Whatever Lives in Them Mountains

~ W. T. Paterson

Sometimes the hiss of the diner’s grill while cooking eggs sounded to Davey Spence like the walls of rain in the Mekong Delta, and sometimes he would stare as the yolk turned white remembering the day the orders came through. The thing that scared him the most was joy he felt back then, a twenty-year old with a gun and grenades, tromping through jungle hungry for blood.

“Still no sign of that boy,” Maryanne said, folding forks and knives inside of washable napkins behind the counter. She paused to rub her fingers and stretch her trick hip. The Virginia Slim tucked behind her left ear didn’t budge. “Every year, them mountains claim another one. It’s cursed, you know.”

Their only patron, a middle-aged woman named Kathy with long, delicate fingers, sat at the diner’s bar slow sipping a coffee happy to have the company. Living in the mountain town of Penny Bridge along West Virginia’s Appalachian hills was a lonely existence, but that was kind of the point. People went there to escape. They went there to disappear. Filled with the likes of self-proclaimed sovereign citizens, anti-government militia, smugglers, day laborers from the Mohawk and Seneca tribes, and remnants of the old mining ghost towns, when city folk drove through Penny Bridge, they just kept going

“Y’all have a name for it, don’t you?” Kathy asked.

“The Ba’hari,” Maryanne said, and winked. “You can’t be tempting the Ba’hari.”

Davey sliced through the eggs with two spatulas and watched their perfect form shrivel into popcorned yellow scramble. He placed two pieces of thawed, pale bacon on the hot surface beside them and listened to meat pop and bleed. Sometimes, it sounded like distant gunfire.

“It ain’t no monster,” Davey said through the order window. Kathy and Maryanne looked up together. “Just tales to keep people out of them woods.

“The Ba’hari is real. Ken Taima saw it once,” Maryanne said. After working side by side with Davey for the past thirty years, she knew exactly how to poke the bear without getting bit

“Ken Taima comes from a line of Iriquois but don’t know a shoplifter from a good Samaritan. How he ever became sheriff is beyond me,” Davey said. He flipped the bacon. Grease sizzled across the smooth surface trying to flee the heat like half-dead bodies pulling themselves into the jungle to find a peaceful spot to die.

“So tell me more about this Ba’hari,” Kathy said. “Now that I’m a townie, and all.”

Maryanne pushed a lock of silver hair away from her eyes and tapped the Virginia Slim to make sure it was still there. It was. She bent elbows-first onto the diner’s bar and looked through the plate glass window near the booths where yellow and pink painted letters advertised $2.99 breakfast specials. Beyond that, the shallow grey day took hostage the tall pines and evergreens.

“They say no man kill it, only a monster can, and if you go huntin’ for the Ba’hari, the Ba’hari hunts you. And if it catches ya, it turns your soul black as tar. Makes you only want the things that hurt ya.”

“Must be why I keep thinking of my ex-husband,” Kathy said, and an unnamed longing flashed in her eyes. She smiled a plastic, practiced smile that only engaged the lips.

“I lost my husband to lung cancer. Smoker, packs on packs a day,” Maryanne said, and pinched the cigarette out from behind her ear. She sniffed the white paper. The scent brought memories of her younger years when she felt whole, a harkening to another life a world away. “Even though I watched him go, some days I still miss the pull of these ladies. I blame them mountains and whatever lives in’em. The curse of the Ba’hari.”

Sometimes, the smells of the diner rocketed Davey into memories from his past. Something about the burning coffee in Maryanne’s pot that blackened on the burner while she spoke with Kathy put him in dead smack in the middle of those meetings in the basement of the church. They came recommended by a patron after the nightmares robbed him of sleep, a place to go where men like him could unload their baggage and find forgiveness. Davey, after a cycle of night terrors got the better of him, decided to give it a go and after the first night, it became a regular thing.

The organizers set up folding tables with coffee and pastries from the local store. It wasn’t for a meal, just something to keep nervous hands occupied. Chairs pushed into a circle, the wide-open room felt vast and unexplored. It felt hesitant. The man who ran the meetings had a well-trimmed beard and wore thick sweaters. Compared to the hardened men with leathered faces frozen into scowls, he seemed soft, but he opened each meeting the same way.

“Y’all must be wrestling with the nature of good and evil,” he said, and the group tilted their heads. “How does good triumph over evil? What does it realistically take? And at what cost?”

Davey rarely spoke at the meetings, he mostly listened. There was something sermon-like in those lectures there in the basement of a church, something peaceful and connective. In the dark shadow of the mountains, that room felt guarded, safe.

