By John M McCormick
Jack Collins was 8 years old when his dad got sent to prison. His mother was left alone with him then, and she never was much count according to the folks that lived in the town of Inkwell. Inkwell wasn’t much more than a couple rows of coal camp houses one either side of a creek in a narrow holler [holler is Appalachian vernacular for hollow] in those remote Appalachian hills of southern West Virginia. Each house was built to the same tiny standards. They looked nearly identical, minus differences in paint and the structure of the porches, which were built and rebuilt by the generations of owners that lived and died in that tiny community. The community couldn’t boast for much. There were the houses and the creek and the railroad tracks. At the head of the holler was the Baptist church, and at the mouth was the entryway to the worked-out mine that had been laying the population of Inkwell off in small but increasing numbers every year.
Jack walked the narrow two-lane road that cut through the town every day of the summer. His mother didn’t much want him around, and he didn’t much care to be around her, either. She was real interested in booze and drugs, and when she wasn’t drunk or high she was selling herself in the back bedroom of their rundown trailer home so she could get drunk or high. So, Jack spent his time out on the street, hungry more often than not. There were a lot of good folks living in that old coal camp, mostly older folks that had seen the height of the coal industry in the area in the 70s and retired before the strikes and recessions of the 80s started putting men out of work almost as fast as the advances in mine technology.
Most, but not all, of these older folks liked Jack and they’d call to him from their porches. He’d shuffle on over in his dusty jeans and ratty striped shirts and they’d come down to open the chain-link gates to give him entry into their postage sized yards. Most of the people there were too proud to talk about charity or to accept it, so they played a game where they pretended to have urgent business for Jack to take care of and they’d trade him a meal of pinto beans and cornbread or a fried bologna sandwich for his trouble. At dark Jack would walk reluctantly home and sleep wherever he could find something clean enough to lay down on, and if he couldn’t find something suitable then he’d sneak over to his neighbor’s house, scuttle over the chain link fence, and lay down in the doghouse with the hound dogs.
One morning in early June of 1987, Jack woke up before his mother, which was most often the case, and hit the road. School was out for the summer, and his world shrank considerably then. Every day through the summer was another day in the holler. Most of the families with young children were young themselves, and the holler, like the mine, was last-in first-out. Younger men lost their jobs first, and they were the most likely folks to take their families away from Inkwell Holler to search for greener pastures. The kids that were left were mostly older and had little interest in playing with Jack. He couldn’t quite keep up on the ball court next to the mine office, and he was too young for most of the pastimes that those older kids had gotten themselves involved with. Jack didn’t quite understand what the teenagers were up to, but he knew he wasn’t wanted, and so he aimed to spend his days finding enjoyment on his own, or in the company of the kindly older folks that meandered about their tiny yards trying to maintain appearances in a dying town.
Jack walked through the town at a leisurely pace, glancing at different houses, hoping that someone might offer him something to eat for breakfast, but it looked like no one was outside this morning. He walked himself up the holler to the company store and turned on the outside water spigot usually reserved for the coiled up garden hose hanging messily from a hook on the side of the store. He took several long drinks of that earthy well water that served the whole town, hoping to drown out both the heat of the sun and his hunger as the heat of the day grew more intense.
With his stomach tricked into thinking it was full for a little while, Jack skirted over the bank at the company store and down to the winding little creek that cut its way through town. He waded in the water with the assurance that the sun would dry his raggedy shoes and pants when he was done. He made cairns of stones and picked up big flat rocks looking for those dull gray water snakes that occupied the creek. Sometimes he’d find a good one and it’d slither away into the creek and he could watch it wind like a ribbon through the water. He’d toss rocks at them just to see if he could hit them in their escape, and sometimes he could. Time passed, and Jack watched the sun in the sky. He had no clock in his house and no watch to carry, but he was a fair guesser when it came to time, and he figured that it was getting on to be about 10:30am. Near lunch time, but not quite.
With nothing better to do, Jack took a quick run up the weedy bank and started walking down the road, back toward home. He’d make that trip a time or two until someone noticed him, but he was hopeful someone would be out now. His shoes squeaked and sloshed across the dusty pavement, remnants of his creek adventure drying out in the wet footprints he left behind. He hadn’t gone too far when he heard a voice call out to him from a small white company house on his right.
