I held the worn and crinkled letter in my hand, reading it a final time. The paper shredder waited with a machine’s perfect patience, as I had waited all these years.
The day after the Slaughter family escaped, I woke up to the sound of a bulldozer plowing up their garden. After hastily throwing on some clothes, I raced over and watched, along with others in the neighborhood. Yellow police tape kept the curious at bay. It encircled the entire yard.
As time passed, excited medical examiners unearthed thousands of bones. There were more corpses than could be dealt with. Assorted body parts fell off stretchers. A small shapeless piece of once-living meat teaming with blind white maggots flopped to the driveway.
The smell had to be nauseating; drafted workers covered their faces with bandanas made from a shredded tee shirt while the professionals wore facemasks that made them look like construction workers.
My thoughts reeled with the horror and strangeness of it all. I couldn’t believe it, in our sleepy little town? Of course, the carnage soon drew the attention of the media. They descended on us in hungry packs, cameras prying into everything. They turned our little corner of the world into a fishbowl and then asked us how we felt about it.
I know how I felt, time-warped. The dark ages had returned. It was no longer 1957.
Sure, Buddy Holly and the Crickets were playing in town to a packed house of screaming girls in poodle skirts, bobby socks and saddle shoes. President Eisenhower was still in office. And the future looked bright with Burger King offering the world a thirty-nine cent burger of incredible proportions--the Whopper. But despite all that, people were back to huddling together in fear of terrible ancient things that had never really gone away.
The unearthed secrets didn’t really surprise me. My own family had its share. My own name, the one I didn’t use, was a secret. Dad had named me Horace. I hated him for that, and for all the times he would get drunk and make us kids go pick a switch from the holly bushes so he could beat respect into us.
We’d get twice the licking if we picked a wimpy switch. His personal darkness rattled heavy chains, often slipping its leash. He’d often beat my dog Rex for no good reason. Rex was mine since I’d found him by the railroad tracks, just a pup, and snuck him home. Daddy didn’t like the idea of another mouth to feed, knowing I’d sneak him food whenever I got the chance. Now, Rex was beyond suffering. His bones lay somewhere in that monstrous pile. I was sure of it now.
Marcus, my best friend, and his brothers had kept to themselves, but despite our differences we all got along. Maybe it was because I was just too stupid to be afraid of them. The Slaughter family didn’t look any different than anybody else, but they talked funny, like I did. Nobody ever made fun of their accents, not to their faces. The neighborhood kids feared them, calling them the "Slaughter House" kids. I didn’t care. They were my friends. I didn’t believe the stories.
I’d told Marc as much. He’d peered through jungle-green eyes, mussing my hair. Leaning over me like a loan-shark, his voice a menacingly rumble, “How can you be so sure? How do you know what is or isn't buried under our rose bushes?” I never seriously considered digging up his yard for evidence...even though they were ‘Damn Yankee’s’ from New York. I’d thought he was only pulling my leg.
Marc and I shared a hatred of our fathers.
It bound us together at first. Of course, I didn’t know if Mr. Slaughter deserved contempt. He wasn’t a familiar figure to me. I only saw him late at night.
Thinking back, that should have told me something.
“Hey Hooker,” Marc yelled to me from across the road, “wanna go down to Mister Mercer’s place and see if we can make a few bucks?”
“Sure Marc, but that old son of a bitch told me not to come around no more or he’d cut me up and feed me to his dogs.”
Marc just laughed and kept walking, already knowing the why of it all. “C’mon Hook, when we get done, I’ll buy you one of them new-fangled Whoppers you’re always goin’ on about.” So, down the road we went, carrying on and joking.
Old man Mercer’s place wasn’t that far, his rickety old shack hugged the fence line that separated the train yard from the neighborhood. Mercer’s back yard was divided into twelve sections, bordered by creosol soak logs. Two-by-fours jutted skyward on all four corners with thick, black, mosquito netting overlapping the roof of each structure. In the middle, mounds of moving earth rose above the ground alive with what must have been millions of night crawlers.
They fed on the mango, guava and avocado tree droppings. Under the canopy of leaves, dark, hot, humid air had the distinctive aroma of an overrun septic tank. What little light filtered through was quickly soured by the old mans nasty disposition.
As we approached he was sitting on his porch taking swigs of Jack Daniels, and every couple of minutes, he’d spit a jet of Redman’s chewing tobacco from the side of his mouth.
His beard along the right side of his jaw line was permanently stained dark from the drool of his saliva. Above his door, he proudly displayed a hand painted sign, “Mercer’s Worm Farm.” He thought himself a cut above the rest of us in this working-class neighborhood, a real entrepreneur. He sold earthworms to the local bait shops for fifty cents a box. Mercer would pay a nickel for each pint sized round container of worms picked. Why, a kid could make a whole dollar if he picked one thousand worms, ten boxes worth. The old man had a strict rule that each box had to have exactly one hundred worms in them. You could spend all day at his place picking those damn worms when you finished you’d have to bring him what you picked. He would take out two or three boxes at random and count them. If any one of the boxes contained more or less than exactly one hundred worms he’d make you dump them all back.
