Hickory Wind: A Horror Novel
|July 13, 2012||Posted by Chris Morrow under Morrow Blog, The Blog|
By Chris Morrow
Note: This is the first installment of a full length horror novel. Each month (or perhaps more often than that if reader reaction warrants it) I will submit another installment of this finished horror novel.
Doctor Harold Monroe threw his legs over the side of the bed and sat up. Lightning manifesting in different corners of the sky made creeping shadows on the walls of his room. The wind was screaming down the mountain passes like a band of marauders, rattling the nearest window. On creaky knees he went to it, placing his hand against it to steady it. Out on the lawn the upper half of Carolyn’s pecan tree was bending and flailing like an epileptic in the throes of seizure. Thunder exploded overhead, echoing off the steep walls of the valley. When it finally settled, he detected the familiar sound of Allison’s bare feet padding up the stairs and into the hall. She was twenty now, but as she rushed toward his door, he was reminded of when she was little and how she’d run to their room and dive under the covers with them when it would storm.
She rapped lightly on the door. “Father?”
“Come in Allison.”
The door swung open and she entered, a candle in her hand, worry on her face.
“It is quite a storm.”
“No, it’s not that” she replied, crossing to the bedside lantern. His home was one of the first in Hickory Wind, Arkansas to have electric lights, but in a storm like this there wasn’t any point in even trying them. If it was windy enough to fly a kite, it was too windy for electric lights in a forgotten little village set deep in the Ozark Mountains.
Allison looked up from the lantern, “Mary is downstairs. Her sister Antha’s baby is coming, and it’s coming breach.”
“Elizabeth is there, preparing.”
“Tell Mary that I’ll be right down.”
Allison rushed from the room and the doctor immediately set about changing into a set of clothes that hung from the inside of the bedroom door. Once dressed, he sat down on the edge of the bed to tie his shoes. A massive explosion of thunder – this one somehow closer than the last – shook the house to its very foundation.
He descended the narrow stairwell to find his daughter dressed and with his medical bag tucked under her arm.
“Absolutely not,” he told her. It had been two years since they’d lost Carolyn and he wasn’t about to take any chances with his only child. “This storm is dangerous.”
“I’m coming, Father. Mary is one of my dearest friends and Antha is like a sister. Besides, you’ll need me.”
Dr. Monroe looked at Mary who was standing by the door, her dark hair in a heap on her head, wet and windblown. Blood was running from a laceration below her knee, mixing with the water running from her thin summer nightgown, pooling pink around her bare feet. She had been staring at the floor, ringing her hands, but now she met his gaze.
He gestured for Allison to hand him his medical bag.
“I’m coming with you,” Allison stated in a voice and with a certainty that reminded him of arguments he’d had with her mother. She heaved the bag over her shoulder and stepped up beside them, reaching for a nearby lantern. “Leave it,” he told her, “We won’t need it.”
Harry threw open the heavy oak door. The girls stepped out first. The rain was so fierce that they were drenched in an instant. He’d been a Navy man in his youth. He’d been on many a ship in a storm. This was worse than anything he’d ever seen. He took the bulky medical bag from Allison and hoisted it over his own shoulder. Then he took both girls by the hand, and without hesitation the three of them plunged down the steps into the rain. They cut across the lawn to the slippery brick sidewalk. It would be faster than the rutted muddy street. Lightning pierced the earth on a nearby hillside and he could see Irv and Antha Fleming’s house a block away.
They were running now, running and holding to one another. Overhead thunder exploded like cannon fire and the rain pelted them like shrapnel. Hickory Wind, population 561 at last tally, had become a war zone and he wondered if the boys fighting the Kaiser in Europe were encountering anything as deadly or frightening as this. When the first pebble of hail struck his neck, icy and jagged, he winced and let go of Allison’s hand to smack at it as if it were an insect. Allison – true to form – reached back, taking him by the wrist, not allowing him to hesitate. He picked up the pace but then Mary yelped and suddenly stopped. She’d been hit too.
Mary pried her hand from his and he looked at her, panic rising in her eyes. He grabbed her arm and tugged but she refused to budge. Above them lightning peeled back the darkness and the scene came alive. Hail was pummeling the ground all around them. Another stone hit Mary in her back and she winced fighting him even harder. Allison had come up beside him and screaming in Mary’s face, imploring her to hurry, but terror had the young girl in its grasp. In her Harry saw a confused child who had resigned herself to the direst of fates.
