Coal Ridge, July 1963
The kiddie pool at Wooddale Park, affectionately referred to as the Duck Pond, was filled with water and children. Those not in the pool were in the enormous sandbox, playing on the swings, spinning on the multicolored merry-go-round, climbing on the monkey bars, or going down the brand-new slide. There were plenty of things to do, and Coal Ridge hired teenagers as Park Aides to keep an eye on the kids and keep it clean.
Gracie Johnson was one of those aides.
“I don't know how you do it every year,” Francine Martin asked, the gum in her mouth snapping as she stared at the chaos.
A smile crossed her friend's face. “It's fun.”
“Four minutes of this would have me running away screaming.” She shook her head. “Four years. You must be crazy.”
“Um, hum,” Gracie muttered, looking past the kids pushing the merry-go-round and at the little girl in the white dress sitting on the opposite hillock by herself. Most kids who sat over there watched the workers building the replacement concrete bridge that linked the park to the pavilion, but this one was watching the other kids.
“...skating rink in Heaton?”
“I was asking if you were going skating Friday night,” Francine said, putting her hands on her hips, “but apparently you can't be bothered to listen.”
“I'm so sorry Francie,” she said, offering a smile, “I haven't asked my dad yet, but I'm sure he'll let me go skating.”
“That's good, cause you-know-who is going to be there.” The girl plucked the gum out of her mouth and dropped it on the ground. “I hear he’s sweet on you.”
The smile faltered a bit. “I don't know why you refuse to say his name. Tommy McDonald is a nice boy, but I'm not sure he's the one for me.”
“Why not, he's cute?”
“Yeah, but he's not very bright.”
“I don't see how that matters.” Francie pulled another piece of gum out of her purse, unwrapped it, and stuck it in her mouth.
“Then you should date him,” Gracie replied, taking her friend's hand before she could drop the wrapper. “Please throw it in the can,” she said, nodding to the big red barrel three feet away. She started towards the hillock. “And pick up that gum, before someone steps on it.”
“You really are too much,” Francie called after her, before using the empty wrapper to pick up the gum and throw it away.
Wading through chaos of the playground with an effortless smile, she greeted most of the kids and parents by name. This was her turf, she recognized nearly everyone who came to the park, though she’d never seen that little girl in the white dress before. Gracie wondered if her family was new to Coal Ridge. With the strange things that had been happening in the three years since the Birding Fire, it seemed like more families had left than come.
“Ms. Gracie, make him stop!”
Pulling her gaze away from the hillock, she turned to the kids on the merry-go-round. “George Bradley!” she scolded, putting her hands on her hips, “You know better than to climb over the rail while that merry-go-round is spinning. You'll crack your head open!”
“But...” he started to protest, and then nodded, returning to his seat. “Yes ma’am.”
After he was seated, she offered the spinning children a big grin and then gave the merry-go-round a good push, eliciting excited squeals. When she turned back to the hillock, the little girl in the white dress was gone.
“Darn it,” she mumbled to herself, beginning to look around.
The deep voice belonged to Mr. Andrews, a town councilman with his sights on the office of Mayor. Taking a deep breath, she managed a wide smile when she turned that few could guess was not genuine. “How are you today Mr. Andrews?” Without waiting for an answer, she continued. “It's so great to see you take time out of your busy day to stop by the park. As you can see we have a great turnout.”
“Yes, yes,” he said, waving her words away. “I understand from my daughter that you are familiar with Tommy McDonald.”
Jennifer Andrews was an unkind gossip who rarely had the facts straight, but that didn't stop her jaw from working. “He's in a couple of my classes,” she replied, “but I'm not really familiar with him.”
“Really? I hear he's claimed you as his girl and told the other fellas to stay away. That sounds familiar to me.”
“That’s not true,” she said, shaking her head, “Tommy’s not...”
“Now, now. Your familiarity with the McDonald boy is not my concern, I’ll leave that worry for your father.” The way he said familiarity made her feel dirty. “I want you to ask Tommy about his father.”
“Sir, I don't really...”
Again, speaking over her, he continued. “There have been rumors that Hank is engaging in some...concerning activities and might be the one behind the strange things that have been happening in our quiet little town.”
“I'm not...” she started, desperate to explain that they were just classmates and that Tommy certainly wasn’t the kind of boy who would tell people they were going steady when they weren’t, but Mr. Andrews wouldn't let her speak.
