Friday, March 13, 2015

And Then There Was One

6/6/15: I've made minor and significant edits to this story.

I pulled my foot off the accelerator but the Bronco leapt forward of its own accord. I tried pumping the brake but nothing happened. I cursed my crazy mom for giving me the keys to this old car, and cursed myself for taking them.

At the edge of the little podunk town nearest to the hospital my mom was in, I whizzed past the sign that said "Welcome to Paradise!" just as the speedometer reached 52 mph. I was sure that if I drove this fast in downtown Manhattan I'd be hearing sirens by now. But here? Not a peep, and I nervously laughed at the thought of a lone sheriff trying to chase me down on foot.

I started honking the horn, worried that someone would try jaywalking and I'd plow right through them. Thankfully the sidewalks were empty, but it was odd that for all the noise I was making no one peeked out from the store fronts that lined the street. Then I caught sight of an old car creeping across an intersection that I was racing towards at 65 mph.

I laid on the horn and waved at the two old women in their car to get out of the way, and then yanked the steering wheel at the last minute, hoping I wouldn't hit them and afraid I'd flip the Bronco. Instead, I clipped their back end and heard glass shattering, and saw in my rearview mirror a faded black bumper tumbling across the roadway behind me.

I tried the brakes again and to my surprise they worked. The Bronco came to a screeching halt and my head slammed into the steering wheel. A moment later someone gently lifted my head and pressed a cloth to my bloody face. I thought, a handkerchief, do those still exist?

"Are you alright, ma'am?" The voice was soothing and I nodded just once because the movement caused my head to spin. I heard the door open and big hands reached in and gently wrapped around my waist.

"Let's get you out of there," he said, and I let my rescuer's strong arms pull me from the cab.

It was a couple of moments before I felt that I could open my eyes without the world spinning around me. It's cliche, but he was tall, dark and incredibly handsome. Something about his blue eyes made me want to cry. He reminded me of my father, years ago when we had first moved away. Grey traced his temples and was sprinkled sparingly throughout his wavy black hair.

He had put me down in an old leather chair that felt like every living person had settled into it over the years. He lightly touched my forehead.

"Ow," I said.

"That's gonna be a bad bruise, but some ice'll help. Wait here?"

I nodded slowly, feeling quite overwhelmed by events. When he came back he handed me a cold towel and I cautiously pressed it to my head.

"That was a mighty close call," he said. And then I let my anxiety rush out of me, explaining how the Bronco had sped up even though I pressed on the brakes, and hitting that little red car with the two old ladies looking so calm even as I narrowly missed killing them.

"Can you fix my car?"

I looked at the rusted bucket of bolts and wondered why I bothered. All I wanted was to catch my evening flight so I could be back home in my own bed by midnight, and forget this place ever happened to me.

"Car? That there is an original '66 Ford Bronco. Lemme take a look and see what's wrong with 'er."

He went outside and opened the hood, poked and prodded around the old combustion engine for several minutes before coming back to kneel beside me.

"Sure, I can fix 'er. Might take a day or two. Gotta make some parts special." He pointed to the lump growing on my forehead, "but you should go see the doc for that."

"I'll be alright," I said, handing the towel back to him. "I gotta get home, to New York, and back to work tomorrow."

"Well, I can't make you go to the doc but I do think you should apologize to the angels."

"Huh?" I blinked.

"The Angelies sisters, the ones you almost killed." He chuckled at something. "I'm guessing they're down at Maggie's Cafe sippin' on their afternoon tea. Want me to give you a lift?"

"No, no, I can walk. Thank you." I stood up and tested my legs. I was feeling better and the ice had lessened the throbbing of my head.

I held out my hand and he shook it. His hand was warm and soft, and cleaner than I thought it would be for a mechanic.

"Um, do you have an estimate?"

"Oh yeah. Sure," he said, and pulled his hand away to take out a small notepad and wooden pencil from his shirt pocket. He scribbled something before ripping the paper off and handing it to me. It read, "Bronco. Special parts. $50 est."

