Forty-three

On November 27 I will have been writing and publishing my69drinks for exactly one year. In that year there have been 3,500 visits by 1,111 visitors from ten countries. 190 comments on the proceedings have been left. There have been many private emails to me about the blog and the curious events surrounding, or rather beneath, my house. Reader reaction has been positive; I’ve probably pissed off some folks, but if so they’re keeping it to themselves. I have had a good time, and it pleases me that so many people enjoy my interpretation of these events.

To those of you uncomplicated souls who continue to send me your sweet naïve question, “Is it real?” Yes, well, dears, some of it is, some of it isn’t.

So what’s next?

Publishing, writing, an ongoing blog is a particular, and peculiar kind of writing. I have been writing a blog (three blogs now) for almost ten years. First there was 1. thethrillerguy.blogspot.com my blog about writing and reading thriller novels. 2. www.mylifeinthebigredband.blog (this is a memoir) and the present blog, 3. www.my69drinks.blog. There are many hundreds of entries in these three blogs. Over the years I have tried to keep to a steady schedule as I hate blogs that only appear every once in awhile or are started and then quickly abandoned when the blogger finds out how much work it is. Keeping a blog up is, indeed, a lot of work. My friend, RIP, Bhob Stewart, my writing mentor, always said that a blog was “public writing.” Meaning that the style is such that the writer works as if the reader is peering over his shoulder as he writes the entry. It’s not easy. And at the same time, it’s easier than novelizing in that the writing is not as “interesting,” the prose is flatter and not nearly as descriptive as it is in a novel. This may make for less intricate, less elaborate, less literary writing, but it is more communicative. The blogger is trying to appeal to a wide spectrum of readers. Having written many novels (Google Allen Appel, Amazon .com) I have to say I miss the more literary style of writing. It’s a bigger challenge, and sometimes when you’re in the zone and everything is working it can be exhilarating. Not often, but often enough to feel almost like you’re on a great drug and the world is at your fingertips.

So, as I asked above, What’s next?

I could just keep moving on with the blog. I’m interested — no, endlessly fascinated — with my old house and old town. Come sit up with me at three AM, in the dark with the moon bright and silvery outside, and listen to the sighs and whispers that slip through the cracks in the floor, barely discernable, susurrations that pull you to the edge of your seat because you know if you listen and pay attention hard enough you will understand that these soft sounds are words, voices, and you will understand what those voices are saying. I can’t leave that silvery night and the stories these voices are telling me, and I can’t leave off telling these stories to you, those of you who are interested.

So I think I am going to treat the two hundred plus pages of this blog as the world’s longest prologue, and that I am going to continue the story as a novel. I don’t want to abandon the blog and those of you who have traveled this road with me, so I’m going to try blogging about my research for the book as I go along. And anything else that crosses my mind. The elements of life in Hillsborough, North Carolina, present day and circa 1835 to the end of the Civil War, the horrors of slavery, and the everyday life of the people who lived here.

Why fiction? Why a novel? Because it’s difficult to say what I want to say as straight non-fiction. It’s difficult to explore a topic on a deeper level when one is sticking to facts. And when do you get to see it, this nascent novel? I dunno. We’ll figure that out as we go. Maybe I’ll put up chunks of it as I write. Maybe I’ll put it up in chapters, maybe quarters, maybe I’ll wait until I’m “finished,” though I think something like this will never be finished.

I won’t be putting it up week by week. I need more time and I need the room to roam back and forth in the pages, filling in blanks and expanding where it needs expansion. I’ll put up notices on Facebook when I have a new entry, and those of you who Follow me will get a notice when something new goes up. Being a Follower is the easiest way to know: goto the blog site and look for the instructions on how to become a Follower, though I am aware that it not always easy to do. So if you’re not on Facebook and not a Follower, just check in every once in awhile to see if there’s anything new.

And to those of you who haven’t kept up with the entries, who are still vowing to get back to the blog, who just haven’t had time, don’t give up! Scroll down, find your place and dive back in to see what the rest of us are talking about.

I’m open to thoughts and suggestions on the mechanics of any of this. You can offer a comment for me and everyone else to see, or you can write me a private message at appelworks@gmail.com

Let me know what you want me to do, particularly those of you who have stuck with me as I have dealt with my strange house and strange life.

“Is it real, Allen, is it real?”

It is to me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Forty-two

In retrospect, I should have spent more than $12.95 on my protective garment. Buying it was sort of a joke, which turned out to be not funny at all. And I should have added a breathing apparatus like some of you suggested. Best of all would have been if I had stayed out of the crawl space, learned to ignore the constant weeping in my head and left the dead alone.

Months ago Rafe told me that Ada was the queen of her small underground, or under-house, kingdom. That the creatures there, the bugs, the fleas the other insects and the insects that live on the other insects and the viruses and the bacteria that live in the dirt and everywhere else are as much part of her domain and under her rule as the squirrels. And while he didn’t say so directly, I believe the purpose of these creatures was to guard Ada. And if unable to guard, to avenge. And so they did.

The morning after my adventure with the bones in the graveyard, I noticed small red patches on my hands. They looked like bites: flea, chigger, ant, mosquito, maybe even a spider or two. I expected some of that and ignored it. By evening the bites had been joined, literally, by smooth red patches that I took to be fungal. Everything itched. By morning of the next day I looked like something on a bizarre medical YouTube video. It got worse, so I went to my doctor who was amazed and called in several other docs who muttered to themselves and took pictures. (No, I don’t have any of these or any other pictures so don’t even ask.) They had no idea what was afflicting me, but they had never seen anything like it; I could hardly suggest that I had been cursed, that I was the victim of the ghost of a little girl who lived, and died, a hundred and seventy years ago. They prescribed a round of prednisone that did indeed chase the skin problems into a retreat. At the end of the round prednisone, with my immune system in tatters, I developed a chest-tearing, barking cold, or flu, or something, that slammed me hard. This is why I haven’t been blogging. After weeks fighting off this illness, I am a bit better, and I believe the attack is over, even though I now I still have to recover.

