Category Archives: short story

ILL WISHES

The Lore:

DeLap Cemetery, LaFollette, Tennessee

DeLap Cemetery holds the graves of a small band of Confederate soldiers belonging to North Carolina’s 58th Regiment. The recruits traveled from Cumberland Gap to Jacksboro, Tennessee in 1862 where they were soon assigned to guard Big Creek Gap. The harsh winter, lack of medical supplies and rampant disease, including measles and “brain fever” sealed the fate of over 52 men.

During the 1960’s, the burial ground fell into disrepair and knowledge of its military history was soon forgotten, along with the sprinkling of civilian graves dotting the hilltop. Since Campbell County was pro-Union during the Civil War, no one realized the unkempt cemetery contained Confederate remains until a North Carolina woman tracing her genealogy produced documents verifying her ancestor’s death. Teaming up with a local historian, they soon determined DeLap Cemetery as his final resting place, along with many other unfortunate men.

In the center of the graveyard stands a sprawling Beech tree. The trunk contains 52 slashes for each of the bodies buried there, marks still visible today. Several sets of initials and the word “Boothill” are also carved into the trunk, although no one can confirm when or who created those particular marks.

A restoration committee was formed after the discovery and the land was cleared of debris. Sunken earth served as indicators for several of the graves. Others were marked by a plain field stone without inscription. Since it was impossible to identify the exact location of each gravesite, fifty military tombstones were placed in even rows across the grounds inscribed with each soldier’s name and rank. Some speculate the small plot of land contains more than the 50 names listed on the military roster.

DeLap Cemetery was rededicated as a memorial Civil War cemetery in 2005.

The Story:

ILL WISHES

She wasn’t sure when the idea first arrived. Events leading up to that decisive moment were random and therefore could not be classified as synchronicity, coincidence or even predestination. And yet, when Anna Lynn Bell looked back at the subtle connectivity between incidents, she realized an unseen force must have guided her. Why else would a lonely spinster with little regard for the afterlife throw caution to the wind and become a Paranormal Investigator?

The fact Anna was inexperienced and ill-prepared for such a career was of little consequence. She would learn. Everyone was a novice at some point. Besides, she knew the perfect place to look for ghosts and that gave her an edge.

Removing an old shoebox from her closet, Anna carefully lifted the cardboard lid and stared at the newspaper clippings stacked neatly inside. Most referenced a small, once forgotten burial ground near LaFollette, Tennessee. She poured over each slip of paper as if it were her first time reading the printed words. It wasn’t. Anna knew the history of Delap Cemetery by heart.

A woman tracing her genealogy arrived in LaFollette hoping to find the resting place of her ancestor, a soldier in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. With the help of a local, self-proclaimed historian, they discovered a hillside cemetery containing remains of infantrymen who died during the harsh winter of 1862-1863.

After a brief media blitz, a preservation committee formed to clean up the overgrown grounds and erect a monument honoring the forgotten men who had succumbed to cold and illness. Although the deceased were thought to have numbered over a hundred, historical records could only confirm the names of fifty-two. Memorial stones were placed in even rows across the rolling hillside. No one knew the exact location of the bodies but that didn’t matter. The headstones made the grounds look pretty and neat, befitting a veteran’s cemetery.

Upon learning about the re-dedication ceremony at Delap Cemetery, Anna drove all the way from Knoxville to attend the event. Only a handful of good hearted people congregated to pay tribute but Anna took her place beside them and stood proud, as if celebrating her own family. She didn’t know why she was drawn to the burial ground but she was, lingering after the pomp and circumstance to sit under a massive Beech tree shading the grassy knoll. Her fingers traced the lines carved into the smooth bark, notches made by the survivors to honor the men who succumbed to disease and freezing temperatures. Her fascination grew as she stared at the primitive marks, amazed they had endured one hundred and fifty years.

A strange melancholy swept over Anna as she sat on the curved concrete bench that day, aching for those ill-fated soldiers cut off from home with limited food and supplies. She continued to think about them all the way home – where a basket of laundry and the realization she had no clean work uniforms replaced her compassion.

Anna worked as a Certified Nurse’s Aide at Green Valley Extended Care Facility. Her paycheck was meager at best – just enough to cover rent and groceries. For years, she tried to save enough for tuition at the nursing school in town but something always came up to deplete her savings. New tires for her car. Dental work. Medical bills from a sprained wrist. Then one day, reality sank in. She would never be a nurse. This was her life.

It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good. It just was.

Anna gradually settled into a routine consisting of work, microwave dinners and watching old movies on television. As her youth faded, so did hopes of meeting Mr. Right. She became a voracious reader of romance novels, living vicariously through the printed word where she was always assured of a happy-ever-after ending. Anna knew the stories were fictional but a part of her still longed to experience love.

By morning, she was back in the real world, bundling her brown hair into a ponytail and going to work devoid of makeup. The elderly residents at the nursing home didn’t care what she looked like, and most days, neither did she.

It wasn’t until Mr. Beasley passed away of pneumonia that Anna’s thoughts returned to Delap Cemetery. She’d cared for the elderly man to the end, watching him grow weaker each day. At least his life ended in a climate controlled building with a soft bed and medicine to ease his pain, unlike those poor soldiers lying on the cold ground with only a pile of embers to shield them from the bitter cold.

A few days later, she stopped by the bookstore on Maple Street in search of something to read. Anna browsed the aisles of used paperbacks, suddenly finding herself face to face with a display of Civil War themed books. The blue and grey clad figures reminded her of the Confederate burial ground. She spent the next two days in a moody funk, wondering how the men’s ancestors could just forget about them. If it hadn’t been for that one woman tracing her genealogy, they might have been lost forever.

A week passed. Anna stopped by a thrift store in search of a new lamp. As soon as she walked through the door, her gaze fell to a poster taped on the front of the sales counter advertising a Civil War re-enactment event.

The number of incidents drawing her attention to the cemetery seemed odd but had nothing to do with Anna’s decision to become a paranormal investigator. That twist of fate was triggered by something completely different – a promise from one of her dying patients.

When Anna began her shift on a warm September day, she made a point to stop by Room 323 and greet a new arrival. So few of the staff cared about the patients – really cared – that she made it her duty to compensate for their apathy. A quick appraisal of the frail figure in the wheelchair suggested his time at the facility would be short.

“Hello, Mr. Andrew, I’m Anna. How are you feeling today?” She reached for the bony wrist to check his pulse.

“I’m dying, young woman. How the hell do you think I feel?” His harsh tone surprised her, carried by a strong voice that belied his feeble body.

“Well, look on the bright side. You’re not dead yet.” Anna’s eyes widened as the words slipped out before she could stop them. What’s wrong with me? It was totally unlike her to be flippant and callous.

The old man jerked his arm away as a sour expression settled across his features. Seconds later, he snorted and narrowed his eyes, “Sharp as a tack, aren’t ya?”

Anna calmed her nerves before retrieving her patient’s arm again, surprised to find him compliant. Placing her fingers over the paper thin skin, she attempted to move past her earlier indiscretion.

“Why do you think you’re dying? You look pretty healthy to me.” It was a lie and they both knew it.

“The doc says I got six weeks to live but he don’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. I’ve only got three. Norman told me.”

“Who’s Norman?”

The man looked away. “A friend.”

“And is your friend a doctor?”

“Nope.”

“Then why would you believe him over your physician?”

“Because he knows more than those idiots at the hospital.”

Anna dropped the man’s wrist and made a note on the chart in her pocket. “Norman sounds like a sourpuss. Is he trying to scare you?”

Faded eyes locked onto her gaze. The grey head came closer as he lowered his voice. “Norman is my best friend. He died last year from a heart attack. A couple of days ago, he showed up at the foot of my bed. Told me he had a hot poker game set up with a few of the guys. They’re waitin’ for me on the other side. He said I’d be shufflin’ the deck and dealin’ cards in three weeks.”

The news took Anna by surprise. She’d heard of elderly people seeing loved ones prior to dying but nothing like this. “So you think Norman’s . . . ghost . . . appeared to you?”

“I don’t think. I know.”

“And he told you when you would  . . . pass?” She hated using the word “die”.

The old man nodded. “He wouldn’t lie. Norman always told the truth.”

“Are you sure it wasn’t a dream?”

He shook his head. “I was wide awake.”

Anna sank onto the side of the bed next to his wheelchair, curiosity overcoming fear that her supervisor might catch her loitering. “Did he just, well, you know, appear out of thin air?”

“Not exactly,” the man murmured thoughtfully, as if trying to recall the details. “I looked up and there he was. He did kinda fade away when he left, though.”

“This is fascinating. I’ve never met anyone who saw a ghost.”

“Patooey . . . I’ve seen ‘em all my life.”

“Really?”

“Yep. Had my first experience when I was knee high to a grasshopper. A woman used to come to my room every night after I went to bed. She’d just stand there and smile at me. My ma showed me a photo of my great grandmother a few years later and I realized it was the same person.”

“Oh, my! That’s incredible. I wish I could see a ghost.”

A droopy eyelid came down in a mischievous wink. “I’ll make you a deal. As soon as I kick the bucket, I’ll come back and pay ya a visit.”

Anna laughed, pushing to her feet just as her supervisor appeared in the doorway, arching a brow in silent warning. Anna pretended to straighten Mr. Andrew’s pillow until the older woman left. “I should finish my rounds or Mrs. Tate will have my head.”

“She’s a bitch. Don’t like her. You come back and we’ll talk some more. I got a lot of good stories.”

Anna did just that for the next nineteen days, arriving a half hour early to visit Mr. Andrew before her shift started. Unfortunately, he died in his sleep on the twentieth day – just as Norman had predicted.

Anna waited two weeks for the old man to contact her with proof of the afterlife, or in the very least, a playful boast about his prowess at poker. It didn’t happen.

By that time, she was obsessed with the idea of communicating with spirits. Anna explored paranormal topics online and at the library. The more she read, the more she wanted to know. It was the first time she’d been excited about anything in years.

After ordering a tape recorder, EMF meter and LED flashlight from an online retailer, Anna waited like a child on Christmas Eve for them to arrive. She read the instructions front to back, practicing with the equipment so there would be no room for failure. Satisfied with her progress, she sat down with paper and pen to create a list of places where unhappy spirits might linger. The first location on her list was Delap Cemetery.

Anna planned the trip for her next day off. After loading the equipment into a big satchel and gassing up her car, she headed to LaFollette. Parking at the base of the rounded hill, Anna climbed the overgrown path to the top. A line formed between her brows as she surveyed the grounds. The cemetery wasn’t as well manicured as it had been on her last visit. Why go to all the trouble to create a memorial if you weren’t planning to keep it up?

Picking her way through the headstones, she took a seat on the curved concrete bench beneath the Beech tree and set up the recorder. Clearing her throat, she began to speak.

“If there’s a ghost of a Confederate soldier who died here, I’d sure like to talk to you.” After several seconds, she tried again. “My name’s Anna Bell. What’s yours?”

Nothing.

A sudden wave of embarrassment washed over her. This is silly. Whatever was I thinking? She picked up her satchel and began shoving the equipment into the cloth bag.

“It sure is pretty here, isn’t it?”

Anna jumped and whirled around, blinking at the man standing beside her. “I . . . I didn’t realize anyone else was here.”

He grinned from beneath a shock of unruly hair. “I live over yonder.” His hand waved toward a small apartment complex visible above a row of markers. “I like to sit up here sometimes. It’s real peaceful. I guess that makes me a bit odd, doesn’t it?” He peered at her through a pair of twinkling blue eyes.

“Not any stranger than what I’m doing.”

The man eased closer. Anna judged him to be in his late twenties, good looking with country boy charm. An inexplicable flush crept over her cheeks.

He glanced down at her recorder. “So what are you doing?”

“I’m trying to record an EVP.”

“An E . . . V . . . what?”

“Electronic Voice Phenomena. It’s when you record a ghost’s voice on a tape recorder.”

“Oh.” His brows raised. “Never heard of that. Are you some kind of a . . .”

“. . . Paranromal Investigator?” She nodded and smiled. “I’m in training.”

“I see.”

Anna licked her lips before quickly pocketing the device. She was certain he didn’t “see” at all. Me and my big mouth. All I’ve done is make a fool of myself. The man was most likely wondering how to make a quick exit at this very minute.

To her amazement, he lowered his lanky frame next to her on the bench. “I reckon if someone wanted to talk to a ghost, this would be the place.”

Encouraged by his kindness, Anna plunged on. “I thought so, too. How long have you lived around here? Have you ever seen anything unusual? Felt any cold spots? I . . .”

“Whoa, little lady. Slow down a bit,” he laughed, a mischievous gleam darkening his gaze as he saw her squirm. “I’ve lived here a long time. As I recall, there are some other graves in that corner belonging to civilians. Have you tried to talk to them?”

She shook her head. “I figured the soldiers would have more reason to haunt this place, given they died away from home under such horrific conditions.”

