Jim Cooper called it the Hell Hole and kept it covered with tarps. Our issue with it wasn’t necessarily that it was a beeline right to the domain of the hornéd one, but that it was a big goddamn hole with no railing or nothing to keep a body from tripping right into the whole mess.
Coop was a contrary soul, dating back even before he was the lone holdout to the government’s land grab for the freeway. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I taught the town’s one-room schoolhouse, a holdover from the days of the Molly Maguires. Never needed more, this town ain’t exactly a bustling urban center. I think the biggest class was third grade, five kids including Matthew Brody’s little girl, but I’ll get to all that.
What happened was Coop left the tarp off his hole. Said he liked doing that when it rained, the steam it made amused him. But this time it filled the damn hole. We teased him no end about it: ‘how’s a bottomless pit get full,’ ‘Satan’s swimming to work, eh’ and soforth, but beneath that was worry. It wasn’t right, nothing about that hole was, but this was some new shade of weird. Coop didn’t think too much of it, only Bel, his old Bluetick, drank from it. Jim, we said, ‘Jim, what you want us to do? If your hound’s fool enough to go drinking bad water, nothing to do.’
Well, Bel wandered up that exact minute, and we noticed he was leaking. Blue.
It dripped out his mouth like a waterfall of slobber. He had sores and scabs like any old hound, and these leaked too. We all just likened to gape at it, so of course the second Coop goes for the dog the damn thing skitters away. We went, fourteen strong, with Dan Herlihey’s sump pump to empty the damn hole. Coop just kept up frettin’ about his damn dog, until I told him that if that hound bit anyone, he’d be sued, blued, and tattooed six ways to Sunday. Once he shut up we had a chance to really study that thing. Coops swore that the shaft had been bare dirt as far as he could recollect, but as it drained we found this weed had taken up the wall so thick you couldn’t even see dirt. It had these tough, wide leaves that were a little see-through like seaweed. That place was so thick with it, we told Coop, there’s no way it could’ve grown in a day.
There were two implications behind that, and we didn’t like either of them.
We lowered Scutt on a step-rope, to see what he could see, but he didn’t get very far before he told us to haul him back out again. We didn’t fun him for it, either.
That day in class I told the kids that if any of them found a friendly blue doggy not to pet him. They looked at me like I had corn growing out my ears.
Right in the middle of lunch, Coop called me, on account of me bein’ an educated man. The plants were all dead, he said, crisped right up like they’d been under a heat lamp. I asked him why the hell he needed an education to see that, he said now there were flowers, but not any kind of flowers he’d ever seen. I went cold all at once and told him to cover the damned thing again until we could get a proper look at it, but when I went there after school I could see that he hadn’t listened.
He was trying to press this cottony white bud on Mabel Dornan. I hollered at him to drop it quick and Mabel lit a shuck back to her place. Coop looked mighty resentful, he said they were pretty and smelt nice, and I called him a damn fool for handling hazardous materials without a suit. That shut him up.
True enough, the plants were dead. But every one of ‘em had a bunch of those cottony blossoms on bright violet stems. They smelled like pretty poison, and I could see white motes riding the updraft from the mouth of the hole. Without waiting, I got my jerrycan and set those mothers alight. Flame shot five foot from the hole, I made Coop get back before he lost even more hair.
We all thought we were shut of it. Should’ve made Coop board it up. Should’ve capped it with cement. But Linda Herlihey thought she saw Bel making off with one of her rabbits, so we piled on and went after him. Never did catch that dog.
The wind, when it blew over the hole now, made a flute sound. Birds got drawn to it. Once they hit the updraft they would just fold up and drop into it. You couldn’t have a beer on Coop’s porch without the soft pitter-patter of sparrows committing suicide. Coop tried to set up a sign charging two bits to look into the hole, but we shut him down smart quick.
We should’ve seen it coming when Coop got all secretive. We should’ve known a long time before the lamb.
Mabel Dornan collects those fancy liquor bottles, the ones with crinkly glass and French names, and she has them all along her fence posts. One morning she called me in a whisper, said that there was a long-skinny dog eating them, I said eating them, and would I please come over. Normally I’d say Mabel had just emptied a few bottles herself, but this was right near the hole so I shut up and came quick.
