Don't feed the bears ... or anything else you happen to find in the woods!
|"Ooga-booga!" Max shouted as he leaped from behind the idol. Sheila shrieked and punched him in the arm. He laughed.
"Been waiting long?" Vinnie asked. He'd had to drive ten miles. Not that he'd needed much coaxing: just the promise of weed, whiskey, girls, and a dark place to enjoy them.
"Ten minutes. You bring Frankie and Connie too?"
"I'm here," a girl called as she pushed through the canebrake to join the other three. "Frankie's mom caught him trying to sneak out."
Vinnie grunted. "What is this place? I almost missed it."
"It" was almost invisible under the dark, moonless sky, but with his powerful flashlight Max sketched the outlines of the Temple of Zammi to his high school friends. "Careful you don't twist your ankle," he cautioned as he led them over the broken foundation, which was all that was left of the building proper. Standing incongruously, though, amid the shrubs and grasses that had overwhelmed the lot, were three tall monuments. Two were obelisks, flanking the far end of what had once been a hall. But near at hand was the smaller figure of black, polished stone that Max had been hiding behind. It had a high, dome-like head with a long face, set atop a powerful neck and the bull-like shoulders of a very masculine human body. Its most notable feature, though, was—
"And this," said Max as he shone his flashlight up at it, "is Dickface."
The others stared. Then Sheila giggled. "Oh my God, it really does look like a dick!"
"I think it's supposed to be a trunk," said Max. "Like on an elephant."
"So does he have a dick down where he's supposed to?" Connie asked.
"You think they made him anatomically correct?" Vinnie snorted, while Max challenged, "Why don't you check?"
Connie stepped close to the statue. She craned her neck to stare up at the chin—and nose—that loomed above, and threw her arms around its massive torso as far as she could reach. "You trying to get him off?" Max sniggered as she threw a leg around it too.
"He's wearing pants," she retorted. "It's the only way to find out."
"Look out," Vinnie shouted, "he's coming in the back door!" He poked her in the ass, and she squealed and chased after him.
"So what is this place?" Sheila asked Max as the other two, laughing, vanished into the night.
"I told you. Temple of Zammi. Some cult or other back in the 1920s. They came down from Vermont or Quebec. Built their temple here, pissed off all the local Baptists, then bugged out. My history teacher—"
"Yeah, she says—"
"She's a Communist, you know."
"Yeah. She says they all got lynched by the town folk, but Mr. Mapes down at the Cultural Center says most of them drifted off to California during the Dust Bowl. All except the ones that got dragged down to Hell!" He lunged at Sheila with claw-like hands and a snarl. It turned into an embrace, and she giggled and relaxed in his arms.
And that was how the abandoned temple grounds came to be a party spot for some of the high school students. True, it was nearly a dozen miles out in the boggy country down by the river, and you had to know where to turn off the old state highway to reach it. But that was its appeal—you had to be a part of the group to get directions.
Mostly that meant Max and Connie and Vinnie and Sheila. At first casually, and then more and more regularly, that's where they went to smoke weed and drink beer and split into couples when they got bored with sitting as a quartet. Vinnie found a deep depression that fell into a short, square-shaped cave that must have been a cellar or an ice house at one time, and he took to packing camping equipment and other supplies there. That included sleeping bags, and soon weekend nights (and sometimes school nights too) were being spent there, two to a bag, often taking turns at the foot of the black idol—a spot which turned out to be a peculiarly comfortable and satisfying place for doing it.
Curiously, they rarely visited the ruins during the day. No one ever spoke of why. If it was suggested, there would be complaints of the wallowing heat and humidity of the site, of the glare of the sun onto the open field, or the whine and bite of the skeeters. But never did they allude of an oppressive sense of being watched, closely and obsessively, or of the sense that some momentarily paralyzed thing was leaning in on them, eager to lunge. Still less would any of them remark that the locus of that attention seemed to reside in the face of the idol, whose eyes glimmered in the sunlight like liquid and living things.
But neither did they speak of the relief they felt on the cool nights when they basked beneath the approving gaze of the idol, or of the pleasant and lingering lassitude they felt when they woke in the early hours at its feet. Day by day, week by week, they felt progressively drained of willpower, and sometimes they thought—particularly after expending themselves inside a sleeping bag—of how pleasant it would be to dissolve into a dew and sink into the ground at the idol's base.
But though they spoke none of these things, that didn't mean they didn't each feel then.
Then came the day that Vinnie's head got taken off as he rode his motorcycle down the old highway.
It was a one-of-a-kind accident, the police said. The pipes being hauled on the back of a plumbing-supply truck hadn't been tied down correctly, and one flew off just as Max was shooting past going the other way. It was like being hit with a sledgehammer at a hundred-and-twenty miles per hour.
Max had to help his dad the afternoon of the funeral, but Sheila felt a clawing need to return to the old temple grounds—to commune with the spirit of her dead friend, she told herself—even though it was the middle of the day. She was surprised to see a station wagon parked just past the turnoff when she arrived, and she approached cautiously. She found an elderly man pacing the foundations and squinting about. He saw and called to her before she could duck away, and reluctantly she joined him.
"You know this place?" the man asked, and he mopped his forehead with a handkerchief. Sheila only shrugged. "There's a lot of trash about," he continued. "Someone's been coming out here."
"It's public land, isn't it?" she said a little sulkily.
"Title to it lapsed years ago. But I thought maybe you might know who's been coming out." Sheila shrugged again, and dodged his keen gaze.
She gave a little start, though, when he introduced himself as Donald Mapes. "I'm a local historian," he said. "Though this is a part of the town's history we don't like talking about."
"People got lynched, right?" she said, and didn't bother to hide her hostility.
Mr. Mapes gave her a long look. "Folks would have liked to," he said. "But none dared. Those that looked at the Temple members funny had unlucky accidents."
"What do you mean, 'looked at funny'?"
That only earned her another long look, and a question. "You feel it looking at you now, don't you? The idol?"
Sheila couldn't help shivering a little.
"One of the Temple members left a diary when she left town. They all scattered, of a sudden, you know. It was the only way to escape."
"She explained it in the diary, though her mind was starting to go, and you have to put the pieces together. The Historical Society inherited it, but I'm the only one who's ever read it."
He held her gaze with a solemn look, then leaned in close.
"It has to be fed," he said in a low voice. "It's like a vampire, and it has to be fed. It gives back pleasure, too, and even power, if you know how to claim it. But it has to be fed, and the more you feed it, the hungrier it gets. Until, finally, it has to take everything from you."
"Everything?" Sheila breathed the word out.
"It took half a dozen before the rest got the strength to take to their heels. It didn't take them here, mind you. But through accidents. Drowning. Sickness." His mouth tightened. "Even a decapitation."
He looked at her gravely. "You go to the high school, don't you? That's bad. Hard for you to run away."
Three days later, Max was found at the bottom of the municipal swimming pool, which had been closed for the season. No one knew what had drawn him to it, or what had pulled him down and held him under.