Leeds Point, or The Jersey Devil
The soil was sandy, littered with pine needles. The sunlight found places to break through, mottling the ground on which Terry and the dead man walked.
Well, Terry walked. The dead man (his name was Sid) moved his legs after the fashion of a walking, breathing, living person, but his steps carried no weight, left no impressions in the loose earth beneath them.
“I’ll tell you a story now, Terry,” said Sid, “to pass the time.”
“How much longer is this walk gonna be?” asked Terry.
“About as long as the story,” Sid replied. “You’ll tell it to someone else later, I can almost guarantee you that.”
“Like my son?” asked Terry.
“No,” said Sid. “You won’t tell your son this story.”
“But if we make it to…wherever the hell we’re going, he’ll be alright, right?”
Terry’s voice was high; he spoke quickly, like a man desperate for reassurance. “You promised me that much, that he’d live, right? He’ll live, and I can tell him this story or any goddamn other thing I wanna tell him for the rest of my natural life, right?”
“He’ll live,” said Sid, and smiled. His smile was all the more disturbing for being no different from that of a living person. “It all started in 1735, right here in-”
“Sid.” Terry said the dead name pointedly, as much to convince himself that Sid was real as to command his attention. “I need to know I’m not following you into the middle of the of the woods for no reason. That I’m not just fucking insane and that I didn’t just make all this up because I’m delusional or something, man. When can I see my son?”
“Listen to the story,” Sid said slowly, reassuringly. “It’ll help.”
Deborah’s Story, Part I
Deborah Leeds was hanging wash, the grass waving with the breeze that made the sheets and shifts flutter and dance on the line. The sun was bright, the light unforgiving, the clarity of the day leaving nothing to question.
A man walked up the hill towards her, proverbially tall, dark, and handsome, though his height seemed to be an illusion (why, she couldn’t say) and only his clothes were dark, the blackest wool she’d ever laid eyes on. As for handsome…she couldn’t look away, but she could never have described his features.
He introduced himself as a Mr. Elias, and offered to help with the wash. While they were hanging, he asked her why her eyes were red, why the streaks of hastily wiped tears cut paths through the dirt on her cheeks.
She explained that she hated her children.
When Mr. Elias replied that no, good Misses, that couldn’t possibly be true as all mothers love their children, she explained that since her father married her off to her husband her life had been a downward spiral of ever-increasing torture.
Their farm was too far removed from her family, from the town. The work was bitter and hard, harder than she’d worked on her father’s farm even, and for less reward. But worst of all, she did not love this man her father chose for her. This man was kind enough, but showed little by way of affection other than drinking his way into their bed every night and forcing himself upon her, sowing himself into her so that she produced twelve children. Twelve children in less than 15 years, each of them louder and demanding more of her than the last, each one sucking from her tired breasts their share of her withering, woeful life.
After she said it all she put a hand to her lips, ashamed of herself, and began to sob — not for her suffering, but for the shame of the telling, the airing of her grief to a perfect stranger in a dark suit.
He took her there in the grass, the flapping of the sheets the only sound to be heard.
“Great story Sid. Really. Are we close, then? I don’t know how much longer I can stand to walk. I’m not even in sneakers for fuck’s sake.” Terry looked at the soles of his Rockports, as if they held some solution to the problem of having to walk miles into the pines with a ghost in order to save the life of his only child. The soles were wearing unevenly.
“I was pausing,” said Sid. “The story wasn’t over.”
“You’ll excuse me if I don’t feel like hearing it. I don’t frankly give a shit. What’s it got to do with anything? What is possibly in your story or the middle of these woods that’s gonna help Tyler?” He almost balked at the saying of his son’s name, embarrassed as it came out. He hadn’t said it very often. It sounded unfamiliar leaving his lips, and for that he was suddenly and overwhelmingly ashamed.
“How ‘bout I tell you a story, Sid?” asked Terry. “One that’s fucking relevant.”
“I think that’s the best idea you’ve had since we met,” said Sid, looking pleasantly surprised, though Terry couldn’t say why.
I was 27 when Jeannie told me she was pregnant. My first thought was, fuuuuck that. I wasn’t exactly inclined towards family life, even married life. Hell, I wasn’t inclined toward anything. But I did what was right, I did right by her. We got hitched, I started busting my ass at the office a little harder than usual, and between the two of us we got the rent paid and kept diapers on the kid’s ass.
Problem was, I was miserable. You know all that talk you hear about fatherhood, about how it changes you and suddenly this little precious life becomes the center of your world and your priorities and shit are all shifted? Nope. Not a bit. I stood by the two of them, Jeannie and Ty, for as long as I could stand it. It was terrible. And it wasn’t the hard work, or the crying and the shitting and the colds. It wasn’t Jeannie being tired and letting herself go and losing interest in all the good times we could have. It wasn’t anything about either of them.
It was everything else, everything that was going on outside of our shitty little house, the whole world moving along without us, without me. Good times being had left and right, travels to go on, shit to see, shit to do, people to meet. All the…the life happening just outside the window of this little rented rancher while I sat inside, pouring Cheerios and watching sitcoms and napping. It was all stolen from me. Stolen by God and a broken condom.
Well, I was never the type to accept my fate. I hadn’t let anything rob me or hold me down my whole life, and this was no exception. The only people who are unhappy are the pussies who let life hold them back.
So I took it all back. All of it. My life. The world. I left Jeannie and Ty in the rancher and rode off into the sunset, and I never missed a child support payment and I never missed a birthday. I wasn’t one of those deadbeats who you never heard from again. I paid my due. I even took Ty on some of my trips, trips I never could have taken if I stayed in the rancher, tell you what.
I was free. Scott free, and not a blemish on my soul to boot.
So when I heard about what happened, about Ty getting jumped by those assholes, well I almost lost it I was so angry. What the hell was he doing mixed up in that shit in the first place? Didn’t he know better? Didn’t he have everything he needed?
Somebody fucked up, Sid, and I don’t just mean those guys who jumped Ty, I mean whoever got him into this in the first place. One of his no-good friends I’ll bet or someone at that damn school of his. You know they failed him in algebra? Teacher’s not worth a damn. And his mother, his damn mother, when this is all over with she’s gonna get a few things through her fucking head.
Of course, when this is over…I’ll have to explain this.
I’m gonna have to explain to her how one of the dead people at the hospital walked into Ty’s room and sat down in the chair by his bed, looking all sad like it was HIS son with the tubes in his nose. And how this dead person talked to me and knew my name, and told me there was a way to save him and goddamn if I didn’t believe him.
Not sure how I’m gonna explain that. And I’m really not sure how I’m gonna explain that this dead person, this ghost, convinced me to drive out here to the pines and start walking into the woods for miles and miles and miles telling me a story about a colonial woman getting fucked by a salesman or something. How am I gonna explain that?
“You won’t have to,” Sid replied. “All you need to know is that I’m telling the truth, that coming to this place with me will save your son. It will pull him back from the world I’m in and he’ll wake up back in yours, safe and sound. All thanks to you, Terry.”
“He better,” Terry said.
Sid looked sideways at Terry and said nothing.
“’Course what would I do?” said Terry. “Not like I could kill you.”
They walked further. “It’s getting dark,” said Terry, “are we gonna have to walk out of here in the dark? Jesus, please tell me we don’t have to walk through these fucking pines in the dark tonight.”
“How about I finish my story?” offered Sid. “It’ll pass the time.”
Deborah’s Story, Part II
The man left without a word, leaving Deborah to sob her sadness out onto the grass. When she was done she felt lighter, unburdened, and finished the washing with unusual good cheer. In the weeks that followed, however, her new-found complacency became a struggle inside of her, a tug of war between a contentment that defied logic and a creeping dread that edged ever closer to the fringes of her awareness.
At first, her pregnancy failed to elicit the expected foreboding, the collective despondency of a string of child bearings that she was sure would kill her eventually. She remained light, even as she gained the familiar baby-weight.
But slowly, she began to doubt the lack of fear, to grope around the corners of her mind for the dismay that must surely attend this 13th birth, feeling almost naked and unprepared without it. As the child grew inside of her, she willed her sense of catastrophe back into being. By the ninth month she could no longer even remember the sense of emancipation her encounter with the dark stranger had given her, the absolution she’d felt as he vanished into the tree line, never again seen or heard of.
Her belly grew full, more full than it had the other times. Soon she was unable to walk. Eventually she was ordered to bed, to wait out the term of her pregnancy. She was ordered by the doctor to move as little as possible, though the child inside her moved enough for them both. A tempest was raging in her womb, the child like an unbroken horse galloping through her intestines. With each kick and punch of the tiny fists (hard, shriveled fists), she succumbed further to the idea that this would be the child that finally killed her, whether in birth or in life. This would be the end of her, the last inch of her tether.
“So what would you call that,” asked Terry, “pre-partum depression? Sounds like she could’ve used some therapy, you ask me. Reminds me of Jeannie a little bit, though. She was always so scared when she was pregnant, like if she moved wrong he’d come out with a dent in his head or something.”
“She was anxious,” said Sid, “because every child is a roll of the dice. Some are healthy, some deformed. Some grow up to be wise, others are morons. Some cure polio, some give gonorrhea to their wives. You never know what you’ll get.”
“Who was anxious?” asked Terry, “Deborah? Or Jeannie?”
Sid said nothing.
“Anyway,” said Terry, “it’s not like a kid grows up to be an asshole by chance. It’s all about how you raise ’em. It’s like Jeannie with Tyler- if she’d been paying more fucking attention to her kid than her TV shows or that boyfriend of hers she might’ve noticed him getting mixed up with the wrong crowd. You know they said it happened at 11 o’clock? 11 o’clock on a Wednesday night! A school night! Why was he even out in the first place? He wouldn’t be doing all that if I lived there, tell you what. It’s all in how you raise them.”
“Or don’t raise them,” said Sid.
Terry’s eyes went cold. “And what the fuck is that supposed to mean?” he asked, leaning into the expletive. “You sayin’ I don’t do my part? I pay my support, I take the kid out, I go to the teacher conferences.”
Sid said nothing.
“Where the fuck do you get off?” asked Terry, the brief silence all too long. “You have no idea about my life, or about Tyler, or any of it. You ever raise a kid? Huh? Where’s your kid, Sid? Where’s your kid, you dead fuck? He dead too? You got a whole dead family of ghouls and ghosts at home? Asshole.”
He stormed ahead of Sid, hoping he was going the right way.
“As a matter of fact,” said Sid, “he is.”
Terry felt a pang of regret, surprised to find himself caring whether or not he hurt the feelings of a specter. Maybe it was just fear.
“Would you rather hear that story?” asked Sid. “The story of how my son died? I think you should. Maybe it would better illustrate my point.”
The way it worked was this: I would stop in each place; the bar, the pub, the diner, the union hall, and into each place I brought nothing but my little notebook. I made a modest but important supplemental income from that little notebook. The lines I had written in the front; the bets were in the back. Each day I would do the math and then I’d have a little list that I gave to Art. Art was only 11 by this point, but he understood perfectly how the bets broke down. After a while I would even let him take the lines and the bets and he’d figure out who owed what himself before we went back to the bar, the pub, the diner, the union hall.
Except this time, he would go in and I would wait in the car, parked a few blocks down but close enough that I could see the door. He would go in with his little Jansport backpack with the money hidden under the schoolbooks and he would pay whoever needed paying, plus a little something for the bartender or the owner, and he would take whatever was owed.
I know what you’re thinking, but he was the perfect delivery system. Who would give a little kid trouble? Most people found it cute.
And it wasn’t like I was dealing with hardened criminals. These were salesman and pipe fitters and waiters, bartenders and guys who worked for the city. Even the owners of the places, they weren’t connected or anything. It was neighborhood stuff, small-time stuff, and they loved Arthur. He was like their little mascot, with his crew cut and his little glasses. They’d lose $200 on the Phillies and they’d still take an extra twenty and put it in Art’s shirt pocket. There you go kid, get those sneakers you want. I wanna see you wearin’ ’em next time. You’re good luck kid, that horse wins every time I see your dad, sweardagod. You tell your dad hello.
Of course the biggest advantage of having Art work with me was that he deflected suspicion. With that little crooked-toothed smile of his, a cop doesn’t see a pair of bookmakers, he sees a guy with his kid in the car, probably on their way to karate or something.
A cop even asked him once what he had been doing in the bar, as he walked down the street with what was probably two grand in his backpack. Art told him exactly what I told him to say, that he was looking for his dad. Sold it, too. Cop even offered to help! I swear to God this happened- Art gave the cop the line about looking for his dad and then started laying it on all thick, saying how frustrated he was and how he hated having to go out looking for him, and the cop offers him a ride home. Well, Art, mischievous as he was, takes the ride! He went all the way home with this cop. I’m sitting in the Buick losing my shit, watching this squad car ride off with my son and I can’t even follow because who knows what’ll happen then?
When I got home I was so livid I even considered hitting him, I started ranting about how insane that was and how much trouble he could get us both into, and halfway through the speech I started cracking up. He knew better than to laugh along. He just sat there trying to look apologetic while I cracked up despite myself, still trying to seem angry. I could see him trying not to smile.
So I knew he was smarter than your average kid, and we weren’t into anything major, so he was my partner. The little bookie enforcer in his Air Jordans. The 75-pound muscle of our two-man operation. The kid was never in danger, and the money kept him in school supplies and decent clothes.
Deep down I think I knew it was a bad idea though. He was the smart one, but I wasn’t stupid. So when I saw that cop, the same cop who’d given him a ride home, start following Arthur when he came out of the bar, I got that little feeling in my stomach that’s always been a reliable indicator of when my bad ideas were catching up to me.
Except this time, it wasn’t me they were catching up to. Art was in my karmic crossfire, so to speak. This cop, this pig, was walking behind him, quicker and quicker, and then starting to yell after him, and then running towards my son with his hand on his hip.
Naturally I flew out of the Buick towards the officer. I knew that the law wouldn’t exactly have any stiff penalties for an 11 year old with a backpack full of cash, just a lot of questions, but frankly that idea didn’t sit too well with me either. Not to mention the gun. That cop had his hand on his gun, like he was getting ready to draw down on a 6th grader (he would’ve been in 5th grade, but they moved him up, he was so smart). Who the hell pulls a gun on a child? I started thinking about those stories of police brutality and excessive force, and I thought goddamned if my kid is gonna be the next one, I’ll die first. I’ll die or I’ll go to jail as long as he’s fine and can go home in his little Jordans and finish school and make something more of himself than I did. The cop was yelling, screaming. I was yelling. I was almost there, almost to the cop as he stopped, pulled his handgun and raised it in my son’s direction.
I took him out with one hit. I had played hockey, so I knew how to hit a guy. I shoulder checked him right off his ass. He flew into the side of a bakery, knocking over café tables and cursing. He never even got a shot off. Your KID, he yelled at me from a pile of wrought iron chairs. Your KID!
I looked down the street only just in time to see the man hit my son. I recognized him, had taken a bet or two from him, but he never paid up. I had let it go, told Arthur to let it go; I just refused to take any more bets from him. I didn’t do violence, and I certainly couldn’t have Arthur involved in any scheme that did.
Well, I found out later, other people had taken his bets. People who don’t let things go when you owe them, and who don’t use spelling bee champs as collectors. Now he owed, and he only knew of one place where a man, if he was low enough and shameless enough and desperate enough, could get his hand on a lot of money at once; only if he was low enough to knock an 11-year old into a parked car and take his Jansport backpack off his limp shoulder and run off while the kid was bleeding out into the sewer.
Only if he was that low.
I might have chased him and killed him, and the cop might have arrested me for assaulting a police officer, but we both only cared about Arthur. The cop knew CPR and all that, and I thought it was gonna work, because it HAD to, but it didn’t. You know how in movies they always show people getting knocked unconscious, and then they wake up hours later somewhere else, tied to a chair or something? You know that’s impossible? You can’t be knocked out for more than a few minutes, not unless serious damage has been done. I always hate that in movies.
Anyway, I had done enough to Arthur without letting him live the life of a vegetable. He deserved better. It might have been the only good decision I made on his behalf.
“Jesus.” Terry was surprised at how moved he was. It went beyond basic compassion; the story was bringing up something else, too. There was fear. Fear, and apprehension, and denial, all surging inside of him to build an invisible wall between himself and something he didn’t want to consider. Was it fear for his own son, for Ty? No, he decided, it wasn’t fear for Ty. Ty would make it out of this. He was afraid of something else.
“What do you think,” asked Sid, “of my story?”
“I didn’t like it,” said Terry, feeling stupid for the glibness of his response.
“Well why not?”
“Why not? Because it’s fucking depressing. It’s awful. I feel bad for you.”
“For me?” Sid smiled. “I don’t believe you. You feel bad, but not for me.”
“Well,” Terry’s voice quivered, and he cursed himself for a coward, “I feel bad for your son.”
“No,” said Sid. “You don’t.”
“Well then I don’t fucking know what,” said Terry, throwing his arms up at the waist, a single chicken-flap of exasperation, as if he could beat his wings and blow the truth of what scared him away.
“I do.” Sid said it quietly. “It’s the same thing that bothered me when my ghost came.”
“Your ghost?” Terry’s face was colorless. He already knew, somewhere deep in the most intuitive part of his gut. His conscious mind fought the information like it was the devil himself come to claim his soul.
“My ghost,” said Sid, “the one who told me the story about 1735, about Deborah. We never finished it, did we?”
“I don’t wanna finish it,” breathed Terry, winded by the walk and the fear creeping up his legs, making him feel like he had to shit.
“We’ll finish it,” said Sid.
Deborah’s Story, Part III
The day Deborah Leeds went into labor, she was attended by the doctor, her husband, and a midwife. 20 hours or so in, her husband left. Japhet, she called after him, but he never turned around. He hadn’t missed a birth, not a one of the twelve, in all those years until then. It was then she knew that he would never accept whatever came out of her belly, though there was no way he could have known about the encounter with the stranger.
The pain grew more intense by the hour, a thousand hooves pounding away at her insides, leathery wings flapping against the ceiling of her uterus, horns poking into the spaces between her ribs. Teeth gnawed on suet.
Deborah waited for her voice to fail her, for the intensity of the pain to deliver her via fainting from the labor, but the moment never came. She only screamed, and thrashed, and pulled against the wiry but strong grip of the doctor and the midwife, all the while cursing herself and God and gurgling something that sounded like “alias.”
Finally, she let loose a war cry- “Damn him! Damn this child! Damn this child to hell! Damn his soul and damn his heart and damn his eyes! Damn his hands, feet, and head! Damn him! Almighty God damn him eternally!”
The doctor, having performed surgeries and seen the most awful sorts of deaths and having witnessed the tumult of labor before, nonetheless found himself mildly shocked by Deborah’s conduct. “Now Misses, you musn’t say those things, the child is sure to come soon.”
Deborah looked at him with black eyes, eyes black as wool in the sun, and screamed through spittled teeth. “Damn him! The DEVIL take this child, for it is his to claim!”
With that, her opening tore more open still, and the blood came forth in a torrent, and something shot from her like a cannon and bounded up the wall above the hearth, leaving bloody claw and hoof prints on the masonry all the way up to the ceiling. Deborah’s scream faded into a sad song, a note of life leaving. Her head rolled back as she died on her own table.
Whatever it was was gone in an instant, leaving the doctor and midwife with nothing but a glimpse as brief as it was terrifying; that and the late Mrs. Leeds. The bottom half of her was a riot of rent flesh which the doctor could only bind up in the sheets, a desperate shroud to behold only as long as the hole took to be dug.
In the weeks that followed, cattle were found mutilated and partially eaten on farms as far west as the river, and many a death was ascribed to errant wolves and bears and tree cats, though the area around the point had been blessedly short of such tragedies for as long as anyone could remember.
The doctor and midwife, as well as Japhet Leeds, were careful not to encourage talk of what had happened on the table, of what had come out of Deborah. But after many years in which a gruesome death could come as suddenly as a storm, mothers began to terrorize their children into goodly behavior with threats of Leeds’ Devil and its hooves and claws. Tales of the Devil cowed generations of children long after the Leeds were nothing more than memories, reaching far beyond the little farm into the wider world beyond the Pines.
Of course people laughed, and the papers printed whatever versions of the story they came across and freely embellished with tongues firmly in their cheeks. They wrote astonishing stories of curses and counter-curses for the amusement of their readers, who were too far from the event to fear the thing that scrambled up the chimney.
The scorn of the educated was heaped upon the people of the Pines, though some curious naturists did investigate the tales seriously, especially in 1909 when a rash of devil sightings swept across the region. Fueled as much by yellow journalists as what anyone actually saw, folks as far away as Philadelphia got in on the panic. In the most famous incident, a whole trolley full of witnesses confirmed seeing the devil in Haddon Heights. A police officer even testified to having fired at it.
But one didn’t need to see it to know it was real. At night in the pines, one didn’t need to see it to know it was near. In the trees, it howled like the wind and the cries of a child unprotected.
“I don’t want to go,” said Terry. “I wanna turn back. Now. It’s dark.”
“What did you think?” asked Sid.
“Of what, Sid? What?”
“Of the story, Terry.”
“I think it’s a bunch of bullshit that you told me to freak me the fuck out in the woods because you think I deserve it, and it worked. I got the point. Now let’s go!”
“You didn’t get the point,”said Sid, “or you wouldn’t want to turn back. I told you that if we came to the place, the exact spot in which I died, that your son could live. Or did you forget that?”
“I didn’t forget it, Sid, I just don’t believe it. It doesn’t make any fucking sense. I want to go back to the hospital and see my kid and tell him…” Terry froze.
He couldn’t see much in the dark of the pines at night, but he stared. He stared at the darkness in which there was nowhere to hide from the realization that crept into the foreground of his mind. “I wanna tell him it was my…my…” he whispered.
“You don’t have to,” said Sid. “You can do him one better. You can make it up to him, for sure and for real. By sacrifice.”
“By sacrifice?” Terry said, not turning to look at Sid. “Sacrifice what? To who?”
“I think you know,” said Sid, “and…you’ll find out. We’re here, anyway.”
They had come to a clearing, a perfect circle in the forest, carpeted with dead needles, barely visible by the light of the small fire that burned in the middle in a depression in the earth. Terry thought how odd it was that they hadn’t seen the fire from a distance.
A man in a dark wool suit sat on a rock, only just inside the radius of the firelight, his white face half-lit.
“Make your choice, Terry,” the man said. “If the sacrifice comes willingly, your boy lives. Ty goes to college and gets married and buys life insurance and fucks a cashier on the side. If the sacrifice comes unwillingly, well…Sid can tell you.”
Terry had to remember to breathe, his fear so filling his being that his body sought to quiet all its noises. His heart seemed to stop beating, hoping not to be heard.
He saw another figure, just outside the firelight. A shadow moving, stalking, awkward hooves shifting sand beneath them, hands brushing the earth with overlong fingers. He heard it breathing, blowing through nostrils like a horse, heard a leathern flap and saw the sand and needles dance in a little cloud towards the flames. He could not speak. “Terry,” he heard Sid say, “make the right choice-”
“Quiet, Sydney,” said the man in the suit.
“No,” Sid was heard to say, somewhere far away from the paralysis that held Terry in place, “he needs to know the whole deal. Explicitly.”
“Your stories,” said the suit, “were undoubtedly sufficient to illustrate the choice before this man. He can offer himself up, or he can not.”
“To what?” squeaked Terry, finding his voice with the last measure of his dying courage. “Offer myself to what?”
“To him,” answered the suit, gesturing without motion to the thing in the shadows. “To the God of Lost Children. The Patron Saint of Neglect. The Holy Redeemer of the Milk Carton.”
“A demon,” whispered Terry, not sure where the word had come from.
“A demon if you like,” said the suit. “A demon, a god, a jinn, a fairy. A guardian devil, if you will. But know this much- he is every child who has ever been failed, and you are his to consume. You are already laid upon his altar. All you can do is choose whether to have laid yourself upon it, or to have been laid there by myself and Sydney here. A minor distinction, I grant you, but one that will make all the difference to your Tyler.”
“Terry,” said Sid, “he can live.”
Terry looked toward the creature, the shadow in the shadows, the horned set of wings and grasping ungues, stalking back and forth patiently, held back, he knew, only by the need for a decision. Terry started to take his jacket off and let it fall to the ground.
Passing hikers found the remains of Terry Ross D’Amato in a small clearing by a small, long-cooled fire that couldn’t possibly have kept him warm through the night. Police identified him through dental records; the majority of his face was missing, along with a great deal of his torso including the intestines, liver, pancreas, spleen, kidneys, lungs, and heart, which had been pulled out from under the exposed rib cage by an unknown animal, most likely a feral dog.
Two things puzzled authorities at the scene. One was the fact that Mr. D’Amato was wearing only a cheap business suit and dress shoes, deep in the pines and in chilly weather. The other was the second set of remains, much older, that had been reduced by age and the elements to smooth and polished bones.