That’s the question I asked when I moved “South”.
Technically, I moved North to go South, as my home area, deep at the end of Florida, is more akin to Brooklyn with palm trees and better weather. Regardless, I found myself wondering what roadside memorial crosses were as they were new to me. Some were garish, others dusty and forgotten; all were sad. This short horror story is the genesis for my series “The Fearless”. I hope you enjoy, and please– let me know what you think. If you love it, great, and if not? I’ve got a callback at Target in their pet department (I can lift heavy things).
Without further ado:
A Cross for Sammy Ridgeway
It peeped fretfully from the roadside tangle of weeds that streak skyward without
fanfare each June. Less than two feet high, of a simple design, the roadside monument was like the thousands of others that dot the rural South and elicit a sympathetic what a shame or intemperate thoughts of just desserts for rowdy youth. A car accident, a life-or lives- lost, honored with a folk art cross so crude it could only be made by the hand of a relative gone heavy with regret, or shame, or the paralytic sadness that only the death of a child can bring. The scrawled name was accompanied by no date, no prayers, and nothing of distinction. Even the location was indeterminate, being roughly equidistant from no less than six small towns connected by rolling cornfields and pockmarked county roads, consistent in their need for attention from road crews who turned their efforts to more important places.
Few of the cars that hurtled past would take note of the cross due to the lack of torn brush, or gouged roadside shoulder, or even the odd bit of metal that said there was a body here, once; you should have seen the blood! There are certain details needed in order to wake the ghoulish undertones of the curious, but that was not what we designed for our bit of roadside theater. Without the lingering hint of a violent death, there was no reason to take interest in another open air tomb at the side of a meaningless road, so each observer puzzled over the name for an instant, shrugged, and then turned back to the song on the radio, their lives, and the next turn. Soon the shadows of Queen Anne’s lace and thistles hid the cross altogether, and it was forgotten by all who had seen it. For the moment.
I arrived in the oven of August, tired from waiting for her appearance. Where she slept, I never knew, but the smell of her skin betrayed a history of quartering in haylofts, ditches, even the sweet tang of an abattoir once saturated her rags. My close cropped hair and bland clothes were a reflection of exactly what I wanted the world to see, and in this instance they allowed me to blend as well as was possible in the scrutiny of rural culture. I make it my business to be forgettable, for the most part, and dodge the probing questions of busybodies with the practiced ease of an old hand at the art of avoidance.
I drove to where I knew the cross would be and pulled over, stepping out into the hot breeze that was free from any whisper of relief, as if comfort was a sin that I could not be allowed to enjoy. The listless buzz of unseen insects tapered off lazily as I knelt to the side of the bait, careful not to crush the weeds brittle by the savage prairie summer. Sammy Ridgeway, read the cross. Just right. It was plain but personal, believable. I wrote those folksy letters with the intent that the name would fit in somewhere, if not here, and that was all that counted. I know my business, and I have honed my message over years of trial and error, and in so many nights spent on graveled moonwash, waiting, waiting. Always waiting for her, and for what comes next, until we can move on, sated and giddy under a sky barely dark enough to hide hide my furtive smile, as I veer to the horizon, bloody and reeking of her secrets.
I circled in place carefully marking the nooks and rises of the surrounding field, now waving in dry cornstalks, fighting mightily not to lose their purchase in the chalky soil. The entire field whispered in brittle protest at my presence, an endless chatter of thirst and resistance to the unending wind, carrying dust and the fortunes of some family one gritty moment at a time. Soon, I would return, and I wanted to know exactly where I stood on the killing ground when I answered her call. A diligent Helper knows where to be when the blood spills.
I lost the ability to pass as a high school student only recently, causing me to get creative while building my own evolving personal history. Aging, even slowly, causes detestable changes to my body, especially after decades of beautiful existence without the fear of death. I still feel the sweaty back of a horse under my legs when I dream, or my feet pounding the glorified cow paths that once passed for roads, now covered with the weight of time, or progress, perhaps a strip mall that was even now itself fading into obscurity as time left me further from the shore of my youth, in place so remote I could not recall the most basic snippets of my own beginnings. That is how completely she inhabits me, body and soul, or whatever I have left that currently serves as my conscience.
