Buford County Book Club

Monday

Joining the book club had been a bad idea. Sherrie knew that going in. She’d always had a thing about finishing books she was told to read; well, starting them was its own boondoggle too. Ever since fifth grade, when she’d been forced to sweat and slog through Lord of the Flies she hated it. Give her a suggestion and she’d get around to it…sometime. But Jan was not a suggester. She was the type to serve you the new brand of coffee she’d ordered from some place with a fancy name and watch each separate drip make its way down your throat. The book club was very austere with her at the helm: no skipping books, no books-on-tape. And there were so few things to do in Buford county that Sherrie just felt…stuck.

Right as Jan rang her, the book lay spread-eagled over the old rabbit-ears of her television. Sherrie threw a pillow sham over it as if Jan could see all the way from her house.

“Did you read it?” Jan breathed heavy on the other line. No ‘hello’, no small talk, just business. That was Jan.

Sherrie tried to laugh. “It’s only been three days, Jannie, give me a break.”

“I found it a quick read.” Jan panted like she’d been running, and spoke too close to her receiver’s mouthpiece. It was like being crank-called by a pervert. “I started it Thursday, had it done by the time we met.”

“Oh.” Sherrie swallowed. “Well, you always were a sprinter, Jan, you have to remember I get distracted real easy.”

“How far along are you?”

“Halfway,” Sherrie lied.

“Good.” Jan seemed to relent a bit “well, pretty soon you’ll see it just goes faster and faster. Everything does. I just finished edging my lawn.”

Sherrie bit back laughter. Jan lived in the old Victorian horror by Cutter drive, it had lawns upon lawns. “You know, that’s what god makes teenage boys for, dearheart.”

I made me,” Jan said, flatly and finally as if pronouncing the time.

Sherrie swallowed. “Oh…well, I have the salon to open in an hour, I’ll go fast and read like they taught us in eighth grade.”

“Do,” Jan said, and hung up.

Sherrie put the phone in the cradle like she was dropping a snake into the hog’s feed trough. Now she was ordered to finish the book, then?

She retrieved the pillow sham and looked down at the cheap mass-market paperback. Wish Upon Yourself said the italic semibold title. “Learn how to map destiny.”

Sherrie studied the back of the book. Lots of blather about how to control the world around you by a series of thought exercises. The book club was no stranger to that; she’d read The Secret and enjoyed it, even though she’d run out of interest mere weeks after.

But really now, Jan was pushing too much. Sherrie had befriended her because her forcefulness and blunt personality had looked entertaining from a distance, and maintained the friendship because being Jan’s friend was easier that ceasing to be Jan’s friend. She vowed to skim it after coffee and Dr. Phil. Halfway into her third cup, she looked at the clock and realized she had to go open the salon. She grabbed her purse, keys, and multigrain crackers to snack on and was out the door in a heartbeat.

Tuesday

Sherrie stood in line at the store, nursing a headache. She hadn’t had much beside coffee all day, and one of the machines at checkout was making a dissonant whine. In the back of her mind was the book. She wondered if there were crib notes of the thing online, and whether Jan would detect that she had cheated on reading the book. It shouldn’t matter, really, Sherrie wasn’t looking to have her life changed drastically, none of them were. They were small-town girls, they weren’t about to go traipsing around the world doing yoga on mountaintops.

Sherrie shifted a bit, and noticed the person behind her was Florence Lambert. Flo had frozen as if in mid-speech, mouth hung open a half-inch as she looked off in the distance. The machine tone, Sherrie realized, came from her mouth.

Sherrie turned to look in front of her.

The checker was moving in a series of repetitive, twitchy gestures. He passed his hand over the scanner, scratched the underside of the till, then typed something on the register. Then he’d turn back to the man in front of her, repeating the cycle. Sherrie watched him move, a sinking feeling coming over her. As a child on a church picnic she had once stood over a nest of ants, not realizing it until they bit through her leggings. This dropped a similar pit in her stomach.

“Excuse me,” she said to the gentleman in front of her. He watched the cashier with a dull, unwavering gaze. “Excuse me,” she prompted a little louder.

Flo dropped to the floor and began seizing.

Sherrie jumped back. It had simply been from one second to the next: Flo had gone from vertical to horizontal in the blink of an eye. Now the cashier came around the counter, shedding his store apron. He knelt and cradled her head.

“I’ll call the emergency line,” Sherrie said, fumbling in her purse. She looked up to find both men looking at her as if she’d just spoken in Greek.

Flo jolted, hammering her rib cage on the floor. The checkout clerk shushed her.

“A body in light is done changing,” he said, “could a given be a malefactor in total? Awe begets greed.”

Sherrie gaped at them, phone forgotten in one hand. Flo’s eyes flew open, rolled to the whites.

“Leonard!” the manager shouldered his way in. “what fool thing are you—I’m sorry folks, this needs to be—”

Abandoning her hand basket, Sherrie fled.

She had enjoyed going to the chain market, because every time she got produce at Miller’s grocery on the corner of 15th and Stillwood Evan Miller handed her each fruit piecemeal so he could fondle her hands. Now…

Sherrie made it home and poured herself an ice tea that was mostly ice. Sloshing the pieces down and crunching them, one at a time, between her teeth, she watched the Coogan boy next door mowing the lawn. He walked in a tight, fixated pattern, lawn mower wheels traveling over the same ruts every time.

Sherrie went to go lay down.

Wednesday

She didn’t want to go open the salon. She didn’t even know if she should open the salon, things being what they were. Hardly anyone had shown up the past few days, less even than when the Supercuts had opened up two towns over. More importantly, Sherrie did not feel safe going outside.

The salon, back when aunt Tessa had run of it, was a county seat of innuendo and gossip. News traveled lightning-quick on the feet of rumor. But the women that had shown up in the last two days had known nothing or been curiously tight-lipped. Sherrie had never gone to a fancy college, but she was an apt student of human nature, and every instinct in her body was telling her to flee.

The phone rang. Sherrie stared at it. She was supposed to be at the salon by now. Or maybe she was en route and got distracted. It happened.

The phone rang ten times. Then nine times. The caller gave up, perhaps trying the salon phone now.

Sherrie got in her car, for lack of a better idea.

The streets were calm, even for a small town early in the morning. Some joker had parked askew in front of the pet shop, Sherrie crept around the ancient Buick like a boat maneuvering around a whirlpool. There were no people outdoors.

Sherrie turned the neon sign on and swept the shop floor. She wasn’t expecting anyone today, which was why Mavis Roper stumbling in at a quarter past ten was such a shock.

“Mavis,” Sherrie said when she found her tongue, “how you been, girl? I wasn’t expecting you ‘til next month.”

Mavis gasped for breath. Her auburn ringlets, unbrushed, spilled over her head like an octopus.

“Can’t breathe,” she said, “darlin’ cut them off for me.”

Sherrie blinked. “Now Mavis, I just did a lovely auburn rinse on those curls, you paid—”

“Cut it of!” Mavis had never spoken above a singsongy whisper, the growl that came from her throat made Sherrie jump. “It’s strangling my future.”

Sherrie directed her to a chair and slung a cape over her. Mavis wouldn’t sit still, not even as Sherrie tried to grasp individual locks and size them up with the shears. Mavis tugged her head away.

“No, girl, no. Get the clippers.”

Sherrie blinked. “You mean…Mavis, I can’t buzz those curls off. It’d be a crime.”

Mavis made a strange animal noise high in her throat. Maybe she was going through one of those low blood sugar episodes.

“How about I get you some coffee,” Sherrie said, fumbling for the cart behind her. “How many sugars?”

Mavis writhed in a fit. “GIRL. GET. THIS. HAIR. OFFA. ME.”

Mavis sighed in relief as Sherrie aimed the little-used electric clippers on her scalp, letting entire locks drop to the floor. Sherrie dabbed away a tear.

Mavis smiled in the mirror at her pale scalp. “Bald as the tip of the moon. Even an eagle-eye couldn’t see the thoughts in my skull.”

Sherrie wrung her hands like she was washing them. “You’re really satisfied Mavis?” It did not escape her that Mavis cooked up the same word salad she’d heard from the men at the store.

Mavis gave her an exacting look. Sherrie stepped back.

“Why does the loon not call the swan,” she said, narrowing her brow in suspicion, “a pebble can’t perceive the size of the mountain, tumbling to oneself only brings the gravity forward.”

Sherrie felt numb. “Don’t you worry about paying, Mavis, I’ve paid enough. Tell the mountain I said hello.”

Placated, Mavis got out of the chair and shrugged off the cape. Sherrie watched her skip like a young girl out of the store.

Thursday

It was technically morning, although the sky outside her house was dark as the inside of a cow’s stomach. Sherrie packed with all the lamps off, struggling with zippers and ties.

Well, she’d made a good go of it, but this town had lost its damn mind. She felt like a sneak thief stealing away in the night, but being forced to shave off a head of hair that fine had tipped the scales. Momma always said that you needed to leave just before you really felt you ought to leave, and, well, here she was.

The phone rang.

Sherrie dropped a blouse, hands over her heart. The sound was loud in the still house. She chewed the inside of her cheek as the phone rang five, six times. Finally, she crept over to the receiver and cleared her throat.

“‘Lo?” she asked, making her voice thick with sleep.

“Sherrie? What are you doin’ answering the phone at this hour?”

It took her too long to recognize the voice. Jan sounded thick and rough, like she’d smoked a lot in a hurry.

“You called,” she said, trying to make it sound innocent.

“Why aren’t you up on the roof tonight?” Jan’s voice came like a pair of pinching fingers through the phone line. “The chart says to face the secret star. Have you been doing your exercises?”

Sherrie cast a guilty look at the book still spread-eagled on her television.

