This book is dedicated
To My Little Boy
Who Inspires Me
to Become a Better Man
May God and His Angels
Watch Over, Protect & Guide You
ver do somethin' and later ask yourself, “What was I thinkin'?” You know, something really stupid (in the spur of the moment) like leave the water runnin' in the tub, then get busy doin' somethin' else like talking on the phone and flood the whole house …
“Hey, Tony, ya gonna hold that thing all day or ya gonna do it?”
Tony or Anthony Muzzarelli (Muzzy to his friends) was ten-years-old goin' on a sentence of Five-to- Life, but he didn't know that yet. All he knew was that his dad had to move his mom and sis and him halfway across the country to this god-forsaken, hole-in-the-wall hick town known as Millbrook Hollow (or the Holler to the locals) where the biggest event of the year was the Annual Sawdust Festival.
“Hey, Loser, ya gonna throw it or what?”
Muzzy's mom tried to throw a positive spin on the move, brighten things up a bit. “Oh, look, sweetie … “ She was holding one of those glossy travel brochures in her hand. This one had a picturesque quaint little town on the front with some kids flying kites and the words 'Life is Simpler in the Holler' on the front. It was basically an ad for the Sawdust Festival. “This looks fun. Pie Baking Contest. Livestock Show. Oh, look at that little cutie … “ She was looking at a pig. She went on. “Old-fashioned Ice Cream Social with real hand-churned ice cream. A Corn Maze. Kiddie Carnival Rides. And Live Music.”
The Live Music was three guys claiming to be the real Soggy Bottom Boys. They played music the way the Good Lord intended, Blue Grass Style. Well, at least, the ice cream sounded good.
“Hey, Loser … ”
The loud mouth. That's Randy Ricks, official town bully, bad boy, wanna-be gang leader. Randy's story was simple: he needed a life. Any life.
Randy' gang consisted of a ragtag mob of neighborhood kids, mostly boys, with lots of time on their hands and nothin' to do, 'cept run around town lookin' for somethin' to do. Their day consisted of ridin' their bikes out past the rail road tracks and back again, throwin' rocks at the train as it passed to see if they could hit a window or somethin', throwin' rocks at the school to see if they could hit a window or somethin' (it was summer) and headin' out Miracle Road to the old house at the end near the river and throwin' rocks at the old house to see if they could hit a window or somethin'.
But mostly, they rode their bikes up and down tree-lined brick streets through neighborhoods with names like Faith Landing, Inspiration Ridge, Angel Lane, Destiny Drive and Miracle Road under the shady canopy of overhanging branches that formed sort of a tunnel as they rode past Craftsman and bungalow style houses with big porches and folks sittin' outdoors in rockers sippin' tea and watchin' their kids play.
Millbrook Hollow was middle America, right down to the local barber shop, town diner, brick school house with a bell, and old-time General Store with a couple ol' geezers out on the front porch playin' checkers. Nothin' much happened here and that's the way folks liked it.
The Holler was a sleepy little place, the kind people dreamed of moving to and raisin' a family and maybe retirin' in. A land of backyard BBQs and plantin' gardens and teachin' your kid to ride a bike and town fairs and ice cream socials. A place where moms and dads strolled downtown pushin' a baby stroller past warmly lit shops and friendly shopkeepers who tipped their hat and said ma'am. Millbrook Hollow was a place that time had forgotten, a magical place, a place …
“Com'on. Throw it!”
Throw it! Throw it! Throw it!
The other kids joined in. Chanting.
Throw it! Throw it! Throw it …
Muzzy glanced at the rock in his hand, then back down the road that had led them here. Miracle Road. A long lonely stretch of dirt on the outskirts of town on the other side of the tracks. It seemed gloomier now than it had before. Almost alive. The scraggly leafless trees that lined it looked ominously like gnarled fingers reaching up out of the ground clawing at the road or maybe holding it at bay like one would restrain a ravenous dog on a leash. Muzzy thought it strange that anyone could ever name this unholy track of earth Miracle Road.
