Fat droplets of rain collided with the packed earth beneath me. My body rocked back and forth, shivering in the cold. I was aware of a chant being sent up to the full moon hiding away behind a blanket of ominous clouds that carried the first storm of the summer. It took several moments before I realized the chanting erupted from my own chest.
All around me was the magic of the Earth made tangible. Every rock and tree lit up in my vision as tiny pinpoints of light with the first crash of lightning that struck the ground. I saw the power and spirit within each living thing, saw the Gateways and Paths to the Otherworld. I smiled, ready to take my first step along that Path but as I did, the scenery shifted.
Instead of bright pinpoints of light, my surroundings shriveled and diminished. Fractals of blue turned blood red. The thunder I heard turned to terrible growls that ripped through me, lancing me with agony. I know I screamed like the Devil had taken me. I screamed every time it happened.
Something in Heavenswood was wrong; a looming threat that would drown our tiny little town. Trouble was, no one believed me.
There was a point in time when the people of Heavenswood would actively seek out my mother, ask her to read the patterns on the wind or step into the Otherworld for guidance. When she died, folks stopped coming, stopped talking to us all together, stopped believing.
Eventually, my screams diminished to pathetic gurgles and my chanting to whimpers in the rain. The rain beat against my brow and bare chest. It flooded my nose and ears and surrounded me in mud that I felt myself sinking into until I was one with the Earth.
Light flooded my unfocused eyes. It was painful. I cringed and spluttered, rolling like a beached turtle in a pool of thick mud and castor oil. Every part of me was sore, made worse when my brother shoved me in the chest.
“Jesus Christ you asshole!” he spat. “What the hell is wrong with you?! You wanna die too?? What’d you take this time?!”
The list was too long to give a proper answer so I opted for silence. I still felt as if I were part of the Earth, my body absorbed into the cold suction of freshly made wallows. An answer wouldn’t ease Noah’s anger anyway. He didn’t believe anymore. I did; I had to. It felt wrong not to believe.
“Answer me, damnit!” Noah demanded again. He liked shoving my chest which only seemed to shove me further into the earth. I felt mud ooze into my ears and cradle my neck. I wasn’t coherent enough to speak without slurring it all up into a single syllable; I wasn’t strong enough to pull free of the earth either. Truth be told, I didn’t want to.
“God you are such a waste,” Noah cursed. I knew he didn’t mean it, but in that moment, it certainly felt like he did. Maybe I was a waste, but I was a waste that was trying to save what he loved so much – the people of Heavenswood. No one believed the town idiot though, no matter how much he might beg or plead to be heard. Rather than argue, I simply lay there in the mud.
I listened to my brother leave. His heavy, squelching footfalls traveled through the earth to the tiny drums inside my ears filling with mud. When I could no longer detect his presence within the earth – or any other capacity – I choked through a coughing fit of foul tasting vomit and dirt. Still, as I lay there in the mud, I felt the land around me trying to send out a warning, to tell me what so desperately needed to be known.
Eventually, I crawled out of the mud, naked to the world and trudged my way up to the flat above my father’s old garage. It was archaic and rickety. The stairs made noise as I climbed them. The walls were ‘painted’ with soot that never washed away after the fire. There was a smell to it, too, that I could never place but felt bereft when it was not around.
I washed the memory of my vision away in the shower that only had one pressure setting. I stood there for long minutes, letting the scalding water burn it all away until I was able to stand without support. I could hear my mother’s sweet voice telling me to hold on to my faith, to listen to the winds for they would guide me when I needed it the most. I wanted to believe her. Belief was hard when I stood alone, however.
I can’t do this without him. He needs to believe, I thought, hoping my brother might ‘hear’.
Our home among the foothills of Heavenswood was small, divided into two different ‘parts’. Noah lived in the main house with a large garage a few yards away from it. He was a hard worker, provided for anyone that came across his path and, usually, loved without condition – unless that person was me.
I lived above the old garage in the burnt out shell of what our lives had been when we were children. The twisted shell of our father’s car still sat in the garage, weeds and flowers taking over the soot and gravel thirteen years after the accident. I tried keeping a job and, technically, had one at the local bar in town but I wasn’t always sober enough to stand up let alone serve drinks. Herbs and visions aside, I knew my shortcomings. No one really ‘saw’ the Otherworld high on heroine but I did that as much as I did peyote herbs.
