Beth Perry is a professional author. She lives near the great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
2020 by Beth Perry
On returning to his hotel room Craig sent a message to Heather to let her know he’d arrived safely in Tennessee and had seen her uncle. Afterward he took a shower, and then ordered room service. The main dish was fried chicken. At first he was dismayed to find the meat had been cooked with the skin on. After tasting it, however, he found the flavor was marvelous. The side order of house specialty green beans was also tasty. As he enjoyed the dish he almost felt guilty as the beans had been cooked in bacon. The sweet tea that came with the meal had been noticeably steeped longer than what he was used to on the West coast. The beverage had also been prepared with a generous helping of pure cane sugar instead of artificial sweetener or corn syrup. Like the chicken and green beans, the flavor was authentically southern. But he knew he’d have to keep the enjoyment of the meal to himself. One hint otherwise and his friends and co-workers would laugh and say he had gone native. Or, more likely, lecture him tediously over how much healthier their customary Californian diets were.
Craig was contemplating whether he should splurge and order a dessert when an electronic thrum from his laptop alerted him to an invitation to a video chat call. He sat down at the desk and moved the laptop mouse until the front page appeared. A cartoonish star pulsated over the Insti-Conference app icon. Craig tapped this, and a screen instantly unfolded across the monitor. The face of Gerald Agee looked back at him.
Agee was seated at a desk in the study of his posh home in the Pacific Palisades. His eyes were red and heavy lidded and his expression very relaxed. Craig guessed Agee had been hitting the weed again. The man had a prescription for it, thanks to a personal physician who prescribed it for the arthritis in his hands. Not that anyone would have guessed the wiry 70-something Agee had a single health complaint in the world. The man avoided all alcohol, tobacco and red meat like other people avoided angry wasps.
Craig clicked the app button which allowed audio reception and transmittance. “Gerald, how’s it going?”
Agee told him he had just returned from a radio interview. “It was with Zack Hamilton," Agee said. "You remember, with the Enigmatica show?”
“Oh yeah. You used to be friends, right?”
Agee laughed, coughing as he did so. “That was a long time ago. Before he turned the show into outright pablum for New Agers. But Hamilton still thinks I like him. Anyway, his smarmy listeners have recently decided to boycott our show. He asked me if I'd come on to talk with them. Some of those rabid nuts were only interested in airing their butthurt feelings.”
Craig grinned. “I guess you gave them what’s for?”
Agree made a dismissive gesture. “They’re a stupid lot for sure. Logic goes over their heads. Just told them if they don’t like seeing snake oil salesmen exposed then they can stick with listening to Zack’s show and praying to their crystals.”
“Ouch! Guess you won’t be invited back any time soon?”
“Probably not.” Agee shrugged. “Who really cares? I made more money in the last six months than Zack has made in ten years.”
Craig nodded amiably, but he braced for a potentially long boast session. Agee was a very successful writer, blogger and speaker and Craig knew the guy had every right to be proud of the niche he’d made for himself in the world of professional skeptics. Still, the man’s arrogance could get out of hand, especially when he was high.
Agee scratched his balding head and licked his lips. “Anyway, I just wanted to see how your trip south of the Mason-Dixon Line is panning out so far?”
The idiom south of the Mason-Dixon Line was a familiar jeer, one Agee often used to describe any southern state. Craig didn’t like it since he still had distant relatives living in Memphis, but he just nodded.
“I passed through parts of Tennessee when I was younger,” Agee observed. “Some nice countryside as I recall. But full of NASCAR and wrastling fans.”
His lame attempt to mock the southern accent was irritating. Craig tried to change the subject, “I plan to take the permission forms for the woman to sign tonight.”
“What’s her racket?" Agee asked. "Please tell me it’s another psychic pet healer? I still get the funniest emails from the animal lovers over that last one we had on. They either adore those healers or want to see 'em crucified.”
“Sorry, no. Clairvoyant. Or rather, medium.”
