Sample of ABOVE HALDIS NOTCH
by Keith Pyeatt
Northeast Kingdom of Vermont
December 21, 1996
Quiet was bad. At least it was with Jake Webb, and he'd barely spoken all week. Kevin had eighteen years of experience to tell him that his father's mood would soon swing, and since quiet usually swung toward violence, Kevin was on edge.
The weather made things worse. Autumn had been mild by northern Vermont standards, but today, the first official day of winter, was still five degrees below zero at noon, and they'd been out of heating oil for three days.
Kevin added a log to the wood stove. The living room was already stuffy, but his mother, Carla, watched from the couch without objection. Heat wasn't reaching the bedrooms, and the colder Jake's lair became, the more likely he'd come out seeking warmth. Kevin considered setting up a fan to blow warm air down the hall. That might help until he could get the heating system going.
"I've got a job lined up this week," Kevin said, adjusting the stovepipe damper. "I'll make enough money to have the oil tank filled before classes start back up."
Carla nodded. "He has the money. I know he does. He's just being..." She twisted her mouth, shrugged, and picked up the TV listings she saved from the Sunday paper. "Thanks," she added without looking up.
"No problem," Kevin said, but he knew there might be. His high school winter break lasted two weeks, and it'd taken a day and a half to scare up one job. He needed several. Every heating oil supplier he'd called demanded he pay off a back balance before they'd make another delivery. They remembered Jake Webb. He'd misused regulations intended to protect low-income families to rip off every one of them.
Kevin's mother confronted Jake two days ago. Kevin had expected a big reaction, especially when Mom urged Jake to pay his bills, daring to poke her nose into his business. Jake didn't get upset, though. Instead, he became quiet.
Footsteps from down the hall put Kevin on alert. Jake was coming. He reached the end of the hall, stalled for a moment at seeing Kevin and Carla in the living room, and then walked past them to the wood stove.
"Want lunch?" Carla asked. Jake rubbed his hands together over the stove. "Maybe some hot soup," she added.
He ignored her.
Kevin crossed the room and motioned to his mother with a nod of his head. She took the cue, and the two of them escaped into the kitchen. She made them both lunch and served it on the battered kitchen table. Two bites into a cheese sandwich, Kevin looked up and found Jake standing in the kitchen doorway, blinking at them as if he were surprised to find anyone there.
"Decide you want lunch after all?" Carla asked. Again Jake ignored her. His thin face was even paler than usual, his eyes unfocused. Carla nibbled off a corner of her sandwich and stared into the center of the room, at nothing, while she chewed. Her hand holding the sandwich trembled. The kitchen was cool, but Kevin knew her trembling hand had nothing to do with a chill and everything to do with quiet Jake. She turned to Kevin. "You going out this afternoon?" Her voice was higher than normal and too loud. It showed her fear. Jake would notice and be encouraged.
Kevin had planned to split wood at the Morris's, the one job he'd found, but he shook his head. "The Patriots are playing this afternoon."
"You'll watch the game here, on the television, I mean?" she asked.
"Right here." Kevin watched his father's face for one of two things, a scowl or a sneer. A scowl would show irritation at having his plans for Kevin's mother interrupted. Jake would fall into a foul mood for the rest of the day. A sneer would mean something worse. There was something evil behind the look, something that said it didn't matter that he couldn't abuse her today. There'd be another time. Jake would wait, and Carla would pay interest for his patience.
Jake didn't scowl or sneer today, but he stared at Carla until she squirmed in her chair. Then he focused on his son. Kevin expected to see anger and cruelty reflected in his father's pale blue eyes, but instead there was an unsettling sense of calm. Kevin fought his own urge to squirm.
Jake turned and left the kitchen. The front door banged open then slapped closed. Footsteps crossed the porch and clomped down the two steps to the yard.
Kevin and his mother stared at each other a moment before Kevin heard the muffled sound of footsteps on snow. He glimpsed the top of Jake's head pass by the kitchen window, heading behind the house.
Kevin went to the window. Jake marched across the neighbor's yard, wearing the thin, tattered hunting jacket he'd had on all morning. No coat. He hadn't even put on gloves.
Carla joined Kevin at the window. "He'll freeze out there," she said. "Where is he off to?"
