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A white woman in a white dress, with large tattoos on her upper arm, with dark hair and glasses,
A black woman with natural hair, smiling and touching her ear, with a plaid shirt on
A black man in a cowboy hat, chewing on a wheat stem, with his shirt partially unbuttoned
A white man with long blond hair, a red beard, wearing a white tshirt with his hands in his pockets

Monthly Stories from Old Yonder Mountain and 'Up in the Holler'

Do you love fantastic realism? Want ParaFantasy that's a little down-home? A little cryptid in your day, a little magic over dinner? Welcome to Stonebridge County! It's full of a diverse cast of everyday people (by their standards), just navigating everyday life--with a few complications.

For comments, questions, or to keep up with the happenings in the county, I'm most active on Facebook and Instagram. Come start a (sweet) tea party!

Prologue Get started on your Stonebridge County journey with Casey and his ravens. And a little trouble that just might bite Casey down that gravel road. Casey Fitzpatrick stepped out of his trailer on his way to work, and immediately found himself drawn to a spirit trapped in the bottle tree. He normally gave the tree a wide berth until the sun came up over the mountain, and sent the wayward spirits on their way; he had no desire to be tricked or manipulated by one of its prisoners. But this morning, he felt an unusual pull into the side yard. The crunching of the gravel roundabout under his large, steel-toed boots turned to the snap of twigs, as he passed the garage over the mossy ground. The August morning air was cool, but the humidity was already thick enough to spread on toast. The bottle tree was next to his little garage and outbuilding. It was not a real tree, but a large bush; he had threaded several old glass bottles over the sturdier stems. A crepe myrtle would have been the ideal choice, but as he lacked one, his rangy mountain-bush made do. He carefully avoided the one blue bottle—those tended to attract and trap the less desirable spirits. The one that seemed to be calling him though, it was a clear glass bottle. A little bit of the painted-on, 1950's soda label was still visible. He had dug it out of the ground when they were putting in his trailer. He brushed his broad fingers over the glass. "Ain't you ready to move on?" Casey was no medium. He could talk all he wanted to the spirit, but he would never be able to hear an answer. The feeling that had drawn him from his front porch shifted, like it was in the air around him. He could feel the spirit's restless desire for freedom, not the peaceful surrender that one felt from those ready to pass over. The morning breeze ruffled through his over-long, sandy hair. It reminded him that in his distracted state, he was still holding his ball cap. Brushing his hair back with one large hand, Casey settled his hat on his head. He already had a dark tan, but at least it would keep the sun out of his eyes. Sighing, he looked at the bottle thoughtfully. 'Alright Fitzpatrick,' he thought to himself. 'Let's at least get this done the right way.' "I don't usually mess with no spirits," he informed the bottle out loud. "Tricky things, y'all can be." /thangs/ /kin/ twanged his southern drawl. "Old Aunt Nelly would pitch a fit, she knew I was even talking to you. Still, don't feel no trouble about ya." Twisting his lips he glanced around at his property. The mountain ridge rose from behind his trailer. He turned the other direction, towards where the creek and the next ridge were; the sun would be coming over it soon. He felt a restless kind of urgency from the bottle. There was one other problem: Casey knew that the Yonder-folk lived in that bush. Yonder-folk lived everywhere there were living plants, and especially new growth. Casey had a complicated relationship with them. He didn't know exactly what they were. Children were taught some were fairies, though most spoke of small, or fair folk, or good neighbors. He had never seen one directly; that was a woman's sight, not a man's. But they were always there; he could see movement, just out of the corner of his eye. He needed to stay on their good side, because they kept his garden blessed, and the mountain healthy. But frankly, they were kind of a pain in his ass. Anytime he did hardly anything, it seemed they went straight to his family and told on him. However, while he might not have been a medium, or of the female persuasion, Casey was not without his own connection to the Yonder. He glanced over at the rowan tree at the center of his roundabout. "Hey," he addressed the raven preening on one leafy limb. The late summer berries stood out brightly against the bird's dark feathers. It stopped and cocked its head at him. Gesturing at the bottle, then vaguely to the bush, Casey asked, "Come gimme a hand here?" The raven glanced around with a, 'Who, me?' expression. Casey raised an eyebrow as the raven croaked thunderously. "Ain't you a hoot, must think you're an owl," Casey told him, not amused. He was going to be late to work. Still chuckling, the raven opened his wings and swooped down across the yard, beating at the bush and hopefully scattering any nosey little busy-bodies before they could tattle on him to any womenfolk. If Casey had cared to listen over the noisy raven, he would have heard their squealy protests. With a fluttering of black wings, the raven settled himself back onto the tree branch. He strutted along the limb, simultaneously congratulating himself, and trying to pretend he was no longer interested in the goings-on. "Thanks," Casey muttered, and turned himself back to the issue at hand. "I'm gonna take the bottle off," he spoke in a stern tone. "You best behave, now. Don't make me sorry I'm breaking the rules, by biting me on the ass." /bitin'/ He felt an excited reassurance from the bottle, and reached out for it. Pulling it gently from the branch, and careful not to disturb the leaves, Casey freed the bottle. "Gonna take you to the garage, leave you in the shade. Reckon you can find your own way out this evening." He carried the bottle gingerly to his open garage, walking past his old crew cab Ford pickup truck that was backed partially in. He reached around the door frame and set the bottle behind the wall. Brushing his hands off, Casey reached for his key ring, clipped to the waistband of his jeans. "Well, guess that's it. Hope you settle whatever's keeping you here. When you're ready, I reckon you know where the tree is." Hesitating, Casey paused in the doorway. With an awkward wave to the bottle, he got in the truck and went to work.

Hensley's Cranky Ghost Tale Hensley's affinity is to see ghosts as the people they were in life. Warts and all. Hensley Paige liked their job well enough; being a hearse driver wasn't everyone's dream job, but it did have its perks A free car for one. Hensley had never owned a car before, Hell, they didn't even have a license. The funeral home director had carefully avoided asking. When they brought the hearse home, their daddy asked, "You gotta get a permit now?" Hensley had shrugged. "Don't see no reason to bother. Who's gonna pull over a hearse?" The uniform was nice, too. Hensley just wore it all the time, even though funerals were planned, sometimes a week in advance. It was easy to get dressed every morning when you always wore the same thing. The black suit made their white skin even more pale, although their round cheeks kept them from looking gaunt. They were always a little wrinkled, jacket open, top two buttons undone, skinny tie slightly askew. The hair was easy too, just took it down with a number 4 clipper guard once every couple of weeks. But their driving skills (they did know how to drive, had been since they were tall enough to reach the pedals), and their personal appearance were not the reason they cinched the hearse-driving gig so easily. As Hensley liked to point out, "It most like had to do with my ghosts." Hensley's affinity had presented early, and after a short period of confusion, been easily enough identified. Hensley could see spirits and ghosts, but as they had been in life, not death. There were no wispy spirits, or barely-there apparitions. They were nearly grown before Hensley had even known everyone they ran into wasn't actually alive. Still, figuring it out was often a game of elimination. Did this person appear inside their house, even though they knew they'd locked the door? Were they suddenly inside of the hearse, doing 60? Did they seem as confused as Hensley? Had Hensley attended their funeral three days ago? All good hints. Having strangers unexpectedly appearing would have been unnerving, if Hensley hadn't been experiencing it their entire life. It took a lot to unnerve them. A lot. The only exception seemed to be the neighbor in Hensley's tiny duplex, Erica Faith Johnson. The fact that she was absolutely the prettiest girl Hensley had ever laid eyes on, and sweet as spun sugar to boot, probably had a lot to do with that. But that's a different story, this one is about people that are more likely to pluck a nerve, than a heart string. Hensley had accidentally acquired an older ghost the last time they delivered a new resident to the cemetery. She'd been dogging them for a while. Vera Mae Cobbles was a spiteful spirit; the scary church lady in her proper blue hat and dress that perfectly matched her eyes. She was angry about everything from how she died, to how she was treated after. Mostly that her kids never visited her grave. She was cranky as a mama coon dog whose pups had gotten too rowdy. And just as snippy. She sat in their kitchen and complained the way they cooked wasn't how she (and her mama) did it. She criticized their driving. "You ever drive?" Hensley asked. "Well, no. But my husband never drove this fast." Eventually, Hensley asked, "What exactly you expect from me here?" "Take me to see my no-good kids." Vera demanded. Hensley wasn't one to waste time arguing, so they did. "Why we here?" Vera asked, as Hensley pulled in at the church, then continued past it. Hensley reckoned pulling up to the graveyard was answer enough. Vera sat quietly, for the first time since she had latched onto Hensley. "Are they all passed?" She finally asked. "Yeah, been some time." "They never come to see me, even when they could." She insisted, half-heartedly. "Bein' alive is a busy business." "They coulda made time, if they really wanted," Vera frowned. "How much time you make for your dearly departed?" Vera opened her mouth, closed it. "I got busy," she finally admitted, quietly. "Don't reckon modern life has made anyone less busy." "Maybe. No, I reckon not." Hensley ran their hands over the steering wheel. "So now what?" "Now," Vera began, then wilted, "I'm tuckered. Reckon maybe I really should rest." So Hensley drove her home. They took the time to walk her to her grave. It was the mannerly thing to do, and they wanted to be sure she actually stayed there. Vera turned to them, one last time. "That neighbor of yours, she's hell-spawn." Hensley thought for a bit, then shrugged and said, "Well, that would explain a lot, 'cept I already knew." Then they asked, "How do you know?" "I hung around your house for days. Nice place, by the way. I saw a few things. Reckon cause I'm dead?" Hensley didn't have an answer, so Vera turned away without speaking again. Hensley was relieved when she disappeared, although they hadn't actually disliked Vera so much. It was always bittersweet to finally lay someone to rest. But as they were leaving, if they saw a familiar person hanging around a fresh grave, no one could have blamed them for putting their head down, and getting gone. *** ** This story is also available on the Worm Moon Archive:

The Looking-glass Birds Ravens have always had a special connection to Amy's family. Can you really not go back home? Amy Racquel Diggs stood on a rock, staring down into the creek. There was a quiet pool below her, one she remembered playing in as a child. She was surprised that the hurricanes and floods hadn't washed it out over the years. In the reflection of the pool, she saw the image of ravens circling overhead. Three of them. It was always three. She didn't look up; she knew the sky above the trees would be empty. When Amy was six the ravens in the pool had whispered to her. She had run back to her Granny's house to tell her about it; she was staying with her for the summer while her mamma worked. Granny had cut back the heat on the stove and sat at the kitchen table. "Tell me what they said, baby," she told Amy. Amy had known Granny would listen to her; she always made the time. "That a big storm was gonna pull down the pole beans. Don't like no pole beans, anyhow." True enough, she always picked out the jowl meat and left the beans. A big thunderstorm had come up that afternoon and blown over the pole beans. Two of the tomatoes too, but Granny said that was okay because the groundhog had sucked the pulp out of all those tomatoes anyhow. Then Granny had taken Amy's hand and told her, "We gonna go see Great-Granny. She knows all about them looking-glass birds." Amy wasn't too sure about her Great-Granny. She was slow and wrinkled, and her house smelled funny. It was real dark too, with the curtains always closed. Great-Granny was like a faded, child-sized version of Granny. She had dark, dark skin like hers, but her hair was a big, white, puffy cloud, and her dresses weren't as new and bright. Granny always ironed her dresses fresh and kept her hair pulled up. It was called a twist, she told Amy. It was black, just like hers, with just a little white like Great-Granny's. Amy's hair was sectioned off with clackers, and barrettes that made a tapping sound when she skipped. Great-Granny was in her sitting room when Granny took her in. The plastic couch covers stuck to Amy's legs, where her shorts didn't cover. But she liked the attention when Great-Granny wanted to know about the whispering birds too. "What kind of birds was they?" Great-Granny asked. "Them big black ones," the plastic pulled at Amy's skin as she stood to raise her arms out big. "Usually they make real loud, ugly sounds. But today they whispered secrets to me." "How did they whisper secrets to you, when they was way up in the sky?" Great-Granny asked, raising her bony arm over her head to demonstrate how high. "'Cause they wasn't way up in the sky. They was in the creek." Great-Granny frowned. "The big birds was in the creek?" "No," Amy frowned too, not sure how to explain. "I saw them flying in the sky, but only in the creek." Great-Granny looked at Granny, then asked, "What part of the creek? Was the water moving?" "No, it was that pool under the big rock, that's how come I could see them," Amy's daddy had taught her about the pools, and sometimes there were fish. "When I looked up at the sky they wasn't there. Just in the creek." "Well, I'll be," Great-Granny said, sitting back and clapping her hands on her knees. "Ain't been nobody in the family could see them looking-glass birds since me and my baby sister, Agatha. And she's been gone fifty years now." Amy didn't know anything about Agatha, but she knew Great-Granny had a pile of brothers and sisters. Most of them they had to visit in the cemetery on the mountain. "What's a looking-glass bird?" Amy asked instead. "What you done saw," Great-Granny leaned over and the plastic cover made a crinkling noise. "You know what the yonder is, child?" "I know where over yonder is," Amy had replied in earnestness that made Great-Granny laugh. "I reckon that's why it's called that, 'cause it ain't here," she said. "The yonder is where the fairies come from. It's where they take the human babies they steal, and swap 'em for they ugly fairy babies." Amy's eyes had grown big, and Granny had put an arm around her. "I ain't never known no one getting stole by fairies, and you too old anyhow. Now Mamma," she admonished Great-Granny, who just nodded. "We can't see the yonder, not by looking for it direct. But any reflection of the sky is a window into the yonder." Amy thought about that for a moment. "Was those real birds? Or was they fairy birds?" "They was real birds, them ravens. They the only birds that can go between here and the yonder. And that can talk real good, when they ain't being ornery." That summer Great-Granny had taught Amy how to listen for the birds. She learned on her own that the ravens were like children; they liked to play tricks on her and then laugh and giggle as they soared in the sky below. But they could be kind too and had told Amy when Great-Granny had died that fall. Before even her mamma knew. When she was twenty, Amy moved to town. Then a few years later she had gone to live in a city, in another state. Her art had taken her there, and she became known for her haunting renderings of birds and water. She had not forgotten about the looking-glass birds. She would still see them in bird baths and puddles on the street. But the city was so loud, it was hard to hear them over the mad scramble just to get by. Amy sighed and frowned at the reflection below. The birds were mumbling amongst themselves, and she knew she was getting the cold shoulder from them. She stuck out her tongue, and the toe of her high-heeled shoe in the pool, just enough to disrupt the reflection. She could still see the birds, but their mutterings grew fainter with the ripples. She had come back to visit her family for Thanksgiving, and so much had changed. Granny was now the tiny wrinkled woman, with the cloud of white hair. But she still took time to listen to Amy. The rest of the family, though, just wanted to interrogate her about her life in the big city. Frankly, it wouldn't have hurt her feelings too badly if the ravens weren't the only ones talking around her. She wondered if the ravens were actually angry with her or, more likely, petulant like children that she hadn't been listening for so long. Their whispers were quiet like they were ignoring her and just mumbling about her behind her back. She tried to imagine what they could be saying, whether they were complaining or making silly insults about her hair or her attitude. "What's so funny?" Came a voice from behind. Amy only realized then she was smiling. She turned to her cousin Amari, her aunt Twila's youngest daughter. Except only Twila called her Amari, to everyone else she was just Mari. "Just the stupid birds," Amy said, knowing the ravens heard. Her heart warmed at the insulted squawk. Served them right. "Oh," Mari came and stood next to her, interest peaked. She looked into the pool, then up to the sky. "Can you see them now?" Looking down at the pool Amy nodded, "Yeah, they're mad at me," she looked at Mari meaningfully. "No secrets for me today," there was a rude murmur of agreement from the pool. Mari huffed and both women pulled their sweaters more tightly around themselves; it was an overcast Thanksgiving day. Not as cold as some, less fair than others. "Well, there's enough gossip in the house right now, you should be filled up." Sighing and stretching back to look at the sky, Amy said, "I wouldn't mind some gossip. They all want to know about city life." Mari answered the sky as well. "I suppose if you liked it so much, you wouldn't mind talking about it." Amy could feel it when Mari looked at her. She shrugged. "I suppose," she answered in a non-committal tone. It had just taken so much out of her. Painting just didn't come to her like it had before. "And I suppose," continued Mari, "If you weren't happy there, you could always come home." Standing up straight, Amy faced her. "How do you suppose that? People been trying to get me to come home for years." "Yeah," Mari agreed. "But that was before we got the internet here." She raised her eyebrows at Amy, then looked out over the creek. There were many magical things in Stonebridge County, not least being that almost everyone had the internet. Even over the Twisted Trail Ridge, way back up in Diggs Hollow. "Your customers could still find you, even if you lived here." Amy looked back up at the empty sky, thoughtfully. Maybe, just maybe, she could find the path she had been searching for, far away from where she had grown up. She glanced back down when she finally heard their whispers again. [You can find your way] Maybe, it wasn't a path after all, but a trail through the mountains. An image of her birds, flying through the water began forming in her mind. Her next painting. [Welcome home] *** **