Allison grabbed Mary’s free hand and the girl could no longer resist. Allison was dragging her up the slippery sidewalk by her right hand and Harry had her by her left until he tripped and started to fall. Allison quickly released Mary leapt to his side, jerking the heavy medical bag from his shoulder, allowing him to regain his balance, but it came at a cost. He wrenched his bad knee and with every step it howled like a polecat in the bottom of a burning brush pile. A hailstone struck the middle of his back and then another tore into the top of his ear. Lightning like a spider’s web streaked in all directions overhead and in its light he glanced at Mary who suddenly seemed to realize where they were and that she could make it. She took off running on bare feet and skinny legs for her sister’s little clapboard house, leaving him limping along with Allison by his side, trying to keep him steady.
As they approached the house he saw hulking figure of Irv Fleming rushing out into the storm. Irv threw his muscled arms around the doctor and lifted him onto the porch. Allison hurried inside and through the open door the screams of Irv’s pretty young wife sailed over the booming thunder and stretched higher than the rushing wind. They resonated with a clamber more desperate than the hail on the roof.
Harry took a deep breath and an uncertain step toward the door and with it his bad knee seemed to catch; to slide back into place so that he was able to bear weight on it again. Elizabeth, Antha and Mary’s mother, met him. She was a competent midwife but the look on her face told him that what they were up against was dire. He followed her to where Antha lay on a small bed in the middle of her meager living room, a washcloth draped over her brow and her legs open to the light of a lantern. She was writhing and moaning and her sweat had soaked through her gown. Harry took a deep breath and his eyes locked with those of Antha Fleming’s. In that wordless gaze an understanding was achieved, an agreement of sorts was negotiated: If his ability as a doctor was sufficient and if her determination legendary, then she and her baby might live to see the morning sun. If either of them failed, Irv Fleming would be using the strength of those farm boy arms to dig holes, one large and one desperately small.
Harry stepped forward, feeling the woman’s naked belly, trying to get an idea of the exact position of the baby within. How had Adam felt the first time he witnessed Eve straining and bleeding in the throes of childbirth? Was ever a moment when a man regretted the consequence of his sin more?
Allison returned from disinfecting the tools in cast iron pot over the kitchen stove. She placed a scalpel in his hand. Antha focused her gaze upon it and then bit her lip and turned her head. Her courage was almost enough to cloud his eyes, but there could be no tears on his part because the first incision is the hardest and always the most important. He steadied the blade, took a deep breath and edged it into Antha Fleming’s soft flesh.
It was begun.
Outside the wind tore at the little house and thunder shook it. At times Antha’s shrieks soared above the fury of the storm. At other times they were deep, guttural almost animal.
Elizabeth was helpful, but it was Allison who provided the greatest aid. She’d recently returned from nursing school in Little Rock and like any gifted nurse she seemed to read his mind, placing instruments in his hand almost before he was consciously aware that he had opened his hand in anticipation. There was so much blood. It didn’t seem possible that there could be so much blood and anyone live, but by first light the storm had moved on and only a soft rain was falling. The struggle inside the Fleming home was over and Antha’s cries gave way to that of a baby boy.
Harry was exhausted. His stitching was ugly on a good day. He thought of Carolyn, sitting on the porch quilting, a steady hand, always perfect. He looked down at his trembling hands, the thin skin and liver spots. Allison stepped up beside him.
“You did it.” She was beaming. “Go get some air, Papa. I’ll finish up here.”
He stepped out onto the porch and loaded his pipe. The storm had gone north and east. Lightning flared there, mixed with distant dawn. He unbuttoned his shirt and tossed it, heavy with blood, on the back of an overturned porch chair and walked into the yard in his undershirt. Rain fell light and cool. He closed his eyes and breathed in the freshness of its odor. Reluctantly he surveyed his little corner of town. It did indeed look like a warzone, like some of the pictures he’d seen in eastern newspapers of small French villages in the wake of an artillery barrage. Some of the largest and oldest trees in Hickory Wind were uprooted. Limbs were down everywhere like stone snakes in the foggy morning. Smoke was rising from a nearby hilltop. The remnants of someone’s barn roof was scattered here and there, square nails poking out of hunks of old lumber.
Irv stepped out the front door, a grin on his unshaven face. “Momma ’n baby are finally about to sleep I think,” Irv said. He walked up beside Harry and together they surveyed the damage.
