Raising Mehitable

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Finn Wakefield’s mind drift­ed as the old Toy­ota chugged around the Orleans rotary. Almost one year to the day when he and David made the same trip in Octo­ber. The car made a com­plete loop, miss­ing the East­ham exit as it began its sec­ond rota­tion. Finn saw the exit sign this time, but it didn’t reg­is­ter in his brain. The car began its third loop, bare­ly going 20 miles per hour. An Ama­zon van enter­ing from Route 6a honked, yank­ing his mind back into the here and now. 

Finn cocked his head, as if shak­ing off water after an ocean swim. He was lucky he didn’t hit the van. The men­tal laps­es were get­ting worse. At the end of third loop he made sure he got off at the exit. Once he entered East­ham, he took deep, slow breaths and low­ered the win­dow, let­ting the ocean air wash over him.

He low­ered the pas­sen­ger win­dow to let a cross breeze wash over him. The salt air felt good. With most of the road­side beach shops closed for the sea­son, the Out­er Cape became a dif­fer­ent place. A few pick­up trucks parked at a road­side din­er and the odd ser­vice van pass­ing by were reminders that the sum­mer traf­fic was over.

As he passed the Nation­al Seashore Park Infor­ma­tion Cen­ter on the right, a pot­hole appeared in the mid­dle of the tar­mac. He swerved to the side to avoid it, spew­ing loose grav­el over the embank­ment. Sec­onds lat­er he saw a famil­iar white sign in black let­ters, Enter­ing Well­fleet, 1763. Then it happened.

The pan­ic attack came with­out warn­ing. Finn’s heart felt like it want­ed to jump out of his body. His hands turned moist, bare­ly able to grip the steer­ing wheel. The lorazepam was in his trav­el bag in the back seat. He took his foot off the gas ped­al and let the car coast to the upcom­ing exit for Mar­coni Beach. The car rolled to a stop at the end of the exit. He imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­nized the sign for White Cedar Swamp Trail. He knew the place from child­hood and remem­bered there was a small park­ing lot nearby. 

He cut the engine and leaned over the seat to grab his trav­el bag. His hand shook so much he spilled the white pills all over the pas­sen­ger seat. He took one and put it under his tongue and took a deep breath. 

Finn won­dered if he had to endure the pan­ic attacks for the rest of his life. The ther­a­pist remind­ed him ad infini­tum that David’s death wasn’t his fault. Yet, he knew David was frag­ile in the last year of his life when he was putting togeth­er a col­lec­tion of his murals for a major art exhi­bi­tion. Finn usu­al­ly checked in on him once a week, a text or phone call, some­times stop­ping by, but David had become more with­drawn about face-to-face vis­its. The last week of his life Finn didn’t check in. He was too con­sumed with his own writ­ing. He had to meet a dead­line for a major piece he was work­ing on about cor­rup­tion in big phar­ma. He missed David’s good­bye voice­mail the day he killed himself. 

Finn took a deep breath and start­ed the engine again. In the rear-view mir­ror he noticed a large Rot­tweil­er sit­ting on its haunch­es, growl­ing, with its eyes fixed on him. Finn felt a shiv­er run down his spine but man­aged to dri­ve the car anoth­er 300 yards to a desert­ed park­ing space next to the cedar swamp trail head. 

He got out of the car and sat down on the pave­ment, breath­ing slow­ly, and wait­ed for the med­ica­tion to take effect. His body felt drained, but his heart had stopped rac­ing. He remem­bered walk­ing on the trail with his par­ents and David, col­lect­ing deep blue Spi­der­wort wild­flow­ers.  That was the first time he real­ized his broth­er had artis­tic tal­ent, sketch­ing the flo­ra and fau­na as they walked. It was the first tine Finn start­ed writ­ing in a jour­nal. Lit­tle did he know that walk would be a har­bin­ger of their future pas­sions; David becom­ing a mur­al artist and him a free­lance inves­tiga­tive journalist. 

The mem­o­ries dis­solved when a sud­den wind blew through the scrub pine. Clouds moved in to block the sun. It looked like it might rain but just walk­ing a bit more would do him some good. Finn won­dered what trig­gered the pan­ic attack this time? The road sign for Well­fleet? It made no sense. There were no bad child­hood mem­o­ries from the many times he had vaca­tioned here with his fam­i­ly. Try­ing to fig­ure it out got him nowhere.

In a few min­utes he’d reach the seashore. A soft mist began to waft through the trees. The clos­er he got to the beach the denser the mist became. It seemed to hang in the air. Finn’s pan­ic was gone, but he had a strange sense of dis­ori­en­ta­tion as the mist wrapped around his ankles. 

When the trail opened up onto a sand dune, the mist stayed behind among the cedars and pine. Finn stood on the dune watch­ing the waves crash on the sand. No rain yet, but the wind and the fury of the waves sig­naled a storm. Gray clouds car­pet­ed the sky. The bright Octo­ber sun seemed like a dis­tant memory.

Finn turned around, eager to get back to the car and make his way to the Airbnb. Once he stepped back on the trail the mist enveloped him, but the wind from the beach did not enter the for­est. There was a still­ness in the air. As he walked, the mist part­ed, only to col­lapse behind him in a mias­mic cur­tain of gray. He could bare­ly see the wood­en board­walk. Every­thing else turned into shift­ing shadows.