“Aye, boy! Boy! C’mere, boy!” called the voice. Jack stopped in his tracks and looked over at the source of the voice. It was an elderly woman that Jack had seen in town many times, but she had never spoken to him that he could recall. She was wiry thin and wore a cardigan despite the heat. Her hair was in that poofed up old lady style. Just about all the old ladies wore it. She was staring at Jack with glassy eyes, half blind by the looks of her. Jack stopped in his tracks. He regarded her for a moment, and then said, “Yes, ma’am.”
Jack walked up to her gate and undid the metal U-shaped latch that held it closed. He closed the gate behind him and trudged up the small concrete walkway toward the woman’s porch. The walkway, steps, and porch were all adorned with the same well-worn outdoor carpet. The stuff was thin and gamey, never quite getting clean no matter how many times it was pressure washed or rained on. Of course, living in a coal town one had to get used to the dust from the trucks that would run the roads hauling loads of coal. More than once those trucks had almost hit Jack, but he had learned to move out of the way when he heard that familiar rumble coming up the road.
The old woman regarded Jack for a moment, and then said, “Boy, d’you know my name?”
“Yes, ma’am. You are Mrs. Carlisle,” he said. Something about the woman was disarming, but he still felt a caginess about her that he couldn’t quite settle. The sort of company his mother kept played with his mind, and he was just old enough to feel it when something was off about someone.
“Aye, aye, aye, that’s good, boy,” Mrs. Carlisle said. She shambled closer., Jack stood firmly in the center of the top step of the porch. She mustered a smile, and he stared as it revealed what looked like loose-fitting white dentures ready to fall right out of her mouth. Unnatural white, Jack thought to himself, but he didn’t say such things aloud. That would be rude, and the older folks were awful cranky about rudeness. Instead, he simply smiled back. Mrs. Carlisle shuffled even closer, closing the distance between them. She placed a hand on Jack’s shoulder, and said, “Son, you can call me Judy, if you’d like.”
“Thank you, Miss Judy,” replied Jack.
Miss Judy leaned in, still gripping Jack’s shoulder, and said, “Well, aren’t you just the sweetest little fellow? Let me ask you, son. Are you looking for something to do today? I sure do have a few things that could be done, and I would be obliged to pay you a little bit for each and every one of them.”
Jack considered her for a moment. There was no doubt that he’d take on the work. The idea of having a little money and buying some snacks at the company store appealed to him. There was astrangeness about this woman, though, and Jack couldn’t quite put his finger on it. It wasn’t a scary feeling, but something was tugging at the back of his mind telling him that this was different from his usual interactions with the rest of the town’s old folks.
On that first day with Miss Judy, Jack found himself employed in a number of different enterprises. He poured grass seed on a barren patch of earth in Miss Judy’s back yard. He walked through the house and picked up the dog’s leavings, leftover accidents from overnight when Miss Judy was unable to get up and let the dog out. Her back wouldn’t allow her to bend over too well, she explained with just a hint of embarrassment as the boy picked up the hardening excrement that the dog had left on the thin living room carpet. He pulled weeds from the flower bed and used a small spade to dislodge stubborn dandelions from cracks within the sidewalk. For each of these tasks she paid the boy a sum of thirty-five cents, which Jack noted was exactly how much money it would cost to get a can of pop out of the RC cola vending machine in front of the company store.
None of these tasks took particularly long, but the interim time between them was punctuated by Miss Judy talking to him about any number of things. She told of her sons that had gone off to war in Vietnam and not returned, and of her husband who had gone off to war in World War II and experienced an assortment of adventures. She even showed Jack some of the letters he had written from his time overseas, and let him put on the battered helmet that her late husband had kept on the top shelf of her home. She whispered conspiratorially to him, saying “don’t tell no one,” but Jack wondered just who aside from her dead relatives might care about such things. Still, he swore an oath to be quiet about it.
Throughout the day, Miss Judy fed Jack. She fumbled through her kitchen making sandwiches and offering him buttery crackers and cubes of cheese. Jack gladly accepted each gift he was given, appreciating the meals more than even Miss Judy may have realized.
