“The Thyme Fiend” by Jeffrey Ford is a dark fantasy novelette about a young man who can only prevent seeing visions by eating or smoking thyme. When he finds the skeleton of a missing man the skeleton begins to haunt him. What does it want?
This novelette was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor Ellen Datlow.
In July of 1915, in Hardin County, Ohio, the normally reliable breeze of the plains that through eons could be counted on for at least a modicum of relief during the most dire of summer days—a wave in the wheat, a whisper in the cornfield—without warning up and died. The relentless blue skies and humidity were merciless; the dream-white clouds, palatial and unmoving. Over ninety degrees every day, often over a hundred, no hint of rain. Fear of crop failure turned like a worm in the heart. Farm folk sweated and burned at their labor, and at night took to either the bible or the bottle or both. Some children were sent to the evaporating creek to try to catch memories of coolness; some to the distant windbreaks, those thickets of trees, like oases in the vastness of cornfields, to play Desert Island and loll in the shade until the sun went down. More than one mother fainted from the heat of a stove. Nights were better for being dark but offered no relief from the sodden stillness that made sleep so hard to achieve.
On the hottest of the days in that long spell, sometime just before noon, when the sun was at its cruelest, fourteen-year-old Emmett Wallace mounted his bike and, leaving the barnyard, headed out on the dirt road that ran all the way to Threadwell or Mount Victory, depending on which direction you chose. He pedaled slowly west, toward the former, passing between fields of drooping wheat. Turkey vultures circled, casting their shadows on him, and the long straight path he traveled dissolved at a distance into a rippling mirage.
The bike wasn’t new, but it was new to him, his first, and the joy of powering himself along, the speed of it, hadn’t yet become old hat. It had been a birthday gift from his father not but five days earlier. Bought used, it was a Hercules; a rash of rust across its fading red paint, splintered wooden rims, an unpadded shoehorn of a seat with a saddlebag behind it. There was a small oil lantern with a glass door attached to the handlebars, but the burner was missing.
Nothing was said, but the boy knew the bike had come to him as reparation for an incident that happened in spring. It was after a day of ploughing, dusk coming on, and father and son stood in the barnyard, unhitching the horses. They’d worked for days, from one end of their land to the other. Emmett sensed that he was, for the first time, more an asset in the fields than a distraction and felt a closeness to his father that had been missing in recent months. In that instant it came to him to try to explain just why he needed his cup of tea before bed. The old man had deemed the practice a vain pretension and ordered his wife not to continue it.
Emmett’s mother disagreed. “You’re not the one who has to get up in the middle of the night and calm the boy down,” she said. His father grumbled but knew his place, and she kept on brewing the herbal drink, filling the steel tea ball with thyme from the kitchen garden. It was a remedy for nightmares brought over from the old country.
“I get the terrors otherwise,” Emmett explained.
His father stopped and turned to stare at him.
“My skull gets jammed to cracking with demons. Fire. Blood. People crying.” He shook his head as he spoke, hoping to better convey his dread.
With a sudden lunge, his father clipped him across the side of the face with the back of his hand. Emmett went down into the dirt, dizzy, his lip bleeding.
“No more of that crazy talk. It’s time you grow up,” said his father, leading the horses away toward the barn.
The bike was the boy’s sign that even though his father had been silent as a gravestone on the subject, he was sorry for what he’d done. That was enough for Emmett, that and the bike, which was finally a means of getting out into the world, beyond the limits of walking. The last book he’d borrowed from the little library Mr. Peasi, the barber, kept in the corner of his shop in Threadwell was Washington Irving’s Tales of The Alhambra. In daylight Emmett was also a wanderer in both mind and body, a naturalist of the creek bed, a decoder of clouds. While the sun shone, he longed for the world to reveal its mysteries, but at night, without the tea, he’d wake screaming in the clutches of those mysteries within.
The night terrors started the year Emmett was five. For years following, his parents often wondered what had ignited them. They couldn’t remember a single remarkable event from that time, traumatic or otherwise. The demons bloomed in a scream one night in the middle of January. It was brutally cold even with both the stove and fireplace roaring. Emmett lay between his parents on a makeshift bed of comforters close to the fire. His sudden bellow, a croaking cry from somewhere deep within, made the blizzard outside seem something out of summer. The boy was never able to give any substantial details about what dreams had plagued him.
Happy to be free of school for the summer and free of his chores for the day, he rode along at a good clip, barely noticing the heat. Pastor Holst’s wife passed in her white Studebaker, smiled at the boy in his overalls, no shirt or shoes, and hit the horn, but Emmett was so preoccupied, he barely thought to wave until she disappeared ahead in a cloud of dust. He’d been picturing the Addison place, abandoned since five summers earlier—a farmhouse and out buildings left just as they were, beds made, belongings still in the dressers and closets. The family had fallen on hard times and had left to live with Mrs. Addison’s folks in Indiana. Mr. was supposed to return for some of their things, but once they were gone, they never came back. Emmett’s father would say, “I understand Mr. Addison liked his whiskey.”
A mile from home, he came to the drive of the abandoned farm, stopped pedaling, and turned to look around. There wasn’t a soul in sight. The air, of course, was still, and the sunburned weedy jumble that was the front lawn of the place was alive with the buzz of insects overheating. Other than that, the day was silent, not even a dog barking in the distance. He rode down the drive and into the open barn where he dismounted and leaned the bike against the low wall of an empty horse stall.
Last he’d been to the Addisons’ two weeks earlier, the mysteries of the main house were plumbed—a broken mirror, which made him wonder if it had been the beginning of their bad luck, women’s undergarments in a dresser drawer turned to lace by the swarm of white moths that flew out when he opened it. The place had smelled of mildew and mice, and he decided not to disturb it again, but to investigate the outer buildings, the various sheds, the silo, the icehouse. In his daydream, he opened the door to the last, and there, still unmelted, were shimmering blocks of frozen freshwater cut from Ziegler’s pond, east of Mount Victory, back during the winter he was nine. “Eternal ice,” he said to himself as he walked across the burned brown field.
He headed for the icehouse which sat beneath a giant white oak. On the way, he noticed a well that lay right on the border of the barnyard and the growing fields—a turret of limestone blocks, a wooden support each at north and south to hold the windlass, but the windlass and rope and bucket were missing.
Emmett leaned over the turret’s opening and peered down into the cylinder of shadow. He called hello to hear the echo and tossed a stone in to listen for a splash. No splash sounded but he could hear the stone hitting rock at the bottom and from the sound, the bottom didn’t seem all that deep. He backed away from the edge a little and moved a few degrees to the side. The sun directly overhead shone down into the dark, revealing something that made Emmett squint. He stared for a long while and then pushed off the edge of the limestone and ran back to his bike.
He raced down the dirt road, a wake of dust trailing, feeling sick with both excitement and fear. When he was back in the yard of his own home, he jumped off the bike and let it fall in the dirt. “Pa,” he yelled. His father called to him, “In the barn.” The old man, his shirt drenched, his hat in hand, was sitting on a milking stool, back against the workbench.
Emmett stopped before him and leaned over to catch his breath.
“Well?” said his father.
“Pa, there’s a dead person in the well at the Addisons’ place.” In the instant he’d spoken, he suddenly realized how much trouble he’d be in for having been over there.
His father sat forward and put the hat on. “What were you doing at the Addisons’?”
The boy was silent. Finally he said, “Exploring.”
The man shook his head in disappointment. “A dead person?”
“At the bottom of the well.”
“You sure the well is dry and you weren’t seeing your reflection?” he said and stood up.
“I threw a rock in, there was no splash, and I saw a skull looking up at me.”
Dusk gathered in the barnyard of the Addison place and had filled the well to the brim with shadow. Emmett’s father said to him, “There better be something down there.” Fritz Dibble, a Threadwell Fire Department volunteer, lowered a glowing lantern on a rope into the murky depths. Chief of Police Benton, smoking a roll-up cigarette, hat cocked back, followed the path of light in its descent. He wiped his arm across his forehead and said, “Whew. It’s hotter than the widow Alston out here.” Dibble smiled, but Emmett’s father didn’t. Emmett said, “I’m pretty sure I saw a skull,” and the chief said, “We’ll see about that.”
