FLASH! Girl power lifts Santa’s sleigh

real-santa-claus-sleigh-and-reindeer_555587Let’s talk about this right now: Santa’s sleigh is girl powered! All your life you believed Santa’s sleigh was pulled by tough, male reindeer. Am I right? The fact is female reindeer don’t shed their antlers in winter. The males do. And some of those female reindeer are expecting. Here’s to the girls. Santa’s reindeer have antlers. Bam! Santa’s reindeer are female. Thank you.

Truth is, eleven months of the year we ignore reindeer. In the middle of a hot summer, unless you live in Lapland or around Svalbard, you probably don’t care. But come December reindeer take their place as symbols of the season. Santa can’t arrive without reindeer power and the buffet table looks pretty bleak without at least one reindeer ornament. But reindeer are amazing. Let’s explore…

Reindeer are not to be ignored. They travel further in their annual migration than any other land mammal, covering over 3,000 miles in a year cutting across northern Scandinavia.

Reindeer also have specialized noses with 25% more capillaries delivering warm red blood that heats the air before it reaches their lungs. No reindeer ever said, “Man, it was so cold out there it was like breathing in razor blades.” Rudolph and his red nose? Sort of.

Reindeer have special pads under their hooves that toughen up to withstand the Arctic cold and their hooves are covered with fur to insulate them from the snow. Each reindeer hair is hollow to trap cold air before it reaches their skin. Reindeer are warm and toasty in some of the coldest weather on the planet.

Reindeer have eyes that turn from yellow-brown in summer to deep blue in winter. Why is that? To capture more light in the dark northern winter months. Did you know reindeer are the only mammals that can see in the ultra-violet spectrum? This helps them find their way in the dark and see danger.

Reindeer are quiet most of the year. Reindeer moms talk to their babies but male reindeer seldom speak, unless it’s to find a mate once a year or converse with a herder.

Did you know reindeer can run at nearly 50 mph? And fly? In fact, research included in the book The Flight of the Reindeer, proved that reindeer can actually fly. Fly! They can run so fast they actually leave the ground. Imagine that.

The Sami people of northern Sweden are one of several indigenous peoples who are traditional reindeer herders. Their lives and their year is spent among the reindeer traveling throughout northern Scandinavia with their herds. One herder, whose family has herded reindeer for generations, described it as “our souls touch.”

And just in case you were wondering: elk are not reindeer. But reindeer and caribou are different names for the same species.

If you want to visit with Santa and his reindeer, I’ll leave you with Reindeer Cam.

Posted in Christmas, GIRL power, Nature, Santa, Santa's sleigh | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

This is the last word on that: fruitcakes and politics

fruitcakeNo matter what political firestorms blow over the landscape, at this time of year fruitcake cancels them out. That might not be true but fruitcake has gotten a bad rap over the centuries.

The Romans carried a concoction of barley mash, pomegranate seeds, raisins and pine nuts as they conquered the world. If that doesn’t make you get out a bowl and spoons then how about the Crusaders. It’s hard to find the energy to search for the Holy Grail without stoking up on calories. Yes, fruitcake traveled with the Knights Templar.

What’s the deal with fruitcake? Why doesn’t it have any friends? Why the jokes? Maybe it’s the gummy, gluey stop light candied bits that some bakers insist make it festive. Maybe it’s the weight. A slice of fruitcake has the density of neutronium. It’s a scientific fact.

But that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying a covert slice. Confession: every year during December I sneak off to a local tree nursery that brings in a small shipment of Claxton Fruitcakes. I buy many. And I hide them.

I know that if I get stuck in a snowstorm I’ll have the necessary calories to withstand the northeastern cold until I’m rescued. Failing being rescued, fruitcake provides excellent traction. When I lived in Vermont folks used to put a bag of turkey grit or a piece of their house foundation in the trunk to provide grip on icy roads. I used fruitcake.

Political candidates whine that they get kicked around but they could learn something from fruitcake. Fruitcake has been publicly humiliated for centuries. I don’t know of any politico that’s gotten slung out of a catapult by a guy dressed as a Viking, although I do know a few who should be. Leftover fruitcake gets slammed against a target every year in early January in a place called Manitou Falls, CO. All in the name of fun.

It’s time to reevaluate our relationship with fruitcake. If you’re calorically challenged and fear December’s temptations, then fruitcake for breakfast it is. One slice of fruitcake and you can skip that mid-morning snack and maybe lunch. Fruitcake is a powerhouse of “good” things: nuts, raisins, eggs plus butter, sugar and flour. Three out of six isn’t bad.

