Peggy Goins stepped out into the cool dawn behind the Catamount Corner motel. As always, she was perfectly coiffed and dressed the way a stylish Southern woman of a certain age should be. Her black hair, streaked with dignified gray, held its own against the wind like the Confederates at the Battle of Brentwood. She drew on her cigarette, leaving lipstick stains on the filter, and luxuriously released a breath made up equally of smoke and condensation. It was still late summer elsewhere, but here in Needsville, high in Appalachia, fall was coming; for the last three mornings, she’d been able to see her breath.
The woods, which started twenty feet from her back door like a solid wall, showed only hints of the impending autumn. A few leaves near the treetops had turned, but most remained green and full. Visible in the distance, the Widow’s Tree towered above the forest. Its leaves were the most stubborn, tenaciously hanging on sometimes until spring, if the winter was mild. It was a transitional period, when the world changed in its cycle and opened a window during which people might also change, if they had the inclination.
Peggy smiled and hummed a song she’d known all her life. It was her way of thanking the world for its gifts.
Something clattered in the big green Dumpster. She threw down her cigarette, ground it into the gravel, and shouted, “Hey! Y’all get out of there! I mean it!” When nothing happened, she walked over and slapped the metal side. It boomed in the silence.
A teenage girl peeked over the Dumpster’s edge. Her eyes, wide and blank beneath a boyish mop of ragged black hair, stared at Peggy. “Don’t give me that look,” Peggy said impatiently. “Get out of there, young lady. Ain’t nothing in there for you.”
The girl slithered over the edge and dropped to the ground. She wore a tattered old orange sundress, and nothing else. Dirt smeared her exposed skin, and candy wrappers from the garbage stuck to one thigh. Breath shot from her nostrils in rapid little puffs, but otherwise she showed no sign that the chill affected her. She growled softly, like an animal, then dashed into the trees. Peggy called after her, “One of these days somebody’s liable to run you off with a shotgun, you know that? Then where’ll you be? Dead in a ditch, that’s where!”
When she was certain the girl had gone, Peggy went back inside, through the Catamount Corner lobby and out the front door. She walked two buildings down to the new post office. The place didn’t open for another hour and a half, but an old man with a bushy white beard already sat in one of the rocking chairs on its porch.
She put her hands on her hips and stared at him. “So when do you plan to do something about that crazy girl in the woods?”
The old man said nothing.
“It can’t go on like this, you know. She’s losing her fear of people. Before long, she’ll be running down the highway, chasing cars like a dog.” Peggy paused and shook her head contemptuously. “And that beard makes you look like some demented ol’ Santa Claus. You planning to keep it?”
By way of reply, he leaned to the side and spit into the bushes. The tobacco left a faint smear in the white whiskers.
Peggy looked up at the sky, still laced with pink clouds from sunrise. “Something’s coming. You know it just like I do, just like everyone with the true in them knows. Careful whatever it is doesn’t trample you on its way through.”
“I’d best be worrying about myself if I was you, Peggy.”
“Don’t you threaten me, Rockhouse Hicks. You’re up to something, aren’t you, old man? All this time, and you still ain’t learned your lesson. You’re going to try something else, just like you did with Bronwyn Hyatt, and when it all goes to hell, you won’t care who you take with you, will you?”
He smiled. “Peggy, darlin’, I didn’t know you cared.”
“I’m just tired of finding that girl in my Dumpster,” she snapped. “Get it stopped, or I’ll stop it for you.”
In a drawl so slow, it seemed to suspend time, the old man said, “When the last leaf falls from the Widow’s Tree this year, she’ll be done for good. No coming back. No bothering anyone no more. Nobody’ll find her bones, and before next spring, nobody’ll even remember her. She’ll just be a wisp of a thing.”
Peggy looked toward the tree, now hidden behind a low patch of morning cloud. She breathed out hard through her nose. “That’s a terrible thing to do, Rockhouse. Even for you, even to her.”
“Set in motion a long time ago,” he said blithely. “Just took this long to finish up.”
“Not everybody’s afraid of you, you know. Eventually somebody’ll stand up to you. Then where will you be?”
“Right here on this porch, Peggy,” he assured her, and patted the chair’s arm with one of his six-fingered hands.
“Hmph,” she said, and stamped away. The old man smiled, with no amusement and more than a little contempt.