He nodded. “It was real bad from what I hear.”

Anna stuck out her hand but he didn’t take it. “My name’s . . .”

“Annabelle. I know. I heard you talkin’ into that black box.”

“Anna is my first name. Bell is my last.”

His head cocked to one side as he issued an unabashed visual examination. “I think you look like an Annabelle. Suits you.” His hand smoothed back a wave of sandy hair. “Everyone calls me Jesse.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Jesse.  What else do you know about the cemetery?”

“Well, I reckon you already heard about the marks on this here tree.” He pointed to a group of slashes carved into the trunk. She nodded. “I hear tell some of those initials are from soldiers who guarded this place. I guess there’s no way of really knowin’, though.”

“Hmm . . . I suppose I could see if they match any of the headstones.”

“Or maybe you could ask them.”

Anna squirmed. She couldn’t tell if he was teasing or serious. “This is my first time recording EVPs, as you might have guessed. I suppose it was presumptuous to think I might get a response right away.”

“Why don’t you give it another try? I’ll just sit here and listen. If you don’t mind, that is.”

Anna grinned. “I’d like that.” Clearing her throat, she began. “If there are any spirits who would like to speak with me, please give a sign.” A breeze wafted by, picking up the end of her ponytail and flipping it across her shoulder.

Jesse’s eyes widened. “That’s odd. Weren’t no wind a second ago.”

“I . . . I’m sure it was just a coincidence.”

“If you say so.”

A giggle floated across the air between them. Anna almost didn’t recognize her own voice. It sounded young, girlish . . . flirty. “Why don’t you ask a question? Maybe the spirits would prefer to talk to a man.”

“I wouldn’t know what to say.”

“Ask if there’s anyone here. I’ll hold the recorder while you speak.”

“Alrighty, then.” He seemed hesitant, glancing around as if fearful someone might see him. “If there be any spirits of Confederate soldiers who want to talk, you best show some respect for the little lady here and speak up.”

Anna’s eyes danced as she caught a hint of red creeping up Jesse’s neck. She waited a few seconds then shut off the recorder. “I guess they don’t want to talk to you, either. That makes me feel a little better.”

He chuckled, a rich throaty sound that warmed her insides. “Guess they must be sleepin’ today.” Jesse stared at her, a strange expression darting across his features. “You gonna come back and try again?”

His question caught Anna off guard. She hadn’t planned a second visit but suddenly it seemed like an excellent idea. “I could return next week . . . on my day off.”

“Would you mind if I came back, too? I’d sure like to learn more about those EVP’s.”

Her face brightened. “I think that’s a wonderful idea. Will you be available next Friday? I . . . can try to switch my day off if you have something to do.”

“I ain’t got nothin’ more important than bein’ here with you, Annabelle.”

She ducked her head before he could see the blush spill across her cheeks. “Then it’s a plan.”

Anna gathered her belongings and headed toward the entrance. Jesse waved goodbye, watching from the hill as she picked her way over the gravel path to her car. By the time she slid behind the wheel and looked up, he was gone.

The next week seemed to drag on forever but when Friday came, Anna was ready. She smoothed freshly curled locks over a shoulder, donned a pale yellow jacket to ward off the late October chill and filled a picnic basket with an assortment of snacks she’d prepared the night before.

The sky was overcast when she arrived at DeLap Cemetery. Storm clouds gathered on the horizon, threatening to dampen the day. Anna hurried up the walk, stopping to catch her breath at the top as she searched the grounds. No sign of Jesse.

She fought against disappointment as she took a seat on the concrete bench. Taking out her recorder, she began. “If there are any spirits in the area who would like to speak with me, please make yourself known.”

Silence. Anna glanced down at the device, frowning as the power light flickered and went off. That’s odd. She’d only used the device once and it was already broken. Sliding the cover from the back, she stared at the batteries. Perhaps they were bad. She quickly inserted two new ones and tried again. The recorder turned on immediately. Seconds later, it clicked several times and stopped.

“Hey, Miss Annabelle.” She jumped as Jesse strolled up and took a seat beside her. “Havin’ problems?”

“My recorder isn’t working for some reason.” She warmed under his intense gaze.

“You sure look nice today.”

“Thank you.”

He continued to stare at her. “I’m sorry. I just can’t stop lookin’ at you. I think you’re the purtiest girl I ever did see.”

Anna fidgeted and dropped her gaze. “I’m sure that’s not true.”

“I’m sure it is,” he countered. Jesse’s hand raised, as if he wanted to touch her hair. Instead, it fell back across his lap.

A gust of wind sent a shiver racing down Anna’s spine. She tugged her jacket tighter and smiled. “I think we might have an early winter. The weather seems cold for this time of year.”

He glanced up at the sky with a faraway expression. “I hate winter. Everything dies.”

“Not everything,” she murmured in a husky voice. “The pine trees and holly bushes stay green.” Anna cleared her throat. It felt a bit scratchy, probably from the chilly air. “I brought a picnic lunch. Would you like to share?”

“That’s awful kind of you, Annabelle but I just ate not more ‘n hour ago. I sure do appreciate the offer, though.”

Her shoulders lifted in a shrug. “That’s okay. It wasn’t anything special – just some chicken salad and chips.” Things weren’t going well at all. She wanted to learn more about Jesse but since he wasn’t hungry and her recorder was on the blink, there was no reason to stay. “I suppose I’d better go, then.”

“Already? You just got here.”

Her spirits lifted at his protest. “I can’t record any EVPs . . .”

“Well, I guess you’ll just have to listen to my voice – although I’m sure it’s not as interesting as a ghost.”

Anna laughed. “What shall we talk about?”

“You. Tell me about yourself. Where do you live? Do you have a boyfriend?”

“No boyfriend.” As the words rushed from her mouth, she caught a gleam in his blue eyes. “I live in Knoxville and work as a CNA for an elder care facility.”

“You’re a nurse?”

She shook her head. “Nothing that important. Mostly I make the patients comfortable and help with their care. Since everyone is old, they usually don’t stay around long.”

“Where do they go?”

Anna eyed him curiously. “They die.”

“Oh . . .” Jesse swallowed and looked away. “I thought they came to your hospital because they were sick.”

“Many are sick but some get admitted because their families can’t care for them. It’s sad. A few like Gladys Barnes and Joe Cook never have visitors. I try to spend more time with them so they don’t feel alone. It must be awful to grow old and be forgotten.”

“You have a big heart, Annabelle. I think God put you in the right place to do the most good.”

A comfortable silence fell between them as Anna considered his statement. She’d felt trapped in a dead end job for years but what if Jesse was right? What if she was exactly where she was supposed to be and just didn’t realize it?

“Perhaps that’s why my recorder stopped working. I’m supposed to be a nurse’s aide, not a paranormal investigator.”

“Maybe you could do both.”

She liked Jesse. His outlook on life was simple. He had a way of adding clarity to her confusion. Anna shifted on the bench so she could see his face better. Her gaze darted past Jesse’s shoulder to a row of trees at the back of the cemetery. A dark figure hovered in the shadows, watching them.

“What’s wrong?”

“There’s a man back there by the trees,” she whispered. “He’s staring at us.”

He twisted to follow her line of sight. “I don’t see anyone.”

“Right there, by that big Oak.” The words had no sooner left her mouth than the figure melted into the thick trunks. “Oh . . . dear.” Her complexion paled.

“What did you see, Annabelle?”

“The man. He’s . . . he’s gone.”

“Gone?”

She nodded

Jesse scratched his head and glanced down. “Looky there. Your recorder is working again.”

She looked at the device, surprised to see the red “record” light beaming from the side. “That’s odd. I thought the batteries were dead.”

“Guess not.”

Anna took a deep breath and let it out. “I feel a little shaken, Jesse. Perhaps I’d better go now.”

“Will you come back?”

Her hand reached out and touched his arm. “Would you like me to come back?”

“Yes, ma’am. I surely would.”

“Then I’ll return next week. What’s your cell number? I’ll text you when I’m on my way.”

Jesse ducked his head, digging his hands into his pockets. “I don’t have a phone.”

“Well, no matter. I can stop by your apartment and let you know when I’ve arrived.”

“That wouldn’t be proper, Annabelle . . . a single woman coming to a man’s room. I don’t want people talkin’ about you. I’ll keep a watch. As soon as I see you, I’ll come runnin’.”

“Very well,” she cooed, amazed there were still men like Jesse who cared about a woman’s reputation. “I should be here around the same time.”

“I look forward to it.”

On the drive home, Anna turned up the heater in the car, unable to shake the cold tightening her muscles. By the time she parked her vehicle in front of her apartment, her teeth were chattering. She hurried inside and ran a hot bath. It eased the ache for a while but within an hour, she was shivering again.

“I must have caught a cold,” she muttered, adding an extra blanket on top of her bed before jumping in and covering up to her neck.

Anna stayed that way the rest of the day, rising long enough to use the bathroom and refill her water glass. By evening, she felt a little better so she heated a can of chicken soup, eating it with crackers before returning to bed

The night brought on a strange restlessness filled with fitful dreams, none of which Anna remembered the next morning. She dressed and hurried to work, arriving ten minutes late. Mrs. Tate, her supervisor, monitored the entrance, rushing out of her office when Anna walked in.

“You’re late.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I was sick yesterday and forgot to set my alarm.”

The older woman eyed her suspiciously. “You do look a little pale. Try not to breathe on any residents today. We certainly don’t need you infecting anyone.”

“I’ll be careful. Would you like me to wear a mask?”

“Of course not! Don’t advertise the fact you’re ill.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Anna breathed a sigh of relief as Mrs. Tate stalked back to her office. She was an unpleasant woman who obviously hated her job. Anna knew it. The patients knew it. And deep down inside, she was pretty sure Mrs. Tate knew it, too.

By the end of her shift, Anna had rallied to her old, perky self. “A twenty-four hour bug,” she told her associates who commended her for coming to work while she was still sick.

Anna spent the rest of the week daydreaming about Jesse – imagining them on long walks together, curled up on the sofa watching television, kissing, and more. She appreciated his concern for her reputation but they were both consenting adults. He had to ease up on the gallantry if they were going to take their relationship to the next level.

By the time Friday rolled around, Anna could barely contain her excitement. Something told her the day would be special.  The temperature had dropped to freezing the night before and the mid-morning sun struggled to warm the frosty air but she barely noticed.

To her surprise, Jesse was already seated on the bench when she arrived. She raised her hand in greeting and hurried to his side. “Hi! You beat me here.” Little puffs of vapor formed in front of her mouth as she spoke.

“I’ve been waitin’ for a bit. I didn’t want to miss you.”

She scooted closer. “I came down with a cold after our last visit. I hope I didn’t give it to you.”

His expression mirrored concern. “Are you feelin’ alright?”

“Of course. It only lasted a day.”

“I’m glad you’re better. You look pretty as a picture.”

“You always say the sweetest things, Jesse. How is it you’re still single?”

He stared at his boots. “I had a gal once.”

Anna hesitated. “Do you still talk to her?”

“Oh, gosh, no. She up and moved away. I reckon she wasn’t as fond of me as I thought she was.” He gave a short laugh.

“I’m sorry. It was her loss. I’m sure she regrets her decision.”

He shot her a sidelong glance. “Why do you think that?”

“Because I can’t imagine any woman leaving you.” Anna’s hand flew to her mouth but it was too late. The words were out before she could stop them.

“I reckon that might be the nicest thing anyone ever said to me.”

Their gazes locked. His expression seemed to draw her in, beckoning with a strange light. Her body leaned forward of its own volition. The next thing she knew, her lips pressed against Jesse’s cheek.

“Annabelle . . .”

“Sssh. Don’t say a word. I know that was bold but I’m not going to apologize.”

His mouth lifted in a lopsided grin. “I didn’t want an apology. I was going to ask if you would do it again.”

Her arms slipped around his neck as their lips found each other. A cold wind whipped her hair across Jesse’s cheek but neither seemed to mind. When she pulled back, his eyes were still closed as if he didn’t want to break the spell.

Anna swallowed the lump in her throat. Was it possible to fall in love so quickly? She glanced away, panicked by the thought. A movement in the tree line caught her attention. The same man who watched them the week before was back – and this time he had a friend.

“Jesse!” Her urgent whisper sent his eyes flying open. “That man is standing in the trees again.”

Jesse turned his head, searching the perimeter. “Where?”

“Right there!” Her hand raised as she pointed at the strangers. “Can’t you see them?”

A line formed between his brows. “No . . .”

Anna flew to her feet, angered the voyeurs had ruined the intimate moment. As she marched toward the men, they faded into nothingness right before her eyes. Anna stopped, blinked, then ran to the trees. No one was there.

Jesse came up behind her. “Where are they?”

“They vanished.”

He drew his lower lip between his teeth. “Vanished?”

“Yes.” Her eyes widened. “I think I . . . I saw a ghost.” She braced herself for ridicule.

Jesse grew silent, contemplating her announcement. “Were you scared?”