I knew that’s why people refused to believe. I’d done it to myself. I wasn’t the only one though. So many of the Seneca drown in liquor or gave in to the drugs that Mother Earth provided – especially the ones still on the reservation. We were just off the reservation – far enough away to prosper, but close enough to still get caught up in their crap.
My steps echoed into the new garage as I shuffled in. I wore sunglasses and flip flops beneath ragged jeans and no shirt. I wove my way around the towers of rubber tires that stood as sentinels in the dusty lawn outside.They guarded against the armies of rusted, busted cars that filled five acres worth of crab-grass. The junk yard was one of the few eyesores in the small mountain town, but it was tolerated for the talent that was held within.
Noah hung halfway down into the engine of an old ‘67 Chevy C10. It was a restoration job for a member of the local sheriff’s office. The price tag on the restoration would easily pay the bills and upkeep on the yard for the next three months and then some.
“Lookin’ good, No.”
He shoved himself out of the Chevy with a heavy sigh. Sweat poured down his temples the bandana that held back his blue-black hair collected what pooled at his ears. Muscular arms twisted his hands into a dirty red rag that I knew he wished could be my neck sometimes. Sometimes I wondered if his life really would be easier without me like he always claimed when he was mad. I answered the question as soon as it hit me but I wondered all the same.
“It’s noon, Eli. Noon. I asked you to come help almost four hours ago when I slapped you out of your drug-induced stupor. You weren’t breathing this time, by the way – aiming for a new low?”
I shrugged, lighting up a cigarette. Noah only rolled his eyes at me.
“I’m doing it again tonight,” I cut in. “They’re coming. We need to be ready.”
“No one is coming, damnit. No one,” he barked. He didn’t believe it though, I could see it on his face. He remembered what happened thirteen years ago. We both still had the scars to prove it – his across his face and mine across my stomach.
“You need a smaller ratchet,” I rasped. Noah had turned away from me, trying to ignore the truth in my words by immersing himself in work. He growled and threw the ratchet down into the dirt. I glanced at it through a swirl of nicotine that I blew out through my nose then back at my angry twin.
Stop fighting, moron. Seriously, when did you stop believing? When mom died, or when I did?
Noah looked at me sharply then turned to the tool chest that had belonged to our father. Neither one of us liked to talk about what happened thirteen years prior when they had come the first time. No, that was not entirely true either – they came every thirteen years but, usually, no one noticed. The last time anyone had really noticed was in the fifties when almost the entire town was wiped out in a single night. The media had called it one of the most gruesome serial killings ever recorded and took black and white pictures of mutilated corpses or blood-soaked trees. Thirteen years ago there were only four people in those pictures and two boys lying bandaged in a hospital all shoved in a dusty box as an unsolved crime and easily forgotten.
I wanted to say more, but my attention was diverted by the crunch of gravel rolling up to the garage. Noah looked at me as soon as he saw the sheriff’s car but all I could do was shrug. There was nothing illegal about ashes in a conch shell and I was currently devoid of anything more potent than cigarettes and a case of cheap beer.
I arched a brow as a woman climbed out of the driver’s seat and Steve Lowry climbed out of the passenger’s seat. The woman was nearly a match in height to my brother and I which meant she reached Lowry’s shoulders quite easily. She had her hair in a braid that was tucked up into her wide-brimmed hat. It was like she stepped out of a TV show with the get-up she wore but what got me more was the aura around her. She looked…fuzzy.
“Boys,” Lowry said. “This is our new Sheriff, Ever Jackson. Y’all got a minute?”
“Wasn’t me,” I said as I tossed the cigarette to the ground and shuffled back to the house to brew some coffee. Noah only sighed and followed.
“Are you serious?” Noah asked after the new Sheriff and Lowry finished their explanation for their visit. The Baxters were having some sort of issue, but the old woman would not talk to anyone except me, of all people. The Sheriff made an apologetic face and opened her mouth to speak but I cut her off.
“You’re driving and I’m not putting a shirt on.”
There was no further discussion, I simply shuffled my way out to the squad car and lit up another cigarette on the way. The ride into town only took fifteen minutes. I rode with the window down letting the wind hit me in the face and blow through my long hair. When we got to the Baxter home, I tied my long locks back into a messy man-bun and pulled a multi-colored scarf from my back pocket, tying it around my head. I’d worn it the night before and every time I wanted to touch the Otherworld. My mom had worn it too, when she had done what I do now.
