Does human bonding have the power to penetrate the veil of the supernatural?
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A Kiss from Alex
Anita rinsed the last of dinner dishes when an unusually strong scent of evergreen wafted through the screen above her sink. She closed her eyes to fully inhale its richness when suddenly, something else— something eerily strange made her tummy tingle.
Ah, I’m just being silly. She grinned and dismissed the odd sensation as mere complaisance. Her thoughts returned to Butch, pleased her husband enjoyed his favorite meal served with loving empathy after grieving the loss of Alex, his inseparable lifelong friend the week before. Alex was killed when overheated brakes failed to slow his old logging truck on a steep downgrade. Heavy with timber, it careened into a deep ravine near the base of Mt. Washington, the flagship of New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
Finished with dishes, Anita joined Butch in the den for a relaxing evening listening to their favorite radio shows on the Philco. Despite a delectable dinner together, Butch was not quite himself tonight; he seemed unusually restless and unable to get comfortable. Although sensitive to his troublesome time coming to terms with Alex's death, his persistent fidgeting was beginning to annoy her. She knew that on such balmy nights as this, he and Alex used to run their hounds after raccoons for pelts
Anita sighed. “It’s such a lovely evening, darling, why not take the dogs out? "I know it won’t be the same without Alex, but it’s been weeks since you last exercised them. Maybe a little hunting will do you some good... maybe help take your mind off things. Pepper could use the experience, too,” she added, appealing to his sentiments of breaking in his prized yearling with the older dogs.
Maybe Nita’s right, he conceded. The handsome Bluetick was a surprise birthday gift from Alex only six months ago, aptly named for the bountiful markings spattering its coat. Warming to her idea, he kissed her temple and gave her a gentle hug. She offered to get his boots while he retrieved his pistol and flashlight from a hall closet. Anita followed him onto the veranda and watched him cross the yard toward the kennel, pleased to see him more perky when returning with four tethered hounds eager to burn off pent-up energy.
“There’s no sense driving any place special tonight, hon. Plenty of coon in there.” Butch gestured toward wooded acreage bordering their farmstead that led to a boggy lowland where Anita often strolled to gather hickory nuts and wild blueberries. “Besides, it’s mostly for training young Pepper here, anyway. Ain’t that right, li’l fella,” he said, petting the playful youngster’s flanks.
She bid him luck and watched the troupe cross a two-acre hay field before the hounds were turned loose at the perimeter. Anita lingered outside to savor the tranquility of such a mild summer evening, lulled by the bawling hounds growing faint as they ran deeper into the woods. She drew a deep breath of the sweet country air as her eyes were drawn to an especially sharp crystalline sky. She marveled at the resplendent star clusters, in awe of the sheer numbers flickering against a violet hue set aglow by the moon about to poke its nose above the horizon.
Anita soon returned to the den and settled comfortably in her rocker to crochet. Hours later, she was listening to the Amos 'n Andy show when a sense of motion caught the corner of her eye. Curious, she parted the window sheers and was shocked to see the silhouette of her husband running toward the house.
Anita jumped to her feet and opened the door just as Butch bounded the steps, nearly knocking her aside when barging through the doorway. She followed him into the kitchen.
“What on earth— what’s wrong? Where are the dogs? Your precious Pepper?”
Butch ignored her. Gasping for breath, he stood leaning on his arms braced against the kitchen table. Anita placed an arm around his waist, concerned as she guided him into a chair.
“What happened out there?” she asked, picking pine needles from his hair. She also noticed his muddy clothes and the flap of his holster was loose, its pistol gone. “And where are your Wellies?” She pointed to his feet absent of green slip-on boots, a sock on one foot, the other bare.
He remained silent, numbly looking at her with wide, frenzied eyes.
“Come on, damn it— say something. Are you alright? Did you surprise a bear or something?”
“In a minute,” he grunted, and drew a sleeve across his sweaty brow. He popped from his chair, grabbed a tumbler from the dish basket, and fetched a bottle of bourbon from the cupboard. Butch was visibly shaken as he poured a jigger of whiskey, inhaled it, and poured another. Anita slid her chair closer to the corner of the table and placed her hands atop his forearm.
“Please, honey, what the devil is going on? You’re scaring me.”
“Ha! I’m scaring you?” He leaned closer and peered into her eyes. “Let me ask you something. Do you believe in weird stuff like... like spirits? Well I sure as hell do— now,” he said, not waiting for an answer. “I ain’t never seen nothin’ like it.”
Seated on the edge of her chair, Anita listened closely as Butch described how he and Alex used to have a set routine.
“We’d release the hounds and then follow until their yowls changed.” He explained how the difference in pitch signaled the dogs had treed a raccoon. "That’s when we’d hustle in for the kill. Since Alex was older and fat, he’d hold the hounds back while I climbed the tree for a clear shot. If we had dead ones already, Alex had this crazy habit of laying ‘em out side-by-side in a neat row instead of just dropping ‘em in a pile— you know, all lined up sort 'o like this,” he said, gesturing with his hand on the table.