“Well, at least something good came from last night,” Irv said, a tired smile parting his lips. “We’re gonna name him Harold.”
The doctor laughed. “I’m honored, but please . . . you should give him a family name.”
“Wouldn’t have neither of them if not for you,” said Irv. “And Allison, ’course. She’s quick as a cat with them doctoring tools.”
Carolyn would have been so proud to have seen the young woman her daughter had become.
“My boy’s name will be Harold Irving Fleming,” Irv told him, putting a big hand on his shoulder. “You look awful tired, Doc. Maybe you ought to head on and get some rest”
“I will if you promise me you’ll at least call the boy Harry. I always hated the name Harold.”
Irv had a big country laugh, the kind of laugh that makes a lot of friends. He was still laughing when Allison came out of the house. She walked right over and hugged her father.
“You’re a fine nurse, Allison.”
She nodded and in the early morning light he thought he detected a little color rising in her cheeks.
“I’m going to stay around and keep an eye on them. You go on home and get some rest,” she said. “Later Mary or I will come and make you a lunch or maybe bring you something from the diner.” Looking around at the devastation from the storm she added, “If the diner is still standing.”
Irv retrieved his shirt and his coat and handed them to him with another word of thanks. Harry waved goodbye to them and walked home, pleased to see that his house appeared to have weathered the storm unscathed. He hadn’t even lost a tree. His neighbor hadn’t been so lucky. He paused to look at a limb poking up through their roof and that’s when Copper Langston rounded the corner driving an automobile. He had a crazy look in his eyes like he’d fallen into one of Jake Walker’s moonshine stills. There was mud all over the automobile and all over the driver.
“Doc!” Copper shouted, bringing the automobile to a stop on the doctor’s lawn. He hopped out and ran through a giant puddle, kicking up muddy water. “Boy I’m glad to see you made it through the storm. I hear you were pulling a baby.”
Harry was originally from Baltimore, born, raised and educated on the east coast and although he’d spent thirty years in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, and he’d heard hill folks say a lot of things, he’d never heard someone refer to delivering a baby as “pulling a baby” as if it were a calf. He tried not to laugh because Copper looked so serious and he didn’t want to offend him.
“Is something wrong?” Harry asked.
“Boy I’d say. Marty Strong’s amissin’. He went out ’ahuntin’ with me and his Uncle Danny last night and his dawg plum took off. Well, he gave chase and so did we, but we lost ’em. We ain’t found neither of ’em, the dog nor the boy. His momma is worried sick, what with that storm last night. Half the town’s out in ’em woods alookin’. I’ll tell you what, that younin is spry and fast as a tick on a hound and only the lord knows how far he could-uh got.”
Copper was the kind of man that stood close to another man when he talked and Harry couldn’t smell a hint of moonshine on his breath so there was every chance that he was telling the truth.
“You were west of town? Out past the creek then?”
Copper nodded. “A far cry out them woods.”
Harry thought of the boy’s mother, how she lost her husband a year and a half ago and how Marty was her only child. He would go out and help search but with his knee like it was he wouldn’t last in those woods. West of town the hills were incredibly steep and the forest dense. He feared that if the storm didn’t get the boy, a cougar or a bear might have. It was an ugly thought and not one he could entertain for long. He’d ushered Marty Strong into the world just as he had the boy’s mother and father.
“I reckon that when we find him, he’s gonna need some doctorin,” Copper said quietly.
“Yes,” Harry replied. “You bring him to me at once.”
“You’ll be around the house?”
“If I leave, I’ll put a note on the door as to where you can find me.”
Copper looked at the ground and Harry remembered that Copper Langston couldn’t read. “We’ll find you,” he said. “One of us will bring him to you.” With that Copper turned and stomped quickly through the same puddle to the automobile which wasn’t his. Harry suspected it belonged to the boy’s uncle.
“Good luck,” Harry called.
Copper waved and then took off in the Ford. Harry went inside with hope of a nap but figured worry over the missing boy would prevent it.
