Houndstoothe Episode 1
Updated: Jun 25
The Turning of the Wheel
Houndstoothe, MI: Agnes Imagine a child opening a Christmas present in 1957. Inside the box, the child sees a picturesque model of a small New England town. It has all the staples of small-town America. Twinkling lights, mom-and-pop store fronts, neat little blocks with colonial houses. It’s surrounded by a clay forest of pine, elm, ash, birch, and oak. On a little hill south of the lake is a white water tower, painted with the lupine grin of the Houndstoothe Fightin’ Gray Wolf. Perhaps the child doesn’t notice the other wolf, a figure too large to be in scale with the town, but small enough to go unnoticed for now. It sits in the woods south of the town circle, and it has little pink lightbulbs for eyes.
Sixty years pass. Many things stay the same, but lots of lights grow dim. There are a few corporate faces invading, but this is an idyllic place, so the mom-and-pop places soldier on as well as they can. But the only light that burns ever-bright and ever-constant is Lincoln’s Diner.
That is how Agnes Blaire saw her hometown in her mind’s eye – old fashioned, small – many things unexplained and unnoticeable, at first. But it was still Houndstoothe. And the diner-light never wavered.
That night, Houndstoothe, the twinkling little town, lay under a blanket of stars and an expanse of night sky like blue paint. Agnes imagined reaching up and plucking one of the stars out of the sky, like a diamond stuck on velvet. She never tried this – she was afraid it wouldn’t work.
There were two irrefutable truths in Houndstoothe. First, the cats of Houndstoothe should be treated with respect. Second, there was always a Lincoln in the diner, someone who, when you needed them, would always lend an ear. This Lincoln in particular lent Agnes more than most.
The pavement shone with a recent rain, and the heels of Agnes' boots clattered against it as she walked down Main Street. An orange cat scampered along nearby - it was one of Agnes's cats, and he followed her on walks. She'd barely noticed that he was with her until now. She called him Oscar.
Lincoln’s Diner was just a few blocks away. Agnes could see the neon green sign now, a perfect green light in the night. Out of the corner of her eye, it looked like a green traffic light - an invitation to go, to come, to move. Agnes couldn't explain why, but Lincoln's was her favorite place in Houndstoothe.
As she approached, she could see the evening bustle of the diner through the windows, like a live diorama. She could tell the regulars apart from the folks who only dropped in a few times a month. Regulars came for the pie. The other folks were having late dinners of burgers and fries. A few members of the local knitting group were drinking tea in the corner, beginning their projects for the season. Sometime ago they had been nicknamed the Old Hag Knitting Rebellion, and it had stuck. Lincoln himself was behind the counter, sleeves rolled up, white apron tied around his waist, wiping down counters. Light from inside the diner carried warmth. Even through the window, Agnes could smell pie and fresh coffee, and hear something deep and soulful rumbling from the jukebox.
Without looking up, Lincoln said, "Agnes."
Agnes didn't notice the orange cat slip in between her feet.
She didn't remember the last Lincoln that had owned the diner. She had lived in Houndstoothe for a short time when she was small, and she did remember loving the hot chocolate that her granddad bought for her. But when she tried to fill in the space behind the counter with the man that had made the hot chocolate, all she saw was the man standing in front of her now.
This man was a little younger than most Lincolns were; she'd heard one of the older members of the Knitting Rebellion say so. He always seemed to know when she walked in the door without looking.
"Hey, Lincoln," she said.
Lincoln leaned on the counter. "What can I do for you tonight, Miss Blaire?" He held a brown coffee mug in his hand – it wasn’t like the other mugs in the diner. This was his mug. Agnes had never seen it empty, and it was never far from his reach. He looked up at her with pine-green eyes as he took a sip.
Agnes smiled and brushed a strand of her hair behind her ear.
"You changed your hair," Lincoln said.
"Yes, I did." Agnes said.
“That’s right.” She was naturally brunette, but that was five appointments ago. The switch to silver had taken hours, and her stylist cried a little about it, but Agnes was happy with it.
"It looks great. Coffee?"
Agnes leaned in too. She was close enough to notice a few things: smears of flour on his green and navy flannel shirt, how one eye was a darker green than the other, and a tiny scab just under his chin, probably a nick from that morning.
Oscar purred, but no one took notice.
"Coffee sounds great. With cream? And a piece of pie."
"I've got sugar cream and blueberry. Might have a piece of chocolate left from yesterday."
"Dealer’s choice," Agnes said. She slipped out of her coat and laid it across her lap as Lincoln slipped into the back.
Oscar abandoned Agnes and moved on to other tables, weaving between ankles, putting his paws politely on thighs, asking for a bite, or sitting quietly and waiting to be noticed. He approached the Knitting Rebellion's table and eyed their yarn until Evelyn noticed him and shooed him away.
Lincoln came back with a red plate of blueberry pie and a mug. He filled the mug from a steaming pot and slid Agnes the small pitcher of cream. A little splashed on the bar-top, a dark blue marble that would outlast the universe.
Agnes poured her cream. She watched it swirl for a moment, narrowing her eyes, then placed the cap back on the jug. She could never get a good read on cream. For a moment she thought she’d seen the spokes of a wheel, but that was the problem with reading cream – after a few seconds it disappeared into the depths of the mug, and she could never be sure what she’d seen. Tea leaves were the way to go. Too bad she never liked tea.
