Mystery Walk

Chapter 1

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"Yes," the woman said at last, lifting her finely shaped chin from where it had rested against one thin brown hand, her elbow supported in turn on the armrest of a cherrywood rocking chair. She'd been staring into the fire as the two rawboned men in their patched overcoats and scuffed workboots had been talking. Though she was outwardly thin and fragile, the woman had deep-set hazel eyes that radiated a thoughtful inner strength. Her name was Ramona Creekmore, and she was one-fourth Choctaw Indian; the breed blood showed in her sharp, proud cheekbones, in the lustrous russet of her shoulder-length hair, and in the eyes that were as dark and placid as a forest pond at midnight.

When she spoke, John Creekmore shifted uneasily in his chair across the room. He'd pulled himself out of the way as they'd been talking, wanting to be no part of what was being said. He'd put his dog-eared Bible in his lap and looked into the fire and thought that Hell was all around him now, quickly closing in upon him. He had a long, lean, and weathered face, cracked with lines like a thin pane of autumn ice. His hair was thick and curly and reddish-brown, his eyes a clear ice-blue; Ramona had told him many times that she could see the sky in them, clouds when he was angry and rain when he was sad. Now, if she had looked into his eyes closely enough, she might've seen the approaching storm.

The two men hadn't moved. They were leaning on each side of the fireplace like long blue-jeaned bookends. John placed his hands on his Bible and watched the back of Ramona's head.

"Yes," she said quietly. "I'll come."

"No she won't!" John said harshly. The two men glanced at him, then waited for the woman to speak again. That angered him, and he said, "You two have made the trip up from Chapin for nothin'! It bein' such a cold day and all, I'm sorry for you. I know why you're here, and I know why you think my Ramona can help you, but that's all over now. It's in the past, and we're both tryin' to forget it." He rose to his feet, still clutching his Bible. He stood tall, at six-three, and his broad shoulders stretched the red flannel shirt he wore. "My wife can't help you. Don't you men see that she's eight months along?"

Ramona touched her stomach gently. Sometimes she could feel the baby kicking, but right now he – yes, it would be a boy, it had to be a boy, for her husband's sake – lay perfectly still, as if minding his manners because they had company. But she could feel his heart beating deep within her, like the soft fluttering of a bird aching to take flight.

"Mr Creekmore," the taller man said quietly; his name was Stanton, and he wore a full winter beard flecked with gray. He was pale and gaunt, and John figured he wasn't too far from eating bootsole soup. "We can't go on like this, don't you understand?" The man's narrow face was pinched, as if in pain. "My God, man, we just can't!"

"Don't you come in my house and take the Lord's name in vain!" John thundered. He stepped forward, raising his Bible like a weapon. "If you people in Chapin followed the Holy Word like you should, then maybe you wouldn't have this trouble! Maybe this is God's way of lettin' you know you've been sinners. Maybe it's meant to – "

"That ain't the way it is," the second man, named Zachary, said wearily. He turned toward the fire, kicking at errant chips of wood. "Lord knows we didn't want to come here. But . . . it's a painful thing and not somethin' that you want to talk about or think about too much. People know about your wife, Mr. Creekmore; you can't deny that they do. Oh, not everybody, I mean, but a few people. People who've had a need. And now …" Zachary looked over his shoulder, directly at the woman. "We have the need."

"But you don't have the right!"

Zachary nodded. "Yes, that may be. But we had to come, and we had to ask, and now we have to hear the answer."

"I've given it." John raised the Bible high, firelight licking at the battered leather binding. "What you need is this, not my wife."

"Mr. Creekmore," Zachary said, "you don't understand, I'm Chapin's minister."

John's mouth hung open. The blood seemed to rush from his face, and the Bible slowly came down to his side. "Minister?" he echoed. "And you . . . you've seen this thing?"

"I've seen it," Stanton said, and quickly averted his gaze to the fire. "Oh, yeah, I've seen the thing. Not too clear or too close, mind you . . . but I've seen it."

There was a long moment of silence between the men. The firewood popped and sizzled quietly, and the November wind crooned across the roof. Ramona rocked in her chair with her hands across her belly and watched John.