Just as the boy had predicted, the skull was slowly revealed. The attached skeleton still wore tattered clothing. Emmett felt his father’s hand lightly touch him on the top of the head. “The lantern?” asked Dibble. The chief said, “Leave it down there,” and then called over his shoulder to his young officer, “Johnson, let’s get you ready.” A new rope was used for Johnson, tied around the tops of his legs and then crisscrossed behind him so that he would sit upright in his descent. When he and the chief thought his rigging was secure, he crawled up onto the edge of the well. Emmett’s father sent the boy to the buckboard to fetch their horse, Shadrak. A harness was placed on the animal. “We could use the Model T, but I think the horse’ll be gentler,” said Benton.
“Just make sure that limestone edge don’t cut my rope,” said Johnson, who took off his hat and handed it to Dibble. Once his rope was attached to the metal rings of the horse’s harness, he lowered his legs over the side and sat on the edge of the well. Emmett’s father took the horse by the reins and moved Shadrak forward till the rope connecting Johnson to the animal was taut. “Okay, here we go,” said the chief. Johnson leaned forward and inched off the edge of the well. Emmett looked over the side as the horse stepped backward and the officer sank one jerky increment at a time into the orange lantern glow.
“Smells like death,” Johnson called up, and the voice echoed.
“Send him down the hook,” said the chief and Dibble set another line over the side tied to the end of a rusty hand scythe he’d found in the Addison barn. “Coming down to your right,” Dibble called to Johnson. By then the officer was nearing the bottom of the well. He picked up the lantern by its rope and held it nearer the skeleton. “About a half ton of mouse shit down here,” came the echo. Then they heard him gagging. “I think I know who this is,” Johnson yelled.
“Who?” asked the chief.
Benton nodded, and after a vacant moment, said, “That actually makes sense,” in a voice too low for Johnson to hear. He yelled, “You got him hooked?”
“Okay, Mr. Wallace,” said the chief. “Bring him up.”
Emmett’s father took the horse by the reins and started forward, again one labored step at a time.
“Jimmy Tooth,” said Dibble. “If that’s him, he’s been down there for about three years.”
“That’s about right,” said Benton.
“Do you think he was drunk and fell in?”
Emmett looked away from the well opening and realized it was twilight. He saw the moon coming up out across the fallow field and had a memory of Jimmy Tooth—a handsome young man with dark eyes, a wave of dark hair, and always a vague grin. He’d heard his mother describe Jimmy as “simple.” Tooth worked as an assistant to Avery Cross, the blacksmith, and lived in the back of the shop. Whenever Emmett had been there with his father, he’d never noticed Jimmy say a word that wasn’t a repetition of what Cross had just told him. Once every few months, he would spend his pay on a bottle of Old Overholt and rampage through the town, openly leering at women and screaming nonsense.
“Why you say it’s Jimmy?” asked the chief.
“The skeleton’s wearing the same religious medallion Jimmy used to wear,” said Johnson. “Every time we arrested him, and I’d have to remove his belt and belongings, I’d have to take it from around his neck. I remember what it looks like. Saint Benedict.”
“Jimmy was a good kid, but a bad drunk,” added Dibble.
Emmett’s father joined the men at the well and said, “Cross told me Jimmy said that one day he’d take off to Kenton and become a conductor on the railroad to Chicago. When he vanished, that’s where we thought he’d gone.”
“Threadwell didn’t exactly miss him,” said the chief.
Night fell, and the empty sockets of the skull peered above the rim of the well.
“Whew, what a stink,” said Dibble.
The three men on the rope gave it a long pull to get the corpse to clear the opening, and though it did, falling in a clatter on the ground next to the well, the left leg hit the limestone turret the wrong way and kicked up into the air. It came down right on its heel, and the bony foot cracked off and fell back into the pit.
“Chief,” said Johnson, “I ain’t going back in after that foot. You want it, you’re going to have to go down there.”
Benton laughed. “In that case it stays where it is.”
Emmett’s father retrieved the lantern from the well and held it up high. The chief stood over the corpse. “Looks like someone knocked Jimmy Tooth’s teeth out,” he said, pointing with the toe of his boot at the one incisor that remained on the upper jaw. “That’s irony.”
“He could have lost them in the fall,” said Johnson. “Or maybe they came out while he lay there rotting. The mice could have took them.”
“Did you notice the crack in the back of the skull?” asked Benton.
“Head could have got bashed in the fall,” said Johnson.
“I heard you can see the stars during the day from the bottom of a well,” said Dibble.
Chief Benton took the feet and Johnson took the shoulders, and they hoisted the remains into the air. Blue flannel shreds, once a shirt, hung down, and the medallion clattered within the rib cage. The jeans, but for small holes, were still intact, the belt fastened around the hip and pelvic bones. Emmett followed them to Dibble’s truck, wondering what had happened to the shoes and socks.
“I want a raise,” said Johnson, and he and the chief laughed as they loaded the corpse onto the flatbed.
It was past ten when they entered, by the back door, the oven that was their home. Emmett began to sweat the instant they stepped into the kitchen. His father said, “Christ,” in a mournful sigh. They moved through the house into the parlor, lit by a single candle. All of the windows were open and the beetles and moths outside bounced and fluttered against the screens. Emmett’s mother, dressed in her white cotton shift, lay back in the cushioned chair, mouth open, arms folded, feet up on the hassock, lightly snoring. Her hair was down, draping over her shoulders, and a fly circled her head. On her lap, folded in half, were a few pages of last week’s newspaper.
The boy took a step toward her, but his father grabbed him by the shoulder and said, “It’s a gift to fall asleep in this weather. Don’t wake her.”
Emmett stared at the unmoving flame of the candle on the table next to her and forced himself not to mention his tea. His father’s hand stayed on his shoulder till the boy turned around and headed for his room.
“Goodnight, son,” said a voice in the dark.
Emmett stripped to his underwear and got into bed. He used the corner of the cover to wipe his forehead and neck before pushing it into a pile at his feet. There was no cool side to the pillow, just one less warm. He lay down in the dark on his back, and before he’d settled his head, he was thinking of Jimmy Tooth. Bits of gristle on the ribs, mouse turds dotting the blood-smeared shreds of blue shirt, cavern openings where the eyes belonged, pencil-sharp fingertips, and that rattling medal. Without the thyme tea, he knew his dreams were sure to be full of demons. He breathed deeply as his mother had taught him when he’d wake screaming from one of the nightmares. “Think logical,” she’d repeat, “think logical,” and so he tried to.
It didn’t make sense that the blacksmith’s assistant would be drunk and all the way out at the Addison place when he lived near the center of town. It was a couple miles or more. And with drink in him, he’d be less likely to stray from Main Street where Emmett knew Jimmy liked to spout lewd sayings and songs in the presence of ladies. Emmett traveled in his mind from farm to farm and house to house throughout town, thinking of each neighbor and what his or her chances were of having committed murder. This had the same effect as counting sheep, and before he was half through the Threadwell of his imagination he fell into a sweat-drenched sleep.
The demons that hunted him in dreams were shadows with teeth. At times they surrounded him, but he never got a clear look at one, only aspects of their silhouettes—a horn, a wing, a mane, a darting serpent tongue. As insubstantial as they seemed, he felt every bite and scratch, every kick and head butt. He was on his bike, pedaling hard, but the road had turned from packed dirt to deep sand. They swept down out of the sky crying like roosters for dawn and snatched him up into the night. For the first time in weeks, he felt the wind in his face. The next he knew, they were flying over the Addison place beneath the stars. They cleared the barn and, not slowing in the descent, they plunged into the well with Emmett in tow. The pitch-black hole had lost its bottom, and he knew he was headed for that distant place Pastor Holst referred to as perdition.
He woke thrashing and screaming. Before he opened his eyes, he felt a pair of arms around him instead of the clutches of the demons, and he heard, “Shhhhh.” With that assurance, he caught his breath and stopped writhing. A moment later, he opened his eyes, and though he expected it to be his mother next to him in the bed in the dark, he slowly came to realize it was his father. “It’s all right, I’m here.”