Lincoln leaned back against the countertop. "So," he said, after a moment. "What brings you here tonight, Agnes?"
Agnes sipped her coffee. It didn’t taste like disaster.
"My brother's ex-wife died," she said.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Lincoln said. He had a way of softening his eyes, relaxing his face just enough to let someone know he really meant it
Agnes had a bite of blueberry pie. "I think he might move up here for a while. He and his daughter."
"That good?" Lincoln asked.
"Oh yeah. Haven't seen each other in a long time, but yeah.” Agnes cleared her throat. "He doesn't know where his daughter's going to live. I think he's worried.”
"She lived with her mom before?"
"They split custody. He's a little worried about Katherine's family giving him a hard time about it."
Someone at a table waved, and he cast an apologetic look in Agnes' direction, then went to see what they wanted.
She stared at her empty plate. The spokes were there again, in lines of crumbs and filling. Her mother could have read it like a book, but Agnes couldn’t be sure.
Oscar was beside her now. He had appeared on the stool like smoke. Even among cats, Oscar was stealthy. He was the only one who could give her the slip.
Agnes rubbed his ears. "You're not supposed to be in here," she said.
The black slits in his golden eyes looked like stripes of ink in resin, and they expanded a bit when she offered him a crumb of blueberry pie.
"Cats are against health code," Lincoln said, coming back around the bar.
"I'm sorry," Agnes said. She pulled a ten-dollar bill out of her picket and left it beside her coffee cup. "I didn't realize he'd slipped in."
"That's all right," Lincoln said easily. He paused for a moment to scratch Oscar's ears. "I wouldn't worry about your brother, Agnes," he said, after a moment. "I'm sure everything is going to turn out just fine."
Agnes nodded and scooped up the cat. “It will be… interesting if my niece stays in Houndstoothe. I still can’t picture Bill raising goldfish, let alone a kid.”
Lincoln had a look in his eyes that told Agnes he was somewhere else, far away from the diner. A dark ballad drifted from the jukebox like mist. Then his eyes met hers. "I'll see you soon, Agnes.”
Agnes stood for a moment, taking in the diner owner - his apron, damp from dishes, his eyebrows low over his eyes. She glanced down at the scars that no one was supposed to mention and then back at his face. "See you soon," she said, after a moment.
She turned. Oscar climbed up to her shoulder and she let him ride there, a cat-shaped flame.
"Agnes! Are you going to come next week?" called Evelyn.
Agnes waved and nodded. "I will!"
"Okay, we miss you!" Jet said.
Agnes nodded and slipped back out into the night. The Knitting Rebellion watched until she'd passed out of the reach of the diner's green glow.
The three present members of the Knitting Rebellion tsked their tongues. "She's a strange one," Imogene said.
Jet chuckled. "She grew up here. What would you expect? We're all strange."
"You know what I mean," Imogene said.
"It's a shame she didn't get the gift," Evelyn said.
Jet and Imogene agreed, and they continued knitting. Imogene cried out after a moment.
“What’s wrong?” Evelyn asked, peering at her needles.
“I keep messing up the same two stitches. I’ve done it three times now. Look at this!” Imogene held up the shawl she was working on and showed her friends the troublesome stitches, somehow backwards on the needle.
Jet clicked her tongue. “Two stitches three times, in a lace pattern like that.”
Imogene shook her head. “Lovers inverted,” she whispered.
Lincoln brought over a tea refill and a plate of shortbread cookies a few minutes later. He stared out the window, and the Knitting Rebellion exchanged knowing glances.
There were two irrefutable truths in Houndstoothe. First, there was a Lincoln in the diner, someone who, when the time came, would shoulder a great burden for the town. Second, falling in love with a Lincoln could only lead to ruin. But it was even worse when he loved you back.
Driving on I-69: Bill
William Blaire leaned against the front of his jeep, checking his watch every few minutes and writing in his pocket notebook.
Where’s the kid? He shook his head, like clearing an etch-a-sketch. Rosemary. You have to use her name now, Bill, you’re all she’s got.
He stared at the convenience store doors, plastered with ads for cigarettes and Gatorade. Bad luck, Rosemary. I’m all you’ve got.
He remembered the way she flinched when he woke her up this morning, all the malice in her eyes when he turned on the overhead light. I shouldn’t have done that. We were running late anyway.
Just like after his divorce, a selfish part of him was happy for the tools he now had in his writer’s arsenal. His ex-wife had gone and gotten herself killed. His daughter was like a wild animal, one hundred percent teenager. He was uprooting his entire life and moving back home. After all, what’s the point of all this terrible shit happening if I can’t put it in the work?
She hadn’t spoken to him since then, and since they had left late, they were three and a half hours behind schedule. Now she was taking forever in the bathroom.
A throb of pain between Bill’s eyes told him he was irritated, but the cold knot in his stomach told him he was worried. At this rate they’d have to get a hotel room for the night, which he really didn’t want to pay for, but Rosemary hadn’t learned how to drive, and he was sure that trying to teach her on the interstate would be a terrible idea. But he was tired. He needed sleep. He couldn’t drive all night.
