The Exorcism of Sara May

18

 

 

 

That was over seventy years ago this spring, but I still remember it with complete and utter clarity.

I spent four weeks in a hospital in northern Minneapolis getting my jaw re-hinged and my mouth stitched shut. I know if Jones would’ve been there he would’ve made some crack about how the doctors could’ve done everyone a favor and kept stitching until I couldn’t talk at all. I miss him now as much as the day he was taken.

Catherine stopped by to see me one afternoon when I was able to speak and we talked for some time. There were many things she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, tell me, but for the most part she answered my questions.

She said that the thing that had tried to be born from inside me was an ancient spirit that had probably been lurking in our area for quite some time. Whether it was a spirit of the ground or water or wind, she couldn’t say. I told her about the murder of John Whiterock and she said that the possession of Justin Feller was probably Asag’s doing as well. When Whiterock was murdered it appeased the spirit and loosened its hold on the young boy. I asked her if it would have worked again, the murder of someone to release me from its grip and she didn’t answer me, only looked out the window onto the city streets below.

She left when I fell asleep and to this day, even after searching for the last fifty odd years, I haven’t been able to find a trace of Catherine Abercrombie anywhere.

When asked later about the events that happened in Sara May’s bedroom, most who were present couldn’t recall exactly what they’d seen, but one thing was unanimously agreed upon: almost every word Catherine had uttered after the thing had revealed itself had been in that strange language, even though I understood her clearly.

Other than my jaw and mouth, I had no other injuries, internal or otherwise, and was able to come home at the end of June. Much of life in Rath had returned to normal in the wake of my exorcism, but some things weren’t able to heal as most know who’ve gone through trying times.

Arthur Nimble shot himself three weeks to the day after the events at the Tandy farm. Someone passing by his store heard the gunshot and swore up and down that they heard him talking clearly to someone even though his tongue had been torn out by the root.

I stayed on the farm with my mother and father until I turned eighteen and was drafted into the marines. I asked Sara May to marry me before I left and she said she would on the condition that I come home alive to her.

I’m happy to say I kept that promise and it resulted in three beautiful children of our own along with a house I built on my parents’ property after they’d passed away. We just celebrated our sixty-first wedding anniversary and the love that blossomed so many years ago continues to flourish.

I firmly believe that love is what saved me that night from the clutches of something unholy. I don’t know if it was a demon, or a spirit, or a being from another planet, but I do know that it couldn’t stand the power that love exudes.

So many years have passed since the depression ended. People fought, loved, lost, and moved on to other places, different lives. I think about that a lot sometimes when I can’t sleep late at night. It gives me comfort to know the virility of the human spirit and how much we can overcome if we decide to.

But on other nights, when the wind is cutting its teeth against the side of our house, and Sara is asleep beside me, I can’t help but remember those last few seconds before I lost consciousness on that night all those years ago. I can’t unsee what Catherine did with the thing writhing in her hands. How she straightened its body out and how her own mouth widened enough to shove it, fighting and shrieking down into her own body.

I remember how her eyes changed from that placid gray to completely white. And sometimes in those darkest nights, I’m very thankful I never was able to find her again.

The Exorcism of Sara May

17

 

 

 

I turned nineteen years old the day I set foot on a boat that would carry me to Africa.

I can recall the salt sting of the air in a scratch on my temple that I’d gotten in a bar brawl the night before. The memory of those first days on the boat and how seasick I was are as fresh and clear as they were all those years past. I remember how terrified I was the first time I was shot at while entering a bunker two months later, how the bullet had seemed to whisper something to me as it passed by my helmet and killed a Corporal standing fifty yards to my left.

But I must be honest, I have never been more afraid before or since than when Catherine Abercrombie spoke those words on that wet night in May of thirty-six.

I glanced around at the other people in the room, sure that there was a joke I was missing out on, but they all looked back at me somberly, several of them with a hint of fear. Even my father watched me to see how I would react, and I realized he had been privy to all this as well.

“I don’t understand,” I said again. “Sara was the one who was sick. She had the mark and she floated, I saw her.” Sara came close to me and touched my hand. She was the only one besides Catherine that didn’t seem afraid.

“I was falling on the stairs a few days ago and daddy was behind me. He caught me by the back of the neck and I bruised there.”

“But your voice, it changed that day in the barn,” I said, my stomach turning in slow flops.

“The thing inside of you, Lane,” Catherine said, “it has influence. It can do things, terrible things. And what it does is only a means to an end. To get inside you it had to break you, it had to separate you from everyone and everything you love so that it could pry its way in. Seeing Jones die along with Sara in so much pain was the final straw. I believe when you passed out in the field is the moment it entered your body.”

I laughed. “You’re all crazy. Nothing’s inside of me. I feel fine.” But did I? I hadn’t felt right since waking up. I’d been sick, cold, shaky. But that was normal after witnessing something like I saw, right? I wasn’t sure anymore.

“Lane, I’d like you to lie down now. You can help us. Help me get rid of it since it still doesn’t have a full grip on you. If it did, you would have never allowed yourself to be brought here.”

“How do you know,” I said, a spike of anger flaring within me. “How can you be sure it’s inside of me?”

“Because, I can see it,” Catherine said.

There were several whispers that flew around the room like moths. I shook my head. “What do you mean, see it? How? I don’t understand. Dad, tell her she’s wrong, tell her I’m okay.”

My father had never looked so haggard. He started to step forward, to embrace me but Catherine blocked him with one hand on his chest. “We discussed this, Mr. Murphy. You gave me your word.”

“I’m okay. I’m not possessed,” I said.

“Lane, please get on the bed,” Catherine said.

“I don’t want to, Dad please. Mrs. Shawler…” My pleas went unanswered as Catherine moved closer to me. Sara was crying, her quiet sobs the thing that troubled me the most. “Catherine-” I started.

“Mramdal fu tunal kasu,” Catherine said, and something inside of me moved.

It was a painful uncoiling, like a portion of my stomach was being rearranged. “What are you doing?” I whispered through the pain before doubling over.

“Suto von presa. Dune vago coom.” My spine tightened and I straightened back up, feeling like a ventriloquist’s dummy under the care of a violent master. A pressure started to build in my chest and I thought for a brief moment I was going to vomit. Instead my jaw was pressed downward from something inside my throat and I gagged.

Sara fell back into her father’s arms, her hands pressed over her mouth. Mrs. Shawler cursed and made the sign of the cross over her chest. My father moaned my name, and I gagged again as something extended from between my lips.

The fingers were black and glossy with moisture. They were tipped with ragged nails caked with filth. And as they extended from inside me, I saw that they were very long and bent either way on their joints.

My jaw broke. There were two pops like knots in a fire and agony erupted throughout my face. I thought I would fall, knowing my legs couldn’t hold me up through the pain, but I didn’t. Instead Mr. Shawler moved enough to one side so that I could look directly into the mirror mounted over Sara’s desk.

A shriveled face peered out of my gaping mouth between the fingers. It was humanesque in the sense that it had a nose and two eyes as well as a mouth, but that was where the similarity stopped. It appeared burnt and shriveled, the skin cracked and flaking in places. Needle-like teeth shone between its dark lips, and it snickered at the sight of my eyes widening while it peeked out of my mouth.

Mrs. Tandy fainted, falling against the wall and sliding down without someone to catch her. Sara whimpered into her father’s chest.

“Asag, you are unwelcome here. This boy is not yours,” Catherine said, approaching me slowly from the side. The thing in my mouth tilted its head and hissed.

“He is mine until I need him no longer.” The thing spoke in a croaking whisper and I felt it readjust itself inside me.

“I know your name and bind you to the ancient law of Drindal. You cannot disavow the words. I bind you and curse you.”

“I have many names, hag. Leave this place or I will tear him apart from the inside out.” The fingers tightened and the corners of my mouth began to tear. If I could have screamed I would have then, but the thing inside me was in complete control. I couldn’t move or make a sound it didn’t wish me to. I was a puppet.

“You’ll do no such thing in my presence,” Catherine said, peeling off her gloves. The skin of her hands was covered in designs. They were drawn in dark, thick ink that swirled and curved over every inch of her fingers and palms. There seemed to be strange letters written amongst the intricate patterns, but none that I’d ever seen before.

I had a moment to realize the thing inside me was scrambling back down and then Catherine plunged her arm up to the elbow into my mouth.

I fell back onto the bed and Catherine came with me, her knees driving into my stomach and chest. A scream unlike anything I’d ever heard echoed through the room and everyone watching dumbly covered their ears and cried out in unison. Blood gouted from my nose and splashed the front of Catherine’s shirt and pants. I tried to fight her off me because now the pressure of her and the tearing of the thing inside me was too much. I was going to die, flayed apart as they fought over my flesh.

“Release him and you can go back beneath the earth,” Catherine said, shoving her arm farther down my throat. A muffled growl came from inside my chest and Catherine screamed, her face so close to mine some sweat fell from her brow onto my face.

I was burning inside. I was dying. There was nothing left of my resolve to live and I just wanted it to be over. The door to the room was open and I saw a flash as Arthur Nimble ran out. The walls were vibrating, pictures falling from them in showers of glass as the window locks exploded and the panes raced upward. Rain blasted into the room directly sideways as if it were falling that way. It collected on the wall and ran outward toward the floor and ceiling.

Catherine grunted something and I flailed my arms, finally regaining movement in them. “David! Help me hold him! It’s slipping!” Catherine yelled. Then my father was beside her, grasping my arms and pinning them to the bed as I swallowed blood and tried to scream. Spikes of pain ripped through my stomach and my legs spasmed in short kicks.

“Release him or I will destroy you,” Catherine growled. She pivoted to one side and her elbow slid past my jaws. There was a drumming sound on the wood floor and I realized it was my heels hammering out a machinegun rhythm. The thing inside me crawled deeper, boring into and through me, violating every inch of my being and I cried out in my mind for God to kill me. I looked at my father and spoke the same message with my eyes. He sobbed my name and turned his head away, still holding me down tight to the bed.

Then she was there.

Sara was beside me, her hand brushing my cheek, eyes finding my own, and even though she was afraid, I could hear her voice above the cacophony of the room.

“You’re the one, Lane. You’re the one I always loved. Hold on for me.” To this day I don’t know if she spoke aloud or if the words were in my head. She’s told me herself that she doesn’t remember if she said anything or not and it’s very possible that I imagined them entirely, but regardless the effect was instantaneous.

Catherine’s arm recoiled from inside me and the slender, burnt thing sprung from my mouth.

It slid out in an ebony ribbon of long arms and legs with hooked flippers where its toes should’ve been, and it stuck to the ceiling above the bed, the horizontal rain running over its body.

A gunshot ripped through the room and the thing flew from the ceiling in a spray of ichor. Arthur Nimble stood in the doorway clutching a rifle, its barrel smoking. Catherine yelled something and was gathering herself up from the floor where she’d landed when the thing sprung like an enormous frog up and onto Nimble’s chest.

Arthur slammed into the nearest wall and rebounded, falling face first to the floor. The thing was under him, grasping and worming in his grip as he rolled over. In that brief second I saw it had its head in his mouth and was chewing his tongue to ribbons.

Then Catherine was there, her painted hands gripping it around its thin waist. She pried it from Nimble and smoke or steam began to erupt from the places where her hands touched it. The thing screamed again and this time blood erupted from everyone’s ears except Catherine’s and my own. One by one everyone in the room fell to their knees and slumped over as if they’d been shot.

My own vision wavered and became a deep shade of gray as I tried to sit all the way up. Catherine had pinned the long arms to its sides and was staring it full in the face with her strange eyes. Its body whipsawed again and it mewled out something that sounded like a plea.

But then Catherine uttered a word I couldn’t make out and the mist that was gathering in my eyes turned black, and I fell into nothing.

The Exorcism of Sara May

16

 

 

 

It started to rain as we drove along Secondary Road and I was acutely reminded of the night we had gone to Ellis Wilmer’s.

It had a sense of symmetry, the comfortable whop of the wiper blades, the darkness beyond our headlights, even the smell and taste of the strong coffee my father had brewed before leaving.

There were no lights on in any of the houses in Rath, the school as dark as a tomb. Missy Arnold sat outside her shop in the rain, hands folded in her lap. She was laughing.

We turned right on 7 and headed south as the rain fell harder. There was no lightning, no thunder, just the steady splash of water on our windshield. My father and I said nothing to one another the entire ride, each of us lost in our own thoughts.

When the Tandy’s house came into view, my breath caught in my throat. Every light in the house seemed to be lit and it shone like a ship at sea. There were three other vehicles there besides the Tandy’s truck and I wondered which one was Catherine’s. I hadn’t seen her arrive or depart in anything at Nimble’s and was curious as to what a woman like her would drive.

We left the truck and hurried out of the rain to the porch overhang but the storm still managed to soak us in the process. Mr. Tandy was there at the front door to meet us as we shook ourselves off.

The man looked a decade older than the last time I’d seen him. His skin was sallow and there were purple bags beneath his eyes. He seemed smaller somehow, as if time had shrunk him. He and my father shook hands but he didn’t offer me the same gesture, only nodded in my direction.

“Come in,” he said, leading us inside.

The house was two levels, the interior brightly lacquered wood and rose patterned wallpaper. A spacious living room sat to the left, a huge stone fireplace crackling heartily in one wall. To the right was a closed doorway to what I assumed was the kitchen. I heard Jones’s voice asking if I knew what assuming normally does, and clenched my eyes shut in several hard blinks. Beyond the kitchen door was a formal dining room with a table and chairs I knew my mother would’ve given her left arm for. Past the dining room was a stairway angling up and back to disappear on the second floor. Catherine stood at the base of the stairs.

She was wearing the same clothing as she had earlier in the day but now she had a slim, black pair of leather gloves concealing her hands. Beside her was Jane Tandy, Sara’s mother, and Arthur Nimble. Mr. and Mrs. Shawler were seated beside them. They all watched us approach looking as nervous as I felt.

“Hello, David. Hello, Lane,” Catherine said. We echoed her greeting and I tried to smile at Mrs. Tandy but she looked away almost at once. I swallowed and turned my attention to Mrs. Shawler, who’s grim face remained impassive. She gave me a quick wink before glancing at my father.

“Well, we all know why we’re here,” Catherine said, inspecting us. “I can’t say what we will encounter once we get upstairs. There’s no telling what any of you will hear or see. I will say that none of it will be pleasant. What we are trying to cast out is devious and disparaging. It will try to twist your minds into believing lies and discarding truths.” She looked at each one of us in turn. “Listen to me at all times and no matter what, do exactly as I say without hesitation. We will have one chance and one chance only to do what needs to be done.” She paused again. “Beyond that, I’ll be unable to help.”

My knees wobbled but I pictured Sara lying in the bed upstairs, something hideous inside her, poisoning her. I felt her fingers intertwined in my own, heard her soft voice saying that she liked me.

“I’m ready,” I said, and Catherine eyed me before nodding.

“Let’s begin,” she said.

Catherine led the way with the Shawlers and Nimble going next. I followed Mr. Tandy and my father brought up the rear. As we climbed I saw Mrs. Tandy place her face in her hand and move quickly away toward the living room.

The stairs creaked beneath our feet and the scent of sweat hung in the air. The stairway turned on a landing then emptied out into a wide hallway with doors on either side. All of them were shut tight, the gap beneath them completely dark except for the one at the end on the right. A slash of light cut from underneath it and another smell invaded my nose. It was a sweet burning, almost like when we would torch a clover field, only there were other scents mixed in that gave it an exotic aroma.

My heart picked up speed as Catherine reached the door to Sara’s room and opened it, stepping quickly inside. Everyone followed suit, each of them disappearing through the doorway without hesitation until it was my turn. I took a deep breath and stepped across the threshold.

The room’s walls were painted a sunny yellow, the trim and window sashes a bright white. I imagined how open and airy it must look on a sunny day when the shades weren’t drawn and the summer breeze was allowed to flow inside. There were several drawings of horses on the walls and I recognized Winnie in one that depicted the animal galloping in a field of flowers. There was a small desk topped with a porcelain dish and ivory hairbrush. Beside them was a long, burning stick of incense that trailed up a thread of smoke. The bed at the center of the room was stripped to the mattress and sheets, its width almost double my own. Heavy leather straps were attached to the brass headboard as well as the base.

I stopped dead several steps inside the room, my eyes locked on the bed.

It was empty.

I blinked, glancing around the room, searching for Sara’s slight form to be crouched in one corner or standing against the wall. But she was nowhere to be seen.

Catherine stood by the foot of the bed and gazed back calmly as my father moved in beside me.

“What’s going on?” I asked, looking around at all the faces that were pointed directly at me. Footsteps creaked on the stairway before coming closer down the hall. A moment later Mrs. Tandy appeared in the doorway, and when she stepped aside, Sara May walked in behind her.

The level of confusion that consumed me unhinged my jaw at seeing Sara up and moving around. Her color was good, her eyes were clear, and she walked freely. By all accounts she looked healthy. When I faced Catherine again, she was closer, the hands in her gloves held out in placation.

“I don’t understand,” I managed. “Why isn’t she in bed?”

Catherine stopped before me, her eyes boring into my own. “Because Lane, this isn’t Sara’s exorcism. It’s yours.”

The Exorcism of Sara May

15

 

 

 

Catherine closed the rickety door behind us that blocked Nimble’s small office from the rest of the store.

The storeowner’s workspace consisted of a scarred oak desk and a short-backed stool along with receipts of all sizes scattered and stacked around the room. Several cases of whiskey stood behind the door and it was these that Catherine pulled away from the wall and sat on. She motioned for me to sit on the stool and I did so, a current of nervousness running through me that only amplified my physical discomfort.

We looked at one another for a time before Catherine shifted on the crates and folded one leg over the other. “Lane. What’s your full name?” I told her and she nodded. “Good solid name. Can you tell me exactly what happened in the field yesterday? It’s the only thing I wasn’t filled in on, and the bit of eavesdropping I did while that fat blowhard was talking didn’t paint the best picture.”

Despite the fact that I didn’t recall her standing in the store when Daryl was speaking, I took her word for it and began telling her in a halting description of what happened to Jones and Sara. When I’d finished, the same sensation of becoming lighter coursed through me. Even a little of the nausea had abated.

Catherine had sat silent throughout the tale and only watched me with her gray eyes. One of her booted feet twitched like a cat’s tail and she kept her long-fingered hands laced together. “How are you feeling?” she asked after a time.

“Sick.”

“You and Jones were very close.”

“Yes.”

“And Sara? How do you feel about her?”

My face grew warm. “She’s…wonderful,” I said, finding it nearly impossible to tell anything but the truth to this woman.

Catherine stared at me and seemed to consider something before saying, “Lane, do you understand what’s been happening over the past few days?”

“No. I don’t.”

“To put it simply, there is good and evil in the world. Sometimes they are completely natural while at others they are beyond that. There’s no cosmic balance that has to be attained as some priests or holy men would say. Bad things happen every day just as there are great kindnesses. Either way the world continues to turn. What we are dealing with here is something vile, an entity, being, energy, whatever you’d like to call it, that has a penchant for suffering. Its sole reason for existing is to cause pain and strife for all who encounter it. Now I’m not sure if it got its taste for this over time or if it was born fully evil. What matters is it has targeted the town of Rath and it won’t give up its quest until it succeeds.”

“What does it want?”

“What anything wants that has the capacity to think or reason: power. It wants control and domination. It wants to be free of whatever has kept it dormant or chained from the rest of the world. It wants to be born.”

“Born?” The word stuck in my head like a thorn. “But how would it do that?”

“By getting inside someone to break their will, make them hopeless, and take every happiness from them. Once they’re completely under its control, then it can take them off like a dirty suit and discard them.”

I had started to tremble. The image of Sara floating above the field, her neck and back arched in agony. The mark of a black hand on the back of her neck. How her voice had changed in the barn.

