brown rocky mountain near river

The Story Collector: The Middle People. Short Horror Story

The Middle People

There is a lot of neither here nor there in America. There is so much that is neither New York nor San Francisco. The vast majority is not Seattle nor Denver. Most of this land is not really anywhere at all. This in-between takes up the bulk of the country. The rest of the world looks in from the Outside and sees a large urban expanse sprinkled with Hollywood glitter. The illusion they see paints the country as a polished new world gem with overflowing stores and buzzing theatres, teeming colleges displaying loud sports teams and bright cheerleaders all encircled by white picket fences whilst Old Glory flies like a fashion statement above their massive mansion-like houses full of ranks of perfectly coiffured brace-wearing children.
This America-From-the-Outside is a busy civilization that bids everyone a ‘have a nice day’, their fixed and fake smiles displaying perfectly white straight expensive teeth. This America is the poster child for capitalist success and prosperity from sea to shining sea. Meanwhile the real America, the vast majority, with its rotten toothless mouths, extreme poverty, food deserts, hopelessness, and nothingness goes mostly unseen, unheard and uncared about. To be frank, the Middle People would not have it any other way. Their big secrets and little lives, their tragedies and their successes are only told within the small broken empires of their family compounds and single wide trailers.
Occasionally tourists, mostly domestic, but sometimes international, head out to vacation in the wilderness of the National Parks, drifting towards the center for camping trips in wooden yurts or well-appointed RV’s. These people are crippled and dangerous in the wilderness. They start dangerous campfires with gasoline and sit overfed backsides on vicious lawn chairs set down in tiny square camping spots in the style of apex predators gone soft. They fail to consider themselves as the possible prey which they are out there in the Middle of Nowhere. They marvel at the buffalo and the prairie dog colonies and stand open mouthed and gawping at the wildness of it all. Occasionally they fuck around and find out with a buffalo and end up on the major news networks, in amusing but disastrous videos where nature tells the City People, the Somewhere Folk, about the reality of life outside of the City and the unwise nature of trying to ride or pet gigantic units of wild animal flesh. The city people gawp at the animals that roam around in varying degrees of rarity and danger to human life, and the animals look back at them. Sometimes it is unclear who is watching who.
After a few days of voyeurism into the emptiness that is full of the wilder side of life, spent huddled around campfires telling scary stories of monsters, both supernatural and human they head back to where they belong. A mass migration of the vacationers, leaving the Middle to get back to their hidden lives.
The city humans who belong amid feral things of different provenance go back to their urban lives where life is more controlled, full of things and people, buildings and hope. Life is never truly predictable, but the City at least provides mundanity in sheer numbers and fullness. The evil finds its way there all the same and grows like a tumor. The sense of safety people have in the Middle, due to the lack of human beings is a mirage. In the Middle, evil grows mostly unwatched, and so the Evil finds more ingenious and dangerous ways to grow. The Middle People find ways to deal with this force that fills the empty spaces in between, while the City
People sneer and watch horror movies on their TV screens, scoffing at the possibility of things they do not know and have not seen. Yes, the city people flee back to their outposts of human endeavor where there are grocery stores with ready prepared meals and neat boxes of world-famous cereals. They return to being able to fill carts with more food than any human being needs, gasping with the emptiness of the food desert where there are crops and animals all around but nowhere to buy the finished product. The city people drag back their purchases to devour whilst staring at screens and not talking to each other, and then all is right with the world: normality is re-established. A dose of the uncanny is good for a soul, but while they are busy playing and swimming, the Middle cannot wait for them to simply go away.
Some of these city dwellers started out in the Middle, and they are left longing for the empty place that lays back in their childhood memories of their small hometowns beyond the city. They grab treats that wipe the dirt and sweat off the produce and think of their grandmas back on the dairy farm in Wisconsin, bringing home pots of preserves and pickles, juicy tomatoes and airy sourdough and their stuff their gawping endlessly hungry maws with the taste of the Nowhere. The nostalgia is tempting but soon enough, these escapees drift back to their hip sushi joints and coffee shop afternoons and the constant thrum of a regularly revolving cast of people that rarely get to actually know each other where the dangers are of a more human variety. Most of the time they fail to realize that humans are the most dangerous beast of all. The City is an isolating place, full of strangers who stand shoulder to shoulder on public transport, but never look each other in the eye, but there are plenty of hiding places in the hubbub and the buildings. The trouble with the middle places is that there is nowhere to hide when nowhere is all around.
Those stuck in the middle without the comforts of the settlements of the New World that actually took root and grew sometimes find a messiah of some kind to follow: a mean-spirited politician to take advantage of their misery, a religious leader to promise them another go at life, in which the land is all milk and honey. They want the promise of easier living away from dying mining towns with stripped bare mines that sometime fill with water to make deep steep sided pools that drown their reckless young men. They want a solution to the tainted water and forest fires burning out the tinder-box dry plains and prairies, and this solution has to be so wild, so crazy, so huge and attention grabbing that it is a danger in itself. This is the problem with ignoring the Middle.
Sometimes these Gods and Messiahs are big figures – cults who claim to have the new Jesus, or cults that promise greatness returned that was never there in the first place. Other times they are worshipped only in the constricted boundaries of a long succession of tiny settlements along trails which were only ever meant to be for passing through, and for most outsiders still are only fit to be driven through fast and with the purpose of getting somewhere else.
These towns are the fractured center of the country. The country is fixed in place at New York and then cantilevers over the nothingness only to project somewhere off Highway 101 at the extreme western edge.
Sara and Bobby were city people. Out west their days revolved around Pike Market coffee shops, dates with hands held over lemon curd crumpets and bags of sweet Washington cherries and plans to buy a sweet little house over the water one day. The two dreamed of Bainbridge Island peace and summer trips on the ferry to watch the Mariners break their hearts on a Friday night. That was until Sara got caught up in an armed robbery on by 3rd and Pine, walking home from work. She was not unused to Seattle at dusk. She had become blasé about stopping by that McDonalds on the corner to buy a cheap coffee, and walking home in the gloom and grime to their warm and inviting little place on a street that was not the best in the City, but by far from the worst.
The scar on her face and neck burnt hot whenever she thought about how she never even had time to work out quite what her attacker wanted apart from money from the cash register of MacDonalds, which was something she never had control over in the first place. She simply accidentally got between a man holding a knife who was not in his right mind, and the object of his desires. It was an unlucky break. She had failed to get out the way fast enough and the long switchblade flicked across her cheek and neck, sending blood fountaining over the grimy floors, counters and walls of the fast-food joint which had become a dangerous druggie hang out.
The man with the knife was more shocked than anyone. He shook him out of his red haze stupor and woke him up to the fact he was going to be going to jail for a long time, whether she survived or not. As the blood bubbled from her neck and the sirens wailed all she could think was that she wanted to get out of Seattle permanently, that was if she survived. Bobby tagging along was neither here nor there. It was touch and go; her heart stopped twice on the way to the hospital. She was released from hospital a few weeks later, with a long list of appointments and recommendations to a plastic surgeon for the ugly thick scar that marred her face and neck, and almost worse of all a voice that was permanently reduced to a hoarse croaky whisper. Sara was beyond surprised when Bobby dropped down onto one knee and asked her to marry him.
They married quickly and packed up and went to stay with Bobby’s family in North Dakota while they worked out what to do. Both of them quit their jobs abruptly, forgot about their dream of buying a smart little house in Seattle, and raided their savings accounts for living money while they came up with a plan for survival.
“I think I would like to stay out here,” Sara said to Bobby one day, over pancakes in a small diner that they had to drive for over an hour to get to. “We could buy somewhere and do it up, make it really nice. Do a lifestyle vlog on YouTube, keep goats, make soap and cheese and grow vegetables, and never have to see another soul. I think we should get a dog. I would feel safer with a dog around.”
Bobby always wanted to make her happy, and so started scouring the property auctions for suitable places. They needed about 10 acres, a small dilapidated house they could renovate, and a town tiny enough for Sara to feel safe. Sara was now terrified of people. The City was no longer an option for her. The nightmares and trauma made her flinch even when the sweet waitress came to refill her coffee mug, with a pitying look on her face as she stared at the livid wormy raised purple scar on Sara’s face.
“I guess we could borrow my folk’s camper van to live in while we make the house livable. If you really want this, this is exactly what we will do.” Bobby was that kind of guy – a make things happen, make people happy kind of young man. Besides his parents were aging and could do with the support, and Sara’s folks lived a disinterested busy life in New Jersey. It would not be the worst thing in the world to move back to North Dakota, though it certainly seemed like it when he left 5 years previously. He could not wait to get away from a place where everybody knew everybody else’s little secrets, and everybody was the subject of gossip and fascination for every other soul. At least in the City people obsessed over celebrities. In the middle of nowhere, nothing was more juicy than the scandals that rocked the innumerable Main Streets and church pews. There was that time in school when he was caught with Peggy-Mae under the bleachers that they were probably still talking about down in Colony. Her father beat him mercilessly while his stood back shrugging his shoulders. They do things different out in the middle country. Life is not the same in the section that lays between.
Even still, there is a vast difference between larger habitations of hundreds, even thousands of people, and the tiny places with strange names and populations of 20 folk who could all trace their ancestors back to the same area, the same farm, after making the trek westwards from Ellis Island.
In the end it was one of his old school friends that came to the rescue. Brian was one of the ones who had never left to try and make it in the big smoke. He simply grew up, and instead of outgrowing The Middle, instead merged into it without protest. Brian pointed out that his aunt’s old homestead out in Antler was sitting empty, since she passed away in the pandemic last year, having gone to some big church conference up in Bozeman, proclaiming that Jesus was her savior and would protect her from the virus. His parents would be happy to sell it to a local boy like Bobby Jr, especially one that had been so close to their son. In the end Brian’s father, Chet, sold it to him for $6000 and a promise to put up some fencing for him before summer was out and winter froze the ground.
It was not much: a cabin which had been there since 1876, according to Chet. Only cobwebs and dirt seemed to be holding it together. The cabin was no more than one room, divided by a curtain, a rough floor, and a roof made out of ancient shingles and corrugated steel nailed haphazardly on top of a few bare patches. Inside were a few pieces of ancient furniture, a kind of bed fashioned from planks and built into the far corner of the cabin, and one dresser with drawers that Bobby told Sara would only have a rats nest inside it, so she had better let him deal with it. She was determined to rescue that ugly old cabinet. Sara always did like rescuing rotten old things and making them shine again. There were ten acres around the cabin, all of it gone to seed and full of rocks. The old well seemed to produce a good amount of water though and there was power at the road.
Brian’s Aunt Frieda had used a pit toilet outhouse and any other waste was simply thrown out the back door of the cabin. She had a generator that coughed up enough energy to run a little radio. Apparently, she had passed away up in a care home up in Bismark back in late 2020. She had never been the same after her husband died in the Battle of Normandy, but nevertheless had lived a long and hard life, for many years after he left never to return. Those hills were used to men disappearing to fight. Men disappeared for the civil war. Men disappeared to fight the Nazi menace. The boys disappeared to fight in ‘Nam and Korea. Men disappeared to fight in those modern wars in places they could not even point to on a map where the sand and the heat did little to remind them of their North Dakotan home. Sometimes she wondered out loud to people if the only function of these little nowhere towns was to produce boys for the politicians to send out to die. Her David was sent back to her in a cardboard box. No apology. No sadness. No respect. No flag. Just here he is and be grateful you get to bury him. She buried him up on the hill under a tree. She didn’t ask nobody; she had no need to. People had been buried up there since there were people to die. Parson’s Hill was a jumble of bones and cultures, wars and skirmishes and her beloved was far from the only soul to be interred down there. It was the place that love went when it died. She would stand up there on Parson’s Hill in her long black veil, the winter wind drying the tears off her face as soon as they fell down her cheeks. She stood there when the snows came, in the dead of night, nothing but a lantern in her hand. She stood there in the burning of the midday sun when August turned the fields into a dustbowl. The cabin saw her standing there. Sometimes a soul would pass by and a shiver run up their spine, as the woman in the long black veil stood her silent vigil on the hills. Bobby’s dad said he saw a young slim figure standing up there early one Saturday morning when he was driving early to go to an cattle auction. She wore one of those lace coverings that Catholic women wear to mass, and her slim young waist bent over as her shoulders shook with crying. He stared for a while wondering, and when he looked back at the road for a moment, then flicked his eyes back up to Parson’s Hill, the figure had disappeared. It had given him quite a fright. He figured he was just tired, but a man who has lived in the Middle for long enough knows when to cross himself and keep on driving, even if he was a terrible heathen who had not been willingly to church since he was a child. After all, what else could anyone do when faced with the uncertainty of death, with a brush with the hereafter, other than reason his way out of trouble?
The property was a project, that was for sure, but those youtube views were starting to pile up, and Sara had her dreams of influencer bucks and mason jar candles somewhere where no one was apart from her and Bobby, and a few people she could keep at a safe distance. The newly married couple hauled his parent’s RV up onto the site. Bobby didn’t tell Sara he had borrowed some money from his brother who worked the oil fields. She would not have approved. Sara’s head was full of pioneer dreams. She wanted to scratch something out of nothing and make it all her own out of sheer hard work and a steely determination. She believed that she could create safety and the wilderness would protect her from the sins of the City and the knives of men who were so desperate for a few bucks of drug money, that they would slash the throat of a stranger through sheer carelessness. If he had killed her, she bet he would only have gone down for second degree murder at the most. She shuddered to think of it.
She and Bobby went to choose a generator together. They picked out a large orange beast that ran on both solar and gasoline. She put fairy lights around the camper van and uploaded a few video shorts showing their new home. Their new rescue dog sat with his head on his paws and stared at the gophers and rabbits wondering if he could find the energy to go and chase them in the insanely hot late North Dakotan afternoon. The well water was not tested for drinking, so they were relying on gallons of water in containers, that they trucked up to the site.
The cabin stood there silently, looking out at the new people who were filling the space up with lights and water, speaking their dreams into the phone camera, and pulling animals into the little ten acres with the small stream that ran along the northernmost edge of the property. A fanciful sort of person might have imagined seeing eyes looking out of the cracks in the walls. A less solid soul than Bobby might have felt a shiver up his spine and wondered whose bones he was stepping over, buried with no grave marker and no fuss, back in the days when people died out here so easily. Bobby was not the fanciful short and shook off the feeling fast. The plains and prairies could get to a man fast if he let the isolation get its hooks into his mind and soul. Everyone knows where the soul goes the body soon wanders after.
Huddled together in their camper, the dangers of the City far behind them, Bobby found himself hoping he would get his old Sara back, the one with the bubbly personality and the sparkle in her eye. This Sara was scared and shattered, reduced and wounded. When he fell asleep that night, his arms wrapped around her, he started to feel hopeful once more. After all, out here everyone knew everyone. There was no danger he could foresee.
That night Bobby barely registered Sara getting out of bed and leaving the RV and walking to the cabin. He would not have believed it if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes. He got up to use the bathroom and found Sara gone. Something drew his eyes to the window and there she was, standing with her back to the Cabin, and a holey, rotting black lace mantilla draped over her head like a veil. The veins stood out damply on her neck the sweat beading and running down her breasts in rivulets. Beyond the veil her scar glowed in the dark and he thought he could see the shadow of her mouth twisted into a pained knot as if she were mortally wounded. Her hands were stretched out before her, and she uttered a terrible scream, then fell to the floor.
Bobby, shaking himself out of his stupor ran out barefoot and picked her up, tearing the old dusty veil from her face, almost not being able to bear to see what he would see under it, and brought her back into the RV and shutting the door hard behind him. The hairs on the back of his neck bristled and deep in the pit of his stomach something primordial and reptilian screamed danger at his conscious warm monkey-mind. He shook it off as best he could, until Sara opened both of her eyes, only to find them both rolled back into her head, only the whites showing, and opening her mouth, let out a cloud of black midges from somewhere impossible inside her, and one long drawn out scream of a word. Bobby was not sure if she was saying his name, or if it was something else. It sounded like a chorus of voices, coming from somewhere deep inside Sara. She fell loose in his arms and started to stir. Bobby pushed his glasses further up his nose and pondered what he had just seen. There was a rational explanation for everything, including this. Perhaps she was just messing with him, doing a video for her youtube channel. Yes, that had to be it.
Sara, however, came too and denied ever being outside, had no idea about bugs or midges or long black veils, and started regarding Bobby with suspicion. “I just want to know, Bobby, why you think it is ok to play games like this! I was asleep in bed this whole time! You know I am nervous nowadays. Why would you do this?” She pouted at him angrily.
Now in circumstances like this, a man can either doubt himself, or else he knows what he saw, and takes the line he just doesn’t have a good explanation quite yet. Bobby, a solid sort, brought up in The Middle started to entertain some dangerous thoughts, like what if this land was cursed. What if they were cursed. His mother always did say he was born haunted. That old bald deceiver of his church days, even if they were a bunch of snake handlin’ crazies, still struck fear into him, but more than this he was scared for Sara. He was scared for them both.
His grandmother used to tell him stories of the way things used to be out here. Family feuds. Disease. Violence. Daddy shooting mama and all the babies doing that dust bowl dance of desperation, then with not a bullet left for himself, hanging himself from a tree outside. Pity the poor man, she used to say, who could not afford a rope, because he would have a hard old time a dying. Bobby shuddered. He wondered if he was the kind of guy to bundle up the family and head west to California, or if he was the giving up sort, who got weary and defeated and took everybody else along with him to hell. If anyone had asked him, he would have said he would have got outta Dodge fast and gone to pan for gold had he been alive back then. In his own private thoughts he shuddered. Bobby was never much of a hero. He was not very brave, and he was not decisive. Impossible. It all sounded totally impossible.
Sara continued to spend a lot of time in the cabin, sweeping the floor which he was going to tear up anyhow, and scrubbing walls that were probably unsavable. Every night she proceeded to get up and do the same thing. The mantilla and black ribbons she had found in the cabin were stashed in her own cupboard in the RV. Those things made his skin crawl. To see them draped over Sara’s face made him feel physically sick. She was still pretty to him, despite of the scar that spread up her neck and across her cheek, but there was something off about this ancient piece of lace, and about her sleepwalking to the cabin and her nightly treks up to Parson’s Hill.
Deep in the cabin something growled. Something shifted underneath the floorboards, moving around, squirming and rearranging itself. A fragment of broken cup lifted itself up from behind the dresser, floated up to the rudimentary table, and clinked down on the old and worn wood, before spinning round, then exploding into tiny shards. Anyone who had been listening would hear a baby wail, somewhere just beyond reach, just beyond saving. Love and war. Birth and death. The middle held its secrets close to its desolate breast. After all, when you have so little, when there is such emptiness, secrets are sometimes all there is left to defend.
