Down in the valley a boxcar squealed as the train stopped a mile down the tracks from a row of grain elevators. Oren sat with his back up against the cold metal wall of the boxcar and made a choice to get off there, whatever town he was near. With no real destination there is no danger of getting lost. He grabbed his leather bag and jumped down into the dirt. He nearly rolled his ankle in the loose gravel around the tracks but dusted himself off at the knees and slung his bag over his shoulder. He buried his head in his collar and made his way across the snow covered farm field toward the bridge.
The river rolled slow under the battered steel train bridge. As he approached, he counted the chunks of ice drifting to the Missouri. Eventually he crossed and made his way toward the hill that he picked out after jumping out of the rusty boxcar that had remnants of the Cotton Belt logo poking through graffiti.
He stopped for a fifteen-cent cup of coffee that was advertised on a massive sign fifty feet above a truck stop near the hill.
“Sweetheart you look lost.”
“No. I’m not lost.”
“Are you sick?”
“Just cold, miss.”
“Now I ain’t been called miss since the flood.”
“Since the flood?”
“About thirty, thirty five years ago honey.”
“More like fifty five years ago Margaret.” A stout man with a Father Christmas beard said.
“Ah whadda you know Gerry? You been driving so long you remember what it was like before there were dirt roads.” She said.
“Fifteen cents for a coffee?”
“That’s right hon.”
“Any work around town?”
“Can’t say as much.” She looked out the window to the hill and felt a little sorry that the town’s employment capacity was more than beleaguered and she nodded toward the plate-glass windows that were covered with ads written with soap calling out to the truckers that, “Country style meals with all the fixin’s: pancakes, bacon, eggs, link sausage, country gravy and fresh biscuits for 2.95” were available twenty four hours each day. She thought she saw a little blond headed boy running across the street outside with no coat on. You need a coat in these temperatures, she thought. “Lovell could use some help I’m sure.”
“Shit, if you got a brain in your head boy, you’ll stay the hell away from there,” the man with the large beard sitting down the counter said.
“What’s Lovell?” he said.
“It’s an orphanage. ‘Cept I never known no children from Hell’s Valley been put there. They all come from other places far as I can tell. Not sure why but that’s how it is,” the beard said. “And I’m not so sure I’d want to know no more ‘an that.” Father Christmas Beard said. “Lonely old witch lives up there. People talk about that place all up and down the highway, far away as Denver and Des Moines. What’s it the kids in town call her?” He looked at Margaret for help but she was pouring more coffee in the young man’s cup. “Margaret?”
“The bat of Love Hell Hill.”
“Yeah.” He said, “No, it’s something more, longer.” He turned on his stool and shouted over to the other long haul drivers. “Jimmy, what do they call that witch runs the orphanage up on Sky Falls Hill?”
“Terror Therea the Bitchley Bat of Love Hell Hill,” Jimmy said.
“Yeah, that’s it, Terror Therea the Bitchley Bat of Love Hell Hill. That Jimmy, he’s a writer, when he ain’t jamming gears and burning it on down the highway, knows all the random trivia from here to Kalamazoo.”
“Wherever the hell that is,” Margaret said.
“Hey Jimmy,” The beard said. He shouted like he was in the throes of a lager frenzy near last call but it was eight forty in the morning and he was just finishing up a large portion of pork, eggs, biscuits and gravy, and copious amounts of coffee.
“Bean Weasel,” Jimmy shouted back. That was the beard’s radio name.
“Jimmy, tell Margaret here, where Kalamazoo is,” Bean Weasel said.
“Kalamazoo, Michigan. The Paper City. They got paper out the wazoo and the first people were the Moundbuilders.”
“Jimmy, anyone ever tell you, you read too damn much?” she said.
Jimmy just raised his coffee mug to her and went back to the conversation at his table. The young man at the counter drank the last of the coffee in his faded white ceramic mug and slid fifteen cents toward Margaret. “What’s the name of the place again?”
