THE PROMISE OF FEEDING TIME by Andrew Bell
“Absence is a house so vast that inside you will pass through its walls and hang pictures in the air.”
My name is Tom Shepard, fifty-two years old, and Sheriff of Claytonville. At least, I used to be. I got that out of the way because I’d like to record as much as I can before I forget, as the memories are quickly slipping through my fingers as swiftly and silently as salt. They have stopped speaking to me, and I yearn for the quiet sound of their voices, to remind me of who I am, of why I have abandoned the life I once knew. Yet all I can hear is the ticking of the clock, its hands moving inexorably towards the feeding hour.
So, this is what happened.
Sam Gerald, seventy eight years old, retired farm hand, and probably the most reviled man in Claytonville, sat disconsolately in my waiting room. I say that because he was the sorriest looking guy I’d ever seen. Sunken eyes, peeking furtively about the room as if the place was crowded, even though he was alone. I guess old habits never died, mannerisms he’d learned to live with up in Barkton. I noticed his fingers running over the small welts on the back of his hands, and when he looked over at me, he quickly crossed his arms, hiding his hands. He sported a straggly grey beard, bald patches noticeable through his thinning shoulder length hair, like moss on a rock. His skin as pale as a waxwork’s dummy.
Nobody really knew what he had done to Debbie Jackson. Poor kid. Her parents Bill and Cherrie had lived close by, been friends for years, before they picked up sticks and fled the town. Too much for them to take, they said. And I could not have blamed them. I remember how Debbie had gotten along with my own five-year-old daughter, Lyla.
But, I had a job to do, and losing what marbles I had left on the piece of garbage before me was not the way to go.
I often wondered what secret he had shared a room with in Barkton Prison for twenty of his twenty-five-year stretch. The little girl’s resting place would forever remain a rumour, a secret. And small towns itched when those dotted around; whispers flew from ear to ear like bees pollinating flowers.
Being Sheriff of Claytonville, as laughable as it seemed, I had to remain as professional as possible, even when my blood boiled, and fists clenched. I even had to call him Mister Gerald. You believe that?
The guy had enjoyed his five-years of freedom, courtesy of a fucking dumb, sentimental old judge that had surely lost touch with the real world. So what, he had cancer. He deserved it if you asked for my opinion. Hell, the Jacksons were the ones carrying the life sentence—
Calm down, big guy. Just... calm the deuce down. Those whispers fell from my lips although they were a shadow of what sprang to mind.
I knew my hands were tied, even though I wanted to throttle the life out of him. The whiteness of my knuckles would show through my fingers as they tightened on my service truck’s steering wheel. All I could do was watch him shuffle into Dan’s convenience store to pick up his groceries, then shuffle on back home.
I was not on the force when they had locked him up, but I vaguely remembered seeing his ugly mug on the TV and in the newspapers. I won’t repeat what my dad had said he would do to the bastard if he ever laid eyes on him, and now the old man was gone, I guess he would be waiting at the gates of hell, not the ones at Barkton.
There he was, hot summer sunlight illuminating the room, despite the darkness sitting in the chair. He rocked back and forth, hugging himself as if the room was ice cold, and he needed to use the bathroom.
I stood for a while, skin crawling, reluctant to even share the same atmosphere as the sick bastard.
“You wanted to talk,” it was a statement, and my voice was as dry and cold as clay. I struggled to keep eye contact with him and wondered if I deserved a reward later that day down at Randolph’s All You Can Eat.
He just nodded.
“In there,” I said, thumbing over my shoulder at the office behind me. More private. That way, if I clip him one—Jesus, it had been tempting—nobody would see.
I cringed at the smell of body odour as he quickly passed me, and I opened a window as soon as he sat himself down in the chair opposite my desk. Sweat, cheap cigarettes and... and something else. Call it fear, if you like. It was certainly something I knew from the court house when they dragged the defendant kicking and screaming to the cells just after the gavel cracked the silence. I just knew something was going to happen, as though my life had been meaningless up until that point.
He jammed a cigarette into his mouth, lit it and blew a soft stream of blue smoke into the shafts of lazy summer sunshine drifting in through the window. I didn’t mind, firstly, because I welcomed the shot of nicotine after trying to quit not three months ago; it still gave me a buzz, and I was always on the look-out to get a lungful, and secondly... it was like granting a man’s wish just before his neck snaps at the end of the noose. I grabbed an old mug from beneath a pile of papers and shoved it towards him.
Up close, I noticed how time-ravaged he’d become since his release five years ago. His clothes hung over his thin frame like the rags on a scarecrow—smelt that way, too. His hands shook as he tapped the end of the cigarette in the mug. He didn’t hide his torn fingertips, nor the deep scars on the backs of his hand. It was as though he was proud of them; almost daring me to ask about the wounds. But I didn’t care anymore. I just wanted the sack of shit out of my air space.
