Fantasy Horror Mystery seance Teenagers Neil Yong ghosts Murder

Harvest: Part 2

By James Van Pelt
Jan 28, 2021 · 9,987 words · 37 minutes

The house

Photo by Denis Oliveira via Unsplash.

From the author: If you haven't read part 1 yet, you should go back and read it.

After the tardy bell for first hour rang, but before class started Tuesday morning, the intercom clicked on for Vice Principal Welch.  “We are sorry to announce that due to the unfortunate incident this weekend, you will notice an elevated police presence in the building.  Some have already been interviewed, and many lockers will be searched.  Please cooperate with the police as they do their important duties.  If any student has information that may aid them in their investigation, we encourage you to come forward.  Teachers, please excuse students who would like to talk to the police immediately.  Of course, we will continue with our learning in our classes as always.”

The intercom clicked off, setting off a conversational buzz.  “It’s an excuse to check for drugs,” said someone.  Another student said, “No, they’re looking for guns.  Any time there’s a gun incident, they have to look for guns.”  Class almost started when the intercom clicked on again.  “Sorry for the interruption,” said Welch.  “Tomorrow is the Student Senate sponsored wear your pajamas to school day.  Please remember that we have a dress code, students.  They must be decent pajamas.”

The next evening, I met Rachael at the trailhead I’d run the day before.  She’d asked the week before if I would run with her, and this had seemed like a good night.  Just 7:00 and the sun was close to setting.  Why does autumn come so fast, I wondered as I tightened my laces.  Rachael wore aqua basketball shorts that hung below her knees, a black Burning Man festival tee shirt with its sleeves cut off.  Beat up shoes.  No socks.

She eyed the bluff dubiously.  “I don’t think a hill climb is in my schedule today.”

“We’re running the base.”  I thought about the fresh truck tracks that had crossed the trail yesterday, and the campfire I’d seen from above.  Where would I go if I was Merle Meecham, and all I had was my dead daddy’s truck and a credit card that if I used it I would be found instantly?  The bluffs ran the valley’s entire length, riddled with short pocket canyons, dead ends, closed mines, collapsed rancher’s huts, and more illegally dumped trash than you would believe.  What a perfect place to go to ground, if you had the motivation.  “Are you ready for the country?”

“Your pace or mine?”  She smiled.

Rachael’s ran like a colt.  Her long legs ate up ground when the trail was flat, but when we reached ruts or the grapefruit-sized rocks that seemed to rise everywhere, she slowed to a tentative jog.  “I sprain easily,” she explained.

“What did you think about last night?”  I turned on an even rougher path, following the truck tire prints.  Here the trail fell and climbed several times as it went through and then over dry stream beds.  We had a choice of which rut to run in.  Between them, raspy desert grass and low rose weed sprung from the dirt

She breathed evenly behind me, but she didn’t reply for several strides.  “To tell the truth, I’ve never had a séance like that.”  The trail cut toward the bluff, climbing for a hundred yards.  Whoever had driven this path had to be determined.  Wash outs and ice chest sized rocks made the road ideal for someone who didn’t care about what happened to his vehicle’s underside.  “My other attempts were all gentle.  You know, a tapping on the table, the candles wavering, once, a voice.  I thought it was my cousin who died when he was four, but he never came back.”

The trail topped out into a shallow depression.  Now the bluff rose a few yard to our right while a low rise to our left blocked the sun.  Evening light illuminated the bluff, but we ran in the shadow.   She said, “I don’t think spirits are truly sentient.  They’re echoes of their last thoughts, and they exist if their lives were unresolved at the last minute.  They come back to warn, or to help someone find what was lost, or to provide solace.  If that was Mr. Meecham, his last thoughts were bad ones.  Last night scared me.”

I smelled the campfire before we saw the truck, an old red Chevy with rusted running boards.  Rachael ran into me when I stopped.  She draped a hand over my shoulder, and the pulse in her chest pounded against my back.  “Is it Merle?  Did we find him?”

But a boy our age didn’t sit by the campfire on the other side.  It was an old guy with big gray sideburns and hair that reached below his shoulders sitting on a camp stool, a guitar across his lap.  He’d set a grill over the fire to hold a coffee pot, and a couple pans on the ground beside him showed he’d cooked a meal or two.  He looked up, keeping his hands on the guitar, picking out a melody softly.

“Heard you coming,” he said.  Somewhere on the mesa above us a coyote yipped.  Farther down the road, far beyond us, an answering chorus answered back.  “Didn’t think anyone else came out here when I settled on this spot.”  He picked out a riff.  It sounded familiar.

I opened my mouth to make an apology, but Rachael scooted past me.  Sweat marked her shirt in the small of her back.  “Could you spare a cup of water?”

Soon we both sat on rocks near the fire, holding water bottles he’d fetched from the truck.  The water was warm but tasted good.  We didn’t say anything as he’d settled back into his chair to start playing his guitar again.  He worked his way through the same riff he’d played earlier, then he tried it again in a different key.  The song’s name was on the tip of my tongue, but I couldn’t come up with it.  It wasn’t until he fastened a harmonica around his neck and played accompaniment to himself that I recognized it, “Heart of Gold.”

“I like that one,” I said.  “The CD’s pretty good.”

He raised an eyebrow and kept playing.

“Sometimes when I’m traveling, I need a quite place to . . . well, be quiet for a bit.”  His hands moved independently of his words, changing chords, picking individual notes.  “Desert’s best.  More spiritual, I think.”  He spoke with a bit of an accent, Canadian maybe.  His voice was pleasant.

“Yes, it is,” Rachael said.  She rolled the water bottle between her hands, letting the little water that was left slosh around. 

I wished that I’d brought my camera.  The setting sun turned the air yellow and soft, and the fire cast just enough light to bathe her face.  She was stunning.  She had never looked that way to me before, which is a crummy thing to say, I’m sure.  Rachael was pretty in a Rachael way, but in the reflected light, she became artistic.  Photo World magazine cover beautiful.  I shook my head to rattle the image.  “We’re on kind of a quest,” I said.  “We didn’t mean to bother you.”