“Of course I was up on the roof,” she lied, “but I heard the phone ringing and thought it might be you. Give me a break, girl.”

“Ah.” Jan sounded placated. “Well, the town’s flushed out to see the cheek of the moon ripen.”

“Including me. Now if you don’t mind, I’m getting back on that roof.” Sherrie went to hang up.

“Wait!”

Sherrie paused.

“It is the four-sided triangle that awaits the southern face.”

Sherrie swallowed. “It is. It really is.”

She hung up the phone by throwing it down on the cradle, then she abandoned the slacks she was attempting to cram into an already full bag.  The bags were thrown into the trunk of her hatchback, the book tossed as an afterthought on the seat beside her.

With the headlights off, Sherrie crept through town.

Many cars had been parked or abandoned on the darkened streets, some of them still idling. Sherrie squinted, but couldn’t make out any shape in the driver seat.

She inched her way down Thrush drive, cutting through Gold River Tributary way when Gordon street proved to be blocked off. This turned out to be a mistake, as she hit a barricade constructed of furniture and other household items. She could see in the little light that people crawled over the barricade, turning their heads to regard the intruder. Swallowing silently, Sherrie put it in reverse.

“Thank god!” Her passenger door flung open, Evan Miller depositing himself on the seat. “Drive, girl. There’s nothing good happening this way.”

Sherrie hissed, tongue on teeth. “Evan, Jesus!”

Evan still wore his grocer’s apron, smugly looking back at the barricade. “Those crazies tried to strongarm me outta my damn house. Showed them a thing or two.”

“You’re drawing too much attention.” Shapes agitated before her, shadowing the car. Behind her, she could see a coupe slowly swivel away from the sidewalk. Evan followed her gaze.

“You better punch it, girlie, they’re blocking us in.”

Sherrie hit the gas, leaping backwards. She hit the other car, cracking the headlight as it scratched a dark streak down her car’s side. Evan hooted.

“That’s the way to do it!”

Sherrie bit her cheek and turned back onto Thrush. “You seen any clear way out of town?”

“Oh sure,” Evan said breezily, “provided you don’t mind driving over fields and such. Try Grayson.”

Sherrie turned down Grayson street, Evan criticising every move she made. She went too slow, she turned too soon onto the next street, did she have to pump the brake like that?

“Oh no,” he said as they closed on a dark shape capping Webster lane. Between the Hay&Feed and Hailey’s Hardware was another barricade, this one much higher than the last.

“They know we’re trying to escape.” Sherrie’s stomach sank.

“Naw, it’s something to do with that gobbledeygook they keep spoutin’.” Evan squinted out the window. “Hand on. I got an ideer.”

Evan popped open the passenger door. Then he turned and planted a sloppy kiss on Sherrie’s unguarded mouth.

“We had a good time back in eighth grade, didn’t we?” He asked devilishly. He left the passenger door open.

Sherrie swiped her mouth with her hand. “That was Candy Gaskins, you creep!”

She watched as Evan dove into the crowd, bellowing and swinging, before wrenching free and running down the adjoining street.

Sherrie gunned it.

The barricade was not very solid, it splintered under the might of her little hatchback. A solid object, hopefully not a body, hit the passenger door closed. She hit Dutch street and sped through, weaving through the parked and prone cars like she’d been doing it her whole life. Dutch also dead-ended, but here were the start of the vacant lots that stretched to the edge of town, so Sherrie went offroading. Sherrie wove the car between pavement and field, praying she wouldn’t hit a ditch because she was too shit-scared to turn on her headlights. When she felt a mighty clunk under her wheels she stopped, fearing the worst.

She got out of the car and found herself on the lip of the old two-lane highway, by accident of nature a full two inches taller than the road.

Sherrie drove on, cackling.

She passed Miner’s Bend, with its outlet store, and Wardville, where her cousin lived. Out, out past all the towns and counties and everything she’d ever known.

Shortly after dawn, she pulled over at a service station to get gas. She counted out the last of her cash tips to the attendant, who looked to be about nineteen and done with the place. She perused the racks of merchandize while he popped the gas tank open, humming to herself.

“Aw, you got that book.” The boy pointed to her passenger seat.

“Huh? Mmm.” Sherrie blinked tiredly. She didn’t feel much like talking.

“Ev’rybody’s talking about it. We got it on tape.”

He pointed to the rack where, yes, in between mindful meditation and something about whale song, was a cassette bearing the title Wish Upon Yourself.

Sherrie blinked again. “Well I’ll be.”

“That all for you ma’am?” the boy asked once the tank was full.

Sherrie considered the tape. “How much for this?”

“How much you want?”

She swept the book from the passenger seat and tossed it on the counter. “Here. Trade you.”

She was in the front seat and driving away as the clerk waved after her.

Sherrie popped the tape in. A soothing male voice started immediately.

“Hello, by buying this tape you indicate you are ready to wish upon yourself. Throughout this tape, we will move through several exercises to help you achieve your goals. Now tell yourself: ‘I feel effective. I can make change in my life.’”

“I feel effective.” Sherrie smiled at herself in the rearview mirror. “I’ve made changes in my life.”

“Very good. Now remember, you are just starting out on your journey of self-actualization. You’re like a small pebble sitting before a mountain. You have a gravitational pull, but it is so small you’re only pulling yourself down…”

As the voice droned on, Sherrie drove away into new pastures.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction

Spring Fever

It was the first day of spring. Well, technically it had been spring for a month and three days, but those had been cluttered with rainy, overcast skies and nippy temperatures. Today was the day the two girls could finally assume their preferred wardrobe of hoodie-over-shorts.

Nikki hopped the barricade. Fallon park had four official entrances, but a well-worn footpath led to a dip that had been created by sagging the perimeter fence with a board. Leandra followed, mindful of splinters.

Nikki led, as she always did, slithering around rocks and shrubs with animal-like dexterity. She stopped short, nostrils flaring, to point at a tree that lie in their path.

“Oh, gross.”

Leandra examined the bark. The tree was littered with a series of untidy orange lint balls. Bagworm moths. Nikki wouldn’t care about the hows and whys, so Leandra kept her mouth shut and walked the perimeter of the tree. Usually the dusty hairballs were gone by the time spring rolled around. She put a hand on a branch to steady herself and something crumbled beneath her fingers.

Yelping, she jumped back. Nikki rolled her eyes.

On the branch were several bagworm caterpillars (grubs? Damn, she could never remember) backs arched high as they could go. Leandra poked one experimentally and it cracked open. Hollow inside. She looked up and down the branch with a shiver.

“It looks like they just stood there until they died. What made them do that?”

Nikki was already on the path, waving a dismissive hand behind her. “Whatever, it’s guh-ross.”

Leandra scrambled to catch up.

As they hiked, they took photos. Leandra took a selfie with a tree stump that sprouted several baby trees. Nikki took a series of burst shots of the songbirds, somehow avoiding the motion blur that Leandra could never get rid of. The breeze kicked up, and it carried with it the damp, earthy smell of green and growing things. They took deep lungfuls of it.

The footpath broadened and joined up with the proper laid cement of the bike trail. Nikki walked down the middle, unmindful of the bikes that whizzed past either side of her. Leandra stuck to the grass shoulder and stepped in dog poop.

Who had asked about the fountain? Leandra swore Nikki complained of thirst before her, but afterwards Nikki would tell everyone that Leandra coaxed them towards the fountains that resided beside the grey concrete bathroom and the single light pole that serviced it.

A bike trailer, laden with bags and boxes and other relics of a life lived mostly outdoors, was parked before the bathroom door. No bike in sight.

The man who embraced the light pole was gray. His clothes were gray from being worn too long and his beard was gray from age and his skin was gray from the dust of the road. He stood before the light pole and locked hands around it, face upturned as if in supplication.

“Gross,” Nikki said not-very-under her breath. Leandra tried walking to the side. Nikki captured her hand and dragged her back to the center of the path.

“Hey,” she called, “can you move your shit? We need water.”

The man did not answer. He did not move at all. The breeze kicked up again, rolling towards them. Smell wafted off the homeless man’s person, a solid aroma that made Leandra turn her head.

Nikki kicked the bike trailer. “Hey. Hey man I’m talkin’ to you. It’s rude to take up so much space, this is a public park.”

No answer. Leandra started tugging in the opposite direction, but now Nikki let go of her hand. She stooped and grabbed up a box that sat on top of the pile and tossed it on the bathroom’s roof.

“Go fetch,” she crowed. Leandra tugged her along the bike path, shooting glances behind them. The homeless man made no sign of movement, simply stood where he was  and faced the sky.

“He could have been crazy,” she hissed, tugging NikkI’s elbow.

“He was crazy. Why the hell was he doing that?” Leandra could see she was unsettled, more unsettled than she probably wanted to admit.

They walked along the wooded part of the bike path. Trees grew so close on either side that the wind mowed down the trail like a tunnel, carrying earthy smells with it. The girls threw their heads back and took deep draughts.

“Ahh-h-h-h.” Nikki swiped a hand over her nose. “That guy fuckin’ reeked.”

Leandra made a noise that sounded like agreement.

“Seriously, there was like, this sharp diarrhea smell.”

“I didn’t smell that,” Leandra said truthfully.

Nikki snorted. “I did. Probably crapped his pants when he had an episode. This park sucks.”

“Your mom sucks.”

“Your mom swallows.”

They laughed, and fell back into an easy rhythm. They could have exited the park the way they came, but Leandra lied and said she had to stop by the store on an errand, so they left by the west entrance. She didn’t want to go back there and see that the man had moved or worse, that he hadn’t.

