January 2008 Volume Two Issue One
Around the Bend - Maria E. Schneider
West Park road in Cedar Park, Texas just got new asphalt. The old road used to be one-track with no lines and barely room for two cars to pass. It dead-ended at the last farmhouse, but now it's opened up with a stoplight and an intersection that leads back south towards more subdivisions.
I drive the road nearly every day to and from work, the countryside out one window and the very edge of suburbia on the other. Horses and cows butted up against newness.
I hadn't driven the road after dark, because it was so small. The first night I tried it, I realized that maybe it still wasn't all that safe. In a spot about halfway to the new intersection, a milky-pale presence flashed across my rear-view mirror.
I hit the brakes. The murderous blotch blinked from view, as though someone leaned forward, ready to cut my throat. Heart pounding, I gripped the steering wheel, waiting for pain.
When I finally dared look, no one was there. The seats were bare save a single grocery sack. The floor contained nothing but normal shadows. Behind me, the road was an empty black snake. I hadn't run over anyone either, not that I could see.
Maybe a white cat scooted behind the car, causing the flash over the mirror.
I avoided the road at night for a long while. In the summer, it never got dark by the time I was home from work so it took a while to realize that the shadow was still there. During daylight, it was like passing under a large tree branch--a quick darkening forced me to look in the mirror, but by that time, whatever it was, it was gone. There was nothing in or around the road, only a quiet two-story house on one side and an old barn barely visible behind trees, on the other.
I stopped at a vegetable stand one time, just a few yards from the spot. The farmer was a gruff old man with spouts of white hair poking out from under a baseball cap. Matching patches of whiskers spotted his chin and jawbone. His vegetables were fresh and bursting with color. I asked him who used to own the property across the street from him, just to the west a bit. "Was it a big farm before it became the subdivision?" I wondered.
His eyes, the type that mind their own business, flicked impatiently in the direction I pointed. "Do you want those tomatoes or not?"
Startled, I handed him two dollars and assured him of my enthusiasm. "Yes, the tomatoes look great." I waited in vain for my change. The two bucks disappeared into his coveralls while he looked back up the road. He didn't answer my question, and he didn't give me change.
Confused, I took quick refuge in my SUV and drove off, the shadow passing my window and mirror as always, just a hundred yards or so further along.
I watched for more farmers to put up stands to no avail. Most of the neighbors had cows or horses, not gardens.
As the sun burnt spring away to hot summer, there was a garage sale down at the end of the road. It was probably a half mile or more from the shadow, but on impulse I stopped. There was nothing but junk at the sale; odds and ends that had been in a barn far too long to be useful.
"If y'all are startin' a restaurant, you might-could use these here items for decor," the lady explained. She was dressed in old sweat pants rather than a cute country apron. Heavily overweight, she waddled over to the pieces of metal I was staring at.
"Used to be part of a butter churn," she said, picking up an odd end.
It looked more like the handle to a corn grinder, but I didn't argue. "Are you selling out to a subdivision?" I asked instead. "You know, like the other side of the street?"
She chuckled. "I only wish. No one wants to buy these places anymore. My grandma, she could have gotten a mint if she had sold to those developers. I remember her complaining about it."
"Did she want to sell?" I asked, thinking of my grandparents and the farm in West Texas that they lost to the bank. They hadn't been lucky enough to have a subdivision buy them out.
The lady moved pieces of junk around on the table, making sure to hold them up for my inspection. "I guess."
Disappointment warred with stubbornness. "So you don't know anyone that used to live over there? I was..." I stopped to make up a lie. "I thought a friend of my family used to own one of the farms on the other side of the road." I waved towards where the shadow appeared.
"Hang on," she said. "Dad!"
When no one responded, she said, "He's so deaf anyway. Maybe I better not get him because he doesn't know I'm selling all this stuff." She glanced back at me. "You gonna buy that butter churn? It'd make a nice decoration."
"I don't think so." I wandered closer to the house, thinking I might spy her father, but no luck. The recliner on the porch had a for sale sign that did little to hide the stained stuffing poking out.
"It's a comfy chair," the lady puffed from behind me.
"I wonder if my grandparents would have sold and moved into a fancy new subdivision if given the chance," I mused.
She ignored my comment. When her father still didn't appear, I headed back to my car. "Have you ever noticed--" I stopped. She wasn't the type to notice a shadow in her mirror.
Later that week, I looked up her address in the phone book. When I finally got the nerve, I called and asked to speak to the elder, "Mr. Jonas."
"He can't hear a blessed thing over the phone and we ain't buying anything!" his daughter told me before she hung up. It didn't matter because I didn't know the names of anyone that had lived on the south side of the road anyway.
Knowing how to solve that little problem, I took myself to the county courthouse one fine rainy day and looked up titles, thinking of my grandparents. Had they tried to sell their property before the bank took it? What about the people here? Had they been forced out and left their shadows on the road?
