21 May The Last Pine Barrener
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"The Last Pine Barrener"Written by Pen_Phantom13
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Estimated reading time — 20 minutes
About eight years ago, my great-grandfather, Everett, passed away. Initially, you might say, that doesn’t seem like something worth writing down, but you see, he was 126 years old. Guinness World Records had published him for the last nine years as the oldest living man on the planet (that could prove it). To me, however, what made his passing unique was that I had only just met him on the day he died: My father had stopped speaking to him some 40 years ago, and I had never been allowed to meet him. I knew almost nothing about him except that there had been a falling out and Dad wouldn’t talk much about it. Hence, I was taken aback when Everett shared the story with me from his hospice bed.
The drive to St. Luke’s Medical was a solemn one. Dad drove silently, white knuckling the steering wheel, obviously fixated somewhere else. Mom sat in the passenger seat, occasionally reaching over to touch Dad on the shoulder, trying to comfort him but simultaneously knowing that she couldn’t. I sat in the back with my headphones in, the typical teenager, wondering why it was so imperative we go see a dying man that no one in the family seemed to care about. After all, I had better things to be doing.
We parked in a parking garage at about three o’clock that afternoon, and we made our way through the ant-hill of bland hallways to the palliative care unit. The nurse at the front desk gently whisked us to the door labeled “Abernathy, Everett” and offered to escort us in, but Dad asked for a moment before we entered. The nurse obliged, and we just stood there in the hallway, the three of us, looking to Dad for the signal that it was okay to open the door. Mom and I could both tell he was struggling with something, something that hadn’t obviously bothered him for years until he’d gotten the news that Everett was near the end. I thought for a moment that he was preparing to tell us, trying somehow to find the words, but ultimately he only had one thing to say before he opened the door.
“Whatever he may tell you both, keep in mind that you don’t know him like I do. He’s dying, he’ll probably feel desperate to have someone believe him. Don’t let him manipulate you.”
Mom and I simply nodded as Dad looked us both in the eye, a hand on each of our shoulders, a look of resolve on his face. The door creaked open, and in we went.
The room was sparsely decorated with a couple of Van Gogh reprints. There was a small television on the wall, but it was turned off. The window blinds were open, and in the bed lay a small, withered looking man with no hair gazing out at the distant skyline of Minneapolis. As we entered, he turned his head to greet us. He said nothing at first, but his lip trembled, and a single tear rolled down his cheek and on to his pillow. Finally, he spoke.
“You did not have to come, Jack, but I’m so glad you are all here. Thank you.”
“No one deserves to die alone.” My father uttered, with great restraint.
“Perhaps not,” replied my great-grandfather, “but I am glad you came, nonetheless.”
Dad just nodded, and tried a weak smile that wouldn’t have fooled a four year old. From there, it was simple introductions. Dad introduced us, and Everett asked simple questions about school, hobbies, and interests. It appeared as though the visit would be token and that we would soon be on our way. But I started to notice that no matter what we talked about, Everett’s gaze would return to me. As the sun continued to repel its way down closer to the horizon, the periods of silence became longer, more grim. At the end of the last bit of quiet, my Dad finally spoke.
“Is anyone else hungry? I think it’s about dinner time.” He asked.
“Starving.” Mom said.
I just nodded in affirmation. Dad stood to go find the cafeteria, and Mom with him. I thought that I should go with them, but something in my gut, intuition maybe, told me that I should stay. At the door, my Dad turned back when he realized I wasn’t coming.
“Come on, Amber.” He said.
I got up and went out into the hallway with my parents, but stood firm. Dad started in on how he didn’t trust him alone with me. I stopped him short.
“He’s 126, Dad,” I said, “he can’t possibly hurt me, and you’ve warned me to take everything with a grain of salt. I just don’t want us to come back from eating and he be dead and then we came all the way out here for nothing. Let me stay. Just bring me a burrito or something.”
Dad looked at me for a moment, again wrestling with something, and then he looked at Mom. Mom just nodded.
“Ok,” he said, “but if he says anything weird, just remember what I said. I’m trusting you here. But not him.”
I hugged him, and they walked away. I rolled my eyes as I re-entered. What could Everett possibly say?