Anna thought about it for a second. “No.”

“Then you’re gonna make a good paranormal investigator.”

The amusement in his voice brought a smile to her lips. “Yes, I am.”

They spent the next half hour talking and holding hands. Anna told him about growing up in a series of foster homes, her love of medicine and how she’d always wanted to become a nurse. When her teeth began to chatter between sentences, Jesse put an arm around her shoulder and escorted Anna to the cemetery entrance.

“It’s too cold for you. Perhaps you should go.”

“We should plan another place to meet. Somewhere indoors.”

“Hmmm. I reckon that would be the smart thing to do.”

She grinned. “I could come to your apartment . . . or you could come to mine.”

“I might just do that.”

Her hopes soared. “Really? I’m a pretty good cook. I could make supper.”

His lips brushed lightly over her mouth. “Does this mean you’re my girl?”

“Yes.” She nodded for emphasis. “I’d like that.”

“Me, too.”

He stepped back, a wistful expression slipping over his features. “You best be going, darlin’. It’s gettin’ real cold.”

“I’ll see you next week?”

“If not before.”

Anna didn’t remember driving home. She replayed Jesse’s words over and over in her head – he’d called her darling. Happiness swelled inside her, squeezing out an infectious giggle every few minutes.

As she prepared for bed that evening, Anna realized the scratchiness in her throat had returned. Rummaging through the medicine cabinet, she located a thermometer and stuck in under her tongue. The results confirmed a low degree temperature. Mrs. Tate would be livid if she was late again so she gargled with salt water, took two aspirin and went to bed.

When morning arrived, her worst fears materialized. The fever was higher and she could barely swallow leaving only one option – call in sick. Luckily, her supervisor didn’t answer so she left a voice message, detailing her symptoms in a hoarse whisper. She prayed Mrs. Tate would understand but knew the woman was devoid of concern for anyone but herself.

Anna turned off her phone and slept most of the day, rallying in the evening to eat a slice of toast. She tried to read but the words formed fuzzy lines in front of her eyes. She finally turned out the light and went back to bed.

On the second day, her fever still raged. Anna knew she should see a doctor but money was tight and she didn’t have insurance. I can tough it out, she told herself. Once again, she called in. This time Mrs. Tate answered.

“We’re already shorthanded. You simply must come in. I need another body on the floor.”

“I’m contagious. My fever is one hundred and three.”

“I’ll give you a choice, Miss Bell. Either be at work within the hour or don’t come back at all.”

“Mrs. Tate . . .”

“Goodbye, Anna. I’ll send your final check by mail.” Click.

Anna stared at the cell phone for a full minute before tossing it across the room. A tear rolled down her cheek as she fell back across the pillow. After ten years, this is how I’m treated? She closed her eyes, losing her despair in a deep sleep.

A few hours later, Anna woke to a fit of coughing. Grabbing a tissue from the box by her bed, she held it over her mouth. When she pulled it back, it was splattered with blood.

“Oh great, my throat is so raw it’s bleeding.”  Perhaps she had strep throat. Fear shot through her as she thought about kissing Jesse. A quick glance at the clock confirmed it was too late to see a doctor. She’d go tomorrow. If it was strep, she planned to stop by Mrs. Tate’s office on the way home. Maybe the old battle axe would catch it.

Anna tried to take a deep breath. The effort left her wheezing and coughing. She snuggled under the covers, shivering as her fever spiked. It was the last thing she remembered until waking up at midnight, hair caked to her head by a sticky sweat.

Tossing the blankets to the side, she attempted to sit up. The room spun violently. She eased back against the mattress, too weak to move. Her throat felt like it was on fire. Anna reached for the glass of water on her bedside table, dropping it before she could raise it to her lips. As she lay there contemplating how much effort it would take to walk to the kitchen for another glass, sleep once again robbed her of consciousness.

She roused at three a.m. determined to sit up. Admittedly, it was more of an effort to prove she wasn’t as sick as she feared. After several attempts, Anna reached the overstuffed chair next to the sofa, resting there several minutes from the exertion. It was as if someone had clamped a band around her chest. Her lungs didn’t seem big enough no matter how hard she tried to fill them.

She wished Jesse were there to hold her. He’d make her feel better. She was sure of it.

Glancing at the side table, Anna spied the recorder. She rewound the tape and pushed the “play” button. Static filled the air. Then she heard Jesse’s voice, “If there be any spirits of Confederate soldiers who want to talk, you best show some respect for the little lady here and speak up.”

More static . . . then something else. Anna reversed the tape and replayed the sequence.

“It’s her. She’s the one.”

“Anna . . . Anna . . .”

“I want to see her . . .”

The words were low, barely audible, like a whisper on the wind. Who was speaking? She replayed the section several times before continuing with the rest of the tape.

A few seconds later, she heard several male voices. It sounded as if they were talking . . . about her.

“She’s the one.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, yes. It’s her.”

“She sees us . . .”

It must have been the two men in the trees. Anna’s head throbbed. She squeezed her eyes together, willing away the pain.

“Annabelle.”

Looking up, she saw Jesse standing at the door. Relief shot through her. Then confusion. “How . . . did you find . . . me?” She could barely speak. The effort left her wheezing.

“I know you feel bad, darlin’. I’m real sorry.”

Her brow crinkled as she closed her eyes. I’m hallucinating. It made sense. She was sick and alone. Of course she would conjure up the one person who meant more to her than life itself.

She heard the voices again – but she’d turned off the recorder. How could it still be playing? Forcing her lids open, she was relieved to find Jesse still there. He moved closer, kneeling beside her. Smiling. The murmur grew louder. Anna peered over his shoulder. Shadowy figures hovered in the corners of the room, staring at her, pointing, whispering.

“Will she come?”

“She’s the one.”

“Are you sure? Are you sure she’ll come?”

“She’ll take care of us.”

Anna heaved with another bout of coughing. She held her arm in front of her mouth to prevent spewing germs over Jesse. When she pulled it back, her sleeve was bright red.

“I’m real sick, Jesse. You shouldn’t be here.”

He stood. “It’s time, Annabelle. Come with me.”

“I can’t go anywhere. I’m too ill.”

“You’ll feel better soon.” He held out his hand.

The light in the room dimmed as Anna pushed back in the chair, trying to distance herself from the man in front of her. Something wasn’t right. Jesse wasn’t . . . right. Why was he wearing a military uniform? She stared at the dark pants and grey woolen coat, encrusted with gold buttons.

The figures behind him moved closer, peeking at her from the shadows. Some appeared injured, sporting bandages around their heads and limbs. “Who are those men?”

“I’m a Lieutenant in the 58th Confederate Regiment from North Carolina. These soldiers are under my command.”

The words evoked a memory but she was too tired to remember the details.

“Come, darlin’. I’ve waited a long time for you.” He stretched out his hand again.

Anna’s eyes grew wide. Jesse was a ghost. They were all ghosts. “You’re the soldiers from DeLap.”

“We’re the forgotten ones. No one notified our families. We didn’t even get a notch on the tree. We never had no one care about us. Not until you came along, Annabelle. You were there when they put up the flags and headstones and stayed after everyone left. You cared.” She stared at his outstretched hand. “Come with me.”

“No . . . no. I don’t want to die.” She tried to pull back as he took a step toward her.

Jesse’s fingers stroked her cheek, cupping the side of her face. A jolt of electricity shot through her. In a matter of seconds, Anna saw all that had happened and all that could be.

Images flashed before her eyes. Sick and dying soldiers, crying out for help. Bodies piled on the hillside waiting for someone to break frozen ground to bury them.

The brutal winter had kept supplies and medicine from reaching the company. Most were young men under the age of thirty. Some as young as eighteen. They died alone in that pitiful camp, thrown together into a mass grave.

Then she saw her own life. A tear trickled down her cheek as she realized her own despair and misery mimicked that of the doomed soldiers. Their situations were different but the hopelessness was the same. A thick fog clouded her vision but through the haze, she watched a pastoral scene emerge. Jesse held her hand as they strolled across a green meadow filled with wildflowers. The men camped next to a creek, trickling over moss laden rocks as it meandered through the trees. They appeared healthy, calling out to the couple with a warm greeting. She paused to adjust the bandage on a young man’s head, enjoying the radiance on his face.

Anna blinked and the vision faded away. “I . . . I don’t understand.”

Jesse knelt beside her, his gaze filled with tenderness . . . and a hint of sorrow. “We’ve been lost for so long,” came his soft voice. “Caught up in our pain. We needed someone to care. Lead us from that dark hillside filled with horrible memories. You did that for us, Annabelle. We can move on now. So can you – if you want to come with us.”

A feeling of weightlessness came over her, as though her body were filled with light and energy. She understood now. All she’d ever wished for was waiting on the other side. She could finally be a nurse. Finally know love.

Jesse’s hand extended again. This time she reached for it and held on. The men parted into two rows as he led her toward the door. Anna paused, turning back for one last look.

Her body slumped to the side of the chair, withered and pale. Blood trickled from the corner of her mouth and dripped onto the armrest, soiling the fabric. It would take a lot of scrubbing to clean the upholstery . . . but that no longer mattered.

Jesse lovingly stroked her shiny locks falling in loose curls about her shoulders. “Ready, Annabelle?”

She nodded, smiling up at him. “I’m ready.”

Short Story Time Again!

Gather ’round. This little horror story puts a different twist on “roadside shrines”.

The Lore

ROADSIDE SHRINES

Roadside shrines can be seen on almost any major highway in the world. In the United States, they are common throughout the Southwest, especially on Highway 86 between Tucson and Why, Arizona. This two lane road cuts through the lands of Tohono O’odham nation.

Shrines on the reservation serve multiple purposes. Many are placed as memorials to loved ones who died while walking or driving at a specific location. Others are to honor a vow or prayer. And still more offer tribute to the Virgin Mary. The shrines for highway deaths are also referred to as “descansos”.

On some unpaved roads through the reservation, you might see an elaborate grotto or altar built into a mountainside. These are usually family or special group shrines that feature statues of the Holy Mother or a saint. Often, during a religious feast or celebration, a ramada is set up nearby to serve food to attendees.

Not all shrines look alike. Some are simple white crosses etched with a name and date. Others are elaborate stone or brick grottos filled with religious figurines, candles and offerings. They might be located a few feet from the highway shoulder, or elevated high on a hillside. It’s not uncommon to see shrines and grottos in residential yards.

The unwritten etiquette for viewing shrines is If the front  faces toward the road, visitors are allowed to pay their respect. If it faces away from the road, especially on private property, it is intended for that family’s personal use and not mean for public visitations.

The Story

ROAD KILL

by Debra S. Sanders

I’m a thief. Big deal.

I never stole from the poor – just from those who have more than they need. There’s a point where these rich bastards got so much money, they stop counting. Then when they die, their families put on a show with a big funeral, dressing up the dead with things they can’t use when they’re six feet under.

My mama used to say “waste not, want not” so I decided to help myself to a few trinkets just so they don’t go to waste. I guess that makes me a grave robber. At least, I was until Shorty Long spilled his guts to the feds about a gold necklace I showed him.

Some partner he turned out to be. Now I’m on the lam and I got nobody to fence my goods.

So I was thinkin’ . . . if I gotta lay low anyway, I might as well be someplace warm. Who wants to huddle around a fire with a bunch of homeless guys on the banks of the Mississippi? Everyone thinks Memphis is great until they spend a winter here. The wind blowing off the river is cold enough to freeze a gargoyle’s ass.

It took three days of hitchhiking but I finally made it to southern Arizona. It ain’t exactly the tropical paradise I imagined but at least it’s warmer than Memphis. I left Tucson yesterday. Figured I’d put my thumb out on the two lane highway that heads west through the Indian reservation . . . Tohono oooooodham, or however the hell you say it.  The back roads are safer but man, there ain’t nothin’ out here except cactus, coyotes and border patrol.

Nobody’s offered me a ride, not even the tourists driving their big motorhomes. Damn Feds got people scared to death. They think every hitchhiker is a freakin’ illegal from Mexico. Well, take a look, assholes . . . I got blonde hair and blue eyes.

I may be a thief but at least I’m legal . . . hahahaha!

Last night I slept in a wash under an Ironwood tree. Kept a small fire goin’ to chase away the chill. I had no idea the desert could get so cold at night. I’m so hungry, my ribs are beginning to rub against my backbone. I ain’t had nothin’ to eat since yesterday when I snatched a loaf of bread out of some chick’s cart in a Walmart parking lot. My mouth tastes like I swallowed a handful of dust. If I don’t get some money soon, I could die out here.

Geez, it’s hot. I need some water. Hey, ask and you shall receive! What’s this up ahead? A pump house?

Hang on, nope it’s a . . . shrine? You gotta be kiddin’ me.  Look at this cross and religious shit. And . . . oh, my. Ain’t this sweet? Somebody put a silver bracelet next to these flowers.

