“At least the moon isn’t full,” muttered a dirt covered man. His overalls were muddied beyond the brown that they should have been, and he was speckled with sweat across his unkempt face. The dirt man was sifting soil into a rectangular hole. He had to raise his voice to reach over the drumming.
“That damn pounding comes every year, though,” replied his companion. The companion was dress similarly, but was resting his bearded chin on his hands which he crossed over the end of his shovel. “Good thing we’re just about done, Walt. Don’t want to be home too late.”
The light from their lanterns lined up with the beaming of the crescent moon, and shone on the headstone. Walt – Walter as his wife called him – patted the last of the dirt down with the broad side of his spade. “Poor bastard’s name was Zachary, almost named our daughter that, had she been a boy,” Walter said, trying to clear the air. Fortunately, the drumming was fading with his conscience.
Staking his shovel into the adjacent soil, the companion rolled out the two new strips of sod and stomped over them. He placed his hand on Walter’s shoulder, “I’d rather have your girl Rebecca around anyhow. C’mon,” gesturing with his head, “we best get you home to Ramona. I’ll water the sod in the morning.”
* * *
A small blue sedan came swooping over a hilly curve. The rain came down with an intensity that left quite a trail behind the rental car. “Damn rain,” muttered Jack, as he drove through the autumnal downpour. It beat on the roof of his cabin relentlessly. He wasn’t boasting a full tank of gas, but then again, he really wasn’t headed anywhere in particular. Jack knew that he’d find a place to fill up and stretch his legs before long.
It seemed he knew wrong. A few hours had passed and the sun threatened to set. The rain hardly gave up. “This is Jack,” he shouted, holding a small phone up to his ear.
“Jack, I’ve been waiting two days to hear from you, no calls, no emails, nothing. What’s going on?” questioned the man on the other line.
“Arthur, I’ve been… well, on the road, ya know.” Jack half heartedly apologized.
Arthur let out a sigh, “I know where you are, I signed you up for the road trip, didn’t I?” Jack tried to interject, but Arthur was good at talking over interruptions. “If my memory isn’t failing me, it was me who fought for you after you proved to be a one hit wonder. Remember kid? You have sixty days. Sixty days, Jack! If you don’t have a new story for us by Christmas, I won’t be able to keep your contract open.”
“I know, I know,” Jack stammered. As if the rain wasn’t enough to get his nerves up. “You’ve been a great help. I didn’t think I’d ever get Supercharged into the hands of readers, not to mention make it a hit -”
“I made that book a hit, Jack.” Arthur was just as good at interrupting as he was at ignoring interruptions, “You’re a bottlerocket, kid. You went off with a great big whistle and then, BANG! you’re over. You know how that makes me look to the investors, Jack?”
“I know, Arthur,” those always seemed to be the only words Jack could squeak out when he was talking with the his publishing agent. Arthur kept rambling, it was another one of his powerful traits. He did help, though. Jack had written a nearly best seller by the time he was twenty-four. Unfortunately, he hadn’t had a good idea since he wrote it. That’s why everyone in the business called him a bottlerocket, quick to popularity, out with a bang. Just as Jack was about to be sucked back into the repetitive banter, he saw a burst of light.
“You still with me, Jack?” Arthur questioned, almost gasping for air. “Jack?!”
Jack leaned forward, nearly pressing his face against the interior of the windshield. “There’s a man on the cell tower, in the rain.”
“Eh?” Arthur burst.
“Arthur, there’s a man on the cell tower in a storm, can you believe that?”
“Quit changing the subject!” Arthur barked. “Call me back in the morning with a good idea. You only have sixty days to start -”
The bright light burst again from the cell tower and the signal on Jack’s phone dropped.
“Arthur? Sir?” Jack looked down at his phone. “Damn it.” The reception was gone completely.
Time seemed to fly as Jack watched the needle dive on his gas gauge. He hadn’t seen any signs of life in the dark but spent most of his time in the quiet, listening to the rain let up, as he cursed his phone. Soon, in the distance, he saw a light low to the ground. It reminded him of the flashes he saw on the cell tower. What was going on up there? Did that man cut the signal?
