By Melissa Good
The car rental clerk looked up from his Styrofoam container of barbeque ribs as his front door opened and someone came in. “Lo there ma’am. Kin ah help ya?”
“Hello.” A tall, dark haired woman wearing sunglasses approached his desk, taking them off as she reached it. “Looking to rent a car.”
“Only place in town you can do it.” The man agreed, pushing aside his lunch and wiping his hands off. “How long?”
“Day, maybe two.”
The man consulted a plastic envelope of the kind one usually found in car repair shops and grunted. “Aint got but some four by four Jeeps and a truck.” He looked up. “Want one of them?”
“I’ll take a four by.” The woman said, amiably. “I’ve driven them before.”
“All right. Need your driver’s license and a credit card” The man pulled out a contract and started writing on it. He paused to pick up the license when it was deposited on the table and studied it, then glanced up at the woman. “Roberts. You kin to the folks round here?”
The woman nodded. “Apparently I am.”
“Figgered it wasn’t no coincidence..” He wrote in the name then picked up the credit card and put it in the manual stamper, making an impression of it before he looked more closely at the square of plastic. “Aint never seen one that color” He handed it back.
“Probably not.” The woman agreed. “Keys?”
“We’ll take a deposit off that, and you all are responsible for any damage to it.” The man said, handing the keys over. “That all right?”
“Sure.” The woman took the keys, replaced the sunglasses and made her way out of the bait store back into the sleepy sunlit wash of an autumn day.
It was dusty, and the Jeep was coated with russet tinted mud she could almost taste on the back of her tongue in the air. She ran a finger along the door and regarded the dirt with a mild expression, then wiped it off on her denim covered thigh.
The Jeep just huddled there in the golden light. She opened the back door with a long suffering creak of metal and tossed the leather overnight bag she’d been carrying over one shoulder into the worn back seat.
It looked like it had come in fresh from a possum hunt. There were even mud stained tracks from a pair of heavy boots on the square of carpet on the floor.
Dar opened the drivers door and slid into the front seat, pausing to adjust the length to fit her long legs. She closed the door and started up the engine, agreeably surprised by the robust rumbling that immediately commenced. She put it into reverse and backed out, then started forward out of the parking lot.
Her cell phone started ringing. She removed it and paused in the driveway to tap the answer key. “Hey.”
“Hey babe.” Kerry’s voice emerged from the speaker. “Where are you?”
“Left ass of bumfuck.” Dar replied. “Just got the car and now I’m going exploring. You?”
“Got everything ready for the demo. Managed to find an Office Max and replaced my USB key too.” Kerry supplied promptly. “So I’m just chilling by the lake. You sure you don’t want me to come up and join you?”
“I do want you to, but I don’t want to subject you to the folks up here, Ker. From the way Dad talked, I’m not sure I want to subject myself to them either, but I’m really curious about that ghost story.”
“And I’ve always been curious about the old place.” Dar admitted, with a faint smile her partner couldn’t see. “Good bad or indifferent, it’s a part of him.”
“Mm.. I dunno, Dixiecup. Just be careful. “
“I will. I’m going to drive up to the house now. Wish me luck with my uncles.” Dar said, in a wry tone. “Hope they don’t shoot me before I get to introduce myself.”
“Bring some moonshine.”
“Hon, they make moonshine.”
Kerry pondered that. “Bring them a pie? I heard that’s big around those parts.”
Dar chuckled briefly. “Talk to you later. I might end up just flying back tonight – I don’t think they have anything you could describe as a hotel here.”
“Better for me. Take care, hon, and take some pictures for me.”
“Sure thing.” Dar disconnected the call and put the Handspring in the pocket of the jacket she’d slung into the front passenger seat. Then she put the engine back into gear and pulled out onto the road, heading along a stretch of much patched tarmac that had seen far better days.
There weren’t many cars on the road. Dar only had two of them and a pickup truck pass her as she drove along through the small town. There were narrow streets and dirt roads leading off it in either direction, and between the trees she could see flashes of wood sided houses and fences.
An old well, with a sign above it, too far rusted out to read.
A dog trotted purposefully along the edge of the gravel, nose to ground, ears bouncing. Dar slowed in case it got the idea to run across the street but it kept on it’s way.
She drove on. A long gravel driveway went to the left, and she saw a white painted and steepled church buried back in the pines. “That had to be where the wedding was.” She mused, before continuing.
The road narrowed a bit. Then she saw a stone wall, and old, green tinged wrought iron gates and she pulled across and over in front of it.
“Lamb of God Cemetery.” Dar opened the door and shut the engine, bracing one booted foot against the inside of the frame and regarding the gates. After a moment, she got out and closed the door, walking over to regard the view past the iron.
Old. She could almost feel the history, as she stood under the overarching branches of oak with their long curtains of moss. She took a breath and pushed the gates open, walking past them and into the shaded grove.
In some places the grasses were trimmed, and in others, they grew wild. Some stones were kept up, and clean, others were leaning like drunken stoplights, some with chips taking out of the rock face that looked like someone had been taking target practice on them.
As well they might have been. Dar strolled along the rows of graves, studying the names and dates. Many were old, and predated the Civil War.
Some had the stars and bars on them. Many had crossed cavalry swords chiseled.
But the graveyard wasn’t that big, and it didn’t take her that long to find the section of the place where the names matched her own.
If she’d expected them to look different, they didn’t. Some were knocked down, some were so faded she could barely read them, but there was a small stone building there with the family name and some plaques.
She walked up to it and stood quietly reading, then she looked over at one of the graves, newer than most of them. “So.” She edged over and regarded the dirt and grass, her hands in her jeans pockets. “Hi grandpa.”
It felt weird saying it. It was hard to reconcile what she’d heard about this man with what she knew about her father, or imagine him growing up here really.
If the story he’d told was true, this was where it happened. Where poor Jasper had been hog tied by a bunch of morons who had then come cross of her dad who didn’t take kindly to that sort of thing.
That part, she believed whole heartedly. That her father had come busting ass in here and started booting people right and left?
Absolutely. She would probably have done the same, to less effect and with more risk.
But then he’d said his daddy’s ghost had shown up. That part?
Dar didn’t like to think Andrew would lie outright to her. Could it have been someone playing a gag? It had been Halloween, after all. Graveyard, Halloween, fog… Dar regarded the grave, which seemed quiet and very ordinary.
Just a name. Some dates. A little overgrown.
Prompted by something indefinable, Dar moved forward and gently brushed the dirt off the stone, kneeling next to it to wipe the grime off the letters and make them more visible.
Jesse “Duke” Roberts., Captain, US Army. And then – ‘Let vengeance roll like the blood of the righteous from on high.”
“Grandpa Jesse.” Dar said, after a moments pause. “Did you really come back as a ghost and make all that trouble for my dad?”
She thought not. More likely it had been someone playing around, and the morons had run off and were too embarrassed to admit to being underneath those sheets.
Klan sheets, just as her grandpa had been a Klan leader, in his time. Dar’s lips twitched and she brushed a bit of moss off the stone. “Not sure we would have agreed on a lot, grandpa. Still kinda wish I’d met you.”
The graveyard remained a silent, peaceful place. After a minute Dar stood up and dusted her hands off. She backed up and took a small camera from her back pocket and took a picture of the grave, to show Kerry.
Then she heard footsteps on gravel, and she turned, to find a middle aged man of middling height coming up on her. She put the camera back in her pocket and turned to face him.
“You looking for something?” The man asked, without preamble.
“Just visiting a relative.” Dar responded in a mild tone. “That’s legal here, right?”
The man studied her. He had light hazel eyes and straight, gray laced brown hair, and a planed, clean shaven face. “Sure.” He said. “You a relation of Duke’s?”
