8962 words (35 minute read)

Chapter 5

So the town was called Three Summers. How it got the curious name I was never able to find out. Some say it was a reference to the three year period between the completion of the house on the island and the completion of the dock on the banks of the river where the town now stands. Other say it refers to the lifecycle of the town, as one resident told me: “People would come for about three years, and then they were gone for three years, and then they came back for three more.” At the time of this writing the town is almost completely abandoned. – “The House of Dust.” Southern Gothic

            Missy was sweating, and she didn’t mind. Now that the town was in sight she could look back on the hour as a refreshing period of mental and physical rejuvenation. That’s what Ms. Macre back at the club would have called it. “Any time with just yourself is the best time you’ll ever have,” she said. “Enjoy it.” True, after the miles in the shade the sun was unpleasantly hot – but a slight unpleasantness wouldn’t turn her mood sour. What was the fun of anything if she was always cross?

            She turned onto the main road and walked by drives shrouded in tangles hedges and passed lots that fronted burnt out buildings and defunct businesses. She had seen these while driving in yesterday, but upon closer inspection they provided an ominous portent for her chances of finding a supermarket. Still, she didn’t let it bring her down. She walked on confidently and squinted up at the sky. Clouds hovered there, in the corners of the horizon. Oh well, she’d be home long before they broke, should they chose to do so.

            The gritty smell of cigarette smoke stung her nostrils. Her gaze returned to earth. A man stood in the doorway of the building she was passing, puffing quietly and staring at the empty street. She turned and looked across the crumbling parking lot at him. “Hello, there.”

            He looked at her.

            “Where do I buy groceries?”

            “Huh?”

            “Where’s the supermarket?”

            “Ain’t got one.”

            “Where’s the market?”

            “Ain’t got one.”

            “Where did you buy that cigarette?”

            “Rolled it myself. Grew the tobacco myself.”

            She drew in a breath and let it out audibly. “Where do you by food?

            “Grow a lot myself–”

            “Where can I buy–”

            “Hey!” He threw down his cigarette and stalked out into the sun. “Do not cut me off! Who are you? Don’t you know anythin’?”

            “Why!” She said, drawing back. “What a rude man you are! What a dirty, ugly, rude man!”

            He was perhaps fifty, though over consumption of food and smoke had added an extra fifteen years to his appearance. He wore an unbuttoned white shirt – large sweat stains had turned the armpits dark. He barreled toward her. She examined his threadbare grey trousers and scuffed shoes with contempt. He stopped five feet away. “Sure you don’t want to take that back, little lady?”

            “Not a chance. You look worse the closer you come.” But she began to wonder if he really would try to beat her up. She glanced up and down the road and found no one in sight. An additional wound on her body was the last thing she needed, so she gave him her sweetest sour smile and stomped on up the street. She did not look back, but since the wheezing, lumbering sound of a buffalo did not pursue her the man must have relented – coward.

            She struggled to keep the incident from ruing her day. Why shouldn’t it? She had nearly been attacked! She would report the brute to the authorities. She would have her fiancé report him.

            She entered ‘downtown’ with her temper teetering on the edge. Downtown meant a collection of buildings that were more than a single story. The theater was here, a poster from a 1927 film hanging in a poster box. There was a sort of intersection in the middle of town, and here at last she spied some signs of sentient life – cars parked along the curb. Most of them were clustered around a building that was diagonally across the intersection from here. She crossed the street as the gentlest fingers of wind began to brush the morning’s air. She glanced up at the three story façade before pushing open the door.

            More cigarette smoke. Nearly every hand in the place was clutching one of the little white sticks. And the skin of nearly every hand was wrinkled. She looked wistfully at the faces, searching for skin as smooth and lush as her own. Instead, she found she was surrounded by a group of people as withered as a garden in winter. Except there. A man with a full head of greased black hair sat at the bar at the back of the room, facing away from her. He turned on his stool as the door creaked shut. His pupils were pure black, and when he smiled there was a perfect black line between each of his perfect white teeth. She remembered what Ms. Macre had said about the joy of being alone; in the presence of this person it was both the truest and stupidest thing she had ever heard. “Hello, ya’ll,” she said, a little breathlessly, and walked through the tables and smoke and silence to the bar. “I just met the rudest person.”

            The man with the black hair leaned over and pulled out the stool next to him. “That would be Horace,” he said. “The man’s a nuisance.” He looked back over the room of blank faces, and she looked with him. “Go on,” he commanded. “Just a girl.” His voice was like a waterfall from far away – it was deep and made things vibrate. “They’re not completely awake yet at this time of morning,” he added a little apologetically. “Though that may not account for all their weirdness.”

            “The man who came after me was more than weird,” she said. “He was a vicious animal. I asked him where I could buy food and he started yelling and screaming.” She shuddered, then smiled. “I trust he’s an outcast of this fine looking community?”

            The man took a gulp from his glass of milk, then released a contented sigh. “Won’t you have breakfast, ma’am?”