Back inside the room, I sat in what felt like a staring contest with Everett for a few minutes. I felt like he was looking through me, doing the best he could to see the wall behind me, but failing to do anything except unnerve me. As it turned out, he was organizing his thoughts.
“I want to tell you a story, Amber,” he stated, “and before you stop me, I know that Jack would have warned you about me. He’s always tried to be a good person, so he let you stay, but he’s thought the worst of me since 1976. So if nothing else, just consider your ear my last request, and if you must, my story a tale of fiction that should be in a children’s book somewhere.”
He stopped, and just kept looking at me, waiting for me to respond. At first, I juggled my options. I could go, and maybe feel bad for breaking a dying man’s heart. Or I could listen and at worst have an interesting story. Admittedly, my curiosity was peaked. What could have been so bad about this guy that my Dad, who treated everyone he ever met with respect, would simply cut him out of his life? I decided that if Everett’s story would shed light on the topic, it was worth hearing. I missed the irony of him asking for an ear with a Van Gogh on the wall behind me.
“Go ahead.” I said.
“In 1903, I was considered a young man at 16… ”
* * * * * *
I was born and raised in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, in a town named Leed’s Point. Now, it’s just a wide spot in the road. But back in 1903, I experienced something there that I haven’t spoken of to date, except to my son, Oliver, who died in 1984, and Jack. I am breaking my silence now because a debt I owe is finally due.
In the summer of 1903, I was 16 years old, with only the cares of a girl down the street and where my next nickel was coming from. In my spare time, I could be found wandering out in the pine thickets, hunting the squirrels and fishing in the several brooks that ran through my father’s 59 acres. Sometimes, Abigail and I would go together, and we’d sit in the tops of the trees and ride out the occasional afternoon thunderstorm. Once in a while, I would dare to steal a kiss, and Abigail would giggle. These days, it’s considered unwise for a couple so young to get married, but back then, tons of folks got married when they hit 18, and we were happy in knowing that we could. But, on July 3rd of that bastard of a summer, I lost her, and I prayed to a God that I no longer believe in for a chance to get her back.
July 2nd started just like any other day. I woke up before sunrise with Dad, helped him feed the few cows we had, and rode my horse, Zip, down to the drugstore for a newspaper. The only important thing I remember reading in it was that Ed Delahanty had died, an old baseball player that not many even recollect. We also had a town picnic planned every July 4th, and the back page had a bit about that. Anyhow, I was jabbering with a man on the corner outside the general store when Zip started acting skittish.
I got him settled down just in time to see the shadow pass below me. At first I thought it was just an old sand crane, flying lower than usual, but I looked up and saw something a good bit bigger. It was right in the sun, so I couldn’t see much more than a silhouette, but it looked like one of those horses with wings. Like in mythology. A Pegasus, I think. I know that sounds childish but that’s what I saw.
The man I’d been conversing with saw it too. We just looked back at each other with a “What the blazes was that?!” look on our faces, and then back up at the sky. It was gone. We searched the horizon with our hands over our brows, but didn’t see anything. I don’t remember exactly what the man said to me after that, but it was something about needing to get home.
I galloped Zip home, careful not to exert him too much because it was particularly hot that year. I stopped by Abigail’s to see if she’d seen it too, but after offering me some pie, her mother said she had gone out picking blackberries for the town picnic. I told her how obliged I was for the pie and went on home.
At home, I told Dad what I’d seen, and he laughed that low, sort of Santa like laugh that said I was just a youngster that had spent too much time in the sun.
I went to sleep that night feeling a little uneasy. It wasn’t very often in the summer that I didn’t see Abigail for a whole day, and on top of that I saw… something. I kept telling myself that Dad was right, that I had been too long in the sun and looking right into it had caused me to see things that weren’t there. But you have to understand- dybbuks, devils, and the like weren’t considered impossibility back then. Science and medicine hadn’t come so far, and people still thought that a ghost was something as simple as a cold spot in the road. Not to mention, I was a naturally curious boy. I wanted to know what I saw.
