Halloween Fiction in a Flash: “Treasure”

If you read this blog regularly, you know I’m a big fan of the 100-word flash fiction model. It creates a structure that imposes discipline, as does the sonnet. There are rules. My process is to keep a tight leash on my sentences but not self-edit much in the draft phase. The fun comes when I do a word count and have to start paring down, replacing, refining.

There is an effort to collect 100-word stories on this site, 100 Word Story.

I got started with Loren Eaton’s Advent Ghosts. This Halloween story, “Treasure,” is for my friend Eric Douglas. I like what Eric says, “(T)his particular brand of flash fiction is telling a complete story in 100 words. Not more. Not less. It can be a lot of fun. And it can also be challenging. Sometimes what is most important is what is left unsaid.”

I will share Eric’s full Halloween 2015 round-up on Esse Diem on or after Friday, October 30.

I hope you enjoy my story. I’ve always been fascinated with how simple curiosity can morph into obsession and losing touch with reality.

I’ll leave the rest unsaid.

John William Waterhouse, Psyche opening the golden box , 1903.

John William Waterhouse, Psyche opening the golden box , 1903.

Treasure

It was a place to hide treasures. How what she considered “treasure” changed, she couldn’t remember.

Things from the woods behind the house, the path to school. First leaves or seeds, but soon feathers. What once had a heartbeat. Claws, then tails, whatever could be preserved. That Halloween, the treasures were recent.

“Who’s next?” Seth held a flashlight under his face in the dark.

He passed her treasure box to the left, and Jeff shivered. “I’ll go.”

Then, “EW! I know that’s just spaghetti in there! That’s worse than the peeled grape eyeballs!”

No, she thought. It’s so much better.

The Legend of Paint Creek: A River Town Halloween Treat

Lillian let Hayden walk ahead of her. She liked to fall back sometimes, pretending she was looking at the autumn leaves or tracking the rustling of a squirrel behind a fallen tree. In truth, she wanted to look at him, watch the way he walked in the woods. It was different from the way he moved in River Town. In town he was tall, his shoulders squared, his hands hovering at his hips with open fingers. She knew about the knife he carried. Sometimes it made her feel safer, other times less so.

But in the woods, Hayden had a different energy and gait. His shoulders loosened. His hands seemed less poised to act. His long body was more at ease than Lillian ever saw it in town. She liked to see him in this different state of mind and body. It felt like a privilege, and she wondered if anyone else ever saw him like this.

In an instant, her calm shattered. There was a scream, a sound she had never heard before, like the devil himself had opened a gate in hell. The scream made the air vibrate, and Lillian felt the inside of her ears throb with pain.

“Hayden! What is that?!” She was running to catch up to him but there was no need. He’d already spun back to her and was at her side before the echoes stilled and the woods were void of sound. It was a chilling silence. No little creatures skittering, no leaves moving, no birds speaking. The quiet was thick and unsettling.

Hayden’s hand was on her arm now. “Lill, stay at my side. It’s going to be all right, but don’t leave me.” Lillian had no intention of leaving him. The scream had almost stopped her heart. Whatever else was with them in the woods wasn’t going to get her alone, she knew that much.

“Hayden, oh . . . Hayden, what was that?” her voice was a whisper.

“I know what it should be, but . . . .”

“But WHAT?” Lillian was moving from fear to annoyance. Her sharp mind didn’t tolerate not getting information quickly. She could tell Hayden knew something about the scream. Why was he waiting so long to tell her?

“It’s a paint. But she shouldn’t be out now. It’s the middle of the day.”

Lillian furrowed her brow so hard Hayden laughed in her face. “Your face looks like a plowed field.”

“What on earth is a ‘paint’?” asked Lillian, ignoring his mockery.

“Oh, right. You’re so society. You wouldn’t know that word. Paint, you know, like a panther. A mountain lion. There are plenty in these parts. If I’d known you didn’t know that I’d never have let you walk around in the woods with me.”

“Oh, hush,” said Lillian. I know about mountain lions. My father killed one once.”

Hayden stood back and looked at Lillian with what appeared to be new respect. “Not too shabby. I didn’t think the old man had it in him. I don’t know many bankers who can kill a paint.”

The sounds of the woods had returned to normal. Whatever it was had passed.

“Should we get home?” Lillian asked nervously.

