The Danesboro Line

Danesboro 200An aura of mystery surrounds the southern Ohio farm country.

There’s a backwoods, private nature to its people. In this setting, Gilly Nolan, a young woman torn by divorce and trying to raise two young sons, comes back home to her father’s farm and to the small community of Danesboro, Ohio, a town fighting to stay in business with large farming conglomerates gobbling up small farmers. Gilly’s hoping to find comfort from the people she grew up with and especially from Calvin Dane, a second father to her.

But something peculiar has been happening in this town. A year before, her best friend, Shirley, gave birth to a pitiful monstrosity of a child. The baby is dead now and Shirley seems to be going out of her mind. Furthermore, Gilly’s seven year old son, Teddy, keeps insisting he’s seen a monster lurking in the woods.

Gilly meets Pete Jacoby who’s inherited the farm up the road from his uncle. Calvin Dane dislikes him from the beginning, so when Gilly begins to feel the pull of attraction for Pete, she knows she’s being disloyal to Calvin. The tangle of relationships and the mystery of her best friend draw Gilly and her sons deep into a bizarre and dangerous secret.

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Excerpt

Prologue

A few people stood with her in a circle around the grave watching the small coffin being lowered. The ordeal was at an end now. Or maybe it was just beginning. If old Jenny was right, it was beginning.

Her eyes followed it into the ground. Poor, strange, ugly creature. She hadn’t loved it but she was its mother. Some cord bound a mother and child. Maybe the cord was stronger for the lack of love. Who could have loved it? So ugly a baby. So strange a creature, misshapen and grotesque. Not yet a year old. The sounds it made weren’t even human. How had it happened? Not like they said. Not if Jenny was right.

The coffin came to a stop. Finney said some words over the grave. And Calvin was there, looking concerned. He was giving her mother support. Goddamn his eyes, if old Jenny was right –

Old senile Jenny. What the hell did she know? Oh, but God! She had to be right!

The hysteria tried to surface. She had to fight to keep control. Doc was watching her across the grave. He’d pump her with more sedatives until she couldn’t think again, or go see Jenny.

Her mother whimpered into her handkerchief. Damn her, she was in on it, too. All of them were, the whole stinking bunch of them. They were pretending to be sorry the baby was dead, but they were only relieved, like her. Hypocrites. Liars!

Finally the service was over. Finney’s monotonous drone stopped. Someone had her arm, leading her away. The others followed. Hysteria jack-knifed up her spine. They were leaving the baby there. They were going to cover it up, bury it, hide it away so that everyone would forget about it. The evidence would be gone. She struggled in the grasp that held her and pulled away. The others got nervous. Doc moved in. She needed help. She couldn’t fight them alone. Where was Gilly? Where was she? Gilly had to help her.

Now someone grabbed her from either side. They hurried her through the cemetery before she could cause a scene. She had to have help. They put her into the black limousine. The others got in. They were driving away. Eyes wide with panic, she stared out the window.

Damn it, Gilly! Where are you?

Chapter One

The sun lay low over the slopes and fields and the heat of the day had passed. Gilly tensed in the driver’s seat. Only five miles from home and her throat began to jam. Please be there, she thought. Please want me home.

The trip from Chicago had been grueling. The July heat had baked them with no air-conditioning in the car. In fact, they were lucky the old Dodge had made it this far. Jerry had gotten the new Civic, the one with the air conditioning that worked. Somehow he’d ended up with most of the money, too, but that was the nature of divorce – and the nature of Jerry.

Jack, her nine year old, sat in the front, gazing out the open window. Wind blew brown hair away from his serious face. Teddy still lay curled up on the back seat. She was just as glad. Jack was the one she shared things with. Teddy was too much of an aggravation.

Dinner had been at a McDonald’s in a little town along the border of Indiana. Now they were in Ohio, thirty miles above Cincinnati. Gilly gazed at the countryside and her throat ached from the tears. She knew every tree, every fence post. The dairy farm up on the hill, the Ryder Creek bridge, and across the field standing beside the Culverson Road, an old barn with ‘Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco’ chipped and faded along one side. The barn had belonged to Jed Townsend’s grandfather before the county took the land over for a highway, breaking the old man’s spirit. In the end, the county never did expand the Culverson Road. Ever since Gilly’s day the high school kids used the deteriorating building as a necking spot where many a young girl had lost her virginity on the rotting piles of hay in the loft.

Over two years had passed since Gilly had been back to the farm, and five since she’d seen anyone in the town of Danesboro. Not even Calvin – especially not Calvin. The last two years she’d spent trying to make it on her own with a couple of small boys to support. She wasn’t sure exactly when she’d decided to call it quits, admit her defeat and come on home. And what if her dad didn’t want her here?

