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1 Comment | Apr 19, 2018

Those Who Speak

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I.

My grandmother once said to me, “There are those who speak about what happened, and there are those who do not.” And when prompted to elaborate, “There is nothing inherently right or wrong about this choice. Different people simply handle tragedy in different ways.”

And that was the most I ever managed to get out of her on the matter, meaning, of course, that she was in the latter camp. Except that, to make matters all the more frustrating, she would, from time to time, toss out additional teasers, innocuous little asides that led me to conclude that the events of that time must have been horrific indeed.

“It’s not the kind of thing children should even know about.”

“Your grandfather was never quite the same afterward.”

That sort of thing. And, for the record, I never knew my grandfather before that time, so I was not in a position to accept or refute her assertion about him or his reaction to what had taken place. I knew only that he was a good deal less approachable than she as a general matter, but on the few occasions when I mustered up the courage to ask him about the events in question, he would invariably reply, “Talk to your grandmother.” And round we’d go once more.

And so it came to pass that after many years of this familial evasiveness, I finally took it upon myself to undertake my own detective work, never an easy thing when dealing with events now nearly thirty years in the past and several states away. But, as it happened, I had a good bit of free time that summer, and so I decided to give it a go. My mother begged me—literally begged me—not to go, which naturally convinced me that there truly was something waiting up there in New Hampshire to be discovered. The morning in late May that I started my seven-year-old Toyota and backed out of the driveway, I had on the seat next to me a single sheet of paper on which was printed a list of the things that I knew (or supposed that I knew) about the matter. There were plenty of holes in the list, and I meant to fill them as best I could, with or without my grandparents’ or my mother’s assistance.

Here are the principal bits of knowledge I possessed on the day I departed Durham, North Carolina:

  • My paternal grandparents both grew up in southern New Hampshire, in the town of Exeter.
  • They were high school sweethearts and married shortly after graduation, following which my grandfather enlisted in the U.S. Army and spent three years serving in the Korean War before returning to New Hampshire. He made it home for brief visits twice during those years, but my grandmother lived with her parents throughout the entire period.
  • Their first and only child, my father, was born in 1959. It was quite an unusual thing to be an only child in those days. I have never asked them why.
  • My father married my mother in 1984. They had me two years later and my sister one year thereafter.
  • My father vanished one day in 1989, a couple of weeks before my third birthday. I have no memory of him. My mother has offered not much more information on the matter than my grandparents, allowing only that he simply failed to return home one evening from his job at a lumberyard on the outskirts of Kingston, the small town near Exeter where my parents had settled after getting married, so as to not be too far from his parents.
  • I know also the details—such as they were—that were reported in the local newspaper in the days following his disappearance. His car was found, still locked, in the lumberyard parking lot. He had worked a full shift that day. Several others working at the yard saw him leave the main building around 6 p.m. but none saw him past that point, nor ever again thereafter. He was, by all accounts, in fine health and neither said nor did anything out of the ordinary, aside from moving and stacking lumber, just as he did every day.
  • And I know, as well, the oddest piece of the story of all. During the same week that my father vanished from the Fleming’s Lumber parking lot, seven other men and three women vanished as well, all residents of Kingston, all between thirty-seven and sixty-two years of age, but none of whom my mother ever subsequently admitted to having known. Not one of the eleven who went missing that week in November of 1989 was ever seen again.

 

Even well into the twenty-first century, there remains a good deal of information that is not accessible on the Internet, old local newspaper articles being a prime example. Which is why much of my time during those first two weeks in Kingston was spent in a small carrel near the back corner of the local library. Though searches for the missing eleven had been long and laborious back in 1989, each had, eventually, reluctantly, been declared dead and suitable obituaries subsequently published. None of the missing were particularly notable individuals beyond the local community, and so their death notices tended toward the brief and factual: key dates, surviving family members, professional positions, church memberships. Aside from the timing of the disappearances themselves, there were no obvious consistencies or threads. The individuals were all middle-aged or older (the youngest, Patricia Wiener, thirty-seven). Seven were men, four women. Two held professional positions—an attorney and an instructor at the nearby Philips Exeter Academy, a highly regarded preparatory school. Six of the remaining nine held hourly jobs, not unlike my father’s at the lumberyard. The final three had been housewives. All gone without so much as a trace in the span of four days. Out of curiosity and a desire for thoroughness, I reviewed the weather during the week of the disappearances. There had been a modest early-winter snowstorm the day after my father had gone missing. Aside from that, it had been a perfectly seasonal late-fall in New England.

During my visit I also took the opportunity to refamiliarize myself with the delights of early summer in New England, not having been up north in many years. These are many and varied, beginning, of course, with the marvelous weather that ensues around that time and which is in stark contrast to the humid, warm, and generally oppressive conditions that accompany the onset of summer in the Carolinas. I consumed the full tourist’s share of fresh lobster from numerous coastal restaurants not far from Kingston, and I stopped at every roadside vegetable stand I encountered, focusing my attention primarily on the freshly picked blueberries that feature so prominently, and which are in no way at all like those oversized cultured things sold at southern supermarkets. My accommodation during those weeks was a small bed and breakfast about halfway between Kingston and Exeter, and, as the name suggests, the meals provided therein comprised only breakfast, meaning that the majority of my meals were taken at local restaurants. It was at one of these—by this time, as I recall, the third week in June—that I stumbled, literally in this instance, on my first startling piece of information concerning the matter I’d ventured north to explore.

I had stopped for lunch at a tiny establishment called Ruthie’s, located on a side road a mile or so north of Philips Exeter. It was the sort of place where you get the distinct impression upon entering that you are something of an interloper, in the sense that everyone else in the place appears to know one another. There were just seven or eight tables, and I chose one near the back. Following the requisite small talk that attends such establishments, I placed my order and then rose to find the men’s room while waiting for my lunch to arrive. As I walked back to my table, I glanced down to notice that a shoelace had come undone, and in that moment of distraction caught my toe on the leg of a protruding chair. I barely avoided falling and looked up to see an elderly woman smiling back at me bemused, as though my tripping over her chair was a perfectly normal thing to have occurred.

“Good Heavens, son. You’d better watch yourself there,” she said, “dragging out ‘there’ to produce the stereotypical downeast they’ah with which I’d by now reacquainted myself in these first few of weeks in Kingston.

I apologized immediately and profusely, to which she smiled even more broadly in response to my Carolina accent.

“Sounds like you’re not from around here (hee’ yah).”

“No, ma’am,” I replied. “Just here on a bit of family business.”

I could not help but notice that the woman was dining alone, and in that moment of awkwardness it suddenly occurred to me that a local resident, particularly one of such an advanced age, might recall a detail or two about the events of thirty years hence, assuming of course that she’d lived here at the time.

“Ma’am,” I said, mustering a degree of boldness which I confess is not my normal condition, “I wonder if you would not think it presumptuous of me to join you for lunch. That is, of course, if you don’t mind chatting with a total stranger.”

She smiled once more and gestured toward the facing empty chair. “Well now, son, all you have to do is tell me your name, and then we won’t be strangers any more, will we?”