There she was. She’d worn her pajamas all day – same black sweatshirt and leggings she’d fallen asleep in the night before. Her yellow-and-white checkered vans were a bright contrast to the rest of her clothes – and countenance. He could tell they were her favorite shoes. They were on their way to yellow-and-yellow checkered.
“I was about to come in after you,” Bill said. He stopped himself from saying the next thing, how much they needed to make good time the rest of the day.
Her face was tear-streaked and flushed. Her nose was red and the skin around her eyes was swollen. She usually wore her shoulder-length hair down around her face, but she’d yanked it back into a messy bun. It made her look both older and more vulnerable, somehow.
Bill took a deep breath. She’s just a kid that lost her mom, he reminded himself.
“Are you okay?” he asked, instead. He pocketed his notebook and put the pen behind his ear.
Rosemary wiped her face with her palms. “I’m fine,” she said, shortly.
“Hey – “ Bill took a step toward her, but she lurched away from him and climbed into the passenger side. Bill sighed and got in on the driver’s side. The car was littered with trash from their early morning McDonald’s run, and Rosemary’s side was covered in blankets and pillows.
Bill took a deep breath. Be a nice grownup.
He thought of himself as a nice grownup under normal conditions. Lately, conditions were way past normal. Lately he’d had a short fuse. It wasn’t fair to take it out on Rosemary.
“I’m sorry I rushed you out of the house this morning,” he said.
Rosemary stared out the window.
Bill took another deep breath. “You can talk to me, you know? I’m here for you – “
“Dad,” she interrupted. She looked over at him. Her eyebrows were low over her eyelashes, and her face was still red. She took a deep, shaky breath. Still trying not to cry in front of him. “I’m fine,” she said, voice wobbly.
Bill started the car, nodding. “All right,” he said. “I am here, though.”
“Okay,” Rosemary said, through her teeth.
He didn’t think she meant to sound so… he didn’t know what. Hurt? Angry? Sad? She was all of those things. Her mother had just died. In a really stupid way.
Bill pulled back into the interstate and turned the radio up, in case his daughter wanted to cry without him hearing.
A Hotel 6 on I-69: Rosemary
The hotel room was cold. For the past three weeks, Rosemary’s favorite thing in the world was sleep. It was the only time she had control of her thoughts. There was nothing behind her eyelids to remind her of her mom. No malt liquor at the gas station, no billboards of mothers and daughters hugging in the flowers, and best of all, no wreaths and ribbons on the side of the road, tied to bumpers and bent rails.
She could just be herself.
When Rosemary closed her eyes, she usually tried to imagine that she was falling asleep somewhere else. It helped her get to sleep; it helped her think about something that wasn’t her Mom. That night, the first thing that came to her mind’s eye was snow.
She lay buried in the hotel comforter, still wearing her black sweatshirt, with the hood up. She wanted to feel like she was part of the bed, just a pillow or a blanket left to sleep, undisturbed.
White noise from the air conditioner and from her sleep playlist roared gently, drowning out Bill’s snoring.
Rosemary cycled through all the different snow worlds she loved – Hogwarts at Christmas, Narnia’s eternal winter, Hoth’s icy tundra, every Christmas movie she’d ever seen, and she imagined that the static in her ears was snow blowing outside. TV static looked like snow on a dark night. She thought about her mother and immediately veered away from it, in her mind, and drifted off.
Rosemary felt a current of energy flowing through her body – from her toes, trembling to her chest, and there it lingered for a moment, filling her lungs with spicy winter air – wet with the promise of snow and the smell of crushed pine.
She lifted her chin and looked around – she was in a field of felled trees. They’d fallen in a circular pattern, pointing every direction, like fibrous needles on a compass. She turned in a slow circle. They were all pointed away from her.
She lifted her face higher to see the sky; it was blue-green-black, and the stars stood out like chalk points on a blackboard.
Then she heard it.
A lone scream, echoing through the forest. Rosemary whirled – she felt an inner tug, pulling her to that voice. There, in the trees – trees that hadn’t fallen. They were vast and unknowable, like a green ocean. She heard it again – a boy’s voice – and took a hesitant step toward it, but the sound was scattered through the pine needles, she couldn’t be certain.
A bolt of lightning cracked, tearing the sky – for a single moment, it shone and crackled and sparked like the soul of fire, a writhing, jagged cut of yellow and pink and orange and red flame.
Then it was gone.
And then it came again, but this time there were too many bolts to count – bolts of brilliant, blue flame, sparkling green, and fizzing orange striking the earth from a perfectly clear night sky.
Rosemary stumbled backward and fell. The snow crystals under her fingers felt like tiny pieces of glass.
The lightning struck the trees over and over in brilliant, fiery violence. She could feel it in her teeth, tingling. And she could feel it in her ribs, as if the lightning were a storm from her heart, trying to get out.
Then the scream. Help! Help me, please help!
No question about it, now. The lightning was leading the way. Rosemary picked herself up and started to run. The air burned her lungs.
Everything was fire.
The forest was burning, a slow, deep burn, like embers, and the boy was still screaming.
Somebody help me – somebody help me! Somebody help!
Rosemary ran, her feet and heart pounding in tandem, snow powder flying up behind her. She jumped over the felled trees as best she could. She moved with the indelicate lope of dreams.
