The Washer at the Ford
by Libby Faucette
Time had stopped for the gas station on the hill. Since it was built, nearly a century had passed, yet Thompson’s Gas and Grocery persisted, its clapboards quietly graying as the place settled into the red clay dust. Ancient, rusted gas pumps with rounded tops and cracked hoses squatted between the brick columns that supported the porch. The station sat near a dead man’s crossroad, where a steep curve of the land and a lonely meeting of ways had hosted more accidents than its one-way stop sign had the power to prevent. A narrow two-lane blacktop — a road that had likely been dirt not many years before — wound past the station’s gravel yard.
Mike Fitzgerald eased his battered Nissan into the space between the pumps and the road. The Nissan was a wreck, but hell, it looked new next to the store; Mike grinned at the contrast as he peered through his spotted windshield. It was hard to imagine why anyone would shop there, for while it wasn’t completely isolated — Mike had passed a few old houses along the way — less than nine miles took a person to Sutton’s Corner, which actually boasted a trio of stoplights and a McDonald’s, for Pete’s sake. Yet the old place seemed to be getting along fine, if not precisely thriving. It was still there, for one thing, despite the years on its sagging shoulders. And more cars than Mike’s Nissan crowded the tiny yard, most of them far older and more dismal than his own, squeezed close to the pickups that hulked over all like schoolyard bullies.
Mike crept into their midst and found a spot beside the road. He killed his engine, gathered his bag from the seat, and unfolded himself into the heavy, drowsing sunshine. He navigated a complicated path between sun-glittered cars and dusty bumpers to where the gas station’s door stood open beneath the porch, dim and cool as a cave.
He entered, blinded for a moment by its soft brown shadows.
Somewhere inside, a pinball machine clattered and dinged. Glass-fronted, refrigerated cases hummed against the far wall. Low shelves stacked with cans and dry goods crowded together on his right, while to his left, the register waited in the gloom, perched like an anachronistic afterthought on a counter that gleamed with care and the dark stolidity of age. Wire racks at its feet held candy bars; a small, barefoot girl with disheveled ponytails eyed them while sucking her forefinger. She looked up at Mike with that vague curiosity children had for non-threatening strangers, and he returned her regard with a smile and a nod before she went back to studying the candy. He could hear voices around a jutting corner on the far side of the counter. Someone chuckled, but it had nothing to do with him.
Mike made his way toward the drink case, which opened heavily with a rush of cold air, its sterile smell briefly banishing the decayed mustiness of tired wood that always lingered inside old buildings — like old books gone irrevocably bad. When he returned to the counter, soda in hand, the little girl backed out of his way — then she spun about, as if suddenly spooked, to scurry through the open door.
“Is that it for you today?” With the speaker’s thick drawl, you sounded more like yuh. A man slouched into view from the direction of those hidden, clustered voices. He was round-shouldered, with sharp eyes and a black beard streaked with silver. A baseball cap was perched on his head; Thompson’s Gin was stitched there in dark blue over a dingy bill.
“Yeah, just this.” Mike fumbled for the wallet tucked inside his bag — his “man purse,” as his friends jokingly called it — and paid for his drink, while privately amused by the difference in price between there and the city. “Actually,” he added, “I need directions, if you don’t mind.”
“Shoot,” the man said. “Where you headed?”
“Swift Creek. Heard of it?”
“Oh, yeah. It’s about four or five miles up the road.” He inclined his head in the general direction of the road running past the store — the same road Mike had already covered through most of the afternoon to no avail. “Why?” the man asked. “Going fishing?”
“Not quite. I’m a writer for the Rocky Mount Telegram.” Mike took a swig and held back a belch. “I’m doing an article on the abandoned gold mines in Nash and Franklin counties. I was hoping to check one of them out. The information I dug up at the courthouse said the opening to one of the bigger mines used to be near an old grist mill out on Swift Creek.”
Someone else suddenly chimed in from the group of gossipers around the corner. Probably sitting on milk crates, Mike thought, spitting dip-juice into empty bottles. “You talking ‘bout that place,” the new voice called, “up by the March Farm hunt club?”
“I don’t know if I am or not.” Mike glanced at the cashier. “I got directions at the courthouse. No one said anything about a hunt club. They told me to take Thompson’s Store Road toward 561, but I reached the stop sign and I knew I’d gone too far. I drove over a couple of creeks, but none of them had access roads or anything resembling a mill, as far as I could tell.”
“No.” The man at the register shook his head. “Best way to get to that old mill is to turn just past the hunt club. There’s a dirt road, runs to the right; that’s the one you want.”
Mike suppressed a flicker of irritation; he had seen more than one unpaved road past the intersection of Harrison and Thompson’s store. “Where do I go once I turn?”
“Well, it’s down there a-ways. Hard place to find ‘less you know where to look.”
“It’s not a problem. If you give me directions, I can write them down.” Mike set his bottle on the counter and opened his bag for a pad and pen. The man made an odd, chuffing sound.
“You’re not a local, I reckon.”
“Local enough. I grew up in Sandy Cross, less than twenty miles from here.”
“Yeah, but you’re not from around here. That old mill. Not really a place to be going this time a-day.” The man paused. “Unless you’re fishing. Might wanna wait ‘til tomorrah.”
Mike lifted his head again and eyed the man curiously. Okay. He glanced briefly in the direction of his unseen companions, as if hoping someone would elaborate, but no one spoke from that quarter. He offered the cashier a lopsided and slightly patronizing smile. “I was hoping to get up there today, before the sun starts going down. While it’s early.”
