What Lived in the Holler

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Tennessee cat-and-mouse tale of a man versus a creature from an old legend. But there’s nothing to worry about…is there? Written by Bill Arbuckle.

“Don’t you be crossing the holler tonight, Jefferson Boone,” Orville Minton said to the scruffy man standing on the other side of the bar. “You know what they say about that thing what lives there.”

“Don’t scare me none,” Jefferson Boone replied.

“I heard tell from the Preacher that it’s an evil something what rips your liver out and eats it in front of you,” Junior Wofford chimed in.

“Since when did you start listening t’ preachers?” Orville Minton stared at his friend, then took a swig of cheap beer from his glass. “But I’m in agreement. It’s an awful creature been known t’ attack the lone traveler who crosses Egypt Holler on dark, moonless nights.”

“Hogwash,” Jefferson Boone said.

“‘Tis your life, Jeff Boone. But if’n I was you, I’d go ask Old Widow Doyle if ya could sleep on the straw in her barn. Maybe offer t’ do some chores in exchange.”

“Now that’s a clever idea, friend,” Junior Wofford said. “And I concur. The Widow lives on the edge of the Holler’n she knows the stories. Won’t be no shame in askin’ for help. Besides, she’s knowed you since you was a young ‘un. Knowed most of us since we was young enough t’ walk an’ talk. She’ll let you stay safe in her barn tonight.”

Jefferson Boone shrugged his shoulders. “Don’t need no protection from old wives tales.” He bent down to check that the laces of his brogans were tied tight, then stood up, buttoned his coat and headed to the door. “Hogwash.” He gripped the door handle, turned it, and tugged the door open. “Ain’t nothin’ but hogwash and old wives tales.” He stepped across the threshold of Orville Minton’s establishment and into the chilly Tennessee night. “Ain’t no spooks but the ones runnin’ round in your empty heads.” He pulled the door closed, leaving the two men inside to wonder over his fate.

“That’s a strange man, for sure.” Junior Wofford spoke up. “I’d a told him more about that creature. Heard tell many times that Spearfinger’s its name. Old Cherokee legend. Hunts like an animal an’ feeds on the bodies of th’ living. Says she lulls folks into believin’ she’s somethin’ she ain’t, and once they let their guard down, she uses her long fingernail t’ skewer ’em. That’s how she gets her name.”

“You talk too much, you know that?” Orville Minton shook his head. “Besides, it’s closin’ time, so get outta here an’ go home.”

“How ’bout one more for the road?”

The bar owner raised an eyebrow. “You said that two beers ago.”

Junior Wofford was undeterred. “Then hows about one for Jeff Boone?”

Orville Minton thought for a moment. “Guess I’ll drink to that.” He filled two glasses from the tap – one for himself and one for his customer. “Here’s to Jefferson Boone and his crossin’ the holler tonight.”


Dale-hollow-twilight-tn1

(Photo By Brian Stansberry (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Jefferson Boone picked his way through the underbrush until he came to the small footpath that led through the hollow. The sky was dark and moonless. Only the faint starlight guided his cautious steps, but even that faded away as the forest grew dense. In just a few short steps, it would be near impossible to see the trail. Certainly the long walk home could wait until morning. And what if there was something running loose in these woods? For a moment he considered turning back and seeking shelter in the Widow Doyle’s barn. No one would blame him for exercising caution. Besides, there was no one waiting for him at home. No sense risking unnecessary danger. He hesitated and felt afraid. But the realization angered him. He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. He stared into the darkness. He knew the trail. Over Butcher Creek. Up a few steps to the hilltop where he could see the roof of the Layne’s house, where it stood in the valley. Down into the deep forest. He’d walked this path a thousand times before with never a worry. But all those excursions had happened during the day. Here on the unlit trail with Minton’s and Wofford’s tall tales ringing in his ears, the fears seemed all too real. But not real enough to stop a man like Jefferson Boone. “Hogwash!” He said aloud. Then stepped on to the path and began his journey.

The man settled into a steady pace as he walked. The only sound was the thud of his shoes against the hard dirt. Jefferson Boone traveled nearly a half mile before he realized something was amiss. He stopped to listen to the forest and then realized what it was that was bothering him. No crickets were chirping. No owls hooting. Not even the sound of tree branches swaying and creaking. Just nothing. The silence unnerved him, but he had come too far down the trail to give in to fear, so he tugged his coat tighter, squared his shoulders, and resumed his walk.

Jefferson Boone had gone only a few steps before a heavy gust of wind sent branches swaying and leaves rustling. Here and there, twigs snapped and fell to the ground. The wind nearly knocked the man over, but he managed to lean against a large tree until the fury blew itself out. He stayed there for quite some time, listening as the trees creaked and groaned. From time to time, Jefferson Boone could hear a soft thud as an acorn or pine cone hit the ground. And then he heard a new sound – a sharp crack – as if someone or something had stepped on a fallen twig. Then all was quiet.

Jefferson Boone stiffened against the tree. He wasn’t alone in these woods. Every dark story he’d ever heard about the forest and the hollow flashed through his mind. Tales of dark creatures. Old Indian spirits looking to share their sorrows. Headless soldiers from the War Between the States looking for vengeance. Stories of being followed by an invisible something. Men hunted by the Devil himself. And he had been foolish enough to think that by sheer stubbornness he would be the exception to the rule. He shuddered, then forced himself to stand still and listen to the forest. The trees had ceased their swaying and no longer dropped branches and pine cones. The woods had dropped back into the silence Jefferson Boone had encountered when he first stepped on the trail. But the man was not convinced all was well. Whatever – or whoever – had stepped on the twig was still somewhere nearby. Like the forest, it too was silent.

Boone considered his options. Following the trail home meant a two-mile trek through the dense woods. A two-mile trek with something following him. The other alternative was to head back to the tiny mountain town and seek shelter until daybreak. It was a half mile to the trailhead. A far shorter distance to travel. Of course, heading back to town meant swallowing his pride. The other fellas – Junior Wofford and Orville Minton – would never let him forget that he had turned back out of fear. They’d bring it up every time he stopped in for a drink. “Seen any monsters tonight, Jeff Boone?” That’d be the joke that never died. No one in their right mind would want to face that kind of ridicule. That settled the question. The man-made up his mind in an instant. “Hogwash,” he said. “I’m going home.”

He stepped away from the tree and back out on the trail. But Jefferson Boone had no sooner taken a single step when he heard a slight rustle – as if someone nearby was walking through the underbrush. The sound shook him to the core. There was no longer any doubt. Something in the forest was stalking him. The man wanted to run back to the safety of his friends in the small mountain village, but again, he forced himself to stand still. Jefferson Boone knew better than to run. Running might turn the whole thing into a cat and mouse type of contest. The mouse gets scared and starts to run back to its nest, but the cat’s been waiting for that moment, because there’s nothing a cat likes better than chasing and playing with the mouse before finishing it off.

At this very moment, Jefferson Boone felt very much like a mouse cornered by a very big cat. And there were cats in these woods. Mountain folk talked often about losing chickens and smaller animals to bobcats. Every now and then someone would catch sight of one and out came the hunting rifles. Not every bobcat wound up stuffed and hung above the fireplace, but there were enough stories to lend credence of predators hiding in the thick forest. And maybe, just maybe, Jefferson Boone thought, that’s what was following him on this chilly, moonless night. He almost laughed at himself as he realized he had been scared out of his wits by a cat. Sure, bobcats were no laughing matter. They could kill a man. But Jeff Boone knew that the best way to chase a big cat away was to make enough noise to scare it.



“Hey!” He called out into they night. “I ain’t afraid of you! Shoo, cat! Shoo!” He knelt down, grabbed a stick, and threw it against a tree. “Can’t scare me none! Run away! Run away!” Boone stomped the ground and kicked at the dirt. “You ain’t nothin’! Get away now! You’re just a great big kitty cat…not some old wives’ tale! Now, get! Be gone! You ain’t nothin’ but hogwash, y’ hear me? Hogwash…hogwash…hogwash!” He stamped the ground for good measure, then leaned back against the tree to catch his breath. “Reckon that ought to scare away any big cats.” He said aloud. The man chuckled at his own cleverness. “If’n I’d thought of that half a mile ago, I’d almost be halfway home instead a’ being here shiverin’ at nothin’.” He started for the trail once again, but couldn’t resist looking over his shoulder and laughing at whatever animal had followed him in the darkness. “Spooked you good, didn’t I?”

He turned back to the trail, but before he even set foot on the packed dirt, a hoarse whisper came from behind the tree he’d leaned on. “Hogwashhhhhh…” The voice said. Then came a cracking and snapping sound as if something large was stepping on twigs and fallen branches. The footsteps were coming towards Jefferson Boone.

The man’s feet were already moving before he even had time to get his bearings. Boone guessed at the trail’s location and followed what looked like a narrow footpath. Once on the path, Jefferson Boone ran for his life. Behind him ran a dark shape. It hissed and snarled. The sounds seemed to be gaining on him…each was one step closer than the last. The man ran faster, but no matter his pace, the creature kept at his heels.

Jefferson Boone could barely see the path. The forest seemed to grow darker the faster he ran. He stumbled on a tree root that crossed the trail, but quickly recovered. In that split second, however, the predator gained enough ground that the man felt the creature just a few steps behind. Jefferson Boone pushed himself to run faster, but his strength was fading. He would have to find another way to escape his pursuer. Boone strained his eyes, hoping to see the edge of the forest. There was nothing but more trees. While looking out into the forest, he failed to see a rock in the middle of the path. His foot caught the rock, causing his ankle to twist and snap. Boone fell face down on to the hard ground. He lay stunned and gasping for breath, but his mind told him to get up and move. He rolled over to get back to his feet. A sharp pain shot up his leg. Boone looked down to see his left foot twisted backwards. He tried to straighten it, but it hurt too badly. He cried out and pounded his fists into the dirt until the pain subsided.