“I want—no, I need to tell you something I’ve been keeping to myself since I got out,” he said, making eye contact once more. This time it went unbroken, and his words chilled me. I’ve never been one to feel that way, but I did. I’ve never told anyone before, but something told me I would finally be privy to the secret which has had the town on tenterhooks for twenty years. Wanted to ease the Jacksons suffering once and for all. But, unfortunately, that was not a day I was ever going to see.
I nodded at his pack of cigarettes and followed suit.
There was such sadness and loss in his eyes, but I’d seen that look before; a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But something in his pale, hazel eyes—I’d never been this close to see their colour before that day—told me he was going to tell a truth.
“Go on,” I said.
“Everyone thinks I’m dying, it’s why I got out a little early, I guess—”
“It’s common knowledge, yes. Look, I’m due home soon, so I’d appreciate it if we could move this the fuck along,” I said, glancing at the clock just above his shoulders.
He pointed at some paper pinned to the cork board behind me. The sliver was a little obscured by countless other cases and festivities that had taken place in Claytonville over the past decade or so. I pulled the yellowing page from its pin, the outline of the surrounding snippets now apparent, the images depicted discoloured by cigarette smoke. I imagined it to be how dead skin felt, and a chill ran up the backs of my legs. But I realised that it wasn’t the ten faces or the texture of the old and forgotten paper that bothered me, it was the word
that jumped out at me like an electrical shock.
“I’m all ears.”
Sam Gerald had served just eighteen of his twenty-five years’ sentence; I had been wrong. And when he set foot on his land as a free man, he couldn’t believe how he’d stepped from one jungle and into another. He only owned twelve acres or so of land, kept the place in good condition—at least he had until his arrest; made quite a pretty penny too when the locusts and rain storms gave him a wide berth. The goats and chickens he owned had, of course, been rescued, and he understood they had passed away at the neighbouring farmyard, just two towns away.
So, like he told me, he returned to what he’d once called home, tired, with pains rushing through his body. He knew the old house would be in dire straits, the locals had quite colourfully daubed their ‘opinions’ of him everywhere. He expected as much.
Wearily, he ran his fingers across the top of the front door frame, and for the first time in almost twenty years, he smiled. The spare key was right where he’d left it. It was rusty and covered with cobwebs, but it was still there. And as he turned the key in the lock, the snap and crack of the mechanism, it reminded him of the sound of the jail gates up in Barkton.
He smiled at the thought of his own bed, despite the state it would be in after all those lost years, as he slowly climbed the stairs. By the time he had reached his old room, he had thrown up from the stench of rot and decay twice. But, he just wanted to sleep, sleep, and maybe sleep some more for good measure. The next morning, he would look around, breathe in some fresh air and really see what in the world he’d returned to.
He crossed his legs and chain smoked another cigarette. The tension, so it seemed before, had disappeared through the window, as it were. It was like a great weight had rolled from his stick-thin shoulders.
Then he told me what he’d found in the barn.
When I returned from the coffee machine, holding two steaming paper cups of coffee, I realised just how badly my hands were shaking. We had emptied a pack of cigarettes and now broke into another.
“Why didn’t you report your findings?” I said, sitting up straight as a rod, quickly glancing over at the office door.
“Don’t worry,” he said, holding his hands up as if in supplication or showing he was unarmed. “I won’t be running anywhere in a hurry. Those days are over, okay?”
Looking down at the picture, the array of innocent, young faces staring back at me, at first, I thought the fucker had something to do with their disappearance. That he was going to drop the bomb that would help the pain the parents felt go away. But then I realised that those disappearances occurred just ten years into the joke of his sentence. There was no way he could have had anything to do with it.
I put on my professional cap and bolted it tight.
“Proceed,” I said, although I wanted to tear his face off for raising my hopes that I’d closed a cold case. Instead he told me that this was not some half-assed confession. He was too chicken shit to tell someone in case they thought he had something to do with… with what he’d found. Even though I knew he could not have been guilty, I told him as much, he’d kept it under wraps for such a long time.
“I told you because I want to move on—”
“There’s nothing stopping you.”
“Oh, but there is,” he said, pushing the sleeves down over his hands. “They… they’re getting too close. And… and I must go before… Look, I just wanted you to tell the parents I know where their kids are. Call it closure, if you want, but promise me you won’t go to the barn.”
He knew that that was out of the question. The right thing to do was to follow up on the investigation. It was my job. Besides, he was a convicted child killer, how could I believe a single word that came from his poisoned tongue? So, I kept quiet, listening to his tall tale, all the while turning over and over in my head just how I was going to approach the scene, how many men were needed to secure the place, and regrettably, tell the parents the bad news.
“Why don’t you want anybody up there?”
“You won’t find one finger print off me, not one, I tell you! I didn’t touch them, not one hair on their heads—to that I can swear. In fact, they scared the living hell out of me.”
When Sam looked at me, the fear burning in his wide hazel eyes, I knew at that moment he was telling me the truth. I never thought the day would arrive when I believed the words of a pervert.
