There’s something I need to tell you.
Anyone ever start singing a song near you and get it stuck in your head? Only way to get it out is to sing the whole song yourself, right? Purge. Be done with it. “Earworm,” they call it now. Huh.
Well, what I have to tell you is something like that. Something happened here in Rivertown, I guess about sixty years ago now, and it’s been playing in my head ever since. No one talks about it, and I can’t blame them, but I’ve got to get it all written out. It’s time to tell. I’m gonna go fetch me a beer, first. We might be here a while.
It wasn’t a good summer for kids. Oh, the weather was beautiful. I’d ride my bike out to the fruit stand there along the railroad tracks, by the river. I’d put in my five hours shifting around fruits and veg.
I’d have been there longer, but the law was five hours a day when you were fifteen. Got more pay than most kids my age that only had a paper route. Mr. and Mrs. Giuletta were glad to have me– they had no kids of their own, which was probably for the best. Because like I said, it wasn’t a good summer for kids.
The summer was a great one for everyone outside of Rivertown. Enough sun to swim in the river six days a week. Enough rain to thicken the woods. You never saw trees so thick as what we’ve got here in Western Pennsylvania.
Summer time, midday, you can go into those woods and it’s almost as dark as midnight. Sun can’t break through what we’ve got here. Who knows what goes on in there? Not until autumn comes and the leaves drop, then you can sometimes see the land beneath the leaf-carpet.
My father always said trees shouldn’t be able to grow that close together. I shrugged that off. What did he know? He was a coal miner. Coal miners didn’t know about woods. They knew about coal.
But I was wrong. Dad knew a whole lot more than just coal.
It started with a phone call.
I was in the living room reading while my three brothers, two sisters and a dog all fought over a single ball in the backyard, their laughs and shouts carrying through the neighborhood.
Mom took the phone call, wiping the flour from her hands on her apron…
“Mark!” Ma hollered. I tucked my comic book between the couch cushions where my brothers’ perpetually jellied fingers wouldn’t find it.
“Coming, Ma.” I pushed through the saloon-style doors to the kitchen. She had already turned back to her pie crusts.
“Phone’s for you. Sheriff calling.” She gestured at the counter where the phone lay.
“Hey, Sheriff!” I took the phone into the hallway by the side door so I could hear him over Ma’s radio.
I loved it when my uncle called. His own kids had grown and moved from Rivertown. Dad was in the mines most days, so Uncle Will called me when the need to go fishing or hunting struck him.
“Mark?” That was my first cue something was wrong. He never called me Mark. “Deputy,” he’d say, or just “Dep,” more often than not.
“Uhh, yeah… Somethin’ wrong, Uncle Will?”
I heard the sheriff sigh.
“Well, I’m hoping no, but I wonder if maybe Tim Flynn spent the night there at your house?”
“Nope,” I answered. “Haven’t seen him.” My throat tightened a bit. Tim was a friend since first grade; didn’t get along so well with his mother’s new husband. Many days he stayed at our house rather than go home. But this was not one of those times.
It had gotten worse lately. Teenager-hood had sped up Tim’s mouth and he sassed-back before he could stop himself. He’d missed more than a few days of school back in the spring due to bruises I don’t care to remember.
Now, I wondered if Tim had gotten himself in some trouble and was maybe waiting it out under a porch somewhere until his mother’s husband drank enough to forget why he’d been mad in the first place.
“Hmmm,” Uncle Will didn’t seem finished with me, yet. We both hung on in silence. “See, the thing is, it’s been almost three days since he was home. His Ma’s gettin’ awful worried. A night away from home is one thing for a boy his age…” He trailed off, leaving it to me to finish his thoughts for him. “Any idea where he might be?”
“You think maybe he ran away for good? You think something happened to him?” Wasn’t like Tim not to get word to me somehow.
“Well, that’s it. We just don’t know. I wish she’d ha’ called me sooner. But three days,” Uncle Will breathed a helpless sound like “whoosh.”
“How ‘bout this, Dep,” he appealed to me on our own level, in case I knew something I wasn’t telling. “How about you let me know if you hear anything from him? Even if it’s just that he’s taking a break from home for a bit. Maybe think about where he might go. It’d set my mind at ease. Can you do that for me?”
“Yes, sir, Sheriff.”
And, hanging up the phone, I really meant to do that. But then I had a thought.
It came to me immediately.
“The old Indian Cave,” I said it out loud.
Tim and I had found the cave by accident some years before, throwing a ball around while we were hiking. Waste of time, that, since it hit the trees more often than not. I’d thrown it to Tim and he tipped it, knocking it into the thickest ivy I ever saw. We went after it, ripping off leaves.
We pulled at the layers and vines of that ivy until Tim thought he saw the ball. But what he really saw was a chunk of busted up pottery. We didn’t think much of that, but Tim found three arrowheads that day and I found one. I still have it in a shoebox.
Can you tell that I’m stalling for time, here? That I’m having a hard time telling you what happened out at the cave?
It was a good half-hour hike, if you knew the right paths. And hell, I was fifteen. I knew every path around Rivertown.
I was distracted the whole walk. Got smacked in the face with a few branches, but I was lost in worry about what made Tim leave so fast. It had to have been bad this time.
I neared the cave, coming around behind it. The plan was to jump out at Tim, then laugh. Seems stupid now, but we did stuff like that. I came charging around the side of the cave.
“Aaaarrrggghhhh!”–I was yelling like the half-assed idiot I was.
A filthy sock. A pair of jeans, torn at the leg and caked in mud. Both Tim’s. The Flynn’s didn’t keep full closets of clothing. Tim’s stepfather drank most of his paycheck, when he had one.
So Tim had been there at the cave. Left behind bits of what he’d been wearing. But where did Tim go that he didn’t need his pants?
I looked throughout the cave, the land around it. Nothing.
