Pandemonium Swamp, Chapter 3

Interviewing Mae, sitting in her kitchen and watching her relive that night, was the hardest thing I’d ever done. Some terrible thing had taken something from her and it wasn’t over for her, or maybe for any of us…

10526513-bare-treeMae sat down across from me but she didn’t say a word. I waited. She seemed about as far away as you can get and still be in the same room. I looked at her eyes. Her pupils were black wells.

“Mae, blink. I need you to focus here. I want to get this all down and I don’t want to be stuck out here all night.” She looked straight at me but she didn’t see me. Mae was back in Pandemonium Swamp. “I’m sorry, Duncan.”

“I’m sorry too, Mae. You went through a lot and I’m being an ass. I can wait.” I didn’t have to wait long.

“Kerm and Wally invited Beth Ann and me to go submarine racing out at the swamp on Halloween after we went to the hop over at the high school. Beth Ann thought it would be fun and scary and the boys sure were up for it. I wasn’t crazy about the idea of being stuck out in the swamp in the dark, especially after the stories I’d heard. But I didn’t want Kerm to think I was a total flake, so I said, “sure, I’ll go.”

“The dance broke up around ten o’clock and everyone was drifting home so we figured it would be a good time to head for the swamp. Wally had gotten some beer from somewhere and the two of them were in a real party mood. Beth Ann and I had agreed we’d play along but we weren’t going all the way, that’s for sure.”

“We left the parking lot and headed out on the East Road. Kerm was driving and he wanted to take the scenic route that took us to that old road in the middle of the swamp. He’d brought a blanket and figured we could “lay back and watch the stars,” as he called it. But Beth Ann and I knew what he really meant. Anyway, it was cold and we weren’t laying on no blanket in the middle of a swamp no matter what the weather was.”

I was having trouble keeping up with Mae’s narrative but I wasn’t about to stop her. I was afraid she wouldn’t start again. The room was cooling off and the milk on my coffee was pooling into an ugly skim of dark tan. A shiver hit me. She must have noticed because she suddenly said, “Hang on, I’ll get the fire up and heat up that coffee.”

“Thanks,” I said, and meant it. I wasn’t getting out of here anytime soon. We were still at the preliminaries but Mae seemed like she’d rehearsed this story a few times while she waited for someone to come along and listen. What was it like keeping this bottled up inside you for so long? I didn’t want to think about it. And I didn’t want to think about whether or not Mae Burch might be nuts and waiting for the opportunity to cut more than sandwich bread.

“You want another sandwich? Maybe some cake?” she asked.

“I’d like both. But I’d be happy with either one,” I tried to smile. My sense of humor had gone along with the front axle of my car on the Colebrook Road. “Maybe another one of those dynamite pork sandwiches, Mae. Thanks.” I might as well be polite. I didn’t really believe it was Mae’s fault she had doomed herself to a life of isolation because of what happened one Halloween night. It just made me sad. She wasn’t bad looking but the stress of too many nights alone and no one to talk to was written in every thin line dragging around her eyes.

Mae brought over a giant pork sandwich on her homemade bread and a piece of chocolate cake. “You want coffee with that cake? I can make some fresh. My mother always told me to throw out coffee that’s been sitting for more than a half hour,” she said, staring over the table at me.

“That would be mighty fine with this cake.” She turned toward the sink to rinse out the old coffee. “You make everything from scratch?”

“Sure. Why not? Cheaper than store bought and tastes better. My grandma taught me to bake and I been doing it ever since. She’s been gone for ten years but that’s how we spent our time together when I was a kid. Apple pies, chocolate cakes, sugar cookies. You name it. She taught me right.” Mae ladled out the coffee into the basket.

“How come you stay out here by yourself?” I wasn’t sure it was a good place to insert that question but I didn’t know anything about baking and I didn’t want to drop the conversation.

“Where else am I going to go? I never went to college and the rest of the town thinks I’m some kind of freak ever since that night.”

I didn’t know what to say. I’m not sure it’s what I expected but it was her way of being matter-of-fact. I didn’t think I could be that stoical about my life if that’s the deal I was handed.

Mae brought over two cups of hot black coffee and pushed the sugar bowl across the table. “Cream’s in the fridge. Help yourself,” she said. I got the feeling I was making myself at home.

Once I’d settled back down and taken a couple of bites of the pork, I was ready. “OK, Mae, where were we.”

“Last thing I said was about the blanket bingo party that Kerm and Wally had planned for Beth Ann and me and how we weren’t having any part of it. But we did get out on that old swamp road and we got out of the car when we couldn’t go no further. We were all in our Halloween costumes and getting pretty chilly after about five minutes of walking.”

“The place was creepy. Quiet like. Like there was something out there watching us. At first I thought it was my imagination. My mother always told me I had an ace number one imagination and sometimes she didn’t know if I was having her on. But when we started down the road we heard some things moving around down low in the bushes, like a skunk or something like that. But then I noticed everything had just stopped. Honestly, there was no sound. Nothing.”

“Like I said we were maybe five minutes from the car and it got real quiet and then Beth Ann grabbed my hand. I wasn’t feeling any too good either. Meantime, Kerm and Wally were out in front and yakking away about the football team and the game with Plimpton. I remember that I wished they would just shut the hell up because there was something wrong out there and I wanted to go home.”