When I was a kid my mother taught me that anything that arrived in a round tin and reeked of booze should be left for the grownups. My dad was under orders to lock the car doors at night. Mom insisted that the same people who left bags of zucchini in your car when you weren’t looking were not above dropping off a spare fruitcake or two after dark. This anti-fruitcake sentiment may have fueled my desire to eat all the fruitcake.

A question that gets kicked around every year is how long these things last before they go “bad.” There are a few people who might say they’re never “good” but we’ll forget about them. The truth is that fruitcake never goes bad. There’s a story that Howard Carter found a fruitcake perfect for eating when he opened King Tut’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. In fact, as the story goes, it was served at a festive lunch celebrating the tomb opening. I might have lied a little here but let’s be honest: if you soak anything in enough booze it will never spoil.

It’s nearly Christmas. There’s still time to make a memory. I’d like to see fruitcake take its rightful place alongside cookies and other seasonal sweet delights. You can help with this. Surprise your guests. Listen to the “oohs” and cheers as you wheel out the fruitcake in the shape of your choice, the centerpiece of your dessert buffet. It’s a bold choice and the right choice. Fruitcake. This Christmas.


Posted in Christmas, Food, Food you fight with, Lies, Sweet temptations | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

How two Brits killed Christmas

krampus_card_by_mscorleyVIGILANT parents, aunties, uncles, grandparents, neighbors, teachers and strangers, with or without candy, you are now green lighted to tell children there is no Santa Claus. No jolly fat man. No rosy cheeked harbinger of the holiday season. Nothing. There is nothing out there. It’s all a retail lie.

But we’re only telling you this because we love you and are responsible adults who do not want to be blamed for your therapy bills when you’re thirty.

You may, however, believe in the Krampus because every kid should be afraid that some demon with horns and bad breath is going to drag them off to Hell on Christmas Eve. Hey, kid, you been naughty? All that’s gonna be left of you is a lump of tar black coal.

Paging Clement Clarke Moore to the courtesy phone. Could we please have a little magic over here on The Night Before Christmas?

Thanks to two killjoys, Christopher Boyle, a psychologist, and a “mental health researcher” named Kathy McKay over at the University of Exeter (GB) writing in the December issue of The Lancet Psychiatry, parents and well-meaning grown-ups everywhere are cautioned to be careful what they say. And watch the fairy tales while you’re at it.

In an over-statement of histrionic proportions, they write: “If they (parents et al) are capable of lying about something so special and magical, can they be relied upon to continue as the guardians of wisdom and truth?” 

Let’s just dump this muppet flail right back in the kid’s lap, shall we? If I’m a kid and my Mom and Dad tell me there’s a Santa, and Dad goes all Clark Griswold with decorations and eggnog, and the Big Night Before arrives and we set out milk and cookies, should I be suspicious? I’m maybe seven and my tiny ego is only half-formed and the tedious reliance on myth and magic is such a trial for the spirit. I’ll be under the couch reading the DSM-5.

I mean, if my pet tarantula, Skippy, dies it’s OK for these same adults to lie to me because it’s “nicer.” As this duo writes: “An adult comforting a child and telling them that their recently deceased pet will go to a special place (animal heaven) is arguably nicer than telling graphic truths about its imminent re-entry into the carbon cycle.”

I want to believe The Lancet is having us on. A bit of fun to lighten up the leaden weight of 2016. If you want to give yourself a treat it’s right there just under Football Therapy and just above To the Batcave.

Is it OK if we keep some magic in our lives? Is it OK if part of us never grows up and starts to believe that maybe Santa isn’t real? Is it OK for adults to tell a child that Santa doesn’t exist and he never did and to do this before the child has a chance to make up his or her own mind? Is being a “grown up” really code for being a self-righteous killjoy?

I want to suggest that Mr. Boyle and Ms. McKay go soak their two heads in a vat of eggnog and leave the magic to the rest of us in this weary fragile world.

Is Santa real? You bet. I have a small silver sleigh bell and a half eaten carrot I’ve had since I was a kid. You want to see them? I’d be happy to share. Magic isn’t magic if you keep it to yourself.

Thank you to Santa and the other nice folks at the North Pole for never giving up on us, even when it seems we give up on ourselves. Now, everybody back to your knitting.

Posted in Christmas, Crap you tell your kids, Health, Media, Relationships, Science | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pandemonium Swamp


 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…

 Chapter One

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.

No answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pandemonium Swamp. Why there?”

“You go out there and you 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.

Chapter Two

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.

Chapter Three

 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.

I waited.

“Um, where was I?”

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

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

Chapter Four

“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.”

“What deaths?”

“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.”

“Pretty much.”

“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.

Chapter Five

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?

Chapter Six

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.

 Chapter Seven

 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.