Then the wind blew. And, oh Jesus, the smell.
Imagine you packed your freezer with venison you got hunting. Imagine you had a really good year, and that thing was packed fit to burst. Now imagine you went on vacation. Your freezer broke, popped open, and rotted sour deer filled your house with the most rancid air possible.
Now you’re close to imagining what hit me out there in the woods.
“Tiiiiiiim!” I screamed it.
What could he be doing out there to make a smell like that? He must be nearby, I figured. Maybe he ate something bad he found; maybe he took a dump after he digested it.
You see, I kept telling myself Tim must have made the smell. He was near. He was okay.
I was lying to myself back then, like I’ve already lied to you– that wasn’t mud caked on his sock and pants.
It was blood.
Guess I owe you an apology. I’ve lied to myself so many times about what happened in those woods, guess it’s become a habit. I have to remember that I’m done with lies.
I almost charged blindly into the woods, screaming for him, but somewhere inside of me, my common sense rose up.
Shredded, bloodied clothes? Looked to me like a bear got Tim. How did I think I could save him from a Pennsylvania black bear? I couldn’t. It wasn’t possible.
But that wasn’t going to stop me from trying.
I scrounged around in the brush surrounding the cave until I had a good stick. I tested it with my weight and, despite my shaking hands, cracked off one end to a point. Now, with all the stupidity of my youth, I figured I could somehow protect myself.
All I had to go on was the rancid smell. More than anything, I wanted to turn and run the opposite way from it.
I won’t lie to you again– this time I’ll tell you right out: I bent double in the weeds more than a few times as I followed that stench. I had been hunting enough with the sheriff to recognize the smell of rotted meat. I was pretty sure what I’d find.
I walked as quietly as I could, poking under clumps of dead leaves, in bushes, around fallen trees. I muttered threats,
“Gonna stab me some bear MEAT, make me some bear SHOES, wear me a bear BLANKET, cut me a bear COAT…”
You get the idea. I had probably crossed the line into hysteria back at the cave.
I didn’t need to walk long. There was a clearing not far from the cave. I saw a moving mass of black fur about fifty yards from me under some pine trees. I moved up behind it, just as sneaky as a farm cat stalks its dinner-mouse.
My eyes were glued to that fur, so I never saw the branch below my foot. It cracked hard and loud.
Fear stabbed me. I crouched low with my stick. He would turn and charge. This was it.
But he didn’t turn. He didn’t charge.
My fear sharpened all my senses and I could see now that what I thought was shifting black fur was, in fact, a teeming mass of black flies, rolling like waves. They were all fighting over some prize in the grass.
A prize of rotted meat, the smell announced.
I forced myself to move closer. The shape on the grass confirmed it.
It could only be Tim.
Whatever liquids and acid remained in my stomach left then, stinging every inch of my esophagus. I staggered, lurched, and landed in the grass.
I didn’t stay there long, though. If a bear was edging close to Rivertown, the sheriff needed to know.
But on the way out of the woods, something happened that made me think it might not be a bear at all…
I held onto that sharpened stick like the Pope himself commanded it. And I ran. Bears had made their way into town before. Usually they’d show up at night, turn over garbage cans. Homeowners would pound cooking pots or something to make noise to scare them off. The bears would waddle their way out of town again, stopping to lick the gravy from someone’s Sunday roast off their fur now and then. Sheriff would round up some hunters, head into the woods, and someone would come back Hero-for-a-Day with a bearskin rug for their floor. But in all the years of Rivertown, I never heard once of a local bear attack. And so I ran. About the time I neared the Indian Cave on my way out of the woods, my panic loosened enough that I remembered you don’t run from a bear. The realization came too late, though, and my foot already found a thick tree root to trip over. I landed behind a small hill. The shock of seeing Tim’s body, fear of a rampant bear, and now tripping on a root combined in this epiphany: I needed to calm down. I put my hands over my face, made myself take some deep, strong breaths. I knew I breathed quietly because now I could hear something poking around in the Indian Cave. Someone. I froze. The sounds I heard were slow and deliberate. I heard cardboard fluttering–our baseball card collection being thumbed through like you’d shuffle a pack of playing cards. We kept our cards in a shoebox with a rubber band. Someone in the cave was snapping and releasing the rubber band. My first thought was, “The sheriff! He came looking for Tim, too.” But it wasn’t the sheriff. I hadn’t told anyone where I was going. I never told him about the cave. I heard the soft thuds of about a hundred buckeyes– horse chestnuts, you probably call them– dropped on the soft dirt floor of the cave. Tim and I kept a pile in there for slingshot practice. They exploded brilliantly when they hit trees. Sunset can catch you quickly in the woods. In the ten minutes since I had fallen behind the hill, enough darkness settled that I couldn’t see more than fifty feet ahead of me. I was just getting ready to pull myself up, creep away when I saw a shadow step forth from the cave. It was a man, but darkness had taken hold by then and I couldn’t see his face. He walked deeper into the woods. Close to where I had just been. Close to where I had seen Tim. The wind blew my way and I caught the faintest whiff of campfire from that shadow. I had to get back to town. Sheriff needed to hear what was happening. Streetlights were coming on as I finally left the woods. The sheriff lived three blocks away. I should have headed there, but didn’t.
I veered toward the sheriff’s from the woods-path, but to my left was ninety-year-old Mrs. Conlon standing alone among her wildflowers, at the edge of her yard, facing the woods.
She wasn’t weeding or planting, though. She stood too still.
“Mrs. Conlon?” I walked up behind her, gently, trying not to startle her. I called her name again as I took her arm. She was shaking.
“I had your father in my English class. Good boy, he was.” She patted my arm.
She didn’t look at me, but beyond into the woods. “I saw you come out of there. You saw it, too, didn’t you?”
A knot twisted my gut.
