The local bus huffs and heaves its way into Way Stop, West Virginia. It halts with a shudder and a sigh in the mid-morning sun.
I collect my duffle bag and straighten my fatigue uniform jacket. On Main Street, there’s an honest to goodness general store, a diner, Bob’s Gas Station, a few empty store fronts and two small white churches almost directly across the street from each other. The June morning is moving toward hot. I move toward the diner for coffee and directions.
There are seven or eight locals in the diner all adult white males except for the middle-aged waitress with the dark, brown hair and ready smile. I return her smile and nod toward the men.
It’s in the air, a new buzz, the question of the day; what’s a black Army Corporal doing in Way Stop on this bright morning?
I sit at the worn but spotless counter, look the waitress in her green-gray eyes and order coffee. She nods, looks at me for a second or two. She brings me coffee in a brown mug and a huge slice of apple pie.
“Mam, I didn’t order—“
“You look hungry. You look like an apple pie kinda man.” She gives me the smile like she must give her own boys.
“Thank you but—“
“My treat. My boy, Willard’s, in the Navy. He’s about your age.”
I thank her and try not to reveal how hungry I am. The pie and coffee fill me and tune me for the day. I say a silent prayer of thanks and a prayer for her son.
“You look better now, fit to fight.”
I smile at her, thank her again and ask how do I get to the Olmstead place.
The smile fades from her face; the color drains from her cheeks. All the sound in the room ceases. She mouths something, stutters and finally speaks, “Olmsteads, the Olmsteads up on Dry Creek Ridge? Those Olmsteads?”
“Yes, Mam. I’m looking for Leto Olmstead—“
“No!” The waitress’s leaning on the counter in my face. “No, you can’t go up there. We don’t even go up there—“
She’s interrupted by a man in jeans and a blue work shirt with a Sherriff’s badge pinned to the pocket.
“What’s your business with Leto? Do you know her?”
“It’s personal Sir. I’ve never met her. I served with her son, Yeoman.”
The Sheriff has black grease under his short nails and in the cracks of his hands. His face is thin, smooth and intense. He sits on a stool next to me. “Son, Leto and her family aren’t people you want to visit unannounced.” He looks around the small diner. “We have had people go missing on that mountain, in that area since before my grandfather was Sheriff. That’s not a place you want to be in. I promise you that.”
I look around the diner. Every eye is on me and the looks make it unanimous – I should not go up on Dry Creek Ridge.
I declined the Sheriff’s advice, refused his offer of an escort and, finally, convinced him to give me directions to the Olmstead home. He gives me the directions, but only after I leave him my name, address and the contact information for my next of kin.
The woodlands are thick with Maple, Elm, Oak and Dogwoods. The forest is full of birds, squirrels and flying insects. There’s the hum of forest life until it suddenly stops about two-hundred yards up the rutted, over grown track. I stop. I listen. Slowly the sounds return. A fly bites my hand.
I move forward, but not alone. Off to my left, I feel someone walking, paralleling me, invisible in the woods.
The track turns to a steeper path. I pause, wipe the sweat from my brow, adjust the duffle on my back, move on up.
“Boy, stop. Drop to your knees, hands behind your head.” The nasal, slow drawl comes from my left.
I stop. “My name is Derek Patterson. I—“
“Drop to your knees.” The voice is closer.
I keep standing. “I served with Yeoman Olmstead in Afghanistan—”
“Boy, you get on your knees.”
I keep standing and turn toward the voice. I repeat what Yeoman told me to say, “I travel under the umbrella of faith and the protection of Leto Olmstead.”
He steps out of the woods, twenty-two, single shot rifle in his hands, dressed in black suit pants and jacket and a red silk shirt with a big collar, the top three buttons undone. He has a ferret face, vicious, uncompromising, and angry. He steps to me in no particular hurry, spits tobacco juice on my feet. Walks around me. I turn to keep facing him.
There’s still something else in the woods somewhere. I feel it.
Quick, he steps back, raises the rifle to my head finger on the trigger. “Down on your fuckin knees.”
I see it in his eyes. He wants to shoot me, needs to kill, to kill me here and now. There’s a two-note whistle from the left it freezes him, frustrates him, turns his face red. He slowly lowers the rifle. Steps into me close. “You’ll never leave here, boy and you’ll wish you never came here.” He turns off to the woods on the right, disappears as I wipe the brown spittle from my face. I take a few deep breaths, close my eyes, expecting to feel the bullet to the right side of my head.
I’m exhausted already with miles to go. Yeoman, you owe me for this one man.
The four hounds are at me in full voice. I stop as they charge. A different whistle again from the left stops the dogs. They growl their discontent as I step out of the woods into the clearing. The house is clapboard and gray with age, but it is two-story, large, well-built with a three-step raised porch with two rocking chairs and a small table with a lace tablecloth.
The dogs escort me toward the house but stop at the steps.