Jake angled away from the street through the McKenzie's yard, heading for the Drapier's pond two lots over. Each step required a visible effort to break through the crusted snow, but instead of slowing down, Jake broke into a trot. Kevin could see flashes of yellow, the soles of Jake's winter boots, with each stride. "Crazy bastard," Kevin muttered. He returned to the table.
A moment later, Carla turned from the window to face Kevin. "Is the ice thick enough to walk on?" she asked.
"Huh?" Kevin asked around a mouthful of sandwich.
"It can't be very thick yet," she said. "Can it?"
Kevin rose from the table again. His mother moved aside to let him at the window. Jake was on the pond. He marched to the center, stopped, and turned to face the street.
"He's just standing there," Carla said. "What's he doing? He's just standing there."
Kevin's mind raced, trying to recall when the water had first skimmed over with ice. A week ago, just after the first significant snowfall of the season, he decided. But the real cold that would add thickness came only two days ago. "I'll go see what's going on."
He grabbed his heavy coat, pulled his ski cap down over his ears, and left through the front door. As he followed his father's trail through the remaining four inches of last week's snow, cold penetrated him. Kevin zipped up his coat, pulled gloves from the pockets, and put them on.
And Jake is out here in a light jacket.
He lengthened his stride and began jogging, planting his feet in his father's footsteps where the snow had already been broken through. Icy air stung his lungs with each heaving breath. Still fifty feet from the edge of the pond, Kevin yelled, "The ice is too thin." Though muffled by his covered ears, his voice sounded loud, crackling through the winter-glazed air. "Dad, it's not safe out there."
He was vaguely aware he'd used the term dad. He hadn't called Jake anything more endearing than his name for years. Jake turned to face him, but he didn't answer.
Kevin reached the pond. It was small and round, about eighty feet across. The slope was gradual near the edges, but the pond was deep near the center. Kevin knew that much from swimming here every summer with Jenna, but what he needed to know now was the thickness of the ice. He stretched his right foot over the surface and brought his heel down hard. The ice held for one blow, but his heel pressed in on the second and came out wet.
"It's too thin," he called. "Come back. Be careful. Walk back the same way you went out there."
They were forty feet apart. Jake didn't move, but he grunted out a laugh. Exhaled vapor shot from his mouth and floated up into the sky. Then, incredibly, he bounced his weight on the ice.
"No!" Kevin screamed. "Are you insane?"
A broad smile spread across Jake's face. His lips pulled back, exposing yellow teeth. Water seeped up from cracks in the ice as his weight fractured and bowed the surface. A pool formed under his feet.
He bounced again.
"Don't!" Kevin yelled.
Jake answered with his hyena laugh and kicked water in Kevin's direction. The gesture looked playful. "I'll have the last word." He spread his arms wide. "The last say for this whole town, you and your mother included. You think looking down on me makes you like the others? Makes you as good as your girlfriend?"
"What?" Kevin asked.
"The McKenzie bitch next door. Jenna, your uppity little girlfriend. What does she say about me? No, don't tell me. It doesn't matter. She lies. Remember that."
"What are you talking about?"
"The McKenzies are the worst. They tried to turn Carla against me. Don't think I don't know about that. Uppity fucks! It's not enough the whole town hates us. The McKenzies want to turn family against family."
The ice popped under Jake and echoed through the still air. He didn't seem to notice.
"Come this way," Kevin said. "Walk toward me."
"Your concern's fucking touching. Really, it is. Call me dad again. No, call me daddy. It's touching. In fact, son, come join me out here. You've already blown your chance in this world anyway. You think this town will forgive what you've done? Accept you after you killed and maimed their golden boys?"
"That was an accident. It wasn't even my--" Kevin stopped himself. There was no use arguing with Jake over anything.
"Yeah, you keep telling yourself that. But tell me this, your uppity girlfriend giving you the time of day lately?" He barked out another laugh. The sound hung around them before finally fading away. In the new silence, Jake stared at Kevin. He looked serious, almost thoughtful, but then he twisted his mouth into a smirk. "You won't call me daddy? That's what I am to you, and you can't do nothing about it. You think I gave you nothing but a bad name and a bad start, but I'm not done giving. Everyone in this shitty little town is going to get exactly what they deserve."