Tears stung her eyes. She hadn’t cried in the last two years, not when Jerry left or when things got bad and bills weren’t getting paid. So why now? Shirley always said she was a crier. “Some people brood, some throw fits, you cry.”

Jack turned and peered at her while his expression took on age. “Mom, everything’ll be okay. Don’t worry.”

Gilly glanced over at her son, that old man look about him, the way he could read her mind. He was so much like her brother Jack, his namesake, and she thanked God for him.

“At the end of that lane is where Shirley lives – or rather, her mother.” Gilly ached to see Shirley right now, laughing, overweight Shirley, forever on a diet, a sarcastic edge to her voice, cutting through the garbage of this world with a few caustic remarks. The farm beside the highway belonged to the Hewetts and beyond that was the woods where the two of them used to camp. God, how she missed those days, back when the world was innocent and life spread before them like the yellow brick road.

Guilt marred the vision, though, and she turned away from it.

Jack’s face puckered and he pulled in his head. “Jeez! What’s that smell?”

“Hogs,” she told him. “Over there in Swain’s field.” Back in the old days Danesboro was known as ‘Hog City.’

Shuffling came from the back seat and a head shot up. “Pee-uuu! Look at those ugly, smelly, grunty pigs! They smell like man-ure!” The seven year old boy flattened his nose against the window, his voice shrill and grating. “I don’t like this place. It stinks! When are we gonna go back?”

Gilly swallowed hurt. Teddy would have to get used to the change. She was home now and everything would be all right. Please, let it be all right.

Jack’s eyes moved from his mother’s face to the road. “Isn’t that Grampa’s place up there?”

Gilly tensed again. Home was up ahead. Did her dad despise her for giving up? Would he be glad to see her? His letter had said, ‘Come home if you want,’ and she came.

Now she could see the barn roof through the trees, and the house with sun slanting warm on the brick, making the hillside it sat on turn mellow and welcoming. Or did she just want it to be? As they drew closer, the farm began to look shabby, run down somehow, the front field gone to weeds and the hay wagon left out in the pasture to rot.

When she turned up the lane she saw no one out on the porch watching for them, not even the dogs. Just the silent brick house and the bank barn across the drive turned a desolate shade of red by the late-day sun.

Please – please be there, she prayed. Please want me home.

“Where the heck’s Grampa?” Teddy cried, springing up and down in the back seat. “I bet he’s not here!”

“Shut up, dummy,” Jack said, watching his mother’s face. “He’s here. He just didn’t know when we were coming, did he, Mom?”

Gilly drove up the lane to the driveway and pulled in. Everything looked somber and still. Then a dog came running from behind the barn, barking. Another appeared down by the chicken coop and perked up its ears, racing toward them.

“Dixie,” Gilly cried and got out of the car. “Leon,” she laughed as the second dog knocked her backwards in its exuberance.

A moment later a man’s head appeared at the door of the chicken coop and Gilly stood up. “Oh, Daddy,” she breathed. “Oh God. Daddy.” She started to run.

The man came, too, hobbling faster with each step. “Baby girl, you’re here,” he said. “It’s really you.”

The shock hit her when they were only a few feet apart, to see him look so defeated, as if he’d given up living and waited only for the grave.
* * *

Matthew Tyler led Gilly and the boys through the back door into the kitchen. “Did you have supper? I could put something together. I haven’t got much but – ”

“We ate, Dad. Thanks.” He was only fifty-nine but he looked seventy to her desperate gaze.

“I had a cheeseburger,” Teddy told him.

“Sounds good.” The man ruffled the boy’s hair. “Say, Jack, would you go get the basket of eggs from the chicken coop?”

The house was a shock to Gilly, too. It looked uncared for, allowed to slip. Not like she remembered it.

“It stinks in here,” Teddy cried in a piercing voice.

Gilly tensed. “Teddy, I’m constantly amazed by your charm.”

Matthew waved a hand. “Don’t mind him. I expect the place needs airing. I’m mostly outside so I don’t notice it much.”

Jack came in the back door. “What do I do with these eggs, Grampa?”

“Just set ‘em in the pantry. How about something to drink? Been hot as hell around here the last few weeks. Gilly, will you make some lemonade? The mix is in the cupboard.”

Gilly looked around at the familiar things; the curtains her mother had made, faded now from the years of afternoon sun at the window, the milking stool and pails in the corner. Her father still hadn’t gone to milking machines. On the door to the pantry, her brother Jack’s signature carved in the corner where he’d left it for posterity. She went to the cupboard for the pitcher and mix.

Matthew sat at the kitchen table with the boys and asked about their trip. He’d gone to Chicago himself by bus just after Gilly’s divorce. He hadn’t stayed long, though. The city wasn’t comfortable for him and he couldn’t cope with his daughter’s crisis. Gilly didn’t blame him. It had all been so difficult. Now she was home, though, and he was her dad. She looked up as he did and they smiled at each other. But his eyes slid away first. Picking up the fly swatter, he smacked at a fly on the table.

