Short Story: Cradles Pond
Since I received such a great response from my last post, I decided to post another short story. This short was first published in Readerjack. Enjoy!
“Cradles Pond” (4,717 words). When a father and his son go missing at Cradles Pond, the small town sheriff and his deputy begin their investigation. The law officers discover Mr. Lester Jones, a town resident living near the pond and abandoned coalmine, has transformed into a subhuman creature and wields a double-barrel shotgun.
Years ago, the state government realized the coalmine was infested with poisonous insects that attached themselves to mammals, causing mutation, insanity, and death. If these black, red-eyed bugs find their way into town, death could destroy the town’s population and spread across the state and country, so the government created a cover-up story and had the coalmine closed. However, the dormant insects have reawakened and found their way out of the coalmine.
Cradles Pond is The Andy Griffith Show meets Deliverance at an insect convention.
My short stories have appeared in The Writing Life, Millennium Shift Magazine, Taj Mahal Review and SoMa Literary Review.
When Mrs. Wallace’s husband and ten-year old son didn’t return from their weekend fishing trip, she called the local sheriff. The call came on a gloomy Monday morning, some minutes past 7 AM. The black, rotary phone was on its third ring when it was answered. “Hello, Sheriff Winslow here,” the sheriff said, taking the last bite of a muffin that his wife baked the previous evening.
“Yes, yes, hello, sheriff. This is Mrs. Stephanie Wallace calling, and I—”
“Well, hello, Mrs. Wallace. What can I do for you this morning? Has Mr. Anderson’s dog gotten into your chicken coop again?” the sheriff asked, reclining back in his well-worn chair, eyeing the coffee pot from across the room.
A raven cawed and caught the sheriff’s attention; the shiny, black bird sat on a telephone wire outside the sheriff’s office window. The black bird extended its wings, cawed three more times and took flight.
“Sheriff! My husband and son haven’t come home yet. They’ve been gone since Friday, and I’m worried sick. Something terrible,” she said, in a strained, shaky voice. “See, they went up to Cradles Pond to do some fishing, just like they do, but they haven’t been home since. And, that’s not like them. ‘Cause they’re always home by suppertime on Sunday night, or at the very latest, by sun up on Monday morning. I told Robert not to go this weekend ‘cause something just wasn’t sitting right in my bones; something wasn’t sitting right at all. I just know that—”
“Okay, okay. Just slow down now, Mrs. Wallace. Ain’t no need to get excited. It’s not good for the ol’ ticker, thickens the blood.”
“Yes, I know, but—”
“Tell you what, I’ll drive up to Cradles Pond and take me a look around, okay? I’m sure there ain’t nothing to worry about. You know how men can get when they’re fishing, Mrs. Wallace. And, if it makes you feel any better, I’ll—”
“Sheriff! You make sure you tell them that I’ve been worried sick. Worried sick, I tell you! I haven’t been able to get a minute’s worth of sound sleep since they’ve missed Sunday supper. I’ve been as restless as flea on a hot brick, just pacin’ from room to room, looking out the window, just waiting to hear Robert’s truck come up the road, just staring out the window like I’m some kinda—”
“All right, now. You just take it easy and try to stay calm. I’ll have them back home before you know it. Bye-bye, now.”
“Goodbye, Mrs. Wallace.”
The sheriff yelled for his deputy. Dwight never had any real police training; he acquired his job merely by the request of the sheriff’s wife. Dwight’s job was more of a favor, a favor among family. The sheriff couldn’t say no to his wife’s family’s request, nor did he see any harm it. The way he saw it was quite simple: he’d give Dwight a job, watch over him so that he doesn’t muck things up, and gain points with everyone involved, especially his wife. Everyone’s happy and no harm done. “Fetch my Thermos, boy. We got work to do,” Sheriff Winslow instructed.
Dwight did as he was told. He knew that a filled container meant that they were headed out of town. Dwight’s excitement swelled each time he was asked to do so. His eagerness shined in his youthful eyes as he secretly hoped that he would be given the order to set the red and blue lights a blaze and sound the siren. It was a hope that had always fallen short.
