SECOND HONORABLE MENTION, Fall 2016
The Ghost Story Supernatural Fiction Award
Leslie Lawrenson “This Is The Only Way Out”
BY SCOTT LORING SANDERS
“I never seen him directly,” said Bubba, the proprietor of the Lonely Tavern, where I sat drinking a can of Pabst after my third day in town. Bubba also ran the gas station/convenience store which sold not only gas and snacks, but every plastic Jersey Devil trinket and keychain imaginable. And I’m not talking about hockey team souvenirs. I’m talking about various replicas of the beast who had supposedly haunted the area for the last two centuries. Distorted face, elongated fangs, little T-Rex arms with bent wrists, veiny batwings protruding from its back. That’s the Jersey Devil I mean.
Bubba didn’t look like he should’ve been named Bubba at all. Tall and thin with white hair, sixty-ish, and a pair of over-sized glasses, he looked more like a Kenneth or Stuart. He stood behind the lacquered bar, sipping on a draft while I sat on a stool next to Katherine, the owner of the adjoining Lonely Tavern Lodge where I’d been residing. The pair had become my companions each evening after I’d been out talking to people, driving around the desolate swamps and bogs trying to gather info from the locals (or Piney’s, as they preferred) who, more often than not, weren’t overly excited to speak with me.
“The whole thing’s bullshit,” said Katherine, whose rough voice could be attributed—at least in part—to cigarettes, one of which currently wobbled between her lips. Apparently, Chris Christie’s state-wide smoking ban in restaurants and bars didn’t apply here. A hard woman, this one was. I’d smelled liquor on her breath that first morning when I’d strolled into the lobby to get a room. “But bullshit or not,” she said, “the Jersey Devil’s the only reason me and Bubba can scratch two dimes together, so I’m thankful to have him around. Tourists eat it up.”
She finished her beer, and Bubba grabbed the empty glass without being asked. He angled it beneath the tap, expertly drawing a head that bulged over the rim like a white, foamy muffin-top. That exact ritual had probably been repeated tens of thousands of times. Hell, I’d witnessed nearly a dozen refills within the past two hours, with no money exchanged. Yet Katherine was as steady and even-keeled as the sturdiest ship.
“You’ve probably heard fifteen variations already,” said Bubba. “Everybody’s got their own version, but I’ve lived here all my life and my story’s been passed down all the way back from my great-great-granddaddy.”
“Okay, I’ll bite,” I said. I opened my pad and flipped through the notes for my article. My boss had sent me south to the sweltering, bug-infested Pine Barrens to inquire about the mutilated carcasses that had been showing up lately. Possum, deer, even a bobcat, their bones snapped and twisted, their pelts peeled back from their bodies. It was impossible not to discuss the Devil when such things occurred, and if I could spin it, I would. As my boss had told me, “The Jersey Devil sells copy. Period.”
I lifted my empty, gave it a little shake in Bubba’s direction. He pulled a fresh one from the cooler. I clicked my pen, dated a clean page. “Go ahead, lay it on me.”
“Well, in the late 1700s,” said Bubba, “a woman named Mrs. Leeds birthed her thirteenth baby. But it wasn’t normal. Instead, it was some sort of hideous monster. A winged creature with hooves and a tail. Some say the head of a goat. The doctor, he bolts, not even bothering to cut the cord. Mr. Leeds, he follows the doctor right out the door. Not to bring him back, mind you, but to run off and hang himself in the closest tree.
“Mrs. Leeds, left to her own devices, rummages through the doctor’s bag, finds scissors, and snips the cord herself. The thing—her own offspring—is hissing and spitting, angry and mean, but Mrs. Leeds was angrier and meaner. She picked it up at the base of its tail, holding it upside down like a caught chicken, and tromps a half mile to Miller’s Bog. She drops the thing in the muck, leaving it there to drown. But of course it didn’t drown, and it’s been flying around ever since, feasting mainly on animals, but the occasional person goes missing too.”
I sipped on my Pabst, amused at Bubba’s earnestness. “And you’ve never seen him?”
