by Michael McDowell
When Miss Mack showed up in Babylon in the late summer of 1957, nobody knew what to think of her. She had come from a little town called Pine Cone, and had a brother back there who did ladies’ hair in his kitchen. Miss Mack was a huge woman with a pig’s face, and short crinkly black hair that always looked greasy. Her vast shapeless dresses of tiny-patterned fabric seemed always to have been left too long in the sun. She always wore tennis shoes, even to church, because, as she candidly admitted, any other sort broke apart under her weight.
She wasn’t old by any means, but a woman of such size and such an aspect wasn’t regarded in the usual light, and nobody in Babylon gave any thought to Miss Mack’s age. For seven years she had traveled all over Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, doing advance and setup work for the photographer who came in and took pictures of the grammar school children. She had been to Babylon before, on this very errand, and the teachers at the grammar school remembered her. Now the photographer was dead, and Miss Mack returned to Babylon. She showed the principal of the grammar school her college diploma and her teacher’s certificate from Auburn University, and said, ‘Mr Hill, I want you to give me a job.’
Mr Hill did it, not because he was intimidated, but because he had a vacancy, and because he knew a good teacher when he saw one.
Everybody liked Miss Mack. Miss Mack’s children in the third grade adored her. Having inherited the itinerant photographer’s camera, Miss Mack took pictures of every child in her class and pinned them to the bulletin board with their names beneath. Miss Mack’s strong point was fractions, and she drilled her children relentlessly. Her weak point was Alabama history, so she taught them the state song, and let it go at that. On the playground, Miss Mack played with the boys. Infielders cowered and outfielders pressed themselves right up against the back fence when Miss Mack came to bat. At dodgeball, Miss Mack rolled the ball up inside her arm so tightly and so deep that it seemed buried in the flesh there. She unwound the ball so quickly and flung it so hard that the manliest boys in the center of the ring squealed and ducked. Miss Mack’s dodgeball could put you flat out on the ground.
Because all teachers in the grammar school were called by their students ‘Miss,’ it was a matter of some speculation among her pupils whether or not she was married. When one little girl brought back the interesting report that Miss Mack lived alone in one of the four apartments next to the library, the children were all nearly overwhelmed with the sense of having delved deep into the mystery that was Miss Mack’s private life.
Miss Mack’s private life was also a matter of speculation among her fellow teachers at the grammar school. The first thing that was noticed was that, in Mr Hill’s words, she ‘kept the Coke machine hot,’ dropping in a nickel at every break, and guzzling down a Coca-Cola every chance she got. It appeared that Miss Mack couldn’t walk down the hall past the teachers’ lounge without sidling in with a nickel – she kept a supply in the faded pocket of her faded dress – and swilling down a bottle at a rate that could win prizes at a county fair. Miss Mack’s apartment was not only next to the library, it was next to the Coca-Cola bottling plant as well. Wholesale, Miss Mack bought a case a day, summer and winter, and declared that, in point of fact, she preferred her Cokes warm rather than chilled.
Every weekend Miss Mack disappeared from Babylon. It was universally assumed that she drove her purple Pontiac up to Pine Cone to visit her brother, and maybe sit with him in the kitchen, swilling Coca-Cola while he fixed ladies’ heads. But Miss Mack once surprised them all when she said that most weekends she went fishing. She drove all the way over to DeFuniak Springs because DeFuniak Springs had the best trout fishing in the world. She had a little trailer – the itinerant photographer’s van with all the equipment jettisoned – parked on the side of some water there, and every weekend Miss Mack and three cases of Coca-Cola visited it.
Despite her alarming and formidable aspect Miss Mack quickly made friends in Babylon, and the friend she made earliest was the other third-grade teacher, Janice Faulk. Janice wasn’t but twenty-two, just out of college, short and cute and always smiling. It was thought that Janice had a whole bureauful of white blouses with little puffed sleeves, because she was never seen in anything else. She wore little sweaters and jackets loosely over her shoulders, held in place by a golden chain attached to the lapels. Janice had loved every minute of her two years of teaching. Her children loved her in return, but tended to take advantage of her, because Miss Faulk could be wheedled into just about anything at all.
