FEELING FRESH AS a daisy after an undisturbed night’s sleep, JJ left his house with a skip in his step. Guiding his feet down the same route, to the same church that his father used to trek his family to every Sunday when he was a young boy, made JJ smile. Not even memories of his row with Curt or the fresh pile of steaming dog excrement on his front lawn brought him down. The sun shone brightly in the mid-morning sky. Luminescent rays pierced triumphantly through the thick canopy of the trees. How those same rays had dazzled him and his brother Rob in their youth, JJ recalled, as he passed through those pure beams of sunshine.
Lost in thought, JJ strolled onward, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings. His body on autopilot and his mind engrossed in retrospection, JJ walked right past the homeless panhandler without acknowledgement of any kind. Unfortunately for the panhandler, his troubles were rapidly surmounting. Being so far detached from his own mind as he was, the poor, delusional man hadn’t yet noticed his four-legged companion had passed on and was starting to stink. JJ didn’t notice either, just continued his reflective ramble. It wasn’t until he noticed the lone, cross-topped spire of , that he drove off the ghosts of past unalterable.
Walking up the steps of the , JJ could almost feel his father beside him. Cresting the staircase, the huge oaken, double-doors loomed before him. JJ felt a strong wave of panic envelop him at the thought of actually entering this place of worship. Just as JJ was about to succumb to his terror and make a break for it, a pixyish, old voice from behind him broke through the fog of fear.
“Help an old woman to her pew, young man.” the wizened voice stated in a tone that suggested a command, rather than a request.
Slowly, JJ turned and was greeted with Mrs. Grober’s sweet, ancient face alight with an ear-to-ear grin. Mrs. Grober, at ninety-five-years-young, was easily the eldest living citizen residing in . Three generations of DH children knew Delilah Grober as ‘Crazy Ole Mrs. G,’ and would spend the majority of their summer afternoons daring each other to scale Mrs. Grober’s huge backyard wall, to steal ripe lemons off the half-dozen lemon trees she lovingly tended. Without realizing it, JJ matched the old woman’s smile.
“Well, young man,” Mrs. Grober croaked, offering JJ her arm. “We can stand about out here grinning like a couple fools, or you can be the gentleman your mama is trying, no doubt, to raise, and help me inside. Trust me, sonny: Inside’s where all the action takes place.”
“Yes, ma’am. My pleasure, ma’am,” JJ replied, gently taking Mrs. Grober proffered arm.
Walking into the church, the odd couple paused in the vestibule so Mrs. Grober could place her weekly offering in the Agape box. JJ felt a little strange as if he had just passed through giant oaken portals into a whole other world—a world thrumming with a bright, brilliant power. JJ took a moment to pretend to study an overburdened bookshelf, as Mrs. Grober exchanged a few hushed words with a woman she identified as Wilma. With her conversation finished, Mrs. Grober all but herded JJ into the church sanctuary.
When JJ started this excursion, he had planned on slipping in quietly and sitting in the back. When he tried to leave her at the back row, Mrs. Grober abruptly changed those plans. She insisted JJ sit with her in the very front row of pews. Better to soak in the Holy Spirit, Mrs. Grober insisted. JJ acquiesced to her request, and seated himself uncomfortably next to Mrs. Grober. He listened intently while she continued her solemn tutelage.
“Here, take this hymnal. We can share my Bible, and don’t look so grim kiddo. Smile,” Mrs. Grober kindly recommended, demonstrating with her own wrinkled grin. This made JJ break into a small smile. “That’s better. Only sinners should frown in church, my mama used to say. You know when I came upon you standing there at the top of the steps like a statue, I thought you were going to make a break for it and flee for certain.”
“I thought I was, too,” JJ admitted, situating the two books in his lap.
“Why, boy?” Mrs. Grober inquired.
“Dunno,” JJ mumbled truthfully.
“What is your name, young man?”
“My name’s JJ, ma’am; that is Joseph Bruce Douglas Junior. My dad used to call me Joe Junior, but my mom hated it, so everyone took to calling me JJ. I’m pleased to finally meet you, officially.”
“JJ, it’s my pleasure meeting you as well. What happened to your face JJ, may I ask? Was it bullies?”
JJ had forgotten that his face looked like someone hit him with a shovel. Swiftly his mind churned up what he thought was a perfectly respectable response. “No ma’am no bully troubles here. I was in a car accident. Found out the windshield is tougher then my face.”
“Uh-huh,” Mrs. Grober grunted doubtfully. “If I tell you something, will you listen?”
“Sure, of course I will.”
“My boy, church is the greatest place on planet earth—my favorite place. Better than all your fancy theme parks combined. It’s got it all: My gal Kathryn gets to wail on that extravagant organ and you get to sing as loud as you want. You see that handsome, bald, berobed fellow sitting up there with all those geezers—excuse me, deacons? Well, he regales us with a riveting tale about Jesus Christ. Then you get to sing again, and when it’s all said and done, they give you free coffee and doughnuts.” Mrs. Grober emphasized the last part with jabs to JJ’s ribs, with one boney elbow.
Laughing, JJ said: “Sounds like the place to be.”
“It is JJ, it is. Especially with all this child-killer business happening in our sleepy little community, church is definitely the place to be.”
“Yeah,” JJ uttered, suddenly distrustful of the old lady for no apparent reason.
“Yeah,” Mrs. Grober agreed. “You read the Good Book, JJ?”
“Not regularly, no,” JJ admitted reluctantly, shifting uncomfortably on the thin cushion that separated his posterior from the hard wooden bench.
“You should, kiddo. Not only is it entertaining, it edifies the reader as well. Especially for those who believe,” Mrs. Grober advised, with a wink.
“Is that so?” JJ inquired.
“It’s absolutely truly so, my boy! I wouldn’t pull your leg. Not in the House of the Lord. You know, JJ. This grisly business seems to occur, um let’s see, every fifteen to twenty years or so by my count.”
“What does?” JJ asked in a choked, slightly stunned voice.
“Why, the killings, JJ. The killings,” Mrs. Grober answered matter-of-factly.
“What killings, Mrs. Grober?”
“JJ, don’t you know the history of—”Mrs. Grober trailed off with a strange look on her face.
“Go ahead, Mrs. Grober,” JJ prompted. “You can tell me.”
“Of course you don’t know, JJ, because those fools in power in this town—heck in this state—don’t want you to know. They’re all too afraid or embarrassed to talk about it because nobody’s ever caught the demons behind it all. I call ’em demons, JJ, because no man is capable of this form of gruesome cruelty to a child. I’ll talk about it though. I mean, I’m old. What are they gonna do to me? Send me to meet my maker? If they did, I’d tell ’em thanks, thank you very much.” Mrs. Grober punctuated her speech with an emphatic nod.
JJ and Mrs. Grober each sat in silence for a moment, both thinking their own private thoughts. Mrs. Grober wondered where to begin the story. JJ mentally pleaded with the old woman to begin her story, hoping to glean the final clue he needed to kill Boogeyman. The seconds ticked by like cold molasses on a seventeen-degree, winter morning. Finally, JJ decided to give ‘Not-So-Crazy, Ole Mrs. G,’ a little nudge.
“Can you tell me about it now, ma’am? Do we have time before the service starts?” JJ asked a little too innocently.
Looking at her wristwatch, Mrs. Grober smiled and said: “Plenty of time kiddo. There’s still twenty minutes before Deena, the pastor’s wife, rings the worship bell. Are you comfortable?”
JJ shifted around on his portion of the pew cushion, grinned and nodded.
“Good. Now lean in close and open your ears, because I’m only going to recount this once.” Mrs. Grober grunted as she scooted closer to her audience.
“I’m all ears, Mrs. G.”
“I’m ninety-five years old, JJ, ninety-five! This outbreak of child killings has occurred six times now in my lifetime, every decade-and-a-half or so. The first time, I had just turned ten-years-old. I don’t remember much about that first time because my folks already sheltered and over-protected my siblings and me. What I do remember was mama and papa being fearful and on-edge all the time. They turned very stern with us kids and we didn’t get to play outside after supper anymore.
I remember kids were being killed and the whole town was in a panic. I think the town council was blaming it on a pack of wolves or feral dogs. Something likes of that, but my sisters and I knew better. It wasn’t a pack of dogs, kiddo, taking the town’s children. It was a jester faced demon. I remember my sister’s and me drawing pictures of the demon. When we showed our parents our pictures, my mother wept and my father called out a doctor. I remember the doctor had a funny name. He asked lots of questions I didn’t understand completely, and when he left he took our pictures. We weren’t allowed to draw anymore pictures after that.