She forgot about him by the time school with all its myriad social obligations rolled back around. Reabsorbed into the mass of the crowd, she happily stopped existing as an individual unit until the bell flushed her out of the system again. She had forgotten so thoroughly that after school was out for the week, she decided to walk home via Fallon park. She entered by the south gate, with its anti-littering signs and its who’s-who guide to seasonal birds, and walked the concrete bike path at her own pace. Things were different without Nikki; Leandra found she spotted animals she never saw when they were together. She pondered whether it was the noise the two made that scared them off, or merely that being with Nikki split her brain so she was less perceptive. A scary thought.

She didn’t even realize she was coming up on the gray cement bathroom until she was suddenly upon it. Things had changed. The bike trailer lay on its side, contents scattered. A small group of people clustered around the man who held the light pole, looking no different than when Leandra had last seen him five days ago.

Leandra stopped, throat closing up.

The man had an oddly blissful cast to his flat expression. His eyes were glazed and lines cut deeply into his face. He had been without food for some time. Leandra wondered if he had even moved to pee, a quick glance at his pants told her more than she needed to know.

The crowd looked like a group of park regulars. An elderly man with a racing bike, frame thin enough to lift above his head with one hand. A woman with two small dogs, another with one golden retriever. A man in red and black jogging shorts worked on the hands locked around the light pole, trying to prize them apart with no luck.

‘It’s like they’re glued together,” he muttered to no one in particular.

The woman with two dogs held a phone to her ear. Now she lifted the mouthpiece from her face. “It’s just ringing. They’re never in service on the weekends. That’s government for ya.”

The man in jogging shorts glanced at Leandra and she stepped back, heart jumping. Why were they looking at her? Did they know? Had they seen what Nikki did?

“Hey you.” He nodded at her backpack. “Do you have water or anything like that? The fountain’s broken and my bottle’s empty.”

“Sure, sure.” Feverishly, she dug through her backpack. She tossed him a half-full bottle. “Have it all.”

The jogger dribbled the water over the homeless man’s mouth, prying it open with a finger. It streamed uselessly past his slack lips as he stared up at the sky. He was in such a state he couldn’t even attend to his basic needs, and Nikki had laughed at him.

Leandra felt very small.

The jogger shook his head. “No good. Thanks anyway, you’ve done all you can.”

The woman with the golden retriever now had her phone out. “My cousin works at county psych. I can get someone out here, maybe.”

As the adults fell into the busy actions of rescue, Leandra crept away.

She waited until she was home a few hours, not to seem desperate, before she called Nikki. She tried back every ten minutes until Nikki answered, half an octave lower than her usual tone.

“Nick? You sick?”

“Feel kinda…I dunno.” Her voice was thick and slowed down.

“You remember that guy in the park?”

“Oh yeah.” Fresh life came into her voice. “That guy, man, fuck that guy.”

“I saw—”

“I think he gave me some kinda shit, I don’t know. I keep smelling that sharp smell coming off him.”

“Yeah, okay. I was in the park—”

“I’m gonna go down there and stomp his ass, as soon as I feel better.”

“How do you feel?” Leandra asked once the threat of interruption had passed.

“Like shit. I’m…stiff. My neck hurts. I can’t move too fast.” Nikki coughed.

“Should I come over?”

“Nah. if you don’t have it by now you don’t have it.” Nikki made a hocking noise. “Do me a favor and tell that guy his ass is grass.”

Nikki hung up. Leandra stared out the window for a while. The clouds had come rolling back in over the course of the week, but the air was still warm and heavy. She undid the latch and let the breeze in, let it carry the green smell of spring into her room. She could also smell a sharp, tangy undercurrent like what Nikki had described, but perhaps it was just a phantom sensation, Nikki supplanting Leandra’s memories in favor of her own. Wouldn’t be the first time.

 

Leandra slept in the next day. It was Saturday, why wouldn’t she? Well, when she looked at her phone, she found 37 answers to the contrary. Texts ranging from “call me” to “WHERE ARE YOU”, countless missed calls, five voicemails. She was dialing her mailbox when the last call came through.

“…andra?” if it was Nikki, she was far away from the phone.

“I’m here.” Leandra sat up in a sweat. “I’m here, can you hear me?”

“…ome. I’m at…evnth…Vine…’ It sounded like Nikki was shouting at the top of her lungs at the phone. Traffic noises cut through her voice.  “…lephant. ELE….ANT.”

That was a relief. She could at least pinpoint where Nikki was. The elephant statue near Seventh and Vine, which had once advertised a shop that had been gone long before they were born.

“I’m coming,” she shouted at the top of her lungs, “don’t worry.”

She threw on shoes and her hoodie and booked it to the corner.

Nikki was a dark grey patch on the light concrete. One foot was up on the elephant’s pedestal, the other missing both sock and shoe. Both hands were clamped around the elephant’s trunk. Nikki’s face was swollen like she’d had a bad shellfish reaction. Leandra got a sinking feeling.

Nikki’s voice was thick when she spoke. “Can’t move, Lee. Can’t make my hands move.”

Leandra saw now that she had dialed the phone with her bare toe. “Why didn’t you call your mom, Nick?”

“I can’t.” Nikki breathed like it took effort.

“Why not?” Leandra put her hands to Nikki’s arms and pushed gently. She couldn’t help here, and she knew she couldn’t.

Nikki looked about to cry. Her eyes had the same glazed cast as the homeless man’s. “I can’t, I did something bad. I’m being punished.”

A chill ran up Leandra’s arms. “What do you mean?”

“This is punishment. For what I did to the old guy.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Leandra said, and her words sounded hollow. “I need to call an ambulance.”

Her hands did not want to hold the phone. Nikki shouted “no” although her tongue had gotten so thick it sounded more like “do” and tried to kick the phone from Leandra’s hands. Leandra simply moved a few paces.

In the end, they could not move Nikki’s hands from their grip. Thankfully with the combined efforts of the EMTs and Nikki’s mother, she was lifted so the halo of her arms went up and over the elephant’s upraised trunk. Nikki screeched when she was removed, jarred into a flailing of movement like a frog stuck on an electric fence. Nikki’s mother covered Leandra’s eyes and turned her away from the spectacle.

“You’re a good friend,” she said.

Leandra swallowed. She didn’t feel like it.

Declining Nikki’s mother’s offer of a ride home, Leandra walked, taking in the damp spring smell and letting it soothe her. There had been talk of drugs and epilepsy and other big, scarier words. Leandra thought back to the homeless man. Had Nikki snuck back and done something worse? Was this really punishment for it?

The next day Leandra was sick. She woke up swollen and stiff, her eyes didn’t seem to want to open or close all the way. There was a whining pressure in her sinus, like she was going up in a plane, that would not go away no matter how much decongestant she took.

Her mother laid a hand on her forehead. “You don’t feel feverish. Just the opposite, in fact.”

Leandra swiped a tongue over her dry lips. “I think I caught something from Nikki.”

“I think your friend Nikki has more than sickness to worry about. You know they caught her trying to climb up on the hospital roof?” Her mother depressed her eyelid, checking her pupils. “You and Nikki didn’t take…anything, did you? You need to tell me if you did.”

Leandra shook her head. Her mother didn’t look convinced. She left Leandra the remote and plenty of gatorade, heaving the window open so that the fresh, warm air could seep into her daughter’s lungs.

Leandra’s head descended into a miserable grey fog. She did not sleep, merely experienced bouts of semi-consciousness as time slipped by in hours. She saw, or imagined she saw, a news bulletin showing a man in red and black jogging attire standing atop a pylon, gripping the steel girder with blind strength. The word “cordyceps” flashed out to her from the screen, a word she thought had to mean something, but she couldn’t remember what. That was the last semi-concrete thing she remembered before opening her eyes again and feeling pavement beneath her bare feet.

It was night. There was only a mild chill to the air, stirred by a breeze that brought the smell of organic decay and growing things. Leandra was walking, her legs propelled along automatically. She was not entirely sure she was awake, the world had a gelatinous half-real feel to it.

There were others out walking. Leandra thought she recognized the woman with the golden retriever, arm in arm with her fellow dog walker. Others, perhaps from school, perhaps from her neighborhood. They all headed the same direction.

The pressure in Leandra’s head lessened as the path went uphill. By the sighs of those around her, she guessed they felt the same. Her relief increased when she saw the concrete block of Fallon park’s bathroom, and what crouched over it.

Someone had constructed a gnarled, cagelike structure over the building. No, not someone, many someones.

People formed a tower with their bodies, locking hands to limbs as the construction grew taller. Those at the bottom were grey in the moonlight, their faces and hands looked carved out of rock. The people around her made their way sluggishly to the top, forming ever-higher steps and turrets and girders with their bodies. None of them made a sound as they turned their faces rapturously to the sky.

Leandra put a foot up and started climbing.

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction

The Human Chair

Mari collected her mail from the basket under the slot in her office door. Beside several thinner business-style envelopes was a thick manila envelope. By experience, she could tell the manuscript inside was not neatly stacked, some pages had been crumpled and then flattened again, creating a space where one should not be. She took her time getting to that envelope, lazily slitting open her mail and perusing royalty checks and missives from other publishers. She made herself a cup of tea before unwinding the string from the manila envelope’s flap.

You do not know me,” the manuscript began, in lazy writing whose characters leaned to the left, “I am a humble beast, a monster not worth a moment’s consideration. And yet, at the same time, you do know me. You have been in my acquaintance for some time. I know the feeling of your spine better than my own mother’s face. For I live in a piece of your furniture.

Mari set the manuscript down and sipped her tea, calmly studying the handwriting. The author had received some education, though his penmanship betrayed an overeagerness with the subject.

This was not the first such manuscript she had ever received.

As the daughter of celebrated novelist and critic Sagawa Koji who herself worked as a publisher, she had received a variation on Edogawa Ranpo’s The Human Chair five times over the course of her career. One uninspired soul had even sent Ranpo’s original text with no editing or commentary. Of the five, three had been mere pranks by aspiring authors, sheepish once confronted. One had been a longtime colleague of her father’s, whom had faded from her life promptly after exposure. The last threw himself before a train.

