“What ya looking at?”
“Tire? Tire-frame is more like it. From an old tractor by the looks of it.”
Dan Kennedy stood over the tire-frame with a glum look and prodded it with his work boot.
“Yep. Says C. B. on it. Whose tractor do you fancy this used to be?”
“Tell me, Mr. Ellis, you ever heard of Chester Bedell?”
“Can’t say as I have.”
“Was a prominent landowner here in Berlin Township in the late nineteenth century. Owned some 1700 acres. This used to be his land. One of the reasons I brought you out here.”
Ellis perked up and swiftly drew a small black, leatherbound notebook and a pen from his red plaid jacket, opened it and began energetically scribbling down his guide’s story.
“Bedell was an atheist. Problem was, most who lived thereabouts, then as now, were Christians. A woman by the name of Mary Hartzell caught his eye and they married in 1851 Mary’s father, Henry Hartzell demanded that Bedell and his family come into the fold. Into the church. Propriety and all that. Wanted his daughters kids to be brought up right. Demanded that Bedell have his baby boy baptized. Bedell, despising the church, would have nothing to do with such a proposition. He had his own philosophy and, in his opinion, no need for a Christian one. Well… Hartzell didn’t like that. Not one bit. So he sent in a Presbyterian minister to baptize his newly born. Bedell was furious and began publicly denouncing the Bible as a myth and Christianity as foolish superstition. Caused quite a stir, as you can well imagine and only furthered the tension between the two men, Bedell and Hartzell, and, as a consequence, tensions rose throughout the whole of the community, some of the folk siding with one or the other in their bitter dispute. Shortly thereafter, there was a string of barn burnings. Arson. One of them burned down with a little girl still inside it and a choir girl for the church. The murderous fire-bug was fingered as none other than Bedell himself. Said he wanted to get back at the Hartzell’s someways and that torching their flock was one of um. Now Chester, he denied he had anything to do with it and said that just before the latest barn had burnt, he’d seen three men heading thereabouts, three associates of Simon Hartzell, Henry Hartzell’s son. Hard to say who was at the bottom of it, but one of the supposed arsonists kilt hisself and the other two were clock-cleaned in court by Bedell how sued them for defamation of character. Bedell publicly boasted of his victory, blaming his old foe Hartzell for siccing his son and his men on him, said it was a frame job and that again and again, he were an innocent man, maligned. As the disputation grew, so did Bedell’s disdain for religion, his contempt for the clerisy, such that he told his family to “Shun priest of all orders.” Well, many years passed and Chester Bedell was now an aged and sickly man, he knew he was nearing the end of his life and, unrepentant, said, “If there be a god, let him fill my grave with snakes.” Shortly thereafter, the old farmer died. He left behind two sons and two daughters, the sons, having took up the irreligious philosophy of what Bedell called “Universal Mental Liberty,” received equal shares of his property, whereas his daughters, who had gone into the fold of the Presbyterian church, received nary more than a dollar each. After the funeral, the bearers took Bedell in his coffin to the spot they’d dug in the North Benton cemetery and then froze to a hissing. They looked down into that gaping hole and saw that it were filled with snakes of every shape and had to put the coffin down and clear out the attendees so they could kill the serpents without making a scene. When Bedell was finally buried, his will dictated that a bronze statue of hisself which he’d commissioned in his final days be erected over his grave. This was done and yet… you know what they found on the statue, not a day after it had been placed?”
Garret Ellis looked up over his notebook and smirked, “Lemme guess. Snakes?”
“That’s right. Snakes. Whole area is infested with um. Don’t matter how many they kill, they jus keep a coming back, as if they’re materializing from the very air…”
At this point in the tale Ellis laughed. “Well, that’s quite a story! I could definitely use this in my book. Uh, look, its getting dark, I’ve gotta head back to my motel.” He shut the notebook and pocked it alongside the pen, “But I wanted to thank you for showing me around, filling me in on the local history. Searching up articles online is one thing but actually being here, seeing the land, the people, hearing their stories, that’s quite another.”
“It was no trouble at all Mr. Ellis-”
“Please, call me El, all my friends do.”
“Well, was no trouble at all El. I hope you just remember to include me in the credits of your book.”
