Category Archives: Story

A Girl Called Incident

I know most of you know that a lot of people reach out to me and share personal stories. Most of them who do so respond to my fling-it-to-the-wall method of personal sharing, I’ve yet to find a single person who doesn’t have a couple of jaw-dropping stories.

In the last year, I would say the strangest and most incredible story someone shared with me was the one shared by a woman about her sister, thought to have died during birth – but was actually stolen by a doctor here in Northwest Arkansas and given to a well-to-do family.

A while back, I wrote a post about not using a clothes iron. (I also don’t own anything that requires dry cleaning, either.) It was a little piece of fun writing. Shortly after, I received a note from someone who told me an interesting story. As with the baby-stealing doctor, I was fascinated but was held to secrecy regarding the people involved. She told me she couldn’t think about irons of any kind without thinking about her grandmother.

Here it is, with some redaction:

My grandmother was born dirt-poor. She didn’t really know what her birthday was because she was born between fields. Her great-aunt told her she was born in 1912. She remembered it was the year that Wilson won the presidency and that it was a leap year. The leap year fact stuck in her head because her uncles kept joking that they had been given an extra day to work. Everyone in her family worked the fields and farms, no matter how old they were. Until WWI, they barely survived. My grandmother Edna remembered her father going to serve along with his two brothers. Only one brother returned alive. His name was Henry, and he was an alcoholic and a violent man. Even though Edna was only 8 or 9, she knew she had to hide from Henry when he was drunk. Her mom Ethel married Henry to survive. Four children were too many to care for.

When she was 12, Edna was working as an adult woman. She spent her days cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and working in the fields. Her other sister worked with her and neither went to school past the 4th grade. After a late-night of drinking, Henry came home and grabbed Edna. He later claimed he didn’t know it was Edna rather than Ethel. Edna fought and clawed until Henry collapsed on the floor. He broke several of her fingers during the fight. Her mom fixed her fingers on the back porch but offered no consolation or words of compassion for her daughter. Years later, she found out that her mom had been abused by someone for several years. The fact melted her heart and turned most of her anger to bittersweet understanding.

Weeks later, Edna hatched a plan to get rid of Henry. She stoked the stove in the living room with more firewood late in the evening instead of letting it burn down to ashes. She put one of the fire-irons into the red coals and closed the stove door as much as possible. After all the lanterns were extinguished in the two rooms used for sleeping, she lay awake, waiting. Before too long, she could hear Henry’s raucous snoring from the room next to hers and her siblings. She climbed from the sunken bed and walked across the freezing-cold floorboards of the cheaply-constructed shotgun house. She searched in the dark for the clothes she’d arranged under the dresser, tucked out of sight. All the doors creaked like the floor as she passed through.

As she entered the living room, she listened to the crack of the stove and the wind-up clock behind her.

Before losing her nerve, she used three rags to pull the red-hot fire-iron from the stove. Walking quickly, she went into the room where Henry and her mom Ethel slept. Henry’s snoring told her he was asleep. Before she could talk herself out of it, Edna pulled back the thick covers from Henry. She put the fire-iron, tip down, across his stomach and legs, as best as she could manage in the dark. She threw the covers back on top of her stepfather. In a few seconds, the snoring stopped, and then a loud scream erupted from Henry. She couldn’t see him grab the iron, but he screamed again, probably as he grabbed the brutally hot iron with a bare hand. A loud thud hit the wood floor. Her mom Ethel began to shout, asking what was wrong. Back in those days, the bedrooms didn’t have light bulbs, or if they did, they were a single hanging bulb awkwardly danging in the middle of the room in shotgun houses. You had to get up and relight the lantern. Her mom, still hollering, shuffled around and struggled to light one of the long matches next to the oil lantern on the table across from the bed. She managed to light the lantern and turn the wick up. As she turned to see what had happened, she saw her daughter Edna standing by the door with her hand over her mouth. Henry was gasping and clawing at his stomach and lower half. The iron had burned away his underclothes from just below his belly button to his upper right leg. Edna had misjudged the iron a little bit; otherwise, Henry would have been reminded of her each time he went to the bathroom. He looked as if he’d been burned by an absurd branding iron.

As Edna looked at Henry writhing in pain, she knew he’d never abuse anyone again. She also knew she couldn’t stay. She ran out of the house into the cold night. She didn’t go back. A second cousin offered to let her stay with her if she agreed to work with her at the store she and her husband owned a town over.

The sheriff visited Edna a few days after she moved. “Henry isn’t pressing charges. What did he do to you to make you do that to him?” The sheriff seemed as if he suspected. “What did he tell you?” Edna asked.

“He didn’t say much, other than he didn’t ever want to see you again.” The sheriff shook his head and left. “I expect you won’t be causing any more trouble, will you?” Edna shook her head “no.”

Edna’s new family immediately started referring to the incident as “the incident.” Before long, they jokingly referred to her by the nickname “Incident.” A few months later, Edna’s sister moved to live with her. Both sisters were adopted in the family and started attending school again. Though they didn’t go to court, as people often didn’t do in those days, they changed their names to honor their new family.

Both sisters became teachers and lived their lives without further felonious undertakings.

The woman who wrote me told me she discovered the story after doing a DNA test. Luckily for her, some of the surviving family shared all their stories with her, several of which she’s written for everyone to share.

*

As with the stolen baby story that happened here in Arkansas, the fascinating details aren’t mine to share. If it were my story, I would proudly tell it as a story of a woman who figured out that sometimes fire is a better solution than words or hope.

What Kind Of Tree IS That?