“All of a sudden Beth Ann stopped and turned half around to her left. She was walking on my left side and the guys were maybe twenty feet ahead of us. “Mae, what was that?” Beth Ann whispered and she was digging her nails into my wrist. She sounded real scared. I looked where she was pointing but I couldn’t see anything. “I don’t see nothing, Beth Ann. Stop scaring yourself.” But I still wasn’t hearing any noise. She hadn’t realized there was no sound yet but we were both getting the heebie jeebies. The moon kept ducking behind some clouds and neither of us could see very far in front of us. The weatherman had said there was a cold front coming in and maybe we were going to have some snow but it was getting overcast in a hurry.”

“I called out to Wally and Kerm to hold up. They stopped for a second and yelled back, “Hurry up, you two. We ain’t got all night out here.” And they started laughing.

“Beth Ann looked like she’d seen a ghost. She was dead white under her makeup and her eyes were like saucers and her mouth was hanging open and she was backing into me. “What’s wrong with you, Beth Ann. You got some imagination on you.” I tried laughing it off but her fear was beginning to get to me. Just then I saw something move off to the left, over by where she was looking.”

“What the hell is that?” I nearly screamed. Whatever it was it was bigger than either one of us and it was just standing there. My eyes weren’t adjusting to the little light that was out there and the clouds had pretty much covered the sky by now so we were in the middle of the swamp, in the dark with two idiot boys and some godawful thing staring at us.”

“Wally and Kerm heard me yell and came running back. “What are you two doing? Trying to scare each other? Trying to scare us?” Kerm said and made a “woooo” sound like a ghost.

“Shut up and look over there. What do you see?”

“Both of the boys were trying to see what we were pointing at when it moved. I don’t think we had any idea what size it was until then but this thing rose up out of the swamp and it was the size of a house.”

“Holy hell, what is that thing?” Kerm managed to croak out. “Let’s get the hell out of here.” And he started running for the car. Wally was right behind him but Beth Ann and I were rooted to the ground.”

“Whatever that thing was, it was moving. It was slow but it was moving with a sort of limp and it wasn’t making any noise. No noise at all. That was the worse part. It just kept coming but it wasn’t making any noise.”

Mae’s pupils were dilated and her breath was rasping in her throat. Whatever she had seen that night she could still see. God, how many times had she relived that night in her mind and in her dreams? The hairs on my arms went straight up. I reached over and grabbed her wrists. “Mae, Mae! Stop. You’re OK. Nothing is going to hurt you. You’re in your kitchen with me and we’re safe.”

“Don’t you get it,” she said with a strange sad look on her face. “We’re never safe.”

I didn’t know what to say. I was afraid to ask her to continue with her story. And I was afraid not to ask. Her forehead was covered in sweat and her hands were shaking so hard she’d spilled her coffee on the tablecloth. “Mae, if you don’t want to do this, I understand,” I said gently. Secretly I hoped she would pull it together and tell me what she saw. I could really use a good story.

“I’ll be alright. I just need to stop for a minute.”

The clock ticked down a full two minutes. The room was silent. Mae’s breathing calmed. She braced herself against the side of the table and got up to go to the sink. “I need some water.” She ran a glass under the faucet. Suddenly she shut off the spigot and downed the cold well water in three gulps. The water splashed down the front of her dress but she didn’t seem to care.

“OK, let’s go,” she said.

I waited.

“Um, where was I?”

“Wally and Kerm had run past you to the car and you and Beth Ann were stuck in the middle of the road.”

“OK. Thanks,” she said. “Wally came running back for us and Kerm was revving the engine. “Hurry up, you guys. Hurry up. Run. Run,” that was what Wally was yelling at us and Kerm was waving his arm at us out of the car window like “get over here.” Beth Ann and I turned around and we were just about to run when we saw that thing moving faster toward us and we knew it was going to grab us or kill us or eat us or something horrible.”

“We both started to scream and it was like our feet were glued to the ground and we couldn’t move. Like that thing had us pinned down. Wally made it back to us just then and he yanked Beth Ann and they ran. I took one more look to be sure it wasn’t going to get me and that’s when I smelled it. It was something I’d never smelled before and maybe no one else had either. I still can’t get it out of my nose. It was like what I would think evil would smell like.”

“Sulphur?”

“No, something worse. But I started to gag and run all at the same time and it was running after me but it was keeping pace with me in the weeds like it knew what it was doing and I heard this sound like it was hungry and it was chewing. I screamed and screamed and ran.”

“Kerm had jumped out and opened the door behind him and I made it to the car just as that thing started to slide out of the weeds. That’s what it did…it slid. It didn’t step out onto the road. I don’t even know if it had legs or if it had legs how many it had. It was just black. I didn’t wait to see anymore. Everyone was screaming and yelling. I ran for the car and threw myself in the backseat next to Beth Ann. Wally was yelling, “Just drive for chrissake” and Beth Ann was crying and Kerm was swearing. I tried to shut the door but Kerm gunned the engine and I nearly fell out. We tore off down the road with my door flapping open. I thought it was going to crack off. I was yelling at Kerm to stop so I could shut the door but that’s when we heard this sound behind us like a building coming down or something. It was so loud it was everywhere. Kerm just kept driving and I was hanging on to Beth Ann and she was screaming and crying. All of a sudden the door came back and slammed shut but that was because Kerm had gone around a corner on two wheels.”

“I don’t know how fast he was driving but Beth Ann was crying and Wally was yelling at Kerm and Kerm was driving all over the road and pounding on the steering wheel and I thought we were going to die.”

“Once the door was shut I looked back but I couldn’t see nothing. Kerm drove white knuckles like a bat out of Hell all the way into town. I know we side-swiped a couple of mailboxes and nearly missed as many trees but at least we got out of there alive. Beth Ann was hysterical and Wally kept swearing and I kept looking out the rear window. I don’t remember much else. The drive was almost as scary as that monster in the swamp.”

