Haunted Passages: Michael Cole
Lovers’ Lane was a lake, an old crater, faintly heart-shaped, about a mile outside of town. On any Friday night, it was a guarantee that the ridge overlooking the water would be lined in Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles; they were candy apple red, dusty rose, Tiffany blue—all parked with just enough space in between for privacy. Fireflies, hundreds of them, hung in the night sky, as though each one was placed painstakingly with the tip of a paintbrush, their numbers doubled, reflected off the water’s surface. Listen for it—a nervous giggle, a moan, the muffled croon of Andy Williams, all over the harmony of a cricket summer song.
In Bud Collins’ Chevrolet, the only sound was the rustling of fabric as Carole smoothed her skirt over her knees. “It’s beautiful out tonight,” she said.
“It’s beautiful in here too,” Bud said. When Carole smiled, Bud took it as an invitation and he placed his hand over hers, rubbed at her legs under her skirt.
“Maybe we ought to put on some music.” Carole pulled her hand free and fumbled for the radio on the dash.
“—escaped—” The voice that came over the speakers was a brief squawk, cut short as Bud turned the radio back off.
“I don’t want to listen to music.” Bud was across the bench seat in a flash, one hand on the back of Carole’s seat, the other gripping the door. She was boxed in. She leaned away, felt the back of her head bounce off the passenger windshield. She turned her head away from Bud’s approaching mouth, felt his lips purse around the pearl in her earlobe.
Outside, the moon was bright and the fireflies bobbed lazily, and Carole saw something—just made out the faintest outline in the night. “Bud,” she said, “there’s someone outside the car.” She squinted into the dark and found again those angles, broad shoulders, a wide-brimmed hat—and then something with a curve, something that caught the light and held it briefly.
“Bud,” she said again, a whisper. “There’s someone out there and I think—I think he has a hook for a hand!”
“Aw, come on, Carole. There ain’t no one out there and if it is, it’s just some other guy taking a leak.” He put his lips on a course towards hers again, kept his eyes open. One hand cupped her breast through her cardigan; he squeezed and it hurt.
Carole’s own hand was a blur when it caught him across the cheek. The sound of the slap cracked across the car, a miniature thunderclap that surprised them both. “You’re not listening,” she said. “And get off of me.”
The passenger window exploded into the car, glass finding its way into Bud and Carole’s mouths, their eyes. They pushed against each other in panic, tried to use the other’s body to leverage away from the ragged hole and the rusty hook that was thrusting into the space between them. It found purchase, caught Carole’s arm, sliced one of Bud’s eyebrows in half, lodged in that soft space between Carole’s thumb and index finger, again and again, each time finding a spot and leaving another hole.
Carole’s scream sailed across the lake, sent minnows diving for the depths, spurred a crane to fly and stopped in a gargle.
Carole cleared her throat. Bud was talking about the state championship—a story he had told her at least twice before. Goosebumps ran up her arm, spread across her back, and she felt the fine hairs standing up on the nape of her neck. She shivered.
“Everything okay, babe?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “Just a moment of—someone walked over my grave, I guess.” She turned to look out the window; fireflies swirled over the surface of the lake. “That’s a weird saying, right? Like what does that even mean?”
“I bet you’re just cold.” Bud put his arm around her, pulled her body against his side. She wasn’t cold. “So anyway, there’s only three seconds left in the game and—”
Carole pushed her mouth against his. More than anything it was so that he would stop talking. Warmth tingled at the base of her spine, ran up her back and flushed her cheeks. There was embarrassment but also something that she wanted; she felt it pulling at her stomach, her hips, like that moment at the top of the arch of a swing, of being suspended in midair before the drop. Carole gave in, felt her body pivot against Bud’s. Her thighs spread as she straddled his; her skirt slid up over her knees. Her lips parted and so did his. Her palms slid down his chest, his stomach, where a thin layer of baby fat still clung. She gripped it, felt him tense up under her thumbs.
