It is my distinct pleasure to welcome author and screenwriter Robert Ford and Bram Stoker Award-nominated author and musician Matt Hayward into Cedar Hollow. Robert Ford’s books include THE COMPOUND, BORDERTOWN, THE GOD BENEATH MY GARDEN, NO LIPSTICK IN AVALON, THE LAST FIREFLY OF SUMMER, RING OF FIRE, SAMSON AND DENIAL, and FREE RIDE ANGIE. Several of his short stories have been published in magazines and anthologies. Matt Hayward’s books include BRAIN DEAD BLUES, WHAT DO MONSTERS FEAR?, PRACTITIONERS (with Patrick Lacey), and THE FAITHFUL. He compiled the award-winning anthology WELCOME TO THE SHOW, and is currently writing a novel with Bryan Smith. Several of his short stories have been published in magazines and anthologies as well.
WHENEVER I TAKE the Lowback Trail, I always find something different: unknown names carved into tree trunks, discarded briefs by overeager dippers, a smoldering pit left from weekend hikers—but today? Today I found a penny jar.
My parole officer warned me to stick to town, but a trailer park, one grocery store, and row of houses did not make for entertainment. Besides, the Lowback wastown, at least to us locals, anyway. So, like every Saturday, I took a hike.
The clear air from last night’s storm stung my lungs, and as a formertwenty-a-dayguy, that shit hurt. I shimmied through the ferns and passed the old fishing spot on the bridge—a trail the Lowback youth kept secret like a family heirloom. The dirt path wasn’t much to begin with, but now, after the thunderstorm, nothing but thick mud slopped beneath my boots. Rainwater slipped from the high pines and slapped my face. I didn’t mind. Being insidefor eight years, I’d take a elderly drunkard spitting on my face for some relief…Eight years, man. Accomplice to robbery didn’t make for the cleanest record, but I’d just happened to be parked by the street while my girl, Angie, robbed a store at gunpoint, y’know? Prove otherwise, Your Honor.Angie, on the other hand, was still inside—and Lowback was a better place for it.
Rooks and insects chirped and chittered as I whistled and took the trail paralleling the rumbling tributary. High water smacked off the banks and rocks, dirty as a back-alley whore and just as fit to burst. Rumor had it those waters were home to a school of catfish so big they could eat a gaggle of kids and ask for seconds. I’d never been dumb enough to hop in and find out, but with the storm pushing water levels, I imagined those catfish might decide to emigrate to the woods come suppertime. I wanted to make it home before the rainclouds reallypopped, but then again, had I done that, I’d never have found my jar.
After kicking aside a pair of underwear large enough to fit a hippo with glandular problems, that’s when I spotted the tree. The jagged trunk still smoked from lightning, and as the wind changed direction, sour air attacked my nostrils. I pressed my sleeve to my face as I jogged on over. The lone pine sat by the water’s edge, shredded by the gods. A still-flaming branch sizzled on the riverbank. But strangest of all was the crater of blackened earth by the roots. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say a tiny meteor had struck. Roots jutted from the scorched soil like tentacles, and I peeked below at the thing buried in the dirt. Rainwater rolled down the filthy glass. A jar.
My first thought turned to drugs. Could someone have buried paraphernalia for a pickup? Would that attract lightning?
Then (as stupid as it sounds) I thought: silver.Did we have a millionaire Lowback hillbilly hiding treasures outside of town? Parole officer be damned—my hands itched to find out.
I scanned the woods for hikers before hunkering down and pawing at the muck. The dirt came free in globs, gathering beneath my nails, but I soon shimmied my hands around the glass and pulled. The object poppedfree and I went bassakwardsas the thing shot through the air, thumped the soggy ground and rolled as I scrambled to my feet and my treasure barreled toward the tributary.
I bolted and snatched the jar just as it started down the bank to the catfish. Then I caught my breath.
I took inventory of the woods once more. Only the sparrows and catfish knew my whereabouts, and the hissing rain cloaked my labored breathing. I hobbled to the shelter of a canopy, squatting back-against-bark as I rolled that cold jar about my open palms.
A seamed glass cookie jar—the very thing Pop used as a swear pot when I was growing up. Sometimes I think he cussed just to give me pocket money, the kinda man he was. “Fuck, fuck, shit, cock, fuck, and there’s your candy. Go on up to the store and grab me some tobacco while you’re at it. Like magic.”
