Eleven Autumn Hymns
Nelson Bleeker, aging history teacher at Timberline High, was puking sick of the kids. Their tardiness, their backtalk, their obnoxious fashions. He worked like hell to come up with lively lesson plans, with snazzy PowerPoints, only to be met with blank stares and drowsy slouching. The job was a hideous combination of stressful and meaningless. He was divorced and childless and had no romantic prospects. About his only real pleasure was his weekend walk through the majestically dense forest at the outskirts of town.
Ensconced one day in the town coffee shop with his laptop, Bleeker furiously searched online job postings. The only one he liked so far was admitting officer at a local juvenile detention center. Hiya kid! Welcome to hell. But not even this truly appealed to him. He rubbed his sunburned neck and glanced around the shop, absently registering a flyer for an autumn carnival on the notice board. When the overhead speakers poured forth John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High,” a stirring ode to nature that Bleeker hadn’t heard in years, everything became gloriously clear. Snatching up his laptop, grinning, he left the coffee shop and went home to cut ties with the school and begin preparations for his new life, in which he would move to the forest to wail and frolic and worship trees.
Donny Kurtz, singer for miserable children, currently miserable himself, sat down on a bench in the dusty town square and wept. The call had come ten minutes ago. The town’s church-funded a cappella group, in which Donny served as lead tenor, and which toured the Midwest performing at children’s hospitals, had been dissolved due to cutbacks.
“Bad day, sir?” inquired a thickly accented voice.
Donny wiped his eyes and looked up. The woman standing there had butter-colored hair and wore a long, musty, librarian-style dress. “I lost my job,” he whispered.
“Out of work? What luck, then! I am looking to employ.”
“What kind of work?” Book shelving, he supposed. Joyless, uninspiring.
“Carnival work, sir. I am Mrs. Bright, curator of Bright’s Travelling Wonders.” She made a quick curtsey, the white dress briefly puddling on the brick ground. “Oh, yes, I could use a man like you,” she said. “Someone spirited. Good with the little ones.”
His heart quickened. “To cheer them up? Sing ‘em ‘Amazing Grace’?”
“Well, no. You’d be a monster in the funhouse. Scare them senseless.”
Donny winced, looked away. “Not really my calling.”
“But Mr. Kurtz, scaring is caring! And growling is its own music, isn’t it?”
Donny gazed at her uneasily. Her eyes were emerald green and without shame. If she knew even one scripture, he’d be shocked. How did she know his name? About his career? But when she smiled, an utterly winning smile, despite the yellowing teeth, the slithering tongue, his uneasiness melted away. He nodded gamely, smiling back.
“Yes? Goodie! Also, the town’s fluffer problem—you’ll help with that as well.”
Donny’s smile faded. “Fluffer problem?”
Molly had never cheated on a test before. Not ever! Fly or flop on your own merits, was her philosophy. But she hadn’t studied and failing this particular test would shred any chance of a respectable final course grade, which in turn would shrink her already-slim college prospects. The cheat sheet, positioned on her lap, right beneath the edge of her chair’s desktop, was only a downward glance away. She could feel icky anxiety sweat slicking up her palms and armpits. Friday afternoon, last class. The weekend beckoned but was starting to blur, like a cruelly teasing mirage. Mr. Kemp, their doofus substitute ever since Bleeker went tree crazy, sat at the front desk obliviously playing games on his iPad. Sighing, she looked down hopefully, not at the cheat sheet, but at the test itself.
The questions glared at her. Civil War start date. Lincoln’s wife’s name. She couldn’t remember any of it. What the hell ever happened to multiple choice? She glanced at the cheat sheet, but quickly turned to the window and the tree-filled courtyard. Leaves fluttering down. Sun streaking weakly. She smiled, recalling yesterday’s walk by the new carnival, only a mile from her neighborhood, the funky rides, the weird workers, the scary-giddy feeling that her kooky town was about to get full-blown bonkers. Strange sights, friendly magic. Determined, sick of stalling, she turned from the window, looked directly at the cheat sheet, but the tiny scribbled words were mentally overlaid, as if by rubberstamp, with the phrase “Sleazy Cheater.” Okay, fine! She wouldn’t. But then came a dystopia-bleak vision of community college and another year at home. Her eyes filled with stinging tears. Her toes curled in her stifling leather boots. So, what, then? What?