Agee picked up a coffee cup from somewhere on his desk and took a loud swallow. “Oh well. Along with the oh, so scary channelers and basic cold read clairvoyants, they are the greediest pieces of…” Agee’s next word was interrupted by a coughing fit. At last he was able to say, “Exposing mediums for the frauds they are might be bread and butter. But boring, you know? Wish it was a pet healer, really I do.”
Craig smiled. “This one might prove more interesting for you.”
“How’s that? Has this one managed to put a new gild on producing the Barnum-Forer effect?”
“I’ve not seen her work a crowd yet," Craig answered, "so can’t say. But from what I’ve observed she is remarkably perceptive to people’s emotions. She has convinced a lot of people here of her alleged powers. One of these is a well-to-do old man who has apparently opened up his home to her.”
Agee gave a cynical chortle. “Not bad for an Appalachian hill witch.”
The comment caught Craig off guard. But he figured the Appalachian hill witch epithet was just some well-known southern term, one both Betty Ann and Agee had both heard.
Agee rubbed his reddened eyes and appeared to be fighting back a yawn. “Yes, go ahead and sign the gal up. I’ll give her ten minutes of fame and shame. Just don’t do like Heather does and book this woman at a four-star hotel. At least find a way to cut back on the accommodation perks, okay? Our delightful last guest had room service bring her steamed lobster and champagne one night.”
“I’ve got all the paperwork ready to sign,” Craig said. “I’ll plan on booking her at the Relax-o-Lodge, alright? The most expensive thing on their menu is a double cheese hamburger.”
“Sounds good.” Agree tugged his beard. “Okay then. I’m done for the night. Going to finish a joint and head to bed. Nite.”
Before Craig could say another word Agee closed his own app. The visuals on Craig’s monitor snapped into a frame of blurry pixels.
Fred Wagoner’s home was located down one of the almost hidden driveways Craig had passed earlier on Squirrel Hollow road. The driveway was long, and led through thickets to a cleared lot. Here stood a lovely old two-story house with a wrap-around porch. Not far away was a tool barn and drive-under garage. Craig parked a polite distance behind the old car parked inside. He took his briefcase from the Pacifica’s front passenger seat and stepped out. As he approached the front door of the house he heard cicadas singing loudly from the nearby trees. It was a pleasant night. The sun, which had been so hot earlier, had now slipped over the horizon and a plumage of orange and purple haze painted the sky.
Mr. Wagoner answered his knock. As Craig stepped inside and past Wagoner’s wheelchair he smelled a mouth-watering aroma.
“Betty Ann made pot roast for dinner,” Wagoner said. “I’ll ask her to bring you a plate if you’re hungry.”
“That’s very kind but I’ve already eaten, thank-you.” Craig glanced around the room. It was large, comfortably furnished, and family photographs –some new, others very old- hung everywhere across the walls. He spotted an archway that opened onto a darkened hallway.
“I am ready to talk to Betty Ann,” he said, gesturing to his briefcase. “I’ve brought all the paperwork if she is ready to do this.”
Wagoner made a little hmm sound as he eyed the briefcase. At last he nodded and moved the wheelchair toward the archway.
“Mr. Herbert’s here, honey!”
Honey. Craig lifted an amused eyebrow. I guess because the poor old fart is drawn to her like a drone bee.
The light in the hallway came on and Betty Ann walked to them. She wore a half-apron and if it hadn’t been for the girlish sandals on her feet, Craig might have thought she eluded a certain domesticity. Mr. Wagoner excused himself and moved the wheelchair to the door. Even though Craig had no doubt the man was quite capable of opening it himself, Betty Ann hustled forward and did it for him. As Wagoner ventured out on the porch she closed the door. She peeped out the little window there as if making sure he was alright. Craig saw an affectionate smile come to her face. But as she turned and looked at him it faded.
Craig thought he saw perhaps a glint of reluctance in her eyes.
“You still want to do this, Betty Ann? I've talked with Gerald Agee, and if you do, he is open to having you as a guest on the show. I brought the necessary papers to sign.”
The reluctant glint vanished from her eyes. “Shall we sit at the dining room table to do this?”
She led him through the hallway to a little dining room. The table here had been recently cleaned and a hint of some kind of fruity pastry or other dessert hung in the air. They took a seat and Craig took the necessary papers out of his briefcase. First and foremost was the Agreement to Appear document, with all its many sections and sub-sections. It had been written in standard (and verbose) legalese. Basically the document secured Betty Ann’s agreement to be filmed during her appearance. She would also agree to undergo the various challenges without question, and that once all the challenges were completed she would abide by the judges’ decision. There was a separate form that protected the network and studio from legal ramifications if Betty Ann tried to object later to this decision. Craig knew many of the show’s guests refused to sign this portion, as the network wasn’t overly picky about obtaining a signature on it (the consensus being that no civil trial jury would ever side with the complaint of an exposed quack).
When it came to this part, Betty Ann asked, “So I really don’t have to sign this part?”
“Not really,” Craig said. Despite being pretty certain she was a complete and knowing fake, he had never cared for being dishonest himself. “In fact, before you sign anything, I really ought to tell you that it is your right to engage legal counsel before we proceed.”
She remarked softly, “You like to be upfront with people, don’t you?”
The way she said it brought an unexpected flush to his cheeks. “Yes, I suppose I do.”
Betty Ann read through each paper in the stacks he’d placed in front of her. When she was through reading every page she said, “Alright. May I borrow a pen?”
“Are you satisfied with it all?”
He found a pen from the briefcase and helped her sort through the papers again, pointing out each line she needed to sign.
“One copy is for us, the other for you. On our copies, just be sure to add your initials –print, no cursive- beside your signature at the last line.”
Except for the ticking of a clock somewhere in the house they sat in silence while she signed. Through a small window Craig noticed that outside the sky was beginning to grow dark. He was also aware of feeling tired from the busy day. When Betty Ann was through and she had returned his pen, Craig told her one of his assistants would confirm her plane ticket and lodgings. This assistant would also pick her up at the airport.
“Filming will begin Wednesday after next,” he explained. He fished a pad from the briefcase and readied his pen. “We’ll need you at the studio by nine that morning. Now, if I can get a phone number to contact you, an email as well. For any just in case scenario.”
“I’m not set up for emails,” she said, “and only Fred’s number to be reached at.”
“Heather has it.”
“Okay,” he said. “Well, I can get it from her.” He was curious. “Why no email address? Don’t trust the government?”
Betty Ann looked confused. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Just a joke. But I’d suggest you go ahead and set up an email account. A social presence is important if you want to promote yourself. Of course, the network will have exclusive rights to your episode and it will be at the show’s official website. But I’m sure you might want a link for it.” He suppressed a cynical chortle. “Share it; invite all your friends to view it. With any luck, your episode will be a huge hit and you’ll be famous.”
If she detected his underlying enmity she did not show it. Instead she thanked him for the information. He returned all the papers to the briefcase and started to wish her a functionary goodnight. Then he remembered something.
“I almost forgot,” he said. “You were supposed to tell me why you think I don’t want to return to Idaho?”
Betty Ann smiled. But it was a sad smile. She studied at her fingernails thoughtfully and for a moment Craig was sure she'd changed her mind about sharing this non-existent reason.
Her voice grew soft with emotion. At last she uttered a single word, “Kristophe.”
Craig's heart jolted. For an instant he thought no, surely she wouldn’t be so cruel as to show off her tricks by mentioning his little brother! He saw sorrow in her pretty face. How he resented this fake look of compassion, resented her audacity! It was all he could do to not tell her how disgusting he found her – to snatch the signed papers out of his briefcase and tear them into little shreds.
Instead he managed to feign a disinterested tone, “What about Kristophe?”
“You still hope to see him again. After your parents died you moved Kristophe and Kesha from Spruce Grove to California. You feel responsible for what happened to your little brother. You feel there is a better chance of finding him if you stay where you are.”
