by RYAN POTTER
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following events scared me so badly that I’m changing the names of the people, city, and state involved.
A few years ago I drove an aging friend named Dolly from Detroit down to her small hometown of Fennville, Tennessee. Dolly was seventy-two and hadn’t seen Fennville in sixty years. James, her husband of five decades, had recently passed and Dolly felt the need to go “down home,” as she called it, before her own time ran out. We left Detroit on a crisp Friday in mid-October and had originally planned on returning Sunday evening. Due to unforeseen events, however, we drove back early the next morning.
On the way down I-75, Dolly told me stories about growing up poor in rural Tennessee. She was the oldest of eight kids and came from the kind of poverty where squirrel meat for dinner was common and appreciated. She kept talking about her old house with the tin roof and wanted to know if it was still there. She said the house sat beside a creek in a “holler,” a word that confused me until I figured out that what she really meant was a hollow, or a small valley.
For some reason, I expected the current Fennville to be a developed suburb, but once we exited I-75 and rolled past a few gas stations and fast food places, the road narrowed to two lanes and we found ourselves looking at thick vegetation and hilly terrain. It was a beautiful part of Tennessee, the kind of scenery that could land on a postcard.
Minutes later we spotted an old sign on the side of the road: FENNVILLE 1.
“Gettin’ close now,” Dolly said, smiling. “I remember like it was yesterday.”
I glanced at her. She was small and wrinkled, but she had this shining personality that made you forget all about her age.
“You’ll know how to find the creek and the…holler on your own, Dolly?”
“Yup. It’s all right here.” She tapped the side of her head a few times. “I didn’t tell you how my parents got the house.”
“Nope. You didn’t.”
She cleared her throat. “Well, they got it for a steal.”
“The previous owner committed suicide in the kitchen. Dad had to scrape off brain matter from the walls before we moved in.”
“Oh,” I said, not really knowing what to say at all. “Wow.”
“When it rained, the tin roof rattled something awful.”
“Some people like that sound. Aluminum roofs are trendy these days.”
“Sometimes at night the roof rattled something awful even when it wasn’t raining.”
I swallowed hard. “Are you saying you grew up in a haunted house, Dolly?”
“Just things I remember. The house was already old when we bought it. There were dark stains all over the wood floors, ancient and impossible to get out. Dad found out that the place was a field hospital during the Civil War.” She paused. “That was soldier blood on those floors.”
“Sounds like quite a house.” I felt my heart rate spike a bit. “I hope it’s still there.”
We passed through Fennville’s only streetlight. Dolly nodded and muttered stuff about things changing but still looking the same. The one-block downtown was dirty and deserted. Prosperity had obviously skipped Fennville, and I found myself wondering how anybody could live in a place like this without going insane. Anyway, there was an old bar on the corner called Perkey’s Mountain Tavern. We agreed to have a drink there after we searched for the house with the aluminum roof and the violent past.
“Perkey,” she said, eyeing the bar and laughing as we passed it. “They’re still here. Not surprised.”
“Old friends of yours?”
“My dad used to drink with the Perkey boys when he was young. Mom hated it. She said the only things the Perkey boys were good at was making moonshine and hustling pool.” She laughed again. “They were some fine looking men, though. I had a crush on a Perkey until the day we left Fennville. Frank was his name. Frank Perkey. He was in his twenties. I was twelve.”
“Maybe they’ll wheel Frank into the tavern and he’ll buy you a drink later.”
“Keep driving, Mr. Comedian.”
Ten minutes later, Dolly said, “Here comes the creek and the holler. Pull over on the bridge.”
“What bridge?” I squinted. All I saw were endless green hills and outcroppings of bedrock.
“Here it comes. Slow down.”
Sure enough, we came across a small decaying bridge spanning a narrow creek. Years of rust covered the bridge, which seemed on the verge of collapsing at any moment. I parked on the shoulder of the road and explained to Dolly that there was no way I was walking across that crumbling heap of steel.
“Don’t have to.” She opened her door. “Follow me.”
I’ve never seen a woman in her seventies move as fast as Dolly did over the next thirty minutes. The creek was only about twenty feet below the bridge. I offered to help her walk down the grassy slope that led to the clear water, but she refused and went on ahead of me, moving diagonally down the slope with an athletic grace that it made it seem like she traveled this route daily.