 Chapter Eight

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.

Chapter Nine

 “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.”

Chapter Ten

 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.

 Chapter Eleven

 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?”

“One’s fine.”

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.

Chapter Twelve

 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.”

“Weevil what?”

“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.

 Chapter Thirteen

 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.

 Chapter Fourteen

 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.

 Chapter Fifteen

 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.

 Chapter Sixteen

 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.

 Chapter Seventeen

“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.




Posted in Halloween, Spirituality, Stories, Stories to read when you're not alone, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Headlines from The West Burville Gazette: Merry Christmas Edition

A Message from The Editor: The first snowfall (the one before the snow gets up to your keister and the car won’t start) kicks off the preparations for the holiday season in Piney Woods County, stuck way up here in the northeastern corner of Vermont. And, as it does every year, the seasonal merriment swirls around the Town of West Burville and its local eatery, the Double Axle Diner.

 For the diner regulars, known to everyone in the County, including the Sheriff, as the Counter Dwellers, this is a chance to rest up and take in the festive atmosphere and great food served up by Linda Mae, proprietress and chief cook, over at the Double Axle. It’s a tradition.

But this Christmas season things might not be what they seem. This is the story of what happened. After all, nothing’s ever more certain than things change…

Have a Wonderful Christmas from All of Us at the West Burville Gazette,

Fay Tessreau and the News Staff

treeWhen the skies start to take on a steely determined look and the wooly worms are nowhere to be found, the locals who reside in the Northern Hills begin to batten down for another deep winter. But not right away.

The first flakes of snow and the first icy blast of cold wind off the Arctic makes the firewood tossing, plow blade sharpening and snowmobile tuning take on a pace. Mixed in with these mundane annual tasks are visits to the best eatery in all of Piney Woods County, the Double Axle Diner, located in downtown West Burville, population 683, give or take.

Anyone who’s ever spun a stool at the Double Axle knows the owner and operator is the buxom Linda Mae. And today, just three weeks before Christmas, Linda Mae was looking particularly fetching in a teensy bit too tight starched white uniform accentuated with a festive red apron with itty bitty pine trees embroidered along the bottom, and one of those little wreath pins with the twinkly lights pinned right next to her assets. With her blond hair catching the morning light like spun sugar and her carmine lips, she was a sight to behold. And the Counter Dwellers were parked in their usual seats taking in the view.

“Morning, Linda Mae. You’re looking mighty pretty this morning,” Hooter gushed.

Linda Mae gave Hooter a wink and an extra warm up on his coffee.

“Mornin’, Hooter,” she smiled.

For the past decade or so, Linda Mae had wielded the coffee pot at the Double Axle, taking it from a tin can roadside hash house to the culinary capital of Piney Woods County. It wasn’t just the Meatloaf Special or Linda Mae’s signature Pecan Festival Fantasy Pie that drew the Counter Dwellers. For over a decade Hooter and Bunchy Meacham, along with Old Mel Winchel, Lambert Thistle and Flock Lambert, Dayrel Giroux, and Ludovico Haynes, when he could get off the log truck, would occupy the counter stools to share a meal and ogle Linda Mae’s amenities. For her part, Linda Mae would prod the boys with slabs of meatloaf and thick slices of pie served up with a saucy wiggle.

Now maybe it’s because the Double Axle was the only diner within striking distance of the local slopes or maybe because it had a reputation among the out-of-state ski crowd for great food and colorful local characters, the Double Axle would fill up every weekend with folks headed to the mountain.  By the time the new year rolled around everyone in West Burville was pretty much used to crazy driving, horn honking, loud talking, big spending out-of-state skiers passing through town.  The trick was to look both ways before you hoofed it across the road.

But two weeks before Christmas Eve something unexpected happened that shook the Counter Dwellers down to the soles of their felt packs. Someone arrived in town that made the ladies hustle over to the Double Axle for some lollygagging and a light lunch.

Around about noontime on a particularly busy Saturday the door opened to admit a burst of winter and six feet of fork dropping manhood. Word spreads quickly in a quaint village and even faster if there’s a new man in town. The ladies occupying the corner booth and nursing the low-cal cottage cheese and hard-boiled egg platter were riveted to the vinyl upholstery. So was everyone else in the Double Axle. Strangers come and go. But not this kind.

The center of the commotion was ignoring the attention and making a beeline for one of the counter stools. And it didn’t go unnoticed by Hooter and the other Counter Dwellers. With a single movement that might do a ballet dancer proud and involving a lift, a half-pirouette, and a butt shuffle to the left, all seven Counter Dwellers came to rest one stool over blocking any new arrivals. Perhaps the stranger was among the many folks who don’t know that the counter in a small town diner is the property of a few townies who set the rules about who gets to sit where.  At the Double Axle the unwritten rule was strictly enforced.

