Land of the Free, Home of the Weird
Sergeant Abraham Richards, Alpha Company, 1-107th Infantry, New York Army National Guard, walked down the armory steps into the cool October afternoon, his rucksack weighing heavily on his shoulders, his duffel bag to his side and straining his arm.
“Let me take that, son.” His father took the duffel and hefted it over his good shoulder.
“You can’t tell your father to be careful, you know that,” Mom said, grimacing and rolling her eyes. She said it as a joke, but she was afraid it sounded like a nag. Everything was tense. Happy, sure, but tense. No one wanted to say the wrong thing, but silence didn’t seem right, either. But maybe saying nothing at all was the best thing for it.
“It’s your shoulder.”
“Darn right,” Dad said. A muted grunt escaped his lips.
They walked down the concrete steps to the crumbling asphalt of the armory parking lot. Little scenes of reunion and drama played out around them; soldiers in faded uniforms met parents and siblings, grandparents and cousins, wives and children, friends and dogs. Smiles—nervous smiles—on every face.
Dad opened the back hatch of the blue Honda Fit, and they set the bag inside.
“Do you have everything?” Mom asked.
“If I don’t, fuck it,” he said, getting into the back seat.
Mom shot Dad a hurt look. Dad held out a flat hand at chest level, calling for calm.
Richards sat in the middle seat. His hands instinctively sought out his rifle, fingers moving over his sides and near his legs.
No, he thought. That’s gone now. That’s over with.
He looked into the rearview mirror, his brown eyes reflecting back at him with dull indifference. Unfamiliar crow’s feet had developed at their edges, and the bags underneath had grown dark.
His parents got into the car and they began to drive out of the crowded parking lot. Soldiers and families streamed back and forth. The car crawled along, careful not to hit other vehicles backing out. Wild-eyed children darted back and forth.
As they drove down the long black driveway, the families and soldiers and brick armory behind them, Richards felt the weight of a year and a half of service roll off of his shoulders.
The miles added up. A familiar landscape spread before him. He meant to leave the memories behind him, back at the armory, back with the faceless crowd. He pulled his patrol cap off and set it down in his lap. He pulled the hook and fastener combat patch from his right ACU sleeve and tossed it onto the floor.
They were 10 miles outside of town when Richards noticed he was leaning forward, straining to see out the windshield. His eyes were on the road, on the sides of the road, on trash that fluttered in the wind, on the vehicles that passed by in the other lane. Everything was a threat. Nothing was a threat. He couldn’t tell the difference anymore.
Mom asked him questions and he gave short, terse answers. His fingers dug into his thighs, tight, so very tight. Again, he searched for a rifle that wasn’t there.
Dad’s eyes met his own in the rearview mirror. It was an instant of connection, a moment. Both men looked away.
Kubrick was there to greet him. The old lab mutt had put on a few pounds, and fresh white fur grew out along the edges of his mouth.
“I bet I look a little different, too,” Richards said, kneeling down to give the dog a few pats on the head. Kubrick’s tail went thump-thump-thump on the wooden deck. His pink tongue darted out to steal a few licks on Richards’ hands, which had stopped shaking.
Dad opened the door for him and he walked inside, through the front hallway and into the dining room. The house had a childhood smell; an aura of vinegar cleaning solution, fresh bread, and a hint of candle wax. Familiar, but different, like everything else.
Ghosts of childhood played with Ninja Turtle action figures in the living room, or bounded down the basement steps to log some hours with Donkey Kong Country on the SNES. And there, another ghost, in front of the bathroom mirror, his father helping him shave his head for the first time before he went off to Basic. They had laughed then, smiles and eyes proud and hopeful.
The kitchen floor was different; alien white square tiles stood in place of familiar, faded linoleum. The walls were now a dark red. Somewhere under that new skin was the memory of childhood blue, sun-faded and dry.
He slipped his thumbs under the ruck’s shoulder straps. Ahead of him was the kitchen table, arrayed with a tray of fresh cookies and a virgin six-pack of Yuengling. The dining room and kitchen sat at the corner of the house, with windows tall and wide facing out to both the south and the west. He faced the western window. Beyond that, the yard stretched down to a wide creek, pregnant with the runoff from an early fall rain. Fallow fields sat beyond, once a source of hay for dairy cows. The beaver dam and marsh encroached on the fields a little more each year.