An old man was fishing beneath the bridge. He waved to us. Dolly walked over to him. I hustled up beside her. The man smiled. He didn’t have any teeth and had to be in his eighties. His clothes were old and filthy. He smelled like port-a-john on the last day of a summer fair.
“Anything biting?” Dolly said.
“Not today.” His voice was gravelly, probably from a lifetime of smoking.
“My name’s Dolly Baker. I grew up along this creek.” She turned and pointed behind us. “Is the old house with the tin roof still down yonder?”
“It’s there.” He nodded and studied Dolly. “Abandoned, though. Not much left of it.” He paused. “You know me, Dolly Baker. You just don’t recognize me after all these years.”
“I know you? What’s your name?”
“Frank Perkey.” He smiled again, all purple and red gums. “Good to see you, Dolly.”
I guess Frank’s awful odor didn’t bother Dolly, because she gave him a hug and they started talking about the old days. I felt like an intruder, so I backed off and stood by the creek to give them privacy. It occurred to me that she might appreciate a photographic memory of this chance encounter, so I reached into the front pocket of my jeans, dug out my small digital camera, and took a few good shots of them reminiscing. I was pretty sure Dolly hadn’t seen me snapping away, so I was looking forward to surprising her with the pictures at Perkey’s Mountain Tavern.
After their brief reunion, I followed Dolly along the creek’s rocky banks. When old Frank was out of earshot, I cracked a few jokes about her possibly marrying her Perkey man after all, or at least getting that drink from him later. She laughed so hard I thought she might cry.
We walked downhill in silence for about a quarter of a mile. The sounds of flowing water and singing birds surrounded us. This was turning into a pleasant little hike.
Dolly eventually stopped and turned, saying to me, “We’re in the holler. Look around you.”
She was right. Forested hills towered above us on both sides, a sea of browns and greens that seemed to stretch forever.
Dolly pointed toward a narrow one-lane dirt road that started at the creek several feet ahead of us and continued off to the right and into the forest.
“The house is on that road, just a little ways into the woods.” She smiled, showing an excitement that made her look thirty years younger. “Thank you for bringing me here.”
“My pleasure.” I took out my camera and motioned her forward. “After you, Dolly.”
I don’t know how many people have ever experienced true evil, but the sinister thoughts and chilling sensations that invaded my mind and body when I stepped into those woods and saw what was left of that house convinced me that there is a hell and nobody wants to go there. I suppose the best word to describe what I felt is demonic. There were demons on that property. There were demons in those woods. I didn’t see them. I felt them. Dolly felt them, too. I remember the hair on my arms standing straight up. I remember Dolly’s cold hand gripping my forearm in a way that made it clear she was experiencing the same awful things as me.
Frank Perkey was being positive when he said there wasn’t much left of the house. All that actually remained were the jagged ruins of the home’s stone foundation, arranged in a rectangle that revealed how small the house actually was when it stood, a shack, basically, not at all what most Americans would refer to as a home. Nature had taken over the lot. Tall, thick weeds and a few small trees now occupied a space once filled with wounded and dying soldiers, a troubled man with a shotgun, and a poor girl who ate squirrel meat for dinner.
Something evil had overtaken the remains of the house and the surrounding area. Terrifying voices filled my head and lulled me into a trance-like state. The voices insisted that I do all sorts of terrible things to myself and other people. I won’t give specific examples. They’re too awful to put down on paper. But I will say that if Dolly hadn’t grabbed my shoulders and shaken me back to reality, I might well have remained in that dangerous semiconscious state and done some things that day that would have changed my life for the worse.
“Snap out of it,” she said, shaking me with impressive force for a woman her age. “Snap out of it. It’s not real. None of it’s real.”
My neck jerked back and forth a few times, but I finally felt the evil weight lift from my brain as my mind returned to a healthy state.
“Turn around,” she said, her back already facing the foundation. “Don’t look at it. Just turn around and we’ll walk away.”
We walked away in silence.
“Did you feel all of that?” I asked. We were back along the creek now, the foundation out of sight.
“Yeah. I felt it.” She grabbed my hand in a motherly way that I welcomed. “It wasn’t like that when I lived there. Whatever it is, it’s gotten a lot stronger over the years.”