Ada is, was, indeed the master of her domain. When we think of ghosts and demons we think of creatures like ourselves, (only dead) forgetting about the kingdom of viruses, bacteria, fungus and other microscopic creatures that can be far more deadly than a pack of deranged squirrels. I haven’t looked up the incubation period of Bubonic Plague because I really don’t want to know. An Internet search of the dangers of handling old, or indeed, any, bones turns up nothing notable. If you’ve got a grocery bag full of old bones you can play with them, maybe even chew on them without getting into any trouble. Maybe. Just don’t collect them from underneath my house.

The thing to remember, that I need to remember, is that all actions have consequences, especially when you are dealing with circumstances, events you don’t really understand, or are not, in the end, understandable. I intruded on Ada’s kingdom, and I paid a price. Maybe that price isn’t even over. I can only hope that her bones are now at peace, in the cemetery with her family, if she had any, her friends, if she had any, or at least those others who died around the time she did and were properly buried. My concern is, my friends, there’s a skull in my freezer that I don’t know what to do with, and more bones, I am sure, beneath my house. Man-sized bones that go with the man-sized skull. Do I dig them up and rebury them in the graveyard with Ada? It seems insane to go back under there. I’ve been warned that if I continue there will be hell to pay. And it has come to pass, but there is more, I know it.

Maybe I got off easy this time, though it sure doesn’t feel like it.

 

 

 

 

 

Forty-one

I went into the house and put the skull into the small freezer we keep in the boot room. The boot room, aka mud room, is a small utility area off the side entrance that still bears walls that were original when the two room schoolhouse that forms the interior of our house was hauled to the lot 160 years ago. I wrapped the skull in tin foil. I know, that’s what crazy people do, make hats out of tin foil to keep the aliens from screwing with their brain waves and that thought was certainly in the back of my mind. Mostly I didn’t want to get dirt on the other stuff I store there. I have a great friend who’s a hunter who kills birds, deer, and other creatures and brings them to me. His wife doesn’t like to cook them. I freeze them and cook them in the dead — emphasis on the ‘dead’ — of winter. If you’re having dinner here, be careful that you don’t bite down on a piece of lead shot and break a tooth.

Why the freezer? I have no idea. I don’t own a safe, and it seemed like a good idea to isolate this artifact. There is a certain aura around a skull, a real one. Danger? Yes. It cannot be denied.

“You drive,” I said when I was back outside. “He knows my car.”

“He?” Mark asked.

“You know, the cop.”

He nodded, resigned. I watched him walk across the neighbor’s lawn and climb into his Volvo station wagon. Here he had just bailed me out of one bizarre adventure, and he was now volunteering to head into another. A good pal. I stood by the side of Warner lane, the gravel road that runs beside my house, listening to the wail, the crying in my ears and head. Ada, oh so sad, will it never go away, will you never have peace?

I gathered up my Weaver Street Market tote bag full of old bones. I hoped my backpack with the shovel was still where I left it, stashed underneath a bush in the cemetery.

Mark pulled up, and I asked him to drive me to the Nash Street Tavern and drop me off. He pulled into the parking lot, which was empty because it was Sunday night and all the businesses were closed. I was hoping that meant that the police wouldn’t be patrolling the area as assiduously as they did on a normal night. I didn’t want to be seen sitting here if they did roll by, and I didn’t want Mark involved. But I couldn’t drive my own car and leave it in the lot; he knew my car. The cop.

“I’ll get out and walk over to the cemetery. The site is down at the end of the grounds nearest to where we are.” I realized the dome light was going to go on when I opened the door, but there was nothing I could do about that now. “I don’t know how long this will take. I already have the hole dug. If nothing goes wrong I should be able to bury the bones and get out of there in fifteen or twenty minutes.” I hated to say those words, ‘if nothing goes wrong,’ because that’s always where everything goes to hell in most narratives like this one.

“What do you want me to do?”

“When I get into that stand of trees,” I pointed at the copse of trees and bushes at the far side of the parking lot, “pull out and drive around a couple of blocks for at least fifteen minutes then come back and circle the block. Look for me at the farther end of the property, up on the northeast corner. Pick me up there.”

He nodded. I could see him in the glow of the dashboard lights. He looked pale and apprehensive. Which was normal; I’m sure I looked the same. Stick to the plan. There wasn’t anything more to say, so I opened the door and swung out, taking my bag of bones with me. I closed the door quietly and trotted across the dark lot. As far as I could tell, I was alone other than Mark sitting in his car. I turned back and watched as he pulled away and drove up the street.

I had done this before, so I more or less traced my route of several nights ago. Two nights: it seemed like a lot more time had passed than that. I was exposed under the streetlight for a few seconds and then I was into the darkness. I stopped, oriented myself and skirted the low wrought-iron fence that penned in the few remaining gravestones. I made it to the burial site and put down the bag of bones. Ada’s sad tune was still singing in my ears, louder than ever. I turned and walked to where I hoped the pack was and knelt. It was further back than I thought it would be, which gave me a moment’s pang, then I touched the pack, got my fingers hooked in the back strap and pulled it free. I was running on adrenaline and instinct now, trying not to think.

Shovel out, blade snapped into place: done. I scraped the brush covering off the hole, working more by feel than sight. I made a few digs into the ground and it felt like just how I had left it. I got down on my knees and pulled the bag of bones into the hole and dumped them out. They fell in with a dry clackety sound, but I knew it wasn’t loud enough to rouse anyone in the area. I tried to straighten the pile, to align the long bones so they were parallel, but I don’t imagine I was accomplishing much. I could hardly think for the keening in my head.

