by Tonya L. Turknett
|part 1 of 4|
Someone shook him hard. Johnny caught sight of his teacher walking away as he opened his eyes. “Try to stay with us, Johnny.”
Laughter echoed through the room. Johnny shrank into his chair and tried to disappear into the fog that sometimes filled his mind. A muffled snort from the back of the room jolted him, reminding him that the bus ride home would be worse. Johnny pressed his teeth into his tongue until the metallic taste of blood filled his mouth.
Seeking refuge behind the vinyl-covered benches on the school bus, Johnny watched as the other kids got dropped off at houses — mansions to him — and he cowered at the thought of them seeing that he lived in that box. The real torment came as he walked toward his home. Skip Carlson would invariably call to him from the back seat, “Here, pig, here! Oink, oink, oink! You frickin’ corn-fed piggy!”
Johnny could hear the howling laughter spill from the bus as it pulled away. He even heard it in his sleep.
“Ma?” Johnny yelled. He let what was left of the storm door slam against the trailer without interruption. A cockroach the size of his thumb scurried over the toe of his shoe and he ground it into the exposed subfloor before walking into the living room.
Johnny’s mother often sent him out with one of his father’s old traps to see what he could catch along the banks of the river. Johnny would bring her squirrels and rabbits. She never seemed to care what it was, just that it was alive. It was the only time she acknowledged him.
“Ma?” Johnny began to wonder if she was passed out in her room again. He had found her when she was drunk enough that her lips were blue. He always hoped that one day she would get that way and wouldn’t wake up. He wished that he would never again have to trap anything for her. Johnny always felt sorry for the animals he caught. In some ways those animals were like him — trapped.
Johnny tried not to let himself imagine how other kids were sitting down to dinner now, or how they would get hot baths and clean clothes for the next day. He seethed with hate.
Here little piggy.
Johnny raised his hands and covered his ears.
“The b-bathroom floor fell in two years ago,” he muttered to himself. He tripped over his own words even when no one was there to hear him. Another roach darted across the kitchen counter. Johnny shuddered.
Johnny detested the rusted-out, lightless hole that he and his mother lived in. The one good thing about it was that it was perched on the bank of the Moon River in such a way that he could throw stones out the back door and hit the river, yet he could just as easily hit the train tracks from the front.
The river was what soothed him. The river was clean.
* * *
“Hey, hoss,” the old man greeted Johnny.
Johnny found Mr. Phelps in front of Harper’s grocery. The only store for more than thirty miles in any direction, Harper’s was the community gathering place. If you wanted to know about anything in the county, all you had to do was make acquaintance with Phelps.
“Hey, Mr. Phelps. How you b-been?” Johnny asked.
“About to burn up out here. And you?”
He bought Johnny a soda and they walked up to the cemetery to sit under the arches of a willow. Phelps knew more about the river than anybody. He had fished Moon River all his life and Johnny was eager to hear whatever Phelps cared to tell him, although some of the stories Phelps told Johnny scared him.
“Same old. Skip, you know. I even b-been down to the river to wash up and he still won’t leave me be.”
“You better watch yourself, hoss, there’ve been some strange folks ’round these parts lately. Besides,” Phelps leaned in to Johnny and whispered, “you know the people who built the tracks through here was witch doctors, don’t ya?”
Johnny laughed. Thinking that Phelps was trying to rib him, Johnny said, “Yeah, right.”
“I ain’t lyin’. Ask anybody. My great-grandma was raised with that voodoo stuff, and she always said this place was cursed ’cause of it. Especially that river. She said it’s black water.”
“Are you kidding me?” Johnny tried not to laugh and watched the old man closely.
“She said that when she was a young’n, people thought you could get power by sacrificing something. She said they’d use the trains to kill the sacrifice and let the blood run off down into the river.”
Johnny swallowed hard. “Wh-what’d they sacrifice?”
“Chickens mostly, I reckon, but one crazy old witch got it in her head that she could get more power if she had a better sacrifice. They say that a witch trades her soul to the devil for her power.” Phelps drew in a long breath as if he was afraid to say what it was the witch had sacrificed. He wiped his brow with a faded handkerchief and as he stuffed it back into his pocket said, “She tied her boy to the tracks, said her spell over him, and went to bed.”