The light on the horizon stayed steady with its green-white glow. As it grew closer, Jack could see it transform before his eyes. A service station! Jack sighed and started to feel better. He could now see twinkling of city lights behind the station, and knew that he was near civilization. Pressing down a little harder with his foot, Jack made haste in hope of refueling.
POP! His front right tire burst with anticipation. He was only a few hundred feet from the service station, and now he was hobbling along like a wounded horse. The rental flailed, but he refused to stop short and turned the wheel sharp. The blue sedan inched over the inlet to the lot and Jack pushed in the breaks. The car lurched to a stop just as it depressed the attendant signal. Jack could hear the dinging slightly in the distance as he opened the door to step out.
“Great,” Jack mumbled as he rounded the corner of the car. The tire was destroyed. It wasn’t just “flat on the bottom”, like his father used to joke. That tire was gone.
“Having trouble, son?” Asked a withered voice. Jack looked up from the tire as he brought himself back into a standing position. He focused his eyes on the wrinkled old man. The old man wore and old style blue jumpsuit the kind that mechanics might have worn. It was clean and crisp like it was brand new. The name patch read Cletus. “You all right? I could hear that tire blow before you made it here. Like a gunshot, wasn’t it?”
“It’s done spinning all right,” Jack joked slightly, trying to bring himself out of his worry.
Cletus stepped just past the boy and noticed the barcode taped to the window of the car. “She’s a rental, that’s a shame. Well, at least it’s not yours.”
Jack pivoted on his heels and watched the old man look the car over. “I’m not sure if you have a phone, but I need to call the rental company, and probably my agent.”
“Sorry, son, we’re closed right now.” Cletus says coldly, rubbing his belly, “but, I can fix her up. Leave me your invoice from the rental company and I’ll see if I can bill ‘em tomorrow.”
Jack felt a weight lifted off his shoulders. “Thank you,” He sighed gratefully. “Where can I crash for the night?”
Cletus chuckled a little, “Hand me your keys and your invoice.”
Jack’s eye contact with the man broke and he hustled to the driver’s side. He threw the door open and reached awkwardly across the center console to the glovebox and took out the invoice. On the outward movement, he yanked the keys, silencing the dull ringing of the ajar door. “Here,” he muttered, clumsily handing over the only access he had for escape.
Cletus smiled. “Now turn around,” Jack followed accordingly, “See ‘em light over there?” Jack nodded, “That’s the local bed and breakfast, only inn, in the town.”
“Thanks.” Jack opened the trunk on the car and retrieved his suitcase and a laptop bag. He proceeded down the street and heard Cletus begin to retreat within the service station. “Hey!” Jack shouted, turning back to Cletus, “what town is this anyhow?”
Jack was welcomed into the bed and breakfast warmly. It was the home of Walter and Ramona Summers. They seemed to know he was coming. Perhaps Cletus called ahead? Jack wasn’t worried, the walk there was damp and tiring enough that he was ready to turn in. He clomped up the stair to the room on the right and threw himself onto the bed. He rested until morning.
Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Jack sat up to a sweet smell. Pancakes and maple syrup. His head hurt a little, and he wasn’t surprised that he slept with his clothes on. The sun was peeking through the window. The rain was finally done. Jack stretched before the window then turned to slump his way to the bathroom.
A shower seemed to bring him back to life. Jack strode, refreshed, down the fine wooden stairs with his laptop bag over his shoulder. He rounded a corner to the open, welcoming kitchen, to see Mrs. Summers and a little girl. Mrs. Summers was placing pancakes on the a large white serving plate and turned her head to see Jack.
“Heard you coming down the stairs, Jack. Good morning.” Mrs. Summers welcomed.
“Good morning, Mrs. Summers.” Jack said, looking around the room. He was uncomfortable staying in a strangers’ home.
“Please, call me Ramona,” she replied lifting the plate and turning to the table, “have a seat, it’s time for breakfast.” Jack’s eyes grazed over the table. There were plates and silverware before every seat. The big white plate of pancakes served as the centerpiece of the table, and a large portion of cut ham accompanied it with a dish of scrambled eggs. Jack picked a seat nearest the door.
“My name’s Rebecca!” Spouted the little girl who was playing with her eggs and shreds of pancake.
“My name is-” Jack was cut off by the wide-eyed girl’s shrill excitement.
