In the Pines

In Issue 58 by Stephen Coates

In the Pines
Image by Brilliant Eye on Shutterstock

“Some said she was surrounded by a glow like pale fire. Some said she was wearing a tattered wedding gown, hair wild and bedraggled. Some—teenage boys, mostly—said that she was naked. But none of that was true. She was just ordinary.”

“You saw her?”

The question came from the shadows on the other side of the blaze. Warren accepted the bottle from his neighbor, took a long swig.

“I saw her,” he said. “Right about there, where that willow is.”

He pointed off into the darkness. The newcomers, two students down for the fruit-picking season, turned in the direction of his finger. To an impartial observer they may have resembled a pair of puppies, one a breathless Labrador and the other a pug, face creased in earnest bewilderment. The fire crackled and spat as a log tipped over among the ashes. Warren settled himself more deeply against the rocks, cheeks reddened by the glare of the embers.

“Now you’ve got him started,” said a lean man who was perhaps called Conrad.

“Is that the tree where?”

Warren shook his head. “Black pine, up the road a ways. Struck by lightning, just a stump now.”

“But you really saw her?”

“Yeah. I’m the only one. Well, I reckon maybe Jack did too but he’s not saying. I was thirteen, out shooting rabbits behind the dam, and on the way home I heard his car come barreling up from the old bridge. Then she appeared out of nowhere right in front of him. Standing still and proud like a figurehead on the prow of a ship. He swerved to avoid her, and the rest is history.”

Cursed be the day. Cursed be the messenger, that Halligan woman, harridan woman, carrion-eater of grief. And cursed be myself, unworthy parent. When first the alarm sounded, the clanging of the bells, I thought little of it. Blithely I answered with gladful cheer. Fool that I am, I laughed and returned a frivolous reply. Sixty vain minutes I waited before my heart began to fret. Would that I could undo that hour, joy of my joy, daughter mine.

I searched, oh how I searched, in the market, the arena, the temple. Heralds I sent too, near and far. With wild words I beseeched bystanders for news. I accosted the merchants, the priest, the matrons with their bundles. The taverner, may contagion take his children and his children’s children, made mock of my panic.

And then the waiting. The tortured, impotent prowling and weeping. In that brief span, before the sun reached its zenith, I changed into an old woman. See me now, a toothless, addled crone, waiting for death.

There will be fire. There will be ice. There will be famine and flood, pestilence and plague.

Dead? Of course he was bloody dead. Wasn’t wearing a seatbelt so he went straight through the windscreen. I found him thirty feet away on top of a gorse bush. Checked for a pulse but it was a waste of time. He was a mess, anyone could tell he was gone.

You ever had one of those dreams that seem perfectly reasonable, but logic has gone out the window? Like it’s incredibly important that you buy a green apple for exactly a dollar because the parson’s name is Peter? You go rushing round from one fruit shop to the next and never stop to ask yourself if it makes any sense. That’s how it was. One mystery turned into two, and then they multiplied like the distorted images in a funhouse.

No, I wasn’t here for the girl’s disappearance. I arrived about six months later, first posting, young and ambitious. Nothing wrong with that. But mostly I was nervous, an interloper in a tight-knit community like this. Wheels within wheels, currents seething beneath the surface, secret codes and rituals like some damn masonic lodge.

It should have been an open-and-shut case. Young guy with more ego than brains going faster than he can handle, loses control and gets up close and personal with the trunk of a tree. Hell, vehicular suicide is practically our national sport.

Of course, not having a body, that made things a lot more complicated.

Dear Claire,

You have no idea how relieved I am right now. After days of wandering round like an orphan, last night I finally fell asleep with a smile on my lips. I’ve been following your instructions, though, and trying my best to put on a long face. That’s difficult for me —you always used to tease me about being a terrible liar—but so far I don’t think anyone suspects.