Johnny could only whisper, “Her own boy?”
“Story goes that train came with a rider and that it was the devil who came for that boy. Some say the boy made his own deal with the devil that night. They say he asked the devil to let him come back.”
“And in return?”
“Well, his soul, course.”
“Did he? C-come back I mean.”
“A black snake bit his mama that next day. They all said it was the boy come back. She didn’t die right away. She suffered with the fever for weeks, ravin’ about demons. Preacher man hunted that snake down and cut his head clean off. That was my granddaddy. That river’s carrying many a man’s curse. Some terrible things happened down that river. Black water, it is.”
The river was Johnny’s friend. It was dark and secret. It had kept him hidden when he had wanted it to. The stillness of the river had soothed him; the cool water had flowed through his throbbing anger and dissipated it. He didn’t think of the river as black at all.
“Boy,” Phelps said, turning his piercing eyes on Johnny, “you watch yourself down there in that river.”
“I’m just washing, that’s all.” Johnny blushed. “That’s the only place I can get c-clean.”
Johnny found himself wishing that he had the kind of power that old witch sought. If he was stronger then people couldn’t push him around anymore. If he was stronger, they wouldn’t laugh. He could be free of them and of that terrible cage he lived in.
“The deeper you get in, the harder it is to get out.” The weariness of his age seemed to grow heavy when he spoke of the river. “Some snakes is more dangerous than other’ns, hoss.”
* * *
Johnny took his clothes to wash them in the muddy water, determined to rid himself of the smell that made him an outcast. As he hung the clothes over the low tree branches to dry, he was certain that he heard Skip’s laughter.
Here, pig. Come on, piggy.
Johnny would sometimes swim in the deep water despite Phelps’ warnings. He was aware of the danger, yet he would edge out until his toes just touched the sandy bottom. The current pulled at him but he swam against it and it made him feel strong. Johnny’s heart would beat wildly as if it might escape the confines of his chest. The sound of his laughter floated above the bends and snags of the Moon River, filling the air with eerie echoes.
Johnny sat on the trunk of a fallen sycamore watching minnows dart around his ankles like children playing hide and seek. He became aware that he was not alone in the river. Scanning the top of the water, he knew that what he saw wasn’t coming for the fish. It was coming for him.
A blinding white mouth gaped before him, fanged and deadly. The thick length of the serpent weaved through the water propelling itself ever closer to his feet. Johnny sat staring into the white light, entranced.
Hateful glowing eyes stared back at him. They were slits through which Johnny felt he could see straight into Hell. He fought the twisted desire to get closer to the snake. He jerked his legs out of the water and ran along the length of the sycamore up onto the bank.
After being faced with the monstrous snake, suddenly he understood what Phelps had meant. Johnny watched the serpent morph into a vapor which hovered above the water almost as if it were watching him. His blood pulsed relentlessly, driving him to the edge of panic.
Fog rolled over the riverbank. It was still several yards from him but it was coming for him all the same. When he reached the trailer, panting, he slammed himself against the misshapen door. “M-mom! I seen a s-snake! A huge snake!”
His mother emerged from her room, screaming, “If you don’t stay outta here I’m gonna feed you to that snake myself! Nobody’d even know you were gone.” Johnny saw the strange marks on her arms and legs and wondered what sort of new high she was playing at this time. Johnny saw the shadow in the corner as she closed the bedroom door. The silhouette stood out even in the darkness.
Johnny rushed to his room before trouble could come to him. The vision of the snake was seared into his mind like a terrible brand. Johnny wondered if maybe Phelps was right about the snake being a devil. “Regular s-snakes don’t turn themselves into fog,” Johnny whispered.
As the truth of the snake’s nature settled into his mind, Johnny shivered. He spent the night waiting for it to come for him, to steal him away and drag him to Hell. He was afraid to breathe for fear the sound might provoke it.
A sudden sharp pain on the top of his head made him yelp. He felt the warm trickle of blood make its way toward his forehead.
“Get up! Get out!” his mother screamed.