“Jack! I know. I know lots of things. My mommy says that’s because I’m six years old.”
“That’s pretty old,” Jack said smiling at Rebecca uncomfortably. Ramona shifted her weight and sat next to Rebecca, leaving the head of the table open. “Will Mr. Summers be joining us?” Jack asked politely.
“Walter?” Ramona asked rhetorically. “No, he’s off working already.”
“Where does he work?” Jack continued.
“Daddy works at the cemetery.” Rebecca said, matter-of-factly, scooping eggs into her mouth.
Ramona cleared her throat and changed the subject, “What does a young man like you do for work, Jack?”
“I’m a writer actually.” The response came out coldly and he made eye contact with his syrup riddled fork.
“My Walter was a writer, for a time, a journalist. What do you write?” Ramona asked, removing the strangeness she has presented earlier.
“I write fiction.” Jack locked eyes with her, trying to measure her reaction. “My only published book is Supercharged. It’s a novel about a superhero who is saddled with saving the world.”
Rebecca mostly ignored it. The six year old found more delight in scooping her food this way and that. Ramona’s smile shortened and she replied, “Never heard of it. I’m not much into fantastical things like that. Something true, about people, now that’s more my speed.”
“I guess I’ve always thought that life would be more satisfactory if I had superpowers. It sold really well, I figured most everyone had the same feelings.” Jack defended.
Chewing, Ramona slid her morsel to her check and ended, “There’s nothing something mystical can do that a real person can’t do better.”
The meal was growing cold, and Jack felt offput. He finished it in as few bites as possible and thanked Mrs. Summers for the meal. She refused his aid in clearing the table and left the dining room. Jack had inquired about an outlet and he was instructed that the den would be a good place if he wanted to write, but the house lacked internet. He never thought he’d wind up in a home with no internet, but he plugged in his laptop and headed for the door.
“Where are you off to?” Ramona questioned.
“I’m going to see if my car is ready yet.” He threw his jacket over his shoulders and closed the door behind himself.
The service station was no longer lit. The sun illuminated the old green building, and it looked good. Everything in town looked fresh and new. Jack had never seen a town so pristine.
The door wouldn’t budge. He was certainly surprised by the town, but the awe was broken when the service station was closed. What time did they open around here? Jack searched for any sign of an hours listing.
“Cletus is closed today.”
Jack saw a reflection of a man behind him. He turned to see a police officer. “You startled me,” Jack stuttered.
“I was on a routine walk,” The officer stated.
“I was just looking to see if Cletus had made any progress on my car.”
“He’s closed today. What’s your name?” The officer asked firmly.
“My name is Jack, I’m staying at the Summers’ bed and breakfast.”
“Another traveler,” the officer said coldly, “move along, any longer and I’d might say you’re loitering.”
Jack got the feeling the officer wasn’t interested in helping him reach Cletus. He thought about arguing at first, but he finally agreed and moved on. Instead of returning immediately to the Summers’, he decided to explore the town.
Cottonwood was small. He wasn’t capable of judging the population, but it was small. Every home was perfect. Not a missing shingle, not a peeling chip of paint. Shutters and curtains lined every window, and simple Halloween ornaments sat on every porch or step.
Downtown was quiet and bore little movement. A few elderly people darted from store to store. Everything seemed so clean and so… perfect. Jack had never been in a town quite the same.
Not long after he left downtown, Jack encountered a pair of large stone buildings. The one on his left read “Town Hall” and the other, on his right – tucked between Town Hall and the storefronts of downtown – was the library. Jack stepped up to the door and read a welcoming open sign.
He entered and immediately the smell of old books filled his nostrils. The hallway was short, and led to a desk with an elderly woman seated behind it. He tapped gently on the desktop and the woman looked up. Her glasses were large and magnified her pale eyes.
“Yes?” She whispered.
“Is there internet here?” Jack asked.
“Just at the computer in the back.”
“No wireless?” Jack questioned.
“Just at the computer in the back.”
Jack returned to the Summers’ residence in early afternoon. They welcomed him in with a light lunch and he retired to the den. He powered up his computer and began clacking away at the keyboard. It was important that he got back to Arthur before long. The lack of cell service continued throughout the day and Jack did his best to ignore it. He wrote the email as if he was writing another book. Only this time, he was making every other sentence and analogy for “sorry”.
