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Their second date had gone very well so far. Stan, not-quite star athlete at Shadow Valley High, and Billie, not-quite Prom Queen, had spent over an hour at the Brookbank Falls, deep in the mountains that ringed Pine Bow County. During the winter months, these mountains drew skiers from around the world to challenge its white-capped slopes. In the early summer, like now, the hills took on so much green they almost blended together, making it about impossible to tell one range from another.
Billie looked up at the lengthening shadows. Years of camping with her father had taught her a little, and though she wouldn’t consider herself a “mountain girl,” she knew enough to know how quickly daylight could descend into night on the mountain.
“I didn’t realize how late it is,” she called across the creek to where Stan was investigating something wedged between two large boulders.
Stan looked up at her and smiled, then leaped from stone to stone back to her.
“We should get back to the car,” she said. “It’s still a couple miles’ hike to the road.”
Stan shrugged and said, “Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll make it before dark.”
“If we leave soon, I’m sure we’ll be fine,” Billie redirected, and tried not to pull away when Stan put an arm around her shoulders. then the two of them headed down the dirt path.
“What were you looking at?” Billie asked as they walked.
Stan’s hesitation drew her attention to him. He looked slightly uncomfortable.
“Uh,” he finally said, “it looked like what was left of a coyote. It was pretty mangled, so it was hard to tell for sure. But it was fresh.”
“Hunters?” Billie asked.
“No, it looked like something with teeth.”
Suddenly nervous in the waning afternoon light, Billie glanced around, her gaze trying to pierce the heavy forest and foliage, looking for the telltale signs of predatory wildlife.
“Do you think whatever killed that is still around here?” Stan wondered aloud, sounding intentionally aloof.
“We should be fine, as long as we can get back to the car before dark,” Billie replied.
Without a passable road to them, Brookbank Falls enjoyed an exclusivity that helped preserve its pristine location. At the same time, with the tall peaks surrounding them, the afternoon and evening sun took little time to fade, enveloping the young couple in deep shadows and making the trail so treacherous that they eventually had to slow their progress.
“I don’t think we’re going to make it to the car before dark,” Stan said, his nerves beginning to show in his voice.
Billie decided not to comment on the obvious and pulled a small, powerful flashlight from her belt. It cut through the heavy darkness, allowing them to continue forward, until she stopped without warning.
“What is it?” Stan asked, watching Billie shine the line around them, then shining it up the path, then back the way they’d come.
“Did we pass a split in the path without realizing it?” she asked, hitting him in the face with the beam of light.
Stan put a hand up to shade his eyes and said, “If we did, it couldn’t have been too far back. Why, are we lost?”
Billie illuminated the way ahead, but her scowl didn’t inspire confidence in her date.
“I thought you said you’ve been here before,” Stan accused, doubt and aggravation trickling into his voice.
Not rising to the bait, Billie said, “I have, but never after dark. You know how woods all look alike, once the sun goes down.”
Before she could say more, something crashed in the darkness a ways off the path and in the distance a coyote howl echoed out at them.
Stan snatched the flashlight out of Billie’s hand and played the bright-white beam back and forth in the direction the sound of movement had come from, but couldn’t see anything. He held his free hand out to Billie.
Scowling, the girl took his hand and the two of them hurried along the path.
They made good time, until another howl jerked Stan’s attention from the path. His left foot snagged against an unseen tree root. He cried out in pain as he fell, twisting his ankle so far Billie was surprised she didn’t hear a snap.
“Are you okay?” Billie asked, kneeling down beside him.
The two of them carefully straightened out his wrenched foot, Stan wincing, but putting on his “tough football player” face instead of crying out a second time.
Billie took her mobile phone from her small handbag. After glancing at its screen she pursed her lips, then said, “No signal. How about you?”
Stan managed to extract his mobile phone from his back pocket without a whimper, but his mood didn’t brighten when he looked at the screen. He held it up for Billie to inspect.
Her eyes fell on the complex spider-web of shattered glass that now took the place of the shiny, smooth glass surface. “Oh,” was all she said.
He tried a few times to start up, but when the device refused to respond, he growled in frustration and tossed the phone a few feet away.