“Of course, I always include my sources.”
Ellis drove swiftly, racing against the encroaching darkness and arrived at the North Benton Motel just before nightfall. The moment he closed the door to his room the phone rang. He cursed under his breath and picked up the phone, lighting a cigarette as he did so and gazing out the front window at the half-dead trees which loomed across the road like gigantic, bony claws.
“Oh, hey Jimmy.”
“Hey Jimmy yourself. You’re wife’s been blowing smoke up my ass ever since you left. You have your phone turned off, as usual.”
“You know how I work. I don’t like distractions. Not when I’m researching.”
“Well take a break, El. You’re wife is worried sick.”
“She only has two hobbies. Worrying and let me know it.”
“Kinda cruel for a man not to give his wife a call.”
“I’m busy Jimmy. Anyways, what are you, my psychiatrist now?”
“The way she’s been speaking, I think a marriage counselor would be more appropriate.”
“So whats on your mind, Jim. I know you wouldn’t have called just to tell me I’m married to an overbearing witch.”
“Sheesh. Harsh. But true. I just wanted to know how your research was coming. There’s plenty of books out about the history of Ohio but there aren’t many out there that are solely about so small a place as Benton. You dig up anything interesting?”
“Yeah, actually think I might have. Old urban legend. Very juicy.”
“Oh? Like a murder?”
“Nah. A curse.”
“Curses are good. Curses sell paperbacks. Look, I’ve gotta go. You ring me up in the morning and tell all about it.”
“I’ll send you an email.”
He hung up on the editor, returned the phone to the ringer, took a drag and looked out the window once more. He could have swore he saw something moving out there beyond the treeline…
The flee market hummed like a overworked engine as Ellis, notebook in hand, strolled down the main thoroughfare, between the stalls of the vendors, busily hocking their wares to the easily ambling faregoers. Upon arriving at the eastern-most stretch of the fairgrounds, Ellis paused and beheld a young Amish woman step up to a clothing stall, wait until the vendor’s back was turned at which point she grabbed hold of a ornate, hand-sewn dress and slipped it up underneath her shirt and began walking away. The stall owner turned about in perplexity, aghast that her dress had vanished. Shortly her eyes met Ellis whereupon the man raised his brows and pointed to the slowly ambling Amish woman. With astounding velocity, the dress merchant leapt over her stall grabbed the Amish about the hair, shouting, “You blind? Sign says flee market, not free market! Only thing free round here is a beating.”
“You must be mistaken-”
The dress vendor yanked hard as she could upon the thief’s hair, snarling, “Don’t bullshit me, sister!” at which point the Amish let out a howl, saying “Alright, alright! Here, here!” Once the dress was returned the vendor, slowly and with narrowed gaze, released her quarry, who, bug-eyed and gulping, ran away as fast as her plump and knocking knees could carry her. A few people turned to look and stare, but most were too absorbed in buying, selling, conversating or trying to thieve their own prizes to notice the incident. Police were no where to be seen.
Ellis walked up to the vendor who had set about re-folding the lifted dress.
“Oh, hello, thanks for that. She would have got away clean if it weren’t for you.”
“Why aren’t there any police officers here?”
The woman laughed, “You’re not from around here are you?”
“Nope. Coastalite, I’m afraid. Hope you don’t hold it against me.”
“Depends on how smug and over-syllabled your verbiage is.”
The exchanged smiles and momentarily, Ellis strode forth with his hand extended.
“My name’s Garret Ellis.”
She smiled, arching her brows with surprise, “Debbie Barrow. What brings you to our little corner of nowhere. Ain’t much around here of ‘historical significance. We had the mob, steel works… ghost stories and… that’s bout it. You ain’t one of those UFO, cryptid people are you?”
“The who now?”
“You know, tin foil hat types – oh, most of them don’t really believe it, what they write and vlog about, but it sells – we had a couple of guys from the history channel come by asking if anyone had seen any bigfoots recently. The HISTORY CHANNEL. Don’t that beat all.”
