Yeager Ridge reared up like an earthwork battlement guarding the valley that ascended northward from the Ohio River. The former wetlands below were the source of the Mill Creek which flowed through the heart of Cincinnati to the river. The stretch of Interstate 75 that passed through this valley was, in fact, named the Mill Creek Expressway. This had once been fertile farmland growing the corn Ohio was renowned for, but by 2010 nearly all the farms were gone, replaced by housing developments, most of which weren't faring well since the recent burst of the real estate bubble.
On a warm summer morning a young woman jogged through such a neighborhood near the bottom of Yeager Ridge. She passed brick ranch houses, solid and unimaginative and nearly identical, that were built to last. Each was a reasonable three-bedroom of approximately 1500 square feet - no wasted space. An attached garage, when there was one, for one car. Set on a long narrow lot designed to accommodate its original septic system. A simpler home for a simpler people built at a simpler time, when a house was a place to rest, living was done elsewhere. Towering oaks attested to the neighborhood's age which dated to the post-World War Two years of the late 1940's. Wires were strewn crazily across the sky. No sidewalks or cement curbs; merely slight gravel shoulders and shallow ditches. Mailboxes jutted out of the ground at odd angles at the ends of cracked and crumbling driveways. Many houses were empty, with flower beds overgrown, grass and weeds knee-high, roofs blue-tarped, and blank empty windows. Far too many 'For Sale' signs were faded and leaning as if they had been out way too long.
Hester, in her late-twenties, was too full-bodied to appear athletic, although clad in loose knee-length gym shorts, a baggy jersey with a heavy tee shirt underneath, and serious running shoes, she tried her best to. Inserted ear buds were visible since her shoulder-length black hair was pulled back out of her way into a pony tail. Her only jewelry was the mp3 player strapped to her arm. She ran with a long easy stride, looking like she had been at it for a while and could be at it quite a while longer. She had the road, the entire neighborhood it seemed, to herself - no cars, no other pedestrians, no one out in their yards.
Her face was set in a grimace. Her physical exertions didn't seem to be the cause of this since her body moved so gracefully. Something deeper crafted the somber expression. This run was bringing her no joy.
Loping onto Lynview, Hester heard what sounded like a gunshot. She stopped and yanked her ear buds out. Looking all about in apprehension, she saw no one. But she was surrounded by empty houses that could shelter a shooter. She searched the dark windows and overgrown shrubs of this half-deserted desolate street for any stealthy movement or glint of a barrel.
Hester was standing in the middle of the street looking all around when she heard a car race up from behind. She jumped to the side as the car, driven by a woman, whipped by her. Hester stared after the sub-compact until it skidded around the corner and accelerated from view. Had that woman been the gunman? Hester had only glimpsed the driver, but she hadn't looked familiar. Had a total stranger tried to shoot her then run her down? But the car had swerved at the last instant. As if the woman had meant to frighten Hester, not harm her. And Hester had not seen a gun. So as her sprinting heart slowed to a jog she resumed her search for a shooter.
Hester spied two children in a front yard further down the street. A younger boy and an older girl played baseball. As she resumed jogging and drew closer, their appearance seemed odd. The boy, who was batting, was short and slight with an old-fashioned flat-top haircut of red stubble. He was dressed in black pegged jeans and a white tee shirt. The girl, who was pitching, was dressed in a blue jumper over a long-sleeve white blouse. She was large and heavy, with long brown hair styled in soft waves and rolled bangs about her plain thick face.
There was a crack of the bat as the boy connected with the girl's pitch. The ball bulleted directly at Hester. She dropped to the pavement. The ball rocketed over her prone body. Hester looked back to see the baseball roll away down the middle of the street. Then she looked to the children. But the boy and girl were gone.
Hester rose and brushed herself off. Both knees were skinned, but she was otherwise unhurt. Had that been what she had heard? Not a gunshot, but the crack of a wooden baseball bat? Her ears had been plugged with music, so maybe. She limped to the yard where the two children had been. The front lawn was overgrown and the house was dark and dilapidated. There was blue tarp over a section of the roof. She stared long and hard at the empty house. The tall grass was untrampled. No one had walked across that front yard for a while, let alone played baseball in it.