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My friends Maya and Juan invited me to visit their house. They bought it in February before covid. Because Juan had more free time due to the virus, he spent a great deal of time building a patio area in the backyard of his house. He’d told me a lot about it. After months of avoiding seeing it due to an abundance of caution, Maya called and asked me to drop by after work for lunch. She promised to make a huge helping of pico de gallo, regardless of what she prepared for the meal.

When I drove up, I could see that Juan had indeed gone out of his way to make the house the way he wanted it. Plants bordered the front and a single magnolia tree stood in the middle of the front yard. Along the far edge, a series of lush bushes and flowers stood.

Just as I was about to walk around the side of the house, Maya opened the front door and beckoned me to enter. “Juan will be out in a minute. Always late for everything!” she said and laughed. She gave me the tour. As we stood in the kitchen waiting for Juan to emerge, she pointed at the large tree to the left of the brick patio and seating area. “Look at that! Juan was so proud to get that tree. His friend Marcos got that tree from a yard that was completely redone. It’s too bad that they brought the wrong tree. It’s caused some problems with the neighbors.”

Before I could inquire, Juan exited the end of the house I hadn’t seen during Maya’s tour. We bantered and joked for several minutes.

“X, take this glass of tea and sit under the transplanted tree.” Juan handed me a glass filled with tea and ice cubes. “Maya and I will bring lunch in a minute.”

I exited through the French doors and walked across the hand-laid brick patio. Juan had spent a lot of time out there. It was impeccable.

I plopped down in the chair under the branches of the tree. I couldn’t tell it was a transplant. As I took a drink from my glass, a voice said, “You could lose a lot of weight, buddy.” I looked around and saw no one. I turned to see if a window was open. As I turned my head back to examine the area around me, I heard the voice again. “Who bought those clothes for you? Stevie Wonder?” I stood up immediately and slowly did a 360 under the tree. No one was around. Before I could get seated again, the voice said, “Don’t use a bowl to cut your hair the next time!”

I took my glass of iced tea and went to the French doors and entered the kitchen, out of the bright sun.

Before I even said a word, Maya smiled at me. “I see you found out why we wish the trees hadn’t been mixed up when we got them.”

Seeing that I was still a bit confused, Juan added, “Yeah, we forgot to tell you that it’s a SHADE tree.”

Density Of Time And Place

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I walked through a dense, foggy meadow in the early morning. As I moved through the tall grass and flowers in the growing light, I walked across the meadow and into the stand of trees on the other side. The dense smell of foliage and trees lay heavy around me. For several minutes I walked. Finally, I stepped through into a small clearing. In the middle, a man sat hunched near a small fire. Above it, a metal coffeepot swayed slightly.
As I cleared my throat, he turned and laughed.

“Took you forever!” He said. “Sit,” he said. I walked over by the fire as he poured me a half a cup of coffee. I sat on the ground. It was covered with dry pine needles.

As I took my first sip of the aromatic coffee, he spoke:

“For anyone taking the time to share their stories and especially for those prone to self-doubt, here is the phrase you need to consider: “the voice in your own head never needs to stop to take a breath.”

Even while you’re hearing this, it’s likely that the narrator trapped in your skull is talking to you in ways that seem slightly out of your control.

If this happens to you consciously, imagine the number of ways your mind is interfering with you in ways that you can’t or won’t notice.

Most of us don’t hang around people who embody what we’re aiming for. Absent such examples, the people who’ve shouted into our periphery through life get the front row in our heads. When you’re taking the risk of doing something meaningful for yourself, you look out into your life’s audience and the first faces you see are generally those packed into the front rows. You didn’t choose them as your audience. Be wary of all those who are spectators to your life. They aren’t you and don’t know you.

Even if we imagine several people applauding toward the back, we tend to assume that they are outliers and aren’t seeing something that those who know us best see. The truth is that your entire life will be different if you treat the outliers as the ones who matter most. They see something in you that those nearest cannot.

Each of us is lucky if we have one or two cheerleaders in life. Most people are too busy with things in their own corner of the world to encourage you; it’s the daily grind of life manifesting itself by taking people’s attention.

When you consider that every other person in our lives has a different version of us in their head, it becomes easier to understand that we’re never going to be understood in the way that we ourselves understand what motivates us.

Equally true is the fact that many people are insecure and don’t have experience with authentic people or those doing things differently. Most are dialed into the common routes and expectations of what being alive is supposed to entail. We focus on the process instead of why.

People dedicated to doing their thing also tend to reflect back honestly to those around them. It’s evident that many people resent their reflections and respond defensively. Silence is easier for them, even though it lessens their time here. They’ll work hard to push you into silence, too.

It is a rarity for someone to stand on top of the pile of all these tendencies and forge ahead. Think of someone you admire. Whoever it is, they laugh often and always share who they are, no matter where that is.

If each of us could witness the totality of a single life from a distance, we’d see that most of the struggle is of our own making. We cannot win in the sense of winning that we’re taught. You don’t win by playing. You win by not playing by the rules other people demand of you.

The voice of doubt in your head is there for a reason – but not for a reason that benefits you. Make it pause and take a breath. Somewhere in that absence, you’ll discover the absurdity of almost everything we take for granted.

Whatever you’re here for, I’m certain that you can see that silence and uniformity make us all lesser human beings.

Your time is here is almost up. When you finish that cup of coffee, you’ll wake up and wonder why you dreamed of me. Soon after, you’ll look up into the sky this morning and see your life reflected there. There is only one you.”