"So you see," the minister said, "we didn't want to come. But it . . . it's an unholy thing not to try to do something. I've done all I could, which wasn't so much, I guess. Like I say, there are folks who know about your wife, and that's how we found out about her. I prayed to God about this, and Lord knows I don't understand it, but we had to come here and ask. Do you see, Mr Creekmore?"

John sighed and sat back down. His face was slack-jawed, his eyes grim. "No, I don't. Nothin' I see about it a'tall." But now he'd turned his attention to his wife and was waiting for her response. The Bible felt cool in his hands, like a metal shield. "Ain't no such thing," he said. "Never has been. Never will be."

Ramona turned her head slightly toward him, her delicate profile etched by the firelight. The two men were waiting, and they'd come a long way on a cold afternoon with a real need, and now they would have to have their answer She said to the minister, "Please leave us alone for a few minutes."

"Surely, ma'am. We'll just go out and wait in the truck." The two men went outside into the deepening gray light, and before the door shut, a cold wind whipped through and fanned the hearth flames into a crackling fury.

She rocked silently for a moment, waiting for him to speak. He said, "Well? Which is it?"

"I have to go."

John let out a long deep sigh. "I thought things were going to be different," he said. "I thought you wouldn't … do those things anymore."

"I never agreed to that. I never could."

"It's unholy, Ramona. You're in danger of Hell, don't you know that?"

"Whose Hell, John? Yours? No, I don't believe in that kind of Hell. Not at the center of the world, not with devils carrying pitchforks. But Hell is right here on earth, John, and people can step into it without knowing, and they can't get out – "

"Stop it!" He rose abruptly from the chair and strode toward the fireplace. Ramona reached out and grasped his hand, pressing it against her warm cheek.

"Don't you understand that I try to do my best?" she asked softly, her voice quavering. "That's all there is in this world: to try to do the best you can. …"

John suddenly sank down on his knees beside her and kissed her hand, and when her knuckles were pressed against his cheek she felt the wetness of a tear. "I love you, Ramona; Lord knows I do, and I love the child you're gonna give me. But I can't say yes to these things. I just . . . can't. …" His voice cracked. He released her hand and stood up, his back toward her "It's up to you, I guess. It always has been. It's unholy, that's all I know, and if you want to walk that path then God help you." He winced as he heard her rise from the rocker.

She gently touched his shoulder, but he didn't turn toward her "It's not that I want to walk it," she said. "It's that I was born to. I have to go with them." She left him, going into the small bedroom where tiny pipings of wind shrilled through minute cracks in the pinewood walls. Just above the bed's headboard hung a beautifully detailed piece of needlepoint showing a forest in the flaming reds and oranges of autumn; it was the view from the house's front porch. Near a large maple wood chest of drawers – a wedding present from her mother – hung a 1951 Sears and Roebuck calendar; the first fifteen days of November had been crossed out.

Ramona struggled into an oversize pair of dungarees – her stomach was so big! – and a heavy brown sweater. She put on thick brown socks and her penny loafers, then tied a pale pink scarf around her head. The weather had snapped after a long warm Indian summer, and rain clouds had tumbled down from the north. Chill Novembers were rare in Alabama, but this one was a gray, hulking bear with a coat of freezing rain. As she struggled into her old plaid coat, she realized John was watching her from the doorway. He was whittling a bit of wood with his penknife, and when she said, "Do you want to go with us?" he turned and sank down into his chair again. No, of course not, she thought. She would have to do this alone, as always.

The two men were waiting patiently in their old green Ford pickup truck. Ramona walked to the truck through the swirling wind and saw that most of the dead brown leaves in the elm, ash, and pecan trees around the small farmhouse were still fixed securely to their branches like tenacious, wrinkled bats. That, Ramona knew, and the large number of blackbirds she'd seen out in the barren cornfield, were sure signs of a hard winter to come.

Zachary opened the door for her and she said, "I'm ready now." As they drove away from the house, along a narrow dirt road that cut through the pine forest and connected with Fayette County Road 35, Ramona looked back over her shoulder and caught a glimpse of John watching from a window. A sadness ached within her, and she quickly looked away.

