Ghosts of the Past
The small eight seater prop plane buzzed over Blackwell Field, coming around to the end of the runway and lining up to land. "Be down shortly." The pilot said. "Got your seat belt on?"
"Yeap." His passenger responded. “I done buckled up.”
The pilot glanced at the bit of silver mirror fastened to his console, studying the man behind him. "You from around here?" He asked. “Y’sound local.”
"Yeap. Just outside Ozark."
The pilot nodded, making a last adjustment before he aimed for the strip and slowed the props, pulling the nose of the plane up as the wheels touched down lightly, bounced, then made a more confident touchdown.
As they taxied towards the small building that serviced the regional field, the trees on either side bent and rustled, the smell of pine flushing through the plane as the pilot jacked the windows open to let some air in.
He parked the plane near a rusted hanger, and shut the props off, running through a short checklist on a clipboard that had seen far better days.
He glanced behind him, to find the tall, broad shouldered man in the back peering out one of the small oval windows. "Need a ride somewhere?"
"Ya'll got a car rental place round here?" His passenger asked. ‘Ain’t been in these parts in a while.”
"In town." The pilot said. "I go through there I can drop ya."
The man smiled briefly. "Thanks. That's all right." He extended a hand. "Name's Roberts. Andy Roberts."
The pilot took his hand in a brief clasp, then released it. "Josh Blackwell." He said. "For you ask, yeah, somebody's great great something to do with this here field." He studied his passenger's face. "You all part of old Duke's family? I heard Sally's getting married this here weekend."
"Yeap." Andrew turned and popped the door open, pushing the step out and letting in a cool breeze. "That's mah sister. Promised I'd see her get hitched." He climbed out and stretched, blinking into the golden sun starting to set over the trees. "So here ah am."
Josh climbed out and opened the boot, removing a duffel bag he handed over, glancing at the patches on it as he did so. "Oh hay. You're the one went for the navy huh?"
"Yeap." Andrew shouldered his duffel and waited for the pilot to lead the way. "I done went for the Navy."
"You been overseas?"
The pilot merely nodded in response, and headed for an old pickup truck parked on the edge of the field.
Andrew pulled his wallet out of his jeans and removed a credit card from it, handing it over to the single clerk behind the counter at the one desk car rental agency. The rest of the building was a mishmash of a rural supply and liquor store.
Behind the hardware desk a man was seated, tipped back to lean against the wall with a ball cap tugged forward over his eyes, apparently fast asleep.
The clerk took the card and went over to a stamping machine, putting a form in it and pressing an imprint. "Two hundred dollar on the card for gas an damages."
"All right." Andrew agreed. "What if ah don't damage it and put the gas in?"
"Put the charge back." The man handed over the card and pushed a set of papers over the counter. "Sign."
Andrew did, and picked up the set of rusty keys on the desk. He turned and walked out, carrying his duffel over to the blue pickup truck and tossing it behind the driver's seat. Then he got in and adjusted it all the way back, giving the stick shift a waggle before he closed the door.
He paused, and leaned on the steering wheel, looking out and down the dusty street with storefronts on either side. "Lord." He sighed and shook his head, starting the truck and putting it into gear. "Place aint' changed a damn bit."
He pulled out and started through the town, twilight already starting to dim the details as faint lights sprung on behind old glass windows. After a few minutes driving, his cell phone rang.
Keeping his eyes on the road, he pulled it out and answered it. "Yeap?"
"Hey sailor boy."
Andrew smiled in pure reflex. "Hey there pretty lady." He responded. "I done got here."
"So I imagined. Changed any?"
"You know, I would really like to have gone with you." Cecilia's voice sounded a touch peeved. "It's been how many years, Andy? They might have grown up."
Her husband snorted. "Enough I came." He said. "Ain't going to put you through mah whole family of assholes and mules. Aint worth it."
"Well, I hope they don't make you miserable." Ceci said. "If they do and Dar hears about it she'll send their welfare checks to India."
Andy chuckled wryly. "Ya'll are something."
"You know she would." Ceci said. "She doesn't mess around."
No, Andy thought, his daughter didn't mess around. If Dar said she was going to do something, you could take a safe bet on it.
Dar had wanted to come with him, along with Ceci, and then Kerry had chimed in too. He could readily imagine the reaction on both sides and while he felt the hoohah would be fun to watch, he really had no desire to mess up his sister’s wedding for it.. "Ah'll be fine. Just going to see that hitching then head back."
"Well, be careful." His wife said. "Call me tomorrow, okay?"
"Ah will." Andrew said. "I done love you."
The smile was very audible in Ceci's voice. "I love you too. Stay away from those snake handlers, okay?"
Andrew chuckled and closed the phone. He drove out of the town and into the dark roads around it, only a few lone drivers coming the other direction. He glanced to the side as he passed the high school he'd gone to, and the church right near by, it's white clapboard siding almost reflective in the isolated streetlights.
Small houses were scattered along the road, with ramshackle fences and the odd silhouette of a car up on blocks, or a truck in pieces. Then the road was plunged into darkness, and he was passing the cemetery.
Wrought iron gates, and the hint of starlight on tombstones, and then Andrew slowed, turning his head and looking into the shadows, sure he'd seen a figure there. But on second look, the path was empty, and with a shrug he drove on, turning right off the paved road and onto the dirt one that would end up in the driveway of the house he'd been born in.
He saw the barrel fire before he got to the end of the road, dark figures around it holding cans in front of the two story looming house behind it. He parked the truck in the cluster of other ones and paused, letting his hands rest on the steering wheel.
His arrival had been noted, and he could see male forms moving towards him, one holding a flashlight. "Wall, this is gonna be fun." With a sigh, he opened the door, then slid out from behind the wheel and straightened just as the first figure arrived next to him.
"Whoin the hell... son of a bitch it is you." The man said, pointing the flashlight beam on Andrew's face. "You little motherfucker."
Andrew regarded him. "Lo there Jon"
"Who is it?" Another voice came closer. "Ah, crap. I can't believe it." A lanky, tow headed man came into the circle of light. "Candy Andy."
"Lo there Stu." Andy responded mildly.
Both his brothers were shorter than he was, and slighter, and as the eldest Andrew didn't feel he needed to respond to their jackassery. 'Ya'll want to move out of the way? I got people to see."
"Yeah? Be glad the old man's gone. He'd have blown your head off if he'd caught you here." Stu said. "You ain't wanted."
"Stewy!" A younger, female voice cut through. "Is that Andy? Get the hell out of my way you idiot."
Stu was shoved aside and he backed up as a woman appeared. "You had to ask him, huh Sally? Daddy's wishes didn’t mean nothing to ya?"
"Andy." The woman threw herself into Andrew's arms. "Thanks for coming. Ignore these assholes." She turned. "Get the hell out of here. This is my marriage and I say who's coming to it."
"Bitch." The two men retreated, back to the oil drum, joining a group of others standing there. Laughter rose as they all stared pointedly at the truck, but Andrew had already dismissed them.
"Lo Sally." He regarded his sister. She had dark hair and eyes, and a sturdy body, her features bearing just a hint of the same angular planes as his own. "You done stirred up a nest here ddn'cha"
"Oh forget them." Sally said, gazing up at him. "I'm glad you're here. You got a bag? C'mon let's get you settled down before I have to get mah gun and shoot one of those a holes"
Andrew grabbed his duffel and followed her, getting a lungful of moss and dirt and old wood as he climbed up onto the porch and into the house.
"Daddy's ghost's gonna whup your ass, Sally!" Stu called in after her.
"Jerk." Sally closed the door behind them. Then she turned and faced Andrew, studying him in the light for the first time. "Can't believe your here."
"Me neither." Andrew smiled briefly. "Y'all are looking well, little sis."
"You too." Sally smiled back. "Retirement's done you good." She held a hand out to him and drew him back through the winding hallways to a back bedroom, opening it and standing back. "Figured you'll like this one."
Andrew glanced inside, at the room he'd grown up in. There was a bed, and a dresser, and not much more. He threw the bag on the bed and turned, bracing his arm against the wall. "Been worse."
