“Once I saw her out by Swan Lake,” said Peter Jenkins one hot June afternoon they’d spent prowling the neighborhood. “Saw her bend down and pick up a bunch of worms out of the mud. And guess what?”
“She put ’em up to her mouth and slurped those fuckers up like spaghetti.”
“I heard she sleeps in the old Henderson cemetery,” said Max Flynn.
“I heard she doesn’t sleep at all.”
Clive Gunderson had never seen the woman do anything terrible, and he doubted his friends had either. But she still frightened him. He would never admit to anyone that she really, truly frightened him. He often thought about her face when he was trying to go to sleep. He didn’t want to, of course, but that didn’t prevent it from appearing in the dark of his mind when he was rolling around in bed, unable to get comfortable.
It was a mask of coarse and creased red leather. Usually it was scrunched into a network of deep wrinkles, but when Clive and his friends rode past on their bikes and shouted horrible things at her, she would look up to them and smile hideously, and it was that face that sometimes caused Clive to lean over in his bed and turn on his lamp. Her gums were more gray than pink, and there were more gaps where teeth should be than actual teeth.
But there was something aside from its mere hideousness that made Clive’s heart beat faster when he saw her smile, or thought about it in the night. There was no warmth in it; it couldn’t possibly have been intended as a genuine smile. No, it was another kind of smile, the sick kind that contorts the face with pleasure taken from sin. A nightmare smile.
It was Peter Jenkins, of course, who was the first to throw something at her. The first time it was a carton of chocolate milk. Clive still remembers how she looked up and followed Peter with her eyes and her smile, not seeming bothered at all by the thick brown liquid that had splashed across her face and soaked through the red headscarf she always had wrapped around the top of her head. Even though it was summer, and the milk would quickly turn sour and rancid in the heat.
They only ever saw her in the summertime, and even then rarely. Maybe five or six days a year, over three or four summers. It’s hard for Clive to remember the details. No one knew any details, as far as he can remember. Only the rumours they’d invent and spread amongst themselves. He once asked his mother if she knew who the old woman with the big gray coat and the red scarf was, and all she told him was to mind his own business and not to talk to older strangers.
But he remembers how it escalated after the chocolate milk.
The next time they saw her wandering down some old country road was on an afternoon later that same summer. They were biking back from playing baseball in the park, and there she was, her hunched and lumbering form unmistakable in the distance. Peter shouted the order to stop. Clive wanted nothing more than to ignore her, to pass her by and keep riding. But he didn’t. He stopped with the others.
Peter pulled his bike up right in front of the woman and began screaming obscene things, things so awful and suggestive that Clive actually remembers some of the specific words and phrases when he thinks back to the incident thirty-five years later and has to bury his face in his hands.
But the old woman just looked at Peter and smiled at him with her ruined mouth, which, of course, only set Peter off even more. He threw his bike to the ground and snatched out of Max’s hand the bottle of root beer he’d been sipping, lifted it above the woman’s red-covered head, and slowly upturned it.
Max laughed nervously, but Clive was silent. He stood a few feet back from his friends, gripping the handlebars of his bike with his heart pumping painfully in his chest.
The woman only widened her grin and fastened her eyes on Peter’s. She never spoke. She probably couldn’t speak. Clive had never heard a sound come out of her mouth, and rumours of speech had strangely never figured into any of the stories they’d made up about her.
“Oh you like that, huh?” Peter shrieked. “Well maybe you’ll like this, too.” He turned to Clive, reached over his head, and tore out the baseball bat whose handle protruded from the top of Clive’s backpack.
“Pete, what the fuck?” said Max.
“Jesus, Pete, no–” was all that Clive managed to get out before Peter lifted the bat quickly and swung it low, striking the woman in the left leg just above the kneecap.
Clive held his breath and winced, preparing himself to see the woman crumple to the ground in a heap of agony.
But she didn’t.
The bat bounced off her leg with a dull clunking noise as if it had struck the trunk of a tree. The woman didn’t move at all, and still she was staring into Peter’s eyes, smiling that awful smile.
Peter, meanwhile, looked paralyzed. He’d clearly been expecting the same thing Clive had been dreading, but here the woman stood. His face looked stupid as his eyes traveled back and forth from the bat in his hands to the woman’s leg. Then his confusion turned to rage and he lifted the bat far behind his head and let loose a wordless howl as he swung fiercely at the old woman. The second blow struck her at the waist and again the bat rebounded off her body in the most unnatural way, except this time there was so much force behind it that Peter lost control and the bat recoiled directly into Clive’s face, flattening his nose with an audible crunch.