Billie hurried over to pick up his phone, but just as her fingers touch the metal case, something rustled about a stone’s throw away and a low growl drifted to her on the breeze. She froze. When the growl faded away a few seconds later, she snatched the smartphone out of the damp dirt and ran back to Stan.
“Come on, Romeo,” she said and hoisted him to his feet, ignoring his grunts of pain. “We gotta go.”
Once she had Stan upright, it emphasized the height difference between them. In order to keep him from slumping to his left, she strung his left arm across her shoulders, pressing her right and his left side tightly together, for support.
As one, they hobbled as quickly down the dark path as possible, their progress hindered by the increasing pain in Stan’s foot. It originated in his ankle and radiated up his calf to behind his knee, and any weight on it sent pulses of stabbing agony nearly to his hip.
“Keep it up,” Billie encouraged him, “you’re doing great.”
Stan could only grunt in response.
A few hundred feet further on, the couple paused to rest. Stan managed to lower himself to an unearthed tree stump and shut his eyes while catching his breath through clenched teeth.
Before they were ready to move again, Billie heard faint growling behind them. She turned and scanned the path behind them, but couldn’t see anything. There was, however, a thick, gnarly branch lying nearby. It made a solid weapon in her hands. As if in response to her new-found ability to defend them, the growling increased and she could’ve sworn she could now see a faint sickly greenish-yellow glow trickling between the leaves and branches of the thick woods.
“Um, Stan?” she stammered, backing away from the edge of the trail, her eyes still on the faint glow…
This is just one of the stories in the anthology Redneck Eldritch, available now!
I aint had the dream abowt the corners for long years. I didnt no I misst it. Wen I first had it over and over, way back in the bigining, the corners fritened me so bad I almost left the wallow and wats here. But now I no that the corner cuttin into you is the only way corners can embrase you.
The first I heard that the old bastard was dead, I was down at Roy Sadley’s store on a Tuesday morning; on top of the normal things Beth had sent me for, I needed a new mattock blade, as I’d sharpened the old one down to a nubbin I could shave with. Roy Sadley saw me come in, and the first thing he said was, “Phineas, your grandpap’s passed on.”
At first I thought he meant my grandfather Grandin, my mother’s father—he’s the only one I ever thought of as “my grandpap”—but that good man had already been been seven years in the Lutheran churchyard in Timoree. But Roy just went on.
“It was my Jude that found him,” he said. “We hadn’t seen Ephraim for a few weeks past when he said he’d be in, and I had stuff for him, so I sent Jude to truck it up to him in the Wallow, and that’s how he found him in the cabin.”
Ephraim. So that would be Ephraim Joel Ostler, my pap’s pap. I didn’t really know how Roy expected me to react, so I just shrugged.
“All gotta go sometime,” I said, just to be saying something.
“True ’bout most people,” Roy agreed, “though I ain’t sure I figured it applied to Ephraim. He’s still up there—Jude just barely got back, and he didn’t know what to do—so I guess you’ll want to go up there for him?”
I said, “Why?”
That took Roy back a step, and his bad eye rolled in surprise. “Well, he is your own blood kin—”
“I only set eyes on the old bastard three times in my life, and never spoke a word to him ever. I’m guessing if there’s someone who wants to take the effort to gather him and put him ’neath the dirt, they’re welcome to. I’ve got other things to do.”
Roy was so shocked that both his eyes looked straight at me, up and down. “You listen here, Phineas,” he said in a rough voice, “I don’t say you gotta make up and like him now that he’s passed, but there’s some family responsibilities you gotta take as the eldest, the man of the family. Obligations, even, no matter love nor hate.”
“So let my cousin Walter deal with it,” I said. “He’s older than me.”
Roy looked at me like I’d started speaking in tongues. “The oldest Ostler,” he said in a voice like you’d speak to an idiot child. “Walter can help with the funeral and the like, heck yes, but he’s a McKinnon. You’re the last Ostler, and that means something.”