One of them caught her foot and she went sprawling. All the air in her lungs was gone.
Rosemary gasped and pushed herself up to her knees, now bloody.
A few feet away, one of the bolts of lightning struck the earth. The smell of ozone filled her nose. She picked herself up. She ran until she breached the edge of the forest. All around her, lightning struck the earth.
She could see him now.
The lightning was trying to get him.
Rosemary bent forward – a wretched, rattling pain burrowed into her core, as if every bolt of lightning was vibrating her bones and organs. She gritted her teeth and pressed on, through trees and ferns silhouetted by the storm of lights.
“Hello?” she called. Her own voice came out ragged and wet. She tried again, determined. “Hello?” she called again. “Where are you?”
Then she saw him.
A boy, her age, was in the midst of the lightning, fifty feet away. The lightning bolts struck him over and over. Trying to get him.
“Hello?!” Rosemary tumbled forward, holding out her hands. She knew, somehow, that she had to get him out of there, that if she could just touch him, she could save him.
He saw her. For a moment, the lightning stopped, and she could see him so clearly. A little taller than her, with shaggy hair, damp from sweat and snow. He was clutching a pair of smudged, cracked glasses in his hand.
He stood completely still, even though there was static charge in the air, building to lightning crescendo. He was in the center of a clearing, a small one, but with felled trees around him like the field Rosemary had woken up in.
“It’s you,” he said. His eyes were bright with recognition. His whole being was trembling – body shaking, voice wavering, and his eyes quavered. “It’s you, it’s really you,” he said. His voice broke and he covered his mouth. Tears spilled over his eyes.
She opened her mouth to speak, but her voice was gone. She fell to her knees, gasping, holding out her hand.
He took a step forward, holding his hand out to meet hers, and then the lightning struck again. This time it knocked him forward, to his hands and knees. He cried out and grit his teeth. He looked like he was trying to stand back up.
This time, the lightning lingered. It wrapped around him, a snake made entirely of yellow, blazing electric currents. It twisted around him like it was trying to get inside him.
Rosemary gasped and pushed herself forward. It was strange to feel snow beneath her hands and the heat from the lightning everywhere else. She inhaled crisp air and gasped, “Come on – come with me – “ and held out her hand once more. She thought of how much she wanted to lift this boy out of this nightmare and carry him away. Of how much it would hurt to carry another person, but she thought she could do it. To save his life, she could do it. She saw his body lifting from the ground and instantly felt his weight in her arms and back and shoulders. She shook. She didn’t let go.
She thought about drawing him toward her. He looked up, still reaching for her, and she saw the mud on his clothes and face. The hand reaching for her hand, his glasses clutched in his pinky and fourth finger. There were tear-tracks on his face.
Rosemary squeezed her eyes tight and screamed, pulling him with all her might. She felt his fingers, then the glasses clasped in his hand. Then she woke up.
Rosemary bolted up in bed, breathing in sharply. She winced. There was a hot pain coming from her abdomen, something she’d never felt before.
Bill was standing over her, holding his hand out to her uncertainly like he wanted to grab her or shake her or comfort her, she couldn't tell which - and she was sweating and shaking. She could hear a light, hollow sound, almost like bells, but smaller. Like tinkling glass. She looked around the room. Bill looked afraid - his eyes were wide, and he was watching her like she might bite him.
Both lamps by the bedside were suspended in the air, the lightbulbs flickering. The phone was off the hook, beeping incessantly, floating through the air. Rosemary thought how strange it was to see a cord phone and leaned away as it drifted toward her.
"Are you doing this?" Bill whispered.
Rosemary shook her head slowly, glancing around the room again - Bill's pillows were floating around the room, too, and hers, and -
Rosemary herself was suspended above the bed. She glanced around, clenching her fists, then looked down at her hand. The glasses were there. They felt grimy, and one of the temples was bent too far forward so that it shot out of her fingers like a bent spider leg.
The moment she noticed, she fell down, only twelve inches or so, but her heart thudded in her throat and stomach as it happened and as the lamps and phone and pillows fell to the floor. And there was something hot and wet between her legs.
She felt tears of panic rising in her throat and twisted away from Bill, trying to feel for her crotch without him seeing. Her fingers came back bloody.
She glanced up. It was too late. He’d seen it.
She felt like she’d just been dunked in a fountain of ice, naked, in public. Her whole body went cold. She wanted to scream. She wanted to hide. She wanted to die. She wanted Bill to die.
“Move,” Rosemary said shakily. She grabbed the comforter and yanked it around her, trying to hide the incriminating evidence. She shoved past Bill, tripping on her way out of bed.
“Rose, it’s okay – “
“Move!” she screamed. She hadn’t meant to scream, but it came out loud and angry and hurt and she didn’t stop to look back or apologize. She stumbled to the bathroom and slammed the door shut behind her. She locked the door and turned the water on so Bill wouldn’t hear her cry, then hastily slipped out of her leggings. Her underwear was soaked through with blood.
“Shit,” she whispered. She put her forehead in her hands but drew back after a moment. She had the boy’s glasses.
