By Daniel Angelo Monaco
Elizabeth Bionel froze dead in her tracks and stared down Aisle 14 of the Handi-Mart in Baton Rouge, Louisiana because she knew instinctively, without looking around, that someone was watching her. Beside her, Erin and Katie, Betsy's two daughters, kicked and struggled to drag their mother down the aisle towards their goal.
"Mommy, the wood is this way!" The messy brown curls on Katie's head bounced all over the place as the seven year old yanked her mother's arm towards Aisle 14.
"Yeah, this way!" Erin was standing behind her mother, literally pushing on Betsy's backside with her little five year old hands. When it was clear that her hands weren't getting the job done, Erin started softly headhunting her mother's lower back, sending her dark chestnut pigtails flying in all direction.
But Betsy's tall, skinny body was stronger than it looked. She had been a track star in high school and played soccer in college, so despite her daughters' best efforts, Betsy's wiry hands held firm and her jogging shoes remained planted. In the end the only thing Katie and Erin had shifted were a few strands of dark black hair from Betsy's messy pony tail and the waistband on her Lululemon Yoga pants which was now riding all the way up to her navel.
She didn't care. There was no force on earth that could move Betsy Bionel into that horrible, horrible place, not even an angry kindergartner and an irate first grader.
Handi-Mart in Baton Rouge, Louisiana is one of those humongous hardware box stores, the kind that contain everything except the one thing that you actually need. The aisles seemed to rise up out of the floor like some kind of strange, well light forest. An endless capitalist wilderness in a strip mall wasteland.
Betsy actually hated everything about Handi-mart, from the way it looked and smelled to the way those large metal stacks seemed to loom over her like evil steel giants. If it had been up to her, she would have preferred to spend the rest of her day at home with a good book. But her husband was still out of town and the carport was still in desperate need of repairs, so Betsy and her girls had navigated the retail labyrinth in search of their supplies for nearly an hour. They found a new hammer on aisle five, a few nails on aisle seven, and a helpful sales clerk located some wood glue on aisle nine.
But as they came to the front of Aisle Fourteen, Betsy had suddenly gotten the overwhelming sensation that something was terribly wrong. At first she assumed it was nerves, Handi- Mart was not a kid friendly store and guiding two precocious little girls inside this kind of place could drive a woman a very specific kind of insane. Mom Crazy was what her husband liked to call it.
This didn't feel like that, it felt different. It almost felt like one of those primitive warnings from the base of her brain. It was the kind of thing that only parents could listen to.
There was no obvious reason why she should feel so afraid. Aisle 14 was part of Handi-Mart's large lumber yard and at the end of the aisle was a door that lead to the outside lumber storage. So every shelf between where Betsy was standing and that door was covered, floor to ceiling, with big pieces of bleached wood. No dangerous vats of chemicals, no sharp objects, just wood.
It was a little dark, but there was no air of palpable menace from the darkness. It was just that some of the over head lamps were being blocked by a stack of awkwardly placed particle board and the lights from the other side of the store were now casting long shadows down the length of the aisle's walkway.
However this was all still perfectly normal. Aisle Fourteen didn't look dangerous, Freddy Kruger wasn't standing at the end of the aisle giving Betsy the finger. The most that any rational person could say about Aisle 14 was "it's little dark and the 2x4s are overpriced." But to Betsy it still felt so evil. Like all the terrible things in the world condensed themselves into one, small retail space. She couldn't put her finger on it but an alarm bell was ringing in her head demanding that she do anything but walk down that particular aisle.
Katie and Erin both seemed unaware of their mother's unease and they started to fidget. "Mommy, let's go already!" Katie moaned.
"Yeah, let's go already." Erin was at the age where she would mindlessly repeat anything her big sister said because she thought Katie was the coolest person alive, "Let's go!" Erin repeated, "Go, go, go!"
As the girls moaned and whined beside her, Betsy felt the hairs stand straight up on the back of her neck. She could hear a little voice inside her brain pleading with her. 'Don't be stupid, turn around, leave'. So she put on her best fake smile and scooped Erin into her arms, "Come on guys, time to go."
"What about the wood, Mommy?" Erin asked as Betsy dropped her into the shopping cart's baby seat.
"I'm sure Mr. Horn has some extra wood we can borrow." Betsy tried not to look like she was rushing away but she did immediately twist the orange shopping cart 180 degrees in the other direction as soon as her daughter was secure.
"That's dumb," Katie muttered, "We're already here, let's just buy some wood!"
"Be quiet, Katie!" Betsy hadn't intended to snap at her daughter but the small voice at the back of her brain was getting louder and louder every second she spent next to Aisle 14. Her hand reached up and snatched Katie's wrist as if it had a mind of it's own and then Betsy was dragging her children across the store towards the exit.
She was so consumed with leaving that Betsy narrowly avoided running over one of her fellow customers who was pushing his own shopping cart in the opposite direction. He was an older African American man, maybe fifty, with white hair and a booming Caribbean style voice "Hey, watch it lady!" The man shouted as she zipped by.
By the time she stopped, Betsy was almost fifty feat from her original location and standing between aisles eight and seven. She felt so stupid, she looked stupid, and her daughters were about to have a tantrum right there in the store. For some reason she felt the need to turn around and take one last look at the thing that had scared her. She saw the man, the one who she'd nearly run over, pushing his shopping cart over the threshold of Aisle 14.
"That man is dead." The little voice inside Betsy's head whispered, "He's already dead."