“It has her,” I whispered. “It has Sara.” I looked up at Catherine’s calm, gray eyes that were like clouds scudding over a gunmetal sea. “You can help her? Save her?”

She sighed and licked her lips. “I won’t lie to you, Lane, I’ve dealt with terrible things before, but none that seemed so hell bent on possessing a child. It’s tenacious and powerful, I could feel its presence the moment I stepped into town. There are no guarantees…” She paused and her face softened for a moment. “But I’ll try.”

I could have hugged her then. If not for us just only meeting and being alone, I would have. “Thank you, Miss Abercrombie.”

“Call me Catherine.” She rose from her seat and turned toward the door. “Now, there’s a lot to do before we go ahead with this. I’m going to go speak to the Tandys, look in on Sara, but I’ll need you and your father there this evening. Your connection to her will be very important.”

Tonight, I thought, and repressed a shudder. The thought of what was to come was worse than end-of-the-year tests, worse than having to go to the doctor, worse even than helping Jones muck out his barn. Jones. At the thought of my friend a white-hot ember of anger flared within me. Whatever this presence was, it had taken my best friend from me, tried to take my mother, and now had Sara in its grip.

“I’ll do whatever you need,” I said, my voice wavering with warring emotions. A tear sprung to my eye and I swiped it away. No time for crying now.

Catherine appraised me again and gave the barest hint of a smile. “Nine o’clock tonight. Be at the Tandy’s no later than that.”

Then she was gone and I was left standing in the center of Nimble’s office.

When I felt steady enough to leave, I found my father waiting near the entrance to the store. Several of the other men had departed and Catherine was nowhere to be seen. The day was darker than when we’d entered the store and the air smelled damp and foul, like it had been shut inside a cellar for too long. In the truck my father didn’t say anything, only glanced at me several times before wheeling us in the direction of 7.

“No, I don’t want to go all the way to Arbor right now,” I said, stopping him from pulling onto the road.

“Why?”

“Because I don’t want to risk not being here for tonight.”

Catherine must have filled him in on what was going to happen for he simply nodded and turned us toward home instead. When we got to the house I suggested we call my mother instead, and he dialed the number and let me talk. The nurse who answered said she was sleeping and that she’d give her the message when she woke.

I hung up feeling wrung out and tired but too antsy to sleep. It was nearly suppertime and I helped my father cut a few potatoes and set them to boil beside two strips of venison, even though my appetite was nonexistent. But to my surprise I ate everything on my plate when we sat down. The food was delicious. My father commented on how it was a good thing, but there was no energy behind his words. He on the other hand only picked at his food, storing the leftovers in the fridge before pouring three fingers or more of whiskey for himself and turning on the radio. The name ‘Hitler’ and the words ‘fascism’ and ‘domination’ fell out of the speaker. These were common things we’d been hearing for some time now, but I really had no concept of how big the world was outside of our little town. I was only just beginning to realize how small I was in the grand scheme of things, how precious and delicate the bindings of family and friends were, and how quickly everything could be taken away.

I left him listening to the news and went to my room, unable to decide what to do with myself in the remaining few hours before the exorcism. I knew little to nothing about the vague ritual, and Catherine’s words still lingered in my mind. Sara would need me tonight. That much was apparent. In all rights I should have been terrified about what was to come, but the thought of being able to help the girl I loved was more than enough to strengthen my resolve. Tonight the helplessness and utter confusion I’d felt over the past days would be put aside. There would be answers and possibly revenge for what had happened to Jones. The feeling that was growing inside me was the same as when I’d killed the turkey buzzard with the shotgun. It was strong and good and I knew at the base of it all was an inkling of hope that things would return to normal, or as closely as possible to something resembling it after everything that had occurred.

No more had the warmth of the thought flowed through me when an icepick of despair slid through my chest and I shuddered. Goose flesh drifted across my skin and when I breathed out I could see my breath.

Something was there with me.

The room was quiet and partially layered with shadows of the growing evening. I searched all the corners and even dropped down to look under my bed, but there was nothing beyond a few clots of dust and hair. I waited to hear Danny’s laughter or smell the foul odor that had clogged the air before, but I could sense nothing past the crushing hopelessness that had invaded me.

Not knowing what else to do, I knelt and prayed at the foot of my bed. We only went sporadically to church since the nearest congregation was in Arbor and neither of my parents were practicing Catholics. So my prayers were undoubtedly awkward and fumbling, but my heart was in them. I asked for peace for Jones and his family. I asked for my mother to recover and come home. I asked for my father to remain strong. And I asked for the courage to do what I could to help Sara that night.

The whole time I spoke to myself I could feel the room growing colder, constricting as if the walls were coming closer. But I kept at it until warmth returned to my fingers and toes and I no longer felt the cloistering pressure anymore. When I opened my eyes the sun had dropped below the horizon and darkness was hanging in cobwebs in the trees. Footsteps approached my room and then there was a knock at my door, my father’s voice on the other side of it.

“Lane. It’s time, son.”

The Exorcism of Sara May

14

 

 

 

“Lane.”

I was underwater. The surety of it was reinforced by the liquid quality to my hearing and the fact that I couldn’t breathe. I was drowning. A hand squeezed my shoulder and I flailed one arm, trying to strike whoever was holding me under. My fist struck flesh and there was a grunt of pain before the words being said to me finally made sense.

“Lane! Stop! Calm down, you’re okay. Just breathe.”

My father. I opened my eyes and the world swam.

I was in my room and the shades were drawn wide, letting in somber light. I was warm, so warm I almost wished then that I was underwater. I bet I would’ve steamed.

“What happened?” I croaked, my throat a rusty hinge.

“You don’t remember?” my father said, leaning back away from me.

I tried going back. Going back to whatever brought me here. There was darkness and pain, an awful, gut-wrenching pain, and before that a feeling of paralysis. Then images came back to me. Sara floating above the field. The stumps rushing toward us. Heely screaming.

And Jones.

“Jones, he’s…” I couldn’t get myself to say it.

My father’s jaw hardened and he nodded. Tears flooded my eyes and I managed to roll onto my side. My father held me while I cried. He stroked my hair back from my brow but didn’t say anything. When the sobs were done constricting my throat and body, I swiped the hot tears from my eyes and gazed up at him.

“Sara?”

“She’s safe. She’s with her parents and hasn’t woken up yet, but she’s safe.”

“What happened?”

“I’m not sure, Lane. Nathan told me what he saw. Told me how Heely was killed, how Jones…but I wasn’t there.”

“He’s telling the truth,” I said, feeling my throat trying to close again at the thought of the stumps and Sara hovering in place. “It happened.”

My father sighed deeply and looked out the window. “I figured it was. Crazy as it sounds, I figured it was.”

“How long have I been asleep?”

“About twenty hours. I was going to bring you to the hospital in Arbor but I couldn’t find anything wrong with you physically, no wounds or cuts, and the same with Sara May. The doctor came out and had a look at both of you but said we’d have to wait and see if you woke up. There was nothing he could do.”

“You didn’t tell him what happened?”

“No. We didn’t.” After a pause he asked, “How are you feeling?”

I did another self-assessment. The pain was gone from my back, and other than the sensation that my head was waterlogged, I couldn’t find anything else wrong. “Feel okay. Head feels big and sloppy,” I said.

“Can you can stand?”

“Think so.”

He got me up and out of bed then. I felt a little like a newborn trying to walk, but slowly the strength and steadiness returned to my muscles. He brought me to the table and set out some bread, sliced sausage, and cheese. When I saw the food, I was sure I wouldn’t be able to eat. I kept seeing Sara. And Jones. The stumps. But with some urging from my father I took a few tentative bites and realized I was famished. I ate two sandwiches loaded with butter and my mother’s homemade pickle relish. After downing two cold glasses of water I was tired again but told my father no when he suggested I lay back down.

“I want to see Sara,” I said.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea right now. She needs her family around her, and to be honest they’re very shook up. I’ll talk to Nathan and see what he thinks tonight.”

“Where’s Jones? I mean…where’d they take him?”

My father’s face softened. “He’s at Morning Peace Funeral Home in Arbor. The service will be on Tuesday. They’re going to have him buried at their farm out under the tire swing.”

My vision clouded again at the mention of Jones’s swing. His father had put it up for him when we were about seven. We’d spent more hours than I could count playing on it, and I recalled how thrilled Jones had been when he’d told me his pa was going to hang it for him. The simple pleasure of an old tire and rope seemed to deepen my sorrow even further and I broke down again. My father hugged me, held me at the table until the storm of grief had passed.

“I want to see momma,” I said when I could speak again. “I’d like to go see her.”

“Sure. We can go if you feel up to it. Get your coat, it looks like it might rain again.”

We left the house after I’d changed into better clothes, and climbed into the truck. The sky was the same slate color as the day before but the ground was dry. It hadn’t rained in a while and I wondered if the storms would ever go away now that Jones was gone.

As we rattled down Secondary Road my head started to throb. I rubbed at my temples and tried to focus on the pain. It was better than thinking about Jones. When we pulled even with his driveway I couldn’t look, so I faced the other way until we reached 7. When we didn’t turn toward Arbor right away, I glanced at my father who was staring at Nimble’s store.

“The hell is going on now,” he muttered and turned the truck into the little parking area in front of the store that was crowded with two other vehicles. “You stay here,” he said, shutting the truck off, but I was already opening my door.

“I’m coming in.”

“Lane, I said-”

“I’m coming in,” I repeated. There must’ve been something in my tone that stopped him because he just stared at me for a second then headed toward the door. I’d never talked to my father that way before and it unsettled me some. But I didn’t have time to apologize because then we were stepping inside and raised voices in the heat of an argument drowned out all other thoughts.

“-soon to say anything of that sort,” Arthur Nimble was saying.

“The facts are right there for God’s sake. I mean a boy’s dead, Arthur,” Daryl Hudson said.

“That was an accident,” Nimble replied.

“Yeah, but did you hear what caused the accident? Did you catch the part where Nathan said he saw his own little girl floatin’ in the middle of the field? That seem just a bit odd to you? How about him claimin’ the stumps came to life and one killed his old mule?”

The group of men stood around the alcove with the woodstove. Nimble was near the center as were the two Hudson brothers. Old Vincent King was there as well, jaundiced-eyes half lidded and scowling. Mr. Shawler stood behind Daryl Hudson, and Alfred Hagen, the feed shop owner, leaned against the farthest wall, shock of gray hair in disarray beneath his faded cap.

“Something’s terribly wrong here, friends,” Daryl continued. “Vince knew it the moment we heard about Ellis’s goat gettin’ bit by its own young. Things are still happenin’ that aren’t right, and now we have a boy dead.”

“Daryl, you need to calm down,” Nimble said.

“The hell I do! Something needs to be done. We have to find the root of this. And I think I know where it is. I think we all do.”

“That’s enough, Daryl. I won’t tolerate any more of that talk in my store. You want to spout nonsense, go do it outside or by God I’ll throw your old ass out myself.”

“You coward. I always knew you were chicken shit. Same as your old man. He woulda said anything to keep out of the war.”

“You sonofabitch,” Nimble said, stalking forward, hands knotting into fists. “My father had diverticulitis and you know it.”

Chairs skidded back as everyone stood and several people got in between the two men. I stared from beside my father, hearing the argument but unable to follow what Daryl was getting at. Something had to be done? The root of this?

“I had two cows and a pig die,” Daryl yelled over the commotion. “Alfred had ten bags of seed go bad in his storage. They turned to black mold. David Murphy’s wife is in the hospital for reasons unknown, and we all know it’s because of that girl!”

“Stop it!” my father roared, and the room fell silent. I’d never heard him yell that loud before. Every eye in the place turned to him. “What are you suggesting, Daryl? I’m getting the picture, but why don’t you spell it out for everyone here. Your old man must’ve had loose lips about what happened with John Whiterock, but what confuses me is why you’d think it was something worth repeating.”

“Murphy, you should keep your tongue unless you know what you’re talking about,” Daryl growled. He had taken a step toward my father, and though the elder Hudson was perhaps sixty at the time, he still cut an imposing figure from years of work in the field.

“I know exactly what I’m talking about,” my father said, not backing away an inch. “John Whiterock was murdered because your father and Elias Feller thought he’d bewitched little Justin Feller. I’m sorry to say my grandfather was present as well and didn’t stop them. And now you’re suggesting the same thing about Sara May. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

“What happened to your wife then, David?” Daryl asked.

“That’s none of your damn business.”

“I think it’s everyone’s business if it affects the town.” The old man’s eyes found me standing slightly behind my father. He pointed. “You. You were there too. You saw her. You saw the girl hover in the air. You tell everyone the truth, boy.”

“Don’t speak to my son,” my father said, moving in front of me.

“I’ll talk to anyone I damn well please,” Daryl said, stepping forward. There was movement from behind me as Daryl cocked back a fist and prepared to hit my father. One second Hudson was there, the next he was stumbling back and tripping over his own feet.

A woman had appeared beside my father and her hand was outstretched toward Daryl as he continued to fall and finally skidded several feet before coming to rest against the side of the fireless woodstove. She wore faded jeans, scuffed work boots, and a dark, long-sleeve shirt buttoned tight to her throat. Her hair was black as coal and tied back from her face. She was pretty in the same off way I thought my mother was pretty. She had narrow cheeks and a rounded nose below two gray eyes. She was fairly tall and lithe in a way that spoke of someone who liked to run.

Everyone was frozen in place as she lowered her arm to her side and glanced around the group. Ernie helped his brother up from the floor as my father ushered me off to the side.

“Who the hell are you?” Nimble said.

“My name is Catherine Abercrombie.”

“You fuckin’ bitch,” Daryl said as he gained his feet and threw himself at the woman.

Catherine moved in that funny way again. It was like watching a piece of film with a frame or two missing. One second she was standing relaxed, not looking at Daryl, and the next she’d turned, stepped forward, and driven her fist into his stomach.

Daryl doubled over as if he’d run into the hood of a car. Catherine shoved his head sideways and the old man went down on the dusty floor of Nimble’s where he lay wheezing.

She looked around in an almost lazy way and when no one else said anything or stepped forward, she glanced at my father and said, “I’m assuming you’re David Murphy?”

“I am,” he replied.

There was silence again in the store while his words were digested. Finally Nimble said, “You called her here, David?”

My father nodded. “Daryl’s right about one thing, something has come to our town. Now it might have always been here and just woke up or it might be passing through, but to be honest I don’t understand any of the things that have happened and no one else does either, except maybe Miss Abercrombie here.”

“Can I ask why she would know anything?” Vincent King said.

“You can address me yourself,” Catherine said, staring at King. “I’m standing right here.”

King seemed to struggle with something before saying, “Well, out with it then. Why would you know what to do?”

“Because I’ve performed over fifty exorcisms,” she said quietly.

This set the room abuzz once again. Ernie helped Daryl off the floor for the second time, and Catherine eyed him warily as he wobbled to the nearest chair and sat, head hanging down, shoulders slumped.

“How do we even know that’s what this calls for?” Mr. Shawler asked, his voice rising above the din.

“You’ll let me be the judge of that,” Catherine replied.

“Respectfully, ma’am, aren’t priests the only ones who are okayed to do an exorcism?” Nimble asked.

“They’re the only ones recognized by the church, but of course the church only recognizes what old, white men can do. Never women.”

“It’s not right. She’s lying,” Daryl mumbled. She ignored him.

“I went to Father Benedict in Arbor and talked to him personally yesterday,” my father said. “He knew of Miss Abercrombie’s talents and got word to her.”

“Why didn’t he come instead?” King said.

Catherine gave him a smile that would’ve frozen flame. “Because Father Benedict can barely put his shorts on without fucking it up.”

“Blasphemy,” Daryl coughed. Everyone ignored him.

“When I heard of the occurrences here, I became interested,” Catherine said. She spoke in an eloquent way that hinted at a fine education well outside of Minnesota. Maybe even outside the United States. “And I only travel when something interests me.” Her gray eyes finally fell directly on me and I felt pinned to the floor. Time seemed to stand still for a moment and there was a tugging shift within my bones, as if she were seeing through me, sifting my thoughts and memories and sorting them within seconds. She nodded in my direction and I tried to summon a smile but failed.

“You must be Lane,” she said. “I’d like to speak with you in private.”

The Exorcism of Sara May

13

 

 

 

I stayed home from school that day.

When my father said it was okay and that I’d barely missed any school all year I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Jones and I had skipped the day before, even though class had been cancelled. I’m guessing he wouldn’t have minded but there was no reason to push my luck.

We stayed mostly inside that day, venturing out only to plant a few rows of potatoes and beans in the wet soil of our garden. When we’d finished my father poured me a dram of whiskey and told me to go lie down. I drank the liquor and did as he said, weariness nearly taking my feet from beneath me as I went to my room. I don’t remember being so tired before or since, and it wasn’t thirty seconds before I fell into a dreamless sleep only to be woken what seemed like minutes later by my father knocking on my door. He asked if I felt up to working for Mr. Tandy today, and even though I was still bone-weary, the thought of seeing Sara gave me a jolt of energy.

We took the pickup to the school and I waited in the cab while he went inside and spoke with Mrs. Shawler. After a short time my classmates started to stream out of the schoolhouse and split off in their separate directions. Jones emerged followed closely by Sara who looked more peaked than the day before. They came to the truck and I climbed out.

“Hey, Lane,” Jones said.

“Hi,” Sara said, waving a little before looking away.

“Hey,” I returned.

“Where were you today?” Jones asked.

“Home.”

“Sick?”

“A little. Momma’s not well either.”

“Sorry to hear,” Sara said. She came closer and looked me in the face, searching for what I wasn’t saying. I couldn’t meet her eyes in fear that I’d spill the whole story to them both right there. A moment later my father came striding toward us and glanced around.

“You all working this afternoon?” he asked. We chorused a round of ‘yeses’ and he jerked his head toward the bed of the truck. “Boys in the back. Let the lady ride up front.”

The trip to the Tandy’s was short in the pickup, though I kind of wished we could’ve walked. I wanted to tell Jones and Sara about what had happened the night before and knew it would’ve come out on the walk to the farm. But there was no time to fret about it once my father dropped us off. Nathan Tandy was waiting in the barn when we arrived and before we knew it we were in the field, dirt beneath our shoes, shovels in hand.

The somber sky hadn’t lifted all day and it seemed to press down even more while we worked so that at any second I expected to see the tree tops scratching clouds. The constant sickness of my stomach was slowing us down, but if Jones noticed he didn’t say anything. My back had started to ache also. Not the typical muscle strain from running a shovel, a deeper pain right between my shoulder blades like a knife was stuck there.

A knife. Like the one momma almost slit her own throat with the day before.

I shook my head trying to rid myself of the thoughts. She was safe now over in Arbor. She had doctors and nurses and all kinds of people to help her if anything was wrong. I would go and see her tonight I decided. I knew my father wouldn’t object and it would be good to sit beside her and have her tell me everything was going to be all right.

The pain between my shoulders flared and I shrugged, trying to work out the knot or whatever was bothering me. Jones chopped at the bottom of our latest stump and soon it wiggled loosely in the soil. We looped Heely’s towrope around it and urged him forward. The stump popped free and we began to fill in the hole left in its wake. Sara worked fifty yards or so away, plucking rocks from the dirt. I took a moment to admire her. For only a second I let myself imagine what it would be like to hold her, touch her face, kiss her lips. I could see us living in a little house someday, children playing in the yard outside. The vision was so vibrant and strong, for a moment all my discomforts faded.

Jones nudged me out of my daydream and nodded in the opposite direction. Mr. Tandy had worked his way around the edge of the field with Winnie, his big horse towing several stumps to the large pile Jones and I had accrued near our side. Jones shot me a knowing grin and I tossed some dirt at him that he sidestepped easily. Mr. Tandy was approaching us and we were about to move onto the next stump when something stopped me in my tracks.

Sara was gazing at the sky again, expression blank just as it had been the day before. I looked around. Something was wrong. It was a beat before I realized the slight wind that had pushed at the trees all day was gone.

