Dead Creek Road
Bernice Stodghill jerked the wheel of a black Mercedes C320 to the left, jammed the gas pedal to the floor, and flew past a Plymouth Voyager turtle-crawling along Highway 256. The woman inside the van turned her attention from a six-pack of children and slammed the brake pedal just as the Mercedes cut in front of her and out of the oncoming path of a honking six wheeler.
“Snot-nosed kids.” Bernice patted her hair and scowled at the rear-view mirror. “That woman should be sterilized”.
“Turn right on Dead Creek Road, 500 feet ahead,” a soothing voice announced from the Mercedes’ GPS system.
Bernice slowed from her eighty mph speed and looked for the turn-off. It was a gravel road with a bank of dented mailboxes beside the intersection. Bernice cornered the turn and pelted the boxes with loose gravel. Dead Creek Road twisted back and forth through corn and tobacco fields, traversed a red covered bridge, and dwindled into an overgrown rut of dirt and weeds. A battered sign warned, “Impassable during High Water”.
At the end of Dead Creek Road, Bernice pulled the Mercedes to a halt in front of a black tobacco barn, one side having been converted to billboard advertising “Chew Mail Pouch”, and a two-storied yellow farmhouse. In front of the house was a Caleb’s Crossing Partners’ sign with a rider proclaiming, “Sold”.
Bernice turned off the car’s engine, grabbed a Louis Vuitton bag, and got out of the car. Then she stood perfectly still and listened. Grasshoppers hummed, birds chirped, and leaves rustled, all else was silent. Blessedly, heavenly, silent.
Bernice took a deep, satisfying breath and listened some more, turning her head to one side then the other, animal-like, waiting to pick up some disturbance, a noise from an airplane roaring high above, a factory whistle. All she heard was the distant trickle of water as Dead Creek meandered around the farmstead.
She flicked a button on her keychain, beeped the car doors locked, walked over to the yard sign, and yanked it from the ground. Bernice tucked the sign under one arm, wiped dirt from her hands, and stared at the house. “Perfect”. She found herself smiling. How long had it been since the corners of her mouth had turned up?
She started toward the house, paused, removed a pair of Ferragami shoes with her free hand, and slung them over one shoulder.
Bernice felt prickles of grass against her bare feet as she dropped the handbag on the porch. She wound around to the back of the house, leaned the sign against a corner, and walked in the direction of the sounds of rushing water into a hickory grove, lining the rear property. Suddenly, she broke into a run. Stiff muscles relaxed and the knot in her shoulders loosened. After thirty years of working at Tillman Savings and Loan, she was finally free.
“Things are going to be different now,” she whispered as she crab-walked down a creek bank matted with a profusion of cattails, milkweed, and floating dragonflies. Bernice tested the water with one manicured toe and stepped into the cold, trickling water. Slippery rocks and small minnows caressed her feet. Bernice kicked one foot and splashed water on a black linen dress, costing hundreds at Saks. Bernice didn’t care. The need to impress was behind her now. The other things that had catapulted Bernice to a corner office on the top floor of Tillman Savings, the not so nice things whispered over the water cooler in the break room, those things were also behind her. Bernice fell backwards into the rippling waters with her long, black hair floating cape-like, and performed her own baptism.
She drifted, nonchalant, watching rainbows form through droplets of water on her eyelashes. She was weightless, and it felt so good. Bernice would finally be the person she was born to be. A nice person, who put band-aids on children’s scratched knees and tossed nuts to singing squirrels.
A sound, a rustle, a woman squatting on the creek’s bank, broke the silence and the spell. Bernice hoisted her body to a standing position and frowned at the bent figure of the woman, a crow-like apparition of raven hair, black shapeless dress, and parchment-hued skin. “What are you doing here?” Bernice demanded.
The woman seemed not to hear, but continued to gather herbs along the bank.
“I demand to know what you’re doing here. I’m Bernice Stodghill and this is my land.” Bernice was firm; her voice was commanding.
“No, it ain’t,” the woman answered. “Land can’t be bought and paid for.”
“Save your earth mother speech for someone who cares.” Bernice sloshed toward the woman. “You get off now, or I call the cops.”
“If you say so.” The woman straightened up and turned to leave. “But, you’ll be wanting me back soon, I expect.”
“Don’t hold your breath, Morticia.” Bernice splashed water at the retreating figure. “Hell has a better chance of freezing!”
The woman shrugged and wandered into the forest grove.
“Maybe, I’ll get a dog,” Bernice mused. “A nice big one with pointy teeth and an attitude.”
Bernice arrived back at the house a few minutes later. She retrieved her bag from the porch, opened it, found a key ring with three antique keys attached, and unlocked the front door.
Bernice had not seen the inside of the house or the property. She had discovered it on a website, dealing in foreclosed properties. It was a win-win situation, no matter what. The price was bargain basement cheap for the land alone. If the house didn’t work, she would bulldoze it.
Upon entering, she noticed an odor of must-infused Lysol. Bernice went into the living room and opened a lace-curtained window. The house just needed a good airing.
She removed a small notepad and pen from her handbag, and began a list. Ceiling cracks, peeling paint, rotted sills, squeaking boards were all noted and numbered with an adjacent column that would later contain a repair figure. When the total was added, if the repairs weren’t too hefty, the house would stand. If the costs were outrageous, the house would be razed.
Bernice made her way through the dining room-- light fixture was hideous, into the kitchen—yucky linoleum, the pantry—surprisingly spacious, and back to a hall staircase, leading to the second floor.