Just You Wait A beginner’s guide to living in Stonebridge, under the shadow of Old Yonder Mountain. Coming over the mountain into Stonebridge on East 276 brought you directly over the namesake of the county: a heavy, narrow bridge of cobblestone and river rock. A popular place to skip rocks, get engaged, and even skinny dip if you were brave enough on a moonless night. The stone bridge was quite picturesque, and between that and the River Bluff Estate, a lot of tourists came for a peek. In the middle lay the community of Peggy's Pinch. 'Downtown' Peggy's Pinch had all the trappings of modern society in a single, antique strip mall and some converted houses. A gas station, cafe, coffee and bakery, pizza shop (if deli-style, local cuisine is you want, go to the gas station), yoga studio, fly shop (if it's bait you needed, go to the gas station), and the Peggy's Pinch Grocery (for a quick snack and soda, go to the gas station). The artist's cooperative was in one of the old homes. The house itself had been in the Moss family for four generations, and the original charm of the house had not been lost. The ugly, brown lawn had been replaced by an equally ugly, but infinitely more practical, gravel parking lot. Belying the creativity inside, the sign simply said 'Peggy's Pinch Artisans Co-op'. At least it was painted pretty. Kevin Taylor was a jewelry smith who could contentedly live anywhere. There had been cities, towns, communes, and even a few places he had thought were like Peggy's Pinch. They were not, but he didn't know that. Not yet. He had learned about the artist's co-op like most good things, by word of mouth. There were some odd warnings about local fauna that had hardly given him pause. Kevin had lived in enough places to know that stories were part of the flavor, the intrigue. They never meant much. He arrived in Peggy's Pinch mid-afternoon, tires crunching over the gravel lot. It was an older model truck, a camper shell with his entire life packed under it. It fit in nicely with the two other pickups and the beat-up Honda parked nearby. He slid from the truck, pushing the mop of brown hair from his face, and stopping to stretch. He was barely average height, but even short legs needed to move. The spring breeze brushed his cheek and rustled the copses of trees between the properties along the road. Fog still clung to the top of Old Yonder Mountain above, defying the bright morning sunshine. He made his way up the creaky wooden steps, pausing to admire the stained glass around the front door, which was painted a bright blue. With distant curiosity, he noticed a horseshoe hung above in a 'C', and two dried corn cobs tucked up beneath the doorstep. A tinkling overhead announced his entry. He paused. The house was old but had been built to give things room to grow. A large wood stove in the back corner competed with the cool breeze from the open windows. The walls were covered with paintings of all styles, including several three-dimensional ones. The floor was a maze of sculptures and display stands. He took a deep, satisfied breath. It smelled like scorched potpourri, struggling to cover kilns, torches, and clay. It smelled like a home. Behind the long, glass counter, someone approached from a back room, the old floorboards squeaking and rubbing underfoot. A woman appeared with short dark hair and dark-framed glasses. She had on a tank top, her white shoulders ending abruptly at the start of her farmer's tan. Her shirt and shorts showed off an array of tattoos. She had on pink cowboy boots. "Hi, there!" She called cheerfully /Hah/. "Is there anything I can help you with?" Her accent was thick but clear. "I'm Kevin Taylor," he began, expecting to have to explain who he was. "Oh, hi Kevin! Been expecting you, glad you made it in okay. I'm Tara Reed." She closed the gap and shook his hand, her grip strong and firm. Like most artists, like him, she had calluses. "You wanna bring your stuff in now? I can show you where we put you, help carry." "Uh yeah, that'd be great. Or just point me in the right direction. I can manage." Tara grinned and passed him in the doorway. "That'd be mighty inhospitable of me." /in-Hos-PITable/ She helped him unload his suitcases from the back of the truck, one for his stuff and four for supplies. He had another for finished products, but they were in the cab. The cases were heavy, but Tara seemed as sturdy as he was; both built strong and close to the ground. She wrestled them down with the easy confidence of a cowpuncher. Kevin stood and looked around. They were way out in the country; she might have been. Peggy's Pinch was flat, the last easy ground before the swell of Old Yonder Mountain close behind. The houses along the road, most converted to businesses like the co-op, were spread out, the space between filled with clusters of trees just starting to green at the tips. A few clouds idled lazily in the bright blue sky. Behind the house, he could see the browned remnants of last year's garden, and he could hear chickens pecking and scratching. Tara chatted while they unloaded, as they rolled the heavy cases past the holly bushes, up the handicapped ramp, as they left his supplies in the back workroom, and as he dragged his suitcase behind him, following her up the stairs to the residences. She paused as he rolled into his room and looked around. There was a bed with a bare mattress, a tall dresser, workbench, and two curtainless windows with acorns huddled on the sills. A bunch of dried lavender hung behind the door. Looking out the side he was reminded of the back view. "Does the house keep a garden?" "Yeah," Tara smiled broadly. "Use it for the kitchen, sometimes we've got extra to take to the farmers market. Jenny grows flowers and herbs for her soaps, too. You garden?" Kevin thought about the plant he had kept alive for a whole year. Nearly a whole year. Well, it was a cactus so it had been a little hard to tell. "I'm always open to learning new things," he announced, instead. "Great! We'll be putting it in soon," /puttin'/ "The signs are just about right." Kevin's face wrinkled in confusion. "What signs?" "You know," Tara continued as though it were obvious. "The phase of the moon, the last frost coming. The cornbread ain't been just feeding the crows lately. It's almost time." 'Ah,' thought Kevin. 'The local flavor.' She left him to unpack, which didn't take long. Before going down to arrange his things in the communal workspace he decided to rearrange the room. He heard the bell downstairs often enough that it quickly faded into the background. He was just finishing when Tara knocked on the door again. "Thought I heard furniture being moved," she smiled, admiring his work. "But you don't want the bed there." "Oh?" He turned to look at the offending bed. "Why not?" "Don't never put the foot of the bed facing the door." She pointed to the wall the door was on. "Personal, I'd put the head there." "Why?" "Why what?" "Why can't the bed stay there?" "'Cause only the dead leave a room feet first. And you'll like having the head here. Just you wait." After he had gone downstairs, helped make dinner, and met all his new housemates, Kevin moved the bed. The next morning, he was met with a beautiful sunrise, right out the window his bed was facing. "Huh," he said to himself. He quickly fell into the rhythm of the house. He worked, watched the shop when it was his turn, helped with cooking and cleaning. He got his hands dirty when Tara sent him to gather eggs, and when she declared the signs were right for the garden. "Already cleared out the cold weather stuff," she told him, and his stomach grumbled happily at the memory of the cooked greens they ate. "We're planting," /plantin'/ "potatoes today. When the moon's right we'll do the tomatoes, cukes, squash, and cabbage. You know, the aboveground stuff." Kevin had no idea when that was. He just showed up to help when Tara told him it was time. One evening Kevin was at his torch in the workroom. Tara was working her reeds from her chair. She was a basket maker but had to restock her handmade brooms before wedding season hit full force. She had said, "You can jump the broom," /kin/ "With any 'ole cheap stick. But these make it special; they're real popular." Kevin had no idea what that meant, but he heartily agreed her brooms were special. Laura was at her potter's wheel, feeling her way through a new design. She was blind; she designed the pieces and her partner, Dina the resident painter, did the glazing. Her studio was upstairs where the light was better. Joe was out back in his welding shed, but the doors were all open to the spring air. Wind chimes filled the air, and it took Kevin a moment to recognize it as the notification on Tara's phone. Not that it would be the first time he'd heard chimes on a still night. She leaned over to see, then announced loudly, "Raid's on, y'all!" Joe materialized at the back door; welding mask pushed back. "Yeah? Tonight?" "Yup," Tara's fingers had already returned to their rhythmic weaving. "Jenny said they'll meet us there. Tony wanted to finish his beer first." Tony's corner lay quiet, the lamp turned off, his latest sculpture still an undefined lump. Jenny’s drying room was quiet. They had gone for a beer; whether they were out on a date was subject to much speculation. Of course, it was none of their business, so obviously everyone had an opinion. "What's up?" Kevin asked. "We're picking up the herbs for the garden," Tara responded, and everyone laughed. "Tonight?" "Yeah, the best way to do it is to steal them." /'em/ "Wait, what?" Everyone laughed again. "You gotta steal them," Tara repeated patiently. "They'll grow better that way. Just you wait." For that reason, Kevin's first view of the local River Bluff Estate was lit by flashlight and truck headlights. Tara handed him a broom, the cheap kind. "You make sure we don't leave a mess on the walkway; that would be mighty rude." He thought that was possibly the least of their transgressions, but agreed there was no point in being rude as well. Kevin just did as he was told, and hoped no one bothered to call the sheriff. He felt slightly better that they weren't the only ones there stealing (not to mention the trespassing); it seemed like some kind of local tradition. He was still ready to run if necessary. Twice he was told, “Don’t quit sweeping,” even though the walk was clean. No one explained why. Six weeks later, safe from the law, he did have to admit the herb garden was beautiful. One evening, Kevin was setting stones in his room, when Tara knocked to add some basil to the lavender behind his door. His room was starting to smell like home. After she had thumbtacked it to the wall, Kevin called her to his workbench. "Whatcha working on?" She peered over his shoulder. He held up the ring he had just completed. "That's real pretty." He handed it over and she held it under the light to see the stone better. "That looks like some stuff we got around here." "Mhmm, I picked it up out of the garden when Joe was turning the soil. You like it?" "Yeah, real pretty," she said again. "Neat that it's from our ground." "I'm glad you like it; it's for you." Tara's brow crinkled. "What?" She placed the ring on the workbench. "I can't take that. You should put it in the case. Someone'll definitely buy that." "No," Kevin said gently. "I made it for you." He continued when she shook her head, "Every place I've lived there's been someone in charge, but it isn't usually the person that's supposed to be. I like to give that person a little something so they know they're appreciated. In your case, you're actually in charge, and you do a great job. So, thank you, and keep it up." He held it out insistently. "I do it everywhere I go," he added, so she wouldn't think anything of it. Tara smiled and took the ring. She tried it on, stretching her arm out to admire it. "Thank you. It fits perfect." "I know. I'm good at what I do too," Kevin laughed. "You keep it up and I may never want to leave." Tara nodded and winked. "Just you wait." By late fall Kevin was ready to ask, "Why do you throw food out, before every dinner?" At first, he had thought to feed the birds, but he had begun to realize there was more to it. "It's for the good neighbors," Tara said, handing him a bowl to put on the table. When he came back to the kitchen, Kevin asked, "The neighbors?" Tara smiled, "You know, the Yonder-folk? Ain't you heard the kids talking about the fairies?" "Fairies? Tara." Kevin liked the idea of the mystical, but he couldn't help but be skeptical. She laughed, "I don't call them that. And some folk don't think they such good neighbors, neither." She handed him another bowl and followed him into the dining room with the last. "But you give them little thank you's and they do take care of you. Healthy garden, good crops. Some think they help keep away the bigger Yonder-folk, I think we just too far from the mountain to get them bad." Everyone gathering at the table interrupted their conversation, the harvest dinner ready to enjoy. Looking across the table at the cooked pole beans (green beans to his eye), cabbage, greens, fried squash, chicken and deer tenderloin, mashed potatoes, deviled eggs, and tomatoes, cucumbers, and onion in their vinegar bath, Kevin couldn't disagree. Whatever the reason, the co-op garden had been bursting all summer. Everyone dug in. Kevin felt at home. "Tara, you outdone yourself," Laura finally admitted defeat and sat back in her chair. "Yeah," teased Jenny. "You trying to catch you a man, or something?" Tara just smiled at the laughter around the table. "Just you wait," she said. She thumped Kevin on the back helpfully when he choked. *** **

Eugenia's Good Vibe Service A short, humorous story about the trials and tribulations of small business ownership when you're surrounded by troublesome affinities. Mae Campbell looked up from her book as the bell over the door tinkled. She began to stand but, seeing who it was, sat back down. "Afternoon, Eugenia," she called out to the elderly lady. She received a dismissive wave from a metal cane. Mae watched Eugenia lead her newest client into the antique store. With a quick eye, Mae sized them up as being tourist, or tourist turned local. A middle-aged woman, whose clothes and designer purse whispered money, and made Eugenia's camouflage jacket over a patched housecoat look even more plain. Someone who could appreciate a true antique's worth, and didn't think of it as buying 'used' items. The type of client Mae preferred. Maybe even a repeat customer. Eugenia was often in, offering her affinity to touch an object and see its story, to prevent people from buying old objects with 'bad vibes'. Apparently, today they were in the market for a rocker. "You don't want that one," Eugenia's gnarled hand swished by one of the antique rockers under the front window, "Already done sat in that one." She gave a dramatic shiver. "It's no good, don't want no grandbabies near that one." The client shook her head, agreeing. Mae frowned, but kept quiet. She moved the folded paper bookmark and closed her book. She never took her eyes off Eugenia. "This is new," Mae heard the interest in her voice, watched as she settled herself in the rocker farthest; it was indeed new. Mae had just brought it in the day before, from an estate sale in The Bottom. Eugenia stiffly sat, then closed her eyes. She hummed and rocked for a few moments, as though she were just an average, sweet old granny, sitting on her porch. She seemed oblivious to the eyes of her rich client and the annoyed shop owner. "Hmm, been lots of babies rocked in this'un." The scene was so peaceful that Mae couldn't help but relax. But it was just a trap. "Someone done died in this chair," Eugenia suddenly announced, stopping her absent rocking. The client frowned. Mae stood, book falling to the floor. Before she could protest, Eugenia spoke again, "But of old age, after a long, happy life." Eugenia shuffled to her feet and pointed, "It'd be an 'ole Granny hug for the baby. That's your chair." Mae would ban her from the store, but she made her more sales than she lost. *** **

I'll Give You The Stars Everyone has such big plans and expectations for Randy's little princess. He just wants to be a good Dad. Randy sat on his back steps under the stars, holding his new baby daughter like a basket of eggs, scared to death of dropping her. Elonia, his only child and the first girl born into his family in three generations. Everyone said it would be overwhelming; he thought he was ready. He was not. Somehow, he knew every terrifying possibility, every responsibility; could even do this? How could he even . . . Love her anymore? He would give her the stars above if he could. He bounced her gently, wrapped in the handmade quilt pieced just for her. It dawned on him, this helpless child had just as many expectations of her. Already his family had set rules: how to dress her, educate her; they were already talking about the responsibilities of the oldest daughter to her family. In a moment of rebellion for his daughter, Randy decided. He tipped the bundle carefully up towards the dark sky. The sky had always fascinated Randy. The constellations, he always knew they were there. He could navigate by them so long as the sky was clear—night or day. It was his affinity. "I will teach you everything I know. Not just things proper oldest daughters should," he promised in a hushed tone. His rebellion did not extend to being caught by a family member doing it. He nuzzled the bundle, and the baby made a sleepy sound. "I don't have much, but I will give you the stars." *** **

Pests Sometimes, pests are critters you get in your yard, or your trashcan. Sometimes, they’re your kids. "Corrie, take out the trash." "Corrie! Make sure you lock that shed while you're out there." "Corrie honey, have you fed the chickens yet?" "Ugh! Corrie! Why is this trash still sitting in my kitchen?" Leona walked around the kitchen counter to find her daughter still sitting on the couch, nose in her phone. "Corrie!" Leona spoke sharply. The teenager glanced up languidly, then back to her phone. "Yeah?" Sighing dramatically, Leona huffed, "Have you done Any of the things I asked you to do?" "The trash, locking the shed, and feeding the chickens?" "Yes!" Leona said in exasperation. "Nope," Corrie popped her gum, still scrolling. "Young lady! If you want the privilege of having that phone in your hand to continue: you best get up off your butt and get those things done!" She had both hands on her hips, doing her best to channel her own Mama or maybe even Grandma Mae. She was almost mad enough to spit, after all. Corrie glanced at her mother again, then lazily reached back and parted the filmy, country-blue curtain behind her. Another remnant of Grandma Mae. "Nope." It wasn't often Leona lost her cool. She prided herself in raising three teenagers, Cora, and her two older brothers, and hardly ever raising her voice. But today? Today she was tired, frazzled, and Not in the mood to play 'How to deal with smart mouths'. "Corabelle Agnes Morris, you get your lazy little butt out there right now! I have been up since four this morning. I worked the gas station, come home, got all My chores done, and cooked for all y'all. The least you could do is a few simple tasks. It's really not that hard to help out." She breathed out heavily at the end of her rant. Popping her gum, Corrie said, "Tell that to them sasquatch out there." Leona blinked, shocked out of her anger by her daughter's audacity. "Nice try, young lady. Ain't been none of them since Miz Verney chased one out of her hen house five years before you was even born." /outta/ Corrie, still looking unimpressed, sighed dramatically. "Fine, I was waiting until there weren't no bears in the yard." "What??" Leona felt like lightning had struck her again. She rushed to the window behind the couch and looked out. Sure enough, there were not one, but two bears in the yard. Decent-sized ones too. If Bobby or either of the boys had been home, there would have been bear meat for dinner, out of season or not. She glared at her daughter. "Why didn't you just say so!" More to herself, she grumbled, "Just let me pitch a fit." A ghost of a smile whispered over Corrie's mouth, but her eyes never left the phone, "Cause I hadn't cleaned the pool like you asked me to neither." "That was yesterday. Weren't no bears then." "Exactly." Teenagers, too smart for their own dang good. *** **

