themed with different types of art: sculptures—metal and marble—renaissance paintings, abstracts, global culture art.
Everything I remember and everything that I’d like to create is hung on papered walls under white spotlights patiently waiting for eyes like yours to grace them. We can stay a short while; sit on the peppered benches and ponder each piece and the meaning of the gold-trimmed plaques with the names and descriptions and dates.
It’s hard to say which part of The Museum is my favorite, but the aquarium rides near the top. When we finish the art galleries, we’ll end at a set of glass automatic doors with blue and white signs and hours of operation. Head in and down a short, red brick tunnel that declines into dimming light. Coming out of the other end, you’ll find yourself washed in fluid watercolor blues, refracted through thick glass that separates you from sunken ships surrounded by a plethora of sand tiger sharks and gnawed goliath groupers. You can sit in the center of this large dome and zone out while you watch the aquatic life float by. I’ll point out the eagle rays, and the amberjacks, and the conger eels, and barracuda snappers, but you can ignore me if you’d like. I just like to talk. I also like to watch the fish and the sharks as they swim in endless circles around the shipwreck. What do you think they’re thinking about? Do they know they’re stuck in this large pool, roaming on and on, pointlessly?
Sometime in the future, I’ll show you the botanical gardens and the astronomy dome. We can walk the historical architecture district, too, if you’re interested in the colonial houses across the country that I’ve visited. I don’t want to keep you longer, so we’ll take the shortcut out and head back to the Staircase Gallery. You can return later any time that you want, if you ever want to visit again.
Oh, you hear that, too? That’s just the rising tides crashing against the cliffs and shores of the islands. We can go there, if you’d like, but be warned that the tides are not always friendly, as much as I'd like them to be. They can be dangerous. Go on and take your shoes off; it’s more fun that way.
When you step through this weathered, wooden plank arched door with bronze rivets and a simple plank lock, your feet will sink into the sands of the island beaches. The climate and ecosystem change, depending on when you decide to visit. As of now, you’ll see low and heavy cumulus clouds building a storm, vibrating with potential energy, lightning bouncing between the edges in tune with the threatening growls of thunder. A grey haze fills the sky. The sands are wet and sticky and cold. Cold waters shove rocks and shells and red seaweed ashore, abandoning it as the ocean is pulled back with the tide. Chilled winds howl in your ears, raising bumps on your skin and sending shivers unconsciously throughout your limbs. This same wind blows palm trees horizontal with the ground, whipping waxy elephant leaves violently around like the winds of a hurricane. I warned you of this dark, grey horizon.
It’s hard to control sometimes. This building storm that you see—distant dark blue waves growing and collapsing, growing and crashing down, down, pushing distant ships under—is what causes those shipwrecks you see on your right. At the bottom of that tall, tall cliff are jagged black rocks with sharp edges and bloodstained debris of unfortunate past causalities. Fear not; storms like these are not often. The clouds need to build before something like this happens, and the clouds are patient, forgiving.
Walk a little further to the warmer side of the beach and you’ll find a much more pleasant, relaxing side of the island. Here, these sands are warm and dry, and the low-tide crystal blue water caresses ankles with warm kisses. Beautiful pink and blue shells are found with a little scavenging, and the longer you’re on the beach, the chances that you’ll come across a perfectly intact nautilus shell increase; you’re free to take it and put it on a shelf somewhere. Sit in the warm sands, dig your feet in. The sun’s just hot enough to keep the waters and sands comfortable.
This is what the island is meant to be—warm and inviting. Cozy shacks line the border between the grass and sandy beach, waiting to be occupied by vacationers itching for a break from the real world.
White sails peek over the watery horizon, bringing along masts and a brown hull and a forepeak with a beautiful figurehead of a woman in a long flowing dress hoisting a sword pointed forward, like an encouragement to push forward, push through the crashing tides. When the ship floats just beyond the shallows, we’ll swim aboard.
Don’t worry about the waters over here—they're unnaturally clear and safe. You might feel a fish or two brush upon your leg but fret not, the dangerous waters aren’t until much farther out. For now, we seek adventure on the unknown horizon that awaits. The rope ladder that hangs off the side of the galleon is frayed and worn, the wooden rails are petrified from the oils of many hands touching and grabbing, and when you’re standing on the wet deck, you’ll understand the deep sense of adventure that truly awaits on the waves of the open ocean. Freedom and life; free from the weights of communal responsibility, free from continental government, free from ancestral social constructs. Just naked survival under the voided purple sky and her multitude of stars while drifting in the vast mysteries of the undiscovered black ocean.
The farther you explore, the more curious spectacles you will find, like that of the darkest secrets of the Mariana Trench. Not all you’ll find ever sees the light of the surface, but it’s there. It’s always there, hidden in the depths.
We should... go back. There is a lot more here, but that takes more time—to go one by one through the many doors and memories that are scattered throughout this place. You’re welcome to come back anytime, though. Remember, the front door is unlocked and you have access to all the keys.
I’m spiraling and I can’t stop.
I can’t stop searching for what I need.
It’s never enough.
It’s never enough.
I roll down my car window
and let the fresh air whip around the metal walls.
does the fresh air feel nice.
if only for a minute or two,
from my goal of this drive:
to find the stopper to my madness--
my downward dive--
so out of control.
I can feel myself spiraling.