© Brian Barnett
The Mercedes lurched left and right as its tires grumbled over the uneven gravel road. Milo Harlow had finally entered Elmwood Hollow after two long hours on the highway. He was on his way to visit his grandparents, Grant and Beth Harlow.
His parents had married and moved to Cincinnati . His mother was an artist and felt that she needed to move to a big city to develop a suitable studio. Four years later Milo was born. His parents managed to take him to visit Grant and Beth twice a year until Milo 's father died of a heart attack.
Jean, Milo 's mother, never saw reason to travel down to see Grant or Beth after he died. But Milo made a couple trips after he moved out when he was nineteen-years-old. Milo 's visits tailed off after he married. He thought that his life was in order enough to try for children.
But two months ago, Milo 's wife discovered that she had developed a cavity. When she left for the dentist, she never came back. She left behind a brief note saying that she had fallen in love or something to that degree. Milo figured that she wanted more filled than just her cavity. He fell into a deep depression and had struggled to find some semblance of inner peace ever since.
He hoped that some familiar loving faces would help bring him around to his old self again. He decided that there were no faces more loving than his grandparents from Elmwood Hollow , Kentucky .
Milo sensed uneasiness in his grandmother's voice on the phone. He hoped that everyone was well. He certainly hoped that she didn't mind for him to stay for a couple of days. A two hour trip back home just to sulk alone in his apartment would drive him crazy.
A ratty wooden mailbox stood alone on the edge of the road. It read H-RLOW 1027. He had made it, finally. The car stumbled forward, sending an explosion of water into the air. A large puddle of water had masked a massive hole in the driveway.
The trees attempted to envelope the driveway completely. There was virtually no light aside from a few intermittent patches that bled through. Between the underbrush and the tree canopies, most of the woods were completely blackened. What a great place to be to clear your mind, he thought, it was bound to be quiet.
About fifty yards ahead, it brightened a bit. The trees spread to a clearing, revealing the old Harlow house. It was as quaint as ever. The only difference was that the red paint seemed to be slightly faded and the shingles had grown brittle and tended to curl upward in places. Milo pulled up next to the house and exited his car to take in the tranquil silence and the unspoiled smell of seclusion.
The screen door squeaked open and Beth Harlow stepped out onto the porch. Milo turned to see the same smiling face he had remembered for all those years of warm Christmas gatherings and bountiful Thanksgiving meals. As always, she had her hair pulled up and she wore a floral pattern dress. Some things never change, he beamed.
She welcomed him with a hug as he stepped up to the stone porch. “Its about time you came to see me, Billy.”
Stunned, Milo furrowed his forehead and backed away from her hug slightly hurt. “My name's Milo .”
She shook her head and rolled her eyes, “Didn't I say Milo ? But I always liked the sound of Billy. I almost named your dad Billy.”
Milo glanced over her shoulder to the darkened house and nearly vacant, dusty field out behind the house. “Where's papaw and what did you do with all your livestock?”
She appeared to force a smile, “Grant passed three months ago.”
Milo 's heart dropped, “What! Why didn't anyone tell me? I would've come to the funeral. I had no idea-”
She cut him off with by shaking her head and grabbing his hand. She led him into the house. “He would've wanted it that way. We never wanted anybody to make any kind of fuss over us passing.”
Milo 's heart sank even further. He knew that it would be harder to shake his depression than originally thought. “I'm sorry. Had I known, I would've been down here sooner. I can't imagine what that must have been like. My wife left me a few months ago. I wanted to get my head on straight, so I came to see you two.”
“Well he's still around if you look hard enough. He fell into the combine, you know.” She said it in such a matter-of-fact sort of way that Milo 's stomach turned.
He assumed that she either had slight traces of dementia or Grant's sudden death had changed her somehow. “So papaw died in a combine accident? That's horrible!”
She smiled reassuringly, “After the first few seconds, he wouldn't have felt a thing, dear. As for the livestock, I don't know what to do about them. Something keeps killing them all. I only have one more cow for now. I have to keep buying them from all over the county.”
“Something is taking your cows? When did this start?”
“I don't know what's taking them, but as long as I have something out there for it to eat, it won't bother me, I reckon.” She smiled gleefully.
“Did you call anybody about it? What about the Game Warden? Can't he do anything about it?”
“Honey, I'm 93 years old. I'm not really worried about a few old cows. I've got plenty of money stowed away to keep me going for quite some time. That field is full of old coffee cans of money and the insurance settlement from Grant keeps the cows coming. Just don't you worry none about them dumb old animals.”
“What are you going to do about getting new ones? You said you only have one more.”
“I called Mr. Gardner the other day. He's going to bring me some tomorrow. Just you don't worry about it and relax.”
