Beyond Cobston's Graves
©2005 All Rights Reserved
©2010 by Writer's Cramp
There are horrors beyond horrors, and this was one of those nuclei of undreamable hideousness which the cosmos saves to blast an accursed and unhappy few—H.P. Lovecraft
Cobston had one shining memory for me, and its glitter overshadowed the reality of horror and disappointment that should have kept me away. Yet, a despairing autumn telephone call across 2,000 miles was enough after all these years to overcome my prudence. It was neither love nor duty that called me, but the memory of love, more powerful than reality, more poignant than experience, that was bringing me back.
It had been almost a lifetime since I had been in Canada, yet the MacDonald-Cartier Freeway seemed unchanged from the time I had first driven it 30 years before, at a time when all things were possible and when all the people I knew were immortal.
A giant fist was clutching my stomach as I drove through Ontario toward a woman who had left me 25 years ago and toward the town where I had experienced something whose nightmare had caused me to wake up in terror so many times over the years.
It is fortunate that I recorded at the time what happened to me, and what I found in 1970, Cobston, both the fair and the unspeakable; otherwise, I would never be able to persuade myself that it really occurred. For all the ensuing years of happiness and sadness, when I least expect it, my dreams imprison me in a foetid underground room with an unseen, choking presence whose scabrous, decayed hand reaches out for my throat in the semi-darkness until I awaken sweating, my chest heaving, my heart pounding.
I had been driving for three days, but I had always enjoyed long-distance driving, and the highway systems in 2000 were far easier and faster than they had been in 1970, before the completion of the Interstate Highways. Long, solitary journeys allow time for thought, and for the strengthening of resolve. From the moment I left my New Mexico desert home, I could not turn back, even though I also knew I probably could not change the destiny Teri Ottaway had embraced.
The bright November sun and warmth of New Mexico had gradually yielded to cold blue skies of the Midwest and a gathering canopy of leaden clouds as I crossed the Ambassador Bridge from Detroit to Windsor. It was only after I fought my way through the insane traffic across the Greater Toronto Area that I exited the 401 to head farther north. I felt that silent memory of dread, and my meditations turned to the supernatural horror that had once lurked under Cobston’s burying ground—something I had seen with my own eyes. The shock of my experiences in Cobston had led me to a life of writing horror fiction and studying the ancient literature of the occult and the supernatural. I had seen the inexplicable with my own eyes, and had spent three decades attempting to understand what I had experienced.
There was my father’s experience in Cobston after the First World War, and his decision to have me reared in a land far from his town and the newspaper he edited for most of his life. Though he had seen the terrors of mass killing in Flanders, it was his diary entries from Cobston that had been torn from his journal by my protective aunt so that I might not discover what she thought was his madness.
Along the King’s Highway, the snow fences had been erected, and the deciduous trees had lost their leaves, producing that bleak sense of cold distance that comes with late autumn in Central Ontario.
In my mind, Cobston is always a place of late autumn, wet and frigid, hiding its terrifying secret in a dour history that has never known warmth.
While others might not turn to fiction to exorcise their memories, I found that any who had truly experienced the paranormal were forced to spend much of their lives trying to explain it to themselves. This was remarkable in a culture whose movies and books had deluged audiences with graphic images of demons and slaughter, special effects werewolves and vampires more real than reality itself. Even the world itself could be destroyed on screen, yet I had known people whose lives were altered by a single sighting of an unidentified flying object, or a minor poltergeist event that could not be explained by logic.
Andrea Muñoz was a friend of mine in New Mexico, and she had lost her husband to an automobile accident while they were vacationing below the border in Mexico. When she returned home, three days after his death, she found all the lights switched on inside their house. She called me the next day, and we went to dinner, making certain that only the porch light was on and the house secured. When we came back two hours later, all the lights in the house were blazing. While it was unsettling to me, it was frightening to Mrs. Muñoz. The incident changed her life even more than the death of her husband, even though professional counselors explained the event away a dozen times. If such a small event could shake the foundations of someone’s life, how might the horror I found at Cobston affect those who still lived there—and that included my one-time wife who had chosen to go back to Cobston 25 years ago.
The explainers had been at work for centuries. Dom Augustine Calmet had argued in 1751 against the existence of the true vampire on theological grounds just as scientific explainers in the modern age dismissed the possibility of such phenomena because there could be no such thing as life divorced from the body. Both explainers were required to ignore facts, and there was a legend in Europe that the Nosferatu was the bearer of plague, bringing it to the cities and spreading pestilence through his loathsome presence and nightly visitations. All the events of my life had led me to the unquestionable realization that there was intent in life and a guiding force behind all that we do; however, there is also an opposing force that threatens the organization and outcomes of the intentional universe. In those moments when the natural order is rent asunder, human beings are driven mad by the vision of cosmic horror displayed before their eyes.
There is horror enough in human affairs, wrought by natural cataclysms and the darkness that lurks in human hearts. As grisly as mass murder and evil deeds might be, there is no sense of cosmic fear attending such human evil or the catastrophes attending the work of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. But now it was 5 kilometers to Cobston.
As I approached Cobston for the first time in a generation, the increased traffic should have prepared me for what I would see. I remembered the two-lane highway leading into town, but I was astounded at the development. On one side of the road was a suburb of semi-detached homes, while the other side of the highway presented an enclosed mall designed to serve the obviously low-cost government-subsidized housing. Perhaps Cobston had escaped its past after all.
Then I was on Main Street at the Church Street intersection that would lead out to St. Mark’s Anglican Church and, as I entered the center of town, memories flooded back. I recognized the restaurant once called The Farmer’s Table, now with the façade repainted to advertise “Edie’s Restaurant.” Aside from that, the center of town seemed little changed except for different names on many of the shops.
As I pulled into a parking place at the Cobston Telegraph-Dispatch, I noticed that the building had not been remodeled since I had last been there, and I felt the pangs of emotion about a time of excitement and promise that had brought temporary bliss amid the investigation of something beyond reason. It is strange how things work out, and this newspaper that had belonged to my father was now owned by Teri Ottaway. She had a talent for business, and she had come back to Cobston after leaving me. Whatever went wrong with her personal life, her business acumen led her back into reporting and ultimately to buy back the paper from its creditors.
Once out of the climate control in my nearly new Volkswagen GTI sports coupe, I realized that the air was indeed raw and cold. I trotted into the newspaper office. The interior of the office was not reminiscent of the place I remembered. There were no typewriters, and the office was dotted with glowing computer screens A longhaired male photographer with a scraggly beard was checking the battery charge on his expensive Nikon digital camera. I noticed that the large wooden legend that once dominated the newsroom from the back wall was gone, consigned to a history that most probably would not remember.
“I’m here to see Teri Ottaway,” I said to the woman sitting close to the front of the newsroom.
“Yeah, well we’d like to see her too.” The nice-looking woman had dyed blond hair and a stack of printouts that were obviously classified ads. “She hasn’t been in today. Can I take a message?”
“No, no message. I haven’t been here in a long time.” I paid her fifty cents for the latest edition, and she looked suspiciously at the two American quarters.
“Do I know you?” She was very direct, and I looked up at the office wall, remembering the Diefenbaker photo that used to be there. It was joined now by a similar news photo of Lester Pearson and Brian Mulroney. One of the other portraits was a vintage image of my father.
I fingered my trimmed and graying beard, yet my full head of hair was still thick and brown, even though I was pushing 60 pretty hard. “I’m not sure, but I’m Frank Stoneham. My father was the publisher of the paper for most of his life.”
“Oh…” Her pursed-lip pause was expressive. “I heard the story about you. Things started out pretty romantic.”
I scratched my forehead. “Guilty as charged.”
“She’s changed, you know.”
“Oh, I know all right. I guess you don’t abandon people just because they abandon you.”
She closed her eyes and nodded. “From what I hear, it probably wasn’t your fault.”
“It was a long time ago, and blame can’t ever be one-sided. I just didn’t follow the best piece of advice that I got in college.”
She had a nice smile, “Oh, and what’s that?”
“Pretty simple: Only get close to people who use the same drugs you use.”
“Guess we only learn these things the hard way.” She smiled as though she already knew me. “Well, I understand this town has changed a lot in the last 30 years, but not for the better. I’ve only been here ten years, but it’s not much better than the city after all.” She was obviously talking about Toronto.
I thanked her, and after another look around the office, I went back to my car. With the engine running and the heater doing work seldom needed in New Mexico, I sat and read the paper. I didn’t expect the story that I found below the fold on page one.
COBSTON—Teenagers reported seeing lights floating inside a vacant house Tuesday night in what police said was a Halloween prank.
Ontario Provincial Police responded to a cell phone call around 11 p.m. Tuesday and were told by five Cobston teens that “balls of light” were visible inside the house on Kingston Avenue.
Police said that the teens seemed genuinely agitated, but that it was a typical Halloween call and, after investigating to see that no illegal entry was made, the OPP allowed the teens to go home.
The front page of the newspaper carried two stories datelined Ottawa and two local stories, one about property tax assessments and the other about a controversy concerning a 13-year-old girl reported missing in Cobston by her stepmother who claimed that police were dismissing her as a runaway. After reflecting that teens were pretty much the same everywhere, I thought about finding Teri at the house I had signed over to her when we divorced. The house that had been my father’s was within walking distance of the newspaper office, and by looking around, I could see that Cobston’s core had changed very little in 30 years, even though it was surrounded by new housing developments and American-styled strip malls. It struck me that the people on Cobston’s streets were also different; in 1970 the majority were European, but today there were many faces that seemed dark and visibly foreign, a sign of Canada’s appetite for unrestricted immigration.
A jumble of thoughts cascaded through my mind as I drove along the cobbled brick street to the house I had ceded to Teri when she returned to Canada. It was disconcerting to see the condition of the turn-of-the century house, its single storey solidly built of red brick, but in dire need of tuck-pointing. One of the eaves troughs had come loose and dangled downward; the others were clogged with leaves. While patched, the roof was in need of replacement, and the decorative trim on the eaves and the double hung wooden window frames had not been painted in at least 15 years.
A dark blue 1998 or 1999 Ford sedan was parked in front of the house, still new looking although there were two serious dents on the lower front and back quarters. I took a deep breath and approached the front door. While part of me considered the house a part of my family, I knocked instead of entering.
I didn’t expect to see the girl I had known and loved, but the shock when she opened the door was something for which I could not have been prepared.
“Took you long enough, Stoneham.” There was still humor in her voice, but her eyes lacked the electric sparkle I remembered. Teri Ottaway’s hair was still shoulder length, but it was now predominantly gray, and her skin was creased at the corners of her eyes as though she had squinted too long in years of copyediting. Even more telling was the sagging of her cheeks and a tightness around the edges of her mouth that was undisguised by makeup. Her once-comely figure seemed almost frail underneath the shapeless sweatshirt she wore, and the glass in her hand tinkled from the melting ice. The attraction I remembered seemed strangely absent now.
“I had to stop for gas in St. Louis.” The humor left unsaid the fact that I was willing to come after all these years. “Do you have any food?”
“I’ve got popcorn.” Walking a little unsteadily, she led me to the living room where several glasses sat upon the cluttered coffee table. Aside from the bookshelves, all the furniture was different, probably changed several times while Teri had lived there. I noticed that the leather-covered sofa, though of recent vintage, had a rip or cut on the back and another across one of the cushions.
“In the beginning, you said that there was a “mood” to Cobston, but you never were willing to admit what we saw beneath the church.”
Teri snorted, “You never quit about that do you, Stoneham? That was probably the one thing that made you and me impossible in the end. “ She would never admit to herself what had made our marriage “impossible,” or even what had made her so desperate all these years later to ask me to come back to Canada.
Of course I had learned from her many years ago that the demons of the bottle are more persuasive and commanding than any rational human tongue. There is no love affair more powerful than the addiction to alcohol and drugs. Smokers and drinkers always keep their obsession as the primary dedication in their lives, always thinking about the next connection, be it delayed by minutes or hours. “So, is it Cobston or is it you I’ve come to visit?”
She took a sip from the glass and threw herself back against the couch cushions, looking at the ceiling. Tough as she was, I could see tears in her eyes. “Everything turned bad all at the same time—my kid, the people at the paper, the town, my health. I’d like toblame some supernatural agency, but there is no such thing.”
“What about your son? Has he been in trouble?” In the intermittent contact I’d had with her over the years, I knew that her son Evan was a product of her second marriage, but I also knew that children of alcoholics often turned incorrigible in their teen years.
“The little bastard…”She began, while I considered that Evan at 16 probably wasn’t at all little, “…I haven’t seen him more than three times in the last month, and the school hasn’t seen him either. He’s broken in here while I’ve been at work just to steal things.”
“To buy drugs?” It was a rhetorical question.
“What else? I thought I’d taught him better. Oh, his damn father was a user, but I thought Evan just used a little weed now and then.” Alcohol was the elephant in the corner of this room today, but she ignored it as she drank.
My curiosity was still more about the town than my ex-wife’s purgatory. “You always made things work here. What’s changed? I was reading your article in today’s paper.”
“Stoneham, you’ll never change! That was my little Halloween story. When do teenagers tell the truth about anything?” I had only been there a few minutes, and Teri was already getting annoyed with me.
“I always told you that Cobston can’t escape what happened in my father’s day, and someday you’ve got to accept what we saw in that cellar under the church. In the meantime, I came here to help.”
She stretched and laughed for the first time. “Nah, you just want to sleep with me.”
I laughed too, because we both knew it wasn’t true. For the next hour I heard about the unfortunate decline of the newspaper, the serious problems Teri was having with her liver and kidneys, and the difficulties she had with her out-of-control son, compounded with the problems of a boyfriend or two who had no more impulse control than did her son.
“You can stay here, you know.” Teri’s offer was perfunctory, but I could see that she had no more made plans for my visit than if I driven over from across town.
“No, I can’t.” On my drive through town, I saw a modern motel that had not shut down for the season. It was south on the highway. Already I was feeling that sense of discomfort that did not come from Teri, but was reaching out to me from the soil of Cobston itself as it had 30 years before.
It was now late afternoon, and I told Teri I would be back after I got established and had something to eat. Outside, I felt the stab of cold and hugged myself reflexively on the way to the car. The dark gray canopy above threatened rain or snow, but I couldn’t tell which. I detected a faint sour smell in the air that was evocative of another time.
The off-season room rate at The King’s Inn motel was reasonable and the room had the sense of not having been occupied recently. The TV set worked, but there were only six channels on the cable including two pay movie channels. There’s something about a motel room that reinforces the sense of the temporary, and I knew that only a supply of chocolate chip cookies and soft drinks could make my stay tolerable.
I drove back into town and parked across the street from the place now known as Edie’s Restaurant. My leather jacket was comfortable, but I could see my breath in the deepening dusk. The lights in the café looked inviting, so I pushed the door open to find that nothing had changed in décor since I had eaten there many years before. The incandescent lights cast a warm yellow on the wooden table with its vinyl table covering, and the booth was still comfortable, though showing its age. I was looking through the window toward the dark street outside when the waitress surprised me.
