By mid-September, there is a hint of chill to the nights of Lois Hollow. The dew is heavy come morning, and it isn’t long before the heat of day burns away the fog. But once the sun sets, and the light fades, earlier and earlier each day, the old familiar evidences of Autumn creep on the dusk.
By the official start of Fall, the nights are cooler, though comfortable, and the days hover at warm, if not cooler. Leaves are lit afire in heaps when not crunched underfoot. More than one home is decorated for the Autumn season with gourds, garland, orange and yellow strands of lights, and friendly scarecrows staked into hay bales on front stoops and lawns.
When October arrives proper, with its first frosts, so do the specters and goblins which find station in the windows of Lois Hollow’s homes. The same scarecrows stand guard on the lawns, but their smiles resemble more a sneer and their stares, somehow, seethe a mischievous, near evil, intent. Pumpkins are carved, some grimace, some grin, all breathe with candle flame, as the people of Lois Hollow prepare for their October Festival.
Being a small community, a rural community, Lois Holl’r, as it’s colloquially pronounced, is steeped in rich local color and tales. It’s colors, according to the old timers, are crimson and it’s tales are horrific. In the modern age, these folklores are recited by campfires, reprinted year after year in the local newspaper, but they are rarely, if ever, given a second thought other than to scare the kiddies at the October Festival.
But some people in Lois Holl’r, maybe some who know a little more than they let on, some who know better, some who believe those old stories, they are never too anxious for Autumn. In Autumn, the veils thin. Like a bear preparing for Winter, there are some things that stalk this world from the other side. Things that are best never crossed.
The neighborhood homes were quiet and dark, for the most part. A weeknight, eleven o’clock, nearly everyone that lived on these little streets had put out their lamps and crawled to bed, ready for sleep. A dog here and there broke into song, staccato conversions yards apart, while a scant few met in the street, at fences, at hydrants and cats scampered from view to spy them from the trees.
No one, other than the lounging dogs and roving cats, noticed the truck creeping through the cemetery. The truck stopped at the far side of cemetery, pulling off the lane onto the grassy shoulder next to the fence, well out of sight the neighborhood eyes. Horses grazed on the other side, sauntering off into the darkness, snorting what sounded almost like a laugh.
Billy slid out the driver side, easing the door shut. He climbed up and over into the truck bed, spreading out a blanket, sitting on the tool box to make sure the blanket covered the space. He tapped on the window.
Lola pushed open her door and dropped down to the ground. She slammed the door. “It’s gettin’ colder out here, Billy.”
Billy offered her hand climbing up into the back of the truck. “I have an extra blanket,” he said, holding it up a tattered quilt.
“Wonderful,” Lola said, sitting on the toolbox and cringing. “It’s freezin’ my ass.”
Billy sat next to her, putting his arms around her, nuzzling her neck. “I’ll warm you up,” he said into her ear.
Something grunted in the dark.
“What was that?”
“Just a horse,” Billy said. “Same as last time. And the time before.”
“I’m tired of the damn horses watchin’ us. Why can’t you spring for a motel room?”
Billy’s hand wandered between the buttons of her blouse. “I thought you liked it out in nature.”
“It’s getting’ colder, Billy, like I said.” She stopped his hand. “I don’t want to freeze my ass off just so you can get your rocks off.”
“Why you gotta be like that, Lola? You know I love you.”
“If you loved me,” she said, “you’d find us someplace indoors.”
“Well, I like it under the stars,” he said, his hand worming its way beneath her shirt, cupping her breast. He groped and fumbled mechanically, without any true emotion.
Horses went running off to the other side of the field, Lola starting at the sound. “Jesus!”
“Don’t worry baby,” Billy said. He wrapped the quilt around them.
“The truck bed hurts my knees.”
“You can be on top,” Billy smiled. His hand had abandoned her shirt, moved to the button of her jeans.
The crickets hushed. Twigs snapped.
“You hear that?” Lola said.
“What?” Billy leaned her back against the truck cab, his hand slipping down her unbuttoned pants.
Lola smothered him with kisses, unfastened his belt, yanked at his faded Levi’s.
Billy stood, pulled Lola’s jeans off, cast them aside. He knelt, smiling, ran his hands up the sides of her cotton panties.
There was a huff in the dark and Lola sat up, pulling Billy near, crushing him to her. “What the hell?”
“The horses,” Billy said, shoving his pants down.
Lola pulled the quilt around her. “I want to leave.”
“Oh come on, baby,” Billy protested. “It’s just the damn horses. It’s nature. That’s all. It ain’t nothin’ to be afraid of.”
She eyed him sternly. Clouds parted, the moon shone brightly.
Something was tramping the high weeds. There was movement, a shape. A man? Coming towards them.
An advancing snarl had Billy pulling his pants up, trying to fastening his belt. “Okay, lets go. Someone might not take kindly to trespassing.” Already excuses were forming in his head.
Grunts and footsteps, quicker. Already the clouds had wandered back across the moon, casting down darkness.
Lola felt around on the truck bed. “Where’s my pants, Billy?” she whispered.
“Over there.” Billy was prepped to jump over the side.
“What are you doing? Help me find-“
Horses snorted and whined from far off on the other side the field, agitated. Billy and Lola stopped, each watching the darkness, listening.
Something, someone, was coming towards them. Giant stride.
“Lets go,” Billy said, and jumped down.
“Not without my pants!” she told him.
“You want someone calling the sheriff? What’s your daddy gonna say if a deputy brings you home? He’ll kill me.”
“Fine,” Lola snipped. She shrugged off the quilt and eased over the tailgate as Billy got behind the wheel.
With the key in the ignition, he waited on Lola to get in before starting the truck. “God, we’re caught, we’re screwed,” he mumbled. His fingers toyed nervously with the key jutting from the starter.
He turned, attempted a glance out the back window. Darkness. “Come on, Lola.” He couldn’t see her. His heart had begun to thump against his chest. “You fall?” He strummed his fingers on the wheel. “Hell,” he muttered and pushed open the door.
It was quiet except for the ping ping from the cab. He gently shut the truck door. “Lola,” he whispered. “Lola!”
He stepped behind the truck, scanned the ground. Looked to the passenger side. “You fall? Girl, where are you?” He couldn’t see her, couldn’t hear her. “Lola?”
Noises. Gurgling. Slurping. Too close.
Billy turned circles. No Lola.
He steadied himself with a hand on the side of the truck. It slipped in something wet and he backed up, feet tangled, and he fell.
The clouds parted and Billy saw his palm stained dark. In the moon’s illumination he saw the length of intestines wrapped around his boots.
The thing was over him, grabbing him in immense hands. A man? a beast? Billy didn’t know, he couldn’t see the face clearly, he didn’t want to; the smell of rot and dank and earth and time was enough to gag him, to stop his breath. It was muscle and malice, hatred and hunger.
Billy was frozen, paralyzed, pissing.
The thing snarled, its maw opened; even in the dark its teeth glistened. Billy stared in wide wonder. Its hand squeezed a fistful of Billy’s stomach and tore it away, then its fist was inside him, pulling free his bowels.
Kim had taken keen mental notes of their route. He was always good with directions. Luckily for him, their was just the main highway that struck a course through Lois Hollow. Different little roads branched off from it, and they had taken the third road just beyond the collection of storefronts and post office that was the hub of the community.
“What do you think so far?” Jondrea asked as she guided the car down the sorely paved road.
“It’s not Nashville,” Kim said.
“I can’t believe you’ve never been here.”
“You know how many little towns there are?” he asked. “I can’t get to them all.”
“You’ve lived your entire life in Nashville, and you’ve never been this far south.”
“I’ve not lived my entire life in Nashville,” Kim said. “We’re originally from Oregon.”
Jondrea slowed the car to a stop as a tractor pulled onto the road; it was a hauling a trailer of hay bales. “I bet that’s Mr. Carpenter,” she said. She looked at Kim; he was shaking his head as if he knew what she was talking about. “He always drives the tractor for the hay rides at the barn dance.”
“He supplies the hay, too,” Kim said.
“A good old fashioned barn dance.”
“Don’t knock it,” Jondrea said. “You’ll enjoy it. At least I hope you will.”
“I guess you don’t have a large Japanese community?”
“Afraid not,” she said. “We don’t get a lot uh yur kind in these parts,” she exaggerated her drawl.
Kim laughed, twirled his finger in the air. “I’m a diamond in the rough,” he said. “Speaking of rough, how are the redneck boys going to take me?”
“Probably from behind,” she said. “Don’t worry, damn. It’s a little town, but we don’t run around barefoot with tobacco juice dripping from our chins and screwing farm animals. At least not all of us.”
“Lois Hollow is a normal little town, Kim, relax. The local guys won’t put the beat down on you as long as you don’t call them rednecks. It’s a small town, not Inbred Island or something.”
“I come from a small town,” he said. “I know what it’s like.”
“Boring as hell,” Jondrea said.
They cruised along at low speed behind the tractor. Jondrea craned to look around the hay. “I can’t see to pass.”
“Well, don’t risk our lives. How much further to your parents’?”
“Not far.” She slowed the car a little more and pointed out Kim’s window. “You’ll enjoy that. The Cooper farm.” She teemed with excitement, “I’ll take you there later tonight or tomorrow night. We all used to hang out there and smoke.”
Kim looked the place over as they slowly passed it. The house was dilapidated, the boards gray from weather and other environmental abuse. The lawn and surrounding fields grown, and brown, with weeds. The evening sun cast it in shadows, thanks in no small part to the half naked trees. A lonely old scarecrow stood off from the house, arms stretched in the open field, a crow on its shoulder pecking at the burlap head.
“It looks cool. That your version of a haunted house?”
“Grum will tell you about the house,” she said.
“Grum? Your grandmother.”
“Right. She remembers when the Coopers lived there. She was friends with their daughter.”
“You’ll just have to get the info from Grum.”
Kim watched the Cooper farm in the side mirror. “You and your friends used to have romper room there?”
“It was our hideaway.”
“Live a little.” Jondrea added, “Just watch your step.”
As Jondrea coasted into the drive, her father was standing there, waiting.
Jondrea slammed the car into PARK and jumped out. Kim switched off the engine and jangled the keys. Jondrea was in her father’s arms, and he had picked her up and was twirling her around. He sat her back on her feet and, exuberant, she motioned for Kim to get out of the car.
“Please, no banjos,” Kim prayed.
“Come on,” Jondrea’s voice filled the air and then she was skipping away- “Grum!” and she was gone from view.
Jondrea’s father was a tall man, bald. Lines were sunk deep in his face. A calloused hand stretched to Kim.
Kim shook his hand, hoping he squeezed tight enough. “Kim Mishomoto.” Park’s hand was like a vice.
Kim disengaged from Park to meet the elderly lady who waddled around the man’s muscular frame.
“Momma,” Park said, “this is Kim. Mishomoto.”
“Oh, hi there,” the little woman hugged him. “You’re Jondrea’s friend. Yes, she told us she was bringing you down here for the weekend.”
“You must be Miss Grum.”
“Such manners,” the woman smiled. “Hell, just call me Grum like everybody else.”
“When Jondrea said she was bringing her friend Kim,” Park said, “we all thought it was a girl.”
“Now daddy,” Jondrea was holding hands with her mother.
“I’m Emma,” her mother introduced herself. She had the same red hair and gleaming smile as her daughter. “And he’s the only one who thought you were a girl.”
“He’ll get over it,” Grum said. “I didn’t know you was a Chinaman, but who cares.”
“Grum!” Jondrea scolded her, not shocked and only half embarrassed. Park hid his smile.
“Forgive her,” Emma shook her head. “She’s old, she’s not right in the head,” she chuckled. “You just have to overlook her.”
“You’re not a Spring Chicken,” Grum told her.
“It’s okay,” Kim said. “I’m Japanese.”
“Oh, well,” said Grum. “I remember Peal Harbor. Bygones are bygones, Sonny Jim.” She put her arm through his and guided him to the house.
It was dark and dinner was finished. Emma and Jondrea cleared the table and washed up the dishes. Kim had wanted to help, but mother and daughter both had ushered him from the kitchen.
Kim sat sunk in the couch. Park was leg-up in the recliner, buried in a newspaper, while Grum sat rocking and working her cross stitch. The tink and clank of dishes from the kitchen was comforting, reminding Kim of when he was a kid and listened to his mother cleaning dishes after she came home from her second shift job. The creak of Grum’s chair was a memory’s accent.
“So what do you do?” Park didn’t wander from the newspaper.
Kim had to clear his throat. “I work at Davis-Njord Research with Jondrea. That’s how we met.”
“Hmm.” Park was either contemplating Kim or a news article. “What do you do at Davis-Njord?”
“I’m in security and safety.”
Grum glanced over. “You a guard?”
“No,” Kim smiled, “no. I’m in the research division. I’m on the team that’s in charge of the security and safety measures with the containment units.”
Park had eyes on him now, the paper folded down. “Containment units? What do they contain?”
Kim swallowed nervously. “I can’t really discuss it.”
“Damn,” said Grum. “That’s the same damn drivel Jondrea gives us.”
Park was laughing, diving back into the newsprint. “She won’t loose a lip about all that at Davis-Njord either.”
“Drives us crazy,” said Grum. “We only want to know because she mentioned she can’t talk about it.”
“True,” Park said. “Is it toxic waste?” he suddenly said seriously.
“I can’t say,” said Kim.
“To hell with it,” Grum said, threading a needle.
The reprieve of discomfort Kim felt was short lived in the aftermath of conversation. The muffled chit-chat of Jondrea and Emma, the rattle of newspaper, Grum humming a mute tune to herself.
“Grum? Jondrea said you had some stories about the Cooper farm.”
“Here we go,” Park exhaled.
“Everybody has a story about that old place,” Grum said.
“Like what?” asked Kim.
“Settle in, she can talk all night,” Park folded his paper and headed out the front door.
“Did I say something, or what…?”
“Oh, no,” said Grum, waving off Park’s behavior. “He’s heard me tell all my stories dozens of times. Plus, he’s just gone out to smoke on his pipe. Emma likes the smell of cherry tobacco, but she don’t like him smokin’. He’s only allowed to do it outdoors.”
Kim nodded, nerves subsiding. “Good, I was afraid I upset him or something-“
“The Cooper farm,” Grum worked her needle, “goes way back. I don’t rightly know who first built the place. Some things were even before my time,” she grinned.
“So who was Cooper?”
“Cooper? The place is named after the last family that lived there. They were the Cooper family. Mister Herschel Cooper and his wife, Nina.”