“Evil is not overthrown by good,” the man said. “Evil is overthrown by the blood of the poisoned and obsessed who have lost to evil before and have thus learned the same evil to properly battle evil. And in doing so, evil is vanquished, and these men are redeemed, and as a reward they are exiled because good an un-poisoned people devoid of evil will never understand them. And then the nightmares come, and we wonder if evil has seeped into our souls, and maybe we wonder if evil exists, or if it’s just a word people use to bucket the things in which they cannot understand. Would anyone like to speak tonight?”

Davey wasn’t sure why, but he raised his hand one night. The man in the sweater smiled and nodded. Davey had the floor.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. “I was young. Too young. Did horrible things following them orders, but never saw myself as evil ‘til ten, fifteen years out. Then the nightmares started and I can’t seem to reconcile.”

“It often comes as an echo” the man said. “What do you do for work?”

“I run a diner,” Davey said. “Furthest thing from being a soldier.”

“Orders come in, orders go out,” the man said. “Always following orders.”

“Nah, that ain’t it,” Davey said sitting back, and that was the last he spoke.

Now, behind the grill, Davey scooped the yellow and fluffy eggs onto a plate and flipped the crispy bacon on top. He placed the dish on the lip of the order window and dinged the bell.

“Order up,” he said.

“All business, this one is,” Maryanne said as she limped to the plate and twisted to give it to Kathy when all at once she froze. A man sat in booth three. She hadn’t even heard him come in, let alone seen his approach through the plate glass window. Though he was across the room, Maryanne saw the man was bleeding from face and hands.

The tented table sign said NO SMOKING, but the burnt stench of nicotine cut into the stale air of the diner as the bleeding man in booth three let the cherry burn the cigarette to ash. His left eye, purple and swollen shut, twitched as his large chest rose and fell. The fluorescent lights made the streaks of deep red running nose to chin shine like ribbons of fresh ink, their story screaming to be told. His large hands quivered barely holding onto the cigarette, his knuckles torn with fresh wounds.

Then, the bathroom door opened and a child walked out with matted hair, no more than six years old. He wiped his hands on dirty pants and sat across from the man. The child picked up a laminated menu and tried to sound out words. The man didn’t move.

“Bay-con, ham, and ca-heese, ca . . . cha-heese, cheese, omuh-omuhlee,” the boy said.

“Sound it out,” the man said, his voice deep and steady like campfire smoke.

“Oh-ma-leet-te . . . om . . . omlette! Bacon, ham, and cheese omlette!” the child said.

“Very good,” the bleeding man said.

Sometimes, Davey thought he saw things that weren’t there. Every now and then after closing, he’d drive the long way home and on those winding mountain roads in the pitch dark, sometimes he’d see a small Vietnamese boy on the side of the road. He’d clamp on the brakes and roll down the window to ask if the boy needed help, but whenever he reversed, the boy was never there.

And sometimes, he could have sworn the boy was bleeding from the head.

But this wasn’t one of his visions. Maryanne and Kathy saw it too. This bleeding man in booth three, and the small feral boy sitting across from him.

The enormous fan kicked on in the kitchen like a jet engine roaring across the sky to rain fire on Charlie.

“Should he be . . . ” Kathy asked in a cotton soft voice.

“He shouldn’t be,” Maryanne whispered, and her eyes went to slits. “Davey, we got a problem,” she said into the kitchen.

“That’s the boy . . . ” Kathy said. “The missing one.”

“Go take their order. Now,” Davey said. Maryanne looked at Davey and something silent passed between them. She wasn’t a soldier, wasn’t one of Davey’s war buddies that showed up after hours on Thursday nights to trade stories until the sun rose. She was a server for heaven’s sake, a widow, and that man looked dangerous. Her seen-it-all-eyes loosened as she realized that not taking their order might trigger that deep, mountain anger living in the folks of Penny Bridge.

“Mornin’ boys,” Maryanne said, limping to the booth. She tapped the cigarette tucked behind her ear and pulled a pen and green flip pad from her apron. “What’ll it be?”

“Tell her,” the bleeding man said, still as stone.

“Bacon, ham, and cheese omlette,” the boy said.

“Bacon, ham, and cheese omlette what?” the man said.

“Please,” the boy said.

“And for you?” Maryanne asked.

“Ain’t hungry,” the man said.

“Toast? Muffin?”

“Muffin,” the man said. “Blueberry muffin.”

The cigarette burned out, hissing against the man’s thick and bloodied fingers. He didn’t flinch. Outside, small flecks of rain tapped on the glass like small knuckles trying to alert anyone who would listen.

Maryanne wrote down the order. She brought it all the way back into the kitchen and handed it to Davey who took one look and got started on cooking.

