For a year now I haven’t told anyone what I saw out there, except Fay. Fay is my editor and she was there for the end of it. Nothing that happened out there was rational. Nothing made sense. But it was Halloween Eve and that’s not the time for sense. It’s a time when doors open between worlds and old wrongs hunger to be righted. You’ll have to forgive me, I’m not sleeping very well right now and my research into this matter is affecting me in odd ways. This is just the beginning but please don’t think I’m making this up. That would be a mistake. Things aren’t always what they seem…
Up 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 1930’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 the grownups 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. 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 our 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 eating barf worthy amounts of 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 recorder 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 perhaps 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 half-hidden behind a long pine table with a chewed up right leg and a hundred years of kid’s initials carved into the top.
After decades of hunching over this very same 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.
“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 come back and tell me what you see or hear or how the air feels. You do that. If you come back.” He grinned.
“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.
Back in 1950, on a moonlit Halloween night, 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 taking up space on 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 weren’t you 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. It was a long time ago. 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. One of them had a place in Webster Hollow, the Burch kid, 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 any more 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 the Burch clan.
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 guarantees 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 except exposed tree roots sticking out of the sides of the embankments and suspicious locals. 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 souls.
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.
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 and poverty typical of a rundown town in rural Vermont. As I made my way across the dirt driveway, I saw the curtain in the kitchen window 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 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 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 the Burch residence and some information. Are there any family members around? Maybe one of the kids? Hooter Gibson told me they live 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 who 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, there was a daughter, Mae. She and her family lived 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 the place, you tell me why you’re so anxious to go there.” 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 the daughter 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? 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 floor.
It 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 arms. I was 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?
Once I crawled inside the Corolla I locked the doors. I wasn’t taking any chances. As I pulled out of the driveway heading for the plateau and Colebrook Road, I had a feeling Ed had called ahead. The trip was proving to be a waste of an afternoon. All it would take was the family slipping out the back and heading due east to Plimpton and me hanging around the end of the driveway until I got sick of staking the 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 at 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 the Burch 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 two more houses. 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 this the Burch residence?” I asked in a polite hopeful voice.
“I’ve been expecting you. You better come in,” said a pale lanky woman 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 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. I’m Mae,” 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.
She brought over a mug 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.
“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 of those fellas without the other. 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 it 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,” she said staring straight at me. “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 a few 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 and raised her voice. Her eyes were cold blue points in a white face and she was clenching her fists. The veins were standing out on her pale arms. She leaned over the table, “That swamp is bad news. Bad. Please stay out of there. No story’s worth your mind or your life.” Then she shut down and stared away somewhere I knew I didn’t want to go.
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 wrists. “Don’t leave anything out.”
“Alright. But I want you to write it all down right. Promise. Promise.” She said and her voice had an urgency that made me think she really was crazy. 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 that happened that Halloween night? I felt as if I was on the verge of either a great story or joining her down the rabbit hole in a 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.
Mae 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. She had a vague unfocused look but her pupils were dilated and black.
“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 felt bad. I didn’t have a right to insist on anything. She was doing me a favor. “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 was 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 dark tan skin. 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?” I asked. And this time I was genuinely interested in something besides that night in the swamp.
“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 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? It’s my home.”
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 a cup 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 get some snow. It was getting overcast in a hurry and the air was getting colder.”
“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 left 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 god awful 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?” I told Kerm.
“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 all black like a big blank spot in the swamp.”
“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 worst 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 with sweat and her hands were shaking so hard she’d spilled my 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. But I also wanted to give her an out.
“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 soaked a towel in the icy well water and splashed it against her face. 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 like a hungry mouth 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 something dead or something evil would smell like.”
“No, something worse. But I started to gag and run all at the same time and it was just whirling behind me and kind of sighing. 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 I think it was coming after us. 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’s car. 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…
“Mae, the way Sheriff Fecteau was asking you questions, did you think he might have known more than he was letting on?”
“I don’t know what the Sheriff knew or what he didn’t know but he sure was aggressive. He was this big man and he was leaning over the desk at us and he was breathing so hard I thought he was going to have a heart attack or something. I didn’t think about what he might know or not. I just wanted to get us out of there. You know for all he knew we were just being stupid kids but he was treating us like it was the crime of the century.”
“Why do you think that was?”
“Like I said, I didn’t have any idea what he was thinking but now that I’ve had years to think about it maybe he wasn’t as clueless as we thought. He resigned not too long after that, after the deaths, you know.”
“Some deaths that Halloween night. That part’s a little blurry but the Sheriff was talking to me and I couldn’t understand him.”
“None of the Fecteau clan will discuss his resignation. Two of his boys are still with the department, Ardent and his brother, but the Sheriff is long gone. And it’s a non-starter of a subject over there.”
“I remember the Sheriff asked us questions about exactly what we saw over and over. Like he was looking for something real specific and not just what it was: two girls screaming up the road. He’d say, “Tell me what you saw in those weeds. Tell me every detail you can remember.”
“Did you remember any other details about what you saw you could give the Sheriff?”
“Can you keep a secret, Duncan? Can you not write this part down? There was something I didn’t tell the Sheriff that night. No one saw it but me and I never told a soul what I saw.”
I had a feeling I’d just hit pay dirt. I was afraid to breathe for fear she’d shut down and take back whatever it was she was about to tell me. “I promise, Mae. This isn’t just about an old monster story, I have a feeling it’s a whole lot more. Do you agree?”
She didn’t answer. Instead she stared at me for about a half minute. “Are you going to promise or not?”
“I’m sorry, Mae. Yes. Yes, I promise. Whatever you’re about to tell me goes no further than your kitchen table.” I had a bad feeling about sticking my neck out but I knew what she had to tell me might prove to be critical to the story.
“Do you think it’s possible that stuff happens up here precisely because we live country and everything and everyone is few and far between?”
I agreed but I wasn’t sure where she was going with this.
“I was the only one who looked. I don’t mean that the others didn’t see something but I looked. There’s a difference. For just a second I looked and I saw lights down low in the cornfield. People lights. You know, flashlights. And they weren’t moving. It was only for a second and then they went out.”
I sat back in my chair.
“Wait a minute, Mae, do you mean to tell me you think that some humans were with that thing?”
I must have sounded like I didn’t believe her because I could see her start to shut down.
“No, wait, I didn’t mean I don’t believe you, it’s just that I don’t get what you’re saying. Have you believed all along that there were people out there in the cornfield?
“I only saw what I saw and I didn’t think what it might be. I’ve thought a lot about it over the years and I still see the same picture in my head. I just don’t know.”
“When you were talking to the Sheriff did he seem really agitated over the fact that you kids did something stupid or the fact that you might have seen something you weren’t supposed to see?”
“I don’t know. If I was to make a guess, I couldn’t. All I can think is that his reaction was pretty large.”
“You told me earlier when we were talking that you feel like this will never be over for you. Now that you’ve told me all of this you want to tell me how this all connects?
“I don’t know how it all connects or if it does. I only know that I live my life and it’s a whole lot smaller than I ever thought it would be after that night. The rest of them got out of town and never came back. I thought that maybe everything would go away but it didn’t. I should have left just like they did. Now it’s too late.”
“Why is that?”
“I thought if I stayed I could solve the mystery, but I never had the guts. I’ll tell you a truth. Something wrong was going on out there. Make no mistake about that. And it got buried. Not whatever that thing was but what was going on. I don’t know what I saw for sure but it didn’t exist in the real world. At least not the world I thought I was living in.”
“So you live out here and hardly ever leave the house or have anyone come here.”
“What if I told you I was willing to work with you to find out what was going on? Would you trust me?”
“Why should I trust you? You came here looking for some crap to write for Halloween and I gave you a story and lunch. That’s hardly enough to trust my life with.”
“Good point. But you did trust me with your story. That’s the point. You did trust me, Mae. I think on some level you know you can’t go on living like this and watching your life slip away because of something that happened a long time ago.”
“What if I tell you I’m being watched? That I have nights when I see lights out near the tree line. That cars drive by and turn around in the driveway or go up the road and sit for awhile and then keep going. There’s nothing here. Don’t you get it? I could disappear.”
“Disappear? Why? What would be the point after all this time?”
“Because I saw something, Duncan. Something no one was supposed to see. I feel like I’m living on borrowed time. There’s something I have to find.”
“Why are you out here on your own? Why don’t you move into town where you’d at least have a chance to get help?”
“Are you so sure I’d be safe in town? At least out here I can see it coming. Besides, there are people in this area, maybe in West Burville, who want to keep this buried. And maybe me with it.”
“But why now after all these years?”
“If I knew that Duncan maybe I wouldn’t be here in this run down dump watching my life piss away. I can’t leave until I know what that was and what the lights were. Do you understand that, Duncan? Maybe it doesn’t make any sense to you ruining my life when the rest of them left but it makes sense to me and that’s all that matters. At least to me.”
“Mae, we have to figure this out and we have to do it soon. Halloween is going to be here in a couple of days. Maybe whatever is going to happen will repeat itself. Maybe it does every year. It’s just that no one sees it or hears it. Or comes back…”
Mae’s eyes were burning a hole in my face and I was afraid she was going to throw me out of the house. “I don’t have any reason to trust you but I don’t have anyone else. What if you’re one of them? What if you think I’ll bite for whatever you’re selling and then I’ll disappear?”