Sally came in and sat down. "I know coming here's hard." She said. "But I needed you here, Andy." She said. "Jasper and I need you."
"Sa''llright." Andrew sat down next to her. "Been worse." He repeated. "Them jackasses outside don't bother me none. I been in places would chew them up for fish food."
"I know." Sally touched his hand. "How's Ceci?"
"She's real good." Andrew responded. "Said to say hi." He added. "Got you an arty thing of hers in mah kit for you all for a present."
"Oh, that was sweet of her." Sally said. "Not sure this old place is worth something nice though."
"Sallright." Her brother said again. "She made a pitcher would fit here. Flowers or somesuch.."
"So she's still doing her painting stuff?"
"Yeap. Got her a show thing in South Beach next week." Andrew said. "Them people out there do like her pitchers a whole lot."
"And.. your daughter? I can't believe she's grown up already Andy." Sally said. "Last time I saw her she was just a baby.."
Andrew drew out his wallet and removed a picture, handing it over. "She sure enough growed up."
Sally studied the photo. "Oh, Andy." She looked up. "She's beautiful!"
Andy grinned proudly. "She is that." He agreed. "Inside, outside, all over."
She looked back down. "She's your spitting image." She sighed. "Damn I wish her grandparents coulda seen her. She's the only grandkid they had."
Andy took the picture back. "Woudlln't a worked." He said, briefly. "She's got my cussedness and Ceci's smarts. Old man'd blown a pipe with her and she don't take crap from nobody, specially not some half assed redneck like he was."
"Don’t take no guff. Like her daddy." Sally clasped his hand.
"Yeap." Andy agreed. "Anyhow, where's that feller of yours?"
Sally got up and closed the bedroom door. "Andy I need your help." She sat back down. "Jasper's afraid to come here." She glanced around. "It's this crazy thing... everybody's got him set on Daddy's still being here."
Andrew looked round, then back at her. "Sally Mae Roberts." he said. "That man's dead."
"I know." His sister nodded. "I done buried him. And mama."
"Dead's dead." Andy said. "I seen a lot of dead. Been in places if there were ghosts, I woulda seen em. Aint' none."
"Andy, I know. But Jasper swears he's seen Daddy outside and with a gun." Sally said. "You know he didn't get on with Jasper."
Andy knew. Jasper Collins was a grade school teacher with nothing more going for him than the ability to talk to kids and the old man had hated him just as he hated pretty much everything else around him.
He'd never met Jasper. Sally had cottoned to him after Andy had abandoned the family, his only contact her infrequent letters and now, lately, email. The letters had followed him all over the world in his deployments until the last one.
They didn't know about the capture. He'd seen no need to tell them. "Wall."
"I know." Sally twisted her hands. "It's all this old house. I should get loose of it, but Andy it was all mama had. She left it for me."
"Yeap. Old man was some pissed about that."
"So are Stu and Jon." Sally said. "I told em they needed to leave once me and Jasper are married. I'm not having their shiftless ugly asses around my house."
"But he wont' come here." She finished. "He says daddy's ghost is gonna git him."
Andrew put his big hands on his knees. "Jest what is it you all want me to do, Sally? Can't make a man take his fear out."
"Well." Sally took his hands again. "I figured this. If you stay here, and nothing happens.. he'll see there ain't nothing to the whole ghost thing." She watched Andy's face intently. "Please don't be all mad at me Andy. He can't help it."
Since the task at hand wasn't anything more than he'd planned to do in any case, Andy wasn't in fact mad. "Guess you figured the old man'd come after me more'n him. Had a hate on me for sure."
Andrew shrugged. "S'all right." He said. "That why you all decided to get hitched on that night?"
"You mean on Halloween?" Sally grimaced. "Not exactly. That's the day the church had free this week. "
They were both silent for a few minutes. "Pastor Gray remembers you." Sally said, finally. "He asked me if you were gonna be here."
Andrew snorted. "Lucky man ah did not bring mah pagan wife here to tweak his short pants that old piece of thinks he knows gods work."
"Andy, he likes you."
Andy made a face. "He liked having somebody round who could dust that damn altar and wrestle that old hog of his."
Sally stifled a laugh, then she cleared her throat. "You go to church down there, Andy?"
"Naw." Her brother shook his head. "Sunday mornings ah wash mah boat down, and Cec makes us up some aigs and we take a ride, sometimes." He looked down at her. "Ah don't miss it."
Sally got up. "Let me let you get yourself settled. Mary Allen's in the kitchen making us up fixins for after the ceremony. Got some extra, you hungry?"
"Had me some lunch at Mobile." Andy said. "But I'll take a sandwich if you got."
She patted his shoulder and went to the door. "I'll holler when we're ready." She smiled wistfully. "Thanks, Andy. I mean it."
"No problem." Andy watched the door close. Then he laid back on the bed and put his hands behind his head as he regarded the worn, bowed struts in the ceiling. "Lord. What did I get mah ass into?"
Ghosts.The Old man. His jackass brothers. That timid weenie Jasper. "What in the hell am ah doing here?" He addressed the room. "Ah should haul my ass back to Miami and figure out how to put that damn hat on that dog for that party."
The house felt old. Andrew sensed the floor boards shifting and giving way a little beneath his weight as he walked back over to the bed where his duffle rested. It hadn't seemed as worn when he'd lived in it, but that had been a long time ago and he'd been a much different person.
He remembered it seeming lighter, full of children’s laughter and his mother’s voice singing, and the sound of banjos from the porch on summer evenings. Now it was mostly silent, the rooms largely unlived in.
Andy finished sorting out the things he'd packed, setting aside what he planned to wear to the wedding and putting his spare shaving kit on the one wooden shelf in the small bathroom next door.
Everything was a little offset, a little patched, not quite even , not quite aligned right. The house had been built and rebuilt and modified by generations of his family so far back it precluded modern building techniques, or even electricity.
The bathroom he'd just been in had been added by his grandfather experimenting with all this newfangled plumbing hoo hah and in the corner of the kitchen had stood an old hand water pump he remembered his mother using on cold winter mornings to get water to wash.
Lot of years. Andy looked around, seeing the worn walls, and feeling a touch sad for the place. It had known a lot of family, kids running round and all, and now it was empty, and old.
He remembered some very early years of his own life, when he and his brothers and sister had played in the house, when it had all been just as simple as bread and milk for breakfast, and wooden blocks on the floor.
They'd just been kids. Too young to know anyplace but home,, family and the neighbors around who'd been more or less just like they were, living in slowly deteriorating houses on land that had been homesteads for long generations.
Andrew reached into the duffel and removed a padded case, unzipping it and taking out the black metal automatic pistol inside. He took a clip and seated it, pulling the action back and chambering a round. Then he checked the safety before he stuck the gun inside his belt at the small of his back, pulling his hooded sweatshirt over it.
It hadnt' been until later, until hed' growed some and gotten to understand things better that his daddy had started in giving him lessons.
Hate lessons. Andy zipped the duffel shut and closed the light, emerging from the room into the hallway. They hadn't worn white sheets by that time, but the old titles were still there, and all the old hate that went along with it.
He had been a prime candidate, by his daddy's way of thinking. He was Duke's oldest, he was big, even as a teenager bigger than his brothers and nearly as tall as Duke himself, brought up right, raised in the churchyard, taught to shoot, given all the right ideas by daddy and his friends.
Andrew walked along the hall, looking at the pictures. Old lithographs stained by oil and smoke, of men in stiffly formal coats and women in hoop dresses, of children with carefully licked down bangs, of the homestead.
Then there were the ones with the soldiers. Frame after frame of serious men in uniform from the Duke in his army fatigues back to faded clusters of gray clad figures draped in the Confederate flag.
Back in that time, the house had been full, with family and servants and slaves outside working the land and cropping enough from it to make them, in those times, well off.
But by Andy's time, that had been all long past save the memory of it, and the resentment, and the hate.
"Andy?" Sally came around a corner. "There ya are. C'mon in the kitchen we got some chicken on and coffee."