“Like magic,” I mumbled, and poppedthe lid before peering inside.
I expected a rank smell, maybe from a dead animal some psychotic child had shoved inside, but all I found was paper. Lotsof paper. My brow creased. I wiped my hand on my jeans before slipping in two fingers and snatching a piece. Then I pulled a tiny, ripped scroll free and found myself surprised at the weight. Someone had shredded a notebook page before rolling the sections into tight little scrolls. The years only strengthened that fold, and once I unraveled a piece, I placed it on my knee and held it open. There lay a single penny taped next to handwriting.
“The fuck is goin’ on here?”
I peeled the tape and held the coin up for inspection. A 1952 Lincoln wheat penny. Pristine.
I pocketed the coin before I studied the paper, cursing as raindrops marred the page. The scrawl reminded me of someone using their bad hand, or a drunkard’s love letter. Then I realized what I was looking at: a child’shandwriting.
‘To whoever cares,’ it read.‘I’m not asking for a RALEEEE! Just A BIKE-ANY BIKE! Stop Kasey making fun of me! Pleeeez! Is that too fuckn mush to ask?’
Well, goddamn—I couldn’t help it, man. I laughed. I laughed damn hard.
I read it twice over before pocketing the thing and climbing to my feet. Shaking my head, I had one thought: what elsehad this kid wished for? The heavy jar promised lots of reading material, that’s for sure, and I took off home as I recapped the lid. I didn’t want a single page damaged.
What would I have wished for as a child? Probably a mountain of Fun Dip, Pop Rocks, and Everlasting Gobstoppers. Something stupid like that. But, shit, this kid had balls,man, and I needed to know more. I took off home with rockets in my boots.
Briarwood Estates Trailer Park emitted a soft glow as families wasted the afternoon binging TV. Pop’s home sat at the far end by the welcome sign, no more than a trailer without wheels, and I beelined there as thunder cracked and pregnant clouds pissed ice-water. The wind had knocked June Randolf’s SEEDS FOR SALE sign down, and I made a mental note to fix it come morning. Her and Pop always got along. Then Kenny Williams burst from his mobile home.
“Kenny, what’s happenin’?”
He slogged across the lawn with that ball of beer-belly sloshing beneath his wife-beater. That man could run naked in the Arctic and still say‘it ain’t thatcold’. He sniffled. “Hey, Joe. Uh…listen. I got a proposition to make.”
“Now there’s a word for a man like you. Shit, Kenny, you’re gonna catch your death out here. Why not come over to Pop’s place later? We’ll talk.”
Rain dripped from my nose and I made to leave when he said, “Well, see, I already been there.”
Crap on a stick. If Pop caught wind of another infamous ‘Kenny Williams get-rich-quick scheme’, my parole officer would hop me faster than a dog in heat. Henderson wasn’t a drill sergeant by any means, but the man had eyes for liars. I’d blagged my way onto his good side with each check-up, and you bet your pocket lint, I intended to stay there.
“Kenny, what did you go and do?”
“Nothin’, man, nothin’. Yeesh. I got a guy out in the city movin’ a bunch of repo’d shit. Junked cars, that kinda thing. I’m makin’ a profit out here, just keeping food on the table, that kinda thing.”
I thought of the time Kenny jacked pockets full of Parmesan from Walmart, planning to ‘get a thrift-store suit and sell it to restaurants, all legit-like’, and stifled a laugh. I swear, he and Angie will be the death of me.
“Why were you at Pop’s place?”
“Stuck something in the garage for you—for free, man. Free. Just provin’ I’m movin’ serious shit here.”
“Oh, yeah? And what’s the catch? Got the Denny brothers involved?”
He licked his lips, opened his arms wide. “Picture big, all right? Look, I got a junked ’71 Chevelle that Bryan put a new coat of paint on for me. Gonna pass it off—to yeah, the Denny brothers—for a grand. A grand, easy, Joe. I only paid four-hunnerd. You know how slow those knuckleheads are, they’re a cash cow.”
“And you want me to be your salesman.”
“I’ll give ya good money, cash in hand,” he said in an exasperated manner, as if I were the slowest damn thing he ever did see. “You’re good at this kinda shit, Joe. ‘Member the time you sold the Denny brothers a green-painted bathtub because it looked—”
“—New-Age,” I finished. “Yeah, I remember.”
“So you cando it,” he said, arms still out wide. “I’m pleadin’. It’s real low-risk, Joe. Just a car.”
