In the Dark of the Grove
Hello everyone, and welcome to this month’s Short Fiction Burst. Usually I present a piece of short fiction here. But this month I have something a little special for you. That’s because my horror novel, In the Dark of the Grove, has been released from Gurt Dog Press!
That’s right, it’s October 29, 2021—the day is finally here! To celebrate, I’ll be reading a couple chapters from the book. For more info on how to order your copy (ebook or physical) you can go to my website: jonwesleyhuff.com
In The Dark of the Grove
by Jon Wesley Huff
Dying ended up being more difficult than Herb Thomas had anticipated. He’d assumed the build-up to it would be the worst part. The drive to Silver Cove had been an uncomfortable mix of familiar and foreign. He hadn’t been up this way in nearly a decade. The once charming lakeside town had taken on a commercialized feel, with tall condos now partially blocking the view of Lake Michigan. He drove into the familiar parking lot of Silver Cove Beach, though he preferred the free parking along the roads of the quaint downtown. His wife, however, had always insisted on paying to park in this lot, since it was closer to the beach. She could spend twelve hours working in the fields, but she hated walking on sand. He smiled at the memory of her and their son, Kyle, running as fast as they could to the shoreline and the cool wet sand that awaited. The smile didn’t last long.
Herb’s wife had been gone a long time now, and he hadn’t seen his son in fifteen years. This time, he parked in the lot because he wanted his car to be easy to find. He snuffed his cigarette out into an overflowing ashtray—the result of picking the bad habit up again in the two years he’d been planning all of this. The build-up to this moment had been hard. The uncertainty of whether this was an act of bravery or cowardice plagued him. He never thought of himself as a brave man. Even the book, the greatest act of bravery he’d ever managed, was masked in illusion and art. He looked at the passenger seat, where his comp copy of Dunbar’s Grove sat. His last book, and his most important one.
Herb thought of his life. He thought of the series of mistakes and blunders that had left him with a family he hadn’t wanted, and finally to this moment. Why was it that now—just as he was ready for it to be over—it suddenly felt precious? One last time he allowed his mind to wander. What if he’d told his father he wasn’t going to take over the farm? What if he’d been able to write full time, instead of at night, when it rained, or when the fields were dead and frosted over? He put those thoughts away, as he slid Dunbar’s Grove into his jacket. It was long past time for that sort of daydreaming.
He mentally went over every detail again, craving the solace of knowing he’d done everything he could do. The agony of the last two years of planninghad left him utterly exhausted. He’d spent so many sleepless nights trying to figure out how to get his message across, but in a way that they wouldn’t know what he’d done. This kind of exhaustion wasn’t cured by even days of sleep. This kind of exhaustion crept straight to the bone and then rested heavy like a lead weight. He was only alive because his death would draw too much attention, given the talk that had started to swirl around the book. But his suicide? That would be a nice bow wrapped around everything. They’d put their guard down, at least at first.
The fact this entire plan hinged on someone—who had every reason to hate him—piecing together clues that were designed to be vague at best didn’t fill him with much confidence. That was, of course, assuming Kyle even bothered to return home. There was always the chance his son could leave it to the lawyers, and Herb wouldn’t have blamed him.
All of this, however, was just a prelude to the annoyance of dying itself. He walked a half hour down the shoreline, away from the lights of the condos. Here there were just a smattering of lake houses. The last of the sunlight disappeared as the dusty amber of the horizon faded to gray. At last, he came to a stretch where all of the houses were dark, and the calls of the gulls faint in the distance. Hopefully that meant he’d have privacy. The last thing he needed was some well-meaning witness trying to stop him. He walked out into the lake, but its waves battered him away as though he were an infection it wanted rid of. His annoyance turned to rage as he kicked his legs and thrashed his arms to get further away from the shore. How had anyone ever managed to drown themselves? He had a memory—from a movie or a book, he couldn’t remember which—of someone weighing themselves down before walking into the water. That would have been smart. For all his planning, he hadn’t really thought this part would be so difficult. With one last, determined surge of power, he dove further into the murky depths of the lake. Finally, the undertow took him.