“I already know that Hank took the early retirement option that Shannen Coal was offering and that he's started working as a night janitor at the big library in Heaton, so don't bother with any of that.” He pushed a stray piece of black hair back into its greasy place. “I want to know what he does at home. I'm sure Tommy has an idea as to what his father is doing. Just a few questions should be enough.”
“Mr. Andrews,” she said, putting some force into her words, “I’m not...”
“I understand you enjoy working here, Ms. Johnson, this is what three years for you?”
“This is my fourth, sir.”
“I'm certain plenty of young ladies would be appreciative of this opportunity.”
The wide smile that had fallen off her features returned with an effort. “Yes, sir.” Though he hadn't come out and said it, his meaning couldn't have been clearer. Whether or not she was interested in Tommy McDonald she was going to have to talk to him about his dad, and the best way to do that was going to be through Francie.
* * *
The Amber Valley Roller Rink was popular among teens from many small towns in the area. On Friday nights through the weekend, lockers were difficult to come by, skate racks were empty, and the rink was crowded with skaters. One of the best things about it was that they played music that you didn't hear a lot on the radio, and they played it loud--The Kingsmen, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and The Ronettes to name but a few. Ironically, it was for that last reason that Gracie had lied about her father allowing her to go skating that evening.
“I can't believe you want to go to the park,” Francie grumbled as they walked down Sixth Street towards Buckeye Drive, her gum snapping louder than normal. “Don't you ever get tired of being there?”
The sun was going down, it would be about an hour before the 9:15 whistle sounded at the coal breaker plant and her father would expect her home by 9:30. Gracie hoped it would be enough time to get the information she needed for Mr. Andrews. “You're the one who said that I should get to know Tommy,” she offered with a smile. “It will be nice and quiet, so we can talk.”
“I didn't mean to talk to him,” she said rolling her eyes, and then grinned, “I meant that you should get to KNOW him.”
“I know what you meant,” Gracie replied with the same patient smile she often showed the kids at the park, “but I want to get to know him before I get to KNOW him.”
Francie shook her head. “You are too much, Gracie Johnson.”
As they crossed Buckeye Drive and started for Hemlock Drive, Gracie noticed a light on in the city building. She wondered if Mr. Andrews was still in there, watching from his window since that gossip bag Jennifer had no doubt heard about this date and already told her dad. The fact that she had to do this at all was enraging, but unless she wanted to lose her last summer at the park, she had little choice.
“...going to be there with Tommy,” Francie was saying.
“I was saying that Donnie is going to be there with Tommy.” Her gum snapped again. “You have a real problem paying attention lately, do you know that?”
“I'm sorry, I was just thinking about what I was going to say to him.”
“I don't think he cares what you're going to say,” Francie said, mimicking the patient smile she’d offered earlier. “He already likes you.”
At the corner of Sixth Street and Hemlock Drive, the two girls crossed diagonally to the sidewalk that ran past the park. The two boys were up ahead on the swings, going so high that the chains would lose their tension and snap when they came back down.
“They’re going to break the swings,” Gracie snapped, her brow furled.
“Don't be such a prude, they're just boys being boys. They're not hurting anyone.”
“I know you don't care about anything but making out, Francie, but I do.” She didn't have to see the hurt look on her friend's face to regret the words that fell out of her mouth. “I'm so sorry, Francie, I'm just...nervous.” That was dishonest; she resented being bullied into this situation and had not realized how angry she was about it until just that moment.
“Don't worry about it,” Francie replied, snapping her gum, but her tone was cool, and she began to walk a little faster.
Gracie started to apologize again but became distracted when she saw someone moving down by the Duck Pond, or at least she thought she had seen someone. There weren't a lot of places to hide by the big security light and no one was there. When she turned back, Francie was waving to the two boys. She hoped that her friend would forgive her and that this would just be one of those things that passed between them without causing a lot of unnecessary drama.
The boys had stopped swinging and were walking towards them. Tommy was running his hands through his hair and looking down at the grass, while Donnie strode right up to Francie, picked her up in a big hug, and spun her around; it left the other two feeling awkward.
“Hi Tommy.” Gracie tried to put on her best smile, but his gaze was still directed down at the grass, and he a mumbled something. “I'm glad you could come out tonight."
