Chapter One: August
“Without warning, something’s dawning … listen.”
— Judas Priest
I am a child of denial. From the age of six I learned to be terrified of the truth, that the lie was the best friend and most sensible implement I had with which to chip away at the day-to-day existence that made up my life. There was no time for reflection. Reflection involved reality, and reality was no friend of mine. It’s not as hard as one may believe who hasn’t had to do it. I’m talking about the separation we make between what is and what should be. But I’m also talking about the acts themselves—yes, the acts he made me perform, and the acts I then committed.
It’s not as hard as one may believe who hasn’t had to do it—that is the great lesson of my life. I have seen and taken part in acts of violence, bravery, hatred, chivalry, perversion, and perfect evil; acts both heroic and demonic, and the common thread that ran through all of them is that they flowed from the actor in a way that was surprisingly easy … surprisingly natural.
This is the story of a haunting. It is not a haunting of the supernatural variety, unless we define the more mystical aspects of the human form and the often-suspicious weight of circumstances as something supernatural. A ghost story would be easier to tell, as the material in the countryside that surrounds my Virginia town is rich and plentiful. But we were not haunted by a ghost. We were haunted by a demon, a demon that was encapsulated in a living, breathing human being who subjected real horrors on real people for a very long time. My unfortunate fraternity of fellow victims and I were directly affected, but no less than an entire town was truly haunted while he was among us. We sheltered him. Silence was his greatest protector and the town slept willingly, if unwittingly, as he did his work here.
This is the story of that tribulation: the stones we overturned, the corpses we unearthed, the silence we finally broke, and the people we left behind. It is a story that I can only tell through the haze of memory and the dimness of time. The tingling nonsense and angry lust of my own adolescence speak to me most clearly through the musical icons of my time, the menacing snarl of Billy Idol, the aching chirp of Madonna, the insouciant drawl of John Mellencamp. I was seventeen then, and although it is both funny and painful to reach back there, it is even more difficult to do it honestly.
The fortunes of a community are tied closely with that of its children, even in this transient age. Like any organism, a community grows and changes, both suffering from and responding to infection and disease. Some surround and engulf. Some die. Some regroup and fight back. In the sweltering August of 1984, ours began to explode.
August 28th, 1984. 8:00 a.m.
Huey Lewis and the News.
I have died and now I’m in Hell. Sit up. Goddam. Huey, CHRIST, what? Oh. The alarm clock.
I’m up. I’m sitting up. Whoa, I’m down. Wave of nausea. Big wave. “Heart and Soul,” is that what this is? I’m going to kill Vic for doing this to me.
The clock, when my eyes finally made their way over to it, read 8:01. With a heavy arm I found the button that released me from “Heart and Soul,” and I groggily sat up. I reached for yesterday’s socks, put them on, and fell promptly back into the uneasy sleep of a hangover. Cotler let himself in at 8:12. He went to my room and knocked twice before coming in and bouncing a sneaker off my head.
“What the fff—? What time is it?”
“8:12. 8:13 now. And it ain’t summer no more. Get your ugly ass up.”
“I thought I was up. I dreamed I got up to put socks on.”
“You got socks on.” I looked. He was right. I tried for a moment to decide if the dream had been reality, or vice versa.
“Go eat,” I said. “I won’t be long.” He gave me a look that said I’d better not be long, but the thought of food softened him up. As always, my mother had prepared a first day breakfast for the two of us before leaving the house with my father and sister. Cotler was a cop’s kid with a long-dead mother and no woman’s touch in his diet. My mother lives to feed, and Cotler traditionally ate both my breakfast and his.
In the shower. Out of the shower. Coaxing the last bit of deodorant from that plastic part that holds it in there. A comb through wet hair. I found a shirt, dug into an emptying carton for a fresh pack of cigarettes, and headed downstairs. At the landing was a collection of school stuff my father had picked up for me at the drug store. I grabbed it all and called to Cotler.
“Ain’t you gonna eat?” he asked through crumbs and bacon. I shook my head and felt my brains swish from side to side.
“If we’re going, let’s go.”
Belle Ridge, Virginia, was our hometown and I leaned my head against the window as Cotler sped down the town’s main drag on this bright and already blazing day, his truck alive with the smells of manhood: pine oil, gun grease, and long-dried sweat. Belle Ridge in 1984 was classic suburbia sporting a working class with a rural edge, a string of gas stations, an aging but pleasant LBJ-era shopping mall, and a painted church here and there. All in all, a real American dream machine. These things and a cookie cutter selection of streets and houses blurred past us as Eddie Rabbit sang happily about driving his life away, while my friend hummed along with him. Cotler was uniformly cheerful and alert early in the day no matter what he’d done the night before, and there were times I hated him for it. He took the morning like a lover.
Unlike many of the towns around us named by the English for minor royal figures or tavern owners, Belle Ridge held no significance in Virginia history. It popped up early in the 60s as a housing development for college-educated government workers and assorted military support types, and no usable structure within its limits dated back to anything much before the Mustang.