I could find no fault with this logic, and so I extended a hand and said simply, “Stanley Pelletier,” to which she replied with equal terseness, “Beverly Peyton.” And in that moment, as I took the seat opposite her, my journey took an utterly unexpected and fortuitous turn indeed.

I had been raised with good enough manners to know not to ask Ms. Peyton her age, but I could infer from simply observation that it was considerable. I sat silently for a moment, considering how best to introduce the topic of my investigation.

“Mrs. Peyton,” I began, “have you lived here all your life?”

“Not yet,” she replied, a wry smile appearing in the corners of her mouth. My exposure to downeast humor was as yet rudimentary and so I mistakenly chose to regard her laconic reply as an attempt to be enigmatic. In fact, she had simply been making a joke, one she assured me later she had been waiting her entire life to spring on some unsuspecting out-of-stater. I told her that I was happy to have served this humble purpose.

It came to pass, after some additional introductory banter, that she had, in fact, lived her entire life (to this point) in Kingston. “You know,” she said, “I have known a Pelletier or two here in this very town.”

I had as yet not revealed to Mrs. Peyton my connection with the town, but it seemed as good a time as any to lay my cards on the table, as it were.

“If the Pelletiers you knew were about thirty years ago, then there is a decent likelihood they are, in fact, related to me. You see, Mrs. Peyton, my father was Jason Pelletier. He was one of the people who disappeared back in 1989.”

There arose an immediate glimmer of recognition in her eyes, accompanied by one of the saddest smiles I had ever seen.

“Mrs. Peyton, do you recall much about what happened back then?”

“Oh yes, of course,” she said. “Pretty much anyone here over fifty will remember something about that time. A horrible thing it was too. Kingston is not the sort of town that generates much in the way of news, you understand. On a normal day, someone having a toolbox stolen out of the back of his pickup truck will generally make the front page of the Carriage Towne News. Needless to say, having nearly a dozen residents go missing in the space of a week was all the talk around these parts for a very long time.”

This seemed a good moment to not interject but rather let her elaborate as much as she cared to.

“I don’t recall much about your father except I seem to recollect he used to work at the old lumber yard before it closed down. The Home Depot opening over in Exeter was the end of that, of course. But I knew one of the women very well indeed—Esther Crocker. She was Wilbur’s wife, and a miserable abusive excuse of a man he was, may God forgive me for speaking ill of the dead. Such an awful life that poor woman had; some folks said that going missing was the best thing that could’ve happened to her.”

“So she was the only one of the eleven that you knew personally?” I said.

“Yes, yes, she was … unless, of course, you count Milly.”

I was by now, after several weeks of reading newspaper accounts of the incident, very familiar with the names of the missing, but at no point had the name Milly appeared.

“Milly?” I said.

“Oh yes. Milly Wainwright—the one who returned.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Peyton, but I feel as though I’ve read every account of the incident that’s available in the Kingston Library, but I’ve seen no mention of a Milly.”

“Well you wouldn’t,” she replied. “She disappeared with the others, but then came home three days later, all in a daze and not remembering a thing about what had happened to her. It was the damndest thing, pardon my language.”

“And you were good friends with Mrs. Wainwright?”

“Oh yes, still are. We get together couple of times a month to play cribbage and just gossip about who said what to whom, you know, old lady stuff.”

“And she doesn’t remember anything at all about the events of that week?”

“We were all so thrilled to have her back that folks just sort of let it be, though the police kept after her for a few weeks, like you’d expect, digging for information. Far as I know, she never told them a thing that was helpful, because she just didn’t know. She and I talked about it once and only briefly. She said it’s like the entire week was erased from her mind. Last thing she remembers was being at Holy Cross Chapel singing the chorus of A Mighty Fortress is Our God. Next thing she knows, she’s walking across her own front lawn in a daze and a neighbor assuring her that no it’s not Sunday but Thursday and where on earth has she been for four days? I decided to let it be after that.”

“Was she a regular at that church?” I asked. “A member?”

“Oh yes, yes indeed. For nearly as long as I knew her. I spent a good portion of my life trying to convince her to join First Freewill Baptist, which is where most of the Protestants in town go, but she was very set in her ways about Holy Cross. She never did say why, except that she liked the smaller congregation. It’s not real handy to get to neither, way out about seven miles on South Road. Never saw much sense to it, especially in winter, when most folks in town can practically walk to Freewill. But then, Milly has always been the opinionated sort.”

We chatted a bit more about this and that. She gave me Milly’s address and phone number and told me she’d let Milly know I was heading her way. In parting she offered a few recommendations for good restaurants in the area. I thanked her for the company and the information and made my way out to the parking lot. I wasn’t going straight to Milly’s though. That would have to wait until I’d spent a couple more hours going back through some of the documents I had collected in a big folder in the back seat of my car. It only took about fifteen minutes of leafing through those obituary pages before I concluded that I must be just about the worst detective in the world. Every obituary made mention at some point about the church with which each of the deceased was affiliated and, sure enough, it turned out every last one of the missing, including Milly Wainwright and my father both, were attendees of the Holy Cross Chapel, at least at the time of the disappearances. It was time indeed to have a chat with Mrs. Wainwright. Even if she couldn’t recall the events of her disappearance and reappearance, she might be able to shed some light on what seemed to me the improbable coincidence of the church membership.

 

“Thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me, Mrs. Wainwright. I really do appreciate it, especially since it’s such a distant thing for you, I know.”

“Oh, it’s no trouble at all, Stanley,” she replied. “Why, the last time I saw you, you hadn’t even started kindergarten yet. I confess it’s an odd feeling seeing you again after all this time. And goodness, don’t you look like your father!”

It was the day after my impromptu lunch with Mrs. Peyton, and I hadn’t really given myself a lot of time to think through what I was going to ask Mrs. Wainwright about. The episode in question was approaching thirty years in the past, and this woman had made clear to numerous individuals over the years that she had no recollection of the days between her disappearance and her return.

“I wonder if you can tell me a little bit about the Holy Cross Chapel.” It seemed as good a place to start as any. “Mrs. Peyton described it as being pretty inconvenient to get to and I wonder why some folks chose it over the bigger church here in town.”

“Oh yes, Beverly spent many an hour trying to convince me to go back to Freewill. Yes she did. And I never had nothing against the folks there. It’s just that I was invited out to Holy Cross one Sunday by a friend of mine, and I figured there was no harm in trying out another place, even if it was a bit of a drive. And first thing that attracted me was finding out there wasn’t but about twenty people there. There was a couple hundred or so at Freewill most every Sunday, so I guess Holy Cross just felt a little more like a close knit family, you know.”

“Yes, Mrs. Peyton did say it was quite a tiny church. I mean to drive out and have a look myself sometime in the next couple of days,” I replied.

“Well you won’t find much of anything now. It’s been closed down since Pastor Chambers passed on, God rest his soul. He’s been gone since ninety-one or so—died about two years after the disappearances.”