“Jesus, Mae, is that what you’re thinking? I’d wouldn’t have let me into the house if that was what you were really thinking. I don’t believe you. I think you’re just testing the waters to see if I blink. Did I blink, Mae?”
“No, you didn’t,” she said quietly.
I reached out and took her hand. Her skin was dry and very cold. “Mae, please. Let me try to help. I’m not guaranteeing this will pan out and I’m not guaranteeing either of us will be safe. But at least I can be your ally. If we can solve this, I’ll get the best story of my career and you will get your freedom. Or we’ll both die trying. You game?”
“Yes,” was all she could manage.
For the next two hours over another pot of coffee, Mae and I hashed out the details of how we were going to spend the next few days solving what we were agreed we would call the Mystery of Pandemonium Swamp. Giving it a name had energized Mae. It wasn’t a nameless horror she had lived with for years, it was a mission she was about to undertake. Something was off about the whole deal but I was willing to play it out.
I suggested to Mae that either she let me stay there or we both go into town and stay at my place. Either way there was safety in numbers. Mae agreed. I didn’t feel safe in either place. The town knew what I was up to and where I was going. If someone meant to harm Mae, or me, being unarmed and in a deserted location was not working for me.
“Get your stuff. You’re staying at my place.”
Mae gave me a look that said “no funny business.”
Nothing about this was going to be funny.
Mae went to pack a bag while I paced the first floor of the old house. It seemed like every floor board creaked no matter how gingerly I stepped across the living room. The room was wallpapered with small lilac flowers and decorated with polished furniture that hadn’t changed since the forties. Mae’s parents had left her with enough to maintain the property but not enough to buy a new couch. Or maybe she liked the comfort of familiar objects. If I was Mae I wouldn’t be shaking up my living arrangements unless it was to leave town.
A group of figurines, small fat babies swinging on moons and stars, drew me to a small shelf sitting next to a side window. I carefully lifted one of the little white moons down and turned it over looking for the label. Out of the corner of my right eye I thought I saw the reflection of the white china piece as I turned it around in my hands. But something told me that what was outside the window wasn’t a reflection. I wasn’t sure what I thought I saw but I froze. At times like these they tell you on television to act natural and walk fast. I didn’t feel natural. I wanted to hit the deck and do the low crawl back into the kitchen. I also didn’t want Mae to pick this time to come down the stairs. Something was watching the house from the bushes beyond the side of the house. But there were no cars in the vicinity. Maybe I’d imagined it but I couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched. I put the figurine back on the shelf and nonchalantly headed back to the kitchen. Whoever they were, they’d come on foot.
“Hey, Mae. You done packing yet? I want to get going,” I yelled up the stairs.
“Almost. Be right down.”
“Hurry up. We’re being watched,” I blurted out.
There was silence from upstairs and then Mae said in a whisper, “It’s on the side, isn’t it? In the bushes.”
“Yes,” was all I could think to say.
“I’m coming.” Mae came down the stairs and grabbed my arm. “Now do you think I’m some crazy spinster?” she asked as her nails dug into my right forearm.
“No, sorry. I’m good. Let’s argue later and get the hell out of here NOW.”
Mae made it to the kitchen at a gallop. “Leave the lights on,” she said over her shoulder as I grabbed my notebook and pen off the table and slammed the kitchen door hard enough to rattle the glass.
We ran to my car and yanked open the rusty doors just as a light winked on in the field behind the bushes. Then another. And another.
“Step on it, Duncan,” Mae croaked as she wrestled with her seatbelt. “We’re out of time.”
I didn’t need to be told twice. I prayed to every god that ever was that my old Corolla would start. True to form I had to pump the gas and try the key twice. “Don’t do this, please. If you don’t turn over we’re dead.” It must have heard me because it turned over with a screech of old belts and a blast of black smoke from the tailpipe.
“Duncan. They’re coming,” Mae said in a whisper and melted into the seat.
Before I threw the stick in gear and tore down the driveway, I saw the field light up. Whoever they were, they were headed for Mae’s house. I figured I had less than a minute to put a quarter mile of Class Four road between us.
“What the hell is that? What the hell is going on? Mae talk to me,” I screamed as I tried to steer the car down the winding hill off the plateau. The only thing I could think of was what would happen if there was a roadblock. Or I ran us off the road into the ditch on either side of the dirt road. This was turning into a bad movie where the heroes are captured by the demonic gang and never seen again. “Stop it!” I yelled inside my head.
Mae was rallying next to me. “Get us down the hill and through the hollow.”
I didn’t need any reminders to step on it. Down in the hollow lights were coming on in kitchens and living rooms in the spray of beat down trailers and houses squatting by the road. We blew through fast enough to cause a leaf tornado in our wake. But we didn’t blast through without being noticed. Just as I climbed out of the hollow I saw lights in my rear window.
“Hang on, Mae, I’m going to get us out of this or die trying.”
“We can’t go into West Burville, Duncan. They’ll find us.”
“Well, I hope you’ve got some bright idea because I don’t. We’re going to my place. We’ll be safe there,” I said.
“Christ. Did you not pay attention to what just happened? No place is safe. No place.”
“Then we’ll make it a Custer’s Last Stand and hole up until tomorrow morning in my apartment. I’ll call the Sheriff.”
“I wouldn’t do that, Duncan. Really.”
“Ok, I’ll call my editor or Miss Betty over at the library. But I’m calling somebody because this is nuts,” I shouted. And I could hear the panic in my voice. I started to sweat. It didn’t take long for the back of my flannel shirt to stick to the cheap red plastic seat and beads of sweat to start to congeal on my face.
“I can’t see where I’m going. I don’t know why I can’t see.” Panic had me. I couldn’t tell the difference between a monster and the sweat rolling off my forehead. Everything was too big, too fast. I felt like passing out.
“Duncan, stop it! You’re driving. I don’t want to die today,” Mae punched me hard in the right arm. “You have to get us out of here so shut up and drive. And turn on the goddam lights. No wonder you can’t see.”
By now we were about a mile outside of West Burville. I had to admit that Mae had a point. I was acting like a little kid at a fright fest. Looking in the rearview mirror there was nothing. No one was following us. Where had they gone?
West Burville is just past nowhere Vermont smack in the middle of the piney woods. The Founding Fathers must have had a sense of humor when they named the county Piney Woods because Mae and I were tearassing right through the middle of it. I’d about run out of patience for sliding on gravel and the fear sweats when the half bent over sign proclaiming, “Welcome to West Burville, pop. 861” and just below that in gold script, “The Friendliest Little Town in Vermont, est. 1816” flashed past me. I knew I could slow down. I wanted to slow down but adrenaline was keeping my right foot glued to the gas.
“Slow down, Duncan. Slow down,” Mae said, raising her voice again.
I have to admit I was on autopilot and not thinking of anything but running into my apartment and pulling the bed covers over my head. By now I’d figured out a career in investigative journalism was probably not a good fit for me. I was too much of a survivor. And a coward.
Shifting down from fifth to third without making the stop in between nearly left the engine on the road but we cruised into downtown past the Double Axle and the library without attracting too much attention. By now I was more paranoid than I had been when I first saw the lights out in the cornfield and knew we’d been made. Why was it so damn quiet? Who knew we were here? Who was watching? Who was in on this? The whole town? A few rednecks? I suspected that Mae knew more than she was letting on and I planned to pry it out of her first chance I got.
We pulled into a space in front of a squat two story white framed house with dilapidated hostas that had shamelessly propagated over the hot summer engulfing the front porch. “We’re here,” I said, sounding more relieved than I felt. “Get your stuff and get inside.”
Mae struggled out of the rusty seat belt and was wrestling with the side door when she finally gave it one desperate kick that sent the door half off its hinges. The old Corolla always took it as an insult when someone tried to leave from that side and its metallic protest could be heard halfway to the county line. Any chance of arriving unnoticed was gone.
“Well, that’s just great. So much for the element of surprise and being all stealthy,” I muttered under my breath.
I grabbed her bag and my notebook and keys and we made for the front door. “This is stupid.” Mae protested.
“You got a better idea ‘cause staying at your place with the pitchforks and the torches in the driveway was a no go for me.”
Mae said nothing as I unlocked the front door but she looked around as if there were eyes watching us in the bushes. “Hurry up, Duncan. I feel exposed out here. I’ve got the heebie jeebies crawling up my spine.” I wasn’t sure I liked that picture but I maneuvered the lock a little faster.
We were through the front door and headed to my apartment on the second floor when Mrs. Eustace, my first floor neighbor, opened her door. Wafting out of her apartment was a combination of coffee, baked ham and cat litter. At her feet was her faithful cat, Attila, a one-eyed irascible old fart of a cat that shit on my doormat every morning. Mrs. Eustace was a legend in West Burville. She was the doyen of baked ham and no local church or grange supper was complete without her secret ham glaze that dripped and drizzled over the crispy cracklings. I was starving again.
“Evening, Duncan. And who’s the young lady you have there?”