“Me too,” he said.  “A quest I mean.  Every one thinks the music is about money, but it’s about telling your story, boy, about finding a note thread so perfect you’ll float up into heaven and see god in the face.  So what are you searching for?”

“A friend.  He’s in trouble.”  Suddenly I realized I didn’t know what we would do if we did find Merle.  Did he have another gun?  Would he want to talk to us or to anybody?  I wondered if whatever visited us at the séance haunted him, or were his haunts the ordinary kind, like my empty house with its creaking floorboards, and the sense that someone had just left every room as I entered?  

“Haven’t seen anyone for a few days.  Kid in a truck came through the night I got here.  Bad road to drive in the rain.”

“What color?” I said.

“Didn’t notice in the dark.  Got a good look at him, though.  About your age.  Is there a place where you kids hang out?  We use to when I was in high school.  Called it the hollows.  We’d load a van with beer, build a fire and crank up the music.”

Rachael and I looked at each other.  Could that have been Merle?  I hadn’t run this way along the bluffs, but I knew that there were crisscrossing trails for miles and miles, and hundreds of hidey holes.  If I knew it, the police would too.  Surely they would have already searched the area.

The old guy stretched his back.  “I saw him four days ago, and now I’ve seen you.  This place is too crowded.”  He laughed.  “About time I returned to civilization anyway.  Is there a Howard Johnson?  I could use a bath.”

Rachael stood, so I did too.  She was right.  It would be dark soon, and running the pocky trail at night didn’t sound appealing.  “Yeah,” she said.  “It’s on the north end on the highway as you leave town.”

“Thanks for the water,” I said.

He put the guitar in a cloth case.  The instrument was an old one, dark with skin oils where it was handled most.  “Nice guitar,” I said.

“Yeah, thanks.  We’ve played a lot together, she and I.  Wouldn’t know what to do if I lost her.”

“Give me things that won’t get lost,” I quoted.  “Like a coin that won’t get tossed, rolling home to you.”  I don’t know why I said it.  Quoting stuff wasn’t my style.  A breeze picked up, chilling me.  Tonight wouldn’t be warm like last night.

He paused.  “You really do like that CD, don’t you?”  His camp chair folded up and went into the back of the truck, along with the pans and coffee pot he emptied onto the ground.  I turned to go.  He said, “If you’re looking for something, sometimes, it’s good to go back to where it started.  I’ve been doing that a lot lately.”  He glanced at the horizon where the clouds turned pink.  “Everything is connected, son.”

I thought about how it felt last night in the circle, feeling Rachael and Linda’s touch.  With the wind rustling the grasses between the ruts, and the sun setting on the old man, on Rachael and me, on the city, and, somewhere, on Merle Meecham, I thought that he might be right.  As we jogged away from his camp, I looked back to where he was kicking dirt onto his fire.

“That was interesting,” said Rachael a couple minutes later, then she turned her ankle on a buried rock.  I sat beside her as it grew darker and darker.  She massaged it for a while, then propped it up.  I put my back to hers so she wouldn’t have to support all her weight on her arms.  When she breathed, her muscles flexed against mine, and when she decided it didn’t hurt too much to walk, we headed to the car, each walking in our rut but holding hands.

The first stars glittered above when we reached the car.  I unlocked her side.  Before I got in, she leaned her forearms on the top and said, “I miss your mom too, Graham.”

It was the first time she’d spoken to me directly about it.

I dropped Rachael off. 

As I pulled into my drove home, I decided what to do next and called Linda.  “I’m going to Merle’s house.  Do you want to come?”

“Eww!  It’s a murder’s house.  People died there.”

“I know.”  Suddenly I wasn’t sure what I hoped to accomplish there, but I knew I didn’t want to go home right then, not to my father and the long silences between us.  “I need the company.”

She waited for me on her porch.

“Must have been a long run,” she said. 

“I’ve got to get my camera, and take a quick shower.  We’re on a mission.” 

She hefted a backpack off the porch.  “Flashlights and food.  Won’t the police be guarding it?”

“Mobley has fifteen cops and three police cars.  Do you think they can afford to post a guard on an empty house in the sticks?  Two good reasons to go.  He might come back to the scene of the crime, but I think it more likely we can find a clue about where he went.”

“How about why he did it?”

“That too.”

After we left my house, she told me she talked to my dad about colleges in the living room while I got ready.  Both M.I.T. and Stanford interested her, but she also wanted to take a year to do charitable work, like work a soup kitchen or a halfway house. 

She also lied and told Dad we were going to the library to study, which I thought was an interesting contradiction in her character. It fit, though.  Contradictions fit Linda.  She surprised me constantly.  Once, when we stood in the hallway during passing period, all the kids streaming past on either side, without a blush she told the dirtiest joke I’d ever heard.  And most of the CDs she listened to had a “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” sticker on them.  But she wouldn’t go to R rated movies, and then there was the whole personal modesty thing.  She’d started dressing bulky in the sixth grade.  I’d asked Rachael about it last year when Linda came to the junior class picnic wearing long pants and a long-sleeved, turtle neck sweater on a day where the temperature was in the mid 90s.  Rachael said, “I’ve seen her in the locker room.  She may be suited for heaven but she’s built for sin.”

I meditated on that information for a while.

“Your dad’s a little distant, isn’t he?” she said as she drove her beat-up Mini Cooper, a car so small that I felt I was both being crushed from above and sitting on her lap at the same time. 

“It’s been a tough time, lately, but he hasn’t changed much.  Maybe he’s just more so.”

“More so?”

“Yeah, same guy ratcheted up a notch of two.”

She couldn’t shift without elbowing me, and its shocks had gone flat long ago, so every bump in the road rearranged my back bone, but as we drew closer to the Meechams’ house, past the moonlit quarry where I used to ride on my paper route, past the tree farm with a hundred fishing pole sized trees poking from canvas-wrapped dirt balls, and through the grease wood and cactus prairie that surrounded their house, my stomach tightened.   I wished that I could get out of the car now.

