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Note to Readers: Language!
I said, shut up!
Both you fools best shut up, 'less you wanna spend the rest a the night, an' maybe next week, coolin' your heels in the county jail.
The voice drifted into their ears, floating like an unexpected cool breeze cutting through stagnant humidity. James looked over his shoulder, but all he saw was just a black blob within the many black blobs that made up the forest at night. With only a fingernail moon, his mind had already begun playing tricks on him, turning trees into mammoths with spindly fingers and sharp fingernails; bushes into squat trolls, and the occasional skittering of a rabbit over dead leaves into an underworld beast, stealthily tracking them, biding its time until the moment came to whisk them to hell.
His overactive imagination was making him sweat more than the early June night normally would, and he wiped a slathering of it off his forehead. A chuckle, lazy and pompous, came to him.
Scared? Jerry Coombs asked, and now he was close enough that James could see his teeth, as crooked as a dilapidated picket fence, gleaming in a grin.
No, he said, trying to hide his embarrassment. Jerry nodded and moved past him, his strides long and easy despite the darkness and snarled underbrush.
In a minute you can start talkin' normal, he said, also passing Bobby, the bigger of the two teenagers he was accompanying.
Can we turn on the flashlights then? Bobby asked, impatiently, tripping over a hidden root.
Yeah, Jimmy said, and glanced over his shoulder. But it's more fun in the dark, don't ya think?
Jesus Christ, James muttered, under his breath. He chanced a glance back the way they'd come, but the last house on West Devil's Tongue was ten minutes gone, its homey, inviting, bright lights now about as real as another figment of his imagination. As a barn owl hooted overhead, he shuddered.
You sure this is the right way? Bobby called. His words were intercut by harsh breaths, making James want to tease him about his pack-a-day habit.
I'm sure, Jerry said, pushing aside a snarl of protruding forsythia branches.
What're yousome kind of mountain man? Bobby joked.
Nope. Just someone who'll gladly take a couple a stupid teenage boys' money. Jerry tossed the words out with teasing abandon, but the statement made both Bobby and James stiffen.
Your bright idea, James hissed, not particularly caring if Bobby spun around and caught him in a half nelson, as he was wont to do whenever his feathers were ruffled. But Bobby just grunted and plodded on, following the redneck that had agreed to be their guide as they trampled over decades of undergrowth and passed trees more accustomed to four-legged animals than two.
Somethingan ogre to James's imagination; most likely a squirrel to a less active oneskittered through the leaves nearby, making the sixteen-year-old jump. His bladder loosened, and he grabbed his crotch, preventing an unwanted expulsion of hot piss. It made walking difficult, and he was forced to let go.
Hey, hey, hey, Jerry sang, and pushed aside a few hanging branches, stepping into a clearing. Bobby and James followed, with James letting out a harsh sigh, glad to be free of the dense, claustrophobic forest. Looking around, Jerry said, This is it, boys. Alberttown.
Bobby wriggled his shoulders, sliding down the straps of his pack, and reached inside it. A moment later a bright beam of light was sweeping the area, and after he was done squinting, James felt excitement give way to utter disappointment.
This is it? he asked, groaning. This is what they'd waited two months to see, paid a hundred dollars to be led to?
What'd you expect, boy? Jerry asked, ambling a few steps away. A welcomin' committee?
something more, he answered, and followed the beam of light from Bobby's flashlight as it canvassed the old town once more. Within the ragged squareabout thirty yards long and wideonly a few broken foundations and cellar holes remained.
We've seen pictures, Bobby reminded him, and James nodded vaguely. He'd hoped that the sight-seekers and ghost hunters that had previously snuck into the supposed ghost town just hadn't taken pictures of the entire area; that they'd saved the best for themselves, not wanting to share it in books or on the internet.
You are a fool, he thought, and grinned ashamedly.
Well, let's get to it, Bobby said, and knelt to open his pack and pull out the camcorder. Movement caught James's eye, and he glanced aside in time to see Jerry take a swig from a small bottle.