            “Is there any place to buy groceries around here?”

            “What’s your name?”

            She looked at him. “Oh come on, don’t be like the brute I just dealt with. Answer me straight or I swear I’ll leave this instant.” Why was there a smile tugging at her lips?

            The man looked right back at her and then smiled as well, showing more of those teeth. For some reason she felt he had been smiling the whole time and she been unable to see it. “No, you cannot buy food here,” he said.

            “Well, how inconvenient. Her gaze moved from him to the diner, to the full plates and chewing mouths, and she sniffed the bacon and batter and coffee.

            “Local,” he said. “Freely given. Except the coffee – that is fetched from out of town.”

            “But . . .” an odd sort of panic touched her. What sort of place was this where she couldn’t buy what she wanted? “How do you do it without money?”

            “Very easily. An effective way of excluding strangers, don’t you think?”

            “But I’m hungry.”

            “I asked you if you would have breakfast.”

            “You’ll pay?”

            “No. And neither will you. Nobody will.”

            “But I’m hungry!”

            “Then ask.”

            She looked around. The withered garden tried to act uninterested. “Who?”

            “Same person you would at any other diner – the waitress. Sarah!”

            An old woman with a blue cloth tied over her head peered out from the back. “Eh?”

            “This girl is hungry. Aren’t you?”

            “Yes, I’m hungry.”

            “Ain’t never seen her before.”

            “She’s with the new man.”

            “Eh?”

            “He came around a few weeks ago.”

            “Oh. Ain’t wastin’ food on her then!” She disappeared.

            The man smirked, then called again, “Sarah!”

            “What?”

            “I’d like another plate.”

            “Fine. Don’t think you’re trickin’ me, though.”

            The low hum of conversation slowly resumed after the exchange. Instead of ascending to the rafters with the smoke, as the hubbub did in most breakfast restaurants she knew, these discussions rolled off the table and dripped onto the floor like molasses. Just listening made her sleepy. But she was afraid of the dreams she would find if she laid her head down.

            “So, you must tell me your name, now.”

            She blinked, and looked at the man, and resumed her smile, but with her lips, not her teeth. “I’m Missy. Who are you?”

            “Some people call me Jet.”

            “I think that’s what I’ll name my dog.”

            “Some people call me Coal.”

            “Like the burning rocks?”

            “Most everyone just settles with Ezra.”

            “You must either be very important or very unimportant to have so many names.”

            “I’m many things to many people. What are you?”

            She placed her elbow on the bar and rested her cheek in her hand. “I’m just a girl . . . a somewhat confused one.”

            “And before you came here?”

            In the musty room with the greasy air the crisp, clean smell that emanated from him was startling. Each time he moved a fresh wave would wash over her. The cologne and aftershave combined to evoke memories of the executives and congressmen who had occasionally passed through the club. Even her fiancé had never smelled that good and he had an occupation. “Before I came here I was the same girl, just a little less confused.”

            “How old are you?”

            “Is this a rite of passage?”

            “Just being neighborly.”

            “How far do you live from me?” She asked.

            “Everyone in the community is your neighbor – it’s not like the city, where you only speak to the people on either side of you, and that only sometimes. And you live on Angel’s Landing. Everyone will want to know about you, though they’ll never ask.”

            “Is that the name of the house? Angel’s Landing?”

            “The island. The house doesn’t really have a name.”

            She let her smile widen. “You sure it isn’t called Hothouse? Or Greenhouse? Or Flower House?”

            He drank the rest of his milk.

            “Oh, you know what I mean! It was you who put them in there, wasn’t it?”

            “I don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about.”

            “The daffodils.”

            “Like this?” He touched the one by her face.

            “You’re not married,” she said.

            “Neither are you.”

            At one point in time she might have blushed. “I’m not.” She pulled the flower from her hair. “This is yours, then?”

            He took it. “Thank you.” He broke off a bit more of the stem and stuck the flower into his lapel. “You may not have such a hard time after all.”

            She looked into those dark eyes as something unbearably tingly crawled up her right arm. In the moment they had both touched the flower it had touched her fingertips, a sizzling buzz like static. She imagined ripples of energy had formed a dozen diminishing outlines of the flower around the real one. She imagined now that the thing in her arm was radiating energy – she could see the stuff shimmering on her skin like heatwaves. “Whatever do you mean?” She asked unsteadily.

            “The few who pause here run at the first sign of . . . abnormality. But one will inevitably meet abnormality no matter what corner of the world one ends up in. You’re ready for that, I can see. You can face it, Missy.”

            The sensation touched her funny bone and her arm jerked. She gripped the bar hard. “I guess that’s a complement, Ezra?”

            “It most certainly is.”

            Sarah came out of the back and set a plate down in front of him. She watched as he pushed it to Missy. She glowered at him before ambling off.

            Missy examined the food carefully with the fork. It appeared to be an innocent plate of biscuits and gravy, but since the old woman knew it was intended for her she might have slipped . . . something in.