I bet I can pawn it for a few bucks. Dumbasses. Who would leave a perfectly good bracelet like that out in the open? Whoa, check out this photo. Cute chick. Isabelle Sa . . . . whatever. Some kind of Indian name, I guess.

I reckon your family musta built this little memorial thingy after you died. I heard about people doin’ stuff like that. You don’t mind sharin’ the wealth, do you, darlin’? It’s not like you can use it on the other side. Let me take a look at this picture again. Damn, baby, you ain’t bad lookin’, at all. If’n you was alive, I might just show ya a good time.

Oops, there’s a car comin’. Gotta scoot. See ya. Wouldn’t wanna be ya. Hahahaha…..

Phew, that was a close call. I barely had enough time to hide behind those bushes before the driver saw me. No matter, I scored good on that shrine. Candles to keep me warm. A silver bracelet to pawn. And a photo of a pretty girl to look at when I jack off. Not bad.

*****

Okay, this is gettin’ old. I’ve been walking for over an hour. Found two more of those little shrines. Didn’t get nothin’ from the first one. Pissed me off, too, cuz I had to climb over a bunch of damn rocks to reach it. But I got a jar of coins at the last one – came to just over five bucks and some change. I figure that will buy me a burger and beer.

Man, this sun is brutal. I’m roastin’ like a chicken on a spit. I had to tear off the tail of my shirt to use as a head band. Damn sweat kept drippin’ in my eyes. At least I got this bottle of water somebody tossed out. It was half full. God, I hope nobody slobbered in the damn thing. <sniff, sniff> Smells okay. Tastes okay. Alrighty, then, guess I can keep goin’.

What the hell? Another frickin’ shrine? Ain’t these Indians got nothin’ better to do than build shit for dead people? I hope to God there’s somethin’ good inside. I mean, hell, I’m usin’ my time and energy to check these damn things so somebody better make it worth my while. The jerk who died was probably a drunk, anyway. There’s broken whiskey and beer bottles everywhere you look. I guess when these folks aren’t building shrines, they’re drinking. Can’t say I blame them. This place has gotta be the ass crack of the nation.

Okay, what have we got? Flowers. Check. They all got plastic flowers. Ain’t worth nothin’. Crucifix. Don’t need no religion today, thank you very much. Some kind of bird feathers. Yuck. Hmmm . . . and this. A little box. Jewelry box?

Well, hell yeah! Looks like a silver charm. Maybe I can put it on the bracelet and sell ‘em together. At this rate, I’m gonna be a millionaire before I reach the other side of the reservation. Hahahaha…..

I gotta eat somethin’ soon. All this shrine robbin’ worked up a fierce appetite. I ain’t passed a town or nothin’. Wait a sec . . . is that a light? I think there’s a house way back there. Maybe I can talk ‘em into giving me some food. I bet they get lost travelers all the time.

“Hey, old man!” Dang, he looks like he’s been knockin’ on death’s door for about ten years. <snicker> I crack me up some times. “Hey, mister. Can you spare something to eat?” Well talk, you old fart. Don’t just stand there and stare. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I’ve been walking for most of the day. I’m hot, hungry and thirsty. Think you could help out a stranger in need?”

Aw, hell. This guy ain’t got no teeth and his face looks like boot leather. He’s one ugly SOB. “I don’t have any money but what if I give you this bracelet? It’s gotta be worth a sandwich and soda.”

That’s right. Take it. Okay, you can stare at it as much as you want . . . after you get me somethin’ to eat. Wait . . . come back here. “Hey, don’t take that unless you aim to give me some food!”

Oh, good, he’s coming back. What the hell is he carrying? It don’t look like food. And it smells like . . . somethin’ dead. Stupid old fart is putting his hand in there. FUCK!!!

“Whaddya blow that crap on me? It’s in my eyes . . . and nose. What the hell is this? Dust? Ash? You son of a bitch!”

I can’t see. My eyes are burning like crazy. Where is the old cuss? If I get my hands on you . . .

“Hey . . . dude . . . get up. I didn’t mean to punch you so hard. Dude. Old man . . . get up . . .”

Aw, hell. That’s blood. He must have hit his head on a rock when he fell. Okay . . . okay. Breathe. Go inside. Grab some food and water and get out of here before someone shows up.

*****

It’s not as cold tonight. Or maybe I’m not feelin’ it ‘cause I got a full belly. The old man had some decent food, I’ll give him that. I don’t even feel bad about him dyin’. He was ancient. If it’d been me, I’d rather go quick like that than linger around fighting off cancer or some old people’s disease. Guess that makes me the angel of death. <snicker>

Ahhhh, now this is a good. I got a warm fire, a thick blanket and a sack of grub. Look at them stars. Damn! You never see stars like that in Memphis.

Huh? What’s that? “Somebody out there?”

Somethin’ moved by that cactus. There it is again. Friggin’ illegals are tryin’ to steal my food. I ain’t got no gun. Nothin’ to defend myself. Geezus!

“Okay, amigos . . . you can have my food. I’m just gonna back away. No harm. No foul.”

What the hell is that? “W . . . who are you?”

Fuckin’ shadows are moving. Everything is moving. How many of these fuckers are there? Huh? It can’t be . . . my eyes are playin’ tricks. But it sure as hell looks like . . . “Isabelle?” Who’s that behind her?

Go, go, go. Need to get out of here – shit’s goin’ down.  What the hell? “Hey . . . old man . . . I thought you was dead. I thought . . .”

Oh . . . God . . . that hurts. Feels like someone ripped open my chest. What the hell is he laughing about? “This ain’t funny, assholes!” I can’t move. Can’t breathe. They’re circling me. All I can see are their painted Day of the Dead faces, laughing . . . at my heart in the old man’s hand.

Aw, fuck . . .

*****

Three weeks later.

“Look, Daddy. There’s another shrine. That’s the sixth one we’ve passed since we left Tucson. Can we stop?”

“Okay, kiddo, but just this once or we’ll never reach Organ Pipe National Monument.”

The little girl bolted from the car as soon as her father stopped and ran to the arched shrine. Her eyes widened with awe.  “Why do they build these, Daddy?”

“I think it marks the place where someone died. But other people can visit and light candles, or pray for their souls. Would you like to do that, honey?”

“Yes, please.” The little girl put her hands together and bowed her head. After a few seconds, she swiveled to meet her father’s bemused expression. “The man who died here said I could have the silver bracelet and coins. Is it okay, Daddy?”

“No, you must never take anything from the shrines. The mementos were left for those who passed on. They contain a little piece of their soul. If you take it, you might bring them home with you.”

“Oh . . . okay.” She turned back around, lowering her voice to a whisper. “I’m sorry, mister. You have to stay here – with your friends.”

 

ONCE UPON A TIME

The Lore

Edgewood Plantation, Virginia

Edgewood Plantation

Elizabeth “Lizzie” Rowland fell in love with a young man from a nearby estate. As soon as she heard the distinctive gait of her suitor’s horse, Lizzie would run to the window, watching for her true love’s approach. The couple hoped to marry but the onset of the Civil War put their pending nuptials on hold..To Lizzie’s dismay, her fiancé joined the Confederate Army and was called to battle before they could be married. She waited patiently, dreaming of the day he would return and restore normalcy to her life. Each day, Lizzie gazed from her window on the third floor. Listening. Yearning. Praying for the young man’s safety. At one point, she etched her name into the bedroom window glass, some say with a diamond ring. Sadly, the two lovers were never reunited.

Lizzie remained a spinster, dying at the age of forty-seven. Legend suggests she succumbed to grief brought on by a broken heart after never reconciling with the unknown fate of her fiancé.

Today Edgewood Plantation functions as a bed and breakfast. Frequent sightings of Lizzie’s forlorn ghost have made the B&B a favorite destination for paranormal enthusiasts. The current owners embrace the ghostly presence and encourage visitors to seek their own supernatural experiences. Reported encounters include seeing mists on the stairs and hearing footsteps in the corridor. But a lucky few have glimpsed Lizzie in the upstairs window – still waiting for her lover’s return.

The Story

ONCE UPON A TIME

by Debra S. Sanders

Farley is a small town on the south end of nowhere, tucked between what was and what could have been. Most folks find amusement in the form of fishing, an occasional movie at The Orpheum, or special events like the Fourth of July Parade. But kids on summer break don’t always think the way their parents do and prefer mischief to amusement. Such was the case when Fred Walker brought his prize Hereford bull, Solomon, to town.

Fred was on his way to the Double M Ranch so the bull could conduct his annual “servicing” of heifers when he decided to stop at the Lazy Susan Café. After filling a pail with sweet corn, he left Solomon in the livestock trailer and sauntered across the street. It took less than a minute for Lucy Johnson to arrive at his booth with coffee and a slice of apple pie – and even less time for Fred to forget all about Solomon.

Since his wife had passed two years earlier, Lucy made sure the handsome widower ate properly by frequently taking leftovers from the restaurant to his house. Of course, the town gossips claimed Fred’s appetite wasn’t the only thing Lucy satisfied.

Fred liked apple pie almost as much as he liked the cute little waitress who served it. He didn’t see no harm in taking a half hour to indulge his hankerin’ for something sweet. It wasn’t as if Solomon got paid by the hour. On this particular day, Fred asked for a scoop of ice cream to go with his pie. The weather was hot for the end of June. Looking at Lucy Johnson made it seem even hotter.

While ice cream melted across Fred’s pie, a group of local kids were examining their fireworks for the upcoming Fourth of July celebration. It was the biggest event of the year which meant testing the Black Cats beforehand to make sure they popped. No one wanted duds on the Fourth.

When Billy Simmons spied Solomon lounging in the back of the livestock trailer, he double-dog dared the Connor boys to stage a Spanish bullfight. using Solomon as “el Toro”. They drew straws to see who would be the lookout, who would open the trailer gate and chase Solomon out with a lit firecracker, and who would be the matador.

The plan would have gone flawlessly if Miss Beasley hadn’t come crawling up Main Street in her ’59 Oldsmobile. She slowed down when she saw the bull in the middle of the street. He was madder than a wet hornet because Billy threw a whole string of Black Cats through the window instead of just one. When they started poppin’ around Solomon’s hooves, he charged out of the trailer bellowing like a locomotive and almost trampled Joey Conner in the process.

It was no secret Miss Beasley had passed the day when she should be driving a vehicle but the old spinster brandished such a despicable disposition, no one had the nerve to tell her. So when she saw Solomon pawing the ground, the fight was on. Her hand came down on the horn about the same time her foot hit the accelerator.

Solomon wasn’t anxious to tangle with the front end of a ’59 Oldsmobile so he headed for the first thing that looked like a barn . . . the open door at Red’s Hardware. Now, there’s no way a twelve-hundred-pound bull is going to fit through a thirty-six-inch entrance. Solomon took the path of least resistance and lunged right through the front glass window. Ignoring the screams from customers, he disappeared down the tool aisle, huffing and panting like a demon from Hell.

It was about that time Fred Walker came outside to see what was causin’ all the ruckus. His eyes got real big as he looked at the empty trailer and then at Red’s broken window. Fred took off down the street, disappearing into the feed store. After scooping up sweet grain in an empty coffee can, he headed back to the scene of Solomon’s escape.

By this time, a crowd had gathered outside Red’s establishment. Fred pushed through the door and began shakin’ the can, calling Solomon’s name soft and low. Sounded almost like a lullaby. Hearing a snort a few aisles over, Fred moved in that direction. Sure ‘nuff, Solomon was in the middle of the garden department with a piece of hose coiled around his back hoof.

Fred poured a little sweet grain into his hand and extended it toward the bull. A long, gooey tongue lapped it up as Solomon nudged his owner affectionately. They exited through the back loading dock with the bull following Fred like a duckling after it’s mama.

It was an exciting day, alright. People talked about Solomon’s antics for over a year. Not much happened after that and life returned to the slow, routine pace folks around Farley seem to favor – until someone rented the Elkin’s place. The rundown house on the outskirts of town had been vacant for years, and over time had become the object of several ghost stories.

Old timers said a woman died there while waiting for her husband to return from the Civil War. She simply lost her will to live. Minutes before she passed, her husband stumbled through the door, still wearing bandages on his wounds. She was too far gone to escape death’s clutches but with her last breath, vowed they’d meet again. Distraught with grief and half dead himself, the poor fellow disappeared into the night and was never seen again.

No one wanted to live in the Elkins house after that. Folks said they heard things. Furniture moved by itself. One day a peddler was passing through town and mentioned seeing a woman staring out the window. Well, that started the rumors flyin’ and the next thing you know, people claimed the ghost of the Elkins woman was lookin’ for her husband. Parents used that story to make their children behave. The Elkins ghost will get you if you don’t go to bed. Those same children are now parents. They still believe the house is haunted.

When a community lives with a ghost story as long as Farley, it becomes part of their culture. They’re not eager to give it up. And if folks have to give up a myth, you can bet they’ll replace it with another.

Which is exactly what happened when a stranger bought the Elkins place.