Mr Hill, the principal, was even thinking of wheedling Janice into marriage. He had taken her down to Milton for pizza a couple of times, and they had gone to the movies in Pensacola, and he had asked her advice on buying a birthday present for his mother. Mr Hill, a thin man with a broad smile, didn’t think it necessary to say anything more just yet. When the time came he didn’t doubt his ability to persuade Janice up to the altar. After all, he had hired her, hadn’t he? And he had always made sure she got to teach the smartest and best-behaved kids, right? Janice was just the sort of impressionable young woman to imagine that such favors ought to be returned, with considerable interest. Mr Hill had even told his mother of his intention of marrying Janice Faulk, and Mrs Hill, a widow living in an old house in Sweet Gum Head, had heartily approved. Mrs Hill in fact told her son he ought to propose to Janice without delay. Mr Hill saw no need for haste, but a little later he was sorry not to have taken his mother’s advice.
The next time Mrs Hill spoke to her son on the subject of Janice Faulk – the following Halloween – Mr Hill listened carefully. And he did exactly what his mother told him to do.
For what Mr Hill hadn’t counted on in his sanguine projection of easy courtship and easy marriage was the friendship of Janice and Miss Mack.
One Friday morning recess, the bully of Janice’s class had fallen on the playground and split open his head on a rock. Janice had been about to run for Mr Hill, but Miss Mack was right there, kneeling on the sandy ground, lifting the boy’s head onto her lap, bandaging it as coolly as if she had been a trained nurse. Janice began to come to Miss Mack for other help and advice. Soon she was coming for the mere pleasure of Miss Mack’s company. Janice’s mother was dead, and her father worked five weeks out of six on an oil rig in Louisiana. She lived alone in a little clapboard house that was within sight of the grammar school. She visited Miss Mack in her apartment between the library and the bottling plant, and Miss Mack visited her in the lonely clapboard house. In Miss Mack’s purple Pontiac they went to the Starlite drive-in. If they saw horror movies, Miss Mack held Janice’s hand through the scary parts, and told Janice when it was all right to open her eyes. Miss Mack thought nothing of getting up from the supper table, and driving straight down to the Pensacola airport for the mere pleasure of watching the planes take off and land. On the four-lane late at night, Miss Mack came up right next to eighteen-wheel diesels, and made Janice roll down her window. Janice leaned her head cautiously out, and shouted up at the driver of the truck looking down, ‘You want to race Miss Mack?’
Miss Mack, in short, knew how to show a girl a good time.
By the summer after her first year of teaching, Miss Mack and Janice were inseparable friends, and an odd-looking pair they made. Miss Mack’s appearance was vast, dark, and foreboding, and people in the street tended to get out of her way. She gave somewhat the impression of a large piece of farm machinery that had forsaken both farmer and field. Janice Faulk was petite, retiring, faultlessly neat, like the doll of a rich little girl – very pretty and not often played with. Both women, in consideration of the extra money and the opportunity to spend nearly all their time together, took over the teaching of all the summer remedial classes in the grammar and junior high schools. As if five days a week, all day long, were time insufficient to indulge the happiness they felt in one another’s company, Miss Mack began taking Janice off to DeFuniak Springs every weekend.
Gavin Pond, left to Miss Mack by the itinerant photographer, was no more than five acres in extent, surrounded on all sides by dense pine forest. One end of the pond was much shallower than the other, and here a large cypress grove extended a dozen yards or so out into the water. The little trailer, still bearing the name and the promises of the itinerant photographer, was set permanently in a small clearing on the western edge of the pond. Directly across was a little graveyard containing the photographer, his ancestors, and his kin by marriage. A dirt track – no more than two gravel-filled ruts really – had been etched through the forest all the way around the pond. At compass-north it branched off toward the unpaved road, a couple of miles distant through the forest, that eventually led into the colored section of DeFuniak Springs. Altogether, Gavin Pond was as remote as remote could be.
