I’m telling this story because I’m the only one who is able to tell it now. You’ll have to forgive me because I actually wasn’t there for all of it. Some of it I heard about afterwards, or caught bits and pieces of conversation in order to put it together. But I was there for the meat of it – the terrible, rotten meat of it. Please understand that I take no joy in recounting these events. I’d sooner forget them, in fact. I must tell you my tale, however, because I believe it’s the only way I can reconcile myself to what occurred. Frankly, I wouldn’t believe it if the tale were told by you rather than experienced by me. I’d call you a liar. Delusional. And so I must accept that you might think the same of me. Please do me a favor, though, and suspend your belief until I have concluded. Call me mad if you wish after I’ve finished; but, as I’ve told you, I’m telling the story more for me than for you.
It was a crisp, bright October morning. The air still had a slightly burnt smell to it from the weekend’s backyard leaf and underbrush burnings. Those burnings were rarer now, due to the drought. The thing about droughts, though, they don’t just affect the trees and land – they creep through your body and make you feel dried out, somehow. Still, the Jack O’Lanterns sat on porches and dried corn hung from doors. The symbols representing harvest lay prominent, and thus any fear of shriveling away was replaced by the promise of fulfillment to come.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Thanksgiving represents abundance, and before we reach that blessed November tradition, we first have to reconcile with death. Death demands that we pay him his due respect before we gorge ourselves on being alive. Halloween is the homage we must pay to Death, the eternal darkness, before we understand the true value of “reap what you sow.” Thanksgiving and harvest are meaningless without the prelude of emptiness. I say this only because I’ve come to understand it quite clearly as of late.
My friends, they didn’t use to understand the cycle of light and dark either. And so when they sat in class that cool October morning, they were as yet innocent to life’s complexity. At sixteen year of age, they thought they knew it all, of course. They sat in their group of four – Sonny, Jerritt, Melissa, and Alice – whispering and laughing while the teacher delivered the day’s instructions.
“Remember, class,” Mrs. Mumphry said, “your journalism project is a collaboration. Each member of the group must do an equal share. The photographer is just as important as the editor. The copy-writer is equally important as the blog manager. I’m going to let you use the rest of the class time to assign each other roles and plan your projects. Turn in a topic and plan by the end of class. Any questions?”
“Can we do anything? I mean, if I wanted to do something about sports, I can do that?” Eric asked.
“Yes, any topic is okay. Just remember two things: your whole group has to agree on the topic, and in order for it to be a relevant topic for Journalism, there has to be newsworthiness and an element of controversy,” Mrs. Mumphry said.
“Aw. So Sports isn’t really a good subject,” Eric said with a fallen face.
“Sure it is. But this isn’t just covering the High School homecoming game. You have to dig a little deeper. For example, head injuries. You could look into the debate about proper safety and medical attention with regards to concussions,” Mrs. Mumphry suggested. “Class, this project – and the reason why I’m letting you work in groups – is meant for you to dig a little deeper. Start with a controversy, or a big question, then go investigate as if you were Ida Tarbell.”
“Huh?” “Who?” “What?” The class rumbled.
“Never mind,” Mrs. Mumphry said with a sigh, “Just get started and I’ll come around to see how you’re all doing.”
“Alright, guys, who has an idea?” Alice asked.
“I like that football thing,” Sonny said.
“No way do I want to investigate football. Besides, you can’t use the teacher’s example – that’s so cheap,” Melissa said.
“What about brain eating amoeba?” Jerritt offered.
“Where’s the controversy there?” Alice asked.
“Well, some people say there’s a government conspiracy behind it,” Jerritt said.
“I’m not doing conspiracy theory crap,” Melissa objected.
“Conspiracy is controversy, isn’t it?” Jerritt asked rhetorically. “Do you have a better idea, Miss Naysayer?”
“Yeah, I might have something. You all know my dad is a cop, right? Well, last night he was telling my mom about a case recently where human remains were discovered in a burned out car. They haven’t ID’d the victim yet."
“So, you want us to ID a burnt body?” Sonny asked.
“No,” Melissa continued, “not in a forensic kind of way. But it might be interesting to do some detective work.”
“How can we find a killer if we don’t know who the victim is?” Alice asked.
“We can’t. That’s why it’s a stupid idea,” Jerritt said.