Hester looked behind her. The ball had come to rest at the end of a driveway several houses distant. She resumed her run, slower than before and with a slight limp. But she didn’t reinsert her ear buds. If people were shooting at her and trying to run her over with a car and hitting baseballs at her, she wanted to hear clearly. She cast a final glance over her shoulder at the house. Still lifeless, still no sign of the two children. Hester jogged on.
That evening at dusk, Hester sat alone at a large patio table on a sprawling wooden deck overlooking a huge in-ground swimming pool. Although the pool occupied nearly all of the back yard of the quarter-acre lot, the water didn't appear inviting. Leaves and other flotsam were adrift, and not a whiff of chlorine in the air. At the foot of the steps coming down from the deck to the near end of the stagnant pool was an elaborate brass sun dial set in a large cement base. A disconcerting statue of a nude hermaphrodite, an erotic amalgam of both sexes, adorned the timepiece. Planted in the ground on two sides of the deck were several varieties of tomato plants. Attached to the back of the deck was a large two-story home, newer and in much better condition than the smaller older houses Hester had jogged past earlier that day. Along the perimeter of the back yard was a seven foot privacy fence.
Hester had changed out of her athletic garb into colorless baggy shorts and top. Her grim face hadn't changed at all. Her black hair, released from its pony tail, hung carelessly about her shoulders. The skinned knees had been cleaned and treated. As she sipped a glass of wine, a large elaborate woven candle burned on the round glass table she was seated at.
A compact lithe redhead in her early thirties walked up onto the deck. Chanti was clad in bright tight short shorts and a brilliant top so flimsy her bright red nipples blazed through. She set a shoe box down on the table as she sat. Glancing at Hester's legs, she asked, "How'd you hurt your knees?"
"Dodging a baseball."
"Did you yell at them?"
"Never had the chance. They ran off."
"I would have yelled at their parents."
"I didn't see their parents. The house they were playing at looked empty."
Chanti smiled. "Are you sure it was empty?"
"They weren't ghosts, Chanti. That ball sounded solid. I'm sure it would have hurt if it hit me."
"There are so many empty houses now."
"And none of them are haunted, I'm sure."
Chanti turned her attention to the candle. "Are you burning this just for me? Or do you really like it?"
"It was a nice house-warming gift. I've been saving it for the right occasion." The flame was low, and wax pooled around the wick.
Chanti tipped the candle to allow the melted wax to run down the side. The flame bloomed. She stared in fascination at the renewed shaft of fire, ignoring the wax that ran down onto her finger.
"Doesn't that burn?" Hester asked.
"No. The wax isn't hot enough by the time it's run down that far." Chanti lifted the candle and held it an inch above the upturned underside of her forearm. She tipped it, and several drops of wax landed on her florid skin. "That burns."
Hester watched, intrigued. "Do you enjoy that?"
"Fire play? Sometimes. It depends on my mood." Chanti set the candle down and scraped the dried wax from her skin with her fingernail. A red blotch remained where the wax had been.
"And I thought those were freckles all over your body."
Chanti laughed. "They are. Mostly." She opened the shoe box. Inside was an old hand gun. "We found it in our bedroom closet. Hidden under the floor." Chanti picked up the gun. "It's a Walther P38. Clay took it in to a gun shop to have it checked out. The gun dealer said it was manufactured in Germany during World War Two." Chanti waved the gun all around. "It's in good condition. We bought some ammo for it and took it out to shoot. It has a pretty good kick." Chanti reversed the gun and offered the grip to Hester.
Hester shook her head. "I've never touched a gun."
Chanti reversed the gun back. "I wonder how many people it's killed? In the war? Russian, French, English?" She paused for effect. "American?"
The back door opened and two men emerged. Paul led the way. Late thirties, short and insubstantial, he had a pale complexion with no trace of a beard on his soft face. His prematurely thinning and receding blond hair was delicately combed. He was wearing cargo shorts and a golf shirt, with leather sandals on well-manicured feet.
Clay followed. Mid-thirties, big and bulky, his well-hidden musculature was overlaid with flab. Tangled thick brown hair reached his shoulders and heavy stubble adorned his jaw. His large hands were calloused and grease-stained with ragged fingernails embedded with dirt. He wore torn jeans and a shapeless stained tee shirt imprinted with a faded image of a classic car from the fifties, while shod in exhausted cheap sneakers.
Paul carried an open beer and a large remote control helicopter, while Clay followed with an open beer and a remote control. Paul smiled at Chanti as they walked by. "Was the steak that bad?"
"No, Paul." Chanti raised the barrel to her head. "But if my husband wears that shirt one more time I pull the trigger."
Clay scowled at her. "I don't tell you what to wear. What little there is of it."
Hester intervened. "I like your shirt, Clay. Is that the same model you're working on?"
Clay glanced down at his shirt as if not sure what he was wearing. "Yeah. A fifty Chevy."
Paul stopped to stare at the gun. "I hope that's not loaded."
Chanti lowered the gun. "Of course not."
Clay's scowl darkened. "Are you sure?"
Chanti laid the gun down. "I know how to handle a gun."
"Just don't let it handle you," Clay replied as he followed Paul off the deck. He stumbled going down the steps. Dropping the beer and nearly dropping the remote, he caught himself on the sun dial.
Chanti shook her head with disdain as she spoke a loud aside to Hester, "My husband can't even handle three steps."
Clay regained his balance and glared at Chanti, then stepped back from the sun dial to study it. "What the hell is this? A woman with a dick? Or a guy with boobs?"
Continuing on toward the far end of the pool with the helicopter, Paul called back, "Ask Hester. It's hers."
"It's the Greek deity Chaos. The origin of everything and the very first thing that ever existed. The primordial void. From the Void everything else was created. All the Greek gods were descended from Chaos."
Clay looked at Hester with the uncertainty of someone often teased. "Is it like Thor?"
"No, dear," Chianti said, her voice dripping. "That's Norse mythology. She said it was Greek."
"It's Biblical, too," Hester said. " 'And the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.' That's from Genesis."
"Clay hasn't read much of the Bible," Chianti said. "He reads comic books."
"They're graphic novels!"
The roar of the helicopter prohibited further conversation. The women watched as Clay picked up his spilled beer then hurried to join Paul. He had set the helicopter down on the concrete at the far end of the pool. He took the remote from Clay and revved the engine. The helicopter lifted. It flew out over the pool, up over the privacy fence, then on over the rooftop.
"Boys and their toys," Chanti said. She turned her attention to the flickering flame of the candle. While Hester scowled down into the dark water of the swimming pool, where leaves and other detritus had been stirred by the helicopter's passing.
Later that night Hester sat on the edge of her king size bed in her underwear attending to skinned knees. Paul was sitting up in bed in his undershorts reading a picture book on World War Two aircraft. The spacious bedroom they shared was sparsely furnished. The sole personal touch was a framed photo that hung on the wall of Paul and several other men with remote control helicopters. "The sweet one hundreds are starting to turn," Hester remarked as she doctored herself.
Paul turned the page.
"But the big boys aren't doing well." Hester glanced up from her knees.
Paul was immersed in his book.
"The soil is poor. For this having once been a farm."
Despite his immersion, Paul had listened. "This part of Yeager Ridge wasn't farmed much. The main house and other smaller houses of family members were up on the highest ground. And the barns and sheds and other outbuildings. The fields were below. Corn and soy bean fields, mostly."
"Like Yeager Field?" Paul nodded, withdrawing back into his book. "I was down there today. Running."
"No job interviews?"
"Not for weeks. You know that. I've about given up."
Paul turned the page. "The economy will turn. It always does."
"And then we can move?"
Paul emerged from his book with a frown. "Are you so unhappy here?"
"This is Flo's house."
"No it's not. I bought out her share of the equity."
"The house is her design."
"So redesign it. You've certainly got the time."
"Like that hideous pool. I'd much rather have a real back yard. With a lawn and flower beds and a vegetable garden."
