The Boardinghouse


                        The Boardinghouse

As I was leaving our new property, wading through the grassy overgrowth and out to my car, I caught sight of a figure out of the corner of my eye. A grizzled old shabbily dressed character was standing at the edge of the woods watching me. When I stopped, and looked up directly at him, he turned and walked away. I momentarily had second thoughts, wondering if we'd made a mistake buying this old place.

After I'd opened the driver’s side car door and was about to step in, a gunshot rang out and the passenger side rear view mirror practically exploded. Then another shot went through the windshield. After that, shot, after shot, after shot had me diving for cover as the Land Rover succumbed and gradually became a useless pile of scrap metal. Not a piece of glass remained, no tire inflated or body panel un-riddled, as the old man circled the car, reloading time after time, firing round after round after round. I was still sprawled out in the cover of the tall grass when it stopped, feeling lucky to be un-hit, and alive.

After a few minutes of dead silence, I crawled around behind what was left of the car and poked my head up over the tall grass looking for the old man. No one there. There would be no phone calls either, the property was in a cellular dead zone. 

Ducking back down in the grass I called out again and again, listening for a response. After an hour or so of lying there behind the car in the hot sun, the anti-freeze fumes and the bugs, I began to realize I was alone.

I didn't like being intimidated. Against the stern protest of my wife Sarah, I purchased a hand gun from Ron, the deputy sheriff and owner of the hardware store in town, and decided to sleep there at the site where I could keep a closer eye on things. 

It was sometime around sunset. The construction crews were gone. I'd swept out one of the rooms and created a circular perimeter of powdered boric acid to keep the roaches at bay, in the middle of which I placed my supplies. There was no electricity other than the construction generators which had all been shut down.

I was all ready now, firearm holstered at my side. I decided to take a stroll around the grounds before dark. When I got back I immediately spotted the empty space on the floor where my back pack used to be, and the hand-written note in its place. It was totally dark now, no moon, no stars, overcast. Just as I leaned over to pick up the note, my flashlight flickered and went out. And after shaking, and banging it on the heel of my hand, it stayed out. A sinking feeling fell over me before I even started to check my pockets for a match to light the lantern. I did think to pack spares, in the missing back pack, along with the keys to the locked rental car. So, in the utter darkness, I put both hands out in front of me and took a step toward where I'd hoped the door was. I figured I'd make my way down the stairs and out of the building, then walk to town where Sarah and I were staying.

There were sections of the old floors and ceilings that were badly water damaged and had to be stripped to the frame, so I knew I'd need to take extra care. I took another step, and another until I felt the wall with my fingertips. Then facing it, feeling my way, I slowly sidestepped along until I reached the door frame, then stepped out of the room and into the hallway. While trying to remember what obstacles or lack of flooring might be in my path, I sensed something passing by. I reached out and felt a button, then a shirt, then the warm body of someone standing there directly in front of me. I lurched backwards fumbling for my side arm. The holster flap was snapped closed, and the safety catch was on. After what seemed like an eternity of just trying to get the thing out in front of me, I finally got off four quick shots.

With each muzzle flash, the old man’s dead eyed face appeared, staring directly at me. It was as if the rounds were passing directly through him. Taking a step toward him, I fired again, and kept firing until the gun was empty. His face never moved or even changed expression. I ran, and had only gone a few steps when my head hit an overhang of some kind and I tumbled dazed through an opening in the floor and landed somewhere on the first level.

I woke up with excruciating pain. I looked down, and to my horror, a thin piece of splintered lumber was protruding out of my side. Then suddenly remembering the old man in the dark I grabbed at my waist for the firearm, only to find an empty holster. After a few minutes of gathering my wits, I pulled myself to my feet. I found that the pain wasn't as bad if I dragged one foot rather than trying to lift it, so with the aid of a short piece of lumber for a cane, I began the slow trip, one step at a time down the hallway toward the front door.

One side of my face was swollen and bloody from the fall, so with my good eye, I noticed that objects in the hallway were becoming visible in the morning light.

I finally reached the front door. There was a fine mist falling and fog was settling in. After the last grueling step down the front porch stairs and having begun the trek across the grounds, the sound of a chuckle from behind me crackled through the cold, early morning air. As I slowly and painfully turned around, I caught a glimpse of the old man's evilly delighted eyes and toothless grin shining from behind the hair over his face. He must have blindsided me because the next thing I knew my head was bouncing along on the ground while I was being dragged away.

My next memory is finding myself lying on one side, ankles and wrists tied together, and unable to move my head from the face down position. When I did manage to look up, I was looking straight down the rail of the train track that he'd placed me across.

                                  Mary
After an unsuccessful attempt to reach the police chief by phone, I started out on foot to look for Ben. By then the renovation would have begun for the day, I thought, and the site would be teeming with construction people. I'd be safe from the crazy old man that my husband and I had been dealing with.


Mounting anxiety seized my heart as images of Ben and what could have happened flashed before me. When I finally got there, out of breath, I ran up to the first workman I came to. My voice broke and I sobbed uncontrollably before I could compose myself enough to ask him if he'd seen Ben. I knew something was wrong when the workman hesitated and looked down before drawing a breath to speak. Before the first word came out of his mouth I launched toward the building. There was a blood trail that began out in the yard and led to what had to have been a pint of Ben's blood pooled on the hallway floor. I ran out of the building, and for some reason straight into, and through the wooded area behind it, until I came out by some railroad tracks. Standing in the center, I turned in each direction calling his name, sobbing, calling his name down the tracks into the emptiness of the fog and drizzle, hearing only the echo of my own voice.