Mari continued reading. The narrator took relish in reminding her of his supposedly ghastly appearance, and how she had lovingly been sitting in his lap without realizing it.

How, you ask, did I do this? I have no art in my hands, I cannot make furniture. I am merely an accomplished burglar and broke in while you were away. I have been living quite comfortably without discovery, for who would look at the back of a chair?

The buzz of the intercom interrupted her reading. Sakai Yusuke, an old friend of her father’s, had arrived early for a lunch date. Mari let him in, accepting a kiss to the cheek stoically. The manuscript lay like a sloughed-off skin on the desktop.

Yusuke pointed to the paper. “Another budding genius?”

Mari collected the papers into her satchel. “An unsolicited manuscript. I get one everyday.”

Yusuke nodded sagely. “Word is getting out of your talents. Your father had a great reputation in the literary world.”

Mari buckled her satchel. “Shall we go?”

He had made reservations at a restaurant that specialized in French fusion cuisine, neither of which Mari was particularly fond of. Yusuke was moving out of country that week and spent the lunch waxing nostalgic to her about the old days. He lingered on the subject of her father, as authors were wont to do in her presence.

“…even overseas, they loved him,” he said, nearly tearing up behind his thick spectacles, “didn’t that chair you inherited come from the American author of those detective novels?”

And instantly, Mari knew it was that one.

Curved into almost feminine shapes, the massive easy chair had moved with them from their cramped flat in Nishio to their more spacious home near the university to her very own office. Upholstered in leather that only grew more buttery and soft with each passing year, it was not unlike sitting in the lap of a very loving mother. It was the only piece of furniture she owned large enough to conceal any adult human being. Had it seemed lumpy these past few days? Warm to the touch? Hard to tell, she hadn’t been paying any kind of attention to that sort of thing.

Yuske excused himself to the restroom, lending her an opportunity to retrieve the manuscript and skim through more pages.

I have come to crave the weight of your body like air,” it went on, “the perfume that comes from your hair as you sit in my lap—such bliss! It is the ultimate act of love to fold oneself into a shape for the use of their beloved. To warp your very flesh to the shape that fits into the other. If you could see me, you would see my body has become very chair-shaped in anticipation of you. No other man can make this claim.

“Riveting action?” Yusuke teased as he returned to the table.

Mari folded the papers back into her satchel. “Merely making conclusions. I may pass it on to another publisher.”

Mari picked at her duck until Yusuke had finished his coq au vin. She had hoped he would be sated from lunch, leaving her to explore her situation at leisure. But the old man locked arms with her and talked all the way back to the office, eyes misting as he spoke of the days when all the writers would meet in a bar to discuss philosophy and drink foreign wines. Her father had criticized Yusuke’s writing as sentimental and tawdry, a trait that only grew more evident in their author with age. Koji had sharpened his daughter’s mind on their dull pages like a whetstone. No child of his would ever be mired by sentiment.

The light in her office was already on.

Mari’s nostrils dilated, eyes taking careful inventory. Small things, inconsequential trinkets, had been moved and put back. An odor, the faint human smell of an unwashed body, hung in the air like a lady’s perfume. A loose paper lay on the seat of her office chair.

“Oh, you’ve dropped a page in your haste to console this old man,” Yusuke teased.

“Yes,” said Mari, who had done no such thing. She collected the paper and offered to make tea as an excuse to peruse the new writing. Now the characters slanted angrily, splotches from a fountain pen littered the page. She looked in her stationary drawer and found her pen put away sloppily, unwiped.

“I have made a show of devotion so far,” the writer went on, “now it’s your turn. You must show me an act of dedication equal to mine. Tonight at promptly 8 pm, I will exit the chair. You must climb into the cavity inside, it is the only way—”

“I will miss you, little Mari-chan.” Yusuke’s voice was hoarse with sorrow. Mari crumpled the paper into a plum-sized ball and dropped it into the wastebasket. She brought him the cup of hot water on a tray, tea bag beside. He preferred to brew his own, the fact that she remembered brought him once again to the edge of tears.

“Tell me why an old codger so set in his ways would move to a place where he knows no one,” he said coyly.

“A change of scenery can be refreshing,” Mari said neutrally. Beyond Yusuke’s shoulder she could see the room she used for storage, the large tiffany-style lamp that guarded over the leather chair. The leather chair where her father had read translated manuscripts to her as a child, where he had fallen asleep the night he’d finally been diagnosed with lung cancer.

Yusuke chose to take her statement as an edict. “I have grown too deeply into my ways. My work is stale, I can just hear your father now: ‘you’re in a rut.’” he accepted the tissue Mari offered. “He was blunt when I could expect the harsh truth from no one else. And you are his living mirror. I pity the poor amateur whose papers you hold. Your father would entertain no nonsense at all.”

Mari pressed her lips together so they formed a thin magenta thread.

At the door of the taxi, Yusuke laid another emotional entreaty on her. “I only wish I could take a piece of you with me, Mari-chan, just a piece.”

“Take the chair,” Mari said, without hesitation.

Shock bloomed on Yusuke’s face. “Really? The old leather one?”

She nodded.

Yusuke protested. It was too dear, he couldn’t possibly impose—

Mari pressed. Yes, take the chair. This very afternoon, in fact.

Yusuke thanked her in a storm of tears. Within the hour, he dispatched a service to her office to box up the chair and get it on a truck to the airport. It would be shipped, in its wooden crate with no holes, to Yusuke’s new office in Gibraltar.

Mari quite calmly ripped the manuscript to shreds, which she then twisted into tapers for the fireplace. Then, after making herself a cup of tea, she laid the newest stack of manuscripts on the blotter and got on with business.

Someone coughed.

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction

The Black Labyrinth

It was that night, like all other nights, that Gregory Probst dreamt of the black labyrinth. Each hallway was composed of a smooth black stone, or even a concrete applied seamlessly to all four walls and the floor and ceiling besides. Every thirty steps another hallway branched from the one he walked, every ten steps a torch sputtered from its bracket. At irregular distances, sometimes ninety, sometimes as little as thirty steps, a bubbling fountain was set into the wall. He thought it mere decoration, for he never felt hungry or thirsty. No matter how long he paced the halls, however long he walked, he was never tired.

****

Tuesday was the day Gregory had to submit form 13FG-A to his boss. 13FG-A was comprised of several smaller forms stapled together. No carbon copies, handwritten all.

Like clockwork, the boss called Gregory into his office exactly five minutes before lunch, and kept him there for ten.

“Look, we like you here Gregory,” his boss said, “we really want you to excel here. But annual reviews for your raise are coming up, and I can’t in any good conscience commend such sloppy work.”

He tossed 13FG-A back across the desk to Gregory, the pages crawling with his corrections writ in thick black ink.

“Fix it and have it back to me by 1:15.”

Gregory worked over his lunch break and filled out the new 13FG-A the exact same way he’d filled out the other one. This one sat on the boss’s desk until 3:30, when it was shoved inside a drawer with several other forms. It came back to Gregory at the end of the week, stamped for approval.

****

He had walked featureless black hallways for some time without excitement, when suddenly the hallway he walked opened up into a much larger, blacker room. The vast space of it ate what little light bled out from the hallways. Gregory pried a torch from its bracket and stepped into the room. His clapped hands dutifully echoed back to him, the space between echoes let him know exactly how big the room was. Massive. Gargantuan. So big it should have classified as an exterior space. He stepped to the middle of the vast floor and found another surprise: stairs. The short flight was only ten steps, and led down into a depression. In the middle of that depression sat another flight of steps that led down, and so on and so forth. Gregory descended.

****

It was a Monday. Luvreet was showing him photos of family he’d visited in Bangalore. All ten members of Luvreet’s family, raven-haired and jovial, smiled at different points behind the camera. He stopped at a picture of a building done with intricate carvings of stone so dark it was almost a shadow.

“What is that?”

Luvreet studied the photo. “Ah. A derasar. A Jain temple.”

“Where is it, what’s its name?” Gregory leaned forward.

Luvreet quickly shuffled to the next photo, a candid snap taken at the dinner table. “Just a temple, we visited so many over the time. Here, here’s my cousin Rania. Her parents want to send her to school here. Don’t you think she’d fit in?”

Gregory’s boss walked by and snagged him. “I need a word with you out in the hall.”

The hallway beyond their cubicles was floor-to-ceiling windows. They dealt with the inconvenient light by putting up shades that rendered the small space into twilight.

“I really don’t care for you idling in the office,” the boss muttered, angling his face just an inch too close for comfort. The shade turned his undereye bags into black semicircles. “It doesn’t look good, and it reflects badly on productivity.”

“Luvreet was on his break, sir. I was too—”

“Are you talking back to me? I am telling you your behavior is not acceptable, you don’t get to tell me what does or doesn’t constitute acceptable.” The boss tossed the phrase, “reviews coming up,” over his shoulder as he paced away.

****

The stairway spiraled down into pitch blackness. Eventually the torch sputtered out, but never mind. Gregory could make his way quite easily by touch. He finally ran out of stairs and sat in the absolute darkness for a moment, thinking. As his eyes adjusted to the lack of light, he found something curious. A patch of slightly less severe dark lay before him. Putting his palm to the wall, Gregory felt his way to the greyness, which grew lighter as he shuffled along. There was a door made of black metal set into criss-cross strips. Beyond it he could see a sky of indeterminate color.

The door had no latch or lock, it opened quite freely and shut firmly back into the wall once he was through.

Gregory felt a moment’s disappointment that he might have reached the end of the labyrinth. He stood in a black courtyard, where a standing fountain carved from obsidian plumed like a whale breaching the sea. He summited the fountain, finding the water neither warm nor cold, and by standing precariously on the last carved nodule he found he could see over the wall. Delight overtook him.

