Every year since the divorce, her mother had taken her to spend the Christmas holidays at her Aunt Carol’s house in Peebles, a forgettable little town in the Ohio River Valley sixty-four miles east of Cincinnati.
Every visit began the same way. Vivian’s mother would pull into the driveway of her sister’s small white farmhouse, honk the horn, and Aunt Carol would peek out the back door wearing a heavy grey wool cloak and black rubber boots.
“Look at that old crone,” her mother would say as she smiled and waived to her older sister. There were only ten years between them, but with her bristle brush grey hair, large hooked nose, and sunbaked face Carol looked like her mother’s mother.
“Come on inside you two, it’s too damn cold out there for city folks,” Carol would say as she waived them inside her kitchen. A pot of dump stew — made from whatever her aunt could find to dump into it — would be simmering on the stove.
The kitchen was Vivian’s favorite room in the house. The shelves were filled with jars of herbs that her aunt grew in her garden, and dried plant branches hung like bats from the wooden rafters. The sweet smoky scent of burning leaves always hung heavily in the air.
As they stepped into the house, her aunt said, “How are you feeling, sweetie? Do you want me to fix you some tea?”
Aunt Carol loved making tea, and seemed to have cure for anything that ailed you. Cough? She would make you tea with thyme, lavender, and honey. Got your period? She would brew up some chamomile, ginger, fennel, and dragon’s blood—it wasn’t really blood her aunt said, just the dried resin from Dracaena trees. Vivian thought her aunt’s concoctions tasted like something you scrapped off your shoe, but they worked.
“I’m good — I just need a signal.” Vivian walked around the house holding her cell phone high above her head like an evangelizing preacher holding a cross.
“It’s not going to kill you to put that thing away for a few days,” her mother said in a way that sounded like she had said it a thousand times before.
“Yeah, whatever…” Vivian knew it was no use, she had never found a signal on their previous trips, but she had to try.
There wasn’t much to do around Peebles, so on mornings when it wasn’t snowing, or too bitterly cold, Vivian liked to take walks along the back roads that weaved through the countryside. She never found anything too interesting, but there was a small dairy farm near her aunt’s house where she liked to stop and watch the black and white spotted cows as they lazily munched on stacks of winter hay. She had been fascinated by cows ever since Mrs. Bruton, her seventh grade biology teacher, had taught her class that cows had four stomachs and could live off of eating nothing but grass because they digested the plant matter over, and over, and over again. That is all she could think of as she watched them eat. Four stomachs!
She was leaning against an old wooden fence fancily wondering if she could survive off of nothing but french fries if she had four stomachs, when she noticed a shiny black Mercedes driving slowly down the road toward her.
The long sleek sedan pulled of the road and came to a stop beside her, and the passenger side window slowly slid down. She was too curious to be afraid as she swept her long brown hair back and bent over to look inside.
To her surprise a young man was behind the wheel. He had pale blue eyes and two day’s worth of blonde stubble clinging tightly to his square set jaw.
“You ain’t from around here are you?” he called out.
“How’d you guess,” she said, cautiously stepping closer to the vehicle.
“Because you stand out like a peacock in a chicken pen.”
Vivian looked down at the three hundred dollar pair of Ugg boots she had guilted her father into buying her for Christmas, and realized that, along with her designer jeans and expensive Gore-Tex jacket, he was right, she did stand out. But so did he.
“Well, you don’t look like any of the guys around here either.” All of the other boys she had seen in Peebles wore Carhart jackets and cowboy boots, and drove rusty old pickup trucks.
“That’s because I’m not like any of the other guys around here.”
No, you most certainly are not, she thought as her tongue ran hungrily along the inside of her cheek.
“Where’re you headed?”
“Nowhere really. I was just watching the cows.”
“I like cows too, you wanna grab a burger?”
“Burgers are gross — and I don’t even know you.”
A flirtatious smile swept across his angular face. “I’m Casey. You got a name?”
“Okay, Miss Vivian, now that we know each other, do you want to go get something to eat with me? My treat.”
“Only if you promise to never call me Miss Vivian again.”
“That’s a deal.” He leaned over and opened the passenger side door.
As she slid into the supple grey leather seats she marveled at the polished wood trim and hand stitched leather, she could feel all of her inhibitions silently slipping away. “Nice ride. Is it yours?”