“You’re gonna feed’em?!” Maryanne asked.

“Yes, I’m gon’ feed’em,” he said. “And you ain’t gon’ charge them neither.”

“What’s gotten into you?!” Maryanne hissed, and stole a peek through the kitchen window at the boy pointing to new words on the menu as though the bleeding man across from him wasn’t bleeding at all. The child’s clothes seemed too loose.

Sometimes Davey had these feelings like he knew people, even if he didn’t. Working at the diner for the past thirty years, he’d met all types and sizes, but every now and then he could sense in people the same thing he sensed in himself – that unspoken pain of regret, the violence of time’s stranglehold, the anguish of having no choice but to move forward. He never charged those people and even though not one of them ever thanked him, he felt connected to their darkness in a way that no one else would ever understand.

The bleeding man had his eyes closed and head tilted forward breathing like he might be asleep. Then, as though jolted by an electric shock, he snapped straight up and spit a glob of bloody phlegm onto the diner’s tiled floor. The boy pulled out a napkin and handed it to the man who took it with quivering fingers and dabbed the side of his mouth.

Maryanne almost lost her nerve at the sight and silently cursed Davey for even allowing them to stay. After a lifetime of working in a mountain-town diner, she’d seen her fair share of disrespect. She’d tossed men twice her side out into the cold, told women to shove it, even broken up a fight or two. But something about this man gave her pause.

She filled up two glasses of water and a small plastic cup of chocolate milk. Balanced on a tray, she walked over and set the drinks down.

“For me?” the boy asked, wide eyed.

“Of course, sweet’ums,” Maryanne said. She had the urge to reach out and touch the child’s dirty hair, to silently let him know that he was safe so as long as he was in the diner. Once out the door, who knew what the night would do once it sunk its teeth into the tall pines and evergreens.

“What do you say?” the man said to the boy.

“Thank you,” the boy said, and knelt on the plush plastic cushion to hover over the glass and sip through a bendy straw.

From the kitchen, Davey dinged the order bell and put two plates on the sill. It was far more food than what had been ordered. Hash browns, extra strips of bacon, a muffin, toast, sausages, pancakes, the works.

Maryanne limped back and loaded up her arms.

“I can’t sit here and do nothing,” Kathy whispered. She forced eye contact with Davey to demand action and slid a phone from her purse.

“You’re gonna sit here and do nothing,” Davey growled from the kitchen. “Put that goddamn phone away, you hear?!”

“That’s the missing boy!” the woman hissed.

“Either way, that boy’s gotta eat,” Maryanne said. For a brief moment, she understood Davey’s move. “There’s a whole lot I don’t know, but that’s what I do know. That boy’s gotta eat.”

“And I just sit here?” Kathy said. “I do nothing and I’m just as guilty.”

“You’ll do nothing, and doing nothing keeps that boy in his seat eatin’ my cooking,” Davey said.

The woman pinched her face into a tight knot and turned in the stool to watch Maryanne drop off the plates. As soon as the food hit the table, the boy dug in like he hadn’t eaten in weeks. The bleeding man plucked at the edges of the muffin, but never took a bite.

“Someone’s hungry!” Maryanne said. The boy made animal noises and chomped.

The bleeding man took a trembling hand to his lips with a new cigarette and tried to light.

Maryanne’s insides clenched. She wanted to rip that poisonous stick from his lips and scream in his busted face that he can’t smoke in here, can’t he read? This was a fine establishment with proper rules and didn’t he know that smoking could kill a man and destroy his wife?

“Do you mind?” the bleeding man asked and offered up the lighter. Maryanne took it and a distant, familiar comfort returned. She wasn’t sure why, but she took it, flicked it on, and bent forward. The tip caught and the bleeding man inhaled.

“What else can I get’cha?” Maryanne asked, and placed the lighter on the table. The bleeding man looked off into the tall pines and evergreens, his eyes like rivers running through painful memories of something he’d rather forget. Maryanne recognized the look. She wore something similar when her husband was on his way out and she had to sit by and watch. She saw it on Davey’s face when the stove made clanging sounds and said he needed to close early.

“We’ll get out of your hair soon,” the bleeding man said.

At the bar, Kathy twisted in her stool like she was itching to leave. Maryanne approached at a half-steady clip.

“Don’t be foolish,” she whispered.

“I will not sit by and let society crumble just ‘cause you’re too scared to take action,” Kathy said.

“Hey,” Davey said from the kitchen. “You take action because there’s action to be had, you live with the consequences forever. Same as giving twenty-year-olds guns and tellin’em to wipe out a peaceful farming village so the enemy can’t eat. It’s pulling the trigger and feeling alive by causing death without understanding what makes life fragile.”

