Jake and his brother stop by Sally's to relax and encounter an unexpected visitor
|They say you can never go home again. But you can damn well bet they'll have a laundry list of chores when you do. That had been Jake's experience upon returning to his parent's place outside Button Creek, Oklahoma at the end of each college semester.
A hearty, "Good ta see ya, boy," from dad and a blanket-warm embrace from mom was soon followed by plates of meat-filled extravagance and advice to "Don't forget to set your alarm. Your brother's expectin' help over on the east forty in the mornin'."
But visits to the farm weren't without their perks. Particularly after a sweltering day’s effort when he and his brother, Seth, piled into dad’s rusted F150, then like a mule trained to the stable, the truck somehow picked its way to Sally's Tavern for a couple ice cold beers.
Grass-scented warmth caressed the afternoon air as they rounded a curve where Sally's lay nestled like a lover in the road's curved track. Tucked among the oaks, a stranger might not notice the wood slated structure and it's paint faded appeal, but, to the locals, Sally's was the place to be on bluegrass pounding Saturday nights and lazy ‘free pool’ Thursdays.
The old pickup gave a lurch as Seth eased her off the highway and ground across the gravel track to the dirt packed lot out back. He came to a brake-squealing halt between a John Deere riding lawnmower and a gleaming new black Dodge Charger.
"Looks like Zeek's here." Seth hiked a thumb towards the mower.
Jake slid out with a chuckle. "I thought Sheriff Burke was gonna start givin’ him tickets for driving that thing on the highway."
Seth stood, hand poised on the truck door, and considered the mower. Behind him, anvil-topped storm clouds piled towards the heavens, their dark heads crowned in dusk's rosy glow.
"He keeps makin' threats," Seth said, "but I don't think he'll ever do it." The truck's door protested with a rusty lament as he slammed it shut. "I think he's afraid he’ll start driving that Jeep of his. Leastways if he’s drivin’ the mower, after a drink or two, the only one killed will be Zeek."
Stepping through the back door into Sally's, Jake bit down on a shiver as his sweat-dappled skin goose-bumped in the dry chill air. The sticky sweet aroma of stale beer and musty perfume unlocked a tidal wave of memories and missed opportunities. Since the first time he’d snuck into Sally's at the tender age of fourteen, the layout of the place hadn’t changed. To his right, a long wooden bar and rows of three-legged stools basked in the amber glow of neon framed beer ads. To his left, sat the club's well-worn pool tables. A young couple glanced up with shy, bright eyes before returning to their game.
"Well if it ain't Seth an' his smarty pants brother, Jake," a wild-haired old man called from his stool at the bar.
“Nice ta see you too, Zeke,” Jake chuckled.
On the other side of the scratched wooden divider stood Billie, a scarecrow gaunt woman with dangling cigarette lips and bruised sunken eyes. She raised a hand against the sunset glare streaming through the door before sudden recognition lit her face with a smile.
"Jake Garner, as I live and breathe." Billie slapped an old rag over her shoulder and slid around the bar, pulling Jake into her nicotine scented embrace. "How's college been treating you, sweetie?" She held him at arm's length considering him with bird bright eyes. "Been breaking many hearts?"
Seth chuckled and eased onto a stool. "Billie, you know Jake better'n that. If he doesn't have his nose poked into a book, he's got it stuck in a video game." He leaned over and slapped his brother on the shoulder. "Ain't that right, lil' brother?"
The couple at the pool table glanced up at the commotion but were soon reabsorbed in their mutual seduction.
Jake rolled his eyes and dropped down beside his brother. "There's a girl I've been seein'." He cocked his head shyly, the color rising in his cheeks. "I was thinkin' about bringing her home to meet the family this fall. But right now, it’s not too serious."
"Not too serious?" Zeek wheezed in protest and slapped his liver-spotted hand on the bar. "Boy, there ain't no dealin' with women that ain't too serious." He broke into gales of hoarse laughter at his own jibe. The others joined in by the sheer ridiculousness of the old man's drunken glee.
