Adam sat back in the driver seat of his 1998 Mondeo and listened as the works of better men filled the space around him. He felt the corners of his mouth lift ever so slightly while the words, chords, and percussions of talent he could never dream to match streamed into his soul. They did little to sooth the wounds which had started waking up and reminding him of their existence the moment he had driven past the gigantic concrete structure announcing his arrival in Pottsdale. It was his third visit in as many months.
Welcome back, Adam, it had said. Good to see you … again.
It stood twelve feet high, stretching four enormous columns of dark concrete toward the sky like fingers demanding an explanation for their existence from the gods – or challenging those creators to come down and show their faces if they dared. The fingers of a guardian, hidden beneath the ground and watching; offering a cynical welcome to any who would dare enter its domain – a town where willow trees swept over deceptively quiet streams and giant oaks grew their thick roots under old, cheaply tarred streets, cracking them in defiance of the progress of mankind.
His body jolted backward as he adjusted the seat’s backrest and it retreated to a leisurely forty-five degrees. He grinned as it came to a sudden halt, then peered through the empty spaces in the steering wheel. From where Adam was parked under a streetlight, his childhood home stood across the street to his left. Resting in threatening obscurity behind a palisade fence – once painted a bright and cheery green, but now a sullen grey, more than half devoured by rust – which was slowly losing a battle against undergrowth years in the making.
He looked to his right and saw the house where Mr. Jarrods had lived until his passing in ’98, only six months before Adam’s family had hastily left town.
“Bricks and mortar have memory, Adam,” the old man had said once. “They remember births, lives, and deaths. They remember words, both good and bad. Even a man committing the perfect murder can be ousted by a wall and its plaster – in theory, at least – because the screams and wails of his victim have left their mark on it by carving scratches and grooves, much like the lines that make music on a vinyl record possible.”
I’ll burn you down yet, you bastard, Adam’s inner voice promised, and through gritted teeth he hissed at the fig tree with its reaching, questioning branches standing near the yard’s corner created by Neuben and Church Streets. Small drops of spittle flew unseen toward the steering wheel and more than a few found rest on the left indicator switch. Others found the dusty aircon vents, leaving dark spots on brown grains of dead skin. The pandemic had taught mankind a lesson about the potential harm of microscopic viruses and their various methods of transfer, but neither Adam nor the organisms now resting all over the inside of his Ford’s dash cared much for consequences at that moment.
The house hid behind overgrown grass and weeds. Rain gutters hung dangling toward the waist-high grass where mosquitos swarmed despite the weather. Here and there, long-gone tiles gave passers-by the impression that the roof had rotting eyes which looked up to the heavens. They were begging. The paint which had once glared white now screamed with tears and cracks like the opening in the earth where a portal to hell itself might be found. The rooms he had once known hid behind windows which were boarded over here and there. Curtained in places. Painted black in most. Adam knew it didn’t want to be seen; and he knew why.
You can hide all you want, but I know there are others. Your weeds and windows will save you no more than our parents and their holy books could save us. Children grow up. Children turn into adults who remember and read books of their own.
Adam’s eyes caught movement coming from the larger building which dominated the property. The old bronze bell sounded three times from atop the tower it had occupied since 1926, announcing to neighbors twenty blocks in every direction that the Sunday morning service had reached its conclusion. The faithful were shuffling out through the church’s double glass doors in twos and threes, shivering in the winter cold. They huddled together as they walked toward cars which would transport them home; away from the monstrosity known as Pottsdale South Baptist, and far from the property which Adam called The Church Yard. There were others who had lived through the same as him. He had met some of them – Andy and her kids were among them – but was determined to find more.
As guesthouses in dying towns go, the Willow Branch was good … surprisingly so. High, ivy-covered walls provided a reprieve from the vistas of destitution and neglect the town otherwise offered. Behind these shields, Emma Jarrods had created a sanctuary her father would have been proud of. She only wished she had built it all before his death. She would often say this to the part of him that still lived within her as she sat on the house’s wrap-around porch with its smooth concrete floors on Sunday afternoons.