It seemed like I’d only been asleep for a couple minutes when Dad was waking me up with a candle in his hand. I got the feeling pretty quickly that something wasn’t quite right. I heard voices in the kitchen. Dad had a face on that said not to ask questions. I got up, pulled on my overalls and boots, and went through the swinging door into the next room. Abigail’s mother was sitting in our old rocking chair, crying. A few of the other men from town were out on the front porch, talking in almost whispers. I could see one had an old Remington side by side through the front window.
“Abigail didn’t come home tonight.” My father whispered, as I walked out on the porch.
My heart almost bounded out of my chest as I ran through a whole list of places she could be. But according to the clock in the living room, it was almost two in the morning. Abigail wasn’t one to disobey her mother. Her father, God rest him, had raised her right, and when he died working on the railroad it tore her up. She followed his rules almost as a memorial, and her mother almost never had to discipline her. It was unheard of to be out past night fall, unless she was with me or Dad.
I told the men that the only place she might be was the old blackberry bushes out by Briar Creek, where we would fish sometimes. With nothing else to start with, all the men mounted their horses and set off. No one told me to stay behind. I think they knew it would have been useless.
We rode in silence except for the clopping of our horses’ hooves.
Much later, I found myself wandering deeper into the woods, having separated from the group hours before. I had left Zip to wander back home at the edge of the forest because the trees were going to be too thick for him to be any use. I was back in farther than I’d ever been. Our back 20 acres had ended a couple hours before when I went under our barbed wire fence. The pine trees grew steadily bigger around, and the briar patches cut my arms as they became almost impossible to avoid. The wind-up pocket watch my grandfather had left me told me it was almost seven in the morning, but the thick trees made it seem much earlier, allowing only a few rays of sunshine to reach the pine needle carpet below. Eventually, the needles got so thick that nothing grew through them, and I remember thinking how relieved I was to be free of all the sticker bushes when I saw the damnedest thing.
The trees thinned to form a small meadow full of dead grass, and in the middle stood a tree the likes of which I’d never seen, and never have again. It seemed like an oak tree, but it wasn’t at the right height for its girth. Five men couldn’t have reached around it if they’d been holding hands, but the leafless branches were coming off low enough for me to reach up and grab them. The tree’s crown spread out so far that it put the most of the meadow under its shadow, and that meadow was almost the size of a baseball diamond’s infield. But despite all that, it wasn’t what had my undivided attention. No, what caught my eye was the big hollow at the bottom, betwixt two of its massive roots.
Abigail had given me the story of Alice and the rabbit hole. This one was definitely big enough for Alice, maybe even a horse, but I definitely didn’t want to find out where it led to. As I got closer, I could hear a low buzzing, like a bee hive or a bunch of flies on a carcass. I got close enough to see down the hole, but got no closer. The bug sound was definitely coming from down there. I stared down only for another moment before it suddenly stopped, and I heard the dead grass breaking behind me.
I saw it clearly for the first time. A horse with wings, just like I thought I’d seen the day before, stood not 20 feet from me, stomping the earth with its nailed hooves. I followed its legs up, seeing its fur, the color of blood when it’s been out in the air too long. Its wings were leathery and veined, like a bat’s, and as they folded down, they revealed the creature’s rider- a pale man, the whiteness of his skin outdone only by his clothing. He had bright blonde hair and dark eyes, and his gaze made the hair on my arms stand up.
I took a few steps back, tripping over a tree root and falling flat on my back. I heard the man come off his horse as I got back to my feet.
“Hello there,” he said, in a voice as sharp as a razor, but smoother than the leather you’d sharpen it on, “I suppose you must be Mr. Abernathy. I thought you might find your way here, strong spirited as you are.”
I stood there, still afraid to say much of value. The fact that he knew my name although we’d never met hadn’t occurred to me. I opened my mouth to say something, anything, but all I could do was look from that ruined stallion back to its jockey, in disbelief.
“Oh, speechless I see,” he continued, “Well, I have that effect on most of the people I encounter… something about my pallor, I suppose.”
With that, he walked to his monstrosity’s front end and patted him on the snout just before feeding him something that looked like an oversized chicken liver. He patted it again, and kept on.
“Still looking for your friend, I presume? How silly of me, of course you are. Well, I’m pleased to inform you that she is perfectly safe, for the moment… oh come now, let’s do away with that oafish jaw-flapping… you’ll swallow a fly.”
