Those Dark, Troubled Grounds

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There certainly is a strange sort of magic in Tucker, Ohio. It seeps out of the grass and flowers, traveling through the trees and the two rivers that trap this small town; a supernatural air of mystery. It is because of the nature of this place that things both miraculous and horrifying occur.

Some say it is the face of God either smiling or scowling down upon them. Others claim it is the curse of the Chalagawtha, a people that had been driven from their land so that the white man could stretch further outward. Maybe there’s some truth to be found there, and perhaps not.

It is not the job of man to judge the world that surrounds them or the mysticism of it. We are only tasked with a balancing act, teetering back and forth in hopes of not falling in. We are meant to live the unanswered knock-knock joke, always living with our ears pressed against the door.

Annabelle Callaway was the sort of young, precocious girl that found it unnerving to always be left guessing. Questioning life and death and all the intricacies that floated in between, turning over every rock in the riverbed in search of fuel for her wonderment. How would the magic of Tucker touch this young girl … how would it affect her?

She was only eight-years-old–with Raggedy Anne hair and scrutinizing, blue eyes. The only girl amongst a treasure trove of boys, she naturally developed a love for boyish things … climbing trees and rolling in mud, exploring the borders of her small, confined world. She was barely considered a girl by her classmates and even adults had to look twice at her rugged form.

She sat there at her desk during school days, slouching like a boy, wearing boys clothes, and some would quietly whisper that she even smelled like a boy. She didn’t mind it at all. Annabelle had always had an innate belief that girls were clumsy, silly creatures. If she’d had any say in it at all, she reckoned she would have chosen to be a boy. But as the saying goes in pool halls, them’s the breaks.

It was an exciting time in the year of nineteen-hundred and thirty-six; a king had died and the Boogey Man had been executed, the Hoover dam was finished and there were whispers of war in Europe. But to a little eight year old like Annabelle, all that mattered was the arrival of summer and the promises of adventure that came with its warm, fragrant breeze.

With that final school bell’s ring, she tossed her school books aside and began the hefty task of trying to forget all the things that she had learned that day. She raced home as fast as she could from her school, cutting through the woods and fields that lay between them. She breathed a heavy sigh of relief when she finally passed through the gate of her family’s small home.

Her brothers were already there around the kitchen table, leaping headlong into summer. Their mother, a small woman that had acquired a habit for twitching, was standing frozen by the refrigerator with the petrified look of a doe in headlights. Most mothers looked forward to the Summer and having their children home with them, but Mrs. Callaway wasn’t as lucky as most mothers. She gazed upon the horde of noisy kids that had just invaded her kitchen and dreaded the next three months.

Her lovely, lovely children were in the midst of a feeding frenzy, a regular occurrence at the Callaway home. One couldn’t help but wonder how the Callaways would ever be able to keep them fed through the summer, or how the cabinet doors could even survive the abuse of their indelicate hands.

The kitchen table became the setting of a war of words, all mouths firing off an endless list of things to do throughout the coming months. Mother Callaway clamped her hands over her ears and wandered out of the room, not wanting to be a part of it. All the kids continued in their blathering, simultaneously planning their summers.

Annabelle sat amongst her brothers, listening in as her small, deft hands were quickly stripping food from their larger hands. They all spoke about their dumb plans, which Annabelle thought suited them. It all added up to what would later be referred to by their mother as the ‘summer of havoc’.

Within two weeks, two brothers had been escorted home by the sheriff’s department, smelling like a stale keg, another brother had single-handedly begun a feud with another family over the purity of the other’s daughter. Annabelle’s younger brother even disappeared for a day or two and no one seemed to notice. And none of the children ever seemed to understand the reasoning behind their mother’s steadily unraveling nerves.

Annabelle, considered by most to be the ‘good’ Callaway child, stayed out of trouble for the most part. She was no saint, that was never said or claimed by any. The ladies at the church merely referred to her as the lesser of seven evils.

Annabelle was still in that purgatory stage of delinquency. She was at best a little liar that liked to fight in the dirt like a boy and could sling swear words better than most. But there was still a chance that she might straighten her ways and lead what some would call a ‘good, Christian life’, but she was only a child after all.

She had spent her first weeks of Summer kicking cans around town, looking for trouble and climbing trees, always staying out as late as the daylight would allow. At night she would sneak downstairs to listen to the radio while the rest of the house slept. She loved the scary stories that were told on Lights Out. Her skin had grown accustomed to the tingling as the bell tolled twelve times to kick off each show.