“You mean that guy in there, ma’am?” I thought it best not to mention Tim.
“Oh, no, dear. Oh, no.”
She turned her head slowly toward me, her pale eyes wet and clouded with age.
“That was no man…”
I got to the sheriff’s house well after sunset. Called him to the porch to tell him about Tim so I wouldn’t upset Aunt Clara. I told him about Tim, the flies, and thinking it might be a bear.
“I’m gonna make some calls now, Dep. Couple of us’ll head out there tonight, get some more folks looking around in the morning.”
“Sheriff?” I didn’t want to sound crazy, so I didn’t mention Mrs. Conlon’s Stick-Man ramblings. “Might not be a bear.”
I told him what happened at the Indian Cave.
“You mean that old Indian Cave out past all those big boulders?”
“You know it?”
“Huh. Your dad and I used to play out there, what– maybe thirty years ago? Ayuh, I know where it is. I’ll take a look around out there.” He scratched his face through much beard.
“Nothing to worry about, though. Someone passing through, I’ll bet. That’s it. Train-rider. Hobo.” He looked down at the ground as he said this, then kicked a stone off the porch and looked up at me. “Oughta be gettin’ you home. You’ve done enough for a night. And I’ve got calls to make.”
I spoke what I’d held back. “I want to go out there with you. To get Tim.”
He nodded slightly, “Yeah, I figured you would. I figured that. But, Dep, you need to know: That isn’t Tim out there.” He shifted as he stood. “What I mean is, even if that’s Tim, it isn’t Tim. You know what I mean?”
“I guess so.”
“You trust me, Dep?”
I knew what was coming. The question wasn’t really fair. But I answered.
“Yeah, Sheriff. I trust you.”
He was quiet a moment, then, “You let me do what I need to do, here. I promise Tim will be treated with the greatest respect.”
I held strong up until then. But that line made it too real. I broke.
He held me while I sobbed.
Four days later, every Rivertown resident was at the funeral. Well, everybody except–
Everybody attended Tim Flynn’s funeral except thirteen-year-old Emmett Manley, but that couldn’t be held against him since he was almost certainly dead by then, though no one knew it yet.
It was Emmett’s bad luck to have picked up my paper route the previous springtime, when I was hired at Giuletta’s Fruit Market. That route took him right up to the houses that bordered the woods.
I stood at Mrs. Flynn’s elbow while the people of the town passed by, spoke condolences. Tim’s stepfather put up with about an hour of this then sat in their car, an amber bottle raised to his lips.
The sheriff was there, spreading the word that one of his men took down a bear about a mile into the woods. Big one.
“It’s all over folks. We got ‘im,” he told everyone, but I noticed he wouldn’t make eye-contact with my father.
That night, I heard my father arguing with him in low whispers over the telephone, late into the night.
It wasn’t my idea to go back to the Fruit Market to work the day after. Mom pestered Dad until he insisted on it.
Mr. Giuletta scheduled me with Bill Davis, a high school senior with flaming orange hair and a laugh that echoed off the hills around us.
Business had been slow, so around dinner time Bill grabbed a basket of peaches with bad spots, dragging me outside by my arm.
He split the peaches evenly between us and named the goal, pointing below the store, past the train tracks to where a lone sassafras tree leaned over the river’s edge.
“There,” he said. “That’s it, little man. If I hit it first, you have to sweep the lot by yourself.”
Sweeping the lot was the lowest-ranking task of our night. I focused every wish and muscle on that tree, pulled back my arm and–
“Aw, shit! Is that what I think it is?”
Bill was pointing over to the market’s overturned garbage cans. We dropped our peaches, walking. Rotting produce, slimy bags and boxes were now decorating the ground behind the store.
“Some ‘raccoon-proof cans,’ ” I snorted.
“Shit,” Bill said again, and I agreed. Sweeping the lot would be the least of our worries tonight. We cleaned until the store’s telephone rang. Probably Mr. Giuletta.
Bill laughed, pushed me aside and made a dash for the store. Normally I’d race him, but a flash of something among the trees between the river and the train tracks caught my eye just then.
There was a lean-to down there. A shelter of sorts. Hobo, I guessed.
I looked back at the mess of food something had dug through and wondered if it had been someone instead.
And I wondered if that someone had been out in my cave a few days ago.
And I wondered if that someone knew for sure what happened to Tim.
I looked back at the store. Bill was still on the phone.
The hill wasn’t too steep but I was careful anyway, making my feet as quiet as I could. No point announcing my visit.
The sticks framing the lean-to had branches woven through, but enough space between them that I could tell no one was home. I went in.
It stunk of burning, though I saw no campfire-circle outside. No blankets or belongings inside, either. Only a pile of leaves and some recently sharpened sticks — spears, really.
I turned to leave and standing behind me was a wild man.
His black hair stood out from his head not quite straight up but it might as well have. The effect was the same. It was matted thick with a combination of leaves, mud, and oils.
His skin seemed poorly-dyed leather, one layer of color after another. It must have been years since his body had seen soap. And he reeked of burn.
If he had growled at me and tried to bite me it would have made more sense than what happened next.
He spoke gently:
“You were in the woods some days ago. You found the boy.”
It was a simple sentence. But there was kindness in it. I never saw that coming. There was a knot in my throat.
My mouth wouldn’t work so I nodded.
“Were those your things in the cave?”
My mind was racing now. I was allowing his appearance to startle me into silence. That wouldn’t do at all. I wanted answers. I was supposed to be asking the questions.
I steeled my insides, pushing down any vestige of fear and demanded, “Why were you in my cave?”
He shrugged. “I was looking for something,” then he corrected himself, “Someone.”
He glanced a few feet behind him where a tipped tree made a bench of sorts. He sat and sighed, pulling off both thick black boots. He scrubbed his head with his fingernails and dried dirt, leaf bits, and flakes of skin fell.