“Lovell,” She said and stifled a wince.
“Need a job, any’ll do,” Oren said.
“Take care boyo,” Bean Weasel said.
“Sir,” he said. He gathered his bag and left the truck stop. Unsure of Lovell but desperate to make a home for at least a while, he trudged through the messy snow, gritty and black spotted, that was pushed off the streets. Lovell sat a couple of miles from the truckstop.
Inside the truck stop, Jimmy walked up to the counter and took a seat next to Bean Weasel. “Jimmy, boyo, what’s new?”
“Evidently the young buck that just left the diner. Oh boy.”
“Looks like a tough kid but that place is something else, ain’t it.”
“Bean, I seen you, big as you are, running from spiders no bigger than a dime before so I don’t think I’m going to put any credence to what you say is frightful and what isn’t,” Margaret said. She lit a cigarette and backed against the counter.
“What’s got you upset Margaret?” Bean said.
“Had to work a double for Kathy, a little beat,” She said.
“That pretty little young thing Frank just hired a couple of weeks ago?” he said.
“What’s she need time off for?” Jimmy said.
“She’s just started back at school and wanted some time off to get used to it.”
“She goes to Goulart, huh?” Jimmy said.
“Got a kid too.”
“Absolutely heroic, then,” Jimmy said.
“So, whadda you think, Jimmy? Think that young buck that left here just now is gonna get on up at Lovell?”
“Tough to say. The bigger question is when he gets on, is he going to get the axe like Mr. Henry Tiber?”
“What happened to Henry Tiber, did he get fired?”
“Wasn’t Tiber Cythera’s father’s name?” Margaret said. She must have been getting sleepy because she thought she saw a little boy banging on the glass windows like he was in desperate trouble, a little blond kid no more than twelve maybe thirteen. But there was no sound and when Jimmy nearly spit his coffee out in disbelief that Bean Weasel didn’t know about Henry Tiber she came to and saw that there was no boy at the window.
“Yes, Augustus Tiber was her father. No, Henry Tiber did not get fired,” Jimmy said. “People around here are pretty certain that Cythera killed or had her brother killed so she could get control over the kiddies at the orphanage.”
“Yowsa,” Bean said.
“Course, no one knows cause no one goes up there. Even the city kitties and county mounties steer clear,” Jimmy said.
She watched him from the foyer window. He walked in such a way that the word, affliction, could not suffice. Picture a marionette suffering from a bad back, two broken legs, and a puppeteer not quite fully overtaken with Parkinson’s and then you will see the young man walking in snow-caked boots.
Oren’s first day working at Lovell Orphan Home was fourteen hours of spine grinding repetition. The boys sheltered at the orphanage helped him chop wood and clear the driveway; by now they had all made it to lights out. Now he could relax; he struck a match and took in the hill. Cythera Batchley stuck her head out of the front door, “Mr. Gunn, there’ll be no smoking on Sky Falls Hill. The children don’t. Neither do we.” The sun had set and his curses rode the foggy breath of lung meat and cigarette fumes as he stepped out his butt on the granite steps.
Carl’s blond hair vibrated as he shook with a paroxysm of misery in his gut so titanic, like the other times, he thought he might die right there in Lovell.
The pain was horrible. Most days he could tuck down on his guts and keep a slow, steady rocking that would let the pain dissolve into a manageable pulse. He hummed to himself and the words he voiced clear as crystal in his mind went, “Put me in your pictures.” The pain grew. The pulse quickened. He hummed louder. His neck quivered, “and I’ll smile for you.” His voice went silent. He started to shake with his arms tight around his guts. The pain wrought itself into his skull, where it settled behind the eyes as a blunt piston driving out ever with ease.
But before all that, before the belly turned and moaned silent thunder there was pain and its expression in light. He closed his eyes, clenched them against the light so darkness covered it in hopes of keeping out this thing. His fingers pushed through a heavy head of hair and curled around to fists now, clenched tight as his eyes. And just before the belly turned and moaned silent thunder, the darkness flashed bright white and held and was filled with a scream that ran like hell from his soul through his head and he thought he saw god and god was laughing at him.