The clearing dissolved to nothing. Despite having a box fan turned to ‘high’ and thunderstorm noise playing in the room, I woke up instantly. Outside, a single bird squawked raucously. Before I lost whatever it was that the imagery provided, I went and made a picture for a friend, one treading the line between reality and fiction. In it, I captured the essence of a world she needed most.

All because of the smell of woodsmoke, fog, and coffee in a place more real than imagined, inhabited by a strange voice that was my own.

My Condition

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Not all my posts make me look good. Here’s one…

I was driving on Crossover, on my way to Lowes to purchase completely pointless items, not too far from the marijuana farm. Some people call it “The Botanical Gardens,” but that is EXACTLY the type of fake name a weed farm would use, isn’t it?

I suddenly had to brake harshly to avoid hitting someone who failed to stop while approaching the main road. Because I was unsure I wouldn’t hit them as they entered the road without stopping, I veered to the left slightly. I don’t always do the ‘veer’ thing if I’m in my Ford Focus. It’s led to meeting some interesting people. It’s hard to say “Hello” when the air is filled with screeching brakes and shouting drivers.

A honk startled me. A white van had swerved to the further left to avoid hitting me from behind. I slowed and pulled over for a second. The white van with an interesting business logo on the side pulled ahead in front of me on the shoulder. I was expecting a giant, angry redneck to emerge. Instead, a woman about my age exited the van and stood about ten feet away from the front of my car. People don’t exit their vehicles unless they are very angry, have bees chasing them, or are in the vehicle with more than one teenager.

“What’s wrong with you?” She asked.

Given that she probably didn’t connect the car running through a stop sign and entering the road in front of me to my swerve, I knew it was pointless. I assumed she was crazy, anyway.

“I have a medical condition! You should be ashamed of yourself” I shouted at her.

“Oh! I’m sorry. What’s wrong with you?”

“Stupidity!” I yelled back at her.

Expecting a tirade or curse, I was surprised when she turned and went back to her van, got in, and drove away. She didn’t even give me a laugh.

I was proud of my impromptu answer.

It is possible to live 20 years without coming up with a rapid-fire quip that both delights and defuses the situation.

Intersecting Lives

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*

Pete McGill bought the pair of boots in Arkadelphia in 2016, using money his grandfather gave him for his 16th birthday. Pete’s grandfather, who he called Popsie, gave him money every year. He wrapped it in aluminum foil. “Men don’t use envelopes,” he always explained. That year, Popsie gave him $600. “Pete, I know it is way more than I normally give, but you’re growing up. I love you. Spend it on something that lasts.” Popsie unexpectedly grabbed Pete and hugged him for a long moment. Popsie was one of the hardest-working men Pete had ever worked alongside.

A week later, Pete drove his dad’s pickup truck back from a tiny little town south of Plano, Texas. He didn’t have a driver’s license, but his dad’s hired man got arrested down there for getting into a fight at a bar. Pete took the bus to Plano and hitchhiked over to the truck to drive it back. His dad didn’t argue much with the plan. He knew that Pete was tired of pretending to go to high school. Pete missed school Thursday to get on the bus. He never went back to school.

On the drive back, Pete realized he couldn’t drive straight through to Caddo Valley, where his dad’s place was. He stopped near Gum Springs and slept with the windows down. No one bothered him. Not that he was concerned about being disturbed. No one bothered Pete. He’d inherited his dad’s eyes.

After eating at a small diner the next morning, he drove on. Because he rarely had the chance to go to Arkadelphia, he pulled into a small strip mall. Above the sign, a large boot loomed. Pete remembered that Popsie told him to spend the money on something that would endure. A good pair of boots might last for ten years. Twenty minutes later, Pete exited the store wearing a new pair of boots. He threw his old work shoes in the bed of the pickup as he drove away, whistling.

For almost four years, Pete wore those $100 boots. Last year, his dad became ill and had to retire. He gave Pete the family business and a new cowboy hat. People who saw Pete with the boots and hat invariably commented that he resembled Paul Newman in his prime.

Despite the pandemic caging people, Pete continued running his dad’s business. The unusually rainy weeks in May kept him driving with his windows only partially open. For Pete, he was living his best life. His dad usually did the administrative work, and his grandfather Popsie sometimes rode with him to all the properties. Regardless of what else might be going on, they ended up back at the house cooking on the grill and sharing stories.

On Friday, May 22nd, Pete’s dad called him and asked him to drive to Saltillo just south of Conway and pick up a deed for some property. Truthfully, Pete looked forward to the drive. It was raining again, and at times the sky looked vengefully down on him as he drove. Even though Popsie joked about him doing so, Pete installed satellite radio in his pickup. Music kept him preoccupied. He had a beautiful singing voice, a fact that seemed to embarrass him if someone mentioned it. In this case, he sang one of his favorite Flynnville Train songs. As Pete drove, he let the small roads give him his course as he forgot about his time and place. He had GPS on his phone, something he despised using.

Indeed, he often drove an hour needlessly. By meandering, he saw a lot of people and things he never would have. Like his dad and grandfather, he couldn’t understand the need to be in a hurry, just to get to the grave worn out and anxious.

As he neared a little creek cutting its way through Conway, he felt his cellphone vibrate against his leg. Pete answered, saying, “Hold on for a second.” He pulled in alongside the native stone edge of the bridge covering the creek. Though it was Friday, there was no traffic as the rain beat down.

Pete picked up the phone again and turned off the radio. His stomach lurched, and though he didn’t know how he knew, he knew that his world was about to turn hard to the left.

“Pete. Did you pull over?” It was his dad.