Miss Mack and Janice arrived at the pond every Friday evening, having stopped on the way only for a coffee can of worms and a rabbit cage of crickets. They unloaded the car, fixed supper, and played rummy until ten, when they went to sleep. Next morning they rose before dawn, ate breakfast, prepared a lunch, and went out in the little green boat that was tethered to one of the cypresses. All morning long they fished, and piled up trout and bream in the bottom of the boat. Janice thought this great fun, so long as Miss Mack baited her hook and later removed the gasping fish from it. The two women beneath their straw hats didn’t speak, and all that could be heard were the kingfishers in the cypress, and the cage of crickets sitting in the sun on the hood of the Pontiac. Miss Mack liked the sound, and said they chirped louder when they were hot.
At noontime, Miss Mack rowed over to the little cemetery. There among the Gavin graves, the two women ate sandwiches and drank Coca-Cola, though Janice, deliberately to antagonize her friend, sometimes insisted on Dr Pepper instead. Over this lapse of taste, Miss Mack and Janice passed the time in pleasant and practiced argument. In the heat of the afternoon, they returned to the trailer. While Janice napped, Miss Mack sat in the Pontiac – hot though the vinyl seats were – and listened to the baseball game over the radio. This weekly indulgence necessitated always carrying an extra battery in the trunk against the possibility of failure. In the late afternoon, they sat out in folding chairs by the pondside, talking, talking, talking and slapping at mosquitoes. Miss Mack had a large stick across her lap. Every time Janice screamed and pointed out a snake, Miss Mack leaped from her chair and killed the creature with a single blow. She lifted its mangled body on the stick and waved it before Janice’s face in retaliation for the Dr Pepper.
Once Miss Mack killed a rattlesnake in the same manner, hesitating not a single moment in running up to the creature and cudgeling it as ferociously as she would have attacked the most harmless king snake. She sliced off its head and rattles, skinned it, cut out its single line of entrails, and then coiled it up in a buttered skillet and cooked it. She made Janice swallow two bites, and she ate almost all the rest herself.
But most evenings they ate the fish they had caught that day, Miss Mack consuming far more than Janice. After supper they played more cards, or read each other riddles out of paperback books, or just talked, talked, talked.
They drove back to Babylon on Sunday afternoon, arriving sometime after dark, tanned and weary, but already looking forward to the next weekend.
Mr Hill knew of these trips, and Mr Hill didn’t like them one little bit. Through her friendship with Miss Mack, Janice had changed, and – so far as Mr Hill was concerned – not for the better. Janice no longer wanted to go to Milton for pizza, because Miss Mack didn’t like pizza and Janice had decided that she didn’t like it either. Janice no longer considered it a wonderful privilege to be asked to go to Pensacola to a movie, because it was so much more fun to go to the airport and watch the planes take off and land, and try to guess which relatives waiting in the coffee shop would go with which passengers coming through the gate. Mr Hill didn’t even get to see Janice in church on Sunday morning, and sit next to her, and hold her hymnbook, because on Sunday morning Janice was fishing out at Gavin Pond with Miss Mack, getting burned by the sun and eaten up by mosquitoes. Mr Hill, in short, was worried. He feared that, because of Miss Mack’s influence, Janice would refuse his offer of marriage. Mr Hill’s mother, to whom he confessed his anxiety, said, ‘Miss Mack will never let Janice go. You got to take back what’s rightfully yours. And if you cain’t think of anything, then you come on back to me, and I’ll tell you what to do.’ Quite beyond any consideration of his fondness for Janice Faulk, Mr Hill had no intention of allowing his comfortable plans to be thwarted by a fat woman with greasy black hair and a face like a pig’s.
One day in August, right after a meeting of the teachers preparatory to the beginning of the academic year, Mr Hill said to Miss Mack, ‘You gone keep going out to your fishing pond after school starts, Miss Mack?’
‘I sure do hope so,’ replied Miss Mack. ‘Even though we probably cain’t get away until Saturday morning from now on.’
Deftly ignoring Miss Mack’s we, Mr Hill went on, ‘Where is that place anyway?’
‘It’s about ten miles south of DeFuniak Springs.’
