There were stories about him.
It was impossible to be acquainted with them all—there were so many. Stories spread well and fast throughout towns like this one. His were now legends, told time and again, particularly during stormy days, or windy nights. His name had been long ago forgotten, replaced by a single word. Villain.
Only a few remembered where the stories had started, and now the townsfolk refused to let them end. They had nothing else to talk about.
The elders loved to rock away on their porches, their hearts heavy with hatred, their tongues loosened by spite. They found comfort in blaming him for their troubles, spending hours at a time reminiscing on what “should’ve been.”
While the world had evolved, welcoming the latest technology and revolutionary ideas, this town had not. The years had introduced them to loss rather than computers, and the townsfolk were too stubborn to embrace the new, choosing instead to live in the old. With regret. With hate. With anger.
All the new millennium had changed was a number. This town knew no youth. No modern people. There were few births in town, only a handful a year, and even the children wore the same somber expressions of the older folks. Hope had died years ago. Now, no one expected the town to become the blooming, bustling place it had reportedly been before.
The mines had been deserted for years. Production had ceased one well-remembered “Gray Sunday,” when the town awoke to despair. Fire. Death and chaos. Not a single diamond had been found since then. The town had shriveled as quickly as a flower crushed in someone’s fist, and what had once shone brilliant had been dimmed by shadows.
They said it was his fault. He who stole the smiles from the children and the color from the skies. The townsfolk knew it was the Villain’s doing. He’d taken their lives, taken their diamonds, and left their hearts empty. Their caves empty.
“It’ll be thirty years come next month,” Mrs. Grimwald said that morning at the local grocer, “and all because of that man.”
Stella McKenna had been eyeing the string beans, but as soon as she heard “that man” mentioned and spotted Mrs. Grimwald near the fresh fruit, she felt suddenly famished for strawberries and quickly hauled herself and her basket around the corner and there.
At thirty, Stella was one of the few young people living in this town. She wasn’t known to be outspoken, but she was a good listener, especially when it came to him. She’d once believed she knew every single story about him, and yet she was frequently surprised to find there were more. Stories she hadn’t heard of, or old ones with delightfully morbid new twists from someone more knowledgeable than the last teller.
In a half circle beside Stella, eyeing the oranges in disdain, Mrs. Pierce stood shoulder to shoulder with Mrs. Grimwald, both of their attire bleak and dreary with all that black velvet and lace, their silver-gray coifs nearly identical. The clothing shop around the corner seemed to favor that mourning style, and now most everyone wore it like a fashion statement—proudly showing their grief for their dying town. Fashion and gossip magazines had no place in this town, where even the daily paper rarely arrived. This town owned nothing but long, sad memories and depression.
Mrs. Pierce was pursing her lips, her face furrowed like a prune. When she spoke, she nearly spat. “One cannot even die in this town in peace anymore. Imagine one’s body being stolen like he did with that Harrison girl!”
Stella had heard that one before. It was in fact one of the most famous, and the one which most affected her. She felt a familiar constriction in her lungs, and her head began to spin, but she refused to faint like she had the last time she’d heard it. She concentrated on breathing, but her body felt hot, and her world began to tilt.
“He bewitched her, he did, and this town has been cursed since he—”
“Ladies!” Mr. Richter bellowed from behind the counter, slamming a fist down in emphasis. “I will not have talk of that…that man in my store!”
“Why, Mr. Richter,” Mrs. Grimwald said, puffing her chest up in outrage, but she fell into silence when Stella’s basket crashed onto the floor, its contents spilling over.
Stella’s body was trembling, and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t temper her shallow breathing.
“Why, Stella dear,” said Mrs. Pierce, “you look something pale. Are you all right?”
“Excuse me,” Stella managed shakily. She turned her widened eyes to Mr. Richter and whispered under her breath, “I’m sorry,” before she stumbled toward the glass door, pulled it open with a clumsy arm, and ran. Out of the store. Down the streets with its craggy old buildings and slow traffic. Past the “For Lease” posters and glaring “Gone Out of Business” signs. Away from the talk, away from the people, and away from the images gnawing at the edge of her mind, demanding entrance.
She couldn’t outrun those dark, tormenting thoughts, but she always tried.
They came in flashes, in unexpected moments, tumbling one against the other. Some were old, some new, but all of them as vivid as if they’d happened yesterday, as if she’d lived them in the flesh.
But she hadn’t. Couldn’t have.
Those visions weren’t hers. Those were not her thoughts, and not of her own making. How could they be? She was an optimist at heart, and only a masochist would have a mind to relive those phantom visions over and over again…
Only recently had Stella begun to suspect to whom those thoughts belonged.
As if with a mind of their own, her feet took her there in long, hurried strides. To the lonely cemetery, with its thin and crooked trees, bare of all leaves this time of year. The sun had begun its descent, the light waning to a muted red, filtering through the clouds and stroking the graves like the flames of a burning fire.
She had been here before. Something never failed to call to her. Perhaps curiosity about the stories so often told, or something else. Something eerie and maybe even unholy. It had started out as a vague interest in her at first, spawned by those stories, now so familiar, and yet through the years the pull had grown. Growing fiercer still as each day went by.
Now it felt all-consuming. The need to see, to know.
Slowly, she made her way to the
grave where the crows gathered, watching dozens of them flutter to the air, cawing in protest at her approach. There was a small, ragged chip on a corner of the marble headstone and a lone white lily lying at the base, so fresh it could’ve been laid there only moments before.
Still out of breath from the run, Stella gazed down at the inscription that read: FAITH HARRISON 1930-1958. Kneeling before it, she ran the tips of her fingers down the cold stone.
“What do you want from me?” she asked, her throat clogged with emotion.
There was no answer, except the creaking of a nearby gate that startled her. Her eyes briskly scanned the cemetery, her ears attuned to the crackling sound of dried leaves as the wind swept them across the ground. Turning back to the grave, convinced she was alone, Stella took the flower in her hand, only to swiftly drop it when a vision attacked, shocking her body as it took hold.
It was a dark, murky night, and rain pounded on his back—a man’s back—as he clawed his hands into the dampened earth. The sounds he made. They were so wretched, so full of misery and despair. Sounds that came from a place so deep and hollow, it was like an empty pit inside him.