The truck reached the potholed county road and turned north, away from the small scattering of farms and houses that made up the town of Hawthorne. Fifteen miles north lay the booming town of Fayette, population a little over three thousand, and forty miles to the northeast was Chapin, which, with almost four hundred people, was a bit larger than Hawthorne.

Once on the road, Zachary told Ramona the story: It had happened almost two years ago, when a farmer named Joe Rawlings had been driving his wife Cass to a square dance just north of Chapin. He was a good Christian man, Zachary explained, and no one could understand why or how it had happened … or why it kept happening. Their truck had for some reason veered off the road and slammed at forty-five miles an hour into the Hangman's Oak. Maybe it wasn't so hard to figure out, Zachary said; it had been raining that night and the road was slippery. Four others had been killed at the Hangman's Oak curve as well, the minister told her; accidents happen there all the time. A couple of months later, some kids driving to a high-school dance had seen it. A state trooper had said he'd seen it, too. So had an old man named Walters and – worst of all – so had Cass Rawlings's sister Tessa. It had been Tessa who'd begged the minister for help.

The miles rolled past. Darkness started spreading. They passed abandoned gas stations and empty houses consumed by dense seas of kudzu. Thin evergreens swayed against a sky seething with the threat of freezing rain. Stanton switched on the headlights; one of them cast a murky yellowish glow, like light seen through a diseased eye. "Mind if we have music?" he asked, a.nervous quaver in his voice. When nobody spoke he turned on the radio, and from the cheap Philco Hank Williams was in the middle of singing about those chains he wore around his heart. Gusts of wind alternately pushed and tugged at the pickup, sweeping dead leaves from the overhanging trees and making them dance like brown bones in the road.

Stanton turned the dial, one eye on the snake-spine of the road ahead. Faraway voices and music floated past on a sea of static. And then a solid, burly, and authoritative voice boomed out from the tinny speaker: "You can't fool Jesus, neighbor, nosiree! And you can't lie to Jesus either!" The voice paused for a gulp of air, then steamed ahead; to Ramona it sounded rich and thick, like fine close-grained wood, but somehow sheened with an oily layer of shellac. "Nosiree, you can't make promises that you don't keep, neighbor, 'cause there's a tab bein' kept in Heaven and your name's right there on it! And if you go get yourself in trouble and you say, 'Jeeeesus, you get me out of this one and I'll put five dollars in the plate come Sunday morning,' and you go back on that promise, then . . . neighbor . . . WATCH OUT! Yes, watch out, 'cause Jesus don't forget!"

"Jimmy Jed Falconer," Zachary said. "That's coming from Fayette. He preaches a powerful message."

"Saw him preach in Tuscaloosa once," Stanton replied. "He filled up a tent as big as a football field."

Ramona closed her eyes, her hands laced across her stomach. The booming voice continued, and in it was a smooth, sure power that made her slightly uneasy. She tried to concentrate on what had to be done, but Falconer's voice kept getting in the way.

In another half-hour they passed through the center of quiet Chapin – like Hawthorne, blink your eyes and you missed it. Then they were curving in the darkness on a narrow road shouldered by underbrush, skeletal trees, and an occasional house fallen to ruin. Ramona noticed that Stanton's hands had clenched more tightly on the steering wheel, and she knew they must be almost there.

"It's just ahead." The minister reached forward and turned off the radio.

The truck rounded a bend and slowed. Ramona suddenly felt the life in her belly give a strong kick, then subside. The truck's headlights glanced off a huge, gnarled oak whose branches stretched out toward them like beckoning arms; Ramona saw the scars in the oak's massive trunk, and the ugly bulbous mass of wood tissue that had grown back to fill in the gashes.

Stanton pulled the truck off the road just this side of the Hangman's Oak. He cut the engine and the lights. "Well," he said, and cleared his throat, "this is where it happens."

Zachary drew a deep breath and slowly released it. Then he opened the pickup's door, got out, and held it open for Ramona. She stepped out of the pickup into a rush of frigid wind that caught at her coat and tried to rip it open; she had to hold it tightly around her, feeling that the wind might lift her off the ground and sail her into the darkness. Beside her, a line of dead trees swayed back and forth like a minstrel chorus. She walked away from the truck into knee-high grass, leaves crackling underfoot, and toward the looming Hangman's Oak. Behind her Stanton got out of the pickup truck, and the two men stood watching her, both of them shivering.