She led the way through the big dining room and around the corner into the kitchen, a big open hearth space with windows and plenty of working counters. It was brightly lit, and with all the bustling motion and voices coming from it was the one place in the house that seemed fully alive.
Andy could remember his mother in the kitchen, usually alone or with one of his aunts making biscuits in the morning.
Right now, it was full of women set at different tasks of getting ready for the wedding - most of them looked up though, when they entered.
'You all remember my brother Andy, right?" Sally said. "He was the only one I wanted to invite to this wedding."
There were murmurs of hello, and mostly averted eyes. Sally led him over to a tray of cornbread and cut him a piece, ignoring the sudden awkwardness. "Here. Start on that."
Andy sat down on one of the stools at the counter and took the cornbread. He returned the furtive look from the woman nearest him with a faint, grim smile. "Lo there."
"Hello, Andy." The woman replied. "Been a long time."
"Yeap, it been that." Andrew took a proffered cup of coffee and waited, as Sally brought over a plate with several pieces of fried chicken on it. "Been a long time since I done sat in this here kitchen."
"Thought you might have come back for your daddy's funeral." The woman said. "Lot of people did."
Andrew chewed his cornbread and pondered the question in silence. "Wasn't round these parts." He finally concluded. "Didn't hear about it till later. After I got back to the States."
"Yeah for a while he stopped answering me." Sally said. "I guess it just took a while for the letters to catch up."
"Something like that." Her brother said. "Didn't figure he wanted me round here then anyhow."
"That's probably true." The woman agreed. "Had no use for you."
"Andy turned out all right." Sally said, defensively. "You should see pictures of his daughter. She does something with computers, right, Andy?"
Andy was busy with a piece of fried chicken. "Mah kid." He said, after he wiped his lips. "Has done right well for herself. She pretty much runs that there company and I do believe she's the one Jesus Christ calls when he has problems with the software for the pearly gates."
"Andy." Sally looked scandalized, but Andy just chuckled and continued to decimate his chicken thigh.
The door to the kitchen opened, and Stu came in. "There's the little motherfucker." He pointed at Andy. "C'mon out here and drink with the rest of us."
Andy regarded him mildly. "Do not make trouble in this here kitchen." He said. "These ladies are workin hard and do not need your fussing."
"Aw cmon." Stu pushed his way through the crowd of women and approached his brother. "Dont' be a prick."
Andy got up as he arrived. Stu had been a scrawny tow headed young adult when he'd last seen him, and he'd grown into a wiry middle age with a goatee and a short cropped buzz cut. "Leave it." He said, quietly.
"YOu think you can come back in here and tel me what to do?" Stu rasped, the smell of corn whisky strong on his breath. "Fuck you, you pansy asshole I'm gonna."
"Stu." Andy lowered his voice. "You will get your ass hurt if you keep up."
'Yeah? What ya gonna do?"
Andy put his hand around his brother's throat and shoved him against the wall, closing his fingers around Stu's windpipe and leaning his weight against him. "Kick you all's worthless ass."
Stu grabbed at his arm as his face turned bright red, his breathing a tortured gasp.
"Andy!" Sally rushed over.
"Stay back." Andy turned his head and barked the command at her.
He turned back to Stu. "I aint' got no patience for the likes of you." He told him. "So behave or you all will find your pitiful self in that there graveyard down the way."
He released Stu, and stepped back, cocking his fist in warning.
. His brother dropped to one knee and grabbed his throat, rubbing it. "I was just fucking JOKING you asshole."
Andy relaxed and put his hands on his hips. "We aint' seen each other in twenty some years. Let it go, Stu. I ain't that kid you knew."
"Fuck." Stu got to his feet. "You're just crazy as you ever was."
"Ah have found that a useful thing in mah life too." Andy said. "If you'all'd go on outside, ah will be out there shortly to say hello."
Stu looked at him. "Yeah well I'm gonna go take a dump first." He edged towards the inner door and slunk through it giving a distinct impression of having his tail tucked between his legs.
Andy watched him go, then turned and sat back down on his stool, resuming his attention to the chicken. "Lord." He shook his head. "Got stupider for every damn year I aint' seen him."
Family. He sighed inwardly. He'd been the oldest, with Sally next, the two of them a bare 9 months apart in age. Then Stu, two years younger, and Jon the baby. They'd gotten along as well as most siblings did until he'd broken with the old Duke's wishes and decided to make his life go a different direction.
Then they'd dropped any lies about liking each other.
"Sorry about that Andy." Sally finally spoke up after several minutes of uncomfortable silence. "He's been drinking."
Andy finished up his chicken. "Man sells moonshine for a living. Ain't nothing he's ever done but that." He stood. "Least I hear he makes a good jug."
"What are you doing now, Andy?" One of the women asked. "Still in the Navy?"
He shook his head. "I done my hitches. Retired for a while now, but ah do some work on the side sometimes for Dar." He said. "Cec and I live down by South Beach."
"Aint' that a ritzy place?"
"Yeap. Something like that." He eased between the women and went to the kitchen door. "Ah thank you ladies, that was some real good stuff."
He could see the grudging return smiles, and he returned them as he pushed the screen door open and emerged onto the small side porch, letting the spring held panel shut behind him.
A faint sense of motion to his right made him turn his head, but the dusty side yard lit by the porch light was empty. He walked down the steps to the ground, taking a walk around where he vaguely remembered his mother having a kitchen garden that was now filled with a couple of wooden tables piled with junk.
He walked around the side of the house and headed towards the still burning oil drum fire, where he could smell the essence of liquor and grilling something drifting from.
Jon spotted him and broke away from the group, ambling over to him. "I ain't a dumb ass like Stu, Andy. We all right?"
It almost made Andy laugh. Jon had always been like that, following Stu's lead with little ambition of his own, but always ready to roll over and be friendly to whoever had the upper hand.
He had straight brown hair, now silvered on the sides, and puppy dog eyes and Andy had never found it easy to be mad at him. "Sure." He said now, dismissing Jon's earlier greeting. "What all's goin on out here?"
They reached the barrel. About a half dozen men were hanging around it, and there were strips of some meat grilling on a makeshift iron grate sitting over the wood fire. "Lo there." Andrew greeted the group.
"Hey Andy." Several of the men answered. "How's it goin?"
Andy was pleased. He had no illusions their benign mock friendliness was anything but that, however, it had only taken him a minute and a chokehold to achieve. "All right." He said. "How are you all?"
Andy leaned against a second barrel, which was unlit. "I heard somewhat about some crazy story bout ghosts. What's that all about?"
The men quickly glanced at each other, then at Stu, who was sucking on a plain brown bottle just to one side of the fire.
"Aw." Jon answered. "Yeah you heard that huh?" He laughed. "Scaredy cat Jasper wont' come near here cause he thinks daddy's ghost's gonna cut him up."
The men also laughed. "Candy assed pansy." Stu spoke up. "Aint no idea why Sally's wasting her time with him."
"He really believe that?" Andy asked.
Jon shrugged. "Some folks talkin crazy stuff." He admitted. “Jackass is stupid enough to believe it.”
"Old Josh down by the store swears he saw Duke walking round here at night." One of the men said. "We been telling Jasper it's cause he's fixing to make sure his little girl's not gonna marry him."
Andy folded his arms over his chest. "Why would you all do that?"
"Cause he aint' worth her." Stu spoke up again. "Hay. Why don't you talk to her bout it, big bro? She done likes you so maybe she'd listen."
The sarcasm was very evident, but Andrew took the question at face value. "I do not know this feller." He said. "And ah am not one to go messin with folks who want to get hitched when people aint agreeing to that."
"You still hitched to that hippy chick?" One of the men asked, curiously. "From the North?"
"Ah am." Andy agreed. "So if Sally's stuck on this here feller I'm not the one to say nothin." He paused. "Where's he anyhow?"
"Church" Jon said. "Prayin with the pastor."
"Huh." Andrew straightened up and circled the barrel. "Maybe I will have me a word or two with the Lord myself."
