Most of us, trying to forecast the future, must rely on primitive things like newspapers and the lessons of history. Mrs. Otty uses cats. Lately there’ve been lots of them, she says. Wild ones, roaming the county in packs, eating their elderly when food is scarce. She swears it’s a better indicator of coming calamity than anything anybody says on the radio. “The whole system’s going to break down,” she hollers from her driveway, pointing at a lone stray slinking along a fringe of cattails. “It’s already started!” Standing in the frigid twilight, hearing wind sigh through the leafless willows and whistle against an abandoned barn, I know she’s right. I feel it in my blood, in my testicles.
Mrs. Otty lives at the end of my road. On my evening walk she’s unloading her trunk. Ten gallon jugs of water; a crate full of canned goods. “Do you need a hand with that?” I call.
“No, thanks, Jimmy,” she says. “An old lady needs to keep her strength up.”
Mrs. Otty isn’t old, hardly halfway into her fifties, with wild black hair she doesn’t dye. But she’s got grandkids emerging from puberty, so she’s bracing herself to be a great-grandmother.
“You look like you expect a siege,” I say.
“Something,” she says. “Enjoy your stroll.”
Walking west I pass construction sites, and then a football-field-sized string of unkempt lots where houses used to be. A mile down is a field of cattails. Hills slant up on either side of our road, densely wooded, owned by no one.
I’ve moved back to the town I grew up in, and both of us have changed. Me, I’ve got a lot more money, and I’m partnered, and I’m a creative professional, meaning I don’t really work. Hudson, after decades of economic depression, is remaking itself as a place for upper-middle-class New Yorkers to retire to, or spend weekends in. Shoddy homes are being demolished all over town. Dozens used to line Stickles Road. Poor-white-trash houses, replaced by mansions. Like mine. Of the old guard, only Mrs. Otty is left, because only she owned her home.
“Town council can’t wait for me to die,” she says. “If I’m still alive fifteen years from now, they’ll resort to eminent domain or assassination.”
Most of the time it’s just me and her on this road. The other new homes haven’t sold, and my partner still spends too much time in the city. An investment banker, he makes a lot more money than me, so he actually has to work.
Mrs. Otty took three months to warm up to me. Only the fact that I was born and raised in Hudson earned me an exemption from her hatred of the upscale downstaters. Her first words were: “You motherfuckers are going to get a hell of a surprise the first time it rains. When the basement of your fancy-pants home fills up with water because it was built on some rotten land that used to be a swamp basin.”
At sunrise and sunset I walk. I need the exercise, and the space to brainstorm new ideas. Scripting sitcoms might not require real brain activity, but it’s an agonizing process. Stickles Road shakes me up. The gloom feels thick and alive, a threatening presence, unsettling enough to make my mind jog off in new directions.
Up in the hills a dog starts howling, and several more join in.
Twenty-five years ago, Stickles Road was terrifying in a way that had nothing to do with the cemetery at its western end. A two-way road too narrow for two-way traffic, stretches of it so densely fringed with trees that their branches met overhead to keep the sun out. Two or three abandoned barns, all of them partially burned down. And the sad crummy homes, front yards full of trash and wreckage, windows sealed with plastic, walls sagging against the wind. Built for men who worked the gravel quarries, but the quarries had been closed up for decades.
“I wasn’t sorry to see them go,” Mrs. Otty said, the first time she came over for dinner. “Filthy poor, all of them. Sure is nice not to go outside in the morning and have to scare away a bunch of little kids who’ve been sleeping in my car. Not to have their daddies try to break into my house once a month.” Then she took a long sip of wine and frowned. “Don’t even want to think about where they all went to.”
Crows fly overhead, like a screaming waft of smoke. At the top of a little hill I see a man on the road ahead. Walking in the same direction, but slower. Dressed wrong for the weather. A hooded sweatshirt and a pair of frayed jeans. Are his feet bare? I’m a fast walker, but when I see how I’m overtaking him I slow down. I’m thinking about heading back altogether, but then he stops and turns.
Eye contact. My chest thuds like I’ve been challenged. There’s no rational reason but I’m convinced I have to keep going, like if I turned my back on him he’d come screaming like a banshee and tear me to shreds. I keep walking, and he stays stopped. Black bare branches tangle over our heads, dissolving into the coming dark.
When I come alongside him he says “Evening, James.”
“Hello,” I say, and stop. His face is pale and young-looking, with a scraggly beard that doesn’t feel right. Like I knew him without it. His feet are indeed bare.
“Rick Griffin,” he says after a few seconds of letting me struggle. “We were in the same grade. Folks called me Griff.” He starts walking again, and so do I.