“Mrs. Baxter?” the Sheriff said. Her aura wavered, shifting with a crack in her voice to something more solid. She was hiding something that made me grin a little; a secret she kept just to herself. “Mrs. Baxter it’s Sheriff Jackson – I brought Mr. Curtis with me. Can we please talk now?”
A few minutes passed but, eventually, the door opened. I’d known Mrs. Baxter my whole life. She taught first grade way back when and now enjoyed a retired life with her husband. They sat in their rockers sipping steaming mugs of coffee watching the comings and goings of a small town every morning. Now she looked at me with the desperation of a woman at her wit’s end.
“Come in,” she said.
The house smelled of mothballs. She was seventy, maybe; a little older. There were pictures and afghans and little handmade doilies all over the place but there was no warmth in the home at all. I rolled my neck uneasily, shivering.
“Alright, Mrs. Baxter now, can you tell Mr. Curtis what you won’t tell us? We can’t help you find your husband until you do.”
“You won’t find him,” I said. Or, rather, heard myself say. It was like a part of me detached and flew away to the pre-dawn hours at the dock just behind the Baxter’s home. “You won’t… tell her I love her; tell her I love her and to run; tell her… they’re coming; they’re all coming.”
I watched Mr. Baxter from a distant, hazy vantage point walk onto his dock with a fishing pole and tackle box. It was a morning ritual. Mrs. Baxter wanted trout for dinner and, by golly, he was going to snag her some trout to fry up. She had her reasons and would do some weird voodoo with its guts but that was her ways and he was alright with that. I watched him settle in to his chair and then felt his pain. I couldn’t see anything because, in that moment, I was Mr. Baxter. He didn’t know how or why, just that he hurt and they were doing it to him and then – nothing. There was no light, no dark, just an incredible amount of pressure that suddenly burst like a bubble when I shot up off Mrs. Baxter’s floor like a weed.
“Ok, relax, breathe slowly – you had some sort of seizure or something,” the Sheriff was saying but I knew better. So did Mrs. Baxter. I looked at her and she knew. The tears welled in her eyes. I watched her walk back into her bedroom and come back out a few minutes later with something in her wrinkled hands. She draped a set of beads around my neck, nodded, and walked out her back door.
“Mrs. Baxter!” I called, trying to get up but I was dizzy and tripped. Her house kissed the woods, touched the lake and sky – basically lived on the edge of reality and the Otherworld. “Wait!”
“Mr. Curtis sit down!” the Sheriff called, chasing me as I chased Mrs. Baxter. I made it ten steps out onto her back porch when I caught scent of them. The hairs on my neck and arms stood on end and the large tattoo on my back suddenly burned with ferocity. Mrs. Baxter had already gone, willing and ready to join her husband without fear. This was normal for her, this is how it always happened and she was ready. She’d met her husband that fateful summer when everyone else had been killed, out of town at the university. She knew. Everyone in town knew even if they’d forgotten. Maybe that’s why they were so angry and wanted so much. Everyone had forgotten.
“Mr. Curtis, please, I’d like for you to go see a doctor,” the Sheriff said. “Lowry, go find Mrs. Baxter.”
“No!” I barked. “Stay out of the woods.”
Lowry looked at me then at the Sheriff, clearly torn. He was starting to remember but he had a duty to obey his superior officer.
“Oh for the love of Christ, someone needs to go find that woman! Stop being such an infant!”
“Lowry, I don’t like you,” I said with pure honesty in my voice as I stared at the woods. “You were the biggest asshole in high school and still rank high on my list of douche bags. I’m begging you – stay out of the woods.”
There was uncomfortable silence from the elder man and then a rough cough as he cleared his throat. “How many?”
“All of them,” I said. “We’ve forgotten.”
“Eli, I have little girls, man, they’re only two.”
“Would either of you like to explain to me why you’re both staring at a bunch of trees like you’ve just seen the Devil walk through them.”
I snorted, “Trust me, Ever – may I call you that? – not even the Devil would go in there right now.”
I turned around and walked back through the house to the squad car. Lowry and the Sheriff followed, arguing with each other the entire time. “I need to go see Blind Jack.”
I lit another cigarette as I spoke. I was feeling a little twitchy from all the visions and lack of heroin in my system. It’d been two days since my list hit of that particular poison. I climbed into the back of the squad car and waited.
“This isn’t your own personal taxi service,” Ever said. “I brought you down here to help me question a witness about a missing person. Now I’ve got two missing people! And now you’re telling me you want to go talk to someone else – stop smoking in my squad car!”