I never want to go through a day like that again. When you didn’t show up for work, Mrs. Halligan phoned your mum and she phoned me. Call it intuition or whatever, but I knew at once that something ghastly had happened. This wasn’t a butterfly or a kitten or a funny shaped cloud or one of those thousand and one reasons you were late when we were little. Molly, I think she sensed it too.

I jumped on my bike and traced your route to the shop, down Union Street, past the church, the shortcut through the school. There was no sign of you anywhere. I stopped everyone to ask if they’d seen you, though I don’t think I was very coherent. You know what I’m like when I’m flustered—headless chook, that’s what you always said. That horrible Mr. Wilson actually made a joke about it. I bet he’s feeling pretty rotten now, and serves him right.

After a couple of hours the whole village was mobilized. Charlie Bowker was brilliant, setting up a command center, organizing search parties. I wanted to be out looking too, but he made me and Molly stay by the phones, because if you called anyone, it would be your mother or your best friend. The waiting, it was so hard!

By the next day the police were involved and a full manhunt—woman-hunt—was under way. My family were about the only ones that didn’t join in. Dad was drunk, Mum’s on her meds again and as for my brother, if it’s not a computer game it doesn’t exist. I tried to keep Molly company, but both of us were in a right state so I don’t think I was much use.

Your message took such a weight off my shoulders. I’m still confused why it has to be a secret though. And to be completely honest, I’m a teeny bit hurt as well. You know I’ve got your back, surely you could have told me.

Your friend always,

Rachel

Pretty soon we were the most famous town in the country. Got so you couldn’t even have a quiet beer down the pub without some Ken-and-Barbie journalist sticking their tape recorder under your nose. Not that I spent much time there anyway—no one likes getting pissed with the local copper watching. I do my drinking at home.

When that McCluskey kid came bellying up on his bike I couldn’t get a word of sense out of him for a while, he was babbling that much, but I got the story eventually. Made a couple of phone calls, because the ambulance and fire engine had to come over from Dunstan, and then I sent the boy home and drove up there.

Those forestry roads are a real maze if you’re not used to them. I got lost a few times but I found it in the end. There was nothing I could do for him, so I went back down about a mile or so and waited for the ambulance. Fifteen minutes later they turned up and I led the way to the crash site. The car was a total write-off but Jack was gone.

At first they thought I was having them on, you know, that I’d staged the whole thing as some stupid prank. Somehow I convinced them, though, and they got on the radio. An hour later the place was swarming with every man and his dog. I’m not joking—they really did get dogs up there, hoping to pick up a scent. Showed them one of Jack’s shirts they found in the boot, but they came up empty.

It took several days for the tests to come back, but the blood on the windshield was definitely his. We didn’t find anyone else’s prints in the car. And he was alone when he filled up at Mike Lambie’s petrol station about half past nine, which is an hour before young Warren turned up with the news.

You’re not a reporter, are you? Can’t stand bloody reporters.

Dear Claire,

I thought the nightmares had stopped, but they haven’t. Last night I woke in a sweat panic, certain you’d disappeared all over again. It was my deepest fear, one I didn’t even know I had.

That first day was awful but the next week was worse. No one even knew if we were looking in the right place. Initially we thought you’d fallen into a ditch or something, but then they found your coat a hundred meters off the road with a coiled rope beside it. That gave everyone the willies, I can tell you. And on Tuesday Warren turned up with your bracelet, which he said was hanging on a branch in the opposite direction. No one knew what to think, because you had absolutely no reason to be walking there. Finally the army was called in, combing the Pines from one end to the other.

It didn’t take long for the whispering to start, for it to change from ‘accident’ to ‘abduction.’ At first it focused on outsiders—had any strange cars passed through that morning, been parked where they shouldn’t have? Then it shifted to men in the town, men who were weird or creepy or unpopular. Someone threw a stone through Mr. Carter’s window, despite the fact that he’s on crutches with a broken ankle. The atmosphere is pretty nasty—even nastier than usual, that is.

Also, I have to say that Molly’s in a bad way. I know I promised to keep my mouth zipped, but it would help her so much if you could let her know you’re all right. Is there something you’re not telling me?