“Dwight! Get the car warmed up and make sure you don’t forget the coffee. I’m gonna take a quick squirt and meet you out front,” the sheriff said, heading for the bathroom. “And make sure you hang the ‘Be back in an hour’ sign on the door.”
“Where we going, Stan?,” Dwight asked, envisioning himself on the back of a white horse chasing down horse thieves into a nameless canyon.
“We’re going up to Cradles Pond. Mrs. Wallace thinks Bob and Evan have gone missing.” After Stan locked the station’s front door, he plopped himself into the passenger’s seat and told his deputy to get the car moving.
While driving out of town and up to the pond, the sheriff shifted into a relaxed position, preparing himself for Dwight’s ramblings. Dwight spoke on three subjects: detective stories, the dictionary, and Jenny Landston. Ms. Landston is slender, blue-eyed, and longhaired. Her hair color rivals the color of a setting sun on a hot August night, and her southern charm is as refreshing as a glass of cold lemonade on a mid-summer’s day. She could easily land the centerfold spread in one of those big city magazines, including an entire page dedicated to her turn-ons, most memorable moment, and favorite ice cream flavor. It goes without saying that, most men in town, single and married alike, have pleasured themselves to the thought of Jenny, at least one or twice, most likely ten to twenty times, maybe more, but who really keeps track of those types of things.
“Take Main Street out until we reach Hamilton Ridge Road and then make a left after Bakers Ranch and take that all the way to Cradles Pond. And when you see the fork, bear to the right; it’s a little faster than the way you’ve come to know,” the sheriff said. Dwight nodded, then imagined fighting with a horse thief, rolling around in red dirt, struggling to gain control of a loaded revolver, and slapping the cuffs on the bad guy. It was a scene that replayed in his mind over and over again, a scene he hoped to share with Jenny and their children in front of a future campfire.
The smile on Dwight’s face was an obvious indication that he was lost in the moment. “What the hell are you thinking about, Dwight?” the sheriff asked. “You’re starting to remind me of one of them damn mannequin in Driester’s store window, just staring out into space, like they know something we don’t.”
“Sorry, Stan, I was just thinking about Jenny. I didn’t mean to put any nefarious thoughts in your head.”
“What the hell did you just say? Any what thoughts in my head? Don’t be using them brain aching words with me, boy. There ain’t no need to impress me. I know where you come from, and it ain’t the city, so don’t try to act like you’re some fancy pants. You hear me?”
“Jeez, you got it all wrong. All I was trying to say was any bad thoughts. Nefarious means evil. I found it last night in the lexicon and that means dictionary, a Webster’s, to be exact. Each time I find a new word, I try to use it, so that I don’t forget it, that’s all. No harm intended, Stan. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, yeah. Well, here’s a new word for you: sub-or-di-nate! You know what that word means? It means under the power of another. And that other is me, to be exact. That’s why I wear a real badge, not some damn iron-on patch, like the one you’re wearing. You just keep them fancy words to yourself. Do you read me, deputy?”
“Yes, sir. I do, sir. But, all I was saying was—”
“Dwight, just shut up and drive the damn car.”
Dwight straightened his posture, slid his hands to the ten and two o’clock position on the steering wheel, and focused on the road. He dared not say another fancy pants word. He felt the heat from the sheriff’s locked stare. A minute or two passed and everything was back to normal. Stan felt a little guilty for pulling rank on Dwight, so he started a new conversation. It had something to do with jig lures versus spinners.
The sheriff and the deputy drove for a few more miles. They talked about how good coffee smells in the morning, the new work boots on display at Driester’s, and made a few jokes about the town drunk. Stan even threw out the idea of having a barbeque at his house, giving Dwight an opportunity to invite the Holy Grail. That’s how Stan referred to Jenny. He was quite proud of his metaphor and never passed up a chance to use it.
“Dwight, let me tell you something, women are like fish. That’s why when one gets away, people always say, ‘Oh, don’t worry none, they’re plenty of fish in the sea.’ But what they forget to tell you is, there is not a single fish in the sea that cannot be caught with the right lure. And you know why the Holy Grail has never been caught? It’s ‘cause no one is using—”
“The right lure,” Dwight quickly responded with a snap and a smile. “Exactly! But there’s more to having the right lure, boy. Yes, indeed,” the sheriff said with confidence. He paused and waited for Dwight’s anticipation to build.