Water topped Jake's boots as the ice under him sank. Kevin didn't understand how it still held his weight. Jake looked down and kicked at the water again. "You wait and see."
Without a sound, the ice under Jake collapsed. He dropped. It seemed like slow motion. He descended standing upright, his arms hanging casually at his sides. Smiling. He barely made a splash.
"No!" Kevin yelled. Thin pieces of broken ice bobbed where Jake broke through. They parted when Jake's head resurfaced. "Hold on," Kevin said. He looked for something to slide out onto the ice and saw a branch poking up through the crusted snow. He grabbed it, wrestled it free, and tossed it onto the ice.
Jake didn't thrash or try to climb out of the water. He didn't call for help or in despair. He watched Kevin silently. His expression showed no discomfort, no emotion at all.
Kevin lowered himself to his knees and then to his belly. He crawled toward his father, pushing the branch ahead of him while keeping his weight spread as evenly over the ice as possible. From Kevin's prone position, Jake's face seemed to float above the ice, watching him.
"Hold on," Kevin shouted when he was about halfway there.
"Fucking touching," Jake said. He smiled, then his head sunk below the water.
Kevin stopped crawling and watched, waiting for him to resurface. "Dad," he mumbled.
A thump against his chest sent a wave of panic through Kevin. Was he breaking through? He stretched, spreading his arms and legs as far as he could reach. He felt another jolt, this time under his legs.
Kevin crawled, propelling himself with his knees, when another pulse jarred him. The surface below his face bulged. Something moved beneath the ice. Then Kevin recognized it, directly under the cracked swell, the yellow tread of his father's boots.
His thighs were suddenly colder, wet from water seeping onto the ice. Another blow struck below his chest. Water found its way through his coat, onto his stomach. It puddled around him. Shapes pressed up from below his face, two hands. They slid to the side. In their place appeared Jake's face. Kevin was nose to nose with his father. Through the cloudy ice, he saw Jake's lips pull back into his widest smile. Somehow his gold-capped molar reflected light from under the ice.
Then Jake pushed back and disappeared.
A chill shook Kevin. The ice crackled beneath him, a slow, sickening sound that moved along the surface. Kevin pivoted and crawled toward the pond's edge. Ten feet from land, on undamaged ice, he turned around. Jake hadn't resurfaced.
Knowing the water wouldn't reach his knees if he broke through here, Kevin stood and walked to land. His mother waited twenty feet from the pond, quietly watching him. He had no idea how much she had seen or heard. Without speaking, he turned and watched the hole in the ice for several minutes before taking his mother inside and calling 911.
Kevin didn't mention Jake's last words to the police. He didn't tell his mother or the Orleans County Sheriff how Jake had struck the ice from below or how he'd smiled. Kevin only said that Jake must have become mentally unstable. The sheriff believed that easily enough. Or he didn't care. No one would care, Kevin realized. No one would mourn Jake, not even his family.
Kevin's mother said nothing while the sheriff questioned him. When they were alone again, she looked Kevin in the eyes and asked, "What happens next?" Her lips quivered. It wouldn't be from grief. From what then? Fear? Jake was dead.
She steadied herself with a deep breath. "He's not done, you know." Her eyes shone with tears as she nodded, agreeing with herself. "He's not done."
What others are saying about Above Haldis Notch:
PHYSICAL DEATH IS TRAGIC, BUT THE
DEATH OF A SPIRIT IS A LIFE FOREVER LOST.
Jenna's grandmother has always taken solace from her ability to communicate with family members who have recently "passed on," but Jenna's first experience isn't comforting at all. It's a desperate plea for help. A vengeful spirit, her deceased neighbor Jake, is trapping souls from Haldis Notch, Vermont, intent on making them suffer for not accepting him in life. Jenna can reach the plane of existence where the spirits are trapped and dying, but to stop Jake from killing them, she must first understand his motives. The more Jenna understands, the deeper she's drawn into Jake's trap, and if she falls victim, every soul in Haldis Notch will suffer the ultimate retaliation for the petty grudges they held in life.
-- Senora G, Night Owl Suspense
-- Janet K. Brennan, JB Stillwater