“Not a bad idea,” said Hayden. “Still, that was really strange. Paints hunt and mate at night. It’s only after lunch.” Lillian’s face went hot. She felt embarrassed by talk of wild animals screaming and mating, but Hayden didn’t seem to notice. They walked on without speaking. Finally, Hayden said, “You know Paint Creek, right? It’s not that far from River Town.”

“I’ve heard of it,” said Lillian. “I never thought of where it got its name. From lions?”

“Well, yes and no,” said Hayden. “There’s a legend about it. It’s not something you probably should hear . . .” His voice trailed off and she saw him try to hide a smirk. They both knew the best way to get to her was to suggest she wasn’t smart enough or strong enough for a story.

“I most certainly should hear it!” she insisted, taking the bait. She had to know.

Hayden stopped smiling and looked at Lillian. “All right,” he said, “I’ll tell you. But if you can’t sleep later, don’t blame me.

Paint Creek in Ash Branch Park, Kanawha County WV

They say it was a long time ago, maybe fifty years or more. There weren’t that many white people living around here. Houses were really far apart. There was a man, he was called Anselm. Lived up on Paint Creek alone. Or so most people thought.”

Hayden paused. Lillian’s eyes were fixed on him. “What do you mean, so people thought? Did he or didn’t he live alone?”

“He said he did. But the story is that he would show up in town every few weeks, trying to get things that seemed odd. Like he wanted to barter for bolts of calico cloth and lavender water. That’s not what stinky old men are known to like, you know?”

“No, that’s what a woman would want.” Lillian couldn’t take her eyes off Hayden. “What else?”

“One time he came into town near frantic, or so they say, crazy to find a doctor. Except he wasn’t hurt. He wasn’t ill. He wouldn’t say why he needed a doctor so bad. He never found the doc and went home wild eyed. Rumors started that old Anselm had a woman up there. Maybe more than one.” Hayden looked at Lillian. “Do you want to hear the rest?”

She said simply, “Yes. Yes I do.”

“Some of the women in town started bothering their husbands to go up to Anselm’s property to see what was going on. The men didn’t want to go, they figured they didn’t want anyone bothering them, why would Anselm want anybody bothering him. Live and let live. Then the screaming started.”

Lillian couldn’t breathe. She just nodded to Hayden to go on.

“In the middle of the day for three days in a row, people in town could hear paints screaming over by the creek. It was an awful sound, just like today. And no one had ever heard it before when the sun was up. The town women insisted something was not right up at Anselm’s. The men finally formed a group and went to see what was what.

When they got up to the house and banged on the door, no one answered. They decided to break down the door.”

Lillian, normally so composed, could not control herself. “What? What? What did they find?”

“They claimed to find several pieces of a woman’s clothing and a wooden cradle. But there was no one in the house. A door out the back of the house was ripped clean off, what looked like claw marks all over it. There was blood on the ground but not in the house, like something or someone had been dragged away. The men followed the trail until it disappeared into the creek.

No one ever knew what happened. Some people said the three days of screams must have been the three people in the house being attacked by paints, one after the other. Others claimed they saw human footprints near the drag marks, like it had to be a person who took the bodies. Others started a rumor that Anselm was a paint, changed at night and didn’t take too kindly to his woman locking him out, and ripped the door off with his claws.”

“That’s enough,” said Lillian, shuddering. “I don’t want to hear any more. That is horrible. The baby . . . ” She couldn’t continue  and looked away.

“It’s not good, that’s for sure,” said Hayden. “Though some tell the story that the dragged off body was Anselm’s and the woman was the paint, come to claim her baby and she finished the old man off and left his body to sink into the creek. The daytime screams are her victory cries. When you hear her during the day, she is reminding every man around who really owns these woods.”

Lillian smiled. “I like that version better. Let’s go with that.”

“I’ve always liked it best myself, too. I know better than to try to mess with a strong woman.”

The two friends walked on, their hands not touching but close together.

###

This tale is entirely fictional and inspired by the characters Lillian Conley and Hayden Lowe from the collection of short stories that make up River Town. Want to know more about Lillian, Hayden, and the many other characters who live in River Town? Cool! Check out this link as well as the links below: https://essediemblog.com/2013/08/14/river-town-buzznuggets/

You can hear some cougar screams and calls here. Many people believe that some of the more blood-curdling cries sound like a woman screaming.

Read about the real Paint Creek, West Virginia, here.

Buy and read River Town here. You can join Facebook fans of the book, too: River Town on Facebook

Happy Halloween!