Carole caught Bud’s bottom lip between her teeth. His fingers dug into her backside. She pulled at his belt buckle. She wondered fleetingly what good girls did but rode the red-hot static that ran through her body.
Something hit the driver’s side window, leaving a web of fine cracks. Another impact and glass rained in. A long arm reached through, a hook at the end. It caught Carole in the back of the neck, yanked her from Bud’s lap. As the world went dark, she fought to call out for help, but in the shock and suddenness of it all, her teeth remained clenched.
Carole frowned out the window. It was a beautiful summer night but she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off. A sharp itch lingered at the nape of her neck, no matter how many times she tried to rub it away. The waters of Lovers’ Lane were undisturbed; fireflies swirled in the air, neon embers of a bonfire, fueled by teenage passion. There were other cars out there, other couples doing what they could in the shadows. Carole could see their fogged-up windows. Bud massaged her shoulder, tried to get her to loosen up. But her hands remained clasped in her lap, that tight grimace on her face.
“Smile,” he said. She turned to look at him, annoyance in the arch of her eyebrows. “You’re prettier when you smile.”
Carole did not smile.
The passenger door swung open and there was a man there. His face was cloaked, unrecognizable under a wide-brimmed hat and the high collar of his dark coat. There was a hook where his right hand should be.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Bud tried to sound tough but his voice wavered.
The man grabbed at Carole, got a fistful of her sweater and pulled, and then she was gone into the night. The only thing left of her was her shoe, a lone mule, slightly rocking side to side on the floorboard of the Chevy. Bud meant to go after her, do something—do anything—but he was frozen. Through the open car door, he could hear the thwacks of the hook against her body.
Bud rapped his fingers against the dashboard, a sloppy rhythm that drowned out the voice of the person on the radio, saying something about a local mental hospital. Carole was miles away. “I keep having déjà vu,” she said.
“I don’t know what that is.” Bud rounded out his solo with a flourish and gave her knee a squeeze for good measure.
“It’s French, I think. It means when you feel like you’ve already experienced something before.”
“I never pay attention in French. Babe, you’re so smart.” Bud rested back in his seat, squared his shoulders toward her. She could tell by the look on his face that he wasn’t really listening, that he was ramping up to his big move. He leaned forward and began to kiss her and she kissed him back. But then she felt the pressure of his fingers, sliding up her thigh, and it sent a spasm of fear up her back, like she could feel a dark shadow moving in.
“Wait.” Carole caught his hand, twisted his fingers softly in hers. “I think we should wait,” she said. “I want to wait.”
“Sure,” he said, disappointed.
It wasn’t really what she felt but it somehow seemed like the right thing to say. “We’ve been steady since sophomore year, everyone thinks that’s where we’re headed anyway. Besides, Liesl says that Mrs. Wallace can tell when a girl has—you know—done it. And I just don’t know that I could face her on Sunday if that were true.” Carole hoped that evoking the name of the pastor’s wife would conjure an image for Bud—the thick calves under stretched nylons, the dour slant of her lips—that always seemed to give him a particular reaction.
Bud made a face. “Yeah. I hear you,” he said and Carole felt something unclench inside her. They decided it was time to go home—no reason to tempt fate. But when Bud turned on the Chevy and began to back up, they saw something strange in the low beams: a tall man in a dark coat, pacing the shores of the lake.
Carole remembered this detail and shared it excitedly when the news spread—a dangerous inmate had escaped from the sanitarium just outside of town. She didn’t mention that it had been her and Bud necking at Lovers’ Lane, had said she’d heard that from the friend of a friend. Her mother frowned over a ladle of brown gravy. “I don’t hold with gossip,” she said.
Carole’s brother Tommy spoke up. “You know what they say: ‘telephone, tell a friend, tell a woman.’” Their father snorted.
“Besides, why would someone go to the lake after escaping. What’s the point, really?” Carole’s mother finally sat down, having readied everyone’s plates.
“Do you think they’ll catch him, Dad?” Carole asked.
“I’m sure they will, darling.”