A few weeks after curtains appeared in the windows, people claimed a witch had taken residence in the dilapidated structure. It wasn’t long until young men began knocking on the evil creature’s door, challenged by those less valiant.

Such was the case on a Saturday night when Bobby Greene eased past the rickety gate and made his way up the walk. It was late. His friends hid in the bushes, watching as he approached the porch. Bobby was determined to prove his manhood by peeking in the window where a single candle burned. With heart pounding against his ribs, he tiptoed toward the dusty window.

A voice slithered from the shadows with all the menace of a coiled snake. “I wondered how long it’d take for people to start pestering me.”

Bobby wanted to turn and run right then but his legs wouldn’t move. Mustering the last of his courage, he swiveled his head enough to make out the faint outline of an old woman rocking in a chair. He prayed she didn’t hex him with a magical incantation.

“I’m . . . I’m sorry to bother you, ma’am. We . . . I . . . just wondered who lived here.”

“What’s it to you? I don’t recall issuing an invitation to tea. It’s pretty late for Welcome Wagon.” The old woman rose to her feet, stepping into a pool of moonlight. Her wrinkled face and narrowed eyes left no doubt that his fears were valid . . . she was definitely a witch. “Why don’t you admit it? You’re here because your friends put you up to it.”

Bobby’s face turned ashen. “You’re right. It was a stupid thing to do. I apologize.” His feet finally responded to the command to move. Easing forward, he winced as the skirt of her long, black dress brushed against his leg. “I’ll be on my way now.”

“Not so fast, young man. Anyone who ventures out here in the dead of night must be a damn fool or have something to prove. Now if you’re a fool, Bobby Greene, I’m gonna make you sorry you ever stepped foot on my property but if you’re as strong on the outside as you appear on the inside, I might have a way to sweeten that pittance you earn at McCrory’s Dry Goods. Do you know how to use a hammer and nail?”

Bobby mouth opened and closed. How did the old woman know his name? Or where he worked? “I reckon I’m pretty good with tools,” he muttered at last. “I helped my dad build a barn last year.”

“I don’t need a barn. I need this fence repaired so it doesn’t fall down.” Her eyes seemed to bore right through him. “Be here at one o’clock tomorrow. The sooner you get started the better.”

With those final words, she slinked into the shadows. A sudden chill followed her departure. The next sound he heard was the quiet swish of the front door as it closed.

Bobby sprinted down the walk, scaling the short gate with a leap instead of pausing to open it. There was no sign of the other boys when he reached the clump of bushes where they’d hidden. He walked home alone, angry his friends abandoned him in the face of death. The old woman could have killed him. Cut out his heart. Boiled him alive. Or even worse, turned him into a toad.

Instead, she offered him a job.

Climbing into bed that night, Bobby vowed never to return to the Elkins house. By morning however, he changed his mind.

Bobby wanted a truck in the worst way. It would take him a year working as a stocker to earn enough for a down payment. McCrory’s paid minimum wage and only offered twelve to fifteen hours a week. Perhaps working for the witch wasn’t such a bad thing.

When he arrived at the Elkins house, Bobby found a large rock anchoring an envelope to the front porch. Inside was a handwritten note instructing him to use the tools in the shed to repair the picket fence. The woman wrote that she expected the job to last a few weeks. He was to come and go without bothering her.

Bobby pulled out another sheet of paper. Wrapped inside were several large bills.

Few words were spoken between Bobby and the woman during his visits. Occasionally when he rummaged through the shed for more nails or lumber, a tall glass of lemonade and cookies would be on the porch when he returned. He figured it was her way of showing approval for his work.

One day, as he nailed a board in place, the front door opened. The woman’s withered figure hovered behind a dirty screen door.

“Bobby, come here.” He dutifully approached, pausing to wipe the sweat from his neck with a faded bandanna. “I need help washing the windows and planting flowers.”

“Yes, ma’am. Can it wait until I’m done with the fence?”

“I don’t want your help,” she snapped. “Men don’t know nothin’ about such chores. Next time you come, bring that girl who works at the ice cream shop.”

“Which one?” He hoped it wasn’t Rachel Stoddard. She was the most popular girl in school and the mayor’s only daughter. There was no way she would dig in the dirt with manicured nails.

“The quiet one who works in back.” When he frowned, the old woman added, “The girl with long brown hair. She doesn’t talk much.”

“You mean Laurie Evers? I barely know her. She keeps to herself.”

“Then get to know her and make sure she comes with you next time.”

“But . . .”

“Don’t argue, young man.” The door slammed before he could say another word.

On the way home that night, Bobby struggled with how to convince a girl he barely knew to work for the town’s witch. The task proved easier than he imagined.

Bobby’s part time job at the Elkin’s place had elevated him to a local celebrity. He was the only person in town allowed on the property. A group of women from the local church decided to invite the witch to bible study. She refused to open the door when they arrived and supposedly chased them off the porch with a broom when they persisted.

Laurie Evers discovered Bobby lurking at the back door of the Ice Cream Parlor when she was locking up for the night. She didn’t think Bobby Greene even knew her name much less where she worked so it was a surprise to find him waiting for her.

Bobby stammered through a quick explanation of why he was there. The more he talked, the more he realized Laurie would never agree to such an outrageous proposition. And who could blame her? He sounded like an idiot. A bewitched idiot.

To his surprise, Laurie accepted the job.

After Bobby left, she pondered her decision, still not certain why she agreed to such an odd proposal. Perhaps because Bobby looked so cute as he pleaded for her cooperation. Or maybe it was curiosity. Laurie had heard the rumors about a witch living in the Elkins house. She didn’t believe such nonsense but it would be fun to do something no one else had done besides Bobby . . . actually meet the woman.

On the other hand, such an encounter would undoubtedly attract lots of attention, just like it had for Bobby. She shunned the limelight, preferring to stay in the background, observing rather than being seen. This was one time when Laurie felt compelled to risk the consequences. She couldn’t shake the feeling that if she said no, regret would haunt her the rest of her life.

The next afternoon, Bobby met Laurie at the Elkins house. She wasn’t sure what to expect but it wasn’t even close to what she found when they arrived. A note had been left under a bag of potting soil detailing what plants to repot and where they were to be placed, as well as instructions for weeding the exterior gardens, a task that would take several weeks.

The days passed quickly after that. Lemonade and cookies appeared magically on the porch from time to time with Laurie and Bobby chatting over the refreshments. Bobby liked the way the sun glinted on Laurie’s soft brown hair, bringing out golden highlights that crowned her head in a halo. And the way her smile went all the way to her eyes each time he spoke. He liked it so much he found himself thinking about her even when they weren’t together.

One day, as he reached for a cookie, Bobby’s arm bumped Laurie’s head. The next thing he knew, they were kissing and neither seemed eager to stop. He’d kissed other girls but never felt like this . . . like he’d been waiting his whole life for this one moment. When he opened his eyes and saw the glow on Laurie’s face, he knew she felt the same.

The next day, as they marched up the crumbling walk hand in hand, Bobby noticed the screen door blowing back and forth. “That’s odd. She usually keeps it latched.” He hopped onto the porch with Laurie close behind. The front door was open, too, but the old woman was nowhere in sight. Bobby called through the opening.  “Ma’am? Ma’am, are you home?”

Laurie pushed past him, peering into the shadows. “What if she’s ill? Or sick?”

“She’ll be mad if we go inside without permission.”

“She’ll be madder if we stand on this porch all day and she needs our help. She might have fallen.”

Bobby hesitated, then pulled open the screen door and stepped inside. He wasn’t prepared for what he saw. “Laurie . . . come here.”

She eased through the entrance and stopped. The foyer was in complete disarray. A thick layer of dust covered the floor, marred only by their footprints. Cobwebs hung from the chandelier, stretching to a dark corner.

“It doesn’t look like anyone has lived here in years.”

Bobby inched into the parlor, followed closely by Laurie. An envelope perched against a tall vase on the mantel. It wasn’t yellow and dusty like everything else so he retrieved it.

A single sheet of paper was inside. He unfolded it, reading the words aloud. “For everything there is a time.”

“I don’t understand.” Laurie took the note and read it.

“The rest of our money is in here, too.” He met Laurie’s gaze. “I guess she’s gone.”

Laurie wandered to an old desk near a window and picked up a photograph. She stared at it for several seconds before motioning Bobby to join her. “She’s right. For everything there is a time.”

He didn’t understand until she handed him the picture. Bobby looked at the image then back at Laurie. Then at the photograph. The man in the Civil War uniform looked just like him – and the woman standing next to him bore an uncanny resemblance to Laurie.

Turning it over, he read the faded scrawl across the back. “Robert and Laurel Elkins, Wedding Day, 1864”.

Now, I don’t know if that story is true. Bobby Greene told it to me right before he and his pretty little bride moved to Louisville, and he’s never been one to lie. The Elkins house burned down shortly after they left, which put a stop to the stories of ghosts and witches.  But I hear tell when the moon is bright and the sky is clear, a young Civil War soldier and his bride can be seen walking hand in hand past the old homestead ruins . . . but then again, it could be the shadows of days gone by.

copyright 2017 – Debra S. Sanders

FISH BAIT

The Lore:

Crazy Woman Camp, Why, AZ

In the far reaches of southern Arizona, just north of Organ Pipe National Monument, lies the tiny hamlet of Why. Little more than a wide spot in the road, the town’s main attraction is a rustic market and gift shop –  aptly named “The Why Not Store”. One can purchase fuel, snacks and Mexican insurance before traveling across the border. Some partake of homemade biscuits and gravy at the restaurant next door, and many of those folks are winter visitors who populate the nearby RV parks and BLM land in campers and RVs.

Gunsight Wash is a favorite of those “dry campers” – people with self-contained rigs who prefer solitude to a crowded RV park.

The local Border Patrol division maintains a strong presence in the area, monitoring the adjacent Tohono O’odham tribal land providing campers with a sense of security. Well traveled routes are used by illegal immigrants and Mexican drug cartels. Unfortunately, many illegals venturing into the U.S. with a backpack of canned tuna, a change of clothes and dreams of wealth face harsh conditions in the desert. Hikers and OHV riders often stumble upon shallow graves or sun bleached skeletons.

On a day hike near Gunsight Wash, I discovered a primitive but elaborate campsite with an odd history. It was located in the middle of nowhere, next to a dry wash, which made the find even more astounding. How could anyone survive out there for any length of time?

At first glance, it was obvious the occupant exerted great effort to make the area “homey”, circling bushes and trees with carefully placed stones.

A four-foot tall rock oven with metal grates had been built beneath a sprawling Ironwood tree. Positioned on top of the fireplace was an empty liquor bottle bearing a hand-written card – “Crazy Woman Camp”. Upon closer inspection, I found a note inside which read:

“The way the story goes is this – A woman and her son lived in town where the son got into drugs and such. Determined to free her son of his demons, she set camp on this spot. Days filled with desert solitude, loneliness & hard living, the son was forced to give up his sinful ways. Living in a tent, they built the stonework you see & buried their horse in a grave just to the west of here. Locals called her Crazy Woman but far from crazy, I think she was a loving mother who was willing to suffer along with son to bring him to a better life.”

After wandering around the area, I discovered two graves a short distance away which may or may not have been the final resting places of Crazy Woman and her son. Closer to the camp was a large mound where their horse allegedly was buried. Scratched into the surface of a flat stone read the words, “A Man’s Best Pal”.

I often wonder what happened to Crazy Woman. The desert and isolation can magnify irrational thought. Perhaps she could no longer function in society and found peace with her own reality in the harsh elements. Regardless, I feel there is more to her legacy than what was written inside that empty liquor bottle.

The Story:

Fish Bait

by Debra S. Sanders

Jack Brody eased back on the accelerator, bringing his ATV to a halt near a barren patch of desert next to an Ironwood tree. Removing his helmet, he glanced around the primitive campsite before shutting off the engine and disembarking.

She’s not here.

Walking to the back of his vehicle, he removed a case of water strapped to the rack and placed it next to the tree. A tiny puff of smoke emanated from a rock fireplace a few feet away, suggesting Crazy Woman might be hiding. He grinned. She was a feisty old gal.

“Hey, Nana . . . where you at?”

Jack sauntered to the edge of a wide wash and slid down the four-foot embankment to soft sand and gravel. It was hot and dry this time of year. Even the rattlesnakes stayed underground during the day. His brows drew together as he searched the dusty landscape. What if Nana was sick? Heatstroke  wasn’t uncommon during the summer months in southern Arizona, especially for the elderly. Why the hell an eighty-year-old woman would want to live out here was beyond his comprehension. Maybe she didn’t have any money or family – at least none who cared.

Jack scratched the back of his head, eyes running up and down the wash. One of his buddies said she moved to the desert with her son ten years ago. The teenager fell into dangerous habits involving drugs and she thought the isolation would cure him of his “demons. If that were true, the kid must have hauled ass a long time ago. And ho would blame him if he did? This place was as close to Hell as anyone could get without dying.