“Show up for the big hoodaw then?” He asked. “Someone tell his kin then they’re gonna call a come to Jesus here tonight?”
“No. No one told me anything. I happened to be in the area.” Dar said, frowning. “What are they going to do?”
The man had relaxed and now he came a step or two closer, sticking his hands in his pockets and glancing at the grave. “Church man got hold of some water shakers or somesuch. They’re gonna come exorcise old Duke tonight. Fool ass, I think. Folks making noise about some crazy thing happened last year.”
“Really?” Dar asked, incredulously. “Crazy as in, ghosts or something?”
The man nodded. “Some such.” He agreed. “I’m Ted Carston.” He said, after a pause. “And you are?”
“Dar.” She answered. “Roberts.” She added, after a moment. “He was my grandfather.”
“Do tell!” The man’s eyebrows lifted. “Lord have mercy, are you Andy’s young’un?” He took a step back and looked her up and down. “Must be. You got his looks.”
“Yup.” Dar agreed, with a smile. “I am and I do.”
The man now smiled back at her and held a hand out. “I’ll be darned. I knew Andy back when. We went to public school together.” He said. “I went up to Mobile for a while, but I came back here when I got tired of all the crowds. I’m the local sawbones.” He gestured around. “Got some ex patients here I visit sometimes.”
“Nice to meet you.” Dar returned the clasp. “Be honest, my dad doesn’t have many fond memories of the place.” She said, in a somewhat apologetic tone. “He doesn’t come back here much.”
“No.” Ted shook his head understandingly. “Was a good thing for him he got out.” He said. “He and the Duke never got on, not after he growed up, anyhow. The old man had a temper, but you never wanted to get Andy mad and it wasn’t a good mix.”
He paused a moment. “You been up to the house?”
“Not yet.” Dar started back along the path. “Going there next.”
“Well, be careful.” Ted warned her. “That’s not a friendly kinda place most times. Those boys didn’t much get on with your dad.”
“I heard.” Dar lifted her hand in farewell as they went through the gates. “Thanks.”
Not a friendly place. Dar studied the end of the road she was on, keeping the Jeep idling as she looked at the clusters of oaks surrounding what had once been an expansive property.
The road was bracketed by a fallen down and decrepit stone wall, and that opened up into a faintly sloped frontage. Beyond that was a ramshackle collection of crates and barrels that might in the far past have been where an outdoor cooking area have been.
The house itself was large and rambling, and had a porch around all sides of it, but only the part that led up to the door was clear enough to walk on. The rest of it was crowded with trash and what appeared to Dar like old tractor parts.
The second and third floor windows were boarded over, and it looked like one corner in the rear had collapsed.
“Wow.” Dar put the Jeep in gear and pulled forward into the open space, where she parked next to a pickup that had no tires on it. As she got out, she spotted motion and a short, wiry figure emerged from the side door and walked over to one of the barrels, tipping a bucket of something into it.
She closed the door and the sound made him look up, and he put the bucket down and turned, coming forward and putting his hand on the jerry rigged table next to the barrel as he watched her approach.
Dar stopped a few feet away, and the soft echo of her boots on gravel faded. “Hello.”
The man had a ball cap on and now he removed it, and cleared his throat. “Hello there, ma’am. You all looking for something here?”
Very different reception from the one her father had gotten, based on his tale. “I am.” Dar said. “Matter of fact I think I found it.” She added. “I believe you’re my uncle Stu.”
He blinked at her a few times. “Beg p..pardon?” He finally said. “Ma’am, I think you might be looking for someone else.” He said, hesitatingly. “Mistake maybe?”
Dar shook her head. “No. My dad showed me pictures.” She said. “You’re his brother.”
Well, Ceci had told her it was very clear every brain cell gene in the family had gone to her husband. Evidently it had. Dar cleared her throat gently. “Andrew Roberts.” She clarified. “ My name’s Dar.”
Stu blinked several more times, then finally got his jaw working. “Well, I’ll be god damned.” He said, then flushed. “Sorry for the cursin. You’re Andy’s kid?”
Dar took a step closer, into some sunlight and smiled at him. “I am.”
He squinted a little. “Well, holy crap of course you are. You look just like him… what .. hey Jon!” He yelled over his shoulder. “Jon!!! C’mon out here!” He then extended a hand. “Never spected to have you all show up here.”
Well. She hadn’t gotten shot. Dar clasped his hand and released it. “I’m sure you didn’t.”
A younger, towheaded man ambled out the front door and loped towards them. “Whatcha yelling for Stewy? Somebody wanting more of you.. oh hay. “ He hauled up when he reached them, folding his hands in front of him. “ Pardon me, ma’am.”
The instinctive, inbred courtesy tickled Dar. “And this must be uncle Jon.” She said, enjoying the googling eyed reaction with somewhat guilty pleasure. “Hi. I’m Dar.” She stuck her hand out towards him. “My father’s your brother Andy.” She decided clarifying this up front would get things rolling a bit faster.
“Oh! Hay!” Jon’s face lit up a bit more honestly than Stu’s had. He took her hand and gently shook it, then released it. “Heard about you all.. you’re a computer genius right? Andy said.”
“More or less, yeah.” Dar agreed. “Something like that, anyway.”
“So whatch you all doing round here?” Stu asked. “Ain’t no computers in these woods.”
He tried to sound genial about it, but there was an edge and Dar heard it without any effort. “I’m visiting a new customer in the Panhandle and had some time free. Thought I would come see where my daddy grew up.”
They both twitched a little.
“Just been by the cemetery to pay my respects.” Dar added, casually sticking her hands back into her pockets. “Want to show me around? Won’t take too much of your time.”
There was a moment of silence, while Jon looked at Stu in question.
Stu was staring intently at her, head cocked just slightly to one side. Then his face shifted expression and his body relaxed and he smiled a little more genuinely. “Got all the time in the world for kinfolk.” He said. “Ain’t much left to show you, but c’mon.”
He turned and led the way across the decrepit courtyard towards the house. “Andy tell you much about this place?”
“Not much.” Dar assented. “I know he had some bad experiences here.”
Stu chuckled under his breath. “Could say that.”
“You went up to the cemetery?” Jon said. “Visit the old man’s grave?” He watched Dar nod. “He tell you what happened there that old night?” He asked , with a touch of excitement. “When he was here last?”
Stu was watching her from the corner of his eye, Dar noted. “He did.” She said. “Sounded confusing to me. I don’t much accept the whole idea of ghosts.” She added, in an apologetic tone. “Especially not on Halloween, y’know?”
Stu was already nodding. “S’what I said.” He agreed. “Ever’body else round here bound to think it was something else.” He muttered. “Wont let us hardly do nothing to make this place up.”
Dar studied his back, which was slightly hunched in a defensive posture. “Because they think it’s haunted or something?”
Stu looked around at her. “Nothin but bullshit, scuse me.” He turned and them around the side of the property to an area separated by another broken down stone knee high wall.
“Well now, this here used to be our mama’s garden.” He paused to look at what was apparently a junkheap. “Ain’t none of us can grow a damn thing so ah use it fer something else.”
“I can’t grow anything either.” Dar commiserated.
“That so?” Her uncle squinted at her.
“Never could.” She said. “I even kill air plants.”
“Now for sure I know your family.” Stu seemed to be warming to her. “This here’s where I do my best work.” He put his hands on the barrels. “You fancy some shine, ma’am?” He cocked an eyebrow at her. “Your pap never liked it.”
“Sure.” Dar leaned her own wrists on the barrel. “I’ll try some.” Andy never had liked it, that was true, but he’d also said Stu made a good batch and she could see in his face that this was something he was proud of.
So why not?