Rosemary heard Bill knock on the door and say something about being right back. She slipped out after she heard the door close and got out a pair of pajama bottoms, a new t-shirt, new underwear, and went back to the bathroom and locked herself in again and showered. Almost as soon as she shut off the water, Bill knocked on the bathroom door again.
Rosemary took a deep breath before answering.
“I got you some stuff,” Bill said. His voice sounded muffled and painfully awkward through the door. “I’ll just leave it right here, okay? I’m gonna…well, I’m gonna go run an errand.”
Rosemary bit her lip and leaned against the shower wall. “All right,” she said, after a moment.
Again, she waited until the door closed, then she opened the bathroom door. Bill had left a pile of plastic bags for her. She frowned and poked through them. There were four different boxes of tampons and five different packages of pads. Some of them were different sizes, some different brands. There were two different kinds of painkillers. Underneath everything, he’d included two Crunch bars and three bags of M&M’s.
He remembered, she thought. It’d been years since he’d bought her candy. She didn’t expect him to know her favorite anymore, but he did, somehow. It made her hate him a little less.
She dug until she found a bottle of acetaminophen, then grabbed a chocolate bar, a package of tampons, and shut herself in the bathroom again. She took the acetaminophen first, using water from the sink to swallow. Then she sat down on the toilet and began the treacherous and uncomfortable task of putting in a tampon for the first time.
A Hotel 6 on I-69: Bill:
Bill finished packing his “errand” into the small glass pipe from his writing bag. Smoking weed instead of taking an edible made him feel like a teenager. He had planned on using this last piece of Colorado produce to sleep once they got to Houndstoothe. After he smoked, his mind didn’t clear. It was more like it filled up with static, so there was no room to panic.
“Okay, Bill,” he whispered once the coughs had passed. The radio was blaring. “Time to Dad up.” He nodded, stern, and punched himself chummily in the chest. He opened the car door, muttering under his breath.
“It’s perfectly natural to get your first period,” he began.
Bill whined and climbed back into the jeep. He sounded like a bad sex ed video for teenagers. From the eighties.
“You know, your mom had a period,” he began again. He hit the steering wheel and muttered incoherently under his breath. He’d always thought he’d be a cool dad about awkward stuff. He supposed it was cool that he’d never given Rosemary a lecture about abstinence. He looked down at his pipe and put it away without cleaning it. Has she ever smoked? Is she holding? Would I be mad?
No, he thought, quickly shaking his head, not the issue at hand.
He’d always expected Kat to be here for the first period, not dead from driving drunk. Bill turned the radio down. The levitating lamps and pillows was a whole other thing.
Grudgingly, he let his mind wander to his past. The Blaires had always been weird, but some of them were Weird, capital W. His mom had called it pushing, on account of how some of the Blaires could move things without touching them. He hadn’t expected Rosemary to get any of the Weird genes. Bill couldn’t even push a dust bunny, not anymore.
When he was a kid, he could make cheerios and milk tornado out of his cereal bowl. Eventually he broke the habit because all it did was make a mess. It was just a bad magic trick that got milk everywhere. He and his little sister Agnes had always been intuitive about each other’s thoughts and feelings, but it wasn’t like telepathy. It was more like a dull, watered-down version of what some twins had.
Bill’s mother had been a powerhouse of intellect and ability. She didn’t just push, she could see things, in front of her and far away. She saw omens in every coffee stain.
At Arkham University, Bill looked for answers. Genealogy, fringe science, urban legends, all of it. Eventually, he smoothed it over in his memory, like plastering over a hole in the wall. He could find it if he looked, but it was reduced to another arrow in his literary quiver.
He coughed and glanced out the jeep window. There was a cat wandering the parking lot.
Agnes was more ‘talented’ than him. She could ‘read’ the world – at least she could sound out the ‘words’ – but she usually couldn’t understand it.
They’d each wanted to be like their mother. She told them it wasn’t something that could be taught, only learned.
Bill never learned. When it stopped coming easy, he quit, like a kid quits piano lessons. He knew he would make a terrible Jedi, but Darth Vader had nothing on June Blaire.
Their mother died a disappointed woman. Bill still resented her.
He stretched to pop his back and then counted back on his fingers. Their mother had never married. Bill and Agnes’s father was still around, just distant. He was just a regular person, a “nobody,” June called him. Their mother’s father, Cyril, had the push but it wasn’t as intense as June’s. Grandma Agatha had crystals that she messed with and a doctorate in chemistry. Bill had never known what her deal was or what to make of her. She died when he was very young.
It was a famous family story that Grandad Cyril had gotten his abilities “out of the blue.” He’d been surprised that June had the gift.
It usually skipped a generation.
And now Rosemary had it.
Bill climbed out of the jeep. This he could deal with. Rosemary had inherited the Blaire legacy. And even though Bill had lost it, he knew exactly what not to do.
He wouldn’t treat her like a freak, or pretend it wasn’t happening.
If I don’t get anything else right as a Dad, at least I’ll have this.
Driving on I-69: Rosemary
The trees were thicker and taller. Rosemary watched as miles and miles of deep, dark woods whipped by, enticing her glance with the endless velvety blackness beyond the headlights and streetlamps.
Rosemary glanced at Bill. He’d been doing his best to give her space all day. He bought donuts for breakfast and let her sleep. Even though she knew he’d bring it up eventually, he hadn’t mentioned the night before.