“Mrs. Wainwright, did the police ever inquire about the fact that all of the disappeared folks attended the same church as you did?”

“Oh yes, I recall one of the police asking about that, but nothing ever came of it that I know of. There wasn’t but a dozen true members of that little church. Oh there was a few came and visited from time to time, but just the twelve of us that was close with Pastor Chambers.”

“And it was all those dozen folks—yourself included—who disappeared during that week.”

“Yes, that’s right. And that’s an astonishing thing. Everyone said so. And yet, it wasn’t like we all went away at the same time though.”

“According to the newspaper articles, it was you and two others went on Sunday, two more on Monday, my father and three more on Tuesday, and the rest on Wednesday. And then back you came on Thursday.”

“Yes,” she said, pausing, “that sounds about right. Just no decent way to make sense of it all, is there?”

“What exactly did it mean to be a member at Holy Cross?”

“Oh it wasn’t a legal thing or nothing like that,” she said. “You just committed to the pastor that you’d do your tithing regularly and that you’d come every Sunday and for Wednesday night Bible studies.”

“How long had the church been around?”

“Now that is a fair question, Stanley. Time I got there, your father was already a member. I joined maybe a year or so before the disappearance, but I never thought to ask anybody how long the church had been around. The building wasn’t particularly old or anything though. Wasn’t very big neither. Probably why the congregation was so small. It was just the one main room and a tiny office in the back. I don’t guess you could’ve fit thirty people in there without someone having to stand.”

“So you spent time at both places?” She nodded slowly. “And they were both Protestant churches. Was there anything particularly different about the nature of the preaching between Holy Cross and First Freewill?”

Milly appeared to give this a good deal of thought. “Nothing I can think of in terms of what Pastor Chambers’ sermons were about compared to Pastor Martin at Freewill. It was all straight out of the King James Bible, just like any other Protestant church—holy trinity, Christ dying on the cross, the whole story just like I’m sure you heard it yourself from your folks.”

Milly was only partially right about that assertion. Following the disappearances in 1989 and the police’s inability to come to any resolution on what had happened, my mother moved us down to North Carolina, partly for a new job, and partly to get as far away as she could from all that had taken place up north. As part of her transition, she stopped being a regular church goer, though we did go sporadically enough to become familiar with the biblical teachings that Milly seemed so sure had been inculcated into us.

“I will say this though,” she continued after a lengthy reflective pause. “Pastor Chambers was a good deal more zealous in his delivery, if you take my meaning. He would shout and stomp about so much you’d’ve thought he was one of them southern fire and brimstone preachers doing a tent revival from the eighteen hundreds or something. I suppose, come to think of it, that was part of the attraction too. He was a good deal more captivating than Pastor Martin. And some folks were actually put off by that style. They were the ones who’d come to visit and then not return again later. I guess they preferred Pastor Martin’s more—how can I put it—theological style, if that makes any sense.”

I assured her that it made all the sense in the world. “And I apologize for asking you this again, because I know you’ve gone over this a million times with others already. Tell me about when your neighbor found you after the disappearance.”

“Well, it was just like I’m sure others have told you. Emma Pitts, my next-door neighbor, found me walking around in my dooryard like a crazy person just after dark the following Thursday night. I was still wearing the same clothes I’d worn to church that Sunday. Emma took me into the house, set me down, and called the police of course. Folks said I looked like I’d aged ten years in the four days I’d been gone. Once I got back home and took a good look in the mirror, I could see they were right unfortunately.”

“Do you know if there are any other former members of Holy Cross still left in Kingston?” I asked. Even if there were, I had no earthly idea what I would do with that information.

“I honestly don’t know, Stanley. Of course the church has been closed down for over twenty-five years. I never went back after what happened. I never even spoke to Pastor Chambers again after that. I saw him in town a few times here and there, but it almost seemed like he was avoiding me or something.”

 

The next morning arose overcast and misting lightly. Following Milly’s directions, I drove out to the site of the old Holy Cross Chapel. It was just as she’d suggested it would be—deserted, dilapidated, an almost comically small building standing alone in the middle of an immense overgrown field, a small gravel parking lot to one side. A thin steeple added perhaps ten feet to the height of the building, and despite the wear and tear of many years’ neglect, it seemed more or less intact. It was set back about fifty yards off the road and was accessed by a narrow dirt drive, the sort with two gravel grooves for the tires and a line of grass down the center that dragged along the bottom of the car as you passed. Several broad maples stood behind and to either side of the structure.

Exiting my car, I walked through knee-high grass to reach the front door. The building was set on a concrete block foundation that raised it two courses, perhaps a foot and a half, above the level of the ground. It was old-style construction—wood clapboard siding, originally painted white, but most of the paint long faded, with the exposed wood gray after nearly three decades of difficult New England winters. A small platform, perhaps ten by ten, stood immediately before the double front door, and I imagined for a moment a pastor standing on the platform following a Sunday morning service, shaking hands with parishioners, chatting about this and that. The doorknob hardware had been removed at some point, but a vigorous push on the door, the squeak of wood on wood, and the front door swung open, perhaps for the first time in years.

The first striking thing about the interior was the gabled ceiling that followed the line of the exterior roof. A number of structural beams rose upward and converged at the peak, giving the space far more of a sense of spaciousness than the exterior had suggested. There were just four rows of pews and a narrow aisle between them down the center to the lectern, or the raised platform on which at some point had presumably stood a lectern. It was now gone, though a large crude wooden cross still hung on the back wall, facing the congregation. It had occurred to no one to remove it, or perhaps doing so had been judged too great a defilement of the premises despite their long abandonment. And so, aside from the poor condition and the generally miniscule scope of everything, the inside looked about like every other protestant church I’d ever visited in my life. There were even still the grim remains of an old upright piano standing in the far left corner. Only two things stood out in this otherwise typical, if miniature, northeastern sanctuary.

The first was impossible to miss to even the most cursory observer. At some point, clearly in a distant past, judging by the degree of fading, someone had painted on the rear wall, directly beneath the wooden crucifix, the words “Where are they damn you,” thus clearly suggesting that I was by no means the first to infer a possible connection between the church and the disappearances. It was a trenchant question, but one that nothing within the building appeared prepared to provide any clues about. The second unusual aspect of the sanctuary, a much more subtle one that I did not notice until I walked toward the front platform and discerned an odd hollow sound in the floor about halfway down the length of the center aisle. The floor itself was comprised of wide pine planking, but there remained an ancient threadbare runner down the center from the front door to the lectern platform, perhaps a once thoughtful addition provided to hush the sound made by the redeemed as they made their way to the front for acknowledgment by the minister. This carpet extended sideways the full width of the aisle, very nearly touching the inside edges of each pew.