There was something mighty puzzling about Miss Judy, though. Periodically, whenever Jack seemed to be halfway through a longer task, Miss Judy would call Jack up to the porch and bid him to sit down at a tiny patio table she kept on her porch. It was a metal table with a glass top surrounded by two wicker chairs. They each took an open seat around the table, and on the table sat three glass bottles of lemon-lime soda, one of which would sit unopened until both had dispensed with their drinks, and then would be placed back in the refrigerator. Jack relished these brief interludes. There was something comforting in seeing the old woman enjoy her soda. She closed her eyes and sipped on the cold beverage, sometimes regaling Jack with anecdotes about how it just tasted better from a glass bottle, but that a can would work in a pinch. “Never,” she would say to him. “Never buy a plastic bottle. Just ain’t the same.”
Jack wondered about that third bottle that rested on the table each time he took a break, but he also knew to be cautious about offending the older folks in town. Sometimes they saw his questioning as impertinence, and once or twice asking questions about things had gotten him shoo-ed out of the yard without anything to eat. Those occurrences were rare enough, but it had taught Jack to be somewhat apprehensive about questioning peoples’ peculiarities. By the end of the day, though, Jack just couldn’t hold it back anymore. He looked at Miss Judy as the first hints of dusk started to set in and said, “Why is it that you always have that third bottle up on the table?”
Miss Judy smiled politely, and leaned in close to Jack’s ear, whispering, “I’ll tell you, but you have to promise to keep it a secret. I think I can trust you. Can I trust you, boy?”
Jack nodded enthusiastically so that the half-blind woman could see the movement of his head.
“Promise?” she implored one more time.
“Yes, ma’am, I do promise.”
Miss Judy seemed satisfied with that response, and, still leaning close, said, “Well, let me tell you, that third bottle is set out for a very dear friend of mine. He is called Mister Scratch, and I never do know when he might stop by, so I always bring out an extra bottle, just in case he might come by looking for a drink to escape the heat.”
Jack hadn’t heard of any Mister Scratch, but he took her word for it. Maybe he lived outside the holler somewhere, or up on Crowley Mountain on the outside of town. Jack didn’t know, and he didn’t ask out of sheer politeness. He figured that if Miss Judy wanted him to know, she’d tell him, and that was that.
Days passed, and then weeks, and then months. Each day was much the same. Jack would walk his way over to Miss Judy’s and she would have a list of chores for him. Most of them were the same day to day. She got to trusting Jack with helping her count out her pills, dial the phone to make phone calls when she couldn’t make out the numbers, bringing in the mail and paper, fetching her house shoes, and cleaning up after the decrepit dog that trailed through the house after her, barking lamely at passersby. For each of these tasks she’d give Jack his thirty-five cents, and eventually bought him a glass piggy bank to be kept at her house so his mother wouldn’t keep taking his change when he was asleep. It was near the end of August now, and school was about to start back up. Jack and Miss Judy had grown close, and he saw in her what he imagined that a grandmother figure would be like. One day he sheepishly asked if he could call her Maw Judy from now on, since she was acting a lot like a maw-maw to him, and she smiled and said that would be fine. Occasionally Jack would work up the nerve to ask if he could stay the night at her house, but despite her fondness for him, Maw Judy never would acquiesce to that one demand. That is, until the last day of August.
Jack had gone home and found his mother had a male caller. Jack had come in to see what his mother was doing, and he found her in a state of undress along with a balding, obese man that he knew from town only by his nickname from the coal mine where he worked, Spuds. When Jack walked in his mother shrieked at him to get out, but Spuds regarded him for a moment and said, “I’ll pay extra if you let the boy watch.” His mother looked at the man, and then looked at Jack and screamed, this time with more urgency, for him to get out. Spuds protested, shouting, “Come back little guy, you can come in!”