Gilly brought the pitcher of lemonade over just as an old gray and white tom cat slinked in through the hole in the screen door. His fur was scruffy with bald patches in it and part of an ear was missing, making him appear like a refugee from some battle-ravaged country.

“Tom,” Gilly cried, scooping up the cat. “He looks like he’s been through the wars. When did he lose part of his ear?”

“Had a run-in with a coon couple months back,” her father said. “He came out looking the best, though.”

“Eee-uuck. What’s-a matter with that cat,” Teddy bawled. “He’s pu-key.”

Jack gave his brother a hard jab in the ribs. “Shut up, Teddy. He’s Mom’s pet.”

“That ugly thing?” His face mirrored stark revulsion.

“You haven’t forgotten Tom, have you?” Gilly said, feeling hurt in spite of herself. “I raised him from a kitten.”

“I didn’t remember he was so ug-ly.”

Jack made a fist in his brother’s face.

Gilly stroked the cat while her father went to get some glasses from the cupboard. He hunted until he found four and brought them to the table. None of them matched. Gilly was pouring out lemonade when they heard a loud knock at the front door.

“Anybody to home?” a woman called though the screen. “Matt, you there?”

“Come on in, Stella,” Matthew called back.

A tall, solid woman, iron-gray hair pulled tight into rolled braids, came through the front of the house to the kitchen. She wore a faded house dress with a faded overall apron on top. Her iron-sober face lit up when she saw Gilly and she came forward with her arms held out. “Gilda May, honey! I just knew it was you. I told Estel, I said that’s Gilda May, sure enough.”

Gilly cringed at the name, one of the few things she’d left behind that she hadn’t missed. She was swallowed up by Stella Swain’s embrace, sweaty, strong, smelling of sour dough and soap.

“Matt said you was coming. All excited he was till I-don’t-know-what. Estel would-a come over but he’s fussing with that prize bull-a his. Wants to take him to the fair this year.” Stella held Gilly at arm’s length. “Let me see you, girl. You’re looking peaked. Face is too pale. And you’ve messed up your hair with one of them new hairdos. Too short; ya look like a boy.” Her eyes glazed over with tears and she squeezed Gilly again. “Awful glad to have you home, honey. Now let me take a look at them boys.”

She stepped forward, hands on hips, to scrutinize them. Jack gave her a timid smile but Teddy glared beneath his brows and shrank back.

“Little one’s a might scrawny but them’s good looking boys you got, Gilda May. Been some time since me’n Estel seen ‘em. Good country living’s all they need.”

“Mo-om, can I have some lemonade?” Teddy whined.

Gilly’s cheeks burned at Teddy’s rudeness – just like his father. But Stella laughed.

“That’s the way, sonny. Speak up when you want something. Ain’t no shyness in him, is there? Got fine grandkids here, Matt. Kate would-a loved ‘em. Too bad Jack didn’t live to give you none. That Air Force crash took at least one fine boy. But Gilda May’s young. Got time for plenty more.”

“Husband or no, huh, Stella?” Gilly said, pouring lemonade.

“What? That shoelace? No spine in him, girl.” She rummaged around for an extra glass in the cupboard until she found one. “This all the glasses you got, Matt Tyler? I told you last week they was having a sale on dishes at Bangerman’s Hardware.” She wiped out the dust with her apron and told Gilly to pour her some. “What you need’s a real man, Gilda May. Not some spineless shoelace like ya had.”

“My dad’s not a shoe-lace,” Teddy growled. “He’s a violinist.”

“S’what I mean, sonny.”

“He plays the vio-lin. Don’t you know what that is?”

“Teddy, be quiet,” Gilly said. She was feeling defensive herself. “Tell me what’s been happening in town. You know what a lousy correspondent Dad is.”

“Sure do,” she said, and Matthew looked away. “Course, you know old Zach died this spring.”

“Good God, no,” Gilly cried. “Zach Jacoby? Our Zach Jacoby up the lane?”

“I only know-a one.”

“Dad, why didn’t you tell me? My God, I can’t believe it. What happened?”

Stella took a drink of lemonade, savoring the bombshell she had dropped, and wiped her mouth on her apron. “His heart, I reckon. Ain’t that so, Matt?”

Matthew nodded. “I reckon.”

“One of the Sweeney boys found old Zach dead. Went in his sleep. No fuss or pain.” She waved a fly from the table.

Gilly was stunned. “It’ll be so strange having him gone. He was the one who sold us this farm.”

“Been twenty-two years now,” her father said.

“Twenty-two come September,” Stella nodded. “I remember the day you come. Nothing but some suitcases and a couple of hungry-looking kids.” She glanced at the boys. “Seems like history repeating itself.”