Then there were the hills—mountains in millennia past, beaten down by time to rounded humps of old earth and rock. Trees, thick as storm clouds, blanketed them, their leaves orange, yellow, and red, with patches of stubborn green sprinkled about. The hills were everywhere, surrounding everything, breaking up the landscape with sharp bursts of color, hiding the edges of the horizon with their ancient heights. Richards had forgotten how much he missed the hills, and the color.
His fingers tapped against the shoulder straps of his heavy ruck. He wanted to take off his patrol cap. He wanted to get out of his uniform. He wanted to take a shower. He wanted to call friends. He wanted to have a beer. He wanted to do everything at once, and, faced with absolute freedom for the first time in a year and a half, found himself frozen at a sudden and limitless crossroads.
“Abe,” Mom said, standing just behind him. “Abe.”
He turned suddenly, pulled back to this place, to this time, to this moment.
“It’s okay,” she said, wanting to smile but not able. “Take off your pack. You don’t have to stand there, okay? You can relax.”
Richards nodded, taking off his patrol cap and rubbing a sleeve along his sweaty forehead.
“Sorry,” he said.
“No need to apologize,” Mom said. “You’re home now, Abe. You’re home now.”
Michael Bryant sat waiting for him at a corner booth in the Wind Mill Bar and Restaurant in downtown Ellicottville. The oak-paneled walls were decorated with faded black and white photographs of the first years of skiing at Snow Pine Resort, faux-rusted advertisements for gas stations and Pepsi, and a scattered collection of deer and moose heads wearing sunglasses and Mardi Gras beads. Some sort of wild cat stalked above Michael, its eyes glass, its pose frozen forever in time in the moments before a deadly pounce.
Michael smiled and stood up as Richards reached the table. Michael had long, dark, shaggy hair that curled around his shoulders and neck, and wore an XL hoodie emblazoned with “Ellicottville Volunteer Fire Department” above a helmet, axe, and ladder logo. He stretched out his arms and Richards returned the hug, his old friend smelling faintly of cigarettes and beer.
“Abe. Glad you’re back.” They broke their hug and took their seats. A waitress in a tight black Wind Mill t-shirt took their beer orders with a smile, her perfume hanging in the air as she swayed her hips all the way back to the bar. Richards tore his eyes from her ass.
“Welcome home,” Michael said.
“Yeah,” Richards said, another forced smile on his face. He was getting good at that. “It’s good to be home.”
“How long you been back?”
“Two days at my parents’ place. About two and a half weeks since we came back stateside. De-mob was a fucking nightmare.”
“De-mob. Sorry. Demobilization. Fort Dix. They wouldn’t let us out of that fucking place.”
Michael nodded. The waitress brought them their beers in pint glasses covered in water spots. They were warm to the touch.
“Sorry,” Richards said. “I’m working on the swearing.”
“Oh, no problem,” Michael said, waving his right hand and shaking his head. “I hear worse down at the fire station all the time.”
They drank their beers, and they shared silence, and they both made attempts at conversation, idle chatter, Richards asking more questions than Michael, eager to talk about anything but Afghanistan.
More beers. The clinking of glass pints and bottles. As the hour approached dinner, more people, locals and tourists come to see the foliage, streamed in. The air was cool and light with the smell of earth and a hint of fryer grease.
“Things have changed,” Mike said suddenly, nodding in the direction of a family wearing matching LL Bean hiking jackets as they walked in. “More tourists last year. More this year, too, probably.”
“That’s good, right?”
“Good for business. Keeps Ellicottville alive. Unlike West Valley.”
“The nuke plant keeps West Valley alive,” Richards said. Another gulp of beer.
“The town survives, the locals get brain cancer,” Mike quipped. He held the empty beer glass out in front of him, inspecting it like it was the first time he had seen such a thing. “Good thing I’m not on call tonight.”
“At least Ellicottville is doing alright.”