“It does indeed. But no, to answer your question. That’s not my wheel house. I’m researching the history of Benton for a book. See it occurred to me a little while ago that though there are no shortage of history books on Ohio generally, there weren’t very many on Benton, give how small it is, that made sense, but I wanted to uncover the reality of the place, all its hidden stories and I was told you were a member of the historical society, thought you might be able to help.”
“You picked a strange time to ask, Mr. Ellis.”
“Yeah, sorry to drop in on you like this – your dresses are very nice by the way – you make them by hand?”
“Impressive. I quite like them. Think my wife would like them even more.”
“You’d think that would be the appropriate response…”
“Ha. I’m bout to wrap up here. Going to be heading down to Hal’s diner which is inside the historical society council hall. You’re welcome to come along. Could use some company.”
“To protect you from sneaky Amish?”
“Nah. That I got covered.”
Hal Hewit was an enormous man with a head like an overripe melon and two small, squinty eyes that twinkled with keen intelligence. He doubled as both the chair of the Benton Historical Society and the rustic diner inside it which he’d named after himself and when he spotted the two newcomers, he smiled broadly and raised one of his enormous, meaty hands and waved from behind the polished wooden counter.
“Well, look what the cat dragged in. Who alls ya friend, Debbie?”
Ellis returned the smile and walked up to the diner counter and shook the man’s hand.
“Garret Ellis. I’m a historian. Researching the history of Benton. Daniel Kennedy might have mentioned me.”
“Oh yes, yes of course. Dan had mentioned you’d be stopping by. Well, ya’ve met Dan and Debbie and now me, that’s half the town already, haha.”
“Dan had told me about Chester Bedell.”
The big man froze. The smile slowly vanishing from his face.
“W-well, ah, I don’t know much about that; how bout some coffee and doughnuts, or bacon and eggs? Yall hungry right.”
“Hungry as a hog,” Debbie replied.
Ellis was confused at the man’s reticence. How could he, the leader of the historical society, “not know much about that?” Perhaps, Ellis thought, there was some family history. Perhaps the Hewits were, at one point, as bounded up with the Bedells as the Hartzells… perhaps…
“Debbie, I got the doughnuts over here, why don’t you come and grab so that our guest doesn’t wither away while I’m rustling up the eggs.”
Debbie stood up from where she sat across from Ellis and then made her way across the patternless green linoleum floor. Ellis watched them from the corner of his eye; the big man was whispering something into her ear, then he stood up straight with a cheezy smile and slide a tray of doughnuts across the table to the woman. When she sat back down opposite the investigator he folded his hands together and leaned forwards.
“What did he say?”
She paused a moment, waiting until the Hal had vanished into the kitchen.
“Hal’s kinda superstitious. He doesn’t like talking about bad things that happened around here. Thinks it will scarce off customers.”
“Well, he’s dead wrong about that. Brought me here didn’t it? Besides, why do you think there are so many ghost hunting, cryptid-catching, conspiracy theory shows on television? So many websites with that stuff plastered everywhere? Its because people love it. They’ll gobble that stuff up. Rather than driving people away, it’d drive people in. By the boatload.”
“Maybe.” She grabbed a doughnut and began munching idly. Ellis’ mouth began to water, it only occurred to him then that he had not eaten all day. He plucked out a fine chocolate glazed pastry and popped it into his mouth.
“Splendid. Ya know my father always said, ‘Be happy for what you have to eat. There are starving kids in Biafra.”
“Secessionist state in West Africa.”
“Oh. My mother always used to withhold our desserts until we had ‘earned them.’ She’d say ‘Plenty breeds indolence.”
“She’d have gotten along well with my father then. Oh, tell me, is Hal religious?”
“Yeah, he’s a Presbyterian. Goes to The North Benton United Presbyterian Church.”
“Where is that?”
She smiled and shook her head, “Ya know, you might be a historical expert but you sure aren’t perceptive about the present.” The woman jerked her thumb over her shoulder and out the diner’s front window. He followed her gesture and discerned a large church situated directly across North Benton Road.
“Oh,” he grinned sheepishly.
After Ellis and Debbie had finished up at the diner they said their goodbyes and she departed to go see to the dog of a neighbor whilst he stayed and convinced Hal to give him a tour of the historical society. When they passed through the library, Ellis paused to query.
