Matthew, pull your window up.” “But Mom…”
“You’re freezing us out, pull it up.”
“But I’m feeling sick back here.”
“Then pull it up at least half way.”
Sinking into his seat with a sigh, Matthew put his cold finger on the automatic window opener. Up, down, up, down — until Dad turned the window lock on. The mountains excited Matthew for the first hour, but the winding roads were taking their toll. Even the fall leaves couldn’t lift his spirits anymore.
“It feels like we’ve been driving forever. You lived in the middle of nowhere.” Dad smiled for the first time since the trip began. “Only thirty minutes to go.” “When you lived in Willow, did you live in a tent?”
“Why would you think I lived in a tent?”
“Because we haven’t seen a town for a long time. And you said Willow isn’t a town.”
“Okay, Willow isn’t a town like you’re used to. It’s much smaller, but there’s buildings there: a church building, gas station…”
“I’m sure there’s tents there, but no one lives in a tent.”
As the fog lights felt their way through the darkening dusk, the leaves’ yellows, oranges, and reds turned into a uniform gray. The road was under water, or at least it sounded like it, and Matthew rubbed his ears to pop them. He couldn’t understand why Dad and Mom had been acting strange for the past week. Everything changed after the phone call. A lawyer told Dad his mother died, and Dad and Mom had been bickering ever since. Because Matthew had never met his grandma, it was hard to be sad about someone you never knew. He was more upset about missing Halloween with his friends.
The road straightened out, and the few lights of Willow glowed welcome below. Matthew could barely make out a church steeple in the distance, but no tents. Dad and Mom fussed again until he pulled into the one gas station and slammed the door shut with a grunt. Matthew opened the door and ran out after him, his cramped, skinny legs glad to stretch out.
“Get back in the car.”
“But I want to go inside the gas station with you. Please?”
Dad didn’t say anything, and Matthew followed him through the empty parking lot.
Dad’s breath hung in the air, but Matthew sunk his face deeper into his jacket. A chewing tobacco poster taped to the dirty window greeted them, the yellowed tape peeling under the light of the blinking neon sign.
“Pump two.” Dad put $30 on the counter.
Keeping his eye on Dad, the man behind the counter opened the cash register. “Driving through?”
“No, got family here.”
The man closed the till. “You don’t happen to be one of them Kent boys?”
“Thomas and Doris’ son? The youngest one, right?”
The man whistled slow and leaned back in his chair. “Well Tucker,” the man paused, drawing his voice out, “didn’t think I’d be seeing you again in these parts.”
The door closed, muffling the bells hanging from the frame. Matthew pestered his dad to let him pump the gas, and they compromised on Dad starting it and Matthew holding the nozzle. “You’ll be pumping gas the rest of your life. No need to get in a hurry.” But to Matthew, it only meant he should start practicing now.
In a blink, the few buildings in the heart of Willow passed in a blur and, once again, night enveloped the car so thick only the stars could see them. Asphalt gave way to gravel, and up ahead, a single porch light waited for them.
“Before we get out, Matthew, remember your manners. And she’ll want you to call her Aunt Mae.”
“But I’ve never met her before!”
Dad’s eye reflected in the rearview mirror. “Manners.” Matthew knew the tone: he couldn’t mess around. But he managed to get in one rebellious sigh as the car doors closed.
“The house looks creepy. Do we have to sleep here?” Before Dad could answer, the front door opened.
“Y’all finally made it. Come on in. Tucker, do you need any help with the bags? Oh, don’t worry about the shoes. You won’t mess up these old floors.”
Seeing Dad’s nod directed at his feet, Matthew bent down to take his sneakers off. He was untying the right shoe when Aunt Mae put her hand on his shoulder.
“And who is this fine man? Oh my, honey, you look just like your daddy.”
“I’m Matthew Gray Kent.”
“What a nice name.”
“My middle name is Gray because that’s my mom’s middle name, but it was actually Dad’s idea to call me Mathew Gray because he said he had to do something to make up for his bad genes.”