I didn’t like the look in either of Roy’s eyes, so I glanced around the store to give myself a break from them. Sadley’s is a comfortably shadowy old store, with windows hazed over with dust and smoke so that sunlight coming through softens and blurs all around. There were a couple of old-timers by the small stove with the coffeepot, playing cards with a deck that I knew for a fact was missing the three of hearts. They kept their eyes on their cards and played right ahead, but I could tell all the same that they were both listening to Roy and me. Sadley’s hadn’t had a working radio since a tube blew in October, so there was nothing else to listen to.
“Fine,” I said. “I need sugar and coffee and a new mattock blade, and ring up an extra dime so I can use your phone to call Walter anyway.”
Roy’s face softened, and his bad eye went back to looking at whatever it wanted to. “Ain’t no need of that, Phineas,” he said. “You go right ahead and make the call.”
Sometims I feel like I got a therd eye in the back of my hed that dosnt see all the normal stuff that the Ssun shows becus it dont need lite to see by. It can see by the glow of the Edjes that are all around us, fillin the distans bitween all the things. The eye aint alwaz in back of my hed, somtimes its too the side or rite up top, but becus it dosnt see with lite it dosnt go blind with the Sun. And somtimes I dont no were it is, but it sees down, strate down, to all the things I love, and it sees so much it openss my Mouth and lets out all it sees in words and notwords til I got no breth left.
Most families around these parts have their own mountain or hill. When I say “have,” I don’t mean that they’ve got title to it, with fancy pieces of paper and something written in a book down at the county courthouse away in St. Stephen. Those families have been up here since before there was any county courthouse, or any St. Stephen, and we own what we own because we own it, not because a paper says.
Like I said, most families got a mountain or something. The Ostlers, we’ve got the Wallow.
It’s away west off the land we live on, right in the crotch made between Blair Mountain and the Godfrey Ridge, a low spot where the rain runs down and makes a huge soggy puddle with inlet and no outlet, always in damp shadow because the sun don’t shine there except right at midday. It’s like our own little swamp in the hills, with plenty of frogs but no fish because there’s no way for them to have gotten there. In the middle of the Wallow is a hump of black rock with moss growing up all sides, and on top of the rock is the hunting cabin put there by my great-great-great-grandfather Ostler.
That’s where old Ephraim Ostler, my grandpap, had lived since the night that he killed my grandmother and got driven out of the house—the same house I live in now—by my pap, Eliazar Joel Ostler, when he was all of thirteen years old.
I think I heared its Name in my dream last night, but it wasnt ear-hearin, I only heared it with somethin deep in the senter of my head, a part that almost doesnt no how to hear because it hasnt heared for so long, for ages and ages back throu Fathers and Sons. But I heared it with that somethin in my head, I heared its Name or mabe only part of it becose it felt like its hole Name wouda bin too big for my head to hold it in at onct. And becose it warnt ear-hearin, its nothin I can say with my maoth, but thats okay becose I dont think its somethin I have a right to say. Names is presious, and even the little bit I got is presious, and I am to keep it safe and presious.
Walter had a telephone in his house, and his wife Clara picked it up after two rings. Walter had grown up here in the hills but Aunt Rose had let him go away for school when he was fourteen, and he never really came back. He’d gone off to the war—he was in the Pacific, though he never saw any fighting—then went to university and came out a Doctor of Divinity. Now he lived down in St. Stephen and was the pastor of a Methodist church. Clara said he was out and she’d have him ring me back as soon as he got in, but I knew Beth would be wondering where I’d got off to if I stayed down at Sadley’s too long, so I told Clara the main points about old Ephraim’s being dead—main points being all that I knew myself—and told him to call back and talk to Roy if he wanted to help me clean him out the cabin in the next couple of days.
Roy was listening, and as I hung up, he said, “Don’t you think you oughtta go up there right away and collect him?”
While I’d been putting the call through, Roy had pulled everything on my shopping list to the front counter. I hoisted the bags up and balanced them on my hip.
“He’d dead already,” I said. “A day or two ain’t gonna make him any more or less dead, is it?” I pushed out the door without waiting for an answer. From what I’d been taught by my pap, anything short of leaving the old bastard to turn to bones by himself in the Wallow was more than he deserved…
This is just one of the stories in the anthology Redneck Eldritch, available now!