I introduced Mae to Mrs. Eustace and if she recognized Mae she didn’t let on. “We’ve got to get an early start tomorrow so I’ll be heading up. Maybe we’ll see you and Attila in the morning.”
“You bet, Duncan, and nice to make your acquaintance, Mae. You remind me of someone but I can’t quite place it. It will come to me. Must be having a senior moment,” she chuckled. “You kids have a nice time.” And the door closed behind her.
“Yuh,” I muttered, “We’re having a peachy time.”
Mae was already half up the stairs to the second floor landing.
“Hurry up, Duncan. I didn’t think coming here included visiting with the nosy neighbors.”
“Mrs. Eustace has been here a lot longer than I have. She’s the gatekeeper at the door. I don’t think anyone gets into this building without her checking them out. Get used to it.” I was fumbling with my key ring trying to remember which one of the ten keys fit my door.
“I don’t plan to be here that long.” Mae had an edge to her voice I wrote off as nerves. Brushing past her to unlock the door, I could cold coming off her skin.
“Let’s get inside and I’ll make some tea or coffee or…hey, you want a beer?” I asked because I wanted at least a case.
“No, yes. Tea.”
“Tea it is. I’ve got a bunch of herb teas. Sit down and I’ll find the one that soothes jangled nerves.” She looked at me as if she’d rather take her chances with the mob in the cornfield. “This is going well,” I said under my breath.
Out in the kitchenette I found a dusty box of Lemon Love tea bags and rinsed out my two best chipped mugs. Chances to entertain are few and far between for a bachelor in West Burville. Mae was no date and drinking tea and planning how we were going to survive until sunrise was not my idea of a way to spend an evening. Looking around the bleak little kitchenette reminded me of why I was looking for the one story that would help me get the hell out of this town. After that, I wasn’t sure.
“You want pizza with that? I found a Papa John’s in the back of the freezer,” I yelled into the living room. My taste in comfort food was limited to frozen pizza, ramen noodles and canned soup.
“No, I’m not hungry. Just tired.”
“Well, I’m eating. You can take my bedroom if you want.” On second thought, I realized I couldn’t remember when I’d changed the sheets it had been that long. “Wait! I’ll make up a bed for you on the couch.”
A half-four later Mae was asleep on the couch and I was nursing the last of the pizza and another cup of tea. I wanted a beer. But drinking and fending off whatever was lurking out there wasn’t a good combination. You never think about what might get into your house without your permission until you either have a break in, your in-laws drop by for a visit, or you’re being threatened by a mob that chased you halfway to town. I moved a kitchen chair under the door knob. It wouldn’t work. “It never works in horror movies, why would I think it would work in the one I’m starring in,” I mumbled.
I crept into the living room so I wouldn’t wake Mae and pushed my one heavy armchair up against the door. “Maybe I should spend the night in the chair,” I thought. Grabbing a blanket and pillow off my bed, I propped my feet up on the coffee table and tried to think about something pleasant as I wiggled in the chair looking for the sweet spot that would let me get at least a few hours of sleep. Mae hadn’t moved on the couch. Either she trusted me or she was too tired to fight off whatever might come.
Just before sunrise I woke up. I didn’t know I’d been sleeping but some sixth sense told me something was up. I hadn’t heard anything. Mae was still asleep. Whatever it was hadn’t startled her. I crept over to the living room window that looked out over the parking lot. Nothing. Should I move the chair? Should I risk that someone or something might be waiting on the landing? I figured that if Mrs. Eustace wasn’t out in the hall yelling for me either she was dead or she was still asleep. The former was not a comforting thought. Maybe I should check on her.
Kicking off the blankets I tried not to wake Mae who was still sleeping like she was in a coma. I sat there in the dark for maybe five minutes debating whether or not to move the chair and take a look into the hallway. Finally my curiosity got the better of me. Plus I was getting cabin fever and needed to move. I knew I should sit there and wait for sunrise but I had to know what was going on out there. Maybe it was reckless but I slowly slid the chair away from the door and turned the knob. The hallway was black except for a rectangle of dim light at the foot of the stairs. I was feeling disoriented and my eyes hadn’t adjusted to the low light level but something felt off about that light at the bottom of the stairs. I slid back into my apartment and bolted the door. I needed a flashlight. After a few minutes of digging through my camping gear in the bedroom closet, I found a funky old Coleman flashlight that reeked of Fly Dope. “Any port in a storm,” I told myself. It might have been the only bit of luck that night, but the batteries were dim but holding.
I maneuvered back around the kitchen table and into the living room. Mae slept on oblivious to my stupidity. I slid back the bolt on the wooden door and stepped back into the hallway. I flicked on the flashlight. Even in the dim yellow light from the old Coleman I could tell the rectangle I had seen was the front door standing open. The faint pinkish light from the sodium vapor street lamp at the back of the parking lot created an eerie glow around the door. Someone had opened the door.
Now what? We’d been made. My heart took a hop up near my Adam’s apple and the dizziness nearly sent me keeling over the bannister onto the hallway floor below. I retreated into my apartment and shoved the deadbolt back in place. “That was an idiot move,” I groused. It took a minute to move the heavy club chair I had been dozing in back in front of the door. My next move was to make sure all the windows were locked even though you would have to have suction cups on your feet to climb the side of the building. Or a really tall ladder. Either way we were bound to hear something. But I hadn’t heard anything and Mae was still on the couch dead to the world. We’d had at least one visitor. It was quiet. Really quiet. It was scaring the hell out of me.
After a few minutes of stewing I still hadn’t devised a plan that would get us out of the building and to safety. It was still dark and aside from one street light the rest was in deep shadow. The odds weren’t good that we wouldn’t be spotted. Traveling on foot was out of the question. So was getting out of here before sun up by car. The old Corolla started with a major pig squeal. Better wait until dawn.
Another thought hit me: what if they were in Mrs. Eustace’s apartment waiting for us to come down the stairs. Or what if the old lady had been hurt. Or what if the old lady was part of the plot. This was crazy. Odds are she just slept through the break in. Still…
I must have dozed off. When I opened my eyes, Mae was off the couch and looking out on an early morning parking lot with traffic just beginning to move. “When did you get up?” I asked her. She was focusing on something in the parking lot and didn’t answer. “Hey, Mae, when did you get up and what are you looking at?”
“Duncan, come and look at this,” she said softly.
I was on my feet and at the window. At first I wasn’t sure what she was looking at but when I spotted my car, I grabbed the window casing for support. Down in the parking lot my car had been cosmetically altered to include a note stuck under the windshield wiper and a hood covered in swamp grass and weeds. Someone had been busy in the night. I wasn’t sure how to tell Mae that we’d had at least one intruder and they’d brought decorations to the party.
“Listen, I let you sleep all night but I couldn’t,” I blurted out. “Fact is I opened the door around 3:30 this morning. I didn’t hear anything, I just wanted to check.”
“That was a dumb shit thing to do,” she spit.
“Yes, it was. But the lights were out downstairs and the front door was pushed open. I was too afraid to go see if we were alone.”
“That’s just great. Somebody came through here and opened the damn door and threw weeds all over your car and you don’t seem very upset by that,” Mae was getting red in the face.
“I’m upset too. Just remember who saved you from those red necks out in your side yard last night,” I reminded her.
Mae stumbled past me and sat down on the couch. “We don’t know who was out there. What’s going on, Duncan? The whole thing is crazy. It’s been years. Years for god sake.
What could we have seen that would make anyone want to come after me all these years later? I’ve been like a prisoner until you came out.” Mae was in tears now and I stood there shuffling my feet.
“Go take a shower and clean up, we’re going to breakfast at the Double Axle,” I said. I wasn’t sure how to keep her from falling apart but food always did the trick for me.
“You sure we should leave here?”
“We have no food. We’re not safe. We can’t stay here and I want to know what the hell is going on. Let’s get a move on,” I told Mae as I started to move furniture around the room.
Mae looked at me but didn’t speak as she headed for the bathroom. “Towels are already in there. Don’t take too long. I want to get out of here,” I yelled after her.
While Mae was showering I was thinking. I was burned out, tired, hungry and way in over my head. We needed to put some distance between West Burville and us. If I’d been thinking clearly I would have realized I had started out writing a story and wound up in the middle of it.
A few minutes later Mae came back into the living room in a cloud of soap scented steam and a towel wrapped around her head. “I wish I’d brought a change,” she said. She looked tired and pale.
“I’m next. Do not answer the door or the phone. And stay away from the windows.”
The look Mae gave me was a cross between a scared kid and someone who realizes they just ran out of luck.
The shower was hot but I didn’t have time to enjoy it. In less than a minute I’d done a drive by cleaning job and put my grubby clothes back on. I was beginning to feel like a fugitive.
In five minutes I was out in the living room. Mae had packed and was sitting on the couch in her jacket. “Let’s get out of here while we still can,” she said without looking at me. She was shaking from the cold in the unheated apartment.
“Take a blanket with you. You’ll warm up in the car if the heater decides to kick in,” I told her.
Mae shrugged but she grabbed a blanket off the couch and dragged it to the door.
“You better open this,” she said looking over at me.
