Play dead

It’s 3:30 in the morning as the Trailways bus rumbles into Redmond, Colorado, and the town has that deserted feeling only a small town can have at that hour. No one walks the streets, and Veteran’s Park is deserted as we pass it. That’s where everything started, but it’s not where it ended.

My search of the Internet came back with several stories, but the first one happened in the dark and empty park. Two women, both young mothers, sat down to chat on a sunny Spring day while their toddlers played nearby. All the stories agreed that the conversation was brief, hardly more than a few minutes, but when they again looked towards their children, only one of them was still present. Frantic searches, first by the mothers, then by the police, turned up nothing. The only clue was the child that had been left behind. It clung to it’s mother with the desperation of a child who’d seen something so terrifying it couldn’t vocalize the experience.

That happened three years ago, and it wasn’t the last such disappearance. Within weeks, a second child vanished from the same playground. Then a third. When a fourth child went missing, security cameras were installed, but they didn’t save the fifth child. The cameras dutifully recorded the children at play, their happy faces shining under the mid-summer Sun, then as one, they ceased to work. Every feed went blank, and stayed that way for five minutes. When they returned to work, another child was gone, vanished so completely the ground might have opened and swallowed it.

After that, families quit visiting Veteran’s Park. The playground stood deserted, and children no longer played war games around the World War 2 era artillery piece. For a while, nothing happened. Months passed, and no children disappeared. Then, on a late Fall day, a child vanished from the playground of Corporal Lance Oppermann Memorial Park. It was the only other park in Redmond, named after a young native who had given his life to safe his friends in Vietnam. But for all the sacrifice of that young man, there was no protection for an innocent child, Again, searches by the police and concerned citizens turned up nothing, and no one had seen a stranger in or near the park before the disappearance.

People deserted the city parks, keeping their children close when they weren’t in school, but it made no difference. Young children continued to disappear, the only difference now was that they vanished all over town. Out of a momentarily ignored shopping cart in the local grocery store. A walk to the bathroom at preschool that never ended. Anywhere children were left alone, even for the briefest time, they vanished.

When I’d read the first story, I’d suspected that some supernatural entity was involved. By the time I’d finished my research, I was sure of it. So here I was, climbing off a bus in the predawn darkness wondering what I was about to face. Things weren’t as bad as they sometimes were. Being undead, I can’t exactly hold a regular job, so money can be a problem. I hate panhandling, mainly because even a practitioner as good as me has a hard time making money in small towns. The bet I’d won at a street race up in Preston, Idaho, a truly small burg, had given me an unexpected cushion on the financial front. Redmond was a metropolis compared it, so I hoped to raise a little money here before moving on.

One thing I bless, standing there feeling self-conscious for being the only passenger to get off, was the fact that Redmond had an IHOP.

Strange, isn’t it, that someone who isn’t alive could savor something as simple as a stack of fresh pancakes smothered in maple syrup, but I did. Sensations like taste and touch were not as acute as they had been when I was alive, but the act of forking a slice off that stack into my mouth brought back memories that more than filled in the blanks. Beside me, the only other occupants were a pair of men who’s orange safety spoke of a job on the highway or the railway. They sat in their booth, talking quietly and glancing at their phones between sips of coffee and mouthfuls of danish. That left me, the only person sitting at the counter, to occupy the manager. His shirt tag read “Rockie”, but he had nothing of stony silence about him.

“So, what brings a young guy like you to a town like this?”

Part of me doesn’t want to talk, but I know silence will draw more attention than banal chatter, so I decide to answer. “I’m just in town for a few days, doing a bit of research.”

“Research? What, are you one of those people who travel around checking out their ancestry?”

It would be easy to tell this man what he wanted to hear, but I didn’t feel like lying to him. “No, I’m researching the mystery of the children who have gone missing here.”

The look of polite attention vanished from Rockie’s face as his eyes fixed on mine. “Why are you interested in that? Are you one of those sick fucks who gets their kicks off of seeing other people suffer?”

I hold up my hands. “No, quite the opposite. I’m actually hoping that if I can figure out how this is happening, then it can be stopped.”

That got me a derisive snot. “What are you going to do if you figure out what’s happening, go to the local cops? Those worthless clowns have had three years to find out who’s doing this, but have they? Hell, doing some real police work might take them away from their goddamn donuts and coffee. Can’t have that now, can we?”

I could understand his cynicism. Human couldn’t imagine that some non-human entity might be stalking them. So they explained it away by blaming the police, thinking them incompetent…or worse, involved. Paranoia often came to the fore in situations like this, and while Rockie didn’t voice such opinions, I was sure there were those that did. “Maybe they’re just facing someone who really smart, who knows how to cover their tracks.”

“Are you saying they haven’t found any evidence in twenty-odd cases? Not one clue, not a shred of DNA left behind that shouldn’t be there, nothing?”

“Rockie, I just got here, so I don’t know what’s going on. I just heard about it from some people I know and decided to come out here to see if I could figure out what’s happening. Maybe getting a fresh set of eyes on the problem will help stir things up?”

The eyes fixed on me narrowed. “Yeah, that’s another thing. You say your not one of those sick ‘crime tourists’ people whisper about, so what brought you here? None of the families involved is rich enough to pay you a reward, even if you can figure out what’s happening. So why are you here?”

“I guess you could say I’m here because someone I knew disappeared mysteriously. They ended up dead, and I couldn’t do anything to help them, so maybe I’m hoping if I can save someone’s kid, they won’t have to go through what I did.” It wasn’t entirely the truth, but I couldn’t exactly tell him the truth that the person I knew who’d died was me.

Rockie’s face, his entire posture, relaxed. “I don’t know that it’s going to help you with your problem, but if you can help any of the families, that’d be good.” He stepped back and crossed his arms. “It’d help me…one of my nephews was among the first children to go missing. It’s been nearly three years now, and my sister still cries for the boy she lost. So any help I can give, you ask and you got it.”

A local source, someone familiar with the town, would be invaluable. “Well, if you can tell me what was happening around that time, it’d give me a place to start. That, and a refill on this cup.” I shove my coffee cup towards Rockie, and as he fills it, he begins to flesh out the history of Redmond.

“Don’t ge me wrong, I love this town, but Redmond isn’t paradise. It was founded because of a coal seam protruding from a bluff out beyond the edge of town. Its had a pretty hardscrabble history. Coal mining kept the town’s economy booming until a Depression-ear strike closed the mine. The town managed to hang on, mainly because of railroad jobs from the Denver & Rio Grande line that served other mines. Then coal production tanked in the late 1990’s, and the line became little more than a branch line. That’s when Redmond began a to slide into economic stagnation.”

Rockie stopped talking to tend to a pair of new customers, then returned to take up his narrative. “It was around then that people started to get strange. The bars began staying open 24/7, and drugs started to become a serious problem. People who could moved away, but as the population got smaller, the social pressures rose. Around 2010, a bunch of people committed suicide. More than once, the father or mother wouldn’t stop with taking their own life, they’d kill their whole family.” A grim smile shaped Rockie’s lips as he shook his head. “The disappearances brought those ‘family killer’ suicides to an end, so I guess they’re almost a good thing. Hell of a price to pay though, ain’t it?”

“It is. Are you sure that the instances of people killing their families ended with the start of the disappearances?”

Rockie waved to a group of four middle-aged women entering the IHOP, probably fresh from dropping their kids off at school from their appearance. After taking them coffee, he came back looking reflective. “It wasn’t exactly at the same time. I mean those suicides didn’t happen on a schedule or anything. It was maybe a month or two after the last one I remember that the first kid disappeared. Why?”

Even I didn’t know why I thought there might be a connection between the two events, but something in the back of my head was shouting that they were. “Maybe it’s just a coincidence, I don’t know, but it strikes me as odd. Guess it’s time for me to do some more research. Does Redmond have a local newspaper?”

Rockie gave me a smile. “Going to go ‘old school’, huh? Hard as it is to believe, we’re the county seat, and the biggest town left in this corner of Colorado. We’ve also got a library, if you’re looking to go through back issues of the Redmond Gazette. All you have to do is wait…” he glanced over his shoulder before giving me a bigger smile, “another three and a half hours. Want another refill on that coffee?”

“Nope, I’m good. Matter of fact, I was thinking of taking a walk around town, try to get a feel for the place. Besides,” The bell above the entrance rang as another group of mothers came in to take a table next to the earlier group. “I think you’re going to be too busy to keep talking to me. Thanks for the help, Rockie. Time for me to get out of your hair.”

“I meant what I said earlier, you need any help, let me know. I hope you can figure out what the hell’s going on here…”

Rockie held out his hand, and I took it. “Name’s George, and if I run into any trouble or if I find anything out, I promise to let you know.”

“I appreciate that, George. Maybe you should sit here a while longer, you’re hands as cold as ice.”

I mentally kick myself for shaking this man’s hand, for forgetting that I’m dead and anyone who touches me will notice how cold my flesh is. I wave the invitation away as I rise to l been leave. “Not to worry, Rockie, I’ve been like that all my life. Talk to you later.” I put a twenty down next to my bill, leaving the change for a well-earned tip, and head out the door.

The Sun is up now, and traffic has picked up, both cars and people. Just down the street, an imposing pile of masonry looms over the other buildings of downtown, the dome that tops it giving away its government function. It dawns on me that I should have asked my informant where the library is, but with three hours to burn before it opens, I know I’ll have more than enough time to find it on my own. I head down Main Street, otherwise known as Colorado State Route 59, towards the courthouse. The buildings I pass reflect the town’s prosperous past in their ornate brick facades and broad expanses of glass. But now, many of them sit empty, their windows exhibiting not clothing or appliances, but faded notices hoping to entice foolish people into renting them. One long store front surprises me, being filled not with empty hope but books. It had once been several separate stores, but now, the former separate entrances are closed, or adapted to serve as fire exits, and doorways have been cut through walls to form a single, unified building. The main entrance proudly proclaims this is the Redmond Public Library. A smile creases my face and I shake my head. “I guess sometimes dumb luck really does happen.” I mutter to myself as I check the opening time before continuing my stroll.

I decided to occupy my free time by hiking down to Veteran’s Park. I want to get a feel for the place where everything began. In the light of day, the park was no more sinister than any other park early in the morning. The accumulated rust on the swing chains the only thing that gave away how long it had been since children had played there. The park was surrounded by older neighborhoods, houses with mature trees in their broad yards and all the signs of families residing in them. What in this calm, almost pastoral scene could have triggered the terror that now afflicted this town?

Idle speculation won’t solve my problem, so I retraced my path to the library. There is still time before it opens, and a pair of benches flanking the entrance look like an excellent place to watch this town flow past me, so I take a seat to take in the ebb and flow of life in Redmond. Most of the traffic I see on the street is passing through, the speed of the cars and trucks making it clear that this is just another town to get through, not a place the occupants want to stop. The few pedestrians are older men and women, some shuffling along, others upright and eyes forward. Which category would I have fallen into if I’d lived long enough to grow old? Would my desire to keep moving have kept me striding confidently along, or would I have become one of the unsteady one, struggling to put one foot in front of the other.

One person’s steps held nothing of uncertainty. Her white hair pulled back in a long ponytail, and a keyring flashing in her hand, she advanced on the entrance to the library like someone on a mission. Her eyes catch mine, and she favors me with a brilliant smile. “Have you waiting for the library to open? I’ll have it open in a few minutes. You can stay out here and enjoy the weather until I get the lights on, or if you want, you can come in and wait by the front desk.”

Having a mission of my own, I rise. “If it’s alright with you, I’ll come inside miss. I have some research I want to do, and no idea how long it’s going to take to find the information I’m looking for.”

She stops, key in the lock but not yet turned, to glance over her shoulder. “Research? What are you looking into that can’t be found online?”

Not wanting to reveal that I might be researching a supernatural being, I give her the most convincing lie I can. “Newspaper stories, miss. I hear that there’s a newspaper in town, but when I was researching my story, I never found any reference to it.”

She unlocks the door and pulls the key out before turning. “Oh, that’s easy. The Gazette‘s too small to have a web site. They’re only a twice-weekly publication now, and they don’t even have a printing press any more. They get their issues run off in Pueblo by the Chieftain‘s printing plant. One of my part-time assistants has been scanning back issues, but if you’re looking for something newer than a year ago, you’ll have to dig through our impromptu ‘morgue’.”

She pushed through the door, and I follow her inside. She ducks behind the counter and steps through a door set into the wall behind it. The work that turned this space into a library included opened the ceiling to its original pressed tin, its frilly ornateness on display as the light begin to come on. My hostess comes back out and I give her a smile. “Well, you don’t have to worry about me disturbing your newspaper collection. What I want to look into happened more than a year ago, so how can I access the scanned material? I’ll admit I never thought to look at the library’s web page, so if you can give me any tips where to look, I’d appreciate it.”

She looks me over before answering. “Were you planning on using your phone, or were you going to go home and using a computer? I’m asking because, frankly, our web site isn’t exactly ‘phone friendly’. I’ve been trying to raise the money to get the page recoded so it will be easier for folks to view the site with their phones, but it’s not easy to justify spending money for things like that when keeping the lights and water on can be a struggle.”

I give her a rueful smile as I scratch my head. “You got me, I was planning on using my phone…and I don’t have a computer with me. Guess I’m outta luck.”

“No, you’re not, you can just use our computers. Normally they’re for people with library privileges, but we’re usually not that busy this time of the day. If you want to do that, they’re just around the corner. We leave them on 24/7, so all you have to do is move the mouse and they should open up to our web page. Just click on the ‘Periodicals’ button and the first thing on the list is back issues of the Gazette. If you have any problems, just come to the front desk. I’ll be there until my assistant comes in at noon sorting the stuff that was dropped off overnight.”

‘Around the corner’ takes me through one of the openings cut in a wall that the front counter extends through. The space has a wrap-around counter, broken at the front by one of the former store entrances, that covers three sides of what is now a large alcove. Desk chairs set in front of dark flat screens, with a varied crop of desktop machine perched beside them. I pick one at random, pulling out my phone and ear buds before sitting down. The music app is in ‘shuffle’ mode, and I’m pleasantly surprised to hear Sam Cook’s mellow voice crooning “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” in my ears. I can’t stop myself from smiling. “Keep me going, Sam, keep me going.” I whisper as the monitor comes to life and I begin my search.

Small town newspapers have their own standards about what to headline, and how they word those headlines. I spent most of the morning scanning through back issues, and actually looked at the piece I wanted twice before I understood what it was. The story would have been ‘under the fold’ when it was originally published, and the title “Young mother takes own life” gave no hint that it might hold the key to my search.

The story itself could not have been sadder: a young woman had lost her job and was about to be evicted. Facing a life of either living in a car, or worse, on the streets, she had chosen to kill herself. A relative had gone to her apartment to offer a place to live, only to find Melody Danvers missing. She had left a suicide note, but before the police arrived at Veteran’s Park, she had died from an overdose of illegally obtained prescription pain killers. What the title did not make clear was the fact that Melody’s five year old son, Larry, had survived her attempt to kill him. He was found sitting, unconscious, in a swing with his mother lying on the ground behind him. A brief note in another article about his release from hospital was all that I could learn about his fate.

I lean back and contemplate the facts. A mother so determined to hold onto what she thought a ‘normal’ life with her child that she would kill the child with her rather than force it to live without her. Could she, after death, have so longed for the child that hadn’t died with her that she’d come back searching for it? The park had been the last place she remembered being with her child. Perhaps when she couldn’t find her child, she had taken other children to replace it. Then, when children stopped going to that park, she had moved where children were. But where would she have taken them?

An five-sentence obituary gave me a clue. It turned out that Redmond is a deeply religious community, and suicide was a sin none of the congregations controlling almost all of the local cemeteries could ignore. But from its earliest days, Redmond had had its destitute, its dispossessed and forgotten. Melody had joined them in the town’s ‘Potter’s Field’, the final resting place for all such people. Could she be taking them where she resided? There was only one way to find out.