“Mae, you said you went into town. Where did you four go?”

“Wally kept yelling that we needed to tell the police so Kerm went screeching into the Sheriff’s department parking lot. Sheriff Fecteau’s car was there and so was the deputy. I don’t remember his name. When Kerm finally stopped the car and was laying on the horn, the Sheriff and the deputy came tearing down the steps. “Get the hell out of that car, you stupid kid. You coulda killed somebody.” That was the Sheriff yelling but we weren’t listening.”

Beth Ann piled out of the car crying and sobbing and threw herself on the Sheriff. I just sat there. I think the Sheriff thought the boys had done something to us because he was reaching for his gun when Wally said, “It ain’t what you think, Sheriff. There’s something terrible weird out in the swamp.”

“What the hell you kids been up to out in that swamp at this time of night?” I knew he was mad at us. “You better get in here and tell me what’s going on. And you, Kermet, give me those damn keys. You’re not driving anywhere else tonight. I got two reports of some car running over mailboxes out on the East Road and I’m betting that was you. You’re lucky if I don’t throw you in a cell and call your father.”

“The Sheriff hollered at Kerm all the way into the station. The deputy took Beth Ann and me and put us in a separate room together. Then he said he’d be right back. But he didn’t come right back. Instead, it was Sheriff Fecteau come back about a half hour later. “Tell me what the hell you kids think you saw out there…”

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Pandemonium Swamp, Chapter Two

Why was it so hard to write the first part of this narrative? If you give a name to the monster that you think is under the bed it can’t hurt you. Right? 

10526513-bare-treeIt took me a few seconds to realize I probably wasn’t going to get anything else out of Ed or anyone within a lick and a holler of the bait shop. The wind was picking up and twirling the leaves around the gas pumps as I sauntered over to the Corolla. I was taking my time and trying to swagger but my heart wasn’t in it. It might have been easier to admit Ed and the conversation had creeped me out. By the time I reached the driver’s side door the hairs were crawling up the back of my neck. I was just about sure Ed was watching me but I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of turning around. What the hell was going on around here?

I put my right blinker on and pulled out of the driveway heading for the plateau and Colebrook Road. I had a feeling Ed had called ahead and the trip was going to be a waste of time. All it would take was Mae slipping out the back and heading due east to Plimpton until I got sick of staking her place out. I was planning on giving it about a half hour before I headed back to West Burville. Thinking I might have to relent and write about the Pumpkin Jamboree over at Whittaker Elementary was curdling the pie apples percolating in the bottom of my stomach. “Goddamn Ed and the rest of them. I’ll get this story if it kills me.”

Colebrook Road was less than a half mile up and a sharp left turn off the main road. Over the years the road sign had disappeared and the Webster Hollow DPW wasn’t inclined to replace it. Either you knew where to turn or you didn’t need to be there. The road wasn’t a forgiving surface to old rusty shocks and after about five hundred yards of potholes that looked like they could swallow Jupiter I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get back. Colebrook Road was closer to a trail than a road. Ed had said Mae Burch’s place was “the third house on the left after the hill flattens out” but I hadn’t even reached the first house yet.

I was beginning to get a little panicky wondering if the Webster Hollow regulars were having me on when I spotted a desolate peeling farmhouse with a dozen chickens pecking in the front yard. There wasn’t time to stop and chat as I jounced past hoping my spine would make it to the second house.

The road leveled out for a few feet and I pulled over to get my bearings. I reached over to open the glove compartment and find a map that showed where Colebrook Road ended. Roads up in this neck of the woods tend to start off promising but end in heartbreak for you and your axle as the road peters out on a log drag. It pays to invest in a couple of current maps. According to the ten-year old version I found at the bottom of the map pile, Colebrook Road ran over the New Hampshire border about twelve miles up. If I couldn’t turn around there was no getting off this rutted track until dark and Weevil Falls, NH.

After a couple of minutes of assessing my options I came up with one: keep going and hope the old map was right and the road didn’t die out just in time for nightfall. “This is bullshit,” I growled and put the Corolla in gear. I had twelve miles of ruts to contend with and hopefully one house. After another mile of nothing but dried out hay fields and scudding grey clouds that let me know a rainstorm was headed my way, I spotted the second house, a grey cape squatting on a patch of overgrown lawn. The third house followed a few minutes later. “This better be the Burch residence,” I grumbled and downshifted into the driveway.

The house was a pointy pre-World War I farmhouse with a chimney smoking and light on in the kitchen. Someone was home. I shut off the car and headed toward the backdoor. Up this way everyone goes to the backdoor unless you’re trying to sell something or convert someone. I knocked. After a few nervous seconds where I practiced my speech, I heard footsteps coming toward the door. As it swung open I got a whiff of pork and something else that reminded me I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.

“Good afternoon, is Mae home?” I asked in a polite hopeful voice.

“I’ve been expecting you. You better come in,” said a lanky woman about thirty with chestnut hair and blue eyes. In some other time, she must have been a looker. Now she looked like she hadn’t slept in two years and I was about to add to her misery.

“I’m Duncan Paquette from The West Burville Gazette and…” She cut me off. “I know who you are and what you want,” she said in a flat unfriendly tone.

“OK, thanks for seeing me,” I muttered as she stepped back to let me inside. “May I sit down?”

“Suit yourself. You want some coffee or tea? I got some coffee fresh made.”

