“I thought you said you wouldn’t get lost,” Kai said.
Charlotte’s teeth tightened to match the pressure of her hands on the rented Toyota’s steering wheel. They were already a half-hour late to the luncheon after her grandmother’s funeral in Tallahassee, a drive her navigator said should have taken an hour and five minutes heading west on the I-10. She’d been doing fine until they got off of the freeway and passed the collection of quaint shops on Main Street in the throwback town, but the last few turns had plunged them more deeply into the swampy woods bordering each side of a two-lane road.
No other cars were in sight. No houses. No anything.
“We’re not lost,” she said.
Thin pines and oaks with branches draped in hanging moss choked the road, which the clay soil had ground red, as much dirt as asphalt. Mud from earlier rainfall was slick enough to splash the tires. The air conditioner was on full blast, but the sun burned her skin through her sleeveless black funeral dress. The burr of insects around them was loud enough to penetrate the closed windows. Her car sped past a derelict shack wrapped in weeds, its wooden walls gaping from missing planks. The rusted tin roof made Charlotte wonder if it had been a sharecropper’s shack. Or a relic from slavery.
Charlotte’s twelve-year-old cousin could have joined his parents and aunts in the limousine after the burial, but since Charlotte had to drive anyway because the “stretch” wasn’t as big as they’d expected, she’d asked Kai to ride with her to escape the limousine’s sadness, and he’d happily agreed. (“I only met her a couple times,” he’d shrugged to Charlotte privately.) Until now, he’d been bobbing his head to his ear buds, his face stoic beneath limp braids, his tie loosened with the knot at mid-chest. Like a noose, she couldn’t help thinking.
Charlotte hated the South. Her mother had fled Florida at her first chance, never coming back to Gracetown after she’d gone to UCLA as a freshman, just like Kai’s dad, her Uncle Harry, who had joined the Army the day he graduated from high school. Uncle Harry loathed the town. He had spent six months in Gracetown’s notorious Reformatory when he was Kai’s age, and he had blamed his parents for his imprisonment.
It wasn’t surprising that his son didn’t feel much warmth for the recently buried Sadie Myrtle Jones Williams. Charlotte’s parents had swapped Christmases between Oakland and Gracetown, but Uncle Harry’s seat at the table had always sat empty. His four sisters had taken bets on whether he’d show up for the funeral—and he had, sobbing worse than the rest. “I thought I’d have more time,” he’d cried out in the church, although Grandmama had been six days shy of eighty. Still, he had refused to set foot in Gracetown for a luncheon at the home of Grandmama’s childhood friend. Kai was more a novelty than family to Charlotte, one reason she had been glad to give him a ride. She’d only seen the kid three or four times, and the last time he’d been only nine. Twelve was a different story: he was almost as tall as she was and—
“Shit, we’re in the middle of fucking nowhere,” Kai said.
“Hey!” Charlotte said. “Watch that mouth.”
“You’re not my mom. You don’t tell me what to do.”
She stared at him so long that she nearly veered off into one of the ditches that yawned open on either side of the road. He’d been so quiet until now that his sudden rebellion surprised her. Her voice was ice. “Don’t start with me, baby boy. This is not the time.”
His tone softened. “I’m just saying—nobody wants to be driving around in the middle of nowhere, dang.”
He had a point, but although she was only twenty-two, she felt obligated to sound parental. “Watch your mouth around me—or you can walk,” she said, and threw in, “Hear?” Grandmama had always said that: Hear? Charlotte heard Grandmama’s voice in her ear, sharp as a whip. Her throat pinched tight with a smothered sob. This awful day had no end in sight.
Kai looked away toward the unbroken forest and its tangle of trees. “My dad got locked up here,” Kai said. “He said that place was just a bunch of rednecks who hurt kids for fun. And he said Gracetown is haunted as shit.”
His voice trembled. For the first time, Charlotte realized he was cursing because he was genuinely afraid. What kinds of stories had Uncle Harry filled his son’s head with? Grandmama had always said Uncle Harry should see a therapist, although she’d said it more like an insult than a recommendation. Her aunts said he’d never been the same since the Reformatory, and maybe Grandmama had been in denial because she hadn’t fought harder to get him out. (To hear Uncle Harry tell it, his parents’ attitude had been Maybe it’ll be a good wake-up call for him.) Charlotte’s mom had superstitions about ghosts too, but nothing like Uncle Harry’s.