“Not straight away. Though on two occasions, right at dusk, I’ve glimpsed a strange shadow scoot over me. Kind of like the way you every-once-in-awhile see a hawk’s shadow, you know, gliding over the ground? And each encounter shot a chill up my back. Left me feeling cold. On that second occasion, that very same night after I’d seen it,” he said, looking directly at Katherine as if her nod of affirmation would give the story validity, “that Simpson girl went missing. Snatched right out of her house. Never found her. You remember that?”
Katherine extinguished her cigarette into a plastic Budweiser ashtray, immediately lit another. “Yeah, I remember, but no goddamned devil stole her. That girl was sixteen, had met a blackjack dealer in AC. Ran off after that fella got her a fake ID. They say she’s been working in one of Trump’s casinos ever since.”
Bubba’s face reddened. “More people around here believe in it than not.” He glanced at me as he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Old Katherine’s just grown bitter.”
Katherine exhaled, letting some of the smoke snake back through her nose in a French inhale. “You really want a good story,” she said, “then you ought find the Moss Man. Now that’s a fella to write about.”
Bubba immediately shook his head, scowling at Katherine.
But it was too late; my ears were perked. “Moss Man?”
“Don’t go bothering Bill,” muttered Bubba. “He’s an old Piney who don’t like to be disturbed. Lives way out in the thick of the Barrens.”
My scalp tingled—journalist instinct. I had to talk with him, no doubt about it.
“Tell me more,” I said, looking directly at Katherine. Then to Bubba, “And put her drinks on my tab.”
Bubba rubbed the bar-top with a rag, pushing circles into the wood though there was nothing to clean. Through clenched teeth, he grumbled something inaudible. And then, much clearer, “Whatever you do, don’t bring up his family.”
I didn’t squeeze much more out of Katherine, as Bubba grew increasingly irritated and eventually cut her off. But I did learn that the Moss Man lived alone, making money by gathering what the Pine Barrens offered. I also got a rough set of directions. Emphasis on rough. Things like “Turn at the bridge, go five miles to green dumpster. Make a left by a giant sycamore.”
Using Katherine’s final marker—a rusted No Hunting sign nailed to a tree at a sharp bend—I veered onto a lane that was hardly wide enough for my little Jetta to fit through. Moss Man’s driveway: two bare patches, knee-high weeds Mohawking the middle. My car jostled over the bumps and runnels, and I felt sure the guts of my transmission would rip out. The morning was hot, and with my window down, chirping frogs superseded everything. There must’ve been millions of them, singing eerie springtime love songs. In a different setting, it might have been pleasant and peaceful.
At the lane’s end, dense trees gave way to a clearing. An old shack with warped boards faded to gray sat in the opening. A stone chimney, somewhat askew, poked from a tin roof muddied to rusty orange. Despite the heat, a trace of smoke trickled out. A 1960s pickup—tailgate gone, fender dented, pocks of rust on the passenger door—sat in front.
I parked behind the truck, the chirrup of frogs even more intense after killing the engine. The yard, or what I’m calling a yard, consisted of low-lying weeds clinging to a soft, sandy soil. Parallel lines were scratched into the dirt, and it took a second to realize the entire grounds had recently been raked.
“Bill?” I called with unease. A quiet had overtaken the place. As soon as I yelled, every little frog shut the hell up as if I’d rudely broken etiquette. I beckoned again, waiting for a vicious dog to bust from the barn, but got no reply, not even from the frogs.
Three swaybacked steps led to the front porch, which housed a rocking chair. Then I noticed the flowers. Not standard geraniums or pansies. I’m talking exotic flowers. Whites, pinks, purples—blooms popping out all over. They were part of the house, clinging and growing straight from the porch railings instead of in pots, some of the root systems wrapping around the support posts like snakes encircling a staff.
Because of the flowers, the place had a charming, Hansel-and-Gretel-ish feel, which, after contemplating that comparison for a moment, I wasn’t overly comfortable with. I was literally in the middle of nowhere. In the Jersey Devil’s stomping grounds, which, up until then, was a notion I’d only found amusing. The way Bubba and the other Pineys believed in him so devoutly was what I would’ve attributed to—only a few days before—ignorance, naiveté, or blind faith. But now I wasn’t so sure. The isolation, the forest’s darkness, the silence, it all gave a bit more credence to believing some infamous creature lurked in the swamps.