I grabbed my keys, the flashlight, and my wallet. I had no idea when I’d be back or if I’d ever be back at the rate this was going. “I want to stop by the paper,” I told her. “Before we eat.”
“No, let’s eat first.”
“Why not. Safety in numbers at the Double Axle.”
Mae gave me look that said “skip the flat jokes” and unlocked the deadbolt.
“Hey, wait. I want to make the least amount of noise,” I told her. Why was I irritated?
“Sure. Fine,” she said stepping back.
I didn’t care if she thought I was doing a caveman impersonation. I just wanted to survive until noon.
The door opened without a sound. Stepping over the threshold, I peered over the bannister. The outside door was still open and Mrs. Eustace’s door was closed. Should I wake her? Or assume she was still alive and breathing.
We made our way down the stairs by walking on the outside of the stair treads. That’s an old trick every country kid knows for sneaking out at night and missing the squeak in the middle of the stair. The old red Corolla was still sitting in its space. I threw the keys to Mae so she could get in. While she was wrestling with the rusty lock I took the note from under the windshield wipers. There were only three words written in capitals and underlined: “See you later.” I felt like someone had dumped ice down my back and I braced myself against the roof of the car. Mae hadn’t noticed my reaction. She’d managed to drag the screeching door away from the car frame and was trying to make enough space to get in. I opened my side door and turned just in time to see the curtains twitch in Mrs. Eustace’s window. A second later the front door opened and Mrs. Eustace stuck her head out. “Duncan, you have a nice day now,” she smiled. I knew something was up. But I was willing to bet that the old lady knew something about that door opening last night. For the first time her smile gave me the creeps. I felt like I’d just escaped the gingerbread cottage before I got chucked in the oven. She was looking straight past me at Mae.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said as I shifted into reverse. The car roared as it shuffled backwards. I rammed it into first and screamed out of the driveway.
“Trying to attract attention?” Mae asked.
“No, but the old lady knows something and I want to get out of here. We’ll figure out some other place to sleep tonight.”
West Burville was waking up. Kids were walking down the street to the bus stops and school buses were slowing traffic. No one was looking at us. Was my imagination getting the best of me? In the daylight what had happened yesterday didn’t seem real.
“Let’s eat,” I said to Mae.
She didn’t answer.
I pulled into the rutted parking lot at the Double Axle and tried to find a space. When you’re the only game in town you don’t have a problem filling the seats. There was a space left near the back left side of the diner and I claimed it. Mae repeated the same ritual with the rusty door and I heard her mumble something under her breath.
“Get this fixed. Please.”
“Right after breakfast,” I smiled. She scowled at me. The day was off to a good start.
Diners have a great smell. Old coffee, pie, grease, hamburgers and meatloaf. I was raised by parents who believed fine dining was the Sunday special at the local eatery. I still believe they were right. If you want an honest meal at a good price, you can’t beat a local diner. The Double Axle was no exception. Thanks to the former owner, Linda Mae, and her decision to leave the diner to Hooter Gibson and his buddies when she left town, the place was still going great guns. There was one dark cloud. The town wags were still digging for proof that Linda Mae hadn’t left at all. Or at least all of her. West Burville had more than its share of mayhem and Linda Mae’s disappearance on Christmas Eve two years ago had given the locals reason to speculate.
I opened the front door to a cloud of coffee steam and the smell of frying eggs and toast. And silence. Every eye was looking at us, including Hooter and his cronies.
We took the booth furthest from the door, the only table open. Mae turned herself so she faced the wall. “I’m not comfortable here, Duncan.”
“You need to eat,” was all I said.
Hooter headed our way with a pot of coffee. “Morning Duncan. Morning… Mae Burch? Long time,” he said to her. Mae shifted in her seat.
“What’s the special this morning, Hooter? We’re starving.”
“Two eggs the way you want ‘em, home fries, toast and coffee for $4.00 plus a little extra for the governor.” He waited.
“Sounds perfect. We’ll both have the same thing. I want my eggs scrambled. Mae, how you want your eggs?”
“Over easy, thanks,” she said without looking at Hooter.
“Coming right up.” Hooter departed for the kitchen and the diner chatter resumed. No one seemed to be paying any more attention to us but I couldn’t help looking at the faces around the tables. Who here is part of this? Who knows something? Who’s been keeping a secret for a long time?
Mae was watching me. She didn’t dare turn around in her seat. “Duncan, what are you looking at?”
“I can’t tell. No one’s looking over here. At least we can eat in peace. We’ll stop at the One Stop and grab some granola bars and water. This may be the only real meal we have for awhile.” She didn’t say anything.
Bunchy brought us our specials and skipped the small talk. I ate quickly and in silence but Mae didn’t touch her breakfast. “You’ve got to eat something,” I told her but she acted as if she didn’t hear me. I left the tab and a tip and escorted Mae to the door. This time the diner conversation continued and no one looked our way. As I opened the door so Mae could step outside, I glanced back over my left shoulder. Hooter was looking at us from the door of the kitchen. When he realized I had spotted him he turned and headed back to the sink.
We were in the parking lot before I said anything. “I’m glad that’s over.” Mae didn’t respond. “I’m going to the office and you’re coming in to meet my editor.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, I do think so. Besides she’s only been in town for three years and this is just a feature for her. It’s not her life.”
Mae got into the Corolla and turned her face toward the window. I ground the gears getting the old wreck in reverse. As we were pulling away from the rest of the cars, I spotted Bunchy Moran, Hooter’s sidekick, run out the side door toward his pickup.
I didn’t wait to see where he was headed. I made a left out of the parking lot toward the center of town.
We drove over to the West Burville Gazette and pulled in behind Merle Hanley’s beat up Chevy Silverado. I opened the Employee Only side door and stepped into the stale air. Mae was glued to my backside.
We had one short flight of stairs to the newsroom. When I pushed open the metal fire door, the place was hopping as usual. Presiding over the chaos was Fay Tessreau, the editor-in-chief, who was responsible for cranking out one of Vermont’s finest weeklies. Fay was also the very distant and not-on-speaking-terms cousin of Jacob Tessreau, one of Hooter’s buddies.
Fay spotted me across the monitors that lined the old desks. “Well, well, Duncan. I see you have time for a social life. How’s that feature going?”
I ignored the jibe. “Fay, I want you to meet Mae Burch. She figures front and center in the story I’m writing.”
Fay reached out and gave Mae’s cold limp hand a hearty shake. “You need some gloves, girl. It’s getting mighty cold out there,” she said twinkling at Mae.
“I’m from around here,” was all Mae could manage.
Fay liked to get down to business. “So why are you two here? You’re on a deadline, kid.” Fay was West Burville’s Perry White.
“I think I got a tiger by the tail, Fay. This story isn’t one of those scare-the-kiddies Halloween stories. There’s something criminal going on around here and half the town is involved.” Now I had her attention.
“Tell me more,” Fay said, scooching her butt to the edge of the desk she’d commandeered.
“Mae was present the night something was seen out in Pandemonium Swamp years ago and last night we got chased halfway to my place from her house. I’m wondering if I should go over and report it to the Sheriff.” I heard Mae gasp. Fay turned her head sharply to look at her.
“I wouldn’t do that,” Mae deadpanned.
“Listen, I’m related to half these yokels around here but I wouldn’t trust this bunch as far as I could chuck the lot,” Fay said as she reached for her coffee.
“I want off this story.”
“No can do, Duncan. This is one for the AP awards and you’re seeing it through to 30. If you die trying, I’ll accept the award for you,” she said. I didn’t detect any humor.
“Mae and I are going out to the swamp,” I told Fay. I had the decency not to look at Mae but I could tell she was furious. Anger and fear rippled off her in waves.
“I’m done here. First you show up at my house and ask me questions then you drag me off to that swamp. It’s been years and I’m probably not going to make it through the next day. You jackass. I was just starting to trust you,” Mae yelled at me as she stood up. I could see how pale she was.
“I never lied. I told you I wanted a story. That, and only that, was why I came out there. I’m not apologizing for doing my job,” I yelled back.
“Take me back home, Duncan.” She sounded defeated.
“OK, you two lovebirds. Shut it. Get her out of here and in that junker and do what you have to do to get me a story. And stay as safe as you can. I’ll nose around and see if I can come up with a list of suspects,” Fay told me. She jumped off the desk and pushed me toward the door.
“Fine. Just frickin’ fine.”
“Watch your mouth, kid. Remember who signs your paychecks,” Fay smiled at me.
I grabbed Mae by the wrist and headed for the side door.
“Take your hands off me. I don’t want to talk to you. I want to go home.”
“Out of the question,” I said as I dragged her down the stairs and out into the street. Holding Mae’s right arm with one hand, I opened her side of the car and shoved her into the passenger seat.
“Don’t say anything. Really. I need to think. We’re not going to your house. In fact, it’s a sunny day and we’re going for a drive out in the country.”
“Not the swamp.”
“Yes, the swamp. Look, if we go out there now in the daylight we might be able to spot something unusual that will explain all this.” I could hear myself pleading. I looked over at Mae but she wasn’t having any of it. Her head was pulled down in her jacket like a turtle and her eyes were closed.
