Old John Roe
I have lived in Pine Basin all my life. Today I am leaving.
My grandfather brought me to Pine Basin when I was 4. I never knew much of my father. He was young and he died young. My mother left me. I don’t remember anything about her. I don’t try to.
I do remember growing up in Pine Basin. I never much enjoyed the company of others, so to me the place was a blessing. I would climb, run, fall, laugh, all by myself. It was paradise for a child. Trees and lakes in the summer, snow-covered hills in the winter.
My grandfather was a young one as grandfather’s go, but he was just ripe enough to enjoy having me around. He loved me and he loved Pine Basin. He took me hiking through the woods when he had the time. When I thought I was old enough to look after myself, at the weary old age of 7, I began going on spontaneous little hikes of my own. I would venture off the trail and run through the brush until I was thoroughly lost. It was a foolish thing that could only be expected of a 7-year-old explorer, but being lost used to excite me. I never had much trouble finding my way home before dark, and I never listened much to the scolding I got afterward.
It was on one of these hikes of mine that I found her. The first one. She was in a copse below a rocky drop off I used to dangle my feet over. She wore a red backpack and had golden blonde hair that tangled with the pine needles on the ground. She had a broken green flashlight in her hand. I sat down beside her and asked her if she was ok. She said nothing. I sat by her a long time. I started to get chills and a sick feeling in my gut. I started to cry and I didn’t know why. I walked home long after dark. I told my grandfather about the woman in the forest.
He talked to me that night after the sheriff left.
“Who was she?”
“A girl from the city, son,” my grandfather had sat me down in a creaky wooden kitchen chair that I had sat down in so many times before. He plucked an apple from the bowl on the table and retrieved a knife to slice it with up from the cupboard. He pulled out his old hunting knife. He always told me I could have it when I was old enough. He sat down at the table and started cutting the apple into slices in weary, methodical motions. It calmed me down to watch him do this. I don’t know why. There was something about the sound and the smell of fresh fruit being sliced that calmed me down. Something in my grandfather’s slow steady movements that made me feel at peace. Maybe he knew that.
“She went hiking on her own and got herself lost in the woods,” he continued, pushing a plate of fresh apple slices across the table.
“But I get lost in the woods all the time and I always come home safe,” I said, still sniffing at odd intervals to keep my nose from running.
“She didn’t know the woods like we do,” he said, but the words were slow and cautious.
“I don’t get it, what happened to her…”
“The sheriff thinks she didn’t see the drop off and she fell,” he answered with reluctance.
“What if I’m in the woods and I fall?” I nearly choked on the words as the idea came to me.
“Well maybe she didn’t fall!” my grandfather interrupted before I could start crying again. “In fact, it looks like old John Roe’s handiwork to me. He probably gave her a push at the wrong time. But we know how to get rid of him don’t we?”
John Roe was my grandfather’s favorite imaginary villain for all the nastiness in the world. Whenever I was scared by bumps in the night and came running to him, he would say its only old John Roe up to his dirty tricks. He taught me my own ‘trick’ to get ride of him.
“Oh no you don’t John Roe, you leave when I say so,” I whispered.
“Exactly,” my grandfather nodded.
The dead girl changed me. John Roe had been as real to me as the boogeyman or the tooth fairy could be to a 7-year-old. But now he was as real as the woman lying on the forest floor.
My fear of John Roe became my parent, my master, my whole world. Everything I did, I did to keep John Roe away. When I shut the lights off in the cellar and ran up the creaking wooden stairs I could feel his breath on my neck. When I walked alone in the woods I could hear the soft crunch of his footsteps on the pine needles. When I lay awake at night I could feel his long pale fingers pawing at the edges of my bed.
oh no JOHN ROE, leave cause I say so.
I was 11 when I started to venture outside again. I met Jesse Berge at the lake during the summer. She was two years older than me. She had blonde hair and a black mole on her chin. She could hold her breath underwater for a full minute. She was the only real friend I ever had in Pine Basin.
Jesse was like me. Or like how I used to be. She loved the woods. We went on hikes together. We climbed trees. We threw rocks at the old Lakehouse windows. I was happy again for a while. I was a kid for a while.
Then on a Tuesday evening she came to my door.
“What do you wanna do?” I said pulling on my rubber boots. It had been raining and the road was slick with mud.
“I think we’re ready,” she said looking off into the pines.
“Ready for what?”
“The Crag,” she whispered. Suddenly she spun round and grabbed my head between dirty fingers, “THEEE CRAGGGG!” she yelled.