A Polite Disagreement Tillie has lived in Stonebridge long enough to appreciate her helpful and knowledgeable neighbors. Good thing, because even the internet can’t help her now. Barefoot-mama Tillie was not your average hippie. She was born Tilden Cameron Elizabeth Chambers, and she had the trust fund to back it up. She had left the life of influence, money, and hair straightening products behind, to live a simple life with her partner, Timmy Brydge. Timmy had swept Tilden away with his country-boy charm and his honey-thick accent. He shared with her his dream of living off the land, lowering his carbon footprint, and being at one with nature and the beasts. Tilden thought it sounded wonderful, far from the racket of her debutante lifestyle and her mother's high, feminine expectations. Living out in the woods, just the two of them, making their own lives and raising their family the way they wanted. It sounded like just what she needed to completely drive her mother insane. Before all that, however, they had decided to use some of her trust to reclaim the 40 acres they were planning to put their self-sustaining farm on--and make sure there was reliable internet run there. It was the middle of nowhere, and while Tillie was committed to their dream, she did have Some realistic expectations. There was no way she was living in near isolation, not without a way to find the perfect bread recipe or research farming tricks and tips. She had never even planted flowers in the front bed before; her mother had people that did that for them. She needed access. It was with great pride and determination that year after year brought them closer to self-sufficiency, and she used their ancient computer less and less. It turned out the neighbors were as good of a source of know-how and advice as the internet (even Tillie's favorite blogger, 'The Gnome Man'). Tillie had become particularly good friends with their closest neighbor, 87-year-old Connie McCloud. When the internet failed, it was Connie that she turned to her latest conundrum. "Mama! Mama!" Willow and Thorn came running across the porch, their bare feet louder than ten booted soldiers. Willow, the oldest, appeared at the front door, followed closely by little brother, Thorn. "Miss Connie's coming up the drive," she hollered through the screen. Tillie wiped her hands on her hand-spun, crocheted kitchen towel, dropping it on the counter next to her canning jars. "Alright, you two, thank you." The children waited in the doorway until she came out to join them on the porch. A battered riding lawn mower was inching its way up the gravel driveway. On the other side of the trees and fence, Becca the cow stood chewing her cud and watching the progress. Knowing better than to try going out and meeting the neighbor, which would only end in shouting to each other over the motor, Tillie waited patiently as the ancient machine approached. Finally, long after 6 year-old Thorn had lost interest and the far more mature 8-year-old Willow fidgeted nearly off the porch, Miss Connie arrived. Tillie did step off onto the grass to approach as the old woman climbed off and removed the bungee straps holding her cane onto the back of the mower. "Good morning, Connie," she yelled, knowing her already hard-of-hearing neighbor would be particularly deaf after the noise of the old mower. The smell of burning oil, and Connie's thin cigar, wafted across the yard to her. Connie straightened her faded house dress and turned, "Mornin', is that young Thorn I see?" "I'm Willow!" She yelled back, standing from where she had crouched to pick up a caterpillar. Tillie could see how Connie could be confused with her poor eyesight and the children's matching hair nests. Both dirty blond and tangled no matter what Tillie did to try and tame them. "Oh, well, I'm so sorry young lady! I couldn't hardly see you all squished up on the ground like that!" She smiled as Willow ran over to hug her, "My Lord, but you're growing as fast as a willow tree!" "It's cause that's my name," Willow grinned. She held her hand out to show Connie the caterpillar. Peering at it through her thick glasses, Connie asked, "Is that your brother?" Tillie and Willow both broke out laughing. "No!" Willow shook her head, "It's my caterpillar. There's a tent of them in the tree behind the house." "Oh, a caterpillar," Connie winked at Tillie, "I thought maybe the Yonder-folk had finally caught him stealing their breadcrumbs." It was true. Thorn ate everything that got too close and looked like food. Connie had caught him once, eating the cornbread off the ground she had thrown out to the Yonder Folk. Tillie had not understood at the time the significance, but she did give him a thorough talking-to about eating their neighbor's yard scraps. "Now," she looked at Tillie, "I brought you something for your troubles." She reached into the voluminous pocket of her house dress and pulled out a thick glass soda bottle that was nearly as old as her. She held it out to Tillie. There was a long pause, then Tillie slowly reached for it, "What is this for?" She asked. "Your mole problem! You turn the bottle upside down into one of them holes. The wind blows through it and makes that whistling sound, and it spooks 'em away. They can't stand it," she handed off the bottle and gave Willow a tighter hug. They grinned at each other with nearly the same number of teeth. Tillie puzzled quietly for a moment, then asked, "What exactly did Willow tell you?" Looking surprised, Connie turned back, "That something was eating your plants and leaving holes in the ground. That bottle trick works every time on them moles." Putting a hand on her hip, Tillie said, "I think you need to see for yourself." A slow stroll later, with the children running circles around them, they stood at the edge of the back garden. Willow and Tillie let their bare feet sink into the soft dirt, and Connie stood in her house slippers. Thorn had kept running when they stopped. The corn was growing tall and thick, flush and green in the humid morning air. Except for the gap. Where four plants once stood, there were now four large holes in the dirt. "Oh, now I understand," Connie nodded to Tillie. /unnerstan'/ "They started with the tomato plants, and now they've moved on to the corn," Tillie sighed. "I have tried everything the 'Good Garden Neighbors' blog suggested, but nothing has stopped them." Looking from the large holes to the thin-neck bottle in her hand, Connie nodded, "I gotcha now; you ain't got no moles. You done got yourself a Pish-haw." Willow looked confused, "What's a pish aw?" "They skulkers," Connie nodded sagely. Skulkers, First'uns, holler beasts: all names for the unusual non-Yonder-folk who were there first—and generally found hunkered down in hollers and caves. “They grub-thieves,” Connie clarified. "So, they is like Thorn?" /they's/ "Willow!" Tillie admonished. "They are like Thorn," she corrected. Then she added, "And that's not nice to say about your brother." Even if it was true. Connie winked again gayly, "But I do got just the thing." *** ** When Timmy came home from work the next day, after he had fended off the children and kissed Tillie hello, he told her, "I went by Connie's, like you asked. Tell me again why we gotta have a empty, two-gallon pickled egg jar?" He held it up, fingers hooked into the six-inch opening. Tillie kissed him on the cheek, "It's just the thing to settle a polite disagreement with the neighbors." *** **

The Right Tool for the Job The county utility guys have to play detective and out-think an enthusiastic holler beast. They rely on team work,  common knowledge, a good eye, and the advantages of a Really Good Stick. There is a helpful snake involved. The utility truck was parked along 276, pulled off onto the weedy shoulder. Two men in green Stonebridge County Utility shirts argued over a downed utility box. One was a large man, and the other a small man. Although, to be fair to the small man, he wasn't small at all. He was only small compared to the large man he was arguing with. The large man was Willy (named after his Granddaddy), black skin, hair shaved up to a bushy mohawk, spilling out of his orange shirt and work pants. He was well over six feet tall. Mossy (no one quite knew where that name came from or what his real name even was. He was a newcomer) was a skinny white guy with gauges, red hair, and a blond beard. They waved absently at passing vehicles. Everyone honked. "'Course you ain't seen no snellygaster! Ain't lived here but 15 years," Willy informed Mossy. "Even that old Fitzpatrick boy ain't never seen one." /'ole/ "What makes you say that?" "'Cause he told me, 'I ain't never seen no snellygaster.' Just like that." /tole me/ "Well, I mean, he's a little weird. Ain't he?" "What's that got to do with it?" "Don't he talk to birds or something?" "Well, if they were talking to him, wouldn't it be rude not to?" Willy turned to the box. "The point is, if a snellygaster did do this, we gotta make it so he don't do it again." "But what if it weren't?" "Then I reckon we'll be back out here fixing it again next week." /fixin'/ Mossy thought about that for a bit. Willy let him. There was no point in rushing things; the broken box wasn't going anywhere. "Shouldn't we like, I don't know. Sleuth it out a little, first?" Willy frowned thoughtfully. "Like how?" "Look for clues. Maybe some other Yonder-folk broke it." /somethin'/ "Maybe it was real Yonder-folk. Like them fairies from the stories." His face fell a little at Willy's disdainful noise. "What good would that do? If it weren't no holler beast or skulker-type but, like, a real Yonder-folk, we couldn't see them anyhow." "Why not?" Mossy asked defiantly. "'Cause we ain't women folk." Willy declared with finality. "You really want me to call up my Mamma and get her out here to do our jobs for us?" Mossy gave a little shiver. He could imagine what Willy's Mamma would have to say about that. "You could call Serinda." He suggested, hopefully. Willy liked Mossy plenty well enough, but he had no desire to have him as a brother-in-law. He'd never survive their Mamma, and he didn't want to have to break in a new partner. "My sister ain't gonna drive all the way out here to go grubbing in no field. You wanna sleuth? Then sleuth!" Shrugging, Mossy began looking around. "You looking for clues?" Willy asked. "No, a good stick. Ain't finding nothing in this tall grass without no good stick." Willy joined him. "That's true. Can't beat a good stick." Once they each had a good stick, the sleuthing could begin. They parted the grass with their sticks, turned over small rocks, and probed at suspicious-looking branches that had fallen a bit close to the utility boxes. After a while, Mossy sighed. "I reckon maybe it was some old snellygaster. Don't see nothing else." But Willy had caught the sleuthing bug; he shook his head and pointed, not ready to give up yet. "We ought to check over in the field. Reckon something could be living over there and coming over here to cause mischief." "You didn't call it no mischief when you thought it was a snellygaster." Mossy reminded him. It wouldn't do to go favoring one beast over another. "Whoever is to blame is to blame." "The snellygaster probably breaks stuff 'cause he forgets how big he is. You know, like the big dogs always wanna sit on your lap. He don't do it on purpose. Took down three lines last year; I think he was trying to sit on them, thinking he was some hawk or something." Willy informed him as he beat his stick through the grass. It got higher by the fence line, nearly covering even Willy's thighs. "Maybe it's gnomes," Mossy suggested, hopefully. "Gnomes?" Willy scoffed. "Where'd you get that idea from?" "That dude on the radio show. He's got a blog, too." "Anderson? He thinks everything is gnomes. Yonder-folk ain't gnomes, and I wouldn't say they was too loud." Willy leaned closer, and Mossy tipped his head conspiratorially. "They've been known to take offense." Mossy's eyes grew large, and he nodded. "Got it. No gnomes." He swished his stick around the fence post. Movement caught his eye. "I might've found something . . . Oh, crap!" He leaped straight up like a spooked rabbit. When his feet finally met the ground again, he was halfway back to the truck. Willy peered cautiously, poking with his stick. Then his expression cleared, and he laughed. "Ain't nothing but an old black snake," he announced to the man hiding by their vehicle. He poked some more with his stick and, a moment later, lifted the wiggly critter from the ground. "What are you doing?" Mossy looked ready to jump out of his skin to escape. "He's more scared of you than you're of him," Willy pronounced, watching the snake coil around the end of his stick. It looked at Mossy and hissed loudly. Jumping, Mossy glared back. "Yeah, he looks real terrified." His insides still felt like the mint-pepper jelly his neighbor had abandoned on his porch the summer before. Along with twenty pounds of cucumbers he couldn't eat before they went off. "You got an affinity for snakes or something?" "Naw, that's the snake-handlers, up Nolty Holler. I just like snakes." He stroked the shiny black scales at the tip of its tail. Then he got an idea. Mossy narrowed his eyes suspiciously when Willy asked, "What'd you bring for lunch today?" An hour later, they were back on the road. Willy looked quite satisfied while Mossy stared sadly into his empty lunch container. "You couldn't have saved me none?" /couldn'ta/ He asked, plaintive. "We needed the smell to be strong enough to work," Willy assured him, still grinning. He could hardly be blamed for the amount of onion Mossy chose to smother his brown beans with. "I thought snellygasters were supposed to be flying crocodiles or some such. Not snakes," Mossy tried arguing again, even though it was too late for his poor lunch. "Even so, they all reptiles. Garlic and onion mixed with rock salt keeps away snakes. So, it makes sense it would work on snellygasters." They had found wild garlic growing along the fence row and used the last of their winter-road rock salt to mix it. "I reckon," Mossy sighed. He looked at the passing scenery, fields melting into the forest and back. Willy glanced at him. "Sorry 'bout your lunch. It'll be worth not having to drive out here to fix that box again, though. Not till after the next hard rain, at least." "It's alright," Mossy shrugged sadly. "I got more at home. Made a big pot on Sunday." Then he perked up. "You reckon we got time to stop at the café for lunch today?" Willy nodded, his stomach grumbling in agreement. "I think we deserve it. That old sleuthing makes a man downright peckish." /'ole/ In the back of the truck, the empty bag of rock salt, a few extra cloves of garlic, and two really good sticks slid against each other as he turned back down 276 towards Peggy's Pinch. *** **

Crickets 'Ahhhh, the early days of romance. When a disagreement leads to kiss-and-make-up . . . Cricket hunting?' Hannah Marie Vest, nee Tovies, was a city girl and relative newcomer to Stonebridge. She was nowhere near as seasoned as old Mossy with his fifteen-year tenure. But she had been around long enough to know better than to ask someone where they found all those fantastic mushrooms (don't ask. Never ask. Whole families have fallen out over less). She had definitely been around long enough to know she would never be around long enough. Poor Dean Fitzpatrick had lived in Stonebridge his entire life but would always be known as 'that man from over Old Yonder Ridge,' 'Cathy Gardner's husband,' and 'Casey Fitzpatrick's daddy.' Hannah had no illusions things would be any different for her. Still, she managed to settle in, meet Jimmie Vest, learn about his affinity for bees, and still say yes when he asked her to jump the broom with him--just as soon as he explained what that meant. Newlyweds get lots of advice. Tons. But the one thing that stuck in their heads was, 'Never go to bed angry.' Hannah didn't know why, but somehow that one seemed important. The argument was at three, Saturday afternoon. Here they were, 12 hours later, at opposite ends of the trailer, pretending to be engrossed in what they were each doing. Neither could tell you what it was they were doing exactly. Nor what the argument had been about. But Hannah was thinking she wasn't quite ready to let it go, and Jimmie hadn't seemed inclined to either. Maybe it was the cricket. At some point, Jimmie had explained that crickets weren't connected to the Yonder but were potent luck charms and should be respected. Not that Hannah had a habit of going around disrespecting bugs. She tended to give them a wide berth, except maybe mosquitos. Even in the city, they had bugs. Even crickets. Outside, a cricket chirping was a pleasant, summery sound, part of the windows-open lullaby everyone remembers from childhood. Even in the city. Inside, they're just dang annoying. Just about the time Hannah would start reading a line or two of the magazine she'd been 'looking at' for hours, the cricket would tune-up. It was beginning to make her cranky. Crankier. She was just getting up to do something about it when Jimmie came stomping out of the back room, where he'd been rummaging around since he came back in the house. She had heard him outside earlier, venting to his bees. If it was family gossip that fed them, then he'd given them a four-course meal. What he'd been doing on the other side of the house since then, she couldn't say, but it sounded an awful lot like moving furniture. When she heard him coming, she sat back down, refusing to let him think she'd gotten up for him. He was way down on new husband points. Not that he was paying much attention. He burst into the living room, a plastic cup in hand. "Where are you, you little . . . There you are!" He crowed triumphantly but quickly changed his tune. "There" morphed into "Where?" Both their heads turned when the next chirp came from behind the sofa. "Are there two of them?" Hannah stood, forgetting she was mad for a moment. "Sure hope not," Jimmie frowned, carrying his cup over to the sofa. Remembering herself, Hannah moved to the recliner. If dumb, old Jimmie Vest wanted to hunt bugs at three in the morning, that was his business. Except he was apparently awful at it. Hannah tried to ignore him, but first, he moved the couch, then the table. She finally looked up from pretending to be engrossed in her magazine when his Grandmama's pie safe bumped into the recliner. The living room was a shambles. "I need a hand," Jimmie grumbled. He sounded as reluctant about admitting it as Hannah felt to offer one. Still. The cricket, lucky though it may be, was a big noise in a small trailer. Especially when it began singing from under Hannah's recliner. She unwrapped herself slowly and regally as one could emerge from a pink, fuzzy blanket in flannel pajamas. She stood next to her husband and surveyed the situation. Jimmie had been a football player in high school. Six years later, he was still young and fit. His dark skin stood out against his white t-shirt, his broad shoulders making the seams beg for mercy. Not playing weight, perhaps, but still enough to turn a girl's head. Not when she was mad at him, though. Of course not. Her skin was much lighter than his, and if Jimmie was average height, then Hannah was far under it. Her top knot of soft, dark hair barely reached his shoulder. But what she lacked in size, she made up for in hips and chest, which she happened to know Jimmie didn't mind at all. Even when he was mad. She was sure of it. Finally, she asked, "What exactly are you trying to do?" He waved the cup towards the offending chirps and trills. "Get the bug in the cup. Toss it outside." Vaguely she wondered if he meant the bug and the cup or just the bug. She asked instead, "Why did you move all the furniture?" "Because he keeps hiding under it!" /hidin'/ "Why don't you sweep him out?" Hannah suggested mildly. Like she knew what she was talking about. She had no idea. She'd never hunted crickets before; that sounded a lot like disrespecting them. Jimmie paused and considered. He was not a complicated man; he prided himself in being straightforward. However, his face went on a complex journey as he tried not to look impressed. "Okay," he finally conceded. "I'll get the broom." It was an excellent idea; at least, Hannah thought so. Her husband was more impressed than the cricket was--one point for Jimmie, at least. All they succeeded in catching were some dust bunnies and a dried-up pen. In the meantime, the cricket seemed to have relocated down the hall. Jimmie grabbed the broom. "Open the back door." She would have protested his curt command, but she could see the cricket in the hall, no furniture to be found. She hustled to open the back door. The cool night air flowed in, making her shiver as she waited for a cricket to eject. Over the billowing of the tree frogs on the ridge sprouting from their backyard, she could hear the shuffle of Jimmie's feet and the brushing of the broom over the wooden floor. No cricket. A few choice curses piqued her interest, and she abandoned her post to check out the situation. She stepped into the hallway just in time to see Jimmie disappear into the guest room. "Jimmie!" She threw up her hands. "What are you doing? The back door is wide open." "He wouldn't sweep!" Jimmie called back, and she could hear more furniture being moved. "Get the cup!" She was still irritated at him, but, really, helping him helped herself. She retrieved the cup and joined him. In that short time, he had managed to move the bed and the dresser. She blinked at the otherwise empty room, then realized Jimmie was in the closet. "What are you doing?" She asked in exasperation. "He's wedged himself," he panted, trying to squeeze into the packed space, "All the way in the back!" He backed out and stood, expanding in relief. "Can you fit?" Hannah's nose wrinkled. She thought about pointing out all the junk was his, but the cricket was happily chirping under it. Somehow, it seemed louder and more taunting. She sighed. "Give me the cup." She was on her hands and knees, shuffling in as far as she could, when silence suddenly assaulted her ears. "C'mon," she prompted. "Now you decide to get quiet." Then Jimmie tried closing the door on her. "Hey!" She protested. Point deducted. "He's out here; gimme the cup!" She had wiggled in too far to jump out. Instead, Hannah thrust the cup out behind her. "Here!" When Hannah climbed back to her feet, Jimmie let out another triumphant crow. He danced a little jig; one hand slapped flat over the top of the cup. "Got him!" /'im/ "The back door is still open," Hannah said, realizing they probably had every bug in the county flitting around the kitchen fixtures. As long as none were crickets. She followed Jimmie out while he stood on the concrete pad and shook the cup over the sparse grass. Nothing. He shook it again, then stared into the empty cup in disbelief. Inside, they could hear a cricket chirping. Jimmie was back in negative numbers. Hannah crossed her arms and said grumpily, "Thought you said you got him?" "I did!" He insisted, looking forlorn enough she almost felt bad for him. Almost, she insisted to herself. "Where is he now?" She asked, heading back inside and closing the door after Jimmie. They stood in their tiny kitchen, listening. "Spare room," they said together and headed back down the hallway. The spare room was one place that was already a mess before the cricket. Jimmie had insisted his piles were organized, but Hannah had her doubts. Her second thought after walking in (directly behind 'Mr. Cricket, please don't get crushed by the stack of magazines you're hiding behind) was it looked more disorganized than usual. She hadn't thought it possible. Her third thought was out loud, "What have you been doing in here?" She pointed to a workbench that she hadn't even known was in there. Jimmie looked uncertain, the plastic cup making an ominous creak between his strong hands. "Uh, didn't you want to have a space to do your stuff?" "You unearthed that bench for me?" Hannah had mentioned getting a hobby. She hadn't even mentioned making room yet. "I'm gonna get all this stuff out of here, promise," he continued, sounding less unsure. "Maybe build some shelves over there. We can get some drawers to put under the bench. Soon as you decide what you need." "Oh. That's, that's so sweet." Maybe Jimmie wasn't so bad; perhaps she'd been hasty deducting so many points. What had they been arguing about anyway? "I didn't mean to make you feel bad about dinner," he added, looking at her from under his eyelashes. Oh yeah. That. "I knew when I married you that you didn't cook none. I can 'cause my family taught me, and I know you didn't have that. You tried, and I shouldn't have discouraged you." /shouldn'ta/ Hannah sighed. "No, it was awful. But I did try." There was a pause as they shuffled closer to each other. Then she let Jimmie wrap her in a hug. His solid, broad chest really was a nice place to lay her cheek. "I know. Look, I appreciate that cooking for someone is an act of love. And if they don't like what you made for them, it feels like they're rejecting it." That struck a chord. Hannah rolled her forehead against his chest, giving a hiccup that could have been a sob. Maybe. Jimmie rubbed her back. "But maybe next time I could help? Groceries ain't cheap." She snorted. Most of the dinner had ended up in the trash, and it had belonged there. "Yes," she agreed. "But you have to let me do it. Half the time, you take over because I don't know. I can't learn if you don't let me." "Okay, okay," a chuckle vibrated under her cheek. "Hands off." "I love you." "I love you, too." The moment was interrupted by a long chirp. "Dang it," Jimmie sighed, letting Hannah slide from his arms. "What are we doing about him?" She asked. Jimmie held up the cup. "Don't reckon we got much choice. Could you sleep with that racket?" So, the hunt began anew. Several of Jimmie's carefully curated piles were tipped, the workbench was relocated to the middle of the floor, and Hannah finally cornered the noisy little beast. She clapped a cupped hand over it, then curled her fingers carefully. She held it out to Jimmie, triumphant. "I got him!" She could feel little legs tickling her skin. "Ewwww." Jimmie laughed, hustling her back to the kitchen. He opened the door, she pitched out the trespasser, and he slammed it shut. Teamwork. Running to the sink, Hannah scrubbed her hands. When she turned back, Jimmie was standing quietly. "What?" "We good now?" Such a soft look on such a big guy just melted her heart. Hannah smiled and rested her head on his chest again. She was suddenly exhausted. "Yeah. We're good. But it's really late." "Early is more like it. It's four-thirty. Let's get some sleep." He walked them back into the hallway. The living room was a disaster. The guest room was a shambles. The spare room was, maybe not a whole lot worse than usual, but bad. "We need to deal with all this," she insisted feebly as he pulled her past the destruction. "They only said you gotta not be mad. Not that you gotta clean up from the fight. Let's go to bed." *** **

Exceptions Fearsome Healer Nelly Gardner, aka 'Aunt Nelly', makes an unsettling discovery about her six-year-old great-nephew, Casey. Thirty years later, he gets the tables turned on him. Sprouting from Old Yonder Mountain was Trail Ridge, which split Stonebridge County unequally in half. The larger section was called Greater, the smaller Lesser. Areas closest to the mountain were Upper, closest to the river dubbed Lower. Nelly Boggs Gardner hailed from The Bottom (because calling it Lesser Lower Stonebridge seemed a bit rude). She was a twin, born on Old Christmas, and it showed; her healing talents were hardly rivaled. Everyone was scared to death of her, and while all five-foot-nothing was quite intimidating, it had more to do with her just being plain cranky. Daddies-to-be would roll up to her house and announce, "It's time," to which she would answer, "I'll be the judge of that." They were rarely wrong, as everyone waited until the last possible moment to fetch her. Regardless, Eli Gardner was proud as could be when he brought his new bride home to Steps Hollow and set Nelly up with all the gardens she could ever need. She had an eating and canning garden. She had two healing gardens. She even had herself a genuine greenhouse, though she refused to use it because it just encouraged the Yonder-folk to hang around long past the falling of the leaves. They never had children of their own, but Nelly trained up two of her husband's nieces: MaryBeth Jasper and Casey Fitzpatrick's own mama, Cathy Gardner. When Casey himself came along and had no sisters, Nelly let him help her, using him to collect her ingredients from the mountain slopes . . . Part 1 But that little boy, he sure was something else. He was full of himself, of course, as spoiled little boys tended to be. He followed her around, watching with those huge blue eyes, asking too many questions. Lawd, he questioned everything! He couldn't just listen and do what he was told. Not like them girls his mama and his cousin had. Well, like them girls most times. It was always, 'Aunt Nelly, why?' /whaaaai/ 'Aunt Nelly, who you talking to? Aunt Nelly, I think I done heard one of your Yonder-folk'. At first, of course, she figured it to be his imagination. What else would she think? He was a boy. Men were only good for finding water, not root work or nothing else important. But then, he said he could see movement, 'Right out the corner of my eye, Aunt Nelly", one too many times right where she knew there should be. She watched him more closely and listened more carefully after that. And it were awfully odd how the ravens seemed to hang about more. She hated ravens, shooed them away every chance she got. Except during hard times, of course. Ravens could bring all the omens of change they wanted, then. But they never went far, not when that little boy was in the garden. He would pick what she told him and then tell her later that the birds had been talking to him. She would scold him, remind him not to tell tales. "Can't nobody understand them big, squawking birds." /squawkin'/ "They wouldn't have nothing good to say, no how." "Well, no, I can't understand the words," he admitted. "But I get the ideas. They warn me where the bees are or when one of your fairies is gonna pinch me." After that, Nelly reckoned that talking with the ravens was just gonna be his affinity, and there weren't nothing to be done about it. She couldn't figure how it could be truly useful, but then sometimes, they just wasn't. Then there were her tomatoes. It had been a rainy summer, plenty of water but not enough sunshine to ripen them. Couldn't eat but so many fried green tomatoes and Nelly hoped they would soon turn red. One morning, little one came running up onto the porch, yelling. She shushed him, reminding him she was an old lady who couldn't stand no screaming of small children. He was vaguely chastised, even less than usual, and told her, "But Aunt Nelly, I done fixed your tomatoes. Ain't that what you wanted?" She fussed at him that he better not have pulled over her plants, leaping up from her stool and leaving her green beans only half snapped. "No, Aunt Nelly," the little monster had the brass to roll his eyes at her, "I turned 'em red. Just like you wanted." Still sure that he had somehow damaged her plants, she took her heavy walking stick of rowan and, after shaking it at him all threatening, went to the garden. Sure enough, all the big tomatoes that had been green just the day before were bright, glossy red. 'See Aunt Nelly?" He said proudly as she stared. "What did you do?" She demanded. Emboldened instead of intimidated, he told her. "I put my hands on it and thought real hard about what the Yonder-folk must do to help the garden grow." Infuriatingly, he pointed up to the trees, where three ravens carried on like Armageddon was coming along. "The ravens helped me." "Show me," she demanded, unsure what to believe. "But all the big ones is already ripe," he pouted, not happy that she wasn't excited too. She didn't know what ever made him think she was capable. "It don't matter. There, do that little one," she pointed her rowan stick to the closest plant that had tomatoes nearly of a size. His face grew solemn as he knelt before the plant, and he wrapped his little hands around the tomato she had pointed to. It was quiet except for the occasional croak of the ravens. They seemed to be waiting, and Nelly held her breath. She could feel something was happening, but she had no idea what. "Lord'a mercy," she said quietly when he finally stepped away from the plant. Sure enough, the tomato was as big as the ones on the other plants and just as red. Nelly had never heard of no one, especially not no child, having two affinities. Of course, she'd no intention of telling him that; he'd let it go to his head, and then there really would be no end to the headaches and trouble he would give her. *** ** Part 2 Casey should have known. He should have known. His mom, Cathy, never called him out of the blue on a weeknight and told him to come to dinner. Family dinners were always on Sundays. But he was busy with work, and lately, his head was full of schemes involving the Peggy’s Pinch coffee shop and bakery, 'A Pinch of Love', as he knew a certain handsome man had an addiction to fancy coffees. He could be excused for not being suspicious, but he still should have known. His home place was what realtors cunningly called 'cozy', with its small, dark rooms and 2x4 boards supporting the leaning porch roof. But it was nestled comfortably among the trees of Steps Hollow, and Casey tried his best to replicate the feeling he got pulling into the drive at his own home. First, he went to the four-car garage to see his dad. It was like looking in a mirror 35 years into the future. Casey was his spitting image, tall and broad, except that Dean's hair had once been dark. He was under the hood of one of his 'projects' that went through parts and oil like they were free. Inside, he set the table for his mama. Cathy’s hair was mostly gray, but there were still a few strands the same sandy shade as his. She was thin and tall, though she barely cleared either of their shoulders. Her skin was soft like the over-turned dirt from the garden, and the smell of sun-warmed tomato plant leaves lingered behind her. On the table was her latest creative project: a clay vase of flowers so wonky it tipped alarmingly every time he bumped the table. Casey tuned out a little when she started detailing the fall formal dresses his young cousins had been posting on the internet. Still, she brought him back to reality when Cathy handed him a paper napkin with a sizable pinch of fresh cornbread. "Take that out to the garden," she instructed, and Casey went. He could hear the creek in the woods on the other side of the road. But the family homes sat in an open field that stretched to the slope of the ridge. Past the house were gardens, his grandparent's house, and below old Aunt Nelly's. The gardens stood ramshackle and ragged after the early frosts. The tomatoes had been blasted, but marigolds, protected underneath, lit the shadows with golden blooms. Withered cantaloupe and pumpkin vines stretched out over the garden bed, just skeletons of what had recently been a lush carpet of oversized leaves. A greenhouse, recently acquired from Aunt Nelly's property, sat restored below; he could see that Cathy was already putting it to use. A gray Mockingbird perched on the peak, imitating different songbirds, while a whirligig with Blue Jay feathers fluttered ineffectively below. Casey shook the offering into the garden. Still not a clue. A guttural caw and leaves shaking at the tree line caught his attention. He peered into the darkened foliage at the raven, hiding from the mockingbird in the shadows. It was eyeing the cornbread. Crumpling the napkin in his hands, Casey told it, "This ain't for you." He returned to the house as Dean was coming out of the garage. He brought the comforting smell of greasy shop rags with him. Dinner was the usual fare: fried chicken, cheesy beef casserole, taters cooked two ways, greens with vinegar, pinto beans with cornbread, biscuits from a can, slaw, and deviled eggs. Casey happily and naively loaded his plate and ate his fill of Mamma's home cooking. When he truly should have been suspicious, however, was when Cathy pulled out the desserts. He really should have known, then. She placed a bowl of cookies on the table, which Casey immediately dipped his hand into, passing the bowl down to Dean. Then she broke out the pie. That got both men's attention; Dean at least had the sense to raise an eyebrow. "Is that pecan pie?" Casey asked, clueless. "It sure is," /shore/ his Mamma replied innocently, then cut him a big 'ole slice. He should have known. Still, she waited patiently until dinner was over, the table was cleared, and she and Casey were finishing washing the dishes. The sound of the evening news floated in from the living room, where Dean was watching tv. Finally, Casey felt his ears perk up, and his defenses rose when she said casually, "So a little bird told me you've got someone new in your life." His hands froze over the plate he was washing. He took a breath and thought, 'Play it cool, Fitzpatrick. Find out what she knows first'. He rinsed the plate and stuck his hand back down in the soapy water. "Oh yeah? What they tell ya?" He still thought he was being clever, even after being duped once. Cathy smiled to herself. "Just that there's a cute brunette you've been seen with an awful lot." Relief flooded Casey's chest; he thought she had found out about the spirit from the bottle tree. He smiled at her. "I been seen with a lot of people at work. Loads of 'em are cute brunettes." Wow, the gossip mills sure did work fast. Everyone knew he was a flirt; had he really been so obvious? Then Cathy added, "Yes, but not so many of them have been at your house." That's when Casey realized what had happened. "Dang it, Mamma, them nosy little busy-bodies. With all the frost we done got, how do they even . . ." The greenhouse flashed across his memory. "Oh, I reckon they been congregating," /con-grih-gatin'/ "In Nelly's greenhouse." He shook his head, pulling the plug on the drain. "Can't believe you made me take their cornbread out after they done tattled on me." Cathy laughed at her son. "They didn't do anything wrong, and it's not their fault you're so tight-lipped with your own Mamma." She dried the last plate and stacked it on the counter. "Tell me about him. Is he nice? How did you meet?" Sighing, Casey dried his hands on the kitchen towel. "His name's Robert. He's the Director of the River Bluff Estate House." "What's his last name?" Cathy folded her arms and leaned against the counter. "Deeds, but he ain't local." "Well? What's he like?" Cathy laughed and nudged him with her long barefoot. "This is like pulling teeth!" "Mamma," Casey very nearly whined, "Yes, he's nice. Real smart, too." "When do we get to meet him?" "What? Why would you meet him? We ain’t going out or anything!" "Well, I'm sure you soon will be, and then you can bring him to dinner," Cathy nodded to herself and took the damp towel out of his hand. She hung it over the oven door handle to dry. She turned back to Casey, leaning against the sink. "He's not local, so what does he think of all the goings-on around here? What does he think about you?" Casey knew she didn't mean him personally, but his affinities. He shrugged. "He don't really know about all that yet." Concern creased a wrinkle between Cathy's eyebrows. "He doesn't know? What have you told him?" Casey shifted a little under her gaze. "I mean, I talk about the tales and people's affinities. I don't know that he believes it." The crease grew deeper, "He doesn't think any of it’s real?” Casey, who hadn't been brave enough to ask, looked sheepish. “I don’t think anyone’s broke it to him yet.” "You should tell him," Cathy said, adding off-handedly, "Grow him a flower or something." "We ain't even dating yet!" Casey’s voice was louder than he meant. It really wasn't that big of a deal. She pursed her mouth at his tone. "How can you be? He doesn't even know the real you yet, son." "Mamma," he began, but Cathy interrupted. "I'll mind my own business," ('That would be a first,' thought Casey). "But he won't really know you without knowing that part of you. You should tell him." Then she looked at him with that seeing, Mama-eye. Casey shivered. "You're not worried that he won't like you anymore because of it, are you?" Casey shook his head because, of course, that was exactly what he'd been scared of. "It'll be fine," he insisted instead. "I'm just warming him up to it. Jimmie and I done worked it out. You can't just dump something like that onto someone; you gotta ease him in." Cathy raised her eyebrow at the mention of his neighbor, then decided to take a different tact. She looked at Casey carefully again, causing him to squirm a little more. "Your great Aunt Nelly, bless her heart, always thought you were exceptional." It worked; Casey was so shocked that he forgot they had been arguing. "What? Grandma's sister-in-law? Your favorite neighbor? That Aunt Nelly?" Cathy laughed at him. "Yes, that one." Raising an eyebrow, Casey shook his head. "Exceptional?" He repeated. "I can't imagine Nelly ever using that word. 'Specially not about me." "Okay, maybe she actually said you were 'Really something else,' which from Nelly equals exceptional. You know her; she thought we already spoiled you and didn't want the praise going to your head." She reached out and tucked a lock of hair behind his ear. "She was pretty hard on you, but she thinks a lot of you." "She sure does hide it good." "You may not remember, but I had to forever sew your pockets from all the holes and dig the dead flowers out of the laundry and under your bed. Not to mention all the splinters I had to treat." Casey looked at her quizzically. "Iron nails, flower charms? Alder sticks? She sent you out in the mountains a lot; she wanted to be sure you were safe from the Yonder-folk." Cathy smiled at his dawning understanding, then narrowed her eyes at him. "And you are exceptional. You deserve to be seen as that exceptional person, and not just because of your affinities." She held his eye when he shuffled his feet and tried to look away, "If this boy Robert, or anyone else, can't see that, then they don't deserve you." "Mamma," mortified but pleased, Casey turned crimson, then gave Cathy an appreciative hug. "It's gonna be fine," he said to himself more than her. "Maybe you could make an exception for him anyhow." "Why is that?" Cathy asked from somewhere against his broad chest. Casey frowned. "He sure does seem to attract a lot of holler beasts." /lotta/ "If he was local, I'd say it was his affinity." There was a thoughtful pause, then Cathy was distracted by her son's arms tightening. It was a rare indulgence. Finally, she drew back and patted his cheek. "You're my favorite son." Casey was an only child. Casey cracked a smile with the familiar exchange. "And you're my favorite Mamma." Humming, Cathy turned to join Dean in the living room. "I'd better be." *** **

Lids Absurd? Yes, but don't we all want our sweet boys to grow up like this? Death, taxes, and the truck needing a quart of oil once a week were inevitable in Gerry Pulver's life. As was his wife, Penny, bringing him a jar to open. Gerry was a big guy with large hands and muscles from many years of hard work. Penny was tiny, but don't mistake size with strength. She could manhandle a full five-gallon bucket or a trash bag half her size with ease. It was just the dang jar lids that stymied her. It took a few weeks to register, but Gerry up and realized one day: Penny hadn't brought him any jars to open in a while. When he mentioned it, she was just as surprised. No, she suddenly realized, for some reason, jar lids had been opening for her lately. Maybe the seals weren't as tight as they used to be. They mentioned it to his mother, who, mysteriously, got very excited. Gerry hadn't thought it was such a big deal and, honestly, kind of missed the interaction. He at least got a kiss on the cheek for it. Even more mysteriously, his mother went on to say, "Congratulations!" They shared a perplexed glance. "For what?" Gerry asked his mom. She smiled, pleased as a snake on a warm rock. "You're expecting!" Which was ridiculous, of course. Nonetheless, nine or so months later, Tyler Austen Pulver was born. The tradition of jar opening restarted for Gerry, and the man considered himself twice blessed. Still, it was almost two years before the true implications of Penny's temporary superpowers came to light. When Tyler was eighteen months old, he disappeared. Gerry was called home from work, and after twenty long minutes of frantic searching and not a few tears, they found him fast asleep in the pantry, draped over half an open jar of pickles. Affinity unlocked. Mystery solved. Jars were moved to a higher shelf. Life went on. At fourteen, Tyler, now gangly and ruddy complexioned like his parents, would get off the school bus with his friends at Peggy's Pinch Grocery. The owner, Leo Nesmith, came across as a cranky old coot. Every morning he would stick his gray head out the door, sun-starved hand the same color clutching his broom, and shout out front. "Those rockers are for sale, you know," he would dryly inform the old men rocking out front. "Yup. Gotta give them a good trial first," /'em/ came the long-practiced response. He would huff and moan about it to the customers as he rang them up, but he never did anything about it. At first, he wasn't too wild about having a bunch of unsupervised youngsters hanging about his parking lot, either. He quickly changed his tune; however, the first time he caught Tyler harassing some of his more aged customers. Or so he thought. He was stocking shelves and could hear a ruckus outside. At the door, he could see the old men in their (his) rockers, not rocking, and all heads turned. Nosy, he thought to himself as the door slid open, and he marched out. "What's going on out here?" He demanded, stomping out to the sidewalk. It was a knot of six people, Tyler Pulver and two friends, old Mr. Johnson, who had ridden his mower down from the holler; older Mr. Smith, whose antique car could be heard for miles; and Mrs. Jasper. She was 94, frail with translucent white skin, and leaning heavily on her wooden walking stick. She drove herself down from the top of the mountain weekly to run errands. Everyone knew she couldn't see past the tip of her nose and drove accordingly. Leo stopped abruptly when she shook a trembling finger at him. "Leo Nesmith, you mind your own!" He blinked, vaguely chastised but aware of the old men in their rocking chairs behind them. It didn't do to show weakness in front of them; they'd never give him a moment's peace after. "I need to be certain no one's bothering my customers, Miz Jasper." He informed her, trying to sound business-like. "Well, Tyler ain't bothering nobody!" She wheezed back. "He's my great-nephew," she added with a proud smile and pat on his cheek. Tyler nervously smiled. His friends looked ready to bolt. "You should be more appreciative," Mrs. Jasper waggled her finger at Leo's face again. "He's performing an important customer service for you." Leo crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes at Tyler. The smile dropped off his face. "Oh, really now? What would that be exactly?" Mr. Johnson piped up, brandishing a jar of olives. "He loosened all my lids for me!" /mah lids/ "What?" Leo was too confused to sound irritated. "Tyler's affinity is that he can open any jar," Mrs. Jasper told him smugly. "He's a good boy, and he's helping us old folk out. These jar lids are on too tight," she accused Leo as though he were going through his stock, tightening them. "Alright," Leo held his hands up in surrender. "I'm just doing my job, ensuring no one's bothering you. If he's not, then he can stay." He walked back inside, casting a dark glance at the old men in the rocking chairs, daring them to say something. They wisely didn't, though there was a round of chuckles after the door slid closed. They also held their tongues when Leo let Tyler and his friends pick out a drink on hot afternoons when they had been particularly helpful. After Tyler started school, Penny returned to work for Vest&Greenleaf Contractors. Every day she would leave work and run by Peggy's Pinch Grocery to pick up supper and her son. She loved riding in the car with Tyler; it was the only time he wouldn't put his headphones on or continually text his friends. He told her about school and how Mr. Johnson rode his lawn mower to the grocery from the holler. And how he cut through old man Rigg's land with the blades down. Well, they never did like each other much. Less now, she mused. She was glad he had a place to hang out with his friends after school. She just hoped they weren't too big of a bother, though she suspected if there had been any issues that Leo Nesmith wouldn't have kept quiet about it. One day she was running a little behind, and Tyler and all his friends were gone when she arrived. That wasn't too unusual. Sometimes the boys would catch rides with each other home. Though, usually, Tyler let her know. Still, what fifteen-year-old hadn't forgotten to text his mom a change of plans? She did a little grocery shopping, bid Leo and the old men rocking good evening, and went home expecting to find her son. She was, once again, disappointed. Motherhood had gotten easier since Tyler's disappearing act at eighteen months, but she still felt uneasy. She told herself he was hanging out at a friend's, ruining his appetite with soda and pork rinds. She made supper and resisted calling Gerry. For all she knew, his cousin's boys had picked him up, and they were climbing rocks somewhere. They had a habit of doing that. Climbing rocks, that was. She tried his phone, but like most of his friends, he kept it on silent for school and never turned it back on. Her texts went unanswered, and her calls to voicemail. Finally, Penny gave up. She drove back down to the store. "Leo, did you see where the boys went earlier?" Leo hadn't even realized she hadn't picked them up. Just her luck, all the rocking chairs were empty of nosey old men who probably knew her son better than her. And herself and the next-door neighbor. She sighed and stood in the darkening parking lot. The grocery store sign buzzed overhead, spitting light across the asphalt. She tapped the front of her phone, trying to think rationally. It paid off; she got an idea. Marching back inside, she asked Leo again, "You got a phone book?" He was ringing up a customer, so he pointed her to his office—a disorganized cubby behind the register. "Left-hand side, bottom shelf, far right back, under the clipboards. And the empty paper boxes," he instructed. Sure enough, a phone book that was about fifteen years out of date was right where he said. The book could have been thirty years outdated and still exactly what she needed. Some of the older folks had gotten new-fangled cellular phones, but nearly none had gotten rid of their landlines. First, she tried old Mr. Johnson. He sounded grumpy but insisted she hadn't woken him. But then, he often sounded grumpy. He also liked to nap in front of the television. "Tyler and his friends? I saw them when I was in town just yesterday." As soon as Peggy's Pinch was more than just a post office, the older folks took to calling it 'town.' "Got him to open my pickle jar. Reckon they started gluing them dang things shut these days." Not paying attention past hearing 'yesterday,' Penny barreled through. "No, today. I'm looking for him now. You wouldn't happen to know who was down there this evening, would you?" He pointed her to Algina Moors. The phone rang fourteen times before she got to it. Penny knew to hang on; Algina hated it when she got nearly to the phone and the other person gave up. "Sorry, honey. I came on home before the boys left," she informed Penny. "I'm not as quick as I used to be, and my eyesight is starting to go. Gotta get home before dark." By dark, she meant the sun was nearly behind the mountain; her eyesight had gone a long time before. "Miz Pearl was coming in as I was getting him to open my soda," Algina had the diabetes and wasn't supposed to drink sweet tea, so she had switched to soda. Not diet. "And his friend carried my groceries to the car. They're such good boys." "Well, that was nice of them. Thank you, I'll give Miz Pearl a call." Miss Pearl's husband, Angus, answered the phone. "This is Tyler's mama, right?" "Yes, sir," Penny was getting a little frantic. "Did you happen to see him this afternoon?" "Sure did," /shore/ he answered. "He opened my whiskey bottle for me." There was a moment of silence before Penny decided he was kidding, and they both laughed. She would have been more worried if his wife had said it. "He's wandered off, and I can't get ahold of him. Do you know where he went after?" Relief flooded through Penny at his response. "Why, I sure do! Ethel Gathers came down the hollow and asked the boys if they'd come visit her neighbor, Wanda Branch. She's been poorly and hasn't hardly gotten out of the house. She had plenty of stores in her pantry but was having terrible trouble with the lids in her weakened condition." "Thank you," Penny breathed, feeling a skosh better. Then her brain caught up with her last few conversations. "Does Tyler open jars for everyone?" "Gosh, yes! Everyone loves visiting with him and the other boys. They're such friendly young men." "Well, thank you," Penny answered, puzzled. "I'll call Wanda right now." She flipped through the ancient phone book, remembering Wanda had a husband many years before. Penny thought she had herself well in hand, but when Tyler himself picked up the phone, she nearly burst into tears. "Sorry, Mama," he said when she demanded why he hadn't let her know where he was. "Miz Gathers asked us to come help her neighbor, and I didn't realize my phone was dead." "Who else is there? Couldn't you use their phones?" "Bryan got his taken away, and Caleb lost his," he informed her matter-of-factly. At least he hadn't done that. "What are you talking on right now?" She quizzed him knowingly. "I tried once I remembered your number. But Mama," he lowered his voice politely, "none of the buttons work on her phone, and they look weird." Penny didn't want to laugh, but she was so relieved did she giggle. She'd have to get the old rotary phone out and teach him how to use it. Before she could work up another fuss, she could hear the elderly lady in the background. "I hope I didn't get none of these boys in trouble! They were so sweet to come up here and help an old lady out. Tyler loosened a whole pile of my jar lids, and the other boys brought in firewood, and they even moved my table so I could get my walker past it easier. I'm so thankful they were willing to come along. Here, gimme that." There was a shuffling as Tyler handed over the receiver. "I've been doing so poorly, and my neighbor checks on me regular, but there's a lot she can't do, neither. It's just me here, and things just get ahead of you so fast. Now, they're visiting with me. I've missed talking to them down at the store; I admit it's been a mite lonely here." Wanda's voice became muffled, like she had stretched the phone cord too far. "I was just going to get my change purse to see if I had a couple dollars in there. These boys sure have earned it." "Oh no, don't do that. I promise I'll take them out for ice cream. They'll like that." Penny blinked; the flickering grocery store sign suddenly blurry. "You sure? I'll bet you're right; they would enjoy that. I'm sorry if we gave you a fright." "It's fine," Penny mumbled around a sudden sniffle. "He just needs to learn to keep his phone charged, is all." She smiled wetly. "They are good boys." *** **

Mr. Farmer in the Dell Eddie thinks he’s too old for all this; nothing about his day has convinced him he’s wrong. There’s nothing like a walk in the woods. The fresh air fills your lungs, reminding you that you’re far away from the pollution of civilization. The birds serenade you from the trees as light filters through the leaves. Both lofty and beautiful, and far above your earthbound reach. The ground is solid under your feet, crunching with downed sticks and rocks far prettier than the average gravel. Something darting away in the underbrush catches your eye. You’re elated to catch sight of wildlife, even just a mouse. A breeze caresses your skin, whispering in your ear. The buzzing of locusts and the billowy sounds of the tree frogs make a comforting background to the beauty surrounding you. Then something changes. You’re hardly aware at first. The light dims, the electric air shifts like the barometer has suddenly dropped. You look up, realizing the sun has gone, the sky obscured. Was there always fog? You can no longer see the tops of the trees. It’s possible you can still hear the birds and insects; a buzzing flits just outside of your hearing. You vaguely realize you have no idea what time it is or how long you’ve been rooted in that spot. A forest citizen is moving in the haze, too large to be obscured by underbrush. You have inadvertently discovered the Dell, Stonebridge County’s own liminal space. Or rather, the Dell has found you. *** ** Eddie, a grizzled black man who--because of all the gray hair--liked to insist he was far older than he was--heard the car coming long before it appeared over their ridge. The green and white Department of Wildlife Management, Special Division, vehicle was a familiar sight, alongside Ranger John Painter climbing out of the driver’s seat. Eddie wondered how old his little girl was now. An older lady sat in the passenger seat. He thought it might be Lenda Waverly, but he didn’t get down to the river lands much. John didn’t have his wife’s first-people’s blood, but their daughter got her dark hair and eyes honestly just the same. He settled his ranger hat solidly on his head and made his way up the rocky yard to the front door. The woman picked her way behind. Eddie met them at the door. “Dan ain’t here,” he informed them by greeting. A flock of Blue Jays were screaming at each other in the pines behind the house. “Yeah, we heard,” John stopped at the bottom step. It was Lenda, a white lady with yellowed hair. She stood on a rock a few steps behind. Looking anxious, her eyes turned to the ruckus behind the house. “He’s gone to help Vickie with her renovation,” Eddie continued like he hadn’t spoken. “She said he would be more help than me. I got left to feed the cows.” A smile flitted over John’s face, clearing as quickly as it came. Everyone knew Dan was far handier than his partner, but if you needed anything husbandry, Eddie Farmer was your man. “It’s you we were hoping to talk to.” Eddie frowned. “Don’t you got a missing tourist or something?” At that, the woman stepped forward. “It’s Randy Waverly, my son, Mr. Farmer. He went up the ridge yesterday, hunting mushrooms. My daughter-in-law, Emilee, called me this morning in a panic; said he never come back.” “I’m real sorry to hear that, ma’am,” Eddie nodded. “But there ain’t nothing I can do. Dan’s the one done got the affinity for going where needs to be gone; I’m just a plain compass. Reckon he shoulda had his own, going out in the mountains like that.” “He always carries a compass,” the mother corrected him, for a moment forgetting she was there to beg a favor. “Normally, he don’t need one either, same as you. He follows the stars, night or day.” “Then don’t sound like you need me at all. You should try Malc Moors. Surprised he ain’t shown up yet to volunteer.” Eddie went to close the door because Dan was the one that liked people, too. “He’s in the Dell,” John interjected. Eddie startled, peering out at them, confused. “Malc?” Just when he thought the old man couldn’t get any more lost. “No, Randy.” Eddie opened the door a bit more. “What makes you so sure?” “His affinity. We always reckoned it didn’t work in the Dell,” Lenda said. “Only reason he wouldn’t come home was if he got lost. That’s the only place he could.” Eddie could think of a hundred and two other reasons, but none that he wanted to voice aloud to a missing man’s mama. “Then I’m even less use, Miz Lenda. My affinity don’t work in that place, neither. Not one bit.” He frowned, hoping to conclude the subject. “And I’m too dang old to be tramping around the mountainside anymore.” “We don’t need you to,” John answered, using his calm ranger voice. Eddie hated it when he did that. It simply wasn’t fair. “Just need your expertise to keep the young guys from disappearing into there, too.” “Please, Mr. Farmer,” Randy’s mother said, “My boy, he’s got a three-month-old daughter at home.” Eddie’s sigh was heavy. He thought about Vickie, their daughter. “He only carries a day’s worth of insulin, too,” she added, rather craftily, if he had to admit to himself. Well. Dang it. Another reason they suspected the Dell: at that moment, it was sitting directly on top of Randy’s favorite mushroom hunting slope. Eddie imagined Randy wouldn’t be none too pleased that everyone knew his spot. Though, in the grand scheme, he probably had more than one spot. From where Eddie had parked his carcass, as he had told the young searchers, the stretch of forest looked like any other. The Dell couldn’t be seen from afar nor anticipated and avoided. It was just There. Suddenly. A few feet further on, the sky would get gray, the birdsong muffled, and your brain a little foggy. “Slow down when things start getting weird,” Eddie told them scientifically. “Take a couple steps, just a couple now, and give a good clear holler. Listen, then retrace your steps. Don’t stay too long in, or your steps won’t bring you back.” “This dude’s the only one that’s tangled with the Dell and ain’t never lost a couple days,” Eddie overheard someone telling his neighbor. “Listen up.” He looked them over for a moment. Lord, they was young. There were a couple of seasoned professional searchers, but mostly it seemed to be kids. He figured them to be cousins or friends of Randy’s. “Your friend’ll be fine,” he tried to reassure them. “Just, according to his mama, the sooner the better he should get found.” Somehow, he doubted that soothed anyone. He missed Dan more than ever then; he was certain to have known the right things to say. Nothing to be done about it, though, so he sent the kids on their way. Some piled into a truck and went up the ridge. Others spread out and started testing what he’d meant by ‘weird.’ Their calls to each other grew fainter as they moved away. He sat on his rock, humming, and fiddling with a fluffy-tipped weed. The sounds of the searchers faded out, and it left him with the chirring of the locusts and humidity settling under his skin. Twice he flicked his wrist, and the weed swiped itself under his nose. Eddie sneezed. “Bless you,” a muffled voice called. “Thanks,” he mumbled, then froze. “Hello?” He called, standing, and taking a few steps. He glanced up. The sun remained bright overhead. A mockingbird wheezed behind him. “Hello?” His nose twitched, and he sneezed again. “Bless you,” the disembodied voice called again. Eddie closed his eyes and sighed. Then, setting his shoulders, he marched forward five steps. A blanket of tranquility fell over him. For a moment, he lost his sense of direction, his ties to his body. He shook himself, snapping his fingers to focus. “Hello?” He called, clear, just the way he had instructed the youngsters. He waited a moment in the silence, then retreated straight back without turning around. His head cleared, and the locusts sang their song. Eddie took a breath. “I’m too dang old for this,” he said, then stepped forward again. Twice more, he called out, then retreated. “Dang it,” he looked up at the mockingbird, who angled his tail jauntily and stared back. He looked ahead. “Too, dang, old,” he punctuated each word with a step. The Dell welcomed him back into its sleepy embrace. “Hello?” Eddie took a last look around, then stepped back and caught his foot. The foot stayed put while the rest of him flailed and went down onto hard ground. It took a moment for his brain to catch up. He was lying in the dirt, sticks and rocks poked him every which way. A leaf tickled his ear, and he looked straight up, admiring how the creepers disappeared into the foggy canopy. Fog. Eddie sat up, the pain clearing his head briefly. He was alone and down. “Hello?” He called, and if it sounded more shaky than clear, there was no one to point it out. In a fleeting moment of clarity, he had an idea. He was still clutching the weed, though it was a bit worse for wear. He rubbed it, rather aggressively, under his nose. He waited a moment. A tickle spread. His eyes watered and he sneezed. “Bless you?” “Here!” Eddie shouted. “Mr. Farmer?” A young white man appeared out of the gloom. It was foggy enough, at least inside Eddie’s brain, that he couldn’t quite make out the logos on his ball cap or t-shirt. He had blond hair, much like Lenda’s had been thirty years earlier. “Is that really you?” Eddie shook his head. “I reckon.” He blinked, and Randy Waverly’s face came into view. He looked older than he remembered. “Ain’t never met the Dell in person before,” Randy looked around, nervous. “Didn’t know what kinda tricks it would play. You stuck in here, too?” Pain shot up his leg when Eddie tried to shift. He grimaced, looking over his shoulder at the fog. “I reckon.” There was a long pause, where Eddie’s thoughts drifted. Then he blinked and snapped his fingers. “Hey!” Randy looked surprised. “Huh?” “Stay alert,” Eddie told him, reminding himself. “It’s easy to get lost in your head here, too.” He thought for a moment longer, then added, “You need medicine?” “Naw, just need to make sure I eat regular.” “You eaten?” “Yeah. I mean, I think. Yeah?” “Uh, maybe you should eat something.” Randy moved closer, taking granola bars out of his pocket. He offered one to Eddie, who shook his head. “You okay?” Eddie made a pained, exasperated sound. “Not really. Could be twisted or broke.” Crouching next to him, Randy helped him straighten his leg. “Either way, need to get it splinted. We gotta get going.” /goin’/ “Where we going?” Eddie asked, distracting himself from the pain as he helped scan the ground for helpful material. “Gotta get outta here, somehow.” Eddie’s brain caught up. “No, that ain’t how it works.” Randy found a rotting log and loosened the curved bark from it. “Ain’t how what works?” “Being lost, or the Dell. You ain’t never been lost, I reckon?” “Nope. New experience and I ain’t liking it none.” Eddie jerked some nearby creeper vine. Randy used his pocket knife to cut a length. Together, they wrapped his ankle, Eddie exhaling sharply. “I’m getting too old for this crap.” “You ain’t that old,” Randy eyed him, curious. “Ain’t you ‘bout the same age as my folks?” “I’m older than your mama, boy,” Eddie told him, although he knew it wasn’t by much. “My mama runs circles around me.” Randy sat next to him in the dirt. “Course, with the baby and all, we ain’t getting much sleep right now.” “I don’t miss those days.” “Reckon I won’t either. I like the cuddling part, but won’t mind it just being during daylight hours.” Eddie could not help laughing at that. “Kids don’t keep regular hours,” he informed Randy. “Ever. Don’t tell me you never called up your mama in the middle of the night, broke down or nothing.” Shrugging, Randy sounded sheepish. “It was a flat tire. I didn’t have no spare. Neither time.” Eddie chuckled. They sat in comfortable silence for a moment. At least as comfortable as Eddie could be with a throbbing ankle. The splint helped, as did the intruding fogginess. After a moment, Randy added quietly, “Mama sure did make it look a whole lot easier.” “Kids don’t come with directions, young man. Your mama went through everything you’re going through right now. Ain’t nobody born knowing how to be a parent. We all have to find our way.” “I ain’t used to being lost,” Randy reminded him. Eddie couldn’t help but smile. “Yeah, I know. Welcome to being a dad. You’ll figure it out.” At least with Vickie, Eddie felt he and Dan were on even footing. He still missed him, though. Finally, Randy asked, “So what’s the proper way to be lost? For real, not as a parent. I got that part down.” “For starters, you can’t just run around aimless. That’s a good way to get even more lost.” Eddie told him. “Either stay put and be noisy,” “Why be noisy?” Randy interrupted. “To scare off bears?” “Well, surprising a bear certainly wouldn’t improve your situation none,” Eddie admitted. “But also, if someone’s nearby, they can find you easier. Help you find your way back.” “Or be lost with you?” Randy smiled. Eddie cut him a look but surrendered half a smile. “If you can spot water or something familiar, then you can find your own way back.” “What if I was lost in the Dell?” He looked around at the muted forest. “Then all bets are off. Try to stay awake so you can here if someone’s looking, but best to just hunker down and sit tight. It’ll pass, eventually.” “Really?” “Yeah, the holler’s called Wandering Meadows for a reason.” “Ain’t much of a meadow.” Randy sighed. “Wish they’d come and take it back, regardless.” “I ain’t seen no one from the Thorne family in years,” Eddie said. “I see the kids from time to time. Went to school with a couple of ‘em. They seemed pretty normal to me. Never got the sense they had any particular affinity for corralling wayward forests.” Randy looked at Eddie with interest. “You, on the other hand. Don’t you got an affinity for not getting lost in the Dell?” “In my younger days, I helped Dan out when he was looking for lost hikers. Most times, he could just go straight to ‘em, but the Dell does slow him down. I ain’t got no affinity for the Dell, just generally knowing where North is.” He held a hand up when Randy looked hopeful. “But not in here.” His face fell. “Yeah, I can’t figure out the stars here, neither. It’s got me all turned around.” “Not a good feeling, is it?” Eddie felt like a spinning compass, unable to get his bearings. And the cotton wool was still between his ears. “No, sir. It sure ain’t. But if you don’t got an affinity, how is it you’ve never been lost here? Before now, that is.” Randy still sounded alert, but Eddie felt himself slipping. He focused his thoughts. “I just figured out how to game it a bit. Slip in and out before it notices me. I,” he shook his head, trying to concentrate. “I miss Dan. He’s the one should be out here. He’s the one who’s good.” The rest of the sentence slipped away like water. He looked at Randy, thinking he seemed a little blurry around the edges. “Mr. Farmer?” “I’m getting too old for this.” The next thing Eddie was aware of was a rough, wet tongue slurping at his face. “Ugh,” he wiped it away distastefully. He could hear a loud panting; he opened his eyes to slobbery jowls and a wagging tail. “Good girl, Chesh,” a man’s voice spoke from behind. His brain was slow, his eyes bleary. Eddie sat up halfway before remembering where he was. When the dog, Chesh, stepped on his chest to share the love with Randy, he was pushed back down with an undignified, “Oof.” He glanced over to find Randy being similarly rudely awakened. “What the heck?” He mumbled, fending off aggressive kisses. “Y’all okay?” Looking up, Eddie saw one of the Thorne boys; he wasn’t sure which one. They’d been kids the last time he’d seen them. This one was about his daughter’s age: scruffy, tall, battered ball cap, dirty t-shirt, and jeans. “Mostly in one piece,” Eddie mumbled, wincing as he accidentally shifted his bad leg. “Don’t worry, I brought help,” the Thorne boy said as an EMT came around him with their bag and started poking around. “I’m Jake, that there is Chesh,” he told Eddie. “Hey, Jake,” Randy said, rubbing his eyes. “How you been?” He allowed the EMT to stick his finger. He grinned, broad and friendly. “A whole lot better than you, Randy.” /better’n/ Randy tried to shake out the same cobwebs Eddie had. “Can’t say I ain’t happy to see y’all,” Randy told them. “But ain’t we just lost all together now?” Jake glanced around, grin turning smug. Eddie realized he remembered him; he had warned Vickie about him at school. Not a bad kid, just trouble. “Don’t think that’s gonna be a problem since the Dell done moved on.” Randy and Eddie looked at each other in surprise. Slowly, the fog in his brain was replaced by sunshine and familiar, sharp sounds. “Well, I’ll be,” Eddie said. “That why you come up here?” He asked Jake. “Wish they’d called you first,” he grumbled to himself. Jake laughed. “Naw, ain’t like that. I just happened by.” Chased off by the EMT, Chesh’s interest honed in on Jake’s hand as he reached into his pocket. She gobbled up the treat and sat wagging, eyeing his pocket again, hopefully. She settled for the pat on the head and another, “Good girl,” with a slobbery lick. Eddie and Randy exchanged another look. No one just ‘happened by’ such an isolated place. “Y’all did exactly what you needed; you done waited it out. It always moves on eventually.” “It wasn’t like we was going nowhere,” Randy pointed out as a medic started peering under their makeshift splint. “Sorry ‘bout your mushrooming spot,” Jake told Randy, sounding cheerful. He made a face. “Thanks. I didn’t even find none before the excitement started. Reckon I’ll have to try again tomorrow at my other place.” Jake and Eddie looked at each other, then burst out laughing. Randy’s expression said he thought they’d both lost it. “What?” “It’s cute you think anyone’s letting you go anywhere for a while,” Jake chuckled. “You think your wife or mama’s gonna let you outta their sight?” “Mmm,” Randy said, unhappily. Jake gave him a hand and pulled him to his feet. “Go home, spend some time with your daughter,” Eddie told him, trying to ignore the EMT muttering about a board to carry him out. Randy paused, looking down at him. “Thank you, Mr. Farmer. I’m sorry you got dragged into this, but it sure was nice not being lost alone. That ain’t something I ever wanna experience again.” Eddie nodded. “Me neither. I’m getting too dang old for this.” *** **

Fog Area City boy Robert loves seeing wildlife. But what he meets in the fog is a bit much for even him. River Bluff Estate, initially owned by the Grant family and donated to Stonebridge County, was open every day of the year except for major holidays. And Mondays. And on random days that the Estate House Director, transplant Robert Deeds, had yet to figure out the rhyme or reason. He tried to keep regular hours, as he detested unfavorable comments in the rough-hewn comments box. But some days, he was simply informed they would be closed, and no one else showed up to join him in his bafflement. Robert couldn't say he hated the occasional day off. The only downside was that the handsome gardener, Casey Fitzpatrick, and his odd flock of ravens usually didn't come into work either. Usually. He missed Casey. The ravens, not so much. It was Wednesday, and the housekeeper, Marsha Lowland, had told him it was a 'bread day.' She did not explain, and he was long past questioning. However, she invited him to supper to 'put some meat on his bones.' She often made invitations to improve his pale complexion, thin frame, and anemic appetite. She admired his thick, dark hair, so at least he had that going for him. He declined, simply planning to enjoy his day off. There was a frozen dinner calling his name. Robert was a creature of habit, however. Working or not, his alarm went off at six, and he got up and fixed coffee. He read his hometown paper on his phone, as the Stonebridge Monitor only came out once a week; he saved that for his actual day off. Twice, as he sipped his black coffee with far too much sugar, he glanced from his reading to the apartment window. Weak morning light filtered in over his kitchen sink. Like the rest of his apartment, the sill was empty and unadorned. Outside, he could hear birds. Not their usual good morning songs, but sharp squawking and caws. He got up, hoping to see a cat or something larger, upsetting the birds; there were often deer and other animals outside the River Bluff Estate Employee Housing. "Anybody out there?" He mumbled hopefully. Once, he had spotted a bobcat. This morning, however, all he could see was fog and leaves out of his second-floor window. Over breakfast, he planned his morning run, the unexpected day off enabling him to leave the Estate. Since it was such a dreary morning, he decided on his favorite, the Fog Area. The morning air had a chilly sharpness, the fog persistent. Robert stopped on the porch to check the food and water dishes. There was no sign of the stray he'd been feeding, but he had piled the bowl high with food and it was now empty, save for a very large, very dead lizard. Sometimes the cat would leave him thank you cards of dead birds or mice. "Achilles," he called. At the bottom of the steps, he called again, "Achilles?" No huge, fluffy black cat with one white paw answered his calls. "Odd," Robert said into the still, thick air. Nighttime and foggy days were when he was most likely to see them. It was funny how no one else ever talked about a stray; especially such a striking one. He hoped Achilles was okay. His eye drifted back to the lizard. If there was one thing Robert couldn’t resist, it was looking at animals. Wild ones, tame ones, big or small. He had grown up in the city and with no pets. He found them fascinating. Even dead ones. He wrinkled his nose a little, but leaned in for a closer look. It was longer than his hand, and the scales were iridescent, even in the dim light. He reached out gingerly, wondering if he was brave enough to flip it over. “What’s that belly look like, my poor little fellow?” The lizard skittered into the water dish. Robert sincerely hoped none of his neighbors heard his shriek or saw his jumpy little dance to the other side of the porch. Heart still pounding in his ears, he headed for his car. He paused before getting in. Something still agitated the birds behind the house, the trees alive with chirps and rustling leaves. A raven chortled and honked, talking so Robert almost felt he could understand words. It was eerie and not helping his adrenaline rush. Right before he started the car, a flock of Blue Jays began screaming at each other in the tree above. Robert drove out, puzzled and unsettled. A raven brooding on the River Bluff Estate sign, silently watching him didn't improve the feeling. He stared back a moment. "Are you one of Casey's?" He asked through the closed window. The birds continued sitting like a sulking statue, so he made the turn onto Route 276. The area where 276 and Midlands Highway met, currently reduced to a road sign in a blanket of murk, was called Farrier's Crossing. People had often instructed him to turn at the old Farrier's shed, which, of course, hadn't existed in years. Robert supposed the road was named Midlands because one way went into the mountains and the other into the river. He turned towards the river, passing a sign stating "Fog Area." River Bluff Estate and 276 had been foggy, but Midlands was so dense it forced Robert to drive even more slowly. He nearly missed his parking spot. He climbed out into the mist, suddenly reluctant. "Is this such a good idea?" His query faded into the milky air. Robert enjoyed the amount of paperwork and detail his job required. Dealing with people was not his expertise. He did well enough with it, but found it exhausting. Running on Midlands during the week was a quiet, almost meditative experience. A little fog made it feel like he was the only person for miles, maybe the whole county. "Yeah," he finally decided, flinching at the car door slamming. Clearly, he needed this. He stood on the white line, listening. What the heavy tree canopy didn't muffle, the fog did, sight and sound. For a moment, Robert felt he must be the only living thing left on the planet. Then his primordial brain kicked in, and he began wondering what the fog was hiding. Large predators, hungry. The mist hid their smaller prey; they would be glad to come upon something larger. Like a runner on an abandoned road. "Stop it," Robert said firmly, shaking himself. His brain was made for numbers and spreadsheets. He found joy in balanced bottom lines. Such flights of fancy were useless and just gave him the creeps. He started at an easy jog to warm up. He ran along the shoulder, listening for cars approaching in the fog and letting his mind wander to work. Thursdays kicked off the weekend crowd; he knew he was ready and was already planning for the next week. While his brain ran calculations and schedules, Robert admired the world disappearing into white. It was as though he were running in place and someone was turning a crank so the nothing beyond would never reveal itself. There was only the road before him and the branches hanging above. Robert stopped abruptly, deciding he needed to stretch before he started the actual run. "Back to business," he mumbled to his brain. Once he had warmed up properly, he started over, picking up the pace and focusing on his breathing, the thud of his feet on the pavement. The white line hypnotized him, unchanging, wavering only as his steps took him minutely back and forth over it. The only sounds were his breathing and the fog rushing past his ears. Until a heavy crack emanated from the woods to his right. Jolted straight from his head, Robert jumped, stumbling as he fell out of his pace. Robert could see nothing beyond the branches dangling overhead, and hear nothing but his ragged breathing. Heart thudding, he glanced around. The silence was more unnerving after the reminder he wasn't alone. A long breath. More silence. "Perhaps," Robert said quietly, shocking himself with his voice, "I should head back." There was a rustling. He stepped back nervously, waiting, heart rate going up faster than his run had taken it. "Yeah, maybe," he assured himself calmly, ignoring the shake of his voice. The rustling got closer. He backed further up the road, every muscle tensed, the fight-or-flight singing him to action. Movement caught his eye. The only thing that kept him from running was his habitual enthusiasm to see wildlife. And the warnings he'd gotten that running made things chase you. Blinking into the haze, Robert swallowed thickly. Crouching, he leaned forward, trying to see. A deer stepped out, its antlers grazing the low branches. A relieved huff forced itself from his lungs. "Oh." He froze again when the deer turned in his direction, pawing the packed dirt of the shoulder. Not wanting to scare it off, Robert remained still, watching the wild creature in awe. He had never been so close. His pulse still thundered in his ears. But the longer he stared, the more his unease returned. Something was, he couldn't put his finger on it. Not right. The deer bobbed his head, long neck reaching, head shaking. He kicked his feet at the ground, long body ending at his short, flicking tail. He looked like any other deer Robert had seen in Stonebridge County. Then, the deer reared up, prancing into the middle of the road on its hind legs. It turned there, hopping, and continuing to bob its head. Robert stood rooted, mesmerized by the movement. The dancing legs, the muted sounds of hooves on asphalt. The snort and squeal as the deer rolled its head, neck curving over his back. Eye flashing at Robert. The grace of the wild animal, the sinewy dance. It called up something deep and wild within him, something that numbers and organizers and quietly hiding in his office never had. The desire to run seized him, but not along the white line. Through the woods, the ground appearing at his feet as he split the fog, leaves and branches tearing at his skin, his breath and heartbeat wild in his ears. Running, running until the air was gone from his lungs, the forest opened, and the ground fell away, the long drop into the humid fog, the river looming below him as he plummeted into empty air . . . The sound of the truck horn jolted him back, the lights filling his head. Robert threw himself over the white line, rolling and skidding across the gravel of the shoulder. Tires squealed, and a dump truck careened across the road, weaving back and forth as the driver fought for control against the gravel. The truck stopped, and the engine cut. Nothingness assaulted Robert's senses again. Only the truck's rear was visible, lights blinking with a quiet, ticking sound. The road, once again, empty. A loud creaking announced the driver emerging. Robert sat up, ignoring the sharp gravel, eyes searching for the deer. "Hey man, you alright?" A twenty-something white man ran around and into the road. He was too loud, voice and hands shaking. In a detached way, Robert thought he seemed so very young. "You come outta nowhere! What was you doing in the middle of the road?" He himself stopped in the middle of the road, watching as Robert climbed to his feet. He stood on rubbery legs, swaying like a newborn foal. "I was on the white line; the deer was in the road," defending himself, the one thing he could control. "Ain't no deer, just you," the man insisted. He was pale as a ghost, shaken. Robert felt lightheaded. Looking around nervously, he pointed. "It must have run back into the woods. It was right there. It was," he stopped. "Was what?" "It was," Robert paused. "A deer," he said, half-hearted. "Yes." The man gave him an odd look. "Wasn't no Dancing Deer, was it?" "What?" Robert asked stupidly. "A Dancing Deer. I seen one here before, on a day like today. It was a deer, but . . . Not really." Somehow, in that moment, that description made perfect sense. "Yes," Robert answered firmly. "That, that's what it was." The man gave a shiver. "Well, it's done gone now. What were you doing out here in all this fog?" Robert corrected his posture and took a calming breath. He focused on his answer. "I was running. I like the way it centers me." "Not today," the man breathed. They nodded to each other in understanding. "You got a car somewhere? I'll take you to it." Reflexively, Robert opened his mouth to decline. He could make his way back. A Bluejay screeched from the tree above. Both men jumped. "Yes, please." Robert followed him to the dump truck. *** **

Doc Williams and the Tree Surgeon Georgie Woodson, the local tree surgeon, has to consult with Doc Williams, the local saw bones. At the bottom of the tree Georgie pulled himself to sitting, the bark of the tree digging into his back. Dang, his arm hurt. He looked up, seeing the broken branches, including the one that had snapped to dump him where he was. The tree and its surrounding neighbors shook, leaves rustling and branches clattering. The air was still and damp, a faint smokiness from a controlled burn somewhere in the lowlands complimenting the trees' agitation. “I'm okay, I'm okay,” Georgie assured them soothingly, until the ruckus settled down. He cradled his arm until the throbbing was a sharp buzz. Like most of the Woodson men, Georgie was dark-skinned, solid, and arboraceous. His daddy was tall, thin like a poplar, his grandaddy had been short, twiggy, with hair like a rowan tree. Georgie leaned more towards the lumbering oak, towering over everyone else in the family. Grandmamma was small, willowy, but kept them all in line, usually with a hardwood stare. “Poor old thing,” he patted the root that had bruised his leg. “I came here to make you feel better, and I done made things worse.” There was a rattling from above. “Yeah,” he agreed, “Grandmamma's gonna have my hide. But don't worry, I'll bet she can fix up a butter or bouquet that'll make one of us feel better.” He winced as he tried shifting. The arm was the worst, but it had been quite a tumble. Falling out of trees was a hazard of the trade, Georgie being a tree surgeon, and all. He was pretty good at self-diagnosing and, by his reckoning, the arm was pretty bad. Not something he could just walk off without a little help. He supposed he'd have to go to the clinic. He didn't want to, had nearly talked himself out of it. But he could already hear Mama and Grandmamma Woodson fussing. "Fine," he said to that image. "I'll go see Doc Williams. He’s closer than the Gardner." /closer’n/ The leaves above him rustled. "Not you, too," he frowned and hoisted himself up for the slog back to his truck. He drove himself off the gravel, onto 276 and into the little community of Groveston. It lay smack in the center of Greater Lower Stonebridge. The clinic was a flat building surrounded by trees. Georgie parked his truck under one, peering into the canopy as he climbed out. The tree branches leaned towards him, creaking, encouraging. He set his mouth and headed inside. The paper crinkled every time he shifted. Georgie wrinkled his nose; he hated being at the doctors. He would rather have gone to see Miss Amery, the ancient family Gardner, and his Grandmamma. But even he knew he was where he should be. He startled as the door flew open and Doc Williams rushed in. He was a tall, thin man, much older than Georgie's mother. He had dark skin and dark eyes, which he looked at Georgie critically with. "How bad was the fall? Are you dying? Do I need to call an ambulance?" Georgie huffed. "Not likely. Just hurt my arm." /ma'ahrm/ He held up the offending limb. He could have sworn the doctor looked disappointed. Maybe the life of a country doctor wasn't as exciting as it sounded. "Oh, okay. Let me see." He took the arm gently between his long fingers, eyeing it. "It's probably broken. Most likely in more than one place." He touched two spots with authority. Georgie's jaw dropped. "I know you good Doc, but you ain't even hardly looked at it!" Doc fixed him with a look. "You've already broken this arm in several places. They'll be the weaker spots. With a fall like Nurse Barbara described, it's probably broken. Plus, you're here. You never come in, so it must be pretty bad. Is it?" He demanded. Georgie shrugged. "I reckon." Doc Williams sighed and ordered x-rays. After he applied the cast, Doc walked him out to the front desk. "I don't suppose this will slow you down any?" He asked, already sounding defeated. Georgie gave him a big, friendly grin, already loosening the sling. He did feel better with the cast on. "Don't see why it should. Not like it's the first time I've done worked injured." He clapped him on the shoulder with his good hand. "Thanks a bunch, Doc! Always good to see you." He started out the door, then turned to add, "And don't worry about no more appointments. I've got the tools to get this thing off," he motioned to the cast. Doc hopelessly implored him, "Not too soon. And go get some rest, please?" "Sure thing! Gotta go tell the tree I'm okay first, though. It was a mite upset by the whole incident. It tried to catch me but, you know," he shrugged. "Older trees. Their movement ain't the best; a bit stiff. I'll just clean up a few things out there first. Then I'll head straight home, promise! Have a great day, now." As he fired his truck up and pulled out of the lot, he glanced back and could see Doc still looking out the door at him. He seemed a mite forlorn. Georgie figured he didn't get out into the woods nearly enough. But that was doctors: never taking their own advice. *** **

What a Load of Garbage The only thing Josefina Pan and Ashlee Marie McGovern love more than arguing with each other is arguing with you. ‘Something’ in the trashcan puts that to the test. Josefina Pan parked her ancient BMW on the gravel roundabout, climbed the cabin’s steep wooden steps, and rapped on the rough-hewn door. The cabin may have been rustic, but it was quite new. Solid and well-built with just the air of down-home. Rather like its owner. There was the tapping of high heels on hardwood floors, and the door swung open. “Josefina.” “Ashlee Marie.” She smiled in a casual, friendly way. She knew Ashlee Marie McGovern would see right through it, which was the point. She also knew her t-shirt, blue jeans, ski jacket, and ponytail were being judged. She’d even worn her old Converse just to twist the knife. Ashlee Marie sniffed, “Seeing as how you’re here, please come in.” She patted her perfect blonde hair, to highlight Josefina’s limp dark locks. “You invited me,” Josefina pointed out, only being mildly obnoxious. “Yes. I invited you to a sit-down dinner.” Ashlee Marie eyed her outfit choice fully as she took her coat, then turned without further comment, tapping her way back into the kitchen. The floor plan was open, so she could still witness Josefina flopping onto the couch and propping her feet on the coffee table. “Please, have a seat.” Ashlee Marie said dryly through pursed lips. She looked more like June Cleaver than a homesteader in her pencil skirt, ruffled blouse, and pearls. Josefina was lucky; looks couldn’t kill. As it was, her proper accent could be downright deadly. Neither woman was from Stonebridge, but Josefina had arrived at age six. Ashlee Marie was a more recent transplant by thirty-plus years. They had taken to each other like two bucks in hunting season, rattling antlers, and smashing foreheads. Figuratively, of course. Passive aggressive was the only language Ashlee Marie spoke, and Josefina made sport of engaging in it. They soon became quite close, of course. Although, anyone dumb enough to call them best friends to their faces paid the price. The only thing they loved more than arguing with each other was arguing with someone else. They were an acidic double-team. “So,” Josefina said over the clatter of a pan moving from oven to countertop. “How are things going at the Estate House?” “Would you like something to drink?” Ashlee Marie offered, and Josefina knew it irritated her that she hadn’t thought to already. “Got a beer?” Josefina asked, knowing full well she would not. “I have sweet tea and Coke,” Ashlee Marie informed her as though she hadn’t spoken. Josefina wouldn’t have minded some tea, but she said, “Water, please.” Just to be ornery. The modern refrigerator coughed up ice and water, which Ashlee Marie deliberately delivered to the living room with a coaster. She stood pointedly, waiting for Josefina to remove her feet before setting them down. “Thank you,” Josefina said politely, taking a sip. She replaced the glass just slightly off the coaster. Ashlee Marie’s eye twitched, but she refused to give Josefina the satisfaction. “Dinner is ready. I was going to serve hors d’oeuvres, but you were late.” “Shame,” Josefina followed her to the dining room table. “Yes, I know how you enjoy eating with your fingers,” Ashlee Marie said from the counter. She set the pan in front of Josefina. “This smells delicious,” Josefina said truthfully, because she was a ruffian, not a complete jerk. Ashlee Marie looked pleased and retrieved a side dish from the kitchen. “Thank you. It’s my Mama’s recipe. Rice stuffed quail, with roasted squash and zucchini.” Josefina watched her spoon the bird and some drippings onto her guest’s plate, then add a nice serving of vegetables. She inhaled deeply as Ashlee Marie set the plate before her and then served herself. “Mmmmm, fancy chicken.” Ignoring that, Ashlee Marie sat and said, “To answer your question, we’ve been quite busy. My whole team had been working on preparing for the Winter River Race.” “I’ve lived here almost forty years, and I’ve never wanted to get in a kayak and race down the Dale River in the middle of February. Oh my God,” she slumped back and nearly forgot to chew with her mouth open. “This is divine.” Ashlee Marie forgave her with a pleased smile. “Thank you. I’ll give you the recipe if you like.” They both knew full well that Josefina would never make such a thing. “Perhaps you could prepare it for me one day.” “Subtle,” Josefina grinned, digging back into her plate. Primly holding her fork and knife, Ashlee Marie carved off a tiny bite and lifted it to her shiny pink lips. “You’re bound to host me someday.” “I invite you to my house for dinner tons,” Josefina shot back in mock defensiveness. There was a pause as Ashlee Marie chewed and swallowed, followed by a delicate sip of sweet tea. “You have invited me to several of your cookouts, yes.” “What, beer and hot dogs are too backwoods for you?” Josefina quipped. “Of course not. I'm perfectly capable of rubbing elbows with the sweaty masses when it’s called for.” Josefina forgot herself, using her napkin to wipe her mouth before laughing out loud. “You remembered!” “It was well over ninety degrees, with humidity enough to melt a catfish at the very bottom of the river. The Beer Festival was at full capacity. You describing us as the sweaty masses was quite accurate.” “It was an experience. I enjoyed being the clean and neat one for a change.” Josefina tucked back in. “I suppose being constantly tardy must pay off occasionally. How are things at the real estate office?” Ashlee Marie inquired, finally polite. “Same as always. I'm still trying to figure out how to write the descriptions to include the former residents. I had another complaint today.” “About which property?” “Do you remember the old lowlands man, down past Farrier’s Crossing? Mr. Bell?” “I remember Mr. Bell. He’s a lovely, elderly gentleman. His property is just below where 276 meets Midlands Highway.” “Yeah,” Josefina deadpanned, “Farrier’s Crossing. At the old Farrier’s shed.” “There’s never been a farrier’s shed there that I’ve ever seen.” Ashlee Marie took another polite bite. Somehow, most of her meal was gone already. If Josefina was being honest, which she had no intention of being, she never remembered a farrier’s shed there, either. “Anyhow, you know the house. He always claimed his wife never left after she passed, and now he’s moved in with his oldest son and is selling the place. According to several clients, she did not move on. Either to the great beyond or their son’s.” Ashlee Marie put her fork down. “You can’t see her?” “No,” Josefina admitted. “You grew up here; no extra senses?” Josefina knew that Ashlee Marie was asking sincerely. Many outsiders laughed at all the crazy stories of spirits and beasts and affinities by the locals. But Ashlee Marie’s family was just a little superstitious, meaning they didn’t laugh at what they didn’t believe in. Just in case. Josefina could appreciate the practical attitude. “If I had been born here, maybe. But only locals have affinities.” She sighed dramatically and dropped her fork onto the empty plate with a rude clatter. “Such is my lot, I suppose.” Ashlee Marie smiled with one corner of her mouth, opening it to respond—no doubt with some passive-aggressive rejoinder. Josefina looked forward to what it might be. There was a loud crash from outside. “What the heck was that?” Josefina asked. “Something keeps getting into my trash cans. It’s so tiresome.” They sat listening for a moment, but the woods outside remained quiet. After they finished eating, Ashlee Marie began clearing the table. Josefina installed herself at the sink. “What do you think you’re doing?” Josefina knew that Ashlee Marie was far too polite to attempt forcibly removing her. It would have been entertaining to see her try, though. It also meant Josefina was free to ignore her protests, as always. “I'm washing dishes.” “You can’t wash dishes.” “Are you implying I don’t know how?” “I’ve been to your house. You might not.” “Hilarious.” “What I mean is, you’re the guest. You can’t help clean up.” “What sort of crappy guest would I be if I didn’t offer to help?” The water finished running, and the dishes disappeared under the suds. Josefina scrubbed to the rhythm of Ashlee Marie’s agitation. “A good guest offers and a good hostess graciously declines.” She insisted. “You could be a little more gracious about it.” Ashlee Marie opened her mouth, but the only sound was another crash from outside. “Fine. You win.” Josefina tossed the sponge into the water with a soapy splash. “I'm going to see what’s causing all that ruckus.” “What? I'm sure it’s nothing. I’ll deal with it in the morning.” Ashlee Marie sounded even more agitated. “You got any guns in the house? My shotgun’s at home. No place to put a rack in the Beemer.” She was only partially kidding. If there had been, she might have considered it. “I don’t care what’s in my trashcan, and you can’t go shooting things! I have neighbors.” “Fine, a bow and arrow?” “Josefina! There’s no need to go outside. Whatever it is, will go away soon enough. It only ever bothers the trash.” Josefina marched into the living room and grabbed a baseball bat off a shelf. She waved it under Ashlee Marie’s pert nose. “Fine, I’ll go out, all alone, in the dark, to face down the bear, or whatever, in your trashcan.” Pressing her lips together, Ashlee Marie relented. “It might just be a raccoon,” she offered, following Josefina to the back door. “But the neighbors think it’s a holler beast, maybe a flats monster. I get conflicting opinions out here; too many people hail from both areas.” She added, like an afterthought, “Be careful.” “Of course. I didn’t know you cared.” “No, I mean, be careful. That was my daddy’s collector bat. It’s worth a fortune.” She smiled sweetly; Josefina cut her eyes at her. As she put her hand on the doorknob, Ashlee Marie added, “Bless your heart.” The screen door hit the outer wall with a bang, and Josefina stormed out, waving the bat. “Shoo! Go on!” She rapped the bat against the porch railing, a slice of satisfaction at Ashlee’s insulted huff as she followed onto the porch. The porch light was struggling in the cold; there was just enough light to see the trash cans at the corner of the house. One was lying on the ground. Then, something appeared from behind, just a shadow in the darkness. “Oh look,” Josefina crowed, “It’s not even that big.” She realized her miscalculation as it (whatever it was) stood up from behind the trash cans. And up. And up. “Oh.” Josefina, quickly seeing the error of her ways, clutched the bat against her chest, not hating that she wasn’t alone. Even if Ashlee Marie was squeezing her shoulder a bit too tightly. And she could count every one of her manicured nails. They were sharp. It finally reached full height; it was dark, and Josefina wasn’t one to exaggerate, but was it nearly to the eaves? Surely not. Josefina gulped, trying to swallow down the panic rising in her chest. Just when she was about to freak out, a state she never thought she’d reach, Ashlee Marie gave her a giant tug. They stumbled through the door together, nearly falling. Blindly, they slammed the door shut and planted their backs firmly against it. As though that was going to stop anything. “You pushed me,” Josefina blurted out. Ashlee stared at her. “You rather I’d left you out there?” “No,” Josefina shivered, coming back to herself. “I just didn’t think you cared.” Ashlee straightened her back and chin, then attempted to pluck the bat from Josefina’s hands. The death grip turned that simple action into a tussle before Josefina realized what Ashlee Marie wanted. She opened her unfeeling fingers, and Ashlee Marie stumbled back, bat in hand. “I don’t. You had my daddy’s bat, remember?” “What about your trash?” Ashlee Marie did some quick mental calculations, making an executive decision. “I’m done with it. They can have it.” “Don’t you want to know what’s out there?” Josefina demanded, praying she said no. Ashlee Marie looked at her for a long moment. “Some things were just meant to remain a mystery.” She turned briskly and returned the bat to its proper place. Josefina could read between the lines. Ashlee Marie hoped she never got close enough to find out. Frankly, Josefina agreed. However, there was no way she would admit that out loud. And definitely not to one Ashlee Marie McGovern. *** **

Blast From the Past Ava Duncan considers ghost-hunting a fun vacation activity—and she just might be better at it than she thinks! The Riverlands didn't have the only tourist attractions, but they did boast the most popular ones. No dangling from cliffs in the Heights, or being chased by a holler beast for entertainment. No, they appealed to a much less niche crowd. Especially, if one considered ghost-sighting a main-stream activity. It was quite popular and, while many places in Stonebridge were haunted, they seemed concentrated in the riverlands. Especially around The Grant House Estate. Waverly Bed and Breakfast was a major draw. Conveniently located just a few miles from the Grant House Estate and the Blackwell Mill and with a few handy spirits right on the premises. Due to the likelihood of seeing a ghost, however, payment was quite steep and expected upfront. There were no refunds if people decided to head out in the middle of the night. Among the ghosts and other amenities, a breakfast buffet was served daily to the guests. Ghost-hunting required a good start to the day. Contrary to popular belief, it did not require late nights and loads of expensive equipment. One simply needed to be in the right place at the right time. At least, that was what Ava Duncan believed. In future stories, Ava is a seasoned ghost hunter with many successful visits under her belt. However, every successful hunter must start somewhere, and here is how she got hers. ** "Good morning!" Lenda Waverly, the owner of Waverly Bed and Breakfast, sang out as she swooped through the sunny dining room with a tray of hot biscuits. "These are fresh from the oven, and my daughter-in-law is right behind me with a fresh bowl of sausage gravy." "Good morning," Ava answered, setting her keys on a table by the large windows. Outside was a perfect view of the Dale River, sliding quietly by. "Everything smells delicious. I'm starving this morning!" "Well, dig in," Lenda instructed, making room for both younger women at the buffet. Emma Lynn set the hot bowl of sausage gravy down and retreated next to her mother-in-law. She was the shortest and youngest in the room, with blonde hair the same color as Lenda's, though less faded. Ava's long red hair was just starting to show some white. "How's the trip going?" Lenda asked Ava. "All right, I suppose. It's been a nice break; the weather has been great. I love the area. It's so pretty, and there's so much to do." "Didn't seem like it, growing up here," Emma Lynn mumbled to herself. "But?" Lenda prompted. Spoon of scrambled eggs in hand, Ava sighed. "No ghosts yet." "Aww, that's a shame," Lenda said. "You haven't met any of ours?" Emma Lynn asked, rearranging the bowls and spoons behind their guest. "No, and I'm staying in the Stern Room." "Oh yeah, Mrs. Stern is the most likely to show up of all our spirits," Emma Lynn piped up, ignoring Lenda's look; she preferred to call them Permanent Residents. "Where all have you been, sweetie?" Lenda asked. "I could maybe suggest some more spots." "Well," Ava settled herself at her table and spread the paper napkin over her knee. She was dressed for adventure in jeans, a turtleneck, and hiking boots. She liked to be prepared, even when it didn't pan out. "I went to the Blackwell Church graveyard like you had recommended. No ghosts, but I did talk to the sweetest old man. I think his name is Bell? He's the groundskeeper." "What is old Mr. Bell up to these days?" Lenda asked brightly. Emma Lynn shot her a look. "He told me all about his grandkids. They sound like a handful." Ava reached for a drink, only to realize she had none. "Emma Lynn, get Miz. Duncan an orange juice. She likes that. Oh my, those two fight like cats and dogs, but Terry would do anything for Jean. Good kids. They grew up with my late husband's youngest brother." "Thank you," Ava told Emma Lynn as she set a glass before her. "Really? The way he talked; they were just little." "Hmmmm. Where else have you been?" "Oh, down to the river. Dale Cove is supposed to have some good spots. I had heard evening was best, as the river tide causes the most deaths at that time." "Well, not too many people have died down there, not considering how many generations we've worked this river. But that is a good spot. The tide ain't the issue as much as the sirens. See anyone else there?" "Oh. Ok and, actually, yes. There was a young couple. I didn't talk to them for long. I think they were there to skinny dip," Ava laughed. "Although the water is so cold, I couldn't imagine." The scrambled eggs, bacon, and biscuits were gone, but the packet of jelly was only half-empty. Lenda brought her another biscuit and some more bacon. "Riverlands folks have quite a tolerance to cold water and cold weather. We're just built for it, I guess. Have you been to Blackwell Mill yet?" "Thank you. Oh yes! What a fun place. They aren't running the tube trips quite yet, brr. But they've started stringing fairy lights to get ready for the spring season. It's so pretty, I'm going to go back in the evening to really get the full effect. There's a nice dinner there, too." "You really should. It's quite a sight. Be sure you talk to old Mr. Brooks; he knows all the good stories." "I actually did meet him; he was the one that told me to go to the Cove. He said it's the most haunted place in the Riverlands." "Well," Lenda disagreed politely. "I don't know I'd go that far. Really, we have just as many here, and they're a bit more reliable." "I wish I'd see one," Ava sighed and stood. She gathered her plate and glass, which Lenda swooped in and relieved her of immediately. "I spoke to the woman in the room above mine. She said there's a spirit living in the Grant Estate House carriage shed. It can be temperamental, but causes real havoc when it shows itself." "She should know," Emma Lynn mumbled. Lenda gave her another look and handed her the dirty dishes. "Thank you for another lovely breakfast," Ava told them. "I'm heading over to, is it the Bottom? There's a haunted garden patch several people have mentioned." "Well, you're wearing the right shoes, sweetie. The Bottom is a bit boggy and will be, even though it's been dry. Mostly in the gardens, you gotta watch out for the Yonder-folk. They usually just spy and tattle, but every once in a while, they like a good prank." "Um, ok. I'll keep my eyes open. Have a great day!" Emma Lynn stood holding the dishes and watched Ava leave. She turned to Lenda. "Mama Lenda?" "Yeah, sweetie?" "Why are you messing with her like that? Poor woman come all this way just to see a ghost. Don't you reckon we oughtta tell her?" "No, no. Not yet, anyhow. Before she gets too disappointed, I 'spose." "Yeah. I mean, it wouldn't be much of a ghost trip without a ghost, after all." "Yeah, and she's talked to four now. I wanna see how many more she can rack up, accidental." *** **