“I heard he carved his way through four nurses before he finally escaped!” Tommy stabbed his fork into his pot roast, again and again, and laughed. The table erupted into half-hearted scolding and threats before all quieted down enough to eat.
For several nights, Carole dreamed of a hook, glinting in the dark. But after a few days, the town seemed to have forgotten about the escaped patient—all, maybe, except for the children telling stories at slumber parties, their faces hovering over a flashlight. And then Carole and Bud graduated high school. At Carole’s graduation party, Bud got down on one knee and proposed, surrounded by all of their friends and family. The ring had belonged to his grandmother, a simple white gold band with a pear-shaped diamond. It was fine, Carole thought. But every time her mother would inspect it, she would rave over it. “How elegant,” she would say, and then she would dissolve into tears. “Oh, Ed!” and she would throw herself into Carole’s father’s arms.
They were married in October. Carole had expected to catch a chill in her gown but the air was still and the sun was warm, high and bright in a cloudless sky—an objectively perfect day. Carole was readied in the back room of the church, tucked away just behind the chapel. The dress, the veil, even some of what was under all that had belonged to Carole’s own grandmother. The whole getup was unassuming enough on the hanger, but on her body Carole felt like someone had seeded her with lace. It wrapped her body, which was pulled into itself with steel boning; lace ran down her arms, up her neck and tickled her jaw. The veil rested lightly on her hair that was pulled so tight she could barely blink. A length of it wrapped around her middle, pulled her in even tighter, and was woven with her father’s robin’s egg handkerchief, her something old, borrowed, and blue.
It wasn’t all quite how Carole had imagined it. She had pictured flowers in her hair, an outdoor wedding.
Hands were everywhere on Carole, too many of them. Liesl, her maid of honor, a soft, lingering touch at the back of her neck, smoothing down those flyaway hairs she found there. Her mother, sliding in bobby pins, more and more, more than Carole thought her head could hold, kept murmuring, “So pretty. Like a picture book.” And Mrs. Wallace, whose hands were rough and hard, knotting that bow around her, tighter and tighter, who kept saying, “A twenty-three-inch waist. Can you believe?”
And then, stillness. The other women were gone, attending to their last-minute powder room breaks and putting the finishing touches on their own dresses. Carole was alone in that back room, surrounded by old music stands, sitting on a brown couch which was wrapped in plastic. This would be the time, she thought with a suddenness that made her jump, if there was going to be a time, if she was really, truly, going to run, she could slip out the door, just maybe, and make a break for it, out the back entrance of the church, down the stone steps, and through the fields straight into the horizon. It was not an impossibility, she thought.
Across the room, the door to the little closet unlatched and creaked open an inch. High up in the thin gap, Carole thought she could see the brim of a dark hat.
Then movement, as the women poured back into the room, a frenzy. Carole’s heart beat quickly in her chest and she struggled to catch her breath, the tightness of the dress distributing even that much effort across her whole body, so that she felt it in her fingertips. Her mother was in her face. “How do you feel?”
Carole opened her mouth, began to answer the question, closed it again. How did she say what she needed to? “I feel—” she said and then Mrs. Wallace yelled, “It’s time!” And it was, in fact, time. The music was playing and Carole was pulled to her feet, pulled out the door and into the chapel filled with people, a bouquet of white roses in her hands, each one cut alive from the stem.
That night, Bud unwrapped her in their hotel room. There were lace flowers imprinted on her shoulder blades, long red marks where the corset had gripped her. He took her, finally, while she was exhausted, while bobby pins and bits of dry rice fell out of her hair.
They honeymooned in the Poconos. Their cabin had a round bed and a hot tub in the shape of a heart outside. They took walks and sipped champagne. They made love nearly every night and Carole enjoyed it more, felt like she was getting better at it, but held something still aside—a secret bit of her that she wasn’t comfortable giving, an extra lift in her hips, an extra decibel in her moan. When they returned home, Bud carried her over the threshold of the tiny house that was waiting for them.