The field was silent. Motionless.

“Lane. What’s happening,” Jones said.

Sara dropped the rock she was holding and her head tilted back in a silent scream.

I started to run to her, feet sliding in the dirt. Mr. Tandy yelled something as he pulled up beside Jones, but I didn’t stop. Sara’s arms came out from her sides and her feet came together so that she looked a lot like Jesus on the crucifix in my parents’ bedroom.

There was a sizzle in the air like lightning had just passed overhead and Sara’s feet left the ground.

I stumbled to a stop a dozen yards from her and watched, awestruck. She rose from the earth in a smooth motion, her feet coming up to almost chest-height. Her arms stayed straight out from her body as if she were nailed to an invisible cross and her head tipped so far back it nearly touched her spine. Jones was yelling and I was sure it was in horror at what was happening to Sara, but when I looked his way I saw I was wrong.

The stumps we’d pulled from the ground were moving.

They crawled with their many roots like squids dragged from the deep and deposited on land. The roots writhed and whipped and several stumps hopped forward in what looked like gleeful urgency. The lead stump was a large one with a wickedly pointed taproot at its bottom. It wriggled forward as Mr. Tandy and Jones backed away, leaving Heely standing near the last hole, unaware of what was approaching. Just as the stump closed in, the mule must’ve realized he was in danger. He tried to lunge forward but the animated stump was faster.

It leapt into the air and buried all two feet of its taproot into the mule’s side.

Heely screamed like a human, his bray deep and sonorous that echoed the worst kind of agony. His front feet gave out and he toppled forward into the dirt, the stump riding him down like some obscene parasite. Bright blood pumped from the wound and a sucking sound filled the air like a child draining the last of a malt with a straw.

Winnie danced around, eyes wild and teeth exposed as Mr. Tandy tried to hold her. Sara’s father was in shock, I could see it plain as day even from a distance. His jaw was slack and his movements were jerky like a badly strung puppet. Jones was backing away from the dying mule and the thing that was arching itself up and repeatedly stabbing the animal with its taproot. I was about to yell something, call out an instruction of some kind, when Jones turned and ran.

There are moments of clarity in everyone’s life. I’m not talking about a clear understanding of a situation or facts. That type of thing happens on a day-to-day basis for intelligent people. The clarity I’m speaking of is that which borders on precognition, an ability to see not only what is but also what will be in a surety that is fact even before it happens.

I saw what was to come, and in that split second my soul died a little.

Jones ran from the horror gutting and drinking the mule and passed directly behind Winnie.

The horse sensed him and lashed out with one of her powerful hind legs.

Her hoof caught Jones in the side of his head and I saw his skull flatten there, the top crowning as the bone shifted and broke.

Jones flew to the side, arms and legs akimbo, and I knew he was dead before he hit the ground.

The pain flared again in the middle of my back and it was so sharp I thought that a stump had somehow gotten behind me and was stabbing me like Heely. I looked down at my chest, sure that I would see a twisted and bloody root protruding there, but my shirt was unbroken. All the air seemed to have been sucked from the world as my knees gave way. My strength was gone, leeched from me as I struggled to stay upright and failed.

Sara floated above the ground, back arched now as if in extreme pain.

The Earth tipped on its side, the dirt coming up to meet me even as the girl I loved let out a shriek that tore at my eardrums and followed me down into the dark.

The Exorcism of Sara May

12

 

 

 

I fell asleep in my father’s rocking chair on the porch that night.

I hadn’t meant to. I’d wanted to sit up and watch the dark for anything that might come calling, but the exhaustion became too great and I nodded off sometime around midnight.

When my father had found us sitting on the floor with the knife nearby it had taken nearly ten minutes for me to explain what had happened and to extricate myself from my mother’s arms. I’d helped her to her feet and she’d fallen against my father like a tree cut at its base. She told him she hadn’t remembered getting the carving knife or sitting down with her back against the wall, only Danny’s voice telling her that she must do it. I explained how I’d noticed the buzzard and shot it without coming right out and saying the obvious, and my father had looked at us both hard before gently guiding my mother to the truck, telling me he’d be back as soon as possible.

When the rear end of the truck had disappeared down the driveway an irrepressible sickness rose within me and I barely made it to our toilet before nausea overtook me. When I was finished, the temporary elation I expected that normally came right after losing your lunch wasn’t there. My stomach still roiled and my head hurt like someone had landed a solid punch to my temple.

I tried to fix myself something to eat, but there was nothing appetizing in the kitchen so I settled for a glass of water that I took along with the shotgun and some fresh shells out onto the porch.

The storm kept pissing down rain until nearly ten o’clock before it grudgingly moved on, sending threats of thunder over its shoulder as it receded toward the east. The scene of my mother on the floor kept looping in my brain and as hard as I tried, I couldn’t make sense of it. The bird had made her do it, not Danny. When I’d blasted it in half she’d come out of her stupor or trance or whatever you want to call it. But it wasn’t really the bird, it was something using the bird. First the goat, then the thing from the puddle, then Danny, then Sara, now the bird.

But the real question was what did it want?

I shifted in the chair, keeping my hand over the comforting cold steel of the shotgun. The wind caressed the trees in the yard, and even with the unyielding sickness and trepidation, I nodded off.

The next thing I knew my father was shaking me awake and the beginning of morning was on the horizon.

“Come on, son. Let’s go inside.” He guided me in, taking the shotgun from my hands and sat me down at the table. Without another word he started a fire in the stove and began to make breakfast. The odor of cooking bacon and eggs stirred only a fraction of hunger in my belly, and when he set down two plates of food I barely kept from gagging. He offered a cup of coffee to me and I took it from him, warming my hands that had been ice cold since finding my mother.

“Where’s momma?” I asked, trying a sip of the dark liquid.

“I brought her to the hospital in Arbor.”

“Is she going to be okay?”

“I’m not sure. The doctors are checking her over.” He must’ve seen the stricken look on my face because he followed it up with, “She was perfectly fine the whole ride there, just tired. Eat something, you look pale.”

The bacon was too salty and seemed to be made out of rubber. The drooling yokes of the eggs looked poisonous. I managed two bites before setting my fork down. My father cleaned his entire plate and drank two cups of coffee before clearing the dishes away. When he returned to the table he stared at me and sighed once before taking his glasses off and folding their bows in.

“Lane, I know you haven’t been honest with me but I want you to know I’m not upset. Your mother’s in the hospital, and if there’s any way for us to figure out why, we’ve got to try and do it. You don’t have to be afraid of me not believing you. Just start from the beginning and tell me everything.”

Even though the sickness attempted to keep me silent, I made my mouth start forming the words. They came slow at first, telling him about the night we went to Ellis Wilmer’s farm, but soon my tongue was tripping over itself and I was talking so fast he had to ask me to slow down twice before I was done. When I’d finished I felt drained, empty, but also a little better, as if a fraction of weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

My father sat looking at me, then the floor, then the window before finally speaking. “There used to be a Dakota Indian that lived in Rath by the name of John Whiterock. He had a place out near where Tandy’s farm is now, just a little spit of land with a tent. He’d been tried and acquitted of crimes during the Dakota War and had moved north after thirty-two of his friends and family had been hanged down in Mankato the day after Christmas in eighteen-sixty-two. That was the largest mass execution in US history, and John had been present for it. A few years later he’d moved north to Rath, which wasn’t much more than a group of farmers eking out a living off the land. Kind of like today.

“Now of the farmers settled here there was Ben Hudson, Ernie and Daryl’s father; Elias Feller, a widower with two young boys; and my grandfather. I can’t say that any of them took kindly to John Whiterock. As much racial inequality as there is today, it was tenfold back then. But John never bothered anyone and the farmers kept to themselves as well. At least until Elias’s youngest son came down with an illness.”

My father unfolded and folded his glasses, fidgeting with them like I’d never seen before. “The boy’s name was Justin and he wasn’t much older than Danny was when the sickness fell upon him. Now Ben Hudson’s wife, Helen, had served as a nurse in the Civil War and she tended as best she could to Justin, but his symptoms weren’t easily handled. My grandfather told me he heard the boy speaking in languages and an ancient, hollow voice that had no business coming out of a five-year-old boy. Sometimes he’d spit and curse at anyone who came in the room, and he’d sweat so badly the bed would drip from the sheets onto the floor.

“Of course this all can be a little better explained today since we know fevers affect people in strange ways.” My father’s face darkened for a moment before he continued. “I’m sure today there would’ve been a better diagnosis, but in those days superstition was nearly as strong as the racism. John Whiterock heard about Justin’s sickness and went to speak with Elias Feller as well as Ben Hudson. He told them about a piece of land out in North Dakota that had always been cursed. Crops died whenever planted, strange lights and noises were seen and heard in the woods, and time to time a child would fall under the control of something evil that lived in the land.” My father paused, seeming to judge me.

I nodded. “Go ahead.”

“Whiterock told them that something similar was happening in Rath and that young Justin was suffering from some type of demonic possession. Needless to say both Elias and Ben didn’t take very kindly to the Dakota’s thinking. They ruffed him up a little and sent him on his way.” My father stopped again, refolding his glasses and laid them before him. I could see he wanted to keep fussing with them but was making an effort not to.

“What happened to Justin?” I asked.

“He got worse,” my father said. “His fever grew and grew until no one could stand within a few feet of his bed. My grandfather said it was like being next to a woodstove that was burning green pine. Justin started saying things, terrible things to his father, telling him his mother, Elias’s wife, was in hell and was…well, I won’t repeat what he said she was doing, but it was blasphemous. A horrible stench filled the room and a mist came with it, obscuring everything.”

The smell in my room the night before returned to me then and I wrapped my arms around myself to keep from shaking.

“When the mist cleared, Ben’s wife, Helen, was lying on the ground, her breathing shallow and uneven. They took her home but she died shortly after that in the night. No marks on her body and nothing apparent that caused it. She was there one minute, dead the next. Now what happened early that morning isn’t written down anywhere. You won’t find it in your schoolbooks or in the town records. Elias Feller accompanied Ben Hudson to John Whiterock’s buckskin tent. I’m sorry to say my grandfather was with them. He told me that he had gone along under the impression that they were only going to throw the Indian around some, rough him up again, put the fear of God into him. But as soon as they got there, Ben ran inside the tent and stabbed Whiterock with a bayonet he’d kept from the Civil War. Now he didn’t kill him, he wounded him. Then he and Elias drug him out, tied a noose in the nearest tree, and hung him slowly over a period of several hours.”

The house was silent around us and I was holding my breath. The sickness and weight was back and I thought I might have to run to the bathroom again. My father rubbed his palms together and grimaced. “My grandfather said Whiterock suffered very much before he passed, and when he was dead they burned his body along with his tent. When they came back to Elias’s house, my grandfather was shaken beyond anything he’d experienced before. He’d served in the war and seen horrible things, but the death of John Whiterock was beyond any suffering he’d witnessed. He was on the verge of leaving town to go to Arbor where the nearest sheriff lived and tell the entire tale to him when Elias came rushing back down from Justin’s room saying that the boy was better. When the rest of them stepped into his room they saw that Elias was telling the truth. Justin was sitting up in bed, asking for water, for soup, speaking like nothing had ever happened.

“Now Elias and Ben Hudson took it as a sign that their murder of John Whiterock was justified. They believed it had been the Indian causing the boy’s malady all along, but my grandfather wasn’t convinced. He never told me what he believed was true, only that John Whiterock was innocent and died a terrible death at the hands of a scared father and a grieving husband.”

I swallowed, sensing the end to the story, and looked around. Morning had come fully but had grayed since seeing the promised brightness in the east. It was darker than it should have been. I was about to ask him something when he spoke again, quietly, as if he were afraid someone or something would hear him.

“I knew the goat wasn’t natural when it bit its mother the other night. Not only because of the aggression, though. You see, goats don’t have front teeth on their upper gum, not even when they get older. They’re only born with some in the back on the lower jaw.” He waited a beat before meeting my eyes. “I’m sorry if you’re scared, Lane. I’m sorry if your mother and I weren’t giving you enough credence.”

“It’s okay, Dad,” I said, nearly embarrassed by his apology.

“It’s not, though. Your mother’s in the hospital now and maybe we could’ve…” His words trailed off and he looked out the window, a sheen of tears covering his eyes.

I didn’t know what to say so I just looked at the table for a minute before asking, “So you think this is something like what happened before?”

“I don’t know. But it seems awful similar.”

“What are we going to do?”

He looked at me then and his gaze was clear and strong again. “We’re going to meet it head on.”

The Exorcism of Sara May

11

 

 

 

The walk home that evening was dismal.

The sky mirrored my mood, clouds gathering mass and growing into tall ships that sailed across the sun, blocking it out. The air smelled of rain, but even with the promise of getting wet, I couldn’t get myself to hurry.

Sara.

I couldn’t stop thinking about her and how her voice had changed. Beyond everything that I’d seen in the passing days, everything I’d heard, what had happened in the barn with her was the worst. Mostly because it was the first time a person had been affected by whatever force was afflicting our small corner of the world. And partially because holding her hand and talking with her in private had been ruined.

I kicked a rock and it hopped down the road before me. The obscene thing she said kept replaying in my mind. It hadn’t been her doing that. It had been something speaking through her. The thought froze me to my core. I had to tell someone, someone other than Jones. An adult that would believe me.

My father.

It was apparent that he would be the only one that could help. He had seen something chasing me, was aware of the change in my mood. Even if his only reaction was to have me committed to the asylum down in Arbor, he would still be more vigilant of the things I’d mentioned. Maybe if they kept occurring then everyone would believe me.

With a newfound glimmer of hope, I began trotting home. The rain started to fall when I was halfway up the drive, but what I saw when I entered our yard was the thing that dampened my spirits the most. My father’s truck was gone. He must be out on a call. Something whispered in my mind of timing always being the worst when you needed something and I really had to agree. Maybe I could prime my mother for the talk we were about to have. I didn’t feel as comfortable telling her as I did my father, but I could at least reassure her that I was lucid and calm before spilling the events of the last days.

I steeled myself for the looks that she would give me when I started speaking. One son in the ground, the other crazy as a loon.

Up the porch stairs and into the house away from the rain. The house was quiet and dark. Darker than it should’ve been. My mother always had several lights burning as soon as she started to make supper and it was well into the time she was typically in the kitchen, clattering away with pots and pans. The silence was unnerving and it was only then that I realized I was no longer moving forward into the dark kitchen.

“Momma?” My voice died as soon as it left my lips. A scratching sound came from somewhere deeper in the house. I moved forward, swallowing a solid lump of fear. The kitchen was empty, dank light filtering in through the window over the sink. The stove was cold, no fire in its belly.

“Momma?”

A quiet shushing of fabric came from the next room near the hall. I didn’t want to see what was waiting for me, didn’t want to know even though I sensed it would be something terrible. But if I learned anything from those long dark days of the depression it was that you had to keep moving forward because there was really no other place to go.

I stepped into the next room and stopped.

My mother sat on the floor beside the hall. A splash of dishwater light fell on her thighs and shone on the carving knife in her hand. Her face was partially hidden in shadow but I could make out her expression and it was one of pure anguish. Tears ran in heavy tracks down her cheeks and her mouth was drawn wide in a silent sob.

“Momma, what are you doing?”

“Danny told me it was my fault. I heard him today in his room. He said it was my fault he died.” She punctuated her speech by a choked groan and brought the knife blade beneath her neck.

“Momma don’t!”

“He told me to do it. He’s still telling me. It’s the only way.” She pressed the knife against the soft skin of her throat.

“No, please, listen to me. I saw him too, but it wasn’t him, Momma, it wasn’t him. It’s something else looking like Danny. Danny’s in heaven, Momma, he’s safe and in heaven.” I knelt down, getting more on her level as a wash of dizziness rolled over me.

“He said heaven was a lie. He said he was alone in the dark and it was my fault. This is the only way.”

Movement outside the window snapped my head around even though I was loathe to look away from her.

The turkey buzzard spread its wings, balancing itself in the top of its tree. It stared at the house.

Before I could form another conscious thought, I was moving. Up and away from my mother, heading for the door. My hand gripped cold steel and without breaking stride I pushed through the screen door out into the storm.

The bird’s head was focused on the house, the window where it could see my mother, but its eyes shifted to me as I whipped up my father’s twelve gauge and pulled both triggers.

The blast of the double barrel shoved me back, punching my shoulder hard. The bird had tried to lift off the branch at the last second but there was no escaping the wave of lead that ripped through the sodden air.

The buzzard tore nearly in half.

Dark, ragged feathers flew in a puff of blood and started to drift down like black rain behind the plummeting body that slapped the wet ground with a thump.

I stood watching it for movement but there wasn’t even a twitch. My feet carried me back to the house on their own accord, stomach roiling at the thought of what I’d find. I had no idea if I’d been fast enough to break the spell the bird had over my mother.

Through the entry and the kitchen, hurrying now even if I was to see the worst sight I’d ever witnessed in my short life.

My mother still sat on the floor where I’d left her, head hanging low over her chest. The knife was on the floor beside her.

And its blade was free of blood.

She raised her head and looked at me with haunted eyes. “Lane?”

I don’t remember dropping the shotgun or hugging her. But then she was clutching me as if she were about to fall and crying, saying she was sorry again and again. I held her while the sound of my father’s truck rattled into the yard and the storm continued to roll over our little house.

The Exorcism of Sara May

9

 

 

 

My mother was distant at breakfast the next day.

She answered my father’s questions slowly and with delay. He had also noticed her partial stupor and asked if she was feeling all right. She said she was, just hadn’t slept as well as she normally did.

I wondered why her sleep had been disturbed. Had she heard something in the night? Seen something? Even the sunlight pouring into our kitchen that told of the bright day to come wasn’t enough to stave off the cold pool of fear gathering in my belly.

My father offered to drive me to school again that morning but I declined, assuring him I would be okay. As I think back on it now, he was most likely asking not only for my sake but for his own to boot. I think by then he had an inkling that something was wrong and all the time getting worse, like a cliff inevitably coming closer and closer to our family.

The walk into town was uneventful, not to say that I didn’t keep flicking my gaze over my shoulder every few steps. The heat that had permeated the day before was gone, filled in with a coolness to the air that reminded me of fall more than spring, and I kept shrugging my shoulders to keep warm within my light jacket. When I reached the turnoff for the schoolhouse, a voice whispered from the nearby field and I froze, guts shriveling in on themselves until I realized I knew who had spoken.

Jones poked his head up from behind an overgrown juniper bush that hadn’t greened out yet.

“Over here,” he said again, and I glanced around before jumping down off the gravel road to join him.

“The hell are you doing?”

“Had to talk to you. We gotta skip school.”

“What? Mrs. Shawler’ll skin us, not to mention our parents.”

“They won’t find out. You can do your pa’s handwriting, right?”

“Not perfect.”

“You fooled Shawler last fall.”

“Jones…”

“I got moonshine.”

“What?”

“Got some of pa’s shine that he got offa Nimble back when they were runnin’.”

Truth be told, I’d only had whiskey once. I’d snuck a glassful just as I had with the coffee and run it out behind our barn to drink. The taste had made me gag, but shortly thereafter I got a real light, warm feeling that flowed down to the tips of my toes and back. Thinking I’d found the best thing since Coke, I slugged the rest of it, sure the faster I drank it, the better the result would be.

I’d been wrong.

My parents hadn’t found out, at least my father hadn’t let on that he knew, but I had never been sicker than that long afternoon with the sky spinning above me, ground tilting beneath my back, and the smell of my vomit overwhelming in the grass beside my head.

Needless to say, Jones’s temptation of shine didn’t have the desired effect he’d hoped for.

“I don’t want any shine, Jones. We need to go to school. We gotta work Sara’s field this afternoon and-”

“I seen Danny yesterday,” Jones said.

My mouth felt like the words had been punched out of it. I just stood there, a little unsteady, and studied my best friend’s face.

“What did you say?”