The porch-boards sighed as I climbed. The two windows bookending the door were blocked by a combination of shades and thick curtains. As I went to knock, someone spoke. I wheeled around to find a man at the bottom of the steps, eyeing me in a not-so-friendly manner.
“I’m Bill,” said the man, “but that’s not what I asked. I said, ‘Who’re you?’ And what’s the whys of you trespassing?”
He was thin, his long-sleeved flannel and jeans so loose they looked borrowed. His beard, thick and a silvery gray, matched the house’s facing boards. Katherine had said he was mid-seventies, and upon first glance, that seemed right. But when I looked deeper he had one of those faces, hidden beneath his beard, that could’ve been plus-or-minus fifteen years of seventy. Part of that agelessness was his eyes. They were a piercing blue, nearly robin’s egg, which I’d never seen before. Maybe on a Siberian Husky, but not on a man.
“My name’s Dave Hamilton,” I said, nervously extending my hand. “How’re you? I’m with the Star-Ledger. Up in Newark. Would it be okay if I asked you a couple questions?”
Bill licked his lips. “To question one, I’m fine. And to question two, it would be okay except you’ve already done it.”
I tilted my head. “I’m sorry?”
“Can you ask me a couple of questions. You already did, and I’ve answered them. So are we done? Can I go ahead and shoot you now?”
My mouth opened but nothing came out. He moved a hand behind him, letting it rest near the small of his back. “I’m only messing with you, pal,” he said, letting out a deep laugh. “Don’t get a lot of visitors. Which is the way I like it. But you caught me on a good day. What do you want to know?”
I forced a laugh, then retracted my hand since he didn’t seem interested in shaking it. “I’m doing a story on the Jersey Devil. There’s been reports of mutilated animals. Somebody suggested I talk to you.”
“Um-hmm. And who’s this somebody?”
“Katherine? From the Lonely Tavern?”
Bill nodded. “That’s a woman who’ll make you curse the son-of-a-bitch who invented liquor. Got a bite like a copperhead.”
I laughed again, this time more naturally. “She does seem to know how to toss them back.”
“Good enough girl though, at least when she was young. And tough as a pine knot. Same as her daddy.”
“Yeah, that’s what I gathered. Anyway, she said you might have a theory about those animals. And maybe the Jersey Devil.”
“I got work to do, but if you want to come along, I don’t mind jawing. But those dead animals? That’s the work of coyotes,” he said, pronouncing it ki-oats. “Not any devil. Been seeing them more and more lately. They’re mean, tough little SOBs.” He pulled a sleeve of sunflower seeds from his pocket and poured a few into his mouth. “They’d give Katherine a good run for her money, that’s for damn sure.”
I flipped open my pad and scratched some notes. Bill worked the seeds like a plug of chaw, spitting out the shells.
“Is that all you got to wear?” he said, eyeing my Timberlands.
“My boots? Yeah, that’s all I’ve got. Why?”
He shook his head, spit a few more shells. “Those things wouldn’t last ten minutes where we’re going.”
I examined my boots, less than a week old. “What do you mean? I paid over a hundred bucks for these things. Bought them just for this trip.”
“Come on,” he said as he walked off.
In the barn’s dark shadows, he removed a pair of hip waders hanging from a sixteen penny nail. “Take off your hundred dollar boots and put on these rubbers. Got ‘em for ten dollars back in 1975. Impressed?” He didn’t look at me with derision exactly; it was more like bemusement. Before I could answer, he pointed toward a hay bale. “Sit down there, slide ‘em on, and we’ll go. I’ll get the barrow.”
I took a seat, but to my surprise the hay bale wasn’t a hay bale at all. I sank several inches, and when I used my hands to brace myself, the material was soft and spongy. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, vague images of rectangular moss bales appeared, each secured with twine. There must have been a hundred of them, the aroma rich and earthy.
