Joe “Staff” Stafford turned up his nose as the HOLLOW COUNTY sign grew large in the windshield. He rode in the passenger’s side of the ugly white Chevy S-10 pickup Channel 6 had assigned them for the week. A similar white topper with a common locking mechanism had been installed over the bed of the pickup to ensure that all of the station’s heavy, outdated video journalism equipment remained unmolested by any nefarious members of the general public during their stay in this small redneck town. Staff had always found these types of security efforts especially hilarious since there were glass windows on every side of the topper and the Channel 6 logo was emblazoned on the pickup’s hood, both its doors, and its tailgate. He could imagine a would-be thief approaching: “Oh, look! It’s Channel 6’s truck with some expensive, outdated camera equipment! Oh, wait. No. Nevermind. There’s a lock on it.”
Staff’s partner in crime for the weekend (his supervisor for this particular outing, really), reporter Afia Afton sat behind the wheel. Her eyes were on the road, and her long fingers with glossy black polished nails were curled around ten and two. She didn’t see him sneer as they blew by the rusty old sign full of buckshot holes and half-buried in Virginia-creeper, but he hoped she could hear the vexation in his voice.
“This? This is what we drove fifty miles on a Friday afternoon to see? I’m going to fucking kill Joanie.”
Afia scoffed. “It’s just the county line. We have a few minutes before we hit Lost Hollow proper. I used to live around here, you know. Back then, the town was pretty much all woods and farmland except for the church, the school, and the cemetery. Those who weren’t farmers worked at the carbon plant way over in Hollow River. There was a tiny public square in the middle, but it was mostly used for town offices and a couple of small mom and pop places. If you wanted to get gas or mail a package or buy groceries or see a movie you had to drive to Hollow River.”
“Where the carbon plant was.” He might have sounded bored. He didn’t intend it, but he felt it.
“Right. It might still be that way, but I can’t imagine that the kids who grew up here wouldn’t have made some progress by now. Well, if there were any kids who grew up here.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that the Lost Hollow I remember was aptly named because it was kind of a lost place. It’s where people lived or died or disappeared without anyone noticing much one way or the other. Fuck, I was only eight years old when my mom vanished. Twelve when my dad went. If his murder hadn’t been all over the news in Hollow River and the other bigger cities back then, I don’t know what would’ve happened to me. I got lucky, I guess. Got into the system just when it became fashionable for rich white folks to foster orphaned black kids.”
She sighed. Staff shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He hadn’t known that about her parents, and he wasn’t sure how, or if, he should respond. But at least he wasn’t bored anymore.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Afia continued, “my foster parents were good people, not like the horror stories you hear from a lot of kids who got handed to abusers or straight-up predators in those days. They never adopted me, but they did see me through high school and four years of college. I doubt I’d be here if it weren’t for them.”
Staff laughed. “You mean back in Lost Hollow?”
“I mean in the news business, asshole.” She smirked at him. “But there has to have been some progress here since then. I know it. We’re booked at a bed and breakfast right in the middle of it, aren’t we? That certainly wasn’t here when I was a kid.”
“Yeah,” Staff said, his voice distant. “A bed and breakfast that just happened to be completely vacant in a supposedly haunted small town in the middle of October. I’m sure. I hope you brought something with some DEET in it. I sure as hell don’t want to go home with Lyme Disease.”
Afia rolled her eyes.
“It’s October, Staff, like you said. The risk of you getting a tick bite out here is about as good as us getting real ghost footage this weekend. I’m not happy about having to come back here, either, but this woman we’re meeting has Joanie convinced that there’s a story to tell. People love to hear about ghost shit this time of year. I just hope we can come back with something because I never heard so much as a single disembodied ‘boo’ the whole time I lived here.”
Staff grunted. “All I’m saying is that you wouldn’t see ‘Channel 6’s Own Dan Matthews’ running around a dusty old house and leaping at shadows on the nightly news. He reports on real stuff like government shutdowns and disasters and robberies and murders and Republican corruption.”
“Dan sits behind the anchor desk. He doesn’t actually do the field work anymore. I’m not even sure he’d remember how. Like I said, I’m not happy about it either, but I try to remember that there will come a day when we won’t be the ones they send to cover the puff entertainment shit. Channel 6 has viewers out here. Probably someone complained that we never cover them, so this piece is supposed to be their fluffy little make-good for the small town on the big city news. There’s not going to be any leaping at shadows if I have anything to say about it, and I do have something to say about it. This is my story now. We’re going to talk to some townsfolk and explore a house or a cemetery so we can tell their tales and give the viewers something to talk about. If the town is lucky, they’ll get a few tourist dollars out of it for Halloween, but we’re not fucking Ghost Adventures.”
That settled him a little. Afia was on the same page, then.
“Yeah. We’re not fucking Ghost Adventures. I just feel like we should’ve graduated from stuff like this by now. I paid my dues with groundbreakings and artsy-fartsy feature stories and make-good puff pieces when I was a newspaper photographer, for Christ’s sake. You wouldn’t know it to look at the credits, though. The Review never gave credit for in-house photography to anything but STAFF. Everything always said STAFF PHOTO at the lower left, even though I was the only photographer on the payroll. That’s why I adopted the nickname. If they’re going to credit STAFF for every photo, I might as well be Staff.”