It was true, the labyrinth was without a ceiling here. If he so chose, he could find material to pile up high enough that he could scale the wall if it proved too smooth to get a foothold. But he saw from his vantage point that the labyrinth stretched on in every direction, as far as his eyes could see.

****

Thursday, the day Gregory was to be reviewed for a raise. He was summoned ten minutes before one o’clock and kept waiting for thirty. When he finally made it to the inner recess of his bosses’ office, he found it shuttered and curtained in black.

“New decorator, sir?” Gregory commented offhandedly.

“Death in the family,” his boss replied gravely. “My great-aunt Sofia.” he gestured Gregory to a picture of her, a bent old woman of no more than five feet clad heat to toe in widow’s weeds.

“Terribly sorry.”

His boss grunted. For another ten minutes he silently reviewed paperwork, while Gregory sat perfectly still. If he attempted to move or make a sound, he was pinned back in place by a single exacting glare.

“This work,” his boss said, blinking heavily, “is not up to our standards.”

“In what way, may I ask?”

“I’ve told you, Probst, many times.” He tossed the stack of papers on the desk. Much of Gregory’s writing had been inked out by long stretches of felt-tip pen, leaving nothing but black bars. “A raise is a mark of commendment, and you have done nothing worth commending. I’ve done all I can from my end; made myself available to you, tried to nurse you through some tricky passages, but you haven’t improved.”

“I see sir.” Gregory was fascinated by how deep the shadows on the wall were. If not for the green writer’s lamp on the desk, the whole room would be dark. “I’ll clean out my desk first thing.”

“You’ll do no such thing.” his boss blinked. Something fell from his eye. “I have faith in you, Probst, despite myself. You’re a dreamer.”

“Yes I am.”

His boss’s face registered mild shock at his agreement. Particles tickled out of his left eye. “But we will find ways around that. If I have to keep you under direct supervision for four months, nine months—”

“Are you alright, sir? Something wrong with your eye?”

“Nothing, it’s nothing.” He pretended to wipe it, catching a few particles that showed dark on his hand. Sand. His eye was weeping black sand.

“There’s something coming out of your eye.” Gregory snagged a tissue and held it out.

“There is nothing wrong with my eye!” his boss snapped. Now it poured from the tear ducts of both eyes, like black streams. “Stop getting off topic. I am going to put you through an exhaustive crash course on your duties, which will last however long I want it to.”

Gregory looked at him. “What are you frightened of?”

“Me? I’m not frightened.” His boss discreetly shook off his tie, breaking eye contact. “I’m keeping you in this department, Probst.”

Gregory thought a moment. “No.”

“You don’t get to say no to me.”

“I don’t think I will stay here, if it’s all the same to you.”

“Probst, you sit back down!” There was a note of panic in the boss’s tone. “Stay here.”

Probst stood and adjusted the curtains, so that every sliver of light that leaked around the fabric was extinguished. He turned and took the lamp’s brass pull-chain in hand, and pulled until it clicked.

****

Gregory opened his eyes and found himself once again in the endless black labyrinth. He sighed in relief.

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction

Roscoe: The End

William J. Roscoe was the result of a congress between landowner William Findlow and a music hall singer. William was given his mother’s surname and his father’s first name, which was the beginning and end of involvement for both parents. His mother retreated once more to the music halls and, except for a yearly infusion of hush-money, his father did the same.

William was fostered by his grandparents until he ran away from home, stealing his grandfather’s meager savings to invest in a linotype company. That turned out to be the first of many bad investments, as William showed equal skill at both gaining and losing money.

His background gave him the drive to legitimize himself, but the urge to come by money quickly would sabotage his efforts again and again. By the time William found himself wandering through Colorado’s silver rush, he had been twice divorced and fathered five children out of wedlock. Perhaps if he had not found the Roscoe lode, he would have died unglamorously in the mountains. But fate led him to a nugget of pure silver and the rest, as they say, is history.

Most accounts point to Roscoe being a fair-minded and generous leader. He treated his force of miners well, his camp was perhaps one of the only ones in the states with company-backed healthcare. He had the respect and recognition he had long craved, and so behaved accordingly.

Many people noted the decline in his health seemed to start with the mine’s downturn. His hair began prematurely graying and he sat when giving speeches. Despite all this, he never gave up on attempting to bring the town’s head above water once more. His closest friend had been Nathaniel Schilling; it was a great blow to him when the hotelier died and his mental health never recovered. He developed a pernicious arachnophobia in the weeks leading up to June, making his maids go over a room multiple times with feather-dusters before he would set foot inside.

“…appearing for the first time this side of the rockies, Miss Vyvyan’s wild west show!”
—discarded draft of an advert

Whether or not Letitia Bannock, posing as Vyvyan McAllister, performed that final day in the mining town remains undetermined. Theories abound that there was no show, that the announcement served as a decoy while William Roscoe issued out his law force to eradicate the townsfolk and hide his failings. Other, more benevolent theories, point to an exodus following the discovery of some life-threatening peril, possibly a noble gas leak from the mines themselves. The absence of any sort of prep work for a journey, any kind of note alluding to a sudden departure, undercuts this theory somewhat. Whatever the case, when Pinkerton agents rode into Roscoe on June 17th, the town was completely empty.

Other, more fanciful accounts supply details like meals left burning on stoves and flatirons resting on cold coals, as if the people had walked away mid-task. Nothing like that appears in the original report. The only salient detail is that the town was empty of animal life as well, and this could easily be explained if the town was forced to make a sudden and swift exodus; taking livestock as well as pack animals would be crucial to a long journey. However the question remains as to where the townsfolk were expecting to travel that they would need such rations; the town lay within spitting distance of several other camps. The Pinkerton group merely made a shallow excursion into town before returning  to Leadville to gather more forces. Nothing, from the mineral content of the well water to the contents of William Roscoe’s safe, could give them any conclusive reason for the town’s disappearance. From June 17th until the day of the November earthquake, multiple expeditions were dispatched to the town. None found anything resembling a clue.

Roscoe had left halfway through a letter he was composing to his second wife, Hazel, with whom he was amicably separated. Hazel herself was found passed away in her rooms at a San Francisco hotel a mere week after Roscoe’s disappearance. A necklace he had gifted her— “real Roscoe silver” he claimed in his letter— lay on her pillow, a greasy burn-mark where the necklace’s pendant would have been. So closes the last, forlorn chapter of Roscoe’s history, ending as insubstantially as it began.

Boomtowns rarely survive past the lode which first gave them life. Roscoe had always been doomed to disappear, to sink into the dust of the Colorado foothills as its population fled for more favorable climes. In perhaps the biggest irony of all, it is the disappearance of Roscoe’s population that allowed it longevity past the lifespan of the tapped-out silver vein. The Mystery of Windy Hills (MGM 1939) serves as an extremely loose adaptation of the town’s disappearance, attributed to “fair folk” brought over with Irish miners. A local ghost town tour group sells chunks of the town’s masonry as souvenirs. One holdout resident of Oro City claimed to see a fata morgana of the town yearly over the local lake, a phenomena he could not reproduce for company. The closing of the last operating mine in Lake County in 1999 seems to have marked the end of the mining era and all its legends. Abner Salt, the last living miner who could say that he’d been in William Roscoe’s employ, died a pauper’s death in 1925. The Schilling mansion, the last intact building of the town, partially collapsed in a mudslide in 2009, the remaining structure was pulled down in 2010 for safety reasons. As the physical connections to Roscoe pass into the aether, all that is left behind is the skeletal wreck of a town that sinks further into the earth with every year. Whatever witness it bore to the people that once lived there, it remains silent on the subject.

Leave a comment

Filed under microfiction

Roscoe: Dragon Bones and William Shakespeare

The discovery of fossils during the mining process is hardly new. Throughout the centuries miners have turned up “dragon bones” in the process of digging for minerals and ore. Roscoe miners were notoriously superstitious, even in an age where paleontology was beginning to classify the bones of ancient beasts and birds into natural taxonomy. Fossils dug up at the camp were pulverized and thrown into placer waste piles, destroying untold amounts of paleontological data. Few, if any, were recorded. The few that were paint a very interesting picture.

Johan Wilts was a miner in Roscoe for approximately three months before moving on to California. While in the town he dug up a jaw fragment that he sent back home to his younger brother Erick. The jaw fragment eventually passed into museum hands where testing found it to be a specimen of Sparassodonta. The extinct mammal was native to South America, and no other specimens have been found in the continental United States. Also of note is a specimen that was auctioned off from a medical doctor’s estate in Leadville, the label according it as “unknown shards, Roscoe c. 1879.” The shards were fragments of an eggshell later found to be  Dromornis, a ratite native to Australia during the late Miocene era.

This plays into an ongoing narrative of Roscoe as a haven for out-of-place or just plain strange  animals. Along with Arnulf Svenson’s nag or Sadie William’s not-deer, fauna of Roscoe have a habit of displaying abnormal characteristics.

Of equal strangeness, however, are the parts of Roscoe that wind up outside the town. After the last sighting of Arthur Smith, there is one story that perfectly typifies the town’s supposed mystical properties: William Shakespeare’s missing statue.

Henry Lewis was a sculptor and friend to several alumni of the University of Colorado Boulder. Struck by the idea during a night of libation, Lewis decided to make a statue of the playwright out of the state’s native stone, a symbolic gesture to show the tying of the old world to new. He embarked on this quest without official edict or funding, and the process would bankrupt both his health and social standing.

Lewis at first had stone shipped to him from various quarries around the state, burdening his friend’s pocketbooks until they refused him. Stymied, Lewis decided to travel the state himself in search of his elusive medium. He expanded his horizons to include mining camps, gauging qualities of stone by the slag heaps. In 1879, Lewis discovered the Roscoe mine.