“Yes. What happened! Something bad has happened, hasn’t it?” Pete rarely lost control.

“I’m so sorry, Pete, but Popsie died a few minutes ago. He was sitting under the deck out back watching the rain and he nodded off.” His dad’s voice cracked and trailed off to a whisper. It was probably the hardest thing he ever told another human being.

“I’ll be home in an hour,” Pete told his dad and hung up.

Pete sat in the truck with his head bowed for several minutes. The rain beat on the roof of the truck as the emergency flashers clicked in Pete’s ears. Pete exited the truck and walked over to the rusting red-orange metal railing rising above the native stone and serving as a guardrail. He ignored the rain drenching him.

He left his left leg and pulled at his boot until it came off. He did the same for the other boot. He turned and stared at the overfilled creek rushing beneath the mimosa. How long he stood there and immobile went unnoticed.

Pete felt the boots get heavier in his hands as he stood there, resting them on the rusting railing. They were filling with water.

Pete flung both of the boots into the roaring creek.

“Thanks, Popsie. Thanks for everything.”

Several days later, a mother out for an evening walk with one of her sons spotted one of Pete’s boots lying on the gravel of the creek bed. She idly wondered how a single boot came to rest in that spot. She took a picture of it. Something about the solitary presence of the boot spoke to her, more so than the subsiding creek or the depth of the aromas of a May evening.

She went on her way, never knowing that the boots were an offering to one of the most loved grandfathers who ever walked the earth.

For Pete – and above all, for Popsie, who bequeathed his grandson with an appreciation of the things that last and ability to distinguish between what lasts and what endures.

The mother didn’t take a picture of a boot. She took a picture of a life, disguised in the way that so many stories are.

*

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About About

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About leaned against a rough tree in the deep darkness, his breath coming in huge, ragged gasps. About wasn’t born with the name. His dad argued and fought to name him Beauregard, after a civil war general who later spent his life advocating for black civil rights. About’s dad died the day after he was born, however, when a tree fell the wrong way and crushed him. “That’s enough of that name,” his mom had solemnly pronounced and told everyone that his name was “About.”

His friends back in his small Kentucky hometown high school nicknamed him “About Dead,” after a line drive hit him in the chest while playing second base as a freshman on the varsity team. About was one of the best baseball players anyone had witnessed. When the ball hit him, his heart stopped for four minutes. While resuscitating him, his Uncle Desi, who was also the volunteer coach for the team, died of a heart attack himself. About’s story briefly made the national news, probably due to the incongruous death of his Uncle while reviving him. The day About got out of the hospital, his mom drove him directly to the cemetery to bury her brother Desi. About never played another sport.

His breath slowing a little, About estimated he ran for twenty minutes, ignoring branches tearing against his shirt, arms, and face. There was no illuminating moon in the night sky, and the light was dim. The dozens of small cuts on his face and arms itched with a fiery intensity.

About survived a mass shooting in 2005. A bullet shattered three of his ribs, and another traveled from his left armpit and exited near his spine. About was at Eastern Kentucky University to give one of his friend’s kids a ride back to school after a holiday break. He stopped for a cup of coffee near the university after dropping Christine off near the common eating area. He sat by the window to people watch. Across the street and not too far away, a disgruntled ex-employee of the university opened fire with a gun he stole. Because About was nowhere near the shooter, no one inside the diner initially understood what had happened. A policeman who sat in an unmarked car near the scene fired four shots. His report book remained unfinished in his lap. One of the bullets instantly killed the active shooter when it entered his left eye and exited the back of his head, even though the officer fired from a seated position inside the car. Two other shots miraculously traveled across the street, exploded through the coffee shop window, and hit About as he sipped his coffee. About was in a coma for ten days afterward, during which time the officer who stopped the shooter killed himself. The fourth bullet he fired struck and killed a woman sitting on the low wall on the edge of the street. In a coincidence, the policeman had been on duty just two days since a paid suspension following a shooting during a domestic violence call. The victim in the home shooting was the Aunt of the woman sitting on the wall near campus. As for About, he no longer believed in coincidences.

Five years later, when his truck was hit from behind by an unseen drunk driver, he went off the side of a steep valley road, tumbling end over end for fifty feet. He lay there bleeding for four hours until a passing local driver noticed the missing guardrail and investigated. Two surgeries later, scars traversed his back and right arm. He was whole, though. Many nights he lay in his restless bed wondering what force saved him. As he lay in his truck at the bottom of the ridge, he hallucinated and talked to someone or something he couldn’t quite see. While in the hospital, he vividly dreamed whatever it was at the bottom of the holler followed him to the hospital, too. The voice insisted it wasn’t his time to depart. Six months later, the drunk driver turned himself in to the Kentucky State Police. He was already dying of pancreatic cancer. About told him and the Staties that he forgave him and to let him live the rest of his life in peace.  The drunk driver died of electrocution five days after reporting to prison.

People laughed at his nickname. “What do you mean, ‘About Dead,’ is your nickname?” Almost everyone asked. He politely recited the fact that a freak accident in boot camp almost killed him. It did, however, kill six new recruits and the drill instructor who’d served twenty-seven years in the Army. His friends became superstitious when he came back to his hometown to recuperate. The Army sent a Colonel to ask him to accept an honorable discharge on medical grounds. Truthfully, the Army was superstitious about the incident and didn’t want About back for reasons unrelated to his injuries. His friends dropped the ‘Dead’ part of his nickname. Kentucky grandmothers have preached for generations that it’s best to not jest at the things we don’t understand. Afterward, depending on how much interest the other person showed, he’d list off the other near-misses. Most people became uncomfortable. If he noticed their discomfort, he had a litany of jokes to appease them. He often said, “You can find me in the “About Section,” he’d say and laugh. If he was feeling particularly humorous, he would tell them that he was the brother of “Mostly Dead,” a joke he stole from The Princess Bride.

