J.D. looked more bear than man, sitting in the signless Twofork Diner, on the last blustery day of October. Dirty flannel, shaggy hair and a beard that had grown to mountain man proportions, he greeted the diner’s owner, Charlie, with as much friendliness as he could muster--- which means he ignored him.
"You wolfed down that first sandwich," said Charlie, fishing to start a conversation. "Like you ain’t ate in 2 days."
It had been more like three, except for the partial remains of a squirrel Arthur had caught yesterday. The pit bull had eaten most of it before reluctantly giving the rest to J.D. to cook and eat.
"Mmm," grunted J.D.
Feeling like he’d been cheated out of a conversation, the diner owner dropped the plate with the next cheesesteak on the ancient, cracked, lime green Formica tabletop. J.D. continued to ignore his host, staring blankly into the racks of gum and mints Charlie had accumulated over the years. Most of the stuff he’d acquired at flea markets wholesale or from shady product testers, shilling snacks no one ever heard of. The entire rack had long since past its freshness date.
And that, thought J.D., could sum up his entire philosophy of man’s society. Here he was, practically in the middle of the Pine Barrens, in a converted house with no sign, a dilapidated pool table and no neighboring businesses for miles--- And the humans were still trying to sell him. Still pushing their civilization as the "end all" "be all", like desperate carnival barkers in the middle of the desert.
"Mmmm, aheh-ha!" laughed Charlie’s fry cook.
The cook was a perpetually sweaty man in a stained polyester sports jacket and mismatched pants. A cigarette dangled precariously from his quivering bottom lip and J.D. noticed the faint taste of ash in his sandwich.
"Videl!" Charlie chided the cook. "Get the stove cleaned up. We gotta a dinner rush!"
J.D. made a scoffing sound, as if the owner was being more than overly optimistic. The burly hermit chewed and pondered his winter accommodations for this, the one hateful time of year he left the Pines for humanity’s unwelcomed, warm embrace. This would be his third winter in Sea Isle, thanks to Mrs. K, the old land developer he saved from the forest fire four years ago. He was able to live there, rent free, while watching her summer home, no questions asked. J.D. left the place so clean, that by the time she returned in April, she wondered if he’d took her up on the offer at all.
But, to the devil’s shame, he did. Living on the desolate streets of Sea Isle, while the snow howled across the lonely waves and the streets became so empty, the town didn’t bother to plow them or keep the street lamps lit. J.D. spent most of his time in Mrs. K’s library, surrounded by the musty smell of old leather and the walls of books, until the spring thaw sent him skulking back to his beloved Pines.
"This your dog?" asked the officer with Arthur in tow.
Arthur had been sitting patiently outside and was, like J.D., not normally disposed to being led. But the hungry pit bull figured any chance to get closer to the smell of meat was a good one and happily let the officer guide him inside. J.D. didn’t turn to face the officer, but stopped in mid-bite of his sandwich to respond.
"So what if it is?" he asked, annoyed at having his meal interrupted.
"We got leash laws in this state," explained the cop like he was talking to a child. "Needs a license too. He have his shots?"
"Well, look, why don’t we just head down to the station and fill out the forms. Won’t cost you much."
"I’m eating lunch. Go away."
The giggling, polyester fry cook found this last statement hilarious. The cop frowned.
"Mister," said the officer determinedly. "I don’t like your attitude. When a police officer says go, you go. And that’s that."
"You mean when you say go, I should go because people should listen to you. You like wearing that uniform. You like tellin’ people what to do. Well," said J.D. finally turning around, letting a tuft of hair fall across his face. "I don’t like listenin’."
The officer shifted his weight and unbuckled the clasp on his holster. He was considering what the pit bull might do if he arrested J.D. The hermit felt himself tensing up at the impending violent confrontation. He couldn’t let the officer take him. He wouldn’t go back to the barred windows and the drab walls of Hell. And he’d never let them take Arthur. For the dog, it would mean a death sentence.