Burning tears welled in Craig’s eyes. He blinked them away, but the anger did not subside. It had been a little over three years since Kristophe had been taken. Thirty-eight months and four days to be precise. So painfully long since that day his housekeeper Estela had taken the seven-year old to the park. Estela said she’d stepped away only long enough to purchase Kristophe an ice cream cone from a street vendor. When Estela came back he was gone. No one at the park had seen what happened and the security cameras had failed to work. For weeks the police searched the area; neighbors formed a search party. Craig had put his brother’s photo on every utility in the city. He’d paid for advertising space in newspapers with urgent requests for witness help. He’d sought assistance from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The agency had offered a five-thousand dollar reward to anyone with information about Kristophe. Gerald Agee himself had upped the reward to twenty-thousand dollars. But every lead that came in had proved utterly and painfully useless.
Over the course of the last year Craig had made strides in putting Kristophe out of every waking thought. He told himself that his little brother had been taken away by someone desperate to have a child of their own. Someone with a loving heart, someone who would be good to Kristophe. All other possibilities were just too disturbing to contemplate any longer. So Craig had forced himself to concentrate on work and every day living. He could no longer bear to even speak his brother's name. When Kesha mentioned Kristophe he would change the subject as quickly as possible.
In all this Craig had trained himself not to consciously obsess on the very real possibility he'd never see Kristophe again. But the truth, if he wanted to be perfectly frank with himself, was that he still grieved. He still blamed himself for not being at the park that day. And in those quiet nocturnal moments, when his mind drifted between consciousness and sleep, he still prayed for that call to come - the one from someone who would say, Your brother is alive. Kristophe is alright and he is on his way home!
It was emotional sadism this young woman had somehow dug up the most tragic event in his life and was using it in the attempt to make him believe in her psychic powers. Somewhere in Craig’s rage, his rational mind remembered that using people’s pain was how these people worked. This shallow little wannabe was no different than the infamous charlatans who had come before her.
“You are well informed about my family,” he sneered. “You must have spent an entire day or two searching through archived Los Angeles news stories.”
Betty Ann replied in a kind voice, “You should know Kristophe is happy. But he thinks very often about you.”
“What the hell are you saying?”
Betty Ann sighed. “I am telling you Kristophe is closer than you ever imagined.”
An acidy knot gripped Craig’s stomach. “Shut up already,” he warned lowly. The pity on Betty Ann’s face only intensified his rage. But he cleared his throat and said as stoically as possible, “And you should know you’ll be exposed. You just signed the agreement allowing our panel to do it.”
He reached for his briefcase and stood up. He knew he should just turn his back on her and leave. But the indignation she had kindled wasn’t yet satisfied.
“I pray when you are exposed that old man outside will see what kind of fiend he’s let stroke his delusion of youthfulness. It must satisfy you greatly to think you’ve got Wagoner wrapped around your pretty finger. Have you got him to grant you access to his bank account yet? Or named you sole inheritor of his estate? It won’t be long, will it? I bet you’ve already taken a juicy life insurance policy out on him.”
Craig immediately regretted saying what he had. Not that the insinuation was beyond the realm of possibility, but he certainly didn’t want to plant any ideas in her head.
“Forget I said that,” he stammered. “I don’t think you would hurt him.”
“Yes, you do.” Betty Ann's tone was still calm, the fake compassion of her expression unflinching. “But you have no reason to think it.”
The knot in Craig’s stomach began to cramp. He gave her an unfeeling smile. “Oh course. Goodbye for now, Betty Ann.”
As he was about to turn to go he heard Betty Ann utter softly, “When the daisy dances with the rainbow.”
He paused, feeling bile creep up his esophagus. “What?”
“When the daisy dances with the rainbow you will learn where Kristophe is.”
He recognized this as just some deliberately cryptic-sounding statement. But he was fed up with her game. Feeling bile at the back of his tongue, Craig turned on a heel and hurried out of the house.
Later that night Craig took an acid reliever for the heartburn brought on by the irritating conversation with Betty Ann. He had feared her bogus inferences would have him up all night thinking about his brother. But thankfully his anger for her overwhelmed the temptation to dwell on Kristophe. He focused instead on his disgust for not just Betty Ann, but every bogus clairvoyant and mentalist con like her. They were parasites, scum, every last one. After he went to bed and lay in the darkness he imagined the discomfort she would face during the Challenges. It would just be the little charlatan alone in front of cameras. She would have to face the rigorous tests to her paranormal claims without any gullible supporters there to cheer her on. There wouldn’t even be an enamored old geezer close at hand to defend her from mockery.