My new friend the librarian talking to an older man, trying to help him figure out what book would be the best source for advice on writing his memoirs, so I wait for them to finish. They leave, returning a few minutes later with the rather aptly title book “How to Write your Memoirs” Miss Librarian smiles her way through taking care of checking the book out, adding an encouragement as the older man turns to leave. “Good luck with your book, I look forward to reading it.” As he goes out the door, she turns to me. “Did you find what you were looking for?”

I step forward, and unsure how she will react to my question, hang my head. “I think so, but I also found out I need some information I couldn’t find in the newspaper. Where’s ‘Potter’s Field’ located?”

I raise my face and see that my question has had the effect I’d feared it would. The former friendly smile has vanished, replaced by a severe frown and wary eyes.

“Why do you need to find that place?”

I opt for a strategic lie. “Because I’m looking for the final resting place of a distant cousin of mine, Melody Danvers. My folks told me what happened, but I wanted to know more about her. I had to travel through the region, so I thought I’d stop in Redmond for a day and pay my respects, maybe find out what happened to her son. No one told us what became of him, and the newspaper just says he survived, which I knew already. Do you know anything about what happened to him?”

The wariness left the librarian’s eyes, and the frown became one of sadness, not caution. “I’m sorry for your loss. Larry was taken in by Melody’s brother-in-law, and that he moved his family to Denver the year after she…after she passed. So if you were hoping to meet him, you’re in the wrong place. As far as Potter’s Field, it’s called Redmond Cemetery now, not that many people get buried there. It’s off Main Street just this side of the South edge of town. I’m sorry, but most of the graves don’t have headstones, so finding Melody’s grave won’t be easy. There used to be a caretaker, but I’m not sure anyone tends to that place anymore, what with the way it’s always waist-high weeds every Summer. So I’m not sure who could tell you where to look.”

I hold out my hand, and she shakes it. “Thanks for the information, it’s more than anyone in my branch of the family knew. If I can just see where she’s at, even if I can’t stand by her final resting spot, it’ll mean a lot. I appreciate you help Miss…”

The friendly smile returns, welcome as sunshine on a cloudy day. “Misses, actually. Mrs. Doneta McCarthy, and I’m glad I could help. If you have any other questions, or if you feel like talking about what you find, I’m here every day. Good luck.”

It was well after noon when I emerged and set about walking to my next destination. The sunny morning skies had given way to a low overcast, the clouds dark with the promise of rain. I start walking, and shortly after I leave downtown, the promise of rain is fulfilled. There is no hint that the storm is coming beyond the sudden burst of cold air that buffets me moments before curtains of rain roll in to obscure everything around me. I feel the rain drops hammering my skin as my clothing goes from dry to soaked, but there is no real discomfort to my undead body, only annoyance at the squelching feel of my feet as I trudge along.

The houses are beginning to grow scarce when I spot the broad weed-choked space inside a simple iron fence. Not a single standing stone breaks the scene, and the only indication I have found my destination is a pair of cast concrete posts framing a closed gate bearing the legend ‘Redmond Cemetery’. A simple latch holds it in place, there being no need to secure such a forgotten place, and I lift it in hopes of letting myself in. The latch moves, but the gate remains stubbornly fixed in place, forcing me to climb over it to enter.

Once, there must have been a service road that ran through this desolate space, but now the only sign of it is slight depression and the fact that the weeds grow somewhat less riotous. As I push through them, the screen of pouring rain thins enough to reveal a small structure. Fittingly for such a place, it has a throughly bedraggled look about it. The roof is distinctly swayback in the center, both of the windows I can see lack any glass, and the siding has begun to fall away from the plywood sheathing underneath it. I can also see a pair of doors, one intended to open for vehicles, but the other sized for human frames. I make for the latter, and am unsurprised to find it ajar.

Out of that slim crack pours a stench no words could describe, but I know what I will find when I push it open. I press my hand against the door, and when it refuses to move, I shoulder it slowly open. Within, I find even my worst imaginations do no justice to the scene before me. A child, little more than time-dried skin stretched taut over bone, lies in the fading light cast by the door. Nearby, a newer body, torso bloated with decay, lies just beyond it. I see skulls, bones, fragments of clothing everywhere.