The deputy lightened the pressure on the gas pedal and gripped the steering wheel, like he was about to be given the secret to King Tut’s tomb. “Now, what I’m gonna tell you must be used sparingly, small doses, or it’ll lose its affect and be ruined. Here goes, the way you catch the big fish, or in your case, the Holy Grail, is to use the right bait for right type of fish you’re trying to catch. Bait’s not just chopped up fish! No, sir, it’s not, not at all. Dwight, the bait you’re gonna need to catch Jenny is—information—information that others don’t have, like her favorite type of flower, her favorite book, favorite tree to sit under. That type of stuff, the type of stuff that makes her feel good inside,” Stan said, looking off into the distance.
Dwight kept quiet and concentrated on Stan’s words. The conversation was not merely of how to get a girl; it was prized information. Wisdom. The kind of stuff that cannot be learned from a book; it could only be acquired through handed down experience, much like a family’s secret recipe. And, Stan just handed Dwight the special ingredient. Showing his gratitude, Dwight promised to use the newly acquired information sparingly, just like Stan said, and vowed to pass it down if ever he was blessed with a son. Stan smiled, paused for a moment, and then redirected the conversation back to jig lures versus spinners.
The two of them were so engaged in their conversation that they almost forgot to make the left at Bakers Ranch. When Dwight jerked the steering wheel to the left, some of the sheriff’s coffee spilled out of his cup, splashing onto his right hand and the passenger door. The sheriff gulped down the final drink and placed the empty cup on the car’s floorboard. He dried his hands on his pants and didn’t say a word about it. The tires let out a grinding sound, like heavy rubber pressing against dirt-covered pebbles.
A brown cloud of dust followed behind the patrol car as it zoomed down the little country road. And every now and again, the tires spit up small rocks, causing them to hit the car’s undercarriage, which mimicked the sound of golf balls hitting a rusty, tin shed. “Easy on the car, boy. We don’t wanna get broken down out here. I know she’s sturdy, but we don’t need to be changing a flat before reaching Cradles Pond,” the sheriff said. “Besides, we ain’t that far any how. Just some ways more, and when you see the fork in the road, take it to the right. And, we’ll be there in no time.” The deputy did exactly what he was told. After some minutes, the thick, brown and green trees surrounding Cradles Pond were seen in the distance. A raven cawed and searched for a place to perch.
The sheriff instructed the deputy to slow the car to a crawling pace. He reasoned that, in their line of work, it’s always best to take a slow approach to matters rather than storm a situation with guns blazing. “This way, one doesn’t give away the element of surprise,” the sheriff said. The words “guns blazing” caused a scene out of a long forgotten western movie to creep into Dwight’s mind: it’s high noon on Main Street, each side of the street is lined with merchants and town folk, waiting and watching. Smiling behind the front window of his shop the town’s funeral director, prepares a pine box for the slow hand. All is quite except the sounds coming from metal spurs. The sheriff’s wearing a white cowboy hat; the outlaw’s wearing black. Both are eyeing each other, with stares so fierce that they could stop a wild stampede. Both wait for the other to go for his gun.
“Dwight? Dwight! What the hell is wrong with you, boy? You got that funny look in your eyes again. I told you to pull over and turn off the car!” the sheriff shouted. “When are you gonna learn to keep your god darn head out of the clouds, son?” “Oh, I’m sorry, sheriff. I won’t let it happen again. It’s just that I was thinking about what you said about guns blazing and such,” the deputy replied sheepishly. The sheriff reminded Dwight that they are on official police business and to stay sharp. The deputy quickly turned off the engine.