Craig was still thinking about this the next day during the return flight to California. And by the time the pilot announced the plane was approaching LAX, Craig was able to think about Kristophe again without the memory cluttered by burning anger.
He pulled his wallet from his pants pocket and opened the little sleeve where he kept a favorite photo of Kristophe. The boy sat on the sofa, smiling as he held his newly acquired birthday present: Tomato Head. This character was one of the puppets from his favorite kids’ show Garden Adventures. During the few weeks leading up to Kristophe’s birthday Craig had been on a desperate search to find the plush Tomato Head. Local brick and mortar toy stores as well as the most popular online stores had all been sold out. At last Craig came across a Tomato Head offered from a little-known British online shop. After all was said and done, the toy had cost Craig three times what he had foreseen spending. But Kristophe’s joy at opening his birthday present had made the hassle and expense all worth it.
Thank-you, Craig! Tomato Head will always be my best friend after you!
Estela had reported that Kristophe had been holding Tomato Head when she turned away to buy the ice cream.
Craig felt a tear sliding down his cheek. Brushing it away, he kissed the photo and put away his wallet.
“Are you alright, sir?”
Craig looked up to see the flight attendant. She was a middle-aged woman with screaming orange hair and a face covered thickly with frightfully pale foundation. But at his nod she gave a very becoming smile.
“Very well, sir. Fasten up now. We’re about to land.”
He found Kesha waiting for him at the terminal. She greeted him with a huge hug and a cup of his favorite iced coffee, almond zinger. He noticed that she was wearing her waitress uniform. Her name tag was still pinned over her chest and it appeared that it had been awhile since she’d combed her sleek bobbed hair. What troubled him was the exhaustion evident in her face. He asked if she’d taken off work to come?
“It’s okay, Craig,” she said. “The manager is pretty understanding.”
“You shouldn’t be working while you are still in school,” he scolded.
They walked to an open bench and sat down. While Craig sipped on the coffee he noticed Kesha yawn behind her palm. He offered her a drink and she took a few large swallows.
“I mean it,” he said, “you should quit the job. I have all the bills covered.”
“You have everything covered,” she retorted wearily.
“What does that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing really.” She gave his knee an affectionate pat. “I just don’t like you feeling you have to always support me.”
He gave an intentional grunt. “One day,” he pointed out, “when you’re a highly successful nurse practitioner, and I’m old and retired, you’ll have the turn of supporting me.”
Kesha rubbed her eyes. “Yeah, well, if you’re living in Idaho.”
“You really do plan on going back?”
She nodded. “I miss Idaho. I miss all our cousins, my old friends. Besides, they have enough nurses here in Los Angeles.”
He took a deep swig of the coffee. “Alright. I don’t plan on retiring from my present job title until I have my own successful television studio anyway. I suppose I can just open that studio in nowhere, Idaho.”
She snatched the cup away and drained the last of the coffee. “My big brother will make it big in nowhere, Idaho or anywhere else. Just you wait and see.”
He laughed, but he knew she was being serious. Kesha had always had confidence in his ambitions, even during the times when he hadn't felt it himself.
“Indeed. Now, will you give up the waitress job and just focus on your studies?”
Kesha pursed her lips and wiggled her lips thoughtfully. At last she said, “Oh, I reckon so.”
“Will you promise?”
“I promise. But I did earn enough from this job to pay for my vacation plans to Oregon next week. ”
Throwing an arm around her shoulders, Craig kissed her cheek.
Craig was glad to be back in their duplex, and as he readied for bed that night, very relieved to be in his own familiar room and bed. He fluffed the pillow before lying down, turned off the lamp on the nightstand. Rolling over onto one side, he folded an arm beneath the pillow. The low-key hum of the air conditioner lulled his tired mind toward sleep.
A whispery sensation touched Craig’s shoulder. He was used to the air conditioner moving the sheets so thought nothing of this. And throwing the sheet to his waist, he drifted again toward restful bliss.