            “Don’t worry,” Ezra said. “She wouldn’t poison you without my consent.”

            “Oh. Good.” She shoveled a bite in and chewed cautiously. Seemed alright. When it hit her stomach the beast awoke and the next ten minutes were spent in mindless consumption. The man sat beside her, arms on the bar, smelling clean and staring at her. She didn’t care until she was finished. She realized how dry her mouth and throat were. “I’m thirsty.”

            “Ask Sarah.”

            She drew a breath. “Sarah!”

            The ensuing silence roared in her ears. The door to the kitchen creaked open and the old woman’s forehead and eyes inched around it.

            “May I have a glass of milk, Sarah?”

            She went away. When she returned she held a brimming cup. She set it before Ezra and darted off.

            “Thank you, Sarah,” she called. She took the glass from his place before he could scoot it across. She drank deeply, finishing it in one draught, and when she let out her own contented sigh the life leaked back into the room.

            “You’re all weird,” she said. “You didn’t blink once while I ate that.” She placed the cup on the plate and pushed them to the far side of the bar.

            “Think of me as a keeper of the keys.” He pivoted on the stool and stepped to the floor. “Now, shall we go get your groceries?”

            She stepped down as well, brushing off the front of her dress. “We better, or he’ll be mad.”

            “Your non-husband?”

            At that moment a little boy burst through the front door. “Horace is coming!”

            A general groan washed away the chatter. In the stillness that followed she could hear a maniacal yelling echo through the streets.

            “Charming,” Ezra said. “Come along.”

            She followed him through the tables to the door. There was a clattering and scraping as the diner’s patrons rose to follow. The air and light were restless outside. Thin clouds raced across the sun. Ezra popped his neck and straightened his jacket. Then he walked to the center of the intersection. She stuck close, preferring him to the horde behind her.

            There was the crazy person, hauling himself up the road she had walked a half-hour ago. He raised an unsteady finger when he saw her: “Jade! Little outsider! I’ve seen your kind before. I’ve seen what they can do. Ain’t gonna happen again! Not to me,” he heaved a breath. “Not to nobody!” Dropping to his knees he felt about in the dust. He pried a crumbling piece of asphalt from the road.

            “Was he this bad earlier?” Ezra murmured.

            “No. He was very rude – and aggressive. I cut him off because he was rambling and he attacked me! Is he drunk?”

            “No, he’s insane.”

            The man struggled back to his feet and raised his arm with the grimy piece of rock. Before she knew what was happening Ezra had reached into his coat and drawn out a gleaming black pistol. The report jerked echoed off the building’s and drilled into her ears. She reeled away from him, eyes clamped shut, her hands pressed uselessly to her ears. It felt like a minute at least, but when she did open her eyes he was just lowering the pistol. Her adversary lay sprawled in the dust a few dozen feet away. There was no blood yet – none that she could see.

            She didn’t want to see. She turned away quickly. The crowd stood outside the diner, watching. They seemed to be fixated on her rather than the gunman or the corpse. She ran.

            She ran toward the bridge and the edge of the town. Her stomach was convulsing, and she ran with her hand over her mouth. The hot, shining expanse of the bridge was too exposed. She needed to hide. She took a gravel path that cut off right before the bridge. It sloped down and ran to an expansive ramp that sunk into the river. She took refuge in grimy, cool shade beneath the bridge. She crouched beside one of the graffiti stained pillars and looked up at the birds’ nests constructed on the underside of the road. Had regular traffic ever thundered along up there? Had real, sane people built that ghost town? Or had her fiancé brought her down a rabbit hole while she wasn’t looking?

            She studied a coke bottle lying near her feet and tried to think about anything but the gunshot.

            So she thought about the gunshot.

            She dropped her head into her knees and wished she was home. Not the house, not the club, but the messy duplex back in Atlanta when she was ten and Mommy was there. All the moves and jobs that had taken her farther from there, step by step, had been mistakes.

            A sound came to her and she sat up – a sound getting closer. A car. It turned off the road above and crunched and popped down the gravel drive to the lot before the ramp. It turned so the passenger was facing her, then stopped.

            That madman Ezra got out.

            He was terrifying, with his black hair and eyes and clean suit. Could he see her sitting in the shadows here? She was almost afraid to move – what if he decided he was tired of her? She scooted around the pillar and got up, slipping farther under the bridge, hiding behind another pillar.

            “It’s okay, Missy.” His voice echoed. “You don’t have to be afraid, the bad man is dead. He was a bad man. We should have done that a long time ago, but . . . we have soft hearts. He couldn’t have got away with his assault on you. He wanted to kill you.”

            “Why?” She knew her voice would betray her locations, but his smug assertions couldn’t go unchallenged.

            “He said himself – because you’re a stranger. He was afraid of you. But I’m not. You don’t have to be a stranger, Missy.” He was getting closer. “I’m sorry if it shocked you. I’ll warn you before I do it again.”

            “Oh! You’ll do it again.”

            “Invariably.”

            “When will it be my turn?”

            “When you become like him. But I think you’re stronger than that.” He came around the pillar and she jerked. His shoes should have crunched on the gravel. She should have heard him.

            “I’d be crazy to stay here after what you did.”

            He looked at her very solemnly. “What did I do?”

            “You . . . broke the law.”

            “Which one?”

            “The one that says you can’t shoot people in the street!”

            “And who made that law, Missy?”

            “Someone did. Who had authority!”

            “Who gave them the authority?”

            He was keeping his distance, but she felt violated. He was trying to get inside of her, into her mind. “The people did.”

            Now he smiled. “As they did here. The people gave me the authority to dispose of unworthy community members, I have done so. They also give me the authority to integrate new members, which I am trying to do.”

            “I don’t want to be a part of your stupid community!” She tried not to rub her temples, but they were aching like they did every time she was sad. Anger she could handle, but not grief. It was pure debilitation.

            “Why are you sad, Missy?”

            She shook her head. “Because I thought . . . maybe I could be happy.”

            “You will be. Is not having Horace on the streets to abuse you really going to make so much difference? Be truthful. Is it?”

            “No.”

            “Then everything’s fine. I have a rule – never waste your time on anyone whose death you’d forget about by lunchtime.”

            “It’s just the way you did it,” she said.

            “For which I’m sorry. I’ll be more sensitive in the future.”

            She nodded.

            “Now didn’t you say you need groceries? Then let’s got them before the rain arrives.”

            “Okay.”

 

            They drove back through town, and she was relieved to see the body was gone. So were most of the people at the diner. They continued along the main road from the bridge for perhaps two miles, passing the turnoff that led back to the house. She half expected to see her fiancé standing on that road, arms folded, glaring at her. Instead, when she leaned over to look at the road as they passed it, Ezra glanced over at her and she quickly sat straight again.

            “So what’s his name?” He asked.

            “Benjamin Daleder,” she replied.

            “That so?”

            “Yes.”

            “What does he do?”

            “He’s a bond salesmen.”

            “Very wealthy?”

            “Not very.”

            She rolled down the window so conversation would be difficult. Overgrown woods and fields cruised by. Then they were turning onto a gravel drive. Trees on the left hand, an old fence and a sea of grass on the other. Only the two strips of grass on either side of the driveway were mowed.

            “We arrive at the home of Joshua Carstens,” Ezra proclaimed. “Here you may secure milk, cheese, butter, eggs, and so forth.”

            There were a few other cars parked on the lawn before the house. He pulled up among them and they both got out. They followed a gravel path down around the large yellow house to a yard with a barn on the one side, facing the fields, and a long low shed on the other, alongside the trees. An old tractor was parked by the barn and an old pickup by the shed.

            “The shed,” he said.

            Two young girls sat by the door to the shed, stroking an enormous yellow cat. They both grinned at Missy as she passed. That nudged something inside of her, and she forced her own smile back to her face.

            The sour rancor that filled the shed almost erased the smile. It was dark inside. The concrete floor had so much dirt on it earthworms would have felt at home. Boxy, open-top refrigerators were lined up along the walls. Down the middle of the shed stood a row of tables with knives lying on them or sticking out of them.

            People moved about in the gloom, opening the refrigerators, selecting sallow blocks, taking them to the tables and hacking a certain amount off, then returning the unclaimed portion. The place smelled so bad that she half-thought of leaving, but he nudged her and she went about her business as nonchalantly as possible.

            She was sawing through a half-frozen block when Ezra, who had been wandering about chatting with the people, said, “Ah, Mrs. Carstens, afternoon to you.”

            Missy looked back and saw a monster blotting out the light from the door. “Jet,” she rumbled. She came through with two buckets of milk and made for a backroom door. She had gotten to the door, even kicked it open, before she set the buckets down abruptly and turned. “Who is that?”

            “I was hoping you’d ask,” he said with his hands behind his back, halfway between them. He nodded to her.

            She set down the knife and wiped her hands on her dress. “I’m Missy.”

            “Miss Who?”

            “Missy. It’s my name.

            “She’s one of the new folks on Angel’s Landing,” Ezra said.
            “New folks? I heard nothing about that. Where’d she come from?”

            “From just outside Nashville. Originally I’m from Georgia.”

            “You don’t have to come over, I see you fine from here. Your husband?”

            “From Tennessee too.”

            “Name?”

            “Uh . . . Benjamin, uh . . .”

            “Daleder,” Ezra supplied.

            “Huh.” The woman crouched, tottered, and heaved the buckets back up. “Well, take all you need darling.” She squeezed through the door and vanished.

            She stood for a moment, then glanced at the other people in the shed, all looking at her, and quickly returned to the block of cheese.

            “I’ll have to meet your husband sometime,” he said as they left the shed, her things packed in a grimy basket.”

