Had they known what was coming, more than a few would have packed their things and headed out for a long vacation. Most folks would have stayed, though.
That’s just the way things are in small towns.
* * *
Christa Jennings closed her eyes, spread her arms wide, and listened. The warm night breeze carried the sounds of summer: frogs and crickets chirping, night birds calling softly. The distant sound of a car horn.
Thirty feet below the bridge, something splashed in the river—a fish perhaps, or maybe a frog.
Christa ignored the sounds and waited for the Voice, the one that had called her from bed and told her to go to the bridge.
The breeze washed over her naked body, tickling her nipples into tiny, hard peaks. She shivered. Her entire being tingled, like the time she’d let Jimmy Rollins put his hand down her pants. He’d gotten mad when she refused to let him go further, and the next day he’d broken up with her before first period.
That’s right, Christa, the Voice said. He left you because you weren’t good enough for him. But now he wants you back. You still want him, don’t you?
A tear rolled down her cheek. She did. Not a night went by that she didn’t think about him.
What should I do? she asked the Voice.
Look down, my child. He’s waiting for you. Just jump into his arms.
Christa smiled and stepped off the bridge.
Below the dark waters of the Alleghany River, deeper than the river bottom itself, something waited in hungry anticipation, its eternal craving for blood and flesh unquenchable.
Marla Jennings sat up in bed, her mouth open in a silent scream. Cold sweat beaded on her forehead and between her ample breasts. A nightmare. Something about her daughter. So horrible...
“Christa?” she whispered.
In the backyard, Max, their Golden retriever, let loose a terrible howl.
Marla burst into tears.
* * *
The man in the black shirt with the white-and-black collar jumped down from the cab of the eighteen-wheel truck and turned to grab his battered suitcase from the footwell. The hard, rough scales of the snakeskin leather reflected rainbow colors in the yellow afternoon sun.
“Here you go, Father,” the driver called down to him. “Sure you don’t want me to take you all the way into town? It’s hotter than Hell... heck out there.”
The man with the suitcase shook his head. He had straight, raven-black hair that seemed too long for a man of the cloth, at least in the truck driver’s mind. Young priests today ain’t nothin’ like the ones I grew up listening to. Too full of liberal nonsense.
“Thank you, but it won’t be necessary. My legs can use the exercise.”
“Well, you have a good day, Father. Glad I could help.”
“Bless you and have a good day as well.”
He thought about telling the driver to make a last call home, because before nightfall he’d be dead, crushed in the cab of his overturned truck somewhere on Route 16.
Instead, he shut the door and waved as the truck pulled back onto the highway, the amplified goose-call of the air horn trailing behind as the driver headed toward his rendezvous with death.
He waited until the long-haul rig had disappeared into the hazy heat waves rising from the asphalt before turning north toward Hastings Mills.
A short walk brought him to a bridge that crossed over the Alleghany River. To his right was Riverside Park, where a few children were tossing a baseball. To his left, acres and acres of corn, the stalks already five feet high, extended as far as the eye could see.
Instead of crossing the bridge, he made his way down the sloping hillside to the river itself. He climbed over the chest-high levee and down to the water. Overhead, a sudden gathering of dark clouds slid across the sky, dimming the afternoon light to gray. Kneeling on a wide stone so as not to muddy his pants, he dipped his hands into the water. Warmed from days of sun and lack of rain, the water barely cooled his skin as he dug his fingers into the mud, grinding the soil and grit in his fists.
“My Lords and Gods, hear my prayer. Help me bring your Words to these people, so they too may follow your path.”
The calm water reflected his face back to him as he spoke. Against the pale color of his skin, his coal-black eyes were bottomless wells. The image staring at him from the surface was that of a man about forty, with a thin, angular face and a long neck. Yet somehow it conveyed a feeling of great age, of knowledge well beyond his physical years. He spread his lips and then frowned at the yellowish, crooked teeth his smile exposed. It wasn’t the appearance he would have chosen for himself.
No matter. Time to begin.
Grabbing his iridescent suitcase, he climbed back up the hill with great ease, his long, thin limbs and body moving with the same deliberate, silent fluidity as a praying mantis climbing a tree.
Fifteen minutes of walking brought him to the gates of Perpetual Hope Cemetery. The wide, neatly-groomed lawns, the ground gently rolling in a series of slight hills, extended all the way to the back lawn of the Our Lady of Perpetual Hope church.
The reverend ran a hand along the wrought iron fence as he walked down Main Street, treading on sidewalk now that he’d entered the city limits. When he reached State Street, the other main road in town, he turned left. Another hundred feet brought him to the entrance of the church. The wide staircase, twenty-five cement steps tall, rose up in front of him.
On the large sign by the sidewalk, someone had replaced the usual announcements with a greeting:
Welcome Reverend Cyrus Christian
Putting on his best smile, he started up the stairs, eager to get started. Somewhere far behind the church, back where the only sounds were the whisper of wind through corn and the laughing calls of hungry crows, a dog howled. Before long, several others had joined it.
* * *
The man with the silver hair stood at the outskirts of Hastings Mills and listened. Behind him, the sun descended through the rapidly thickening cloud cover in a riot of purples, reds, and oranges. He wore a black jacket of indeterminate style that was far too heavy for the tropical-level heat.
Over the faint sounds of music, shouting voices, and car engines coming from town, he heard howling and barking in the distance.
It could mean nothing. Dogs bayed all the time, especially farm dogs. Or it could mean he’d followed the right road, read the signs correctly.
Lifting a small, road-worn leather satchel that resembled the black bags doctors once carried, he entered Hastings Mills.
JG Faherty grew up in the haunted Hudson Valley region of New York, and still resides there. Living in an area filled with Revolutionary War battle grounds, two-hundred year-old gravesites, ghosts, haunted roads, and tales of monsters in the woods has provided a rich background for his writing. A life-long fan of horror and dark fiction, JG enjoys reading, watching movies, golfing and hiking with his wife and dogs, volunteering as an exotic animal caretaker, and playing the guitar. His favorite holiday is Halloween (naturally), and as a child, one of his childhood playgrounds was an 18th century cemetery.
JG’s first novel, CARNIVAL OF FEAR, was released in 2010. His next book, THE CEMETERY CLUB, came out in 2011, followed by GHOSTS OF CORONADO BAY and THE COLD SPOT. His other credits include more than two dozen short stories in major genre magazines and anthologies. If you see him at a horror convention, feel free to buy him a Guinness.
You can find also him on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and LibraryThing.