Peggy returned to the Catamount Corner. She poured some coffee from the machine in the dining room, then went behind the desk and began sorting the day’s paperwork. The honeymooning couple in room 6 would be checking out soon. They had conceived no children—she always knew when it happened under her roof—and she’d have to strip the bedclothes, wash the disgusting little private hairs out of the shower, and make sure no condom wrappers had fallen into places where another guest might accidentally discover them.
She stared at the swirling pattern of cream and sweetener atop her coffee. A change was coming, all right, one that had nothing to do with the seasons. Needsville changed so slowly, most people—even those with true Tufa blood in them—barely noticed. But this would be a big change. She could sense no details of how that change would manifest or what its results would be. It felt like that moment just before a car crash, when you see the other automobile coming in slow motion, you know what’s about to happen, and yet you can’t do a thing about it.
And then, inevitably, comes the shrieking thunderous impact.
* * *
In their double-wide trailer located in the shadow of the mountains just outside Needsville, Doyle Collins awoke to the sound that had become his alarm clock: his wife vomiting.
He rolled over and sat up on the edge of the bed. The thin trailer walls let him enjoy every gasp, gurgle, and splash. As he rubbed his eyes, he reflected that if this were morning sickness, he’d actually feel a manly pride in her nausea. He had nothing to do with this, though. This was caused by the other men in her life: Jim Beam, Johnnie Walker, and Jack Daniel.
He pulled on his jeans, went to the kitchen, and started the coffee. He looked up as Berklee emerged from the bathroom, gasping, red-eyed, and pale.
“Mornin’, Glory,” he said.
“Don’t yell,” she mumbled. “I need coffee.”
She pushed past him and reached for the aspirin in the cabinet above the stove. She wore one of his undershirts and a pair of baggy cobalt blue panties. He recalled when they fit her snug and tight, a second satin skin on her smooth, firm behind. “Still losing weight, I see,” he said.
He was pretty sure his tone was neutral, but she still glared at him with all the fury her weakened state allowed. “I’ve had the flu, you know. I can’t keep anything down.”
“Except whiskey,” he said, then instantly regretted it.
She threw the aspirin bottle at him. “Don’t mess with me this early in the morning, Doyle!”
He flinched a little as it bounced off his chest. At least the bottle was still closed. The sadness that had grown in him for years kept any anger at bay. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “I’m going to get dressed. I got to pick up Dad and get to work.”
“I’m sorry, too,” Berklee said quietly, standing over the sink. Her hair obscured her face.
As Doyle pulled on his coveralls, he fought the overpowering sense of helplessness. His wife, whom he dearly loved, had been spiraling downward since he’d known her, but he always thought his steady affection could somehow forestall it. Now, though, as anything does in a whirlpool, she was moving faster as she neared the center. If something didn’t change, and change soon, she would be lost to him down that great cosmic drain that swallowed wayward souls like hers.
In the distance, a coyote howled its final cry before sliding into its burrow for the day.
And something howled back.
* * *
High in the mountains that overlooked Needsville, Bliss Overbay stood on her deck and looked down the hill at her lake. Mist rose from the surface of the water. In the shadow of her big house, the night’s chill remained, and she cinched her robe tight against it. She sipped her tea and considered again the images left over from her dreams.
Being held in a stranger’s arms, his lips about to touch hers.
A hand clawing up from a grave.
And a final confrontation between two people who, should they ever fight, would irrevocably change everything, no matter who won. One wore a white dress splattered with blood.
She finished her tea and glanced at the leaves at the bottom of the cup. They bore out the sense of impending transformation she’d gotten from the dream. She thought about calling some of the other First Daughters of the Tufa, to see if they’d experienced anything similar. Perhaps Mandalay had a different interpretation. But her own ability had never failed her, and she had no reason to doubt it now.
Bliss closed her eyes, weary from the knowledge she alone had been chosen to bear. For an instant, something big and dark broke the surface of the lake, disturbing the insects swarming there. Then, like Bliss’s dream, except for the ripples it was gone.
A cool breeze touched her. From the forested slopes, a distant coyote howl broke the dawn silence. It startled the birds into life, and they burst from the treetops and sailed overhead. A moment later, another cry—closer but definitely not a coyote—sounded in answer to the first one.
Then she went back inside, to shower and get ready for work.
Copyright © 2013 by Alex Bledsoe
ALEX BLEDSOE is the author of The Hum and the Shiver, as well as the novels in the Eddie LaCrosse series: The Sword-Edged Blonde, Burn Me Deadly, and Dark Jenny.