Decorative metal furniture was spread out on the porch at intervals which allowed comfortable dining for all occupants of the ten rooms Emma had available. At the center of each table was a small terracotta pot with a succulent of some variety. They provided year-round greenery in a region known for its deadly, dull winters. Pottsdale was often referred to as the winter desert, and rightly so. Any plant not classified by The Botanist’s Handbook as evergreen, found itself painted in creation’s most undesirable brown as soon as the first autumn winds blew past the guardian’s fingers at the edge of town.
For this reason, Emma kept her assorted desert roses, agaves, and aloes as happy as a plant can be year-round. Even the ivy which decorated the whitewashed walls so beautifully in summer turned into objects of terror in the winter. Their leaves would die, leaving behind only the widespread roots reaching over the plastered bricks like dead men’s fingers; cursed to always be searching, but never finding what they desire.
Adam sat at the table furthest from the front gate and nearest the corner of the yard. He chose it whenever he visited (although his visits had become less frequent over the last seven months). A quaint wooden board beside the doorway to the communal television room told guests that breakfast was served between 06:30 and 08:00, with lunch available on request between 12:00 and 13:00. It was 11:59, and he had returned from the sightseeing trip to his childhood nightmare half an hour ago.
Following a brief but scaldingly hot shower, Adam had first called his mother (he had forgotten to notify her of his safe arrival in town) and then spent fifteen minutes on the phone with Andy. He needed more details about her time in the house with her children and then-husband, Reverend Richard Fischer. The Fischers had moved to Pottsdale in early 2010, joining the congregation as a young, excited couple, eager to enter the ministry at their first assigned church. However, as Adam had (even then) expected, their dreams, along with their marriage, had come crashing down less than five years later. The reasons for the crash were various, but could be narrowed down to an odd three – if one were to be particular about the laws of cause and effect.
First among these was the church’s board of elders, a group of five men ranging between fifty-five and seventy in ages. Marvin Beckerman, Andrew Walters, Andrew Finch (mostly just called Finch due to his sharing a name with the Honorable Judge Walters), Clive Mendez, and Stanley Clifford had been the bane of existence of every Reverend who accepted the position of shepherd at Pottsdale South Baptist since 1984.
The second reason had been Richard’s lack of affection toward his family. Especially toward Andy. She had been born in a rural farming town 100 miles from Pottsdale and grew up seeing her father dote on her mother in a way she found embarrassing as a teenager but would come to yearn for before the couple’s first wedding anniversary. Richard, on the other hand, had grown up in the town and church where he occupied the elevated position of Reverend between 2010 and 2014. His father had been a hard man. A practical, hard-working man of the world. Affection had not been something often shown in the Fischer household and thus, the would-be shepherd’s skills in loving a family (and a wife) paled in comparison to his skills in loving his congregation. In loving his flock. The latter had been learned in seminary college and drilled into him during four years of lectures, exams, practice, and mentoring. The former, sadly, had been lost on him, having no mentorship in its ways. There were those among the couple’s friends in those early days who would argue that he simply didn’t have it in him to love and truly care for both a family and a congregation. The words used most often were nature versus nurture.
The reason Adam had driven into town past the guardian’s outstretched fingers more times over the last year than he had done since his father drove their station wagon hastily in the opposite direction was the third, and overwhelming reason for the deterioration of the Fischer’s marriage as well as the lives of every other first family since Reverend Theroux’s in 1926. At the center of this reason was the house that now stood bleak and menacingly silent. The house with its painted windows and its hanging rain gutters and its missing roof tiles which pled for absolution from the heavens for what they had seen and done. The house with the fig tree that gave birth to nothing but dark purple, bitter miscarriages. The house where Adam had often kicked a worn soccer ball against the wall surrounding his mother’s washing line and where he had dug deep trenches for his toy soldiers in dirt that never wanted to grow anything healthy and green. The house which no one ever departed healthy or whole.