But on the eastern edge of Tolland County, twenty-five miles from the District of Columbia and twelve from the battlefields of Manassas, Belle Ridge was tucked blindly into an area saturated with American history and local lore that unfortunately went mostly unnoticed by our bedroom community. This is where Cotler came in. He was an anomaly in Belle Ridge in that his entire family was of Virginia heritage, and his father’s line had two centuries of roots in Tolland.
“Vic kept us out too late sayin’ goodbye to summer,” Cotler called out over the rush of wind in the window as we rounded that last corner before the school. East Tolland High School was on the western edge of what became Belle Ridge, and it pre-dated the town by at least a generation. Cotler’s father played football there when it was still all white and populated mostly by farmer’s kids who’d been drawn from the corn and soybean fields nearby.
“You seem none the worse for wear,” I said, cupping the morning breeze with my hand and silently cursing his perkiness. “What about Terrance? Any news?”
“No, he said, frowning instantly. “Nothin’.”
“They find his dad yet?”
“No. My dad’s calling him every goddam hour. You’d think this asshole would call back if he gave a damn.”
“Maybe he’s got the kid. That’s the hope isn’t it?”
“It is, but it ain’t likely. There’s no evidence he’s been anywhere near here.”
Cotler’s father was the sheriff of our county, and Terrance Hark was the biggest thing set on his plate since he had taken the job. The wiry, auburn-haired seven-year-old, last seen shortly after a summer rec program let out, was wearing red and black sneakers, black Toughskins and an oversized Flyers jersey. Terrance had been missing for nine days. He lived with his mother in the house they previously shared with Terrance’s father—until the man abruptly left a few years earlier and headed out west somewhere. Parental kidnapping had been hoped for from the start, but the story was not taking shape. Terrance’s father could not be located, but that was nothing new. He was years behind in child support, had switched jobs and western states regularly, and hadn’t spoken to his estranged wife or child since a couple of Christmases previous. It seemed unlikely that he suddenly decided to return east and steal his son back.
The other options were much less palatable. Terrance had last been seen skirting the tree line behind the elementary school—the line that defined the beginning of the woods, the undeveloped space between our town and its nearest neighbor, which in those days was a considerable distance. In their totality, the woods cradled and nudged their way almost completely around Belle Ridge, and to the west and south were only broken up by active farmland some miles out. Terrance was a rebellious child even at that age, and often led other children into the woods for war games, playful exploration, and the promise of things like discarded cigarette lighters and bottles for deposit. When no one else would follow him past a certain point, he had no problem continuing on alone.
A child lost in the woods in August was a better situation than one lost in February, but the warm weather was little consolation. There had been at least three serious thunderstorms in the days since he’d disappeared, not to mention eight friendless nights. No matter what kind of spin you put on that, it spelled out something very ugly. The boy could be the most resourceful and brave seven-year-old in the world; he was still seven. Cotler’s father’s people and the state police had been working the woods, parks, roads, and surrounding towns since the disappearance, and had no leads whatsoever. It was starting to wear on everyone involved, and Cotler was no exception.
We parked in the far student lot and watched for a moment the swarm of kids in crisp jeans and white sneakers approach the building in clusters and pairs. Out among the bleachers and the track-and-field area with the storage sheds, the men who tended to those things sauntered about in baseball caps and khaki shorts, putting down chalk lines and reeling in garden hoses. Straight ahead to the west was the continuation of the same tree line into which Terrance had disappeared. In a day or two, the well-worn footpaths that led into the woods beyond would be littered with loose leaf paper, discarded cigarette buts, bottle caps, and wads of chewing gum.
I noticed Cotler focusing in that direction as his old truck hissed and cooled. I was uneasy for other reasons, but any prolonged view of the woods had always filled me with a secret and silent dread. Now as Cotler’s gray eyes narrowed on them, it occurred to me that, for perhaps the first time ever, he was joining me in regarding them with suspicion.
“You think he’s out there still, just wanderin’ around?” he asked me, his gaze unmoved. I shrugged.
“I don’t know,” I said, walling back the deeper thoughts I couldn’t begin to express or share anyway. It was an old habit, all but effortless now. “At this point I guess I hope he isn’t.”
“It’s a patch of woods, that’s what I don’t get,” he said. “Even if you’re goin’ in circles, you’ll find a path and walk out at some point. Even if you’re just a kid.”
Assuming nothing happens to you while you’re in there, I thought, and my heart picked up a beat. Cotler sighed, which I took with relief to mean that the conversation was over. Then he looked over at me.
“You seem more than just a little hung over, Hoss,” he said, his voice lightly quizzical. “Could be a long year. You gonna make it?” I forced a smile to the surface and pulled my eyes away from the woods.
“Only one way to find out,” I said.
We did find out. And Hell was unleashed in that knowledge.
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