A year ago, About abruptly left his hometown and moved to another Kentucky town, one with about twice as many people as his hometown. He couldn’t tell his few remaining friends that he’d seen something in his peripheral vision. Often, as dusk approached, he could feel its long shadow behind him. He’d look, only to see the encroaching greyness of night. There were nights he lay motionless in bed, slowing his breathing, and waiting for an hour with his eyes closed to slits. Though he could see movement in the dark and shadows, he never spoke to it or acknowledged that he was aware of it. Whatever it was, it followed him to the middle of Kentucky, not too far from Mammoth Cave National Park. Because of his previous injuries, he had a full-body scan. This eliminated the possibility of a physical cause for his hallucinations. About would have preferred a definitive physical reason for his hallucinations.

As insomnia took its toll, About asked his co-worker Styles if he could stay in his cabin the following weekend. “Sure! It’s about time. You’re going to love it. Nothing but deer, fish in the creek, and a million trees to keep you and whoever you’re taking with you good company,” Styles said good-naturedly. He knew About didn’t have a girlfriend. “Watch out for bears, though. They don’t talk much.” Styles was rich due to his parent’s wealth. He still worked in the County Clerk’s office to keep himself busy. No one could believe that someone so friendly could be so rich. Coincidentally, Styles had the entire county map memorized, as well as almost every song written between 1980 and 1988.

After work Friday About drove the back roads across Highway 70 and Joppa Ridge. Style’s cabin was at the literal edge of the dense treeline. It seemed to be all porch. It had a hanging porch swing on one end and a netted sleeping area on the other. Styles often slept on the porch or out on the ground in a sleeping bag thrown near the firepit about twenty feet from the cabin. About noted that Styles had kept his promise; there was a massive pile of firewood and fallen tree limbs to feed the sizeable firepit. About took his supplies out of the back of his truck and carried them inside. He didn’t need much to keep him sustained. The fridge was well-stocked.

Around eight o’clock, About poured himself a few fingers of scotch from the kitchen cupboard and grabbed a bag of Style’s homemade beef jerky. He went out on the porch and sat on the stone steps. He left the gun inside. He couldn’t imagine how he’d need a gun. He knew that wildlife would not approach the cabin. Not tonight, anyway. The shadow would keep them at bay. About no longer felt foolish for thinking that way.

As the light faded, About sipped from his glass of whiskey and took another bite of the delicious beef jerky. Somewhere in the distance, a loud crash echoed. About didn’t flinch. He knew it was just letting him know it was out there. About downed the remainder of the whiskey and put the bag of jerky behind him. He clasped his hands and listened. Every few minutes, a crisp breaking of a limb would echo. The sounds made a long arc to his left. They stopped. About realized he had almost entirely stopped breathing. For at least an hour, no sound stirred. Forests are not dead places, even at night. Something is always on the hunt for food. No fireflies blinked across the expanse of grass leading up to the dirt road. The quiet was total and intoxicating.

As the ice settled in his whiskey glass, About jerked back to consciousness. He couldn’t shake the feeling that the shadow was behind him in the total darkness, sitting on its haunches near the door. Just as the thought coalesced, a board on the long porch groaned and settled. About felt the ridges of his scars light up with goosebumps.

About stood up slowly and then gingerly stepped forward down the steps and toward the firepit. He fished a lighter out of his pocket and flicked it. The light seemed unimaginably bright in the total darkness. He bent in the windless night and put the flicker of flame against the kindling and grass under the wood piled in the firepit. Immediately, a whoosh of flame shot up. About stepped back, but did not turn. Within a couple of minutes, the fire was going intensely. Careful to avoid turning his head toward the cabin, About threw more wood on top of the wood already in the firepit. He continued to throw it on, even as the ends began to hang over the wide edges. The fire roared.

About circled the edge of the firepit, away from the cabin. He kept his eyes downcast. Somehow, he sensed looking at it directly would provoke it. He picked up the longest remaining limb as he edged around the firepit. The fire continued to grow in intensity. It cast shadows of its own, as sparks crackled and made their way upward to disappear. On the opposite side of the firepit, About used the long limb to push and cajole the limbs and fire to an even greater height.

About dropped the limb on the fire. As he did, he looked up, squinting between the flames reaching upward. Through the fiery tendrils, he saw it. As his heart leaped, it saw him. Moments later, About realized that he was running. His ears filled with the screech of the shadow. He didn’t decide to run. His body took control. Twenty minutes later, he was panting in the forest, leaning against one of the million trees around him, weirdly remembering the baseball game that almost killed him.

Behind him, something cracked and broke.

About stood up and turned.

It was time.

He had always been in these woods, forever, a shadow of his own making.

*

If you visit Mammoth Cave National Park, build a fire and sit beside it. As the night encroaches, listen.

As the shadows pass over you, don’t look closely.

 

A Visit From The Unknown

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This is a story written by a friend, one which details a family member experiencing a brush with the unknown…

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About a ten-minute drive from the interstate, the farmhouse sat on a dirt road a mile or so off the main highway that passed through a tiny community. The house had gray, wooden steps that led onto a nice wide porch with the front door beyond. A few miles further down the road were woods—the best kind for hunting deer and other game; not too dense to navigate but dense enough to provide a good home for wildlife.