“Actually, I’m not even interested in finding the killer… necessarily,” Melissa said.
“Then what the hell are you talking about?” Sonny asked, crossing his arms.
“It’s where the body was discovered that interests me. For the last five years, someone has died in that exact spot at that exact time.”
“Where, exactly, are we talking about?”
“The base of Gods Pocket Peak, just south of Jarbidge.”
“Holy shit,” Alice remarked.
“That’s what I’m saying. Our story is about the place – you see that now, don’t you?” Melissa asked.
They remained silent for a few minutes, processing the information. Everyone knew about Jarbidge. It was all but a ghost town located in Nevada’s northeast corner, a stone’s throw from the Idaho border. Jarbidge was about as remote as you could get, with no paved roads within twenty miles of the place. Back roads and unimproved routes were the only way to get to the town, and even those were closed half the year due to heavy snowfall. It’s only claim to fame was that gold was discovered in the Jarbidge Mountains around 1909, making it a Johnny-Come-Lately to the gold rush game. Legend has it that there was still gold hidden in those hills. The gold brought almost 2,000 by 1911, but now the sleepy town was home to only about 180 souls.
“Jesus,” Jerritt said, lifting a brow. “I didn’t know anything ever happened up there. And now you’re telling me five people have died there routinely over the past five years? Why doesn’t anyone talk about that?”
“That’s exactly what I’m trying to do now,” Melissa said. “I don’t know why it isn’t discussed. And I don’t know if the dead people discovered there were murdered or died in freak, uncanny accidents…”
“Like Final Destination shit, huh?” Sonny interrupted.
Melissa rolled her eyes at him. “As I was saying, “I think our project should be about this anomaly happening just an hour north of us.”
“I hate to say it, but that sounds pretty damn interesting,” Jerritt said.
They decided Jarbidge was a worthy topic and began planning their investigation. They would interview Melissa’s dad to see what the official police line was, and they’d inquire why the local paper and radio stations didn’t cover the deaths. With those preliminaries aside, they’d go on a camping trip near Gods Pocket Peak and see what they could learn there. Finally, they’d talk to the town folk of Jarbidge to see if they could provide any puzzle pieces. It was a good plan. Nothing could go wrong, and their teacher would certainly be impressed.
Melissa’s dad seemed a bit hesitant to discuss the matter.
“Honey, I really didn’t mean for you to overhear my discussion with your mother about the case. I was just venting,” he said.
“Dad, come on, just let us interview you. You’re an important part of our project!”
“We could make you an anonymous source,” Alice offered.
“Anonymous, sure. But anyone who sees my daughter’s name on that blog of yours will put two and two together,” he objected.
At the time, they didn’t find it curious that Officer Reynolds should fear anyone outside of their class reading the project blog.
“Look, we can make the blog accessible only to the school’s intranet. No one from the public will be able to access it,” Jerritt said.
“Would that hurt your grade?”
“Not at all. Mrs. Mumphry is not worried about how many readers we get – she just wants us to practice the genre.”
“Then couldn’t you practice with another topic?”
“Dad, come on!” Melissa started to sound like a whiney toddler.
“Sir, please?” Alice asked. “We don’t really have time to come up with another project. We’re on a tight deadline.”
Officer Reynolds quietly considered for a few moments. The teens couldn’t really tell what the issue was; they supposed it was just that a police officer wasn’t supposed to say much about an open investigation. They were half right.
“Okay, I’ll answer what I can,” he finally agreed.
“Great. Okay, sir,” Jerritt, the interviewer, began. “Has the body been identified?”
“Not yet, but they are close.”
“Was it a murder?”
“What about the other four cases?”
“What other four cases?”
“Dad! You were just talking about it last night. Be honest!”
“Look, kids, off the record here – Yes, there are four other cases very similar to this. The Sergeant, for whatever reasons, insists these cases not be explicitly connected. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“No,” said Sonny, flatly.
“He’s saying they are convincingly connected, but he doesn’t have the clearance to say as much. Am I right, Mr. Reynolds?” Alice asked.
“Exactly. Are we done here, kids?”
“One last question,” said Jerritt, “did you find anything at the scene that seemed odd?”
“Odder than a burnt body in the middle of nowhere and no missing persons report in a town of only 182 people?”
“Yes, I found something odd.”