In the center of it all, there is a dark shape. Once it might have been a woman, but now it is nightmare. The head that turns towards me is a thing that would haunt a mortal mind. The mouth is a gaping maul, a hole with nothing human in its form. The nose is gone, a slit between two eyes that glow like the fires of hell itself the only trace that it had once existed. The body beneath it turns towards me, not with the movement of a human, but like a thing spinning on a turntable. I hear a disembodied, its sound fills that dark space, address me.

“Where is my child?”

“He is gone, Melody. He survived when you tried to kill him, and your family took him away to live with them. You won’t find him no matter how much you search.”

The dark form comes at me in a rush, like smoke driven before a strong wind. It surrounds me, and I feel it pressing in upon me from every side. “Give me my child back!” it shouts from everywhere.

“I can’t, and I wouldn’t if I could. Let your boy live his life, Melody, let the children of this town live their lives.”

“No! They took my child from me, so I’ll take their children from them!”

There will be no reasoning with this spirit. I raise my arms through the surrounding darkness, and for the first time, I feel fear.

“How are you able to move? Those children couldn’t move when I took them. They couldn’t cry out as I took the life from them. How are you able to move?”

“Because I’m like you, Melody, but my desire for vengeance was only on the creature that killed me. I didn’t want everyone to suffer as I had, and I won’t let you make another family suffer.”

My hands grope through the dark form and find a spot more solid. I close my fingers about it and squeeze. The cloud-like form that had surrounded me shrinks back to the shape I had seen when I’d entered the building, but now the face is more human. I see what Melody must have once been, a young woman with terrified eyes under dark brown bangs, her lips twisting as she struggles to free herself from my grasp.

“No, I can’t die without my child, I can’t leave my Larry to face it without me.”

There is none of the terrible in the voice now. It is a desperate woman, a spirit hoping to hang onto what existence it has. I can’t let it stay. My fingers tighten and begin to sink into the now almost flesh-like form. Melody raises her hands, trying to pry mine away from the neck they now surround. I hear a final plea, soft, almost gasping.

“Please, please let me find my child!”
“I can’t, Melody, because you never will. Your boy has a life to live, let him have it. Go now, leave this place and this town in peace.”

The form morphs again, becoming the all-encompassing cloud it had been, but I can still feel the pressure of the neck my fingers surround. I tighten my grip one final time, the shape whips about me like a black sail flapping in a hurricane wind, then it stills before beginning to dissipate. But as it does, from all around me, I see small shape emerge from the shadows. Most are just shadows themselves, little more than a shifting darkness in that shadow-filled space. But a few have form, almost as if they were children emerging from hiding. One steps forward, becoming more solid as it does. I see a little girl, her clothing dirty and on her face is haggard. She looks about, then up at me. There is a whisper, the sound of a lost soul hoping for hope after a disaster.

“Can we go home now, mister?”

“No, but you can leave. You’re dead, all of you. Go where the light is, child, all of you. Your families will know what has happened to you, I promise. Go in peace. The thing that did this to you is gone, no one else will suffer as you have.”

There is the murmur of children’s voices, and the forms begin to vanish. Finally, only the little girl remains. She fixes me with her eyes, ancient eyes in a face that couldn’t be more than five years old. “You promise to tell my mommy? Promise to tell her I didn’t run away?”
“I will, child. I’ll tell all your parents you didn’t run away.”

The eyes soften, become those of a little girl again as she smiles at me. Her form begins to fade, and as it become nothing more than an after-image, a child’s voice echoes in my head.

“Thank you.”

I pull out my phone and dial 911 before laying it in the middle of the charnel house scene. I’ll need another one, but there are plenty of places to get cheap phones. The rain picks up again as I exit, and I climb over the back fence before making my way the field behind. The sirens tell me the Redmond police are coming to discover something they will never understand. I am tempted to to return to the IHOP, to tell Rockie that his nephew will be coming home soon, but there is no way I could explain to him what happened in that terrible space. The police will tell his sister, and then he will know what happened. For me, it’s time to see when the next bus arrives so I can move o

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