Muzzy's eyes followed the trail that led from the town, past the tracks, through the trees to the two-story farmhouse with blank soul-less windows. The house had seen many a cold bitter winter and more than its share of hot blistering summers. Where the paint had peeled away, Muzzy could see the wood weathered and rotting and infested with bugs. But worse, the tall Oaks that guarded the house left it in shadow, half-shrouded in constant darkness. And ever so often, out of this darkness in a second story window, an old man with sunken cheeks and empty foreboding eyes would peer out of the shadows and just stand there looking. Muzzy couldn't shake the feeling that those dark penetrating eyes were looking right at him.
“Yeah, that's right, boy. I sees you … ”
And in Muzzy's head he heard the old man chuckle. A malicious sound that came from deep within, maybe from the depths of hell, thought Muzzy. It didn't help that there were stories about the house. Stories about the old man. Stories about Miracle Road. About things that had happened here. Spoken in hushed whispers in the dark. Only half-told for fear that if said too loudly whatever evil, whatever spell or curse that had befallen this place, this house, this road would catch the scent and somehow follow and find you.
Yes, there were stories. Muzzy had heard old man Harris who hung out at the barber shop talking about it. Harris was as old as time with speckled skin. Muzzy's mom called them age spots. And Harris wore a funny gray-striped hat that he got when he worked on the rail road.
“Used to keep slaves in there. Before the war.” He meant the Civil War. For old man Harris, there was no other war. Never would be. Harris talked as if it was still goin' on. “The souls of those poor dead slaves wander the fields at night and haunt her walls. Mark my words.” And he stuck out his forefinger that looked strangely like one of the gnarled limbs on Miracle Road.
But there were more stories. The Widow Garrity who ran the local antique shop had a slightly different take on it. There among the hodgepodge of eclectic junk, odds and ends, with a few actual antiques mixed in The Widow spun her web of intrigue. The aging junk that surrounded her only made the tale seem more real. Eight Track tape players, vinyl records, vintage jewelry, musty old books, apothecary bottles from an old-time pharmacy, rusty tin signs advertising products from a bygone era. The place felt as if time had stopped here to take a nap.
The atmosphere was spellbinding and the widow knew this and didn't miss a beat. At first for free, she would read your palm and commune with spirits from the netherworld who would help guide you and your loved ones. But Muzzy's dad saw right through it, he said. “Meddles in people's lives and stirs things up. She's a kook and most likely a con.”
Muzzy's mom said that she was just a harmless lonely old lady. “Besides, it's fun lookin' through all her old junk.”
Waste of money, dad muttered. That's what it is.
There was no love lost between dad and the widow.
That was for sure and for certain.
“Mark my words,” she told Muzzy's dad once. “Nothin' good has ever and will ever come from that place. It's cursed. Miracle Road is damned and all who step foot on her.”
According to Garrity, the house had been owned by an old German farmer with a drinking problem who would come home after spending the night at the bar and beat his wife. A sweet gentle woman who adored him. She spent her nights in the upper room sewing. One night he came home from a drunk and found her dead. Hung she was. Hangin' from the rafters with her sewin' on the floor beneath her. People say that sometimes you can see the shadow of her ghost lookin' out the upstairs window, waitin' for her love to come home.
Stories. That's all they are, Muzzy's dad argued. He then pointed out that when pressed for details the stories became muddled, fuzzy, vague. Rubbish.
But there were a kaleidoscope of colorful tales. Miracle Road campfire stories. A girl was strangled there and buried in the ditch halfway to town under one of the trees. That's why the trees have no leaves. Door-to-door salesmen enter the house never to be seen again. Their cars are left abandoned on the dirt road leading up to the house. “It's true,” said one of the boys whose dad was the town Sheriff. “My dad is always finding abandoned cars out there.”
Then, Randy added that his older brother delivers groceries to the house. “The old man only cracks the door open wide enough to stuff money through and has my brother leave the groceries on the porch. The dude's weird. Never leaves his house.”
So, here he was. Rock in hand. The kids chanting. Throw it! Throw it! Throw it! The house looming in front of him, its empty soul-less eyes staring down at him as if to …
“I dare you!” Randy hissed. “I double-dare you!”