“Well, tonight, I had two coons by the time I reached your blueberry patch. I was feeling pretty tired and was just about to call it quits when the hounds jumped a third about thirty yards deeper in the bog, so I followed.
“Traipsin’ through that spongy summer-dried swamp was spooky enough by itself. It was dead quiet with this dense ground-hugging fog glowing with an eerie sheen in the moonlight, swirling around about knee high like you see in them werewolf flicks.
“Well, I snapped the hounds to their leashes and tied them to a sapling out of reach of my kills. The dang coon was up near the top of a big walnut, out on a limb and hard to spot. So I climbed and once in position, I shot and watched it tumble through the outer branches. I was so focused on getting down, I didn’t notice the dogs weren’t barkin’. But when I hit the ground, I glanced over at them, and— that’s when I froze.”
He raised his hand in oath. “So help me, Nita, th-there they were— one, two, three dead coons,” Butch recounted, stroking his finger on the table. “All laid out in a neat row and only a yard from the dogs— just like Alex used to do.” He scanned her face for a sign she believed him, his eyes moist from subliminal emotion.
“The dogs were just layin’ there, stone-still on their bellies with the back of their necks bristlin’ and tails tucked between their legs— just starin’ at them coons. Even young Pepper didn’t budge. It was if they were trying to tell me something— like something was there with us, and close.” He paused to down his whiskey.
“I sensed it, too. It was like a, uh... like a tenseness. Sort of how a big cat gets when it’s about to pounce on prey. It gave me the willies. I drew my pistol and aimed it with the flashlight, listening for a crunch of moss, a twig to snap— anything. But there was no sound, not even a cricket chirping.” Anita's eyes were riveted on Butch's reenactment, slowly sweeping an imagined beam of light around the kitchen as if probing the darkened shadows of the swamp.
“But I couldn’t see a damned thing, hon— no eyes, no form, no movement, no nothin'. I was goin' nuts. I didn’t know what to think. My mouth went bone dry. That's when I started feeling a little scared and silly at the same time, but called out anyway. ‘Alex?’ I whispered. Alex? Are you out there?’ But still there was nothin’— nothin’ but this ungodly heavy silence hanging in the air.” Butch narrowed his focus and again slowly swung a phantom beam about the kitchen. Goose-bumps dotted his forearms as he relived the jittery feeling that something was lurking in the fog roiling around him.
“Alex!” he barked, jolting Anita upright in her chair.
“I couldn’t move, Nita. My knees felt weak and I got the shakes. All I could do was just stand there like a dumb fence post, every nerve in my body on edge trying to see or hear something. I was a wreck." He paused and looked deep into her eyes. “But it don’t end there."
"The dogs still hadn’t moved and I was about to bolt when I see this wisp of fog slowly rise from the mist. But it wasn’t thick or shiny like the ground fog. It was different; more like a haze, sort of how a column of cigar smoke looks when rising from an ashtray.” Anita followed the motion of his hand, slowly rising and twisting until stopping a few inches from his face.
“When it got to about here it leveled off like an anvil, and there it hung. At first, I thought maybe some colder air might have bent it over like that. But then, and I know this is gonna sound crazy, hon, but uh— well, it seemed almost like it was lookin’ at me. My eyes were glued to it; barely moving, ever so slight, back and forth, following my eyes.” Butch’s nostrils flared. “And then all of a sudden— ba-zoom!”
He thrust his hand past Anita’s ear, nearly bouncing her from her chair. “Just like that, it shot past me and vanished. I couldn't feel no breeze, but for a split second I could o’ sworn I felt a clammy coldness brush my face— right here.” Butch tapped his cheek as Anita gently squeezed his arm to console him. “That did it; that's when I got a case of the heebie-jeebies and ran like hell.”
Butch described his mad dash out of the swamp, of how he stepped into a shallow mud hole that sucked off one of his boots, its sock still inside. Frantic, he kicked the other free to level his step, but within yards, his toe jammed into a surface root and he hit the ground hard. The impact broke the flashlight and dislodged his gun. He ignored the pain, sprung to his feet, and resumed his frenzied flight with only the moonlight guiding his path.
“I couldn’t help it, Nita. I was scared out of my cotton-pickin’ mind. Even left the dogs where they were.”
“What? You left the hounds tied to a tree? How could you, Butch? You’ll have to go back and get them. What if a big moose happens by? They’ll be torn to shreds if they can’t run away.”
“I don’t care!” His eyes flared with determination. “I ain’t goin’ near that God-forsaken place ‘til daylight, I tell ya. They’ll just have to wait. That’s all there is to it.” He ignored the guilt and downed another shot of whiskey, inwardly praying they’d be safe until morning.
Anita hesitated to say anything further, unsure of what to make of his story knowing Butch was not easily rattled, let alone prone to fanciful embellishment. She didn’t doubt the sincerity of what he perceived had happened given his state of trepidation, but it was another thing to refuse going back for his beloved hounds.
Butch studied her face, certain he detected a restrained but dubious look. “I know what you’re thinking. You think I’m nuts, a dang lunatic, don’t you? I swear, Nita, I ain’t made nothing up.” The inflection in his voice pleaded for support. “I saw what I saw.”