“I’ll go get me some mason jars so we do it all up proper.” Stu turned and headed for a shed to the left of the house, whistling softly under his breath.
Dar and Jon were left in the sudden quiet, with the sound of wind blowing through the oaks around them and the soft hiss and bubble of the fermentation going on nearby.
Jon regarded her solemnly. “You all sent that airplane the last time.”
“For dad? Yeah.” Dar said. “I knew he was having a rough time here. Didn’t want him to have to deal with the hired crop duster.” She regarded Jon in return. “Lear has more legroom anyhow.”
He seemed to find that funny, his face twitching into a grin. “We don’t see planes like that round here much.” He admitted, glancing around at the house. “That’s money.”
Dar nodded briefly. “It is.”
“That all come from that Northern woman Andy hitched with?” Jon’s voice was only curious.
“No.” She smiled at him. “I earned it myself.” She tapped her head. “ But I never saw that much of it around when I was growing up.” She studied the barrel in front of her. “We lived on a military base down in south Florida, then in a few other places Never had much.”
“Army, Navy, same thing. Don’t pay much.” Jon agreed “Did my hitch, didn’t get nothing from it but a crack in mah knee.”
“I didn’t care. There was always food on the table.”
“Yeap. With our daddy too.” Jon said. “Sides mama n Sally grew stuff, and Stu’s good with white lightning. I did some hunting, and Andy could tickle fish out of the crick. We got by.”
Dar looked over his shoulder at the house, sitting there all dark and crumbling. “Harder now?” She suggested. “Place has seen better days.”
Jon made a face. “Yeah, we aint builders, neither of us, and never was no good at that handy stuff. Can’t keep things up, and them folks round here aint minded to help us.”
“Why?” Dar asked. “Not really because of those stories?”
He shrugged. “Everything we tried to do to fix it up, just didn’t work.” Jon said. “Just bad luck all over. Maybe Sally done was right after all.” He glanced at the house. “Said it was jinxed. She’s doing all right now she’s up in Mobile.”
Dar pondered that, catching sight of a cat slinking along the edge of the porch and dodging under it. “What do you think about that whole ghost story thing?” She asked him. “Just some jerks messing around?”
Jon looked over his shoulder at the house again and shrugged. “Tell you the truth, ah think somethin aint’ right in there.” He admitted softly “Don’t know about no ghosts, but ah don’t like it. Stu and I were thinking of making us a lean to up in the hills, go stay there.”
Now it was Dar’s turn to blink. “I thought he said he didn’t believe in ghosts?”
“Ghosts or bad luck, or whatever, place’s gonna fall down on us and that aint’ no good thing no matter what it is.” He replied. “What in hell’s taking Stu so long? Them jars are just by the kitchen.” He pushed away from the barrel. “Let me go see what’s the holdup.”
Dar moved with him. “Mind of I tag along?” She asked. “Wanted to see the place anyhow.”
“Sure. C’mon.” Jon ambled along next to her. “Just watch your step.”
Dar wasn’t sure what she expected to feel when she stepped up onto the porch and under the eves. She’d listened to Kerry tell her all about the strange feelings she got sometimes when she thought ghosts were around, and how it felt weird.
This didn’t feel weird. She didn’t feel any different at all, just a little sorry for the place, really. She reached up and touched the doorframe as they went inside, the springs on the outer screen door creaking mournfully as it closed behind them.
Inside, it smelled like dry rot, and garbage, and age. The floorboards all creaked under their steps, and she let Jon ramble on ahead of her yelling for his brother as she looked around.
The entrance hall had once been graceful. There were stairs on either side going up to the second level, and a doorway that opened to her right into what had, she guessed, been a sitting room that had big, now boarded over windows and a fireplace.
To the left, a long foot worn path in the wooden floor led to a hallway where Jon had disappeared into and she walked over to it, pausing to look on the wall at smoke and dust covered portraits from long ago.
Some of the men in them reminded her a little of her father, and she realized here she was, looking for the first time into the faces of her own ancestors, seeing her own height and angular features in the figures staring steadfast and solemn at the old timey photographer on the other side of the lens.
Wow. She remembered her gran on Ceci’s side showing her albums but this was something quite different, more like she reckoned it would be seeing pictures of her long ago Pilgrim ascendants on that side of the family.
There was history in this place. A long line of years where people had lived and died here trying to hold on to a set of ideals most of which she certainly didn’t share.
She turned around and looked at the entrance again. If things had been different… if Andrew had been a different person, she’d likely have grown up running across this very room.
This would have been home.
“Wow.” Dar repeated audibly, moving past and into the hallway, hearing echoes of Jon’s repeated shouting. It was dark and after a moment she took out her keychain and turned on a small flashlight she kept on it, walking carefully amidst the debris scattered liberally about.
Light was ahead and she turned into a room that opened up and still had windows, the white clapboard walls reasonably clean as were the long tables in the center. “Ah.” She grunted. “Kitchen”
This had a fireplace too, on an outside wall and a long set of rusted ranges that hadn’t been used in a very long time. There was, looking cheap and strange, a microwave on the stone counter and a little refrigerator next to it.
She walked over and opened the fridge, surprised into a short laugh on seeing a carton of milk, a small bowl of eggs, and four six packs of beer inside. “Yep.” She closed the door and shook her head. “We’re related all right.”
After a moment, she turned back and opened the door again, taking a picture of the contents before shutting it and moving on. She came to a pantry, mostly empty, and there was a set of doors on a slanted platform, one of which was open.
She went over and peered inside, seeing steps going down, and she also heard the thump of boots on them where apparently Jon had gone looking for his brother. “Hm.” Dar started down the steps and flicked on her flashlight again, when the single bulb somewhere below didn’t cast enough light for her to see by.
The steps themselves were the same creakingly ancient pine as the floors and as she descended, Dar had to duck her head a little to clear the ceiling overhead. She reached the bottom and moved her light around, seeing dirt walls with shelves haphazardly hammered into them.
They held utter miscellaneous crap on them, old leather somethings and pieces of iron other things, and there were irregular shaped openings a little further on that had been storage areas once themselves. Dar studied the surface with interest, taking a breath of air full of dirt and dampness in it.
This wasn’t a basement, it was a cellar. One of those old time spaces under old time houses where roots protruded into the air and everything was uneven surfaces. It was cool and the air was still and she could still faintly smell something vegetable.
Pretty cool, actually. She’d always wanted a cellar. The storage sheds in Florida weren’t nearly the same thing. She reached out and touched the dirt wall, imagining herself playing hide and seek in the place with cousins and maybe siblings she might have had in this other reality.
Might have been fun. She continued exploring, moving past irregularily shaped openings cut into the dirt, revealing empty space or jumbles of junk, dank an anonymous.
Finally she turned a corner and found a room with neater shelves filled with glass jars, and she peered around inside, almost jumping when her light fell on the two brothers, standing against the back walls with strange, startled expressions on their faces.
They turned as she entered and Stu held a hand up against the light. “Wh.. oh, yeah. It’s you.”
She quickly scanned the room again, but saw nothing to be scared of except perhaps a spider on one of the jars. “It’s me.” She agreed. “What’s going on in here?” She turned off her flashlight, since there was a lonely light bulb hanging from the ceiling, connected to a set of twisted wire and knobs.
“We done saw something.”
Dar looked around. “What?”
“Was something there, against that wall.” Jon said. “Just something.”
Dar looked, moving her light over to cover the area he was pointing at but seeing nothing except a wooden cupboard standing there. “What am I looking for?” She asked, after a moment.
“Nothin.” Stu looked profoundly embarrassed. “Just crap in the shaders. Let me get them jars.” He went to a shelf and took down three of them. “This here was mama’s larder. He indicated the long walls. “Used to put up stuff down here, last us forever.”