You're drinking? he asked.
Jerry chuckled while swallowing. Afraid I ain't gonna be able t'lead you back?
Yeah, James said.
Bobby had stilled on the ground, staring into the forest. Hear that? he asked, and James felt a load of adrenaline dump into his system.
Hear what? he asked, terrified, the ogres and trolls closing in.
Nothing, Bobby said. I don't hear anything at all. No crickets. James realized that the soundtrack that had accompanied them through the forest had indeed stopped, and the silence was oppressive, odd.
You're right, he breathed, and nearby, Jerry cackled. It was a mean sound, without humor.
Yeah, that's what they say, he told the boys. No crickets, no birds, no wildlifenothin' comes into Alberttown. He paused. Not if they wanna live.
Shit. Bobby stood up and slung his pack over his shoulder. What a crock, man. Plenty of people have come back from here.
Those're the ones that come durin' the day, boy, Jerry said. Nothin' dares come out here after dark.
I've read testimonials from people who've come out at night, James said, over the thud-thud-thud of his heartbeat. Jerry gave him a disgruntled look.
Damn, never met a couple like you. No sense a humor at all. I'm just jokin'. Grumpily, he took another swig from his bottle.
Here. Start shooting, Bobby told James, and handed him the camcorder. After James turned it on and aimed it at him, Bobby positioned himself in front of a cellar hole and began speaking in an anchorman's voice, his words rehearsed.
Alberttown, Tennessee was first settled in 1801, by the Albert brothers: Nester, George, and Philip. They were granted the land by the governor of South Carolinaof which Tennessee, at that time, still wasand came to seek their fortune.
Jerry grunted, and James let out a sniveling chuckle while quickly panning to the hole in the ground. Bobby paused, and amended his statement.
They came to farm. Shortly thereafter, others joined them, but soon found that their plows and hoes were no match for the rocky soil and hard clay, in addition to the constant shade of the nearby mountain.
God, what a bunch of dummies, James commented, and Bobby made a slashing motion across his throat. James paused the camcorder.
Wonder if we can find some broken hoes in the ground? he asked, looking at James. Extra credit, you know?
Maybe, James shrugged, and resumed filming. But he didn't watch the scene in the LCD screen; instead, he bit his lip and glanced around thoughtfully. Something was off; something different than what his imagination suggested.
Bobby. He waited until his friend turned. Look around. It's weird.
Bobby did, and asked, What?
flat. Do you see? He squinted and focused the camcorder on the trees and bushes, closely set around the perimeter of the land. Their bodies and uneven humps were two-dimensional, making the place seem as if it were in an alternate reality where nothing was alive. Black-and-grey illustrations in a comic book world. He looked up, and saw that no moonlight bounced off the tops of the trees. Indeed, it seemed no light reached anywhere within the clearing, as if there was an invisible ceiling, catching the light and preventing it from entering Alberttown. Again, James shuddered, and hated being afraid. He was already afraid of enough: horror movies, little dogs, the opaque blackness that lurked under his bed, and couldn't stand finding something else to add to his repertoire.
But Bobby said, I don't know what you're talking about, and resumed his rehearsed speech. James huffed and followed him, and Jerry let out another nasty cackle. James wished they'd approached a professional to lead them into the ghost town, and not a local just out to make a quick buck; a resident who viewed all the treasure seekers with disdain.
Not long after Alberttown was established, strange occurrences began. Several people reported being chased and slapped by things that they couldn't seethey claimed they were ghosts. Others reported walking through freezing cold spots on otherwise hot days. One night, Molly Jenkins went to bed after tucking her children in and kissing her husband good night. The next morning, she got up, went to the barn, and hung herself. There had been no indication she was suicidal. A month later, her husband went insane from grief. Bobby peered around. Wonder where they lived?
Back there, Jerry said, pointing in the general direction of the mountain, a mile away and barely discernible in the starless sky. They lived on the edge of town.
Where did Judge Fillerton live? Bobby asked. Jerry waved his hand vaguely.
