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Goodie Withers

The singing of the cicadas was what would always be on the mind of those who remembered the boy who disappeared. They wouldn’t all remember his name, but they would remember that it was that spring, which was so unusually warm, when the big insects clawed their way to the surface, making that hollerin’ noise that indicated that they were willing to mate. The sound was deafening to some, making the heat just that much more unbearable. As human sweat would trickle down thick necks and into warm cleavages, the irritation was heightened by the noise of those thick bodied bugs that used air and clamor as a way to announce their arrival. 

There were those who would chomp on them. They would gather up as many of those dang bugs as possible before building a nice little feast. Not long after some of the people had built those feasts, little Tommy something or another (nobody remembered his name anymore, he was just that Tommy) died because he and the bugs didn’t get along so well. He blew up like a puffer fish after eating them, and it simply took away his breath for good. Still, people skewered them and put them on their fire pits to roast up good and juicy just so they could eat them.  

They had a memorial for him at the elementary school and some of the girls cried. 

Then there was the Pretty boy, his last name not really reflecting the shock of red hair that pushed out from beneath his cap as he rode his bike all over town. He was sixteen when they found him on the viaduct, his body laying still as road kill, even though the people believed that he had just fallen off his bike and hit his head, wiping the life right out of his eyes. 

That was two deaths that happened the summer that the boy disappeared. Two young lives lost frivolously, but likely by God’s command as there was no other excuse the people of the town could find. There was no criminal, no dark spirit that they could blame for taking two of their young. It was bad luck, they thought. That is, it was just bad luck until the boy disappeared and their newspapers were lit up with the news of how another child seemed to be a victim of some dark spirit that had shrouded their little burg. 

It wasn’t like anybody in the town had cared about the boy before he disappeared. His slight frame was always without nourishment, and even the cicadas did not seem to make an increase in his wiry limbs. In truth, they barely cared about the boy after he was gone. They only cared because it was an entertainment to speculate just what had happened to the slight, almost anonymous child to whom nobody had bothered to give much attention. 

All the attention that he had in life came from being wild and reckless. He was calculating, and so very emotional in the way in which his eyes would size up a situation and he would see a path toward making himself seen. Some might have said it was sociopathic, but he was just a lost little boy who wanted to matter to somebody. His mind didn’t really think about how much he needed to be seen, but still his brain would always seem to find ways to get the attention of teachers and store owners when he had burst into their calm in some of the most unimaginable ways. Even then, after all the havoc he had created, they still sometimes forgot his name, if not the fact that he slid away from their sight, never to be seen again. 

But he was someone, and he did have a name.

Johnny ran through the world like his tail was on fire, toppling over any pile in his path, and climbing every hill to become its king. There was nothing but energy coursing through his veins, and as he would pause in his whirlwind at brief moments, it was only to plot the next course where his tornado would sweep up everything in its path. Dirt clung to his neck like it was a kerchief, while his nails had a constant ring of black. The dark shadow floated next to the tips of his grin, floating under his chin and back behind his ears. His wild, dark hair stuck up all over, and his face was covered in a splatter of freckles. His eyes were a pale green with yellow flecks, and they sparkled like a sunburst when he was about to pull a stunt or prank. Wild eyed and without constraint, he was a force of nature that was both destructive and charming.

Melody had always stayed out of his path, just like her momma had told her after he had colored the tips of her hair with dark black ink that one day, making her look like a ghost with the dark tinge against her pale blond hair and fair skin. Sitting behind her in school, he had gathered up bits of her hair without her knowing, then let them drop into the ink in the corner well, ruining her favorite yellow dress in the process as they slipped out and slithered all over its fabric. She hadn’t gloated when Johnny had been punished by the teacher, but when Melody had walked home that day, he had made sure to whack her at least twice with a stick, similar to the paddle that had been used on him. The thing that had struck Melody though was that she thought she saw tears in his eyes, even as he was screaming at her that it was her fault for throwing her ugly yellow hair into his inkwell. She knew he had done it on purpose, but she still felt bad that he had been hit so hard by the teacher.

She cried the rest of the way home, her back stinging only slightly where he had struck her, but her heart pounding fiercely in her little chest. Melody didn’t like it when the teacher hit other kids in her class, and she didn’t know how to stop her with her tiny eight-year-old body and no one to give her enough voice with which to yell at the teacher that she shouldn’t hit people. Her mommy had made it very clear that hitting was not allowed, and she had never hit Melody. Instead, Melody had learned about that kind of violence in a classroom, sitting perfectly still with tears brimming in her eyes as she tried desperately not to be noticed. Eventually, those tears would fall, but it did nothing to stop the screams she heard and the crying that came after a student was under corporal punishment. 