A fil­tered light made its way through the mist. He’d be out of the for­est in sec­onds. He picked up his pace As soon as he did, he felt the pres­ence of two peo­ple on either side of him. Must be his imag­i­na­tion in over­drive, but he still didn’t want to look to his side. The light became stronger now but so did their pres­ence. One of the beings seemed hun­dreds of years old, the oth­er one much younger, but both seemed blood relat­ed. He thought he heard a col­lec­tive moan from them.

Finn stepped off the trail and into the park­ing lot. It was over­cast, but there was no mist or fog. He looked back at the for­est trail but saw or heard no one. He leaned against the car, try­ing to fig­ure out what just hap­pened. He thought he had heard a plea for help whis­pered by both enti­ties. His moth­er had always told him she thought his fan­tasies would be the death of him. Christ, he must be in worse shape than he thought.

He rubbed his face and took the car key out of his pock­et. As he start­ed the engine, a light rain began to fall.

•••

The sun ducked in and out of the clouds just as Finn passed the Enter­ing Truro, Inc. 1709 sign. The Airbnb host had writ­ten that the turn off was a half mile after the sign, across from a sec­ond­hand book­store on the oth­er side of Route 6.

The bright morn­ing light had returned so he could now see the book­store on the left side of the road. To the right was the turnoff for the Airbnb. As he slowed down, the name of the book­store caught his eye. La Lumière Libraire was engraved over the entranceOn an impulse he turned the car to the left and drove into the bookstore’s grav­el park­ing lot. 

Finn got out and walked to the entrance. The front door was sol­id oak, bur­nished into a deep tan. It seemed out of place with the cracked pine and birch shin­gles mak­ing up the store’s exte­ri­or. He pushed it open and stepped inside. The place had a musty smell, not over­whelm­ing, but def­i­nite­ly dif­fer­ent from oth­er indie book­stores he’d been to.

He made his way through the cramped aisles of lit­er­ary fic­tion, mys­tery, and biog­ra­phy until he came to a book­shelf labeled, Leg­ends and Sto­ries of the Out­er Cape. On the top shelf, a cat stared down at him. Finn couldn’t resist reach­ing up to rub the tabby’s chin. He whis­pered, “Aren’t you a pret­ty one.” The cat jumped down from the shelf, rub­bing its body against Finn’s legs. He bent down to give it a small pat. The cat let him do it but then van­ished into anoth­er cor­ner of the store. 

Finn smiled and turned his atten­tion back to the book­shelf. One paper­back title caught his eye, The Demo­niza­tion of ‘Goody’ Hal­lett, by Josephine Dumoix. The name Hal­lett made him pause. He remem­bered read­ing some­thing about a local Cape woman dur­ing colo­nial times accused of witch­craft. Just the book he need­ed for some escape.

The sound of a loud click inter­rupt­ed his thoughts. In the rear of the store a counter light turned on, bathing an old­er woman in a sepia glow. Finn walked to the woman, ready to buy the book and get going to the Airbnb.

The woman behind the counter might have been 20 years old­er than him, maybe in her late 50s. Her long, dark braid­ed hair fell over her shoul­ders. She wiped a strand away from her eyes, and Finn noticed how her slen­der fin­gers resem­bled those of a con­cert pianist. The chest­nut skin col­or of her face high­light­ed the deep green of her eyes. In short, she was stunning.

The woman spoke first. “You bought the last copy of the book.”

Finn stut­tered, “Oh yeah, looked inter­est­ing. Here for a few days and want­ed to get lost in a good story.”

“I’d like to think it’s an impor­tant sto­ry. Not sure how good it is; few peo­ple know why I wrote it.”

“You’re?”

She made the slight­est of smiles. “Yes, I’m Josephine Dumoix.”

Finn shift­ed his feet, feel­ing like an embar­rassed school­boy. “Nice to meet you. I’m Finn Wakefield.”

Josephine nod­ded an acknowl­edg­ment but said noth­ing. The cat scoot­ed out from the shad­ows and jumped up onto the counter, press­ing her­self against Josephine. Both seemed to study Finn, as if tak­ing stock of him.

Finn broke the silence. “I guess you’re the own­er of the book­store also. A twofer.” God, what a stu­pid comment.

Josephine seemed to smile again. “Yes, I’m both. Wrote that book 15 years ago and have owned the store for a good 30 years. Actu­al­ly, it’s been in the fam­i­ly one way or anoth­er for around 100 years.”

“One way or another?”

“That’s a long sto­ry. More than you would want to hear, and more than I want to tell, at least for now.”

Finn want­ed to ask her what she meant for at least now but thought it best just to leave it.

“How much do I owe you?”

“I believe it’s eight dol­lars. I can’t remem­ber what I wrote on the inside cover.”

Finn opened the cov­er. “You’re right.” He hand­ed her his cred­it card, pre­tend­ing not to be spell­bound by this strange woman.

“Do you want the receipt?”

“No, I’m good. Thanks again. Look­ing for­ward to read­ing it.” Finn put the book in his shoul­der bag and walked toward the door.

As he pushed it open, he heard her say, “Good-bye. Until next time.”

He stopped halfway through the door­way and turned around, but she was gone Only the cat remained on the counter, curled up, with her eyes fixed on Finn.

•••

Finn threw her book onto the pas­sen­ger seat and start­ed the engine. An orange light lit up on the fuel gauge. The car was close to emp­ty. He remem­bered that a Mobil sta­tion was just a half-mile up Route 6 toward Provincetown. 