“Day four of the hunt, and the police haven’t a clue,” she said, above the car’s tiny engine straining up the Meeham’s, long, steep driveway.  “The television station even worked up a logo for it on the 5:00 news.  They call it ‘The Merle Meecham Watch,’ complete with a hunting rifle over the silhouette of two bodies.  Very tasteful.”  Rocks flipped against the undercarriage, banging every foot of the way.  In the headlights, yellow crime scene tape flapped disconsolately in the wind.  Clouds smeared across the moon’s face, darkening the house when we stopped.

“Do you think this will get us in trouble?” said Linda, as she exited the car.

“One way or another.”

More tape went around the house, snapping in the breeze.  The windows were black. I clutched my camera in one hand and a flashlight in the other.   Behind the house, a large shed loomed in the moonlight.  Crime scene tape wrapped it also.  Linda jumped up the porch stairs two at a time. 

“Hold on a second!  I want a picture.”  I didn’t want a photograph, but I didn’t want to see the inside yet.  Every minute outside wasn’t a minute inside.  The Mini Cooper’s hood made a steady base.  I set the timer for a sixty second exposure, and then shot again at ninety seconds and at two minutes.  In the wind, the brush and trees would blur.  Linda sat on the porch rail.  If she didn’t move, she would be as clear as the house, which would be well lit, although contrasty and spooky in the moonlight.

Linda rattled the door.  The police had taped a crime scene warning poster in the middle.  “Locked,” she said.  “Let’s try the windows.”

In back, the root cellar doors were padlocked, but the wood was rotten, so the hasp pulled free under pressure.  I heaved the heavy door aside until it flopped to the ground.  Concrete steps led downward.

“What are we going to find the police haven’t already taken?”  I bent at the waist and kept my hand above my head to protect it from the bare floor joists.  Shelves filled with canned preserves covered two walls.  Newspapers and old magazines moldered against another.  Stairs lead up to the kitchen.  A wet and fetid smell filled the space.  Out here, it was unlikely that the water table reached this high.  Mr. Meecham probably hadn’t placed his septic field far enough from the house.  I snapped pictures of the shelves, each flash blinding us for a few seconds.

“Yuck!  Let’s get out of here.  I’ll bet they didn’t spend time in the basement.”  Linda led the way up the stairs.  “Remember, we’re looking for clues for where Merle went.”

I doubted we could find Merle.  He wouldn’t have left a map, at least not one the police wouldn’t have already recognized.  I was more interested in why he would do it.  What would make him pull the trigger?  "Interested" might not have been the right word.  "Frightened" fit better. 

Every step up the stairs dragged.  People talk about feeling a presence.  If Rachael were here, she would, but presence or not, I defy anyone to walk by flashlight though a house where people had been murdered and not feel a cold hand on their neck.

Linda waited for me in the kitchen.  A faint bad milk smell tickled my noise, and the room had a closed in, desperately in need of an airing feel.  On the table sat three uneaten dinners.  The mashed potatoes had crusted over.  A pot roast drowned in congealed fat.  Rotted milk filled a glass, which explained the smell.  An unopened Budweiser can sat next to the plate at the head of the table, where I assumed Mr. Meecham would have sat.  Whatever happened, they were just about ready for dinner when it went down.

My flashlight beam reached into the living room, revealing little triangles with numbers on them scattered around the couch.  Away from the kitchen’s bad milk smell, I caught a hint of Lilac, the mother’s perfume.  “Don’t move anything,” Linda whispered as I took more pictures.

“Why are you whispering?” I whispered back.  “Merle’s room is upstairs.  I’m going up there.”

“I’m checking his parents’ room.”  She tip toed around the evidence markers toward the back.

A basket ball sized stain darkened the maroon couch.  I was familiar with a stain like that, so I twitched the flashlight away, snapped a picture, and climbed the stairs where family portraits hung in an ascending row:  A studio portrait of Merle when he must have been about five with his mom and dad standing behind him.  A family picture with a bunch of other people posed beside a picnic table.  A wedding picture.  Mrs. Meecham looked like a teenager in that one.  And then there was a nail in the middle of a picture-sized lighter spot in the wood.  Someone had taken one frame.  Was it Merle as he fled the house, or had the police needed it?

The first door at the top of the stairs led to a small study.  Real estate books crowded a shelf above the desk.  A dust outline showed where a computer had sat.  The police left the power cord plugged into the wall. 

I stopped at the second door, my hand flat against the wood.  Linda thumped against something downstairs, and I heard a muffled “ouch.”

After last night, I wasn’t eager to charge into a killer’s room.  If the ghost of Merle’s dad could knock me hard enough to leave a bruise on my sternum at Linda’s house, what might he be able to do on his home turf?  Then I smelled it.  I should have noticed it downstairs, but I didn’t.  Burnt powder.  Spent bullets’ hard taste lingered in the air.  Nothing else smells like it, and it never goes away.  When I stepped from the shower at home, it was there.  It was in the drapes.  Coating the wallpaper.  My footsteps squeezed it from the carpet.  I asked my dad about it a couple weeks after, but he said he hadn’t noticed.  The next day, though, he’d put air fresheners in every room, and he left the windows open all night.

How could I get used to it?

The door slid open smoothly, and when my flashlight shone inside, a hundred eyes reflected back.  I stepped away, my jaws clenched on a scream.  Teddy bears covered Merle’s bed.  I called for Linda, and a moment later, we both stood in the door, shining our flashlights across their cloth faces.

“God bless, what kind of world did he live in?” said Linda.  She shone her light on his dresser top to reveal porcelain teddy bears.

Linda carefully opened his desk drawers one after another.  “You know, you never can tell what a person’s life is like behind closed doors.”  New spiral notebooks filled one drawer, their plastic covers unbroken.  A pencil tray with a package of new pencils in it came out of the next drawer.  “Didn’t he ever use anything?”

“Look, he made dioramas.”  A shelf filled one half of the closet.  Three shoebox dioramas rested on each shelf.  “Nicely done ones too.”  The top left one showed two stegosauruses crossing a creek.  He’d made the land on either side with papier mache, and the creek with a slick plastic.  Plastic trees that looked like they might have come from a model railway display, and a well blended background finished the scene.  If there was just one diorama, I would have thought it might have been a school project, but there were four full shelves.  Twelve different situations.  Almost no dust on the tiny rocks and plastic animals, so someone made sure they were cleaned.  Merle?  His mom?

