Third Time's a Charm

This will be the last story for a while for a variety of reasons. I will be traveling out of the country starting this Friday. I’ll have no internet connection for most of the time. Yes, I expect withdrawal symptoms. My birthday occurs during that time (Dec 11). Feel free to send me birthday wishes. I’ll be back just before Christmas, but have things I have to do. What, you think I live for this blog? After Christmas I will be traveling again until the beginning of January. Also, the quiver of stories is getting low. I still have some and a few I’m still working on. I’ve been spending a lot of time on my novel. I just added a new chapter. That thing has become such a timesuck.

I’ve got articles and books I need to read on how to write a short story. There are some online courses and local college courses I thought about taking. But, all hubris aside, I like how I write. I don’t want to change that. Only enhance it.

And an article I read said that writers should read a lot to keep their minds fresh with ideas. So when am I supposed to find time for that? I plan an operation in March that will leave me bedridden for several weeks. Maybe I can catch up on my life then. Who ever thought I’d be looking forward to being an invalid?

In the meantime, happy Christmas, New Year and/or whatever celebrations you have this time of year. I find it interesting that all religions have some sort of holiday around the winter solstice.

I mentioned here before that I got a professional review of Do This One Thing. Following the reviewer’s comments resulted in losing a good bulk of the story, but I understood. I was confusing two stories as one. However, the review said I had “hit a homerun” in my description setting the place. I hated to lose that homerun, but it didn’t factor into the story I wanted to tell. I have decided to toss out some of his notions. Even though it is primarily a ghost story, it doesn’t hurt to set the scene of who is telling it. Does the interplay of Peter Falk and Fred Savage detract from the pleasure of The Princess Bride? Does the first half of The Wizard of Oz movie cause problems with the second half? Scene setting is important. With this in mind, I resurrected my original and took the parts I liked and tacked it onto the severely cut version. The resulting story probably suits no one but me. I don’t care. I like it. And the title always seemed kind of clunky to me, so I changed that also. I decided to use a word that my granddaddy would use. The new title is a better clue to what the story is about.

As an aside, I got a professional appraisal of another story. I asked him to take a look at It Went Down Like This. His review opened with: “This is a wonderfully entertaining story. The voice is a fun, familiar noir-style narration and the plot plays out at a mostly smooth and steady pace.” He goes on with some suggestions. I’m still working on them. That’s the kind of review I like. If you haven’t read the story yet, it’s in the archives. Go take a look. I have it on good authority it’s ‘wonderfully entertaining’.

The Haint

I remember sitting on Granddaddy’s porch when I was a child listening to the adults talking. I remember in particular a Saturday evening in summer in the mid nineteen-sixties. Granddaddy’s house sat on the top of a low hill, the highest land in the area. From his front porch we could see the entire community for a half mile or more in every direction. It was twilight, what Grandma always called the gloaming. The heat of the day had dissipated, and we were outside to catch any cool breezes that might float by. The front lawn twinkled with constellations of lightning bugs providing us with our own private light show. It was a large lawn, stretching about a hundred yards down to the main highway. Granddaddy always called his lawn the avenue. His avenue was dotted with cedars, catalpas and large hardwoods.

            A couple of my cousins and I were on the steps that evening. Mama and Daddy and my cousins’ parents had gone to the city to dinner and Grandma always watched us for them. So, we sat on the porch, watching the sky turn purple, the insect light show, munching on popcorn Grandma had just popped, and experiencing the joy of being a family. As sometimes happens in these types of gatherings the conversation turned to ghost stories.  

            Granddaddy said he remembered one from when he was a young man. Grandma said, “Good Lord, don’t tell that story again, honey. You dreamed it.”

“Dang if I did,” Granddaddy declared. “I know what I saw.”
“What?” we all wanted to know. He had us then. We were spellbound.

            I pulled off my straw hat and mopped my face with my damp bandana. Squinting, I looked up. The bright August sun appeared to be nearly directly overhead. Near enough to take our lunch break, anyway.

            “Time,” I said loud enough for both Sam and Lonnie to hear. They were both within a few yards, chopping cotton like me. We were in the big field north of the Bass Woods. Off to the south, just beyond the hedgerow was Sam’s house. We could have gone there to eat, but we saw no sense in walking all that way. Closer by was Miss Alice’s home, the old Garris place. While a simple two-story farmhouse, it boasted details that made it stand out among its peers. Things like delicate curlicues on the porch columns, fresh painted clapboards and shutters, a clipped privet hedge surrounding the front yard. Old Miss Garris didn’t get around much anymore, but she made sure her home reflected the style she had always embodied. It was near sixty years after the Great War and a couple after what they were calling a World War, but Miss Garris was still the lady of the manor, ready to serve tea on the verandah. Surely, she wouldn’t mind the three of us stopping to eat lunch under the shade of one of her elms. I figured I should ask before we drew water from her well, just to be polite.

            Lonnie, my wife’s Uncle Lonnie, trudged over to sit under the shade of a tree at the edge of the yard. At 40, he was getting too old to work in the fields all day. My cousin Sam and I, both in our 20s, each did twice the work of Lonnie, but he needed to feel useful. Sam sat beside Lonnie.

            “Let me pay our respects to Miss Alice before we pump the water,” I said to them as I headed up the back-porch steps. 

Getting no reply to several raps on the door, I was unsure if I should look in. Miss Garris was a little hard of hearing and I didn’t want to alarm her. Or if she was on the chamber pot, it would be embarrassing. But she was very old and might have fallen and need some help. I knew a colored girl comes in about once a week to help with cleaning but wasn’t sure when that was.

Lonnie and Sam were near enough that I could talk to them from the porch without shouting.

“When’s the last time you saw Miss Garris?” I asked them.

“She won’t at church on Sunday,” Sam said. “Somebody said she was feeling poorly.” For some reason I suddenly felt a shiver run down my spine.

“Reckon we ought to go in and look,” I said. There are no locked doors in our

neighborhood. We all trust each other. I opened the door a crack and spoke into it.

“Miss Garris. Can you hear me? You all right?” After a few minutes with no answer, I pushed the door open wider. As soon as I got the door open, I ran back into the yard and threw up. She was definitely dead and after several days in the August heat she was smelling. As I wiped my mouth on my sleeve, I heard Lonnie and Sam muttering to each other. 

Dammit, I thought. I’m sorry old Miss Garris died, but it would also make us lose a day of work.

“I guess one of us needs to go fetch either the doc or Sheriff Stephenson,” I said, rejoining them under the elm. 

“Why break off work? Let’s finish the field and then go get the doc. The old lady ain’t going nowhere.” Sam’s comment was practical if cold hearted.

“Naw, that ain’t right,” I told him. “That old lady deserves more respect than that. Plus, I don’t think I could work knowing a dead body was just a few yards away.” Lonnie nodded his agreement. He and Sam gathered our tools to take back to my barn. I headed off to Gumberry. It was only a mile or so through the woods and there was a telephone at the general store.

            They had her funeral the very next day. The preacher told me she had been dead at least three days and was far gone. He said he didn’t know if they would ever get the smell out of the house. They even had the funeral out by the graveside instead of inside the church. Prim old lady that she was, I know she’d have been embarrassed by all the mess.

***

            That night was hotter than ever. Mollie and I didn’t have any covers on the bed and all the windows were open. We even had the front door propped open to catch any breeze it could. Mollie had insisted that I install screens in the windows and a screen door at the front of our cabin so we could open it up at night without letting in mosquitos and other varmints. On nights like this I was happy I had listened to her. 

From where I was lying in bed, I could look through the door and down the long lane to the main road. I could see low-lying mist down by the end of the lane. It just drifted back and forth with whatever breeze caught it. After a bit it seemed the mist was drifting toward the house. As I watched it, it seemed to get thicker. Suddenly it took form and I could see it was a woman in a white dress standing outside the house. I froze in terror. I saw her put her hand on the doorjamb, lift her skirt and step into the house, walking through the screen door as if it weren’t there. I immediately recognized it as old Miss Garris.

            She stood there looking at me a minute. Then she walked over to the bed and reached down and touched my hand. Her hand was so cold. I wanted to scream but I couldn’t move or make no sound. She said, “Lloyd, they didn’t find my will. It’s in the Bible in my study. You need to tell them. Do this and you won’t ever see me again. You don’t do it, I’ll be back. I’ll haint you.” She disappeared suddenly, and it released me. I set to squalling.

            Mollie said I liked to have scared her out of ten year’s growth. She said I was yelling and wrenching around; raving about ghosts. She soothed me, saying I just dreamed it.

“There ain’t no such thing as ghosts, sugar,” she murmured to me, stroking my brow as she held me. Even drenched with sweat in the hot August night, I still shivered in fear.

“But it was so real.”

“Dreams usually are, honey. Just go back to sleep. I’m here and won’t let nothing happen. You’ll see. In the morning, it’ll all be gone.”

            “But she said she’d come back and haint me,” I whimpered.

            “Shh, honey. Mollie’s here. Go to sleep.”

***

The next day, I went to the general store, and Doc Moore happened to be there. I told him a lie. I said Miss Garris told me before she died that her will was stuck in a Bible in her study. I knew he wouldn’t believe me if I said her ghost told me. It turned out there was a second will in a Bible in her study. And like she promised, I’ve never seen her again. And I want to keep it that way.

Do It Again

As you may have guessed from an earlier post I have been sending my stories to magazines hoping to get one published. Some of the stories have appeared on this blog, some haven’t. I’ve received mostly rejections, as expected. But the rejection letters have been so nice. I had expected them to be terse, get lost letters. Instead they let me down gently and encourage me to keep trying. And the fact that one got accepted really gave me a lift. It gave me the feeling that I truly have said something worth listening to rather than just spitting into the void. One story that has appeared here before, Do This One Thing, was sent to a contest. It didn’t get chosen, but I got a message that for $15 they would give me an in-depth critique. Why not? I always welcome anything that can make my writing better. The critique ran almost two pages. They liked the story and they liked my writing. Their main issues were with the structure of the story and after reading what they said, I saw it also. An early comment was about the 3 items an opening paragraph needs to establish. Here they said something I found very nice:

(3) in a well-defined time and place. This opening hits a home run with #3, because I think it does a great job making me feel like the story’s environment is both distinct and believable.

So, I sat down and rewrote the story, using the critique as a guide. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a way to weave in the part of my original story that they liked so much. Maybe I’ll just save it and use it in another story. This is the new version. I guess you could call it Do This One Thing Again.

Do This One Thing

            I pulled off my straw hat and mopped my face with my damp bandana. Squinting, I looked up. The bright August sun appeared to be nearly directly overhead. Near enough to take our lunch break, anyway.

            “Time,” I said loud enough for both Sam and Lonnie to hear. They were both within a few yards, chopping cotton like me. We were in the big field north of the Bass Woods. Off to the south, just beyond the hedgerow was Sam’s house. We could have gone there to eat, but we saw no sense in walking all that way. Closer by was Miss Alice’s home, the old Garris place. While a simple two-story farmhouse, it boasted details that made it stand out among its peers. Things like delicate curlicues on the porch columns, fresh painted clapboards and shutters, a clipped privet hedge surrounding the front yard. Old Miss Garris didn’t get around much anymore, but she made sure her home reflected the style she had always embodied. It was near sixty years after the Great War and a couple after what they were calling a World War, but Miss Garris was still the lady of the manor, ready to serve tea on the verandah. Surely, she wouldn’t mind the three of us stopping to eat lunch under the shade of one of her elms. I figured I should ask before we drew water from her well, just to be polite.

            Lonnie, my wife’s Uncle Lonnie, trudged over to sit under the shade of a tree at the edge of the yard. At 40, he was getting too old to work in the fields all day. My cousin Sam and I, both in our 20s, each did twice the work of Lonnie, but he needed to feel useful. Sam sat beside Lonnie.

            “Let me pay our respects to Miss Alice before we pump the water,” I said to them as I headed up the back porch steps.  

Getting no reply to several raps on the door, I was unsure if I should look in. Miss Garris was a little hard of hearing and I didn’t want to alarm her. Or if she was on the chamber pot, it would be embarrassing. But she was very old and might have fallen and need some help. I knew a colored girl comes in about once a week to help with cleaning but wasn’t sure when that was.

Lonnie and Sam were near enough that I could talk to them from the porch without shouting.

“When’s the last time you saw Miss Garris?” I asked them.

“She won’t at church on Sunday,” Sam said. “Somebody said she was feeling poorly.” For some reason I suddenly felt a shiver run down my spine.

“Reckon we ought to go in and look,” I said. There are no locked doors in our

neighborhood. We all trust each other. I opened the door a crack and spoke into it.

“Miss Garris. Can you hear me? You all right?” After a few minutes with no answer, I pushed the door open wider. As soon as I got the door open, I ran back into the yard and threw up. She was definitely dead and after several days in the August heat she was smelling. As I wiped my mouth on my sleeve, I heard Lonnie and Sam muttering to each other. 

Dammit, I thought. I’m sorry old Miss Garris died, but it would also make us lose a day of work.

“I guess one of us needs to go fetch either the doc or Sheriff Stephenson,” I said, rejoining them under the elm.  

“Why break off work? Let’s finish the field and then go get the doc. The old lady ain’t going nowhere.” Sam’s comment was practical if cold hearted.

“Naw, that ain’t right,” I told him. “That old lady deserves more respect than that. Plus, I don’t think I could work knowing a dead body was just a few yards away.” Lonnie nodded his agreement. He and Sam gathered our tools to take back to my barn. I headed off to Gumberry. It was only a mile or so through the woods and there was a telephone at the general store.

            They had her funeral the very next day. The preacher told me she had been dead at least three days and was far gone. He said he didn’t know if they would ever get the smell out of the house. They even had the funeral out by the graveside instead of inside the church. Prim old lady that she was, I know she’d have been embarrassed by all the mess.

***

            That night was hotter than ever. Mollie and I didn’t have any covers on the bed and all the windows were open. We even had the front door propped open to catch any breeze it could. Mollie had insisted that I install screens in the windows and a screen door at the front of our cabin so we could open it up at night without letting in mosquitos and other varmints. On nights like this I was happy I had listened to her.  

From where I was lying in bed, I could look through the door and down the long lane to the main road. I could see low-lying mist down by the end of the lane. It just drifted back and forth with whatever breeze caught it. After a bit it seemed the mist was drifting toward the house. As I watched it, it seemed to get thicker. Suddenly it took form and I could see it was a woman in a white dress standing outside the house. I froze in terror. I saw her put her hand on the doorjamb, lift her skirt and step into the house, walking through the screen door as if it weren’t there. I immediately recognized it as old Miss Garris.

            She stood there looking at me a minute. Then she walked over to the bed and reached down and touched my hand. Her hand was so cold. I wanted to scream but I couldn’t move or make no sound. She said, “Lloyd, they didn’t find my will. It’s in the Bible in my study. You need to tell them. Do this and you won’t ever see me again. You don’t do it, I’ll be back. I’ll haint you.” She disappeared suddenly, and it released me. I set to squalling.

            Mollie said I liked to have scared her out of ten year’s growth. She said I was yelling and wrenching around; raving about ghosts. She soothed me, saying I just dreamed it.

“There ain’t no such thing as ghosts, sugar,” she murmured to me, stroking my brow as she held me. Even drenched with sweat in the hot August night, I still shivered in fear.

“But it was so real.”

“Dreams usually are, honey. Just go back to sleep. I’m here and won’t let nothing happen. You’ll see. In the morning, it’ll all be gone.”

            “But she said she’d come back and haint me,” I whimpered.

            “Shh, honey. Mollie’s here. Go to sleep.”

***

The next day, I went to the general store, and Doc Moore happened to be there. I told him a lie. I said Miss Garris told me before she died that her will was stuck in a Bible in her study. I knew he wouldn’t believe me if I said her ghost told me. It turned out there was a second will in a Bible in her study. And like she promised, I’ve never seen her again. And I want to keep it that way.

Johnny’s Got a Gun

The schools are starting back in my area this week. The summer holiday is over for traditional schools. As a child, I always viewed the resuming of the school year with a bit of sadness. I loved the freedom of summer, the ability to sleep late, sit up late and do whatever I pleased, at least until I got old enough for summer jobs.

Once in college, I could hardly wait for the summer to end so I could get back to my friends and the freedom that living in a university town meant. Where high school had been drudgery, college was exciting. I loved the challenge and exhilaration of learning new concepts, something I rarely encountered in high school. I also had completed my own coming of age, growing into the person I always wanted to be in college. I chose friends that I really liked and had common interests with rather than just friends of convenience (or inconvenience).

As an adult, it has come to signal the changing of the seasons, the slow exit of summer into the fresh air of fall. I have come to appreciate the benefits of all the seasons and love living in an area where we experience all four.

More recently I have come to have a bit of dread with the coming of the new school year. I wait in silent trepidation, knowing it will eventually happen. A school shooting. Some kid or outsider will show his ass and randomly murder as many children as possible before surrendering, taking his own life or being taken out by SWAT. There seems to be no exit, no way out. As long this nation continues its bizarre obsession with guns and is held under the thumb of the NRA and the senators they have purchased, we will continue to experience this “collateral damage”. The Earp brothers knew how to deal with this way back in the 1880s. Guns and people spell trouble. They managed to tame Dodge City, a wide-open killing field, by the simple expedient of disarming. If you wanted to come into town and experience the pleasures of civilization, leave the guns at home. For those who were forgetful, the marshal met people coming in and collected the guns for the evening. A pity nothing like that can happen today. People have intentionally misinterpreted the second amendment to agree with their overarching need to have a firearm. Okay, I can be good with that. Buy why do you need an assault weapon with rapid fire capabilities and extra-large magazines? I must be missing something here. By this reasoning I should be able to keep a bazooka in my bedroom and a scud missile launcher in my backyard.

Sorry, I did not set out to get on my soapbox. These paragraphs are supposed to just introduce this week’s story. And the story is about a school shooting. It is a look at the affect it has on a few select people. The horror of these acts exacts a price on all of us in a variety of ways. My heart goes out to all returning students. You are all now targets.

Johnny’s Got a Gun

            It’s all Digges’ fault. I never would have been there but for him. He’s always in trouble and got me mixed in, too. Mom and Dad hate him. Call him white trash. Mom says he’s a hoodlum. I guess he is, but I wouldn’t have hung out with him so much if they hadn’t been so against it. I’d have probably got tired and dropped him after a couple of weeks if they hadn’t made such a fuss over it. So, it’s their fault, too. The more they ragged on him, the cooler he seemed. I even took to sneaking out the window after bedtime to hang with him. On weekend nights I’d tell them I was meeting up with Benjie. He’s just a doofus who runs along behind Digges like a puppy all the time. Digges treats him terrible. Talks down at him, calls him bad names, makes him run errands. I even seen him hit him. Benjie just smiles and comes back for more abuse. I guess it’s who he is. What a wastoid. The first time Digges called me an asshole, I called him a cocksucker. I won’t taking no abuse from him. He laughed and messed up my hair. He said, “Chad, you’re okay.” He’s treated me like an equal ever since.

            To tell the truth I don’t know how I had the balls to talk back to him. He’s tough as nails and kinda scary. He’s what Dad calls ‘bad news’. He’s in our grade but a year older on account of he was held back a year, so he’s bigger than most of us. He’s not any taller than me, but he’s solid. All sinew and muscle. And not the gym rat kind of muscle but the kind that comes from a hard scrabble life. I remember that back before we actually liked each other he got into a crazy incident at school. Digges was complaining about being held back.

            “My dad says it’s all bullshit. Said if I was a nigger they’d a had to promote me. Just because we’re poor and white, we get shit on.”