A moment later, candlelight seeped into the room and a globe of it encircled his mother as she entered, her white shift glowing. As she spoke, she wiped the sleep out of her eyes, “I hate to start the stove up but I guess I should brew him a cup of thyme.”
“No,” said his father. “I’ll stay with him. Go on to bed.”
Emmett watched, in his mother’s expression, her weighing of his words. She lifted her hand holding the candle and wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her wrist. Finally, she nodded. “It’d be better not to light the stove.” She turned and left, darkness reclaiming the room. The boy wanted to reach for her, but he didn’t. Instead his father placed an open hand on his chest and gently pushed him back onto the pillow. “Lay still,” came the voice. “I’ll be here.” Emmett closed his eyes. Once sleep rose up around him like water, and once he felt himself on the verge of falling into it. With both instances, he reached for his father and both times he was there.
The demons didn’t slip into his ears again till dawn, but when they did, Emmett came screeching out of sleep from the pressure in his head. His heart pounded, and he gasped for breath. With the faint light seeping in the windows, he saw that his father had gone off to bed and left him. Even after waking and regaining composure, his head still spun with the circular motion, thinking, and torment of his phantasms. A memory of Jimmy Tooth in skeletal form farming three hundred burning acres in hell kept flickering behind his eyes. Instead of wheat, his crop was flames, and at harvest, he took them to market to sell to the devil.
He got out of bed and slipped on his overalls. Tiptoeing through the kitchen, he avoided the spots where the floorboards squealed. Quietly opening the back door, he stepped out into the early light. It was so humid, he felt as if he was at the bottom of the pond. Nothing moved. The birds were too hot to sing and the creepers must have turned to dust. He made his way to the kitchen garden, knelt down and grabbed a handful of thyme, and tore it out by the roots. Part of the jumble was still green but part had burned in the glare of the sun. He brought it to his mouth, but then heard his father and mother up in the house. Emmett took off and ran around behind the barn. With his back to the wall, listening to the noise of his mother heading out to the well pump to fetch coffee water, he stared into the field, waiting for her to be done.
At the boundary where the rows of corn met the yard there was a disturbance in the air. It wasn’t a breeze as the corn stood stock-still. At first he thought it was some large insect, hovering—a moon moth late in fleeing the sun. But no, the very air seemed to pucker there and grow a vertical seam. When two bony hands clawed through the fabric of the air, Emmett shoved the handful of thyme from the kitchen garden into his mouth and chewed, his teeth sparking off grains of dirt, the green peppery taste of the herb mixing with his saliva.
Sharp skeleton fingers pried an opening through which the boy saw fire and heard distant voices crying for mercy. The corpse of Jimmy Tooth stepped through that hole into the day, left foot missing, still dressed in the shreds of shirt and jeans. It moved toward Emmett unevenly from foot to tibia end and back, lurching forward with clear intent. The boy chewed faster as it approached and faster still. After two more steps, the grim skeleton evaporated, leaving no sign that it had come for him. He sighed and when he did he noticed the corn ripple slightly in a breeze.
He wore a starched white shirt and a tie, his short hair pushed up and stuck in place with Bear Wax. The ride from home in the buckboard—his mother and father up front and him in the back watching the wake of dust trail behind them—was glorious. The early evening fields swayed with the motion of the newborn wind and brought him smells of the creek, wildflowers, and honeysuckle. The tiny Chorus frogs had found their old rhythmic thrum and two saw-whet owls perched in the dead tree next to the bridge that crossed a shallow gully just before town.
The church seemed stuffy in comparison with the coolness of the evening outside. The coffin, made of simple pine, rested on a pair of sawhorses draped with a red cloth and flanked at head and foot by tall candle stands each holding three lit tapers. It was a closed casket, of course. Mrs. Williams, the local carpenter, who’d taken on the business when her husband had passed away, could be overheard to say she’d worked on the box half through the night. As a special touch in honor of Jimmy, she’d chiseled out the likeness of a locomotive on the lid. “Well, he can finally be a conductor,” Avery Cross said and smiled. Mrs. Williams patted the blacksmith on the shoulder. Mayor Fense was present and Chief Benton, Officer Johnson, Mr. Dibble, and all the neighbors, men and women and girls and boys. Mothers and wives brought food and once the pastor had said his piece for the unfortunate young man, the mourners would convene at tables on the lawn and feast in the miraculous breeze.
As Emmett looked around the church, he noticed no one was crying, and no one was standing near the coffin. There were pockets of people milling in the aisles and sitting side by side in the pews, but the conversations looked so casual and offhand that it was obvious they were discussing the weather. Miss Billie Maufin, the schoolteacher, said to Emmett’s parents that the windless weeks reminded her of a poem wherein a ship was becalmed upon the sea. “‘The Ancient Mariner,’” said his father, and Miss Maufin nodded. “Like a painted ship upon a painted ocean,” she said. “That’s what we were.”
Mayor Fense, holding his bowler under his arm and frequently stroking his beard, told anyone who would listen to him about his theory of where the wind had gone. In his no-hurry drawl, he said, “Down in Kentucky, on July the seventh they had a biblical windstorm that flattened buildings, killed dozens, and tossed the trains from the tracks in Cincinnati. They said they never saw the like of it. But don’t you know, that’s where our wind went to. It got used up in that storm and we had to wait some weeks for another crop.”
“Poor Jimmy Tooth,” said Mr. Peasi, the barber. “Last I cut his hair—he had strong hair—he told me that he was soon gonna run off and get married to a secret sweetheart. Daft, but a likeable fellow nonetheless.”
“I recall him being gentle with the horses,” said the pastor.
When all the gossiping and talk of the wind diminished into silence, Pastor Holst put on his hat—a broad-brimmed affair with a black satin handkerchief stitched to the front of the inner brim so that the material hung down, covering his face to midchin. He’d taken to wearing it for funerals, baptisms, and marriages, after having read a story about a preacher who wore one in a book he got from the barber’s library. When wearing it, he assumed a stiff posture and intoned his words in a voice from the distant past. “Ridiculous,” whispered Emmett’s mother.
“Jimmy Tooth, you were one of us,” said Holst, the satin lifting slightly with every word. “We thank you for sharing your days with us. We thank you for your hard work at the anvil. We forgive your indiscretions and offer prayers to carry you to your just reward.” The pastor stepped away from the coffin, and his wife stepped forward. She carried a basket at her side. With her free hand, she reached into the basket and brought out a fistful of dried thyme to place in a small pile at the head of the coffin. This she did three times so there was a sizeable mound of the green powder. “Go forth in peace,” she said, as she always did at wakes. The words and the ritual had been passed down from the grandmothers of grandmothers. The herb that brought peace in sleep also offered courage in death.
There was an amen from the pastor that echoed through the church and a feeble response. Then the doors were thrown open and the neighbors of Threadwell filed out. Emmett was slow to get up, thinking about, as Holst had put it, Jimmy Tooth’s just reward—a fire farm in hell. “Em,” his mother called to him from the center aisle, and he looked up. She waved her hand for him to follow and he did. With the doors open before them, the wind swept in and down the aisles of the church to snuff the candles.
There were three long tables set with white tablecloths and napkins held down against the breeze by utensils and plates. These along with eighteen long benches were set up on the lawn of the church. The sun was going down, and the pastor’s wife was lighting candles in glass globes. Kids were running in circles on the dry lawns. The trees at the boundary of the churchyard shook their leaves in the wind. People chose seats along the three tables, and the potato salad, chicken, coleslaw, and biscuits were passed. Chief Benton leaned against the giant wooden cross in the center of the lawn, smoking a cigarette, and Dr. Summerhill smoked his pipe. Emmett told his mother he was going to go run with the other kids for a few minutes and she said, “Fine.” He left her side and bolted across the lawn where kids from his school were chasing lightning bugs. On his way toward them, though, he was stopped cold. His body registered it before he was even sure what had frightened him. There, sitting at the end of the third long table, the one farthest from the church door, was Jimmy Tooth, not a ghost but his gnawed skeleton as it had been dragged from the well. Mr. Dibble sat next to the corpse but didn’t seem to notice it was there. Across from the specter sat Miss Billie Maufin. She buttered a biscuit and smiled and listened to Mr. Peasi, who was next to Dibble.