Jones grimaced and it looked like he was going to cry. “I ain’t crazy, Lane, I ain’t. I thought about it all night and I know what I seen.”

“Did you say, Danny?” He nodded and I slowly sat down, letting my school bag settle beside me. After a beat Jones joined me, the stricken look on his face partially replaced with hope.

“You seen him too, didn’t you?” My silence was answer enough. “Oh God, I did think I was going nuts. I stayed up nearly all night going over it. You followed him. That’s why you almost fell into the well.”

Relief and renewed worry battered me. The things I’d seen weren’t in my head. First my father, now Jones. This was real.

“Where’s your shine?”

Jones led me toward his farm on a goat path that wound through a stand of trees behind Missy’s shop and across a field that had grown over since it was cleared years before. We left the field and walked down into a hollow near a high bank that bordered his farm. After some effort of getting through a dead patch of wild raspberry canes, we came into view of an outcropping of rock at the base of the hill. A formation of stone jutted from the bank and several enormous rocks stood on end, creating a makeshift shelter from the cool northern wind that coasted through the hollow. Inside the rock ring was a gouged place in the earth, burnt black by fire along with a pile of birch bark and a stack of dry wood. A clay jug with a cork sat near the bank, nestled in some moss.

“Found it earlier this spring,” Jones said, crouching near the little depression. “Came down here a few times when ma and pa were fightin’. Was gonna show it to you once I made some more additions to it. Want to get another wall up and put a proper roof on it with some tin.”

He sounded apologetic while explaining his plans. I brushed aside his guilt at not bringing me here by walking straight to the jug of shine, popping the cork free, and downing two long swigs. The white lightning burned like unholy fire from the back of my tongue to the base of my stomach. Almost immediately the world took on a softened quality at the edges and a little of my anxiety leaked away.

Jones snapped a match against stone and the sound bothered me so much I took another swig of whiskey while the flames spread through the birch bark and started to gnaw on the wooden tee-pee he’d created above it.

I sat down near the fire and held my hands out. They were cold and the flames felt good. Jones grabbed the jug from me and with a much more practiced tip, took a drink.

“Tell me,” I said without looking up from the fire.

“After you went to piss I started digging. When you didn’t come back right away I started walking over to the tree you went behind to see if you were all right. I knew you were bothered about something, just couldn’t figure what it was and of course you weren’t telling me. So then I see you start heading off toward the barn and I think you have to go shit now and you’re lookin’ for a biffy. But then I seen him.” Jones clears his throat and his normally cheerful face is anything but. “Told myself that it couldn’t be him, but he was wearing those overalls he used to always have on. Saw his hair moving and I got real cold all of a sudden.” Jones looked up at me and clutched the jug close to his side. “He changed as I lost sight of him round the barn. He didn’t look so small anymore and he didn’t have hair. He was just sickly pale and smooth like a stone at the bottom of a river. But I only seen him for a second, then he was gone and so were you.”

The wind nudged the tops of the trees and sung through a hole in our rock refuge. The fire guttered and surged.

“You were right. Something was bothering me,” I said slowly. Then I told him everything, starting on the night my father brought me to Ellis Wilmer’s. The day stayed bright but cool while I talked and Jones sat still as the stones around us. When I was done I took another drink of shine, even though my mind had started to swim a little and my vision wasn’t keeping up when I turned my head.

Jones stayed quiet for a while before finally saying, “But your pa saw it? Saw whatever crawled out of the puddle?”

“Yeah. But I’m not sure what it looked like to him.”

“What the hell’s happening, Lane?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’m not sure I want to go back to Sara’s. Don’t know if I can make myself after yesterday.”

“It’s not Sara’s place, Jones. I don’t think that’s what’s at the center.”

A little fear crept into his voice. “At the center of what?”

I didn’t answer him, just stared into the flames. After a time, Jones added more wood and we each took another slug of shine. I can’t recall falling asleep but I know I did because when I woke the sun had shifted in the sky and there was more warmth in the air.

I stirred and sat up, scowling at the foul taste in my mouth. A hint of booze still played in my head and I walked into the woods a ways to relieve myself. When I came back Jones was crushing out the few remaining embers in the fire pit.

“Think we should work this afternoon?” he said without looking up at me.

“Yeah. I might be able to write a note for you too.”

“Nah. I’ll just take a wuppin. Not like I’ve never had one before.” He grinned a little and in that moment I knew how deeply our friendship went. Jones had listened to me, never questioning any of the things I’d said, never doubting. And beyond that, he was trying to cheer both of us up. You only have a few true friends in a lifetime. Jones was the best I ever had.

We headed back the way we came and when we got in sight of the schoolyard, we both waited, trying to figure out exactly what time it was. It was close to school getting out, we knew that, but neither of us had the guts to go and peek in one of the windows at the clock on the wall. Just as we were beginning to argue who had to leave the hiding place, Sara May came around the side of the school and stood by the stairs, looking at Secondary Road while she waited. Jones and I gave each other a glance and stepped out into the open.

“Sara?” I asked, walking closer.

Her head snapped around but she didn’t seem too surprised to see either of us appearing out of the wilderness. “There you both are,” she said.

“Yeah, here we are,” Jones said, looking around nervously. “What’s going on?”

“Didn’t you see my note?”

“What note?” I asked.

“The one I left beside Mrs. Shawler’s.” We both must’ve looked as dumb as we felt because her eyebrows lowered and she squinted. “You two skipped, didn’t you?”

“Yeah,” I said, not seeing any reason to lie.

“You’re lucky then. Mr. Shawler was awful sick this morning and Mrs. Shawler called off school for the day. She left a note on the door and I put one beside it for when you two showed up saying I’d meet you here about when class normally ended.”

It was the one piece of luck I’d had in several days and it felt good knowing I wouldn’t have to answer for skipping.

“You guys ready to work?” she asked.

Jones and I shared a look and I nodded. “Yep. Sure are.”

 

 

 

10

 

 

 

The work was easier than the day before.

I’m not sure if it was the cooler temperatures or because of what Jones and I had shared with one another, but the stumps seemed to pull themselves out of the ground. Mr. Tandy was pleased when we took a little break and he inspected our work. He told us if we got four stumps out that day, he’d give us a bonus of ten cents apiece.

With the renewed vigor of promised riches fueling us, we dug harder, faster, and chopped roots with gusto. Mr. Tandy had piled the stumps we’d already pulled out in a heap at the far corner of the field, their tangled shapes looking like a stack of dead spiders.

It was shortly before quitting time that I saw Sara wavering beside her bucket of rocks. I’d been sneaking glances at her all afternoon, goose bumps running over my skin when she was looking back. But her posture this time was off, the unsteadiness in her stance apparent. I dropped my spade and moved toward her quickly. Jones must’ve sensed something was wrong because he asked if I needed him but I just shrugged as I approached Sara.

She was staring at the horizon that had become a bloody mess of clouds snagged on the tree line. Her eyes were vacant dots sunk into her skull and her mouth was moving when I stopped a few feet from her.

“Sara? Are you all right?”

She blinked and her jaw opened wide as if she were yawning before her pupils focused on me. “I don’t know,” she said. “I feel a little faint. Think I need some water.”

I picked up the pitcher she’d brought us not an hour ago but it was bone dry. “Here, come with me,” I said, and took her by the arm. She walked beside me and I ignored the racing thoughts that accompanied touching the girl I was in love with. I led her toward the barn, waving once to Jones who nodded and went back to work on the stump. Inside the shade of the barn Sara sat down on a hay bale and I started for the house to get some water when she stopped me.

“There’s a hand pump in the corner,” she said, pointing to the red spigot and handle attached to it. I pumped the pitcher partially full of icy water and brought it to her, helping hold it as she took several long drinks. When she was finished I sat down beside her and studied her face.

“I’m okay. I feel silly now,” she muttered, her cheeks coloring. “Think I got winded and a little lightheaded from bending over so many times to pick up rocks.”

“It can happen,” I fumbled, trying to keep the conversation going. “You’re a really hard worker.”

She smiled. “Daddy didn’t get a son like he wanted so I had to fill in.”

“You can outwork a lot of boys I know.”

“You’re sweet.” I didn’t know what to say to that.

The barn creaked around us and a tabby cat slunk between the hay bales and then out of sight. It was nice just sitting beside her in the quiet of the barn. I could’ve stayed there for the rest of my life and been content. Sometimes I go back to that moment and relive it as well as my aging mind can remember.

“I’m glad you and Jones agreed to help clear the field,” she said. “It’s nice having company after school.”

“Don’t you ever have any of the other girls over from class?” I asked.

“No, not really. Darlene came and stayed a couple times but she started being kinda mean so I told momma I didn’t want her to come over anymore.”

“Don’t you get lonely?”

“Sometimes. But momma and daddy and I play cards a lot. They’re teaching me Rook now. It’s really fun.”

“Never played that one before.”

“Maybe you can have your dad bring you over sometime and I’ll teach you.”

“That’d be really nice,” I said, feeling stupid at the reply. I struggled for something else to say but the well of conversation had dried up.  

I was about to rise from the bale and tell her I was going back to the field when she said, “Do you like me, Lane?”

I blinked stupidly at her, not daring to hope. “Like you? Absolutely, Sara.”

“I mean like me more than a friend? I’ve seen how you look at me and you have to see I’m looking back at you the same way.”

“Well…y…you…” I swallowed the knot that had formed in my throat. “You’re wonderful,” I managed. “You’re so quiet.” I could’ve kicked myself. I would have tried if I hadn’t been sitting down.

“I was quiet, wasn’t I?” She seemed to be asking herself. “I’ve always liked watching and listening rather than talking. Is that strange?”

“Not strange at all.”

“You’re the same way.”

“I am?”

“Yes. You don’t say nearly as much as Jones.”

“No one does.”

She laughed and reached out to hold my hand. I could’ve died happy then. Right there. If God had come off his holy throne and stepped down, pointing an enormous finger at me, I would’ve been able to go without pretense. Despite the nervousness racing inside me, something was happening below my midsection. I knew what it was, but there was no stopping it what with Sara’s smooth fingers laced within my own. My experience with girls consisted of facts Mills had told Jones and I on several occasions that didn’t leave the realm of scientific anatomy, and what had happened within the barn in the last several minutes.

To my horror Sara glanced down at my lap.

And her voice changed to something deeply guttural and poisonous. “Oh Lane. Looks like a little worm is standing up. Careful not to get it snipped off.” Sara clacked her teeth together an inch from my face and I leapt away.

I trembled in the barn’s doorway, ready to flee if she said anything in the baritone voice again that shouldn’t have been able to come from a fourteen-year-old girl. Sara yawned and she shook her head like a dog that has something in its ear.

She looked up at me, eyes watery and confused. “Lane? What happened? Why are you over there?”

“You said something…”

“What? I said I liked you.”

“After that. You said something about biting off a worm. Your voice changed.”

She frowned. “No, I didn’t.”

I started to argue but a coldness sank into me. It was happening again. This time to Sara May, the very last person I wanted affected by the shadow that was hovering over my life.

“Do you feel okay?” I asked, trying to keep the waver out of my voice.

“I think so. Thanks for getting me the water. I suppose we should get back to the field,” she said, her words somewhat clipped. I nodded and followed her out into the setting sun. 

The Exorcism of Sara May

7

 

 

 

I’ve heard people say that if you’re going to die, your life flashes before your eyes and everything happens in slow motion.

Time slows, not really the actual ticking of the clock, but our perception of it. Our minds speed up, synapses firing faster than light, images and thoughts there and gone in a fraction of a heartbeat. The brain can stretch time.

But it didn’t happen that afternoon in May.

I fell quickly and surely down. No time to think or ask questions. It was simply gravity doing its unending work.

But just as fast as I fell, my hands were out in the quickness that youth holds for a while. They latched over the rim of the old well and I slammed into the side, all the air going out of me.

Jones yelled my name again in the world outside, but I couldn’t answer him. All my strength was used in gripping my little handhold. My feet scrabbled against the well’s wall, slick with condensation and decay. Somewhere below me there was a splash of some debris falling. Or maybe it was something moving down there in the dark. The latter possibility gave me new strength.

With a heave, I yanked myself up and got my chest over the edge of the pit and didn’t stop straining and crawling until I was free of the well. I drew my feet out just as heavy footfalls approached from the direction of the field.

Mr. Tandy was there, his strong hands beneath my armpits, dragging me back farther from the well. Jones stood in the yard, eyes wide, mouth open like a fish.

And beside him was Sara. Beautiful Sara looking stricken and sick.

Mr. Tandy stood me up and spun me around to face him. “What the hell you think you were doing, boy?”

“I…I thought I saw something.”

“Saw what?”

“I don’t know. Something in the grass. I came to look and the cap broke.”

“Damned fool. Didn’t I tell you that? Didn’t I tell you there were wells?” Mr. Tandy sighed and deflated a bit. He wasn’t really mad. Not really. He was scared. A child in danger is the worst kind of fear an adult can experience, and I’d done this to him.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Tandy. I shouldn’t have left the field.”

He considered something for a moment, then shook his head. “It’s all right. I’ve been meaning to put heavier covers on these bastards for some time now. It’s my fault really.” He smacked me on the shoulder in a kind way and moved toward the well. I looked at Jones and Sara but really all I could see was Danny pouring the gasoline over his head and popping the match alight.

“Are you okay, Lane?” Sara asked.

“Fine,” I lied. “I’m fine.” Jones tried to meet my eyes but couldn’t. Sara searched for something else to say as her father grunted and lifted what remained of the well cover back into place. I wondered what I’d see then if I walked to the pit’s edge and looked down. Would there just be infinite darkness, as if the well went all the way through the earth? Or would I see Danny’s face down there looking back up at me.

I shuddered and started across the yard. Sara turned as well and I caught a glimpse of her neck again since she’d tied her hair back with the heat. The dark mark I’d seen the day before was larger. She glanced at me and I lowered my eyes, not looking up again until we’d reached the stump we were working on. I picked up my shovel and began uncovering the roots and didn’t speak to anyone else again that afternoon.

I didn’t even tell Jones about the spot on the back of Sara’s neck that looked like a hand.

 

 

 

8

 

 

 

The trouble with being a family is when something terrible is bothering one of its members, it’s liable to bother everyone else as well.

Family is strong. One of the strongest things I can think of. But the weakness is the love that’s shared within it. We care so much sometimes that it can break us.

So when I arrived home that first day after working in Sara May Tandy’s field, I didn’t breathe a word about seeing Danny to my father or mother. I couldn’t. Firstly, I didn’t want to see the stricken looks on their faces by saying his name, and secondly, I’d never worn a straightjacket, but didn’t think I’d fancy it either.

So I kept my mouth shut.

The turkey buzzard was in its customary tree that night when I stepped outside after helping clean supper up. I started to wonder if it had died and only rigor mortis was keeping it clamped in place. I hoped so.

As I was staring it down, the screen door opened and shut and I heard the clink of a glass setting down.

“You want to talk to me, son?”

My father was sitting in his favorite rocker on the porch. A little glass of whiskey rested on the railing beside him, and I was glad to see he hadn’t brought the twelve gauge out as well.

“About what?” I asked.

“About what’s bothering you. Your mom and I can see it from a mile away.”

“I’m okay. Maybe a little tired.”

“Natural to be tired, you worked hard today. I remember what a time we had pulling some of the bigger stumps with my dad for the north field. It was real hell I’ll tell you.” When I didn’t say anything he shifted in his chair and gazed out at the early dusk. “Still thinking about what happened yesterday?”

I nodded even though I wasn’t really. Really it was a culmination of everything. How did you tell your father that you were afraid you might be going insane and absolutely terrified that you weren’t?

“Strange things happen, son. It’s not uncommon to bump into them from time to time. And sometimes bad accompanies the strange. That’s what makes it scary. But you don’t need to worry. Most things are harmless.”

“What if they aren’t?”

He seemed to consider this. “Then we fight, son. We fight.”

I felt the well cap give way beneath my feet again and finally asked myself the question that had been nagging me all evening. Did Danny try to kill me? Or Danny’s ghost, his energy, whatever you want to call it. Did he blame me somehow and had come back to make sure I got my comeuppance?

Or was it something that just looked like Danny?

Regardless, my father’s words were well-meaning but ultimately uncomforting. Whatever it was, either in my mind or tangible, it wanted to hurt me.

We went to bed early that night and, even though my body ached and I was as tired as I’d ever been, sleep eluded me each time I closed my eyes. I had gotten the uncanny feeling that something had been behind Danny’s closed door in the hall when I’d gone to bed earlier, and that sensation was still strong, hanging in the air of my room like a cloistering gas.

Each time I would begin to sink into sleep some noise would wake me. A creak or a crack that normally wouldn’t have registered at all was now a footfall, a turned doorknob. I held my breath so many times listening as the night wore on, my lungs began to hurt.

I’m not sure when I fell asleep but I came awake shortly before dawn, the gray tinge of light barely tainting the dark. I was on my side, facing the door when my eyes snapped open and I realized that I could see the blanket on Danny’s bed across the hall.

Not only was my door open but so was his.

My skin crawled.

Slowly I pivoted my head, forcing my eyes to focus in the dimness, forcing them to see. My fourteen-year-old mind told me that if I appeared to be still asleep, I’d be safe.

As my eyes adjusted I saw there was something on the floor of my room. Many somethings. Little heaps of dirt spaced evenly apart.

Small muddy footprints.

And they led to the foot of my bed.

I drew my feet up under me, knowing that at any second a cold hand would slide beneath the blanket and seize them. My breathing was heavy and erratic, there was no pretending I was still asleep. I had to look, had to know.

With a quick movement I sat up and snapped on my bedside light.

My floor was clean and clear, just as I’d left it the night before.

The door was shut tight.

Silence save for my breathing.

I collapsed back on the bed, not sure if I was relieved or more frightened. Had I been dreaming? My sleep-addled eyes sending the wrong messages to my brain?

I sniffed the air.

A horrid stink had filled the room, the smell of meat rotting in an enclosed space.

Like a coffin.

Somewhere else in the house came the sound of quiet laughter. But it was loud enough to know I was meant to hear it. 

The Exorcism of Sara May

5

 

 

 

They brought me inside out of the weather but it was nearly five minutes before I could speak coherently.

While I rocked and cried to myself, my mother sat at my feet, holding my hands, rubbing them with her own. She kept glancing over my shoulder towards our front porch where my father stood at the window, staring out at the yard, watching the driveway. Finally he came to the kitchen, setting the big shotgun in a corner before pulling a chair close to my own. He studied me for a time, his eyes calm behind his glasses. When he finally spoke, his voice was low and steady.

“Tell us what happened, Lane.”

“I…I drop…dropped the groceries.”

“That’s okay. What was that chasing you?”

“I don’t know.” I looked up into my father’s face. There was always comfort there when I needed it, always a kind word or some type of wisdom from him.

But now there was a hint of fear.

All at once relief flooded through me as I realized something. “You saw it too,” I said. “You sh…shot at it.”

My father stood from the chair and made his way to the kitchen sink and drew himself a glass of water. He drank it down and turned to face us.

“What was it, David?” my mother asked.

“I’m not sure.”

“But you shot at it,” she insisted. “You must know what it was. A bear? Cougar?”

“It wasn’t either of those,” I said, and when I looked at my father for confirmation, his silence was all the assurance I needed. He had seen it too. “It climbed out of a puddle on the road and chased me,” I said, spitting the words out like something sour. “It said it was going to eat me up.”

“What?” My mother rose from in front of me, her eyebrows drawn down. “What do you mean ‘it came out of a puddle’?”

“That doesn’t make any sense, son,” my father said.

“I know, but that’s the truth.” I nearly told them about the goat then, but didn’t. I had evidence on my side now—my father had seen something even if he didn’t understand it. But if I started spouting off about a talking two-headed goat, that he’d killed himself, I was sure it would stretch their belief too far.

“David, tell me what you shot at,” my mother said in her stern voice she typically reserved for me when I’d forgotten a chore.

“It was long and slender,” he said. “Big hands…”

“Big hands? Neither of you are making sense.”

I gazed down at my palms and glanced out of the window at the storm that was in full swing now. Water ran from the eaves of our barn and dripped from the corner of the porch roof.

“If you shot it then where is it?” my mother continued.

“It was there and then it wasn’t,” my father said almost to himself. “Lane, is there anything else you want to tell us?” I shook my head. “Okay. You go to your room and lie down. We’ll call you when supper’s ready.”

I got up and walked to my room as if in a dream. Inside I struggled out of my soaking clothes and crawled into bed wearing only my skivvies. Shivers ran through me and I curled into a ball. My parents’ voices, low but severe, drifted to me, and even though I knew they were arguing, it was a comforting sound. I must’ve fallen asleep because sometime later my mother shook me awake for supper.

The kitchen held the rich smell of fried chicken and baking powder biscuits. My father was already seated at the table when I sat down and I noticed the butter I’d dropped in the driveway was on the platter. He must’ve walked back and got it. It frightened me to think of him tracing my steps alone back to where I’d let the groceries fall.

I paused.

Steps. Footsteps.

“Dad, did you see any prints behind mine?”

“No. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything, though, because the rain had nearly washed yours away by the time I went outside.”

“And you didn’t see anything else?”

“No. And let’s not discuss this anymore in front of your mother. She’s worried enough as it is.”

I nodded as she came to the table carrying a bowl of mashed potatoes and sat down. Our dinner was eaten in relative silence, broken only by the request to pass a dish or ask for more milk. Afterwards I helped wash the dishes, throwing glances out to the porch where my father sat with a small glass of whiskey. None of us commented on the fact that he’d brought the shotgun out with him.

I went to bed early, exhaustion weighing me down like a pair of bricks around my neck. When I closed my door for the night my father was still on the porch sipping his drink, looking down our driveway. And I couldn’t help but notice the unmistakable outline of a turkey buzzard perched in the tallest pine tree.

 

 

 

6

 

 

 

Morning arrived with a welcome blade of sun that pierced the edge of my blinds.

For a moment everything seemed normal in that middle ground between sleeping and full wakefulness. But then the events of the day before rushed back in, filling me with a sickening dread. What was happening?

The question hit me like a hammer. In the years since that spring I’ve learned that when you’re in the thick of any situation, a human being can simply deal with what’s occurring. People are remarkable creatures in that sense. The reasonable portion of our brain shuts down and the part that keeps us moving forward takes over. It’s the only way many of us stay alive and sane.

But at the tender age of fourteen I was terribly aware of the events and my young mind couldn’t wrap itself around them. In the end I simply got dressed and readied myself for school because no matter what supernatural situation I found myself in, Mrs. Shawler’s patience only went so far.

My father drove me to school that morning. He told me he had business with one of the Hudsons, but I suspect his reasons had much more to do with the smell of cordite that still emanated from the shotgun in the porch.

On the way I told him about Sara May’s request from her father, and he gave me permission to walk to the Tandy farm after school as long as Jones was going as well. Even with the possibility of seeing Sara outside of school I was still filled with an unease that sickened me. I jumped when a pheasant burst out of cover beside the road as we passed and couldn’t meet my father’s eyes when he dropped me outside the school.

Jones was waiting for me in the entryway, a stem of grass pinched in the corner of his mouth.

“Mornin’,” he said, watching me hang my coat and school bag up.

“Mornin’.”

“And here I thought between my wit and Sara May’s most pleasant company, you’d look better today. Guess I was wrong. You’re still pale.”

“And you’re still an asshole.”

“Least I’m consistent,” he said, leading the way toward our desks. I dropped into mine, weariness a physical weight in my bones. “You got my attention. Spill it,” Jones said. “What’s eating you?”

His words nearly made me cringe. Eatcha up. “Nothing. Might be coming down with a cold. Got rained on last night.”

“Hope you don’t miss out on work this afternoon. Then I’ll not only have to take your wage but it’ll just be me and Sara to pass the time in the field.”

“You wish.”

“That I do.”

“Well, don’t get your heart set on it. I’ll be able to work.”

Sara May entered the room then and some of the dread I was carrying bled away at the sight of her. She was wearing a white dress and her hair was tied back in a ponytail. She smiled in our direction and took her seat at the front of the class. Mrs. Shawler wasn’t far behind and soon we were immersed in arithmetic, history, and grammar.

The school day slid by slowly, the sun making its way up past the windows and out of sight as it climbed to its apex in the sky. By all accounts it was a perfect spring day: not too humid, as the storm had washed most of the moisture out of the air, and not too cool.

When Mrs. Shawler dismissed us that afternoon the memories from the night before had dimmed somewhat. In the warm sunshine, waiting by the road for Jones and Sara May, they didn’t seem quite as vivid or real and I was grateful.

The Tandys lived a half mile south of Ellis Wilmer’s farm on County 7, and after Jones and Sara joined me we walked there, three young people side by side, us boys chucking rocks into the woods every so often, Sara walking in her serene way on the shoulder, commenting on several songbirds perched in the blossoming trees.

She seemed different then, and even now I don’t think it was because of what was going to happen to her in the days to come, what was already happening to her. I don’t know what helped her open up to us that spring but I think it might’ve been a nudge from something none of us could see or fathom. Something that might’ve known what was coming and thought we might need the bond that is so special and ephemeral in children of our age. I like to believe it’s so because there’s always two sides to a coin, and there is no true evil without something good to balance it out.

Even though my parents were quite cordial with Sara’s, I had never set foot in her house, never even been up on its porch in all my years. So when Sara went inside to fetch her father, I took a long look at the Tandy home.

It was two stories and painted a nice shade of faded red with white shutters. The long, wraparound porch put our own to shame and the brand new swing mounted at its far end swayed in the light breeze without a sound.

“It’s nice out here,” Jones said, reading my thoughts. “Peaceful. They got the best plot of land in all of the county.”

“It’s nearly the biggest plot too.”

“Makes our place look like hell.” Jones pulled his shirt away from his chest and sniffed. “Damn. Do I smell like cow shit?”

“Yes.”

“You didn’t even smell me.”

“Don’t have to. You always smell like cow shit.”

“Come on, Lane, quit bustin’ my balls here.” He lowered his voice. “I took a fall last night in the barn and hit a wet patch of shit on all fours. Got it in my face, on my chest, in my hair. And to top it off we didn’t have enough hot water for a bath. Had to scrub with that God-awful lye soap that Nimble can’t give away ‘cept to my pa, in some cold water. I couldn’t believe the horseshit timing.”

By then I was doubled over in silent gales of laughter, but managed to turn my head toward him and say, “Not horseshit timing, cow shit timing.”

Jones was winding up to blast me in the mouth when the porch door opened and Nathan Tandy stepped outside with Sara behind him.

Everything about Nathan Tandy was compact. His head was almost completely bald and his features were scrunched together, but instead of making him look simple it gave him a shrewd appearance. Along with how powerfully he was built through the chest and back, he cut an imposing figure. Sara looked diminutive by comparison. She had changed into a pair of gray pants and a chambray work shirt. I thought she looked just as beautiful as in her dress.

“Afternoon, gentlemen,” Mr. Tandy said.

“Afternoon, sir,” Jones and I said in unison.

“Sara tells me you both know how to work.”

“Sure do,” Jones said.

“Good. I got quite a few acres to clear and I want to be able to plant this fall. If you both work out I might talk to your parents about keeping you on longer than this summer since the crops’ll be more than we’ll be able to handle next spring. Couple things before we get started. Be mindful of Winnie, my big workhorse. She’s not partial to strangers and she can kick something fierce, so don’t walk behind her. There’s a few old wells behind the barn and house from the last homestead. They’re covered up but keep an eye out for them. As far as pay goes, I’ll give you each fifty cents for every afternoon, paid before you leave and you’re free to stay for supper if we work late. I want you boys working with Heely, my mule. You’ll start on the east side of the field and I’ll take Winnie to the west. Sara’s gonna pick rocks and run for any tools we need. Sound good?”

“Yes, sir,” we answered.

“Good. Let’s go.”

Mr. Tandy led us to his barn and got us outfitted with Heely and his harness as well as several lengths of rope and a stout chain for pulling the stumps. He handed us each a razor-sharp, two-bitted axe before helping Sara May get Winnie, their white workhorse set up.

“Next spring I’m planning on getting a tractor. Not that I don’t love you, girl,” Tandy said, patting the horse on the side, “but farming’s all about production and tractors are the wave of the future.”

I was listening absently to him as Jones and I began to lead Heely out of the barn, but I was struck by how much Sara May was helping with the horse’s tack. For some reason I’d never pictured her in the fields working with her father. She caught me staring as Jones and I left the barn and my face heated up.

The field we were working on was to the right behind the barn, about a quarter mile from the main yard. There were dozens of stumps sticking up from the rich soil, their tops sawed within a few feet of the ground. Rocks were also prevalent, some as big as a fist while others looked to weigh more than Jones and I combined.

We started on the farthest stump we could find to the east of the clearing while Mr. Tandy led Winnie to the opposite side of the field. Sara carried a shovel and a five-gallon pail, which she started to fill with the rocks she could pry from the dirt.

If you’ve never pulled a stump by hand beneath the flaming gaze of the sun, it’s not something you’d forget. It is hard, hard work. First the roots must be dug free and chopped as they’re exposed. Then whatever you’re using to pull the stumps has to be lashed to the trunk. Once the stump starts to move in the hole you’ve made, the best route is to try and cut the taproot. The taproot normally extends from the very bottom of the stump and not only holds the most, it’s the toughest to get at.

Jones and I worked as hard or harder than Heely that afternoon. Sweat poured from us. Jones, being completely unselfconscious, pulled his shirt off and continued to work while I sweated through mine, very aware of Sara’s gaze whenever she would turn our way. I saw her look at Jones several times as we worked and a spike of jealousy ran through me. Jones was a farm boy, same as me, but his father worked him harder than my own did. Thus his muscles were slightly more defined than mine and I wondered if Sara May was comparing us. I was still brooding on this when we pulled the first stump free and Sara approached us with a pitcher of ice-cold water.

“Thank you,” I said, taking a long drink from the tin pitcher.

“You’re welcome,” she said, taking the water from me when I was done and handing it to Jones. She was smiling the whole time and I felt the jealousy rise again when her eyes traveled down Jones’s torso but had to choke off a laugh when her nose wrinkled slightly. Cow shit has a staying power that few can miss.

The afternoon carried on that way and Jones and I managed to break another stump free as the sun was beginning to touch the tree line in the west. Sara was working on a particularly large rock, and even with the sweat that was dripping from me, my bladder had become painfully full from all the water we’d drank.

“Be right back,” I said to Jones as he guided Heely toward the next stump in the line. He nodded and began shoveling as I walked toward the nearest tree to relieve myself.

The forest beyond the clearing was quiet as I stood there looking at the dappled layer of dead leaves from the prior fall. My muscles ached but in a good way that told me I had gained strength since last winter. I finished relieving myself and was about to turn back to where Jones was waiting when I saw movement between the trees.

My brother Danny walked through the forest, his blond hair ruffled by the breeze.

I staggered back and bumped into the tree behind me. My jaw loosened and the strength went out of my legs.

It couldn’t be Danny. It couldn’t. I was seeing things. My hands came to my eyes and I rubbed them, sure that I was suffering from heatstroke, but when I looked again he was still there, heading steadily on his little legs toward the side of the barn. He was wearing the overalls he had played in nearly every day when he was alive and his arms were held out in the way I remembered he walked.

When he was nearly even with the rear of the barn he stopped and looked over his shoulder at me before continuing out of sight.

I followed.

As if in a dream I walked through dead grass that reached past my thighs and followed the path Danny had taken. This wasn’t happening. I assured myself that it couldn’t be. It was one thing to hear a dead goat speak and see something climb from a rain puddle, but it was quite another to watch your deceased younger brother stroll through the edge of a forest.

I paused as I entered the yard, not seeing where he’d gone for a moment.

There, around the back of the house, a glimpse of his small form. He was carrying something.

I ran after him, his name pounding in my head, whispered between breaths. How? How could it be? I had attended his funeral, watched the grief nearly crush my mother and father like a giant stone, wept my own tears for the brother I would never see grow up.

Somewhere far behind me Jones was calling my name, but I didn’t stop.

When I rounded the side of the house, Danny was standing in the dead grass off the backyard. Its golden stems hid him to the waist and it was only when he raised his arm could I see what he’d been carrying.

The gas can was a bright red with yellow letters painted on its side. The cap was off, I could see it plain as day in the late afternoon sunshine.

Danny lifted the can up and dumped the gasoline over his head, drenching himself.

“Danny! What are you doing?” I hobbled forward, terror and disbelief hamstringing my strides. He looked at me, dark eyes sad and maybe reproachful. He dropped the empty can at his feet and dug in his pocket, his little hand coming out holding a long stemmed matchstick.

I ran then. Pelted forward with abandon. I could save him, save him this time as I couldn’t from the fever that took him before. This was a second chance.

“I burned up, Lane,” he said then. “It was so hot.”

“Danny stop!” I was a dozen steps away.

He popped the matchstick alight with his thumbnail.

I dove toward him, knowing it was too late.

The impact was monumental. All air left my lungs and the rough, dead grass cut at my face and hands as I skidded through it, through the place where Danny had been. I came to a stop and sat up, sure that he would be an immolated pillar behind me, burning hotter than the fever that had killed him.

Danny was gone.

I sat, dumbfounded on the ground, head barely level with the grass tops. Alone. The breeze shifted the trees behind me. A chicken cackled somewhere in front of the house. Jones yelled my name.

I climbed to my feet and a soft cracking came from below me, the spongy quality of the ground registering somewhere in my subconscious before Mr. Tandy’s words came back, sudden and clear.

There’s a few old wells behind the barn and house from the old homestead. They’re covered up but keep an eye out for them.

The rotted wood of the well cover gave way beneath me and I fell.

The Exorcism of Sara May

 

 

3

 

 

 

I’ve smelled blood plenty times since that wet night in May when I was fourteen.

The first time I killed a whitetail buck on the edge of the swamp behind our property. When I slipped cutting kindling with my father’s hatchet, the blade burying itself into the soft flesh just above my knee. The afternoon my son was born, the hospital disinfectant mingling in an ugly way to create a new, briny odor.

But nothing before or since has smelled like the soaked floor of Ellis Wilmer’s barn as I sat staring at the thing lying in the center of the aisle.

My gorge had risen and fallen so many times I lost count, and I managed to get to the backless chair and sit before my legs gave out. I held the lantern close, its wick extended farther than it should have been, but I didn’t care. The shadows were alive around me, capering in a way that spoke of terrible things just out of sight. My hands shook so badly that the shade continued to chatter until I was able to set the lantern down beside me in the dirt, mindful not to get it too close to the kerosene still soaking in where Ellis had dropped the other light.

The barn was quiet, all of the animals mute in their stalls. I’d expected them to be kicking the holy hell out of the walls and doors in an effort to get free, what with all the racket and stench of blood. It’s what I wanted to do. If I could’ve run from the barn and into the rain, I would’ve in a heartbeat. I would’ve kept running down Ellis’s drive and out onto County 7 and I don’t think I would’ve ever stopped. Only one thing kept me from doing just that.

My father’s orders.

He was relying on me to take care of the carcass of the thing that came out of Josha. I was done calling it a kid or even an animal. It hadn’t been. It was…something else.

The image of it standing behind my father on its hind legs buffeted me again and I turned my head away, sickened by the smell of afterbirth and gore. No. I’d imagined it surely and truly. No way I could’ve seen what I’d seen. Trick of the light paired with the adrenaline and fear of being caught in the dark. That was all, plain and simple.

Rain hammered down, a million drumbeats.

Coffee and acid burned the back of my throat.

I was going to have to pick it up and bring it outside.

That’s what he’d told me to do and I wasn’t going to fail him. Not now, not when his hands were already full trying to save Josha.

I licked my lips, still unwilling to look at the thing lying in the circle of blood. Farther down the alley of stanchions a horse’s head appeared over the side of a stall. It was a rich brown that looked almost ebony in the low light. One eye was trained on me and it snuffed, shook its head, and drew back into the safety of its pen.

There was no more stalling. I had to move and get the corpse out of the barn and then go and help my father in case he needed anything.

Just do it, Lane. Get it over with.

I knew I couldn’t touch it with my bare hands so I glanced around, looking for a shovel or pitchfork.

Both heads of the goat were upright and staring at me.

I tipped off the chair, my foot barely missing the lantern on the floor. A scream bubbled up from inside me but wouldn’t come out, my throat narrowed to a pinpoint.

The goat’s sightless eyes followed me as I floundered backward on the ground. There were matching burnt holes in its skulls where my father’s bullets had done their work. Its lips peeled back from bloodied teeth and the right head’s tongue flashed pale, out and back, as if tasting the air.

“Ssssssssssoooooooooooooooooooonnn,” the heads hissed in unison. They grinned then, horrid glee pulling the corners of the twin mouths back farther than they should’ve been able.

I choked out a moan, tears of pure terror running from the corners of my eyes. A chuckle issued from the goat’s throats, there and gone before both necks went limp and the skulls fell back to their place on the ground with soft thumps.

I shook where I lay on my ass, arms propping me up enough to keep both eyes on the thing that had spoken. No way I could tear my gaze from it now. At any moment I was sure it would leap from the floor and skip toward me, teeth bared, ready to tear chunks from me as it had its own mother.

Something grazed the top of my head and I screamed.

I flung myself to the side and looked up into the face of the horse that had observed me before. It whinnied again, lower, and I could see how much of the whites were visible of its eyes. It was as scared as I was. Why the long face? The old joke flew through my mind and I nearly brayed insane laughter.

The goat thing was still on its side when I glanced again, managing to pull myself to my feet before taking a few deep breaths. I’d wet my pants. I didn’t care. Right then I was examining my options.

Option A: I was crazier than a shithouse mouse, as my grandfather used to say.

Option B: It had really happened.

I prayed for Option A.

After waiting for nearly five minutes, I took a step forward. When nothing moved in the barn except for the animals that were alive, I approached the goat and stepped around it, hurrying to the object I’d spotted earlier leaning against the wall.

The pitchfork felt good in my hands, and I only hesitated a split second before jabbing it into the small, slender body.

Nothing happened.

It didn’t move or squirm on the end of the tines.

It was dead. It had been dead all along.

I was losing it.

I nodded. That was okay with me. Insanity at that point in time was just fine. I hoisted the carcass up and grabbed the lantern with my other hand, keeping my eyes fixed on the goat the whole time. There was no reason in taking chances.

Outside the rain fell. It hadn’t let up since we’d left our house and inch-deep puddles lay on the newly-greened grass of Ellis’s yard. I hurried around the side of the barn to where the longer grass began and the beginnings of forest ended. With a flick of my arm, careful not to accidentally whip the corpse in my own direction, I flung the slender body off the tines and into the darkness between the blades of grass.

Without waiting to see if it would come racing back out at me, I turned and fled, and I didn’t put the pitchfork down until I reached the house.

 

 

 

4

 

 

 

The rain stopped early the next morning.

I knew when it did because I was still lying awake in my bed, staring up at the white-washed ceiling of my bedroom. There was a rumble of thunder, the first I’d heard all night, then the patter tapered off like someone was shutting down a spigot, and it got quiet.

I preferred the sound of the rain.

Without it my mind had nothing else to focus on as the night wore through into a gray dawn that barely lit my windows. I saw the goat-thing tearing at Josha’s leg. Saw it standing on its own. Heard its hissing voice.

At one point I got up and went to the toilet, sure I was going to be sick, but nothing would come up. I knelt there, staring into my dark reflection in the bowl water, and waited for another hallucination to appear. I’d strengthened the theory of my insanity on the drive back from Ellis Wilmer’s farm.