            “You ain’t white. You’re a freaking dago, Digges the Dago,” Dale Anderson razzed him. Dale was two years older, four inches taller and twenty pounds heavier than Digges. Didn’t matter. Digges sailed into him.

            “You take that back, you SOB,” he yelled wrestling Anderson to the ground.

            “You and your whole family are a bunch of greasy wops,” Anderson grunted, trying to get Digges into a hold to control him. By then Anderson’s friends had joined in. They pulled Digges up and shoved him away.

            “Get the fuck outta here or we’ll beat the crap outta you,” Anderson snarled.

            Digges’ look was murderous. He was red-faced, his wiry brown hair sticking up, leaves snagged in it. He was outnumbered and had to retreat. But it burned him to do so. There’d be a reckoning.

            The next day Anderson’s bike was missing after school. All that was left was the front wheel which had been locked to the bike rack. Dale came looking for Digges.

            “I ain’t seen your freaking bike. I got better things to do than come after shit like you,” Digges told him. But I could tell there was glee in his voice. “Ask my teachers. I been in class all day.” He was the picture of injured innocence.

            A couple of days later, Anderson opened his locker and pieces of metal came falling out, making a loud crash in the hallway. It appeared to be the remains of a bicycle that had been through a metal compactor. And grossest of all, a dead pit viper was mixed in. When it flopped free of the framework it caused a frantic stampede among the students.

            The police got involved. They were able to determine that the wreckage was indeed what was left of Anderson’s bicycle. One officer smirked and was overheard saying it was ‘teenage hijinks’. Everybody assumed it was Digges’ doing, but there was no evidence. Recently after we became friends I asked him if he did it. He didn’t exactly admit it. He did say that when he and Anderson were released from the principal’s office he had a message for Anderson.

            “I whispered in his ear ‘stay outta my way or the next one will be live.’ He ain’t said boo to me in two years.”

            Digges was crazy like that. He didn’t forgive and he held a grudge. Coming from a poor family with an alcoholic father who regularly beat up his wife and children, Digges had plenty of anger at the injustices he’d been subjected to. He met the world head on with his chin jutted out and a chip on his shoulder. But it he didn’t go looking for trouble. He didn’t have to. It always found him.

            But anyway, when he texted me (from Benjie’s phone) that it was time for a prowl, I duly slipped out to meet him. I was dying to get out of the house anyway. I’d been cooped up on account of my cousin Howard.

***

            I guess it’s not Howard’s fault that his parents gave him such a dorky name. But he does his best to live up to it. He is such a nerd. I only see him on holidays since they live like a hundred miles from here. I know I could stand to lose a pound or two but, damn, Howard’s a freaking tank. I swear he’s as wide as he is tall, and none of it is muscle. And Coke bottle glasses and a huge nose. Poor guy has no assets. At least I got no big issues. A few zits on my forehead, but all the girls say I’m cute.

            But as I was saying, Howard and Uncle John and Aunt Ruth came over for New Year’s Eve. It was just for a nice family dinner. I played a little Xbox with Howard afterward. To my everlasting shame he kicked my ass.

            A few days later, Mom put a big glass of orange juice beside my dinner plate.

            “I just got a call from Ruthie this morning. Howard’s come down with a terrible cold. She imagines he was probably contagious New Year’s Eve. We need to start pushing vitamin C.” And just like magic, three days later I woke up with a scratchy throat and felt like my head was gonna explode. Thank you, Cousin Howard. Not. I’d much rather be sick when it’s been a while since a vacation, like February. Not the week after a long break. Well, it beats being sick during a break I guess.

            “They say a cold is three days coming, three days with you and three days going.” Mom has a saying for everything. “I think you should stay home this week. You can go back on Monday. You should be feeling better and not contagious by then.” She gave me some kind of medicine and made me go back to bed. I have to admit, it felt good to lay back down. Mom said she’d stay home with me in case I needed anything. She’s got some kind of job where she can telecommute real easy. Not like Dad. He’s nine to five and can’t miss a day.

            Aside from the fact that I felt like crap, being sick and out of school is really a drag. Everyone’s at school so I have no one to play with or talk to. Mom won’t let anyone come see me since I’m contagious. A few friends texted me, just to be sure I wasn’t being held against my will, they said. Janine down the block called and gave me the assignments so I wouldn’t fall behind.

            After doing all the schoolwork, determining all the one player games I have are lame, and noting once again that daytime TV is like a slow death, I surfed on my laptop. And after awhile, you know what that leads to. Yeah, I know a few porn sites. Hey, I’m fifteen. Deal with it. I don’t have any restrictions on my computer and Mom and Dad never try to check where I’ve been. I don’t think they’d know how. I’m still careful, though. A friend, Kylie, showed me how to cover my tracks so no one could tell where I’d been. He said he doesn’t bother because his dad is okay with him looking at porn. Must be nice. I bet mine would blow a gasket.

            I had to work on my timing with it. Mom was checking on me every few hours. I didn’t need her popping in while I was popping off, so to speak. So, I sat at my computer and used two hands. One on the keyboard and one taking care of business. And a blanket for my lap in case of the need for emergency cover. But after a while, even that gets old. Yeah, I said that. So by the time next Monday rolled around I was definitely ready to go back to school. Yeah, I said that, too. After dressing I trotted down the long hallway of our ranch style house to get some breakfast. I went to say good morning to Mom but nothing came out. The more I tried to be heard the more concerned Mom became.

            “Lordy, you catch everything. I ‘spect if the devil ran through the house you’d catch him, too. Looks like that cold has gone down in your throat, baby. Looks like laryngitis. Back to bed, buster. I’ll bring up some oatmeal.”

            I wanted to argue, but well, no voice.

            I wasn’t sleepy so I checked Facebook. Zilch. Twitter. Nada. Snapchat. Where is everybody? I saw a post on Instagram.

            “I’m gonna be famous. Everybody’s gonna know my name.” It was Johnny Jenkins. What, was it song lyrics? Who knows? Johnny’s weird. He’s hard to like. He’s always so negative, never a nice thing to say about anybody or anything. Most people have decided they don’t need all that negative shit and avoid him. He’s got a few friends, but not many. Digges just says he’s a big asshole. Now he wants to be a rockstar?

***

            I was dozing in and out of consciousness around eleven when my phone went crazy. It started buzzing so much it almost rattled off my nightstand. Facebook was blowing up for some reason.

            I picked it up to see what the deal was.

            “Shooter!” “Gunman in school!” “Somebodys firing a gun”. “Somebody help us.” Oh, shit. Something crazy was going down. I went to find Mom. She was sitting at her computer, looking stricken. She turned when I entered, as tears started running down her cheeks. She was up so fast her chair tipped over. Before I could even process that, she had me in her arms.

            “Oh, baby. I just want to hold you. Why us? Why did it have to come to our town? Oh, my baby.”  I guess she has a news feed on her computer. She went to turn on the TV, dragging me with her. It’s like she needed to keep touching me, to prove to herself that I was there. That’s when it hit me. I should have been at school. I could have been getting shot at right now. That’s a very sobering thought.

            The TV caption showed they had ‘breaking news’. The news anchor said they had reports of shots fired at Valley Forge Senior High School. He urged people to avoid the area and that police were setting up a cordon around the school. He said SkyFive, their news helicopter, was on the way, and promised more on ‘this developing story’ as details came available.

            Mom seemed frantic for something to do. She tucked the afghan around me and came back after a few minutes in the kitchen with a cup of chamomile tea for me and a fresh cup of coffee for herself. We waited through interminable commercials for indigestion, feminine issues and toilet paper. When the news was back on it was quickly obvious they still didn’t know much. There was shaky footage from the news chopper, magnified. It showed at least a dozen police cars around the school. You could also see students pouring out of windows and doors. A general evacuation was in process. It was hardly orderly. Students could be seen running frantically in any direction, just as long as it was away from the school.

            “Police have confirmed that there is a gunman firing within the building. People who live in the neighborhood are urged to stay away from windows opening on the school as we don’t know what kind of weapon is involved and thus don’t know the range the ammunition can travel. And please, if you have loved ones in the school, do not come to the school. There is a staging area in the arena across the street. Only the Jackson Street access is open. Repeat, only access the arena via Jackson Street. The Valley Forge Avenue gate is closed and Valley Forge Avenue is barricaded. Please report to the arena to pick up your children if you want to collect them. Otherwise, buses will leave as soon as the crisis is over.”

            “Mom?” I managed a raspy croak. I wasn’t sure how I was feeling about this, but it wasn’t good

            “It’s okay, baby. Hold my hand. We’ll get through this. Oh, Lord, help us get through this.”

            The television anchor babbled on about what was going on. He said they were picking up messages through twitter and Facebook from people still inside, hunkered down in closets and locked classrooms. The helicopter camera zoomed in on a policeman standing at a window, physically pulling kids out the window and shoving them down the embankment where other police were grabbing them and quickly pulling them to safety.

            “We don’t know who the officer is, but this is the face of bravery we have come to expect from our public servants. Heedless of his own safety his has moved toward the firing to save as many kids as he can. It is a true testament of Foxborough’s finest.” I thought about that. If I heard firing I’d be running the other way as fast as I could. I could never be brave enough to be a cop.

            “We have more information coming in. There are confirmed fatalities. We have definite confirmation that stu-, that stu-, oh Christ what is wrong with this country?” He just hung his head. The camera refocused on the female anchor beside him.

            “Yes, we have confirmation that some students have been killed. We’re all very upset here in the newsroom. We’ll have more after this.” The focus turned to the perky weathergirl for a weather update. Shit, how bad does it have to be when even the news guy starts crying? Mom was a total mess by this point. She was crushing my hand.

            “We’re back, and I’d like to apologize for my earlier lapse,” the news anchor said. He was red-eyed, but seemed composed.

            “No, Bob. You don’t need to apologize for being human. This tragedy is hurting all of us.”

            “Thanks, Linda. We now have some video posted from inside the school. The footage is violent and intense and may disturb some viewers. Please be advised, the footage is very disturbing. You may want to turn away for a few minutes.”

            “Baby, I don’t think you need to see this,” Mom murmured.

            “It’s happening to my friends and I can’t do nothing to help them. The least I can do is watch what they’re going through,” I whispered.

            The footage was apparently a grab off Facebook. Someone had turned on their cell video while running for cover. It was only about ten seconds long, but it seemed like an eternity. It was shaking so much from the person running that it was hard to make out what you were seeing at first. One rapid scan down the hall showed students on the floor, some injured, some trying to crawl to safety. The white tile of the floor was slicked red and in some places it was also on the wall. There was constant screaming in the background, punctuated by gunfire. There was an unfocused flash of a girl, blond hair streaming, running by the camera suddenly jerking forward as she was struck in the back by bullets, and fell out of sight. Then a quick view of a pile of several students perhaps helping each other before the video abruptly shut off.

            The anchors brought the video up again pausing at two seconds. A little extra focusing from the tech guys and it was clear that many students were lying in the bloody hallway. Another pause as the blond girl came by.

            “Oh, no!” I rasped.

            “Don’t look, honey.”

            “I know that girl. She’s Sharon Kellar. She’s the prettiest girl in school. They shouldn’t show this. She might be seriously hurt or worse. It’s not right.”

            The video review ended with a still shot of the group of students in a little pile. Extra focusing revealed it to be three students. A large redheaded kid was pulling a kid with brown hair off the floor. He was apparently trying to use his body as a shield for the blond kid under him. They were all covered in blood. The blond kid seemed to have bled out and was most likely dead.

            “No, no, no!” I squeaked at the screen hoarsely. These are my friends, people I know. Who could do such a thing? I don’t know who the shooter is but he needs to die. Mom grabbed me and pulled me to her breast, shielding my eyes from the damning video. I didn’t even realize till then I was crying.

            “We apologize again if any of our viewers found the video too disturbing. Oh, Linda, there appears to be something happening. A tactical team appears to be entering the building.” The shaky helicopter camera showed several men in camo with special helmets, shields and serious looking weapons rushing into the building.

            I jumped when my phone buzzed in my pajama shirt pocket. I fished it out. It was Dad.

            “Hello?”

            “Oh, thank God. Where are you? Are you okay?”

            “I’m fine, Dad. I didn’t go to school today. I’m still a little sick.”

            “I never thought I’d see the day when I’m glad my boy is sick,” Dad said shakily. “You guys know about the shooting, I guess?”

            “Yeah, we’re watching it on TV.”

            “Okay, son. I just needed to hear your voice and know you’re safe. Take care of your mom. I’m sure she’s a mess. She feels these things strongly.”

            “Will do, Dad.”

            “And Son, always know I love you. Bye.”

            “You, too, Dad. Bye.” I looked at Mom.

            “I’ll bet he was worried sick. He loves you so much. We both do.” She hugged me to her body again. We continued to watch the talking heads talk. They were stalling, going over the sick litany of other school shootings. I have to echo the news anchor. What the fuck is wrong with this country?

            “Bob, there seems to be new movement. Somethings happening.” The ground crew couldn’t get close so the video feed remained from the helicopter. The enhanced view showed a phalanx of EMTs rushing into the south entrance of the school.

            “Yes, Linda, they’re allowing the medical personnel in. That must mean the shooter is neutralized.” I thought that was an odd word to use – neutralized. I hope they killed the son of a bitch. Or neutered him. Yeah, that would work, too.

            The two anchors prattled on, basically stalling waiting to start the noon newscast. It was obviously their lead story. It opened with a statement from the chief of police. He confirmed a shooting had occurred at the school. He praised the rapid response of police, the tactical personnel and emergency medical people for their efforts to curtail the loss of life. He said ten students and faculty were confirmed dead and an undetermined number wounded. He said the number could change. The only other information they released was that there was only one shooter and it was a male student. He also said the school would be closed until further notice.  Wow. It’s mid-January and I haven’t been in school except two days since mid-December. I’m afraid I’ll forget everything before I go back.

            By now my Facebook page was filling with “Safe” statements by people I knew. I was most worried about people from my grade. Later that evening I called Cheryl, a girl in my homeroom who always seems to know what’s going on. She didn’t know much, she claimed. She said they’d identified the shooter as Johnny Jenkins.

            “Oh, crap. I saw his Instagram posting that he’s gonna be famous.”

            “Yeah. Looks like he’s getting his wish, in the worst possible way. The SWAT people shot him in the head. He had an AR-15 pistol. A freaking assault weapon. I know he was a bit of an ass, but why in hell would he do something like this? Tell me, Chad. What the fuck is wrong with us?”

            “I wish I knew, Cheryl. I wish I knew.”

She gave me the names of the five people in our class who got killed. They were people I talked to everyday. This is so messed up. She also told me her buddy Kylie was wounded. They didn’t know if he’d make it. We cried with each other for a few minutes and then hung up.

            That’s why I was ready when Digges texted me on Wednesday evening that it was time for a prowl. I had to get out of the house.

***

            After the house was quiet, about eleven, I eased out the window of my bedroom. It was only a five foot drop to the ground. God bless ranch houses. I had on my longjohns, a thermal t shirt, sweater, thick leather jacket and knit cap. It was cold as a witch’s tit out. But that’s Mass in January for ya. I met up with Digges and Benjie at the all-night Fast Fare two blocks away. I spotted them a block away, two figures standing in the parking lot under the streetlight. Benjie was taller but slighter than Digges. I bumped fists with Digges and then Benjie when we met up. Digges had on a knit cap like me. Benjie was hatless, his colorless, lank hair hanging limply around his face.

            Our ‘prowls’ were mostly just roaming around. We’d sometimes break into abandoned buildings or factories. Nothing momentous, but it broke up the monotony.           

            “Let’s go,” Digges ordered. He seemed focused on a destination rather than an aimless ramble.

            “Where we going?” I asked.

            “You’ll see.” That was all I could get out of him. As we continued I began to get a sinking feeling. We were nearing the school.

            “We’re not supposed to go to the school, Digges. They said it’s a crime scene. It’s got police tape all around it. We might get arrested or something.”

            “Don’t get your panties in a wad. The CSI guys have been all over this place since Monday. If there was any clues, I’m sure they found ‘em. They ain’t nobody standing guard over it at night. I just want to take a look see. Don’t you want to see all the bloody floors and walls.? All the bullet holes in the blackboards? I know I do.”

            “Me, too,” Benjie giggled nervously.

            “I know you do, you fucking psycho,” Digges said to him, derisively.  Benjie was unrepentant and giggled some more.

            “How are we getting in? That place is locked up tighter than a virgin’s pussy,” I silently congratulated myself on remembering the colorful term.

            “Shit. You don’t know jack about pussies,” Digges teased. “And I know a window where the lock’s been busted for a few years. I guess you just cain’t get decent maintenance men no more.”

***

            We found Digges’ malfunctioning window behind the school in a dark bend in the architecture. With practiced ease, as if he’d done this a thousand times, Digges pulled an unused old crate over to give himself a boost. He pulled himself up to the window ledge and balanced while pushing the window open. Then he was in. He had barely cleared the sill when Benjie was scrambling up. I didn’t like the idea at all. I was afraid we’d get in trouble. But I didn’t want to look like a pussy. So I climbed up and struggled through the window. I overbalanced going in and landed on my ass. Digges and Benjie howled with laughter at me.

            It was much warmer inside. They keep the heat turned on all winter. I guess it’s cheaper to keep it warm than trying to reheat it everyday or after a weekend. I imagine it also keeps the pipes from freezing. It was dim, though. The soft glow of the emergency exit lamps and the ambient glow coming in the windows from outside was the only light. It was an overcast night with no star or moonlight. The school was in a residential section with no overnight business lighting. Just a few lampposts on the school grounds. There was a coppery smell on the air, with a hint of dead things beneath it.

            “What’s that fucking stink?” asked Benjie.

            “You idiot. That’s the smell of blood, shit and piss decomposing. They ain’t got around to cleaning it up yet. This is just like it was a minute after Jenkins stopped shooting.” Digges seemed fascinated.

            “You were in school Monday, won’t you?” I asked Digges.

            “Yeah. Come on. I’ll show ya.”

            We exited the classroom. It was darker in the hallways without windows. We crept down a hallway toward the north end.

            “He started up here. Classes were changing so the halls were full of people. Yeah, he was going for the maximum kill. I won’t but about 20, 30 feet from him when he started. You always hear people say they thought it was firecrackers or a backfiring car. Where I come from, I knew in a flash it was gunfire. I spun around and made eye contact with Jenkins. We ain’t never been friends, but he ain’t never crossed me either. He just looked at me for a second. His eyes were wide and won’t nobody home. Johnny was gone. He had a big grin on his face. I dived behind a trashcan, but I think I was safe anyway. He coulda killed me, but he didn’t. I been thinking about it ever since. He coulda shot me right then. But he stopped, looked at me and move on. Why? I really wish I knew.

            “He came on down this way,” Digges continued, walking down the hall. “Most of the people had cleared the halls by now. I was watching from behind my trashcan. He shot some of the wounded who were still in the hall. Just shot ‘em, point blank. Most of the classrooms have locking doors. That’s what saved peoples’ asses. Before he could blow the lock off, they’d busted out the windows and gone. He found a few more people but after the big start, he mostly just shot up the place. I bet it pissed him off. I saw him go in and out of several classrooms. I don’t know if he killed anybody there or was just shooting off. There was wounded kids all over the place and now the shock of what happened wore off, they just started screaming and moaning and shit. I think that was scarier than him shooting. Suddenly he come running down the hall back toward me. Turning and firing behind him every couple a steps. I seen some guys coming through the gunsmoke with rifles with laser aims. One of ‘em took him down with a head shot. Then everybody got in on it. I bet that boy had a dozen bullets in him by the time they stopped.” Digges paused. I could see in the dim light that he was lost in the past, reliving the moment. Maybe even enjoying it.