“Not early enough.” The man glanced toward the doorway, as if gauging the remaining daylight. Mike had the sudden, barely checked urge to laugh. The sun wouldn’t set for hours yet, and twilight would linger as it always did in the summer months. The man looked at Mike again, and perhaps he read the skepticism there, for a subtle, self-deprecating smile peeked from the scrub of his beard. “That ole mill,” he explained, placating now. “It’s dangerous. Lotsa broken things and sharp, rusted metal hiding in the grass ‘round that creek. Not the sort of place you oughta be wandering this time a-day, ‘less you’re familiar with the area.”
“Then it sounds like I need someone who’s ‘familiar with the area.’” Mike shoved the pen back in his bag. “I can give whoever — you, one of your friends — a ride there and back.”
“No.” The man shook his head. “Too late in the day for that.”
Mike stared at him in disbelief. Too late in the day for that? Summer sunlight flooded the parking lot glimpsed through the open door, turning the late afternoon into a blinding spread of softened blacktop and glittering cars. “I’d be willing to pay for the time,” he said. “I just need someone to go with me and help me find the damn thing. Hell…” He tried a winning smile. “I’ll even put your name in the article. You’ll be in the paper.”
“I’m hearing you, mister, but you ain’t gonna find nobody — ”
“How much you paying?” A second man appeared from around the corner, his grizzled head popping past a rack of novelty keychains. Muddy eyes peered from a brown, seamed face, above a sun-dried beard long enough to rival the guys from ZZ Top.
“Sit down, stupid,” the first man said. “This fella ain’t paying you nothing.”
ZZ Top ignored him. “How much?” he asked again.
Mike consulted his inner scale and what was left of his expense advance. “Fifty dollars?”
“Fifty? Jesus — !”
“Done.” ZZ Top negotiated the racks and a stack of cased Coke to reappear on the other side of the counter. He was dressed in grimy blue jeans and a no-color faded T-shirt. His heavy brown boots thudded against the floor. “I ain’t got nothing better to do this afternoon.”
The first man scowled. “What’re you gonna do with fifty dollars? Piss it away on beer?”
Mike ignored him. So did ZZ Top.
“My car’s out front.”
“Sounds good. Lemme take a leak and I’ll meetcha outside.”
“Great. I’ll be out by the car.”
ZZ Top nodded grimly and stumped away, leaving Mike alone with the sourpuss behind the register. Wearing an aw-shucks smile, Mike tipped the neck of his soda bottle toward the man in cocky salute. “Thanks for your help. You have a good day now.”
The man said nothing, only eyeing him warily as he pushed the register closed.
Mike stepped back into the sunshine. It seared his eyes after the confines of the store. A low-pitched whine drew his attention to the road, where some nameless piece of farm equipment lumbered past, huge and green and alien. The little girl he had seen inside was crouched beside the blacktop a few feet from his car. She looked up as well, and gravely watched the machine go by, her disheveled hair stirring like sea-grass in the accompanying breeze.
“Maybe you shouldn’t sit so close to the road,” Mike said. He smiled, making the warning a friendly one. The little girl half-turned to look at him, then went back to what she was doing which, as Mike drew closer, he saw was drawing pictures on the asphalt with sand. The girl had an empty Coke bottle, an older style made of clear glass that caught the sunlight in greasy ripples. She had filled it with sand from the shoulder, and now used it to pour the sand in long, meaningless loops and spirals that stood out stark and white against the blacktop.
“I heard you talking to Mr. Patterson in there,” she said.
“Oh yeah?” Mike leaned against his sun-warmed car. “And which one is he?”
“The one going with you to the creek.” She drew another sandy squiggle. “He’s crazy,” she added, pronouncing it as fact. “I don’t go down there. Ma says I’m not supposed to.”
“You know about the creek?”
“Uh-huh.” The girl gazed at her sand-shapes as if pondering a thought — whatever deep, sweet thoughts a child her age might have. Then she looked up at Mike, her blue eyes crinkling against the sun. “You wanna watch out for the wash lady, okay?”
Mike cocked a curious brow. “The wash lady?”
“You ‘bout ready, mister?”
Mike looked around. ZZ Top — Mr. Patterson, apparently — was ambling across the parking lot. The girl picked up her bottle and walked away, threading a path between the vehicles to disappear inside the store once more. Mike watched her go, feeling puzzled but amused.
“Yeah, I’m ready.” He gestured toward his car. “Hop in. It’s unlocked.”
The man slumped into the passenger seat. His musky odor filled the car and thickened as Mike mirrored him and shut the door. Patterson smelled of the dirt no doubt griming his palms and beneath his nails. Cured meat. Stale cigarettes. It wasn’t altogether pleasant.
The things I do for a story. Mike started the engine on a coughing rumble.
“All right. Which way from here? Back up Thompson’s Store Road?”
“Yeah. You was goin’ the right way. You wanna head toward 561.”
“Sounds good.” Mike backed up carefully, then pulled forward, putting them back on the main road, such as it was. “The name’s Mike, by the way,” he said, casting a glance at the fellow beside him. “Mike Fitzgerald. The little girl back there said you’re Mr. Patterson?”
“That’s right.” His companion stretched a hand out sideways. “Honey Patterson.”
“Honey Patterson?” Mike awkwardly shook the proffered hand with a smile. Honey’s grin in return was friendly enough, despite the conspicuous absence of several teeth.
“Real name’s Albert. I picked up ‘Honey’ back in the army. Long story.”
Mike laughed. “All right then. Honey. Let’s see if we can find that mine.”
“Gotta find the creek, first. Y’wanna keep straight, on through the next crossroads.”