I exchanged my Timberlands for the waders. Behind me, a wheel squeak was followed by Bill saying, “You ready?”
“Sure. We going to collect moss?”
The night before, Katherine had informed me that Bill made his living by selling sphagnum moss to local nurseries and flower shops. And I’d been fascinated by that.
Bill took another shot of sunflower seeds. “Boy, they sure grow ‘em sharp up there at the Star-Ledger, don’t they?”
I reddened, feeling a bit foolish.
“I’m just busting your chops, there, pal. You want a story about the Jersey Devil, well, thought I’d show you where he lives. Might as well get a little work done while I’m at it, right? You’re working, I’m working.”
Bill stepped out of the barn shadow, pushing the wheelbarrow into the morning light. It was the biggest one I’d ever seen, twice as deep as any the Home Depot carried.
“That seems like a good tool to bring along,” I said, trying to joke, motioning toward the pitchfork resting in the wheelbarrow’s cavity. “Kind of apropos considering we’re going devil hunting.”
The old man didn’t laugh or even smile. “Use it to loosen the moss.”
I sidled up, my pad and pencil at the ready. “Before we start, can I get your full name?” I said, scratching the date into the upper right corner.
He spat a glob of shells. “You best put away your little book and pencil. I never yet seen a man who could push a barrow with one hand. Damn near impossible.”
He started toward the forest where several faint trails wiggled through the trees in different directions. I pocketed my pad, grabbed the handles, and hefted the giant wheelbarrow before hustling after him. But he’d already vanished. As quietly as fog dissipating over a river.
The sunshine dimmed once we got into the thick of it. I followed, navigating the wheelbarrow along the narrow path, the pitchfork tines clanging against the worn metal tub. Bill didn’t look back or bother talking, and I had to give it to him, the old guy could motor. He hopped over downed trees like a deer, bobbed and weaved through low branches like a graceful boxer.
The deeper we went, the more anxious I became. The tall pines stood in formation, sentry-like, the forest floor a carpet of dead needles and creeping moss. And it was so quiet. As Bill trudged on, I noticed a squelch beneath my feet. With every step, it got worse, the wheelbarrow harder to push as the tire slurped in the bogginess. I immediately appreciated the waders.
A mile in, Bill stopped, waiting for me. As I schlepped toward him, an annoying whine rang in my ears. Then a mosquito drilled my arm, followed by several more. Bill seemed amused when I tried to smack them. He pulled a handful of moss from the ground. “Rub this on you.”
I slapped at my forearm again. “You got any bug spray? Some OFF or something?”
“Yeah, I sure do,” he said. “Right here next to my hairspray and tampons. Just give me a minute to rummage through my purse.”
I smacked again. “You’re a real funny guy, Bill. Let me tell you, a real funny guy.”
“Take the goddamned moss already.”
I grabbed the clump and rubbed it over my exposed areas. It smelled like dirt but, I have to admit, immediately did the trick.
Bill winked. “You can leave that stuff here,” he said, indicating the wheelbarrow and pitchfork. “We’re going off-road for a few.”
The ground became even soupier. Like slogging through fresh concrete. Yet Bill moved deftly, slicing through briar thickets and copses of trees. At one point I stepped on a plant that emitted an awful odor.
“Skunk cabbage,” he said. “You ought to avoid that.”
“You might’ve warned me beforehand,” I said, plugging my nose.
“A jackass learns to plow a row by doing, not by being told.”
We reached the edge of a murky pond, the water stagnant and black. The sky had gone overcast, a soaring red-tailed hawk offering the only contrast. The water was so dark that the mirrored bird zipped across the surface, only dissipating when the image collided with the tops of a few snapped trees poking through the water, their branches gnarled and twisted. I imagined strange tree-people lurking below, trying to fight their way to the top. The eeriness had returned, and if Bill had decided to run off right then, I’d have been screwed. Even in the thick humidity, a chill ran up my arms.
“So what’s this place?”
Bill looked out over the pond, two hundred yards across and surrounded by the green heads of pines. He seemed to be in deep reflection. “His home,” he said.