            “Whoa, dude,” Benjie said reverently, clearly impressed. “I didn’t see nothing. We was already outside when it started.”

            We had been making our way slowly down the hallway as Digges talked.  

            “There were several students dead right here,” he said stopping. I could see the floor was discolored, and suddenly did a little dance step trying to get out of it.

            “It’s dried now. Ain’t gonna mess up your sneaks.” I still didn’t want to be standing in folks’ blood, dried or not. A fly buzzed my ear and I slapped it away.

            We moved on. I began to detect more and more discolored places on the floor and even the walls.

            “Folks ain’t nothing but a bag of blood. Poke a hole and blood goes everywhere,” Digges said, as if he were philosophizing.  I swiped at another fly buzzing my ear. I realized I was getting hot and pulled off my knit cap, sticking it in my pocket. I reached up to smooth down my short black hair. I felt a faint breeze lift the hair at the nape of my neck. I heard someone whisper something behind me. I spun around but only saw a very dim hallway. Something touched my ear. I swatted again.

            “What’s wrong with you?” Digges looked at me, annoyed.

            “A fly keeps landing on me.”

            “It’s freaking January. Ain’t no flies.”

            “Well, something touched me, and I thought I heard something.”

            Digges laughed derisively. “Yeah, the ghosts of all the dead students have come to get ya.”

            “Don’t, Digges. I’m scared of ghosts,” Benjie murmured, as if afraid to admit it.

            “You fucking pussies. I show you some of the coolest shit in town and you’re scared of ghosts? I gotta find me some new friends.”

            “I ain’t scared, Digges. Not really. It’s just Chad’s trying to spook me and it’s dark,” Benjie placed the blame on me.

            Johnny’s got a gun. I distinctly heard the whisper behind me. At least I thought I did. But when I looked wasn’t anybody there.

            “Digges, was that you?”

            “Me, what?”

            “I thought I heard you say, ‘Johnny’s got a gun’.”

            “Why would I do that?” Something crawled over my ear. I jumped, swatting at it.

            “Something’s on me! And there it is again. Can’t you hear it?”

            “I don’t hear nothing.”

            “I don’t like this, Digges,” Benjie said nervously. “Let’s go.”

            “Pussies,” he spat at us. We walked on toward the south end.  He stopped at a large stain.

            “I figured it out from the video on TV. This is where Sharon Kellar bled out. Fucking shame. She had one fine ass.”

            Somebody help us!

            Benjie jumped as if touched by a live wire.

            “I heard somebody whispering in my ear!” He backed violently into a locker, making a loud ‘clang’ sound, that echoed down the empty hall. “Which one of you is fucking with me?”     

            “Cut the crap, Ben,” Digges warned. I stumbled into Digges.

            “What the fuck, Chad?”

            “I got pushed.”

            “Ain’t nobody there to push you. You trying to cop a feel?”

            “We need to get outta here,” Benjie was totally spooked. “Shit, something touched me.”

            “You’re just scaring yourselves like a bunch of old women.”

Hn, hn, hnnn. I couldn’t tell if that snickering was in my head or not. Benjie must have heard it because he yelped and bolted. The first classroom door he tried was locked. He dashed to a second, but Digges grabbed him.

“Don’t freak out on me,” he commanded. Benjie yanked open the door.

“I just can’t stand this dark. Lemme turn on a light.”  He palmed the classroom switch. There was a brilliant flash during which I could see every blood vessel in my eye. Benjie’s yelp was cut short and we were plunged into darkness. Within the dark I had a pulsing purple blob in front of my eyes.

“What the hell?” I shouted.

“We must have blown a fuse,” Digges said. At least he was still calm. The purple blob slowly faded. It was totally black now in the classroom. The windows, mostly boarded up, were only fainter black against funereal black.

“Benjie. You okay?” No answer. “Hey, Benj. Can you answer?” Still nothing. “The shock mighta knocked him out.” I could hear the worry in Digges’ voice.

“He fell right here,” I said fumbling for the door jamb in the dark. I couldn’t see Digges. He softly bumped into me, then grabbed my arm.

“We need light. Ain’t you got your cell phone?”

“No. I left it at home. Benjie’s probably got his. If we can find him.”

“We need to stick together,” he breathed in my ear. “Benjie must be on the floor near here. You feel around the left, I’ll take right.” We both got on our knees and started sweeping motions with our hands. After a few minutes Digges called from several feet away, “Anything?”

“Nada.”

“Okay, turn and start toward me.” After a few minutes my sweeping hand contacted Digges’ sweeping hand.

“Well, fuck. Where is he?” Holding my wrist, he stood up. I joined him. We crept forward. The doorway was just a bit darker black than the surrounding black. We stepped into the hall.

“Benjie, -jie, -jie!” he yelled, echoing down the eerily black void of the hall.

“That’s weird. Why’s it echoing so much,” I asked.

“Empty places in the dark? I don’t know.”

Hn, hn, hnnn.

“Digges, did you do that?”

“No. I bet Benjie’s fucking with us, though.” I wasn’t so sure. It didn’t sound like Benjie’s voice. In fact it didn’t sound like a voice at all. If Digges hadn’t indicated he heard it, I would have sworn it was inside my head. It sounded inside my head.

Hn, hn, hnnn, kill you all.

That was totally inside my head. Until Digges yelled.

“Stop fucking around Benjie. Come on, we’re leaving.” Suddenly gunfire rent the air. Digges dropped, pulling me with him.

“Jesus Christ! Who’s shooting?” It was suddenly deadly quiet.

Johnny’s got a gun.

Somebody help us.

Hn, hn, hnnn. Kill you all.

“We need to get outta here, fast,” Digges hissed into my ear.

“We can’t leave Benjie.”

“We don’t know where he is. He probably hightailed it outta here when the lights went.”

We fast walked down the hall, our hands on the lockers looking for the first open classroom. Another burst of gunfire sounded, accompanied by frantic screaming.

“Oh, shit. It sounded just like that,” Digges groaned. We had stopped, pressed up against the lockers. A light breezed kicked up. I could smell gunpowder. And a thicker smell that must be blood. We found a door, but it was locked. We moved across the hall to check the opposing classroom. Digges’ feet went out from under him. He pulled me down as he fell. The floor was slick with wet slime. What the hell? I raised my hand to my nose. It smelled of blood.

“Shit, there’s wet blood all over the place,” Digges yelled. His composure was failing. Mine was pretty much gone. We scrambled to the wall. We found the door, but again, it was locked.

Johnny’s got a gun.

Somebody help us!

Helphelphelp!

Ohgod ohgod ohgod!

I’m scared. Somebody help me!

I’m afraid. Don’t leave me!

I clamped my wet hands over my ears, but the sound was in my head. Digges grabbed one of my hands and we went running down the center of the hall, slipping and sliding. Suddenly an awful pain slammed into my back. I went crashing face first to the ground, suddenly illuminated enough that I could see my long blond hair flowing about me. I heard a voice in my head, no I’m too young and popular to die!

Hn, hn, hnnn. Kill you all.

You need to die. I hate you all.

I pushed myself up. I’d lost Digges’ hand.

“Digges,” I called. “Digges, where are you?” I was now in full panic. I pressed up against a locker, sidling down the hallway, looking for the next classroom. I suddenly bumped into someone hard enough to make them grunt.

“Thank goodness, Digges.” He didn’t answer.

“Digges?” I felt up his arm to his head. Digges has short wiry hair. I felt longer, floppy hair. Benjie.

“Oh, Benjie. We didn’t know what happened to you.”

“Johnny’s got a gun. He hates you. You need to die.” He clamped both hands around my throat, squeezing. Fortunately, Benjie has virtually no muscle tone. I quickly broke his hold and shoved him hard, skittering away, hoping he couldn’t find me in the dark.

“Hn, hn, hnnn. Chad. You’re going to die. Johnny’s got a gun. Gonna kill you all,” Benjie crooned crazily. I continued to put as much distance between me and him as I could.

I was nearing another door when I felt an explosion of pain in my abdomen. I went down, again. I felt a body on top of me. I wanted to struggle, slip away but I couldn’t move. I heard, as if in an echo chamber, ‘Come on, buddy, we gotta hide. Gotta get away. Come on.’ Then it was gone.

Hide!

We gotta hide!

Johnny’s got a gun gotta gun gotta gun gotta gun. JohnnyJohnnyJohnny.

Kill you all.

I scrambled up and immediately felt an explosion in my head, followed by piercing pains all over my body. I went down screaming.

Gotta gun gotta gun.

Help help help!

I’m scared! Don’t leave me!

I crawled to the doorway beside me. I used the knob to pull myself up. It was unlocked, thank god. I stumbled in and looked at the far wall. In the lighter black within black I could tell all the windows were boarded up.

“Shit!” I muttered.

“Gonna kill you, Chad.” That wasn’t Benjie’s voice, but it was probably him, coming from very nearby. I slammed the classroom door and locked it. I immediately heard as well as felt him throw his entire weight against the door.

“Let me in, Chad. Johnny’s gotta gun. He’s gonna kill us all. Let me in!”

“Nothin’ doin’. Go away,” I yelled knowing it would do no good. I ran toward the windows, falling over desks. Once at the windows I tried to pull off the plywood cover. It wouldn’t budge. I heard a loud crash against the door and the breaking of glass. Benjie must have used something like a fire extinguisher to break the window in the door. I renewed my efforts to pull off the plywood. One strip started to give. With a squeal like nails on a chalkboard it gave way. I looked over my shoulder. With the small amount of light removing the board from the window provided I could see Benjie crawling through the window. I pulled frantically at the next board. It stubbornly refused to give. Benjie stood up in front of the door. I grabbed a nearby waste can and threw it at him. He batted it away.

“Hn, hn, hnnn. Gonna kill you all,” he murmured menacingly.

Suddenly there was gunfire in the hallway, people screaming. Johnny’s got a gun! Help! Help! Hide! Somebody help! I’m so afraid. Don’t leave me! Johnny’s gotta gungungungungungun. Kill you allallallallallall.

“I hate you all,” Benjie said. “Kill you all.” With his eyes totally vacant, he lurched towards me. I sidled right. I picked up a chair and heaved it at him. He caught it but stumbled backwards. I tried to dash around him but there were too many desks in the way. I noticed a supply closet at the back of the room. I ran for it, snatching up a chair as I went. Benjie was quick. As he neared me I swung the chair at him. Since he was already moving the blow knocked him to the ground. I reversed direction and dashed out into the pitch-black hallway. I new the south entrance had to be directly down the hall to my left.

Johnny’s got a gun, Chad. Johnny’s got a gun!

Gonna kill you all.

I put my left hand on the lockers and began moving quickly toward the door. I knew it would be locked, but I was out of options.

Suddenly there was a blinding flash in my eyes, like a million suns going on at once.

“What in hell do you kids think you’re doing?” More lights. I froze. A group of men entered the hallway with flashlights. Policemen. The lead one was silhouetted by the men behind him. I could see he had one hand on his taser. I raised my hands and didn’t move. There was a blurred movement beside me as Benjie charged.

“Kill you all!” The policeman fired his taser and Benjie went down in a quivering mass. I still didn’t move.

“Come on over here, kid. I’m not gonna hurt you,” one of the men said to me. I slowly lowered my hands and moved forward. I could see in the glare of his flashlight that my hands were no longer bloody, that my clothes had no bloodstains on them.

I told them that we were just looking around when the lights went out and we got spooked. I told them Benjie was panicked and that was why he rushed them. What was I supposed to say? I didn’t know what had happened.

“There’s another one of us somewhere in the building. Digges.”

“Vittorio Digges? Shoulda known that bad seed was involved. Kid’s always in trouble.” Suddenly, the emergency lights flared on.

“Guys must have got that transformer fixed,” the cop said, looking up at the lights. “A frozen limb fell on it. Knocked out lights all over this side of town. Just a minute before that we got an electric alarm of an intruder at the school. If you guys had just waited a few more minutes before breaking in, you could have had the whole night to roam around.” I shuddered at the thought. We might have all been dead by morning.

“Let’s get you and this guy down to the station for a checkup. We’ll find your friend and bring him, too.”

***

            Dad and Mom were none too happy to be called down to the police station in the middle of the night. I’m grounded “until further notice”. Probably for the rest of my life.

            Right after that night I began having nightmares. Awful nightmares. Every night. Mom took me to a counselor and I eventually spilled my guts about what happened at the school that night. So I’ve been on Zoloft for a few weeks. Doctor Savage gave Mom some psychobabble. Let’s see, it says on my official papers “Commonly known as survivor’s guilt. Depression stemming from a schizo-affective disorder manifesting in paranoia, feelings of guilt, auditory and visual hallucinations.”

            I’ve talked to Benjie. He doesn’t remember hardly anything. He says we met up for a prowl and he woke up in a cot down at the police station. So, nothing happened. I’m just a nutty kid. But if nothing happened, how come Digges is still in the nut house rocking back and forth chanting “Johnny’s got a gun”? 

A Dark and Stormy Night

I have a dim memory of an old episode from the tv series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” about a storm and some nervous nurses waiting it out. Something about a nurse killer on the loose. In the final scene we find that one of the nurses is the actual killer. She was a big woman and I think she was a man in a wig. Anyway, that errant memory flittered through my mind and left a seed. Storm, nurses, murder afoot. After a wrote it, I had to go with a tongue in cheek title. Hence “it was a dark and stormy night.”

A Dark and Stormy Night

            A dim flicker of light glimmered at the office window. Candace, ‘call me Candy’, Johnson barely noticed as she continued inventory of the med stocks for what seemed the hundredth time that week. A few moments later a soft rumble could be heard in the distance.

            “Storm’s coming in,” Denise Patrick said. Master of the obvious, Candy thought sourly.  “It’s supposed to be a big one,” Denise continued. “I just heard about it on the radio.”

            “Just my luck,” said Candy, slamming a cabinet door.

            “Huh?” asked Denise.

            “Just my luck to draw the late shift in this rustbucket place with a storm brewing. By midnight we’ll have bedpans all down the hallway catching water from the leaky ceiling.”

            “It leaks? That can’t be very safe.” As I said, thought Candy, master of the obvious.

            “No, it’s not. But we’re not St. Joe’s. We’re a poor little clinic run by a poor little hospital in a poor little section of Philly.” Candy decided the only upside of the situation was they had no patients in their care for the late shift. The decidedly downside was that she had to work it with Denise. She wasn’t sure exactly what it was about Denise that rubbed her the wrong way. Pretty much everything. She was a mousy little hausfrau, seemingly afraid of her own shadow. She didn’t appear all that bright and Candy wondered how she ever got through nursing school. Candy, on the other hand, was a plus size blonde, brassy and full of life. She sashayed her way through her daily rounds, flirting with the patients, keeping up a light banter. It kept the men’s spirits up and she didn’t mind the occasional pat on her fanny. God knows some of them had seen horrors she’d never know. A smile and wink for our brave boys cost her so little, she thought. But working the late shift sucked. Especially with a freak storm coming in. But they were stuck until two am when the overnight relief came on.

            There was a bright flash of light through the window. The rumble came quicker this time.

            “It’s moving fast,” Denise offered.

            “Good, maybe it’ll do it’s thing and get the hell out of here fast, too. I hate having to dash out to my car in the pouring rain.” Another flash, shortly followed by a louder rumble.

            “Lordy, I hate storms.” Candy noticed Denise babbled when nervous. “We used to have bad ones back in Kansas. Big storms, and sometimes tornadoes and hail. I just want to crawl into a cellar and hide.”

            “Well, our cellar is over that way,” Candy nodded with her head, as she lifted a load of towels to be sorted.

            “I can’t go down there,” Denise looked at her with fear bright in her eyes. “That used to be the morgue. I don’t dare go down there.”

            “Don’t tell me you’re a nurse and scared of dead people?”

            “I just haven’t had much experience around them. I’ve only been a nurse for a few years.”

            “Well, honey, it’s something you’ll just have to get used to.” Candy figured Miss Mousy’s patients would be dropping like flies from her tepid care. Candy kept her men’s spirits from flagging with her brazen sexuality. She didn’t dial it down, and her men responded. She was a very popular nurse.

            A brilliant flash and crash almost simultaneously made them both jump. It was followed by the rattle of a hard rain hitting the flagstones outside. Over the next few minutes there were multiple flashes and the rumbling never stopped, rolling and echoing through the air and seemingly through their bones. Candy thought it sounded like a bowling alley with the constant rumble of the balls. Maybe I’ll get Hank to take me bowling this weekend. We haven’t done that in ages, she thought with a smile. Hank was back from the Pacific with everything intact. She was so afraid he would return with a loss of limbs or a shell-shocked zombie like she had seen so many times over the past months. Or not return at all. Stop thinking about downers, she told herself. Hank’s home and all is right with the world. The war is over.

            A sudden massive crash shook the entire building. Denise screamed and her pile of towels flew through the air.

            “Wow, that one was right on top of us,” Candy said. Then she silently chided herself. Now who’s stating the obvious?

            Candy felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned but no one was there. Then a cold splash of water hit her nose. She looked up and got hit in the middle of her forehead with another cold splash.

            “Oh, Hell’s Bells. I need a bedpan for this leak. You take the back hallway and check. I’ll finish looking around up here.” Within the next half hour they found fifteen leaks and had bedpans in place collecting the spillage.

            “At the rate the rain’s falling, we’ll have to empty them before the next shift comes in. What a gruesome night. Glad I’m going home and not coming in.”

            Over the next hour the flashing and rumbling would sometimes abate for a few minutes but always came back with renewed vigor. Candy didn’t know if it were multiple storm fronts or the same storm just circling. Either way, they were receiving severe punishment from the elements.

            Another particularly violent crash hit and the lights flickered and then failed altogether. Denise emitted a short shriek.

            “Oh, ain’t this just grand,” Candy said sarcastically. She had several other choice phrases that came to mind but didn’t want to totally offend Denise’s delicate sensibilities. The sudden darkness was total. After a few moments their eyes had adjusted but it was still nearly impossible to see anything.

            “The generator’s supposed to kick on when the power goes out,” Candy complained. “I wonder why it hasn’t tripped yet?”

            “I don’t like it.” Candy jumped because Denise’s voice was right at her elbow.

            “I think there’s some candles in the supply cabinet. Let me check.” Candy groped her way to the supply cubbie behind the nurses’ station. Within a few minutes she had a couple of white tapers lit and sitting on the desk.

            Candy had just said, “Well, ain’t this comfy,” when the phone rang.

            “Bellhaven Clinic,” she said automatically into the phone. “Oh, hi, Ray. Yeah. Yah don’t say. Well, the power’s out. No, it didn’t kick on. Where? Crap. He said what? No. No. I said hell no.” She listened for a moment more and slammed down the phone.

            “What?” Denise wanted to know.

            “The main road’s flooded. Ray said our relief might not be here till daylight. We have to stay all night.”

            “But, I don’t want to.”

            Candy glared at her. “You think I do? I would walk out on ‘em, but the road is flooded so I couldn’t get home anyway. Either way you look at it, we’re stuck. By the way, Ray told me how to get the generator on. We just need to push a button on the side.”

            “Oh, good. Where is it?”

            “In the cellar.”

            “Oh.” Denise’s eyes were wide.

            “Oh, for Pete’s sake. Are you that afraid of the cellar? Come on. I’m not going down there by myself.”

            “But there used to be dead people there. There might be spirits.”

            “Oh, for crying out loud. Come on.” She roughly grabbed Denise’s arm in one hand and a candle in the other.

            Once in the cellar they found that other undiscovered leaks had let water in and there were small puddles in various places. They found the generator and, sure enough, there was a big red button on the side. Candy pressed it. Nothing happened. She pressed it again, holding it longer. The generator made a wheezing noise. Then after a few burps it began a soft hum. Looking up toward the door they noticed a soft glow meaning the emergency lighting was working. They hustled up the stairs, ready to leave the dank and disquieting place behind.

            The emergency lighting was just sparse dim lights that did little to enlighten the place and nothing to dispel the gloom. Still, they could see.

            Candy decided it was time for a break. She plopped down in a chair at the nurses’ station and picked up her Hollywood magazine. She ruefully noted it was two months old and she had read every article at least twice. She tossed it aside.

            “Well, I ain’t doing much else tonight. I’ll take my double time pay sitting on my bum. How about you, Toots?” Denise approached the desk looking fearful and browbeaten.

            “Yes. Me too.”

            “That’s the spirit, girl. Show some gumption.”

            Denise picked up the Hollywood magazine and looked at it. After a moment her eyes grew wide.

            “What?” Candy asked.

            “Are they really making a movie about that man who killed those seven co-eds? That was so awful. Why would they make a movie about it? I was almost too scared to go to work for a week after it happened.”

            “Sorry, hon. Blood and sex sells. It’s gotta have one or the other.”

            “But that’s so awful.”

            “Yeah, and it’ll make ‘em a bazillion bucks. People love a good horror story. I think they call ‘em slasher movies. You know, like Hookman or the Midnight Caller or the Scarecrow.”

            “I don’t know about that. All that kind of stuff scares me. Especially the Scarecrow.”

            “Listen,” Candy said loudly. Denise clutched her heart. “The rain. It’s stopped.” They both noted how quiet it was for a moment. There were more flares followed by rumbling, but it was no longer directly over them. It still rolled and echoed, drawing out each rumble. “I think we’ve survived the worst of it,” Candy said with as much enthusiasm as she could gather. She looked at the clock and it was just now two am. She should be getting off right now. The long night loomed.

            They went to the front window and looked out. There were no street lights, but by the occasional flashes of lightning they could see tree limbs scattered about. Some lawn furniture was missing or overturned. The yard crew had their work cut out for them. But the rain had stopped.

            “You don’t really believe all those slasher stories, do you?” Candy asked. “They aren’t real. Just stories people tell to frighten each other or the kids.”

            “Daddy said the Scarecrow is real. He wouldn’t tell me a lie.”

            “Well, maybe. But I think he’s overblown. One kook kills a few people wearing a scary mask and everybody goes crazy. I bet the others are just copycats. Or didn’t even happen. There is no demented serial killer running around killing, killing…”

            “Nurses.”

            “Well, yeah. I don’t believe it.”

            “I wish I was that sure.”

            After a few more minutes of desultory conversation Candy said she had to go to the ladies’ room. She could tell Denise didn’t want to be left alone but she was damned if she’d invite her to the bathroom. The girl needs to grow a spine, she thought. Then she got an idea of a fun prank. After finishing her business, she quietly slipped out of the lavatory and crept to a linen supply closet. She grabbed a pillowcase. Using her scissors she cut two eye holes, and drew some black lines on it with a felt pen. She pulled it over her head, cinching it around her neck with a draw cord. She pulled an abandoned old black great coat from the closet to hide her nursing whites. She crept up the hallway, just out of sight of the nurses’ station. She picked up a bedpan, dumped out the water and tossed the pan into the room. The clanging of the pan startled Denise, eliciting a shriek. Candy jumped into the room using the lowest voice she could muster and said “The Scarecrow has come for you!”

            Denise’s earlier shriek was nothing compared to the scream she now emitted. She ran from the station screeching as if all the demons of hell were after her. Barely able to contain her laughter, Candy pursued her down the hallway. Denise ran into a supply closet and closed the door behind her. Candy thought, what an idiot. Now she’s cornered. I guess I need to teach her how to handle an emergency.

            Denise was crying, trembling and hyperventilating so hard she could hardly hold the door handle. She braced herself to keep the Scarecrow from opening it. Oh lord, I’m so scared, she thought. She looked around to see if there were any type of weapon or protection in the closet but it was too dark. She just trembled and moaned, holding on to the knob as if her life depended on it. She never heard the click as the door was locked from the outside.

            After what felt like hours of kneeling hanging onto the knob, her hands began cramping. She whimpered, not daring to let go. She kept catching herself almost falling asleep, jerking upright each time. Finally she did not catch herself and fell into a fitful exhausted sleep.

***

            Denise jerked awake. At first she was disoriented, finding herself on the floor in a closet. Then the fear grabbed her heart like a vise. The light coming under the door was brighter than the emergency lighting so either the power was back or it was morning. She carefully twisted the doorknob. Or tried to. It refused to move. She realized it was locked and she was trapped inside.

            As she considered her predicament she also had another realization. The monster who had chased her last night was wearing a white skirt and shoes under the black coat. It was Candy all along. She played a mean trick on me, she thought, feeling incredibly foolish. Gathering her courage, she rattled the doorknob. She shook the door, shouting, “Candy, let me out!” She beat on the door and pleaded with Candy to let her out, but no one came. She was kneeling by the door crying when she heard sounds outside. Fear still spiked through her, but she knew she needed to get out. She heard what sounded like people talking. Multiple people was good. That would be safe. She pounded on the door, yelling for help. In a moment she heard the click as the door was unlocked. The bright light of day blinded her as it was opened and unknown arms pulled her up. She fought down the urge to struggle against them.

            “It’s okay. You’re safe now,” said a man’s voice. As her eyes adjusted she could tell he was wearing a policeman’s uniform. “It’s all over now.”

            “I was locked in,” Denise began, not knowing exactly what to say, totally disoriented.

            “That’s okay. Come outside and have some coffee.” That sounded like a wonderful idea so she allowed the officer to lead her outside to an ambulance where there was coffee and some doughnuts.

            Denise looked around. There were a number of official looking cars in the parking lot.

            “Where’s Candy?” she asked.

            “You need to drink your coffee first,” said the policeman.

***

            Inside two detectives were conferring.

            “Well, the MO is the same. Slashed from side to side. She bled out in minutes. The same message written in blood. I don’t know why he didn’t take them both, like over in southside last month. Maybe he didn’t know she was hiding.”

            “She was lucky. Looks like she barely escaped the Scarecrow.”

Incident at Sweet Creek

This story is somewhat of a memoir. It happened when I was young. All the various parts of the story are absolutely true. I have chosen to write it as first person narrative, putting myself in Gary’s position. The characters other than Gary and Cindy are composites of people I have known. Gary and Cindy are very true. Gary is a friend and I dated Cindy a few times one summer.

Incident at Sweet Creek

1972

            The wind blew through my hair as I cruised through the countryside. My hair now covered the tips of my ears and tickled at the collar. At the end of the school year I was letting my “seminary cut” grow out. Getting shaggy for the summer.

            I turned my green ‘69 Impala off I-95 at one of the last exits before the Virginia state line. The exit said Milledgeville, 6 miles. Milledgeville is a failed town. The South is full of them. Two US highways meet there and once there were two thriving truckstops. However, the interstate bypassed it and the truckstops died. The once bustling garage/gas station at the intersection now stands vacant, the roof caving in. There is no business district of any sort. The closest thing is a strip mall of four office fronts which someone has been building slowly over the past decade. It is almost complete. The only other industries in town are a Seven Eleven, a Chicken Palace and Tina’s Hair.

            From Milledgeville it’s a fifteen-mile straight shot to Concord. There are no curves, just gentle rise and fall. Milledgeville is where the hilly Piedmont gives way to the Coastal Plain. Instead of the tobacco and pasturage so common in the Piedmont, the Coastal Plain has acres and acres of farmland: cotton, peanuts, soy beans, corn. In all directions, vast fields all the way to the tree line.

            Ten miles out of Milledgeville is Sweet Creek. The name comes from the nearby swamp. It is home to a stand of impressive old growth sweet gum trees. People originally called it Sweet Gum Tree Swamp. Somewhere along the way the Gum and Tree got lost and the Swamp turned into Creek. Sweet Creek is not so much a town as a “wide place in the road” as Daddy always called it. We have two streets crossing the state road running between Milledgeville and Concord. Main Street is only paved on the south side of the state road. Church Street is paved on both sides. We have a general store/gas station and a church. That’s it. There used to be a diner at the intersection of the state road and Main Street. The building is still there, but weeds and trees are growing inside it and the roof is mostly gone. Further down Main Street is the pile of rotted wood that used to be the train station. More than fifty years ago the train would stop here. But like I said, that was more than fifty years ago. Across the street from the old diner is the Penney house. It is a large rectangular house with little character except as a refugee from a Haunting of Hill House movie. The kids say it’s haunted, but it’s just an old vacant building. It used to be a boarding house dependent on the diner and train station. A few families live on the unpaved side of Main, near the Penney house.

            There are houses only on the west side of Church Street. There are two nice houses – a modern brick ranch and a turn of the century American foursquare house, then Moab Baptist Church and the parsonage. After that are two more turn of the century American foursquare style houses. One is Aunt Viola and Uncle Cleveland’s place, the second and last on the block is ours.

            I smiled as I drove the last miles to my old home. It was already the middle of June and the fields were thriving. The cotton was almost knee high and the peanuts were spreading nicely. In most places the corn was at least waist high. It has been a good summer for the farmers so far. As I neared Sweet Creek I passed the old Taylor place. It was a fine example of a Craftsman-style home off to the left with six large oak trees in the front yard. These trees arched over the road and their branches mingled with the sweet gum trees on the far side of the road where the swamp made its closest approach to the town. The effect was a shadowy tunnel at the edge of town. In my mind I called it the Time Tunnel, prompted by a television show a few years ago of that name. I felt that as I passed through the tunnel I was transported back in time and reverted to the boy I was when I left here nearly six years ago. It seems that nothing changes here. Everything is the same as it always was.

Once through the tunnel I turned left onto Church Street. There were all the houses on my left. On my right was the large horse pasture belonging to the Vassor family, local bigwigs. There haven’t been any horses in that pasture in my memory but it was still called the horse pasture.

            I pulled into the last driveway before the end of the street. The end was a T intersection with Old Church Street, a hard-packed dirt path farmers used to get to their fields. There was an old cemetery in a nearby stand of trees where the old-timers say the original Moab Church once stood.

            My family’s house still stood sturdy, white and foursquare, with its high front porch. There was a separate car shed behind the house and out buildings where Daddy kept his odds and ends. And his bottle of Jack Daniels that Mama pretended not to know about. Mama’s clothesline was strung between the sheds. Behind that was the chicken coop. Further still was Mama’s garden, the envy of all Sweet Creek. The woman could make anything grow.

            I pulled in behind Daddy’s Oldsmobile. I saw his rust bucket pick-up was in the car shed. I tooted the horn to let them know I was here, put the car in park and hopped out. I wasn’t halfway to the porch when Mama came bustling out the front door. Hair in a bun, she was dressed in a flower print dress I recognized that brought back a flood of memories. It was covered by an old apron and she was wiping her hands on a dish towel.

            “Oh, my Lordy, Gary. I haven’t seen you in ages. Come give your old mama a hug,” she called. She waited while I mounted the porch steps and wrapped her arms around me. I was a full head taller than her. I had been since high school.

            “Oh, my boy, my boy, you’re a sight for sore eyes,” she murmured into my shoulder. Then she put her hands on my upper arms and held me at arm’s length. She did this every time I came home and said the same thing.

            “Let me look at you. You’re so thin. I’ll bet you haven’t been eating right. Well, we’ll fix that right up.” Turning slightly she called out, “Maitland! Get out here and greet our son!”

            My old daddy shuffled out the door. “I’m coming, old woman. I just ain’t as spry as I used to be. Hello, son. Good to see you again.” Then Daddy hugged me, too. He was a little unusual for his generation. Most of the local men didn’t hug their sons, just shook hands. Daddy was a hugger, though. I liked that.

            In no time Mama had me in the kitchen with a glass of sweet tea and a large slice of fresh apple pie in front of me.

            Mama beamed at me. “Even though we hated that you had to come home late, we were so excited to hear you’re working with the Missions Board. I was the envy of all the old biddies at the Missionary Union meeting when I told them. I’m so proud of you.”

            Yes, seminary had ended its semester the last week of May, but I had to stick around for a couple more weeks for meetings with the Board. I had thought being a Missionary was my calling. That was before everything went to hell. I’ll have to break it to them gently. Hell, I haven’t even broken it to myself yet. Not fully. I just need to take it slowly. I’ll eventually work it all out. No need to give Mama ‘the vapors’ as she calls it when she feels faint.

            I heard the screen door slam and looked to see Daddy struggling with one of my big suitcases.

            “Daddy, I’ll get that. Don’t strain yourself.”

            “I ain’t so old I cain’t help my son move back in,” he complained.

            “You old fool. You’re gonna bust your hernia,” Mama fussed. Some things never change. It’s good to be back home.

***

            While I finished eating Mama filled me in on all the local gossip. She seemed to know everything and had no trouble telling it and retelling it.

            “And I told Brother Crowder you’d be pleased to help with Vacation Bible School,” Mama said. Yes, of course I’ll help. I just wish Mama would let me make the decision. She always jumps the gun, putting me on the spot.

            After Mama cleared the plates I moved all my belongings back to my old room. I planned to be here for a couple of months while I figure out what to do. I laid on the bed to rest after carrying everything upstairs. The room was the same it has been since high school. The desk with my boy’s versions of Tarzan, Huckleberry Finn, Jules Verne and a few science fiction books, the tiny trophy from when our debate team won the regional. My Southwest High School pennant was still on the wall. I looked up and noticed for the millionth time the cowboys on horseback riding around the glass cover of my ceiling light. That round up had been going on for at least fifteen years. I was struck by the thought that this was my last summer in this room. Now that I was finished, literally, with seminary it was time to move on. There was nothing for me here in Sweet Creek. Like nearly all the college graduates, I had to move to a city to find a job.

            I must have fallen asleep. It seemed like it had only been a moment when I heard Mama tapping lightly on my doorframe.

            “Honey, wash up. I got dinner on the table.”

***

            Once Mama washed all the dinner dishes she joined me and Daddy on the back porch. It was broad and screened with a southern view. Mama always said the cooling evening breezes came from the south. We could see Uncle Cleveland’s house next door and the church steeple beyond it. Someone had mowed a lawn and the sweet smell of cut grass hung heavy in the air. I sat with Mama on the glider and Daddy had his old rocker. We watched the lightning bugs flicker their yellow green lights across the yard, looking for love.

            “We’re having a welcome home dinner for you tomorrow after church. Just some relatives and the preacher’s family. You don’t mind, do you?” It wasn’t really a question. When Mama wanted to do something she was a force of nature. You just stand back and let it happen.

            “Of course, Mama. That’ll be fine.”

            “No need to make such a fuss, old woman. You’d think the prodigal son had returned,” Daddy groused.

            “He’s no prodigal, but my son has returned. And he knows Mama will always make a fuss over him,” she beamed at me and gently squeezed my cheek. Then Mama continued.

            “Margie’s coming down from Portsmouth tomorrow, too. She’s bringing Cindy. She’s staying a couple of weeks and attending Vacation Bible School. She’s the same age as Brother Crowder’s daughter so they ought to get along fine.” Margie is my oldest sister. Cindy would be about thirteen now. What in the world does Mama think she will do with a thirteen-year-old girl for two weeks in this backwoods place?  

***

I sat with Mama and Daddy at church on Sunday. I could feel everyone’s eyes on me. Just checking to see if I had turned into a radical hippie now that I had gone to college. I listened attentively to Brother Crowder’s sermon. He came two years ago. Baptist ministers move around a lot. That’s one thing I was not looking forward to. I spent my entire life in the same little town. I like having roots. He was an anomaly for Sweet Creek. He had a college education as well as seminary training. He was probably the most educated man within twenty miles or more.

After all my classes on developing sermons, researching the Bible, apologetics and so forth it was hard not to be a little cynical in assessing the good brother’s sermon. All in all, I think he did a credible job. He’s definitely well spoken. I may need someone like him to keep me sane all summer. I did find a few faults with his message. I don’t think he used the best passages from the Bible to make his point and I don’t think he emphasized the right parts. His message was also a bit too esoteric for this crowd. I saw the eyes glaze over early on. He’ll be fine, though. Just as long as he makes sure to talk about all the bad things happening “out there” and all the decent people among us. Don’t rock the boat and get us all a pass to Heaven. That’s his job.

***

            Once all the hand shaking was done the three of us walked home. Mama immediately put on her “dinner clothes” as she called her wardrobe for cooking while guests were around. Aunt Viola showed up a few minutes later. After giving me a big hug she jumped in helping Mama.

            “You boys, relax,” Mama ordered. “Maitland, don’t take off your good shirt. And don’t go out to the barn. I know what you do out there. I won’t stand for none of that foolishness with the preacher in my house.” Daddy managed to look totally innocent of all charges.

            It wasn’t long before Margie and Fred drove up. Cindy got out and stood like a princess while her daddy pulled out a large suitcase. Mama went out to greet and kiss everybody and tell Fred where Cindy’s room would be. By that time Brother Crowder and his wife and daughter Renée had also arrived. Daddy did his part by introducing Brother Crowder to Margie, Fred and Cindy. The two girls eyed each other coolly. Renée was a little younger, but the girls were close enough in age that they probably had lots of things in common. The Vinsons showed up also, but Mama had to invite them since they live on the other side of the church. It would have been rude not to. Then I saw Nettie White drive up. Oh, Mama. Can’t you just let it go? Of course, Nettie had her daughter Alice with her. Alice had been a year behind me in school and had a crush on me through most of high school. She was a nice girl, but kind of bland. Not much personality. But Mama thought she was a great match for me. She never missed a chance to push Alice at me.

            “Oh Nettie. I’m so glad you could make it. And Alice, don’t you look lovely. Gary come see Alice,” Mama commanded. So I went to see Alice.

            “And, Nettie, I don’t think I told you but my Gary is going to be a foreign Missionary. The Missions Board has approved him and he’s going to go to China or Africa or some foreign country and bring the message of Our Lord to all the heathens. Isn’t that just wonderful?”

            “Mama. Don’t go on so.” Sometimes she made me so uncomfortable.

            “You’re my boy and I’ll brag all I want to. We mothers can do that, can’t we, Nettie? Now Gary, doesn’t Alice look lovely in that dress?”

            “Yes, Mama. Hey, Alice.”

            “Y’all go talk,” and Mama shoved me so I stumbled forward almost into Alice. We wandered away from the other adults.

            “Sorry, Gary. I didn’t want to come, but Mama said I had to.”

            “It’s alright. It’s nice to see you again.”

            “Yeah, you too. So you really gonna be a Missionary?”

            “Maybe. Maybe not. There’s a lot up in the air right now. What are you doing?”

            “Oh, I got a degree in business. Just an associate degree. From the community college. It got me a job at Weldon Savings and Loan, though. I’m a loan officer.”

            “Well, hello Officer Alice,” I smiled at her.

            “I moved out of the house, but Mama still drags me places trying to pawn me off on somebody. She’s mortified that I’m 23 and ‘still not married’, as if that’s the worst thing in the world. I guess she’s afraid I’m getting past my ‘use by’ date. It’s maddening.”

            “So still nobody special, then?” I liked Alice. I always hoped she’d find someone.