I grinned, folded the paper and put it in my own pocket. I tried to thank him for his kindness and offered to buy him lunch, but he "wasn't having none of it."

I walked out and realized I'd forgotten to ask his name, and when I turned back I saw the faded sign above the door. It read, "Chris's Repair Shop", which I thought was oddly funny because of the extra "s", more so because the Bronco had stopped directly in front of it.

I looked up the street that I had just careened down. Somebody had already cleared the glass and removed the bumper. The scene looked as vacant and lonely as when I had arrived earlier this morning.

I slowly made my way up Main Street, and stopped to stare at an old building that looked like it belonged in a Rockwell painting. It had huge glass windows with big red letters outlined in gold that spelled, "Barber Shop". It even had an old-fashioned barber pole slowly twirling it's red, white, and blue stripes just outside the door.

I was amazed that such a place still existed, and stared inside at the neat little row of red-leather and gold-chrome seats that lined one wall. The raised hand of a painted wooden indian made me mouth the word, "How". It was yet another strange thing to see, and caused me to remember an old movie my father had me watch when I was a kid.

My eyes met those of an old man in a white coat holding a gleaming razor in one hand and a steaming towel in the other. Shaving foam dripped from the chin of another man sitting in a chair. Both seemed frozen in time as they stared back at me. I smiled meekly and waved, then walked on.

Everything about this town felt medieval and creepy, as if a page from a history book landed on the ground and grew up around me. A rather baronial and ornate building had a sign that said, "Paradise City Hall, Justice of the Peace and Protectors of the Faith. Established 1850." I reread the sign and noticed a small gold star with "Constable" written in tiny red letters underneath.

I tried the door but it was locked, and then I knocked on the window. It was dark inside and nothing stirred to the sound of my knuckles. I decided I would just report the accident later, and walked another block and found Maggie's Cafe.

As I walked in the glass doors, a bell tinkled above and the waitress came and smiled as if she knew me. She waved for me to follow her down a row of empty booths, and when we reached the last one she set down a napkin and spoon on the table.

"I'll bring you some tea," she said and then disappeared.

Two old women were sitting on one side of the booth, their faces holding the same smile they had smiled when I had run them down and tore the bumper off their car.

"I'm so so sorry," I said, "are you hurt? Is there anything you need? I tried to report the accident to the Constable but no one answered the door." The words tumbled out of me along with all my fears about what might have been. They waved my worries away.

"No need to fret about that little ruckus, honey. We're fine and you'll soon feel better too. You just rest awhile and enjoy some tea with us."

They had that lovely, soft southern drawl, and if I had not been watching I would have sworn only one of them had spoken. The women's voices matched in tone, cadence, and perfect timing.

I sat down on the bench across from them, sinking deeply into the worn leather that surrounded me like soft butter. I realized how exhausted I felt and dared to lean my head back for just a moment.

"Now sweetie, your tea is just about ready."

I opened my eyes to see one of the women stirring in something golden that oozed from a small plastic packet. She passed me the red porcelain cup and I nodded my thanks. Sipping the hot tangy liquid, I felt it sting all the way down and engulf my insides in a flurry of heat.

The woman held her hand to her chest, then tapped the other's shoulder.

"I'm Sadie and this is my sister Sharon. We been 'round this country a long time and seen many a wond'rous thing. I must say that today is a most auspicious day of all."

They both smiled wide, and reached out to pat my hand. The coolness of their palms contrasted with the heat of my own, and their black skin showing up the pale brown of mine.

"Now dear, why'nt you tell us a bit about y'self."

"Well," I said. "My name is Amy. I'm from New York but I came in this morning to visit my mother. She's at Briar Ridge." I paused, wondering what they thought at my mentioning the name of the local looney-bin.

"Amy's a fine name. It means beloved."