“No, it’s my dad’s. But I get to drive it when I’m home on break,” he said as he pulled the sleek black automobile back onto the gravel road.
She turned to get a better look at Casey. He was tall, and had the lean, understated muscularity of a wrestler. He was wearing a red plaid shirt under a white quilted vest and faded jeans. She noticed an Ohio State logo embroidered on the side of his vest.
“Ohio State, huh?” She drew a little circle above her left breast with her finger.
“Buckeyes, baby. Where do you go to school?”
“Walnut Hills — High School.”
“High School?” he said incredulously. “You don’t look like you’re in High Schoo l… you’re a senior, right?”
“Sure.” she giggled.
“Damn, maybe I should take you back to your cows.”
“Up to you — if you can’t handle it.”
He turned his head and let his eyes roam slowly over her young blossoming body. She was tall, for a girl, and he could see the sensual curves of her hips straining under the tight confines of her designer jeans, and the subtle swell of her burgeoning breast protruding out from underneath her thick winter jacket. “I think I can handle you.”
“I doubt it,” she replied playfully as they pulled into the parking lot outside of Pete’s Burger Barn. A small, dilapidated looking sheet metal building that sat alone alongside the Appalachian Highway.
Vivian looked up at the ancient yellow plastic menu boards that hung above the register. There were faded red Coca-Cola logos on the sides, but the boards were empty. “What’s good here?” she asked the old man standing stoically behind the counter. His short grey hair was tucked neatly under a greasy billed baseball cap, and he was wearing a large white apron that swallowed his small withered frame. She guessed he must be Pete.
“You got two choices, little lady,” he said in a quite tone of authority. “You can have a hamburger or a cheeseburger.”
“Can I just get some fries?”
“You want a Coke with that, sweetie?”
“Do you have Fresca?” she asked.
Pete gave her a befuddled look, “Fresca?”
“She ain’t from around here, Pete. She’ll have a Coke, and I’ll have the usual.”
“Wow, such a gentleman.” She turned and gave Casey the look, the one she reserved for people who say stupid things.
“Hey.” He put his hands up defensively. “I’m just trying to help you out. They’re not used to catering to aristocrats around here.”
“Says the boy in the Benz …”
He grinned so hard it looked like his chin was going to fall off. “You’re going to be trouble, aren’t you?”
Casey wouldn’t be the first boy she had fallen for, but she had never fallen this far this quickly. She was tingling all over as they got their food and walked over to a table to sit down. It felt like a thousand tiny arrows of electricity were shooting through her body.
“So, what do you think of our little town?”
“Ummm, it’s all right I guess,” she said, not wanting to offend him. In truth, she thought Peebles was as dull as dishwater. “But there’s not much to do around here.”
“Not much…but there are a couple of things. Do you want to go see something really cool after this?”
“There’s actually something cool around here?”
“Have you ever heard of Serpent Mound?”
“My Aunt said something about it, but I wasn’t really paying attention.”
“It’s a low dirt mound shaped like a snake. Indians built it a long time ago.”
“Wow, dirt. That is cool.”
“You’ll like it,” he said. “I promise.”
She wondered why anyone would want to look at some old pile of dirt, but she didn’t care what it was as long as going to see it meant spending more time with Casey. He wasn’t normally her type, she didn’t usually go for older guys, but he didn’t act like the one who had hit on her before. He wasn’t stuck up, or full of himself. He seemed nice. It didn’t hurt that he was gorgeous, charming — and a little mysterious. She liked that. After they finished their food they waved goodbye to Pete and walked back out to the car.
He opened the door for her with an exaggerated flourish. “Your highness.”
She giggled as she glided inside and he shut the door.
“Is it far?” she asked, hoping it was.
He started the car and pulled back onto the road. “We’re pretty close, it won’t take long,”
They didn’t speak much during the drive, but she felt completely relaxed, which was strange, because she was usually as nervous as a cat in a cage around cute boys. But Casey was different. She knew that the moment she peered into the window. Her mind drifted into a creamy soft haze and it seemed like only a few moments had passed before they were pulling into the parking lot in front of the monument. They got out of the car and walked up to the historical marker that stood at the entrance to the site:
OHIO HISTORICAL MARKER
Serpent Mound is a gigantic earthen sculpture representative of a snake. Built in 1000 A.D. by an unknown ancient culture, the earthwork was most likely a place of worship dedicated to a powerful serpent spirit. The site is located on the edge of a massive crater created by an asteroid 300 million years ago.
