Shoeshine Drop

Something Wicked This Way

 You might be asking yourself where the city police was during all of this. I can't emphasize enough how small a town Waterman is. We're big enough to have a tiny hospital, one grocery store, Clem's diner, a couple of fast food joints, and a shopping center with five stores. Of course, we're redneck enough to have three dive bars that do plenty of business and old enough to have your classic southern square surrounded by historical buildings occupied by historical, family owned companies. Towns our size usually do have a small force that operates within the confines of the city limits, leaving the Sheriff's office to oversee the whole of the county and we had that some time ago. When Waterman went through our own unique depression back in the seventies after our fabric plant moved to Atlanta and took nearly all of its employees, which was half the population of the town, leadership at that time had a decision to make. They decided that Waterman was small enough that one force was sufficient and the police were disbanded. Some of the city cops were sworn in as deputies, but others took the opportunity to graze in greener pastures. The rest were told to get packing.

   We're fine now, financially, but it's still the overall consensus that my office is plenty and there's some truth to that. We're tucked into a valley of the north Georgia mountains. You'll miss us if you're not looking and most folks don't venture much further north once they hit the little town of Helen and its Alpine theme that brings tourists from everywhere, especially during Oktoberfest when the beer is flowing and the party never stops. That's the time of year it was while all of this was going on and I was worried that renewed interest in Shoeshine Drop might bring in more people than usual.

   As far as the behavior of our locals; most of them are old stock whose family tree roots run right under the granite statue in the town square and they take pride in that. The department doesn't get called out on a ruckus any more than we can handle because we're pretty unsophisticated and drunk country boys aren't that difficult to manage.

   Why does all this matter? It matters because having a 24/7 guard at The Drop with two uniforms became a point of contention for some of Waterman's residents.

   I followed the orders Doc Phillips gave me as well as I could, making my calls and heading the department from my house, but that was for only a couple of days. My deputies started to tell me about comments that were being made, first by people who wanted to use the situation at The Drop as a basis for complaints that we didn't respond quickly enough, but eventually the calls became more and more frequently from people who were really scared of what was going on out there. It didn't help that some punk supernatural blogger featured The Drop as ground zero for the latest opening of a portal to a parallel universe and the deputies on guard duty were constantly having to turn gawkers away. I knew it would only be a matter of time before it all died down and something else pricked at the community's skin. The problem was that this time there was a lot of truth to it.

   There was no portal - let's get that straight. But there was something unnatural going on. The blogger called it the first portal of more to certainly come as an arm of paranormal activity and tagged the center of it all a couple of hours south in Elbert County. There's a mysterious structure there made of four granite monoliths stretching out from a center one with a capstone holding them together. According to local legend, the structure appeared overnight in the middle of a cow pasture that sits at the precise highest point of elevation in the county. The Guidestones have been called all sorts of things from Georgia's Stonehenge to the actual central starting point of the coming Armageddon. The History Channel even did a feature on it and once that happened, those rocks became famous. I stopped and took a look at them once on my way to a convention in Augusta. They've got instructions on them as to how to repopulate the world in the event of an apocalypse, carved into the slabs in several different world languages. In the middle of the center stone, a hole is bored from one side to the other and is supposed to catch sunlight and point to something or other important when the sun is in just the right position. Someone once told me there's a time capsule there as well, but no date for which it's to be opened. I didn't notice that when I was there, but I like to think it's full of rifles and baseball bats with nails driven through for when the zombies attack and that's the date they'll open it. When the zombies attack.

   Honestly, the thing does hit pretty high on the weird scale and I can see how mystic minded people might be drawn to it as a symbol, but locals understand it for what it really is - an attention getter. A tourist trap. Elberton, Georgia claims to be the granite capitol of the world. It says so on a huge sign in the middle of town and they're known as one of the two main sources for tombstones and granite material in the United States. A mystery to bring attention to the local industry is a smart marketing move and it seems to have worked. It gets mentions from time to time from places like The History Channel and that blog.

   I felt sorry for the folks down there, too. I was sure they would be seeing an uptick in crazies since it had been connected to Shoeshine Drop in the article, which didn't exactly go viral, but certainly got its share of attention.

   I hadn't heard from Mrs. Henley since she walked back to her house after our talk in my driveway, but I looked at that as a small blessing. I took Megan back and forth to work and tried to stop the spinning my head was doing long enough to formulate a solution, but the more I thought about it, the more hopeless I felt.

   The third day, Megan had a morning shift and I decided to go into the office. Megan had been a trooper, insisting that I rest and only allowing me to do menial tasks for myself. We didn't talk about Shoeshine Drop at all after I told her about my dream when she got off work that first night. I chose not to include the last part where I saw her step off the edge and she seemed to accept my telling of it as complete. She knew to let it be - to give me space to think, but like I said, it was no use.