“Well it looks like you two are off to a great start,” Francie said, snapping her gum and taking her boyfriend's hand. “We're going to go find someplace a little more private.”
Gracie took her other hand and whispered, “What are you doing?”
“Oh, I don't care about anything but making out, remember,” she whispered back, punctuating the words with another snap of her gum before dropping Gracie's hand and turning her smile to Donnie. “Let's go.” The harsh words apparently weren't going to be something they could just forget.
By the look on Tommy's face, it seemed that he was just as uncomfortable about being abandoned by his friend as she. When he turned back to her, his eyes went right back down to the grass again.
Seeing enough shy kids over the past four years, she put on her most friendly smile and sat down on the grass in front of him, putting herself directly into his line of sight. “How do you like Mr. William's health class,” she asked, looking for something comfortable to get him talking.
“It's okay,” he replied, shrugging his shoulders.
“Francie says that you're going to be our starting running back this year.”
“That must be fun,” she replied. “So, you'll be the one who runs the ball?”
“Sometimes, but mostly I'll just lead block for Jake, he's, um, our tailback.” Everyone knew Jake Miller, he was the local superstar athlete and grandson to a World War II hero that Coal Ridge had honored with a memorial in the back corner of the park.
They fell into silence again. This wasn't working. “Why don't you sit down here with me,” she suggested, patting the ground in front of her. After shuffling his feet for a moment, he sat down hard on the grass. Once again, his eyes dropped to the ground. “So, what do you do for fun?”
Tommy shrugged. “Football.”
Of course. “Do you do anything fun with your par--,” she'd almost forgotten that his mother had been one of those killed in the Birding Fire, and quickly corrected herself, “...your dad?”
“It's okay,” he said, meeting her gaze for the first time, “She died three years ago. My dad tries; he's distracted a lot, but he watches out for me.” He looked away. “Sometimes too much, but it's his way.”
“At least you know he cares, Francie's dad barely acknowledges her, but her mom's really nice.” Tommy winced; noting it and feeling stupid for saying it, she continued quickly. “My dad likes to fish. He has this special rod and reel that no one else is allowed to touch. I moved it once when I was cleaning the basement and he grounded me for three days.”
Tommy laughed; happiness looked good on him. “My dad has books I'm not allowed to touch. Strange ones written in different languages. And he's started buying little medallions and a lot of salt.”
A scream startled them both, Gracie knew immediately who had made it. “Francie!”
Tommy was on his feet in a blur of motion; she'd never seen anyone move that fast. After accepting a helping hand up, they started in the direction of the screams at a jog. As they moved towards the Duck Pond, the big security light over the rec center blinked off and Francie stopped mid-scream. The silence left behind was unnerving.
Tommy pulled her to a stop next to the trashcan by the big sandbox. “Wait.”
“Why?” she asked, looking around for her friend.
“I think there's something by the wall over there.”
Gracie looked up at him. “What do you mean something?” As the light came slowly back on, the shadows were beginning to fade. When one of the shadows moved, they both took a step back. “Oh, that's what you mean.”
Tommy put himself between her and the shadow as it moved towards them. Its movements were patient and measured, with its shape seeming to morph as it approached. As it passed into the light, Gracie saw that it had a huge mouth on a long neck, surrounded by long quills that moved in waves. The creature was utterly silent. They both took another step back. Three limbs ending in hooked claws reached for them.
Gracie wasn't sure why they weren't running. It seemed like they should be running, but the fog over her mind barely let her think. Risking a glance at Tommy, she saw that the look on his face was utterly vacant. When she looked back, one of the clawed hands hung in front of her face, the hooks wiggling like little tentacles. She opened her mouth to scream.
“Get back!” a powerful voice commanded from behind. The air was filled with a cloud of tiny white flakes, and the creature shrank backwards. Another cloud rained down around them, and it moved further away. Gracie blinked the fog out of her mind and realized that the cloud was salt. Tommy was still standing there so she grabbed his hand and tugged him back. Behind them was a man wearing gray colored pants and a shirt, with the name Hank stitched over his heart. The air around him flapped like a torn sheet. He held an empty leather pouch awkwardly in one hand, while the other reached into a green canvas bag at his feet that looked like something a soldier would carry.
When he looked up, the expression on his face moved from concentration to surprise. “Tommy?”
