Creepy things happen sometimes. Halloween is around the corner and this past Thursday I had planned another article in our Appalachian Hauntings series about Richard Drummond, a coal miner (22-23 y.o.) who was lynched in 1893 by Tennessee militia soldiers during the Coal Creek war near Briceville, Tennessee, and whose ghost has been seen and heard near the bridge where his body was hung. But . . . my fourteen pages of notes and my first draft all mysteriously disappeared. Some pretty weird things have happened when people have tried to discern the ongoings surrounding the incident. The Travel Channel show The Dead Files went to Briceville to help a family who reportedly had some paranormal issues happening in their home near the Drummond incident. (To watch a clip, click here, and to read the transcript, click here.)1)You can find all seasons of The Dead Files on Max. After their investigation, the family home burned to the ground. Like I said, creepy things happen sometimes.
Given that Halloween season is near, and since I won’t tempt fate any further with the Drummond story, I thought I’d share one of my creepiest short stories. Without further adieu . . . enjoy the chills!
Rachel Hollings had rock legs after working her shift at the truck diner. Waitressing was as chaotic as a hellraiser on the weekends. After four years, she breathed grease, ate grease, and smelled of grease. Her waitress uniform was now a lard-heavy cloth tinged with muggy sweat. Too much wear on too many days turned it from its original pretty red to an old splotchy pink.
She forced her legs out of her ‘81 Mustang. It used to belong to Mitch. He’d been gone five years now. Rachel slid her feet forward like a long drawl and froze in front of her cracked concrete steps. Her lean fingers pulled a cigarette pack from her greasy blue jean purse. She stopped on the bottom step, lit the cigarette, and numbly sat for two minutes. She pulled down her pony tail and scratched her scalp with her free hand. Halfway through the cigarette, she stood and pushed herself up each step. Her efforts led her to the front door of a dingy, yellow, two-bedroom rental—a home she shared with her eight-year-old son, Ethan.
Ethan, on the other hand, had tossed in bed all night long with strange excitement. Could he do it? He asked himself. He kicked off the covers and sat up straight. He had to get to that cookie jar. He ran through a strategic plan in his head. He would run to the kitchen really fast, get the step ladder by the pantry, and (oh, so carefully) wriggle the cookie jar to his arms. He’d carry it as tight as the money plate at a church service. His dad used to say things like that. He would place it on the kitchen table, reach in and get the money he needed, then put it back. Mama had put tape across the lid so she could tell if anybody had been in the jar. He had extra tape just in case. What if he got caught? He shook his head. Mama was at work and she didn’t get home until sometime after daylight. It was still dark. He giggled with delightful shivers, then stopped, sober. She’d be mad. He’d just have to tell her. She probably wouldn’t notice four dollars being gone, anyway. All at once, he jumped out of bed, and put his plan into action.
Through the back door window, daybreak groggily exposed the scene at the kitchen table. He meticulously removed the tape. Good, he didn’t tear it. Now he popped open the lid and was greeted with a waft of stale cookies, old lard, and ink. Slowly, he reached in. Slowly he took one dollar . . . two dollars . . . and, just as his hand reached for the third, he heard the front door’s lock click. He stopped sudden with his arm suspended over the jar for a time. The front door opened and he locked eyes with his mother. She had the stare of Medusa. His body petrified right then and there.
Mama walked over and chucked her purse on the kitchen table. She wrestled inside it and pulled out her cigarettes and lighter. She backed up against the stove and lit the cigarette. The whole time, she didn’t take her eyes off him. She was calm when she was mad—the way Clint Eastwood was in movies he used to watch with Dad. He removed his hand from the cookie jar and put his head down. The morning light was a traitor. It mocked him through the dancing smoke.
“You know, I work real hard for this family,” she said. Smoke came out of her nose like a dragon.
“I know, Mama,” he said.
“You better be explainin’ real fast, Mister. God don’t like a thief no matter how old he is.”
“I’m sorry, Mama.”