But as I made my way forward, the sound of my footfalls changed markedly in tone about halfway along. And so I knelt to draw back the carpet and determine what structural oddity might be accounting for the change. It took some effort, for despite the carpet’s age, it comprised a single piece that extended the full length of the sanctuary. Having at last gotten it pulled to one side, and having waited a moment for the dust of movement to subside, I was surprised to discover a large door cut into the wooden floor, with heavy iron hinges on one side and a large ring of similar iron on the other. There was clearly a cellar of some sort beneath the structure, as is common with homes in this part of the country. And it was in this moment, as I stood looking down at the dusty floor, with motes drifting in the air around me illuminated by the light from the side windows, that I made what in retrospect still sometimes strikes me as an odd, possibly even cowardly, decision. I threw the ragged carpet back over the trapdoor and made no effort to explore whatever was beneath it. Anyone who hears this account of my visit to the chapel will doubtless find themselves nonplussed by my decision, and yet it seemed immediately, irrefutably obvious that I should not make that descent. I cannot defend the decision nor explain it in any more satisfactory terms. I looked for one more long moment at the exhortation painted on the back wall, then exited the building.

The mist of the earlier morning had advanced to a steady light rain, and I stood now before the church, gazing in silence out over the vast field, long gone to hay. Somewhere from the very back of my mind I conjured an image of eleven people walking away from me across that field, growing fainter with the growing distance. None offered so much as a backward glance, just one slow determined step after another until the last of them vanished into the morning.

My final conversation before departing Kingston for the last time was with Pastor Bill Carson of the First Freewill Baptist Church. He had not lived here during the time in question, though he had heard as many stories about it as anyone would who’d spent nearly a decade in town. He claimed to have never been to the site of Holy Cross and I did not offer any description of my own visit. He had little to offer on the matter, except for a bit of generic ecclesiastical opinion.

“Son, if you’ve spoken with as many folks here in town about that time as it sounds like you have, then you know a good deal more about it than me. I do, of course, subscribe to the possibility of various and sundry supernatural events. You can’t hardly be a Christian if you don’t. But in this case I simply do not know what to say that will give you any measure of satisfaction.”

By the second week in August, with the swelter of late New Hampshire summer in full swing, I decided reluctantly that there were no more people to talk with, no more questions to ask, no more libraries or churches to visit. I had spoken to my mother by phone only a few times during my sojourn in New Hampshire, but our chats were always limited to the most perfunctory topics. She never quizzed me about what I might be discovering, even though she, of course, knew well the purpose of my trip north. I told her I expected to be home in time for Labor Day and she cautioned me to drive safely.

And so in the end I have answered none of the questions I came here to answer. The mystery of my father’s disappearance in 1989, and that of his fellow ten parishioners, is no closer to being explained than when I left Durham nine weeks ago. Still, I cannot conclude that it was wasted time. My long discussions with Milly, Beverly, and the others brought me closer to my childhood than any conversations I’d had about those difficult years with my mother or my grandparents. And while I came away in possession of a great deal more information than I’d had upon arriving, there was nothing that would allow me to arrive at even a theory about what might have taken place, much less something conclusive. I knew my family in Durham well enough to know that they would not ask me what I had discovered in New Hampshire, which was just as well, since I had no idea what I could tell them, aside from the general pleasantries of having met and spoken with some of the people they’d known all those years ago.

I will take the long slow way home—probably spend a day out on Cape Cod, maybe take in a late summer Red Sox game, then drop in on friends in New York who I haven’t seen in a few years. I have the rest of my life to consider what I’ve learned this summer, to study the photos, reread the news clippings, and wonder what it all means. There’s no happy ending here, no ending at all really. Just a story that started in a small New Hampshire town thirty years ago and then faded away like a stranger walking off into the mist of a late summer morning.

 

II.

I was as good as my word—a bit better actually—and I made it home to Durham two days before Labor Day. I gave the car a good cleaning out and placed the thick folder of information about the disappearances on a shelf in my office, unsure quite when, if ever, I would look through it again. Monday came and after sleeping later than usual (I was still thoroughly enjoying the return to my own bed after a summer at the bed and breakfast) I drove over to my mother’s house for what promised to be an old-school Labor Day barbecue.

Later that evening—several hamburgers and a couple too many beers later—I was sitting out on the patio with my mother and my sister, chatting about the more banal aspects of my summer trip—the seafood, the roadside vegetable stands, how funny the New England accent sounded after living in the south for so long. A lull arose and my mother got up and turned for the kitchen to refresh our drinks and snacks. Returning moments later, she handed me another brown bottle and also a thin white envelope.

“So sorry,” she said, retaking her seat, “I totally forgot about that. It came in the mail a few days ago. Not sure why they sent it to me instead of you.”

I set down the beer bottle and examined the envelope front and back. Oddly, there was no return address, only a precisely handwritten rendition of my name and my mother’s address in the center, and a cancelled postage stamp bearing a waving U.S. flag. My mother and sister had rejoined their conversation as I slid my thumbnail along the edge of the envelope and extracted a single white tri-folded sheet of paper. I opened it and read the two short sentences handwritten in the center of the page.

Stanley, you were so very close. If only you’d had the courage to take that one final step.

 

III.

Nine days after receiving the cryptic letter—twenty-eight days since I had departed New England—I was back in Kingston, parked in the Holy Cross Chapel parking lot once again. I had driven through nonstop this time, leaving Durham at sunup and making my way directly to the chapel without letting anyone know I was back in town. It’s not often life hands us the opportunity to revisit our mistakes and set them right, but I had been offered this one opportunity and I was damned well going to make the best of it, even if it turned out to be pointless in the end.

Nothing was different about the chapel, except that it looked a bit different as I approached in the gathering evening, an optical illusion I chalked up to the fact that the sun was out this time whereas it’d been raining during my prior visit. After driving fifteen hours, I had crossed the New Hampshire state line right around sundown, so that by the time I made it to the chapel, there was very little daylight left. There was, though, enough light remaining for me to discern one small difference from my last visit. There was a new set of tire prints in the chapel driveway. I certainly wasn’t enough of a detective to discern anything useful from this observation aside from the fact that someone had been here since I’d left twenty-eight days earlier. Chuckling at myself for a moment over what seemed like a CSI moment, I took out my phone and took a couple of photos of the tracks. I had no earthly idea why.

I had come this time far better prepared—or so I’d convinced myself—than last time, starting with the trunkful of tools I’d brought along. My mother had never remarried after the events of 1989 and she had raised my sister and I alone, a reality that had caused me to assume, at a very early age, many of the household responsibilities typically reserved for a father. These included taking ownership for all manner of household repairs over the years, which of course meant acquiring, and becoming good at using, all manner of tools, both powered and manual. Without any idea what obstacles I might encounter on this return trip, I’d thrown as many tools into the trunk and backseat of the Nissan as I could manage while still allowing room to bring along a suitcase, to the point where the car had ridden with a noticeably nose-high attitude all the way up Interstate 95.

I had not the slightest idea what awaited me beneath the floor of the chapel, nor how challenging it might be to even get beyond the trap door in the floor. But whatever the exercise entailed, I would undertake it alone. I had three full toolboxes in the Nissan, as well as a range of crowbars, axes, saws, and other implements made for affording access where none existed. There was of course no live power in the chapel, and so the power tools I’d brought were all battery operated—drills (regular and hammer), circular saw, linear saw, and more, as well as numerous spare batteries, all fully charged before leaving Durham. I was going to need to find some way of recharging all of these items at some point, but it was the least of my priorities right now. I had even brought along a chainsaw and a small container of gasoline, because you never know. The final item I had brought along was a nine-millimeter semiautomatic pistol and three eleven-round clips … because you never know. And hadn’t a wise man once said something about it being better to have a thing and not need it than the converse.