Looking through the records wasn't hard, but it was confusing to turn individual lots back into farmhouses. Buying for the subdivision near the road started twenty years ago. The clerk suggested I start with the homesteads from a hundred years ago so that I could tell when farmhouses were just passing hands versus being bought by the developer. "Most folks stayed a long time in a place until recently," she told me. "The way the farms were broken into houses nowadays, you could pick the wrong area entirely unless you knew where the survey markers were at."
It didn't take me long once I figured out that the first developer had sold to a second one somewhere along the way. Then it was easier to quickly look through and find "Canton Brothers Ltd." The company finished buying the land within a couple of years.
I was surprised to find that the vegetable farmer used to own the property right across the street from his current address. "Mr. Samuelson only had to sell half his farm, I guess."
Unfortunately, there was nothing in the files to help solve the mystery of the shadow in the road. It wasn't likely that the developers had been evil men and buried someone under the new houses. The ghost...I didn't even believe in ghosts. And if there was one, it was right out there in the middle of the road, not under the houses.
I refused to think any more about the shadow, especially after I looked on the web and found that Canton Brothers was no longer in business. It was just a silly blotch. There was no trail to follow.
The shadow would have stayed buried where it couldn't bother me, except that after work one day a voice hailed me from across an island of potatoes at the grocery store.
I almost didn't recognize the lady from the garage sale because she was in one of those courtesy carts for the handicapped or those too lazy to walk. "Hey, ain't you the one that had some friends across the road?" She waved a Roma tomato at me.
"I, uh..." I stuttered to a halt. The man next to her had to be seventy. Unlike his daughter, he wasn't fat at all, although his legs jerked a bit when he stepped forward. He used a grocery cart to help keep him steady, but he wasn't in a motorized wheelchair cart like his daughter.
"Oh yes," the man said with a wrinkled smile. "My daughter told me about you. Who were your friends?"
My mouth gaped. "Oh, uh, the ones that, uh lived across from uh..." It took me a few seconds to remember Samuelson, and of course it was stupid because no one lived across from him, but him. "Samuelson," I said anyway because it was the only name I knew.
The elderly man didn't have to think but a moment. "Mary and her daughter. It was a good thing that subdivision came when it did. Saved their lives, I expect, what with her husband running off. What was his name..." He looked at his daughter picking through the tomatoes. "Ran off about six months before she had to sell out. We were lucky. The subdivision didn't want our side or my parents might have been forced out."
"Mary and her daughter?" I mumbled. "They weren't renting?"
"The, uh, farmhouse across from Samuelson?" I improvised.
He chuckled. "Back in those days, you didn't rent. You owed everyone a nickel trying to keep things together. I was lucky my parents were able to leave me the place. No one had the money to do any renting back then."
"Oh. Do you know where they went?"
"No," he said. He took the plastic bag full of tomatoes that his daughter handed him. "Didn't keep track. I just remember them because it was so sad, the husband running off and leaving her and the little girl. The kid couldn't have been more than six years old."
"Did y'all want that butter churn after all?" the lady in the wheelchair asked coyly. "I still have it!"
"Uh, no. No." I backed away. "I...thanks for the information. It was very kind of you." I directed my comments to the old man, who nodded and gave me a final wave. I ignored the woman's mumble about "too bad cain't charge for information."
I finished my grocery shopping in record time. Even though I had milk, I stopped by the courthouse. Maybe the clerk had been right, and I should have started farther back.
Now that I knew what I was looking for, it didn't take long. The year before Samuelson sold the place to the subdivision, the mortgage and property had transferred to him from Mary and Nick Eckles. Of course, there was no mention of the daughter.
I went to the library next. They weren't any news articles online from so far back and the library was too small to have kept old newspapers on microfiche. The librarian promised to try and get photocopies from the university for me.
On the way home, I passed the shadow. It was probably from the little girl that lost her home. Maybe she was waiting by the side of the road for her father to return and got hit by a car.
Then again, the old man from the garage sale hadn't said anything about the little girl dying. He probably would have mentioned it, had that happened.
The next day, instead of going to the library, I took Scruffy, my dog, to the shadow in the road. Scruffy didn't seem to notice anything wrong. She was just a mutt dog with multi-colored fur and a fierce bark for a dog that was only a foot high. Her only problem was that she was very obedient. If I called her back, she'd come right away.
I parked, in broad morning daylight, at the edge of Samuelson's property, but on the subdivision side, not quite on the sidewalk. There was only a ditch for runoff on the farm side, and Scruffy liked the idea of putting her nose to the ground and exploring such interesting dirt. She stopped at the cedar fence and looked back at me. "Go on," I whispered, waving my hands forward, hoping anyone watching would take it for worried waving. "I'm coming."
She picked up the fretting in my tone because she was a smart dog, but she was smart enough to know it wasn't directed at her. She hopped over the lowest board even though I'm pretty sure she could have scampered beneath it.