Love,

Rachel

Cursed be the lover. Cursed be the villain with his false-faced smirk, his vicious charm and poisonous compliments. A charlatan hawking his fraudulent wares in the marketplace, seeking to part the gullible from their affections.

Of course she was gullible. In her youth and ignorance she was deceived by the serpent’s wiles, heedless of hints and warnings. As was I, by my unmourned husband, and my mother by my unmourned father. ’Twas ever thus, and thus shall it ever be.

No more a child, she hid her tears and woe. The days when she would seek my skirts for shelter, my arms for solace, those days were gone. But I have eyes, and ears too, some few drops of wisdom born from pain. These eyes, they saw the hurt she tried to mask. These ears heard their bitter words, the excuses and the lies, the feigned apologies.

That which he desired soon frightened him. Her vitality, her open heart, which first attracted him, drew other eyes as well and he grew jealous. In his vanity he sought to tether her. He sought to bind her soul with chains of drab convention, to twist her love, the source of all her strength, to guilt and weakness. ’Twas ever thus, and thus shall it ever be.

But she would not be tamed.

“The problem was,” said an anonymous voice from the gloom, “that she couldn’t have been there that day, because she went missing a year earlier.”

“Hold on,” said Pug. “This woman, who was she again?”

Warren didn’t answer, scratching in the dirt with a stick. After a pause, a bearded man with tattooed forearms took up the tale.

“Claire. Jack’s girlfriend. Or ex-girlfriend maybe, nobody knew for sure.”

Warren grunted. They turned to him.

“Ex.” He gave no explanation of how he was able to speak with such authority. “A lot of people were puzzled why they hooked up in the first place. Some thought she was too dull for him, while others said that he was too shallow.”

The bearded man nodded. Something hooted in the darkness and the students jumped.

“But she was sick of working on the check-out at Johnson’s. Was thinking about moving to the city, training as a speech therapist.”

Murmurs from the locals, possibly of surprise or disbelief.

“No one knew that. Not her mother, not Jack, not even Rachel, and they were joined at the hip.”

“So how come you did?” asked Pug. “I mean.”

Warren offered the whiskey to left and right. When he found no takers, he propped the bottle against the boulder that served as his couch. “See, me and her were mates. Yeah, these blokes will laugh, what with her being twenty odd and me still in high school, but we’d meet sometimes and we’d talk.”

In fairness to his audience, not one of them so much as cracked a grin, at least that could be seen in the shifting firelight.

“She’d tell me stuff, and I’d listen. I’m a good listener.”

Dear Claire,

What despicable creatures humans are. A month ago you were the only topic on everyone’s lips, but when I went to the chemist yesterday to fill Mum’s prescription—I feel guilty every time but I do it anyway—Liz and Becky Abbot were giggling by the condoms, drooling over the young stud who’s moved into the Middleton place. They shut up quick enough when they saw me, but I’ve got nothing to say to them anymore. They just seem, I don’t know, empty. Is it dreadful of me to say that?

Isolated. That’s the word that’s been ringing around my head all day. It’s even got its own jingle, from a toothpaste ad I saw on TV.

Things aren’t so hot on the home front either. James never leaves his room now, except to raid the fridge and snarl at me. Mum’s got some new pills, tiny orange ones, and she smiles all the time. I mean all the time. Doesn’t answer when you talk to her, just this vacant grin. And after Dad’s third drink, which is usually while I’m eating breakfast, I find myself staring at him and wondering if he’s capable of murder. Then I remember that you’re safe and happy, but it still freaks me out.

I haven’t seen your mother for weeks. When we were kids your place was like my second home—heck, it was better than my first home—but lately I don’t feel welcome there. Obviously I’ve done something wrong, though I haven’t got the foggiest what that might be.

Sorry to be such a sourpuss,

Rachel

I don’t think anyone was satisfied with the verdict. Jefferson, the coroner, he was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. He couldn’t call it murder because there was no evidence that the car had been tampered with. Couldn’t say it wasn’t either, since we had no idea what happened right before the crash. Couldn’t call it suicide or misadventure for the same reason. So an open verdict, I reckon that was his only choice. And removal of a body by person or persons unknown. Yeah, that’s an offence under Section 150 of the Crimes Act.

I investigated, that’s what I did. First I examined the tire tracks. Don’t look at me like that. I may be a small town cop but that doesn’t make me stupid. There were no skid marks, so he didn’t touch the brakes right up until he hit the tree, and I figure he was doing at least a ton. Of course that didn’t get me any further forward. No convenient footprints leading away from the scene. Or rather, too many to be useful, there’d been that many people blundering around up there. The physical evidence didn’t tell us much, so I had to work at it from the other end, so to speak.

Claire? That bloody ghost story? Yeah, I heard it. The whole damn world heard it. But seriously, do I look like someone who believes in ghosts? I started digging into her disappearance as well, because I had an inkling there was some link between them. It was too early to be calling it a cold case, but no one was following it very hard.

People always want a resolution, someone to blame if they can. When they couldn’t find one they took it out on me. Or maybe it was just because I was the one going round asking all the questions, they felt I suspected them. Hell, I did suspect them, I was suspicious of everyone. Anyway, it got so that folks would cross the street when they saw me coming. I was an outsider to begin with, but now they were avoiding me like a bad fart.

Lonely? What on earth gave you that idea?

Warren leaned back so that his face receded into the shadows. A disjointed conversation from the fringe of the gathering withered and died. The two students exchanged an uneasy glance. Warren gazed into the fire as though divining hidden meanings.

“On the surface,” he said, his voice sonorous in the dark, “this is an ordinary town. But everyone has secrets. Who slept with someone they shouldn’t. Who has a violent past, or even a violent present, behind closed doors. Who has a shameful pastime that their family doesn’t know about. Who poisoned their best friend’s dog, and why.”

A gasp, swiftly suppressed, which may have come from the man who was possibly Conrad.

“No one notices a kid, especially if he’s quiet and patient. Me, I could keep quiet for hours at a time.”

Cursed be the citadel. May the citizens, those who too soon forget, see their pomp and their joy shrivel into dust and ashes. May their temples crumble, their bloated palaces collapse around them. Let pillars of marble crush their firstborn. May their wine turn to molten silver in their throats, may their fine apparel strangle them in their beds. Let harpies pursue them through their dreams. May their ears be filled with accusing whispers, recriminations for secret sins.

They want to share my burden, then let them share it truly.

For seven days they turned my house into a theatre, striking their poses, mouthing their doggerel sympathy through masks of painted sorrow. A never-ending chorus, their chatter as obnoxious as the honking of geese.

They shun me now. They stammer and stutter, adopt a somber mien, and scurry away. But I hear them. I hear their muttering, their gossip, the clicking of their claws. Excessive, overweening, prideful. Their censure means nothing to me, their opinions as shallow as their loves.

Cursed also be the companion. I need no changeling, trying to usurp my daughter’s rightful place. Scattering crumbs of comfort, pretending our suffering is the same. But did she cradle my darling in her womb? Did she treasure her first smile, chronicle her first word, console her first heartbreak? I need no cuckoo in my nest.

“So what happened to her?”

It was Pug again. His face was no less wrinkled, but the determined set of the eyebrows suggested a terrier, and the neutral spectator may have revised their original characterization.

“She disappeared. About a year before Jack’s smash. The adults went bumbling around in their own way, thinking they knew everything. Like one or two here I could name.”

Someone snorted, though who it was and what it signified were unclear.

“They only found her jacket because it was right under their noses. I could have helped them, but no one asked.”

“Helped them how?”

“Naturally, some suspicion fell on Jack.”

Among those of his listeners who had known Warren for a long time, there had been some debate, largely inconclusive, as to whether his tendency to answer a question of his own devising, rather than the one that was asked, was calculated or not.

“Claire’s mother started giving him the evils from day one, and once she’s made up her mind no power on earth can change it. He said he’d been replacing the rings on his truck since dawn, but there was no one to confirm it, so as alibis go it wasn’t much cop. But I know for a fact that it wasn’t him.”

A disembodied voice spoke from the other side of the campfire. “But you found her bracelet, Warren. Tell them about that.”

“Her MedicAlert bracelet. Yeah, I found that.” He paused, twisting the gold cap of the Johnnie Walker between his thumb and forefinger. “Of course, it’s possible that maybe I didn’t find it exactly where I said I did.”

Dear Claire,

I’m sure you’ve heard. It’s been all over the news. The Mystery of the Missing Corpse, they’re calling it. Anyway, I’m going to assume that you already know so I don’t have to be the one to break it to you.

To be honest, I’m lost for words—first time for everything, haha. I know he was important to you once, so it can’t be easy. But. But. But. He was never good enough for you. There, I’ve said it. Please don’t hate me. Deep down, you know it’s true.

There’s a new policeman. He’s been asking lots of questions. I’ve been ever so cautious, but he scares me. He’s just super intense, like some kind of avenging angel on a crusade for justice. And your name wouldn’t have come up at all if it wasn’t for that lying McCluskey brat. We both know you weren’t within a hundred miles of the place. He’s just making up stories so that people will pay attention to his sad, ferrety existence. You know, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he was the one who stole your underwear off the washing line that time.

This might be a little bit out there, but I was wondering. What if Jack faked the whole thing? I mean, maybe he’s sitting on a bus right now at the other end of the country, listening to the hum of the wheels carrying him to a brand-new life. I hope for his sake that’s true.

I am fire. I am ice. For long months have I pursued him in relentless dreams. In his dreams too, for long months I pursued him. Revenge is my fuel, my meat and drink, my second thought when I wake and my second last thought before I sleep.

In my daughter’s guise I appeared before him. With dazzling mirror I cast flame unto his eyes. I saw his dismay and my heart exulted. With savage glee I laughed as he realized his imminent destruction. Around his chariot I danced a doleful dance. And wept too, scalding tears I shed. His death, though deep desired and righteous, would not restore my girl, not should he die a thousand times. And in that instant did I envy him, envy his release and his oblivion. They only grieve who live to moan their loss.

The child did not spy me, nor the rod-bearer neither. For I have learned what they know not, that no one sees a solitary old woman. In my misery I am invisible.

Far from human ken I bore his carcass. On barren mountaintops or in fathomless canyons I concealed his bones, where never shall seekers find him. No mourners shall lay him out in funeral garb. His parents shall raise no monument to bate their grief. Crows shall peck at his sightless eyes, eagles rip out his liver with cruel talons.

Motive, that was a stumper. Why would anyone steal his body? Claire’s mother as good as confessed, half a dozen times, but she’d been sticking up flyers all over town that morning, bordering on libelous. There’s no way she could have done it, no matter how much she wanted to.

For a while I wondered about that girl Rachel, too, but in the end I figured that she was too wimpy to pull off a trick like that. She’s been sending herself letters, did you hear, posting them in a hollow tree up behind Gatlin’s orchard. She thinks no one knows.

Hell, for all I know it was just some trophy hunter who liked collecting roadkill, got him stuffed and mounted over their fireplace.

I’m kidding.

In fact, there weren’t a whole lot of other suspects. Jack was fairly popular, by all accounts. Not just because he was a star, the best first five they’d had in a decade. He had a reputation as being easygoing, just one of the lads, not big-headed or anything. Several people did tell me that he changed after Claire, though, kind of withdrew into himself. Spent less time with his mates, more time working on his car, a Mustang he bought up north somewhere. Ironically, he had his best season ever, though they say he was dirtier than before, more willing to put the boot in. That was the Jack I knew.

Actually, I thought he was a right prick. Sure, he was handsome, if you think that strutting round like a dog with two dicks is handsome. The girls liked him—at that age the biggest tossers always get the best girls. But there was something about him that rubbed me the wrong way. Like he didn’t have to prove that he was better than you because it was just so obvious, and he took it for granted that you knew it, too. Stunted by success, if you see what I mean.