He walked off towards the road, the darkness quickly swallowing his tall form.
Stu whistled between his teeth, a soft sound that slid down in tone to a click.
Jon picked up a piece of the meat, hissing and shaking it in his hand when it burned his fingers. "Hay." He looked at them. "You all don't really think Daddy's ghost's round here do you?"
Stu spit a mouthful of whisky into the fire, causing it to flare. "Wall." He said. "If he wasn't, he probly is now with him around." He jerked his head in the direction Andy left. "Either that or the old man's rolling so hard in th' earth he's kickin hogs up out their pen and everybody thinks all that noise's ghosts."
"We could kick his ass." One of the men said. "Have us some fun."
"Don't fuck with him." Stu said, abruptly serious. "He's got our mama's crazy." He took a swig on the bottle. "We got other things to do anyhow."
Andy walked along in the darkness, not in a rush. The moon had risen and there was plenty of light to see by, and he took the time to look to either side of him as he headed slightly down slope towards the church.
It was quiet, in a way that Miami never was. Even in the wee hours, even in the Marina where he and Ceci made their home there were always sounds of the nearby city, and the sea so close nearby.
Here, though crickets were softly buzzing, it was quiet enough for his footsteps to sound loud, and the wind moving through the trees was sharp and faintly startling. The road was empty, and off in the far distance he heard the faint whinny of a horse, and a dog barking.
Then he caught the sound of soft footsteps behind him, and he turned, walking backwards as he scanned the road, his hand going to the small of his back in reflex motion.
The road, half lit in the moonlight, seemed empty. As he continued to look, the sound of the steps faded.
One of his brothers? Andy stepped to the unlit side of the road and found a tree, relaxing his body against it and almost becoming part of the trunk as he stilled and became motionless.
His breathing slowed and his senses heightened, the moonlight losing a bit of it's silver lustre as he forced his vision to flatten and pull tiny details out of his field of view.
He focused on nothing, concentrating on seeing everything, the outlines of the trees, the two parked cars, the garbage pile of old packing crates.
Only the leaves and branches moved in the wind, a puff of it blowing a tin can along the road in a rambling rattle.
Andy was patient. He stood quietly against the tree for a quarter hour, but nothing else came down the road and after that, he slipped around to the other side of the tree and continued on, this time staying on the shadowed side of the dirt road until it met the blacktop, and he could see down the slope to where the church was, lit from inside and out in a blaze of internal fluorescent and external orange streetlamp.
First he had to pass the graveyard though and as he did, he paused to look again through the gates. It was an old place, hundreds of years old with tombstones bearing dates in the 1700’s. Somewhere in there lay countless generations of his family he knew he'd never join. With a shake of his head he moved on, ambling quickly across the grass edged parking lot into the adjoining one of the church.
It was part full even this late and he could hear the sounds of singing inside as he climbed up the wooden steps and pushed open the old oak door.
The smell of wax, and old wood hit him first, and he paused to look around. The inside of the church was clean and spare, long rows of pews set out on either side of a wide aisle that was now lined with posts topped with baskets of flowers, green vines strung between them.
To one side a small group of women were singing hymns, the once familiar sound almost making him smile. Near the altar, three men were talking, and they looked up and spotted him.
Pastor Gray he recognized, though it had been decades since he'd last saw him. Aside from being a little thinner, and a little grayer, it seemed to Andy he hadn't really changed that much at all. The two other men he didn't know, but he figured the younger man next to him was probably Jasper.
Hm. Andy used the time he was walking towards them to study Jasper. He was a man of middling height, with chestnut brown hair that fell in curls to his slightly stooped shoulders. He wore glasses, and now, his eyes were blinking as he looked nervously at him as he approached.
Wall, THere weren't no accounting for tastes. "Lo." He gave the pastor a brief nod.
"Andrew." The pastor hurried down off the altar steps and approached him. "Sally said you would be coming. I'm glad." He extended his hands out . "It's good to see you."
Andrew gripped his hands and released them. "Did promise her I"d be here if she done ever get hitched. Here I am."
The pastor smiled at him, a little sadly. "Here you are." He turned. "I'm sure... well, i'm not really sure if you do know each other. Jasper? Have you met Sally's brother Andrew?"
Andy extended a hand out. "Lo there, Jasper."
The brown haired man approached and took his hand. "Ah've heard so much about you, sir."
Andrew tilted his head and gave the man a very droll look, one eyebrow hiking sharply up. "Ah jest bet you have."
"And this is Jasper's brother Edgar." The pastor said. "He's going to be Jasper's best man tomorrow."
"Lo." Andy took the man's proffered hand.
Jasper smiled nervously. "Have you been out to the house? Ahm sure Sally's glad to have you."
"Yeap." Andrew agreed. "Ah have been there." He eyed them all. “Long enough to hear all kinds of crazy damn things.”
Pastor Gray frowned. Jasper and his brother looked uneasy, and they shifted, moving a little bit away from him.
Andy didn’t have much patience for it. "Now, y'all tell me what all this is ah hear about mah daddy's ghost being round." He planted himself squarely in front of them and folded his arms over his chest.
There was a prolonged, awkward silence once he stopped speaking.
"Wall?" He finally said, as Jasper looked quickly around and the other man did as well. Pastor Gray looked pained, and he glanced over to where the choir was practicing, as though making sure they weren’t listening.
"Ahm' sure somebody round here knows." Andy said. "Cause you all look like you just wet your shorts."
Pastor Gray held a hand up. "Ahm. Let's go talk about this in my office." He pointed towards a small door in the back of the church. "Please."
He led the way and opened the door, standing aside to let them enter. It was a small office, with a plain white table and chair, several bookcases with stacks of old, tattered books in them, and on the wall behind the desk a mahogany wood crucifix had been hung as if to keep watch.
Andrew faintly remembered being in the room once or twice. There were three or four hard backed wooden chairs before the desk and he took one and sat down.
The pastor went behind his desk and sat in his own chair. "Well." He rested his elbows n the desk and rubbed his hands together. "Hard to know where to start, really."
"See, uh." Jasper spoke up, looking uneasily at Andrew. "I wasn't real popular with the o.. with your father."
"Sa'llraight. Me neither."
"He banned me from the house." Jasper said. "Said he'd shoot me if I caught me there." He admitted. "Ah aint' sure if it was that ah... well, I've got schooling and all. Think he figgured cause that, and cause my pa.. well our pa...he quit out the army and all and maybe he thought I wasn't a real man."
“Or something.” Edgar muttered.
Andy studied them. "Less somebody done castrated you, you got all you need to be a real man." He commented dryly.
"It dont' take no more than that, rally.." Andy interrupted him. "But anyhow, the old man'd think like that, probably. Didn't have much tolerance for nothing."
The wind drove the branches outside against the window at that moment, and they paused and looked at it. The branches moved again, and pressed against the glass, making an odd, scratching sound. "Have to get those trimmed." The pastor said. "Gave me such nice shade though over the summer."
Jasper turned back to face him. "He just never took a shine to me, even from the first."
The pastor sighed. "I tried speaking with Duke. I know Jasper here and Sally are sincerely attached, but he was set that he didn't want Jasper to marry her."
"All right." Andy said. "But he aint' here no more." He said. "That house belongs to Sally. Up to her who she wants in it."
The other three men nodded. "That's what we thought too." Jasper said. "And it.. " He stopped. "I went back there first time after the funeral and.. it felt funny."
'Yeah." His brother added, then fell silent.
"Felt like someone was watching me." Jasper said. "Coulda gotten used to that, but then i started hearing things, boots coming after me wherever I went in that place and I would turn and look and nobody's there."
One of Andy's brows lifted.
"Ah know, you all think I"m crazy." Jasper said. "But I heard it."
"Then we started hearing people talk." The pastor said. "People starting say they saw old Duke walking down the road, tween here and the house." He shook his head. "I tried to explain to them... I mean, you know, ghosts don't really exist."
Jasper looked skeptical. "Something was making them noises." He turned to Andy. "Did you hear anything in there?"