It happened so quickly that Clive didn’t even see the bat hit him. He’d been staring slack-jawed at the old woman, who once again didn’t appear at all hindered by the violence brought upon her. But now he stumbled back, stunned, not knowing why his whole head had turned numb, or why he couldn’t hear anything. At the same time a faint ringing inside his skull began to grow louder, he noticed his nose was running uncontrollably. He put a hand to it, embarrassed, and felt soft pulpy lumps where his nose should be, and his hand came back bloodied. He looked down and saw blood pouring steadily out of his face and puddling on the road.
“Aw shit, Clive. I’m sorry.”
But Clive couldn’t hear Peter say these useless words. Nor could he hear the exclamations of his other friend, Max, whose face was staring at him and whose mouth was moving frantically. Because before real pain had a chance to register, Clive was aware of something else in that moment. The attention of the old woman had shifted from Peter to himself. Her dark eyes were now on him. And she was smiling.
But why? he was thinking. Why him? None of this was supposed to happen. Why couldn’t they just have ridden past her. Why was she looking at him now like—
His unfinished thoughts were snatched away when pain finally caught up to him, pain so sharp that his mind turned white as he stumbled drunkenly into the woman in front of him. Then his hands were on his knees and he was vomiting on his own feet, gasping in air and spewing until nothing more would come. And still he bled and bled, on himself and on the ground and on the woman who stood stark still and smiling.
“Umb swowy,” he said, looking up to the woman. Her hair was matted to her red face, wet and sticky with warm root beer, and through it her dark eyes regarded him. When her face came to him in the night her eyes were pitch-black horizontal ovals, but in actuality they were a deep brown, the eyes of a small cow. Her mouth was split into its usual crescent grin, and the sight of it made more vomit rise into Clive’s throat.
Then he was being dragged away. Someone had their arms around his elbows and he was being pulled backwards. His legs wouldn’t cooperate at first and he almost collapsed, but someone was holding onto him tightly. A bicycle was being shoved into his bloodstained hands, his own bicycle. Max’s face appeared momentarily in front of his own, yelling something. There was a lot of yelling around him but everything was incomprehensible and muffled except for the sharp and ceaseless ringing in his ears.
He fell off his bicycle once as they left the scene. He might have just stayed sprawled across the baking pavement if someone hadn’t come back and pulled him up onto his feet, sat him back on his bike. Without wanting to, he looked back as he drifted away. He hoped she wouldn’t still be there. He hoped it hadn’t really happened like it did. But she was there, right where they’d left her, standing on the side of that old country road and looking back at him, their eyes meeting across the lengthening distance.
They never spoke of that afternoon. They never went looking for the old woman again, and they never saw her again. No one knew where she went, of course, but they didn’t make up stories about it either.
In fact they seemed to drift apart after that summer. Maybe it was just puberty or sports or girls–perhaps a combination of these things, because just a few weeks later they began their first year of junior high–but thinking back, Clive suspects it mostly had to do with that afternoon, the one that couldn’t be talked about.
His nose had been badly broken. Even after two months with a nasal cast and subsequent surgeries, he was told it would never fully heal. It would always be strangely flat and tender to the touch. In high school it earned him the nickname Pancake Face. “Baseball” was all he would mutter when asked what happened. He never wanted to talk about it, not only because it had made him ugly, but because it reminded him of what really happened.
He focused on school, worked hard to get good grades. He made new friends, ones that were different from his old friends. Ones that also worked hard to get good grades and didn’t play with firecrackers at lunch hour or whistle at girls in the hallways. He remained on good terms with his old friends though; he wanted to get along with everybody.
Except for Peter Jenkins. Ever since that summer afternoon, he grew to hate Peter Jenkins. It wasn’t just because of the nose–he knew that was an accident, awful though it was–but because of everything else that had happened that afternoon.
And so Clive did his best to avoid Peter, but suddenly his face was everywhere–plastered to every telephone pole in town, on the pinboards of every shop and business, milk cartons. Everywhere you went, Peter’s face was there, but he himself was gone.
It happened near the end of the summer after their first year of junior high, and it threw the town into hysteria. Nothing like it had ever happened before, at least as far as anyone could remember. It wasn’t the kind of thing that happened in that town. It was the kind of thing that happened elsewhere, in other towns, far away.