He made it to the sta­tion in less than a minute and start­ed pump­ing gas into the Toy­ota. As he wait­ed for the tank to fill up, he glanced over at Dumoix’s book. The cov­er had an image of a pine for­est bathed in moon­light. In the back­ground was a ghost like fig­ure of a young woman run­ning across the dunes. The click of the noz­zle told him the tank was full, but he had a hard time tak­ing his eyes away from the cover’s image until a car behind him honked to let him know it was wait­ing its turn. The cred­it card machine was bro­ken so he rushed over to the con­ve­nience store to pay the bill. When he came out, he picked up a free mag­a­zine in the news­stand next to the door

Back in the car he dropped the mag­a­zine onto the seat next to Dumoix’s book. He could tell the guy behind him was annoyed he’d tak­en so long. Finn waved an apol­o­gy and turned the car around to go back to the turn off for the Airbnb. 

At the turnoff he made a left onto a dirt road that was lit­tered with small pot­holes. The bumpy ride sent the mag­a­zine slid­ing over onto his lap. As he reached down to place it under the book, he noticed the cov­er image depict­ed a mur­al exhib­it of mur­al art at the Province­town Library. He slammed on the brakes. The mem­o­ry of David’s planned art exhib­it flood­ed into his mind. The mur­al on the mag­a­zine cov­er was noth­ing like David’s work. His murals focused on migrants cross­ing the Rio Grande into the Unit­ed States. The Province­town exhib­it was of Com­mer­cial Street dur­ing a win­ter storm. 

He sat in the car with the engine idling. His eyes dart­ed back and forth between the magazine’s cov­er and the cov­er of Dumoix’s book. Both images col­lid­ed in his mind to pro­duce a sense of pro­found sad­ness, even though they had noth­ing to do with each oth­er. Almost a half hour went by before he could press his foot down on the gas pedal. 

•••

Dumoix’s book fell on the porch floor when Finn rolled out of the ham­mock. The Airbnb was in a per­fect spot. No view of the sea, but you could hear the dis­tant sound of waves at high tide. What he could see was salt marsh and scrub pine fac­ing east toward the water. The late after­noon Octo­ber light made the grass­es shift in col­or from deep amber to light green and back again. He wished he had a part­ner to share the moment. With David’s loss he’d felt he didn’t deserve to be with someone. 

Finn’s mind went back to Dumoix’s book. Her last lines haunt­ed him. The sins of the past are with us today. Mehitable Hal­lett was not the demon­ic witch peo­ple claimed her to be. There are forces that are keep­ing her true sto­ry buried. 

He want­ed to go back to ask her what they meant, but he need­ed to walk along the beach and breath the air of the sea. A wood­en path led from the cot­tage, cut­ting through the marsh until it reached the dunes. He fin­ished the tea, put on some tick spray, and grabbed a pair of binoc­u­lars pro­vid­ed by the Airbnb host.

The marsh grass­es poked up in between the wood­en slats of the beach trail. Finn won­dered what it would be like in the sum­mer with­out long pants. The edges of the grass looked sharp. In Octo­ber though the grass felt good rub­bing against his legs. He wished he had more than a few days to spend in Truro.

The marsh turned into the famil­iar scrub pine as he neared the ocean. The trail then turned into worn earth and beat­en down moss. Tree roots emerged from the earth, ready to trip up eager beach goers. Finn walked to the side of the trail to avoid them. Heat pen­e­trat­ed the soles of his shoes. Finn thought there might have been a fire, but he saw no evi­dence of charred vegetation. 

He was about to walk on, but he stopped him­self, think­ing he heard a sound com­ing up from under the spot where he felt the heat. He stood qui­et­ly, but there was no sound except for the waves in the near dis­tance. Finn tried to iden­ti­fy in his mind what he’d heard or thought he’d heard, but it elud­ed him.

He start­ed walk­ing again, this time pick­ing up his pace. The sea had to be near­by. Less than a minute lat­er the trees melt­ed away into sand and dunes. A few more steps, and there it was. Finn took off his sneak­ers and ran down the dune toward the incom­ing tide.

Finn let the water chill his feet. The cold ran up the back of his legs. The drowsi­ness from the nap was gone now. He stood there let­ting the tide roll back and forth over his feet. At least for this one moment he felt alive with­out all the guilt and lone­li­ness that stalked him after his brother’s death.

Finn want­ed to get back to the cot­tage and write in his jour­nal. He walked back to the top of the dune. As he bent down to put on his shoes, he noticed out of the cor­ner of his right eye an odd shape. He squint­ed to get a bet­ter look. A stone struc­ture jut­ted out from the for­est. He took the pock­et binoc­u­lars out of his jack­et for a bet­ter look. It was a tow­er with a tur­ret at the top, like that of a medieval cas­tle. This was Nation­al Seashore. It shouldn’t be here.

There were still a few more hours of sun­light left so he thought he’d check it out, but it would mean leav­ing the trail and cut­ting through the thick­et. He began to retrace his steps back to the cot­tage, hop­ing to see if there was a pas­sage through the trees. Thir­ty yards in from the dunes he made out what could have been a path. The under­brush was cleared away from a line of beat­en down twigs and moss that seemed to lead toward where he had seen the tow­er. He’d give it a try.

At times Finn either had to bend down or climb over bro­ken branch­es. Trees were twist­ed into curved stick fig­ures from the relent­less winds com­ing in from the sea. The sun didn’t pro­vide much light through the tree cov­er. He began to think this was not a smart move after all. He had a hard time fig­ur­ing out how far ahead the tow­er was, if, in fact, he was even going in the right direction.

His body stiff­ened when he felt heat radi­at­ing through his shoes. This time it was like a warm ocean cur­rent ris­ing up through his legs. Instinc­tive­ly, he ran, pine nee­dles scratch­ing his arms as he stum­bled for­ward. Then, out of nowhere, the for­est end­ed, and a small mead­ow opened up. He tripped and fell onto cool moss. The heat was gone. The tow­er stood on the oth­er side of the mead­ow cast­ing a long shad­ow over his prone body.

Lying on the ground made the tow­er seem even more immense than it prob­a­bly was. Still, a good 100 feet tall. Gray slabs of gran­ite blocks rose to a crenelat­ed roof. 

He stood up and scanned the mead­ow. The brush and trees in front of the tow­er looked impen­e­tra­ble. A lit­tle to his left, he saw a path, more formed than what he had just been on. Finn walked toward it, but hes­i­tat­ed for a sec­ond, jit­tery about the pos­si­bil­i­ty about step­ping on heat­ed earth again. Was there some gas main under­neath this part of the Cape? He’d nev­er heard of that. 

With a sigh he took his first step and then anoth­er. He walked quick­ly to find out if it cir­cled around the tow­er. A minute lat­er it opened into anoth­er clear­ing. Finn saw a small park­ing lot in front of a one-sto­ry met­al ware­house. A pick­up truck and bull­doz­er were parked to the side of the build­ing.  A black steel door guard­ed its entrance. 

Finn walked across the park­ing lot toward the build­ing.  As he got clos­er, he saw a flick­er­ing yel­low glow through a wire mesh win­dow. Finn pressed him­self against the win­dow. The strange light came from a desk lamp on one of those old roll top desks.  A man slid the lamp back and forth with one hand as his oth­er hand furi­ous­ly scrib­bled on a pad of paper. Behind him met­al file cab­i­nets lined the wall. It looked like a fac­to­ry office out of the 1950s.

He stepped back from the win­dow and went over to a rust­ing met­al door and knocked.

He wait­ed. No answer, but he thought he heard foot­steps and fur­ni­ture mov­ing. The door muf­fled the sounds, even though the met­al of the build­ing itself seemed thin and cheap­ly made. He knocked again and wait­ed. Still noth­ing. He was about to go back to the win­dow when the door creaked open.

The man at the desk appeared. He was much big­ger than Finn had imag­ined. Bent over the desk made him appear dimin­ished, but now in front of him, he seemed like a bear on his hind legs. Finn took a step backwards.

The man’s fer­al eyes locked onto Finn as if they were coils of rope. Finn’s heart raced as he shift­ed back and forth on his feet.

The man broke the silence. “Yes, what is it? Why are you here?”

His tone was accusato­ry, a low, deep voice that almost felt like a gust of wind hit­ting Finn’s body. Finn tried to break eye con­tact with the man. He looked down at the ground before look­ing back up at him.

“Sor­ry to both­er you. I was walk­ing on the beach and saw this tow­er in the mid­dle of the for­est, so I’d thought I’d check it out. Went off the trail and end­ed up here by accident.”

The man’s eyes stayed locked onto Finn, but his voice became more con­cil­ia­to­ry. “That tower’s a mis­take. Put up years ago by a wealthy crack pot for some damn rea­son. It’s in bad shape. You should stay away.”

As the man spoke, Finn tried to size him up. The guy wore dirty work pants and a fad­ed den­im shirt. A name tag on the shirt pock­et read, R.I.P. Cer­berus, Groundskeep­er.

“Oh, okay. So you work for the Nation­al Seashore?”

“Some­thing like that. I just keep a lid on things around here.”

He paused and smirked before he said, “That road will take you back to where you belong.” He point­ed to the far side of the build­ing and turned to go back inside.

Finn thought bet­ter of ask­ing more ques­tions. Every­thing the guy said creeped him out.

The door shut, sound­ing like a bank vault being locked up for the night.  The light from the desk lamp went out. An inky black­ness filled the room.

Finn start­ed walk­ing toward the road. He stopped and said out loud,” Real­ly? What am I doing?” 

Finn turned around and walked across the clear­ing toward the path that led to the beach trail. He had the feel­ing the man was star­ing at him through the win­dow. With­out look­ing back, he stepped onto the path. The earth now felt cold as hell, but he didn’t stop walking.

•••

Finn got to the book­store near­ly an hour before it opened. His mind was on fire. He couldn’t wait to talk to Josephine Dumoix. What he saw with his own eyes, what he expe­ri­enced in the for­est, and his inter­ac­tion with Cer­berus cracked open anoth­er world. Dumoix was the only per­son he could talk to about what had happened.

He turned off the engine and stepped out of the car. The store’s front door was part­ly open. The cat sat in the open door­way. The cat cocked her head as Finn approached, but it didn’t run away. He bent down and stroked her chin. The cat leaned into his hand, clear­ly lik­ing this greeting.

A voice from back of the store called out, “Mehty, bring Finn back here.”