“Don’t I know you?” I said as I looked up to take the menu she proffered,
“Mr. Stoneham, I believe. Did you find our publisher?” It was the woman from the Classified desk of the newspaper office. “That’s right, I’m Edie, and I’ll be your server tonight.” She smiled at me for the second time today.
“Maybe you’re also Cobston’s mayor. My name is Frank, just like my father.”
“The newspaper job dwindled to 4 hours a day, so I took over the restaurant a few years ago. It’s just enough, and during the summer I make up for the way things are this time of year.” Edie could have been in her early 50s, but she wore her age well—the trim black skirt and cream-colored blouse revealed a remarkable figure. Her red lips were full and her artificially youthful blond hair was luxuriant and well styled.
When she gestured, I followed her hand to see two solitary diners and a table in the other corner with two young men talking noisily over plates of French fries and gravy. “So, this is the real Cobston?” I asked.
“I can’t answer that—at least not very easily, but I’m on solid ground when I recommend the veal Parmesan. My cook does a great job on everything but steaks.”
“OK, That sounds good. I still want to know what’s happened in the town since I last came here.”
Edie smiled and put one hand on her hip. “I’m a refugee here myself. You know that’s how everybody comes to Canada these days, but I’m a refugee from Toronto. Came here years ago just hoping that I wouldn’t have to go back to my job, my marriage—you know, the regular stuff. I got the newspaper job because I had taken journalism in college. I’ll tell you more sometime.”
I watched her walk away, suddenly not remembering what I was supposed to be doing here. When the food came, I lingered over the meal while darkness closed in on Cobston outside the restaurant window, and I saw my face reflected in the glass. In the night outside I could imagine dreadful things that drifted just out of sight in the blackness.
The front door of the restaurant opened and another figure came into the room. The man was wearing a black overcoat and had a knitted gray wool scarf wrapped about his head that didn’t hide his soiled and repulsive appearance. His eyes were narrow and set deep into a creased face whose half-open mouth was framed by wisps of irregular brown whiskers, long, greasy hair stuck out from the wrap of the scarf. His hands looked dark and soiled. He went to the table where the teens were sitting, joined them and began to speak earnestly with them.
When I looked around, I could tell that nobody else seemed shocked at the degenerate appearance of the newcomer or perhaps did not see him at all. He could have been in his late 20s or in his 30s, but he seemed to have a strong influence on the two younger men, who stopped talking. The older man passed something to one of the teens.
While I felt myself reacting strongly to the intruder, he didn’t get the attention of the rest of the diners. It was obviously not my concern. The veal Parmesan was more interesting after all, and I resumed my meal.
Five minutes later, the noise from the other side of the room startled me, and shouting filled the restaurant. The two teens were up from their table, struggling, spewing profanity. When Edie started moving in their direction, one of them spun and lurched toward her. “Don’t get in our business, Bitch.”
I was out of the booth and moving in their direction. Another chair overturned, and a plate clattered to the floor. Edie behaved as though this wasn’t the first such incident. “I need to call the cops in about one minute.” She didn’t back down. I approached slowly.
The other disheveled teen suddenly bolted for the door, eyes wild and empty, but the other stood his ground. “You keep pushin’ and I’m gonna give you what you need.” He stuck out his tongue in a licking gesture, while he gripped the crotch of the ripped and filthy pants he wore low on his waist. He was wearing a dirty gray hooded sweatshirt similar to those worn by urban Blacks in the States.
It was the face that struck me as I approached. Despite his youth, his face was drawn, haggard and pale, an overarching brow framed by unkempt hair. His eyebrows were thick and contributing to the glowering image. The beginnings of straggly facial hair made him appear unsettling, but it was the eyes that provoked a reaction of fear. His dark hazel eyes were vacant-looking, and he squinted balefully at Edie. “You’re messing with me for the last time.” He was almost a young copy of the third man of the trio.
Edie stood her ground, “That’s it. I’m calling the police.” She half turned as though to go to the register where the phone obviously was, and then the young man came at her, the heavy boots he was wearing clumping ominously. There was something unbalanced in his charge.
I recognized the opportunity and acted without thinking. I stuck out my foot and the young thug tripped, spilling ignominiously onto the restaurant floor. There was a moment of dead and frozen silence while I wondered if I would have to fight him, and then he scrambled to his feet, falling one more time as he hurtled toward the door. “I’ll get you, Old Man.”
Though I was appreciative of his respect, I still followed him outside into the cold night. As I watched, the two hoodlums went running unsteadily out of sight. In my mind, the word for their gait could only be “shambling.” When they were out of sight, I could hear animal-like shouts in the distance, and I again felt Cobston closing in. In the commotion, the third man seemed to have disappeared, and I didn’t see him outside. He was gone in the night.
Back inside the restaurant, I looked at Edie. “You don’t seem as freaked out as I am.”
She smiled quietly. “Remember what I said at the newspaper office? I mean about things not changing for the better?”
“Maybe after dinner you could join me for a cup of coffee and explain.” I was more than curious, and I wanted to settle down after the frightening confrontation with somebody who should have been with a family doing his homework. I knew that cities everywhere were full of human flotsam like the teens whose threatening behavior had disrupted the restaurant, but that wasn’t necessarily the result of living in an Ontario town like Cobston.
When I was done with the veal Parmesan, Edie brought coffee and sat across from me in the booth. The other diners had now paid their bills and left. She put her elbows on the table and sipped at the coffee, something delicate in the way she held the cup. “You know who that delinquent was?” She looked at me over the rim as she held the cup to her lips.
“One of the ‘lost boys’ no doubt.” My first impression was that he was one of the rootless generation deprived of strong guidance in his early years and thus was lost in the chaos of influences that the modern world supplied through peer influence, mass media, and the computer.
Her smile over the coffee cup was warm and even impish, “You just met Evan Carlton, the only son of Teri Ottaway.”
I must have blanched in my shocked silence, because Edie’s smile turned sympathetic. “This kind of thing has happened before, and it’s even worse than it seemed tonight. There’s a bunch of them, and they are more than just out of control. Do you believe that people can really be evil?”
Much of what I had read and thought had dealt with this question, but I didn’t want to launch into a writer’s diatribe. “No question about it. You know what we usually call ‘evil’ is the absence of good, either by lapse of judgment, but more likely the assistance of alcohol and drugs.”
“God knows we have our share of that here, just like in Toronto.” Edie grimaced and put down her coffee cup.
“One of the themes I’ve hit over and over in stories I’ve written is that drugs—and that includes tobacco and alcohol—are the common denominator of misery in our society. I’m not saying that there’s cause and effect, but it’s always correlated.”
“You sound like a writer. Maybe you can look at some of my stories one of these days.”
The more I looked at her, the more I was taken with her attractiveness, and I couldn’t help but think that she had been cursed with beauty in her youth, a gift that had destroyed more than one person. If I got to know her better, I wanted ask her how her natural good looks had affected her life. With Edie, the gift had not faded as it had with so many.
“Frank, I wasn’t born in this town, so I see things differently than those who grew up here. There’s something worse than just out-of-control teens, or homeless vagrants who go missing and are found frozen. I think there’s something else here, something worse than bad.”
I felt the outdoor chill reaching through the window to constrict my throat. “I’ve always had my thoughts about that. I was here in 1970, and my father lived here most of his life. I saw something terrifying, something…now, why do you think there’s a larger evil than just human weaknesses in this town?”
“I’ve struggled with it for years and, you know, I’ve got my own theory about what’s happened to people here. You promise you won’t think I’m crazy.”
I laughed abruptly. “You have to remember that I’ve been here and I’ll tell you that my ex-wife always thought my theories were crazy.”
Edie was looking past me now, and she leaned back in the booth, seemingly unaware that I couldn’t help but notice how her breasts pushed against the silk of her blouse. “I was raised as a Catholic and, just like so many kids my age, I abandoned the church. Even though I don’t go to church, I just have to say that what’s wrong here is that the sacred has been sucked out of life, and people don’t even know it has been taken away.”
“OK, then what about those kids running in the night out there, and that extremely weird guy who came in and joined them?”
She smiled and leaned forward. “Well, maybe your ex can tell you more, or maybe not. Mothers can be blind to what their kids are really like. I think there’s five or six kids out there who’ve been kicked out of their homes or who just ran away. They crash anywhere they can find a place, sometimes in vacant houses…”
“Even when it’s cold like this?” I interrupted.
“They’ve been found in strange places, but since they’re always heavily into drugs, they might not even know when frostbite is eating away at their fingers and toes. One of them I know has lost part of his ear. I’ve heard those wild kids call him Lazlo, but I don’t know his real name. He’s semi-homeless, but the gossip is also that he’s a major drug connection for the town’s losers. Nobody sees him in the daytime, and he wears a scarf around his head—kids say he may have lost part of his ear to frostbite, but then they have all kinds of stories about Lazlo.”
“Why don’t the cops do something about him?” I felt a surge of conservative righteousness.
Edie smiled and shrugged, “This is Canada, remember? Drugs are no big deal here any more. The ‘60s never left. Police raid marijuana growing operations, but most users do just about anything in plain view, and the cops just let it go. Lazlo, though, is one of creepiest human beings in this town—almost frightening. Far as anyone knows, he was born here, but I don’t know more than that. Anyhow, I doubt the police would be able to catch him. He seems to appear when you least expect to see him, and he disappears suddenly—like he did tonight.”
My mind went back to Teri’s story about the lights in the vacant house. “The story in today’s paper—how accurate was that information? Was it just a spooky story for All Hallow’s Eve?”
Edie looked straight into my eyes for the first time. “I don’t think so. That house has a reputation. A couple of homeless guys have been found dead there. Naturally teenagers can’t resist exploring that kind of house, but I wouldn’t go there at night.”
I suddenly wanted to tell her about my lifetime of studying and writing, but that would have to wait. Some have written about the evil inherent in small towns, while others claim that cities are the sinkholes of all depravity, but the woman sitting across from me had put her finger on something that secular society ignored at its peril. Without a sacred center, the human personality could be prey to evils long forgotten. Cobston had known such an evil. I had seen it.
“Now it’s time for me to go visit your boss again, but I hope we can continue this conversation very soon.” I liked her graceful manner as she rose from the booth and held out her hand.
“I don’t know why you were willing to come all this way, but she must have meant a great deal to you back then.”
I took Edie’s hand and smiled, because I was sure she understood. Leaving the café, I took a backward look, watching her walk toward the back of the restaurant, convinced that older women were infinitely more attractive than mere girls—something about their hips, I thought. I don’t know whether she looked back at me or not.
Jogging across the street to my car in the cold night air, I thought about tonight’s confrontation, and I was grateful that I’d maintained my physical exercise regimen throughout life. It might come in handy. I suppressed a shudder at how the cold penetrated my jacket, then headed through the main part of town toward Teri’s house.
Cobston’s business district was closed and mostly dark, its stores locked, though a few maintained dim interior lights that spilled out onto the empty sidewalks. My car seemed to be the only vehicle on the street, although occasionally I saw a pedestrian standing in shadows. The real life of the town had migrated to the suburbs.
The life of a town is enshrined through its architecture. Cobston’s commercial district had been modified over the years, but the buildings were little changed in a century. Flat-roofed and rectangular, some were sturdy and elaborate brick, while others were stucco-covered frame structures. Plate glass windows were shaded by awnings, and store entrances were recessed. Toward the end of the main street was a building whose brass nameplate “Cobston Ltd. Coal and Oil, est. 1886”, made it easily the most imposing building. Beyond it was the office of the Cobston Telegraph-Dispatch, whose brick structure had been stuccoed in the 1960s. Lights on inside the building showed that a staff was working on the next day’s edition as they had since my father’s day.
The street beyond was residential, and the Victorian influence loomed behind giant, leafless trees, double storied shingled and brick homes with steep roofs and broad porches whose white-painted rails echoed with a time when summer evenings were spent in conversation while neighbors strolled past the hedges bordering brick sidewalks leading to front doors. A few homes occupied full acre lots, while others huddled more closely together, with smaller yards.
My breath clouded as I strode up the sidewalk to the old Stoneham house. Though more modest than some homes closer to the business district, it was a classic single-level brick structure. The brick sidewalk was uneven now, and ugly white patches reminded me of how northern residents spread rock salt or sand to keep the eternal winter ice at bay.
The porch light seemed a recent addition, but it was mounted crookedly on the house wall beside the front door. Teri answered the second knock on the door, the same dark-painted solid wood door original to the house, with a small diamond-shaped glass pane at eye level. She pulled the door open and waved me inside, glass in hand, wearing the same clothes from earlier in the day.
In the living room, we sat on the same couch. “I think I met Evan this evening, under not very pleasant circumstances.”
“Stoneham, those are the circumstances every time I meet him.” She offered me some popcorn. “Last time he came over here to steal money, I walked in on him and he beat me up.” She pulled up the sleeve on the sweatshirt to show me a yellowing bruise on her upper arm.
“How bad is it?” I knew that things must have gone beyond desperate for Teri to ask me to visit her after all the years.
“The newspaper isn’t the gold mine it used to be, but it’s doing OK. Everything else is unbelievably bad. I’m more single than I thought possible, my kid is my worst enemy, and the house is falling apart. Oh, and winter’s ahead. Then there’s my health…” Her words slushed and slid like leather-soled shoes on a wet and icy sidewalk. She winced and when she opened her mouth, I saw that one upper canine tooth was missing, and two other teeth were worn down with decay.
“You know, you could see a dentist.”
“Stoneham, "I'm not going to see a f-ing dentist. He’ll just tell me I have English roots." She snickered. Somehow, in her comment I recognized the girl I had met 30 years ago.
“I learned a long time ago that you can’t meddle in problems of blood. What about Evan’s father?” I felt uncomfortable trying to act the counselor.
“I haven’t seen that bastard in years. If I could find him, I’d make him pay child support. He disappeared in Toronto, and he’d better die before I catch up with him.”
“And your other husband? Hasn’t he helped?” I knew the probable answer to that.
“Evan always hated him, and I know that was the cause of our breakup three years ago.” I also knew that alcohol was the cement that held that latter marriage together. She turned and looked mischievously at me, “Besides, what makes you the family expert?”
It was my turn to laugh, and I put my hands out in protest. “You and I talked that to death 25 years ago. Writers are—I think the word should be—maladapted. Can you imagine Edgar Allan Poe at a family Thanksgiving dinner, with Uncle Ed pouring amontillado for the assembled guests? Or, even more bizarre, can you see H.P. Lovecraft as a family guy, telling his kids Cthulhu bedtime stories? Writers are what they are, and while I’ve written some thoughts that just might be worth reading, that doesn’t mean I really understand everything that I type into my computer.”
Teri laid her head back against the leather cushion of the couch and looked toward the ceiling. “You know, it isn’t money—I work hard and can make any business pay off—and it isn’t just the mess I made of my personal life. It’s something else, and that’s why you were the only one I could turn to.”
There was some sadness in her confession, and even though I felt she had lost her battle with alcohol, I had never heard her with a tone of defeat in her voice.