And this is the moment, that moment that later you look back on and think “What was I thinkin'?”, that grabs hold of you and won't let go, even though everything in you, in your gut, tells you to just walk away, you do it anyway.
Muzzy wheeled his arm back and with all his might threw it. Threw it at the thing that had stared at him every time he came here, the thing that had him mesmerized. That window. The window he had seen the old man standin' in, starin' out of, the window that called to him.
And for just an instant time slowed. Slowed as the rock lifted higher and higher into the air. Slowed as it peaked and gravity began pulling it back to earth. Slowed as its trajectory zoned in on its mark. Then, suddenly, time sped up and it crashed into and through the glass, shattering the window and connecting Muzzy to the house forever.
The last thing Muzzy saw as the other kids grabbed his arm and pulled him away was the shadowy figure of the old man in the window, eyes dark and empty and looking right at him.
ho can say what possesses a person to go back to the scene of a crime? Morbid curiosity, perhaps? Guilt, maybe? A deep need to come clean? To purge the soul? To have the weight lifted off your shoulders?
For Muzzy, it was that window and the shadowy figure with the coal black eyes. Those eyes looking straight into his soul. They knew. Knew it was him.
As Muzzy walked down the long lonely stretch of dirt, past the dead girl buried in the ditch under a tree and the slaves wandering the fields and the abandoned cars of missing salesmen, Muzzy began to question his own sanity. After all, shouldn't he be walking – no, running – the other way, not heading towards the house with dead bodies buried in the basement?
Looked up and down the road. No abandoned cars. No slave zombies in the fields.
No graves in the ditch.
Now, in all fairness, the town Sheriff probably already towed the abandoned cars. And ghosts and zombies probably don't come out til night. And the girl in the ditch had most likely already been dug up and buried in a cemetery.
Muzzy closed his eyes. He could hear a couple birds chirping, singing a song, a slight breeze brushing through the field of tall-grass, heard trucks up on the Interstate whizzing by in the distance, a flock of birds taking flight a couple fields over.
And continued walking. Towards his destiny.
* * *
ver notice how you can drive or walk by the same place day after day and never see a particular sign or building or tree, and then – out of the blue – it's suddenly there. Big as life. And had been there all along. You just hadn't noticed it.
Why this time? What was different? What caught your eye this time and not before? Talking to someone, perhaps? Deep in thought, maybe? Or kicking a rock and your eyes were looking down?
For Muzzy, it was as simple as a single beam of sunlight breaking through the clouds and shining down into the middle of a vacant field and onto a schoolhouse standing quite all by itself up on a hill on an otherwise gray and cloudy day.
The peculiar shaft of light drew the boy's gaze past the wild sunflowers that stood guard next to a barbed wire fence with rugged weathered poles like the thick branches of trees, past the horses grazing in the afternoon sunlight, past the rocks and stones and boulders half-buried littering the field, past the forgotten rusting car that mice now lived in, all the way up to the top of the hill.
And there she stood like a sentry overlooking her domain below, watching and waiting for children that hadn't graced her halls for decades and now never would. Gathering dust. Bell tower silent, empty. The ghosts of days gone by. The trailing laughter of children, nothing more than whispers on the wind. Secrets.
Notes being passed between students (do you like me? yes or no), faint echoes of a more innocent era. The squeaky sound of lessons scrawled on a barren chalk board and a lone American flag pole in the corner covered in cob webs.
The boy pulled his gaze away from the hill and tried to stay focused on the road. It's nothing, he told himself. Nothing. But he couldn't shake the feeling that he was being watched, that eyes were following him, watching and waiting, waiting for just the right moment and that somehow the road, the schoolhouse and the crazy old man in the house at the end of the road with the vacant empty soul-less eyes were somehow connected. He knew it the same way you know it's gonna rain on a sunny cloudless day. He knew it in his gut. He knew it in his bones. He knew it as he drew closer and closer to that crazy old man in the house at the end of Miracle Road.
