The House (I)
Perched on the plateau atop a hill named for the hickory trees dotting its slopes, the abandoned house broods over the tiny Alabama town called Belleville like a rattler guarding a clutch of eggs. From the rear windows of the second story one can glimpse the dark waters of the Tennessee River to the south when the leaves have dropped, a tarry path slicing through the red clay fields laid bare for the winter. Few of the townspeople realize this, because they no longer think about the house above them; it has faded in the town’s collective memory the way colors in an old photograph do.
When General Hood and Brigadier General Granger clashed on the opposite bank of the distant river in 1864, fighting for the railroad junction in the city of Decatur, the house was occupied and stood in the middle of a large cleared area on the hill, so white it was hard to look at on a clear summer day. The tin roof gleamed in the afternoon light, shiny as a polished mirror. It looked like a happy place, somewhere people would gather for meals and parties and fellowship and games despite the horrors that had taken place in it some twenty-six years earlier. Now the house is the bleached gray of weathered old bones, its roof a dull rust-red like the dried blood staining the walls inside. There has been no happiness there for many generations.
Sometimes, when the sun is dropping low in the western sky, a glint of light reflecting off one of the unbroken windows will catch the eye of someone below, reminding them that the house lingers on. They will remember the stories of Jeremiah Barlowe they grew up hearing and repeating as they cowered in their beds with the covers pulled up over their heads, giddy with that special kind of fear only a child knows. As often as not, the person will look away from that glint of light quickly, perhaps offering an unconscious genuflection or whispered prayer if they are the religious sort. Many shiver, and if someone happened to witness it, they grin and look a little embarrassed, explaining that a goose just walked over my grave. They rarely think about the house itself, only of the old tales dredged up from the depths of their minds, but that night they may dream about it, black visions filled with screams and blood and almost-seen faces leering out of the darkness at them.
The lines of the house are skewed now, and its supports grown weak. Where it once stood straight and true it has sagged and bowed. But still it stands, ageless and timeless, looming over the town like a watchful sentinel.
And sometimes, it feeds.
May 2013: Garraty
The incessant thump of the music was starting to bug the shit out of Garraty, making his head pound in unison like the beat of some alien heart. The noise set his teeth on edge. For some reason, the DJ had really cranked it up for this one, maybe in the hope that a louder song might draw some attention from the dancer’s looks. Around him, a handful of customers—all male—seemed oblivious to the driving beat, focused on the mostly naked woman on the stage before them. They leaned forward on their barstools like dogs, their arms resting on the apron, tongues practically touching the worn pine. A few beers at the club ogling some boobage was a way to avoid sitting at home in the trailer listening to the rain fall while he tried not to think about the shit sandwich he’d been served, but what had seemed like a good idea a couple of hours ago was starting to feel like one more bad choice in a life full of them. A little extra dribble of diarrhea on the bread, so to speak.
The stage platform looked like it had been built from scrap lumber, Garraty thought. Cheap pressboard paneling formed its sides, painted with a thick layer of black epoxy to protect against spilled drinks, spilled vomit, and probably on more than one unfortunate occasion, spilled semen. The heavy coating of paint made it simple to clean. The stage itself was pine, old flooring probably recovered from some house slated for demolition and then polished to a high sheen. Frosted white bulbs sprouted from the apron, one every twelve inches all the way around. They reminded him of baby teeth coming in.
Garraty picked up his beer and drained it, wobbling on his stool a bit. He slopped a little down the front of his shirt. Fuck it, he thought. Not like it needs to be clean for work tomorrow. His waitress was across the room at the bar and he raised one hand to signal her to bring him another one.
Up on the stage, the dancer—a chunky woman nearing forty—took a couple of running steps and jumped into the air, catching onto the pole mounted at the corner nearest Garraty. She spun around it, twisting herself so she could grab it with her legs, then let go and hung inverted with her arms out like Saint Peter crucified upside-down. Her breasts flopped into her face, mostly obscuring it. Garraty saw faint red incision scars running along the underside where they joined her abdomen. From this angle the silicone baggies were plainly visible perfect round domes under the pale skin. He wondered if they felt real.
“Christ,” he said, though no one could have heard him over the cacophony. Plucking his last single from atop a stack of three fivers sitting on the apron in front of him, he stood and held it up for the dancer. So what if she was pushing forty and a little on the heavy side? Garraty himself was pushing fifty and jobless as of this afternoon courtesy of that rat-faced little cunt down at the General Electric plant with her masters degree from Auburn and bullshit talk about downsizing because of the economy.
Customers aren’t buying as many refrigerators as they once did, Joe, she’d said, sitting across the hand-carved cherry table table from him in the conference room with her legs crossed so her navy blue dress hitched up and showed maximum thigh. In order to stay profitable we all have to make a few sacrifices.
Garraty hadn’t pointed out that as far as he could tell, she wasn’t making any sacrifices at all. Just him, the old white guy who made a little bit too much money to keep around. Seemed like that’s who always got the shaft. You put in nineteen years with a company, playing by all their rules and showing up on the weekend whenever they asked, and when things got a little tight you hear thanks for all the memories, buddy, but it’s time for you to go. Don’t worry about coming back tomorrow, just clear on out. To show you there are no hard feelings we’ll even let you keep the car you still owe us two grand on. Who loves ya?
The dancer, still hanging from the pole, tugged the white t-bar thong away from her lower abdomen so Garraty could tuck the bill in the elastic band, affording him a glimpse of her cleanly shaved pubic mound. She had a little red heart tattoo down there. Nice. They weren’t supposed to expose themselves like that, not here in Bible central. Sure, you could get a flash in the back room during a private dance (and sometimes a little more than a flash if you had enough money, he had heard), but not out here in the main area, and especially not for just a buck. Was she coming onto him?
He dropped back to the stool, one hand splayed on the apron to keep from tipping on over into the floor, and watched the dancer flip over to land on her feet in front of him. She squatted and spread her legs, trailing one finger over the thin fabric along the cleft between them, then stuck out her tongue and dragged the finger down it like she was tasting herself. Watching him the whole time. Definitely coming onto him. He felt himself beginning to stiffen.
Garraty reached for one of the fives, but before he could pick it up he remembered what had played out at the plant a couple of hours ago. He couldn’t afford to just throw money away anymore, not even for a chance at a little pussy. Not until he had another job. That five-spot would get him two more beers—hell, a whole six pack if he stopped paying for the ambiance of this place and just went home to drink—and he figured he needed that more than anything right now. Chances were better than good the stripper was only angling for money anyway. That was what women did. He pulled his hand back.
“Two bucks, sweetie,” the waitress said in his left ear. She reached around him and plucked the empty Budweiser bottle off the apron, then set out a fresh napkin and placed the beer she’d brought him on it. He handed her a five and she counted three singles back into his palm.
“I’ll get you on the next one,” he said, dropping the bills on the remaining fives. He watched her ass as she walked away. The black shorts really did a number with it. Tina’s ass had looked like that—no, better than that—once, before she got pregnant and shat out the twins. His progeny, heaven help us all. She still looked pretty good for her age, not that it mattered now, not since she’d asked him to leave. Kicked out of his own goddamn house, if you could believe that shit.
I want a divorce, Joe, she’d said. I’m tired of the bullshit and the fighting and the drinking.
But what Garraty heard was I’m tired of you. So he packed up his things and got the fuck out of Dodge. Don’t have to ask me twice, sister. Being on his own wasn’t half bad, even though all he could afford was a shitty trailer in a shitty park that was just begging for a tornado to come along and wipe it out. They’d be headed to court soon, and Tina was already making noise about wanting half his paycheck to take care of her and the kids. It’s only fair, Joe, she bleated, like some kind of goddamn Democrat. Well, she was welcome to half his paycheck now. Hell, she could have it all. Never let it be said that Joe Garraty isn’t a magnanimous bastard.