“That was a long time ago,” Charlotte said. “That place is closed now.”
“Whatever,” Kai mumbled.
But again, Kai was right: they were alone. Charlotte hadn’t seen another car in ten minutes, maybe longer. A thick fog bank sat across the road ahead like a wall, and Charlotte felt a strong urge to stop the car and turn around. She checked the navigator: SATELLITE UNAVAILABLE. The map showed the dot of their car surrounded by a sea of nothing. She and Kai had given up on getting a cell-phone signal soon as they passed the county line. It never failed: whenever one thing went wrong, everything else joined in a chorus. She’d had her first car accident two years ago, when she swerved to avoid hitting a dog on her way from getting her wisdom teeth pulled.
Today felt as cursed as that one. Worse. She’d just buried a grandmother she’d barely bothered to get to know, so both of her grandmothers were gone. She’d had a much closer relationship with her father’s more cosmopolitan mother in Oakland, who ran a bookstore and hadn’t been nearly as hard to understand beneath a thick country accent and old-school rules.
“Fuck,” she said under her breath, and drove through the fog. It was so thick, she braced for the car to shudder, hardly breathing while all of the windows went gray.
“I can’t see!” Kai said.
But as soon as he said it, they passed through to the hot sun again, everything in bright focus. Only then, she allowed herself to ponder it: Fog in the middle of the day? During the summer? The oddness skittered across her mind, but she shut down the part of her that wanted to panic. Like Kai had said—whatever.
Evidence of civilization emerged ahead, a small billboard nearly covered by the trees with large red letters: LAST STOP ON ROUTE 9—1/2 MILE-GAS-FOOD. All of the paint was cracking in visible rivulets across the weathered wood.
“Yes!” Kai said, at the same time she’d been thinking Thank fucking goodness.
She kept deities’ names from mind to avoid blasphemy so close to where Grandmama had lived, as if Grandmama might still hear her. Or maybe, just maybe, cussing alongside God’s name really was a sin.
“Listen . . . ” Charlotte began slowly, wondering if she’d been too harsh on Kai by threatening to make him walk. “It sounds like your dad’s said some stuff to you that’s pretty confusing. And . . . raw. Maybe he should have waited until you’re older.”
“Dad says you’re never too young to know the truth.” Kai recited it like a mantra.
That sounded like Uncle Harry, all right. Every conversation was a speech. But he’d never told her about his time at the Gracetown Reformatory. Not that she’d asked.
“What did he say happened to him when he was locked up, Kai?”
Kai parted his lips as if to answer, but changed his mind. He stared at the road ahead, eyes searching for the promised gas and food. Like her, he looked hungry enough to eat a wrinkled gas-station hot dog. Or two. She’d been looking forward to the feast after the funeral.
“Well, whatever it is . . . ” she went on. “It’s not happening now. It won’t happen to you.”
“What if we get pulled over? And I get locked up for no reason like him?” His voice’s pitch grew higher with his agitation. “And then . . . then . . .”
“Who’s gonna pull us over—a raccoon?” she said. “Nobody’s out here. Right?”
Kai surveyed the empty road and both sides of the thick woods and nodded, smiling a bit at her joke. Poor kid! Charlotte needed to talk with Uncle Harry and let him know to ease back on his Gracetown horror stories. Uncle Harry was the eldest of the siblings and Kai was a son he’d had from his third marriage, late in life. He and his son were from two different worlds. When would Uncle Harry have been locked up? The late 1960s? Black drivers in the South could just disappear in those days. Times weren’t perfect, but they weren’t still like that, at least.
The gas station appeared. And Charlotte’s stomach knotted. Shit.
This building was an artifact, shuttered with planks across its windows. She could barely read the faded sign above the door: HANDEE GAS. It was an old-fashioned station with only two bright red pumps long out of service, their hoses emptied on the ground like oversized snakes in a blanket of pine needles.
“What the hell?” Kai said, exactly what she was thinking.
