Appalachia Bare is proud to showcase our Honorable Mention winner of the George Washington Harris Short Story Contest.
Bridgette Johnson holds a Bachelor’s of English from East Tennessee State University and Master’s in Library and Information Sciences from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. She is a mentee in Author Mentor Match, pairing un-agented writers with agented writers. When it’s not a pandemic, she loves attending geek conventions and hiking the mountains of Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and Southeast Kentucky. She also firmly believes we need two Halloweens every year because it’s the best holiday.
Granny made me promise to always remember two things: put salt in all the window sills and four corners of my house to keep the evil out, and to never cross Copperhead Holler.
Tonight, I’m gonna break both promises.
It’s really not what you’re thinkin,’ I promise. Though I did just admit I’m breakin’ two promises, so I guess ya won’t believe me. Hell, I’m not sure I believe me, and I saw it all with my own two eyes.
See, it all started the day afore yesterdey under a new moon. My best friend and her kid were over at my house, lettin’ the little one chase fireflies. Then, my friend—we’ll call her Susie because I’m too scared to say her real name now that she’s safe—got all melancholy and asked me the strangest question.
“Whadda ya reckon is under Copperhead Holler?”
I stopped rockin’ and gave her a look full of love and exasperation. “Uh, the ground? Dirt and rocks and whatever is underneath the very grass right in front of us. What’re you on about?”
The things this woman could think up.
She shrugged, mouth turned down like a dead branch fixin’ to fall from a tree. “Don’t you ever wonder what’s under us, what we can’t see?”
Her daughter—we’ll call her Emma—ran to us then, hands cupped around a lightnin’ bug, and the conversation stopped as it does when a little one brings ya a bug. We went inside right after. I wouldn’t’ve given her bizarre question another thought ‘cept for what happened the next morning.
I was walking to work at the store in town, enjoying the chill in the air, when the flashing lights sent my heart racing.
The cops were at Susie’s house.
I started running, barely thinking, but nothing could’ve prepared me.
Glass glittered on the ground, bits of tin from the roof sitting dusty, wood splinters everywhere. Susie’s house was covered in holes. Not any regular holes, mind you, like someone threw rocks or bricks at it and smashed in the roof.
Everything had exploded out.
I couldn’t believe it, but all those holes started from the bottom of her front porch and went back as fur as I could see. Something had come from beneath the ground and went all the way out her roof.
Something came from inside, needing to break free.
They looked like the snake holes Papaw always warned me about when I was little. But snakes ain’t ‘posed to come into your house like this and there ain’t any big enough to stretch from the ground to a roof. They don’t break through wood. They just don’t.
Except they did.
Once I saw the blood on the doorframe, everything went fuzzy. Male voices spoke soothingly, hands turned me away, not a single one of them answering my questions about my best friend, the only person in this world who understood me, or her sweet daughter.
No one knew where they were. I was the last to see them. Then, the questions started. I answered them as well as I could, staring at the rusty blood on the door frame. I didn’t tell them about her question last night. I don’t know why, but my gut told me to keep quiet. To do whatever I had to do to leave her house and find them.
Because my bones knew where they were.
They were under Copperhead Holler.
I went on to work, something inside me saying I needed to wait until nightfall to head to the holler.
Nothin’ that’s evil enough to take a woman and her baby is gonna show itself in the light.
Their names were on the lips of every customer. I said almost nothing, not to those offering sympathy or those asking if she’d said anything in the past few days.
As if she’d chosen to leave and make her house a mess. Shot holes in it, a deacon claimed, enough though he knew good and well those weren’t no damn bullet holes. I opened my mouth to give the deacon what for, but then Old Bill walked in, swaying under the pull of drink, like always.
But now he was hollerin’ something fierce, most of it jumbled until the deacon steadied him. The words were slurred, but there was no mistaking them. “I seen ‘em. Snakes, man, snakes! They shot straight up—”
The deacon led him outside. Of course, I followed, heart in my throat. Old Bill wrenched away from the deacon.
“Leave him with me. We do this every day.” The deacon looked between us for a moment before throwing up his hands and climbing into his ratty truck. “Bill, tell me what you saw.”
It took several minutes of prodding to get the full story out of him. My veins grew colder and heart firmer with every word.
“I saw ‘em, Clara, I did. They were snakes, longer than I’ve ever seen. They came all at once, just right out of the ground. They ran straight through her house. The sounds . . . they didn’t sound like no snakes. They sounded like haints, and devils, and evil. Susie, she screamed and fought, but they—they got her. Her and little Emma. They drug ‘em both outta the house and into the ground.”
He turned into mumbles and sobs, and I waved to the manager to call his brother. But Old Bill’s alcoholism is the least of my problems.
Now, I’ve gotta make a plan to rescue my family from a nest of snakes under the earth.
The night can’t decide if it’s gonna be fall or hang onto summer, a chill in the breeze but lukewarm like a tap that ain’t workin’ right the rest of the time. The rope around my waist is heavy, the lamp grasped in my right hand, and Daddy’s old duffle bag slung across my left shoulder. It’s filled with everything I could carry—nails, screwdrivers, the axe I use to split wood, rat poison, bleach, and salt. Lots of salt.