            “Wellll, somebody,” she blushed and looked down.

            “Come on,” I bumped her. “You can tell me.”

            She looked around. “You gotta swear not to tell a soul. I can’t believe I’m telling you but I’m dying to tell somebody. You’re probably the only one who’ll understand.”

            “Swear,” I said as I used to when we were kids.

            “You remember Phyllis Taylor? She was on the basketball team.”

            I had a vague recollection of a mannish looking girl, good athlete, always first string.

            “Well, she’s my roommate over at Brooks Manor Apartments. But she’s more than just my roommate.”

            “You mean she…. You’re… Oh my gosh, Alice. I’m so happy for you.” I hugged her.

            “Now you know why you can’t tell a soul. They’d crucify us. I figured since you’ve been off to college you’re more open-minded now.”

            I sidled up closer and said near her ear. “If you need cover, I’m here all summer.”

            “Thanks. I just might take you up on that. Get Mama out of my hair.”

***

            The rest of the day went fine. Mama was in her glory having all these people at her table, especially the preacher. It was late afternoon before the last guests left. I had hoped to get a chance to talk to Brother Crowder but he was always in demand. I did say I would see him tomorrow to help sort out the activity equipment for Bible School. We’ll have plenty of time, private time, to talk then.

***

            Monday, I walked over to the church mid-morning. Brother Crowder already had the shed open and was pulling out nets, balls, paddles and various athletic equipment.

            “Thanks for coming over. I really need the help,” he said. I immediately got beside him and helped him get it all out.

            “First I just need to inventory what we have. I can go buy more if we need it.” We worked for a few hours with little conversation. We didn’t really know each other well. I was already away at seminary when he came here. After a while his wife Patty came out.

            “You boys want to take a break? I got some sandwiches and tea.”

            “Good idea,” he said. We settled on his patio with the refreshments Patty had laid out. She went back inside.

            After we had been eating for a few minutes I broached my subject.

            “Brother Crowder,” I began. “You’re an educated man. I respect that. How has that affected your faith? After classes in apologetics, and exegesis and conflicting verses in the Bible and on and on it feels like it doesn’t hold water. It looks like on every front in science, religion is losing. And you’ve got those televangelists like Jim Bakker and such. They are bilking poor people for all their hard-earned money in the name of God. It’s just wrong. Sometimes at the end of the day I begin thinking all this is just a bit farfetched. Maybe we have it wrong. Maybe it’s all a mistake. I just get my head filled with doubt. Am I just wrong? Is that normal?”

            “Doubt is what makes our faith strong,” he said with a smile. “We all have moments of doubt. Even the savior did in the garden. God tests us before putting us on the road to what we will be. When you start sweating about your faith it means God is ready to tell you something important. You need to open up your heart and listen.”

            “I’ve had my heart open for years now. And all I’ve heard is a lot of nothing. God’s not talking to me. Maybe I’ve picked the wrong field. How can I convert others when I’m still trying to convince myself?”

            “Men who wrestle with doubt become some of God’s greatest champions. Look at Paul. He was actually persecuting Christians before God called him. And all the disciples were common men of no great faith. The probably only went to synagogue on high holy days. But once Jesus spoke with them, they knew the glory of God. God speaks to all of us, son. We just have to learn his language. Just give it time. Pray on it. Read your Bible. It will eventually come clear. Just like it’s coming clear to me that we are going to have to buy a new volleyball net.” He smiled and clapped me on the back. “Let’s get back to work.”

***

            I hadn’t had a chance yet to talk with Cindy since she had arrived. I found her Monday afternoon sitting in the TV room looking at a teen magazine.

            “How goes it?” I asked.

            “I’m stuck here in Hicksville for two whole weeks. This place is so lame. There’s nothing to do.”

            “Do you like Renée?”

            “She’s okay. She just doesn’t get how deadly dull it is here. It’s like she’s become one of the pod people. How do you manage it?”

            “I just smile and think about what I’ll do when I get back to civilization. You can think about all the things you do in Portsmouth. What do you do there?”

            “Well, right now my friends are down at the beach checking out the cute guys in their tight bathing trunks.”

            “I think I know why Margie sent you here.”

            “And there’s the foosball arcade where the cool guys hang out and smoke and the malls. There’s not even a mall around here. How do people live like this?”

            “Oh, come on, Cindy. It’s not that bad. Maybe if you play your cards right Granddad will let you milk the cow.”

            Cindy screamed and threw her magazine at me as I beat a hasty retreat.

***

            I followed Brother Crowder’s advice and prayed more and read my Bible. It did little to allay my doubts. What I couldn’t bring up with him was my anger at the hypocrisy of the Missions Board. I had recently run afoul of them. I had a big decision to make. I knew which way I was leaning, where my heart wanted to go, but it’s a life-changing decision. How do I know I’m making the right choice?

***     

            Brother Crowder asked me to teach a course for Bible School. I told him I was reluctant because I had my own work to do. I was supposed to present four guest sermons at local churches over the summer. I hadn’t even begun to make plans for where to do that.

            “Well, it’s a given that you’ll do one here at Moab. I can also speak for Bethel. We’ll have you there one Sunday. I’m sure Concord and Galatia would love to have you come speak. I’ll talk to them.”

            “You make it sound so easy. I guess it is easy if I have an insider like you to open the door for me. Thanks.”

            “That has nothing to do with it. You’re a home boy. Everybody is waiting to see what you’ll do with your gift. What God has laid on your heart. If you don’t ask them, they’ll be calling you by the end of the summer. And don’t worry about it. I’ll help you with the sermons if you want. I always seem to have a million ideas floating around in my head.”

            “Oh, thanks. Thanks a lot. I guess I can teach a course for you in Bible School then.”

***

Cindy somehow made it through the first week. The second would be easier because she would be busy with Vacation Bible School all week. She and Renée seem to have bonded. They were together every time I saw one of them. They even did a sleep over. I thought the giggling would go on all night.

            Early the second week the girls began pestering me about going to see a movie. It seems the new blockbuster The Poseidon Adventure was coming to the local theater this week. I checked the times in the paper and decided we could go on Thursday night. The girls were so excited, until Thursday afternoon when Renée broke out in hives and her temperature shot up.

            “I bet she got into some poison ivy. She’s so allergic to it,” Patty said. Although she felt bad for her friend, Cindy said she wanted to see the movie with me anyway. So we had an early dinner and set out for the seven o’clock show.

            I thought the movie was great and the special effects were outstanding. It all seemed so real. I said as much to Cindy on the way home. She agreed. She said she was a big fan of the movie. By this time we had just passed through Milledgeville on our way home.

            “Why’s it look so orange out here?” she asked suddenly. I realized that the area around the car seemed to be illuminated with orange light.

            “I don’t know.” I checked my rearview mirror to see if there was an emergency vehicle approaching. No. We were alone on the highway. “Do you see anything in the sky?” Cindy looked out her window up at the sky.

            “Wait a minute.” She leaned forward so she could look directly above us through the windshield. “There’s a big orange light directly over the car.”

            “What kind of light?”

            “I don’t know. Just a light. It’s so bright I can’t tell if it’s on a plane or something.”

            “A plane wouldn’t fly this low or be able to stay over the car. Maybe it’s a helicopter. But why would it be out here at night?” We fell silent. That was when I noticed that whatever the light was, it made no sound. I also noticed the constant night noise of crickets, cicadas and frogs had ceased. All I could hear was the hum of the tires on the pavement. I leaned forward but didn’t see anything. The orange glow was gone.

            “What happened?”
            “It suddenly just shot up in the air,” Cindy said. “Just straight up.”

            “Here it comes again,” Cindy said, alarm appearing in her voice. “It’s coming down so fast it’s going to hit us! Go faster! Get us out of here.” I sped up. I noticed the orange illumination was back.

            “It’s just following us. What does it want? This isn’t funny. Go faster!”

            “I don’t want to go any faster. There are deer out after dark. They get in the road sometimes. If we hit one it could kill us.”

            “I don’t care about the goddamn deer. Get us out of here!” She was seriously spooked. Tears were starting to stream down her face.

            “I see headlights coming. Maybe they see it, too.” I saw the orange glow disappear.

            “It shot up in the sky again,” Cindy said.

            The car approached and passed on by.

            “Here it comes again,” Cindy screamed. “What do they want with us?”

I was still trying to get a look at it. I held the car as steady as possible and leaned over the steering wheel. I could see part of an orange light. Cindy was right in that it was so bright I couldn’t tell if it was attached to a fuselage or just a free-floating orange ball.

            “I’m going to stop and get a better look,’’ I said.

            “NO!” Cindy screamed. “We can’t stop. They might get us. Go, go, go!”

            The light, whatever it was, bobbed up and down and few more times. I was driving as fast as I dared. I turned on Church Street on two wheels. The orange light disappeared. We roared into the drive and slammed on the brakes. Cindy was in hysterics by now. I ran around to her side of the car, looking up to see if we were followed. I got her door open but she would not be pulled out.

            “Cindy. Let go. We’re home. We have to get inside.” She just continued screaming. Daddy and Uncle Cleveland came out on the porch.

            “What in tarnation is going on out here?” Daddy demanded.

            “Help me with Cindy,” I called. Daddy came down. Uncle Cleveland went inside calling to Mama. Once we got Cindy out of the car she broke from us and dashed toward the house. Mama caught her on the porch and led her inside.

            Daddy looked at me and said, “I ask again. What in tarnation is going on?”

            I quickly related what we had seen.

            “If it was going up and down then it won’t nothing natural. Ball lightning and shooting stars don’t do that. It had to be manmade,” Daddy said, trying to come up with an explanation.

            “Let’s go out and see if it comes back,” Uncle Cleveland said. Cindy was in the next room but came running in.

            “No. Don’t go out. They’ll get you. Please don’t go.” She pleaded with us.

            “Who’s going to get us, honey?” Daddy asked.

            “I don’t know. Them.”

            Against her advice the three of us went back out anyway. At the end of Church Street we turned toward Concord since that was the last direction I was heading when I last saw the light. We drove half way to Concord but didn’t see a thing.

            When we got back Mama said she had Cindy in bed. She was calming down some.

            “Maitland. Maybe we ought to call the sheriff,” Mama said.

            “Woody? Shoot. He couldn’t find his ass with both hands tied behind him. He ain’t gonna do nothing. Nothing to be done. Whatever it was, is gone.”

            “But what was it?” Uncle Cleveland asked.

            “Damn if I know. You sure you kids didn’t just imagine it? Maybe you were still excited from the movie?”

            “The movie was about a giant wave, not some orange light that chased us home from Milledgeville,” I said testily.

            “Now, don’t get riled up. We’re just trying to figure this out.”

            “Well, whatever it was, we both saw it and it was enough to scare the daylights out of Cindy.”

            “Can’t nothing be done about it now. I’ll call Woody in the morning and ask if anybody else saw strange lights. He’s liable to think we been into the moonshine.”

            We agreed that we would not talk about it with anyone else. They’d just think we’re crazy. However, I knew Uncle Cleveland would tell Aunt Viola. That’s all it would take. She is physiologically incapable of keeping her mouth closed.

            Cindy refused to sleep alone that night so Mama slept in the bed with her. She refused to leave the house on Friday so she missed the Bible School graduation ceremony. I kept thinking about what we saw. I couldn’t come up with any explanation. I considered UFOs but I never believed in the flying saucer stories and I read in Time magazine that the Air Force’s Project Blue Book proved there was no such thing as flying saucers. Still, what we saw defied all logic. I prayed about it and waited for God to answer. Yeah, you know how that went.

            Friday night was hot and I left my windows and door open to hopefully get some air circulation. Just after I lay down a dark form appeared in my doorway. It dashed across the room and dove under my covers. Cindy rolled herself into a fetal ball and pressed herself against my chest. She was not yet ready to sleep alone.

            “Did you stop the car?” she asked softly.     

            “No, Cindy.”

            “Are you sure?”

            “I think so. Why.

            “Something touched me.”

            I stared at her, stunned.

            “What do you mean?”

            “I don’t know. But something touched me.”

            Had I stopped the car? I honestly couldn’t remember. I was so frantic I don’t remember much about it. The next day I asked Mama what time Cindy and I came in on Thursday night.

            “Let me think. McMillan and Wife was just going off, so it was probably about five till ten. I had just mentioned to your daddy that I was getting worried about you two.”

            The movie had let out at 9. We were in the car by 9:10 at the latest. It takes exactly 25 minutes to get from town to Sweet Creek. We should have been home by 9:35. How do I account for the extra 20 minutes? Did I stop the car? I don’t remember. I really don’t remember much of that drive. Cindy was frantic and begging me to hurry up. And screaming. I distinctly remember her screaming. But she wasn’t in the car. And now that I thought about it, I never remembered going through the ‘time tunnel’. I always notice that on the way home from town. The harder I thought the farther it got from me. Then something hit my mind so hard it knocked the breath out of me. I cannot figure out what it was, but I’m sure I was outside the car. What the hell happened?

***

            Cindy was still not prepared to leave the house on Sunday. However, she became frantic when she realized she would be alone while we were at church. In the end Mama said she would stay behind with Cindy. I offered to stay instead but Mama said I should go. Nettie White and Alice were supposed to be coming to church today and she had told Nettie that I would sit with Alice so she wouldn’t feel awkward. I just pressed my lips together. I’m twenty-four damn years old and my mama is telling me where to sit in church?

            As it turned out, Nettie and Alice didn’t show so I sat with Daddy. The sermon was about faith in things unseen. I could tell Brother Crowder was directing his words at me. In a way, I appreciated his efforts. But his message got me to thinking in other directions. What Cindy and I had seen, we believed in. We had the tangible proof of our eyes, but no one else had seen it and I felt a measure of disbelief from them. I had come to the conclusion that the only explanation was it was a UFO, something from another world. As Paul on the road to Damascus, I have seen the light. Yet the world seemed aligned against me. Flying saucers are a silly figment of my imagination and I shouldn’t believe in them. But I am encouraged, even expected, to believe in things I have not seen. That no one has seen. Walking on water, changing water to wine, bringing back the dead. Why am I to believe stories written down eighteen hundred years ago, and a hundred years after the fact yet not believe what I have seen with my own eyes? It’s about as reliable as the stories of Brer Rabbit I heard as a child. Sitting there, in that pew, I had an epiphany. Religion. It’s all a lie. Every bit of it. I hung my head to hide my tears. I could never build a life on a foundation of such lies.

            I wanted to leave the church as soon as the last hymn was sung but the crowd moved slowly. A friend of the family, Loreen, asked after my mama. She was concerned she might be sick. I explained that Cindy wasn’t feeling well and Mama had stayed with her.

            “Oh, yes. I heard about the light. I can imagine she is feeling poorly after such a fright.” Yep, it was already gossip. Loreen moved closer and said in a low voice, “Can I tell you a secret?” I lifted my eyebrows but nodded yes.

            “I saw it, too.” What? I’m sure my eyes flew open wide.

            “I was taking the boys back to their mama’s house on Thursday night.” She was referring to her grandsons. “It was late, already past their bedtimes. Billy was in front with me and said ‘Meemaw, what’s that light over there?’ I looked to where he was pointing and saw this orange light in the distance going up and down. We were riding by Hancock’s farm so there weren’t no trees in the way. We had a good view. It would go way up in the sky, then real quick go down like a falling star till it disappeared behind the treeline. It looked like it was only a few miles away. That would have been near Sweet Creek. I just wanted you to know. You ain’t crazy. Lessen me, Billy and Jay are, too.”

            She moved on to talk to other friends, but I was stunned. No matter what anyone said, this was proof that Cindy and I hadn’t hallucinated the whole thing. It really did happen.

***

            As soon as I got home I threw some clothes in my overnight bag. Down in the living room I told Mama that I had some business in Raleigh to attend to.

            “You going to see that woman?” she asked.

            “She’s got a name, Mama. You could give her the courtesy of using it.”

            “Don’t sass your mama, boy,” Daddy said.

            “Her name is Janey. Janey Grant. And yes, I will probably see her while I’m in Raleigh. What’s so wrong about that?”

            “I thought you were done with that,” Mama said. “I thought you were moving on. You know she’s no good for you. She can’t ever be the helpmeet you need. She won’t ever be an asset to you.”

            “You don’t even know her.”

            “I know about her. I know she’s no good Christian. She left her husband over in Concord. Just walked out on him. She’s a married woman. That’s adultery. You can’t be a Missionary and be an adulterer, too.”

            “Mama. Get your head out of the sand. This is 1972. People get divorced. At least in Janey’s case there were no children involved.”

            “Because she had an abortion! She’s damaged goods. You need to leave her be.”

            “That’s a lie! She lost her baby because that son of a bitch beat the crap out of her!” I was close to losing my temper.

            “I’m warning you, son. Don’t be using that kind of language to your mama. I ain’t too old to take you down a peg,” Daddy said in a voice that brooked no argument.

            “Mama, I have to follow my heart. My heart is with Janey.”

            “You’re just a baby. You don’t even know your heart yet.”

            “I’m 24. When you were my age you already had Margie and Vernie was on the way. Were you a baby then?”

            “Times were different. Let it go, son. This ain’t about your heart. Your soul is at stake. Reverend Stigmon over at Mount Carmel says the adulterers will burn in Hell with the fornicators and homosexuals.”

            “Yeah, he says a lot of things that aren’t true. The man is a lunatic.”

            “He’s a man of God!” Mama said indignantly.

            “Maybe your God, but not mine.” Without giving her a chance to say anything else, I quickly strode out the door and headed to Raleigh.

            I was well past Milledgeville before my heart rate settled down and I felt fully in control again. Mama and Daddy have never liked Janey. They believe every bad thing the gossips say about her. They ignore the fact that she ended up married to the meanest drunk in Concord. That she showed up at Reverend Stigmon’s house covered with bruises asking for help and advice. His advice was that her duty was to her husband. His help was to call Jimmy Grant to come get his wife. This precipitated the beating that caused the miscarriage. She was done with Grant. The divorce was final and she had a new life in Raleigh. A life that I wanted to be a part of.

            And that was the big stumbling block for the Missions Board. They told me I could not become a Missionary if I continued carrying on my adulterous affair. Jesus disapproved of divorce. That was good enough for the Southern Baptist Convention. Janey’s marriage vow was to keep herself faithful to her husband. If he strayed from the path of righteousness she should be an example to him. How could she help me as a Missionary to bring others to Christ if she couldn’t even bring her own husband, they asked? Their minds were closed on this. So be it.

            As the miles clicked past I felt a huge weight lifting off my shoulders. I had not even known it was there. An inner voice told me I was doing the right thing. I was following the path my heart was set on. It may not make everyone happy. It certainly wouldn’t make my family happy. But it was right to the only ones who mattered.

            So, I told the Missions Board to kiss my ass. Janey said “yes” and whether that night was adultery or just plain fornication doesn’t matter. It was the joining of two hearts seeking solace in each other. And it was perfect.

The Undertaker

You may recognize the beginning of this story. It is a take off on Little Red Corvette from last year. I almost named it Little Black Corvette, but that doesn’t have the same flow. Little Red Corvette was absolutely true. At one point I pondered on what had happened and what might have happened. In this story, I’m imagining one possible scenario. I’m just glad it didn’t work out this way.

The Undertaker

When I was a kid, my best friend was Will. Our dads had been best friends growing up, and since we lived about 200 yards apart it was logical we would be thrown together. I was a year older and we were quite different, but it somehow worked and we were very close throughout our childhood and adolescence. Will dated Tina during most of high school. She dumped him when he was sixteen. I then broke the Number One Bro Rule. I dated her – twice. It was wrong but she was kinda hot and I was kinda 17. If it’s any consolation, she ditched me on our second date and went home with another guy.