As Charlotte slowed, hoping the gas station would morph into an AM/PM like the convenience stores in California, she noticed a light in the woods to the left. A driveway from the road led to a second structure behind the gas station, a wood-paneled house hardly bigger than a cabin. But a light was on behind sheer white curtains, and a vintage round-hooded pickup truck was parked in the driveway, white paint also fading.
Charlotte turned into the driveway at the last second, her car’s tires skidding on mud.
“What are you doing?” Kai said.
“There’s a house. I’m just going to knock on the door and ask for directions.”
“That’s crazy!” Kai said. “Haven’t you ever seen Deliverance?”
Again, Charlotte looked at him with surprise. She’d seen the film once in college, and once was enough. The banjo theme played in her head, cryptic. “Your father let you watch—”
“He says Gracetown is like Deliverance. I’ve never seen it. Don’t want to either.”
“Kai, stop freaking yourself out. Just stay in the car.”
Charlotte rarely missed a hashtag, so she knew what sometimes happened when black people knocked on strangers’ doors, only to be met by gunfire. She still remembered a black woman’s name: Renisha McBride. And there were others. But she also wasn’t going to let fear rule her life. It was broad daylight. She was lost. She was dressed for church. She would be fine.
Charlotte didn’t want to block the cabin’s driveway, so she veered slightly to the right of it a few yards from the house’s door, parking beneath an oak tree that looked a century old. Something crunched beneath her tires, the sound of bad news. Dammit! Had she damaged the car? She turned off the engine, and the insects’ songs grew louder.
As Charlotte opened her car door, Kai grabbed her wrist. “Wait! Don’t you feel it?”
“Feel what, sweetie?”
He stared at her, earnest, trying to choose words. His grip was a vise. “It . . . it feels . . . mad. Like, everything is pissed off.” When she squinted, trying to make sense of what he’d said, Kai sighed and let her go. “I can’t explain. My dad says you can’t always explain.”
“Lock up behind me. I’ll be right back.”
When Charlotte closed her car door behind her, Kai hit the electric lock right away. The humidity felt soupy, and her armpits pricked with sweat as soon as she stepped outside. In a way, maybe the air did feel pissed off. She wanted to laugh at Kai, but she couldn’t. And it was smart to leave Kai in the car, she remembered. He was a black male, too tall to be considered “cute” by many strangers; instead, he looked like the national boogeyman since The Birth of a Nation and before. Kai was wearing a dress shirt and tie, but still.
Charlotte glanced at the gas station behind them. Someone had made a junkyard of the station’s side wall, not as visible from the street: rusted old cars, discarded gas cans, an old road sign advertising Fatima Cigarettes, which she’d never heard of. Maybe this was what Kai had meant, too: these items were pissed off because they were old and forgotten. Like she had so often forgotten Grandmama.
Music was playing faintly from the house. Elvis? It was impossible to mistake the voice, but the music was gospel, not rock and roll. She recognized the song, “Peace in the Valley,” from the handful of times she’d attended church with Grandmama at Christmas.
Charlotte did not go to the little house’s sagging front porch right away as she’d planned. She stared, thinking it over.
The plants on the porch, even in the hanging basket, were dead. Only a screen door was closed across the doorway, but despite the light she’d thought she’d seen from the road, the house was dark now. It was hard to imagine that light had ever shone from this house, much less a moment before. A hidden hinge squealed lazily back and forth. At the edge of the wooden awning, she saw the chain from a ruined porch swing rocking in the mild breeze. Somewhere behind the house, a dog was barking. It might not be big, but it wasn’t small. Maybe it was on a chain, maybe it wasn’t.
Then Charlotte noticed the Confederate flag on the bumper sticker on the oversized truck parked near the porch. The words printed beside it had faded, but the crossed blue stripes and white stars still showed. Charlotte’s heart thumped her breastbone. She’d known a girl at UCLA who defended the flag as “heritage” and insisted it wasn’t racist despite the way racists loved it, but now Kai’s words came back: Everything is pissed off. How hadn’t she noticed it right away?
None of it felt right. Instead of stepping toward the house, Charlotte stepped away.
She looked back at Kai, and he was watching her wide-eyed, his nose pressed to the window on the driver’s side. She gestured toward the house dismissively: never mind. And he nodded, agreeing wholeheartedly. He motioned for her to come back.