She made a note to replace the hall’s curling wallpaper and inspected the ceiling for cracks. Hearing a loud rap behind one of the upstairs doors, Bernice jumped. She didn’t like noises, especially in an empty house. There it was again and louder. Rap! Rap! Rap!
She turned her attention to a closed doorway at the end of the hall. The sound was definitely coming from behind the last door on the left side. She took a deep breath and forced herself forward. Bernice was afraid of no man, no woman. Ghosts were another matter.
Slowly, she turned the doorknob and cracked the door open.
An old man lay in a painted and peeling iron bed. A cane held in one cabbage-veined hand was making the rapping sound. The room was sparsely furnished with a four-drawer dresser, a faded cretonne armchair, a nightstand, and a chamber pot.
“Who in blazes are you?” The old man looked at Bernice through rheumy eyes and coughed.
“I live here,” Bernice stated emphatically.
“I live here,” the old man mimicked, banging the cane. “Vernie! Vernie! Some strange woman is in my room.”
Bernice took a deep breath. “Look, old man, I don’t know who you are or what you’re doing here, but this is not your home. Either you get out pronto, or I call the cops and have you removed. I don’t care much either way.”
“I ain’t going nowhere, Missy. Now, you get Vernie and tell her I’m hungry.”
“Vernie isn’t here. There is no Vernie here.” Bernice gritted her teeth.
“You’re trying to trick me, ain’t you Miss Fancy?” The old man rose up with one arm and shook the cane at Bernice. “Dadburnit, get Vernie! I told you I’m hungry.”
“I’ve had about enough of you, old geezer,” Bernice blared. “You asked for it.”
Bernice slammed the Mercedes driver’s door, reached under the passenger seat, and removed a crescent wrench—her weapon against deranged roadside killers. She tested the cool heft in her palm, and considered crashing it against the old man’s skull. No, that was the old Bernice. The new Bernice—the yellow house Bernice—would hold her temper. She thought about the creek and how good it felt and how she was going to whistle a happy tune. Sighing, she put the wrench back under the seat and turned on the engine. It was time to pay a visit to the Sheriff of Caleb’s Crossing.
Sheriff Jethro Jarvis leaned back in a torn armchair with his legs propped up on a desk littered with papers, coffee cups, and rubber bands. He was dressed in his short-sleeved summer uniform and black Addidas; his holstered gun lay draped over the back of his chair. In his hands, he held a knife and a piece of wood partially whittled into a bird—species yet to be determined.
“Are you the sheriff around here?” Bernice trounced on Jarvis with two hands clutching his lapels.
“Hey, you can’t manhandle the law.” Jarvis almost fell over backwards from the force of Bernice’s attack. His bird dropped to the floor.
Without apology, Bernice released the sheriff. “There’s an old man in my house, and I want you to get him out!”
“That would be Harold.” Sheriff Jarvis picked up the wooden bird and his knife again. “He’s pretty much harmless.”
“He’s in my house!” Bernice screamed.
“I expect the Millers will be back soon to pick him up.” Sheriff Jarvis sliced a shaving of wood that curled and fell to the floor.
“Pick him up?” Bernice took a deep breath.
“The Millers always were a forgetful bunch.” Jarvis sliced more wood. Maybe the bird would be a cardinal. “Once they left little Stromie on the roof of the car. Drove two miles before they figured out where the bouncing sound was coming from.” The sheriff smiled.
“Then you’ll just have to put him in jail till they get back.” Bernice crossed her arms.
“Not likely.” The sheriff put down the piece of wood. “Harold wouldn’t hurt a flea.”
“Then evict him. He’s in my house.” Bernice eyed the sheriff and thought of choking the bird.
“Have to have an eviction order.”
“Come on, Sheriff. Couldn’t you just bend the law?”
“Look here, Miss Stodghill,” Sheriff Jarvis said as he took his feet off the desk and stood up, “you may think this is Mayberry, but we do things by the book in Caleb’s Crossing. No eviction order, no eviction.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“I just can’t help you out. I expect you should see Bill Wilson, the town’s judge.”
“Where do I find this Bill Wilson, then?”
“He’d be at the baseball game by now.” Sheriff Jarvis stood up and glanced at a moon-faced clock. “Should be starting in about fifteen minutes. Gopher championship is on the line.”
“Give me his address and phone number.” Bernice stood up and frowned. Impotence did not become her.
“County Courthouse in the town square.” The sheriff pointed a thumb, tore a piece of paper from a notepad, and wrote down a number. “You can reach him tomorrow.”
Bernice grabbed the paper and tried to think of something threatening to say. When nothing came to mind, she stomped out of the police station.
Bernice marched down Main Street to the Court House in the middle of the town’s square. She pounded and pounded, but the doors were locked. What kind of town closed for a Gopher game?”
Ten minutes later Bernice returned to the yellow house. A moving van was parked in front of the porch with a ramp bridging the gap. Uniformed workers hoisted chairs, a couch, beds, and assorted boxes, transferring her furniture from van to house.
A middle-aged man with gray hair and laugh lines whistled and lifted a table lamp. “Someone is mighty hungry up there.”
“Is that a fact?” Bernice shoved her way through the front door. “Watch the woodwork, moron,” she said to a young boy, who was backing a table into the kitchen.
She stopped at the bottom of the staircase and looked up. Thinking. Planning. Bernice was a problem solver. The old man was a problem.
Rap! Rap! Rap!