"Naw." Andy said, after a pause. "Just an old house."
Jasper looked relieved. "I was figgering.. maybe after we was married, it'd be all right, you know? I mean, the lord's blessing our hitching like."
"I'm sure it will." The pastor reassured him. "Now, Jasper why don't you and Ed go get some rest, and read over those passages of scripture I gave you. Tomorrow's going to be a big day."
Jasper nodded and got up. "Ah'll do that, sir." He nodded at Andrew. "Be seeing you tomorrow too, I guess."
Andy raised a hand in farewell, watching the two brothers leave before he let his hand drop. "Huh."
Pastor Gray folded his hands. "I am glad you're here for Sally." He said. "She said you'll be walking her down the aisle?"
Andy didn't recall agreeing to that, but he didn't mind. "Yeap." He said. "Do that, then head on back to mah family."
'Yea, I don't blame you." The pastor sighed. "Life's hard, and getting hard here. I feel for Sally. Hard keeping up that place with just her bookkeeping job, and what she can get from your brothers."
"He make a living?" Andy jerked his head towards the closed door.
"He's a teacher at the school. Steady job, but you know they don't pay much." The older man said. "I think with the Lord's help they'll do all right. They're not kids, after all."
'No they aint. Not like me and Cec were. But we did all right too." Andy said, with a faint smile. "Life's got a way of working out like that."
"Sally said you'd retired from the service. You all still living in Florida? How's your daughter doing?"
"Yeap. We live on a boat down near South Beach in Miami. Dar done have a place out on a little island just cross from there." Andy said. "She's done real well." He removed the picture from his wallet and passed it over.
"Oh my." Pastor Gray studied the picture. "What a lovely girl. You must be a very proud father."
Andrew took the picture back and grinned, his entire face lighting up from it. "Like to bust most times." He admitted. "Proudest daddy you ever did see."
"Oh that sounds so nice." Pastor Gray smiled. "I'im so used to hearing parents disappointed in their kids.. Anyway." He stood up. "I hope this whole ghost thing fades off once the wedding's done. I don't like talk like that. It's not really right. You know we don’t believe things like that down here."
"You think there's something in it?" Andy asked. "Feller doesn't seem like a kook to make that up."
The pastor frowned. "Do I think your daddy's ghost is walking around Ozark? No. I'm a man of God, and I know better."
Andy pondered if believing in ghosts and believing in men walking on the water and rising from the dead were all that different, but didn't mention that aloud. "Wonder if somethin aiin't behind it." He said. "Some body, ah mean." He got up.
"Well to be honest." The pastor lowered his voice. "It did make me wonder if it wasn't your brothers having a gag." He looked apologetic. "They're good men, but they don't much care for Jasper either."
"Uh huh." Andy preceded him out the door. "Wall, see you all tomorrow."
"Good night Andrew - really good to see you."
Andy stood outside the church for a few minutes, thinking. The parking lot was now mostly empty, and the outside lights were off except for the one in front of the door and the windows of the attached house around the back where Pastor Gray had long made his home.
After a while, he pulled his cell phone out and hit one of the three speed dials on it, holding it to his ear as it started to ring.
On the second ring it was answered . "Hey dad." Dar's voice sounded rich, and vibrant. 'How's it going?"
His daughter chuckled softly under her breath. "I told you we should have come with you."
Now, honestly, Andy wished he had let them. 'Wall, it aint but a day more. Listen Dardar... what do you all think about ghosts?"
Long silence. "What do *I* think about ghosts?" Dar finally answered. "As in... do I think they exist?"
"Kerry does." Dar said.
"What do I do?" Another voice echoed softly, lighter and warmer and lacking Dar's drawl.
"Believe in ghosts" Dar said. "Dad's on. He wants to know what I think about them."
"Hey dad!" Kerry's voice got a lot closer. "I do believe in ghosts. I don't think Dar does though. I never seem to see them when she's around."
"You all seen them, Kerry?" Andy asked. "For real?"
"I really think I did." Kerry replied. "Oo.. Dar, stop tickling me." She scolded. "I saw them in the old mansion here, and then... we went to an haunted house thing one year and let me tell you i saw SOMETHING there."
"Yeah, except that you saw them in the mansion after I told you stories about ghosts there and the haunted mansion was supposed to make you see them." Dar argued. 'Besides you have a crazy imagination."
That was true, Andy thought. Kerry was a lot more of a dreamer than his daughter was. He explained briefly what the situation was.
"Huh." Dar said. "Sounds more to me like someone's jerking him around."
"Trying to get them not to get married?" Kerry wondered. "Ew. Creepy."
Andrew thought so too, and was somewhat relieved to have his ideas validated by his kids.
"But you know Dad, you never know." Kerry said. "Be careful, okay?"
"Ah surely wlll." He agreed. "Ahm going to head back to Sally's and get me some shuteye. You kids be good."
Dar chuckled. "No promises. Mom invited us over to join her for her pagan party on the boat."
"I was reading about it." Kerry added. "There was a lot of naked stuff. I hope we don't end up on Panic Seven with the hang gliding Pokemon."
"Oh mah god."
Both of them chuckled, making Andy aware he was being kidded. "Good night you all." He said. "And some body better be taking some pitchers."
Andrew closed the phone and slipped it into his pocket. He started down the road, turning over the possibilities as he walked. This time he didn't look in when he passed the graveyard - he just kept walking.
And yet, the minute he passed the gates, he felt a prickling at the back of his neck, and a distinct sensation that he was being watched. Instead of turning to see, he continued walking, crossing the blacktop and continuing along it until the turn off for the dirt road. The feeling got stronger though, with every step he could sense the oppressive attention beating down on the back of his head and it took all his will power not to either turn, or run, or both.
He'd been in enemy territory so many times when ignoring this kind of warning just meant you were dead, real quick. But this wasn't foreign soil. There weren't shadows in the darkness with guns looking to kill him.
He kept his pace steady, a gentle amble that brought him up even with the trunk he'd rented faster than he'd expected. He could see the lights still on in the house, but the oil barrel fire pit was empty and there were no signs of his brothers, or their friends.
It was very quiet. He went to the oil barrel and slowly went around to the other side of it, resting his hands on the edge and looking back the way he'd come, past the edge of the yard and the parked cars, to the dirt road leading off into the distance.
He wasn't sure what he'd expected to see. He knew himself to be a pragmatic man, but he'd seen enough in his lifetime to know there were things out there he sometimes didn't understand.
So the empty road didn't surprise him. Seeing a figure coming down it wouldn't have surprised him. He knew the sensation of being watched was real.
And yet the quiet, and the empty space persisted. He could feel the residual warmth under his hands and glanced down, to see the faint glow of the dying wood fire at the bottom of the barrel. As he watched it, the embers flared a little, and he blinked, lifting his hands and stepping back as a face seemed to form in the glow.
Then he moved closer again and looked, this time only seeing dim cracks in the burned out log at the bottom.
A faint sound made him look up sharply, and his body stiffened in reflex as he caught sight of a shadow from the corner of his eye. Instinct took over and he turned and moved toward it, his arms lifting into a ready posture.
Then he blinked, and the shadow was gone. THe place where it had been was empty, full of nothing but leaf dappled moonlight.
He stood still for a long moment and stared at the spot, then swept the area with his eyes looking for motion.
"Wall." He spoke aloud. "Aint that special."
He turned at the voice, and saw Sally heading down from the porch towards him. "Yeap?"
Sally quickly came to his side. "Where on earth did you go?"
"Down to the church. Met your sweetheart." Andy said. "Somethin going on?"
Sally looked around. "You should come inside. It's almost midnight." She took hs arm and started urging him towards the house. "Got some cocoa on.. share it with me?"
Andy allowed himself to be tugged up to the door and into the house, but he paused and looked back before he closed the door, studying the yard.
He closed the door and paused. The front of the house was now empty save the two of them, all Sally's helpers having gone home. He crossed the front parlor and entered the kitchen.
"Stu and Jon are upstairs." Sally said. "Said they'd see us tomorrow."