He crawled up the embankment and headed for the shade, still worried but needing a cooler place to think. Nana was tough but not that tough.

After discovering the withered old woman during his first week working at the local Border Patrol division, Jack took it upon himself to bring her care packages on a regular basis, keeping his off-duty activities a secret until another agent saw him in the desert.

“She’s loco,” he warned Jack. “We stay away from Crazy Woman’s camp. You best do the same.”

Jack refused to heed his co-worker’s advice, continuing to make weekly visits to the woman he nicknamed “Nana” and establishing an uneasy trust similar to feeding a feral animal.

As he brushed dirt from his jeans, a low, husky voice crept over Jack’s shoulder like a slithering serpent.

“Jaaaack . . .”

He whirled around, smiling at the hunched figure eyeing him from a few feet away. White hair stuck out in tufts from under a sweat-stained cowboy hat. Coppery wrinkles lined her face, the result of too much time under an unforgiving sun.

“I brought you a case of water.”

“I see. You good boy, Jack.”

He wiped his brow with the back of his hand. “It’s gonna be real hot for the next few days. Why don’t I take you to Ajo? One of the churches opened a shelter for people with nowhere to go.”

“I got a place. This my home.”

“It’s a tent, Nana, not a home.”

She jutted her chin and looked away. “Home.”

“When was the last time you ate?”

“Yesterday. Maybe longer. But today, Jack, I eat good. Let me cook for you.”

He arched a brow. “What you got to cook?”

The old woman flashed a broad smile. Most of her front teeth were missing, evidenced by a gaping hole. “Big surprise. You stay, Jack. I cook.”

His mouth twisted to one side, contemplating the invitation. He was off work until Thursday. It wasn’t as if anyone was waiting at home. Why the hell not? “Okay, Nana. I’ll stay but I want to work for my supper. What can I do to help?”

“Rocks. I need more rocks for my garden.”

Jack bit his tongue to keep from laughing. No wonder all the agents called her Crazy Woman. She’d gathered stones from the desert and boxed in every bush and tree around her camp. Some of the edgings were shaped in hearts, others a linear border. Further away, small bits of white quartz formed a maze. Or walk. Or some kind of odd shape she’d dreamed up in her head. Not that it mattered because in Nana’s mind it was pretty.

Pulling a backpack from his ATV, Jack wandered a short distance into the desert and began filling the bag with baseball sized rocks. Damn, it was hot. How did the old gal keep from getting heat stroke?

He looked up just as she removed something from inside a ragged piece of old canvas. What the heck was she up to now?

Jack dumped his bag of rocks near the Ironwood tree and grabbed one of the waters from the case. He drained half the contents while watching her place a slab of pink meat on the grill. “What ’cha got there?”

“Fish.”

His brows shot up. “Fish? Where’d you get fish, Nana? There ain’t no water around here.”

“I know where to go but not as many fish as there used to be. Harder to catch.” She stoked the coals without looking up. Smoke curled around her hunched figure, hiding her face.

He shook his head and walked back to the ATV. That wasn’t fish. Maybe rabbit. Jack stopped and looked back. Aw, hell . . . it was probably coyote.

“Jack, come here. Eat.”

His first instinct was to leave but he didn’t want to hurt the old woman’s feelings. Wiping his hands on a faded rag, Jack turned and made his way back to the masonry fireplace.  “Smells good.”

She shot him a toothless grin. “I smoked this piece just for you. It real tender. Sit on that rock.”

He did as requested, easing his large frame onto a flat topped boulder. A few minutes later, gnarled fingers handed him a six-inch strip of meat on a mat woven from grass. A gooey sauce lathered its surface topped with what he guessed were dried herbs.

Jack stared at the charred meat for a full minute before tearing off a sliver and sliding it into his mouth. He rolled it over his tongue before swallowing, surprised by the flavor. Not gamey at all. And tender, just like she said.

“This is good, Nana. I really like the sauce.”

The old woman cackled. “See. I tell you.”

He needed no encouragement to finish the meal. “It was nice of you to share your food. I know you don’t have a lot to eat.”

She shrugged. “It been slow fishing with all this heat but I got good bait. I know how to catch ’em.”

“Well, you’ll have to tell me your secret. The last time I went fishing, I didn’t even get a bite.”

Blue eyes twinkled beneath the brim of her hat. “Used to be easier. You soldier men chase the fish away.”

A thick line formed between his brows. Was she talking about the Border Patrol agents? “How did we chase the fish away?”

Nana didn’t answer, her pinpointed gaze tracking his movements as Jack reached for his water bottle..

“Man, you must have coated that meat in red pepper. It sure is spicy.” The back of his hand swiped across his forehead. “I’m sweating even in the shade. How do you stand this heat?”

“I like it hot. Good for jerky. Dries the meat real fast.”

Jack handed her the grass mat before struggling to his feet. “Whoa, I’m feeling a little dizzy. Mind if I stay for a bit? Just until it cools down.”

“No, no . . . you sit. Feel better soon.”

His knees buckled as he tried to sit, causing him to miss the boulder and land in the dirt. Something was wrong. The fish must have been tainted. “I . . . I think I got food poisoning. I don’t feel so good.”

“Not poison. That ruin meat. Just herbs to make you sleep.”

Jack blinked several times as his vision blurred. His tongue felt thick, swollen. Opening his mouth, he gasped for air. Words gurgled in his throat but never made it past his lips. Pushing to his feet, Jack took one step before collapsing.

“He asleep?” A man with long hair and a scraggly beard emerged from a deep hole covered with brush.

The woman nodded. “Get the rope, boy.”

She tied it to Jack’s feet. The man threw the other end over a sturdy limb and hoisted the unconscious body into the air. He walked away, returning a few minutes later dragging an empty metal drum which he centered under Jack’s body.

Nana grabbed Jack’s hair and pulled his head back, revealing a wide expanse of neck. “I stick him. He bleed out quick. You get rid of motor car.”

“Can’t I keep it, Mama?”

“No, no, not good. Someone might see it.”

“But I want it. None of the other fish ever have anything we can use.”

“You get rid of it like I say!” The old woman whirled around, pointing a bony finger at her son. “I’ll sharpen the knife. We get lots of jerky outta this one.” She tugged on Jack’s arm, examining the muscular tone of his shoulder. “This white meat. Not like those dark ones we catch in the desert. I feed you good, boy.”

“Do ya want me to bury the bones in the same place as the others?”

She nodded. “Now you know why I say dig that hole wide and deep. Gotta cover up these fish guts afore they start stinkin’!”

Unmarked Graves

The Lore

Old Mortimer Cemetery, Mortimer, NC

Mortimer, North Carolina was a thriving logging town in the early 1900’s. Close to 800 families settled there to work at the Ritter Sawmill but  over-harvesting of trees followed by a 20” rainfall in one day created the perfect conditions for a flood that wiped out the community. It was touted as one of the worst in Caldwell County history. The Ritter Company decided not to rebuild and left.

United Mills Company opened a cotton mill in 1922, which briefly resurrected the town’s former prosperity. The Civilian Conservation Corps built Camp F-5 at Mortimer during the Great Depression, and by 1933, the hard working crews had repaired and rebuilt most of the damaged buildings from the 1916 flood.

On August 13, 1940, however, Wilson Creek once again emerged from its banks as a result of a coastal hurricane. The creek quickly rose to a flood stage of 94 feet and decimated the town. Oddly, one of the only structures left standing was the CCC building. Two major floods in a 24 year span was enough to drive remaining families from the area.

Today, much of the mountain property in the northwestern part of Caldwell County is public land held by the U.S. Forest Service.

Thorpe’s Creek Falls is a short hike from the Mortimer Campground which sits adjacent to the CCC building and deteriorating hillside cemetery. There are allegedly 20 unmarked graves, and many more rounded stone markers with no inscription. Grave sites date back to the 1800’s.

The memorial stone at the top of Thorpe’s Falls remains a mystery. No one is certain of who put it there or why. Upon personal inspection, it appeared more modern, perhaps from a poured concrete mold. A camper who frequents the area mentioned the purple Iris and violets growing across the creek from the marker. He cites that this is the only place within miles where the flowers can be found growing wild.

The Story

Unmarked Graves

by Debra S. Sanders

It was a brisk afternoon in late March – a day when the air was still cold enough to form vapor clouds with each breath. Lucy Bennet buried her chin beneath the knitted scarf circling her neck and hopped across strategically placed stones in the middle of Thorpe’s Creek. After landing on the opposite side of the sloping bank, she paused to soak up the scene. It reminded her of an English countryside – not that she’d ever visited such a place – but the photos from tourism books at Morganton library looked just like this.

Lucy liked to read about far-off, exotic locations. They fueled daydreams of an adventurous life filled with travel and friends of a more “elevated” societal standing. Sometimes, she imagined herself a personal assistant to a famous movie star. Or a wealthy tycoon’s secretary. On rare occasions, when she dared to dream big, Lucy closed her eyes and pretended to be the wife of an international diplomat.

On this particular day, however, Lucy was immersed in a different sort of daydream. Something more suited to her lot in life. She and fiancé, James Marmott, planned to elope.

James was a good man, older than her twenty-two years, and a skilled mechanic. He earned a decent wage at the garage in Colletsville, and marriage would allow her to relocate from the small, rural community where she’d lived all her life.

At one time Mortimer, North Carolina had been a bustling logging town but over-harvesting of the trees, devastating forest fires and two particularly nasty floods destroyed the area. The town’s residents were too discouraged to start over so they fled down the mountain in search a better life. Mortimer became a ghost town overnight.

After a few years, people began to venture back along the eight miles of dusty, dirt road but only to frequent a small National Forest campground or frolic and fish in Wilson Creek. They were seasonal visitors. It was too isolated for most folk to live there full time. The hardy souls who remained managed to carve out a life on the mountain and call themselves locals.

The remote area offered few options for a young woman of marrying age so Lucy considered herself darned lucky when James came courting. They dated off and on for over a year. Her pappy wasn’t too keen on the young man at first and Lucy knew why. Pappy didn’t want to lose his cook and housekeeper. After her mother died when Lucy was twelve, she took over caring for her father and two younger brothers.

Lucy didn’t mind so much at first. She liked feeling all “growed up”. But when she told Pappy about her plans to attend the community college in Morganton, he was quick to remind her that her first duty was to God and second to family. Even though she was crushed, Lucy dutifully obeyed and stayed at home, working summers at the small market near Wilson Creek Visitor Center to help pay for her younger brother’s school supplies and clothes.

That was four years ago. The boys were now in high school with part time jobs of their own. Jeb would graduate this year and Bruce the year after – which gave Lucy a sense of purpose. It was time to shed the familial shackles. Time to live her own life . . . past time.

She followed Thorpe’s Creek through Mortimer Campground to where a trail cut through the dense foliage. The camp sites were still closed for the winter so she didn’t have to share the path with summer visitors. It was a popular hike for campers and tourists in the spring and early summer. Rhododendron lined the well-worn trail leading to Thorpe’s Falls where the water spilled in gentle layers over a solid rock face. A shallow pool gathered at the base, offering cool respite from the heat of the day before tumbling over scattered stones and mossy slopes as it frolicked through the campground.

By the time Lucy reached the falls, her heart pounded with excitement. She picked her way over the wet, slippery stones and took a narrow path to the left of the falling water. Once she reached the top of the hill, she turned right, scampering over a fallen log and following the trail to the creek. James was already there, a big smile on his face.

“Hi, honey! C’mon over here.”

He held out a hand, helping her down a short drop. Lucy immediately fell into his embrace, warmed by the circle of his arms. “I can’t believe we’re getting married tonight. I’m so happy.”

His embrace tightened as James kissed the top of her head. “Me, too, but there’s been a slight change in plans.”

“What?” Lucy pulled back just enough so she could tip her head and meet his gaze.

“I have to work for George tonight. I promised to cover his shift a few weeks ago and plumb forgot until he mentioned it today.” When James saw the disappointment on Lucy’s face, he rushed to add, “It’s just one day. We’ll drive to Charlotte tomorrow and get married. I promise. Besides, the extra money means we can rent a motel room for the weekend. Won’t that be fun?”

She nodded, trying not to cry.

James pulled her down beside him on a moss covered log and slipped an arm around her shoulders. “I love you, Lucy. Nothing will ever change that.”

“I love you, too.” It was true. She did love James but the fact he promised to take her away from Mortimer added a sort of desperation to her feelings. She glanced forlornly at the tiny clearing next to the creek, then back at James, trying not to let her emotions get away from her. “It’s so pretty here. It just needs a little English Ivy and violets.”

“There you go again,” James grinned, “daydreaming about England. I’ll take you there someday. I surely will.”

She nestled her head against his shoulder. “That would be wonderful.”

“There’s nothing I won’t do for you, darlin’. I wouldn’t want to go on livin’ if anything happened to you.”

“Aw, you’re just saying that.”

His hands cupped her face as his gaze pinned her with an earnest expression. “I mean it, Lucy. You’re my whole world. I will never love another woman the way I love you.”