Rainwater slithered inside my jacket and I shivered as a harsh wind blew my hair. I did need the damn money. Pop’s mill wage granted little comfort, the old house spoke to that. He lied he could handle the bills (‘ain’t nothin’, Joe’)but I knew better. That man would give me the shirt off his back and ask if I needed more, even if I’d just broken his jaw with a wrench. I intended on pulling my weight, getting settled by the time the weather cleared, and making Pop proud. No one would hire me because of my stint inside. No one smart,at least.
“All right, listen,” I said. “I’ll come around tonight. But stay away from Pop’s. He doesn’t need this shit.”
Kenny flashed those nicotine-stained stubs. “Got it. Oh, uh, hey, can I get a cookie?”
I’d almost forgotten about my jar. I shook my head. “Get out of the rain, Kenny. I’ll see you tonight.”
I kept my head low against the sheeting water as I rushed home. And that’s when Kenny called out.
“Joe, it’s a bike!”
I turned. “What?”
“It’s a bike. What I left ya. A serious present for a serious deal. Thought you could take it up the Lowback sometime, y’know? Now that you’re out and gettin’ clean.”
“A bike?” Something cold and hard twisted in my gut. “What kind?” I asked.
“A Raleigh,” he said, and smiled. “Come on, who doesn’t want a Raleigh?”
Pop sat at the kitchen table holding the morning newspaper. A cup of black coffee rested beside him (probably untouched), and room temperature at best. My father was nothing if not a creature of habit. He wore his weekend clothes—a flannel shirt, faded jeans, and scuffed moccasin slippers. Every other day of the week for the past twenty-two years, he donned his dark blue work clothes for the Lowback Feed Mill. Took every bit of overtime they offered if he could, and never took a day off. Hard-working man through and through, my dad. He glanced at me as I shut the door and stepped into the living room.
“Hey, Pop. How’s the world this morning?”
“Going to hell in a handcart, that’s how. Nothing gets my piss hot like reading about the government these days. Stupid sons o’ bitches.”
“Then why do you keep reading about it?” I crossed to the kitchen counter and poured a cup of coffee—black. I used to hate it that way, but when you’re on the inside, sugar and creamer become valuable trading commodities. Now I look forward to the bitter taste.
Pop let the top of the newspaper fold and peered at me. “Because knowing and getting pissed off is better than walking around stupid.”
I laughed and sipped the hot brew.
“Speakin’ of stupid, Kenny stopped by after you left this morning.” His gaze remained on me. “Acted all shifty and nervous like he does. You two up to something?”
“Naaah, Pop. You know how Kenny is. Nothing to worry about.”
“Man’s dumber than a box of shit and always has been. Don’t get mixed up in any schemes he has cooking.”
I nodded and swallowed another mouthful of coffee. “I won’t. I know better.”
Pop grunted and turned his focus back on the paper, flicking out the pages.
I headed toward my room and made it halfway down the hall before I realized I’d been hiding the penny jar at my side so Pop couldn’t see. For the life of me, I had no idea why.
Pop called out as I made it to my room. “Kenny said he left you something in the garage, by the way.”
My father hadn’t touched my bedroom at all during my time inside, and now that I was out, I didn’t feel the need to change it. There was something comforting, something safe, about the posters on my wall. Misfits and Dead Milkmen.Screaming Trees and Alice in Chains.I was home again, yeah, but more importantly, it felt like home.
I sandwiched the jar between my bed and dresser and pushed a trashcan against it, then I appraised my work. Nope. That wouldn’t do.I knelt and pulled out the bottom dresser drawer. Lots of band t-shirts and some hoodies I probably couldn’t fit into anymore. I lifted them out and froze. A wave of nausea flowed through me and I felt like getting sick right there on my bedroom floor.
I pulled out a length of rubber tubing and held it in front of me. How many times had I used it to tie off and shoot up? I dropped it to the carpet and put the penny jar beneath the old clothes and pushed the drawer shut.
The tubing lay on the floor like a dead snake. I looked over at my bed and everything flooded back: throwing up over and over again until nothing but stomach bile burned my throat. The sweating, the chills. Muscle cramps through my entire body, twisting and knotting in places I didn’t think could even dothat sort of thing. Shitting and pissing myself. Snot running in rivers like it was abandoning ship. The leather belts buckled at my wrists and ankles holding me to my bedposts. For my own good.
