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OZARK BANSHEE


A Novel by

Malachi Stone



©2018 by Malachi Stone



All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission of the author. In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 as amended, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the author constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the author of this work at theoriginalmalachistone@gmail.com. Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

All the characters in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental. All characters in this book are over eighteen years of age.


Cover image (c) Stas Vulkanov


Cover design courtesy Fayefayedesigns



TABLE OF CONTENTS

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTERTWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

CONNECT WITH ME ONLINE



For my dear wife Maria, who loves a good ghost story—or even a bad one.



And when they were come to the multitude, there came to him a certain man, kneeling down to him, and saying,

15. Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is lunatick, and sore vexed: for ofttimes he falleth into the fire, and oft into the water.

16. And I brought him to thy disciples, and they could not cure him.

17. Then Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I suffer you? Bring him hither to me.

18. And Jesus rebuked the devil; and he departed out of him: and the child was cured from that very hour.

19. Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out?

20. And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, if ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.

21. Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.



Matthew 17: 14-21, King James Version.


11. And God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul:

12. So that from his body were brought unto the sick handkerchiefs or aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of them.

13. Then certain of the vagabond Jews, exorcists, took upon them to call over them which had evil spirits the name of the LORD Jesus, saying, We adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preacheth.

14. And there were seven sons of one Sceva, a Jew, and chief of the priests, which did so.

15. And the evil spirit answered and said, Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye?

16. And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, and overcame them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.



Acts 19: 11-16, King James Version.



CHAPTER ONE


"There's some serious money to be made in deliverance ministries."

"I thought you were an exorcist."

"Best damn exorcist you'll ever meet. Exorcism. Deliverance. New name, new game."

"A rose is a rose is a rose," Mag said. "That's Shakespeare, isn't it?"

"How the hell should I know? The way to do it is, you find yourself a local congregation and get them to invite you in. Have them call a special meeting to meet the nice visiting pastor who's anointed with a special gift of deliverance, see? Wednesday nights are good. Make sure to build up a little advance publicity a week or two ahead of time. Gets them all stirred up and antsy, to where they can't help wondering whether Aunt Ethel or Little Earl might be possessed by a demon."

"What kind of advance publicity are you talking about, Mike? It's not like we have any money or anything."

"Who said anything about money? A free demonstration. Like the Good Book says, seedtime and harvest. Works like a charm, but you have to watch for every opportunity and act fast if you want to plant the seed in these hayseeds. Before you know it, it's the night of your special meeting. By eight PM or so, you're steady working your Missouri hoodoo and popping demons out of the faithful like a teenager popping his zits in the bathroom mirror. That's when you pass the plate a couple times, set up a table to sell literature—no, a coupla tables—and start stacking the money. Hey, did I ever tell you about vaskania? The evil eye? You ever find yourself stranded in a town with a lot of Greeks you can make some money casting out the evil Eye. I can teach you. It's easy. Technically it's supposed to be performed by an old woman, but hey."

"That rules me out. Doubt there's that many Greeks around here anyway. Where did you ever pick up all this creepy stuff, Mike?"

"From paying attention. 'From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.' Quick: what's that from?"

"What's what from?"

"See? You're not paying attention. You gotta know these things cold, Mag. These people we'll be dealing with? They may be ignorant in many ways, and not smell so good, some of them—okay, all of them—but they know their Bible. They can spot a backslider at forty paces. Now tell me who it was that said, 'From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.'"

"I don't know. Marco Polo?"

"I'm telling you, Mag, you go handing flip answers to these hillbillies, they'll flag you as a poseur and run us both out of town on a rail."

"So who said it?"

"Our ancient enemy, that's who. Old Scratch. Captain Howdy. Lou Cypher himself."

"Quit it, Mike. You're giving me a headache."

"Book of Job, first chapter. The sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan was also among them. You know what's interesting? Some versions leave out the ‘also’. What do you think of that, Mag?"

"I think a hamburger and fries would hit the spot right about now. It must be over three hours since I've seen so much as a McDonald's along this godforsaken county road. Are we there yet?"

"You're looking at it. The Ozark foothills. God's country."

"He can have it." They passed a road sign that said Reynolds County. The face of the sign was pockmarked with buckshot, rust running down from the buckshot holes like tears tinged with blood.

