Laura is an aspiring, but an unpublished author. She spent years with stories working around in her head, but never felt that she had the time necessary to indulge herself. Many times she would put the stories down on paper only to go back later and reread them. She did not like what she saw.
The longing to write never left her. Even while working and taking care of her family, the storylines never quite left.
After her kids grew up and the grandkids started coming, Laura could see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. So, after turning 55, she decided to put her active imagination - the same one that kept her in trouble during her childhood- to good use.
Without a college education, she did what she knew she did best, and that is research. She started compiling books on writing. After reading her book collection, she began working on the first story that she knew she would be sending out. She began by handwriting the first draft of the first story. She would write a bit, then go back and reread her books. If she was having trouble with a character’s development, she would refer to her books about the subject matter.
After the first draft was finished, she began referencing her books about the 2nd drafts and everything that entailed.
In the back of her mind, an idea began to form. She would be retiring from her customer service position at a large trucking company within a matter of months. Wouldn’t it be great to make a little seed money by entering her stories into contests? Even if she wasn’t going to make any money from her stories, she was doing something she loved and financially would be no worse
The man in the Black Floppy Hat sat in the middle of the bench, in the middle of the square, in the middle of the town, in the middle of April, in the middle of an unusually warm Saturday afternoon.
He was tall in stature, but angular in form. His hawkish nose, long chin and long slender fingers gave some the impression that he was only 10 pounds away from being a scarecrow. Blue gray eyes helped give him an aura of being non- descript. He liked it that way
He was intrigued by this small town and all the happy people. He had visited it often over the course of time and had even settled in it briefly. No matter how long he had stayed though, he never left with what he had come for. He had a bucket list of sorts and this town was on it.
Children ran in front of him laughing through the sprinklers of the nearby fountains. He was not a huge fan of children, but with children came the parents so he had owned a few businesses over time that catered to children. It was the parents who were his target audience.
A couple of the children glanced at the man as they ran by and faltered in their steps; the man had that effect on young and old alike. The first impression he gave was of a stern schoolmaster. It wasn’t until people spoke to him that they found themselves enveloped in warmth and kindness that they would later describe as surprising coming from such a seemingly cold fellow. The man in The Black Floppy Hat saw things quite differently of course.
He saw LuEllen Jacobsen walking into the butchers shop and a smile played across his lips. As he unfolded his long frame from the park bench he heard his old bones groan in protest. He didn’t mind though, he was about to have some fun. “Time to get this party started,” he said to himself
Though LuEllen didn’t know about the man in The Black Floppy Hat , he had learned of her story on his previous visits. Married at 20 to an abusive alcoholic who also dabbled in drugs, she endured horrific abuse for 3 long years. When she finally escaped she returned to her parents bent and bruised but not broken; never broken. As it turned out, the only thing worse than the marriage was the divorce. Late night drive bys; pelting rocks at the windows; hang up phone calls. When he did talk when LuEllen answered the phone, it was always to drunkenly threaten to harm her or himself or both. He also stalked her relentlessly. LuEllen never knew where he might pop up; the store, the park, or even standing in her parents front yard watching the house.
Then one night her ex allegedly committed suicide. The town coroner discovered some irregularities as to the position of the gun in relation to the hole that was blown in his head. The town coroner had known LuEllen and her family since she was small; and besides, the world – and LuEllen -were better off with him dead. So, he signed off on the Cause of Death as suicide and closed that terrible chapter in the Jacobsen’s life.
Tragedy would visit the Jacobsen family again a year later with the deaths of her parents one week apart. They were a devout family and some said the shame and stress of the divorce caused her mother’s massive coronary; her broken hearted father died one week later in his sleep. The Cause of Death for her father was registered as a heart attack, but to LuEllen and her brother Richard it was one and the same. LuEllen was never able to shake the feeling that she was responsible. The feeling hung over her like a gray cloud on an otherwise sunny soul. For even with all the tragedies in her life, LuEllen s soul was still pure. She went to church and tried to practice what was preached; trying to always see the goodness in others. She also did not gossip. Having been on the receiving end far too often, she knew the pain and humiliation it will cause. It was sometimes difficult not to in a small town where a trip to the grocery store can entail 2-3 different conversations.
The man in The Black Floppy Hat followed LuEllen into the butcher store. He imagined her beautiful when she was younger, but now the most flattering term that could be used to describe her would be matronly.
“Hello, Henry” LuEllen called out as she entered his shop. A stocky man with just enough gray to look handsome but not old, he looked the epitome of a butcher. It was practically in his blood, he now owned his father’s shop. LuEllen had often thought if things had turned out differently….
“Looking to get a rump roast for Sunday night dinner with Richard?” Henry asked, hoping his tone might inspire an invitation. “Oh you know me so well Henry” LuEllen replied, giggling. “But you know, I’ve been hungry for pork roast lately.” At that moment, the bell over the door announced a new customer. LuEllen and Henry both glanced up to acknowledge the customer with Henry tossing a “Be right with ya” in his general direction. “Sure, take your time” the man in The Black Floppy Hat said.
Henry beamed at LuEllen . “Well, I just got some fresh pork roasts packaged up; I haven’t even put them in the display case. I’d be glad to sell one to you for, say, half price?” LuEllen was tempted, but knew her brother loved his rump roast. But boy the pork roast sounded good. The man in Black Floppy Hat leaned over to LuEllen and placing his hand lightly on her shoulder, said “Yes but who’s the cook? I’d say cooks choice m’dear” He whispered in her ear. LuEllen and Henry locked eyes and Henry went in the back to get her the pork roast.
On that fateful Sunday evening, Richard Jacobsen stood in front of the steam filled bathroom mirror. Wiping off some of the steam, he stared back at himself. “Not bad for a 45 year old confirmed bachelor.” He said out loud to no one in particular. Richard wasn’t so much as confirmed as cautious. After watching the debacle of his sister’s marriage and seeing how after all these years, she still blames herself for their parents’ deaths, he was guarded and leery. He also suspected there had been a hole burned in both their souls that love would never be able to fill.
His sandy blond hair was still winning the battle against the gray, but his beard had not been so lucky. Richard didn’t mind; his eyes were still as sharply blue as when he was younger.
He loved Sunday dinners with his sister. Most of the town folk knew that this brother sister team was unusually close. With their busy schedules- Richard running his feed store and LuEllen teaching- Sundays were the only time they could see each other. The real reason Richard loved Sunday dinner at LuEllen s was the Sunday roast. She prepared it just like their mother did. He wasn’t sure how she did it, but when Richard took a bite, the crispy seasoned outside and the melt in your mouth tender beef transported him to a simpler time in their lives. After church services Richard and his best friend Billy would go frog hunting, or Richard would go fishing with his dad. There were the usual childhood bumps and bruises but through it all was his mother’s delicious Sunday roast. His mother had served Sunday roast on what would be their last dinner as a family; she had her coronary that night in her sleep.
His mouth watering in anticipation, Richard bounded up the steps of LuEllen’ s porch and stepped inside her neatly kept house. As soon as he entered, he realized that he did not smell Sunday rump roast. “LuEllen !” He shouted. LuEllen entered, wiping her damp, plump hands on her apron. She was just about to say “Let’s try something new” but the thunderous look on Richards face caused the words to die in her throat. She first felt a pang of regret for choosing the pork over the beef, but then she became angry. After all, it was cooks choice, right? A wave of stubborn righteousness swept through her and she felt her blood boiling.
“What’s that?” Richard ground out through gritted teeth. Standing her ground, yet nervously wiping her already dry hands, a spark of indignation shot through her. Her eyes flared in deviance. She said, “I wanted pork roast. Every.Fucking.Sunday for the past 20 years we’ve had roast like Mama use to make. “ Softening her tone in hopes of diffusing the situation she continued, “Yes Richard I know why you love my roast and that’s ok.” For an instant, she saw the little boy he once was wrapped in the body of the man he had become who desperately missed his parents.
“If you know how much I love it, why would you change it?” He roared in her face; their noses practically touching. LuEllen fought not to take an involuntary step backward. She straightened her spine and looking him straight in the eye, said “I wanted pork roast.” His hand was fast, but her reactions, borne of 3 years of abuse, were faster. Without thinking, her arm came up blocking Richards’s right arm from striking her. She stared into his eyes and saw a hatred there that she had never seen. She uttered one word: “Leave.”
“I don’t care grandma, you should not have written your phone number on our receipt and given it to the waiter and winked!” Annie was so perturbed with her grandmother she was across the parking lot and almost to the car before she realized her grandmother was still shuffling across. Annie closed her eyes, blew out a breath and ran her fingers through her short red hair before going back to help her beloved, if not exasperating, grandmother across the parking lot and into the car. Once they were on their way, Sylvia Millstone glanced at her granddaughter and said “I gave him your number.” This caused Annie to burst out laughing.
It wasn’t as if Annie didn’t know that this road trip would be fraught with moments like this. But Annie loved her grandmother to the moon and back, she was the only family Annie had ever known. Her drug addicted mother had left Annie with Sylvia saying that she was just running to the store and would be right back. That was 20 years ago.
Annie hadn’t been able to come home often during her four years at college so she decided to fly her grandma out for the graduation ceremony and the two would “road trip” the 3 day journey home. Annie would spend the summer there before heading to New York to start her journalistic internship.
The phone number incident notwithstanding, the trip hadn’t been as bad as Annie had feared. The only “downer” (a word her grandmother used frequently), of the trip was Sylvia’s stories of family squabbles turning into all out wars over the last few months in their relatively quiet, peaceful small town.
At one point, it had occurred to Annie her grandma was exaggerating. Surely, all that horrible ugliness did not go on between Richard and LuEllen ? Their close sibling relationship was well known throughout the town, and honestly, always gave Annie a pang of jealousy. Being an only child of two drug users and being raised by her single grandma didn’t bode for a sibling filled life. It wasn’t as if she lacked for friends, comfort and love. What Annie would not have given to have someone to giggle with in the middle of the night, someone who knew her better than she knew herself, with whom to share her deepest, darkest secrets with.
Annie also knew her grandma was not prone to exaggerate. Maybe it was because of all the lies Ann’s mother-Sylvia’s only child-had told over the years to Sylvia that made her so honest.
There were other stories, too. There was the playground fight between two boys turned into an attempted murder charge against one of the fathers after he tried to run down the other father with his car. Ann knew the boys and their parents; she used to babysit both children.
Annie thought once home, in the safety of her little town, she would talk to Richard and LuEllen and see if she could help mend fences.
For her part, Sylvia had not intended to regale Annie with the stories of their friends and neighbors coming apart at the seams. In fact, she had told herself before she left for her dear granddaughters’ graduation that she would not dump the entire goings on in Annie’s lap. However, the incidents had increased in intensity just before she left and as hard as Sylvia tried to push them in the back of her mind, they still weighed heavily on her heart.
