An experiment in southern gothic from around April, 2012. I actually grew up near eastern Tennessee, and the place creeps me out a little.
I was born here in these mountains, out in eastern Tennessee where the high trees can almost touch the sky. It’s an ancient place, one where the hills are so old that the rivers have carved out dark and forbidden hollows for themselves. Some of those dark places have been abandoned since long before the Overmountain Cherokee ever hunted the land, and frankly they should stay that way.
You might call it superstitious to have the fear of the deep woods that we do here. You might even link it back to some basic primate fear of the unknown. I don’t think you can deny, though, that there are strange things you can remember that make you more than a little frightened of the irrational. Can’t you recall a time when you were driving down some deserted stretch of highway late at night and caught a glimpse of something that maybe, just maybe, wasn’t a deer crossing the road ahead of you? Isn’t there anything from the shadowy reaches of childhood’s earliest memories that might not be as imaginary as you tell yourself that it is? We remember those things, too. Out in the forest late at night, or in one of those hidden coves where the TVA lakes reach out into the hills, we can’t afford to repress them so deeply.
I recall, when I was maybe three years old, having an imaginary friend. I don’t think that I ever gave him a name, but I remember him as being more like a really big dog than a man. Beyond that, all I know is that he was very pale and very cold. My mom says that I would go out to play with him just within the tree line. She says that she made me stop when she noticed that I wasn’t alone.
That much I’m sure happened. I’m not as sure about the teeth or the claws that I remember now in retrospect. I could have invented those, and I could have also invented the smell of dirt and rot, and how he asked me that last evening to go with him to play deeper in the woods just before my mother called me back home.
Ten years after the last time I ever played with my “friend”, I started middle school. Back then, I was in class with a girl and her brother named Jessica and Danny respectively. I spent a lot of time then with Danny and his sister. Sometimes, all three of us would go out to play at Walker Lake, where they had a public beach before it had to be shut down because of industrial runoff. We weren’t supposed to leave that strip of beach, but one day Danny and Jessica snuck off. I followed them into the woods for about twenty feet before I chickened out and turned back.
I’m glad I was the chicken that day.
Turns out, they found a place to play in a cove where the water dipped down to over three hundred feet just a few yards offshore. The drop off went down into a valley that used to be called Johnson’s Woods before the TVA flooded it. Danny got out there and he drowned. Everyone said, of course, that Danny just got out there and couldn’t swim. No one challenged it, because no one wanted to admit that it might be something other than simple case of a teenage boy drowning. Problem is, Danny could swim like a fish. They never found a body, and Jessica would never talk about it. In fact, she wouldn’t talk at all for weeks, and she was never the same again.
Jessica could never move on, no matter how hard I know she tried. She grew up tall and sickly, probably never more than ninety pounds and never healthier than a two weak flu. They called it survivor’s guilt. Her eyes were sunken and hollow, and her hair was thinner than it should have been. The girls picked on her and the boys never spoke to her. I was the closest thing to a friend that she had, and to be honest, I was kind of scared of her. Not because I believed that she was dangerous, but because I knew that there was something deeply wrong about her that I didn’t want to get myself involved in.
Near the end, she gave me this notebook that she had used to draw ever since her brother’s death. I took one look at it, and I burned the thing. Two days later, the police found her under a tree outside of her house, screaming at the top of her lungs while her house burned to ashes.
I can’t ever forget what I saw in the notebook. Nothing can erase all of that from my mind, and nothing can make me believe that a ninety pound girl could kill two adults without even having a murder weapon.
Maybe I could erase it all from my mind, maybe I could accept the story everyone else tells themselves, if it weren’t for one thing that won’t leave my mind. It cuts in there like a sharp rock, sticking and slicing away in the back until I can’t deal with it anymore.
They found her under a tree. Her family didn’t have a tree.