"Uh huh." Andy sat on a stool. "Sally."
She peered over her shoulder at him.
"What in the Hell is going on in these here parts?"
Sally stirred the milk and chocolate in the pan slowly. "Funny you should put it that way." She said. "If I tell you you'er not going think I'm crazy, are you?"
"Ah don't call no body crazy." Andy said.
Sally poured the chocolate into two cups and brought them over to the big, scarred wooden table. She put them down and then sat down across from her brother. "I was raised in the church, Andy. I don't like thinking about things like ghosts, you understand?" She studied Andy's face.
"But since daddy died, I swear, I seen things that made me wonder."
"You all seen him?" Andy asked, bluntly.
"I don't know." Sally replied. "I seen shadows. Like I'll be bringing something in to the pantry and see someone come past that door there, see?" She pointed." But no one's in the house, and when I go into the dining room it's empty." She shook her head. "I thought at first it was Stu playing jokes on me. I told them I was marrying Jasper not a week after we buried daddy, and they started in about how he'd hate that and all.. "
"So I figured maybe he was messing with me. I know he doesn't like Jasper either." Sally said. "But... I was seeing things when I knew for sure Stu or Jon was around." She glanced past Andy's shoulder to the steps that led to the 2nd floor. "So I don't know what's going on. I just hope it stops after we're married. Daddy told Jasper he'd shoot him if he ever caught him in the house again and Jasper's afraid that's exactly what's gonna happen."
"Huh." Andy grunted.
"I know you think it's crazy." Sally said. "Jasper and I talked about it... Hell Andy we even talked about running off and going to live someplace else.. but we aint' got no money for that everything I've got is tied up in this house and I.."
She stopped speaking, as they both heard a scratching at the window and turned, to find a face looking back at them.
Andy got up and launched himself at the glass, his hands coming to rest on either side of the sill with a solid thump as the face vanished.
"Oh my god!" Sally covered her mouth, as footsteps upstairs turned into a thundering on the staircase as Stu and Jon erupted into the kitchen in a tangle of bare chests and boxer briefs."What the hell?" Stu managed to get out. "Hey!"
Andrew turned his head. "Seems like somebody's outside fussing with us." He said. "Ya'll want to put some clothes on and go hunting?"
"Oh Andy no." Sally threw her hands up. "Don't go out there. It's after midnight!"
Stu shifted his weight from one bare foot to the other. "WHat'd you see?" He asked. "I aint' shooting nothing I don't know what it is."
"A face." Sally pointed. "Right there in the window, all pressed up against the glass. It went away when Andy hit the wall."
Andy pulled the automatic from the back of his belt and headed for the front door. "Ya'll jest stay right here." He opened the door before they could protest and walked through it into the darkness outside.
It seemed to have grown colder in the few minutes since he'd been out there. Andy walked down off the porch and headed for the kitchen side of the house, aiming for the window he'd seen the face in.
He held the gun in one hand with the muzzle pointed upward, his gentle amble morphing into the silent careful foot placement of a hunting cat. He kept his eyes shifted to the side of the window, waiting for his night vision to kick in. He could hear wind in the leaves, and the soft patter of some small animal off to his left, but so far nothing appeared large enough to be a person.
He slipped past a pair of old oak trees, reaching out to pat them with his hand as the old friends they were then he ducked around the side of the house and searched what had once been the kitchen garden.
He could see Stu inside the house, his hands pressed against the glass around his eyes as he looked outside, but that flushed from his mind when he heard, far off, a terrified scream.
He turned, sweeping the yard in a rapid movement of his head, then he heard another scream and started towards it at a run.
He passed the oil barrel, catching a faint glimpse of something from the corner of his eye, feeling a bare tug at his shirt as he left the yard and hit the road.
Midnight? He wondered at Sally's fear, then realized it's source. Midnight of Halloween, she meant, something to be afraid of.
He heard another scream, hoarse and terrified, and he ran towards it, glancing around him as he did. The moon had tipped behind the hills and he was now in real darkness, the spaces between the houses and trees full of shifting shadows.
His imagination? Andy allowed it might be, He reached the blacktop and now he could see down the street - spotting a green flash of light coming from the gates of the cemetery.
"Wall, sure." He muttered. "Had to be that there place."
The road was completely empty. The church no longer was lit, everything around seemed to be blacked out. A strong, cold wind blew across his face, and it occurred to him he might should feel nervous a bout it all.
He didn't. Too much dark water'd gone under his bridge, he reckoned. He bolted towards the wrought iron gates and looked through them, seeing through the trees a faint outline of a man struggling and a flash of ghostly white.
The gates were padlocked. Andy took a step back and then lunged against them, his body weight sending the portals sharply inward and breaking the chain with a brittle snap. He shoved his way through and bolted down the long, tree lined avenue leading to the gravesides.
He could hear thrashing, and then, the sound of a whip, and as he rounded the last corner of hedges he spotted five ghostly figures surrounding a figure on the ground, accompanied by thuds and curses.
He never slowed down. He plowed into them at full speed and used his forward motion to send the figure closest to him sprawlling full length in the dirt.
Without a sound, he attacked a second figure, his hands feeling real flesh as he broke an arm, and body slammed the figure into a tombstone then went on to the next. He roundhouse kicked a third, and slammed his elbow into the jaw of a fourth, by now hearing yells of panic and consternation as he got hold of the fifth man by the white sheet draping over him and wrapped it around his throat, choking him.
The man dropped to his knees and Andy slammed his knee into his face, feeling bone crunch as the man flipped over backwards and landed flat on his back.
Now he stepped over the victim and stood spraddle legged over him, pulling his automatic out from the back of his belt where he'd stashed it to fight, and letting off a round into the air. "S'all the warning you all get."
The six men started to scramble to their feet but then froze.
Andy sensed something behind him. He watched the men's faces carefully and decided not to turn around as he felt a cold draft against his back, penetrating the shirt he was wearing and chilling his skin.
The figure under him cried out, and covered his head with both hands.
A cold wind rose up again, and when it did, a raspy, hollow voice came with it. "Wall. Looks like theres at least one man here."
Andy knew that voice, despite having not heard it for twenty some years. Instead of fear, though, the voice stirred up a far more potent surge of anger.
The men in sheets curled up on the ground, covering their eyes. "Jesus save me!" One of them yelled. "Jesus!"
Andy could hear Jasper, crouching under him, praying. He lowered the hand he had the gun in, and exhaled.
"Andrew. You gonna turn around and face me or run off like the last time."
Andy turned. Behind him, rippling over the top of what he realized was his father's grave, was a gray/white mist, in a bare outline of cloak. The only vivid thing bout it was the eyes, which were cold,and gray and bright. "You all have them do this?" He indicated the shivering Jasper.
"I'm not having my sweet daughter marry the likes of that." The spirit responded. "If I'da known how much more powerful I'd be on t'other side, I'da died sooner, tell you that." A hint of a laugh echoed off the gravestones. The mist got more distinct. "Now move, boy. I got work to finish here."
Andy looked steadily into those gray points. "Ah dont' think so."
The laugh sounded again. "Wall now Andrew." The spirit said. "You have any idea what the dead can do to the living?" It drifted up a bit, taking on more substance.
"Naw." Andy said. "But I know right well what the living can do to the living and it cain't be worse." He stated. "You drove mama to death and you all made Sally's life Hell for all them years. Leave her be now."
Another laugh. "You never did give me respect." The spirit rose up and spread its arms. "Never mind the boy. I'll get me some real satisfaction."
"You never did deserve any respect." Andrew said. "Ya'll were just a hate filled bag of horse shit."
"Aint but the truth. Ah'd rather tell folks ah came from mama's taking the postman to bed than you."
A rush of cold, dank air came over Andrew and he suddenly felt like he couldn't breathe as it filled his lungs with useless press sure. He threw up his hands and tried to take a step back, but found himself rooted in place as he was being pulled rapidly towards the earth.
Under the earth. He smelled dirt, and decay, and a layer of darkness flowed over him as he lost view of his surroundings, and could only hear the scrape of cloth against stone and his own heart hammering.