He cleared his throat and looked over at her.
It could only last for so long.
“So….” Bill began.
“Dad, I don’t want to talk about it,” Rosemary said. She cleared her throat, too. Her throat had been hoarse since the dream.
Bill narrowed his eyes, thinking. “About what?” he asked.
Rosemary turned back to the window. “Anything.”
“Come on, Rosemary. We have to talk about at least… something.” He tapped the breaks and leaned forward in his seat, peering at the signs ahead. “Is this the turn?” he muttered to himself. “This can’t be it, yet.” At the last moment he swerved to the right. “It is,” he grumbled.
A car behind them honked and Bill waved at them through the rear window.
He looked over at her again. “Can we at least talk about the floating lamps and pillows?”
Rosemary sighed and looked at her hands. “What about it?”
Bill bit his lip. “You were doing that, right?”
“No. I don’t know.” Rosemary turned away.
Rosemary had been turning both the dream and the moments after she woke up over in her mind all day, now that she’d had the chance to get over the shock of bleeding. She’d almost convinced herself that the floating lamps and pillows were part of the dream. But every time she’d convinced herself, she felt the smudged, broken glasses in her pocket. Nothing was making any sense.
Her mom had always said that Bill made his family sound more exciting than it actually was, like ghost stories passed down through generations. But her mom’s biggest defense mechanism was not taking things seriously. She didn’t take Rosemary seriously, she didn’t take her marriage seriously, and she definitely didn’t take her drinking seriously.
Bill opened his mouth like he was going to say something else, then stopped. He took a deep breath. He looked like he was thinking. “What were you dreaming about?” he asked, after a moment.
Rosemary shrugged. She didn’t know how to explain her dream, and even if she had, it felt too important, or too strange to share.
“I don’t know,” she said again. “It was a nightmare, that’s all.”
“You were screaming,” Bill said. “That’s what woke me up.”
Rosemary’s cheeks burned – she hated that he was looking at her, always trying to figure out how to talk to her, like she was a puzzle. She felt a lump in her throat too – as much as she hated it, there was a part of her that wanted more than anything to just cry and just be a kid again.
She knew that Bill still thought of her as a kid, but that was easy for grownups to say. They thought everyone a few years younger than them was young, and anyone who wasn’t eighteen yet was just a kid who didn’t know how to be in the world and didn’t even know what the world was. But Rosemary knew. Her mom was dead. She knew.
Bill coughed. He was getting better at leaving her alone when she couldn’t find the words to answer him, and she was grateful for that. “You know, I had some pretty weird stuff happen to me, when I was a kid,” he said.
Rosemary took a deep breath before she answered. “Like what?”
“Well….” Bill began, then stopped. He had the look. Rosemary would never have told him, but it was her favorite look. His eyes grew distant, but somehow clearer, and some of the age slipped from his forehead, and he began telling stories.
“I met the Devil.”
Rosemary laughed, the way people do when they’re in complete disbelief or discomfort. “Dad, come on,” she said.
“I’m serious,” Bill said, looking over at her. He chewed on his lower lip for a second, and Rosemary watched as brake lights from the cars in front of them bathed the inside of their jeep in bright red light. It made her heart sink, as if it were a blob of melting ice cream slopping from its designated place in her chest to her rib cage, then her stomach.
Rosemary shook her head and pulled a blanket up to her chin.
“The devil isn’t real,” she said.
Bill shrugged. He had a sparkle in his eye, like he did when he was telling stories, but Rosemary didn’t know if the spark was there for true stories.
“Whether or not this was actually the devil,” Bill said, “it was real.”
Rosemary looked out the window watching trees swallow the sun, washing the world in ink. “So, what happened?”
Houndstoothe, MI, Lincoln’s Diner: Lincoln
It was a slow night, but that didn't trouble Lincoln. The diner would always thrive in Houndstoothe.
An older couple sat at a window table, drinking decaf coffee and sharing a piece of pumpkin bread. Agnes Blaire was sitting at the bar, hovering over her phone, and the sheriff sat on the other end with a hot dog and a coke.
Lincoln drifted between the counter and the kitchen. He walked the floor, cleaning tables and collecting salt and pepper shakers in a basket. He wore a knee-length white apron, and he'd looped it around his waist once and tied it in the front. He had made these rounds twice in the last thirty minutes, a drawn-out nervous tick. He felt a tension, like something big was about to drop, but he didn’t know what.
Houndstoothe was a strange gig, but the last Lincoln had assured him that it'd been quiet and safe since the eighties. No, Lincoln thought, he said it had been asleep since the eighties. He remembered the odd choice of words. Fifty years was a long time for anything to sleep.
Around eight o’clock, Pat Hunter walked by, but didn’t come in, fiddling with a camera that was too big for his hands. Around eight-thirty, the wind picked up outside and plastic bags and old ad papers flew by.
“Something’s blowing in,” he commented, coming around the counter.
The sheriff twisted in her seat, starched khaki uniform straining with her movement. Her badge and gun were out of sight beneath a Hemlock County Law Enforcement jacket.
“Thought I saw something about a storm earlier,” she said.
“Is that right? I missed the weather this morning,” Lincoln said. He glanced over at Agnes. She was still glued to her phone.