“You used to visit,” said Kim.
“Right, right,” Grum’s face a glowed warmly. “Me and their daughter were friends. Abigail Cooper.” The warmth slowly ebbed from her features. Coldness now. Her bony fingers held the needle in mid-stitch.
“We were best friends,” said Grum. “That was a long time ago.”
Kim waited. The house seemed to grow quiet with Grum’s reflections.
Grum gingerly worked her stitching. “Mr. Cooper, Herschel, he was a big man. Tall. Strong from farm work. Mrs. Nina, she was just a lovely woman, just the happiest person, so nice. Abigail and me, we spent a lot of time together. Especially after…”
Jondrea had breezed into the den, sitting silently on the floor at Kim’s feet as Grum talked. Grum set her cross stitch aside, let her hands and eyes rest.
“See they had a son, the Coopers did. Older than Abigail and me. Fenton Cooper, the spittin’ image of his daddy, plucked right from his butt.” Grum studied her hands. “There was an accident, see. Always is, seems like, always something to cut a good life short. An accident” she contemplated the word. “Or maybe it was an incident.”
“What happened?” Kim asked.
Grum said, “Nathan Runnels and Tilly Brown. That’s what happened. See, Nathan was courtin’ Tilly. But Tilly was sweet on Fenton Cooper. There was not a thing wrong with Nathan Runnels, other than he wasn’t Fenton. Fenton was a fine boy; even I had my school girl crush on him. But like all the other girls in Lois Holl’r, Tilly was sweeter on Fenton than she was on Nathan. Everyone knew it; Tilly didn’t hide. How could she?” Grum smiled wide, “None of us could hide it. So there was Tilly, now bein’ courted by Fenton. Left old Nathan in the cold. It was compounded by the fact Nathan and Fenton were friends.
“It was a hunting accident. Nathan’s gun went off, or some such, and Fenton’s head caught the bullet. Nathan said it was ricochet. By all accounts it added up. But Herschel Cooper never believed it, said Nathan got away with murder.”
“It’s awful,” Jondrea said.
Grum seconded the notion. “More than awful,” she said. “Drove Herschel Cooper off the deep end. He grieved over his son.” Grum stared Kim in the eyes, a cold embrace. “Drove him crazy.”
“I bet,” Kim’s throat was scratched.
“Mr. Cooper changed after that. You know how it goes, he never was the same. Nathan left town, with Tilly, I might add. And Herschel…he never would let it rest. He believed his son was murdered in cold blood, and he thought Lois Holl’r just let him walk right away.”
“What about the house?”
Grum picked up her cross stitch. “Herschel Cooper killed his wife and daughter in that house.”
“Oh my God,” Kim said. “It drove him that crazy?”
“It was more than crazy,” Jondrea said.
“True enough, honey,” said Grum. “It wasn’t crazy that forced Mr. Cooper to killin’. It was desperation. Sometimes a soul becomes so desperate, they’ll do anything to get what they want.”
Kim sat at the edge of the couch. “He thought killing Nina and Abigail would bring Fenton back from the dead?”
“It wasn’t just killin’,” Grum nearly laughed at him.
Jondrea said, “It was sacrifice.”
Kim did a double take, trying to blink away disbelief. “Sacrifice?” It was his turn to laugh at Grum.
The old woman’s concentration on her handiwork didn’t waver. “Lois Holl’r has history back before Herschel Cooper tore his family limb from limb-“
“Limb from limb?”
“The Indians always had stories about this spot of country. Even the first settlers had some troubles around here. Before it was Lois Hollow, the hunters and others that first lived here called it Devil’s Hollow.”
Kim giggled. He couldn’t help himself.
Grum didn’t share the amusement. “There’s stories of the dark man walking these woods. Dressed all in black Sunday best. It’s the Devil from the hills that got into Mr. Cooper. It’s Herschel Cooper who still haunts this countryside. He comes to feed. To kill. Especially this time of year. It’s when the walls between this side and the other side are thinnest and things not natural can come and go more freely. Everyone knows, it’s just everyone ignores it until he goes back up into the hills.”
Kim found his hand, suddenly clammy, searching out Jondrea’s shoulder.
“Could be revenge,” Grum said. “Still pissed off about his son. I don’t know. But you hear, every now and then, especially in Fall, stories of something stalkin’ the woods. Sometimes a monster. Sometimes a bearded man.”
“A bearded man?” Kim licked his dry lips.
“Yeah, honey pie,” Grum said. “The bearded man. Herschel Cooper.”
“You know it’s all bullshit,” Jondrea said after Grum had retired to bed.
“Complete bullshit,” Emma had taken the recliner while Park had his mom’s rocker, an empty pipe dangling from his mouth.
“She loves all them stories,” Park said. “Used to scare the hell out of me when I was a kid. Never could sleep good.”
“I bet,” Kim said. “But, yeah, I know it’s just all scare tactics. But…did he really kill his family?”
“He sure as hell did,” said Park. “All that was true. Losing his son sent that fella out in left field and he never came back.”
Jondrea said, “I looked up some of the old papers from the time in Nashville. You should see some of the pictures of that Herschel Cooper, he was quite scary looking. That beard, my God, it gives me chills just thinking about it.”
“What happened to him? Grum didn’t say,” said Kim.
“Killed himself,” said Emma. “Right after he killed his wife and daughter.”
“And the Devil? Was this really called Devil’s Hollow?” Kim asked, half smiling.
Emma said, “There’s all sorts of crazy names for all different parts. Just like everywhere else. I think every town has a Dead Man’s Curve, a Blind Man’s Bluff.”
“True,” said Kim. He smiled at Jondrea.
Park stretched his legs, yawned. “The founding fathers didn’t call it Devil’s Hollow,” he said.
“That’s true,” Jondrea nodded.
“They called it Satan’s Hollow,” said Emma.
Kim’s bed was the couch. It was comfortable. Not his bed, not home, but it was adequate. The couch wasn’t what was keeping him awake, it was everything else. Living in the city, a bustling hive of activity such as Nashville, he accustomed to the “city sounds”. Car engines revving, horns blaring, even an occasional gun shot, or voices raised in argument, sirens.
Here, in this house, in Lois Hollow, formerly Satan’s Hollow, it was the lack of those cacophonies that kept his eyes open. That, and what little noises did occupy the nighttime here. A clock ticked on the mantle; birds and crickets chirped and sang beyond the walls; the house settled and popped; an owl hooted. Dogs barked somewhere out there.
It was when the coyotes started that Kim pulled the blanket up to his eyes. He had never heard coyotes before; maybe one, but not an entire pack hollering like they were now. They seemed to have conquered the countryside and claimed it as their kingdom.
Kim shut his eyes, pulled the blanket over his head. He willed sleep to come, to let dreams rescue him from those damn coyotes. Their cries, their howls, seemed to eat the very dark. He tried to calm himself that his was safe inside the house, tried to concentrate on the ticking of the clock. Tick-tock, tick-tock…
There was a strange yell that roared through the night, simmering over the distance like heat across the desert sands. Kim pulled the pillow over his head. That had to be a bear, he thought. Or bigfoot.
“What was that?”
Tony looked at Ed. “I don’t know. A bear?”
“That wasn’t no fuckin’ bear,” Ed said. He raised his rifle. “Shine the light over there,” he motioned through the trees.