The little cabin was nestled so far back into the trees that Grover Petersworth could barely make out the light from the two windows built into the log framework on either side of the cabin’s front door. Grover’s shiny new 1962 business sedan crunched over the gravel as he rolled the car to a gentle stop directly in front of the packed-earth path that led up to the porch. There was a single, use-worn rocking chair resting on the wood slats that formed the porch’s floor, but no moving shadows in the windows which might indicate that anyone was home.
It had been a long day of searching, and Grover wondered if he shouldn’t turn around and head back into town. But now that he was finally here, an almost irresistible curiosity tugged him forward. Robert Jackson Lee Hill was a rather infamous figure in these parts, for the country folklore that swirled around Hill’s youthful adventures. If anyone had ever shaken hands with the devil, it was said, that person was Bobby Jay Hill.
Grover turned off the engine to his sedan and waited, staring at the yellow glow that filtered through the trees. Who knew how long it might take to ask all the questions he’d written down? And there was no telling whether or not Bobby Jay would be in any mood to talk about his past. The country-bred teenagers who’d finally put Grover on the right path, had said that Bobby Jay was notoriously private. He might not like the sight of a stranger from the city walking up to his home. If Grover spotted anything that looked even a little bit like a rifle or a shotgun, he was running for the car.
There. A tiny bit of movement through one of the windows—the barest rustling of what looked like curtains?
Grover pulled a little liquor flask from his jacket—draped across the passenger seat, where it had been resting for the past three hours—and took a swallow. For courage. Then he opened the driver’s door, slipped his hat and his jacket on, made sure his notepad was tucked securely in one hand, and began to walk slowly and deliberately toward the house of the man who’d supposedly gone to the land of the living dead and returned to tell the tale.
The porch slats creaked as Grover’s black leather loafers touched the wood. He stopped for a moment, waiting to see if there was any additional movement from inside. The glass was filthy, to the point that the windows were translucent instead of transparent. The front door was partially shadowed in the lowering evening light, with only a simple wooden handle where a knob might have been.
Grover stared at the handle and felt his hands grow sweaty. Wiping them quickly on his slacks, he straightened his tie, breathed deeply three times, then rapped politely on the wood.
Nothing. No sound, nor any movement beyond the windows. Grover frowned, and politely rapped a second time. Then a third.
Grover sighed, and determined that he’d just have to retreat and make some additional inquiries. He turned on his heel to step off the porch.
The muzzle of the double-barreled twelve-gauge was a horrible shock. The man holding the weapon was stooped by age, with a face so wrinkled he could have passed for a dried-up apple. Bright, small eyes stared unblinking at Grover, while Grover instinctively put his hands up, palms facing forward.
Two hammers clicked back, and Grover felt the bottom drop out of his stomach.
“Damned bank,” the old man with the weapon said, using a mouth that was missing too many teeth. “If I told you fellers once, I told you fellers a thousand times: my daughter’s got the payment on the loan, and if anyone has a problem with it, they can go talk to her.”
“No sir,” Grover said, hating the tiny crack in his voice. “I’m not from any bank.”
“You came from town, didn’t’cha?” the old man barked.
“In a roundabout fashion,” Grover said, marveling at the inky blackness he could see down the mouths of the two barrels.
“On’y men from town got the nerve to come out here,” the old man drawled, “are the kind wantin’ money. And in case you ain’t noticed, money’s somethin’ I don’t have a lot of these days, you hear?”
“I hear,” Grover said, suddenly sensing an opportunity. “Which is germane to my reason for visiting you tonight, Mister… Hill?”
“You callin’ me a kraut, son?”
“No, no,” Grover said, taking a reflexive step backward, and bumping into the closed door. “I’m sorry. What I mean is, I’ve got a business proposition for a certain Robert Hill, who’s rumored to reside at this location. Would that be you? Or should I head down to the main road and try a little further north? I’m so sorry to intrude at this time of the day. I’ve driven a long way to talk to Mister Hill, and it’s important that I make sure I’ve got the right home.”
The old man still hadn’t blinked, nor had the hammers been lowered back into place. For all Grover knew, he was mere seconds from receiving two shells of buckshot between his front teeth.