He wasn’t taking me seriously enough.
I reached into the lean-to and grabbed one of the spears, pointed it inches from him even though I was shaking. “That ‘boy’ was my best friend. So I’m asking you again, what were you doing in my ca–“
In a flash of movement I’ve never been able to replicate, he slapped the spear from my hands. In the silence that followed, I heard it hit branches, then fall to the ground about a hundred yards away.
I stepped backwards, expecting him to attack.
But it didn’t happen. He spoke as gently as before, as though I hadn’t just pointed a spear at his face.
“How many are missing?”
I had to have misheard him. How many? It was my stupid thudding heart in my ears that made it sound like that, I thought.
I began to answer, “Wha–?”
“How many are dead, Mark?”
“What do you mean, how many? And how do you know my name?” I demanded.
The man shrugged. “I was sitting behind your store most of the day, listening,” he sighed. “Have to get my news somehow. Can’t go to town myself.”
“Why not?” I was genuinely curious. Other than slapping my spear away, this guy didn’t seem much of a threat anymore. He seemed too sad.
I looked up the hill. Bill was shouting from the fruit market. There was an edge to his voice. Something was wrong.
In that moment, I realized I had turned away from the man, and instinctively flinched as I turned back, expecting him to have come at me while my back was turned.
But he hadn’t. He stood, and was also looking at Bill, his eyes sharp, concerned.
“Bill needs you,” he said without looking my way. “But I do, too.” He turned toward me. “Mark, I need you to get something for me.”
He grabbed me by the shoulders and the wild had returned to his face. I felt his hands shaking me.
“I’m tired,” he pleaded. “I’m so tired. But I have a chance this time. I got here early enough. There’s still time. He’ll need to feed more before he descends. And if I can get him now, we can end this.”
His grip had grown tighter as he spoke. My mind had twenty different plans running through it to get away from this man. He may not have been dangerous, but he was still nuts. That was enough.
He continued. “The last time it came here to feed, the priest made holy water. Not normal holy water– he went all the way up the river to get it from the source, a place the Indians knew. I need that water. I need it, Mark. It slows him, contains him. I need you to get it. They kept it in the basement of the church.”
Bill was still calling me, his panic unmasked.
I struggled under the man’s grasp. His hold slipped and I darted across train tracks and up the hill toward the fruit market, the only bit of civilization near.
I touched the building like it was a talisman. Safe.
He called to me from below. He hadn’t chased me like I had feared. He was standing where I had left him.
“There were arrowheads! They weren’t among your things at the cave. They were longer– more like spear tips. We have to end this, Mark! He’ll never leave Rivertown unless we end this! My name is Silas. Someone in Rivertown will remember me. Ask them. Mark. ASK THEM!”
I turned away from him, but as I went in the fruit market, I heard him repeat quieter, “Someone will remember me.”
Bill was leaning against a counter and speaking with Mr. Giuletta.
Mr. Giuletta turned toward me. “Emmett Manley’s body was found in the woods this morning.”
“Emmett? What do you mean, ‘his body’?” I couldn’t imagine why Mr. Giuletta would say those words. People only said “his body” when someone was dead. But that couldn’t be right.
Emmett was just a little kid. Thirteen was little.
I’d seen him trying to manage his bike and the side-bag of newspapers he had to deliver when he took my paper route. It took him every day of a week not to lose balance and fall every street or so.
Mr. Giuletta was still talking, though only Bill was listening. I caught the tail end of one sentence, “–trying to find out when was the last time anyone saw him.”
Then I remembered something else I had heard not long ago:
“How many are dead, Mark?” Silas had asked.
My insides contracted then and I probably would have spewed my last few meals on the fruit market floor but for the fact that the Sheriff pulled up then, lights flashing.
He nodded to Mr. Giuletta, and turned to me and Bill. “Mark, get your bike in the back of the car. Get in the front seat. Sam?” He turned to Mr. Giuletta. “You able to take Bill home?”
Sam Giuletta nodded.
Sheriff put a hand on the old man’s arm. “We have another missing child. Susan Nelson. I’m asking all able-bodied men to meet up in town to search for her. Now, you’re not walking so good these days, Sam. If you’re willing, I’m asking you to sit by the phone in the station.”
“Of course. Of course.” Mr. Giuletta was shaking.
“Sheriff, I’ll meet up with you in town.” Bill looked thirty in that moment instead of his eighteen years.
Sheriff nodded, “Thank you, Bill. We can use you.”
“Well, then you can use me, too,” I told him. But he was already shaking his head no.
“I told your mother I was bringing you straight home, Dep. That’s exactly what I’m doing. You want to join up with us, you clear it through her and your dad. But I’m thinking they’re going to tell you no. You need to know that.”
That wasn’t what I wanted to hear, and he knew it. We drove five minutes in silence until–
“Anything ever happen like this before in Rivertown?”
He pressed the brake too fast, too hard. Our seat belts caught us both.
At the road’s edge, I turned to him.
The Sheriff had never looked at me that way before. He was trying to hold his face still, I could tell in order to not give anything away. It was his stony police-face and it was as intimidating as hell. He had never used it on me before, though.
“Why–” He began and then stopped himself.
“Did your father–” He tried again, then grew silent and just looked at me.
He must have calmed himself, because he sighed a long sigh and asked, “What made you ask that, Mark?”
“Some crazy, raving wild man in a lean-to by the river told me.”
There was really no other way to say it.
Sheriff sat stone-silent, his eyes directly on mine. The setting sun was making him squint but he never broke gaze.
I don’t know what passed through his mind during those moments. All I could think, though, was how wrinkled his face was, how old.
Sheriff couldn’t have been much more than forty but the man was already ancient. He seemed fragile– strange word to use, I know it, but it’s the best I have. That was when I made the decision to protect him from knowing more than he had to.