The waitress rounded the end of the bar and Garraty returned his attention to the stage. The dancer had moved on to some hipster douchebag standing near the staircase the girls used to get on and off the elevated platform. Chasing the money. Garraty had seen the guy come in earlier with a bunch of other twenty-somethings, all stubbled beards and stripey t-shirts and thick-framed glasses, jeans so tight you could see their cocks outlined in denim. Fags in a titty bar, the guy next to him had said in a beery blast of breath, I guess I’ve seen it all. The two men had cackled like old hens on a roosting pole.
The douchebag had a Jackson clenched between his teeth now, and leaned in over the apron for her to take it. Anything more than a single virtually guaranteed a little boob-on-face action. Garraty had tried it once with a five spot, but when the dancer squeezed her breasts together with his face in between, all he could think about was how her chest smelled like stale beer. No, scratch that, stale beer saliva. He hadn’t been tempted again. Better to stick with the singles.
The dancer pushed her ass toward the douchebag, swaying it from side to side. She dropped into a squat, the string in her butt crack barely covering anything, then slowly stood, undulating like a snake. The douchebag’s friends hooted and catcalled. Garraty tipped the fresh beer back and took a long pull. The music didn’t seem so loud now. Alcohol. Nature’s earplugs.
Pressing his hands down on the lip of the apron, the young hipster lifted himself so he could get his head ever further over the stage. The dancer called something out to the group of men—to Garraty it looked like she said y’all want a show—and they erupted in cheers. She moved a little closer to the guy and planted her feet in a wide stance, then reached back and took a handful of his hair and pulled him into her ass, kisser first. She held him there for a moment, rubbing herself up and down his face like she was trying to polish it, then let him go. The twenty had transferred—along with God knew what else, Garraty thought—and now poked out from between her cheeks like a cigarette.
His friends exploded in raucous laughter, clapping and shouting. The douchebag wasn’t grinning anymore. In fact, he looked a little green around the gills. Probably nice and sweaty up in there. Shift change was a good four hours ago. Get your money’s worth, kid?
He finished off the beer and picked up his money. Time to get going. The longer he sat here the more he was going to spend, and by the time it was gone he wouldn’t have much more of a buzz than he had right now. Especially when you subtracted the tip money. Thirteen bucks was nearly enough for a case of Pabst at the 24-hour Piggly Wiggly down on Sixth Avenue in Decatur, and it wasn’t even ten miles out of the way. Just the thing to help take his mind off his problems, if only for a night.
Garraty threaded his way across the club to the sign pointing the way down a side hall to the restrooms, walking with the practiced careful stagger of someone who had more than a passing familiarity with a good buzz. The men’s room was at the end of the hall, and he kept one hand on the wall for balance. Inside the bathroom he found the douchebag bent over the stained sink scrubbing at his face with a handful of wet towels.
“Twenty bucks don’t go as far as it used to, huh?” Garraty said, grinning.
The douchebag ignored him and squirted a dollop of slimy pink soap into his hand from the dispenser on the wall. Garraty assumed the position at the urinal and concentrated on not pissing on his shoes, and not laughing at the poor schmuck back there trying to wash eau de ass off his face.
The rain was past and the night had turned chilly. More like March than May, Garraty thought, reaching into his pocket for the keys to his Prius. His breath clouded the air in front of his face, and gooseflesh rose on the backs of his arms. The short sleeve shirt had been fine earlier, but he wouldn’t mind having a jacket now.
Garraty found his keys and thumbed the bob to unlock the doors. Christ, he was glad his dad hadn’t lived long enough to see the Prius. Only Jews and queers drive them fancy schmancy electric cars, he would have said, before fixing Garraty with a reproachful look, and I know you ain’t a Jew. To Earl Garraty, shitty gas mileage had been a point of pride, almost a kind of patriotism. Baseball, hot dogs, and a weekly fill-up of the Impala with premium down at the Sunoco on his way to Crossen’s store, where all the old coots in Belleville gathered to swap stories. Normally, Garraty would have agreed with his father, at least in principle (he wasn’t sure about the Jew thing, because Sam Farber at the package store was a Jew and he was an okay guy, sometimes slipping Garraty a few of the shot-sized bottles of liquor gratis when he made an especially large purchase), but on his fifteenth anniversary at the plant the company made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
As part of their efforts to become more green, General Electric had instituted a program of incentives for employees who had reached certain milestones. The official documentation said the company wanted to “help employees become more responsible caretakers of the planet’s resources.” Garraty privately thought of it as their hug the Earth program. For his fifteen years spent on the factory floor, first on the line and then as a shift lead, the offer was fifteen grand toward the purchase of the hybrid of his choice plus an interest free loan for the balance, payable over five years. The Prius only cost him one-fifty a month (and as of this afternoon it was all his free and clear, hey-o!), and the money he saved in gas knocked another twenty or thirty off that. Hell, maybe he was a Jew after all.
Before the ink from his signature was even dry on the papers, Tina started with the whining. How come you get a new car and I have to drive this old thing? The old thing in question being a three-year-old Grand Am they still had two more years of payments on. Don’t you love me anymore? Finally, sick of the badgering, Garraty had offered to switch vehicles with her. It took less than a month for her to want the Pontiac back. That car doesn’t sound like a car, she said, scowling as she handed over the keys. It’s too quiet. It’s creepy. That was fine and dandy as far as he was concerned. He liked the silence of the car, especially now that she was never in it with him, nagging.
Cranking the heat up to high to dispel the post-rain steam that had fogged the windshield, Garraty pulled out of the club’s parking lot and headed west toward Belleville and the Piggly Wiggly. The highway glistened like a river of oil flowing through the corn fields. The club stood at a kind of nexus among a handful of Alabama cities he thought of as the villes: Huntsville to the north, Mooresville to the east, Belleville and Danville to the west, and Priceville and Falkville to the south. The running joke among the patrons was that the club should be called Titsville because only Decatur, a little farther west than Belleville, broke convention with the naming style.
All of the towns had outlawed nude dancing within their borders, thanks to a heavy Jesus influence, but the place did a booming business out in the county where the rules were looser. Garraty had long suspected most of the people who railed against Titsville on Sunday morning did so out of shame for the things they did in the darkened booths in the back room there on Saturday night, when the beer flowed and the g-strings dropped.
The tires humming on the wet pavement were the only sound in the still night. Garraty checked his speed and eased his foot off the gas a little when the Prius passed the cream-colored Welcome to Belleville sign that marked the city limits. If there was a downside to the hybrid, it was that he tended to go too fast because there was no significant aural feedback from the engine to remind him. It wouldn’t do to get pulled over for speeding and have the cop smell the beer on his breath. The day had already been bad enough without topping it off with a night in jail and a suspended license.
Misty wraiths drifted from the asphalt and danced in the headlights as he traveled through the slumbering town, and by the time he thumped over the railroad tracks on the western edge a thin fog had risen. A few minutes later, crossing the causeway into Decatur, visibility was reduced to almost nothing. Of the warehouses and shipping facilities that lined the shores of the Tennessee River there was but the faintest pink glow in the soupy night. The deep black water lay still and flat as if held down by the weight of the white blanket, and the infrequent cars that passed were indistinct, glowing domes of luminescence. The isolation was nice after the boisterous atmosphere of the strip bar.
The fluorescents in the grocery store hurt Garraty’s eyes, they were so bright. And of course the beer was all the way in the back, so he had to walk the entire expanse of housewife heaven squinting like a goddamn vampire in the sun. At the cooler he picked up a case of Pabst, thought about it, then put the case back and took a thirty-pack instead. What the hell, it was only a couple of bucks more. If you’re gonna tie one on you might as well tie one on.
