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…
“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 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.
“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.”
“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…”