This death wasn’t like he’d imagined it would be. It was no gentle descent into oblivion’s embrace. He choked and sputtered. His body rebelled against his intentions, tried to claw back to the surface of the water and back towards life. Even as he whirled in confusion and terror in the lake’s depths, he cursed himself. He cursed himself—ever the writer—for trying to write his own ending. His last thought was of the cruelty of reality. A world he could not control. Full of people with their own thoughts and desires. Narratives he could not weave.
It was a perfect summer day, and Kyle Thomas resented the hell out of it. He rolled his window down, and the perfect sweetness of fresh-cut grass stewing in sunshine washed over him. It mixed with the more earthy scent of the sweetcorn, standing proud (if a little stunted, thanks to the lack of rain) and ready for harvest. The late afternoon sun washed everything in a slightly golden haze and caused the crops to cast long dark shadows that stretched over the newly cut road-side grass and onto the mottled surface of the road. The effect was dream-like and nostalgia-inducing.
It reminded Kyle of the summer drives he and his mom used to take in the country. Sometimes they had a destination, and sometimes they didn't. Sometimes it was just a reason to get out, listen to some music, and collect some of the wild grasses from the side of the road. His mom used the grasses to create fragile bouquets to decorate their home. Bouquets that would inevitably be destroyed by his dad’s fumbling.
This was exactly what Kyle wanted to avoid. The false comfort of sunlit days only made the harsh reality of what came after more painful. He was coming back to the town he had grown up in—he refused to think of it as home—in protest. He was the last Thomas. The last in a long line that stretched back to the town’s founding. He passed a low sign made of polished stone that read: Essen, Indiana, Population: 4,500. And underneath this: A Good Place to Live. He could see the faint outline of white spray paint—the last remnants of some sort of graffiti that’d been scrubbed away—and found this strangely reassuring. When he was young, a wooden welcome sign had been posted here. The kids in town had frequently made a game out of vandalizing it in new and creative ways. He was glad to see this small act of rebellion had continued.
Other than some soulless new housing developments on the outskirts of town, Essen, Indiana, looked unchanged even after all these years. The twin towers of the Baker Farm's grain silos still glimmered weakly in the sunlight as he entered town along Mills Road. The road curved past a small industrial park that used to house a microwave popcorn manufacturer, an aluminum siding plant, and a tool and die shop. All those businesses were gone now, but new tenants occupied the buildings. The general shape of it was the same, with only the signs having changed. This gave way to the stretches of tree-shaded houses that lined the streets in a ring around downtown.
In the darkest part of Kyle’s heart, he’d hoped Essen, Indiana might be a sad ruin. A meth-riddled shell of its former glory. But there were still kids playing at Faraday Park. Outside of Kessinger’s Grocery, two older women parked their carts—primarily there to hold their gigantic purses—side by side as they gabbled. They stopped to gape at the unfamiliar car that passed them by. Everything was much as he remembered it. The roles were the same. Only the actors had changed.
Kyle turned right before he reached downtown and headed toward the East side of town. The 'newer' shops were out this way, lining Mint Run Street before it wound over the bridge and out of town. He was sad to see Perry's General Store was gone and had been replaced by a generic dollar store. Perry's was his favorite haunt as a kid. He'd gotten his first cassettes in the Radio Shack housed within the building. This was where Kyle had bought the fabric to make a pillow in his home economics class. Where he’d seen his first men’s workout magazine, and realized that the muscular man in the purple speedo intrigued him in ways he didn’t understand. This was also where he’d purchased (and, yes, sometimes stolen) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figures and a vast array of comic books.
As he turned into the pot-hole riddled parking lot of the AllCare Insurance office, Kyle shook the memories away. He didn’t want to dwell on the fact that most of his fondest memories of Essen were in that store. It was too sad a thought, and he wanted to be in a decent mood for what came next. He stepped out of his car and stretched his back. It’d been a five-hour drive, and he hadn’t bothered to stop at any of the rest areas along the way.
The insurance office was a modest little brick building with a glass front. Through the glass, he could see a young woman—barely out of high school—sitting at the front desk, staring intently at a laptop. She had dark lipstick, the curve of her right ear was covered in small earrings from top to bottom, and her blonde hair was dyed shades of blue and pink on the ends. Behind her were three posters, all of which looked a little faded, touting the benefits of going with AllCare for your insurance needs. In his youth, the building had been a local video rental place. There were still holes bored into the brick where a neon sign had once flashed “video” in brilliant purple letters at passersby.