Charlotte walked back toward her car—but then she remembered the crunching sound when she’d parked. It would drive her crazy to wonder if she’d damaged a tire, so she leaned over to take a peek.
Her left front tire had knocked over a mound of large, sharp-edged stones, alongside a silver cross, tarnished black. Shit! She kicked the closest tire for firmness to make sure it wasn’t punctured, then knelt to see if the stones had left any marks on the bumper the rental guy in Tallahassee would notice. The car was fine. But broken glass was scattered across the soil from a cracked picture frame near the cross. She picked up the frame and saw a decades old photo she could barely make out, the image splotched by rain and time. Vaguely, she could make out a white man’s long, gray beard.
“Desecration!” a woman’s voice screeched from somewhere. From everywhere.
Charlotte dropped the photo frame, gasping. She was so startled, she had to hold the car’s warm hood for balance, her neck yanking around too hard to see who had spoken. A woman was standing behind the house’s screen door, features hidden by the mesh. All Charlotte could make out was a powder-blue house dress, maybe a floral pattern. Her face was in shadow.
Desecration. Had she damaged a memorial site, or even a grave? The word charged Charlotte’s thoughts, so violent that it felt imposed: DESECRATION. The insects’ buzzing seemed to flurry between her ears rather than beyond them. Kai was thumping on his window.
“Let’s go!” she heard him call, muffled through the thick buzzing.
Unsteady with fright, Charlotte stumbled back toward her car door. She tried to raise her voice so the woman could hear her apology. “I’m . . . so sorry. I won’t . . . disturb you.” She raised her hands slightly in case the woman was armed. She expected a gunshot.
Although the woman’s features were fuzzy, Charlotte thought she saw her mouth and jaw open into an impossibly long O, stretched beyond the boundaries of where her face should be. The woman let out a shriek too loud to be human. The sound echoed through the woods, rattling the metal and glass in the gas station’s debris. Birds flocked from the treetops, shrieking and calling in response. The unseen dog barked in a frenzy. Charlotte’s limbs locked, her mind emptied of thought.
Then came an eerie, sudden silence, all sound stripped, even the dog’s. Charlotte’s hand fumbled with the door handle two or three times before she remembered the car was locked. She slapped at the window. Let me in, she tried to say, but her mouth was parched mute.
The CLICK from the car door came at last, breaking the unnatural quiet, and Charlotte rushed back into her seat, banging her knee hard against the steering wheel in her rush. Kai was sitting on the passenger-side floor, his face wet with tears. After he pulled his hand away from the electric lock, he rocked himself like a toddler, arms wrapped around his knees.
“It’s OK,” she said, absurdly. She was lying to both of them.
Just go. Just go. Just go. Her thumping heart had learned language, preaching to her.
When she turned the key, she expected the ignition to ignore her—a waiting tide of grief and terror she did not know how she could withstand—but the engine roared with fiery life. That’s a great car, that one, the rental guy had said. The memory of his gaudy yellow blazer was her mind’s anchor to the world she knew. Charlotte yanked the car into reverse and swerved back so far that she almost hit the truck before she shifted to plow back toward the road. Her heart was thunder. How had Kai known to keep away from this house on sight? How had he sensed the rage boiling just behind the screen door?
She made a frantic turn to the road, back toward the fog, the way they’d come—the only way she knew—so sharply that one of the tires plunged halfway into the roadside ditch, but she quickly righted it. Mud sprayed the underside before the car was back on solid ground.
“What was that?” Kai said, pleading for an answer.
Charlotte could only shake her head. Her existence had shrunk to her beating heart, its rhythm pulsing to her hands tight on the steering wheel and her foot pressing the gas pedal with all of her strength. Since the too-loud screeching, her muscles felt drained. Emptied out.
The radio came on with loud squeals and pops. Charlotte glanced at the glowing dial, hoping to see Kai’s hand near it, but he was still hugging himself tight. He stared at the radio too, then back at her with the same plea in his teary eyes. His jaw trembled.
“I wanna go home—” Kai whimpered.