Lucy sighed and submitted to his passionate kiss. James would take care of her. Love and cherish her. Her dreams would finally come true.

A half-hour later, Lucy bid James farewell. He offered to walk her to the road but she told him to go ahead. She wanted to sit and enjoy the quiet serenity of the falls for a little longer.

After he left, Lucy meandered to a narrow, leaf strewn ledge overlooking the waterfall. She’d waited eight years to escape what felt like indentured servitude to her family. I suppose one more day won’t kill me. She inhaled deeply of the crisp mountain air and straightened her shoulders, slipping back into her role of homemaker. If she left now, there’d be enough time to bake a pan of cornbread for supper. Pappy always liked hot cornbread with his ham and beans.

Lucy strode purposefully down the trail and across the deserted camp sites. She’d just reached the white Forest Service building when a faint glow emanated from the wooded hill behind it. That’s odd, she frowned. Are the woods on fire?

The only thing up there was an old cemetery. Everyone said it was haunted. Last year, a group of paranormal investigators filmed an episode for a television show about the alleged spirits from unmarked graves that frequented the rundown, forgotten burial ground. It had created quite a stir in the small community.

Lucy’s eyes brightened.  Perhaps they were back. The glow was probably from the lights used by the camera crew. They could be filming right now!

She darted up the overgrown road running parallel to the wooden building. Maybe they’ll hire me as an extra. Thoughts of a budding acting career quickened her pace. By the time Lucy reached the top of the rutted dirt lane and darted into the clearing of trees, she was out of breath.

She stood at the entrance to the decaying cemetery, gasping for air as she surveyed the rusted, broken fence around two older graves. One gate was missing. The other barely attached by a single hinge. Her gaze swept to the left, focusing on a scattering of broken granite stones. Some still retained the familiar rectangular shape of a headstone while others were not much more than a medium sized river rock. Inscriptions had long since disappeared beneath the ravages of wind and rain.

Lucy frowned. There were no camera crews so what had created the strange light?

Glancing around, a bewildered expression crinkling her brow, Lucy picked her way between the unkempt headstones. A mist formed along the tree line at the back of the clearing, next to the oldest section of the cemetery. Lucy eased closer to a row of broken, falling down markers, surprised to find an old woman kneeling next to one, head bowed.

Grey hair peeked from beneath a black veil covering her face and shoulders. It matched the long dress covering most of her legs and booted feet.

“Ma’am? Are you alright?” Lucy hated to disturb the grieving woman but thought it odd someone her age would be in the cemetery alone.

The bent figure stiffened. After a few seconds, her head nodded but she kept her gaze downward. “I’m fine, dear. Just saying goodbye to an old friend.”

Lucy took a step closer, a twinge of compassion shooting through her. It must be awful to reach the age where you outlived acquaintances and family. “I know how hard it is to lose someone. My mama died eight years ago. She’s not here, though. Pappy buried over by Edgemont.”

This time the elderly woman looked up. Lucy was surprised by the twinkle in the bright blue eyes as she smiled and struggled to her feet. “Are you from Mortimer?”

“Yes, ma’am. Lived here all my life. Pappy owns a farm just down from Betsey’s Ole Country Store. My name is Lucy Bennet.”

“Bennet? I don’t recall any Bennets in Mortimer. You must be new to the area.”

“Goodness, no. Grandpappy bought land by the old railroad trestle back when he worked at Ritter Sawmill. Of course, that was before the flood. My family has lived on that same plot for almost a hundred years.”

“Hmmm, that makes you third generation.” A strange expression came over her wrinkled features. “Are you planning on staying here? Raising your family in Mortimer?”

Lucy shook her head. “No way. I got two younger brothers. I’m sure one of them will keep the farm going. They ain’t got as much ambition as me. I’m moving to Colletsville as soon as I get married tomorrow,” she boasted proudly.

“That’s a shame. Mortimer keeps losing its residents. Soon there won’t be anybody left.”

“No offense, ma’am, but there ain’t many left now.”

“I know – that’s why we have to keep people here. My daddy was one of the founding families. He was probably the one who hired your grandfather at the lumber mill.”

Lucy’s mouth curved upward. “That was a long time ago.” She glanced up at the sky, surprised to see the translucent glow growing brighter. It was larger now, too, forming a dome over the cemetery. “I do declare, that is the oddest sight I’ve ever seen.”

“What, dear?”

“The sky. It’s strange. Kinda like the Northern Lights.”

The woman turned her wrinkled face upward. For the first time, Lucy noticed the grey pallor to her skin. The flesh crinkled like dry newspaper. A large, gaping wound covered one side of her cheek, and next to the blackened edge, Lucy thought she saw something move under the skin.

A shiver ran down her back. “It’s . . . gettin’ late. I gotta go.” Apprehension tightened around her chest, making it hard to breathe as she swiveled on her heel and prepared to run.

Bony fingers clamped around her arm with a strength that belied the feeble woman’s age. “Not so fast, my dear. We still have things to discuss.”

Lucy’s eyes riveted to the skeletal hand, shocked to find thick, deformed nails biting into her flesh – so deeply, a tiny rivulet of blood trailed past her wrist. “Let . . . let me go.”

The woman ignored her plea. She pulled Lucy to a small mound next to the decaying fence. “Do you know what this is?” she said, pointing with her other hand to the barren earth.

“N. . . no.”

“It’s an unmarked grave.” She met Lucy’s gaze with an icy stare. The prominent twinkle from earlier was gone, replaced by an unmistakable glitter of malice. “There’s more over there.” Her head bobbed to the right. “Forgotten souls, some too poor for a proper burial. No one cared about anything but that damned old sawmill back in the day. Not even my daddy. He was too cheap to pitch in for a headstone so he just dumped me here, like insignificant trash.”

“I’m real sorry, ma’am. I’m sure that wouldn’t happen today.” Lucy struggled to free herself from the vice-like grip.

“You think not?” The wind picked up, howling through the tall pines surrounding the cemetery , and evoking a dust devil next to the old woman’s feet as leaves and dirt rose in a plume. “Ever wonder why the CCC building and this hillside were the only things to survive the flood? We weren’t about to let those bastards get away so easy. The 800 . . . that’s what we call ‘em . . . the original families who formed this town . . . cast us aside. Every once in a while, one comes back – and we keep them here. Make ‘em pay for what they did.”

Lucy gave a final tug and freed herself from the bony grasp. “You’re crazy. I’m getting out of here.”

She could barely hear her own words above the roar of the wind. Except now, it seemed to be blowing against her with gale force strength. Each step met a growing resistance until finally she could not move at all. And then she heard them. Voices. They were all around her. Inside her. Evil, vicious words ripping through her head.

One glance over her shoulder confirmed Lucy’s worst fear. The old woman laughed. A mad, horrible sound that spewed past yellowed teeth and a gaping mouth. Tendrils of dust wrapped around Lucy’s ankles, tugging at her until she was prone on the ground. Her fingers clawed in the dirt as an unseen force dragged her backward.

It was impossible to stand; rocks and brush dug into her soft flesh. As Lucy’s unwilling body moved closer to the old woman’s outstretched arms, her insides tightened. Blue eyes glowed like burning embers . . . emitting tiny sparks that embedded into Lucy’s skin, scorching the delicate surface. She screamed in agony. Screamed in fear. And continued screaming long past the point she could hear anything but the gush of her own blood.

***

James Marmott placed a bouquet of violets and dark green ivy at the base of the marker, then read the words again out loud.

No farewell words were spoken.

No time to say goodbye.

You were gone before we knew it.

And only God knows why.

He’d left the small engraved stone at the top of Thorpe’s Falls almost two years ago, planting wild Iris bulbs, violets and English Ivy along the banks of the meandering creek. The ivy didn’t survive the winter but the flowers did and sprang to life each spring, a reminder of the love he’d shared with Lucy Bennet. He liked to think her spirit still lingered at their final meeting place, which was why he attempted to create an English garden for her to gaze upon.

“I miss you, Lucy, darlin’. I surely do.” James wiped a tear at the corner of his eye. “I don’t know where you went but I reckon you wouldn’t have left me of your own free will.” He sat down next to the marker and wrapped long arms around his knees, staring at the carpet of purple blooms across the stream. “I tried to make this pretty for you – like that English countryside you always talked about. I hope you like it.”

James sat there for a long time, recalling how he and Lucy planned their future at this very spot. Guilt riddled his thoughts. He’d never been able to shed the “what-ifs” – what if he’d not agreed to work for George that night? What if Lucy had accompanied him to the shop, and waited in his car until his shift ended. What if they’d driven to Charlotte and got married the next morning? What if he’d just said, “. . . to Hell with responsibility . . .” and claimed her as his own – six months before he felt financially stable enough to propose?

The last haunting option spurred him to ask Sadie Ritter to be his wife after only a few months of courtship. She was much younger, only eighteen on her recent birthday in February, but they’d “clicked” immediately. A fiery, passionate click that rivaled the feelings he shared with Lucy. The petite redhead was nothing like his first love. She hailed from Mortimer’s W. M. Ritter family who built the sawmill. It was her ancestors who created the once bustling community.

Sadie embraced her heritage with pride. No escaping to Colletsville for this one. She insisted they settle in Mortimer and work toward restoring the area to its former glory.

“I wish you were here, Lucy, but you’re not. I’m lonely . . . and Sadie, well, she’s a heckuva woman. I think you’d like her.” He paused a moment before rising to his feet. “I still love you, darlin’. Reckon I always will but life goes on. I need a son to carry on my name.” James cleared his throat. “I hope you understand. I surely do.”

The chill of an early April wind chased James down the path as he made a hasty retreat, slipping past the falls and half running, half walking to the trailhead. It was not until he emerged into the deserted campground that his uneasiness subsided.

It was just the aftermath of saying goodbye, he told himself as narrowed eyes searched the horizon. A storm brewed over the mountains, one that would bring a good amount of rainfall before morning. He quickened his pace. As he reached the entrance to the campground, James noticed an odd glow over the hill behind the Forest Service building.

That’s strange. I wonder if someone left a campfire unattended.

He walked along the road, then for some inexplicable reason, turned back toward the overgrown trail that led past the trees to the old cemetery.

James didn’t know what made him approach the road or why his pace quickened as he neared the small, forested hillside. All he knew was that he had to go. When he finally breached the clearing that opened into the rundown graveyard, he understood.

Standing there, in a faint mist, was his beloved Lucy, motioning him to join her at the back of the cemetery. At first, he couldn’t believe his eyes. His pulse raced. He began walking, then running to greet her. It was as if no time had passed. She looked exactly as she had the last time he saw her.

“Lucy! Is that really you . . .?” James paused to catch his breath, still blinking at her smiling face. “I don’t understand.”

“I know, my love. It’s crazy, isn’t it?” Her face beamed with an inner glow that rivaled the strange light above their heads. “I’ve waited so long for you to find me.”

Forgotten love, spurred by memories of passionate nights, drew him closer until at last his arms wrapped around her trembling body. “Lucy . . . darlin’ . . . I can’t believe you’re here. I’ve missed you so much.”

“I’ve missed you, too, James.”

“Where have you been?” He pulled back, a line forming between his brows. “I . . . thought you were . . . why did you leave me?”

“I didn’t want to go away. It was necessary.”

“Why?” Each time he dismissed a question, two more formed in his head.

“I needed to learn why it was wrong for me to move to Colletsville. My place is in Mortimer. You’ll stay with me, won’t you, James?”

He bit his lip as arm dropped to his sides. “It’s been a long time since you and I . . . since we planned to get married.”

“I know. The flowers are lovely. Thank you for planting them.”

“You . . . you saw them?”

“Of course. I know everything you do.”

He scratched the back of his head. “So, I reckon you know about Sadie Ritter?”

“Yes. I admit I was disappointed when you proposed to her. After all, you did say you would love me forever.”

“I do love you. I always will . . . but I didn’t think you were coming back. I . . .”

“It’s alright, James. I understand. Truly, I do.”

His eyes sought Lucy’s face, softened by her forgiveness. “You’re one of a kind, darlin’.” He kissed her cheek, surprised by the coolness of her skin. “Shall I give you a ride to your Pappy’s house?”

“That’s not necessary. I live here now.”

“Where?” James glanced around, anxiety settling in his belly like a lead weight. As his gaze circled to Lucy, he tried to hide his uneasiness. “Well, then, I best be headin’ home. It was real good seeing you.”

“Wait.” Lucy took his hand, pulling him closer. “I want to show you something. See this mound?” She pointed at a bare spot on the ground. “It’s an unmarked grave.”

“O . . . okay . . .”

James licked his dry lips. There was something not right about Lucy. Her skin looked grey. Her eyes . . . He attempted to pry her fingers from his hand but her grip was too strong. “Let me go!”

“I can’t do that.” The words seemed to swirl around him as the wind picked up, howling through the pine trees. “You and I were meant to be together. It’s destiny.”

