Chapter Six: Strange Things Stacked High in Dark Places
The picture reminded Gloria Nelson that she used to be softer, both inside and out. A simple, square snapshot, so harmless and so forgotten. Like the smile she wore in it.
When I did become so ugly?
An eleventh hour thought that slid its hands across her face. Hands that wanted to smother and choke out whatever sort of life she had left for a seventy-one year old.
It was indeed after eleven on that Sunday. Sleep didn’t mean much to her these days. It hadn’t for some time. Eventually she’d slip under the covers and hear Jim’s slight breathing. Gloria should’ve been glad that she wasn’t married to someone who snored. Jim, on the other hand, slept like a corpse. She knew that one night if he did pass away in his sleep, it would take a while before she knew it.
Gloria looked at the picture again. Jim with his arm around her, laughing while she gave a shy grin that she knew used to be noticed by all the guys. Sure, they liked the shapes underneath that smile, but they still liked that smile too.
Am I that different? Am I still that smiling young woman in this photo?
She could feel some kind of change coming, and it wasn’t a good sort. It was the same sort of feeling that had come when her brother Alan died. This unescapable sea change of sorts.
Again, she focused on the picture. Their wedding song had been “We Have All The Time In the World” by Louis Armstrong. A song used in a James Bond film.
This couple had believed it, too. And these days, sometimes it felt like maybe they’d had a little bit too much time. Because time wasn’t a friend. Time wasn’t some wonderful soulmate. Time was a taxman coming to collect a debt.
The wall of the cabin shook like her chest sometimes did. A nervous sort of rumbling.
Something’s coming and you know what it’s going to be don’t you, Gloria?
She could imagine lines carved in wood, chipped out and shaped like the moon, hanging underneath her eyes. Those same beautiful and bold eyes in this picture. Now they looked like hollow sockets, a dead woman walking. Wrinkles, bags, puffy and fleshy and ugly and more ugly.
Blinking made it worse. Gloria pictured herself and she knew the picture didn’t do her justice. But life wasn’t fair and imagination only cemented the pain.
The wind felt more violent outside.
Something angry and untamed is coming.
Then again, she wondered if that something hadn’t already come and set up house deep inside her soul.
Maybe the dread came because of the dog. Their former dog.
Jim didn’t know about their German Shepherd. It would a secret Gloria would keep buried like the dog she’d done the same thing for.
It happened three weeks ago during a sudden and unexpected blizzard that somehow hadn’t been predicted by the news people. Gloria and Jim weren’t high-tech kind of people. They didn’t have the internet and only had basic cable. Heaven forbid trying to get Jim to pay more than ten bucks a month for channels on the television. She wished they got channels like HGTV and Bravo so she could watch the shows her daughter watched, but thankfully Gloria watched them whenever they visited Hannah. Atlanta, however, was a long way from Mars Hill, North Carolina.
The snow had still felt like it came out of nowhere. They had let Butch out right when it started just as the sun began to set. Gloria had opened the door to check on him three times and saw the accumulating inches literally growing before her feet. After the third time didn’t happen to be a charm, she sent Jim outside to go looking for their ten-year-old dog.
Butch wasn’t as mean as he sounded or looked. He was lean and muscular but really he still believed he was just a playful puppy. Jim had named him after one of his favorite movies, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. With the kids being long gone, Butch had become like a fourth child.
Jim had been gone thirty minutes the first time, stepping back in wet and sweaty and frustrated.
“Stupid dog probably caught something and decided to take off with it,” Jim had told he.
He wasn’t worried then. Two hours later, Jim wasn’t calling Butch stupid anymore. He was out searching. The snow had piled too high to drive on it. They lived on a back road fifteen minutes from the town of Mars Hill, so when the snow came down hard, they had to plow themselves out. After being unable to find Butch this time, Jim decided to go ahead and start paving a way down their dirt road.
“I’m sure he’s just roaming around enjoying the snow,” Gloria had said to Jim.
It wasn’t even a good attempt to try to provide some hope. Something was wrong—Gloria already knew it.
“I’ll get to the main road and see if I can spot him,” Jim said in his typical slow and indifferent tone.
