Now, it was dim and getting darker, as the hidden sun prepared to die, unmourned. Soon, bandit-eyed coons would appear and pad quietly through the puddles to scour the ground for food and rummage the soggy contents of those trashcans which had been carelessly left open to the sky.
The park was not deserted, though. Under a tree among the picnic tables, Something waited, silently---sniffing for intruders.
A young one comes. He seeks enlightenment. His essence is troubled, but smooth and soft.... He will suffice. The Something changed, here and there, until it was satisfied with its new shape. Then, it shivered in its wet covering. Incorporation as a primitive was a hardship, but unavoidable until rescue.
He often came here at dusk or night, when the park was usually deserted, just to sit at one of the tables and brood about the present and to speculate about his destiny. The place was mostly screened from the highway by a grassy mound of waste earth, cleverly placed by its builders.... Jimmy always began his ritual visits by checking the trashcans for discarded magazines. Having once found copies of both _Gala_ and _Frolic_, he was encouraged to continue to seek this source of forbidden images and dark pleasures.
This evening, as he replaced the lid of the first can, he was jolted by a stab of fright. There was a girl looking at him from among the tables!... She was wrapped in a blanket and leaning, in the fading light, up against a tree. She seemed to be of his age.
He stood, staring at her for a time---uncertain whether to speak, or run like a thief in the night. At first, she stared back at him without moving.
Then, she pulled an arm from the blanket and wiped the straggly, wet hair from her face. It seemed to be a kind of greeting. Jimmy untensed his body a little.
"Hi," he croaked.
"Hi," she replied, in a voice he had to strain to hear. They continued to stare at each other, uneasily, as if they knew that they were both guilty of something bad. Then, drawn by a force he did not fully understand, he slowly walked over to confront his observer.
Jimmy had contemplated that act of independence many times but, obedient son that he was, he had resisted. He understood the call, but he was fearful of the Great Outside beyond the green, familiar mountains.
"Why?" He immediately regretted his prying. She would have probably told him, later. But something made him want to know, now. Perhaps, he sought a justification for being with this stranger.
"My father fooled around with me.... My mom stopped him when she was alive, but she had the consumption.... D'you live around here?" She spoke softly in his own dialect, but without visible emotion. She touched Jimmy in a way the girls at school had never done.
"Yeah... Just through them trees."
"Could you put me up, somewheres?"
Jimmy's mind swirled at the thought of a secret girlfriend, hidden from the women of his home. Of course, she wasn't his girlfriend. But he knew she could be, if she wanted. If he wanted.
"You could stay in Grandpa's old cabin ... for a spell. It's back in the woods behind the family place. He's passed on, now, so it's empty."
"Can you sneak me some food?"
"S-s-sure ... I guess." But, he wasn't sure he could do that without getting caught. Between his domineering aunt and his nosy older sister, little he did went unnoticed.
She pushed away from the tree and moved close to him. Jimmy took a step backward. He saw she had one brown eye and one green one. But that wasn't what really bothered him.
"Let's go, then," she said, with the bold assuredness of a girl who has learned too much, too early, about boys---and of her ability to manipulate them.
"Where've you been? It's wet out there," inquired his aunt. He ignored her predictable probing.
"Mom, can I have some cornbread and buttermilk?" He always addressed his queries to his mother. It was a minor act of defiance to She Who Ruled the household.
"I guess so." His mother didn't take her eyes off the screen, even though there was a commercial on it, then. Her answer demonstrated her status in the household, fairly well.
As Jimmy turned back to the kitchen, his aunt added, "You leave that ham alone!... I don't see why he can't eat like we do, Annie. He's always snacking between meals."
"He's a growing boy, Vadie." Jimmy's mother had learned to avoid serious disagreements with her older sister.
Vada Bostic Gault supported the family with the liquidated assets of her dead husband's generous estate. She was, as they say in these parts, "clever with money." Her support assured her of dominance in the Bostic family. She found this so satisfying that she had declined to marry another rich man's son while she still had had the chance. Now, it was too late for her to marry well, again. She was considered by folks-about to be still attractive, but fading rapidly.
"He's getting to be too much like his father," she was unable to resist concluding.
Jimmy's father had deserted his wife shortly after the birth of her second child. He had brought disgrace to the local Bostic clan, and was the dead weight that Anna Bostic Howard would always carry on her thin shoulders.
She pointed to the TV ad. "I wish we could get one of those," she said, in reply to her sister's troubling remark---the one she had no good answer for.