I knew where the pile of dirt I had removed from the ground was, to the right of the hole, and I tried to dig the shovel blade into it, but I was still on my knees and couldn’t put any weight behind it. So I began scraping with the shovel, moving the dirt over atop the bones. After a few tries, I picked up a rhythm and I could feel and hear the dirt going into the hole.

After I was well into it, I noticed that the keening in my head was being muffled with each shovel of dirt.

Less. More dirt.

Less. More dirt.

Less.

I threw the shovel to the side and scraped the soft earth with my hands, tamping it down, scraping, tamping, gasping for breath.

Until it was gone. The keening. It faded out like the signal on an old-fashioned radio when you killed the power. Reduced to a dot of sound, then blinking off.

I felt a hand on my shoulder.

“Good.” A quiet voice. “You’ve done well.”

I’m not sure what stopped me from screaming. Maybe it was because I knew the voice and had been expecting it sometime, maybe not right then, but sometime.

Rafe. Raphael. My first thought was Where the fuck have you been? Do you know what I have been going through? My second thought was: he does know what I’ve been going through. But did I forgive him? Not then. Not yet.

The hand pressed down harder on my shoulder in warning. I peered through the tangle of brush out at the street. Nothing, and then a cop car slid into place at the curb and stopped. I felt my breath catch and hold. The steady pressure of the hand didn’t let up.

I could see into the car’s interior through the brush, but not clearly. There was a figure, bathed in the same green light as before, and while I wouldn’t swear it was him — the cop — it was him. It appeared as if he was speaking into his radio, but I heard nothing. Maybe he was writing in his little book. He was doing something in there. I was pretty sure my name was involved. His face twisted toward me, us, and I could feel him looking. Did he see? I have no idea.

He drove off.

“Get your kit together,” Rafe said. I wasn’t quite ready to talk to him, or maybe I just didn’t know what to say, so I kept my mouth shut and gathered up the shovel, released the blade, folded it against the handle and stowed it in the backpack.

“I’ll meet you at the house,” Rafe said, and moved off before I had the wits to respond. He was into the darkness and gone, quickly.

I made my way across the acre of cemetery to the far northeast corner where I crouched down in the shadows to wait for Mark. In a few minutes I saw headlights and then the Volvo as it pulled up and stopped in the street. I could hear his engine ticking as it turned over. Needs a valve job, I thought, old Volvos…and just as I stood up, more headlights and the cop car slid up behind Mark, silent, like a shark behind prey. I froze.

The cop climbed out of his car and situated his gear – gun, flashlight, baton – on his belt, walked beside the rear of the Volvo and touched the brake light as he passed, arrived at the driver’s side door, crouched down and spoke to Mark, just murmurs to me. After a couple of back-and-forths, he stood up and walked back to his car. He paused at his door and looked over the top straight at where I was crouching in the shadows, hidden the way a child puts his hands over his face and thinks himself unseen, and this time there was no doubt in my mind that he saw me before, crouching over Ada’s grave, and he smiled and it was the smile on the skull back in the freezer, the smile we know from pictures we’ve seen, bad old movies watched late at night, the smile we know from all our nightmares, the one that will freeze your blood, stop your heart, this smile from the grave, the one that speaks without words and tells you that this is not over, that you may have stilled one voice, yes, good for you, little man, good-night, Ada, but this – it – this dance, this crawl, this hiding, this struggle is not over.

There is more to come.

Did he laugh? Not out loud.

But I could hear it, in my head. No, this was not over.

Yes, there was more to come.

Forty

The rope tightened around my ankle and my right leg was jerked straight, but I didn’t move. I could feel the rope straining against the pillar I had inched around five feet behind where I was now laying. I would have to move back enough to go around the pillar and unkink the rope.

Caught in the bright glare from my headlamp was the man in the dirty cream-colored shirt and butternut pants. The cop. The man who looked like the cop. The man who couldn’t be the cop. He thrust the little girl aside. She cried out, ceased her weeping, and shoved her thumb into her mouth, her eyes wide, casting back and forth between the two of us.

He lurched forward, up into a crouch, leaning beneath the beams of the overhead floor, with the stuffing of dripping pink insulation. He assumed the position of a spider, ready to leap.

I inched back, holding the shovel up between us. As if that would deter him. If I could get past the pillar, unkink the rope, I could get away. Maybe.

He gathered himself, eyes narrowed. It was as if, in the bright glare, I could feel his intention a millisecond before he made the move. I dropped the tote bag.

He leapt forward; I slammed the shovel into his head. He fell back, the look of determination changed to surprise. Well, it surprised me as well. After the hit I threw the shovel at him and scrabbled to the left, which unkinked the rope. I heard it whizz against the pillar then, free, it jerked my leg back, me with it, crabbing backwards as fast as I could go, which wasn’t fast enough and my legs were yanked straight and I slid over the plastic ground cove, slippery from a thin dry layer of dust and dirt that had accumulated over the many years. I saw the man recover, toss the shovel aside and come after me. My hand rolled over a round shape, a rock, which I grabbed thinking I would hit him with it when he was close enough, and he was almost that close when Mark made what must have been a superhuman last-ditch effort and dragged me to the ledge over the deeper portion of the crawlspace where the furnace was. I fell off over onto the dirt floor.

“OK! OK! Stop!” I shouted.

I glanced back and Mark was crouched on the stone steps; if his face was pale before, it was stark white now and he was staring not at me, but beyond me, back under the house. I made it to my knees and looked back and saw the legs of the man scuttle around the corner of the pillar and disappear. I untied the rope.