Jack didn’t understand exactly what was going on with the man and his mother, but he felt deeply upset by it. He turned and walked through the fading light back toward Maw Judy’s house. He felt confused, unwelcome, and like he had been in some danger back there, but he couldn’t put his finger exactly on why that was. It was dark by the time he got to Maw Judy’s house, and he knocked on the door and listened for long moments as Maw Judy shuffled her way to the front door. She had been genuinely surprised to find him there and having been his confidant for all his boyish notions and ideas, she listened intently as he described the scene at his home. Tears welled in Jack’s eyes. He couldn’t explain why he felt as he felt, but he felt like there was something dangerous about being at home and asked if he could stay the night there with Maw Judy. This time she agreed, but she said there was one rule that Jack must follow if he were to stay. Jack nodded his head in affirmation, saying that he’d gladly do whatever she wanted if he got to sleep over.
“Boy, I will put you on the recliner chair tonight and you can sleep there, but whatever you do, whatever you see, whatever you hear, you are not to come into my bedroom or the parlor. Is that understood?”
Jack considered this for just a moment and then agreed. He knew these older folks enjoyed their privacy, especially where children were concerned.
“And one more thing, boy,” Maw Judy said. “We don’t talk about nothing that goes on in the house, do you understand?”
Again, Jack agreed. Maw Judy patted the boy on the head and said, “Now go on in there and get you a bath, young feller. I don’t want you dirtying up my good furniture.”
Jack had been sleeping soundly in the recliner chair when something woke him. His eyes began to adjust to the darkness of the living room as he came to a realization as to where he was. The door to Maw Judy’s bedroom was ajar, and the room was dark. The door to the room she called the parlor, which included little other than a comfortable sitting chair, a few bookcases, and a heavy wooden table, was closed. Strange lights were emanating from around the door, alternating in greens, blues, and reds. Periodically a gust of wind would leech out from under the door, and the fine coal camp dust that settled on every surface in the house would jump and swirl in the ethereal light. Jack should have been terrified at the strangeness of it all, but there was some force soothing his mind and soul, telling him it would be all right. He watched the lights as they flickered and danced in the outline of the door, and he heard muffled voices coming from the room. Voices. Fear nearly took hold of him then, but there was that force, that presence that kept telling Jack it would be okay, even as the voices joined into a series of repetitive chants in what must have been several different languages. The tenor of the voices continued to rise, discordant and alien, accompanied by a furious light storm that illuminated the entire inside of the house in the green and purple hues that spilled from around the parlor door. He could hear the wind as it whistled under the door, and papers stuck to the refrigerator with magnets in the tiny kitchen adjacent to the living room whipped in a terrible frenzy. Mail piled on top of the countertop microwave fluttered and spilled into the floor. Jack pulled the blanket up to his chin and closed his eyes to the light. He heard a rattle at the door, and then sounds that reminded him of television static waning in and out as someone fiddled with the antenna.
Then there was darkness. The winds died, and the light faded. Jack’s eyes began readjusting to the lack of light and in that pitch blackness Jack heard a man’s voice call out in a husky, distorted tone, “It will be done.” The voice sounded like it was coming from somewhere far away. It had a muffled quality that put Jack’s mind on trying to yell out to someone across the creek when the train was going by. There was a rumbling wall of sound that seemed to serve as a backdrop to the voice. It took an effort to carry that voice, and an effort to hear it properly.
The parlor door opened after a few short moments, and Maw Judy walked out. She stopped in the tiny area between the living room at kitchen, looked at Jack, and said “sleep.” Jack faded from consciousness within seconds, drifting into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Jack woke the next morning to a terrible din. Neighbors were gathered outside, their faces pallid and concerned. Jack poked his head through the screen door to listen. He heard snippets of the story, pieces of a tale that had shaken the small town.
“…of course, the conductor couldn’t stop, not that quick, and it was too late by then.”
“He laid his neck right on the train track, like he wanted ‘is own head to be cut off!”
“That drunkard Maynard that lives down by the church house said he heard Spuds yelling and screaming, ‘get this witch off my back!’ ‘Course the train conductor saw it all, and Spuds was alone there on that track. No one near him. Damn tweaker.”
“Why in the hell would he have done something like that? He must have got into the good stuff last night.”