Something about his taunting gave me the swift kick in the ass I needed to speak up.
“Yeah, I’m lookin’ for her. I reckon you know where she is, by what you just said. I’d like her back, if you feel so obliged.” I stammered.
“Well of course, I expected as much. And you have manners! What a surprise… humans seemed to lose their etiquette decades ago, but you sir, are an exception. Americans especially… they are sooo… unrefined. But I digress… I will return her to you in due time, but of course that is contingent on your… submission.”
The man spoke with the giddiness of a small child excited about a new toy to play with, but I swear up and down that he had plenty more smarts than he let on. He was trying to play opossum with me. He already knew I would have done anything for Abigail. He’d caught me at a time when hormones were doing most of my thinking, and he would have bet the farm on it.
“I’m not leaving here without her. What do you want?” I choked out.
“Now, now, don’t lose your cool Mr. Abernathy, or the outcome of your predicament will not be in your favor. So, back to business. I only ask for what I would call a projection… most people here call it a soul… oh I see the alarm on your face, but not to worry. It’s quite a painless process, I assure you, and you don’t lose your soul, presently. In actuality, you would merely be providing me with a voucher, implying rights to it when you… expire.”
He cackled with amusement after he finished up, and my mind had been running faster than a greyhound for a rabbit since he’d started. How on earth did this man plan on taking my eternal soul? Could he actually do it? At first, I doubted it, but then I looked back at his pet. Something like that I had only read about in some Greek story book, and someone just fooling around wouldn’t just happen to have what the world didn’t even believe to exist. I thought hard about my next words.
“So, you’d like my soul?” I asked, and he simply nodded in agreement, a flat look on his face. “So, pretty much, it just belongs to you when I die?”
“That is correct, my young friend,” he replied, “All you have to do is consume one of those delectable fungi over there.”
He pointed to a small patch of dark brown toadstools growing near the base of the big oak. They were small, but there were a lot. I didn’t like the idea of eating a mushroom I’d never laid eyes on before.
“How do I know it won’t just kill me and let you ride off into the sunset?” I asked.
“Ah, a clever one you are. Quite simply, my boy, you don’t. All I can do is promise you that after you eat it, you will lose consciousness, and when you awaken, you will find yourself at home in your bed, and Abigail will be safe and sound back with her mother, with no memory of her little ordeal. You will both be happy together, but if I may be so bold, does it really even matter if I can promise you anything? Would life be worth living to you without her?”
He had me. Placating or not, he had me.
“I s’pose not.” I spat.
“Stupendous. Now, I can comfort you further by saying that I desire your soul more than anybody’s at this very moment. Not many of your variety present themselves. I suppose that’s irrelevant when you have infinity to search, but nevertheless, I must obtain it for my collection. If you die here, who knows where your spirit will go? I need control before it is released, so if you please.”
He pointed me to his mushrooms, and I went to them, wondering what I had gotten myself into. It seemed pretty simple- eat a mushroom, get Abigail back. So what if I gave up my soul? It was worth it to save my girl.
I reached down and tried to find the smallest one I could. I picked one, and after a minute I finally worked up the nerve to put it in my mouth. It felt slimy and unnaturally cold for the summer heat. I looked at the man, fully immersed in the grooming of his… animal, and continued chewing, swallowing the bits as quickly as I could to get rid of the taste. It was awful, worse than the toad I’d licked as a youngster, playing like one of those folks from the old Grimm’s book. The last thing I remember before the lights went out was the pale man, looking at me like a lion at a lamb chop, a triumphant smile on his face.
I woke up the next morning, in my own bed, as promised. I shot up and looked around the room, wondering how I’d gotten there. Then I remembered the man and his steed. “It had to of been a dream.” I thought to myself, but I still had the taste of that mushroom in the back of my throat.
I put on my shirt and overalls, trying to get my head around what had happened. I finally got my boots on, and rushed through the house looking for Dad. He wasn’t around, so I went out the front door, headed for Abigail’s.
She was on her front porch swing, humming and reading a hymnal. My heart leaped at the sight of her.