And here’s something else: a quick lesson in small town romance. When a woman lives in a town the size of West Burville, where every available man smells like eau d’ two stroke and wears logger boots for a date, it isn’t a stretch to imagine the reaction of every woman in the diner, including Linda Mae and little Vonda Sue, who was in for the rush. Linda Mae had slipped the coffee pot to a precarious angle and stood slack-jawed, dripping hot coffee onto the red linoleum floor. Vonda Sue had forgotten who got what and the place was in chaos. Hooter and the boys were speechless.

As the eye-catching stranger decided on a side booth by the front window, Linda Mae set the coffee pot down on the counter, just missing Lambert’s right hand, and bustled over with a menu.

“Hi, stranger, welcome to the Double Axle. I’m Linda Mae. What would you like? I mean, uh, from the menu.”

“Well, hello there, Linda Mae. Nice place you’ve got here. I’m Sander Klauss. I’m giving ski lessons over at the mountain. I think I’ll have a cup of hot coffee and some of that delicious looking meatloaf. Say, Linda Mae, let me ask you a question. Do you ski?”

With a doll-like head nod, Linda Mae offered that she had always wanted to learn. The groan from the counter was audible.

Shifting his bulk to get a full view of the competition, Hooter narrowed his eyes and turned back to his pie. Hunching over the plate he watched Klauss in the mirror over the pie case.

In the next few days, things went from bad to worse for the Counter Dwellers. The food was still piping hot and the best around but Linda Mae was distracted. To the Counter Dwellers she seemed to spend her day checking her updo in the mirror and watching the door. Whenever Klauss came in, the temperature would go up in the place and Linda Mae would get all flighty and there’d go the conversation and the warm ups on the coffee.

After about a week of this, Hooter called a powwow. It was time for a little chat with this pretty boy ski instructor. Old Mel suggested he and the other Counter Dwellers might act as backup for Hooter.  Not too close to be noticed but close enough if Hooter needed anything and they could maybe hear him. When Hooter became suspicious of what seemed like a plan to leave him to face Klauss alone, old Mel clucked that none of them was as smart as Hooter so they’d just lie low behind their vehicles in case things got rough.

The time for the powwow arrived a few days later with skies that looked like two feet of drifting snow and the wind picking up. Klauss had just finished his usual lunchtime foray into the Double Axle and the hearts of the ladies of West Burville. For Hooter, it was time to ask a few questions.

Seeing Klauss arrive, the Counter Dwellers deployed to their vantage point behind Lambert’s rusty pick up. The backup plan seemed to be working just fine, except for the muttering about the cold and the stamping and the shuffling and the twelve legs visible from the knees down below the rotted undercarriage.

As Klauss was making his way across the parking lot, Hooter saw his chance.

“Hey, Klauss, I’m coming right to the point here. You mind if we have a talk?” Hooter offered.

The muttering stopped.

“Sure, Hooter, sure. Now is as good a time as any,” said Klauss flashing a pearly grin.

Hooter stopped and stared. Something didn’t seem quite right here.  But he couldn’t place it.

Hooter was concentrating hard on Klauss as the man ambled his way.  What was wrong with this guy? “I’ll be damned Klauss but something ain’t right about you.” Hooter said in a low voice.

Klauss chuckled. “It depends on what you mean by “right”, Hooter. A lot of things aren’t right. And a few things are. Know what I mean?”

Behind the truck the Counter Dwellers were puzzling that one out. Flock and Lambert decided it might be a good idea to take some notes and began noisily divesting themselves of their insulated coveralls in an effort to find a pen when old Mel yelled, “What’d he just say?” That pretty much blew their cover.

Ignoring the commotion behind the truck, Hooter spat, “What the hell are you talking about? Don’t talk stupid to me, Klauss, it don’t up the ante in your popularity in these parts to make fun.”

“No harm intended, Mr. Gibson,” Klauss answered shifting from one foot to the other and stuffing his cold hands into his pockets.  “Look, let’s get to the point here. What is it you want from me?”

“I want some answers.” Hooter responded in the same low menacing tone.

Hooter stood facing Klauss. Neither man moved for a few seconds. Finally, Hooter admitted, “I seen you, we all have, eyeing up Linda Mae. How long you been here? Two weeks? And already she’s burned the meatloaf twice and run out of pie. This some kind of game you playing with her? ‘Cause if it is, it ain’t going to end the way you might be hoping.”

Klauss stared at him.

“Why you staring at me? Don’t you have nuthin’ to say?” Hooter asked.