Bobby was out in the back field with a rented backhoe. He was digging the foundations for a new cabin. He didn’t see Sara veiled and walking up Parson’s Hill. He didn’t see the rope in her hands. He didn’t see her scrabbling around in the dirt for a small wooden box that was buried only four foot or so down, that there was no way she could have known was down there. He didn’t see the eyes shining through the cracks in the walls of the cabin, or the howling in the distance as the ghost of war ships carrying back the dead floated down the Hudson, way to the east in New York City.
He didn’t notice that he hadn’t put the brake on the backhoe, and that it was rolling towards him as he worked by hand on the foundations of the cabin he was so lovingly building for his beloved wife. He barely had time to realize he was about to die as it tumbled into the deep wide hole that he had just dug, nor register the scream that came out of his wife’s mouth, in a voice that was not hers alone. As his chest was crushed under the weight of the machinery and the darkness overcame him, he saw dozens of pairs of eyes peer down at his mangled body, holding out their hands towards him. One was wearing a 1940s olive drab green uniform and holding a small baby in his arms that had water flowing from her tiny mouth and nose. Frieda stood there grinning. “You can’t go running back west now, young man. You belong with us…” she smiled a broken toothed greedy grin. Now you can’t take her away from me. One of us has to stand watch on that hillside. One of us has to keep the lantern lit. As Frieda turned her head towards him he noticed a wormy livid scar on the side of her cheek that wound it way down her neck and towards her breasts. It was on the exact opposite side to Sara’s scar.
Frieda threw back her head and laughed. “This? When I was widowed and I had to get rid of the baby my father took a knife to my face. He said I was not fit to ever breed again, and no young man should look my way. He said I was evil. Evil is as evil does, that is what I say, Bobby.”
Sara walked slowly down Parson’s Hill, carrying the box in her arms, the black mantilla covering her face. As she did she sang an old song, old as the hills and the evil that lives in them. Then she threw the tiny box into the hole along with a handful of dirt. “Bye Bobby,” she said softly. “It had to go like this…it just did.” Then she folded her lace and put her best smile on her face, and picked up her cell phone. “Yes, I need an ambulance. We have had an accident…”
The lights flashed blue and red over the hillside, and the little cabin where evil grew. The cops figured that the old box with the bones of the long dead baby were just another artifact from a time where people buried people up here. They would go to the coroner and then be put back where they found them. Of course, the town talked about it. Who they thought might have done it, and when. Tales were told of the dust bowl times, the hard times, the times when babies barely had a chance at surviving out here. People went to church and said prayers. Some buried a little graveyard dirt and sage in their yards in the memory of some old hoodoo warding that they hoped would keep the ghosts and walkers out of their property.
Bobby’s father and mother tried to persuade her to come with them and stay, but she refused. Instead, she set up an old radio on the little bench in the cabin, next to her oil light and stared out the window at the sight of the dead walking the hill as the lightning rained down, and the thunder broke the summer skies and all the tears in the world would never bring her hope back to her. She belonged to The Middle now. Everything else had simply disappeared into a hole that contained the memories of a life that she once had a tight grip of, and had got away from her so fast and so completely that there was never going to be any getting back. Good and evil is a war, just like any other, and it was not one that she and Bobby could win.
There was no afterwards for The Middle. Life carried on as always out of sight from the people that fill up the spaces of the edges of the country. At night sometimes people would see Sara standing on the hill with her lantern and her veil, and that scar on her face that brought the bad luck. When Sara found out she was pregnant with Bobby’s baby a month or so after his death she could not be persuaded to leave their little cabin. In The Middle no one hears the screams or the wails or the desperation. Stories have a way of resolving themselves out there nobody is watching, even if they do demand sacrifice to resolve the horrors. There is plenty of sacrifice out there. Plenty of blood spilt. The ghosts of The Middle demand it, and the people of the empty spaces live it out every single day of their lives spent forgotten about in a world that the rest of us don’t want to watch or even acknowledge exists. The world under the rotten veil.


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