            “Bye, girls,” she said instead.

            The girls looked up from the cat and waved. “Bye, Missy.”

            Back on the road, Ezra drove farther from the town. The car bumped across some railroad tracks and she caught a glimpse of the decayed wood and rusted metal through the weeds. “How long since this place was alive?”

            “Quite a while.”

            “Before I was born?”

            “How old are you?”

            “22.”

            “Then yes.”

            She looked at him sidelong. “How old are you?”

            “About twice that.”

            She went ridged. “You’re jokin’.”

            He chuckled. “Certainly not. Is it a problem?”

            “You – don’t look it at all.”

            “Well, I’m full of surprises, aren’t I?”

            Her fingers kneaded the fabric of her dress. “I think you make yourself out to be one thing when you’re quite another.”

            “What is the other?”

            “I guess I’ll have to figure that out.”

            He nodded. “Well, won’t that be fun? But you’re smart, I think you’ll be able to do it.”

            “Do you flatter everyone this much?”

            When she looked back at him he was shaking his head. “No.”

            That made the churning in her stomach even more turbulent.

            They turned right onto a new road that intersected the one that had taken them out of town. A couple miles more found the car turning into a wooded drive. This one sloped down before coming out in the yard of a house of the edge of a vast field. “You’re not a vegetarian, are you?” Ezra inquired.

            “No.”

            “Then go get your meat. The man’s name is Wilson. No one else here, so you might run into him. No fear, though, he’s rather alright. You’ll think so, anyway.”

            She was glade to be out of the car, if only for a few minutes. His smell and presence were oppressive, like July humidity. She passed the house, this one glistening with a recent coat of red paint, following a dirt path that slopped gently down to a large white shed. Beyond, a few miles distant, she could see the river glimmering along the edge of the fields. The smell of manure carried with the wind.

            Inside the white shed it was cold. Meat lay in freezers ranged around the small, clean room. And it was blessedly empty. She dove in, dug out the dark hunks that looked like they would please him best, and finding nothing to carry them with, headed for the door with the pieces rattling in her arms. Even though she knew it was alright, the spiking thrill and greasy guilt of theft pulsed through her. She was just wrestling the door open when a voice said, “Found what you needed, I hope?”

            She turned slowly, clutching the meat to her chest.

            A slight, balding man with glasses and bloody hands was holding a knife in the far door. Behind him was a room with a floor that shimmered red.

            “Yes,” she said brilliantly. “Thank you so much! You’re wonderful to do all this work and get no reward.”

            “I love my work,” he said earnestly. “What else would I do?”

            His voice was like the voice of the boy she had been forced to babysit once. The boy’s father had stopped by the club and the boy had made thrown a fit because he got hot in the car in the parking lot. She had been told to watch him in a backroom while his dad was occupied. “Where’s daddy?” He had moaned over and over. She sat before a mirror with her chin in her hand and looked at herself and said, “I don’t know,” each time.

            “But I don’t believe I’ve seen you before,” the man went on. He smiled, approaching and holding out his free, though equally bloody, left hand. “I’m pleased to meet your Miss . . .”

            “Missy.”

            “Miss Missy. I like it. I love it!”

            She awkwardly shook his left with hers, dropping a roast in the process. “I’m sorry.”

            “Oh it’s frozen, it won’t hurt it. I’d like to offer fresh meat, but I kill so much that the people can’t keep up with it! So I have the freezers. Frozen meat’s alright. Who are you now?” She accepted the roast from his trembling fingers. “I’m one of the new folks on Angel’s Landing.”

            “Oh, so you’re living at the old place now. Well good. It needed someone there. Don’t worry about the roast, it’ll be fine. You can cook it and eat it and it’ll be fine. You can even drop it a few more times and it’ll be fine. Just fine.”

            “That’s good to know. Now I guess I better go.”

            “Lemme get the door for you!”

            “Thank you.”

            He waved at her as she was passing. “Bye! Bye Miss Missy!”

            “Goodbye, Mr. Wilson.”

            “You know my name! Fine! Bye! Bye Miss Missy! Bye! Bye-bye now! Bye!”

            He called farewells to her the entire time she climbed the hill. Then she heard the voice stop abruptly and the door close.

            “See why no one’s here?” He asked as she climbed back in the car.

            “He’s sweet,” she said decidedly. “The nicest of the psychos I’ve met today.”

            “Including me?”

            “Yes.”

 

            The house of Mr. Jeremy Irons sat alone upon a grassy hill. They reached it by going back along the intersecting road, passing through the crossing, and proceeding perhaps three miles. The house was in plain sight of the road, and many cars were parked on the hill before it. She looked out her window as they bumped up the driveway. Large tracts of land at the bottom of the hill were plowed up and planted as gardens – vegetables, mostly, though there were a few colorful splashes of flowers.

            “I take it you’re also not purely carnivorous,” Ezra said.

