Dr. Benjamin Morton knew his place. Birchwood is a small town. Small towns are different, slower. He grew up in Birchwood and over the last 40 years he had called his solo practice in the heart of the three-block downtown square home. As a doctor in a small town, Benjamin, Benji to friends and drinking buddies, found it quite simplistic compared to his early training of fast paced ERs and intubations. He remembered he would have to get a new set of scrubs every week because the previous ones had been irreparably soiled by some sort of human substance. He hated the long nights and the nightmares. That’s the thing they never told him about was the nightmares. He would sleep and dream of screams and moans of agony. He would see himself surrounded by blood and the face of 7-year-old Courtney Platt, the only child to ever die during his shift. Forty years later and he still saw her face some nights. He would wake up a sweaty mess, his breath escaping him. His wife Daryl would console him as best she could and he loved her for it. It helped every now and again but ghosts are never easy to get rid of. His truest fear was that he was looking at another would-be ghost. Benji remembered treating her as a child; never anything more than a bump here or a cold there. In the last few years, however, he saw her much too frequently.
It started off simple and explainable. He walked into the small room with furniture that had been there since the 80s (if it ain’t broke…). The overhead lights gave the just over five foot woman in front of him a gaunt look. Cassie said it was a busted lip, the result of a bad fall. It happens. Hell, Benji took a spill not but a few days beforehand. He patched her up, just a few stitches, and sent her home with a watermelon blow pop (her favorite). Cassie Lincoln had always been a good kid. She was small but wiry. She always walked in with a smile when she was younger, her round face offset by vibrant blonde hair which was contrasted by deep, rich brown eyes. We all grow older. Sometimes that vibrance found in childhood dims but now, 20 years and some change later, that light was much too dim.
The next time Benji saw Cassie Lincoln, it was on the way to the post office about ten years ago. He had to mail Daryl’s subscription magazine in before she missed her monthly gossip rag. “I guess everyone has their vice,” he would often think to himself, though he didn’t mind teasing her pretty good about it often. He was shoving the envelopes into the mailbox outside the old brick post office just a few blocks from his office when a flash of blonde hair caught his attention. Cassie walked around the corner in a pink paisley patterned dress. Her hair gently blowing in the warm summer breeze and too large sunglasses that nearly covered her face.
“Cassie Lincoln, how in the heck are ya,” Benji waved her down.
Cassie stopped and smiled. She walked down to meet Benji half way between the post office and the street curb where the mailbox perched.
“Heya, Doc. What ch’u doin’ out and about today?” Cassie asked with a half grin.
“Just mailing things and keepin’ busy on my day off. Hell, with the new urgent care down the way, don’t nobody want to come see me no more,” Benji lamented.
Too many years of being important to so many and now too many months of feeling important to nobody. He supposed that was just getting old. Nobody wanted an old man with barely-there hair up top as a doctor anymore.
“Damn shame, really”, he would often say to himself. “Damn, damn shame.”
“Ain’t that a good thing?” Cassie cocked her head just slightly, her grin grew.
“Hell, I guess you’re right.” Benji said rubbing his head with his right hand. It was a nervous tick he developed some years ago when he was at a loss for words.
“I still come and see ya, Doc. When I need to, that is.”
“Course you do. I much appreciate that.” Maybe it was her grin or her hair. Maybe it was the dress. He didn’t know what it was but, for the first time, he realized that Cassie Lincoln was a right beautiful woman.
A car backfired behind her making her jump and turn the other way. She threw her hand over her heart and let out a stifled laugh.
“Jesus H., that ‘bout nearly gave me a heart attack,” Cassie laugh. As she laughed, her glasses slid down just a bit. Not much but just enough that Benji could see the outer purple and black edges of a black eye. His smile he had worn the entire encounter began to fade.
“You fall again, Cassie?” Benji asked to the sky above.
“I don’t know what you mean, Doc.” Cassie said.
Benji tapped his right eye softly. Cassie pushed her glasses further up her nose and straightened her body. Benji couldn’t help but think she looked like a bird about ready to take off.
“I suppose I did fall,” she said.
“I suppose you did. But, if you didn’t, if someone gave you that there shiner, you would tell me, wouldn’t you Cassie?” Benji said to the ground.
“I suppose I would,” Cassie said.
Though he couldn’t see her eyes through the deep, black sunglasses, he knew they weren’t looking at him.
“Well, you tell your momma I said ‘hi’, won’t ya?” Benji said as his smile faded back into place half-heartedly.
“I will, Doctor.” Cassie said.
Benji began walking the six blocks back home down Beech street when small, calloused fingers gripped his arm. He turned to see his reflection in two large lenses surrounded by glowing blond hair.
“I think I’m pregnant,” Cassie whispered. A look of terror shown on her face behind her glasses.
“You think? Why do you ‘think?’”
“ I been moody like crazy and Ashley Rose says my boobs got bigger,” Cassie said.
“Well, I suppose I will take your word on that. Anything else?”Benji asked.
“I got morning sickness and I’m tired all the time.”
Benji stroked his chin, “Why don’t you come to the office tomorrow and we will get you looked at. In the meantime, get yourself a pregnancy-“
“He’ll kill me, Doc. He’ll kill me,” Cassie’s grip tightened around his arm.
“That’s what I thought. Why didn’t you tell me? We can call Sheriff Dwight and have him take care of it,” Benji said as he gently laid his hand over hers.
“And then what?” Cassie laughed. “He gets out and beats me worse?”
“Well, I don’t know, but the eye and now I’m guessing the busted lip. Where does it stop?”
Cassie’s face slowly drifted into a mask of placid resolve. Her grip loosened from around his arm and she stepped back. Cassie sniffed back tears.
“I suppose I will make an appointment with you about the other thing tomorrow,” Cassie said.
“I suppose so,” Benji said as he put his hands on his hips. “Unless you want to – “
“Until then, Doctor,” Cassie glided away from him.
As it turned out, Cassie was pregnant. Her frequent visits with ailments incurred during falls ceased and were replaced by happier visits to hear heartbeats and have regular check-ups. Benji watched as the life inside Cassie grew over time. He thought the “falls” had stopped once Cassie got pregnant.
“Sometimes creating a life brings a man to his senses,” Benji thought.
Eight months and 23 days after their encounter, Cassie gave birth to Dahlia Ray Lincoln. Benji couldn’t help but notice the jet black hair that contrasted the greenest eyes he had ever seen. Emeralds inset in the alabaster skin of the life he had just helped bring into this world. He had delivered many babies before but there was something special in Dahlia Ray. Something he couldn’t put his finger on until he handed her back to her mother. It was hope for Cassie to live a better life. No more “falls.” No more pain. Just a woman with a good husband and a beautiful daughter.
Benji looked into those dark brown eyes before him now, nearly ten years later. Those eyes were filled with tears as he set her arm in place and began to wrap it. Her pained gaze averted him at all costs.
“Broke your arm this time,” Benji said flatly.
“Yessir,” She said through a grimace.
“Broke your rib not but three months ago, Cassie,” He tightened the knot to the sling that crossed her body from her left arm to her right shoulder.
“Yeah, you know how it is living out in the country. Accidents will happen,” Cassie said as she adjusted her arm which was barely visible beneath the cast.
“Does this accident happen to be about 5’10”, have black hair, and likes to drink a bit much?” he asked.
Cassie’s eyes flicked from the ground to the doctor’s eyes. Benji didn’t recognize it as a look of sadness or yearning or need; it was a look of contempt. A look of hate. He took a step back and dropped his eyes from her gaze. He heard her make a small sound deep in her throat. He thought it may have been the beginning of a cry that seemed to have been silenced early.
“The one thing I hate most about this town are all the busy bodies. It’s like everyone in this town needs to know what you ate every time you fart. How’s your wife, Doctor? Y’all still in love? Y’all still fuckin’?” Cassie’s stare burned into the doctor’s eyes.
“Come on now, Cassie, I just – “ Cassie cut the doctor off.
“I hear old people don’t have sex so much even though they get horny. They just kinda lose interest. You lost interest doctor?”
“That’s enough, damnit,” The doctor said in a voice that was louder than he anticipated.
“Don’t feel so good when people get into places they shouldn’t be, does it?” Cassie stood up adjusting her sling with a grimace of pain. “Am I good to go?”
