John and Lydia Griffith sat on the front steps of their brown rambler, the only relief they could find from the broken AC unit their mother had been trying to get fixed for two straight days. It was an ungodly 85 degrees with 90% humidity that June evening at 8:30 p.m.
"I can't take it anymore, John-John. I'm sweating like crazy. What can we do?" Lydia, his ten-year-old sister, moaned, stretching out on the concrete steps and praying for a breeze.
"Not a damn thing until those idiots from the air conditioning company decide to get here," answered her pessimistic thirteen-year-old brother. He had come to dislike adult men very much in the last few years of his life, stemming from his abandonment by his own father, and watching the men his mother dated take advantage of her. "Go tell mom we're taking a walk, Lyd. We'll pick up Smalls on the way to the bridge. It will definitely be cooler there."
Lydia found herself shivering in spite of the intense heat. The Rand Bridge. Built in tributary honor to Charles Allen Rand, a hero of sorts to the Fairvale area who had come from England in 1946 at the age of nineteen with his father, and almost single-handedly built the neighborhood up from a vast expanse of woods to dozens of cookie-cutter homes that were so popular during the time period. His heroism stemmed from the original idea behind building the homes -- to give the GI's somewhere to come back to and raise their families. He had lived through a great deal of WWII and watched his father, Edward Wesley Rand, glow with admiration for their American allies. Upon the untimely death of his wife Margaret, he and son Charles came straight to Virginia to begin their new lives. Lydia loved to hear that story time and time again when she was younger, and made her mother tell it over and over to the point where an exhausted Lacy cursed the day she had found the book on local history.
Fairvale, in and of itself, was as lovely as it was unique, centered in the midst of massive Northern Virginia growth, but remaining ever stolid in its resolve not to change. Most of the stores outside of the neighborhood had not changed in the last ten years, and the building boom, while certainly taking place fervently around Fairvale, never penetrated the area itself. Most of its residents had been there for many years and would stay for many more.
As the years passed, however, Lydia craved the story less and less as the Rand Bridge and the woods surrounding it became the subject of urban legend. Where the bored and listless teens of Fairvale dared each other to cross to the other side at the witching hour, when cars supposedly shut down without explanation. Among other tales ...
Lydia reluctantly trudged up the steps and hollered inside to their mother, who answered, "Be back in an hour," mindful of the time but shrugging it off, as it was summer and besides, now she could smoke openly on the back porch as she did so often when her children were elsewhere. She had deluded herself into thinking, after all, that her thirteen-year-old son and precocious ten-year-old daughter had no idea of her habit to smoke and partake in alcohol Her out-of-sight, out-of-mind philosophy also extended to the men she dated from time to time.
Lydia skipped down the steps and stood close to John as they started down the street. "Hold my hand, John-John," she pleaded. He would, she knew, at least until they reached Smalls' house.
Smalls Garecky, otherwise known by the name of Alphonse Vincent Garecky, II, had been named after his father who came from Naples, Italy. He was one of seven children, typical of the traditional Italian Catholic family.
He had been given the name "Smalls" by the biggest bully of Fairvale Elementary at the ripe old age of seven when the Garecky's first moved to Virginia from San Francisco. Alphonse, eager to stake the claim that he was the toughest kid in all the school, walked onto the playground during recess and yelled, "Who's the best fighter here?"
The answer came from Mitch Caldwell, a lanky seven-year-old, potty-mouthed kid whose daily routine at the school was collecting the nerd's lunches. The meeting was brief, as Alphonse balled up his massive fist and laid Mitch out with one blow. All the kids on the playground watched in anxious silence, secretly cheering on the mysterious fat kid who had come out of nowhere and landed Mitch, the symbol of constant torment, out on the blacktop. They were even more surprised to witness Alphonse, in his usual charitable fashion, help the red-faced Mitch to his feet. From that moment forward, "Smalls" was the nickname chosen by his adversary, an obvious attempt at being facetious when one would see the menacing size and muscle on the kid. He had a strange relationship with Smalls after that, upset at the defeat but finding himself regarding the opposition with fascination and awe.
Smalls, meanwhile, had become a favorite among all at Fairvale Elementary, even the teachers, and regarded him as an insurance policy of sorts, as there would be no attacks on the smaller in stature or nerds while Smalls was around to kick Mitch's bony ass.
John rounded the corner to the Garecky's two-level Briarwood, instructing Lydia to stay put. She obeyed, kicking a rock around the driveway, bored, until her brother and his friend emerged from the house. She was momentarily forgotten as they took off down the street, Lydia power-walking to keep up.
"John, why couldn't we just go into Small's house for a few minutes to cool off?" Lydia asked breathlessly as she increased her speed to catch up to the boys. "I don't feel like going down to the bridge right now."
"Why not, Lyd? Afraid the Goatman might get you?" John teased, winking at Smalls, who appeared bewildered.
"Goatman?" Smalls repeated. "What the hell?"
"Shut up John-John!" Lydia shrieked, angrily. She couldn't stand the way her brother changed when he got around his friends.
But John was busy staring at his friend in wonder. "Tell me you've heard of him, dude."
"No freaking clue. Tell me!"
"Just some freak I heard my mom and dad talking about once when we were younger," he began, quick to add, "before the divorce, that is. When they were teenagers, they used to sneak down to Rand Bridge with their friends to hang out and play cards and stuff." They reached the end of the street and crossed the road as he continued, "Supposedly this dude jumped out and scared the crap out of all of them. They called him the Goatman because he had this half-man, half-goat thing going on, you know, goat legs and hooves for feet."
"Sounds like a load to me," Smalls snorted, grabbing a distraught Lydia's hand as they stopped at the top of the small hill where the bridge connected to the other side of the road. Down below the hill was a creek where countless fish lay in wait to be caught, namely the bluegill, considered public enemy #1 by the wildlife conservationists all around the state due to their insatiable appetite for bass eggs. The creek was strictly catch and release, but bluegill were the exception to that rule.
Lydia and John had been to the bridge countless times, mainly because whenever they went anywhere, it was better to go the back roads to avoid traffic, and their mother was the queen of finding back roads in the area. The bridge itself was constructed out of wood planks, and in spite of the narrowness of it, was considered to be two lanes. Spanning across both sides of Rand Bridge were old wooden beams with decades of dedications etched in them. John walked a quarter of the way and pointed to one such dedication scrawled inside a crudely traced heart which read, "Lacy Loves Bailey."
"That's my folks," he giggled and Smalls joined into the laughter.
Trying to appear brave, Lydia let a nervous laugh escape her lips, while inside she was feeling increasingly ill at ease. "Guys, let's go now, okay? It's not all that cooler down here anyway," she urged, pulling on Smalls' beefy arm.
"Hang on, Lyd," John crossly replied. "Don't get on my nerves."
The two boys sat down on the bridge and John pulled a deck of cards out of his pocket, eager to challenge his friend to a quick game of five card stud. He either had constant good luck or just a great brain for poker in particular, because he never lost. Lydia gnawed at her lip, a habit she picked up from her mother whenever she felt nervous. She tried to concentrate on the boys' game which she hoped would end soon since darkness was just beginning to set in.
After John triumphantly gathered up the deck, smiling at the sound of Smalls' curse words, they stood, overlooking the creek and growing quiet to take in the sound of the peepers, a favorite sound of summer.
It began as a soft rustling from far away, barely audible. A slight cooling breeze kicked blew around them followed by the unmistakable cracking of branches caught their attention. "Do you hear that?" Lydia whispered.
"Jesus, kid, the only thing I can hear is the skin on my arm ripping from your dagger nails!" Smalls voice boomed back until he saw John's finger fly up to his lips. Silence fell as they honed in on the sound of branches continuing to break at a slow pace. Lydia's heart caught in her throat. The other trait she had inherited from her mother was a great sense of direction, which indicated to her that whatever made the sound was inching closer to the bridge. That was when John's laughter caught her attention. He pointed out across the span of the creek where a deer had appeared from the brush.