“Is everything okay, Miss Blaire?” he asked.
“I was expecting Bill and Rosemary to get in by now,” she said. She glanced up. “They were going to get here yesterday but decided to stop for the night. He hasn't been answering any of my texts.”
A searing pain slashed through Lincoln’s head, starting high up on his forehead and cutting through his right eye. He winced and turned away from the bar so the sheriff and Agnes wouldn’t see his expression. After a moment it subsided.
The last Lincoln had warned him about that. You’ll know when something is about to happen, he said. Houndstoothe will let you know. You’ll feel it. He didn’t put any stock into it, the last Lincoln was a weird guy.
There was one time, a year back, Lincoln had butterflies in his stomach for no reason - when one of the Darby boys came in after their dad left. He figured he had just seen it coming and made a good guess, gone with his gut. He fed the kid comfort food and just let him talk.
"I didn't know you had family coming to visit, Agnes," the sheriff began, and then Lincoln saw it.
“What the hell is that?”
Agnes and Sheriff Granger both twisted in their seats. There was a spiral of light in the east. It looked like it was behind the library. It was impossible to see where it was coming from or what the source was. Lincoln just saw its brilliance, the sheer number of colors.
It lit up the whole town.
Lincoln took a staggering step back until he bumped into the counter - and then it stopped.
Sheriff Granger put down her cup of ice and hopped off the stool she’d been sitting on. “I’ll be back.”
“Be careful,” said Lincoln.
She was already out the door.
Agnes turned back to Lincoln, still holding her coffee cup, the cream finally settled, the surface of the coffee smooth.
He glanced at Agnes. “What do you think?” he asked.
Agnes looked up from the coffee cup, and the glaze that’d been over her eyes for a moment disappeared. “You said something was blowing in.”
The pain was starting in his head again, and this time he could hear a high-pitched whistle, and then a crack, like point blank thunder. It was the loudest thing Lincoln had ever heard. He was covered in a sheen of cold sweat. Loud enough, he thought, to wake the town.
Driving in I-69: Rosemary
“How old were you?” Rosemary asked. She shook some M&M’s out into her palm and started setting the green ones aside.
“Oh,” Bill said. “Eleven. Twelve, maybe. I was walking home from the library, alone. Maybe Agnes was sick, we used to go everywhere together. But I was alone, and I cut through an alley. It was a shortcut home, and it was getting dark.”
Rosemary wrapped the blanket tighter around her. The trees around them grew taller and more ominous with every mile.
“This… this person stepped out from behind a dumpster. I thought it was just a homeless person, at first, but it really startled me because they were wearing a mask. Like – it had to be a homemade mask. It looked like paper mache. Except – “ Bill bit his lip, carefully reconstructing this memory, like a museum curator devoted to preserving accuracy. “Except,” he said, “for the horns. They’d put horns on their head, somehow.”
“What?” Rosemary asked sharply.
“They had horns on their head,” Bill repeated. He was staring at the road, peering at it, as if his eleven-year-old self and the stranger dressed in a paper mask and stolen horns would appear ahead of them. “They looked like goat horns. I think. They curled.”
“The devil has goat horns?” Rosemary asked.
“Depends on which horror movie you’re watching, but yeah. I just remember they curled like a ram’s horns. Anyway… he stepped out from behind this dumpster, as I was walking, and I stopped. I wasn’t sure if I could get past him, or if he wanted money, or… I didn’t know.”
Rosemary nodded and pressed her back against the seat and tossed a few M&M’s into her mouth.
“Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this story,” Bill said again, glancing at her from the side of narrowed eyes.
“Dad, I’m okay,” Rosemary said, even though her knees were shaking.
Bill smiled. “He held out a hand, and it was bloody, and scraped up. It looked like he’d caught his hand in something. That really freaked me out. He just didn’t seem concerned about it at all. And he said, ‘What’s your name, kid?’ And I, being both stupid and very polite, said, ‘Billy Blaire.’”
“Geez, Dad,” Rosemary said.
“I know, it was pretty stupid. But I told him, and then he said, ‘You must be June’s boy.’ The way he said that was really chilling – first, that he knew Mom’s name. I didn’t like that. It felt like he’d been checking up on us or watching us or something. And he just had this… a gurgling sound, almost. Like he was about spit or something.”
Rosemary snorted – for a moment, the whole story seemed like a silly joke. By the time Bill was done telling it, she’d find out that it was a neighbor that had gotten September and October mixed up and thought it was Halloween, or something.
Bill went on. He’d been talking so fast and so much that his voice was starting to get hoarse. “I didn’t say anything. I tried to edge around him again, and I thought of turning back, but I had this really… irrational panic that I couldn’t turn my back on him. Like… it wasn’t that I couldn’t walk past him. I felt like that would be fine. But I had this instinctive thing that I couldn’t turn around and go a different way. I felt like it’d give him an advantage somehow.”
“Did this really happen?” Rosemary asked.
“Okay, just checking,” she said.
“Okay. So, I tried to edge around him again, and he was still holding out his hand. His nails were long and dirty. Then he sort of bowed his head. I thought he was going to headbutt me with those horns. But he didn’t. He said, ‘Why don’t you push me, Billy Blaire?’”