He made his way to the checkout and got in line behind an old man who was buying ten cans of store-brand cat food and a loaf of bread and paying for it with loose change. The guy smelled like body odor and greasy hair and moldy cheese, and his Goodwill clothes hung loose on his stooped frame. Garraty found himself wondering if the cat food was actually for a cat. There but for the grace of God. He resolved to start looking for a job in earnest just as soon as the beer tucked under his arm ran out and he got sobered up. Maybe on Monday. Three days ought to be plenty of time to drown his sorrows.
The old guy finished and left with his bag. Garraty plunked the beer down on the conveyor and rubbed his temples. His head was starting to hurt like a motherfucker. Probably something residual from the awful music at the club. A beer would take the edge off the pain, he thought. Two would take it away completely. When the checker dragged the carton across the scanner, the high-pitched beep made him wince. He wanted to ask her to just go ahead and pop one out of the box for him so he could slurp it down right there at the register, but kept his mouth shut.
Back in the Prius he slapped the keys on the dash and tore into the cardboard packaging. The headache seemed to back off a bit with the sound of the first top popping, but that might have been more imagination than anything. He drained the can in one long pull, chugging it in gulps so large they sounded like effects from the cartoons he used to watch on Saturday mornings a couple of lifetimes ago. He set the empty can in the passenger seat and pulled a second beer from the box. It suffered the same fate as the first. Satisfied the headache was under control—or would be in a couple of minutes when the beers really started to work—he picked up the keys and started the car.
The back of the Piggly Wiggly lay in darkness, the only light a sallow cone from a single lamp atop a pole mounted in the lot next to the dumpster. Garraty pulled up alongside the metal container and hooked the two empties out his window and into the open top. Four points. He belched several times with gusto, and before he made it out of the parking lot to go home, he’d snagged a third beer and nearly emptied it.
The grocery store receded into the fog. He turned on the radio but the classic rock station—all the way down in Birmingham but far superior to the closer one in Huntsville—was staticky and kept cutting out because of the cloud cover. Too bad, because the song playing was Boston’s More Than a Feeling, a perfect song for a night drive and a couple of beers. He took a swig of Pabst and decided what he needed was a little old-time country music. The kind Earl had played softly on the transistor when Garraty was a boy and they went fishing, guiding their flat-bottom boat through the little inlets and coves that surrounded Belleville as they hunted bass, catfish, and crappie. Johnny Cash or Loretta Lynn or Ronnie Milsap. Good stuff, not that shit they called country these days. He punched the scan button, listening for the twang of a steel guitar or banjo.
The Prius left the city behind and began the mile-long trek across the causeway over the river. The radio skipped along, pausing long enough to play a snippet at each station it found: pop, hard rock, lots of Jesus music and preaching, one rap, a classical, news, and plenty of modern country. Nothing he was looking for. He glanced down at the console and found the AM button. Maybe the old country had never made the transition over to—
The tires sang a mournful braaaaaaaaaahmp as the Prius drifted over the line on the right and hit the rumble strip. Garraty jerked the wheel to the left before the car continued on over into the guard rail put in place to keep idiots like him from driving right off the road and into the water. Beer foamed over his hand and splattered on his pants.
His heart was pounding now, the quest for honkytonk music forgotten. Eyes on the road, dipshit. He cocked his head to one side and finished off the Pabst, crooking his neck so he could honor his new commitment to safe driving. Lowering the window, he pitched the empty out. No more beer until I get back to the trailer. He turned the radio off. Better concentration that way, less chance of another incident.
The causeway became the highway again and the dark waters of the river were swallowed by the fog. Almost back to Belleville. Lights flashed up ahead, a pair of muted red eyes winking at him through the mist, growing brighter by the second. Even as he realized what he was seeing, the blast of an air horn from the approaching train pierced the night. The sound woke his headache.
There was a car waiting at the railroad crossing, a silver Crown Vic with a navy trunk lid. On the side, a blue emblem in the shape of the state on the door and on the roof, a set of bar lights. Lettering across the back of the trunk spelled STATE TROOPER in gold, not that Garraty needed to read the words to know what the car was. Fuck. He could see the trooper’s head through the rear window, limned in red each with each flash of the crossing lights, and imagined pulling up next to him and having to sit there waiting for the train to pass. Would the trooper even look over at him? Garraty thought the answer to this question was a resounding YES. That’s what cops did. They look at you, sniffing around, hoping to find a reason to hassle you or better, a reason to pop you one in the noggin with a baton. Maybe offer you a ride down to Electric Avenue with the TASER if they decided you were giving them attitude or resisting. Oh yeah, the cop would look right the fuck over and what would he see? A nicely buzzed man—and wasn’t that word just a little bit of an understatement after the last three beers—doing everything he could to look sober as a judge…and failing spectacularly.
There was a road that paralleled the tracks, Garraty remembered. It followed the rail for a ways before winding up and over Hickory Hill and coming back into town on the south side. A little out of the way, but worth it in this instance. He looked for the reflective green sign marking the the road, but there wasn’t one. For a long moment as he pulled alongside the trooper he worried that he’d mis-remembered in his current state, that the road was on the other side of the tracks and he was well and truly screwed, but then he saw the thin black strip of pavement snaking out of sight on the right. He put on his turn signal.
The train thrummed alongside him, traveling to destinations north while he headed south, and soon enough it had passed, leaving him alone with the whirring of the crickets outside, so loud out here he could hear them through the closed windows. He clicked the lights on bright, but the fog was still too heavy and everything whited out. Christ, it was dark out here. County services were sparse when it came to things like streetlights in the boonies. Not many people lived along the road. He’d only seen a couple of mailboxes since he left the highway.
The road began to climb and curve. Jesus, he hadn’t been out here in what, thirty-five years? Not since he was barely a teenager. He’d come with his best friend at the time, a tow-headed kid named Tanner Frank who lived two doors down from him, and some relative of his that Garraty had never met from Decatur. A cousin maybe. Tanner was Catholic and had about a hundred aunts and uncles, and it seemed like he was always showing up with a different cousin in tow. Garraty didn’t know that he’d ever met any of them twice.
One of the boys had suggested they ride their bikes up Hickory Hill to show the cousin the old Barlowe house, long rumored to be haunted, though all the ghostly sightings were by friends of friends and never anyone anybody knew. The three left their bikes at the bottom of the driveway and crept up toward the slumbering monstrosity, keeping a watchful eye out for ghosts despite it being high noon on a sunny day. One could never be too careful.
After they’d had a peek through the broken windows of the lower floor, looking—from a safe distance, mind you—for the bloody handprints supposedly visible on the interior walls but not finding them, the cousin was begging to get closer, to actually go inside the dilapidated thing and show he wasn’t scared. He was a skinny little kid with an attitude, a bantam rooster running around the chicken yard trying to make a name for himself with the bigger birds. Today someone would probably say he had short man syndrome, but in the late 70’s he was just a braggart.
Tanner had finally told the kid to go on inside if he really wanted to, but not to come crying to them if he got scared. Garraty remembered the way the boy had marched up the steps and across the porch, then sauntered through the front door like it was his own goddamn place. He came out a couple of minutes later, calm and cool, claiming he’d touched the renowned bloody handprints, and that if the two of them weren’t such pussies they could come back inside with him and touch them too.