"Don't you want to hear the rest of it? So anyway, the Lord asks Satan, 'Whence comest thou?' They talked like that back in Bible days. And Satan comes back with the quote I just gave you. Cool, huh?"

"We've been driving for hours and you still come off like a coffee'd up spaz. What's with you tonight, man?"

"Filled with the Holy Spirit, I guess."

"Don't blaspheme, for Christ's sake. Especially about that."

"This from an erstwhile riverboat casino dealer. What are you, getting religious on me all of a sudden?"

"That sixty grand a year plus tips came in handy while you were 'building your ministry,' as I recall. If hanging around my apartment watching Christian television all day while you drank me out of Red Bull at two bucks a pop is 'building your ministry.'"

"You want to know what I was doing day after day, Mag? Are you the least bit interested? I was on my knees praying for inspiration, that's what. They say Saint James spent so much time kneeling, back in the day, his knees looked like a camel's. I know what they meant. Take a look at my knees some time, Mag. Here, reach out and touch, if you don’t believe me, Doubting Thomasina." Mike rolled up his pant leg and offered his right knee for her inspection, taking his foot off the accelerator.

"Eew! Don't show me that." Mike's knee was rough and darkened with healed carpet burns. Mag turned to look out the passenger window at the wooded landscape speeding by. She cracked the window and the cold night air rushed in.

"And I'll tell you something else, Mag: inspiration came. God took his own good time with me, but inspiration came."

"This is me, Mike, remember? Magdalene Murphy from Bridgeport, not one of your Hills Have Eyes hayseeds. And quit screwing around slowing down like that. We're liable to get ass-ended out here in the ass end of—”

The crash sounded like a bomb going off. The car lurched over a deep ditch, took to the air and slammed into a dead tree on the other side. Steam hissed from under the hood and seeped through the dash.

Mike groaned once after he came to. He looked over at Mag. Her head lolled.

"Mag, you all right? Baby? You all right?" She made no answer other than a deep moan like one refusing to be roused from sleep.

"Oh, Christ! Mag! Say something!"

A heavyset man appeared at Mag's window from out of nowhere. He looked to be around forty, with a ruddy beard but no mustache. His face was pasty and he breathed through his mouth. He wore a broadbrim caved-in hat that shaded his broad moon face from the moonlight and the reflected glare of the headlight against the tree trunk. "Don't try and move 'er yet," he cautioned. "Best wait on the amblance."

"Have you called 911?"

"Awready done called the 911 emergency. They went and stuck me on hold. Don't that put the onions in yer grits?" He held up a Walmart cell phone as though in confirmation, flipping it open like a badge. "You folks ain't from around these parts," he added confidently.

"What was your first clue?"

"Them Illinois licen' plates for one thing," he said, sounding the s in Illinois.

"Are you the guy that hit us?"

"Shoot, no, I'm the good Samaritan that pulled over to hep y'all, seein's how it's my Christian duty n'at. Name's Jeb."

"You go to church, Jeb?" It had come to be Mike's standard opening gambit since having become a self-ordained minister.

"Ever'body goes to church 'round these parts, Mister. Lucky for you, you happened to wreck smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt."

"Yeah, lucky us. How far are we away from Pfisterville?"

"Pfisterville? Why, it ain't no more'n a hog holler down this here stretch a road. You all got business in Phisterville, Mister? Don't mean to keep calling you 'Mister' but I don't rightly recollect havin' caught your name."

"Don't recollect havin' thrown it, beggin' your pardon, Jeb. Name's Mike. Folks call me Pastor Mike. Fact is, I’ve been invited as guest pastor by a congregation just outside Phisterville. They’ve asked me to conduct a deliverance service there next Wednesday night." Mike, having put on a cornpone accent, chameleonlike to match his new friend's, extended his hand toward the window across Mag's unconscious form.

"Say, maybe I'd best try that 911 emergency number again," Jeb said. "She's been out a powerful long time." Jeb turned aside to place the call. He hissed with impatience, shook his head and snapped the phone shut again. "Busy," he said.