The incident at Handi- Mart dwelled at the back of Betsy's mind for nearly a day and a half before she finally managed to let go of her creeping anxiety. The feeling that Aisle 14 had instilled in her felt silly now that she was in the safety of her own home. She laughed about it to herself and considered calling her husband, Ed, and telling him all about how absolutely silly she'd been. Within the week, the whole thing had been nothing more than an unpleasant memory.
Things changed on Friday night.
Betsy had been sitting in bed, letting the tv drone on in the background as she finished another chapter from Gravity's Rainbow when the universe reached across the void and smacked her with a dose of reality. "No," it said, "You don't get to pretend that whole thing didn't happen."
Betsy had only turned on the tv just for company. Her husband was still on his business trip and having the tv on at least let her pretend that she wasn't a 33 year old scaredy cat. Most of her full attention was on the book in front of her as Thomas Pynchon quietly stated his case that he was a fantastic writer. Then the network rolled the credits on it's final primetime drama and the local news broadcast burst on to the airwaves.
It's kind of an open secret among the American people that all local news shows look exactly the same. They have the same sets, same logos, and the same tired writing style presented by, if not by the same anchor, at least by a very similar guy with the same haircut. It was a dying medium that most people tended to ignore ever since they learned they could watch CNN and the Daily Show on their cell phones.
And Betsy was happy to ignore this time too until the serious sounding, dark haired man behind the news desk dropped a bomb right in her ear.
"...and in our top story tonight, Police say they still have no leads on disappearance of a local man." Betsy sat bolt upright in bed. No, she thought, it couldn't be.
"Lisa McCabe has more" The lead anchor said as he tossed the broadcast to a short, intense looking blond girl who looked fresh out of college.
"Jude Thomas has been missing for nearly a week and investigators claim that they are still no closer to finding him." The screen changed to b-roll shots crime scene tape and memorial wreaths and then suddenly it faded to a picture of a tall, smiling black man...nearly fifty with white hair, just like the man who entered Aisle 14. Betsy scrambled out of bed and almost pressed her nose against her small flat screen.
Lisa the reporter droned on through interviews with family, friends, and with a Baton Rouge police captain who stood under the glare of her camera and looked a little ashamed. "We are following all possible leads at this time but we have not ruled out foul play."
Finally, there was a heart wrenching shot of Jude's son, a skinny man probably the same age as Betsy, standing on the front porch of his father's home and wearing a t-shirt with Jude Thomas' face on it. There were tears in his eyes and the poor man looked like he hadn't slept in days, "My son keeps asking about his grandpa and I don't know, god...if somebody seen him just tell us cause not knowing is a living hell."
The broadcast returned to the studio where the lead anchor looked directly at the camera and said "Police are asking for anyone with information to call the BRPD tip line immediately."
That means you Betsy. The voice in her head whispered. She felt her breath rise, then fall in her chest and the edges of her vision went blurry as blood flooded into the capillaries around her eyes. For a brief moment, Betsy felt something awaken inside her.
On Saturday, Handi-Mart opened at 6 AM and Betsy wanted to be the first person through the door. She quietly left her daughters sleeping in their beds, then drove her minivan at break neck speed through the nearly deserted streets of suburban Baton Rouge until she saw the light of Handi-Mart's glowing sign in the gloomy predawn twilight. To Betsy, as she crossed the parking lot, the store looked like Castle Dracula rising out of the Carpathian Mountains.
Handi-Mart's early morning hours attracted a very specific kind of customer: male, usually, Hispanic, construction worker types who have just worked an overnight shift rebuilding somebody's house and were now buying supplies for their next shift the following night. They did not typically see that many skinny thirty something white ladies wearing Capri pants and a "Hillary 2008" t-shirt.
Betsy could feel everyone staring at her as she walked in and she worried some customer service person was going to follow her around the store. This investigation needed privacy, so she immediately grabbed an orange shopping cart and placed a single potted plant inside it to make it look like she was an actual customer. There, she thought sarcastically, nothing could possibly penetrate this masterful disguise.
She blazed through the store, run/walking past aisle 4 thru 9 and full on jogging past 10 thru13. Finally, Betsy arrived at the source of her fear.
Aisle 14 had not changed much in the week since Betsy had decided it was a gateway to hell itself. The store had a run of 4x6's on Thursday and they had restocked the 2x2's, but other than that Aisle 14 looked exactly the same: a little dark, a little boring, and utterly terrifying to Betsy Bionel.
She tried to use logic to dissuade herself. Betsy had been to this particular Handi-Mart hundreds of times, in fact she could remember walking down Aisle 14 to get to the garden supply on several of those occasions. Nothing had happened then and if she walked down that aisle, nothing would happen now. All of this nonsense was just in her head.
But Betsy still couldn't bring herself to step inside Aisle 14. She stood there, shivering and shaking at the front of the aisle for another ten minutes before a soft southern voice jolted her back to reality.
"Pardon me ma'am." It was an obese white guy, less than 35 years old, with a blond buzz cut and brown coveralls. He had a sheepish look on his face and Betsy wondered if it was because he was embarrassed to watch a woman's descent into madness.
Before she could respond the fat man pushed his own shopping cart past Betsy into the aisle, leaving her hyperventilating between the aisles. Suddenly the situation became desperate. She wanted to stop him but her own sense of self-preservation pushed that thought away. What could she say? The English language lacked the words that allowed her to explain to him the terrible fate that obviously awaited him while also keeping her from being locked up in the funny farm.
"Uh, you have a real good morning now." He muttered, still sheepish, and Betsy had to physically restrain her left arm with her right arm to keep it from reaching out and grabbing his shoulder.
Then he was inside, walking past the no man's land where a display of caulking guns shielded the world from Aisle 14's evil. She wanted to close her eyes but she was paralyzed with terror as the man waddled his way down the aisle. She held her breath and braced for the worst. Was he going to just die right in front if her?