She wanted to ask him if he was worried. It wasn’t that Gloria thought he wasn’t, but once in a while it would have been nice to see Jim’s blood start to even bubble over a bit. It didn’t have to simmer. Heaven help them if it actually boiled. No, she just wanted a little more than this methodical, logical, analytical soul.
An hour later, when he walked back in, she got her wish. He took off his knit cap and threw it on the kitchen table and then shouted out “son of a bitch.”
They had checked by the door and out the windows and Jim had gone outside a couple more times, but there was nothing more they could do with the pitch black of night coming. Out here in the country it didn’t just get dark. A thick blanket covered everything. Tonight, it was accompanied by a foot of fresh powder.
She had slipped to bed before Jim that night, something that almost never happened. Sleep hadn’t come until long after Jim came into the room and clipped his toe on the edge of the bedframe, producing another curse. For a few moments, Gloria didn’t say anything, but finally she couldn’t resist.
“Where do you think he is?”
There’s something a bit unnerving about talking in a dark bedroom late at night in a silent log cabin while the wind outside raged. For a moment, Gloria wondered if Jim was even going to answer.
“I don’t know.”
Her husband knew a little something about most things and if he didn’t he would try to find out. He never—never—simply replied with an “I don’t know.”
She didn’t say anything because his response had scared her. She’d felt her body tremble, and wondered if Jim could feel it on the mattress as well. She waited for something more. Anything more. A “but we’ll find him” or a “he’ll be okay” or something like that. But Jim hadn’t offered anything.
The brushing of the snow outside continued while Gloria lay in bed with her eyes open. She thought she’d never drift off, but a bumping sound awoke her and let her know she’d actually slept until five in the morning.
It had been a flat thud, like something hitting the roof. Or maybe the side of the house. She wasn’t groggy. Instead, she was wide awake, holding her breath in order to hear as carefully as possible. Jim’s slight breathing could be heard, telling her he wasn’t awake.
She knew it had been something.
Maybe the German Shepherd had finally made its way home. Maybe it was at the doorway.
So why isn’t he scratching with its massive paw like he always does?
She climbed out of bed and began to head to the front door. A voice inside told her to stay under the covers, to not head into the main room, to definitely not open the door. But she ignored all the voices and did exactly that.
Butch was there. Except . . . He was only partially there.
His head sat in the snow at the foot of their door as if it had been dropped down like some kind of UPS parcel. The eyes didn’t look anything like Butch. They were glassy and just not there. She hadn’t screamed, though Gloria clamped a hand around her mouth in case she was going to. It was still dark outside so the tiny front light cast a hollow, orange glow over this thing at her doorstep. She wasn’t even sure at first exactly what she was looking at.
Once she realized that she wasn’t dreaming or hallucinating, Gloria felt this horrific sort of sensation.
Someone did this and they’re outside in the dark woods around our house watching and waiting.
The only glow for miles around was the light bulb hanging just to the right of the door.
Gloria did something she never would have believed she could do. She picked up Butch’s head like she might a newborn baby and then closed and locked the front door.
I can’t believe how heavy his head happens to be.
She rushed to the kitchen and then went to the small laundry room, finding a pillowcase in the dryer. There was something wrong about putting it over the dog’s head, but it was a dog’s head. A dead dog’s head that had shown up at their front door.
Jim can’t know a thing about this.
She wasn’t sure how he’d react but it wouldn’t be good. Butch was his boy, his baby. She couldn’t tell him what had happened.
With the wrapped pillowcase on the floor for the moment, Gloria took her hand and brought it up to her mouth, biting down hard enough to feel the jolt of pain.
I’m not dreaming. I am not dreaming.
Gloria hid the pillowcase and it’s contents under the sink behind the buckets. She looked at her hands expecting to see blood, but there hadn’t been any.
I’ll deal with this tomorrow when the sun comes up. When the road is plowed and I can get into town.
She wasn’t about to tell Jim. But there was someone else she could tell.
Someone else she could tell anything to.
“Reminds me of a bit of bad happenin’s goin’ on a decade ago.”