Arthur’s surprised yelp gave the ghost away. That’s how J.D. knew they were real, when the animals would get spooked. J.D. stood fast enough to knock over the table. Like the others in the diner, he stared in stunned silence.
She was an aging beauty, perhaps mid-thirties, dressed in a rotting, mud-soaked dress. In one hand, she pulled a double headed ax, it’s handle warped from weeks in the swamp. In the other, a dirty clump of brown hair, which ended with her pale, lifeless head and a mildew covered stump. The top of her neck was just a moldy, jagged wound, which issued bubbling and sucking sounds as her severed vocal chords matched the movement of her speech.
"Collect…my…Hadden…" she hissed. "Collect…my…Hadden…"
"Videl, you see that?!" gasped Charlie.
Videl had stooped below the counter to open a new package of handi-wipes when the commotion started. The officer turned back towards J.D., but he and Arthur were already gone, the movement of the back door the only evidence they had even been there. Likewise, the headless woman seemingly disappeared.
"What in the Hell was that?" said the officer aloud. "We all saw it."
"You ever hear of the story of the headless wizard?" replied Charlie, remembering his grandfather’s tale. "Sold his soul to the Devil for his dark power. Maybe the devil’s collectin’."
And the fry cook laughed at nothing in particular.
Some distance away, J.D. and Arthur hurried through a marshy section of Pines. If he could make it to Egg Harbor before nightfall, he could catch the bus to Sea Isle.
Suddenly, the mud and water erupted in front of J.D. Arthur barked ferociously as the headless corpse rose from the algae-choked spot. J.D. was familiar with the many ghosts of the Pines, but she was new. The air around them became charged, like just before a thunderstorm. He knew at once that they were very close to the scene of her death, it was the only way a spirit so "young" would have so much power.
"Go away, dead woman," ordered J.D. "And keep your corpse in its grave where it belongs."
"I don’t know what the other ghosts have told you," J.D. explained. "But I am not your instrument of vengeance. I’ve damned myself enough in this life to heft your burden of sins. Now, LEAVE ME ALONE!"
The disembodied head wailed a soulshreik that startled even the veteran ghost spotter like J.D. The roots of a partially submerged cedar wriggled with an unnatural liveliness. J.D. leapt out of their path, only to realize that they were not reaching for him.
The pitbull struggled, but its jaws were little match for the dead wood which enveloped it like a choking ivy. As the dog was pulled into the muck, J.D. dove, sticking his arm out just in time for the animal to latch onto his sleeve. The fabric gave way and the canine disappeared into the murky depths. J.D. whirled around, but the headless woman was gone.
"Bring him back!"
"I’ll do as you say," J.D. reluctantly spat. "But if I bring this Hadden, you must release my friend unharmed."
The disembodied head surfaced in the deepest pond of the swamp to J.D.’s right. He turned in time to see Arthur surface, completely encased in roots.
"Who are you?!" demanded J.D.
The filmy, mud-stained eyes rolled back into the woman’s head and J.D. was overwhelmed by her vision of death. Falling to his knees, he strained to see her painful story.
Roslyn was a bright, youthful woman with her whole life ahead of her. But a man, just as youthful and bright, took it all away. His name was Hadden Burrow, a traveling salesman with charm and good looks. He convinced Roslyn a night in the Pines would be romantic. He beheaded her with an ax shortly after getting out of the car.
Afterwards, he unceremoniously dumped her in the swamp and thus, she became another of the hundreds of souls haunting the Pine Barrens. But, young and foolish spirit she was, Roslyn still thought she needed her body to move around. J.D. could see her soulself below the corpse, struggling to move the long dead vehicle of her torso and limbs.
"How do I find him?" asked J.D., a bit drained from the experience.
There was a gurgling sound. J.D. turned and watched the water inside his muddy footprint cough up a wallet photo of Hadden and a torn driver’s license. Although Hadden’s name had been torn from the license, the address was still clear.
Several hours later, J.D. was trudging down the desolate backways of the Pines on the way to the Woodbine address. By chance, he stumble upon a young woman who had broken down with her car. J.D. though about heading off into the woods to avoid her, but didn’t want to look even more suspicious. He planned to walk right by her, but she was more friendly than sensible.
"Hi," she called. "Did you break down too? If you can give me a hand, I’ll give you a ride."
"Which way are you going?"
"South towards the college. I go to Stockton."
J.D. took a few steps back and looked at the engine.
"I’m Sarah, by the way," she smiled pleasantly. "You live around here?"
"Yes," said J.D. examining the carburetor. "Do you think just because this is a desolate area that it is any less dangerous?"
"Well no," she admitted. "But, if you were going to hurt me, you would’ve snuck up on me right?"
J.D. got behind the wheel and turned the engine over.
"I’m not the kind of person that discriminates against someone solely based on their looks," she bragged. "See? You fixed it. I’m a great judge of character."
"Actually," informed J.D. "You’re not. The payphone’s six miles that way."
J.D. took off in the opposite direction, tossing the naive coed her purse as he did so.
Burrow’s house rested on a well-shaded street, shrouded in ancient oak and pines. Most of his lawn was a mossy, neglected patch of dirt, the plants having been long deprived of the life giving rays of the sun. J.D. broke in through the basement window.
The cellar was a neatly arranged workshop, with a carefully arranged rack of tools, a spotless workbench and a brand new, tabletop vice. J.D. was heading upstairs in the house when he noticed a box full of junk. It seemed oddly out of place in this orderly environment. He went back down the steps and examined it. It contained a rusty carpenter’s plane, an English-Latin Dictionary, a frame picture of a sailboat, a black computer disc, an earring and a gardener’s spade.
The upstairs was just as neat. Early American furniture with polished, dark wood and cushions, with the fabric still clean and crisp as when it was purchased. The home was obviously well-tended but it felt disconnected somehow. As if the person who occupied it didn’t want to take the risk of personalizing it with decoration. Finally, he came to a neatly arranged desk containing papers, business documents and a newly renewed driver’s license. J.D. saw the number when the realization hit him. Unfortunately, Hadden had hit him too.
When J.D. came too, he found himself in the pristine basement again. Only this time things weren’t so neat. He was handcuffed to a water pipe a few feet away from the workbench. The back of his head was throbbing and a small, kitchen fire extinguisher lay on the floor by his feet. Nearby, Hadden sparked a blowtorch to light and adjusted the flame.
Hadden was as neat and careful as his house. He wore a workman’s smock over a pair of brand new overalls. He had neatly cropped hair and a meticulously shaved face. He was a young, charming, on-the-fast-track type. Nobody every suspected he’d jaywalk, much less murder people.
"You know, I can legally kill you," said the killer, amused at his good fortune. "I mean, there’s really nothing anyone can do. You broke into my house. I feel so violated."
"Torture isn’t exactly self-defense and I didn’t break in. I was sent here."
"Really," smiled Hadden, amazed one victim could be so entertaining. "Who sent you? I’ll bet it was that bitch from San Diego. She almost ruined everything with the indictment."
"Roslyn sent me to collect you."
"Huh," he replied, the fun suddenly gone from the room. "Now that’s funny. Roslyn. What are you? Her brother or something?"
"Well, Mr. Something," Hadden sneered, now annoyed. "As soon as I weld a steel plate over the basement window you broke, I’m gonna do a little welding on you."
Just as Hadden turned away, J.D. struck lifting his right foot up and slamming it down on Hadden’s hand as it passed over the open vice. With his other foot, he smacked the lever and the newly greased vice tightened in place before Hadden could get his hand out. J.D. tightened it with a few more turns and Hadden dropped the torch and moaned in agony.
"Oh, God!" he whined. "You are so fucking dead!"
"Gimme the keys."
J.D. kicked the lever, giving the vice half a turn, Hadden writhed.
"Then you’re in a world of shit. Gimme the God damn keys."
It took another half turn, but Hadden finally handed J.D. the handcuff keys and the angry hermit freed himself. He calmly turned off the blowtorch.
"What kind of car you got?"
"C’mon, man!" he squealed gesturing to the vice.
J.D. smacked him across the head with the torch and repeated, "What kind of car ya got?"
"It’s the blue Escort, the keys are in the kitchen now---"
It took two more hits with the torch before Hadden finally slumped over. J.D. heard some bones snap, as the weight of his body pulled against the vice. Undoing the vice, J.D. make a makeshift bandage from some duct tape. A few minutes later, he was driving out of Woodbine with Hadden tied up in the trunk.
Halfway back to the diner, J.D. spotted the fry cook hitch hiking in the opposite direction. They made eye contact, despite the darkness, for just a split second. Videl laughed and watched the Escort fade into the distance.
Hadden was still groggy as J.D. dragged him into the woods. He brought the blowtorch, the dim blue flame gave off enough light for him to make his way.
"What are you going to do? Show me the body? I’ve seen it. Go ahead and kill me," defied Hadden. "You think I care?"
"I can’t kill you here and yes, you do care. You care a great deal. You can’t stand the thought of getting old, can you? That’s why you killed all those people, because you can’t kill yourself and you can’t stop yourself from aging."
"You’re full of shit!"
J.D. held up the box of junk.
"Don’t lie to me. I found your trophies," spat J.D. "And I know why she wants you here."
And with that, the mud burst open and Roslyn rose forth. Arthur rose up behind her.
"Hadden…" she gurgled.
"Oh, my God!"
"Let go of the dog."
The ghost seemed to hesitate a moment, but with her goal so close at hand, she faltered and released the pitbull. The dog scrambled to his feet.
J.D. tossed the blowtorch, striking the rotting corpse in the hand and igniting the hair on the disembodied head. Hadden broke free from the hermit’s grasp and ran as fast as his legs would carry him.
Instinctively, the pitbull grabbed the head, as Roslyn’s body fumbled and let it go. Roots sprang forth in random directions, reaching for the hermit and Hadden at odd angles. The headless body stumbled through the forest.
"Hadden…Hadden…" gasped the disembodied head.
J.D. made it to the safety of a blacktop highway on the border of the Pines. The blue Escort was parked just across the street and Hadden, who had broken the driver’s side window, was trying to start it. J.D. took the head from Arthur’s jaws.
"Why…why…" it moaned.
"You know why," said J.D. "That wasn’t Hadden’s driver’s license you gave me, it was yours. You lived with him. You murdered with him. You didn’t want him here for revenge, you wanted him to die in the Pines so you could be trapped for eternity together. So you could continue to kill."
As J.D. tossed the head into the center of the road, a loaded semi came barreling down the road. Roslyn’s head pleaded for the body to stop, but it was too late. The truck ran down the headless body, causing it to burst into a million muddy pieces. J.D. watched as Roslyn’s soul self reduced its haunting to just the head. He walked over and pressed the crying, muddy face into the muck where it wouldn’t be found for a millennia. Hadden got out of the Escort, confident the worst was over.
"Man, I don’t know how to thank you," he laughed. "What now? You turn me into the cops, I guess. I’ll go along quietly, its the least I can do."
J.D. drew a weathered .45 from his jacket pocket and aimed it Hadden’s head.
"Wait a minute, you said you wouldn’t---"
"I said I couldn’t kill you in the Pines."
The retort of the pistol echoed through the Pines and the lifeless body of Hadden fell back into the brush. The angry hermit took a long, last look at Roslyn’s soul self, nothing more but a ghostly head, whispering with ephemeral vocal chords in a voice no one would hear. J.D. heard the comforting pine needles crunch beneath his feet and then the giggling laugh of the fry cook.
"You do nice work," laughed Videl, taking Hadden’s body by the feet.
"I know who you are," said the hermit, shooting an angry glance. "Videl."
"I suppose you would, wouldn’t you?" he smiled dragging Hadden into the darkness. "Until the next time, huh?"
And J.D. and Arthur headed toward Sea Isle for the winter. It would be colder this year. The most chilling winter yet.