She ran up the stairs and into the back bedroom, grabbed the old man, and attempted to separate man and mattress.
“Vernie! Vernie!” The old man fought back with his cane, scratched at Bernice’s eyes, bit her on the hand.
Bernice retreated to the bathroom and washed her hand with warm soapy water. The old man could be a rabies carrier, for all she knew. She sank down on the bathroom tiles and felt coldness seep into her bones. Tears threatened, but Bernice willed them back.
“Tomorrow, I’ll go see the judge and this will be over,” Bernice vowed.
Bernice slept fitfully that night. She tried tucking three pillows over her head, but the tapping went on for hours. Finally, able to stay awake no longer, Bernice fell into a troubled disquieting sleep.
She got up early, showered, and tiptoed out the door. The Court House was closed when Bernice arrived at the brick building. A paper clock in the window with the short hand on nine announced opening hours. Bernice looked at her watch. It was a few minutes after eight. Okay, Bernice took ten deep breaths. You will handle this. For now you just need coffee. She looked across the town square, spying a place called Harley’s Café. It looked like a thousand other grubby, small town restaurants, definitely below her standards, but it would do for now.
Harley’s Café was painted dirty green with pictures splattered everywhere of the Lion’s Club, the Elk’s Club, and local politicians. A police scanner chattered from behind the counter. Bernice found an empty stool at the end of a Formica counter and sat down.
“What can I do you for?” A man in a white envelope hat and tee shirt plunked a cup in front of Bernice and poured coffee. He had a toothpick dangling from the side of his mouth, and a pack of Luckies tucked into one short sleeve.
“Coffee is fine.” Bernice didn’t smile.
“The Harlster don’t let nobody go hungry.” The man winked, and Bernice was satisfied that “toothpick man” was Harley, the owner. “I’ll just get you my breakfast special.” Wink. Wink.
Bernice would have normally said no, would have demanded a menu and selected each item after inquiring painstakingly about the exact cooking method. But the business with the old man consumed her, and she decided to conserve her energy for more important battles. Besides, Bernice was hungry.
“I don’t recall seeing you in here before.” The owner put a warm plate of sausage, grits, scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy in front of Bernice. He refilled Bernice’s coffee cup and leaned his arms on the counter.
“I just moved here.” Bernice examined her plate and calculated fat, carbohydrates, and calories. The meal was a time bomb.
“You the lady who bought the Miller house?” Harlster flipped the toothpick back and forth in the corner of his mouth.
“It’s the Stodghill house now. I’m Bernice Stodghill.” Bernice picked up a fork and took a small bite of egg.
“Harley Burdine.” The Harlster winked. The toothpick flicked. “People call me..,”
“I know, The Harlster.” Bernice took a drink of coffee.
“Smart. I like that in a woman.” Harley Burdine winked again. “So, you bought the Miller house.” The Harlster whistled around the toothpick. “Bad deal, that one.”
“What do you mean?” Bernice ate some more egg, drank more coffee.
“The old man, Harold Miller,” he said, pouring himself a cup of coffee. “The Millers dumping him on you, and all. Word is that Harold just wouldn’t budge.” Harley smiled. “I expect they left him on purpose.”
“The old man is not staying.” Bernice picked up her fork again and tackled sausage and grits. “This will be straightened out as soon as I speak to Judge Wilson.”
“Okay. But just in case it doesn’t straighten itself out,” Burdine looked around the restaurant, then leaned over and whispered in Bernice’s ear, “you talk to Roxie Rigsby. Can’t miss her, black hair, black clothes, place right next to yours. She’s a witch.”
“That’s ridiculous. I am not consulting a witch.” Bernice put down her fork and wiped her mouth. “Judge Wilson will evict him.” Bernice took five dollars from her handbag, plunked it on the counter, and stood up.
“Well, you just remember. Roxie Rigsby.” The Harlster put the five in the register.
At exactly nine o’clock Bernice was at the door of the County Courthouse. She rushed inside and crossed a dark, oiled floor to the reception desk. “Where can I find Judge Wilson?”
“Straight back. Office is the door behind the courtroom.” A woman in a polyester suit and a head of short lacquered hair smiled over a copy of National Enquirer.
Bernice walked down the center hallway, past the courtroom, and knocked on a paneled oak door. The name, “Judge Bill Wilson”, was engraved on a brass door sign.
An elderly man with wire-rimmed glasses, rolled up shirtsleeves, and a threadbare head opened the door. “Can I help you?”
“Judge Wilson?” Bernice breezed past the door and into the room. “I need an eviction notice, pronto.”
“I’m a judge, not a magician.” Judge Wilson walked back to his desk and sat down on the edge with one leg slung over the corner. “Why don’t you begin by telling me who you are, and why you need this pronto eviction?”
“I’m Bernice Stodghill. I bought the Miller place, which I’m sure you know. I’m sure the whole town knows!”
“News does travel.” Judge Wilson picked up a legal pad and made some notes.
“Then you also probably know that the Millers dumped Grandpa on me.” Bernice felt two red spots form on her cheeks.
“They are a forgetful bunch. I’m sure they’ll be back. Probably just getting settled.” Judge Wilson put the pad down. “How about I get Marcia, my secretary, on the intercom? She can probably get the Miller’s new phone number.”
“Can’t you just issue an order first, and iron out the rest later?” Bernice was determined not to leave the Judge’s office without a sense of closure to the grandpa debacle.
“It’s not quite that simple.” The Judge rubbed his chin. “Possession is ninety-nine tenths of the law, as they say. You’re going to have to show grounds for his removal.”