With the car turned off and nothing except the chapel around me in all directions, the only sounds at this late hour were the gentle sough of the breeze through tall grass and the faint ticking of the car’s engine as it cooled from the long drive. The sky was still a deep blue, but waxing to purple in the east, while the western sky glowed orange beyond the distant tree line. As I’d driven into Kingston, tired from the drive, I’d given serious thought to simply checking into a motel and waiting until first light to begin my exploration. But in the end I’d determined that evening was as good a time as any to get started. But the first step was to get everything out of the car and inside.

Because there was no electricity or lighting inside the chapel, I’d brought along a couple of kerosene lanterns and a large container of fuel. There was the remote possibility that someone driving by on the main road would see the lights from the chapel and wonder what was going on in the long-abandoned building. On the remote chance of being actually accosted on the matter, my prepared story was weak but plausible. I was simply thinking about reopening the chapel for worship after all these years, and I was first taking the time to check out the property in advance of my decision. The odd detail that occurred to me for the first time only as I was rehearsing this story in my head, was that I had never even bothered to determine who the actual owner of the property was.

The front door opened as before, a but easier in fact, almost as though it was getting used to being back in service after standing untouched for so very long. The remainder of the early evening light provided enough illumination inside for me to realize immediately that at least one thing was different from when I’d left a month earlier. The long central rug that had extended from the door down to the pulpit platform was now rolled partially up, the roll now laying about two thirds of the way down the aisle, only ten feet or so from the front edge of the pulpit platform. The trap door was laid bare and there was a general disturbance of the dust in the area. Whoever had left their tire prints outside in the driveway had been at work inside as well.

I brought in the two kerosene lanterns and hung them on the pew ends to either side of the trap door. As I walked back up the aisle to retrieve more items from the car, I glanced into one of the pews and noticed a stray copy of a thin four-page flyer of the sort that churches regularly hand out prior to services—what Protestants typically refer to as a bulletin. I picked it up from the seat and turned it front and back, seeing only the usual listing of a typical Sunday morning service—hymns, prayers, random announcements, and the title of that service’s remarks, “Retaining Your Faith in the Real World.” On the back of the bulletin was a brief schedule of upcoming events, including the Wednesday bible study Milly had mentioned when we spoke a few weeks earlier. And, near the bottom of the back page, there was printed a curious symbol that looked rather like a concentric spider web inside of a ring that was about the diameter of a quarter. On either side of the ring and at its bottom were placed what looked to my eye like bird feathers. After a moment of staring, I realized it was the image of what Native Americans sometimes called a dreamcatcher. It seemed an odd image to be part of a church bulletin. I folded the bulletin and thrust it into my back pocket. Seemed a good bet that I’d have at least one more conversation with Milly before I left again to head south.

Back inside with one of the toolboxes, I turned my attention for the first time to the trap door in the floor. It measured roughly four feet by five, and the wood surface matched, more or less, that of the surrounding floor. The fit with the floor was quite skillfully done and there was scarcely any seam at all along the edges. The most noteworthy detail, though, was that in numerous spots around the perimeter of the door, the heads of large screws protruded. It looked as though someone had taken the trouble of screwing the door closed, a theory that a quick ineffectual tug on the handle verified. Yet more interesting, while I did not recall having looked closely enough at the door on my previous visit to be able to swear that these screws had not been there before, the area around each screw head showed signs of disturbed dust, suggesting that the screws were a recent addition.

Not only did the screws appear to be new, but whoever had placed them there had gone to the trouble of choosing a screw type not easily removed by the casual visitor. The heads were neither standard nor cross-tip, but rather of a less common star design. As it happened, though, the collection of tools I’d brought along was quite comprehensive, and by good fortune I had the necessary screw tip for the job. It took but a few minutes on my hands and knees with the power drill, and all of the screws—twenty-four of them—were removed and placed inside the toolbox. I rose slowly, taking special care not to put too much stress on my left knee, which had been occasionally problematic since an old high school football injury. Nothing remained now but to see what I had come all this way to see. I took a breath, reached down, and with a good deal of effort, lifted the heavy trap door upward, bringing it to rest against the end of the row of pews on the hinge side. While it’s possible I had been a bit too influenced by the many movies I’d seen over the years, I could swear that in that moment, as I lifted the wooden door upward, there arose from the black opening something like an exhalation. I stood there for a long moment, staring down into an immense rectangle of blackness, so transfixed by the thought of what might come next, that I did not notice for a full half minute the figure standing in the doorway of the church, silhouetted against the deep purple of the waning sunset.

 

IV.

“So, I’ll bet the whole time you spent talking to Milly, she never once mentioned that she had a daughter.” My knees nearly buckled with surprise at the voice, and it’s a good thing I wasn’t standing closer to the hole in the floor, else I might have tumbled in. I placed a steadying hand on one of the pew backs and turned to face the figure, still just a silhouette in the chapel doorway.

I tried to play it as cool as I could, which, under the circumstances, was not really very cool at all. “No,” I said, “in fact she did not. May I assume that would be you?” My heart was still racing, and I could only assume that the noise of my drill removing the screws from the trapdoor must have masked that of her approaching car. She stepped out of the doorway and toward me. Once she entered the dome of light created by the kerosene lanterns, I could see an attractive petite woman of indeterminate age, though likely low-to-mid thirties. Her voice was calm and confident as she extended a hand toward me.

“Molly,” she said, “Molly Wainwright. Yeah, I know—Milly, Molly. Don’t even get me started.” She shifted her glance from mine to the immense black rectangular hole in the floor of the chapel. “So, you’ve got a bit of a science project going here, eh?”

“I’m, uh, I’m Stanley,” I said, staring back at her blankly. All thoughts of my cover story had evaporated with her first utterance.

“Nice to meet you, Stanley. Let me guess—you’re considering buying the chapel and you’re conducting an after-hours inspection to determine if it’s structurally sound.” She hadn’t exactly smiled yet, so it was unclear whether she was challenging my presence or simply having a bit of fun at my expense. I stood idiotically shifting my gaze from her to the open hole and back again.

“Oh lighten up, Stanley,” she said, finally offering a grin. “I know exactly why you’re here. Which, for the record, is why I’m here as well.”

“My father was Jason Pelletier,” I began.

“And he was one of the eleven who went missing back in 1989,” Molly completed the statement. “And you, the dutiful son, are keen to figure out, after all these years, just what on earth happened.”

“Sorry if this seems an indelicate question,” I said, “but does your mother truly have no idea what happened that week?”

“Or did she conjure up a story to protect the sensibilities of the good people of Kingston?” she replied. “Well, Stanley, if she does know, she’s done one hell of a job of not telling anyone for nearly thirty years.”