   On the way to Clem's I told her she needed to go home and she didn't argue. That was good. I needed to be able to move around without having to answer questions and I needed to be able to stay out as late as I had to. Having her there was like being married without the physical perks, although I didn't hate it. I could see what a life together might be like and it was a sweet thing to consider, assuming we still found ourselves compatible once the mess in the mountains was over with and we got to try out dating like a normal couple.

   Megan nodded her head toward Mrs. Henley's house when we were leaving out.

   "Guess she got the picture," she noted.

   Mrs. Henley's door was oddly shut. I thought about it and counted it curious that it had been since our meeting in the driveway. Mrs. Henley always kept her door open, even during the winter months when the heat from inside would cake a layer of condensation on the glass of the storm door and you could see her hand marks from wiping it away when it got so thick she couldn't see through. I decided I'd check in on her later.

   There was a mound of messages waiting for me at the office, mostly notes to call nervous Nancies who insisted on talking to me personally, and I shoved them to the side. Hysteria spreads like a plague when it's all there is to talk about. The majority of them seemed like Mrs. Henley types anyway, who'd gotten their information from the Blue Hair Breaking News Contengent. The blog had stirred the water up just enough to encourage questions. They were right to ask them when it came to this, but I couldn't let them know it without people calling me crazy and sending the real maniacs right out to The Drop. I'd get to the messages, but they'd have to be patient.

   I shut the door to my office and closed the blinds in the window. The department buzzed as much as our department can on a busy day and except for a couple of the requisit greetings of Welcome back and Good to see ya, Sheriff, I was otherwise ignored.

   I needed an ear that I could trust. Somebody who's been in my position of having a problem they couldn't find an answer to, somebody who'd be honest with me and didn't call me boss, and somebody with more experience than me. I needed Jim Taylor. He'd know what I should do next.

____________

   "Twice in a month! I should probably tell you I start charging for my time after the second call, haw HAAWWWW!" Jim was eating when I phoned him. I could tell by the chewing sounds he made between words. I hate mouth noises. I can't remember if I mentioned that before, but if I didn't, you know now. I wished that he'd had the courtesy to take a couple of seconds to swallow before he answered, but that was Jim. Everybody was his brother, therefore everybody was family, therefore everybody was a party to whatever irritating habits he had. I had to live with it whether I wanted to or not and so I did.

   "I hope I'm not bothering you. Sounds like I interrupted lunch."

   "Lunch? Shoot no! Mid mornin' snack. I was passin' a new philly steak joint that just opened where The June Burger used to be and I wanted to try one. It's chicken pot pie for lunch." I'm not known for adhering to the best dietary practices myself, but I worried a little bit about Jim. He wasn't a young man and he was quite round. "What's on your mind, kid?"

   "Shoeshine Drop."

   "Oh yeah, I heard about what happened to you out there, or at least how they found you. How're ya feelin'?"

   "I'm fine. I took a couple of days off to rest and now I'm back at it."

   "What really happened to you?"

   "That's why I'm calling. I wanted to know if you had time to meet me someplace to talk about it."

   "Sounds serious. 'Course I'm here for ya. Anything you need. How about I come over Waterman way and we can sit down at Clem's? I wouldn't mind a piece of that famous apple pie."

   Normally I would have jumped on that. Apple pie sounded good, but I didn't want Megan anywhere near the conversation.

   "No, let me come to you. I'll bring you a slice of pie if you want."

   "Naw, I don't need it. How about the Waffle Nook, then? Purt-near right in the middle between the two of us. That's about the only good place left in Shelby County - this cheesesteak is a load of crap on a bun."

   "That'll work. How soon can you meet me?"

   "I'll head on over there now and wait for ya."

   "I'm on my way."

   I didn't waste any time heading there. The radio was silent for most of the way and I rode with my window down because it was warm for a fall day. The air wafting through the open window treated me with the smells of the season; burning leaves and fresh cut hay. There were also the usual sights for the time of year that included Halloween decorations and some of the more blanket expressions like pumpkins and cornucopias on hay bales.

   Halloween was only a few days away and it suddenly dawned on me what kinds of nifty hell we might find ourselves dealing with at The Drop that night. That thought prompted me to press my foot to the gas pedal a little harder and I sped toward the Waffle Nook.

   It's not lost on me how much of this story plays out in front of a backdrop where food is being served. Looking back on it all, I guess it would do me good to buy more groceries, but I'm away from home so much that I'm afraid they would spoil or go stale. And who wants to eat from cans all the time, really?

   Jim had indeed gotten there before me and was already having his way with an attractive bowl of peach cobbler. He stuck out a beefy right hand when I got to the table and wiped away a glob of cobbler from his chin with a napkin he held in his left one.

   "Take a seat, Marty," he barreled over the noise of the diner, which looked a lot like Clem's on the inside. Then again, don't they all look pretty much the same? "Have some cobbler. It's on me."

