Note: This story follows The Blue Man on the Current River.
The number on my caller ID looked a little familiar, but I get a lot of calls from the 314 area code and I just can’t tell them apart. As soon as I heard her voice on the line, I wished I’d let the call go to voicemail.
“Hi, Jack, it’s Ainsley!” she bubbled. She sounded awful chipper for someone who’d been widowed in a more than gruesome fashion due to what I guess you could call a camping accident.
“Uh, hi,” I answered. Then I thought about how well she’d paid me for the unfortunate outing she’d booked a few weeks before and added, “I can’t give you a refund.”
“Oh, I’m not calling for a refund,” she said. “Far from it, actually. I really appreciate how great you’ve been since those unfortunate events with my late husband.”
“What the hell are you talking about, Ainsley?” I answered. “I ain’t done nothing since those—what did you call them?—‘unfortunate events’ with Hunter.”
“That’s just it,” she said, “I appreciate how you’ve given me space to grieve in my own way.”
“Well, I can promise you that I’m super eager to keep giving you lots and lots of space. I’m kind of afraid of what your grieving would look like up close and personal.”
“Well, that’s just it,” she said. “I fear that my grief compels me to return to the hills where it happened, so to speak. As soon as possible. With my friend Ashley and her husband Joseph.”
“Well, I’m not all that keen on hosting you and Ashley and Joe—“
“Joseph,” Ainsley corrected me. “He hates it when people call him Joe.”
“That makes me even less keen on hosting him,” I told her.
“Are you sure?” Ainsley asked. “We’ll pay double your regular rate. We don’t even need your usual tour. We just want to gather walnuts.”
Of all the things Ainsley could ask for, wanting to come out to pick up walnuts in December was the one I expected least.
“Walnuts!?” I said. “You’re a little late for that. There ain’t many left, and the one’s that are still out there will be hard to find and a little past their prime.”
I could almost hear Ainsley smiling over the phone.
“Are you telling me that if we paid you for the privilege we couldn’t find any walnuts on your spectacular wilderness preserve? Not even if we pay you a thousand dollars a bag for them? That’s on top of your rate as a guide, of course.”
That woman sure does know my soft spots.
“Exactly what kind of bags are you thinking about here?” I asked her.
“Well, me and my friend aren’t very big, and her husband isn’t much for lifting heavy things, so they’ll have to be small bags. I bought some small little burlap sacks. I don’t think that they could hold much more than three or four gallons of walnuts.”
I snorted at her. I may not have any fancy degrees, but I’m no fool.
“You want to pay me a thousand dollars for four gallons of walnuts in the shell? That’s insane. I think you’re up to something.”
Ainsley sighed on the other end of the line.
“First off,” she said, “I want way more than a single bag of walnuts. I bought five hundred sacks so I could get a volume discount on them, and I’d like to fill as many as I can.”
She paused, and I did some quick arithmetic in my head before she continued.
“And I most certainly do not want a repeat of what happened to poor, dear Hunter. I’ll be very sure that we don’t bring any peanut butter with us. You’re even welcome to check all our packs and gear before we set off into your woods, if that would make you feel better. I promise you that I don’t want to encounter that Blue Man again.”
My arithmetic checked out, so I agreed despite the sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach.
“Okay, Ainsley, I guess you sure do like walnuts or something. I know that I’m going to hate myself for this, but I think we have a deal. When do you want to come down?”
Here’s the thing: while I was talking with Ainsley on the phone I knew damn well that there weren’t hardly any walnuts left on my place, on account of I’d already sold as many of them as I could gather up. A buddy of mine in town deals in walnuts, and he paid me $16 for every hundred pounds that I brought him. That’s a damn good rate, the best I’ve ever got in all my years of selling walnuts in the fall. Now, a hundred pounds of walnuts is enough to fill about four 5-gallon buckets, and by my calculations that worked out to be about $0.80 for a gallon. Assuming Ainsley was estimating the size of her sacks correctly, she was offering me $250 a gallon. So even though math wasn’t my best subject back in school, I knew that this crew of city-folk were offering me a hell of a lot of money for walnuts. If they wanted walnuts that bad, who was I to stand in their way?
My buddy was mighty confused when I called him up wanting to buy my walnuts back off of him, but he agreed quick enough when I offered him $25 per-hundred pounds. After a bit of negotiating, I managed to buy even more off of him than I’d sold him in the first place. He just told me that I was a fool and pocketed my money.