            She thought this was stupid and didn’t reply. When he stopped the motor they both got out. “I can do it myself,” she said.

            “No, I don’t think you better. Old Jeremy can be moody around strangers. You’ll have to go up to house to get a basket and he might be prowling around.”

            “Is everyone around here a simmering pot?” She asked, slamming her door. “Besides Mr. Wilson.”

            “Don’t discount Wilson. He acts alright because he has cows to take it out on. Anger is the devil’s cocaine and we’re all addicted.”

            “If you think they’re all so crazy why don’t you leave?”

            “Did I ever say there was anything wrong with being crazy?” He looked passed her toward the gardens where people were moving about, gathering their previsions. “I love it.”

            They walked up the driveway. Oddly, she found her smile was trying to return. Really trying.

            Mr. Irons’ house was a lime green with white trim. It had an expansive front porch similar to that of her own new house. She imagined it was the sort of house where she would have visited a rich uncle when she was young, if she had had a rich uncle. Ezra didn’t lead her inside, but along the front and around the side where there was a set of steps leading up to another door. Beside the steps sat a pile of basket. “Take one and gather all you need,” he instructed. “I’m going to have a chat with the old man.”

            Steps had been cut into the hill down to the garden and paved with grey stones. An old man labored passed her with a basket, eyes half closed. He didn’t seem to notice her, or if he did he didn’t know he should hate her. Most of the people in the garden did, however. As she wandered through the rows upon rows of vegetables she caught the glances of many faces between leaves and across shoulders. She made a purpose of meeting each set of eyes. She would not be afraid. She had already been through two of these food gathering ordeals. She hadn’t been shot yet. She hadn’t even been yelled at. But the looks . . . looks had never been that hostile back at the club. Hungry, not hostile. Delirious, not hostile. And even in the neighborhood in Atlanta, where a week never went by without someone being gunned down, the looks hadn’t been hostile. Uncaring, rather.

            Her fingers were dirty and cut by the time she stood among the tomatoes. He did love tomatoes so. He would always order a glass of tomato juice at the bar before anything else. She selected the plumpest, ripest fruits and laid them among the collard greens. She was conscious of time, now. How many hours has she been out here? What must he be feeling like, back at the house without a thing to eat and nothing to do but work? “Well, since he liked the chicken salad so much he can eat that. And since he likes to work so much he can do that.” She ran her eyes over her haul, then turned quickly. Something slammed into her face.

            It exploded across her skin. Acrid juice stung her eyes, and fleshy smell of tomato filled her nostrils. Ants in the dirt froze as the basket dropped from her hands and plunged like a meteor to the ground, claiming two tiny lives. Then came a high-pitched laugh.

            As she rubbed the watery blur from her eyes, a little demon came into focus. It was perhaps ten, and had dark hair hanging in its eyes. It also had a second tomato in its left hand. She took a step forward, ready to give him the same treatment she gave to anyone who came on too quickly without the proper advances. Her foot caught in the basket, and she felt twenty minutes of careful selection turn to pulp.

            As she fell, the second tomato hit her in the stomach. It was rotten, and burst, and she watched the juice cascade across the front of her dress. She hit the dirt.

            “Ahhha! Aha! Ahhahhhaa!” Shrieked the monster.

            She pushed herself up as a third tomato hit her thigh, right where the dock had scraped it. If it had happened earlier in the day she might have been able satisfy herself with a simple what-a-stupid-moronic-idiot-you-are sneer. But it was now, not earlier. She didn’t hold her temper back, she pushed it over the edge. Reeling to her feet she yelled, “Little bastard!” at the boy as he scampered out of her reached.

            “Come on, lady!” His voice was raspy, like he had the Flu. “Come on, play with me!”

            “Oh, I will.” She planted both feet on the ground, feeling the vegetable juice squelch between her foot and sandal. “Just come right over here, and we’ll start.”

            “You think I’m pretty dumb, don’t you?” He scampered passed her in among the tomato plants. A vine snapped and another red projectile hurtled toward her. She dodged this one and pursued him in among the plants. He dodged here and there, grinning with his crooked teeth, and tossing tomatoes and dirt clods. Then he dashed back out into the open area between the garden tracks. He stood there, juggling three of the rotten fruits and calling, “Lady, lady, come out and play!”

            “Sure thing, sonny!” She pulled a large green tomato from among the fuzzy leaves, turned it in her hand, and stepped out in the open.

            “Lady, lady, come and play with–”

            It smacked him right in the forehead. He fell backward and lay still.

            Two hands, wrinkled and grey, clapped together slowly. She looked to her left and found an older man approaching. Grey eyes looked at her out of thin, grey face shrouded below shaggy grey hair. He wore a pale blue button-up and khaki pants. His voice was like sandpaper. “Did you kill the little blighter?”

            She blinked twice and began to wipe off her dress. “I couldn’t say.”

            “It was certainly a battle to the death.”

            “He seemed like a nuisance to the community to me.”