"Don't mind if I do, thank ya." A waitress was beside me immediately, laying down first a napkin, then a spoon. She was cute, but couldn't hold a candle to Megan. And besides that, she didn't exactly hold to the Disney Cast Member On-All-The-Time with a smile brand of customer service. Neither did Rita, for that matter, but this girl looked like she wanted to be anywhere but at the Waffle Nook, serving anyone else but me. That's something else I'll say about Megan - she smiles and makes you feel like the most important person in the world when she's in front of you. I could thumb through a million magazines full of beautiful ladies and never find one that matched up to her. I was that smitten.

"Know what yer havin' or do you need a menu?"

"Just coffee," I said. "Four creams and I'll have some of the peach cobbler." She wrote on my ticket and turned away without saying a word.

Jim shoved a big, breadish bit into his mouth and talked around it. "What's on your mind, my friend?" He couldn't hear the voice inside my head screaming at him to swallow first next time.

"I'm not exactly sure how to say it, Jim. I do know I want to be as discreet as we can."

He ducked his head and peeked around us cautiously. "Maybe we shoulda met on a park bench holdin' up big ol' newspapers."

I laughed. "No, I think this'll do. A little discretion will be just fine."

"Marty, you look like somebody drug ya through the middle of a dog fight. What happened to you out at those cliffs?"

"It's that obvious, huh?"

"I seen worse, but not on you."

"It's what I want to talk to you about. I need some advice."

His face stiffened. Normally, when he's having to exact some kind of justice, he comes across like a lovable authority. He's stern, but easy, like a grandpa you can't walk all over. But there was nothing jovial about him now, as if he feared I was about to tell him something he'd been expecting.

"You believe in ghosts, Jim?"

"No," he said without thinking about it.

"If you're that quick with your response, you'll think I'm a full on nut job by the end of this conversation."

The waitress came back with my coffee and cobbler. I thought I might look at her tag and learn her name to elicit a better reaction, but she wasn't wearing one. People like to hear their name spoken. It usually helps an awkward situation at least somewhat, but I'd have to address her in a generic way. She laid my coffee and cobbler on the table in front of me and turned away again without so much as a Here ya go or Enjoy. I decided that as far as I was concerned, her name would be Meh because that's the first word that came to mind when I thought about the value of her unremarkable customer service. I could've asked her for her name, but the initial vibe was offensive enough to me paired with my mood that I was happy with Meh. When she was out of earshot, Jim leaned in.

"I didn't say I don't believe in the supernatural." He leaned back and let me take that in while I blew on a spoonful of the dessert in front of me and gave it a taste. It was good, but like the waitress, still not remarkable. "Do you know why I go to church every single Sunday? I don't usually make it to Wednesday night service, but I never miss a Sunday mornin'."

"Enlighten me." Jim always brought the conversation around to church. When I ate the amazing meal at his house, we hadn't helped our plates good before he was asking where I went to church, did I believe in God, and had I asked Jesus to be my Savior. He was happy when I answered positively to all, but there was always a hint of skepticism I got from him when we talked and it seemed like he would be witnessing to me till one of us died. Of course, that's the reason I'd called on him now.

"I take it you don't put a lot of stock in bein' an active member of the flock."

I shrugged. "I'm usually working."

"Ayuh, that's important, to be sure. But I schedule myself off on Sunday mornin's. It's one of the perks of havin' the word Sheriff on my badge. Here's why I do that: Men in our position can't afford to get caught sleepin'. There's evil in this world and there ain't no denyin' it. We see it every day. Some of it comes right out of a wicked man, but there's also somethin' the Bible calls principalities."

"I know," I assured him. "Believe it or not, I'm a follower of Christ."

"Well, that's good to know. I'm tellin' you this before you have your say so you might understand that I'm probably more on your side than you think."

I chewed on that for a few seconds ... that and a particularly tough chunk of peach. "How much do you know about the supernatural? These principalities?"

"Tell me what you need help with and we'll see if it strikes a chord."

Choking down the peach, it was me who leaned in toward him this time. "There's something out there at Shoeshine Drop. I've seen what it's done to other people and now I've experienced it for myself."

"That what put you in the hospital?"

"Not directly, I don't think. What happened to me exhausted my body and mind enough that I got sick and passed out, but I wasn't exactly attacked the way I think the others have been. I have no idea why it spared me, but it didn't have to. It could have had its way with me and I would have been helpless to stop it."

Jim's face didn't convey the worry I thought it would. I assumed he'd wear a frown the entire time, looking away from me during the parts that got too uncomfortable, but so far, and I'll admit it hadn't gotten juicy yet, he looked almost excited. You learn to read people's tells. Jim had a smirk that cocked one corner of his mouth sideways when you're telling him something he already knows, but he's waiting for you to finish so he can make a big reveal. That's what he looked like just then, full of secret knowledge and wisdom he couldn't wait to share. It was encouraging and scary at the same time.