Will and I eventually worked around it and stayed friends. After high school he met a nice girl and they got engaged. Early in the engagement she was killed in a car accident. Will was particularly wrecked because his sister had died in an auto accident when we were young. By this time I was off at college. I found out later he had moved in with a woman in a nearby town. I was just hoping he would find himself, or at least a little happiness after all the crap life had handed him.

***

Will apparently found himself. On his 21st birthday he came to visit me in the small city not far away where I had settled. He said his birthday present to himself was to come out of the closet. Then he said, “I’m gay.” I just looked at him as if waiting for the other shoe to drop. My expression probably said, “And…?” This wasn’t exactly a newsflash. I knew he had broken off with his live-in lady friend and he had spoken a number of times about going to ‘the club’ in my city. ‘The club’ was a gay bar. I guess what he was getting at was that although he was living as if he was not in the closet, he was now announcing it to the world. It apparently didn’t go over well. You have to remember this was about 1980.

When I didn’t say anything right away he sarcastically said, “So, aren’t you going to turn against me like everyone else has?”

I wasn’t surprised by the response he was getting. We grew up, and he still lived, in a very rural, very conservative, very Baptist, very southern community. They are kind of like, hate the sin, crucify the sinner types. I had long ago shed many of the bigoted views I was brought up with. I told him, “Will, you’re my friend. I love you. Nothing would make me turn against you. You’re still you.” He looked like he needed it so I hugged him. I detected a couple of sniffles. He said, “It’s a sucky way to find out who your real friends are.”

But Will was one for living out loud, so he proudly carried on in his community, visiting the club in the city on a regular basis. He sometimes stopped by to see me on the way in or out of town.

***

One particular Saturday afternoon about a year after coming out he showed up at my door

and said, “Come to the club with me.” My immediate response was, “Not gonna happen.”

“It’ll be fine. I want you to see this part of my life. I won’t let anybody touch you.”

“Really not gonna happen.”

We went around for awhile until he said, “For years I went with you to straight bars. You can do this for me.” I prepared to argue that this was different, but somehow…it wasn’t.

I grudgingly agreed to go.

He said, “I’ll be with you. Nobody’s going to rape you.”

“Really not helping.”

***

Why was I so unwilling to go? Maybe somewhere down in our lizard brainstem is a primeval fear of ‘other’? At this point in my life I knew a few gay people. I guess I was hypocritically okay they were gay as long as I didn’t have to see it or think about it. Not so much removed from the bigotry I was trying to overcome.

So, I put on my big boy pants and went. We arrived about 10:30 as it was just starting to fill. As we walked past some tables a nice-looking gentleman said, “Hey, can I buy you a drink?” He was dressed in a blazer and button-down shirt. A bit old, 35-40, which was ancient to me at 23. I politely declined and quickly caught up with Will.

“You should have accepted the drink,” he said.

“Hell no,” I responded. “He would have thought I was available for negotiations.”

“It’s just a drink.”

“No way. It’s never ‘just a drink’. I’m not selling what he’s looking for.”

“You’re such a prude,” Will laughed.

***

We found a bar with some stools available. I had only sat for a minute when a lumberjack came up beside me. I call him a lumberjack because he looked like the guy on Brawny paper towels, decked out in tight jeans and a flannel shirt. He was nice looking and all muscle, with that little mustache that all gay men seemed to have. He leaned on the bar and smiled at me. I looked to Will in a panic.

“Just ignore him. He’s harmless.” At 6 foot plus and 200 pounds of muscle at the peak of his power he decidedly didn’t look harmless. He decidedly looked like a predator and I decidedly was feeling like prey. He gave me a leer that said I had passed muster and was now on the menu. I studiously refused to make eye contact until he drifted away in search of greener pastures.

“Man, you have been cruised,” Will laughed. Is that what it was?

“Yeah? And I thought you were going to protect me from all this. All you’re doing is enjoying the show.” I was a bit annoyed.

“Hey, you’re doing fine. Can I help it if the guys think you’re hot? Would you rather they

think you’re ugly?”
            “Yes, I mean no, I mean… I don’t know.” I hate hard questions like that. No one wants to

be considered ugly, but I did not come here to find me a man.

            And then I made a connection. Is that the way women feel at bars when we leer at them? We don’t call it leering, just ‘checking them out’, but it’s basically the same thing. I felt so violated while it was happening. Is that what women experience? I whispered a quiet apology to women everywhere.

I had decided I definitely did not want to go the bathroom while at the bar. I would just feel too vulnerable and exposed. What did I expect, an orgy? But a couple of beers settled that. I had to go, no question. So I told Will I’d be right back, and to come rescue me if I wasn’t. I pressed through the crowd toward the men’s room on the other side of the bar. The crowd was fairly thick but there was no excuse for the number of hands I felt on my butt as I made my way through. When did men get so free with their hands? There was also a ladies’ room that did not seem to be used. I hadn’t seen any women. Lesbians are gay. Don’t they go to gay bars, or does it have to be a dyke bar? Or maybe it was for drag queens. I just don’t know any of the politics of being gay.

I steeled myself and went in expecting the worst. What, I don’t know. It was just a fairly ordinary bathroom like in any restaurant or bar. A difference was there were no urinals, only stalls. And no doors on the stalls. I decided not to overanalyze the thought process behind this. I waited in a short line. Most of the patrons seemed to know each other. There was a group of very young guys, probably with fake id’s, clustered around the mirror fixing their hair and makeup and being bitchy. If you’ve ever seen a teen movie with a scene of the mean girls in the school bathroom, this was it. I took care of my business and quickly exited. I endured another grope session making my way back to where I started. No stool and no Will. Oh, crap.

Almost immediately a very handsome young man sidled up to me.

“I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before.” Was that his best line? I looked over at him. He was dressed in jeans, a white T-shirt, black leather jacket and had his hair combed back like Fonzie in the old Happy Days tv show.

“That’s because I’ve never been here before,” I answered.

“Oh, just come out of the closet?”

What?! I assume the dim light covered the bright red of my face at this point. Without sputtering too much I explained I was NOT gay and was here with a friend. Even as I said it I realized how lame it sounded. The guy accepted it, but instead of walking away, he stayed and we talked. I guess I blushed even more when he told me it was too bad I wasn’t gay because he thought I was very hot. We were far enough from the dance floor to talk without shouting. His name was John and he was a waiter at a local fancy restaurant. He told me excitedly that he had also just picked up a job as a bartender here at the club. He hoped to make enough money so he could have his own place. He was currently living with an elderly aunt and it was really cramping his social life. I talked some about my work with handicapped children. He gave me the standard line that I must be “so special”. I get that a lot.

After a while he moved on in search of prey. I mean, 99.9% of the men were here for one thing only. Then I ashamedly admitted to myself that when I went out to bars, I was one of that 99.9%. Just looking for a different landscape. I had actually enjoyed talking to John. I like meeting people and this is what I enjoy about social situations. Just talking and getting to know people. It was nice. He was nice.

Will came hustling up.

“Sorry, I had to catch up with someone. I didn’t mean to desert you. I see you were talking to John. What do you think? He’s like the hottest guy here. By the way, my friends think you’re cute. They were disappointed to hear you’re straight.”

“Yay, crown me Miss America,” I said sourly. Then I realized my mood wasn’t Will’s fault, it was mine. I’m unfairly putting my straight values on what he enjoys. These are his stomping grounds, where he’s most at home. We all need a place like that. I’m glad he has it. 

  “Thanks for showing me around. It was nice. But it’s time I headed home.” He didn’t object. I think he was ready to go on the prowl also. So I left.

***

It wasn’t far home. A few blocks from the club I noticed a car following me closely. I mean it was city driving, but he stayed right on my bumper. It’s usually annoying, but late at night with the streets deserted, it’s kinda creepy.

A couple blocks from my last turn, he pulled out of the lane and came up on my right. As I stopped at the red light, he oozed up to a stop beside me on the right in a low, sleek and oh so sexy Corvette. And did I mention it was black? Without the shine, it would be hard to see as it faded into the black of night like it had some science fiction cloaking device on board. I couldn’t help but admire it. The windows were tinted so I couldn’t see the driver. Probably a guy, though. Maybe making up for deficits in other areas I thought enviously. When the light turned green he jackrabbited away. Hey, if my car could do that I probably would, too. I just signaled and moved my old blue Civic into the right lane to make my turn at the next block. As I made my turn I was peripherally aware of the Corvette making a quick right turn a block down the street. My house was the next to last on the block on the right. I blessed my luck that I found curb parking just a few feet from the walkway.

As I was walking toward the steps that led up from the sidewalk, I saw a black Corvette slowly nose up to the next intersection coming from the left. Since I’m the next to last house on the block it was pretty close. How many black Corvettes are running around my neighborhood at nearly 1 am? It had to be the same one. Why had it followed me? My mind raced through about a dozen scenarios, none ending well. There was about a 1% chance it was a gorgeous blonde girl who wanted my body. About a 39% chance it was a perverted serial murderer who also wanted my body, for entirely different reasons. And a 60% chance it was a couple of redneck college students out to roll a queer. Yeah, my money was on that explanation. Had they followed me from the club? It’s not something I generally worry about. I guess you could call it straight boy privilege.

He revved the engine as I reached the steps. The deep throaty sound vibrated in my stomach. He knew I was aware of him. My blood ran cold and I felt panic coming on. I felt exposed. The car was sitting there like a black spider emitting an aura of evil. I don’t know why I got so spooked, but I instinctively knew that this was bad. I pretended not to see the Corvette as he gunned his engine again and I hustled up the walkway and into the house. I quickly got in my apartment, locked the door and leaned against it trying to regulate my breathing. I usually turn on the lights first thing, but a thought stabbed me, ‘Then he’ll know where I live’. So I stood there in the dark, heart racing, hyperventilating and sweating bullets. After a few moments I was able to move so I sidled up to the window and peeped out. Holy Mother of God! The Corvette was sitting directly in front of the house, idling. I’m sure the occupant(s?) was watching the house. To see which lights came on? I was frozen in terror.

            After a small eternity, the car moved on. I sank down on the couch and waited for my breathing and heartbeat to slow down. What was happening here? At the time I didn’t recognize it as a flashback. I didn’t turn on the lights in case he circled the block and came back around. I just waited until I was in my bedroom with the door closed before turning on any lights. Yeah, I was really freaked. I had heard stories from people who had been tailed before, but you don’t know how unnerving and downright terrifying it can be until it happens to you.

I slept little that night. Had I dodged a bullet or was it something totally innocuous? 

***

Will came by the next day to thank me for coming with him to the club before heading out of town. I opened the door to let him into my living room.

“You’re looking real chipper this morning,” I croaked rubbing my bleary eyes.

“Uh, it’s past noon.”

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“Yeah, you look like shit. You didn’t have that much beer. What happened?”

I told him about the black Corvette. He was silent for a long moment. I could fairly feel the unease radiating off his body.

“Oh, shit! You saw the Undertaker! Oh, crap. I had hoped it was just urban legend. I mean I heard about it but no one I know has seen him. Oh Christ, oh Christ, I’m so sorry. I never would have purposely put you in danger, you know that?”

“Okay, now I’m really spooked. What’s going on?”

“Over the past couple of years about five young guys have disappeared. I don’t really know but one from our club. The others are from other gay clubs locally. Most of them had no family to push the investigation and the police don’t give a damn. Just another fucking faggot to them. They talk about our ‘dangerous lifestyle’. They say there’s no evidence of the missing men being connected and no bodies to indicate foul play. They assume gays are all transients who drift about and these guys just moved on. But at least two of the guys were said to be last seen getting into a black Corvette. I thought it was just people making up stuff. The story is that he follows guys home from the clubs, entices them into his car and then somehow does away with them. No body has ever been found, so we don’t know what happens but the guys are never seen again. We call him the Undertaker because he drives a black car and he disposes of the bodies we figure he’s killing. And as I said, the police aren’t really interested. They say the black Corvette is just exaggeration. But you’ve seen it. Oh, shit man. He followed you home. Oh my god, I’m so, so sorry.”

I was fine with it. For a moment. Then I bolted to the bathroom and threw up in the toilet. A freaking serial killer was after me last night? And he knows where I live! Will followed me, rinsed a washcloth and put it on the back of my neck. I took it and wiped my face. Aw, crap.

“What am I gonna do?” I asked. “I can’t go to the police. What’ll I tell them? That I saw a spooky car?”

“It’s going to be okay. I doubt he’ll come back. Just keep your eyes open and don’t go out at night for a few days. That’s all you can do. That’s been my life. That’s all gayboys’ lives. Always trying to keep an eye on my back. You also got plenty of housemates to watch you.”

“I’ll be fine,” I mumbled.

***

I don’t think I slept more than a few minutes any night that week. I was a wreck at work. People asked about it. I just said some guys kept me up too late. As the next weekend approached I was nearly functioning normally. Then I got the call on Saturday.

“Curtis, it’s Will. You gotta help me. It’s the Undertaker. I think he got John.”

“John? From the club? Oh shit! Are you sure?”

“Not really. He left the bar Friday night and his aunt said he never came home. He wasn’t with anyone when he left the bar. We know the Undertaker’s been in this area. It’s all my fault. If I’d told him about what happened to you he never would have gotten in a stranger’s car.”

“Calm down, Will. It’s not your fault. John’s an adult. He should know better. And we don’t know that’s what happened.”

“But what if it is?”

“And you said the cops aren’t interested?”

“Even if they were, John hasn’t been missing long enough. By the time they come in, it may be too late. We got an ace in the hole, though, but we need your help.”

“If I can help John you know I will.”

“Remember the lumberjack as you called him that you saw at the bar last week? The one that cruised you?”

“How could I forget,” I deadpanned.

“Well, by day he is Officer Joseph Teem, one of Raleigh’s finest.”

“A cop?”

“Yep, one of our ‘brave boys in blue’. Anyway, he has a little group of officers, they call themselves the Gay Strike Force. Totally unofficial and off the record. They are mostly gay and take a special interest in fighting gay bashing and other crimes against minorities in general. A good bit of their investigating is under the radar. As I said, the brass really don’t give a damn about us. But the brass is willing to look the other way on some things. You are the only eyewitness we have of the Undertaker. I need you to talk to Joe.”

“But I didn’t see anything. Just a car. And I was so freaked I don’t hardly remember anything.”

“Please, Curtis. John’s life may depend on it. Joe says every little bit of information helps.”

“Well, okay, but like I said, I don’t think I know anything that will help.”

“Great. Joe says he has time after lunch. We can come by and he can ask you some questions.”

***

What did I just agree to, I wondered. I remembered Joe as very big and very intimidating. I was inviting him to come in and interrogate me. The word interrogate is intimidating enough. Will he want to shine a light in my eyes or break out the rubber baton? No, that’s just foolish. Isn’t it?

By the time Will knocked on my door I had come up with about ten reasons why John was late getting home, none of which involved the Undertaker. One look at Will’s face told me those scenarios didn’t matter. He was truly worried and hurting. I owed him whatever help I could give.

“Curtis, you remember Joe.”

The big man beside Will stuck out his hand. “Officer Joe Teem, Foxborough PD.”

I shook it. “Pleased to meet you,” I said with what I’m sure was a lot of uncertainty in my voice. He still looked like the Brawny paper towel guy, in a uniform. The man was still big and intimidating. And the dress blue uniform just made him more so – both big and intimidating. I bet crooks hated to see him coming.

“Sorry if I shook you up a little the other night, Mr. Bass. Will’s explained how you came to be in the club. I apologize if I made you feel uncomfortable,” the sincerity in his voice helped put me more at ease. I guessed he was good at playing ‘Good Cop’.

“Oh, it’s okay. And call me Curtis. I just wasn’t sure what to expect.”

“Culture shock. Yeah, I understand, Curtis. Anyway, can we sit and talk about what you know?”

He asked me to tell him what I remembered all the way through once without stopping. I couldn’t do it. Remembering made my gorge rise and my heart race several times. He just softly asked me to stop, breathe deeply and continue when I felt ready. I don’t know if that is what they taught him in the police academy but it sure beat the bright light and rubber baton. He was so much gentler than I had imagined he could be. A calming presence.

Then, he asked me to tell it again, but he stopped me after nearly every sentence for clarification.

“The key is the car. Can’t you tell me anything else about it?” he asked.

“It was a black ‘Vette. What else can I say?”

“No bumper stickers, scratches or dents? Nothing? How about the license plate? North Carolina or vanity tag?”

“Nothing. Can’t you just run the make of the car? I’m pretty sure it was new, like only a couple years old at most. It’s a pretty high-end car. How many could there be?”

“You’d be surprised. Several thousand. We’ve checked.”

“Yeah, but wouldn’t it be registered locally, like in Raleigh or at least Wake County?”

“Probably not. A good predator doesn’t take victims in his own back yard. He probably lives not far, because he needs to be familiar with the area, but he’s hit Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, all in the Triangle. He could be anywhere in central North Carolina. Or Virginia for that matter. If he’s from outside North Carolina we may never catch him. Did you see the license plate at all?”

“No. He was behind me on the way home from the club. Then he was idling in front of my house. Again, I couldn’t see anything.”

“You said you saw him come up to the intersection ahead when you got to your house. Maybe you saw his front plate then?” Officer Teem was really reaching.

Suddenly something clicked. I had a memory that I had totally forgotten in the frantic craziness of that night.

“Hold on. It did have a front plate. When it stopped at the intersection it was directly under a streetlight.” Officer Teem was immediately at attention. Will sat up, too. “I barely noticed the plate. Yeah, it was a North Carolina plate. And I remember it started with JPL. I noticed it without thinking because I used to be a NASA and sy-fy geek. To us JPL is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It’s just one of those things that register in your brain without you even thinking about it. I didn’t remember until you just said that about the intersection.”

“That’s wonderful, Curtis,” Officer Teem said. “Any help with the numbers?”

I closed my eyes and tried to remember. I got nothing. “I think the first number had curves. It wasn’t a 1 or 7. That’s all I can give you.”

“This is incredible evidence. The number of black Corvettes with a license plate starting JPL has to be a very small number. I’ll make sure our guys run this at once.”

Officer Teem excused himself to go out to his cop car. Will immediately grabbed me in a bear hug.

“I knew you would come up with something, Curtis. You’re the best.”

***

What happened next was like something out of a Patterson thriller. Joe told Will and he shared the details with me later. There turned out to be three black Corvettes registered in North Carolina with a plate starting with JPL. The owner of one had been out of the country for several weeks. Surveillance revealed his car was locked up in a garage, unused.

Of the other two, one had a Durham address. The other was in Clayton. Joe favored the Clayton one because Durham was part of his hunting ground, while Clayton was safely removed yet close enough for easy access. However, since the Durham vehicle had an open parking violation, they used that as an excuse for a friendly visit from the police. He and Detective George Rizzo, also on the strike force, took a trip up to Durham to see a Homer Jensen, 43, occupation not listed. It turned out Jensen was home. He answered the door after several attempts at knocking by the detective. Jensen was on the short side at about 5’4” and a little pudgy. His arms showed some muscle development so Joe figured he must lift weights. He had thin hair across the top of his slightly too large head. Joe said he immediately got a very weird vibe from the guy. He said he’d been a policeman long enough to know not to discount his take on people’s vibes. It seemed to be a special gift he had. Detective Rizzo glibly worked them into the front room of the house. Jensen seemed unhappy with this, but apparently didn’t want to arouse suspicion. Too late for that. While Rizzo talked with Jensen, Joe used his special cop senses to survey the place from where he stood. First off, Jensen was as squirrelly as they come. Joe could tell the man was definitely hiding something. As Jensen was doing his best to escort them back out the door Joe thought he heard a soft thud and what may have been a moan. He really wasn’t sure if he heard it, or just wanted to hear something. He decided to go with it.