Exasperated with the cousin’s antics, Tanner had pointed at the rectangle of midnight in the exterior wall beneath the sagging front porch, saying if you’re so brave, shithead, go in there where they found Jeremiah Barlowe. Daring the cousin to enter the crawlspace—a place neither Tanner himself nor Garraty was willing to go for a million, no, a billion dollars—and bring some kind of souvenir back out. Wonder of wonders, the cousin trotted over to the porch, dropped to his hands and knees, and crawled into the dark opening.
As Garraty recalled, the little fucker had shot out of that same dark opening like a load of buckshot roughly two seconds after he disappeared into the blackness, wide-eyed and screaming that Jeremiah Barlowe had risen from the dead and was coming for him. Crazy shit. They’d had to chase him for nearly a mile before they caught up with him. Of course by then he was Mr. Calm-and-Cool again, claiming that he had seen a rattlesnake and been spooked.
Garraty grinned in the darkness at the faint old memory. Was the house even still there? The thing had been ancient in those days, bowed and bent, with ragged holes visible in the rusted tin roof where storms had ripped away sheets of metal. Surely it had collapsed. Nature was a cruel mistress when no one was there to repair the damage after her assaults and keep her encroaching growth at bay. The thing was probably nothing more than a crumbling chimney jutting from a mound of kudzu or poison ivy by now.
The lane veered to the right, following the natural contour of the hill as it rose. The fog was thinning up here a little. Good. He could see lights below through the trees on his left, softly glowing bubbles of yellow and pink and orange in the sea of gray. Belleville slumbering. Garraty wondered if he could see anything of the house from the road. If anything was left of it to see, that was. The driveway was somewhere around here, wasn’t it? He didn’t want to risk turning off the road to shine the lights up for a look-see in case the slow, soaking rain had turned the ancient gravel path to mush, but he wouldn’t mind getting a glimpse for old times’ sake if he could.
Garraty craned his neck and risked a quick look up into the gray shrouding the hillside. Nada. All he could see were dim tree shapes, billowing black clouds in the mist. Oh, well. He hadn’t really expected to see anything anyway. What he should do was wait until a nice sunny day and take a drive up here to see what was left of the place. God knew his daytime calendar was open right now.
Movement flashed in the headlights then, but before it even registered in the beer-soaked reflex center in his brain, the Prius hit something with a sickening bang and the passenger side bumped up and down as the car passed over it. Garraty heard it thumping on the undercarriage as the vehicle traveled forward, and then there was a second up and down babump as the rear tire went over whatever he’d hit.
He stomped on the brakes hard enough to engage the anti-lock system, and the Prius ground to a stuttering, juddering halt in the road. His heart thumped in his chest the way it had during the overloud song in Titsville, and it felt like he might have shot a squirt of piss into his tighty whities. Wispy phantoms chased one another in the headlight beams. Garraty held the wheel in a death-grip, fingers locked so tightly around it they would ache the next morning, concentrating on his breathing and not the glimpse of a thin face and shock of brown hair he’d seen in that instant before the impact, the eyes that widened in mute surprise or the hands held up in impotent defense against the silver beast rushing out of the fog.
He’d hit a boy of maybe twelve or thirteen, certainly no more than fourteen.
For a moment Garraty considered stepping on it, just putting the pedal to the metal and getting the fuck out of Dodge. But what if they could figure out who hit the kid? He’d seen enough TV shows to know enterprising lab technicians could work all sorts of miracles with the tiniest bit of evidence. Yes, your honor, we were able to identify the Prius owned by the defendant from this single flake of silver paint found in the victim’s hair. Hit and run was a big fucking deal. The kind of thing they’d lock you up and throw away the key for. Garraty shut the engine off.
For a moment he sat in the darkness with his eyes closed, waiting for his heart to slow down. Hoping the mess wasn’t too bad. Hoping that maybe the kid was okay, that he was sitting back there on the side of the road with a big shit-eater of a grin on his face for being such a dumbass and running out in front of a car without looking. What the hell was a kid doing out at this time of night, anyway? Nothing good, that was for goddamn sure. Garraty had been a kid once. His mother always said nothing good happens after midnight, and wasn’t this the fucking cherry on the shit sundae that proved it? The little bastard practically asked to be run down. Maybe he’d learn a lesson from this.
Garraty reached over the seat and felt around in the back for the emergency car kit. Tina had assembled it for him two years ago after he’d had a blowout during a winter storm and got caught completely flat-footed. He’d ended up changing the tire on the side of the highway outside Huntsville while snow and sleet fell from leaden skies and the cars passing by slung gray slush on him in freezing sheets. Tina clucked and called him poor baby and went on the internet, where she found some message board run by doomsday preppers with all kinds of emergency planning information. Garraty had laughed when she gave the blue nylon bag to him, but right now he was pretty goddamn thankful.
His fingers touched the slick fabric and he located the handle. The bag clanked when he set it on the seat next to the beer and unzipped it. He rooted around in it until he found the Maglite, then opened the door and stepped out of the Prius. As he walked along the side of the road, the circle of light jittered on the asphalt before him. Rain dripped from soggy branches of the trees, and something scurried furtively through the undergrowth on the uphill side. Snapdragon was in bloom somewhere near. The air was thick with the heady scent of the funereal flowers. He could see the kid ahead, a crumpled heap half on, half off the road. Not moving. He resisted the urge to shine the flash on the boy—on the body, his mind whispered insistently—as he approached.
Finally he could avoid the inevitable no longer and played the light over the shape lying before him. Oh, the kid was deader than shit, that was for sure. He was a mess, all twisted and beaten and broken, laying there like a forgotten rag doll someone pitched into the corner. The boy was facing Garraty—part of him was, anyway—his dull brown eyes half-open and turned toward the Prius like he was trying to figure out what the hell had happened to him. His head had an odd shape to it, elongated and soft like a deflated balloon, and the brown hair now shone wet and red. A crevasse creased his skull from front to back. Something pale and pinkish-gray bulged out at Garraty through the gaping split, glistening in the fall of light from the Mag. There was a muddied zig-zag design tattooed into the cheek facing the sky. Tire tracks.
One of the boy’s hands had been ground into hamburger, that elbow snapped backwards underneath his torso. The other arm was in the shape of the letter Z. A shard of bone jutted through the skin near the wrist, pointing accusingly at Garraty. Christ, there’s so much blood!
The body had been kinked at the waist, wrenched around as if given a tweak by the hand of a giant, and the boy’s lower half lay front down in the bloody grass like he was splayed out to read a book. One foot was bare, the other clad in a sneaker stained maroon from blood and Alabama clay.
“You okay, kid?” Garraty asked in a weak, wavery voice, even though he knew the kid was a long fucking way from okay. He didn’t know what else to say or do.
The kid didn’t answer, didn’t move, didn’t anything. He just lay there quietly, staring into the elsewhere through those half-lidded brown eyes. Fuck.
Garraty squatted next to the boy and shone the Maglite directly in his eyes. No reaction. The patient’s eyes are fixed and dilated, Dr. Garraty. This close, he caught a faint whiff of offal, ripe and pungent and fresh. Knocked the shit out of him, my man.
He was dangerously close to laughing, and if he started he didn’t know that he’d be able to stop.
Garraty stood and dug in his pocket for his phone. If he ditched the rest of the beer up in the woods—someplace he could find again tomorrow, because dead kid or no dead kid that was money he could ill afford to lose—and did a few jumping jacks or ran in place to clear his head, he might get out of this. There was a pack of Certs or TicTacs or some such thing somewhere in the car, he’d bet his life on it. Tina loved that breath shit almost as much as she loved the twins (and probably more than she loved him, at least now, he thought) and left half-consumed packages in a trail behind her the way a bunny will leave piles of little black pellets. It would take the cops and paramedics a good twenty minutes to get up here. Plenty of time for him to get his shit together.