“Thirty years ago, you refused to accept what you saw in that vault beneath the church. When you talked about objectivism, it was secular materialism…”
She went rigid, her teeth clenched. “Don’t start with me. I didn’t see anything, and I haven’t seen or heard anything in the last 25 years here either.”
“What about the spook house? You wrote that story yourself.” I’d driven a very long way, and this time I wasn’t going to retreat from arguing the history of horror in Cobston.
“It was a teen prank, that’s all. There’s no such thing as ghosts, Stoneham. No such thing as life after death either.” She said it as though she desperately hoped it to be true.
I wondered whether her son had spent any of his wasted nights in the vacant house where strange lights were sometimes seen in the yard or through the windows, and I kept thinking of the classic silent film and the beginning narrative that scrolled upward on the screen, white letters on black: “Nosferatu! Was it he who brought the plague to Bremen in 1838?” That movie was made in 1922 in Germany, not long after what my father encountered in a plague-ridden Cobston. Was Nosferatu just a label for the unnameable? Something beyond human description? What I experienced here 30 years ago was beyond explanation.
“You know, Stoneham, this year was the first time in all the years that I’ve felt tired enough to give up.”
There was no use in arguing about the devastation that drinking had caused in her life, but I had retained an indelible impression that there was something in Cobston that had been brought here and might still reside, unseen, beneath the brick streets and mounded burying ground behind St. Mark’s Church.
The conversation between us went on for another hour, until Teri became less coherent and began repeating off-color stories that I always called barroom jokes. When she fell asleep on the couch, I looked around what had once been my father’s living room and let myself out. There are many failings in people that lead to unhappiness and worse, but there had to be something more to cause this extreme decline. It reminded me of a friend who had descended into drugs and madness years before. One of his family members spoke to me at his funeral and said simply, “The demons got him.”
Outside Teri’s front door, the air was wet, cold, and piercing, my breath a steaming cloud. A fine, misting rain was coating the sidewalk and the street. The car windshield was covered with a maze of jeweled droplets. I found my way back to Main Street and south on the highway toward my lodgings, unable to rid my mind of the thesis that had controlled my writing and my perceptions since my first visit to Cobston. After all this time, I was beginning to make unsettling new connections, and I remember reading Arthur Machen’s words, “What we thought incredible and absurd may be possible enough…we must look at legend and belief with other eyes and be prepared to accept tales that had become mere fables.”
Teri had given me the address of the strange house I’d heard about, but she had no idea where her son was living. I lay in the nondescript darkness of the motel room with the television set on for the sake of background noise, despite the fact that there were only three other cars in the parking lot. The demons got him. It was a statement often used to explain how people’s lives could fall apart, aside from looking at the drug dependence that almost always accompanied the long slide into darkness.
Yet, what are demons? Before modern shamans created the profit center they called psychiatry, people accepted demonic influence as a more viable explanation of invisible influence. Though my aunt had ripped many of the pages from my father’s journal, the legends in Cobston spoke of a horror under the ground during the time of the town’s only plague. The plague may have been brought by uncontrolled immigration, but whence came that hideous manifestation that had marked Cobston down to the present day? So thinking, I let myself slide into dreamless sleep.
In New Mexico, dawn was a strong statement, a burst of light even in the cool months, but here, the morning was a subtle shifting to a paler shade of gray with little promise of warmth.
Edie’s Restaurant was crowded, but there were three free places at the counter. There was a rich smell in the air that was coffee, bacon, sausage, and plans for the day. Yet, there was something missing in the comfortable warmth of the room. The clientele was almost exclusively male, and there seemed to be no curiosity, little more than a murmur of small talk accenting the clink of forks on plates. Restaurant smoking was still allowed in Cobston, and I tried to ignore the noxious odor fuming from those tables where smokers mixed caffeine and nicotine to start their days while shortening their lives. A waitress I hadn’t seen was walking around, refilling coffee cups.
My normal breakfast fare at home had chile in it, or I just ate chocolate chip cookies, but today I was still hungry from the long drive, and I ordered pancakes, sausage and hash browns along with cold milk. Halfway through the meal, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the café owner, and I was glad to see her.
“I’m ready for my day job.” She was wearing a skirt that flirted with her knees, and she seemed taller for the heels she was wearing. Her glossy blond hair complemented her morning smile. Edie’s restaurant obviously ran with hired help until she left her newspaper job in the afternoon.
“Really nice to see you. That’s the reason I decided to have breakfast here instead of at the motel.”
“I’m really curious, but how did you get on with my boss last night?” Edie sat down on the counter chair beside me.
I looked at my plate, “She’s not the girl I used to know, that’s for sure.”
She was looking at me, “Maybe everybody’s got demons.”
“Funny you should use that word. I was thinking about demons last night.” I looked back. “What do you know about the house on Kingston Avenue—I mean, other than the story in the newspaper yesterday?”
Edie put her hands on the counter; her nails were the same color red as her lips. “It’s just Cobston’s abandoned house—been lived in, but never for longer than a year or two—and a realtor friend of mine says the title’s clouded somehow, and the last owners of record died, so it isn’t rented. It should be condemned, but I hear it is structurally sound, so it may be a while before they tear it down. It’s no wonder that people tell stories about the place. The police are always going out there to run off teenagers who use the place for drinking and drugs.”
I watched her brow furrow in concentration, so I asked her, “You don’t believe the ghost lights?”
Edie pursed her lips when she smiled. “You don’t believe my hair is still blond, do you?”
Then I smiled brightly into her eyes to let her know that her hair was fine with me, and I told her I was going out to the house after breakfast, inviting her along at the same time.
“Sorry, Frank, much as I’d like to go exploring, some of us have to go to work today. Your distantly former wife can be a real slave driver. Wish I could go.”
“Final question, Edie. Is there something different about the people in this restaurant or is my imagination on overload?”
She put her hand on my knee as she slid out of the chair and stood to leave. “I’m glad I’m not the only one to notice. I don’t know if they’ve always been that way in Cobston, or if it was something gradual. “
I helped her on with her coat and she tossed her hair to let it fall outside the collar. She turned and waved as she went out the door.
It was 9 a.m. when I got into my car and headed for Kingston Avenue. The mist was thickening, damp and cold. Kingston Avenue wasn’t really so much an avenue as it was a road that went into the countryside. Between the two world wars, this street was intended to be a boulevard to accommodate residential growth and perhaps even become a highway leading to the city of its namesake, but the town never grew in that direction. There were some older but decently maintained homes on half-acre lots close to the town’s center, then one or two vacant lots and at least one structure that had been razed. Then came a grown-over section with trees pressing close to the paved road, and suddenly the unmistakable house of the news story came into view on the right side of the road. I pulled off the blacktop and stopped in front of what had been the front gate.
The damp earth in front was criss-crossed with ruts where cars had pulled up in front and then turned around to head back to town. It was obviously a place where cruising teens and others visited on a regular basis. I sat in the car with the engine running, heat blowing into the driver’s compartment. I pulled out my camera, determined to document this place, so commonplace to locals, but strange to me. When I got out of the car I saw someone walking in the distance 100 yards down the road, a dimly descried silhouette moving away with a halting, peculiar gait. I stared until the walker vanished into the mist and roadside growth.
A rock wall not quite a meter high and crumbling at the top in places formed the fence along the front of the property, with a gap where a rusted and sagging wrought-iron gate hung by a single hinge.
I sidestepped the wreck of a gate and walked up the flagstone walk toward the house. On both sides, a tangle of vegetation and sapling trees had grown from the edges of the property to the sides of the house, preventing me from walking the perimeter.
The five steps leading up to the porch were solid, but worn, weathered and splintering, while the porch was not much better, though it was sheltered by an extension of the deteriorating roof. The heavy front door was battered and gray with age. It was flanked by two casement windows approximately 3 ft. x 5 ft., the glass broken out long ago.
The door was ajar but resisted my push, so I looked around, then climbed in through the window whose sill was two feet off the porch. I wondered idly if Teri had ever been on this porch or had investigated the house beyond the newspaper story she wrote.
How to describe the miasma inside that place? The raw cold outside seemed even more frigid in what had once been a living room. The floor was almost ankle deep in refuse, mostly cans and bottles, discarded clothing, and furniture that had been reduced to scraps, no doubt to feed the blackened stone fireplace that occupied the west wall of the room. The light was not strong enough for available light photography. The remains of a sofa were wedged against the front door and I pulled the mouldering piece of junk away so that the door would open. The noise of loose garbage being moved echoed through the house.
The room was a reverse “L” shape, and I walked around to the long side where no doubt there had once been a dining room, because a wide doorway opened into what must have been the kitchen, while a closed door at the end of the room probably led to a bedroom, as did another doorway closer to the front of the living room. On the east wall of the living room was a fireplace whose brick mouth was caked with soot and grime that streaked the walls.
I shivered from the cold, even though I had been smart enough to zip up my jacket and wear gloves. The camera around my neck felt like useless weight. What was there to photograph? The yellowish walls were covered with spray painted obscenities, satanic symbols, tributes to marijuana, and the names of heavy metal music groups such as Slipknot and Korn with a backward K who all specialized in nihilism.
Through the doorway to the kitchen I saw that any appliances had been carried off years before, and the counters and cabinets were battered and torn. What was probably the back door was just beyond the kitchen in a back porch room that no doubt was used as a laundry room. At the other end of the kitchen was another door, this one closed and undamaged, still showing at least 40 percent of its peeling white gloss enamel paint.
The visual assault was overshadowed by the smell inside the place. The combination of rotting cloth, food residue, and the unsavory air of too many drinking bouts produced a cold, choking stench that made my stomach lurch, the breakfast pancakes tilting and wobbling inside.
The back door was still attached to its frame, but the knob and catch were missing, and I swung the door open and went down the back steps into the yard, looking to clear my head. The cold mist moved in currents, but I breathed moist air with relish.
The back garden was overgrown and, as I walked, my jeans were soaked nearly to the knee. A formless outbuilding had collapsed into a black pile of decaying lumber and corrugated metal in the corner of the back yard. There seemed to be nothing out here. My steps took me perhaps 150 feet to a wood rail fence, where the growth thinned.
I felt crystals of ice forming in my bloodstream as I looked over the fence. The woods were veiled in mist at the limit of my vision to the left, but the field behind the fence rose up gradually to the extent of what I could see straight over the top rail.
My heart turned as cold as November air. The 40-acre field lay silent in the mist, unremarkable at this end, but as it inclined into the distance, the grass was spotty, giving way to patches of weeds. Beyond that was the almost-invisible forest of stone markers in the Cobston cemetery, disappearing as a curtain of light rain began to fall. I heard droplets spattering my coat and my only peculiar thought was that water ran downhill.
Gulping in the air, I turned and walked hurriedly back to the house, wishing I could walk around it. Inside, the same intense cold assailed me. I felt as though my legs below the knees were buried in snow as my steps made a hollow sound on the kitchen floor. For some reason I wanted to know for certain what was beyond the white painted door.
I lifted the black iron latch and turned the handle, my arm twinging when the door wouldn’t give. I turned to leave, but changed my mind. The doorknob was in both hands, and I pushed. The door sprang open with a bang. I stumbled backward before regaining my balance.
The smell in the house was terrible, but the blast of cold air coming from the basement was a foetid, sour rush. My lungs filled with the acidic stench, and I looked down into the darkness; it was like peering into the black water of an old well. Even if I had my flashlight, I would not go down those steep stairs. As I looked downward, all I could think of was the arched vault in the basement of St. Mark’s church in 1970, the darkness and the horror there.
Perhaps there were basement windows at the side of the house—I could not tell—but at the bottom of the stairs I could see a dim, greenish luminescence, an ignis fatuus, or perhaps a fungal glow from something that grew in the darkness at the bottom of the stairs. Whatever the glow, it was not natural light from the dim morning outside. I thought I stood there momentarily, but my mind was swimming. Perhaps I stood there much longer, staring downward until the nausea welled up inside me and the vertigo began to affect my vision.
In a sudden flash of fear, I stumbled through the detritus littering the main room of the house, yanked the front door open and sought the safety of the front yard. I thought I was running but I was actually just managing to stagger as I came down the front steps. I made it to the rock fence before I vomited. I could barely stand up, and my lightheadedness was frightening. Now I stumbled out the gate to my car and leaned against it.
Now I was aware that another car was parked behind mine. A voice close to me broke the silence, “Are you OK?” It was Edie with her hand on my shoulder, her face looking earnestly into mine. I was aware of how red her lips appeared in the cold light of morning.
Though the vertigo was still swirling through my brain, I could not help but notice how good Edie looked to me. “My God, Edie, I feel as though I’ve lost a quart of blood. I was in that house…”
“I knew you were. That’s why I had an impulse to come out here, even if it gets me reamed out by my boss.” She slid her arm around my shoulder and I felt my face nestling against her, smelling her fragrance, and almost forgetting how weak I was feeling.
We got into my car, letting it idle as I leaned back against the headrest and told her what it was like inside that brooding house. Edie listened to my account, then expressed her concern, “You still look a little pale. Maybe we should take you to see a doctor.”
“I don’t do doctors unless I can’t stop the bleeding. No, I promise that this isn’t something normal. I do exercises every morning and usually do at least a 4-mile walk—that’s 6.6 kilometers to you guys—every day. Still, I’m glad you showed up because I haven’t felt this weak since the last time I did lose a lot of blood.”
“Frank, since I came here, I’ve felt that there are really two Cobstons. There are the newcomers and the new growth, and there are people who have been here for generations. You can tell the difference in the way people move and talk, but then I could be crazy.”
The heat blowing from the vents was beginning to make me feel stronger. I remembered the peculiar feeling I got from the diners in her restaurant. “Does anybody have any figures on diseases, suicides, stuff like that here in town?”
“Oh sure. We’ve got our share of doctors and there’s a clinic in town, but real problem patients are taken to the regional hospital—except it’s now called the regional health centre.”
“Edie, I’m just wondering if there are more cases of certain kinds of diseases in Cobston than in other towns.”
“What kind?” She seemed truly interested.
We sat for a few more minutes, the car windows misting over. I was feeling much better, and becoming more aware of Edie’s legs. She obviously noticed and she smiled, “I think I’ll get back to work if you are ready to drive.”
“I’ll follow you back to the newspaper office. I planned to see Teri this morning anyhow.” I watched as Edie got out of the car and went back to her own vehicle. The drive back to the center of town was short, but my thoughts were fragmented and worried as I followed her car. If only I knew what my father had written into his journal long before I was born. Maybe then I could really know what had brought the plague, and perhaps something else, to this Canadian town.
We parked our cars and walked into the newspaper office together, and I reminded myself how partial I was to the clicking sound made by a woman wearing heels. It was a little past 10 a.m. but the office seemed half asleep. Certainly the activity would pick up as the day went on until the final deadlines long after most Cobston residents had gone home.