“I’d like some coffee. That’s mighty nice of you,” I said as I slid into a wobbly kitchen chair near the woodstove.

Mae brought over two mugs of coffee and turned to take the cream out of the fridge. “Somebody called, said you’d be headed my way. I think he wanted to give me a chance to leave in case I didn’t want to talk to you,” she smiled. “Nice of him to try to protect me but I don’t need that kind of help. What do you want to know?”she said.

“Everything.”

“That might take some time. But I’ll do my best. Just so you know, I sometimes have trouble keeping what I think I saw away from what I really did see. You understand?” I didn’t but I shook my head as if I did. Anything to keep her talking.

“I used to go out with Kermet LaDue and my friend Beth Ann went out with his best friend, Wallace LaBounty. It seemed like you never saw one without the other one. They played on the baseball team together, raced cars down by the dump together and bought beer for the rest of us on Saturday night. Every girl in town wanted to go out with either one of them but Beth Ann and I must have been the pick of the litter. I’d been going out with Kerm for maybe six weeks and Beth Ann had been seeing Wally for about two weeks longer. We’d gotten to the point where the boys wanted to be a little more affectionate but Beth Ann and I had promised each other we wouldn’t do anything stupid. And we’d stick together. You want a warm up on that coffee? I could rustle you up something to eat, if you want?”

“I sure could use something to eat. I haven’t had anything since breakfast,” I said with sincerity.

“Let me get that for you and I’ll just keep talking if you don’t mind. Where is your reporter notebook, by the way?” I looked sheepish. “I didn’t bring it in because I wasn’t sure you’d talk to me.”

“No point in holding this in any longer. If something happens to me at least you got a last record of it,” she said in a small voice. I felt uneasy. “What do you think is going to happen to you?”

No answer. “I’ll make you a sandwich. Roast pork ok?” It was. “That’d be fine. Thanks.”

Neither of us said a word. I watched her move around her kitchen slicing bread and pork on an old-fashioned wood cutting board by the stove. I was thinking that maybe she spent a lot of time in this room. It occurred to me that maybe she was afraid to leave the house. People get like that sometimes when something terrible has happened to them.

Mae brought over my sandwich, a jug of mustard and the coffee pot. “This is really nice of you. I’m starving,” I joked, “and this looks mighty fine.”

“Thanks. Glad to feed a hungry traveler.” I ate in silence for a few minutes savoring the fine roast pork and fresh-baked bread while she watched me closely. “Tell me why this story of what happened interests you so much,” she said suddenly. I stopped chewing.

“I don’t know. It seems like it’d be a good feature for the Halloween edition.”

“Is that a fact. Have you been out to the swamp, Mr. Paquette?”

“No, not yet.”

“Well, see you go when the sun’s out,” she said flatly. I stared at her but she was ten years and a few miles down the road behind her dull blue eyes. I almost felt bad I was dredging it all up for her.

“You still want to talk to me about it?” I asked.

“Sure, why not. No point in keeping quiet. Folks around here think we made it up. But that don’t explain why Beth Ann and Kerm and Wally moved away so quick. ‘Putting a whole lot of daylight between me and that damned swamp’, Kerm said. I never saw him again, you know,” she said softly. I wasn’t sure what to say.

Suddenly she glared at me. “That swamp is bad news. Bad. Please stay out of there. No story’s worth your mind or your life.” She shut down again. The roast pork tasted like sawdust and the coffee was raising hell with my stomach juices. “Tell me. Tell me everything,” I said reaching across the table and grabbing her wrist. “Don’t leave anything out.”

“Alright. But I want you to write it all down right. Promise. Promise.” I promised. I couldn’t refuse the half-scared, half-crazy look in her eyes. “I’ll get my notepad.”

I opened the door and walked outside toward the Corolla, glad for the chance to be out of the stifling kitchen and away from Mae for a few minutes. Was she nuts or was she the victim of something horrible she believed was still lurking out there waiting? I felt as if I was on the verge of either a great story or joining her in a psychological break with reality. I couldn’t tell which and I didn’t care. There was a damned good story out here. I grabbed my notepad and pen from the front seat and headed back to the house.

Mae opened the door. She was more composed. “I’m ready.” I sat back down and opened my notepad.

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Pandemonium Swamp, Chapter One

I know what this is going to sound like to you. For almost a year now I haven’t told anyone anything about what I saw out there. But now I think my mind is going. I can’t sleep anymore and I can’t tell the difference between what it was and what I thought it was. Maybe if I write everything down… Please don’t think I’m making this up. That would be a mistake. Things aren’t always what they seem…

10526513-bare-treeUp in the northeastern corner of Vermont are miles of forest and swamp where people never go. There’s always plenty of excuses to go ’round and they all sound something like this: “It’s too damn thick in there” or “It’s too swampy for me and the dog.” Fact is, no one goes into these places because they’re afraid they won’t come out.

One of these places is the backside of Pandemonium Swamp. The swamp got its name from the strange sounds, winking lights and occasional blood curdling screams that tore out of the place back in the 1920’s. Since then things have been pretty quiet. Or they were until about a year ago. Let me tell you the rest…

It was three days before Halloween and I was struggling to pull together a feature for the local paper, The West Burville Gazette. It’s a weekly with a circulation of everyone in town plus a few tourists who wander in. I’m the one and only reporter. My name is Duncan Paquette. The pay sucks but it keeps the lights on. At 8:30 that morning my editor, Fay Tessreau, told me I needed a feature on the local trick or treat scene for the middle section. And would I please get that to her by noon tomorrow.