He could handle this.
The phone’s screen came to life when Garraty pressed the button on the side to wake it up, and he swiped his finger across to unlock it. In the notification bar he saw Searching for service in small black letters.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” he asked the night, or God, or maybe even the dead kid. He didn’t know or care. None of them were going to answer.
Fucking Walmart phones. That’s what he got for carrying the cheapest service there was. No wonder it only cost him a few bucks a month. How could the damn thing not find a tower up here over the town? There had to be at least three or four within sight of this spot on a clear day. He hit the phone button on the screen and brought up the dial pad, dialed 9-1-1, and pressed send anyway. It couldn’t hurt to try. The phone was silent for a couple of seconds, then beeped reproachfully at him as if offended he didn’t believe it when it said there was no service. He almost hurled the thing into the void over the town out of spite.
There was nothing else to do. He was going to have to leave the kid here and go for help. This just kept getting better and better. Couldn’t he even catch one little fucking break? The cops were going to smell the booze on his breath even if he did find some of Tina’s forgotten mints and that would be all she wrote, because God or karma or the universe hated him and wanted to crush him. That was the only rational explanation. Lock me up and throw away the key, ossifer, because I’m one drunk son of a bitch, he could say when he burst into the police station. And that’s exactly what they’d do. He’d be frog-marched down the courthouse steps in front of reporters from as far away as Montgomery during the trial, and afterward his picture would end up on the front page of every newspaper in the state with the words CHILD KILLER under it in 48-point type. All because this little fucker couldn’t be bothered to check for traffic before bolting into the road.
Calm down. You’ll be fucked for sure if you don’t keep your shit together.
Once again he considered running. The shit on TV was probably exaggerated, right? Hell, the real life CSI folks couldn’t even figure out if that Anthony woman in Orlando killed her little girl or not and that was just a couple of years ago. He could just go, simply get in his car and motorvate right on home cool as a cat. As far as anyone knew right now, the boy was still alive and Joe Garraty had gone straight to his trailer with his beer from the Piggly Wiggly.
But what if someone spotted the boy before he got far enough away? Hell, someone could be coming right now. Garraty clicked off the Maglite, certain he would see twin spears of light piercing the gloom just over the hill, but the darkness was complete. The only sounds were the dripping trees and the occasional whirring chirp of a lone cricket. Maybe he could move the kid off the side of the road, just drag him a little ways back into the trees so he wasn’t so visible, so obvious, and—
No one ever went up there anymore. Hell, almost no one had gone up there when he was a kid, and that was what, thirty-five years ago? It was the kind of place where something hidden would stay that way. There was a better than even chance the damn thing wasn’t even standing any longer, but if it was he needed to get his ass in gear before someone came along and proved him wrong…and before he chickened out and changed his mind. There was nothing that could help the kid now, he was just a bag of bones. The only one who could be helped here was Garraty himself, by avoiding prison and taking another shot at life. Cut out the drinking, get a new—better—job, and maybe even work on making things right with Tina again, if that was possible. All that stood between him and happiness was this one little bit of unpleasantness.
He turned off the Maglite and trotted up the road to the Prius. Keeping the lights off, he started the engine and backed down the incline to the body. He shone the Mag down into the emergency kit. Tina had said something about a poncho when she gave it to him. That ought to help keep the carpet clean. Instead of the poncho, however, he found something even better—a Mylar emergency heat blanket. She really thought of everything. The packet said the thing was seven feet by five feet. More than big enough to protect the interior of the car. Marveling at the weight of the flimsy plastic—the package couldn’t have weighed more than a couple of ounces—he got out of the car and went to the tail end.
Pinpoints of pale yellow from the trunk bulb shone in the dead boy’s eyes when Garraty raised the lift gate, giving them the appearance of life. He tried to ignore the feeling of being watched as he tore open the plastic packaging of the emergency blanket and unfolded it. God, but it was loud! The crinkle of the Mylar as he spread the silver sheet over the floor of the trunk filled the night, and seemed to echo off the hillside. When he stooped to pick the body up off the wet pavement he got a snootful of the stench rolling off the kid and nearly gagged. Gonna need to fumigate the trunk when I clean it. The boy’s head rolled loosely when Garraty stood, and the body sagged in his arms and tried to slip through them. The kid was still warm. That bothered Garraty more than the gore, more than the stink.
He held the boy like a groom carrying his new bride across the threshold and walked to the waiting trunk. When he bent to lower the body into the opening, it pitched forward and flipped from his grip, folding itself into the tight space with a sickening fluidity of movement. The Mylar crackled gleefully as the body tumbled onto it. Garraty lunged to catch him and the jagged splinter of bone poking out of the kid’s arm jabbed him just below his left nipple. He hissed from the pain and jerked back. The boy’s head fetched up against one of the Mylar-covered wheel wells, cocked at an obscene angle to his shoulders, so that he seemed to stare up at Garraty through his half-open eyes. Smears of blood and mud marred the beige plastic across the back of the car where he slithered across it, and his shattered arm hung limply over the bumper. Garraty squeezed his eyes shut against the tableau and thought about his new life. The one where he wasn’t wearing an orange jumpsuit with a number on it. He pushed the kid’s arm back into the trunk, then lowered the liftback and latched it. The sound seemed as loud as a gunshot.
The first thing Garraty did when he got behind the wheel and started the car was lower the windows to clear the outhouse smell. Jesus, it was bad. He put the vehicle in gear and turned around in the narrow road, so that he was pointed back down the hill, then crept along the edge of the asphalt looking for the gap in the trees that would mark the old driveway. After he’d gone a hundred feet he stopped, certain that he’d missed it. That, or his memory had gone the way of his job. He turned the wheel to the left so he could pull a U and cruise back up the hill, and as the headlights swept across the forest he saw the space he’d been looking for. The weeds were tall and the briars thick, but the path looked clear enough. The real question was going to be the mud, and whether he’d be able to make it up to the house or end up stuck on the side of the hill with the body of some kid in his trunk. He didn’t want to think about that particular call to AAA.
Gravel crunched under the tires as the Prius left the road, and undergrowth scraped at the bottom of the car like fingers reaching up from a grave. Each time the tires found a dip or bump the Mylar crinkled and crackled behind him. The driveway had been laid well, and the car did not slide as it climbed. Gradually the incline flattened into a plateau and the trees thinned. High clouds fled to the northeast, chasing the rain, and wan moonlight washed the top of the hill. As the ground leveled out, the driveway hooked to the right and when Garraty rounded the curve, he got his first look at the house.
Sheltered from most of the glare of the headlights by the grove of trees that had grown up around it, the ell-shaped house stood just as tall as it had when Garraty was a boy. All he could see from here was one gabled end, the crumbling spire of a chimney bisecting its central axis. The shiplap siding shone dull gray through the green leaves, and the rusted roof looked black in the light. As Garraty looked up into the two obsidian rectangular windows that flanked the chimney like eyes, absently rubbing the spot on his chest where the broken bone had poked him, he couldn’t help but feel like the house was looking back down at him. He shivered. This had not been one of his better ideas.
He pulled the car closer to the house and shut the engine off, acutely aware that if anyone had been looking up here from below, they might have seen the lights climbing the drive if the fog had thinned enough in town. Probably no one was stupid enough to come up here and investigate—nearly every kid who grew up in Belleville knew the stories about what happened to the Barlowe family and those three little kids in the forties—but if someone called the cops, well, they might just pay a visit. They were paid to do shit like that. The sooner he got out of here, the better.