She took a couple of steps closer to the hole in the floor and peered downward into the emptiness. “You watch a lot of horror movies, Stanley? You know what happens to people who climb down into places like this, right?”

“Oh believe me, I know,” I replied. “Tell me, do you know anything about this chapel? How old it is, where it came from, who built it, anything like that?”

“No, no I don’t,” she said, “but there’d be records back in the town library or maybe the historical society. Only story I ever heard is that this building is a more modern replacement for a previous chapel, or maybe it was a schoolhouse—a smaller one—that had stood here from way back a couple hundred years ago. Pretty sure this one’s been here since at least the sixties or so though.”

“You know, of course, that all the folks who disappeared back then were attendees of this chapel.”

“Yeah, that came to light pretty quickly when the police started looking into the disappearances. They talked with the pastor at the time, but nothing much ever came of it, least as far as I’m aware.”

“Your mother’s friend Beverly says the chapel closed down a couple of years after the incident, when the pastor died.

“So I’ve heard,” she said. “Guess they never had anything like a steady congregation after that, if you can call a dozen people a congregation.” She peered once more into the gloom of the hole. “So what exactly is the plan here, Stanley?”

I thought for a moment, but came up empty. “I wouldn’t say there’s much that would really qualify as a plan. I just thought it a bit odd that a little church like this would have a big trapdoor in the middle of the floor, and that someone would go to the trouble—fairly recently it would seem—to try screwing the thing shut. Does that strike you as normal behavior … in a building that’s been abandoned for twenty-five years?”

Molly appeared to consider my question for a long moment. “Well, hell,” she said, with what might have been mock enthusiasm, “let’s go and have a look. What’s the worst that could happen?!”

I chose to regard her question as a rhetorical one and lifted one of the kerosene lanterns from off the edge of the pew. Holding it above the hole, we could see that there was a staircase, an unexpectedly steep and long staircase, down to what appeared to be a dirt cellar floor.

“Any chance of the wood being rotten?” she asked

“Tough to say. Unlikely anyone has been down here in decades. Tell you what, though. There,” I said pointing, “is a roll of rope. If I end up on the floor, your job is to haul my shattered carcass out.”

“Stanley, I weigh a hundred and ten pounds. Does that seem terribly likely to you?”

“You’ll think of something,” I replied. “Either that or call an ambulance at least.” I took the lantern in one hand and placed a tentative foot on the first step. The treads were, in fact, quite thick, at least an inch and a half each, as though past users had used the steps to move something heavy up and down. The step made not the slightest sound as I placed all of my weight on it. There were no handrails, but I gripped the stringer tenaciously with my left hand while holding the lantern with my right. Molly held the second lantern above me, but as yet made no move to join me in my descent.

I made it easily down what turned out to be seventeen steps, and my first reaction upon placing both feet onto the hard dirt floor, aside from relief, was that the depth was quite remarkable for a New England cellar. Above me, still holding the lantern over the trapdoor opening, Molly peered down uncertainly.

“Is it safe?” she said.

“Steps are a little steep,” I replied, “but other than that, I don’t see any monsters or ax murderers down here.” She stared downward for one more brief moment, and then slowly, carefully made her way down the steps until she was standing next to me. With both lanterns with us in the cellar, the opening above us was suddenly very dark and foreboding.

“Sure hope no one comes along and closes the door on us,” she said.

“Yeah, that would be a problem, especially seeing as how the drill and the screws are still up there.” We were each attempting to be funny in or own way, though in neither case did it seem to be working too well.

The cellar was a single immense space, unpartitioned, and to all appearances unvisited for a very long time. The first striking feature was the wall structure, which, despite the church supposedly having been built as recently as fifty years ago, comprised not the concrete blocks or poured concrete one might have expected, but rather an array of randomly sized fieldstones, bound by mortar. It was a technique that looked far more ancient than the age of the building above would seem to warrant, a technique that appeared to corroborate Molly’s earlier recollection of a much older structure preceding the current chapel. It also looked in places to be somewhat tenuous, as various of the stones were bowed inward, victims of the incessant New England freezes and thaws of the moist clay soil that abutted the foundation outside. It was easy to imagine this sort of structure leaking a good deal in a heavy rainstorm, and the unevenness of the dirt floor seemed to attest to this having happened plenty of times in the past.

Against one long wall stood a capacious array of shelving upon which was stored the various and sundry items one might expect to be required for the maintenance of any such building—hand tools, nails, screws, and the like. Against the opposite long wall stood two of the same design of pew that was in use upstairs. How such things had been transported down the steep steps beggared the imagination, though it doubtless accounted in some measure for the stoutness with which the steps had been constructed. The bottom of the pews and the wooden shelves showed signs of rot, further suggesting the periodic occurrence of flooding.

The front wall, the one that would have been more or less directly beneath the pulpit platform upstairs, was lined with shelving as well for nearly its entire length. But the contents of this shelving did not comprise tools and supplies. Rather, it contained the various materials necessary to the conduct of regular church services—papers, bibles, hymnals, copies of old bulletins, several collection plates, even a service of tiny glasses in a metal tray that I imagined was used for the occasional offering of communion. And, most unusual of all, at one end of the shelving, near the ceiling, stood several rows of books, all quite ancient appearing and dust covered, with bindings and covers in various stages of decay. I set my lantern on the open space of an adjoining shelf and began examining some of the volumes. Molly peered over my shoulder.

There were several volumes on themes one might have expected in a church—theological treatises of one sort and another and collections of sermons delivered by well known ministers of past centuries. Oddest of all, there was an entire row of volumes concerning the histories of assorted Indian tribes, particularly those with New England origins. Several I had heard of—Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Narragansett, Mohegan, and Androscoggin. I knew these names from the numerous rivers, parks, and towns in the area that had been named for them, though I had to concede that I knew little if anything about the tribes themselves. And then there were other names I’d never so much as heard of—Mi’kmaq, Unkechaug, Squamscot, Schaghticoke. But, as out of place as these volumes seemed in the cellar of a long-abandoned church, the five or six books at the far end of the uppermost row were even more incongruous. They were all scientific texts concerned with the geology of New England in general and southern New Hampshire in particular. Flipping through the fragile pages, there were countless diagrams of rock strata and formations, maps of cave systems, and other geological arcana. Molly and I had said little to each other as I’d leafed through the books, though she would occasionally reach over my shoulder to point at one or another particularly odd diagram or attribute of one of the volumes.

“So why the library?” she at last said, her voice low, almost reverent.

“Who knows,” was all I could manage in reply. “Maybe the pastor was a history buff, rock collector. Not exactly the best choice of a place to store books though.”

She had moved farther down the row of shelves, continuing to examine the seemingly random collection of items stored there. After a couple minutes of browsing, her voice came once more.

“What’s with the tarp?”

I looked up from the book in my hands and stepped over to where she was standing. Her left hand held the lantern while her right was reaching through the shelving to the wall behind. Except that across the center third or so of the wall, it wasn’t the stone we saw, but rather a thick canvas of dark but indeterminate color that appeared to be somehow suspended from the ceiling, reaching all the way to the floor. I reached back and tugged upon it as well. It was quite secure at top and bottom, but the sides could be pulled out a bit, though not enough to see behind.