“Son, are you my goddamn echo?”
“No, sir. I’m just listening.”
“I found a page, a piece of paper. It seemed to be out of a book, but there wasn’t a title or any other information on it. That wasn’t all that was odd. It had a drawing on it that I found…well, for lack of a better word, creepy.”
“What was the drawing of, sir?”
“It was more of an outline, I’d say. It was sort of like a man caught in a fire. Not really many details. The eyes of the man…I don’t know how…they were just evil. I’m not describing it well. The picture just seemed to emit darkness. I don’t know how else to tell you.”
“Do you have it?”
“Nope. It’s in the evidence file. Now, we really have to be done here.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you sir,” they said.
Talking to Melissa’s dad was only enough to whet their appetites. The local news outlets proved worthless. The television station manager wouldn’t return their phone calls and the radio station manager was completely uninterested in the story. He said radio news was more about an entertaining deejay personality than the content actually provided. Therefore, he said, the deejays reported mainly on sports and entertainment with a tad bit of local goings-on. A few accidental deaths in a “shit-hole” (those were his words) an hour away was not news to his audience.
Melissa’s dad needed a little convincing in order to let her go camping with the group over the weekend in Jarbidge. Jerritt’s parents gave pause, but decided it would be fine. Sonny’s parents didn’t seem to care an iota. Alice’s mom would be working all weekend, so she decided that what Mamma Helen didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. All of the parents were probably fairly at ease with the trip because the teens had all known each other since pre-school. That sort of familiarity was also laced with naiveté.
Luckily, snowfalls had not yet occurred that season, so the roads were clear and safe. They were sure to bring two separate tents for boys and girls, and plenty of equipment, food, water, cell-phone charging options, and cold-weather gear. In the high desert, the temperature could drop thirty degrees in no time. They drove the 60 or so miles to their destination, found a suitable camping spot near the base of Gods Pocket Peak, then set up their camp.
“We should find someone in town to interview tonight,” Jerritt said.
“I don’t know. The sun is already setting. Don’t you think we should just stay close to camp for tonight and go to town tomorrow?” Alice asked.
“We don’t have a lot of time and we’ll be spending most of tomorrow just looking around this canyon. We should at least try to fit in an interview or two,” Jerritt insisted.
“The ladies can stay here and the men can go to town,” Sonny suggested.
“No way. I think we should stick together,” said Melissa.
Jerritt and Sonny convinced the girls it would be a short trip to town. When they got there, no one was outside and the only business open was the local bar, The Red Dog Saloon.
“No way are they going to let us in there!” Melissa remarked.
“Will you quit being such a pussy?” Sonny said, “I don’t think there are a lot of cops in this town – you won’t get in trouble.”
“Come on, Melissa, let’s just get this over with,” Alice said, grabbing Melissa’s arm.
When they walked into the saloon, a few heads turned, but no one seemed too bothered by their presence. A thick smoke hung in the air, and the patrons all looked as though they grew out of their barstools like saplings. A stuffed mountain lion perched in the corner, ingloriously covered in years of dust. The ‘It’s Miller Time!’ clock and Spuds McKenzie mirror attested to a by-gone glory day.
“Alright, Jerritt. Who do you want to interview? How about that fine young chap yonder?” Melissa said, pointing to a very old man who was gumming some peanuts unsuccessfully.
A younger man, about mid-thirties, walked past them and went outside.
“Him! Come on!” Jerritt said.
They followed the man out the door. He sat in a white plastic seat and lit up a cigarette.
“Why don’t you smoke inside? Everyone else does.”
“Melissa!,” Alice said. “You’ll have to forgive her, as manners are not her strong point. I’m Alice, and this is Jerritt and Sonny. Melissa, of course, you now know, too.”
“You’re big. Are you a football player?” The stranger asked Sonny.
“Yes, sir. I’m the tight end for Elko High.”
The man didn’t say anything for a minute. He just sized up each of the teens in turn. Then he leaned back and took another drag from his Camel Light.
“I smoke outside because I like the fresh air,” he finally said.
“You realize that’s ironic, don’t you?”
“Melissa, will you shut the hell up?” Alice said, punching her in the arm.
“What do you all want?” The stranger asked.
“Sir, we don’t mean to bother you, but do you mind if we ask you a few questions about some stuff that’s been happening around here?” Jerritt asked, his voice a little higher pitched than usual.