“Of course,” I say, and clap my hands together, once. “Hi, Griff!”
“Heard you moved back to town.”
“Yup. Six months now.”
I haven’t used the word yup in decades. I hold out my hand and he shakes, but spends a half second thinking about it. His grip feels too hot.
My memories of Griff are minimal. A poor kid, not smart, held back at least once, his body tall and tight. A violent kid, angry at everyone slightly higher up Hudson’s stunted economic ladder—meaning kids like me, with running water and clean clothes. A hoodlum kid, with greasy hair and a crack pipe in his pants pocket.
“Heard you lived out on this road,” he says.
“Yup. First family to move in. Since they started reconstruction.”
“I used to live out here too.”
“Oh yeah?” I can almost picture him perched on a front porch, pale and shirtless in summer, whittling something. “Where are you living now?”
He tilts his head back slightly, suddenly. “Around.”
The Griff I remember was not attractive. Grubby, smelly, strong, and vicious, a guy who got girls based on his bad-ass qualities. Now there’s a new quality—isolation, sadness, like the fight’s gone out of him, or his wild rage at the world has tightened to a white-hot focus. He’s beautiful. And maybe it’s just the dim light, but Griff looks a hell of a lot younger than me now.
“What brings you out on such a cold night?” I ask.
“Nothing. Just taking a walk. I walk a lot, lately.”
“Me too. Surprised we haven’t seen each other sooner.”
“We mostly walk in different places, James.”
Hudson’s economic revival has made the place safe for gays. Warren Street has a gay bar, and two dykes run an art-house cinema, and hosts of New York City creative professionals are buying homes. Growing up in the old Hudson, I knew I had to get out as soon as possible if I didn’t want to choose between a miserable closeted life and a certain death at the hands of my homophobic neighbors. Even now I’ll be at the supermarket or the liquor store and I’ll feel a familiar flush of fear. The natives are hostile, and they smell my difference.
Dogs bark in the distance, and Griff stops for a second. We’re near a streetlight. A rhyme runs through my head, from a school song we sang at Halloween:
The woman to the body said
Will I look like you when I am dead?
But Griff isn’t dead. Ghosts don’t have breath that smells of McDonald’s and vodka. Dead men don’t sniff at the air, squint to see in the dark. These hills are not my hills. I flash back to living in the Bronx, a fledgling writer, unable to understand the hate in the eyes of the young men in my neighborhood, watching rents rise and friends get pushed out as men like me moved in.
“You still paint, James?” he asks.
“No, not in years. You remember that?”
“Sure. Your mural is still up on the wall at the high school.”
“Yeah? I thought sure they’d paint over that weird-ass thing as soon as I’d left.”
“Nope. Still there.”
“You got kids in the high school?” I ask.
“No. No kids. But I get around. I see lots of stuff.”
Griff’s voice sounds faraway, like someone’s doing a shoddy job of ventriloquism with him. Ten steps later he says, “You gotta watch out for the dogs, living out here.”
“Yup. There’s a lot of them—wild. Up in the hills. Used to be just a few of them, and they’d never come down to where the people are. Lately they do.”
“They’re dangerous, James. You need to know that. Last year they—”
“You aren’t cold, Griff? With your feet bare?”
“No. I’m not.”
The next hill crests, and we’re at the edge of the cemetery. Full night is upon us, and I can only see the closest headstones. The wrought-iron fence feels like a landmark, a good excuse to exit.
“This is where I head back, Griff,” I say. “It’s nice to know you’re around. Come by the house sometime, okay? We can have dinner. Or something.”
“I will.” Griff smiles for the first time, a wide one that peels back his upper lip and shows long bad teeth.
The cardinal rule of vampire movies: they can’t enter your home unless they’ve been invited. But Griff isn’t a vampire. Vampires don’t know you by name, and vampires don’t haunt the ground they’ve been evicted from.
“Remember what I said about the dogs,” Griff says. “You’ll need to build a fence, but even that won’t be enough. You can’t ever let your guard down.”
We shake hands and I head home. I turn around once and he’s still there, down the road, walking on. The hills seem higher and closer. It takes real effort to keep from breaking into a run.
Past two AM I’m still up, pretending to write, prevented by anxieties I can’t analyze. I call friends, and find only voice mail. Before bed I pee with the lights off, so I can see out into the yard. Sure enough there’s a big dog, hard to see in the light of a crescent moon, with eyes like winter fireflies. Pacing back and forth by where my property bumps up against the wild.
Sam J. Miller is a writer and a community organizer. His work has appeared in literary journals such as The Minnesota Review, Fiction International, Fourteen Hills, Permafrost, and Pindeldyboz. Visit him at www.samjmiller.com, and/or drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org