It was different living with a man that she was not related to. Bud said things that she found curious, made comments about her body that made her wonder if her father and brother were the same kind of men behind closed doors. His hands found her when they wanted—his thumbs pushing into the divots in the small of her back while she washed dishes, hot breath on her neck the moment he walked into the house. She enjoyed it, kept that to herself, but pretended that she wasn’t often bored with the contours of Bud’s familiar body. Carole cooked and became good at it. She made beef Wellington, pineapple upside down cake, a perfect hollandaise, deviled eggs, tuna casseroles, crown roasts. Whatever she made, she served with an expertly shaken martini, two cocktail onions, placed just so on the table when Bud got home from work at his father’s insurance company. Soon, Carole felt her dresses pull snug across her stomach.
“One too many crab puffs,” she said. Her mother showed her how to let out a seam, a knowing smile on her face.
William Jr. was born just two days shy of Bud and Carole’s first wedding anniversary. He had held stubborn for thirty-four hours of labor, and then finally ripped through her in the early evening. Carole screamed, her legs up, torn wide enough to require many stitches, while Bud smoked a cigar with her father in the waiting room.
When everyone was cleaned up, put back together, the nurse laid William Jr. on her breast. “A healthy boy.”
“A boy,” Carole repeated. His head was crowned in blue veins and was oddly shaped. Carole felt herself falling asleep and handed him off. She dreamed of a tall man in a dark coat—he stepped in close and pulled back the lapel to show her that his body was made of misshapen baby skulls.
Bud went back to work almost immediately and Carole found that the days she spent alone with William Jr. were long, somehow dark even in the full light of day. He cried in a way that made time stop; Carole would rock him, bounce him, try over and over again to give him his bottle, and he would turn his head away and squawk. When William Jr. cried, her breasts would ache and then leak, right through her blouse, and then she would cry as she cleaned herself up, wishing that her body would stop, just stop, and go back to being the body that she was familiar with.
Sometimes, when William Jr. cried, Carole would shut herself in one of the closets and smoke cigarettes in the dark.
And then Bud would get home, just in time to see Carole’s freshly washed face, makeup reapplied, dinner on the table, and William Jr. in a new diaper. All traces of the day’s darkness scattered. After supper, Bud sometimes would put on a Chuck Berry album and bop around the room with William Jr. in his arms. The music was loud and Carole would watch them from the kitchen sink, her legs and arms aching. She stepped into the living room and said, “Sometimes when I look at his face, I get scared because I don’t feel anything.”
Bud looked up, hadn’t heard her enter the room. “What?” he said over the music.
“Nothing.” Carole went back to the dishes.
Her body took a long time to heal after giving birth. Carole was surprised to find that Bud was not as disgusted with her new shape as she was; in fact, he seemed invigorated by it. He would come to her, ready, over the laundry and take her against the dryer. He would climb onto her in the middle of the night, startling her awake. After, she would slip out into the kitchen for a glass of water. In the stillness of the night, a half-memory of a man with a hook would come to her and she could imagine him waiting for her just around the bend in the hallway. “Hello?” A whisper. Be quiet or he will find you—a voice in her head—and she would say, “Are you there?”
William Jr. had just started constructing words into loose sentences when Carole took a bite of tomato casserole and then threw up into her napkin. They stared at each other in shock—Bud unmoving and pale while waves of nausea pinned her to her chair.
They would need a bigger house for another baby and so they moved, into a ranch-style, a little bit closer to her parents, who were excited to get to help out with their grandchildren. When she had realized she was pregnant, Carole worried that she wouldn’t make it through again—but somehow the entire fog lifted. There was something different that time—maybe it was the change of location, maybe it was experiencing this pregnancy through William Jr.’s excitement, when he put his ear against her stomach and listened for the baby. Her instinct finally kicked in, chased away the darkness, and she felt herself responding to the children, both William Jr. and the one inside of her.