I don't know if it was Sadie or Sharon who spoke. They seemed to blend together in voice and movement, and wore the exact same dark red sweaters over light gray silk blouses buttoned up to the neck. They kept their silver hair in the same, soft curl that surrounded their heads, and both wore black-felt fedoras tilted back at opposite angles. I noticed the only difference between them was the color of their hat bands. One was red and the other gold.

The waitress came to see if we needed anything else, and the sisters ordered another round of "Kentucky Tea". One of them reached up and touched the woman's arm.

"Maggie, be a dear and bring this nice young girl a couple of aspirin? Thank you so much."

I mouthed my own thank you to the waitress and turned back to the two old ladies.

"Amy, what is your mother's name? We know everyone around here and surely we must know her too."

"I doubt it," I said, and then stared shamefully into my tea, silently admonishing myself for my rudeness.

"Gali," I said, looking up to catch them turning their heads to look at each other and then back to me, in perfect unison.

"Gali, Galilahi. Yes dear, we know her very well." They both nodded. "Do you know what her name means? It's Cherokee for 'attractive', which you and your mother are very much. But we haven't seen you ‘round here since, oh, why you were just a child not even waist-high. Is this your first visit?"

I nodded.

"Now why is that, darlin’? A mother surely needs her daughter more often than that."

I pursed my lips before replying. "I just found out last week that she was here."

It wasn't a lie. I knew she was in a mental institution, I just hadn't known where.

"My father, um, I mean, my stepfather." I paused, not quite sure what my real story was anymore.

They waited patiently for me to continue, sipping daintily from their cups. I decided that it didn't matter what I told them. Once I had finished with the necessities I could leave this abominable town behind and catch my flight home.

"My mother was hospitalized 13 years ago today. I was six when my father," I shook my head and took a deep breath.

"I loved my father. He took me to New York and raised me up, but never spoke of my mother. He passed recently, and her location was identified in his will. I came here to tell her that I had spread his ashes as he had wished."

I didn't tell them he had made me promise to deliver some of those ashes to my mother. That she had violently grabbed the small urn from my hands and proceeded to sprinkle his ashes all around us, and then whisper something that I would always regret hearing.

"Oh Amy, that's so sad. Our condolences. Your mama loves you and has been waiting for you for a long time." Their soft drawl should have been reassuring.

"Did you know?" I forced out the question, my mind working over the horrors my mother had spoken before handing me the keys to that infernal car.

"Yes, dear. And it's time for you to pay your respects. That's why you're here."

"I don't understand.  That awful story she told," I swallowed. "I don't believe it."

I would not believe that the man who had been my father for as long as I can remember was not my biological father. I shook the thoughts away, causing my bruised forehead to turn into a raging bull.

The waitress refilled our cups and laid a small packet on the table.

"Bless you," I mumbled, ripping the packet apart and popping the two white pills into my mouth. I ground them to dust before washing the aspirin down with a large gulp of tea.

The sisters reached out and grasped my hands.

"We're sorry, darlin'. Her daddy got 'is self all worked up over her. And then you came along."

I could feel the comforting touch of their hands surrounding mine, but the shock and strain of the day left me aching and exhausted.

"But Amy dear," they said, "we've got to go now. It's time."

I nodded and began to reach for my wallet to give them my insurance information. What they said next made me stop in mid-motion.

"We'll be with you. We'll help you through it."

I must've been messed up from the pounding of my head and the Kentucky tea. I don't know how I found myself in the back seat of their little, bumper-less car, slowly traveling down Main Street. We passed Chris's Repair Shop, the Bronco nowhere to be seen.

The setting sun cast shadows across the tree-lined highway as we drove out of town. Where to I had no idea. I laid my head back and closed my eyes, and too soon snapped awake as the car came to a halt.

We parked just outside a rusted, wrought-iron fence that surrounded an area of overgrown grass and weeds. White Ash trees swayed and creaked in the breeze. One woman took an old brass oil lamp from the trunk and handed it to her sister, then pulled out a large and heavy handbag and looped the straps over her shoulder. I offered to carry it for her but she shook her head no, and instead handed me the car keys.