Matthew smiled; this introduction always made people laugh. Silence left him with one shoe on his foot and the other shoe in his hand. Aunt Mae paused, and though Matthew couldn’t see it, her face twitched ever so slightly.
“And this must be your mom.”
“Hi, I’m Jennifer. Nice to meet you.”
Aunt Mae gave a polite nod before whisking them all to the kitchen. Matthew sat down under the overhanging light, illuminating glazed ham, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, and a pitted wood tabletop.
“Now Matthew, this is the same table your daddy ate at. And if my memory isn’t failing, why, I believe you’re sitting exactly where he sat as a little boy.”
“They say the mind starts failing when you get older.”
The silver spoon hovered over the mashed potatoes, but Aunt Mae finally chuckled. “From the mouth of babes.”
“Are you Dad’s sister?”
“Then why do you look so much older than Dad?”
“If you don’t start minding your manners, I will take you outside.” Mom pinched Matthew’s little arm while whispering into his ear. “Do you hear me?” Matthew nodded with big eyes, but now the insides of his ear felt wet.
“Oh, he’s all right. Sometimes it takes children to say what needs to be said.”
Dad piled mashed potatoes onto his plate with grimness.
Aunt Mae sat down and continued. “I look older because I am older, and…Jennifer, you get all the green bean casserole you want, don’t be shy. Those beans just kept producing this summer. Yes, I’m seventeen-years older than your daddy, and your Uncle Lester is…oh my, let me think.” Aunt Mae put both fingers to her lip. “I was born in 1946 which means he was born in 1941, making him fifty-five.”
“You have a good memory.”
Mom shot Matthew a murderous glare.
“In other words, I was an accident.” Tucker followed his observation with a well-timed sip of water.
“What’s an ‘accident’?” Matthew asked.
“Now Tucker, don’t go talking like that around the children. Matthew, here, you get yourself some of these mashed potatoes.”
The bowl of white-creamed softness, beat into soft peaks, sat on what looked like a wood coaster. Upon further inspection, Matthew realized the coaster swiveled, spinning the potatoes and a small bowl of gravy. After spinning it the second time, Mom slapped his hand, sending the entire table into a long silence where only scraping forks and shifting plates dared to make a sound. The rest of the night, conversation became nothing more than half-hearted attempts to spark more than small-talk. Meanwhile, the hearth blazed.
Shooed to bed and tucked under a musty quilt, Matthew could not fall asleep. Yellowing dollies, antique dolls, and cherry dresser drawers — all dimly lit by fire and incandescent light bulbs — floated in his mind to the sound of a ticking grandfather clock. But adventurous unease won over drooping eye lids. Matthew put one toe to the cold floor, testing the wooden waters, feeling the draft. Diving into the darkness, he creeped from one shadow to the next until he reached the summit of the stairs. Below, the grandfather clock chimed over the hushed voices and crackling logs.
“You should have tried.”
“He didn’t want me there.”
“But it wasn’t about him, Tucker. It was about Father!”
“Fine, but then he turns around and doesn’t invite me to Mom’s funeral? Come on.” “Your brother gets his feelings easily hurt too. You Kent menfolks are the most sensitive bunch of…”
“You know dad and I didn’t get along. But how dare Lester try to pull that on me.”
“You should try to go the gravesite. It would bring closure.”
“That’s all you people up here know to do: wave at people driving by and visit dead people sleeping in their graves.
Matthew heard his mother’s voice, taut but conciliatory. “Where is the gravesite?”
“Oh, yonder past my fence line.”
The voices died out, lowering again to inaudible whispers. Matthew gripped the banister. He didn’t know what yonder was, but tomorrow, he would find out.
Leaves hung on by a thread, the chill wind trying to break them loose. Another gust, and more causalities floated to earth. Their corpses would become a blanket for the hibernating ground, but for now, they cracked and splintered under Matthew’s boots.
The lawyer was to come today, and nobody wanted an eleven year old disrupting proceedings. “Stay on this side of the fence, and you’ll be fine,” Aunt Mae had said with a wink. Mom disagreed. Her son by himself in those godforsaken woods without adult supervision? Dad and Mom argued. There was always an adult around in Matthew’ life: don’t touch this, don’t say this, don’t move, stay here, keep quiet. But now, he walked alone, and the very act filled him with strange pleasure.
Then he saw it.
A barbed wire fence, the gray-weathered posts rotting under lichen. More woods beckoning on the other side. Matthew felt like a magnet, drawn toward the twisted metal barbs. He walked closer. Beyond, the ground sloped up, disappearing behind close-knit trunks.
Dad warned him about electrified fences so strong they could knock a full man back ten yards. Or kill him. Shaking, Matthew took off his glove and reached toward the fence. One finger hovered over the wire. The cold metal greeted him, and he jerked his hand back with a yell. He looked around to see if anyone observed his shameful scream before touching the fence again.
He held his glove, shifting from foot to foot.
“Well, I might as well take a quick look,” Matthew said aloud, more to make himself feel better than anything. He fell to his belly, inching under the wire, pushing with his knees, pulling with his arms. Like a turtle with broken legs, he thought, or better yet, a soldier on a battlefield.
Something snagged the beanie off his head and Matthew muffled a shriek. His hat was gone. He pushed past the fence and sat up, his chest heaving with exertion. Pierced by a barb, his blue beanie hung on the wire.
Leaving the first victim behind, Matthew crawled over damp rocks and slippery leaves, straight into the thickets ahead. No matter how much time went by, the sun could not break free from its overcast prison. Finally, a huffing Matthew sat down on a rock, but something was wrong.
He got up. Squatting, Matthew squinted at the granite poking up through the leaves. He pushed aside the fresh, still-colorful leaves and the darker, rotting leaves underneath.
There, a tombstone. On it, inscribed the words: “RIP Matthew Kent. 1743 – 1799”. Matthew’s skin prickled. More rocks, or rather tombstones, dotted the ground around him while leaves whispered above in the cold stillness. Not one was freshly dug for his late grandmother.
A hidden gravesite. A tombstone with his name on it. Yonder now felt more like a grisly shadow than a location for grandmother’s dead body. After apologizing to Matthew Kent (the one in the ground), Matthew picked his way between the graves and made his way back toward the barbed wire fence.
It wasn’t there.
Matthew backtracked, circled around, and trudged forward, all the while knowing the fence had to appear somewhere. But it never revealed itself. Mist still clung in the hollows, masking where he had walked and where he was going. With weakening legs and weaker lungs not adjusted to such altitudes, Matthew stumbled to a stop. After double-checking the rock, he sat down with his running red nose buried in his gloves.
He peered through the wool fingers, and what he saw made his skin crawl, even underneath all the layered clothing. The mist moved, creating a swirling crack in the cloudy wall. As Matthew stood up and drew closer, the opening before him deepened with every step he took. He rubbed his eyes and blinked, but there it was — an amorphous, shifting path leading into a white void. Matthew reached out, his finger tips grazing the floating eddies and water droplets. Yet all he felt was cold air.
Guided only by a growing path into the mist, he walked forward, his shaggy hair becoming heavy with moisture.
Matthew happened to turn around when he saw a disembodied hand reach out, floating in midair. The outstretched fingers curled around his bony shoulder. Yelling, he turned, tripped on a rock, and fell to the ground. The hand was followed by an arm then a body. It was a bearded man wearing worn jeans and a puzzled face, all underneath graying hair sticking out of his ball cap.
“What are you doing out here by yourself?”
“Sorry, I…well, I got lost and I don’t know where I am or who you are but I’m Matthew and I’m trying to find my…”
“Slow down, boy.” The languid voice drawled. “I know who you are, but I’m trying to figure out why you’re out here by yourself. Not like Tucker and his woman to let you go running through these woods alone.”
“You know my dad?”
“He’s my brother.”
“Wait!” Matthew got up and brushed the leaves off the back of his pants. “You’re my uncle then. Uncle…let me see, I already forgot. Uncle Jester? Fester?”
“Lester.” Uncle Lester turned around with a huff, his hands stuck all the way into his pockets. “Let’s get you back to Mae’s.”
Matthew tried to keep up with Uncle Lester’s long stride, often leaping from rock to rock to keep up. Ahead, a trailer with greening sides. To the side, a serpentine gravel driveway. Above, oranges, yellows, and reds swaying in the wood fire smoke drifting through the limbs.
“Is this where you live?”
Uncle Lester grunted, a reply that Matthew assumed to mean “yes”.
“It’s very nice.”
Uncle Lester did not grunt back. Matthew decided to say it louder because maybe his uncle was hard of hearing.
“I said, ‘It’s very nice.’”
“I heard you the first time, son.”
A chained dog ran out from behind the trailer, barking with wagging tail.
“I swear, barking with that motor tail of yours ain’t gonna scare the…scare nobody, you good-for-nothing mutt.”
Matthew ran to the dog, scratching between its eyes, behind the ears, and then the belly. By the time Uncle Lester opened the door, the dog was on its back, scratching its belly with its hind leg while Matthew assisted.
“What a nice dog! What’s its name?”
“Dog.” Lester opened the door. “Come inside.”
Matthew walked up the creaking steps into the cramped, single-wide trailer. Inside, the faint smell of cigarette smoke clung to the faded burgundy couch, teal accents, and a mounted deer head.
“Want a soda pop?”
Matthew pulled a seat up to the peeling laminate counter top. “Yes sir.” “You don’t need to call me ‘sir’.”
“On the way up here, Mom told me to say ‘sir’. Are all codgers called ‘sir’?”
“Are all codgers called ‘sir’?”
Uncle Lester rolled his eyes. “What are you youngins learning in school these days?”
“Oh. Well, dad said you were a codger.”
Lester paused, holding the refrigerator door open halfway. A few seconds went by before he produced a RC soda can.
“Um, let me see,” he muttered to himself, his head buried in the fridge. “Sweet potato pie sound good?”
“A pie made out of sweet potatoes?”
“Loud as Tucker I see. Try it. It’ll be good with pop and keep your mouth full while I call Mae.”
“Wait, wait, wait!” Matthew threw his chair back with a clatter and ran between Lester and the phone. “My mom will freak out if she finds out I got lost. Can’t you take me back to the house instead? Pretend like it’s no big deal?”
“They’re probably already fretting about you now, son.”
“No, the lawyer is there. They’re busy.”
At that, Lester’s hand drooped. Going back to the refrigerator, he pulled out a beer, threw the top into the trash, and sat on the couch. “Finish your pop and pie then.” Matthew pulled his chair back up and sat down at the counter. On the third attempt, he managed to pull the tab back, but not before soda bubbled up and out of the can, covering the counter in sticky fizz.
Lester shot up from the couch, saying a word Matthew had never heard before. Together, they cleaned up the mess. Afterwords, Lester made Matthew promise to never repeat that word.
After they finished cleaning up, Matthew finished his pie and Lester his beer.
“This pie is real good.”
“Mae made it.”
“So are you going to take me back?”
Uncle Lester shifted on the couch, avoiding Matthew’s eyes.
“First, you never told me what you were doing all the way up here.”
“Aunt Mae said Grandma was buried in yonder past her fence line. And I was trying to find it.”
“Trying to find mammy’s grave here?” Uncle Lester shook his head, then took another sip from the amber bottle. “She’s buried in the opposite direction, out by the church building in Willow.”
“But Aunt Mae said it was in yonder past her fence line. Not in Willow.”
“Hmph. This is where yonder ends, child. There ain’t nothin past this place. It’s all mountains and hollers from here on out.” Uncle Lester took the keys off the hook and opened the door. “When you finish the pie, meet me outside.” The door slammed shut, leaving Matthew alone with his RC soda and half-finished sweet potato pie. The glass-eyed deer head looked on from above.
Can’t we go faster?”
Uncle Lester grunted in reply, but this time, Matthew assumed the grunt meant “no”.
They were driving over a pot-hole-filled road at 35 mph, windows down, rearview mirror rattling. Even the yellow padding in the ripped seats shook. A plastic bottle holding brown liquid sloshed at Matthew’s feet. Sometimes, Uncle Lester spit in it, but Matthew decided to not ask why.
“Like it here?” Lester spat into the plastic bottle again.
“This place is cool! And creepy too. I like the sweet potato pie, the RC soda, you, my Aunt (But she can be a bit ornery sometimes.), the mountains (They’re so big aren’t they? We don’t have anything like that back home), and the air.”
“The air?” Uncle Lester’s laughter filled the truck for the first time.
“The air smells clean, you know? Our air is dirty. At home, mom tells me not to leave my coat outside or it will smell and she’ll have to wash it again. But here, I feel like you can leave something out forever and it would smell cleaner and cleaner. Like the air is cleaning it.”
Matthew’s constant questions broke up the rest of the drive. Color-laden limbs whipped by, and the occasional limb grazed the truck’s blue top. Woods gave way to pasture, and up ahead, Aunt Mae’s house waited for them.
“You know, I was thinking why Grandma wasn’t buried in that graveyard.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know, when I found that gravesite?”
“There is no gravesite anywhere close to where you were in those woods.”
“I tripped on a gravestone. And it even had my name on it! ‘Matthew Kent. Seventeen something to…to seventeen ninety eight, I think?”
“Stop pulling my leg.”
“But I’m serious!”
The truck slowed to a stop next to the porch. “I have walked those woods my entire life. And I can tell you as sure as I’m sitting here that there ain’t a single gravestone in those woods.” Uncle Lester side-eyed his nephew while cranking the window up.
Matthew gulped before sliding out the door to the ground. “Well I know I saw it,” he muttered aloud.
Aunt Mae came to the door and waved. “Lester! What a surprise. I didn’t know you were coming over here for dinner.”
“Mae, I ain’t staying. I’m only…”
“Of course you are. Don’t be silly.”
Dad and Mom followed Mae to the door. At the sight of Lester, Dad’s face went terse. Both nodded to each other.
“Matthew, what happened to your clothes?” Mom came sweeping down the steps while Dad turned away embarrassed. “You got dirt all over them. Brand new too! And don’t tell me you lost your hat as well. I bought that hat last week.”
Matthew said sorry, but inside, he was happy the ugly hat was out there soaking up wind and water. Uncle Lester came to his rescue, explaining it was his fault for showing Matthew around in the woods, but Aunt Mae put her her hands on her hip. Matthew’s blood slowed to a stop: Aunt Mae knew.
The lawyer had already left. Bowls and plates and dishes heaped high with steaming food filled the pitted table. There was even a sweet potato pie for dessert, but when Matthew went to tell everyone how much he loved sweet potato pie, Uncle Lester shot him a warning look.
After dinner, everyone went to the front porch: Dad and Mom on the swing, Aunt Mae on the rocking chair, Uncle Lester on the front steps. Matthew ran to and fro across the front yard, chasing fireflies phosphorescing in the violet twilight.
Matthew grasped at the air and one glowing dot disappeared from the fall night. Peeking between his cupped hands, a yellow-green light flickered. As he released the firefly back into the night, Matthew smiled. He had cornered Uncle Lester after dinner, explaining how he crossed the fence, stumbled on the gravestone, and even how the mist led him out of the woods. Uncle Lester shook his head, grumbling something about “failing education” and “when I was a kid”. Regardless if grumpy Uncle Lester believed him or not, he knew the truth.
Matthew had found yonder.