Teri Ottaway looked up, screwdriver in hand, from where she was working to clear a paper jam in one of the office’s photocopy machines. Though she appeared tired, there was a clarity in her eyes I did not see the night before. She peered at me with an elaborate squint, then Edie. “Careful, Edie, he just wants to sleep with you.” Then she snickered, knowing I would probably blush.
Edie took off her coat and went to her desk. “Your first ex-husband insisted on getting into trouble this morning.” I just smiled as Teri ushered me into the publisher’s office.
Though her hands were dirty, her pantsuit was nicely tailored befitting her executive position as owner of the paper. I took the chair in front of her desk and sat down with a sigh. “Well, Stoneham, now that you’re here, what good are you?” She had a knack for hiding her smiles.
“I went out to the spook house this morning. You think your kid has been fooling around out there? I can’t do anything until I know what’s really going on.”
Teri leaned back, suspending a pencil between her index fingers. “My life is pure shit, Stoneham.” Her dark hazel eyes were fixed on the pencil held before them.
“You’re a very smart girl still in search of a vocabulary. You own a newspaper, you have a house, a teenage kid…” Teri was always a hard-working girl, and over the years after she returned to Canada, she had made a financial success of a newspaper that had gone into decline after my father’s death.
“Cut the crap, Stoneham. It’s all falling apart.” She was still looking at the pencil, and I knew we would not be talking about the drinking.
“I drove all the way up here, and you know I want to help, but once I got here, I realized I had no clue about what I could do. Still, I’m here.”
She tossed the pencil at me. “Good catch. My son is out of control—newspaper advertising and circulation is declining—I have dreams in which suicide is a blessing. You tell me what’s going on.” Despite the heaviness growing in her cheeks, and the lines at the corners of her eyes, I could see again the vivacious reporter I had met and loved in 1970.
Suddenly I knew why I was here, why Teri had implored me to drive all this way instead of appealing to friends, lovers, or social agencies. “You came back here and stayed for more than a generation. Something was always wrong with this town, going back to my father’s time after World War I. Maybe it’s time for you to leave before things get worse.”
“No chance. I tried that once, remember? That sandbox with tumbleweeds you call home was an exile, not a lifestyle.”
I shrugged, knowing Teri was telling the truth. “Tell me about your son and when things started to go wrong for you and him.”
“I don’t know, Stoneham, but he was always difficult. I thought I could handle him, but the teachers at the school started with this ADD crap from grade four on. By the time he was 13, he was running with the drug users, getting out of the house at night, stuff like that.”
My hand went up. “Whoa. Hold it right there. Where did he go? You can’t just hang out on the streets in the winter up here.” I was thinking about the vacant house.
“I never knew where he was. I don’t know where he is right now. He only comes home to steal my money, my whiskey, and sometimes he crashes for the night only to be gone again the next day while I’m at work. He was kicked out of school—the cops knew him better than the principal did.”
Peering past Teri’s shoulder out the window to the gray Cobston morning, I couldn’t help but think about another era when my father had sat in this same enclosure with the clatter echoing from huge linotype machines where operators took typed stories and cast them into metal, slug by slug. My father must have sat in an oak swivel chair, agonizing over the plague that swept Cobston. He had encountered something so terrible that my aunt made sure nobody ever saw what he committed to his journal. Then there was that strange carved wood banner that he had placed on the wall above the newsroom “All that Should be made known,” with the peculiar capitalization of the word “Should.” It had still been there in 1970, but had disappeared in the last 30 years, along with all evidence of 20th Century newsroom décor. Newspaper pages that had once been assembled in metal and wood, securely clamped in an iron chase, were now a weightless image on a computer screen.
“There was something under that church, in 1970, you know.” My voice was quiet. “After this morning, I’m sure there’s something here—something that is affecting a lot of people, especially long-term residents.”
The Teri looking at me was vivacious and, despite the toll that alcohol and her personal disappointments had etched in the lines of her face, “Stoneham, there’s no such thing as ‘evil’ in this world. It’s just personal choices, cause and effect, nothing else.”
The old argument was bubbling to the surface. “You know I don’t agree about that. Do you think that your son went from a loving kid to a miserable delinquent because he decided he wanted to spin out of control? Did all the good just leak out of his system like water out of a punctured radiator? Come on! There’s something in Cobston that is beyond normal explanation. It has been here for a long time.”
Teri got up, went to a small refrigerator in the corner of her office and took out a Diet Coke®, tossing a can of non-diet soda to me. She went back to her chair and leaned back, putting her feet on the desk, and it reminded me that she had a remarkable talent for business, turning hard work into many years of profit and business growth.
Decades of reading and meditation found a focus as I talked, “My Dear Ex, there is some frightening wisdom in ancient texts. Though it was denounced as delusion from the 18th Century down to the present, Cotton Mather’s frightening book Wonders of the Invisible World tells us a great deal about the presence of cosmic evil. I’ve read the book, and I began to wonder why it happened primarily in Salem, but not in Danbury, Connecticut or Braintree, Massachusetts.
“We never seem to understand that correlation is probably more important than cause—and they’re two different things. In themselves, drugs don’t cause antisocial behavior, but virtually all criminals are drug involved. What happened in Salem tells me that something stalked the Salem streets and lurked in the homes of the residents. Mass hysteria? Even a rock concert requires some stimulus to trigger the crowd reaction. There was much more to Salem than is recorded in the trials. Nobody to this day knows what caused the witch frenzy, but there was certainly delusion, hysteria, and false accusations. There was witchcraft there too, and Mather was a highly educated man, as were the jurists.”
Teri gave me that “Come back to reality, Stoneham” glare and then she looked back over her shoulder to the office window. I wasn’t doing a very good job of persuading her, but then she hadn’t read the old tomes of Philip Rohr, Dom Calmet, Cotton Mather, and a dozen others. How could I explain a disembodied evil, as invisible as a virus, carried unknowingly throughout the world, yet possessing a malignant intent that could emerge anywhere to wreak havoc with ordinary people.
“I told you once that I believed vampires might really have existed, but you just called me an idiot, remember?”
“So, what’s your point, Stoneham?” She giggled maliciously. “Other than one covered by your hair,” She just had to add that.
“Since Bram Stoker, or maybe because of him, we have lost sight of the awful truth hidden in the vampire legend. It was a monstrous evil, more terrible than a mere reanimated corpse. It inhabited the recently dead, whose astral shells rose up through the soil to attack the living while they slept, drawing out the vital force, and sometimes leaving puncture marks, but not necessarily. Then the spectre returned to the grave, the stolen vitality delaying the natural decay of the corpse it had taken up residence in. So, very well documented accounts showed how corpses buried for months were dug up and found to be supple as in life, filled with fresh blood. This was no erotic fantasy, but a dark, ugly horror that stalked Eastern Europe and was never completely rooted out.”
Teri was still looking out the window. She’d heard all this before from me. “So, how did it come to Cobston?”
“I know Canada is overrun with immigrants from all over the world today, but the casualties of the first world war made immigration an urgent policy in Canada. They came from all over Europe, not just the Irish, Scots and Brits. My father linked the Cobston plague to uncontrolled immigration.” And then, I thought, the pages in his journal were ripped out, and his newspaper seemed to stop reporting on the plague after a certain date. I knew there were some things he didn’t believe should be made known. It was important enough for him to enshrine it in that wooden plaque in his newsroom, and I had spent my adult life trying to understand those things that should not be made known.
Teri seemed somehow relieved to be talking with me, and she grudgingly admitted that she felt as though she finally had some support in her difficulties, despite our profound disagreements. “Stoneham, I don’t think you can convince me, and even if you did, I’d never admit it.”
It was then I remembered a dream that had recurred more than once since that experience in Cobston all those years ago. “Do you think I could review the obits in the Telegraph-Dispatch files for the past 20 years?”
She gave that “you’re bloody insane” glare and said, “God, Stoneham, I don’t read those things, even when they’re about people I know. It’s bad enough that people you care about have to die, but reading the crap the mortuary spins is worse than reading about politics—or maybe it’s the same crap.”
“OK, just let me go through some of them to satisfy my morbid curiosity. You’ve got work to do, and I can drop by the house later. Oh, and there is something unhealthy about that vacant house…”
And it was a curiosity about the morbid that took me to a small room near the pressroom door where a microfiche reader and box of cards represented almost a century of newspaper editions. One thing hadn’t changed in a generation, and that was the list of death notices on page five of the paper. For over an hour I went from year to year, dozens of newspaper pages to see family names that became familiar, the earlier notices always mentioning St. Mark’s Anglican Church or St. Anthony’s Catholic Parish. Later notices became more secular, and there were even a few recent obituaries mentioning a Pentecostal church I didn’t know about in Cobston.
I found what I was looking for. In the time since 1953, there was a remarkable increase in the number of cremations, until by 1970, when I first met Teri in Cobston, I could find very few notices of burials, and those were almost always out of town.
By the time I went out into the newsroom, activity had picked up, and all I could see of Edie was her smooth, blond hair as she talked to a customer. I went directly to the publisher’s office and interrupted Teri, who was typing an editorial of some kind. “Teri, newspaper people know everything—I want to find out who digs graves in Cobston?”
She looked up, obviously annoyed at the interruption. “The answer to that one is: all the local Goths and the amateur photographers.” She laughed at her own humor.
“No, I’m serious. I want to talk to somebody who actually buries people.”
“Now that you mention it, I don’t think anybody does that in Cobston any more. Hmmmm. Tell you what, though, if you buy me lunch at the Kingston Inn, I think I can get my friend Chuck Brellisford to tell you about his father who was sexton—I think that’s what they called the job—at St. Mark’s. His father drank himself to death.”
It seemed an unlikely source, but I agreed, and Teri grabbed her coat and umbrella from the oak coat tree in the corner, leaving the editorial unfinished. I followed her out through the newsroom, and Edie looked at me as I walked past her. She smiled, and I felt a wave of warmth. As I went through the front door, I looked back and Edie was still looking.
The Kingston Inn was a downtown pub that had been in business for almost as long as Cobston had been on the map. It was dim and smoky; Teri looked around before leading me to a table partially in the shadows of low-wattage overhead tungsten lights. On the way over, Teri told me that her friend Chuck was one of Cobston’s three lawyers, but that he didn’t work very hard at his profession.
Chuck Brellisford sat hunched over a half-full pint of beer, a man probably in his 40s, with fading good looks. His dark hair was sprinkled with fine points of gray, receding at the temples, but he didn’t bother to use the comb-over technique. His blue eyes lit up, and his full mouth curled into a rakish smile when Teri took the chair beside him.
“Been too long, Teri.” He hadn’t even noticed me.
Teri smiled with a softness I hadn’t seen in many years. “I know. Taking care of a kid keeps one away from the night life. Meet Frank Stoneham.”
He stuck out his hand, “A pleasure.” Brellisford certainly knew who I was, or at least who I had been in another era. A waitress came and went, taking our order, while the two friends traded small talk. Finally, over fish and chips, Teri told him why I might want to talk with him. Teri had already sipped her way through two scotches without noticeable effect.
Brellisford downed his third beer and motioned for another. One beer was enough for me. While his voice was thick with practiced drinking, he assembled his memories carefully as though for inclusion in a legal deposition, and the story he told made the clink of glasses and the murmur of voices in the barroom fade into the background.
Pausing only to take swallows from the beer glass, Chuck Brellisford began: “Joshua Brellisford was my father, and he told me this story just before he died in 1981. I was 26 at the time, and I didn’t believe all of it then—my dad drank a lot in his later years—but now I think he was telling the truth. Anyhow, he was born in 1918, started working at the church in 1938 until he joined the RCAF in 1940. When he came back home in 1945, he was welcomed back at St. Mark’s as the sexton, and he worked there until they finally let him go in 1968. After that, he did odd jobs, as I remember. No matter what happened, though, he and my mum pushed me to go to university, and I’ll always thank them for that.”
Certainly Brellisford commanded attention; it was the way his thick eyebrows overshadowed his intense eyes that probably kept the attention of a jury—and more than a few women, no doubt. “My dad remembered the depression, and he was grateful to come back to a job when he left the service at the end of World War II. He did the stationary engineering, carpentry, altar preparation…”
I interrupted. “What’s ‘stationary engineering’?”
“Oh, I don’t know what you Americans call it, but it was his job to take care of the furnace and the forced air system for the church. Anyhow, much of his work centered on tending the cemetery, hiring gravediggers, coordinating work with the mortuary and the stonemasons. It sounds like a job with very little stress—and I know what stress is like—so I couldn’t understand when a man who seldom did more than have a few beers on the weekend started drinking every day and eventually was so undependable that the church had to fire him. Funny thing, though, they never hired another full-time sexton. Life is strange, eh?”
Brellisford seemed nostalgic about the almost-pastoral job his father had, as though being a lawyer was a burden by contrast. “Then came the spring of 1959, that wet Chinook thaw that comes before the final snowstorms of April. There was a terrible quarry accident about 40 miles from here, and five bodies were brought back to Cobston where the funerals were held. Because there was a need for several graves in the St. Mark’s cemetery, the church borrowed the county’s new ditch-digging machine and turned it over to my dad to dig the graves. There was a section of the cemetery that was unconsecrated. I remember my dad when he told me about that day, and his exact words. He pointed his finger at me and laughed between his coughs, ‘Unconsecrated. What the bloody hell? Modern people don’t pay any attention to superstition like that, do they?’ I remember him leaning forward at me with his face all twisted up as he said that.”
Teri was staring at her glass as she swirled the ice cubes, perhaps waiting for a third drink. She seemed miffed that her friend wasn’t paying much attention to her. The waitress made one more pass at the table, taking orders for one more beer and another scotch. I didn’t want anything else to drink.
Knowing that another round was coming, Brellisford drained his half-full glass, then wiped the foam off of his mouth. “That day in 1959 was lousy, with a cold wind blowing, and melting snow on the slope of the cemetery making the ground soft and spongy. My dad revved the diesel motor on that digger and drove off the edge of the walkway into a soggy mess. It was just past noon, but dark clouds were gathering to the north. You know there’s a part of that burying ground that goes back to before 1920, and for some reason nothing seems to grow on it, even though there were a number of graves there—some kind of potter’s field, I suppose. Old Rev. Peeler had given my dad instructions to go past that poorly marked spot and dig out five graves just beyond it.
“When he got the backhoe set up, it was mid-afternoon, and the constant wind was chafing his exposed skin. The shovel dug into the muck pretty easily, and he made excellent progress, digging two grave-size holes. A foot below the surface, the ground was still half frozen, but he dug beyond that into the soft loam below the frost level. By the time he got the machine moved into place for the third grave, the sun was covered by clouds. He still thought he could finish the job before quitting time.”
The lunch crowd had drifted back to their work or places of business, and only the hard-core boozers had settled in for the afternoon. I could see from Teri’s glances around the room that she wanted to get back to her office, but Brellisford seemed intent on telling the rest of his story.