Linda crouched beside me to look.  “Wow!  What an effort.  Are those bottom ones doll houses?”

“Hmmm.  That’s a switch from the nature show.”  The top three shelves were outdoor scenes, most with the adobe bluffs Rachael and I had run earlier as the setting, but the last three showed house interiors.  I snapped pictures of each.  For that kind of photography, I covered the flash with a tissue to soften the light. I focused on the first bottom shelf diorama. “Is it this house?”  It showed a living room with a maroon couch.  Different style than the one downstairs, but in the same place, and it looked like he’d painted the walls with the same wallpaper pattern.  A man and woman doll stood by the door, while a little boy doll sat on the floor out of sight on the other side of the couch.

Linda poked the little boy doll with her finger.  “Is he hiding?”  The doll fell over, so she returned it to its place.

A kitchen was the subject of the second box.  The boy doll entered the scene through the root cellar door Rachael and I had used.  Sitting at the table, the man and woman doll ate a meal.  “My folks didn’t use to sit at the table’s ends when they ate,” I said.  Dad would sit at the end, and Mom sat beside him.  I remembered that Mom often touched Dad on the shoulder when she talked to him, just like she used to touch me.  I missed that.  She would pat my shoulder twice, then squeeze my hand.  Whenever Dad talked to me, his arms were crossed on his chest, or his hands were jammed into his pockets.  The two dolls in the diorama couldn’t be farther apart and be at the same table.  They didn’t even face each other.  He looked out at the missing wall.  She turned to look at a corner.

We directed our light at the last diorama.

“Oooh!” said Linda.  I could hear the disgust in the expression.  “That’s the parents’ bedroom.”

Merle had put a wall in the middle, separating the bedroom from the rest of the house.  His little boy doll knelt at the closed door, turned sideways as if listening.  In the room, the man and woman doll were naked.  They faced each other by the bed, each with a hand raised.  He held a tiny strap that I guessed was a belt.  She threatened him with a stick that might have been a baseball bat or a broom handle.  At that tiny scale, I couldn’t tell.

“There’s more story here,” I said, just as our flashlights began to dim.

 Linda slapped hers against her hand a couple times.  I shook mine, but the lights faded to nothing.

A voice chattered near my ear.  I lurched into Linda, knocking her down.

“What are you doing?” she barked.

 “It’s the séance again.” 

Now, murmuring sounds emanated from the closet and from under the bed.  A wisp brushed by my cheek.  Linda grabbed my arm.  “I can’t see anything.”

  “Me neither,” but that wasn’t true.  Merle’s bedroom window let in a shaft of moonlight that showed the bed’s corner.  Just out of the light, barely visible beyond the dust speckled ray, someone big sat on the bed, his hands on his legs, glaring at us, no more substantial than the moonbeam.  He stood and dissolved.  The voices shrieked and flurried around me before disappearing. The room grew cold.

“Damn you!” shouted Linda.  She kicked hard, catching me in the shin.  Her flashlight spun across the floor to crunch against the wall on the other side.  She grunted.

Whatever was happening was happening in the dark,  I couldn’t see her at all, so I crawled toward her.

Cloth tore.  “Get off me, demon!”

I grabbed her.  “It’s me, Linda.  It’s me!”  But I got a punch in the eye for my efforts.

Ignoring her screaming, I picked her up, ran from the room, and didn’t stop until we were at the car. 

Outside, leaning against the Mini Cooper, I still held her, her legs tucked up on one arm and her back against the other.  Her rattley breathing husked in and out, and her pulse pounded against my hands.

Finally, she said, “You can put me down, Graham.  I’m okay.”

It took her a few minutes to breathe slower.  I rubbed my shin.  The welt felt orange sized.  “What happened in there?”

She looked at me, furious.  “I got felt up, that’s what happened.  A demonic molestation.”

It shouldn’t have struck me this way, but I almost giggled.  “Are you okay?”

Linda felt herself gingerly.  “I’ll bet he left marks.”

I knew better than to ask where.  She wouldn’t have shown me anyways, had I been in the mood to ask.

“You cursed.  I’ve never heard you curse before.”

“I did not.”  She sounded indignant.

“Yes you did.  You said, ‘Damn you.’”

“Not a curse.  I was being literal.”

I sighed.  “We left the flashlights.”  Except for our voices, the night offered no sounds.  The wind stopped for the moment.

“I’m not going back in there.  No way.” 

 “We can’t leave them.  They have our fingerprints on them.”  Not that I believed our police department would fingerprint a couple flashlights, but you never know.

So, I steeled myself and walked into Merle Meecham’s house through the front door which I didn’t remember going out of.  I’d broken the crime scene tape.  Now, the moon cast plenty of light through the windows, but every shadow seemed to hold movement, and a crowd that fled whenever I looked at it straight on seethed in my peripheral vision.  I put out my hands as if trying to keep my balance so I could feel the spirits.  I remembered again the 1.8 people dying every second.  Here, in this house, the Meechams joined the death parade, sent there by their son.  I stopped, turned in a circle, my hands still out, listening for an answer.  Why would he do it?  I could see the scene, touch the angers and fears, hear the rifle’s sharp reports, but I couldn’t understand why.

Quiet ruled and continued in Merle’s room, where the bed was neatly made, and no spectral shape sat on top, but the teddy bears rested on the covers against the wall like a furry jury, watching as I moved into the room.  My flashlight on the floor shone brightly, magically restored, but Linda’s sported a dent and a broken lens.  I couldn’t budge the switch.

On the ride home, Linda talked about exorcisms.  “I don’t know the first thing about how to have one done.  It’s not like I can look one up in the yellow pages.  Maybe Father Nghiem knows.”

“Do Vietnamese Catholics do exorcisms?”

Her hands relaxed on the wheel as we drove by the quarry.  I hadn’t realized how tense she’d been until then.  “Maybe.  Catholic is Catholic.”

“We should have brought Rachael.”

