There is something different about Joseph, and I don’t like it. Knoxford is the kind of place that makes you think maybe God left it behind. And if you had the burden of dealing with Joseph, you might get a good idea as to why. Knoxford is a nasty, rural, mountainous area of loosely connected dwellings and the occasional coal mine. The people had the temperament of wolverines and the keen intellect of that quadrupeds stool. Among these corn-jack swilling salts of the earth, Joseph was the meanest and keenest of them all. Not that I had any choice in the matter when it came to dealing with him; he had the best moonshine around, all but forcing me to get it from him.
Well, at least he used to have the best. There has been something different about the brew and I suspect that it might correlate back to that devil himself. It doesn’t help that Joseph’s grandpa has been missing for awhile now and his excuses change every time I inquire. Not long after his disappearance was when I started getting reports that the liquor was different. Maybe that old pollock stuck his nose in something that didn’t belong. Now me, I am just a runner, but people are dying and I won’t have the axe fall on my head. This was the most reasonable explanation I had for myself as to why I was here at night spying on Joseph.
“Stupid old man. Sitting there screaming at me with words I can’t understand.” I froze in mid step. That was Joseph. I crept up to a hole in the wall and looked around. He was sitting on his porch with a pipe in his mouth yelling at the apple tree across the unkempt yard in an slurred, nasally voice. A blind man could see that he was beyond drunk.
“Now you’re silent, and I can finally relax!” He then formed a twisted toothy smile. “It’s a shame your old, sturdy bones put a chip in the head of my axe. I could have cut down that nosy bootlegger, asking about you.”
I was right, he did kill the old man. If he finds me then I will be next.
“Profit is profit. and no one gets in the way, of my money…” His ramble then came to a total halt before he spoke again with a completely changed demeanor. “Nooo. No. Not again.” He muttered this to himself multiple times in a tone of disbelief. Even from about fifteen feet away I could see the fear mounting in his dirty brown eyes. I followed his line of sight across the yard to the old apple tree and barely managed to stifle my scream.
Standing over a patch of unusually dry dirt was a shadow shaped like a man covered in rags. It was darker than the night yet translucent, casting a murky gaze on everything behind it. I glanced back at Joseph who was looking at his bottle of gin before looking away and shaking his head. He sat there for a moment in silence, as if gathering what resolve the mere sight of that wraith had not snatched away from him. He then stood up, threw the bottle across the yard and screamed “It’s been almost a year you dusty bag of bones! It’s all my money, now!” He then stormed inside the house and upstairs to his bedroom.
With great apprehension I looked back to the tree to see that the shadow was still there standing hunched over what I now assume to be the unmarked grave of Joseph’s grandfather. I watched as its shrouded ‘head’ glanced up to me before slowly disappearing.
Coming to the conclusion that Joseph was in the comforting embrace of a liquor coma for the night, I lit the lantern I’d brought and finished snooping around the barn. Despite feeling like a chilled brick was lying in my stomach, I decided to finish what I came here for. This hovel of a barn was dingy, dirty, and neglected. The only thing that seemed to be given any habitual level of maintenance were his distilleries. I found myself surprised at how expedient my discovery of his compromised distillery’s alcohol were. Stupid hick was cutting good shine with anything he could find that would not arouse a stink. It was bathtub gin at best, diluted poison at worst. I also saw that one of the half dozen or so distilleries was damaged beyond repair.
Now I know why the old man had to go. It was at this point that if my foresight was as eagle eyed as my hindsight, I would have left that wretched barn. I would have went straight to my car hidden over the hill and drove as fast as what bits of reason I had left in possession would allow me to go. I continued wandering around the barn a bit more until I came across the murder weapon. Hanging on the wall was a rusty, stained axe with a split head. Located right in the break, was a chunk of molding bone. For some reason I felt compelled to reach out and grasp the only unburied fragment of the old man. When it was freed from the defective axe and in the palm of my hand, I began to feel a prickling of hairs across my body. Eyes felt like they were inspecting every aspect of my being. I could feel my legs telling me to leave, quickly and pleading with my head not to look back.
It is here. The shadow wraith of Joseph’s grandpa is here! The lightless areas around this corner of the barn took on a solid form and seemed to creep right up to the edge of my lantern. Despite my entire body being seized by the cold sweat of terror, I continued on this strange and abhorrent course I was on. I took the chunk of bone in my hand, walked out of the barn and on over towards the apple tree. All this time, the darkness stayed right on my heels, just outside of the lantern light. The dirt under the tree looked not to have been disturbed for almost a year, yet no life grew upon it. I could not conclude for certain, but I had the distinct thought that no worms or other lowly beasts crawled beneath it. It has been nearly a year. I sat the lantern down, and began digging through the dirt with my free hand, keeping a tight grip on the bone fragment. It felt unnaturally warm. Finally I touched a burlap sack and stopped digging instantly. My body sensing the threshold of what it should be allowed to know. I then took the bone fragment and dropped it in the small hole then covered it up again.
Maybe now the old man can rest in one piece. I found myself transfixed in morbid curiosity as the darkness seeped into the dead earth. I should have turned back. I should have left this cursed backwater of America and found work running shine elsewhere. Yet the same steadfastness in the face of apprehension that drives us all on unfortunately had me seeing this macabre spectacle to the end. A minute passed, then another, then a few more before the unthinkable began to occur. A solid black ichor began to bubble up from the grave, slowly at first but quickly gaining momentum. Before I was even completely aware of it, the shadow was standing once more over the grave. This time though, its form was as opaque as the oblivion it spawned from. No face, no features, just a raggedy misshapen form. Rationality finally taking hold, I began slowly backing away from this being. A deep, barely audible drone emanated outward from as it as it darted towards the house where Joseph slept. I felt compelled to follow it up the stairs where the door to his bedroom flung open with a bang, waking Joseph from his sleep. I heard him scream as he jumped from his bed, making a thud as he pressed himself against the wall opposite the shadow wraith.
Before either of us could react, it dashed straight towards Joseph and engulfed him. The last thing I – and Joseph, for that matter – heard was the sound of an old man laughing. In about the time it took for the wraith to engulf Joseph it had seemingly dissipated into the darkness of his unlit room. All that remained of Joseph was a pile of mangled, charred bones. In the following minute, there was nothing but absolute silence. My breath was caught in my chest. Then, the laughter returned. Deep, malicious cackling emanating outward in volumes that rose and fell with little rhythm. The shadow wraith started oozing out of the walls like molasses and pooling together over the remains of Joseph. Realizing how finite the time was in my situation, I turned, bolted down the stairs, through the house, and out the door. I ran unaware into the opaque embrace of the night, never returning from the cackling darkness.