Ten feet away from the Hangman's Oak, Ramona abruptly stopped and sucked in her breath. She could feel a presence in the air: something cold, cold, a hundred times colder than the wind. It was something heavy and dark and very old, and it was waiting. "It's in the tree," she heard herself say.

"What?" Zachary called after her.

"The tree," she said in a whisper. She neared it and felt her flesh break out in goosebumps that ebbed and swelled; her hair crackled with static electricity, and she knew there was danger here – yes, yes, there was evil here – but she had to run her hands across the scarred wood, she had to feel it. She touched it; gingerly at first, then clasped her palms to the wood; a shiver of pain ran up her spine and centered at her neck, becoming unbearable. Very quickly she stepped away, her hands tingling. At her feet a small white-painted wooden cross had been hammered into the ground; a black-scrawled legend read: SIX KILLED HERE. YOUR LIFE IS IN YOUR HANDS. DRIVE CAREFUL.

"Mrs. Creekmore?" Zachary said, standing a few feet behind her She turned to face him. "It doesn't happen every night. Is there something you can do right here and now to . . . stop it?"

"No. I have to wait."

"Well, come on and wait in the truck, then. It'll be warmer. But like I say, it doesn't happen every night. I hear it happened twice last week, but . . . gosh it's cold out here, isn't it?"

"I have to wait," she repeated, and Zachary thought her voice sounded more determined. Her eyes were half closed, long strands of her russet hair flying free from her pink scarf, her arms cradling her child-heavy belly. He was suddenly afraid for her; she could get sick out in this cold, and something could happen to the child. He'd thought, from what he'd heard about her, that she could say some Indian words or something and that would be the end of it, but . . .

"I'm all right," Ramona said quietly. "I don't know how long it will be. It may not happen at all. But I have to wait."

"Okay, then. I'll wait with you."

"No. I have to be alone. You and Mr Stanton can stay in the truck if you like."

Zachary paused for a moment, undecided, then he nodded and, bowed into the wind, started walking back to where Sam Stanton was blowing into his hands and stamping his feet. He turned back after a few paces, his face furrowed with concern. "I don't … I don't understand this, Mrs. Creekmore. I don't understand how it could . . . keep on happening."

She didn't answer She was a dark form staring out into the distance, along the road where it curved beyond a stand of pines. Her coat tortured by the wind, she walked past the oak tree and stood motionlessly at the roadside. Zachary returned to the pickup and climbed in, shivering to his bones.

Full dark covered the forest. Staring into the night through slitted eyes, Ramona had a sense of low-lying clouds running before the wind, just above the swaying treetops. All the world seemed in dark, tumultuous motion, but she had concentrated on rooting herself to the earth, on bending like a reed when the wind swept past so she wouldn't be knocked off her feet. She could feel the Hangman's Oak behind her, its old evil pulsating like a diseased heart. It would have to be cut down, the stump dug up like a rotten tooth, the crater salted. Above her its heavy branches stirred like the arms of a huge gray octopus. Dead leaves spun up from the ground and snapped at her cheeks.

"Do you want some light?" Stanton shouted from the truck. When the woman didn't even move, he glanced uneasily at Zachary and said, "I guess she don't." He fell into silence, wishing he'd brought along a snort of moonshine to keep warm and to keep from thinking about what moved along this road in the dead of night.

Headlights glinted through the pines. Ramona's eyes opened fully. The shape grew nearer; it was an old Packard with an ancient black man behind the wheel. The car slowed enough for the driver to get a good look at her, standing before the Hangman's Oak, and then the car accelerated away. Ramona relaxed again. She had decided she would wait for as long as it took, even though she could feel the life within her aching for warmth. The child would have to grow up strong, she thought, and would have to get used to hardships.

Almost three hours later, Stanton stirred and blew into his cupped hands. "What's she doin'?" he asked, straining to see through the darkness.

"Nothing," the minister replied. "She's still standing there. We were wrong to bring her out here, Sam. This whole thing is wrong."

"I don't think it's gonna happen tonight, parson. Maybe she's scared it off."