It was a Friday night like most Friday nights. She was at home with the company of only her dogs and the television. Her husband was an outdoors man—a farmer and a hunter. He was out hunting that night in the woods close to home.

It was dark out but not yet late enough for the 10:00 newscast, and she decided to get ready for bed before the news came on. She rose from her favorite chair and started for the bedroom at the back of the house. Closely on her heels followed Mindy, a sweet, rescued dog named for the lead female in her favorite TV comedy, and Peanut, a happy beagle. The other dog Jake was with her husband in the woods.

As she reached the middle of the kitchen, something powerful stopped her in mid-step. She didn’t know what it was, but it caused the hair to stand on the back of her neck, and she broke out all over in a cold sweat. At the same instant she froze, Mindy and Peanut froze too and began growling; their hair raised along their backs from head to tail. Nausea from fear swept over her briefly before her legs unfroze, and she darted to the bedroom to grab the gun her husband had placed in the nightstand several years ago.

She had never wanted, much less felt the urge, to use a gun, but she had been instructed on the mechanics and knew instinctively now was the time for it. She snatched the gun from the drawer and rushed the dogs into the bathroom—the only room in the house with a lock.

She and the dogs crouched along the north wall of the small room, near the toilet and as far away as possible from the east-facing window and west facing door. Gripped with fear and gripping the gun tightly, she waited…for what, she didn’t know…while the dogs continued growling that growl that comes from deep in a dog’s throat when it means business and intends to protect the person it loves.

They stayed this way for what felt like an hour when, in fact, only ten to fifteen minutes had passed. Suddenly, the sound of someone banging on the front door and a familiar voice frantically yelling her name broke through the fear that had electrified her and the dogs.

She ran to the bathroom door and emerged to find her husband bursting into the house and running toward her, asking what was wrong and if she was okay. All three dogs were now alternating between barking urgently and growling in warning.

She quickly told him what had happened. He sent her back into the bathroom, and he ran back outside to search the property for signs of an intruder. He searched everywhere—under the house; inside the doghouse, the pump house, and the storage shed; behind the carport. He even went to the edge of the field that flanked the house on three sides and flashed the light into the darkness looking for a telltale sign of an unwanted visitor. After exhausting every place that could be searched, he returned to the house where they double-checked the locks on all windows and exterior doors.

Finally, they sat. Exhausted physically and emotionally. Dripping sweat. They compared stories and timelines, reliving details as they talked. At the same time she was frozen with fear in the kitchen, he was several miles deep into the woods and also paralyzed with fear. His fear was caused by a bluish-gray, smoky light that appeared suddenly; floating nearby. Jake began barking and baying at the light while running toward it. As it hovered, Jake “treed” it as a hunting dog trees an animal. The light continued to glow. At the same time, the man heard the voice of his father who had passed away only a few months before. His father’s voice clearly and strongly stated, “Get home to her!” Stunned and staring wildly at Jake and the shadowy glow, he heard his father’s voice a second time, “Get home to her!”, adding an urgent and forceful, “NOW!”

The man jerked the handlebars of his three-wheeler toward the edge of the woods and pushed the gas lever as far as it would go. The engine revved, the machine jumped, and the wheels spun crazily as he raced toward the tree line to reach the clear path at the edge of the woods. As she, Mindy, and Peanut braced in the bathroom, he and Jake flew down the edge of the trees to bypass an irrigation ditch and reach the relative smoothness of the dirt road. Yanking the machine to the left, he barreled down the road toward the house and soon saw the light from the bathroom window in the distance. He wished desperately for the three-wheeler to go faster.

As he skidded into the yard and slammed the brakes, he cleared the three-wheeler and jumped straight from the ground to the porch. Flying over the steps, he landed at the front door and began frantically beating the door while yelling for his wife. As he and Jake burst through the door, she came running around the corner from the kitchen into the living room.

There would be no sleep that night. Instead, they sat for the longest time comparing their memories, timings, feelings, and gut reactions. They analyzed it over and over for missing pieces and how the parts they did have fit together. There was one fact they never acknowledged or discussed. He had, at some point, wet his pants from fear.

To that point in their lives, neither of them believed in “ghosts,” but, from that moment on, they believed without reservation that his father’s visit to him in the woods that night is what saved her. Still unknown is from who or what.

 

It Watches

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A friend wrote a chilling account of something that happened to a family member years ago, in a place where most could easily imagine things unknown to us, ones which still move around in the old forests and marshes of the South.

For those of us who don’t believe in ghosts, apparitions, or supernatural forces, it’s a story that makes the doubters hesitate. Maybe we’ll get to see it, perhaps not.

Even though my friend’s last story was read by well over 100,000 people, she’s reluctant to share this one, even anonymously.

I just thought I’d share the fact that there’s an incredible story floating around that might never see the light of day, no pun intended.

I made a picture to convey the feel of the story, even though the story is told as it was experienced: through a lens of terror.

Whatever it was, I fear it still lingers in those forests, biding its time.

 

 

 

A Meeting Among Friends (Story)

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For the last five years, Rich and Bike took the time to meet me at Blakes Diner at least twice a week. We used the pretext of breakfast to get together. We had no real schedule. Blakes was at the epicenter of  a map of each of our houses. Outside, near the road, a sign proudly bragged, “Home of the World’s Best Biscuits.” We often joked we should sue them for misleading marketing. The biscuits at Blakes were a lot of things, but good wasn’t one of them. Each of us would meticulously order a breakfast plate. None of us ate anything except the hash browns. For purely antiseptic reasons, we doused them in Louisiana hot sauce before eating. The coffee was incredible, though. Each of drank at least four cups per visit.