I hadn’t spoken a word when I entered the porch where my father and Ellis were tending to Josha, and neither of them had looked up. Josha was calm under my father’s careful and steady hands, and soon the wound in her haunch was stitched tight with a disinfectant salve spread over the entire area. He’d packed his satchel, washed thoroughly in Ellis’s sink, and we’d left, but not before he’d poured Ellis a half glass of whiskey and murmured something to him while the other man sat catatonic at his kitchen table in his empty house.

The ride back had been silent save for the swish of the windshield wiper, my father stoic as a wooden Indian. I hadn’t trusted my voice to speak. What I’d seen ran on an endless loop in my mind and at no point did it falter or become hazy like a dream. I could find no flaw in it, no missing time for myself where I may’ve passed out or hit my head.

Without sleep, my imagination continued to churn up hideous and new images, like bloated bodies rising from the bottom of a disturbed riverbed. Around the time daylight cut the edge of the land, I fell into a fitful slumber and fought nightmares with perfect square teeth growing from blackened gums.

Our rooster, Doodle, woke me sometime later. It was near noon as far as I could tell, the old bird’s habit of crowing well past dawn a bane of my father’s existence. The sound brought no smile to my lips as it typically did on any other day.

When I rose, I found my school clothes had been washed and my mother had placed them on the chair beside my door. I dressed, both thankful and depressed that I’d been allowed to sleep in. Maybe the normalcy and boredom of school would’ve leveled out my troubled thoughts.

My father was at the table when I stepped into the kitchen, a newspaper open on one crossed leg. He was sipping coffee and slid a plate of eggs and bacon toward me without looking up as I sat down. The food looked as appetizing as roadkill, but I made a solid effort, downing almost all of it as to not bring attention to myself.

My father shifted on his chair and turned another page, shaking out the wrinkles. He was normally like this after a late call. He would rise nearly as early as usual, but the work he typically did around our small farm was pushed off until the afternoon so that he could recoup from the night before. Gathering my courage I wet my lips and glanced outside.

“Where’s momma?”

“Hanging laundry. Trying to beat the rain.”

“Think it’s going to again today.”

“Yep. Probably around four or so.”

I let a healthy gap form, then plunged forward. “Why was that kid like that last night?”

He took a last swig of coffee and set the cup down on the table before folding the paper neatly beside it. “It happens from time to time, Lane, you know that. Something goes wrong during gestation and the animal comes out malformed.”

“I know. But why did it bite Josha.”

“I don’t know. I would assume the same aberrations it underwent physically also affected its mind, made it violent. Its mother’s haunch was the first thing it saw and it simply attacked out of instinct.”

I saw the thing rising up on its hind legs behind him in the flare of the match and suppressed a shudder.

“Can animals ever make sounds that are like words?”

My father frowned. “Well, you know as well as I do they can. You’ve heard some coyote song that sounds like a man’s voice. And a cow bellowing in the distance can sometimes be confused for a shout. Why do you ask?”

I swallowed a lump of egg that wouldn’t seem to stay down. “No reason.”

“Look, I appreciate your help last night, you did well. I’ve seen strange things as a vet, and last night was up there on the list, but it’s nothing to concern yourself about. Mother nature is cruel. Every so often it eats her young.” I nodded, wishing he hadn’t said that. “Now, you go help your mother finish hanging the clothes, then you can walk into school.” He picked up a handwritten note as well as several dollars and passed it to me. “Give this to Mrs. Shawler and pick up a jug of milk, some cheese, and a pint of whiskey from Nimble’s on your way home.” 

“Yes, sir,” I said, standing up. The gladness I felt at having a simple and easy errand to run must’ve shone through because my father smiled and handed me another quarter.

“And get yourself a Coke too.”

“Thanks!” I said, and couldn’t help but hug him. He seemed a little surprised since most of our affection was limited to a firm handshake or a pat on the shoulder now that I was becoming a young man, but he embraced me back nonetheless.

“Now get going,” he said, giving me a slap on my hip.

I found my mother standing out in the yard beneath the clotheslines studying a turkey buzzard that was perched in the top of a dead birch tree. When I stopped beside her she jumped and I realized she hadn’t heard me approach.

“Lord almighty! Lane David Murphy, you scared the bejesus out of me.”

“Sorry, momma. Didn’t mean to.”

“It’s all right. I guess I was lost in my own little world there. Turkey buzzard is acting awful strange. Caught my eye earlier and it hasn’t moved since.”

I looked up at the humped shape of the scavenger. Across the distance its featherless, red head was clear as day against the clouded sky. The bird’s skull looked skinned and bleeding, just like every other of its kind that I’d seen, but this one’s beaded eyes didn’t move from where we stood on the lawn.

“Shoo!” I yelled, whipping my arms over my head.

“Lane, you don’t need to scare it away.” She said the words halfheartedly and I knew she wanted it gone as much as I did. I bent over and retrieved a rock from the ground, wound up, and pitched it as hard as I could.

My aim was good back in those days since throwing rocks was a regular pastime, and the rock missed the buzzard by less than six inches. It didn’t move a muscle.

The urge to find another projectile was strong but my mother’s hand on my shoulder stopped me from moving. “Don’t, Lane. Leave it be.” She was staring at it again. “It’ll go away on its own.” She seemed to come back to herself and smiled, digging in the apron she wore. “Here. Your father gave you the grocery list I assume?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good. Get me an extra pound of butter, and buy yourself and Jones a Coke,” she said, placing fifty cents in my hand. I could’ve told her my father had already given me enough for several bottles of pop, but I kept it to myself. I had a little stash of coins stowed away in a can under my bed. I was saving up for a rifle to hunt deer with that I’d seen in the Arbor hardware store on our last foray into the nearest “real” town. Mentally I calculated how much I could put away as I bade my mother goodbye and hurried down our drive to Secondary Road, the normality of the thoughts such a welcome distraction I actually whistled a tune as I jogged along, avoiding the puddles still dotting the lane.

It was a little over three miles from our drive to County 7, but I didn’t have to go quite that far to reach the schoolhouse. The white, two-story building sat a quarter mile back from the main road on the top of a small rise between Alfred Hagen’s little feed store and Missy Arnold’s trinket and clothing shop, the latter of the two being nothing more than an ancient woman’s shed filled with musty clothing and rusted baubles from before the turn of the century. Missy herself sat in her customary chair before the entrance to her “shop,” the wrinkles on her worn face beneath the red bandanna she wore over her hair clear even from the street I walked on.

“Come on in, Lane Murphy, buy somethin’ fer yer pretty mum,” Missy said as I passed by. One of her eyes followed me while the other stared sightlessly at the ground near her feet. The old woman had always given me a slight case of the creeps. My best friend, Jones Dunley, and I had joked when we were younger that she had practiced witchcraft in England before being driven out of the country to America along with her husband, who now lay in the cemetery across the road from the post office. We’d laughed at the thought of Missy stirring a bubbling cauldron in the dead of night, chanting incantations to the moon, but neither one of us wanted to admit how well the scene actually fit her.

“Sorry, not today, Mrs. Arnold.”

“Maybe a pretty for yer other pretty.”

Her words stuttered my steps and I nearly fell. “Uh…no thank you.”

“Sara May, sweet as hay, young Laney wants to play.” The old woman cackled and rolled her bad eye.

My legs worked on their own and I raced up the stoop and four steps to the school’s door, looking back once my hand was on the iron handle.

Missy was gone, her chair empty outside the doors that were slowly swinging shut on her shop. No one knew how I felt about Sara May. Not even Jones. In fact, he was the last person I wanted knowing. A chill rippled through me as Missy locked her doors loudly and I ducked inside the school.

Our schoolhouse was one room with an entry and coatroom separated by a heavy oak door. The second floor was Mrs. Shawler’s residence, the aging schoolteacher and her husband had both been born in Rath shortly after its township had been granted by the state and had never left, to anyone else’s knowledge.

I slipped in through the door and into our classroom, Mrs. Shawler’s voice ringing out as soon as I was inside.

“Lane Murphy. And what is the meaning of this interruption? I thought you either sick or dead since you missed the English test this morning. Since you apparently aren’t dead you’d better be on its doorstep or I may have a hand in putting you there.”

I couldn’t suppress a smile. Mrs. Shawler’s threats were typically colorful, always inventive, and never truly serious. For every empty admonishment she gave there were two kind words to follow. She sat at the head of the class, perched in her usual place on top of the barstool she preferred to the chair behind her elephantine desk in the corner of the room. Her hawk-like face was narrowed but I saw a gleam in one of her sharp, blue eyes.

“Sorry, ma’am. Here you go,” I said, hurrying to give her the note. When she began to read it, I scanned my classmates.

There were only two other boys besides me in town. One of course was Jones, who sat with his too-big feet stuck out from beneath his desk, one dark eyebrow hooked up in the way only he could do that said, aren’t you a sorry sight? The other was Mills Sigler, a bookish and waifishly thin boy two years my senior. If you didn’t have text written across you, Mills didn’t have time for you.

The rest of the class consisted of girls. Darlene Jacope sat at the rear of the class, the next oldest below Mills. She always had a bored look on her wide features as if she’d figured out the world already and found it wanting. Next were the Yelston twins, Alice and Avie. They were three years younger than me and always dressed identically so that you could only tell them apart by the colored ribbons their mother tied in their hair: Alice was white ribbon, Avie was yellow.

And in the front row sat Sara May in all her quiet glory.

She wore a faded brown dress that was frayed at the collar and cuffs. Her feet were tucked beneath her chair and her hands were folded over one another on her desk. And her eyes, her beautiful hazel eyes, were trained directly on me.

I felt myself wither.

I have to admit, all of the trepidation, horror, and fatigue I’d felt since the night before evaporated like a light dew beneath the sun while I looked back at her.

Love. That’s what it was. And I’ll swear it until my dying day.

“Mr. Murphy.”

I broke the eye contact that was like a solid thing, noting with elation that Sara had quirked one corner of her mouth in a smile right before I did, and glanced at Mrs. Shawler, no doubt wearing the face of a fool.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I said you’re excused. Unless you’d like to take my place on the stool and tell the rest of the class all you know about the Magna Carta, which I’m sure would take upwards of all of five seconds.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Yes you’d like to tell us? Or yes you’re excused?”

“Uh, excused.”

“I know you’re excused you dolt. Now get from my sight before I have Mr. Shawler get the switch for me,” she said not unkindly.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said, hurrying away. I mouthed, Nimble’s, at Jones quickly, not sure if he’d caught it, and threw one last look at Sara May.

She was still smiling at me.

The happiness followed me out the school doors and nearly a hundred yards before the wind came up and cut its way through the trees surrounding Hagen’s feed store. The sound of the breeze became the two-headed goat’s voice and the bright feeling of having Sara smile at me drained away.

I ducked my head low into my coat, the wind cold for May, and walked as fast as I could out to 7 and then to the low shape of Nimble’s. Several chickens pecked at the ground before the general store and they barely moved aside as I strode through their number.

The covered porch was empty, a few rocking chairs swaying slightly with the wind. The sight disturbed me and I pushed through the door quickly, leaving the gray skies outside.

Nimble’s was roughly twice the size of our house, the floor plan open save for a slight alcove in its south end that held the woodstove and sitting area that now housed three old-timers, crouched forward, heads nearly together in discussion. The air smelled of chocolate, grain, and drying wood that lay in two large stacks near the rear of the store. Behind the long desk that served as a counter sat the store’s proprietor, Arthur Nimble.

He was a tall man, almost as tall as my father but thicker through the chest and arms. He wore a silver, handlebar mustache and had a ruddy complexion of a man who worked outside or partook in regular drink. Rumor had it that when prohibition had been enacted, Arthur and two of his brothers had run a still somewhere east of Rath and that Nimble’s had been the only place within a hundred miles where you could get a drink. Of course rumor also said that Arthur’s youngest brother had gotten killed in a shootout with the deputy sheriff from Arbor, which I was almost sure was untrue.

“Lane Murphy. How you be this shitty afternoon?” Arthur said, swiping a wet cloth across his already spotless desk.

“Fine, sir. How are you?”

“Stronger every day, my boy. What can I get you?”

“I’ll need milk, butter, whiskey, and cheese.”

“Aren’t you a little young for the firewater?” It was an old joke that Nimble never got tired of.

“I’ll leave some for my dad.”

“Atta boy.”

“But first-”

“You’d be wanting a Coke, I’d wager.”

“Yes, please.”

Nimble’s mustache rose in a wave and he pulled a frosted bottle of Coke from the cooler behind the desk. I pushed across the dime my mother had given me. “Keep it all. Jones’ll be in in a little while. I’ll pay for his.”

“As you wish, Master Lane,” Nimble said.

I took my Coke down through the store, stopping short of where the old men sat talking. Chinks in the woodstove glowed with a low fire, and their arthritic hands were held out toward its warmth. Two of them were the Hudson brothers, Ernie and Daryl. The other was Vincent King, the brothers’ senior by more than ten years. King stooped the lowest and held his hands the closest to the hot steel. They hadn’t noticed me yet and I stood there, holding my pop, listening.

“No sense. Never heard of it before,” King was saying. “Newborn like that takin’ a chunk out of its own mother? Never.”

“Member that batch of garter snakes we found in the spring of aught five? That mother was eaten her young plain as day,” Ernie said, cocking his head.

“Ain’t the same and you know it,” King said. “Young get eaten. They don’t do the eaten. Ain’t natural.”

“Whatcha looking at, boy?”

It had been Daryl Hudson that spoke, noticing me lingering near the wall of the alcove. His fleshy, hooded eyes, bloodshot and rimmed yellow, stared with a bit of anger. I had never seen the man smile. He had always been grouchy and irritable, which only increased tenfold when his son-in-law, who had been a banker in New York City, took a twelve-story high dive into the street on black Tuesday. Rumor held sway that Hudson’s daughter and grandchild had disappeared with a Spanish handyman shortly thereafter. I always thought this was insult added to injury since Daryl was biggest bigot I knew.

“Nothing,” I managed, trying a timid smile.

“Move along then if nothin’s what you’re lookin’ at.”

“Yes, sir.”

I skirted the alcove and found another small grouping of chairs at the far end of the store near the southernmost window. The old men watched my progress until they were sure I couldn’t hear them anymore before they resumed their conversation.

They knew about the abomination. Word had traveled fast. Fast even for Rath. Ellis must have been in this morning and told someone. Maybe Nimble who passed the information on. Information was almost as good as currency in those dark days. Stories and gossip were sometimes the only thing that kept people from taking the route Daryl Hudson’s son-in-law had opted for.

I sipped my pop. It was cold and so sweet it made my tongue tingle. The beverage helped settle my stomach some and I looked out the window. The clouds had darkened more since I’d left home and a slight wind tipped the tops of the budding trees. It looked like my father would be right about the coming rain. A man riding a wagon pulled by a horse rolled by on 7.

I tried unsuccessfully to keep my mind on the here and now. The taste of the Coke. The smell of wood smoke and vanilla. But the low murmur of the old men kept knocking aside more pleasant thoughts.

Something was happening. And whether it was happening solely in my head or in reality was unclear. I could feel it pressing down like a giant palm from above, inevitably coming lower with a crushing weight of doom.

When a hand touched my shoulder, I jumped, slopping a little of my Coke onto my pants.

“Calm down, jackrabbit,” Jones said, dropping into a seat beside me. He had a pop in his hand and he tipped it at me before taking a drink. “Cheers, and thanks for buyin’.”

“No problem.”

“What’s on your mind, truant? You look like complete hell.”

“Do I?”

“You’re pale. But I guess that’s to be expected from a dirty mick such as yourself.”

I smiled. Jones. Always able to bring up my mood no matter what. I slugged him in the thigh and he grinned. “Just tired.” I lied.

“Up late with your pa again?”

“Yeah.”

“Wish my pa kept me out all night so I didn’t have to go to school.”

“No you don’t.”

“Sure do. Know what I have to look forward to when I get home?” I did but I shook my head. “Shit,” Jones said, taking another long drink of pop. “Shoveling shit, hauling shit, spreading shit. You could almost say I’m a connoisseur of shit. I can tell you, blindfolded, how fresh a cow pie is just by smelling it and what cow it came from.”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. “Maybe there’s a career there for you in the future.”

“Shit smeller? Yeah, it’s called farming.”

Jones joked when something bothered him. It was his way. His parents weren’t well-off even by Rath’s standards. His father raised beef cattle as well as turnips. Jones had stated before he didn’t know what he hated more, the smell of cow shit as he shoveled out the barn or how his house smelled when his mother boiled turnips, which she did several nights a week for dinner.

We fell into a comfortable silence and gazed out the window. My spirits had raised a little bit just by Jones being nearby. I considered telling him about the goat-thing and quickly dismissed the idea. Not because Jones wouldn’t believe me, I thought he would, it was the thought that speaking what I’d seen out loud would make it more real. And right then I wanted it to be a hallucination more than anything in the world. I was about to ask Jones if he wanted to come by for supper that evening to get him out of eating mashed turnips again when I spotted movement over his shoulder at the front of the store.

Sara May Tandy had just walked in and was looking directly at me.

My heart stuttered.

I’d only run into her in Nimble’s a handful of times over the years. Nearly always they were awkward encounters with both of our parents in close proximity, our eyes brushing then darting away, maybe a quick ‘hello’ said that was barely audible.

Now as she walked toward us, brown dress swirling at her ankles, her steps seeming to make her glide, a new terror overcame me. Jones saw my reaction and threw a glance over his shoulder.

“Watch out, Lane, she’s gunnin’ for you.”

“Shut up.” And that was all I had time to say because then she was there beside us.

“Hi, Lane. Hi, Jones.”

“Hi,” I said too loudly.

“Afternoon, Miss Tandy,” Jones said, tipping an invisible cap.

She smiled. “You weren’t in school today,” Sara said to me.

“No, I…ah, was helping my dad late.”

She nodded. “I assumed.”

“You know what assuming does,” Jones said, eyes alight. I scowled and shook my head.

“It makes an ass out of you,” Sara said, shocking us both. Jones looked stunned for a second then crowed laughter and I joined in. Sara tipped her head prettily and I’d never been more in love with her than at that moment.

“Quick one she is,” Jones said.

“What can we do for you?” I asked, immediately regretting it. What can we do for you? Are we private dicks and she’s a helpless client come to ask for our services? Damnit.

“Well, my father asked me to talk to the both of you. He’s expanding our barley field this summer and he’s already cleared about three acres himself. He’d like to hire you to come pick rocks and pull stumps if it suits you.”

An invitation to Sara May’s house? Working within sight of her home with the chance of her bringing us a cold pitcher of water in the field?

“Yes,” I said so quickly Jones’s head snapped around and it was his turn to scowl at me. “I’d be happy to.” She smiled.

“I’ll have to check with my pa,” Jones said, still giving me a scathing look. “It’s our busy time too, cleanin’ out the barns and outbuildings from winter.”

“I understand. He said he’d pay fifty cents to each of you for every afternoon you worked.”

Jones spit a little soda out. He coughed. “Fifty cents? I’m in.”

“Me too,” I said, slapping my forehead mentally at having agreed for a second time.

“Great,” she said, shifting her shoulders back and forth. “Can I tell him you’ll come tomorrow if it’s not raining?”

“Absolutely,” I said. We traded smiles again and she licked her lips before motioning toward the door.

“Well, I’ll get going now. See you in the morning.”

“See you then,” I said. She did a little wave and spun away, her dark hair lifting from the back of her neck. There was something there on her fair skin, something dark and blotchy, but I couldn’t make it out before her hair shifted again. Then she was walking away, calm and serene as a summer day.

When she had left the store and I was still staring after her, Jones spoke. “You’re a fuckin’ moron, you know that?”

“Was it that bad?”

“No, considering that’s the most I think I’ve ever seen the two of you talk.”

“Really?”

“No. You sounded like a shithead.”

“Thanks.”

“I mean that in the best possible way.”

“Appreciated.”

“You like her, don’t you?”