Milo knew better than to argue with his grandmother. She was the strongest willed person he had ever met. “I'll tell you what. If I see whatever it is tonight, I'll shoot it for you.”
She slammed the tea pitcher forcefully onto the dining room table. “You'll do no such thing! I told you not to worry about it. I hope you didn't drive all the way down here to make yourself a nuisance.”
Milo had never seen her act out in such a way. Perhaps whatever it was out there made her uneasy, he assumed. She had never gotten frustrated or angry at him. He tried his best to ease her mind. He wanted somehow to take the stress away, “It's probably only a pack of coyotes or something. If you shoot one or two, they'll run off, surely.”
“We won't discuss this anymore! You'll stay in the house tonight and you will forget about that cow or you will go back home!”
Milo reluctantly refrained from offering his help any further. Her mind was made up and that was it. The phone rang that same familiar ring that Milo remembered as a boy. No other phone sounded like it that he has ever heard. Beth seemed slightly distressed by the call, but smiled after looking at Milo out of the corner of her eye.
She hung up and continued to pour the iced tea for Milo and herself. “Before you ask, everything is just fine. I can tell by that sappy look on your face that you think something is wrong.”
Milo continued to study her in silence. She was uneasy about something. He could not resist asking her, “Was that Mr. Gardner?”
She shot him a stern glare. “As a matter of fact, it was. He said that he wouldn't be able to make it here until Monday. But there is no cause for alarm.”
“Except for the fact that you only have one cow to last you until then? Seriously, I can go out there and shoot that thing or things, or whatever. Anything can be killed, just as long as I have the tools to do it. Is papaw's rifle still in the bedroom closet?”
Beth stared blankly at her tea glass. She rose from her seat and poured it into the sink. She was visibly upset as she looked out the window at the darkening field. “The sun is beginning to set, so you ain't able to leave tonight.” Her lip began to quiver, “Tomorrow morning, I'd appreciate it kindly if you left.”
“I don't understand it! Why won't you let me do something about that thing, or whatever it is?”
She threw her glass against the sink, sending shards of glass ricocheting in all directions. “That thing is your grandfather! You cannot and will not kill him no matter how many cows he takes!” She sobbed and left to the living room.
Milo stood at the sink trying to allow the words to settle in his mind. He chuckled under his breath and tried not to sound condescending. “Do what now? How is that? I thought you said he died three months ago in a combine accident.”
Beth wiped her damp cheeks with a tissue, and held a picture of Grant in her trembling hands, “As far as anyone else knows, he did die three months ago.” She looked over to Milo , with tears in her eyes. She seemed hesitant to continue, but then as if she could no longer hold the words back, she began. “He was hunting in the winter. You know how he was, always hunting something. Well one day he was out there for several hours and when he came back, he was pale. His hands were shaky and he could barely talk.
“I asked him what was the matter, but he kept telling me that ‘they saw him.' Later he calmed down enough to tell me that he saw a whole slew of dancing Indians. I guess nobody around here even knows they still live in these woods, but they do, I'll assure you.
“Later that evening we was visited by an old Indian man who said it was his tribe that Grant saw. He said that Grant had interrupted their hunting preparation ceremony and they were doomed to starve without since they didn't successfully complete it or some nonsense.
“He said that they was going to make sure Grant suffered the same starvation that they was likely to suffer. He said that the ceremony of the Wendigo would be performed and that Grant was to be cursed forever.
“Well that night, Grant stayed up but I eventually dozed off. We was always like that. He was always the night owl and I was always out before nine. I wish now that I could've lasted the night. Just one night is all I wanted. But I couldn't. I was out by the time the sun was down. When I woke up in the morning, he was gone.”
Beth blew her nose into the tissue and sniffled, then continued.
“Now every night he comes up here to eat a cow and then he runs back into the woods. It is the only thing he can do to satisfy his appetite. He eats double his body weight before scampering off, but even still, his skin hangs off his bones and he suffers terrible hunger pains.
“I would appreciate it if you just left tomorrow morning. That way there won't be any opportunity for trouble.” She placed Grant's picture back on the end table beside her chair.
Milo could not respond. The revelation of his grandfather's fate was too much to comprehend over a half glass of iced tea. “So you're telling me that my papaw is a wendigo? Why not a werewolf or a vampire?” Milo smirked, “Good God, this is crazy.” He walked to the window and looked out at the cow. “Look out cow! You'll be eaten by my papaw, the evil wendigo!”
Beth looked unmoved by Milo 's mocking retort. “If you don't believe me, that's fine. I just want to be clear that you are to leave in the morning.”
“Yeah, sure,” Milo agreed and stretched out on the couch. He had his fill of her ravings for one night. She was not the same grandmother he remembered. “I'll see you in the morning. That is, of course, if the wendigo doesn't get me.” His smirk went unnoticed by Beth as she made her way to her bed.