In the kitchen, Jimmy sliced a strip of ham, cut it into smaller pieces, and put them on top of the cornbread and buttermilk in the bowl. He covered the bowl with waxed paper and a rubber band. Then, sneaking silently out the backdoor with his offering, he hastened to his new guest.
His sister, June, was standing at her window---fuming---when her brother appeared, below. In an instant, she forgot her indignation.
"Where's he going with that?" she said aloud to the room. She followed his progress with her aunt's pretty face and her mother's blue eyes as he moved down the old track to Grandpa's cabin in the woods behind the house. "What's he doing back there?"
Ordinarily, she would have been watching TV with her mother and aunt. But, tonight, she had been banished to her room to reflect on her misbehavior.... One of Vada's snoopy friends had seen her, after school, in Earl Sydenstricker's white, souped-up '51 Ford. The snoop saw they were headed for the old quarry, so she phoned her friend, right away. She knew Vada would want to know what her niece was up to. Their mother just didn't care what those kids of hers did. She was so weak.
Jimmy had witnessed the resulting scene when Junie got home, late for dinner.
His aunt believed, firmly, that Earl's flashy car had been stolen in Pennsylvania, and that Earl---who had shown no visible means of support since he had dropped out of school---was a thief like his older brother, Buck. Buck, who was currently up in the Moundsville pen, had been caught by the State cops while he was working in a chopshop over by East Rainelle.
Although his car may, indeed, have been stolen, Earl had paid for it---with money he would have had difficulty explaining, if the Sheriff had inquired. The car was his ticket to the good-looking girls who were still in school and the young housewives up the Clearco road, whose husbands were working the dayshift in the mines. He had gotten June Bostic to come across by promising to take her--- soon's he could---to the honkytonk outside Beckley where the country name-bands played.... She didn't need much promising, though.
June, like Jimmy, sought escape from her confining existence. She was too smart to marry the likes of Earl Sydenstricker, though. As her aunt had, she had her goal set far-higher. She was just practicing on old Earl. He didn't care, though; marriage was far from his thoughts. He didn't want to be kept down like his father.
He's meeting somebody in that old cabin.... Oh, my Lord! I'll bet it's a girl! June was pleased with her hasty conclusion. That little dickens. Vadie'll kill him, if he's got a girl in there.... I wonder who it is?
She tried to recall all the likely girls of her brother's age-group. Maybe Betty Jean Foster from that bunch up Pate's Hollow. She's the kind to run around at night.... No. She's too stuck-up. Besides, she's sweet on one of the Bolling boys. June resolved, then and there, to send the interloper packing---no matter who she was---before another family storm could break. She felt she had to protect her younger brother from the wrath of their aunt.
Actually, she was consumed with envy. Jimmy was getting away with murder at the same time she was getting punished. She'd see about that.... Tomorrow was Saturday. She'd check out the cabin, then.
"Damn that old snoop! I can't even ride down a public highway anymore without being tattled on." June covered her mouth, fearful of being heard by her sharp-eared aunt.
Although its innermind slept, the Something's outermind remained alert for intruders. This planet was, in many ways, a hellworld. Survival required constant vigilance.
But Vada knew how to watch someone from a window without showing herself.
She had left her sister to clean up in the kitchen and had returned to her bedroom. She'd heard June leave the house, and looked out her window to see where she was going. She saw her niece glance back to see if she were being watched.
Why's she going out to Grandpa's place?... The hussy! I'll bet she's meeting that Sydenstricker boy!... I wonder how he got there? I didn't hear his loud car come up the driveway.
She silently debated whether or not to tell her sister.... Annie probably wouldn't be concerned, anyhow. That woman just didn't give a damn about anything. No wonder Lamar left her. Where did our parents go wrong with her?
She decided to wait until Annie finished in the kitchen. Then, she would tell her what Junie was doing. And, later, they would have it out with that daughter of hers.
She opened the door with some hesitation, looking around for the visitor. Then, she stepped through into the one big room.
Behind the door, a boy was sitting on Grandpa's old cot. "Who're you?" she asked, untactfully.
He smiled at her. "You must be Junie.... I'm your cousin, Bill--- from over to White Sulphur.... I ran away from home. I need a place to stay for awhile."
He was beautiful. Junie had never seen a boy, in person, who was so handsome. He was like those stars in the movie magazines her friends had. Husky, tanned, his coal-black hair slicked back in a perfect DA. He had long sideburns, too, just like Elvis. He was older than her brother---maybe her age.... Yes, he was.... Her age.
June couldn't recall, specifically, any cousins from White Sulphur Springs, but she didn't ponder that for long. There were Bostics all over Greenbrier County. So maybe...