Jeffrey Throckmorton, the wealthiest man in town, brought his automobile to a halt in front of the diner. Gary Sampson, a penny pinching old fat man, was dismounting from his swaybacked mare. His boots sunk deep in the mud. He didn’t even acknowledge Margaret, who was sitting under a nearby tree. When he yanked free, he sprayed mud all over the hem of her dress and kept on walking. White men rarely seemed to notice her when other white men were around, but when they were alone and when they got some booze in them, well then that was another story. Sampson waddled over to Throckmorton and began chatting with him like they were buddies; throwing his arm around him and complimenting him on his automobile and his suit. They headed up the steps to the diner with Sampson chatting on about the storm and Throckmorton nodding disinterested. When they were gone Margaret approached Sampson’s mare and scratched her on the forehead. “Don’t you worry,” she whispered. “Won’t be no time till you and yours’ll be done hauling fat bastards like that man around. They’ll all be tooling around in those,” she said, nodding her head in the direction of the automobile. “They’ll retire you to some nice patch of shady clover. Now for me, I don’t know what they’ll do with me when they don’t need colored women for laundry washin’ and floor sweepin’.”
Her five minute break was over and it would shortly be noon. She was sure that it would be extra busy today, what with the storm and all. Folks would want to come in for lunch and talk about how good they had it, that their roof didn’t blow off, or to gossiping about those whose did and how that so-and-so had it coming.
Circling around the side of the Dandelion Diner she paused and looked up and down Main Street, as was her custom. But her baby brother Sam wasn’t coming back. He’d said he wasn’t and how could she blame him. But she just couldn’t keep herself from looking, from hoping that this might be the day he came strolling down the road whistling some crazy jazz tune.
Margaret stepped through the backdoor, entering a greasy kitchen that smelled like fried fish and burned potatoes.
“Do me a favor and fry up some more of that catfish, Margaret. Gary Sampson is in there and I know that’s what he’ll want,” said Charlie. “Remember, do it like you’ve been taught.”
She smiled. White folk didn’t often let blacks run the kitchen, but old Charlie had grown up on a plantation in the south and they simply loved his Creole cooking. He was king of this kitchen and she was more than happy to help out anytime, especially when it meant doing something besides scrubbing pots and pans.
“All that rain’ll get the crayfish running. If you get some time later snatch a few of ’em up and I’ll cook us up a pot of jumbalya, just for us,” Charlie said with a wink as he sidled up next to her to inspect her work. He gave her an approving nod.
A cheerful voice behind them asked, “Will you invite me?”
Margaret turned and saw Allison Monroe looking at them through the rusty screen door.
“Oh honey, don’t you know I will,” said Charlie with a laugh.
“Allison! You don’t come around much now that you lassoed a man. I thought maybe you’d forgotten about us.”
Allison opened the door, arms open wide. They embraced and Allison said, “I could never forget you Margaret Jackson and you know it.”
“Say, why don’t you and I go down to the stream where we used to play when we were kids and fetch some crawdads—”
“They’re crayfish,” Charlie stated flatly, turning the fish.
Laughing, Allison replied, “Maybe in Louisiana. In Arkansas they’re crawdads, you old coot.”
Charlie smiled at her.
“You get ’em and I’ll cook ’em.”
“How about I come down by your place?” Margaret asked.
“It’s a lovely idea. I’ve been wanting to introduce you to John before he has to go,” Allison said.
“Go? You don’t mean . . .”
“Yes,” Allison sighed. “They’re sending his unit overseas.”
Margaret slipped her hand in Allison’s.
“You must be worried sick.”
Allison changed the subject. “I’ve come to see what the special is so I can take lunch home to my father.”
“How about catfish?” Charlie asked. “Not even Gary Sampson can eat all this.”
“I’ll stop back through and pick it up,” she said, and she was off, her little summer dress showing off her curves.
“That soldier boy is one lucky buck,” Charlie said as he watched Allison disappear through the heavy double doors and into the raucous commotion of the dining room.
Margaret rolled her eyes and stepped up beside him, elbowing him out of the way. She took the spatula from his hand. He laughed.
“With attitude like that, this will be your kitchen one of these days,” Charlie said, leaving Margaret to the skillet.
He’d been right about the soldier boy. It was easy to envy white folks ’cause they so often seemed to have things good, especially a smart and pretty white girl like Allison. But Margaret knew Allison, knew that she worried about people, fretted over them like a mother hen. It was the nurse in her coming out. Margaret Jackson had the disadvantage of being a black girl, but she did what she could to enjoy life and if it wasn’t for her missing brother, she wouldn’t have a care in the world.