I can remember my folks praying their thanks to the Lord—frequently. Sometimes they would just drop whatever they were doing and just pray together. Morning, noon, night, it didn’t matter. They prayed at all the normal times too—at supper and bedtime and all—but sometimes right when papa got home from work. My sisters and I finally figured out the extra praying one day. They prayed their thankful prayers every time a child was killed that wasn’t theirs, which scared the boogers out of my sisters and me.
“Then one evening after supper, papa let us go in the backyard to play, while he and mama got ready to go to a town meeting, I think. Mama protested, but I remember papa saying that it was okay, the danger is over. You see it had been a week since the wolf pack had been hunted to the last pup and no other children had gone missing, so everyone thought the same thing my papa thought: That the danger was over. The years passed and people forgot that terrible time, as folks are wont to do. Then the day after my twenty-seventh birthday, it happened.” The old woman paused, eyes glistening, filling with tears.
“What, Mrs. G? What happened?” JJ inquired, completely enthralled with her tale.
“The demon up and took my nephew, JJ. My sister Cora woke up one morning and found her son Cory everywhere—dead a ’course. Pieces of that poor boy were strewn all about the house. The kitchen was festooned with his entrails, and they never did find his handsome little, blond head. Cory’s death was the first in a series of child killings. The authorities were at a loss, so the local boys were forced to call in the holier-than-thou FBI. Those Feds had all the local rags printing stories about the killer being an escaped mental patient from some sanatorium upstate, which was all horse manure. My sisters and I knew the score: It was that very same demon from our childhood.
“Now the same week that The Driftwood Gazette printed a quote from the head FBI fella about how they were going to be apprehending the killer in less than seventy-two hours, the killing just up and stopped, praise Jesus. First a day went by, then a week, then a month with no further killings, but also no arrests. The authorities were completely baffled and the fancy Fed’s prime suspect—that escaped psycho—was found dead along the interstate, so a ’course they credited the end of the violence and death, with the end of his crazed life. They were all too full of themselves to realize the truth of the matter: The demon had gone and had his fill, then went back into its hellish hibernation.
“When the demon started up again a week into my forty-fourth year on this earth, I finally just had to intervene. I went to the newspapers, sheriff, even Detroit P.D., but everyone laughed in my face and called me a crazy spinster in need of a husband. The truth is, I never wanted a husband or children after what happened to Cory. Why would I want to produce cattle for that damned thing?
“Thoroughly upset, I went to my best friend Judy Greene, who just happened to be the wife of our Mayor at the time. She finagled a meeting with her husband Dan for me, bless her heart. I graciously accepted and was at city hall for my audience with Mayor Dan, thirty minutes early. After pleasantries were passed between us, I opened up and told Mayor Dan everything I knew, speculated, and theorized. You know what that S.O.B. did, JJ?”
“Huh-uh,” JJ breathed.
“He came around from behind his desk, smiled, and giggled a bit as he took my hand and told me I wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t already know as hard fact. That if I knew what was good for me I’d shut up, go home and stop thinking about things my weak, little female brain couldn’t possibly understand. That it would be dangerous for me to continue my current course. That I should let the men in charge handle the hard stuff—the nerve of that pretentious old windbag. So, I tucked my tail between my legs and took ole Mayor Dan’s advice.
“The killing stopped and started like clockwork every, oh, seventeen years or so. My sister Cora lost her wits and took her own life. My youngest sister Theresa overdosed on heroin back in the Seventies, and I just kept quiet while the babies of this berg kept being devoured by this insidious imp. Until today that is, until now. Until you and your inquiring, youthful open mind came along dear, J—
The sound of the worship bell singing it’s good morning toll, abruptly ended Mrs. Grober’s tale.
“It’s time to worship our Lord and Savior, kiddo.” Mrs. Grober stated with a happy smile, as she dug through her purse for a tissue.
To his relief, JJ found that church was hella fresh. Exactly like what Mrs. G. described. The pleasant feeling of goodness and tranquility he felt since he walked in swelled tremendously, as they sang strangely familiar songs with gusto. After the service, the promised coffee and doughnuts were the best JJ had ever had. He talked with a few people he recognized from school, and to whomever Mrs.G. introduced him. After escorting Mrs. G. to her—(chauffeured, nice)—car, JJ practically bounded home as his euphoric church feeling put another skip in his step. The surprise he found waiting for him on his doorstep, was the cherry on his Sunday.