“The shovel dug into the ground for that third grave and sucked out a large clod of dirt. Water and mud poured into the hole as he positioned the arm for another cut. Suddenly the shovel sank as if into a deep cavity, but now the hole was filling with muddy water. He backed it off and the arm plunged into the hole. This time the shovel caught on something, and the machine bucked in its supports. Now, my dad was one of those stubborn guys who always kept going. He didn’t know the word ‘obstacle,’ so he pulled the hydraulic lever to pull out the tree root or whatever was stopping his progress.”
Brellisford stopped to pick up his beer glass. He looked at Teri, then sighed heavily. “My dad was never the same after that. Mom told me how he would wake up screaming sometimes, and it had nothing to do with the war. I can still see the haunted look on his face as he told me the next part, and I’ll just tell you what he told me. One thing for sure—within a year after that, a new crematory was built at the mortuary, and the number of people buried in Cobston declined.”
“Yeah, I know. I did some quick and dirty research at the newspaper office. That’s why I’m sitting here listening to your story. Almost all the dead here are cremated today.” There was no doubt that I was hooked on his story, whether it turned out to be truth or just ethanol.
Brellisford took another swallow before continuing, “My dad started trembling as he finished his story. The light was failing as he gritted his teeth and pulled the lever to bring up the shovel arm on the backhoe. The machine lurched, almost tipping, and there was a ghastly sucking sound as the shovel brought up its load. A massive shapeless bulk hung there on the splines of the shovel, the only sound being the thrum of the backhoe diesel engine.
“The shapeless thing was bluish-white and shiny, dripping mud and water. My dad climbed down from the machine, his rubber boots sinking into the soft earth. At that moment, the wet and shiny mass seemed to undulate, and it seemed to push itself free from the shovel, falling with a splash into the pit that was filling with muddy water. A swollen, irregular hemisphere, at least five feet in diameter glistened in the dull light, and he swore that it was somehow moving in the way a muscular digestive organ ripples. My dad was never a squeamish man, but he says that he yelled into the dark afternoon sky, and that there was no doubt that there was fresh, red blood on the splines of the backhoe.”
Brellisford’s intense eyes were closed now, remembering. Teri’s eyes were fixed on his face, her hands uncharacteristically still. As for me, I had nothing to say, and my mouth felt dry and sandy.
The beer was gone, but he then looked longingly into the empty glass. “Then my father gripped my arm and said in a low, desperate voice, ‘Charles, I saw the thing, and there was more of it I couldn’t see under the mud. The cavity was filling up with melting snow water, and my eyes were tearing up from the raw wind that was blowing, yet I swear the backhoe ripped that horror loose from the earth, and that what I saw was only an amputated part of something else.”
Now I realized that I had forgotten to exhale, and my air came out in a rush. “My God, what did he do? What did everybody do?” Why wasn’t this a newspaper story, a scientific study? Teri sat quietly, obviously evaluating the sanity of her long-time friend through lowered lashes.
Brellisford took condensation from the beer glass and drew wet crosses on the table with his forefinger. “He left the backhoe there, job uncompleted, and he ran back to the church. Rev. Peeler swore him to silence and they went to a hardware store to buy containers filled with kerosene. On the reverend’s orders, he hauled dry wood and small logs to the pit, soaked everything with kerosene and, in the gathering dark, the two of them lit a fierce bonfire to consume the horrible thing that lay pulsating in the pit. The burning went on for several hours, but my father was the only one who had truly seen the thing. Dad said that Rev. Peeler swore him to secrecy and that he had never told anyone about that day in the graveyard, until he finally told me. The few graves dug after that time at St. Mark’s were dug by contract. My father never went out into the graveyard again, even to visit the graves of my grandparents who had been duly buried there in the late 1940s.”
Now I told him about my own father’s strange experience with the plague, and I was certain that the expurgated pages of the journal had something to do with some terrible event that happened in connection with in that very graveyard. I also felt the chill of confirmation—what I had seen 30 years before in the vault under St. Mark’s was no doubt real and connected with the story I had just heard.
While I was driving Teri back to the newspaper office, she tried to discount the story we had just heard, claiming that Brellisford was not a very reliable person from her experience. She was too consumed with her personal crisis to be concerned with graveyard incidents or malignant houses. I tried to persuade her that everything happening in Cobston might be connected in some way.
Back at the newspaper, Teri let me know that she was aware of glances between Edie and me, and she couldn’t resist a quiet remark about me just wanting to sleep with her employees. Edie was out of earshot when she said it, however, and I was very familiar with Teri’s argumentative style. Back in her office, I had to sit while she finished writing her editorial for the day and started looking on her computer screen at some of the inside pages of the next edition.
We talked for a while, but I was beginning to feel that Teri’s situation had no solution if she couldn’t admit the all-powerful role that alcohol played in her life. The very human problems she revealed in her family life were saddening, but after what had happened this day, I sensed something far worse that was part of this town and whose decay could touch everyone who lived there. I couldn’t stop thinking about the images starkly etched in my mind by the the lawyer in the pub who drew wet designs on the table and looked at them while he talked.
Somehow I was thinking again of Cotton Mather’s damnable work and the support in the same volume from his father Increase Mather about “evil spirits personating men.” Though their book has been discredited for three centuries, it was not written by lunatics; the authors were a respected minister and his father—that father being at the time president of Harvard College. Perhaps the clerics had even held back some awful reality beyond the ability of their readers to comprehend when they wrote, “Witchcraft seems to be the Skill of Applying the Plastic Spirit of the World unto some unlawful purposes, by means of a Confederacy with Evil Spirits.”
On the other hand, perhaps I had spent too much time reading the ancient books on the occult and their documented accounts of vampirism and revenants, all equally discredited by modern scientific writers. Now I had returned to the town of my father to find myself again in the presence of something frightening that was beyond my ability to understand.
The day seemed too short, ending with a brief glimpse of light as a crimson slash on the horizon, then darkness. The possibility of seeing Edie at the restaurant was the most positive prospect I could think of, so I went there for supper only to find the place particularly busy. I ordered and ate, but Edie scarcely had time to say hello as she went from table to table. As always, many of the customers seemed apathetic, idling over their food or just looking at cups of coffee as though trying to recall why they had ordered.
I ate quickly, seeing that it was little use to linger, and I waved as I left, barely getting a nod and a smile from the restaurant owner. It was now back to Teri’s house, this time to pick up a box of my father’s books and other items that she had discovered several years back but had never sent down to me, despite my requests. Tomorrow would be soon enough to visit the regional hospital.
It was not yet 7 p.m., but the night was deep and clammy. The town of Cobston was reverting to its silent late autumn roots, and even the streetlights were isolated and not at all comforting. When I pulled up in front of the old Stoneham house, I wasn’t alone; an OPP cruiser sat in the drive.
I hastened up the walk toward the open front door, not knowing what to expect. Growling and shouting emanated from inside, and I pushed the door open. Inside was chaos. Two uniformed officers were struggling to subdue a flailing, snarling Evan Carlton. The place was a shambles, with furniture overturned, broken china on the carpet, and lamps lying useless on the floor. The single overhead ceiling fixture cast stark, shadowless light. The detainee was writhing and striking out, the voice more animal than human. Teri was sitting on the couch, the telephone beside her. At least she had the courage to call for help.
Now handcuffed, Evan was kicking and spewing saliva as the police braced him and dragged him toward the front door. As he passed, I looked at the featureless, blank eyes. His yells were almost non-human, but the only words coming from his mouth were the depths of obscenity, sparing not even his own mother.
I sat down beside her on the couch, finding a box of tissues on the floor. I handed her one to staunch the blood trickling from her nose. Her left check was scraped raw, and her lower lip was trembling. Suddenly I realized that, even though I was in the presence of evil, it was human, and I could sense in Teri’s son the absence of the goodness that most people carried within. Still, the unsettled feeling in my stomach was nowhere near the terrible fear I had felt in the abandoned house on Kingston Avenue. “Where are they taking him?”
Teri exhaled, her hand shaking. “They’re taking him to the hospital. They have a detox and psychiatric unit there.”
“Will they keep him there?” I had no idea how the system worked in Ontario.
“Maybe not. He can be very charming and persuasive when he’s straight. I’m through with him. He’s out of control and there’s nothing left.” She reached down to a glass beside the couch. It had spilled, but she still touched it without looking at it.
While she sat silently, I made some order out of the room, restoring table lamps and picking up the largest pieces of the thrown plates and cups. As I worked, my thoughts turned to Evan Carlton and those like him. It seemed impossible that a human would choose to live that way. I wondered what old Cotton Mather would have said about the condition.
I found some ointment for Teri’s abraded cheek, and she found another bottle of Chivas Regal scotch. We talked without consequence for a half an hour, and I took the box of my father’s miscellaneous belongs out to my own car.
It was drizzling again as I pulled south onto the highway and found my way back to the motel. Once inside, I calmed down and rummaged through the box of miscellaneous books and trivial items, most with no memories for me. After all, he had sent me to the desert Southwest to be reared in my aunt’s home. How could I know much about his life and its meaning? I was even denied the most significant parts of his personal diary.
Still, all was not a waste. In the box there were several 19th century books on esoteric subjects including, strangely enough, a maroon bound London 1852 edition of Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World, and I felt a sudden chill as I picked it out and realized that it was thumbed and there were underlined passages that had to have been by my father’s hand; it was a book I had myself read in facsimile in the 1980s. I didn’t look at all of the books in the box.
The knock on the door startled me and I dropped the book, wondering if Teri had followed me out to the motel. I went to the door and opened it.
She was the last person I expected to see, but Edie must have been able to tell from my smile that I was more than happy to see her. “Can I come in?”
“Yeah, yeah. Of course. I just can’t believe…” I was actually stammering.
She smiled with pursed lips and moved to shrug out of her coat. I helped her. “I can tell from your personality that you would probably never in a hundred years actually make a move, but you know, when we talk, I can almost feel you touching me. I’m sure you also know that ‘almost’ isn’t really enough.”
Under her coat, she was wearing a tight-fitting black dress, hem above the knee and the bodice achingly revealing a generous cleavage. I didn’t need encouragement to take her in my arms and feel those pursed lips opening against my own. As I held her, I forgot everything else I had come to Cobston for. Edie pressed against me, making me feel younger than I’d felt in a long time. Her warm, sweet smell engulfed me, and the loudest sound in the room was the zipper at the back of her dress as I pulled it down.
As we made love, I felt a new happiness welling up inside of me. “I don’t even know your last name.” I said finally, breathlessly, while I held her tightly against me.
Her breath was hot on my neck. “It’s Hedrick—used to be St. Lawrence before I got married, and I keep meaning to change it back legally. I’m glad I had the courage to come over here tonight.”
As I felt us growing excited again, I could only say, “I hope you have the courage not to leave.”
“We’ll see.” I felt the slide of her satin slip on my skin, and we were again fusing together, interpenetrating and taking our bodies where my mind had not dared to hope. As the hours passed, we lay together, looking at each other in the semi-darkness. This room was only two miles from the old town, but it seemed a normal, modern world, somehow separated from the true Cobston with its cobbled brick streets and long-buried secrets.
Too soon Edie stirred. “It’s not morning yet, but I’ve got a business to open before I go to work,” she whispered.
“It would be nicer if you stayed indefinitely.”
“Come on, give me the encouragement to get dressed. You wouldn’t want me to waste that black dress on my customers, would you? Besides, my apartment is only a few blocks from here. Want to come along?”
I was glad she asked, and I got dressed to go out with her in the still-dark morning, scarcely noticing the sharp, wet cold. While Edie showered and changed clothes at her apartment, I sipped at the coffee she made me, looking around at the tasteful decoration of her apartment, the prints and posters on her wall that hinted of her travels and her interests. Framed family pictures were clustered on an antique mahogany table covered by a lace-bordered linen cloth.
When Edie dropped me back at the motel, she leaned across and kissed me. “You know, we both could do a lot worse.”
I must have looked perplexed, because she tousled my hair and said, “I mean it looks like you’ll always have your hair, and me, I’ll always be a blonde.” She gave me a piece of paper with the name of a friend of hers at the regional health care centre and grinned impishly before driving away.
Later, after a shower of my own, I called Teri to find her sounding resilient and clear-headed, apparently ready go to her newspaper for another day. Her son Evan was still in custody, taken to the regional hospital for evaluation. It was almost 9 a.m. when I went out again, and a pale sun was glinting off a light coating of frost on my car windshield.
The regional hospital was 15 kilometers south of Cobston, and I found it easily enough, a functional steel and concrete building fronted by a large parking lot filled with vehicles. Two lines of leafless trees flanked the access road, and I found a parking spot at the back of the lot.
The waiting room of the centre felt hot, dry, and sterile. Ageing, uncomfortable-looking couches and plastic chairs were occupied by unsmiling people, all wearing dark-colored coats. The only problem they wouldn’t have is how to afford their treatment. At the admitting desk, I asked for Delia Mariscal, and the nurse on duty made a call into the bowels of the hospital somewhere. She gestured that I should wait.
After what seemed an appropriate medical office wait, Delia Mariscal emerged, a stocky woman with grey-flecked black hair cut short. She was carrying a report of some kind. Obviously Edie had prepared the way for me on this one.
Delia was all business, and seemed to smile absently as we stood at the corner of the waiting room under a bank of flickering fluorescent lights. “I was able to print out the epidemiological information that we send to Ottawa, and I highlighted some of the numbers that you were asking about.”
I flipped through the pages, suddenly uncertain that I could find what I was looking for. “I can read statistics, but you know more about the region than I do.” Almost immediately I could find incidence patterns of hemolytic anemia, leukemia, and related blood diseases, but the numbers didn’t mean anything to me without comparisons.
Delia pointed to the yellow highlighted figures. “You know, I never noticed this, but this region has a slightly elevated count per thousand of both reported anemia and leukemia cases. I wouldn’t know how to explain that unless we had our own Love Canal toxic waste problem, and we certainly don’t. Most of the cases aren’t fatal, but we have some patients who have not responded well to basic treatments.”
“OK, now for the big question. Where are most of the cases coming from?”
Nurse Mariscal shifted her weight from one foot to the other and back again. “Can’t say. I remember patients from just about everywhere, but I have to say there are a whole lot more from Cobston. Wouldn’t say for sure.” Then she added, “I know I wouldn’t live in that town, ”
I looked at her closely, weighing her remark. “What’s the likelihood of a regional hospital like this going above the national norm for these diseases?”
“So unusual that we would question the data. In the past we’ve even changed the numbers in our reports to conform to national data, but that’s strictly off the record.”
For some reason I remembered Teri’s son. “Hey, do you know anything about an Evan Carlton brought in here out of control in the last 24 hours?”
She was already shaking her head. “You must know I can’t talk about patients. I’ll just say that we’ve had too many kids come in here all screwed up. Cobston has had more than its share of those.” She raised her eyebrows in emphasis as though she had answered my question.
I thanked her for her unusual candor and left through the dreary waiting room, more convinced of my perceptions. Back in the car, I took the road north to Cobston, basking in the rush of warm air from the powerful climate control system. The landscape was beige and leafless for the most part, washed in a lambent sunlight that imparted no warmth. The closer I came to Cobston, the more aware I was of the tiny fist of dread that I associated with the miasma that seemed to hover about its older streets and buildings.