“Yeah. New development is going up soon, if they get the permits for it. Snow Pine is gonna tear ass up and down those hills on the west side for new condos, new trails. Buying up a lot of property in town, too. Not gonna be a lot of locals left in town, when it’s all said and done. They’re gonna log about 50 acres of trees, and add in a new lift, a new lodge, the works. It’s probably good long term, but it’s gonna put some people off their property. Not to mention the environmental costs.”
“That’ll keep you busy?”
“Maybe. I just run a snow maker part-time. Speaking of which, you got a job? Got any plans?”
“No,” Richards said, finishing his beer too, keeping pace.
“I can talk to some people, get you work on one of the lifts. It ain’t hero work, but it’s money.”
“I’ve got unemployment, and some savings. But yeah, maybe working a little will do me some good. I had the job in high school.”
“You mean basket check? Smoking weed on breaks, hassling teenage girls?”
“Well, we’re hiring early for Octoberfest. And we’re due snow soon. They want to be fully staffed by the first week of November.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Richards said. “What’s that?” He pointed to a folded-up newspaper by Mike’s elbow. He was searching for something to talk about. The drink made the words come easier, but they also left him feeling empty and desperate for something, something to keep his interest, something new, something to punch through the gray.
“Ellicottville Events,” Mike said, unfolding the paper. “Check out the front page.” He tapped his finger against the headline and the photo underneath.
Degenerate Moonshiner Evades State Troopers, Sets Trailer Ablaze. Cops Killed, Several Wounded.
They ran his mugshot: a gaunt face, pouches under his eyes, uneven mustache perched over thin lips. He might have been handsome if it wasn’t a mugshot. Just your average good-old-boy, caught up in some State Boys trouble.
“Looks familiar,” Richards said. “’Bucky’?”
“It’s a nickname. Making liquor up in the hills somewhere. It was a big fire—ate up the whole trailer in no time flat. They were still pulling Troopers out of the flames when we showed up to put it out.”
“Yeah, I think a couple of my uncles used to drink his hooch. Real good local stuff, right? So what’s the big deal about ‘shining? Why send the State boys after him? That stuff’s been around for years.”
“Look at the story below the fold.”
Richards pulled the paper up. Below Bucky’s mugshot ran another headline, smaller, but just as crazy.
Mysterious Lights Continue to Harass Local Yokels.
“What is this? UFOs?” Richards asked. A nervous smirk crept up.
“They’ve been seeing them around town for a few weeks.”
“You’re serious,” Richards said, shaking his head. “Government planes, maybe?”
“Probably from the Air Force Base in Niagara Falls,” Michael said, accepting his fourth beer with a smile. “Or maybe the Calspan contracting facility in Ashford.”
“Meteor showers,” the waitress said, setting down a saucer plate full of steaming chicken wings. “Google it.” She shot them a knowing look, all arched eyebrows and pursed lips. She returned to the bar.
The smell of butter and Frank’s hot sauce cleared Richards’ sinus cavity and set his stomach to growling. Steam rose up from the wings, fresh from the fryer. He decided to read the article while they cooled.
MYSTERIOUS LIGHTS CONTINUE TO HARASS LOCAL YOKELS
by Hailey Lovering
IRISH HILL ROAD—The continued presence of strange, unidentified lights in the sky in and around the town of Ellicottville has locals baffled.
“They just hovered over my neighbor’s garage for about 10 minutes, then we set off some fireworks at ’em, and they just flew straight up into the sky,” Martha Walters, a resident of Irish Hill Road, said. “Big, red, glowing balls.”
Daniel Yocum, A town worker for the village of West Valley, claimed to have been chased along Route 240 from Ashford Junction to Beaver Meadows Road by a mysterious object.
“Looked like a pair of skeleton hands, floating above the trees,” Yocum told reporters. “Floated on out of the treetops, hovered over my vehicle. Made the headlights go crazy. Then I heard the voice of Satan himself come over the radio, telling me to ‘actualize my inner self,’ whatever that means. Do you know what that means?”
The State Troopers stationed at the barracks in Machias failed to return our phone calls on the issue. It is presumed that their manpower is tied up pursuing known moonshiner and suspected cop killer Larry “Bucky” Green on a manhunt that has dragged on into its second week.