Halloween Fiction in a Flash: Big Dogs Drag Things

If you read this blog regularly, you know I’m a big fan of the 100-word flash fiction model. It creates a structure that imposes discipline, as does the sonnet. There are rules. My process is to keep a tight leash on my sentences but not self-edit much in the draft phase. The fun comes when I do a word count and have to start paring down, replacing, refining.

There is an effort to collect 100-word stories on this site, 100 Word Story.

I got started with Loren Eaton’s Advent Ghosts. This Halloween story, “Big Dogs Drag Things,” is for my friend Eric Douglas. I like what Eric says, “(T)his particular brand of flash fiction is telling a complete story in 100 words. Not more. Not less. It can be a lot of fun. And it can also be challenging. Sometimes what is most important is what is left unsaid.”

I hope you enjoy my story, based on the real life reporting of my friend Rick Wilson about his Great Pyrenees dog, Arpad. Arpad is a legend in my house. I’m living life now with my first-ever large breed dog. So far, no body parts have come home. But I know they could.

I’ll leave the rest unsaid.

Photo courtesy of Rick Wilson

Photo courtesy of Rick Wilson

Big Dogs Drag Things Home

Big dogs drag things home. An enormous thunking and I pull back the curtain. It’s a bloody leg. Hair, bone, skin. A hoof. Must have been a deer. I don’t know where she found it or why she thinks I want it. The scent? A late-night walk in the woods. I could see everything in the natural light.

The drain is clogged again. The tub is stained. I get out, brush my teeth, look at them. Look at my face. She licks my ankle, gazing up, patient. I unlock the large breed iron crate I tell everyone is for her.

An Esse Diem Halloween Story 2013: The Man by My Bed

Last year I posted a rambling ghost story from a dream I had. You can read it beginning here.

This year my friend Eric Douglas posted his own (Call of the Raven Mocker), and I was inspired to share another dream. At least, I hope that’s what it was.

A few nights ago I opened my eyes in the dark to see a man standing beside my bed.

The man was not anyone I knew. My husband lay beside me, sound asleep. Only he and I and our child live in our house. I knew this man was an intruder.

He was illuminated by a strange orange light, and it appeared to emanate from something he was holding his hand. He was scanning around by the head of the bed, and on the floor. He didn’t see me looking at him.

I held my eyes wide open. I felt as if I blinked or closed my eyes or moved in any way, that is what would allow him to see me. He might think I was still asleep if I just didn’t move at all.

In my mind, I wanted to scream. I wanted to scream to my husband, to wake him to face this man, to help me. But inside I knew I was too frightened to make enough noise to do anything but alert the intruder to my awareness of his presence. The whole time, my heart rate was steady. I could not figure out why it wasn’t pounding.

Finally I realized it was a dream of some kind. I forced my eyelids closed. I knew when I woke up this would all be gone.

I waited a minute and opened my eyes.

The man was still there. He looked right into my eyes. I started blinking my eyes as fast as I could. Wake up wake up wake up this is not real. Wake up wake up wake up.

Each time I opened my eyes, he was still there. I finally closed my eyes as hard as I could and eventually the sun came up.

Last night when I was giving my daughter a bath, for the first time ever she stopped playing  and said, “I want out. I want out now.”

“Why?” I asked, confused.

“Because I do. I just want out right now.”

I took her out. I put her to bed.

Two weeks after I first saw him, when I open my eyes I still see his shadow beside my bed. Not the orange light. Not his eyes.

But he is still standing there.

An Esse Diem Halloween Story (the conclusion)

The young officer squinted with painful eyes into the unrelenting sunlight.  His partner hospitalized in critical condition, he felt strangely alone on the Thomas property, even though other officers and a team of forensic specialists were with him.

A drug addict had been arrested a mile from Ella’s shed. The dead woman’s blood was on his clothes, but given the episode’s violent nature he seemed oddly whole; no scratches, bites, or injuries were documented.

A female detective crossed the yard to approach the young detective.  They were longtime friends, and her speech was slow and careful when she spoke about the Sera Thomas case.  “So she never said goodbye to anyone in North Carolina?”

“That’s what all the interviews indicate,” sighed her colleague.  “Most say they just accepted it because it was so soon after everyone found out about her affair.  They thought she was ashamed, skipped town to save face.  The church people bought the shame thing, hook line and sinker.”

“I guess I can see that,” she said.  “But the boy….that seems hard to explain.”

