It was just easing past summer when the snake oil man rode in. That valley lain wide open by the creek that ran down its center. Once a vein of cool water for the natives of the tree clotted hills of Appalachia, now barely enough to turn a mill. Seemed like everything was withered in this valley. Wilted and greyscaled in coal dust.
It had always seemed that way to Jed. Not even a decade and a half of living and he had seen so much. Would see so much still yet. He stood there, watching the cart squeak the winded path up to the Gnarled Oak that stood guard of the cemetery. A soft rattling coming closer. A man rode atop that bench, gangly and rope muscled. Still with the dust of the west clinging to the cuffs of his pantlegs. Jed had half a mind to tell him he was headed the wrong way. The money was in the west, not back here in these soot drowned hills. He would have, had his eyes not been fixed on the youth also atop that bench. Pale and wet eyed, where his older companion was tanned and hawkish. Wrapped in hide even though the autumn cold hadn’t cut into the hills yet. Younger than Jed, closer to that of Kurt. A striking resemblance to that boy. The one that lay six feet below Jed now. A striking resemblance to kin.
His eyes so transfixed on the youth, Jed hadn’t realized the man had spoken to him.
“I said boy, what sort of town is this?”
“What sort?” Jed replied, slowly breaking from his reverie.
“Well, yes. What sort of town, what people?”
“Issa mining town.”
“Ahh a mining town. What luck. Is there a doctor there?”
“The comp’ny sends a doctor down once a month. When the roads are what they should be.”
“Hmm I see. People with ailments and problems aplenty then for sure…”
He trailed off, staring off into the clouds. Jed stood waiting, not sure if it was meant to be a question, when he noticed the boy was staring at him. The circles around the boys eyes contrasting with his pallor spoke of an illness, but his eyes didn’t match. They seemed to take in the light around them and give none back. Jed would have used the term doe eyed for the size and darkness of the boys pupils had they not been so utterly sharp in their intensity.
“Say boy, do they have any dentist up there?”
“Uh umm dentistry?”
“Oh yes sorry, someone that looks at teeth.”
“No, no one of the sort.”
“Thank you lad.”
They were off before Jed had time to appreciate the oddness of the conversation. He stood there, alone in the silence of the graveyard, a peculiar sound fading as he stared at his brothers name etched in that wooden cross. Like the sound of beads clinking together.
It was some days until Jed again saw that snake oil man and the boy who followed him. He had heard plenty about them between then, those long shifts in the mine were rife with small talk of his cure-alls and his apparent ease at extracting even the most bothersome teeth. A man of many talents and even more concoctions it seemed.
No it wasn’t until he walked out from that great maw of the mine that he saw them again, that peculiar pair. Posted up at the opposite end of the small dirt yard that had been worn away by so many carts and trampling feet. The perfect post to aid the weary and crook-backed miners, desperate to find something to ease the pains of the day. Especially for the cheap price that the snake oil man sold his tinctures for.
“A special price, for the fellow working man.” He often proclaimed in that over-buttered showman voice of his.
Still yet, people drank up the words of Josiah Abernathy. His real name or not none were sure, they called him the snake oil man nonetheless. A name that had come from the pessimistic of the miners, but that even his repeat customers used. The people here always had a healthy distaste for “big city folk”. It came with the territory. It came with the pain and the coal black water that flowed from the hills.
Jed watched a cluster of the miners as they piled in front of the man’s cart, money gripped tight in sooty fists. At times some dipped into the curtained back of the cart, silence broken by a yelp or a groan quickly subsided after Josiah came back and continued his salesman pitch, ushering away a sore-jawed customer as he did.
He watched for some time. No real rush to get home. Not since it had gotten so quiet there. Movement caught his eye. There at the front of the cart. His brother. No, definitely a pale one in pallor. That boy looked out from the folds in the curtain that separated the apparent business secrets of the snake oil salesman from his valued customers. Despite the distance Jed knew the boy was staring right at him. The doll like contrast in the boys skin and eyes was surreal at this distance. Jed’s eyes couldn’t break away from those of the younger boy. His world narrowed, greying and then going black at the edges. The only thing left those two boys and the thinning space between them. Jed remembered back, years prior, when he and Kurt had ventured up the holler and down one of the train tunnels that gut-shot the hills. They hadn’t yet understanding the schedule of the coal cars that snaked through. He felt that way again. Flatfooted. He swore he could feel the shake of the rails beneath him. Again, the tooth jarring rattle. The heat and smoke as they threw themselves flat, the locomotive screaming over them like a demon out of hell.