“That I can do.”
Mike followed the road through rolling farm country. Its borders were marked by wire fences, ditches thick with wildflowers, and the occasional stretch of piney woods, their depths gleaming with that peculiar twilight all woods held in the heat of a Carolina summer. Cows grazed in the pastures between, their black bodies dotting the landscape. A few miles from the station where he had made Honey’s acquaintance, they reached the next crossroad, where an empty pasture graced one corner, its center ruled by an old, cracked pecan tree that had been split by lightning long ago, its shattered and twisted insides long since weathered gray.
“Now keep going,” Honey said. “‘Bout another mile or so.”
“You’re the boss.”
Mike drove on, keeping his speed low in case the next directions came quickly. The scenery remained largely unchanged, although the pastures became fewer and farther between, the woods separating them deeper and darker, even in the summer sun. Then the pastures ended and the real woods began. Mike watched with lazy curiosity as the trees rolled by, marking their age by the number of oaks and maples, the crazy-huge girth of those pines he could see at the very edge of the woods. The road rolled between, empty of all but sunshine.
No power lines, he noted suddenly. Power lines running the length of the road were just something he took for granted; they were only conspicuous now in their absence. To their left, the trees pulled back from the road, giving grudging room to a ramshackle building and its empty lot. Black letters had been stenciled above the door: March Farm Hunt Club. He had been so busy looking for a turn-off, the name of the place had failed to register in his brain.
“There’s gonna be a dirt road here on your right.”
If not for his companion, Mike would have missed it again, since apparently he had done just that on his first two or three attempts past the crossroads. Beyond the hunt club — within spitting distance, as the locals would say — a narrow, unpaved road branched from the asphalt and vanished beneath the trees, its joining marked by nothing more notable than a battered, leaning stop sign half-hidden by the warm shadows of the wood. Mike slowed his car and made the turn. He took this new road — most likely a hunting path — at any easy pace to keep from battering the Nissan with the inevitable rocks popping up from beneath his tires. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been; the road had probably been all gravel once, but the passage of too many pickups and as many years had washed the gravel from the ruts, leaving hard-packed red clay and a narrow strip of grass-choked crush-and-run between them. Dusty oaks and silent pines crowded close on either side, their soft brown twilight spreading over the road like a sigh.
The road wound through an endless colonnade of trees. It was a lonely place, Mike thought, with a forlorn sort of beauty. Eastern North Carolina was still largely rural, but he hadn’t known it still had places like this, places seemingly untouched by anything but wildlife — and maybe the men who hunted the same. Occasionally other paths snaked out of the forest, barred at their mouths by an old cattle gate or a length of rusted chain. They passed a tobacco barn, slowly decaying from age and neglect and the weight of a creeper vine. But that was all.
“There’s a field coming up here, on the right,” Honey said. “And just past that’s the bridge. Park on the other side of it, if you want, and we’ll walk down.”
Sure enough, the trees opened up on a sunlit field, tucked like a secret into the heart of the woods and empty but for wild, yellow-brown grasses that reminded Mike of wheat. He could see another tobacco barn slumped at its farthest edge, then the woods pulled themselves over the scene like a curtain. He braked gently as the road dipped into a hollow, and there was the bridge before them, waiting in the gloom beneath the trees. It was paved, he noticed, and even marked with a double line, which struck him as odd given the gravel both before and behind the bridge. He couldn’t see the creek as they crossed it, but he pulled onto the shoulder all the same.
“Just right.” Honey opened the door. “Shut ‘er off and let’s have a look.”
“Hang on. Let me get my camera.” Mike reached over the back of the seat to retrieve his bag. He stuffed the keys into the bag’s front pocket as he exited the car.
Honey crossed the road and paused at the mouth of what appeared to be a foot path. It dipped sharply, vanishing beneath dark leaves and darker branches. A hint of sunlight gleamed on trash near Honey’s feet — a beer bottle, the sunlight turning its glass to amber fire. There was more trash nearby, now that Mike had a mind to look — spent shotgun casings, cigarette butts, a crushed container that had once held dirt and fishing worms. So much for rural splendor.
He walked first to the bridge itself. It sat like a discard of civilization, out of place amid the watchful, lonely quiet of the woods. Asphalt gritted beneath his sneakers as he made his way to a concrete guard wall. It looked solid enough, but a full four inches of space existed between the thick railing and the bridge itself. There were drainage holes as well, each as thick as his wrist. Through both he could see green-tangled banks, dead trees, and the brown, sun-dappled water of Swift Creek flowing smoothly below. He braced a hand on the wall, its concrete warm from the heat of the day, and leaned over to get a better view. Below him, the creek was muddy and deep, its rapid current visible where it swirled past a tangle of dead branches. The water rushed through the wood, chuckling softly — the quiet cackle of a senile old man. There was no mill to be seen, but Honey stood at the path, so Mike assumed there was farther to go.
He lifted his camera and expanded the shot, taking in the whole of the creek that could be seen through the overhanging trees. He doubted any of his pictures would be used unless he was lucky enough to get his story on the front page of his section, but there was no telling. After another few snaps, Mike left the bridge and walked back to where Honey waited, with all the ponderous patience of the dirt beneath his feet, and just as dusty and immutable.
“You ready?” he drawled.
“Lead on,” Mike replied. Honey wheeled about and began stumping down, ducking slightly as he passed beneath low-hanging branches. Mike followed, idly slapping at the mosquitoes that inevitably found them as they neared the edge of the water.