Earl, the owner, was the cook. He was a retired Navy man. His idea of good food was “a lot of it.” Everyone loved him, and he was often asked to run for mayor of our quiet little town. If he missed a day, his wife cooked in his place. She was not lovable. If a tourist or someone passing through made the mistake of coming in and saying something critical, Earl’s wife had no qualms about tossing an f-bomb grenade on them as they scrambled to escape the diner. The Yelp reviews provided a reliable map to determine on which days Earl was absent.

After we initially started frequenting Blakes for breakfast, Rich casually asked Earl who the namesake Blake was. “I got the signs for free from a surplus sign shop.” It seemed like a logical enough reason for the three of us. “Why is the word ‘Blakes’ missing an apostrophe and upside down?” Earl turned away from his stove for a moment. “I wanted people to look at the sign and have questions. Curious people tend to come inside.” Rich slapped the table and said, “Good enough for me!”

Rich retired as a policeman after getting shot four times in the neck and chest ten years ago. To his wife’s surprise, he went back to college and finished his degree and then earned his accreditation as a teacher. He worked a day each week as a substitute and also tutored a few of the local kids who needed it. Bike, however, was one of those people who could earn a dollar just sitting on a park bench. For several years, he somehow made a decent living buying and selling obscure bicycle parts to enthusiasts and collectors. As for me, I retired at fifty-one. My partner bought out my half of the business we mutually owned in exchange for a comfortable annuity. I spent most of my days walking and reading. I had decided I’d get a new hobby once I depleted the town library book collection. Bike kept interrupting my plan by handing me a surprising variety of great books he found online. While I never saw him reading, I was certain he read voraciously. His vocabulary was stellar, and he loved using words no one would dare use in normal conversation. “Logomaniac,” he’d say, as if the word meant something to us mortals.

Alice, the veteran waitress, asked me, “Hey Kirk, are you going to eat your food this morning?”

“Is it safe?” I asked her, winking.

“Safe isn’t a real thing. This isn’t the Marathon Man, although I would like to pull a couple of your teeth.” Alice smiled. We did the dance of wit every time we met.

“I’ll let you get back to your other tables, Alice.” She laughed. Except for us, there were only two other diners, and both sat at the counter chatting like old friends. In this town, we figured they probably knew each other’s business already.

“Bike, Rich, you need nothing, so I won’t ask.” She placed a full carafe of coffee on the edge of the table we shared, knowing she’d find it empty when she cleared the table.

Bike quipped, “My jentacular needs are indeed all addressed, Alice.” Both Alice and Bike looked at each other as if a duel were imminent before smiling. Rich laughed, but without the habitual large smile I’d grown used to.

As Alice walked away, Bike threw his inevitable parting shot, “Were that your voice would be as euphonious as your figure is lithesome.” I couldn’t help it. I snorted, even though technically Bike offered a compliment hidden in an insult. I’m certain Alice smiled as she departed, though I couldn’t see her face as she moved away.

For a couple of minutes, we alternated between drowning our hash browns in hot sauce and gulping coffee. Like all great friends, we didn’t need an intensity of words to keep us company. Earl hollered across the diner, “Enjoy your food, gentleman!” and waved his spatula in the air in our general direction. We saluted with our coffee cups, another of our many rituals.

For fifteen minutes we gossiped. We’d deny it amounted to that outside the confines of the diner. Our conversations were stuffed with anecdotes, riffs, one-liners, and a barrage of rapid-fire nonsense once we started talking. Through it all, Rich was almost his usual self.

As I stood up and climbed out of the booth, I threw a $10 tip on the table. Bike waited until I was out before moving. Rich also stepped out of the booth and turned his back toward the counter. He took his right hand out of his jacket pocket. In his hand, he held a pistol. He laid it on the table and quietly whispered, “I need your help. I haven’t needed this in years, but I think I’m going to.”

Bike stopped and sat back down as all three of us looked at the gun. “Holy howitzer!” He whispered.

 

Lucille And The Witness Tree

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It was July 1976. Much of the country feverishly celebrated the bicentennial. In the small town of Pleasure Heights, Arkansas, Thomas Deerfield was anything but happy. He wasn’t unhappy because of the near-100 temperature or the fact that his neighbor’s dog stole one of his boots off the porch again. His Lucille died in February of an exotic cancer that erupted from nothing the week after Xmas. They were married for forty years, the day she died. Lucille expected 1976 to be a great year. She’d made plans to drag Thomas to see the American Freedom Train at least once. Thomas had no interest in seeing the train. He’d rather have put his feet up under the shade at his brother’s cabin by the pond a few miles east of town. Lucille loved fireworks, parades, rodeos, and the sing-alongs by the creek near downtown.

“It’s time to see the world, Thomas. We’re retired and the world ain’t coming to us.” Lucille had a way of telling her husband nicely what he was going to do.

“I can see  my entire world right here,” Thomas told Lucille as he grabbed her hand and winked provocatively at her across the table. “If I want to see the world, I’ll climb the Elm tree by the square,” he said, using one of his favorite and tired jokes. Lucille laughed and pretended to do a fake shot of whiskey as she rolled her eyes at him.

On July 4th, most of the town’s seven hundred and forty-one inhabitants stood on the square silently watching in awe as 72-year-old Thomas climbed one of the oldest elm trees in the state. It was a witness tree, and fifty-five feet tall. Unlike some other largest trees in the state, its circumference was twenty feet. Like so many other people in Pleasure Heights, Thomas had proposed to Lucille under the huge canopy of the elm tree. It had witnessed over two hundred years of different names and faces marching past it and sitting under its majestic foliage.