It was a full minute before Jefferson Boone caught his breath. He tried to remember why he was running through the forest in the dark of night. Before he could piece it all together, he heard a slight rustle in the pine needles and fallen leaves that lined the sides of the trail. The noise – ever so faint – was enough to cut through the shock and pain. He recalled the chase. The terror that comes from being the hunted, not the hunter. His body trembled with fear and a new wave of pain washed over him. “Who’s there?” He called.

Another rustling noise.

“Who’s out there?” He said again.

A footstep on the trail. Not more than ten feet away. Now nine. Eight. Seven. The footsteps stopped.

Boone trembled. “Who are you? Why are you following me?”

One step. Another.

“What do you want?” Boone stared into the darkness.

A figure came into view. Five feet tall, give or take an inch. Thin, but with rounded hips and shoulders. The figure circled the fallen man, then knelt down beside him.

Jefferson Boone stared into the soft features and breathed a sigh of relief. “You’re a girl,” he said. “I got scared and chased by a girl.” He tried to laugh. A fresh wave of pain washed over him and his laugh turned into a moan.

The girl reached over and clasped his hand. She stroked his arm as Boone struggled to control the pain. When at last his body stopped shaking, he looked at the girl. “I broke my leg. It’s pretty bad. All twisted ’round. Ain’t no way I’m walkin’ out of here. You’ll have to go and get me some help. The folks in the village’ll know what t’ do. You go get ’em now, OK?”

The girl shifted to a sitting position and gently lifted the man’s head into her lap. She stroked his forehead and ran her fingers through his hair. Boone was puzzled by her actions.

“You go now, y’ hear?” He said. “It’s gettin’ colder out here an’ I’m shiverin’ bad.”

The girl continued stroking his face. “Please, girl,” Jefferson Boone pleaded. “Go an’ get a doctor for me.” The girl said nothing. The man grew agitated. “Can you hear me, girl? I’m hurt bad an’ I need some help.”

The girl sat still. Boone breathed a sigh of relief. She was listening. “Go an’ tell ’em I was in th’ woods and tripped. Just don’t tell ’em that I was runnin’ from a girl. They’ll mock me for the rest of my days an’ they’ll always say somethin’ like, ‘Didja think she was that Spearfinger creature we was telling you about?’ I think they was making up tales – Orville ‘n Junior – they do that. Even said that the Spearfinger disguises itself so’s it can stab ya in the side an’ pull out your liver. Eats it, they said. Some friends, huh? Whatcha think about that?”

The girl was quiet for a moment, then leaned her head down so that she could whisper an answer in his ear. Her answer was a single word that set Jefferson Boone shaking with fear. “Hogwashhh…”

“No…” he whimpered. “No…you’re not real. You can’t be. Please don’t…” He looked up at the girl just in time to watch her face transform into the face of an old, haggard crone. “No…” His body tensed as he felt a sharp stabbing pain in his side followed by a hard tug like someone was pulling his insides out. “No…You’re not real…” He said again. Then his world went dark.


Riley Layne removed his hat as he entered the bar. He walked slowly to a stool and sat down. Orville Minton had never seen him look so pale. “Evenin’, Sheriff.”

The man nodded. “Whiskey. Just a shot before I head home.”

The bartender filled a shot glass and slid it over to the lawman. Sheriff Layne grimaced as he downed the liquid. “It never gets any easier.” He said after a moment.

“You OK?” Orville Minton asked. “You look a little shook up.”

“Couple a’ college boys from down the way came t’ the station this morning. Pretty shook up. Said they’s hiking here along the Egypt Holler trail ‘n found a body. Took me an’ Tommy White down t’ see it. Y’know Tommy? Been on the force ’bout six weeks. Rock-solid deputy. He like t’ passed out when we seen it. It musta been there a good two weeks, judging from the decay. Animals got to it too, so it was pretty mangled up. But…uh…” He paused. When he spoke again, he sounded like his mind was far away, trying to forget the scene. “Pretty sure we made an identification.”

Junior Wofford was seated two stools away. He leaned over and asked, “Anybody we know?”

Sheriff Layne nodded. “Yeah. ‘Fraid so. We’re about ninety-nine percent certain it’s Jefferson Boone.”

Orville Minton choked up. “Jeff Boone?”

“Best we could tell he’d fallen and broke his leg. Pretty bad. He’d a probably died from exposure, falling in the woods with nobody to help him out…but that ain’t what killed him. When the coroner came up, he noticed right away that it looked like Boone had been stabbed in the side. Deep. Killer musta been a real sicko too, cause th’ coroner got to looking and discovered that the same knife was used t’ cut out Boone’s liver. What kind a’ person does that?” He stood up to leave. “I hate to do it, but I’m gonna have to call the state investigators from Nashville t’ drive down ‘n look into this.” He walked to the door and pulled it open. “Might want t’ be extra careful leavin’ to tonight.” He stepped outside and closed the door, leaving Junior Wofford and Orville Minton alone in the empty bar.

Junior Wofford looked at his friend. “Spearfinger. We warned him. Jeff Boone’s as stubborn as a mule. Wouldn’t listen.”

Orville Minton filled two glasses with beer and slid one over to Wofford. “I’m gonna miss that hard-headed old cuss.”

Junior Wofford raised his glass. “To Jefferson Boone.”

Orville Minton nodded. “To Jefferson Boone.”

Outside the bar, a gentle fall breeze flung a pile of dried leaves across the parking lot. Not content with its petty vandalism, the wind picked up strength until it battered the building and shook branches off of nearby trees. Then as suddenly as it blew in, it stopped, leaving everything still and quiet. Too quiet. Not even the crickets were chirping.

-THE END-

From the Author: I grew up in southeast Tennessee, and imagined it near that area. The name “Egypt Holler” is an actual location in Sequatchie Valley, TN, and it was reportedly haunted. At least my friends told me “The Booger Man” lived there…

Thanks again. I had fun writing this! My dad was a minister, and we traveled all over southeast Tennessee, so I got to hear a lot of weird stories as I grew up. Some of them were even true!

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First Contact: North Carolina Alien Story

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From North Carolina, a coming-of-age story of a group of friends – and the alien they’re trying to keep alive in the treehouse. Written by Harris Tobias.

When the last alien died, we all cried. We put his poor tiny body in a shoe box and buried it in the field behind the treehouse with the others. At one time there were five of them. We found them in the ruins of their ship in that very North Carolina field. I remember how we were roused from our summer torpor at the sound of the crash. The smoke and fire brought us running.

Billy Jordan was the first to spot the wreckage and the scattered crew. Whatever the alien ship looked like originally was impossible to tell. By the time we saw it, it looked like so much rubble; like one of those crushed cars down at the junkyard and just about the same size. One by one we found the bodies of the ship’s crew. They were not much bigger than my sister’s rag doll except their skin color was a gray/blue and their heads were overly large for their small bodies. We gathered them together and knelt over them with wonder and apprehension. I remember we were squeamish about handling them. “They could have alien cooties,” Alan said.

This got us to step back from the bodies for a while. Finally Charlie, whose father was a doctor and fancied himself one too, stepped forward and lifted one tiny arm. “What are you doing?” Billy Jordan asked.

“Feeling for a pulse,” Charlie said. One by one Charlie performed the same routine on each body. When he lifted the last little arm he said, “This one’s still warm.”

“What the heck does that mean? Is it still alive? Why isn’t it moving? Should we get help?” We all blurted out these questions at once but who we were asking no one could say.

“He’s alive but probably in shock,” Charlie said and no one doubted him since his father was Dr. Lawrence who took care of us all our lives. “We’re going to need to keep him warm. We’ll need a blanket and something to keep him in.

“What about these others?” I asked gesturing toward the four dead aliens. I went home and got a spade from the garage. Alan found an old blanket and Billy brought the shoe box. Then we dug a shallow ditch and laid the dead aliens in it. Alan said a few words like a preacher which made us all giggle as we all bowed our heads. We filled in the hole and marked it with a cross Billy made from a couple of sticks and some string. “You think they’re Christian,” I asked.

We wrapped the surviving alien in the blanket and placed him gently in the box. Then we carried him up the rope ladder and into the treehouse. We sat around waiting to see what would happen. We waited for almost half an hour and soon got bored. The alien was breathing but still unconscious.

After a while the conversation drifted around to school. Fifth grade was going to start in a week and we were secretly excited and relieved. It had been a long summer and we were pretty bored with the long hot days with nothing to do. Billy made a crack about Charlie being excited to see Alice Kelly and made kissing sounds until Charlie couldn’t take it anymore and launched himself at Charlie. As they rolled around wrestling one of them kicked over the alien’s bed and he rolled out onto the floor. He might have rolled through the trap door and fallen the 20 feet to the ground below if Alan hadn’t caught him.

The alien groaned when we put him back in his bed. “He’s in pain. He could have a broken bone somewhere,” Charlie said. Charlie began to poke and prod the alien who groaned periodically. Eventually he opened his eyes and peered at us. He had curious eyes, pale yellow with vertical pupils like a goat’s. He appeared dazed and frightened. The alien looked around and studied us much as we studied him. After a few minutes he fell back and appeared to sleep, his chest rising and falling rhythmically.

We spent the rest of the afternoon planning what to do with the visitor as we started calling him. First we all agreed that the visitor was to be our secret and ours alone under pain of death, double pinky swear. Next we all agreed that we should keep watch to make sure he didn’t escape or, even worse, get carried off by a raccoon or something during the night.