No, he wasn't. Absolutely nothing happened. Betsy saw him lumber down Aisle 14 like a Rhinoceros in search of building supplies. Nobody attacked him, a hole didn't open in the floor and eject him into hell itself, the portly fellow was perfectly fine.
Two conflicting emotions passed through Betsy at the same time. First was relief, because she didn't have to watch a man die a horrific death. The second was annoyance, because that stupid son of a bitch had the gall to not die a horrific death and confirm that she wasn't going insane. How dare he!
"You're okay!" She blurted.
Betsy winced because she hadn't actually intended to shout like a lunatic. Instead she was just supposed to softly expel the words in a classy whisper like that pretty brunette girl does on Doctor Who.
"Beg pardon?" The Fat man was less sheepish this time and instead seemed legitimately in fear for his life. He looked at Betsy the way most people look at that crazy old lady who feeds pigeons in her wedding dress.
"Nothing. Sorry." She tried to smile to put him back at ease but it came out as a grimace. The Fat man returned to his shopping but continued to sort of glare at her over his shoulder every few seconds. When it was clear that absolutely nothing was going to happen to the nice fat person, Betsy released a deep sigh. She felt like an idiot, she looked like a crazy person, and now people were starting to notice.
She felt angry, relieved, annoyed...and something else. Betsy felt something strange at the back of her brain as her pulse started to slow. Was this...disappointment?
Betsy also felt exhausted. She imagined curling up under the covers of her king sized bed and pretending the last week had never happened. She turned away from Aisle 14, giving it one last look over her shoulder before turning her head in the opposite direction.
She was barely four steps away from the front of the aisle when Betsy heard a strange snapping sound from somewhere inside the aisle, followed by a loud bang.
Suddenly Betsy’s body was in motion as she turned and pivoted back into the front of Aisle 14, poking her head just far enough to see into the aisle.
The Fat Man was gone, vanished into thin air, and his shopping cart was on it’s side in the middle of the aisle.
The wheels were still spinning.
Betsy drove faster than she’d ever driven in her life to get home and it defied all logic that no one pulled her over. Her foot had glued itself to the gas pedal the entire trip, as the oversized domestic machine pushed way past it’s redline. When she got to the twin lion statues that marked the front of the Dunsany Street Neighborhood, Betsy turned off the minivan’s traction control, pulled the handbrake, and then revved the vehicle’s engine to execute perfect front-wheel-drive drift.
How Betsy had learned to perform such an elite racing maneuver in a large family vehicle was a long complicated story but it was something she hadn't needed to do in a long time.
The vehicle zipped down Dunsany Street, turned into the drive way of 1101 Dunsany, and slipped into Betsy’s empty carport like a knife cutting butter. Then Betsy leapt from the van’s driver seat, leaving the door open behind her as she bounced inside the kitchen door and slammed it shut.
Then she locked it. Then she braced a chair under the door knob. Then she locked the kitchen window and closed the blinds. Then the next thing she knew, Betsy was running around the house, locking doors and windows and drawing shades in a blind panic, as if the mere sight of the outside world was some kind of poison.
By the time it was all over, Elizabeth Ann Bionel was perched on the living room couch of her five bedroom antebellum home while clutching a baseball bat to her chest.
She had just seen a man die, nothing in the world would convince her otherwise and she knew that in a few days the news would have another missing persons report about another poor soul now missing in the city of Baton Rouge. She sat there, in the dark, for about ten minutes before a tiny voice shook her back to reality.
“Mommy?” Betsy turned to see her daughter Katie standing on the stairs in her Wonder Woman PJs, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes.
Betsy cleared her throat and forced herself to calm down, “Y-yes baby?”
“Why is it dark in here?”
That was a good question, why was it dark in here? What did she hope to accomplish by locking herself inside her own home? Betsy shook her head and shrugged, “I don’t know, baby.”
“Ok,” Katie said with a yawn, “Do you want a hug?”
Betsy felt a small sigh rise in her throat, “Sure.”
Then the little girl climbed up the front of the couch and snuggled herself into Betsy's grasp. A great calm fell over her and she felt her head begin to clear. She put the baseball bat on the floor and grasped her daughter with both arms. Her heart stopped racing and an incredible sense of calm spread through her.
“Do you feel better, Mommy?”
She took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of her daughter’s bubblegum shampoo. “Yes.” Betsy said finally, “Yes I do.”
“Good.” Katie climbed down from her mother and started running towards the kitchen, a few seconds later and Betsy heard the sound of sugary cereal hitting the inside of a plastic bowl. She sat there, listening to her daughter preparing breakfast and a suddenly a thought struck her: No one else was going to believe her.
It was a sobering realization because it presented two very terrifying possibilities. If she had hallucinated what she had seen, if that big fat carpenter was currently at home with his beloved big fat family, then Betsy was crazy and she needed to be committed. But what if she wasn't crazy? What if that man was dead and more people were going to die right behind him. What could she possibly say to the police that wouldn't get her locked in a psyche ward?
She turned that thought over in her head for a little while. Yes what could she say? What was she going to do, walk up to a cop and say "the Handi-Mart is eating people!" No, Betsy thought, you need proof if you're going to say something insane like that.
Betsy got up from the couch and stuck her head into the kitchen. Katie was happily munching away on a bowl of sugary cereal, "Sweetie, where did you put Daddy's iPad, I need to look up something on the internet."
Katie's mouth was full of cereal but she still managed to mumble out the words "In the library" between bites.
"Thank you. When your sister wakes up, remember to pour a bowl for her," Betsy turned to leave but then remembered she was a mother and poked her head back into the kitchen, "And don't talk with your mouth full."
Katie responded by mumbling again through another huge bite of cereal and sprayed bits of food everywhere, "Okay Mommy!"
Betsy shook her head sadly as she left the kitchen, her daughter had the table manners of a Mongolian War Lord.
In the library, she found the family iPad sitting face up on the coffee table in the middle of the room. It was surrounded by small action figures representing characters from the film Frozen. The characters were standing around the iPad in various poses and gazing into it's surface as if it was some kind of magic mirror. Betsy thought that was an amusing way of looking at the tablet, like some sort of magic device from a fairy tale. "IPad, iPad, on the desk," She whispered, "help me get this crazy secret off my chest."
With a few taps of her fingers, Betsy opened the web browser and started searching Google. It didn't take her long to find what she was looking for. She reached for a pen to write down the address, then stopped when she saw her face reflected in the black edges of the tablet. The face she saw staring back at her was an old acquaintance. Someone she hadn't seen in a while.
Later that day, Betsy climbed from her husband's sedan and stepped into the muggy heat of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana.
Originally, she had worried that it would be hard to find a babysitter at the last minute but Mrs. Potter up the street said she would be happy to keep an eye on the girls for a few hours. Although Mrs. Potter also kept asking a bunch of questions, subtly prying into why Betsy was dumping her poor children in the middle of the day on a poor old woman.
Knowing that Mrs. Potter was the neighborhood gossip and that any answer Betsy gave was going to become part of the Dunsany Street rumor mill the moment it left her lips, She decided to remain neutral. "It's a family emergency." She said carefully. Then she threw on her best pants suit, grabbed a digital tape recorder, and set off across the river to the swamp filled parishes that made up Cajun Country.
She made it over the bridge in record time and when the sedan's wheels rolled to a stop in Saint Martin Parish, it was barely two o'clock. The summer sun was still high in the sky and beat down on Betsy like a baseball bat. Many of the areas around the tiny town of Breaux Bridge were undeveloped to the point of being primordial, with Bayous that were overflowing with life. Even within the city limits, Betsy could hear bullfrogs singing and crickets chirping in the tall grasses. A dragonfly flitted gracefully through the air, landed on the hood of the Audi sedan and then took off again in search of Mosquitos to eat.
Betsy could have stayed there listening to those frogs and crickets all day but she had come to Breaux Bridge for a purpose and so she refocused her eyes towards the small brown house that was her goal and began climbing up the steps, towards the front door. She had barely reached the top step when the door opened and an old man and a dog limped into the fresh air of the front porch. He was a thin, skeletal old thing, with paper thin flesh stretched across pale wrinkled skin.
Although his sudden appearance unnerved her, Betsy stuck to her cover identity and flashed a big smiled, "Good afternoon, Mr. Rabin, my name is-"
The old man held up a hand to stop her, "Not yet." He muttered. Then the old man, Morris Rabin was his name, hobbled over to the end of the porch where a ratty old lazy boy recliner was waiting for him. He settled his thin form into the chair, waited for the dog to leap into his lap, and then reached his skeletal hand into a nearby Styrofoam cooler so he could remove a bottle of Abita beer. Once the cap was off the beer, and not one second before, Morris made a motion with his hand for Betsy to continue.
"Hello," Betsy was a little more careful this time and toned down her smile a little, "My name is Betsy Bionel, I called earlier?"
Morris gave her a withered look, the same look all old people gave younger folks who treat them like they're stupid.
"Obviously you remember me," She paused for Morris to reply but the old man just took another sip of beer and said nothing, "I'm a staff writer for the Independent News Service and I'm doing a story on a historical event you may have been involved in, can I have a second your time?" Betsy handed Morris one of her old business cards, one of the 2,000 cards she'd found in the attic of her house.
Technically, nothing Betsy had said was a lie.
Before her daughter Katie was born, Betsy had worked as a field reporter for the INS Wire Service and she had traveled around the world covering riots, wars, protests, court cases, and elections in developing countries. She really had been a reporter…she just wasn’t one at the moment.
Morris Rabin looked the card over and then coolly handed it back to Betsy, taking a deep pull of beer with his other hand. “Cut to the chase.” He muttered sharply.
The old man’s voice had a sharpness that almost made Betsy step backwards “I beg your pardon?”
“I am 82 years old and I haven’t got very much time left on this earth. If I wanted to spend that time listening to some Yankee girl rattle on I woulda moved ta’ New York City. Begging your pardon, ma’am, but does it look like I live in New York City? Another sip of beer passed the old man’s lips and then he motioned in her direction with the bottle, “So just come right out and drop the other shoe on the-“
Betsy broke in, sensing that the old man was working his way up into a rant, “Actually, Mr. Rabin I wanted to talk to you about the Bluebonnet Woods Case from 1959.”
The change that came over Morris Rabin was instant and absolute. Betsy could see every single muscle tense up under his wrinkled skin as a sudden twitch appeared in the muscle beneath his right eye. He seemed to stop breathing for a moment then gasped when he immediately remembered that oxygen was a basic ingredient for life, “Why in god’s name would anyone want to talk about that?”
There was no other chair on the porch, just an empty five gallon bucket made of white plastic. The bucket’s origins were lost to time since decades of wear and tear had wiped away any brands or symbols but it was still sturdy enough to support a human posterior so Betsy dragged it across the porch. She held the bucket up for Morris’ inspection. “Mind if I take a seat?”