As silence settled over the two women, Sylvia cast about in her mind to find something, anything, that she could bring up that was positive about their little town. “Oh! I forgot the tell you,” Sylvia said, brightening, “We have a new ice cream parlor in town. It’s called Heavenly Concoction Ice Cream. The owner is a strange looking fellow. Seems nice enough, he’s very tall and skinny. Looks like he could use a gallon or two of his own product,” Sylvia giggled at this. “I haven’t been there, but I’ve heard he has all kinds of yummy stuff, even alcohol infused ice cream. I’ve seen him around town, he seems nice enough, and he has a very warm smile. Funny thing is, he always seems to be wearing the same hat…a big, floppy black hat.” Sylvia continued, “He opened it just a couple of months ago, around mid to late April. Ordinarily, it would still be too chilly for anyone to even think about wanting ice cream, but it got so doggone hot so early this spring, he’s been doing a bang up business.”
During an unusual lull in an otherwise busy day, the man in The Black Floppy Hat stood for a moment to take stock of where he was and just how far he’d come with still a long way to go. He knew many of his associates would fall off their perches with laughter if they could see him now- selling ice cream in this brightly lit, festive shop. The walls were not painted stark white, but rather a vanilla white. Balloons, in a variety of eye popping colors, were painted on the walls, along with smiling children enjoying ice cream cones. Old style ice cream parlor tables and chairs dotted the restaurant. The ice cream glistened in their tubs behind sparkling clean glass. Of all the businesses he had ran over the course of time, he never ran an ice cream parlor. With the unseasonably warm weather driving the customers in by the droves, his outreach to the townspeople had increased dramatically compared to his previous “visits” to the town. If only he had thought of this venture eons ago….
Jess McGuire glanced at the clock hanging over the diner counter, 3:20. “Thank goodness,” she thought” only 40 minutes to go.” She hustled 6 fully loaded plates to the waiting table. At 5’3 and 110 pounds on a good day, diners often marveled at how such a small woman could hustle as many plates and trays as she could. They thought of it as a scientific anomaly. Jessie knew it had less to do with science and more to do with the mental and physical strength it took her survive a tough childhood. When she was 8, she learned that if you punch a grown man in the groin, he will stop trying to kiss you. Such was your life lessons when your mother was drunk and had terrible taste in men.
Jessie had a special reason to be watching the clock. Her best friend, Annie, was coming home from college. Jessie wished she could have gone with Sylvia to watch her friend’s graduation, but even with splitting the costs with Sylvia, the expense would’ve been too much. Besides, Jessie couldn’t afford going a week without a paycheck.
She knew Annie and her grandmother would be hungry and tired when they returned. With Sylvia’s blessing, Jessie was planning one of her “world famous Italian dishes.” It was really one of Sylvia’s recipes but since she was the only one who taught Jessie the fundamentals of life… how to cook, how to be a good friend, and showed her what a strong work ethic looked like, Jess considered it her own…from her “grandma.” Jess often wondered what her life would have been like if she had not met Annie in the fourth grade and found a respite from the daily craziness that goes part and parcel with having a mother that was the town drunk. When Jessie’s mother died the summer after Annie and Jessie graduated high school, Annie offered to stay home the first semester to stay with her grieving friend. Jess was adamant in her rejection. Even though the two lifelong friends had not been able to see each other much during the last four years, they were able to stay in touch with Skype, email and of course, Facebook. Though modern technology kept them in touch, it was nothing compared to actually seeing each other. It was with this thought that Jess practically ran to her car after her shift.
By the time Sylvia and Annie straggled in to the house later that evening, the house was warm with the scent of baking lasagna and garlic focaccia; this was one of Jessie’s own recipes and one she was very proud of. It would all go very well with the wine that was chilling in the fridge.
After hugs, kisses and “I missed you” the women set about unloading Annie’s car. Since there was much heavy lifting involved and many trips back and forth to the car, the three women were starving when they sat down to eat, drink and catch up.
After the dinner was eaten and most of the wine was drank, Annie and Sylvia glanced at each other wondering who was going to address the elephant in the room. Sylvia decided to. “Jessie, I couldn’t help but notice that you haven’t said a word about Clayton.” At the mention of the man, who until a month ago had been Jessie’s soul mate, her large blue eyes filled with tears. “There’s nothing to say,” Jessie began. “We’re not together anymore.” If a wrecking ball had smashed through the dining room wall at that exact moment, Annie and Sylvia would not have been more surprised.
Clayton Busch was not much to look at. Tall, straggly, often unemployed, he and Jessie seemed like an unlikely couple. What Clayton lacked in employment skills, he more than made up for in his love and commitment to Jessie. They met in their junior year of high school and they both had one thing in common: Each wanted to protect the other from their disastrous home lives. After graduation, Jessie found the job at the diner and Clayton worked construction jobs when the weather allowed. Jessie didn’t mind though; he was always there in the middle of the night when she had one of her nightmares and needed to be held.
Sylvia and Annie continued to look at Jessie expectantly, hoping she would continue with why they weren’t together anymore. Jessie took a quivery breath, pulling herself together and began with the story that happened a month ago.
“He’d been a little down on himself. His mother had called a couple of days before and you know how well those conversations go,” she said with a roll of her eyes. Sylvia and Annie nodded in agreement. “It was slow at the diner so I was let off early. I was happy about it, but all Clayton could talk about was the $25 I lost by leaving work a couple of hours early. I suggested trying the new ice cream parlor. You know the one that just opened on the square that’s owned by that really tall skinny guy who always wears the Black Floppy Hat? Anyway, we went and actually his mood started to improve on the walk over there. By the time we sat down and started eating, he was his same old silly self. The owner even came by and introduced himself; I guess because we had never been there before. Clayton shook his hand, but I was too busy shoveling that heavenly concoction into my mouth to do that. I was kind of embarrassed, but the owner didn’t seem to mind. If Sylvia has taught me anything, its manners,” Jessie said with a rueful laugh. “I was going to go and compliment him on his product, but he was busy with other customers, so we left. We were about half way home and Clayton started bitching about how much the ice cream cost. He has this look on his face, it’s like rage or something, I don’t know. I’ve only seen it sometimes after he gets done talking to his mom; he’s never been that angry like that with me before. He goes, so, we lost $25 because you’re too lazy to work, then just blew another 10? So we lost like $35 dollars today? He grabs my arm really hard and starts shaking me. I start to get really scared, then he starts screaming at me, right there in the middle of the sidewalk, calling me horrible names and saying I’m nothing but a dumb lazy c*****. Then he hits me-hard. I almost lost my balance. Then I got angry.” Jessie’s tears had dried by now, and a steely look of I’m-not-putting-up-with-that-shit crossed her face. It was a look Sylvia and Annie knew all too well. “So, I ran” Jessie continued. I ran home and he chased me. We got into the house and for a moment, I thought he would apologize, not that that would have done any good. Instead, he hit me again. I grabbed a vase that was sitting on a table and hit him in the head with it, then pushed him out of my house and out of my life.” The next morning I packed his shit and mailed it to his mother. Those two deserve each other.”
It took most of the next two weeks for the duo to get Annie settled into her familiar bedroom and their routine. On a warm Saturday morning, the two women set out on one of their favorite things to do: grocery shop. Since she was 4, Annie had and Sylvia would hit the grocery store not only for their weeks’ worth of groceries, but something even more special. Some people had Sunday dinner, but Sylvia and Annie had what they had dubbed their ‘Saturday Night Special.’ The meal could be anything from stroganoff to lasagna to beef stew or chili. After buying the ingredients, the two would spend the rest of Saturday chopping, peeling, dicing, boiling and general merrymaking in the kitchen. Sylvia still had the small step stool that her granddaughter had used to climb on the counters. This was all peppered with conversations-school goings on, gossip and general advice from Sylvia to her granddaughter.
As the ladies pulled into the grocery store parking lot, they noticed a loud commotion coming from somewhere near the center of the aisles. By the position of the cars, it was apparent someone stole a parking space from the other driver. What caught Annie and Sylvia’s eye though was how mad the two men were. What should have been a quick and simple shouting match had escalated to a full blown fist fight. Even odder was that no one stopped to help. The women knew the townspeople well and had seen public disagreements where a third party had walked up to mediate; not now, however. The men were throwing punches and no one tried to stop them. As Sylvia parked the car, Annie’s hand was on the door handle and Annie had a look of determination in her eyes. “Don’t,” Sylvia said knowing full well what Annie was thinking. “I have to; no one else is.” With that, Annie bounded out of the car and sprinted over to the two men who were still wildly throwing punches. “Gentlemen,” Annie began. At once, two sets of glaring eyes turned her way. At the look on their faces, Annie felt a moment of fear that they would hit her. She pulled herself up to her full 5’11 height. Pasting a very fake smile on her face, she said, “What seems to be the problem”? “None of your damn business, bitch,” one of them growled as they began to advance towards her. At that point, Sylvia came up behind Annie. Sylvia had been teaching women’s self-defense classes at the local women’s shelter for as long as the townspeople could remember. They also knew she was not someone to mess with or to mess with her granddaughter. The two men suddenly looked sheepish. “I believe my granddaughter asked you a question,” she said. The two men, one lanky with blond hair and blue eyes and the other man had dark hair short and stocky, stared at the ground. Short and stocky kicked at an imaginary pebble on the ground and muttered “nothin.” “Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Sylvia said, crossing her arms over her ample bosom and glaring daggers at the two men. “You two should be ashamed of yourselves. Grown men-with families no less-duking it out in the middle of a parking lot over what? A single stupid space. Look around you…there are several spaces here. And then you have the gall to turn on my granddaughter who was only trying to help? Get in your cars and go home to your families and don’t ever do crap like this again. Got it?” “Yes ma’am,” the men said in unison.
The two women were deep in conversation rehashing the events in the parking as they entered the store. They were so engrossed in their conversation they didn’t notice the young couple arguing near the carts or the mother screaming at her child. When a man bumped Sylvia’s cart, he turned to her and started yelling at her. When he was finished, there was small spittle running down his chin. Sylvia looked at him calmly and said ,“This must be the first case of shopping cart road rage,” and the two women walked away. The encounter, however, brought their attention to what was happening in the store around them. People were arguing or sullen; it seemed like the entire store was in a bad mood. Customers, stock boys, even the cashiers whose job it was to be cheery, seemed angry. In the middle of the freezer aisle, Annie nudged Sylvia. There were two people caught in a passionate embrace. These were people Annie and Sylvia knew-but they were not with their respective spouses. “We can get ice cream tonight at that new place” Sylvia said.