Tony flickered with the flashlight. The beam came on, dimmed, went out. Tony hit it against his palm, the light bloomed full. He pointed the beam ahead of them.
“Whatever it was, it shut up the coyotes,” Tony said.
“And the dogs,” Ed said.
Leaves crunched to the side. Tony turned with the light, Ed had the rifle ready.
“I don’t see anything,” Tony said.
“Do we wait on the dogs? Or go get them?”
Tony was listening, shining the flashlight into the thicket.
Movement again. They couldn’t see anything.
“What about the dogs?” Ed asked again.
“They’re dogs. They should know their way home.”
The two hunters began retracing their steps. They hurried, the flashlight dancing in Tony’s hand, zigzagging and slicing the woods.
Ed stopped suddenly, pointed the rifle to the woods behind them.
“What is it?” Tony whispered.
“I don’t know,” said Ed. “Something’s following us.”
“I wish I’d brought my gun,” said Tony.
A limb snapped, the hunters turned. The flashlight was quivering.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” said Tony.
“Right behind you,” said Ed.
They picked up the pace, but the woods still made it a slow go. Branches slapped them, vines clung to them, dead tree trunks tried to bar their pass way.
Still, the crunch of something behind them, following.
Tony tripped, fell, “Damn!” The flashlight skittered from his hand, the light shutting off.
“You okay?” Ed asked, searching for the light. He felt around, found it, pressed the button. It wouldn’t work. “Tony?”
“Yeah, I just want to find the truck.” He was massaging his knee.
Ed cradled the rifle in the crook of his arm. He slapped the flashlight. Pressing the button, it shone dimly. “Then lets make like my ex and get the hell out of Dodge.”
He turned to Tony, who was just making it to his feet, the light finding him. A tall figure stood behind him.
The tall figure swiped his arm through the air. Tony’s head flew up from his neck, blood spurting from the stump still attached to the body.
“God Almighty!” Ed screamed. “GOD ALMIGHTY! JESUS!”
He dropped the flashlight trying to raise his gun, but the man, cloaked so in the night, rushed him. Ed stumbled back, pulling the trigger as he was lifted off the ground. The safety was still in place.
Ed could barely see the face. It was decayed and blood spattered. The features long eaten away. Maggots crawled there, falling, roiling. It grunted.
Ed squirmed in its grasp, it was crushing his neck. He had dropped the rifle, was trying to wrest himself free.
The hand squeezed tighter. Bones snapped. The thing tossed Ed’s body to the ground and fell upon it, eating, slurping, gnawing, drinking and devouring. When it had finished with Ed, it tried to appease its appetite with the lifeless, headless, Tony. But the hunger was strong. The hunger was always strong.
Main Street was lined with vendors and the crowd was thicker than the mountains of white clouds that slid across the blue sky above them. The aroma, it fueled every man, woman, and child, and as sleepy as Kim was when he arrived with Jondrea to the first day of Lois Hollow’s community-wide October Festival, that sweet mixture of smells woke him up and fired the grumbling hunger pains in his stomach.
There was barbecue pork, barbecue chicken, roasted beef, roasted turkey, roasted corn, cotton candy, hamburgers, hot dogs, chili, grilled chickens, candy apples, caramel apples, funnel cakes, and grilled and roasted and barbecue dishes and a multitude of confections that Kim had never known existed or had ever smelled before. And the musicians! They stood on the corners, alone, in groups, letting the air ring with sounds of acoustic guitars, banjos, fiddles, harmonicas, tambourines, the upright bass, whiskey jars, spoons, and washboards.
And Kim liked it all.
He and Jondrea started at one end of Main Street, grabbed a sample of barbecue pig, ate it down, and hit the shops. Jondrea led him in and out of the antique stores, the local grocery, the ice cream parlor, everything that was open for business, they popped in, looked around, and popped out. And once back on the street, they got a bite of something eating, little morsels here and there, and, although, Main Street in Lois Hollow didn’t stretch for very far, by the time they made it to the end, having crossed the street back and forth, their stomachs were ready to rupture.
“We have to go down to the park!” Jondrea beamed.
Kim rested against the side the little post office. “How far?”
She pointed, “Down that road a little.”
“Oh, God, I don’t know if I can make it,” he said, holding his stomach.
“What? Are you kidding?” she asked, people buzzing around them, talking, laughing, looking, some nodding, some saying hello to Jondrea.
“Did you see what I just ate?”
She shook her head. “Amateur.”
He glared at her. “This is gluttony.”
She said, “This is the October Festival in Lois Holl’r, bitch.”
“Lets go,” his face became stern.
She grabbed him by the hand and led him like a blind man.
Kim discovered that every street was lined with someone selling something. If it wasn’t food and drink, it was crafts, of some sort, or antiques, or the gods only knew what.
Jondrea pulled him down the side road. People were everywhere, eating, cooking, selling, making music. Oddly, Kim’s stomach pains had melted and he found himself being enticed by the food and being lifted by the tunes.
Around the curve and through the masses, just beyond a hive of homes, the park sprawled at the bottom of an incline. There were a lot of revelers on Main Street, but this seemed to be where the party was really hopping.
Kim’s eyes bulged as realized there was even more morsels to satiate the emptiness he was beginning to feel in his gut. Down here, in the Lois Hollow Community Park, this was the real deal. The cooked treats smelled thrice as nice, the music and singing were twice as lovely and invigorating. A dunking booth was dropping a clown into water, a stall had been erected in one far corner where kids were chasing a greased piglet.
Kim clutched Jondrea’s hand and pulled her back. “You know,” he said in her ear so she could hear over the noise, “I really didn’t think I would like all this…but this just may be heaven.”
She grinned approvingly. “Wait until you taste the strawberry pie.”
“Strawberry pie?” His expression was grave. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier? Why did you waste all this time if you knew they had strawberry pie?!” he pushed her through the crowd.
He had begun with two generous slices of strawberry pie, topped with whipped cream. But there was more than strawberry, there pies of every variety known to humankind. After a slice pecan, coconut cream, and lemon meringue, Kim lost count of what he had eaten.
He checked his wallet, just a dollar remained. He asked the lady in the booth, the very kind lady who had provided each slice of paradise, “Is there an ATM machine somewhere?”
“This your first time to our little get together?” she asked him.
“I’m afraid so,” Kim replied.
“Right inside the grocery,” she told him. “On Main.”
Jondrea came bursting through the crowd. She was dragging a tall young man by the hand. “Kim, hey!” she called.
Kim belched into his fist and met her approach.
“Kim,” Jondrea let go of the man’s hand and laced her arm through Kim’s. “This is my big brother, Randy.”
Kim stared up Randy; he stood a good foot taller than Kim. “Hi.”
Randy tipped his faded cap. “So you’re my sis’s friend. Nice to meet you.”
“Where’s Carol?” Jondrea asked. “I didn’t see her, is she here?”
“Somewhere. I lost her awhile ago, she’s working one of the booths and I’m working security until about four or so,” Randy said.
“Carol is Randy’s wife,” Jondrea informed Kim.
Kim turned aside to her. “You never told me you had a brother.”
“Of course I did, I’ve talked about him,” she whispered.
“No, you didn’t-“
Randy spoke up, “Since I became a sheriff’s deputy, she don’t tell her friends too much about me. Says it makes them nervous.”