Swift Creek became visible in fits and patches, its surface gleaming through breaks in the trees. It was apparently a prime fishing spot; Mike could see multiple paths that had been worn through the groundcover and its carpet of dead leaves in order to reach choice parts of the water, and shallow cups of earth had been smoothed along the steeper portions of the winding bank from generations of fishermen’s backsides. More trash could be seen there, half-hidden beneath the dried fall of years, but Mike’s eyes were only for the creek, shallower here than it was beneath the bridge, the water running fresh and clear over stones worn smooth. Somewhere nearby, a bird sang, a solemn liquid trill playing counterpoint to the creek’s low laughter.
“It’s gorgeous,” Mike said.
Honey snorted, but it was a good-humored sound. “Good fishing, too.”
“I’ll bet.” Stepping closer, absently careful of the old, humped roots protruding from the banks, Mike raised his camera and began taking pictures again. “And the mine?”
“Gotta head toward the old mill first.” Honey turned and started down the bank. “Gonna have to wade, but it’s been dry for a while. Shouldn’t wet more’n the bottom of your shoes.”
“I think I can handle that.” Mike followed the older man along the creek, bending low when their path took them under the occasional branch. The water chuckled beside them in a score of secret voices, over stones that glimmered like gold and old ivory in the sun. The creek widened after a short distance, fed by a stream from their right, then suddenly the trees drew back, affording a broad view before the creek bent west and disappeared in the tangled gloom.
“There you go,” Honey said. “That’s the old mill. What’s left of it.”
Ahead of them and past the widest part of the creek were the remains of an ancient dam. It had been almost as tall as Mike once, a great dark arm of stone that had braced itself against the waters of the creek for a mill that was long since gone. At some point, either man or nature had torn down its middle section, spilling huge ragged chunks of rock into the creek. And now the woods crept close again, its trees sheltering the dam in shadow, cloaking its gray and fractured length in old leaves and a soft, rotting darkness that the sun failed to penetrate.
“There’s more of it up the bank here,” Honey said. The path he indicated led across the slender stream from the right. It was definitely shallow, but Mike could see greenish-black slime coating many of the smoothed rocks on the bottom — and his sneakers had a lousy tread. After a moment’s pause — while watching Honey teeter across the shallows, slipping once and nearly busting his ass — Mike palmed his camera and slid his bag off his shoulder, then backtracked to a dry spot well away from the water. He dropped his satchel between two tree roots and left it there for safekeeping. If he slipped and fell on his ass, at least only his clothes would get wet. And he figured he could keep his camera out of the water easily enough.
Honey finished crossing the brook. Mike hurried after him, stepping gingerly into the running water. The water barely crested his soles, but it seeped in regardless. He grimaced at the cold but kept going. As feared, the rocks were treacherously slick, but he managed to keep his balance, and soon he was climbing up the gentle bank on the other side.
There, more evidence of the shattered mill could be seen. Massive blocks of crumbling masonry stood on the higher bank. Bits of rusted iron poked from their sides in strange configurations, their purpose lost in the past. Here, the woods had moved to a different stage of reclamation, the drifts of fallen leaves helped along by honeysuckle and trumpet creeper.
Mike took another quick series of pictures, then followed Honey up the slope.
“Here’s that mine you were looking for.”
Hunkered beneath the spreading trees, a bulky shack of rusted tin and decaying timber squatted against the backdrop of the woods. The ground humped up behind it. Mike guessed the shed had been a weather-hang of sorts, guarding the entrance shaft. The door had been boarded up some time in the distant past, the planks long since grayed with age and weather.
“Is it safe to go in?”
“Hell, naw. Probably won’t safe when it was being used — sure as hell ain’t safe now.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet.” Not disappointed in the least — actually going inside the old mine was more adventure than he cared to experience on his current salary — Mike busied himself with taking more pictures and turning over words in his mind. Gold mines. The words conjure images of forty-niners with shouldered pickaxes, striding off to make their fortune in California. But you might be surprised to learn that American gold was first discovered in North Carolina —
Not great, but not bad for a start. “Can I get closer?” he asked.
“Don’t see why not.” Honey shrugged. “Just watch your step.”
Mike focused his camera and snagged a few images of the boarded-up doorway, the rusted tin, the way wildflowers and scrub grass had taken hold at the old shack’s feet. He made his way around the bank side of the structure, with an eye to possibly climbing the slope to get a view from the top of the shed. From that angle he took another shot of the mine framed against the lower bank as it tumbled through the trees to the sun-dappled creek below —
Mike paused. There was something odd on the digital screen. Something small and pale, moving, down by the water. Frowning slightly, he adjusted the lens to bring the object into clearer focus. Defining the outlines sent an unaccountable chill ghosting over his skin.
Watch out for the wash lady, okay?
It was a woman. She was slender, narrow-shouldered, with black hair straggling down the back of her loose gray dress. Kneeling on the far side of the slick-pebbled brook they had crossed to reach the mine, her unseen face toward the bend of the creek, she bent forward at the waist and seemed to work at something in the water. Squinting a little, Mike lowered his camera, but all he could see was a long, white something drifting in the current from where the woman knelt.
Honey was eyeing him from the edge of the slope. “What’s up?”
“Nothing much. Looks like we’ve got company, that’s all.”
“Company?” Turning slightly, he followed Mike’s line of sight.
“Down by the creek bank. It’s a woman. You probably can’t see her from where you’re standing.” Mike started down the embankment to join him. Sure enough, the woman slowly dipped from sight behind the angle of the slope. “She’s down there, though.”
“I would assume. She’s down there where I left my bag.”
“We probably oughta head back, then. Don’t want someone messing with your stuff.”