Once home, they put away the groceries and began preparing for the Saturday Night Special-beef stew. Once the women settled into their routine, whatever the ugliness was that seemed to follow them around the store dissipated. Before long, Annie and Sylvia were laughing and chattering like old times. However, the conversation always seemed to go back to one thing: How many of their kind, affable, and loyal townspeople had changed. “I just don’t get it” Sylvia said as she browned the beef in the Dutch oven. It seems like overnight our quiet little town has turned against itself. Take LuEllen and Richard. Two months later and they still aren’t speaking. Or those two boys you use to babysit…Jake and Brian.” “Yes I know,” Annie said with a sigh. Of all the stories that had bubbled over the last few months, this one upset her the most. Jake and Brian were best friends and had been for most of their 12 years. Brian accused Jake of stealing one of his cherished model remote controlled airplanes and Jake denied it; which led to a shouting match. A few days later, Brian found the airplane behind his dresser where it had apparently fallen. The boys made up and went about their lives. Not their fathers, however. Brian’s father ran Jakes father over with his car. Now Brian’s dad was sitting in jail on attempted murder charges while Jakes father was in the hospital recuperating from several broken bones. “I am definitely going over to LuEllen’s tomorrow after she gets home from church. We know her the best; maybe she’ll be able to shed some light on all this nonsense.” Annie said. “Good luck with that,” Sylvia said ruefully. “I tried talking to Richard a while back. I went to the feed and grain store thinking that since Richard was in his element, he’d be more affable to a chat. No such luck. He will usually give me a big ol grin and a hug, but not that day. So we start talking about the weather and such and I bring up LuEllen . It was like a thunder cloud darkened his face. He said ‘I would appreciate it if you never came in here again unless you’re going to buy feed or grain.’ Well, we both know that’s not going to happen, so I guess I’ve been banished from his store.” Sylvia’s voice cracked on the last few words. Seeing her grandmothers hurt angered Annie and she was not one to anger easily. “If Richard won’t talk to you, then I am definitely going to LuEllen’ s tomorrow after church. She’ll talk to me.”
After dinner, the two ladies took a walk to Heavenly Concoctions, the new ice cream parlor everyone was raving about. It was a warm evening with a slight breeze, a perfect time for ice cream. The ladies entered the festive establishment and were immediately impressed. Vanilla white covered the walls that had hand painted balloons in a variety of colors…all brighter and more cheery than the next. The tubs of glistening ice cream were facing the door snug behind the glass partition in about every flavor imaginable. Old fashioned ice cream parlor tables and chairs all dotted the floor; they, too were painted in the same festive colors.
The man in Black Floppy Hat smiled when he saw the two women enter. His puzzle pieces were finally falling into place nicely and these two women were two of the most important pieces. “Hello …welcome to Heavenly Concoctions,” the man in Black Floppy Hat said as he proffered his hand to the two ladies. Sylvia shook his hand automatically. Annie, however, was busy trying to decide which flavor to order and never saw the exchange.
Sylvia had seen the man around town, but never up close and personal. She found that the tall, angular frame, ice blue eyes, and creaky smile gave her a jolt. She knew everyone in town thought he was the nicest person, but Sylvia felt a distinct cold, hard ball of dread in the pit of her stomach. “We love it when new people come,” the man in Black Floppy Hat said with an crooked smile. Annie thought that the use of the word “we” was odd since he was the only store proprietor.
Once they ordered and sat down to eat, Annie and Sylvia had to admit, their misgivings about the man in the Black Floppy Hat aside, the ice cream was sinfully delicious. As they rose to leave, Annie had to go to the restroom, leaving Sylvia to pay the bill. Annie certainly hadn’t intended for that to happen, but when nature calls, you don’t hang up.
On their walk home Sylvia said, “He seemed nice enough. He just has those odd looks which he can’t help.” The two women walked a little further in amiable silence until Sylvia turned to Annie and said, “That wasn’t very nice of you to go to the bathroom and make me pay. If I’d known you were going to pull a stunt like that, I never would have come.” Annie looked at her grandmother in astonishment. “Grandma, I didn’t do it on purpose. If I thought you were going to get so upset, I would’ve paid and went after.” “So you think I can’t afford some ice cream?” Sylvia shot back, her voice growing louder. “I swear you are getting more and more like your mother every day.” The shock at her grandmother’s words caused Annie to stop in her tracks. Sylvia never mentioned Annie’s mother and never compared her to her drug-addicted mother. Annie was many things, but she was not the loser drug addicted person that her mother was. Annie had worked very hard in her life to make sure that she did not turn out like her mother.
Now Annie was angry. “What the hell are you talking about?” Annie said, confused and hurt. Sylvia twirled, and covered the distance between them in a few short strides. “You’re always broke,” Sylvia yelled “That bathroom stunt was your way of getting out of paying. And I’d bet you blew all of your tuition money on partying and drugs. How do I know you didn’t graduate by the skin of your teeth? How do I know you weren’t having a four year party? “ Tears welled up in Annie’s eyes. She was aghast at the unfounded accusations that Sylvia was throwing at her. Her only thought was to get as far away from Sylvia as possible. As she turned to head towards Jessie’s house, she heard her grandmother yell, “Yeah, that’s right. Run away just like your mother.”
Later that night over glasses of wine, Annie and Jessie tried to make sense of Sylvia’s outburst. As the conversation went on, they began to discuss the ongoing events of the town. Jessie came up with the idea that the only thing the two people had in common was going to the ice cream parlor. “But so did we,” Annie countered. “Maybe he’s poisoning some of the ice cream” Jessie half joked.
Since the two best friends kept clothes at each other’s homes, Annie wouldn’t have to go back to Sylvia’s for a change of clothes for at least a few days. This was a tremendous relief to Annie.
The next day was Sunday. Annie arrived at LuEllen’ s a few moments after LuEllen returned from church. Annie was not quite sure what to expect when she knocked on her ornate door. Through the beveled glass, Annie could see LuEllen coming to answer it. She remembered Sylvia’s attempt to talk to Richard and sincerely hoped this would turn out better.
“Annie how are you!” LuEllen cried, wrapping her arms tightly around her. “I heard you were back and I kept meaning to come by Sylvia’s and welcome you home properly. How is your grandma anyway? Annie’s heart constricted in her chest. She managed a “She’s doing well, thanks.” After the two women had settled comfortably into LuEllen s overstuffed couch, LuEllen disappeared then reappeared shortly with a tray of tea and cookies. They chatted about Annie’s college life and her upcoming internship in New York at the end of the summer. As Annie talked and listened, her mind tossed about a way to segue the conversation to LuEllen and Richards issues. She decided on a backdoor approach. “I’ve been surprised at the goings on around our little town,” Annie began. “I know!” LuEllen exclaimed. “It’s been awful. Fights between neighbors, you know two couples separated recently due to infidelity? This just isn’t our little town,” LuEllen said with a rueful shake of her head. “You know Jessie and Clayton broke up,” Annie ventured. “Yes I know. I was at the diner the next day; Jessie looked heartbroken. Annie figured it was now or never. “Grandma told me what happened between you and Richard” Annie said. At the mention of her brother, LuEllen’s eyes filled with tears. For a moment, Annie was afraid LuEllen would clam up. “I don’t know what got into either of us” LuEllen said. “I was craving pork roast and Henry the butcher had some on sale. I know Richard loves my beef roast because I cook it just like our mothers did but still….” By this point, LuEllen’s tears were falling freely. “I remember that really tall man, you know the one that opened the ice cream parlor had just come into the shop. I was waffling between the beef and pork roasts and he laid a hand on my shoulder and said something like “Cooks choice” or something like that. That was the push I needed. I knew Richard would be disappointed, but I never dreamed it would end up like it did. I mean, he tried to hit me!” Annie had not heard that detail. “I went to go see him at the store a few days later, trying to patch things up. Odd thing was that tall man was there. I mean, what would the owner of an ice cream parlor need at a feed and grain store? Anyway, they were talking when I walked up. The tall man said something that made Richard laugh and I thought, oh good, he’s in a good mood. They shook hands and the tall guy left and I went up to Richard. He took one look at me and it was like a storm cloud blew in. He pretty much told me to leave and never come back or he’d have me arrested for trespassing or stalking or some such nonsense.”
On the other side of town, two boys, Johnny and Tommy best friends for most of their 12 years were heading to the ice cream parlor. On the walk up there, Tommy was being Tommy, cutting up and cracking jokes. Once there, the owner of the shop introduced himself to Johnny and Tommy, shaking Tommy’s hand in the process. Johnny noticed his friend’s chest puff up with pride. Johnny was busy tying his shoe, so he never got a handshake. “Wow that guy might look funny, but he seems like a nice guy. No one has ever shook my hand and treated me like a grown up before!” Tommy exclaimed. The ice cream had been delicious just like everyone said it would be.
On the way home, though, Johnny noticed a change in his friend. Tommy was unusually quiet which was not like him at all. At first, Johnny thought his friend had a stomach ache from eating too fast. Tommy let out a big sigh. “I really wish my mom would buy me that new ten speed bike over at Lawson’s,” he said, kicking a stone down the street. “All she ever says is ‘we can’t afford it…..we can’t afford that….’ It really sucks.” Tommy’s mother was a single mom with three other mouths to feed; Tommy was the oldest. She worked at the diner along with Jessie and even when she worked double shifts, there still never seemed to be enough money.
At that point, the boys passed a candy apple red 1967 Mustang. Tommy’s eyes nearly bulged from his head. “Whoa…would you look at that,” he said in awe. As they started to walk around it to take a better look, Johnny got a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. “Yeah it’s cool and all, but I need to get home,” he said. Just then, Tommy noticed someone left the keys sitting in a cup holder and the door was unlocked! Tommy looked at Johnny and Johnny knew what his best friend was thinking. ”No, Tommy, this is a bad, bad idea.” “Come with me or not, Johnny boy, but I’m taking this baby for a spin”! With that, he jumped in the car and with a twist of the key and a push of the gas pedal, he was off. There was one problem with Tommy’s plan-at 12 the only driving he had done was when he played Grand Theft Auto. Johnny bolted down the street, somehow he thinking he could catch Tommy and the Mustang. To his horror he saw a cop pull out from a side street and he had Tommy in his sights. Tommy was going way over the speed limit and instead of slowing down when he saw the cop, he sped up. Johnny stopped dead in his tracks…what to do, what to do? In that instant, the decision was made for him. The cop caught up to Tommy forcing him to stop. Johnny watched with a sinking heart as the cop pulled Tommy out of the car and handcuffed him and practically threw him into the back of the patrol car.