‘Hey you know what? My mama lives in Sweet Gum Head – you know where that is? I have to go through DeFuniak Springs to get there. One of these days when I go visit my mama, I’m gone stop by your place and pay you a visit.’
‘I wish you would, Mr Hill. We have got an extra pole, and an extra folding chair. This weekend I’m gone put your name on ’em, and Janice and I will start waiting for you.’ Under normal circumstances Miss Mack’s hospitality would have been extended to Mr Hill’s mother, but in her travels through the Southern countryside, Miss Mack had heard stories about that old woman.
Though Janice and Miss Mack returned to Gavin Pond every weekend in September and October, Mr Hill didn’t come to visit them there. Finally one day, toward the end of October, Janice said to Mr Hill, ‘Mr Hill, I thought you were gone go see your mama sometime and stop by and see Miss Mack and me out at the pond. I wish you had, ’cause now it’s starting to get cold, and it’s not as nice. We’re going out this Halloween weekend, but that’s gone have to be the last time until spring.’
‘Oh lord!’ cried Mr Hill, evidently in some perturbation. ‘Didn’t I tell you, Janice?’
‘Tell me what?’
‘You’re gone be needed here at the school for Halloween night.’
‘That’s right. I was gone get Miz Flurnoy to do it, but her husband’s getting operated on in Pensacola on Friday, and she says she cain’t. Gallstones.’
Janice was distraught, for she had intended to savor this last weekend at the pond. She came to Miss Mack with a downcast countenance, and told her friend the news.
‘Oh, that’s not so bad,’ said Miss Mack. ‘Tell you what, we just won’t go out at all until Sunday. We’ll make just the one day of it.’
‘No sir!’ cried Janice. ‘I don’t want you to miss your weekend on my account. You were going out there long before you knew me, and I certainly don’t want you to miss your final Saturday out there. Sunday’s never as good as Saturday out at the pond, Miss Mack – you know that! You go on, and I’ll drive out on Sunday morning. I’ll be there before you get up out of the bed!’
Early on Halloween morning, Janice appeared at Miss Mack’s door with a paper bag filled with sandwiches. When she answered the bell, Miss Mack fell back from the doorway in apparent alarm. Janice was wearing a Frankenstein mask.
‘Is that you under there, Janice? ’Cause if it isn’t, I’m sorry, Whoever-you-are, but I don’t have a piece of candy in the house. I ate it all up last night!’
Janice removed the mask. ‘It’s me, that’s all!’ She handed Miss Mack the bag of sandwiches. ‘I sure do wish I were going too,’ she sighed.
‘You come tomorrow,’ replied Miss Mack, ‘and you bring me some Halloween candy. I sure do love Snickers, and they go great with Coca-Cola.’
Miss Mack drove off alone in her purple Pontiac, and Janice went to the school cafeteria to begin decorating for the children’s Halloween party that night.
At Gavin Pond, Miss Mack altered her routine not one bit, though she admitted to herself, sitting alone in the little green boat in the middle of the pond, that she wished Mr Hill had chosen somebody else to help with the Halloween party that night. She sorely missed Janice’s company. Without her friend, Gavin Pond seemed to Miss Mack a different place altogether.
Just when Miss Mack was thinking that thought for the two hundredth time, she was startled by the sound of an automobile driving along the track that went all the way around the pond. Miss Mack looked up, but could not see the car through the screen of trees. She rowed to shore, hoping very much that it was Janice come to join her after all.
It was not. It was Mr Hill.
‘I had to pick up some things from my mama last evening,’ said Mr Hill in explanation, ‘and I thought I’d stop by on the way back home.’
‘How’d you find us? This place is about two hundred miles from nowhere!’
‘Just me,’ said Miss Mack. ‘I’m just so used to Janice being out here, that I said us by mistake.’
‘Too bad she couldn’t come,’ remarked Mr Hill. ‘Well, it was Mama who drew me a map.’
‘Your mama! How’d she know about this place? Gavin Pond’s so little and so out-of-the-way they don’t even put it on the county maps.’
‘Oh, Mama’s lived around here all her life. My mama knows every square foot of this county,’ replied Mr Hill with some pride. ‘And my mama said to tell you hi, Miss Mack.’