I pulled away from her clutches and fell backwards onto the edge of my porch.
“Oww! What did you do that for?” I muttered scrambling back to my feet, but she was already walking off into the woods. “Do you really want to- I mean do you think that-“ I started off after her.
“Yes today is the day we brave the Crag soldier,” she answered in her best adventurer voice. “It’s time we got… to the BOTTOM of it!” she spun around on the heel of her boot and a bright yellow light shone in my face, I threw my hands and squinted as she clicked off her favorite little red flashlight.
The Crag was the name we’d given to a particularly ominous looking hole in the ground in the rocky outcrops of the hills that stood just above my home. It was a little cavern wedged in between two boulders, with an entrance just big enough for someone our size to squeeze through. There was a rock face just behind the entrance, but if you pushed your back against the surface you could see a downward slope into a tiny cave opening. It was pitch black beyond that.
It gave me the creeps from the moment I found it. Neither of us had ever been down to explore it. We always had something else to do. Or at least I had always made sure we had something better to do.
I didn’t much like the idea of exploring the Crag, but I didn’t like the idea of Jesse thinking I was some scared little kid either. So I said nothing.
It was a quick hike to reach the outcrops. It started drizzling again as we made our way up there. Before I could think of an excuse to get myself out of the expedition we were there. Staring at the shadowed rock face of the entrance to the Crag.
“You ready?” she nudged my shoulder. I didn’t say anything. “You deaf soldier? I said ARE YOU READY?”
“Jess I don’t wanna go in,” I said, my voice cracking on the last word. It always cracked when I really didn’t want it to.
“Oh c’mon don’t be a wuss,” she gave me punch on my arm that made my fingers go numb.
“I really don’t wanna go in,” I said again, my cheeks flushed.
“You are an EMBARASSMENT soldier!” she shoved me, but she held back a little. She was quiet for a moment. She looked at the Crag, then back at me. “What if I go in first and I’ll come back for ya?” she said, her voice a little softer.
I nodded. I didn’t have any intention of following through but so help me I nodded. She smiled and clicked her flashlight on.
“All to shore that’s going ashore!” she yelled and stormed toward the opening. She was a head taller than me, and could barely squeeze herself through.
“Could use some a sliding glass door here, make the place a little more homey!” she yelled up from inside. Her voice echoed against the cave walls in a way that made my hair stand on end.
“It’s not as big as I hoped it would be,” she said with a sigh.
Then for a while she was quiet. My heart was loud in my ears, but I strained to listen, standing as close to the entrance as I dared. There was a crack like a branch breaking.
“Jesse!” I squeaked down the entrance. I had a horrible vision of her falling and getting herself hurt and me having to go down there for her. There was a terrible long silence.
“I’m fine,” she said finally. She didn’t sound fine. Her voice was weak, and suddenly I heard her feet scrambling up the stone slope to get out. Her head popped out of the darkness as she yanked herself out of the opening like she was being chased. She fell and scraped her knees on the rocks just outside the entrance. Her red flashlight slipped out of her hand and crashed against the ground, sending bits of glass flying every which way.
“What’s wrong?” I went to help her up but she brushed me off. Her hands were shaking.
“Nothing.” She whispered “Just… Someone messing with me- Are you messing with me?!” she grabbed me by the collar.
“What? No” I tried to pull away but she tightened her grip.
“So you never gone down there or- or done anything down there or- nothing?” Her eyes started to tear up a little as I stared back at her blankly. “Nevermind…” she said, suddenly letting me go. “I uh- I gotta go home, I want to go home for today.”
“Go home? Jesse what’s wrong?” I pleaded, unable to keep my gaze from drifting over to the Crag.
“Nothing I just- I’m going home. I’ll uh, I’ll see you later, ok?” She started off back down into the woods.
“Jesse what happened?” I called after her. She didn’t answer. She was already gone.
I was alone on the outcrop. Still staring into the Crag. I felt it staring back at me. I’ve always been curious. Too curious. It didn’t keep my hands my shaking. I picked up Jesse’s red flashlight. The bulb still worked. I stared into the Crag.
I was already crying as I edged my way into the opening. I could hardly see with all the tears in my eyes but I had to know. The entrance was just my size. I slipped in easy.
I don’t remember much except that it was cold. I remember that, and I remember what I found.