Although my goal was to go directly to the newspaper office on hopes of seeing Edie, for some reason I kept driving past the building, on up the street and past the former home of my father and up the ancient cobbled brick street that rose upward to the imposing outline of St. Mark’s Anglican Church. I swallowed involuntarily as it loomed into view. I had not seen the building since Teri and I had fled its subterranean vault in 1970. I parked across the street and stared.
The massive stone building still dominated the high ground, its bell tower like a saluting arm above the slate roof. A late-model Canadian-built Ford Taurus was sitting in the parking lot, but I was looking at the cold rock walls, concrete window casements and leaded stained glass windows. Behind the church was the cemetery, and underneath was a basement hiding a sealed vault that reached under the graveyard. The fear and revulsion I felt 30 years ago came back with a rush. The evil I saw in Teri’s son was within the realm of deviant human behavior, but it could not cause the nameless dread I was feeling now—and had felt in the house on Kingston Avenue. The church seemed vacant as I watched it for ten minutes or more, but I began to wonder who formed the congregation today.
Aside from my motel room, there were only three places familiar to me in Cobston, so I went to the place where the information was. Edie was with a classified ad customer when I walked in, and she just raised her eyebrows and smiled as I walked past to her boss’s office.
Teri was remarkably resilient, and if she had any marks or bruises after her son’s visit the night before, they showed only in her eyes. She was animated and writing furiously. “You’re gonna interrupt me, aren’t you, Stoneham?”
“You OK?”I felt puzzled at her cheerful challenge.
“That’s the real world—something you were never very good at.” The jibe was good-natured.
“I’ve been working on that for a few decades, not always successfully. Meantime, I did go to the hospital, but they wouldn’t give me any information about your son’s case, naturally. Afterward, I drove past the church, and the place looked almost deserted. Tell me about the churches in Cobston. You still run church and religion news on a page once a week, don’t you?”
Teri picked up a pencil, playing with it while she snickered. “That place still scare you after all these years?” She couldn’t have forgotten. “Cobston’s all grown up, just like the rest of Ontario, Stoneham. Back when you were here, everybody went to church, but everything changes. The congregation at St. Mark’s is older, just like you are. The Catholics still have a congregation, but they have a better guilt message, don’t they?”
“Yeah, but what’s changed?”
“Simple, Stoneham—people just aren’t into religion any more. The church and religion page of the paper is one of our least-read. All the kids went to the Moonies in the ‘80s, and everybody else went to television and computers since you were here. We’ve got St. Mark’s, the Catholic church, and about seven miscellaneous hard core born-again churches. That doesn’t include the mosque that went up here about seven years ago.” She noted my surprise.
“Those are your churchgoers, Stoneham. Everything changed. When you were here last, there were milk stores run by hard-working UK and European immigrants. Now they’re 7-11s, like in the States, but they’re all run by orientals, even in Cobston.”
I shook my head, trying to catch up. “While you’re educating me, you can tell me about one of your local characters…a guy named Lazlo. I heard something about him when I was at the restaurant coupla nights ago.”
Teri threw the pencil at the wall. She spat “Lazlo” as though it was an obscenity. “There’s your evil in Cobston, Stoneham. He used to live in the old workers’ housing area. Many of those places are abandoned now, some of them condemned. Lazlo grew up there, and I remember his mother. She was a nasty old Polish woman…she must have been close to 40 when Lazlo was born, a couple of years before I first met you. She died ten years ago, but there was always something wrong with Lazlo. He went to Toronto and brought all the worst of the city back with him. He’s corrupted a whole generation of Cobston kids, including mine. He was somebody who needed killing. There’s your occult connection, Stoneham. Lazlo did it all, from drugs to animal sacrifice, satanic masses. He almost made me believe in the devil.”
I’d never heard Teri so tight with hatred, and I visualized the twisted features of the man who had appeared in the restaurant, the repulsive shambling gait that his disciples had unconsciously adopted. I wondered how many others like him lurked in the back streets of Cobston.
“Looks to me like your son Evan is better off in the hospital. They should have put that Lazlo creep in jail. Wouldn’t that have helped the whole town?”
Teri let out a pseudo-laugh. “Lazlo never committed any offences that could get him arrested. You can’t go to jail in Ontario just because you leave a slime trail behind you.”
“Listen, Teri, I saw the guy. How could he have an influence on anybody. He’s filthy, incredibly ugly looking, dressed in ratty clothes, most of his teeth gone. What kind of role model is that?” Even as I said the words, I was already sensing that there was an answer—one that Teri could never accept.
Now she looked puzzled, her brow creased. “What do you mean, you saw him? That’s impoosible. I just remember that out of control kids found him like he was some kind of Rasputin. He gave them drugs and took them down to his level in a matter of weeks. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he had some kind of occult influence—but I wouldn’t give you the satisfaction of admitting that.”
As she talked, I thought of the shadowy figure I saw walking on the road past the abandoned house on Kingston Avenue, and I knew somehow that the creature named Lazlo was no stranger to that place.
When I started to leave, Teri stopped me with a motion of her hand. “Let me tell you the Lazlo story. I found out his full name; it’s Lazlow Kasprzycki, and his mother was part of the immigrant group that came here after the first world war. Two years ago…just after Lazlo got his hands on my kid, a bunch of Cobston guys went after Lazlo. Apparently he had impregnated one of his drug addict followers; she was only 14 at the time. The father and four of his friends found Lazlo on a summer night in a vacant duplex a block behind the restaurant downtown. The story I heard was that they beat Lazlo without mercy, while swearing never to speak of it. Brellisford told me he was part of the group—yeah, before you ask, I know all of Brellisford’s secrets. I think most people approved of what was done. The OPP never heard about it, and we never printed the story. I know that Brellisford and the others were apprehensive after that, but I never found out what it was that bothered them. Anyhow, that was when Lazlo disappeared, and it was assumed that he went to Toronto. Good riddance, but he’d already screwed up my kid.”
I could see why Teri insisted on speaking of Lazlo in the past tense, and I finally agreed to allow her to finish work on her newspaper. I stopped by Edie’s desk on the way out. Now I couldn’t look at her without wanting to touch her, and she knew it. She promised to see me later, and it was good to know that something exquisite waited at the end of the day.
Outside the newspaper office, clouds were gathering and a dank grayness was again crawling over Cobston, promising a storm. Several degrees of temperature would make the difference between rain and snow. For some strange reason I could hear the lyrics from the old Gordon Lightfoot song about the Edmund Fitzgerald: “…when the storms of November come early.”
I drove back to the motel, feeling relieved to get back into the warmth of the room. I spent the afternoon reading from the old Cotton Mather book, damned by science, proved by human experience. All the while I could feel my father’s presence—he whose eyes had preceded mine across these pages. Yes, evil could be banal—the product of simple human perversity. The proof of that was everywhere in the world, but I was more convinced than ever that there were evils beyond human perversity, cosmic evils that radiated tendrils of influence into the world. Normal people might be immune to those damnable emanations, but the young, the weak, the drug-addicted could be plunged into a nighted chaos of the soul. I sensed an evil beyond comprehension still lurking in Cobston. I had seen it with my own eyes. By its very nature it would not yield its secrets to the machinery of law or science. Its manifestations always seemed different but were always hellishly the same.
The pages of Wonders of the Invisible World in this most recent 1862 edition were gray and brittle, the uncut edges flaked onto my chest as I lay there reading that peculiar lore of those accused of witchcraft, “She related that the great Black Man came to her and told her if she would be ruled by him, she would have whatsoever she desired…and that day at an house in the village they had Red Bread and Red Drink…like Man’s Flesh.”
Then I must have dropped off to sleep wherein I saw that Black Man in his threadbare coat and his wrapped scarf hiding a deformed ear. He was grinning and beckoning until I woke up, sweating in my solitude.
A shower revived me, and I decided to take the book to supper with me. A light, icy wind was blowing as I got into my car to drive north into town. By the time I parked across the street from Edie’s Restaurant a light, frigid rain had started. I trotted toward the entrance but stopped. About 10 meters away from the corner of the building were two figures, huddled together in the gathering dark—I was sure one of them was the man called Lazlo.
The two seemed oblivious to the rain and their surroundings, and Lazlo’s hand was clutching the shoulder of what appeared to be a teenager. I looked at the pair and shuddered. The face of the teen was a pale oval, but Lazlo’s face and hands seemed gray and leathery, his eyes black and sunken in the wet, dripping dusk. I couldn’t suppress a feeling of revulsion, and it was a relief to go into the warm light of the restaurant where the clatter of plates and murmur of voices kept the night at bay.
Edie seemed to brighten as she approached the table. “Don’t bother with the menu. I’ll bring you something if you’ll let me.”
I nodded. “You know I think I saw that guy Lazlo walking around out there in the rain.” I looked through the plate glass but didn’t see anything.
“The locals accepted that years ago. He is sort of a folk tale around here. He’s part of everything that’s wrong here, but there’s so much more we never see.” While she talked, I was weighing the words of a centuries-dead cleric, thinking that there were things we never seemed to learn. While I ate, I saw a dimly descried figure drifting by the restaurant window in a peculiar, shambling gait. I was sure it was Lazlo.
I went back to reading, lingering over fresh baked pie and coffee, as Mather told of those 1692 trials and the testimony, coerced or not, wherein the accused testified that “…several of them confessed a contract with the Devil, by signing his book…”Were people not still signing his book in the day of computer laptops and the internet?
Edie apologized for being so busy, and she promised to follow me back to the motel when she closed up. The dinner customers were gone now, and I was now even more aware of the pall that had been cast on this community, beginning in the days of my father.
I waved to her as I left, comforted that she would be joining me after she closed the restaurant. The rain was light but steady outside, and I breathed in the cold air, exhaling in a cloud of steam. The street was empty as I made a u-turn and headed south. It was getting colder, and when the rain hit the windshield it was turning to ice, but the powerful defroster kept the view clear.
The darkness of downtown gave way to the lights of the new business district along the highway, where traffic was still busy. I stopped to get some personal items at a drug store, and next door a half dozen Jamaican youths were huddled under the marquee of a video rental store, talking loudly and holding cigars, or more likely marijuana blunts, their arms in constant motion, their dreadlocks winding around their shoulders. This was a completely different town from the dim and brooding center of Cobston up the road. A few hundred meters down the highway, the half-full parking lot of a Wal-Mart spread its glow into the dark sky. The contrast reminded me of some American cities whose downtowns were abandoned and shunned after dark.
Back at my motel room, the sense of lurking horror receded into the background; even the repulsive demeanor of Lazlo seemed distant and less threatening. I could only imagine where a creature like that would seek shelter, though I had been told about the many untenanted buildings on the two streets parallel to the main commercial thoroughfare. Why was I thinking of the Black Man written of in Cotton Mather’s accursed book?
The welcome knock on the door put an end to morbid thoughts. I ushered Edie into the room, and the mist of her perfume made my blood quicken. The fur collar of her coat was pulled tight about her neck. She pushed a shopping bag into my hands, kissed me on the cheek and disappeared into the bathroom.
Inside the bag was a bottle of champagne, glasses, savory delicacies that smelled of crab meat, and cheese cake slices in plastic boxes. It was no problem keeping champagne cold in Cobston’s November.
I busied myself with opening the champagne and setting out the food, but when Edie came out of the bathroom, she had shed her coat. What she was wearing wasn’t suitable for wearing out of doors, and I forgot that the food existed. The next few hours were better than any I had experienced in years. I even forgot the reason why I had come here in the first place.
It was very late when we started talking about the dark side of Cobston. I told Edie how I had been cheated out of my father’s original story, and how I was somehow sure that what lurked in Cobston had begun just after the first world war.
Edie was nestled against me, but she was holding the old Cotton Mather book. “Your father was interested in peculiar things. I’d read this, but I didn’t bring my glasses. Surprised?”
“We’re not here to read, but I think my father spent a lot of time studying this stuff. Strange—even though I didn’t really know him, I spent much of my life studying the same things. That doesn’t mix well with marriage.”
Edie giggled, snuggling against me. “Anybody would get the feeling that this town is strange. I just never felt as though I were threatened.”
“If I could only find out what happened back in my father’s time…”
Edie sat up and pushed a glossy red fingernail against my bare chest for emphasis, “Then why…don’t…you…ask somebody who was here then?”
I must have had a blank and stupid look on my face—something I was good at.
“There’s an old guy who comes in to the newspaper office every week or so. He’s a Cobston native, and he’s in his 80s—a real talker too.”
“He would have been a kid then.”
“Yes, but there would have been stories told by his parents and other people. Kids picked up on things like that. Maybe it was the second war that wiped everybody’s memory clean.”
I could never replace my father’s journal pages, but Edie might have hit on a way to fill in the gaps. With that promise, I looked again at Edie’s voluptuous form leaning over me, and I pulled her close again.
We slept very little that night, but the fatigue of the pre-dawn was exhilarating in its own way. As before, Edie rose up to dress for work and promised to locate the Cobston native for me. It was only after she left that I regretted we had not spent any time discussing Lazlo and his influence over the rootless youth of Cobston.
No sun rose with the Cobston morning. The skies were solid gray, holding the near-freezing temperatures close to the ground. After breakfast at the restaurant, I went to the newspaper office, but my ex-wife wasn’t there and the staff had no idea why Teri wasn’t there yet.
As I thought about Teri, her son, and the dark figure of Lazlo, I decided to go to the house and check on her. The cold was more penetrating without sunlight, but I drove to Teri Ottaway’s home to find no car in the drive and no answer to my knock on the door.
Now it was back to the newspaper office, but no Teri there either. Edie beckoned, holding up an index card. On it was the name William Feeney and Edie said she had managed to arrange an appointment with him later in the morning at his apartment. I remembered to ask her if anybody else in town would have more information about the shadowy Lazlo.
Edie pursed her lips and arched her eyebrows slightly. “You should have asked earlier. You might talk to my boss’s lawyer boyfriend. They say he was part of a group that got Lazlo a couple of years ago.”
“So I heard. Teri and I met him at the pub two days ago. He never said anything about Lazlo.”
“The people involved never talk about it, but you ask him. I think he spends a lot of time in that pub. He also has an office in the business district out on the highway.”
It was still too early to meet Mr. Feeney, so I decided to see if barrister Brellisford was in his office on a Saturday morning. If he wasn’t there, I could probably find him at the pub later in the afternoon.
Brellisford didn’t have Saturday office hours, so I went back to the motel room, at loose ends until the noon hour. Edie’s fragrance still haunted the room, and I breathed it deeply before going back to rummage in the box of my father’s books. I again had occasion to wonder at the synchronicity of our thoughts, reaching out between two generations of Stonehams, when I found another important book. It was a 1929 edition of Montague Summers’ The Vampire in Europe. The copy of this book I owned had been reprinted in the 1960s, but the volume now in my hands was the 1929 first edition published by E.P. Dutton & Co. of New York, printed in England, bound in orange covers with faded gilt stamped title, and carrying a tiny green bookseller stamp on the flyleaf “Robert Duncan & Co., Booksellers & Stationers, Hamilton, Ontario.” Almost automatically I turned the pages to that text I remembered from years past, written by a learned professor of the University of Leipzig named Phillip Rohr. I had been darkly fascinated years ago by his dissertation about the buried dead who performed the act of eating while beneath the ground, and my interest was redoubled. I was not prepared for what I found.