“Fine. Don’t answer me. We’re going,” I said as I gunned the engine. Why was she being so unreasonable? I was trying to save her hide.
Mae didn’t say a word and neither did I. What was left to say? I gunned the engine out of the parking space and headed for Rte. 20 and the access road to the swamp.
Twenty minutes later I was slowing down and getting ready to make a left turn onto the weedy mud track that passed for a road into the swamp. In the spring the road was a quagmire of mud and gravel and torn up plants but now, in late autumn, it was dry and clear. I didn’t want to drive too far in anticipating that turn around points were probably non-existent and the water table was high on either side of the roadbed. The road cut a narrow meandering path through the tall swamp grass, the same kind of swamp grass that I’d found on the hood of my car that morning. I was beginning to feel uneasy.
“Now what?” Mae piped up from the depths of her coat.
“We stop and get out.” I wasn’t sure what she wanted me to say. If I’d been thinking about what I was doing I wouldn’t be on the access road to the swamp and I sure as hell wouldn’t be putting my storyline before our safety. But I wasn’t thinking.
I put the car in park and shut off the engine. It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone driving by could see that we were parked right at the entrance to the swamp. On the other hand, I was so tired of all the crazy night stuff and rushing around that I really didn’t care what came lumbering out of the swamp. I wasn’t a fan of dying but I wasn’t about to spend another night hunkered down hiding from whatever lived here. I grabbed the keys and opened the door.
“Get out, Mae, and show me where this went down.” I said with more coldness than I had intended.
“Yessir. By the way, have you considered that it’s been years since I’ve been here? I can’t tell one plant from another,” she said looking around at the flat expanse of weeds and broken stumps.
“Just get out and start walking. Find something you recognize. It can’t have changed that much, it’s a damn swamp,” I yelled over the top of the car at her. I could tell she was pissed but I didn’t care how she took it.
Mae started walking up the access road without looking left and right. I could tell she was nervous by her stiff back and I wasn’t feeling any too confident myself.
When we reached the end of the road and water was all that was left, I grabbed Mae by the arm and turned her to face me. “Well? Where’d this happen?”
“I don’t remember,” was all she said without looking at me.
“Come on, let’s get out of here,” I said tugging at her arm.
Mae didn’t resist and I half dragged, half pulled her back to the car.
“Get in,” was all I could manage.
We drove back toward town without a word between us. Just as we reached the side of town where the locals had put so much buckshot through the town sign you couldn’t tell where you were, Mae piped up. “Sorry I couldn’t remember. There wasn’t any water where we were, I’m sure of that. The road should be longer.”
I didn’t respond. That was the access road. There wasn’t another. Something wasn’t right.
“We’re going to the office and then we’re going to the library.”
She didn’t say a word.
I drove down the center of town slow enough to check out the locals. No one gave my car a second look. A minute later I pulled into the same spot next to The West Burville Gazette we had vacated a couple of hours ago. I told Mae to get out and follow me. She did and for once she kept quiet.
I opened the doors with a bang and spotted Fay at the other end of the newsroom. “Back so soon?” Part of me wanted to make a smartass remark but I was too nervous to think one up.
“Mae, go sit over there. I need to talk to Fay alone.” She turned around and found a chair on the side of the sports desk.
“Fay, you got someplace I can talk in private?”
“Sure, follow me.” Fay headed for the office she occasionally worked in but if you wanted to find Fay you always had better luck scanning the newsroom.
“Shut the door.” She gave me a look but did as I asked.
“Ok, kid, what’s the deal?”
“I’m beginning to think there’s something wrong here. Not what I said before but something else.” I couldn’t place it.
“What kind of “wrong” are you talking?” Fay asked. She had a habit of tilting her head to one side that made her look like a bird of prey waiting for the right size field mouse.
“That’s why I came back here. And that’s why I’m going to go back over to the library. Something’s not adding up. I want you to do some research for me.” Her eyebrows met her hairline.
“Excuse me? You want me to do what?”
“Look I don’t have time to explain. Just dig up anything you can on that Halloween night and anything on Mae. Please. And call me on my cell when you find it.” Fay gave me a look that asked about a hundred questions but all she said was “OK.”
“I owe you and I’m headed to the library,” I said as I grabbed the door handle. The newsroom was chaos with reporters shouting at the phones, piles of paper sliding on to the floor and young Desiree Giroux, Dayrel’s niece, running back and forth with cups of coffee and copy. How anything ever got published in this mess I couldn’t figure out but come Friday night the place was like a ghost town, at least for a few hours.
Mae had changed seats and was doing her best to flatten herself against the peeling aqua paint on the clock wall. “Come on, let’s get out of here. We’re going to the library.” She got up and hit the crash bars on the newsroom door at full tilt. “Hey, wait up.”
The West Burville Town Library was across the street. It took less than a minute to be standing in front of Miss Betty, the librarian. “Well, Duncan, I haven’t seen you in two whole days,” Miss Betty smiled. As her eyes shifted to Mae her smiled faded. “Is that? It can’t be…” she trailed off. “Mae Burch. I haven’t seen you since you were a teenager. But I’ve heard stories,” she said as she eyed Mae.
Mae shifted from foot to foot. “Yes, Miss Betty.” was all she could think to say.
The old librarian stared at her for a minute then turned back to me. “Well, Duncan, this is a day for surprises. What can I do for you?”
“I want to know what newspaper accounts or reports of what happened out in the swamp that Halloween you have here. Everything you’ve got.”
“Duncan, we don’t keep records like that. We don’t have the room. The Gazette has everything. I don’t have pictures or anything.” Something told me that Miss Burch wanted us to leave and lying to us was the most expedient way to hustle us to the door.
“You telling me the truth, Miss Betty?” She looked everywhere but at me. “As best I can,” she said softly. I knew it wouldn’t do any good to push her. “Well, thank you for your time. We’ll be going now.” I grabbed Mae by the hand and pulled her toward the door. Miss Betty never took her eyes off us as we ran down the steps.
“Duncan, she was lying.”
“Don’t you think I don’t know that” I pulled Mae across the street to the Corolla.
We didn’t say a word as we got in. “I’m out of ideas,” I said to her. “And I want a nap.”
“No nap time. We’re chasing our tails. Tomorrow is the day. I’m about fed up with all this. Years out of my life and nothing to show for it.” Mae looked sour.
There wasn’t much left to say. I was beginning to wonder why there were no records of that night and why no one would talk to me. Was this a story or a soap opera? A few minutes later we were in the car and on the road. I steered toward the Colebrook Road. Mae knew where I was going but she was turtled down in her collar and not speaking to me. Fine. I wanted to have a look at that field again.
A half hour later we blew through the hollow toward Mae’s house. No one was around but I wasn’t so sure they hadn’t figured out we were headed back to her place. After a bone crunching ride up the dirt road, I pulled into Mae’s driveway. “I’m going to walk in that field,” I told her as I got out.
“Suit yourself,” she said. “I’m not getting out.”
I shrugged my shoulders and slammed the door. The field where I’d spotted the lights looked as normal as could be in the daylight. I walked over to the old barbed wire fence that separated it from Mae’s front lawn. I pushed down on the wire and lifted my pants leg over the barbs. The hay was thigh high on me an untrammeled. “That’s weird,” I said to myself. Wouldn’t the hay be mowed down if there was a crowd out there with flashlights? Why did the hay look untouched? I was not a simple country boy and I couldn’t answer my own question. “Huh,” was all I could manage. Instead I headed back to the car.
“I’m set,” I told her. She didn’t answer. I thought maybe she was pretending to sleep. The last thing I needed was a confrontation.
I ground the gears into reverse and backed onto the road. “We need to find a motel tonight. We can’t stay at my place and I’m sure as hell not staying out here with the magic lights.” Mae nodded but didn’t say a word.
Staying in the area was out of the question. I pulled over and phoned Fay. “Did you find anything?”
Her response was what I expected, “If I’d found anything, I would have called you.” The cell went dead. Nothing. Zero. This was going to be a terrific feature.
“Mae, I’m driving to Weevil Falls and get us a room. And, yes, you can sleep in the bed and I’ll take the floor.” I wanted to get that in before she made a crack about the accommodations.
It would have been a lot simpler to go bumping over the Colebrook Road and take the back way to Weevil Falls but the old Corolla was having enough problems keeping up with my lead foot and the two of us slamming her doors. I promised myself a new used car when I got a raise for the terrific work I was doing on this non-starter of a feature. A feature that was due the following day, Halloween.
I wasn’t paying attention to where I was driving until Mae said, “We just crossed into New Hampshire.” At least we were out of Vermont for one night. Weevil Falls would not have been my first choice but it was the closest town with a gas station and a cheap motel, the Weevil Arms.
It’s possible in a two horse town to drive through the entire fifty feet of business district without realizing you just passed civilization and were headed for the wilderness. There wasn’t much in front of us except the White Mountains, granite treeless mountains that gave off a creepy vibe and had their own weather system. This wasn’t a great idea but fatigue and hunger aren’t good companions if you’re trying to make a rational decision.
“I’m turning around and going to the motel. We can eat hot dogs at the convenience store.”