Bill raised his eyebrows at Rosemary, and Rosemary raised hers back.
“It was like he knew, somehow, that whatever Mom and Grandad could do – that I couldn’t. At least not like them. It felt like someone had dropped ice down my back. And then, and then – he said – ‘You can’t, can you? You can’t push me because you don’t believe in yourself. Believe in me, boy, and I’ll give you everything you desire.’ I was about to stutter something about needing to get home, but he just kept staring at me. And I stared back. I couldn’t see his eyes, through the mask. I couldn’t even imagine them.” Bill paused there, looking out the window as if he were lost thinking about the beast he’d met in the alley.
He looked over at her.
“What did you say?” Rosemary demanded.
Bill lifted the corner of his mouth. “I said, ‘I’m okay.’”
Bill chuckled. “Well, I was freaked out, you know? I said, ‘I’m okay,’ and then he bent to where he was level with me. There was like… red paste around the base of the horns. And he said, ‘Someday, you’ll wish you’d made a deal,’ and I just ran as fast as I could the rest of the way home. I glanced back as I left the alley and he was still bent over, but he was positioned in this way that made it look like he was going to spring forward and start running. I thought I saw him kick the ground like billy-goats will sometimes before they run forward and ram into things. I didn’t look back again.”
“That’s crazy,” Rosemary said. Her teeth were chattering too, now.
“It was crazy,” Bill agreed. “The next day I heard one of the kids at school talking about his uncle. He was this local guy that kept goats. He would sell the milk to health nuts that didn’t want processed milk. But he’d found his billy-goat dead in the pasture the afternoon before, with the horns sawed off somehow.”
Bill shrugged, grinning with the glee of someone who has a great story and knows it’s a great story. “It was strange. Really strange. And I saw him around. He never approached me again, but I saw him hanging out by dumpsters a lot – he’d be in alleys or behind restaurants, always alone, always with that mask and always with the horns. No one else ever saw him but me.”
“Where was this?” Rosemary asked nervously.
“It was when we lived in Illinois. Not in Houndstoothe.”
“That’s creepy,” Rosemary said. She kept feeling her gaze drawn back to the window but staring into the dark trees made her uneasy. It felt like tiny, icy feet were racing up and down her spine.
“I haven’t thought about that in years,” Bill said. “I used to have nightmares about it.”
“Why do you think it wasn’t human?” Rosemary asked. She turned away from the window.
“The voice. And the eyes, or lack of eyes….” Bill trailed off.
“Come on, Dad.”
“Well, I don’t know how much I’m remembering and how much I’m embellishing, but it made me think that the whole body was the mask, like something else was using it.”
“Ugh,” Rosemary shuddered.
“I shouldn’t have told you this story,” Bill said, doubtfully.
“I’m fine,” Rosemary said quickly.
“Well, let’s think about something else for a while. We should be getting there soon.” He nodded at her hands. “Let me have some more M&M’s.”
Rosemary leaned over and carefully transferred the collection of green M&M’s to Bill’s palm, then leaned back and finished off the bag.
“Are these all green? I love green M&M’s. They’re my favorites.”
Rosemary lifted the corner of her mouth. “You remembered my favorite candy bars last night.”
Bill glanced over at her. His mouth was full. He smirked, without opening his mouth, and then swallowed.
“Orange M&M’s are my favorites.”
“Pffft. Not as good as green,” Bill said, and he knocked back the rest of them.
Rosemary leaned toward the window. Some of the trees had branches so long and thick that she imagined them as hands, reaching for the road. Perhaps desperate to take some of the land back from the asphalt. Perhaps hiding the Devil behind their trunks.
Then, she saw it.
A riot of lightning in the distance, colorful lightning – a bright yellow strike here, a neon pink strike following, blue, green. It was twisting together and shooting out. The lightning from her dream.
Every strike of lightning made her heart jump – she could feel it pounding against her ribs, keeping time with the storm of light.
Rosemary opened her mouth to tell Bill to look, but she stopped. Her mind began to bloom. It felt like working through a difficult math problem; the feeling of understanding something with a strange code, order, and pattern – equations folded out in her head like a spilled stack of cards. She couldn’t think of what to say to Bill, for a moment. Then, she thought -
Dad, look –
And when she opened her mouth to speak, she found her breath gone, just like the night before.
Oh god. I’m about to die.
Rosemary leaned back from the window. She could almost taste her heart, beating in her throat, feel it in her throat and tongue. That thought didn’t belong to her.
Then she heard another thought, another voice – but the cadence and meaning escaped her. She just knew how it felt – terrified and curious all at once.
She pressed her hand to the window. It was freezing. Her hand left a print, and as she pulled away, she found her voice again.
“Dad, look –” But just as she spoke, but Bill interrupted.
“Look, there’s a meteor!” he pointed, grinning.
Above them, a white blaze of light sailed in an arch across the sky. She turned her attention up. She saw several more darting around up there, like fireflies.
She heard a burning, fizzing sound, like a firework, and a trail of white fire arched over their jeep and landed with a resounding bang in the middle of the highway, three hundred feet from them.
“Dad!” Rosemary screamed.
She felt the seat belt, hard across her torso, and a sharp pain in her head. The world was upside down, suddenly. The jeep was rolling.