“I’m g-goin!” Johnny grabbed at whatever clothes he could find and stumbled as his feet hit the floor. Unsure whether the snake had been real, he hesitated to leave his room.
His mother flew across the room, jerked Johnny by the hair, and dragged him out the door. “Now!”
He sobbed when he got to the road and rubbed his head. Johnny soon discovered that a patch of his hair was missing.
* * *
Johnny crept through the school hallways dreading each step. As he entered his classroom, he held his head up to meet their stares straight on. Today, instead of gawking at him, his classmates were huddled around their desks shaking their heads and whispering.
“Mom said they found Skip under the Moon River bridge,” he overheard one of them say.
“Yeah. Drowned, I guess.”
Johnny held his breath. That bridge was less than a hundred yards from his trailer; it was close enough for him to see when he went to his swimming hole, and Skip had been there. Skip might have been watching last night when Johnny was in the river. Hadn’t he heard Skip taunting him? He could imagine the horror of Skip telling the whole school that Johnny took a bath in the river. Even more terrible was the thought that Skip had been lying dead in the same water that Johnny bathed in. The hair along his arms stood up above gooseflesh and Johnny had to push away the urge to vomit.
It occurred to him that he was free. Free of the hog-calling, free of the black eyes and burned wrists that Skip so enjoyed inflicting. Had the snake given him that freedom somehow?
A sick smile emerged as Johnny thought about life without Skip, but what Skip had been doing in the river gnawed at him.
Johnny slipped away from school sure that Skip had been spying on him. Phelps knew that Johnny had been bathing in the river. He quaked with rage at the thought of the Phelps telling Skip his secret.
Johnny felt the fog coming over him as he walked toward the one place he could almost certainly find the old man. The fog that overtook him was dark. When it cleared he knew that he had lost the better part of the afternoon. It took him a while to remember what he was doing in the cemetery. He was no longer angry when it came to him, but exhausted.
As he climbed the hill to the willow Phelps liked to sit under, Johnny saw the old man’s feet jutted out from beneath the branches. Johnny called, “Mr. Phelps? Y-you okay?”
No answer came. Johnny moved up under the hovering limbs to get a closer look. Phelps’ eyes were filled with terror, bulging from their sockets. His hands clutched at his chest as he gasped making Johnny wonder if Phelps was having a heart attack.
“Mr. Phelps, it’s J-johnny.”
A guttural objection issued from Phelps as he tried to pull himself away. He struggled for breath and grew more terrified with each step Johnny took toward him.
“I’m g-gonna help you.”
“Nuh.” Phelps’ face, drained of blood, creased with pain as he tried to speak. He drew the claws that once were his hands over his face as Johnny came near.
Phelps’ refusal of Johnny brought back the anger, and although Johnny tried not to let it sway him, he found that it was getting harder to fight against it. “S-serves you right anyway for tellin’ people’s secrets. I know you’re the one who told about me goin’ down to the river.”
The old man shook his head, but Johnny knew it had been Phelps. “You’re the only one who knew,” he hissed through clenched teeth. Johnny felt the wave of rage rise within him and his hands began to tremble.
A mist swirled around Johnny’s feet. The old man groaned as he put forth all his effort to escape, clawing at the soil. Johnny’s eyes turned dark and were replaced with black pools. Phelps saw the depths of hell in the boy’s eyes and was paralyzed by it. A maniacal grin spread across Johnny’s face as the fog grew darker and shadowed the cemetery beyond them.
“Not Johnny,” Phelps whispered.
“Not just Johnny.”
“You’re the d--,” Phelps trailed off.
“The poor kid tied to the tracks? A ghost?” Johnny’s appearance was no longer that of a twelve-year old child; he’d been twisted into a hellish puppet. “I have to say that I enjoyed your version of my story.”
“Ah. Funny thing is, Johnny believes that if he stays in that river long enough, he’ll get clean eventually. I haven’t told him yet how black that water is.” The thing — the devil that had taken over Johnny — screamed an unearthly laugh.
“Johnny’ll fight.” Phelps could only manage to gasp a breath every several seconds, the space between getting farther with each one.
“Johnny is gone.”
* * *
Copyright © 2012 by Tonya L. Turknett