“From the garden?”
Jon nodded “Big old jars of strawberries, and okra. Pickled tomatas and corns.” He looked at the shelves. “Peaches.”
Dar studied the shelves, all wood, all fitted to the walls. There was nothing there that smacked of an office supply store. “Home built?” She asked, as she followed the brothers out again, noting that Jon kept his eyes behind them until they reached the steps.
“Sure.” Stu said. “Every’things home built in these here parts. We don’t got the money to do no fancy stuff.”
They emerged into the sunlight again, leaving the house behind them, and went back to the firepit where oak barrels were lined up. “Not a bad thing, doing custom work.” Dar suggested, as she stood back and let Stu uncork one of the barrels.
“Ah like being able to do stuff myself.” Stu said, as he watched a crystal clear stream of liquid go into one of the jars. “Hellfire, I swap this here off for lectric. “
Dar imagined trying to barter illegal booze to FPL back home and had to appreciate the point. “Nice.” She commented. “You trade to the law, too?”
Stu eyed her, then handed over the jar. “We don’t talk about that .” He rasped.
“Fair enough.” Dar held her jar until they had theirs and held hers up. “To family.”
“Sometimes.” Stu returned the salute and they drank.
The taste was interesting. Dar found it far smoother and less harsh than she expected, though it had a very powerful kick going down. She swallowed and licked her lips, glancing up at the expectantly waiting Stu. “That’s really good.”
The return smile was unfeigned, and for a moment, reminded her just a little of her father.
“It’s just a little sweet.” Dar commented, after taking a second swallow. “Didn’t expect that.. but given we’re related I probably should have.”
“Rock sugar.” Stu supplied. “Goes down right smooth, don’t it?”
“It does.” Dar finished what was in the jar. “Can I buy a jar off you to take home?” She asked, spending a pleasurable moment imagining Kerry sampling the hooch.
Stu’s expression was a mixture of insulted and complimented. “Ah don’t sell to kin.” He said. “Glad you like it though. We can maybe trade for it.” He was about to go on, then he looked past Dar’s shoulder and frowned. “Aw hell.”
Jon turned. “Here comes trouble for nothing.”
Dar turned and leaned against the barrel, watching a group of people approaching them down the long bedraggled approach. “Something wrong?”
“Gimme that. Let me get this put up for that pastor gets here.” Stu took the jars and ambled off. “Pain in mah ass.”
Dar looked questioningly at Jon. “I heard something about some exorcism.” She said. “From some guy at the cemetery.”
Jon made a face. “Yeah.” He admitted. “Some such foolish stuff. That padre’s convinced we got ghosts here, and that’s what’s making all the bad luck and all that. He brought in some guy says he’s good at chasing them off.”
“Really?” Dar studied the approaching group. “I met up with some folks in New Orleans who said they made good money doing that.”
Jon slowly swung his head around and regarded her for a minute. “Say what?”
Dar nodded. “Fortune tellers. Said they knew a preacher who cleared out those old houses over there for a fee.”
Her uncle straightened up . “We aint givin that man no money.” He stated. “Stewy done told them that and anyway we aint got none to give.”
Interesting. Dar wondered why the man was there then. Just a religious favor? She watched the two men in the lead head for where they were standing, a group of half a dozen others behind them. The closer was thin and older, with a friendly expression.
The other guy? Xena watched the pinched lips and small eyes, in a determinedly cherubic face. They other guy reminded her of a used car salesman.
“Hello there, Jon.” The friendlier looking man said. “Stu around?”
“In the house.” Jon replied. “Takin care of some business.”
“Well, we just wanted to let you know what the plans are, for tonight.” The man said. “Father Jerome here thinks we should perform the ritual right at midnight.”
‘What ritual is that?” Dar spoke up leaning against one of the barrels and crossing her arms over her chest.
There was a very awkward silence. “Oh, sorry.” The older pastor peered at her. “Do I know you, ma’am?”
“We don’t know each other.” Dar said. “So now what was that about a ritual? “
Jon grinned a little, but kept silent.
“Oh, well, you know.” Pastor Gray looked a little embarrassed. “We just had some unusual things going on, and we felt a house blessing would be a good idea.” He half turned. “So we asked Father Jerome for some help, since he’s seen a thing or two like this.”
“Like what?” Dar inquired. “What’s been seen that needs a spiritual cleansing at midnight on Halloween Eve?”
“Evil things.” Father Jerome stated. “Evil things, child. But don’t you worry, after tonight, the light of the lord will be shining out those windows, I gurantee it.”
“Really.” Dar said, glancing at Jon. “I think I might have to stick around for this. I’ve never seen the lord shine out windows before.”
Pastor Gray cleared his throat. “Well, that’s great. The more the merrier, I say. Isn’t that true, Father Jerome? We want lots of strong and spiritual people around for this.” He turned around and waved the small group around him towards the house. “And these good people are going to pave the way for us with some holy water.”
Dar’s brow edged up.
The people, three men and three women started around the side of the house, pulling out scuffed water bottles they started taking the tops off of, and sprinkling it against the house.
“Let me go on and get Stu out here for ya.” Jon ambled off towards the porch, apparently content to leave Dar with the two pastors.
“So.” Dar took a step forward, putting her hands on two of the barrels and leaning her weight on them.. “What’s the game?”
Both men jerked a little. “Beg pardon?” Pastor Gray said, after a pause.
Dar looked at the house, and then back at them “There’s nothing wrong with that place a quarter million dollars wouldn’t fix. It’s not haunted, it’s just decrepit. So what’s the game? What’s really going on here?”
Gray looked perplexed. “Why, I don’t know what you mean, ma’am.” He said. “Now, I know you’re a stranger here, so maybe you just aren’t used to our local customs.” He smiled tentatively. “I’m John Gray.” He extended a hand “And you are?”
Dar removed her wallet and took one of her business cards out. She handed it to him. “That’s who I am.” She said. “And you’re right, I’m not from around here, but my daddy was.”
Pastor Gray studied the card and then looked up at her. “Well my lord. I thought you did look familiar.” He said, with a broader smile. “Your daddy showed me a picture of you when he was here last.”
“Yeah, he would.” She smiled back. “So tell me.” Dar went back to her original question. “Do you really think there are ghosts here?”
‘Well…” Pastor Gray hesitated, glancing at his brother priest.
“There are.” Father Jerome cut in. “You can believe it or not, your choice, but I’ve seen a lot more life than you have and I know what I know. There’s dark spirits here. We need to drive them out. It’s why these boys can’t make no headway. House won’t let them.”
Pastor Gray nodded. “Its true. Even your father saw it.” He lowered his voice. “There was some bad things happened last year.”
“Yeah. He said something about that.” Dar leaned against the barrel again, catching sight of Stu and Jon returning from the house and approaching them again. “So the blessing is supposed to bring them luck?” She asked. “Or.. what?”
“You’re not from the church, are you?” Jerome said, looking shrewdly at her.
“No.” Dar admitted. “Not exactly.”
“Maybe the cleansing’ll be good for you too then.” The man said. “Let’s go, brother. We’ve got some work to prepare for tonight.”
Stu and Jon came up as the two men left. “Chased em off?” Stu asked.
Dar shrugged. “They said they had something to do.”
Stu peered around, fiddling with a dipper on the top of the barrel before finally looking back at her. “So hay, we were thinking, you’d like to stick around for a little gatherup round here tonight.”
Dar pondered that. “Is that like a party?”
“Somethin like.” Stu agreed. “Have ever’body stop by here, have us some pot luck and that kind. “ He watched her from the corner of his eyes. “Figure you’ll go on out of here after and maybe you want a chance to say hey to them folks around here what knowed your pap.”
