It was about a year ago when I moved my daughter and myself out of Charleston and into Goose Creek, partly to get away from big city life, and partly to put the... business about her mother behind us. Between the crime, busy streets, and bad memories, I felt we could trade up the concrete and street lights for tall grass and trees adorned with Spanish moss. My boss, understanding the tragedy our family had suffered, promised to work with me, allowing me to telecommute as long as I didn't stray too far from the home office.
I found a house that backed right up against the Goose Creek reservoir, far enough away from the Naval base to grant us the tranquility we were looking for. It was a gorgeous two story house made to look like one of those old plantation houses, though admittedly a little more modest in size.
But the three bedrooms were enough for Chelsea and me. I got the master bedroom, and converted the smallest into my office, and Chelsea, well, she just loved her room being as it was twice as big as her old room with hard wood floors and a window looking out over the reservoir.
We spent a whole day in old clothes painting her room pink. I'm not sure if we got more paint on ourselves or the walls for all the horsing around we did. It didn't matter. It seemed like the first time either of us really laughed in a long while. I can still hear her giggles echoing through the house.
There, surrounded by the steamy summer humidity and the muzzy paint fumes, we were happy, the two of us. Goose Creek seemed like the new beginning we both needed after her mother passed on.
Well, the summer came and went, as summers do in the South—hot, and muggy. When a breeze came off the reservoir, it would be something of a relief, but summer in South Carolina was summer in South Carolina which means lots of shade, iced tea, and showers just to keep the film of perspiration at bay.
School came, riding on the winds of autumn. Chelsea was nervous of course, and even started to cry a little on the first day of school. After losing one parent, I knew she didn't want to let go of me, but it only took her a week or so before she was coming home every day with a big bright smile on her cherubic face. A smaller school meant fewer bullies, and, it seemed, more kids eager to make a new friend.
Before we knew it, we had slipped straight through a mild winter and were staring down another summer. A whole year had passed and we had carved out a simple, pleasant life for ourselves.
I was excited to have my little girl around the house during the day, but there was one huge obstacle: work. When most people hear telecommuting, they think it's all waking up when you want to, doing your work at your own pace, and, only putting on proper clothes if you really feel like it. The reality of telecommuting, at least for my employer, was not so grand, and working from home still meant full work days, client calls at all hours of the day, and being checked on by the boss on a regular basis via webcam.
This, however, was another benefit to Goose Creek. I felt comfortable letting Chelsea go out and explore or ride her bike, or walk to a friend's house. I made a point of making sure she stopped back at the house for lunch every day, and we had a long discussion about how far she was allowed to roam, and that she wasn't to play near the reservoir while I was working. Chelsea didn't fuss one bit; this was the most freedom she had had in her life.
And so it came to be that one day in mid June that my little girl walked in the house at half past eleven. Her pink t-shirt and shorts were cleaner than normal and her auburn pony tail wasn't half as frazzled as it was on most summer days. She met me in the kitchen with a quizzical look on her face. She climbed up onto one of the stools by a big window facing the street and asked, “Daddy? What are they doing at the end of the street?”
I turned to look and frowned. “I don't know, Chel-bear. What does it look like they are doing?”
Chelsea shrugged as she pulled her plate close. I had made tuna sandwiches and iced tea, and she had taken a big bite and was still chewing when she said, “Dumfkno. Lookth like diggin or somefin'.”
“Manners,” I said in that stern way that comes as second nature to parents.
She swallowed her bite and repeated herself, more clearly. “Looks like they are digging, but I don't know why.”
It was my turn to shrug. “Probably just road work or something,” I said before biting into my own sandwich.
“Can I check it out after lunch?” she asked.
“Well, I don't know if that's a good idea, Chel-bear. Could be dangerous.”
“I'll be careful, Daddy, promise.”
She had put on her big-eyed expression, the one that is supposed to melt a father in place, and one that I had fought hard to build up a resistance against. At the same time I remembered when I was her age, and how I probably wouldn't have even bothered asking my parents. When I thought back to the trouble I would get into I wondered how it was I ever made it to adulthood.
Finally, I relented, but only a little. “You can ask the men, if there are any that aren't too busy. But that's it, understand? You aren't to cross any boundaries or touch anything. We got a deal?”
Chelsea looked at me at first like she was going to try to haggle with me on the terms; she did that sometimes. She thought better of it and with her big bright smile nodded and said, “Deal!”
We finished our sandwiches and tea, and Chelsea hurriedly washed up before dashing out of the house, the screen door banging loudly in her wake. I carried myself back to my office, checked in with my boss, and forgot all about the road work Chelsea had brought up at lunch.
It wasn't until Chelsea brought it back up later on in the evening as I threw some burgers on the grill for dinner. “There wasn't nobody there when I went to go look, Daddy,” she said, pouting a little.