“No, not really.”
Honey retraced their path down the slope, and Mike followed. They took it at an angle, cutting across the little rise to meet the shallow brook. The trees still blocked the woman from view, so Mike listened for her instead, but there were no sounds except the splash of the creek — and even that seemed subdued. He suddenly realized the birds had fallen silent as well — although hell, with all the noise they were making, every speck of wildlife in the vicinity had probably long since fled the scene. Mike followed as Honey turned a sharp right and climbed the narrow arm of the bank — all that stood between them now and the woman on the other side.
Yet the bank was empty.
Mike cast about, puzzled. “She was right here.”
“Ain’t here now.” Honey gazed out over the water. “Maybe she saw you and ran off. Girl ain’t got no business being down here anyway, not alone. Hunters, guys fishing — never know what some good ole boy might do when he sees a gal by herself and he’s had a few beers in’m.”
Mike shot Honey a look of humorous disbelief — sexism died hard in the boonies, it seemed — but the comment was forgotten in a flash of unrelated pique. “Hey,” he called. “Do you see my bag? I thought I left it right here. I’d swear I did, but now I can’t find it.”
“You sure you got the right tree?”
“Positive. I wouldn’t just set the damn thing down without looking first.” He scanned the ground at the foot of the oak, then circled the entire tree. Sudden, subtle tension wormed its fingers into his gut. “It’s got my notebook in it. My wallet, my phone. My keys. Damn near everything but my camera.” He glanced up sharply. “That woman. You don’t really think — ?”
A shadow flickered behind Honey’s eyes. “I don’t know why she would.”
“Oh, hell. My wallet, for starters.”
“We’ll have a sharper look around, all right? Trees all look alike after a while.” Honey took his hands from his pockets and started pacing the creek bank, his eyes scanning the bases of the nearby trees. “If your keys are in there, I reckon you ain’t got a spare?”
“No. And I don’t suppose you carry a phone.”
“Great,” Mike snapped. He set to as well, trying to ignore the faint edge in Honey’s voice, his sudden certainty that Honey was more worried than the old boy let on.
The sun was sinking behind the woods by the time Honey gave up the search, and Mike could no longer dismiss the other man’s mounting agitation. Honey didn’t seem the excitable sort, but it was becoming obvious that he wanted to go, and go now. He had grown gruff and short in his answers. He kept casting glances over his shoulder at the woods and the murmuring creek, glances that grew more frequent as the shadows lengthened across the water.
“We need to be getting on,” he said at last.
“I’m aware of that, but we’re not going anywhere without those keys.”
“We ain’t turned up a thing, and I ain’t staying here after dark.”
Something in his tone made Mike lift his head. Honey was standing a short distance away, his arms folded over his chest, his chin tipped like a man in thought.
“So what are you planning to do?” Mike armed sweat away from his forehead. “Walk? We’re an easy five miles from the crossroads, so you’re talking at least that before we’d even find somebody with a phone we could use. It’s another four or five to Thompson’s Store. I’ll walk if I have to…” He turned and went back to searching, although the effort had grown half-hearted. “But I’d rather not. As you said, it’s getting dark. I’d rather find my bag.”
“You’re not gonna find it.”
“Yeah, because that fucking woman took it.”
“Prolly so.” Honey turned his head and spat. “But I ain’t staying here, and I ain’t walking no four, five miles neither. Less’n a mile back is that old hunt club.”
“There wouldn’t be anyone up there this time of the year.”
“Maybe not, but they’d have a phone. And I can bust a window if need be.”
Mike stopped his aimless searching and rolled that over in his mind. He looked around. Night was coming. The shadows had turned the creek a dark, glimmering gray that whispered over the stones. The last light of the setting sun touched the tree tops on the opposite bank, limning them in gold. Downstream, the creek flowed beneath the bridge, the angle of the sunset already bathing its steel and concrete in deepening dusk. It had an ominous look at twilight, like the gate to some gloomy netherworld. The river Styx, only looking for its Charon.
The hunt club would have a phone, for emergencies if nothing else — if some hunter shot himself in the foot, or whatever. Even if their luck failed on that score, it was better than wandering the bank after dark, tripping over tree roots and fending off snakes and God knows what else once the last light was gone. Still, there was some daylight left, and Mike was reluctant to leave — if for nothing more than the hope that the bag-thief might come back.
“You go,” Mike said at last, resigned. “Somebody should stay with the car.”
The man gave him a skeptical look. Mike flushed but said nothing. “I plan on giving my brother a call,” Honey said, eyeing him a moment more before turning away. “If he’s home, he’ll give us a ride. You can get someone to help you pick up your car in the morning.”
“All right, sounds good.”
“Yeah.” Honey cast a last glance at their surroundings, then nodded and turned to go. “You look after yourself while I’m gone, Mr. Fitzgerald.”
“I think I’ll manage.”
Honey stumped away through the trees. Mike listened to the sound, feeling odd and unsettled as the last thuds of those heavy boots faded into the woods. Some instinct made him lift his eyes to the bridge, and after a few seconds he saw Honey striding across, a grayish blur among the deeper shadows of the coming twilight. Mike lifted his hand in a wave he didn’t expect to see returned, but Honey raised his hand as well. Then he was gone, retracing their path up the empty road.
Mike was alone, standing in nervous silence beside the creek.
He went back to searching — or really, wandering about — but it didn’t last long. Sunset came late in the last dregs of summer, but woods bordered the creek on every side — impenetrable woods that blocked the light of the fading sunset and plunged the creek course into gloom. After this third time tripping over unseen roots — and a stumble that nearly tipped him into the creek — Mike abruptly gave up. The water wasn’t deep until it reached the bridge, but he didn’t want to add wet to the knees to his current list of seriously-fucked-up-shit.