“He’s in my house—the house I bought and paid for—if that isn’t grounds, I don’t know what is!”
“You may own the house, Miss Stodghill, but for now, Mr. Miller occupies the house. Why don’t you just do what I suggested? Call the Millers. I’m sure they’ll be right over to pick up Harold, and you can start enjoying that pretty, little, yellow house.” Judge Wilson pushed a button on his phone and asked his secretary, Marcia, to find the Millers’ new number.
Marcia arrived a few minutes later and handed a piece of paper to Bernice. Bernice looked at the paper and sighed. Maybe the judge was right; maybe it was just that simple. “Do you have a public phone?”
“By the Restrooms in the second hallway.” Judge Wilson stood up and shook Bernice’s hand. “I’m sure this will all get straightened out.”
Bernice went to the second hallway, found the payphone, plopped a quarter in the slot, and dialed the number. Four rings later a woman picked up the phone. “Mrs. Miller?”
“Are you calling from one of them aluminum siding companies? Cause, we ain’t interested.” The woman started to hang up the phone.
“Mrs. Miller, don’t hang up. I’m Bernice Stodghill. I bought your house.”
“Oh.” The voice sounded wary. “What can I do for you?”
“What can you do? How about collecting the old man you left in the back bedroom for starters?” Bernice barked into the phone.
“No need to get huffy, now, Missy.”
“When can you pick him up?” Bernice became proactive. Time to take charge.
“That might be a problem,” the woman said. “It’s kind of crowded here for the time being. I’m not sure Grandpa Harold would be very comfortable on the floor.”
“That is not my problem, Mrs. Miller,” Bernice barked, clicking her nails on the booth’s ledge.
“Look, it might just be a few days before we can collect him. I just don’t want to upset his routine too much right now. Grandpa ain’t in the best of health.”
“Shouldn’t you have thought about these things before you moved?” Bernice clinched her jaw. She was starting to get another headache.
“Look, Lady, you got that house real cheap. Don’t think I don’t know what’s what. Now, you just cool your britches and unhitch your horses. We’ll get Grandpa as soon as we get rid of a couple of relatives. In the meantime, he needs a soft diet-not too much fat or protein, and no sugar! Grandpa’s diabetic. His medicine bottle is on the bedside table.” The phone clicked and there was silence.
Bernice dialed the number again. It rang twelve times but nobody answered. She dialed six more times with the same results. Finally, Bernice left the courthouse, got in the Mercedes and found a small grocery store. She loaded several bags into the Mercedes and drove back to the yellow farmhouse.
Tap! Tap! Tap! “Vernie, I’m hungry!”
Bernice unloaded the groceries and tried to pretend she couldn’t hear the ruckus upstairs. She put milk, orange juice, non-fat yogurt, eggs, ground beef and steaks in the fridge. Staples got loaded in the pantry.
Tap! Tap! Tap! Tap! “Vernie, bring me some food!”
Bernice glared at the ceiling, reopened the fridge, reached for a carton of non-fat yogurt, changed her mind, and removed a marbled steak. A few minutes later, it was sizzling and brown.
“I brought you some food.” Bernice sat a tray down in front of Harold Miller. “See, I cut it up for you in little pieces.” Bernice smiled.
Harold Miller smacked his lips. “Vernie won’t let me have meat. Claims it could kill me.”
“Does she now?” Bernice smiled and wandered to the nightstand, opened the drawer and removed a medicine bottle filled with Atenolol. Bernice read the precautions on the label. “You have heart problems?”
“What of it?” Harold Miller spurted bits of meat from his mouth.
“Nothing, enjoy your steak.” Bernice smiled again and slipped the bottle into her pocket.
“Hey, take that chamber pot as you go, woman,” Harold Miller yelled and banged the cane.
Bernice stopped smiling, picked up the pot, and carried it to the bathroom. Holding it as far away from her as possible, she emptied it into the toilet bowl, then took the pot back, and dropped it beside Harold.
“And take this tray with you,” the old man demanded. “I want some candy bars. Snickers or some of them Reece’s cups.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” Bernice picked up the tray and thought about crashing it on Harold Miller’s liver-spotted skull.
She went downstairs to the kitchen, made a pot of tea, and sat down at a pine table. She took the bottle out and studied it. Side effects included breathing difficulties, lung problems, impotence-she didn’t think Harold needed to worry about that, slow heart rate, fatigue, cough, and drowsiness
Bernice measured a double dose, filled a glass with water, found a couple of candy bars, and went back upstairs.
“Take this, and I’ll give you some candy.” She smiled at Harold.
“Now, we’re talking, girlie.” Harold downed the pills, coughed, and waited. Bernice handed him a candy bar. Downstairs, someone was pounding on the door.
“I’ll be right back.” Bernice smiled, went downstairs and opened the door. A woman in a white nurse’s uniform stood on the front porch.
“Hi, I’m Celie from Visiting Nurses. Judge Wilson told me I should check in on Harold.” The woman walked through the door, past Bernice and headed upstairs. “Hey Harold, Nurse Celie is here to see you, you sweet old thing.”
Bernice hurried behind her, tried to pass her on the stairs. “Harold is sleeping now. Couldn’t you come back?”
Tap! Tap! Tap! “Bring me some more candy!”
Nurse Celie looked at Bernice and frowned. “You been giving that old man candy?”
Bernice tried to decide whether to tell the truth or lie? “No, of course not.”