“Yeah, we was gonna have some folks come by anyhow, it being Halloween and all that stuff.” Jon said. “See some kids round here all dressed up.”
Dar considered that for a minute in silence, then she shrugged a little, internally. “Sure.” She said. “Sounds like fun.”
Stu produced a rakish, somewhat embarrassed grin. “Half the town’s heard y’all were here. Should be a nice big crowd showin up.” He sat down next to one of the barrels, looking pleased. “Be right nice. Ain’t had people here for a bit.”
“Lemme go and dig us up some pot meat.” Jon said. “Set that up in the kitchen for all them ladies with them dishes start showing up.”
He went around the side of the house and left Stu and Dar sitting there next to the still.
“So what’d you think about them parsons?” Stu asked, after a moment of silence.
Dar took the question at face value. “I think they’re wasting their time.”
‘Yeah, well.” Stu sniffed a little. “Ah tell you we just really aint had no luck since daddy passed. Been just one thing and another, and then Sally leavin and goin up to Mobile and all.” He said. “She done all right, no matter that no count fella she done married.”
“So you think she got better luck by leaving?” Dar asked.
“Must be something, y’know? Left on out of here, got her a good job, all that.” Stu said. “Pastor done said it was the lord’s grace on it. That she got on out of here, and look what happened.”
“My father did that.” Dar said, mildly.
Stu frowned “Say what?”
“My dad. He called me from here and said he had two people he needed to get jobs for.” She rested her elbows on her knees and clasped her hands. “No luck involved really. I called an office of the company I used to work for and arranged for them to be hired.”
Stu was looking at her in amazement. “You serious?”
“Now why the hell’d he do that for??”
Why had Andrew done it? Dar remembered the call, and she’d been more than glad to do it, the two had turned out to be good employees and it had made her dad happy. “Figured they needed a change, maybe.” She said. “He did tell me what went on here during that wedding.”
“Huh.” Her uncle looked off into the distance. “Aint that something.”
Another silence fell. Dar finally cleared her throat. “Anything I can do to help get ready for the party?”
Her uncle started picking at a bit of wood sticking out of the barrel. “Folks just bring what they got.” He said. “Aint no fancy stuff.”
Dar watched him thoughtfully. “Well, chances are you don’t need any computer work done – that’s generally what I got.”
Her uncle glanced at the house and yard, then back at her with a droll expression.
Dar smiled in acknowledgement. “On the other hand, my dad did teach me to tickle catfish.”
Stu gave her a more interested look. “Now did he?”
Stu got up. “Well, c’mon then. Crick’s that way.” He pointed to the left of the house. “Not sure you’ll find much in there and keep watch for snakes.”
Snakes. Dar started up the slope past the house, leaving her uncles behind as she picked her way carefully past what appeared to be a random junkyard full of car parts and old washing machines.
Grass was overgrown over everything, and there was a thick underbrush she slowly moved through very glad she was wearing a heavy pair of boots.
There were stones buried here and there, not gravestones but what looked to her like the outlines of destroyed shacks or small buildings. One area was blackened as though a fireplace had been there I the corner, and as she kicked gently through the debris there was a soft clink of metal.
She paused and reached down to pick up the item, turning it over in her fingers. It was a link from a chain, rusted and bent.
Dar looked at it, then she looked down at the broken foundations, letting her eyes trace out the outline. She turned slowly in a circle and looked at the area, which stretched out towards a line of trees and the dimly seen rock wall that curved around from the road.
Ahead of her, the bulk of the big house loomed, broken down and worn steps visible that would have led up to the back of it.
She looked back down at the chain link.
Then she knelt and put the bit of metal back down where she’d found it, standing back up and dusting her hands off.
Intellectually she knew what she was looking at. The position of the ruins, their size, and conformation pegged them for her – these were small, rude quarters where long ago slaves had lived.
The land beyond was long ago sold off, but in some twilight era gone by there had been land, and there had been people who worked it, who had lived in these shelters.
Andrew had been, she felt, uncomfortable and embarrassed about that part of his family’s history. But Dar regarded it from a more impersonal view as it being just that – a part of history that had existed in it’s own time as part of a norm.
Now it was horror, and wrong, and past shame. But then? Dar folded her arms and regarded the worn stones in the grass. It had been wrong then in a very human way but it had also been a way of life that had then been accepted.
Her ancestors of that time had not been criminals, skulking in the shadows and keeping captives back here. What they had done was legal, and understood and had come to be seen as a right.
Intellectually she understood that. But that didn’t keep the shudder from going down her back and a ball of nausea form heavy as lead in her stomach.
‘Why, exactly am I doing this?” She asked herself, as she started down towards the water, intermittently seen through the trees. She didn’t have a sense that her uncles were thrilled with her being there overall, though she suspected they were getting a laugh out of messing with her.
Andy had not been fond of his brothers. He’d told Dar about them, over the years. About how he’d grown apart from them, and decided to leave this family and this place long behind him as far as he could get it.
She reached the banks of the creek, and found a surprisingly charming waterway, with trees overgrowing on either bank and a reasonable current making ripples across it’s surface. Dar paused and then leaned against the nearest tree, taking off her boots and socks and rolling up her jeans.
She waded into the water up to her knees and found some branches sticking up, then paused and went quiet.
There was a turtle there, on a half submerged log, and it watched her while placidly chewing some algae. Dar smiled at him, recalling the small turtle she’d found out on the island and kept in a tank for a year. “Hey buddy.”
The turtle regarded her benignly, unafraid of her presence.
She waded in a few more feet until she could feel the current push against her legs and crouched a little, resting her forearms against her thighs.
The water seemed clean, and it didn’t’ smell bad. She settled in to wait, nearly startled out of her wits when a woman’s voice suddenly sounded just to the right of her.
“Well, hello there honey.”
Dar turned and looked over at the bank, to see a woman in a gingham dress and boots perched on a log on shore. “Hi there.”
“You trying to catch you some fish?” The woman asked, with a kindly smile. She had an old fashioned pile of curls on her head, in a brassy gold color and a scattering of freckles across her face.
“I am. Haven’t done it for a while like this though.” Dar answered. She straightened up and moved back to shore, extending a hand. “I’m Dar.”
The woman obligingly took her hand and squeezed and then released it. “Pleasure to meet you, Dar. I’m Kathy.” She looked around. “You’re new around these parts?”
“Just visiting.” Dar said. “My uncles live in the house up there.” She pointed in the direction of the house.
“Oh.. then you’re family.” Kathy said. “Whose are.. oh, you must be Andy’s girl.” She smiled wistfully. “I’ve heard so much about you… it’s a shame we never met.”
“That’s me.” Dar agreed. “It’s my first time in town. Its been nice to meet this side of the family.”
“Oh, things aren’t how they used to be.” Kathy sighed. “It so run down now. No one takes care of things. It’s so sad.”
Dar stuck her hands in her pockets. “Tough times.” She said. “But I can see it must have been some place back in the day.”
“Oh honey it was.” The woman said. “All the flowers, and such a pretty garden, so gracious.” She sighed. “I miss those flowers, and all the herbs. It smelled like heaven.”
Since Dar’s closest experience with herbs was in the refrigerated section at Publix, she could only smile in response.
“Honeysuckle too.” Kathy said. “Warm nights you could smell it all over town.”
“We have orange blossoms at home that are a little like that.” Dar offered. “And jasmine.”
‘Where’s home?” The woman asked.
“Miami.” Dar responded.
“Oh my.” The woman put her hand to her cheek. “Is that a wild as it seems?”
“Sometimes.” Dar turned to move back into the creek. “Let me just go get back in place to find those fish.” She got herself settled and turned back.