Since I was a kid, Halloween has been the one holiday in the year where there is always something a little dangerous to do. Instead of minding my manners and hanging around with grown ups watching them stuff themselves and argue, I would get to spend time with ghosts, goblins, witches, crazy costumes, pumpkins, black jelly beans and my friends from Saint Simon’s. We all went to the only Catholic school in town. It wasn’t an October unless old Sister “Wheezer”, the ancient nun who ruled over my homeroom, threatened me with eternal damnation or detention, which was pretty much the same thing for a ten-year old kid. Staying up late and stuffing on candy, toilet papering the neighborhood, and dressing up in homemade costumes was the highlight of the year. Carl Bates used to say that I was maybe too much into what he called “the dark stuff” and I better watch it.

That was fourteen years ago and now I was trolling around my old hometown looking for Mr. Walter Evans, the local historian and town gossip. For three decades Mr. Evans was the purveyor of everything that happened in West Burville and only too happy to tell anyone who would listen. About three years ago, he’d been the first to speculate out loud on whether the murder of Norm Weston and his wife was really the work of some mysterious force, or if the perpetrator was closer to home. He speculated again the following year when Linda Mae, the owner of the Double Axle Diner, disappeared one night just before Christmas, and all her possessions went to that same person who was present at both events. Mr. Evans would say, “I don’t want you to quote me but…”

Today I found him sitting in a corner of the West Burville Town Library. The library was ten book stacks, a couple of beat up oak tables and a few low shelves for kids’ books funded by a skeptical town board that couldn’t understand why Betty Pearce, the eighty year old librarian who presided over the circulation desk, had to buy so many damn books. When I arrived Miss Betty was dusting the stacks and whistling an old toothpaste jingle to herself.

“Miss Betty”, as everyone in town called her, was a maiden lady, courted once but never married, and always seen in high collar dresses with small floral prints (flannel in winter, cotton in summer), wire rim spectacles perched on the end of her nose, and a small cameo that had belonged to her Great Grandmother, Edith Gibson, at her neck. Miss Betty was an institution in West Burville and under her the tiny library thrived.

“Mornin’ Miss Betty, it’s a fine one out there,” I began.

“Well, good morning, Duncan, what brings you to the library so bright and early?”

“Has Mr. Evans been in? Or did he happen to mention he might be stopping by? I tried the house but he wasn’t there. I was hoping he could help me with a piece I’m writing for the Gazette.”

“That’s nice, dear. He’s been here since I opened. Look over there behind the stack of books on the table in front of the ‘History’ section.”

It wasn’t hard to find the History section, one lone wooden bookcase sagging under the weight of two hundred years of town history behind a long table with a chewed up right leg.

After eighty years of hunching over a library table, Mr. Evans looked like a shrunken ten year old with a hump on his back. Only the top of his head with its tufts of fluffy white hair could be seen over the pile of faded cloth-covered books he had piled in front of him.

“Good morning, Mr. Evans, how goes it today?”

“Oh, it’s you, Duncan. I’m kind of busy this forenoon. Lots of research, you know.”

I wasn’t about to give up. “Mr. Evans, I’ve got a problem I’m hoping you can help me with,” I whispered.

No answer.

“Did you hear me? I’ve got a problem,” I said loud enough to draw a baleful look from the librarian.

“You got a problem, son, go see a doctor,” was the old historian’s response.

“Listen, Mr. Evans, I’ve got a deadline and I don’t have anything. I want to do a piece on the history of Halloween in the town and I knew you were the man to tell me if there were any odd happenings over the years,” I could hear myself begging.

“This is West Burville, just about everything is odd about this place,” he chortled.

I had a feeling he was dancing around the question and I wasn’t about to give up. I figured if I sat there and just stared at him I could wear him down. It didn’t take long.

“I’m only going to give you a location and you get to figure the rest out for yourself. Pandemonium Swamp.”

“Pandemonium Swamp. Why there?”

“You go out there and you tell me what you see or hear or how the air feels. You do that. If you come back.” He half-smiled.

“Thanks. I’ll be back.”

“See that you do, son. See that you do.” And that was that. I had a place to go but no idea why. And a creeping feeling I might regret tracking down Mr. Evans.

Pandemonium Swamp is roughly five hundred acres of scrub and mucky ground with waterlogged trees and a rutted dirt path that ends in a thicket about a quarter mile in. Just about everything that lives in the northeast and flies, hops, trots or slithers lives in the swamp. In the summer, when things dry out a bit, tourists slathered in Fly Dope flock to the area with cameras and canteens of water to document the swamp’s flora and fauna. No maps have ever been drawn of the swamp and no one ever stays beyond sundown.

A few years ago, on a moonlit October night three days before Halloween, a couple of the local dandies took their dates out to the swamp for some late night spooning. A couple of hours later the four of them showed up back in town bug-eyed and shaking with crazy stories about strange lights and something scratching at their car doors. No one believed them. But nobody else has gone parking at Pandemonium Swamp since that night. Sometimes up here there may be general agreement but no one will admit it out loud.

I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to approach a trek through the swamp. I’ll be honest, I’m better with Nature if I see it through the windshield. I don’t own any flannel shirts, hip waders, suspenders  or industrial strength bug repellent. For someone born and raised in northeastern Vermont I’m unusual. Plus, the stories about the swamp and the queer look in Mr. Evans eyes had put me off. Then again, a story is a story. Conquering the swamp might get me syndicated and my cranky editor off my back.