“Ahm gonna make you into worm food, you little skunk of a son.” The harsh voice filled his ears. “Walking out on your family like you done… there’s a special place for git like you where ah am now.”
Andrew couldn’t speak to answer, but he tried to gather his strength up, making himself ready to turn it on, and let the anger in him loose before whatever it was that was holding him could do whatever it was they were threatening.
He shook his head with great effort.
The gray mist overwhelmed him, and he felt a burning in his eyes as something fastened around his neck and started to constrict. He lunged and struggled, as his vision went dark and sound faded out, only the dank, fetid smell and the moist, clammy touch remaining.
Then an even colder rush of air blasted him, a sharp, clean smelling chill that made him gasp, drawing in a breath of it as the mist suddenly cleared, and a rush of energy went up his spine.
He heard a thumping sound, and then the rattle of feather, and a thin, overarching scream as his vision cleared and he saw his father's shade rippling in front of him.
A voice erupted behind him, rich and powerful and somewhere in it's echos a bit familiar.
"Boo!" The voice growled, and the sound of feathers sounded again, blasting him in the back with very cold air that hit his father's ghost and dispersed it explosively into tatters, that fluttered off into invisibility before his eyes.
Then there was absolute silence. Andy felt his heart pounding and he felt a sense of awe and of fear that made his legs shake under him because he knew, without a doubt,that whatever was behind him was far more significant than a mere ghost.
It felt savage and powerful, a shifting sense of dark energy he could feel tingling against his skin, strange and potent and like nothing he’d ever experienced before.
Now, he was afraid. Whatever this was, he felt, should be feared.
The voice spoke again, making him flinch. "Go home." It said.
Andy nodded, keeping his eyes straight ahead, staring at his father's headstone.
"I'll clean up the mess." The voice said, with a hint of a dark chuckle. "They wont be missed."
"All right." Andy managed to answer, very softly, finding it a little hard to breathe, and feeling for the first time in a very very long time like he wanted to cry.
A sudden pressure, and he felt a hand on his shoulder, and then a dark shrouded figure was leaning past him to look at his face.
He couldn't see the features. The darkness and shadows shifted across where a face might be but the eyes were distinct, and visible and as he unwillingly met them he suddenly felt a rush, and a prickling down his spine.
There was something in them he knew. A knowledge of him, and a sharing he scarcely understood but knew was real.
One of the eyes winked at him, then the cold washed over him again and a swirl of clean air blew his clothing hard against his body as the thunder of beating wings blasted through him then was gone.
A motion before his eyes made his hand come up automatically, and he plucked a long, black feather out of the air.
He stared at it, then he slowly looked around him, finding himself alone in the graveyard with only Jasper on the ground between his boots, no sign of ghosts, or men in sheets, or ..
He looked at the feather. Or anything else.
His knees slowly stopped shaking and he felt his muscles relax. He dismissed the recent terror, and focused on the here and now, looking down at his sister’s fianc՟ still crouched on the ground.
"Dear Jesus, Dear God." Jasper was whispering. "Deliver me from evil."
Andrew wasn't really sure what had delivered them from his father's ghost, but he was pretty sure it wasn't either God, or Jesus. "Git up." He ordered, gruffly. “S’all over now.”
Jasper uncovered his head, and looked timidly up at him. "Oh the good Lord sent you! I thought I was going to die!" He got to his knees, then lifted his upper body and clasped his hands, raising his face up to the sky. "Thank you Lord."
"C'mon." Andy tugged him to his feet. "This aint no good place t'be." He pointed to the gates. "Lets head on back to Sally's place. You'll be all right there now."
Jasper looked around the graveyard, quiet and dimly starlit. “Where’d they all go? Those men?”
“Aint here no more.” Andrew said, gruffly. “Ah don’t know what you all heard, but there aint’ nothing here now so get a move on.”
Jasper wiped his eyes. "I was walking home from church and the next thing I knew, I got hit on the head then I was here." He touched the back of his skull. "I didn't think ghosts would have to dot hat."
"Weren't no ghosts anyhow." Andy said. "Just plain ordinary jackass KKK."
"K..." Jasper fell silent. THen he looked behind them at the empty graveyard. "Why'd they hurt me?"
“What?” Andrew stared at him.
Jasper extended his arms, turning his palms over. “Ahm as white as you are. Why all did they want to take after me? I ain’t done nothing against them.”
"Why? Cause you're fixing to get hitched to a grand dragon's daughter." Andy answered, grimly. "She never tell you?"
Jasper stared at him.
"Jasper!" Sally rushed for the door and they entered. "Sweet Jesus!"
Andrew closed the door behind him and stood quietly, regarding his sister, her fiance, and the two brothers in the room who refused to meet his eyes. “That all was not funny.”
“What happened?” Sally asked. “Are you all right?”
Jasper looked very uncomfortable. “I think… I think it was just some guys having a joke. For Halloween.” He said. “Anyway, it’s over.” He put his arm around Sally. “Right?” He looked at Andrew.
Given his pick, Andrew would have been glad to just go sleep in the truck. He walked past them all and went down the hallway to his old bedroom, going inside and sitting down on the bed.
It creaked under his weight, and he leaned back against the wall and studied the feather he was still holding, lifting it and twirling it between his fingertips before his eyes.
It was perfect, and glossy, a blue sheen along it's curve highlighting it's darkness. He touched it with his other hand, running his fingertips along it and remembering that touch on his shoulder, and that wink. Those eyes. The sense of overwhelming power.
Wild. Amoral. Awesome in every sense of that word.
Just. Andrew considered that. "Ah do not know what you were." He addressed the feather. "But I do believe ah like you. If we ever do meet again, ah believe I would buy you a beer."
He heard no sound at all, but suddenly the air vibrated slightly around him, almost as though something was laughing.
Andrew raised the feather in salute, then he got up and carefully put the feather away in his bag, zipping it up just as his cell phone rang. He checked the caller ID, then flipped it open. "Hey there pretty lady."
"Hey Andy." Ceci's voice was atypically urgent. "Everything okay?"
Andrew sat down on the bed. "Sallright now." He said. "Had us some excitement a bit ago."
"Ah'll tell you when I get there." Andy said. "Some folks given mah sister's sweetheart a hard time. I settled it."
“You sure? I had a funny feeling you were in some kind of trouble.” Ceci said. “And you know how much I hate all that psychic stuff.”
‘Ahm sure.” Andy said. “Aint wasn’t nothing but some fellers in white sheets in a graveyard.”
"Ah." Ceci's tone relaxed. "That kind of trouble. Well, happy Samhain and all that. You're gonna miss a great party here."
"You all doing them things?" Andy asked.
"Am I doing some pagan ceremonies on the bow of the boat and scaring the living crap out of all of our marina neighbors? Why yes, I am. Having a great time too." His wife sounded smugly satisfied. "I was going to have the kids start kissing on the fantail and complete the festivities. I figure I could at least get four of those damn stuck up nitwits to fall in the water with that."
Andy started laughing.
"I'll save you some incense." Ceci said. "You'll be back tomorrow right, right?"
"Yeap. I sure will." Andy let the chuckles wind down. "Soon as ah can." He said good bye and closed the phone, tapping it on his chin and lapsing into thoughtful silence.
Andrew stood on the front porch of the church, gazing out over the short cropped grass as the sun poured down over the trees. He turned as he heard the door open, to find Pastor Gray there.
"Andrew, we're ready" The pastor stood back to let him enter. "That's quite a collection you have there."
Andy glanced down at his dress uniform, half covered in medals and campaign bars and the Lord only knew what else. "Ah done a few things for the gov'mint." He allowed, as he followed the pastor inside to the small waiting room just to one side of the chapel entrance.
Inside, Sally was just picking up her bouquet, looking beautiful in her buff white wedding dress, and veil. "Oh Andy, you look wonderful!
"You look real pretty yourself." Andy replied. "Evrybody ready to do this here thing?"