As Johnny turned to run home, he nearly barreled head first into Annie. By this time, he was crying. “What is it, Johnny?” She asked. She knew something bad must have happened for a 12 year old to be crying in broad daylight in the middle of the street. Between gulps of tears, Johnny told her what happened. “Ok, you go home, tell your parents what happened and see if they can help out. I know Tommy’s mom won’t have the money to bond him out, but maybe your parents can help.” Johnny nodded tearfully and went on his way.
Later that evening, Jessie and Annie tried to make sense of what was happening to their town. The idea was born from a theory that had roots in a conspiracy whose seeds were planted in their broken hearts. In just a little over a couple of months, the people Annie and Jessie’s life, the only ones who had loved and cared for them, suddenly and viciously turned on them. Annie and Jessie began to write brief summaries of what they had heard and experienced. They listed the places where the trouble had happened, who was involved, and any similar pattern that they could see in each occurrence. LueEllen and Richard; Clayton and Jessie; the fight at the grocery store; Jake and Brian. Taken in and of themselves, there was no readily available pattern that could be seen.
The next morning the sun broke through the shades in Jessie’s guest room. Annie glanced at the clock, 9 am. Annie knew her friend was at work. Annie padded into the kitchen, following the smell of coffee that Jessie had already turned on. As she began going over the notes they had made the night before, she began to see patterns that their tired eyes had missed.
Annie was half way through a second cup of coffee trying to put the notes into a chronological order. She was so engrossed in her task, that the sudden peal of the doorbell startled her. When she answered the door, the last person she expected to see was Sylvia. It had been 3 days since the “incident” and Annie had begun to wonder if Sylvia even ever thought of her.
Tears filled the old woman’s eyes and before Annie could say anything, Sylvia launched herself into her granddaughter’s arms. “I’m so so sorry” Sylvia cried. “Please forgive me,” she said. “It was never a question,” Annie said soothingly, hugging her grandma as tightly as she could.
When Jessie returned from work that evening, she was surprised, and delighted, to see Sylvia sitting at her kitchen table along with Annie. Her house smelled warm and inviting; apparently, Annie and Sylvia were cooking a pot roast. Jessie could feel her heart lighten at the sight. Jessie joined the women in a glass of wine and perched herself on the barstool to hear the story that Sylvia had already told once that day, but had no issue repeating it. “It was really weird,” Sylvia began. “We were walking home and I just felt this hot ball of anger rising in me. I latched on to the idea that Annie going to the bathroom was a way to skip out and make me pay for the ice cream and everything snow balled from there. Before I knew it, raging and hurtful things were spewing out of my mouth and I couldn’t stop it.” Sylvia stopped and stared into her half full wine glass. Her eyes began to fill with tears again so she took a sip of wine and continued. “The scariest part was not that I was saying those things, but that I couldn’t stop…..I felt justified. I felt like I was completely in the right. But I wasn’t.” Sylvia looked at the two young women sitting next to her-two women who she had loved and nurtured most of their lives. How could she have acted so wrong? For Annie, it was seeing her grandmother looking so vulnerable that nearly broke her heart. Annie put an arm around Sylvia and drew over to her.
Halfway through dinner, Sylvia began with the second half of her story. “I felt angry and justified until yesterday afternoon. I guess all that rage wore me out and I needed a nap. You girls know me, I never nap. Anyway, when I woke up, I felt, I don’t know, lighter? Like a dark cloud had been lifted off of me. I was trying not to think about Annie, but the harder I tried, the more I found myself missing her. That led me to realize what a fool I’d been and how much I loved her and wanted to see her again and make things right. When I woke up this morning, I knew what I had to do.” The following week was quiet and seemed to fall back into their normal routine. The women gave no more thought to theories, notes or ice cream.
One evening after dinner, the three women decided to visit the Heavenly Concoction Ice Cream Parlor. The shop was packed more so than usual. The women, deciding they didn’t want to spend the whole evening waiting for ice cream, turned to leave. The man in the Black Floppy Hat appeared next to them. “Ladies,” he said gratuitously, “I know we’re busy, but I implore you. I have a new flavor that I think you will just love.” His eyes rested on Sylvia as a slow smile tugged at his thin lips. “I remember you.” He said, taking Sylvia’s hands in his; Sylvia blushed. He dropped his hands and the spell, if there are such things – was broken. As the man in the Black Floppy Hat worked his way up to the front of his store and his waiting customers, Sylvia said, “yeah, we really should stay.”
Privately, the man in the Black Floppy Hat wondered why and more importantly how, the three women could be in his shop. Shouldn’t the old lady and the pretty red head hate each other by now and not be speaking, much less spending an evening at the ice cream parlor? Though the smile never left his face, his mind was trying to disseminate these facts.
On their way home, Annie noticed that Sylvia had grown very quiet. As they drew closer to home, Sylvia suddenly stopped walking and asked “Have you spoken to your mother lately?” At first, Annie thought this was some kind of joke. After all these years though she knew her mother was no joking matter to her grandmother. “Of course not grandma, why would you even think such a thing”? Annie asked. Some thing was off with her grandmother, though, Annie could tell. Sylvia’s hazel eyes seemed to dance with her anger whether it was real or imagined. Her face was flush and for one, wild scary moment Annie was worried Sylvia was having a stroke. Annie reached for Sylvia’s arm to comfort her and Sylvia snatched her away. “I’m not some doddering old bitch incapable to walking down the street “said Sylvia. Annie and Jessie looked at each other, not quite sure what to make of this. Annie didn’t know quite what to say and neither did Jessie. “See, you’re so surprised that I knew you were talking to her behind my back, you’re speechless,” Sylvia continued. “Sylvia, really, you’ve got it all wrong,” Jessie finally managed to sputter out. Sylvia turned on Jessie. “You! Just stay out of this. They’ve probably been meeting at your house behind my back this whole time.” The only thought running through Annie’s head at the point was to get her and Jessie as far away as possible from this woman pretending to her grandma.
Jessie was off work the following day and the two women sat at her kitchen table and rehashed what had happened the night before. At some point during the discussion, the notes and lists had come out, but now the women were studying them with sharper eyes. They found that the one thing Sylvia, Tommy, Brian and Jake as well most of the others in the combative play that had seized their town had in common was the ice cream parlor. “That makes no sense though,” Jessie sighed. “Is he poisoning the ice cream? If so, why isn’t the whole town berserk? Not that it isn’t heading there already.” Why indeed. Why was her grandmother affected twice and Annie not at all? Why did it affect Clayton but not Jessie? And yet, neither LuEllen nor Richard had been to the ice cream parlor at all.
Jessie found a large ply wood board and propped it up on a chair against the kitchen wall. They began to add their notes to it. In the middle was a piece of paper that said “Heavenly Concoctions.” They added each person’s name and the incident associated with them and the approximate time that they had been to the ice cream parlor.
Around dinner time, the women decided to order pizza. They were tired, frustrated and more than a little confused. When the doorbell rang, Annie opened the door, cash in hand, expecting to see the pizza delivery kid. Instead, it was her grandmother. In a scene reminiscent of the same one just a week before, Sylvia threw herself into her granddaughters arms, sobbing, “I’m so sorry…again.” As far as Annie was concerned, there was nothing to forgive. She just wanted her grandmother and town to return to normal.
Annie led her grandmother into Jessie’s kitchen. Sylvia saw the board covered in notes and lists. The pizza came and the three women ate in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Sylvia had been chewing and staring thoughtfully at the board and noticed there was a note that Richard and LuEllen had never been to the ice cream parlor. “Annie,” Sylvia said, getting up from the table to take a closer look “Didn’t you tell me that LuEllen mentioned meeting the tall man at the butcher store? And the second time she saw him was at Richard’s feed and grain”? Annie chewed slowly, pondering this. “Yes, that’s right. Maybe we’ve been looking at this all wrong. Maybe it’s the tall man himself.” Jessie thought the idea was silly. “What, he’s going around casting spells on people?” “It’s no crazier than poison ice cream,” Annie said thoughtfully. She had a point.
As the ladies brain stormed, they realized that of the three of them only one had not been affected, either directly or indirectly, by what they had dubbed “The Crazy.” That was Annie. She had been ogling the ice cream the first time she had met him and he had shook Sylvia’s hand. In fact, as it had turned out, the man in Black Floppy Hat had shook Sylvia-and only Sylvia’s hand- both times the women had gone to the shop. The women decided they would go back in a few days and Annie would make a point of shaking his hand. “This is silly,” Jessie said. Since Sylvia was buying, though, Jessie agreed. One could never pass up free ice cream.
A few days later, the three women set out for their “experiment” for lack of a better word. Annie was a little nervous being used as a guinea pig, but she understood what she had to do and why. Something wrong was going on and either the ice cream parlor or its owner, or both had something to do with it.
Since it was mid-week, the parlor was quiet and relatively empty. The tall man was behind the counter, the ever present hat perched on his head. As had been discussed, Sylvia and Jessie chose a small corner table while Annie walked up and ordered. Flashing her prettiest smile, Annie held out her hand, “I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced” she began. My name is Annie and I wanted to tell you how much we enjoy your ice cream. Why, it’s heavenly!” She said with a laugh. The tall man took Annie’s hand. She found his hand warm and dry without being rough. “I’ve wanted to introduce myself to you for a while, but your shop is always so busy; you are always doing such a bang up business.” “Why thank you,” the tall man said.
After finishing their ice cream and paying, the 3 ladies headed back to Jessie’s since that’s where the notes and lists were. Annie began to feel odd. Her stomach felt like instead of swallowing ice cream, she had swallowed molten lava. She could feel her face becoming hot. She knew Sylvia and Jessie were laughing and talking, but a loud rushing sound in her ears seemed to block it out. The sidewalk began to dip. Then as suddenly as they appeared, the symptoms disappeared. Annie had not realized she had slowed her pace until Sylvia and Jessie turned around and asked if she was ok. The molten lava came back and turned into a white hot rage. “No I’m not fucking alright,” Annie screamed. Sylvia reached out to her, and Annie backhanded her, knocking her grandmother to the ground where she began kicking Sylvia in the ribs then jumped on Sylvia and punched her grandmother several times in the face. Jesse tried to intervene, but Annie grabbed her best friend’s throat and threw her to the ground. Somewhere in the boiling rage and the rushing in her ears, Annie’s fist connected with Jessie’s nose, Annie felt it crack. Sylvia tried to grab Annie’s arm in an attempt to pull her off Jesse, but Annie shook her away like she was a rag doll. Somewhere in the melee, Annie could hear screaming and sirens. It wasn’t until hours later, strapped to a hospital bed, Annie realized the screaming was coming from her and the sirens were coming to rescue Sylvia and Jessie.