Before he knew it, there were multiple revisions, and the time was slipping away. Ramona would be making dinner soon and he needed to get back to the library. Suddenly, the sound of the door opening penetrated his ears.
“I’m home, Ramona,” sounded Walter’s voice. Walter saw Jack in the den and made a request, “Could you start some coffee our guest and I, honey?” Ramona must have agreed, Walter’s next statement turned out to be, “great, I’ll change into something more comfortable.”
Jack attempted to find a decent stopping point and folded the laptop closed. Before long, Walter came through the hall and was no longer wearing his brown overalls.
“Good afternoon, Jack,” said Walter warmly.
Jack replied as Ramona brought in a tray with a coffee pot and mugs. “Did you know that Jack here is a writer?”
Walter smiled as he accepted the tray and set it on an end table between himself and Jack. “Is that so?” Jack agreed silently and tried to smile. “Do you like coffee?” Walter asked him, pouring the crude into the mugs. Jack agreed again and collected his mug from the middle aged man. “So, what do you write?”
Jack was used to the question, but wasn’t sure if Walter would respond like his wife. “I write novels, fiction, actually.”
“Oh,” Walter hummed, sipping his coffee, “I was a journalist for a small publication down in Kansas City.”
“What brought you to Cottonwood?” Asked Jack, trying not to twist his face. The coffee tasted a little peculiar.
“I was working on a story about the crops in the area up here.”
“And then you decided to become a grave keeper instead?”
Walter chuckled behind his mug. “No, lord no. I met Ramona, and her family. Fell in love, you see. Her father used to tend to the cemetery. I decided to learn the ropes and took over when he passed. It was about this time of the year, actually.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” Jack stumbled. Just as he felt the words slither out he saw his vision blur. Everything went black and he was gone.
“Is Rebecca asleep?” Whispered Walter.
“Are you sure we should do this? I mean the kid’s a writer. He needs it.” Whispered Walter again.
“It’s the orders from Skinner, so we do it. We always do it.”
The disembodied voice was Ramona’s. She was brooding over Jack’s laptop and plugged in a small flash drive. “These things are confusing, but Skinner said it would be automatic.” The screen went blue and populated with confounding information.”There we are, he said it would start like that.”
Jack shot up in his sleep, sweating coldly. A scream had woken him up. It sounded like a woman’s cry. It was awful. Could it have been Ramona?
Stumbling, he scrambled to put his pants on and made haste down the stairs. As he descended the flight, he encountered the family of three standing at the base of the stairs. Perhaps it was because of the panic, but he failed to notice how calm they seemed.
“Did someone scream?” Jack asked, still spooked.
Ramona was about to start, but she was cut off by Rebecca. “It’s the cemetery. Those people never sleep.” Jack looked confused and Rebecca’s parents seemed unhappy. “The ghosts there make noise all the time. It wakes me up a lot.”
“Everything’s all right. Go back to sleep, Jack.” Warned Ramona.
Jack realized that his head was pounding, and looked from each of his hosts. He gave up and retreated back to the bedroom. As he laid down, the thought came to his mind. What did I do after coffee? Before he could contemplate it, he was asleep again.
The next day was the twenty-ninth of October. Jack awoke again and retreated to the dining table after another shower. He felt better and wasn’t sure about the events of the previous afternoon. Rubbing his neck he moved to the den and inspected his laptop. He needed to get that message to Arthur.
The button depressed. Nothing happened. Jack depressed the button again. Nothing. “What the hell?” He questioned to himself. The computer was still plugged in, and yet the machine would not operate.
“Something the matter Jack?” Asked Ramona from the other room.
“My computer isn’t working and I need to contact my publisher.”
“That’s unfortunate.” Ramona said. Unbeknownst to Jack, she smiled.
“I think I’ll have to visit the library.”
The library welcomed Jack with the familiar smell of old books. He loved that smell. It was reading that made him a writer, anyhow. He smiled and passed the old woman at the desk who just stared at him with magnified eyes. He made his way to the back of the library and sat down at the old computer.