“What the hell was that!” Mark asked. No humor in his voice now, no knowing, You’re-Full-of-Shit joking. “Who the hell was that?”

“Rafe said there might be another one under here. He was right. I told you about him. The cop. Only not the cop.” I noticed the fishing pole leaning against the wall. “Shit, the bones.” I realized I was still holding the rock. I handed it to Mark. A wail came from behind me. Ada. Or maybe it was something in my head, a sound of dread, maybe it was my wail.

I picked up the fishing pole and began reeling in the line. I felt it snag and stop. The goddamned pillar. I threw the pole down and grabbed the fishing line, feeling it cut into my skin as I pulled. It held, I thought it would break; slowly I felt the tote bag inch around the pillar and then it was free and sliding back to me as I reeled it in hand over hand. I caught the bag as it tipped over the ledge. The bones rattled. The bag felt, not full, but there was a substantial weight. Enough, I hoped. I turned, pushed Mark ahead up the steps and we came out into the night. I closed the door and threw the outside lock into the hasp. Not that it was going to keep anything in, or at least not anything that really wanted to come out.

I untied the line around the hood of my protective suit and unzipped it down the front. It tangled around my ankles; I peeled it over my shoes and kicked it away. It pooled on the grass. I pulled off the headlight.

We both stood, silent, gasping in the night air, grateful that it was a thousand times cleaner than the dust of the ages beneath the house.

“The cop, but not the cop,” he said.

“I can’t explain it yet, but I think I’m beginning to understand.”

Mark looked down at his hand. “Jesus, take this thing,” he said, handing me the rock.

Except that it wasn’t a rock, I knew what it was from the feel, but I turned on the headlamp.

A skull. Not a child’s skull, but that of a full grown man, dirt and bits of I don’t know what still clinging to the teeth, the crease down the length of the cranium, holding that skull rictus that we know so well from photographs and drawings, the ironic manic smile of the dead. I switched off the light, eager to not be looking at it. “Like I said, Rafe told me he thought there was another one under there. You saw it?”

“The man, yes I saw him. He was coming after you. Jesus.”

That was twice Mark uttered a swear word, a rarity for him.

He shook his head. “Jesus.”

Three.

Neither of us said anything as our night vision gradually came back online. My breathing and heart rate slowed back to normal, or as close to normal as it was going to get for a while. I thought. I made up my mind.

“You up for some more?” I asked.

“Some more what?”

“More of what we’re doing?”

“Are you really going back under there?”

The thing was, I was tired of continuing on the same path, wandering around the house in the night, the weeping, never knowing if it was going to end, keeping Sherry in the dark (as it were). I still had the plan; I was through the second part and had one last push to go. “I want to finish it. Tonight. Not under there.” I nodded at the door to the crawl space.

“Where.”

“The graveyard. I’m going to bury the bones.” I nudged the tote bag of bones with my foot. Gently. You could hear a soft dry rattle as they shifted against each other.

“You’re going to bury that?” Mark asked, nodding at the skull that I was still holding. I had forgotten it. Hard to forget an ancient skull.

“No, I don’t know what I’m going to do with this, but having it is a good thing. A protection, I think. Right now we’re going to bury Ada.” And finish it. As much as it can be finished.

“We’re going to give her peace.”

 

 

 

 

 

Thirty-nine

Bison Grass Vodka        Green Chartreuse

Brisket and White Beans

Mark knocked on the front door around midnight. I opened the door, and though I hadn’t turned on the porch light I could see he was carrying a fishing pole and wearing a fisherman’s hat. The kind that sported several lures hooked into the hatband.

“You look ridiculous,” I said. He laughed.

“You look like a huge potato,” he said.

I was wearing my white protective suit. I hadn’t put the hood up and strapped on my headlamp yet. “Just wait,” I said. “It get’s worse. What’s with the fishing gear?”

“I told Bonnie we were going night fishing. I had to tell her something.”

Mark’s wife is extremely smart; I’m sure she didn’t believe him, but she’s also a good sport. She probably thought we were up to something, but she isn’t the suspicious type. There were lots of ridiculous things Mark and I could be up to at midnight, but they’re mostly, like I said, ridiculous rather than dangerous.

Except tonight.

This afternoon I found Mark working in his garden and talked him into an afternoon drink at the Penny. I had a Bison Grass Vodka and a Green Chartreuse. I realized, or rather remembered that I had had my first and only taste of this Polish vodka specialty almost fifty years ago when I attended an event at the Polish Embassy in Washington, DC. I have no idea why I had been invited; I assumed at the time it was a mistake. I was a hippie back in those days, or at least I looked like one; hair way down my back, beard, groovy clothing. After knocking back several shots of the curious vodka, which a passing waiter told me was a “special flavored vodka, a drink made only in Poland,” an embassy aide came up and asked me if I would have a private word with the ambassador? Of course I would. He took me into a back room where an attractive older lady was sitting in a chair that looked like a throne with several suited minions scattered around her. One of the minions introduced her very formally as the Ambassador; I introduced myself. We made some small talk, very small as she barely spoke English and no one bothered to translate, and I asked her about the vodka: How was it made? She said, very clearly, that it was made from “squashed peasants.” I nodded gravely and we chatted for a few more minutes. I could tell she was interested in my hippyness; I suppose that functionaries on her level didn’t get to mingle with street creatures like me, at least not back in those days. Then she asked me to come to lunch some time, at least I think that’s what she asked. I never followed up on it, I kept thinking about those squashed peasants. When I took a sip of my Bison vodka at the Penny, the taste rushed me back to that afternoon of yesteryear, like an alcoholic version of Proust and his Madeline.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, Mark. I hadn’t seen him much in quite some time, so I filled him in on my events with the underhouse creatures, concluding with my adventure to the graveyard last night. As always, he sat through the recitation with his mild smile of amusement that shouted, “You’re crazy!” I explained my three-part plan, and he agreed to help me out with tonight’s excursion, the second part.