It took me all week, but I was able to wheelbarrow an entire pickup truck load of walnuts out into the woods. I scattered them underneath some of the biggest walnut trees on my place. At first I tried to rake the leaves over them to make it look natural and all, but that took far too long. Besides, my buddy had already hulled the walnuts, meaning that the squishy part outside the shell that starts off green and then turns brown and stains your hands something terrible had been removed. It was going to be obvious to anyone who knew the first thing about walnuts that the ones I’d scattered hadn’t just fallen from the trees. Given that Ainsley’d told me that they were all coming from Frontenac, I didn’t reckon that any of them would realize that something was amiss when they saw the piles of hulled walnuts that had supposedly fallen from my trees.
The walnut gathering crew showed up Friday just before sundown, right on schedule. Ainsley had told me they didn’t want to waste any light, so I’d already set up the tents underneath the walnut trees, one two-person tent for Joseph (not Joe) and Ashley and two one-person tents for Ainsley and me to sleep in. I had my backpack, my .30-06 rifle, my 9 mm pistol, my hunting knife, and all my other gear ready to go. I headed out to the driveway to meet them as soon as I saw that weird little car turn off the county road.
Now, I thought it was mighty peculiar when Ainsley and Hunter drove a Porsche SUV down from St. Louis to go camping on the Current River with me, but at least their vehicle had the ground clearance needed to manage our roads. The little electric sports car Joseph (not Joe) was driving scraped gravel the entire way up to the house, until it finally stopped about four inches from my front steps. Joseph (not Joe) burst out of the car like it was on fire or something and immediately started yelling at me.
“I need to plug in and charge the battery,” he hollered. “I don’t want to risk getting stuck out here with a dead battery!”
He was a tall but paunchy man in a stained black turtleneck, cargo pants, and, in a highly dubious choice of footwear for Ozark hiking, boat shoes without socks. Aside from apparently being filthy rich, the bozo didn’t have any business giving me orders, but that slim qualification was enough to send me looking for a way to plug his car in.
“Umm, sure,” I replied as I set off trying to remember where I’d left my extension cord. I went to check the barn while hoping that the damn car could charge from a regular outlet.
Ainsley had climbed out of the backseat by the time I returned with the extension cord. She was wearing her neon green stocking hat again, but this time her flannel shirt was some sort of black and gray plaid. The front of her shirt was tucked into black skinny jeans. She held her puffy down jacket in one arm and clutched a bundle of small burlap sacks in her other arm. Her long blond hair fluttered in a breeze far too warm to be normal in December.
I assumed that the woman with short-cropped brown hair whispering with Ainsley was her friend Ashley. Despite the warmth, she wore a heavy canvas jacket at least two sizes too large for her. Even though the sun had pretty much set by then, she still had on a pair of oversized sunglasses that looked dark enough for welding. Ainsley gave me a nod as I approached. Ashley turned her head away from me and looked out into the woods to the west, where the bare branches were dark and grasping in front of the orange sky and gathering clouds.
Joseph (not Joe) was rummaging a large pack out of the trunk of his car as I drug the business end of my extension cord toward him, but he sat the pack onto the ground and came to boss me around on the finer points of plugging in a car. It was a close thing, and I got the distinct impression that Joseph (not Joe) was about to hit me when my smart-ass tendencies got the best of me and I pretended to try and jam a valve stem into the receptacle, but in the end we got his damn car plugged in. Then he shouldered his pack and announced, “Let’s get this over with.”
“Sounds good to me,” I said. Then I led my band of intrepid walnut hunters out into the Ozark night.
“Isn’t that east? This won’t work at all.”
Instead of thanking me for leading them safely through the darkness, or telling me that he appreciated how I’d already set up our tents and laid a fire, or even noticing the bushels of walnuts heaped up around the campsite, Joseph (not Joe) was angry and yelling. As soon as we arrived at the campsite beneath my largest walnut tree, he’d whipped out a GPS unit and started pacing around with it. Then he started complaining about the terrain.
“It’s actually more northeast,” I told him as I started the fire. “That little creek over there to the southeast feeds into the Current River, which is right there.” I pointed to the assorted waterways as I referenced them. “They both flood and make this ground fertile enough to grow good walnuts.”
Joseph (not Joe) was looking at me like I was a moron or something, so I figured I needed to share some more walnut facts with him to prove that I knew what I was talking about.
“You see,” I explained as I nursed the fire to life, “walnut trees prefer to grow in bottom ground, or at least towards the bottom of the hillside where the soil’s deep and fertile—or as deep and fertile as it gets around here. For some reason, they also prefer to grow on the north and east sides of a hill. So, since we’ve got both a creek and the Current River and a ridge behind us when we face to the northeast, this is a perfect spot for a bumper crop of—“
“Why the hell are you telling me about walnuts!”
It wasn’t a question. He was just yelling at me. I come from a long line of hillbillies who don’t take well to being yelled at, which is a big part of why I’m still eking out a living along the Current River. I stood up from where I was tending the fire so that I could look him in the eye, even though I had to tilt my head up a little bit to do it. He was glaring at me with the kind of contempt a rich man reserves for his social inferiors.
I stared at him in silence for a couple of heartbeats as the fire started to catch and glow in the darkness. I felt moisture on the gathering wind. There wasn’t much of a moon to begin with, and the clouds had even covered up the stars by then. Still, I could make out his blotchy face clear as day, but I was too angry to think about that just then.
“Well, Joe,” I told him, “walnuts have a lot to do with it, since you’re paying me to gather ‘em. Now, I’m a little worried you ain’t bright enough to find any come daylight—“ at that point I kicked a couple of the walnuts I’d scattered the preceding week at him “—but I’m a professional, so I’ll do my best to help you.”
Joe’s right eye started twitching in rhythm with a vein throbbing on his neck. His fists clinched and unclinched a few times, until they finally settled on the clinched position. As he came to a boil, Ashley ducked into the two-person tent. Ainsley undid her bundle of burlap sacks. Joe went back to shouting.
“I didn’t come to this God-forsaken wilderness for some stupid walnuts!” He was yelling so loud that they could probably hear him clear in Arkansas. “Those lousy bitches told me you were building a solar farm and wanted me to be a majority shareholder!”
Ainsley started humming as she unfurled two burlap sacks from the bundle. Something about her nonchalance really set Joe off. His face got even redder than it was before, and for a moment I thought he was going to have an aneurysm right there in the woods. He made a growling noise and lunged at Ainsley, but she took a deft step to one side. Instead of tackling Ainsley, Joe crashed into the tent where his wife had taken refuge. She yelped, he swore, and the next thing I knew he’d fished a .40 caliber Glock out of one of the pockets in his cargo pants.
Then that son-of-a-bitch was waving that gun all around, swiveling between me, his wife struggling inside the tent, and Ainsley. His grip was sloppy, and he had his finger on the trigger. I was pretty sure he was going to shoot someone, if only by accident, but for the life of me I didn’t know who. As much as I wanted to pop him, it was time to de-escalate.
“Look, buddy,” I said, “there ain’t no need to get all worked up over a little misunderstanding.”
His face was a mask of inhuman rage, with purple blotches exploding across his cheeks. He spun away from me to face Ainsley.
“This isn’t a misunderstanding,” he shrieked as he aimed the gun at her. “This is a stupid joke. But I’m going to have the last laugh.”
Ainsley looked up the barrel of that pistol and smiled a crooked smile, just as serene as could be. The wind’d come up strong by then, and it smelled of a storm. Her hair blew out around her head like a halo, her neon green stocking hat serving as a strange crown for a deadly angel.
Then Ainsley laughed. It was a cold sound on the warm wind, but it came from deep inside her. She doubled her over in some sort of scary mirth that I didn’t understand. It must have confused Joe, too, because he didn’t shoot her right away. He just stood there looking at her as that strange, green light oozed up from the ground all around us.
I hadn’t noticed it before then. A shimmering green light had been building up on, or maybe in, the ground along a spidery network centered on the walnut tree that towered over us. It bathed us all in a sickly glow the color of Ainsley’s hat as it boiled up from the earth seeking a form.
Joe and I stood transfixed as we watched the light develop and try on different shapes. First it was a fog spreading across the holler. Then it was a monster come to eat us all. Next it was a woman even more fetching than Ainsley, exultant in the turmoil. Finally, the light became a ball of wonder that bobbed and shimmered over Ainsley’s head. Ainsley smiled like some sort of demented saint as Joe’s body relaxed and he began to take slow, halting steps toward the spooky light. Ainsley stepped out of his way, and he followed the light as it bobbed up the ridge.
I didn’t realize that I was following it up the ridge, too, until I felt Ainsley’s small frame tackle me from behind. I went down like a sack of potatoes. Before I knew what had happened to me, there came a sound like a plastic zipper and my hands were fastened together behind my back. I was struggling to stand up so I could follow the light, trying to toss Ainsley off of me, but she was tenacious on my back. Then Ainsley plunked one of those burlap sacks over my head and my vision went dark.
“Ashley, don’t look!” Ainsley shouted as I felt her weight come off of me.
I rolled over and sat up so that I was facing down the slope. I shook my head and tried to figure out what the hell was going on. I still wanted to see the pretty light. I wanted to follow it, to chase it to its destination, wherever that might be. But, as I recalled its shimmering beauty, I also realized that it bore a feeling of malice I hadn’t noticed when I was so transfixed by it. Fat raindrops began to splatter around me and soak my clothes. Thunder grumbled in the distance, and then a clap boomed again so close that I almost wet myself. In the spaces between the lightning strikes, I heard something crashing along the ridge above me, even louder than the rain that was falling cold and steady on me. From the holler below, I heard Ainsley shouting into the wind.
“Don’t look, Jack!” she yelled up at me. “Whatever you do, DON’T LOOK!”
That’s when Joe started screaming. I didn’t know what agony drove him, but he was louder than the wind, louder than the rain. Almost as loud as the thunder.
The storm came up hard, driving December rain and even hailstones into me. I heard someone, Ashley I think, cry in terror from down in the bottom. I felt electricity gathering in the air and on the ground, and I could feel the hair of my head begin to stand on end inside the sack. I shouted into the storm, cursing at Ainsley for leaving me there and praying for deliverance to any gods bothering to listen to a hillbilly in a desperate situation.
All the while, above me Joe screamed like he was being taken apart to be sold for scrap. I don’t have nightmares about being stranded blind and helpless in that storm, but every night I still wake up cold, sweaty and terrified, just remembering how Joe sounded up there. I don’t know what was tormenting him. I don’t know why it tortured him or even how. I just remember the sound of his torment and terror as it echoed through the holler. I remember being sure that I was next.
The lightning strike threw me down the slope. My ears rang, and even through the burlap over my head I smelled burning flesh. I hoped the flesh wasn’t mine. I scrambled down the hill as best I could, trying to get down toward the river, but I was blinded by Ainsley’s sack and my hands were ziptied behind me. I tripped over something, and then there was nothing but terror and darkness.
The glow of sun through my eyelids gave me courage enough to open them up and look around. Just a little below me, I saw three tents pitched beneath the biggest walnut tree on my entire place. As I saw the sun glowing red glow in the east, I remembered a sickly green light, the blindness of burlap, and the helpless terror of Joe’s screams in the night.
I turned around, afraid of what I might see atop the ridge. Where the tallest tree on the ridgeline had once been was a split, smoldering trunk. At the base of the once glorious black oak was a huge hunk of smoking meat. As I realized what it was, I retched onto the ground.
After several minutes of heaving in the wet leaves, rocks, and mud, I looked up again. The bulk of Joe’s remains smoked in the morning light, but there were bits and pieces of him strewn around what was left of the tree in a macabre spiral. There were bits and pieces of flesh and organs hanging off of the brambles and brush, and even after the rain there were dark splotches of blood on the fallen leaves.
I turned away before I started heaving again and walked down to the camp.
Someone had put the two-person tent back up after Joe had knocked it down in his fury. As I approached, Ainsley’s sunny head poked out of the flap, and then she crawled all the way out. She stood and squinted at me in the brightening light.
“I’m glad you’re alive,” she said. “You were too big for me to drag into a tent, and besides, I was afraid to move you when you were out cold like that. I did take the bag off your head and cut your wrists loose, so you’d at least be able to get around when you came to.”
“Ainsley,” I began, “what the hell was that—“
Then Ashley’s bobbed brown-haired head popped out of the tent, and I stopped in horror. She’d removed her sunglasses, and I saw that deep bruises had swollen her eyes nearly shut. She crawled out of the tent and leaned close against Ainsley. Ainsley wrapped Ashley tight in her arms.
We stood in the cool, damp dawn beneath the mighty walnut tree and listened to the river roar from the night’s rain. Ashley looked at me through eyes she could barely open.
“Justice,” she whispered. “That was justice.”
“Speaking of which,” Ainsley said, “it’s only fair that I pay you for all these walnuts you gathered up for us, even if we won’t be taking them home. I see you’ve even already hulled them.”