Against the low rumble of the approaching storm and the soft clatter of pool balls, minutes passed into hours as Jake filled them in on the goings on at the University. Soon the conversation turned and Jake sipped his beer with tight lipped amusement as Zeek, Billie, and his brother drawled endlessly about the Democrats, the Dark Web, and their nefarious machinations against our nation.
With mournful glee, the wind played through the old building's rafters as distant lighting flickered periodically along the window's curtained borders.
"We oughta get goin'," Seth said at last, dropping a $20 on the bar. "We don't wanna get caught in the storm." He gestured to the TV mounted high behind Billie's head. In the screen's bottom corner, large red letters read: TORNADO WARNING, while a harried man in a sports suit gestured feverishly to a radar map splotched with patches of angry red and orange.
Jake glanced at his watch surprised to see it was already past ten.
"A beer, damn it!" boomed a voice from the back door. "I need a beer!"
A dirt-caked man with ferny silver hair stumbled in. Dried leaves and bits of paper capered about his feet as he leaned heavily against the wind and slammed the door. Heaving a great sigh of relief, he leaned his back against the door and straightened his grease smudged MAGA hat.
A barrel-chested man, he wore a threadbare flannel shirt and oil-stained jeans. The most peculiar aspect of his sudden appearance was the shovel. He gripped it with both hands leaning on it in breathless support as he surveyed the room.
"Mitch Sykes?" Billie boomed. "You know you can't come in here. You're banned for another two months."
The young couple gazed in slack-jawed wonder, their eyes ping-ponging between Billie and the odd newcomer.
Mitch Sykes waved a dismissive hand and crossed the room. "Woman, I ain't got time for petty nonsense like bans, an' protective orders, an' other such stuff. I've got serious trouble an' I need a beer."
He slammed the spade on the bar, the crusty metal head showering the counter with moist clumps of earth.
"Sykes," Zeek said, shaking his head in pursed-lip condemnation. "Ya can't just break the law whenever ya please. We got rules in this county."
"Ya mean like not drivin' that overgrown grass clipper on the highway?" Mitch Sykes said.
Color thrummed in Zeek's face as his spluttered for a retort, but Mitch Sykes went on. "Billie, I got problems which override any dispute you an' me had in the past." He craned his neck to take in the room. His gazed paused a moment on the couple at the tables. Ignoring them, he gave the group at the bar a conspiratorial wave indicating they all lean in.
After a pregnant pause, he whispered. "The missus is tryin' ta kill me."
Jake stared at him in squint-eyed confusion. The marital trials and tribulations of Mitch and Myra Sykes were anything but private, their drunken bickering spilling into the aisles of the local Wal-Mart or the parking lot of the Button Creek Dairy Queen with seasonal regularity. The fact one or both partners in that accursed union would desire to harm the other was anything but surprising.
Billie slid a beer in front of Mitch Sykes, and he downed it with throat bobbing enthusiasm, swiping a hairy wrist across his thin lips and setting the glass down with an, "Ahhh."
"Now, Mitch," Billie said, putting on her most understanding of bartender expressions. "Surely there's something you must ah done to upset Myra. Maybe if you told us what it was, we'd help you figure out a way ta calm her down."
Mitch Sykes lifted his glass and considered it thoughtfully before setting it back on the bar. "Possibly, though I don't know if they make a Hallmark card that covers what I done.” He lifted his hands and quoted in the air. “Sorry, I killed ya, honey, but still wishing you and yours a happy holiday season." He drained his glass and slid it across the bar.
Jake glanced over and noticed the young couple had left their game and were clustered at the far end of the bar studying the TV. According to the overlay on the screen, angry clouds full of rotation, rain, and hail were closing in on Button Creek.
"Wait, what?" Seth said. "You tried to kill her?"