“…there it lay, resplendent as if reclining on a half-couch. The peaks and valleys ran lengthwise of the rock, its pitted surface recalled flesh. I fell in love at that very moment.”

—Henry Lewis, journal entry

Lewis found the rock he sought sitting on a slag heap at the mine. The chunk of basalt measured nearly six feet long and weighed just under two tons, requiring two mule teams just to haul it back to the artist’s studio. Once there, a whole new set of problems presented themselves.

Lewis had no experience with carving the harder igneous rock and wound up chipping or blunting his carving tools against the surface. What’s more, working for extended periods of time in the studio gave him migraines, which he treated with alcohol. Some five months passed in this way, until his friends once again swooped in to save him. They paid for a man skilled in carving native rock to teach him knapping, supervising Lewis so that he did not work with the rock more than an hour at a time.

It took 18 months for Shakespeare to emerge from the rock. 18 months of declining health for Henry Lewis, 18 months of broken tools and laudanum doses for head pain. In this period of time, his friends had convinced the school that this uncommissioned, unasked-for statue should not only hold place of honor before the college, but that the artist deserved a small stipend for his troubles. Lewis’s place was all but promised, all he had to do was deliver.

On the morning when they were set to transfer, Lewis did not respond to their knocks. Forced entry found him in his makeshift bed by the fire, unconscious in a laudanum daze.

The studio was empty.

The dais which had held the statue was bare, not only of Shakespeare but the thousands of rock shards left from the carving process. There wasn’t even a dusting of basalt on the surface, it was clean as if the statue had never existed.

Lewis, once revived and sobered up, had no explanation. He had finished smoothing out the last fold of cloth on the statue’s neck ruffle, and celebrated by chasing his massive headache down with a dose of his favorite painkiller. There had been no noise, no sign of forced entry. The statue would have required much manpower and a large vehicle to cart it away, yet the only disturbances in the studio’s dirt were the horses and cart they had brought that morning.

The mystery became a minor scandal for some time, but was forgotten mere months afterward. After all, the statue hadn’t been officially commissioned. The university had not lost money, nor had it invested time in the skill of this half-mad artist. His friends drifted away over the following weeks and Lewis died of a laudanum overdose a year after the statue’s loss, his last journal entry simply being two words: “the pain!”

The mysterious epilogue to the artist’s tragedy exists not in Colorado, but in another state entirely. The town of Grand Haven, Michigan discovered a small but incredibly polluted body of water near a logging concern. The water of a small pond had inexplicably thickened, the surface forming a rainbow not unlike that of an oil slick. They drained the pond. Amidst the stinking handfuls of dead frogs and fish they found the upper quarter of a stone statue. The face and most of the fine detail had weathered away, but it retained most of its distinctive neck ruffle.

The theme of Roscoe as a pollutant, both environmental and otherwise, runs through these tales in a seam as thick as silver. The mining industry is well-known to cause environmental damage, it is only fitting that the narrative of its legend reach beyond that. Once again, we see a theme of the very bedrock of Roscoe causing ill health, as Henry Lewis developed migraines shortly after work on his statue. There is no physical evidence left of said statue, of course, as befitting such a tale. Records show a statue of some kind, not necessarily Lewis’s statue, was mounted outside the Grand Haven post office before it crumbled into nothingness in a relatively short amount of time. Basalt is well known as a sturdy igneous rock, less prone to weathering than more commonly used sandstone or marble. It is entirely likely that the statue hauled from the pond was misidentified and comprised of another, softer stone.

Such is the detritus that floats in the sargassum of Roscoe’s mythology. Detritus like Esther Pike of Barrow, Alaska. Esther claimed up until her death in 1970 to have come from a southern state, having arrived in Alaska alone through unknown means as a young child. She had been traveling with her parents and four siblings, she said, and had gotten very sick one night and followed the “pretty lights” to her new home. Esther was adopted by a fur trapper and given a rudimentary education, but insisted to the end of her days that she did not belong in the state, and that her name was spelled “Nessa.”

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction

Roscoe: Sadie Willliams Interview

As a child of six, Sadie Williams was part of a homesteader train settling the greater northwest. Her and her family encountered the land that would become Roscoe on their way to California. The following interview took place in 1964, when Ms. Williams was roughly ninety years old. Walter Rainer, a folklorist, was collecting oral legends of the northwest. Rainer seems to have taken pains in transcribing his subject’s speech patterns phonetically, perhaps in a bid to preserve her dialect. Though the collection of oral history never came to fruition, this interview was found among others in the anthropology collection of Colorado university.
____

RAINER: Now Ms. Williams—

SADIE: Call me Sadie now, everyone do.

RAINER: Of course, Sadie. You say your family split off from the wagon train?

SADIE: Ayuh, pop was always an ornry cuss. S’why he didn’t listen to the mule dealer when he said not to let ‘em et anything were’nt come in a bale.

RAINER: So the mules—

SADIE: —et some devil-weed, ayuh. Sukie, now, she was the only ‘un big enough to drive the team too, but she was always caught up helpin’ ma, so Jacob and me had to set up front with the whip. We whupped those nags till the skin slough off, but couldn’t make ‘em move an inch. Pa had to waste four bullets on ‘em, after the forty he already spent. Took it out of our hides.

RAINER: So you settled in the valley.

SADIE: Jes’ a stop at first, then mama said she was expectin’ agin so pop throw up his hands and declare that mud flat our new home. We dint build a house or nothin’, jes’ lived out of the wagon.

RAINER: How did it work out?

SADIE: *laughs* It dint, but you wouldn’t know thet from lookin’ at pa. He strut around like a rooster, declarin’ our patch of mud worlds better than that gumment lan’.

RAINER: I’m sorry, gumment lan?

SADIE: GUMMENT LAND. THE PATCH RUTHOF’D HAYES PROMISED US.

RAINER: Oh, “government land”, my apologies.

SADIE: Got hearin’ problems, boy.

RAINER: My apologies, please continue.

SADIE: Lannsakes. So we set up there, but that weren’t no place to live. Even the injuns gave that place a wide berth, pop shoulda known better. Specially when he caught his first Jackelope.

RAINER: Ah yes, a hare with papilloma virus.

SADIE: You call it what you want, that beast had horns every which way. It had blind white eyes to boot. None of us chirren would touch it, but pop choked it down and spit out the buckshot. Wouldn’t let us take salt pork from the barrel, neither. We went to bed ‘ungry, but thankful. I et the meat from one of those things once, that was enough.

RAINER: What did it taste like?

SADIE: Glue. No flavor, no fat. I would sooner boil my own boots than eat that. No amount of whuppin’ would make us eat it neither, so we got thin while pop got sick on that meat.

RAINER: Where was your mother?

SADIE: Laid up, like she always was. Sukie fetched and carried for her, and minded baby Peter besides.

RAINER: What happened next?

SADIE: Me and Nessa went to fetch water for washing. I tell ye, my petticoats coulda stood up without starch by then. We found a lil pond that had a rainbow on the surface. Nessa thought it so damn pretty.

RAINER: What kind of rainbow, like an oil deposit?

SADIE: Or a soap bubble, the thick kind. I thought it looked nice enough, but the water smelled oft. So I calls her away, but Nessa stuck her little face right in.

RAINER: Was she younger than you?

SADIE: By a year or so. Then Nessa falls sick at lunch, leaves me an’ Jacob to see to camp. Pop sat guard on the salt pork and hard-tack, so we stole handfuls of flour and mixed it with a bit of water.

RAINER: *laughs* I’ll bet that made you sick.

SADIE: By dinner we were laid out worse’n mama. But at least we dint have the meat pop brought back.

RAINER: Was it another deer?

SADIE: He said it was a deer.

RAINER: Was it?

SADIE: I saw the head. Never seen a deer looked like that.

RAINER: Who ate it?

SADIE: Sukie had a bite, and little Peter and ma. But me an’ Jacob were still laid out from the flour and Nessa was from that water, so we was excluded.

RAINER: What happened then?

SADIE: Nothin’, for a few days. Then…they changed. That meat changed ‘em.

RAINER: How, may I ask?

SADIE: Well, hard to say. They dint smell the same. Mama smelled wrong, not like a mama at all. And Sukie smelled like…metal, I dunno. Same with Peter. They all acted oft.

RAINER: And your father?

SADIE: Well, we already give him up as a lost cause, he was halfway to the farm by the time the mules died. He started raving about walking to Californy, taking big steps ‘cross them hills to show ‘em all.

RAINER: Who?

SADIE: Nobody. He’d lost all sense by the time we saw the fire-wheels—

RAINER: Fire wheels?

SADIE: Lemme get to those. Pop was out hunting those critters all the time, Sukie was by ma’s side nursing Peter, so me an’ Nessa an’ Jacob whooped it up. We found where pop hid the salt pork and had a feast. We left the hard tack. No one told us to go to bed or wash up, so we stayed up every night. Then one night when pop had been extra ornry, we saw lights up in them hills.

RAINER: And those were the fire wheels?

SADIE: Ayuh, they were quite a sight. Jacob called ‘em that because they looked like Catherine wheels, only slower and bigger. They was a sight, sent pop screaming for the hills.

RAINER: He just left?

SADIE: Screaming like the horde was on him. Mama started sobbin’ about some spider git on her, but we looked an’ looked but couldn’t find a one on her.

RAINER: What about your older sister?

SADIE: Sukie had the most sense of all of ‘em. She told me and the other two to take the hard-tack and pop’s hatchet and lit out for help. Nessa was scairt, so it was just me ‘n Jacob set out.

RAINER: How long were you gone for?