The radio answered him with the same woman’s reedy tremolo voice filling the car’s front and rear speakers: “THE DESECRATION IS YOU. I CURSE YOU BOTH TO HELL. I CURSE YOUR PARENTS. I CURSE YOUR TAR-BLACK BABIES—”
Frantic to banish her voice, Charlotte looked away from the road to the radio dial. She jammed at the power button with the heel of her palm—once, twice, three times—until the terrible voice was gone. By then, Kai was sobbing.
“It’s OK—” she started to say again.
But it wasn’t.
As soon as Charlotte looked back to the road, a sun-reddened white man with a pea-green hunting jacket and an unkempt gray beard appeared in her windshield—he hadn’t walked there, he wasn’t standing there, he simply was—and she only had time to scream and jam on her brakes so hard that the car skewed sideways after a horrible THUNK sound beneath her floorboard. She felt the unmistakable bump of rolling over a mass on the road. The car shook from end to end, flinging Kai so much that he hit his head on the glove compartment as his arms flailed to hold on to something.
The car lurched to a stop as if it had been yanked back by invisible wires. Kai was wailing more loudly than she was, but not by much.
In the long aftermath with nothing moving, Charlotte stopped yelling as her thoughts unscrambled. The yellow blazer. She had to get back to the rental guy in the yellow blazer. And Kai was her cousin; if she let anything happen to him, the family would tell the story for generations. She would be reliving this day on her deathbed in a loop, the way Grandma Bernadine couldn’t stop talking about a lightning storm that had set her rooftop in Port Au Prince on fire when she was a child. The fire that had killed her baby sister.
“Are you OK?” Charlotte whispered. She didn’t know why she was whispering, but she was sure whispering was the right thing to do, even if it wasn’t nearly enough. She needed to do far more. Kai shook his head NO, his braids whipping his face.
“We hit someone, Kai.” The sure firmness in her voice surprised her.
“We didn’t!” Kai screamed at her. “Someone hit us!”
“Kai . . . calm down. Breathe.”
He did, taking heaving breaths that began to fog the car’s window. Charlotte wiped away the condensation with a crumpled napkin she snatched from the cup holder: she didn’t want any blind spots. Outside the windows, the stillness was unnerving. She waited for the man she’d run over to pop up and try to scare the actual life out of them, but he didn’t come. Nothing moved.
“I know something is messed up, all right?” Charlotte told Kai, and he nodded, his eyes flooding with grateful tears that he didn’t have to shoulder reality alone. “I can’t explain what happened back at that house. But we ran over a man with the car—I ran over a man. I have to check on him. That’s the law, Kai. I can’t leave an old man in the road.”
Kai’s gratitude vanished, replaced by bitter fright. “You still don’t get it!”
“I need you to stay in the car—”
“Don’t leave me! You better not leave me—”
“—and I’m just going to check on him. To see if he’s alive.”
“Alive? Alive don’t just-just—”
“Breathe, Kai. Breathe. Or you’ll pass out. I’m serious. Look at my eyes and breathe.”
She held out her hand, and he took it and squeezed hard. He forced himself to breathe more slowly, keeping his eyes fixed on hers, desperate to believe in her.
Still, nothing moved outside. No corpse popped up like a jack-in-the-box. In the quiet, it was easier to forget the woman’s unnaturally loud screech at the house and worry more about the dead man who lay beneath her car. Never mind going to law school one day after her break from classrooms: she would go to prison for manslaughter. She and Kai both had been so shocked by the sight of the man that they’d fooled their eyes, making him a phantom.
I probably killed someone. Her stomach curdled at the thought. If she’d had food in the past few hours, she would have spit it up. Put on your big girl panties, Grandmama used to say.
Somehow, Charlotte navigated the lock and door handle with hands like jelly. She eased the door open, touched her foot to the road. Pressed hard to feel its solidness. She prayed as hard as she knew how that the man was alright. When she stood, adrenaline cascaded down her legs.
At least no limbs protruded from the bottom of the car as she’d feared, like Dorothy killing the wicked witch with her house. Both the front and rear tires were flat on the driver’s side, the rubber clawed to strips. The sick feeling in her stomach turned rigid, twisting. Were the other tires flat too? They wouldn’t get far even with only two flats. She was afraid to check right away and learn that they were stranded.