“Noooo. . .” James planted his feet in the hard soil but it was no use. His body slid forward, toward the gaping hole opening up in the ground.

“Don’t feel bad. We’re just the means to an end. It’s not us they want – it’s Sadie Ritter. And you’re going to bring her here. We’ll get them all eventually . . . one by one.”

James opened his mouth to scream but nothing came out. It was as if the old woman standing behind Lucy had snatched the sound right from his throat. And then he heard them . . . the voices. . .

***

They say there are twenty unmarked graves in the Old Mortimer Cemetery. But the number of bodies occupying those graves is anybody’s guess.

Picher Perfect

The Lore:

Northeastern Oklahoma is often called “Green Country” due to the abundance of man made lakes and heavily treed, rolling hills. Tucked a few miles from the Kansas border lies Picher, a modern day ghost town described by one local news source as “The biggest environmental disaster you’ve never heard of”.

Picher is surrounded by huge piles of “chat” – white, chalky tailings – the aftermath of lead extraction from nearby mines. The small rock byproduct was used by local residents to fill their driveways. Children rode bicycles over the mounds. Picnics and family reunions were held there. The chat symbolized the town’s major employer and folks paid dutiful homage. They had no idea the towering mountains of rock concealed toxic hazards.

Nearly a hundred years of unrestricted subsurface excavation eventually destroyed Picher and left many adults and children with physical and developmental disabilities.

It all started in 1913 when zinc and lead were discovered in the area. The town sprang up overnight and was named after O. S. Picher, owner of the Picher Lead Company. By the 1920’s, the population neared 15,000 – with more workers commuting from other communities to labor in the mine or for service-related businesses. Lead and zinc mining consumed the tri-state corner consisting of Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas – and Picher was the crown jewel, producing more than $20 billion in ore over a thirty-year span. Fifty percent of the bullets used by the U.S. military during World War I came from the Picher mine. Production surged again during World War II.

The mine waste, or chat mounds – some as high as 150 feet tall, were piled all over Picher. They shadowed residential neighborhoods, schools, churches, and businesses. Fine, toxic dust blew over the town – and residents breathed it on a daily basis.

Water runoff from rain polluted the area’s creeks and water supplies. When mining finally ceased around 1970, underground tunnels were no longer pumped out. They eventually filled with even more toxic wastewater, infiltrating trees and soil.

Perhaps the worst consequence of the mine operations was the subsurface excavations. The huge caverns were tunneled so close to the surface; tree roots were later discovered in the roof of some of the shafts. Parts of Picher began to collapse into deep sinkholes. The Army Corps of Engineers determined 86 percent of the town’s structures were in danger of caving in.

Creeks where residents had gathered for swimming and fishing were contaminated by cadmium and arsenic. The people didn’t know. They attributed their chaffed, red skin to sunburn, not realizing it was actually chemical burn. Cancer in residents skyrocketed.

The EPA finally labeled Picher as a Superfund site – which means it was too toxic to clean up. Federal buyouts began with the government paying people to relocate. Even then, a handful of residents refused to leave.

It wasn’t until a destructive tornado hit the area in 2009 that the town ceased municipal operations.

Today, Picher is a modern ghost town. Tar Creek continues to run red from metal contamination. Chat piles, though not as tall, still dot the landscape. The clean-up and reclamation project is moving at a snail’s pace. It could be twenty or thirty years before the area is habitable again.

Read more about Picher and other strange tales in ROAD TALES, Myth, Lore and Curiosities from America’s Back Roads. 

Amazon – eBook and Print

The Story:

Picher Perfect

by Debra S. Sanders

“Oh, lawdy, I’m a dyin’ and ain’t nobody can save me.”

Dolly Mae Jarvis rocked back and forth, wrapping her arms across her stomach. The pain in her belly grew more intense with each breath, exacerbated by a thick, fetid salvia forming in her mouth. Her legs crumbled beneath her, sending her withering body to the floor.

It was the eighth attack in three months and the worse by far.

The first time, she thought premenstrual cramps had brought on the pain but it came at the wrong time of the month. A week later, it happened again – only this time it was so severe she spent the day in bed with a heating pad.

Her neighbor, a kindly old widow named Maude, tended to her with homemade soup and herbal tea. When that did little to ease her discomfort, Dolly went to the local clinic. Seventy-five dollars and a sympathetic smile later, she was told, “It’s stomach flu. Everybody’s got it. Just let it run its course.”

Dolly Mae went back to the clinic between attacks four and five. After extracting a vial of blood for tests, it was determined she was anemic. The doctor administered a B12 injection and sent her home.

During the seventh attack, the pain rendered Dolly unconscious. Maude called her mother, a woman devoid of parental instincts, and demanded she take the twins while Dolly Mae recuperated. It was a full week before the poor girl regained her strength, primarily due to Maude’s nurturing and home cooked meals.

But now she was back to square one, rolling from side to side, racked with pain and guilt. I’m dying. What will happen to my babies? They were only three. They needed her. She couldn’t die. Not yet. If anything happened to her, the state would surely send her children to foster care. Her mother wouldn’t take them and their daddy ran off a month after they were born. There was no one else but her to give them the love they deserved.

A tear trickled down her cheek.

“Dolly Mae! Oh dear, are you sick again?” Maude was at her side, smoothing the hair from her face. “C’mon, honey, let’s get you in bed.”

“Mama’s bringing the kids home tomorrow. How can I take care of them like this?” she sobbed.

“Tsk, tsk. Don’t you worry your pretty little head about those children. I’ll help you.”

“Who will raise them when I’m dead, Miss Maude?” The woman’s laughter irritated Dolly to the point that she rolled away in disgust.

“Look at me.” The sharp tone commanded obedience. Dolly rolled over, timidly meeting the woman’s stern expression. “You’re not going to die. Do you hear me?”

“The pain is awful. I can’t take much more.”

Maude’s face softened. “Do you want to get well? I can help but you must promise to follow my instructions without question.”

Dolly nodded. “I’ll do whatever you say.”

Maude placed her hands over Dolly’s stomach and closed her eyes. She began to hum a low, indistinct tune under her breath as she rotated the palms over her pelvic region then up to her sternum.

An intense heat flowed from the old woman’s hands even though they hovered a good four inches above the afflicted area. To Dolly’s amazement, the pain began to ebb. Minutes later, she sat up, feeling much better.

“Why ain’t you done that before?”

“You weren’t ready. This is only a temporary fix. You’re not healed yet. I need to get you on your feet for the next part. Are you sure you want to go through with this?”

“Yes, Miss Maude,” Dolly exclaimed enthusiastically. “Just tell me what to do.”

“Very well. I’ll have you in perfect health by tomorrow but you must do exactly what I say and not tell anyone about our plan. Do you promise?” The girl nodded. “I need a photograph from when you felt good. A time when you were smiling and happy. Then tonight, meet me at nine o’clock by the chat pile where the creek runs under the bridge. Bring a change of clothes. Something pretty.”

Dolly frowned. “I don’t understand. Why the chat pile? And why after dark?”

Maude tilted her head, shaking her finger. “No questions, remember?”

“Okay, sorry. I’ll be there and bring everything you said.”

“Good!” The older woman leaned in and kissed her cheek. “Not a word to anyone, dear.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Dolly waited until her neighbor was gone before getting out of bed. None of the woman’s instructions made sense but it didn’t matter. Maude had made the pain go away. Dolly had heard stories of people laying hands on diseased folks. She reckoned Maude must be one of those gifted healers.

Fishing a shoebox from her closet, Dolly sorted through a stack of old photos until she found the one she wanted. She barely recognized the happy, smiling face. The picture was taken right after she met Ben . . . right before she became pregnant. At eighteen, she was the prettiest girl in Picher, Oklahoma and the photograph proved it. Black hair cascaded across slim shoulders, framing almond eyes and full lips.

Dolly always wondered if her dark, good looks was the reason for her mother’s hatred. She bore no resemblance to the blonde haired, blue eyed woman who gave her life, only to the man who drank himself to death and left his wife in a mountain of debt.

But on this day she basked in the glow of new love. Ben had just asked her to marry him and happiness shone in her face. It was exactly the kind of picture Maude wanted.

A few hours later, Dolly closed the small overnight bag on her bed and headed for the door. She’d carefully folded a pink floral dress and placed it inside. It was the only dress she owned but at least it was pretty.

At eight forty-five, she began the ten minute walk to the chat pile, using a flashlight to illuminate the darkened street. Half the residents of the small mining town had already moved away. More were planning to do the same because they believed the lies from a bunch of nosy environmentalists.

They said mining sludge had contaminated the water and ground. Ridiculous, Dolly sniffed, picking up her pace. It was because of them the mine closed down. People lost jobs. Those meddling no-gooders ruined the whole town.

She glanced at the glistening mountains to her right – mountains of tailing. They were a reminder what life had been like before the do-gooders showed up. Children played on those hills. Families gathered for picnics on Sunday afternoons. If taking a dip in the swimming hole at the end of a hot summer day was bad for folks, why hadn’t anyone complained before now?

Dolly arrived at the low bridge and turned right, following the uneven ground to the chat pile rimming the creek. She shone her flashlight near the pool of dark water and spied Maude standing at the edge.

“Hello, dear. You’re right on time.”

Dolly picked her way down the sloping bank. “I brought everything you asked. Here’s the picture.” She pulled the photograph from her pocket and handed it to the older woman.

Maude glanced at the glossy image and smiled. “It’s perfect!”

“So what now?”

She returned the photo. “Chew this up and swallow it.”

Dolly’s eyes widened. “I ain’t eating that.”

Maude arched a brow. “We discussed this, young lady. You promised to do exactly what I say. Don’t you want to feel better for your babies?”

Dolly nodded. Her shoulders rose and fell before tearing up the photograph and stuffing the remnants into her mouth. After a few minutes of vigorous chewing, she managed to swallow.

“Good girl. Now take off your clothes and step into the water. You can leave your underwear on.”

Dolly took a step back. “It’s cold! And I didn’t bring no towel.”

“You won’t need one. Trust me.”

After a moment of hesitation, Dolly began to undress. She’d come too far to stop now. The thought of those awful stomach pains spurred her into action. She dropped her jeans and sweater on the ground and stepped into the slow moving stream. “Brrrr, it’s freezing.”

An effervescent laugh trailed over the water. “Just wade in past your knees. That should be enough.”

Dolly did as the woman asked, moving her bare feet through the soft silt until the water lapped at her thighs. She wrapped her arms around a shivering torso, struggling to stay warm. Suddenly, something touched her ankle, slithering across her calf. Dolly squealed and twisted from side to side, searching the ripples. It had felt like a snake but Cottonmouths wouldn’t attack like that. She tried to step back. It was as if her feet had settled into quick sand.

“Miss Maude, help me! Something’s out here and I can’t move.”

“No worries, child. You’ll be fine.”

Her breath came in short spurts as she struggled to free herself. That thing was crawling up her leg, circling itself around her like a boa constrictor. Dolly thrashed her hands against the water, twisting violently until she lost balance and fell backwards. She went under. When she emerged, her feet came out of the water. They were covered in a black sludge.

Sputtering through a mouthful of water, she called out again. “Miss Maude . . . help me!”

“It’ll be over in a minute, dear. Try to stay calm.”

Dolly didn’t understand why the old woman just sat there. She managed to regain her footing and stood up. The sludge slid past her waist, climbing up her torso and arms . . . like it was alive. The pain in her stomach was back, ten times worse than it had ever been before. It was as if her insides were being shoved into her throat.

Dolly tried to scream but it was too late. The black substance covered her mouth, her nose, her eyes . . .

Maude hummed a little tune as she watched the sun rise above the chat pile. Another beautiful day. She glanced at the black cocoon near her feet. Oh, good. It’s almost ready.

A few minutes later the pod began to wiggle, much like an egg in the process of hatching.

This one went better than any of the others, she smiled brightly, running a hand over the top of the murky water. The oily black substance crawled up her arm to the elbow.

“Yes, yes. She’s almost ready. We’ll bring the twins to you soon. It will be the start of a new generation.” Maude giggled as the sludge rolled off and disappeared beneath the surface.

The mine unwittingly awakened the entity from a centuries old sleep. It was now her lord and master. Maude had been serving it for nearly three decades. Those silly government bureaucrats thought they could close down the town and make it go away but they were wrong.

She’d been transitioning hybrids into society for years. They were positioned in local politics where talk of reclamation and rebuilding the town were going surprisingly well. It was only a matter of time until they went national. And international. It would be a global transformation. A perfect world built from a perfect host.

The cocoon shuddered. A large piece fell into the water. Then another. And another . . . until Dolly Mae emerged looking exactly like her photograph. Young, flawless, happy.

Maude handed her the overnight bag. “Get dressed, dear. We have much to do.”

A few minutes later, Dolly twirled around, smiling at her benefactor. “Does this body look okay?”

Maude nodded as her eyes turned completely black. “It looks picture perfect.”