She phrased the sentence like a request but then Betsy settled on the bucket without waiting for the old man to actually give her permission. This was an old reporter trick, sit down before anyone tells you to leave to make the subject treat you like a guest and not a visitor. She spoke again, still all smiles as if she’d known Morris Rabin for years and this was simply a social call, “As I said on the phone, we’re doing a story on local history and lesser known historical events and we think people might be interested-”
The old man’s eyes refocused on Betsy’s face and his mouth twisted into a scowl. Whatever memory he had been lost in, he was back now and feeling bitter. “God damn it. God damn…didn’t the report tell you anything? It was all in my report, I told the whole story there.”
Betsy felt like she’d suddenly walk into a movie theater after the feature had already y started, the report she’d read had been cut and dry and thin as flatbread, “What story?” She asked.
Morris fidgeted in his seat and looked around, as if nervous over who was listening. Finally he leaned across the gap between them in a low voice whispered two words. “The one about the Hidebehind.”
Jackpot, Betsy thought.
Morris Rabin sat back in his chair and started to nervously rock back and forth. The springs in the old recliner strained each time his back tapped the body of the chair. His dog seemed to sense the change in it’s master and reached up to lick the old man’s chin for comfort. He pushed it’s shout away and then set the old canine on the porch next to his chair. The dog sat down but refused to leave the side of it’s master. “I don’t suppose you know what I’m talking about.”
“Not really,” Betsy said, “The news archives I found online just said that the Baton Rouge Police department never closed the case, they never mentioned that they had a suspect.”
Morris shook his head and Betsy could almost hear the bones creaking from the movement, “Never said they did and far as I know they still don’t, especially if they ignored what I told them back then. So I guess I’m telling you what I know to be the truth. I assume that’s why you drove all the way out here, for the truth?”
Betsy was tempted to ask another question but decided against it after seeing the twitching muscles at the edge of Morris’ mouth made her stay quiet. This man wanted to talk, had to talk, asking questions would interrupt that. Instead she just nodded.
“It was summer, right around this time of year, in ‘59,” Morris’ voice took on a far off quality as he vanished into the depths of his memories, “I was 27, I’d been working as a Deputy in Baton Rouge since I got home from Korea and I honestly thought I’d seen it all but then the reports started pouring in from the people who lived around Bluebonnet swamp, they claimed someone was going around kidnapping pets.”
Her brow furrowed and she felt a frown starting to form on her face, “Pets?” Betsy asked, “Just pets?”
Morris nodded, “We used to joke about it at the station, for the first few weeks we called it the Kitty Cat Crime Spree.” There was a ghost of a smile on the old man’s face as he briefly remembered some of those good times. The memory must’ve turned sour because suddenly his lips tightened back into a thin, sad line.
“This isn’t easy for you.” Betsy observed.
“Not at all,” Morris replied, “So you’ll have to pardon me, I’ve never actually talked about this with anyone.” He sighed and reached back into the Styrofoam cooler near his chair, pulling out another bottle of Abita, “Pretty soon we started getting reports that people were going missing too and the whole thing…suddenly it stopped being funny.”
The hairs on Betsy’s neck started stand at attention as he spoke and a creeping sense of danger started to settle in the pit of her stomach. It was the same feeling she had when she’d had been standing in that store in front of Aisle 14. “How many people went missing?”
“Fifteen in all, towards the end of July we averaged about two missing person complaints every two weeks. People would go into the woods and just disappear, vanish into thin air. We’d find their cars on the side of the road, grocery bags, and purses. One victim even left her shoes behind. It was like some had just lifted them right up off the ground and they had fallen off her feet.”
“And you claim it was something called the Hidebehind?” She asked. Morris nodded.“But what is a Hidebehind?”
The old man fidgeted in his seat, then downed the last of his beer, “When I was a boy, my grandpa used to tell me stories from when he worked at a lumber camp up north, it was a tough job with long hours and terrible pay but the worst, he said, was when night fell because that was when the Hidebehinds came out. I remember he told me that they moved fast, faster than the human eye and when you tried to look at them, they’d step behind a tree or a bush or something and that it was impossible to look them in the eyes unless they grabbed you first and once they had you, they never let go. They’d grab you and eat you up right there on the spot.” He sighed, “I always assumed it was just a funny little campfire story he’d tell to scare kids but then all those people started disappearing and…I don’t know…I told all of this to the Sheriff years ago and they sent me to a damned head shrinker. Delayed stress from Korea, they claimed, and I had to ride a desk for six months. Must’ve kept it out of the reports too….” He let his voice just trail off into the distance as if he’d stopped breathing again. Finally, he unfroze and nervously reached for another beer.
Seeing a pattern in how Morris Rabin needed to work up his courage, Betsy waited until the cap was off this third beer before asking her next question, “But why would you believe it was some monster living in those woods? It could’ve been-“
“Because I could feel it!” Morris shouted and Betsy jumped back suddenly, he was so angry. Even after all of these years, she could hear the anger and frustration in his voice. He still felt helpless, “Every time I stepped on to one of those crime scenes, every time I drove through those woods I could feel something watching me. I would get sick, sick to my damned stomach because I just knew there was something out there in those damn woods. Not all the time, just some of the time, and that was how I knew it was one of them things, because int he stories grandpa told me, there was always a few people who could sense when those monsters were awake.”
Betsy did her best to deliberately sound a little skeptical but inside her stomach was doing jumping jacks, “You felt it.”
He nodded. “That’s the thing about Hidebehinds, you can’t see ‘em till it’s too late so you gotta just…feel for them.” He seemed to regret saying that and bit his lip as soon as the sentence had left his mouth.
“Did they ever find anyone?”