“We’ll see about that.” Celie headed for the back bedroom. She was inside for only a few minutes. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing, Lady. But if that man so much as sneezes the wrong way, I’m coming looking for you! How much medicine you give him?” She threw a candy wrapper at Bernice, crossed her arms, and tapped one white shoe.
“How am I supposed to know? He is not my responsibility.”
“As long as old Harold is under your roof, missy, you are responsible. Now, I shouldn’t have to tell you that. Most folks know what the right thing to do is.” Celie headed downstairs and opened the door. “I’m watching you.”
Bernice went in the kitchen and sat back down. She was shaking. She put her head down on the cool table. Maybe, she should forget about the old man, just pretend he wasn’t there. The Millers would surely pick him up soon.
Four long days, four sleepless nights later, with countless medicine doses, meals, chamber pot emptying and tap, tap, tapping, Bernice was at her wit’s end. She was beginning to wonder who would outlast who? Bernice had dark circles under her eyes, shaking hands, and was fairly certain she was feeling heart palpitations. On the second day, the telephone company had installed a phone in the kitchen. Bernice spent most of her time dialing the Miller’s number. There was never an answer. Every time she heard a noise outside, she ran to the front door to see if the Millers had arrived.
Bernice got up on the fifth day and dressed in a pair of shorts, tee shirt, and tennis shoes. A red sun dawned in a cloudless sky, the front screen door banged shut behind her, as Bernice walked around the house and down to the creek.
She made her way under the roof of dense foliage along the bank, sidestepping exposed roots and craw daddy holes. She searched for several minutes before she glimpsed a small weathered cabin, almost hidden by an overgrowth of hickories, pines, and sycamores.
Bernice hacked her way with her hands through briars and sticks until she emerged into a clearing at the front of the house. Weeds, brush, and primitive art consumed the yard. A rusted Chevrolet rested by the side of the house on four concrete blocks. A clothesline swung from two poles with ten penned dolls twirling in a gentle breeze. Crows lined the tin roof of the cabin, beak-picking gnats from their wings.
Bernice skirted broken glass and roots, until she arrived at a front porch with a torn screen door. Patsy Cline’s voice drifted from a radio somewhere inside. Bernice knocked. After a few moments a woman came to the door.
“Are you Roxie Rigsby?” Bernice cleared her throat.
“You come to buy one of my dolls?” Roxie Rigsby opened the screen door. She wore the same black dress she had worn on the day Bernice had encountered her in Dead Creek. Today, Roxie had a black apron tied around her waist and had pulled her raven tresses back with a piece of string, leaving one loose strand to cascade over her left eye.
“No, of course not,” Bernice said.
“You sure? They’re mighty nice.” Roxie stepped bare feet onto the porch, causing the crows to swarm from the roof. “Get on outta here!” she yelled, removing the apron from around her waist and flicking it at the crows. The crows scattered as she walked past Bernice to the clothesline and unpinned one of the dolls. “Here.” She handed it to Bernice.
“I told you, I don’t want this,” Bernice said, giving the doll back. “People say you’re a witch.” She decided just to dive in with both feet.
Roxie laughed and shoved the doll back at Bernice. “You didn’t even look at it.”
Bernice stared at the doll. Dressed in calico, it was made of muslin with stitched eyes, nose, and mouth. Nothing was extraordinary about it, except maybe the hair that was silk-textured and seemed almost real. “It’s all right.” Bernice handed it back to Roxie.
Roxie looked at Bernice from under the loose hair strand and pinned the doll back to the clothesline.
“So are you, or aren’t you?” Bernice tapped a foot and looked at her watch.
“You got an appointment or something?” Roxie asked as she sauntered back to the cabin. Bernice shook her head no. “Well, come on in, then.” Roxie swung the screen open and went inside the house. Bernice picked her way cautiously through the littered yard and followed.
The small, dark interior was infused with a spicy aroma that came from rows of herbs tied to wide, oak ceiling beams. An old couch, a couple of chairs, and a wooden table furnished the room. The floor was littered with baskets of dried herbs, rolls of fabric, and magazines.
Roxie sat down in a rocking chair and started humming to music playing from an old Victrola on a wall by the kitchen. The song was “Crazy”. Bernice sat down on the couch and tried to decide which tactic would work best to take control of the situation. After a few seconds Roxie stopped rocking and humming. “You want me to get the old man out of your house?”
“Can you?” Bernice brightened.
“Depends,” Roxie said, “it ain’t going to be easy. Got to look like it just happened.”
“I agree!” Bernice said louder than she intended. “He’s an old man with a heart problem. How hard could it be?”
“Tricky, still,” Roxie picked up a roll of fabric and removed a rubber band. “You like this color?”
“I guess,” Bernice said with a frown. “How much will it cost?” Bernice took a roll of twenties from the pocket of her shorts. Roxie was starting to slip away again; Bernice wanted her on target.
“How much would you pay for one of the dolls?” Roxie re-rolled the fabric and selected another sample from the basket.
“I get it,” Bernice sighed. “How about fifty dollars?”
Roxie threw both rolls in the basket and started rocking furiously.
“All right, one hundred.” Bernice took out five twenties and smoothed them on her lap.
“Put away your money.” Roxie stopped rocking. “The price to get him out of the house is your soul.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Bernice laughed, “or watching too many old horror movies. Nobody believes that nonsense anymore.”
“You don’t believe in the soul, then?”
“It’s here and now, as far as I’m concerned. The rest is mumbo-jumbo fairy tale hogwash. And right now, I want that old man out!” Bernice exclaimed, fingering the bills.