“What? Well…she’s nice and all, I just…”

“Can it. Anyways, fifty cents an afternoon! Pa won’t even bat an eye at letting me work for Tandy.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty generous.” We both knew the Tandy’s were one of the better off families in the area. Sara May’s father owned the second most acreage in the county and had had a bumper crop the year before. I wasn’t surprised he was clearing more land.

A low rumbling of thunder rolled across the sky and I saw the old-timers glance out the window just as Jones and I did. The clouds were darker, lower.

“I better get going,” I said, finishing my Coke and standing.

“Me too,” Jones said. “Shit waits for no man. Wait, maybe it does.”

We walked to the front of the store and I paid for the groceries Nimble had gathered while we’d drank our pop. We bade the storeowner goodbye and stepped outside.

The air had become heavier without warming. It was like walking through a clammy soup, the air dancing with the possibility of lightning. The puddles on Secondary reflected the dark sky and I found myself dreading the point where Jones would turn left onto his own drive and leave me to walk the two miles home alone. When his driveway appeared, he slapped me on the shoulder and started to jog away.

“Thanks for the Coke. And don’t worry, Sara only thinks you’re half a horse’s ass,” he called over his shoulder.

“Yeah, and you’re the other half!” He made an obscene gesture with his hand and then he was gone around the slight turn in the drive and I was alone.

I hurried on, walking as fast as I could without jostling the contents of the paper bag. More thunder rumbled, the sound like a rockslide falling through the clouds. The occasional drop of rain fell onto my shoulder and head, its cold touch making me move faster. The milk sloshed in the bag and clanked against the whiskey bottle. There was something driving me to get home faster besides the threat of getting soaked. It felt like the night before Danny passed away—an impending threat unspoken but heard nonetheless.

Another half mile and I’d be on my own driveway.

I concentrated on my steps, counting them without meaning to as I slipped around the puddles that were beginning to dance with raindrops.

Our mailbox appeared ahead and relief bloomed within me. Another few minutes and I’d be within sight of the house. Maybe I could help my mother take down the laundry if she hadn’t done so already. And if the turkey buzzard was still there, I’d ask my father if I could take a poke at it with his rifle.

Something splashed behind me.

It sounded like a footstep coming down in the center of a puddle and I spun, nearly losing my balance.

The road was empty, its straight stretch unmarred by any shapes of animals or people. The lonely fields to either side were calm beneath the tentative rain.

I waited a beat before turning back toward our drive, not running yet but no longer walking either.

Another splash. Louder this time.

I turned, caught movement out of the corner of my eye forty yards away. When I looked there was nothing there. My bowels were a painful constriction as I blinked against the rain that was falling steadier now.

Something was stalking me. Something I couldn’t see or that was too fast to catch sight of. The image of the two-headed goat emerged in my mind, its horrible shape zipping onto and off the road on its cloven hind legs.

I sidled down the road, keeping my gaze back the way I’d come. My foot dropped into a puddle, soaking my shoe through to the skin.

A hundred yards to the mailbox.

Sixty.

Forty.

Ten.

A dozen paces behind me something dark crawled from a big puddle in the center of the road.

I froze, the grocery bag soaked and soggy in my arms, contents jangling as I shook. The thing was without true shape or definition. It was both there and not there, flickering like a shadow in a lightning storm. One second I thought I could make out long, slender arms tipped with too many fingers, the next it was gone. Then a narrow head with two blank spaces that stared like eyes. A leg, bending, the form insubstantial then boldly there, rising to stand on feet that reminded me of a frog’s.

The thing stuttered in and out of reality, smoke from a campfire drifting toward me, the shine of teeth as it suddenly smiled.

I ran.

My legs wobbled but pumped like adrenaline pistons, thrusting me forward. Our mailbox, cold tin with our name on the side flashing by. Feet churning up wet dirt as I took the corner without pausing.

Puddles splashed behind me.

Thunder growled.

My heart smashed itself against the inside of my chest and my mind tried to reckon what was happening, but there was no explanation. It was simply time to run, run away from the shadow-thing that had crawled out of a puddle on Secondary Road and was chasing me, its webbed feet flopping wetly on the ground not far behind.

I sped up as something grazed my back. A cry flew from my chest, high-pitched, a sound I would’ve been ashamed of making any other time.

“Getcha. Getchagetchagetcha,” a slithering voice said right behind me.

My bowels nearly released then. It was talking to me, taunting me. Another touch on my shoulder, soft and strong all at once.

I screamed again. This time for my father as lightning arced in a forked line toward our house that I couldn’t quite see yet.

My lungs burned and the falling rain tried to choke me.

Something slapped my foot and I stumbled, regaining my balance but dropping the grocery bag.

It was trying to trip me. Knock me down so it could land on me and bite me. Bite me with its shining teeth.

I screamed again, louder this time. A strangled cry came from right behind me, mocking me.

“Eatcha up. Eatchaupeatchaup,” the voice chanted.

My house came into sight around the last bend, the short distance across our yard never seeming so long. But in the next instant I saw the most beautiful thing I’d ever laid eyes upon.

My father was standing on our porch, his double barrel twelve gauge tight against his shoulder.

I knew what to do even before he yelled.

I flung myself to the side and down, diving like a swimmer into a deep pool.

Both shotgun barrels boomed at once and the hot passage of lead swarmed the air above my back.

My momentum tossed me over onto my side. Immediately I scrambled backward, knowing the shadow-thing would be there, all shining teeth and despair.

The yard was empty.

Rain fell on the gravel, dropped through the budding trees.

And the storm continued its roiling overhead.

Novella Serialization

So Halloween is a short time off and since it's my absolute favorite holiday of the year, I thought I'd do something special.

From now until October 26th I'll be posting one or two chapters of a brand new novella I wrote earlier this summer. If all goes according to plan I'll release the complete story as an ebook on the 27th. 

So stay tuned to the blog and keep up with the eerie goings on in a little town called Rath a long time ago...

 

 

The Exorcism of Sara May

 

1

 

 

 

Stories always begin somewhere. And I suppose if I had to say what led to Sara May’s exorcism in the spring of thirty-six, it would have to be the night when Ellis Wilmer’s prize goat gave birth to a kid with two heads.

Now for those of you who didn’t grow up in a rural area, or have a short understanding of farm vocabulary, the goat didn’t give birth to a human child. A kid is what you call a baby goat, one of the many things I learned early in life what with being a country veterinarian’s only son.

My father went to veterinary college in a time when most kids his age never walked out of a high school holding a diploma. First in his family to graduate both high school and college, there was some resentment, but more pride floating around when he opened his practice right out of our farmhouse on Secondary Road. Not that there was a sign stating what road we lived on. In the little northern Minnesota town of Rath there were only two roads: County Road 7 that ran past the post office and Nimble’s Store—the only two prominent businesses—and Secondary, which jutted off to the side like a narrow afterthought.

Now Nimble’s was where most days you could find the elderly men of town gathered, either under the awning in the shade if it was summer or in a half circle around the glowing woodstove if it was winter and most likely below zero. A bottle or two of whiskey was almost always circulating their number since the shadow of prohibition was still fading and Arthur Nimble invariably kept several cases of booze on hand now out in the open.

Secondary Road ran on for several miles before petering out in a stand of marsh and swampland that butted up to the fields most made their livings from at the time. Our farm was near the very end of Secondary, right-hand side, and a considerable jog down a lane my grandfather had cut by hand with a simple axe some sixty years prior when Rath was only a gathering of farmers living in proximity, possibly for safety out of fear of a rogue Chippewa attack.

Our home was a simple one story, three bedrooms, bath, kitchen, and living room. We’d only gotten indoor plumbing when I was ten and I still used the outside toilet most of the time. Old habits die hard they say.

Typically our house was a home, in which I mean to say it was full of love, laughter, and the smell of my mother’s baking bread that she made from scratch every week. The only time it became a house was when my brother Danny’s bedroom door would open in a draft as it was sometimes prone to do. My mother would see it wide open and I’d catch a glimpse of his little bed still made, and my father would close the door gently and stand by it for a time. Danny caught a fever when he’d been only four, something my father thought was harmless, as did the doctor visiting from Arbor township some thirty miles to the south when he’d stopped through on his monthly rounds. But it hadn’t been. The fever took Danny in the middle of the night while my mother rocked him in her chair that she’d hauled into his room and taken to sleeping in since he’d fallen ill. The sound she made is something I can still hear. It echoes in my mind to this day some seventy years hence.

You can see things in people’s eyes sometimes if they don’t hide it, and most can’t hide everything all the time. You catch glimpses of a void there, not a color, mind you, but more of a change in the depth. When someone pulls through something terrible, it plumbs them like a well digger pounding his sand point down into the earth. That deep place is hollow and empty but for what they keep there, for it is always too painful a thing to be brought into the light.

In nineteen thirty-six most had the beginnings of that deep look in their eyes. The depression hadn’t released its stranglehold on the country, hadn’t followed through on any of the promises the politicians made. I had just turned fourteen in March, and even with the inexperience of my youth I could hear a hint of desperation whenever we’d catch a speech being made over the radio in our living room. Truth be told I felt sorry for the people in charge then. I imagined they were like the captain of a ship that had an irreparable hole in the hull and was sinking faster than the crew could bail it out. To me it sounded like they were just wondering when the water would slip over their heads.

But as much as I pitied the politicians and the people of Rath, who at times went hungry and were lean in both pocket and cheek, I can’t deny I was happy. You see, being a country boy and growing up having a vast forest as your playground, a dirt road that never seemed to end if you wanted to walk it with a friend, or maybe an ice-cold pop on Nimble’s porch on a hot day was just too much to be unhappy with.

And it didn’t hurt that I was in love.

I know what you’ll say to yourselves. Love isn’t love at fourteen. It’s infatuation at best. Someone the mind can’t let go of no matter how tired you are at night. Well, I’ll tell you love is love. When your body tingles the moment you see the person you’ve been thinking of, even if you’d seen them an hour before, that’s love. When you lose train of thought so much you walk right past your own driveway more than once on account of recalling a word they said to you, that’s love.

Sara May Tandy was the most beautiful girl I’d ever laid eyes upon. We had shared a one-room schoolhouse for the better part of our lives, and I’d always thought she was pretty with her dark, curly hair and hazel eyes. But it was only after those magical things called hormones kicked in that I realized there were other sides of her I hadn’t seen before. Now don’t go throwing your mind in the gutter, when I say “sides” I’m not talking about her body, though I couldn’t completely ignore that either. The things I noticed applied more to the way she moved through the world. I’d never seen someone so quiet and serene. She made a hayfield in early autumn seem like a tempest by comparison. I guess it was her serenity that drew me to her. Simply put, I wanted to know what she was thinking.

Course I never could get up the courage to ask her. Even by sitting only a dozen feet from her, day in, day out for years on end, the fear still overshadowed the love. I suppose that’s the only difference between who I was before the spring of thirty-six and who I was after. After I would’ve died for her. And in that wet, wet spring, I nearly got the chance.

 

 

 

2

 

 

 

The call that would forever change my life came in on a Tuesday night, a school night since there were still three weeks left of the dastardly stuff before our group of seven children who lived in Rath would be set free for a glorious three months.

The phone line had been installed not long after our indoor plumbing and its jangling still made me jump whenever the handset began to vibrate in its cradle. When it rang on that Tuesday I was sound asleep in bed, a copy of Jack London’s Call Of The Wild open like a bird in flight on the wood table beside my covers. My eyes came open and a cold hand gripped and twisted my guts. Call it what you will, instinct, intuition, premonition, I don’t know. All I remember is that I awoke afraid. The phone shouldn’t  have been ringing at that hour and I didn’t want my father to answer it. I heard my grandfather say once that all bad news arrives in the darkness, and now being almost as old as he was when he said it, I’d have to agree with him.

The ringing stopped and my father’s low voice floated to me from where the phone was mounted near the kitchen door. There was a long pause before he said something affirming and hung up. A light turned on and footsteps came down the short hall to my room. I nearly hid beneath the covers then. Not because I was afraid of my father, but because I knew what he would ask, I wouldn’t deny him, and it would lead to something awful.

His familiar shadow darkened my doorway, his voice reaching out like a soft touch.

“Lane? You awake, son?”

“Yes.”

“Get dressed. There’s a call.”

Calls came in sometimes for a country veterinarian. Sometimes late at night. I knew this. I shouldn’t have been frightened. But I was.

My jeans and shirt were crumpled beside the bed. Wash day was tomorrow and these clothes, only one of three sets I owned, had started to smell. I pulled them on, searching for my socks for nearly a minute before finding them. In the kitchen our old kettle began a low whistling. By the time I entered the small room with the little table that could seat four but only ever sat three, the smell of coffee was strong in the air. My father stood at the counter beneath the only burning light.

He was forty-three then, a tall man some would call skinny, but those people had never seen him pull a breeched calf out of cow single handedly, or snap a solid chunk of oak clean in two with a twenty pound mall. The light picked out the gray hairs that had started turning up after Danny passed away, making him look like he’d been out in a snowstorm.

“Want a cup?” he asked without turning around. He’d never offered me coffee before, not even on the last late call we’d gone to earlier in the year.

“Sure. Thank you.”

“Small payment for coming out in the middle of the night.”

“Where we going?”

“Where are we going,” he corrected. “To the Wilmer farm. His goat’s giving birth and having trouble. Wear your rubber boots and get your gloves.”

I saw why we were wearing the knee-high boots when we stepped outside. It was raining again. A cold, insistent rain for early May. It came straight down soaking everything in sight beneath the yellow glow of our porch light.

We hurried through the downpour to my father’s twenty-eight, Ford Model A pickup. It was an indiscriminant color during the day, something between rust-brown and black. Tonight it was only a smear in the dark. The rain drummed on the metal over our heads and I was again thankful we had a vehicle, unlike several of the other families in the area who still relied on horse and wagon. We were not rich by any means, but being a veterinarian in a time when keeping your livestock healthy meant your family would eat for another season, meant we had some spoils that others did not.

The truck started with a short protest and the single windshield wiper thunked the moisture away. We rode in silence through the night, tires hopping and snapping water up from potholes, headlights cutting a swath through the rain no farther than ten yards.

My father handed me a porcelain cup, not one of mother’s good ones, and along with it a small thermos he never left the house without. I poured a healthy amount of coffee into my cup and did the same with the other he handed me. The smell of roasted beans filled the cab and for a moment everything felt normal and natural. I was on a ride with my father, safe beside him in our truck, and not even the inky depths outside the windows could change that fact. I sipped the coffee, only the second time ever tasting it, the first being when I was ten after having snuck a drink from his cup when he wasn’t looking. It was better than I remembered, less bitter with a hint of vanilla. My spirits rose further as he began to hum beside me, his eyes calm behind his glasses.

But as we rolled to a stop at the intersection of the two roads, the same disquiet from earlier blanketed me again. The sight of Nimble’s store as well as the post office so dark and foreboding was like another admonition. We turned right heading south and my father brought the truck up to twenty miles per hour. We were the only lights on the muddy road. Possibly it was partially due to the fact that with the large amounts of rain that spring, County Road 7 was washed out about twelve miles to the north. But in the back of my mind I thought it was because we were the last souls on Earth, trundling along towards something inevitable.

The Wilmer farm was a plot of two hundred acres of barley and hay. Ellis Wilmer and his son Gerald had served in the first World War, as had my father. Ellis had come home with a limp where a German bullet had lodged in his hip. What they could recover of Gerald came home in a pine box and was buried at the back of the property behind the house. I thought of poor Gerald, blown to pieces by a mortar round on a battlefield across the ocean, and wondered what they’d been able to find to put in the coffin.

A shiver went through me as my father guided the pickup onto a narrow dirt track marked only with a crooked mailbox. Soon our headlights picked out the twisted remains of a gate sloughed off to the side of the drive and beyond it the squat farmhouse that Ellis had shared with his wife Patricia until a terrible bout of pneumonia had put her in the ground beside her son two years prior.

Lights burned in the house’s windows as well as a kerosene lantern that hung from the great barn door off to the left where the darkness deepened. Ellis stood smoking one of his hand-rolled cigarettes on the lowest step of the porch, rainwater spilling off the brim of his leather hat.

We climbed from the truck, the cold rain embracing us immediately, and my father pulled his satchel from the rear of the bed. Ellis waited until we were within several feet before speaking.

“Thanks for coming so quick, David, much appreciated.”

“My pleasure, Ellis.”

“And you brought yer assistant I see.”

“Always good to have an extra set of hands.”

“Hello, Mr. Wilmer,” I said.

“Evenin’ Lane.”

“How’s she fairing?” my father asked as we started for the partially lit barn.

“Josha’s not well. Thought she’d hold out ‘til tomorrow, but late this evening she laid down and wouldn’t get back up. Big kid is all I know. Might be breached, can’t tell.” Josha. There’d been talk around town of Ellis losing some of his grip after Patricia died. Some said he named each and every one of his animals, whether they were to be slaughtered or not. I guess now I knew the truth.

“We’ll get her through,” my father said, putting a hand on the older man’s shoulder.

The barn loomed, more of its shape becoming clearer. It rose and rose above us until I lost sight of its peak. I’d never noticed it being so large in the daytime. The smell of kerosene soaked the entryway as Ellis pulled the lantern from its hook and cranked the wick higher sending shadows skirting away. The front of the barn was storage, stacked high with several hand tools, feed, and empty gunny sacks. Beyond it were two alleys of wood stanchions, nearly all of them occupied.

There was an undercurrent of noise in the barn that ran just below the constant patter of rain on the roof. It was the sound of agitated animals: the scraping of a hoof, the bellow of a cow, the snapping nicker of a horse. All of it combined into something unearthly that raised the wetted hairs on the nape of my neck.

A glassy eye of a horse stared out between two wood slats as Ellis led us down the right alleyway, its owner huffing and grinding its teeth as we passed. The swaying light from the lantern twisted normal shapes into bent and broken things that skittered away in patched shadows, and the air over our heads was an abyss, the support beams and roof slats I knew were there, lost to us. Farther down the aisle, littered with hay and dried manure, was another soft glow. It came from a second kerosene lantern turned low that sat on an old wooden chair missing its back. When I saw what the light revealed, the muscles in my legs locked tight, refusing to move me closer.

Josha the goat was lying in the center of a mound of straw in an open space at the end of the alley. She was a large animal made only bigger by her pregnancy. My mind instantly conjured an image of a spider I’d accidently stepped on in our entry the day before, its abdomen swollen with eggs. I shook away the thought and followed my father closer to the prone animal.

“More light if you will, Ellis,” my father said as he knelt down. The wick flared white and broadened the circular glow.

Blood shone on the straw behind Josha’s hindquarters and she kicked feebly, letting out a sick bleat. One translucent hoof poked from her, a clear fluid matting the fine fur on the upper part of the leg.

“Shit. It’s breached,” my father said. “Water, I need water.”

“Here,” Ellis said, pulling a pail of clean water closer.

“Lane, hold the light over my shoulder.”

I took the free lantern from the nearby chair and did as he said. My father was talented. I’d seen him save many more animals than not, and at fourteen I considered him one of the most capable human beings in the world.

He dipped his right hand into the bucket of water and gently fed his fingers in beside the unmoving leg. His face remained placid but the muscles in his jaw tightened.

“Is it one or two?” Ellis asked, his voice quavering.

“Can’t be sure yet,” my father said, readjusting his position. Now his arm was gone halfway up to the elbow within the animal and Josha kicked her hind legs, flinging dust and straw into the air.

“Easy, girl,” I said, the calmness of my voice surprising me. For all the trepidation that hounded me since I’d woken, I was calm, the prior fear forgotten in lieu of the excitement of the life that would soon be in the room. Sound and sight became crystalline.

My father dropped lower to the ground and issued a low grunt.

The kerosene sloshed in the lantern.

A horse whinnied.

Ellis groaned in the back of his throat.

The smell of blood and birth permeated the air.