The scream of a horn snapped him back. Next shift was beginning. An influx of miners, had already joined the outgoing at the cart. Hoping for any luck and good health they good find under the earth, even if it was wrung from the neck of a bottle. There were worse bottles to find luck in.
Jed hurried home. A shaking still in his legs and a quiet rattle in his ears.
His sleep was fitful. Something in his dreams. The feeling of something stalking him. Man wasn’t meant to feel like prey.
Jed woke fully sometime late in the night. He threw on a rough shirt of loose linen and a pair of work trousers. Walks always seemed to clear his mind. At night the air seemed clearer, he hoped it had the same effect on his mind.
He stepped out of his home. A lean to of tin and scrap board that was built into the cool incline of dirt shelf. He was greeted by the pinpoints of stars. Like light shining through a thinning blanket. He walked down to town proper. Listening to the dirge of coyotes roll through the hills. Even this late he wasn’t alone. A person here and there. Some cooking their late meals that served for a night shift supper. Others sleepless in their overworked aches, hoping like Jed that the night air would offer some solace. They nodded where they saw him, mumbled quiet greetings. They knew too what happened to his brother. They all did. Grief was common for those with family in the mines. Death always a hands breadth away.
He walked for sometime. Moving wherever his feet decided to take him. At the other end of town he found the snake oil man’s cart. There off in the distance, a pair of tents and the embers of a campfire cooling in the clearing. Something willed him closer.
“Only thing in curiosity brings is pain.” That’s what their dad had always said.
The corner of Jed’s lip curled at the thought of that man. He’d had a lot of apparent wisdom for a man so often eyeballing empty bottles. He’d make sure to water his grave next time he went to go see Kurt.
He realized he was amongst the camp now. The smell of smoke and stew lingering in the air around them. Something thicker too, like rotten eggs and chemicals. Standing there in the camp the cool air on his neck set his hairs on edge. The sound of coyotes whining in the hills. He finds himself creeping forward, the smell stronger from the confines of the cart. Slowly he can hear the sound of snoring from inside, cutting through the soft tinking sound that seems to lap from the walls of the cart in soft waves. He wonders at what lies within the confines of the thing’s wood and canvas shell. The flap rustles in the wind and he finds himself drawn closer. Suddenly the hairs on his neck prickly again. He whips around.
There standing ramrod straight at a crooked branch of the oak was the boy. Not his brother but so painfully close. His heart ached at the sight of him, even beyond the fear he felt at being caught trespassing as he was.
The boy stood there, still wearing the clothes he’d wore the day Jed had first seen him, a pale specter against the star speckled sky. Jed sidestepped from the cart, putting space between him and his affront. The boy seemed to track him with those pupil filled eyes. Jed was about to speak, about to say something to try to smooth the situation over, explain away his rudeness by curiosity. Before he could the wind went slack. Not the subtle dying of the night breeze. Just, suddenly quit. The boy opened his mouth. A the sound of snapping and creaking of bad joints emanating from him, like his body was stiff and unused to movement. Jed became nauseous, the night air was stifling. Like the mines, the air felt thick with stagnation. He wanted to run. Willed his legs to uproot from their spot. Instead he looked on. Helpless as the darkness that filled the boys eyes poured from his open mouth. It snaked down his frail body and the trunk of the oak, clinging low to the earth like a fog. Jed began to cry, inky tendrils creeping up his legs, leaving the tingling pain of frost where they touched. It numbed his body as it wrapped around him. Coal dust in his mouth as it poured into his mouth and nose. The sound of a locomotive rushing towards him.
Jed woke with a start. The sunlight creeping through the holes in the lean to.
The next few day were a blur to Jed. Days in the confines of the mines and nights laying restless. His dreams haunted by the empty eyed boy standing over him. He felt colder, far removed from the presence of the sun now of all times when he craved it’s warmth. Needed it’s security now that he was alone.
That dream wouldn’t leave him. His body hadn’t been working the same since. He was sluggish, clumsy, a dangerous way to be while toiling under the earth.
He was leaving for the day when it happened. Making his way through the vascular branches of the mine, crouching, even crawling from time to time. His heart rate got faster as he reached a certain branch in the path. Now boarded up and reinforced, the boards looked all too much like some sort of broke-toothed maw. He avoided looking down that path as much he could. He braved the mines still, there was no other steady enough work in the holler for someone to live on their lonesome, but seeing the place his brother died was far too much for him. Something about today though made Jed look, dragged his eyes over as he passed. When he did he nearly tripped on the loose stone beneath him. His mouth went dry as he felt the familiar numbness in his legs. It was the boy. Hollow eyes boring into him from just beyond the boards.