Mitch Sykes shook his head. "Oh no, I didn't try. I did kill her." He paused, his eyes rotating skyward in thought. "Come ta think of it, I'm not sure that's what really pissed her off. It might ah been the buryin' that really got her goat."
Jake leaned back from Mitch Sykes’ view. He looked to his brother and swirled a finger beside his head.
"You know, Mitch," Zeek said sagely. "A person cain't kill ya if they're dead. Which means if Myra is trying ta kill ya, she cain't very well be dead. It's just plain logic." He looked to Jake with a conspiratorial wink. “Just ask Jake if ya don't believe me. He goes ta college.”
"Under normal circumstances," Mitch Sykes said, "I'd tend ta agree. 'Cept there's one thing you're forgettin'. Myra ain't no ordinary woman."
"Whaddya mean?" Zeek asked.
"She was able ta come back from the shadowy beyond," Mitch Sykes said, "cause she's a witch."
Everyone in the county knew Myra Sykes was a witch. Pastor Cain over at Sacred Hills Baptist even did an annual sermon on the evils of witchcraft doing everything but mentioning Myra by name. His condemnation, however stern, did little to curb Myra's popularity with high school girls, young lovers, and the desperately ill when it came to potions, curses, and cures.
"Of course she's a witch," Zeek said. "Hell, you've got a sign on your lawn that says: Potions, Powders, and Tarot Reading Inside. Family discounts available. What kinda person puts up an advertisement like that if'n they ain't a witch?”
Mitch Sykes considered this, rubbing at his bristled chin with one hand while nudging the empty glass closer to Billie with the other. Taking the hint, she topped it off with bright amber fluid and a foamy white head before shoving it back. With a smile, Mitch Sykes took another sip.
"I can see what you're sayin'," Mitch Sykes said. "But I'm not talkin' ‘bout a pretend witch. She ain't one ah them crystal-sellin' fakes." He shook his head slowly. "Oh no, Myra's deviltry is real. I seen it with my own eyes. Experienced it with my own flesh."
With a glass-rattling boom, thunder flickered the lights and had all of them drawing closer. Billie reached beneath the counter and produced a pair of candles. She lit them and set them on the bar.
"Just in case we lose power," she said with a nervous grin.
"Mitch," Jake said. "I can see you're pretty shook up by all this, but you gotta see the logic. A dead woman's not gonna try an' hurt you." He paused and gave Mitch Sykes’ mud coated clothes and scratched arms and face a good going over. "I assume she did try an' hurt you?"
"Phhht," Mitch Sykes said, spraying the bar with spit. "You can say that again."
"Then it stands to reason Myra’s not dead." Jake's brow furrowed. "By the way. What makes you think she’s dead?"
Mitch Sykes barked out a laugh. "Ha! Dead? Well, wouldn't you expect someone ta be dead if ya whacked em' over the head with a shovel, then buried em' out back?"
Pool table girl gasped. "That's awful."
"Awful, hell." Mitch Sykes said, turning in his stool. "That bitch'd been runnin' me all day with one ah her charms." When he leaned closer, the girl's eyes widened as she stepped behind her boyfriend.
"You don't know what awful is 'til you been run ragged by one of her spells. The only thing that'll break it is a couple long burnin' shots ah moonshine.” He leaned back, his chin lifted with pride. “Which is why I keep a jar hid in the barn. That's what started all the trouble in the first place. I was in the barn, gettin' a little swaller, when she come waltzin' in an' laid inta me." He held up the shovel. "I'd had my fill of Myra Sykes, so I whacked her with this. I didn't mean ta kill 'er, ya' know, just shut 'er up. But there it was. When I seen what I done, I figured, welp, there's one life ruin't. Ain't no reason ta ruin another." He glanced among the faces expectantly. "I mean she was a witch after all. Ain't no one gonna fault me for that.” His eyes bobbed expectantly from one face to another. “So I dragged 'er out back an' buried her by the septic tank."