“I want to help you. I do. How can I help you? You won’t let me call nobody. You won’t let me say anything. Let me help you. If not for you, at least for the little girl that’s waiting on you out front,” Benji pleaded.
Cassie wiped tears from her eyes, let out a shaky breath and smiled at Benji.
“Well, I suppose you could hold the door for me,” she said with a smile.
Benji gave up in that moment. He tried to help her for years but now he was old and tired. He was tired of waiting for her to ask for help or even to accept it. The worry and fear he felt for her over the years that took place during dinners and late at night when he couldn’t sleep slipped away and morphed into resolve. He realized even though her brown eyes were looking into his, even though her cheeks were rosy, even though her chest rose and fell, even though this woman in front of him was seemingly alive, she was dead.
Benji held the door for Cassie as she glided through. He followed her to the waiting room where a raven haired little girl traced a maze she had traced many times before. Dahlia Ray looked up and smiled at Benji.
“How you doin’, beautiful?” Benji asked.
“I’d be doing a lot better if you got some new magazines,” Dahlia Ray smirked.
“Well, listen to her,” Benji said to the receptionist sitting at the desk to his left. “She doesn’t like our magazine choices, Harriet.”
“Yes, I heard. She may have a point, Benji,” Receptionist Harriet said with wide brown eyes nested behind coke bottle glasses.
“I’m not sayin’ but I’m just sayin’,” Dahlia Ray said.
“Alright, hon’ let’s get going before your daddy gets home. Gotta get dinner started,” Cassie said.
Benji couldn’t help but notice the immediacy of Dahlia Ray when her mother said this. Something ingrained in the words. Dahlia Ray went from being a 9-year-old complaining about old magazines to a creature that seemed like they sensed danger. It reminded Benji of when a storm would roll in and how cattle would act preparing for the fallout.
Cassie hurried Dahlia Ray out the door and Benji let out a long sigh.
“Bless her heart,” Harriet said looking back towards the computer in front of her.
“Damn shame,” Benji said.
Dahlia Ray sat in the middle seat of her parents’ rusty 1994 Ford Aerostar. Her mother turned on that old person radio station with old person music that came out years and years before she was born. The sound of the gravel road popped beneath the van, making metallic clunks each time one hit just right. She looked up at the rearview mirror to see her mother’s eyes looking full of sadness and a bit of fear. Her mother’s eyes looked down at the digital clock in the dashboard and then back at the road. The green rust bucket accelerated faster.
Dahlia Ray watched as the green grass turned into green and yellow corn stalks which became a smear at the speed they were going. She would often think of the stories her mother told her about what creatures prance and dance and talk in the surrounding woods. She and her mom didn’t have too much in common. Her looks were that of her father and her personality was much quieter than either one of them. She attributed her personality to the characters in the stories her mother made up. She gathered her gumption from the tales of the swashbuckling squirrel who lived by the river just a bit south of their house. She got her smarts from the owl who lived in the tree behind the house. She got her humor from the dog who lived on the farm about a quarter mile down the way. Her mother gave them stories and voices. They were her friends. They were her sanctuary. They were what came to mind those nights when whispers turned to yells which turned to screams which turned to flesh thumping flesh. She knew what was happening wasn’t right. Her mother would often say it was a coward who hit women but still she stayed. Her mother was always her protector even if survival was all they had in common.
“Jesus H. Christ,” her mother said as she slowed the van to a crawl.
Dahlia Ray craned her neck around the back of her mother’s seat. She saw her father standing at the bottom step of their white-with-blue-shutters farmhouse stairs. He crossed his arms and looked up the staircase at two police officers who were laughing. Her mother brought the van to a stop and hopped out of the car. The only sound she made was the slamming of the door behind her. Dahlia Ray unbuckled herself and slid open the dungeon-size door of the van. The first thing she heard were the muted laughs of the two men. She climbed out and walked to her mother’s side.
“Well, look at y’all having a fun time,” Cassie said.
“Your fella here was just telling us what goes on down at the mill,” Sheriff Dwight, a round, squat man who would sweat through a quilt in 50 degree weather said.
“Kinda stuff to make a whore blush,” Deputy Relsy laughed. Sheriff Dwight elbowed him in the side.