“Sheriff Clemmons wanted to call in the FBI but there were elections coming up, the damn politicians didn’t want to see the words “serial killer” in the headlines.” There was a hint of disgust in Morris' voice, like he still wasn't over the sting of those murders, “They just covered the whole thing up. Pretended it never happened. And for fifty five years I haven’t been able to bring myself to drive down Bluebonnet road without getting a sick feeling in my damn stomach.” Rabin finished the third beer, which made sense. Once you started talking about a monster snatching people in the woods suddenly three bears before three o’clock felt normal.
Great, now I want a beer, Betsy thought darkly.
“So they never looked into this…Hidebehind thing?”
“Course not.” Morris said sharply, his voice almost seemed to spit at her, either because she had asked a stupid question or because he felt betrayed by discovering that 55 years ago someone ignored him, “Some deputy sheriff starts talking about invisible monsters in the woods, would you take that seriously?” He reached down for beer number four and she could see his thin fingers shaking, “Still,” He muttered, “They could’ve at least put it in the damned report.” Morris stopped suddenly, mid-way through opening the beer and then looked at Betsy with a side eyed glance, “I ain’t crazy, I know I sound crazy but I’m not and you tell your readers that when you write the story.”
“Your readers, remember to explain to them that Morris Rabin ain’t nuts.”
Betsy felt an embarrassed blush creep into her face as she realized that she had forgotten all about her cover story, she rushed to pick it up again, “I assure you Mr. Rabin, I will be very delicate in how I present your information.”
“You better.” He muttered.
Suddenly a thought struck her, something she’d forgotten to ask before. “Mr. Rabin, I’m still unsure where the Bluebonnet Woods are, I know that there’s a Bluebonnet Swamp, is that what you-“
Morris shook his head, “Naw, you won’t find it on a map. Bluebonnet woods was what we called the land around Bluebonnet Swamp. It wasn’t anything formal, just an acre of trees everybody called Bluebonnet woods.”
“But where is it?”
“Gone.” He said sharply, “They cut most of it down in the 90s when the area got redeveloped.” Morris took one more sip from his bottle, “They put up one of them…watch-cha-ma-call-its….it’s one of them...some kind of box store.”
A chill ran up Betsy’s spine, “A Handi-Mart?”
“That’s the one!”
The Baton Rouge Handi-Mart closed at 10 PM on Saturdays and didn’t open again until Monday, in accordance with the Handi-Mart Corporation’s “deep Christian values”. So if breaking into Handi-Mart at night was so important, Betsy could have waited until Sunday night instead of Saturday.
But she wanted to get this over with. She wanted to know, once and for all.
Betsy had returned home from Morris Rabin's house, picked up her daughters from Mrs. Potter, and hastily arranged for Mrs. Patel's daughter to come over and baby sit. She handed the girl fifty dollars as a thank you for taking the job on short notice. Then she gave her daughters a kiss on the cheek and an overly long hug before grabbing her bag and rushed out of the house to her car.
Betsy was very generous with the hug and the kiss…they had to last a lifetime if she didn’t come home.
From there, Betsy traveled across town to the 24 hour storage locker she rented without her husband’s knowledge and retrieved the tools that she thought she’d never need to use again. The ones she used to break into places when she was a teenager.
When Betsy had turned fifteen, between her Aunt Rose’s death and her parent’s trial separation, she had acted out her feelings in a number of rather disturbing ways. She took up smoking, snuck beers, shoplifted makeup…and broke into box stores. Twenty of them, actually, all across Westchester County, New York. She had been good at it too and at one point, the New York Post started covering her crimes and dubbed her the “Box Store Bandit” with articles that used words like “Police Baffled” and “Ring of professional thieves”.
She hadn’t actually taken it very seriously, it was just something Betsy did when she felt angry or upset. When her favorite aunt died, she broke into a Wal-Mart and stole some CDs. When her parents started fighting she broke into a JC Penny’s and stole some clothing. When her father moved out of the house six days before Thanksgiving and her brothers stopped speaking to one another, Betsy broke into a shopping mall and stole 2,000 dollars from Macy’s. She never kept the things she stole, usually just abandoning it somewhere or donating it to Goodwill, because she wasn’t doing it to steal, she did it because it was a small way to feel a modicum of control in a life that was totally out of control.
The following year, her parents got back together and Betsy’s home life returned more or less to normal. Her urge to just bust open a safe or steal a designer dress got smaller and smaller and eventually Betsy’s inner thief went to sleep.
Across the street, the lights inside the front of the store finally dimmed and Betsy watched as the last of the store’s employees as they exited the store via the side entrance, suddenly every nerve ending in her body started to crackle with electricity. It was like she had been chosen for this task. A single, very specific job that involved a very specific skill set she happened to be very good at. She waited until after the last car left the parking lot and it was just Betsy and the Retail Store of Darkness alone in the night. She slid from the driver’s side of the minivan, locked the door and carefully started to walk across the street. Tonight she was using all the old tricks.
For instance, Betsy had chosen her hiding spot to watch the store very carefully, it was on a residential street just across from the Handi-Mart, just out of camera range, and it was the kind of place where no one would look twice at a mini-van parked under a tree. Driving to the robbery in the mini-van, was also a very deliberate choice. Nobody expected someone to be casing a joint in a soccer mom-mobile. The clothing she was wearing was both covert and nonchalant. It was a black jacket, black jeans, with a simple scarf around her neck and some simple gloves. To anyone who saw her, she would just be an ordinary, stylishly dressed lady out for an evening stroll.
But once she turned the corner to the employee entrance of the store, out of view of the parking lot’s cameras, Betsy could pull the scarf over her face and remove her lock pick set from the waistband of her pants. She started running, crouching down as she ran quickly between the long shadows of the poorly light side alley. Soon she arrived at the rear door, within arm’s length of the door’s lock.