"On that note," the pool playing boyfriend said. "We'll catch ya next week, Billie. We’re gonna try and make it home before the storm hits."
"Oh, the storm's already here," Mitch Sykes said. "Myra brung it with 'er." His eyes drifted to where the back door rattled against the wind. "There's an unnatural intensity in the air. Cain't ya feel it?"
"I wanna go," the girl whispered harshly, tugging at her boyfriend's sleeve. "Now."
Jake watched them stalk for the door, fight the malice of the wind to yank it open, then disappear outside. The door snapped shut with a sharp metal clang.
"Good riddance," Mitch Sykes said, hefting his beer in salute.
"You buried Myra?" Billie asked. "In the earth?"
"Yup, sure did. 'Bout three feet under. I figured, she didn't deserve no better." His eyes drifted thoughtfully to the ceiling. "In hindsight, I might ah avoided all this trouble if I'd dug down a full six."
"There's your explanation," Seth said. "You didn’t kill her. Ya only knocked her out." He looked to Jake who gave an approving nod. "She musta come to after you covered her up. If it was only three feet deep, like you said, she'd ah had no trouble gettin' out."
Mitch Sykes nodded and jabbed a finger at Seth. "You're a right smart fella, Seth Garner, an' I'd ah thought the exact same before Joe-Bob Griffith shot her in the chest like he done."
"Shot her!" Billie gasped. "Where?"
"At Joe-Bob's, of course, weren't you listenin'?"
Wind rocked the eaves with a woman's terrified howl. The windows rattled in their panes. Jake's eye was drawn to the TV. On screen, the cancerous red blob of the storm settled over a dot on the map labeled: Button Creek.
"No,” Billie said, “not where were you. Where'd she get hit? Is she still at Joe-Bob's? Was she hurt?"
"Hell yeah, she was hurt. Joe-Bob caught her right in the chest with his Remington Lever Action. Blew 'er clean 'crosst the room." He shook his head and chuckled. "You shoulda heard her yowl." Then he sighed his expression going flat. "Course it didn't stop her from rippin' Joe-Bob and Dwayne Little's heads clean off."
He turned and caught Billie's eye. "Say, you still got that scattergun hid under the counter?"
Billie's eyes widened but she nodded her ascent.
"Maybe that'll work better'n than Joe-Bob's 30-30."
"Wait," Zeek said, rising from his stool. "Boy, Mitch, you had me goin'." Zeek looked to the others with a knowing wink. "Joe-Bob Griffith's trailer was hit last night by a twister," he said. "Heard 'bout it on the mornin' news. Two folks killed. I heard ol' Joe-Bob was one. Guess Dwayne Little was the other."
"Course ya heard 'bout it," Mitch Sykes said, waving his hand dismissively. "But it weren't no tornado what done em' in. It was Myra. The tornado’s only along for the ride."
Wind moaned. Rain sheeted the windows. The storm hammered the front door against the lock bar holding it shut. Mitch Sykes glanced nervously to the noise, his face gone suddenly pale.
"If she's such a terror," Jake asked, "why aren't you dead too?"
"What was that?" Mitch Sykes said, sliding from his stool.
"I said if she's such a terror then why didn't she kill you as well? She ripped off Joe-Bob and Dwayne's heads, right? You’re the one she’s mad at. Why not yours too?"
Mitch Sykes hefted his shovel and stepped towards the front door. "Now that there's the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question. But I think it's got somethin' ta do with this." As he raised the shovel, it glinted in the thready neon light. "I killed her with this. Buried her too." He turned the mud-caked head and examined it, then hammered the butt on the ground causing the metal blade to sing. "Don't think it'll kill'er but havin’ it seems ta slow er' down. Leastways enough for me ta get away."