“His home? What do you mean? Whose home?”
Bill didn’t reply.
“You mean the Jersey Devil lives near this pond?”
“In it? How does he live in it? I thought he was some sort of flying winged creature.”
“He might have wings, can’t say for sure, but this is where he lives . . . far as I’m concerned.”
“You’ve seen him here before? In this pond?” With the others I’d interviewed, the mood had been light, mainly because I thought the whole thing was a lark. Some urban legend people took a little too seriously. But with Bill it was different. He was so damn grave all of the sudden.
“It’s been nearly fifty years.” he said, soft and monotone, “ . . . but this is the place.”
I forced a faint chuckle, attempting to put myself at ease. “Care to expound?”
“Care to what?”
“Expound. Explain. As in, tell me what happened?”
Bill cupped his bearded chin, eyeing the dark, placid water as if trying to see beneath the surface. As if searching for something he’d lost. “Nope.” He then headed back into the forest. The hawk had vanished.
I fumbled with my iPhone and snapped some pictures. Then I jogged to catch up, asking myself what in the hell I was doing out there.
Back at the wheelbarrow, Bill had shut off. I asked a few questions but he wouldn’t say a word. Instead, he shoved that fork into the ground, pulling up moss, meticulously working his fingers through it, dropping some into the wheelbarrow while discarding other pieces. It all looked the same to me, grayish-brown blobs, but he saw things I didn’t.
Once full, I pushed the load. Along the way, I’d seen more of those same exotic flowers clinging to various tree trunks. I asked about them as we neared the barn, and finally Bill answered. It was as if being back on his own land snapped him out of his funk.
“Those aren’t just flowers,” he said. “They’re orchids.”
“Same as the ones on your porch, right?”
“Yep. They say money don’t grow on trees, but I beg to differ.”
“How’s that?” I said, relieved to have him talking again.
“Besides all the moss, the nurseries buy up the orchids I collect. There’s money to be made just about anywhere, long as you know where to look.”
I dumped the moss in a corner of the barn. I anticipated being sore in the morning. My arms were fatigued, my calves taut. Scratches crossed my hands while mosquito welts bubbled my neck and forearms. Yet Bill appeared unscathed. I removed the waders and laced my boots.
I met him on the porch where he casually rocked, assuming we’d go inside to wash up, but he made no such offering. “Well, thanks for your help,” he said instead, chewing on sunflower seeds. “I’ve pushed that barrow upwards of ten thousand times I’d say. Nice to have a morning off.”
“No problem,” I said, probing the muscles near my elbow. “You think I could use your bathroom? Maybe wash my hands and take a leak before I head back?”
“Nope. I’d rather you not.” He shifted in his chair.
The tightly drawn shades covering the two front windows made me want to see inside that house. Badly. I wanted to understand how he lived. “Come on, Bill. I’ve really got to go. Need to rinse this mud off, too.”
Bill started rocking again. “There’s a wash bucket around the corner if you need it. And the world’s your bathroom. Can’t take a piss in your own yard then your yard ain’t worth a piss.”
He wasn’t going to budge, and for some reason, a part of me started to believe maybe there was some truth to this Jersey Devil stuff. It went against all my innate logic and reason, but whatever secrets he was holding onto, I had no doubt they were in that house.
“Listen, you mind if I come back tomorrow?”
“You don’t want to be here tomorrow. There’s a gulley-washer coming.”
There wasn’t one cloud in the sky, which struck me as odd because back at the pond things had been overcast. I was sure of it. I’d also watched the forecast on the local news that morning. “They’re not calling for rain anytime in the next five days.”
“I don’t know who they is,” said Bill, “but they is wrong. It’s gonna be a frog choker.”
“The weatherman said otherwise.”
“Weatherman?” scoffed Bill. “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
I laughed. “If I use that in my article, should I quote you or Dylan?”
Bill looked at me blankly, his eyes saying he’d never met a bigger fool. “Me or who?”
“Never mind. Forget it,” I said. “Would it be all right if I come by again, next time the weather’s nice?”