“I don’t know.  Yesterday rattled her too.”  The headlights caught reflectors along the road like single animal eyes.  We’d be off the dirt soon and onto the asphalt.  Rachael had held my hand as we walked away from the old man’s campsite.  It could have been because she was afraid of falling again on her sprained ankle.  I didn’t think so.  I didn’t want to believe so.  “Do you think a friend can be more of a friend?”

Linda glanced at me, then back at the road.  “This is a weird subject to bring up,” she said.  “Do haunted houses turn you on?”

“No, no, I didn’t mean you.”

“I know.  I wondered when you’d mention it.”

“It’s that obvious?”  Then it hit me.  “Have you two talked about me?”  Heat rose in my face.

The car bumped off the dirt onto the blacktop.  The first lights into town were on the Howard Johnson at the intersection with the highway.

“Girls don’t always talk about what you think we talk about,” she said enigmatically.  “I’m going to stop at HoJos and use the coffee shop’s bathroom.  I’ve got to clean up before I go home.”

While Linda washed, I sat in the coffee shop, my hands cupped around a caffè mocha.  An arched door connected the coffee shop to the lounge where the lights were dim and cigarette smoke drifted.  A spotlight illuminated a guy in a straw cowboy hat sitting on a stool, playing an acoustical guitar.  Shadows hid his face.  The tables near the stage were empty.  Four business-looking guys, their jackets draped on their chairs, their ties loosened, chatted over a half-empty pitcher.  The other person in the lounge was an older woman focused on the guitar player, a glass near her elbow, a cigarette in hand. 

The guy on stage started singing a song about the devil messing with the best laid plans and feeling strange.  I listened for a while, nursing the mocha, before I realized it was a bluesy version of Neil Young’s “Alabama.”  He turned the song’s anger into a gentle dirge. Quietly, I moved into the lounge.  If the barkeep spotted me, he’d boot me for being underage.

I smiled, recognizing the guitar before the musician.  The singer was the old man from this afternoon.  He’d gone to Howard Johnson’s after all.  I wondered if he was playing for a room in the motel.  The romantic in me wanted to believe so.  The idea of drifting from town to town, surviving on a guitar and a repertoire of songs appealed to me.  On the bar was a tip jar for the musicians.  It looked like a permanent fixture, so I dropped a buck in it.

The guy had a delicate touch on his strings, crouched over it a bit, looking at his picking hand except when he was singing.  It seemed that he was singing more for himself than anyone in the room.  Most of the time, the hat hid his face altogether.

After listening for a few minutes, I stopped in the restroom.  Two of the business guys came in after me, and the three of us stood at the urinals.

One said, “I tell you it is him.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Michael Jordon used to go to the city rec gyms in Chicago and play late night pickup games.  My cousin said he saw him there in ’98, the last year he was MVP.  He said it was 1:00 in the morning, and Jordan was wearing a beat up Laney High sweat shirt and no-name basketball shoes.”

“Your cousin must have been drinking.”

“Maybe.  He did drink, but I tell you, it’s him.  What a pain it must be to have people always knowing who you are.  Don’t you think if you were famous it would be cool to show up in a hotel lounge in a Podunk town like this one and just play your music?  There’s purity in it.”

They flushed at the same time.  As they went out the door, the doubtful one said, “Your cousin didn’t see Michael Jordan, and that guy out there isn’t a rock star.”

I rushed out after them.  The stage was empty.

Before leaving, I asked Linda to circle the parking lot, but the old man’s truck wasn’t there.

She headed toward my house.  “Do you like Rachael?”  Street lights cast traveling shadows that swept across her hands and face.

“Yes, I do.  I mean, I might.  It’s pretty weird to like your friend that way.  We grew up together.  Heck, you and I grew up together.”

“Yes, that’s weird.”  We turned onto my street.  “Did you notice most of the dioramas showed the bluffs?”  She stopped the car.  “Merle had a thing about the bluffs, and they’d be a great hiding place for someone who knew his way around.  He could throw brush over his truck.  Helicopters wouldn’t spot him.  You’d have to know exactly where he’d gone to track him down out there.”

“How weird?  Too weird to get over?”

“No, but it’s a risk.  One bad move and you’ve lost both a friend and a girlfriend.   I’d be in the middle.”

“Good point.”  I extricated myself from the passenger’s seat.  Even a short drive in her tiny car left me cramped.  I felt like a road map unfolding.

Linda leaned across the car and opened the passenger window to talk to me.  “This could be working against my interests.  What if I told you I liked you?”

“Do you?”

“Me and an existentialist?  Not a hope.”  She smiled.  “No, I like Rachael.”  She winked, put the car into gear and pulled away.

I stood in the street for several minutes before turning to my house. 

The evening had been strange, leaving me too much to think about.  Sleep didn’t come.  After an hour staring at the ceiling, juggling what Linda said, remembering Rachael’s hand in my own, thinking about the Meecham death house, about the figure on the bed in front of the teddy bears, I sat up, put on my headphones and cranked the music.  Neil Young’s voice on the CD sounded a lot like the old man, heartbreaking and hopeful.  Maybe I did meet Neil Young today in the desert.  One of his songs is “The Needle and the Damage Done.”  It’s about drugs, but he kept singing about the damage done.  It reminded me that while I lay comfortably in bed, thinking, surprisingly, about the two women in my life, that Merle was still on the run.

That’s the way it is in the world.  For every moment you are comfortable, someone else is miserable.  Every second, 1.8 people die.  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.  Most never know why.  The needle, old age, war, disease, crime, suicide.  Mom told me once that thinking was my virtue and my curse.  All virtues are curses.  All curses are virtues.  She should know, she said.  She also said that was why I decided to be an existentialist, a philosophy that said there are no reasons for anything.  There are no answers.  So you don’t have to think about them.  That is existentialism’s virtue.

If existentialism was a church, I’d be an excommunicate.  Lately, all I thought about was why.

I fell asleep with the headphones clamped to my ears and the CD playing over and over.  In the thirty-seven minutes it takes to play Harvest, 3,996 people died.