"Bill?... Well, I..." She found herself both tongue-tied and greatly attracted to the stranger. "Our aunt'd make a fuss if she found out, you know...." Her voice trailed off, her righteous mission abandoned.
"But she's not goin' to find out---is she, Junie?" He smiled his perfect smile, and June's heart melted.
"Huh-uh.... There's no need for her to know." She closed the door.
"Come on over here and sit with me, Junie." He patted the bed beside him. "We'll get acquainted better."
June floated across the rough wooden floor to the stranger's bed--- Earl Sydenstricker and all the other boys in her universe forgotten. Her last logical thought was that her new cousin sure had animal magnetism.... She'd read about that in a magazine. Today, she would find out what it meant.
It was having to change too often. The new shapes were complex, and required the full attention of its innermind and even some of its outer. When it was performing so intensely, it was more vulnerable to surprise intrusion.
These sexual primitives required much consideration. The Something would certainly emphasize that in its final report, so that those who followed would not be disconcerted by the frequency of primitive desire.
Where is that Tracker?... Has it lost its sense of smell?
Vada, speaking for her sister, was in high dudgeon. Her niece had not only defied her, but had brought that Sydenstricker boy onto their property.
"You have a hell of a nerve!" Vada rarely cursed, but she felt a strong rebuke was needed in this case. She didn't want a grandchild to take care of---or the disgrace it would bring the family.
Vada and Anna had intercepted June as soon as she reached the front porch. June knew she was in for it, as soon as she saw the grim expression on her aunt's face and the look of hopelessness on her mother's. Vada had changed into her serious-black dress---June knew what that signified---but her mother was still in her housecoat, as was usual for late-morning. Anna Bostic puffed on a cigarette while her sister ranted at her daughter.
Her son listened, just inside the screendoor.
"Well---what've you got to say for yourself, girl?"
"I didn't meet Earl Sydenstricker!" June asserted, truthfully. She was really sick of her aunt's tirades. "I went back to Grandpa's to see who was there after I saw Jimmy take food out there last night!"
Her impassioned statement of fact brought about a shocked silence among the women on the porch. Vada looked at Anna, who somehow managed to look hurt---as if she were the victim, here.
"Jimmy!... Jimmy, you get out here!" Vada yelled to the screendoor, then turned back to her niece.
"And, just who *was* there?"
"Cousin Bill from White Sulphur. Leastways, that's who he said he was. He ran away from home," replied June, cooperatively---anxious to be relieved of blame for this latest fuss, but not realizing the infer- ence the information might create in her aunt's suspicious mind.
Vada's eyes narrowed. "We don't have any kin in White Sulphur ... do we, Annie?"
Distressed to have been drawn so directly into this problem, Anna almost whimpered. "I don't know of any, Vadie.... There's Bosticks with a `k' in White Sulphur, but none of 'em is our kin."
Vada turned to the screendoor, behind which Jimmy held himself, seeking some distance from his aunt.
"Who is that boy out there?!" Vada demanded to know.
It was then that Jimmy---in a poorly-thought-out way of defending himself from possible charges that he had put his sister in peril from a strange boy---spoke.
"It's not a boy. It's a..." Uh-oh. "...poor little girl... who's run away from home."
June stared at her brother like she thought he was crazy. Vada and her mother stared at her like they thought she was a damn-poor liar.
"It is, too, a boy!" she yelled.
"It isn't!" Jimmy replied. He felt he had to keep his story straight, culpable as it made him seem to be.
Vada took immediate action to resolve the impasse.
"Annie, you better go out there and see who it is."
Anna knew better than argue with her sister. She moved slowly down the front steps, muttering to herself. "I don't see why I have to be the one to find out."
Despite his increasing dissatisfaction with the Bostic family, the Something hastily began the new change. This change would be easier. He was mostly there, already.
"Come in, Annie," said a voice from the past. She covered her mouth with her hands. Oh, my God!... It can't be!
Despite her newfound fear, she slowly opened the door and stepped across the threshold to find herself facing Lamar Howard.
She stared at the apparition. She didn't really believe it was the husband who had abandoned her, so long ago. What with the kids arguing about who was here, she knew what she saw couldn't be real. But---Lord!---he sure looked real.
"It's been too long, Annie." He smiled and held out his arms. "I want to make it up to you."
She stared, frozen with fear and anger.
"Come on in, Annie.... You sure look good."
In a flash, she knew who this was. "You ain't Lamar Howard," she announced in a determined voice.
"Annie.... It's me.... Don't you recognize me?"