‘Your mama don’t know me from Jezebel’s baby sister, Mr Hill!’ exclaimed Miss Mack in a surprise unpleasantly alloyed with a sense – somehow – of having been spied upon.
‘My mama,’ said Mr Hill, ‘has heard about you, Miss Mack. My mama is old, but she is interested in many things.’
‘I had heard that,’ said Miss Mack uneasily. Miss Mack had also heard that the things that Mrs Hill interested herself in withered up and died. But Miss Mack did not say that aloud to Mr Hill, because Mr Hill evidently loved his mama. He visited her often enough, and was wont to say, in the teachers’ lounge, that he always took her advice, and when he didn’t take her advice, he should have. Miss Mack just hoped that Mrs Hill hadn’t given her son any advice on the subject of herself and Janice Faulk. Miss Mack liked Mr Hill well enough, but she knew jealousy when she saw it – in man or woman.
Miss Mack cooked some bream for Mr Hill’s lunch, and they sat and talked for a while in the folding chairs. Miss Mack said how sorry she was that the ball season was over.
About four o’clock Mr Hill gathered himself up to go. ‘It sure has been pleasant, Miss Mack. Now I know why you and Janice come out here every single weekend. I’m just real jealous.’
‘We are pretty happy out here,’ returned Miss Mack modestly.
‘Hey, you know what? It’s Halloween. Aren’t you gone be scared, being out here all by yourself?’
Miss Mack laughed. ‘Janice came over this morning wearing a Frankenstein mask, and that didn’t scare me one little bit. I’ve stayed out here all by myself lots and lots of times. Before I knew Janice, I was out here all the time by myself. You don’t have to worry about me.’
‘I’m glad to hear it. Listen, I got to get on back and help out Janice at the school.’
‘You go on, then. You give her my best, and tell her not to forget my Snickers.’
Miss Mack went inside the trailer as Mr Hill drove off. She was clattering with the pans, or she would have been able to hear that not very far from the trailer, Mr Hill stopped his car.
In the pine forest it was almost dark. Mr Hill had just turned onto the track that would lead him back to the dirt road to DeFuniak Springs. He killed the ignition, got out quietly, and opened the trunk. He took out a small corrugated box filled with heavy black ashes mixed with cinders. The rank odor and the lumpish consistency of the blackened remains suggested not the sweeping-out of a coal-burning fireplace, nor a shovelful of some ash heap, but rather something organic, recently dead or even still living, which had been burned, and burned with difficulty.
With a measuring cup that he took from a paper bag in the trunk, Mr Hill scooped out a portion of the cinders and the ashes, and sprinkled them in one of the ruts of the track that led away from the pond and toward the road. Then he poured a cupful into the other rut, and so alternated until he had distributed the ashes and cinders evenly. Then he tossed the measuring cup and the cardboard box back into the trunk of the car and shut it. Taking then a piece of yellow notepaper from his shirt pocket, he unfolded it, held it close to his eyes in the decreasing light, and in a low voice read the words that had been written upon it. From the same pocket he took a single calendar page – October of the current year – and set fire to it with his cigarette lighter. After this was burned, and the ashes scattered on the ground, Mr Hill pulled from his trousers a child’s compass and a cheap wristwatch – such items as are won in ring-toss booths at traveling carnivals. He checked that the compass needle did indeed point north. He put the wristwatch to his ear to hear its ticking. He dropped both into the heaps of ashes, and crushed them beneath the heel of his shoe.
As Mr Hill got quietly into his car and drove slowly away, the twilight was deepening into night. The piles of ashes began to blow away. The heavier cinders alone remained, dull and black and moist. The broken springs and face and glass of the wristwatch and compass gleamed only faintly. At a little distance, Miss Mack’s crickets in their rabbit cage produced one loud, unison chirp.
Miss Mack fixed more fish for supper. Afterward she cleaned up, and settled down to work a couple of crossword puzzles at the table, but soon gave this over. She had much rather be playing cards with Janice, or trying to guess the riddles that Janice put to her. She went outside, and looked up at the sky. She wore a sweater because the nights were chilly in October. There was a new moon, but the sky was so clear and so bright with stars that Miss Mack had no difficulty in discerning its circle of blackness against the black sky.