Afia laughed. “You’ve only told me that story a hundred times.”
“Yeah. A hundred times. I guess I’m still bent about it. I honestly thought video journalism would be a better gig. What does a guy with a good eye have to do to earn a little respect, anyway? If I didn’t know Joanie better, I’d think she had something against gay guys. She’s sending us into what I know is going to be a redneck pocket hell of backward racist conservatives.”
Afia took her eyes off the road for the first time and looked at him wide-eyed. “You’re gay?”
“Yes,” Staff replied with a deliberate lisp. “Can’t you tell? And you’re an African American woman. This is not news to anyone who has been half awake since we were both hired.”
Afia examined her own hands, still responsibly wrapped around ten and two on the steering wheel. “I’m black?” she said in mock astonishment. “Oh my. Maybe we’d better forget the DEET and go buy ourselves some camouflage and a gun rack instead.”
“No, seriously, don’t judge the place like that before you’ve seen it. Yeah, a bunch of racists lived here when I was a kid, but it wasn’t the loud-mouthed redneck Trump resurgent racist types. At least, I never saw them around town back then. I never met racists in that balls-out throwing shit at you while you’re just trying to go to school way. It was more subtle than that here, more patronizing, I guess. They wouldn’t call you names, but they’d assume you couldn’t speak as eloquently as the white folks, so you’d get the part with the fewest lines in the school plays. Most of the other kids assumed we were poor, too, even though my dad worked at the same carbon plant in Hollow River that theirs did. I guess they figured a single black father household wouldn’t hold onto money the way a lily-white nuclear family would. I don’t know. I never asked.”
He looked away from her, focusing on the toes of his own sneaker-clad feet. They were crossed at the ankles and propped on the dashboard in front of him. “I’m sorry, Afia. I was just trying to be funny. You mean to tell me that in the whole time you lived in this white-bread small town in the deep South that no one ever once threatened you or called you the n-word? Not once?”
“Tennessee is not the ‘deep’ South,” Afia reprimanded. She thought for a second. “Well, there was this one guy.” Her upper lip twisted into an angry sneer. “His last name was Gordon, I think. I don’t remember his first name. He had a kid my age that used to come to school beat up all the time. We had a lot of problems with him for a while, but I guess I was too young to remember too much about all that. I know he hated my dad’s guts, and I know my dad had to call the sheriff about him trespassing at our place more than once. It wasn’t long after my mother disappeared that all the trouble started, I think. Dad never told me what it was all about, though. Just said some crazy alcoholic white man thought dad had wronged him somehow.”
“I do remember one night when he woke us up, standing on our front porch with a beer in one hand and a shotgun in the other. Let me tell you, you’ve never heard anything scary until you’re awakened from a dead sleep in a quiet country house by the sound of someone trying to bash in the front door. I don’t think I’ve ever been more scared in my life, not before then and not since. He kept pounding on the front door with the butt of that shotgun, screaming for my dad to come out and face him. My dad called the sheriff on him then, too.
“I was afraid he was either going to break down the door or start shooting up the place before they got there, but he never did. He took off running when the deputy arrived with his strobes flashing. Nobody ran after him, though. I don’t know why. He just ran off into the woods behind our house and disappeared. My dad went down to the station the next day to press charges, thinking they’d go arrest Gordon at his house. The sheriff told him that more than likely it wouldn’t amount to anything in a court of law. His word against my father’s and the judge was as likely to believe Gordon over my father as the other way around. My dad figured it was because we were black. Some part of the white folks believed we probably deserved whatever it was this dude was holding against us.”
Staff grimaced. “Must have been awful.”
“It was. I always wondered whether that man had something to do with my dad’s murder. They found him, my dad, at the base of that bullshit obelisk the Daughters of the Confederacy placed in the middle of the town square back in the early Sixties. The town administrator showed up to open the office for the day, and there was my dad, propped up against it like a wino passed out in an alley. Only the red stuff running down his shirt wasn’t wine. It was blood. Whoever attacked him had sliced him from ear to ear. Some kind of hunting knife, probably. That’s what the sheriff’s department said, anyway.”
There was a hitch in her voice. Staff opened his mouth to tell her that she didn’t need to relive this horrible chapter of her life for his sake, but she started up again before the words formed on his lips.
“Not that they were much of a sheriff’s department. There were never any suspects, at least not that they publicly named. No apparent motive other than hate. My dad’s wallet was still in his pockets. His car was parked in one of the slots in front of the administrator’s office, keys in the ignition, and had apparently been wiped clean of fingerprints. The only blood in it was his own.
“The sheriff said he thought the murder had been committed somewhere else, and that the killer had driven my dad’s car with him in it to the town administrator’s office and placed his body against the obelisk as some kind of racist insult or something.”
“They never even questioned this Gordon dude?”
Afia shook her head. “Not that I know of.”
“So what happened to him?”
She shrugged. “Dead, probably. He was kind of old even back then. Quite a bit older than my dad, for sure, even though he had a kid my age. He was a heavy drinker, too, from what I heard. I can’t imagine he’s still kicking around.”
“You’ve never looked him up?”
She did not reply. After a beat, Staff let it be.
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