We walked towards the fence and passed a faded sign on the ground that read, "Paradise Cemetery". One sister was careful to close the gates behind us as the other directed me towards the only building in sight. It was a small but ornate mausoleum, and when we stopped at the limestone steps I stared at the beautiful calligraphy painted on the thick wooden walls. It was covered top-to-bottom with red and gold symbols, and the gold lettering ran up one side of the doors, across the top and down the other side.

"What does it say?" I asked.

"It's a lost language, for defenses against the darkness of the soul."

I turned to look at each woman but both were staring at the walls, their lips moving silently in prayer. Or perhaps they were whispering curses. I wanted to turn and walk away but they grasped my hands as if they could read my thoughts, and their grips were far stronger than I expected.

"We're here to pay our respects," one said.

"Just like your mama asked," the other said.

I don't know why but I took a deep breath and stepped up to the doors. I grabbed the iron loop handles and pulled. The doors didn't budge.

Both women whispered something I didn't comprehend, and as their voices drifted past me the gold lettering on the doorway slowly shifted and faded away.

"Try again, Amy," they said.

I gripped the handle of one door and pulled with all my strength. It shrieked as the metal frames scraped against the limestone. A musty smell rushed at me and made me want to gag, and I opened the door wide to let in the fresh air and failing sunlight.

Before I could take a step forward, the sisters grabbed my hands again.

"We'll be with you. We'll help you through it," they said in unison.

"Uh, okay?"

I led them inside and we stopped as soon as we crossed the threshold. They let go of my hands and one of them pushed a box of matches into my fingers.

“You must light the lamp,” they said, and I pulled out a match and struck it against the box. The smell of sulfer rose as the head sparked, and I passed the flame to the wick.

In the lamplight, the first thing I noticed were the leaves littering the floor, and then I saw the coffin sitting on a limestone foundation in the middle of the room. It looked as if someone had taken a sledgehammer to it, from the inside. The walls were busted out and the lid was strewn in several pieces across the floor.

I didn't want to walk through the leaves but the sisters nudged me towards the coffin. I moved towards it and heard something snap, the echoes bouncing on the walls. I looked down to see that I had crushed a bone underneath my boot.

A warm evening wind came through the door and stirred the leaves, revealing more bones. It looked as if they were large animals, all laid out in a circle around the coffin. I moved closer to the set nearest me and saw bits of skin and fur, even a whole skull with jaws full of large, jagged teeth.

"Oh my god," I said, realizing that some of the dead hounds were newer than others. Both women immediately shushed me, their hisses rebounded like the crack of bones under foot.

"Now what?" I whispered.

They guided me closer to the coffin and pointed at it. I turned away not wanting to see what must be inside, thinking I've gone crazy to do their bidding and to believe the story my crazy mother had told. I stepped away but they shoved a large, heavy cloth into my hands. It felt smooth and cool to my touch, reminding me of something I couldn't quite remember.

"Cover him," they said. When I didn't move, they asked, "are you frightened dear?"

"Hell yeah," I said. Both women immediately clapped a hand to my mouth, their eyes large and glaring. I don't know if it was just the reflection of the lamplight, but I swear their eyes flashed red for a moment before returning to their natural dark-brown.

"Do it now."

"No time to waste."

Their words were commands, and I nodded my assent.

They released me and I stepped back to drape the cloth over the body. The hairs on my neck and arms rose when one of his hands dropped out. It looked as if decay had not yet begun but the skin and nails were translucent. I could see blue veins crisscrossing the back of his hand in an unusual but oddly familiar pattern. A large gold ring with a blood-red ruby was set on his forefinger.

I reached for it, but the sisters slapped my hand away.

"Don't touch him!" They hissed. Sadie reached into her bag and pulled out a long, thin piece of wood. She handed it to me, motioning that I was to use the stick to push the hand back under the cover.

"Very good," they sighed after I had returned his hand to where it belonged. I adjusted the cloth with the wooden stick as they instructed, making sure that no part of the body remained exposed.