She steps out onto the porch, tall, stern-faced, piercing blue eyes, and a wicked curved blade of a nose over long, thin lips. She could be anywhere from forty to sixty with her raven-black hair up in a bun, a contrast to her chin to floor white dress with rich embroidery at the throat and cuffs.
“You’re Yeoman’s friend. He described you clear as a picture. You two the same age, same build. Welcome, to our home, Derek Patterson.”
Her handshake is firm, cool, arresting. She holds me in place, holds my gaze, even at my six-foot height. I feel she’s strong, as strong as I am and ruthless without limits. She doesn’t deny my impressions, and I know she feels them.
Yeoman said she was a force of nature. She is.
Lunch is fried rabbit in brown gravy with mashed potatoes, greens, fresh baked bread, and ice-cold water from her spring. All served in a formal dining room with lace, linen table cloths and cloth napkins. The table is sat for four, but there’s only me and her at the table. There’s another Presence in the room. I feel it. The whistler is with us somehow, but he doesn’t want me to see him just yet, but he wants me to know that he’s here. I’m not disturbed by his company, in fact, I’m comforted by his unseen presence.
After lunch, we sit in the rockers outside. She smokes her hand carved pipe, and we talk. The Presence is still with us.
“Twenty-four is young to die away from home and family. I’m glad Yeoman had you there.”
We talk of many things, have home-canned peaches for desert and wait for Yeoman’s wife, Selene, and daughter, Orbit, to arrive.
The birds serenade us.
“Derek, the owls echo our loss.”
She’s bright, knowledgeable, clever, a bit vain and wounded in some deep way that has been aggravated by her son’s death. And there’s anger, the foundation that supports her.
The shadows are long, the moon edging up when the man who threatened me is greeted by the dogs on the edge of the woods. Hazzard is his name, and as I thought, he’s Yeoman’s older brother. He nods at his mother, acknowledges the Presence with a snarl, ignores me and marches into the house.
The crickets stop chirping; the birds are mute as she enters the clearing, white! She’s alabaster white, reflecting light like the moon, dressed in a short white dress. Even her hair is white. Her lips are thin and pink, the only color on her.
The hounds flee her with their tails between their legs.
Her daughter is as colorless in her longer white dress.
Selene and daughter bow briefly to Leto as the pair walk directly to me.
The Presence is full of passion for this creature as is Hazzard, who steps out onto the porch. Hazzard will have his brother’s widow by any means necessary.
Selene stops in front of me and freezes me with her pale stare. “We need something of you. Will you honor us?”
He told me. Warned me, but nothing could have prepared me for these two. I nod yes, hold my breath.
Her hand is too fast to follow as her fingernail nips my neck and immediately her lips or on my neck sucking my blood with brutal hunger, but only for a moment. Then the daughter, quick like her mother.
I’m high, light headed, bewitched. I work to clear my head, get my bearings. Orbit brings me cold spring water.
There is an immense anger coming toward me coming from Hazzard. He’s barely in control. I fear for my life.
The business is conducted quickly on the porch by the light of a kerosene lantern.
I deliver a thick letter to Leto from her son. She holds, but does not open the envelope.
A letter to Tenuous, the Presence. The epistle remains undisturbed on the table.
A letter and matching silver necklaces each for Selene and Orbit.
The albescent mother tucks the letters in her bosoms. They immediately don the jewelry.
A package wrapped in brown paper, $10,000, to Selene. Selene ignores the money even after I tell her what and how much is in the package.
Selene places a quick kiss on my lips. I hear Hazzard groan in anger and jealousy.
The widow invites me to spend the night with her. I decline, a little too quickly to be polite.
Selene speaks to the Presence in a language I have never heard. The Presence responds in the same tongue.
An exchange of glances between Selene and Leto. A quick bow to Leto from the white mother and daughter before they disappear into the woods.
Minutes later Hazzard follows Selene and Orbit.
Lantern in hand, Leto guides me to Harmon’s bedroom on the second floor. She steps pass me to enter the room and light the lantern. I smell the strong soap she uses, the clean smell of her hair, her need.
She turns faces me. I unbutton the front of her dress.
She amazes and astonishes, and completes every fantasy and takes me beyond euphoria.
The Presence is there watching and visible, but I avoid looking at him.
I leave just after sunrise.
I can never return.
The Presence is with me, guides me to a spot in the woods, to the remains of Hazzard. The bloodless flesh is stripped from his leg and arm bones; eyes sucked from his skull.
I fly off the mountain down to Way Stop and on to home.
A year later I’m home, working for the Post Office, attending community college.
I invested the $10,000 Leto repacked in my duffle. She said the money was always meant for me.
At night I light my kerosene lantern, and she comes to me with her blue eyes ablaze, her ebony hair flooding her waist, brings her anger and lust. We celebrate our loss the best way we know how.
Header photograph: By Sharad sovani (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons