by Margaret Mendel
This is our first Halloween short story of the season! This one was written by a member of KRL staff, but soon you will be able to enjoy this year’s contest entries! Margaret has shared with us a fun related recipe at the end of this story.
Amy gripped the steering wheel. Her palms were sweaty. The driving wasn’t difficult. The destination was only a couple hours drive north of San Francisco, a pretty straight run up Highway 101. It was the excitement and anticipation of what was yet to come that made her palms sweaty.
Exiting onto a gravel road, she made a turn at a familiar rundown gas station. A few miles later, she took a little known turn-off onto a desolate back road that traveled deeper into the forest.
She looked in the rearview mirror. Jeff was still behind her in his beat up Chevy. She thought she’d lost him at one of the junctions. He caught up though and now only disappeared from time to time in the road dust her wheels kicked up.
At this point, she knew Jeff was most likely wondering what he’d gotten himself into. Though he acted like he’d won the lottery when he’d stumbled onto her bakery, The Crescent Moon, about a month ago. That day he was fallowing one of her waitresses coming in for the early morning breakfast crowd. Amy recognized his type right away, a sleazy bastard with no-good intentions. He was exactly what she was looking for. That first day he showed up, she gave him a free cup of coffee. The next visit, and she was sure he’d be back because she’d piqued his interest in sticking around with a free cinnamon roll. That was all she needed to do to keep him coming back. From that day on, he came around every day mooching off her generosity.
She looked down at the odometer. In exactly two miles, she’d turn off the old gravel road, maneuvering her Land Rover onto the deeply rutted driveway, just wide enough for her vehicle to negotiate.
When she turned off the road, Jeff slipped right in behind her.
Vines, scrub brush, and low-slung boughs of pine trees scratched against the side of her Land Rover. It was not the most comfortable part of the drive, though it was the most exciting. Her heart raced when she saw a quickly moving shadow skitter into the deeper forest. She’d been down this road more times than she could count. Though each visit turned out different, it was always rewarding.
Tonight, along with other goodies, she brought a bottle of expensive handcrafted California whiskey. If Jeff got a little edgy about the location, though she didn’t think he would, this would calm his nerves. Well, that and the dose of sleeping potion she whipped up and added to the bottle before packing a picnic dinner for them to eat at the campfire tonight.
The moon now hung above the trees, casting a soft silver light as they drove out into a field thick with weeds and tall grass. Their headlights streamed out into the open space. A dense forest encircled the field.
Jeff got out of his car. He walked to the driver’s side of Amy’s Land Rover. She opened the door, handed him the basket of food. “So, what do you think? This far enough off the grid for you?” “How’d you find this place?”
“Old friends of the family homesteaded here years ago.”
“You could do a lot of hollering up here,” Jeff said. “No one would hear a thing.”
Amy did not flinch. “I reckon,” she responded and then took the bottle of whisky out of the front seat. “There’s a load of dry wood in the back of my car. Why don’t you get a fire started?”
The night grew damp and chilly by the time Jeff got a roaring campfire going. A thick bank of fog slowly slipped over the trees. It slid down onto the open field, creeping toward them. The fog blotted out the promise of a beautiful moonlit night and the moon now hung in the night sky like a dull smear.
They set up their tents, Jeff’s a well-worn military type, while Amy’s tent was a bright yellow nylon, water repellent, an expensive item she’d recently purchased.
Amy opened the food basket. “How about a little dinner?”
The fog grew so heavy they could hear it falling like raindrops from the leaves in the surrounding forest. She handed Jeff a Brie sandwich on a croissant, a container of cucumber salad with sour cream dill dressing and a giant chocolate chip-oatmeal cookie, a cookie Amy’s bakery made famous years ago.
Amy uncorked the bottle of white wine then poured them each a glass.
Jeff took a large bite of his sandwich, downed a gulp of wine, and then said, “So, you’re pretty sure about harvesting mushrooms up here.”
“I’ve been doing it for years,” she said.
During the last month, Jeff had told Amy all she needed to know. He was perfect, a nomad, and a loner living off the grid. He made a meager wage following the mushroom season, first going in to Canada early in the spring, traveling down through Washington and Oregon in the middle of summer, ending up in California in late summer and early autumn.
It was what he had not told Amy about himself that most intrigued her. She sensed his wicked streak the moment she laid eyes on him. Her waitress picked up on it too.
The Amy knew there was more to him than his mushroom harvesting lifestyle. When he wasn’t drooling over her waitresses, she caught an evil glint in his eyes. There was an innate rage inside this guy that no kindness could ever wash away. There was a morally bad seed in him that she understood, a devilishness that she could live with, and an immorality that she had been searching for.
Amy kept him titillated with her tales of major secret mushroom harvest spots along the northern coastline of the Pacific Ocean. He swallowed her every word and now he was good and hooked. She knew the greedy son-of-a-gun would follow her anywhere.
“I didn’t want to say anything until now,” Amy said. She leaned over and hoisted up the bottle of whiskey. “Tomorrow is my birthday.”
“And it’s Halloween,” he said. “I’ll bet you had a lot of fun when you were young.”
“I still do,” Amy said. She opened the bottle of booze, poured a hefty two-finger portion, and handed it to Jeff.“You’re going to help me celebrate this year.”
“My pleasure,” he said. He took a big swallow, not waiting for Amy to pour a glass for herself. He then hoisted the half-empty glass, “Happy Birthday, Amy, and here’s to trick-or-treating!”
Amy did not pour herself a glass. She secured the lid on the bottle, set it behind her. There was a slight rustling of leaves in the trees near where they were camped. Amy sat perfectly still, the excitement nearly more than she could stand.
Jeff drank the remainder of the whiskey in his glass. He yawned, stretched, and rubbed his hands together. “I am way too tired to do any more talking.”
“See you in the morning,” she said.
It sounded like Jeff tried to respond, though all he managed was a mumbling as he crawled off to his tent. The last Amy saw of him was the tip of a couple fingers when he zipped the tent flap closed.
The clean up was nothing more than tossing the biodegradable packaging into the fire. Amy crawled into her tent. She waited. Her hair was wet from the fog. She snuggled her icy cold fingers under her armpits. She hadn’t expected to fall asleep and she had no idea what time it was when she awoke and heard something scratch on the other side of the tent near her head. She opened her eyes. It was so dark she could not figure out if her eyes were still closed. At first, she thought she might not be awake and that she was dreaming.
Something brushed against the tent again. The pulse in Amy’s neck beat fiercely. She lay frozen in ecstasy. They were here. They had come. Footsteps circled the tent. The shrill sound of a bird, or perhaps an animal, she could not tell which, called in the distance. Then everything went silent, and she heard footsteps running back into the forest.
Jeff was sitting on a log when Amy crawled out of her tent in the morning. A pot of coffee bubbled on the open blaze.
“Morning sleepy head,” he said.
Amy nodded. She stretched and squatted near the fire. “I don’t eat breakfast,” she said.
“No problem. Coffee’s enough. I’m pretty anxious to see that mushroom field you told me about.”
They drank their coffees in silence while the morning fog slowly evaporated. As streaks of sunlight stabbed out through the mist, the temperature warmed. The musky aroma of dry weeds and grass filled the air. A hawk flew overhead. Insects coming to life after the cold, wet night, buzzed near where Amy stood.
“I want to show you something before we start the gathering,” Amy said. “There’s a small cemetery on this property. It’s been here quite some time. You can hardly see the names carved on the head stones.”
Jeff followed Amy as she slogged through the dense weeds making a pathway for them to walk. She pointed. “There. See?”
The headstones slipping sideways in the ground were badly pitted and weatherworn. So overgrown with weeds and vines that the little graveyard would have gone unnoticed had Amy not pointed to it. A small brown bird flitted across the field, sat atop one of the gravestones, nervously fluttering its wings, and then flew away.
“Your folks?” Jeff asked.
Amy smiled. She heard the crackle of weeds as the sun dried the dew from the brittle stocks.
“It’s sure old looking,” Jeff said. “I wonder if anyone remembers them?”
Amy turned. She walked toward the woods. “I do,” she whispered. A warm swath of sun grazed the back of her neck as she took one step, then another, moving slowly, cautiously out of the sunlight, and into the damp darkness of the forest.
“How far do we have to go,” Jeff asked.
“A little ways. It’s not far.”
Amy brushed aside some undergrowth, stepped over gnarled roots sticking out of the ground, picking up her pace as she neared where the mushrooms were always in bloom.
“I know some people who’d give their eyeteeth to know about this place,” she said. “It’s just enough off Salt Point Reserve, where everyone clambers to get their allotment of wild mushrooms, that no one would think to come here. But I’ve been here a couple times already this year. There’s going to be a bumper crop. Trust me.”
In a short while, they arrived in an area where the trees thinned out. The ground was covered with ripe heads of mushrooms. The forest was deathly quiet, no bird songs, no sounds of insects, and there was no whispering breeze blowing in the tops of the trees. Amy knew that Jeff paid no attention to this. His only concern now was the harvesting of mushrooms.
“Told you,” Amy said. “With what people pay for these babies in the Bay Area, you’ll make a killing with this location.”
Jeff wasted no time. He took out his harvesting knife and began to gather the mushrooms. He called out to Amy, “They’re perfect, ideal for the restaurant trade. From the looks of the way they’re growing, there’ll be even more to come in the next month, hopefully before the colder weather sets in.”
They had filled several baskets with the luscious beauties when the sky grew dark. Amy heard the nearly imperceptible soft crunch of footsteps on the forest floor.
Feathery plumes of fog drifted down from the tops of the trees.
Jeff looked up from his harvesting. “I hear something,” he said. “Someone’s singing.”
“I don’t hear anything,” Amy said. She turned her back to Jeff. She heard the singing. She knew the time was near.
Fog slide down from the tree tops in thick sheets, blurring the forest.
“I don’t freak out easily,” Jeff said. “But, this place is giving me the creeps. I thought I saw someone dancing around that tree over there.”
Amy didn’t say anything. She didn’t move.
Thunder rolled off the Pacific Ocean. Lightening cracked overhead. The large figure of a man stepped from behind a tree. “Who the hell are you?” Jeff snarled. He dropped the basket. Mushrooms scattered across the forest floor. He pointed his harvesting knife at the man. “What do you want?”
Jeff looked at Amy.
She smiled. “It’s okay. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Fog swirled through the trees. Amy’s eyes turned as black as coal. She opened her mouth. She chanted words from an ancient language.
Jeff ran, first in one direction and then in another. He was surrounded by shadowy figures emerging from behind the trees, slipping out of the fog, moving closer and closer toward him, and each one with empty eye sockets blindly looking at him. They kept coming, their faces emotionless and haunted. Jeff stood his ground. He lunged his knife at first one shadow and then another. They closed in on him. Amy’s chanting grew louder. Jeff’s arms went limp. They fell to his side. He dropped the knife. His body slumped to the ground.
The sky grew dark as midnight. The earth beneath Amy’s feet rumbled. A bolt of lightning struck the ground near where Jeff lay.
Amy knelt down. She touched Jeff’s temples. The pulse was young, strong, and healthy. Amy had made this transition many times. The ancestors would help with conversion as they always did. The old baker’s body was worn out. She suffered from human disease; the seeds of cancer grew in her gut. The body needed to be replaced.
Jeff’s eyes fluttered open, though he could not see. His vision had been taken away. He would remember nothing. His mind would become, as Amy the baker’s mind had been, a useless aspect of the psyche, a withered appendage no longer needed. His mind would remain dormant while his body became the instrument of a spiritual world he knew nothing about. In the end, he would get his mind back, though only when the body was discarded in his old age.
Amy had slipped into many bodies in the time since she had come into existence. There were never excuses or questions why things were the way they were. Thunder rumbled overhead. Lightening lit the sky. She placed her hand on Jeff’s chest. His heart was strong. There was no turning back. The ground rose up. The ancestors chanted.
Amy took Jeff’s face into her hands; she cradled him to her bosom. “I will be you,” she said. “Though you will not be me.” How many times had she said this to a host who would receive her spirit? She, and her ancestors, who had been released through a gaping crack in the crust of the earth deep in the woods, was united in their effort to join the world. They were entities without bodies, hungry to live. On Halloween, a time when the unthinkable was possible, they floated up from the darkest reaches from inside the earth, from a place that had trapped them before the creation when the universe was still a gaseous mass, drifting wild and angry.
The ancestors lifted Jeff’s limp body to a standing position. They leaned him against a giant tree. Still in Amy’s body the spirit stood in front of Jeff. There would be no transition without the ancestors; together they pulled the energy from the earth. The ground hissed; steam seeped up through the forest floor, a primal gas, and a vapor smelling of sulfur filled the air.
The spirit could feel the dizzying sensation of the changeover. The transition from one body to another was always slightly jarring. Though it had happened so many times that each change amounted to not much more than the blink of an eye. Time was irrelevant. For all the sprit knew it could have taken eons to make the switch. Though one thing was certain, this was the only plot of land that made this transitions possible. In this hidden spot the spirits became the unruly, raw universe, only here did they have the power to make life new again.
The spirit loosened itself from the old baker’s body. The ground snapped with an electrical charge. Condensation poured down from the dew-drenched trees. A trembling hand of Amy’s tired, cancer-ridden body reached out; touched Jeff’s chest. His body went rigid. Air rushed into his lungs as though he had been holding his breath. The baker’s knees buckled under her. She slumped to the ground, falling into a deep peaceful sleep.
Jeff opened his eyes. He looked down at Amy lying on the ground.
The spirit remembered luring Amy to this spot with stories of great patches of mushroom and blackberry harvests. The baker was young and vital all those years ago. She had been a good host, though the energy had trickled out of her. Now it was dull and uneventful. The spirit needed a new body, someone vigorous, and someone with wild surging energy. The spirit needed a life force that was strong.
Jeff took a deep breath. He picked up the car keys that had fallen from his trouser pocket. He walked out of the woods, gathered up his camping gear and slipped into the worn seat of his old Chevy. The engine started right away. The spirit would now exist in this body for as long as the flesh would hold to the bones.
Amy got up from the ground. She thought she must have blacked out. Thankfully, she hadn’t hurt herself when she fell. Her joints ached in this damp, foggy weather. Her gripping belly wasn’t feeling so good either. She looked at the mushrooms scattered on the ground around her. Gathering them up, she thought about all the yummy things she could make with them. Perhaps an autumn mushroom pie would be an interesting dish to serve in the bakery. A little savory would be a welcomed change.
She couldn’t remember how she’d found this desolate place, though instinctively she figured the way back to San Francisco. It was a shame that she chose Halloween to take this long trip because she so enjoyed giving out cookies to the trick-or-treaters. The trip was a good one after all, because she was right; the mushroom pies were a big success.
After the mushroom excursion, Amy just didn’t feel like herself. In fact, since she’d returned with the mushrooms, nothing seemed right. She couldn’t remember where she’d put things and had to ask the waitresses every time she needed something. It was as if she had to relearn the old bakery. She couldn’t figure out what in the hell was wrong. Most of all she couldn’t believe how old she’d gotten. She didn’t even recognize herself when she looked in the mirror. “I guess that’s what happens when you get old,” she told a customer early one morning. “The geriatrics catches up with you when you’re not looking.”
The business was as good as ever. Some customers seemed to be addicted to her chocolate chip cookies. They could never keep enough on the shelves. The autumn mushroom pies were a big success. Though try as hard as she could, the directions back to that lovely mushroom grove totally alluded her.
Several weeks later, a waitress brought in a newspaper. “Looks like that guy you kept giving coffee to a while back is wanted for attacking women.” She handed the paper to Amy.
Amy looked down at the sketchy drawing of a man on the front page. “Never saw him before in my life,” Amy said.
The waitress gave Amy a funny look. “You’re kidding, right? Well, I remember him,” the waitress said. “He was always hitting on me. The guy gave me the creeps. Don’t know why you were so good to him. I’m just glad he doesn’t show up here any more.”
Amy glanced through the long article about this man named Jeffery Brooks, wanted for multiple attacks on women, mostly in the Pacific Northwest. A drifter, he was suspected of perhaps not only attacking woman, but of killing several young females. It seems he’d spent some time in the Bay Area and one of the women he accosted in the Mission District got away. She gave a pretty good description to the police. Amy had no idea what the young waitress was talking about. From the look in that guy’s eyes, Amy wouldn’t have given him the time of day, let alone, dish out free coffee. He certainly looked like trouble.
Several days later it was all over the news. Jeffery Brooks had been apprehended in a campground in northern California. The police found weapons, traces of human blood on the back seat, crates of fresh picked mushrooms, and a bottle of whisky with a hefty portion of a sleeping powder.
The waitress showed Amy the article. “It was that guy, Jeff. I tried to tell you he was no good. Looks like he’s going to be locked up for a very long time.”
Amy gazed down at the photo in the newspaper of the wild-eyed, angry young man as he was being apprehended. Her hand twitched. For an instant, her mind went blank. There is no death penalty in California, so she knew that if this guy was found guilty, he was most likely going to be locked up for life.
She didn’t know how to explain it, though something strange about this man kept gnawing at the back of her brain. It might have been the mention of the mushrooms in the article. A shiver crawled up her back when she thought about the traces of human blood in the back seat. Though there was so little time to worry over other peoples’ lives. Her life, though she couldn’t explain it, certainly felt like it was getting shorter each day.
The timer on the oven went off in the back room. Amy stood up. The cookies were ready to come out. She sighed, looked down one last time at the picture of the desperate young man on the front page, then folding the newspaper she mumbled, “Poor devil.”
Witchy Chocolate Chip Delights
1¼ cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup quick cooking oatmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup butter
1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
¾ cup nuts, coarsely chopped
6 ounces chocolate chips
Grease cookie sheet…heat oven to —375 F…. Baking time—12 minutes.
Sift flour with baking powder. Mix the oatmeal into the flour.
Cream butter and sugar together until they become light and fluffy. Add eggs and beat vigorously.
Combine flour mixture, creamed butter, nuts and chocolate chips. Mix well until everything is just combined.
Drop by teaspoonful onto greased cookie sheet.
Remove immediately from hot pan after baking.
Makes 5-dozen cookies.
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