“Now, you see up there on the right, the sheriff asked, pointing to an old red and white farmhouse. “That farmhouse belongs to Mr. Lester Jones. I’m sure you heard all the rumors about him. He’s never been right ever since his daughter had gone missing. After he and his wife settled on the thought that their daughter was never coming home, Mr. Jones became a hermit, letting things waste away, kinda lost interest in everything. Hell, I couldn’t tell you the last time I’ve seen him in town. He just keeps to his land. And if my memory serves me right, his daughter would have been about forty years old or so about now. It’s a shame when parents out live their children. It’s unnatural. But enough of that sort of talk, let’s do what we came here to do,” the sheriff said, placing his cowboy hat onto his head.
The Stan and Dwight stepped out of the patrol car and started walking up the dirt road. The water’s edge of Cradles Pond lay some fifteen yards in the distance. A gust of wind rushed through the trees, making a kind of whispering sound, commanding a flock of birds to take flight. A raven rested on a high tree branch, silently watching the two men. Dwight causally looked over each of his shoulders and kept pace with the sheriff. “We’ll go up to the farmhouse and ask Mr. Jones if he has seen Bob and Evan around here, for starters,” the sheriff said. Dwight responded with a nod then straightened his belt and squared his shoulders, giving him the appearance that he was on official police duty.
As Stan and Dwight walked closer to the farmhouse, they noticed Mr. Jones’s dog limping towards them. It was obvious that the dog had suffered an injury to its right, front paw, because it dipped its right shoulder with each approaching step.
The black dog with white markings stopped a few feet in front of the two men and waited. Foxtails were deeply nestled throughout the dog’s mangy coat.
“What happened to your paw, boy?,” Dwight asked, kneeling down to have a better look. The dog whimpered as Dwight lifted its paw, showing Stan its condition. “Jeez, his paw is nearly worn down to the bone,” Dwight said. “It looks to me like this dog was trying to dig his way into something.” “Could be. Or maybe, he was trying to dig his way out,” the sheriff replied. “That’s a sick dog, right there, look at his eyes.”
The skin around the dog’s eyes was red and swollen. Gray mucus squeezed out with each blink. Dwight quickly noticed bugs scattering out from the dog’s ears. Dwight sprang backwards but lost his footing. “What the hell are those things, Stan?,” the deputy questioned. The sheriff calmly took two steps back and told Dwight to move aside.
The dog started trembling, letting out a series of pain-filled whimpers. Stan slowly moved his right hand and placed it on his Colt pistol. Reacting to the Stan’s movement, the dog shook his body vigorously. The hard-shelled, red-eyed bugs took flight. They flew from the dog’s coat, like water being whisked in all directions. Both the sheriff and deputy were covered with them in a matter of seconds. The black bugs had landed in their hair, eyes, and mouths, causing the two men to stagger half-blind into the pond. They began coughing and spitting out the insects with each step.
While the Stan and Dwight splashed in panic, each could feel the bugs working their way under their uniforms, down their legs, and into their boots. They were worming their way beneath their skins. The burrowing sensation lasted for a minute or two before it subsided.
Now drenched from head to toe and wading in thigh-high water, the two men wiped their eyes clean and smoothed their hands over their uniforms, brushing off any bugs that may have found a hiding place within the folds of their wet clothes. Stan and Dwight inspected each others backside, making sure that none of the bugs remained attached or had crawled underneath their collars.
While they eyed each other for bugs, an aged voice addressed the sheriff and deputy by their first names. Stan and Dwight turned their sights toward the pond’s bank. It was Mr. Lester Jones who had called out to them. He stood there with a shotgun in hand and his dog by his side, which seemed, in some unnatural way, to be smiling back at the two men. Mr. Jones, a tall, thin and balding man with narrow shoulders that had long hunched over, stood waiting. He wore soiled and tattered clothes that draped off his body, like clothes on a weather-beaten scarecrow. But, nothing captured the attention of the two men like Lester’s eyes. His eyes rested deep within their sockets and slowly shifted beneath a yellowish-gray film.
Mr. Jones released a loud cackle when realizing that his appearance had startled the sheriff and deputy. The raspy laughter prodded Stan to address the old man. “Mr. Jones! You can put down that shotgun now. There’s no need to worry none. It’s just us: Sheriff Winslow and Deputy Kindle. Put the gun down,” the sheriff instructed. Mr. Jones remained silent, still keeping his eyes and shotgun on them. “We’re up here ‘cause Mr. Wallace and his son haven’t been home. Mrs. Wallace said that that they come up here to do some fishing that’s all. There’s nothing to worry about, Mr. Jones. Me and the Dwight are gonna get out of the pond now. Okay?” the sheriff said, moving toward the water’s edge.