“You have archives I take it.”
Hal’s small, squinty eyes flicked to a door to the left momentarily. “You can look through the records if you like, but its quite a bit of paperwork.”
Ellis pulled out his notebook and smirked, “I’m used to long hours.” He flipped through a stack of records until he saw the name “Bedell” and then flipped upon the folder and rifled through until he lit upon a grainy photograph of a intelligent, yet imposing looking man with a thick, well-groomed beard and dark suit. Chester Bedell.
All the while Ellis worked through the files, Hal watched the man with great interest.
When Ellis had satisfied himself as to the archives and filled his small, black notebook up with dates and names and hidden stories, he closed his book and headed for the exit, the image of Chester Bedell burning in his mind. Pausing at the counter of the diner on the lobby floor to thank his gracious host. Hal nodded stoically and then put his hand upon Ellis’ shoulder.
“You ain’t going up to Ole Bedell’s grave, is ya?”
“I was planning on it. Files say his grave was moved up by Canyo on Hartzell Road. Figured I’d go have a peek for my research. Why?”
The big man shook his head, his brilliant black eyes going wide and mournful and filled with something else. Something that looked a lot like fear.
“I wouldn’t say its wise. Now listen, I know its easy enough to laugh. To dismiss the whole thing as nothing more than an ole wives tale… but there’s usually some truth in such tales and I tell ya, there is truth in this.”
“Well… I’ll keep that in mind.” It took considerable effort for Ellis to keep himself from smiling.
When Ellis pulled into the wide, gravel drive of Hartzell Cemetry he was surprised at how small and sparse the place was, nothing more than a few slabs of stone stuck into a couple of tiny plots of grassy land, boarded up in the middle by wind slashed oaks. He had expected gargoyle statues and grand iron-works and roiling clouds of mist, maybe a spooky old groundskeeper, yet his only company was a fat raccoon which looked up from one of the graves with an oily hamburger wrapper in its mouth. Its eyes flashed and it bolted into the treeline. The daylight waned as Ellis made his way between the graves, the ground, hard and unyielding; probably thick with clay, he thought idly. He passed a grave which read Henry Hartzell, Ellis tipped his hat towards it and then bent and placed a sheet of paper over the tombstone and ran a piece of charcoal over it until he had a good impression. Then he folded up the paper, slid it into his inner right coat pocket and moved on. He could see Chester Bedell’s grave up ahead, even if one wasn’t looking for it, the edifice would have been hard to miss for it was the largest grave in yard with the largest font. In the archives, Ellis had read that there used to be a statue of the old farmer with a raised tomb in one hand that said: Universal Mental Liberty, whilst his foot crushed a scroll which read: Superstition; however, some yahoos had shot it up in a drunk frenzy and it was removed to a local museum for renovation. As he stood before the grave in the twilight, he tipped his hat.
“Hello, old man.”
Moments later, as if in response, there came a hissing.
Ellis whirled and leapt aback as an enormous snake slithered up from the ground and coiled about the grave. One his heart-rate returned to normalcy he smiled and shook his head and then leaned towards the serpent as if in defiance.
“You seem to have mistaken me for Hal, old girl, I ain’t afraid of snakes. My friend Julie’s got a pet python that would gobble you up for lunch.”
He gingerly grabbed the snake by its tail and, with the utmost caution, slid it across the ground until it was well and clear of the tombstone. Then he bent to Bedell’s grave and jotted down some notes and made a copy of the faceplate as he had done with Hartzell’s. Just as he was about to finish, there came yet another hissing and another; jerking his head to the left he could see two massive black rat snakes coiling up about him. He drew back silently, rising from the grave. Something was very wrong.
He turned to make his way back to his car and beheld a figured in the distance, standing at the treeline. The man was tall, with a thick beard and a fine black suit over which he wore a battered overcoat, drab and dark. His eyes were pits of void and the hissing of the serpents then grew louder as the clouds slithered over the warming light of the sun and choked its bountiful rays from all existence. Ellis screamed and ran.
Night fell like a blanket of smog as Ellis drove back from the cemetery to his motel on North Benton Drive. Upon returning he locked the door behind him. His breathing erratic; eyes bulging, slightly crooked teeth grinding back and forth.