Clive remembers the phone call, even though his mom answered it. He knew something was wrong immediately. She sounded worried and deadly serious. When she hung up and told him that Peter Jenkins was missing, his stomach dropped. Peter had been out on his bike doing his paper route, she said, and he hadn’t come home. His bike and carrier bag had been found on the side of an old country road, but nothing else.
Clive couldn’t move. He asked what road they’d found his bike on, and when she told him, he burst into tears. His mother went over and hugged him closely, saying she was so sorry, that she knew what good friends they used to be.
But she didn’t know. She didn’t know anything.
Half his life later, Clive Gunderson hardly knows what to make of it all. It seems so remote, like it happened in a previous life, to a different Clive Gunderson. It might as well have, he reflects as he drives through the familiar but utterly changed streets.
He wonders now if coming here was a bad idea. After graduating high school with a scholarship to a good college, he had seriously promised himself that he would never return to the town in which he’d grown up. But that was almost thirty years ago. He wanted to convince himself that his childhood was more than just a wound he had bandaged shut and tried to ignore.
And so when he got the offer to guest-lecture at a university only thirty miles away, he decided it was about time. He didn’t mention his planned detour to his wife; he didn’t know how to explain it. Nor did he try to contact anyone he used to know in the town, not that he’d really know how to. He’d long been out of touch with his old friends, and his parents had moved away shortly after he left for college.
Besides, getting in touch with old acquaintances wasn’t the point. The point was to prove that the place wasn’t the nightmare he remembered it being.
And so far it didn’t seem to be, mostly because there was nothing very recognizable about it. The skeleton of the place was familiar, but the features had changed. He drove right past his old house at first, and when he went back to give it a look, it was completely different. A bright yellow had been painted over its plain white and a glass sunroom had been added as a front entrance. Beside it was a new garage that itself looked like a small house.
All the houses looked different in some way. Updated, more modern. His high school–that ghastly brick fortress–must have been completely knocked down and rebuilt from the ground up some time ago, and in place of the old gravelly soccer field was a dark green artificial turf.
He drove past more places he vaguely remembered. Most of the local restaurants had been replaced by chains, and there were more apartment complexes than there used to be. A lot more tinted glass and a lot less brown brick. He tried to find the house of his old friend, Max, but instead discovered a series of attached townhouses.
Clive shook his head as he continued his self-guided tour, trying to remember the places he passed as they were, so many summers ago. He wondered if Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins still lived somewhere in town. Doubtful, he figured. Peter had been their only son. How could they have bared to stay? God knows where their grief had taken them.
He lingered in those streets for longer than he’d meant to, dredging up memories he didn’t know still slept somewhere in his head, memories that required the trigger of association. He was relieved to learn that not all of them were the kind of memories he thought they’d be. He had known happiness here, he decided. It had all been wiped away in the end, of course, but it had still been there to begin with, once, a very long time ago.
At the onset of evening, when the sun dipped behind the upper branches of the trees that lined every street, Clive decided he’d had enough. He would probably never return again, but that was fine. He saw what he’d come to see, whatever that was, and he felt more content than he’d allowed himself to expect; he was not gripping the steering wheel of his car and grimacing out the windshield at the people and buildings he passed. In fact, as he left the town’s center, a passerby might have noticed a faint smile on his lips, as though someone had just leaned over and whispered a joke or a pinch of gossip in his ear.
On his way back to the highway, as he approached the turnoff, he made a decision. It was not something he’d premeditated–though the possibility had crossed his mind–but he recognized now that another detour would be a necessary culmination to his visit.
He passed the turnoff without even looking at it, impressed by his calm state of mind. He wouldn’t be long. Twenty minutes at the most. Then he’d return to his real life. He played out the rest of his evening in his head: he’d be at his hotel before sunset, order room service while checking in, and call his wife while he waited for his dinner to arrive. He’d tell her his drive was fine. Without incident.
It became harder to distract himself when he turned onto that old country road. Unlike the rest of the town, it hadn’t changed. It looked exactly as it did all those years ago. On that afternoon. Clive felt like he’d slipped into one of his bad dreams. It still came back to him sometimes, even now. Her dark and hunched figure in the distance. Her smiling face following them as they left.