His eyes drifted from the shovel to the people at the bar. "'Course she was busy with Joe-Bob an' Dwayne while I made my escape." A smile flickered on his lips like light glinting on a blade. "Maybe the same trick will work again." He paused a moment and looked to the bar. "An' Billie. Ya might wanna get that gun ready. Ya'll probably gonna need it."
With that, he lifted the lock bar from the front door and dropped it clattering to the floor. When he shoved the door open and vanished into the darkness, the back door slammed open with a thud. At the same instant, a crash of thunder plunged them into darkness. The TV went black with an electric snap and a whiff of burnt wires. In the stuttering candle glow, Jake raced for the back door.
"Shut the front!" he yelled to Seth. "That twister's gotta be close."
The woman who sprang through the back door chilled Jake's breath and froze him to the floor. If it hadn't been for the familiar bulbous nose and her rat’s nest of raven hair, he'd have never recognized the mud caked apparition as Myra Sykes. The woman's eyes blazed with a hellish jade fury, her skin as mottled and slack as a corpse. Her denim shirt sagged heavy wet on her shoulders revealing an ugly black bullet hole above the flaccid pale cleavage of her breasts.
"Myra, you..." was all Jake got out before she backhanded him out the door with her knuckley, white hand.
Jake landed hard, rolling across the darkness in the gravel and wet. Struggling to his knees, rain needled his face as a shotgun blast of thunder pierced the night. He had time enough to wonder if the shrieks filling the air were from the wind or the bar when the rattling, bounding, cartwheeling approach of a sheet metal roof flicked off his lights.
Jake shivered and opened his eyes. Rolling through a puddle, he shoved away the sheet metal cover and came to an elbow, grimacing against the fire in his ribs.
"We got a live one," someone yelled.
Flashlights danced across the board and brick strewn lot, pinning him in their beams.
"Sheriff, it's the Garner boy."
Booted feet splish-splashed toward him. The round face of Sheriff Burke materialized from the darkness as he knelt down beside him
"Thank God for small miracles," Burke said, filling the air with his stale tobacco breath and the sharp bite of Old Spice. He turned to the wide-eyed deputy behind him. "Call Mrs. Garner. Tell her, we found Jake. Tell her he's alive."
Jake blinked trying to clear away the cobwebs in his head. Where was the bar? Where the tavern once stood, there was nothing but a vast gravel lot littered with boards and broken tree branches. Two police cruisers and an ambulance sat by the road, their red and blue lights wig-wagging across five white-sheeted bodies laid out neatly before them.
"Where's Seth?" Jake croaked.
Burke's lips tightened as he shot his deputy a glance. "I'm sorry, son. Billie, old Ezekial White, a pair of college kids crushed in their car." He shook his head. "And Seth. The tornado got'em all."
"It was Myra," Jake said trying to rise. "It wasn't a tornado, it was Myra."
They pressed him down with soft words and firm hands. An EMT worked a bandage over the five angry slashes across his chest, while another inserted an IV.
"It's okay, Jake. It's all right."
Burke's brows furrowed as Jake struggled. "What's the matter with him?"
One of the EMTs looked up from her work, "Probably shock.
"Could be a head injury," the other added.
"It was Myra....ya gotta stop her! Gotta stop Myra."
"Tornadoes don't have names," the deputy said. "You're thinkin' 'bout hurricanes."
One of the EMTs jabbed a needle in Jake's IV. "This will calm him down." Even as she said the words, Jake's struggles lessened. His voice grew soggy and slow.
"It was ... Myra. Gotta ... stop ... Myra."
Burke watched as they trundled Jake away sloshing through the grassy wetness and slamming the ambulance door. As they pulled away in a screech of tires and skidding gravel, he nudged up his cowboy hat and grabbed his mic.
"All right, Ernie," he sighed. “Start lookin’ for them missin’ heads. I’ll join ya in a minute. Dispatch has been tryin’ ta get hold ah me. Seems Mitch Sykes been down at the Dollar General threatenin’ folks with a shovel and stealin’ beer.”