Klauss opened his mouth to speak then shut it again. The snow had begun to come down with a vengeance and the two were wrapped in dime-sized flakes. “I don’t have much to say right now, Hooter. I just think you might be making a mistake, that’s all.”

“Now listen here, Klauss. Linda Mae is a good girl.”

By now the Counter Dwellers were out from behind the truck crunching across the snow and preparing to defend Linda Mae’s honor and her pie making skills. But they sure were hoping it wouldn’t get physical.

“Me and the boys here have known Linda Mae for a long time and we’re pretty fond of her. She makes the best damned meatloaf in the entire county and maybe the next one over to boot. And she ain’t bad to look at either, if you know what I mean.”

Klauss nodded as if he knew.

“We don’t want our girl hurt and we ain’t standing for any foolishness. No broken hearts, you got that?”

Klauss nodded again.

“Ain’t you got nuthin’ to say? Dammit, man, this is serious stuff.” Hooter was riled. This wasn’t going the way he and the boys thought it would. Klauss was agreeing with him. What was wrong with this guy?

“Look boys, I’ll meet you halfway. I’ve grown fond of Linda Mae. She’s special. Really special. I knew that the minute I saw here. I think you’re going to have to wait, just like me. I don’t have much to offer aside from that.”

The boys looked at each other.

Klauss turned and walked into the falling, swirling snow. In a matter of seconds he was swallowed up. The snow had picked up considerably during the time they were outdoors and lingering in the parking lot didn’t seem like a good idea. As Hooter turned to head for his pickup, a thought hit him. What did this Klauss guy drive? No one had seen him in a vehicle and Hooter made a mental note to ask the other Counter Dwellers what he drove. Come to think of it, where did he just go? Linda Mae was closing early to get home to decorate and Vonda Sue had already pushed off in her ancient Datsun Avenger. Odd. Hooter was alarmed. This Klauss bore watching.

The following morning Linda Mae was bustling about the Double Axle, dishing out her usual smiles with an extra helping of happy and humming to herself.

“Now what?” Hooter mumbled under his breath. The rest of the Counter Dwellers had picked up his sour, suspicious mood and were watching Linda Mae flit from one end of the diner to the other. Something was up.

By the end of the 10 o’clock pie and coffee shift, Linda Mae made an announcement: “I’m closing early this afternoon, everyone. Right after lunch. I’ve got a…a… date.” She let it drop like an A-bomb in the diner. Linda Mae blushed and gave a little burpy giggle and went to retrieve the coffee pot. Down the length of the counter, coffee cups slammed down on saucers, spoons clattered, pie forks dropped, and the Counter Dwellers swallowed what was in their mouths before their jaws hit their knees.

“Aw, c’mon, Linda Mae, you’re not going out with that ski bunny, are you?” Bunchy chimed in. Linda Mae only smiled a simpering sugary smile and plumped her blonde curls. The boys exchanged looks.

There might not be time to handle this latest development with their usual attention to detail but there might be time to make sure a second date never happened. A hastily arranged stake out of Linda Mae’s house for the early evening hours was delegated to Flock and Dayrel, with high hopes they wouldn’t go ring the doorbell and ask her where she was going.

The next morning the pair reported that Klauss arrived right on the seven o’clock button in a boring looking Ford Fitch and rang the doorbell. He also, apparently, turned and winked at Flock and Dayrel who were hunkered down behind the arborvitae. Linda Mae was dropped at her door with not so much as a kiss at around eleven o’clock. Flock and Dayrel said they were guessing about the kissing part because they had moved to Dayrel’s pick up when the cold got too bad.

The next phase was more subtle. Hooter and the other Counter Dwellers were convinced that something fishy was going on and the “Klauss business” needed to conclude well before ski season did. So far all they knew was that he showed up at Linda Mae’s in an old Ford. If they were going to give Linda Mae any helpful information that might sway her thinking, they’d better get cracking. It was beginning to look a little too serious on Linda Mae’s part.

The Counter Dwellers elected Old Mel Winchel to spearhead the investigation up at the mountain. Old Mel was one of those Piney Woods classics who had his teeth out sometime in the Fifties and never saw the need for replacements. As a result, his lips were now sucked in so far the locals speculated he could swallow his face.  But Old Mel had a talent. People told him things. Maybe it was the way he looked. A bit of this and a bit of that and the next thing you knew he had your whole life story.

After a conversation with the other boys, Old Mel made for the mountain in his battered Chevy pickup. Halfway to the base lodge, he hatched his own plan.

As usual, the parking lot up at the base lodge was filled with out-of-state cars and mouthy flatlanders who whined if the weather was bad because they couldn’t ski and whined if the weather was good because they couldn’t ski long enough. And they always asked for things like low-fat milk and their salad dressing on the side down at the Double Axle.