The distraction was momentary, but it was enough. One of the claws grabbed Tommy and ripped him backwards, his hand slipping out of her grasp. The old man screamed; pulling Gracie past him, he leapt after the creature.
After stumbling and falling over the green pack, Gracie found herself on the ground in a circle of salt. Francie lay on the ground next to her whimpering, with Donnie cradling her head in his lap; he was staring at her with wide eyes but didn't say anything. When she looked up, the gash she'd seen on the other side was much more pronounced. It looked like a ragged black wound in the air. There was a second circle beneath it, the symbols looked much more ornate than the one surrounding her, and the green soldier pack was on its side, part in the circle and part inside the gash.
Standing up, she took a step forward. Donnie shouted something from behind, but his voice dissipated as she moved inside.
“...go of him you bastard!” The man had one of Tommy's hands and was tugging at him violently; half of the boy was engulfed in shadow.
Gracie bent down and set the pack up; inside she saw several more of those leather pouches. Reaching her hand in, she pulled one out and tried to open the flap. It seemed stuck; looking down at it she realized that the snaps had to be released to open the flap. When she looked back up, the shadows had completed engulfed Tommy and was creeping up Hank's arms. Tears streamed down the man's face as he struggled in vain to free his son.
Moving to Hank, she pulled a handful of salt out of the pouch and threw it at the creature. While it shrank back a little, it was not enough for her to even see Tommy.
“All of it!” Hank directed, his face contorted in a painful grimace. “Hold the bottom of the bag and...”
A tentacle reached out from the shadow and slapped down on Gracie, knocking her to the ground and leaving her with a bloodied nose. The bag of salt fell just out of reach. Wiping the blood away from her nose, she looked down to see that the tentacle had begun to swallow her legs like a snake. With her mind going numb, she clawed at the grass to get closer to the bag, but it was too far away, and the shadow was unrelenting. Looking up she could see the darkness once again working its way up Hank’s arms.
The man looked down at her, an expression of painful resignation writ across his face. “You did your best, thank you.”
Setting her jaw, Gracie struggled through the fog and stretched until she thought her shoulder would pop out of the socket. She was just inches away when something on the edge of her vision caught her attention. It was the little girl in the white dress; she was crouched behind the edge of the sandbox. They made eye contact. “Marjorie,” the name fell out of Gracie's mouth, it was a name she couldn't possibly know, but she had no doubt that it belonged to the little girl. Marjorie’s eyes darted to the shadow; there was a look of terror writ across her face that Gracie fully understood. She motioned for the little girl to stay where she was as she again stretched for the leather bag; her reach came up only inches short.
With her legs going numb, she glanced over at Hank. He was almost completely engulfed in shadow. A tear rolled down her face as she watched his shoulders slump in defeat.
The bag of salt dropped into her hand.
Gracie looked up at the little girl in the white dress; her bottom lip was shaking as she shrunk away towards the bridge.
The shadow was moving like a snake and it was up to her waist. Opening the flap, she sat up as far as possible and threw the pouch as hard as she could at Hank. It struck the shadow and exploded into a cloud. When the creature retreated to the wall, Tommy collapsed, and Hank dropped to a knee. Free of it, but having no feeling in her legs, Gracie shouted. “We have to go,” and turned over, clawing at the ground to drag herself towards the gash. She was almost there when a strong hand grasped her shoulder and lifted her up. Hank had his son over one shoulder and was supporting her with the other hand.
Together, they went through.
Once everyone was safely on the other side, Hank grabbed the pack and broke the circle around it; the gash dissipated immediately. In the quiet that followed, Gracie exclaimed, “What the hell?”
“That's no language for a lady,” Hank replied, moving to his son. In the security light she could see soot covering his face and one ear.
“I'm serious, Mr. McDonald,” she wiped at her nose again, her hand coming away bloody, “what the hell just happened, and where's Marjorie?”
His head snapped around. “What?”
“The little girl in the white dress, Marjorie, is she still in there?”
His eyes dropped to the ground. “Yes.”
“You can't leave her in there with that...that, thing.”
That same look of painful resignation crossed his face; he couldn't meet her gaze. “There's nothing I can do for her.”
Tommy coughed. When Gracie looked around she saw that everyone's eyes were on her, but she didn't care.
Hank looked up, his brow furled. “You have no idea what you're dealing with here little girl.”