"You don't believe any of the jumpers really wanted to do it?" Jim asked.

"Gail did. Her's was a legitimate suicide, but most of them - no. With the exceptions of one or two others over the last forty years, I think something - actually, someone - is making them jump. And lately it seems like the more that do, the more he needs."

Now Jim sat back in the booth and crossed his arms. "You just said 'he'. You think this presence is a male? How do you know?"

"Because he let me into his mind. I spent that night out at The Drop in a nightmare vision. And before you go off accusing me of dreaming or being on something, let me put that to rest. I was in my right mind and I wasn't asleep." I stopped to see if he had anything to say to that and he didn't. He sat there with his arms crossed, waiting for me to continue. "I saw things that happened a long time ago, just like I was there, but it was all from his point of view. I could hear his thoughts and a couple of times, I —" I had to stop. I wasn't being as careful with the details now as I had been with Megan and what came next would be the first time I'd heard the words come out of my mouth. I felt silly and more than that, I felt ridiculous, like the next thing I ought to be saying was Kidding! I got ya! You shoulda seen your face!

"You okay, Marty?"

"I'm good. I need a second."

"I'm not in a hurry, but you ain't leavin' it there.

Meh appeared at our booth. "Need anything?"

"We're set," Jim nodded, then turned his attention back to me and waited with silent courtesy.

"Jim, there were a couple of times I was so connected to him that I wanted what he wanted. To see the blood. To breathe in the scent of death like I would a refreshing fall morning. In short glimpses, I saw what it was like to be consumed by his insatiable hunger."

"What about now?"

"What about now?"

"You still catching any of those glimpses?" It was the protector in him. Better men than me have stepped over to the other side. Into the Danger Zone. He had to establish if I was a threat, whether I was a friend or not.

"No," I assured him and he held up his hands to show he'd not intended to offend me. "Don't worry. I'd have asked you the same thing."

"Does this monster have a name?"

"Tom Renault."

"Why does that sound so familiar?"

"Because you go to church with the mother of the girl he molested and killed." He parked his arms across the table. "All this time, the legend of Shoeshine Drop has pointed a finger at the girl, Regina St. Claire, but she's not the one doing the damage. It's the man who was with her. Tom Renault."

"Wait," Jim wiped his mouth with the same crumpled napkin and peered out through the window while he gathered his thoughts. "I always heard that was an accident. The car ran off the road in the middle of the night."

"I saw what happened. I witnessed it in the vision. Regina was hanging on to the side of the cliff after the accident and when she started to tell someone else what Tom had been up to - someone who was trying to help - he rushed and stomped her hands. She fell, then he did too."

"So Shoeshine Drop's ghost was never a girl."

"Never just a girl."

Jim sat back again and shook his head. "I'm confused."

"Regina St. Claire has always been there, but so has Tom Renault and he's the problem. All that stuff about hearing the word Shoeshine whispered in the wind is real, but I believe it's a warning to anybody who gets too close to the edge. It may be a scare tactic, but I think it's meant to save lives before Tom can get to them."

Jim looked down at his plate and sighed. "You've been spending a lot of time at the movies, haven't you Marty?"

"Jim —"

"That, or reading some mighty weird books."

"I'm wasting valuable time." I shot up from the table and threw my napkin onto it.

"Sit down, son."

"I don't have time to be ridiculed."

"I said SIT DOWN!"

It seemed like the world had stopped and all of its inhabitants were right there in the Waffle Nook, staring at us. I hadn't been spoken to like that since I was a kid and that's what I felt like then. The only sound was a country whiner coming from the jukebox.

I did sit and the world began to turn again. Conversations resumed around us, people switched their attention back to their cell phones, and a new song started up on the jukebox. I think it was still country, but it was something more upbeat - Shania feeling like a woman or some such.

"That wasn't embarrassing or anything," I said. "You're an intimidating man."

"It was a touch louder than I meant it to be, but it served the purpose," Jim said in probably the closest form of an apology any man would get from him. "I've been doing this a lot longer than you have. You sincerely believe this is real, don't you?"

"It's been more than the vision and reports on record. I've been investigating it and all kinds of things are starting to tie together. Another person had a similar vision that did come in their sleep, a crazy video taken at The Drop that passed the tampering test, testimonies I've run across about what went on forty years ago ... Jim, it's real."

"I won't antagonize you any more. I wanted to prick at you a little to see if you really believed it yourself. At first I wasn't sure you did, but figuring out where a person's mind is settled ought to be something every law man knows how to do. Can I tell you a short story?"

"It's a good time for a break."

"When I was in my mid-twenties, I was the kind of young man who pretty much followed the law and didn't do too much to get myself in trouble. I was floatin' around from job to job, tryin' to decide what I was gonna do with the rest of my life.