“What kinda business you got with Bobby Jay?”
“I’d like to interview him.”
“Interview? For what?”
“My name is Grover Petersworth, but you might know me better as G.P. Grayson, from the All-American Weekly.”
The old man’s eyes didn’t register any recognition.
“I don’t suppose the papers circulate this far from town?” Grover asked, again hating the tiny crack in his voice.
“Nope. And if you don’t want things gettin’ unfortunate, son, you’d best get off my porch and go back to your automobile, and get gone, you understand?”
“Absolutely,” Grover said, “and I do apologize again for the intrusion. I imagine a man such as yourself values his solitude. So, if you don’t mind lowering that shotgun, I’ll be on my way.”
The twin barrels slowly but surely dropped, until they were pointed at the porch.
“Git with ye,” said the old man, who turned and spat off the porch and into the weeds and grass that grew along the edge.
Grover stepped carefully—but quickly—around the old man, noting the threadbare nature of the old man’s bib denim dungarees. Very possibly they were the only ones the old man owned? Grover decided to try one more time to get a bite, and set the hook.
“If you don’t mind,” Grover said over his shoulder, “please pass the word that I’m very interested in meeting with Mister Hill, and that I’m paying generously for the opportunity—as well as for solid leads on Mister Hill’s whereabouts.”
“How much is ‘generous’ to you, son?”
“The All-American Weekly is world-class, sir. To get an exclusive interview with Mister Hill, I’m putting five hundred dollars on the barrelhead. More than that, if the interview is truly in-depth.”
For the first time, the old man’s eyelids fluttered closed, and then opened quickly again.
“That’s a lot of money in these parts,” the old man said…
This is just one of the stories in the anthology Redneck Eldritch, available now!
1. Midnight Rider
It was just past midnight when our—well he ain’t exactly a hero, a man called The Squid—pulled off the highway in Wendover to get himself some coffee and diesel. His big black Mack truck rumbled into the Flying K with all the subtlety that a pair of brass knuckles has for a glass jaw. The anthropomorphic chrome octopus hood ornament on his truck held a deck of cards in one hand and a mud flap girl in the other. It’s an awful strange ornament, but then The Squid is one strange dude, and the ornament was probably how he got his handle ’cause he sure wasn’t in the Navy, leastways that I know of. Despite his being a long-haired weirdo outta Shakey City—that’s Los Angeles for those of you that don’t speak Trucker—The Squid’s a pretty congenial fellow. He’s forty-something and dresses for comfort in shorts and rock-&-roll T-shirts along with a favorite cardigan sweater from his longtime girl, Jeanie. The Squid’s a generous tipper, he picks up hitchhikers and ain’t afeared to give anyone that Nazareth or Deep Purple T-shirt off his back. Quick with a joke or a song, he’s the kind of guy that always gets free pie and an extra smile from the waitresses, but he never lets it go to his head neither. Always on time with his loads, The Squid is always “Truckin it up.” That’s just the kind of trucker he is. You’d like The Squid, he’s good people.
Anywho, it fell on April 30th or Walpurgis Nacht—that’s “Witches Night” for a quick translation—back in 1986 that The Squid and his good buddy Ogre got themselves into a bizarre mess of trouble with a heap of near-impossible-to-believe repercussions, and this time it weren’t The Squid’s fault neither. You see, when he stopped off at that Flying K, he had no idea what was heading his way from so far off, and a man can sometimes get mighty surprised. But I’ll take a step back now and just let the story unfold for you in its own way.
After fueling up, The Squid went inside the diner and sat himself down on a ripped vinyl stool at the counter. A waitress in a teal uniform with shockingly red hair looked him up and down. “What can I do you for, hun?” A lit cigarette dangled from her lips with a long cherry of ash teasing that it was about to drop.
“Java, darlin’. I gotta get to Denver by tomorrow afternoon.”
She winked and poured him a cup. The fading cherry from her cigarette fell into the steaming black coffee. The Squid’s eyebrows raised. She turned to walk away.
“Uh, ma’am? I’m gonna need a fresh cup.”