“Maybe, but I just saved you and Tommy, so I think you owe me some answers.”
Hank took a deep breath, releasing it slowly. “Okay, but once you know this, you can't un-know it.” He looked at each of them. “Anyone who just wants to forget all this and go home should leave now.”
Francie pushed herself up. “I'm out.” She looked over to Gracie who shook her head, and then turned to Donnie. “Are you going to be a gentleman and walk me home?”
The boy nodded vigorously. “Tommy?” His friend also shook his head. “Okay sweets let's go.”
As they walked away, with Francie holding onto her boyfriend's arm, they could hear her say, “I’ve never liked this stupid park.”
Hank pulled his son up, Gracie could see that the boy was completely soot stained. “Wait,” she said, her brow knit, “I want to know what's going on.”
“Not here,” he said, picking up his pack. “My truck is on the next block. I need to get him some food and water; it probably wouldn’t hurt for you to have something too.”
* * *
Ten minutes later the three of them were sitting at turquoise green Formica table that didn't match anything else in the kitchen. The house was sparsely filled with mismatched furniture and had a single-family picture on the wall that included Tommy, Hank, and his mom; the three of them were smiling and looked happy. An open jar of peanut butter and loaf of bread sat on the table. Hank finished opening three bottles of pop and set them in a group on the table.
Tommy was already on his second sandwich. Gracie was sitting there dabbing at her nose with a rag, acutely aware that this was exactly the type of situation her parents had warned her to avoid. She'd never imagined herself willingly entering a stranger’s house all alone, yet here she was.
“I know it's not much,” Hank said gesturing around, “but we lost everything in the fire; not as much as some but more than others.” He glanced towards the picture on the living room wall which could just be seen from the table in the kitchen. “Are you sure you want to hear this.”
“I want to know why there's nothing you can do for Marjorie when it's obvious you can do a lot.”
He shook his head. “Not as much as you seem to think.” He grabbed one of the bottles off the table and took a drink; Gracie noticed that the soot color had mostly faded from his features. After a drink, he began. “Everything started with that damn fire, but that's something else, this is Marjorie's story. I'm sure you've heard of the Salt Springs Slasher.” Gracie nodded. “They caught him a little over two years ago when he crashed his car into the Rexall Drug store in McMahon; you wouldn’t think that has anything to do with our little town, right?” Not knowing for sure, she shrugged. “Well it turns out that he had been using the railroad service roads down by the Amber River, taking his victims into the woods behind our park where he would...do his thing and kill them.”
He took another drink. “The night he got caught, he claimed that he had a little girl down in the woods behind the park when the devil came for him. He confessed to everything, admitting to the police who he'd killed and showed them where all the bodies where, but even though he said she wasn’t dead when he ran away, they never found that little girl. Marjorie Linton.”
Tommy set the rest of his sandwich down and pushed the plate away.
“The day she disappeared, she was wearing a white dress.” Hank turned away from them, going to the fridge. None of them said anything into the silence that followed until Hank returned to the table.
“But I saw her,” Gracie finally said. “I saw her in the park three days ago. And she just helped us in that, that place.”
“You're right, she is in there; my best guess is that she’d died as the creature drew her in, so it couldn’t eat her, and now she's trapped. I don't have any good answers; hell, I don't have anything but guesses. I've been reading everything I can find to try to figure it out, you know like the occult and mythology and things like that, but the subject matter is kind of limited.”
“If she's dead, how did I see her? How did she put that pouch in my hand?” She pointed at Hank. “By the way, those pouches are way too hard to open, you need something easier, like with a draw string or something.”
Hank offered her a smile. “Noted. As for Marjorie, people around town have been claiming to see her for the last two years. I think you might be sensitive to the supernatural. Some of the stuff that I've been reading talks about things like that, but it's mostly about psychics, so I'm not sure how reliable it is.”
“This is so Mickey Mouse, Dad,” Tommy exclaimed. “What you're saying can't be real.”
Hank shrugged. “I didn't want you to see any of this, son, you've been through enough already. But I know you, I know you want answers and have a hard time letting things go. Hell, you've been talking about Gracie here since before the fire.”
“Boy, on your first date you two almost got eaten by a shadow creature, no matter what happens between you two now it ain't gonna be any worse than that.”
Looking over at Tommy, she couldn't help but smile.
They all jumped as the 9:15 whistle went off.