Garraty opened the car door and stepped out. Before he’d gone ten steps he stumbled over a piece of scrap wood and almost fell. Jesus. A broken ankle was just what he needed right now. An image rose in his mind of him lying on the ground screaming, one foot dangling as loosely as the boy’s hand had. Sure, he might be able to crawl back to the car, might even be able to drive over to the hospital in Decatur without further injury, but then what? A couple of hours in the ER waiting for them to set the broken bone while the boy lay out there in plain sight, staring up at the lift gate with those flat dull eyes? Say, doc, could you send one of those orderlies out to my car to pick up a little biohazard trash for your incinerator? Better make him a burly one, it’s a real dead weight.
Again he felt the urge to bray laughter, and again he bit it back.
Garraty picked his way back to the Prius and got the Maglite, which he thumbed on. Much better. He played the beam around. Not much to see but the weeds, nearly waist high already and the hot weather was still a few weeks away. He began to pick a path to the house, mindful of the pieces of lumber that lay scattered here and there, blown off the house by storms long since past. It wouldn’t do to step on a nail, either.
The lower floor of the house was hidden behind a hedge of privet, small trees, and brambles. Light glinted off jagged pieces of glass that remained in the windows, barely visible through the thicket. Garraty played the beam from one corner to the other, looking for a break in the greenery so he could get closer and find the best way in. It looked like there was a gap between the growth and the exterior walls.
He rounded the end of the house and started up the back side. There was some trash back here, bald tires grayed with age, the tattered remains of what he thought was a mattress, a rusted car frame resting under one of the mighty hickories, various pieces of detritus. Everything looked old as shit, pummeled by the elements year after year. Good. Garraty continued his search.
A slight breeze from the north rustled the grass, and the leaves murmured to one another overhead. He found himself wishing once more for a jacket. Midway down the length of the house he found a sheet of stained tin resting atop a circular brick structure about two feet tall. A couple of basketball-sized pieces of limestone held the metal in place. He knew what this was.
Garraty tucked the Maglite under one arm and removed the rocks from the metal. Taking one edge gingerly—the stuff looked sharp enough to take a finger off if he wasn’t careful—he pulled the rusted tin back. The harsh grating sound seemed preternaturally loud in the quiet night, and set his teeth on edge. As the metal slid aside to uncover the yawning hole in the earth, a fetid, wet smell boiled up into his face and he turned away, stomach clenching. After a few gulps of the fresh night air his innards settled and he turned back to the old well.
The bricks lined the walls of the hole all the way to the bottom of the well some twenty feet below. A litter of glass shards sparkled up at him from down there, diamonds in the dirt. Damn. A dry well was useless for his purposes. Even with the sheet of metal over the top, when June rolled around in a couple of weeks it would stink to high heaven up here. Garraty thought the chances were better than even that no one would pay a visit, but if some stupid kids came up here on a dare, he couldn’t risk the body being found. Not while there was still a chance for some of that CSI magic.
Why couldn’t the damn thing have had water in it? Hell, it was just raining, and it was dry as a bone down there. A little water, he could have weighted the body down and rolled it in. No worries about the smell at all.
Though it would probably have a funny taste if you tried to drink it.
Garraty wrestled the section of roofing back onto the wellhead and repositioned the chunks of limestone. Just like with everything, this was going to be as hard as it possibly could. Maybe looking for a place up here to stash the boy’s body wasn’t such a great idea after all. The river wasn’t too far from here, and the channel was deep. That could work. Let the catfish and turtles take care of things for him. The only problem with the river bridge was the traffic. Someone was always on the causeway going into Decatur. If he was out there for more than a minute, he’d be spotted. Too bad he didn’t have a boat, even a crappy old aluminum one like his daddy had. He’d be set. The inlets and nooks along the banks of the backwaters surrounding Belleville provided innumerable places where he could dump the kid. Hell, he’d heard rumors that some of those coves sat atop a network of caves and were practically bottomless.
Garraty worked his way around the far end of the house—the base end of the ell-shaped building—continuing his search for a good hiding place. As he rounded the corner that brought him to the front, he spotted an opening in the growth and ducked through it. Behind the wall of greenery he did find the gap he thought he’d seen, about eighteen inches between the house and the hedge, as if the plants didn’t dare touch it. If half the stories he’d heard about Jeremiah Barlowe as a kid were true, he couldn’t blame them.
The shiplap siding had grayed and bowed, beaten into submission by decades of Alabama weather. Barely a hint of paint remained, and several of the boards had fallen away, exposing the backside of the tongue-and-groove pine interior wall. Mildew splotched the old wood like cancerous lesions. When the light danced across these gaps Garraty heard the scratch of tiny claws on wood as mice fled the brightness.
He moved along the jutting front edge of the house—unconsciously keeping as far from the weathered wood as he could—until he came to a window. Holding the Maglite over his head, he shone it into the room. The knotty pine floor was warped and buckled, and several pieces had sprung loose from the subfloor. There was a distinct cant to the room toward the central wall, where the main support beam had bowed in deference to gravity. Most of the old wallpaper hung in tatters, revealing the age-darkened pine walls underneath, but there was a relatively whole section on the far wall with a smeared handprint stamped on it. It looked like blood to Garraty, but wasn’t that just his imagination, steeped in a childhood ghost story? It wasn’t like there would still be remnants of the night they found Jeremiah Barlowe’s family seventy years ago, when—
Something poked Garraty in the back and he yelped and almost dropped the Maglite, before realizing he’d been backing away from the sight of that handprint and walked right into a low branch. He laughed—a little nervously, perhaps—and aimed the light back through the window. Keep cool, asshole. You’ll be out of here soon enough.
There was an arched walkway in the far wall, leading to the barren dining room and the kitchen beyond. The pea green linoleum floors in the kitchen shone dully in the beam, and he saw a drift of leaves in there, fallen from the thick maple branch growing through the window that overlooked the back yard. The cabinets lining the walls had been white in a previous life. He was getting a little exasperated. What had he expected to find in the house, anyway, an airtight old chest freezer with a sign on it that said Dead Bodies Stored Here? Besides, the way that floor looked, he’d be terrified to walk across it even if he had seen something as perfect as that. Two steps in he’d probably break through and drop into the crawlspace, where he’d likely be impaled on a piece of—
Hold everything, ladies and gentlemen, I think we have a winner!
Why hadn’t he thought of the crawlspace in the first place? It couldn’t be more perfect. Not only could he stash the kid in there under some dirt to keep the smell down, no one would ever go under there because that was where they found Jeremiah Barlowe seventy years ago, when they came up here looking for those missing kids. No one was that stupid.
Well, almost no one. He thought back to his childhood, and the way Tanner Frank’s cousin had tried to go under the house only to bolt out seconds later, terrified of the tricks his mind was playing on him. Grinning at the old memory and his own ingenuity—completely unaware of the way his grin might have looked more like the grimace on a death mask than mirth to someone watching—he followed the wall around the next corner and rounded it, beam on the ground.
The front porch was in the corner of the ell of the house and looked the same as he remembered, all loose planks and peeling steel-gray paint. The curled No trespassing sign nailed to the front door facing still hung in the same place, but it had faded almost white. The letters were barely visible. The door itself was missing, and he saw the staircase just inside, climbing into midnight. Garraty wondered who owned the property now. Not that it mattered, not really, because the owner obviously didn’t give a shit about it. He crouched and played the light under the porch.
The powdery dirt was littered with planks from the stoop above. A pile of bricks—leftovers from the well, most likely—lay in the corner where the room he’d just been looking into jutted out from the main part of the house. Someone had leaned a sheet of rusty tin—it’s not just for roofs anymore, his mind gleefully crowed—over the opening to the crawlspace. Garraty considered the metal for a long moment. It hadn’t been there before…but before was thirty-five years ago, and there was no way of knowing what had happened during that time. The thing might have been propped there the day after—hell, the same day—he was up here with Tanner Frank and his cousin, or someone might have done it an hour ago.