“What, ’tain’t good enough for ya, sugar?” she asked with a red-stained smile.
The Squid squinted, wondering at her teeth and deciding it must be lipstick. “No, I mean, yes. I need a fresh cup; your ash went right in the java. I don’t mean to be picky, but come on.”
“So? So, I need fresh java. Come on, I got a long way to go and a short time to get there.”
“Uh huh.” She pushed the soiled cup a couple spaces down the counter and grabbed another from somewhere beneath. The Squid peered inside to inspect the potential lack of cleanliness as she poured it full. “Here you go, Your Majesty.”
She snorted at that and walked away.
Ogre, a tall beer-bellied trucker with a Dixie-flag ball cap, walked in, slapped The Squid on the shoulder and sat beside him. “You made her mad. Gotta watch out how you treat people, Squid. You can’t go getting personal about how people run their business.” He grinned wide, his smile framed with a Fu-Manchu mustache beneath tinted aviator shades that he never took off.
The Squid turned and shook Ogre’s hand, answering, “The thought did occur to me, but I wasn’t gonna drink that.”
Ogre laughed, reached for the tainted cup and swallowed it, ash and all, then loudly belched.
A full body shiver wracked The Squid. “You’re a sick man.”
“Like Sun Tzu said, ‘Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.’”
The Squid shook his head, “Never mind, I ain’t even gonna try and correct that.”
“How’s the highway been treating you?”
“Good, good. I gotta burn rubber to Denver and then pick up a load and get it to Tucson.” He leaned up off his stool looking for the vanished waitress. “Where’d she go? Fix her weave? I need to order some grub.”
Ogre nodded. “You catch more flies with honey than liquor, Squid. Plato said that.”
“You have got to get your white-trash facts straight, my friend.”
Indignant, Ogre spouted, “White-trash facts? Squid, I am the most well-read trucker on these highways. Don’t make me draw you a picture.”
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“Like Sun Tzu said, ‘Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.’”[/pullquote]
The waitress returned and Ogre smiled at her. “Evening, ma’am. I’d like a dozen eggs and a side of bacon and do you have any…” Ogre glanced out the window and noticed the flagpole. His demeanor darkened. “Squid, do you see that?” He pointed an accusing finger outside.
Ogre grimaced and sputtered, “Out there is a gold-fringed flag on that flagpole! That is the flag of an Admiralty Court and here we are in god-fearing, five-wife-loving Utah!”
“Nevada,” corrected the waitress, with the cigarette stuck to her heavy lipstick.
Ogre frothed, standing up and shouting loud enough for the handful of other patrons inside to pause and look their way. “Last time I checked this was still America! Not a U.N. Charter stop-and-shop. Take that flag down now!”
The Squid put a hand on Ogre’s shoulder. “You can’t go getting personal about how people run their business. It’s still an American flag. He’s had a long day,” he directed the last sentence at the waitress.
Ogre slammed the counter shouting, “No, this will not stand. I’m gonna give my diesel back! I’m taking my business elsewhere! You Commie sons of bitches!”
“Ogre, calm down.”
“Am I wrong here?” asked Ogre, his breath coming in angry spurts.
Dark as it was outside, a bright flaring light arced overhead accompanied by a wretched grating noise akin to colossal nails on a titanic chalkboard. It turned everyone’s attention away from Ogre’s tirade. Appearing to be some type of rocket or craft, it tumbled violently in a downward spiral through the night sky. Green and orange flames backlit the grey smoke trailing behind like a twisted comet. The waitress’s cigarette fell from her slack-jawed mouth.
Holding fingers in their ears, The Squid, Ogre and others stepped out the café doors to watch. The weird light sparkled and fizzed, turning a variety of colors as it cascaded eastward. It looked like it would hit just a couple miles away. Then there was a thunderclap and blast of brilliant green light. Dust fell from the eaves as tremors rippled through the truck stop.
Ogre slapped The Squid on the back. “That’s right down I-80! Let’s go take a look!”
The Squid glanced back to see the waitress picking her nose while pouring another cup of coffee. “All right, let’s go look. We’ll find somewhere else to eat…”
This is just one of the stories in the anthology Redneck Eldritch, available now!