And Pop. Through the whole thing, Pop. The expression on his face. The painful disappointment I had let something else control my life.
See, while Angie was busy shoving a .38 revolver at a teenaged cashier and demanding the cash from the register, I was sitting in a parked car, shaking in pain from being dopesick.
That’s why I wasn’t inside with her. That’s why my sentence was reduced to an accomplice.
Because I was sicker than a dog, dealing with withdrawal.
After the arrest, Pop posted bail and brought me home while the courts lined up all the pre-trial and sentencing bullshit. But that night, the first night Pop took me home, he told me he loved me. Understand, he’s a kind man, my father, but actually saying he loved me out in the open? More terrifying than getting arrested for robbery.
He told me he loved me and punched me with a right hook the hardest I’ve ever been hit. When I woke up, I was shirtless and wearing sweatpants and my wrists and ankles were buckled to the bedposts with leather belts.
And hell started. Hard and fast and so deep I thought it would never end.
But Pop got me clean. I’ll give him that.
I begged and pleaded with him. I screamed so loud I lost my voice. I told him I hatedhim and cursed his name. Called him everything in the book. But he ignored it all and brought me water so I could throw it up again. Cleaned my piss and shit and puke so often I lost count.
When it was over, and I opened my eyes for the first time to find my body wasn’t wracked with cramps, I loved him even more. I’d made it through to the other side. He’d gotten me clean before I went to prison.
With the tubing in my hand, I headed back to the kitchen.
He grunted in acknowledgement but didn’t look up.
“Pop, I don’t know if you, y’know, go through my bedroom or not. I wouldn’t blame you if you do, but I didn’t want you to find this and think I…”
He peered up, his gaze zeroing in on the dangling tube. That expression I’d seen so long ago washed over his face. Disappointment, yeah, but more—it’s like something sad and heavy he wanted to say but couldn’t quite muster the words.
“I found it in my dresser with some old clothes and wanted to tell you. I didn’t want you to find it and…I’m clean, Pop. I’m staying clean. I just—”
“All right, then.” He nodded and flicked out the paper. “Cut it up. Toss it in the bin.”
I waited a moment, dumbfounded. Then I did as he asked, slicing up the tube and throwing it on top of the used coffee filter in the trashcan. Done.
I swallowed the last of the coffee in my mug and headed to the garage. The door whined as I lifted it and—sonuvabitch—Kenny’s words were true. I stood, staring.
There’s a unique feeling when you step out of the gates of prison. It’s freedom, of course, but it’s more than that. It’s an uneasyfreedom, as if you’ll be snatched back before you take one more step, the guards saying, “There’s been a mistake.” You don’t trust it.
That’s how I felt walking toward the Raleigh bike. It was exquisite.I didn’t know where Kenny had gotten the thing but there wasn’t even any wear on the grips. Besides some dirt on the tires from when Kenny had brought it over, the bike looked untouched. Brand new. The metal flake paint gleamed in the low light of the garage, and I couldn’t help but grin.
It had been about ten years since I’d ridden a bike, but when I straddled that Raleigh, it fit me perfectly. I flipped up the kickstand with my foot and pedaled out into the drizzle, my heart picking up speed alongside the tires.
With the rain and wind on my face, I pedaled down Fishing Creek Road, smiling like a kid on the first day of summer vacation. It was the first time since I’d gotten out of prison I truly felt free.
Robert Ford grew up on a large farm in Maryland and currently lives in Central Pennsylvania. He has written novels, novellas, and short stories, in addition to several screenplays. He attends several writing/horror conventions each year for signings and live readings.
“The books I write are always focused on the characters, first and foremost. Anything else just happens to be happening.
If I can write a story that makes the reader feel–laugh, or cry, or get angry or upset–if I can write an engaging story that involves the reader and hits them emotionally, then, and only then, have I done my job.”
Matt Hayward is a Bram Stoker Award-nominated author and musician from Wicklow, Ireland. His books include BRAIN DEAD BLUES, WHAT DO MONSTERS FEAR?, PRACTITIONERS (with Patrick Lacey), and the upcoming THE FAITHFUL. He compiled the anthology WELCOME TO THE SHOW, and is currently writing a novel with Bryan Smith. Matt wrote the comic book THIS IS HOW IT ENDS (now a music video) for the band WALKING PAPERS, and received a nomination for Irish short story of the year from Penguin Books in 2017. http://www.sundancecrow.com