When We Troubled The Water – Part Three
“So, did you find anything?” Charlie’s glass thuds to the worn table top, the ice clicking against the rim.
“Not a damn thing,” he says, face scrunched up in vague annoyance. “There was nothing on that town that the museum didn’t already tell me. Went there on my first day.” He frowned at the glass. “Did find something interesting, though.”
You lean forward expectantly, waiting for those worn and faded eyes to reach yours again. Instead he stares into the glass, running a blunt finger around the rim.
“D’you know that place was settled mostly by deserters and runaway slaves?” he asked. “You’d think there’d be more men in the photo I found. Instead, it was mostly women, black and white, old and young. Some had babies.” He mimes a photo with his hands, framing your face but obviously seeing something else. “And there, right in the middle, was Colleen Andrews, the founder of Andrew’s Hollow. Her and her daughters, Constance and Juliet.” He leans forward. “They all had them though. All the women in that picture.”
“That ring,” he smirks. “And one of these.” He pulls out a cord from under his shirt. A small wooden horse charm dangles from the center.
. . . . . .
Charlie had read the same line of text underneath the photograph at least seven times. After hours worth of research, this was all he’d come up with, a grainy photo from the founding of the town. Three rows of women, runaway slaves, free men and women, refugee wives, daughters and sons of soldiers sat giving the camera a steely glare. A few men, deserters most likely, were wearing their uniform hats. “Confederate and Union soldiers alike” was what the caption said. As interesting as he found the image, poor quality though it was, even with the caption it didn’t tell him what he wanted to know.
Charlie bit his bottom lip and absentmindedly tugged on his new necklace. He’d already noted the horse-shaped dots hanging around the necks of every woman in the photo. They were all displayed proudly, each woman photographed in the same position, charm displayed on their chests and hands resting on one knee. If the photo quality had been better, he might have been more engrossed in the matching rings each of them wore. As it was, all he could make out was that it looked like the same ring on each hand.
Colleen, set in the center, was flanked by her daughters. The short paragraph under the photo described her as being of Irish descent. She had the stereotypical build of an Irish woman, but more gaunt, as if she’d been through a great deal. All of them did. In every face he could see weariness brought on by the war. For them to have banded together to create this town, they must have been desperate.
“It’s almost closing time, hon’.” He jerked up. The librarian was leaning over his table, regarding him with a benign annoyance that he was well acquainted with, especially from people in the service industry at closing time.
“Thanks, Miss”— he glanced at her name tag—“Louisa-Mae. I was getting ready to leave.” A purse of her lips was all it took to have him scooting out the door as fast as he could.
It was pitch black outside. If not for the classically wrought street lights, he wouldn’t have been able to make it to his B&B. Charlie made a game of walking from one puddle of light to another, his brain supplying random soundtracks along the way. He walked to the tempo of Sinatra’s “My Way,” before switching to “I’m Still Standing” by Elton John. His fuzzy, overtired brain convinced himself that the shift in rhythm looked completely natural, and, if it didn’t, there was no one to judge him. And it was true. The streets were empty, and the shops were closed. He checked his watch. Maybe it had been the body that morning or the lack of tourists after the hurricane, but everyone in town seemed to have disappeared at exactly 9:38. He kept walking to the songs in his head as he pondered it. He was so zoned out, trapped in his revolving thoughts that he missed the hunched shadow in the alley.
Bony, frigid hands grabbed his arm and yanked, dragging him between the two buildings. Charlie felt his skin scrape against the rough stone, but the pin pricks of unknown fingers stopped him from paying attention. In seconds, he was pinned against a wall by a figure gripping a handful of his shirt collar. A man was grinning at him. At least he thought it was a man. There was barely enough moonlight to make out a face, much less assign gender to it. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness of the ally way, he wished they hadn’t.
A mouthful of grinning, stained, serrated teeth between full lips greeted him. Lank black hair floated eerily around the face. In a statue or a painting, it could have been a study of sharp and soft. In reality, it was grotesque. The mouth was set in a too sharp face, all angles and flat planes, topped off with slitted pupils in eyes that were a terrifying blend of green and amber. Up close, those eyes seemed to glow as they traveled up and down Charlie’s body in a predatory way. The hand near his throat tightened, and the only thing his frightened mind could produce was a gurgled shout. The thing was studying the chord around his neck, a look of disgust wrinkling the previously smooth face. It hissed at the charm.
“Duck!” Charlie didn’t bother to look for a speaker and simply followed orders. He let his body weight drag him to the ground while his rescuer swung what looked like a crowbar at the creature, only for the thing to dodge deeper into the ally.
“You okay, Charlie?” Julie shoved a hand in his face, breaking him out of his daze. He grunted as she pulled him to his feet and shoved him behind her. Now he could tell that whatever had grabbed him was definitely male. It stood jerkily, shirtless and pale in the moonlight. Charlie could see its ribs as it panted loudly. The thing, whatever it was, was now looking at Julie like she was prime rib fresh off the grill.
Its face contorted into a sly expression, coy and almost erotic. It nibbled on its lips demurely, but the effect was lost when the sharp little teeth caused black blood to dribble from the corners. It moved in slow rolling steps, almost floating, reaching out a claw-tipped hand for Julie’s face, only to be met with a crowbar to the ribs. It shrieked, inhuman and loud, as the flesh around the iron began to sizzle and burn, sending out smoke that smelled like pork.
“By my blood, I command thee,” Julie growled. “Get lost, Freak.” The thing shrieked once more, glaring daggers at Julie, before turning and fleeing down the ally, the slapping of its bare feet turning to sharp clops as it vanished.
“What the hell was that?” Charlie choked out.
“A Kelpie.” Julie calmly turned, adjusting her glasses as she lowered the crowbar. For some reason, it was the glasses that set Charlie off. The bright purple glasses. He hunched over, manic giggles escaping his mouth as he struggled to calm down and breathe. Just like that morning, Julie’s hands moved in soothing circles across his back. “It’s the adrenaline,” she explained. “Come on, I’ll explain at my house.”
Julie’s house looked like every other single woman’s house. There were shirts thrown over the couch, about a days worth of dishes in the sink, throw blankets on every chair, and bright swatches of color in the form of paint or decorations. A poster of Jensen Ackles was tacked on the wall next to the bookshelf lined with photos. The normality of it all nearly had Charlie stopping in his tracks. That is, until Julie let the crowbar thunk to the ground by the door she was locking.
After that he noticed a few things that didn’t seem to belong in this bright environment. Like the lines of salt on the windows and iron nails embedded in the sills. Dry herbs were placed in pots around the room giving off a cloying smell.
“What did you want to know?” Julie’s voice was the kick start he needed to sink onto her couch and start asking questions.
“What was that?” he asked again, just to see if her answer from the ally had changed.
“Why was it there?”
She shrugged. “It was probably looking for dinner, which is why I had that.” She pointed at the crowbar.
Charlie folded his hands and looked at the ceiling like it held an angel or solution to life’s problems. “But why was it there?”
Julie studied him, her bright smiles from the other day tucked somewhere far away as she seemed to shrink under an invisible weight.
“You looked up the history of this town, right?” The glint behind her glasses told him she already knew the answer. “Did you look up what this place used to be?”
Charlie nodded. “It was swampland, right? Unusable and abandoned,” he recited. “Then Andrew’s Hollow just popped up out of nowhere.”
Julie nodded along. “Colleen Andrews tried everything to get this place livable,” she said. Eyes glazing over like she was looking into the past as she fiddled with her ring. “She tried different plants, tried transporting soil and cutting down trees. Nothing worked. They were a bunch of women living in tents in the swaps, trying to stay out of the war’s way.” She tugged at the bandages on her wrists, scratching at the healing skin beneath. “After a while, she got desperate.”
Charlie leaned forward. “What did she do?” It sounded too much like a ghost story for his taste, but he was willing to listen after what had happened.
“You know she was Irish, right?” Julie asked. “She migrated here a few years before the war to find a new life after her husband died, back in Kerry. Instead, all she got was a war that wasn’t hers and two young girls of marriageable age that were more likely to get raped than find a suitable husband in those times. What else could she do?” She let the silence drag out, still fiddling with her ring.
Charlie snorted at the mysticism of it all. “Are you going to tell me that she made a deal with the devil? Because that’s a bit trite, even for ghost stories.”
Julie glared at him. “She summoned a Kelpie. That thing that was going to eat you? She summoned that, and made a deal with it.” Julie wrapped an afghan around her shoulders before continuing. “Keep all of them safe, and she’d give it a bride. That was the deal. One bride for each generation. That’s why descendants of the founders have these things.” The finger with the iron ring waggled in his face.
Charlie thought he might vomit remembering the way those teeth had grinned at him in the moonlight. “Gross,” was what came out instead. “Why the hell does a thing like that want a bride?”
Julie shook her head. “Kelpies are faeries that live in water. They usually look like a horse.” She pointed at his charm. “Like that.”
“So, fairies are real?” He raised his brows at her. “Tinkerbell lives?”
“No, I mean real faeries. The dance-until-your-feet-fall-off faeries. Kelpies have been known to take children and eat them, but they also turn into humans to look for brides or husbands. Supposedly, they’re usually unnaturally attractive.”
Charlie sent her a disbelieving look. “And what are the rings supposed to do?”
“Iron is like poison to faeries. They don’t go near the stuff.” She tugged the ring off and let him hold it, critiquing the simple band and stone. “It was a precaution. Faeries like to twist words, they’re worse than lawyers that way. We never specified that he couldn’t take a bride, only that we’d give him one. So the rings were made. The only way the Kelpie gets a bride is if the wearer takes off the ring. This way he can’t take more than one bride at a time.”
“Has it gotten one for this generation?” He couldn’t believe he just asked that sentence.
“No, we stopped the brides about fifty years ago when he took three girls who’d taken off their rings during a camping trip.” She took back the iron loop and slid it on her finger. “My great-whatever grandma wanted to punish it for taking the girls. They waited until we knew he was out of the area and built a dam. Blocked off the river it used to get here and warded the woods to keep him from walking in. Now with the hurricane busting open the dam, he’s free to come and go.” She ran an anxious hand through her pony tail.
“Is that why the skeleton was on the shore?”
“He’s hungry,” Julie spat. “We’ve been starving him for half a century. That’s why I’ve been patrolling at night. To make sure he didn’t eat anybody else. I wasn’t fast enough to get Ralph last night though.” So Ralph had been the guy that died. Charlie hadn’t known him, but his gut clenched in sympathy for the man.
Julie nodded, tilting her head back on the couch like talking was getting tiresome. “That was also part of the agreement. He wouldn’t snatch strangers to eat while under contract with us. He was bound to this town. This was the only place he got food that wasn’t gators or fish. Hard to catch since animals tend to not like them.”
“What was he supposed to be eating then?” Charlie leaned forward, now fully invested. “If he couldn’t eat random people, and animals were a no go, what else is there?”
Julie’s expression was half sad, half disgusted as she stared at him long enough to make Charlie squirm in his seat.
“What do you think he did with the brides when he got tired of them?”