Mabel was in her driveway, nursing her leg. Nasty scratch, looked like a cougar had been at her. Only, she tells me, it was a sheep. Not a dog. I ask her how the hell she knew that and she says it made sheep-sounds and had those flat eyes like a sheep. But no fur. Looked like clean pink muscle it was so hairless. She had come after it with a broom, trying to scare it away from the fence, and it had turned on her. While I was trying to get sense out of her I heard Coop’s screen door slam, and it came over me all clear what this was about.
Once I settle Mabel at the doc’s, I got the others and made to knock on Coop’s door. Coop opened it all innocent, but he was nursing a big icepack on the side of his neck. Me, I forgot the question I was gonna open with and asked him what happened. He said Bel had been all clumsy and knocked him into the wall, and we asked, Bel? Didn’t he run away? We saw from his face right away that he didn’t think that one through, so we skipped the talk and pushed right past him.
Coop didn’t dig the hole, let’s be clear. He said it was already there when he bought the place and there’s no one who can say otherwise.
I don’t know what we were expecting. I had hope that Coop wasn’t as stupid as we all thought, but then I saw the harnesses. He’d made quite a few, all different sizes. The biggest one looked just about right for a full-grown man. Coop got maybe half a word out before Scutt hit him in the stomach, and the rest of us dismantled the operation. We cut the harnesses and burned ‘em for good measure, then we found the rope and burned that too. We gave Coop a few more licks and thought our lesson learned. We thought the lamb was the only thing he’d put in there.
Dumb, dumb, dumb.
The last day I taught school I rolled in late because I was washing blood off my knuckles. I tried to smile easy at the kids, but something had them scairt. I tried to settle them some as I called roll, seeing as the boys were already out hunting that creature with everything they had. I got two names down the list.
“Here I am.”
The voice was a harsh whisper, made me think of eels for some reason. I turned around slow, because I didn’t want to look at all. It was tall as Eileen, but that was where the similarities ended. The face was a wrinkled old ruin. The eyes were purple-black like a cow’s. Aside from the withered white hands and the face, I couldn’t see any skin. From what I could make out through the sheet it gripped around itself, there was more than should be there, all coiled up like a spring.
“You ain’t Eileen,” I said, and damn if I couldn’t keep my voice from shaking. Had it been there this whole time? Why had the kids been so quiet? They all looked at me through big eyes, even the older ones.
It moved. Blinked. It swallowed and I could see the jaw bifurcate under the skin, like a snake’s.
“Yes I am.” I hadn’t seen it talk before and I wish I hadn’t now. The movements it made…it didn’t seem like it should have made sound. I picked up the big dictionary to defend myself and motioned the other kids out. They shuffled, neater than any fire drill we’ve ever had. I circled it when I left, I didn’t want to show my back to it for any reason, but the thing didn’t move. Just sat facing the same way it had. Didn’t even jump when I locked the door.
When the boys came back in to poke around, there wasn’t hide nor hair of the thing in there, only a wet black stain on the wall in the shape of a shadow. We never saw Eileen again, but we found her little ribbon.
By the hole.
Well, it doesn’t end neatly. We were still looking for that damn dog the day city folks came to usher us off the land so they could get to pouring cement. Now there’s an overpass and a parking lot and a Hardee’s where the school was. I guess that was the best thing for it, cement over all the bad memories. Eileen’s mama went to pieces, Matt moved her out of here otherwise she’d probably leave flowers on the median strip or something like that. Not the thing to do when people are trying to forget.
The hole’s gone too. They paved over it. Asked us if it was a well, seemed simplest to just say ‘yes.’ We haven’t heard anything funny.
…only, there’s this wet stain in the carpool lane that never goes away.
And they say there’s a homeless gent living in the overpass now. Shouts gibberish and spits on passing cars, smells like wet garbage. The whole shebang. They say it looks like Coop if Coop grew a big matted beard and stuck leaves in his hair. But that can’t be, couldn’t possibly be, since we hit him upside the head and threw him in his own hole twenty year ago.