The sheriff secretly unbuttoned the leather strap, which secured his forty-five-caliber peacemaker to its holster. Dwight’s heart began pounding faster than some seconds ago. It pumped blood like the heart of a jackrabbit, zig-zaging through the woods, feeling death strike its hind legs with each tiring spring. Dwight had the urge to do something but couldn’t. Fear had settled in and now controlled his will.
The sheriff’s sudden movements caused Mr. Jones to widen his stance and cock back the shotgun’s second hammer. The sound reestablished Mr. Jones’s position among the three men. “Now, you stay put and listen up! I knew that you two were gonna be coming up here sooner or later. I’ve been waiting for you. And when I’m done talking, I’ll tell you where you can find Mr. Wallace and his boy. Got it? Good! Some five days ago, me and Roscoe here went a hunting, up around the ol’ Holtville coalmine. I betcha your daddy didn’t tell you about the coalmine, now did he, Stanley? And, I’m not ashamed to say that, I never liked your daddy none, not when we were classmates, and not when he was Mayor. That dead son-of-a-bitch pretended like he didn’t know what was going on in that there mine. That precious mine. But, he did. Yes, sir, he did. But, he kept the truth hush-hush, just like they told him, bought his silence. The state closed the mine after some town folk had gone missing. Some of the coalminers lost their minds, went straight crazy. The government rounded them up and put them in insane asylums with my daughter. But, some coalminers got away and ended up killing themselves, mostly with ropes and razor blades. The government made a story that the coalmine company had gone bust and was forced to sell the land to the state, tax reasons, they said. When the local paper printed that pack of lies, no one ever said another word about it. People soon forgot it was even there. But not me, I never forgot. And neither did my precious daughter. Do you remember her, Stanley? I know you do,” Mr. Jones said, sharping his stare and slowly licking his lips. “Well, like I was saying, me and Roscoe went up there a hunting. I reckon Roscoe must’ve heard something, ‘cause he ran up towards the mine like a bolt of lighting shot up his ass. I told him not to go in, but you know how dogs is, they got of mind of their own sometimes.”
The sheriff began to grow impatient with Mr. Jones’s ramblings and again attempted to move toward the water’s edge. His attempt failed. Mr. Jones stood his ground, keeping the sheriff and deputy at bay. The two men had no other choice but to listen, completely deadlocked in the situation. Knowing this, Mr. Jones started up again. “You’ll get your time, sheriff! Just like I done said. Some people got to wait some forty odd years before they get their time. But one thing is for certain, Stanley. Oh, yes, sir! We all gonna get our time,” Lester Jones said with a devilish smile.
The wind picked up, causing a cluster of black clouds to move above the pond, casting a greater darkness over the men. Treetops swayed and whispering sounds were heard coming out from the woods. The sounds pleased Mr. Jones. He slowly blinked his yellowish eyes, parted his lips, and slid out his gray tongue, flicking it like a serpent. It was an unnatural sight, a sight of some ungodly transformation. He inhaled and exhaled deeply several times, producing a low growling sound before speaking again.
“Ah, yes, yes, I remember. Roscoe goes into the mine, and I’m standing in front of its opening, telling him to come out, but he doesn’t wanna listen. Then, a strange humming sound is heard, something like electricity running through power lines, but not exactly so. The sound was lower, deeper, like a steady rumbling, like angry thunder in my ears. The sound became so deep that I went dizzy and my sight blurred. That’s when I saw Roscoe come limping out of the mine, foaming at the mouth and biting at the air.”
While Mr. Jones spoke, Stan whispered to Dwight, saying Mr. Jones had lost his mind and to keep an eagle eye on his trigger hand. Stan had a plan to get them out of this mess. However, Mr. Jones heard the two whispering to each other, which made him very angry. “You boys ain’t gonna do a goddamn thing! You hear me? I still got something to say, and this here double-barrel shotgun is gonna make sure that I get to say it. You understand?,” Mr. Jones shouted. The sheriff and deputy settled back into a relaxed position.