The man in The Black Floppy Hat was taking a stroll around the town. The once bustling streets that had been filled with happy loving people a few months ago were all but deserted. People who were hurt and angry did not necessarily frequent parks, splash pads, or ice cream parlors. The children suffered too. Oh, well, they were just collateral damage on the way to reaching his goal. And oh, how close he was! A smile, or what he perceived as a smile, tugged across his crooked, angular face. In all of the many trips he had taken to this town to fulfill his bucket list, this was the closest he had been. Single handedly he had lit a match that had started a slow burn of anger, lust, greed, resentment, jealousy and want; yep, he had hit nearly all 7 of the original sins. These normal, happy, well- adjusted townsfolk had committed crimes and sins against each other; unforgiveable sins. There was one more cog that needed to fall into place before he could make his final plans and end this once-sunny stink hole forever. He had been concerned he would never get there. Then she walked in last night with the old lady and the waitress. He’d already had his fun with the old bat twice and with the waitress’s boyfriend. Oddly, the spell had worn off leaving the three women as close and loving as ever. Apparently, forgiveness ran deeper in their veins than he had anticipated. As Annie had walked towards him with her proffered hand, the one word that danced across his brain was “Finally.”
Annie ran as fast and as hard as her legs would carry her. Her chest burned with the exertion, her heart felt like it would explode. The bones and muscles in her legs had turned to jelly. She stole another glance behind her. Yes, that thing was human, she was almost sure of it. The eyes were sunken into the darkness of his skull but the oversized cowl made it impossible for Annie to see much else about whatever it was that was chasing her. Annie suddenly heard the sound of large wings flapping behind her. Annie realized that the footfalls behind her had stopped. At that moment, white hot pain seared through her flesh as Annie felt talons pulling her flesh from her bones.
Annie awoke with a start, not quite sure if she had screamed out loud or not. As Annie’s nightmare had faded from memory, reality and consciousness replaced it. She could feel her forehead sweaty from her nightmare, but when she went to wipe the sweat from her brow, she couldn’t. “What the hell?” Annie said looking down at her arms strapped to the hospital bed. The straps were leather but lined in what had probably been soft wool. For what? Comfort? Annie snorted at the thought. “We’re sorry we have to strap you down like a crazy person, but at least you’ll be comfy,” Annie sang in a nasal, high pitched squeak.
As she lay back with a sigh of exasperation and confusion, she saw the door to her hospital room open. The bed was positioned somewhere between completely flat and slightly sitting up, so Annie was not quite sure who had entered; just that it was two women. Shuffling feet stopped at Annie’s bedside. Annie felt the bed raise, but could not believe what she was seeing. Her grandmother and best friend both sported black eyes and bruised faces. The left side of Sylvia’s face was one purple bruise and her left eye was nearly swollen shut. Annie noticed bulkiness around Sylvia’s middle and the cold realization hit her-her grandmother’s ribs were taped. Someone had broken her grandmother’s ribs!
Jessie didn’t look like she had fared much better. Though her eyes were not swollen shut, black rings circled them nonetheless. Annie noticed though that the bruised eyes were a result of Jessie’s broken nose. Annie was shocked at how the stark white bandages across Jessie’s nose contrasted with her purple and blue face. A thought, a hazy memory danced across Annie’s conscience, but it was too horrifying to entertain. Her throat felt like she had swallowed sandpaper, but she had to ask, “who did this to you?” Sylvia and Jesse looked at each other. They turned to Annie and said in unison, “you did.”
For over an hour, Annie listened to her grandmother and her best friend, the two most important people in her life, describe someone Annie didn’t recognize doing things that her brain couldn’t accept. Haltingly, as if they couldn’t believe it themselves, the women told their harrowing Annie’s hands.
As the tears fell down Annie’s cheeks, she began to sob; loud, guttural sobs that seemed to come from the depths of her soul. How could she do this? What had possessed her to hurt the two people she cared about most? And why couldn’t she remember any of it? The last thing Annie remembered was her stomach starting to hurt and she thought maybe the man in The Black Floppy Hat really was poisoning the ice cream.
Jessie and Sylvia waited until the sobs had ceased. Then, together, they hugged Annie whispering, “we love you.” Between sobs, Annie was able to say, “I am so, so sorry. Please forgive me” “There is nothing to forgive, honey. We know that wasn’t you. We went to the ice cream parlor on a mission, to find some answers and we think we may have found what we were looking for. At least we are pretty sure we are heading in the right direction.”
After the tears dried and the I love you’s said, the bond of the three women was stronger than ever. Now, they were more determined than ever to find out what happened.
The man in The Black Floppy Hat was having a very nice evening indeed. There wasn’t a human on Earth that could go through what those three busybody bitches did and still love each other and keep forgiveness in their hearts; humans were just not wired like that, which worked in his favor. Though it was nearly impossible – but not improbable for him to get drunk, he did enjoy a nice bottle of 1825 Perrier-Jouet on occasion. And this was definitely an occasion! After a millennium of trying to get the souls of this small, happy town, the effort it took and all the failures, who would have thought it took opening a simple ice cream parlor? He could finally cross this off his bucket list! Now that he finally got those three women to break their unbreakable bond, the rest would be easy.
Once it was established that Annie was no longer a threat to herself or others, and Sylvia and Jessie were not going to press charges, Annie was released. The three women went back to Jessie’s house and pulled out their notes from the other odd occurrences and doubled their efforts in earnest.
The three women decided to break for the day. Sylvia offered to drive Annie back to their house, but Annie, her head still feeling a little woozy, decided to walk home. “Maybe I’ll grab a bite on the way,” she told her grandmother.
The smell of delicious home cooked diner food hit Annie’s nostrils as Annie neared the diner. Her feet decided to follow her nose. As she waited to be seated, Annie spied LuEllen sitting alone in a back booth. Annie caught LuEllen s eye and the older woman beckoned to Annie to join her. “I just sat down myself,” LuEllen stated. The women made small talk as they perused the menu, but Annie’s mind raced with the possibilities this chance encounter had brought. Jesse, Sylvia and Annie were just discussing earlier how they might reach out to some of their neighbors that they knew had been acting oddly and out of character.
After the waitress left with their orders, a light bulb went off in Annie’s head. She thought she already knew the answer, but had to ask. As casually has she can, Annie asked “Have you been to that new ice cream parlor yet?” “Oh no, I’m not much for ice cream.” Luellen stated as she took a sip of her tea. “I’ve been meaning to though; maybe just a small vanilla cone. I met him, the proprietor, once last spring. Seemed like such a nice man and I’ve been wanting to congratulate him on the success of his business.” LuEllen continued talking about how difficult it was for small businesses these days, but Annie was not listening. She managed to stay attentive as LuEllen filled her in on what she had been up to since she had last met; however, she made no reference to her brother, Richard. Annie realized that LuEllen had just thrown a wrench in their theory that the mayhem was caused by the ice cream.
With her brain spinning with new theories, Annie begged off an invitation for dessert at LuEllen s-for old time’s sake-LuEllen said, Annie’s feet could not propel her fast enough towards home.
“Grandma, where are you”? Annie said as she burst through the front doors and headed straight to the kitchen. Annie grabbed their stack of 3 x 5 cards of notes that the women had made. Turning to the kitchen table, she began laying them out like a blackjack dealer would deal cards. “Annie, honey what is it? I was upstairs sewing and it sounded like a herd of elephants running through the house.” “I’m sorry grandma,” Annie said. Upsetting her grandmother was the last thing that Annie wanted to do. “I just had dinner with LuEllen and she said something I found interesting. She met the proprietor before the ice cream store even opened. She met him at the butchers.” The words hung in the air between them though neither wanted to say what they were thinking. Sylvia spoke first, “So I guess it’s all him. The ice cream isn’t poisoned.” “It may be, grandma. I don’t think it’s just the ice cream that’s poisoned though. I think he is.”
By lunchtime the next day, the three women had devised a plan. They each took a few names from the list that they had compiled of all the townspeople who had done something seriously out of character – violence, adultery, stealing. Because the list was compromised of most of the town, Sylvia, Annie and Jesse took four names each. Twelve didn’t seem like a lot but they hoped it would be a good cross sample that would help them find a pattern, a reason, any kind of explanation. The only thing they knew for sure was that the man in the Black Floppy Hat was in the center of it.
Annie stood in front of the rickety metal gate of Tommy’s front yard. Even after all this time, she could not equate the sweet, fun loving boy she knew to the same boy who stole the car and now sat in jail. Annie was here to talk to his mother. Annie knew Tommy was the oldest of 4 and the evidence of younger children was scattered across the scrubbed, barren yard; tricycles, a baby doll carriage and various boxes that had apparently been used as a fort at one time. The path led directly to the front door as there was no porch, just a few wooden steps. As Annie drew closer to the house, she noticed the paint was badly peeling along the eaves and shutters.
Wires hung from a broken doorbell, so Annie knocked. Tommy’s mother answered still wearing her waitress uniform. Though the women had gone to school together, they had taken different paths in life and never saw each other outside of the diner.
Annie remembered the girl from school and the woman she was looking at bore no resemblance. The once bright and inquisitive blue eyes were now dulled with worry and stress. The beautiful blond hair Annie had once been jealous of was now short and had been through a variety of colors. The creamy complexion now bore the old scars of a rough, hardscrabble life. “Hello Ivy,” Annie began, stepping through the door into the sparsely decorated living room. A stained couch faced a small television, a rocking chair sat between two orange crates pushed together and covered with a tapestry that looked like it had seen better days in the 60s. This apparently served as the coffee able. Ivy motioned for Anne to sit on the couch while she took the rocking chair. Before Annie could begin, a child of about 3 burst into the living room and clambered into her mother’s lap. Annie could see the striking resemblance between the Ivy she knew from school and this child. “Go play now with your brother. Mama’s going to talk to this nice lady.” Annie hoped that Ivy would still feel that she was a “nice lady” after their conversation.
After the child was out of earshot, Annie decided to get on with it. “I’ve come to talk about Tommy” she began. Ivy’s eyes filled with tears at the mention of her oldest. “I just don’t get why he done what he done. I know we ain’t got a lot and there was always things he wanted that I just couldn’t afford. But for him to do that….” “Ivy, do you know if he’d ever been to that new ice cream parlor?” “Oh yes, I may be broke as a church mouse, but I can afford an ice cream cone for my kids,” Ivy said, with a touch of defensiveness in her voice. “Poor kid hasn’t had much of a childhood what with his loser father and all; it was the least I could do for him. I remember he told me whenever he went in there the owner would shake his hand and treat him like a little man, instead of a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks like almost every other adult in this town. The owners’ treatment of my son warmed my heart.” Ivy shook her head sadly at the memory. “After all the problems this has caused, the lawyers, the money I don’t have, and the stress of trying to feed my other kids, I just don’t know if I can forgive him for what he’s done. I know that sounds harsh, but it is what it is.”
