I was seventeen in the late seventies, living on the outskirts of DFW airport, in a section of Dallas that hadn’t been developed yet. The wooded area seemed like a step back in time, with thick trees and little creeks concealing the concrete city all around me. I‘d rented a small shack in this timbered place—an odd-looking cabin with two rooms and a kitchen. The shack was on a small bump of land, as opposed to a hill, but still higher than the dozen or so trailer-homes nearby.
The kitchen ran along the front of the shack, long and thin and very dark. And by dark I mean black cabinets on black walls with dark red shelving inside. At the end of the long kitchen was a closet containing the furnace, but I didn’t open that door very often. The closet floor dropped a few inches and it, too, had been painted black. It seemed to go nowhere … as deep and far as the eye couldn’t see.
I was too young to care about painting the cabinets, so I lived with it. Hated it, but lived with it. Most of my neighbors seemed to go about unnoticed, but I soon discovered why; they spent the day sleeping or passed out from drugs.
There was no shortage of shady characters living in this country-esc ghetto, and they came around from time to time wanting to borrow my car. Actually… borrow is a nice way to put it. These guys were heroin dealers and they insisted I let them use my car; that is, until I flaunted the bat-sized tree-limb I kept inside. Every confrontation was like a broken record; they would roar and hiss and spew threatening words until they forgot where they were. Then it was on to the next dilemma. I could hear them outside, but since there were no windows in the shack, hearing strange noises outside was nothing unusual. Life went on.
One day I saw a piece of paper sticking out from under the furnace door. I tugged it, but the note seemed stuck. I opened the door and snatched the paper from the saddle, then I slammed the door shut.
It wasn’t paper, but instead, a very old picture—a photo of a middle-aged man. He was wearing a uniform and a wide rimmed hat. A soldier. I turned it over and saw the name Charles on the back. His last name was too faded to read. The date of the picture followed the same pattern, as in 18 being visible in the handwritten date, but the following two digits, documenting the year, weren’t legible.
I placed the picture on the counter by the door.
For several weeks I heard new and unfamiliar noises. They weren’t the usual sounds from the thugs outside, banging and clanging, or drunken howls in the night; they were sounds of living, as in someone walking around the shack, doors opening and closing. There were times I’d hear a kitchen cabinet slam loud enough to stop me in my tracks. I lived alone, and I was certain pots and pans were shifting in the cabinets. Yep. That was it.
I often felt someone in the kitchen with me, watching from the furnace door. The hinges were broken on that door. I seemed to be closing it, constantly, sometimes twice, or even three times a day. Other times my dog, Dustin, would stare at the furnace door with her head tilted … curious.
There must be a draft and she likes the breeze. That’s it. That’s definitely why she watches the door.
One night, as I lie in bed with Dustin settled at my feet, I heard a commotion just around the wall, coming from the kitchen. It was definitely a person. Someone was shuffling an ashtray across the counter. I knew it was an ashtray because I’d made the same sound many times, sliding the same, funky-platinum, orange colored ashtray across the counter.
Holy crap. One of the drug dealers had got inside.
I was seventeen. I was alone. I was in an old dark shack, and you betcha’, I was scared.
Dustin raised her ears just then, fixated on the kitchen. With a low-rumbling growl she sprung to her feet, ready to pounce. I grabbed her back leg so she wouldn’t bolt, then got her to the bathroom.
I grabbed my tree limb and went to the doorframe, and there I stood behind the wall, waiting, shaking … clutching the weapon with my scrawny arms—willing to strike.
I crept my hand around the wall for the light switch, then leapt in the kitchen with the club held high—ready to start swinging, but no one was there.
Dustin appeared behind me at the doorframe, growling, facing the furnace door with her ears drawn back. Now she’s sporting her fangs.
A sudden chill swept through my veins, but it was my own embarrassment, from being wrong about an intruder. I had overreacted.
Then it hit me. Who was I bullshitting? Something coo-coo was going on here.
I faced the furnace door and said, “You go your way, and I’ll go mine, and everything will work out. Capisce?”
The next morning I ran across the picture of Charles. It wasn’t where I’d left it, though. At least I thought I’d put the picture on the counter next to the furnace door, but that was some time ago—no doubt forgetting about Charles from that moment on. This time I found his photo on the other side of the kitchen, sitting on a drop leaf table by the front door. I grabbed the picture and placed it on the fridge, wedging one corner under the silver logo on the door.
When I came home from work that day, I thought I smelled a hint of something, but it was vague. I tossed my keys on the drop leaf and reached for the fridge handle. As I opened the door, a stench worse than rotten fish slammed me in the face. The refrigerator was dark inside and the food covered with a whitish, slimy goop. I slammed the door and stepped back. Then I placed my hand on the fridge. It was hot, not just warm, but on fire. I went for the plug behind the fridge, assuming some wiring gizmo had fried and overheated the refrigerator.
While I was crouched down at the plug, the picture of Charles drifted down to the floor. I must have knocked it off when I slid the refrigerator away from the wall. I unplugged the fridge and went in the other room. I didn’t want to deal with Charles, with rotten food, with living in a dumpy shack surrounded by crack addicts.
Some hours later, it was time to tackle the mess.
I went in the kitchen with a trash bag and a wet towel, ready to toil with the catastrophe. When I opened the fridge, the light came on and my goodies were nice and fresh, staring me in the face.