So he came in and waited while I gathered up my gear: headband light, a thirty-foot length of nylon rope, and a purple tote bag from Weavers, the local organic grocery store. He took off his hat. “Bring the fishing pole, it might be useful,” I said.

We marched through the house – I kept the lights off – went out the back door, and around the side to the entrance to the crawlspace where the furnace is. I had leaned the shovel that Mark found under the house many blog posts ago against the door.

“Tell me again why we aren’t doing this during the day?” he asked.

“The last time I went under there during the day the house almost fell on me. And my camera that I bought off the Internet ended up smashed into one of the pillars. And I didn’t see any evidence of the little girl. I don’t think she likes the daytime, and I think it pisses off the house.” He nodded, as if ‘it pisses off the house’ was a perfectly normal thing to say.

I tightened the drawstring around the hoody till only a round blob of my face was uncovered. I strapped on the headlamp and switched on the light. I could hear Mark sniggering behind me. I fooled around with the shovel for a minute, hefting it in my right hand, tote bag containing the rope in my left. I was building up my nerve. After a few minutes of this foolishness I said, “Let’s go,” and descended the four stairs to the dirt floor of the crawlspace. At this point we could stand up, with just our heads touching the hanging stalactites of pink insulation.

“OK, here’s the deal,” I said. “I’m going to tie the rope around my ankle. If you hear me yell Pull! drag me out of wherever I am under here. I can crawl backward, but if I’ve got you hauling on me I’m going to go a lot faster than If I’m on my own. I’m only going to holler if I’m in trouble.” Mark’s in good shape, so I figured he could add a good bit of speed to my escape. As they say, what could go wrong? I sat down on an ancient stone ledge, took the rope out of my tote bag and tied the end around my right ankle. Now that I was doing it, it seemed stupid, only slightly better than tying the rope around my own neck. I pushed these self-doubts away: stick to the plan. I tried to forget the well-known military axiom that in war even the best-laid plans survive for only the first 30 seconds of battle. After that, who knows? Chaos, usually.

“Hand me the fishing pole,” I said, trying to sound like I knew what I was doing. He handed it to me.

It was a regular spinning reel and rod, heavy enough for what I had in mind. I took the bobber off the line, put it on the shelf beside me, and attached the bare hook to the handle of the tote bag. “When I say the word, reel the bag in. It’s going to have bones in it, I don’t know how many, but it should be light enough to drag out of there.” I gestured vaguely into the dark beneath the house. The headlamp was bright enough to throw most of the expanse into deep shadow. In the glare, Mark’s face appeared extremely pale, but he gave me his usual, You’re So Full of Shit, smile. I tried to return it, but to tell you the truth I was scared. I’m not sure of what, but something. Whatever was there in the dark.

I tuned into my senses for a moment and listened: no weeping. Dead silence. This was almost as unnerving as hearing the weeping.

I ducked under the main heating duct, crawled up on the ledge and began making my way into the dusty, rocky crawl space. It was a longer distance to the back of the house than if we’d gone into the side where I set up, or tried to set up, the camera, but the opening there faced the next-door neighbor’s house, and if they happened to be looking out the window they would be witnessing a very strange scene involving a night fisherman and a large white ambulatory potato. Going in where the furnace is located kept me out of view from anyone.

It’s amazing how painful even the smallest rock is underneath the knees of a portly 73-year-old man. I was now further along beneath the house than I have ever been. The light was very bright, so I flicked it onto the red setting, which made everything look like those scenes in submarine movies where the sub is deeply submerged and the main power system has been blown. I stopped to catch my breath and allow my eyes to adjust. The weeping began, not in my ear, but inside my head: forlorn, afraid.

I dragged myself around a thick pillar made up of stone blocks, grey, the grimy color of the weathered gravestones in the Town Cemetery only now suffused with the blood-red hue.

And there, ten, twelve feet away from me was a shallow trough, beside which was a neatly stacked pile of bones. And there, five feet beyond the bones was the little girl, only now there were no sewn lips, this was no Nightmare Before Christmas doll, this was the real thing, or to my eyes the real thing, diaphanous, indistinct but clearly visible, surrounded by a thick, jelly-like mist that curled heavily around, beneath, and above her, as if clutching her in a translucent embrace. She saw me, and wailed a pitiful tone of hurt, loss, and despair, of no hope, only abject misery.

I didn’t, couldn’t, take my eyes off her as I inched toward the bones, putting my hand with the shovel forward, dragging myself along while I inched the Weaver tote bag along in my left hand.

My breath sounded like a bellows in my ears; the weeping lament became a rising howl of pain. I tried to ignore it, pushed on against it, now keeping my eyes on the bones, afraid to look at her, until I was close enough to stop, drag my bag up in front of me and begin piling the bones into the bag. Leg bones, arm bones, a chunk of skull, small chunks of finger bones, I was guessing they were fingers, a pelvis, scooping them up and jamming them into the bag, my breathing rough, gagging from the dust, hoping that these bones would be enough bones because there was no chance I was going to do any digging, knowing this was it as far as my nerve was concerned because I was on the very tipping edge of screaming loud enough to drown out the wailing howl of pain. If I could have stood and run, this would have been the moment I would have thrown it all down and fled.

I looked up, the last of the bones in the bag, and something — to this day I don’t know what — made me reach up to the headband light and flick the switch from the deep red position to the white, white, white glaring light.