The woman was gone. “Huh.” Dar reviewed what she’d said. “Was I rude or something?” She could see waving grasses just past where the woman was sitting and figured her hometown had shown more scary than the woman could handle.
A nudge against her leg distracted her and she went back into a crouch, staring through the gray green water. She called up long ago memories of learning this particular skill in one of the C5 drainage canals.
She let herself relax, and then saw a bit of motion and before she could think better of it she stuck her hand in the water and grabbed. “Hope that’s not a water moccasin.”
It was too big for that, and she got her other hand down and into a hefty pair of gills before the fish could escape. “Hah!” She lifted the thing out of the water, and studied it. “What is that?” She muttered. “Trout?”
The big fish wriggled and glared at her.
“Least it didn’t take long.” She waded ashore and looked around. Then she found a hollowed out area behind the log the woman had been sitting on and she put the fish down, sitting quickly and getting her socks and boots on while it twitched and flopped.
Fast and easy. Dar stood up and got her fingers into the gills of the fish again, lifting it up glad she’d gotten a lot of practice in underwater capture.
Then she paused and looked back at the creek, realizing she had more than herself and Kerry to feed. “Oh crap.” She looked around for something to string the fish up with. “Let’s see what else I can catch.”
It was twilight. There was a bonfire lit in the tumbledown outdoor cooking area and makeshift trestle tables were scattered around.
Dar was standing quietly near the porch, one hand leaning on the wood the other curled around a bottle of soda she was slowly sipping at.
The yard was filling with people. Some had costumes on, some didn’t, most were carrying something. She could hear low voices, all with that distinctive Southern pitch and she was content to remain in quiet obscurity for a little while.
Behind her, she could hear footsteps against the floors and the sounds of cooking in the kitchen filtering faintly out the open front door.
She could imagine, a little, what it might have been like here, now that all the shadows removed the dirt and decay and the firelight and tiki torches kissed everything with reddish gold highlights.
“Ah, there y’are.” Jon appeared at her elbow. “Some folks want to say hey up by the kitchen.” He said.
“Ya’ll wanna go?”
“Sure.” Dar followed him up the steps and into the house. The front hall had been swept out and the garbage removed, and there were folding tables there too, with bags of chips and bowls of dip scattered around over them.
The kitchen was the center of activity. It was full of women of all ages, and they were busy with crockpots and hot dishes being taken out of quilted covers. Dar hadn’t seen anything like that since she had lived on base, when there had been this kind of get together in the base gym.
She’d showed up to eat, then escape with her friends to go night swimming, and as she stood there looking at this collection of women she realized not much in her had changed over all those years. “Ah.”
“They’ll leave all them leftovers.” Jon remarked. “Hot damn I like that about these here parties.” He added. “We aint had one for a dog’s age.”
“People won’t come.” Her uncle replied. “Only did this time because all them church folks said they were coming, and backing the pastors with love of Jesus.”
Dar studied the women, who, she noticed, were frequently looking around the place. “So they came to see the show?”
“Pastor told em to.” Jon replied. “If I get them leftovers be worth it.” He grinned rakishly.
One of the older women spotted them and motioned them over. “C’mere, Jon jon.”
With a sigh, Jon headed in that direction with Dar trailing along behind him. “Lo there Ms. Gray.” He said. “This here’s Mary Gray, she’s the pastor’s wife.” He said, half turning. “Ma’am, this here’s mah brother Andy’s girl Dar.”
“It’s so nice to meet you, ah.. Dar.” The woman extended her hand. “Your father spoke so well of you when he was here for Sally’s wedding.”
Dar was aware she was the center of sidelong attention, but she was used to that. “Glad I got a chance to stop by and meet my uncles.” She kept her voice mild. “I”ve enjoyed it so far.”
Another woman looked up from a crock pot full of bubbling soup. “It was nice to see Andrew when he was here. He said you did something with computers?”
“Yes. I’m co owner of a computer services company.” Dar agreed. “I’ve worked in technology for a long time.”
One of the younger women, who was busy arranging a tray looked up and over at her. “My brother works in computers too.” She said. “He’s heard of you. Said he saw you in the paper with the President.”
Dar nodded in agreement. “We do work for the government. I’ve done several projects for them recently.”
“Isn’t that nice?” The woman drawled. “So that’s down in Florida? That’s where Andy said he was living now.”
Dar’s ears twitched. “He and my mother live on a boat off South Beach, yes.” She said. “He’s enjoying retirement from the Navy, but he also works for the family business on occasion. “
‘Big old boat?” Jon asked. “One of them houseboat things? I saw them on TV a while back.”
“Mm. Not exactly. It’s a 54 foot Bertram yacht.” Dar replied. “With a killer set of afterburners.” She added into a pool of sudden silence. “He likes fishing off the fantail.”
“Well. Aint that nice.” The older woman said after a long pause. “Good to hear he’s doing well.”
‘He drive that thing any better than he drive a car?” Jon asked, after it had started to become uncomfortable. “Worse driver evah.”
Dar waggled her hand. “More space and less things to bump into on the water there.” She admitted, with a grin. “My mother just covers her eyes.” She lifted her soda bottle. “I need another drink. Excuse me ladies.”
She escaped out the door, aware of the staring, somewhat disapproving eyes she left behind her. Detouring past the tables she picked up another soda, and a handful of chips, then she made her way back outside towards the scent of roasting meat.
It was full dark now, and she winded her way through groups of shadowy figures, some who looked up at her as she passed. She spotted Stu with a group of men near the bonfire and approached them, watching the faces turn to appraise her as she did.
“Oh hay.” The man standing next to Stu greeted her. “So you’re Andy’s pup huh?”
Dar was about to answer, when they all heard a scream coming from the house.
“Aw hell.” Stu put his mason jar down. “Prob’ly saw some damn rat in the pantry.” He rambled towards the house as the screaming continued. “Hay!”
“Rats as big as dogs int here likely.” The man said. “Andy tell you about them ghosts in the graveyard last year? We all heard about it.”
“He did.” Dar said. “Sounded to me more like pointless morons playing games.”
“Sept they never did come back.” A second man was watching her from behind a long neck bottle. ‘Three guys, no blood, no body. What you think about that?”
What did she think about that. Dar spent a moment pondering the question. “I think they ran off. Or lied. I don’t believe for a second some ghost whacked them.”
“You aint a believer?” The first man asked, with a sideways look at her.
Dar shook her head. “I’ve spent way too much time in the logical world to go in for that stuff.”
Suddenly, more screams rang out.
“Wall.” The man pushed away from the fire. “Let’s go see what that’s all about. Maybe you’ll get your mind changed.” All the men started towards the house, where shadowy figures were congregated. “All kinds of weird stuff’s been going on round here.”
Dar joined them, seeing a big group of the women come flooding out, all talking loudly. The men pushed past them and she went up the steps, suddenly aware of a lot of figures in the periphery of her vision that didn’t quite…
She turned her head, and they were gone.
“Ah told you it was a mistake to come out here.” One of the woman was saying. “Pastor or no, there’s evil round this house and has been a while.”
“C’mon now Maime.” The younger woman with her said. “It’s probably just a gag. It’s all hallows, for heaven’s sake.”
“Aint no heaven about it.”
Dar got into the house and squirmed through the crowd that were clustered around the door to the kitchen. “Excuse me.”
“What’s going on?” Jon’s voice echoed out.
“They seen things down by the cellar.” Stu answered. “Ah’m going down there – ain’t not a damn thing.”
Dar paused, feeling an odd sense of pressure against her eardrums. It felt a little like when a tropical cyclone came overhead, and she swallowed in reflex, hearing the faint pops as she cleared.
Words filtered into after the pops, just wisps that faded out immediately. That one. That’s blood in there.
Then - Respect.