“Then it will cost you nothing to let me have it.” Roxie said. “Not if you don’t believe.”
Bernice considered. She found the bargain unsavory, even if she thought it was nonsense. Then she reconsidered; what did she have to lose? As a matter of fact it was win-win. Just the way Bernice liked it. She put the money back in her pocket. “So do you have some smoking contract that will appear from flames for me to sign?” Bernice tried to smile, but the corners of her mouth refused to budge.
“Now, who’s been watching too many movies?” Roxie said grinning. “You just give me the cuttings from your hair.”
“That’s it?” Bernice finally found a smile. She didn’t even have to sign anything. A verbal agreement was non-binding. All she was out was a few strands of hair. “Cut away!”
Roxie took a small pair of scissors and a piece of cloth from the basket, walked over to Bernice, and carefully snipped the ends from all around her head. When Roxie was finished she put all the pieces in the cloth, wrapped it into a ball, and tied it with some string.
“What now?” Bernice ran her fingers through her shorn hair. “How will you do it?”
“Meet me at midnight and bring a shovel.” Roxie put the ball in the pocket of her apron, walked to the door, and opened it. “Don’t forget the shovel,” she said to Bernice as she walked outside into the morning sun.
Bernice rock-stepped through the creek bank and returned to the yellow house. It had all seemed surreal. Things just didn’t happen that way; then again, nothing had seemed real since she had arrived in Caleb’s Crossing, starting with the old man in the upstairs bedroom! Bernice smiled. She would finally be able to enjoy her house in peace. And it had cost her nothing.
Bernice was actually kind to Harold when she returned. After all, he would soon be gone. She made him some oatmeal, gave him his medicine, tucked the blanket around him, and waited for midnight.
At eleven-thirty that night, Bernice dressed in a pair of black jeans and a tee shirt, took a flashlight from the kitchen, and went to the barn to look for a shovel. The barn, criss-crossed with layered poles, smelled of dried manure, hay, and lingering tobacco. She walked across packed earth to the back where a jumble of tools lay heaped in a corner. Near the bottom was a shovel. Bernice hoisted it over her shoulder, walked out of the barn, turned on the flashlight, and made her way down to Dead Creek.
Pale slivers of moonlight, lost in a dense umbrella of overgrowth, turned the creek bed into a cave. Bernice pointed the flashlight straight ahead and plunged into the murky darkness. The yellow beam bounced off scurrying animals, swarming insects, and other night creatures. The sounds of trickling water, fluttering wings, and owls, hooting in the distance, blended into a strange symphony. At the stroke of midnight, she arrived to the ramshackle house where Roxie stood waiting.
“What now?” Bernice felt sweat drip onto her shirt. The waistband around her jeans was also soaked.
“Follow me.” Roxie set out along the creek bed in a direction away from the yellow house. Bernice hoisted the shovel and followed. They sloshed though water for perhaps fifteen minutes. Minnows and small fish skirted around Bernice’s soaked tennis shoes as the water grew deeper. Finally, Roxie climbed up the bank. An arched gateway proclaiming “Bide-A-While Cemetery” appeared at the top of the hill surrounded by ghostly sycamores.
“Oh isn’t this just too ghoulish.” Bernice wanted to laugh. “What are we doing here?”
Roxie didn’t answer, but walked slowly from one plot to the next. At a barbed wire fence in the corner, a leaning stone marked a neglected grave. Two still and silent crows watched atop the tombstone.
“You dig here.” Roxie sat down on a clump of grass, removed two pieces of fabric cut into the outline of a doll, and began to sew in the faint moonlight.
“You’ve got to be kidding.” Bernice looked at the plot. “Why would I want to do that?”
“We got to get hair from a corpse to mix in with yours.” Roxie continued sewing small, delicate stitches. “Won’t work without it.”
“Then what?” Bernice asked, leaning against the handle of the shovel. “I know, you’re making some kind of voodoo doll to work some kind of magic, but shouldn’t it be the old man?” She put the shovel on the ground. “He’s the one that has to go.”
“You planning on taking up witching?” Roxie tied a knot with her teeth, and broke it with her left hand. “You want me to get rid of him, or not?”
Bernice thought about the old man upstairs with his rapping cane and his detestable chamber pot. She started to dig.
The moist ground gave way easily and in less than an hour, Bernice felt her shovel hit solid wood. Her tee shirt was sweat-soaked; her hair was matted as she dug faster, throwing shovels of dirt up onto the ground that surrounded the hole. At last, a bare coffin was exposed in the moonlight. The crows cawed and fluttered into the dark sky.
Roxie had almost finished the doll, complete with a full head of Bernice’s hair. She clutched the doll to her chest, and inspected the grave. “Open it.”
Bernice gritted her teeth and tried to open the lid. It wouldn’t budge.
“You got to hit it with the shovel.” Roxie coaxed.
Bernice pounded a weathered clasp with the shovel tip and heard a clink as the lock gave way. But how could she open the box while standing on it? Bernice stood there panting, and puzzled over the rotted wooden box.
“You got to get out and flip it with the shovel.” Roxie finally said.
“You would know that, wouldn’t you?” Bernice climbed out of the hole, leaned down on the side of the ground, and lowered the shovel into the hole. It took several attempts, but at last the coffin lid stood opened.
“Go on, get down there.” Roxie gave Bernice a shove. “Get a nice clump, and we can finish this.”