"You actually did it," said a deep rumbling voice the instant Kyle walked into the office. Kyle was startled for a moment, before realizing the sound was coming from a hallway to his right. At the far end of it, he saw Max Williams walking down the hall. “You actually came back.”
“Hey, I’m as surprised as you are,” Kyle said. “It’s weird.”
“It’ll be fine. Essen has changed a little since you’ve been gone.”
“Has it, though? I think I saw the Thompson sisters outside of Kessinger’s. They were giving me the stink eye. It certainly felt like old times.”
“You’re always gonna have assholes,” said Max. “And old biddies who act like they’re the town’s watchdogs. On the bright side, if you get any weird looks this time, it won’t be because you’re the town’s resident homo.”
The young woman at the front desk cleared her throat loudly, although she didn’t look away from her work. Kyle noticed, next to her computer, was a dog-eared script for some sort of play, heavy with highlights and notes in its margins.
“Homosexual, I mean,” corrected Max. He paused a moment, his brown eyes narrowing, before turning to the young woman at the desk. “That better, Lissie?”
“Somehow, not when you say it,” Lissie murmured to her computer screen.
“It’s okay. Max kicked more than a few asses back in high school defending this ‘homo,’” Kyle said. Lissie looked dubious but shrugged her shoulders.
“Asses that you’d rather have done other things to, if I remember correctly.”
“The pretty ones were always the cruelest.”
“Speaking of pretty, look at you! It’s like you lost half of you,” said Max.
“The gays are merciless,” Kyle joked. Max cocked his head to the side quizzically. Kyle tried to fill in the blanks. “I couldn’t get laid. It was good motivation to get in shape.”
At this, Max grinned and nodded his head in understanding. It was a cute way of summing up a dark period in his life. But that’s what you did when you caught up with someone you hadn’t seen in over a decade. No one wanted to hear your life story. Not really.
Standing next to the man again, Kyle was struck by how unlikely their friendship might have been anywhere butEssen. Max was a popular football player. Not the star quarterback or anything, but he was well-liked, and there were few institutions more beloved in Essen than football. Max had been part of the team that took Essen to state for the fourth time in its history. But he was still a black kid in a town where you could count the number of families of color on your fingers. His family had been the only black family in town when Kyle was growing up. Their shared outsider status helped sustain their friendship in the beginning.
“Well, that’s why I’ve got my sexy ‘dad bod.’ Getting laid these days requires way less effort,” said Max, proudly slapping the paunch around his waist.
“You in a play?” Kyle asked Lissie, hoping to change the subject.
“Nah, I do the lighting. Local community theater. It’s going to be terrible,” Lissie said.
“This is why we don’t let you sell the insurance,” Max groaned.
“I mean, the lighting will be good?” This elicited a groan from Max, which seemed to please Lissie. Kyle couldn’t help but smirk.
“Come on, let’s shoot the shit in my office away from the studio audience.”
Kyle followed Max back into his office. It was a reasonably tidy place, with a white wooden desk with silver legs he recognized from a trip to IKEA a few years ago. An older model MacBook was connected to an octopus of wiring that linked it to a mess of various peripheral devices. The plush black leather chair Max settled into felt out of place in comparison—a relic from a different age. As Kyle seated himself in an uncomfortable clear plastic chair across from Max's desk, he noticed the many framed photographs surrounding the AllCare logo painted on the center of the wall.
“Still amazed you didn’t end up with Betty Clark,” Kyle remarked. Max’s expression darkened.
“Well, Betty died a couple years after high school,” said Max.
“Oh man. Sorry.” Kyle felt a churn in his stomach.
"It's okay. It was a long time ago. We’d split up by then. She went off to Purdue, and I was stuck here. So that didn't last long. A drunk driver t-boned her car while she was driving home for Spring Break.”