The teacher hit Johnny with that paddle more than any other student, but she seemed to like to hit him harder because she wanted him to cry. The thing is that Johnny never did, and it was as if the teacher had made it her mission to break his wild spirit and make him dissolve into tears. Her mommy had made sure that Melody wasn’t sitting near Johnny anymore, and the teacher had apologized over and over, intimidated by the powerful woman whose daughter had been bullied by what she perceived to be such a low-class child. Yet, Melody could almost swear she had seen the teacher sneer at her mommy when she left, as if she didn’t like being told by someone how to run her class. Of course, the still so small girl wasn’t really sure what the sneer meant, but she would remember it for years after and eventually conclude that the woman was like many of the others - judging her mother without knowing the real truths of her life.  Melody was to be moved, and Johnny would eventually sit behind Big Bobby who was put in her place. 

Johnny had stared at her a lot over the years they were in class together. She always caught him looking at her, his face blank from emotions, and with none of the softness that she might expect. Still, it was always as if he wanted her to talk to him – and maybe to save him. Melody felt bad for Johnny, but she was also very afraid of him. She wanted him to stop feeling so troubled, but her little mind couldn’t imagine what kind of trouble could make a boy want to court the paddle every day at school.

When Johnny got home that day his father was sitting in his chair, the belt across his legs. The paddle didn’t hurt Johnny, but that belt had been the enemy for most of his life. Johnny walked up to the chair and bent over. His father didn’t make him remove his dungarees, but it stung all the same, each strike harder than the next, and this time he did cry.

 “That woman came to my house and said that my son had embarrassed me. How do you think that made me feel?” he said calmly as the belt swung over and over, striking the tender flesh of his young son.

 “I’m sorry, Daddy,” Johnny croaked out. He knew it would be worse if he tried to defend himself, and that only an apology had a hope of getting through the stern look his father gave to him with no emotions and not an ounce of sympathy

 “I don’t think you are, son,” his father had said to him as he continued to land blow after blow. “I think that I will never be able to beat the willfulness out of you.” With that he struck harder, continuing even as his son went down on an elbow, tears flowing and the paddling from the day before now rising red with blood as he was doubly punished. “That woman, who thinks she can speak to a man with such audacity, wanted to make me seem like a foolish man with no will to discipline my son. I will have to show her different, now won’t I?” The belt continued to swing through the air, each slap tearing at the boy as if he wanted to cleave him in two.

When it was over, Johnny lay gasping on the floor, no longer crying and in shock with the intensity of the pain that his father had applied to him. He wanted his mother, but she had been long in the grave, and Johnny knew that crying out for her would only make things worse. After his daddy had walked out the door, the screen slamming behind him, Johnny was grateful that he would probably go to the shed out back and drink the stinging whiskey that made his daddy smell so bad, but seemed to calm his anger. It was a while before Johnny got up off the dirty wood floor and made his way to the kitchen, looking for some bread to quiet his stomach and some milk to wash it down.

Some days there wasn't any bread, and most days there wasn't any milk.

But sometimes, he got lucky.

Today was not one of those days though. He knew that his stomach was going to rumble all night, and he wasn't sure how he was going to stop it from rumbling the next day. He decided it was time to take a trip to Old Man Murray’s garden. Johnny knew that he had to be careful when he went over to the lush garden in which his stomach could find the relief that was full of nutrients and goodness. He moved out of the backdoor, lanky and graceful all at the same time, moving stealthily through the underbrush in toward the catty corner back of the house. The garden was angled to the right in one house down, but the large yards and flourishing underbrush made it easy to hide until just before reaching that Garden. If he was lucky, the old man wouldn't be looking out his back window. He knew that he was only going to be able to get a couple of carrots and maybe a tomato, but it was more than just a few days since he had any real food, and it would have to do. 

Town guilt is a living thing. I didn’t know a lot of this until the built up secrets began to haunt my visions. I never knew a wit about Johnny until she came to town, bringing with her shadows and whispers that came to me on long nights when sleep was distant. I’m the town witch, it’s shaman, but most don’t know it. Most only know that I was the town sheriff of this little burg, and that I was the wall that stood between what they believed to be true and the real truth. This is the worst of it, and it haunts us still. It haunts her and I cannot break her free.  