Then would cuss you out and chase you off ranting and raving about what a damn little cheater you were.
The last time I worked for him I went home sweaty and dirty with nothing to show, but dirt-smudged clothes for all my efforts, and nightmares of course: all I could see when I closed my eyes in sleep were damn worms. Hundreds, maybe thousands, crawled about inside my head.
The old reprobate looked up and saw us at the gate. He yelled out, “What the hell you boys want?” Then, he recognized Marc and waved him over. The mean old bastard liked Marc. He’d spend all day at Mercers place and come home with ten dollars in his pocket. That was big money for a kid in those days. A lot of kids in the neighborhood would have to work every day for a whole week running their paper routes to make that kind of money.
I don’t know if it was Mercer’s failing eyesight or all the whiskey sloshing around his brain, but I was relieved he didn’t recognize me or remember I’d cheated on couple boxes once. Marc’s count was always true. Every Saturday and Sunday like clockwork he’d pick forty thousand night crawlers from the smelly mucky ground, earning twenty bucks—-a fortune to us kids back then.
The peculiar thing was, he’d sneak a couple of thousand of those damn worms into the pockets of his overalls to take home. I always wondered why he did this, but knew better than to ask. Marc wasn’t the type to give up very many secrets, even to his best friend.
I got to work that day, and as promised, Marc bought me my first Whopper. He wouldn’t let me pay, saying, “A promise is promise, Hooker. Don’t ever forget that.”
The Widow Gardiner was a tough old bird who didn’t scare easily, always good for free advice and a few bucks on the weekend. I’d been cutting her grass and doing small chores for her since I stopped working at Mercer’s place. Wise and worldly, she must have read a lot because she always had something to say about everything.
“Horace Hooker, what’s a good God-fearin’ boy like you doing hanging around Slaughter’s children?”
“They’re my friends; they don’t make fun of me like the other boys do.”
“Be careful, child. Sometimes, things aren’t what they seem. Those people aren’t like you and me.”
“I know, they’re from New York.”
“They’re from a cold hard place, but it sure the hell ain’t New York. You’re playing with fire boy. The Slaughter family’s an evil bunch, down to the last twig on the family tree. Why, just last week I saw the two younger ones out back, trying to shimmy over my fence, uppity little bastards.
“Their eyes glowed red in the dark. They tried to stare me down like I was supposed to be scared of them. I took this here cross from around my neck and went after them, commanding them in the name of everything holy on God’s green earth to leave my place be, and they fled into the night like angels were on ‘em.”
I didn’t pay much attention to her, figuring she was just an old woman who liked to hear herself talk. The Widow Gardiner was known for whoppers of her own. She’d tried to warn me.
I suppose my curiosity got the best of me. Maybe it was just my childish nature, wanting to know about things I had little chance of understanding. I had to know what he did with those damn worms he’d hidden in his pants. I doubled back that night and hid behind the cherry laurel hedges that surrounded the perimeter of Marc’s house.
First thing Mr. Slaughter did after moving into the house was put in those cherry laurel hedges. They had since grown six feet in height and surrounded the entire property. The house could not be seen from the street. It provided good cover for a nosey boy on moonless night.
I watched Marc empty his pockets, heaping handfuls of night crawlers into the flowerbed of his Mom’s rose garden. The rest he dumped into another freshly dug bed at the rear of the property. He slapped his hands against the back of his pants, and looked around cautiously before heading back toward the house.
His father stood watch on the back porch. As Marc brushed passed him, I heard Mr. Slaughter say, “Good job, Son.”
“We got to keep mother happy, don’t we Pop?”
“That’s right Marc. It gives her great comfort knowing we’re here to provide needful things. She must never be allowed to go hungry.”
“I know,” Marc went in and his dad followed, letting the door slam shut. I got chills from what I’d seen and heard that night. I ran back home with my heart pounding and my mind racing faster than my legs. I was only a boy then but instinctively knew there was something unnatural in the tone and spirit of their conversation.
Marc and his family kept a deep, dark, terrible secret that by its very nature held them together as much as it threatened to tear our friendship apart. It scared me enough to go willingly to church with Mama. I asked God to save me from the shapeless evil hiding in Marc’s bushes. I wished I’d never gone there that night because I knew something, but I didn’t know what, and somehow, I couldn’t leave it alone. I wanted badly for everything to go back to the way it was before. I asked God to forgive me for betraying my friend, and if in fact it turned out the Slaughter House kids were real killers--to forgive them and make them mend their ways.
After all, Preacher did say and the good book teaches no sin is so great it can’t be forgiven. I claimed this promise for my friend. I didn’t know any better. I was just a child. I learned later that forgiveness is only offered to those who repent. I never went back to Mercer’s Farm after that, but I did remain friends with Marc. His brothers Damien and David would tag along with us. The brothers were nearly inseparable. Marc didn’t seem to mind. He watched over them like a mother hen. David was the youngest, a skinny little kid with a pale complexion, light brown hair and penny-colored eyes, a curious child who asked questions about everything and wouldn’t stop pestering you until he got an answer that made sense.