She’d curl up on the floor and listen intently to the horrors that unfolded as she watched the moonlight dance against the window panes. She was always sure that one night she would let out a fearful yelp that would wake up the entire brood, surely landing her in some trouble, but that never happened. She was braver than most girls her age, but perhaps it was easy to be brave when she knew in her heart that there was nothing really to be scared of.

One hot, hot July day, while the rest of the town was still reeling from the holiday, Annabelle was doing what she did best, which was lean against the side of a building while glaring at anyone who passed. She had a big pinch of her daddy’s chew in her mouth, pressed hard against her gum. She’d spit often … big, dark globs of spit, and mostly when ‘ladies’ passed her while she shot them a prizewinning glare.

The sound of firecrackers came careening down the alley beside the drug store, quickly followed by hoots and hollers. There appeared Jimmy Gallows, the neighborhood tough kid and his assortment of tagalongs. Jimmy was a big kid, at the age of ten he was often confused for what most might consider a big sixteen-year-old.

The rumor around the schoolyard was that Jimmy Gallows’ daddy wasn’t actually Jimmy Gallows’ daddy. There were a couple of real good yarns about it, but most of the kids seemed to agree that he was the product of a bull, seeing how big he was and how his momma grew up on a farm. Truth was, though, that he was just a normal kid with a normal mean streak and the normal lack of giving a hoot.

“Whatcha got in your mouth, Anna?” Jimmy asked.

“Nuttin’,” she said, spitting a big, thick glob of tobacco juice.

“Bull,” he hollered. “You got a mouth full ‘a chew!”

“Mind your own beeswax, Jimmy Gallows,” she said, balling a fist up and letting it hang in the air before his nose. “before I knock your balls clear up your throat.” Jimmy more than likely wasn’t afraid of the little girl, but threats as strong as those can be quite persuasive and Annabelle Callaway was known for cursing up a storm so big and blustery that it could blow roofs off of houses.

“You’re gonna get it if your daddy catches you,” he said with a smile as his lackeys cackled around him. “I won’t say nothing if you share.”

“You won’t say nuttin’ … unless you got shit for brains,” she said, spitting a big glob that bounced off the asphalt and landed on Jimmy’s pant leg. “I’d say you was yellow bellied, but we alls know chicken shit is green.”

Jimmy Gallows stood silent, his little fists quaking. His buddies looked on, laughing like wild chipmunks as little Annabelle smiled the biggest, most satisfied grin she could muster. Embarrassment is a hard thing for most people to overcome, and that boy was no different.

It’s important to note that Jimmy Gallows was never what one might call gallant. He never signed up for holding doors open for anyone or helping little, old ladies cross the street. Jimmy Gallows was more likely to pull the wings from a butterfly.

He wasn’t a very bright lad, either, never paying attention to numbers or books, or giving a rat’s ass about Egyptian history. He was slow when it came to things like that, not quite understanding how those things could ever hold sway over his life. Like most boys, he knew only what his daddy taught him, the most important lesson being not to hit girls.

Jimmy stood there, his face as red as a barn with steam billowing from his small ears. His whole body nearly quaked with the urge to sock Annabelle Callaway in the mouth. But he didn’t, knowing his father would surely tan his hide if word ever got back to him that he had struck a girl, even a foul mouthed, boyish one such as Annabelle Callaway.

So the Gallows boy did the only thing that he figured he could do—seeing how he couldn’t hit the girl or hold his own against her in a swearing match—he goaded her. “You think you’re so tough, don’t ya?” Annabelle nodded in response, a smug smile on her face as she leaned against the wall. “I bet you ain’t scared of nothing.”

“Not a drop of fear in me,” she said.

“Then you wouldn’t even think twice about stealing some of Mr. Cruther’s strawberries.” It was silent for a moment, even the cackling of Jimmy’s little henchman ceased to live in the air of that summer day. Annabelle only glared at Jimmy Gallows, her mind quickly sorting things out.

“You must think I’m as dumb as you look,” she said, poking a finger in his chest. “Everyone knows that Mr. Cruthers watches his strawberry patch like a hawk. He cares for them berries more than he does his own life! I’d get snatched up real quick if I even thought of it.”

“That’s only during the day,” Jimmy said quietly, a knowing smile pinching the words off as they passed through his lips. “I mean for you to do it at midnight.”