The cave wasn’t that big, about a fourth the size of my bedroom. The gray stone floor quickly gave way to slick sticky red. Littered all around the far side of the cave were the broken little bodies of rabbits, squirrels, ducks, and frogs. Some just tiny bits of bone, some still covered in slick red tissue. All of them skinned and posed in horrible positions like the cast of some nightmarish cartoon captured in a single still frame. All of them were facing the entrance of cave, waiting just for me. But that wasn’t what dropped me to my knees and sucked the air out of my chest. It was the writing on the rocky surface of the far wall that read in slick sticky red letters:
little boy don’t you know? don’t come lookin’ for JOHN ROE.
I withdrew. Jesse and me hardly spoke after that day. Mostly because I hardly left my room except to eat. My grandfather worried. I never told him about the Crag. Maybe it was because I didn’t want to admit it happened. It was much easier to pretend it was all some terrible nightmare.
My grandfather thought I was depressed. I guess I was, in a way. He tried to get me to go hiking with him again, to go fishing, to go swimming, to do anything outside of our house. I couldn’t. It was all I could do to exist. Every night I watched the sunset and felt the chills creep up down my back.
oh no JOHN ROE, Leave cause I say so.
I was 16 when the Hutchinson couple went missing. They were out of town hikers, a young couple from New Jersey. When they found them they said a bear had done it. But they weren’t searching for a bear. They spoke to just about everyone in town. Asking them questions about where they were on this day, how long they’d lived in Pine Basin, if they saw anything strange recently.
My grandfather had known Sheriff Braxton since he was a kid. One time after a night of long talks with every other person in Pike Basin he came to our house. He had dark circles under his eyes. When my grandfather asked him if he wanted a beer he nodded silently. They sat down on the porch together outside. I cracked the living room window open just enough to listen.
“Jesus Paul,” my grandfather shook his head. “That’s awful,”
“Yeah,” said the sheriff. “Yeah it’s about as awful as it gets around here.”
“Who could have done this?”
The sheriff was quiet for a moment too long. He took a drink.
“Someone who is very sick,” he said finally. There was no disgust in his tone, only a tired matter-of-factness that sent a chill through me.
“You’ll find him,” my grandfather said.
“The thing is, I don’t want to,” Braxton answered. There was another long silence. “He wrote something. The killer. He wrote something in their…skin. Five words on each body,
my name is JOHN ROE, people die when I say so.
What do you think that could mean?”
My grandfather was quiet. When he spoke at last it sounded like a child’s voice.
“I wouldn’t know.”
After that talk with the sheriff my grandfather put deer hunting cameras all over the outside of the house. He said he wanted to finally catch the kids that stole the change out of his truck. He started locking all the doors and windows at night. He said he didn’t want raccoons getting in. He bought a shotgun. He said he wanted to start hunting geese. He looked tired all the time.
It was a cold morning two weeks before my 18th birthday when I woke to the sound of a hushed conversation in the living room. As I entered Sheriff Braxton rose from the couch, he shot me a sideways glance and a slight nod. My grandfather sat in his worn leather chair, his eyes closed, his hands on his forehead.
The sheriff pulled his fur cap on tightly and walked to the front door. He looked back at my grandfather for a long moment, then said nothing as the door creaked open and slammed shut behind him.
“What did the sheriff want?” I asked, making my way slowly into the kitchen to start making breakfast. My grandfather looked up, and stared at the far wall of the living room.
“Oh nothing really. Just old friends, having a talk,” he was quiet as I sifted through the cabinet looking for the frying pan. “How did you sleep last night son?” he said suddenly.
“Alright I guess,” I answered. “I slept, so that’s something, but I had a terrible dream.”
“Hmm,” he said. He was quiet again for a time. As I broke eggs into the pan he rose from his chair and shuffled over to his bedroom. The door closed tight behind him. It wasn’t like him to pass up breakfast, but I thought nothing of it at the time.
I was nibbling at a messy omelet when he came out of his bedroom. He walked by the doorframe of the kitchen and paused for moment. He looked at me with sunken eyes. It almost startled me how old he looked just then. I thought he was going to sit down beside me, but instead he turned away and walked to the front door with heavy footsteps. He said he was going for a walk, I said nothing.
An hour later the entire Pine Basin police department arrived at our house. Jesse Berge had been murdered that night. It was John Roe’s handiwork. But John Roe had used my grandfather’s old hunting knife.
They found him after a few hours of craziness. He was in a copse, at the bottom of a drop off in the middle of the woods. It worked out just fine for the police. The job was already done and their hands were clean. It would be a whole new level of craziness for the news tomorrow.