A sharp beam of sunlight had stretched across the room and paused upon Milo 's eyelids. He rolled over and rubbed the sleep from his eyes and was met with the smell of bacon and eggs in the next room. Once again Milo was taken back to his childhood. What a wonderful aroma. Who could forget his grandmother's world famous breakfast?
Beth smiled when he entered the dining room. “I fixed you a little something to give you the energy to make it home. Sure, down here in the sticks of Kentucky we might not live it up like you city folks, but I'll bet you don't have breakfasts like this up there.”
“That's for sure.” Milo 's stomach began to growl. The smell was intoxicating. “I'm sorry about last night. That was a little much for me to take in and I was tired from the drive.”
“It ain't a problem. Eat up kiddo.” Her patented smile always warmed the room.
The breakfast was exactly as he remembered it as a kid. Milo loved his eggs to be scrambled in the bacon grease. Nobody else does it quite right. After drinking half a glass of orange juice, he hugged Beth. “Thank you so much for having me. Believe it or not, I feel a lot better.”
“Any time,” she responded with a smile. “Try not to stay away for so long next time, and make sure I've got plenty of cows when you decide to come back!”
Milo stepped off the porch with one last piece of bacon. He stopped in his tracks when he saw his car. The hood was torn off and the engine was completely thrashed. Hoses and wires were strewn across the yard. He dropped the bacon and stared in horror at his mangled car.
The windshield was broken out and the last remaining cow's head was resting unceremoniously in the driver's seat. Beth joined his side and shared his reaction. “No Grant! I'll have more for you on Monday, let him alone!”
Grant backed away from the car. “What? What do you mean ‘let him alone?' He's not coming after me next, is he?”
Beth's eyes gave her away. Her distress was painfully obvious. “We need to get inside and see if we can get you a ride out of here.”
“What about you? He might get you if you stay here.”
“No, this happened once before. Apparently after being married for over fifty years, not even a transformation into a bloodthirsty Hell-beast can come between us. You, on the other hand, will need to leave before nightfall.”
“I'm his grandson! He wouldn't kill me, would he?”
Beth looked up from the phonebook, “Maybe if you would've visited more often he would be less inclined, but we need to be sure.” A voice on the phone receiver took her attention away, “Yes, Harlan? I know its Sunday, but do you think you could fix my grandson's car by tonight? Oh really. Uh huh, well the motor seems to have been torn apart by vandals last night.” She looked up to Milo and winked. Milo hollowly acknowledged her wit.
“Really? That long? No, that won't do. I'll just see what else we can do. Oh how's that Nancy ? Yeah, she's always so nice. Tell her I said hi and thank her for that spice cake last week. It was delicious. Ok, you take care. Bye-bye.” Beth hung up the receiver and smiled, “That Harlan is always so nice on the phone, but you know he likes to drink like a fish.”
Milo interrupted, “So I guess he can't fix it then?”
“Oh, no. He said it would take him a couple days to get engine parts in. Plus he does tires mostly, so he said it would all be guess work.”
“Great, so now what? I guess I'm stuck here?”
“Don't you worry none. I'm going to call Ginger down the road. She has a car. Maybe she can give you a ride somewhere. Plus, she's quite a looker. Maybe you should fix yourself up a bit first.”
Milo stared at her in disbelief for a moment before exiting to the porch. He spoke through the door, “I'll be out here for a minute to get some air.” The time was nearly 9:30. There was still plenty of time to either get out of town or plan his defense. The phone call that his grandmother was making would decide which.
The screen door screeched open and Beth stepped out. “I'm sorry hon, but her bursitis is acting up after she went horse riding yesterday. She can barely even leave the bed.”
“Well, I guess I'm just going to have to weather the storm. I guess I'll just get papaw's rifle and hole up in the cellar. Maybe if I barricade the doors, he won't be able to get to me by the time morning comes around.”
Beth's face melted into sadness. “Well, either way I won't take any part in it. He's still my husband as much as you're my grandson. I'll make you some fried chicken for supper, but that's all I can offer.”
Milo 's heart sank. He was truly alone as much as he would have been at home. Except at home there wasn't a bloodthirsty creature that he would have to face.
The next several hours were spent rearranging boxes in the cellar and strengthening the cellar doors. The soft yellow glow of the single dust-covered 60 watt bulb cast a disturbing hue across the cellar floor. There was much work still to be done.
Beth skid a plate across the table to Milo . She didn't make eye contact with him as she laid out their meals. It was a bounty fit for a king, or perhaps for a death row prisoner's final meal - Fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, green beans, corn and rolls.
Milo finished his ample meal and grabbed the Remington that used to belong to his papaw. “I'll be in the cellar. It should be getting dark in about an hour. By then, I'll be completely barricaded in.”