Roscoe raised his head toward his master and then laid belly down, resting his head between his two front paws. “Now for the whereabouts of them two Wallace boys. Yeah, they come up here to do some fishing. Their poles is over yonder, behind them mulberry bushes. I must say, them there are some fancy reels. Yes, sir, indeed. Fancy. Fine money gone on them there poles. Gone as their grace. Gone,” Mr. Jones snickered.
Mr. Jones began laughing, appearing more deranged than ever. His yellowish-gray eyes uncontrollably swished around in their sockets while saliva streamed out of the corners of his opened mouth. Dwight turned away to avoid looking at the grotesque sight. With building anger, Stan shouted, “What the hell is so damn funny, you crazed fool?” His tone caused Roscoe to stand and take an offensive stance. The mangy dog exposed his brown teeth and stood on the pond’s bank ready to attack. Foam overflowed over the dog’s lower jaw, slowly spilling out onto the ground.
Breaking through Mr. Jones’ eerie laughter, words found their way to the two men. “It was the growling, the rumbling sound that got them Wallace boys. It has a funny way of luring folk into that mine. They don’t know why they need to go in that dark place; they just do. It’s like something in their head is telling them, calling them to come. A whispering voice, I reckon. And once that voice gets in your head, there’s no way to shake it loose. Its sweet sound takes control of your thoughts, singing to you. I’ll even tell you one other thing—they been sleeping. But not no more. Something woke them up again; them nasty, little bugs! They live in that mine, been there for years. They like to crawl inside warm bodies, lots of them. Yes, sir, that’s what they do. It don’t makes no difference what kind of body neither. Rats. ‘Coons. Possums. Dogs. Anything warm blooded. ‘Cause that’s how they get out of the coalmine. And soon, they will own you, too. They’ll sing to you and make you do terrible things. Things you never imagined,” Lester Jones said, snickering to himself again, like a possessed child. “You and your deputy can start making your way out of the pond, I reckon. Won’t be too long now.”
Crackling sounds from electricity streaked across the darkened sky as rain started falling. As the two men worked their way toward the water’s edge, Stan told Dwight to prepare to draw on Mr. Jones. He’d tell him when to go for his side arm. Rain poured down harder onto the pond’s surface. Mr. Jones kept his finger on the shotgun’s trigger and watched the sheriff and deputy through the heavy rain with great intent.
The two men started breathing hard, as they sloshed their way toward the muddy bank. And with each approaching step they took, anticipation grew within Mr. Jones. He waited with a hunter’s patience, watching his prey struggling toward their slaughter. His excitement caused his eyes to gleam a brighter yellow. Stan and Dwight now could see Mr. Jones’ exact position. “Get ready, Dwight. Fire on those yellow targets on one.
Three . . . two . . . one,” the sheriff shouted. Two gunshots echoed through the woods.
Dwight went for his handgun but forgot to unlock the gun’s safety device. He stood with his gun drawn as hot lead from Mr. Jones’ shotgun entered his chest and ripped through his heart. Dwight fell backward and splashed into the black water.
Mr. Jones and Sheriff Winslow exchanged bullets. Stan fired off one round into Mr. Jones’s stomach, and Mr. Jones’s shotgun blast scattered, opening Stan’s left side. The two men both lay hemorrhaging.
Mr. Jones held his painful wound and squirmed about, slathering himself in mud. His breathing became accelerated and irregular. He called out for Roscoe as sweat rolled into his eyes and mouth. He grunted over onto his right side and scrunched into a fetal position. He began violently coughing, choking on his blood, yet he still called out to his dog.
The old man calling out to Roscoe revived Stan’s consciousness. Stan, floating on his back, opened his eyes and blinked them into focus, then raised his head beyond his shoulders. From within the black water, Stan witnessed Mr. Jones’s dog limping down the road leading into town.
Thank you very much for stopping by my blog. I’ll be back in a few days with something new. For more info, check out: http://www.ernestlangston.com Now, go make the most of the weekend! 🙂