Suddenly I was staring at the translation of Rohr’s dissertation. Woven into those 27 pages were bold marks in blue pencil. Statements were underlined, exclamation points added, and notes were scribbled in the page margins. The blood rushed to my head as though I had just received a communication from beyond the grave. Nothing else in the book was defaced—just this one section, and the bold marks seemed urgent. I noted one section that particularly was underlined with a box drawn around it: “XIV. Corpses in their graves chew with this horrible grunting noise chiefly during a great plague.”
The dread I remembered from 1970 rushed back. There was no doubt that the secrets of my father’s desecrated journal were being revealed to me in this box of books, and he had been obsessed by something that lurked under the burying ground of Cobston. No matter how much Teri had denied it, I had seen it for myself in the vault beneath St. Mark’s church.
Now I was eager to speak with anyone with even the slightest connection to the old town as it was after WWI. I wanted to decipher my father’s crabbed notations in the Summers book, but it was time to pick up Edie at the newspaper office for our appointment with William Feeney. Reluctantly I put the book back into the box.
When I came through the door of the Cobston Telegraph-Dispatch, Edie got up from her desk and grabbed her coat. She noticed that I was craning my neck toward the publisher’s office, but she just shook her head. Obviously Teri hadn’t yet come in, and it was so unusual for the owner that the newsroom seemed almost quiet in its uncertainty.
Back out in the cold, I opened the car door for Edie and then she gave me directions to the retirement complex where William Feeney lived. It wasn’t hard to find, and Feeney’s apartment was one of eight along a carpeted interior hallway. I rang the bell, and the door opened almost immediately.
William Feeney stood about 5’ 8” tall in his plaid shirt and dark green work pants, but aside from a bunching of his shoulders, he had good posture. He apologized for his glasses in a strong, gravelly voice, explaining that he was recovering from a cataract operation in his right eye, but that he was still waiting to have the other cornea peeled.
Pictures on his wall and on the shelves showed a man who had lived a rich life, obviously serving with the Canadian armed forces in WWII. The young man in the black and white photo portrait was instantly recognizable as were two framed snapshots that were obviously from a combat zone. Pictures of him with his wife and children had a place of honor atop the television set in the front room.
“Normandy?” I asked, and he nodded, and I knew he had survived the fierce fighting at Caen. He waved us to a seat on his sofa, and we talked inconsequentially for a few minutes. He was obviously very taken with Edie and that showed his good taste.
“Mr. Feeney, I want to know something about Cobston from when you were just a child. Can you remember anything strange that people talked about in the 1920s?”
Feeney’s face was strong, with high cheekbones and rivulets of creases. “Oh, you have to mean the cholera plague. Of course, what else would it be?” He sat down carefully in the chair opposite the sofa, exhaling as he looked toward the ceiling.
“Well, my father was the editor of the Telegraph-Dispatch before you were born, but I don’t know much more about it than he printed in the paper back then.”
Feeney seemed to enjoy my eagerness. “Funny thing, eh? When I was a lad, my mum used to warn me and my brother about where we went in town. She said we’d catch ‘the disease’ if we wasn’t careful. We didn’t know what ‘disease’ she meant, but it scared us right enough.” He insisted that we have tea with him, and I thought it was the first tea I had drunk in almost a year. While we drank the tea, Feeney flirted with Edie, talking about things only locals really could appreciate.
I ventured back to the topic, “I guess that people remembered the cholera for a long time…”
Feeney snorted, and his eyes became intense suddenly behind those thick lenses. “You miss my meaning, young man.” We both smiled, and Edie giggled. “We young lads used to talk about what our parents and the old people talked about when they thought we were asleep. Time and again our ghost stories were about the Cobston cemetery. People talked over and over about the smell of acid at the cemetery and a choking cloud that came up one day from that part of town back before I was born. Once, my mate Kevin and me went to the cemetery on a summer’s night—that was three years before we enlisted—nothing was growing in one particular section. It smelled awful sour too. I don’t know why—we didn’t see anythin’, but for some reason we got scared and ran away. When we got home, it was after our 9 p.m. curfew, and my mum was truly angry. When she found out where we’d come from, she almost hit me. I’ll never forget what she said, that people in town said that buryin’ place was ‘unhallowed’ and that she didn’t want my soul in danger. I never did figure what she meant, but Kevin said his mum gave him a whipping for going there. I never went back there. Maybe she knew somethin’ I didn’t.”
Feeney saw that I was seriously listening. “Mr. Feeney, I thought there would be other stories about that cemetery. They don’t use it any more.”
“Oh, let me tell you, I’ve heard some wild tales about the cemetery, but I don’t pay much mind to ‘em. It was the war that came along and wiped out our memory. We started clean when we came back in ’45. Funny thing, though, even though this is my home town, I always had this feelin’ that there was something not quite right here. Even thought about moving to Tranta, but I never did.”
He pronounced the city of Toronto as almost a single syllable.
Feeney sat back in the chair and finished his tea. “Now that we’re talkin’, seems to me that we never talked much about that cholera time, but people just didn’t go certain places, and some of the homes turned out sorta unhealthy. I remember a family named Kernaghan who built a home out on Kingston Avenue—had two daughters as I recall—anyhow they all turned out to be sickly and they finally moved away. Never knew what happened to them. Nobody has lived in the house longer than a couple of years since then.”
Edie looked at me, and there was no doubt what Feeney was talking about. The conversation turned to mundane topics, and he did relate two harrowing stories of his combat experience in the hedgerows of northern France. When we rose to leave, Feeney extended the invitation to return whenever we liked, and I could tell he was talking to Edie, not me.
As we drove back toward the Telegraph-Dispatch office, wisps of snow were swirling along the roadside, whipped by a relentless icy breeze. Edie had to go back to the office, and I was looking for a barrister. “Does anybody know any more about this Lazlo?”
“I don’t think anybody knows. I’ve only seen him maybe twice, including the other night in the restaurant, but I never thought about him—sort of like other homeless people, they appear and disappear. No way of knowing how they survive. One thing for sure, this Lazlo is a night person.”
I walked Edie back into the newspaper office, noticing that Teri still had not made an appearance. I was bound for the Kingston Inn, promising Edie to see her later in the day.
Most of the tables were occupied by Saturday afternoon drinkers when I entered, and I breathed in the beery smell, wending my way to the selfsame table I had visited earlier in the week. Aside from the fact that he was wearing a sweater today, Brellisford seemed a fixture just as the suspended ceiling lights and the dark wood wainscotting on the wall behind him.
Brellisford looked up from his beer and the remains of what must have been a steak and kidney pie. “Teri not with you?”
I shook my head. “Nope. I’m not sure where she is right now, but I think she’s going to need your help on a second mortgage she wants to take out on the house. Personally, I’m here because I can’t forget about what we talked about the other day.”
Brellisford shook his head and grimaced. “You must think I’m over the edge.” There was an underlying tension at the corners of his eyes that seemed a permanent part of his demeanor.
“No, you convinced me that you know a lot more than you’re telling.” Brellisford stopped me abruptly and waved to a waitress.
“First, let me buy you a beer.” The waitress already had a tray with several glasses that she was delivering to other tables. I shrugged and thanked both Brellisford and the waitress for the gesture when he put a ten-dollar bill on the table to pay for the beers.
I was watching him as I pitched the topic. “What do you know about the guy they call Lazlo?”
Brellisford’s face suddenly froze, his gaze directed over my shoulder, focused somewhere beyond me. His breathing was labored. “He was a blight on the community. I don’t know much more than that.”
“What do you mean, ‘he was a blight’? I thought he was still out there, but I heard that you might know something about what happened to him.”
Suddenly, Brellisford’s face flushed with anger. “Who told you that? I don’t know anything about that ass…” He caught himself.
“Look, I’m not accusing you of anything, but I heard that this Lazlo did some terrible things, and that the police always stopped short of arresting him. What I heard was that some citizens took the law into their own hands a couple of years ago.”
His agitation was now making me nervous. Brellisford spat the words into the table, “He was as evil as anybody that ever lived in this town. He deserved what he got. Good riddance.” If ever eyes were haunted, his were. Teri had used the same words.
I shook my head. “Wait a minute. I’ve just been here a few days, and I thought I saw the guy—at least that’s the name people gave me. Edie Hedrick at the paper said she’s seen him come into the restaurant—that’s where I saw him the other night. She’s the one who gave me the guy’s name. He’s one of the most repulsive creatures I’ve seen, but…”
Brellisford’s arm jerked and the beer glass crashed to the floor, startling me. He was furious. “You’re lying. The others are lying. This is just Cobston’s bloody urban legend.” I had the distinct feeling that he wanted to hit me.
“Sorry, Man.” I got up from the table while other patrons stared at the sudden fury erupting from Brellisford. “I’m outa here.”
His teeth were gritted. “Oh no, you don’t get off that easy. He stood up and grabbed the sleeve of my jacket. I could smell the beer exhaled on his exploding breath. “You want a story? All right, I’ll tell you a bloody story and you can choke on it. The hesitant waitress hovered with her tray just out of range until Brellisford beckoned to her, his white-knuckled hand still gripping my sleeve.
I was astonished at what was happening, or else I might have been able to escape, Instead I sank passively back into the chair. Brellisford leaned across the table, his voice tight and shaking while he told me a story that held me almost as tightly as the grip of the hand that never let go of my coat sleeve. I felt almost as though I were a wedding guest accosted by the Ancient Mariner. The hollow depth of his voice and the twist of his mouth as he spoke transfixed me. When I finally got up to leave a few minutes later, I understood why Brellisford drank and why the knot in my stomach might not ever go away.
When Brellisford sat back in his chair, he covered his face with his hands and massaged his cheeks. I rose slowly from the chair and left him with his beer untouched, his eyes tight shut. I walked a little unsteadily toward the door, my mind whirling despite not having touched the glass of beer he had bought for me. I knew what I had seen in the Cobston night. No—Brellisford must have been mistaken.
The door of the pub slammed behind me, and I was suddenly faced with the cold wind and swirling flakes of snow, my eyes tearing from the frigid blast. The day was quickly escaping, and mid-afternoon seemed close to twilight as I sat in my car with the heater pumping hot air into the enclosure.
My next impulse was to check on Teri, and I drove back into town, past the newspaper office, and to the house I knew so well. There was no car in the driveway, but I trotted up the walk and rapped on the door anyway. No answer.
I started to leave, but realized that light showed through the diamond-shaped pane in the front door. I knocked again, then tried the knob. It was unlocked and I opened the door, calling out as I stuck my head inside. There was no response, but Teri was in plain view, sitting on the sofa, hunched over, a glass held in both hands. There was something stale and hopeless in the yellowish light of the room, tinged with pathos. Teri was dressed in her business clothes, but they looked disheveled. Her hair hung down over her face, and she didn’t look up.
When I sat down on the sofa, beside her, she still didn’t move. “I’ve been looking for you all day.”
“I’ve been looking for me a lot longer than that, Stoneham.” Her voice was as pale as her face when she turned to look at me, and her eyes didn’t seem to focus as she squinted. “Do I look that bad?”
I just nodded. Her left eye was swollen half-shut, the orbit turning violet. There was a crust of blood on her upper lip, and her mouth was also swollen. “We have to call the police, Teri. Who did this to you?” In that instant I had no idea who could have hurt her, since her son was under observation in the hospital.
She slurred the words, “Stoneham, you are truly clueless, aren’t you?” There was no laughter with her remark. The ice clinked in the glass as she swallowed straight scotch.
“Everybody at the newspaper was kinda anxious when you didn’t show up today. It isn’t like you…”
Teri smirked, then winced with the pain it caused, “It’s only when I’m not there that Edie can compete successfully.”
I ignored the dig. “I still don’t understand.”
This time she leaned against me, and I realized it was the first time we had touched in 25 years. “I had to go to the hospital. Evan called me. He was desperate to get out; I’m not sure why.”
Suddenly it made sense. Teri had gone to the regional hospital and negotiated for Evan to be released into her custody. “So, you brought him home with you?”
She nodded slowly, one half supported by me, the other half supported by the glass in her hands. “We came back here, and things were all right for a couple of hours. Then he got into the liquor cabinet while I was working at the computer. We argued, and he went off on me. He smashed the phone, and suddenly he was screaming—out of control—I don’t know how many times he hit me. He took my money and the car keys. I heard him drive off in the car. He doesn’t even have a license. I don’t know where he went.”
I had an idea where Evan might have gone in Cobston’s late afternoon. “He was better off where he was. Thank God you survived, at least this time. Why’d you do it, Teri? Why, when you’re smarter than that?”
She sat upright and looked at me fully, her eyes wet and intense in her battered face, “He’s…my son.” The power of the statement surpassed all reason.
After finding some ointment in the bathroom medicine cabinet, I helped Teri treat her injuries, knowing she would look worse the next day, and then I promised to look for her son without contacting the OPP. It was against my better judgment, but there was a history to consider, and felt that this might be the destiny of my long journey from the desert, trying to rescue the incorrigible from his own desires. I warned Teri to lock the door behind me.
As I drove, it struck me that society had come unstrung just in my lifetime. Less than a year ago, teenagers in Colorado had committed the worst wanton school violence in history, and here in a country that had been decidedly more religious when I had first visited, the secular victory had created an uncertain moral future for all who lived here.
It was almost dark when I stopped at the restaurant. I went right to the counter, and I told Edie where I was going, asking her to make the necessary call if I didn’t check with her in an hour. I briefly told her about what had happened to her boss, and what I had promised to attempt. As much as Edie shook her head, she could tell that I was determined.
As I went out again into the bitter, early dark, I felt the unsettled shifting in my stomach, hoping I had put things together all wrong, yet sensing an awfulness reaching out from the catacomb beneath St. Mark’s church 30 years before.
Even though the interior of the car was warm, I shivered as I drove into the night, snowflakes blowing luminous as they were caught by the brilliance of my headlights. I found myself shuddering involuntarily. At first I went south past the motel where cars were going in and out of the few mall areas. I was looking for Teri’s Ford Taurus, but somewhow I knew it wouldn’t be where the lights were comforting.
Now I drove back into the middle of town where traffic was sparse and the sidewalks were empty. Lights were burning at the newspaper office; the next edition would be printed in a few hours, but then I turned onto Kingston Avenue, and I was alone with the lacey curtains of snowflakes and the darkness. I wished for the comfort of the Model 1911A1 Colt .45 automatic pistol I had left behind in the United States, handguns being something Canadians considered restricted and made it very difficult to own. It would have made what I was trying to do less frightening.