Old Mel was considered “local color” up at the mountain. This entitled him to certain privileges like using the main door instead of the employee entrance the way everyone else from town did. Sashaying through the air lock and narrowly missing being speared by a pair of long red skis the width of a stiletto, he headed for the ticket counter. Behind the window sat Judy Cosgrove, who had reigned over the ticket booth for the past twenty years.

“Hey, Judy, how goes it today?” Old Mel offered.

“OK, Mel. How you keepin’?”

“Good, good. Can’t complain. Nobody’d listen anyway. Hey what you think of that new ski feller? You know, that Sander Klauss?”

Judy smelled a rat. “What are you boys up to this time?”

Old Mel couldn’t think of a good comeback that wouldn’t further rouse her suspicions. After a couple of minutes of hopeless poking and prodding and getting nowhere with Judy, he slunk away. Rattling back down the mountain, he was no wiser than he was on the trek up.

The next day was the start of the final shopping spurt before Christmas and things were hopping over at the Double Axle. What with hungry shoppers, the vigilant Counter Dwellers, and Linda Mae mooning here and there, it was shaping up to be a heck of a Christmas. Klauss on his forays into the diner acted about as besotted as Linda Mae.

The Counter Dwellers spent a considerable amount of time asking each other if Klauss ever worked or if he really knew how to ski. So far, Old Mel had been unable to find anyone who had actually seen Klauss on a pair of skis.

It was sour grapes for lunch at the Double Axle with only two shopping days left until Christmas. Linda Mae floated around humming to herself and winking at the Counter Dwellers. What was she up to?

What she didn’t know was that the boys were planning one last full out attempt to get rid of Klauss.

“Damn the man,” Hooter grumbled as he watched Linda Mae. How were they going to get rid of him before he broke Linda Mae’s heart? Among the suggestions was disabling Klauss’ Ford Fitch. No one knew where he parked it but they knew he took Linda Mae out in it and that was good enough for them. Hooter was volunteered to track the Fitch down and disable the engine.

A ride around town yielded nothing and Hooter realized that no one knew where Klauss lived. Strange. The only other choice was one of the parking lots up at the mountain. With a groan Hooter shoved his pickup in gear and made for the access road.

After a couple of hours of driving real slow through each lot, he spotted the Fitch. At about the same time security spotted Hooter. For the past hour they had been watching Hooter’s slow progress past the vehicles in the packed lots.

As Hooter heaved himself out of the driver’s seat and reached for his tools, security pulled up.

“Okay, buddy, want to explain what you’re doing?” said a bull-necked security guard. Hooter stammered something about looking for a friend’s vehicle.

“What’s the name of your friend?” the guard sneered. Hooter obliged. “Klauss, Sander Klauss. He’s one of the ski instructors up here. He locked his keys in his car.”

“Klauss? Who? Never heard of him. Listen, friend, if I were you, I’d hike my butt back down the mountain and we’ll forget this ever happened. Come up here again and I’m taking you inside. Got it?”

Hooter got it. Climbing back behind the wheel he wasted no time finding the main road. It didn’t make sense to Hooter. Nothing was adding up. No car, security never heard of him, no one knew anything. Who was this clown?

Back in the parking lot at the Double Axle the Counter Dwellers were not pleased to hear Hooter had failed. Old Mel indicated that his dead auntie could have done a better job and everyone retired for the evening mad at everyone else.

Christmas Eve day had arrived with no answers. Keeping with tradition, if not with each other, it was a sullen, miserable crowd that hauled itself onto the stools at the Double Axle for their annual cup of Christmas cheer.

Linda Mae had outdone herself in a dazzling white uniform with the sweetheart neckline the boys loved. From her ears swung gay little Christmas trees and pinned to her ample bosom was the twinkling wreath. Her coiffure was a study in the architectural possibilities of hairspray and her lips were rouged a luscious Cranberry Cinnamon Swirl.

With a collective sigh the Counter Dwellers hearts melted. This was their girl. But the spell was not to last. As Linda Mae handed around cups of spiced eggnog she hummed a little tune. Wait. Hooter recognized that tune. He’d last heard it over twenty years ago when he and Martha Louise had pledged their troth. She couldn’t be humming The Wedding March. Could she?

As the last of the cups met hands, Linda Mae wished her faithful patrons and admirers the best of the holiday season. As they gave her their best three cheers, Linda Mae just smiled.

“Boys, I’ve got an announcement to make. I’ve accepted a proposal of marriage.” Linda Mae stood there. That was it. The cat was out of the bag. Linda Mae gave a little twinkle and exited through the swinging kitchen door.