“That’s twenty-five dollars in that cookie jar. The reason it’s in there is to remind me not to buy cookies but to save it for your school clothes.”
“What do you need money for?”
He flinched. He knew she didn’t like Doc Gilbert very much. Her eyes were lean and mean now, and her lips pursed. She put out the last of that cigarette and pulled out another one.
“You’re taking money to give to that creepy old man?” she asked, flicking the lighter.
“Mama, he ain’t creepy. He might be quiet and always smilin’, but he ain’t creepy.”
“Well, you’re not gonna give him what I worked hard to save.”
“Mama, please? Just four dollars? That’s all. I promise, it’s real important. Doc Gilbert says I got a head for certain things and I do things smart. One day I might can work for him. Said I could be like what he calls a prentiss.”
She looked toward him but not at him, like she was daydreaming, and then she looked at the cookie jar.
“It took me three and a half weeks to save up that money.”
“You said it’s for my school clothes. It won’t bother me to have less to wear. I don’t need no new stuff. Please, Mama? Doc Gilbert says if I give him two dollars a week, it’d go to pay for tools he can use to teach me his business. Hit’s a family business. His father taught him and now he’s teachin’ me. I missed payin’ him last week so I thought I’d take just four dollars.”
“And you already look like a ragamuffin anyways. I don’t make enough money to buy you much. Put the jar away.”
“Mama . . .”
“Son . . . Put. The jar. Away. Now.”
Ethan moved his hands slowly toward the jar. Saddened and defeated, he stood by it and looked down at the floor when he spoke,
“Mama, you’ve been real sad since Daddy never come back from the desert. I know you said you don’t want to hear it, but you ain’t the only one hurtin’. I ain’t got no friends, ‘cept Doc. But I always got you.”
She turned to face him and was met with the sheer desperation on his shoulders. He sighed and continued,
“You know, ever day I save a little bit of bread from my school lunch so I can catch animals at the park on the way home. Remember I told you ’bout Doc Gilbert comin’ up to me at the park one day and said he’s watchin’ how good I was with the animals; so me and him started talkin’.”
“He’s a dirty old man. I don’t want you around him,” she said.
“Mama. It ain’t like that. Me and him have been meetin’ at the park and he’s been teachin’ me stuff already. I can tie a Tom Fool’s knot. I’ll show you . . .”
He ran toward his room and retrieved pieces of an old rope his dad gave him. He smiled while he maneuvered the rope with his little fingers. He looped it over and under until an unusual and marvelous knot appeared.
“See, Mama. And he showed me how to use a hammer and a saw, too. It’s fun. He says I’m a natural. Says in seven years, I’d be better than him.”
“What’s he doin’ with a hammer and saw at the park?” she asked.
“He works on things there. And he makes art to put in his backyard. He said his art’s the only thing that makes him feel good.”
“Humph,” she said.
“He told me he knows about where we live. Said he’d come by today and start showin’ me how to make stuff,” Ethan said. A big grin beamed across his face—until he saw the look on his mother’s face.
“Ethan Jeffrey Holling!” She stomped toward the living room, and Ethan followed close behind her.
She was real mad now. The last time he remembered hearing her yell was when she got the letter about Daddy. Mama had come into his room. He was already awake but pretended to be asleep. Her quivering shadow had stood at his threshold. He peered through his eyelashes. She’d moved closer, looking down at him with big, watery eyes and a sad, ashen face. Then she rushed to her room and bawled something terrible. His thoughts were startled back when his mother swiveled around fast and faced him.
“I don’t want that old man over here, you hear me? There’s plenty of crotchety old men in the world who’d love to get their hands on an eight-year-old boy like you! Do you understand what I’m sayin’? The war made your daddy go missin’ . . . and we’re poorer than all get-out . . . I don’t think so. Now, I just got off work, and I’m tired. Last thing I need is somebody comin’ over here. Besides, I got nothin’ to offer him,” she said.
A small knock vibrated on the backdoor window.