When little John came, it was faster than his brother—so fast, in fact, that he hadn’t had time to straighten out. He was transverse and they had to go through her to get to him. A body heals but Carole knew hers would never be quite the same, not after having been torn through twice; the C-section scar would always be a reminder of that. Even so, with Johnny, there was none of the depression afterward. There was a dependable lightness, happiness, really, a routine, but always marked with exhaustion.
Carole felt that tiredness so sharply one Sunday, after the church spring potluck, when William Jr. was five and Johnny was three and Bud carried them both, sleeping, on each hip. He had lost the baby fat over the years, cut a nice figure in a suit—but he never seemed to be quite as tired as she always was. “I’ll go lay them down,” he said and disappeared down the hallway.
“Their faces need to be cleaned off,” Carole called after him. Both of the boys had the remains of chocolate cake streaked across their cheeks. Bud reappeared in the doorway and Carole realized he was waiting for her to get a washcloth, hadn’t considered that he could take that task on himself. But then there was a knock at the front door. “Do you think you can handle that? So I can get the door?” A bit of venom in her voice.
It was Mrs. Wallace, still in her church best from the potluck, holding out a cleaned dish in her gloved hands. “Casserole Carole strikes again,” she said. “That dessert was obviously a hit. I barely had to scrub the dish.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Wallace.” Carole took the dish from her.
“Everything you make is positively gourmet. I don’t know where you find the time.”
“It was mostly just canned fruit, Mrs. Wallace. No time at all, really.” She didn’t make any move to turn around and head back up the walk. All Carole wanted to do was close the door, kick off her heels and sit down. She didn’t want to be rude and not invite the pastor’s wife in, but she just couldn’t make herself say the words.
“Do you have coffee?” Mrs. Wallace did not seem to be weighing the same concerns.
“Oh, sure.” Carole stepped aside.
Mrs. Wallace followed Carole to the kitchen, commenting on everything she saw. “Is that a new rug? … The boys look so handsome in their Christmas pictures … Look what you’ve done with that China cabinet …”
Carole set down the casserole dish, pulled the tin of Nescafé out of the cabinet. “Where are the boys?” Mrs. Wallace asked.
“Oh, Bud was putting them down. They were just tuckered. You know, so much excitement for one day.”
“I’ll bet.” Mrs. Wallace sat down at the table, absently picked up a piece of mail and looked at the return to sender, placed it back. “Are you going to have any more?”
Carole was taken aback by Mrs. Wallace. She kept measuring the coffee out. “You know, I don’t know. It’s not something we—I don’t know. Um. You know. Maybe not. Two is just such a good number, I think, and—”
“Well, I’m sure it’s not my place, but Reverend was telling me that Bud was talking to him about it and he really thinks Bud wants a little girl.” Mrs. Wallace was tugging each of the gloves off her thick fingers, settling in. “Not that he’d just come out and say so. You know how men are. But it’s really kind of cute, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Mrs. Wallace,” Carole said. “Cute.” Just the talk of it rekindled the phantom pain low in her stomach, made the healed incision across her abdomen feel tight, as though the rest of her skin were pulling away from the puckered roughness of the scar. There was an uncomfortable heat in her groin. “You know, I always kind of thought I would be a veterinarian.”
Mrs. Wallace was quiet a moment. “A veterinarian? Like a doctor?”
“Yes, Mrs. Wallace. The very same.”
“Well, Carole, I’ve known you since you were a little girl and I just did not know that.”
“No one ever asked.” Carole flattened her hands against the apron of her dress, ran her palms over the stomach and felt the stretch of fabric there over the slight bulge. No one knew yet. She hadn’t mentioned it to Bud, not her mother—had barely acknowledged it herself. But she could tell, could feel it in the tightness of her clothes, the way her gorge raised at the smell of tomatoes. She was putting off thinking about it, having to go through it all again.
Carole thought of the man over in Jackson that Liesl knew about; he could take care of this for her for one hundred dollars in cash. She realized she had subconsciously been thinking of nothing else for a week. She would make Liesl take her; she would lie and say she was going to a Women’s Leadership overnight and then when she got back, it would not be an issue. No one else would know. Yes. She knew right then that the decision had been made.
