Shelley Enters the Woods

“Star Witness” by Joe Meno: Episode Two

Shelley Enters the Woods

1.Everything looked different at night. Shelley watched the police cruiser speed toward town and disappear. The world became dark again. Pedaling as hard as she could, she sang to ward off the unappealing shadows of the abandoned farms and unused mills, each familiar sight now looking slightly unfamiliar, looking stark in the half-light. It was a song her grandmother used to sing whenever they went to church, though she hadn’t been in some time.

Why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart be lonely,
Away from heaven and home?
For Jesus is my portion
My constant friend is He
For His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me.

By the time Shelley had finished the last verse, the town square, obscured by several broken streetlamps, was finally in view. There, in the middle of the square was the Civil War memorial, a statue of a Union soldier cradling a Confederate comrade. The state line between Kentucky was only 20 miles south, and several generations ago town members had fought on both sides of the conflict. Beside it was an eternal flame, for the fallen of World War II and Korea, which had not been lit in years. Across the square lawn, the town hall and police station, with their lights on, though looking empty. Shelley glided quietly past, the blue shoebox rattling in the wire basket as she turned onto Main.

There, along the street, were the blank, square-faced shops, all lifeless at 7:30 on a Friday night — the hardware store, the pharmacy, the gas station, and the restaurant, the Lighthouse, which closed each day after lunch. The tobacco store, the laundromat that had been abandoned four years before, and the hair salon with blown-up photographs of hairstyles from the 1980s, each of their windows covered with several degrees of dust.

But all of these places, which had been so familiar just hours earlier, seemed eerie now, phantomed.

When she turned down Beecher Street to go to the library, Shelley saw the flashing red lights once again. Seems like some sort of trouble, she thought. Before she buried the bird, she decided she ought to at least investigate.

Two squad cars were parked near the corner of Beecher and Evergreen. Shelley stood her bicycle beside a crowd of more than a dozen people in the middle of the street, mostly neighbors who lived on the block, though some folks, like glum-looking Anselm Peters — an octogenarian who showed up at every minor incident, including fires, bar fights, and domestic disputes — were, like Shelley and her grandmother, devoted enthusiasts of the police radio scanner.

Deputy Gary Polk, with his wide neck and slumped shoulders, was asking the crowd to please back up onto the sidewalk. Other neighbors began to arrive in housecoats, bathrobes, and pajamas. Gary waved his arms, ushering more of these onlookers off the street, and grabbed the radio from his vest to whisper:

“This is 304 to base. Talked to some people around here, and they all said the bicycle belonged to a girl named Jamie Fay. We just spoke to her mother, but she hasn’t seen her for the last couple hours. You want to call Wes and ask him how he wants to proceed? Over.”

There was an explosion of static, and soon the cigarette-soaked voice of Darlene Wills came back over the radio. “You get a description of the girl? Over.”

“I got a pretty good one: female, 12 years old. Brown hair, blue eyes. And this is what she was wearing before school today: yellow shirt, jeans, white shoes. Over.”

The fact that the girl was someone Shelley knew—knew intimately—caused an otherworldly, indistinct feeling to take hold, sort of like fainting and coming to. She felt she had to tell somebody right away. She spotted Mrs. Blake, the pianist at church, standing on the sidewalk across the street from the Fays.

Shelley approached her and said, “I babysat Jamie Fay for three years.”

Mrs. Blake looked interested, though unsurprised. “You did?”

“From the time she was seven ’til she was 10. Then her mom stopped working,” Shelley said. “She was Miss Somerset in the Founder’s Day parade last year.” Unbidden, she added, “She’s not one to run off.”

The woman nodded, apparently in agreement.

Shelley quickly crossed the street, passing among the onlookers and gossips, and found a yarn chime hanging in a tree in front of Jamie’s house. One of the deputies was speaking to Mr. and Mrs. Fay on the front lawn. Other neighbors continued to arrive and crowd the sidewalk. Shelley ignored them and extended a hand to the chime. It was a few old spoons and forks that the girl, Jamie, had tied together with blue and white string. Above that hung a blue and pink God’s eye, which Shelley had taught her how to tie. “It’s supposed to represent the power of understanding things that are unknowable,” she had read from a craft book on the day they made them. “To observe everything that might be a mystery.” Shelley now put a thumb and finger to the diamond-shaped decoration and immediately had an idea of where the girl might be hiding.

But arrogance or ambition or maybe her sense of adventure won over, and she decided not to tell anyone. Instead of speaking, Shelley climbed onto the seat of her bicycle and began to pedal off.

2.Between the town square and the rural farm road, Shelley had the idiotic fantasy of going see if the girl, Jamie, was where she thought she was. If she was there, Shelley planned on getting her quickly back home. Nobody had to know she was involved. Better to let Jamie answer the police and her parents’ questions and stay out of it. Shelley ignored the stoplight, which only ever blinked red after 6 p.m., took a right on Main, gliding past the smalls street of shops, past the gas station, past the creamery.

Just along the rural route was a narrow gravel road that led past the blue bridge and over to the woods. The girl, Jamie, had a queer habit of hiding out there. What she most liked to do was disappear into a copse of trees, down by the river. Shelley and the girl had made a number of forts there over the past few summers, and one day had even built a castle made of sticks and logs, both of them able to climb inside and hide. Shelley had warned her to stay away from the caves — as there were all manner of myths about Confederate deserters and runaway slaves who had gone seeking shelter and ended up meeting their ends when the caves filled with water. Jamie, a good student and soprano in the church choir, always obeyed. So the first place to look was the woods. Why Shelley had not told one of the deputies, she did not know — other than pride and a sudden sense of excitement, she would not have been able to explain until much later.

The woods were much farther from town than she remembered, now that it was dark. Even as she rode, Shelley began to doubt that Jamie would have walked out there all by herself. But she was already halfway, crossing the metal bridge, and the woods were opening before her.

There was a field, an unpainted fragment of an abandoned farmhouse, the shape of the forest like arms reaching up, crowding out the dark sky. Farther on, the intersection of moonlight passing through the endless branches, a brief fragment of the moon.

Dust and mud from the road, flying up. Wind at her back, blowing at her hair, urging her on.

The feeling of timelessness, the moon a partner to the forest, giving everything a paler shade.

Beyond a passel of peeling birch trees up ahead, Shelley saw a shadow, something moving. Before she could slow down, a figure stepped out of the woods, the face of a ghoul appearing just beyond the front of her handlebars, only a few feet before her.

Shelley crashed — first swerving into some brambles and fallen branches as she pulled hard on the brakes. A moment later, she tumbled headfirst over the handlebars into the culvert.

The crash ended with Shelley on her back with several different kinds of sticks in her hair. Before she could look up and scream, the shadow switched on a flashlight and was moving toward her. It was a man, standing alongside the road, his features obscured and weak. Once she was able to right herself again, she noticed the black-and-white squad car parked along the ditch, the town crest etched along the grimy side panel.

Eventually Shelley could see it was Deputy Will Farnum, and that he was hunched over, frightened, out of breath. He was a tall man, with closely cropped hair and a receding hairline. He looked more terrified than she did.

“Are you okay?” he murmured, still fighting for breath.

“Deputy Will,” Shelley said, lifting her bike and smiling. “I’m okay.” She found the blue shoebox containing her pet bird in the grass, righted her bicycle, and returned the box to the basket in front.

The deputy stood, straightening his lanky knees. “I’m so sorry, Shelley. You gave me quite a scare,” he wheezed. “What are you—what are you doing out here this time of night?”

“I was just going for a ride. On my bicycle. What are you doing out here?”

“Looking for that girl. One of her neighbors said she liked to come out here. I was having a look, and somehow I got turned around.”

He pointed faintly in the direction of the woods.

“The knees of your pants are all covered in mud,” Shelley said.

“The thing of it, Shelley, is that I did something stupid. I lost my keys.”

“You what?”

“My keys. The keys to my patrol car. The sheriff is going to have my head if I can’t find them. It’s the third time this month I lost something.”

He looked down and pulled at a retractable silver keychain attached to his gun belt, which was now absent of any keys. “I’ve been looking for them for the last half hour or so. It doesn’t look like I’ll find them.”

“Would you like me to help you look?”

3.She gave the deputy a slight smile and began searching through the waist-high grass near the police vehicle.

The deputy knelt down beside her, slowly flashing the light from side to side in the brambles before them.

“It’s awful nice of you, Shelley. But you’ve always been kind. I’d be obliged if you didn’t happen to mention this to anyone. I’m pretty embarrassed as it is, and you know the sheriff. He can be awful unforgiving sometimes.”

“It’s okay,” she said. She added, “I didn’t see you at lunch today.”

“I was up in Ahern all afternoon, in court, for an arraignment. Something to do with the Dove family.”

Shelley looked at him and blinked nervously.

“When I got back to town, I got the call on the radio and came out here, and then I dropped my keys,” he said. “It’s been a long day.” The deputy stood upright and stopped searching. “How about you? How was your day?”

“It was long, too. I hate to mention it, but Mr. Peepers died.”

“Which one was he, the box turtle or the little mouse?”

“The parakeet.”

“Oh. Well, it must have been the heat. It’s been awful hot for September.”

“That’s what my grandmother said. But parakeets are from the tropics, aren’t they?”

“I guess they are, Shelley. But animals, they got senses we don’t. They know when trouble is coming.”

It was then that she noticed a scratch on the side of the deputy’s face.

“Your cheek is bleeding, Deputy.”

He frowned and felt at it with the back of his hand. “I must have cut it on one of those branches over there. This is just my luck. I hate to say it, but I was born unlucky. Reminds me of when I used to be a schoolteacher at the high school.”

“You were a schoolteacher?”

“For a few years. I was I was terrible at it. I had the exact wrong disposition. I kept wanting to help those kids, to inspire them but I…I was too nervous. I made them all anxious. They ended up making some terrible jokes about me, sayings and the like. Anyways, for me, I guess it feels like the whole world is always coming to an end.”

“I never would have guessed that.”

“No? Well, I had a sister who passed away when I was young. After that, everything was different.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Deputy.”

“She was my older sister. Sissie, we called her. She passed away when I was 10. They found a tumor, right there in the back of her head. Everybody said I was different after that. I used to spend hours staring in mirrors. I had an aunt who said you could talk to the dead through them. You ever try that? Talking to someone who’s not actually there?”

Shelley thought of the empty chair that sat at the kitchen table, the one that had once belonged to her mother.

“They don’t ever talk back. No matter what you say.”

“No.”

“It’s the reason I never got married. I’ve been in love with someone all my life who wasn’t even there.” He paused. “Listen to me go on.”

The deputy began to search through the weeds again. Shelley leaned over and used both hands to feel among the stiff grasses and bare ground.

After a while the deputy looked up. “Were you out here looking for that girl? Jamie Fay?”

Shelley gave a slight nod. “I used to babysit her. She used to come out here sometimes to play hide-and-go-seek and build forts. I thought maybe — I don’t know. Thought I might be able to find her.”

Up in the tree, the deputy’s flashlight caught something bright red. The deputy held the light on it, and both Shelley and he saw it was a tree full of God’s eyes, all of them pink and white and red, all of them of different sizes, 30 or 40 of them, hung at differing lengths with string and yarn. Shelley put out a hand, watching as each of them spun in the darkening air.

“Looks like she’s been busy,” the deputy said.

Shelley held one of the smaller God’s eyes in her palm. “Looks like she’s trying to tell somebody something,” she said. The angular object hung there patched-together and frayed, as uncanny as blood.

ARTICLE CONTINUES AFTER ADVERTISEMENT

About the Author

More Like This

Give Your Money to These 13 Feminist Bookstores

Support the literary communities where women readers and writers are seen and heard

Jan 18 - Frances Yackel

Feminist Retellings of ‘Dude’ Books

Don’t put a bow on it — kill the narrative dead, bury it, and start over

Nov 9 - Lisa Gabriele

A Reading List on New York’s Gritty Past

Adam Smyer, author of Knucklehead, on the dark side of the city

Sep 4 - Electric Literature