The Counter Dwellers sat there. No one said anything. Hooter thought he was imagining Linda Mae said she was marrying a total stranger.

But she had said it. What was the woman thinking?

Hooter and the other Counter Dwellers could buy the fact that Linda Mae had a crush but marrying someone you’d known for about two weeks was just plain dangerous. Hooter realized they didn’t have much time to save Linda Mae from herself.

No one knew anything about Sander Klauss, except maybe for the Ford Fitch. Maybe he was one of those German ski instructors who blew into town every few ski seasons, romanced the local talent and then evaporated with the snow. But what if he was an escaped convict that liked blondes and Linda Mae was in danger.

Hooter was fresh out of bright ideas. Except for one. He and the rest of the Counter Dwellers would spend Christmas Eve shadowing Klauss on his next date with Linda Mae. If he made a move, they’d be there to rescue her and her honor. When the rest of the boys agreed it was a sound plan, Hooter handed out assignments. The real trick was going to be getting away from their families on Christmas Eve.

At nine o’clock that night Hooter and Old Mel joined Bunchy, Flock, Ludovico, Dayrel and Lambert in the parking lot of the West Burville Texaco. The Counter Dwellers were weighed down with rucksacks filled with thermoses of strong coffee and sandwiches. Lambert had swiped his wife’s holiday Five Pound Fruitcake and Flock had included a box of sticky ribbon candy he’d taken out of his grandmother’s gift pile. At least they’d eat. Dressed in insulated coveralls, heavy wool hunting socks and felt packs, the boys were ready for a long night of staking out Klauss and his intentions.

It was beginning to snow again. The boys were milling around stamping their feet when Lambert said it just might be a night for ol’ Rudolph to be guiding the sleigh. Old Mel and Ludovico chuckled until Hooter shot them a poisonous look that stifled the merriment.

Something wasn’t right. Old Mel was the first to say it when he whispered, “I got a weird feelin’ here and I can’t quite place it.” Everyone nodded.

“What now, Hooter?” Flock asked.

“We make for the Double Axle…and stay low,” Hooter replied. Everyone thought that was a good idea, except Old Mel, who argued that his lumbago was raising Hob with him and he wasn’t crawling around on his hands and knees for anyone. Ludovico suggested they leave him behind and a small scuffle ensued when Old Mel offered to clean Ludovico’s clock. Hooter shushed them both.

Hooter suggested they fan out and remember to stay out of the snowbanks. After a minute of getting sorted out and some pushing and shoving between Old Mel and Ludovico, they set off for the Double Axle.

Just before the parking lot at the Double Axle, with its one flickering security light mounted on a short post, they stopped. Flock and Dayrel mentioned cold feet and frostbite in the same sentence and Lambert muttered that the kids would be wondering what had happened to Daddy. The others nodded in agreement. But no one made a move to turn back. What they all wanted was a gander at Linda Mae closing up the diner. But there was no activity behind the counter. Had she left without shutting out the lights? Or had something happened to her?

Behind the Double Axle is a field bordered by pines. Here and there scrubby trees, stunted by years of wind and cold, stand twisted and bent. Right in the middle of the scrubby underbrush is an open area no one visits. The field serves as the view for diners who might glance out the plate glass window. But mostly it’s just ignored.

As Hooter and the boys were slogging their way through the snowy parking lot around to the backside of the diner, they noticed hazy lights way out in the field. What was going on out there?

The boys stepped up the pace. Hunched down together they skirted the dark edges of the field. As they got further into the field they saw the battered Ford Fitch parked in the deepening snow, the beam from its headlights looked like gauze through the veil of heavily falling snow.

What they saw next made the Counter Dwellers leave the shadow of the trees and pick their way across the brush strangled field. Klauss and Linda Mae were standing in the snow waving their arms at the sky. No one could hear a word they were shouting but it looked pretty urgent. The boys picked up the pace.

Staying a distance from Klauss and Linda Mae, they tried to assess if she was coming to any harm. It didn’t seem that way but the Counter Dwellers piled into each other trying to get a closer look.

If Klauss and Linda Mae had turned they would have seen a tableau of the Counter Dwellers hunched behind a few stripped out pricker bushes. But their attention was diverted by a light that was headed their way and getting stronger by the minute.

“What the…?” muttered Hooter with his mouth hanging open. The Counter Dwellers got a little closer to each other.

“Is that one of them UFOs like they got over in the desert?” Bunchy whispered. “I’m for getting out of here.”

“You’re not going anywhere,” Hooter growled. “What if that Klauss is an alien and he’s taking Linda Mae up in that UFO? We’ve got to save her. I knew there was something fishy about that guy,” he added.