We did a screaming U-turn and headed back the way we came. The Weevil Arms was on our left and it looked as if we had our choice of rooms. The motel was a run-down flat stretch of dumpy spaces with doors painted yellow and a Coke machine with a flickering light strung across the front. “You stay here,” I told Mae as I put the car in park and opened the door. I hoped the proprietor would think we were holing up for some hanky panky. I opened the door to the reception are. The place smelled of stale cigarettes and bleach that almost knocked me over. The counter was bare except for a sign in book, a dusty bunch of pink plastic flowers stuck in a coffee mug, and a bell. I rang the bell. “Anyone home?”
A few seconds later a man about the age of Methuselah wearing a faded flannel shirt with egg stains and a pair of grubby pajama bottoms came strolling out of the backroom. “Help you, sir?”
“Yes, I’d like a room for one night.”
“We got us a nice two bed down at the end or one king size next to it. It’s the off season so I can give you a good rate.” He eyed me up.
“I’ll take the double bed.” I paid in cash.
“One key or two?”
He pushed the key across the counter and I reciprocated with cash. “Sign the book, please.” I signed all right. With a fake name. He glanced at the name and at me but he didn’t say anything.
“Check out is at 11. Have a good night.” And he was gone behind the curtain. I heard the sounds of gunfire and screaming coming from a television somewhere in the backroom.
When I opened the office door, Mae got out of the car and grabbed the keys. I pointed down to the end of the peeling doors. Mae got there before me and I had to prod her aside to open the door. The key was small and the jumbo green tag made turning the lock more of a project then I wanted. Inside was a reasonably clean room that could have used a dusting. “I got us each a bed.” Now I knew what “dead on your feet” meant. “Mae, you can stand watch or take a nap, just don’t open the door.”
A nap was all I wanted. There could have been a war going on and I would have missed it. Three hours later I woke up to a dark room, a ripping headache and hunger pangs. Mae was asleep in her coat on the other bed. Dinner would have to wait but the headache couldn’t. I pawed through the pocket of my jacket looking for a couple of dusty Tylenol. My colleagues were quick to point out that carrying medicine in your pocket was a nasty habit. But it paid off this time. The only dinner I was going to get were those two headache tablets.
The room’s security was non-existent, unless you considered a slide lock and a door chain to be up to code. I eyeballed the room and took the rickety desk up against the further wall and pushed it against the door. The windows were locked but the locks were the flimsy plastic locks that wouldn’t keep a parakeet out. It looked like another night of sleeping with one eye open.
I woke up sprawled on the bed with the sunlight blinding me. Where was I? God, the Weevil Arms. Mae was still sacked out. The ancient alarm clock said it was 9 a.m. And it was Halloween. All Hallows Eve when some serious shit went down in Pandemonium Swamp and I still hadn’t written a word. Fired. I was going to get fired.
“Mae, get up. We have to get out of here. Mae, wake up.” It took a minute but she moved. She squinted and tried to block the daylight with her arm. Her face was puffy and pale but she and I had made it through a night at the Weevil Arms. “We have to check out and eat.”
It took us another twenty minutes of stumbling around, going pee, washing up and making an attempt to look like we weren’t a couple of fugitives before we could open the door. The sunlight felt good even if the temperature had dropped during the night. I tossed Mae the car keys and walked over to the office. Our host was nowhere to be found. I dropped the keys on the counter and headed back to the car.
Time for breakfast. The thought of convenience store coffee and a plastic wrapped bagel was making my stomach twitch but it was the only game in town. We drove to the other end of town and nearly missed the Gateway One Stop. The place was hopping with mud splattered pickups gassing up at the pumps and guys with work boots filling their go cups. Seeing a solid wall of New Hampshire plates made me feel better about life. I told Mae to stay in the car and lock the doors while I went in to retrieve a bag of granola bars, water, pre-fab breakfast, juice and coffee.
I came out maybe ten minutes later to an empty car. Where the hell was Mae? I told her to stay in the car. I dropped everything on the hood and opened the passenger door. Her bag was gone. Had she wandered off? Gone to the john? Been kidnapped? I was frantic. Running back into the One Stop I collided with a beefy guy in a Stihl cap, “Christ, fella, you want to watch that?” he said.
“Sorry, I was looking for my girlfriend.”
“Well, this ain’t no place to find the love of your life,” he chuckled at his own joke.
“No, I mean she’s gone. I don’t know where she went.” I could see the bathroom door was open and no one was in there.
“Well, what’s she look like? We only got a coupla ladies in here this morning and one of ‘em is behind the counter,” he nodded over his shoulder.
“She’s about my height with long brown hair.”
“What you driving?”
“What? Why?” I was getting frantic.
“There was a woman walking up the road toward the Weevil. But I couldn’t get a good look at her. Must be my aging eyes but it seemed a little fuzzy.”
“Arms. Weevil Arms. Sorry fella. You’re not from here are you?” he asked.
“No. Look I have to go. Please call the state police if you see her,” I told him.
“Sure. Yuh, sure thing. She in any danger?”
“I don’t know. I hope not. I have to go.”
I ran across the parking lot and cleared off the hood. I dumped the coffee out and threw the rest in the backseat. Where the hell did she go? Why did she get out of the car?
For the next thirty minutes I drove up and down the road calling for Mae. I felt like a lost pet owner getting more desperate by the minute. What the hell just happened?
When should I call the police? And what was I going to tell them? The woman I was with got out of the car and walked away. And she’s a fugitive from some dark shadowy thing that only shows up on Halloween. I had to do better than that. Maybe if I retrace our route, I’d find her.
The first stop was the Weevil Arms. I ran in and slammed down on the desk bell. The creepy desk guy had changed his shirt and put on a new pair of pajama bottoms but he wasn’t any help. “Nope, I didn’t see no woman come through here,” was all he said before he returned to his television. I was getting crazy. Maybe if I swung by Mae’s house…
The back way over the Colebrook Road nearly cost me my spine and the under carriage of my old car. The ruts caused the car to tip and I could hear scraping in places that meant I had probably just killed my transportation. For a short cut, the road was an endless tunnel of pine trees, mud and rocks. Class four be damned, this was no better than a logging trail. A half hour later I emerged onto a stretch of dry flat dirt and a view that overlooked Webster Hollow. I was close. A few seconds later I spotted Mae’s house off to the right. If she’d walked, she couldn’t have made it this far without me seeing her.
Being alone on the plateau near the Burch house gave me the willies and I didn’t plan to spend more than a minute or two exploring the property. I pulled into the driveway and cut the engine. Maybe that wasn’t a smart move. Thinking better of it, I turned the key and fired up the Corolla. I didn’t want to be caught out here with my pants down.
It took less than a minute to realize the property was deserted. Now what? I got back into the car and reversed out of the driveway. I might have been going too fast down the hill to Webster Hollow because I slid sideways across the road when I tried to make the right turn toward West Burville. The only thing I could think of was to get to Fay. I pulled over and punched her number. No cell service. This was one short trip that was going to set a land speed record.
I sped through West Burville and pulled into a parking space next to the newspaper office. Two doors and a short flight of stairs later, I was in the newsroom. Fay came out of her office. “Hey, kid, where’s your sidekick?”
“I lost her.”
“Well,” she drawled, “Maybe it wasn’t the right girl for you. She sure didn’t say much.”
“Listen, Fay, something went wrong. We stayed at the Weevil Arms last night and when I went into the One Stop she disappeared. Gone.”
“You call the cops?”
“No, I thought maybe she just walked off. Sick of it all.”
“Well, you figure that one out but I did that search you wanted and came up dry. There’s no story about any crazy Halloween stuff that went down around ten years ago. Nothing.” Fay gave me one of her looks that said, “What the hell have you gotten yourself into?” If she was stumped, so was I.
“You know you were supposed to have that feature to me by noon today. Instead you got yourself involved in the story. What the hell were you thinking? Some crazy chick up in the woods and some old folk tale and here you are looking like a truck hit you. Go shave. There are some disposable razors in the bathroom. Then get back out here. I’m not done with you.”
A few minutes later I emerged from the bathroom with a half ass shave and wet hair. Fay found me hovering by the coffee pot.
“Here’s the way it’s going to work: you’re not going to call the police, I am. Maybe. You’re going to get yourself sorted out and you’re going to sit your ass down in front of a monitor and write what you know. Then you’re getting back in that jalopy and driving out to that swamp in time for the fright fest out there tonight. Or whatever the hell the crazy lady told you she saw.”
I finished filling my coffee cup and sat down at my desk. While the monitor was buzzing awake I was gathering my mental notes. Fay was right. Nothing was adding up. I wrote for a couple of hours straight but it was crap. Writing a feature is putting facts together. All I had was conjecture, impressions, and anecdotes. Nothing I could reference. I’d better come up with something.
Tracking Fay down was easy: if she wasn’t in the newsroom, she was in the kitchen. “I’m going to grab a camera and go out to the swamp. I don’t have enough.”
“I knew I should have sent you to the middle school. You know, Duncan, the big story isn’t always what it seems. Grab a camera and go.” She turned away from me. I could tell she was disappointed and it was killing me.