And then the belly turned and moaned silent thunder, and there was the pain and its expression in light.
He brought his hands down as the world came back to him. Carl clapped the few blond hairs he’d ripped from his scalp and concentrated on calming his heartbeat.
She came in like the Zapruder film—slowed down and colorless even with the light from the hallway announcing all in chromatic purity. “Carl, you’ll have to take these pills again,” Madame Batchley said. “You can sleep through the pain with these because I can’t have you waking up all of the other children.”
Bullet sat perched in silhouette at the door to the hallway. Anxious and annoyed, he blew the air out of his mouth and nostrils, ears pulled tight against his canine skull. And his coat, which looked as black as a thousand ravens crowded round a dour copse in winter, reflected the light. Carl swallowed the pills in a gulp of water and laid down facing away from the light, his stomach teeming as rough seas in catastrophic upheaval. “Goodnight Bullet.”
She walked out the door. Bullet loped off behind her, past the rooms on the second floor where the boys slept, separated from the girls in the basement.
Carl began to doze and lamented the nameless pain in his body, tied to him from his birth like a spirit sure to carry him out of this life, angel-like, into the next. His mother could tell him—what to call it, how to beat it— and he fell asleep imagining her face, which he was too young to remember when he was brought here.
Eyes burst wide.
And there was the pain and its expression in light.
He snuck out of Lovell and walked back to the river.
There were thin pencil scratch clouds drifting across the sky, crossing the full moon now, creating a tremor of peril in the blond-haired boy as he strolled around the headstones in Lovell’s cemetery.
He drew his hand over the curve of the stone and swept the snow to the ground. Her name looked dark and lost, etched there, falling like a shadow into a moonless abyss. Each letter was a monument to a memory barely allowed to exist. GEORGIANA KEHLE, the nineteen-year-old specter that Carl had taken as his soul-mate, almost a year ago, stood under a snow frosted chinquapin oak near her own grave—two lovers separated by their states of existence.
Madame Batchley, alone in her apartment on the fifth floor of the orphanage, was writing at her standing desk as the lights in the town of Hell’s Valley spangled the plain from Beruhmt’s Ridge to Perry Lake.
You will weep.
She wrapped her palm against the goose bumps on the back of her neck. The record playing across the room skipped with a fuzzy-warbled zip and stopped spinning. She turned full tilt and upset a jar of writing ink. Black ink ran in rivulets to the floor. A phantom swaggered. “Henry? Henry Tiber,” she said.
Even after you bury an ax in my neck all those years ago, you still hear me.
Her journal entry muddled, her thoughts imperiled, her logic perverted; she grew toward his voice like low fungus under a canopy of high trees. At length he castigated her. His rage brought him into view like the flickering picture of a weak television signal. “I know,” she said.
Lithe. The sound of a fingerprint sliding down the book’s page was a whisper. It was the command, “Shhhh,” from the cagey librarian of youth student shenanigans. Madame Batchley’s goose bumps cooled. The sight of Henry Tiber searching the pages of The Accounts, wrecked her heartbeat’s usual fascist arpeggio.
“You keep up our father’s habit of recording all the nasty details of each day?” He read aloud for her, “Dated ten years ago; ‘After an argument with Henry,’ that’s me, ‘regarding the death of our father, Augustus, I felt my life was in danger. I took the ax from the mudroom and sought out Henry and found him in the cemetery seeming to have a conversation in a state of hysteria with our father.”
Another slicing page turn. “Ooh. Do you remember this part? ‘He turned with a look in his eyes which had become someone else’s and leapt or bounded like some four-legged animal.” He looked at his sister, sensed her predicament of having a letter opener gripped in her hand like a knife. “You can put that down, I’m already dead. Remember? Or wait, here’s that part. ‘With the ax I swung hard at him, the blade connected and punched halfway through his neck. He fell instantly. His head came off as it caught the shaved edge of our father’s headstone.’” Henry shut the book. “Now that’s good reading. Shame to see it collect dust in this lonely old cathedral of solitude you got up here.”