He dropped to his hands and knees on the wet ground and crawled under the porch.
Dust coated the rusty piece of roofing, but it was deepest on the v-shaped bends stamped into the metal to strengthen it lengthwise. Good. That told Garraty it had been standing there more than a few days. When he tipped it away from the opening, cobwebs stretched and broke, enough of them that he heard the faint crackle as they snapped. Better. No one had been under here for a long time. He set the piece of tin to one side and stuck his head through the opening to have a look.
The air under the old house was even cooler than the night, and carried the faint odors of mildew and rot. God knew how many small animals had lived and died under here. Pretending he didn’t remember all the stories about Jeremiah Barlowe and how he’d been found in the cramped, dank space gnawing on—
Garraty slammed a lid down on the memory of the old legend. Probably bullshit anyway, stuff kids tell each other to have a good scare. Even if it was true, it happened seventy years ago and everyone involved was dead and gone. He crawled through the tight opening, trying not to think about ghouls and ghosts and monsters, those figments of imagination we think we’ve outgrown until the right set of circumstances arises and then they’re right there with us again, pulling up a chair and whispering hello, my old friend in a voice as creaky as an ancient casket lid. He played the light around the crawlspace, looking for a good spot.
Brick piers rose from the sandy soil in an evenly spaced grid, tiny towers that had once provided solid footing for the beams forming the base of the house. Now several had crumbled and others canted this way and that, and the structure above him bowed and sagged crazily. Garraty suddenly felt the immense size and weight of the house bearing down on him, making it hard to take a breath. He wanted to scuttle backwards out of the opening and reconsider the dry well. He didn’t know if he could stay in here long enough to do what needed doing. Take a powder, princess. This place is only as bad as you make it out to be.
“Right,” he said, and resumed his examination of the crawlspace with the Mag.
The more he saw, the more he thought it was perfect, despite the niggle of fear tickling the hairs at the nape of his neck. A few more beers would help with that. The dirt in here was loose and powdery, except in a few muddy spots where leaks from above had let the rainwater through. Should be easy enough to dig in, especially if he could find something to augment his bare hands. A slight incline ran from the front of the house to the back corner, where the kitchen was. A little tight, especially beyond one bowed beam that sagged to within a foot and a half of the ground due to a collapsed pier, but he thought he could manage. The corner was as far from the opening as possible, and the squeeze just helped ensure no one would ever try going back there. Eventually the beam would snap and drop the house onto the grave, making it even more inaccessible. He backed out of the crawlspace.
The word floated out of the darkness under the house, so soft he wasn’t sure he actually heard it. He froze, listening. Nothing. Even the leaves above had stopped rustling.
He aimed the Maglite into the hole and for an instant thought he saw a pale moon of face in that distant corner looking back at him through great hollow eyes, but when he blinked it was gone. His heart stutter-fluttered in his chest, threatening to break into a full gallop.
Garraty knelt there for several seconds, watching. Waiting for something to move or speak. Thinking, get thee hence, dumbass. If his mind was already playing tricks on him now, before he’d even started the really bad work, what was it going to be like when he was in there with a dead kid?
Just like Jeremiah Barlowe.
A rat trundled across the spill of light, its eyes shining red in the beam. Garraty followed it with the Maglite until it reached one of the brick support piers and climbed it, vanishing into the darkness between two joists.
The crawlspace was empty.
He didn’t realize he was holding his breath until he let it out in a whooshing rush. The light jittered in his hand as the adrenaline rush ended. You can do this, but you can’t let your imagination get the best of you.
Garraty backed out from under the rickety porch, keeping the Maglite trained on the tenebrous opening. Not that he expected a revenant Jeremiah Barlowe to come scrabbling out after him, skittering across the loose earth like a skeletal spider with his arms out, ready to snatch him back and do to him what he had done to those three children so long ago…but it didn’t hurt to be safe, now, did it? Grinning wildly at his own skittishness, he stood and retraced his steps back to the gap in the hedge thicket.
After a pause to unzip and water one of the hickory trees, he crossed the front yard to the Prius, where he fetched the case of Pabst from the front seat and set it on the hood. It would’ve been nice to kick back in the car for this, but the smell seemed to be clinging to the vehicle like, well, like stink on shit. Garraty chuckled and pulled a beer from the box and pretended there wasn’t a dead kid in the trunk slowly cooling to match the night’s temperature.
He popped the top and drained it as quickly as he could, then followed it with a second. The sky had cleared completely, and the gibbous moon painted the world in shades of blue and gray. He wished he had something stronger than beer. The Pabst could get him where he wanted to be—eventually—but he’d have to drink so much he’d have to piss every fifteen minutes. It would take too goddamn long to wriggle across the dirt to go outside, and taking a leak in the coffin-close area was the last thing he wanted to do. Better to save the beer for later, when he had a comfortable recliner and a toilet just a few feet away. He took one last can from the carton—might as well make it an even six-pack—then set the box back in the Prius, holding his breath against the stench. He was going to have to visit the car wash in Decatur after this was all over, for some of that godawful cherry-smelling shit to get rid of the stink.
The third beer disappeared as quickly as the first two had. Time to get this show on the road. While he thought the chances of someone coming up to the house were virtually nil, dillydallying was simply inviting trouble. Briefly, he considered driving the car around to the gap in the hedge—there was a can of Fix-a-Flat in the emergency bag, he remembered seeing it when he was looking for the light—but then he remembered the random pieces of rusty metal that lay like landmines around the yard. Tire sealant wouldn’t help with much more than a nail, and he didn’t want to have to rely on the shitty little spare unless he absolutely had to. Too many things had already gone wrong tonight. The kid wasn’t that big, anyway.
He went around to the back of the Prius and raised the lift gate, taking care not to look into the boy’s watchful eyes. Bending into the trunk to scoop his arms under the kid and blanket, his face in the thick of the stink, Garraty thought he was going to upchuck the three beers all over the dead boy, but he managed to keep it down. The body flopped bonelessly in his arms when he lifted it, and threatened to slip free as it had when he was loading it. This time he held tight, pulling the boy close against him. The head swiveled and rolled into his shoulder, and Garraty thought he felt the dead boy’s eyelashes on the skin of his neck. Kid’s looking right at me. For an instant he caught a whiff of something faintly cheesy—that’s his brain, right as rain, ain’t life insane! the voice in his head chirped—and then the malodor returned, washing over him like a tsunami.
Garraty lowered the dead boy to the earth. Before he dealt with the corpse he needed a couple things. He lifted the cover off the spare tire well and popped the tire iron out of its holder. This he placed on the Mylar blanket next to the boy. Next, he walked around to the passenger side of the Prius. When Tina packed the emergency kit for him, she’d included a heavy duty ice scraper, not that he’d needed it yet in the warm Alabama winters. He dug it out now and tucked it into his back pocket with the MagLite, beginning to feel a little like that cat he’d seen in cartoons as a boy, the one with the magical bag of tricks. Really need to call Tina and thank her when this is all over. The ice scraper and tire iron would make pretty shitty tools for digging, but beggars couldn’t be choosers and they’d be better than nothing.
The emergency blanket folded nicely around the body. One dead kid burrito, coming right up, señor. Garraty hefted the dead boy into his arms and made the journey across the yard to the opening in the thicket and stepped in. He carried him along the perimeter of the house, tripping and stumbling over tangles of roots he would have sworn weren’t there before. The kid’s sneakers bumped and scraped down the siding and scared the shit out of him every time they did. Finally he was at the porch, and he set the boy down, hot breath whistling in his nose. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and he felt a trickle run down his side from one armpit. The little fucker wasn’t that heavy, but after two hundred feet or more anybody would be winded, Garraty thought. He reached into the blanket and got the tire iron and tossed it under the porch. It hit the shiplap siding with a hollow bong and thumped to the dirt.