Mike stared at the bastard creek, then he swore under his breath and turned toward the path while there was light enough still to find it. He pushed past sentinel oaks, stubbing his toes, but by following the gradual rise of the bank, he managed to find the path again without falling on his face. It glimmered against the dusk, a lighter strip of beaten earth leading up and toward the road. Mike blew out his breath and started up, and soon the creek faded into silence, replaced by the whispering wind, by the occasional, self-conscious night-trill of some unseen bird.
The woods hunkered close on either side. Mike had the path before him, but without it the woods were so much formless shadow, broken only by the gray of an occasional birch as it loomed out of the growing darkness. Things rustled in the undergrowth as he passed and then grew still. Mike quickened his pace, suddenly keen to be free of the trees, then the ground leveled out at the top of the path and he spotted his car, still waiting beside the road. Honey was nowhere to be seen, of course, but Mike looked down the road all the same. He half-hoped to see the man returning, but the bridge was empty and dark. Shadowed in sunlight by the close, overhanging trees, it was a brooding tunnel by twilight. The dirt road stretched beyond it and vanished into the gloom. He didn’t want to wait there in the growing darkness for Honey to return, either, but at least the car was unlocked. It was better than staying by the creek.
Or not. Mike opened the driver’s side door, slid behind the steering wheel, and promptly winced; the trapped heat of the day was stifling. He rolled down the window by hand — while grimly blessing his piece-of-shit Nissan with its tape deck and stick shift and lack of power windows — then he closed the door and slumped back with a disgusted sigh.
Night deepened and drew its soft black wings around him.
The window didn’t stay down for long. Mosquitoes rose from the creek, biting him half a dozen times before he finally relented and rolled up the window again. Then the late summer heat, still potent after sunset, closed in with silent menace. Mike shifted uncomfortably in his seat, miserably lamenting the loss of his bag, his keys — the ability to run the fucking AC. That, and he’d had a pair of gym shorts rolled up in the bottom of his bag. His jeans stuck to his legs with sweat. His feet were itchy and hot and damp inside his shoes. He debated taking them off, but it would suck to drag them back on again once Honey showed up with their ride. He ran sticky fingers through his hair, tossing it back in a sweaty tangle —
A sudden thump on the window startled him into a shout.
“What the fuck?” His heart hammering in his chest, Mike whipped toward the passenger window to find Honey staring back at him. He was a ghostly shape beyond the glass, his mouth working as he scrabbled at the door. Seconds later, he had gotten it open. He collapsed inside, his chest heaving, and slammed it shut after him. He slapped at the lock until it clicked home.
“What the hell happened to you?”
“You didn’t find your keys?” Honey panted.
“I wouldn’t still be sitting here if I did. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Nothing. Lock your door.”
Mike did as he asked, while casting a nervous glance through the windows. The night looked back, brooding and watchful, yet there was nothing to see through the windshield but darkness and the trees silhouetted against the sky. They swayed in an unfelt breeze.
He looked at Honey, hunched and rocking in the seat beside him.
“What happened?” he asked again. “Is there somebody out there?” Maybe some nutjob was wandering the woods, some local with a shitty sense of humor. But Honey only shook his head. Suddenly beyond frustrated — almost viciously so, as much by Honey’s attack of the crazies as by being trapped in the car with a companion who was smelling worse by the minute — Mike swore loudly, creatively, and gripped the steering wheel. He glared through the windshield at the swelling night with sweat trickling down his back —
Something pale flickered in the rearview mirror.
Mike’s eyes darted toward his reflection, his mouth suddenly dry. Someone was standing behind his car. It was too dark to see clearly, but there was no denying the shape, thin and ghostly in the gloom. The figure stood centered in the rear window, as if waiting on the side of the road, then he watched it shift and glide silently past, to vanish into the darkness at their back.
“Mr. Patterson.” Mike realized his voice was shaking. “There’s someone out there.”
“Oh, Christ.” Honey began to babble, rocking faster. “OhChristohChristohChrist — ”
“Mr. Patterson — ”
“Can you hear it? It’s calling. It’s calling for me — ”
“It comes. Oh, it’s coming…”
“Goddammit, stop! Christ!” Mike smacked Honey backhanded across the chest. “Will you just fucking stop? There’s nothing out there — !”
(nothing but the fucking PALE THING)
“ — and you’re freaking me out, you asshole!” He looked through the windshield again, at the endless dark of the trees. Nothing out there, nothing out there but night. But even as he stared in hopeful disbelief, damn near praying, something white moved in front of his car.
“What the fuck?” he breathed.
(watch out for the wash lady, okay?)
The thing gliding soundlessly across the night-shadowed road looked terribly, hideously familiar. Slender and pale, sickly white, she seemed to melt into the lecherous grip of the surrounding darkness. Black hair streamed past her shoulders and down her back, stringy with damp. And as Mike watched in shock and recognition, the woman-thing turned her head, meeting his stare with a dreadful solemnity that turned the blood in his veins to ice.
She has no eyes. Christ, SHE HAS NO EYES!
Honey gave voice to a low-pitched, keening moan. Mike shrank back in his seat, his eyes goggling at the gaunt-faced apparition as she slipped across the road. Her lips were shriveled and bloodless, slightly parted as if she might speak, and above her thin nose the eye sockets were completely empty. Her corpse-gaze seemed to lock on his, freezing him for a terrible moment of time, then she turned away. She vanished into the shadows at the head of the path — the path that led down, down, to the lunatic, muttering chuckles of the hidden creek.