If Merle hadn’t still been missing, I don’t think anyone would have been talking about the killings at school on Wednesday, but the hunt continued.  The police moved from Vice Principal Welch’s office to set up an interrogation center in the concession stand, moving the popcorn machine and boxes of Styrofoam cups to the back.  Evidently they were serious about interviewing all twelve-hundred students, which was every high school aged kid in Mobley and the three-county area.  The police finished the locker searches Tuesday after school without luck, although four kids were bounced for marijuana, and another earned a suspension for a paintball gun hidden under his P.E. clothes.

In the newspaper production class, we debated this month’s editorial.  Would we come out against unreasonable search and seizure?  Our managing editor had a rough draft ready that compared the school administration and the Mobley police department to Nazi Germany and Orwell’s 1984.  Or would we write one about gun violence and dysfunctional families?  From me, they wanted photos to illustrate either.  The gun violence one would be tough because the school had a policy about depicting weapons.  Pretty hard to illustrate an article about gun violence without portraying a gun.

In between classes, Vice Principal Welch caught up to me in the hallway and said, “I understand that you will be writing an article about Merle Meecham for the paper.”  Up close his face showed numerous wrinkles.  He had to be a year or two from retirement.

This was the first I’d heard about it.  “What makes you think so?”

“You were his friend.  I assumed you would be the writer.”

“I take pictures.”  My camera hung from my neck.  “How’d you know Merle and I knew each other?  That was six years ago.”

He looked uncomfortable.  “It’s in his records.  Well, if you do write an article, you must be sensitive to community concerns.”

“Excuse me?” 

He talked around the issue for a bit before I figured he was afraid I might write an article painting Merle as a victim or a hero. 

“I don’t think I’ll be writing anything, Mr. Welch, but I’ll pass your concerns on to the newspaper staff.”

That satisfied him, but it got me thinking about Merle’s school records.  As a newspaper staff member, I had access to the student’s schedules.  We needed them so we could meet up with students for interviews, but the schedule book was on top of the file cabinet that contained the records.  If I went into the counseling office at lunch, the counselors would be gone, and the secretary always faced the door, not the cabinets.  I could pull Merle’s records.  Maybe something from there could give me a direction.

The secretary waved me to the records, then asked me to watch the shop while she ran some papers over to the administration office.  By the time she returned, I’d used the counseling department’s photocopier on everything in Merle’s folder.

Sitting in Mrs. Wallace’s English class, I perused Merle’s academic career.  A handwritten note from the school psychologist at the elementary school revealed how Welch connected us.  Under “socialization” the shrink had written my name as the only friend.  He’d also put in psychobabble about attachment issues, separation anxiety and infantile tendencies.  I thought Merle had been a regular guy when I knew him.  An interesting document from the third grade, though, showed that his parents split up for a while.  They had separate permission slips authorizing each to pick him up from school on different days, and they listed different addresses: Merle’s mom in their current house, and the dad in an apartment in downtown Mobley.

His grades had been mediocre.  He never had been sent to the principal.  He didn’t join any clubs or sports.  An 8th grade art teacher wrote a nice note suggesting he learned well using visual prompts and recommended him for the honors art program in 9th grade, but he didn’t sign up for it.  All in all, not as helpful as I hoped.

Wallace had us break into groups to discuss William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis.”  The assignment was, “Find and compare the various images of life and death in the poem.”  I clicked on my camera to review the pictures I’d taken last night.  The three time exposures came out all right, particularly the ninety second one.  It looked like a candidate for an illustration for the Meecham article, if we did one.  Linda looked like a ghost on the porch’s corner.  She must have moved during the exposure because she’d blurred.  None of the root cellar pictures turned out, but I gasped at a picture in the living room.

“Mrs. Wallace, may I be excused?”  I waved to get her attention.

She nodded, and ten seconds later I slipped into the choir room where Linda and Rachael took Women’s Chorale.  I told the teacher we were doing a story on their charity work and that I needed to take their picture.  We moved down the hall away from open classroom doors.

“What?” said Rachael.  “We were about to do the Echo song.  Linda and I are half the alto section.”

“I didn’t look at the pictures I took last night.  Check this one.”

Linda said to Rachael, “Graham and I went to Merle’s house last night.  I was going to tell you about it after class.”

“You went without me?”

“That’s not important, look at this picture.”  I held the camera up with the shot I’d taken in the living room.

Rachael said, “What am I looking at?”

“That’s the couch in the living room.  The white things on the floor are evidence markers.”

“Ooh, is that stain what I think it is?”

“Not important.”  My hands shook.  “Look to the right of the couch.”

Linda crowded next to her so she could see too.  “It’s too small.”

I turned the camera so I could enlarge that section, then let them look again.

Neither said anything.  Rachael moved the camera closer and squinted.

“Is that someone by the couch?  Someone else was there?”

Linda grabbed the camera to look.  “Heavens.”

“Not someone,” I said.  “That’s Merle Meecham.  He’s hiding in his own house. We leave right after school in . . .” I glanced at my watch, “. . . twenty minutes.”

“Should we tell the police?” said Linda.

I shook my head.  “No, then we’d have to explain what we were doing there last night.  Let’s see if we can’t talk him into giving himself up.” 

If time can stand still, it did during the last twenty minutes in Wallace’s class.  Bryant said humanity was, “To mix forever with the elements;  To be a brother to the insensible rock,  And to the sluggish clod.”  As I watched the clock, I agreed.

The Mini Cooper’s backseat was even less comfortable than the front, if that was possible.  My feet were turned diagonally on the floor to fit, and I had to ride side saddle to keep my knees from pressing against the front seats.

“Do you know if Merle went to church?” said Linda as she pointed the car down the highway toward the Meecham place.  “I’ll bet he’s been thinking about God the past four days.  God and mortality.”

“I don’t know.  Probably.”  Just about everyone in Mobley except Rachael and me seemed to go to church.  The town had more churches than bars, which I understood was unusual for small towns in the west.

What would he say to us?  More importantly, what would I say to him?  Would he try to get away?  Would he be happy to be caught?  What if he wasn’t there anymore?  He might have decided after Linda and I left that the house wasn’t a safe place, but I thought about the teddy bears in his room, and it seemed to me that he had never gone far.  Not out of state.  Not even ten miles.  His room was the safest place he knew, the room with a hundred stuffed friends and the little diorama worlds, where dinosaurs roamed and his hands were so big.