* * *
he Bartlett House was pretty much like any other 19th century farmhouse built by homesteaders. Two stories. Craftsman design. Big porch out front because in the warmer summer weather folks spent a lot of time outdoors where it was cooler under the shade drinking lemonade or iced tea and watching their children play. Tall Oaks and Maples kept watch over the house and provided even more shade, as well as a place to hang a tire swing for the kids.
But there was also something odd, something different about this place like it had a story to tell. Secrets it kept.
As Muzzy hid in the bushes at the bottom of the hill near a big Oak tree, the house seemed to loom over him and being perched at the top of a steep hill only added to the effect.
So, Muzzy watched and waited in the shadows of the big tree peering through the cover of some bushes for what seemed like hours. Some swallows flew back and forth between the barn and the eaves of the house where they probably had a nest. Leaves fell to the ground, spinning and twirling like little parachutes floating down down down. A horse neighed. A cat quietly snuck into the barn through a gap between two weathered planks. But no old man.
Not even his shadow in the second story window.
The clouds that had haunted the sky all morning now parted and the morning quickly faded into afternoon and the sun that had been no more than a shaft of light on a hilltop only a few hours ago now burned across the pastures mercilessly.
Still, no old man.
Crow cawing in the distance. Swallows darting back and forth. The same cat now slinking out of the barn.
A low grating moan pierced the peaceful country setting. Muzzy followed the sound with his eyes, saw a barn door opening. Rusty hinges, he thought. The old man was emerging from the half-light of the barn carrying something. Dragging it.
He continued dragging it towards the house. Lifted it, leaning against the house beneath the second floor window with the broken glass. Reached for something on his hip. Not finding it, cursed. Walked back to the barn into the shadowy darkness.
Muzzy's mind raced. What evil lay in that inky blackness? Minutes passed. The old man reappeared in the barn's entrance fastening something around his waste.
A tool belt.
He walked back to the ladder. Muzzy watched the old man fix the window, then nail down a few loose shingles on the roof. Sun beating down on him, sweat beading on the old man's neck and forehead. Dark patches forming under his arms.
The old man walked over to a wooden gate that hung at an odd angle.
“Ya gonna lurk in those bushes all day or ya gonna make yerself useful and help me with this gate?”
The old man held out a hammer, handle towards Muzzy. Never once taking his eyes off the gate, his back facing the boy.
The old man shook the hammer gently, offering it to the boy. “Com'on. Ain't got all day. I figger you owe me a good day's work fer breakin' my window.”
Muzzy crouched down lower, putting more of the bush between him and that hammer. Part of him thought about runnin', but he couldn't move his legs. They had suddenly become frozen, despite the blazing hot sun. Besides, the way his heart was pounding, if he started runnin' it would probably just explode. The headline would read:
“Look, kid, I saw ya throw it. So, either git over here and do the right thing or go on back ta town. What's it gonna be? Ya like the others or ya yer own man?”
Muzzy forced himself to stand up. Stepped out of the bushes - his legs felt like solid lead - and his movement was so slow, it was as if he was waste high in a pool of thick tar. Inch by inch he bridged the distance between him and the hammer.
The old man put it in the boy's hand. “So yer not like the others … “ He looked away from the gate that he had been studyin' and towards the boy. He smiled and patted him on the back. “That's good.”
They worked for a couple hours on the fence. Muzzy carried wood from the barn and a bucket of nails. Held lumber in place as the old man sawed. Steadied boards as the old man hammered. And although the old man didn't say much, when he did talk, Muzzy listened.
“No, no, no … “ he said. He stopped Muzzy. “When ya gotta job ta do, ya give it everything ya got. All of you. Don't hold nothin' back. Put yer whole heart into it.” He showed Muzzy what he meant. He steadied a nail, hammered it in place. Steadied another, hammered it in place. “Whatever ya put into it is what you'll get back out of it. Do a job only halfway, you end up half a man. Do it all the way, you end up a whole man.” He stopped hammerin', looked Muzzy square in the eyes. “No one can ever take that away from you. Ever. You understand me, boy?”
Muzzy shook his head, yes.
The old man gazed up at the sun, pulled a rag out of his jean's rear pocket and wiped the sweat from his neck and forehead. “I'm mighty thirsty. How 'bout you, boy?