Artemis McKenny

Journal Entry 1

December 25, 2009

I suppose I could have just let it go. It’s just that the neon intensity of the entry in her journal had burned so bright that I had to pursue it, but I should have just let it go. I could have just assigned the insanity of it to the idea that she had been an imaginative little girl, writing about things she couldn’t have possibly done. Instead, I clung to this odd little entry, the singular evidence that something bad had happened, and that it could have very well have been her fault - her darkness. She had never shared a single moment in which that reality could have been true. She had been the perfect mom - cookies, holidays, and personal advice that was profound with the depths of an uncanny wisdom, all coming from the woman that kept me safe throughout my life. Nothing foreshadowed the darkness, and nothing prepared me for what would come from choosing to pursue this whole new world of reality that had been part of my mom. 

2005 was the kind of year that marks a turning point - the kind of changes that you just can’t escape. 

That was the year that I turned 27 years old. I lost my mother to cancer, and I found out that she lived an entire life before I was born. I suppose I should have known that she lived an entire life without me, but as her child, I only thought of her as existing from the moment that I looked into her eyes and recognized her for the first time. Of course, I don't know when that was in my life. It could have been in the first few minutes after my birth, or maybe it was later when I looked into the eyes of the only person that truly ever loved me and recognized that profound singularity. Whenever that moment happened, it was then that I found a peace that lasted only until the moment that her eyes closed for the last time.

How was I to know that the moment that her eyes closed, I would find that I was no longer able to have the kind of peace that I had known when she was alive? How could I have ever anticipated that the ground would fall from beneath me, that her light would not live on through me, and that only her darkness, a darkness I had never known, would be the haunting that would define my future? I had no concept of grief until I felt it, and once I knew grief, it was forever going to be my constant companion. It stained everything I saw, everything that I felt, and everything I experienced from that moment forward. Nothing was ever the same. She was a gatekeeper, holding back the secrets of her own making that would in the end come to destroy me. This new world was one of pain and sorrow, and I had known none of it as long as she had lived.

As much as it was sad and life-altering, it was also strange. As she clung to life, even then I did not think that she was ever going to actually lose that battle. I could not imagine what it was going to be like when she was gone, and there was a part of me that could not even understand the idea of the thing - death. I knew it existed and sat just on the periphery of every single living thing on Earth, yet I still thought it would never find her. I stood there with her, holding onto that fragile thread that was helping her to cling to life, until the moment that we both failed. As it snapped, a stark realization clung to the fibers that had strained between us, and as my end recoiled into me, I was struck with an almost electric charge that blacked out as soon as the finality of that moment was over. I was slung into a darkness from which I would never really rebound, but at the time still felt as if light must be somewhere to be found. Yet, it all seemed to have disappeared, just like that fragile thread that had connected her to me. 

My memory was of purity and light. She was the classic, the mother that gave herself over to that role without shame or abandon. All I remembered of her was wrapped in the warmth that she exuded every time I was in the room.

That is, it is what I remembered up until right before her last breath. Her warmth had waned when she was no longer truly present, her body wrapped in the medical cocoon of tubes, beeps, whirring, and alarms. Until that cold seeped in through her mental absence, her mind and body focused on a healing that would never come, overcome by the shadows that continued to dim her life, I had felt nothing but her warmth. 

Now, the memories of her life before me haunt that warmth, cold shadows inching their way over the bliss of her parenthood that was my only experience with her. She was my everything until I discovered that all of her was never only mine. I owned only what she gave me, but her heart had buried a secret that I was never supposed to know. Maybe I was never to know it, but it’s also possible that the dog eared page that revealed what she held from me for so long was supposed to be revelation. 

I think overall, I would have rather that my mother’s secrets had remained with her, rather than a creeping knowledge that never stopped being a growing part of my own life. 

Except, that they had not remained with her, and now they are my own. 

 It was not long after that I would find out the unbelievable power of memory in the form of specters that would haunt my soul. It was not all that long after that I experienced hauntings that tore at my heart and made my soul bleed in their presence. 

It all sounds like a lie, doesn’t it? It sounds like the kind of drivel that an author writes to make herself seem bold and big in the words on the page. I assure you, that is not what you are reading here. This is the truth of it - and the lie. This is the way that I found that every single word was a lie that somehow suggested that it all mattered. 

I assure you it…I can only assure you - that it doesn’t. 

My hollowed heart made room for spectors that decried the crimes that had been committed by others. My swollen grief created a barrier between what should have been life, opening up those spaces that should never be traveled. I was living dead, a husk in which things could touch what should have been outside of the veil where those things stayed that had no more life. There was nothing more in the mortal lands in which I could participate, except to write my own memories of life. Writing was the only thread that connected me to what should have been.

Artemis McKenny

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