"I recognize you, alright. I know what you are.... You ain't changed since the day you left me, you bastard!... Why ain't you got gray in your hair and wrinkles, like me---huh?!... Why?!"
"Now, now, Annie," his voice soothed.
"You're the Devil!" she screamed, and ran from the room.
She pounded toward the house, running like she hadn't since she was Junie's age. She cursed all those cigarettes she'd smoked for slowing her down. She lost her slippers and finished the run barefoot, over the driveway gravel and through the grass.
"Annie---what is it?... What're you runnin' from?"
"It's the Devil, Vadie! It's Satan, himself!" She ran up the steps and into the house.
"Oh my God! Call the Sheriff!... He's layed with the kids," Vada yelled after her. Even though Anna seemed to know what she was doing, Vada couldn't help taking charge. She followed Anna inside to the telephone.
"1214!" yelled Anna to the operator.
"That's not the Sheriff's number," said Vada.
"I'm not calling the Sheriff to come over and arrest the Devil, Vadie. I'm not that dumb.... I'm calling the Parson."
"What can that preacher do..." Vada had given up regular church atten- dance long ago, but her sister had continued to attend---even on Wednesday night.) "...even if it is Satan back there?"
The Reverend Bob-Ray Grady was incredulous. Anna Bostic was having a conniption-fit. He knew how unassertive she normally was, too. It wasn't like her.... She doesn't look after those kids the way she should. 'Course, her husband deserted her, but she ought to buck up and take charge. Her bossy sister runs things.... Vada. The one who doesn't come to services much, anymore.
"He was a girl and a boy before he posed as Lamar Howard?... That's possible, Annie, but... What?! He did what?!... With the kids?!... Blessed Jesus.... Are you sure?"
He listened to more of Anna Bostic's tale of woe.
"I'll be right over. Don't anyone go out there. I'll handle him." He slammed the phone back onto the hook.
Parson Grady had never before found himself in a position quite like this. Oh, he believed in Satan, alright. No question about that. And he'd dealt with him, before---hidden as he usually was, and harming people. But to have him invade a believer's home under false pretenses and lay with the children!... That just couldn't be tolerated.
For a moment, he thought about getting his shotgun, but immediately felt guilty about thinking that. Instead, he picked up the Bible he always took with him when he went to counsel someone in need---the one with all the bookmarks. Then, he pawed through his desk drawer for the big silver cross on a chain someone had given him. He put it around his neck and outside his vest.
His wife entered his study. She had heard him yelling on the phone. He looked up at her.
"If the Word doesn't do the job, I'll ... I don't know what I'll do."
"Do about what?"
"The Devil," he replied, as he rushed by her and out the side door, where his car was parked.
"Bob-Ray, have you been nipping, again?" she yelled after him. She received no answer.
Her husband was usually dependable, but once she had found a half- empty bottle of wine hidden among the books in the big bookshelf behind his desk. He had insisted it must have been his predecessor's, but she had never quite trusted him after that.
She begin pulling out books from the shelves and looking behind them. ...Her father had warned her Bob-Ray'd take some looking-after.... He was from Virginia---Northern Virginia.
Their aunt's unnecessary declaration did not comfort June and Jimmy. They were glum and silent. Both were feeling pretty guilty about the recent turn of events. Even though they knew what they'd experienced must be of the Devil, they weren't particularly repentant about it, and were downright unhappy at the prospect of having to relate their experiences to the Parson.
They needn't have worried.... The Man of God was raring to get at Old Scratch and he wasn't looking for testimony, now. His car slid to a stop in the driveway in a cloud of dust. He jumped out and hurried over to the steps.
"Where is he?!"
"He's back there in the woods, Parson---in Grandpa's old place." said Vada. Her sister seemed to have lapsed back into inactivity, as she sat on the porch glider, smoking. "He's not Lamar---I know that," Anna stated, calmly.
"Don't any of y'all follow me, you hear?" he advised. Then, he strode briskly up the track toward the woods.
"Don't worry. We won't," replied Vada. But she couldn't help but wonder in what form the Devil might have appeared to her.... As her dead husband, no doubt. He'd probably want to know how I spent his money. He always was a tightwad.
Is there no end to these creatures! Am I some kind of zoo animal to be caged and stared at by self-superior beings?... What does this one want? He is a one of certitude.... Lach!... Now, I must be an ancient prophet.... Where is that pudochta Tracker?!
Still and all, he would make the Devil come to him. It would be more satisfying that way.
"You in there!..." He saw a shadow move behind the door curtain. "Yes---you!... Come out in the light and be revealed. I know who you are! You don't scare me!"