Bernice climbed back down into the hole, trying not to see inside the box, trying to pretend that this wasn’t real, but was only an imagined nightmare. Something crawled around her shoes as she stood in the box. The stench was unbearable. Bernice held her nose, turned her eyes away, and grabbed at the skull. Something slimy and wet caught in her hands. Bernice gasped and quickly climbed out of the hole.
“Let’s see.” Roxie looked over Bernice’s shoulder at a knotted fist.
Bernice didn’t want to open her hand, didn’t want to see what was inside.
“Here, drop it into this.” Roxie held out a piece of fabric. “We got to get going.”
Bernice opened her palm. She didn’t want to look, but her eyes turned to the palm as if they had a will of their own. Tufts of hair interlaced with maggots squirmed in her hand. She jumped and threw the distasteful mess into the cloth. Suddenly, she felt her stomach churn, and she ran to a clump of bushes under a sycamore tree and threw up.
“You just get it all out,” Roxie said. “I’m almost finished.”
Bernice clutched her stomach and tried to keep from fainting. The sky was indigo above her, red swirls seemed to appear around the moon, flashes of lightning zigzagged in the distance. Finally, she stood up. It was time to finish it, just like Roxie had said. Bernice wanted to be home in her bed under a warm blanket, safe and secure again. At that moment, she didn’t even care about the old man. All she cared about was that she would wake up and discover the night had only been a dream.
“You best close that up and throw the dirt back over it,” Roxie sewed clumps of the matted hair into the doll.
“Why can’t we just leave it?” Bernice felt her stomach roll again, her muscles threatening mutiny.
“And let somebody find it?” Roxie clucked her tongue. “I thought you was smart.”
Bernice lowered the shovel back into the hole, flipped the lid closed, and fought aching muscles as she threw earth back into the grave. It was almost two in the morning when the hole was filled again.
“You did good,” Roxie nodded her head. “We got one more thing, and it’s over.” Roxie picked up her basket and headed out of the cemetery. Bernice followed Roxie down the hill and into Dead Creek. They continued on for about ten minutes until they reached a flat rock in the middle of the water. Roxie climbed up on the rock. “Come on,” she said, “get on up here, girl.”
“I want to go home,” Bernice whispered. “I don’t think any of this is going to change a thing.”
“You come this far,” Roxie cajoled, “don’t lose me now. Get on up here.”
Bernice climbed onto the rock.
“Now we come to ask for something,” Roxie held the doll into the air. “You know everything, what we’re thinking, what we’re planning, and what we ain’t planning.”
“Who are you talking to?” Bernice nudged Roxie. An owl hooted in the distance.
“Shut up!” Roxie nudged Bernice back and continued, “We offer this soul in payment, just so you know we are serious, and all.” Roxie threw the doll into the water.
Suddenly, a jolt of lightning split the creek at the spot where the doll floated upon the water. White foam gathered; water began to swirl, until finally, the doll was pulled down into the dark, murky bottom.
“Now, you hurry and get home!” Roxie yelled. “You get in your car and you drive as fast as you can.”
“What?” Bernice stared at the spot where the doll had disappeared.
“You heard me!” Roxie shoved Bernice. “Get out of here.”
Bernice looked at Roxie and then down at her rapidly disappearing feet. The creek was rising quickly. “What did you do?” Bernice yelled.
“I gave the creek your soul,” Roxie shouted above the roar of swelling water. “Only way to get the old man out.”
“That’s ridiculous.” Bernice yelled back. “What kind of witch are you?”
“You stay, if you like,” Roxie said jumping into the water, “I’m getting out of here.”
Bernice watched for one second as Roxie swam quickly away. Then she jumped into the water and swam, as fast as her arms would take her, back to the yellow house.
She was soaked and shivering as she pulled her body onto the muddy bank and made her way up the hill. Lights flickered in the upstairs window. The creek continued to rise, as Bernice ran into the front yard and jumped into the Mercedes. Keys! She didn’t have the car keys!
The water was higher, almost to the front door. She raced into the kitchen to grab her purse from the counter. Soon it would reach the road, and then what?
“Vernie? Is that you?” the old man called down the stairs.
Bernice grabbed her purse and ran back out the door, her mind racing with each step. Insurance. Insurance would cover the damage. She would file a claim and have the money and the land. The old man would be gone; she would rebuild if she had to, and the best part was: no one could blame her. Who would believe the tale, even if she told them the truth?
Water swirled around her ankles as she climbed into the Mercedes driver’s seat and pushed the key into the ignition. The starter ground; the engine refused to turn over. Bernice threw her head at the wheel, and turned the key again. Finally, the engine choked into life. She jammed the transmission into reverse and pushed the pedal to the floor.
She was going to make it! Bernice looked into the rear view mirror and watched hungry water lash at the house. It was above the front step; soon, it would be at the front door. Soon, it would be upstairs, and in the bedroom, and the old man would be dead.
Bernice didn’t want to think about that as she sped through the water. This probably had nothing to do with the night’s events, she decided. A sudden storm had arrived, and that was it. It was just a coincidence.
Bernice was almost at the bridge now, almost home free, when a tidal wave of water hit the car and knocked it into Dead Creek. Water rushed above the windows, as the Mercedes sank beneath the muddy pool. What to do? Bernice tried to remember. Wait until the car was submerged, roll down the window, and swim for the top. Bernice waited.