The drumming in her head overtook her. Each heartbeat fell like a stone into her vision and sent rippled circles across the still life of her room.
“You never were much of a talker.”
“Get out.” Her voice broke like glass over a family portrait during an alcohol fueled domestic dispute.
And there was a sound; whick whack whick, of a letter opener slicing through the air and catching only the pages of The Accounts as it dropped to the floor. She stood in the empty room. Finally she realized Bullet was barking from his stonewall pose on her bed; that he’d been barking the entire time Henry stood about and recited in his grandiloquent swagger.
Oren’s knock at her door thundered across the room. She went to open it. “I’m fine. Just the dog.” Bullet made a dash for The Accounts and ran out through the orphanage.
Bean Weasel sat at the counter at the truck stop chatting up Margaret. The bell above the glass door rang and a rush of late spring, hot tar, fresh flowers, and dime store perfume blew in. The slow rumble of a dump truck driving by was accompanied by a back beat of bass from an embarrassed little Geo Metro slinking off in its primer gray coat and erector set spoiler. A dog jammed its jaws out the half open window of a car in the parking lot and barked its empty little head off.
“What a noise,” Kathy said as the door closed behind her.
“Which one?” Margaret said.
“Had a little urban symphony going,” Bean said. “All together now, Hell’s Valley,” he boomed, looked for an audience. A couple of patrons shot bored and bloodshot looks his way. He turned back to Margaret and flashed his eyebrows.
She blew out a sputter of air and turned to the coffee pot behind her and poured a little more in her mug. Bean Weasel looked at Kathy and they both raised their brows together. Margaret tugged a small photograph from the pocket on her little apron. It was old and yellowing and showed a very little baby—her baby. She held it close as a set of aces. It was a photo taken at the hospital nursery. Fifteen years and she still reels. He wasn’t smiling or crying; it was the, everything is new and bright and alive look with two little balled up hands either about to be stretched for a yawn or a cheer. She hiccupped a sob but held the tears and put the photo back into the apron pocket.
Margaret walked over to the register to ring up some out-of-towners. She was punching keys and aloof. The boyfriend was in a day-glo orange shirt branded with a logo for Myrtle Beach stitched together in Guatemala. “Do you know anything about that creepy looking building on the hill out there?” he said.
“Ulysses,” his girlfriend elbowed him. “We were wondering if we could tour it? If it was open to the public?” she said to Margaret.
“Don’t know. Never had an interest in it. Cash or credit?” Day-Glo Myrtle Beach handed over the plastic.
She ripped the card through the machine with one hand and thumbed the edge of the photo in her apron with the other.
They stood at the bank of the Kansas River, under funereal bones buried at the edge of Sky Falls Hill. Wyke, a boy of fourteen, a few years younger than Carl, pushed him into the side of the hill. He ran past Carl, to the old Biddle Ferry Landing. It stood bleached from hundreds of stark summers, river water lapping at its posts. “Don’t Wyke, jerk.” Carl scanned for a rock that resembled a tabletop. So many butterscotch colored stones; it was hard to see where it might be.
Wyke pivoted on his heels and cast a stone over the river. His breath exploded with the effort as he spoke, “Go cry to Batchley. It’s just a skinned knee.”
Carl laughed, “Three skips, is your arm broken?” His eyes darted up and down the bank, skipped stone to stone.
The rockslide and footstep thunder coming down the crevice of the hill took them by surprise. They stood jaw-locked, their pupils flinching. “Hey Oren,” Carl said, his heart beat again with a burst, like popping an inflated paper bag.
“Madame’s going to pitch a fit if she finds out you two are down here,” Oren said.
Wyke went back to casting stones. Oren and Carl strolled out of earshot and Carl began to speak, “You know how I told you I talk to Georgiana?”