“Did you hear that?” he asked Detective Rizzo. Rizzo’s eyes said no but he answered in the affirmative.

“Mind if we take a look around, Mr. Jensen?” Rizzo asked moving past the man deeper into the house.

“Hey, I mind very much. You can’t come in here without a warrant.”

“I heard someone moaning,” Joe told him, stretching the truth.

“That’s probable cause, Mr. Jensen. We have to investigate,” said Rizzo. As Rizzo reached to open the door to another part of the house, Jensen lunged at him with a dagger-shaped letter opener he had grabbed from a desk. He plunged it into Rizzo’s back just under his right shoulder blade. As Rizzo cried out, Jensen yanked the blade out and turned to attack Joe. Joe had already pulled out his taser and gave Jensen a good jolt. As Jensen lay on the floor quivering yet paralyzed, Joe flipped him over on his stomach and cuffed him. He turned to Rizzo who was struggling to get his jacket off.

“I just bought this freaking blazer. Dammit!” Joe ripped Rizzo’s shirt open in the back to get a better look at the wound.

“It’s bleeding pretty badly,” he said. Looking around he noticed a dish towel.

“God only knows what germs are on this, but I guess it’s better than bleeding to death,” he told Rizzo as he pressed it against the wound.

“I’m good,” Rizzo groaned, holding on to a table to maintain an upright stance. “We need to search this house.” He took a step and crumpled to the floor.

“Aw, shit,” said Joe. He sat Rizzo up and began unbuckling the man’s belt.

“I always thought you were hot for me Joe, but is now a good time?” Rizzo managed to chuckle.

“Shut up while I save your life,” Joe groused. Once the belt was free, he looped it around Rizzo’s chest and used it to hold the towel in place over the wound. “You should probably lie on your stomach while I call for backup.” He got very little assistance from Rizzo as he lifted him up and laid him stomach down on the sofa he had been leaning against.

“This is Officer Joe Teem. I need assistance at 4306 Rosewood. Officer down. I repeat, officer down. Suspect in custody,” he spoke into his communication unit.

“I’ll be okay, Joe,” Rizzo gasped. “Go take a look around. Someone may need help.”

“I’m on it.”

Joe drew his weapon, not knowing what to expect. He pushed open the door Rizzo had tried to open earlier. It revealed an ordinary dining room, table and chairs, a hutch with china. He slowly prowled around the rest of the house. It seemed ordinary in every way. A middle-aged bachelor’s pad. Why was Jensen so dodgy, then? Standing in the kitchen he stopped and listened. Nothing.

“John!” he shouted. “It’s the police. Are you here?” He listened again. Then he heard it. A small thump. It seemed to be coming from the pantry. The pantry was a large walk in affair. He’d glanced in it already. This time he turned on the light and went all the way into the pantry. At the back, easily overlooked was a small door. He tried it but it was locked. He could hear more irregular thumps from the other side. He looked around and saw a key hanging on a hook beside the door. It slid into the hole easily. Teem pushed the door open. The room on the other side was dark but the thumping and moaning increased. He felt along the wall to his right and flipped the light switch. An uncovered overhead bulb flashed on. He was so unprepared for the sight that he gasped as soon as it registered. The room was small with some kind of metal table in the center. A person was strapped down on the table, apparently nude with a sheet thrown across his lower body. He was gagged and apparently trying to yell through it. By violently wrenching his body he was able to make the table jump and cause the thumps. Joe rushed to the table. The man shied away, a look of pure terror in his eyes.

“Oh my god, John,” Joe murmured. Though the body was covered with bruises and welts, the face was untouched. He immediately recognized John Clark, a man he knew from the club. The man who was reported missing. The man continued to struggle, and only intensified as Joe went to touch him. He was so terrified he didn’t recognize Joe.

“Shh, shh John. It’s me, Joe. You’re going to be alright. We’ve found you. You’re safe. You’re safe.” Some part of that seemed to get through and John’s thrashing about ceased. Joe unhooked the buckle that held the gag in place and pulled the wadded cloth from John’s mouth, tossing it aside. John began breathing quickly through his mouth. Joe could see that he was beginning to hyperventilate.

“Slow, John. Breathe slowly.” He caressed John’s face to calm him. Once John’s breath seemed less ragged he quickly released all the other buckles of the straps holding him on the table.

“Can you sit up? Here, let me help you.” He put his arm under John’s shoulders and heaved him up into a sitting position. He pulled the man’s legs toward him so they could dangle off the side to provide a more comfortable position. He kept his arm around John’s shoulders to give him support. John held on to the edge of the sheet, clutching it against his chest as if cold.

“You’re here? You’re really here. Oh, thank god. I’ve been so afraid. Oh god, oh god. Thank you, Joe.” He started crying, so Joe moved in front of him and took him into an embrace. John released the sheet and grabbed Joe like a lifeline and began sobbing into his shoulder. By the time he could release John, they heard sirens in the distance. John looked around the room and focused on an upright freezer in the corner.

“What?” asked Joe following his gaze. “What’s in the freezer?”

“Don’t open it. You don’t want to know.” That was definitely not the thing to say to a policeman. Joe walked over to the freezer. He pulled the door open and a cloud of freezing mist rolled out. As the mist dissipated he got a better look at what was in the freezer.

“Oh my god!” he cried as he saw over a dozen heads of men, each neatly bagged, staring at him. He suddenly recognized one as Brian, a guy he’d once picked up at the club. He raced over to the sink in the corner and threw up. Immediately there was the noise of people around them as the room quickly filled with police officers. Joe straightened and staggered back to the living room and collapsed in an overstuffed chair. Rizzo had already been taken out to an ambulance. Try as he may he couldn’t stop the tears. All he wanted to do was rip Jensen into little pieces. And then curl up into a ball and die.

No one knows why Jensen did it. He refuses to tell where the bodies ended up. The DA is not too concerned. They’ve identified all nineteen of the victims and Jensen will be locked up for life. Case closed. John says Jensen made comments about “filthy faggots” but also sexually abused him as well as the torture. One of the shrinks said something about “repression” and “homo-erotic denial”. I think he’s just a garden variety nutcase.

***

“There’s still part of this I don’t understand,” Will began.

            “There’s a lot I don’t understand. Like how does anyone get this crazy and nobody notices?”

            “Well, there is that. But I’m talking about another aspect. Look. A girl will not get in a car with a stranger at night, no matter what the circumstances, unless she’s a hooker. A straight guy probably wouldn’t either. He’d figure any guy offering him a ride must be gay and straight men seem to be terrified that someone may think they’re gay. Y’all are wound up so tight.”

            “Thanks.”

            “But gay guys obviously would. I’m embarrassed to say that if I had been in your situation, I probably would have sat down on that stone wall and waited to see what he wanted. I guess that’s what he was counting on. Guys that didn’t get any hoping they still might have a chance to get off. But he was a toad. Who would get in a car with someone who looked like him?”

            “Maybe he offered them money,” I said.

            “I may sound shallow, but it would take a whole lotta money for me to get naked with someone as butt ugly as our Mr. Jensen.”

            “Well, ask Joe. I’m sure that was one of the questions they asked John.”

            “I guess I will, because it really has been bothering me. As successful as he was he must have had some powerful bait.”

***

Over time, the terror, and it was terror, I had experienced faded. I still think Corvettes are the sexiest car around, but no matter how long I live, the sight of a black Corvette will send a little frisson of fear up my spine.

On the whole I think I learned some pretty valuable lessons from this. First, and most obvious, don’t get in a car with a stranger. Duh. Second, I felt totally violated by Joe when he checked me out at the bar. I felt like a piece of meat being evaluated. Never mind that I apparently passed inspection, no one should be made to feel that way. I told him it was okay, but it’s not. I’m sure I’ve put any number of women in that position in my time and am resolved to do better. Third, I think I may have experienced in a small way the fear all gay people live with every day. That any moment violence may overtake you for no reason. That society has determined that it is open season on you, go out at your own risk. That is no way for people to have to live. I need to do better there, also.

            And my fourth lesson? All good boys should be home by eleven on Saturday night.

The Terror

I don’t know what got me thinking about the French Revolution. Just one of those times when the brain takes off and you have the option of going with it or hoping it finds its own way home. I usually go with it. I find some neat stories that way. Anyway, all I know about the FR is the two movies about the Scarlet Pimpernel, one with Leslie Howard (Ashley Wilkes) and one with Anthony Andrews (Brideshead Revisited). I liked the second one better because I generally hate anything Leslie Howard is in, except GWTW, of course. There was also a 40’s movie of A Tale of Two Cities with Ronald Coleman as the lead. He had one of the weirdest speaking voices ever – except of course Rudolph Valentino’s squeaky voice that kept him out of talkies. I guess after one of the Pimpernel movies I wondered did they actually save the Dauphin and spirit him away to England. Sadly, no. The movies ended happily with him getting away, but in actuality they killed him also, along with Dad Louis and Mom Marie Antoinette.

            So I brought a sad amount of knowledge to the story. I had to do research. The FR is fascinating in that it went on so long from failure to failure. The French could never maintain a nation state the way the English can. But the part that stood out to me was what was known as the Reign of Terror. A madman known as Robespierre managed to grab control of the government. He was apparently an 18th century Hitler. He massacred tens of thousands of people, mostly aristocrats, the intelligent and anyone opposed to him. After killing the king and queen he declared himself dictator. He called it the Terror because he removed all laws unto himself and said he would be a Terror to his enemies.

            I decided to write a story about one of his victims, one of the thousands of aristocrats swept up and summarily executed. The story unwinds slowly because a little background is necessary but it builds up speed for a Thelma and Louise finish.  

As I was creating characters and places I decided to have a little fun. I also do genealogical research on my family. Some of my lines go back to Normandy in France. So I placed my characters in Normandy. One of my earliest maybe ancestors was a Jean leBas. He was the equivalent of a baron near the village of Villers Canivet. His home was called Le Bas de la Grurie. It backed up to the Royal Forest, which figures in the story. Actually he had nothing to do with Ferté Macé , that came from my Massey ancestors (Macé  eventually became Massey). The Sieur de Sacie was another ancestral line, and the Gartones were anciently aligned with the Bass family in London. All other names I just pulled out of thin air as I usually do.

The story is a bit dark, but Jean seems reconciled to it. I hope I conveyed a sense of melancholy at the loss of former values and an uncertain future. It’s a bloody mess, but enjoy.

The Terror

Paris

20 June 1794

I watch the large wooden door slam shut. I can hear the rattle of chains as it is secured. In the dim light everyone is momentarily quiet. We are the damned. The condemned. Existing in this half life awaiting our end. More come in each day and more go out. A revolving account. Feeding more and more heads to the frenzied mob. The Romans spoke of bread and circuses. We have devolved back to that level of barbarity. Except we have no bread. But give them circuses anyway. This nation that I love has taken leave of its senses. Only madmen are in charge.

We sit in quiet contemplation, each hating ourselves for feeling relief in escaping the blade one more day, our appointment with Madame Guillotine. How has this existence, so dreary and destitute become something worth wishing to keep? Our grief for our neighbors is only compounded by the guilt we feel for remaining, surviving another day in this hell. But rest assured, mes amis. We will join you soon.

We can now hear the roar of the crowd through the small windows high on the wall, as the wagon comes into their view. The latest victims of the Terror will be standing in the wagon, chained to a post. A tiny voice, too far away to hear clearly reads their sentence. Then a brief drum roll. The crowd falls silent as the drums cease. Then we hear a faint ‘thunk’ as the blade lands. The crowd roars its approval. This repeats some twenty times as we hold our heads in our hands. Heads soon to roll. How have we as civilized men fallen to such depths? That people cheer the butchery of their neighbors?

***

Those of us paying attention the past few years knew things were bad and getting worse between the king and Estates General. The crop failures compounded the problems. Common people were starving and the king and his crowd were throwing frivolous parties and gorging themselves in full view. The war with Austria was a mistake and we have paid the price. Our soldiers were mowed down. A generation lost. And the queen was hated even more for the fact that she was Austrian.

It could still have been worked out if the king had been more astute. But he was a foolish man who listened to the creatures who had attached themselves to him. He told the commons one thing and then did the opposite. It was like baiting a bear.

***

I watched these developments from afar. My estate in the lovely rolling farmland of Normandy is far from the insanity that is Paris. There people do not starve. We plan for bad years. There people do not see their betters frittering away their time on senseless pleasures. We all work for the betterment of our demesne. It is how it has always been.

When in Caen I had spoken in worried tones with my friends Michel, le Sieur de Sacie and Abbé San’Juste. Michel was as concerned as I, and San’Juste told us the clergy was abandoning the king. This proved to be true. Soon the clergy threw their lot with the commons, overthrowing the Estates General and proclaiming a National Assembly, declaring the monarch deposed. France was to be a republic. The king and queen were captured trying to flee the country. When they were returned to Paris and imprisoned I knew it would only get worse.

And it did. The new National Assembly decreed the end of feudalism and the hereditary peerage. Some estates were seized and divided up among Assembly members. But not among the commoners as one would think. Everyone was to be called ‘citizen’. And if a citizen had a complaint against a former aristocrat he only needed to whisper in the ear of a Committee of Public Safety member and the aristocrat would find himself in prison. At first it was a minor inconvenience. Just pay a fine or bribe and it was done. But then the National Assembly was seized by that madman Robespierre. Men could be held indefinitely with no recourse. Estates could be stripped with no notice. And then laws were passed allowing one to be imprisoned with no trial.

***

During this descent into Hell I did what I could for my family. I did not believe the insanity would spread to Normandy, but would eventually burn itself out in Paris. However, I took precautions. My eldest daughter, Elise, lived in the Dutch Republic with her husband. My two younger daughters, Cosette and Daphine, were visiting her for her lying-in when the king was seized. I sent a message with a trusted servant instructing them not to return to France until I sent for them. I explained to them that it was a dangerous place. Also, the Austrians were now allied with Belgium who had declared against us. An army was between my daughters and Normandy.

As to my sons, my eldest Maximillièn had been killed in the war. My youngest, Henri, was at university in Paris. I worried most for him. I eventually received his message that he had never boasted of his aristocratic heritage so he was safely anonymous for the moment and keeping a low profile. Thomás was at home with me, running our estate. He was now my heir as next Sieur.

Then in January of last year the unthinkable happened. Robespierre and his cabal put the king on trial. It was a mockery from the outset. Within days he was convicted of conspiracy against public liberty and safety among a host of other crimes. The day following the verdict he was publicly executed in the so-called Place de la Révolution by guillotine. All of Europe was stunned by what we had done. We had become an international pariah state. The Dutch Republic, Holy Roman Empire, Spain, Great Britain and the Pope declared war on us. We eventually settled our war with Austria but they wanted Queen Marie Antoinette returned to them. Further violence was threatened. But the rabble had tasted royal blood and nothing else could sate them. Within months poor Queen Marie was also led to the guillotine bizarrely accused of incest with her son, still a small boy. As an added indignity they publicly sheared her hair before her execution. The vengeful tricoteuses, those grotesque hags called ‘grandmothers of the revolution’ by the mob, mocked her as they knitted their ‘deathcaps’ spattered with the blood of the innocent. The pitiful orphaned Dauphin disappeared. Rumor was that Robespierre’s men or perhaps the villain himself strangled the child. His sisters had somehow made it to Austria without being apprehended.

The insanity in Paris continued, descending into even further evil. Robespierre called it the Terror. He had seized absolute power, proclaiming himself dictator in June. He was executing his political enemies and innocent aristocrats without trial. The National Assembly and clergy were powerless. All power resided in the National Tribunal in the hands of Maximillièn Robespierre.

The rest of the country rebelled at such an outrage. Armed men from Normandy, the Vendée and other areas marched on Paris only to be met with the Revolutionary Army. There were several pitched battles but the poorly armed countrymen were decimated. My noble Normans continued the resistance but the appearance of the Revolutionary Army on our doorsteps in November disheartened our patriots.

As a result of the several revolts, Commissars were sent out to all the large cities to seek troublemakers, incendiaries, counter-revolutionists and aristocrats to be arrested on trumped up charges and their estates stolen. I heard that a large dungeon-like fortress in Paris in the Salpiètre was being filled with arrested aristocrats. Most were held without charges and their estates were confiscated. Under new laws drawn up by Robespierre if the Revolutionary Tribunal suspected a person to be an enemy of the people, he was arrested and tried, with no defense allowed. Verdicts were nearly always execution and carried out within days. I knew by this time that more action was necessary on my part.

***

As I sit in the Salpiètre, now my home, I am glad for the precautions I at one time thought unnecessary. Never did I dream I would end my days in this dungeon awaiting a cruel execution. I had better hope of my country, of my fellow man. Some two hundred of us are crowded in this underground warren, grown listless and pale from lack of food, exercise and sunshine. We sit in family groups, waiting. Young husbands hold their wives and dry their tears as they weep for infants and small children ripped from their arms and left to an uncertain fate. To be taken up by kindly neighbors or left to die of exposure. In this time when food is scarce, taking in another mouth is a hard choice. But the Commissars have no hearts. They simply cast aside the small children. Of those who survive the more fortunate may end up in orphanages. The less fortunate in the workhouses.

Older families and people like me who were fortunate enough to spirit our children out of the country in time congratulate ourselves that though we perish, our line continues. We will live on in the hearts of our children and grandchildren. That is enough for me.

***

To preserve our fortune, Thomás and I gathered all our jewelry, bullion, plate, any valuables that could easily be transported. We packaged them and all my papers, deeds, and notes of accounts in crates surrounded by onions. We loaded them on a wagon and piled hemp on top. Thomás donned the outfit of a simple farmer. He headed out in the wagon for the northern border. A number of our servants went with him posing as his family. A citizen and his family taking their crop to market. His goal was to reach my daughters in the Dutch Republic and for them all to emigrate to safety in England. He wanted me to come with him but I refused to be driven out. I am Jean leBas, Sieur de la Ferté Macé. Here I stand.

Nearly a month passed without word. We received messages from Paris that the National Tribunal had begun summary executions of innocent people. There were reports of daily guillotining of 20 to 30 people. It was done as public spectacle, entertainment for the masses. Then one of my servants returned from the north. He told a lively tale of danger and near disaster. However, Thomás and the treasure had reached my daughters. The servant bore a letter from Thomás imploring me to flee and join them. Elise had been delivered of a son, named Jean in my honor, and they had already booked passage to England. He gave me the address of an accounting house in London who would locate them for me if I should decide to come.

***

The Commissar for Caen had been a fairly ineffectual chap. He was more interested in the contents of our wine cellars than anything else. He was eventually recalled to Paris for his incompetence. I last saw him in Caen as he was taking ship for England.

His replacement, Commissar laSangue was an evil-looking fellow. I mistrusted him immediately when he finally made a call at my estate of la Grurie. He addressed me as Citizen Jean leBas. The common men have made much of calling us by our given names or calling us “the former sieur of this or the former vicomte of that”. I have no use for this. I am le Sieur de la Ferté Macé. I will remain le Sieur until the moment I die. Then it will be my son Thomás. No silly paper issuing out of Paris will change that.

The Commissar’s beady eyes were shifty and covetous as the toured my manor. He asked seemingly innocuous social questions but I knew he was plotting my end.

“I was hoping to pay my respects to the lady of the house, also,” laSangue said in his oily voice.