Mag stirred, so subtly that only Mike could hear. Something, the same sense that showed him the next card, had already tipped him off that she was alive and waiting. Waiting, listening and holding her breath until she knew the shot. Seedtime and harvest. Mag was one smart chick. Mike pretended to take her pulse, pressing against her jugular with his right index and middle fingers.

"How she doin'?" Jeb asked.

Mike stared at Jeb and said, "She is sleeping," drawing out the words for effect.

"I took me one a them Red Cross CPR courses back when I'se in high school?" Jeb said. "And one a the things they teach is you gotta look out 'cause sometimes when it seems like they're asleep it's 'cause they got them a danged closed head injury."

"Jeb," Mike said softly, "when I said she is sleeping, I meant it the way Our Lord did when he addressed the crowds before He resurrected Jairus's daughter. You know that story from your Bible, don't you?"

Jeb's eyes widened. "What're you tellin' me? You mean she's …you're sayin' she's …dead?"

"She's dead, Jeb. There's no pulse. Feel for yourself if you like."

Jeb shrank away. Opening his cell phone again, he said, "Best call the sheriff, then."

"What say you save on your minutes and hold off on that call, Jeb? You see, the simple fact is, I'm not only a deliverance minister but a healer as well. Maybe we won't be having to roust the sheriff out of bed after all. What do you think about that?" Mike unfastened his seat belt, crossed his hands reverently on Mag's forehead, tilted his face up toward the dome light and closed his eyes. "Heavenly Father," he prayed in a loud yet breathy voice like the tremolo of a church organ, "in Jesus' name we pray that You see fit to resurrect this woman, Your handmaiden and my helpmate, and to heal her of every injury, every disease and every infirmity. We humbly ask it, Father, in the all-holy name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, amen." Mike had picked up the trick of never pronouncing the h in humbly. He repeated the prayer two more times with ascending intensity.

He felt Mag stir. She was on board. They were like a dance team, instinctively knowing and anticipating each others' moves. In a louder voice he went on, "Lord, resurrect and heal this woman Thy handmaiden. Restore her soul into her body, which has been broken. Breathe the breath of life into her nostrils once more, Heavenly Father. Fuse together all broken bones, cure all paralysis, reattach and repair all torn tendons and ligaments, refurbish all soft tissue throughout her body that may have been torn asunder in this terrible collision. Stanch all internal bleeding and take away her pain and suffering, in Thine All-Holy Name we pray, amen."

There was no sound other than the ticking of the cooling engine and the wind in the trees. Mike glanced at Jeb through one eyeslit. Jeb was praying silently, hat in hand, his lips moving.

Mag sat forward. Mike opened his eyes and met her beatific expression. "I've been resurrected!" she shouted. "I've been healed, praise Jesus!"

Mike took her hand in his and raised them upward in a gesture of thanksgiving, echoing, "Praise Jesus!" Only then did he look over again at Jeb, whose mouth hung open in awe.

"I ain't never seen no miracle to match that in all my born days," he gasped. "You done brought her back from the dead right before my eyes!"

"Only God can raise the dead," Mike said. "Give God the praise."

"Praise Jesus!" Jeb shouted at the night sky. "Praise his Holy Name!" Startled crows flapped and cawed, taking flight from the sanctuary of a nearby oak tree.

"Now aren't you glad you listened to me and didn't make that call, Jeb?" Mike asked. "Only thing we'll be needin' tonight is a tow truck and not a hearse."

"Only place with a tow truck ‘round here is shut down 'til morning," Jeb said, eyes bright with excitement, speech rapid. "Don't fret none, though. I got me an International tractor that'll do the job. An I dowanna hear no argument, neither; y'all're gonna be stayin' the night with me and my old lady. After what I done seen here tonight, she'd plum nail my hide to the barn door if I let y'all go without her meetin' ya's. Both of us're Spirit-filled believers. My ol' lady's a strong believin’ woman. Name a Dorcas."

"Dorcas," Mag remarked. "Means gazelle."

"There now, see how you are?" Jeb said. "It took a preacher's wife to know that there. You and my ol' lady're gonna get along right well, Ma'am. I can tell that awready. The two a ya's're bound to get along mighty fine."