“The little un’, George,” Sheriff Dwight whispered and gestured to Dahlia Ray.
“Truth is, Mrs. Lincoln, we got a call that maybe you two was having some marital problems. You know we take domestic violence very serious here in Cass County,” Sheriff Dwight said.
“Damn serious,” Deputy Relsy said looking Mr. Lincoln up and down.
“You think my Tom is hurting me?” Cassie asked with just enough fervor that the men believed her.
Sheriff Dwight gave a shrug that signaled ‘maybe’.
“Hell, boys, I wouldn’t even hurt a fly. You know me. Sheriff, you knew me since I was a boy. I love my wife,” Tom said.
“I know, Tom. We gotta look into every claim, though. Dot Ts and cross Is, if you will,” Sheriff Dwight said.
“I guess I will,” Tom smiled.
“Darlin’, what in Sam Hell did you do to your arm?” Deputy Relsy asked. He looked back and forth between Tom and Cassie.
“Poor thing fell off a ladder out back in the barn. I was in the house and came out after I heard her holler. Found her lying on the ground with an arm that looked like a spaghetti noodle. Ain’t that right?” Tom said. His gaze moved to Cassie. His dark eyes were hard and lifeless. The smile he had seemed more like a snarl than a genuine smile.
“I got this thing with heights,” Cassie said.” Oh shoot, what did Doc. Morton call it…”
“Vertigo?” Sheriff Dwight asked.
“Yes! I got the vertigo and it makes me damn clumsy,” Cassie said.
“My mother-in-law had it too. I never did like that old bat but to see her stumbling around so much towards the end just wasn’t right,” Sheriff Dwight lamented. “Well, it’s about supper time. We will get out of your folks’ hair. Hope we didn’t cause y’all any trouble.”
“No trouble at all, Sheriff. I’m gonna hold you to that beer you promised me a few minutes ago,” Tom yelled after the two men who were getting into the old tan bronco with ‘SHERIFF’ written on the side. Deputy Relsy never took his eyes off Tom, even as he backed the SUV down the long gravel drive.
“Yeah, keep waiting. You can pick some ice off the ground for your drink when Hell freezes over,” the sheriff laughed out the window.
The SUV disappeared around a bend in the driveway.
“Get your ass in the house,” Tom said to Cassie. His eyes pierced darts into hers.
Tom shoved the both of them towards the house.
Dahlia Ray stumbled in after her father’s large hand shoved her in the middle of the back again. The house was silent except for the ticking clock in the front room. The house had never changed since she could remember and probably before that. It had always been hardwood floors, porcelain sinks, and dark wood-paneled walls. “Probably always would be”, Dahlia Ray thought.
“Who in the hell you been running to, Cassie?” Tom growled.
“Nobody. I haven’t been talking to nobody,” Cassie said pleadingly.
“Then why was the sheriff on my front porch asking me about my business?”
“I don’t know but it wasn’t my fault, I swear.”
“You saying it was my fault?”
“But it ain’t your fault?”
“One of us is a lyin’ piece of shit and it ain’t me.”
“This whole damn town is just a bunch of busy-bodies. You know that.”
“You want me to go to jail?” Tom closed the distance to Cassie. His face mere inches from her own.
“Of course not,” Cassie said. Her eyes glistened with tears ready to fall.
“That’s right, girl. You know you couldn’t make it without me. Who would want a worthless, lyin’ hag like you who’s all used up? Remember that,” Tom said. He took a single step back.
“I love you, Tom. You know that,” Cassie said through a stifled cry. “I’d never leave you.”
“Good. That’s real good,” Tom replied.
With that, he raised a clenched fist and brought it down on Cassie’s back. She crumbled to the floor with a thud. Dahlia Ray took a step back in awe of the violence in front of her. She backed away as her father kicked and punched her mother. A kick to the stomach, a punch to the thigh, then the back, then the shoulder. Her mother screamed in agony. Her father screamed obscenities at her mother; things she had never heard of but said with so much hate she knew it was meant to wound the mind just as much as the kicks and punches wounded the crumbled body before her.
It wasn’t a planned thing. She didn’t even notice what she was doing until the heavy antique vase was firmly in her right hand. Dahlia Ray felt nothing for the man in front of her except hate. She wanted him to hurt. To bleed as her mother bled on the floor. How many times had she had to clean up sticky, dark old blood off the hardwood floor when her mother was too sore to do it herself?