“I hope you make it all right. I keep telling him one night ain't going to kill him, but he goes on eating everything in sight anyway.” She sighed and rested her face on her hand. “I'm sorry about not helping you, but I can't have it on my conscious that I played part in killing my husband.”
Milo flashed an uneasy smile and reassured her, “I understand. Who knows, maybe he'll find a deer and eat it instead.” With that, he walked through the squealing screen door and let it slap shut behind him. The sky began to burn orange.
Milo latched the cellar door and reinforced it with several warped two-by-sixes that had grayed with age. Not a sliver of daylight made it through when he was finished. He pulled the chain on the light bulb once again painting the room with a sickening yellow glow.
He slid boxes that he had stacked paint cans and bricks into up against the doors. Dust clouds that swirled from all the movement choked Milo . There were plenty of weighted bits and pieces lying about in the cellar that were transformed into make-shift wall reinforcements. He looked at his wristwatch and it was exactly 8:12. It should be sufficiently dark enough outside for Grant to come to the house if he felt so compelled.
The floorboards above twisted and creaked. Dust trickled down in swirls and agitated Milo 's nose. Beth was probably preparing for bed or putting away supper, he guessed. Milo could hear the old turntable playing upstairs. The muffled music of Woody Guthrie resonated. It was going to be a long night.
Milo snapped awake and glanced at his watch. His eyes took a moment to focus. It was 3:47. He settled back on the canvas tarp in the back corner of the cellar. It was silent upstairs. Beth must have gone to bed.
Milo laid his head back down and laid the Remington on the floor next to him. He decided he was going to go home tomorrow rather if he walked or hitchhiked. Sleeping in a cellar clutching an old rifle was ridiculous.
A cataclysmic crash woke Milo for a second time. He sat up and tried to rub clarity into his eyes. He blinked several times before he saw the boxes falling away from the cellar door as another loud concussion knocked the door nearly off its hinges.
This is it, he thought. It was time to stand his ground against the creature that used to be his papaw. Another crash sent splintered wood and several boxes across the cellar. A bigger gun would be the only comfort that would sate Milo after witnessing the creature's amazing strength.
A gargled moan greeted Milo through the fractured door. A severely gaunt face with gray skin and yellowed eyes peered through with a sneer. It wasn't long before the door was completely without hinges and flew to the back of the cellar.
Milo slid the bolt into place and aimed the gun at the twisted form in front of him. Grant was disproportionately larger than he used to be. His bone structure was certainly broader, but his skin seemed to hang loosely. The result was a disgustingly emaciated wreck of a creature.
It had long, yellowed fingernails and a nearly hairless body with red splotches on its gray skin. Once it walked halfway across the cellar, Milo aimed the rifle at its forehead. He hated to take the life of the man who taught him how to skip rocks in the creek and to properly eat walnuts using a ball-peen hammer, but he had no other choice. One of them was about to die.
Milo clamped his jaw down and squeezed the trigger. Instead of a shoulder kicking boom, there was a near inaudible click. Grant was nearly upon him when Milo turned the rifle around and swung it by gripping the barrel.
Upstairs Beth boiled some water for some tea. She awoke a few minutes before Grant broke in. She yawned as she casually whirled the tea bags around in the pot. The floor under the dining room table bounced and knocked over the salt shaker. A muffled scream was cut short as the floor bounced once more.
Beth turned to the table and shook her head. She picked up the salt shaker and threw a few grains over her left shoulder. “That Grant and the messes he makes.”
The next morning Beth dug a shallow hole in the pasture. In the hole she dropped a plastic bag. The bag fell open, and a crudely severed hand fell out. She sighed and pushed it back in with the shovel.
She began to fill the hole when she remembered the firing pin from the Remington. She took it out of the pocket on the front of her dress and dropped it next to the bag. She patted the earth down tight and wiped her brow with her sleeve. The cool breeze felt good against her moistened forehead.
As she made her way back to the house, Mr. Gardner pulled up the driveway with his cattle trailer. She smiled to greet him and motioned him to pull around the house.
He pointed at the shattered cellar door, “Did some vandals come and break your door in?”
She shrugged, “Evidently so. I'll have to fix it up directly, I suppose. Come inside, I'll put some tea on for you.”
He looked at the car, “Whose car is that? It looks pretty torn up.”
“Yeah, it belonged to my grandson, Billy. He just left it here to rust. I reckon the vandals had their way with it too.”
Mr. Gardner shook his head, “I'll tell you. The things we do for our grandkids.” He leaned on his truck and smiled. “Hey, I brought you ten cows. I'll have the rest here this afternoon.”
Beth smiled, “Thanks a bushel. Hey, let's get some tea. I can put some Woody Guthrie on.”
“Oh, I love ‘So Long, It's Been Good to Know You.'”
“Oh, that song always makes me cry.”