            The man studied her. “That he is. Only trouble is, if Mrs. Moore finds him like that she’ll make herself a nuisance as well. Pitch him in with the cucumbers, why don’t you?”

            “Mr. Iron’s won’t mind?”

            “If he is dead he’ll fertilize the plants.”

            She looked at her hands, now smeared with juice. I looked a little like blood. If the kid was dead, would she still be mourning him by dinner time? No, she’d be glade he was gone. She went to him, scooped up his slight frame, carried him to the edge of the cucumber patch and threw him in among the tangle of vines. She turned away, dusting off her hands, feeling suddenly that all was well.

            “You’re stronger than you look,” the man commented. “The new lady of Angel’s Landing?”

            “Indeed I am.”

            “Get you’re basket, I’ll help you regather everything.”

            “That’s very kind of you.”

            “The least I can do, to welcome you to our midst.”

            She picked up the basket and turned to look at him. “You’re the first one to say anything like that. You have no idea how much I needed it.”

            The man shrugged, taking in hand the cane he had carried over his arm. “Probably the last to say it, too. For now everyone will glare at you – mostly because you frighten them. But you’ll grow popular in time, I think. Coal brought you here?”

            She scraped the mess from her basket and shook it out. “Coal . . . Oh, yes. He did. He’s been showing me around, this morning.”

            “Did your husband stay at home?”

            “Yes – getting the last things arranged.”

            “What’s his name? And yours?”

            Her fingers tightened on a fresh, plump tomato. “I’m Missy.” Slowly she placed it in the basket. “He . . . his name is Jefferson. Jefferson Thompson.”

            “Well, I’m very pleased to meet you, Mrs. Thompson.”

            His gaze crawled across her naked ring finger. “You’re by far the nicest man I’ve met here,” she said sweetly.

            “Coal’s alright too, though.”

            “He can be too much, though.” They walked to the next patch.

            “He’s still a boy at heart. I can understand why he’d be attracted to you, Mrs. Thompson. I’m sure you’ve noticed our lack of a younger generation. We have children, and we have aged, but not too much in-between.”

            “Please, call me Missy.”

            “The people of our community waited until the last minute to have children – to preserve their freedom for the longest amount of time, I think they said. There’s something to it, maybe. But all the kids act like – well, they leave something to be desired.”

            “I did meet some nice little girls at the . . .” She waved a pepper. “At the dairy.”

            “Carstens’ girls. Yes, April and May are sweet little things, but they have a touch of leprechaun mischief about them too. Kale’s there. You want some more kale?”

            The man glanced up to the sky while she harvested. “Yes, looks like we’ll get our afternoon thundershower right on schedule. Always the same here. All the patterns seem allergic to breaking. Hope you won’t mind a quiet life, Missy.”

            “That’s what we came here for,” she said without looking up. It was what her fiancé had come here for. It might be alright with her too if she could have the satisfaction of hitting that brat in the face each morning. That might fulfil her ambitions for meaning enough to allow her the leisure of reading mystery novels the rest of the day.

             “Well, if quiet’s what you want quiet’s what you’ll get. Unless–”

            “Jeremy, old man!”

            They both looked back toward the house and the hill. There was Ezra, striding toward them between the vegetable rows. “Well, speak of the devil,” the old man said.

            “Jeremy, what are you doing down here flirting with my girl?”

            “You’re girl, Coal?” He wheezed a laugh.

            She stood up quickly, “He’s just helping me, Ezra. He knows his way around really good.”

            “He better, he owns the place.”

            “Oh!” She dropped her kale into the basket. “You’re Mr. Irons.”

            “Now you’ve gone a spoiled it all,” Irons growled.

            “Spoiled?” Said Ezra. “What did you have planned?”

            “You probably filled her head with a lot of nonsense about me. Telling her I’m a grumpy old sorcerer.”

            “He did,” Missy said, coming forward. “And I don’t believe a word. I’ve already told him, Coal, that he’s the nicest man in this whole place.”

            “But what on earth has he done to your dress?” He came forward and touched the place on the front of her leg where the third tomato hit. She couldn’t hide her wince as his weird electricity struck through the fabric to the wound in her leg. His touch was like a dozen bees collectively stinging her.

            “It was that brat Roy,” Irons began. “He threw tomatoes–”

            Ezra cut him off, “You’re hurt, Missy.” And before she could stop him he had drawn up the hem of her dress to expose the cut in her thigh. It looked awful. Purple flesh surrounded the gooey gash. His fingers, light but steady, pulled the lips of the wound apart. She chewed the inside of her cheek as cloudy liquid oozed out.

            Iron’s gaze moved between the wound and her face. His mouth parted, about to object, but he stopped himself. Both pairs of eyes that examined her were analytical and one-dimensional. They were like the eyes of the doctor she had gone to see when she was seventeen. The tightness in her chest untied and her hands opened. “Oh, I did that. It was just an accident.”

            Ezra pressed the spot with two fingers until it blazed with pain, then let her skirt down. He stood up. “What happened, Missy?”

            “It was nothin’. We were bringin’ a bookcase into the house and I dropped a corner of it and it hit my leg.”

            “That cut wasn’t made by wood,” he said sternly.

            “It was a metal bookcase. My . . .” she looked between them and wished she’d left it at that. “My partner keeps a lot of books. He has too because of his occupation. Really, neither of you two gentlemen need to worry about me.”

            Ezra looked at Irons. “You say Roy did this? Where is the little brat?”

            “Gonna shoot him?” Missy asked. She wondered if she was joking.

            “Maybe.”

            “No need for that today,” Irons said. “She chucked him in the cucumber patch. He’ll wake up when the rain starts. I heard our friend Horace, however, has gone to bed for good.”

            Ezra switched his gaze to the heavens. “You’re right about those storm clouds. Why don’t we walk back to the house, Jeremy?”

            Irons asked, “Will you be alright, Mrs. Thompson?”

            The other man made a sound that started as an objection and became a clearing of his throat.

            “I will be just fine, Mr. Irons, but thank you for your concern. I’ll finish putting this basket together and be right up.”

            “Yes,” Ezra added. “‘Mrs. Thompson’ has hobbled around on that leg all morning. I’m sure it will last her long enough to finish collecting food for her and her dear husband . . . what was his name?”

            “Jefferson,” Mr. Irons supplied.

            “Of course. Like the president.”

            “Where are the carrots, Mr. Irons?” Missy demanded.

            He pointed. “The patch at the end of the field there. Last one.”

            “Thanks,” she turned, picked up her basket, and walked quickly in the direction indicated. A buzzard, cruising the blustery afternoon winds, watched the individuals move apart, one moving into solitude, the other two moving toward their shelter.

            She looked back when she reached the carrot patch. They were out of clear eyesight – the house was at least half as mile distant. Her leg shook violently. She pressed her hand to the wound through the cloth and reveled in the pain, feeling the infected liquid spurt out. She set the basket down and massaged the sore area. He’d just made it worse by touching it. She had intentionally ignore it, but now that he had zapped it with his magic influence the cut was smarting and stinging and she wanted to punish by making it smart and sting even more. She looked around for a sharp stick to plunge in. Just rows and rows of carrot tops. But the woods were close here.

            She was being ridiculous. She was still flailing in the air after falling off the cliff of her temper. She was alone again – the best time, according to Ms. Macre. To be alone meant to be in control. She knelt demurely and pulled a carrot from the dirt. She thought about stabbing the stubby nib into her leg. “Of course not,” she said allowed. “I am clearly suffering from some sort of delirium caused by an infection. What?”

            She looked up. But there was no one there. She stood slowly, carrot still in hand. And there it was, standing at the edge of the woods. “Hello,” she said.

            A gust set the trees above it tossing wildly. A leaf – one that should have fallen many months later, when autumn came – was torn from an upper branch. It blew out into the open. It summersaulted towards her.

            The thing came with it. It came with the wind and the shifting light and the smell of rain. It strode right toward her, yet seemed to glide, like the shadow of a cloud scurrying over the ground. It bore down on her and her leg blazed.

            She screamed and ran.

            She’d done neither since she found her mother dead.

            Now her heart gathered itself and sprayed adrenaline out through her body like the debris of an erupting star. She ran not toward the house but parallel, toward the road and the edge of Mr. Irons’ property. She didn’t look back because she didn’t have to. The thing could be felt as much as seen. She could gage its proximity by the dancing molecules in her thigh – the riling rebellion of her body to its poisonous presence.

            She was in the trees. They separated her from the road. She was tripping and stumbling. Something was burning in her right hand, crushing the bones. The air in her nose was the molten metal of cold winters day. The sweat on her body was ice water.

            There was the road. Something was roaring in her ears. The skies broke overhead and she was lost in a world of millions of silver drops racing down past her eyes, down, down. The thing was so close. Her scream was like bricks scrapping together. The presence was pressing on her back and her body was screaming in protest. Her hair, thick with water, was pushing across her shoulders and forward around her head, fleeing the horror, sticking out straight in front of her, forming a tunnel. Her arms did the same, flying up and going stiff in front of her. The thing in her hand was milling her bones to mush. Her legs would go next. She could feel them buckling, pushing forward. The very lungs in her chest were trying to rip free. The thing was reaching for her heart! It wanted to get at her heart.

            Then came the very mundane and beautiful sound of squealing rubber. She was lying on the road and the hot breath of a car was wafting over here. A figure dashed through the rain, and arms lifted her. Raindrops bounced off her pupils. She closed her eyes and when she opened them the roof of her fiancé’s car was staring down at her. The driver door slammed, followed by a long sigh.

            She forced her head up and her eyes down. Her hand lay in her lap. Her fingers were white and streaked with grime. She was still clutching the carrot.

            “At least you got the shopping done,” he said.