Lou Nolan used to be a married man. He used to be a sheriff too. But his wife had passed and he had retired. It didn’t take anything away from the man. In a way, it added a lot. She could see his strength. She could feel his loss when he spoke.
Lou was a beautiful man on the inside and that’s why she aged backwards a little bit every moment she spent with him.
They would occasionally meet like this at Perks coffee shop in Hendersonville just right off of I-26. She would sometimes go there around ten in the morning and wait an hour or more just to see if he’d stop by. Lou would always stop there around that time, but it wasn’t every morning. He assumed it was simply part of her routine. But the truth was Gloria didn’t like coffee. She liked Lou. Enough to order a decaf and sip on it and wait.
On this morning after the incident with their dog, Gloria had waited and finally seen him coming through the door. He gave her a nod and ordered his coffee, then walked over by her to sit down. Lou never sat at her table but at a nearby one. Maybe that felt too intimate. He knew she was married, but it wasn’t like they were twenty-somethings connecting in a coffee shop flirting and hoping this might lead to something else.
This was what she wanted. What she sometimes believed she needed.
Someone there to smile and ask how I’m doing.
“What happened a decade ago?” she asked Lou as the bitter taste of the coffee seemed to cling to her gums.
Lou usually always kept his eyes on her—one of the many things about him she liked—but for a moment he glanced down as if to think about the answer.
“You don’t want to know, to be honest,” he said to her. “Trust me.”
Now she really wanted to know.
“Bad things in a big house,” Lou said. “There was some wealthy nutcase who owned a lodge not too far from here—called Edge Hill—and a missionary family ended up moving into it. The thing was haunted. Cursed. Full of demons. Like real bonafide demons. And I didn’t even believe in them. Not until I saw everything that happened.”
A cold seemed to settle over her. Maybe it was just her imagination.
“What happened to them?” she asked.
“They’re lucky to be alive. ‘Specially their young boy. They all almost died on that mountain.”
“But they made it.”
Lou nodded. “Yeah. But there were things—weird things—things like your dog. Things I ain’t never seen before. But now—anytime I see or hear about something weird like that, I just realize that there’s black far more black in this world than I ever used to imagine.”
“You think this is connected?” she asked.
“Nah,” Lou said. “But evil is evil. A mass murderer gets caught and shares a quote from Hitler. Are they related? No. But evil’s evil. It’s always there.”
The statement sounded out of character to good ole’ Lou, the guy who liked to ask her questions and listen to her answers.
“I know that probably doesn’t make sense,” he said, probably looking at her expression. “Listen, do you want me to come by your house?”
Her answer was a bit too quick.
“Jim doesn’t know, does he?”
Gloria shook his head.
“Okay. But have you seen anything else strange or different?”
“No,” she said.
Unless it’s my mind you’re talking about.
“I never thought I’d see and hear about some of the things that I did. I almost stopped being a cop. I’d had enough. But I stuck it through until retirement. Eventually I told the Devil he wasn’t going to get the best of me.”
“You think this is related to the Devil?” Gloria asked.
He hadn’t even waited to respond.
“You’re sounding like my husband,” she told him.
Sometimes it felt better to use that expression than saying Jim’s name out loud.
“People are messed up these days, Gloria. You guys need to be careful, okay?”
The wrinkles under his eyes looked friendly and safe. He always acted like he’d never stop listening to her. He looked at her and didn’t look away.
Jim had stopped looking. She knew why.
The girl her husband had fallen in love with was gone.
But she’s still here deep down inside and she’s still just as fragile and insecure as she ever was.
Jim used to wrap himself around her and tell her how beautiful she was and how he’d love her until the world ended.
The world was still there. But Jim’s love wasn’t. Not anymore.
“We’ll be careful,” Gloria told the former sheriff.
“That missionary-the father—said the same sort of thing. Right before all hell broke loose in that house.”
She found an unnamed country road to drive down for a few moments. Then she pulled the rusty Ford Explorer over to the side underneath the towering white pine tree with light blue-green leaves. She turned the engine off and then began to cry inside her hands.