As I left the library I took a leisurely walk over to the Double Axle where I hoped Ludovico Haynes might be occupying a counter stool. Ludovico was the most prolific logger in Piney Woods County and knew just about everything about every acre of unoccupied land in the area. Everyone knew Ludovico wasn’t above making it up if he smelled a dollar bill in it but I hoped he might fill in the gaps without me shelling out my hard-earned.

The cinnamon heavy smell of fresh baked Dutch Apple pie wafted past me as I pushed open the front door into the warm diner air. Two of the Counter Dwellers, a ragtag fraternity of upcountry regulars who hung out at the diner and stayed one step in front of the county Sheriff, were hunkered down over their pie and coffee as I slid in beside them. Presiding behind the counter was the chief cook and bottle washer, Hooter Gibson.

“Morning Dayrel. Morning Bunchy. How’s it going?” I got a grunt from Dayrel. Nothing from Bunchy. I tried again. “Damn, Hooter, that pie smells just about perfect. How about a piece and black coffee?”

“Coming right up, Duncan. What brings you over here?” Hooter knew I was about to get nosy.

“Fay wants me to get some local color for the Halloween edition and I just got through talking to Mr. Evans camped out at the library. I was hoping to catch Ludovico. He been in? Or is he coming in?”

“Nope, haven’t seen him. I heard he was taking a load of logs over to Plimpton and wouldn’t be back ‘til later. What kind of story you looking for?” Asked Hooter with his eyebrows heading to his hairline.

“Mr. Evans thought I should do a piece on Pandemonium Swamp.”

I thought I saw Hooter lose a little color in his cheeks but all he said was, “Why you want to do something like that?”

“No one’s ever been deep in there have they? I mean, the flatlanders pick around the edges and it’s a no go at night. You were around when those kids drove sideways into town and sputtered out a story about something not being right out there. What’s the scoop on that?”

“Nuthin’ much to tell. Kids made a mistake. Kids do that. Their imaginations got the best of them and they panicked and got all excited and coulda killed themselves driving crazy on the back road back to town. End of story.” Hooter’s jaw snapped shut.

I had a feeling Hooter knew more than he was saying and wasn’t about to say anything else.

“Are those kids still living around here?”

“Maybe. I heard that Mae Burch stills lives over in Webster Hollow but I wouldn’t call that a fact. I’ll get that pie.” And that was all I was going to get out of Hooter Gibson.

After a half hour of trying to get something going with Dayrel and Bunchy I had to admit I had run out of a taste for Dutch Apple pie and anymore half-hearted attempts at interviewing the Counter Dwellers. I handed Hooter the price of the pie and coffee and headed for the door.

“Thanks, Hooter, that pie made my morning. See ya round, guys.”

Hooter nodded my way. The other two never moved. As I swung the door shut I saw Hooter watching me.

Something was pricking the back of mind and I couldn’t make sense of it. Instead I gave up and walked home to my apartment on Higgins Street to retrieve the keys to my ‘97 Corolla. I used to tell folks that if it wasn’t for the rust holding it together I’d be out a car. The truth is that given my current financial situation I wasn’t about to spend anymore than I had to on another car. As long as it started, it was good enough for a ride over to Webster Hollow. Time to track down Mae Burch.

If you’ve ever been over to Webster Hollow you know it’s a half mile strip of mud and shadows. They don’t call these places a “hollow” for nothing. Living in a hollow is an invitation to a perpetual lack of the “sunshine vitamin”. From about noon on, Webster Hollow is deep in shadow. Stuck in a ditch between two steep hills with a Class Four road running between them, there isn’t much to see. One of the things about living in the northeast is how difficult it can get trying to find someone in a town with a population of 380.

In the middle of Webster Hollow is the all-in-one grocery store, gas station, and bait and tackle shop, the Webster Hollow Village Store and Ed’s Bait and Tackle, Ed Passup, Proprietor. Ed was not around when I called a little after 1 p.m. In fact, except for a beat up Jeep sitting next to the gas pump, the store was shut up like a drum.

I could feel my paranoia kicking in and I began to wonder if everyone in town was watching me from behind their curtains. Considering that absolutely no one was moving around in a quarter-mile radius, I think I was probably on the right track. Funny how the press coming to town is a conversation killer even in rural America. Either people talk their heads off and spill the beans on their neighbors or they shut down like low tide on the clam flats. It was a clam flats kind of day in Webster Hollow. Some door knocking was in order.

First stop was the yellow house next to Ed’s store, the one I suspected was Ed’s home base. It had that conjoined look of mutual despair typical of a rundown town in rural Vermont. As I made my way across the dirt driveway, I saw the curtain in the kitchen twitch just enough to alert me to someone inside.

“Hello, anybody home?” I yelled at the closed front door. Maybe some hard knocking and leaning on the doorbell would bring the house’s occupants stampeding to the front.

“Hello, Mr. Passup? Mrs. Passup? Can I have a minute of your time?” I knocked and called.

There was nothing but silence but it was the kind that you knew meant someone was home and listening to every sound you made.

“I’m Duncan Paquette, Bill Paquette’s boy, from The West Burville Gazette. I sure could use your help.” I was talking to the peeling paint on the door. Time to retreat off the front porch. I turned just in time to catch the door opening and to see Ed Passup step outside.

“You Bill’s kid? I remember he had a son always got himself in trouble when he was in high school. You that little punk?”

“Yessir, I am.” I felt compelled to add, “But I’m not anymore.”

Ed stood there with crossed arms regarding me like one of his minnows dangling from a hook. “What you want?”

I tried to sound like I was making a social call. “I’m looking for Mae Burch. You know where she lives? Hooter Gibson told me she lives here in the Hollow.”