By now the light was dimming, fat grey clouds were piling up on the horizon promising lousy weather for Halloween and I was on my way to sit in a swamp. “Terrific.”
Where was Mae? I should have called the police right away. If she didn’t turn up by nightfall, I was definitely calling. As I pulled out of the parking space, I noticed that a Sheriff’s car was cruising down the main drag. Maybe if I pulled him over I could give him the heads up. But I’d promised Fay that I would leave it alone for now.
It was cold. As the sun settled closer to the horizon I realized my coat wasn’t going to cut it for a night outside. The only thing to do was swing by my apartment on Higgins Street. As I drove through town I saw a few people leaving the diner and the Rite Aid. Last minute candy shoppers there I told myself.
The parking lot at my building was deserted and I left the car running while I went inside. Neither Mrs. Eustace nor I locked the front door. What was the point? There may have been mysterious disappearances, murder and oddballs in town but no one seemed to be interested in burglary. I knocked on Mrs. Eustace’s door. The door opened a crack and I could see one blue eye staring at me. “Why, hello Duncan,” she said with a smile in her voice as she opened the door. Her cat rushed out and wound itself around my legs.
“Hi, Mrs. Eustace. Everything alright here?”
“Oh, right as rain,” she said. “I’m just getting my candy ready for the trick or treaters. Tonight’s Halloween, you know.”
“You bet it is Mrs. Eustace. It’s going to be a cold one too. I’m going to get my coat and get back to work,” I said, extricating myself from what might turn into a lengthy conversation I wanted to avoid.
She shut the door and I ran up the stairs two at a time. I had my spare house key under the dresser at the end of the hallway. Only someone who wanted a hernia would hide a key under a two hundred pound dresser but it came in handy.
My apartment looked just like it had when we had left it the day before. I’d thought maybe someone was going to toss the place, but it never happened. The sameness was right down to the dried up pizza on my mismatched dinner plates. Coat. I needed the heaviest coat I could find. My bedroom closet was a storehouse of winter clothes, camping junk and boxes of stuff I hadn’t unpacked since I moved in. I found what I was looking for piled on an old Coleman cooler. Time to go stakeout the swamp.
As I was driving out to Pandemonium the thought occurred that Mae’s story might not be all that accurate. What if this was an elaborate hoax. What if the whole town was having me on? If that was the case, I’d move out. But there was too much weirdness and too much planning that went into a hoax of this size. Frankly, I didn’t think the West Burvillians had it in them.
The sun was meeting the horizon when my old car and I bumped over the access road into the swamp. I decided to back in just in case. With the light fading, the swamp was quiet. Whatever wildlife was out here had gone to bed. It was easy to get spooked in a deserted place like this. The car doors locked automatically when I put the car in park but the noise made me jump. If I was on a fool’s errand then so be it but my hopes were high that I could solve this mystery tonight.
Three hours went by as I turned the engine on and off trying to stay warm. The rain was beginning to spatter across the windshield. I checked my watch. It was a couple of hours short of midnight, just about the time Mae and her friends had arrived in the swamp. I rolled down the window. Why was it so quiet? The lack of any sound was unnerving me and I was about to give up when I thought I saw something in my rear view mirror. As I watched the lights started to prick the rainy darkness. Wait. Where did they come from? I was the only one on the access road and I’d checked. There was no way someone with a flashlight could have made it by me.
It was the worst idea I’d had since I decided to do the feature story but I opened the car door and got out. Whatever was going to happen wouldn’t take long. I could hear the little voice in my head telling me to get back in the car and get out of there. Nothing could stop me from trying to unravel what was happening out here. Mae hadn’t exactly pinpointed where she was that Halloween night but I figured that if I walked the entire length of the road something was bound to happen. I didn’t have long to wait.
About fifty feet away from my car the lights multiplied by twos and threes. I was surrounded. Off to my left I could see something moving. Something large and cumbersome. But it wasn’t walking.
“Who are you people?” I yelled.
No one answered.
I couldn’t make out what was stalking me but it was big and black and floated across the swamp grass. For some reason it didn’t come near me. My arm pits were sweating and I thought I was going to puke. The granola bar I had stuffed in my mouth on the way to the swamp was turning into cement in the bottom of my stomach. If I stood there much longer my chances of getting out of there were zero. I turned back to the car but not before one of the lights started toward me. As the light moved the black mass moved behind it and floated toward me. The thing was huge and it was making a soft moaning sound. I couldn’t see a face. What I could see looked like a giant toothless mouth. My legs were jello but I could still limp.
Did I hear that? What was that? It sounded more like a sigh than a request but the black mouth was closing in and I decided to run for it. My feet wouldn’t move. The lights were getting closer and so was the blob.
“What do you want?”
“You,” the voice sighed. Why did it sound familiar?
“Nope, I’m outta here.” This time I ran.
The lights floated in front of me. I couldn’t get away.
“Don’t leave, Duncan, we like you. We need you.”
Now I recognized the voice. It was Mae. What the hell was going on out here? “What do you want?”
“You,” the breathy voice said.
Something was lifting me off the ground. I could see my feet headed toward the black hole I was pretty sure was a mouth. My panic level was at max and my heart was beating dangerously fast. Was I dying? My brain was getting fuzzy.
“Stop this. Stop it. Mae, what are you doing? What are you?” All I got was a hollow laugh that made the light she was holding dance. The blackness was slowly sucking me in.
“If you don’t fight it, Duncan, it will go faster. You were the one. My family. You made that happen.” Why did she sound like a snake? Why did she hiss? This was it. Here I was just looking for a story and I got myself killed. But it didn’t matter. The black thing wasn’t chewing on me, just taking me in. And I didn’t feel a thing. The lights were flickering all around me and I could hear that voice that sounded like Mae whispering that I had made it happen to her family. What was she talking about? I never met her family.
Just before I lost consciousness I heard sirens and a loud bang. What was that? Suddenly I was on the ground and everything hurt. What happened to the feeling I was gone? I must have been in and out of consciousness because I remembered hearing police radios, shouting and a voice that sounded like Fay bending over me repeating, “It’s going to be OK Duncan. Stay with us. It’s going to be OK now.” I fainted.
When I came fully awake I was in a hospital room with an IV in my arm and an anxious editor by my bedside. It took me a minute to realize I wasn’t in the swamp. I couldn’t piece it together. But Fay would do that part. I dozed off again.
Fay was still there when I woke up a few hours later. It was sometime in the night because I couldn’t see anything out the hospital window. “Hi, kid,” Fay said. “You’re a pain in my ass, you know that?” I tried to smile.
“What happened to me,” I croaked. I needed water. Fay handed me a cup with a bent straw and steadied my hand.
“You were on the dinner menu for your buddy Mae and her pet whatever.”
“Duncan, when I met her I got a cold feeling off her. So I went checking. I’d been off on the wrong track. There weren’t any crazy Halloween shenanigans out there ten years ago. But there was something. You ready to hear the rest of this?”
I nodded but I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear this.
“First of all you’ve got to know this is the craziest town I’ve ever worked in. I don’t take anything for granted around here. I called the state archives and did some asking. I wanted to know if they had any records of a Burch family that lived in West Burville. I didn’t get very far but I got a name and number to call at the Vermont Historical Society in Montpelier. The librarian called me back. There was a Burch family alright but they all died on the same day: Halloween in 1932.” Fay took a file out of her briefcase. “I want you to read this, Duncan. It might help.”
I took the file from her but I had a question. “You said the whole family died. That would mean that Mae is the last descendant. But where is she?”
“Just read the report, Duncan. And I’m glad you’re alive, even if you are a pain in my arse. It might have ended very differently if I hadn’t convinced Sheriff Les to drive out to the swamp with me. I’m still not sure what I saw out there but it’s gone now. At least I hope it is. You were in rough shape, babbling and not making any sense. You’ve been here two days now. I want you back at work by next week.”
“Two days?” I couldn’t wrap my head around what she was saying.
“You were delirious, Duncan, and your body temperature was dangerously low. Like you’d been in a meat locker for hours. Basically, you were half frozen from the inside out. You’re going to be here a few more days.”
None of this was making any sense. “What was that thing in the swamp, Fay?”
“Death. It was Death.”
I closed my eyes and turned away from her. I felt a warm hand on mine. “You were set up, Duncan. By something that’s been dead a long time. There hasn’t been a Mae Burch born here since 1932.”
“No Mae? How can that be?”
“Read the report. Some of that material comes from the Sheriff’s Department. I’ll give you the short story. Mae was eighteen at the time the family died. That was in 1950. She had gone to a Halloween party at the high school and was with friends partying out there in the swamp when someone killed her entire family. Up at the family farm. She and her friends were having a corn roast and whooping it up when the police found her and took her to identify the bodies of her mother and father and her younger sister and brother. They never caught who did it. Mae went crazy and vowed she’d find who did it and destroy their soul. Apparently she started to scream and they took her away. She became pale and withdrawn and then she’d start to scream again. I guess it unnerved everyone around her because she kept talking about killing until she’d killed anyone everyone who was involved. Maybe that extended to anyone who asked too many questions. Or maybe she knew more than she was letting on. They had to confine her to the state hospital in Waterbury. She died in 1982, Duncan, on Halloween Eve.”