Oren nodded once without blinking. “I still believe you, buddy.”
“Okay, she said that Madame Batchley’s brother,”
“Henry Tiber?” Oren said.
“He can summon Bullet and had Bullet take a book from her and bury it under a stone down here.”
“I saw him run off with a book, but we couldn’t find it. She was fuming.”
“She said that book is a confession of Batchley’s crimes. Henry also told her that my mother was living in town, in Hell’s Valley. I have to get it to her,” Carl said.
“Do you know where to look?”
“She said it was under a rock that was flat as a tabletop.”
“No, for your mother?” Oren said.
“Georgiana said Yeager’s Truck Stop. If we find the book, I need your help getting out of this place. My stomach’s getting worse and I think she’s trying to kill me with the medicine she gives me for it.”
“Why?” Oren said.
“Georgiana told me that she was Madame Batchley’s half-sister. Madame Batchley went crazy and sent Bullet after her. Years ago she put an ax in her brother, Henry’s neck.” Carl looked up the hill where the chinquapin oak leaned out toward the river. He saw Georgiana sitting in the arm of a branch, kicking her legs back and forth as the breeze flattened the hem of her black dress around her.
Wyke sat on the Biddle Ferry Landing scratching his name into a board with a little stone. They avoided eye contact with him. Oren’s eyes seized upon a rock. “I think it might be here.”
Carl made to shove at the stone but it budged little. “Oren, help me.” Together they rocked it until they got leverage to roll it over. Carl clapped the sandy pebbles from his hands. The heavy volume, pocked with Bullet’s teeth marks on the covers, sent a shock through Carl. He was electrified with excitement from skull to heel. His knees nearly gave out. He looked across the river and it didn’t feel far away now.
He might escape.
Oren looked on as Carl rifled the pages with violent flips and snaps. Their shirts stuck to their backs. The heat of summer pressed down. “There it is,” Oren slapped out his palm to stop the pages. They read together. Their eyes darted for the information, starving and thirsty for the truth.
“My mom’s name is Margaret.”
* * *
Bean Weasel and Jimmy were talking outside between their rigs. They were sweating gallons on the scorched pavement but made no effort to find shade. “Saw Oren Gunn the other day,” Bean said.
“Guy who took the job at Lovell?” Jimmy said.
“Yep. He said things were good up there, didn’t understand all the fuss we gave him when he first arrived.”
“Speaking of guns, I picked up a sweet Colt in Sandusky.”
“Damn boy, you get around. I keep my little peashooter and that’s all I really need.” Bean took a chunk of tobacco from his can and stuffed his gums with it. “No point in upgrading. Keep it small and quick…danger don’t come with announcements and hullabaloo.”
* * *
Carl had it under his pillow. His mind was on fire with the future. He looked up at the ceiling, his eyes closed and hands under the pillow, folded into each other, knuckles against the hardcover book.
Padded paws marched down the hallway.
“How would I describe him?” Bean thought a moment, “He was a beast, murderous heart, a nasty little scumbag, psychotic. Everybody here heard the fucker. Lady if you’d a seen him, you’d a shot first and asked questions later. That boy over there,” and he pointed to Carl folded, finally, into his mother’s arms, “was about to be torn apart by a raging monster of a dog.”
The detective looked around the inside of Yeager’s Truck Stop from where she stood. She cast a small shadow about up to Bean’s chest. “What did you do with the dog?”
“He vanished; POOF, into thin goddamn air. No trace.”
“Margaret saw the same thing, so did all these folks sitting round here.”
“Boy’s got a story to tell ma’am. You folks should have shut that orphanage down the minute the old man died. We knew something wasn’t right about that lady up there but you…well.”
“Sir, what evidence do you have that she’s tied to this boy?”
“He can’t tell you how, without you thinking him touched, but he said the ghost of his girlfriend told him where to find a diary written by that woman telling all the shitty things she done.”