Jeb had made his way up to the rim of the ditch and was fooling with the cell phone again. Mike climbed out of the car, circled around the tree he had hit and tried Mag's door. "It's jammed," he told her. "Slide over. You're going to have to get out on my side." Then under his breath: "How're you doing?"

Mag glared at him and hissed, "My neck's killing me and my head feels like it's in a vise, but otherwise just peachy, thanks to you."

Mike warned her, "Keep quiet about it. Remember, you've been healed."

"How could I forget?"

"Listen, these people are believers, get it? You've just been raised from the dead. I couldn't have asked for a better break. We play this hand right—”

Jeb ambled down into the ditch again, slapped Mike on the back and said, "All set, Pastor Mike?"

"Ready as we'll ever be, thanks to your Christian hospitality, Jeb. I was just telling Magdalene here about your kind offer to tow our car and accommodate us for the night."

"Ain't no kindness about it. The way I figger, y'all'd do the same for us if the tables was turned. Now ain't that right?"

"Thank you very kindly, Jeb," Mag said in her sweetest pastor's wife tone, smiling until it hurt. "Just let me scoot my poor old body out of this poor old car and we'll join you." Mag was a quick study.

"Door stuck?" Jeb grabbed the handle with both hands and yanked on it. With a sound of wrenching steel, something gave and the door popped open. "You jest gotta talk to it a little," Jeb said.

"You're a strong one," Mag marveled. "Like Samson."

"My ol' lady says it's 'cause I got the strength of the Lord in me, but I dunno. My pappy, he was a strong 'un, workin' on the farm ever' day of he's life. My brothers and me, same thing."

"They grow them big in your family, do they?" Mag asked.

"Yes, Ma'am they do."

"Call me Magdalene, Jeb." Mag took his hand and gazed into his eyes.

Jeb pulled his hand away shyly and looked down. "My ol' lady'll be gettin' worried about us. Best get you folks on home. Your husband can help you down the side a that ditch and up t'other, Ma’am."

Mike held Mag's arm and steadied her around the waist as they climbed out. She remembered to grab her huge vinyl satchel of a purse. Mag lost a shoe and Mike had to go back for it, slipping and sliding on the wet ground.

"Muddy for November," Jeb remarked, extending Mike a hand when they had neared the top. "Been stayin' warm all season. Trees still got all their leaves, you notice that? Downright unnatural for this late in the year, least around these here parts."

There was a white Ford F-350 pickup at least thirty years old and covered with dents parked on the shoulder, engine idling. To Mike it looked as big as a semi cab. "Plenty a room in Old Betsy here," Jeb said. "Climb on in and we'll head for home."

"Guess there's no need to lock our car," Mike said.

"She ain't a' goin' nowhere 'til I hitch her up to the tractor, that's a fact."

"Our luggage is in the trunk, though."

"Trunk'll come right along with the rest of her once I hitch up the drag chain and tow her out."

Jeb drove no more than a mile along the two-lane blacktop before turning down a dirt lane almost completely obscured by trees. "You know," Mike said, "We drove right past this lane a few minutes ago and never knew it was there. It'd sure be awful easy to miss. You ought to put up a mailbox or a reflector or something."

"Don't got no mailbox," Jeb said. "And don't git much company. Folks 'round these parts like their privacy. Makes for good neighbors."

The lane twisted and turned, headlights illuminating the leafy bower overhead, reflecting an unnatural verdancy as though the witch of November had enchanted the trees themselves with an uncannily extended life.

Jeb downshifted as the truck entered a clearing. The F-350 climbed a small rise. There in front of them, looming like a phantom, stood a wooden covered bridge, or at least the carcass of one. The hammerbeam timbers of its roof were mostly gone; moonlight shone through the bones of the skeleton that remained. The dilapidated sides were wood lattice truss. Jeb downshifted again, remarking, "Gotta take 'er down to granny gear for this here," and drove onto the bridge at no more than five miles per hour. The pickup barely fit inside the structure. The hammering of its tires against the floor joists shook the ruined bridge like the noise of a workhouse in hell. Mike and Mag each breathed a sigh of relief after they had made it across without falling into the rocky churning rapids below.

"That there bridge's near two hundred years old. Can you believe it? Ain't on no historical register, neither. That's 'cause this here's private property and allays has been. Me 'n Dorcas and the young 'uns, and Grammaw too, we all live off the land like the Good Lord intended."