"One week, we had a revival at the church and the preacher that came was a passionate man of God - an impressive speaker. By the end of every service, he'd brought the gospel so well that lines of people made their way to the alter and gave their lives to the Lord. They were cryin' and givin' their testimonies and there was a joy in that little country church like I hadn't seen before. I felt the presence of the Lord in every square inch of the place and it moved me. I was convinced that the Lord was callin' me to be a preacher. I wanted to be a part of something like what was happenin' at the revival and I was taken by the thought of how full a life that visitin' minister must have if the same response happened every where he went. I wanted to win lives for Jesus too, and so with every bit of excitement I had in me once the revival was over and things went back to their normal, hum-drum rhythm, I went to my pastor and told him I was being called into full-time ministry."

This was something I didn't know about Jim, but it wasn't surprising. "He must've been proud of you."

"I thought he'd be thrilled. I reckoned there'd be an announcement the next Sunday morning and a whole covered dish dinner to celebrate it. You want to know what he said to me?"

I nodded my head behind my coffee.

"He said, 'Go home, Jimmy. You don't want no part of bein' a preacher.' When I tried to argue, he told me all about the things that go on behind the scenes. He said there were things most folks didn't know was always happenin' - things he's responsible for doin' that you never hear about. After I went home, I thought about it. I hadn't considered all the visitations in the hospital, the calls in the middle of the night to calm a weary soul, the answerin' for sins you never committed, and tryin' to please all of the people all of the time. I decided he was right. I didn't want no part of it. The next Sunday, I took him aside and asked him how he knew."

"Sounds like a man who could read people well," I said.

"No, he wasn't. He told me he'd had no idea whether I was actually bein' called or not, but if I really was, there wasn't nothin' ever gonna stop me, no matter what anybody said. 'A man truly bein' called of God is unmovable.' Those were his exact words and he'd pushed my mountain around all kinds of ways and never broke a sweat. Next mornin', I showed up at the sheriff's office askin' how I could enroll."

"So you poked at me to see how serious I am. I wouldn't have asked you to meet me here if I was pranking  you, Jim."

"I know it, but ain't it refreshin' to know just how real it is to you? Now, I might still need some more evidence, but at least you have my attention and I don't think you're crazy. I'm just not sure how I can help yet."

I don't know what I thought he'd be able to offer, considering the details. Maybe I was hoping he'd dealt with something like this before. We get our ghost calls from time to time, usually after somebody watches something they ought to know better than to be watching and now they're hearing noises in the walls. We give them the standard lines about squirrels and rats finding ways to get in there and that the best folks to call are the pest control guys. That never does the trick. They tell us they know what rats sound like and it ain't rats. Then we have to send somebody out to ease their mind and poke our flashlights into the dark places of their houses. They usually want us to check down in the cellar, if there is one, while they stand at the top of the stairs with their hearts racing because they got a hankering to check out the horror line up on Netflix.

It's always squirrels or rats in the walls and more often than not, the weird presences they keep seeing past the corner of their eye, but that are gone before they can get a good look, are the reflections of headlights driving by.

I guess a small part of me hoped that Jim had run into something paranormal out of a couple of those kinds of calls over the years and would have just the right juju to offer me.

"Never gone out on a call to a lady with a real ghost, have you?" I asked.

"Haw HAAAAWWWW!" He filled the restaurant with his signature belly laugh and I had to shush him. We were starting to hold people's attention longer than made me comfortable. "Sorry, Marty. Yeah, we get plenty of those, especially around the historic district. Those ancient houses have a lot of squeaky floors and I think old wood complains about bein' old worse than we do. But I have a theory on your problem and I hope you'll give me the same respect as to the rationality of it that you're asking from me."

"That's fair," I agreed. "I'm starving for anything that might spark an idea about what I can do. All this hocus-pocus stuff is above my pay grade."

"Well, prepare yourself, because what I'm thinkin' ain't any closer to science than hocus-pocus, but I believe it's real anyhow, and probably the source of what's goin' on out at Shoeshine Drop."

"I'm all ears." I sat back and crossed my arms the same way he had.

"I've already mentioned it one time. Principalities. That stuff we can't see because the fight's going on in another realm parallel to ours. Satan's real, Marty - you know that."

"I'm not about to argue with you. I know the devil exists."

"Bible says he prowls about like a lion, lookin' to devour every kind of good he can find. Now, I ain't sayin' this Tom Renault's the devil hisself, but Satan wasn't the only angel that fell. A full third of the angels went along with him and that's what we call demons. I don't believe they sit around twiddlin' their thumbs, waitin' for the day God tosses 'em all into the lake of fire, neither. They keep theirselves busy."

"A demon." I didn't so much ask it in the form of a question as I repeated it to see how it felt on my tongue. I had expected that any clarity I got from Jim would be a welcome help, but here we were at demons again and they're a scarier option than ghosts. They have real power. Carol St. Claire had mentioned the word. My tech guy had said the same thing. It was a pattern I wasn't keen on following, so I had pushed that aside as nothing to consider, but now Jim was pointing me in that direction and it made me nervous.

"Yep, I think you got yourself a demon."

"What about the girl? I'm pretty sure Regina's trying to help."

"I'm not an expert in these things. Matter of fact, I don't go out on ghost calls, myself. I send a deputy because I don't like creepy-crawly crap," he said and scooped the last bite of cobbler into his mouth. "The way I figure it, angels all have the same power, whether they side with Team Satan or Team Yahweh. He's lettin' the badduns have their day, but we both know how that's gonna end. And they've got limits. They're not all powerful, as in there's nothin' they can't do. That kind of power belongs to God alone and it's what caused 'em to fall in the first place - that powerlust. So I don't know why a good spirit would be obligated to stay out there, except to make it harder on the bad guy. Like you said - it's above my pay grade."

"So what do I do now?"

"If I was you, I'd go to church," he smiled.

"I told you, I have to work on Sundays."

It appeared he knew I would say that.

"I mean go talk to your preacher. He might not be able to give you a direct answer, but he can probably point you to something closer to one."

"I think I'll take that suggestion," I said and stood up. A few of the people in the diner turned to look as if they thought I might get yelled at again.

"I got the bill," Jim winked and I stuck out my hand, which he grabbed and shook. "Who do you like for the Super Bowl so far?"

"I try not to get too excited this early."

"Well, I think I'll have an all day party at my house for the Super Bowl, starting probably around 11 am. Why don'tcha come?"

"It's a date," I said and immediately regretted falling into his trap. Jim's a smart man.

"Oh, wait ..." he said. "That's a Sunday, ain't it? I'll be in church at 11 am. That's funny, Marty."

"What's funny?" I asked the question, but I knew exactly what he was getting at.

"You were gonna make time for that, weren't ya?"

I had to submit. "You made your point,"

"Haw HAAAAWW!"

"See ya, Jim. Thanks for the grub."

"Welcome. You call me if there's anything else you need," he told me and I walked out of the Waffle Nook thinking how lucky I was to have a man like Jim Taylor in my corner.

____________

I was going to have to look Pastor Ford in the eye. He leads the flock at First Baptist of Waterman, which is supposed to include me, and I'd made every excuse in the book not to go any more often than I had to. I'd also made every attempt to avoid him whenever our paths crossed, even to the extent of not answering the door the last time he and a couple of the deacons knocked on it. I'm a busy man, but that's not the real reason I hadn't been to church in a while. It was just my go-to answer if my absence was mentioned. Crime doesn't go to church, I'd say behind a playful smile and everyone would smile back, some taking the joke as I'd intended and some seeing through it. The real reason was that I didn't like church. Mama used to make me go as a kid. I would claim I had a headache and she would give me an aspirin. I'd tell her my stomach felt uneasy and she would give me some ginger ale and throw my Sunday clothes on my head. That was when she was making good time. If we were running late, she'd be more likely to forego the meds or ginger ale and tell me to suck it up and pray!

I wouldn't change a thing about it now. Mama forcing me to put the impression of my tiny rear end in the pew cushions was a lot of what made me a good guy. Whether I wanted to or not and no matter how many things I tried to occupy my attention instead of listening to a boring sermon - things like seeing how far I could count before the preacher started the ending prayer or closing my eyes and pressing my thumbs so hard against the lids that I started to see patterns spray out in the darkness like a kaleidoscope - the message still got into me. Once mama caught me doing the eye press thing and she pinched me. That was how she dolled out the discipline quietly during a service - a painful little pinch that felt like I'd upset a hornet. I think the memory of those pinches might be another reason I didn't go.

I had to face it now, though. Ford is a great preacher and an even greater man. He's never once tried to make me feel any sort of guilt. Instead, he'd do his best to make me feel ultimately welcome. The problem was in my head.

Of course, there were plenty of other preachers I could have reached out to, but I thought the one I was closest to would be my best option and my gut agreed.

I wanted to drop by the house before I went anywhere else that day. I'd check in on Megan and ask if there was anything she needed and I'd call Pastor Ford and try to set up an appointment from there. On the ride back from Waterman, I drove with the window down again. I wanted nothing but the sound of the wind as I enjoyed a bit of peace. I thought about good things, starting with Megan, obviously. She had been my one respite of late and I intended to reward her for that with a real, honest to God first date. It's one of the things I wanted to think about on the ride back because it had to be perfect.

I pulled onto my street and saw my house waiting for me comfortably at the end of the cul-de-sac. My neighbors milled about their yards under the bright October sun and we raised our hands to each other as I passed like good neighbors in the south always do. The day had not contented me, but as fall days go, it was about as right as it could be. Mr. Briggs, another of the old nosey ones, but who lived too far up from me to be a bother, was fussing with a bunch of leaves he'd raked into a pile and which his Collie, Prescious, was happily galloping and dancing through as soon as he raked it together. I say Mr. Briggs was fussing with it, but he was smiling, which was a rarity, as the dog romped and had the time of its life, so it was more like a game to them and I was sure the old man could use the exercise.