“Jesus.” Mike’s throat felt tight. “Did you see that? Did you — ”
“She’s coming,” Honey whispered. “She’s coming for me.”
“Who, goddammit? What was that thing?”
But Honey didn’t answer. Staring senselessly through the windshield toward the shadowed woods where the woman-thing had disappeared, Honey began yanking at the door handle, pulling and clicking with idiot repetition before he seemed to realize it was locked. Before Mike could think to stop him, he had unlocked the door and opened it on the night. A draft of cooler air washed inside, stinking of the creek, damp and heavy with rot.
“Mr. Patterson! Hey! Hang on!”
If Honey heard, he gave no sign. With a sobbing whine in the pit of his throat, the man rolled from the car and to his feet. He left the door standing open; Mike caught a glimpse of silent tree trunks and the scrub-grass growing on the shoulder. Honey staggered toward the road and passed in front of the car, moving jerkily like a puppet on epileptic strings.
Mike’s heart was pounding in his ears. He’d never been so afraid, so utterly certain that the last thing anyone should do was follow that pale woman into the dark. “Mr. Patterson!” he shouted hoarsely, his voice cracking. “What the fuck are you doing?”
Honey reached the other side of the road. For a moment Mike could still see him, a lighter shadow bobbing and swaying among the deeper gloom of the trees, then his figure descended as the creek path sloped downward and the darkness swallowed him whole.
And then, oh then, the screaming began.
Mike cried out himself, his hands seizing the steering wheel in an ecstasy of terror. Shriek after tortured shriek rose from the hidden woods, carrying loud and clear on the night air and through the car’s open door. He lunged for it and grabbed the handle, slamming it shut a second afterwards and locking it with trembling hands. It was cowardice, pure and simple, and guilt boiled up in his throat, but Mike couldn’t bring himself to reopen that door, no more than he could consider getting out and plunging after Honey in rescue.
He got out of the car, not me, his brain babbled. He got out of the car, not me…
The screams rose to a bloodcurdling pitch, muffled now by steel and glass, then the sound was cut off as neatly as shutting off a light. Silence descended on the woods. There was nothing but darkness and the sound of Mike’s frightened breathing.
But something’s out there. Jesus. JESUS.
A long and terrible minute later, the crickets tuned up again.
All was dark and peaceful, as if the screams had never been.
Mike stayed awake through most of the lonely night.
For a time he remained upright, immobile with shock, staring into the blackness spilling over the hood and endlessly in every direction, but after a while it became too much — the constant waiting, the surety that something would come crawling from the woods, dragging itself hand over hand to slap dead and clammy palms at the too-thin glass. He had lain down in the back of the car then, after climbing uncomfortably between the seats, with a spare shirt from the floorboards thrown over his face despite the unbearable heat. Stifling in darkness was better than seeing … whatever might come to the windows, and if he couldn’t see, he could pretend there was nothing out there. Still, every rustle and thump outside the car made his stomach clench and his heart thunder in his chest, until eventually exhaustion claimed him, and the night sounds faded until there was nothing left but the whisper of his own fitful dreams.
Mike awoke to light filtering through the shirt. He lifted his head, peering out at the world, and found the interior of the Nissan lit with the pale, cool light of morning. He sat up with a start, his eyes wide and grimed with sleep, and stared at the dreamy stillness of the woods. No longer threatening, the trees seemed to wait, their arms of black and dusty green stretched to the sky in rustling supplication. The road was empty, as was the bridge behind the car and the low-slung path that vanished beneath the trees. Mike didn’t look long at the path. A deeper darkness seemed to lurk there, more black and brooding than the shadow-light caught by the trees.
But there was nothing else to be seen, and he had to piss.
Mike hesitated, one sweaty hand poised on the lock, then he exhaled sharply and opened the door in one go. Stumbling out of the vehicle, stiff from sleeping like a contortionist, he left the door standing open and hurriedly unzipped right there. His urine arced and splashed against the hard-packed dirt. It left little runnels that hurried in the direction of the bridge, streams Mike followed with a nervous eye as he finished his business and shook off. A bundle of green there caught his attention — a bulky thing, laying propped against the concrete guard.
Mike zipped up.
Jesus Christ, it was his bag.
Relief flooded him, warring with shock. He stumbled toward the bridge in a hurry, to snatch up the bag and flip it open with trembling fingers. He pawed through its contents in disbelief. Everything was there — his phone, his keys, his wallet and both of his notebooks.
Mike lifted his head and stared at his surroundings.
There was no sign of whoever had brought the bag to the bridge — and no sign of Honey, either. He was alone in the hush of morning. No wind stirred the trees. Below, the water gurgled with a muted sound. Mike followed the path of that tea-brown water with uncertain eyes. Somewhere beyond it, lost behind the trees, the dark and broken bulk of the dam lay waiting.
He could take the path that dipped toward its bank.
He could search for Honey Patterson.
Mike clutched his keys until their edges cut into his palm. Unable to face the silent woods, he ran to his car instead, hating himself for his fear but helpless against it. He would come back, with help, and then they would search the banks of the creek.
But damned if he’d go down into those haunted woods by himself.
Mike drove away, taking the bridge and the long dirt road as fast he dared. He avoided looking at the mirror and the woods behind him. It felt like the trees had eyes — brooding, knowing eyes that marked him as they watched him go, that promised they would meet again.
Mike sped up when he hit the main road, his breath coming easier as the empty woods faded and the rolling farmland began.