Gilly got up to pour another round of lemonade. Evening sun streaked through the window from behind the barn and corncrib while a small breeze touched the edges of the faded curtains.

Stella was the first to break the silence. “Shirley Wilson’s back home.” Gilly’s head shot up and the woman nodded. “Yup, Shirley Wilson’s back – Shirley Kepler’s what I mean. Can’t keep your married names straight.”

Guilt wormed ugly tendrils through Gilly’s stomach. And a sadness she didn’t want to recognize. In the last year she’d let Shirley down, weakening at a time when she should have been strong. Like a flash she recalled the eerie sensation she’d had a month ago – Shirley in a panic, calling her name. Then abruptly the feeling had vanished, leaving her hanging on to the kitchen counter. She stared at Stella now, the sensation returning.

“The baby died,” Stella said without preamble. “And thank God for it.” She watched as Gilly grappled with the news. “It was best for all, girl, though Shirley carried on some. The thing couldn’t-a lived. You saw it, all buggy-eyed and deformed. Looked more like a frog than a human baby.” The woman gave a shudder.

Gilly sat back in despair. “Ron’s been giving her a hard time about it, acting like she’s some kind of freak herself to have a baby like that.”

“Reckon that’s Shirley’s trouble, too. She keeps fighting the truth, saying it must-a been caused by drugs and such. Old Jenny Dilmeyer’s been filling her head full-a nonsense and getting her all stirred up. But old Jenny’s crazy. Deep down Shirley knows it’s in the Wilson blood.”

Gilly was remembering Shirley’s last visit to Chicago, the desperation in her friend’s face and her own inadequacy in coping with Shirley’s problems. She was remembering, too, the poor, grotesque creature Shirley had spawned.

Stella went to the counter to retrieve the lemonade glasses Gilly had left there. “Seems the town of Danesboro keeps growing these days. Ain’t that right, Matt.”

Matthew nodded. “Seems so.”

“Outsiders keep coming in. Too bad. They ain’t got the feel for this town like we have. Don’t care about it the same way.”

Stella settled herself at the table again and discussed the town with Matthew while Gilly tried to erase the memory of Shirley’s baby.

“Calvin’s been asking about you.”

Gilly tensed. “How is he?”

“Doing fine. He talks about you all the time. Wondered why you didn’t let him know you was home last time.” There was a tinge of reproach in Stella’s voice. “He was broken up something awful over your divorce, but then we all was. Bound to end bad, though. You shouldn’t-a married like that and give up your music, Gilda May.” She watched as Gilly stiffened. “Lord but he’ll be glad to see you. Matt told him you was coming home to stay and he says – naturally, cause this is where you belong.”

Gilly the crier had to swallow back tears. “His horses, I suppose he still worries over them?”

Stella made a face. “Treats them animals like they was babies. Won most of the prizes in the Cincinnati horse show this spring, then ups and gives all the winnings to the orphanage on the old Logan estate.”

“He would,” she said.

Stella looked her over. “I suppose you got plans now that you’re home.”

“I’m going to give music lessons,” Gilly told her.

“Good for you, girl. Put that talent of yours to good use.” She slapped her hands on her thighs and got up. “Well, I reckon I best get back and finish my chores before the light’s completely gone. Mighty good to have you young’uns home. Good looking boys, Gilda May. And smart too, I’ll bet.”

“Jack’s the scholastic one. Always has his nose in a book. And Teddy is the piano player.”

“Just like his mama, huh?”

“Better than his mama,” Gilly said.

She went with Stella out to the front porch. When they were out of ear shot, Stella turned to her.

“I’m awful glad you’re home, Gilda May. Your daddy needs you. He’s been going downhill for a long time now, ever since your mama died. Your divorce seemed to be the last straw.”

Gilly’s heart plunged – still, after all this time. Her mother’s death had been the most devastating tragedy in her life. In her father’s as well. “The farm does look run down. I guess I’ve been too busy with my own life to notice what was happening.”

Stella glanced back through the screen door. “It was a terrible thing, your mama dying like that. Kate was the best woman I ever knew and your daddy needed her. He’s just no good without her. I been trying to look after him these past ten years but it ain’t the same as her. Kate shouldn’t-a died like that. It wasn’t right.” There seemed to be something eating at the Stella, some demon on her back. But she shook it off. “Well, now that you’re back home to stay, maybe you and your daddy can start helping each other.”

“Everything’s going to be fine,” Gilly said.

Stella squeezed her hand. “I’m a yakker, I know, but I’m just real glad you’re back.” She went on down the porch steps, waved at the end of the drive and walked along the lane toward the farm across the highway.

Everything was going to be fine, Gilly told herself. So why did she feel like she’d just been hit by a battering ram?

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