Gloria didn’t wonder why. There wasn’t one particular reason. It wasn’t what happened to the dog nor was it some kind of postmenopausal mood swing. It was just a little bit of everything. Seeing Lou look at her with those caring eyes.
She forgot what that expression looked like.
She missed them.
Gloria rubbed her eyes and then felt the drooping, clumped skin under them. She felt those lines, then felt how full her face felt. She didn’t know why she was doing this, why she was going there, why of all times she suddenly felt this way. It wasn’t as if she’d woken up and looked in the mirror and wondered what had happened.
Something else is there inside.
The tsunamis that came and wiped out so much. This felt like black water filling her insides and suffocating any kind of light.
“You guys need to be careful.”
The tears continued a little while longer. She wished she could have been more careful years ago. Years ago when she had felt strong and beautiful. When she was too full of herself to ever pull the car over and stop to have a tiny breakdown.
More like a pity party.
Her body shook as she started the car, as if it was telling her to turn around.
Telling her to start heading back to town and then to keep going. To keep driving. South or east or west but anywhere except toward home.
The shaking continued for the rest of the trip. But the tears stayed underneath that hundred-year-old white pine.
Fears. These strange things, stacked high in dark places, tumbling down in the middle of the night.
Gloria stood in the silent hovering glow staring in disbelief.
Hours earlier, she had stood there much like this, looking at the guest room bed. It had been littered with the stuffed animals the grandchildren played with when they used to come. It had been months—too many months—since they’d visited. Enough months for her to have finally put them in a bag and slid them into the crawl space. She hadn’t known how they’d gotten here, but she had reflected on a church member and her young child coming last week.
Had Jim brought them out for the girl to play with?
She would have guessed he didn’t even know she’d put them in the crawl space, but maybe she told me.
Maybe I even brought them back out.
Gloria knew her memory was going a bit. Not in a way that made her worry, but more in the nagging sort of way. The kind that said she had too much else on her plate, the spinning plate hovering over her heart.
So she had scooped up the stuffed animals—four in all—and brought them back into the crawl.
That had been late this afternoon.
Now it was midnight and she had slipped into the guest bedroom to sleep by herself. Actually, the truth was she couldn’t sleep and wanted to read a bit. She’d gotten a bit carried away looking at the photograph just before turning off the light. Sleep, however, had remained far away.
When the light came on, the four stuffed animals lay on the bed just like from before. The panda and the monkey and the owl and the zebra.
Gloria knew Jim hadn’t brought them out from crawlspace in the basement. He had barely moved off his chair for the last few hours after dinner.
And I didn’t go down there and I didn’t touch them.
It should have scared her. But seeing them there, these lifeless little toys, filled her with something else.
Not mystery. But something more frantic, something more angry.
Someone’s messing with my mind.
She recalled the conversation with Lou. About so many talks with Jim. About how the Devil was real and walking down their lane and knocking on their door and asking to come in.
So did you bring our dog’s head to our front door like some kind of UPS package? Are you playing with stuffed animals behind my back?
Gloria looked around and saw nothing unusual. She couldn’t feel anything unusual. Nothing was different except the panda, monkey, owl and zebra.
She pulled back the cover and then moved them over to one side, the way she might nudge Jim over to his side when he was crowding her.
Her eyes moved around the room, the blank walls, the cream-covered ceiling. Then they found a family shot taken years ago when everything was still beautiful including her.
For a long time, Gloria stared at the people in it.
Fingers tightened and clamped down. Knuckles so firm and white. A grip so fast and hard and undaunting.
Just like always.
Squeezing and suffocating her soul.
She sighed and then shook her head and laughed.
If you’re really real and you’re there and you’re messing with me then you better bring a lot more than that.
The devil didn’t scare her. Memories already did that.
Along with that mirror that followed her front and center every moment of every day. No matter where she stepped, it remained in front of her, proud to display the person it saw.
The person Gloria wanted to forget about.
She climbed into the bed again and then picked up the paperback and began to read. The stuffed animals lay silent next to her, with their eyes wide open and the smiles still lingering on their faces.
They didn’t seem to mind staring at her as she drifted off in the soft glow of the beside lamp.
Sometimes, it sure did feel good to be noticed.