I forget, he said, and upended his bottle.
How much did you have to drink before we met up with you? James asked.
Jerry shrugged. A few beers.
He shook his head and refocused the camcorder, turning its eye toward one of the crumbled foundations. The ground inside it was snarled with crabgrass and dandelions.
Judge William Fillerton, a respected member of the community, a man from a wealthy family, came screaming out of his house one night, his black hair turned white. He and his family had been sitting down to supper when unearthly howls filled the air. Alarmed, they looked around, and saw black, leathery faces leering through the windows. He said they had fangs as long as butter knives, eyes that glowed like fire, and he went on to say that they crashed through the windows and took his three small children and his wife, carrying them off into the forest. After the constable and other men from the town went into the house to investigate, they found the dining room in shambles, glass from the windows all over the floor, and drops of blood on the windowsills.
Judge Fillerton was hanged, Jerry called.
I was getting to that, Bobby returned. Judge Fillerton was later hanged for the murders of his wife and children, but everyone in Alberttown knew the truth: demons from hell had taken them.
Animals, mostly sheep and cows, were slaughtered in the middle of the night. Several people went missing, and while everyone wanted to believe it was Indians, they suspected it was something more sinister, otherworldly. Other people went insane overnight, as if their nightmares drove them into it. By 1878, only one family remained: the Danvers. But Melissa Danvers wasn't like the others: her insanity crept up on her, and she kept telling her husband that she was hearing things; things that crashed through the forest and tapped on her windows; things that called to her when she was hanging the wash on the line or cooking dinner. Things that told her to kill
Cut it out, James interrupted, and Bobby blinked, surprised.
Jerry laughed. You're freakin' him out!
Yeah, James whispered, and Bobby smiled, not unkindly.
Almost done, he reassured him. One day while Chester Danvers was sharpening his toolsso he sayshe heard a rustle behind him, and turned to see his wife sneaking up on him, a long knife in her hand. Her hair was disheveled, and she was still in her nightgown. She screamed like a banshee and rushed him, and Chester was forced to defend himself by nearly splitting her in half with an axe. Though he was tried for murder, he was found 'not guilty'Mrs. Danvers had kept a diary, and her demented ravings were read in the courtroom. She thought her husband was Satan himself. Immediately after the trial, Chester left Alberttown, and the town officially died.
All right. James fixed the camcorder on a distant spotmore of the flat trees. Go on and describe it now, so we can get the hell out of here.
You really are scared, aren't you, man? Bobby asked, stepping toward one of the cellar holes.
I just don't like it. His voice was too loud in the abnormal stillness, and he lowered it, following Bobby. It's too weird.
It's nothing at all! Bobby exclaimed, spreading his arms wide. There's nothing here! I expected at least a house or two, or maybe a barn!
Me, too, James said, but he was suddenly glad there wasn't. In the deep dark, it would be too easy to imagine something lurking within the dead shells of old buildings; something waiting, biding its time until the boys' backs were turned, and capture would be as easy as one-two-three
God, come on! he hissed, and swept the camcorder around in a wide arc; just filming for filming's sake.
Okay! Bobby exhaled and waited for James to point the camera at him. Today, Alberttown is nothing more than a few cracked foundations and cellar holes. There is nothing left to show that it was once a bustling, if not thriving, town. The forest is closing in on it; in a few decades, even the clearing will be gone, and a hiker passing through will never notice that something once stood here.
Hikers won't ever be let through, Jerry called. It'll still be against the law.
I'm making a point, Bobby called, irritated, then shined the flashlight beam at the cellar hole two feet away. Wonder what's down there?
Oh, no way, man, James said, shaking his head. We're done. Let's go.
Bobby grinned. No. I'm gonna go down and see.
You don't know how deep it is! What if you get down there and we can't get you back up?
It's a cellar hole, not a mine shaft!
They still needed ladders, James pointed out, but Bobby rolled his eyes and motioned for James to give him the camcorder. It disappeared into his pack.