“But what is it?” I asked. “What happened back there?”
“Something we can’t explain. It was something we can’t explain and probably shouldn’t tell anybody about.”
We continued on, the two of us lost in our own thoughts.
Minutes later, I said, “Hey, Dolly?”
“I bet you’re ready for that drink now, huh?”
“I reckon I am,” she said. “I reckon I am.”
Frank Perkey was gone when we got back to the bridge, done fishing, I suppose. We climbed up the slope without incident and drove straight to Perkey’s Mountain Tavern. The place was dark and empty save the bartender, a brawny and bearded thirty-something guy in a red and black flannel shirt. Dolly and I sat at a round wooden table in front of the bar and talked about Detroit, a safe topic given the circumstances.
At one point she looked above the bar and said, “Hey, look there. That’s a picture of Frank Perkey.”
I looked up and there he was, a framed color photo of Frank Perkey. He looked exactly as we had just seen him, old and dirty. I wasn’t positive, but I think he was even wearing the same “outfit” we’d seen him in under the bridge.
“Must be recent,” I said.
“Must be,” Dolly said.
The bartender walked over. He looked upset.
He said, “What do you mean, it must be recent?”
“That picture of Frank Perkey,” Dolly said, staring up at the photo. “We just saw him fishing under the bridge.”
The bartender studied us for a few moments. I wasn’t sure what we’d done wrong, but I had a feeling this wasn’t the kind of man I wanted to see angry.
He took a deep breath and said, “Ma’am. Sir. I’m not calling you crazy or anything, but there’s no way you saw Frank Perkey under that bridge or anywhere else today.”
“Sure we did,” Dolly said. “Frank Perkey knew my father well, and less than an hour ago Frank Perkey told me stories under that bridge that only Frank Perkey would know.”
The bartender put his hands on his hips, shook his head, and steadied his gaze on me.
“She’s telling the truth,” I said. “I was with her. She was talking to the guy in that picture. No question about it.”
“Impossible,” the man said.
“Why?” Dolly asked.
The man leaned his hands on the bar and said, “Frank Perkey was my uncle, and he died seven years ago.”
There was a silence during which you could hear a feather hit the floor.
“Wait,” I said, digging my camera out of my pocket. “I took pictures.”
“Pictures?” Dolly said, giving me a look.
“You weren’t looking when I took them. I wanted to surprise you with them.”
“I think you two need to leave,” the bartender said.
“Hang on,” I said, standing and walking to the bar. “I’ll show you. Look.”
Dolly stood and joined us.
I held the camera up so that the three of us could clearly see the small digital screen. Then I pressed a button and browsed through the many pictures I’d taken of Dolly and Frank beneath the bridge.
“Oh, good God,” Dolly said, gasping and covering her mouth. “I can’t believe it myself.”
“Jesus,” I said, feeling my blood run cold. “Me neither.”
Although Dolly Baker was in every picture, Frank Perkey failed to appear in a single shot. All I had were photos of Dolly, who looked like a crazy woman talking to herself under a bridge.
Frustrated, the bartender said, “I don’t know what kind of stunt you’re trying to pull, but it won’t work on me. Leave my bar, please. And that’s the last time I’ll ask you nicely.”
Dolly and I knew it was time to go. We stepped away from the bar and walked out of Perkey’s Mountain Tavern. I drove us straight out of Fennville and took I-75 north until we found a nice Holiday Inn in a bustling suburb.
And if you’re wondering about those pictures…well, they freaked me out so bad that I threw the camera into a small pond behind the hotel parking lot the next morning.
Looming above Zach Ramsey's hometown are the smokestacks of the truck assembly plant, the greasy lifeblood of this Detroit suburb. Surrounded by drunks, broken marriages, and factory rats living in fear of the pink slip, Zach is getting out of Blaine after graduation. But first, he's going to enjoy the summer before his senior year.
And Zach's having a blast until he uncovers dark secrets that shake his faith in everyone, including his best friend Tank (a state wrestling champion), whose 'roid rages betray a shocking habit. Falling in love with Tank's twin sister Sarah, an Ivy League-bound scholar, doesn't exactly make Zach's life any easier.
Eventually, with enough evidence to nail the town's steroid kingpin, Zach is faced with the toughest decision of his life—one that will prove just what kind of adult he's destined to be.
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