I looked at the floor. “Guess I heard somebody mention it in the fruit market.” I waited a moment before chancing a look at him.
He blinked a few times, turned back toward the steering wheel. He put his turn signal on, got back on the road back into Rivertown in more silence.
My father was already home when we arrived. All the men had been brought up from the mines; all businesses in Rivertown would be closed the following day. Just as the Sheriff expected, I was not allowed to help search for Susan.
But by then my plans had changed, anyway.
I made a show of sulking a bit when Dad said, “No.” Even slammed my bedroom door, something I’d never done before. I listened to the low hum of conversation in the kitchen.
Soon, I heard the Sheriff and my Dad close the door, headed into town to meet up with the search, already underway.
Moving quickly in my room, I gathered what I’d need.
I heard my mother running bath water for my youngest two brothers. They were usually filthy. That would keep her distracted long enough. I raised my window slowly, cursing the occasional squeak the wood made. I lowered it just as carefully, stuck a small stick in to keep it from closing all the way.
St. Luke’s was less than four full blocks from our house. The building wasn’t locked– in those days, they didn’t lock churches. You went in as early or as late as you needed. Nothing in them to steal, anyway. Not in Rivertown, for sure.
The basement stairs were just off the main entrance. The sanctuary was lit dimly at all hours, but the rest of the building was not.
I’d had enough Sunday school classes to know where the lower-level’s light switch would be– at the bottom. I had to do it by touch. I didn’t dare put on lights. Not with half the town scrounging around looking for Susan.
I mentally calculated how many weeks I would be grounded if Dad heard I had sneaked out. Doing this small math distracted me from the utter, perfect darkness of the stairwell.
At the bottom of the steps, I started feeling the wall for the switch, but instead my hand found–
But instead my hand found another hand.
Some primal noise must have escaped me– I can’t remember it now– but only for a moment, because that hand covered my mouth almost immediately. Even in the dark I knew who it was. Only one person carried such a pervasive stench of fire.
He pushed me back toward the steps to get a look at me.
“Mark?” He started to laugh and, shaking, removed his hand.
“I needed to see if you were telling the truth about the water in the basement.” I felt calmer than he appeared to be. A drop of sweat ran from his forehead to chin before he answered.
“The name,” he said, “On the front of the church. It’s different now.”
“What, St. Luke’s?” I asked him.
He shook his head. “No, the priest. It says Father Peter Martin now. It was Father Kessler when I came here last. I’m trying to figure how long it’s been.”
It wasn’t possible, what he said.
Father Kessler was the priest at St. Luke’s when my dad and the sheriff roamed town by bikes. That was over twenty-five years ago. Silas looked worn and haggard, but no way was he close to my dad’s age.
I had come here to St. Luke’s to get evidence that Silas’s story wasn’t a big sack of horseshit, but I found the opposite. Like I had originally thought, the guy was nuts.
Silas was still looking at me, waiting for an answer. He was also blocking me from dashing further up the stairs and out the door.
“Uhhh… Hmmm… Father Kessler. It’s been… a little while.” I stammered.
Silas was no fool. He started to nod, understanding.
“It’s been a very long time, hasn’t it?” He was nodding as he asked. “The cars everyone is driving. They’re very different. And too many houses. I had a hard time finding my way in town. Too many people.”
I chanced a small admission: “It’s probably been some years since Father Kessler was here.”
“Did you ask anyone about me?”
“Uh… I was planning to.”
“Someone will know me, Mark.”
I tried to distract him. “You’re here for the water? The holy water you said they made last time?”
His voice was hoarse. “Not here. I looked everywhere.”
Trying to make him relax so I could dash by him, I offered, “Maybe you could get more where Father Kessler went.”
“No good. I was there three days ago. Someone sealed up the spring.”
The front doors of the church opened, and elderly Mrs. Conlon walked in, rosary in hand, to help pray Susan Nelson home.
Silas ducked back into darkness. I took the steps two at a time and kissed a startled Mrs. Conlon on the cheek, pushing the door open with my shoulder.
I climbed back through my window in time to hear my brothers protest Mom pulling the plug in the tub.
I’ll bet no adult slept in Rivertown that night. God knows, I didn’t.
I heard Dad come home around sunrise. Mom had coffee ready. They spoke in whispers until I heard a kiss and Dad’s footsteps down the hall. I had to move quickly to speak with him, before he crashed into bed. I snuck quietly down the hall to his room and knocked.
“Dad? Do you remember Father Kessler?”
He was toeing off his shoes. A very tired old man looked up at me. If there had been news of Susan during the search, it hadn’t been good.
“Mark? Son, it’s been a long night.”
I didn’t have the heart to push the subject. I nodded, shut the door, and went back to my room.
I fell asleep quickly, waking a few hours later to my sister Inky’s shouts.
“Maple! Maple-dog! Maaaaayyy-poooooole!”
She was calling our dog home, but it didn’t seem to be working.
I cursed my sister so many times under my breath that morning, I can’t tell you. I feel hollow telling you that, and probably by now you can guess why.
Inky disappeared that morning while I drifted back to sleep.
She was two years younger than me. When she was born, I couldn’t say “Ingrid” and started calling her Inky. Eventually, the whole family did.
My guess is that when Maple wouldn’t come home, Inky went looking for her. It’s the kind of thing she would do.
Never mind that kids were disappearing. Never mind that they were turning up dead in every instance. All Inky cared about was getting Maple home safe. If that meant going out to hunt that dog down street by street, that’s what Inky would do.
Mom’s rising panic woke me up, seeping through my sleep.
I’m going to leave that part out. You go ahead and imagine for yourself what it looks like when a mother can’t find her daughter during a missing child epidemic.
I’d give you even more of my own memories of that day if you’d swear to take them and bury them deeper than the mines dug all around Rivertown.