“This isn’t the war, Davey,” Kathy said.

“All’s the war,” he said. “And this is my joint. I’m tellin’ you to stand down.”

“Can we please?” Maryanne said, waving her wrists.

Outside, the sheriff’s police car crunched into the gravel lot and the fog surrounding Penny Bridge thickened. Ken Taima stepped out with aviator sunglasses and long black ponytail pulled tight running between his shoulder blades. He read the writing on the window in front of booth three and said something into the radio on his shoulder.

“Good god . . . ” Kathy said. “What if this gets ugly?”

Maryanne held her breath as Sheriff Taima stepped inside. He spotted the bleeding man and the boy and flipped the OPEN sign to CLOSED. He locked the door and approached the table.

“Billy?”

The boy looked up mid-chew. The sheriff nodded and looked back to find Maryanne and Kathy frozen in place. He radioed something into his shoulder. The bleeding man put the lit cigarette between his swollen lips.

“Billy, I would love to hear about your adventure if that’s ok with you,” Taima said, and the boy looked to the bleeding man. The bleeding man gave a small nod in acknowledgement, and the boy put down his fork. They went to the far corner of the diner and sat in booth seven.

“Do you believe in monsters?” the boy asked.

Taima nodded his head and whispered, “I’ve seen them.”

Davey took a magnetic carving knife from the metal hanging strip in the kitchen and wrapped his fingers around the hilt. He walked out with his hands behind his back and felt the air go still as Maryanne and Kathy held their breath at the flash of hidden metal. He sat down across the bleeding man.

“I ain’t gon’ charge ya,” Davey said. The bleeding man nodded.

“Obliged.”

They sat in the booth together, but the distance between them was both enormous and somehow non-existent.

“That boy,” Davey said. “You take him?”

“Not the way you think,” the bleeding man said. Davey squeezed the hilt of the knife and felt that flash of red he felt all those years ago in the Mekong Delta.

“Y’either did, or you didn’t,” he growled.

“You believe in the Ba’hari?” the bleeding man asked.

“I think you’re the Ba’hari to that child.”

For the first time, the bleeding man smiled from the corner of his mouth and took a slow drag. He exhaled smoke as thick and blinding as the fog outside.

“I killed the Ba’hari,” the man said, and in the small seconds that passed between thought and understanding Davey felt a completeness that the meetings had often referred to as a moment of clarity.

This man didn’t take the boy, and like all echoes, what existed in the present was a backwards re-examination of everything that came before.

“Farming village. Now I cook,” he said to himself, stunned.

“I was a younger man when my little girl . . . ” the bleeding man said, and he stopped to take a drag. “Never found.”

“So now you bring’em home,” Davey said. He loosened the grip on the knife.

Taima and the boy named Billy rose from their booth and walked over to Davey and the bleeding man.

“He’s ready to go,” the sheriff said, and the bleeding man tilted his head in acknowledgment. He stood up, touched the boy on the shoulder with shaking fingers, and unlocked the door as wisps of smoke trailed behind. Inside of a dozen steps, the fog swallowed the man whole. Taima turned toward Kathy.

“He was never here. This never happened.”

“You’re gonna let him go?!” Kathy said.

“Only a monster can kill a monster,” Taima said. “And our town is full of’em. Pain does funny things to a person. People like you will never understand. You be careful now.”

He left with Billy and the three inside watched the small boy climb into the backseat as Sheriff Taima pulled off and drove away.

Sometimes the thick fog of memory played tricks on poor Davey and he wondered if anything would ever make sense. He wondered if he’d ever find peace. He watched as Maryanne sat in booth three and closed her eyes to breathe the thin remains of cigarette smoke and re-live those moments where she felt happy, and alive, and whole, before the world took from her something it could never give back. The lighter still on the table, she pulled the Virginia Slim from behind her ear, put it to her lips, and flicked the flame after years of cold turkey.

Kathy put on her jacket and counted out five singles with her long, delicate fingers. Davey walked to the door, flipped the sign back to OPEN, and headed into the kitchen to prep the grill in for lunch. Whatever lived in them mountains, when it awoke, it would be hungry, and need to eat.

 

W. T. Paterson is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of New Hampshire, and is a graduate of Second City Chicago. His work has appeared in over 90 publications worldwide including The Saturday Evening Post, The Forge Literary Magazine, The Delhousie Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and Fresh Ink. A semi-finalist in the Aura Estra short story contest, his work has also received notable accolades from Lycan Valley, North 2 South Press, and Lumberloft. He spends most nights yelling for his cat to “Get down from there!”

Visit his website at www.wtpaterson.com.

 [ issue 2 : spring 2021 ]