There was a period of heavy silence, during which the Reverend Grady considered alternatives. Then, the door of the cabin creaked slowly open.
The crusader found himself facing a man out of _The Illustrated Children's Bible_. He was dressed in a simple robe of his time. He was bearded and dark-eyed---not at all like the blue-eyed representations which circulated so widely.
"Have you come for me, Bob-Ray?" The voice was deep and very West Virginian.
"You don't fool me. I know you're not Jesus," declared the Parson.
"Of course I'm not. Haven't you ever heard of John the Baptist?"
The Parson was struck dumb by the impertinence. He recovered rapidly, though.... John the Baptist, indeed!
"This masquerade won't work, Satan. You can go straight back to Hell ---the sooner the better." He licked his finger and began thumbing through his Bible.
The robed figure watched him for awhile. He knew the game was up. He would have to move on, now, before these primitives resorted to violence. He felt so tired.
"Try Corinthians 4:21, Parson."
The Reverend Grady looked up at him with a fierce expression. I'll be damned if I let the Devil tell me how to read the Holy Word! WHAM!... He slammed the book shut.
The Parson's gesture of defiance was wasted on the Something.... It suddenly smelled rescue. Its Tracker was turning into the county road at the intersection near the roadside park.
Finally... I'm back here, you klaatha!... Get me out of here! he screamed, silently. The tracker would be here, soon. Their leaving would please everybody.
"My man is coming with a vehicle to fetch me now, Parson. If you'll join the Bostics on the porch, I'll take my leave."
The Parson felt as if a great weight had been lifted from him. It was a case of virtue, triumphant. But he couldn't resist casting one last spear. "God's strength banished you once before, and it has again.... Go---and do not return."
With that, he turned on his heel and walked slowly back to the house, feeling victorious, but trying to remember which Corinthians had a twenty-first verse.
"What did you do about him, Preacher?" demanded Vada.
Bob-Ray Grady ignored her disrespect. He was growing accustomed to it. Times were changing for the worse.... Morals were breaking down. The young were being seduced by trashy music and lurid movies.... The Apocalypse must be getting closer.
"I did as God wanted. I banished him to Hell under pain of divine retribution..."
His boast was interrupted as a black sedan pulled into the driveway.
"...In fact, they're coming for him, now." He pointed to the ominous-looking vehicle.
"In a car?!..." Vada was unable to suppress her skepticism.
They all stared, muted, as the car pulled up beside the house. The driver leaned over and stuck his head out the passenger-side window. He was a balding, middle-aged man, who looked like an insurance salesman.... If the car had had the words "HADES, INC." painted on the passenger door, none on the porch would have been surprised.
"Where is ... the Guest?" the driver inquired. Everyone pointed toward the woods, without a word. The driver pulled his head back in, and the car accelerated rapidly, spraying gravel onto the grass.
Jimmy declared, "That's a Lincoln Zephyr." No one replied.
The five people on the porch walked down the steps and stood beside the driveway, looking toward Grandpa's cabin. Even Vada was silent.... In almost no time, the car returned, moving slowly back down the track to the main driveway. When it reached the Bostics and the Parson, there was a collective gasp.
In the back seat---red-skinned, hook-nosed, horned, and holding a pitchfork in one hand, but wearing a black business suit like a mortician---was their Devil.
As the car passed, he displayed a mouthful of pointed teeth and waved pleasantly to the group on the grass. Then, the car pulled out onto the county road, and was gone.
"Just like I told you," said the Parson.
The dark clouds of yesterday were long-gone. The proud morning sun, high in the sky, cast short shadows away from the Big Levels toward the green hills ahead.... The Somethings had a long trip ahead of them, and the driver didn't fancy cruising the curvy mountain roads in the primitive dark of the night to come. It worded to take its mind off the menacing strip of asphalt.
"Why did you do that, sir?... The demon, I mean?"
"It was what they believed me to be.... You wouldn't have them know what we really are---would you?"
"No, sir. But, it was so ... grotesque."
"Drive on, son."
If you enjoyed this story you can e-mail Frederick at: frustam@CapAccess.org
About the Author: Frederick Rustam is a retired civil servant who writes science fiction for the Web as a hobby. He formerly indexed technical documents for the Department of Defense. He finds constructing imaginary worlds of the future to be more rewarding than indexing the technology of our times.
As to other of his works, he says: "I have no webpage. My Web existence is entirely in ezines, mostly of the SFF&H variety. As a substitute for a webpage, I've been indexed by the Web search engines, and my readers can read some of my other stories by this means. As a former indexer, I find this gratifying."
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