A phone call to the sheriff brought half of Rivertown to our house. The search for Susan was expanded to include Inky.
No one was going to tell me “no” this time, because I was no longer asking. In the chaos, I slipped out the door.
The moment my foot crossed the threshold of our house, I knew where I was headed. Crazy or not, Silas seemed to know what was happening to Rivertown. I stayed off the old highway and followed the train tracks by the river up to the fruit market, instead. I wasn’t taking a chance on being seen.
I gathered rocks as I walked the tracks, and as I approached the lean-to my anger got the better of me and I began pelting the bare-bones shelter with stones.
“Silas! You secret-hoarding bastard!”
But he wasn’t home.
I almost turned to leave, but something rolled down the hill, stopping at my feet: a rotting peach.
Silas was scavenging the garbage cans again.
I made my way up the hill to the back of the fruit market, staying close to the building, hoping to catch him unaware. I made the corner-turn; nothing.
The side door of the fruit market was dented, like someone had tried to crowbar it open. Mr. Giuletta kept a spare key under one of the loose bricks at the back of the building. I grabbed that, all the while listening for some sign of Silas.
Inside the fruit market, it was as cold as a morgue.
Mr. Giuletta kept the air conditioners on maximum to keep the produce cold. He must have forgotten when he locked up for those past few days that no one would be using the door, letting the cold out. As a result, my teeth chattered after I was a couple of steps in.
I took a quick walk around, checking that everything was okay. It didn’t look like any one had gotten inside. I was close to heading out the door when I heard it. A scrambling sound outside, shuffling. Scraping.
“Silas.” I whispered.
He must have seen me come in.
I debated throwing the door open to confront him, but I didn’t. Instead, on a whim, I ducked back into the walk-in cooler, quietly pulling the door closed behind me but for the slightest crack. I wanted to see what he wanted first.
I heard the door open. My stomach was churning, my jaw tight as I tried to keep my teeth from chattering and giving myself away.
What passed me as I hid was not Silas. It wasn’t Mr. Giuletta.
It was trying to look human, that much was clear. It wore a cloth over its frame. And when I say “frame,” that’s the best I can give you. Sticks covered in some kind of a skin.
It wheezed as it walked, tasting the air, maybe. It moved much too fast. Spider-like. And the skin on the back of its hairless head as it passed, it was pulled much too tightly.
I watched as it scrambled to the far end of the fruit market, looking for something. Shocked as I was at the appearance of it, I didn’t realize what it was looking for. Only as it began making its way back toward my cooler, toward the door, did I realize.
It was looking for me. It was smelling and following me.
It was over. I saw the way the thing moved–I couldn’t outrun that. If I pulled back into the cooler, hiding in deeper, it would hear me.
It was over.
I never found out which Rivertown resident chose that moment to call the fruit market, see if Giuletta’s was open. But I owe them my life.
The ringing was loud enough that it covered my sounds as I moved backwards behind stacked cases of lettuce.
But I didn’t need to hide. When the phone rang, whatever that thing was let out such a screech that I tried to cover my ears. But as my hands were moving toward my head, it scrambled outside in a hurry, those stick limbs scraping the cement floor as though whatever bones it had were unprotected by skin.
My sour stomach had enough. It was a good thing Giuletta’s had a drain in the walk-in cooler’s floor. I took advantage of that, wiped my mouth on my shirt. I sat hiding in the corner for a few minutes waiting for my shaking to stop.
“Hey!” A voice called.
I never expected to be grateful to hear that voice. Sy.
“I’m in here,” I tried to say, but my voice wasn’t really working.
It was enough. The cooler door opened wide and I tried to stand on two untrustworthy legs. Sy ducked in and grabbed me under the arms, raising me to my feet.
“I heard it,” he told me. “It doesn’t scream like that unless it’s missed its prey.”
“Guess that was me,” I whispered.
“I’d guessed it was.” He was silent for a minute. “How old are you, Mark?”
Sy nodded. “Whatever it wants, whatever it takes when it feeds, there seems to be more of it in children around your age.”
“My sister is missing.” My voice had returned, now, but sounded quite flat. “She’s thirteen.”
“I’m sorry, Mark.”
“I don’t want you to be sorry. Sorry does nothing. I want you to help me find her.” My jaw was clenching. So were my fists. I jammed them into my shorts pockets so I didn’t use them on him.
Sy looked at the ground, then up at me. “Come out here a moment.”
I followed him out of the cooler, then out the side door of Giuletta’s.
He pointed down the highway, at the edge of Rivertown.
“There were three cabins there, log-built, strong.”
I interrupted, “Nope. There’ve never been houses there. I lived here my whole life. I would know.”
“This was in the early days. Before Rivertown was Rivertown. You understand?”
I shrugged. This had nothing to do with Inky. He was wasting my time.
“A large family–cousins, uncles, brothers–moved here. They knew land. They wanted Rivertown for themselves.
“So they took it by force, the only way they knew how. They called upon the beast,” here he spat, “and the beast came to them, lured by the promise of young flesh, young blood to drain. It was given the freedom to sate its hunger on some of the children of Rivertown. With the exception of their own descendants, of course,” he added wryly.
Now I was understanding.
“You?” I asked.
He nodded. “Those houses–” He gestured again. “As a young boy, I was curious. My parents swore to me the previous residents had left to chase after gold far away. But I broke in to look.”
“Do you know what I found?” Sy asked.
I shook my head.
“Everything — dishes, clothes, muddied boots, all of it — untouched. But for the dust that covered it, it might have been left a day ago. These people had not left to hunt gold,” he scoffed.
“Rivertown grew,” he continued. “It was all about the mines. There was money to be made, and plenty of people wanted to be part of that. I was seventeen when the beast came back to collect again. Rivertown lost six children. My best friend was the second.”
“Your cave– ” He tried to smile but couldn’t. “It was our cave, too.” He grabbed my shoulder and squeezed it the slightest bit.
“I was terrified — we all were. My grandmother took me aside, patted my hand. Told me I had nothing to worry about. And then she explained why.” That sentence rasped in his throat. “Rivertown’s fortunes would belong to me and my cousins one day,” she said.
He pinched back tears.
“Rivertown’s children, traded for money,” he fairly choked on the words.
Sy drew a deep breath and continued. “That wasn’t going to happen in my name,” I told her.
“And so I searched for it. He couldn’t hurt me, but I would goddamn well destroy him if I could. I found him in the woods, near his hole. He had just…” He paused, looked at me. “Well, he had just killed the sixth. I managed to catch him around the middle as he descended.”
“Mark, I can’t tell you everything. The dark down inside that hole goes forever.” He stayed quiet a moment. He shook his head. “No. You don’t need to know about that.”
“I had no way to find him in the darkness. I had almost given up hope, when he returned to go up and feed again. I followed him.”
“But something had changed in Rivertown. New houses, new businesses. People in clothes I had never seen. The date on the Rivertown Daily truly scared me. Forty years had passed, Mark.”
“It was still Rivertown–the signs, the churches all proclaimed it. But it wasn’t my Rivertown. Though the cave was still there. The cave is always there.”
“What do you mean, ‘always’?” I interrupted.
“I’ve followed him down below several times, now, Mark. He’s never down for long. Or so it seems to me. Then we emerge thirty, forty years later.”
“Father Kessler, I knew him as a young child. He trusted me when we met next, he as a young priest at your St. Luke’s. He did some studying while I was gone. The next time the beast came to feed, Father Kessler was ready with the spear heads, the source water that burns it and renders it unable to move.”
“A couple of boys helped him. They were brothers.” He shrugged. “I told them about the cave. They might know where Father Kessler put those things. Their names were Joe and Will Skandersen.”
We went to the sheriff’s empty house and I called my own home.
“Skandersen residence. This is Margie Flynn.” Tim’s mother.
“Oh, Mrs. Flynn. It’s Mark. Is my Dad there?”
“Oh, Mark.” I could hear tears in her voice. If I didn’t interrupt her quickly, we’d both be crying.
“Mrs. Flynn, I might have something that can help. Is my Dad there? Or the sheriff?”
There was still a catch in her voice, but she answered. “Doc’s given your Mother something to calm her. Your Dad wanted you earlier. He’s in with the sheriff and some others, talking about where to look next. I’ll get ‘im.”
It didn’t take long.
“Mark? Mark, you need to come home, son. You need to stay here. It isn’t safe for you, Mark.”
“I saw it, Dad. I saw the thing that took them.” I’m not sure how I was able to talk, my throat closing up like it was, but I continued.
“There’s someone here, Dad. He thinks he can end this. His name is Silas.” I heard the phone hit the floor.
“Dad, do you know him? He says he knows you.”
Dad was the first one in the door, tears streaming, his hand grabbing Silas’. The sheriff was right behind him. He picked Silas up, swung him in a circle while Dad put a hand on my shoulder, squeezing.
The sheriff put Sy down. Dad began.
“My Inky. My daughter,” Dad corrected, “Ingrid.”
Silas nodded. “Mark told me.” He didn’t say anything else. No word of hope.
Dad understood and looked away, his face contracting, but that was all.
The sheriff looked at Sy and said quietly, “Like Annie.”
Neither said more.
“Who’s Annie?” I asked.
“Your Aunt Annie,” the sheriff told me.
“I don’t have an Aunt Annie.”
“Ayuh, Mark,” Dad answered. “You did.”
“She was eleven,” the sheriff smiled. “Bossiest little thing you ever saw.”
Dad’s laugh was the saddest thing I had ever heard. “She was, at that. Never listened to anyone but you, Will.”
“Not true,” Sheriff answered. “I told her not to go out that day.”
The sheriff turned to Sy. “Father Kessler said this would happen again. When he died, Father Martin moved in. He found the box — spearheads, the water Father Kessler swore could stop the thing. I tried to tell Father Martin what it was for, but he threw it out.” Sheriff shook his head. “Threw it all out.”
Sy spoke up, concerned. “It’s gone, then? All of it?”
Dad held a hand up, shook his head. “I saw him do it. I went back that night and snatched it. Didn’t want anyone to find it, so I hid it back inside St. Luke’s, in the choir loft. Father Martin never goes there.”
“We need those things, and quickly,” Sy told him.
“Right,” Sheriff nodded. “But we need something else, too.”
“Don’t say it,” Dad warned him, but he did anyway.
“We need bait,” Sheriff said.
Everyone looked at me.
I thought of Tim, how he looked when I had found him.
I thought of Emmett Manley, lopsided on his bike with the sack of newspapers, wobbling down the street learning balance all over again.
I almost thought of Inky, but I shut that memory off for another time.
“Yeah,” I nodded. “I’m ready.”
A quick trip to St. Luke’s by way of the sheriff’s squad car and they were all ready, too.
We needed a place where breezes would carry my scent the farthest. Silas thought a certain hill near the old Indian cave would work well enough.
I don’t remember any words being spoken as we filed down the path towards that hill. What could be said? This was either going to work or it wasn’t. There was no back up plan.
I do remember how perfect every tree, leaf, bit of moss looked to me. I was keenly aware I might never see them again.
“Right up there, Mark.” Silas pointed up the hill. “Will, how about you get behind that boulder? Joe, I’ll bet that dead tree right across there has enough room for you to crouch in it.”
Sheriff moved to his place pretty quickly, but Dad hesitated and made a move toward me.
I nodded to reassure him. “This is going to work, Dad. It’s okay. This will work.”
Dad put his hand on my shoulder for a few seconds, looking at the ground. I think he was praying. Then he walked to his place.