“I could see how it could,” Kim said.
“Of course, if you have anything to hide, it might,” said Randy.
“Oh, well, I, uh-“ Kim stammered, suddenly nervous.
“Oh stop it, Randy,” Jondrea said. “He does this to all my friends. He’s really a big bully. That’s why I sometimes accidentally, purposefully, may omit him.”
“Just a brother,” Randy said, and Kim could see the mischief in his smile and in his eyes.
“I invited them to go with us to the Cooper farm,” Jondrea said.
“That would be great,” said Kim.
“I don’t think you should,” said Randy. “There’s been some incidents, lately, Jondrea. You know this time of year-“
“Sounds like Grum, doesn’t he?”
“Jondrea, really, come on,” said Randy.
“What’s happened?” asked Kim.
“The bearded man,” chimed Jondrea, “the Devil on the loose, Mr. Cooper hacking people up-“
“Coyotes,” Randy said. “We think.”
“You think?” Kim wondered aloud. “Are they attacking people? Do they do that?”
Jondrea told her brother, “Quit scaring him.”
“He seems more level headed than you, sis. And yes,” he told Kim, “coyotes do attack people.”
“He worries,” Jondrea said to Kim. “He worries too much.”
“And you,” Randy pointed at Jondrea, “know better.”
“What does he mean?” Kim asked.
“If it makes you feel better, come along with us,” Jondrea told her brother.
“Sis,” Randy’s tone was practically pleading.
“Well?” she raised her eyebrows.
“I’m off tomorrow,” Randy said. “How about that? Tomorrow day?”
Kim looked at her. “A nice Sunday stroll.”
“Fine,” she relented. “We could stop there before the barn dance.”
Four figures crossed the road from the field and huddled together on the other side. The thick dark of night held the Cooper house erect. The figures debated, giggled nervously, scouted for other passers-by and maybe for monsters, before beginning a slow march up the path to the house.
Ben, Joey, Wesley, and Adam watched the night for any movement, listened for any sound; if the movies had taught them anything it was that the monsters could be right in front of you and you not know it.
“It’s got to be haunted,” said Joey.
“Should we go in there?” Wesley asked. “Think about it, okay, just think it through. It’s an old house, it could fall in, we could get hurt. And if our parents find out we all snuck out in the middle of the night, they’ll ground us until we finish college. If they find out where we snuck out to, they’ll probably hang us. And I don’t know about you guys, but I want to live to see sixteen.”
“Satan has to live there,” said Adam, ignoring everything Wesley had said.
“My dad don’t like chickens, Wes,” Ben said. “Could be why he don’t like you.”
“Shut up,” Wesley snapped. “I’m not chicken, I just don’t want to get us all killed before we graduate high school.”
Adam said, “So, if we die after high school, that’s fine with you? Some friend you are?”
“You know what I mean.” Wesley checked behind them, “What if the Bearded Man-“
“Stifle,” Ben shut them up, and they stopped.
Ben pulled a key ring from his pocket and clicked a small flashlight attached to it. He shone it up at the scarecrow.
“Look at that ugly bastard,” Joey said.
Adam jibed, “Prettier than your mom.”
Joey punched him hard on the arm.
“Why do all you have to act like kids?” Wesley complained.
“Shut up,” said Adam. “You never want to have fun, always worrying about things and consequences and stuff.” He mocked Wesley, “We better not, we’ll get in trouble! Oh, no, the Stock Market is down! The economy! Ahhh!”
“Stifle,” Ben ordered them. They all did what they were told. He clicked off the light. “What if he does still live here?” he put the question into play and resumed the advance towards the old farmhouse.
The other three followed behind him in miserable silence.
“Can you shine the light?” Joey asked.
“Yeah, it’s dark, dude,” Adam said.
“Inside,” said Ben. “Don’t want nobody to see us.”
“You had it shining back there at the scarecrow,” said Wesley.
Ben glowered at them in the dark. They could feel his piercing eyes cutting them to pieces.
“Inside is good,” said Adam.
“It’s fine,” said Wesley, “you’re right, we don’t want anyone to see.”
The distance to the house was covered in no time. The path was hidden by night, but gradually shapes emerged, the world came into view, no thanks to the moon and cloud coverage.
“I wish I’d worn my jacket,” Joey said as they stared up at the looming house.
Wesley said, “It doesn’t look safe.”
“One way to find out,” said Ben, not daring to move.
“I heard some of the high school kids talking,” Wesley said, “one of them fell through the floor.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” said Joey. “Got hurt real bad. I heard that too.”
“But,” said Ben, “why ain’t the place been condemned?”
“Good point,” said Adam.
“You’re not helping,” said Wesley.
“Come on,” Ben stepped onto the steps. “Lets go inside.”
The wood groaned under his slight weight. Joey, Adam, and Wesley, bringing up the rear, waited for Ben to make it to the top before even attempting to join him. The boys walked up one at a time.
“I’ve seen enough,” said Wesley.
“Chicken,” said Adam, under his breath.
“Maybe I am,” Wesley retorted. “But I think we’d all be allergic to dying.”
“Stop fighting, girls,” Ben said. The door was partially open. He pushed it back and the hinges creaked and cried.
Joey stepped back. “What if coyotes live here? Or a bear or somethin’? My dad says some animals been attacking people. He heard it from the sheriff.”
Adam shuffled on his feet. “Who would want to live here? Even wild animals ain’t that crazy. Are they?”
Ben clicked on his little flashlight. The diminutive beam fell on gray boards, dust, a rotted chair. “Trick or treat,” he breathed and led the way in.
It wasn’t at all what they had expected. The Cooper place, more than anything, held emptiness and cool air. There was very little furniture other than the forgotten chair the keychain light first found. Tattered curtains hung by threads over a couple of broken windows. A faded portrait on the wall. A mirror, long without glass, was crooked over the mantle. A bird nest had collapsed in the fireplace.
“Stinks,” said Joey.
“Bear shit,” said Adam.
Wesley was busy testing the floor with each placement of his foot.
Ben shone the light around, rather let down and deflated and disappointed. “Wonder what’s in the kitchen?”
“I’ve seen enough,” Wesley said.
Ben shone the light on the gang. “Lets go upstairs,” he pointed out the staircase with the light. “Bound to be something cool up there.”
“Not if this is an example,” said Adam.
The boys filed up the stairs, one behind the other, behind Ben. The steps rasped, popped. Up top, on the landing, Ben surveyed with the light. Still not much to see. More bare walls, no furnishings, more peeling wallpaper, rot, and mold.
“Screw this place,” Ben said, walking the hall, peering into rooms.
The other three waited, not bothering, not caring, not interested enough, to join the expedition. They stood by the window at the top of the stairs.
“Nothing,” Ben grumbled. He stomped back. “Nothing!” he said. “The damn house is empty! There’s nothin’, man, nothin’! There’s just this,” he held something up in the light for them to see.
“What is it?” asked Adam. “A machete?”
“A damn brush hook,” said Ben. The blade was dark and curved at the end, the wooden handle splintered. “What’s the big shit deal with this place anyway?” He was irate.
“That dude killed his family here,” said Wesley.
Joey took the brush hook. “I bet he used this to kill them.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Wesley, backing away from the tool.