Relief washed over them and they began to relax until another sound erupted into the night.
Lydia would later recall that it was akin to that of a cat's cry or even a baby. But after a moment, there was nothing natural about the sound as it pierced through the darkening woods. What had begun faintly soon erupted into a howl, like that of a wolf, but not quite. There was no exact way to discern what they were hearing; only later would they agree on one thing -- the distinct feeling that whatever was behind that strange cry wanted to harm them.
Lydia's legs and feet felt paralyzed. She could not will them to move, even as the howling was followed by something moving at a lightning fast pace. She realized that the deer was the unwitting target, and at that moment, the deer leapt off as the pacing accelerated. A scream was caught in her throat but in spite of her growing terror, she peered into the darkness.
She was the first to run, forcing her feet to move. She also had found her voice and let out an ear-piercing scream, to which John and Smalls followed suit, feet pounding across the surprisingly sturdy planks of the aging bridge, which vibrated beneath them. They reached the edge of the woods but did not stop, as they had no desire to see what was now splashing in the creek behind them.
They made it safely to Smalls' driveway, all three dropping into the grass as though they had just run a marathon. Lydia was the first to see Angelina Garecky, Smalls mother, tapping her foot sternly on the blacktop driveway. She fought back tears and sat up in the yard, ignoring the grass that had made her leg itch.
"Where in the world have you been?" she demanded, her thick Italian accent unmistakable. Even in anger it did not go unnoticed what a beautiful woman she was; rounding 40, she did not look a day over 29. Her flawless olive-toned skin and the combination of the rich brown hair and sparkling brown eyes gave her the appearance of a very young Sophia Loren.
Lydia's heart pounded in her chest, and she did not doubt that both boys felt the same way. She watched as Smalls stood to his feet, ever the calm one of the group, and cleared his throat to speak. Something made him look at John, who flashed a warning glance with his eyes that did not go unnoticed by Angelina.
Smalls smiled. "Mom, we went for a walk and got caught up in a card game. I'm really sorry."
Lydia had to hand it to him. He really had a knack for bullshit. Forgetting the traumatic events of the evening momentarily, she watched in amazement as the beautiful woman's eyes softened immediately and she held her arms out, which Smalls gladly fell into. "My bambino, you need to be careful and always tell me exactly where you are going. I don't want anything to happen to you," she purred, grabbing the red-faced boy's chin and shaking it in what was meant to be an affectionate, yet somehow painful-looking gesture. Before she turned to go back into the house, she shot a warning look to John, which he was too distracted to notice.
On top of being extremely protective of her middle child, she had a particular distaste for his best friend. Only heaven knew where it originated from, but she regarded John as a sort of "Eddie Haskell" that played nice in front of the folks, only to lead her innocent boy into trouble. She and her husband had raised Alphonse, as they did all of their children, in a strict Catholic home, and she was absolutely convinced that he would never do anything bad, not with God watching. When Charlie Renker's window was broken by a baseball last year, Angelina stood firmly on her doorstep, shaking her hand at the flustered man who swore he saw Alphonse running from the scene of the crime. "Not my boy," she said with a firm resolve that would turn even the most irate people away.
When she was out of sight, they all collapsed on the lawn again, trying to take in what had transpired at the bridge.
"What the hell was that?" Smalls asked, wiping beads of perspiration from his face.
"Whatever it was, it could run awfully fast," John answered him, shrugging his shoulders. "I've never heard an animal that made that sound before, have you?"
Lydia caved and burst into tears. "We know what it was, John-John, stop trying to play it off. It's not just a story!"
In a rare moment of brotherly tenderness, John wrapped his arms around his sister, who was shaking with sobs. "Shhh, Lyd. We don't want Mrs. Garecky to hear you and come back outside," he whispered. He turned his attention to Smalls, who was looking in the direction of the end of the street, as if expecting to see the phantom menace running at them. "No one can know about this right now, okay, Smalls?"