Jack had not heard Maw Judy approach and didn’t know she was there until her hand landed gently on his shoulder. Her usual congenial expression was gone. She now stared at Jack with a stony, cold stare. It went unspoken between them, but Jack intuitively understood that Spuds wasn’t really alone at the railroad tracks last night.
When school took back up Jack had to ride the bus out of the holler every day instead of going to go see Maw Judy. He still visited her in the evenings, where she would give him a cold lemon-lime soda and encourage him to go do his homework in the parlor. She continued setting out the extra lemon-lime soda each time, but it never was opened.
One Friday in late in September, Jack got off the bus and started his daily journey up the holler to see Maw Judy. When he arrived, he noticed that there was a glass bottle waiting just outside her fence at the edge of the road for him, and two empty bottles sitting on the table. He heard voices, ever so muffled and familiar, coming from inside. Jack shivered a bit, picked up the bottle, and kept walking. If Maw was busy, he reckoned, he’d go to the company store and maybe buy a couple fireballs or root beer candies, whatever was on special. He wandered back by Maw’s house on the way home, plucking the fireball out of his mouth to cool the burning sensation left by the cinnamon candy. He stood there in front of the gate, fingers sticky. He could still hear the voices. He took a few steps back into the middle of the road. From that vantage point he could see Maw Judy through the screen door. She was still talking to someone, but he couldn’t see anyone else. Jack made his way home rather than get mixed up with the grown-ups.
The next day Maw Judy was dead. Jack had found her. He got up early and headed to Maw’s house, intent to spend Saturday with her. He knocked on the door and no one answered, so he let himself in. Maw Judy was hard of hearing as it was, so she didn’t complain when he’d come in to look for her. Today, however, she was sprawled out in the floor in that area between the kitchen, living room, and parlor. She lay on her side, her mouth agape and jaw drooping toward the floor so that her face looked disjointed and wrong. Her cloudy eyes were open and fixed, staring lifelessly into the parlor. Her dog, decrepit with age, lay next to her, its head down and whimpering slightly. Jack’s whole body seized-up, he couldn’t move. He regarded the sight with horror and his eyes released streams of flowing tears. He had never seen death before, but he knew it now. He finally gathered himself enough to run back out the front door and he screamed for help. The neighbors were startled, and several came running, but they only confirmed what Jack had already known. Maw Judy was dead and gone, and now Jack was alone.
The funeral had been a poor affair. Much of the town turned out but it was a short service. She didn’t have much family to speak of. Jack’s mother was supposed to get him something nice to wear but she got drunk instead and so Jack walked to the church in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, ashamed of being so underdressed for such an important occasion. There was talk of “old age” and “her heart went out” but there was no official cause of death. When someone is that old there’s rarely a question as why they went, just some assumptions and an understanding that we all have an expiration date. Jack cried freely. Some of Judy’s neighbors came to him, knowing they had that special relationship, and assured him that he’d see her again in Heaven one day. Jack was puzzled by this. He’d never attended church, and he wasn’t quite sure that there was a Heaven to begin with. A thought began tugging at the back of his mind, burrowing in like a worm. He heard a tiny voice in his mind say, “What if she’s somewhere else?”
Weeks passed, and the end of October was creeping up on Jack. He had been pre-occupied by thoughts of death. Seeing Maw Judy’s corpse was traumatizing but seeing her in the casket was perhaps even more disturbing. It felt unnatural. What he found in the house that September morning was natural. Terrible, but natural. In the casket Maw Judy’s eyes were sewn shut, mouth sewn shut, and she was covered in make-up. They did their best to make her look like she was alive, and it set Jack on edge. His sleep had been marred by nightmares, alternating scenes of Maw Judy dead on the floor and dead in the casket. He tried to talk to his mother about it one night after waking from a particularly disturbing dream, but she was fading in and out of consciousness, a needle still hanging from her arm as drool started to dribble down the side of her lip. She managed to spit out a few baleful words before passing out, saying, “Let the old bitch rot in peace you little shit.” Jack regarded her for a moment and then went back to bed. That night he dreamed of Maw Judy’s face in the casket. She was awake, but the flesh had been rotting off her bones. What was left wriggled with worms that shifted and undulated through the gray-green meat of her face. One worm, white and enthusiastic, slithered across her glassy right eye and deftly bored into the flesh under her disintegrating eyelid.