The small voice at his ear yanked him out of the bliss. The faraway glow from a neighborhood light pole cast a faraway glow through the window. He saw no one in that glow. And yet the voice –one he did not recognize- had sounded so distinctly real. He closed his eyes again.
Thump! sounded something near the foot board.
Craig sat bolt upright. He was shocked to discover he was no longer in bed. Instead, he was standing in a grassy field in broad daylight. Trees dotted the landscape and he was aware of a breeze blowing lightly through distant tree branches.
He heard a man’s voice at his side: “It’s getting late, we’d better get there.”
Craig turned to see Fred Wagoner at his side. The old man was in his wheelchair, his legs covered with a faded worn quilt.
Craig asked where they were going?
“Just up that way,” Wagoner said, gesturing straight ahead. “You’ll recognize it.”
Wagoner pressed the button that started the wheelchair motor. Craig followed just behind the chair as it moved through the field. But he was confused; this place was not one he could remember ever seeing.
They did not go far before Craig saw up ahead an old, rusty barbed wire fence. The thing seemed to stretch eternally from one side of the field to the other. Wagoner stopped the wheelchair. Craig saw dark trees just over the fence. In the space between the trees the ground was covered by a room-sized patch of what appeared to be cemented flooring.
“You’ll have to reach it,” Wagoner told him. “I am unable.”
Seeing the flooring gave Craig a foreboding sense of dread. He did not want to go any further.
“I don’t think I should.”
“Of course you should,” Wagoner said with a note of urgency. “This is why I brought you.”
Craig took a deep breath. He approached the fence, knelt and then lay down in the grass. Cautious of the barbed wire, he rolled underneath. Cleared now, he stood up and regarded the cement flooring. He shot a look back to Wagoner. The old man was staring at the cement, his face creased with sadness.
“What now?” Craig asked.
At that moment the air rang with a lilt of voices. They were the voices of children – some talking, others weeping. The sounds seemed to resonate all about Craig. He saw no one else, though, just a shudder among the tree leaves.
From behind one tree a little boy –no older than five years of age- stepped into view. He was a white child, dressed only in faded pajamas, with a mane of glossy auburn hair. His violet eyes were deep-set and very expressive. Craig guessed the boy must be lost. Just as he was about to ask if he needed help the boy pointed toward the flooring. His violet eyes looked forlornly at Craig.
The back of Craig's neck crawled. Something about the cement floor touched him as decidedly unwholesome. He closed his eyes and shook his head. The voices of the children stilled now, and were replaced by an angry wind that whistled through the field.
From beyond the fence Wagoner announced firmly, “Look son. This is why I brought you here.”
Craig reluctantly looked at the flooring. He saw something colorful sticking out of the center of the limestone cement. With slow steps he approached the side of the flooring. He dared not step upon it –no, that was something he just couldn't bring himself to do- but he studied the thing that stuck out. Gooseflesh scoured his flesh as he recognized the pitiful thing wedged there in the unfeeling limestone. The fabric was moldy, the once brightly dyed plush now covered with lime dust. But to his heart-sinking dismay, he knew this was Kristophe’s plush Tomato Head.
Tears sprang to his eyes. He looked to where the boy stood – but he had vanished.
“I am very sorry,” he heard Wagoner say. “But it had to be you.”
Craig fell to his knees. The sound of his sobbing echoed in his ears. And somewhere beneath his grief he felt a kindle of rage. At whom or what this rage was directed he could not guess. But the grief and rage melded, and as one spinning emotional entity, whipped through his psyche.
His eyes flew open. He aware that he was sitting up in his bed. Kesha was beside him, her hand upon his shoulder.
She reached for the lamp and switched it on. Craig felt the moist tears that clung to his cheeks. His heart beat with the same grief and rage he’d known in the dream.
“Oh, Kesha,” he moaned miserably. “It was Tomato Head. Kristophe’s Tomato Head!”
She stroked his back soothingly. “Shh,” she said. “It’s okay, big brother. It was only a dream.”
DEBUNKED continues in
© 2020 Beth Perry
Beth Perry (author) from Tennesee on April 28, 2020:
DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on April 28, 2020:
Amazing story. Looking forward to reading the next part.