Dahlia Ray raised the vase above her head with both hands.
“Leave my momma alone!” Dahlia Ray exclaimed.
Her father paused, winded from the exertion.
“Who the hell are you talkin’ to like that, you little bi–”
Tom’s words were cut short as the heavy vase launched from his daughter’s hands and smashed over his head.
Dahlia Ray saw her father take two massive steps backward. He was silent and looked confused. He fell to his hands and knees. Blood trickled from the crown of his head, down his tan forehead, and into both eyes. Her father furiously began wiping blood from his eyes.
Dahlia Ray was stunned as her father, the monster she lived with, panted and whined as he struggled to see. Her mother drowsily said something she couldn’t hear. Dahlia Ray inched closer and her mother tried to speak again but it was still just low enough Dahlia Ray couldn’t understand.
“I can’t hear what you’re sayin’, momma,” Dahlia Ray said as she got closer.
Her mother reached out and grabbed her pant leg.
“Run!” Her mother exclaimed.
Dahlia Ray turned to see her father leaning against the wall. His face contorted into hate.
“Goddamn you. Goddamn you,” her father said as he lurched towards her.
Dahlia Ray backed slowly towards the front door, her father growing closer. Her father suddenly tripped and landed face down on the floor. Dahlia Ray saw her mother’s pained face looking at her as she yelled for her to run once again, her mother’s hands wrapped around her father’s right ankle. She listened to her mother this time. Dahlia Ray turned and burst through the creaky front door and down the old steps to the ground. The world seemed bigger and emptier than she had ever known it. Where should she go? Who could help her? She realized that just a few miles west of them was the Myers’s. They would help for sure but she couldn’t take the road. Her father would catch her on the road. To get there, she had to cross the cornfield. Her father yelled at her to never go through the cornfield because she could damage the stalks of corn and “I ain’t paying for you to be a dumbass and ruin some poor shit’s crop.”
“Dahlia Ray! You get your ass back here, girl!” Her father yelled from the dark entryway.
She moved faster than she thought herself capable of as she ran towards the cornfield. The stalks swayed in the August wind in front of her. They were flowing protectors from the monster behind her. She shoved her way through the corn and ran deeper into the rows. The leaves cut her hands and face as she continued her painful marathon. Her lungs felt like needles were poking them with every breath as she slowed to a walk. Her breath was fast and erratic at first but slowed. She was surrounded by green flowing giants around her, blocking parts of the warm sun rays overhead. She heard her father yell again but this time much more distant than before. She moved forward, pushing her way carefully through the stalks. Her wounds stung on her face and hands. She wanted to rest, to lie down, but her mother needed her help. She couldn’t rest, not until her father was in jail with all of the other bad people.
Light poured in from in front of her. She pushed past more stalks until she came into a small clearing. An oasis in the middle of a sea of sharp plants and, somewhere in the green sea around her, an animal wanted her dead. Her eyes adjusted to the light around her. It was once they adjusted that she saw a large man in front of her. She gasped and her legs gave out. She fell to her backside and began crawling away. She stopped. She realized the man in front of her was no ordinary man nor a man at all. He was strung up to a massive wooden T. He had tattered overalls that looked like they had been through storms and hail and snow. He had a long sleeve blue and white flannel shirt. Gloves covered his hands. Straw poked out from his wrists and along his neckline. His body was lumpy from being overstuffed by straw. His innards also lay surrounding him on the ground. It was his face that scared her. An old burlap sack was used for a head with rope around the neck like a macabre necktie. He once had a smile, two blue eyes, rosy cheeks, and a red nose but years in the field left them faded so only a semblance of the color was left. In their place was the lightly colored, frayed eye sockets and slightly yawning scream of a mouth, only threads held the lower jaw in place.