Seconds later, the car was covered. Bernice pushed the window button. Nothing happened. The electric windows had shorted out in the water. Bernice beat the window with her purse. When that didn’t work, she kicked it with her foot. Nothing. Water was seeping into the car, when she reached under the passenger seat, grabbed the crescent wrench, and hammered the window into shatters. She hoisted herself out of the car and kicked for the surface.
Bernice bobbed up, thrashing against the muddy, rolling waves. In the distance was an object. Bernice swam toward it; hoping she might use it as a raft. She cut through the water until she was close enough to make out the shape of a bed, an iron bed. The old man lay atop, still wrapped in his blankets.
“Vernie, I want my dinner!” He shouted.
Bernice grabbed for the bed, tried to pull herself up.
“Get away,” the old man snarled and rapped her knuckles with the cane.
“Help!” Bernice swallowed water and sank beneath the waves, taking her last gulping breaths. Bubbles rose into the air and marked the last place she would see the old man. Beneath the surface, she felt something detaching inside her; saw something float toward her. It was the doll, the one Roxie had fashioned with Bernice’s hair, with the dead man’s hair! Bernice looked at it quizzically. Funny, that it should appear. Funny, that it would be the last thing she would see on earth. And funny, that it was sucking at her, pulling at her insides, taking something she didn’t even know that she had. And even funnier, that she felt blackness surround her, but she wasn’t dead. She looked out through stitched eyes and a stitched mouth, and floated to the surface of Dead Creek.
Bernice watched the water recede as rapidly as it had risen; watched in amazement as the old man and the bed floated back into the house, back up the stairs to the fourth bedroom on the left.
Then, Bernice felt her rag body lifted from the pool.
“Told you we’d get him out of the house, ” Roxie flung Bernice from side to side. Water sprayed into the air. “Just didn’t say, he’d stay there.” Roxie hummed absently. The song was “Crazy”.
A few days later, the sun had dried all that remained of the flood that had ravaged the banks of Dead Creek. Bernice dangled from the line beside ten other dolls and watched the crows lining the roof of Roxie’s cottage and a small boy who was sucking a stick of licorice.
“That you, Stromie?” Roxie came barefoot down the steps of the porch, approached the boy, and ran her fingers though tufts of red hair. “When you get back?”
“Today,” the boy answered with sticky lips.
“You want a present?” Roxie bent down and looked into the boy’s eyes.
“Sure,” he smiled and sucked on the licorice.
Roxie got up and walked to the clothesline. Bernice felt hands undo the clothespins, felt her rag body lifted down. “Here you go,” Roxie handed the doll to Stromie Miller, and Bernice felt stickiness surround her.
“Thanks,” Stromie said giving Roxie a kiss. “I should be getting home.”
“Tell your ma and pa, I’m glad they’re back,” Roxie said as Stromie ran toward the creek bank.
Stromie dangled Bernice as he sloshed through the creek, almost dropping her. He jumped rocks, studied a frog, tried to harpoon a fish, and finally made his way home.
A flatbed truck loaded with furniture was parked on the lane beside the yellow house, along with a county Sheriff’s car, a black Oldsmobile, and a yellow van with “Harley’s Hamburgers” painted on the side.
“Stromie Miller, you throw that licorice down this instant, ” a woman yelled from the front door. “You know Grandpa can’t have sweets. If he sees that, he’s gonna start in yelling again.”
Stromie threw the licorice away and walked inside the house.
“What you got there, son?” Sheriff Jarvis said from a chair in the corner, where he sat whittling a bird. Species yet to be determined.
“A stupid doll.” Stromie scratched behind his ear. “Roxie gave it to me.”
“You go on up, and say hi to Grandpa,” his mother have him a shove. “He ain’t doing too well. I think this time was harder than the last.”
“I want a drink of water,” Stromie said, heading for the kitchen.
“Howdy, boy,” Judge Wilson looked up from over his glasses and gave Stromie a wink. On the table in front of him, the screen of a laptop computer glowed, currently online. “We running the same ad again?” He yelled into the living room.
“Don’t fix what ain’t broken,” Sheriff Jarvis yelled back and shaved a thin curl of wood from the bird. Maybe it would be a nice red-breasted robin.
Stromie poured water into a glass and downed the liquid.
“I thought I told you to go see Grandpa,” Vernie Miller gave him a harder push this time, “Now get on upstairs.”
“Do what your mama says.” Harley Burdine came out of the bathroom wiping his hands with a towel. “We’re gonna make a Gopher of you yet.” Harley winked and flicked a toothpick in his mouth.
Stromie let the doll dangle, the rag feet brushing each step, as he jumped from stair to stair, landed at the top, and walked down the hallway to the back bedroom.
“Vernie, I want my supper,” the old man snarled as Stromie walked into the room and to the bed. “What you got there, boy?” Harold Miller rapped the doll with his cane.
“Something Roxie gave me,” Stromie sat down on the bed. “Here,” he said suddenly, shoving the doll at the old man. “You can have it. Dolls are for sissies.”
“Thank you, boy,” Harold grabbed Bernice and stuck her under the covers. “I always did want a woman who knew how to keep her mouth shut!”
Bernice lay still under the covers, blinded to all but faint traces of light that filtered through the blanket. She felt the old man’s skinny body next to her, heard his cane rapping, felt his heartbeat, and his raspy breaths. She tried to comprehend her new situation, her new circumstances, and where that might lead. After all, Bernice was a planner. Somehow she would come out on top, if it took every rag in her lifeless body. She had tenacity. She would wait until hell freezes over, if she had to.
Unfortunately, that was exactly the right amount of time.