A lot had gotten done in the yards since I'd left out that morning as people prepped for the kids in their costumes, holding their buckets full of sweets. I noticed a few new minor decorations and a couple of gaudy big ones, including one insultingly large inflatable and friendly version of Frankenstein's monster. It felt like maybe Waterman was settling into some normalcy and for a brief couple of minutes, I enjoyed the slightest hope that life's dark tunnel might be showing a glimmer of light at the end of it. I was looking around me at something Rockwell would have liked to set as the background for one of his paintings.

I was almost to the end of the street and so close to the sanctity of home when I looked off to my left where I expected to see Mrs. Henley faithfully watching the goings on through her front door. If the Lord had ever ordered up a day righteous enough for her caliber of busy-bodery, it was that day.

But her door was closed. Something wasn't right - I could feel it. This job will unearth certain extra senses you didn't know you had until the alarm bells start ringing so loud you can't think and you find yourself pulling into the driveway of your neighbor's house.

I walked to the front door slowly, sniffing at the air for smells I shouldn't be catching. There was nothing that stood out, but I was unnerved to find her front door wasn't completely shut. It creaked open a couple of inches when I knocked. I pressed my lips close to the crack and had to draw back at the stench. I took a deep breath and bent close again, calling her name.

"Mrs. Henley, it's Marty Reese. Are you all right? I noticed your door wasn't shut all the way." There was no answer, so I called again. "Mrs. Henley, it's Marty Reese. Are you all right?"

A soft, monotone voice ushered from a few feet away, beyond the door.

"I'm here, Sheriff Reese. You can come in if you want to."

I opened the door cautiously, not sure what I was about to find. She didn't sound all right. She didn't smell all right. The hinges needed oil and creaked in a cliche homage to Hitchcock, or Lovecraft, or King ... name any one of them who had set this exact scene to page or screen.

The odor was overwhelming as I moved inside and I had to put a hand to my mouth to keep from vomiting. I found Mrs. Henley sitting in her chair, facing me. She was staring blankly into that same nothingness I'd seen Gail Warren chasing. She was in the same robe she was wearing when we talked to her in my driveway, but there was now nothing underneath it and it hung open loosely at the chest, revealing nearly all of her breasts. She didn't seem to notice my reaction to the smell.

"Mrs. Henley, has something happened?" I asked, tiptoeing forward and looking around for any tangible signs I could use to legally have her seen about should it come to that. " You don't look so good. Maybe you should let me call someone."

The house was as much a shambles as Gail's was when I'd been there right before she jumped and it was out of line for Gail, but this - this was more than alarming. This was an emergency, but I didn't know that my hands weren't tied. Mrs. Henley kept the sort of house you wanted to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas morning in. It always passed the white glove test and more often than not, the smell of fresh baked something was in the air and stayed gloriously with you in your lungs for several minutes after you left. Now the kitchen, which was visible off to my right, was piled high with newspapers and filthy, unscraped plates and bags and bags of trash. To my left, I saw the attic door dropped down and the folding ladder that allowed access was at the floor. She'd been up, rummaging through what looked like years of collected memories and things that anyone else would have called crap, judging from the piles of it that had been tossed to the bottom of the ladder. That probably explained the sheer amounts of bags and newspapers I saw lying everywhere. I could also see into the bathroom, as it was connected to the same hall where the ladder was and in there I noticed the toilet had overflowed and the floor was covered in towels and used toilet paper with disturbingly large dark smudges on it.

"Ain't nobody to call, Marty."

I looked back over to where she sat in her recliner and her breasts were still too exposed because she simply could not be bothered to close her robe.

"Why don't you pull your robe together for me. I want to be able to look at you when we talk and I can't with it open like that."

She shrugged as if it didn't matter one way or the other to her, but if it meant so much to me, she would comply. She gave the front of it a cursory tug and that was going to have to be enough. Then she set me with a silent, but sarcastic look. Happy now?

"I think you need a doctor, Mrs. Henley. I'm going to get a medic out here to take you and have you checked out."

"I won't go and you can't make me. I'm fine the way I am."

"You're not fine, ma'am. This house is a mess and that's just not like you."

"Who's to say what I'm like, boy?! Ain't no laws against keepin' a dirty house, is there?"

I didn't answer.

"IS THERE?!"

"No, Mrs. Henley, there are not."

There are protocols in place for situations like that. I have the authority to have called an EMT and made her go to the hospital, but the legal line is very fine and it can get messy. What I didn't need was one more hurdle to jump.

"Can I at least call somebody from your family? I could get you someone down here to help out. It'd mean a lot to me and it would make me feel better."