Garraty set the Maglite on one of the crazily slanted steps and aimed it beneath the wooden flooring, pointing it toward the black rectangle in the back wall. He crawled under the rotting structure, then took the kid by the feet and dragged him under with him. The Mylar blanket crunched and crackled as the body slid over twigs and pebbles and pieces of the porch. It felt greasy in his sweaty palms. The light reflected off the silver sheet and made shimmering spots all around him, like he’d traveled back in time to the days of disco, when he was last up here with Tanner Frank and his cousin. He worked his way over to the crawlspace opening, pulling the dead boy as he went. Trying not to think about hungry open mouths and pale faces with hollow eyes, ignoring the fecal stench that boiled up from inside the thin skin of plastic.
He left the boy next to the opening and fetched his flashlight. The kid was staying out here for now, that was for sure. He smelled too goddamn bad to be in that tight space and not in the ground any longer than he had to. Resisting the urge to play the light over the wrapped body—certain that if he did, the kid’s face would be visible and he’d find him looking out through those creepy half-opened eyes—Garraty ducked into the crawlspace opening, thinking be back in a bit kid, don’t run out on me.
The tongue-and-groove subfloor above Garraty teemed with cave crickets that scuttled out of the light when it fell on them. He crept toward the far corner of the crawlspace, the Maglite in one hand and the tire iron in the other, trying to pretend the rustling insects weren’t there. At one point not too far from the rectangular doorway he saw a fist-sized black widow huddled in a corner formed where beam, joist, and floor met, its obsidian body gleaming in the wash from the Mag. Hundreds of baby spiders clung to the web around it, tiny specks of crimson and black that glittered like malignant jewels. Garraty crawled past the thing, waiting for the tickle of chitinous legs on the back of his neck as it plopped down on him and skittered across his skin, but it never came. He stopped shining the light up into the crannies after that, hoping that what he didn’t see wouldn’t hurt him.
As he moved further in, the gradual incline brought the overhead structure—and all the things that called it home—closer and closer. About two thirds of the way back, he reached the sagging beam he’d spotted from the opening. Chunks of brick and ancient mortar lay in a spray where the pier supporting the house had given way to the immense weight bearing down on it and collapsed. Garraty slithered underneath the beam, sharp pieces of debris poking his chest through the flimsy shirt, acutely aware of the house above him. The rough wood plucked at his clothes like skeletal fingers. It seemed to take him a lifetime to get all the way under it.
On the far side of the beam, the joists were just a few inches above his head, tight and looming. Garraty could hear the rustle of the bugs moving in the shadowed knells. If I was claustrophobic I’d be fucked right now. He continued to move forward until he’d have to wedge his shoulders between two joists to go any further. This was a good spot. The ground was still loose and powdery, at least on the surface. That would make digging easier. He didn’t have to go too deep, anyway. He propped the Mag against one of the crumbling brick piers and pulled the ice scraper from his back pocket. Holding it at an angle, he drove the corner of the blade into the soft ground and began to dig.
Garraty worked on his makeshift grave for an hour, the only sounds in the crawlspace his grunts and the occasional sharp clatter of tool on rock. A foot down, the powdery topsoil had given way to a cement-like dried gray clay and the work got a lot harder. From time to time he stopped to rest, wiping away the sweat stinging his eyes with the collar of his shirt and propping his head on his hand until he got his breath under control. In those periods of quiet reflection, he tried not to think of the dead boy lying behind him in the inky black, the blood in his eyes drying to a maroon crust.
Slowly the hole took shape, then depth, and the piles of dirt around Garraty grew. When he’d made it three feet down he stopped. That was deep enough to cover the smell when the kid started to decompose, he thought, and deep enough to discourage any scavengers. The possums and raccoons were thick as ticks on a hound out here in the boonies. If anyone ever bulldozed the house to rebuild on the site, they’d probably uncover the kid, but by then he’d be nothing but disintegrating bones. As long as the house had been sitting vacant and forgotten, chances were damn good Garraty himself would be a moldered skeleton before anyone found the remains.
The ice scraper was ruined, nicked and dinged so the blade was no longer straight and true. He’d need to get a new one before winter came. Leaving it next to the grave along with the tire iron, Garraty took the flashlight and began to wriggle backwards toward the opening. He didn’t like not seeing where he was going. Didn’t like it at all. Shoulda thought this one through a little better, kemosabe. Once he’d made it under the low beam there was enough room to turn around. God, the doorway out looked so tiny from here! Slowly, like a grunt working his way through a barbed wire obstacle course in basic training, he wriggled the length of the house on his elbows back to the opening and the body that waited for him. He crawled past the dead boy into the moonlight without looking at him and stood, relishing the crackles and pops in his bones. Goddamn, it had been tight under there.
The three beers had migrated from his belly to his bladder while he was in the crawlspace, so he moved away from the porch and further down the exterior wall a little, then urinated into the thick growth. This would all be over soon and he could go home to the trailer and get more acquainted with the rest of that case of Pabst. Maybe it would help him forget this night ever happened.
But first, he had one last thing to do.
The crackle of the mylar blanket was preternaturally loud in the cramped confines of the crawlspace as Garraty dragged the dead boy toward his final resting place. It was slow going, especially as the ground drew closer to the skeletal frame of the house. Every time Garraty advanced a foot, he had to awkwardly turn and hitch the body forward the same distance. By the time he’d reached the makeshift grave, his arms and back sang from the effort.
Motes of dirt and dust swirled in the Maglite’s beam when Garraty rolled the wrapped corpse into the hole. The boy tumbled gracelessly over the edge, landing on his side atop the blanket with his misshapen split head twisted around like he wanted to catch one last bit of weak light on his upturned face. Looking up at Garraty still with those half-lidded eyes. Those goddamn blood-filled eyes.
“Who are you, kid?” he asked, and the sound of his own voice coming out in that shuddery whoosh of breath caused him to start nervously. As if the boy would answer. Why were you out so late by yourself?
He took a deep breath, then slithered forward so that he could reach down to the body. He checked each pocket for identification—mindful of the gift in the back that was beginning to soak through the denim of the boy’s jeans—but found only three dollar bills, which he tucked into his own pocket. Kid doesn’t need money where he is. I do. Three bucks is almost enough for a new ice scraper. He felt the dead eyes on him, cold and still on his heated flesh. On his face. He couldn’t finish this with the little bastard watching him. He swiped his hand across the kid’s lids to shut them once and for all. To stop the judgment. He wasn’t a bad guy, he’d just had a shitty run of luck. First the wife, then the job, now this. The last thing he needed was some dead kid staring at him with this kind of mute awareness that said I think you are a bad guy, buddy, and it’s high time you stop lying about it to yourself. He didn’t need that shit.
Goddamn right I don’t. What he needed was to get out of this hellhole before he drove himself crazy.
Garraty reached across the hole and pulled one of the piles of dirt toward him, raking in with his hands and trying to ignore the sound of it pattering like a gentle rain on the dead boy’s clothes and Mylar blanket. God, he could use a drink. Whatever buzz he’d had while he was digging—okay, let’s not kid ourselves here, my friend, it was maybe a little more than a buzz—was gone now and he was left alone in the crawlspace with his black thoughts and the boy he’d killed. Maybe it was time to start thinking about cutting back on the booze a little, get himself cleaned up and start taking a little—
“Toomey,” the kid said in a thin, reedy voice that was more wheeze than words.