Bill spat a mishmash of shells over the railing. “I suppose that’d be fine. Don’t know what good it’ll do, but I’ll be here.”
When I got back to the lodge a half-hour later, a distant boom of thunder rolled across the sky, a stack of cauliflower clouds building on the horizon.
A day-and-a-half after Bill’s correctly predicted deluge, I approached his porch again. But this time I came with a different attitude, mainly because of what I’d learned from Katherine and Bubba. We’d had a few drinks when Katherine opened-up about some unimaginable things concerning Bill. It was horrific, and as much as I didn’t want to ask him about it, the journalist in me said I had to.
He sat in the rocking chair when I arrived, my waders bunched at his feet as if expecting me. The orchids around the columns had turned their little faces to the early sunshine. “Morning, Bill. How you doing today?”
“Fair to midland,” he said, sipping coffee.
“It’s a pretty morning. Was wondering if we might talk?”
“That’d be fine, but I got work to do.”
“Don’t suppose you’ve got an extra cup?” I said, wanting more than anything to get a look inside that house, to perhaps dispel the rumors I’d heard.
Bill hoisted himself slowly out of the chair. His body, despite easily out-working mine the other day, was thin and frail. His back was permanently hunched, albeit slightly, as if leaning into a stiff wind. The veins on his hands poked through like green worms; his throat dewlaps drooped loosely. Whatever mirage I’d seen that first day had vanished. Bill no longer seemed ageless. Now, he just looked old.
He turned the doorknob, with me right behind. But before he even cracked it, he said, “Cream and sugar? Or black?”
“I can pour it myself. Just tell me where you keep the cups.”
“You put on your rubbers,” he said, careful not to push the door open. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
“I really don’t mind getting it.”
“Cream and sugar? Or black?”
“Good, cause I don’t have any cream and sugar.” That spark in his eyes had returned.
The rest of the day found Bill in excellent humor. His disposition hadn’t shifted or changed the way it had after he’d shown me the pond. It wasn’t until we were finished, after I’d pushed three wheelbarrow loads, that I decided to mention his family. Except I was nervous and found any excuse to avoid the topic.
“Those orchids are beautiful,” I said as I removed the waders. “You think maybe tomorrow we could go out and find one for me to take home? I’m heading back north in the afternoon.”
“I can just pot you up one of these right quick. No charge. I got milk cartons I use.”
I saw the milk cartons as my chance to finally get in the house. When I’d mentioned to Katherine and Bubba about how Bill hadn’t wanted me inside that day, they’d both nodded. Katherine had said, “One time a nursery guy sliced his hand wide open on his tailgate while loading Bill’s moss bales. Bleeding bad. He wanted to run water over it in the kitchen, but Bill found a rag, wrapped the man’s hand, then sent him on his way.”
“Yeah, he was the same way with me,” I’d said.
Katherine had paused to blow a stream of smoke upward. “Some say he’s captured the Devil. Has him chained up in the cellar. Don’t necessarily believe it myself, but that’s what some swear by.”
“Sure, I’d love a potted plant,” I said. “If you don’t mind.”
“Cartons are in the barn, against the back wall. Go grab one and pick out whichever orchid you want.”
I hesitated. “On second thought, I want to choose my very own. From the wild.”
“Ah, I get it. Got yourself a lady back home?”
“Well, not so much anymore.” I hesitated again. “I’m in the middle of a divorce, actually.”
Bill nodded. “Relationships can be tricky.”
And just like that, without even trying, what I’d wanted to ask was right there in front of me. “You ever been married, Bill?”
“Never did have much luck with marriage,” he said. “Married three different times.”
Now here it was. I didn’t know there’d been three wives. Katherine had only mentioned the one, and a couple of kids, too. “So you’re familiar with divorce too, huh?”
“Nope, not divorce. My first wife, when I was still quite young, she was murdered.”
“Yep. They never caught the guy. And my second wife, a few years later, well, she died from eating poisonous mushrooms.”
“Man, I don’t know what to say.”
Bill rocked in his chair, solemnly. “That’s all right. Not much you can say. And my third wife, well, she died from being beaten over the head with a baseball bat.”