By SeppVei (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The treehouse was to our minds an impregnable fortress. It was high off the ground with a trap door and a rope ladder providing the only entrance and exit. The trap door had a lock on the inside and with the ladder pulled up we considered ourself totally girl proof.

There were four of us and since we often slept over in the treehouse, doing it again was no big deal as long as we told our folks. We agreed to split the guard duty, two on and two off. Billy and Charlie went home to get their sleeping bags. I waited with Alan until they returned. When they arrived, Alan and I took off for home as it was getting late and I didn’t want to get grounded.

I had a hard time sleeping that first night I was so excited. My god, a real live alien, a crashed spaceship it was every ten year old’s wet dream. What a perfect end to the summer. What a story we had. Would anyone believe us?

In the morning I bolted down my corn flakes and ran all the way to the treehouse. When I got there I gave the secret call and Billy lowered the ladder. “How’s our visitor?” I asked.

“He’s resting comfortably,” Doctor Charlie said. I went over to look at him. He was conscious and looked better at least to my eyes. The visitor was speaking in a language we couldn’t hope to understand. “He’s been going on like that all morning,” Charlie reported.

“He must be trying to tell us something,” I said.

“Well, duh,” said Billy. “The question is what?”

“Maybe he’s hungry,” Alan said. “Anybody bring any food?” We scrounged up some crackers and a piece of an old apple and Charlie offered it to the visitor. We watched him examine the food, smell it and drop it on the floor untasted. We tried again later with a piece of Alan’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich and, after I ran home for lunch, a piece of my tuna salad on rye. The results were the same, the visitor didn’t recognize it as food.

By the second day we began to worry. The visitor hadn’t eaten or drunk anything. Billy brought a turkey baster from home and we tried squirting some cherry Kool-Aid into his mouth. He choked, sputtered and spit it out. We tried Coca Cola, Mountain Dew and orange juice but the visitor rejected them all. He was a sticky mess after that so we threw some water on him and wiped him down with Alan’s hanky. The poor little guy looked miserable.



By the third day it looked obvious that the visitor was dying. He’d stopped babbling and his weird goat’s eyes looked glassy. Charlie who had borrowed his dad’s stethoscope said our patient was in serious trouble and was definitely going to die unless we intervened and did something drastic. “Like what?” Alan asked.

“We need to get food into him. I heard my dad talk about putting food directly into a patient. It’s called inter-vee-nious or something.” Charlie had obviously been giving this some thought because he pulled a big hypodermic syringe from his pocket. We were very impressed. We all wanted to save our dying alien and watched fascinated as Charlie ground some of the stale crackers and bits of sandwich into a jar with some orange juice. We took turns shaking the mixture until it resembled a muddy sludge. Charlie let it settle and sucked some of the liquid into the syringe and turned his attention to the alien.

“We need to find a vein,” Charlie said.

“Do aliens even have veins?” asked Billy but no one had an answer for that. The visitor was still breathing but his breaths were noticeably faster and shallower. We examined his little doll’s arms for a vein. Billy found a faint line running down the back of one arm and Charlie said that was it.

“Here goes,” Charlie said and he stuck the needle in and pressed the plunger. Almost immediately the alien began thrashing around. He emitted a high pitched scream flailed around some more until finally he lay still.

“I think we killed it,” I said.

“My God we’re murderers,” said Alan.

“Is it murder if you kill an alien?” asked Billy. We had no answer for that, but just in case, we huddled together and agreed to bury the alien next to his companions and never ever mention the episode to anyone ever. We all took a solemn oath and carried the poor dead thing outside. We were all crying by then but I couldn’t explain exactly why.

A day or two later, school started and the lazy days of Summer faded into memory. Word of our experience with the visitor was never mentioned both out of fear of how the adult world would react and the realization that no one would believe us anyway.

That was sixty years ago this Summer. The field where we buried the aliens is long gone. It is a suburban housing development now. The old treehouse is gone as well as are those boyhood chums I shared it with. I am the last witness of humankind’s first contact and the tragic fiasco that followed. Looking back on how things played out, I have to say it doesn’t bode well for the future of our spacefaring race. If there is one lesson to be learned from this sad story it would be to hope that none of our brave astronauts encounter any ten year old boys or their alien equivalent.

-THE END-

Harris Tobias lives and writes in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of The Greer Agency , A Felony of Birds and dozens of short stories. His fiction has appeared in Ray Gun Revival, Dunesteef Audio Magazine, Literal Translations, FriedFiction, Down In The Dirt, Eclectic Flash, E Fiction and many other publications. His poetry has appeared in Vox Poetica, The poem Factory and The Poetry Super Highway. You can find links to his novels at: http://harristobias-fiction.blogspot.com/


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Toby and Lilly Forever : Alabama Ghost Dog Story

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Alabama ghost dog story (or is it?) written by Keith Gregory.

Toby’s farmhouse was just as beautiful as the rest of the “new rich” houses that had moved into the area in the past decade. His family had been handing the property down to generations of his kin since the 1800’s. There had been plenty of offers in recent years from the “new rich” to purchase his land, but Toby was a stubborn man, a proud man. This was his farm and he wasn’t giving it up to no one. He figured the reason they kept coming around was because he had no one, as of yet, to hand it down to.

Toby Matheson was still single and in his late forties. He was a simple man and this, combined with his stubbornness, had been a large, contributing factor to his bachelorhood. The Matheson farm, which had run fallow over time, was a place of sanctuary for him. He maintained the property enough to enjoy a somewhat solitary life with his best friend Lily, a Golden Labrador. In Toby’s mind Lilly was the only affection he needed. Her loyalty was his company. He didn’t have many friends and he liked it that way, and his “friends” were mostly acquaintances anyway. He was also grateful that the farm was a considerable distance away from the nearest neighbor. The property was large enough that he and Lilly could live their lives the way they wanted to without outsider distractions.

Summers in the valley region of northwest Alabama could get hot despite the idea that the cold season stubbornly hung on for as long as it could. In August it was downright hot and humid during the day and still and warm at night. Toby loved dusk in August on Matheson Farm. He would sit outside on his porch with Lilly and watch the sun go down, beer in hand, listening to the sound of the woods bordering the northern end of the front yard. Some nights the trees would sway in a gentle summer night’s breeze or just before a storm. The leaves would dance on their stems, flickering back and forth against the branches. It was a nightly ritual Toby held quite dear.

Tonight was one of the still nights, the woods ahead a silent fortress wall. Toby sat in his porch chair taking in the evening, sipping his lager. The farmer’s simplicity came to a peak during these moments as he stared out into the growing dark with just about nothing on his mind, watching, listening to his world. Them “new rich” folk would probably call this “Zen” or “meditation.” To Toby, it was just a nightcap. His eyes soon fell to his, almost, empty bottle and he let out a long, emotionally exhausted sigh. It sure was quiet tonight. Save for the crickets’ song, the stillness was impacting.


There was a small rustling in the woods and a scattering of forest floor. Toby watched as a fox ran along the edge of the border of trees and back into the folds of the woods. That’s when he heard the bark. He knew that bark. His head shot up and he strained his eyes. It had come form just outside his vision on the far northern end. That was Lilly. It had to be. It sounded just like her. He carefully put down his beer and leaned forward in his chair.

“Lilly?” He asked the night. “Lilly, is that you?”

He was about to get out of his chair and stopped in mid ascent. He sighed, again, and sat back in the seat feeling a little stupid. It was impossible, of course. Lilly was dead. His best friend had passed on last fall. She was old, and time had had its way with her. She was diagnosed with hip dysplasia, and the arthritis eventually had spread so bad he had had to put her to sleep. She was living in pain everyday and Toby had had enough of the grief, seeing her limp around. He had decided he was keeping her alive for his own benefit and it was time to let go. As he sat back in his chair, he looked down to where she used to sit during their nightly ritual, and felt a low tightening in his stomach, tears threatening to escape his eyes.

MoonSet

“Just stop it Toby.” He said to himself. “She’s gone and that’s that.”

He took the last slug of his beer and considered going and grabbing another, when he heard the bark again. It was clear in the still, night air. The sound was far off at the northern edge of the woods but close enough to make Toby wonder if a stray had wandered onto his property. But the bark was so familiar. He had heard it every day for the past thirteen years.

For a moment he didn’t really know what to do. It sounded like Lilly, so it must be a Lab and they weren’t much of a threat. Then again, they weren’t the kind to go off wandering on their own either. He heard another rustling in the woods. No bark. Toby leaned towards the yard in his chair, mouth slightly open, eyes, squinting into the, now dark, distance of the northern edge, concentrating. The night just hung there, silent save for the sounds of crickets. Continuing to stare at the trees and beyond, he slowly sat back in his chair and decided to dismiss the whole thing and wondered if he really needed another cold one. Then the barking came again, this time a little more frantic. Toby was up right, instantly. It wasn’t the barking of a dog in pain or danger. It was the sound of a Lab on the hunt. A dog alerting her master that she had found the fowl. Come over here, that barking said, it fell over here. Toby stood and walked to the edge of the porch.

“Lilly,” he said out loud and caught himself. The name had escaped his lips without him even thinking. Lilly was dead, he knew that, but it had just come out. The dog barked a few more times and sounded as if it was running back and forth trying to get someone’s attention. Whoever would listen, it seemed. Well, Toby was listening and the rustling he had heard in the woods was not coming from the north end of the woods where he heard the barking, it was more towards his position but deeper in the trees. The barking stopped again.

Toby resolved to go and take a look. Since he couldn’t hear the dog rustling when it barked maybe it was in some sort of trap. No, Toby thought, that’s just ridiculous. He had no traps laid out on his property. He heard the rustling deep in the woods again and it sounded like the scrambling of not one, but a couple of, what he assumed to be, foxes. He had just seen one not five minutes ago.

He walked across the porch and went into the house. Toby realized how fast he was walking and his heartbeat quickened, slight mists of fear matching his pace.


“Gotta calm down there a bit, Toby. Just a wandering Lab, is all,” he told himself as he walked through the kitchen and into the washroom. He didn’t turn the light on, just stared at the gun cabinet. He didn’t need the rifle, did he? He stepped closer and felt for the keys in his pocket: house key, truck key, gun key. He rubbed the gun key between his thumb and forefinger in a momentary state of indecision. It was probably just a lost Lab, he thought. No more a threat than Lilly ever was. He rubbed the key once more, looked to the right of the cabinet and saw his walking stick. He had whittled it himself years ago out of a branch ripped from its trunk by lightening. The tip was charred black and he had lacquered it to preserve nature’s quiet remnant of fury. The stick would do. If he startled the dog he would be able to use it to calm him, or her, down or defend himself if he had too. A gun would just be too much. He grabbed the walking stick and stood there in the darkness for a moment. He thought of Lilly and a pang of loss washed over him. He got himself together and headed back towards to porch.

As he crossed the living room he heard the barking again. It was coming from the same place, muffled by the walls of the house, but still as frantic as before. What was it doing out there? And damn if it didn’t sound exactly like Lilly. He paused in front of his couch, listening. There was an excited tone in the dog’s rant now, almost a yelp. He couldn’t take it anymore and just about stormed out the front door onto the porch.

“Lilly, settle down! I’m coming!” Toby caught himself again, in a jolt of confusion. What was he saying? He actually didn’t even know he was going to call for his best friend, since passed, and hadn’t realized what he had said until it was out of his mouth. Maybe he would have a couple more beers after he figured this whole thing out.


As he stepped out onto the porch, the rustle in the woods happened again. It was louder than the last, and this time it wasn’t on the ground. The tops of the trees were swaying just outside his vision in the still August night. Despite the growing weirdness of this situation Toby tried to keep a level head. “Must’ve been a night owl,” he said out loud – fully aware, in that pool of reason, deep down in the bowels of his mind, that the way the branches were scrapping, it would have to be three or more of the night hunters.

Lilly the Lab, the dog, or whatever, was barking at a steady pace now and the nostalgia of that sound was slowly forming a swell of tears on the corner of his conscious. But, mixed with that was a dash of fear and not a small amount of annoyance. Whatever was going on over there it must be taken care of if he was going to get any sleep tonight. Toby took slow steps off the porch and began to creep north past the barn into the once silent darkness. The trees swayed again just to the south of the commotion. It was a lumbering rasp with a considerable amount of weight scraping and cracking sticks along the way. How the branches would hold something as heavy as this animal (animal?) sounded was beyond Toby. Whatever it was, it was riding the treetops, creeping towards his Lilly.



He crossed the yard and was approaching the right side of the barn when the yelping ceased once more and something jumped into the woods from just outside the border, behind the barn. Something was messing around in the woods and he wanted it to stop. What worried him was, he wasn’t sure what it might be. He had lived here all his life and Lilly had never acted up like this.

“It’s not Lilly,” he told himself, teeth clenched. His brain kept allowing him to say things like that, and it was starting to really piss him off. He knew better. He had mourned and tried to move on. The old girl was gone and all he had was his farm. And whatever it was back there, in the pitch black of nature, he was going to make sure it didn’t threaten all he had left.

Night was fully upon the farm and the August moon crept along, half-hidden by the trees as Toby moved slowly along the border of his yard. Something rolled along the tree line in the darkness, just up ahead, cracking the stillness of the night. The snap and slap of the high branches echoed in the air, the sound quickly ricocheting and disappearing into the forest beyond. The sound was crisp and amplified, hypnotic. He thought about the gun in the washroom. What about the gun? Had something just occurred to him? Maybe he needed the rifle and not the stick. He felt the night wrap itself around him, comforting him. He couldn’t move. He needed to get the gun.

Toby forced himself to widen his eyes, blink and focus as if trying to stay awake. Something was gripping his conscious and squeezing the rational thought right out of it. He had only had one beer, but he felt the same as if he was on his sixth and the glaze of inebriation was forming over his eyes. It was the thing in the trees. He wasn’t sure how he knew this, staring at the ground trying to concentrate, stick held in white knuckled fists, but he did. He also came to realize, in this momentary lapse of reason, that this, something, was luring him against his will. He felt unhinged from himself, like a door not quite centered on its frame, askew, allowing slivers of light in odd angles. That was not Lilly’s bark. It was something else, and if he did not concentrate and try to mentally break free it was going to get him. How, he wasn’t sure yet, but his fight or flight alarms were sounding on the flight side and he could not move. He was in some sort of mind trance yet lucid as ever.

He really needed his gun. And then the barking came again. As hard as Toby tried to fight it, his eyes widened with concern for his best friend and he yelled, “Lilly!” He ran north toward her. Somewhere back in his mind he was screaming to himself that it wasn’t her. Somewhere, back there, he was also telling himself to run. Run and get the rifle, goddamn it. But the Lilly barking was a siren, pulling him in, using his affection for his lost companion. He lumbered, walking stick in a baseball bat grip, like a drunken pursuer towards the sound of his beloved girl. He felt a crash of anxiety and fear from somewhere deep inside him, slamming down from above. He looked up and saw a large black form riding the top of the tree line. Lilly was a good girl but, like any dog, she was stubborn. If this thing got too close to her before he could save her it might hurt her. Hell, it might even kill her.


“I’m coming girl! I’ve got a weapon!” Toby was too far back in his own mind now; too far to communicate with reason. He was a man trapped behind a mirror watching the event unfold and having no control over it. Despite this, he screamed. There was no Lilly, just as there was no breeze. Something was hungry. Something needed strength. Toby was the fuel. He was closer now, “Lilly!” he stopped, panting, stick still in hand. This is where he had heard her. Lilly barked. She was off in the distance. She was running away, away from him. Him? No, that couldn’t be. Toby just, stood there. He was on the verge of tears. She would never run away from his voice. Deep inside, far back in the corner of his mind, looking from the other side of that mental mirror, the real Toby cried. He was going to die.

As the last in the line of the Matheson farm caretakers looked further north into the woods, as tears ran down a face twisted with sadness and confusion, the tops of the trees rustled once more. In the distance the sound of barking faded. The dark mass from above emitted a clicking, crunching sound, like insects being crushed under foot. From this mass something squirmed out of nothing, the delicate, wet sound of birth. A trunk-like tentacle lowered from the branches with a glistening film, fluid like fresh okra juice. The crushing, clicking sound came again, along with a slight moan not unlike a baby calf just out of the womb. Three claws emerged from the tip of the tentacle all the while lowering and lowering towards its prey.

Toby stood in a trance, still staring off into the distance. His lips moved slightly trying to form words as the creature slowly, gently clamped its three claws around the front and sides of his neck. There was a moment of quiet. A moment of peace, as the farmer opened and closed his mouth, just so, to form the last word of his life.

He exhaled in the stillness, “Li…Lil…Lilly”, and with ferocious speed, the thing snatched the human up, and into its grip. With a crunch, blood spilled through the branches of the trees catching, on the leaves, one by one and running down the trunks like the seasons first sap.

-THE END-


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The Ol’ Jessup Place: Virginia Devil Folktale

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Virginia devil folktale about a young man forced to spend the night in a terrifying house, with a terrifying family. But are they really as evil as the townfolk say? Written by Kyle Moore.

NEW: Serena Mott, a radio major at Nova Scotia Community College, has created an audio version of this story:

You wanna know about that place up there? Heh, yeah, she sure looks like hell, don’t she? Paint peelin’ away from the wood, boards on the porch all rotted through, and them windows? Them windows’re black, not from curtains, see, but from the dirt. Yeah, there’s so much dirt on them windows you could put your nose right up against ‘em and not even see what’s on the other side.

Let me tell you; you should see her at night.

That’s the ol’ Jessup place, that is. The Jessups have been here in Porton for as long as anyone can remember. I bet when settlers first put down stakes in this little backwater, there was a Jessup, standing at the back, just a little ways away from the rest of the folk.

See, the Jessups aren’t welcome most places ’round here. Shops won’t sell to ‘em; restaurants won’t sit ‘em. Even the little ‘uns get shunned. Oh, they’ll take ‘em in the schools all right, but that never lasts long before the other boys and girls run ‘em off, throwin’ rocks and callin’ ‘em names. Nah, Jessups just ain’t welcome, and usually they have to go all the way to Suffolk or Chesapeake to stock their stores or ply a trade.

They got a reputation.

Most the time, folks just carry on like they don’t exist. But every once in a while, maybe at a church bake sale, or down at the lodge on a Sunday afternoon, the whispers about the house start skittering along like spiders under the tablecloths. It’s haunted, some’ll say. Evil.

And ain’t no one seen a Jessup attend a church here ever, and that has folks waggin’ their tongues about worshippin’ the devil or practicin’ witchcraft.



Me? I know the truth about the Jessups. No one’ll listen to me of course. That’s my own fault I guess. I found me a nice bottle, crawled in, and ain’t had much interest in crawling my way back out. And you can’t blame me neither.

You weren’t there that night. You didn’t see what I saw.

Lord this was, what? Twenty years ago? Yeah, I was just a scrawny little runt, straight outta high school. Lotsa kids grow up here, they want out of Porton. Not me. I was just lookin’ to raise a little hell, but not so much I couldn’t stand up in church on Sundays.

Back then, my daddy owned this here garage, and I was makin’ a little cash workin’ for him. It was a good life. My daddy was a good man; he charged me fair rent, and if I did a good job, he made sure I had enough money in my pocket to go out and find me a nice girl.

Well, it was late summer, and the mayor gone and cracked the block of his Mercedes. The mayor! When the tow truck wheeled that beauty in this shop, my daddy almost wept, I don’t know with pride, or with thinking of all the money he was going to make offa that job. I can tell you that just about every other car in the garage was put on hold so we could turn around the mayor’s car as fast as possible.

The problem is, as I’m sure you could guess, we ain’t got much in the way of import parts in this little town. After callin’ around to some of the other cities, my daddy found the only place with the parts we were lookin’ for was all the way over in Newport News.

And that’s how I found myself drivin’ my daddy’s truck along that road over yonder in the middle of the night.

It was comin’ down hard that night. In the summer, when it gets to rainin’ ‘round here, there’s no messin’ about. It’ll start with a drop or two, and next thing you know it’s like God’s wrath comin’ down in thick gray sheets of water.

I still remember the sound of the rain, like someone takin’ a needle gun to the roof. The whole time I’m hunched over the steerin’ wheel, eyes screwed up, tryin’ to see the road through the two feeble shafts of yellow light comin’ from the head lights. I had the radio up, but you couldn’t hear nothin’ from the racket of the rain, and really, I was so scared I don’t think I’d have been able to pay attention to the music if I could.

When I saw the Jessup place down the road, I actually felt a bit of relief. Yeah, the place was creepy, especially in that rain. It was just this big black hulking thing lurkin’ at the edge of a street light. If the circumstances had been any different, it’d have scared the bejesus outta me, but at that time… it meant I was almost home.

Yeah, I thought I was good to go and then BANG! I nearly soiled my britches when Daddy’s pick up started buckin’ and lurchin’ like that ol’ mechanical bull they got over at Larry’s. I thought I was gonna tear that steerin’ wheel straight off, I was holdin’ on so tight.

Well, she finally came to rest and I knew somethin’ was wrong ‘cause she was sittin’ real low on the passenger side. I threw my hat on and hopped out the truck to go see what was the matter. “Shee-it!” I hollered when I saw it. I ain’t a cursin’ man; my momma brought me up right. But way I figured it, I musta hit a pothole or a rock or somethin’ so hard it popped the damn wheel clean off.

There I was, the head lights nearly blindin’ me, the rain just beatin’ on my back and soakin’ through my clothes as I stared at where the wheel used to be. I swore again, and I ain’t ashamed to admit I wanted to cry. Almost did, except I knew my daddy would give me a tongue lashin’. My daddy was a good man, but he didn’t raise no sissies, I’ll tell you that.

So I’m standin’ there, tryin’ to think of what to do next when I looked up. There it was, that old house over there. It was awful. The street light didn’t reach it, almost like the lamp was afraid, and the rain just sorta draped over it like a shroud. And underneath? Just this hulkin’ black mass, the porch all crooked and warped, like teeth. I felt it starin’ at me.

Wooden Front Porch, Farmhouse, Milledgeville, GA

Now I grew up here, so I heard all the stories, all the whispers, and as much as I wanted to be inside out of the wet, as much as I needed a phone to call my daddy and tell ‘im what happened, just the idea of going up to the Jessup house was unthinkable. I’da rather just walked into town on my own and found somewhere still open from there.

That’s just what I was fixin’ to do, too, when I hear this loud bang.

“What the hell are you doin’ out there, boy?” someone called out after me.

I looked up. Castor Jessup. I’d seen him about here and there. Not much, of course. But every once in a while, I’d catch him in the yard wrenchin’ on one of the Jessup cars or cuttin’ the grass. The man was cut outta wood. I’d wager he was only a coupla years older than me, but his face was hard, you know? Whiskers and hollow cheeks and stern eyes.

He was glarin’ at me.

“Lost a wheel, Mr. Jessup,” I hollered back, strugglin’ to be heard over the rain.

Castor just stood there, his arms rested up against the crooked picket fence of the yard. It was comin’ down in buckets and the man was actin’ like weren’t nothin’ but a little sprinkle. He stayed silent a spell, lookin’ at me, and lookin’ at the pick-up, and then I saw somethin’ strange in his eyes. I can’t rightly say what, it was dark, and I only had the street light to go off of, but his look darkened, and he craned his neck to peer down the road where I came from.

I couldn’t stop myself and I looked too. All I saw was the rain slammin’ down like a bucket of nails, and behind that, blackness. Maybe I say this ‘cause I know now what was going to happen later, maybe I’m rememberin’ it wrong, or maybe I just knew, even then, but I tell ya, there was something in all that black. Felt like when you’re playin’ hide and seek, and you think you got that perfect spot, but then you can hear whoever’s it comin’ by, and all of a sudden you know, just know, that they see you, and they’re just bidin’ their time, waitin’ for the perfect moment to get you.

Castor grabbed my attention before I could look too long though. He said, “Bad night for you to be out here, boy.”

“Yes, sir,” I replied. My momma always taught me to treat people with respect, even if those people are the Jessups.

As I answered, I looked up at the sky with my eyes all squinted up tight. Now I remember this because I was just lettin’ Castor know that the weather was somethin’ awful. But Castor, he didn’t pay the sky or the weather any mind at all. And when I looked back down at him, he had that shadow in his eyes again.

It was like he was tryin’ to say the bad night had nothin’ to do with the weather.

He took one last look down the road, and I swear he was nervous. It’s a strange thing to see a hard man like that lookin’ nervous.

Then he looked back at me one more time, sizin’ me up almost, the way a coyote’ll look at a sheep, and finally he said, “I reckon you ought to come inside.”

I stood there for a moment, rain rollin’ down my back and soakin’ into my drawers, and even then I wasn’t sure. This was the ol’ Jessup place, and they worshipped the devil, or did witchcraft or stole babies or somethin’. But then I felt the darkness lookin’ back at me from down the road, and all of a sudden goin’ with Castor didn’t seem that bad an idea at all.

Now, you gotta understand somethin’, to the best of my knowledge, I ain’t never known anyone to cross that fence who’s name wasn’t Jessup. I remember when we was kids we’d dare each other, and little Matty almost did it, got a hand on the fence before he chickened out, but no one, and I mean no one had the guts to get as far as I did that night.

Every step felt like I was walkin’ onto some foreign land. Cuttin’ through the lawn, seein’ all that crab grass, still sharp and stiff even in the rain, walkin’ onto that porch, feelin’ every board creak under my step, it all felt new and dangerous.

We got to the front door, and I just wanted off of the porch at that moment. Like I said, I was scrawny back then, no beer belly or anythin’ yet it still felt like the floorboards were gonna give and I was gonna go crashin through. I was relieved when Castor pulled open the front door, even though it squealed like you hear in those old horror movies. I just wanted off of that porch, out of that rain, and if I’m bein’ totally honest, away from that darkness beyond.

Inside weren’t no better though. It was worse. The lighting was dim, just a few weak table lamps with these thick lamp shades that turned the light all dirty yellow. You could see stitch marks along the sides of some of them, made it look like they was made from skin. And the shelves! Everywhere there were these shelves that looked like they was made by hand out of old used-up wood. There were… things on those shelves, dried up lumps of stuff I ain’t never seen before, boxes with strange stains all across their surfaces in ugly brown and black clouds.

I remember there was this jar, and it was old, with metal latches on it. It was coated in dust, like them windows you see over there, and cobwebs just draped off of it like a table cloth. There was this murky gray green liquid inside. It was hard to tell in the low light, but I couldn’t stop myself from takin’ a closer look. You know what I saw? There was somethin’ in there, somethin’ black and bulbous, just restin’ on the bottom, and I swear to this very day, just as my nose was about to touch the dirty glass, the thing inside moved.

“This way, boy,” Castor said quietly, almost like I was in a museum on a field trip and one of the folks that works there was getting’ nervous I was about to touch one of the paintings. So I followed him through that front room, cramped with a beat up recliner stuffed in a corner, and blue green carpet that had been pounded flat over the years. He took me through the kitchen, over the cracked linoleum tiles, dodgin’ around the olive green appliances with streaks of rust runnin’ down ‘em on all sides.

And then we were in a cramped hallway.

Pictures were all over the walls, generation after generation of Jessups, all of them lookin’ hard and cut from wood like Castor. There was one picture, an ol’ black and white, of this one woman in one of them frilly dresses, all black and high collared. You couldn’t say she was pretty; I couldn’t anyway. But I could see how she mighta been handsome; that’s what momma would say sometimes about some of the girls about town that didn’t catch all the boys’ eyes but weren’t what anyone would call ugly. She mighta been handsome, but she had that same look in her eyes like Castor’s: dark, a shadow, almost like she was lookin’ for something that weren’t there.

It gave me the chills somethin’ fierce, but I didn’t have time much to dwell on it as Castor led me down the hall and through a door with green paint that was rippled and bubblin’ up. The dark metal knob turned in his hand, and this time, when that heavy squeal came as the door swung open, it felt like it was shreddin’ my bones into bits. I wanted to run, but the sound of the rain patterin’ off of the roof told me there really wasn’t much of any place to run to.

The room inside was small, and cramped. There wasn’t much in it, just a bed and a dresser with another one of those lamps with the eerie shades over the bulb, but it was plain that it had been years since anyone stepped foot in that room. Dust coated everythin’ and the corners were thick with spider webs. I ain’t ever been afraid much of spiders, but there was one hangin’ from its web, thick and brown and it made me jump when I saw it scuttle off into a hole in the wall.

“You’ll be fine here,” Castor said. I looked at him, tryin’ to read if he was really takin’ me in on a bad night, or if I was bein’ set up for somethin’… what’s the word… sinister. But his face was as grim as ever, his eyes full of shadows, and his normally blond hair dark and clingin’ to his skull as water dripped slowly down his face. “You ain’t got to worry about messin’ up the bed with your clothes; there’s a cover under the sheets.”

Then he was gone, leavin’ me alone in that tiny room with the dust and the spiders. It didn’t occur to me until then to ask to use the phone; my nerves were stretched so thin I know I wasn’t thinkin’ straight. I thought about goin’ and tryin’ to find Castor, but the thought of walkin’ around the Jessup place without a guide was somehow worse.

So I pulled off the top blanket off the bed, kicked off my muddy shoes, and stretched out on that lumpy mattress. I don’t know if I actually slept or not. I remember tryin’ to look out the window and seein’ nothin’ but grime and rain, and wasn’t sure where one ended and the other began. I do remember closin’ my eyes… but I don’t remember if I actually slept.

I must’ve though, ‘cause the next time I opened my eyes, the rain was gone. I could see out the window again, sorta. I could make out the blackish purple night sky, and even blacker shapes hulking in the backyard. And the sound of the rain had quit.

But it wasn’t quiet. Just above me, I could hear a low mumblin’ or mutterin’. Occasionally it would get louder, and then it would quiet down again. Sometimes the ceilin’ above me would creak like someone was walkin’ around, but the whole time, there was always voices. More than one, too.

I got up out the bed, and strained to try to hear what they was talkin’ about, but the sound was muffled. So I stood on the bed, and I waited. Around me, the dust remained unmoved. The spider must’ve thought I wasn’t gonna bother it none, as it had come back out from its hole some time through the night. And there was me, ear pointed to the ceilin’, tryin’ to make out what the Jessups was talkin’ about.

I dunno how long I stood on that bed. Maybe five minutes, maybe half an hour. But finally the voices picked up loud enough and I could tell they weren’t talkin’ at all. They was chantin’. All of them, at least four or five of ‘em, all sayin’ the same thing, over and over again.

What were they sayin’?

Shoot, I couldn’t tell ya. It weren’t English, I could tell you that. That’s probably what spooked me the most. Whatever they was sayin’ weren’t in any language I’d heard before, not that I’ve heard many if I’m bein’ honest with ya. Whatever they was sayin’, it sounded wicked.

That was enough for me. I hopped down, shoved my feet in my cold wet shoes, and I flew. I didn’t care if the Jessups heard me. I didn’t care about anything besides gettin’ out of that evil house!

When I got out onto the front lawn, it was clear the storm had moved on. There was still a few clouds left in the sky, but the stars was shinin’ and a half moon was slung low and fat, leavin’ everything in this eerie silver glow.

I didn’t take but a second to realize this. Like I said, I wanted to put as much distance between me and the ol’ Jessup place as I could. But half way to the front gate I stopped hard, frozen, and feelin’ a chill down my back.

There was this man in the road, slouchin’ towards the town proper. He looked normal at first. Maybe his clothes looked a little messed up, and his hair was all over the place, and his skin was maybe a bit too pale, but that coulda been ‘cause of the moon light.

But as he drew even with my daddy’s pick up, the man looked up, looked me straight in the face, and he grinned.

Only half of his face was normal, only that ain’t the right word for it. It was… like a mask, limp. I remember when my granddaddy got old, they put him up in one of those old folk homes out in Norfolk. We’d visit him sometimes and he would just stare off into nothing, his mouth hangin’ open and snot dribblin’ out his nose. That’s what this man looked like down half his face. Like no one was there.

The other half—I still have nightmares of that other half. The deep gashes that ran back and forth all over the place, the chunks of skin that had come clean off so you could see the dark red meat underneath. And that eye. You know, I read a bit, and I watch movies, and you always hear folks goin’ on about the eyes this, and the eyes that. But you know what?

Ain’t a one of ‘em seen what I saw that night because that eye… lookin’ into that eye was like lookin’ through the gateway of Hell.

I wish I could say that was all, but it wasn’t. That whole half of the… I can’t call him a man… monster’s body was horrible. The clothes were tattered, and caked with blood, gouges of flesh had been ripped out here and there, almost like it was done by some kind of animal. And there was a hole about where his stomach was, and out of that hole somethin’ wet and black flopped about whenever the monster moved or shifted.

“It’s a beautiful night, don’t you think?” he asked. He spoke like a gentleman, and his voice sounded like graveyard dirt, and when those words hit my ears, my jaw wired itself shut and I could feel the piss spreadin’ in my pants.

It laughed. It laughed to see me so araid, and the laughter filled the road and the night. He wasn’t even done laughin’ when he started makin’ his way towards me with that slow lurch of his, and said, “No? To each his own, I suppose.”

With each step he took towards me, I could feel the fear risin’ inside of me like a pot full of boilin’ water, and this thing seemed to enjoy every second of it. At one point, he even licked his lips, like he was gettin’ the last drop of barbecue sauce.

“I was just going to pay your little hamlet a visit. Oh, I’ve long been aching to do so. How delicious, to savor the sights, the foods,” and here he stopped walkin’ and leveled that eye at me hard, I could almost feel it you know? Like when a fence board falls on you. He looked at me with that eye that opened up onto Hell, and I could feel the hunger oozin’ off of him when he said, “…the people.”

He was at the gate now, and I knew, I just knew, he was gonna get to me. I couldn’t run. I wanted to, but it was like my body just up and quit. I was as broke down in the gaze of that creature as my daddy’s pick up was across the road.

When I heard the front door behind me bang open, I thought my knees was gonna give out and I was gonna crumple to the ground. There was footsteps, and next thing I knew, Castor had come outside with his little brother Billy.

Billy. That boy couldn’ta been a hair over fourteen, but there he was, already lookin’ like a man who seen too much in his life. Baby fat was still clingin’ onto them cheeks, but the eyes were still as dark and terrible as his brother’s.

“How delightful!” the thing said, soundin’ almost like a cat purrin’ as you pour its food out from the can.

I heard metallic clicks on either side of me, and the Jessup boys hauled up a twelve gauge each and trained it on the monster. Outta the side of his mouth, Castor said, “Boy, you go on upstairs and you get Ma Jessup. Now.”

I did nothin’. I said nothin’. What the hell was I supposed to do? At some point, I think your brain just gets to tellin’ ya that whatever is goin’ on, it’s so bad it can’t be real. That’s where I was, I guess, and this time Castor took his eyes of the monster and looked straight at me. I could see what that shadow for what it was right then; it was fear. “I said go get momma, now!”

That was enough to snap me outta my daze, and I bolted, my pants smellin’ of piss, and my heart feelin’ like it was gonna drop right through my stomach. I musta looked like an idiot when I hit that house–yellin’ at the top of my lungs, “Mrs. Jessup? Mrs. Jessup?” as I climbed up the stairs, like I was too scared to keep from wettin’ myself like a baby, but not scared enough to forget the manners my momma taught me as a youngun.

I found the ol’ woman upstairs in a wicker chair, surrounded by black candles, each givin’ off flickerin’ yellow light. In one corner, there were a pair of girls with dirty blond hair, chantin’ like I had heard earlier over a weird shrine. But Ma Jessup was the focus of the room.

She looked like she was born old, with skin like old onion peels, and hair like the bristles of a broom. She had pudgy cheeks, and lips that were flat and cracked. The moment I saw her, I recognized her; she was the same woman as the one in that old black and white picture in the downstairs hall only much older.

“Mrs. Jessup?” I breathed.

“He’s here, isn’t he?” she said, her voice like sandpaper, her eyes tired and wary.

“Yes ma’am,” I nodded.

She gave a heavy sigh and stood up. It was odd, watchin’ her climb out of that chair, like watchin’ a piece of paper unfold itself. And when she did stand up straight, I wager she didn’t hit five feet, but you could feel it, the power, when she walked. She may have been a tiny, wrinkled up prune of a thing, but when she walked, you almost expected the ground to crack beneath her feet.

I followed her down the stairs and out the house. She was all wiry gray hair and ancient shawls and dress. She smelled of mothballs and somethin’ pungent, and if’n I’d seen her in the light of day, and I hadn’t seen all the things I’d already seen that night, she’d look almost silly. But not then. Not that night.

Ma Jessup held her head high, and marched straight towards the thing in the road. She paid no mind to her kin holdin’ shotguns. She barely paid attention to the gate as she went through. When she stopped and faced the monster, I could see her face, round and wrinkly, framed in the orange light of the street light, and the silver light of the moon. She sneered at it.

“What business you got comin’ ‘round these parts, demon?” she said.

It smiled sick and sweet at her. “Oh, so you know who I am, do you?”

“I know what you are; I don’t need to know a name,” she said with a little nod. Her voice still sounded like sandpaper, but there was somethin’ else underneath. Some kinda power. “I know of that poor fella you brought with ya, too. Mr. Felray—the banker.”

The demon raised his arms and looked at them, almost like watchin’ someone try on one of the fancy suits at the Dillard’s over at the mall. “This old thing?” he said, and you could hear him wantin’ to laugh. “Yes, I do so appreciate the depravity of a greedy man. Very useful in my line of work, don’t you think?”

Ma Jessup spat off into the dark. “You ain’t answerin’ me, demon. What business you got comin’ round here?”

He just smiles at her and says, “I just thought I would take a little stroll. It seemed like the perfect night to see the sights, meet the people—“ And here, somethin’ about that ol’ demon turned even darker. He licked his lips and lowered his eyes and stared at Ma Jessup like a wolf, and not them cartoon wolves either, but like the real ones, all cold and empty and hungry inside. “—sample the delicacies.”