They had a man in blue specially trained in grief counseling talk to me while they were searching for my grandfather in the woods. He told me his name but I didn’t hear him. It seems like I didn’t hear anything after they told me what had happened. What my grandfather had done.
“It is an odd case, I’ll admit,” the cop said to me. His face was covered with black whiskers that he would rub his thumb against whenever he ran out of things to say. “Not without precedent I suppose.” He turned over a page in his notebook and adjusted himself in my grandfather’s leather chair. “Says here there was a long history of schizophrenia in the family, along with several other mental illnesses of varying- severity,” he coughed to cut the sentence short. “It is true that you yourself have been taking medicine for depression correct?”
“Insomnia,” I corrected, the word pulling me out of a daze.
“Of course, right.” He said some more things. He talked for a long time. I didn’t hear much else though. I felt like I was falling, or drowning, or just- sitting there in a room with no air.
Sheriff Braxton was the last one to leave. None of the cops stayed long after they had found him.
“When a crime like this happens,” he said letting out a breath to give himself a moment to think. “It can be hard to believe.” He said eventually.
I nodded absently. I was sitting in my grandfather’s chair, staring at the coffee table as though it was the one talking.
“What I mean is, it can be hard to accept that the people we love are capable of- something terrible. No matter what mental state they may have been in.” he walked over to where I was sitting. I listened as his yellow rain slick shuffled with each step.
“I just want you to know that you’re not alone in this,” he put a hand on my shoulder. I could hardly feel it through my skin. I thought I should say thanks. I nodded instead. He was silent for a while. Then I heard the noise of the front door shutting and realized he had left.
I don’t know how long I sat there, in my grandfather’s chair. I couldn’t believe it. Not what my grandfather had done, but that I was still afraid. How much John Roe still terrified me. He was dead and he ruled my every thought. Still I could feel John Roe’s breath on my neck. Could feel him watching me through the windows. Knew that if I looked up I would see his twisted form sitting across the table from me, grinning at me with his horrible, twisted grin.
I rose from my grandfather’s chair. My heart had started to race. My head was light. It was dark outside, how long was I sitting there? I started walking to my bedroom, my hand trailing across the wall for support. I wanted to run but I forced myself not to. I felt tired. So tired of running and hiding. Tired of sleepless fearful nights and nervous ventures outside my room during the day. My heart was pounding in my chest. Its hollow beat thumping a rhythm in my ears. Run. Run. Run. But I was tired now. Tired of listening to that old beat.
I passed the door to my grandfather’s bedroom. It was open. I didn’t look inside. I knew without looking that he was there. At the faintest edge of my peripheral I could see him. I saw him standing there, pale hands hidden behind his back. A single crazed eye showing through the crack in the door. Watching me.
Run. Run. Run. My heart chanted. The door to my room was just down the hallway. Wide open. My little hiding hole so close. Safety, sanctuary from him waiting for me just down the hall. How easy to lock the door behind me. To curl up on my bed and recite the chant that ruled my life.
oh no JOHN ROE, you leave when I say so.
But I felt so tired. Tired and old. I must’ve had the same look on my face that my grandfather had that morning. I pushed the door to his bedroom open.
Empty inside. An unkempt bed with yellowed pillows. A cold mug of coffee from this morning on his nightstand. A bookshelf filled with cheesy paperback novels of every description. A desk where his bulky black laptop sat. And the glassy eye of the front porch camera, staring back at me from its perch atop a tangled pile of USB cord.
My blood went cold. I walked over to the desk. The old floorboards creaked and moaned beneath my feet. He was right behind me. I knew he was, stepping with care right behind me. Grinning his grin and watching always watching.
I sat down at the desk and woke the computer with a tap on the space bar. The front porch video from last night was open. I swallowed hard as I hit play.
Today, I am leaving Pine Basin. I am taking my grandfather’s truck. Packing what food I can find in it. Taking anything I can imagine needing with me.
I had been terrified to watch the tape from last night. Unable to keep my eyes on the screen but knowing I must watch on, knowing that I had to see him.
But when I saw John Roe open our front door with a smooth, methodical pull, when I saw him standing there on the porch clutching my grandfather’s hunting knife, when I saw his grinning face lit by nothing but moonlight on the grainy screen. I did not see my grandfather.
Never again will the fear that has ruled me haunt my dreams.
for after all this time I finally see, throughout the years JOHN ROE was me.