Charlotte lowered herself to her knees to peek beneath the car, expecting to see the pea-green jacket. But no man was under the car—only a scattered pile of large, sharp stones like the ones under the tree. Back at the house. At the makeshift grave site. Charlotte drew in a long breath, sucking in air. The road seemed to shake with her heartbeat.
“I can’t see you!” Kai shouted.
Charlotte pulled herself to her feet, looking away from the impossible sight, but not before she noticed that the other two tires had also been ravaged by the stones, rims shining through. Damn, damn, damn.
As she straightened up, Charlotte’s mind tried to make sense of it: Had the car sent him flying into a ditch? She hadn’t seen any stones in the road, but she’d looked away at the radio. That many stones hadn’t appeared from nowhere—had they?
“There’s no one under there!” she called to Kai.
“I told you!” he said. He wasn’t surprised at all. He knew. “Come back in!”
“I have to see if he got thrown.”
Kai thumped his fist against the window, so scared and frustrated she thought he might break the glass or his hand, or both. “Just come back!”
“Stop that, Kai. I’ll be right there. He could be only injured.” She said it although she didn’t believe it—she wouldn’t find a man sprawled in the ditch, and if she did he would be dead. But she had to be sure she wasn’t just in denial, trading an evening-news brand of horror for something else. The police would ask if she had looked. And he might be there, merely hurt or unconscious. He might.
But no one was in the ditch on either side. While Kai kept thumping the window, she walked up and down in her clicking heels looking for the man’s coat, or his beard, or blood. Beyond the drainage ditches, she saw nothing but untended woods growing wild. She felt a vibration shiver beneath her feet and held her breath until the trembly sensation was gone.
Kai honked the horn, pressing it for a long, unbroken tone. It sounded like sacrilege.
She waved back at him. “Shhhh. Don’t do that!”
Kai was pointing toward the road behind her. “Look!”
A car was coming from the direction they’d just left, taking its sweet time. Not a car, she realized as she stared—a truck. A white truck with its oversized hood and cab. Like the one parked back at the house. Somewhere in the woods, a dog was barking.
“The radio’s on again!” Kai yelled, panicked. She heard Elvis sing reverently about no sadness, no sorrow, no trouble, no pain, the volume too loud inside the car. Kai was covering his ears. “Charlotte!”
Charlotte ran to the car. Each time she glanced back at the truck over her shoulder, it had gained an alarming distance. There might be both a driver and a passenger in the cab. She had to grab Kai and pop the trunk to see if she could find a weapon. Maybe she’d find a tire iron.
“We have to run,” Charlotte said, breathless. She reached for the door handle the instant after she heard the CLICK of the locks, too late. But Kai’s hands were still plugging his ears. He hadn’t locked the doors, but the door wouldn’t budge. “Kai! Unlock the door!”
But she could see for herself that he was trying, reaching across to the driver’s door, pushing every button he could. Panic had dried his tears. “It won’t open!” he said. “Get me out!”
Charlotte kneeled to find the biggest stone she could. One just beyond the mangled front tire weighed at least five pounds. “Get in the back seat in a ball—hurry! Cover your eyes.”
As she raised the stone high, she glanced back at the truck. It was close enough now that if it sped up, they would have no time to outrun it. She could see that the driver was a woman by the outline of her frizzy hair. The truck rambled on at its slow, steady speed.
Charlotte heaved the stone at the windshield with all of her strength. A thin line of a crack appeared, but the glass didn’t break. The second time she hit it, the stone made a spiderweb in glass that would not yield. Instead, the stone broke in two. Charlotte let out a frustrated yell, kneeling to search for another stone.
“Do the side window! I’ll fit!” Kai said. He was watching the truck’s approach and knew she didn’t have time to keep trying.
None of the stones remaining under the car were as big as the first, but she found a slightly smaller one she smashed into the driver’s side window while she clung to it with her bare hand—and the glass shattered, falling away. But not enough. She and Kai were still batting at the remaining glass when they heard the guttural engine’s purr as the truck pulled up beside them, crushing smaller stones beneath it. She could not leave Kai. She reached for him as he squeezed himself through the jagged exit. A fixed glass shard dug into his shoulder, leaving flecks of blood on his white dress shirt.