Ma Jessup didn’t flinch. Instead, she took a step, almost like she was puttin’ herself between the demon and the town, and she said in that croaky ol’ voice of hers, “I reckon I may have a problem with that.”

The demon raised an eyebrow at her. “Do you really believe you can stop me, old woman?”

It was then that Ma Jessup reached into all them shawls and waddya call ‘em? Afghans? I dunno, all I know is her hand disappeared and when it came back out she was holdin’ this big, curvy knife. I ain’t seen nothin’ like it before nor since. She turned it over in her hand and I could see symbols sparkling in the street light.

“I reckon I can,” she nodded at the demon.

Oh, he laughed at her, laughed at her hard, pointin’ at the knife, and almost doublin’ over and fallin’ on the ground. Ma just stood there, lookin’ at him, waitin’ for him to quit actin’ a fool. He was still laughin’ when he finally spoke, “Your grand plan is to stab me with that little thing?”

And then Ma Jessup laughed. She didn’t carry on like the demon did, but she snorted a dry chuckle and shook her head. “The knife ain’t for you, idiot. It’s for me!”

Ma Jessup held up her empty hand for all us to see, and then she whipped the blade of that knife straight across her palm. At first nothin’ happened, but then blood started to bubble up from her hand and spill down her wrist and forearm. In the night, it looked more black than red, and everyone stared at it as more blood oozed out of the wound.

“You a stupid little demon!” she hollered, and now the power in her voice seemed to fill the air and shake the ground. As she shouted down that demon, she flung her empty hand at him, sprayin’ him with her own blood. “You come up here, walkin’ on our soil, usin’ our bodies, tryin’ to cause a ruckus up here? Well Ma Jessup may have a thing or two to say about that!”

She flung the blood pumpin’ from her hand at the demon, and it sizzled and hissed when it hit its skin, like it was boilin’. And oh, how that monster howled and moaned, “What kind of backwater hokum is this?”

“Ain’t hokum,” Ma Jessup spat. She was only a foot away from him now, paintin’ the blade of the knife with the blood from her hand. The look of the knife, streaked in dripping red in the orange street light… it looked like somethin’ ripped right out of a human body, like a mangled bit of bone. I felt somethin’ in my stomach threatenin’ to rise up and spew sick all over the Jessup’s lawn, but somehow I bit it down. “Ain’t hokum at all, and if you wasn’t such a stupid, arrogant little demon, you might know better.”

The demon had collapsed to his knees. Ma Jessup’s blood had burned holes into the demon’s flesh, leaving foul smellin’ wisps of smoke curlin’ up out of the wounds. Even on his knees, Ma Jessup only barely stood taller than the monster. But in that moment, as she held the knife over the demon, she towered over him.

“Then what is it?” the demon begged.

Ma Jessup bent down and looked him in the face so close their noses almost touched. “It’s the blood of a matriarch, you stupid son of a bitch, and I’m gonna use it to send you right back where you came from!”

Thunk!

That’s what it sounded like. I ain’t never seen no one get stabbed before, didn’t know what it sounded like. But when Ma Jessup slammed that blood covered knife into the demon’s heart, it sounded strange, and hollow. We’d play cornhole, and that’s what it sounded like. A bean bag thumpin’ against an empty wooden box.

The demon gave the old woman one last look, and it was filled with hatred. Then the body just… slumped over, squelchin’ in the mud.

Everythin’ felt numb after that. Ma Jessup ordered Castor and his brother to take care of the body, and I helped her back up the stairs where the girls quietly bandaged her up. No one talked for a real long while, and I just stood out of the way as everyone else went about their grim business.

The rain had long since gone, and the danger had passed, and on any other night I’d just as soon walk home than spend a second in the company of the Jessups. But I felt different after everythin’ that had happened.

They let me stay ‘til sun up. Even gave me a fresh change of clothes. But that was nothin’ to the kindness that family heaped upon this dusty little town every day.

See, I learned that night that yeah, the Jessups is scary. They’re into all the dark stuff everyone round here accuses them of bein’ into. What the rest of this town gets wrong, though, is the why. The Jessups ain’t a curse upon this town, they’re its savior. And you’ll do well to remember that, should you find yourself walkin’ down a dark road on a night when the rain is comin’ down like sheets, and things that ain’t supposed to set foot on this green earth are about and ready to eat. You’ll remember that, ‘cause if you make it to see the next mornin’ it’s probably a Jessup that done saved your life.

-THE END-

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I Told You So

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Creepy South Carolina story of a single father trying to keep his young daughter away from a spooky construction project up the road. Written by K.E. Moore.

It was about a year ago when I moved my daughter and myself out of Charleston and into Goose Creek, partly to get away from big city life, and partly to put the… business about her mother behind us. Between the crime, busy streets, and bad memories, I felt we could trade up the concrete and street lights for tall grass and trees adorned with Spanish moss. My boss, understanding the tragedy our family had suffered, promised to work with me, allowing me to telecommute as long as I didn’t stray too far from the home office.

I found a house that backed right up against the Goose Creek reservoir, far enough away from the naval base to grant us the tranquility we were looking for. It was a gorgeous two-story house made to look like one of those old plantation houses, though admittedly a little more modest in size.

But the three bedrooms were enough for Chelsea and me. I got the master bedroom, and converted the smallest into my office, and Chelsea, well, she just loved her room being as it was twice as big as her old room with hard wood floors and a window looking out over the reservoir.

We spent a whole day in old clothes painting her room pink. I’m not sure if we got more paint on ourselves or the walls for all the horsing around we did. It didn’t matter. It seemed like the first time either of us really laughed in a long while. I can still hear her giggles echoing through the house.

There, surrounded by the steamy summer humidity and the dizzy paint fumes, we were happy, the two of us. Goose Creek seemed like the new beginning we both needed after her mother passed on.

Well, the summer came and went, as summers do in the South—hot, and muggy. When a breeze came off the reservoir, it would be something of a relief, but summer in South Carolina was summer in South Carolina which means lots of shade, iced tea, and showers just to keep the film of perspiration at bay.

Chattahoochee River at Dusk, Georgia

School came, riding on the winds of autumn. Chelsea was nervous of course, and even started to cry a little on the first day of school. After losing one parent, I knew she didn’t want to let go of me, but it only took her a week or so before she was coming home every day with a big bright smile on her cherubic face. A smaller school meant fewer bullies, and, it seemed, more kids eager to make a new friend.

Before we knew it, we had slipped straight through a mild winter and were staring down another summer. A whole year had passed and we had carved out a simple, pleasant life for ourselves.

I was excited to have my little girl around the house during the day, but there was one huge obstacle: work.

When most people hear telecommuting, they think it’s all waking up when you want to, doing your work at your own pace, and, only putting on proper clothes if you really feel like it. The reality of telecommuting, at least for my employer, was not so grand, and working from home still meant full work days, client calls at all hours of the day, and being checked on by the boss on a regular basis via webcam.

This, however, was another benefit to Goose Creek. I felt comfortable letting Chelsea go out and explore or ride her bike, or walk to a friend’s house. I made a point of making sure she stopped back at the house for lunch every day, and we had a long discussion about how far she was allowed to roam, and that she wasn’t to play near the reservoir while I was working. Chelsea didn’t fuss one bit; this was the most freedom she had had in her life.

And so it came to be that one day in mid June that my little girl walked in the house at half past eleven. Her pink t-shirt and shorts were cleaner than normal and her auburn pony tail wasn’t half as frazzled as it was on most summer days. She met me in the kitchen with a quizzical look on her face. She climbed up onto one of the stools by a big window facing the street and asked, “Daddy? What are they doing at the end of the street?”

I turned to look and frowned. “I don’t know, Chel-bear. What does it look like they are doing?”

Chelsea shrugged as she pulled her plate close. I had made tuna sandwiches and iced tea, and she had taken a big bite and was still chewing when she said, “Dumfkno. Lookth like diggin or somefin’.”

“Manners,” I said in that stern way that comes as second nature to parents.

She swallowed her bite and repeated herself, more clearly. “Looks like they are digging, but I don’t know why.”

It was my turn to shrug. “Probably just road work or something,” I said before biting into my own sandwich.

“Can I check it out after lunch?” she asked.

“Well, I don’t know if that’s a good idea, Chel-bear. Could be dangerous.”

“I’ll be careful, Daddy, promise.”

She had put on her big-eyed expression, the one that is supposed to melt a father in place, and one that I had fought hard to build up a resistance against. At the same time I remembered when I was her age, and how I probably wouldn’t have even bothered asking my parents. When I thought back to the trouble I would get into I wondered how it was I ever made it to adulthood.

Finally, I relented, but only a little. “You can ask the men – if there are any that aren’t too busy. But that’s it, understand? You aren’t to cross any boundaries or touch anything. We got a deal?”

Chelsea looked at me at first like she was going to try to haggle with me on the terms; she did that sometimes. She thought better of it and with her big bright smile nodded and said, “Deal!”

We finished our sandwiches and tea, and Chelsea hurriedly washed up before dashing out of the house, the screen door banging loudly in her wake. I carried myself back to my office, checked in with my boss, and forgot all about the road work Chelsea had brought up at lunch.

It wasn’t until Chelsea brought it back up later on in the evening as I threw some burgers on the grill for dinner. “There wasn’t nobody there when I went to go look, Daddy,” she said, pouting a little.

“Anybody,” I corrected her. She scowled that scowl that said I knew what she meant. It was her mother’s scowl.

Ignoring it, I told her she could try again in the morning after breakfast, and that combined with the burgers topped with lots of ketchup seemed to satisfy her.