"A vegetable garden? You were just complaining how nothing grows here." Paul returned to his book. "Besides, we can't move until the housing market improves. And you find a job. Until then we're stuck here." Hester stood and limped into the master bathroom. "And stay out of Yeager Field," Paul continued. "It's the oldest neighborhood in the community. It was the first part of the Yeager farm to be sold off and developed. It's really gone down since the crash. It's not safe anymore."
"All of Yeager Ridge is going down," Hester said as she rummaged through the medicine cabinet for band-aids. "Even here in Yeager Heights. With so many empty houses."
She heard Paul slap his book shut. "Has Chanti been filling your head with ghost stories again?"
Hester leaned back into the bedroom. He was glaring at her above the closed picture book. "No. I've got my own story now. I saw two today." Paul practically growled as he looked away. "I told Chanti they ran off. But they didn't. They disappeared." Paul tossed his book aside and bolted from the room.
On a dark overcast day Hester, once again athletically-clad, jogged down a narrow street. Lynview was as deserted as before. No one was out in their yards, no one walking down the street, no one driving their cars. And no children were about, including the two she had previously seen.
Hester stopped in front of the empty house where the children had been playing baseball. She stared. Then walked up the short crumbling driveway and across the cracked walkway. Stepped up onto the chipped front porch. Strode up to the bare picture window. Cupped her hands to the dirty glass and peered in. Except for wandering shadows, the room was empty.
Until a shadow loomed up suddenly before her. It resolved into a naked middle-age woman with wild black hair and a face creased with concern. This stoic well-endowed nude raised a gun. Aimed it at Hester.
Hester screamed and leaped back from the window.
The woman fired the gun. The glass shattered.
Hester lost her balance and toppled backwards. Landing on her bed. She was at home. In her bed. In her bedroom. It had been a nightmare. She looked all around the dark room trying to regain her senses, trying to settle her racing mind.
She saw the woman standing in a corner of the room staring at her with a grim expression. Her naked body was rigid with intent. She raised the gun again. Only this time she inserted the barrel into her mouth. Hester recoiled in horror, scooting backwards across the bed. But the woman dissolved into shadows. Hester, on the far edge of the bed, looked crazily about searching for anything else that shouldn't be in her bedroom in the middle of the night.
Until the gunshot! Blood and gore splattered across the wall behind where the woman had been standing. Hester screamed! Then tumbled out of bed. The blood and gore dissolved into shadows and disappeared.
Only then did she notice Paul. He was sleeping fitfully and moaning. She shook him. No response. She rolled him across the bed. He awoke with a start, panting. "You're having a nightmare," Hester said. "We're both having nightmares."
Paul stared defenselessly at her. "I was about to die. I was in a bomber. A gunner. A ball turret gunner. On a bombing run over Germany. Anti-aircraft fire was heavy. We were hit. In flames. Wounded men were screaming all around me. The plane was filling with smoke. We were out of control. Going down."
Hester sat on the edge of the bed next to him. "It's this house. This neighborhood. It's getting worse."
Paul glared at her in utter disgust. "It was just a dream."
She noticed him fingering his right ear. “What’s wrong with your ear?”
“It hurts. Feels like I cut it.” He checked his fingertips, but there was no blood. “It could just be an ear ache.” He clambered up out of bed. "We're not moving."
After Paul staggered out of the bedroom, Hester turned on the bedside light. On the nightstand was the picture book of World War Two aircraft Paul had been reading earlier. She picked it up and leafed through it. She stopped at a photo of a ball turret accompanied by a descriptive paragraph. 'A ball turret was a plexiglass sphere set into the belly of a B-17 or B-24 bomber, and inhabited by two fifty-caliber machine guns and one man. When this gunner tracked with his machine guns a fighter attacking his bomber from below, he revolved with the turret, hunched in his little sphere. The fighters which attacked him were armed with cannon firing explosive shells.'
The picture and paragraph were accompanied by a short poem. 'Death of the Ball Turret Gunner', by Randall Jarrell - "From my mother's sleep I fell into the state/and I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze/six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life/I woke to black flak and the nightmare of fighters/when I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose." Hester closed the book and set it back down.