“Anybody,” I corrected her. She scowled that scowl that said I knew what she meant. It was her mother's scowl. Ignoring it, I told her she could try again in the morning after breakfast, and that combined with the burgers topped with lots of ketchup seemed to satisfy her.
I suppose I half expected her to forget about the whole thing. Maybe I didn't expect anything at all. It just wasn't something that was registering on my radar until the morning came and Chelsea could hardly wait to rush out and see what was going on down the road. She was half out the door when I had to call her back to remind her to brush her teeth, and after a perfunctory scrubbing she gave me a half-hearted hug and bolted.
Strange, I thought, and I found myself following her footsteps out to the edge of my front lawn if only to get a better look at what had captivated her so. I looked down the road in the same direction Chelsea was jogging, and saw nothing more than a pile of rubble heaped up on the side of the road. There weren't any road signs or rope, just a mound of black and gray rocks. It seemed harmless enough, but at the same time I felt a sense of apprehension creep up through my gut and latch onto my spine.
“You be careful and remember what I told you, Chel-bear!” I hollered after her. She looked back over her shoulder and smiled at me, her hand giving me the thumbs-up, before returning her attention to the rubble pile.
I shook my head and made my way back inside. I had a web meeting with some new clients I had to prepare for. When I got back to my office, I discovered that I could actually see just a sliver of the rubble pile from my office window. I couldn't afford to pay it any mind what with my meeting, but when I logged off of the group video chat, I grabbed a cup of coffee and found myself staring at the heap.
Chelsea was nowhere to be seen, probably off to go visit one of her friends no doubt, the allure of the rocks already worn off. But it was odd. If it was road work, there should have been some orange somewhere, a sign or something. And there should have been workers too, with day-glo vests and hard hats.
But there was no one there.
I was about to put together a report for my boss on the meeting when movement from the rubble stopped me hard, fear swiftly shooting down my throat and forming a solid, heavy, pit in my stomach. There was someone there working after all, but it was all wrong.
It's a pretty long street, so I couldn't be sure exactly of what I was seeing. But day-glo is pretty unmistakable, and this guy wasn't wearing any at all. In fact, it looked like his tall, gaunt frame was dressed in black from head to toe, long sleeves and all. That bit I found odd—who would dress like that in this heat?
Odder still was his hat. He looked like he was wearing one of those old stove pipe hats like Abe Lincoln wore. I didn't even know they made those anymore outside maybe costume shops and elementary school classrooms. But there he was in all black with a stove pipe hat and a shovel slung over his shoulder.
That's what I thought I saw anyway, right before the curious figure disappeared behind the pile. I was in the middle of debating with myself on whether I saw what I thought I saw when a chime from my computer informed me that my boss needed to chat with me. The noise startled me so much that I spilled coffee all over a stack of my reports, ultimately pushing the image of the dark stranger out of my mind so I could focus on the newly burgeoning coffee crisis along with the numbers and contractual obligations and everything else that came up in the meeting.
At lunch, Chelsea informed me that, again, to her disappointment, she didn't find any men working at the site. But she did have something new to share. “Daddy, there's something strange about those rocks.”
“What's that Chel-bear?”
“Well, I don't think they're rocks at all.”
“They're all smooth and shiny. I've never seen any rocks in the wild as smooth and shiny as that,” she said, putting on her facial expression that declared to the world that she was an expert on the subject of the smoothness of natural rocks.
I frowned. “You didn't go messing about in that pile, did you Chel-bear?”
“Of course not, Daddy. I was just looking. And when no one turned up, I went on over to Teresa's. Her daddy just put up a tire swing!”
For a moment I contemplated telling her about the man in the black clothes and stove pipe hat, but then thought better of it. I didn't know what was going on down the street but I figured the less curiosity I could encourage about the subject, the better.
There was no more thought or discussion of the rubble at the end of the street until that evening. It was too hot to cook, so I made a quick salad and cut up some left over chicken for dinner and the two of us were eating on the back patio when Chelsea said, “Whatever they're doing, they're definitely digging.”
“Mmhm. There's a big old ditch just on the other side of the pile,” Chelsea said.
“Did you ever find someone to tell you what it's all about?” I asked.
Chelsea shook her head, clearly frustrated. “No. But I aim to find out,” she declared.
I think now, if it weren't for the new client and all the extra hoops my boss was making me jump through to make the new contract work, I would have put an end to things then and there. But as it was, I had to spend the evening running numbers as Chelsea watched TV, and the rubble pile was, yet again, pushed aside.
I didn't even think about it again until a few days later at lunch when Chelsea announced, “Daddy, I think those rocks are broken up tombstones.”
“Now what in the world would make you say a thing like that?” I said as my fork hovered between my plate and my mouth.
“Well, like I said, they're all smooth and shiny, and I think I saw some writing on some of them.”
“I think one little girl's imagination is running away with her, is what I think,” I said pointedly.
Chelsea responded with her patented scowl.
I was about to forbid her from looking into the pile any further, but I again remembered my youth, and realized that sometimes the quickest and surest way to make sure a kid does a thing is to forbid her to do it. So I let the subject drop.
We went back to our normal routine. Chelsea running out the front door, me slogging back to my office. Again, I spared the heap of rocks another look. The ditch, the man in black, Chelsea's assertion that they were crumbled up tombstones, it all just kind of balled itself up into one tiny knot of unease in my stomach, but then I stared at the mound and thought, Hell, it's just some rocks. Maybe the neighbor is digging them up to lay a new drive way. There were a ton of completely rational explanations, none of which were the least bit worth being scared of.
And that was all I thought about that until Chelsea came back home for supper with a big gray black hunk of something in her hand. She thrust it into my hand as I looked on, dumbfounded, and with a triumphant air, she put her hands on her hips and said, “I told you so.”
I looked down at the hard, heavy, mass in my hand. It was indeed smooth and polished on several of its sides, rough and irregular on others, and it was mottled gray and black, kind of like those fancy counter tops you sometimes see in newer kitchens. And there, on one of the smooth, glossy faces, was a carved upper-case T.
“For one, Chel-bear, this doesn't prove a thing. This could've come from a statue or a plaque, or a sign or anything. Just because someone carved some letters into a rock don't make it a tombstone,” I explained. “For another, I thought I said you weren't to be messing around with that pile? I made myself very clear; you were allowed to ask whoever was working what they were doing, and that was it!”
I didn't yell at Chelsea often; she rarely ever needed it. But when I did yell at her, she always looked so wounded—so hurt. “I'm sorry, Daddy,” she said in a small voice, and I... well, hell, I just gave her a hug and sent her to go wash up for supper.
I hoped the whole episode was over. I wanted it to be over. But when Chelsea came in for lunch the next day, any thoughts that the mystery of the rubble pile was a thing of the past were completely ruined.
“Daddy, that work. It has to do with dead people, I'm sure of it.”
Caught somewhere between inhaling my soup and spitting it back out, I ended up in a violent coughing fit that only made my temper worse. “Damn it Chelsea! I thought I made myself clear! Now this has gone on long enough, do you understand? No MORE!”
“No buts! You seem to have forgotten, young lady, that I am your FATHER! Is that clear?”
Her eyes wobbled in a pool of fledgling tears. Normally, that would have been enough to get me to at least calm down, but there was something about this whole business that just... I don't even know how to explain it. What I do know was that by now I was yelling, “IS THAT CLEAR?”
She didn't answer as tears spilled down her round cheeks and her lips quivered. Chelsea opened her mouth, almost as if to speak, but then, a glint of defiance shone through the tears and in a flash she pushed away from the table. There was a single searing moment where contempt flashed in her eyes towards me, and then I was watching as she ran out the house.
I was about to chase her down when my phone rang. I considered ignoring it, but if I ignored even one call from my boss, I could lose the telecommute privileges. Hissing curses under my breath I checked the phone and answered it.
I should have gone after her. I know that now. But next thing I knew, I was chained to my computer, hunting down all the technicalities my boss needed to make this new contract work.
The time for Chelsea to come home had come and gone. I was already worried when she stormed out of the house, but when the sun had started to get bloated and red and she still wasn't home, I felt myself on the verge of panic.
Outside, the shadows began to stretch and deepen, and the rock pile down the road took on a strange, dark, mysterious quality. Unsure what to do, and knowing I couldn't call the police when she had only been gone for a few hours, I started looking through the list of moms in my address book.
I bit back the worry in my voice as I called one after another, trying not to let the fear show even as I asked if they had seen my daughter. Each call ended up being a different variation of the same theme. No, sorry. Chelsea hasn't been here today. Is something wrong?
I was about to call the fifth mom when I heard the back door swing open and slam back shut.
“Oh, thank God,” I breathed, not even bothering to hang the phone back on its cradle. “Chel-bear, honey, I'm so glad you're...”
The words died in my throat, my muscles locking up as I turned the corner and stepped into the kitchen.
Pure, soul shattering, terror poured over me as I stared at the thing in my kitchen. It was a man, or at least once was a man, though how long ago was impossible to say. Where there should have been skin and eyes, there was now only bone, caked in black soil, eye sockets empty as they stared blankly back at me.
His clothes were once fine, a black tuxedo, maybe, or at least a good suit. But the shirt had been torn to shreds, revealing his ribcage, mottled gray with rot and earth. Underneath, I could make out shriveled, blackened organs, turned hard and formless with time, held in place by clumps of fetid soil.
One hand clutched a stove pipe hat, almost as though this thing was too polite to wear it indoors. His other hand rested on the shoulder of my baby girl.
Chelsea. Her skin was ashen, her hair, limp, and her eyes empty, almost as though they had been as hollow as those of the corpse beside her. That dead, empty gaze turned up to me, and in a small voice I could only just recognize as belonging to my daughter, she said, “I told you so.”