Crows cawed around Dahlia Ray and the scarecrow. Wind blew lightly around her. If it hadn’t been for the past few minutes, it might have been a nice day. She turned her gaze away from the scarecrow in front of her. She looked at the hay on the ground and saw the swirls laying about. It seemed like there may have been a pattern as they darted towards the corn in different directions but they all led to one origin: the scarecrow. Of course this thing couldn’t be alive. It’s silly. White-Tailed Deer often run through this area. It was probably just game trails. Plus, the real threat was out there in the corn. It was coming for her and it was mad. Dahlia Ray wondered what Cornelius the Swashbuckling Squirrel would do. He would probably gather up his friends and band together to take down the big bad whatever they encountered.
“If only it were that easy,” she thought. If only she had friends.
“Who are you?” said a slightly high pitched voice from behind her.
Dahlia Ray slowly turned to see the scarecrow’s vacant sockets pointed at her. Its head slightly tilted.
“Impossible,” Dahlia Ray said definitively.
The scarecrow didn’t move.
Dahlia Ray turned back around listening for her father.
“Fine. Don’t tell me. I don’t care anyway,” said the same high pitched voice from behind her.
Dahlia Ray quickly turned around and looked back up at the scarecrow who was now looking off into the distance.
“Are you talking to me?” Dahlia Ray asked.
It was quiet for a moment. The corn still swayed, the air still blew, but the scarecrow wasn’t still this time. It whipped its head towards her so fast it made her jump.
“Well, of course. It’s just us out here, isn’t it?” the scarecrow giggled. She thought his laugh was a bit too close to Goofy and his voice a bit grittier than Mickey’s.
“How can you be alive? You aren’t real,” Dahlia Ray looked him up and down as his head tracked her.
“I’m as real as you. As real as anyone,” he said. Dahlia Ray slowly walked around him. His head followed her even as she went behind his back making a shuffling, cracking sound until she came back to the front of him.
“How? How can you be alive?” She asked.
“Same as you, I suppose. Say, what are you doing out here? I don’t get many visitors these days. Heck, not until the old man stores me for winter. Even then it’s just mice and cats until spring when they drag me out again,” the scarecrow hung his head.
“My daddy. He did something bad to my mom and I think he wants to hurt me,” she said.
“Goodness. That sounds like a terrible situation. Are you okay?” the scarecrow asked with a squeak.
“I’m okay, but if he finds me, he will…I don’t know what he will do,” she said.
“That’s terrible. Well, how’s about you help me and I’ll help you. Sounds like a deal?”
“I don’t think so. I don’t even know who or what you are.”
The scarecrow smiled, making a short ripping sound from the stress on the burlap.
“Well, that’s an easy fix, ain’t it. I’m Sam. No last name, thank you. I’ve been hanging around here for a long time,” Sam said as he shook his lashed limbs. “Say, I don’t know you. What’s your name?”
“Now that’s a good name! I wish I had a fun name like that. Maybe John or Steve or Puddin’ Pie!”
Dahlia Ray couldn’t help but laugh at Sam’s squeaky voice when he said Puddin’ Pie.
“I like the last one,” she said.
“Me too, kiddo,” Sam said nodding his head.
“Why are you up there? Why can’t you just get down?”
“Well, that’s a long story but it just has to be special. I have to be around special people to come to life. It’s like magic!”
“Because of me?”
“Yes!” Sam giggled. “You came here and brought me to life. You must be magic. Those meanies over there tied me up. Can you believe that? The NOIVE! Why don’t you cut me down and I will help you get away from your pop.”
“I want to hear more about your story.”
“You don’t trust me, huh?” Sam asked.
Dahlia Ray shook her head “no”. Sam ducked his head for a moment. His sack face made a sort of rumpled grimace. His head shot back up with a smile.
“It seems like you like stories, am I right?” Sam asked giddily.
“I love stories!” Dahlia Ray said much louder than she meant.
“Well, I love telling them. I got quite a few, too. How about this: I got ten lashings here holding me up. For each story I tell, you undo a lashing. After that, I’m sure we will be best friends. I can be down and we can tell your dad to buzz off. Deal?”
Dahlia Ray thought a moment. She knew it wasn’t the best decision and she knew she may actually be going crazy but one word echoed through her head: friend. She reached over and tugged at the lashing around his right knee until it fell away.
“Ahh, that feels a bit better,” Sam said.
Dahlia Ray sat down in the pile of hay at Sam’s feet and waited. Her green eyes looking up into the darkened sockets of burlap overhead.
“This first story is called ‘Meat’.”