"Hell yes." Sally answered. "What a day!" She tucked her hand inside her brother's elbow. "I can hardly believe it - getting that call from that company in Mobile? Andy, it's a miracle! They're gonna pay me three times when I'm making here at the dealership."
"Amazin." Andrew shifted his shoulders inside their wool casing. “Aint’ it something.”
"And Jasper fnding that training job with the same company? He's so happy!" Sally gave Andy's arm a pat. "It's all the Lords good work. LIstenin to our prayers and all that. I just can't believe it."
"Sure nuff seems like a miracle." Andy agreed. "You all gonna like living up near the city?"
Sally sighed. "It's gonna be hard. I never lived nowhere but here, Andy. I don't know what mama would say, me leaving this house here behind." She glanced up at him. "But when this sorta thing comes at you, it's the lord's will, don't you think? Happening like that?"
"Wall." Her brother cleared his throat gently. "Ah do think things do happen for some kinda reason."
The heard the organ start to play. "It's time." Sally said. "Andy, I'm so glad you came. I think everything's going to work out great."
"Ahm sure." Andy led her to the door and they waited for the music. He could see the church full of people, and they started forward as they all stood and turned to watch their entrance.
He remembered sitting in these pews, listening to the words of the Bible and knowing the men and women on either side of him only gave lip service to them, that adulterers and bigots sang those pretty hymns with all the conviction in the world - and soon as they cleared the door they were beating their kids, or stealing money or whatever.
Like the old man. Telling him not to marry no northeastern woman while he was having sex with every girl too scared to say no to him and figuring out ways to beat them others who only had different color skin.
He could see all the eyes on him, and he walked with his head high, glad as hell he'd put his money where his morals had been, cut the cord and never looked back. He could still remember the old man's face when he'd put his duffel on his shoulder, told him to fuck off, and left - letting the Navy become his family until he'd gone and met Cec.
Until he'd held his own child in his hands, and known a moment of perfect rage at how old Duke had treated his kids, and his wife, and neighbors around him who just so happened not to be just like he was.
Never went back after that. He knew he'd have killed the old man and ended up in some rancid ass Alabama jail cell for it and the bastard wasn't worth that.
"Wish mama was here." Sally whispered as they walked between the pews.
Andy didin’t. He wasn’t sure how their gentle mother would have coped with the world they were in now. “Ahm sure she’s watching you and saying hay.” He told his sister.
Sally smiled. “You know what, I think you’re right.”
Jasper was waiting up near the alter, in his gray morning suit that looked like it'd graced the grooms in his family for the Lord only knew how many generations. Andy deposited Sally next to him, then he took a step back next to Edgar and stood with his hands at his sides as Pastor Gray performed the ceremony.
He watched the crowd, looking around in the corners to see if there were any shadows, or mists but the inside of the church was full of people and light and music and nothing more.
Outside, his rental truck was waiting with his bag already in it. He listened to the end of the ceremony, watched his sister and her new husband kiss, then he shook Jasper's hand and gladly followed them out of the church.
Everyone was heading over towards the house. Andrew sorted his way through them and went to the truck instead. He sensed motion behind him and turned, to find Jon there. "Lo."
"You all leaving?" Jon said. "Hay, food's not that bad."
Andy opened the door and leaned on it. "Told Cec I'd be back fore dark." He said. "Gotta go."
"Ya'll want me to drive you to the field? Take this back? Gotta walk to the airplane otherwise." Jon offered.
Andy studied him, then he indicated the other door, and settled behind the wheel. He headed off towards the field, leaving the party behind them.
He'd done what he could. Maybe the change would give Sally a better life. Maybe it wouldn’t. But at least it was change. He suspected, though, his sister and her husband were in for a surprise when they had them their new employee talk at that new company of theirs.
He’d enjoyed his, specially when they got to talking about the big shots in the company and showed pictures.
They drove in silence for a several minutes. Then Jon shifted, loosening the tie around his neck. 'You all gonna say what all happened last night?"
Jon nodded. "Stu figured." He said. "You kill them boys, Andy?"
"No ah did not." Andy replied. "But I done saw what did, and ah will tell you that you all need to stop messing around in these here parts for your get yourselfs into some real trouble."
Jon blinked a few times. "Was it really a ghost?" He finally asked.
"Ah do not know what it was." His brother said, firmly. "But It aint' something you all want to fool with."
"They was just trying to scare Jasper." Jon said. "Keep him off, y'know? Dind't mean nothing by it."
Andy didn't say anything.
"Figured he'd run off." Jon went on. "Stu and I aint' got no place to go, Andy. Sally was gonna throw us out in the road. Didnt we growed up there too? Our house much as hers no matter what mama said."
"Wall." Andy paused, waiting for a truck to pass before he turned downt he road that led to the airfield. "Ya'll got it now."
"Yeah. That's real weird how that happened, huh?"
"Ain't weird. Just took some phone calls is all.." Andy muttered as he pulled the truck into the parking lot. "Got to find me that pilot feller."
"Hay. That's a sweet lookin plane. Wonder what it's doing here?" Jon was looking out the window to the field, where a sleek Learjet was parked, looking sadly out of place.
Andy parked the truck and glanced at the plane, pausing when his eyes fell on the logo painted on the tail. "Huh." His brows lifted. "Ah do believe that there might be my ride home."
Jon stared. "Y'all are going in that?" He hopped out of the truck. "Get out!"
Andy got his bag out and closed the door, as the pilot who'd been waiting near the plane started towards him. "Yeap."
"Commander?" The pilot greeted him. "Ms. Roberts asked me to pick you up."
"Now did she?" Andy smiled. "Imagine that."
"Yes sir, she did." The pilot took his bag. "I'll stow that for you." He went to the planes luggage hatch and opened it.
"Mah kid." Andy looked at the plane with a sense of wry satisfaction. "They done got one of these here things and parked it down by us for her to use since September. Didn't want her flying in them big ones."
"Huh." Jon followed him over to the plane and looked inside. "Boy that's sweet." He said. "I aint never seen the inside of one of these."
Andy settled into one of the big, comfortable leather seats and extended his legs, crossing them at the ankles. "Ah have."
Jon shook his head. "Well, anyhow. See ya, Andy. Too bad you didn't want o stay for the party."
"So long" Andy lifted a hand and then dropped it as the pilot climbed aboard and shut the hatch behind him.
"Sir, there's cold beer in the fridge there, and some ice cream." The pilot said. "Ms. Roberts said she wasn't sure which one you'd need first."
Andy started laughing.
"And I need to get out of here before the winds come up again." The pilot said. "So please, sir, hold on and we'll be out of here before you know it."
Andy folded his hands on his lap and looked out the window. He could see Jon standing there next to the truck, watching the plane with a sad look on his face. Wasn't for him, he reasoned. Maybe he and Stu had been looking forward to another night of harassment.
Or maybe he'd miss Sally. Andy didn't think either of his brothers could cook. Maybe getting what they wanted would turn out to be a hell of a lot worse than they thought.
"Ready to go home sir?"
"Hell yes." Andy settled back as the engines turned over. "Can't go fast enough."
The plane started to roll and he watched out the window as the field flashed by, grass turning to trees as the jet lifted off and soared above the ground. "Bah bah." He waggled his fingers as the town dropped off into the distance.
"Did you enjoy your vacation, sir?" The pilot asked, after they leveled off and were heading southeast.
Andrew looked up from his bowl of ice cream. One eyebrow hiked sharply.
"Guess not!" The man said, turning back to his controls. "You can watch outside for witches though, it's Halloween after all. "
Involuntarily, he looked out the window, seeing nothing more than the expected clouds and sky. With a shake of his head, he turned back to find a surprising dent in his dish, as though someone had swiped a forefinger through the scoop to taste it.
He stared at it, then peered around the inside of the plane. Aside from the pilot, and himself - it was empty.
He set the dish down and got up, going to the refrigerator and removing the ice cream, dishing up a second portion and setting the bowl down on the table between the seats. Then he sat back down and picked up his bowl, turning his back on the table and resuming his spoon.
He seriously hoped it would be empty by the time they landed.