She paused for a moment, briefly wondering how out of practice her fingers would be when attacking the lock, but the torsion wrench and the pick slid into the cylinder with incredible ease. Within moments she was rewarded with a light click as the pins lifted free of the cylinder. Then the metal security door slid open on it's stiff, heavy hinges, revealing the darkened employee break room on the other side.
A loud beeping sound filled the air and Betsy dashed inside the dark room where she could just make out the glowing buttons of the store's alarm system attached to a nearby wall.
The security systems inside of most large retail chains was usually above average. Each year, the corporations that owned these stores would perform a detailed quantitative analysis of how each store's loss prevention unit could be upgraded or improved, so the system inside of Handi-Mart was probably unhackable, unbreakable, and tough to deactivate without access to the building's phone line. But these systems had a fatal flaw which Betsy had figured out how to exploit: they were designed to be turned on and off by people and people were stupid.
Each system needed to have a four or five digit code that every manager and assistant manager inside the store would need to be able to remember it. So if you knew enough about Handi-Mart’s corporate structure it was possible you could guess what the code might be. As the beeping accelerated, Betsy typed in the corporate ID number she found on the Handi-Mart website, pressed enter, and the beeping stopped
And then it was just Betsy, alone in the store. She didn’t bother with the lights, since it might raise the suspicions of anyone passing by, instead she used the small flashlight she kept in her pocket. It’s nine tiny LEDs cut into the darkness in front of her as she journeyed deep into a retail heart of darkness. She emerged from the employee break room near the backside of Aisle 1 and she immediately turned left, using the wall to guide her towards her goal.
All of the things that Betsy hated about Handi- Mart were amplified by the darkness. It was still a big, unnerving place but now it’s stacks seemed to stretch upward into the dark, looming out of sight like sky scrapers. In front of her the shelves seemed to have no end, appearing and disappearing as they moved beyond the beams of her flashlight.
She pushed forward, deeper into the Handi-Mart. She passed Aisle 5, Aisle 6, 7, 8…then 10…11…13...and then finally at 14, arriving at the backside of the aisle where almost everything was exactly how Betsy had left it that morning.
The beam from the flash light did not reach past seven feet before growing dimmer towards the middle of Aisle 14. The far end of the Aisle, the part that opened onto the front of the store was a mystery, cloaked in darkness and only allowing vaguest shapes to reach her eyes through the gloom.
She stared into the aisle for a moment, waiting for something to happen. Nothing did and Betsy began to get anxious standing in the middle of darkened store, waiting for nothing. So she started to step, carefully, into Aisle 14. She picked up a 2x4 as she passed and brandished it in front of her like a sword. Her breathing grew ragged and she could hear the sound of her own heartbeat with every step into the aisle.
Betsy moved gingerly at first and then her speed quickened into a brisk, steady pace, then she kept her eyes peeled at the beam of light in front of her as it illuminated the aisle. She stepped closer and closer, edging closer to the point where she had seen the fat carpenter standing that morning.
And as she got closer, one of the shadows seemed to move. Betsy felt a shiver run up her spine and stopped dead in her tracks.
Every time she blinked it was in a different place in the aisle, first on a shelf, then on the floor and then closer. Finally it stopped within arms reach of Betsy and she saw it just in front of her, something black and round, like a giant ball of shadow.
Betsy stepped closer and suddenly the ball began to unravel and it bloomed into an elongated shape. Slowly it rose from the floor and drew itself up to it’s full height, more than six feet tall. She stepped closer and the beam of her flashlight revealed more and more of the shadow’s shape and form. What she thought was solid darkness was really hair, long black fur that draped over rippling muscles. What she thought was the base of a pillar was really a pair of powerful legs that ended in two clawed feet. And then arms branched out from the body, sprouting like tree limbs from an evil sapling, spreading and growing.
Suddenly she remembered what Morris Rabin had said to her: you can’t see them until it’s too late. Betsy felt her throat suddenly go dry, without waiting for the beast to sprout anymore limbs, she turned on her heels and ran for her life.
The Hidebehind, now fully awake, opened it’s mouth and roared at her retreating figure. It was a horrible sound, part bat screech and part wolf howl, a long low ugly sound that make Betsy’s back teeth vibrate.
Betsy didn’t need to look over her shoulder she could feel it’s footsteps in her chest and could hear it’s claws scraping against the polished concrete. It was faster than her, so much faster than any mere mortal, she knew she would never outrun it. So Betsy took a deep breath and mustered enough courage to turn and face it.
The flashlight beam seemed to strike the creature like a baseball bat and the beast recoiled from the sudden brightness. In that beam, Betsy finally got a good look at the Hidebehind and she realized she was probably one of only a handful of people in history who would ever get to see a monster like this.
It was part ape, part crab. With long powerful arms that ended in clawed hands that seemed stronger than any human limb on the planet. It’s body was covered in a thick, jet black fur that smelled like dust and decay. It had no ears that she could see but it did have a small, pushed in nose like a pig or a bat. It’s eyes were huge and seemed to bulge out of it’s head, big yellow pupils set in red rimmed sockets. But it’s mouth was the worst. Instead of a lower jaw, the beast was fitted with a pair of jagged mandibles that could open almost impossibly wide, revealing a tooth abyss and a small, vestigial forked tongue.
The Hidebehind shrieked again and Betsy was jolted out of her terror by the sound. She reacted quickly, moving without thinking, and threw the 2x4 she was still carrying like a spear at the center of the creature’s chest. The beast whimpered when the wood connected and it seemed to freeze in the spot, it had never faced a meal that fought back before. No one had ever dared strike the King of Aisle 14 before!