One time, when we were all down at the lake with our cane poles thrust out over the water, David watched Marc bait his hook with a Mercer worms. He’d start at the head and work the hook back and forth into the squirming worm, until it was thoroughly impaled.
“You think that hurts,” David asked.
“Don’t worry about the worm,” Marc said.
“I’m not worried.”
“Then why did you asked?”
“I just want to know if they feel pain.”
Marc stopped what he was doing, took his line out of the water, walked over to David, and slapped him hard across the face. “David, do you feel pain.”
To my amazement, David said, “No.”
Marc then pulled him close and hugged him, tears tracking down the side of his face. He walked over to the water’s edge and said, “You see those fish swimming around, darting in and out of the grass, in the shallows.”
“Well, they don’t care if that worm feels pain. All they wanna do, all they need to do, is eat him to stop the hunger. Fish that eat him, are eaten by others, and those fish are then eaten by us. But in the end, the damn worms are what end up eatin’ us all. Remember that, because that’s all you need to know.”
“I’ll remember,” David said.
Damien, the other brother, physically favored Marc. It was easy to tell they were brothers. They both had light eyes, but Damien’s was blue-gray, and his hair was longer, a chestnut brown. Though a couple of years younger, he carried himself with Marc’s sense of confidence. He was usually quiet and moody, and given to strange fits on occasion. His dark brooding eyes would deepen before an attack. Damien’s body would shake uncontrollably and his eyes would roll back into their sockets. Eyelids would quiver rapidly just before he’d passed out. Marc carried five taped Popsicle sticks in his back pocket. I’d seen him place them in Damien’s mouth so he wouldn’t bite off his tongue.
These fits would pass and Damien would remember nothing of them.
Marc would carry him back to the house and lay him down in a back bedroom letting him sleep. After awhile he would join us again as if nothing ever happened, and we’d all go about our business again, doing the things kids do.
It was Damien who noticed I’d seen and heard the whole incident with Marc and David that day by the waters edge.
He walked over and whispered into Marc’s ear. Marc pushed him roughly away and sent him off home with David. Then, Marc looked over to me. “Hey, Hooker, come over here for a minute.” He pulled a fillet knife from his waistband. I’ve got a little present for you.”
I was uneasy seeing the knife. “I’ve got to go Marc, I promised Widow Gardiner I’d cut her grass this afternoon and it’s already getting late.”
“Don’t be afraid, Hook. We’re best friends. I would never hurt you. That’s a promise. You know what they mean to me.”
“The best kind, the kind that last forever. Now, give me your hand,” he demanded.
“What for?” Some kind of blood-brother oath?
“I want to put a mark on the palm of your left hand. It might hurt just a little…but it will heal in no time and keep you safe when you’re liable to need it most.”
“Safe from what?”
In the most patient voice I’d ever heard, he said, “Protection from ugliness and evil, from a new breed of darkness that can stand in the light. If I don’t do this, something bad just might get you.”
“This is for my own good?”
I extended my hand, palm up. Marc gripped my hand with a scary strength, guiding the sharp point of the knife until a double bloody circle lay there with compass points. I must confess I screamed a bit.
“It’s done,” he said.
I never saw Marc in the same light after that. His eyes held unreasonable depths though he tried hard to act his apparent age. After that, he could never veil the suffering in his stare from me ever again. I learned later the significance of the mark and the reason behind it. In time, the cuts became thin white scars, the Mark of Slaughter I came to call it.
In the ensuing days, people’s pets and other animals started disappearing in the neighborhood at an alarming rate. I cried when I found Rex’s blood stained collar on the path in the back alleyway of the Slaughter residence. I went home and prayed harder than I’d prayed before. I asked God to bring Rex back to me, if only for one a night, if only in my dreams.
I fell asleep and did dream. Rex was with me again and it was just like old times. We wrestled and played in the grass and he licked my face. All was good in the world again. I woke myself up with my own excitement, and pulled the sheets back from my bed, hoping that the dream might have come true somehow.
I threw on my pants getting ready to go out back to see if Rex might be sleeping under the Gumbo Limbo tree, but was stopped dead in my tracks. Hovering outside my window was Damien and David, peering in, mouths stained with the blood of a fresh kill.
I screamed, throwing my hands up to ward them off. They must have seen the symbol carved on my palm. They looked at each other with irritation, and fled. I sat down, letting my heart settle to a relaxed beat. I knew then that I didn’t have to fear their kind. The mark I carried was a deathly-cold warning against poaching what someone else claimed.
A knock at my study door pulled me back to the present. I heard my wife’s voice. “Horace dinner will be ready soon, dear. What have you been doing in here for so long?”
“Well, if you must know, I was just shredding some…old documents. What are the kids doing?”
“They’re just watching some silly monster movie. She poked her head into the room. “I know what your secret is: you’re reading love letters from old girlfriends, aren’t you?” Her tone was teasing.
“Actually, sweetheart, I was just reading a letter from an old vampire friend of mine.
“ Oh, you are such a funny man! I suppose that’s why I married you. Maybe after dinner you can nibble on my neck for awhile.”
“I can think of nothing I’d rather do.” I fed the letter into the shredder. After all these many years what are the chances?
Why had I doubted? A promise is a promise after all…