Jake Walker stepped out the back door of his shack and scooped up a handful of rocks. His wife Martha Ann had piled them next to the door for this very reason. He reached back with his right arm, pretending he was St. Louis Cardinals hurler Red Ames, and let fly with a handful of jagged little stones. His hounds had been so preoccupied with whatever varmint had them all stirred up, that they didn’t see it coming. All three of them were pelted in the ass with rocks. In unison the trio spun around, saw him glaring at them, and slunk back to their little houses, their heads down, chains dragging the dirt.
“And you keep your traps shut too!” he shouted. He’d been trying to catch up on some sleep. He’d gotten a little carried away the night before, cooking the mash and sampling it, and now he was beat and carrying a throbbing headache. Turning to go back inside he met Martha Ann standing in the doorway, a black shiner circling her bloodshot left eye. One corner of her top lip was a little puffy. Their eyes met momentarily and then her shoulders slumped. Her head dipped and she slinked back inside, wiping her hands on her apron.
He didn’t remember hitting her. He remembered an argument, but even that was fuzzy. It was unfortunate that he didn’t recall much. He needed to know why he’d hit her so that he could make sure that whatever she’d done, didn’t happen again. Or if it did, that it was met with similar action. Jake Walker had no intention of sending mixed signals.
He started to follow Martha Ann inside when he heard a voice shouting from the timber. The dogs hadn’t been takin’ after a varmint after all they were takin’ after a man. Quickly Jake shoved his bare feet into his worn boots and ran to the shed where he conducted his business. A shotgun was leaning against a large copper still. He cracked the barrel, found that it was loaded and then hurried out in the direction of the stranger. Anyone this far out in the hills was either lost, up to no good, or the law. The first one he might be able to tolerate, especially seeing as he might be lost himself someday. Jake meant to obey the Golden Rule, but if the fellow was either of the other two, well he was about to find himself dead.
Jake scurried up to the top of a little knoll and took up a position behind a tree, shotgun on his shoulder.
A voice shouted, “Marty!”
Just then a uniformed young man with blond hair stepped into view, his hands cupped around his mouth. He called again, “Marty!”
Somebody was lost after all, which was good. Jake lived day and night in fear that a bunch of badge toting hypocrites were going to come and haul him away for brewing shine. Arkansas went bone dry before most of the other states and Jake saw himself as nothing more than an enterprising gentleman, a capitalist fulfilling a civic duty to those who liked their drink. And as if the police weren’t enough, there was that matter of the murder of the two conniving bastards who’d tried to roll him one night when his pockets were as full as his belly. He gunned them down in a Fayetteville alley. Later he found out the two were affiliated with an organization of similar rum runners and they didn’t take lightly to the murderer of their friends. Being careful had saved his ass many times and he wasn’t about to start slacking now.
The soldier boy had his hands cupped around his mouth as he called again for someone named Marty. These days every boy with more than three hairs was wearing a uniform.
Jake left the gun behind the tree and scrambled down the rocky hill.
“Hey there, you lookin’ for someone?”
Startled, the young man scanned the trees until he spotted Jake.
“Yes sir,” he said. “I’m looking for a boy that went into these woods last night hunting. He’s still missing.”
They met each other halfway.
“You reckon he made it this far into the woods? We’re an awful long way from anywhere.”
“I’m not sure,” the soldier said, extending his hand. “I’m John Clifton and I’m not very familiar with these woods.”
Shaking his hand Jake said, “Well, I’m guessing you’ve gone too far. Is this boy kin of yours?”
“No. I was on my way to Hickory Wind this morning and heard a boy was missing, and after that storm I figured he was in a heap of trouble so I volunteered to help look for him. I’ve been walking for a few hours.”
Jake scratched his head. He didn’t remember any storm.
“Well, I’ll tell you that you best turn and head back the way you came, or you’ll be more lost than the boy. I’ll keep an eye out for him and I’ll bring him to town if he comes around here.”
“That’s very kind of you,” Clifton said, looking past him in the direction of Jake’s place.
“I give you my word.” Pointing to the east he said, “Head that direction and you’ll come out at a little trail that’ll take you back toward the road. It meanders around a bit. Think you’ll get lost?”
“I have a compass. I can find my way back,” Clifton said confidently.
“The boy’s name is Marty Strong, he’s fourteen. I heard some dogs barking. Are they yours?”
Jake nodded and pointed east.
“Well, I appreciate your help,” Clifton said. He took a compass from his pocket, got his bearings and turned, heading away from Jake’s place. Jake sat down on a stump, watched him go and tried to remember what had happened the previous night.
(More to come . . .)