Betsy used the monster’s indecision to her advantage and started running again, leaving the beast to whimper and scream in the darkness behind her. She reached Aisle 1 in only 30 seconds and stood at the entrance to the loading dock. She could see the exit hanging open just there in front of her and she could feel the fresh air coming in from the still open break room door at the end of the hall. If she wanted to, she could leave. Just go and leave the Hidebehind here in the darkness.
Then she remembered that poor man’s family on tv, sobbing their eyes out for a man who would never come home. She pictured all those people it had killed back in the fifties. Was she really going to leave this thing here in the dark to continue to murder and feed on innocent people? She looked down Aisle 1 and saw the huge steel shelves spread out in front of her. She wondered if somewhere in all of that merchandise was something she could use to kill the monster.
Or, Betsy thought, maybe all of that merchandise could kill the monster. It was an interesting idea, this shelf was lined with hundreds of tools and dangerous metal objects, maybe she could turn the shelf itself into a weapon.
It was a risk but Betsy didn’t have any time to find a better plan, someone where in the darkness she could hear the Hidebehind searching for her and squealing with rage.
Betsy started to climb the shelf closest to the wall, using her arms to pull her self to the second shelf and then standing on a heavy pressure washer to get to the third shelf. Finally she was standing on the very top, looking down at the floor below and she felt the shelf buckle underneath her. It was unsteady, unused to holding the weight of a living person and Betsy suddenly felt a lot better about this plan.
As the Hidebehind moved into the Aisle, Betsy started to shout and scream and make as much obnoxious noise as she could. “Come and get it! Free food on Aisle 1! Dinner is served!” She shouted as she waved the flashlight like a beacon.
She locked eyes with the beast on the floor below and saw it hesitate. It’s body language made it seem wary and unsure, almost frightened by how much noise and trouble this little interloper was causing. It was not used to playing hide and seek like this. Somehow this little human was the monster hiding inside the store and the hidebehind had become it’s prey.
The role reversal was amusing and Betsy couldn’t help but smile wickedly, “Come on!” She yelled, “Come and get me, you coward!” It didn’t under stand the words but the beast seemed to sense that it was being mocked and it growled at her, a low threatening sound. It’s rage got the best of it and it started to climb up the shelves after her. It came quickly, it’s long arms pulling it’s body upwards with an alarming speed.
Betsy braced herself, she waited until the Hidebehind was nose to nose with her. She could see it’s hideous face, hear the sound of it’s breathing and feel it’s hot breath.
“I am not afraid of you!” Betsy whispered as she pushed against the wall, pulling the unsteady shelf with her and bring the whole structure downward.
And then Betsy’s view was filled with a kaleidoscope of falling objects passing by her face as she fell towards the ground. She looked over her shoulder as she fell and saw the Hidebehind falling with her, it’s long arms swinging wildly as it tried to grab on to something, anything to stop it’s fall. She arrived at the ground, releasing her flashlight as she fell and as the ground rushed up to meet her.
She landed on her right side, colliding so hard with the concrete floor that Betsy felt all of the air rush from her lungs. A sudden, sharp pain in her chest told her that at least one rib had not survived the trip intact and she felt her body instinctively curl into a ball to protect the injured area.
The Hidebehind was not as lucky. When Betsy had pushed the shelf into the aisle the beast had been trapped underneath the collapsing display. The industrial power washer that Betsy had used as a ladder tumbled through the air and fall onto the Hidebehind’s legs. It was trapped as hundreds of pounds of heavy steel and dry wall and timber fell across it’s body.
There was a soft crunching sound and Betsy heard a squeal of pain from beneath the pile of debris. The creature’s hand, which was still reaching at her through from under the pile, spasmed, then twitched, then finally fell against the concrete floor and stayed still as the electrical impulses from whatever the beast called it’s brain stopped traveling along whatever the monster used as it’s nervous system.
The Hidebehind was no more.
She stared at the monster’s lifeless hand for a moment and suddenly a great feeling of pity washed over her. It was a monster that much was certain, but it was a misplaced monster. A being out of time and bereft of a purpose. This was a woodland predator without any woods to live in.
She tried to understand how such a thing had come to live inside a place like this and she knew that it must’ve been an accident. The humans had cut down all of it’s trees and it had woken up inside a bright, anti-septic retail store. She pictured that first night that it had woken up, that it had smelled the fresh cut wood in Aisle 14 and thought it was back home. It was just trying to make the best of a bad situation.
After taking a moment to catch her breath, Betsy climbed to her feet, collected her flashlight and left the Hidebehind and the Handi-Mart in her wake. She imagined that there was going to be a lot of commotion when the store’s employees reported for work in the morning. The Police would be called and then the Government and then the creature’s body would get whisked away to some dark room on some military base where people in white coats would poke it all day.
Betsy decided she didn’t really care what they did tomorrow as long as it had nothing to do with her. She had two daughters to feed in the morning and a husband to pick up from the airport.
Then as she limped across the parking lot, she saw something that made her blood run cold. There were seven other stores in this strip mall.
What if they all had a Hidebehind in them? Suddenly Betsy could imagine hundreds of Hidebehinds living in the shadows of mankind's greed, quietly picking off the human race one by one. Shadowy beasts occupying the aisles of Cost-Co or Wal-Mart or Best Buy. A chill ran up her spine when she remembered that it was now the middle of June and that Black Friday was just 5 months away.
The bargains this Christmas really are going to be to die for, Betsy thought as she climbed into the driver's seat of her minivan.
Betsy Bionel will return