"That's fascinating, Jeb," Mag said. She had planted herself between the two of them when they had boarded the truck and was now thoroughly enjoying her game of making Jeb uncomfortable. Flirtation came to Mag as naturally as breathing. "You know what seeing that bridge reminds me of? That story we heard as children, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Remember that one? There was a covered bridge in it that the Headless Horseman was forbidden to cross because evil spirits supposedly can't cross running water."

"I read that 'un once," Jeb acknowledged. "Didn't advance me spiritually none, though. I try and keep from filling my head up with garbage from story books like that 'un."

"Ghost stories under a full moon," Mike said.

"Whadda you think a that Sleepy Holler story, Pastor Mike?"

"Sorry?"

"D'ya think evil spirits can cross running water?"

Mike paused a bit. "It just so happens, Jeb, that you're talking to a man who knows a thing or two about evil spirits—demons, we call them. And I have to go with what my Bible tells me. Read your book of Job. Your demons can only go as far as God permits and no further. I guess that means they can cross running water but only if God gives them permission first."

"That's what I figgered. See, if you was to look at a survey or a plat map, this whole place is built on an island. That bridge we just come over? That's the only access. You’d have to be ol Joshua hisself partin’ the Jordan to make it acrost that there turgid water we just got done crossing. Otherwise you’d get kilt tryin’ to wade acrost, either from drownin’ or bustin’ your head against them big rocks. The Little Hoot Owl rapids, folks around these parts call ‘em, are what marks out the east boundary of the property. The Little Hoot Owl rapids break free of the Black Fork River, run faster’n the devil all the way around the eastern boundary and feed over a steep waterfall right back into the Black Fork that marks the western side. Sounds nigh unnatural but that's the way it's allays been. See what I mean?"

"I'm not quite sure, Jeb."

"Why, supposin' a demon like in one a them story books was to pop up here on the home place? She couldn't never get free of it 'cause it's surrounded on every side by running water.’ Course, that means the people that was livin’ here couldn’t never get shut a her neither."

"Why 'she?'" Mag asked.

"Beg pardon, Ma'am?"

"You said 'she.' I was wondering why you would refer to a demon as feminine."

Jeb rubbed his beard. "I dunno," he said.

"The Bible teaches that God created the angels neither male nor female," Mike said. "Our Lord tells us that in Heaven they are neither married nor are they given in marriage. All demons are is fallen angels, so it follows that demons aren't male or female, either."

Mag, as she always did when Mike talked religion, nodded and smiled, gazing at Mike like an adoring politician's wife.

Jeb squinted into the headlights ahead, their beams swarming with bugs so late in the year. The unflattering angle of the light made him look weary. "They're liars, ain't they?"

"Christ says that Satan is a liar," Mike agreed.

"Then maybe some a his helpers have got purty good at dissemblin' over the years," he muttered.

The way was choked by tall weeds. Thistle taller than a man stood up in the truck's path, their huge clover heads encircled with guard-spiked collars. "County won't come out this far to spray," Jeb explained as he drove through the sea of weeds. Wave after wave of the plants made a swishing sound against the bumper and the undercarriage, seeming to whisper a warning as the truck whished over them.

"Their flowers are so lovely," Mag said. “It's a shame you have to run over them that way."

"They's plenty more where they come from," Jeb said. "They grow like weeds around these parts."

"They are weeds, right, Jeb?" Mike joked.

"Ya got ya a point there. Some say when thistle're left to grow that big the nectar in them purple flowers turns to deadly venom. I ain't fixin' to get close enough to find out."

"And this late in the year. It's amazing they haven't died down by now."

Jeb leaned forward over the wheel and shot Mike a stern look. "I done told ya," he said, "it's been a powerful warm fall this year."

A broad vista opened before them, and in the center of it all a stately mansion with double gallery porch, gabled windows and a widow's walk guarded by wrought iron pike that reminded Mike of the spikes that surrounded the thistle heads along the lane. The house was nearly choked with overgrown vegetation that seemed to glow an unearthly green in the light of the full moon. Huge trees in dark goblin shapes and shadows crowded against the stone foundation in a death embrace. Their twisted limbs had broken and poked through the upstairs windows like a mess of snakes and had dislodged many of the antique cedar shingles. Dead ahead was an ancient one-room schoolhouse with a weathered tin roof.

"It's so beautiful," Mag sighed. "Like something you'd see on an old picture postcard."

"Yep,” Jeb said, pointing to the mansion. “There she sets: the mill house. Still got an old mill wheel facin' where the rapids run along the back side of 'er, just shy of the waterfall. I know exactly what you folks’re thinkin'. Truth be told, it has seen better days, and a lot of 'em. This whole home place was built around 1850 by a family of Irish. Steamboat Irish, folks took to callin' 'em back then—behind their backs a course—and it stuck. O'Brien's, they was. Come over here with nothin' but the clothes on their backs and got rich as Croesus off the riverboats."

"Rich as Croseus?" Mike said. "Still waters run deep in your case, don't they, Jeb? I never thought I'd hear an expression like 'rich as Croesus' way out here in the boonies."

"Musta read it somewheres," Jeb said shyly. "I try and read some. Books mostly. They won't run cable out as far as these here parts, so they ain't much to do once it gets dark except to set by the stove and read. We could prolly order us up one a them satellite dish doohickeys, but me and the ol' lady don't believe in television anyways."

"You don't believe in television?" Mag asked. "Why's that?"

"It's a devil's box," Jeb stated matter-of-factly. "Same goes for them there computers they got now."

"You know something, Jeb? I do believe you're right. Although I've often thought that if the Lord were to bless me with a Christian ministry to where I could broadcast my message to a wide audience of folks over television or even online, why it would be like the Lord were to open the windows of Heaven and pour down a blessing upon us so big that you know what? We purely couldn't contain it all."

"Malachi Three," Jeb said. "I hear ya. The thing is, though, me and the ol' lady're afraid that havin' television around might interfere with the home schoolin' and that. Matter of fact, all of us live in that lil ole schoolhouse up yonder. It may not look like much but it suits us fine. O'Brien's money built that, too."

"If ye'll peardon a lady for stearin', Jeb, ye look kind of Irish yerself," Mag teased in a brogue. "Got some Irish in ye, me lad?"

"Aw, naw," Jeb said, wagging his head and scratching his red beard. He may have blushed; it was hard to tell by the dashboard light. "I get that ever' now and then. Last name's Bagby. Don't sound Irish at all, now does it?"

"Sounds more Scottish to me," Mag said.

"Well, there you go."

"So excuse me for asking a personal question," Mike said, "but if the O'Brien money built all this, how is it that the Bagbys wound up living here, Jeb?"

"Well, now, that there's a right interesting story," Jeb began. "Remind me to tell it to ya sometime—oh, lookie there! That's my Dorcas standin' on the front porch wavin' like a schoolmarm!"

Jeb threw open the driver's door and sprang out of the truck, loping toward the woman on the porch. She was not waving, but rather stood still as a ghost—a ghost holding a kerosene lantern in her hand. She wore a long homespun dress and a white bonnet like that of a pioneer woman. Dim flickering firelight shone through the open door. She extended her arm with the lantern, holding it out straight as a gallows beam. The shifting patterns of light transformed her expression from sullen to haunted.

"That is the most depressed woman I've ever laid eyes on," Mag remarked under her breath.

"Now that you mention it, she doesn't look too happy. Bet she tells a hell of a redneck joke, though, once you get a few drinks in her."

"I'm serious; she looks clinically depressed, even suicidal. I know I would be if I had to live out here in these conditions."

"What conditions?"

"You mean to tell me you didn't notice anything funny on the drive here, Mike?"

"Funny how?"

"You know the feeling you get when you sense something's missing? Something that you see every day and always take for granted, but when it's gone you notice it kind of subliminally, out of the corner of your eye? How it nags at you? Well, that's what was going on in my head until I realized."

"Realized what?"

"No utility poles. No poles or wires ran past the blacktop road anywhere along the lane. None. And do you know what that startling observation made me wonder, Mike?"

"Jeb told us they don't believe in TV or computers. Maybe they don't believe in electricity either. Tell me."