It bore the tone of a command rather than an agreement, and Smalls shrugged. "Why not? If it was that goat-thing or whatever you called it, you said yourself that your parents used to talk about it when you guys were younger. So wouldn't your mom believe us, at least?"
"I don't know, honestly," John answered, letting go of Lydia to put his face into his hands. "For one thing, we don't really know what it was, and for another ... my parents were so much younger back then, maybe they were just playing around, you know? Keep the legend going, or whatever."
Smalls snorted with laughter. "Were drugs involved?"
John smiled, shrugging. "Anyway, I don't want my mom thinking that I'm crazy and hauling my ass off to a shrink or something. Let's just keep it quiet for now."
"Okay," Smalls reluctantly agreed. He had never been afraid or even intimidated by anyone, even if they did turn out to be bigger than him, which was a rare event, but whatever was chasing after them had rattled him to the point that he could not wait to get into his house.
* * *
She sat soundlessly, her back against the cold metal of the chair. In her more lucid moments, the chairs reminded her of the old school chairs she had spent so much of her time in growing up, but those moments of clarity were few and far between anymore. She had long ago given in to that tempting place inside the mind which allows one to forget. For so many, forgetting came with peace and serenity ... she did not know if she was at peace. She certainly appeared that way to passers-by, catching a glance of her sitting in that same old metal chair, hour after hour, seeming to keep watch.
Nurse Gracie Reynolds would often stand and observe her from behind, fully intrigued. She had come on board in an administrative capacity seven years ago when she had just turned thirty-eight years old, and knew that this lady had been a resident here long before that.
What caught Gracie Reynold's attention most were the very deep blue eyes that sparkled from afar, but up close they divulged a tragic tale. That was the way most of the patients were here, but this particular woman stood out to her more than most, because those blue eyes made the white of her shoulder-length hair that much more dramatic, and she had a frail body but such a lovely face.
The first time Gracie Reynolds had walked into her room, she was greeted by three worn photos on the wall above her bed. They were the only things to dress up the drabness of the room with its metal single bed and the gray paint on the walls. Why, if they expected to reach the patients on a level of normalcy, did they make it so difficult by keeping the obvious decor of an insane asylum? The whole facility was void of color, pretty much bearing that same standard gray throughout. She tried to remember that it had been built in the forties, when mental patients were not always housed in the best of conditions or treated with respect, but as times had changed, so too should the eighth floor of the mental ward. Alice's room was the only retreat that Gracie had from the asylum's surroundings, and she often found herself taking a detour past the room on the eighth floor just so that she could catch sight of the wonderful images held within. They told a story, which was so important, because throughout her years of working with these patients, she noticed the alarming trend of the staff regarding these human beings mostly as numbers, when they were so much more than that. It almost appeared to be with fear, the way they regarded the residents here. If they were so fearful, why on earth did they choose this particular place of employment, for heaven's sake?
There was a picture of a very striking boy, probably in his teenage years, with sandy blond hair and hazel eyes, standing propped up against a tree and grinning. Next to that was a curling black and white photo of a smiling baby, hugging a tussled brown bear to his side. She could only assume that this was Alice's child, perhaps ... God only knows what this child has been told of his mother's whereabouts, she had shuddered in the past, as she had never spotted one visitor for the poor woman.
The most incredible photo had to be of her, Gracie figured. She could see it in the eyes. Minus the aching torment, they were identical. She was tall and thin, around sixteen years of age, perhaps? Wearing a brown skirt and pale pink sweater, her straight brown hair pulled back and pinned behind her ears. It appeared to be a school photo. What a knockout!
It was these images that made Gracie ache for the patients here. She knew that there was so much more to them than their afflictions. Whatever had plagued this poor lady over time now wore over her face like the eclipse of the moon. With each passing day, the shadows that crept across that worn, once beautiful face got just a bit more visible, until Gracie Reynolds believed it would be a total eclipse of mind as well as body. It would certainly not be the first time such an event had taken place within those gray walls.
We hope that this excerpt from It Walked Among Us has piqued your interest. The entire book is available on Amazon's Kindle Store.