“In hindsight, sure,” said the young officer.  “At the time, the community thought it made sense.  Even his parents believed he killed himself.”

“What do you think?”

“I think he was forced off the bridge, I don’t think he jumped.  We may never know, though.  Sera is a different story, if we can just find her.”  He looked into the sun, even though it hurt.

The woman forced herself to ask the obvious but forbidding question.  “Do you have any idea where she is?  Any gut instinct?  I mean,” she drew a deep breath, “There is a lot of territory in question.  Thomas was good.  Everyone believed him about everything.  God.  Was she ever even in Mason County?”

His gaze fell on the Thomas flower garden.  Heavy rose blooms weighed down even the strongest stems as if they were marble spheres.  A honey bee lifted itself from a flower, its legs coated in nearly invisible pollen.   Carrying its fertile payload to another farm, the bee lifted itself out of sight.

“Yeah, she was.  She is.  Life never disappears.”

Pulling his long-neglected sunglasses from his breast pocket, he gestured to another officer holding a shovel to go ahead and stepped into his car, careful to knock the soil off his soles.

An Esse Diem Halloween Story (6)

(This is part 6 of a 7 part ghost story.)

I see Sera.  Her face is so pale and pinched.  Is it worry or fear?  I can’t read her. 

Webb exhaled an enormous breath of relief at the sight of his wife, but then immediately spun around to the gaze of two strangers in his house. Webb glanced away from Sera’s face to see the uninvited men standing in his kitchen, each wearing a handgun holstered at the hip and strapped over the chest.

“Who are you?  What the hell is going on here?  Why are you here?  You need to go.   You need to go right now to my neighbor’s house, to Ella Williams’ place.”

“Mr. Thomas, we already have a car headed over there.  Someone called in a disturbance.” The younger of the two cops was gentle but direct as he said, “What you need to do is sit down.”

Webb suddenly felt exhausted, and he welcomed the chance to sit.  He was still completely confused, but he was too tired to do anything but go along with the request.  He sat down at the kitchen table where he saw Sera and reached for her hand.  “It’s OK, baby,” he told her. The officers exchanged glances.  Then the younger one continued.

“Mr. Thomas, we’re here at the request of Ella Williams.  She’s made several calls to the Sheriff about your frequent trespassing, but she doesn’t want to press charges.  She just wants you to stay off her property uninvited.  Do you understand?” The first officer’s voice remained even but stern.  The older of the two men took it to another level.

“She says she told you to stop coming over in the morning and then she found you digging in her yard at night.  What is wrong with you?”

Webb rubbed his palms against his damp forehead.

Ella never told me to stop coming over. 

Image: Courtney White

The digging at night felt familiar. He used to do that at their old place in North Carolina when he couldn’t sleep, get up and do soil amendments or plant tender perennials by moonlight.  He knew it was a little eccentric, but it helped him get back to sleep.  No mosquitoes, no hot sun, just him and the earth.  Nitrogen and calcium plus lots of organic matter and compost had built one of the prettiest gardens in Forsyth County.

I wish I could have just picked it up and put it down in West Virginia when I moved.

“Thomas, do you hear me talking to you?” The older cop was getting agitated.

“Yes,” said Webb.  He looked into the other man’s eyes and held them.  For a moment, the cop lost his bravado and had to shake off the feeling of ice and mud in his chest.

“I’ll be right back,” said the younger man, “I have to take a call from Don.”  Don was the Mason County Sheriff and officers used his first name in front of people they interviewed to keep anxiety low.  The sheriff knew where they were and what they were doing, that it was pretty small potatoes, and it was unusual to get a call during an outing like this.  The officer stepped quickly into the dining room, and spoke in a low tone into his mobile phone.

Back in the kitchen, Webb held the older man’s gaze.  “You know, you don’t have to speak to me like that,” he said.  “Shut up,” retorted the cop.  “I could care less.  You’re an idiot who bothers women who are too nice to tell you to get lost.”

Webb felt his heart rate was increasing but there was no outer sign.  Webb’s perspiration had disappeared, too.

The young officer returned to the kitchen.   His right hand was free and hovered near a now unsnapped holster.  He looked at his partner who instantly released his own gun with a movement so fluid and rehearsed it was like slipping off a watch worn for decades.  They never spoke, but the two men were in complete communication.

“Mr. Thomas, we need to know why you moved here.”  The young man’s face was a stony veneer, but his throat muscles were convulsing violently.  He had never tried harder to exude control. He’d never had to try like this before.