Jack woke with a start, his heart pounded. He instinctively reached for his face, hands trembling at the thought of the worms taking their share of his flesh. He walked into the living room, stepping over bottles and empty chip packages on his way to the kitchen. There wasn’t much in the fridge. The milk was bad. Behind a greasy, molding fast food container was a glass bottle of lemon-lime soda. Jack regarded it for a moment, and then drank it down enthusiastically. He headed back to bed, where he covered himself up with a heavy counterpane that he’d pulled out from a Goodwill bag someone had tossed off on his mother’s porch. He had just about drifted off to sleep when he heard the familiar voice of Maw Judy. It sounded like it was coming from far away, from somewhere else.
Maw Judy’s disembodied voice said, “Boy, you listen to me. It ain’t like that, what you saw in your dream. The body dies, but the ephemeral form, boy, it lasts. I done spent my life in service to Mister Scratch and his boss, and his boss’s boss, as it were. Old Scratch, he’s gone by a lot of names over the years. He’s been the poor man’s Devil and the learned man’s Nyarlathotep. He shows up in many places as many things, but he and all the other eldritch things are playing second fiddle to the great Dreamer that lies dead on the ocean floor. Boy, there ain’t much time. There’ll be a coming in your lifetime. They’ll wake the Dreamer and congregate here, and the world will burn up to ash, but you don’t have to suffer it. I have a place for you, here, with me. Do you want to come be with me on the other side of death’s sleep?”
Jack felt compelled to answer truthfully. He was silent for a beat, and then in the darkness he answered her, saying “Yes, Maw, I wanna be with you.”
Jack could hear the excitement in Maw’s voice as she said, “Then, boy, we’ll be reunited. Come on out to the graveyard where I’m buried-dead and it’ll all be settled out.”
Jack walked the long mile to the graveyard in the moonlight. It was situated on a flat on the hill behind the church. The small cemetery was half overgrown and surrounded by trees. He thought he’d be scared when he got there, but that same presence he felt in the living room of Maw Judy’s house the night Spuds was killed overtook him. He didn’t have the words for it, but it poured into him, and he felt an easiness about him. Jack felt like he might float away at any given time. When he got to the grave-site he found that it had been dug up. Three bottles of lemon-lime soda sat atop Maw Judy’s headstone. Despite the coolness of the air, the bottles dripped with heavy perspiration. Jack heard a whisper on the wind, saying “Bring ours on down, boy.” Jack carefully walked around the gravestone and plucked up two bottles, leaving the third atop the tombstone. The grave was dug deep, and the walls were steep. Jack sat at the edge of the grave, dangling his feet over the side, and then shimmied himself down, landing with a hard thud on the casket. He still had the two bottles tucked safely under his arm. Dirt from above sprinkled down on his shoulder from the edge of the grave, and in the pitter patter on his shirt he heard a distant voice say, “Open it up.” Jack did the voice’s bidding. He sat the sodas down on the bottom half of the casket, their tops leaning into the grave dirt. He pulled hard on the top of the casket. It had been nailed down, but there seemed to be a strength from within helping to push it open. He looked into the open casket and saw Maw Judy. She was thin, pallid, but surprisingly worm free. For the briefest of moments, a shadow that seemed to be cast by a very tall man fell over them, blocking out the bright rural moonlight. Jack instinctively grabbed the two bottles and climbed inside the casket, feeling even more at ease now. He grabbed at the satiny fabric on the inside of the coffin’s lid, and pulled it closed behind him.
The moment passed. Jack felt as though he was fading into a deep sleep, his eyelids heavy, his ears growing accustomed to the silence of the grave. The last thing that Jack heard before drifting off was the sound of an empty glass soda bottle thudding atop the casket, the gentle tinging of the metal lid that followed it, and the heavy thump of the first shovelful of dirt plodding onto the top of the casket.
John M McCormick lives in Greenbrier County, West Virginia with his wife and four children. His work has previously appeared in the Walpurgisnacht 2019, Halloween 2020, and Lammas Eve 2021 editions of Lovecraftiana: The Magazine of Eldritch Horror.