She snatchd the cigarette from my lips. I caught a momentary glimpse of a little boy in a dress with a black eye and bloodied nose, sobbing, not because of the pain, but because the dress was now stained.
So that’s your secret…
I looked at her, very calmly got out of the squad car, lit another cigarette and started walking up the road back into town. Blind Jack lived along the woods too, like the Baxters just north of my own home. He didn’t talk to anyone. He got all that he needed from weekly deliveries that his niece left on his front porch. He was like me, like my mother had been, but grouchy and nasty. The Otherworld had touched him in a horrible way, had taken the light from his soul and turned it dark and ugly.
“Hey!” she shouted. I ignored her. I smoked and walked and glanced at the cats that had run out of Mrs. Baxter’s house. They all followed me, all three of them. I smiled at that, wondering what the Sheriff might make of that, wondering if ‘she’ knew what she’d stepped into. I felt bad for her, after a fashion. This was the thirteenth year and it was going to be an awful one. For her sake, I hope she took the hint and got out of dodge before things got rough – she seemed like a nice guy.
I pulled my phone out of my pocket as I walked and dialed my brother. It was three miles back to town and then five to Blind Jack’s.
“Curtis Auto,” Noah said. I shook my head. Always working, always serious.
“Reina back yet?” I said.
“Been arrested yet?” he threw back.
“I’m serious, Noah – she back yet?”
“Why do you care? You’re not exactly her number one fan.”
“Just tell her to pack Cessa’s stuff and her stuff – they need to leave. I’m going up to see Blind Jack.”
“What, why? Elijah, what’s going on? Eli-”
I hung up as the squad car rolled up beside me. I had faster ways of getting to Blind Jack’s and I was tempted to show the Sheriff just what that was but my head was still spinning from all that had already happened. I would need to save my strength and focus for bigger things.
“Mr. Curtis-” Ever started.
“Eli,” I corrected.
“Eli,” she adjusted. “Mrs. Baxter went to great lengths to make sure you were there. You very obviously had a close connection to her and, presumably Mr. Baxter as well. I want to bring them both back safely but I feel like I can’t-”
“No, you can’t. They’re already gone, Ever. The best you can hope for is saving everyone else. You look like a smart woman – I assume you read the town’s histories and old case files – we don’t have many. Do me a favor and count back…five sets of thirteen years.”
“You’re talking about the Massacre of ‘51 – ok, what does that have to do with a crazy couple that just walked off into the woods?”
“They weren’t crazy and it’s about to happen again.”
“What’s about to happen again?” she asked. She stopped the car and got out; I kept walking. The cats followed, their tails up in the air as if on alert. They knew. “Eli! Don’t think I won’t arrest you for – – for – -”
“What’s your actual name? Did you get Ever from something longer? Everett maybe?”
She stopped walking and stared at my naked back for several minutes before realizing that I’d moved on. She ran to catch me then grabbed my arm to turn me to face her. Again, I caught a glimpse of her past, of a boy sitting on a sofa while an elder man hollered that no son of his would love another man. I looked at her when the glimpse went away, looked at her eyes and saw the weight she carried in her heart clearly displayed in pools of hazel blue.
“I like Everett too,” I said and kept walking. “I think I like Ever better – has a… I dunno… ring to it that Everett doesn’t. Everett sounds too boring. Go read those files again, Ever.”
“Oh hell no you are not doing this,” she said, running to catch me again. Again, she grabbed my arm and turned me around. This time I saw a man staring at his reflection in the mirror, makeup perfectly done and short hair growing out to tight ringlets that would have to be tamed soon. “Explain yourself.”
I blinked and refocused on the Sheriff. “Telling you that you’re out of your league seems a little cliche, but it is the honest truth. This isn’t just a normal small town. There’s history here and expectations. People don’t like to be reminded of that though. If they’re smart, they leave. If not… well, I shouldn’t talk. I’m still here, right?”
“You aren’t making a single bit of sense and – – are you seriously going to walk to wherever you’re going?”
“Yeah, it’s only eight miles or so back the way we came. I’ve walked further,” I said. I had. “If we survive, wanna have a drink with me?”
“I’ll take that as a maybe,” I said, winking at the new Sheriff. She made to follow me but this time Lowry stopped her. I heard him tell her it wasn’t worth it, I was a different brand of weird even for this town. Ass.