He should have called the police as soon as he found his phone. He knew that, but some sense of self-preservation where his ego was concerned kept him from making the call until he reached something approximating civilization. In the steadily increasing light of day, it became easier to convince himself that nothing had really happened — and at worst, nothing more or less than an elaborate prank played by some backcountry yahoos on the unsuspecting city boy.
He decided to make Thompson’s Grocery his first stop. He would find that bearded man, the one behind the register, and ask about Honey Patterson. And he would find out that Honey had come back in the night, that he had walked to the hunt club as planned, broken a window, made a phone call and vanished home, laughing up his sleeve all the while —
Five minutes later, he pulled into the store’s gravel yard.
This time, it was empty. Almost empty. Squinting through his windshield, Mike spotted the towheaded little girl he had met before. She was crouched at the edge of the lot, just as she had been the last time he had seen her — a thin, waif-like child in a faded sundress, the sunlight shining on her hair. She was making sand pictures on the blacktop again, but she glanced at him over her shoulder as he eased the Nissan past her, her face as grave and inscrutable as before.
Mike parked a short distance from the pumps. The store’s front door was closed, a hand-lettered sign saying as much in the window. A crooked blind had been pulled down to the top of the notice. He slowly got out of the car then; the girl looked up at the crunch of his footsteps. She watched him close the distance between them, then with less than a foot to go, she went back to her drawing. The sand poured from the neck of her bottle with a whisper.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey.” Her voice was soft. A sand-spiral sighed across the blacktop.
“The store. Does it always close on Sundays?”
She made a small sound in the affirmative, then met his eyes once more. “Did you go down to the creek?” she asked. Mike felt an unpleasant jolt in his belly. She regarded him with a strange solemnity — a child sibyl reading fortunes in the sand.
“Yeah, I did,” he said. “Mr. Patterson went with me.” He paused, then hurried on. “You told me to watch out for the ‘wash lady.’ What were you talking about?”
The girl shrugged. “Mama says she’s a haint.”
His skin broke out in gooseflesh. “A what?”
“A ghost-lady.” Her voice was flat. “She washes the clothes of the dead.”
Mike crouched slowly beside her. “What dead?”
“The ones who’ll be dead soon.” She resumed her drawing. “If you see her, it means you’re next. She washes your burying clothes in the creek. Then she comes for you.”
“But I was the one who saw her…” The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them. Not Honey. ME.
The girl looked up again, expressionless. “It’s only a story.”
“Only a story. Christ.” Mike lifted his head and stared at the empty yard, each mica-flecked bit of gravel catching his eyes like diamonds in the sun. He rose abruptly and strode away, leaving the girl to her strangeness at the side of the road. Probably inbred anyway…
Someone had to be around. Even on Sunday, it seemed impossible that the only convenience store on the whole twelve miles of Thompson’s Store Road would be closed. And besides, somebody had to be watching the girl at the road.
He moved quickly past the gas pumps and the ticking hulk of his car, then headed around the store and towards the back. A shelter had been built against the side, its cool and shadowy space filled with weeds, empty drink crates, and a hand truck’s rusty skeleton. Beyond that, the gravel rolled to the edge of the yard. A thin boundary of tall grass separated the store from the expanse of a soybean field. It stretched to a dark line of trees at its farthest end.
Mike rounded the corner and stopped.
Someone was there, all right. A figure slouched on the back stair where the rear door gave on the gentle slope of the yard. It was a man, sitting propped with his back against the door, his arms lax across his thighs. A trucker’s cap was pulled low over his face, but he looked damned familiar.
Oh, you son of a bitch.
His clothes. A white T-shirt, grimed with dirt. Ancient jeans ending in the seam-sprung clodhoppers his dad had called ‘shit-kicking boots.’ Mike had spent the previous afternoon following the man that wore them along the lonely banks of Swift Creek. That night, he had watched that white shirt disappear, smothered in the dark of the grasping trees, his screams shut off like a light —
“You bastard.” His voice was stronger than he felt. He’d been fucked over; any second the inbred bastard would pop up from the steps with a lunatic’s gap-toothed grin and shout, Boo! Aww, man … I wish you could see your face! He could see Honey’s gingery beard jutting over his chest like a hank of rusty steel wool. His trucker’s hat shadowed his face, but there was no mistaking him, or the odor of tobacco and sweat that seemed ground into his clothes — with another smell, a damp smell, like old basements or wood gone to rot.
He did not stir. Or look up. Or move.
That is him, right?
“Mr. Patterson?” Mike caught further, stuttered details. The white shirt, wet and transparent, the red-brown hairs of the man’s arm showing through the cotton. Denim on his legs, dark blue with damp, with water pooling around his heels. Scattered droplets were clinging to his beard. Some voice bellowed inside Mike’s head, telling him to stop, to leave it alone — to get back inside his dented Nissan and simply drive back to Rocky Mount —
With nerveless fingers, Mike reached up to lift the cap. He ended up knocking it from Honey’s head. He had a moment to register the pale face beneath, the water glistening on skin gone fish-belly white. The mouth was agape, the tongue swollen and poking between ruined teeth like a bit of discarded liver. But the eyes were rolled upwards, pinning Mike where he stood — eyes wide and frozen in an expression of mind-breaking horror.
You left me. You LEFT me, city-boy.
The corpse sagged, its balance shifted. It tumbled from the steps and landed with a sick, soggy thump on the grass. And Mike began to scream, shattering the sleepy quiet of a summer’s morning.
Copyright © Libby Faucette (2017). All rights reserved.