A tiny splash of soda settled on the top its can as a 1976 Datsun B-210 bounced along Interstate 55. Inside the car, Alicia’s teeth grated against themselves, her brows locked in a scowl that she didn’t realize she wore. Beside her, Aaron held his arms over his chest and his tongue against his lower lip as he watched fields pass. The young couple hadn’t exchanged words since some time before crossing into Mississippi. Hours had passed.
They passed a sign that read “MAGNOLIA SPRINGS – 22 MI.” Alicia took a drink of her Dr. Pepper, which was warm.
“We’re going to stop in Magnolia Springs, and I’ll be leaving alone.” Her eyes didn’t leave the road, but moistened. Aaron did not reply. After what felt to her like hours, but was probably only twenty seconds, Alicia spoke again, “I just can’t have you in this car with me anymore. I can’t look at you! After what you did, I don’t want to think about you. Don’t argue with me!”
“Okay.” Aaron’s voice sounded spiteful in its terseness, but it wasn’t. All he had was shame. He didn’t blame Alicia; he’d have done the same. If she accepted his behavior, he’d only lose respect for her. Aaron loved Alicia, and that was why he would let her go.
And Alicia loved Aaron. That was why she had to go.
The thirty-two minutes that passed between the road sign and the town of Magnolia Springs were too short, for both of them. Alicia directed her car alongside one of the two fuel pumps at Jerry’s Gas on the edge of Magnolia Springs. “Get out.”
Aaron reached into the back seat to retrieve his backpack, and exited the car. He turned to Alicia, who was standing beside him, refueling. “I’m sorry.”
Alicia wiped her face dry with the back of her left hand, and turned to look at Aaron. “Go.” It was a shout, if you can shout without raising your voice. Aaron looked at her with regret in his eyes, and obeyed.
Alicia watched as Aaron crossed the street. When he reached the other side, she let her guard fall, and the tears flowed.
Aaron stepped into Len’s, a diner across the street from Jerry’s. Three or four men sat in booths along the windows, and one man sat at the end of the bar. Aaron took a seat at the bar. Having heard the bell on the door-hinge, a waitress named Roberta, well weathered for her mere thirty-two years, stepped from the kitchen into the serving area behind the bar.
“What can I serve you, traveler?”
Aaron lied a smile and asked, “No chance you serve Tab, is there?”
“Mmm. Nope. We’ve got coffee.”
“Okay. That’ll do. Thanks.” Roberta poured a cup of coffee and set it on the counter in front of Aaron. She could see that something was wrong.
“Are you alright?” Her voice expressed genuine concern. Roberta was the kind of person that couldn’t help caring about other people.
Aaron’s response of “No,” was so succinct that no room was left for the question of why.
“Well, you just holler if you need anything else. I’m washing dishes in the kitchen, and I’ll be back in a few minutes in case you need a refill.”
Aaron lifted the mug to his mouth, and blew across the surface. He caught a view of his reflection in the liquid before he drank.
Across the street, Alicia picked up the quarter she’d dropped on the counter after receiving her change from the sales clerk. She returned to her car, but hesitated before opening the door. She gazed over at Len’s, at Aaron, through the window. She thought of walking over there and forgiving him. She imagined driving all the way back to Peoria with him, and later reading together in the park. Then, she remembered a stripper named Cherry, and she got into the car.
An old, dirty white Datsun stirred dust, and Aaron was on his own.
Aaron sipped his coffee, and emptied the cup in seven minutes. Two minutes later, Roberta came back, and refilled it. Aaron withdrew his wallet from his left back pocket, and thumbed it open. It held eight twenties and some ones, three of which Aaron placed on the counter before returning the wallet to its home. He asked Roberta a question. “Do you know if there’s a motel around here?”
“Well, there’s Magnolia Suites, about seven or eight miles up the road. Or…” She stopped herself.
After a moment of patience, Aaron begged, “Or what? Is there someplace else—something closer, maybe?”
“Well—I was just gonna say—well, there’s Cecil. He’s got an extra room; he’s always saying he wants to rent it out, by the night or by the week.”
“Cecil!” the old man at the end of the bar shouted. “Oh, won’t be wanting to mess ‘round wi’ Cecil!”
“Oh, you hush, Clyde. Cecil’s just, well, he’s just a little different. He’s special, is all.”
“Bertie, ain’t nothing special about Cecil. That man he’s got the devil in ‘im! Don’ you be sendin’ that boy to Cecil, lessin’ he takes a shotgun an’ some hangin’ rope!”
Directing her words to Aaron, softly, Roberta said, “Don’t pay Clyde any attention. He’s what you might call ‘eccentric’. Cecil just lives right up this street over here,” she pointed to a dirt road that wandered off behind the diner, “and he’ll put you up for less than half of what they’ll take from you at the motel. You just have to understand, Cecil is special. He’s disabled, you could say.”
A scratchy wheeze stole some of Aaron’s attention. “Don’ do it, boy.” Clyde had moved into the stool right next to Aaron. “I done warntch you now.” Aaron was dumbstruck by the recent course of conversation. “Lemme tell you wha’ that man, ‘at thing done. I ‘memmer ‘cause I’s the same age as Cecil then. S’pose I still am.
“Anyways. Ol’ Cecil was twelve years old when his momma brought home li’l Lester from the doctor. She loved that baby to death, too! Ever’body said what a perty baby it was. An’ Cecil was jealous. Like you ain’t never seen, he was jealous. Well, couple weeks after Baby Lester joined the family, he up and disappeared. Ever’body knew it was Cecil. Ever’body. They even found him comin’ outta the woods with a shovel the same day, but he wouldn’t say where he’d been off to. His momma defended him, but she weren’t around for long, seeing as how she tried to swallow buckshot less ‘an a mont’ later.
“Now, course they couldn’t prove nothin’, but ol’ Cecil’s daddy sure beat the tar out of him like it was punishment. He kept beating him, too, right up ‘til Cecil turned fifteen and bashed ‘is head in with a wrench. They called it ‘self-defense’ and Cecil din’t spend more’n a week in the jail. The joke is that he inherited the house an’ ever’thin’ else his daddy ownt, too!”
Aaron was captivated and horrified by Clyde’s story. Roberta drew him back in, “Well, now that Clyde’s got his ghost story out of his system, let me tell you truth. Cecil’s baby brother, Lester, did go missing. The police, however, determined that it was most likely a kidnapping. Cecil had an aunt named Rita, who had a baby stillborn a few years prior, and she was out of her head forever after that. She went missing just a few days before the baby did, and they were both never seen again. Poor Cecil’s led a very unfortunate life, and it does him good to have company every once in a while. But he’s completely harmless. I can guarantee it. Now, I can tell you’re the kind of guy needs to save his pennies, so I suggest you head over to Cecil’s when you finish your coffee. Don’t want to be out walking after dark around here.”
“Why not?” Aaron had heard enough to be more than a little off-put.
“You’ll be eaten alive.” Her matter-of-fact tone was disturbing. “By mosquitoes.”
Aaron finished his coffee, thanked Roberta for her help, and set out before sundown. He’d resolved to visit Cecil. The prospect of saving money, and a fair amount of sweat thanks to the shorter walk, cinched it. Besides, he’d never been able to turn down an adventure; that was actually the reason he’d ended up in Magnolia Springs.
It took over a dozen progressively louder knocks, but Cecil finally answered the door. He was cleaner and better dressed than Aaron had expected. He offered a smile, and, in a slow and deliberate voice, asked, “Wha can I do for you?”
“Are you Cecil?” Cecil nodded. “I was told you have a room for rent?”
“Uh-huh. Oh, excuses me. Come in, pease, sir.” Aaron accepted the invitation, and followed Cecil into the living room of his meticulously maintained home. “Pease, haff a sheat.” Aaron sat in the armchair, which was positioned opposite the couch, which hosted Cecil’s weight. “Fie dolla. Fie dolla night for da room. Oh! Owr twinny-fie week. Issa shpecial deal.”
Aaron couldn’t argue with that. Twenty-five dollars weekly rent was like something from the Great Depression. “Umm, that sounds great! Can I pay you now?”
Aaron retrieved his wallet and realized that he only had twenties. “I don’t have the change right now, can I give you twenty now and the other five tomorrow after I get my breakfast at Len’s?”
“Uh. Uh-huh. Ish okay!” Cecil reached over and accepted the money Aaron offered. “Lemme show you to your room.” Cecil stood up and began walking away. Aaron promptly followed. They walked past the stairs leading up, and around the corner into the kitchen. In the kitchen was a door, which Cecil opened to reveal a stairway leading down. They entered, and emerged at the bottom to not a room, but a fully appointed basement apartment.
“Well this is fantastic!” Aaron exclaimed, genuinely and pleasantly surprised.