“It’s gonna see me here, Sy,” Dad told him. “It can’t miss me.”
Sy shook his head. “Smell,” he told Dad. “He may smell you, but he won’t care. It’s Mark he’ll want. I’ve seen it. He can’t stop himself when there’s something near he wants.”
Sy himself ducked under a patch of ivy and dried leaves.
I walked up the hill, trying not to think about the thing I had seen when I hid in Giuletta’s cooler.
And I waited.
But I didn’t need to wait long. When it happened, it happened quickly.
It sounded like a squirrel or a chipmunk, skritching through the past year’s fallen leaves. Spidery and clicking, it came.
Loud clicking, like sonar.
Far off at first.
My stomach cramped as it came into view. Skin over sticks. It was worse than I remembered. And the clicking wasn’t sonar.
It was snapping its teeth, tasting my scent on the air.
It passed my dad, giving him no more thought than it had Mrs. Conlon when she saw it near the woods that night I found Tim.
“Dad’s safe” was the last thought I had before it slammed me in my gut, knocking the wind out of me, knocking us both backwards.
I thought I heard shouting, but it seemed a mile away. My lungs screamed for air, my head felt like it had just exploded and all I could see was…
Teeth. Just teeth. They were inches from my face. Layers, rows of teeth in a mouth that had no end. It was not unlike our old Indian Cave.
I knew those teeth were the last thing I’d see in this life.
It was strange, the peace I felt.
Because some part of me knew that while I would be gone, there were three men here with me who would make sure no one else would be taken by those teeth ever again. And I was okay with that
But in the fraction of a moment it took this thought to pass through my mind, I realized something else: the teeth weren’t getting any closer to me.
The pressure in my chest relieved as I was finally able to draw in a breath, then, and with that breath, all sound and sight returned.
The thing was screaming in rage. It was like slivers of glass jammed in my ears.
“I’ve got you, Mark!” The sheriff was behind me. I felt a strong hand under each of my arms, pulling me away from the thing that had eaten some of Rivertown’s children for generations.
Silas was wrapped around the back of the creature, one hand tight around its throat, one barely pulling back on its forehead. His legs squeezed the middle of it so hard that I thought its bottom half would surely snap off.
But it didn’t snap. Because my Dad was there, too.
And with a strength and speed that could have rivaled Silas’ own, he drove the spearhead up into the belly of the thing.
I didn’t think the screaming could be any louder, but I was wrong.
It thrashed like a series of heartbeats or hiccups in Silas’ hold, trying to take us all to hell with it as it died.
We watched in silence, and when it lay still Silas allowed it to drop to the ground like a wet bag of sand.
Dad was the first to move toward it. I knew what he was up to even before he began.
“For Annie!” he shouted.
He drew back his foot and kicked the carcass, dead-center. Whump!
“For Tim!” next, a harder kick still. Whump!
“And Susan! Emmett!” Whump! Whump!
“For… for Inky!” His voice cracked. Whump!
I had never seen so many tears on my Dad’s face.
I’d done enough hunting with the sheriff that you’d think I’d be able to identify the innards spilling out of the hole in its center, but I couldn’t. Not a thing was familiar.
Dad kicked a few more times while Silas, the sheriff, and I all looked on nodding, watching him mourn.
We stood for some time, quiet, the way men are when there’s too much to say.
Silas nudged me. “We need to gather some firewood.”
“I’ve got some questions,” the sheriff interrupted.
“I know it,” Silas told him. “But they’ll keep. Let’s get this thing burned before anyone else sees it.”
Sheriff hushed it up. Nobody lies like a lawman. And it makes sense: it was over and he had a peace to keep.
You could do that in those days. We didn’t have an Internet to call us liars.
He called a town meeting and found some way to convince them it was some passing transient, a hobo had done all.
And they bought it. Because they wanted to believe that. That lie kept them comfortable every time they passed Rivertown’s woods and the hairs stood up on their necks.
Turned out Mrs. Conlon was Silas’ great-great-great-niece or something like that. Oh, she knew all about the deal Rivertown’s founders had made. She was only too happy to have Sy move there with her the last couple of years.
Bet it made them both feel a bit better to be by those woods, keeping an eye on them.
Sheriff put together papers for Silas, a birth certificate, whatever else he needed. Again, you could do that then.
Me, I finished high school and went to college to study law for a few years. Left that to travel a bit. Get Rivertown behind me. But that didn’t last long.
I was twenty-five when I came back to Rivertown to take up the position of Deputy to Uncle Will. My family wasn’t surprised that I didn’t want to follow Dad down into the mines. I had seen enough of what lurked under Rivertown to last me a couple of lifetimes.
The summer I came back, Dad set up a barbeque. Silas was there, Sheriff, our family.
Come sunset, the kids and women went indoors while the four of us sat around the fire, mostly just watching the flames in silence, like we had once watched a fire on the hill in the woods, near that old Indian Cave.
We threw back a few beers each, but Silas outdid us all. Dad said later he’d never considered the man much of a drinker, but that night he didn’t seem to stop.
I found out the next morning that Silas had gone out to that same hill that very night and put a gun in his mouth.
I guess ten years of healing hadn’t been enough.
I retired as sheriff of Rivertown about five years ago, and in all that time I kept the lies about what happened.
But I’ve had a lot of free time on my hands, and an Internet connection.
I’ve seen stories cropping up in other towns all over, big batch of kids missing here, there. Once I knew what I was looking for, the reports were easy enough to find.
“In Vino Veritas” — know what that means? It means it’s hard to bullshit someone when you’re piss-drunk.
And that night around the fire, Silas hadn’t made much sense, slurring out, “Schwarmsh, Mark. There were schwarmsh.”
Can’t say he hadn’t tried to warn me, like I’m warning you: There’d been swarms of them below.