“Alas, my sainted Lady Marie passed on some ten years ago. I mourn her still. It pains me to remember her final days.” I purposefully used her title to bring home the fact to laSangue that he was dealing with his betters.

“A pity. My condolences. And you have sons and daughters to follow you?” Apparently the fool did not think to enquire of us in Villers Canivet or he would know all about my family. This would give me the opportunity to amend the whereabouts of my family.

“My eldest son Lord Maximillièn perished in our ill-fated war against the Austrians. My other son and heir, Lord Thomás is away at the moment. My eldest daughter Lady Elise is having her lying-in in London and he has taken my other daughters, Ladies Cosette and Daphine to attend her”. I could see the disappointment in his eyes that there was no big haul of aristocrats here to seize. I would have to suffice.

“Again, what a pity. I should like to make their acquaintances. You will inform me upon their return, please.”

“Of course, Monsieur le Commissar.”

Once he had departed I began my final dispositions.

***

I called all the house servants to the great hall. There were about twenty still with me. I explained that I was about to be arrested by the Terror. They were all shocked, denying that I had ever offered offense to anyone. Once convinced of my danger, they begged me to flee. I told them that I was too old to run and probably wouldn’t get far. They offered to barricade the house and fight off the Commissar’s men but I refused to place them in danger. I told them I was resigned. And that I wanted to reward them for their years of service. We scoured the house for everything of value we could find that I had not yet sent to Thomás. Gold candelabras, silken covers, delicate crystal, beautifully bound books, excellent vintages. We stripped everything of value that we could from the manor and packed it in crates. We spent the evening carting it all into the Royal Forest behind my estate to a secluded hiding spot. Once this was secured I told the servants that this cache was theirs. My major domo Martine would oversee the distribution so that all got equal shares. It was enough to make all of them wealthy. I just warned them to wait until the Terror was over. I dispersed them that evening. I did not wish them to be present when the Commissar returned. The man was a villain through and through and I did not trust that he might torture my men to find if there was a hidden cache. Martine begged to remain with me. I told him he could stay only on the condition that he hasten out the back door the moment we saw the soldiers on the morrow.

Martine and I spent the last hours of the evening in my study before a cozy fire. He had pulled the best wines from my cellar and we enjoyed sipping and talking of better days. I had a notion to get falling down drunk, but decided I would rather walk out of my home with dignity, not as an inebriated wretch. As the sun came up Martine helped me bathe and dress in my best travelling clothes. I added a heavy coat and sturdy boots. I wore several layers, not knowing what to expect. He then prepared me a fine breakfast with what food I’d had the servants leave for me. LaSangue would find a poor larder to sack from my estate.

About midmorning we heard the tramp of horses so I sent Martine on his way. He cried and kissed me farewell.

I met laSangue in the atrium and cordially invited him into my home. As he entered his beady eyes actually bulged. His face reddened and a vein could be seen to throb over his left ear.

“Citizen Jean leBas, formerly Lord of Ferté Macé,” he began. I couldn’t help bristling slightly. I was still unaccustomed to such familiarity from his like and I am no “former” lord. “I have orders from the National Tribunal to arrest you for suspicion of anti-revolutionary activities and as a threat to the republic. Your estate will be seized pending the outcome of your trial. Should your son citizen Thomás leBas or daughters citizens Cosette leBas, Daphine leBas or Elise de Fontaine return, they are also under suspicion and must turn themselves in to the authorities in Caen.” His teeth were clenched in fury. I had robbed him of what he had expected to be a valuable prize.

“Well, Monsieur le Commissar, you will not find much left to seize. After your visit yesterday my servants revolted. They robbed me of all I have and I was lucky to be left alive.”

“Officers, search the premises,” he ordered his guards. “And you two,” he added to the two guards beside him, “Assist Citizen leBas to the conveyance.”

Outside I found a rude wagon with no cover. Two benches in the back faced each other with a pole in the center through which chains could be run to secure prisoners. I was only slightly surprised to find Abbé San’Juste and Michel de Sacie and his wife Madame de Sacie sitting there. I was seated beside the abbé across from the de Sacies. Iron manacles were placed on my wrists with a chain fastening me to the central pole.

“Bonjour, my good friends. We meet again, but not under favorable circumstances this time. Abbé, I am surprised to find you run afoul of our government. Michel and Madame, my condolences.”

“Religion and politics are a deadly cocktail, my lord,” said the Abbé. “That damnable rabble in Paris have declared the republic to be atheist. I have too high a profile in Caen to be allowed to continue.”

“Yes, and we are in your position, Jean,” my friend Michel dolefully agreed. “We have a comfortable manor which le Commissar covets. That is the extent of our crimes. We are guilty of prosperity.”

Once laSangue was sure there was no treasure to be found we were off. His comfortable coach preceded our lumbering wagon down the dusty road across the beautiful early spring greening countryside of my beloved Normandy. When I expected us to turn toward Caen, we instead turned right and began heading west. I realized he was taking us to Paris rather than the local administrative capital. He apparently thought we were important enough that he wanted his handlers to see how well he had done. Caen would have been bearable. Paris was a death warrant.

***

And that is how I came to be here in this dimly lit cesspool in Paris eking out the final moments of my life. Although unwashed and poorly fed, we maintain an air of civility here in our prison. Some, like me, have friends on the outside who bring us food, such as my dear faithful Martine. Against my advice he followed me to Paris. And although the republic has disbanded the clergy, we have a number of former churchmen in our midst to offer us comfort and last rites. My Abbé San’Juste found a place with his counterparts here in our dark home. My only consolation is that God will surely never forgive such brutality as the slaughter of these innocents. Robespierre and his party should have their bodies thrown to the dogs to rip apart and gnaw on their bones.

Michel and Madame de Sacie found her relatives in the Salpiètre. They asked me to stay with them and I did for a few days. The first small parcel of food from my dear Martine arrived on my second day. He must have given the guard a substantial bribe to get the food to me. I shared it among our little group. I gave most of the bread and cheese to the ladies, but reserved some walnuts and an apple for myself. As I prepared to eat I noticed a boy had edged up watching me, his eyes riveted on the apple. By his dirty face one would think him a street urchin but his satin breeches and waistcoat, though torn and stained, revealed he was of noble background.

“Hello, my friend. Would you care to share my repast?” I murmured to him. He had the wide eyes of a doe and gave the appearance he may dash away at a moment’s notice.

“If I had a knife I would cut this apple into slices and we could share, but as it is, they will not allow weapons. I’ll tell you what. Come sit by me and keep me company and I’ll let you have the apple. The nuts are enough for an old man like me anyway.”

He eased up to just outside my reach. I extended my arm holding the apple out to him. He quickly snatched it and dashed back to a safe distance. He tore into it ravenously.

“Easy, my young friend, or you shall get a tummy ache. Slow down. No one will take your apple. Come closer and I will guard you.” He considered this and eased a little closer. He also slowed down devouring the small apple.

“That’s better. Let me introduce myself. I am le Sieur de la Ferté Macé, but you may call me Monsieur leBas. Have you a name?”

“Yes.”

“And may I know it?”

“I am Charles,” he muttered. Then seeming to remember himself, his voice strengthened. “I am Charles Danton, Vicomte Falaise, son of le Comte de Gartone.”

“Well, my lord, you are of a grander station than I.” I sketched a semi bow from a sitting position.

He skittered a little closer.

            “You may call me Charles. Thank you for the apple.” His voice broke a little on the last word and I realized he was still in the process of change from child to young man. With his large eyes and floppy hair he reminded me so much of my lost Maximillièn at that age.

            “How old are you Charles?”

            “I turned fourteen at the beginning of the year, my lord.” Dear God. He was just a child. Why in Heaven’s name was he here. To be sure even these evil men are not about murdering children.

            “Well, Charles, my lord of Gartone. It is time for my daily constitutional. Will you walk with me?”

            “Surely, my lord.”

            Walking around our dungeon did not take long, but I strolled leisurely, greeting the others as if it were a Sunday promenade in the park.

“So, how long have you been a guest in our dim hotel?” I asked. The boy looked at me as if uncertain of my humor. Beneath the grime I could tell he was a handsome lad.

“We have been here a week, my lord.”

“We? Good, then you are not alone.”

“No, my maman and papa are over there,” he indicated a miserable looking couple we were near to approaching.

“Then you must introduce me, dear boy.” The boy’s father rose to greet me.

“Papa, this is Monsieur leBas, le Sieur de la Ferté Macé. Monsieur leBas may I present my father, le Comte de Gartone and my maman, la Comtesse.” I made a formal bow to the Comtesse. The Comte reached to shake my hand.

“Welcome to our humble abode. I hope my son hasn’t been a nuisance.”

“Oh, far from it. He reminds me of my own son, now passed on. He has been keeping me company and helped me finish an apple I had.”

The Comte turned a stern eye on his son. “Charles, what have I told you about begging food?”

“But he offered Papa.”

“Please don’t scold the boy. I don’t mind sharing. He’s a growing boy and needs to eat. He at least, may walk out of here alive.” This caused a despairing cry from the Comtesse.

“Our daughter, Geneviève,” the Comte said by way of explaining his wife’s distress. “We were separated from her when they brought us here. It was a dark night and they whisked her away before we realized she was gone. She is only twelve.”

“Please take heart, my lady. Your dear Geneviève may be one of the lucky ones. I hear that the younger children are often taken to orphanages. Not the best place, but at least she will have a chance at a life.”

“See, Cècíle. I have been telling you that we must hold out hope for her,” the Comte said, kneeling by his wife. She just buried her face in her shawl and cried softly.

“I’m afraid my wife is not yet resolved to our fate,” the Comte said. “But here, you may call me Marcel. And you, my good man?”

“Jean leBass, at your service.”

“We saw you come in two days ago. My wife thought she recognized Madame de Sacie. Is that true?”

“Yes. She and Michel are old family friends.”

“While we hate to run into friends in such a place, perhaps Cècíle will brighten if she has another woman to talk to. The good Lord knows I’m having no luck with her. Come with me to the relieving place? Charles, attend to your mother.” Marcel moved away and I followed. Off in a far corner was the evil smelling gutter where the men could relieve themselves. Marcel unbuttoned his trousers and began. I stood beside him and did the same.

“What you said to Cècíle, about the orphanages. Is that true or just another rumor?”

“It is what I have heard. I do not know if it is rumor. One would like to think there is some humanity left in them.”

“One would. There are other rumors, however. Rumors of young girls being taken and given over to the soldiers for their pleasure, and then sold to brothels.”

I was shocked. “Surely they don’t! But your Cosette is a mere child.”

“You see how tall Charles is. Our Geneviève is also well developed for her age. My wife fears the worst.”

“I give you my sorrow, my friend. All I can offer is that the benefit of rumors is that you can choose which to believe.” We buttoned up and turned to make our way back to his family.

“What can you tell me of this place?” I asked.

“We are condemned. The fiction is that we are on trial but no trial ever takes place. The Committee receives a list and signs off on it. All on the list are guilty and condemned to death. There is a backlog so we will lounge here for about a month before receiving our sentence. Every two to three days they come for a group of fifteen to twenty. According to the old timers, no one has yet been found innocent. Nor is anyone expected to be.”

“But what of the children?” I had seen several near Charles’ age.

“There are currently only five children here including Charles. The old timers also tell me that children his age even when found guilty, are given sentences in institutions for children. Some are bound out, some sent to workhouses. Grim as that is, it is our hope for Charles. The Marquis d’Aubissonne was in here with his son some months back. The boy was only 12. His father was generally considered a cad by aristocracy and commoners alike. We were stunned that they executed the boy with his father.”

“Have they no decency?”

“None, my friend. None.”

***

I remained with the Dantons. The Comtesse needed constant attention from the Comte. I kept Charles occupied. To his chagrin I drilled him in his English and Latin. We also discussed philosophy and religion. I hoped to continue the education that had been so rudely interrupted. I continued to receive regular care packages from Martine. The bribes must have cost him a fortune. Charles was always eager to see what was inside. He never asked for anything, but I always offered him any sweets or fruit Martine could find.

Even though it was June, the nights could still be chilly, especially in our dank prison. We made pillows of bundles of discarded clothing and covered ourselves with the cloaks of those who would no longer need them. One night I felt a scuffling in front of me. I opened my eyes and found Charles had raised the edge of my cloak and was sliding under it with me. I lifted my arm so he could slip close against my chest. I closed my arm around him and held him close. Though nearing adulthood, he was still a boy in so many ways, and needed comforting this night. After a few moments I heard him sniff. I gently turned his face toward me. In the dim light I could detect the glistening tears on his face.

“What’s this, my dear boy?”

“I’m afraid, my lord. This place is frightening and no one laughs. Maman cries all the time and Papa is worried. I’m frightened what will happen to us. What will happen to me. Is it a sin to be afraid for myself?”

I used the cloak to brush away the tears.

“No, sweet boy. We all fear for ourselves at times. You are no different and our good Lord forgives us time and again. Now, no more tears. No amount of worrying ever changed an outcome. What the Lord wills, will be. We must be thankful for what we have today, for tomorrow it may be gone.” I kissed his forehead. “Now think happy thoughts and find sweet rest.”

“Thank you, my lord,” he murmured into my neck. There was a knot in my throat. I had grown to love this boy as my own and despite my words I did worry about him. Whatever the future holds for him, it likely is not good.

***

Once again the gate swings open and a man in a ragged outfit enters with today’s list. The guillotine awaits its newest victims.

“Citizen Louise Valours, former Duchesse du Maine, you have been accused of being an enemy of the republic. Verdict: Guilty. You are to be executed. Please step forward.” A grandmotherly old lady slowly rises from a blanket by the wall. She lifts her head high and marches forward like the grande dame she is.

“Citizen Marcel Danton, former Comte de Gartone, you have been accused of being an enemy of the republic. Verdict: Guilty. You are to be executed. Please step forward.”

“Citizen Cècíle Danton, former Comtesse de Gartone, you have been accused of being an enemy of the republic. Verdict: Guilty. You are to be executed. Please step forward.”

“Citizen Charles Danton, son of the former Comte de Gartone, you have been accused of being an enemy of the republic. Verdict: Guilty. You are to be executed. Please step forward.” There is an audible gasp from everyone in the dungeon. Our young Charles is just a boy. How can they murder a child? Madame Danton begins screaming, “No, no, not my son!” Marcel has to restrain her. I help Charles to stand. I hold onto his hand as I lead him forward, giving him what strength I can.

“Citizen Jean leBas, former Sieur de la Ferté Macé, you have been accused of being an enemy of the republic. Verdict: Guilty. You are to be executed. Please step forward.” Alas, my time has also come. It seems my epitaph shall read ‘died 20 June, 1794’.

The deadly litany continues until there are some twenty of us to be loaded in the tumbrel and driven as beasts to the slaughter house.

We are chained to a central pole in the tumbrel that requires us to stand for the journey to the stocks. The Place de la Révolution is not far but the gawking rabble make the trip slow and tedious. I am cheered, however, by the bright sunshine of a fine summer day. Along the way we are vilified by ragged peasants, dirty ruffians and assorted wild eyed revolutionaries. Occasionally a piece of rotten vegetable or unmentionable filth is hurled at us. I keep one hand on Charles’ wrist and murmur, “Courage, lad. Courage.” He lifts his head as a nobleman should, but I can detect that his lip trembles.

We reach the place of execution but are delayed as the dolts become confused trying to untangle the chains they had used to secure us to the wagon. This is found very amusing by the assembled crowd. They howl and hoot at us, ready for the fun to begin.

Once untangled, la Duchesse du Maine is to go first onto the scaffold. She steps directly off the tumbrel onto a short staircase up to where the guillotine awaits like a deadly praying mantis. One of the executioners reaches down to give her a hand as she ascends. She imperiously slaps his hand away, looking down her nose at him and giving an audible “hmph”. The nearby crow roar their amusement. She walks calmy to the deadly machine. Her hair is pulled up in a tight bun so there is no need for shearing. The executioner’s assistant approaches her timidly to turn down her collar. The crowd can see that he is afraid of her and howl their approval. Once her hands are clipped behind her in the iron manacles, she takes one step forward. The official on the scaffold reads her crime, verdict and sentence. She kneels as if voluntarily and places her neck in the slot before her. The assistant lowers the bar to hold her head in place. The small group of drummers play a brief cadence. Once they end, the executioner pulls the rope and the blade falls. As la Duchesse’s head falls in the basket the crowd cheers as if at a gladiatorial event in ancient Rome. The rest of madame’s body collapses in place, violently jerking and quivering as her life ekes out. The assistants remove the manacles, pick up her body and toss it into a cart beside the scaffold. They then spread more sawdust and hay to soak up the blood. The executioner lifts her head out of the basket by her hair and shows it to the crowd.

“Behold the fate of a traitor,” he croaks. This, to me, is the greatest horror. I have heard it sometimes takes more than thirty seconds for the brain to die. As the head is held aloft, the eyes often move back and forth, the mouth sometimes moves as if the head is trying to speak, or the lips are stretched into a grimace of terror and pain. The crowd cheers wildly again. Then he tosses madame’s head into the cart with her body. The assistant swabs the blade with a mop and it is cranked back into place.

As this has been going on I have been shielding young Charles from seeing it. I have diverted his attention with final instructions to keep him calm. Monsieur Danton has his hands full with his still hysterical wife. I will be next to go and then Charles. The executioners extract the most revenge on aristocrats by making the lords watch as their loved ones are murdered before them. This, at least, will work in Charles’ best interest. I fear the boy would become as hysterical as his mother if forced to watch his parents die. I will do what I can to ease his fears.

“Charles, you believe in our good Lord, don’t you?”

“Yes, my lord,” he answers in a soft voice I can barely hear. The poor child is terrified.

“And you have been shriven by the abbé, no?”

“Yes.”

“Then all of us go to meet our Savior on this glorious summer day. In a few moments we shall meet Jesus face to face. He will welcome us into his arms, me, you, your parents and escort us all into the presence of almighty God. Believe with me and your parents and we shall transcend this mortal coil together. This ghastly rabble is our enemy. They are tools of Satan. They will curse you and try to make you fear. But we are beyond fear. We know what lies ahead. A moment of pain and then an eternity of bliss with those we love.” He is staring intently into my eyes and I can see a little color coming back. “We are martyrs of the nobilité. You are a nobleman of France. Now is the time to show these lowly commoners how their betters behave. Put on your brave face and come with us. I will go before you, your mother and father will follow you. Do not despair or fear. Even as they lower the blade, I will be on the other side waiting to grasp your hand. We are going home, young Charles. Say it with me, we are going home.”

“We are going home,” he almost smiles.

“Citizen Jean leBas, the former Sieur de la Ferté Macé,” the executioner calls.

As did la Duchesse, I step calmly up onto the scaffold, head held high, refusing to acknowledge the disgusting rabble. Just before I kneel, I look back at Charles Danton. His attention is rivetted upon me. I smile and then wink at him. His trembling lip stops its quiver and he gives me a small grin. That’s all I need. Then I mouth to him, “Look away.” I do not want him to see my death and lose his nerve.

I am Jean leBas, Sieur de la Ferté Macé, nobleman of France. Here I take my stand and I fear no man.

***

Robespierre’s Reign of Terror lasted for ten months. During this time over 17,000 people were executed, most by guillotine. He maintained his power by executing over 100 political opponents, nearly all without trial. On July 27, 1794 even his own committee members became alarmed at his excesses. He was shouted down during a speech to the committee. While he tried to regain the floor the committee voted that he was an enemy of the republic. He was executed by guillotine the next day. His bloody Terror had a likewise bloody end.