For Garrett Peter Funk
“You need to stop. I can’t wait any longer!”
Jessie had told her boyfriend 10 minutes ago that she needed to use the restroom, and he had passed two fruit stands since then.
“I’m looking, honey!”
“You’re not looking hard enough! Just stop at the very next place–I don’t care what it is–if i have to, I’ll go in the bushes out back!”
Sean bit his tongue hard enough to draw blood. Every single time he and Jess went out, she had to do an emergency stop. Somewhere deep inside, he believed this was on purpose. He got so sick of her same-old-same-old behaviors. What had started out as a nice Sunday afternoon drive was now a frantic search for a crappy roadside pit stop. Sometimes he wondered why he stayed with this woman.
“There!” Jessie shouted and pointed to the Fancy Gap Apple Market, a run-down looking redneck place that could not possibly have a place to pee.
“You have got to be kidding! No, Jess–”
“YES! I am going to pee my pants if you don’t stop NOW!”
In a state of muted fury, Sean jerked the car off the road into the turn out for the stand. The place was old as the hills on which it stood, and there was an unpleasant tang of apples gone sour.
“Wonder where it is?”
Sean heard her predictable whining and pulled the emergency brake, cut the engine.
“I’ll go find out for you–sit still.”
Sean exited the store and went into the partially open-air market. A grizzled old woman with a cigarette dangling from her mouth stood behind an ancient old cash register. “Excuse me mam,” she looked up and Sean saw that one of her eyes was badly swollen and oozing–pink eye or some other malady.
“One hole in the back–hep yerseff.”
“Great!” Sean stormed out of the apple stand to the car. He pulled open Jess’s door.
“Go on–there is only one in the back of the market. I’ll go around back–”
Jess swung herself out of the car and ran for the market. No word of thanks. No nothing. Sean wandered past bins of dried up looking apples, pie pumpkins, and a dilapidated and weathered cabinet claiming to purvey “NC Mountain Molasses.” It was his his fate to piss at the back of this godforsaken stand. As usual, he had to defer to Jessie. She was spoiled and took everything for granted. This was for sure the last time he took her on a Sunday afternoon drive. She could watch football with him. The market was a fairly long, narrow building, but finally he got to the corner, turned right, and went to the back of the stand to find a semi-private place to piss. He was so angry inside, so tired of this woman, so ready to be rid—
Sean stopped in his tracks. He could not believe what he was seeing. 25 or so feet away was a figure, a horrible man, a man with his dick out pissing. His hair was long, greasy, tangled, and when he turned to look at Sean, the malignancy in his eyes burned with uncanny intent. A leering grin spread across the man’s tobacco stained lips, and in that smile, Sean beheld something unspeakable….
Sean bounded around the side of the market and almost bumped into Jess.
“Thanks again for stopping. What’s back there?”
“Don’t go back there!” The panic and seriousness in Sean’s voice was unmistakeable, but Jessie was oblivious and strode passed him, turning the corner to the back area, the place where something horrible, something obscene waited.
“Don’t go back there!” Sean screamed impotently at this woman he used to love, this woman who never, ever listened to him, this woman he was beginning to hate. She continued onward to the back area, the place where darkness waited with enthusiastic laughter. “Don’t g–” He could not even get the words out, for she had disappeared from sight. Sean waited in angry and breathless anticipation for the moment of pleasure, the moment when she would come scuttling back and he could give her the old “I told you so”!
He waited. There was only silence. There was only the stench of rotten apples and a whiff of mildew from the weather-rotted boards and crates that lay scattered about this godforsaken stand. He waited. His heart beat rapidly.
“Jess? Jess, honey?” A range of emotions played though his psyche. Irritation gave way to impatience. Impatience gave way to anger. Anger gave away to concern, sharp like the edge on a piece of broken mirror. “Jess?”
He ran back around the corner of Fancy Gap Apple Market. He ran back to the place where the man with the terrible smile had been standing as he pissed a reeking stream into a pile of rotten wood. He ran back to find Jess, the woman who annoyed the hell out of him, the woman he loved. He ran back to find the trash-clogged strip of land void of any human life. There was only the echo of traffic from the road that brought tourists down the mountain from the Blue Ridge Parkway.
There was no Jess, no man. “JESS!!!! JESS!!!!!!”
For the next two hours, Sean Cranston, with the help of a state trooper and the grizzled woman from the stand, searched the immediate area around the Fancy Gap Apple Market. No trace of Jessie List was ever found. No man was ever found. For many years, Sean Cranston lived under a shadow of suspicion. When it was finally acknowledged that he could not have had anything to do with Jessie’s disappearance, he took it upon himself to drive up to the mountains every other Sunday, combing that stretch of road for signs of the woman he had loved, the woman he had hated.
On one late November afternoon, Sean was traveling down the Gap. The temperatures had dropped precipitously, and a fine mist covered the road bed with NC’s notorious “black ice.” A mile and a half before the turn off to the apple market, Sean Cranston’s SUV went into a wild spin; he and the vehicle plummeted into the valley below and burst into flames.
There have never been any stories of a man with a terrible smile. There have never been any ghostly sightings of a young woman. There have been times, however, when Ethel Pierce, owner of the Fancy Gap Apple Market, could swear on a stack of Bibles that she sometimes hears a man crying inconsolably and whispering between the mournful sobbing, “Don’t go back there! Don’t go back there! Don’t…go…”