Two women laughed from the truck. The laughter chilled Charlotte and tried to make her run, but she held on to Kai while he tried to pull his leg through. She glanced at the driver sitting high in the cab—
—and saw a black woman with honeyed skin and spiky plaits. Beside her sat a white woman with wild auburn hair; a young woman who did not look like the one she’d seen through the screen door. Both women grinned at them with badly yellowed teeth.
“You’re not fixin’ to run, I hope!” the black woman said. “Don’t you hear the dogs?”
Charlotte did hear dogs then: a chorus of barking from the woods. Two dozen or more dogs might be waiting in the brush. Kai tried to run right away, but Charlotte held him back with her arm hooked around his neck. “Dogs,” she whispered.
“I don’t care,” he said, wriggling like a fish against her grip.
“We’re not the ones you ought to be afraid of,” the black woman said. She tapped her horn, and Kai went limp at the strangled sound. “Hey. Look at me—I said you don’t need to be ’fraid of us. Aunt Sally’s the one who hexed you.”
“Meanest woman who ever lived or died—that’s Aunt Sally for you,” the white woman said. She was fanning herself with a Life magazine. “By the way, I’m Rose. That’s Malindy.”
“I was named from a poem,” the black woman said with pride. “My mama liked it.”
Charlotte didn’t answer. She couldn’t stop blinking to test if the women were real.
“I’m sick to death,” the white woman, Rose, said. “Sick of Aunt Sally hexing and swallowing folks up in the ground. Then they’re gone and their kin never know where they went. I say people are people. That’s what I say. Just look at us—oh, she hates how we’re cousins.”
“Just leave us alone!” Charlotte said, finding her voice. She was too afraid to move. All the while the women chatted, the truck idled ready to run her and Kai over with the slightest lunge. “Just—please—go back where you came from.”
“Where you headed? Into that fog?” Malindy said. Charlotte nodded, hating herself for trusting this stranger with the truth—far worse than a stranger—only because her skin color felt like a promise. “That’s the way you’d better go, all right,” Malindy said, approving.
“But she’ll swallow you up on the road,” Rose said. “See?”
Rose pointed toward Charlotte’s feet. The asphalt beneath her black pumps had crumbled since she’d seen it last, as if she were forcing a great weight upon it. A gap near her big toe was already two inches across. Startled, Charlotte stepped back. More ruptures webbed the road.
“That just gets worse and worse ’til it swallows you whole,” Rose said.
“And the woods, they ain’t no better,” Malindy said, and she pointed too: at the treeline a large brown dog as big as a wolf stood with its front legs perched on a log, watching them. The sight of the beast was a worse fear at a distance than the truck up close. “She’ll set dogs on anybody Negro. Old, young, woman, child. Makes her no nevermind. All this fuss ain’t over Johnny,” Malindy said, and cackled to herself. “He shot himself cleaning his shotgun, dumb as the day is long. Sally just loves chasin’ coloreds, still mad ’cause Johnny was my papa in secret. Everybody knew it but her. I call her Aunt Sally because I don’t have another name for her.”
“Uncle Johnny was better’n some,” Rose told Malindy. “I think she still loved him in a way, or wouldn’t she have shot him herself?” They spoke to each other as if they were alone.
The dog at the roadside growled, stepping tentatively closer. Kai tried to lunge away again, but Charlotte held on. A dog that size would maul him to death, and there were others.
The women remembered them again. “Way we see it . . .” Malindy began.
“ . . . Y’all better hop in back of the truck,” Rose finished. “We can drive you back to the edge of the fog. We can’t drive through it, but we can get you that far.”
“What you doin’ way out here anyways?” Malindy said. “No one takes Route Nine unless they want to get lost.”
“Real lost,” Rose said, and giggled.
“They drove right over Johnny’s grave,” Malindy said to Rose, and they laughed again. “This one here did everything but lindy hop over his bones.”
Their chatter, and the impossible choices, made Charlotte dizzy. A low cracking sound rumbled beneath her, and the two-inch gap in the asphalt widened to half a foot. Kai whimpered, stepping away. The dog barked again, more insistent.
“Let’s go with them,” Kai whispered.