“How can that be? I’ve been with her. I ate her roast pork sandwiches; she slept in my apartment. She told me a whole tale of some monster in the swamp. What the hell are you telling me? Are you telling me I’m nuts?” I was getting hot under the collar. I tried getting up but Fay pushed me back down.
“Shut up, Duncan, for once and listen. The entire time Mae was with you she didn’t eat, did she?”
“I ordered breakfast but she said she wasn’t hungry. And she didn’t eat any of the roast pork or drink the coffee or tea or eat anything else. Is that because she was dead or just on a starvation diet?”
“You know the answer to that one.”
My head was beginning to hurt. “I’ve just spent a couple of days with a ghost.”
“A vengeful ghost looking for someone to blame. You’re lucky to be alive. You’re not the first, by the way,” Fay said. “Every few years someone wanders into the swamp on Halloween Eve to scare themselves silly. Sometimes they come out, sometimes they don’t. You were one of the lucky ones.”
“Mae was completely insane after that night. There was talk around town that her father was an old bastard who wouldn’t let her leave town after she graduated and that she picked a couple of local boys to do her dirty work for her. But no amount of investigating could ever prove that. Still, some of the locals think she was just plain evil and did her family in. But the real object of her hatred was her father. Her mother and brother and sister were collateral damage she had to shut up. I don’t know. But you should have died out there.”
“I’ve got to know what those lights were, Fay. What are they?”
“Nobody knows. The legend goes that if you see those lights, you’re next. The deputies and I saw those lights so we might be next,” she laughed, but it more of a forced bark then her usual syrupy chuckle. “You want my opinion, I think each of those lights is either a member of her family or someone she did in over the years. And every year they get together and consume someone new. Duncan, when we first rolled up that road you could hear a loud whining and slurping sound I’ll never forget. We found you in midair being sucked into a black cloud thing and the lights were screeching and moving around. It was the worst thing I’d ever seen. I need therapy.” She wasn’t smiling.
“I want to go back out there. I want to go to her house. I want to know why that bastard in Webster Hollow set me up.” I was getting angry again.
“Duncan, that bastard in Webster Hollow recognized you as one of the ones marked out, he admitted as much. He’s so scared of the whole Burch clan, dead or alive, that he directs people to the old site. The old Burch farmhouse has been deserted since the family was killed. No one wants to buy it plus it’s in a bad location. Kids like to go up there because they claim they see lights and hear voices but no one believes them.” Fay tried to break this news to me gently but it caused me to hyperventilate and throw off the covers. “Stay put, Duncan. I’ll take you up there when they release you.” She got up to go. “By the way, I sent Millicent over to cover the pumpkin party at the elementary school. She did a nice job. You better watch your back.” She winked at me and got up to leave. “Get some rest and stay put. I’ll see you later.”
I wasn’t paying attention. The last few days had been leading up to my death in a swamp. It was premeditated by a dead woman. There was no way I was going to be able to live with this without some answers.
A few days later I was released and Fay came to collect me. “I promised you a road trip, Duncan,” she said as the attendant rolled me down the hallway in a wheelchair. I felt weak and exhausted. Fay opened the car and they both helped me into the front seat. I felt frail and thin. “Buckle up, we’re headed out of town.”
Fay drove out of town and into Webster Hollow. I wanted to hide in my coat but I settled for sliding down in the seat. I looked over at Ed Passup’s place and Ed was standing by the gas pump. He looked at us as we went by and I thought I saw his eyebrows go up when he saw who was in the passenger seat.
Fay turned onto the Colebrook Road. Her car had shocks which made the ride marginally more comfortable. Off to the left I spotted the Burch farmhouse. “That’s it. The Burch place,” I told her. Mae turned into the driveway and shut the car off. I took off my seat belt as Fay came over to my side to open the door.
I stepped out and looked at the derelict farmhouse. At one time it must have been a beauty. Now it was a wreck with the front door hanging off the hinges and the windows blown out. I stared. “Penny for your thoughts, Duncan,” Fay said.
“I don’t have any thoughts right now. I just don’t understand what happened. This was a home when I was here. I ate here. The lights were on and it was warm.”
“You went chasing a ghost story and you found it. What else is there to say?” she said as she headed around the front of the Jeep.
“I have to go inside, Fay. I have to see the kitchen.”
I stepped onto the broken porch and into the kitchen. Instead of a warm wood cookstove and a kitchen that smelled of fresh coffee, roast pork and homemade bread, there was a cobwebby rusted hulk of a stove and a table with a broken leg. It looked as if kids used the place as a party hole. I turned away. There were more questions than answers. The biggest question was how safe am I? I went back to the car. “Get me out of here.”
Neither of us said a word all the way back to West Burville. Fay dropped me off at my apartment and helped me up the stairs. Mrs. Eustace came out of her apartment and brought up a casserole for me to heat up. “You have to eat, Duncan.”
“Wait, Mrs. Eustace, one question. Did you see her? Was she really here?” I sounded desperate.
“Well, she was and she wasn’t. She was frightfully pale for a healthy young woman. But when recognized her I didn’t know what to think. After all, she’d been dead for over thirty years. Frankly, I was scared. I wanted to tell you but you were upset enough. Instead I called the Sheriff and told one of the deputies what I’d seen but he told me to stop watching scary movies. I didn’t know what else to do.”
“Did you hear anyone come into the building during the night?”
“No, I didn’t. Frankly, Attila and I were hiding in my bedroom. I was so upset with that young man at the police that I didn’t know what to do.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Eustace, you’ve given me information I need. I’m glad to be home.”
“Well, Attila and I are happy you’re safe and sound. We’re just downstairs if you want anything or if you just want to talk.”
“I’ll remember that, thanks.” I was exhausted and ready for a nap.
“Alright, Duncan, bedtime. Get some sleep. I’ll check in on you tomorrow. By the way, there’s no story being written about this. Ever. I don’t want kids going out to that swamp at Halloween hoping to see the black sucker thing or wandering up to the Burch house hoping to make friends with a homicidal ghost. This can stay a legend. Frankly, I’m not so sure about all this having a happy ending.” Fay jangled her keys in her pocket and turned toward the door. “Lock yourself in,” she said before she shut the door.
I locked the door and shoved a chair under the doorknob for good measure.
In bed I tossed and turned with terrifying dreams of women with white faces feeding me to a black mouth. That was the start of it: my insomnia. I was afraid to sleep. Afraid that it wasn’t over for me. Mae and her pet had been robbed of their Halloween dinner and I was worried they would come looking for me.
The next morning Fay showed up with coffee and donuts that Hooter had made. As I wolfed down my third donut I asked Fay to drive me out to Pandemonium Swamp. She didn’t seem too keen on the idea but she didn’t turn me down.
“You’re going to have to let this go, Duncan.”
“I will when I get answers that satisfy me. Like, why me? And why did she tell me that crazy story about being in the swamp and getting chased?
“Maybe she’s an opportunist. You were a hungry fish reporter and she was looking for a soul to mitigate her suffering on Halloween. And maybe all she remembered was the last bit of fun in her life before the curtain came down. And that’s what she keeps retelling for any fresh victims. Or maybe she was responsible for their deaths. But I think it’s a classic case: wrong place, wrong time.” She turned left onto the access road.
“Where did they find me?”
“Over here.” I got out and joined Fay in front of her Jeep. The ground sloped off into a ditch.
“I don’t remember any of this. Why can’t I remember?”
“Early days yet. You better get someone to talk to before it all comes back,” Fay said. “Now get back in the car. Some of us have work to do.”
“I want to come back to work tomorrow.”
“Suit yourself but you’re on light duty with town meetings. No features until you can prove to me you know how to research a story rather than becoming part of it.” Fay never pulled any punches with any of us. She could have fired me. Either she saw some potential or she felt sorry for me. Either way I still had a job.
We got back into the Jeep and Fay did a K turn on the dry side of the swamp. I watched the swamp in my side mirror as we headed back to the main road. It would be a long time before I’d be able to come out this way alone. Some things are best left alone.
It’s been one year almost to the day since I lived the events I’ve recorded here. Halloween is here again and I have unfinished business in the swamp. No one ever made an attempt to put Mae’s soul to rest or those of her family members. And somewhere in this town there’s a family keeping the secret of a multiple murder that happened over sixty years ago. A cold case. Maybe I owed it to Mae Burch to tell her story. Not this story. Her other story. The one about having your dreams and your sanity taken away on Halloween Eve, 1950, when your family was slaughtered.
But maybe that’s playing with fire. It’s Halloween, 2014, and a year ago I was lured to my death in Pandemonium Swamp by a vengeful spirit looking to settle an old score. Why I was chosen I don’t know. Maybe I was a convenient target or maybe there’s more to the story, my story. Fay thinks I should leave it alone. In fact, she muttered something about my sanity and ability to be rational when it comes to figuring out what’s going on in the swamp and how it relates to me. But it does relate. My distant family has lived in this area for a century. Somebody knows something. It’s just a question of finding out what it is. Maybe by next year I will have solved this one and gotten that feature story. Or died trying.