She cleared again and then got around the doorframe into the kitchen, where some of the women had remained, plastered against the outside wall as the men gathered around the doors to the cellar.
“See?” Stu was standing down at the base of the stairs with an electric lantern “Ain’t nothing down here.”
“Where’s that pastor.” One of the women yelled out. “Get him here, an that other one They’ll clean this place out and bout time too.”
“Go get him, get John.” The pastor’s wife called. “Shaun Michael, go get my husband quick!”
“Ah told you boys, you shoulda sold this place on to the bank.” One of the older men said. “Get on out – this place aint fit for living in.”
Dar felt the pressure against her ears again and she pinched her nostrils closed and cleared, as she edged her way through towards the stairs going down.
“Now see? You all are making a fuss over.. now what the hell is that down there…“ Stu stopped talking.
Everyone looked down the stairs
He was gone.
Women screamed. Men backed up from the steps. “Hay! Stu! Stewy! Where’d you all go!” Jon started down the steps. “Hay! Stop messing around!”
Dar got past the last of the people scrambling back away from the cellar and went after Jon, catching up with him as he reached the bottom step. “What in the hell’s going on?”
“Might not want to say that too all loud.” Jon muttered. “Ah done told you there’s some strange ass stuff going on round here. Hay Stu!”
Dar removed her flashlight and turned it on, starting down the dark hall. The inside of the cellar seemed no different than it had earlier in the day and she poked her light into the open spaces again, once again finding nothing but space or junk. “Uncle Stu?”
Her ears pricked, as she heard a faint rustle to one side. She shone her flashlight towards where it came from – drawing in a breath when she sensed movement.
“You see something?” Jon’s voice echoed from behind her.
Had she? Dar took a step towards the dark corner and paused, as she heard sound coming from another direction. She turned and swept the other end of the narrow hallway with her light “Only thing I see around here is..” She paused, and stopped. “Ah.”
Jon came up next to her. “Oh shit.”
Stu was on the ground, the lantern out and dark.
Dar went over and knelt next to him. “Uncle Stu?” She put her hand on his shoulder and rolled him onto his back. “Hey.”
“Hay.” Jon joined her, shaking his brother. “Stewy!”
After a scary moment he opened his eyes and started to sit up. “What in the fuck just hit me?” He growled. “Something smacked me in the damn head.”
Dar debated answering, then directed her light around the inside of the cellar. “Well let’s see what we can find here.” She got up and started towards the storage area in the back, one hand curling into a fist almost instinctively.
A flicker of motion caught her attention and she paused, shining the flashlight into the darkness and getting a momentary glint as the eyes caught in them met hers.
“Out of the way! Let me through!”
Dar heard the exorcist’s voice coming through the crowd. She turned and went back to Stu and offered her hand. “C’mon, before he dumps a bottle of Evian on you.”
Stu regarded her for a long moment, then that snarky grin appeared and he reached up to take the offered grip. “Ya’ll are some lot more all right than that pap of yours. Say that.”
Their hands clasped and she pulled him upright, as the thunder of footsteps sounded behind them and they all turned as the two church men arrived.
“Out of the way. Let me pass.” Father Jerome had a big silver cross in one hand and a bible tucked under his arm. “You children go on upstairs.”
He pushed past Stu and Jon, and they retreated uncertainly, slowing as they got to the stairs and looking back at Dar, who was left facing the priest and incidentally blocking access to the back of the cellar.
“Move aside, girl. I’ll take care of this.” Jerome told Dar.
“Take care of what?” Dar asked, hooking her thumbs into her jeans pockets. “Uncle Stu just tripped. There’s nothing back there.” She turned an extended one arm with her flashlight in it, playing it over the dark walls and old shelves. “See?”
“That’s not what those good people told me.” The priest said. “Spirits and ghouls, a cold hand on the soul sweet old Betty told me.” He lifted his hand with the cross in it. “Now please, move aside, go upstairs with the rest of the women, girl. This is god’s work.”
Dar’s brows shot up, but she moved aside and let him go past.
“Do what you’re told and go upstairs.” Pastor Gray said. “It’s dangerous to your soul here, child.”
Dar put her hands on her hips. “First off, I’m not a child.” She said. “And second, I have never in my life done what I was told.”
Pastor Gray looked a little exasperated. “Now listen here.”
“And third.” Dar lowered her voice. “While my uncles are not exactly the sharpest tools in the shed, and are poor as your proverbial church mice, I’m neither.”
“I know those yokels you had sprinkling tap water around today are down here in gray dyed sheets.” Dar said, almost in an undertone.
Pastor Gray looked around quickly. “Now look here..”
“You look here.” Dar cut him off. “Someone’s playing around here trying to scare people off with bullshit stories. I think you know that.”
“Are you accusing me, a man of God of playing some kind of game?” He sounded outraged. “We’re here to save souls!”
“I am accusing you. And I’ve got access to money and lawyers I can use to prove it if you push me.” Dar growled back. “So take your minions – tell the crowd it was a joke if you want – and get the hell out of here.”
“You speak sacrilege.” The pastor said. “If there are evil spirits here, it’s our job to roust them out –“ He lowered his voice. “Whether they be living or dead.”
Dar stared him down. “I don’t think it’s your job to do that at all.” She said. “If there are spirits here, good or bad, they belong here. You don’t.”
“Who do you think you are saying that to me?” Pastor Gray bristled.
Dar smiled at him. “I think I’m Paladar Katherine Roberts.” She said. “And a piece of me came from here. So like it or not, no matter our history these are my kin.” She poked him in the chest. “So if anyone’s got any ideas of chasing them off the land, they might want to think twice.”
His face froze, a little. “You’ve got no claim here . You’ve never even seen the place before!”
“Don’t I?” Dar heard the soft rasp in her voice and she allowed a smile with no humor at all to appear.
Pastor Gray took a step back, suddenly outlined in the light from Stu’s lantern as he held it up and it’s glare went past him to illuminate Dar’s face.
“So take the ghouls out. Play the hero. Take your bows, but get out, and don’t come back.” She turned and glared at Father Jerome, who had been standing behind her, listening in shocked silence.
Jerome met her eyes for a long moment. Then he cleared his throat and stepped back. “Thank you my child, for speaking up. I think you may be right.” He turned and held his cross up, catching the light from the lantern in Stu’s hand. “Come out, those in the shadows. In the name of God, I summon you!”
Dar took a step back as there was motion in the tiny, dark hallways and two figures emerged, wrapped in gray cheesecloth with glowing blue eyes. She watched Pastor Gray put his hands on his hips, as the two pulled the crepe off and revealed sheepish faces.
“Son of a biscuit.” Stu spluttered. “What in hell are you two morons doing here?”
“Now I’m sure this was just a little joke, wasn’t it?” Father Jerome put on a hearty laugh. “Now let’s go on upstairs and show everyone we’ve solved at least this little mystery.” He pointed at the steps. “John we can talk about the rest of it later.”
Pastor Gray looked mad as a wet hen, but he went with Jerome and the two ghouls up the steps. “Maybe we could say they thought it was a costume contest.” He was saying as they disappeared up into the light, as laughter started to filter down.
Dar folded her arms and joined Stu and Jon at the steps. “Morons.” She shook her head. “Someone could have fallen down those damn steps and broken a leg.”
“Just messin round.” Stu eyed her thoughtfully. “Hay.” He said. “You think they’ve been messing with us all along. S’what you said to the padre.”
Dar shrugged. “Sure was this time.” She waited for them to start up the steps and paused, glancing behind her.
Was there something there? Someone watching? Or just the weight of the history she could feel all around her in this place? She studied the cellar intently.
Dark. Shadows. Nothing more.