“For my wife’s health,” Webb said slowly.

“Where is your wife?” asked the older man.

Webb’s eyes sped to every corner of the room.  “She was just here.  You saw her.”

The young cop’s voice was controlled when he said, “No one has seen Sera Thomas for over a year.”

I see her.  I see her every day.

“She’s a private person,” Webb said.  “We don’t socialize much.  We broke ties when we moved.”

“Mr. Thomas, you need to come with us.  Nothing fancy, let’s just do this easy.  Some people back in North Carolina say Sera disappeared.  Her family is very worried.  We just need to ask you some questions.”

Life never disappears.  Idiots.  Don’t they know?

Webb dropped his shoulders and rose quiet and defeated to his feet.  Davis reached for his handcuffs.  He never saw the weapon behind the door.

Like a snake strike, Webb seized a newly sharpened shovel as he passed the open door.  He spun towards the older and slower cop, the shovel’s long wooden handle held at the far end with both hands.   The man staggered back but not before the shovel blade sliced his chest.  His partner’s bullet entered the back of Webb’s skull and exited his eye socket.

In the microcosm of time before the steel left his brain, Webb saw his wife.  She was in the garden, her arms outstretched, reaching for him as he fell into the loamy soil.

What was left of his face crushed against the hard stone floor.

 

An Esse Diem Halloween Story (5)

(The Mason County ghost story continues . . . go back to read parts 1-4 if this is your first time here!)

Ella was their closest neighbor, just a short hike by foot to the west.  She had blonde hair and big hips and a loud laugh.   She was up on current events, funny, and independent.

She’s everything my wife isn’t. 

Sera was spending more and more time in bed alone and disconnected from the world, from his world.

I need company.  No crossed lines, no harm.

Webb crossed onto Ella’s property.  They had a regular coffee date Saturdays to talk about soil amendments, horticulture, politics, and county gossip.  There was a woman missing from Point Pleasant, she’d last been seen buying limestone pellets and a seed spreader at Southern States two days prior.  Her husband reported her missing when she never came home as expected, and now everyone was a-buzz with what could have happened.  Her abandoned car was found on the side of the road, but there was no trace of the woman.   Oddly, the receipt from her purchase was on the front seat, but the items on the receipt were not in the car, nor were any personal affects.

I’m not the only one who feels a rush thinking about what might have happened to her.  I know I’m not.  Everyone thinks mysteries and missing people are exciting.  They do.  If they say they don’t, they lie.

He called to his neighbor through the screen but there was no answer.  He opened the door and called again, but still no answer.  Cautiously he went to the top of the stairs to the second floor and loudly said her name.  No one was in the house.

Webb walked around to the back of the house and that is when he heard the sounds.

What he heard was unmistakable.  It was where he heard it and its ferocity that stopped him in his tracks, his spine suddenly rigid with a hard cold that seemed like an instant paralysis.  He wanted to move.  He wanted to move fast, to turn and run back to his farm as fast as he could, but his mind was so confused it wouldn’t allow any decision or action.  He pictured Sera at home.

She must be awake by now, making eggs and waiting for her roses.  What am I doing here?

A woman’s screams vibrated in his ears.  There was a pattern to her voice, and it paralleled the pattern of the crashing sound against an interior wall of the shed.  Webb saw a side wall shudder violently as something or someone slammed against it again and again.   He heard other sounds too, like heavy tools hitting the floor and large pieces of gardening equipment rolling around and knocking against each other and the doors of the shed.  He wanted to open the door of the shed, to save her, to make it stop, but he was frightened and not even entirely sure it was her or what was happening inside the building. Whatever it was, it was bad.

He heard a few more tools fall over, and that’s when he found his legs.

He was across Ella’s acres and back on his own in a third of the time it had taken him to get to her house.  He ran up the stairs to the porch and straight into the house.  Sera must be up, the door was wide open.  He tried to stop his heart from beating through the walls of his chest, but he couldn’t calm down.  He heard Ella’s voice screaming in his head, the pick axe and shovels falling off their hooks, the creak of the shed itself as it groaned against the weight of whatever assaulted its walls.

Sera, Sera, Sera………….where is my wife?  Why did I ever leave her, ever, for one minute?  I said never again.  I lost the roses.  Should I call Ella, the police?

He had no idea what to do next.  He walked through the dining room to the kitchen where he hoped Sera would be.