“You eat and drink, don't ya?”
Muzzy looked at him confused at first, then shook his head, yes.
“Well, I never raised no young-in’s Had a dog once. Fed him and watered him regular. Figger kids are probably 'bout the same.”
And with that, he headed for the house. Muzzy stood at the gate, not sure if he should follow or not. “Ya comin'?” the old man asked as he lumbered up the porch steps. Muzzy dropped the hammer and ran toward the porch. The old man swung open the wooden screen door and let it slam shut behind him. Then, he headed for the kitchen, leaving Muzzy on the porch.
There were a couple rockers and an old straw broom leanin' against the railin' and on the far end a porch swing with climbin' vines behind it, giving the swing some seclusion and shade. “How ya like yer tea? Sweetened? Unsweetened? Or so sweet that the spoon stands at attention? I'm partial to that last one myself, how 'bout you?”
Muzzy slowly pulled open the screen door. A wooden bench like you see in church rested against the wall with pegs to hang your coat or hat above it on the wall. The floors were hard wood and worn, but the place overall seemed clean and neat but the peeling wallpaper and floor to ceiling cracks in the walls told another story.
Muzzy followed the voice to the kitchen. The old man set a glass on a small dinette near a window that looked out onto the barn. “I made it sweet, but not too sweet. Figger that's how yer Ma makes it.”
He turned back to the counter where he had lettuce, tomato, onion, bread, ham, cheese and mustard sitting out. He laid a couple slices of bread on a plate, added cheese, lettuce, tomato, squeezed out some mustard, then opened the drawer and pulled out the biggest knife Muzzy had ever seen. The old man used the knife to cut off a couple slices of ham and added them to the sandwich. “My name's John Pully. You can call me Mister Pully if ya like. What's yer monicker?”
John Pully set the plate with the ham sandwich on it in front of Muzzy. Poured some chips on the plate too.
“I don't eat with a man who doesn't at least have a name … “ he said, still holding the big knife.
Muzzy stared at the knife like he had stared at the window. “Muzzy … name's Muzzy.”
“That yer given name? Or a handle?”
“No sir, Mister Pully. My name's Anthony Muzzarelli. Muzzy's just a nickname. Short for Muzzarelli.”
“As good a name as any, I reckon,” he said, tapping the flat part of the blade on his palm and turning back to the counter to work on assembling his sandwich. “Yer accent's funny. Yer not from 'round here. Where ya hail from?”
“New Jersey. My dad got transferred here. He works at the factory.”
“So, yer new to these parts then?”
“Yessir, Mister Pully.”
Pully set his plate on the dinette, pulled out the chair, spun it around so the back of the chair was facing the table, then he sat down straddlin' the chair. He placed the big knife very carefully on the dinette to the right of his plate. The light from the window caught the blade and shimmered across it. Muzzy's eye followed the shimmer like a cat might follow a dot of light on the wall. He couldn't take his eyes off of it.
“Ya seem a bit distracted,” said Pully. “Somethin' botherin' ya?”
“Whaddaya mean?” muttered Muzzy, his eyes still fixated on the knife.
Pully grinned, the slightest of grins, the corner of his mouth rising ever so slightly, almost imperceptibly. “I see ya eyein' my knife. Ya fancy it?”
“No sir. I mean, yessir, Mister Pully.”
Pully chuckled. Then, picked up the knife and began tapping the flat side of the blade on his palm. “Does it make ya nervous, boy? This knife.”
Pully's right eyebrow raised.
The boy corrected his answer. “A little maybe,” he said.
Pully stopped tapping his open palm with the blade and instead rested the tip of it on his lower lip like he was deep in thought. “Hmmmm … I can't recall ... did I use this blade to cut up all those annoying salesmen or ... was it the ax out in the barn? Whaddaya think, boy?”
Muzzy quickly bit into his sandwich and stuffed his mouth with chips. “I dunno” he said, crumbs spillin' out of his mouth onto the table and a few on the floor.