Charlotte looked at him, surprised. The same thought had been teasing her, but she’d been sure he wouldn’t dare. He looked calmer than he’d been since before they passed through the fog. “Do you . . . feel something? Like at the house?”
His eyes fervent, Kai nodded. “Yes. Let’s go.”
He was right. She was sure of it. No matter how much she hated the idea, and she wasn’t close to understanding why, the truck was their best chance.
Charlotte grabbed Kai’s hand, and they ran together. They both climbed into the truck’s bed with a leap, and the vintage vehicle sped forward as they were still pulling their legs into the prickly bed of pine cones, painful against her bare legs and palms. The truck was moving faster now than it had on its approach, pitching them against each other until they held on to the rusted sides, where the paint flaked off beneath her sweating palms.
Dogs chased the truck, pouring onto the road from the woods. German shepherds, hounds, and oversized creatures that looked half wolf chased the truck with all their might, barking their loathing as spittle flew between their teeth. Only five or six were close enough for her to see their glowing eyes, but a dozen more trailed farther behind, with yet more appearing from the woods. Some of the dogs stumbled in the widening gaps in the road. Wherever the truck drove, the road gave way beneath it, trying its best to eat them. The women in front laughed while the truck swerved around gaps and cracks, as if they’d never had such a merry time.
Charlotte was staring at the dogs, so she didn’t see the fog bank until they were in the heart of it, wreathed in gray-white mist. The truck stopped on whining brakes. The house was only half a mile from the fog, she remembered. Only half a mile, yet so much farther.
“I can’t take you past here,” Malindy said, calling behind her.
“Keep ahead of those dogs,” Rose said. “They’re all hers. All mean just like her.”
Charlotte didn’t need to hear any more. She grabbed Kai’s hand again and they both climbed out. She had lost her shoes somewhere in her terror. Her stocking foot slipped on the chrome bumper, but she barely felt her knee and elbow scrape when she fell. The barking was still behind them, enraged and determined.
Still clinging to Kai’s hand, Charlotte ran barefoot into the soupy gray.
Within her first three steps, the fog was gone. And so was the barking, or the sound of laughter. When she turned the other way, the fog was gone too. She had known it would be. Some part of her had always known the fog wasn’t real in the way her skin and beating heart were real. The fog wasn’t as real as her memory of everything that had happened on the road.
A modern gas station and convenience store waited within easy walking distance a hundred yards ahead, with a large sign on a highway pole. She knew they had driven past no such place, but that didn’t matter—it was there now.
She looked at a highway sign as they walked toward the gas station, which of course said Highway 46 instead of Route Nine. If she asked someone at the gas station ahead, they would tell her there hadn’t been a Route Nine in Gracetown as long as anyone could remember, maybe as far back as the 1960s or 1950s. Maybe long before then. She was certain of it.
She had left her car beyond the fog. She would have to explain that somehow.
“We’ll say we got carjacked,” Charlotte said. “When we asked a guy for directions.”
Kai nodded. “The guy with the beard. We’ll say it was him. And . . . it’s true.”
Charlotte tried to remember if she’d bought the rental car insurance. She thought about her purse and cell phone she’d left behind, all gone. Then she wondered how long this family had been in the land of the dead. And how long Aunt Sally had stood hidden behind her screen door ready to vent her hatred.
“I’m telling my dad,” Kai said. “But just him.”
Charlotte was still trying to sort through it all without feeling dizzy again. “Tell him . . . what? He won’t believe you.”
“Yeah, he will,” Kai said, sure of it. They walked in silence for a moment, then he said, “I’m never going to another funeral.”
But he would, she knew. They both would. Their grandparents were gone now, so they would bury their parents next, and all their stories and secrets. Charlotte stared at their feet walking together on the unbroken road: hers bare, still pedicured, his with black shoes still shiny. This road felt no more real than the cracking one they had fled, and the only evidence of their shared ordeal was their breathing, still too hard and fast.
Kai’s father must have felt this way when he’d been released from the Reformatory. He’d gathered stories while in that place that even his parents would never fully grasp, a wall of fog between him and the world, hoping the nightmares wouldn’t last. But they had. And now his son would have them too. But at least Kai and his father had someone to tell.
Charlotte vowed she would never go to Gracetown again.
Spread the word!