It was as if I was in some movie theatre in Hell and the film just jammed and there in the glare, clear and crisp, was Ada, and the misty presence that flowed around her was revealed to be a man, and I could see him clearly, he was dressed in a pale, dirty white shirt and rough butternut-dyed pants, and he was the cop who had driven me home the night before, the hooked-nose man of indeterminate race with the knowing, evil eyes, the same man, the same man who had promised me there would be Hell To Pay.

 

“PULL!”

 

Thirty-eight

For those of you who are keeping track, I am nearing the end of my 69 drinks. It doesn’t seem so if you add up all the drinks recorded on these pages, but I’ve actually had more than I have listed here. Most of them were uninspiring, in either a good or bad way, just drinks that you might encounter in any regular foray into any regular bar. There have been few revelations: I still loathe tequila and choking those five varieties down was a test of my resolve and honesty, but I did it. Would I lie to you? The scotches all went down easily, ditto most of the bourbons except those that were too sweet. Does anyone still drink Southern Comfort? Disgusting. The specialty drinks – Becherovka, Green Chartreuse, Fireball, others – were equally disgusting.

Over the last year the Lead Penny has gone through some major changes – moving three buildings north on Churton Street being the main one, but it has remained the fabulous friendly bar it has always been. The wait-staff is efficient, patient, knowledgeable, good-natured and good-looking, man and woman alike. Even when the place was jammed they had time to discuss with me what drinks were still undrunk and what strategy would be employed that afternoon or evening. The chicken wings are always good and the rest of the food is well-cooked and innovative. Here’s a tip, the plain black beans are maybe the best I’ve ever eaten.

This is beginning to sound like I’m saying goodbye before walking into the ocean with stones in my pocket, but I just want to make sure I say my thank-yous before this last bit of action. I don’t think they’re going to let me have my laptop in jail, so no more blog if they put me in the pokey, or maybe some rookie cop will shoot me mistaking a 73-year-old, portly old man digging a hole at night in a graveyard for a cat burglar.

I put Sherry into the car and gave her a kiss goodbye. “I don’t know where you’ve been going at night recently,” she said to me, “you can explain it all when I get back.”

“It’s time you read my blog,” I said. “It will explain everything.” She backed out of the driveway, gave me a wave and headed north.

I packed my shovel in my backpack, added a few other supplies, and read my book until midnight and it was time to go. I was dressed for it: black jeans, black T-shirt, sneakers in case I needed to make a run for it, nothing special, this is what I wear every day; in the colder months the black T-shirt is long sleeved.

The weather was good, as if making up for the Florence disaster: warm without a hint of rain. The sky was clear and the moon was showing at about a quarter, which the Internet tells me is called either a waxing or waning crescent moon. I stood by the car looking up at the sky for a few minutes, telling myself I could just walk back inside and go to bed, but that barely-heard weeping was still there, grating against my nerves, and I thought it would always be there if I didn’t try to do something about it. I opened the car door and put a piece of dull silver duct tape over the button that turned on the overhead light. I waited a minute to see if it would pull off, but it held. Good old duct tape, the cat burglar’s friend. I climbed into the car, put my pack on the passenger seat and pulled out for the short drive to the parking lot near the graveyard.

I sat in the car in the lot, near but not quite right next to the row of cars that I assumed belonged to the patrons in the Nash Street Tavern. I went over the plan again, though I wasn’t sure if I was still trying to talk myself into it or out of it. While I sat, I sipped from a pewter flask of George Dickel bourbon that I had prepared earlier. It held a bit more than 6 ounces, and I was careful to leave a couple of ounces in the bottom. I screwed on the cap and ran my thumb over the letters engraved on the front. I had the flask engraved when I was working on my first blog, thethrillerguy; the message was one I used to flog my readers with at the time: Sit down; Shut up; Get to work. Good advice, then and now. Get to work.

I put the flask in the pack, it clanked against the shovel; I made a mental note to be careful about that. The light stayed off when I opened the door. Yes! I was sure no one saw me when I cut across the parking lot and into the trees at the far end. I would wait there until the bar crowd came out. I was afraid that if I stayed in the car I would drink the rest of the whiskey and fall asleep.

Eventually the bar doors opened and the patrons began to straggle out and across the street to their cars. They got in and in a couple of minutes the last one pulled out of the lot.

This, I reasoned, would be my most dangerous few minutes. I didn’t want to try and creep into the graveyard by cutting through a small forest and a large backyard, which I think would have been possible but would leave me open to barking dogs, if there were any, or irate neighbors with shotguns. I walked out of my little woods, into the street, onto the sidewalk in front of the one house between the lot and the graveyard, strolled up the sidewalk like I was an honest citizen out for a late night stroll with a shovel in my backpack, made it by the house (no lights were showing) and into the graveyard.

I was glad that I had done my reconnaissance days earlier, because it was darker than I thought it would be. What are the clichés? Darker than a well-digger’s ass? Darker than the inside of a cat? Even though I knew it was there, I still tripped over the low fence that surrounded the three lonely gravestones. I stumbled but didn’t go down, clutching the backpack to my chest so the flask didn’t clank. I slowed my breathing and skirted the fence, moving off into an even darker patch of shadow, feeling my way into the copse I had scouted earlier. I stopped again and waited, giving myself five minutes (I assume it was five minutes, it felt like half an hour) for my eyes to completely adjust to what dim light there was from the moon (not much) and the streetlight on the edge of the graveyard (still not much.)

When I decided I was never going to see much of anything anyway and I should just get on with it, I swung the pack off my back, unzipped it and removed the shovel. I put the pack on the ground and pried the shovel blade from where it was bent back against the handle and muscled it into position. It made a click that was loud enough to freeze my blood but after standing rock-still for a minute I decided no one could have heard it unless they were a few feet from where I was hidden.