That Tracks Two city-kids find some puzzling tracks in the snow. “Here’s some!” Mandy called to her brother from across the field. Her cheerful pink jacket stood out like a beacon. Long tendrils of natural curl peeked out from under the purple beanie with her cheer squad logo on it. Jalen joined her, standing over a patch of tiny lines in the melting snow. He flicked her hair. “Some kind of bird,” he noted. His close-cropped head was safe under his cap and hoodie, drawn up snug. “A tiny bird,” gushed Mandy, brushing him off and ignoring the annoyance. “They look so bitty compared to the ones that big black bird left.” They paused for a moment to listen as the enormous bird screamed from the pines near the road. As they stood there, two more soared in and joined him. The cacophony intensified, carrying through the clear air. Snow crumbled under their feet as they moved along, searching the ground carefully. “Look!” Mandy scurried ahead, standing over something larger, deeper in the white ground. “What do you think that is?” “Rabbit?” Jalen crossed his arms stubbornly, trying to sound bored. “They’re long, compared to the front paws.” He was as interested as her; he just didn’t want her knowing that. “Oh, you’re right!” Squealed Mandy. They had been looking forward to seeing wild animals. So far, birds and the cat from the cabin next to theirs were all they had seen. The surprise storm had led to exciting, new discoveries. Jalen looked a little further on. “What’s that?” “What?” Mandy’s head shot up from the (alleged) rabbit track. She followed Jalen to the edge of the clearing. “This is a lot bigger.” He pointed to the small but deep tracks. Peering down in, Mandy gasped. “Deer! Deer! I’ll bet it was a deer!” The black birds had quieted; they tuned up again at her shouting. But Jalen’s attention was already down the tree line. “There’s something.” Forgetting to sound bored, his long legs carried him ahead. Mandy hurried after, snow coming over the top of her tennis shoes. The field sloped down and funneled into a ditch and pipe. The pipe was plain cement, but someone had taken the trouble to pretty it up with a frame of river rock. Surrounding the ditch, coming from all directions, were hundreds of little tracks. “We hit the motherlode,” Mandy said reverently. Jalen laughed at her and she swatted his arm. “What? We never get to see wild stuff at home!” “We’ve got birds.” Jalen rolled his eyes. “Lots of birds.” “Pigeons are not wild,” she knelt to see what they had. “They would probably starve if no one threw them bread crumbs.” Ignoring her, Jalen continued. “Sparrows, blackbirds. Big ones like that, too,” he looked behind where the birds had increased in volume. Another flew in, settling in the tree above them. It screeched and cawed. Almost like it was talking to them. A flock of smaller birds took off in an annoyed flutter. Jalen frowned, but got distracted when Mandy said, “These look a lot like cat tracks.” “Like a mountain lion?” He teased. “No,” she glared. “Little cats. Like house cats.” She moved closer to the pipe. “They sure do like going in and out of there.” “Maybe it’s the country version of a box,” Jalen quipped, watching the bird in the tree. The tree branch was shaking as he flapped his wings, and behind them, the others called back at him. He opened his mouth to make a crack about the birds when Mandy stood. “Those are different.” Jalen followed her finger to a larger set of tracks. “Are those a person’s?” Leaning over, so as not to disturb any of the other tracks, Mandy brushed a curl from her face, shifting her beanie. “I don’t think so? They aren’t narrow enough. Bear?” She asked, hopeful. “Not round enough.” Pouting, Mandy glared again. “When did you become an expert? It could be.” “It’s all those pics of bear beans you’re always looking at. They have round feet.” Her face said she wanted to argue, but she couldn’t disagree. “Wait, the tracks go towards the pipe.” “Yeah.” Her eyes searched the ground. “I don’t see any leading away.” “What? Are you some kind of tracker now?” He flipped her hair again. “Cut it out, Jalen. Seriously, those tracks are big. They must belong to something big.” “So?” “So, wouldn’t it be too big to fit in the pipe? But the tracks only go towards it.” “I don’t know,” Jalen dismissed her, turning around. “Aren’t those birds freaking you out?” “I think they’re ravens,” Mandy said wisely. “I wish I had something to feed him.” “Whatever. They’re loud and annoying.” He shoved her shoulder, making her stumble over the tracks. “Just like you.” “Hey!” She yelled, dancing awkwardly to avoid trampling any tracks. “Quit it!” “I’m going,” he goaded her, looking up at the tree. The bird had quieted, waiting. “They’re starting to freak me out.” “Are you afraid of a bird?” Mandy teased, but followed him back across the field. “Don’t you watch horror movies?” “No. But I’m not afraid of a bird, either.” He shoved her again, then took off running. Her shout filled the air and Jalen realized the birds had stayed quiet. They ran almost the whole way back to the cabin. Mandy stopped at the neighbors to visit the cat, the same color as the birds. He sat on the railing and allowed her attentions. Bundles of feathers and sticks fluttered and twirled above. Jalen stood on the road as she petted and cooed. The neighbor came out on the porch. “How’s it going, young’uns?” The old man asked. He didn’t own the cabins, but he lived in one as part of his management arrangement. “Hi, Mr. Graywall,” Mandy scratched the cat behind the ears. Jalen could never remember the old man’s name, but he wasn’t surprised she knew. “We were out looking at animal tracks.” “Good day for it,” Mr. Graywall nodded. He shuffled to a rocker and sat stiffly. He managed the entire property, and everything got done in his own time. It had taken three days for him to come fix the drippy sink. But it worked better than ever when he was done. “They won’t last much longer; it’s got so warm.” “Hey, we saw some weird tracks. Do you have any idea what they belong to?” “Dunno. What’d they look like?” “I thought they were bear, at first,” Mandy said, as the cat lost interest and wandered off, sniffing along the railing. “But Jalen didn’t think so.” “We do got a lot of bear,” Mr. Graywall nodded wisely. Mandy shot Jalen a smug look. He rolled his eyes. “Where’d you find them?” “At the other end of the field, by the drainage pipe.” “Oh,” he said knowingly. “That’s just Hubert.” “Hubert?” Jalen asked. He and Mandy traded a confused look. “Yeah, was probably Hubert’s tracks you saw. He’s in and outta there, all times of day and night.” “Is Hubert a guy?” Jalen asked, confused. “Not really.” “What does he look like?” Mandy asked, after a glance at her brother. “We couldn’t tell from the tracks he left.” “Don’t imagine so, after all the melt. But I ain’t no help, sorry.” “But you’ve seen him?” Mandy pressed. “Naw, can’t say I have.” “Then how do you know?” “Oh, there’s plenty of sign when he’s around.” “Is there anyone else we could ask?” “I mean, sure. Don’t know that no one else has actually seen him, neither.” “If he’s around so much, how have you never even gotten a sighting?” Jalen finally broke in. Old Mr. Graywall fixed him with a look that made him squirm. “‘Cause we know better than to go looking, young man.” “The ravens weren’t thrilled about it.” Mandy said. “If the ravens get to squawking, you’d best be listening.” He shook a finger at them before rising creakily to his feet. “Why?” Mandy asked, finally nervous. “Ravens can be tricky, but they always know when something’s up. Usually best to err on the side of caution, and get going.” He disappeared back inside with a creak of his screen door. Before the inner door closed, they heard, “City folk can be a mite too curious for their own good.” The teenagers moved quietly towards their cabin, and Jalen whispered, “I told you so.” “Oh, stop it,” Mandy said, but matched his hushed tone. Then she added, “What do you think Hubert really is?” She thought about the pipe, with no footprints leading away. Jalen just shrugged, not wanting to admit he’d been afraid to ask further. They climbed the stairs to the porch. “I don’t know,” she said, as Jalen passed her to go inside. “With something like Hubert out there, I think I’d be a little more curious living here.” “I'm with the ravens on this one,” Jalen mumbled, and the screen door slammed, leaving Mandy alone on the porch. She shivered. The afternoon warmth was retreating and the bitter cold was creeping back in. Before she followed, Mandy looked back toward the field. Three ravens soared up out of the trees, flapping silently out of sight. The cat sat in the road, tail flicking, looking toward the field, long after the ravens were gone. “I wonder how they know?” Mandy asked no one and went into the warmth of the cabin. *** *

Flash Sale Electra Cobbles needs raven feathers. Casey Fitzpatrick’s ravens have feathers. Will it really be that easy? Electra Cobbles loved her cats. She had all kinds of them, big, small, fluffy, sleek, and seemed to always be accumulating more. It was as though word was out within the cat community, and everyone was showing up for a good thing. There was even a rumor she had a Gargoyle Cat skulking around, although that depended on one’s level of belief in such things. After all, everyone knew how antisocial Gargoyle cats were. While many cats lived inside the house, monopolizing the furniture, many embraced the illusion they were still wild and independent creatures. Wild and independent creatures served regular meals with a warm, dry, safe space to sleep. A space that happened to be Electra’s old VW that she kept out front with the doors and windows cracked. It was sheltered under the trees around her little cabin, which was equally run down, cozy, and slightly drippy in wet weather. In case anyone questioned whether the cats belonged in the car, it sported a rusty license plate reading, “kitn-kbdl”. When she wasn’t feeding, watering, relocating, petting, or otherwise catering to the furry beasts, Electra was out hunting feathers. (It should be noted: the cats were absolutely useless to her feather-hunting endeavors. They were far too lazy and well-fed to be chasing birds—and though they’d never admit it, too fat—therefore there should be no concern for the welfare of the local feathery population. The cats were more likely to be teased by a troublesome mockingbird.) Electra and her cats lived in Upper Lesser Stonebridge, back on the ridge in Little Downy Hollow. The forest was, unsurprisingly, full of birds of all sorts. Owls, mockingbirds, jays, ravens, songbirds, and the occasional hawk were constantly calling and fluttering about. And, of course, birds lose feathers all the time. Electra even had an affinity for finding them, always knowing exactly which trees to check behind or vines to sort through. She found old nests, molting grounds, even random ones in fields where songbirds went to flit and sing. Still, Matriarchs could go through a lot of feathers in their work, and there was a constant need for new, clean feathers. More than even Electra could collect in her old woven baskets as she foraged the woods. It just so happened that over the summer, there was a call for raven feathers. Electra had a small stash that she had collected when she’d been down to Blackwell for a cat-lovers festival. A whole flock of crows and ravens had turned up, as people were tossing them kitty treats to keep them out of the funnel cakes. Electra had been lucky enough to charm a few ravens into bringing her quite a lot of inky feathers. Well, charmed and bribed with the best bag of kitty treats she’d bought. She didn’t tell the cats when she got home. Still, one small basket of feathers would not meet the needs of the bouquet-makers when a call went out for charms to make people’s gardens resistant to a short drought. Aggressive stubbornness was needed, and a lot of it, for the plants to hang on with just what water the locals could dump on them by hand, until the next decent rain. Word went out for raven feathers, and Electra’s old landline began ringing. Luckily, one raven feather went a long way, but the need was growing. Electra decided to outsource, and she knew just where to find the feathers she needed. *** ** Casey Fitzpatrick stalked the yard again, scratching his sandy hair and red beard. “Usually, the ground is plum covered in feathers. I couldn’t tell you where they all got to.” The young man stood, hands on hips, looking displeased at his yard being neat for once. “Would be today. You can’t even buy one.” Electra, about two feet shorter than him and considerably more bent, had checked the usual spots. Under the trees, behind the buildings, and the bed of Casey’s old truck. She’s even foraged through the lush wisteria covering the trailer’s porch, which looked like a well-used, bird-sized hideaway. She skirted carefully around the bottle tree. She’d found a few jay and mockingbird feathers, even some robin, which she kept. But not a single raven. It was quite odd, considering the number of squawks and croaks coming from the rowan tree gracing the roundabout in his front yard. The rowan tree began shaking, the leaves trembling and waving. Casey scratched his beard again and stood beneath, looking upwards. Electra joined him. The commotion seemed to be centered on an upper branch, with a sizable nest perched on it. While they were looking, a single black feather dislodged and floated down to them. Electra watched the feather’s slow, downward path. The tree continued to shake as the ravens took wing and circled, filling the air with their aggressive carrying on. “I see what’s going on here,” Casey announced sternly. “Word’s done got out, I reckon. Y’all are hoping to cash in.” He waggled a large finger as a craggy old bird landed opposite the feather from Electra, cocking his head to eye her up. Electra was too old and wise to challenge him; she’d had too many scratches. He pecked at the bark of the tree, then grabbed the feather, and flew back up. Leaves rustled as the tree shook itself again. “Don’t you be mad at the tree,” Casey lectured, patting the bark soothingly. “It just don’t wanna be a party to your extortions. Shoulda known they were up to something,” he told Electra. “They want to trade the feathers?” She asked, sliding her wide-brimmed hat back to better focus her old, blue eyes on the nest. “Looks like they got a pile of feathers up there.” “They wanna be bribed for ‘em,” he clarified with a scowl. He reached down to rummage in his cargo shorts’ pockets. “I usually try and be prepared.” He held up a handful of lollipop wrappers, crinkling them enticingly. Not as much as a flutter came from the tree. “Fine,” he grumbled, reaching into another pocket. Electra looked up, counting no less than ten pairs of black eyes, glittering back. “How about these?” Casey brandished two handfuls of tinfoil balls. There was a slight stirring along the branches, but no takers. “Huh,” he said, thoughtful. From yet another pocket, he produced a single bright red rock. “I got more on the house,” he said, enticing. A younger bird shifted on the branch, honking, but was silenced by a look from the older bird. “Tough crowd,” Casey mumbled. “Reckon it’s time to pull out the box.” Curious as she was about the box, Electra was a little disappointed not to find out just what else Casey could produce from his pockets. In the honeysuckle-scented outbuilding, Casey rummaged around for a minute. Electra had a lot of stuff packed into her house, but even she wasn’t sure how he found anything in that clutter. Seeing her peering inside uncertainly, Casey assured her, “I got a system.” Well, that was alright then. The box was a plastic container with an ill-fitting lid. He pried it off and pulled out a box of crayons. “They like to draw?” “Some. I do give ‘em paint, time to time. Mostly they just like tearing the paper off and scattering it all over the yard.” He grimaced. “They eat ‘em, too.” He carried the whole box under the rowan tree. The branches creaked as the collected ravens peered down with interest. One fluttered down to inspect more closely. He quickly flapped back up after another honk from the older raven. Casey frowned again, but lifted the crayons back up. He opened the package and waved them. “Brand new, fresh pack of crayons,” he announced. Not a peep. Next came a plastic sandwich container filled with colorful snail shells. He shook it. Still nothing. “Yeah, didn’t think so,” he mumbled, digging further. There was a jangling as he emptied a bag of pennies into his hand. Shifting them back and forth, he called, “Fresh, shiny, and new!” The ravens all looked to the big one, who sat motionless. “Dang. They holding out for something specific.” Recovering the box, Casey sat thinking before heading back into the outbuilding. “Aha!” He shouted, reappearing with a blue kiddie wading pool. “Ain’t had this out for a month of Sundays.” Electra watched the bird’s keen interest in him running the hose from the house. When there was a couple of inches of water, the old bird soared down, perching on the edge of the pool. Casey grinned. It faded as the bird silently flew back to the tree. “What do y’all want?” He pleaded. “I know it won’t do no good to appeal to your better natures,” he added darkly, beginning to get a little cranky. Before the situation could turn ugly, Electra stepped in. “I might know. Saw just the thing outside the Peggy’s Pinch Grocery on my way over. Bet they saw it, too.” A little later, Electra commented, “What was that you said about not being able to buy a feather?” They laughed, counting their feathers, and watching the spectacle. Wiping water from his arm and shirt, Casey gathered the feathers and slid them aside. “I’ll get you a grocery bag from the house. Don’t want these getting all wet, on top of everything else today.” “What do I owe you?” “Oh no, you done plenty. I’ll have to keep that in the shed for emergencies. Let’s just hope it’s a long, long time before there’s another run on raven feathers.” They watched the birds take turns hopping up the steps of the plastic children’s slide and landing with a splash in the water. *** **

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