“Hooter, huh? That guy’s an idiot. They got his face on the dartboard over to the Sheriff’s office. How would he know Mae lives around here?” Ed was getting a bit belligerent.

“I think he just heard it around. You know, like we all kind of know the general area everyone else lives in.” I was grasping and Ed knew it.

“Is that a fact,” he snorted.

“Look, I know you’re busy. I’ll be on my way,” I said and turned to head to my car.

“Hey, kid, Mae lives over on the other side of the Hollow. Third house up on the left off Colebrook Road after the hill flattens out. Now I told you where to find her, you tell me why you’re so anxious to talk to her.” Ed waited.

I figured now would be a good time to tell him the truth. “I’m doing a Halloween piece for the Gazette and she was part of that crowd that got scared out of their wits over at Pandemonium Swamp. Everyone else has left town so she’s my only chance of writing the story of what really happened that night.”

Ed uncrossed his arms and stared at me. “You think there’s only one story about that place? You best be nice to our Mae. It don’t do nobody any good to go stirring up that pot.” He turned and walked back into the house, slamming the door behind him hard enough to knock the Christmas wreath still clinging to a rusty hook onto the porch.

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In the meantime….

I quit. Or at least that’s what the majority of readers thought. I hadn’t really given it all up. Here come the excuses: I moved, moved again and finally found a home. For awhile I felt like Heathcliff wandering the moors but without the crazy wife locked in the attic back at the manor house. I’m afraid I can’t produce a good excuse.

Writers write all the time. At least we say we do and one way or the other, it’s true. I write stories in my head and carry a notebook. I’m thinking I should carry a self-important little recorder so I can talk to myself and people will say, “Oh, she must be a writer”. I wouldn’t want to miss a thought. Neither would you. I would love to be up at eight, cheeks on the chair by nine, tapping out my thoughts,  forgetting food and drink, staying there until I drop or go mad. And talking to myself, trying out dialogue and voices and laughing at my own good humor.

I think madness might be a bit of what makes a writer write. I do enjoy sitting at home and talking out loud crazy and everyone thinks it’s just fine because I’m a “writer”. It’s a good cover.

So where does that leave the past year? Has it been that long? Last year I lived someplace else. This year I live here and here is where the tree put down roots by the river. Did I stop making trips to West Burville? Not really, but I did find out some disturbing truths on my last few trips. I’ll leave you with this thought: why is it things aren’t always as they seem?

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Weather Report from Never Never Land: the Election

The last of the Presidential debates for this election go around is tonight and Americans will have to decide between Monday night football or a different kind of football.

Back in Lincoln’s day, a Presidential debate had no moderator and no time limit but it did have reporters equipped with the latest media gadgets, a pad of paper and a tray of flash powder. Instant polling didn’t happen on the scene until about the same time as instant potato flakes. Could there be a connection?

Politics is like a bowl of glutinous fake potatoes. Take dried out rhetoric, smash it around, add a little water of credibility, and stir it to a frenzy. Pop it into your mouth and vote for your favorite. American politics may be just as malnourishing to the soul of the country as potato flakes are to the body. But don’t take my word for it.

Americans have a short fuse, short memory and an even shorter attention span. If it’s bullshit you’re looking for, you’ve come to the right place.

Here’s the quandary: you get elected, you inherit a fire-breathing Godzilla-size financial mess, two wars, and an imploding economy. You get six months to fix it. But fixing it means you have to push, prod and demand from the same crowd that supported the burgeoning mess in the first place. And they have a vested interest. You don’t fix everything in six months. Pity. You must be inept. Maybe if we dig around in the back of the closet we can shake the dust off someone to replace you. Hit the wash button and it’s Election 2012.

Welcome to America, the land of potato flake politics. We need more than Fix-A-Flat for this election. There’s nonsense here. One of these men has a country to run in volatile times plus weeks on the stump. The other has a good night’s sleep.

Folks get polarized every four years. The guy you says ‘Hello’ to you at the water cooler and asks about the wife and kids is now the jerk who pontificates and spouts half-blitzed out political truths about immigrants, old people, poor people, young people, the Welfare Cadillac food stamp shopping who’s your Daddy urban ünter mensch, and what really should happen to uppity women.

The media is the Great Flogger of the American public. Long gone is The Last Great Senatebalanced journalistic inquiry, and the willingness to take the time to read and review the candidate’s arguments and check the facts. The direction of a country’s destiny is a sound bite.

Listen, just think of it as a reality show that’s going to get cancelled in a couple of weeks. It may be compelling, but it’s no Honey Boo Boo.

And while you’re at it, ask yourself: who you gonna vote off the island November 6?

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Aw, Indie, why’d ya have to go?

I’m going to miss my old hometown and the talented folks I never met. Indie Albany is no more. I know all good things come to an end because my mother said so. I get it. If you live in Des Moines, Iowa, and you ain’t comin’ back, no way no how, then it’s time to cut bait and send the kids out on their own. So here we go. Best of luck to all of us: Eric, Ryan, Greg, Allison, Marcia, David, and me! Please join us as we carry on carrying on.

 

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Headlines from the West Burville Gazette: It’s gonna be a hot one, folks! Part 2

When we snuck away from Sheriff Les Good a week or so ago, he was popping Tums and speculating on why Hooter and the other Counter Dwellers were slinking around. It just might be time for some surveillance…

Hooter and Bunchy were deep in conversation spiked with grunts and wheezes.

“This surprise party ain’t a good idea, Hooter. I said that before.”