"I just don't know." Zachary shook his head in awe and bewilderment; his dark brown eyes had gone softly despairing. "Maybe it's all been talk – probably has been – but maybe . . . just maybe she can do something. Maybe if she believes she can, then . . ." He let his voice trail off. A few drops of cold rain spotted the windshield. Zachary's palms were wet and clammy, and had been since they'd brought the woman out here. He had agreed to ask the woman for help after he'd heard the stories, but now he was truly afraid. There seemed nothing of God in what she could do – if she actually had done those things – and he felt marked with sin. He nodded. "All right. Let's take her home."

They got out of the truck and approached her. The temperature had fallen again, and frequent drops of rain struck their faces. "Mrs. Creekmore?" Zachary called out. "You've got to give it up now!" Ramona didn't move. "Mrs. Creekmore!" he shouted again, trying to outshout the blustering wind. And then he suddenly stopped where he was, because he thought he'd seen something flicker like blue fire on the road, just beyond the curve through the screen of dancing pines. He stared, unable to move.

Ramona was stepping out into the road, between the oncoming thing and the Hangman's Oak. Behind the minister, Stanton shouted, "I see it! My God, I see it!" Zachary could see roiling streaks of blue, but nothing of any definite shape. He shouted, "What is it? What do you see?" But by then Stanton was shocked speechless; the man made a soft moaning noise from deep in his throat and was almost pitched to one side by a freight-train roar of wind.

Ramona could see it clearly. The pickup truck was outlined in blue flame; it was gliding soundlessly toward her, and as it neared she could make out the windshield wipers going full speed, and behind them the faces of a man and woman. The woman wore a bonnet, her face as round as an apple and beaming with anticipation of the dance. Suddenly the man's brown, seamed face contorted in surprised pain, and his hands left the steering wheel to clasp his temples. Ramona stood at the road's center, the blue-flaming headlights bearing steadily upon her.

Stanton's voice came out in a wild shout: "Get out of the way!"

Ramona held her hands out toward the blue truck and said quietly, "No fear. No pain. Only peace and rest." It seemed she could hear the engine now, and the tires shrieking as the truck slipped and veered across the road, picking up speed for its rendezvous with the Hangman's Oak. The woman in her bonnet was reaching desperately for the wheel; beside her the man writhed, his mouth open in a soundless scream.

"No fear," Ramona said. The truck was less than ten feet away. "No pain. Only peace and rest. Let go. Let go. Let . . ." As the blue flame bore down on her she heard Stanton cry out in terror, and she felt a crushing pain in her head that must've been a blood vessel bursting in Joe Rawlings's brain. She felt the woman's confusion and horror. Her jaw clenched tight to hold back an agonized scream. And then the blue-burning pickup truck struck full-force into her.

What Zachary and Stanton saw, they weren't sure. Afterward, they never spoke of it between them. When that truck hit the woman it seemed to collapse like a balloon exploding, and it was all a hazy blue mist as it lengthened and seemed to soak right into her body like water into a sponge. Stanton saw details – the truck, the passengers' faces – while Zachary was aware only of a presence, a swirl of blue mist, and the strange odor of burning rubber. They both saw Ramona Creekmore stagger backward, blue mist churning before her, and she gripped her head as if it were about to explode.

Then it was gone; all of it, gone. The wind seethed like something darkly hideous that had been deprived of a plaything. But the blue-flaming pickup truck was burned into Sam Stanton's eyes, and if he lived to be two hundred years old he'd never forget the sight of it disappearing into that witch-woman's body.

Ramona staggered out of the road and fell to her knees in the grass. For a long moment the two men were reluctant to move. Zachary heard himself whispering the Twenty-third Psalm, and then somehow he got his legs moving. Ramona groaned softly and rolled over on her back, her hands pressed to her stomach.

Stanton came up behind Zachary as the minister bent over Ramona Creekmore. The woman's face had gone gray, and there was blood on her lower lip where she'd bitten through. She clasped her stomach, looking up at the men with dazed and frightened eyes.

Stanton felt as if he'd been slugged with a sledgehammer. "Sweet Jesus, parson!" he managed to say. "This woman's about to have her baby!"

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