She lifted a hand in faint salute anyway, then climbed up back into the light herself, feeling that same faint pressure against her ears and a soft flutter of sound that could have been wings.
It seemed like something had changed.
Dar was getting a lot more smiles, she thought, and strangers were going out of their way to intercept her, offer her goodies, or the ubiquitous mason jars, or making sure they pointed out a special treat in the myriad crock pots.
She tasted squirrel for the first time, and liked it, and then possum which wasn’t so hot. Jon’’s venison jerky had turned out pretty good though.
“Here, honey, try some of this.”
Dar turned to find a cracker being held out. She took it and put it in her mouth, chewing cautiously, and then swallowing. “What was that?”
The curly blond haired Southern belle who’d handed it to her smiled. “Rabbit liver.” She said. “Sorta like chicken liver, only ah put a lot of parmesan cheese in it so it doesn’t taste so gamy.”
Dar licked her lips. “Interesting.” She said. “It tastes like chicken, sorta.”
“It does.” The woman nodded in satisfaction. “Only we get the rabbit for free.” She waggled her fingers and sashayed on by, her hoop full costume brushing the floorboards.
The lights were a little brighter on in the hall, and Dar wandered over to take another look at the picture wall. She was standing there when someone came up beside her and cleared his throat. Dar looked to her left, to find the man she’d met at the cemetery standing there. “Ah. Hello again.”
“Hello there.” Ted Carston answered. “So I hear you caused a right dust up. Sorry I missed it.”
Dar shrugged. “Just some folks playing a gag.” She said. “Not really a big deal.”
Ted casually looked around, then he lowered his voice. “What I heard down by the post office, there was some talk a year or two back about buying up the land here, and building the new church on it.”
Dar turned and looked at him.
“Sally never was much for it. Guess old Stewy wasn’t either.” Carston rocked on his heels. “Thought you might find that interesting.”
Dar went back to regarding the pictures. “I already told the old windbag if he messed with them again I was going to nail his ass to the wall.”
“Oh. So you figured it out already?”
“I knew he had some kind of scam going. I’ve met his kind before.”
“Well, now, could have just been a misunderstanding. He is a man of God, after all.” Carston said. “I always like to think the best of people. Don’t you?”
Dar smiled a little. “Not really, no.” She admitted. “But we can agree to disagree.” She studied the pictures at eye level to her then paused, as she spotted a vaguely familiar face.
In a rather newer frame there was this woman, and a man, and four children and Dar blinked a few times as she looked at the oldest boy and realized what she was looking at.
“That’s the family.” Carston commented. “Old Duke, and Kathy, and the kids. That’s your dad there, on the left.”
“Kathy.” Dar repeated. “My grandmother.”
“She was a lovely woman.” Ted sighed. “Just as sweet as Dixie sugar. Sorry she never got to meet you, she always wanted grandkids.”
Dar studied the face, feeling a prickle up and down her spine as she recognized the woman she’d spoken to by the creek. “Yeah.” She finally managed to say. “I’m named for her. Paladar Katherine.”
“Well that was sweet of Andy. He was always close with her.” Carson said. “I’m going to find me some of that brisket I smell by the fire. Talk at you later.”
“Later.” Dar echoed softly, waiting for him to leave before she lifted a hand and touched the picture. “Hi grandma.” She whispered, before she stepped back and turned, moving with the crowd outside.
Outside along with the barbeque that was making its way out of the cooking pit there were also some people gathering together and she could hear a harmonica being played and the twangy plunk of a banjo.
There was some slight familiarity for her now here. The voices around her no longer sounded strange, the accents were known in her ear and the sound of laughter seemed right and comfortable to her.
She sat down on one of the homemade bar height chairs near the fire, next to a tall rust strapped barrel that served as a table of sorts and listened as the banjo started up, and after a moment, boots stomped in time, and a cowbell and harmonica joined in.
Stu came over and put down a jar for her, then took the other seat. “Ready to make you a deal for that?” He indicated the full mason jar.
“Sure.” Dar leaned on the arm of the chair, watching him through the golden light of the lantern on top of the barrel. “What’d you have in mind? I don’t think I’ll have much luck in the dark with more fish.”
Stu grinned briefly. “Them was nice trout.” He admitted. “You done that a lot, huh?”
“Well.” Dar laced her fingers together. “I do mostly underwater hunting, on scuba. I’ve got a cabin down in the keys, and one of my jobs when I’m down there is to bring home dinner.”
He nodded. “Not so different from us here.” He said. “Aint like that in the city. Up in Mobile, you aint got money, you caint do nothing. Aint got nothin.” He went on. “Look at Sally. She’s up there and her and that weenie work all the day just so they can pay for a partment.”
Dar remained silent for a bit. “One way or another you’ve got to get what you need.” She finally said.
“S’true. But I aint never worked for no one else.” Stu said. “Don’t want to have no one telling me what to do, you know?”
“That can be a good way to live.” Dar admitted, with a faint smile. “I’ve always worked for a living. But I’m glad I’m my own boss now.”
Stu nodded. “This here.” He pointed at the moonshine. “It’s mah family business. “ He winked. ‘Seems like you got some smarts on you, Ah think you get that.”
“I do.” Dar agreed. “It’s a lot better to run your own shop.”
“Your daddy never did agree with that. Thought me and Jon were no account do nothins.” Stu said. “But matter of fact, our daddy was of that mind himself. He thought the family business was the army though so we were no accounts but Andy was near a traitor.”
“Went for the army, maybe to prove him wrong.” Stu said. “But ah got kicked out for sassin.”
“I would have too.” Dar admitted. “In fact, I remember telling someone I’d never have survived basic. I don’t care for people telling me what to do.”
“Naw, me neither.” Her uncle said. “So we got that in common”
“We do.” Dar said, and fell silent, waiting.
‘Wall.” Stu cleared his throat a little. “Y’all show up here, you aint dissed this place, or our family, you aint treated us like no account rednecks or bragging bout you got money which I do know you must have.”
Dar merely watched him quietly.
“If you didn’t look like mah brother as a girl, I’d have thought you’d come from some other sorta litter, if you catch me.” Stu eyed her. “But aint no doubt y’all are one of us. So whatcha got to trade me for that jar?”
Dar didn’t answer for a while, as she thought about the question. Did she in fact have something to trade to him for it? “Well.” She finally said, thoughtfully.
“I aint askin for no charity.” Stu warned. “I done told you we don’t trade for money.”
“No, I realized that.” She responded. “Tell you what. I can draw.” She said. “How bout I draw a picture of this place the way I think it should look.”
Her uncle considered that in silence for a while, sipping out of his own jar. “Kind of picture you can put up on the wall?” He asked.
Dar nodded. “My mother’s an artist.” She explained . “I got a little bit of that.”
“Huh.” Stu grunted thoughtfully. “Y’know ah think I like that idea.” He decided. “That’d be right nice, up on the wall there with all them other things.” He nudged the jar. “Deal.”
Dar extended her hand across the barrel and they shook. “Deal.” She agreed. ‘Who knows? Maybe it’ll change the luck round here.”
Stu grinned at her. “Might could do.” He allowed. “But anyhow, glad we found us some new kin.” He looked up as someone called his name and they saw people by the makeshift stage motioning him over. “Aw hell.”
He stood up. “Busting my ass to go sing.” He said. “Aint never let me live down being a damn choirboy all them years. Only did that fer mama.”
Dar got up and picked up her jar, following him over to the fire. She took a seat on the side as the music rose up again, and recognizing a hymn she vaguely knew the words to, joined in with a handful of others drawing surprised looks from the crowd.
But Stu laughed, and pointed at her, and Jon picked up the pace on the banjo and she let herself be taken by the music into a different world she suddenly found familiar.
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