SADIE: A day, mebbe two. Hardest part, once we found folks, was getting ‘em to follow us. Kept saying no livin’ soul wanted that place, we couldn’t have stopped there. But we talked ‘em into it, got back to camp with a team of men.

*Sadie pauses here*

RAINER: Would you like to take a break?

SADIE: *slowly* Sukie was on the floor of the wagon, holding Peter. Both gray. Someone stabbed her, I think it was ma.

RAINER: *a clicking sound as Rainer moves the microphone closer to the subject* I’m sorry, your mother stabbed your sister?

SADIE: Ma was mad in the corner. Gibberin’, chewing on her own damn fingers. She pointed to them that came with us and screamed that spiders was crawling on us, something like that. Her hair had gone white.

RAINER: Did you find your father?

SADIE: After a fashion. He were up in those hills, naked as a jaybird, ranting. They had to skitter him out of that pine tree like a barn cat, wrap him up in an old blanket. He lasted but a day before dying of…well, they said it was burns on his body, but I ain’t never see burns like that. We left the kitchen things; the bedding, all the food that was left. I took gramma’s bible. Jacob wanted to grab up pop’s gun, but one of the men said he’d like it as payment, so we let him. Left the rest.

RAINER: What about your remaining sister, Nessa?

SADIE: Never found her.

RAINER: I’m so sorry.

SADIE: It all happened a long time ago, nothin’ left to the sting.

RAINER: So what happened after that?

SADIE: Me an’ Jacob got shipped off to my uncle’s place. I s’pose ma got better, but she never come to live with us. Stayed out her days in a convent. They say she swept that room on the hour until the day she died. Terrified of spiders still, you see.

RAINER: And you, how did you do?

SADIE: Ah, I lived well enough. Never married or bore chirren, never much saw the point after that. Me an’ Jacob lived together until he died seven year ago. Now it’s just me that remembers.

RAINER: What do you think is the explanation for those events?

SADIE: The place is bad, pure and simple.

RAINER: But do you think there’s a scientific or spiritual—

SADIE: Listen, sonny. I seen a lot of things in my time. But I ain’t never seen anything like the things in that place. You hear about the town they built, how it was just gone? That place weren’t meant for man, something was done wrong long time ago, and now the very ground’s payin’ fer it.

RAINER: I see. Anything else you want to say?

SADIE: I feel poorly about Sukie. And Nessa. Weren’t their fault. I wish I woulda pushed Nessa a little harder, but she was a stubborn little mule. *laughs* We both were.

RAINER: Thank you for your time.

____
Sadie Williams passed two years after the interview transcribed here. Walter Rainer had completed 75% of the manuscript of his book when he hiked out to the former site of Roscoe. He did not return, and remains missing to this day.

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction

Roscoe: Miss Vyvyan

Letitia Bannock began her career as a “badger” in the music halls of New York City. Tempting a well-to-do gentleman back to her private rooms, she would subtly frisk her eager patron for valuables while luring him into a compromising position. Then her “mother” would burst in, decrying the thief of her daughter’s virtue and demanding a sizable lump of hush money. The mother was often played by Letitia’s current lover, whom she would also swindle of money before leaving. In this way Letitia Bannock spent her teens and twenties, graduating to a new game when she could no longer pass as an ingenue.

Her next scheme was applying herself to a widower’s household as a nanny, insinuating herself into his finances before finally disappearing with a large sum of the household cash, along with valuables that could be quick-fenced. The scheme was longer in execution than her previous grifts, but more rewarding: with the lump sum she acquired she could afford to wait the year or so it took to gain her next gentleman’s trust.

Letitia was by all accounts comely and quick-witted, a welcome addition to any household. She had a waifish quality to her beauty that belied a very cunning temperament and a cold, almost reptilian morality.

Letitia’s first murder came at the age of twenty-six.

The widower Paul Vande Velde had hired her on to look after his daughter, but when he fell ill three months into her tenure Letitia saw opportunity. She nursed him through his sickness, alienating him from friends and servants alike until she was the only one he trusted to administer his life-saving medicine. Once she extracted the promise of marriage, Letitia saw no use in keeping him alive anymore and replaced his dosage with camphor water.

It being her first murder, Letitia was sloppy. Vande Velde’s lawyer found a clear trail between his client’s generosity and the new widow weeping crocodile tears into a fine linen handkerchief. As he gathered evidence, Letitia Vande Velde boarded the next train to Newark.

Dorothea van Doorn departed the train.

Her career path becomes patchy at this point, as Letitia was able to change her face, hair, and costume so drastically it is only by comparing similar behaviors in written descriptions that we can guess as to her identity. In Iowa, she seduced a man who owned three general stores and burgled his grandmother’s baroque pearl necklace. In Sioux City, she made off with the safe contents of a casino after blindfolding and bludgeoning its owner during the act of love. There are shorter, less substantiated tales of a woman posing as a dance hall girl, spending a night with miners and absconding with their take as they lay slumbering. Letitia had aimed too high with her first big conquest, perhaps her gradual downward spiral in choice of lovers was a bid to protect herself from an encore.

This would have been in vain. Vande Velde’s attorney had not given up the manhunt, and found kindred spirits in her still-living targets. Pooling their finances, the men employed the Pinkerton detective agency to spring a trap on Letitia and finally bring her to justice. In her hotel room in Silver City, the detectives missed her by a mere half hour, her cigarette still smoldering on the drawing table.

Letitia had been fairly careful about covering her tracks, but one detective found a scrap of train itinerary she had torn up and thrown in the chain-pull toilet. The train to Roscoe.

Perhaps Letitia never checked into one of the two hotels in Roscoe. Perhaps the woman who gave her name as Vyvyan McAllister was indeed Letitia, and she had set her sights on seducing William Roscoe. Her story would have very little significance besides this: the manhunt for her led to the discovery of the town’s disappearance much sooner than it otherwise might have been.

Arthur Smith had been a Pinkerton agent of high standing. He was known for tracking the McCrimmon brothers across half of Utah, donning a fake queue to disguise himself as a railroad worker at one point. Among his colleagues he had a reputation for fastidiousness and a deficit of humor. In the words of his fellow agents: “if anyone could nab that charmer, it was stoneface Arthur.”

Smith had trailed Letitia across five states and twice as many identity changes before the trail went suddenly cold. At the same time a corpse with Letitia’s general measurements was found at the bottom of a culvert ditch, a traveling act called “Miss Vyvyan’s Wild West Show” began touring Colorado. Doubting Letitia would simply end her life, Smith chose to follow the show to the mining town of Roscoe. On the day of June 16th he sent the telegram which served as his last known correspondence:

HAVE REACHED ROSCO STOP NO SIGN OF QUARRY STOP CHECKING INTO HOTEL WILL CONTACT WITH FURTHER DETAILS ON MONDAY STOP

And that might have been the end of the story, save for a very odd bit of trivia supplied by a cub reporter at the New York times. The reporter met a man trying to gain entrance to the offices in  a state of high agitation. He wore a lady’s full-length cloth coat shut tightly about his body, perhaps indicating a lack of dress beneath it. In his hands was a newspaper-wrapped bundle that he gripped tightly to his chest, refusing to show anyone. His only response to questioning was the phrase “I need to get inside and speak to someone.” Finally, the cub reporter gave in and allowed the mysterious gentleman ingress to the newspaper offices.

The gentleman never emerged, nor did he reach the desk of any newsman. Save for the reporter at the door and the receptionist, no one at the Times saw the odd gentleman enter or leave the office.

What ties this odd footnote into the history of Roscoe? The simple fact that the gentleman’s description matched exactly with that of Arthur Smith.

It is entirely possible that the entire encounter is a fabrication by a young reporter looking to move up in the world, but the receptionist at the Times also swore to watching the strange gentleman enter the doors to the inner offices, describing his coat down to a beaded rose over the right breast. A description, it is worth noting, that matches a coat worn by Vyvyan McAllister. How the Pinkerton agent could have moved upwards of 1500 miles in less than a day, especially one conspicuously dressed as that, was a question no one could answer. Smith’s fellow agents doubted the story, especially the description of Smith’s agitation. Smith was a man whom had once taken a bullet wound as stoically as a mosquito bite, they said, for something to unseat him so thoroughly would be nothing less than the devil himself.

Arthur Smith was given up as lost, along with Vyvyan McAllister and the rest of the citizens of Roscoe. Paul Vande Velde’s fortune was tied up in probate for decades before a minor lump sum was awarded to his living relatives in Holland. When he died, Vande Velde’s attorney was found with a small tintype of Letitia Bannock in his breast pocket.

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction

Roscoe: The Peacock Mine

…and the spider Nihancan settled on the earth, with all the stars he had stolen gathered in his web. He burrowed into the ground and laid the stars into the dark earth, where they shone in many colors…

—unsourced Arapaho legend

The so-called “peacock mine” was discovered when Vernon Puckett and his brother Scoot were chasing a stray hound through the hills. Vernon saw the dog squeeze through an M-shaped crack in the ground and used his mining pick to widen it. When the entrance was was wide enough that one could squeeze through, Scoot (deemed thinner of the two) entered, calling for the dog. His voice echoed as if in a cavernous space, so the curious brother asked Vernon to pass him a mining lantern. By the weak light, he discovered that they had stumbled onto a widening corridor that bit into the hill. Scoot wriggled into the open space and passed the lantern back to Vernon, who followed.

The corridor walls were lined with a metal that shone iridescent in the lantern light; it proceeded a respectable distance into the earth itself, opening up enough that the brothers could walk two abreast. At the end of the corridor they found the missing hound, dead. Feeling lightheaded themselves, the brothers agreed to chip a bit of metal to show people, mark the spot, and leave. Vernon found the metal so soft in comparison to his miner’s pick he gouged it from the rock face easily. Once in the open air, both brothers lost consciousness for a brief period and awoke to find the chunk of peacock metal missing. This time only one brother went into the cave, returning with an even larger chunk of the metal which they carried back to camp in a tin lunch pail.