“Why would anyone want to worship a snake?” she asked.
“In ancient mythology snakes were symbols of fertility — and the Earth Goddess.”
“Yeah, kind of like Mother Nature, but more of a badass.”
“That’s cool … I guess.”
Casey took her by the hand as they walked along the path that wound around the long curving effigy. The low grass that covered mound was partially obscured under a light frosting of snow. “I think there’s more to it than that though … the Indians were scared of something. They built this place as a warning.”
“For what, to watch out for snakes?” she said, giggling.
“In a way.” His face tightened and his eyes turned very serious. “Do you see how the head of the snake points out toward the valley?”
“Yeahhh,” she said cautiously.
“The asteroid struck the ground so hard it left a crater a mile deep and ten miles wide. It changed things around here. The rocks, the soil, everything in this valley has a strange—energy to it. That’s why I think the Indians built Serpent Mound at the edge of the crater; they knew this place was cursed.”
Oh, now I get it, she thought. Casey’s story sounded like the ones, usually about escaped axe murderers, the boys back in Cincinnati told girls as they walked them home at night. She fluttered her big brown eyes. “I am sooo scared. Will you protect me?”
“Maybe not, you little brat,” he said as he wrapped his arms around her and leaned in for a kiss.
They’re all the same, she thought just before their lips met. Or not — she suddenly felt dizzy as the hardness of his body pressed against her. His hands slid around her waist and began to drift slowly up inside her jacket. She didn’t want him to stop, but their solitude was suddenly shattered by the sound of chattering children.
“It looks like we have company,” she said, pulling away.
“Damn little turds .…”
“Hey, don’t be like that,” she said playfully slapping his arm. “They’re just kids.”
“Sorry, but things were just getting interesting.”
“Speaking of interesting … is there anything else to do around here?”
“There’s Shadow Rock.”
“First some dirt, and now a rock. You really know how to show a girl a good time.”
“This isn’t just some ordinary rock.”
“Oh yeah, what’s so special about it?”
“For most of the year, nothing. But tomorrow — on the winter solstice — when the sun is at its highest point, something incredible happens. The rock casts two shadows. One away from the sun, like normal, and, just for a few moments, it casts another one …toward the sun. It’s really amazing.”
“Two shadows huh? Does that story work on the local girls?”
“Seriously, I’ve seen it myself.”
“Okay, I’ll play along. Where is this magic rock?”
“You see those hills over there?” He pointed out toward the middle of the valley. “Those hills, and the land around them, have been part of my family’s farm for generations. Shadow Rock is on top of that large hill just to the left of the others.”
“Farm? I didn’t think farmers drove Mercedes.”
“I guess we can thank the asteroid for that. It hit the earth so hard that it actually raised the bedrock up at the center of the crater, creating those hills. A few years ago we discovered that there are massive fissures in the rock beneath them that allow natural gas to make its way up near the surface. We have a few wells now. I suppose you could say we aren’t farmers anymore.”
“Kinda like the Peeble-ly Hillbillies?”
He smiled at her like she smiled at her dad’s jokes, and let out a deep sigh, “I think it’s time to take you home.”
It was only four o’clock, but the sun was already sinking beneath the horizon. They left the park and headed back toward the dairy farm. They didn’t talk much during the drive back either, but just being with Casey made her feel different—more like a woman, than she did with anyone else, especially her mother, who still treated her like a little girl.
It wasn’t long before they were back on the gravel road near the dairy farm. Casey pulled the car over and parked along the fence under a large oak tree.
He leaned in toward her and began to tenderly kiss her neck. She felt an intense, aching desire shoot up from between her legs like a burst of hot steam as his tongue danced teasingly along her skin.
“Oh, wow … that feels great, but my aunt’s house is right up the road. I don’t want her and my mom to see us if they come driving by.”
“I know some other places we can go.”
“I bet you do, cowboy. But it’s getting dark. Let’s wait for tomorrow, then you can show me this — rock of yours.”
“Okay, but we have to be on top of the hill tomorrow exactly at solar noon to see the shadows, so meet me here at ten o’clock, alright?”
When she opened the car door she could hear the hollow sound of cowbells bells ringing gently through the cool dusk air. “I’ll be here, with bells on,” she said.
“Hey!” he yelled out to her as she began to walk away. “Don’t tell your mom, or anyone else, about me yet, because .…”
“Yeah, I know,” she shouted back as the car slowly pulled back onto the road.