She went back inside and went to bed earlier than was usual with her. She was lonely and told herself that the sooner she got to bed, the sooner she might rise. She intended to get up very early, in expectation of Janice’s arrival.
Miss Mack awoke at six, or at least at what her internal clock told her was six o’clock. But it obviously wasn’t, for the night remained very black. Miss Mack could see nothing at all. She rose and went to the door of the trailer and peered blearily out. It was still deep night, and when she looked toward the east – directly above the little plot of Gavin graves on the far side of the pond – she could discern no lightening of the sky. Miss Mack thought that she had merely been so excited by the prospect of Janice’s arrival that she had risen an hour or so before her time. She was about to turn back into the bed for another while, when she suddenly noticed, in the sky, the same black circle of moon as she had seen before.
It hadn’t moved.
Miss Mack was confused by this. The moon rose. The moon set. It never stayed still. Perhaps, she attempted to tell herself, it had moved a little. In that case, she had been asleep not eight hours but perhaps only one. That would also explain why it was still so dark. Yet she felt as if she had slept for six or seven hours at the very least.
Miss Mack went back into the trailer and lay down again. If she had slept for only an hour, then she ought to go back to sleep until morning. Perhaps she would be waked by the horn of Janice’s car.
But Miss Mack couldn’t go back to sleep. She wasn’t tired now. She was hungry. She wanted breakfast. So, thinking how foolish she was, she lighted a lamp, and set up the little stove, and cooked bacon and eggs and ate them all up. She stood once more in the doorway of the trailer, and looked out across the pond.
The sky was no lighter. The moon had not moved.
Miss Mack said aloud, ‘I am dreaming. I am asleep in the bed, and I am having a dream.’
She looked at the bed behind her, as if she thought she might indeed see her sleeping self there. She looked back out at the night. She pinched her arm, and held it next to the lamp, watching the flesh turn color.
Nervously, she opened a Coca-Cola, and pulling a sweater over her nightdress, walked out to her car, got in, and turned on the radio. There were only two stations on the air, so she knew it was very late at night. More stations came on at four or five with the farm reports. So it had to be earlier than that. She went to WBAM in Montgomery, and got the announcer.
Halloween night – don’t let the goblins get you! Lock your doors and close the curtains, boys and girls! It’s 2 a.m. and don’t walk past any graveyards. This next song goes out to Tommy and Julie, it’s . . .
Miss Mack turned the radio off. She was relieved in the main, for at least she knew the time. But still she was puzzled by the moon. She looked up at it, and for a second, was joyed to see that at last it had altered its position. Waking up in the middle of the night always leaves you in a confused state of mind, and she had only made matters worse by eating breakfast at one-thirty in the morning. Sighing, and trusting that now she would surely be able to sleep, Miss Mack got out of the Pontiac and slammed the door shut with a grateful bang. She smiled up at the moon – and all her relief washed suddenly away. The moon hadn’t moved, only she had. When she went back to the door of the trailer, and looked again, it still hung the same distance above the top of the same cypress as before she had prepared her untimely breakfast.
Miss Mack returned to the trailer and lay down a third time. Her nervousness she carefully ascribed to the strangeness of being up and about so late at night. She willed herself to sleep, slipped into unconsciousness, and woke at a time that seemed at least several hours later. Certainly she suffered the grogginess and physical lassitude attendant upon too much sleep. She went hastily to the door of the trailer.
The moon had not moved.
This time neglecting her sweater, she ran to the car and turned on the radio. WBAM was playing music, and she turned to the only other station. She heard the end of a song, and then the announcer came on.
And here’s the 2 a.m. wrap-up of some of the day’s top stories . . .
She turned the radio off.
She sat very still in the front seat of the car, with her chin immobile upon the steering wheel, staring up at the moon, attempting to trace even the slightest movement. She could see none at all.
