MeeMaw’s Tavern gleamed in the hazy twilight, the flaws in its weather-bitten white paint smoothed away by storm light and the romantic flush of neon beer signs. A low building, it appeared to rise from the depths of a colossal pothole. The dirt lot, jammed with pick-up trucks, funneled toward the crooked concrete slab of its porch where a single caged bulb flickered over the screen door. We parked under the boughs of an elderly oak, far enough away to be beyond the reach of the light, but close enough to feel the tremble in the chassis from the rocking juke inside the tavern. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s "Whiskey Rock-A-Roller" spilled out on a buzz of laughter and raucous conversation. We climbed from the Jeep into the electric air. Above us, a growl of thunder competed with the tavern din, a ponderous sound like that of a piano rolling across a marble floor, and heat lightning cracked the indigo sky.
“Are you sure you want to go in there?” Nick shouted in my ear as a sozzled good old boy reeled from the snapping screen door to piss into the woods before climbing in one of the trucks and slapping the horn. A young woman emerged from the tavern on a gust of cigarette smoke and whiskey fumes and bounced in with him, and the two were off with a roar and a swirl of dust.
“It’s the only game in town for hot food and a public phone. Come on, I met the owner a couple weeks ago when I came up with Claudia. Her name’s Trudy Bigg, and you’re going to love her.”
At just over five feet tall, ropy and tough as beef jerky, Trudy didn’t live up to her name in a physical sense, but she more than made up for it in force of personality. She perched on a worn red leather stool at the kitchen end of the bar, a fuming Camel in one hand and a tumbler of Jim Beam at her elbow, and held court like a robber queen. Her rough crow’s voice sang out as we crowded in the door.
“Hey, Red! See you brought your boyfriend with you this time.”
I waved and followed in Nick’s wake as he made a hole in the crowd. Trudy’s words gave me a pang. If things had been different, I would have brought my boyfriend here to meet her. Brett would have loved MeeMaw’s and the whole gorgeous wilderness around Davitt’s Grove. It was just too bad he’d decided he didn’t love me. Even after the long months of separation, the bald truth still cut me like a razor blade, and I felt tears sting my eyes. We reached Trudy’s island in the fray and she slung a tattooed arm around my neck and planted a smoky kiss on my mouth to the whoops and razzing of the locals.
“Good to see you, girl. Claudia called yesterday, said to watch for you.” She turned me loose and spun on her stool, shouting, “Shut your faces, you perverts. Put some beer in ‘em, in fact. On me.”
She whirled a forefinger in the air, signaling the bartender to set them up, and the crowd surged forward with another cheer. Nick was borne against the sharp, white rocks of Trudy’s knees, and she grabbed him by the front of his shirt.
“What’s your name, handsome?”
When he told her, she whistled and slapped the bar. The bartender unstuck himself from the revelers and glided to her. She grinned at Nick.
“What are you drinking? Wait, let me guess. I always know what a man likes… to drink.” She leaned back into the fog of her cigarette and regarded him from hooded eyes. “Tequila. Straight up, no chaser.”
A frosty bottle of reposado appeared as if by magic in the bartender’s hand, and liquid fire kindled in the belly of a snifter.
“No salt, no lime, honey. That’s pure agave. You sip that the Mexican way.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Nicolas said, and did as instructed. “Sublime.”
Trudy laughed, a gruff wheezy sound, and slapped Nick on the back. “I like you. We better throw some food in on top of that, though, before I have to sweep you up with the peanut shells. You hungry?”
Nick grinned. “I’m just about starved. I’ve been told you serve the best hamburgers in the county.”
“In the state, baby, in the state.”
Trudy leaned across the bar, her necklace of tiny, oddly shaped bones clattering over the scarred bar top, and bellowed into the kitchen.
“Hey, Dom! Get up a platter of burgers and onion rings for my two friends, and don’t be stingy.” She turned her attention to me, pinching me above my hip. “Better put some meat on, woman. You’re gonna end up a scrawny old bat like me.”
I laughed. “No worries if I eat here very often. I’m going to go call Claudia and let her know we’re at the lodge.”
I pointed toward the dark hole of the doorway to the restrooms where I knew a pay phone hung in the vestibule.
“You can’t hear yourself cuss in here,” Trudy growled. She gestured to a drape hanging beyond the kitchen doorway. “You go through that and there’s steps down to the storage cellar. I got a little office down there. You can use the phone in there.”
Before I could thank her, she turned back to Nick, who had eased himself onto a duct-taped bar stool. “You like my necklace, honey? Know what these bones are? They’re raccoon dicks! Bought ‘em from a tattoo guy in a carnival a couple years back. Got this, too.”
I left her flexing her stringy biceps for Nick, showing him the horned, priapic devil cavorting there.
In the relative quiet of Trudy’s office, I took the deep breath I’d been craving since Nick and I had arrived in Davitt’s Grove. I sat in the old swivel chair behind the army surplus desk and ran my hands over the satin grooves in its arms, worn by decades of hard use. The subterranean light, the muffled din of the party upstairs, the smell of earth and cold stone that percolated from behind the buckled paneling and from beneath the brittle linoleum, lulled me. The handset of the Bakelite phone, a rotary dial relic hard-wired to the wall behind the desk, weighed in my hand like a burdened heart. I placed my other hand over my chest and felt the sluggish tide there before I dialed Claudia’s number. She picked up on the second ring.
“How could you possibly know?”
I wasn’t really surprised. Ancient spirits had touched Claudia on her birth, gifting her the way the thirteen fairies had gifted Beauty. At least, that has always been our little joke when confronted with her premonitions.
“I’ve been thinking about you. And, I recognized Trudy’s phone number on the caller ID.” She laughed, and the sound was a shower of sunlight. “How goes the hunt for werewolves? I hope you haven’t found any living in the lodge.”
“No. The strangest thing we’ve encountered is the caretaker’s maiden aunt, out in the woods in a shack fit for a storybook witch. If nothing else comes of this trip, Nick and I will have a treasure trove of character studies for the next novel.”
“You met Maudie Egolf? She’s practically an institution up there. Did you tell her you’re a long lost relative?”
“No, and I don’t think I want to claim any ties. She’s more than a little scary.”
“Well, you probably have distant cousins behind every tree. Everyone’s related in that village.”
Claudia warbled on, but a sound distracted me. Slithering, dry and stealthy, behind the wall at my back where there should be nothing but still, stony earth. Whatever it was, it slid along the wall until it came to rest behind my right ear. I thought of tree roots, seeking blindly in the dark soil. I thought of claws, dragged over the rough reverse of the oak paneling. The phantom of a smell, a humid, bloody stench, wafted by me and was caught and dismembered in the languid vortex of the ceiling fan. Saliva pooled on my tongue. From far away, I heard Claudia’s voice, bright and interrogatory.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“I said, how are you and Nicolas getting along? Anything sparking?”
I sighed. “Claudia, don’t. He’s a good friend, and my business partner, if I can call a fellow writer by such a stodgy title.”
“C’mon, Tess. He’s hot. You’re two attractive, unattached people in the wilderness. It’s romantic.” She paused and let out a frustrated huff of air when I said nothing. “It could be romantic, anyway.”
Misery flooded me and forced a tear from my eye. “I’m not interested in romance just now, Claudia. I’m here to work, and look over the lodge, and…” I bit down on the question that crowded my mouth, but it blurted out despite my efforts. “Has Brett called?”
“Oh, honey. You know he hasn’t. He’s not going to call. He’s in Canada with that woman. You have to forget about him.”
A decade of sunny memories shriveled and rotted in that moment. I breathed pain. Betrayal. And, finally, rage. I embraced it, letting it blaze up and burn away my tattered pride, my cracked heart. If emptiness was all that was left, it was better than that constantly bleeding organ. Another sound emanated from behind the paneling, a low laugh, or maybe a growl.
“I have to go,” I said. “I want to talk to some of the locals before we head back to the lodge.”
“Are you okay? Tess?”
I hung up and sat glowering in the greenish glow from the beer cooler at the far end of the room, examining the murderous energy walking over my bones. I held out my hand in the murk and flexed the fingers, hooking them into claws. The phone gave a startled chirp that was not quite a ring. I dropped my hand onto the receiver and lifted it to my ear, expecting to hear Claudia chiding me for hanging up on her. Instead, the open line hummed and whined with the sound of appalling distance, perhaps the space between stars—it was that immense, cold, and dark. Out of the terrible nothingness rose a voice, soft and implacable, familiar.
“I see your heart, girl,” it said. “You need some religion.”
The slaughterhouse smell was back, stronger than before. This time I could taste it.
“Run, Hunt, Chase. That’s the only prayer that matters. Ain’t no Amen on this one. This prayer ends with Eat.”
My nerves fired with a mixture of fear and longing, and something like memory. I dropped the receiver back into its cradle, cutting off Maudie Egolf’s guttural chuckle.
...to be continued