The short walk back to her aunt’s house seemed so surreal. That morning she had been bored and alone, now her heart was beating furiously as her mind wandered back through every moment of the time she had spent with Casey. Something strange was happening inside her. Her heart felt like it was where her stomach used to be and her lungs had fallen into her feet. She wasn’t sure if it was love, but she wanted it to be.
When she walked in the door to her Aunt’s house she could see her mother sitting alone at the kitchen table. There was a bottle of Gin and two half empty jelly-jar glasses in front of her. Her mom took one look at the smile on her daughter’s face and knew.
“Where have you been, missy, did you meet a boy?”
“No, I have just been out walking around.” She tried to conceal her shock. Was it that obvious?
“What happened?” her aunt asked as she walked into the kitchen holding one of her funny cigarettes.
“She met a boy.”
“She did?” her aunt replied, giving Vivian a sly wink.
“No, I didn’t! God, Mom, what is your problem?”
“Okay, dear. Whatever you say.”
“I’m going to go lay down for awhile.” Vivian bounded quickly up the stairs toward the bedroom she was sharing with her mother.
“I hope he’s cute!” her mother yelled up after her.
She could hear her mom and aunt laughing downstairs, but she didn’t care. For right now at least, Casey was hers, and hers alone. She didn’t want to share him with anybody.
The next morning she woke up early and took her time getting ready. She had not planned on meeting a boy yesterday, especially not one as handsome as Casey; now she wanted to make sure she looked her absolute best. She brushed her long brown hair carefully, put on eye shadow and lipstick, which she had not been wearing the day before, a blouse (that her mother always complained was too tight), and the jeans that her friend Jenny said made her butt look good. She looked herself over in the full-length antique mirror that stood in the corner of the room. The young woman staring back at her was much prettier, and more sophisticated, than the girl who had gone out to watch the cows yesterday — and Jenny was right; the jeans did make her butt look good.
When she was satisfied, she went downstairs and told her mother that she was going out for another walk around the countryside. Her mother just smiled and told her to have fun. Vivian knew her mom didn’t believe her, but was glad she didn’t make a big fuss about it. She wanted this day to be perfect.
She arrived early and stood along the fence watching the cows until the gleaming black Mercedes pulled up at exactly ten o’clock.
“Morning, beautiful,” Casey said as she slid into the car.
“Hey, handsome,” she said, blushing wildly.
Casey reached over and grabbed her hand. “Are you excited?”
“I’m excited to see you.” She squeezed his hand back tightly.
“Is that all?’
“And, uh — the rock.”
“You’ll see,” he said. “You’ll see .…”
They sat silently holding each other’s hands and smiling as he drove. It wasn’t long before Casey pulled off the road into a long driveway with an enormous iron gate in front. He reached up and pressed a button on the visor and the gate magically began to swing open. Behind the gate she could see rows of well-manicured bushes, and statues that looked like the Greek gods and goddesses they had studied in her ancient history class, lining the road into the sprawling estate.
“There’s the house.” Casey pointed to a large two-story red brick mansion with six tall white columns lining the front. “We’re heading up to that big hill back behind it.”
As they passed the house, the long paved driveway gave way to a smaller gravel path that lead up to the base of the hill. After they parked and got out of the car, she could see the faint signs of a trail that disappeared quickly into a large stand of trees.
The serious look she had seen on his face the day before had returned. “Follow me, and try to keep up,” Casey said as he began making his way up the hill.
The rocky trail was heavily overgrown and muddy from the melting morning snow. She quickly realized that she should not have worn her fancy boots and put on so much makeup as she began to feel the perspiration running down her cheeks. Vivian put on a brave face, but she wasn’t outdoorsy, and had trouble keeping up with Casey as he moved swiftly up the hill. She was about to tell him to forget it; no rock was worth this much trouble…but just as she was ready to give up, they emerged out of the thick brush into an open clearing at the top of the hill. She could see a large black rock protruding slightly out of the ground several yards in front of them. The top of the rock appeared to have a smooth, mirror like surface that shimmered brightly in the crisp late morning sunlight.
“Is t-t-that it?” she asked, trying to catch her breath.
“It’s incredible isn’t it?”