Emmett dropped to his knees on the dry grass. He was already trembling and was having trouble catching his breath. He watched, trying to croak out the word help, as Jimmy Tooth’s skull swiveled around, taking in the crowd. Thinking that if he averted his eyes, he wouldn’t be seen, the boy turned his face to the ground. The realization came to him then that no one else could see the skeleton in jeans and blue tatters. He looked back to check if his nightmare had vanished. At that moment, Tooth’s empty eye sockets seemed to take him in. The skeleton stood awkwardly up from the table, holding on with one bony hand and righting its imbalance. Once the figure was stable, it started in Emmett’s direction, limping along on foot and tibia stub.
Suddenly at his side was agirl from school, Gretel Lawler, who sometimes sat quietly next to him and read, as he did, on the bench beneath the oak during recess. “Are you all right, Emmett?” she said.
He looked up into her face, stunned with fear. At any other time he’d not have minded her being so close, but it was almost as if he was afraid that she’d see the reflection of Jimmy Tooth in his eyes.
“I’ll get your ma,” said Gretel.
Emmett shook his head. “I’m fine,” he managed. He felt her hand on his shoulder and he looked up at her. She was smiling down at him, and her green eyes and dimples and freckles diverted his fear for an instant. He was about to say thanks, when from behind her sweet face, Jimmy Tooth’s skull descended into view and his jaw squealed open. A burst of adrenaline went off in the boy’s chest like a half stick of dynamite, and he scrabbled up off the grass and ran, his heart pounding, a ringing in his ears.
The gathering shadows of twilight covered his retreat and everyone was preoccupied with the dinner and conversation. Emmett didn’t look back to see if the corpse was following him. Opening the oak door of the church, he slipped inside and let it swing shut behind him. Someone had relit one of the tapers in the candelabra at the foot of the coffin and that meager flame was the sole light he had to navigate his way to the altar.
When he reached the coffin, he heard the church door open behind him. He didn’t turn but reached up onto the top of the pine box and with his right hand swept the top half of the pile of dried thyme to the edge of the planks. Cupping his left hand he caught the dark green powder, and then brought it directly to his mouth. He chewed on it like he was chewing on dust. It stuck in his dry throat and he momentarily choked. Thyme sprayed out onto the altar at his feet. Still he didn’t turn, but swept the remainder off the coffin. Swallowing hard with little spit, he poured the second handful into his mouth and resumed chewing.
He sat down on the altar step to catch his breath as he worked the second load of thyme down his throat. And now he looked to see if Jimmy Tooth was coming up the aisle for him. Instead he saw, standing a few paces behind him, a figure in black without a face, wearing a broad-brimmed hat.
“What are you doing?” asked Pastor Holst in his most austere voice.
Emmett stammered, thyme spewing from his mouth. He eventually managed to get out that he needed the herb to keep the demons away from him.
“I see,” said Holst, removing his hat. He squatted down next to the boy and told him, “You’re safe now. We’ll keep this to ourselves.” As it turned out, everyone in Threadwell knew by the end of that week. When at the close of July, after having been spotted raiding the kitchen gardens and herb gardens of neighboring farms by dark of night, Emmett was found one morning in his underwear, lying filthy and unconscious in the garden of the widow Alston. His cheek was puffed out like a pouch to hold the cud of thyme he chewed even in sleep. In his left hand his fingers clutched another shock of the green, ripped out by its roots. It was the widow herself who first used the words thyme fiend, but the name caught on and it spread like fire through the community.
The harvest was blighted by the heat of July, a full quarter of the crop gone brown and desiccated. A day in late October after the last yield was taken, Threadwell and the surrounding area were inundated with a plague of ash-colored moths that appeared by the millions overnight. A day later they vanished, but not before Pastor Holst could use them from the pulpit in reference to the burning city of Gomorrah. He’d taken to wearing the hat and black handkerchief now also for Sunday mass, and he bellowed that sin was afoot. “Strange customs have been allowed to flourish,” he said, turning his face in the direction of Emmett and his mother and father in the third row of pews.
“Strange customs my eye,” said Emmett’s mother as they rode in the buckboard back to the farm. “Like him wearing that fool hat and mask.” Emmett’s father nodded and that’s all that was said on the journey. The boy sat in the back of the rig, staring off across the fields where the leaves of the windbreaks had gone yellow and orange. He hadn’t had a full night’s sleep for three days. The insomnia came with his realization that there was no more thyme in Threadwell. He’d decimated every garden, even snuck into the church the nights of two wakes and consumed every grain of dust that made up the ritual piles atop the coffins. There’d be no relief till spring. Emmett shifted his gaze from the distant trees to the bony remains of Jimmy Tooth, sitting across from him in the back of the buckboard.
The phantasm had not come to harm Emmett but to follow him, and when the last of the herb had been swallowed and its effects dissipated, that’s what it did. It appeared first in his room, in the dark, standing at the window in the moonlight peering out across the fields. The boy was too terrified to scream and lay trembling. Occasionally, Jimmy would turn his skull, that stringy patch of hair barely hanging on, and move his bottom jaw up and down as if talking. No words came forth, only a subtle squeaking noise of the dry joint. Although the eye sockets were hollow, the corpse had a way of staring, and more than once seemed to focus those portals on Emmett. Even after the birds sang, the rooster crowed, and sunlight filled the room, Jimmy Tooth remained, sitting at the end of the bed while Emmett got dressed for school.
After only a week, his mother and father noticed his feeble condition—weary and yet fidgeting with nerves, a pale complexion, a drawn expression. They ambushed him in the barn one afternoon when he was stowing his bike after school. His mother was sitting on an overturned bale of hay, his father on the workbench. They had a chair ready for him. Jimmy sat up above in the hayloft, his foot and stump dangling above Mrs. Wallace’s head. The boy took the seat they pointed to and looked up. The bone architecture was lit by the beams of sunlight slipping through tiny holes in the roof. His arms were raised, and he was wiggling the sharp white fingers of both hands.
“Emmett, you’re not well,” said his father.
“Do the children torment you at school?” his mother asked.
Emmett nodded. “The whole town thinks I’m touched.”
“What can we do?” asked his father.
“It’s the thyme,” said his mother. “You need it, don’t you?”
“I need it,” he said. “Without it I see something bad all day and night.”
“Well, I put an order in at Stamp’s Grocery for a five pound satchel of it, dried. Should be here in a couple days,” said his father.
The boy got up and went to his mother and hugged her, then his father who patted him lightly on the top of the head.
“Now,” said his mother, “do you want to stop going to school? Maybe for a while?”
“You could help me here,” said his father.
“No,” he said. “I want to go.”
On the day the satchel of thyme arrived, Emmett and his father and Jimmy Tooth sat at the kitchen table. Mr. Wallace instructed on how to roll a respectable cigarette. It took the destruction of a half dozen rolling papers and a scattering of thyme before the boy caught on. When he finally had before him a tightly rolled bone of uniform width, his father handed him a box of matches. Emmett lit one, brought it to the end of the cigarette, and inhaled the way he’d seen Chief Benton do.
“Easy,” said his father and the boy exploded with a choking cough.
When Emmett was done gasping and wiping his eyes, he noticed Jimmy Tooth was gone. Just that second, his mother had come in from the parlor and pulled back the chair the skeleton had been in.
“I hope you two aren’t engaging in strange customs,” she said.
Emmett took another drag, and laughed along with his father.
“At night you’ll have the tea,” said his mother.
Thyme as smoke still had the same dark green taste and subtle bite. The boy could feel it wafting in lazy cyclones through his mind, and after three drags and three long exhalations of the gray-green mist, he felt the tension leaving the muscles of his neck and back. He blew a smoke ring, and as he watched it float out over the table, where his father poked a finger through the widening circle, it came to him that his parents must think him insane or simple or both. Their insipid smiles became clear to him. Were they trying to help him or help themselves in the eyes of the community? It was all too much to decipher. Jimmy Tooth was gone and the rest he’d worry about later.