“It couldn’t have been real. It couldn’t have been real…” He muttered to himself, pacing, veins flashing out like ruddy-blue worms against the pallor of his skin. He lit up a cigarette and poured himself a glass of wine to calm his nerves. Then he paused, mid drag, a thought flashing through his skull with blinding clarity.
The apparition that I seen was extremely tall. Who else in town is of a similar height?
Debbie laughed like a hyena as Hal recounted his twilight haunting in the dimly lit confines of his diner, now closed up for the night.
“Ya should have seen the look on that fellas face!”
“Oh, its a little cruel. I feel bad for laughing.”
Dan Kennedy waved away her concerns as if they were a gaggle of mischievous pigeons and gestured to the owner.
“Don’t be so melodramatic, he weren’t hurt. Just scared. Like Hal said before, this is gonna drive business. Big business. We keep this up, we’ll be practically rolling in cash.”
Hal intervene, suddenly severe.
“That’s as may be, but we’ve gotta be careful,” He stabbed his finger through the air at Kennedy, “This if anyone finds out that you’re the one whose been putting snakes on the grave it will all be for nothing.”
“Well, I always do just like ya say and check to make sure there ain’t no one there before I place um. Them ole rat snakes are easy ta catch once ya can find um, so I been breeding them out behind my barn and ain’t no one ever goes out there.”
Hal nodded as if that were acceptable and then turned to Debbie, “Alright, now when your historian friend calls you – you did give him your phone number right?”
“Ok. Good. When he calls you and tells his story, you tell him that’s happened before, really ham it up, if we keep saying there’s been tons of these sightings and enough people listen, they’re bound to believe it. At that point I won’t need to play dress up and Danny here won’t need to keep bringing snakes, they’ll be all so convinced about the truth of it, they’ll starting seeing things themselves, now that’s bound to bring in some news stories.”
“Hell,” Dan snickered, “Forget the news, that fella is bound to write this up in his book, I looked him up, he’s pretty well known. New York Times bestseller and all that.”
“Alright we just have to-”
Suddenly there came a thumping, but wherefrom, none of the conspirators could tell. Hal rose first and swiftly, “What was that?”
Dan shrugged, unconcerned, lighting a Marlboro and taking a swig of Coors. Moments later there came a second thumping. Debbie jumped and Dan shook his head, his brows going up and his facade falling to amused disappointment.
“Yall are jumpin’ at shadows, probably just a coon. Ya know how they get up on top of the roof sometimes-”
“It werent no coon.” Hal whispered grimly.
Debbie yelped suddenly as a black snake twined about her ankle. She windmilled her arms and fell to the floor howling and kicking whereupon Hal froze and Dan cursed aloud.
“How the fuck did one of your snakes get loose?”
“It weren’t one of mine Hal, I swear they all locked up.”
Both men paused then and looked at each other as Debbie rose and steadied herself as the snake moved out to the middle of the floor. They followed it with their eyes and when it reached the center of the diner they heard the thump once more and followed its source to a tall man in a dark suit with thick mane of hair who stood at the window outside the restaurant. His eyes were luminous and dark as collapsing stars and his mouth formed a cold and motionless line and the only expression he made were like the face of Death himself.
Debbie cried, Hal went white with terror and Danny swore and took a step back.
When they looked again, he was gone. Only the serpent remained.
In the little cafe to the immediate right of Hartzell road, Ellis sipped his coffee; the place was packed to bursting. A Amish woman came in and asked to sit and he nodded, “Sure. Yeah, of course. I don’t own the table.” She sat down beside him, ordered coffee and eggs and asked to see the newspaper. When she flipped it open and raised a brow.
“What is it?”
“Hal and Dan Kennedy, co owners of Hal’s Diner recently claimed that they had been assailed by… a ghost.”
“Oh? Does their ghost have a name?”
“They’re claiming that they’ve been cursed. That the grave of Chester Bedell is haunted.”
Ellis grinned like a jackal as he sipped his coffee with his left hand and zipped up a bag filled with a fake wig and beard and a dark, old fashioned dress suit.
“Mighty good for business.”