“And you said you’d found them sitting upright, cross-legged, facing each other in that painted pentagram—a bunch of skeletons—”
“They must have snuck in when I was in the clink—knew my… my past. Tried to rustle up God knows what…”
“That little girl’s spirit, perhaps?” I offered.
“You know how crazy kids are,” Sam replied, taking a drag from his cigarette.
“Do you expect me to believe this to be some act of the occult? Maybe some kind of religious fuckin’ horseplay?”
“I’m just saying that they had… had sat there for years—dead and rotting—looking at each other until their eyes disappeared. Well, what do you think went through my mind, huh? I come home to find ten skeletons in my barn, sitting up straight. A circle of bones.”
“And they’re there, now. This very minute?” I asked, glancing at my gun belt hanging on the coat rack behind the door.
He nodded, hands shaking now as he recalled the horror.
“You are aware that I can’t let you just walk out of here?”
“Fuck! You think I don’t know that?” Sam said, running his hands through his grey hair, before tapping the children’s faces with a bony finger. “Just let their parents know where they are—”
“If this is atonement, I can’t believe I’m going to say this, there’s no need; in the eyes of the law, you did your time. But do you have any idea what this knowledge would do to the poor fuckers of this town? Do you really expect people to not go snooping around—it’s their kids, for Christ’s sake!”
“The kids aren’t alone, okay!” he shouted. “Whatever fucking witchcraft they were playing at—whatever they were worshipping—is still there! Its eyes, Jesus, they were as dark as rubies and red as fire. I ran out of there as fast as I could. You see, it was eating the… the rotting skin from their bones. I had to get out of there… but I heard it in my dreams, calling my name. I tried to pretend it was just a figment of my imagination… but then, one night, its hag-ridden face appeared at my bedroom window, grinning at me. That’s when I began to feel… strange.”
“That’s probably what it was—still is—eating you up inside, the guilt—”
“You’re not fucking listening to me, I’m telling you this because I’m not dying anymore.”
He told me how he’d wake at dawn, go down to the barn and feed the creature. It comforted him, his sickness was going away, said the specialists he was seeing. He needed the creature, no matter how many years it would take to heal.
That was the positive side to the horror.
The thing started snapping at his fingers and ripping chunks of flesh from his hands; it took the darkness, like carrion. It had consumed the evil, and it grew stronger.
“So, now you’re leaving?”
“I don’t want it to eat me. I want to start over, knowing I still have a few years left.”
“But those kids—”
“Don’t you see? I don’t want to end up like them. It took their evil and ate it. It consumed their flesh and souls. Don’t go into the barn, I’m warning you. It’s been left this long, just let it stay there. Eventually it’ll starve. It took the darkness away... so, I owe it that much. I made a promise I couldn’t keep.”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
He looked at me and the skin on my arms crawled like there were maggots just beneath.
“I made a promise to… that fucker. To take care of it. Like an arrangement. Even if I wasn’t there. I made a fucking promise that it would be okay.”
That’s when I put the bastard in a cell. I didn’t know what I was going to do, I had planned to go in there, firing on all cylinders, but that plan went to hell. I knew I couldn’t hold Sam for too long; he probably knew that too, judging by the wide grin on his face as I pushed him into the small cell. But I just didn’t know what else to do.
That night, I went there alone. I had to see for myself. Otherwise I was going to crack. Hell, looking back now, I think I had already.
As Tom Shepard I pushed open the barn doors, then I became something else entirely. All I remember was seeing the creature and I knew that my life was not going to be the same again. It had lit lanterns that were placed randomly around the barn, ushering the darkness from the horror before me.
The circle of skeletons was there, surrounding a crudely drawn pentagram. I heard the sleepy drone of flies as they flittered from corpse to corpse, my stomach lurching at the stench of rotting bones that permeated the air.
The creature picked flies from the small skulls, and hungrily licked its talon-like fingers like a blood hound. I saw my reflection in its red eyes, and it came closer.
Now I have lost my paunch; traded it in for the physique I had way back in high school. I don’t know if there had been an evil streak in me, but whatever it was it had vanished. I felt so alive.
I wake up, full of vitality, even have the energy to run a few miles. I can see the barn at the corner of my eye. The thing’s inside, waiting for its next meal.
I should tell someone, but I can’t; I feel so fucking good!
I understand about the creature’s closeness, though. Those marks on Sam Gerald’s hands. It was doing the same to me. So, now I feed it at arms’ length. I guess I can live without fingers.
I’m tempted to go into town, to find someone else to take my place, someone crazy enough to believe me… Maybe it’s time I told the corpse’s parents—Yes—that would work! It guarantees my freedom. Of course, it would.
Now I’m running faster, my smile getting broader. I see the stumps for hands as I swing them from side to side, the beast… The parents, twenty replacements—
That’s when I swear I saw the old fucker, Gerald. Just standing at the edge of the field. There was a smile on his face. I suppose that was because he had kept his promise after all.