Meanwhile, Sylvia was sitting in LuEllen’ s sunny, tidy, well-kept living room trying to find her own answers. Sylvia gently coaxed the whole story of that terrible day with Richard from her close friend. Sylvia wanted LuEllen to start from the very beginning, when she first met the proprietor at the butchers shop. Sylvia had a theory of her own, and she needed to her friend’s story to prove it. When LuEllen got to the part of the man touching her shoulder, which she found odd, and reminding her who the cook was, Sylvia knew she was right. It wasn’t the ice cream at all! It was the owner of the ice cream store. But how was he doing it? It made no sense to Sylvia that the man could wreak such havoc by something as simple as a touch….LuEllen was just saying “He apparently will never forgive me which is just fine with me because I will never forgive him.”
Jessie had toyed with the idea of finding Clayton and interviewing him about the night of their violent breakup. It hadn’t taken much digging to find out that he had several run ins with the law, mostly assault charges since that night. There was the bartender who had refused Clay service, a convenience store clerk who did not return Clay’s change fast enough, and a girl who was unaware of the violence that lurked beneath the quiet exterior. She did not stay unaware for long.
So Jessie decided that since LuEllen was at Sylvia’s, she would try to get Richards side of the story. If they couldn’t save the whole town from itself, may be they could salvage LuEllen and Richards relationship.
It had seemed like ages since Jessie last entered Richard’s feed store. The store brought back some of the few good childhood memories she had. The sawdust on the floor and the smell of lumber, feed sacks stacked carefully and the smell of warm oil made Jesse smile a little as she worked her way to the back counter. It was there Richard kept his guns and ammo and where he could generally be found if he wasn’t stocking shelves or doing any other kind of upkeep. She saw him and smiled seeing he was in deep conversation with someone. Richard caught her eye and smiled back. The lanky man Richard was in deep conversation with, turned towards her. Jessie nearly faltered in her steps as she recognized the owner of the ice cream parlor. The man in the Black Floppy Hat offered her smile, but it was a cold smile and did not quite reach his eyes. For a moment, Jessie thought the tall man was angry with her, but then realized she was being paranoid. There was no way he could know what the three women suspected of him.
As Jessie neared the counter, the man in the Black Floppy Hat turned to Richard with a proffered hand “Well, I will be taking my leave now,” he said. “Thanks for stopping by. I really enjoy our talks,” Richard said with a genuine smile as he shook the other mans’ hand.
After the man in Black Floppy Hat left, Richard turned to Jess with a warm smile that did reach his eyes. “What do I owe this pleasure? Here to buy some feed?” Richard chuckled at his own joke. “No, I just haven’t seen you around town for a while and wanted to stop by.” A dark cloud passed over Richard’s face and Jessie knew, for whatever reason, that Richard did not believe her story; but the how and why escaped her. “Look,” Richard said, all warmth from his smile and voice gone. “LuEllen sent you, didn’t she? Well, if that’s the case and you’re here to try and get me to patch things up with that bitch, you’re wasting both of our times.” Jessie swallowed and decided to press on. Before she could, though, Richard continued. “That man who was just here? He told me one of you bitches maybe even LuEllen herself would come mewing around here wanting an apology from me. He told me to stand strong, that I was the wronged one here and us men have to stick together against bitches like you,” Richard leaned his muscular arms on the glass countertop, his nose inches from Jesse’s nose. For one, scary, brief second, Jesse was afraid he’d strike her. Instead, Richard growled, “I have nothing to apologize for and I will never forgive that bitch.”
After dinner, the three women began to compare notes. The raging storm outside made it difficult to concentrate, though. Thunder sounded like it was ripping the sky open which made the windows rattle violently. Lightning crackled across the sky lighting up the room and wreaking havoc with the electricity. The three women having made some progress, decided to press on. Talking to their friends who had been affected had helped, and they had made some progress, but it seemed that they had wound up with more questions and no answers to the questions that they had already asked.
Though a number of the incidents started after a trip to the ice cream parlor, not all of them did. “So, if it’s not the ice cream is he a black arts magician?” Annie asked. Sylvia was putting X’s next to the names of people who they knew had not been to the ice cream parlor. Suddenly, a light bulb went off in Annie’s head. “Touching!” She exclaimed excitedly. Sylvia and Jesse looked at her oddly. “LuEllen said he touched her shoulder when he said that thing about cooks’ choice,” Sylvia muttered slowly, following where Annie’s train of thought was leading them. “Yeah, and Tommy’s mother said he always shook his hand when he came in and made him feel like a grown up.” Jesse chimed in, “He was at the feed and seed talking to Richard when I came in and he shook his hand too.” “So, where does that leave us?” Sylvia asked. “We know it wasn’t the ice cream per se. How can shaking someone’s hand make them go crazy like that? We’ve all been affected by it and I still don’t understand. I think the biggest question is why are the three of us still together? Think about it. Practically the whole town has been affected and we are the only ones still talking to each other.”
Meanwhile, across town in his one room apartment over the ice cream shop, the man in the Black Floppy Hat was furious. No, furious didn’t begin to describe the rage he felt. More like a hot, boiling rage. He had been SO CLOSE! He paced like a caged animal throwing invectives at those three stupid bitches. How could they have forgiven each other so easily? He had thrown his best stuff at them and they still loved each other! No human alive could forgive what they had done to each other. Yes, the rest of the town had come along nicely-mired in hate and the inability to love and forgive. Hell, even church attendance was down; which was an added bonus. Worse yet, the three women had becomes curious and started poking around. Sure, he could probably take what he wanted now and leave, but his set would not be complete. As long as one soul stood to be kind, loving and forgiving, he’d have to come back; and he knew his time was running thin.
The next morning, the skies were clear as if the storm never happened. The three women were still mulling over the events of the previous night. Annie was going over their notes and hit upon a pattern. “Do you guys realize something? Richard said right here he would never forgive LuEllen . Sylvia, you said LuEllen said the same about Richard. And I know Tommy’s mother said she could never forgive him either. I remember because my first thought was But that’s your son. The only question that remained was how this was happening-was it a spell? Was the man in the Black Floppy Hat actually a master of the black arts? And after the how, the question remained, why? Why would this stranger come in to their quiet, peaceful town and wreak such havoc? Was he a former resident that had been kicked out? “I see only one way to find out the how, which, in turn, should lead us to the why,” Annie said. “I can hear the gears turning in your head all the way across the table,” Jessie joked. “We have to get into his apartment” Annie stated. Jesse and Sylvia looked at Annie like she had sprouted a second head. “And I have a plan,” Annie said with a sneaky smile
For the next few days, the three women inconspicuously watched the man in the Black Floppy Hat’s movements. When he left the apartment, when he opened the shop, when he closed for the evening and when he returned home. To their benefit, the women discovered he was a creature of habit; rarely deviating from his routine. He might go sit in the park, but aside from that it was home-work-home. During their three day stake out, the women also noticed that he never ate at any of the restaurants in town nor did he ever go to the local grocery store. They knew that there wasn’t a Mrs. Ice Cream Shop Owner, so how did he eat?
The plan was for Annie to get inside his apartment to look around. They knew his schedule, knew he spent all day at the shop, and what time he closed up to head home. However, they did not know how long it would take Annie to get inside his apartment, and once in, would they find nothing or a treasure trove of answers? Also, would it look odd that only Jessie and Sylvia would show up at the shop when the 3 women were inseparable? So, they devised a plan hoping that the man in the Black Floppy Hat wouldn’t catch on to what they were up to.
It was a warm afternoon, perfect for ice cream when the three ladies walked in. “What do you guys want?” Sylvia asked grumpily. Her tone made the man in the Black Floppy Hat’s ears perk up. Jessie said, “Can you loan me some money?” Sylvia turned on her, “You’re always broke. How much do you owe me already?” Turning to Annie, Sylvia again asked what she wanted. “Jeeze, I don’t know. It all looks so good. Sylvia blew up at this. “I don’t know why I bother with you girls at all,” she said loud enough for the proprietor and everyone else in the shop, to hear. “Hey, you can’t talk to us like that” Annie said and the two girls stormed out of the shop stage whispering, “screw you” under their breaths. The crooked smile on the man in the Black Floppy Hat’s face showed he was definitely enjoying the show.
Annie and Jessie huffed their way about half a block, out of eye shot of the shop and its strange, and probably dangerous, proprietor. The two women hugged, with Jessie trotting off towards the diner where she was working the evening shift. Thanks to their surveillance, Annie knew that there was a side entrance to the apartment as well as an entrance in the shop. Her heart was pounding so hard she thought her ribs would break; and her mouth felt like she had just swallowed sand. Annie walked cautiously and quietly up the concrete steps that led to the side entrance of his apartment. As she reached towards the door, she half- expected a bony, thin fingered hand to grab her shoulder. When none appeared, she tried the door knob. Unlocked! Annie said a silent prayer of thanks. Yes, she had learned how to pick locks during her misspent youth, but it wasn’t anything she wanted to have to do.
As she let herself into the apartment, the first thing that struck Annie was how empty, almost barren, the room was. It was a one room apartment, more like a large hotel room. There was no furniture, no television, not even a hotplate or a bathroom. “This guy doesn’t eat or pee? What the hell is going on with him?” She wondered. It was almost as if he had dropped into this place; there was not a single sign of human occupation. She spied closet doors along one wall. Following a hunch, she didn’t put much stock in, Annie opened them. Instead of clothes, there was a large, wooden, very ornate dais in the middle with what looked like very old book, almost ancient. There were no page numbers, but Annie guessed that it must have thousands of pages. The book looked like it was opened right in the middle. As Annie looked closer, she noticed it was not written in English, Spanish, French or any other language she was familiar with. In fact, it looked more like symbols to her than actual words. She carefully closed the book to see if there was a title that could help her figure out just what kind of book it was and what kind of madman they were dealing with. She recognized that the title was in Latin, but did not understand what it meant. With shaky hands, Annie used her phone to take a picture of the odd looking book, writing down the title for further research. More perplexed than ever, she quietly let herself out of the apartment and headed home
Later that night when Jessie returned from her shift, the three women were huddled around an open dictionary, thesaurus and a translator app on their laptop. They wanted to make sure that what Annie had written was exactly what their investigating had revealed was true. The title of the book, once translated, was Codex Gigas or Devil’s Bible. Though the book was shown throughout the internet, all the books they saw were new and none had the title in Latin or the odd symbols that Annie saw in the book. ”Well at least now we know what we’re dealing with-a devil worshipper,” Sylvia had no idea how close and yet how far she was. Annie, Jessie and Sylvia realized just how tired they were and all went to bed hoping for a good night’s sleep. However, they had anything but. Vivid, terrifying and what seemed like very real nightmares plagued them, causing them to toss and turn or wake up with a start or a stifled scream during the night.