Molly screeched. Classmates gawked. Whispering an apology, she crumpled up the cheat sheet and shoved it in her pocket, then swiped up the test and yanked up her backpack and raced down the aisle. Reaching Mr. Kemp, who regarded her with stunned incompetence, she handed over the test, saying she wasn’t prepared and hoped he would let her make it up. She scrammed out of the room before he had a chance to reply.
In her car a few minutes later, zipping out of the parking lot, Molly felt no special glow. Virtue wasn’t the kick it should be. Worse, even when she applied herself like a fiend, whether at school or with singing, the results weren’t always stellar. In tenth grade, she had successfully auditioned to be the singer in a local punk band, but the band folded after three basement gigs and since then she hadn’t even won a karaoke contest. What if her singing talent was slight and she had no others? No! Stop! Be gone, negative thought. Sliding Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone into the dashboard CD player, then turning into a drive-through for a mocha, she decided to go spy on the carnies setting up for the night.
She parked in her driveway, then took her coffee and set off on foot. Arriving at the carnival perimeter, gazing at the rides, which now seemed ramshackle, not funky, and the workers, grimy and smiley, sure, but not truly weird, she felt her excitement drain away. Probably just a regular carnival after all. Childhood letdowns resurfaced—all the discoveries that, in the end, weren’t. A glow-yellow chipmunk, vastly magical, that turned out to be a regular chipmunk sprayed with florescent paint. An angel-shaped lily pad, a miracle of nature, that turned out to be a scissor-cut castoff from a churchy art project. About to turn homeward, she noticed a car pulling up by the Tarot Tent. Out of the car emerged a gorgeous blonde woman, wearing an old-timey dress and carrying a machete. Striding across the lawn, the woman noticed Molly and smiled, dimpling deeply and showing snaggled teeth. It was the most beautiful smile, and the freakiest, that Molly had ever seen. Trying to smile back, failing, she pitched her cup and booked it home.
Conrad Sheen, lonely eighth grader at Timberline Junior High, eager for the world’s love, decided that winning the fall science fair might be one way to get it. His plan was to tame a wild raccoon and turn it into a feasible pet. The raccoon, who Conrad captured in a back alley one night and named Prowler, had long shaggy fur and a sharp whiskery snout.
Conrad converted his basement bedroom into a cozy raccoon playground. His hypothesis was that food and love would tame Prowler, who munched on oatmeal and chocolate while Conrad petted her and played a Taylor Swift mix. Prowler was soon plump and loving. Really loving. She snuggled Conrad and at times even grinded him. Realizing that a fat, hump-crazy raccoon wouldn’t impress anyone, Conrad sadly aborted. He gave Prowler one last chocolate, then hoisted her up through the basement window.
Lonely hours. Endless days. When Prowler returned one night, scratching at the same window, Conrad felt a sweep of sparkling joy. Dearest one! Sweetest heart. Then he saw the shadowy figures behind her. He gulped. She’d brought all the raccoons in the neighborhood. Prowler flung herself against the window. Conrad reluctantly opened it, and all the raccoons plunged forward, then whisked down the wall like a furry waterfall.
Conrad put out bowls filled with oatmeal and chocolate. The raccoons feasted. Prowler, raising her chocolate-smeared snout, hissed insistently. Conrad rushed to the hi-fi and cued up the Taylor Swift mix. The raccoons swooned and cooed, then piled on each other to hump. Their passion was alarming. Moans echoed, fur sailed to the ceiling. Conrad crept around the piles, trying to get to the door and escape, but the raccoons, wise to his intentions, zoomed around his ankles until he lost his balance. Suddenly he was on his back, smooshed, entombed. Tiny licks, scratchy cuddles. Oh, God! Oh, darlings.
Mayor Benton, the young third-termer, married only to the town, was in a terrible funk. Timberline, which had once felt like an oasis, had begun to seem like a limbo. Adventure called but duty tethered. Roots were weights. Exiting his downtown office after another dreary day, entering a warm and breezy night, he glimpsed the carnival’s Ferris wheel lights in the distance, like swirling fireflies, and felt almost cheerful. In fact, why not walk over? A beer and a snack might keep this almost-cheerful feeling alive for a while.