“Perhaps it’s a spot where the wall leaks worse?”

“Canvas isn’t going to help keep out water,” she said. “And even if there are loose stones, it’s not going to keep them in place either.” She furrowed her brow and pursed her lips in her best ‘surely-there’s-a-reason-it-was-placed-here’ look.

“Too much stuff in the way,” I said.

“Well then, I suppose we’ll just have to move some of it,” she replied, as though this was the only logical conclusion that the circumstance admitted. And so, for the next twenty minutes we removed books, papers, and random items from the shelves, placing them in neat piles on the floor behind us and on the pews against the side wall. I gave a brief test tug on the now empty shelf, but it seemed quite securely attached to the wall. A quick examination around the edges revealed a number of heavy lag bolts screwed into lead anchors in the stone.

“Was I mistaken,” she said, “or was that a really large toolbox I saw upstairs?”

“As a matter of fact it was,” I replied. “And there are two more just like it in the car.” I then stood staring at here for an awkward thirty seconds or so before saying, “Right,” and making my way up the staircase. Moments later, I was back down with the power drill and an assortment of sockets and extension shafts.

“For the record,” I said, “we are agreeing that the intelligent thing to do here is to disassemble part of a creepy old church that no one has used in decades … in the middle of the night.”

“Hey, you started this,” she said. “If someone catches us, I won’t hesitate to throw you under the bus.”

“Good to know,” I replied, placing various sockets on the bolt heads until I found one of the proper size. There were three bolts at each end and another three in the center. Seven of the nine came out without difficulty. The remaining two were in so tightly that the torque of the drill could not overcome them. A great deal of pressure on my manual ratchet handle removed one of the remaining bolts. The final one would not succumb regardless of effort, and eventually, after an additional trip up and back down the steps, I sheered off the bolt head with a cold chisel and a couple of sharp blows of a hammer. The shelf was free of the wall.

The entire shelf was a single assembly and terrifically heavy, clearly something that had been assembled here in the cellar from materials carried down in pieces. With several minutes of huffing and exertion, and more than one splinter, Molly and I managed to get the hulking thing a few feet away from the wall. The next object of our efforts was the canvas tarp. Whoever had taken the trouble to install the thing had meant for it to be here for some time. There was a row of closely-spaced grommets along both the top and the bottom, and, like the shelving, these were attached with bolts to yet more anchors in the stone. Mercifully, though, the ravages of age had had their way with the canvas, and it was sufficiently rotted, particularly at the bottom where moisture had encroached, so that a hefty tug simply tore the heavy fabric from around the grommets. The bottom came free easily, the top a bit less so, though it eventually gave way with Molly and I both pulling it from the bottom. With a final heavy flopping motion, the entire thing—at least twelve feet square—dropped to the floor in a great cloud of dust that caused us both to retreat momentarily back to where the steps met the floor in the center of the cellar.

After the dust had settled, we approached once more with lanterns raised high. There, set in the center of the forward stone wall, was an immense wooden door, its oak surface aged to a nearly black patina. Down the left side were a series of heavy rusted iron hinges. And on the right side was a hasp of similar material. Hanging in the hasp was the most massive padlock I had ever seen in my life, the body as large as my clenched fist and the shackle as thick as my thumb. Despite having brought nearly every tool I owned from North Carolina, I had not thought to bring bolt cutters. Not that it would have mattered, for no bolt cutter I had ever used had the remotest chance of cutting through something of that thickness. We both stood staring at the door for what felt a very long time.

Again she spoke first. “Someone went to a great deal of effort to cover that up.”

“Yes … yes they did,” was my only reply.

 

V.

After a few moments of silent staring, Molly was the first to speak. “There wouldn’t be a door here unless there was something behind the door.”

“No arguing with that,” I replied. Neither of us looked at the other during this brief and vapid exchange. We both continued facing the door. After another long moment, I spoke again, my volume and tone noticeably higher.

“Holy shit,” I said, my left hand reaching for my back pants pocket.

“It’s a church, Stanley. Watch your language.”

I fumbled for the bulletin still tucked into my back pocket, unfolded it and handed it to Molly. “The carving … in the door,” I said. It was worn with age, and not at first obvious amid the dust in the room. But as I stepped slowly to one side, the illumination cast by my lantern increasingly became a cross lighting that made the door’s textures—and the carving—clear indeed. Molly looked down at the back page of the bulletin, saw the small dream catcher icon printed there. She turned her gaze back to the door, the identical dream catcher carved on its face, but several feet in diameter.

“Holy shit,” she said.

We stood for another long moment in silence and then both flinched, momentarily startled when the canvas on the floor suddenly settled with a rush of air.

“Stanley, we’re going to have to have a look behind there, yeah?”

“I expect so,” I replied. “Don’t see much way around it, do you?”

We continued standing and staring. From beyond the trapdoor came the faint cry of some night bird, followed by yet more silence. A yawn arose and I raised my hand to my mouth. I had paid no attention to the time since arriving. Molly glanced toward me.

“Whatever is back there … ,” she said.

“Will still be there come morning,” I completed the thought. “I expect I can leave all this.” I took up the power drill and turned for the staircase, Molly directly behind.

Back upstairs I drew the trapdoor closed with a heavy thump. I took up a couple of the long screws and drilled them back into the trapdoor to secure it. “You never know,” I said, smiling tiredly at Molly. The rest of the screws I placed into the toolbox before carrying it out to the trunk of my car. We doused the lanterns and stood for a moment in the darkness. There were fireflies in the field and a sky filled with the most brilliant stars I could remember ever having seen. I’d lived in a well-lit city for so long that I’d forgotten what a dark star-filled sky could look like. Crickets chirped faintly.

“When’s the last time you ate?” Molly said. “I imagine you drove straight through, right?”

Twenty minutes later we were back at Ruthie’s, sitting at the same table where I’d had my conversation with Beverly Peyton a month earlier. We had made it through the door just ten minutes before the advertised closing time, but Ruthie didn’t appear in any particular hurry to close up. She and Molly fell into the easy banter of small-town people who’ve known each other their entire lives.

“Slow night,” Molly said. Ruthie had come from behind the counter and taken a seat with us. A young girl walked about silently, wiping down tables, filling salt and pepper shakers.

“Calm before the storm,” Ruthie replied. “Peepers’ll be up in a couple of weeks. Sugar maples have already started turning.” It took a second before I realized what she was talking about. The first couple weeks of October were peak leaf season in southern New England, and people drove from far and wide to look at and photograph the brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges of the turning oaks and maples. All those tourists had to eat someplace. It was the final opportunity for generating cash before all the locals went home to sit out the long cold winter.

We ordered burgers and fries and Ruthie stood and walked back behind the counter and into the kitchen. It wasn’t clear whether there was a cook for her to talk to or she was going to prepare our supper herself.