I never asked her about what happened or what she remembered. She just told me she’d fallen asleep in a tree with her book and hadn’t woken up till the next day. She walked home and was surprised at all the fuss that had been made, but her mother had been so relieved to have her back that she didn’t so much as tongue lash her. As for me, Dad said that the search was called off when she finally turned up, and I’d returned a couple hours later and gone to bed without a word. He’d given me my space because he figured I was beat.
Abigail and I got hitched two years later, and eventually I rarely thought about that day out in the Pine Barrens. Immediately afterwards, lots of people were talking about what they’d seen flying through the sky that day, people all over New Jersey, in fact. But I kept my mouth shut, afraid to speak of any of it.
We had seven wonderful children, three boys and four girls. I got pretty good at breeding horses, and made a fair amount at it. We were happy for almost 15 years, until one day the county sheriff came to my door carrying my oldest son’s hat.
He’d been out making his rounds selling the paper, and dropped some of them. They went blowing across the place, and he ran after them, not watching where he was going. He had run up on the town’s old, dry well, and gone right over the side, his hat coming off as he did. His neck had broken when he hit the bottom. A freak accident, they’d told me.
My wife and I took it hard. It took us almost two years to get back to normal, and just when things started seeming okay, our next oldest died, in a way I prefer not to recollect.
I’m going to make the rest quick. The rest of Abigail and my children died one by one, except for your grandfather, each death as violent as the next, over the next three years. We endured what no parents should, having to bury our own children. I had begun suspecting that I had been overcharged back on that day in the woods when our second child died. By the time our sixth one was gone, I had decided that I would jump off the dam down river. I got as far as the road across it, but then I couldn’t do it to Abigail. She had been through just as much, and she was being so strong. It wasn’t fair for me to be a coward, while she sat at home barely holding herself together, naïve to the deal I had made to save her.
Then, on my 45th birthday, Abigail went to the doctor because she just couldn’t find any energy. All the doctors in New Jersey knew it was a blood problem, but they couldn’t figure out exactly what. Everything they tried seemed to work for a while, and then became completely useless. She struggled through it for 11 years. Some days, Abigail would be almost normal, but on others, she would cry out from bed to our dead children. It chilled me to the bone, and I couldn’t stand to watch her waste away, knowing that every minute of it was my doing. She suffered until she was 54 years old, and finally, gracefully, she passed.
So here I am, 126 years old. I watched all but one of my children die horribly, and watched my only love struggle against the dark for a decade. I’ve seen things no father or husband should, and something has kept me here to keep re-living it every night.
I just need someone to know that on that day so many years ago, I looked down that hollow and unknowingly witnessed the depths of Hell. I turned around, and struck an accord with its keeper.”
* * * * * *
I sort of stared blinkingly at Everett for a few seconds before I said anything. What the hell kind of story was that? Did he really expect me to buy this? Was he delirious because of his illness? Was it all a metaphor? Either way, eventually I pushed those questions aside and asked what I thought was a more pertinent one.
“So what does this have to do with my dad? Sure, everyone but you and Grandpa died, but that doesn’t explain why your grandson hates you so much.”
“Well… ” he paused, “… When all I had left was your grandfather, Oliver, I became overwhelmingly paranoid about preserving him and trying to keep him from what I was convinced was some sort of curse…”
* * * * * *
“In 1964, your father was born. He may not want you to know this, but he had a twin, David. David lived for 2 years, and then was diagnosed with an all too familiar blood disorder. He was dead by his third birthday.
Oliver had gotten started a little late with a family because, frankly, of my meddling and trying to keep him from falling in love, lest he have to share my fate somehow. Of course, with the death of David, my fears were realized. After all, I clearly had signed off on something I didn’t comprehend, and I didn’t know if I could pass it on, or if I died if it would be passed on until the debt was paid. I began to see my agreement for what it really was- my soul was on loan to me until I died, with the souls of my children as interest. The only remaining child would be left to allow more interest to be paid by their offspring, and so forth. I was overbearing with Oliver for a time, yes, but with the right intentions.
“Our relationship was strained, to say the least. But, I kept things to myself for a little over a decade starting in 1965 for the sake of his happiness. Of course, I kept a watchful eye from a bit of distance as the fear slowly eroded me. It did, however, please me that Oliver had developed a healthy concern for what I had told him, as he shared my story with his wife.