Mrs. Henley straightened, but not in a good way. Stiffened is probably the better word and her mood turned from a bitter melancholy to irritation.

"I got no family left, boy, and what do I care how I make you feel? You never cared about me before now - made sure I never stepped a foot inside your door. I offered myself - my concern - a hundred times. Tried to be a decent neighbor like folks used to be in the good old days and you never once said thank ya."

"I said thank you every time, Mrs. Henley." I sounded hurt because I was. I hadn't expected to be met with an accusation when all I was doing was trying to help her.

"You never meant it. I ain't blind. I can tell when somebody just wants me to go away. 'Why, thank you, Mrs. Henley, thank you and goodbye. Don't let the door hit ya where the Good Lord split ya'. Well, now I'm gone. Leave me be and I'll do the same for you."

"It's not like that."

"Yes it is like that! It's exactly like that," she spat, shooting her body forward in the recliner and supporting her weight with arms of mere bone, sinew, and skin. Her hands clawed into the fabric of the chair. I was suddenly terrified of what might be coming next for Mrs. Henley. Anyone trying to subdue her might necessarily have to cause her harm to keep her from hurting them.

And, of course, she was right about me. Every fake smile, every whisper of appreciation just to get her to leave had fallen to the ground like an egg and the shell of false politeness had broken to lay bare the truth. She had seen through me and I was ashamed of myself for having such a rotten yolk.

"I'm sorry, Marty. I don't mean to shout." She sat back and readopted the morbid air of having given up on life completely. "I'm just tired of being lied to. What family I have left has better things to do than waste their time with me. Everybody eventually moves on, changes. Gets better. Everybody but poor old Doreen Henley."

I was starting to see her in a different light. How had such desperation and loneliness been right in front of me and I never noticed? Just right over there. But I had noticed, hadn't I? I had noticed and I had ignored it because it was more convenient to do so. I had an excuse that served its purpose; I had a town to see after and there was a lot to do. But it was a poor excuse and I reckon I always knew it deep down.

I went to her and knelt beside the recliner. "I truly am sorry and I promise things are going to change. I want to be your friend and I want to hear all of the stories you have to tell." Her eyes were deep with the miles of road they'd seen and when she looked back into mine, I could see the wisdom those miles had shown her.

"No they won't, Marty. Things won't change, not like that. How can you make time for me when you've got the likes of that pretty young thing leadin' you by the britches?"

"I told you, she's my care giver, remember?"

"Now you're callin' me stupid."

I had to give up. I couldn't lie to her any more. "All right, we're kind of seeing each other, but I swear all she did was care for me while she was staying over."

"If you say so," she nodded and gave a wink.

"You should meet her. I'll have you both over for supper. I think you'll like Megan."

"Megan," she smiled weakly. "That's a nice name."

"Until then, will you please allow me to get someone over here to give you a check up?"

"No, boy. I said I don't need nobody and I mean it." That was the third time she'd called me boy instead of Marty. It wasn't normal.

"How about this," I said, taking my notepad out from my shirt pocket. "I'll leave you my personal number and you have to promise me you'll call it if you need anything. It's my cell phone, so it'll come straight to me, okay?"

"If that's what you want to do, you can leave it by the phone over yonder."

There was a cream colored push button wall hanger in the kitchen. I tore a sheet from my pad and wrote my number on it, then pushed aside some trash to make a spot to lay it.

I stopped in front of her as I went to let myself out and she was still holding on to that blank stare, which she directed toward the front door. Muscle memory I guess, but I knew she'd be taking in nothing to gossip about today. Something else stronger than curiosity had her in its grip. I couldn't tell if it was something mental or physical or both that had created this sudden change in her, but it couldn't go unchecked.

"Are you sure —"

"I don't want nobody. Not NOBODY! I see the world for what it is, Marty. It's lonely. Time I give in to it. Now, if ya don't mind, I got a lot of this to do."

Gone were the days of forcing help on someone against their will and I guess that's a good thing all in all, but I could keep a close eye on her. I'd be checking in as often as I could and even more once the Shoeshine thing got resolved. I planned to run a check when I got to the office to find her closest living relatives. I was certain they would be concerned for her if they knew how she was acting and the conditions she was living in. She could be angry with me if she wanted to, but something had to be done.

"All right, Mrs. Henley, but I made a promise to you that I would be a better neighbor from now on and I intend to make good on that. You wait and see." She fanned me off dismissively. "I left my number right by the phone and I expect you to use it if anything comes up."

That's when she said something that caught me by surprise. Something I should have recognized as peculiar and down right prophetic enough to take seriously.

"Nothing really comes up, does it boy?" she said. "Eventually everything falls. It falls down down down." She tagged it with a sickeningly wide grin. It was a grin that didn't belong to kindly old Mrs. Henley. A grin like that belongs to something wicked. Something wild. Something evil.

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