“Yeah. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I was broken up about it at the time. But life keeps chugging along for the rest of us.” Max got up and took one of the portraits off the wall. “And eventually I met Heather.” He and Heather were grasping each other and staring into the camera lens. They both had high-wattage smiles that showed off their incredibly white teeth. Nestled between them was a little girl with brown skin, kinky reddish-brown hair, and freckles. Kyle was terrible at guessing children’s ages, but he was thinking she looked four or five. Heather Williams was skinny and tall—a few inches taller than Max. She had pale skin, freckles to match her daughter, and curly red hair gathered up on top of her head.
“A kid too?” asked Kyle. “So respectable.”
“Yep, that’s Azura. Although this is an old pic. She’s nine now and insisting we call her ‘Zee.’”
“That’s kinda cool." Kyle looked closer at the picture. Zee had her father's grin.
“Maybe,” Max said. “But we try to give kids these interesting names to make up for the fact we’re all called Sam and Joe and John, and they go off and decide what they want to be called anyway.”
“You sound like an old man.”
“Speaking of old men. Your dad’s last book…”
“Yeah.” Kyle tried to slump back in his chair, but the sound of straining plastic caused him to sit upright again. “You read it?”
“No. Not a ton of extra time, to be honest. But I think everyone else in town’s read it. Once people figured out the town in the book was a thinly disguised version of Essen, and… well, you know the rest.”
“Dunbar’s Grove by Herbert Thomas,” Kyle said, holding out an imaginary book as if reading its title. “About a grove, next to a lake, outside of a small town in northern Indiana. Doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together, I guess.”
“Want to know something funny? I live out at the Lake of the Grove now,” said Max. Kyle shot him a confused look.
“I thought you were doing okay. I mean, it looks—”
"No, no, I'm doing fine," said Max with a laugh. "In fact, I’ve got some opportunities coming up that might get me up the ladder. But Lake of the Grove isn't like when we were kids. They've cleaned it all up. They figured out people with money want to live by water, so the old guard got bought out or pushed out."
“People want to live by that old swamp?”
“They cleaned that up too. I mean, it’s still murky with tons of algae lining the bottom, but you can swim in it. Even take out a paddle boat. You should come by sometime while you’re in town,” suggested Max.
“Sounds fun,” Kyle said absently. It was strange to think of the lake that adjoined The Grove as some destination for the well-to-do of Essen. The town had always had money. The school was a testament to that. Even though the town was tiny, it boasted a first-class football field, Olympic-sized pool, computer labs with the latest equipment, and other amenities schools in much larger cities didn’t have. But when Kyle lived in Essen, most of the people with money lived in the large old houses on the brick-paved roads around Faraday Park. Eventually they started migrating to one of the many new housing additions popping up on the edges of town.
A kid he knew at school, Justin Miller, moved into one of the sprawling McMansions with his family. Kids at school got wind of the fact that only three of the rooms in the house were actually furnished because the family couldn’t afford any more right away. The teasing that followed was merciless.
The Lake of the Grove, in contrast, had been surrounded by trailer homes. Home-made docks of plywood and two-by-fours dotted the slushy green waters. You were more likely to find trash floating in the lake than you were people. The local kids did build tire swings and hung them from the branches of the tall trees surrounding the lake. But the fun there was the thrill of danger should you fall into the murky, stagnant water. The Grove itself was technically separated from the Lake by a country road, but they were basically part of the same stand of trees. Both were surrounded by farmland. The reason the farmers of decades past left the trees around the lake was understandable. But why they left The Grove had always been more of a mystery.
When he was twelve, Kyle had read an article about it in the paper. In fact, that article was part of what had inspired him to become an investigative journalist. It mentioned there was an old forgotten graveyard there, but even the earliest dates on the stones were after the land was cleared for farming. So, the cemetery wasn't the reason The Grove was left standing. Most of the old stones were pushed over or smashed by the delinquents who’d frequented The Grove since the 60s. That was what The Grove was most known for when Kyle was growing up. It was where teenagers snuck off to go drink, smoke pot, make out, and even have full on sex. There had been whisperings that Lane Bradford and half the football team ran a train on Gale Phillips out there. Max, his lone source for football team gossip back in the day, said he didn't see anything like that happen, but he'd left early because of his parents’ strict curfew—which was probably for the best, since Gale ended up getting pregnant and there was no small amount of scandal surrounding the whole affair.