There was a loud knock at the door that led from the kitchen into the backyard—a slam, really, hard enough to shake the door in the frame. Another impact and bits of wood slivers clattered across the linoleum. One more, and a ragged hole appeared in the door, around a large hook.
“What in the world?” Mrs. Wallace stood up fast enough to knock her chair over. Bud hollered from the other side of the house.
A hand reached through the hole and unlocked the door. A tall man in a long dark coat stepped into the kitchen. He had a hook for a hand and he swung it—swung it, swung it, swung it—until everything in Carole’s pristine kitchen, the freshly cleaned casserole dish, the coffee cups, even Mrs. Wallace, was covered in red. Mrs. Wallace wailed.
Little Richard screamed “Tutti Frutti” over the radio. Outside the Chevrolet, fireflies eddied lazily in the thick summer air. “You’re so beautiful,” Bud said as he went in for the kiss. Carole didn’t react as his lips worked against hers. She was processing it all, the summer night, her unblemished teenage body, all against the fading daydream of church socials, scars, martini glasses.
“No.” From Carole, a moan.
Little Richard was cut off, mid “awop-bop” as a man’s voice began speaking. “This is a breaking news bulletin—”
Bud punched the radio off. “What do you mean ‘no’? Boy, you can be real hot and cold sometimes, you know that? It’s just a kiss!”
Bud leaned back in, his mouth open. Carole threw her hands over her face. “No!” she screamed, a chorus joined by the tinkling of broken glass. The flat side of a hook glanced off her temple, and she thought distantly of the meteor that had crashed into the earth and left the lake they were parked beside. The hook caught her in the shoulder, just moments before the world went dark.
Bud’s hand was on Carole’s shoulder. “You are so beautiful.”
“Wait,” she said, “stop. We’ve been here before.”
He laughed. “No, we haven’t. Not here. I mean, gee, Carole, have you been parking up here with one of your other boyfriends?”
She looked out the window, scanned their surroundings. “Shut up. I mean that this has all happened before. The crickets, the radio, yeah, yeah, yeah—it’s all the same. I’m so beautiful. The fireflies. The gosh-all fireflies. It’s not just déjà vu.”
“It’s French, Bud.”
“What has gotten into you tonight? Carole, you’re acting really weird.”
“Turn on the lights, Bud!”
“The lights! The lights! Turn on your goddamn headlights!”
“Okay, okay!” Bud flicked on the low beams and they stared out over the waters of Lovers’ Lane. There, between the front of the Chevy and the edge of the water was a tall man in a hat and coat. He raised one hand in the light, flashed a hook at them.
“It’s him!” Carole leaned forward against the dash, a snarl spilling over her lips. “It’s the escaped mental patient!”
“Who? What are you talking about? Who is that guy?” Bud’s voice was broken, reedy.
Carole screamed, shifted her weight against Bud’s and slammed her foot on the gas pedal. The tires spun, throwing sand and gravel into the air. She took the wheel with one hand, wrenched the shifter into gear and the car lurched forward. The Chevy closed the gap in a flash, bounced once against the uneven sand, and then connected with the man with the hook for a hand. His head bounced against the windshield, left a bloody smear across the glass. He flailed both arms, tried to find purchase, reached around with one long arm and leveraged the hook against the driver’s side door handle. Carole hit the brake and he was torn back, his body flung free of the hood of the Chevy. He landed hard on his neck, skipped across the sand a few more times, and came to rest, broken, twisted, in the shallows. The hook had ripped entirely free of the arm it was attached to; it still looped over the door handle and clanged in the breeze.
Michael Cole teaches literature at Wichita State University, where he offers courses in Horror and the Supernatural, as well as Literary Representations of LGBTQ+ Culture. Michael has an MA in English Literature and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing. Michael was one of the co-authors of the graphic novel The Cardboard Kingdom, which was published by Knopf in June 2018. He currently lives in Wichita, Kansas, with his three dogs: Halloween, Atlas, and Benedict.