“There ain’t no ghosts or nothin’!” Ben shouted. “Where the hell are the ghosts? I want to see ghosts flyin’ around or somethin’! Not no damn farm tools! There’s nothin’-“
“Ben, dude, keep it down, someone might hear,” Joey said.
Ben shined the light in his face. “Who’s goin’ to hear us, Ben? The ghosts? Ain’t a damn soul here.”
“Hush a second,” Adam said.
“Why don’t you go-“
“Dude, listen! I hear something!”
The boys became quiet.
A board creaked down below. They stepped to the railing, cautious not to put weight on it for fear of toppling over. Ben shone the light down there.
“I don’t see anything,” said Joey, grasping the brush hook.
“I heard something,” Adam said.
“Listen,” whispered Wesley. “He’s right. But…”
There it was again. The boards complaining.
Ben shone the light around, searching out the corners. “May be a rat or somethin’.”
“It’s not coming from down there,” said Wesley.
The boys turned their gaze and the weak light to the ceiling above them.
“The attic?” Joey wheezed.
The window exploded. Glass shards flew. The boys jumped back, yelping, clustered into a frantic knot.
Ben had dropped the keychain light. But they didn’t need any light to recognized the scarecrow they had seen crucified on the post outside. The rough burlap face, the overalls riddled with holes, the bug eaten, bird pecked, weather worn coarse shirt.
The boys scattered like roaches, running down the hall, making for the rooms.
The boards split and Adam sunk to his knees, cut and bleeding. “Ben!” he cried, pounding his fists.
Ben, Joey, and Wesley turned. Ben rushed to him, trying to lift him under the arms. “Help us!” Ben shouted to the other two.
Joey raised the brush hook and attacked. He charged the scarecrow-dressed intruder.
The scarecrow caught the teen by the weapon wielding hand and lifted him off his feet.
Wesley, somehow, found himself moving, helping Ben. They lifted Adam from the crumbling floor.
“Oh shit,” Ben said, staring at the dark crimson rivers that flowed along Adam’s legs.
“Oh God!” Adam sobbed.
Joey was kicking at the scarecrow, swinging with his free hand, punching the thing’s face.
The scarecrow jerked the brush hook from Joey’s hand and tossed him over the railing. The boy’s body hit the ground with a bone splitting thud.
Wesley was crying as loud as Adam as he and Ben were helping Adam walk, practically dragging him away from the scarecrow.
“We have to hide,” said Ben, “come on, walk, Wesley, pay attention!” he shouted.
But Wesley’s attention was the scarecrow. It was coming for them, it didn’t matter how many steps they took, it was coming, there was no escape.
Wesley tripped, and all three boys tumbled. The scarecrow stood over them, the brush hook raised, poised to strike.
Ben jumped up, planting a fist in the scarecrows stomach. The monster was unfazed. It looked down on Ben.
Ben delivered more fists, dead on hits to the abdomen. The creature withstood them, standing over the young man in a mocking posture.
Wesley attacked from the side, kicking, hitting, yelling, screaming out his fear, a warrior on the attack.
The scarecrow swatted at the boys like flies; as it brushed one away, the other was there trying his damnedest to inflict damage.
Adam was crawling, pain in his legs and knees, splinters driving deeper, and a new ones from the floor finding a home in his hands. He crawled away from the screams, wandering, hurting, into a room.
The scarecrow backhanded Joey, sending him crashing through the wall. It raised the brush hook on the fear mad Wesley-
Adam slammed the door. He propped himself against it.
The screaming had stopped.
He sobbed, in pain and afraid. Footsteps in hall. They stopped outside the door.
Adam’s breath caught, he fought to hold his sobs. His bladder ached. He shook.
-a moment of tranquility, dust dancing in the air around him, stars bursting in Adam’s eyes-
The hand came through the door and found him.
Carol nudged the ages old stuffing with her foot. “It’s a shame someone would desecrated the scarecrow,” she said.
“It was a statue of the Jesus,” Jondrea said.
“Kids,” said Randy. “It was bound to happen sooner or later. I’m surprised you didn’t do back in the day.”
“You make me sound like some kind of wild child.”
“You weren’t tame,” he elbowed Kim. “The door is open. Damn teenagers have been out here partying again.”
“You did the same when you was a teen,” Carol said to Randy. “If I’m not mistaken, we found our way here on our first date.”
“That was different,” said Randy.
He smiled. “We came here to make out, not vandalize the place.”
“Oh shut up,” Carol said.
“Lead us, tour guide Deputy Sheriff Wells,” Jondrea droned.
The was wide open and Randy cautioned them to watch their step. “All sorts of weak spots.”
Kim was behind Jondrea and he tried not to rush her, but he was eager to see the inside of the place. He loved old houses like this, especially abandoned ones. Especially those with storied histories. Many times growing up, and still with some of his friends, he had gone exploring in those kinds of houses long vacant and ignored by the neighborhood. Amateur ghost hunters. Seekers of truth to urban legends. Scared silly the entire time.
But it was daylight, so the jitters were absent, plus they were strong in numbers. The Cooper homestead looked spooky anyway, even in the October sun. He zipped up his jacket to ward off the chill as they crossed the threshold.
“Is that blood?” Carol was examining the floor.
“Looks like it,” Randy knelt. “Dried. But it looks fresh, don’t it?”
They stood around the splatter that was smeared over the broken boards. Randy plucked a small grouping of thread from the splinters. It wasn’t thread, Kim noticed.
“Is that hair?”
Randy didn’t speak, he studied the find. Wheels were turning in his eyes.
“I don’t know,” said Jondrea. “Fur maybe. Dog hair?”
Carol leaned over her husband’s shoulder. “Blonde, ain’t it? I think it is dog hair.”
Jondrea grabbed Carol by the hand. “I wonder if that old baby chair is still in the kitchen, I hope it is.”
The girls wandered off, discussing how someone should buy this old place and fix it up, how it would such a beautiful house, a wonderful place for a family or for a bed and breakfast.
Kim had noticed that beneath the peeling wallpaper was another layer. This layer was of old newspapers, odd dates popping out, 1927, 1922. He fingered the flaps, rats scurried in the walls.
“We got a call this morning,” Randy said, drawing Kim’s attention. “Some boys didn’t come home last night.”
Randy was still eyeing the stains on the floor, the strands of hair between thumb and forefinger.
Kim stepped closer. “You think that…has anything to do with it?”
Randy let the strands fall. “No. I’m sure it’s some mongrel wandered in.”
“You know what Grum says-“
“Grum likes her stories,” said Randy.
“She is very convincing,” said Kim. “Do people really see the bearded man, or the devil, around here?”
Randy stood up. “You can see a lot of strange things in the woods, Kim.”
“What about people ignoring…”
Randy eyed him.
“She says people ignore some incidents and such.”
He looked away. “Not to my knowledge,” Randy said. “Things happen in the woods. Wild animals. Someone’s finger slips, a gun goes off. Lots of things.” He suddenly yelled to the women, voice booming, making Kim jump. “Y’all ready?”
It was tradition that, when attending Lois Holl’r’s annual October Festival Barn Dance, everyone dressed as farmers. Overalls, straw hats, red or blue bandanas hanging from pockets, chews of tobacco at the ready in the bib. A stray goblin or ghost child flapped among the crowd, a cowgirl and cowboy lingered here and there, but it was mainly Farmer Browns full to the rafters.
Kim checked himself in the reflection from the car. He felt a little ridiculous, but looking around at the people streaming towards the barn, he felt less so.