It'll just take a minute. I just wanna see if anything got behind, he said, and took the first step toward the hole: a black, gaping mouth in the ground.
Bobby, wait a second
Let him go. James jumped as Jerry stepped up to them. The man nodded and said, You get stuck, we'll do one a those human chains. We'll get you out. Bobby grinned and sat on the ground, scooting on his rear over to the lip of the hole. Still holding the flashlight, he cast its beam down into the darkness.
It's not deep, he told them, and after one last look, carefully slid inside.
After his thump sounded, and he'd called, I'm okay!, Jerry mumbled, You wanna teach 'im a lesson?
Horrified, James said, No!
Jerry frowned. Let him get stuck for a few minutes. That'll teach 'im not t'go stickin' his nose in the wrong places.
We're not doing that, James snapped, and took a step away. The man smelled like sour sweat and cheap bourbon.
Hey, James! Bobby called. He sounded further away than ten feet, and James took a cautious step toward the cellar hole.
There's a door down here! It's set into the wall!
A door? James's forehead creased as he frowned. What do you mean?
Some kind of little doorabout half the size of a normal one! Bobby paused so long that James was about to call out again, to ask if he was all right, when a cry of pain sounded.
I cut myselfthe edge of the key plate's sharp! Shit!
James stood over the dark hole and called, You better come up, man!
No, wait a secondI almost got it open!
What's a fuckin' door doin' in a cellar? Jerry muttered, and came to stand next to James as several banging noises sounded beneath their feet. It sounded as if Bobby was shoving his shoulder into the door.
Breathing heavily, petrified, wishing nothing more than to be back at home in his bedroom, stoned on pot and listening to cds, James called, Bobby
His voice was weak and useless, and he glanced over his shoulder. Without the glow of the flashlight, the night was even more oppressive, threatening, and his attempts to scan the forest for emerging boogeymen were in vain.
One last bang sounded, mixed with cracking wood and followed immediately by a stumble. Hey, I'm in
James and Jerry waited for more, but no other sounds followed: not the rest of the boy's sentence, not footsteps, not a sifting of old dirt or the breaking of stabilizing beams. James felt his eyeballs bulge from their sockets as his lids widened, and the night around him took on a crisp clarity that hadn't been present before.
Bobby? he asked, staring into the hole. Now even the distant glow of the flashlight was gone, and only deep blackness met his gaze. Is there something else down there?
A long thread of silence spun out, after which Jerry snorted and spat a wad of phlegm onto the ground.
He's fuckin' with you, he sneered, but James shook his head.
I don't think so
James? The voice was soft, lilting, effeminate and foreign; a womanly imitation of Bobby's deep voice. James, come down. Come down and see what I've found.
Huh? James bent over, putting his hands on his knees. Bobby, what're you doing down there?
I'm waiting for you, James. Come down and see what I've found.
James stared, and wondered why Bobby was playing games. Come ondon't fuck with me, he said, echoing Jerry's suspicion.
I'd never fuck with you, James, Bobby called, and the tone was syrupy smooth. I just want you to come down.
James tried to straighten up. Anger overtook the fear and he wanted to yell at his friend, to order him to stop playing games and just get the hell out of the hole. But his palms had barely left his knees when the hand, invisible yet strong, as big as a giant's, clamped around his neck and yanked him down. As Jerry yelled out in surprise, backpedaling and falling onto his ass, James's head cracked against the lip of the hole, plunging him into a merciful unconsciousness before his limp body hit the cellar floor.
Jerry tried to scoot away, digging the heels of his boots into the clay, panting and heaving, the liquor in his belly boiling and attempting to surge up his throat. He screamed when he heard the voice drift out of the hole, but still, the words were clear, echoing in his ears.
come down and see what I've found.
Writer's Note: This is the prologue to the novel I'm working on, and is partially taken from another story of mine, "The Dudleytown Curse". Just wanted to know if it works.
"S is for SUSAN who perished of fits
T is for TITUS who flew into bits..."--The Gashlycrumb Tinies, by Edward Gorey