The scene was hopping. Children ran amuck, parents drank hot cider and socialized. Tom Waits played on the speakers. Benton chatted for a while, sipping a foamy draft, munching a hot pretzel. Later, he wandered alone, eventually coming upon a series of booth attractions. A trio of Glorious Beauties, glammed to the max, flirting with teenage boys. A Ring Toss game, overseen by a twitchy-eyed man, who presented a black snake in a water-filled baggie to a confused child. An Enchantment Portal, hosted by a pale freckled girl, who stepped in front of Benton and deliberately blocked his path.
“Wait, though,” the mayor said, looking back. “Water snakes as prizes?”
“Inside the Portal is where the thrills be,” the girl murmured, ignoring his question. “But I warn you, if ye enter, you may never want to return.”
Benton, expecting a light show, a boo or two, paid the fee. As he approached the entrance, covered in a string-curtain of clinking green beads, his mind returned to his adventurous dreams. Zooming jungle safaris. Slinking mystery women. Why was he born here? Why couldn’t he muster the courage to leave? But when he stepped through the curtain, and was enveloped by musky winds and sinful song, he realized with a terrified shudder that he was leaving it now, that all his dreams were presently going to come true.
Mrs. Bright despised fluffers. Dreadful beasts! Seated in her private tent, wearing a mask and gloves, she used a dry rag to clean her latest kill off her machete. In every town, she took care of the strays and then, even more satisfyingly, the pets. Nothing was more devastating to a child, or more glorious to Mrs. Bright, than a beloved fluffer pet gone missing. She frowned over a particularly stubborn bit of fluffer blood. Not that she wasn’t also deeply fond of Neil Diamond. And crafts. And the carnival’s practice of devastating a town by exploding its high school just before leaving. After hours, of course, killing only the kids who did after-school activities. The worst kids, in other words. The strivers. The achievers. Oh, how she hated them! But fluffers were her mission. Her life’s delight.
Cafeteria patrol. Principal Sneed, standing near a garbage and stiffly observing, wondered if he should call someone. Either the brats were pranking him or an eerie malaise had swept the school. Food was nibbled rather than wolfed. At least ten students had solemnly taped up flyers for missing cats. Molly Leap, who at last year’s talent show had butchered “Summer Wind,” sat at a table alone, listlessly sporking into a fiestada. Last week Mrs. Leap had phoned him, concerned because Molly was obsessed with the carnival to the detriment of her grades. As if it were his fault! Loathsome woman. Then again, there had been a lot of complaining calls about the carnival. Squalid prizes, leering workers. Sneed took out his phone. But who to call? The mayor respected him but was on sabbatical. The sheriff always pranked him. Sneed violently powered down his phone, intending to pocket it, but instead, on zesty impulse, flung it into the stenching garbage.
Neil Pembroke, newly widowed, nervous about his memorial speech, was about to order a coffee when he noticed the unlabeled bottles next to the sign reading Confidence Kick.
The counter girl, when Pembroke asked, said the shop was selling it on behalf of the carnival. Feeling silly but curious, he purchased a bottle, then went home to drink it with a snack of sliced pears. The liquid was thick and zingy. Later, at his desk going over his speech, listening to Bach on the turntable, he reflected that he felt no more confident than before. Then he noticed the bulge in his pants and realized that he had been aroused for an hour. Yelping, he called town hall, got the number of the carnival, called it, and after a series of transfers, was speaking to a plummy-voiced woman named Mrs. Bright.
“Your confidence tonic is faulty,” he said. “It boosts desire, not confidence.”
“Faulty! Mr. Pembroke! I can assure you our elixirs work precisely as advertised. But there has been a mistake. You see, my men gave the shop our Romance Reviver.”
“Oh, lord. Well, is there a cure?” By now, the arousal was actively painful.
“Indeed there is. So to speak,” Mrs. Bright said. “To correct our mistake, as a gesture of gooey faith, we’re happy to send over one of our three Glorious Beauties. Do you have a preference? We have a sassy brunette, a shy blonde, and a lusty redhead.”
“What? No! You don’t understand. I have the memorial for my late wife in the morning. I’m grieving and I have work to do.” He hesitated. “Plus, I’m…well, I’m old.”
“Not today, Mr. Pembroke. Today you’re a young puma. If you choose so.”
Pembroke, trembling at his desk, was silent for a long time. Bach played mightily. Dusky autumn sunshine poured in from the window and cast thickly luscious shadows.
“Send them,” he said at last, in a thrilled, baffled voice. “Send all three of them.”
Handy McGee, ride operator by day, bomb technician by night, prayed the test would work. One more foul-up from anyone and Mrs. Bright was liable to sack them all. Kill them all? Maybe that too. Shit. Crouching down in the clearing, Handy adjusted the cord sprouting from the tiny black bomb. Mingus, the strongman, wearing a wind breaker over his fluffy bearskin getup, stood twenty yards off, holding the trigger at the cord’s end.
A rustle in the surrounding forest. Handy, jogging over to Mingus, squinted and peered but spied nothing. More rustling, louder. Mingus growled and clobbered the air.
Out of the forest leapt a middle-aged man, hair greasy and overgrown, clothes covered in glued-on leaves and twigs. His stink was assaulting. “Sabotage, ha!” the man cried, grinning madly, then dashed for the bomb. “Tree versus tech! Whoop whoop.”
Mingus, wrinkling his nose, stepped between the bomb and the tree man and slapped his face. Squawking, the tree man turned and hotfooted it back into the forest.
Handy shook his head. Craziest town yet! He nodded at Mingus, who squeezed the trigger. The bomb sparked tentatively, then screeched and combusted. Handy grinned. Raging red flames, blooming silver smoke: they’d aced it. A hundred of these honeys would scorch up the high school real fine. While Mingus foamed out the flames with the extinguisher, Handy pulled out his phone and cued up “Daydream Believer,” their celebration song. He tossed the phone to the ground and started to boogie. After Mingus finished with the fire, they hooked arms and spun in circles, singing along and laughing.
More rustling from the forest. Handy froze mid-spin, ears alert. Then he rushed to the forest’s edge, expecting to see the tree man but instead glimpsing the backside of a teenage girl, her long hair whipping, as she disappeared into the leafy-green distance.
Ian Nichols, gawky third-grader, friendless except for the spiders he bred, was walking home from school when three of his classmates jumped him. His crime, as always, was existing. The gang, led by Ricky Fugg, beat Ian with bricks until he couldn’t stand.
The hospital was harrowing. Ian napped and ached and watched Wilco videos on his tablet. The pills made him ill, the food was smelly and tasteless. His spirits lifted when Ricky Fugg visited, sunny-faced with regret and saying that, really, they were just jealous of Ian’s good grades and his way with creepy-crawlies. But when Ian’s mom left the room to get coffee, Ricky’s face darkened and he whispered that his dad was making him apologize and that he wished they had killed Ian and that one day they surely would.
Ian trembled. Sorrow clenched him. Fear devoured him. He wept all night long. But by the time he was released, two weeks later, his eyes were cold and dry and empty.
Over the next month, in his backyard, Ian conducted breeding experiments to develop stronger spiders and harder egg sacs. Then, every day for a week, he broke into Ricky Fugg’s locker, infiltrated his lunchbox, and planted egg sacs in his daily sandwich. The sacs blended best with tuna fish. On the following Monday, Ian squirted the trigger solution into Ricky’s jelly sandwich, and at lunch in the cafeteria scooched his chair to get a good view. After a few bites, Ricky started coughing. Then he stood up, his face petrified, and screamed. Ian giggled. Dark bubbles sprouted on Ricky’s face and hands. When the baby spiders broke through, dozens, hundreds, flecking blood on his friends, racing all over him, invading his ears, his eyes, Ricky collapsed to the floor. Students howled and sprinted for the exits. Police summoned Ian and his mother to the principal’s office for questioning, but Ian’s mother, quickly grasping the truth, told all the right lies.
Steve watched Molly while Molly watched the carnival crew shutting down for the night. He was standing next to her, deliciously close, within a cluster of trees. Molly, who sat beside him in science class, and had sly lips and lustrous black hair, and spoke in a low, tough tone but had sung at the talent show in a high, sweet, melty voice, had told him from the start about her spying expeditions. About the cat kidnappings she’d seen, the bomb detonations. Then, earlier today, in a gulping development, she had invited him to start coming along and helping with her gear. It meant neglecting his music blog and amounted to him being her chump assistant but was still the most irresistible yes ever.
“Dude, you’re staring again,” Molly whispered, clicking pictures on her phone.
Steve quickly looked away. “What? No, I’m not.”
“I told you, man. This is a mission, not a date. These people, they’re the bad kind of magic. We’re gathering intel.” Then, smacking his arm, “There! That’s her! See?”
Mrs. Bright, vanilla-haired, wearing a paisley schoolmarm dress and long rubber gloves, stood away from the rest of the crew. Her eyes were buggy with pleasure. In one hand she held a machete and in the other, by the scruff of its neck, a grey kitten. Smiling, radiant, she inserted the machete into the kitten’s belly and pressed—the kitten writhing, yowling; then slack, silent—until the blade came out gut-slickened on the other side.
Mrs. Bright, hearing Molly, turned and literally hissed. Throwing the dead cat aside, machete and all, she sprinted to them, a slithering run, snake-fast, and grabbed Molly by the throat and pinned her against a tree. “I know you! Lurker!” she growled.
“Rocks,” Molly croaked at Steve. She nodded at her backpack on the ground.
Mrs. Bright smirked. “Rocks? Ooh, frighty frighty.”
“Rubbed in cat fur,” Steve said, raising one aloft, ready to pitch it at her.
Mrs. Bright frowned thoughtfully. Then she let go of Molly’s throat and stepped back. “Well, then. What can I do for you charming young people?”
Molly massaged her throat. “You can leave Timberline,” she said hoarsely.
“Oh, but don’t you see? Timberline called out to me. It invited me.”
“I don’t care, you gotta go,” Molly said. “Enough with the cats. And everyone knows what you’re planning to do, bomb-wise. If you even try it, the police will pounce.”
Steve basked in her audacity. Such daring! Such a bluff!
Mrs. Bright’s scowl resolved into a sigh. “Lurker girl,” she said wearily, “I’m sick of your town anyway.” Then, smiling, “Why don’t you two come with me? I like a failed dreamer. You both have grit, something odious easy achievers never obtain.”
“I’m not a failed dreamer,” Molly replied, fierce as wolves. “I won’t always fail.”
“Oh, but you will, my dear,” Mrs. Bright said sadly. “You’ll try and try but you’ll never sing professionally. Not once. And you, frail boy, your dreams will never remotely lift off. Music writing is not a career, it’s just something to help you through the grey days. Of which, I can assure you, there will be many. Girls will never return your warm feelings, not the ones you most passionately care for. Not this girl here, not any of them.”
“Just go,” Molly said, but weakly now. “And don’t try to pull this crap anywhere else, either. We’re gonna blog and Facebook about your carnival, get the word out.”
Mrs. Bright shrugged. “We have other shapes and guises,” she said, then smiled hugely, her mouth a mess of rotted teeth and bleeding gums, and turned to walk back.
Steve wobbled with relief. Man! What a night. When Molly wordlessly turned to the lonely dirt road that led back to her house, where his car waited, he quickly followed. They walked in silence. The night was dark and chilly and drenched in owl song.
Molly stopped abruptly. “She’s right about me being a failure,” she said flatly. “I’m only a decent singer and there ain’t nothing else that I like to do. So I guess she’s right about you too. Sorry about the music writing. And your, um…love life.”
“Are you kidding?” he said, stopping too. “You’re the most amazing person ever. You just scared that scary lady into leaving town. And your singing? It’s gorgeous! You’re like the biker girl in the song ‘Unknown Legend.’ You ooze awesomeness.”
She stared glumly. “I don’t know that song,” she said, missing the fifty-thousand compliments, or just ignoring them. “I mostly only listen to Neko.”
Anger blazed him. As usual, his voice, his enthusiasm, was like a whisper swallowed by the wind. Parents, brother, friends—none of them ever really listened to him. The blog, despite his promoting, his networking, had shockingly few visitors.
“Well, shit, Molly,” he said, hating her and everyone else. “You really want to prove her wrong? Go out with me. Be my girlfriend. She said you wouldn’t do that.”
Molly blinked wildly. At last, he had her full attention. In time, she smiled. “A week,” she said, stepping closer, reaching her arms around his neck. “We can try it for a week. You were slick with the rocks, after all. Just kissing, though. Hey, are you okay?”
Steve, though barely able to breathe, and nervous as bunnies, and unsure of the exact maneuvers required, was beyond okay. Excitement ravaged him. This strange town! This amazing girl. Didn’t she know that a week sounded like an eternity? Molly peered at him curiously, waiting for his lips. When he finally leaned in, none too steady, but he was a man of passion, not expertise, her soft fluty breath tickled his face and pleased his ears.