He must have driven the truck into the bluffs.  We were right about that.  It would be easy to hide a vehicle there, but then he hiked back, found a way in to the house and hunkered down.  On top of the hill, no trees for miles, he could have seen any approaching cars and hidden long before they reached him.  If the police didn’t put a guard on the house, which they didn’t, then it was the perfect place to return.

Had we surprised him last night?  He could have been asleep and not known we were there until we were in the house.  Trying to get out, he’d run into us in the living room and took refuge in his childhood hiding spot, the couch’s far side.

I thought about the house’s perfect view of the country side around it.  “We’ll have the park the car before he can see us.  I’ll bet when he sees a car on the way, he takes off to a hiding spot in the hills.  By now he’s probably equipped it with food, blankets, whatever.  We’ll sneak up on him.”

Linda parked a mile away.  Last night’s chill continued, and the cloudy sky didn’t offer much promise for a warmer afternoon.  I hadn’t brought a coat so I walked with my arms across my chest, holding in the heat.

Rachael said, “Do you think he stays in the house during the day?  That would seem foolish.”

“He’s not thinking about the danger.”  I remembered the loneliness in my own house, how addictive it was, how it drew me home after school.

“What will we say to him?”

“I don’t know, Rachael.  Good words, I hope.”

Linda took a couple skip steps to keep up with us.  Her legs were shorter than Rachael’s and mine.  She’d pulled the sweater sleeves down so she could grip the edges.  “If he asks forgiveness, God will give it to him.”

“Forgiveness won’t undo it or bring them back.”

Linda looked at me sideways.  “That’s not what forgiveness is about.  The past is the present you have to learn to live with.  Every second, in God’s eyes, you start anew.  It’s like a continuing birth.”

“What if the past hurts?”

“It’s supposed to hurt.  That’s how we learn from it.”

“God is cruel, then.  It hurts me too much.”

“We’re talking about Merle, aren’t we?”  Linda said.

Rachael put her hand on the back of my arm.  For a second I thought she was going to move down to hold my hand.  “Everything is about everybody.”

The house top came into view.  We left the road so we could approach from the side.  The untrod dirt crunched beneath our feet.  I kept my eyes down, careful not to kick the low cactus that dotted the landscape.  All remnants of the weekend’s rain had disappeared except for a tinge of green in the hills beyond the Meecham’s house.  Another dry week and that would fade into the brown, desiccated look we had most of the year.

“You really experienced a manifestation in there?” said Rachael.  She’d crouched behind a bush, poking her head around the side to look at the house that was twenty yards away.  Two windows, a first floor and second floor one, both with drawn curtains faced us. 

“Heck, yes,” said Linda.  She hid behind a boulder.  “It pinned me.  If Graham hadn’t grabbed me . . .  If that’s Merle’s dad, I’m a lot more afraid of him than Merle, and Merle killed two people.”  She shuddered.  “I didn’t think demons were rapists.  It was pulling at my clothes.”

It could have been an incubus.”  Rachael slid to the side of the bush.  “Let’s get closer.”

“Better yet,” I said.  “Why don’t you guys go knock on the front door.  I’ll watch the back in case he decides to run.”  The house felt abandoned to me, though.  I doubted anyone living was there.

The girls circled to the front.  I stood beside the back door, which partly covered a long, rusty stain that ran to the cement stoop’s side.  According to police reports, this was where the mother died.  A minute later, they knocked, a hollow sound out here.  I looked away from the stain.  As far as I could see, nothing but dry hills, scrabbly looking sage, greasewood and clumps of desert grass.  A second later, the backdoor rattled, opened, and a small boy came out, looking over his shoulder into the house, away from me.

“Hi, Merle,” I said.

He fell as he twisted, hit the ground, then tried to scrabble away on his backside.

“Merle!  Merle!  It’s me, Graham!”  I knelt to his level.  “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Rachael and Linda ran around the corner.  I held up my hand to stop them.  “We were worried about you, Merle.”

His eyes were red-rimmed.  I’ve never seen a more tired face on a human being.  “No,” he said, then he recognized me.  “Leave me alone, Graham.”  He started crying.

He cried in my arms for a long time.  My back ached, bent over, cradling him.  Rachael and Linda moved in and sat next to us, cross legged in the dirt. 

Finally, he said, “I thought I’d never see anyone again.  I thought I’d hide for the rest of my life.”

“You can’t really hide,” said Linda.  “None of us is ever alone.  There’s God.”

His breathing hitched when he inhaled.  He sat up, rubbed his eyes with the backs of his hands.

“I’m an orphan.”

Rachael nodded.

“That’s what I’ve been thinking about when I think about it.  I can’t sleep, though.  I can’t close my eyes.”

I remembered the first days for me.  The explosion upstairs.  Running with a peanut butter sandwich in my hand.  I saw the gun first.  It had slid across the floor almost to the door, and then my mother, a curl of smoke above her.  Whenever I closed my eyes, I saw the form on the floor, one eye bulging, red with blood.  A counselor Dad sent me to called it flashing.  “We flash on images some times, like a slide presentation that won’t advance.  We keep clicking, but the same image comes up.”

Mom’s suicide note didn’t help.  The entire text was, “All is not lost, because I am not lost.”

Merle started sobbing again, his chin down on his chest, avoiding our eyes.  “I wanted to die.  I stood on cliff for an hour.  I’d lean out but catch myself.  Have you ever done that?”  He sniffed.  Linda dug a tissue out a pocket to give to him. 

Rachael asked the question I couldn’t.  “Why, Merle?  Why did you do it?”

Merle looked at us.  “I just reacted.  I didn’t know what was happening.”

I took a deep breath, felt it tremble in my chest.  He wouldn’t be able to tell us.  There would be no answer for why it happened, like my mother.  Was she sad?  Had the world become too much for her?  She’d worked all week as always.  She’d complained that my room wasn’t clean, as always.  That morning, she woke me up, encouraged me to eat more than toast, told me to have a good day, as always.  She patted my shoulder twice, then squeezed my hand.  At the door, she hugged me goodbye.  When I walked past her garden, I saw that she’d pulled weeds and pruned roses.