"If they don't have any electricity, "Mag said, "then tell me how our charming host charges that phone he's been pretending to use?"

"Maybe he works in town and does it there."

"You hear him mention a job? It's obvious these people live off the land like he said."

“Maybe he used one of those chargers that runs off the cigarette lighter in the truck.”

“Do you see one?”

“I didn’t pay any attention.”

“Well, look.” Mag pointed to the dashboard. Instead of a cigarette lighter there were loose wires and a gaping hole like a gouged-out eye.

“So maybe they don’t believe in smoking.”

“C’mon, Mike. Get serious for once in your life.”

“So he was only pretending to be using a cell phone,” Mike said. “What's the big woop?"

"The big woop is, when he told us he was calling 911? And we were pulling our little resurrection-from-the-dead scam?"

"Yeah?"

"Maybe we were the ones being played.”

They both jumped when Jeb's grinning jack o'lantern face suddenly reappeared, this time at the driver's window. Dorcas stood staring in at them from Mike's side, illuminated like a cemetery statue from the lantern she carried.

Jeb jerked open the door of the truck, leaned his head in and said in a hearty voice, "Come on in and make yourselves to home."



CHAPTER TWO



The old schoolhouse had been built up high on a stone foundation, its red-painted clapboard siding now weather-faded and worn. A belfry perched at the front peak of the pitched tin roof so that the structure might have passed for a backwoods church. At the very center of the roof was a tottering brick chimney. Four high narrow windows ranged along either side of the building like four sets of astonished eyes. Dancing beams of firelight escaped through their panes of glass—green-marbled like clouded emerald baguettes—and cast strange distorted patterns across the ground. Walking arm-in-arm with Mike a few paces behind Jeb and Dorcas, Mag murmured, "Fairy wings."

"What?" Mike asked her.

She pointed to the sickly-green reflections. "They look like the wings of fairies dancing around a bonfire."

"You're seeing things, Mag," Mike whispered hoarsely. "Fairies dancing? I guarantee you these Bible-thumpers aren't the type to believe in fairies. Better keep your mouth shut. Remember, you've been hit in the head. Act like it, and don’t do anything to torque off our charming hosts."

“Charming host and scowling hostess, you mean,” Mag whispered.

Jeb and Dorcas each held open one heavy double door for their guests.

"Reminds me of the first day of school," Mike joked as he and Mag entered. Behind them, Jeb scolded Dorcas, "I thought I told you'n them young 'uns to keep that there stove door closed less'n you're feedin' wood to the fire." She made no response.

In the center of the room was an antique cast iron cook stove. The covered indoor woodbox beside it was big enough for two people to sit on. A black stovepipe extended through the high ceiling. Jeb stalked inside and threw open the lid of the woodbox. It held no more than a double armload of split cord wood that scarcely covered the bottom.

"Prid near run us outta wood again," Jeb rebuked.

"You told me to cook for company," Dorcas replied in a voice so soft and otherworldly it might have been the wind in the trees that had spoken.

Mag nudged Mike and beckoned for him to lean over so she could whisper in his ear. “Did you hear that?”

“What?”

“Dorcas just reminded Jeb that he’d told her to cook for company.”

“Yeah?”

“When did he get a chance to tell her anything? How did he know we were coming?”

“Maybe he called ahead. You know, from the scene of the crash.”

“You see any phones around here? Other than Jeb’s cell phone, that is?”

“Y’all hungry?” Jeb asked.

"I can see somebody's been busy cooking up a tasty meal," Mike said. "Everything smells delicious. Is that a turkey in the oven?"

"That's rabbit you're smellin', Pastor Mike. We eat us a good deal of small game this time a year: rabbit, pheasant, even squirrel if the deer ain't runnin. Whatever the Good Lord in His providence sends our way. My Dorcas knows how to cook up rabbit to where you'd think you was feastin' on the King's venison."

"You'll have to teach me, Dorcas," Mag said. "I've never cooked on a wood burning stove." Dorcas stared down at the rough plank floor. There were bolt holes where desks had once been anchored to it. Dorcas looked as though she might want to escape through one of them.

"Dorcas here ain't never cooked on nothin' else," Jeb offered. “Here, help yourself to one a them little bitty wild tomaters from that there bowl on the table.”


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