“It’s too late, Mama. That’s him knockin’. He ain’t one of them dirty old men. Today, Doc Gilbert’s supposed to show me about digits and siphoning. He says I gotta learn these first or everything I make won’t turn out right. We’ll just be out back. If he comes here out in the open like that, it has to mean he’s okay. Right, Mama?”
She deflated right before his eyes. He’d whittled her down to bare wood. Her voice sounded feint and tired.
“Son, son, son,” she said shaking her head. “Fine . . . Go on ahead and get four dollars for him. Lord knows you need to learn some kind of trade. If he’s got his own business, he must see somethin’ in you. I reckon digits and ciphering are good things to learn. Don’t let it get in the way of your school work.”
“I won’t, Mama. I promise.”
“Go on. Don’t be too loud ‘cause I’m goin’ to bed. Go on’n open the door.”
“You could come with me to the door. That way you can meet him.”
“I look a harried mess,” she said, patting her hair. “But I reckon I could just come to the door.”
Doc’s face peered through the glass. The glass made him look weird – warped and wavy like a circus mirror. Ethan opened the door.
“Hi, Doc Gilbert. This is my mama, Rachel Holling.”
Doc Gilbert tipped an invisible hat to his mother. Ethan wished Doc had worn his good clothes. He was wearing his work overalls with safety-pinned buckles, and his leather tool belt was stained and shabby. He must have forgotten to wear his hat. His head was bald on top and shiny like a hardboiled egg. His hair on the sides stuck out like the edges of a triangle. In his left hand, he carried a small, oblong, wooden box. He smiled, like always, with his big false teeth. Ethan wrung his hands and swallowed hard.
“It’s good to meet you, Mr. Gilbert. Ethan here’s been tellin’ me you’re gonna teach him a trade,” said Rachel.
“We can go over here out back, can’t we, Mama?” Ethan asked, pointing out the window. “At the very back by the big tree? It’s my special work place. I worked on somethin’ over there yesterday and I wanted Doc Gilbert to check on it.”
“That’s fine. Be careful now, son,” she said. Her eyes were weary and dimly guarded.
Ethan knew she would watch them for a while out the backdoor window. The big tree was a good place for them to work and not worry. He learned that yesterday. As he and Doc walked together, Ethan’s chest puffed up as big as the world. He had a special place in his yard just like Doc did. They finally stopped at a good spot where the tree’s girth would drown out Mama’s eyes.
“You got money for tools?” asked Doc.
“Yeah . . . Here it is,” said Ethan. He pulled out the four dollars and gave it to a hungry-eyed Doc. Ethan scrambled under a pallet and pulled out what used to be animal.
“Look here, Doc. I siphoned it like you showed me. How’s this look? I think I done good. Not as good as you, though. Took me a good while to find the juggler’s vein but I found it. It was so much funner than skinnin’ rabbits at the park. Shore squirmed funny, too.”
He held it out proud for Doc to inspect.
“Hey . . . you promised me you’d show me digits today,” Ethan said. “Are they in that box?”
Doc nodded. Before he opened the box, Doc shifted his eyes all over his left and he looked all around his right. Then he warily opened the box to show a perfectly placed row of severed fingers.
“Cooool . . . I didn’t know you could do that to fangers . . . They’re all different shapes and sizes and colors. They ain’t hardly no blood neither.” Ethan’s young eyes gleamed. A feint voice traveled in the distance.
“Oh! Mama’s hollering. You should close it up,” he stated.
Her voice sounded nervous and quivery. He figured she would yell for him from the door this once, and then she would be too tired. She would sleep away the Saturday until she went to work again that night.
“Ethan! Don’t tire Doc Gilbert out now or he won’t come back!”
“Ok Mama! We’re just gonna make plans right now!”
The door creaked shut. His mother’s hollow, over-worked face was framed inside the window. She stood there a minute, and then Ethan watched her turn around and fade away toward an uneasy rest.
“Back at it?” he asked Doc.
“Mmm. Hmm.” Doc replied, with his hammer raised high.
**Featured image: Annie Spratt, Unsplash, altered BW