“Goddamn, Bill. I’m . . . ” But I didn’t finish. An apology would’ve been pointless.
Bill nodded as he stopped rocking. “Yeah, the last one, with the baseball bat, that happened because the stubborn old thing refused to eat the poisonous mushrooms.” And then he let out a laugh that echoed off the surrounding pine trunks. I paused before joining him.
When we finally calmed, he said, “I’ll see you tomorrow, there, pal.”
Going to the lodge, I reflected on what Katherine had told me the night before. About what had really happened to Bill’s wife, understanding why he’d been so pensive while showing me the pond that day.
“Happened in the early 60s,” Katherine had said. “I was in second grade. We’d had a rough winter. Most people lost power for weeks because of an ice storm. But word still got around. And I knew it was true for sure when I went to school, because Bill’s little girl, Sophie, didn’t show up. Teacher informed our class, but I refused to buy it. It took another month of seeing Sophie’s empty desk before I finally wrapped my head around it. If there’d been a funeral, then maybe I’d have believed sooner. But you couldn’t have a funeral without a body.
“From all accounts, Bill was a good husband to Caroline. Good father, too. Sophie was eight and her little brother, whose name I don’t even remember, was six.”
“Lawrence,” said Bubba, drinking from his glass of draft. “His name was Lawrence.”
“Right, Lawrence,” said Katherine. “Bill had taken the kids and Caroline ice skating, some pond in the middle of the Barrens. They’d been skating when Sophie strayed toward an area where a moving creek filtered in. Caroline went after Sophie, pulling Lawrence along, while Bill was out in the middle, making figure eights or some such. Next thing Bill knows, there’s a horrible pop, some screams, and by the time he gets halfway to them, all three have gone under. Swallowed up. Sucked down. My daddy told me Bill plunged right into that hole. Dove head-first, but they were gone. Said Bill nearly died too, and, I imagine, probably would’ve preferred if he had. Ever since, he’s lived out at that place all alone, never quite the same. And who could blame him? Just crawled up inside himself and shut the world out.”
“Damn,” I said.
“Yeah, damn. Of course there’s other theories out there, too.”
“You do the math,” said Katherine. “No bodies ever recovered. Bill turning all sorts of secretive. Not too hard to figure that rumors would get started. But the cops never pursued it, far as I know.”
That final morning, as I walked toward Bill’s porch, he sat in his rocking chair as usual. As I mounted the three steps, I said, “Hey old man, how’s it going?”
He didn’t reply, and it took a second to realize he was napping. I spoke again, louder, and then I knew. I nudged the curved bottom rail of the rocking chair with my Timberland, moving it forward and back.
“Goddamnit, Bill,” I said. I didn’t want to touch him. I’d held a dead dog once when I was a boy, after it got run over by my neighbor, and it messed with my head for months.
I had never checked a pulse, nor did I have any idea how to actually do it, but when I grabbed Bill’s wrist, his skin was cold. Or not cold exactly, but certainly not warm like it was supposed to be. His eyes were closed, his mouth slightly ajar as if whistling.
I reached for my phone, ready to call 911 when I noticed something, partially hidden by the chair. It was an orchid, standing about knee-high, and potted in a plastic milk carton cut in half, the base packed tightly with fresh moss. The flowers were open, white with flecks of purple spotting the petals. I stared at the orchid, then at the closed front door. And that’s when I put the phone back in my pocket. After all, at this point, what was the rush?
Was I expecting to find some chained beast inside, foaming at the mouth and utterly hideous? Some vicious winged creature whose mother had attempted to murder it? Or maybe Bill’s own family, old now, imprisoned for fifty years? Of course not. But I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about such things.
The door opened to the living room: a couple of floral-patterned upholstered chairs, a crocheted granny-squared afghan draped over a loveseat, an enormous console television. But I was immediately drawn to a bookshelf filled not with books but record albums. In front of the bookshelf was a phonograph with one stray album cover sitting next to it, noticeable because it was the only thing out of place. A young Bob Dylan stared back at me. I picked it up, fanning myself, and chuckled, “You sly son of a bitch.”