Most of the townspeople came to the square to eat hot dogs, watch the small parade featuring a mix of children and adults as they played their musical instruments and strode awkwardly around the expansive square. Afterward, the person voted “Most Civic-Minded” would take his or her place on the base of the absent Robert E. Lee statue. In 1958, someone had stolen the entire statue, a theft that everyone within a hundred miles still discusses heatedly. Some theories were wild, such as the one that Postmaster Evans often told. It involved both aliens and communists. No one could figure out how he’d combined those two unlikely groups. It was impossible to go to the diner for lunch without hearing the Postmaster Evans bring up his theory.

No one noticed anything unusual about Thomas as he walked across Main Street and toward the giant elm. I saw him as he walked, but thought nothing of his arrival. Everyone knew him, and many offered their hellos as he walked past them. Fire Chief Raymond used a ladder to stand on as he addressed the commencement of the parade. Thankfully, he didn’t sing his announcement this year. The Chief was one of the immensely likeable people who loved singing, but was tone deaf. He seldom noticed the pained expressions on people’s faces as he treated them to his latest rendition from the radio.

Thomas picked up the ladder, folded it, and continued walking until he was under the tree and about one third of the width of the overhead canopy away from the massive trunk. He propped the ladder and sat on the second rung. He removed his work boots and socks and laid them neatly at the bottom of the ladder. He removed his hat and stuck it on top of his boots.

Without fanfare, he grabbed the ladder and climbed it. As I watched from the edge of the street, his head disappeared into the leaves above him. I watched as one leg went up and then the other. I looked around to see if anyone else was watching. Most people were eating and talking a mile a minute as the kids of the town ran amok, filled with soda, hot dogs, and popcorn. Thomas slowly moved his way back and forth across the horizontal limbs. As he found a spot that supported his weight and allowed him to boost himself up, he climbed to the next limb up. As he climbed, he moved closer and closer to the middle of the tree. At that juncture, the largest limb went slightly to my left and became precarious.

As Thomas reached about halfway, Jim Peters saw me craning my neck and asked me, “Watcha’ watching? A movie?” I shook my head ‘no,’ and pointed. After a few seconds of staring up where my finger pointed, Jim excitedly said, “Who is that?” He said it loud enough for several people to take notice. Within a minute, about a quarter of everyone in that large cluster of people were looking up into the elm tree.

There was a collective chorus of “Who is it?” from multiple angles.

“It’s Thomas Deerfield,” I said, loudly.

“Bull! He’s at least 70,” argued Phillip Douglas. Phillip owned the tire shop and loved saying ‘bull’ or its more vulgar counterpart at least once a minute. “Yes, he’s 72,” I told him. I could hear the name Thomas being echoed across the growing crowd. There were a few gasps from the older ladies as they tried to imagine someone that age climbing a tree. They’d never be able to scold another rambunctious boy for climbing again, not after that day.

I gave up my vantage point and moved back. Instinctively, so did a lot of others observing the tree climb.

“We love you, Thomas!” someone half-jokingly shouted from behind me.

In a testament to the town’s spirit, it didn’t occur to a single resident that Thomas might be on a quest to hurt himself – or that he might fall, even though the likelihood of that outcome was obvious to anyone who’d dare climb any tree taller than thirty feet high.

Like a wave, the chant started from nowhere and subtly grew. “Thomas! Thomas! Thomas!” In a few moments, even the smaller children were chanting.

We all stood in awe as Thomas continued to climb the branch he chose to get as close to the sky as possible. When he could go no further, he stopped and braced himself against the bark of the elm tree.

“I can see the whole world from up here, Lucille,” Thomas shouted over and over. “I can see it! And ain’t none of it got you in it!”

It was a moment of pure collective joy, and most of us laughed.

We stood, watching, holding our breaths for something we couldn’t identify.

“I’m coming down!” Thomas shouted.

To my surprise, most of us below applauded, our hands thunderously giving our approval to the spectacle. It took Thomas thirty minutes to get down low enough to find footing on the ladder again. Several male townspeople were there to help him the last few inches. When Thomas stepped off the ladder, we all applauded again.

Pleasure Heights didn’t just celebrate the bicentennial of the country. It celebrated a life on that 4th of July. Even though we didn’t vote on it, we all started calling the elm tree “Lucille,” a name it still carries today, even in the book someone wrote describing all the old trees in the state.

Thomas lived to be 92. He spent the 20 years after Lucille died immersed in the social life of the small town his wife had loved. He sang, led the town’s parade a few times, and often sat outside the diner saying hello to everyone who passed. He died on Independence Day in 1996. My son June found him sitting under the Elm tree near the square, his hat pulled under his eyes, his back against the tree he stood under as he proposed to the love of his life all those decades ago.

I got a call from the new Chief of Police around 9 a.m. He told me June was at the square with his bicycle and needed me to come as soon as possible.

An hour later, after they’d taken Thomas’ body to the funeral home off Highway 37, June asked me what happened to Thomas. Since June was old enough to know the story, I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “June, love finally caught up to him. He went to the see the world.” Although June didn’t understand what I meant, he hugged me. We both smiled as we walked to stand a moment under the witness tree’s canopy. The heat was almost unbearable without a breeze. I looked up, and told June, “You wouldn’t believe it, but I was here when Thomas climbed almost to the top of this elm tree…”

For Lucille.

For love.