While she wasn't looking, I put my hands on my hips and moved my mouth as though calling for her. In what I hoped was obvious frustration, I climbed the fence and covertly threw one of her balls. I then gave chase. It was a game we played and Scruffy, my undercover dog, performed beautifully. She barked once, grabbed the ball and ran from me. The ball reduced her barking to growls, just as planned. I helped her towards the barn by herding her there.
She paused at the two big doors that were wide enough for a tractor. This dilapidated structure was more interesting than our game. I thought so too, even though the barn was too far from the road to house a body to go with the ghost.
From the road, the barn was partly hidden behind overgrown oak scrubs and cedars. It didn't look as though it had been used in a century; all lopsided and held together only by leaning parts and sheer luck. One door sagged half over, never to close again.
If there was a body in there, it wasn't likely to be lying around waiting to be found. "Stupid," I muttered. I went in anyway. Scruffy was curious, but she stayed next to me. It took forever for my eyes to adjust. My heart never did.
The barn probably looked pretty much like the garage-sale lady's before the sale. There were handles with nothing on the end, an old rusted kettle and hay littering the ground. Dust motes danced all over the place in light that filtered through loose boards.
Scruffy barked and dove into a corner, scaring every ounce of life out of me.
"Scruffy," I whispered on a choke.
"You're more than just a nosy one."
The voice behind me froze me in place. In a half reach for Scruffy, I fell to my knees. Looking backwards all I could see was his silhouette in the doorway.
"I...I lost my dog...when we stopped so she could--" I had the excuse ready, but I was breathing too hard to get it out.
"He won't stay dead," the farmer replied flatly. "I moved my gate from the end of my property so that I didn't have to drive through it anymore, but it didn't matter. He's been dead and gone twenty years, but it don't matter. Every now and again, someone like you notices him there on the corner."
He waved his arm. Attached to the end was a long blade. For a half a second I thought he had scissors for hands, but then I realized it was worse. He held an old scythe.
I hadn't seen the newspaper clippings yet, but I knew. "You knew about the subdivision, didn't you?" My teeth chattered, although it wasn't the least bit cold. I clutched Scruffy to my chest. That didn't stop her from growling low in her throat.
"Of course I knew," he exploded. "And that fool only needed to sell to me! He was in over his head just like everyone else! I gave him a good offer."
"But he found out about the subdivision."
"Fool! There's always some fool asking too many questions! And it cost him, it did!" He waved the scythe. "You're just another one, asking questions!"
"He was going to tell the other farmers," I whispered.
"He's gone! He can't tell anyone. I don't know why he stays at that corner. He's dead!" Samuelson howled. "I moved the gate!" His arm raised, and he stepped forward. Unlike the old man in the grocery, his legs were steady.
I turned and ran blindly.
I don't know where I thought I was going to go. There was a sliver of light behind me, and I plowed full speed into it with not a chance of fitting between the boards. Scruffy jumped free of my arms as I reached to catch myself.
"Help," I screeched, falling.
The scythe hit me square on the shoulders, a sharp pain. I crawled, but the boards were in my way, collapsing all around me. Scruffy barked like crazy. I went towards the sound, pushing fallen boards away, gasping on dust and choking. Splitters grabbed my hands and knees, but I didn't stop.
Sunlight! I shook my head and looked back to see if he was chasing me, but the roof sagged mightily, nearly covering the hole I had made.
"Run Scruffy," I yelled. I found my feet and while bolting forward, felt for the cut across my back. I was lucky. The pain had just been boards falling down around me, not the scythe I feared.
The ghost is dark and angry. It hovers at the border of the man who "helped" an abandoned wife by buying her property. There was only a little road there once, nothing more than a one-lane track with a shallow ditch on either side. On a cold, rainy evening who would notice farmer Samuelson stop at his own gate? If there were a man there to speak to him, who would see him in the dim light?
Farmers are always moving things, loading fence boards into the back of their trunks or maybe unloading them. No one pays too much attention. No one would think twice of the farmer shoveling dirt and preparing his garden.
That's where I told the police to look for the body. I never did have any proof, not really, but I dared to mention the shadow. The detective was local; he'd been born in Cedar Park. He laughed and said, "You're kidding, right? I've seen that spot. There's an old light pole back a ways from the road. They never took it out when they put in the subdivision. When I used to patrol I noticed it throws that funny shadow because the trees have almost covered the light."
At my doubting look he chuckled again. "Stop there at night, and you'll see what I mean."
He finished his questions then, taking my story about what old Samuelson said in the barn a lot more seriously than my concern about the shadow.
Stubbornly, I waited a week before I went back to look in broad daylight.
Just like the officer said, there was an old tarred light pole tucked behind the trees, quite unlike the fancy silver ones that lined most of the street. It didn't explain the flicker in my rearview mirror as I drove off. The light wasn't on during the day and it was yards and yards from the road. I didn't think it would throw any shadows at night either.
Shadow or not, the police start digging tomorrow. No matter what they find, I'll never buy vegetables from old Samuelson again and not because he shortchanged me. I told the police to look in the garden, but I also mentioned the old gate. Something of Nick's must still be there.
I know it and so does Samuelson.
- END -