It attempted to boot up. The machine was old and moved how he imagined the librarian would. As he waited for the computer to prepare itself, his eyes scanned the nearby books. One caught his eye. Cottonwood Anthology. He looked back at the screen and forced the browser to open. He started to recall what he was writing the day before and started to poke away at the keys.
Then his mind wandered to that afternoon. He had coffee with Walter. Weird tasting coffee. Was he drugged? The Summers’ were too nice for that. Cottonwood Anthology. His eyes darted back to the bookshelf. Something was off about this town, though.
Jack forced his focus back to the screen. Another sprint of apologies surged from his fingertips. Cottonwood Anthology. He stopped. That book meant something and he could finally rest about this peculiar place. Pressing send, he hurried to the shelf and pulled down the book.
As he read, he held his breath. Things were bland until he found a special date. 125 years ago in 1888 there was a terrible drought in Cottonwood and the surrounding area. Many of the farms began to dry up and crops were doomed. To make matters worse, an illness befell the town. People were dying left and right.
Jack was surprised by the account. Had the area been affected multiple times? Walter came to the area writing about crops. Jack read on. He came to a section about “The Revival”. It explained that something miraculous happened and the crops were saved and that the ill citizens were cured. Then it stopped. The pages were missing.
“Having a good read?” Jack didn’t jump. He was becoming used to people creeping up on him. He looked up to see a powerful, bald, man peering at him from behind wireframe glasses.
“You have an interesting town history.” Jack said, trying to keep his cool.
“I should know, I’m the mayor.”
“The mayor?” Jack asked sticking his hand out for a shake. “My name is Jack, a traveling author.”
“I’ve heard,” started the mayor, “The town is abuzz about the nosy looking newcomer.”
“I don’t mean to seem nosy, Mr. Mayor, I’m just curious. I’m trying to find my inspiration for a new book.”
“Mayor Skinner.” Said the bald man. He scooped the book away from Jack and placed it back on the shelf. “Some of our books are old and require permission to be read.”
Jack apologized. Skinner started to remind him of Arthur. The only difference was the cold. Arthur was alway warm, even when he was unhappy.
“It’s getting late, you better head out before the police have to walk through and find you here after hours.” Skinner scolded, turning away.
Jack returned to the bed and breakfast that evening. Walter, Ramona, and Rebecca had started eating without him, leaving a place open, however.
“Welcome back, Jack.” Said Rebecca, playing with her food again.
“Sit down, we’ve got a pot roast ready.” Ramona welcomed him.
Jack slid his seat out and eyed the food. Roast, potatoes, corn, and beans. “Is Cletus’ station never open?”
Walter clanked his fork against his plate. “He’s been busy lately, but your car should be ready in a day or two.”
“A day or two?” Jack interrogated. “I need to get back on the road. I’m supposed to keep traveling until I know what to write next.”
“Did you find anything inspiring at the library?” Ramona asked. It wasn’t a question she should have asked.
Jack swallowed a gulp of milk to chase the roast, and said, “I did, actually. After I sent my email to my publisher, I found a book about this town, Cottonwood. I learned some interesting things. In 1888 -”
Ramona cut him short, “Our town history is sad, but endearing. We were nearly wiped out that year, but we were resilient. Good, strong, people managed to keep it alive. No superheroes, nothing.”
“Just the ghosts.” Murmured Rebecca. Ramona shot her a glare over her meal and Rebecca resumed stabbing her roast before putting it in her mouth.
The rest of the meal resumed nearly in silence. Walter spoke of writing a little. Ramona cut him short, reminding Rebecca that Halloween was just around the corner and that they’d all have a treat then.
After the meal, the family retired to the den. Jack swept through and collected his ruined laptop. A few more attempts and he gave up on reviving it. With a shrug, he collected his cable and bag and retreated to his rented room upstairs.
Something wasn’t quite right in Cottonwood. How could it take two days to change one tire? Did no one have internet? Where was everyone, all the kids and cars? It was too quiet. And what about that man on the cell tower?
Jack was tired, he could feel his vision fading again, but he fought it. Something suspicious happened to him the night before and he wasn’t about fall for it again. Was it in the milk, or the corn? The beans? No, the Summers’ ate the beans. Jack struggled. In the bathroom, he stumbled and slurped the water from the sink and let it run all over his face. Maybe he could water down whatever it was he ingested. The young man started to panic.
Fear clung to him like his soaking shirt as the water pooled from his chin. The panic welled up in his stomach that was too full of water. Sidling over to the toilet, he lifted the lid and vomited. After shaking, Jack forced himself to stand and watched himself in the mirror. Was he winning? His own face was becoming clear again. He turned the faucet on and his stomach churned. Jack kept it down and washed his face.
It was then, as he turned the knob with a slight squeak, that he heard the scream. The same scream as the night before. Only this time it was further away. Jack rushed to the window and looked below. Not far away, he could see the cemetery. There were people dressed in white, milling about. As he adjusted his eyes he realized that they weren’t just white, they were transparent! He never believed in ghosts. Sure, superheroes, but not ghosts.
Jack watched as the beings walked through headstones and more came bursting from the ground. Then they turned, as if he spoke to them, and they faced Jack in the window. “Can they see me?” Jack questioned to himself. His vision began to fade, and he rubbed his eyes. The dizziness was returning, and he could hardly fight it. Jack wanted to investigate the cemetery, but could not resist. He fell backward onto the bed, in a loud lump.
Later that evening, the door to Jack’s room opened, allowing light to creep in. “He’s asleep. I’m just going to reposition him so he’s less the wiser in the morning.” Walter stepped in as a silhouette and slowly shifted Jack on the bed and tucked him in. Walter then proceeded to the dresser that was topped with a doily and candles and removed a pen and a piece of paper from the top drawer. The wood glided smoothly. Walter then began to scribble something and left it on top of the dresser and left, shutting the door peacefully.
Jack’s head was killing him when he awoke in the morning. As usual he showered and prepared himself and started to feel better. When he made his way to the dresser to discover new garments, he found instead, a note on top of the dresser. It read, “Look inside the urn at the Town Hall.” Jack tucked it away into his suitcase and proceeded to breakfast.
He ate in silence, only mumbling a few greetings to Ramona and Rebecca. Jack didn’t trust them any longer. “I’m going to see about Cletus,” was all he permitted them, as he left from the building.
On his way past the service station, he noticed the policeman watching the area. Squinting, Jack could see through the window of the mechanic bay and saw his rental car jacked up to the ceiling. His paranoia was running higher as he made eye contact with the officer. Turning his head, he continued toward his destination.
Downtown was no different. There were hardly any people on the streets. All the shops seemed pristine and untouched. Jack could see Town Hall coming up before him and he searched for an urn. Before the two pillars that supported the facade were two robust flower planters that had well groomed plants bursting from them. Located just behind the leftmost corinthian column was an urn. Jack looked around for any onlookers and proceeded to it. It was old and metal and covered in dust. He removed the lid that nearly burped and stuck an arm down inside.
Jack produced pages.
Practically running, Jack found his way to the cemetery. He was looking for Walter. The gate was large, black, iron. Brick columns separated the segments, as they encompassed the ground. The gates were locked. Jack shook them and they barely budged.
“Walter!” Jack shouted. He repeated himself three times before he saw a figure approaching.
It was Walter. He hustled toward the gate in his brown overalls, just quite not the right color to mask the fresh dirt. “What in sam hill do you think you’re doing?” Walter demanded.
“You left that note for me, didn’t you?” Jack inquired.
“How do you know?”
“You’re the only one around here who’s shown any interest in me. Come to figure, if anyone would help me, it’d be you.” Jack stated.
Walter looked past him with a frown.
“None of this is real, it couldn’t be.” Jack continued, looking at the pages in his hands.
“Don’t bring those here!” Walter warned under his breath. “If you want to know if any of this is real, come back here tonight. After dark, before supper.”
Jack did just as he was instructed. He returned to the bed and breakfast to spend the afternoon “thinking”. He knew that the Summers’ women were catching on. Rebecca kept watching him with a wicked smile. Jack could bear it though, for a few hours. He waited for the sun to set before preparing to leave.
“Supper is on, it will be ready shortly, are you sure you want to go out to late?” Ramona lectured. Jack held a cold shoulder to her and shut door behind himself.
It was hardly a matter of minutes before he stood at the iron gates again. They were locked, as usual. Everything in Cottonwood seemed off limits. Jack stood there for what felt like an eternity before he threw his back against the gate and slumped to the ground. What was he waiting for anyway?
Something rested on Jack’s shoulder and he shuddered with alarm. His neck twisted to see a spectral face behind him. Jack jumped to his feet and saw deep, wanting, eyes burning right into his soul. They begged him and beseeched him. The mouth could say nothing. It was gone. This creature could not scream.
Then it was. The familiar scream echoed as more beings appeared in the yard. The first still reached for Jack, as if it wanted to flee with him. Jack’s knees wobbled, “This can’t be for real.” He turned and made haste back to the Summers’.
Reunited with his hosts, Jack ate their meal. Game hens and pasta. The meals were fantastic, really. This time, he refused to drink. He could tell that Ramona had an eye on him and he was convinced that the drink was the vessel for the poison.
This evening, Walter didn’t seem himself. Of course he was submissive, as usual. This time he was quieter and less cheerful. Suddenly, the man who tried to bring positivity to the table was simply cutting the meat from the bone and only focusing on his plate.
Rebecca never faltered. She tortured that bird. Prodding it with knife and fork, tearing it into shreds before even considering it food.
When it came time to enjoy the evening in the den, Jack returned to his room. He unfolded the torn pages from his pocket and studied them. They were more fantastic than his novel! Nothing could have prepared him for what he knew he had to do. After reading them through twice, Jack tucked them in his suitcase and closed the curtains. The screaming would have to be drowned as he laid down for some real sleep. Darkness crept over him.
“Good morning, Summers family!” Boomed a cheerful voice. It jarred Jack from his routine. He was slipping on his pants and nearly toppled. Proceeding down those smooth wooden stairs, Jack came to see Mayor Skinner standing in the doorway of the house. Ramona greeted him cheerfully and invited him to dine on the usual breakfast. Skinner sat and stuffed his mouth wholly with ham.
“Jack!” Skinner said, swallowing without hardly chewing. “Today’s the harvest festival, will you be joining the townspeople downtown?”
Jack nodded and dined across from the mayor. He knew no one was aware of his knowledge.
The meal was completed, and as normal, Walter was nowhere to be seen. Ramona tucked Rebecca into her fall jacket and the mayor led them through the door. The streets were bustling with people. It was as if they had suddenly arrived from thin air. The crowd collected downtown where there were wagons filled with crops led by horses and farmers. People presented pies and hams. Even live chickens were loose. It was the complete opposite of how the town had been.
People began dancing and drinking. Children ran amok as the crowd swelled into chaos. Jack knew what the celebration was for, but did not let on. Two hands grabbed him by the shoulders and led him into whirling dance. The hands belonged to two masked, smiling men who spun and sang gibberish. Jack only twirled with them. Each step was scheduled and on cue. Soon, Jack was titled to the ground and one masked man pulled forth a flask. Jack tightened his throat as the masked man used his free hand to force his mouth open. The flask was poured into him, but Jack did not swallow.
Letting his limbs fall free, Jack let go of his faculties and closed his eyes. The crowd cheered menacingly and Jack spit up the poison. The masked men missed his regurgitation and lifted him into a cart. Jack fought to remain lifeless. Before long he was wheeled through a set of gates and to the main event. He was laid upon a stone slab and a door shut, closing him in. It was dark, save for the light beaming from three lit candles. He would have to wait until nightfall.
As Jack explored the confines of his stony chamber, he could hear something grumbling. The sound came from the other side of one of the walls and Jack put his ear to it. There was a sort of snoring, or snorting. A slobbering and lapping. There was something certainly waiting for Jack on the other side of that wall.
Jack decided to sleep. He returned to the stone slab and waited for his assailants. The hours had passed and the gnashing sound from the other room had become nearly as rhythmic as the sound of waves. By now the mayor was wrapping up the celebration downtown, and soon, they would release him.
Within minutes, the stone door was opened. It must have been near midnight. Three bodies, Jack could detect, had entered the chamber. He peeked through his lids to see the mayor, Walter, and and older man with a beard and a shovel. The mayor was wearing a dark robe and held a roll of duct tape.