“Yes, you did. Now pick up the other end of this sack.”

The sack was a hundred pounds of prime little red butterfinger potatoes Hooter had acquired from Bucky LeBlanc’s Fancy Fruit and Vegetables Emporium over in Higgins Corners. Nothing was too good for Sheriff Les and the possibility that a belly full of butterfingers would contribute to dropping the final thirty-seven hours of scraping paint and spit shining sidewalks.

“If we can pull this off, we’re free men,” Hooter grunted as he heaved the potatoes into his pick-up.

“And if we don’t, Hooter, we’re gonna be on some chain gang the Fecteaus probably got going the other side of the county.”

“You seen one of them “chain gangs”, Bunchy?”

“No, I ain’t. But people talk,” Bunchy shot back. ” They say old Zeff Ott come to a bad end on one of them gangs.”

“Never heard of him.”

“Just ’cause you ain’t heard of him don’t mean the Fecteau’s weren’t at the bottom of that well.”

“What well? What?”

“Never you mind, Hooter. Just remember I said so,” Bunchy pointed out as he walked away.

“What’s gotten into him?” thought Hooter.

At about the same time as Hooter and Bunchy were chucking potatoes, the Sheriff was watching Ardent slope through the front door.

“How ya doin’, Ardent? Good, now get in here,” yelled the Sheriff.

“What you want? Pernell and me’s got some state business over in East Bugbee,” Ardent shot back.

“I got a job for you two. Gibson and that bunch over at the diner. I want some surveillance. I’ll supply the snacks,” the Sheriff said with a particularly toothy grin.

Ardent surveyed the Sheriff’s piggy little eyes and the unsettling way his teeth seemed to grow points when he mentioned Hooter.

Sheriff Les cleared his throat and launched into a story even little Prudence, listening at the door jamb, thought was a bit far-fetched. According to what Prudence and Ardent could make out, Sheriff Les was considering that Hooter and the boys were planning something even stupider than their usual stupid. Maybe even something worthy enough for the national news. Sheriff Les started sweating just imagining how he was going to explain this one to the voters.

“Listen here, I want you and Pernell to surveillance those boys. Follow ‘em around. But don’t be seen. I’ll get Prudence to whip you up some coffee and sandwiches and those bitty cakes with the chocolate filling and I want your butt cheeks stuck to the seat until you find something.”

“I’ll talk it over with Pernell and get back to you.” Ardent gave the Sheriff one last look like maybe Sheriff Les was scooting around the edge of being over the edge and make a beeline for the door.

“Don’t give me that crazy eye look, Fecteau,” the Sheriff yelled at Ardent’s back.

“I got you now, Hooter. I got you now,” he grinned.

Back over at the Double Axle, Dayrel, Flock, Lambert and old Mel were contemplating a menu they were pretty darn sure would be a palate pleaser.

“Something with lots of ‘tatoes Hooter said,” announced Flock. “He’s over at Bucky’s pickin’ up a sack o’ them little ‘tatoes what look like little fingers with bumps.”

” How’s about some of Mabel’s Cowboy Coleslaw?” suggested old Mel. “I’m partial to them little marshmallows and them beans she stirs in.”

“Hooter wants an old-fashioned picnic and that’s what we’re doin’. I ain’t trying my hand at no la-di-da French stuff,” Dayrel chimed in.

“It’s a surprise party. Remember? You can’t be lugging no fancy stuff over to the ball field and retain the element of surprise, ” Lambert pointed out.

And the menu planning meandered off in a new direction…

“Prudence, I want you to call your brother Orcutt and tell him we gots ourselves a situation and get his ass over here pronto,” barked the Sheriff.

Prudence was on her break and getting a bit het up over the handsome but depressed and brooding Dunsmore Cavendish and his unrequited passion for the third under-chambermaid, Mary Louise, over at Beardsley Manor. In the distance, somewhere over the chill moor, she heard the Sheriff bellow. “Now what?” she said, slamming down her Candlelit romance.

“Call Orcutt and tell him to get in here.”

“I’m on my break.”

“Get on the horn, Prudence. Do it now,” hissed the Sheriff as he headed past Prudence toward the lock up.

Prudence gave him a look that was anything but her usual convivial flutter and twitter and punched in Orcutt’s number.

“He wants to see you. Now.” Prudence slammed down the phone and drifted back across the moor to the place where Dunsmore waited…

Hooter backed his truck up to the ramp behind the Double Axle.

“Flock, Dayrel, heave them taters down the cellar and guard ‘em with your life,” Hooter wheezed. “Damn, a hundred pounds sure weighs more than it used to.”

“What you on about, Hooter?” old Mel asked. “Why’s we guardin’ them ‘tatoes? I ain’t dyin’ for no tater salad, if’n that’s what you got in mind.”

“These here red butterfingers are the cornerstone of our freedom, boys. Now chuck ‘em in the cellar.”

After five minutes of swearing and grunting a hundred pounds of prime baby potatoes were nestled against the cellar wall of the Double Axle and Ho0ter was surveying the menu the boys had worked on for the past five hours.

“Hot dogs and hamburgers? That’s it? That took five hours? Damn, boys, this ain’t gonna get us more’n maybe ten hours off that thirty-seven. Keep at it.”

By the time another hour had elapsed, the Counter Dwellers had devised a menu that highlighted some of the best of West Burville cuisine. Old Mel was the first to say it, ” We get an “O” for “original, boys. I don’t think anyone’s put them ingredients together just that way. Except maybe Effie Squires, Edna’s sister. But she passed on right after, kind of funny like…”

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