“Your grandmother, Denise, was of course skeptical of the whole thing, and at first dismissed it as one of those stories that get passed down through a family, getting more grotesque as the years pass to facilitate entertainment, avoid redundancy, and instill identity. But the more she thought about it, the more she wondered, and eventually she started doing research of her own.
“Over time, she gathered quite a bit of information about all of my children- death certificates, newspaper articles, and the like. Of course, she began to suspect that rather than some supernatural happening, I had simply been murdering my children somehow, not to mention Abigail. She kept this to herself to avoid upsetting Oliver, but it took its toll. Their relationship was at times adverse, Denise dwelling on what she thought she knew and Oliver doing his best to pretend it was all a fable.
“When your father turned twelve, I decided that I couldn’t keep things to myself anymore, and had to keep trying. Yet, your grandfather would hear none of it. I knew how Denise felt, so, I skipped her and resigned to telling my remaining grandson everything instead. He was twelve, after all, easily impressionable, and perhaps still capable of believing such a tale. As such, I thought he would come to understand.
The entire plan blew up in my face. Besides the deal I made in 1903, it has been my single greatest regret, to assume that I could simply manipulate what family I had left. A few days after I told Jack, his adolescent lack of discretion got the best of him, and he brought up my story at the dinner table. I immediately received a visit from Oliver, chastising me for telling such things to a twelve year old. He not so politely told me to stay out of his life. So I did.
“In time, the strain on Denise became too much for her to bear, as Oliver would not acknowledge that I could be a serial killer, and she would not consider the possibility that I was telling the truth. She was utterly convinced that Abigail had simply fallen asleep in that tree, and I’d created the entire story as a delusion of grandeur as I slipped further into insanity. She left Oliver, with your father, in 1977. Your dad grew up and came to blame me for splitting up his parents, and possibly poisoning his brother. That is why he despises me, why I could not attend Oliver’s funeral in 1984, and why he hasn’t spoken to me since I told him all this in 1976. But, I believe that I have been kept alive for so long because the devil realized that he could collect more souls as part of the contract as long as I kept my own. It is my hope that when I die, the contract will expire with me.”
* * * * * *
At that point, I was convinced that Everett at least believed the story he was pandering. Whether or not I thought it was true was a totally different story. All I could hear was Dad, warning me about the manipulation. I sat, staring at the floor, while Everett presumably stared at me, awaiting a reaction.
Mercifully, I heard my parents talking in the hall, and I stood up to go let them in.
“Why are you so pale?” Mom asked.
“Oh… I’m just really hungry. My blood sugar is probably a little low.” I replied.
I glanced back at Everett, and he gave me a nod of gratitude. This was his little secret with me, the last secret he would share with anyone. It was up to me what I did with it.
As we ate, I became less enthralled with Everett’s story, and my parents commented on my color coming back to my face. Dad occasionally glanced at Everett, who slept, and then returned to the casual dinner conversation. Finally, when the last bit of sun disappeared behind the Minneapolis skyline, my Dad announced it was time for us to head back home.
We turned to say our goodbyes, and as my Dad found the courage to put a hand on Everett’s shoulder, I noticed that he didn’t seem to be breathing. He did not stir when my father touched him.
“Dad,” I said.
He looked at me, tears in his eyes, and nodded. We turned to leave, as I began to dismiss the story he had told as the delusional final visions of a dying man. I turned back to look at Everett one last time.
A single fly crawled from out of his slightly open mouth, over his upper lip, and into his nostril.
My blood ran cold with belief.
I told my parents everything Everett had said, and although my father was initially upset with how I’d learned of David, we moved past it. However, I omitted the part about believing him- I didn’t want them burdened with that, and I didn’t want to sound like a simpleton. I just told them that I thought it was Everett’s way of making sense of his mistakes, and we’ve never spoken of it again, to this day.
As I mentioned, it’s eight years later now, and I’m about to have twins myself. I guess it runs in the family. I’ve never mentioned any of this to my husband, Michael, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned about having more than one baby. If this is a curse, did it die with Everett? Or, am I stuck with it now? Obviously, my great-grandfather didn’t understand everything about what he’d done. Whatever or whoever he met out in those woods, they got the best of him. Will I have to pay for it?
Only time will tell.
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