“Are you ready men?” Skinner asked his companions who only nodded. Skinner stepped toward Jack and unraveled a segment of tape. “The screaming is unbearable, but the drumming, their pounding to be free, is almost soothing.” Skinner said with sadistic glee as he began a chant. Walter and the bearded man started humming lowly. The mayor descended on Jack.
With haste, Jack swung his legs and knocked Skinner to the floor, sending his glasses skittering. Walter and the old man lost their focus, and Jack sprang to his feet, fueled with adrenalin. The two did not pursue Jack as he now loomed over Mayor Skinner.
“You’re up early.” The mayor spat.
“Your games are old, Skinner.” Jack managed. Mayor Skinner backed himself through the doorway, still on the ground. “Do you think it’s right to sacrifice someone for your prosperity?” Jack asked heroically.
“We’ve always sacrificed someone. What do you think I had to risk to help my people when we were plagued with disease and famine? One soul for another peaceful year and eternal life is more than we could have bargained for.” The mayor began to spill.
The snarling behind the adjacent door began to grow.
“It’s not right! How many people have you had to give up?” Jack questioned, leaning in to the Mayor.
“124. 124! You’ll be 125, and we will go on for another year.”
“When people are in need of help, they ought to reach out to other people.” Jack snapped.
“There was no one. Where would you turn when you have nothing. We needed the power, the immense power!” The mayor said shaking, as the slobbering grew intense. The drumming and screaming began as the ghastly residents of the cemetery started to spring to life. “Walter, club him, we have no time!” Skinner demanded.
Walter lifted his shovel without confidence and prepared to swing.
Just then the stone doorway to the mausoleum burst open, scattering brick everywhere. The drumming, the haunting sound of hands beating on coffins became louder. A massive creature, mostly mouth and teeth emerged. Walter and the old bearded man were tossed aside with ease as the beast puffed up.
Skinner looked on in sheer horror as the monster was loose. It’s hair hung loose to leathery skin and it’s two legs stomped on Skinners stomach, splitting him open like a rotten pumpkin. The creature pursued Jack.
Jack knew it, from the pages. This beast, this thing, was called forth to grant them extended life, health and prosperity. The only thing it required was a fresh life yearly and their immortal souls.
Jack faced it as it made ground on him. He could only walk backward.
This thing was said to haunt the Midwest for centuries, even the local natives feared the horned, scaly, hairy, demon.
It continued to puff itself and drooled uncontrollably with hunger for Jack’s life. It wouldn’t eat him, but rather absorb his life as he died. The Hodag, they called it, would sit atop the fresh grave and the life energy would flow up into it. Only then would it return to its den to sleep. Unless…
Jack stumbled backward and took a short freefall. He landed in a poorly padded coffin, in a grave that was freshly dug. It’s dirt caressed Walter’s overalls. The beast loomed over the pit and grinned down at Jack, who’s heart was racing. Would he really die tonight? Jack had planned to spit out the poison, but he had no plans on how to face the creature and now it bore down on him. The drumming of 124 pairs of fists beating against their undeserved caskets boiled to a peak and the wailing of the lonely few who were granted the right to scream tore through the night.
The Hodag brought it’s mouth within inches of Jack’s face. Jack nearly wet himself. In the distance he could hear, above the din, the ringing of twelve bells.
* * *
Cottonwood was quiet on the morning of November first. Only the wind whistled through the trees. There was no one in the streets, no signs of the celebration. The Summers’ bed and breakfast was vacant. At Cletus’ station there was a hydraulic noise.
Jack was lowering his car from the lift. In just a few hours he managed to pack his things and change a tire. He did his best to keep the previous night off his mind. The whole experience was more than he could swallow. He fired the car up after he silently filled his tank with a complimentary tank of gas.
Jack revved the engine and drove out of town, in opposite direction of his entrance. As he reached the city limits, his cell phone reception was restored. He called Arthur immediately.
“Jack you imbecile! I’ve been trying to reach you for days!” Arthur shouted.
“I know,” Jack said smiling, “I have good news.”
Arthur was silent.
“I think I’ll write a human story this time.” Jack began to shoot ideas through the phone and looked in his rearview mirror. The last thing he saw that shrank in the distance was a sign:
“Welcome to Cottonwood.”