BULWARK, GEORGIA – PRESENT DAY
JB closed the door gently, glad to have the place to himself again. Sheriff Clay Finnes had taken the injured couple to the hospital.
The only sound in the cabin was the creak of the wooden floors settling and the tick of the antique regulator clock that hung on the wall.
It was an old clock and had never worked very well. JB smiled, thinking Ellie would be pleased to see the ornate second hand traveling around the parchment-colored face and the great brass pendulum swinging again.
It must have been set off when he slammed the door shut after he had escorted that ungrateful wretch out of his house. What a creep, calling his wife a witch, of all things. Didn’t she know not to speak ill of the dead?
He recalled that there was a key lying around somewhere. His wife used to wind that clock every so often and then stand next to it pleading hopefully, “Tick, pretty please!”
The old mechanism would give a muffled gong, move a minute or two, and then stall, making his diminutive wife steam up like a teapot.
It was her great-great-grandmother’s, the only piece of her family history willed to her. The rest went to her brother, who married a Northerner and didn’t disappoint the family.
That old clock was made by none other than George Mitchell of Bristol, Connecticut, at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
JB concentrated on the etching painted on the reverse glass of the case. It was a pastoral scene, with women holding parasols and men wearing pantaloons and beaver top hats. He noticed the mahogany case was layered with a coating of dust. He ran a crooked finger down the top, leaving a trail. It’s been neglected, he thought and shook his head. His right knee twinged, and he chuckled, like me.
JB had seen many clocks like this one in his day. Despite its Yankee past, every family around here worth their salt had a similar one in their home, to be handed down through the ages.
Every family except his, perhaps. His family had left him nothing.
JB grabbed a rag on the way to the living room, wiping the water rings from the surface of the coffee table. He’d given the victims of the car accident coasters, but they had carelessly placed them on the surface of the furniture. He’d made that piece for his wife from a tree felled by Hurricane Agnes in ’72.
That tree had nearly killed them all, landing on the back of the cottage and taking out the kitchen and half of the dining room with it. JB had gotten his wife and kids out just in time, hiding in the underground root cellar until the worst of the storm had passed.
His eyes smarted now, and he swiped them with a gnarled hand, his loud sniff filling the silence.
He glanced up, blinking several times to clear his eyes, and focused on the picture of Ellie. He picked it up, his hand caressing the face, wishing he could feel her skin.
How dare she? he thought again, bitterly. How dare that woman say his beloved was a witch?
Ellie Straton was the sweetest woman to grace the earth, and JB missed her with every fiber of his being.
JB shut his eyes, too tired to think. His mind kept replaying the earlier part of the day over and over again.
He wanted to go back in time and ignore the sound of the blaring horn.
He could still recall the commotion outside that had interrupted his late-afternoon news program.
Grabbing a shotgun, he had thrown on an old sweater and navigated the rickety steps out of the cottage. He had struggled down the path leading to the main road, gripping his gun tightly.
A cold snap in the weather had made his old injury act up, slowing his movements and leaving him sleepless at night. Still, he had hefted the gun close since one couldn’t be too careful. He had paused for a minute to give the clearing by the woods a good look. It was only yesterday he had seen a wolf lurking in a thicket at the end of his property.
He’d have to remember to tell the sheriff about it.
JB was sure that wolves were extinct in this part of Georgia.
At first, he had reckoned it might be a stray. He knew Bobby Ray and Trout Parker kept a pack of mongrels that annoyed most of the local farmers. Those mutts were known to raid the chicken houses, wreaking havoc on the best layers in the county.
He thought about the animal he had seen yesterday. It could have been a dog. He felt himself wavering. No it was definitely a wolf. He shook his head. It was one big, bad-looking wolf.
Frankly, he wasn’t used to seeing much of anything on this side of town.
Most people stayed on the other end of Bulwark, especially since that smelly, green puddle had appeared out of nowhere.
He had reported stagnant water as soon as he had noticed it about ten days ago, but nobody cared.
It was on the Old Jericho Road that folks didn’t travel anymore. Everyone knew the street had fallen out of use when the mill shut down years ago.
JB shook his craggy head. People had no business traveling in that direction. Strange stories had always come from that end of the county, even before he was born.
Some claimed spirits walked the woods and meadows; others said evil lurked there. Either way, from the time he was knee-high and the size of a tree stump, he knew to stay away.
Even talking about it gave him the willies, and that took a lot.
There was very little that frightened JB Straton, but for as long as he could remember, going into that neck of the woods was considered forbidden. Not that he believed in mumbo-jumbo. But somehow he had always taken those warnings seriously. Damn, if he couldn’t explain it, nobody could.
JB Straton considered himself a rational man most of the time. However, there were those instances that gave him pause, especially with Ellie.
JB surveyed the growing pond filling the roadway, the shrill blast of the car horn making his heart beat a little faster in his chest. That sound could only mean someone was in trouble.
JB had looked for a source of the spreading water but didn’t see where it started.
He knew the puddle was far from the creek that ran parallel to the back of his home. It was apparent it wasn’t coming from there. Besides, that water was pure and clean, and this looked like sewage to him.
Only last week it had started as a puddle, and today, it looked like it had grown into a small pond, he grumbled. The smell was intolerable, the greenish color made it look like industrial waste.
Clay Finnes should have come earlier and investigated, he said to himself at the time.