Cecil began pointing, “Thish ish the living room. Thish ish the bed room. Thish ish the baff room. I builted it. Learnt how afrom the TeeVee.” Cecil looked at Aaron and saw that he was happy, and offered a wide grin of his own. “I will let you be by yosheff, now.”
“Thank you Cecil. Thank you very much.” Cecil ascended the stairs, and closed the door after reaching the top. Aaron surveyed his new accommodations, and was very satisfied. The apartment was entirely furnished. Upon inspection, Aaron discovered that the bedroom included a bed, fully made. The bathroom was small, but included the necessary sink, toilet and shower. There were even two new and wrapped bars of soap. The living room included a desk by the wall, a couch, and a small black and white television set.
The only thing Aaron might have wished for was a phone, because he’d never gotten a mobile phone. He didn’t like the idea of having a monthly bill, and those prepaid things sounded like a hassle. Besides, in a pinch, he could always either find a pay phone or someone willing to lend their own phone.
Settling in, Aaron scanned the local broadcast channels on the television. It had a good antenna, but there wasn’t really anything worth watching. With nothing else to do, and a mind that needed an occupation, Aaron extracted his old copy of Gone South by Robert McCammon from his backpack, and began reading his favorite book for the umpteenth time.
Night fell quickly. Before he knew it, Aaron was almost halfway through his book, and the clock on the wall threatened to pass midnight. He stretched, and realized that he’d grown very tired. He unpacked a toothbrush and went to the bathroom. He took a long shower, and dressed himself in the same dirty clothes afterward.
As Aaron looked up at the mirror after applying toothpaste to his toothbrush, he thought he saw movement in the reflection. The mirror was heavily fogged from the shower, and a turn of the head revealed nothing, so he dismissed it. He was probably just being paranoid because of the crazy old man at the diner. Aaron began brushing his teeth. When he was finished, he wiped the mirror off with his sleeve and inspected his mouth, preparing to floss, when suddenly a massive arm erupted from the wooden wall beside the mirror and grasped the back of his head.
Before Aaron had time to struggle, his skull was thrust into the mirror, sending bits of glass flying. His vision faded away, but returned. Aaron grasped the edges of the sink and screamed as he violently tried to shake loose. His head was slammed forward twice more, but with less severity against his opposition. After a few seconds, he managed to break free.
Aaron sprinted out of the bathroom, almost falling as his bare feet slipped on the wet tile. In the sanctuary of the living room, a beast of seven feet, clad only in burlap trousers and nearly covered in hair, emerged from a hidden door in the wall. The thing bounded after Aaron in the tiny space, and Aaron raced for the stairwell.
The monster caught Aaron’s right ankle on the last leap for the stairs, sending Aaron’s chin into a collision course with the third stair. The impact caused him to bite off the tip of his tongue, and he emitted a sound not unlike that of a wounded dog. The pain made him forget to fight for a moment, and when he realized what was happening again, he’d been dragged into the bedroom.
Aaron tried to jump up and flee, but as fast as he moved, his assailant pinned him. The creature bound Aaron’s feet and hands to the bed posts, and walked away. Aaron shouted, “HELPH! HELPH!” but no one responded.
Very quickly, the thing arrived, with a large, bloodied cardboard box. From it he drew a large butcher knife and a barbecue fork. As he approached with his tools in hand, Aaron protested, “What are you?! No! NO! Aaagh!!” The large hairy man began chewing the bite he’d cut from Aaron’s thigh.
As Aaron continued to scream, the man grunted angrily. Aaron pleaded, “Stop it! Please, enough! Stop!” The man’s grunts increased in ferocity, as if in argument.
“Lester! What are you doing?! What have I told you about eating live food? I swear, I don’t know how you boys would ever survive without me.” Aaron saw a very old, frail woman enter the room on a walker.
“Ma Ma Wheetah!”
“Go on! Knock him out.” A sudden rush of pain exploded at the epicenter of Aaron’s forehead, somehow like boiling and freezing at the same time. Moments later, everything was black, and a silent peace fell over him.
The next morning, Cecil visited Len’s for breakfast. Roberta served him his usual eggs and bacon with apple jelly toast. “So, I sent you a visitor last night. Did he come by?”
“Guess he didn’t want breakfast, huh?”
“Aaron, that kid that spent the night at your house.”
“Oh. Mistah Aawron went bye bye.”
“Well ain’t that a shame. Want some more juice, sweetie?”