“I’m not saying it ain’t so, darling. But you’ve been under a lot of stress lately. You even said so yourself, that you were overtired; about to quit. Maybe when you rested, you nodded off or something. You know, maybe you didn’t realize it, but thinking of old times, you copied Alex. Maybe your mind was playing tricks on you in the moonlight.”
“Bullshit! I wasn’t daydreaming, dammit. I was standing in the middle of a swamp; just climbed down from a tree. And what about the dogs? Why didn’t they howl or tear hell out the coons only a yard from their mugs? How did the one I shot end up with the others? Huh? Answer me that one!”
He challenged her sense of reason, but Anita chose only to listen for fear of agitating him further. Butch rose and kicked back his chair. Frustrated, he removed his shirt and threw it into the sink. A medley of conflicting emotions challenged his sense of manhood; he was unnerved, embarrassed, and confused.
Well, I wasn’t there, Anita conceded, though she too was bewildered and unable to offer any plausible explanations. She allowed Butch a pensive moment before joining him by the door, staring with an unresponsive look at the woods through its small window. She slid a reassuring arm around his waist and kissed his shoulder. Many things didn’t make sense to her at the moment, but she was certain of one thing— the dogs had to be freed and brought home. She nudged his ribs with playful enthusiasm, carefully choosing her words so as not to appear skeptical or discouraging.
“I’ll tell you what. How about we get the big camping lantern and I’ll help you get the dogs. You said you were in my blueberry stomping grounds, so they can’t be too hard to find, okay? Come on. There's a full moon out tonight and maybe between the two of us and that big lantern, things won’t be, um... quite the same.”
Butch audibly sighed. She's right; Pepper's only a pup. He knew it was the right thing to do, but felt ashamed and emasculated his wife had more courage to go into that dreaded swamp than he did. Butch inhaled deeply, inviting the whiskey's invigorating essence to clear his thoughts. “I'll get the lantern," he said, giving in.
Anita was pleased his confidence was returning as she retreated to the bedroom to get him a clean shirt and socks. She slipped on a long-sleeved pullover and returned to the kitchen carrying both pair of hiking shoes just as Butch emerged from the cellar carrying a large green Coleman. While lacing up, they were suddenly distracted. Each glanced at the other, puzzled by muffled noises coming from the veranda. A tad indecisive, Butch glanced at Anita before snatching the door open— only to see all four hounds shuffling about, wagging their tails. Pepper pawed the outer screen, eager to embrace his master.
Stunned, Butch at first eyed his hounds in amazed disbelief. Anita too was relieved the dogs were home safe, but remained impassive standing in the doorway, watching her husband pet his hounds when he looked up at her, glowering.
“Still think I’m a damned lunatic?”
“Oh for Pete’s sake,” she flustered. “I never said any such thing.” Not entirely convincing, she shrugged, offering what she deemed to be a logical defense. “I dunno, maybe when you ran off they got excited and wriggled free somehow.”
“Think so? Try again woman.” He pointed at the hounds. “Take another look— a good look.” Butch slid two fingers under Pepper's collar. “Where’s his leash? Do you see a leash— on any of ‘em? Who the hell do you suppose unsnapped the heavy clasps from all four turnbuckles?”
He left her stumped as he brushed past her and whistled the dogs into the house. "Tonight, they stay in here— with us.”
Anita would never have permitted such a thing in the past, but her mind was blank and unable to react as two hounds curled up on the sofa, a third opting for the braided rug in front of the radio. Butch sat in his favorite chair and motioned Pepper to his lap. Anita looked on, trance-like, her eyes still focused on the pup’s collar. As Butch stroked Pepper’s head, the dog turned and nuzzled Butch’s chin. Anita’s eyes widened.
Oh-h-h, my God. Is such a thing even possible?
She had heard stories of the paranormal, but until now had no idea if such phenomena actually existed, much less able to explain any of it. Tears welled in her eyes. She was overcome with baffling, yet wondrous emotions trying to fathom just how deep a human bonding must be if to reach beyond the threshold separating mortals from the supernatural. Feminine intuition told her something most extraordinary had indeed happened in that swamp.
Alex kissed him goodbye tonight. She was convinced of it.
Anita tiptoed into the kitchen, smoothing the goosebumps dotting her arms. Though an infrequent drinker, she poured a shot of Butch's whiskey and drew a taste to moisten her lips, shuddering at the bourbon’s initial bite. While leaning against the kitchen sink, she immersed in supernal thought. Her eyes perused the heavens, intrigued by what ineffable secrets must lay concealed out there— way, way out there in the deepest reaches of the Cosmos.
Again her tummy tingled as before, only this time rather than dismiss the feeling, she encouraged it. Her senses heightened; she was mesmerized by how the stars had become even more brilliant— they were mystifying. Her eyes then shifted to what had to be the biggest and brightest of full moons she had ever seen, now fully risen in all her radiant splendor. Luna’s celestial visage seemed to be smiling directly at her— coyly, as women often do when sharing a secretive nod of understanding between them. Anita returned the smile and tilted her glass in salute, grateful that she too had been allowed such a rare and privileged peek behind the veil of Isis.