It’s all probably useless since no one prepared me to cross.
Copperhead Holler ain’t even a proper holler. It’s like it thought about being one but decided that was too hard and instead settled into being an overgrown meadow stuffed just beyond the tree line in the woods.
Something skitters in the grass, and I nearly jump outta my skin. “Get it together, Clara. Just like Daddy said. No use in lollygaggin.’ Do it or don’t. Don’t waste time thinkin’ about it.”
With the moon barely a sliver in the sky, knowing I’m wholly unprepared, knowing I have to do this, I take my first step into Copperhead Holler.
At first, nothing happens. I don’t see or hear nothin.’ The lamp’s light barely reaches past my feet. The rest is a darkness so deep I’m positive it could eat me. A few more steps. Nothing.
Then, the ground shakes. It rumbles and groans, a high-pitched ringing piercing my ears. The lamp falls from my hand, sputtering and going out. I fall to the ground, all weapons and plans forgotten. Black shapes move in the darkness, spiraling and swirling. The ground bucks hard, and I fall, musty dirt filling my mouth.
“Show yourself!” I shout. “Show yourself, ya yella bellied coward!”
Nothing like an insult to get someone’s attention.
I fly back, breath knocked out of me, sky above, then sideways, and pain explodes along my arm. Something pierces through the fabric of my trouser, my shirt, the skin at the back of my neck.
“Give me back—”
The words die in my throat when I rise up.
A copperhead bigger than anything I’ve ever seen rises from the ground. Its triangular head is larger than any of the trucks in town, its body wider than my house. Its eyes—its eyes hold intelligence that ain’t meant to be in no animal. An unearthly blue glow surrounds its body, the only color in this hellscape.
Then, it speaks, and I swear to all the gods that might be out there, I can feel its voice on my skin, worming into me, writing itself on my bones.
“You’ll never see them again. Pathetic fool. You never should’ve tried to cross.”
My breath stutters and my heart stills.
There’s a flash of movement, and my body takes over. I roll out of the way, the giant beast slamming into the ground an inch from me. Dirt sprays across my face, a wet, rotten smell crawling into my throat. I’m on my feet before it can move, screaming wordlessly, running and running, hoping it’s toward the other edge.
Copperheads snap at my feet, the ground heaving like a panting beast after a long run. I fall more times than I can count, sharp pricks of teeth latching onto me every time. A light bursts in front of me and I run toward it.
As soon as I was in the holler, I’m out. The ground is still, the buzz of insects and brush of animals in the leaves echoing around me.
But I didn’t save them.
A sob is about to explode out when a soft, melodious female voice whispers in my ear. “I can save them, but it’ll cost ya.”
I jump back and stare at a slight young woman, no more than twenty, bright green eyes desperate and pleading. “Who—”
“We ain’t got the time. I can travel to their world and get your kin, but you’ll owe me. And I ain’t gonna tell ya what, not now. That’ll be for later. Do you accept my deal?”
I don’t hesitate. “Yes.”
She holds out a pale hand, and we shake. Warmth spreads through me, burning and bright, my wounds healed.
Her grin is razors and knives. She breathes deep, hands grabbing her skirts. “Good. Go home and remove whatever wards ya got. In the morning, I’ll come with your family.”
She walks past me and steps right into the holler. The darkness swallows her.
I don’t want to talk about that night. The feeling of absolute wrongness as I broke all my salt lines. Until the lady showed, anything could get in. And they tried. The things I saw that night, I’ll never forget, but I cain’t tell ya about ‘em.
Some things are better taken to the grave.
Right as the sun peeked its head above the horizon, the air in my living room shivered. The floor rippled like water then burst like a bubble. Wood impaled itself in my wall.
But none of it mattered.
Susie, with Emma sound asleep in her arms, stood in the center of the room. We both burst into tears, and I give her the biggest hug I’ve ever given anyone.
“Don’t forget our deal.”
I open my eyes, staring into those green orbs again. She stands loosely, a woman in command of her own body. “I won’t.”
Whatever she’ll want is worth Susie and Emma’s lives.
“Good. I suggest you move. Copperhead’ll come after you, and I can’t save ya a second time.” She left through the front door, tossing the words over the shoulder. “Thanks for freeing me. We’ll be seeing each other soon.”
She moseys to the edge of the road and disappears.
It takes all day for Susie to calm down, but she won’t talk about it. She’ll only tell me it was the most scared she’s ever been. “They’re not haints, Clara. Not anything we’ve ever seen or heard about, and they’re only servants. There’s something bigger and badder than them out there, and we’ll never be ready for it.”
We leave that day, our meager belongings in my barely running truck, heading toward Tennessee where I’ve got cousins, but the whole way, one thing keeps replaying in my head.
Thanks for freeing me.
And I know in my bones, I unleashed something merciless on us.
** Featured Image by TheDigitalArtist on Pixabay