I knelt down and felt around at my feet. I was in the very center of the grove (luck) where the ground was fairly free of brush or tree growth. I put the shovel into digging position, got my foot on it and pressed down. It sunk into the earth like the proverbial hot knife through butter; I was amazed at how much easier it was than trying to dig in the hard red clay of my front yard. The blade sunk in up to the haft, I scooped up as much as it would hold and dumped it several feet off to the right. I stopped and listened: nothing. Not even crickets. I went back to it. There was only the soft sound of the shovel doing its work. Every once in awhile I flinched at the metallic click when the blade hit a stone.

Here’s what I was thinking, both then and back when I was planning this first part of my three-part strategy. First of all, I had no idea how many bones were under the house, or what volume they would take up once I had gathered them together. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to have an entire skeleton on my hands. If that turned out to be the case, I’d have to rethink the whole thing. So I dug until I had a hole that felt like it was at least eight inches deep, maybe a foot in places, over a couple of feet square. It wasn’t hard work, but I was sweating when I decided I was finished. I gathered up some loose sticks and brush and put them over my makeshift grave. It probably wouldn’t disguise the hole completely, but I thought that the chances of anyone stumbling across it were pretty slim. The greater danger was me falling into it in the dark.

I put the shovel in the backpack, took out the flask, and dumped the remaining two ounces of George Dickel on my shoulders and shirtfront. The empty flask went comfortably into my back pocket, and I stepped away from the hole, feeling my way into the small trees until I came across a low bush that kept me from going any further. I knelt down, found an opening where I could stash the backpack and crammed it as far under the bush as I could.

The slow, fumbling trip out of the graveyard was uneventful, meaning I didn’t fall into the hole and there was no one walking their dog to see me. I checked my watch: 1:30 AM. I turned toward home. The walk back would take around 20 minutes.

It was ten minutes before a black and white cop car slid up beside me. I had seen the lights coming as I was walking in the center of the street, and I moved over so the car could pass, which it didn’t. It stopped. I leaned down as the passenger side window whirred open. My heart was pounding, and I kept telling myself: you knew this could happen, follow the plan.

“Good evening,” the cop said. I nodded. “My name is Officer Bradley Warren. You wouldn’t be Mr. Allen Appel, would you?”

For the first time since I began this evening’s caper, I felt a wash of gut-chilling fear flow over my pounding heart. It rocked me back a little so I had to put a hand on the car door to steady myself. “That would be me.” Why was he here? How did he know my name? Had he been looking for me? Visions of Sherry in a car crash flitted through my mind.

“Would that be your car in the parking lot of the Nash Street Tavern?” He was glancing at a little notebook. The page glowed neon green in the illumination from the lights imbedded in dashboard.

“Yes.”

“And why are you not driving your car?”

I leaned in close to the window. “Because I’m drunk.”

He mulled that over for a minute. I was hoping the George Dickel fumes both on my breath and from my shirt were wafting through the car to where he was sitting. He gave me a long, appraising cop look, and nodded again.

“OK. Get in the car, I’ll give you a ride home.” I thought about declining, saying I could use the exercise, but when a cop says get in the car you get in the car.

“I live…” I began.

“I know where you live.”

The four-minute ride was accomplished in silence. In the close confines of the patrol car I was aware that I not only smelled like I had been on a two-day bender, but that I had, while I was on that bender, taken a swim in a vat of whiskey. Had I overdone it?

We rolled to a stop in front of the house. The silver metal shingles of the roof made it glow pale in the dim moonlight. There were no lights on in any of the windows.

“Think you can make it inside on your own?” he asked.

I tried to assume a dignified, slightly annoyed though drunken look. ‘I’m sure I’ll be fine, Officer.” I fumbled with the door and couldn’t get it open.

“You’ll pick up your car tomorrow after you’ve slept this off?” he asked. I nodded. “You left it unlocked,” he added. “I got in it when I went through your glove compartment. Do you know your interior light is not functioning?”

Again that wave of fear.

“It must be burnt out.”

Silence.

He was giving me that cop look again. The kind that loosens your bowels. The one that says he knows there’s something not quite right, but he just can’t quite put his finger on it. He went on. “No, actually, the bulb’s not burnt out, someone has put a piece of duct tape over the switch that turns it on when you open the door. Would that be you, Mr. Appel? And why would you do such a thing?”

I turned to him, giving him the full benefit of my whiskey breath and my innocent expression. “Are you married, Officer?” I asked. He nodded. I looked over at the house.

“So am I. My wife is sleeping soundly inside that house, but she is a light sleeper. She might not hear me drive up, but she could very well see the light from the car when I opened the door. This is not my first late-night trip to a barroom.” I gave him what I thought was a sly, man-to-man look. “Maybe you are married and are saying to yourself, why would she care, but when you’ve been married as long as I have, you’ll understand at this time of the night… ” I glanced at my wristwatch and couldn’t see anything,  “… morning, under these circumstances there are some discussions you don’t want to have with your just-woke-up wife.”

We sat there looking at each other. By now my eyes had adjusted to the greenish glow from the dashboard. It cast a ghostly, blurry illumination that looked like what they show in the movies when someone puts on a pair of night vision goggles. He was a lean man, with a hook nose, his ethnicity was unclear in the wash of green, his eyes were dark and suspicious. We stared at each other for several hours. (Several minutes.)

He pushed a button and I heard my door unlock. “Just a second,” he said. He reached up and flipped a switch on his interior light and gave me a condescending smile. When I opened the door the light did not come on. I waved my hand in thanks and turned to the house.