“Where’s the book now?”
“Behind the counter. He gave it to his mother.”
The detective walked past Bean to where Margaret stood with her boy.
Margaret’s heart beat strange; furrowed in anger, collapsed in relief and then rose in a rage again. She reached down to the book without letting go of Carl.
“What was your son doing up on Sky Falls Hill?”
“I put him up there when he was a baby, when I lost my husband. I went to get him back a few weeks later being unable to bear being apart from him too. Batchley kept telling me, she’d placed him already; that there would be no way of getting in touch with him again. So many years ago.”
“But that wasn’t the case?”
“Clearly not. I don’t know how she could do this to anyone. She must have a heart covered in chancres and ulcers to be able to do what she’s done. And to her own sister, I think she couldn’t be less human.”
Off near a corner booth, an officer took statements from two guys.
“He doesn’t speak so much, sir.” The two stood next to each other, sleeve to sleeve.
“This your brother?”
“Yeah, I picked him up for lunch from Green Meadow.”
“Oh, I see. But you both saw the dog?”
“That’s right sir. Johnny, you tell the officer you saw the dog.”
“That’s about all he can do, officer. Sorry.”
“No need to apologize, don’t worry about it.”
The officer looked over at the detective and nodded to confirm they’d seen the dog too. She turned her head up for the confusion of a killer psycho dog, “a depraved mutant of a canine” as that last witness had put it; that now, apparently was supernatural.
“W-O-O-F, W-O-O-F, W-O-O-F.”
“Officer Murgool, can you remove those two to the sidewalk while I look around.”
She waved off the brother, the one who didn’t have an obsession with letters.
At the entrance gate of Lovell Orphan Home lay the aftermath. She was told at Yeager’s, by the boy, what he heard. And she replayed it in her mind as she walked around the body, stepping on sodden leaves that slid underfoot.
We had the book and Oren promised to help me get out in the morning. Madame Batchley struggled to reign in Bullet against the spirit of her dead brother and she must have had it this morning. We were halfway down the hill, in the brambles, the thicket, by the side of the drive so she wouldn’t see us. Then I saw Bullet when I looked back, he charged; galloping bigger than a horse, I thought, running a blitz. His mouth would butcher you and me and he had it,” she remembers the boy starting to shake at the thought and she rounds the body one more time, “a grim hunger that wanted to keep me from getting out.
Officer Murgool introduced the corpse, “Oren Gunn, Detective Jasper.”
“Thank you. Take on up the hill with the other officers and make the arrest.”
“Right,” Murgool glanced at her. “Poor dude. Something tore his throat right out. Kinda makes my neck hurt thinking about it.”
“Don’t then. Go bring down Batchley.”
She made her way across the property, pulled black mittens onto her hands and thought twice about the steam of her breath in the chill air as the doors to the meat wagon screamed on their hinges across the static scuffle of her footsteps over the fallen branches and leaves.
Detective Jasper came into the cemetery at the back of the hill and heard the river wash with a swift thrush from the rains that were falling every day from Midfork, out in central Kansas, to the Missouri line.
Sunrays pierced the shattered clouds but did not warm the skin. The kids were being led in two lines out the back doors of the orphanage and made to gather for roll call after which they would be driven to the hospital and assessed for anything, any sign of ill health.
Detective Jasper looked on for a sign of resolution or relief but knew the pain of mistreatment, physically and mentally, would be with them longer than the time they spent here. She turned and walked through the headstones. Round the corner of the last row laid the body of the black dog, looked as if sleeping beside his master’s stone. Henry Tiber.
Jasper kneeled to put a hand on the beast’s chest but came struck dumb when she planted her mitten in the muck of mud, grass, and leaves. She looked up with her hand down where the dog was no more and saw him hasten to the side of a man walking away, disappearing down the steps into a side entrance of Lovell Orphan Home.
This story was originally published in five parts, serialized, in seveneightfive.
It is now available in Eight (paperback and ebook).