The kitchen was as neat and orderly as the living room: white refrigerator that reminded me of my grandmother’s, shaped like a rounded bullet. Breadbox and toaster on the counter. Pots and pans hanging from hooks above a woodstove. But the kitchen table was what caused my stomach to drop, what prickled my skin as if racked with fever.
A pair of children sat at the table, a girl and a smaller boy, empty plates in front of them. And behind the children, a woman stood dressed only in an apron, hunched over as if about to pick up one of the plates. But they weren’t real, living people. Instead they were replicas, frozen in time, completely fashioned out of dried moss. The woman had an hourglass shape to her, even faint humps for breasts. Though the face had no distinct features per se, somehow she was almost attractive. Maybe it was the prominent cheekbones, or perhaps the shoulder-length blonde hair, made from what appeared to be bleached moss. At each end of the table were unoccupied chairs though each spot had a complete place setting, as if the entire family was about to sit down to breakfast.
An immediate thought came to mind. Of those people in Nagasaki who’d been obliterated by the bomb, their white silhouettes smeared on blackened walls as they’d walked down the street. Their shadows the only reminders of lives completely evaporated.
There was an eeriness to that image which I now equated to the moss family, yet it was touching and beautiful, too. A family frozen in time.
I wanted to touch them but somehow it felt wrong. Felt like a direct violation of Bill and his privacy. I decided it was time to call 911 but then hesitated. What would Bill want me to do? Would he want the whole community to know he’d kept a moss family in his house as some sort of homage? Did I want people going around talking about Bill as if he was a deranged, troubled freak? Because I knew damn well people would create all sorts of stories, make up rumors—just as they had before—many of them depraved and perverted. Bill deserved better.
So one-by-one, I picked up the family and carried each out the front door, where Bill watched silently from his rocking chair. I paused momentarily with each passing to let him say his final goodbyes, and then I took first little Sophie, then Lawrence, and finally Caroline to the edge of the woods, where I carefully dismantled them, unknotting the twine that held their bodies together, as well as the underlying pine limbs that had acted as the framework. Stick figures, in the most literal sense. I kept looking over my shoulder as I worked. What if somebody caught me? What if somebody witnessed me tearing the family apart? What would they do? What would I do?
I dispersed the moss and limbs into the woods, destroying the evidence. No one in a million years would be any the wiser to the love and compassion Bill had had for his family. No one would know how badly he had missed them. And I believe that’s the way he wanted it.
Back at the house, I washed my hands in the sink, dried off, then walked down the hall, compelled to see the rest of the home. There were two bedrooms, the back one obviously Bill’s, while the other had two small single beds, one with a pink bedspread, the other red. A stuffed bear and a Raggedy Ann lay on the pink bed, and in the corner of the room were several toys. A yellow metal Tonka trunk, a hula-hoop, a miniature Radio Flyer.
As I was about to exit, the faintest little something on Lawrence’s bed caught my eye. It was tightly made, the bedspread folded back just beneath the single pillow. And it was there that I now focused. Two or three strands of moss, barely noticeable, stood out in contrast to the white pillowcase. Like fine hairs left by someone who’d been sleeping.
I stepped over to Sophie’s bed, where I observed something similar. A few more wisps on the pink covers. I didn’t bother to check Bill’s bed but imagined the same on Caroline’s side. And probably, if I’d examined the living room, I might’ve found more moss on the chairs and loveseat, where the family perhaps once gathered to watch Bonanza or The Dick Van Dyke Show but were now stuck with American Idol or, God forbid, Jersey Shore. Those little strands of moss scattered about were like fibers at a crime scene, painting the full picture of Bill’s lonely existence.
I stepped outside, grabbed the milk carton, and sat on the top stair. I angled my body so I was more-or-less facing Bill. Between thumb and finger, as if examining expensive fabric, I gently caressed the petals of the orchid. Then I pulled out my phone and dialed.
My heart pounded when the other end started ringing. Bill’s corpse watched me intently, as if listening. Or at least hoping I was smart enough to say the right thing.