The man in Black Floppy Hat was angry and yet amused at the same time. Angry because those bitches-the lynchpins to his plans-were snooping where they shouldn’t be. Though nothing in his apartment had been disturbed, there really wasn’t anything there to disturb, he knew the moment he entered that someone had been there. His first fear was that they had stolen his book. It was still nestled on the dais in the closet. A slight wave of his long bony hand over the book told him what he needed to know. The book at been touched and pages had been turned. The man in Black Floppy Hat was surprised that whoever it was did not singe their hands when they touched the book. If they had, he would have seen the slight pieces of skin scattered across the pages like snowflakes on a winter day.
The next morning, after what seemed like oceans of coffee Annie, Sylvia and Jessie sat at the kitchen table just as perplexed as they were when their little town started to implode. When Annie showed them the picture of the book she had taken with her phone, nothing was there –it was blank as if she had taken a picture of air. They had already deduced that who or whatever this Satanist is, a spell had been cast upon the town. After more research and soul searching, they realized why they had not been affected. They loved each other deeply and unconditionally, and with that, they always had forgiveness in their hearts “That’s it!” Annie cried. “What’s the best way to beat the darkness? With light! And in a case like this, where would we find light?” The 3 women looked at each other, their eyes growing bright with their newfound knowledge. “Why, at church of course!” They said in unison.
Father Maurice Morris was a short, round bald man with a twinkle in his eye, compassion in his heart, and a rod of steel in his soul. The children of the school lovingly nicknamed him M&M, but the good father did not mind. That had been his nickname since his childhood in foster care; hence, the rod of steel in his soul. He did not take to bullies or fools kindly.
As he sat in his office listening to the three women, he nodded appreciatively making mental notes, but did not interrupt. When they got to the part of the picture of the books coming up blank, the only sign of surprise he showed was a slight raise of his bushy eyebrows.
“I’ve noticed attendance at services has dropped substantially these last few months. Go to any public place-the grocery store, the park, even department stores or the theater and you can cut the quiet tension with a knife. Our townspeople have always been such a happy caring group. So you think this proprietor of the ice cream shop is somehow involved, that he’s cast some sort of spell over our little town?” The three women sat across from the good Father and his ornate, mahogany desk and collectively held their breath. What if Father Morris didn’t believe them? Then what would they do? They needed spiritual guidance to fight this kind of threat. Hearing it out loud from Father Morris the women realized how ludicrous it all sounded. “So why are the three of you still together? You said each of you has had some experience with this. “ “Forgiveness,” Sylvia said. Father Morris cocked a bushy eyebrow towards them. He leaned back in his overstuffed chair, steepling his fingers under his chin. If anyone else from his congregation had come to him with this kind of wild story, he would have either called the men with the white one-size-fits-all jackets or laughed them out of his office. But he knew these women, knew their histories, and knew that they were not given to flights of fancy.
Leaning forward in his chair, the priest said “Ok, this is what we are going to do….”
Monday in August
“But he’s your son Ivy,” Annie implored. She had come to talk to Ivy about forgiving her son. “You don’t think I know that? Every time I go see him I tell myself, ‘I will find it in my heart to forgive him.’ Then I see him and I think of the lawyer fees and the bail money I don’t have and the shame I feel when I go to the store or anywhere out in public.” Annie noticed how Ivy had seemed to age over the last few months since all of the troubles had begun. Annie decided to try a different tact. Leaning forward, she took Ivy’s hands in hers and looked deeply into Ivy’s green, tear filled eyes. “Do you miss him?” Annie asked. Ivy dropped her head. “Yes, very much,” She muttered. “I know he loves you and all he wants is your forgiveness. How much longer will he be held in Juvie?” With a sigh that seemed to come from the depths of her soul, Ivy said “For another four months.” “When do you see him again,” Annie asked. “Tomorrow” Ivy replied. “Ok when you see him, remember this conversation. Yes he made a huge mistake, but he’d be the first to tell you he has no idea why and if he could take it all back he would.” Annie said.
And so it went. Over the following week, methodically and with great purpose each woman went to their townspeople pressing them-gently but with great determination-to forgive their aggressor. It was slow going and even though not a single townsperson agreed to, the seeds had been planted.
Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny. Father Morris was pacing nervously in the vestibule. He was about to give the sermon of his life. The women had done their part admirably and now it was up to him to water the proverbial seeds that they had planted. He had also spent the better part of the week putting up fliers around town inviting the townspeople to worship using the promise of donuts and coffee afterwards as an enticement. He was generally against such bribery but desperate times called for desperate measures. He was also hoping the refreshments would serve a dual purpose. After all,
who can stay angry while eating a donut?
Father Morris smiled as he looked out upon his congregation. It wasn’t near standing room only, but the turnout was definitely better than it had been in recent months. Was it the seeds of forgiveness that the women had planted or the lure of baked goods? Maybe it was both?
The good priest began his sermon by citing Matthew 6:15,”If you do not forgive your brother’s sins, God will not forgive yours.” He followed that up with John 8:7 “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Father Morris never had to raise his voice, but the meaning was clear. He could see a shuffling in his congregation and the downcast eyes of the guilty. For good measure and to drive the point home, Father Morris finished his sermon with Luke 9:62 –“to look back while working is to mar the work. No man having put his hand to the plow and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
As Father Morris watched his congregation file out of his church he sent a quick prayer to his boss that his flock would make a right and head to the schools playground where the refreshments were instead of heading straight to their cars. As he watched, he was amazed that every single parishioner headed to the schoolyard. Sylvia, Annie and Jessie joined him at the top of the parish steps. “It looks like our seeds not only took hold, but bloomed!” Sylvia said joyfully. The four compadres looked out over the sea of laughing, talking parishioners eating donuts, and in some cases, hugging and crying. The two men who had fought in the grocery store parking lot were shaking hands. Women who had hated each other for the smallest slight were apologizing to each other. Tommy’s mom approached the group on the church steps shyly. “Hi,” she stammered. “Annie I took your advice. When I went to see Tommy last week I told him I had forgiven him and you shoulda seen his face light up like a Christmas tree! I spoke with the guy in charge there yesterday and he said he had seen a marked improvement in Tommy this past week. Thank you for making me see things more clearly. At that, Ivy, who was not known for demonstrations of public affection, reached out and hugged all four in a bear- like group hug. They watched as Ivy made her way down the steps to the schoolyard and joined the group of happy, laughing parishioners who had found it in their hearts to forgive one another.
Unfortunately, there were one, or two, dark clouds marring the otherwise perfect day. LuEllen and Richard had not attended the service. The priest and the three women were not surprised, but at the same time still saddened. Each of them, including Father Morris had tried to speak to the pair with apparently no success. Looking out on to the sea of happy, forgiving faces, the four compadres shelved their thoughts – for now.
The man in the Black Floppy Hat could literally not control himself. There was no word in the English language, or any other language to describe his rage. He ran blazing hot-like the fires of hell-to icy cold-like the deeper pits of his home. So close! He had them all ready to join him, like dominoes falling into the River Styx. He was ready to wipe this town out of existence and take all of those unforgiving souls back home with him. But no, those three bitches had to bring his father, and his father’s mouthpiece, Father Morris into this. He should have wiped out the town and taken what he could when he had the chance, but no, he got greedy. However, they will pay and pay dearly.
The following week Father Morris was thrilled to see his fellow townspeople carrying on their goodwill towards each other. Grocery stores and parks were once again filled with happy chatter. Neighbors smiled and waved at each other. Friendships were mended. Of course, not everything can change overnight. Tommy was in still in jail and Richard and LuEllen still were not speaking. Some of the marriages that had been torn apart by adultery had still not mended and had, in fact, ended in divorce. Always the optimist, however Father Morris still hoped and prayed that these people would find their way back.
That Saturday evening found Sylvia in the quiet of the church. She loved this time in the church. The church smelled of the lemon oil the cleaning ladies had used in their loving administrations to the pews earlier in the day. The lit votive candles gave off a nice, musky aroma. The ambience of the church on a Saturday evening quieted her soul. It had been a long week, but Sylvia felt that the town had turned a corner and was definitely on the mend. She was just standing up and stepping out of the pew when the front doors of the church suddenly blew open with a loud crash. Startled, Sylvia glanced up but could not believe what she was seeing. Anger roiled her as she grabbed at the cross she wore around her neck. “Get back demon!” She said to the man in the Black Floppy Hat “Oh cut out the Hollywood theatrics Sylvia,” The man in the Black Floppy Hat said. “We both know that as long as I keep this human form, I can walk into this church, onto any hallowed ground really and the only thing that cross is going to do is sting,” The man in Black Floppy Hat smiled a crooked smile, showing his crooked teeth. For one wild moment, Sylvia swore her adversary’s eyes changed from light, icy blue to flame orange/red. “You and those other two bitches ruined my plans,” the man in the Black Floppy Hat snarled. “I am going to destroy you, but don’t worry you’ll see them soon enough. I have something special planned for them,” the man in Black Floppy Hat said in a syrupy sweet sing song growl. “I just want to know one thing, Sylvia. Why were the three of you the only ones in this whole town who did not turn on each other? I threw my best stuff at you and you all kept coming back. What gives?” Sylvia said with a slow smile, “It’s called forgiveness. Even before we figured out what was going on, we forgave each other, of our own free will. That gave us the power over you.” The devil gave a shudder when hearing the words “Own free will.” Those three words have been the bane of his existence before time began. The Man in the Black Floppy Hat waved his arms and Sylvia found herself airborne. She felt her skull crack as she crashed into Jesus’s head that had been carved into the crucifix that hung over the altar. Sylvia saw stars dance before her eyes. She watched as the man in the Black Floppy Hat waved his hands again and Sylvia screamed in pain as a nail shot through the center of her hand, pinning him to the cross. Then, in a flash, the other hand was pinned likewise. Sylvia’s brain could not register the pain. The man in the Black Floppy Hat having grown tired of her screams, made a cutting motion with his right index finger and Sylvia watched in horror as her tongue fell to the floor below him. Her screams became a garbled noise. “That’s better. I do hate screaming. You wouldn’t think that now would you, considering what I do for a living,” the Devil said mockingly. With a snap of his fingers, Sylvia’s feet involuntarily were placed on top of each other and a nail was driven through them. At this point, Sylvia had passed out from the pain. “Tsk, tsk, Sylvia, I’m not finished yet,” said the Devil. With his long crooked fingernail, the devil made a downward motion slicing Sylvia in half from her throat to her pelvis The devil took his hands and made a motion like he was opening backstage curtains and pulled Annie’s beloved grandmother open. “Now for the piece de resistance,” the devil said. He pointed his hands at the bottom of the cross, made a circular motion. And the entire cross, including Sylvia, became a pyre. He did not set the entire church on fire, but thought this was poetic justice.
The papers could not do the horror justice. Never in the history of this small town had anyone experienced anything like this. Not the police, firefighters, paramedics; not even the forensic specialists. The whole town mourned in unison and asked the same question, “Who would do this?” Only three people in the whole town knew the answer. “Whatever he is, the owner of the ice cream shop can’t be human,” Annie said. Annie, Jessie and Father Morris knew they had to rally their fellow townspeople, knew that they had to fight back collectively or they would all be lost. They knew the stakes were high, but they had no idea how high.
On a muggy moonless night a few evenings later, the church basement was packed with townspeople; it was standing room only. The invitations was sent by word of mouth and kept in secret since Annie, Jessie and Father Morris realized they weren’t sure who-or what-they were dealing with. They did not want the man in the Black Floppy Hat to even suspect their intentions. The church basement was, to them, the safest most secure place to meet and discuss what would come next.
Annie looked out at the crowd and smiled. She knew not everyone had come, but that was ok. Enough had come so the plan could be spread by word of mouth. She was especially happy to see LuEllen and Richard there. Yes, they were standing on opposite sides of the room, but they were at least in the same room. The town listened with rapt attention to Annie’s story of the book, of what she had told Father Morris, and that had led herself, Jessie and Sylvia to implore each of them to forgive each other. She ended with the assumption that she, Jesse and Father Morris held that the Devil, or whatever he was, had killed Sylvia and why. Much to Annie’s relief, she saw nods of understanding and the townspeople began piecing together the events of the last few months. She felt that her speech had helped clarify to the group gathered the odd happenings in their little town.
Father Morris stood up to speak. “We have been torn apart by the ugliness that has infected us. But, thanks to Annie, Jesse and Sylvia, God rest her soul- we were shown how far love and forgiveness can take us.” A man in the back stood up and exclaimed, “If those three ladies hadn’t gone to each of us and made us see the error of our ways, none of us would be here right now,” The man sat down to loud applause. Annie smiled her appreciation. “Be that as it may,” she said “Now we have the job, no, the responsibility rid ourselves of this vile creature once and for all. And how do we do that”? She asked. “With love and forgiveness,” The town replied in unison.
Richard looked up just as the bell over his door tinkled. He pasted his best smile on when he saw it was the man in Black Floppy Hat. As he neared the counter, Richard began picking up bags of grain. As expected, the man in the Black Floppy Hat proffered his hand for a shake, but Richards arms were holding bags of seed so he was not able to shake his hand; so far, so good. The man in the Black Floppy Hat lowered his arm as Richard set down his bags of seed. “Hey, good to see you,” Richard said. “The town is having a community potluck in the town square Saturday night. We’d sure like it if you could come. I know business has been slow lately and I thought it would cheer you up,” the man in the Black Floppy Hat was taken aback. Yes, business had been slow lately and yes he had been feeling down, but not for the reasons this numskull and his stupid townspeople thought. Still, with all those townspeople in one place and since Plan A had not gone so well, this would be the perfect opportunity to implement a new plan. Oh, yes, his father would rain heavens of fury down on him for what he was about to do, but as the humans say, desperate times call for desperate measures. Besides, when had he ever listened to his father? Not in any recent millennium that he could think have remembered. With another crooked smile, the man in Black Floppy Hat said, “why of course I would love to come.”
Saturday evening was balmy with a slight breeze; thunderheads were beginning to form. The man in the Black Floppy Hat was happy to see all the townspeople gathered in one location. Their happy chirpy voices and laughter grated on his last nerve, but soon he knew that the laughter would be replaced with eternal screams. Tents were set up along the square selling everything from food to crafts to games of chance. The man in the Black Floppy Hat was happy to see Richard approach him, though in one hand he held a hot dog and the other hand held a soda. No handshaking this evening, the Devil thought. “Beautiful evening wouldn’t you say?” Richard asked. “Yes it really is. I am glad I came,” said the man in the Black Floppy Hat with a smirk on his face that Richard either did not see or did not acknowledge. Richard began pointing out of some of the tents around the square, but realized that the man in the Black Floppy Hat needed to stay right where he was – smack in the middle of the square. As Richard made small talk, about the weather and the store, he kept one eye on his neighbors. Slowly, they were leaving their activities and forming a circle around them. It took several minutes, but soon the townspeople had encircled the duo. “Nice chatting with you,” Richard said as he took his place in the circle. It was at that point the man in Black Floppy Hat noticed the people in the front row on the circle, maybe 15-20 directly facing him. As the Devil looked farther on, he saw the circle was several hundred deep; the whole town had shown up. The people near the front pulled out small water bottles filled with salt and emptied them, making a circular line of salt. Then all the people pulled out the crosses they had kept hidden in their shirts and blouses, even the children. The Devil was momentary blinded by this. His rage was a molten hot ball of lava that shook his very core. His tall, bony frame began to shake with his rage. The townspeople clasped hands and began singing ‘Amazing Grace.’ “You think this will stop me?” The Devil roared. He had now grown taller towering over the townspeople. His icy blue eyes had morphed in flames of anger that seemed to burst from his eye sockets. If the townspeople were afraid, as probably most were, they were careful not to show it. “You think some salt and singing a silly song is going to stop me? Do you know who I am,?” The Devil threw his head back and roared this so ferociously the resulting wind seemed to almost blow the gathered townspeople backwards. “If that was true, I would’ve been destroyed a millennia ago,” The devil roared with laughter at this. The thunderheads had turned to a mutinous black. Though not a drop of rain fell, the skies seemed to shake with the Devils rage and its own thunder. Lightning crackled across the sky. The townspeople fought the urge to cower. They had been instructed that no matter what happened, they were not to show any fear. None at all.
When the Devil tried to take a step towards the gathered group, a bolt of pain that felt like 10,000 volts of electricity traveled from one bony foot up his leg, exploding through his entire body. It was unlike anything he had ever felt in his entire millennia of existence. He was momentarily stunned. “No, we don’t think this will stop you,” said a voice from the crowd. It was Father Morris. Even while he was giving comfort to Jesse and Annie in the days following Sylvia’s death, he had battled his own rage by his friend’s gruesome death.
He walked towards the front of the group, holding his bible in front of him like a sword. “But this will surely help,” Father Morris began to recite the exorcism incantation in Latin. The devil howled with laughter. For one brief, horrifying moment, the townspeople could not tell the thunder from the devils laughter. The two sounds were chillingly alike. “Really?” The Devil laughed. “That’s all you’ve got?” Despite his bravado, the Devil felt himself weakening. He had returned to his human size, eye to eye with the townspeople once more. “No, but destroying this might speed things up,” Annie said as she joined the front of the circle. In one hand she held the Devil’s bible, and in the other a lighter. For the first time, in a long time, the Devil felt fear. He knew he was growing weaker, but fought with any remaining strength he had. “No….” he stammered. “I only have one question,” Annie asked staring into those hideously round orbs of ice. “Why us”? The Devil answered, “I have destroyed entire civilizations by using the seven deadly sins. Humans, I have found for the most part, are not a forgiving species even though my father wrote it ad nauseam in his book,” the devil said with a nod towards Father Morris. “I have tried for centuries to destroy this town. The love and forgiveness you people have and your ancestors before you is sickening. You have been on my bucket list for a long, long time. “Now, if you’ll excuse me,” the Devil gasped out as he made a lunge towards Annie and the Devils bible she held. Taking a step back and out of the Devils reach, Annie touched the flame to it, and the people in the front row of the circle threw the contents of the other small bottles they had been carrying- bottles filled with holy water blessed by Father Morris. The townspeople were taking no chances this time around. The Devils screams mingled into the night air along with the lightning and the last of the exorcism incantation. Then, in a burst of blue flame that made him look briefly like a fiery scarecrow, he was gone. Only a scorched spot on the ground where he had been standing remained.
Tommy was rel
eased from jail and at the urging of the car’s owner, his record was expunged. His mother welcomed him home with open arms and a loving heart.
Couples who had separated over adultery were finding their way back to each other.
Jessie returned home one evening from her shift to find Clayton sitting on her stoop. Considering what he had done, her first inclination had been to call the police. She invited him in. She had thought about this moment for a long time and had made a decision on the outcome. “I forgive you Clayton, I know what you did wasn’t really you. And there will always be a part of me that loves you. But I have found that being alone isn’t such a bad thing. And even though I’ve forgiven you, I cannot forget what you did. I don’t think we should pursue this any further.” It nearly broke Jessie’s heart to say the little speech, but she knew, in her heart of hearts and deep within her soul, that she had done the right thing.
Jesse and Annie were loading the last of Annie’s belongings into her car. Annie was still saddened about her grandmother’s death the whole summer seemed like a bad dream. Annie had considered giving up her internship. Jessie told her, in no uncertain terms, that was not going to happen. “You will get through this, Annie,” Jesise had said. “After all, what is tougher than fighting the Devil and winning”?
As the two girls closed the trunk of Annie’s car, Jesse said with tears in her eyes, “Call me when you get settled.” She wrapped her arms around her best friend in a bear hug. “I will. Take care of yourself, ok? And call me if you need anything,” Annie added. “Like, if some mysterious man who wears a Black Floppy Hat suddenly opens an ice cream shop?” Jesse said with a twinkle in her eye.
On a bright and cloudless Saturday afternoon, LuEllen was tending to her flowerbeds. With all that had happened over the summer, the weeds had taken over her otherwise beautiful garden. “Not anymore,” LuEllen had said, spade in hand. “Party time is over.” As she was yanking the last of the weeds out of the ground, she heard a crunching coming up her gravel and paver walkway. She didn’t get many visitors these days, and for one chilling moment she thought it was the proprietor of the ice cream shop. As she turned around and looked up, the sun was blocking her visitors face. She could make out the silhouette of Richard though. In his hands he was carrying a package wrapped in butcher paper. “Lou,” Richards’ voice cracked as he struggled for composure. He had worried from the moment he woke up until this moment. Would she accept him? Would she really, in her heart of hearts forgive him? And if she did, was their relationship irreparably damaged? Only LuEllen could answer these questions.
“Richard?” LuEllen cried jumping up and throwing her arms around his neck, nearly knocking the package out of his hands. They were both said “I’m sorry” at the same time, crying and hugging. Any reservations Richard may have had were gone in an instant. “I brought a pork roast over. I thought we could have it for dinner tomorrow after church. You know, maybe put a new spin on an old tradition,” Richard said. LuEllen ’s smile said it all.