“You look fine,” Jondrea said.
“Ma and Pa go a courtin’.”
The music blared from the Lois Hollow Community Center, which was built to resemble a barn. Strings screeched, instruments screamed, and feet stomped out a devilish rhythm. It pulled and lured, enticed and invited, everyone to partake of the whirling dervish to be found inside the doors.
It was hot, sweaty, but not uncomfortable. A glee, an insane, humbling, bright, lighthearted, vibe swam in the air, played in the sparkling clarity of the lights, infecting the soul.
Kim felt the urge to jump onto the dance floor, sling Jondrea round and round.
The dancers were a flurry of denim and straw, red, white, and blue. The people at the periphery were bouncing on their feet. Randy and Carol were careening across the dance floor, even Jondrea’s parents were cutting a rug.
“This isn’t what I thought it was,” Kim spoke over the noise.
Jondrea was dancing in place, bobbing from one foot to the other. “It’s just all about having fun, family fun.”
“Where’s Grum? Everyone else seems to be tripping the light fantastic?”
Jondrea leaned close to him. “She doesn’t go out much after the weather turns cool.”
Jondrea shrugged her shoulders. She grabbed the straps of his overalls. “Lets tear it up!”
They moved along the edges of the swarm, finding a place where Kim might could possibly do the least amount of damage to anyone else. Jondrea was the dance of the two, Kim had the fundamentals but none of the grace. The barn throbbed and sweated, so most people ignored him, only a few took notice of his flapping arms and jelly legs.
Kim helped Jondrea up into the back of the wagon. “The last ray ride I went on was in the eighth grade,” he said.
“What a shame,” Carol said as they sat next to her and Randy on hay bales. Mr. Carpenter put the tractor into gear and crept off.
“How far does it go?” Kim asked.
“A couple of miles,” said Randy. “Down the back roads.”
“That’s all we have in Lois Holl’r,” Jondrea said.
“It’s fun,” Carol was forever perky, it seemed. Normally, such an attitude annoyed Kim, but somehow Carol managed that rare feat of being infinitely cheery and, yet, likable.
“Dark woods and cuddling,” Carol continued. “Perfect Halloween ingredients.”
“My kind of woman,” Kim batted his eyebrows at Jondrea.
Jondrea rolled her eyes.
Randy had settled against the side of the wagon, arm around Carol. His wife chitchatted with Jondrea and the other riders around them. Kim noticed Randy was preoccupied, watching the woods, alert to every little move in and out of the wagon.
Randy turned to Kim. “I’m fine.”
“So, after this Fall celebration, what do you do in Lois Hollow for Halloween?”
Randy said, “We plan the Christmas celebration.”
Mr. Carpenter navigated the tractor and wagon off the highway onto a dirt road. The trees closed, close enough to touch. The murk swallowed the head lamps, the lanterns hanging from poles at the wagon corners jostled.
“What are you two doing Halloween?” Carol asked. “We thought we might a little get together, you know, just a simple little dinner for some friends.”
Randy sighed at his wife’s comments, went back to his apparent guard duty aboard the hay ride.
“Tense?” Kim asked.
“No,” Randy replied, “I’m having fun.”
Jondrea interjected, “It’s almost impossible for Lois Hollow’s finest to let his hair done and have some fun.”
“Not true,” Randy said.
“Yes, true,” Jondrea argued. “Even as a kid, he was always on the lookout for criminals and evil doers.” She poked a finger at her brother. “You were a hall monitor for crying out loud.”
“I know how to have fun,” Randy assured Kim. “Just ask my wife,” he told his sister.
“Your wife and I talk,” Jondrea said. “She’s told me some things about you, sir.”
Carol looked away, hiding her smirk.
“What have you been telling?” Randy interrogated Carol.
Carol looked him in the eye. “It’s a beautiful night, isn’t it honey?”
“No, no, no,” Randy said. “I want to hear about what gossip you’ve been spreading. You trying to ruin my good name?”
The thing landed with a thud in the middle of the wagon. Fountains of blood started spraying before realization dawned and the screaming began. The scarecrow swung the brush hook through the air, sending arms, hands, and heads flying.
Mr. Carpenter heard the screams and looked behind him for an instant at the people abandoning the wagon. The tractor veered before he stopped it, hit a bump, and a lantern fell, igniting the hay.
Randy tossed Carol over the side. Jondrea was already jumping down, yelling back at Kim. Randy saw him through the haze and commotion. “Go!”
The blade arced through the air. It came within inches of Kim’s throat. Randy pulled him by his overall straps and they fell over the side of the burning wagon.
“Who the fuck is that?” Kim yelled.
“Just run!” Randy hollered as he drug Kim to his feet.
They were running, Jondrea and Carol were screaming for them by the side of the road. Randy pushed them all into the woods, to the cover of the trees.
The woods were more than dark. Kim felt blind. He ran into trees, their branches, tripped, fell, he had busted his lip. And when he stopped to pick himself up and get his bearings, he realized…he was alone.
He turned circles. He couldn’t tell from which direction he had come. He was lost.
“Jondrea?” he whispered. “Randy?” He didn’t want to move. “Where are you?” All the wooded sounds of night made him feel nauseous. His head begun to spin.
Kim closed his eyes. Told himself to calm down. He was lost. But he was smart. He could use his brain, find his way out.
Something snapped nearby and he ran. He burst through the woods reckless, he didn’t care if he fell and broke his neck, he was going to wait around and find out what the hell that was that was behind him.
Something was behind him.
Kim could hear it breaking through the growth. It was running after him. Be it the masked scarecrow killer, or a bear, or whatever else lived out here in the woods of Lois Holl’r, he didn’t want to meet it. He ran- elbows and asshole.
Kim’s intestines quivered, a lump in his stomach. He clenched his mouth shut so hard to suppress a scream his jaw hurt. He fell, but picked himself back up, never faltering in his wild dash. More adapted to the dark, his eyes were more able to help guide around obstacles.
Something tackled him from the side, driving him to the ground. Kim started to yell for help but a hand clamped over his mouth.
“It’s me, Randy! Kim shut up!”
Kim still shook.
“Lay low,” Randy whispered. “The girls are heading back to the barn.” He drew a Browning 9mm from the his overalls. “Now listen, I don’t want to have to repeat myself-“
Kim nodded, Randy’s hand still covering his mouth.
“Grum is kinda right about things. There is some damn something that hunts in these woods, most of the time in the Fall, like now. Preparing for winter, I guess. Is it a man? I don’t know. Is it the Devil? Maybe. A little bit of both? That’s where my money is.”
Kim mumbled something under Randy’s hand.
“Pay attention,” Randy said. “We’re going to do our best to kill it.”
Kim mumbled again.
“Everyone is scared of that thing, everyone ignores it, like it’s a normal thing like putting a tree in the goddamn living room at Christmas. But it kills a little more, year after year, Kim. I’m tired of sitting on the sidelines, letting it get a way with murder. Letting it eat the people in this town that we care about. If we care about them, then we have to kill the monster.” Randy removed his hand from Kim’s mouth. “You with me?”
“I don’t think I’m qualified,” Kim breathed.
“You don’t have to be too qualified to be bait,” Randy said.
Randy drug him to his feet. “Stay low, step light.”
“You got another gun?” Kim asked, following behind Randy, ever cautious of the surroundings.