Not quite believing what I saw next, I wiped my eyes and then stepped closer to see that the blanket had begun to move. At first I thought it was the breeze causing the cloth above the chest to move up and down, making it look as if the dead had begun to breathe. Leaning closer I saw that the threads themselves were elongating and thickening, and the cloth was tightening around the body.

Startled by a sound behind me I turned back to see Sharon had dropped the bag and was clutching a large glass vial in one hand and the stopper in the other. She handed me the vial and nodded towards the body, a silent instruction for me to throw the vial’s contents upon it.

I drew nearer to the coffin and began tossing the fluid onto the cloth. Someone or something screamed, a cold and blood-curdling howl that made me nearly jump out of my skin. The sisters were mumbling something behind me, their words incomprehensible but growing louder and escalating the fear that was engulfing me. I stumbled back and tripped over one sister, the lamp she was holding fell to the floor and glass shattered. And then the shrieking began.

I stumbled out of the building and ran towards the car, swearing at the bruises my legs received from the stone grave markers hidden in the tall grass. When I reached the car I put it between me and the building, hoping it would shield me from whatever was happening.

I peeked through the windows and saw the mausoleum was on fire, the flames billowing out the doorway, as if following me. Reaching for me.

I collapsed to the ground as the terror from the howls and screams of something, some things, bore into me. I yanked open the car door, fumbled my way into the seat and pushed the key into the ignition. As soon as it turned, I shoved it in gear and pressed my foot on the gas pedal, and the little car raced towards the highway. I peeked over my shoulder and I swear I could see a myriad of figures, large and small, two and four-legged, writhing and dancing amidst the flames that devoured the mausoleum.


Years and many psychologists later I took a taxi back to the edge of Paradise. The town had aged centuries since last I'd seen it. Only a few hollow shells remained and were disintegrating back into the land.

I found the faded sign for Chris's Repair Shop still hanging on a wooden frame, and was amazed to see the Bronco sitting inside what once was the garage. Someone had lovingly restored the car to its original luster and shine. The keys were in the ignition and the car growled to life when I turned it on. I shuddered, remembering the words my mother had said when she handed me the keys.

"You was born in that car and saved in that car. And he wants you to have it."

I backed out of the garage and parked so I could go back inside the shop. I grabbed the leather chair I had once used and hefted it into the back of the Bronco to take it home, along with a picture of the man whose face so resembled my father's.

I drove down the long road to the cemetery, finding the gates still standing and opened wide. The White Ash trees were taller than I remembered, their branches now hanging low to the ground.

I parked the Bronco and walked around the perimeter until I came parallel to where the mausoleum once stood. There were no signs of its prior existence. No painted walls, no coffin, no bones. Just the limestone foundation, charred black from the fire.

Sunlight glinted on something near the center, but I didn't step any closer to investigate what it was. I decided it was the remnants of the glass vial the two sisters made me use to raise -- and destroy whatever had lain there.

I walked back to the Bronco, halting just outside the gates. A light afternoon breeze was blowing and the tall grasses rolled like waves on the ocean. I could see the tops of the markers of many graves scattered throughout the area, and like the bones of the hounds that had laid inside the mausoleum, the markers were placed in circles around the limestone foundation.

I took a deep breath and then stepped inside the gates, and stopped. Nothing happened. Nothing changed. The sun still shone and the breeze still blew, and my ragged breathing was the only unnatural sound. I walked towards the nearest grave marker and pulled the grass away, disappointed that whatever might have been written had been worn away by time and the elements.

I moved inwards to the next marker, and it too was faded, but I could see just a bare trace of lettering. The next marker was nearest to the limestone.

I hesitated again and then moved closer. One, two, three steps. I pushed away the grass and knelt to read the inscription that was painted in fine red letters bordered in gold.

"Here lie Sadie and Sharon Angelies, the next to the last Protectors of the Faith."

I bowed my head, not quite sure how I should pay my respects. And then I began to wonder.

What was "the faith", and who was the last Protector?
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