He pulled onto the side of the road. His nose itched. All around him was empty, but he still felt on the verge of panic. How could he possibly have thought this would be a good idea? He needed to leave, needed to be somewhere else. He breathed in deep, measured breaths, closing his eyes to the nightmare out his window. He thought of his home, his wife, his work. The safety of his hotel room that awaited him a half hour’s drive away.
As he reached for the keys in the ignition, he noticed movement up ahead in the brush off the right side of the road. Clive froze. His carefully composed thoughts vanished as he watched something–someone–come shambling out of the undergrowth a few dozen yards ahead.
It was a man, he saw. A man who must have gotten lost while walking in the woods, and found the road to orient himself. Clive exhaled his trapped breath, suddenly comforted by the presence of a stranger.
The man was old. Very old. Thin, and a bit bent in the back. He stepped tentatively onto the road, every movement painfully slow. He looked mystified, Clive thought, and vaguely frightened. His head turned from side to side as he studied his surroundings with caution and curiosity, as though he’d been placed without warning in an alien world. He looked in no condition to have been walking the trails outside of town, especially by himself. Clearly he needed help of some kind.
Clive opened his door and stepped out of his car.
“Excuse me,” he called to the man. “Do you need a lift back into town?”
Clive’s words seemed to send an electric shock through the old man; he jumped where he stood and almost lost his balance. Clive shut his door and began to walk towards the man, who had stopped moving and now looked up to Clive in bewilderment. He was even older than Clive thought at first. He wore pale blue jeans and a white t-shirt. The flesh of his arms dangled loosely from his bones like wet paper, and his face was an intricate cobweb of wrinkles.
There was a strangeness about his eyes, Clive noticed as he got nearer. They were not the faded, rheumy eyes of a person well into their nineties–and this man must certainly be into his nineties, thought Clive, possibly even a hundred. But the ancient man’s eyes were bright blue and alert. They darted around and looked Clive up and down. There was something familiar about them, but Clive was sure he’d never met this man before. Then the man’s eyes grew wide and he stepped backwards off the road. Suddenly he looked terrified; his mouth fell open slowly and from it came a hopeless groan.
“Peter?” he said. He didn’t know where the name came from; he didn’t know who he was looking at until he heard himself say it.
The man groaned louder, his mouth moving up and down. Clive knew he was trying to say words but couldn’t.
A girl appeared at the man’s side, emerging from the thick woods behind him. Clive hadn’t noticed the sound of her approach. She was suddenly just there.
“Who is it, granddaddy?” she asked, looking up to the man who was stepping back into the undergrowth and moaning pathetically.
She was a small girl, only up to the bent man’s chest, but her age was somehow hard to place. Her flushed face looked compressed–her nose was a thick snub and her eyes too close together. Her clothes were strange, too. She wore an old worn dark gray coat that was stained and dirty, and her black wiry hair was mostly hidden underneath a red headscarf.
Clive stood motionless in the middle of the road, his eyes shifting between the horrified old man and the ugly little girl.
“Who are you?” the girl asked, looking up to Clive. “Why have you scared my granddaddy?”
“What? I didn’t–”
“You did so,” the girl snapped. “Poor grandaddy. Look what you’ve done to him.”
The old man was retreating backwards out of sight. He was still looking at Clive’s face. Tears began to spill from his widened eyes while his mouth opened and closed soundlessly.
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” said the girl, scrunching up her face.
“What have you done to him?” Clive managed to whisper.
The girl stepped onto the road and looked up to Clive with little brown eyes that were like two dark pebbles poked into her strange red face.
“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers,” she said, and smiled. Her mouth was bad. She was missing teeth and the ones she had left were dull yellow stubs that jutted crookedly from gray gums.
Clive was already walking backwards in the direction of his car. The old man was gone. The girl remained, watching Clive, smiling at him.
His mind worked frantically. He wanted to turn around and run to his car but he couldn’t look away from the girl. He tried to think of something else to say, something else to do, but his body could only focus on escape.
Then he was fumbling for his keys at the door of his car. He dropped them to the pavement and wanted to collapse and weep. Instead he knelt down, keeping his eyes on the smiling girl, and picked them up. He opened the door and got inside. Relief washed through him deliriously at the sound of his engine starting. He pulled away from the side of the road, turned his car around, and left.
Without wanting to, he looked back as he drove away. He hoped she wouldn’t still be there. He hoped it hadn’t really happened like it did. But she was there, right where he’d left her, standing on the side of that old country road and looking back at him, their eyes meeting across the lengthening distance.
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