Pully laughed and tossed the blade on the counter behind him. “Get ahold of yerself, son. If I was gonna chop ya up, I could've done so already. Just pullin' yer leg a little. A bit of fun. But man to man, if yer gonna sit here in my home across from me at my table and eat with me, I figger we oughta at least git to know one another. And I can see on yer face fear as clear as I can see the back of my hand. Whaddaya afraid of, boy?”
Muzzy stared down at his plate. “Nothin' … ”
Pully bit into his sandwich and washed it down with some tea. “Not true,” he said. “Ya got fear written all over yer face. And yet, ya come back here after breakin' my window and hide in the bushes. That takes courage, especially when any fool can see yer scared to death. Whaddaya afraid of, son? What've ya heard that makes ya so curious that ya came back here in spite of yer fear?”
Muzzy bit into the sandwich, a huge bite, stuffing his mouth with even more chips. “Well,” he said, his words muffled and garbled. He took a drink of tea to wash the bite of sandwich and chips down but also to buy a little time. “You know … the usual stuff … ”
“Like … ?”
“Well, that you have groceries delivered and have them left on the porch … ”
“And … ”
“That you keep to yourself. Never leave your house.”
“Uh-huh … And … ”
“You don't like salesmen.”
“And this house used to have slaves in it and their ghosts still live here.”
“That so? Hmmmm … What do you think?”
Muzzy started stuffing chips in his mouth.
And with his mouth full, he mumbled, “Dunno.”
“Did they tell you about the farmer's wife who hung herself and how her ghost still looks out the window waiting for her husband to come home? Or the girl who was strangled and her body buried in the ditch on Miracle Road. Legend has it that she was murdered in this very house.”
Pully finished off his sandwich in one last giant bite, got up from the table and set the plate in the sink. “I've heard that people who enter this house never leave. Did ya hear that one, boy?”Muzzy stared down at the table. Chewing. Time must've slowed at that instant because the silence seemed to drag on forever. On and on and on. The old man just looked at him grinning, picking up the knife he had used to cut the ham in his right hand.
Then, he chuckled and tossed the knife in the sink. looked at him grinning, picking up the knife he had used to cut the ham in his right hand.
“Stories, boy, just stories – but all true,” he said matter-of-fact like he was reporting the weather or the stating the day of the week.
Muzzy stopped chewing. He glanced towards the screen door, which was on the other side of Mister Pully. There was no way he could make it. Pully grinned. His face was weathered and wrinkled as if it had been carved out of old hickory wood. His hair – tufts of white like feathers sticking out at odd angles. His teeth yellowed from smoking cigars, which Muzzy could see stuffed in his shirt pocket.
“Well,” he added, “Some parts are true anyway.” He picked up Muzzy's plate and set it in the sink next to the knife. “You see, all myths and legends are based on at least some sliver, some shred of truth. However small. So, this one like all the others is in part true.”
Muzzy glanced at the door again. It might as well have been on the other side of the planet. “What – what part?”
“What part???” echoed Pully. “Ya mean ya really want ta know what part?” Pully leaned back against the counter and folded his arms. Muzzy could feel the old man's eyes studying him, crawling over him.
Then, suddenly, Pully was leaning over the table, his face, those yellow teeth, his weathered wrinkled face just inches from his own. So close he could feel the heat of the old man's breath on his skin. “Well, boy, do ya really want ta know?”
Pully's eyes darted back and forth as they studied Muzzy's. Then, they seemed to relax as if they'd found what they were lookin' for. “Ya do, don't ya? Ya do want ta know.”
He pushed off from the table and turned to a bookshelf in the hall that led to the great room. It was tall and littered with books. Pully reached for the upper-most shelf for a very thick and very big book. He carefully lowered it from its perch and held it like an infant in his hands admiringly and smiled like he was looking at an old friend he hadn't seen in years.
He set the book on the dinette in front of the boy. It was covered with dust and cobwebs. Pully grabbed the rag from his rear pocket and dusted it off. Then, very slowly he patted the book lovingly and with the greatest of respect. “In here,” he whispered. “In here is everything ya want ta know.”
Muzzy looked up from the book to the eyes of the old man, which seemed to be on fire.