A cup of tea at bedtime took care of the visitations through the night. One roll-up before school and one after kept the day revenant free. On a rare occasion, the doses of thyme wouldn’t quite overlap and Emmett would catch sight of Jimmy, approaching across the barnyard or sitting cramped in the corner of the outhouse, watching the boy with a hollow stare as he shit. These sudden relapses were startling, but once they happened, Emmett gained control of himself, knowing there was plenty of thyme left in the satchel.
The protocol worked smoothly into November. He was doing better in school, getting sleep and feeling good. The ruckus over “the thyme fiend” died down and no longer were people shouting at him or saying mean things. Their hot disdain had cooled into a general agreement that he was to be avoided. That change was good enough for Emmett. He didn’t mind going his own way.
The break from Jimmy Tooth gave him time to get back to reading, and he finished Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra. The next day he brought the book to school and afterward to the barbershop to return it and see if he could borrow another. When he entered the shop from the side door, he noticed that Peasi had a customer in the chair. The barber looked over and saw Emmett standing there holding the book. The scissors stopped snipping and with one hand Peasi ran a comb through the customer’s hair. With the other, he motioned for the boy to stand where he was and then put his finger to his lips. Emmett nodded.
A few moments later the barber was applying a hot towel to the customer’s face. Once that was securely in place, he turned to Emmett and motioned for him to come forward. He nodded toward the bookshelf and again brought his finger to his lips. The boy understood and paced softly on the sides of his shoes. Even with the precaution, he hit a creaking plank right behind the barber’s chair. The customer’s voice sounded, “Someone come in?” Emmett knew immediately it was Chief Benton.
“No, no,” said Peasi. “Just the floorboards. They creak and pop all day and night. This place is like an old bum with arthritis.”
“That makes two of us,” said Benton.
Emmett placed his book on the shelf, and, not wanting to get the barber in trouble for being nice to him, just grabbed the first book to hand. He waved as he crept cautiously back toward the door. Peasi wasn’t watching but was busy with his lather cup and brush. Once out in the lot next to his bike, Emmett quickly looked at the title—Off on a Comet by Jules Verne. He stowed the novel in his bike bag, mounted up, and headed down the alley for the street. When he came clear of the buildings, he looked across Main at the door of the Handsome Man Tavern and knew he’d taken too long to get home from school.
There was Jimmy Tooth, standing, facing the plate glass window, showing no reflection. The corpse gave an awkward half turn, and Emmett heard the medallion bounce from across the street. Jimmy focused that cavernous gaze from over his shoulder. He lifted a thin white arm and waved to Emmett as if to follow. The shreds of blue shirt rippled with the motion, and he did it again, twice. Emmett took off down Main for the dirt road that led out toward the farms.
A half hour later, he was sitting in the hayloft, smoking a thyme roll-up and paging through the Verne book. He’d have loved to start reading it, but something bothered him about his encounter with Jimmy Tooth. The specter hadn’t followed him as he fled home for his cure. He wasn’t waiting in the barnyard, slouched against the white oak, wiggling his sharp fingers at the sun. He was nowhere. As Emmett smoked the rest of the cigarette, he pictured the figure waving for him to follow. In that arm motion and that hollow gaze there was a purpose.
There was still snow on the ground the following week when he left school and rode into town instead of going home. A freezing wind shrieked across the fields and made pedaling difficult. There weren’t many people out, but those there were, Pastor Holst and Mr. Dibble, both in turn crossed to the other side of the street when they saw him riding toward them. Emmett noticed that the pastor had taken to wearing the hat and veil all the time now, stumbling along partially blind, grazing the poles of the gas lamps and keeping his right arm extended.
Emmett rode his bike to the edge of town where it bordered on a tract of woods. There was a bench there, down an embankment, by the edge of Wildcat Creek. It was out of the wind. He watched across the frozen creek, scattered with leaves, trying to catch the moment when the influence of that morning’s thyme smoke would finally pass. He felt no change. Leaning back, he closed his eyes, sighed, and conjured a recollection of a moment he spent with Gretel Lawler after school the day before. He always stayed in the schoolhouse and waited for the other kids to clear out before going to his bike. When they were gone, he slipped out, and she was there, next to her bike, which was next to his, waiting for him.
Her hair was in a single long braid, and her red winter hat framed her face, set off her green eyes. Emmett noticed that her freckles had faded, and instead her cheeks were dotted with glitter from the day’s Christmas project. “Emmett Wallace, we should go for a bike ride some day after school,” she said.
He stopped walking, numb with surprise. Finally, he said, “Don’t you know I’m the thyme fiend?” He forced a laugh, but it came too quiet and flat.
Gretel laughed. “What’s the sin?” she said. “It’s like eating grass. My old man drinks Overholt till he’s blind drunk and nobody bats a lash.”
“When?” asked Emmett.
“You say,” she said.
She laughed again. “Why Wednesday?”
“That’s what came to me.”
She reached out and touched his shoulder, and Emmett came awake with that touch to see Jimmy Tooth standing over him, quickly withdrawing his hand. The boy gasped and reared back, pressing himself into the bench. He was startled and confused as to whether the touch he felt on his shoulder was merely the one from the daydream or if the specter could now make contact. Sunset was coming on. The corpse turned and motioned for the boy to follow across the frozen creek.
His parents would be wondering where he was. He’d miss dinner. He was frightened, but he leaped up, leaving his bike, and hobbled down the bank, slid across the ice, into the woods beyond. Jimmy Tooth was waiting for him in a small clearing. When Emmett caught up, the skeleton reached out as if to shake hands. The boy was stunned for a moment and then backed up a step. Jimmy held his posture, waiting, skull cocked to the side like a marionette at rest. A minute passed in silence, and then Emmett stepped forward. His hand passed through its skeletal partner. It wasn’t merely thin air, though; he felt something like a mild turbulence when his fingers failed to grasp Jimmy’s.
In that instant, the two of them turned to salt and were whisked up into the sky in an insane whirlwind. They were moving fast through the dark, and how Emmett knew he’d been turned to salt, he didn’t know. He saw the lights of the town below and in the distance the last line of pink on the horizon. Then they descended and were standing in the dark, again by the creek, but somewhere different from where they’d started.
“What was that?” asked the boy, working to regain his balance.
Jimmy put a finger to his bottom jaw to signal silence and led the way.
They came out of the woods on the opposite side of town in the field behind the church. Off to the left was a stand of half a dozen horse chestnuts, and from within their cover, Emmett spotted a lighted window. Jimmy headed directly for it and the boy had to run to catch up. In under the barren branches of the trees, drawing closer to the glow of the window, they slowed and crept to avoid breaking sticks underfoot. Each took a side and peered in—a skull in the bottom left pane and Emmett Wallace in the bottom right.
In lantern light, Mrs. Holst sat with her back to them at a vanity with a large oval mirror. Emmett could see the reflection of her face in the glass as she brushed her hair. She never appeared in public with it down, and he couldn’t believe how much of it there actually was. He wondered how she stowed it on her head. She had remained kind even after the town and particularly the pastor had turned against him. There had been more than one occasion when he’d gone to the back door of the very house he now hid beside, and if her husband was out, she’d give him two pocketfuls of thyme from the supply they kept for wakes. He had a crush on her smile and the way she drove the white Studebaker, speeding along once out of town.
A heartbeat later, Jimmy Tooth was inside the room, and Emmett leaned dazed against the house. He watched as the skeleton slowly walked up behind the pastor’s wife. She was brushing on the left, holding the hair back away from her ear and neck. Jimmy descended with grace, turned his skull head toward her cheek, and gave her a quick kiss. Before her brush rose to the top of her head again, he was up and away, walking back toward the window. Just as the corpse stepped through the wall of the house, Emmett again caught a glimpse of her reflection and noticed that where Jimmy had kissed her, she now bore a black spider of a scar.
So intense was his focus on the mark that he didn’t notice at first the figure in a black hat and handkerchief mask enter the room. Jimmy obviously did, though. He grabbed Emmett by the wrist and pulled him back. “How?” Emmett wondered, feeling the hard bony grip on his arm. In the next moment, the pastor was at the window, peering out through the dark scrim and glass into the dark. He lifted off his hat to see better, and that’s when the boy and skeleton again turned to salt and were whisked upward into the sky.