Yeah, I know, not a problem I’m ever likely to have.

Dear Claire,

I’ve bought my ticket. I left it to the last minute, because I was petrified that old Hammett would blab it to all and sundry. I mumbled something about an appointment at the hospital in the city, let him jump to the conclusion that it was lady troubles. He turned red as a beetroot and dropped my change, so I think I’m safe. If I was prettier, I’m sure he’d have thought I was pregnant.

Anyway, I’m all packed and I’ll be off bright and early tomorrow. Maybe I should start a sweepstake on how long it will take my parents to notice I’ve gone. No, scratch that. I’m making a fresh start, and I’ve decided I’m not going to carry any bitterness with me. A few days from now we’ll be sitting on the lawn in your garden, enjoying the scent of jasmine and sharing a bottle of Chardonnay as we watch the sun set over the glittering sea.

Who says there’s no such thing as a happy ending?

See ya soon,

Rachel

“I don’t get it,” said Pug. Or Terrier. “Why would you lie about something like that?”

Warren shrugged. “I made a promise.”

“Who to? Jack? Claire?”

Like a biblical prophet, Warren pointed his stick at his interrogator. “I keep my promises. But they never found his body.”

The student shook his head and barked in frustration. “That makes no sense. You were the only witness. You saw this woman, Claire, or whatever her name was, and you were the one who reported the accident. So you’ve got to know if he survived or not.”

Warren turned away and prodded at the burning logs. A piece broke off, sending a shower of sparks to join the other stars.

“Was he dead? Badly injured? Did he look like he could get up and walk away?”

Warren picked up the bottle from beside his feet, rolling it between his palms. Conrad chuckled. “You’ll never get a straight answer out of him.”

“How come? Why won’t you tell us?”

The darkness swallowed his voice. The watchers sat motionless as the night surrounded them like a cavern.

“Like I said,” Warren murmured. “Everyone’s got secrets.”

Solve it? Yeah. No. I don’t know. Hell, for the longest time I was absolutely convinced I’d figured it out—Claire, Jack, the body-snatcher, the whole ball of spaghetti. Still think so some days. Other times I’m not so sure, and when a cold southerly’s blowing it feels like I don’t have a bloody clue.

No, no one was ever charged. Where’s the proof? That’s what my boss kept asking me whenever I pressed him for a warrant, over and over like a broken record. You haven’t got any evidence. He told me I was obsessed. But what if I was? A person’s got to have a purpose in life. Something to get you out of bed in the morning.

Have you met Molly? Her soul’s bleached white, scoured to the bone by grief and rage. At first everyone rallied round, the way people do, but one by one she drove them off with her wild accusations and extravagant furies. I can’t bring her daughter back, but I thought maybe I could help her find a little peace.

I failed. At that and everything else. I had myself a damsel in distress and galloped to the rescue, John Wayne in a white hat. But have you ever wondered what happens to the hero who gets lost in the desert, wandering around in circles until his horse collapses beneath him and he’s lying in the dirt seeing visions of Maureen O’Hara?

They don’t make movies about heroes like that.

In my house I dwell alone, for no one comes there. The priests despair, their words of balm exhausted. In the streets my erstwhile friends avoid my gaze. I do not blame them. Fragments of inaudible banter whisper from empty rooms like faded echoes. A familiar form flits at the corner of my eye, always out of sight. Once I heard a half-remembered laugh. I do not hear it now.

Razor-clawed birds of prey, blind and vast, strike at my flesh. Scorpions, enraged and insane, flay me with their hate-filled stingers. In the midst of flood there is famine. Plague follows pestilence, and pestilence follows plague.

There is fire. There is ice.

About the Author

Stephen Coates

Stephen Coates comes from New Zealand, but is currently living in Japan. His stories have appeared in Sky Island Journal, So It Goes, Landfall, Takahe and elsewhere.