“It’s friggin amazing…”
“Come on, you have to see this,” he said as he walked toward the stone. When they were within a few feet, he stopped and looked at his watch, then up at the sun. He grabbed her by the shoulders and positioned her parallel to the sun and the rock. “Do you see it?” he asked.
“See what?” She stared at the rock and the lone shadow stretched out behind it.
“Look, look at the shadow behind the rock,” he said excitingly. “Now, look in front. Do you see the other shadow starting to come out? Do you see it?”
“Ummm, not really.”
He took her by the hand and led her up beside the rock. “Go ahead and climb up on top, your shadow will be easier to see.”
“I thought you said the rock cast a shadow?”
“The rock, or anything on it,” he said, sounding agitated. “Now come on, hurry up. It’s almost time.”
She was certain that this was all part of some elaborate trick he was playing on her, but she wanted to make him happy. “Sure, why not,” she said as he helped her climb up on top of the rock. She stood on the stone’s flat shiny surface and faced the sun. She looked over her shoulder and saw a long grey shadow stretching out behind her, as there should be, but then, to her surprise, another shadow began to slowly creep out from the stone in front of her, as if there was another sun at her back. She looked behind her, and then quickly to the front, behind her again, and to the front, trying to understand out how it was possible — but she couldn’t. She raised her left arm, and both shadows raised their left arms, she raised her right arm, and both shadows raised their right arm. She was stunned.
“It’s crazy right?” he said.
“It’s wonderful.” She held her arms out to her sides and began to twirl slowly.
Casey watched as she reveled in the splendor of her twin shadows.
“Casey, come join me!”
“You’re having too much fun. Besides, it’s almost noon.” He looked down at his watch again.
“Watch this.” She began to throw a series of karate kicks and punches at an imaginary foe. “Hi-Yah! Yah! Waaa-Yaaah!” Both shadows followed her every movement as her arms and legs flailed wildly. But then, in the midst of her ferocious flurry, the shadow in front of her suddenly froze in mid-kick. She turned to Casey, “Is it over?”
He had backed away from her and was standing at the edge of the clearing. “I guess you could say that…it’s time.”
“Time for what?”
Her frozen shadow slowly began to change shape, stretching out across the entire length of the clearing until it resembled the ghostly outline of a long slithering snake. She tried to leap off the rock, but the shadowy serpent had coiled itself around her ankles, gripping her feet firmly to the surface of the dark black stone. She could not tell where her body ended and the rock began.
“Casey, help me!” she shouted, but he didn’t move.
“I’m sorry Vivian. When the asteroid struck it opened a hole in the earth, and bad things, really bad things, got out. That’s what the Indians were trying to warn us about.”
“Casey! Why are you doing this?” she cried in horror as the dark shadow continued to slowly coil its way up her body.
“I had to. My family, the people of this valley, we have always had to. If we don’t sacrifice a young virgin on the winter solstice, the serpent spirit will come down at night and take one. We can’t afford to give up our own. Not anymore.”
“Please, please help me!” she pleaded. “I just want to go home!”
“It’s not up to me, you were chosen.”
“What are you talking about? Get this thing off of me, you bastard!”
“If you want to blame somebody, blame your aunt. She’s the one who told the coven about you. She said the goddess would love you … and she was right.”
Vivian tried to scream again, but the shadowy apparition had wrapped its body tightly around her neck and was slowly crushing her throat. She gasped for breath as her vision began to contract into tiny pinholes of light, and her heart, which had been beating frantically, slowed steadily until its beats faded into the ethereal darkness. She waited for death to come … but it strangely never did. Her body was gone, she felt it slip away — like a snake shedding its skin — but her mind, her consciousness, was somehow still alive. She could feel the rustle of the wind across the tall grass, and sense the gentle swaying of the trees. She could hear a butterfly’s wings fluttering above her. Her senses were in total harmony with the natural world around her. She was part of the rock now — part of the earth itself.
[John Kojak received his BA in English from The University of Texas. His short story “Don Pedro” appeared in Beyond Imagination magazine, “American Hero” in Down In The Dirt, “Beauty and the Beast” in Third Wednesday, “Happy Hands Cleaning Service” in Bête Noire, and “Elizabeth Beatrice Moore” in Pulp Modern. His poetry has also appeared in Poetry Quarterly, Dual Coast, The Stray Branch (featured writer), The Literary Commune, Dime Show Review, The Los Angeles Review of Los Angeles, Chronogram, and Harbinger Asylum.]