The walk from the patrol car to the front door was at least three or four miles (thirty yards) and I held my breath the entire way. I walked carefully, but not too carefully, I was drunk, remember? I got my key out, opened the door and went inside. Looking back out I could see him, bathed in the ethereal green light. He was writing in his little book. He looked up in my direction, and I felt like he could see me, easily, even though I was in complete darkness, I could feel him look deep inside me, I could hear his words, in my head, in a voice that made my skin crawl, deep down where the little girl wept, the words, knifing into me: “You’re a goddamned liar, Mr. Appel, A goddamned liar. I will CATCH YOU! AND THERE WILL BE HELL TO PAY!”

Eventually, he drove away.

This was not part of the plan.

 

 

 

Thirty-seven

I have a plan. Last night after Sherry was asleep I dressed and drove down to the bar near the Margaret Lane Cemetery where I’m going to park when I go to bury Ada’s bones. I pulled the car into the large lot and sat for a while. The bar was doing a good business and there were ten other cars lined up near me. I rolled down the window; there must have been a live band as I could hear music floating along on the night air. I was there for an hour; during that time I saw cop cars drive by three times, though probably it was the same car. One of those times after they passed it looked like they drove up the street past the cemetery. Then I fell asleep. The bar closed down around 1:30 and the patrons wandered out and into their cars and drove away. The sounds of the cars and people talking woke me up. I left along with the others, drove home, and sneaked inside and went back to bed.

So, a cop drove-by, three times. Maybe more when I was asleep. Obviously they keep a pretty close eye on this particular bar, or maybe it’s just the neighborhood, which is a mix of nice houses, (a graveyard), and some project involving the rehabilitation of an old mill.

The plan is to dig the hole for the bones first, before I go under the house to acquire them. This shortens my time in the graveyard, and the first time I’m there if I’m caught I won’t have any bones with me. I assume that the crime would be judged worse if I am in possession of human remains, so I’ll leave them at home.

Tucked into the middle of the graveyard down at one end there’s a narrow, brambly copse of brush and small trees that I scouted the first time I was there. It’s the sort of natural shelter I liked to hide in when I was a kid. You can’t really see into it unless you’re very close, and at night it would be impossible unless you knew exactly where to look. I shouldn’t be digging in there that long, the ground is still damp from Hurricane Florence, and my new shovel is very sharp.

And when will all this commence, you may ask? Soon. Sherry leaves tomorrow on a trip to Washington to go to a ball game and see Leah for a few days. Then she’s headed to Ohio to see her sister Barbara and Barbara’s husband Don who is ill. The date of her return is uncertain; I’m thinking a week or maybe even weeks. I hope to be done with all of this by then.

When I was sitting in the car last night, before I fell asleep, I could still hear, faintly, over the music from the bar band, Ada weeping. I don’t think this was truly auditory, I think that it has now become a part of me, coursing along through my bloodstream, singing in my ears, the way you can sometimes hear the whoosh of silence, sometimes hear your own heartbeat. I can’t go on like this.

Enough with the drama.

OK, I’ve just spent the afternoon reading websites about possessing human bones, digging in graveyards and the penalties thereof. I’ll keep it short, and if you’ve decided you want a nice human skull to place on your desk for luck while you write your best-selling crime novel you can do your own research.

In general, it looks like just digging a hole in a cemetery with no intent to disinter bones buried there would be a pretty minor misdemeanor.  You’d have to have a good reason for doing so, but the most they might get you for would probably be trespassing. And maybe not even that. So the first part of my tri-part plan — digging the hole — seems fairly risk free.

Now to the part about actually possessing human bones. It turns out, that unless the bones are of Native American ancestry, it’s not illegal. If you would like to own some bones, maybe the skull of a young child, you can peruse the shop listed here. Skull prices vary, expect to pay anywhere between $1,600.00 https://www.boneroom.com/store/c1/Featured_Products.html to $8,575.00 for a really beautifully carved specimen. https://realhumanskull.com/t/real-human-skull fancy skull

(If these urls don’t connect correctly on your computer, simply use a search term like, “human bones for sale” and you’ll find your way to the proper sites.

If I try to bury the bones in a graveyard and I get caught, it’s unclear what would happen, legally. As near as I can tell from reading the proper statutes — https://cemeterycensus.com/law/nc-law.htm— it might also be a misdemeanor, but it’s fairly clear that you would have some pretty serious explaining to do. They could probably get you for trespassing or property destruction but since you wouldn’t be technically grave robbing, you could probably keep yourself out of jail with a decent lawyer. Of course your case, because it’s so odd, would undoubtedly make the pages of the local newspaper after which you would become a weirdo, shunned and ridiculed everywhere you go. You would probably then be known as “the grave guy” and your wife would be “the grave guy’s wife.” No one wants to be the grave guy.

The upshot being, don’t think I am undertaking (inadvertent play on words) any of this lightly. I’m hoping I can get under my house without the house falling on me, find the bones, and place them into the Margaret Lane cemetery, into a proper burial without my existence ever being hinted at. Why? Why? See my comments above, the constant undertone of weeping is driving me crazy and somehow, for some inexplicable reason, it just seems to be the right thing to do. Sorry, I don’t mean to shout.

To tell the truth, before reading the above sites about buying bones, it had not occurred to me there might be an actual skull. All along I have envisioned a pile of smallish bones,bones the biggest being a femur or other leg bone, nothing grotesque, nice and clean like you see in a museum. After spending the afternoon looking through the various found-bones websites, I see now that is a vain hope. The best I can expect is that Rafe has done a good job digging things up under my house, and I will be spared any horrors. So, over several days, I will don my suit, my strap-on head-set light, climb under the house and collect whatever bones Rafe has already dug up, dig around in any obvious site and collect more bones if there are more bones, crawl out and ready myself to go to the Margaret Lane Cemetery, go, bury the bones in the previously-dug hole, sneak home, go to bed, find myself free of the incessant ongoing moaning, weeping from the little girl I’ve grown to know, and not to love, who will just not leave me alone.

That’s the plan.