Then I saw the car, its tail light lenses reflecting back at me. The Ford itself was nosed in among the leafless trees, only the rear quarter visible from the road. I felt my stomach churn because I knew the abominable house sat just around the bend. It was as though I knew all along where my search would lead, and it appeared as though Teri’s son had intentionally plowed into the roadside brush and trees, then abandoned the car.
I eased the GTI around the bend, pulling off the road in front of the long-abandoned house. With the car lights off and the engine still idling I couldn’t stop shivering. The snow was just beginning to stick on the sides of the road, and the wind was steady, merciless. Everything came full circle to this place, and I hated to admit that fear was gripping my insides. Somehow I saw the dark building as a focus of something worse than evil. There was no sign that anybody was here, and it was possible that Evan had left the disabled car and walked or hitched a ride back into town.
With a deep breath, I pulled on my gloves and grabbed the heavy Maglite flashlight that might be my only protection if I were to be attacked. I pushed open the car door against the wind and was once again assaulted by the raw cold and the sting of driven snowflakes against my exposed cheeks. I wanted to get back into the car and retreat back to the motel, to know that Edie would be coming through the door, bringing warmth and comfort, but I was almost an unwilling servant of my own determination as I approached the front porch.
The fear was grinding in my stomach because I could tell the house was not untenanted. Even in the dark I could see that smoke was coming out of the chimney, and the flashbeam showed that someone had carefully taped sheets of black plastic over the window frames, something that had been done since my visit just two days before.
I was not given to panic, but the fear I remembered from my first exploration of this house had returned. A reasonable person would have gone for the police, but sometimes a promise can confound common sense. I expected to find a few adolescents, stoned on marijuana, drunk, or both. The noise of the wind cloaked my footsteps as I mounted the steps to the front door. Even with the wind I could now hear the characteristic Thump/Thump/Thump of bass guitar coming through a boom box whose noise penetrated the front door.
Now it was time to turn off the flashlight and open the door.
Nothing I could have imagined or experienced could have prepared me for what I found inside the brooding house. I pushed open that heavy front door and found myself in a room with no lights, but the fireplace I remembered from my first visit created a wavering orangish light in the room, and a pile of sticks and kindling for fuel was shoved against one wall. Only then did I see the human shapes. One was sprawled, face up amidst the detritus that covered the floor, another reclined against the wall, blank-faced. The sweet smell of marijuana that I found almost as distasteful as that of tobacco hung in the air as did the smell of alcohol. The fire was not making the room warm, but the residents seemed beyond caring.
Evan Carlton was leaning against the fireplace, and he turned toward me in the faint light, snarling and wild-eyed as he lurched toward me. Almost as a reflex I raised the Maglite and struck him solidly on the side of the head. He collapsed into my arms, and somehow I got the impression that he smelled like peanut butter, but I had no time to think beyond that. I eased his slack body to the floor where he started to groan. His groans were not the only noise in that house of horror.
The blood was pounding in my head, and my sense of smell was now assaulted by a gut turning stench. The nausea of my last visit was pushing upward from my mid-section. There was some kind of animal noise coming from the darkness around the corner from the fireplace, hidden from the fire’s glow. I briefly flashed my light at the two young men near the fireplace. They were both passed out, and the mouth of one was smeared with blood, almost a black smudge in the firelight.
I could feel my mouth stretching in horror, incredulous. The other youth also had red stains on his hands and coat. Then I turned and saw another form on the floor. I choked suddenly—it was a body—the body of a large dog, dead and disemboweled on the living room floor, its insides wet and shining on the floor. My feeling of sickness was more than physical. I was witness to something beyond mere human frailty. The cloying smell of fresh death entwined with the drug smell into a hellish odor beyond description.
What was going on there was beyond my conception, and my shocked brain recalled Mather’s words “they had Red Bread and Red Drink…like Man’s Flesh.” Had he seen this evil and found it too abhorrent to detail in his abhorred 17th century book?
A rational person would have fled, but adrenaline had driven me beyond reason, gripped by the same horror I had known 30 years before, and my reaction was to go forward toward the wet noises in the darkness at the other end of the room. First I stumbled through the garbage and grabbed a short stick—a broken mop handle— from the pile of fuel wood near the fire, and then I turned and walked around the pile of flesh that had been a dog and punched the button on the flashlight to send a powerful beam of light into the nether end of the living room.
At first my eyes rejected what the optic nerve recorded, but in that same instant I could not deny the image that could only have been conceived in the bowels of Hell itself. I had found Lazlo, no matter how impossible Brellisford said that was. The flashbeam was intense, and the image burned into my brain. I could see that Lazlo could not be truly human. His head was wrapped in that filthy scarf, his tattered clothes caked with dirt, and I could see clawlike hands embracing…
The rest I couldn’t accept. Lying limp in that embrace was a young girl, no more than 13, stripped to the waist, her head lolling, mouth agape, eyes closed, and the horror of Lazlo was nuzzling at her breast. No, not nuzzling, but chewing as fresh blood flowed down to her stomach. I directed the light at Lazlo who slowly lifted his head from the hideous repast and faced me. His victim seemed alive, but almost comatose, her head lolling as Lazlo clasped her body. There is no way to describe the horror and revulsion that assaulted me in a wave that darkened my vision, leaving nothing inside me but rage.
Seemingly disoriented by the glare of the light focused on him, Lazlo released his captive and she sank to the floor. She compressed herself into the fetal position. The creature rose and faced me, his mouth foaming and bloodied, filled with rotten, jagged teeth stained red. Then there were the eyes, those sunken black orbs that were not truly eyes at all, but some unholy organs that glowed darkly without human spark.
In the midst of the stench and the spilled ichor, I did the only thing left in me. I lunged forward, yelling insanely, that stick gripped firmly in my left hand like a lance. Garbage clattered. Lazlo’s mouth gaped. He raised his arms toward me, my light casting a monstrous shadow of him on the bedroom door behind as I closed the distance. Suddenly I felt the shock of the sharp end of the dowel plunging into his chest. Stunned, I found my makeshift weapon met almost no resistance. I heard a crunching sound as sharp wood penetrated Lazlo’s jacket and on into his sternum. It was as though I was stabbing thin cardboard—a parchment-covered stuffed toy. As the power of my charge rammed Lazlo, his body thudded against the wall; it seemed that his chest collapsed, and he vomited blood while emitting a terrible sound of escaping, gurgling air. As he collapsed on the floor with the sharp mop handle extruding from his chest, his legs beat a brief tattoo on the littered floor.
Such things could not be, but it was real, and now my flashbeam showed that the terrible wound on this girl’s breast was not the first she had suffered, though it was the most recent. I would seek help for her if indeed she could survive. I went back and used the heavy barrel of the Maglite to bash the Heavy Metal music in the boombox into silence.
The fire still flared and sputtered orange, but the charnel room was silent and smelling of stale blood. It should have been a simple matter of going for the OPP, but I was shaking with the horror I had witnessed. Memories of 30 years ago and the nightmares over the succeeding years came flooding back. I had an irrational need to dispose of the horror that was Lazlo.
The beam of light was unsteady as I walked back to where the crumpled thing lay, and I took off my leather jacket, placing it over the silent, quivering form of the young girl who lay, doubled up, in the corner. I pushed open the bedroom door beyond where Lazlo lay, shriveled and twisted. A quick glance told me that somebody had been staying there, and I felt a frightened surge that maybe Lazlo had kept this girl in the bedroom even when I first came into this unholy place.
Now I walked uncertainly through the widened portico to my left into the kitchen. The cold of the room was mixed with my fear. I felt vertigo and nausea again. The cellar door yawned open, and I knew there was a depth to horror I had never dreamed. I could not stop myself from turning my light down into that darkness below. And I saw It.
A retching sound came from my throat but only the sour dredges of bile came up in my throat. A person in command of his senses would have bolted, fled that house of horror and never returned, but instead I staggered backward, knowing what I had to do. I would tell no one of this, for only I knew the reason.
I placed the flashlight on the floor, its beam casting a grotesque oval on the doorway to the cellar. Almost drunkenly, I staggered into the other room and grabbed the corpse of Lazlo by its legs. My hands easily closed around legs that were spindly under the dirty trousers; I pulled the body through a sticky tangle of garbage, my lungs heaving, and I placed the legs at the cellar entrance, then I held my breath and clutched the blood-wet shoulders of Lazlo’s jacket, hearing the rotten cloth rip as I lifted him and shoved.
The body tumbled down into the pit beneath, making a shallow, wet, Plump—then I risked one more moment to pick up my flashlight and turn the beam down into the cellar. Perhaps I should have turned my back on the thing—the something that Should Not Be Known—but I looked, and the vision seared into my mind as something I can never erase, though I dearly wish I could. Then I stumbled back into the flickering glow of the living room.
Fighting an indescribable panic, I tried not to think about what I’d just seen. Though light-headed and dizzy with nausea, I picked up the young girl, wrapped in my coat, and carried her out to my car, placing her in the back seat. I returned and did the same for Evan Carlton who was too groggy to resist. The blowing snow was bitterly cold through the thin fabric of my shirt.
Sick and weak, I drove back to find Edie, grateful to see that she had not yet closed the restaurant doors for the evening. Without questioning, she took the child and drove to the hospital with her. I fulfilled my duty and followed in my car, determined that if Evan were to ever have a chance of regaining his humanity, the hospital was his only chance. I would tell his mother later. Only after this did Edie call the provincial police and send them to that house on Kingston Avenue.
No story could explain what had happened there, and I suspected that the service rendered by the OPP would be the rescue of the other two teens passed out in the house. It was only the next day that the cold, leaden sky was filled with billowing greasy black smoke, and a house on Kingston Avenue was burning so fiercely that the fire department was unable to extinguish the blaze. No less a source than the Cobston Telegraph-Dispatch reported that the house burned for most of a day, somehow fed by a “large amount of fuel oil that authorities said had been illegally stored there.” Another rumor talked about in restaurants and pubs was the house had been a secret grow-lab for marijuana that ignited when a generator powering the special lights had short-circuited. A third story recounted a dreadful inhuman noise that bellowed out of the depths of the house when the fire reached its peak.
I would not even tell Teri Ottaway the truth of what I had found that night. I would never explain to her that the OPP had brought in the Mounted Police who then razed the old house. She only knew that I had found her son as I promised, and she would never have accepted the facts of what I had experienced. For hadn’t my own father inscribed the credo of his newspaper to reveal only that which Should be made known?
And I will always be grateful to Edie for her comely passion, promise, and a sense of humor that has helped me not to dwell on what I saw that night in the house. For what the light uncovered in the nighted depths of that cellar served to fill in the missing pages of my father’s journal, confirmed what I had seen three decades before in the dark vault under St. Mark’s, and had revealed a cosmic horror almost beyond description.
* * *
It is clear to me that we can only describe things in the context of ideas and beliefs we have built up through our experience and learning. When faced with something never before seen, we must either relate it to the known or describe it in words we already know. Thus, the cleric Cotton Mather could only name the things in his Wonders in accord with the demonology of his time. So it was true of the other demonographers such as Remigius, Sinistrari, von Juntz, Boguet, Rémy, Delrio, Alhazred, Glanvil, and even Philip Rohr who all wrote, describing cosmic horrors in the language of their times. An American writer of more recent vintage called it “the unnameable,” and I had seen it without truly comprehending what it was. I can only use my limited knowledge to describe it for posterity and to explain the horror of Cobston thereby.
The 150-year-old pages of my father’s copy of Mather are brittle and fragile, yet in context they teach that goodness, in any age, has a multiplicity of forms, but evil always seems the same—intent on the degradation and defiling of life’s sanctuary.
As I write, I can feel the evil ambience of that house and how it sickened me even the first time I went inside it—the decay, the unspeakable concatenation of odors, and the yawning door that led down into the cellar.
Now I knew what my father must have written in his journal, about that horror under the burying ground, brought by an immigrant-borne plague. He underlined the grisly passages in Summers’ book, recounting the dead who chewed in their graves underneath the earth. The action he supervised was meant to destroy the pestilence, yet in the vault underneath St. Marks 30 years before, I saw the residue of something undead that proved to me that the material world is but an island in the sea of what must exist outside.
From the back yard of that Kingston Avenue house, I looked up a rising slope to where the Cobston cemetery stood, largely untended in recent decades. I could hear Chuck Brellisford’s voice, thick with beer, as he described what his own father had unearthed in 1959. They had tried to burn it then too.
Even now I shudder when I think of what is under the ground at Cobston, a glutinous mass seeping over the years under the ground, insinuating itself through and under the strata of granite bedrock until it reached the cellar of the vacant house where it pulsed, unseen for decades, radiating a hellish energy that could corrupt and blast the merely human.
No, it was not a creature, yet I cannot describe it any other way. The moment I beamed the light at it, I knew it was from the outside—beyond life, death, and the world of the material senses. It was that unnameable cosmic horror, an entity whose form, was beyond my ability to describe it.
Even so, I can still see it, what must have been it, at the bottom of those cellar stairs. The yellow-white beam of light stabbed downward into the depths. Tendrils of vapor rose up from where the cellar floor had one time been. The animated thing that had been Lazlo was sunken into a mound of glistening bluish-white shape that filled the bottom of the cellar. Even as I looked from the doorway above, the form undulated, rippled wetly, and I could hear a ghastly sucking sound. I only looked for a few seconds at most, but I sensed that I saw only a fraction of what it must have been, and there was no way of knowing how far it extended under the ground.
At that moment I knew Brellisford had told the whole truth in my last interview with him, just as I knew a hideous truth about the undead and the world-old tales of the vampire that had been glossed and romanticized by the effete and the foolish of modern times. The creature named Lazlo was one of those things, and he drew his life from that frightful thing that rose up like a throbbing digestive organ from beneath the earth under that house.
* * *
When I can’t keep from thinking about that cold, dark night in Cobston, I also hear Chuck Brellisford’s voice as he clutched my sleeve, lips trembling, telling me a story nobody would ever believe. He admitted that he and his friends had spent a summer night cruising Cobston’s streets, looking for the drug dealer named Lazlo. When they found him, they put a blanket over him and pulled him into the car before driving to the abandoned Kingston Avenue house. Two of them began beating him in retribution for what he had done to their teenage sons. It was easy to imagine the fury and the helplessness they felt in the waste of their children’s lives. Then Brellisford spat the words at me, and they burned into my brain, never to be forgotten:
“We killed Lazlo that summer evening. We swore never to tell who fired the shot, but it was a .410 shotgun slug fired into the side of his head at arm’s length. Yes, we killed him. The body? My God, Stoneham, we threw it into the flooded cellar of that damned house on Kingston Avenue. We killed him that summer evening.”
When it was time for me to leave Canada again, I was not confident that Teri could save herself from the demons of alcohol, but she was intent on keeping her son committed to the hospital in hopes that he could redeem his humanity. I had fulfilled my promise to Teri, even though I know that one person has no power to rescue another.
And I will not forget a November night on Kingston Avenue in Cobston when I took that mockery of a living thing, with a mucous-filled hole where an ear should have been, and pitched it down the stairs into the cellar of the house. I returned the son to its father.