The advent of the internet created limitless opportunity to spread bait stories, neatly excising the need for face-to-face contact in order to cast our nets among the herd, but the digital footprints left behind with this new vector for scratching her particular type of itch are too great an exposure. That, I could not- we -could not afford, it was too vain, and pride is the mark of a weak Helper, which I am not. I know my limitations, which in itself is a type of strength, and one of the reasons that she chose me. I am careful, prudent, and even suspicious of the most innocuous details that drift into my focus.
I trust nothing outside of my own hands and her ability to bring me life, so I choose the tested and true method. I had to observe, blend when and where I could. I was never too intense or memorable, merely insistent and quietly confident in my delivery, polished over these decades of trial and error, and to the kids who listened, I became a storyteller who bridged myth and ridicule while playing to their deliciously free sense of wonder. I would interject the story of Sammy Ridgeway when, and where, I saw an opening. Asking directions and casually mentioning the cross was a simple means to plant the first seeds of lore about Sammy, and a small layer in the nuanced story, tailored, of course, to each group of potential visitors to my little stage. A good Helper is also adaptable, and can think swiftly enough to seize success from targets that may have seemed dismissive or openly hostile to my curious little ghost story.
Because of my laconic but persistent approach, I was assured that with the first dewlapped nights of October the rumors would start, and they were always the same. Kids would smirk and swear they knew it was true. “They say…I heard…She saw-” The story would mount from a whisper campaign to the critical stage, where a truck full of jocks and cheerleaders, awash with hormones and simmering competitive spirit, would prowl unsuccessfully along the back roads, looking for the cross. When they found it, there was never a ghost, if that was what I had promised, and no moaning shade to prove the story true, leaving a hooting mass of teens proven right, and the momentarily crestfallen leader of the group would then pronounce that the story was bullshit. With the jocks’ collective hands firmly on the springy tits of their female prey, they would ride back, groping and forgetting all at once, their faith in the natural world as unshaken as their position in the social order.
The cross would sit undisturbed, coated with the dusts of summer, fall, and disbelief, but even as the group denounced my carefully planted rumors, there would always be a single believer, lonely and shunned from even the minimal circles of this place. That was the fatted prize that we waited for; the lonely adherent who believed that something existed at the periphery of their known world, and would drive up hesitantly in cars of every kind- even one painfully shy girl who squeaked her way to the bait on an ancient bicycle taken from a slumping, tired barn. Their movements were always the same, darting eyes drinking in the sheer boredom of the scene except for the cross, which stood stoically as if it was unaware that it was part of such an unusual tale. Gradually, their breathing would slow as the disappointment of the place lulled them into a contemplative crouch, or a shuffling walk back to the empty car. Defeat, so visible from any distance, was playing about their silhouette, and curving their backs with the crushing reality that, at least for another night, they would remain anonymous, free from notoriety, and the victim of yet another lie.
They never heard her feet. No matter where, she was silent, streaking across the space between her hiding place and their backs, or sides, or shocked faces. In an instant she was wrapped around them, pallid legs grapevined around their bodies as they jerked upright in terror while she worried at their fluttering defenses. It was never long before they would collapse from fear, and exertion, and her weight, folding obediently, while being rolled and shaken in her ecstasy. Her feet, her hands, and her ropy arms all rhythmically grinding them into her grasp, constricting their bodies as a rictus of gore spread in a joyous, moist slash across her petite features.
Leaning against a pine bole I see the comforting reflection of her greasy eyes, brightening now as the car tires crunch to a halt and a single figure walks, flashlight in hand, to the cross. I know she watches him from the shadows, her languid pose gone as she contracts into a malevolent weapon, still and venomous. I recall one frosty night where I snapped her bones like wind chimes in my lust, rutting viciously into her while one arm flopped wildly against her pale shoulder. I feel the memory of dew-slicked grasses in the highway median where I pinned her under a slivered moon, and drove her face into a stone with my passion, blood spooling from her broken nose as she cooed lovingly to me between heated gasps. How many times have I raced to the wet sucking noises that would be so lewd were it not for the coppery spray of blood in the air as she fed? I feel myself stiffen in anticipation. I think of her smooth yield even as she hisses in defiance.
As the boy walks forward, I see her tense, just as I remove my belt and prepare for our coupling. Like me, she is a monster, merely of a different strain. I am moving fast now, leaving no whispers in the grasses as she springs at the silhouetted boy frowning in confusion at the cross. I cannot help myself. I love her. I feed her, she feeds me, and we take as we give, in blood, and flesh, and the perfect submission of her moist depth under my hips. As she leaps at the boy, I think: She is very hungry tonight, and so am I.