The cat turned with tail point­ed upright and saun­tered toward Dumoix’s voice. He fol­lowed her through the dim­ly lit book aisles to the rear of the store. Dumoix sat at a round wood­en table in a small open-air patio. A batch of raisin scones were placed on the table, along with a French press can­nis­ter of coffee.

“It’s all right Finn Wake­field. Come and sit down while the scones are still warm.”

Finn walked through the open glass doors of the patio. The morn­ing sun bathed Dumoix in a halo of white light. Lilac col­ored aster hung from flow­er­pots around the edge of the patio, emit­ting a faint but pleas­ant aro­ma Finn couldn’t place.

“Please sit.” 

Josephine put a scone on a small plate and pushed it across the table to him. 

“Cof­fee?”

Finn nod­ded. She poured the deep black liq­uid into an expres­so cup and slid it toward him.

“Black? This dark roast is best black.”

“Yeah, that’s fine.”

Finn sipped the brew, the taste vel­vety and slight­ly bit­ter. Feel­ing more col­lect­ed, he looked down at the cat lying next to a flow­er­pot and said, “Mehty, a lit­tle like the char­ac­ter in your book?”

Josephine smiled, “More than a char­ac­ter, but yes, a lit­tle like in the book. And, your next ques­tion, was how did I know you would come here before the store opened? Just say, I put two and two together.”

“Two and two together?”

“I had a hunch you’d start read­ing my book and would have a lot of ques­tions. And, well, once you start­ed walk­ing around that part of Truro, you’d have oth­er ques­tions. As for expect­ing you to come to see me this ear­ly, well, let’s leave it at intuition.”

Finn bit into the scone while she spoke. It tast­ed so good, warm, and not too sweet, that he didn’t feel like press­ing her more about how cred­i­ble her expla­na­tion was. After anoth­er bite, he said, “Right, should I tell you what hap­pened after I left you yesterday?”

“I’m lis­ten­ing.”

•••

In the next 20 min­utes Finn man­aged to eat two scones and give a detailed account of what hap­pened in the for­est and at the tow­er. Josephine lis­tened with her eyes closed, tak­ing in every word.

“Sor­ry, for going on. I don’t know. I just said a lot to a per­son I don’t real­ly know.”

Josephine said soft­ly, “I understand.”

“Look, I have a hun­dred ques­tions about what I just dumped on you, I don’t even know where to begin.”

“I think it begins with Mehitable Hal­lett, my own flesh and blood.”

Finn’s mouth quiv­ered. Stunned, he said, “I guess it’s my turn to listen.” 

“I had to make sure you were the per­son I think you are. You risked your life yes­ter­day, and you came back to me for answers. And now, you deserve to know about my his­to­ry and my con­nec­tion to Mehitable.”

Josephine arched her back and said. “My grand­par­ents came up from New Orleans back in the 1900s. They were, what you call, mixed race, or Cre­ole I sup­pose. My grand­fa­ther was a vio­lin­ist and my moth­er had been a teacher. With their mod­est sav­ings they were able to buy a small piece of land and turn an old cot­tage into the book­store where we sit today.”

Finn blurt­ed out, “Why did they leave New Orleans and come all the way here?”

Josephine nod­ded, “Yes, why? It wasn’t just because it was a vicious time for black folk in the South. It was vicious every­where, though this part of the Cape was sup­posed to be more accept­ing for, what should I say, out­siders and peo­ple of the Bohemi­an per­sua­sion. I only found out lat­er in life, right before my moth­er died, that there was anoth­er rea­son they set­tled here, some­thing more pressing.”

She paused again before speak­ing. “They came to make things right. To free Mehitable and clear her name. To do deal with Cerberus.”

Finn’s mouth turned dry. “I’m sor­ry. You lost me there.”

“When you told me what hap­pened near the tow­er, I think you will be able to hear at least part of what I am going to say. In my book I men­tion that the leg­end of ‘Goody’ Hal­lett has her giv­ing birth to a child from her pirate lover, Black Sam Bel­lamy. The leg­end says the baby died short­ly after child­birth. This nev­er hap­pened. The baby lived and the baby was bi-racial. Black Sam Bel­lamy, the pirate, was of African descent, at least partially.”

“What hap­pened to the child. Noth­ing I read on the Net about Bel­lamy said he was black or of mixed race.”

“Well, when it comes to race in this coun­try, a lot of things are left out of his­to­ry books and with leg­ends even more so. I will just say that the baby was tak­en away from the Cape and end­ed up in New Orleans where she grew up as a free per­son of color.”

Josephine stood up and walked over to Finn, who looked dazed by what he’d heard. She put her hand on his shoulder.

“I sense you car­ry your own pain with you. I see it writ­ten on your face. I also have my own pain. Gen­er­a­tions of my fam­i­ly have passed it on over the years, All my peo­ple have it in this coun­try. In a way you have your own place in this his­to­ry, which I believe you will come to under­stand. A first step in that under­stand­ing is to go back to that tow­er and con­front Cer­berus. Together.”

All of this was beyond what he could take in, but he trust­ed this woman, this woman who he just met yes­ter­day. Maybe he was los­ing it, but it didn’t mat­ter, he need­ed to know more. There seemed to be a sto­ry here, some­thing that need­ed to be uncov­ered. As an inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist that intrigued him.