The silver seam the town depended on, once thought to be nearly bottomless, was beginning to show its age. William Roscoe was searching for another vein to revitalize the town, and when the Puckett brothers showed him their prize it appeared to be a gain for the township. The metal was softer than lead, retaining its iridescent quality no matter how it was hammered, broken, or pulverized. Heating it resulted in the smelter dying in a coughing fit from the gas it emitted. William Roscoe did not know what he was looking at. But he knew an opportunity when he saw one.

Roscoe shipped a sample of the rock to several mining companies. Enclosed were all copies of the same note “from W.J. Roscoe, a metal of unknown origin. Please test and return word of whether partnership would be profitable.” Each sample case arrived empty.

Roscoe bought the rights to the mine from the brothers with a stridently worded contract, which they both signed with “x” as neither could read or write. He then dispatched a small team of diggers to the location, headed by the Puckett brothers. It took some time to find the peculiar cave again, and once they did the brother noted that the crack had become misshapen. The crew set to work widening the entrance and propping the doorway.

The miners sent to accompany the Puckett brothers showed considerably more hesitation towards the mine. They noted that though the brothers had discovered the mine days ago, the hound’s corpse showed no signs of rotting or even slight odor. They found the atmosphere in the corridor oppressive, working in five-minute shifts so as not to be overwhelmed by it. Those who sat shift outside the mine noticed a kind of heat-wave emanating from the metal when struck by the sun. They measured a nugget with calipers after an hour in the light and found it had shrunk by a few millimeters.

Once night fell the brothers refused to desert the mine, opting to stay behind as the other miners hauled the first load of metal to town. They stayed by the mine even as they lost hair, teeth, and became weakened by a mysterious affliction.

William Roscoe experimented with the peacock metal, but it did not hew to any known behavior of metal at the time. If placed in water, it exuded the same sheen to the surface, the water becoming acrid and unpalatable. The metal bent easily, but also broke easily, making finer smithy work impossible. He cut small chunks to use as jewelry settings and found the metal only effervesced faster in such small forms. After weeks of experimentation with no word back from other mining companies, he decided to close the operation.

The only miners actively working the claim at this point were the Puckett brothers, who crawled into the cave on their hands and knees because of their weakness. Other miners brought supplies and made sure they ate, but none would brave the mine again. The hound lay unchanged at the end of the corridor, serving as a reminder of the alien nature of the place.

The mine ended as abruptly as it began. Vernon, the brother holding the current mine shift, exclaimed his candle had blown out. Scoot crawled into the cave despite his fellow miner’s pleadings, and the two brothers were still in the cave when a minor tremblor shook the hill. One miner described it as an eye blinking. One moment there was the mouth of the cave, the next the hillside was just as if there had never been a hole. They gave the Puckett brothers up as lost, and discarded the sole map that lead to the spot.

This account is of questionable veracity. There are dozens of “ghost claims” in mining history, most the result of accidental discovery, usually bearing a miracle metal that defies testing for whatever reason. The detail of the peacock metal vanishing is very convenient to the story, for it leaves no trace to be verified. It should be noted that there is no recorded seismic activity for that area of Colorado in June of 1882, the swiftness with which the mine was abandoned perhaps points to a more unsavory explanation for the brother’s supposed deaths. They had, after all, brought an unsatisfactory claim before a desperate mine owner. Some mines contain noble gases, such as Radon, that could explain the miner’s illness and the displaced air.  Perhaps the Puckett brothers did find a strange mineral deposit that fell victim to a storyteller’s inflation. Perhaps Roscoe really did send samples, samples stolen en route by unscrupulous railway workers. Whatever the case, Roscoe is no longer around to verify anything.

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction

Roscoe: Molly Bartlett’s Journal

What follows are select excerpts from the diary of Molly Bartlett, age 17. Molly and her cousin Mathilde(Tillie) followed the offer of seamstress work to Roscoe. Over the few weeks spent there, the two found that the position they’d been offered was nonexistant and that their employer was eager to marry them off to miners who would pay top dollar. Such “bride and switch” jobs were not uncommon in the era, but Molly and Tillie had no intention of accepting their situation.
_ _ _

May 29

A crow at midnight, some thunder in a blue sky. Tillie says such things are omens. I trust her and her alone. Mrs. Mulaney is a confidence artist, a schemer and a liar. Her words are sweet as penny candy, and crumble just the same. Thank God we declined board at her house, or goodness knows what would become of our virtue! I must wait for Tillie’s special knock to take the chair from the door, and she mine. Only one of us can leave the room safely at a time, for I fear the worst in this lawless tract.
Mother, I shall be with you soon again.

June 3rd

Mrs. Mulaney does like to double tasks upon our head. Perhaps she feels she can brutalize us into compliance. I think she’ll find the will of the Bartlett women is up to such treatment. Oh how I laugh when Tillie makes mimic of her! She puffs out her bosom and speaks from the chest, until we quite collapse with mirth.
I have been put to hemming buttonholes, a task I hate. Tillie is allowed to work the machine, but rarely does for Mrs. Mulaney likes to hover behind and pepper her with dowry questions. I wouldn’t want a dowry of the dirty metal they dig up here!

June 5th

I have distinguished two types of miners. There are the men who stick for a few months and then cleave, for they find the place as disquieting as I do. Then there are the men who stick and stay. I cannot imagine why Mrs. Mulaney would want to offer brides to them, such men have no want for anything mortal. I see them on the street, the light gone from every one of their eyes. They think only of the mine, talk only of the mine, and when they slumber I am sure they dream of it. What would such a man want with a wife? Anyway, I wouldn’t want to be stuck in a ghastly tarpaper shack while he’s off digging in the dirt.

June 6th

The water they give us has a strange sheen on the surface. We drew straws, I was elected to fetch water from the town pump. It was the same sickly rainbow setting on the surface. I saw horses drinking from troughs, men supping from dip-cups, all swallowing the cursed stuff. I dumped my bucket and bargained some milk from a townie.
Mrs. Mulaney is mean with her wages, we haven’t saved up enough to buy a single return ticket, let alone two. But I know that Tillie would not return home without me, and she knows the same of me. We get out together or not at all. I’m sure Mrs. Mulaney sees that, that’s why she works us to the quick and pays starvation wages. She invents flaws in my work to pick at, and when I protest she is quick to point out I can find ready employment as a saloon girl. The very notion!

June 8th

I saw a group of miners in the general store gathered around a pan of metal with the same sheen as the water, staring at it. Just staring. I’ve never seen the like.
Tillie’s taken sick, so Mrs. Mulaney cut our wages by half. She took even more than half, but I am too tasked with nursing Tillie to fight with her. Tillie’s teeth are loose in her mouth, and she cannot hold much food. I have taken to bartering with locals, as I suspect the general store is in cahoots with Mrs. Mulaney.

June 11th

I nursed Tillie back to health, only to fall sick myself. Such fever, and it brought on dreams of madness. Tillie cut the locks from my head to assuage the fever and Mrs. Mulaney had a fit. For the first time she was honest about her intentions: she asked who would have me to wife with hair like that? I told her I would marry myself to the lord and take convent vows before I married in this town. She sent me away, does not want to look at me anymore. That leaves Tillie to earn our keep, thin as it is.
I suspect the hotel is in cahoots as well, sometimes we wake to find our things moved, and Tillie’s pearl locket has gone missing. There is only one other hotel in town, and they say it is the same there, too. I cling to hope, but it dwindles.

June 13th

A pall has fallen over the town. A strange malady I cannot describe, it makes the place feel heavy. Tillie’s steps are stooped, Mrs. Mulaney works her to the bone. Last night the old harridan called Tillie over to look at a mistake. Tillie found the seam she had just sewn cut with a knife. Vile woman! Work is actually costing us money now, depleting our mean savings.
I hear whispers outside the door
Later: I looked through the keyhole, no one I could see. I do not trust the walls in this place. I sleep with this book in my chemise.

June 14th

There is some kind of event planned in town, some famous singing or dancing girl. We have promised ourselves escape in two days time, while they are occupied with their show. I don’t care if I have to ride a mule side-saddle across the mountains, I’m leaving this place. I hold no love in my heart for this town, none at all.

June 15th

A great shrieking sound arose from the mine today. The townsfolk hardly flinched, but Tillie and I had to stopper our ears with cotton. I must go out one last time for food.
Later: it is worse than we could ever have imagined.
Later: I hate this vile place, and all the people in it. It isn’t just the seamstress and the hotel, every single being in this place is part of it. The town is a web, drawing us like flies into the center. Someone found our food cache and destroyed it. Tillie placated me, said she would hunt coneys with a knife if it came to that, but I fear for our safety.

June 16th

We are leaving to-day, thank God, thank God, we are leaving to-day. Tillie says we shall be boarding the 3:10 from Leadville as soon as she can collect the funds from Mrs. Mulaney. I am eager. A queer pall has fallen over the town, I feel as if I can no longer draw a deep breath no matter how I loosen my laces. I dreamed of a spider that held the stars in its web last night. All my sleeps are uneasy and I feel eyes upon me even in the privacy of the room.
Later:  the air is still and full, like a bated breath. Some stand out in the streets, simply looking at nothing. I fear we may find it difficult to slip away, but Tillie has been priming for a fight since Tuesday.
I am ready. I can already feel the wind on my face, the open freedom of the flat plains. We shall creep to the depot in Leadville and depart like sneak-thieves. Freedom is ours once more.

_ _ _

That was the last diary entry. Molly and Tillie Bartlett vanished along with the rest of the townsfolk on June 16th.

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction