When supernatural forces are afoot, even a suburban back yard can be dangerous.
I had not wanted to give Paul Taulbee a ride home from work that day. Indeed, I generally avoided time alone with Paul whenever I could. The prospect of thirty minutes in the car with him wasn’t exactly a pleasant end to what had been a long day at the office.
I would have escaped if I had not lingered at my desk until long after five o’clock. (Even more importantly, I would have avoided that hour at Paul’s house—but these are details which I will relate to you shortly.)
I was about to pack up my things and call it a day when Paul broke the silence of the empty office. His gravelly voice—coated with the phlegm of a lifelong smoker—startled me as I was contemplating the glorious work-free evening that lay ahead.
“Say Jim,” he said. “Not quite six o’clock and it’s just you and me here now.”
He leaned back in his chair and laced the fingers of both hands across his considerable beer belly. He regarded me through rheumy eyes, which I could barely see because of the glare of the overhead fluorescent lights on his glasses. The bulky frames were twenty-five years out of style. Much of Paul’s wardrobe was out of style: he favored the wide ties that had been in vogue around the time that Ronald Reagan was in the White House.
“Well, Paul,” I said cautiously. “Next week is closing, right? I’ve got to get every last sale in the bag if I’m going to hit my quota this month. Same with you, right?”
“But I’m an old dog,” Paul replied. “And we old dogs are notoriously slow. A young guy like you—a guy with a lovely wife and child waiting at home for him…..I’d think you would want to pack up shop and leave at 5:01. It’s different with me. I’ve got nothing to go home to, after all.”
There seemed to be something vaguely sarcastic in Paul’s tone when he referred to me as “a young guy like you.” I wasn’t sure; and in any case, I wasn’t about to take the bait. Similarly, Paul’s oblique reference to his own situation was territory best left alone. I knew that Paul had had a wife and child once—everyone in the office knew that. And I had also heard the stories about what had happened to them. There was no way that I was going to open that particular can of worms.
“Like I said Paul, I’ve got to get caught up before closing.”
“I understand.” He stood up, and a few wispy strands of white hair fell across his pinkish forehead. Not for the first time, I noticed the red spider web patches of veins on Paul’s cheeks and nose. The telltale signs of a longtime alcoholic. How long had Paul been a problem drinker? Probably longer than I had been alive.
“But I was wondering, Jim, if you would do me a favor?”
“Favor?” I asked warily.
“I need a ride home,” he said. “My Buick is in the shop. Something with the transmission. I don’t know exactly what—an issue with the damn software, I think. You’ve got to be a computer scientist to work on a car these days. Anyway, one of my neighbors dropped me off this morning; but he’s been unexpectedly called out of town. So I’m stuck here…..Unless, that is, you would be kind enough to drop me off on your way home. It’s on your way, I think.”
I nodded. Paul’s house was in fact on my way home. It would be no more than a ten-minute detour. And since there was no one else here to give Paul a ride, there was no way I could refuse—not without looking like a total asshole.
“No problem, Paul,” I said. “Let’s get going.”
And so we did. We walked out of the building and across the parking lot through an early spring drizzle to my car. Paul was huffing and wheezing the whole way. He tossed his blazer—a plaid relic from the seventies—into the back seat of my Honda. As he squeezed himself into the front seat, I was assaulted by his peculiar mix of odors—sweat, mothballs, cough drops, and tobacco smoke. I thought that I could also detect a whiff of alcohol. Paul was rumored to take a furtive nip now and then during the workday.
“I live off Exit 10,” Paul supplied. “Right off the highway, on Nead-Moore Road.”
“Got it,” I said, turning the key in the ignition. “I know exactly where that is.”
As I merged into the highway traffic, the Honda’s four cylinders strained a bit as I tried to accelerate past a Ford Mustang. The Mustang driver cut me off. Then he blared his horn and flipped me the bird. Fuming, I took my place in traffic behind him. I was tempted to escalate the altercation but held back. I just wanted to get home. The last thing I needed right now was to become a main character in a sorry road rage drama.
“If you owned a six-cylinder American-made car you would have gotten ahead of him,” Paul observed. “No offense, mind you, but this flimsy Japanese stuff is overrated.”
I was about to ask Paul why—if this were true—was his brand-new Buick in the repair shop—while my ten-year-old Honda had so far subsisted on nothing but routine maintenance and oil changes? Once again I held back. As Paul had noted, my wife and child were waiting at home for me. James Jr. had just learned to say “dad;” and Monica had called me at lunch to suggest that we indulge ourselves in some marital bliss tonight after little Jimmy went to sleep. My mind was on them—not on Paul’s opinions about Japanese-made cars.
I turned off the highway at Exit 10 and began the trek down Nead-Moore Road. This was a semi-rural area, a few miles removed from the city. New subdivisions of expensive dream homes dotted a landscape that had been mostly farmland only a few years ago. The strip malls were invading, too. Signs advertising carryout pizza and video rentals stood out from the recently cleared woods.
Paul touched my arm as we approached a convenience store. “Would you mind stopping?” he asked.
He must have noticed my hesitation, as he added: “It will only take a moment. I’ll be quick, I promise.”
I signaled and pulled into the parking lot of the 7-Eleven. I left the car running as Paul ambled inside.
Paul’s “moment” stretched into a full ten minutes. “There was a line,” he said matter-of-factly as he climbed back into my car. “Couldn’t help it.”
I said nothing, eager to deposit Paul Taulbee at his front door and be rid of him. The 7-Eleven bag was translucent and it revealed what he had bought—the items that were so important that he asked me to make a special stop for them. Paul hadn’t purchased any essential food items—no; he had bought a bottle of red wine and two packs of cigars. Paul smoked cheap cigars of the especially malodorous variety—Titans, Swisher Sweets, and occasionally Dutch Masters.
I had to rely on him for directions as we drove the rest of the way to his house. His home was built in a clearing of almost virgin woods. Across the road was a new housing development that was under construction; there were apparently no occupants as yet.
My Honda (“flimsy Japanese stuff!”) crunched up Paul’s long gravel driveway. His house was not new; my guess was that it had been there for thirty years. In fact, Paul’s wife and daughter had probably lived here before—well, before they weren’t here anymore.
But there was no way I was going to confirm this hypothesis with Paul.
Paul gathered up his briefcase, his blazer, and his 7-Eleven bag. He leaned back into the car on the passenger side before closing the door.
“I sure appreciate this,” he said.
“It was no trouble. Anytime,” I replied, desperately hoping that Paul would perceive the white lie and ask someone else for a ride home the next time his Buick was in the shop.
As I watched Paul ascend the fieldstone and cement steps that led to his front door, it occurred to me that I really should call Monica and tell her that I was on my way home. I had told her previously of my plans to work late tonight. But the detour trip to Paul’s house had not been on the schedule then, and I had already burned a half hour since I turned onto Exit 10.
The car idled in Paul’s driveway. I removed my cell phone from my pocket and hit the power button. When I flipped the cell phone open, the first thing I noticed was the low battery light. I would have to be fast.
I pressed the speed dial button for my home phone. The word “Dialing” appeared on the phone’s status screen—for about five seconds. Then the status screen went blank.
The battery had gone dead.
That left me with one choice. I killed the Honda’s ignition and called out Paul’s name just as he was fumbling with the key to his front door.
The older man turned to face me.
“Can I use your phone, Paul?”
He had set his briefcase and his 7-Eleven bag down on the porch while he fiddled with the lock. He picked them back up and pushed the door open with his backside. He disappeared into the darkness of the house.
“Come on in,” he called out.
I knew right away that my earlier guess about Paul’s house was correct. A wife and a little girl had indeed lived here once. In another decade, this had been a family home. There were wall hangings and other signs of a feminine presence—the sort of details that a man living alone would habitually neglect.
But none of these things had been updated in years. The fixtures, the furniture, the wallpaper: they were all well chosen details from a bygone era. Atop this old layer of domesticity another layer had grown: dust, old newspapers and magazines, a few random piles of laundry. This was the debris of a man living alone. A man living with nothing but regrets, I thought.
“The phone’s here in the kitchen,” Paul called out. I heard him place his bottle of wine inside the refrigerator. The kitchen was a similar disaster area: dirty dishes in the sink, a garbage can that badly needed to be emptied. A computer had been inappropriately set up in the middle of the kitchen table.
I lifted the handset of Paul’s telephone from the wall, suddenly very grateful for my own lot in life.
Monica answered on the second ring and I gave her a brief account of the evening’s circumstances. I’ll be home shortly, I promised. Yes, I love you too.
I hung up the phone and thanked Paul. Then my gaze wandered into the family room; it was directly adjacent to the kitchen.
I saw the portrait and I could not help lingering over it for a few seconds longer than I should have. It was hanging on the wall above the fireplace in the family room. The young woman in the professionally developed photograph was about thirty years of age. She had her arm around a little blond girl whose hair was done up in pigtails. She was perhaps four or five years old. The little girl was holding a teddy bear and smiling exuberantly for the camera.
The woman’s dress and hairstyle told me that the portrait must have been taken around three decades ago. I did not need to be told that these two people in the portrait were Paul’s wife and daughter. Who else would they be, after all?
But Paul answered the unspoken question for me anyway when he noticed me staring at the portrait.
“Yes, Jim, that’s them. They’re the ones you’ve heard about.”
“When was it taken?” I asked. This detail wasn’t really important; but I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“November of nineteen eighty-two. Frances was not quite four then and Ginny, my wife, was thirty-two.”
Again I was at a loss for words. “I’m sorry.”
“No need to be sorry, Jim. You had nothing to do with what happened. And it was a long time ago. To put it in perspective, you and Frances would be about the same age—if she had lived.”
I did a bit of mental math. Paul’s deceased daughter would actually be a few years older than me—if she had been four in 1982. While this detail put the time involved into perspective, it did not seem worth noting aloud.
“I know you’ve heard the stories at work,” Paul said. “Oh, don’t look at me like that, Jim—I know what they say behind my back. I may have a drinking problem. I admit that I do. But I’m not an idiot.” He tapped his forehead. “There are still a few brain cells left up here that haven’t been pickled.”
In fact I had heard the stories. And it would be disingenuous for me to assert otherwise.
“Yes. I’ve heard them,” I said. “But all the same, it really isn’t any of my business. That’s between you and—” I gestured in the direction of the portrait. “That’s all between you and them, I suppose. It doesn’t concern me.”
Paul put an unwanted hand on my shoulder. “That’s very generous of you to say, Jim. But I imagine that you’ve speculated all the same.”
“Not really,” I lied.
“You mean your curiosity hasn’t been the least bit peaked—when our esteemed colleagues told you that I murdered my wife and child?”
I felt the blood rush to my face. That was exactly what several of our coworkers said about Paul behind his back—although I knew that the truth was more complex than that.
“Why don’t you sit down for a minute and I’ll tell you the whole truth, Jim? Have one for the road, as they say.”
“Paul, I really have to be—”
“This won’t take long. And when will we have a chance to talk alone like this again? Think of it as humoring an old man, if you like. It will give me a chance to get some things off my chest…to come clean.”
“Well…” I was trying to think of a decorous way to get out of that house as soon as I could.
“And there’s more, Jim, something you weren’t expecting—but something that I know you’ll like.”
“And what would that be?”
“I’ve noticed those paperbacks that you sometimes read at lunchtime. Stephen King and Dean Koontz. Even the occasional H.P. Lovecraft. You like a scary story. Well, I have a scary story for you.”
Then he must have read a skeptical expression in my face, as he said: “Don’t worry, Jim. I’m not going to tell you that the ghost of my daughter walks the halls of this house at night, or that I communicate with my wife through mediums.” He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “I only wish that it were so. But I regret to inform you that since the day of the accident, I have had absolutely no contact with either Ginny or Frances. Wherever they are, they are unable or, perhaps, unwilling to communicate with me.”
I wanted to insist that I had to leave. It would be easy enough for me to do, as I had just told my wife that I was on my way home. But now I felt a twinge of pity for Paul—or at least that was what I allowed myself to believe.
And I still believe that this was part of the reason for my decision to accept his invitation for a drink. But there was something more: Paul had peaked my curiosity.
Truth be told, I never have been able to resist a scary story.
“It was December nineteen eighty-three,” Paul began. “A little more than a year after that portrait was taken.”
The two of us were seated in the family room, beneath the perpetually happy faces of Ginny and Frances Taulbee. Paul addressed me from the faded blue sofa across the room. I had plopped down in a recliner that had seen much better days.
I sipped a Diet Coke while Paul nursed a juice glass full of gin and tonic. I glanced at my watch. After agreeing to stay, I had called Monica again to let her know that I would be delayed by perhaps another half-hour. I didn’t want this discussion to drag on any longer than that.
But then, I didn’t yet know where this discussion was going to lead.
“We had gone to a Christmas party at a colleague’s house,” Paul continued. “This was, of course, back in the day when it was still politically permissible to refer to them as such. There were no ‘happy holiday’ parties in 1983.
“And we attended a lot of parties in those days,” he explained. “My sales career was really humming, Jim. You see me now, and I know you think of me as a washed out-flunky—” He held up a hand when I began to object. “No Jim, it’s true. I am now a shadow of my former self. But if you could have seen me then—when Frances and Ginny were still alive. I was a completely different man. I was on top of my game and the world was mine for the taking. I looked different. Younger, of course, but also thinner and more toned. I used to play tennis sometimes, if you can believe that. Jogged, even.
“Anyway, we had attended this party late that night. Usually we left Frances with a sitter when we went to parties. But this was a multi-generational affair. They had cocktails for the adults and ice cream and eggnog for the kids.
“I remember watching Frances at one point during the evening and thinking, I shouldn’t let her drink too much eggnog: She’s going to have a stomachache in the morning.”
He smiled at me sadly. “Oh Jim, if I had only known. If only Frances had lived to get another stomachache.
“And Ginny. Our marriage was basically sound. We had our issues, of course, like any married couple. But I loved Ginny very much; and I absolutely adored little Frances.
“The only problem was that I was starting to drink too much. I didn’t wake up one morning with a drinking problem. It snuck up on me a step at a time. Entertaining clients was a big part of my job. Back in those days, that meant a lot of cocktails. Some nights I would drag myself home past midnight, so intoxicated that I could barely stumble into bed.
“This upset Ginny and we had some fights about it. She didn’t like me staying out at night like that. She wasn’t suspicious about me running around with other women—and there was nothing like that going on, mind you; but the drinking frightened her. She was worried that one night she would get a call from the police, telling her that I had wrapped my car around a telephone pole. ‘Then little Frances would have to grow up without a father, and how would that be for our daughter?’ she asked.”
Paul Taulbee paused his narrative to blow his nose with a Kleenex that he removed from a box on the coffee table.
“You can see the irony, there, can’t you, Jim? Ginny was worried about me getting myself killed and leaving them alone—but it was the opposite thing that happened.”
I nodded silently. Of course I could see the irony.
“So anyway: Back to that night at the party. We stayed until around ten o’clock. By the time we left, I was three sheets to the wind. When you drink a lot, you learn to recognize your limits. And that night I had gone over my limit.
“To make matters worse, the sky was spitting snow—an icy, wet snow that was turning the roads into skating rinks. Ginny could see that I was in no condition to drive. She begged me to let her drive instead—she had only had a single glass of wine—but I was stubborn. The previous quarter I had been the top grossing salesman at my company. I was in my early thirties and hauling down big bucks. I could do anything—including drive my family home in a snowstorm through the fog of six or seven mixed drinks.”
Paul took a deep breath. “We were about four miles from the party when it happened. The driver in front of me got antsy when he ran into a slick patch. He jammed on his brakes. I had been tailing too closely behind him; there was no way I could stop in time. So instead I swerved out of the lane. But instead of swerving to the right side of the road—like I would have done had I been sober—I swerved to the left, into the oncoming traffic. A snowplow was traveling in the opposite direction. I finally saw it, but by then it was too late, and my reflexes were not so good.
“You can guess the rest. You’ve read a dozen—maybe a hundred—headlines like this. Ginny and Frances were killed instantly by the impact with the snowplow. I survived the accident almost unscathed. I had a sprained wrist, a cracked rib, and a nasty abrasion on my forehead. The driver of the snowplow also came out of the accident with nothing more than minor injuries.
“When the emergency crews pulled me from the wreckage, I was screaming for Ginny and Frances. They had to restrain me. They smelled the liquor on my breath and they tested my blood-alcohol levels. Needless to say, my BAC reading was off the charts.
“Several weeks after the accident—when I had buried my wife and my little girl, the local prosecutor charged me with two counts of involuntary manslaughter. He prided himself as a get-tough-on-crime sort of public official. If not for my decision to drink and drive, he said, the accident would most likely never have occurred, and my wife and daughter would be alive.
“To tell you the truth, I barely took note of the gravity of my legal situation. Compared to the loss I had endured, the loss of my freedom seemed almost insignificant. I had sunk so low that no further damage was possible—I truly had nothing left to lose.
“At this point I had quit my job, and more or less dropped out of the world. I was walking around this empty house in a daze—barely eating, never sleeping for more than a few hours at a time. I lost sense of the passage of time itself. The days and nights ran together.
“I don’t mean to say that I didn’t dread the idea of going to jail—but not for the same reasons that a normal person would. A normal person, you see, dreads imprisonment because it will take him away from all the daily pleasures of life. Since those were already lost to me, I couldn’t feel the same sense of regret. I had no more capacity for regret. Do you understand, Jim?”
I nodded. In a way, I did understand.
“But I didn’t want to live in a cement box filled with other men who would disturb my solitude—who would not respect my memories and who could never even hope to understand what I had been through. I determined that I would take action to keep myself out of jail. I lacked the will and the mental wherewithal that flight would have required. But there was no way that they could put a dead man in jail. And anyway, I was ready to end my pain.
“I couldn’t get my hands on any poison that was sufficiently lethal. I owned a gun; but I didn’t want to blow my brains out. That would be too disturbing for the people who found me, and it seemed like an undignified way to go.
“So I opted for the death-by-carbon-monoxide route. It seemed simple and relatively painless. Certainly better than coughing to death while rat poison dissolved me from the inside out, and better than waking up in hospital bed, unable to move but still alive, after a botched attempt at suicide with a gun. That also scared me, Jim: I didn’t want to do the job half-ass and wind up as a vegetable.
“I went out to the garage at around noon on a Tuesday in February. With the garage door closed, I started the car and rolled down the windows. I held a photo album in my lap: As you can probably guess, it contained all my pictures of Ginny and Frances. While I was still conscious, I looked through the photographs one final time. Then the exhaust fumes became so thick that I couldn’t see them anymore; I was growing light-headed. I drifted off with a sense of contentment. When I awoke, I told myself, I would see Ginny and Frances.
“I did awaken; but I didn’t see Ginny and Frances. I saw the face of an emergency room physician at Mercy Hospital, and what seemed like a thousand watts of light on the ceiling overhead. Man, the light hurt my eyes when I came to.
“I also remember feeling a wave of intense anger and disappointment. Somehow they had discovered me and interrupted what I had been doing in the privacy of my own home. They had prevented me from making my journey.
“I later found out that the mailman had been behind it. While he was opening my mailbox, he noticed the exhaust fumes seeping from the gaps between the garage door and the doorway. It’s not an airtight seal, you know. He peered through one of the windows and quickly grasped the situation. Then he broke the window, climbed inside, and shut off the car before calling for an ambulance.
“Ironically, my attempt to escape prison by dying got the prosecutor off my back. Accounts of my unsuccessful suicide made their way into the papers, of course. The image of a grieving father, ending his life with pictures of his dead family in his lap…well, that was so poignant that the local media couldn’t resist glomming on to it. I was still a pariah, of course; but now I had become a sympathetic pariah. My life had become one great cautionary tale.
“It all suddenly became very touchy-feely. I began to receive cards and letters from people I didn’t even know. I feel your pain, some of them dared to say. Right. None of them could ever feel my pain, so why would they bother to claim that that they did?
“The anchorman at the local affiliate of CBS did a televised editorial about me. Hadn’t I suffered enough? he asked. And wouldn’t I continue to suffer even more—for the rest of my life, in fact? No one—not even the prosecutor—believed that I had meant to kill my wife and daughter. So how would the public good be advanced by incarcerating me at taxpayer expense for the next ten or twenty years?
“Letters poured into the television station. Every single contributor condemned what I had done; but the overwhelming majority agreed that justice would be better served by leaving me to my pain. The prosecutor, being a political animal, was quickly swayed by the turn in public opinion. He ‘reassessed the merits and demerits of further legal action’ against me—which was a political way of saying that he shifted with the shifting wind.
“To make a long story short, the prosecutor dropped all the charges against me. I was ordered to complete alcohol addiction counseling, and my license was suspended for a while. But the big charges went away.”
He clapped his hands together. “So now you know what all the people in the office whisper about me,” Paul said. “You are the only one—I would venture to say—who knows the whole story. The accurate one.”
I couldn’t disagree. I had heard various stories about what had happened to Paul’s wife and daughter. Many of them contained elements of the account that he had just given me. All the office gossip, nevertheless, was flawed: Each rumor was handicapped by distortions, whether in the form of omission or embellishment.
I braced my feet on the shag carpet as if to stand up. “Well, Paul, I appreciate you opening up to me like this.” This was a lame thing to say in light of the story that Paul had just unbottled on me. Not quite as lame as thank you for sharing—but almost. Nevertheless, I couldn’t quite feel guilty about my loss for words. What exactly can you say after a person has just told you a story like that?
Without stirring from his place on the sofa, Paul said: “Please sit down, Jim. There’s more.”
“Paul, I really have to get going.” And really, I did.
“What I gave you now was mundane background—from your perspective, of course, though not from mine. Don’t forget that I promised you scary story, Jim.”
“You’ll have to sit back down in order to collect it.”
And so I did.
Paul lit one of the cheap cigars that he had purchased in the 7-Eleven before continuing. As always, the smoke from one of those things reminded me of the smell of a wet dog.
“I started seeing them about a year after my failed suicide attempt,” Paul said.
“Them?” I asked. A part of me still suspected that he was going to claim visitations from the souls of his deceased wife and daughter.
“I think of them as giants,” Paul answered. “But there’s probably a better—more accurate—name for them.”
I shook my head. “I don’t understand.”
“Let me show you.” Paul ground out his cheap cigar in an ashtray on the coffee table. He waved his fingers at me in an up, up gesture. He stood and walked into the kitchen. Not knowing what else to do, I followed him.
We stood before a large set of heavy curtains. Paul abruptly pulled the curtains to one side in a single sweeping motion. As I had expected, this revealed a set of sliding glass double doors. Beyond the glass doorway was a leaf-strewn, raised wooden deck. The deck was empty but for the leaves, and several pieces of lawn furniture. The lawn furniture was still covered with dark green winter tarpaulins. A light rain fell on the tarpaulined lawn furniture, the little clumps of decaying leaves, and the unpainted floorboards of the deck.
“Do you see those woods?” Paul asked, pointing into the back yard.
This was obviously a rhetorical question. The woods began just a stone’s throw past the deck, and dominated the view, enclosing the backyard area in a semicircle. Unless you were blindfolded, there was no way you could miss the woods.
From where we stood inside the house, I could make out the banks of a little ravine that likely descended into a shallow creek. On the other side of the ravine the landscape rose sharply into a densely wooded hillside of dark hardwood trunks, tangled scrub bushes, and a few scattered pines. Winter had ended only a few weeks ago, so the deciduous trees were still bare. The fading daylight and the rainy weather conspired to limit the visibility to less than a few yards into the forest.
“That’s where they come from,” Paul said hoarsely. “And that’s mostly where I see them.”
“Who? What? I don’t know which is the right term, Jim. Once again, I call them ‘giants’ because that is an approximation I can live with…It’s a word that assigns some meaning to what I see out there.”
I felt a little tingle at the base of my spine. I was now genuinely interested.
“Paul, you’ll forgive me if I’m not exactly on the same wavelength here. Exactly what do you see?”
Paul drew the curtains back across the sliding glass double doors. “I don’t like to give them a clear view into the house,” he explained. “I know they’re watching, even now.”
“Wait a minute!” I pulled the curtains back open and turned to face Paul. “You’re not making sense. Tell me what it is you see out there. In plain English. You wanted to tell me about this. Well, here I am. Now tell me.”
Paul shook his head hopelessly. “Where to begin?”
“What do they look like?” I prompted. “These—giants—of yours? How big are they?”
“Okay. That’s a good place to start. Do you see that big oak out there? The one with the big knothole.”
Paul was referring to a massive tree that stood out among the others not far into the woods. The tree had likely been a sapling in the early 1900s. Its surface was indeed marred by a large knothole.
“Sure,” I answered.
“Most of them are about as tall as that knothole.”
“Paul, that’s got to be—like twenty feet in the air.”
“Why do you think I call them ‘giants’?”
I scanned Paul’s face for traces of deception or humor. For some of the gasbags who worked in our office, a fish story like this would be the lead-up to a grand punch line—the ultimate gotcha! However, I could detect no indication that Paul was pulling my leg. Nor did he look intoxicated. Paul might be a drunk by disposition; but at the moment he was stone-cold sober.
“I never see them for more than a few seconds at a time,” he continued. “And I usually see them out of my peripheral vision. When I look at one of them straight-on, they duck back behind the trees, out of sight. So I never get a very good look at them.”
“But what have you seen? If you’ve been seeing them for so long, then you must have put together some sort of description.”
Paul nodded. “They have bodies roughly like men, only much larger, of course. And dark, leathery skin. Their heads are misshapen, elongated. I know that’s not much to go on. But I never really get a good look at them.”
“In that case, Paul, how do you know that you’re actually seeing anything at all? I’m no psychiatrist; but what you’re describing sounds like a classic hallucination. Everyone sees traces of movement and shadow out of their peripheral vision from time to time, Paul. Heck, even I do.”
I looked at him and he said nothing, so I continued.
“You were under a lot of pressure, with the deaths of your family, the legal issues, and then your suicide attempt. No one could go through a series of traumas like that without suffering some kind of psychological effects. And not to be unkind, Paul, but your drinking doesn’t exactly help matters.”
“All very reasonable Jim. But I’m not having hallucinations.”
“But how do you know?”
“These things do more than simply show themselves. They leave things behind. And sometimes they make mischief. Follow me.”
Paul slid one of the glass double doors open and stepped out onto the deck, heedless of the light rain. I accompanied him. He walked over to the wooden railing and ran his hand across the surface of the beam.
“Do you see these gash marks?”
There were four long gash marks in the wood. Each one was perhaps a half-inch wide and a quarter-inch deep.
“I see them,” I said.
“And those? And those?”
I examined the railing closer and saw that there were indeed numerous gash marks in the surface along the entire length of the wood. Some of the gashes seemed to have been cut years ago. Others were more recent, perhaps no more than a few weeks old.
“These things,” I asked. “And I’m accepting their existence just for the sake of argument, mind you. You mean to tell me that these things come up onto your deck?”
Paul shivered. His faraway stare suggested that he was recalling a particularly unpleasant memory. “Oh, yes, Jim. They do.”
My clothing was now starting to grow damp from the rain and I was shivering a bit myself.
“Have you ever considered another explanation? Something less….otherworldly? Sure, I’ll admit that these scratch marks look pretty nasty. But a grizzly bear can cut into wood like that.”
Paul snorted. “This is Ohio, Jim. There isn’t a grizzly bear within fifteen hundred miles of here. And there haven’t been black bears in this area for sixty or seventy years. You know that.”
“Yeah, but still…”
“Yeah, but bullshit,” he said. “Let’s go inside. We’re both going to catch a fever out here.”
Once inside, he pressed the power button of the computer that sat, malapropos, atop the kitchen table. While we waited for it to boot up, he locked the glass doors and drew the curtains closed again.
Paul took a seat at the kitchen table as the splash screen for Windows 2000 appeared on the monitor against a solid light blue background. When the operating system was fully operational, Paul launched Windows Explorer and began navigating the computer’s internal file structure. He clicked on a JPEG file and motioned for me to join him at the monitor.
The photograph had been taken at night and with a flash that was obviously inadequate. But I was able to make out the details nonetheless. The mass of flesh and fur on the screen had once been a deer. However, it was ripped obscenely into multiple pieces. The head, the legs, the innards—they were all there, all in a jumbled pile atop what must have been Paul’s lawn.
I do not ordinarily have a sensitive stomach; but I could feel my gorge start to rise. I looked away.
“Okay, Paul, that’s a really disgusting picture of a mutilated deer. So what?”
“So what?” Paul pointed at the monitor screen. “They left it for me, that’s what. They left it to remind me of their presence.”
“But how do you know that, Paul?”
“One night I could hear them walking about on the back lawn. Like I said, they’re big—and I often hear them crashing through the woods. And sometimes I can hear their footsteps when they come close to the house.
“Anyway, that one particular night, I heard a horrible ruckus in the forest, then I heard the scream of an animal. A few minutes later there were footsteps near the house. Booming footsteps, like the sounds that the tyrannosaurus always makes in those Jurassic Park movies.
“Then I heard another sound—the sound of a large weight being dropped onto my back yard. I got dressed and went outside to investigate. I was scared, of course; but how could I not go? A morbid curiosity took hold of me. I was afraid; but if they had simply wanted to kill me, they could have done that at anytime over the past twenty-five odd years.
“I went out back and I saw the remains of the deer. Not knowing what else to do, I grabbed my digital camera and snapped a picture. The next morning I called in sick at work and cleaned it up.”
On one hand, there was no arguing with that horrible image on the monitor. On the other hand, though, I felt compelled to play devil’s advocate.
“Paul, dogs kill deer all the time.”
Paul raised his voice a bit to respond. “Look at that deer, Jim.” He jabbed his finger against the screen. “Look what they did to it. No pack of dogs would rip a deer to shreds like that, and then leave the entire dismembered carcass lying around.”
“What else have they done?” I asked. “I know there’s more.”
Paul pushed his rolling chair away from the kitchen table. “Yes, there’s more. One time—my God, it’s almost too awful to repeat.”
“Go ahead. It can’t be that bad.”
“You might feel differently once you hear it. Okay, here goes. This was about two months after I found the deer. Just last autumn.
“One night I heard more footsteps. And then I heard one of them tapping at the back window. Scraping at the back window. Imagine four or five long, rusty files scraping against glass, that’s what it sounded like.
“I turned on the light and got out of bed again, as I had done the night I found the deer. I was actually more angry than scared at this point, you see. I was beginning to see this almost as a game of sorts, as unpleasant as it was. They were trying to drive me off the deep end, and I was determined not to let them. My attitude was, if they left another deer carcass for me, so be it. I was prepared to go out on my back lawn and yell into the forest at them. That night I was feeling so foolhardy that I might have dared them to come and take me.
“I opened the back drapes and turned on the outside floodlight, the one that illuminates the deck. I was going to step out onto the deck to confront them, but I never made it outside.”
“Why not?” I interrupted.
“They had done far worse than a deer this time.”
Paul paused, looking down at his hands.
“Go on,” I urged.
“There’s a graveyard on the other side of that forest. About two miles from here. I looked out on my deck and there were three bodies arranged there. I could tell by the way they were dressed that they had been pulled from their graves. They were in various stages of decomposition.”
“Whoa, hold on,” I interrupted him again. “You’re telling me that you opened those curtains and there were three dead bodies on your deck.”
“Yep,” Paul crossed his arms and began rubbing his biceps. He was shivering from the memory. “They were stiff from rigor mortis, you see. But those beasts had arranged them like they were at a tea party or something. One was propped up against the railing. The other was on the chase lounge and the other was—”
“Okay, Paul, I get it.”
“You don’t believe me, do you? You don’t believe any of this. I can tell by the expression on your face. You think I’m making all this up.”
I phrased my answer carefully. “I don’t think you’re making anything up, Paul. I believe that you believe what you’re telling me.”
“You think it’s all a delusion, then?”
“’Delusion’ is a loaded word, Paul. So let’s not use it. Let’s look at the facts instead. You told me that you seldom get a close look at these—things, right?”
“And the only evidence you have is this photo of the mutilated deer, which can be explained away by wholly natural causes. It is entirely possible for dogs to mutilate deer like that.”
“I disagree, but go on.”
“Do you also have photos of the bodies?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“No. Oh, no, no. Those put me in a total state of shock. I tried to call the police; but I couldn’t even keep my hands steady enough to dial 911. I felt like I was going to pass out. I went back into my bedroom and lay back down. In a little while I did go back to sleep—though a fitful sleep, let me tell you.”
“And what about in the morning?”
“When I woke up the sun was already out, and I felt ready to deal with the situation. I came out here into the kitchen and looked out on the deck, but—“
“They were gone, Jim. Isn’t that what you wanted to hear? The bodies that had been there the previous night were gone. They had taken them away and they had…”
“Put them back in their graves?”
“Yes, I suppose that’s exactly what they did.”
“Okay, fine.” I left it at that. I didn’t want to provoke him. But I did want him to see the holes in his own tale. The bodies were the one aspect of this story that was not subject to a mundane explanation. Deer carcasses and scratch marks in a wooden deck were one thing. Human corpses ripped from their graves were another.
But Paul had no pictures to corroborate this last claim. He admitted that the bodies that had appeared to be there in the dark of night had vanished with the early morning sunlight. None of it made sense. Paul was obviously suffering from some sort of a delusion, brought about by grief, long periods of time alone, and years of alcoholism.
I didn’t believe that Paul was dangerous to others—and possibly not even to himself. Nevertheless, I wanted to get an idea of how deep his delusions went. If he had been seeing these apparitions for years, then he had no doubt speculated about their nature. In fact, he had probably developed his own elaborate mythology about them.
“Let me ask you this,” I said. “What do you think they are? And why do you think they’re bothering you?”
“This is going to sound crazy to you,” Paul began.
I could not resist a sardonic smile. “Try me.”
“Well, it’s like this: Are you familiar with the concept of purgatory?”
“Sure.” I had been raised a Roman Catholic. I had grown up with the idea of purgatory as a place of purification and trial for the flawed-but-not-damned. According to religious doctrine, purgatory was a place where departed souls went to get a little taste of hell before they could enter heaven.
I related this to Paul and he began smiling and nodding when I said, “a little taste of hell.”
“That’s exactly what I would call this,” Paul said. “A little taste of hell. I believe that for all intents and purposes, my life ended on that day when I tried to commit suicide. The mail carrier finding me and saving my life—that really was a bit too fortuitous, don’t you think?”
“So you think that that you’ve been dead all these years?” I asked.
“Not literally dead. Not physically dead. But mentally dead. Emotionally dead. Spiritually dead. My life should have ended twenty-five years ago, that day in my garage. Or even better, I should have died with my wife and daughter. Since my wife and daughter died, I have been living in a sort of netherworld. Atoning for my sins, you might say.”
Although I still doubted many aspects of what Paul was saying, there was one point that I couldn’t argue with: He did strike me as a person who was not quite dead, not quite alive. I figured that these visions were his subconscious mind’s way of manifesting his own guilt.
And I could already guess what he truly believed about the creatures—the “giants”, as he called them.
“If you’re living in purgatory,” I asked. “Then what are those things in the woods behind your house? You don’t really think they’re giants, do you? Giants are for tales like ‘Jack and the Beanstalk,’ after all.” Once again I could not stifle a hint of smile. “So what are they, Paul, if not giants?”
“You tell me.”
“Demons?” I suggested.
“Yes, Jim. That’s exactly what I think they are.”
I decided to let it go. Now I really did have to leave. Monica would be irritated if I lingered any longer, and I wanted to spend some time with my son this evening. It was time for me to get back to my own life.
Paul did not attempt to detain me further. In fact, he seemed satisfied for the opportunity to have simply told his story. And anyway, what useful interpretation or advice could I have possibly given him?
Paul thanked me one final time for the ride home. I zipped up my jacket against the still spitting rain and stepped out into the waning daylight.
The interior of my Honda was damp and chilly. I started the engine and set the heater on a medium-high setting. I was about to turn on the radio when I heard a distant noise.
It was the sound of wood splintering.
The splintering sound came from an area adjacent to Paul’s house that was completely overtaken by forest. I looked in that direction and the first thing I noticed was a movement of one of the trees. It was not a large tree; but it wasn’t an extremely small one, either.
The tree fell to one side, as might occur during a strong wind.
But there was no wind to speak of tonight.
Then more stirring in the forest. Another tree fell with a crack of splintered wood, followed by a wet thud against the rain-dampened earth.
This struck me as odd; but I wasn’t seriously alarmed. Perhaps the trees had been weakened by the weather, I thought. We had had some fierce winds earlier in the week.
I should have let it go at that; I should have put the Honda in gear and driven away without another glance toward the forest. But I didn’t. I simply couldn’t let it go. Not after listening to Paul’s story.
I was still trying to concoct a satisfactory explanation when something big emerged from among the trees. Then I gave up on satisfactory explanations—gave up on them entirely.
The vaguely humanoid shape was perhaps twenty feet tall. (Big—big just like Paul said, I thought frantically.) Its body was the color of mud and decay. This was no giant from a children’s fairy tale. A head that was a cross between that of a wolf and a bird swiveled in my direction. Two large, flat eyes glowed red in the semi-darkness.
The thing stopped. We stared at each other through the window of my Honda. I felt rather than heard a high-pitched, shrill buzzing inside my inner ear. Just below the buzzing was a distinctive laughter, mirthless and malevolent.
The creature took a step out of the forest toward my car.
Then an image formed in my mind that broke my near paralysis. I thought of Monica and my young son, James Jr. Whatever that thing in the forest was, I had no business with it. I had a life outside of Paul Taulbee’s little corner of hell.
I had forty—or even fifty—years of life ahead of me: more children and eventually grandchildren. Decades of professional satisfaction and simple pleasures.
Paul had made his own purgatory. I wanted no part of it. It wasn’t mine to partake in.
I threw the Honda into reverse and stomped down on the gas pedal. The car jerked backward, spitting gravel. I somehow managed to control the car as I backed down Paul’s long driveway while simultaneously accelerating.
I pulled onto the main road in a wide arc without checking in either direction for oncoming traffic. Another lucky break came my way: no one plowed into me. Then I righted the Honda and sped away.
I was very careful not to look back.
I told Paul about what I had seen in the forest, of course. I believed that I owed him that much. I had, after all, suggested that my older colleague might be delusional. (And there is no gentle way to suggest that a person might have a screw loose.)
Paul spared me any I-told-you-so recriminations. He also indicated that my experience was unique.
“So no one else—besides you and I—has seen them?” I asked.
Paul shook his head and elaborated. While he did not have a lot of company, I was by no means the first visitor to his home since the apparitions had begun making their appearances. But I was the only person other than Paul to have seen one, as far as the old man knew.
When I asked him for his own speculation about this he laughed.
“Well, for one thing, you were the only person I ever told about them, Jim. Therefore, you knew to look for them. And there might be a little more to it than that. I only see fleeting glimpses of them. I’ve never had one stand and confront me as you describe.”
“So perhaps they were looking for you, too.”
This suggestion caused me to blurt out reactively at Paul:
“But why would they seek me out, Paul? I mean—I don’t have the same history you do.”
I regretted what I said the very second I said it.
“Sorry, Paul. What I mean is,” I continued. “You told me that they didn’t come until your troubles began. But I’m happy.” And for some reason I felt compelled to apologize to him again. “I’m sorry, but I am happy. I’ve got—you know—a lot to look forward to.”
“That’s all right,” Paul said. “And don’t feel the need to apologize to me for your happiness. I was happy once, too.”
After our follow-up conversation, Paul and I never discussed that sinister evening again. I continued to show him the impersonal chumminess that prevails in most workplaces; but our conversations became briefer and vaguer.
My experience that night did give me a certain empathy for Paul (I would like to think so, anyway). And in some ways that empathy drove us further apart. I had what Paul had always wanted—what Paul had once had, but then lost. In Paul’s presence, I sometimes felt guilty for my good fortune. That made me resent the old man a bit—although I knew this resentment was irrational and more than a little unfair.
In the final analysis, we had only our secret in common. I had no interest in reexamining what I had seen that night and what it might have meant.
I wanted to forget all about it and focus on my own life—which was going exactly the way I wanted it to go. A week after my visit to Paul’s house, Monica found out that she was pregnant again. I was hoping that this one would be a girl.
About a year later I arrived late to work one Monday morning. The entire sales team was huddled together. Mark Fitz—our department manager—was making an announcement. I don’t arrive late for work very often. But I had two kids at this point. (Monica’s second pregnancy did turn out to be a girl.) And when you have kids, an occasional late arrival to the office is more or less inevitable.
I tried to make my entrance as furtive and low-key as possible. I crept into the room and took my place at the edge of the huddle of about twenty-five people. Mark Fitz was still speaking. I turned to the person who was nearest me, a fellow salesperson named Jack Gardner.
“What’s all this about?” I asked in a whisper. “Not layoffs, I hope.”
“Paul Taulbee is dead.”
“That’s right. Heart attack. Apparently his lifestyle finally caught up with him. Shhhh. Let’s listen. Fitz is going to announce the funeral arrangements. Man, I hate funerals.”
I attended the funeral and burial services, along with most of the sales department. We seemed to comprise the greater half of Paul’s mourners. No, scratch that—we seemed to comprise almost all of Paul’s mourners. As we stood beside the open pit of Paul’s grave, I scanned the attendees for unfamiliar faces. There were perhaps half a dozen people not associated with the company—no more.
The priest read a verse from the New Testament that recalled my days as an altar boy. Had Paul’s friends and relatives all died off? Or had they all deserted him after the deaths of his wife and daughter? I had no way of knowing, of course.
Then I overheard a whispered conversation between two middle-aged women. They were among the mourners whom I did not know:
“At least Paul will be in a better place now.”
“You think so? I mean—after what he did?”
The first woman was mildly shocked. “My God, Alice, you don’t mean to imply—”
“If not for his drunkenness, his wife and daughter would still be alive today. Little Frances would be a grown woman now, with children of her own.”
“But who are we to—“
“Who are we to judge? God will judge. And mark my words, Paul Taulbee will be spending some time in purgatory, at the very least.”
The mention of that word—purgatory—took me back to that evening at Paul’s. No, I didn’t think that Paul would be going to purgatory, if there was indeed such a place. Paul had already done his time in purgatory.
Then a mind-numbing rage welled up inside me as I mulled over the unknown woman’s comments. How arrogant she was, to presume to know the will of God. I wanted to shout at her and put her in her place. I wanted to tell her that she knew nothing about Paul and how he had suffered for his sins.
But in the end I remained silent. I had all but ignored Paul during the final year of his life. It would be hypocritical for me to act as his spokesman now.
They tossed a few shovelfuls of dirt onto Paul’s casket. This was only for ceremony. The backhoe would fill in the grave after the funeral party had dispersed.
Walking away from the gravesite and toward my car, I kept thinking about one thing Paul had said to me. I had been turning it over in my mind ever since he said it, never sure if he had only been joking—never sure if there was any truth to it or not.
“Perhaps they were looking for you, too.”
I am not very religious; but perhaps it is correct to say that there are few agnostics at gravesites. I uttered a little prayer, feeling guilty and not knowing why. (Is it even possible to feel legitimate guilt for beseeching the Almighty?) And at the same time I was compelled by a belief that this one prayer was very important.
Please God—Please. Don’t let me go there.
“Giants in the Trees”is included in the collection Hay Moon and Other Stories: Sixteen Modern Tales of Horror and Suspense