Local conspiracy theorist and Cattaraugus County Sheriff Cecil Kotto was more than willing to provide a rambling statement on the recent phenomena, tying the lights to industrial pollution, climate change, the Nation of Islam, the local chapter of The Order of the Night Moose, and the Green Party headquarters in Olean, just to name a few …
“Wait,” Richard said, setting down the paper. “Cecil Kotto? Sheriff Cecil Kotto?”
“You remember him, huh?” Michael said, smiling. “I thought you’d think that was crazy.”
“He’s the sheriff,” Richards said, not believing the words on the page. “When the hell did that happen? How did that happen?”
“Right after you went off for training, what, a year ago? Two years ago?”
“Year and a half.”
“Right. So there’s this big State District Attorney investigation into the Cattaraugus County Sheriff’s Department. Turns out, Sheriff Gifford and most of his deputies were involved in a meth ring. Taking a cut from the local producers, charging them for letting their shipments pass through on up to Buffalo and down to Olean. The scandal wiped out most of the department.”
“But Cecil? We went to high school with him. He was a few years ahead of us, right? Guy was a loner. A weirdo.”
“Graduated early, too, if you remember,” Michael said. “So you got the whole Sheriff’s Department going to jail or resigning. The governor steps in, deploys more State Troopers to take over the County, including the jails. We had a special election. Nobody wanted the job—and anybody who did was probably in jail or under indictment anyway.
“Cecil gets it in his head he’ll run for sheriff. He got a lot of backing early on, out-of-state money poured into his campaign.”
“I’m confused,” Richards said. “Why would anyone want to support a local weirdo for sheriff, especially if they are from out of state?”
“Kotto’s Kreepies,” Michael said with a wide smile. “You have been out of the loop, haven’t you Abe?”
“It’s an AM radio show,” Michael said, giggling. “Airs every weeknight at midnight on Cattaraugus County Public Access Radio. CCPAR. But the local dumbasses call it ‘The Critter,’ God knows why. The show got real popular right before the scandal. Fans started uploading the broadcasts to YouTube and iTunes, so it got some national exposure in the underground. It’s a call-in program. People share stories about Bigfoot and aliens. That sort of craziness. Then he does a 20 minute rant about secret societies and conspiracy theories. Oh, and he also does movie reviews from time to time.”
“Secret societies, in Ellicottville?”
“The Order of the Night Moose, for one,” he said.
“That’s just a charity thing, right? They wear little funny hats and drive little cars in parades. I think my uncle was a member.”
“Ringknockers, sure. But who knows what really goes on behind closed doors, right?”
“Cecil Kotto started a radio show,” Richards said. “I can’t believe it.”
“And it got him elected sheriff. The ‘freak vote,’ they called it. People here, they were just fed up with the system. Why not hand the reins to the crank who thinks the Loch Ness monster is floating around Lake Erie? He couldn’t do any worse than Gifford.”
“I don’t believe this.”
“Listen to the show next chance you get,” Michael said. “It’s entertaining. Even if he is completely crazy. But it doesn’t end there. About a year ago—maybe less—we had a string of murders around the county. Real weird stuff—victims were all slashed up, but their blood was drained out.”
“Yeah, that sounds familiar,” Richards said. “Did Kotto catch the guy doing it?”
“Not quite,” Michael said. “He got in a shootout with some people he said were wearing surgical masks and doctor’s scrubs. He said they were driving around in a plain white conversion van, running people off the road and taking their blood. Him and his deputy got on TV and tried to sue the Red Cross, saying they were behind the murders.”
“I didn’t hear that,” Richards said.
“No, I don’t suppose you would,” Michael said. “The story didn’t get much traction. But that’s the guy who’s our local law enforcement now. The guy who accused the Red Cross of serial murders.” Michael shook his head and raised his glass. “Ain’t that a rip? Welcome home to the land of the free, home of the weird.”
The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre by Jonathan Raab is published by Literati Press Comics & Novels. It is available on Amazon for Kindle and paperback, and signed copies are available directly from Muzzleland Press.