“There,” my father said. And with that one word I knew he’d worked his magic. Two legs now extended from Josha, and with a gentle and steady pull, he drew the kid from her in a seamless slip of fluid.

What came out of the goat sapped all the strength from my hand and I dropped the lantern.

It fell at my feet and I knew in that moment I would be burned alive. The lantern would shatter and spray kerosene up my length, the dying flame igniting the liquid with a grace owned only by fire.

But the baby goat. It had two heads.

Four staring, white eyes. Lips bared over teeth.

The lantern clanged against the floor.

I held my breath, waiting for the pain.

Nothing.

“Lane!”

I opened my eyes to see the lantern still whole at my feet, its light out, the top drizzling kerosene. I jerked it up from the ground, my entire body growing hot with shame.

“I’m sorry. Lost my grip.”

Ellis had stepped forward, bathing the squirming thing in the straw with light.

“God almighty,” he whispered.

The infant goat writhed in place. Its pale hoofs raked the floor. Its heads strained up from the dirt. It mewled out something barely resembling a goat’s bleat. Until then I’d never realized how serpent-like goat’s heads are. Looking back from the vantage of all the years, it makes perfect sense now. But then, staring at the thing on the floor of Ellis Wilmer’s barn with the steady rain thrumming down overhead and the darkness on all sides, I was stricken with amazed horror.

“Ellis, it’s an aberration,” my father said quietly. “It would be cruel to let it suffer. If it doesn’t die tonight it-”

My father’s calm words were lost in the screech of the two-headed infant as it kicked itself forward and clamped both mouths onto Josha’s right hind leg.

Ellis dropped his lantern with a curse and the dark rushed in.

Josha blatted, a deep and painful sound that vibrated in my chest. My father yelled something I couldn’t make out and bumped into me as he rose. There was another high-pitched shriek that was so unearthly it turned me toward the door, muscles twitching, ready to run. But what kept me from fleeing was my father’s voice yelling at Ellis, Matches, Ellis! Give me the matches!

The tang of kerosene was everywhere, and I knew Ellis hadn’t been so lucky when his lantern had fallen. Something brushed my legs and I shrank away, recalling how the two-headed beast’s teeth had glinted in the lamplight. Then a hand gripped my shoulder and I nearly screamed, but recognized its slender strength.

“Lane, hold the lantern steady,” my father said. I did, the trembling in my arms making the glass shade rattle in place. Something growled like a tomcat and there was a wet tearing sound followed by another anguished bleat from Josha.

A match popped alight, blazing like a miniature sun.

In the glow, the two-headed kid stood behind my father on its hind legs, mouths crimson and dripping.

I did scream then.

The wick caught and darkness shrank away, leaving the scene before us naked in the light.

Blood seeped in slow pumps from two ragged wounds shaped like half moons on the back of Josha’s leg. They looked like the craters a child might make in a ripe watermelon slice. Ellis was up against the nearest empty stall, eyes wild and rolling in his skull.

The infant goat was on its side, heaving laboring breaths in and out, mouths stained red, eyes milky. It kicked and some dark excrement shot from its back end, nearly spraying Ellis’s work boots. Ellis opened his mouth but he said nothing, his jaw bouncing as if hooked to an elastic band.

My father stared down at the thing on the floor for maybe two seconds before pacing to his satchel and pulling something from it. He returned, bent over the two-headed goat, and shot it between both sets of eyes with the .38 revolver in his hand.

The blasts were short and deafening, concise in their death punctuations. The kid flopped in the dirt, several short spasms running through its length before it laid still.

Silence rushed into the barn. Filled it up.

My father stood over the kid for a long moment before turning back to Ellis, who looked as if he were trying to shove himself through the gaps in the pen behind him.

“Ellis, Josha’s going to bleed out unless we get her somewhere I can stitch her shut. I need more light. Do you have room on your porch?”

Ellis took a moment to come back from wherever he was and pried his eyes away from the motionless thing on the ground.

“Y-yes. The porch’ll work.”

“Good, carry my satchel for me. Lane, take care of this,” my father said, bending low to scoop his arms beneath Josha. He stood, hoisting the animal’s considerable weight up with him. Josha blatted quietly.

“What do I do with it?” I asked. I was in shock. I knew it and was grateful for it.

“Throw it out behind the barn. Coyotes and wolves’ll take care of it. Come with me, Ellis.”

And with that he walked swiftly down the aisle with Ellis close behind, the older man carrying my father’s bag and moving as if he were in a dream. They melted into the darkness and I was alone with the blood and the two-headed corpse.

 

Halloween Reads

October is always a great time of year to dive into a haunted book and I've been asked a few times what some of my favorite reads are for the season so I thought I'd make a little list. No particular order whatsoever, just some recommendations from a guy who loves horror. So let's get started! 

  • The Shining, by Stephen King- Now this is one of my favorite books of all time so I might be a little jaded here, but this one will scare the hell out of you. Empty hotel in the middle of winter that isn't so empty after all? Yeah, leave the lights on folks.

 

  • Master of the Moors, by Kealan Patrick Burke- Like creepy, foggy moors with things slipping into and out of sight that don't look quite...right? How about an ancient curse handed down through a bloodline, the origins of which aren't completely clear? Throw in atmospheric scenes of dark and stormy nights where any number of monstrous things are waiting outside. Yeah, it's like that.

 

  • A Head Full of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay- Just recently read this one and folks, it's really something. Combining elements of The Exorcist, reality TV, and a haunting familial dynamic, Tremblay coaxes out a nightmare from a regular suburban setting through an examination of a common social crux of American daily life. And the ending? Oh boy.

 

  • Titanic With Zombies, by Richard Brown- The title says it all. You like history? Like the Titanic? Enjoy zombies? Dig right in. Brown's research of the famous sinking won't leave you with a feeling of inaccuracy. On the contrary the story creates a well-told picture of the last days of the doomed ship. And of course there's zombies. A lot of them.

 

  • Run, by Blake Crouch- This is another of my all-time favorites. If you've never read Crouch, look him up on Amazon and just buy everything the man's written, you won't be sorry. Run sets the stage with an aurora phenomenon changing everyone who witnesses it into homicidal maniacs. Good thing only the majority of the U.S. is affected...

 

  • Usher's Passing, by Robert McCammon- It's so hard to pick a single book by this man. He is one of the authors who influenced me growing up and shaped me into the writer I am. Needless to say his work is held closely to my heart. Usher's Passing is a twisted, supernatural, gothic thrill-ride that doesn't hold back an iota when it comes to creating chills. Brilliantly done novel. Oh, and did I mention it's based on the fictional descendants of Roderick Usher from Poe's short story. Yeah, there's that.

 

  • Mr. Shivers, by Robert Jackson Bennett- First off, Robert Jackson Bennett has so much talent it should be illegal. I'm serious. The guy's won more prestigious awards than any person his age has right to. He needs to quit and give everyone else a chance. Ahem. Anyways, Mr. Shivers is a brilliantly done novel set in the depression era which follows a man hunting someone or something that violently took his daughter's life. Tones of Faulkner and McCarthy shine through in this one. Also, it won the Shirley Jackson Award for best novel in 2010. 

 

  • The Monstrumologist series, by Rick Yancey- I know, I know. I'm recommending more than one book here, but seriously, this series is pretty amazing. Imagine a brilliant doctor, akin to Sherlock Holmes, who's adventures take him all over the world in the late 1800s, and who primarily deals with horrible creatures whose only purpose is to consume or destroy human beings. Now imagine he has a young apprentice named Will Henry, taken in by necessity and exposed to a world he never knew existed. And that's only the first layer of this phenomenal series.

 

  • Earthworm Gods, by Brian Keene- This is the epitome of post-apocalyptic novels. I've read great books that set an excellent end-of-the-world tone, but this one surpasses them all. Keene weaves the average life of an old man stranded on a mountain into something much darker and deeper, but always manages to keep a hold on the heart of the story, which is its characters, a trait the author is known for. Excellent read to dive into while it's pouring rain out. Or maybe wait for a sunny day. 

 

  • The Passage, by Justin Cronin- What can I say. The storytelling in this book is on par with some of the greats. The world doesn't end in fire or ice in this one. It ends with fangs and a whimper. 

 

  • The Mountain Man series, by Keith C. Blackmore- I know, another series. But if you dig zombies, this is a great set of stories to dive into. Keith tells the gritty side of the the zombie apocalypse. You'll laugh with the main character, Gus, cry with him, get plastered with him, and fight off undead hordes in new and inventive ways. 

 

These are just a few of the great books I could think of, I've got tons more that I didn't have time to list. Hopefully some of you will check them out, and if you do, let me know what you think. I'd love to hear your thoughts! 

 

 

 

Short Story

In my spare time I like to mess with ideas that aren't novels or novellas. Sometimes one of them grabs me enough to write the whole thing out just to see where it goes. This one did.

Anniversary

 

The snow fell in careless circles that drifted to the ground around him, catching softly on the worn fabric of his coat and the frayed hat he wore.

He blinked up through the yellow halo of light thrown from the streetlamp, its glow staining the snowflakes before relinquishing them to their true virgin white. It was cold but the wind wasn’t blowing. For that he was thankful. His hand holding the roses was nearly numb though he tucked it close to his chest inside the open flap of his jacket. He’d bought the flowers from a shop on Thirty-Sixth an hour before, having marked it weeks ago. He always liked to get roses for her from a different place. For some reason it made him feel mysterious though he couldn’t say why.

The snort of air brakes made him turn his head and gaze down the street. The seven o’clock bus wasn’t living up to its name, though he was glad of its tardiness. The two trains he’d had to catch to make it across town after his shift on the docks had left him running for the bus stop, sure that all he would see when he arrived was the final blink of taillights and the flash of the amber letters spelling out its schedule.

But now it was here and he was the only one getting on. He waited until the doors hissed open, giving the silent park behind him a last look, its hedges and bare trees decorated with snow, before climbing up the steps slick with moisture. He flashed his pass and kept balance as the driver pulled away from the curb, making him lurch to the right before finding an empty place on a bench seat. He brushed the melting accumulation from his hat and coat before drawing out the flowers.

They were beautiful.

Roses this year. Last year it had been daisies. Lilies the year before, and posies before that. The shops he bought the flowers from weren’t the only things he kept changing.

He noticed a woman his age riding across from him. She had dark hair and eyes to match that were soft with small lines where crows had danced around them. She gave him a smile and looked at the flowers.

“Someone’s special tonight,” she said.

“Special every night,” he said, giving her a smile back.

“Very sweet. Wife?”

“Yes.” He paused. “It’s our anniversary.”

“That’s nice. Congratulations. Going anywhere special.”

He simply nodded and gazed down at the flowers. They were so deeply red they were nearly black at their edges. Fading from beauty to darkness like everything else alive.

He rode the rest of the trip studying the flowers. He didn’t want to talk to the woman across from him anymore even though she’d been nice. He flexed his fingers, the feeling coming back into them as well as the ache from unloading crates for nine hours. He spun the wedding band; silver, polished to a mirror from the snow.

His stop approached and he rose from his seat, nodding once at the woman.

“Enjoy your night,” she said.

“Thank you.”

The air seeped through his clothes as the bus drew away, leaving him in a swirl of snow. Traffic was light here, the occasional car flowing past, tires muttering across patches of ice, exhaust drifting through the air, noxiously sweet. He hunched his shoulders as if he could flex the cold away, but it caressed him like a lover as the first gust of wind he’d felt all night came down off the hill and poured a curtain of snow across the street beside him. He looked at his watch. They had some time before his sister would want to go to bed. Their kids would have no doubt ran her ragged today. He smiled at the thought and began walking. He still had a ways to go.

The moon played a game of hide and seek with him as he walked, its pale face sliding out and behind clouds stitched to the night sky. It gave him some light and he was grateful for it, savoring it as he had the warmth of the bus heaters.

He switched hands that held the flowers to keep his knuckles from stinging and hurried onward, looking up only when the moonbeams struck the ground before him. The snow was a memory now, wisps of frost fluttering in the light like ghostly moth wings. He turned the last corner and strode without stopping, heavy boots crunching snow and after several more minutes of walking he slowed.

There she was.

He moved forward, coming closer to her and a smile pulled at his face chapped by the wind. When he spoke he felt his lips crack at the corners.

“Hi darling. Sorry I’m running behind. I hope you’re not angry. Doring showed up late for shift and the manager wouldn’t let me leave until he clocked in. Lisa’s got the kids like I told you last week. She said there wasn’t any hurry, but you know her. I hope you didn’t think that I’d forgotten. Especially tonight.” He smiled wider and laughed a little. “I know I forgot our second anniversary, but I’m pretty sure I made it up to you. Remember? I got you an orchid.” He hesitated, the smile slipping from his face. He looked down, fingers burning. “I brought you these,” he said, holding out the roses. “They’re from that shop on Thirty-Sixth, the one with the white Christmas lights in the windows year-round. I saw them last week and knew I’d be getting them for you. Couldn’t believe they were the last ones when I went there tonight.” He tried to smile again but failed. “Like it was meant to be.” He hesitated a moment, the air becoming so cold around him it seemed to freeze in his lungs. He glanced up as the moon returned, burning the clearing with its frigid light.

“Happy anniversary, honey,” he said quietly, stepping forward. He laid the bundle of roses on the frozen ground and leaned in, kissing the headstone gently. “I love you.”

He brushed away the single tear that he’d promised himself earlier wouldn’t fall. And he didn’t let it as he turned and walked through the fresh snow to the waiting street beyond the gates.        

Writers Never Say Die

"Write without pay until somebody offers to pay you. If nobody offers within three years, sawing wood is what you were intended for." -Mark Twain. 

I'd like you to re-read that quote. Back? Okay. Now tell me if it pisses you off or not.

No? Then you're a traditionally published author, a hybrid author, a successful self-published author, or ultimately contented with your work and don't care whether you're paid or not for the words you put down.

If it does upset you, you haven't made much money from your writing, you've queried agents until your fingers bled, or you're like me who thinks Mr. Samuel Clemens was either being facetious, or truly believed that's what an author should do.

Either way I think the quote is a load of complete horse shit.

How many great authors would we have if the writing world was some sort of dystopian society and after three years of toiling in the word mines a person was required to hang up their shovel and go sell Orange Julius. FOREVER.

Orange Julius is pretty good...

But still! How many fantastic books would we miss out on if a person limited themselves to a timeframe for success? Becoming a successful author is not a four-year graduate degree. There is no guarantee that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel. There is no healthcare. There is no retirement plan. No promise of anything that will come to you.

You know what else there isn't?

There's no pedigree.

No writer, NONE, has sat down and created a masterpiece without toiling away, without chipping out the words that sometimes are moored in the subconscious marble. No writer opens a vein and bleeds a great novel onto the page without looking where the hell they're going.

Guess what writing is?

It's renewable wonder. It's perspective. It's magic and joy and torment and horror and love and pain and driving without headlights down a highway studded with hazards and pitfalls.

And you know what else it is?

It's sawing wood.

Everyday you sit down and type or scribble with a pen or pencil and you put the words down. If you really love it you put the words down and know someday, someone will appreciate what you've written. You read, you learn, you strive to be better because no one is ever as good as they can be, they always have the potential to be better.

There is no 'given' in writing. There is no sky for a limit. There is only the words to create and string together into a chain that leads you somewhere. If you're an author you might write a year before getting paid for your work, you might write a decade.

But if you're truly in love with the written word, with being a storyteller- if you are a writer in the very catacombs of your heart, you don't follow another's roadmap for your career.

You fucking draw your own.

And you never say die.

Read More

Dream Come True

So this is the year for really cool things to happen to me!

On top of Thomas & Mercer picking up my thriller, The River Is Dark, I'm now allowed to tell you guys about a blurb it just got from one of my most favorite authors of all time. The one and only, Blake Crouch!

Here's what Blake had to say about River:

“Hart approaches every sentence with a precision and care that armors the entire piece with a welcome sturdiness. More than anyone else, Hart’s delicate touch with landscape and character reminds me of the great James Lee Burke...If you love stories that get your pulse racing and dump adrenaline into your bloodstream, there is so much to love within these pages.” —Blake Crouch, Wall Street Journal bestselling author of the Wayward Pines Trilogy

Holy God, I'm just going to sit here for a minute if that's okay with you? 

Okay, I'm back. If you're an author and have received kind words from one of your literary heroes about something you've written, then you know the kind of elation I'm feeling right now. 

I've been reading Blake's work for years now and have always admired his style, the blistering pace of his stories, and his incredible imagination. The first book I read by him was his thriller RUN. If you guys haven't read it, quit reading this and go buy it, I'll wait. 

Okay, back? Good. Also his Wayward Pines series is by far the most exciting and viscerally written trilogy I've ever read, you should really check it out if you haven't done so already. 

So there it is. Unbelievably happy right now and can't wait for River to be re-released. Thanks goes out to Blake for taking the time from his busy schedule to read the book and to Jacque at Thomas & Mercer for putting it on his radar, appreciate both of you very much!    

Meet My Character Blog Tour

So the very talented Steven Montano tagged me for a blog tour. Normally I don't do these but since Steven's an awesome guy and a great writer, I thought I'd make an exception. Go check out Steven's work here.

So without further ado, let's get to it!

1) What is the name of your character, is he/she a historical or fictional person?

My character's name is MacArthur Gray from my newest novel, Widow Town. He is fictional.

2) When and where is the story set?

The when is 100 years in the future. The where is southern Minnesota. The easiest way to give everyone the rundown would be to post the synopsis:

In the future there is no such thing as a serial killer. 

A breakthrough research project has detected an active gene present in all known psychopaths and developed a vaccine to make it completely dormant. People are inoculated at birth. Society has rejoiced the extinction of the sociopathic mind. 

There hasn't been a serial killing in America in over forty years.

Sheriff MacArthur Gray resides in the future but lives in the past. His world views have chased him from a large metropolis to his home town, but there is no sanctuary to be found after he arrives. 

Because people are dying and only he can see the truth. 

A sociopath has somehow survived and is thriving in the new world. Soon Gray is thrust into a nightmarish race against the killer where no one is safe, and everyone is a suspect. 

3) What should we know about him/her?

Gray is a complex character because he's so guarded. He's suffered a major personal loss and has a view of the world that isn't widely accepted. He's tough as nails but has a soft side for those less fortunate.

4) What is the main conflict, what messes up his/her life?

Gray is the sheriff of his hometown. He's not convinced that the vaccine that ensures against serial killers is foolproof, especially when people begin to die in his county. Besides a well meaning, but rookie deputy, he has no allies in his quest to prove the impossible.

5) What is the personal goal of the character?

Gray wants his life back in order, but he also wants the truth, and he has a very hard time gaining both. His theory about the vaccine not working is not well received and his central purpose is to stop those responsible, but to do that he's got to convince others of the extraordinary.

6) Is there a working title for this novel, and where can we read more about it?

The novel is Widow Town, and you can find out more information or purchase it here.

Thanks Steven for tagging me! And now I'm happy to pass the tour on to a great author by the name of Dylan Morgan, who writes excellent dark novels and short stories. He happens to have a new novel coming out tomorrow, August 1st. It's called The Dead Lands, and I had the honor of reading an advance copy a short time ago. This book is a fantastic journey through a post apocalyptic wasteland filled with so much danger and horror, you'll be frightened to turn the page to see what happens next! When it is released, don't hesitate to pick up a copy.

DarkFuse Publication

I'm totally thrilled to announce that DarkFuse will be publishing Leave The Living, a novella I wrote earlier this year!

I've been admiring DarkFuse and their excellent offerings for quite some time now and when I wrote Leave The Living, I thought that they would be a perfect match for the story. Fortunately they thought so too!

If all goes according to plan, the novella should be out late next summer. In the coming weeks I'll have more info about the release that I'll share with everyone. I'm really excited and can't wait for you all to read it!

Thanks goes out to my family as well as Dave Thomas and Shane Staley at DarkFuse!