Now, The Grove cultivated a new sort of infamy, all thanks to his father’s final book.
“You said in your email you were coming to sort out the property?” Max asked. “Are you—I’m not sure how to put this—you thinking about looking into the stuff in the book? Whether it’s true or not?”
"No. I mean, it’s not true, right? It can’t be," Kyle said. Looking further into everything the book had churned up had crossed his mind, but he’d been ambivalent at best about the prospect. "You know I wasn’t my dad’s biggest fan. And I hadn’t seen either of them in twelve years. But even I can't imagine him doing that."
Max nodded and stared off into the distance thoughtfully for a moment.
"For what it's worth. I didn’t think so either," said Max. Kyle nodded because it did make him feel happier to have someone else confirm his gut feeling.
“Look, I don’t want to keep you too long. We can catch up later," said Kyle.
“Want to grab a drink? The office closes in a few minutes.”
"I'll take a raincheck. I definitely plan on seeing whatever fancy house you've set yourself up in. But it was a long drive, and I want to take a shower."
“How long you think you’ll be in town?” inquired Max as Kyle got up out of the uncomfortable chair. “I’ll ask Heather night would be good for us to have you over.”
"Not sure. Probably a couple weeks. Maybe less," he said.
And so, they began the long Midwestern ritual of parting. Max told him that was plenty of time to get in a couple visits. He mentioned the town fair was coming up, too, if Kyle stayed around long enough. Kyle nodded his head, but was getting more and more tired, and was trying to leave as quickly as was polite.
It was at least another five minutes before he’d been able to leave Max's office and was in the short corridor heading toward the exit. Enough time had passed that the sign on the door was turned to 'closed' and Lissie was packing up her script, books, notebook, and multi-colored gel pens into a small black backpack adorned with a variety of buttons and pins. She was so engrossed in her packing that Kyle felt awkward interrupting her to say goodbye. But as he opened the door, Lissie spoke. As before, she did not look at him but kept her focus on her task.
“I listened to your podcast. It was pretty good,” she said.
“Ah, so you’re the one,” joked Kyle, worrying it sounded more bitter than funny. He’d spent a year researching and making the podcast, and barely anyone had listened to it. It was the beginning and end of his podcast career.
“I like that you made the girl an actual human,” said Lissie. “People either make the victims saints or treat them like they’re basically a prop in the killer’s story. You going to do another one?”
"Thanks. That… that means a lot to me," Kyle said. "But I mostly keep to shorter-term investigative pieces for magazines or sites now."
“You’re not going to do one on your dad? And his book?” Lissie surprised Kyle by finally looking directly at him. She had shockingly aqua-colored irises. Kyle realized they were contacts, but they gave her gaze an effectively eerie quality. She was hard to read because of them, but here was a hint of genuine concern at the corner of her eyes.
“I guess I’m going to get that question a lot,” said Kyle, shifting uncomfortably. “But, no. I’m here to figure out what to do with the farm. That’s it.”
“Good.” Lissie said it so emphatically, Kyle couldn't help his face scrunching up in confusion. Her face softened, and for the first time, the steely confidence the young woman radiated faltered. "If you do decide to look into it, don’t tell anyone. Word travels fast around here and people are being really weird about it."
A cold tingle started midway up Kyle's spine. It crawled slowly up his back and made the hairs on his neck stand on end. Was it her eyes? The tone of her voice? He couldn’t be certain why he felt so unsettled. He gave her a quick, awkward nod and stepped out of the door and into the warm summer night. A shiver pulsed through him. As he got into his car, he scolded himself for letting Lissie get to him. She reminded him of a lot of the theater kids he’d known in high school, even if the look had changed since then. Theater kids were just dramatic, right? With that thought, he pushed the strange mood away.
And that is the end of the selection from In the Dark of the Grove. The small town of Essen, Indiana has secrets. And soon, Kyle is going to be pulled into them, whether he wants to be or not. If you’re looking for some small-town horror from a queer author (like myself) I invite you to discover the dark heart of America’s heartland. Thank you, and until next time.
Text and Audio: In the Dark of the Grove is ©2021 Jon Wesley Huff.
Music: Lightless Dawn by Kevin MacLeod