* * *

She couldn’t back down, not from a dare. Annabelle lay in bed that night, trying to recall all that had been said and all the accusations that had been casually flung back and forth like a baseball. It was all a blur to her, made even hazier by nightfall with the passing time and the dim moonlight that trickled through her bedroom window.

Two of her brothers lay fast asleep around her, their snores ripping through her consciousness. She was mindful of the time, keeping a close eye on the clock that hung on their shared wall. She would be leaving the safety and comfort of her bed soon, heading off into the dark, summer night in search of restitution for a wrong she believed had been done upon her.

How dare he talk to her that way, though she couldn’t quite remember all that had been said. Pride was a strong and ubiquitous characteristic in the Callaway line, a product of the Irish blood that scourged their veins. It was the plague of their family, never backing down from a challenge.

So when the clock slowly crept towards midnight she slipped out of bed and put back on her clothes from the previous day. She tiptoed down the stairs and through the front room, eyeing the radio that she would normally be clamoring up to by that point. She eased the front door of her small house open and slipped through and into the night.

It was dark at first, but her eyes quickly grew accustomed to it, picking up the low light that seemed to shimmer like pools in the gloom. The world was alive with the nighttime, sounds of toads and crickets ringing through the thick, humid air; the thick smell of the hot earth as it cooled overnight in her nose.

She never realized before then just how different the earth was after the sun went away. Besides the darkness, the differences were subtle—no greater than that between the left shoe and the right one. You’d only be able to notice when you had one foot crammed halfway into the wrong shoe.

Annabelle crept down her street, doing her best to stay hidden in the ample shadows that the moon provided her. No one was out and about, as was usual at that time of night, but some houses were still alit and radiated music and laughter, undoubtedly that of people enjoying the wee hours of night.

She thought about Mr. Cruthers as she slinked by houses and fence posts, thought about him and his unhealthy infatuation with those strawberries. Everyone knew about it, making it the worst kept secret in all of Tucker. It almost became a right of passage in that dusty, old town to rile up old Mr. Cruthers by threatening the peaceful serenity of his garden.

Even at his old age of eighty-eight, Mr. Cruthers would spend all day sitting in the sun, his infirm hands loosely gripping a shovel. He’d sit there as the sun slowly crossed the sky, all while watching his strawberries with his old, beady eyes. To his neighbors he simply looked like a fool, just another old man who’s mind was slowly slipping away.

Kids would peer over his fence with tiny, curious eyes. They would chide each other, prodding one another into hopping the fence to steal his sweet berries. But as soon as their heels hit the dirt, the old man would appear, swinging his shovel.

“Why can‘t you kids leave them strawberries alone,” he’d scream as they ran off. “Go near them berries again and you’ll be dead!” The whole neighborhood could hear old Cruthers, his shaky voice tumbling down the alleys behind the children’s retreat. “Dead!”

But he wouldn’t be there at night. His yard, dark and cool, would be utterly empty by the time the moon hung at its peak in the night sky. Old Cruthers would undoubtedly be fast asleep, dreaming of his jams and pies and shortcakes. Little would he know what lay in store for his beloved berries.

Annabelle found Jimmy Gallows where he promised he would be, hunching down beside the fence that lined the back of Cruthers’ yard. He of course wasn’t alone, his three little henchmen were there as well. All of their faces shifted at once, their eyes darting to the rustling noise of her approach.

“I thought you chickened out,” Jimmy said, triggering a quiet round of snickering from his loyal soldiers. Annabelle smirked at him.

“I ain’t ever chickened out,” she said, pushing pass him to peer over the fence. The boys quickly stood and joined her in eagerly gazing into Cruthers’ yard. All was still in that dark patch of earth. Not even a breeze rustled over that well cared for plot of grass. Annabelle felt something was eerily off about it all, though she didn’t know what.

Maybe it was the deep shadows there, the way they almost seemed to breathe in the void of moonlight. Maybe it was the chill that ran down her spine as she looked through the dark to where she knew those tiny, delicious berries sat. She could smell them across the dark yard, nearly make them out, their tangled green bush pushing out of the sturdy ground.

“You going or not?” Jimmy asked, nudging her. But she said nothing.

“I’m hungry,” one of Gallows’ friends said, rubbing his belly. “Them berries smell so damn good and I been thinking bout ‘em all day long, and my guts ain’t gonna be the same without ‘em.” Annabelle barely heard anything they said, merely staring into the dark. Something was off, she was sure of it.