“They” say that suicide is one symptom among many, that it is the effect of numerous nameable causes.  “They” also say that criminals are made, not born, and that all behavior is the result of nature/nurture interactions.  That’s what they say, but every year handfuls die in the subway stations in New York, and they don’t look like suicides.  The police suspect that in the crowd, every once in a while, a person in the back hears the train coming.  He’s not angry.  He’s not a sociopath.  He has no police record, and he’s happy in his life, but as the train roars into the station, he sees the commuter’s back in front of him, and, without thinking much about anything at all, he pushes.

There is no why.

“But why, Merle?  Why would you kill your parents?”  Rachael had a hand on his arm. 

“I only shot Mom,” he said. 

My breathing froze in my throat.

“I had to, after I took the rifle from her.”  His muscles tensed, as if he was experiencing it again.  “Dad was on the couch, and I wrestled the rifle from her.  He was gasping, holding his chest.  Mom yelled and yelled, but I had the gun.  She couldn’t get it back, so she ran for the shed where we have other guns.  She was going to shoot him again.”

Linda flinched.  “You didn’t kill your dad?”

It hurt me to say it, even though I’d thought it was true.  “You shot your mom?”

“Dad was still breathing,” said Merle.  “I thought he would be okay.  I had to save him.”

Rachael said, “Why did your mother . . . ?”

Merle looked up, his face so stricken.  I held my breath.  He said, “I don’t know.”

Which was the answer I feared.  He didn’t know.  There were no answers.  I sagged.  For all this time, I had hoped that he would know.  But all we had were the clues: his fear, the teddy bears, the dioramas, a pair of human forms outlined in tape on the floor.

Whatever crying he had in him seemed finished.  “You’re going to have to call the police.”

We didn’t have a cell.

Rachael said, “We’ll use your phone, Merle.  Have you seen anything . . . unnatural in the house?”

“I’ve heard voices, but I haven’t slept in four days.”

Linda said, “Let’s go in together.  It’s day, and now that we’ve found Merle, maybe there is resolution for the ghost.”

"I think so," said Rachael. "It doesn't have to protect him any more.”

So we entered together, Merle and Linda first, and Rachael beside me, her hand on my back.

With sunlight pouring through the windows, the house looked different.  Dust motes whirled in the sunshine.  The evidence tags cast little square shadows, and the room seemed smaller than it had the night before when darkness pushed the walls back, leaving room for all my bad imaginings.

After we made the call, we sat at the kitchen table to wait for the police.  Merle and Linda cleared the food-filled dishes, putting them by the sink.

We didn’t speak.  I thought that this was the end, and that we could go back to school the next day, relieved.  Merle wouldn’t be alone in the desert.  The mystery of his parents’ death had been solved.  But then the ceiling creaked.  We looked up.  Steady steps crossed the floor, and the windows darkened.  My ears popped.  Whatever moved toward the stairs to come down to us pushed air in front of it, and it smelled like dead lilacs, sweet and rotten.

“Mom?” said Merle.  His voice squeaked.

Linda bowed her head, her lips moving.

“I don’t know a warding,” said Rachael

Voices chittered around me, panicked, like they had at the séance.  Linda, Rachael and Merle scrambled for the door.

I said, “Wait.”  Someone—something else, filled the room, waiting for whatever came down the stairs.  It was powerful and good, and sad, sad , sad.  Then, a pressure rested on my shoulder.  It patted twice.  It squeezed my hand.  The room grew bright, so bright I had to close my eyes against it.  So bright the darkness of my closed eyes turned red and a woman’s figure stood before me, still holding my hand.  A window blew out, washing away the lilac scent.  I swear, I heard a choir singing, and I ceased to be afraid.  Opening my eyes, I stood to step toward her.  “Mom?” I said, but the light faded, the harmonic blend of choral voices vanished.  The memory of a hand on my shoulder lingered.  For a second, I still felt her hand squeezing mine.

I didn’t see the face.  When Linda talked to me afterwards, I told her I also didn’t see a halo or sense wings, but she assured me it was an angel.  She glowed with happiness.  “We’ve lived through an epiphany, an appearance by a divine being.  I prayed, and the prayer was answered.”  I believed her.  “Sometimes a prayer works directly,” she added.  “It must, or why would so many people do it?”

Rachael sat on a kitchen chair afterwards, a breeze through the broken window playing with the hair on her forehead.  She looked somber.  “You might be right, Linda, about messing with spirits.  They’re not all safe.  They’re not all friendly.”  She looked at me.  “Still, sometimes you have to take the risk,” and she smiled.

Before the police handcuffed Merle to lead him away, I gave him my CD player and the Harvest  CD.  “The batteries are fresh.  You’ll like the music if you listen to it more than once.”

Rachael and I told Linda that we wanted to walk back to town.  She saw that Rachael had slipped her arm around my waist and nodded. 

“Linda likes you,” I said when we were outside the house.

“I know.  We have an agreement.”  I didn’t know what to say about that, but it was their business.  What mattered was that on top of whatever else we became, we were all friends now.

As we took the long walk down the Meecham’s dusty road toward home, Rachael said, “Why did Merle’s mom shoot the dad?  We never found out.”

I thought about the light that blasted back the descending evil in Merle’s kitchen.  How it felt to have that touch on my shoulder one more time.  She patted me twice before going.  She squeezed, and now it didn’t matter to me why she killed herself.  The why was not as important as what I remembered about her from before, how I thought about her now. 

I didn’t know about the universe, but I did know that Rachael walked beside me and the road met my feet with an assuring solidity.  Everything didn’t need a reason.  Much of what we planted, though, we harvested later.  Sometimes the world worked on cause and effect.  Other times it just happened.

“This will sound dark,” I said.  I reached for Rachael’s hand.  She reached back.  “But I think there’s a lot we will never know, and none of the answers are satisfying.  All we have is this.”  I waved at the long road in front of us, the hills and bushes and bare rock.  The clouds waiting for us on the horizon.  “We have to ask ourselves if it is enough.”

Her hand tightened around my fingers.

“You’re right.  That’s dark.”

This story originally appeared in Alembical.

James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."