Miss Mack, with nothing else to do, fixed more bacon and eggs. As she cooked, and as she sat at the table and ate, she refrained from looking out the door at the moon. She saved that for when she had carefully cleaned up. She went with conscious bravery to the door of the trailer and looked out, taking great care to stand exactly where she had stood before so that any slightest alteration of position would be detectable.
The moon had not moved.
It was still 2 a.m. on WBAM, and on the other station as well. This time she listened to the song that was dedicated to Tommy and Julie, and then turned to the wrap-up of some of the day’s top stories.
Not much happened on Halloween.
With sudden resolution, Miss Mack ran back to the trailer, quickly dressed, and came back out to the car. She started it up, and backed onto the track. The crickets were in their cage on the backseat, and they brought the voice of the forest along with them. Miss Mack would return to Babylon, and tell Janice that it hadn’t been any fun at all, alone on Gavin Pond.
The lights of the car were a little dim – that came from playing the radio so much, and running down the battery. She no longer kept a spare in the car, because ball season was over, and there hadn’t been any need for the extra security.
Miss Mack’s relief was so great, just to think that she was getting away from Gavin Pond, that she did not realize that she had missed the turnoff until she found herself passing the graveyard on the far side of the pond.
Don’t walk past any graveyards.
Miss Mack sped up. In another minute or two she had gone all the way around the pond and was passing by the trailer again. The turnoff was only twenty yards or so beyond the clearing. She put the lights on bright, and slowed considerably.
Before she found the turnoff, the headlights were glancing off the Gavin tombstones. She had missed it again.
Miss Mack went around the pond seven times, looking for the turnoff, and she missed it every time.
That was not possible. She had never once overlooked it before. It was a perfectly obvious break in the trees. The car lights at night would glance off the silicate pebbles in the ruts.
The car lights were growing dimmer with each succeeding turn around the pond. She could tell this by the amount of light that was reflected off the tombstones. The moon didn’t move. The chirping of the crickets in the backseat grew clamorous. Miss Mack threw the car into park suddenly, reached over into the back, and flung the cage out the window.
It hit the trunk of a tree, and must have broken open, for the chirping dispersed. Miss Mack immediately regretted her action. Having given Mr Hill all the fish she had caught the previous day, having consumed all her bacon and eggs in the course of the two nervous breakfasts, she had now nothing to eat. And she had just disposed of the bait she might have used to catch more fish. It was little comfort to remember that fish didn’t bite at night.
Miss Mack drove around more slowly now, and even began to look for the track leading to the DeFuniak Springs road on the opposite side of the pond from where she knew it to be. She pinched her fat arms until they were bruised and raw, hoping with each attack to wake up in any place but this.
Miss Mack realized suddenly that not only was she wearing down her battery, she was using up her gas. She had very little left. She hadn’t looked at the odometer when she first attempted to drive away from Gavin Pond – why should she have? – but she suspected that she had already driven thirty-five or forty miles. On a straight road, that would have carried her all the way back to Babylon.
The moon hadn’t moved.
Miss Mack stopped the car by the trailer, got out, and went inside. She sat down exhausted on the bed. She went to sleep again, and slept for she knew not how long. She hoped that when she waked it would be day, that Janice would wake her by knocking on the door of the trailer. She hoped all this had been a dream – it certainly had the qualities of a dream – and that she might precipitate its ending by rendering herself unconscious within its confines.
She waked, and it was night. Without daring to look at the moon, she went back out to the car. It started, but sluggishly. WBAM was still dedicating a song to Tommy and Julie, and she had very nearly memorized the 2 a.m. wrap-up. Miss Mack drove around and around the pond, and the Pontiac’s wavering headlights fell in brutal alternation, now upon the metal trailer, now upon the white Gavin tombstones. She was no longer even looking for the turnoff. She drove as fast as she could around and around the pond, until the car, out of gas, rolled to a standstill just beyond the graveyard.
Miss Mack tried the radio one more time.
Faintly came the song for Tommy and Julie. She listened to it all the way through, thinking, If he plays another song, then I’ll know that time is passing, and I’ll be all right. If he starts over again, then I’ll know that I’m dreaming.