“Okay, I’ll go back with you to that place, but you’ll have-”

She cut him off, “We need to go at mid­night. I will meet you at your cot­tage. I will be at your side through it all.”

Finn nod­ded, not sure what through it all meant, but feel­ing strange­ly more alive than at any time since David’s death. 

“Okay, mid­night.” He got up, and at the same time Mehty jumped down from her perch. As he walked to the door, the cat trailed behind him.

•••

A half-moon bathed the pine for­est in shafts of iri­des­cent yel­low and white light. It was haunt­ing­ly beau­ti­ful, but Finn was not in the mood to appre­ci­ate the night. He got up from the porch chair and began to pace. Five of 12.  She’d be on time. 

Why was he ready to share her mis­sion? He’d kept telling him­self that it was just a good sto­ry that should be checked out, even if a bit kooky. Then it struck him. David might have want­ed him to do this. Leave his self-pity and help some­one else. David would have had lit­tle patience for him being mired in guilt. 

Finn didn’t hear Josephine climb the stairs to the porch. She wait­ed until he turned around before she spoke.

“It’s time.” She added, “Do you have bet­ter shoes than those?”

Finn was less star­tled by her silent appear­ance than her state­ment. “My shoes?”

“You know already the ground near that tow­er can turn hot and freez­ing cold with­out warn­ing. It’s like­ly to get worse tonight.”

If he hadn’t expe­ri­enced the heat and cold him­self, he would have polite­ly ignored her, but he knew she was right. He saw that she wore boots that laced up sev­er­al inch­es above her ankles.

“I don’t have any­thing like what you have on, but I did bring anoth­er pair of hik­ing shoes.”

She nod­ded and turned to look at the marsh. Finn dis­ap­peared into the cot­tage, return­ing a half a minute lat­er with shoes that were made more for urban walk­ing, but at the least the soles were thick­er than his sneakers.

Finn came up next to her stand­ing at the porch rail­ing. Josephine kept her gaze fixed on the marsh and forest. 

He said, “What do you see, what are you thinking?”

With­out turn­ing to look at him, she said, “Come. It’s time to do this.”

This time he couldn’t see the pine and cedar trees. The for­est edge appeared as a dark cur­tain. The moon­light was blocked. 

Josephine paused at this line of demar­ca­tion. She took out a rope from her shoul­der bag.

“Here, take this.”

She hand­ed him the rope and took the oth­er end and wrapped it around her waist. Finn did the same. The rope stretched about ten feet between them.

“Fol­low my lead. No flash­light and turn off your phone.”

“How will we see through the dark.”

“I will see for both of us. Once we get to the tow­er, we won’t need the rope. There will be light at the clearing.”

“You’ve done this before?”

“Not like this. Hold onto the rope and fol­low right behind. Stay on the path.”

Finn was about to speak, but Josephine dis­ap­peared into the dark­ness. The rope became taut. Finn swal­lowed hard as she pulled him into the void.

•••

The pitch black of the for­est seemed to suck up all sense of time and light. Josephine had led them close to the clear­ing. He made out the first shafts of light. The out­line of the clear­ing near the tow­er became more pronounced.

She stopped once she reached the edge of the clear­ing. Finn caught up and stood next to her.

Josephine whis­pered, “How did your shoes hold up?”

Finn fig­ured he should whis­per back, “Good enough. In a few places it felt like there was a slight tremor or move­ment below my feet.”

“That would make sense.”

It didn’t make sense, but Finn wait­ed for what she would say next.

“Thank you for doing this?”

“Right, you’re wel­come, but I am not sure what we’re doing?”

“Lanc­ing a wound. It’s my family’s wound but also, it’s yours.”

“I get the first part but not that last part. Mine?”

Josephine kept her eyes glued to the tow­er while speak­ing to Finn. “I know a bur­den weighs on you, but you’re help­ing me with a wound that has been part of this country’s past since Mehitable’s time.”

He didn’t under­stand what she said in a log­i­cal way, but he was begin­ning to under­stand that there was an injury done that was deep and-. 

Josephine tugged his sleeve and said soft­ly, “Lis­ten, do you hear that?”

In the still of the night Finn heard a faint rustling in the under­growth near the tower. 

Josephine point­ed toward the tow­er. “Look, can you see that?” 

In the dark­ness a crouched fig­ure crawled along the ground, emit­ting a slight red glow as it moved toward the tower.

“Yeah, I see it.”

“Cer­berus, he’s on the move. It’s our time.”

•••

By the time they got to the tow­er Cer­berus had van­ished. Finn won­dered if their move­ment through the brack­en had spooked him. 

He whis­pered, “I think he’s gone.”

“No, he’s here.”

“What’s the plan then? What do you want to happen?” 

Josephine turned and faced him. Look­ing straight at him she said, “I need you to lis­ten care­ful­ly. Cer­berus is try­ing to keep some­one buried in there, but she’s alive. We can’t let him do that, but it will take both of us to stop him.”

“How?”

“Light, shin­ing light on his crime.” 

She took out a small flash­light, about the size of his mid­dle finger.

“That’s the light?”

“It’s not just any light. I will need you to hold it and turn it on exact­ly when I give you a sig­nal. Only then will I enter the tow­er and do what needs to be done. Don’t fol­low me in but shine the light when and where I tell you.”

“How will you con­front him, he’s a big- “

“With the light and my pres­ence it will be enough.”

Finn nod­ded, not con­vinced, but he told him­self she must know things that he couldn’t yet grasp.

Josephine motioned to him to move a few yards to the left so they could see through the open­ing in the tow­er. The thrum­ming had got­ten loud­er, obscur­ing the sound of their movement.

They crouched in the under­brush no more than 15 feet from the tower’s entrance. In the chamber’s dim light Finn could see Cer­berus bent down on all fours, mut­ter­ing words he couldn’t under­stand. The floor of the tow­er appeared to be made of exposed earth. Cer­berus cir­cled on all fours around the spot where the ground start­ed to open.

Josephine hand­ed him the flash­light. “When I nod, you shine the light on both Cer­berus and me.”

She shim­mied on her stom­ach toward the tow­er open­ing, reach­ing the out­er wall on one side of the entrance. Josephine stood up and pressed her back against the stone slabs of the tow­er, poised to thrust her­self through the opening.

As she moved into posi­tion, Cerberus’s growl­ing became loud­er. It com­pet­ed with anoth­er sound Finn heard. A plain­tive cry ric­o­cheted off the inte­ri­or walls of the tow­er. The cry turned into a woman’s voice. It emanat­ed from under­neath the ground.

“Why, why,” the voice repeated.

Finn could see Cer­berus stand up and begin to stomp on the shift­ing ground beneath his feet. A bony fin­ger sprout­ed up from the soil and moved back and forth.

Finn saw it as a sign for help. The same motion David had made when he found him dying on his bed­room floor. 

Finn bolt­ed through the open­ing before Josephine had a chance to give the sig­nal to shine the light. He hurled him­self at Cer­berus, shout­ing, “Stop you bastard!” 

The twi­light inside of the tow­er cham­ber instant­ly turned into the pitch black­ness of the for­est. Finn land­ed on the ground with the wind knocked out of him. 

He heard Josephine shout from the tow­er open­ing, “No, no! You didn’t wait for my signal.”

Finn sat up, bewil­dered, and con­fused. He reached for the flash­light in his pock­et and clicked on the light. A pale green glow revealed a cir­cu­lar stone cham­ber with graf­fi­ti tags lit­ter­ing the walls and the remains of charred wood in a pit with scat­tered beer bot­tles piled up. No Cer­berus, no fin­ger pro­trud­ing from the ground.

Josephine stood over him. “It was too soon Finn. Almost, but too soon.”

It was not a rep­ri­mand, more a voice of exhaust­ed sad­ness. Finn felt fever­ish, his mind dizzy. He dropped the flash­light, los­ing the light once it hit the ground. The void wrapped itself around him and filled the cham­ber with a suf­fo­cat­ing blackness.

•••

When he woke up the next morn­ing, the sun was already high over the east­ern hori­zon. Finn looked over at his phone, a lit­tle after 10 am. His head felt like it was going to explode. For a brief moment he thought he must have got­ten drunk and just woke up from a ter­ri­ble night­mare. He was ful­ly clothed and smelled awful.

As he sat up, the headache became a low thrum­ming in his ears. Then he real­ized it was not a night­mare. His heart raced. Frag­ments of mem­o­ry crashed back into his con­scious­ness. The fin­ger beck­on­ing him, rush­ing toward Cer­berus, Josephine’s lament.

The only thing that made any sense was to go back to the book­store and talk it through with Josephine. He need­ed her. Was it for­give­ness for what he had done? Was it to take away the ris­ing feel­ing of a new kind of guilt, even heav­ier than what he had car­ried for his brother? 

He threw his clothes into his back­pack, leav­ing the cot­tage in a mess. His hand trem­bled as he pressed the key to open the car lock. 

•••

The Toy­ota shot across Route 6 into the park­ing lot of La Lumiere Libraire. It screeched to a stop in front of the book­store. Finn real­ized he hadn’t looked to see if cars were com­ing. He reached for a pill in his top pock­et and put it under his tongue and wait­ed for it to take effect. 

Min­utes lat­er he stepped out of the car and walked up to the book­store. A Closed for the Sea­son sign hung from a hook on the door. He stepped back to the side to peer through the win­dows, but wood­en shades blocked the view. Finn hur­ried around the back to check out the patio. He looked over the prop­er­ty fence and saw chairs sit­ting upside down on the cof­fee table.

Finn leaned against the fence. How could she leave? He had ques­tions that need­ed answers. Why would she just up and go? Was she that angry she want­ed to avoid me? But why close the store for the rest of the year?

Then he thought that she might have been hurt or that Cer­berus did some­thing to her. Should he go to the police? As he pon­dered the pos­si­bil­i­ties, a fur­ry ball of brown and white flew by him. Mehty. The cat ran to the front tire of the Toy­ota and sat upright wait­ing for Finn to return to the car. 

“Mehty, what are you doing here? Where’s Josephine?”

The cat rolled on its back­side, invit­ing a good rub. He bent down and oblig­ed her. He took his hand away, but the cat meowed, clear­ly not want­i­ng him to stop. Finn resumed rub­bing her tum­my and con­tem­plat­ed his next move. Before going to the police he’d stop at the near­by Mobil sta­tion and ask who might know why the book­store sud­den­ly closed. 

He got up and said a farewell to Mehty, fig­ur­ing the cat would even­tu­al­ly reunite with her care­tak­er, He opened the door but didn’t see her scoot behind his legs and jump into the back seat under­neath a pile of dirty clothes. 