When they coalesced this time, they were standing in front of an ancient structure that Emmett, even at night, was able to identify. It was the old Threadwell icehouse, the one that had been on the farmland that the town was eventually built on. It happened to sit behind the Williams place, a hundred or so yards behind the carpentry shop. His father had brought him back to see it one time when they’d been to visit Mrs. Williams about building a dresser for Emmett’s mother. Mr. Wallace had explained that there was an outer and an inner wall, separated by about a foot all around, and that space was filled with sawdust for insulation. As old as the icehouse was—built in 1887—and as hard worn, it was still intact. The big door was on its hinges, the walls stood save for splintering and wormholes, and there were no windows, so no glass to be broken.
Jimmy Tooth pointed to the door and motioned for Emmett to open it and go inside. The boy looked at him, and thinking about how the specter had physically seized him before, he was skeptical. Tooth put his palms together in the sign of prayer and then pointed to the door again, as if begging. After seeing the mark he’d left on Mrs. Holst’s cheek, Emmett wanted nothing but to be home, a roll-up in the corner of his lips, paging through Jules Verne. He’d thought he wanted to know what it all meant, but that was forgotten. Jimmy clasped his hands with a click in front of him again, and a voice came out of the night from up by the back of the carpentry shop.
“Who is that over there?” it called.
Emmett knew it was Mrs. Williams.
“Get away from there.” It sounded as if she was getting closer.
The skull gazed directly at the boy, and in its empty sockets, something strange was happening. Emmett saw the colors of sunset deep inside Jimmy’s head. Then he felt a cold wind, the one everyone had wished for in July, rushing around him. Mrs. Williams bellowed, “Emmett Wallace, is that you?”
“Run now,” whispered Jimmy.
The boy moved his legs, up and down, up and down, and looked across the fields to the sunset. Jimmy’s diminishing whisper was still on the wind. A moment later, Emmett came to the realization that he was riding his bike on the dirt path homeward from town and the sun was still an hour from setting. He’d not missed dinner. In fact, he would hardly be later than usual. The entire episode seemed a dream, and yet he was certain it had all really happened.
His conviction was borne out at Sunday mass when Mrs. Holst appeared, bearing the mark on her face. He was certain that no one else was seeing it as no one else seemed disturbed and it was perfectly disturbing—a black center with thin black cracks radiating away from it. He was sure it had grown larger. Still, he wondered why it was that he had to be there to witness Jimmy Tooth kiss the pastor’s wife. And how did it involve the old icehouse? His mind wandered for a moment and he remembered that the day he’d discovered Jimmy, he was heading for the icehouse on the Addison property. His vision of eternal ice came back to him, but none of it led anywhere and it turned to salt on the wind.
After mass let out, the parishioners stood on the church lawn in small clusters, catching up on news and gossip. Emmett stood off by himself near the buckboard while his parents passed the time with the widow Alston. Studying the scene from afar, he closely followed the actions of Mrs. Holst. She had knelt on the cold ground to put her arms around the youngest Fenwick girl. “She’s going to die,” he said to himself. “That’s what the mark is.” He watched as she rose, her beaming smile nearly a distraction from the horror on her cheek. “No,” he whispered. “Someone’s going to kill her.”
Emmett thought frantically about how he could warn her, but his concentration was broken by a voice close by. He looked up and saw Mrs. Williams standing a few yards off. She was dressed in a blue, man’s roll collar coat, beneath the hem of which showed the striped design of her dress. Her long frizzy hair undulated in the wind. She was wide in the shoulders and slim at the waist, and her eyes crinkled down to mere slits when she spoke.
“You know something, don’t you, Thyme Fiend?”
Emmett was caught off guard. He stared at the ground and said, “Yes, ma’am.”
“I know you know something,” she said and then walked off to join the others.
He spent the ride home in the buckboard and the better part of the afternoon trying to figure out what she thought he knew.
On Wednesday, he left for school prepared for the afternoon, with a thyme roll-up and a box of wooden matches in his pocket. The smoke he’d had after breakfast took him through the school day and after, when he met Gretel Lawler by the bike rack. They made for town, pedaling through the golden last light of the afternoon, heads down against a fierce wind. There was a light dusting of snow on the frozen dirt road, and their bikes skidded here and there, which they pretended was hilarious. He led her to the bench in the woods at the edge of town, next to the creek, and proceeded to tell her everything.
Every few minutes out of the forty-five it took him to tell her pretty much the whole strange saga of his doings with Jimmy Tooth, he asked her a question. “You following this?”; “You scared?” “You think I’m crazy?” To all of these, she answered by shaking her head. He could tell she was getting it, and better yet, could picture it, by the gleam in her eyes. The relief of being able to share all of his fear and confusion nearly brought tears. She didn’t laugh or act stupid about it. She listened so intently, at one point he wondered if she was crazy.
When he finished speaking, relating to her his flight above the town with Jimmy Tooth and the peeping tom visits to the pastor’s wife and Mrs. Williams, there was a brief silence before she said, “So you must be wanting to go see what’s in that old icehouse.”
“That’s what I want to do,” he said.
In his plans for Gretel Lawler, he never imagined it would be so easy.
They left the bikes and headed across the creek into the woods. The carpentry shop wasn’t far at all from that end of town. They could circle around behind it through the trees, cross the creek again, and come out in ten minutes a few feet from the icehouse. He led the way, bent slightly and whispering because they were on a secret mission. “That pastor is mighty strange, eh?” she said. “My pa says they’ll be sending him off to the loony bin before long.”
“You think he could have killed Jimmy Tooth and thrown his body in the Addisons’ well?”
“I can’t see it,” she said. “He seems kind of useless, like it would be too much for him. Best he can do is put on that handkerchief hat.”
“I know what you mean,” said Emmett.
“Mrs. Williams, though,” said Gretel, “why’s she so worried about what you know?”
“She always seemed nice to me, but when she said what she said to me out on the church lawn, it gave me a shiver. I got the feeling she could be as mean as she wanted.”
“What about the spider kiss the skeleton gave Mrs. Holst?” asked Gretel.
“I have a feeling somebody is gonna kill her.”
“Like Jimmy Tooth knows the future? Or like Jimmy Tooth put a curse on her?” she asked.
Emmett had no answer and shook his head. They got down on their hands and knees and crawled to the edge of the treeline. From where they squatted, behind the bole of a long-ago fallen oak, they could see the icehouse, clear as day, no more than twenty-five yards into the open field behind the carpentry shop. From up in the shop they heard the sound of a hammer pounding cut nails. Emmett turned to Gretel and looked at her. He couldn’t believe he had a friend after not having one since July. She smiled at him, and he said, “Let’s go.”
They crouched as they made their way to the structure, using it to block any view of them from the carpentry shop. When they stood against its western wall, Emmett inched forward and looked around the corner to see if Mrs. Williams was in sight. Eventually he waved over his shoulder for Gretel to follow him. He got his hand on the door and pulled back, expecting it to be locked. Instead it swept open with little more than a grumble from the hinges. They slipped inside, and he said for her to hold it open just a sliver so he could see. There was an old oil lantern hanging from a hook just inside the door. He reached into his pocket and took out the box of wooden matches. There was still oil in the rusted old lamp and the wick was damp with it. He removed its glass globe, thumbnail lit a match, and brought light to the shadows. The sight of the flame reminded him he hadn’t smoked his afternoon roll-up yet.
The inside of the place, lined with cedar wood, was much smaller that the outside. The walls were in the shape of an octagon. They were standing on a huge trapdoor, and Gretel said, “They must keep the ice down there.” With the exception of a couple of wooden shelves lining each wall, and the remainder of the floor not covered by the hatch being poured concrete, there was nothing much to see.
“Looks like Jimmy Tooth sent you on a wild-goose chase,” said Gretel.
“Maybe he meant we have to go down there,” he said, pointing to the trapdoor. He leaned over and tried the handle. It didn’t budge and he tried it with two hands. Gretel walked over when he was done and gave it a tug.
“Well,” he said, and they stood there close together in silence for a long while.
“Hey, what’s that in the corner?”
He lifted the lantern off the hook and followed her. She knelt next to the wall opposite the door they’d come in. Emmett tried to see what she was looking at over her shoulder. She slowly turned toward him, her palm up and her brow furrowed.
“Is that chips of ice?” he asked and brought the lantern closer to her hand.
A moment passed and then Emmett said, “You gotta know what I’m thinking.”
Gretel nodded. “Jimmy Tooth’s teeth.”
“The rest must have got cleaned up but they missed these.”
She handed him the three teeth, each cracked off at the root, and he stowed them deep in his pocket.
“Let’s get out,” he said, and with that, the icehouse door slammed shut and they heard a key turning in its lock.
“Wait!” he yelled. “We’re in here.”
“Hey,” called Gretel, whose voice was higher and louder than his.
In the silence that followed, as if from a great distance, they heard a woman’s voice. At first they couldn’t make out what she was saying, but slowly her words came clear. “You’ve gobbled your last thyme patch, Emmett Wallace.”
“Please,” he yelled back. “We won’t tell anyone.”
“Is she going to bash our teeth out with a hammer?” asked Gretel.
The friends stood perfectly still, taking shallow breaths in order to better hear their captor. Emmett was sure it was Mrs. Williams. Even in her muffled voice he could detect that chilling thread of nastiness. The time passed, but they were afraid to move. When after a long while, they heard nothing, they went to work on the door by which they’d entered, kicking it and ramming their shoulders into it. It didn’t move an inch.
“If she comes in with her hammer, we’ll both rush her at the same time,” said Gretel.
Emmett swallowed hard and agreed, unsure if he’d be able to.
They wore themselves out pounding and screaming and eventually slumped down together onto the trapdoor at the center of the eight-sided room. She put her arm around him, put her head on his shoulder, and neither of them spoke. The oil lamp flickered now and then, and Emmett wondered how much longer it would be before they were swamped by total darkness.
An hour later, they heard knocking noises from outside. Emmett crawled forward to the door and put his ear to the thin slit between its bottom and the floor. He barely heard Mrs. Williams’s voice. “We’ll be done with this little peckerwood,” she said. Then another voice answered her. “A blight of a child,” said a man.
“What about Miss Angel Cake?”
“I fixed the brakes and I’m sending her on an errand to Mount Victory,” he said.
“More kerosene around the base,” she commanded. “That dry old sawdust’ll go up in a blink.”
Emmett felt a hand on his shoulder. “What’s she doing?” whispered Gretel.
“The pastor is with her,” said Emmett, moving back away from the door as the smell of kerosene sifted in beneath it. He didn’t have the heart to tell her the rest.
A few minutes later, the cedar room grew hotter, smoke issuing in from beneath the door and between the wall slats.
“I want to go home,” cried Gretel. She screamed for help and lunged at the door, pounding and kicking. Emmett was paralyzed with fear, unable to move off the concrete. That’s when the lamp went out and they heard the crackling of the fire all around them. She found him in the dark, and they put their arms around each other. They were gasping. Their hearts were pounding.
Just as the flames began poking through the inner wall, bringing back the light and casting jittery shadows, there was a loud bang. The trapdoor flew open and slammed back on the concrete only inches from them. Jimmy Tooth slowly ascended from the ice hold below. His skull and ribs glowed in the firelight, and the tattered shirt smoldered where embers had landed. Emmett saw him emerge through the smoke, that near-toothless open mouth either screaming or laughing. There were tiny fires burning in the hollows of his eyes. With sharp, cold hands, the phantasm grabbed both the boy and girl by the wrists, and they were off.
Emmett felt himself dropping, felt the heat increasing. He finally mustered the courage to open one eye. They were drifting down through the darkness, into a vast cavern. Everywhere, stretching out to the horizon of the cave as big as Ohio, there were fields of fire, the flames growing individually in rows like corn. Their orange stalks, their sharp white tips bowed and rippled in a strong sweltering breeze. Directly below there was a clearing of black rock where the boy spotted Jimmy Tooth’s farmhouse as he’d seen it in his daydream.
There was an instant of forgetting and then Gretel and Emmett were standing beside Jimmy Tooth at the edge of the field of fire. The skeleton was sweeping his arm out to indicate his infernal crop. “I got a thousand acres of torment here,” he said, speaking in the voice of the Jimmy Emmett remembered from life. Words came forth from the empty skull in a weak echo. “For every acre’s worth I bring to Satan, he reduces my own anguish a half a dust mote’s worth.”
The boy had the sense that they’d been on a tour of the farm for a while before he’d come to. “Are we dead?” he asked.
“You ain’t dead,” said Jimmy.
“What about me?” asked Gretel.
“You’re neither dead nor alive. We’ve gotta see.”
She asked, “What do you mean?” but the skeleton turned away and walked back toward the red barn. On the way they passed a massive creature with six legs and the scaly head of a dragon, chewing flame like hay out of a bale that wriggled with bright intensity.
“My trusty plough horse, Sacload,” said Jimmy. “You could pet him if you like.” Emmett and Gretel declined. They moved on a few more yards across the adamantine surface before the skeleton announced, “And lookee here. I got a well.” A stone well like the one at the Addisons’ appeared before them where there’d been none a second before. “Maybe someday I’ll find myself at the bottom of it,” he said. His jaw opened wide and laughter, like a trumpet, issued forth.
“Why are we here?” asked Emmett.
“You kids make yourselves at home for a spell. I’ve got some pressing business up in the house.”
“Wait,” said Gretel, more than a hint of desperation in her voice, but before the word fully sounded, Jimmy had vanished. She began crying and the only thing preventing Emmett from doing the same was his fear. He drew close to her and said, “Come on. I’m going to tell him to take us back home.” He put his arm around her and moved her slowly toward the house. He looked up at their destination—a gray, three-story structure, listing forward, with broken windows and a round cupola on either side of the patchy roof. Green mist curled from the chimney and reminded Emmett of thyme smoke.
On their way to the house, they passed the sagging old barn, and just as they drew even with the entrance, a man walked out of it. He was middle-aged, bald on top but with a full red beard reaching to the center of his chest. He was dressed in a work shirt and jeans and pair of farm boots. Emmett thought he recognized him from town. “Hey, mister,” he said. “How do we get back to Threadwell.” The figure paid no attention to him and kept heading for the house. “Scuze me, sir,” said Gretel. She shrugged off Emmett’s arm and ran to catch up with the adult. “Can you help us?” she yelled to him.
The fellow just kept moving forward, not even turning his head to acknowledge their presence. “He doesn’t see you,” said Emmett. Gretel stopped following and watched as the man climbed the back steps to the house, opened the door, and went inside. When that door latched shut again, there came a low roar from out across the fields. Both she and Emmett turned around to see what was happening. At first it was unclear if anything in the strange setting was different, save for the fact that the wind had picked up considerably.
In an instant, it grew stronger yet, and there was a howling that echoed throughout the enormous cavern in which the farmland lay. It was Gretel who noticed it first. She pointed to the boundary of the field and shouted over the noise, “It’s moving toward us.” Emmett focused and realized that the crop of flames had grown higher, become more violent in its crackling and waving, and was rolling toward them now like an ocean wave. Gretel moved first, running back to grab Emmett’s hand and pull him in the direction of the house. Her touch woke him from his stupor and they ran.
By the time they made it to the steps, the back of the barn was on fire. They got through the door and slammed it behind them. For all the din of the blaze outside, it was silent in the kitchen, the only sound the slow ticking of a clock on the wall with chains and pinecone weights. Each second sounded like a drip of water. The room was lit by the light of the fire outside slipping in through two windows. The dance of the flames as they consumed the barn cast wild shadows on the walls.
“Jimmy Tooth!” Emmett yelled. He and Gretel left the kitchen, ran down a dark hallway, and stepped into a parlor. “We want to go home,” he was about to call out, but the phrase never made it past his lips. The man they’d seen exit the barn was on his knees, his fingers on Jimmy Tooth’s wrists, trying to pry the grip from around his neck. His face was blue, his eyes popping, and foam and drool dripped from his lips. Jimmy’s eyes widened and the empty mouth was a grimace of exertion.