The battery failed on the last notes of Tommy and Julie’s song.
The car lights, which she had left on, faded to blackness.
Miss Mack got out, and turned back. She walked past the graveyard, and slowly along the track from which the turnoff had unaccountably and indisputably disappeared. All the way back to the trailer, she stared at the ruts in the earth, and kept her mind solely upon the turnoff – she did not wish to miss it in her distraction. But the turnoff was not there. She did not stop at the trailer, but continued around again, until she came to the Pontiac, still ticking away its heat.
Don’t walk past any graveyards.
From this point, it seemed useless to keep on in the track. She struck out into the pine forest, heading directly north, to where the dirt road led up to DeFuniak Springs. Her way and her speed were impeded by tangled undergrowth and briers. The forest and the night were so dark that she sometimes walked directly into trees, not having been able to see them. Yet swiftness was not of such concern as was the maintenance of her direction. She forged straight ahead, knowing that if she only walked far enough, she would get somewhere.
She had lost sight of the darkened moon, for the canopy of tree limbs was too thick to permit her to see it. But it was behind her, she knew, and she took some comfort with the reflection that she was walking away from it. At last, after she had walked about an hour, Miss Mack came to a little clearing in the forest. She caught a glimpse of dark water – but even before she had seen the trailer and the gleaming tombstones on the far side, she realized that she had returned to Gavin Pond.
She made another attempt, and struck out directly southward. There was a farm road probably no more than a mile distant, with some old tenant-farmer shacks on it. Miss Mack no longer cared whether they were inhabited or not. If only she could reach that road she would be safe.
She walked for a time she knew not how to measure. It might have been for thirty minutes, or it might have been for hours. And even more carefully than before, she maintained her direction – of that she was certain.
Yet once again, she came upon the clearing in the forest, the trailer, the glint of tombstones on the other side of the water.
For the first time in her life, Miss Mack felt real and uncontrollable fear. By no means could she get away from Gavin Pond. There was no turnoff from the circular track. All ways out through the forest led directly back to the clearing. She had no food in the cabin, and no bait with which to fish. Her lamp oil would not last forever, and tomorrow morning would never come. Miss Mack’s one hope was that she was asleep and dreaming. With this single thought, Miss Mack went inside the trailer, lay down upon the bed, and went to sleep. When she waked, it was night – still Halloween night. The moon hadn’t moved.
About the Author
Michael McDowell was born in 1950 in Enterprise, Alabama. He received a B.A. and an M.A. from Harvard College, and a Ph.D in English from Brandeis University in 1978, based on a dissertation entitled “American Attitudes Toward Death, 1825–1865”. McDowell’s partner was theatre historian and director Laurence Senelick, whom he met in 1969. McDowell and Senelick remained together for thirty years until McDowell’s AIDS-related death in 1999.
McDowell specialized in collecting death memorabilia. His extensive and diverse collection, which reportedly filled over seventy-six boxes, included items such as death pins, photographs and plaques from infant caskets. After his death, the collection was acquired by Chicago’s Northwestern University, where it went on display in 2013. Two of his best known works are the screenplays for Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas. One of his final projects, upon which he was working at the time of his death, was a sequel to Beetlejuice.
About the Narrator
Jessica Nettles grew up with one foot in the real world and the other in a world mixed with dabs of spiritual belief, science-fiction and fantasy dreams, and spooky experiences that she, nor her family, could quite explain. At age 11, she found the perfect outlet for this bizarre childhood in the form of writing. Her influences range from Ray Bradbury to Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson. She reads as voraciously as she can while balancing her career as an English Instructor and a writer of Southern Gothic and Historical Fantasy. She is also on the board of the Broadleaf Writing Association in Atlanta, Georgia (www.broadleafwriters.com) and is a member of HWA Atlanta. Her first novel, Children of Menlo Park, will be released by Falstaff Books in the fall of 2021, and her short story (one of many), “The Undead Have No Dignity” was published in Off the Beaten Path 4 by Prospective Press. She loves her beautiful adult children, who are successful in their own right, as well as her two black cats. She lives in Powder Springs, Georgia.