His pale shape pulled back farther into the partially collapsed path, the shadows pulling tightly around him. Giggling as he left. That boy, that thing, was taunting him. It wasn’t enough for it to haunt his dreams, now it was desecrating this place. It knew Jed’s connection to that tunnel, those lost in there. People had been lost all throughout the mines, throughout these holler all together. It was no accident that thing was haunting this space in particular. No accident that it looked so much like his brother.
Lantern in hand, ducking past the boards, Jed followed the creature deeper into the tunnel. It was some time before Jed found the boy again. He could hear him though, laughter, footsteps among the creaking of the stone walls around him. The earth shifting was something they had all gotten used to, but here was a different story. This tunnel had proven unstable, fatally so. Maybe some part o Jed wanted that, to be killed feet away from the spot his brother too had died. A family tree cut down far below the earth. There was something fitting about the finality of it all.
Minutes, hours, Jed wasn’t sure, but finally he found the thing, the boy, whatever it was. It stood there in the middle of a large cavernous space, loose stone lay strewn across the uneven floor. Larger boulders as well, a sign of the earlier cave in. It took Jed a moment to appreciate the space he was in. It was too large by far, the ceiling unseeable in the onyx gloom.
There was a far off chuckle. Not from the boy, but seemingly from the space near it. It echoed in the tomb like space. Again, that thing in the shape of a boy. That rough approximation of his brother, a mockery of something human, reaching out with tendrils of something darker than black. He felt it numb his ankles. His knees locked in place. His heart throbbed but his mind was firm. Even as a light appeared in the tunnel behind the creature. A tunnel far too smooth, a dark arc cut in what should have been rough stone. The rocks danced across the floor as the locomotive shook the cavern. Was this what his brother heard as the earth shook loose and swallowed them? Jed could hear the horn, the chugging of steam, the thrum of gear and engine. But it wasn’t there. He knew better. He had saved himself and his bother that day. Ad while he couldn’t be there to save his brother on his last day. He could do him proud by killing the thing that used his image. Jed was prepared this time. The dream had echoed in his mind for days now. He would not get caught again.
The lantern looked like a firefly, its arc lazy as it crossed the space between Jed and the boy. It crashed against the floor at the feet of the creature. The sound of shattering glass cutting through the vision. Liquid flame splashed over the things legs. Horrifically the flames lathed to the thing, spreading as if it were across oil. The thing screamed, the hiss of steam and coyote howls. Locked in place. A pyre under the earth. As the clothes melted from the things frame Jed heard a jingling. Wrapped loosely around the things torso was overlapping garland of human teeth. They jingled and tinked together as the thing thrashed. The screams changed, now that of a boy. His face changed, still similar to that of Jed’s brother but the differences were stark. The illusion foiled, a shape crossed the space between them. Faster than Jed could react, all he could see was a thing of iridescent skin and too many eyes.
Jed woke to the smell of smoke and the sound of coyotes in the distance. He lay there in the camp of that snake oil man. He looked down at his body, pale and stiff. There was thin wire wrapped around him, like fishing line with teeth knotted every few inches. He knew it shouldn’t have weighed anything but the pressure the wards put on his body was immense. He could already see the bruises forming where it lay against his flesh. Wards, that’s the word the snake oil man used. The man, Josiah, his new companion, explained what had happened, the creature, his travels looking for a cure, his own son being the first of the thing’s containers. Jed couldn’t focus. He could feel the thing shifting inside him, like oil in a lamp. He could still hear the screams.
So they rode on. Past the lean-to’s and mine rails. Jed riding alongside Josiah just like Matthew had those days ago. Matthew, that had been the boys name. Not his brother. Just the creature’s mirage. He felt that thing inside him shift like oil in his stomach, burning in his throat like bile. The Gnarled Oak stood firm as they passed, cursed to watch helpless as the valley died around it. Jed was more focused on the grave that lay below it, wondering if it would have been better off being two there instead. He hoped his brother at least felt the peace that Jed wished for himself. The thing inside him chuckled at that.
Zackary Ross Wiggs lives in Southeast Kansas. A recent grad of Southern New Hampshire University’s graduate English program, he spends his time writing about the peculiar and uncanny.