He liked Clay well enough, had even voted for him. But maybe taking on the top job as sheriff was too much for the man. JB knew Clay was understaffed from budget cuts, and of course, there was that business about his child and his disintegrating marriage. Sad stuff, kidnapping, right here in safe little Bulwark.
Cries mixed with the discordant sound of the horn had brought him back to himself. JB slid down the embankment, landing in ankle- deep ooze.
He had slipped, catching himself but feeling the tight tendons on his leg protest. Cursing strangers, overgrown puddles, and his own bum knees, he had made his way resentfully toward the water. He had halted at the edge, considering his options.
A lone car, a Ford Fusion, was stuck in the middle of the quagmire. City folk, he muttered under his breath. Any sensible country person would never attempt to drive through deep water like that unless they had a truck.
A woman calf-deep in the water was trying to pull a man from the driver’s side. JB shook his head grimly. The origin of the noise was her companion’s head pressed against the steering wheel.
“Hey!” JB had called. “Hey, is everything okay?”
The stranger had looked in his direction, her eyes unfocused. She waved her hands. She was shouting something, but he could barely hear her.
He had squinted at her, turning his better ear in her direction to try to catch what she was saying.
She had screeched about her children and witches.
Witches? He had huffed. Another nutjob looking for entertainment at the expense of the locals. Last year, a film crew all the way from Hollywood had camped out on the edge of Sam Holsteam’s farm, searching for the ghosts from a Civil War battle said to have occurred there.
The cast and crew had skedaddled quickly enough, screaming bloody murder. Everybody in town knew the film crew had left pasty-faced and hungover from Sam’s peach moonshine. City slickers, he had snickered, couldn’t handle a good jug of’shine.
“Do you need help?” he had shouted to the woman.
This time, when she had looked at him, he had noticed a thin line of blood trickling from her hairline.
JB had patted his back pocket. He had hissed under his breath, calling himself five kinds of fool.
He’d forgotten that blasted cell phone his kid insisted he keep on him at all times in case he fell or something.
JB had bent awkwardly, placing the gun on the dry part of the incline and then gingerly stepping into the slimy puddle. He had realized that he had never changed into boots as his slippers filled with cold water.
Gritting his teeth, he had fought the urge to leave. Why hadn’t he removed the slippers? Ellie had bought those slippers for him their last Christmas together. Now, they’d be ruined; his jaw twitched with resentment.
JB had waded toward the vehicle as the woman grew increasingly incoherent. As he had moved her out of the way, one of her flailing hands had caught him on the side of his head, and JB swore he heard bells ringing.
“No, stop it, woman. I’m here to help.”
He had held her by both her shoulders, trying to reason with her, but she had looked as dazed as Johnny Gottfried had when he collided with a linebacker and suffered the worst concussion the NFL had ever recorded.
Her eyes had rolled in their sockets, and he saw her face drain of what little color it had. He had shaken her gently. “Now, don’t go and faint on me, ma’am. I can’t carry you both.”
This had seemed to reach her, and she had whimpered.
She had grabbed the collar of his sweater, her bloody fingers poking holes in the fragile weave.
“My children . . . my children. Wicked, wicked place.” She had looked like a wild woman, her mouth stretched in a soundless scream.
She had snagged a thread on his sweater when she grabbed him, loosening it. JB had watched it unravel and fought the urge to brush her away. Ellie had knitted this sweater. How much more was this day going to cost him?
JB had taken a steadying breath and then patiently turned the woman in the direction of his house. He had given her a poke to the center of her back. “Go there.” He had pointed up the embankment. “I’ll get your husband out.”
He had watched her slog through the water to the other side, her head lowered.
Satisfied she was making progress; he had turned back to the man. His head rested against the steering wheel, his eyes were closed, and his skin had a faint bluish cast.
“Mister?” JB had called over the noise of the horn. He had touched the skin of the man’s neck, recoiling at the clammy feel. This was not looking very good.
JB had wavered with the idea of moving him. He realized the water was now inching up over JB’s thighs.
Again, he had looked for the source of the water, but had seen nothing except a widening greenish body of muck.
The door to the car was open and rapidly flooding with water. JB reached in, and using his upper body strength attempted to move the man. He couldn’t budge him. JB placed his shoulder under the victim’s arm and half dragged the man from the vehicle. He had been rewarded with a low groan, but the victim had definitely been nothing more than dead weight.
He had managed to get the couple into his cottage, wrap them both in blankets, and call the sheriff.
Tea with brandy had revived the wife enough for her to notice her surroundings.
It was then that she had focused on his Ellie’s picture on the mantle and had accused his wife of stealing her children. Sheriff Clay Finnes had arrived just then, as his patience was wearing thin, along with that pushy news reporter Dayna Dalton. The injured couple was taken away, and he was left to the thick silence that felt like a comforting old blanket.
He was well rid of the intruders and now looked around his peaceful home, wishing his unwanted guests a speedy recovery along with the hope that he never had to set eyes on them again.
JB shuffled over to his recliner, his worn knees protesting.
He had changed his clothes after the whole hullabaloo but still felt chilled to the bone. Took a long time to warm this old body, he remembered ruefully.
He rubbed the skin of his thigh, the site of another football injury so horrible the bone had snapped and torn through his skin. What was it, forty-four or forty-five years ago?
He remembered waking from surgery, Ellie’s hand brushing his forehead, her soft voice assuring him his football career had not ended.
He cleared his throat noisily, tears smarting his eyes, happy that Ellie wasn’t here to witness it. How dare that woman accuse his wife of being a witch? Not his Ellie, his soul mate, his life.