                                    Ben
I think I cracked a little smile, knowing that if Sarah somehow found me before I died, she'd probably finish me off. I was getting cold, confused, growing weaker every second, unable to move. For a moment, I thought I heard Sara's voice, calling my name.


I could hear life all around me, in what I knew was the last few minutes of my life. A barking dog in the distance, a flock of honking geese flying overhead. I would never hear the laughter of our children, or see their smiles. Life was escaping me, unfinished.
                                       #
"I'm so sorry Sarah", Ben thought, as tears dripped from the end of his nose and into the stone gravel, and the cold embrace of death began rocking him to sleep.

                                   Mary
I ran, and ran calling Ben's name, staying close to the train tracks, searching, squinting my eyes as I ran trying to see through the fog and into the woods on either side. As the tracks ahead of me were passing across my view, there he was out of nowhere, not five feet in front of me standing silhouetted against the glare of the fog in the morning light. A mountain of a man, shoulder length tangled and dirty greying hair, his head tilting to one side. I slid to a halt almost falling in the loose gravel and stood face to face with him, locked in a stare.

I stayed there frozen, disconnected in silent disbelief as he stepped toward me, closing the gap between us. Then reaching forward, he grabbed me by the hand. I immediately began to feel faint and disoriented.

They started subtly, the hallucinations, with a barely noticeable crawling of the skin on the old man’s face, gradually increasing in intensity until in my peripheral vision the entire world around me became visually distorted, swelling and shrinking, breathing in and out with increasing speed and intensity, rippling and moving violently, like a reflection on a disrupted pond.

I was locked eye to eye with this homeless giant of a man, his face continually changing shape, his mouth moving without sound, speaking to me, moving closer, forming words with his lips. I reached out and tightly grabbed a fist full of the old man's shirt, clinging on as I fell backward. The back of my head landed on a steel train rail, knocking me almost unconscious. I remember seeing his towering form standing over me as I lay there across the track. He watched and waited for a while, then turned and walked away.

                                       
#

Shrouded in fog, not fifty yards away from Ben, Sarah's body finally surrendered and she fell asleep, dreaming of the life they had planned, knowing that it was not to be. The sounding horn of the morning train could be heard in the distance, as it slowed for a railroad crossing in the blissfully unaware town nearby.

Suddenly I was awakened by a pounding windblown rain stinging my cheeks, and to the sight of the dripping drenched face of the old man directly over me not six inches away, his hair draped across my face. I remembered Ben as I was dragged clear of the tracks.


I thought of something Dad told me as a little girl, as if he in some prophetic way knew I'd be right there on those tracks, though I knew that was impossible. "Never give up" he said.

As the old man disappeared, fading into the raging elements, I became able somehow to summon strength I didn't know I had, and get on my feet. Over the noise of the torrential rain and the clacking of the passing train, I began running again. And with what little voice I had left, screamed Ben's name time and time again.

My heart soared when I heard his faint reply from among a pile of railroad ties that were scattered near the woods by the tracks. He was bound hand and foot, barely conscious. As I bent down over him, I heard a voice from behind me and was shaken to the core, fearing the worst. I hesitated momentarily then turned.

It was Ron the hardware store owner who had sold Ben the gun. He'd had a fit of conscience and had come back to check on Ben.

With a look of horror on his face, he cut Ben loose, carefully picked him up and began running with him through the woods. He ran steadily, heroically until we reached the residence of a local doctor he knew. Ron pounded continuously on the front door until it opened. "He's hurt doc, hurt bad", Ron said. The doctor ushered us in, laid Ben out on a table and began frantically working.

Suddenly I heard what sounded like distant gunfire, and a small "tink" sound as the window behind us shattered. The doctor went limp and fell dead to the floor in a heap. Then almost instantly Ron began slowly sinking to the floor after two bullets ripped through his chest and into the wall behind him. I lost hope for him as a third bullet  passed right through his big generous heart.

Terrified, I risked a quick glance outside from my kneeling position under the window. There he was, the old man walking across the yard, rifle in hand, toward the front of the house. I frantically began crawling, making my way toward the front door to lock the deadbolt.

Just then the living room window shattered and fire spread across the floor engulfing the entire room in a matter of seconds. I had to do it before it was too late, we were going to die anyway, so pulling Ben off the table I dragged him through the back door, and outside, away from the burning house.

Half crazed I sprang to my feet and sprinted toward the old man as he walked away, but he seemed to disappear into the fog. I managed to wrestle Ben into the doctor's pickup and get him to the emergency room in the next town. I was admitted too, and was in a room just down the hall from Ben. 

When the nurse walked in to my room the next morning, I knew instantly by the look on her face that Ben was gone. But it wasn't Ben who was gone, it was my Dad. He’d been mysteriously killed by single gunshot as he was fishing at a pond near the Boardinghouse. A stray bullet, a hunting accident, they said.

Call us stubborn but Sarah and I got the Bed and Breakfast up and running by December of that year. From time to time, Sarah and I are awakened by the sound of the hardwood floors creaking in the night. And from the window we can often see the old man, standing in the moonlight, among the trees. He is a shadow. A dim star, that went dark long ago, yet lives on. We have a silent understanding now. A contract of coexistence, under his terms. Terms that are clear, fixed, and non-negotiable, scrawled over every surface in every room, pointing the way to a dark, thrilling reality, that is visible only to the chosen, the childlike, to those who have been deeply wounded, touched by the true proprietor of, The Boardinghouse.


Robert Palmer 4/25/17


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