•••

Finn made sure he didn’t dri­ve like a crazy man this time. He slowed down and turned into a park­ing spot at the Mobil sta­tion. As he got out of the car, he noticed a police cruis­er parked near the front door of the adja­cent Dunkin Donuts. A cop was com­ing out of the store with his coffee.

Finn walked quick­ly toward him, say­ing, “Offi­cer, excuse me, could I ask you a question?”

The cop was a young guy, maybe ear­ly 30s, tall and lean. He stopped mid stride and stared blank faced at Finn.

Finn said, “Sor­ry to both­er you. I’m look­ing for a friend. She owns the sec­ond­hand book­store down the road, but the store just closed for the sea­son. and she’s nowhere around.”

The man took a sip of his cof­fee and then smiled. “Well, you prob­a­bly won’t find her. The store’s been closed for a while. I believe she moved out of town a year ago.”

With­out wait­ing for an answer the offi­cer opened the cruiser’s door to leave.

Finn uttered, “But…” and then stopped him­self. Some­thing about the cop’s man­ner told him not to pur­sue it. The way he spoke to him seemed off. The guy’s words were rushed, and he looked past Finn, focus­ing on the Toy­ota when he spoke. The cruis­er pulled out of the park­ing lot, leav­ing Finn con­fused and shaken.

Finn turned around and start­ed walk­ing back to the Toy­ota. He saw Mehty sit­ting on the dash­board, her eyes track­ing the police car as it drove out of the park­ing lot.

•••

Finn opened the door on the driver’s side. Mehty slid off the dash­board onto the pas­sen­ger seat. Some­how, Mehty find­ing her way into his car did not seem sur­pris­ing or strange at all, giv­en every­thing. He looked at the cat and she looked back at him.

“Mehty, what do we do now? Where is Josephine? I think we both need to find her, don’t you?”

As if in response to his ques­tion, the cat made a low purr and crawled onto his lap. Her tail mov­ing slow­ly back and forth across the cen­ter console.

Finn had to admit that Mehty on his lap was bet­ter than a pill under his tongue. Her head nuz­zled into his chest as her tail con­tin­ued to move back and forth. He half smiled, amazed at how adapt­able these crea­tures were and almost hyp­no­tized by the rhyth­mic move­ment of her tail.

He was about to put the key into the igni­tion, hav­ing no clue on where to go next, when he saw the white spot stick­ing out from the wedge between his seat and the con­sole. He reached over and saw that it was a small enve­lope that must have fall­en from the seat into the crack between the console.

Finn pulled it up and saw his name on it writ­ten in an ele­gant cur­sive script. For Finn Wake­field. He opened the enve­lope and read the message:

I brought you back from the Tow­er. I am sor­ry I had to leave, but I will be back. I hope you will return next Octo­ber and help me fin­ish our work. Until then Mehty will be a good com­pan­ion. This strug­gle needs both of us, but You are stronger than you think.

Yours, Josephine Dumoix

He read it over sev­er­al times, let­ting the words sink in. It didn’t mat­ter that he didn’t under­stand every­thing or hard­ly any­thing. What was impor­tant was she was alive and seemed not to blame him for his impulsivity. 

Finn looked down at Mehty, in full snooze mode on his lap. “Well Mehty, she thinks I’m stronger than I think. Not sure about that, but we can talk more about it when we get home.”

The Toy­ota pulled out of the park­ing lot and turned left. The same closed stores and odd bric a brac from the past sum­mer lined the high­way as he sped past the Well­fleet road sign. Min­utes lat­er the Toy­ota approached the turn off toward Mar­coni Beach in South Well­fleet. Mehty moved off his lap and raised her head.

Finn looked over at the exit, think­ing this was where things began to turn strange. When he turned his atten­tion back to the road, he slammed on the brakes. Mehty jumped off his lap onto the pas­sen­ger seat. The same Rot­tweil­er he had seen before stood in the mid­dle of the road.

Time stood still. The dog showed its teeth, and its red eyes locked onto Finn. Finn felt like he was falling into a black hole. Mehty jumped onto the dash­board and arched her back, let­ting out a long-sus­tained hiss. The dog growled but lost its hold on Finn. It turned with its tail between its legs and slinked back into the cedar forest.

Finn blinked a few times and rubbed his face. Mehty jumped back onto the seat and then crawled back onto his lap. 

“You’re more than just any old kit­ty. Aren’t you?” He pressed down on the gas ped­al, think­ing about what must be done next October.

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Con­tribut­ing Author

a.l Daw­son’s (he/him) short sto­ries, Sacred Ground and The Keep­er, were pub­lished in 2020 in Aphe­lion. Two short stores, The Cross­ing and Call Me Math­ias, were pub­lished respec­tive­ly in the antholo­gies, Blood­root: Best New Eng­land Crime Sto­ries, 2021 and Dead­ly Night­shade: Best New Eng­land Crime Sto­ries, 2022. Dawson’s most recent sto­ry, Eury­dice in the Flows, was pub­lished in the anthol­o­gy, Unspeak­able Crimes (2022). Daw­son con­tin­ues to write non-fic­tion essays for mag­a­zines and jour­nals under the name of A. Stoskopf. Dawson’s coun­sel­ing of refugees and immi­grants has deeply influ­enced many of the themes and char­ac­ter con­struc­tions in his fic­tion writing.

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