I suppose I half expected her to forget about the whole thing. Maybe I didn’t expect anything at all. It just wasn’t something that was registering on my radar until the morning came and Chelsea could hardly wait to rush out and see what was going on down the road. She was half out the door when I had to call her back to remind her to brush her teeth, and after a perfunctory scrubbing she gave me a half-hearted hug and bolted.

Strange, I thought, and I found myself following her footsteps out to the edge of my front lawn if only to get a better look at what had captivated her so. I looked down the road in the same direction Chelsea was jogging, and saw nothing more than a pile of rubble heaped up on the side of the road. There weren’t any road signs or rope, just a mound of black and gray rocks. It seemed harmless enough, but at the same time I felt a sense of apprehension creep up through my gut and latch onto my spine.



“You be careful and remember what I told you, Chel-bear!” I hollered after her. She looked back over her shoulder and smiled at me, her hand giving me the thumbs-up, before returning her attention to the rubble pile.

I shook my head and made my way back inside. I had a web meeting with some new clients I had to prepare for.

When I got back to my office, I discovered that I could actually see just a sliver of the rubble pile from my office window. I couldn’t afford to pay it any mind what with my meeting, but when I logged off of the group video chat, I grabbed a cup of coffee and found myself staring at the heap.

Chelsea was nowhere to be seen, probably off to go visit one of her friends no doubt, the allure of the rocks already worn off. But it was odd. If it was road work, there should have been some orange somewhere, a sign or something. And there should have been workers too, with day-glo vests and hard hats.

But there was no one there.

I was about to put together a report for my boss on the meeting when movement from the rubble stopped me hard, fear swiftly shooting down my throat and forming a solid, heavy, pit in my stomach. There was someone there working after all, but it was all wrong.

It’s a pretty long street, so I couldn’t be sure exactly of what I was seeing. But day-glo is pretty unmistakable, and this guy wasn’t wearing any at all. In fact, it looked like his tall, gaunt frame was dressed in black from head to toe, long sleeves and all. That bit I found odd—who would dress like that in this heat?

Odder still was his hat. He looked like he was wearing one of those old stove-pipe hats like Abe Lincoln wore. I didn’t even know they made those anymore outside maybe costume shops and elementary school classrooms. But there he was in all black with a stove-pipe hat and a shovel slung over his shoulder.

That’s what I thought I saw anyway, right before the curious figure disappeared behind the pile. I was in the middle of debating with myself on whether I saw what I thought I saw when a chime from my computer informed me that my boss needed to chat with me. The noise startled me so much that I spilled coffee all over a stack of my reports, ultimately pushing the image of the dark stranger out of my mind so I could focus on the newly burgeoning coffee crisis along with the numbers and contractual obligations and everything else that came up in the meeting.

At lunch, Chelsea informed me that, again, to her disappointment, she didn’t find any men working at the site. But she did have something new to share. “Daddy, there’s something strange about those rocks.”

“What’s that Chel-bear?”

“Well, I don’t think they’re rocks at all.”

“Why’s that?”

“They’re all smooth and shiny. I’ve never seen any rocks in the wild as smooth and shiny as that,” she said, putting on her facial expression that declared to the world that she was an expert on the subject of the smoothness of natural rocks.

I frowned. “You didn’t go messing about in that pile, did you Chel-bear?”

“Of course not, Daddy. I was just looking. And when no one turned up, I went on over to Teresa’s. Her daddy just put up a tire swing!”

For a moment I contemplated telling her about the man in the black clothes and stove-pipe hat, but then thought better of it. I didn’t know what was going on down the street but I figured the less curiosity I could encourage about the subject, the better.

There was no more thought or discussion of the rubble at the end of the street until that evening. It was too hot to cook, so I made a quick salad and cut up some left over chicken for dinner and the two of us were eating on the back patio when Chelsea said, “Whatever they’re doing, they’re definitely digging.”

“Oh?”

“Mmhm. There’s a big old ditch just on the other side of the pile,” Chelsea said.

“Did you ever find someone to tell you what it’s all about?” I asked.

Chelsea shook her head, clearly frustrated. “No. But I aim to find out,” she declared.

I think now, if it weren’t for the new client and all the extra hoops my boss was making me jump through to make the new contract work, I would have put an end to things then and there. But as it was, I had to spend the evening running numbers as Chelsea watched TV, and the rubble pile was, yet again, pushed aside.

I didn’t even think about it again until a few days later at lunch when Chelsea announced, “Daddy, I think those rocks are broken up tombstones.”

“Now what in the world would make you say a thing like that?” I said as my fork hovered between my plate and my mouth.

“Well, like I said, they’re all smooth and shiny, and I think I saw some writing on some of them.”

“I think one little girl’s imagination is running away with her, is what I think,” I said pointedly.

Chelsea responded with her patented scowl.

I was about to forbid her from looking into the pile any further, but I again remembered my youth, and realized that sometimes the quickest and surest way to make sure a kid does a thing is to forbid her to do it. So I let the subject drop.

We went back to our normal routine. Chelsea running out the front door, me slogging back to my office. Again, I spared the heap of rocks another look. The ditch, the man in black, Chelsea’s assertion that they were crumbled up tombstones, it all just kind of balled itself up into one tiny knot of unease in my stomach, but then I stared at the mound and thought, Hell, it’s just some rocks. Maybe the neighbor is digging them up to lay a new driveway. There were a ton of completely rational explanations, none of which were the least bit worth being scared of.

And that was all I thought about that until Chelsea came back home for supper with a big gray black hunk of something in her hand. She thrust it into my hand as I looked on, dumbfounded, and with a triumphant air, she put her hands on her hips and said, “I told you so.”

I looked down at the hard, heavy, mass in my hand. It was indeed smooth and polished on several of its sides, rough and irregular on others, and it was mottled gray and black, kind of like those fancy counter tops you sometimes see in newer kitchens. And there, on one of the smooth, glossy faces, was a carved upper-case T.

“For one, Chel-bear, this doesn’t prove a thing. This could’ve come from a statue or a plaque, or a sign or anything. Just because someone carved some letters into a rock don’t make it a tombstone,” I explained. “For another, I thought I said you weren’t to be messing around with that pile? I made myself very clear; you were allowed to ask whoever was working what they were doing, and that was it!”

I didn’t yell at Chelsea often; she rarely ever needed it. But when I did yell at her, she always looked so wounded—so hurt. “I’m sorry, Daddy,” she said in a small voice, and I… well, hell, I just gave her a hug and sent her to go wash up for supper.

I hoped the whole episode was over. I wanted it to be over. But when Chelsea came in for lunch the next day, any thoughts that the mystery of the rubble pile was a thing of the past were completely ruined.

“Daddy, that work. It has to do with dead people, I’m sure of it.”

Caught somewhere between inhaling my soup and spitting it back out, I ended up in a violent coughing fit that only made my temper worse. “Damn it Chelsea! I thought I made myself clear! Now this has gone on long enough, do you understand? No MORE!”

“But..”

“No buts! You seem to have forgotten, young lady, that I am your FATHER! Is that clear?”

Her eyes wobbled in a pool of fledgling tears. Normally, that would have been enough to get me to at least calm down, but there was something about this whole business that just… I don’t even know how to explain it. What I do know was that by now I was yelling, “IS THAT CLEAR?”

She didn’t answer as tears spilled down her round cheeks and her lips quivered. Chelsea opened her mouth, almost as if to speak, but then, a glint of defiance shone through the tears and in a flash she pushed away from the table. There was a single searing moment where contempt flashed in her eyes towards me, and then I was watching as she ran out the house.

I was about to chase her down when my phone rang. I considered ignoring it, but if I ignored even one call from my boss, I could lose the telecommute privileges. Hissing curses under my breath I checked the phone and answered it.

I should have gone after her. I know that now. But next thing I knew, I was chained to my computer, hunting down all the technicalities my boss needed to make this new contract work.

The time for Chelsea to come home had come and gone. I was already worried when she stormed out of the house, but when the sun had started to get bloated and red and she still wasn’t home, I felt myself on the verge of panic.

Outside, the shadows began to stretch and deepen, and the rock pile down the road took on a strange, dark, mysterious quality. Unsure what to do, and knowing I couldn’t call the police when she had only been gone for a few hours, I started looking through the list of moms in my address book.

I bit back the worry in my voice as I called one after another, trying not to let the fear show even as I asked if they had seen my daughter. Each call ended up being a different variation of the same theme. No, sorry. Chelsea hasn’t been here today. Is something wrong?

I was about to call the fifth mom when I heard the back door swing open and slam back shut.

“Oh, thank God,” I breathed, not even bothering to hang the phone back on its cradle. “Chel-bear, honey, I’m so glad you’re…”

The words died in my throat, my muscles locking up as I turned the corner and stepped into the kitchen.

Pure, soul shattering, terror poured over me as I stared at the thing in my kitchen. It was a man, or at least once was a man, though how long ago was impossible to say. Where there should have been skin and eyes, there was now only bone, caked in black soil, eye sockets empty as they stared blankly back at me.

His clothes were once fine, a black tuxedo, maybe, or at least a good suit. But the shirt had been torn to shreds, revealing his ribcage, mottled gray with rot and earth. Underneath, I could make out shriveled, blackened organs, turned hard and formless with time, held in place by clumps of fetid soil.

One hand clutched a stove-pipe hat, almost as though this thing was too polite to wear it indoors. His other hand rested on the shoulder of my baby girl.

Chelsea. Her skin was ashen, her hair, limp, and her eyes empty, almost as though they had been as hollow as those of the corpse beside her. That dead, empty gaze turned up to me, and in a small voice I could only just recognize as belonging to my daughter, she said, “I told you so.”

-THE END-

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