“You’re not qualified.”
“You say it eats people?”
“Yeah,” Randy stopped, looked around, then continued on. “It feeds. If it is Herschel Cooper, most people think it’s Lois Holl’r’s way of making amends for killing him.”
“The town’s people killed him? I thought he killed himself.”
“No,” Randy said. “Cooper killed his family, true enough. He did go off the deep end after his son’s death. But after Cooper killed his family, a lynch mob from Lois Holl’r strung him up and set him ablaze.”
“Holy shit, they hung and cremated his body.”
“Damn skippy, but he was still kicking when they put the torch to him.” Randy dropped down to one knee, pulled Kim down, too. “There has always been strange sightings in these woods. Ask Grum, she’ll tell you. Ask any hunter, they will second it. It may have been some bad juju that got into Herschel Cooper, who can say? But it was after he was done away with by the residents of Lois Holl’r that this thing started showing up like almost like clockwork.”
Randy checked his gun. “You ready?”
“Ready for what?”
Randy pointed through the bushes. “See that cave?”
“We’re going in a fuckin’ cave? I’m claustrophobic,” Kim blurted.
“Don’t get chicken shit,” Randy said. “Man up. The way I figure, he or it or whatever, has some dinner now, time to finish the meal.”
Kim’s eyes grew wide. “And that-“
“-is where it lives.”
“How the hell did you know where it lived?” Kim began easing backwards. “Oh God, you’re in on it, aren’t you, you’re going to fuckin’ sacrifice me to it-“
“What are you, crazy?” Randy said. “I discovered it hunting.”
“I don’t believe it-“
“It was in the winter, one January, damn snow on the ground to your ankles. I’m sure it was sleeping. I just saw the bones and shit, the stuff it didn’t eat. I’m positive it sleeps deep inside somewhere. This cave goes deep, hooks up with more. There are miles of tunnels underground.”
“Oh God,” wheezed Kim. “I can’t do this.”
“We’ll get it as it comes through its own front door.”
“But, hey, will bullets kill it? Has anybody ever tried it before?”
“I don’t know, no one I ever heard of has tried killin’ it before. I figure a bullet to the head should do something.”
“I don’t…I’m going to be sick.”
It had eaten, but not enough. Nothing was ever really enough. It had snacked, and now had two bodies, two fresh kills, slung over each shoulder. It strolled through the woods which seemed to part to grant passage. These two wouldn’t satisfy the hunger, he would have to have more, always more. The hunger grew as time passed, more voracious with each waking.
It stepped into the clearing. The mouth of the cave yawned. It ducked and went inside.
Two quick shots broke the silence, the explosions disturbing the black interior of the cave.
A body flew out, Kim somersaulting through the air, lungs boiling over with a shriek. He landed solid on the ground, tumbling head over hills. He saw stars.
“Bullets don’t work,” he gasped.
Randy came running from the cave. “Plan B! Plan B!”
“We don’t have one,” Kim coughed.
The brush hook zipped across the distance, striking Randy’s running legs. His left foot flew off with the twirling blade. He fell where he was, the gun falling by the wayside. “Fuck!” He cradled his leg, the blood shooting off like a geyser at the stump.
Kim rolled over, tried to stand, but he was still winded. There was no part of him that didn’t hurt.
The scarecrow stood at the entrance of the cave.
“Crap,” Kim said.
“Get out of here,” Randy yelled at him. “Run, Kim!”
The scarecrow was at Randy. It knelt, picked him up by the throat, strangling the deputy sheriff’s words.
Kim scrambled over the ground, he saw the gun.
Randy punched the scarecrow in the face, fist after fist, blow after blow, full force.
Kim got the gun.
Randy gouged at the ebony eyes that stared out from the eye holes. No whites. Vacant. Evil. He clawed them, poked, plucked one from the socket. The scarecrow balled its fist and hit Randy in the side; Randy felt ribs break.
The scarecrow dropped him, kicked him. Randy felt more ribs break as he was lifted off the ground.
Kim aimed the gun, pulled the trigger. The Browning jerked in his hand, and the shot went wide.
“I’m not qualified!” he screamed, fired again.
The bullet hit the scarecrow’s shoulder. But it was ineffective. The scarecrow started towards him.
Randy lay broken and moaning on the ground.
Kim aimed, steadying the gun with his other hand.
The scarecrow approached. Kim thought he could feel the earth trembling in its advance.
It seemed to take all Kim’s strength to pull the trigger once more. The bullet hit the scarecrow’s head, half its skull exploded into dust. But still it came.
“Fuckin’ bullets don’t work,” Kim screamed, trying to stand, but his legs wouldn’t cooperate.
Randy had the brush hook, found it in the weeds where he landed. He got to his knees and swung as the monster passed, lunging, stretching as far as his body would extend. The blade passed through the scarecrow’s leg, above the knee.
The scarecrow stopped, looked down. The leg fell away and the monster fell over.
Kim was on his feet, tottering to Randy. “Are you okay? We got to get out of here?”
Randy waved him away, “Don’t!”
The scarecrow sat up, grabbing Kim, pinning him down.
“It’s not dead,” Kim choked out the words. The scarecrow was on top him.
“Of course not,” Randy stood with the help of tree; the brush hook was cemented in his hand.
The scarecrow’s open hand was at Kim’s side, squeezing. Bones began to snap, a rib busted through he skin.
Kim cried out, squirmed.
Randy hopped on his one foot, falling onto the scarecrow’s back. He swung the blade, cutting away at the scarecrow’s back.
The scarecrow bucked Randy off. Randy landed bewildered.
The scarecrow gave Kim’s ribs one more twist then left him. It stood over Randy. A roar bellowed from the thing, a marrow jarring bellow.
Kim tackled it. They fell forward. Randy raised the brush hook. The scarecrow landed, impaled on the blade. Kim was clinging to its back. The blade went through, burying the hilt deep.
Kim blinked. The blade of the brush hook was right beside his face.
“Blades work,” Randy said at the bottom of the pile.
“The heart,” said Kim. “It’s the heart.” He rolled off. “Who knew it had one?”
Randy pushed the thing off him, pulled himself free, wincing at the pain of his leg. The blood loss was getting to him.
“If it is Herschel Cooper,” he said, “I suppose the heart makes sense.” He looked at Kim. “Kind of makes sense.”
Kim woke up. He was hurting. Pain like he had never experienced before. He was relieved to just be alive.
The hospital room was quiet, the light on over his bed. Jondrea was asleep in a chair on one side of the bed, Grum was sitting, awake, on the other side.
Kim shifted, whimpered in pain.
“No, honey,” Grum said. “You had better lay still.”
“He’s okay. You were both on the skids and out cold when they found you. But you two will be all right in the long run. Considering what you been through.”
“What about…that thing?” Kim asked, trying to ignore the pain that was shooting throughout his body.
“Park and a couple of the other men, they buried it,” said Grum. “You got nothing to worry about. Y’all killed it.”
“Are you sure?”
“I don’t know,” Grum said.
Kim’s eyes darted to her.
“Only time will tell, I guess.”
The secrets of the grave are vast. Death the ultimate mystery of all. Only those who have passed over can answer for sure what is waiting on the other side, only they can answer what waits. Only they can answer why it is, when some things are put deep into the earth, there is still a hunger. Only they know why the hunger still grows.