I looked behind the refrigerator and there it was, plain as day; the cord was plugged in. I reached in the fridge for a pack of chicken breasts. They were pink and fresh, still firm to the touch. I took a whiff. They smelled fine. At this point I’m down to one brain cell, doing my best not to misplace it.
The groceries appeared fine, but I didn’t trust them. I’d smelled something dead rotten earlier, and white slime had been oozing over everything. The delectable cuisine had to go.
As I’m tossing food into the trash bag, I spot the picture of Charles on the floor. I tried to sweep Charles into the dustbin, and low and behold, the photo lifted as though a twirling wind had raised it from the floor.
I dropped the broom.
I went to the picture and kneeled down close. I crept my hand closer. The picture sprung up and spun in the air, then it hit the ground and slid across the floor until it stopped at the furnace door.
I bolted out the front door.
Suddenly I thought about befriending a drug dealer—just for five minutes, just so I could send someone inside to face Charles. Shady? Sure. I was young.
That’s when it hit me. I had two options here: run like hell, or settle this.
I went back inside with a burst of courage—which is completely different than a burst of intelligence. I ran down the skinny kitchen and dove for the picture of Charles, seizing it with a tight grip. I stood and flung Charles in the trash bag with a firm, feverish toss. Just before I tied the bag, I saw the picture inside, stuck to the package of chicken breasts.
The dumpster was a good hundred feet away, and I went there in a hurry. I heaved the trash through the side door and slid the metal door shut. When I got back to my shack, the picture of Charles was at my front door, sitting on the ground just one foot from the saddle.
I picked up the photo and stared into it, a deep stare. That’s when I realized I’d never looked at it too closely. His beady eyes stared boldly at me, and his long, handlebar mustache seemed so real—almost third dimensional. His uniform and hat were a shade of olive, which was particularly odd because it was a black and white photo, but there was no mistaking the tint of color in his outfit.
“Who is this guy? What does he want?”
A few days later I called my friend, April, and I told her the story of Charles. I knew she enjoyed this kind of stuff. That’s why I chose her. She spoke of spirits often. Of course I laughed and mocked her—not in a shameful way, just eager to offer reasonable explanations.
When I explained what had happened, she wasted no time coming over. Seemed I’d barely set the receiver down when she knocked on my door. We thought it best she take the picture with her. I liked her taking the picture away. I did.
About a week later April returned with some news.
Charles Mayberry had been a soldier in the Civil war. He’d moved his family from North Carolina all the way to Dallas after the battle had ended. Shortly after settling in to this old shack, Charles’ entire family had been poisoned and killed. Each and every one of them—all at once. With no other living relatives, Charles was the last of his bloodline.
He lived alone in the shack after losing everyone; there until he was eighty. The reports stated he’d been dead for well over a year when some travelers found him back in 1912.
April and I took the picture of Charles to a creek just yards from the shack, and there we gave him a burial. I felt sad for Charles, having gone through so much agony. We crisscrossed some twigs and bound them with ivy, for a proper cross; then stuck it in the ground.
There weren’t a lot of words said, besides, “Dude, sorry... really.”
A magical, almost euphoric feeling crept through the air just then, like a presence—a sense of peace I’d never noticed before, and I’d sat by this creek many times. As the rumble of the city dissipated, I suddenly understood why Charles had settled here.
After standing at the cusp of the water for a few minutes, I began to truly—and I mean truly grasp my surroundings. I wasn’t in the middle of a metropolis anymore. I was in the woods, observing the greenery as it must have been seen over a hundred years ago. I began to wonder what it must have been like to travel these woods in a covered wagon.
I focused on the little stream below me, steadily flowing down the embankment with its own decree of ankle-deep fury. I suddenly envisioned a million streams just like it, from Virginia to Oregon, all making their way down some wooded path. I saw them in my head, all of them, hundreds of streams at once. It was chaotic and logical at the same time.
The rivers and streams began to get smaller, as if they were shrinking. I then realized the streams weren’t shrinking, but instead, I was floating. As though I had just woken from a trance, I found myself rising high above the countryside, looking over a carpet of plush green colors, stretching out as far as I could see. There were no long highways filled with cars, and no shiny buildings. The cement structures had been replaced with a sea of never-ending trees that seemed to roll up and down the hills.
Floating upwards was as disturbing as it was beautiful, beyond any sense of magnificence my soul had ever felt, beyond anything I could legitimately describe.
Fascinated, I looked down to see how high I’d elevated.
My feet were in the mud, still standing at the edge of the little stream, no longer soaring towards the clouds.
I looked up, though, because I knew I’d just been there. As sure as the water was flowing at my feet; I had been up there.
I’d made a ton of excuses for the strange happenings in the shack. It had become easy to swallow my own bullshit, but this time I didn’t want to. This time I accepted the vertigo; acknowledged the smells and the visions, embraced this oddity with open arms.
My thoughts went to Charles—maybe he was thanking me, maybe saying goodbye.
I looked towards April. Her eyes were closed, a warm smile on her face, her lips slightly bent. I didn’t ask what she saw, or felt, or if she, too, had soared through the sky. I couldn’t. By doing so, I’d have to describe what had happened to me, and I’m not sure I could have explained anything.
I don’t know if the informal burial stopped the strange activity in the shack. I moved just afterwards, but I’ll always remember Charles, what he showed me and where he took me. Maybe that’s all he wanted.
All in all, I’d have to say that Charles won that round, and I’m better for it.