The idea of saving Linda Mae prompted the Counter Dwellers to break cover and stalk toward Klauss and Linda Mae, still waving and hollering at the approaching light. Not for the first time Hooter asked himself what the hell was going on here.

“What if it’s a plane gonna crash into Linda Mae?” Bunchy said a little awestruck.

“Shut up, Bunchy. It ain’t no plane.”

The boys were rooted to the spot with their felt packs getting soaked. But no one was noticing their feet.

Out in the field things were so bright their eyes hurt. Hooter and the other Counter Dwellers couldn’t be sure but it looked like the Ford Fitch was shimmering.

“Is that Ford melting?” asked Dayrel.

“For chrissake, shut up, Dayrel,” said Lambert. “I think it’s, looks like a…what the hell is that?”

In the place of the giant ball of light that was once the rusty Ford Fitch stood an enormous white sleigh and eight of the prettiest reindeer all done up in red harnesses with little jingly bells.

“Santa? Is that Santa’s sleigh and…uh…eight tiny reindeer?” Bunchy exclaimed before Ludovico hit him one off the side of the head.

“Of course, it’s Santa, you jackass. I think,” Ludovico pondered.

Something else was happening that cut Ludovico off and made the boys creep closer. It was Linda Mae. Or was it?

Someone was standing in the field and she sure wasn’t dressed in a waitress uniform. A woman who looked regal and magical and dressed in a long white robe with gold trimmings and a wreath of holly around her blonde updo. Linda Mae? The boys held their breath. At her side was a familiar figure but it wasn’t Sander Klauss. In his place was a tall round figure dressed all in red with dark wavy hair. The white beard wasn’t there but the boys still had a pretty good idea who it was. So Sander Klauss was Santa Claus. Why hadn’t they guessed? And he was going to take Linda Mae off in that sleigh to God knows where.

They were going to lose Linda Mae to Santa Claus. It didn’t seem possible. Sander Klauss had come looking for a Mrs. Claus and had found her at the Double Axle Diner. At the same moment the Counter Dwellers were musing about how you just could never tell sometimes, Santa was helping the new Mrs. Claus into his sleigh.

The boys knew they were looking at Linda Mae for the last time. They abandoned any idea of trying to hide. But just before she sat down, Linda Mae turned and blew them a kiss that crossed the field and touched the lips of each and every man. They gave a collective sigh and Old Mel’s knees buckled. But that part might have been the lumbago.

As she settled herself next to Klauss, Linda Mae gave one last wink and a little wave toward the Counter Dwellers. Hooter and the boys heard a single shout and caught a whiff of warm reindeer as the sound of tinkling bells filled the clear cold night. With a flick of the reins, the reindeer bounded into the dark snowy sky.

From the middle of the field, the boys waved their mittened hands one last time at Linda Mae. No one spoke. They stared at the field and into the sky and at each other. Finally Hooter said, “I told you there was something fishy about that Klauss guy.”

Tromping back across the field on icy feet, hungry and miserable, the Counter Dwellers agreed that Linda Mae better not have been abducted by some fancy alien in a Santa suit. Old Mel wondered out loud who was going to keep the diner open and Flock said as long as the lights were on they might as well grab some pie before heading home.

Stumbling across the hillocky snow the Counter Dwellers tried the door at the diner. It swung open.

“Linda Mae must have forgotten to lock up,” Hooter said as he stepped inside.

“And she left the coffee on and fresh pie. For us?” Dayrel asked the other Counter Dwellers.

“Would seem so,” said Lambert. “Let’s dig in.”

As Hooter was digging around behind the counter looking for a knife to cut the lemon meringue, he spotted a letter beside the coffeepot addressed to the Counter Dwellers. “Hey, look at this. Linda Mae left us a letter,” Hooter said, coming out from behind the counter.

“Hurry up, open it up.”

Hooter ripped open the white envelope. Inside was a single sheet of paper signed by Linda Mae.

Hooter read for a minute in silence. He lowered the paper and puckered his brow.

“Ready for this?”

They were.

“Boys, according to this here letter, Linda Mae, left us the Double Axle and all its accouterments, whatever they are. She spelled it all out right here and she spelled out our names too. ”

The Counter Dwellers were dumbstruck.

“You mean we own the place?” said Bunchy.

“Looks that way,” Hooter replied. “Now what?”

Now what indeed…

Merry Christmas from all of us up at the West Burville Gazette and the Double Axle Diner, West Burville, Vermont, population 683, give or take.









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Weather Report from Never Never Land: the Election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Never heard of him.”

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

“What well? What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the menu planning meandered off in a new direction…

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

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

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

“I’m on my break.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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