“Are you going to ask me how I knew you were at the church?” Molly said. She tore the paper very methodically from her straw and inserted it into a can of Diet Coke.

“It is an interesting question, considering we’ve never met before tonight. Safe to assume, though, that you knew about my visit last month from talking with your mother. I imagine you also knew—or at least your mother knew—that I went home without having found any good answers.”

“Still, turning right around and coming back all this way four weeks later is a bit impetuous, don’t you think?”

“Let’s just say that I was highly motivated—taunted is more like it—by the letter.”

“Letter? What letter?” she said. She sounded more surprised than I expected she might. I reached into my jacket pocket and pulled out the single sheet of paper, folded three times. I placed it on the table.

“I talked with maybe half a dozen people when I was up here last time, your mom included. That handwriting look familiar to you?

She opened the page, pressed it flat against the red and white checkered tablecloth. She stared at it for a good deal longer than the two sentences should have required.

“Wow, very mysterious stuff, Stanley,” she said after a long moment. “No idea on the handwriting, but I can tell you it’s not my mother’s. They used a fountain pen for God’s sake. Who the hell uses a fountain pen in the twenty-first century? That’s almost more intriguing than if they had cut letters out of a magazine and glued them on the paper.” I had not noticed this interesting detail, despite having read and reread the brief note a dozen times.

“Twenty years of nothing,” I said, picking up the page and gesturing with it, “and then this? So somebody knows something and they decide to taunt me?”

“Or maybe they don’t know anything except that you’re curious, and they’re just trying to be an asshole,” she replied. “In any event, it seems like you’re the one who turned over the rock after all this time. Who knows what might crawl out from underneath.”

“Wanna know another fun little detail that all your rock turning might have missed? All those ten other families that lost somebody twenty years ago, they’re all right here. They’ve never gone anyplace. You and your mother are the only ones who moved away.”

She was right again, the part about my having missed that fact. Ten families had lost a father, a mother, a brother or sister, and they all lived with it everyday, right here in Kingston. But then, from out of nowhere, the guy who moved away, the guy everybody has long ago forgotten about, comes riding back into town and starts poking around, reviving the whole grim affair like it as yesterday. As I pondered Molly’s last comment in silence, Ruthie came with the food and set it on the table. She couldn’t help but note our momentary silence. Glancing down at the table, at the folded piece of paper, she turned a brief but intense gaze at Molly, one Molly returned with apparently equal intensity.

And then a quick smile. “Enjoy,” Ruthie at last said, turning and retreating once more into the kitchen.

An hour later, lying on the thinnest, least comfortable mattress one gets for thirty-nine dollars a night, a thousand thoughts ran through my head. Despite the long drive and the late hour, the chances of sleep seemed remote. The note. The chapel. The trapdoor and its screws. The deep cellar with its curious library. And the enormous wooden door that awaited us, with a talismanic carving that meant who knew what? And yet, despite all the images that swirled round in my head, the one that seemed the most truly ominous of all was that momentary look Ruthie had given Molly in the restaurant. Two people who had known one another for decades had exchanged something in that instant that lay buried far beneath whatever the hell had happened here in 1989.

At last, despite all of the visions, I did sleep though, more soundly and heavily than I had in a very long time, so heavily that I only awoke when the phone nightstand rang at nine thirty, Molly downstairs in the lobby ready for breakfast. One hour and two western omelets later, we were back in the chapel cellar, oddly surprised to discover that despite the brilliant day outside, the cellar was every bit as dark and grim as it had been the previous night.

Molly moved her head slowly from side to side in agreement. “That symbol,” she said. “That’s what my grandmother used to call a dreamcatcher. That’s a Native American thing.”

“Might explain the history books on the shelf,” I said. I paused another moment, then added, “I don’t mind telling you I’m a little weirded out right now.”

She did not acknowledge the confession. “That’s a really big lock,” she said. “Got something good in that toolbox of yours?”

“No bolt cutter is getting through that shank. And I’m afraid I didn’t happen to pack a cutting torch.”

“Looks pretty old,” she said. “Maybe a big hammer’d do it.

“That I’ve got,” I said. I turned and ascended the cellar steps, lantern in one hand, the other gripping the stairway edge. My footsteps resonated against the floorboards as I went out through the front door and to the car. The late morning sun was harsh after a period in the cellar and the crunch of my footsteps against the gravel of the parking lot seemed very loud, as well the car’s trunk being opened, metallic rummaging, the trunk closing again, and my returning footsteps.

“Heads up down there,” I called peering over the edge of the trapdoor opening. “I don’t want to climb down with tools and the lantern. With a heavy thud, the ten-pound sledge hammer fell to the dirt floor, followed immediately by that of a large crowbar. Seconds later, I was back down and standing once more before the door. Molly had not moved and still held the bulletin in her hand. I walked to the door and gripped the lock body in my hand. It was immense and cold against my fingers. The surface was rusted, but the lock appeared to be intact, impervious.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know.”

“You got an axe?” Molly asked. I looked at her, momentarily puzzled. “Worst case, we could go through the door,” she said. But it was apparent from peering into the crack between door and casement that the wood was several inches thick.

“Let’s save that option for last,” I said.

In the end the lock turned out to be very stout indeed, resisting at least a dozen of the best blows I could muster. Every blow of steel against steel echoed frightfully off the tall concrete walls. And while the lock was every bit as impregnable as it looked, the hasp by which the lock was attached to the door was not nearly as tenacious, and it sheered off cleanly with a combination of a few more hammer blows and a bit of strained prying with the crowbar. Ten minutes after beginning, the hasp, lock still attached, hung bent and torn to one side of the door.

“And now,” Molly said, “comes the part where we open the door.”

“Right,” I responded, letting the crowbar fall heavily to the dirt floor. I took a couple of steps toward the door, then glanced back over my shoulder, hoping that I wasn’t displaying any untoward hesitation. Molly had taken her cell phone from her pocket and was tapping at the screen.

“You’re making a call … now?” I asked.

“No, don’t be ridiculous,” she replied. “I’m getting the camera ready, you know, in case something comes out from behind the door and kills you.”

“Good thinking,” I said, “but why settle for photos? Why not live stream the whole thing?”

“Awesome idea,” she said, “except there’s no cell signal down here. I’m afraid posterity will have to settle for still photos.”

“Posterity’s loss,” I said and shook my head at her cynically before turning my attention back to the door. There was a thick iron handle directly above where the hasp had torn free. I gripped it with my right hand and gave a gentle tug, just to gauge the tightness of the seal. To my surprise, the door began moving outward the moment I applied the slightest pressure, and it did so without the slightest sound. Whoever had constructed this door had done a masterful carpentry job. A scarcely perceptible but surprisingly cold draft emerged from around the edges the moment the door began swinging outward. It lightly disturbed the coating of dust on the cellar floor and quickly filled the cellar with a palpable chill. I continued pulling the door open.

1 Comment

MomBrann 2:28 pm - 28th April:

Wow….. this is going to be a cliff hanger,huh? Good stuff, but still waiting for the finale. MOM

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