“Well, Callaway?” Jimmy nearly sang in her nippy ears. “You gonna go, or are you a chicken?” Annabelle’s face grew firm , her jaw turning to stone. Her little hands gripped the fence, the boards’ teeth chewing into her palms, and she vaulted over.

She landed with the grace of a cat burglar and sat squat as the night settled once more around her. She looked back and forth, seeing what appeared to be just a normal garden. She could hear the boys behind her, telling her to move on, demanding the sweet treasure she would soon steal.

She stepped lightly, tiptoeing through the shadows and pass the shed. She kept her eyes peeled but saw nothing and no one. She tried to calm her nerves, realizing she had never been so scared for even a split second in all her long life.

Something’s not right, her subconscious told her, though she had no idea exactly what that was. To her it was only a tiny, annoying voice that tried to make her turn back, nowhere near as loud as those real voices that ordered her onward. Step after step she moved forward.

It was so quiet, not a single night critter rustled nearby or gave off their solemn love song. It was as if nature itself was put on hold in that little yard. There were no crickets, there were no frogs. Something was terribly wrong in Cruthers’ yard … not even the moonlight dared to settle there.

She stopped in her steps, the little voice in her head sighing in relief. “Go on, now,” Jimmy softly called from behind her. “You’re so close, y’chicken.” Her feet were sturdy in the dirt, yet her knees quaked and her mind begged her to turn and run.

The boys all squabbled behind her, upset at their loss. Jimmy hushed them all and announced that he wasn’t afraid of nothing. She didn’t turn, but she heard him as he labored over the fence.

He gave her this look as he passed her, it was meant to be one of contempt and triumph, but Annabelle couldn’t help but notice the fear that lay just behind that glare. She would always remember that look and all that followed. That night would haunt her as nothing ever should a little girl.

Jimmy Gallows strode over to the strawberry bush with all the arrogance of a show pony. He scoffed at them all as he knelt down and plucked a single berry from the bush. He lifted it to his face and gave it a long sniff as his lips curled. Then in one swift motion he popped that plush, red bulb into his mouth.

He gave off this dramatic sound as if he were tasting the lotus fruit of lore itself, his freehand rubbing his belly. His friends all laughed from beyond the fence, but Annabelle didn’t laugh. Annabelle only watched as she slowly stepped back.

She tried to call to Jimmy, but her voice got caught in her throat just as lightning bugs do in jars. The vines of the bushes crept slowly around Jimmy’s legs in the darkness. His friends didn’t see them, nor did he feel them as they crawled up him.

Annabelle turned and ran, leaping over the fence as quickly as a rabbit might, and from behind her she could hear the faint beginnings of the terror that would soon befall Jimmy Gallows. His voice grew to a cry as the bushes pulled him down and into their red masses. The little fruits themselves began to chew on his flesh, the little seeds nothing more than tiny, rough teeth.

Blood trickled down his arms and legs as he was consumed, larger and larger berries protruding from the soil to get their fair share. His hoodlum friends screamed aloud as they witnessed the doom of Jimmy Gallows. His body twitched, even as a berry the size of a washbasin swallowed his head whole, chewing through the base of his neck.

The back door of Cruthers’ home blew outward as the old man rushed out and into the night, woken by the screams. He cursed the earth as he saw the bloody mess in the midst of his garden, even began to weep as he took his shovel and beat those strawberries back. The children turned then and ran as hard as they could, going as fast as their legs could carry them.

* * *

Cruthers looked after them as they went, screaming through the dark. “I told you damn kids to leave them berries alone! Why won’t you leave them be?!” The old man huffed and puffed, hearing the far away footfalls as they trailed off. The night grew still once more, wrapping about Mr. Cruthers as if he were a swaddled baby.

It weren’t the berries’ fault, he knew that. They only meant to protect themselves from those dirty, thieving hands. But still the old man cried as he dug yet another hole in the earth behind his house, with only the moon there as a witness. His arms burned with fatigue even as he started, knowing it would be a good hour or so before he would be done.

“Don’t do this again,” he gingerly whispered to his pets. “Just scare them off next time … please?” he asked them sweetly. And they promised him that they would, even as they continued to lick the blood from the boy’s still body.

But they were nasty plants, those delicious berries. Nasty and savage and brilliant, they were. Even then, they were again releasing that sweet, sweet scent into the air … sending it off like a trail of breadcrumbs to be followed, knowing children would come once more.

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