The gurgling noise coming up out of the victim filled the room, and his body jerked and writhed with its last pulses of life. When the figure eventually went limp, Jimmy released his grip and the corpse fell to the floor with a thud. Emmett just then realized that the house was on fire around them, flames coming up through the floorboards, piercing the lathing of the walls. Jimmy turned toward the children, arms outstretched. The skull snarled viciously. He lunged for them.
Emmett felt a hand grasp his ankle and he came to, cocooned in heat and thick smoke. He felt himself being dragged and a moment later a pair of hands under his arms lifted him up. “I’ve got him,” yelled a voice. Emmett’s eyes opened, the lids fluttered, and he caught a glimpse of Officer Johnson before dropping into darkness again. The next thing, sunlight. He opened his eyes and found himself lying on a cot in the police station.
Benton made him drink a cup of black coffee. Emmett sat, wrapped in a blanket, across the desk from the chief, who smoked a roll-up.
“Your folks’ll be here soon to get you. I told them to let you stay here for the night. Doc Summerhill looked you over and gave you the okay.”
The lawman took a last toke on his butt and then stubbed it out. He sat back in his chair and said, “Your dad showed up here last evening and said you hadn’t come home. He had the wagon and was looking for you. Me and Officer Johnson weren’t doing anything so we took the Model T out and helped search. We just happened to be passing the carpentry shop and saw the flames out back. We carried water from the creek, maybe two dozen times. And I’m too old to be hauling water. You’re a lucky cuss. Johnson heard you screaming in there or we’d have let it just turn to cinders, which in the long run it mostly did anyway. Now, suppose you tell me why we had to pull you free of that burning icehouse last night.”
“Gretel,” said Emmett. “Is she okay?”
“Gretel who?” asked Benton.
“When we put the fire out, all we found was you.”
“She was with me.”
“Maybe she slipped out. The back wall had collapsed by the time we got there. You’re lucky you’re not barbecue, son. Where’s this girl live?”
“Gretel Lawler. She lives out on the Chowdry Road.”
The chief leaned forward, lifted a pencil from the desk, and made a note. “Okay, now, what were you up to?”
Emmett sat for quite a while, willing to talk, but not knowing where to begin. There was almost too much to tell. Every time he picked a launching point, he thought of some other thread that needed tending if he was to get it all right. His mind was still bleary from the smoke, but while he sat and thought, he drank the coffee and that cleared things a bit with every sip. Benton rocked slightly in his chair, the spring beneath him quietly squealing, and seemed to study something on the ceiling.
Finally, Emmett said, “It started back when I found Jimmy Tooth in the bottom of the Addisons’ old well.”
“Good lord,” said the chief.
It was late morning by the time the boy stopped talking.
Benton shook his head, and said, “That’s one hell of a tale, Mr. Wallace. Jimmy Tooth come back from the dead to get justice? Ha. I like it, but it’s lunatic. You’re saying that Mrs. Williams killed Jimmy Tooth and because she knew you knew something, she trapped you in the icehouse and tried to cook you? And that’s not even the most absurd part.”
“Jimmy wanted justice,” said Emmett, “but I think to also confess. It never struck me to wonder why Jimmy Tooth had a farm in hell. He wanted me to know that he choked a man to death.”
“Oh, right,” said Benton. “Who?”
“I’ve seen him before, but I can’t place him. A man with a red beard down to here.” He moved the side of his hand across his chest. “Bald head.”
Benton squinted and leaned on the desk. He smiled with only the left side of his mouth. “You know who you’re describing?” he asked.
Emmett shook his head.
“Oh, that’s right. I barely remember him.”
“That’s interesting,” said the chief. “You know, when he died, I don’t remember being called to the carpentry shop. I can’t remember if the doctor took a look at him. I just heard he had a heart attack and then there was a wake. Mrs. Williams made his coffin and chose a closed lid. We knew her so well, and she was in such grief no one asked any questions.”
“I think she got Jimmy to kill her husband, and then she killed Jimmy. Oh, and I almost forgot, the pastor was part of it. He was outside the icehouse and helped her make the fire.”
“The pastor too?” said Benton.
“He did something to the brakes on his wife’s car. He’s gonna kill her. Jimmy put the spider kiss on her.”
“All right, calm down now. This is getting crazier by the second.”
“I can prove it,” said Emmett. “Or at least part of it.” He stood up and reached into the pocket of his jeans. His hand came out in a fist. Leaning over the desk, he opened his fingers, and three little nuggets dropped onto Benton’s calendar. “I found those on the floor of the icehouse. Jimmy Tooth’s teeth. I bet they’d match up to where they were busted out of his jaw.”
“She killed him in the icehouse?” asked Benton.
“With a hammer, I think.”
“I’ll need these for evidence.”
“All very interesting,” said the chief. “Now Mrs. Williams could have pressed charges. She claims you burned down her icehouse. Mr. Dibble did find a charred box of wooden matches among the debris. Anyway, this woman you are claiming beat a man to death with a hammer is willing to forgive your trespass and mischief and let you go scot-free. She says she understands your insane condition.”
“She’s in romance with the pastor, and he’s guilty so he wears the hat,” Emmett blurted out.
“In romance?” Benton laughed. “That’s a neat little theory, but it’s time for you to stop thinking, son. I want you to go home with your parents and stay there. I want you not to go near the carpentry shop or Mrs. Williams anymore. In fact, you can stay out of school till after Christmas too. I’ll tell Miss Maufin I told you to. You need some rest, my friend. Peace and quiet and try to think of something other than walking skeletons and farms in hell.”
Two days later, the news spread through Threadwell that Mrs. Holst, the pastor’s wife, was killed in a tragic car accident on the way back from Mount Victory. She came around the curve by the Vesper Woods, lost control, and smashed into an ancient horse chestnut tree. She was flung through the windshield and the broken glass ripped her face off. The pastor was distraught, but still he presided over her wake.
The town gathered at the church to pay their last respects to the poor woman. She had been a great favorite of nearly everyone in the community. Even Emmett attended with his parents. Neighbors, having heard of the icehouse incident, gave him a wide berth and dirty looks. Even his parents kept a few feet between themselves and him. Before leaving for the wake his father had wanted him to smoke a thyme roll-up, but he refused, saying he didn’t need it anymore. The church was packed, and he sat in a separate pew, his parents in the next one over. He paid no attention to the words that rhythmically puffed out the handkerchief of the pastor, but scanned the crowd. Sitting in the back row of pews he spied Gretel Lawler, dressed in white and carrying a hymnal. When no one but Emmett was looking she winked at him, and he smiled, relieved to know she had somehow escaped the icehouse and run for it. He was amazed by her. The only other person to look Emmett’s way was Chief Benton, and he stared at the boy all through the pastor’s eulogy.
Emmett went through his days in Threadwell an outcast, shunned by everyone, ignored by his parents. He felt like a ghost in his own home. They gave him his dinner separately and rarely asked him to do a chore. His mother still did his wash and swept out his room now and then, but conversations were never more than a sentence. He stopped going to school and instead roamed the countryside on his bike, which still stood next to the bench by the creek when he went to recover it weeks after the icehouse night. Mr. Peasi still let him borrow books from the barbershop, and so he read when he wasn’t out exploring. His only real joy was the nights he snuck out and met Gretel Lawler at the top of Chowdry Road. From there, they rode their bicycles everywhere while Threadwell slept.
On the night of the day in early July when Chief Benton ordered the exhumation of Jimmy Tooth’s body and matched the three teeth to their homes on the jaw, Emmett sat with Gretel in the moonlight on the bank of Wildcat Creek where it wound through the cemetery beyond the church. It was after midnight and a beautiful breeze blew across the fields. They leaned together and she kissed him. His hand, resting on the ground, gripped the grass, and when they pulled apart, he’d squeezed his fist so hard he pulled a clump of it up. “Do you love me?” she asked. He smelled the aroma of wild thyme and realized that’s what he clutched in his fingers. The sound of water passing over stones, the light on Gretel’s face, the scent of the herb, dark green and peppery, intoxicated him. “Yes,” he said, and then ripped a swatch of thyme off the clump and put it to his mouth. She grabbed his wrist. “Don’t,” she said. He never did again, and from then on, she was always with him.
“The Thyme Fiend” copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey Ford
Art copyright © 2015 by John Jude Plaencar