“Ain’t nothing been happening around here. That’s how we like it.”
“Well, I mean, about the body the Elko County Police found last week – the one in the burnt car?”
“What about it?”
“That’s something, isn’t it?”
“It’s something, aright.”
“What I mean is, can you tell me anything about it? Like, do you know who it might be or what might’ve happened?”
“If I did, why would I tell a bunch of kids from out of town?”
“Sir, we’re just trying to get an ‘A’ in Journalism – that’s all it is. We’re not trying to do anything more than our school work,” Alice said.
“A school project, eh?”
“Well, my…” Melissa started to speak, but Alice punched her again much harder. “Ow, fucker!” Melissa whined.
“No police. Just homework,” Alice said.
“Well, I might know something then,” he said, taking another slow drag. “I reckon you know what Jarbidge means, don’t you? No? It’s Shoshone for ‘Evil Mountain’. Those Indians won’t even go near these mountains. The fishing is great. The hunting is great, but still, you couldn’t drag one of those indians to these mountains. They believe with all their little red hearts that this is an evil place.”
The teens were perfectly still listening to the man. Every time he paused and took a drag felt it like an endless intermittence.
“The evil exists in two forms, according to the Shoshone. Legend has it that a giant demon traps anyone he finds in these mountains, and brings his catch back to his cave, where he cooks and eats them. The Shoshone, in an attempt to reclaim the land at one point started fires in every cave in the mountain range. They hoped they could burn the cannibal alive and be rid of him forever.”
“Did it work?” Sonny asked.
“Well, to this day they still won’t go into the mountains – haven’t you been listening, boy?”
“What’s the other form of evil?” Jerritt asked.
“Kids, have you ever seen anything bad, I mean really bad? Well, once you do, it scars your soul. It changes you. Let’s say the Shoshone did kill the cannibal. Do you think that would’ve put them at peace, knowing they burned someone alive? Or worse yet, what if they burned him, but he didn’t die? What if they heard blood-curdling screams of pain and the cannibal lived through the ordeal?”
“Shit.” Sonny said, looing at the ground.
“Shit is right. A demon is certainly evil, but witnessing extreme pain and knowing you had something to do with that – well, it’s like a little piece of you splinters off and can’t get find its way out of the darkness.”
“You mean Hell?”
“If you’d like. Now, please excuse me. I owe Tommy in there a shot of tequila and a re-match of darts. Have yourselves a goodnight.” The stranger went back inside and left the teens standing very still on the front porch of the saloon.
“We better get back to camp.” Jerritt finally broke the silence.
It was very dark by the time they found their way back. The only saving grace was the star light and brilliant moon, both of which were more exaggerated in the mountains. When they got back to camp, they found a piece of paper pinned to one of the tents. It had a picture of a man burning in a fire.
The girls were too frightened to sleep by themselves, so they all squished into the boys’ tent.
“Do you think that guy is just messing with us?” Sonny asked.
“Doubtful. He couldn’t have beaten us back here, and he didn’t know where we were camped out, anyway,” said Alice.
“But he could’ve followed us.” Sonny said.
“Dumbass, if he followed us, he wouldn’t have been able to put the page on the tent before we got here,” Melissa said.
“Don’t you think it’s weird he never told us his name?” Jerritt asked.
“The guy was definitely strange.”
“Still,” continued Melissa, “he couldn’t have put that page there, so who did? And why?”
“Maybe we can look for some clues tomorrow.”
“What kind of clues, Sherlock?”
“Footprints or something, I don’t know.”
“Well, there’s not much we can do about it tonight.”
“I’m going to have trouble sleeping – I’m pretty creeped out still,” Alice said.
“Maybe this will help you sleep?” Sonny pulled a bottle of whiskey out of his duffle bag.
“Where did you get that?”
“Paid that bum who hangs out in the Albertson’s parking lot to go in and buy it for me. Want a pull?”
They took turns taking sips out of the bottle. Each time they took a sip, they involuntarily made a face like they just bit a cactus. All of them wanted their senses a little blunted that night. They spent the rest of the evening talking about goings-on at school and whether or not Sonny should break up with his girlfriend. Every two weeks he said he was going to break up with her, but he never did. Sonny was the type of guy who acted tougher, dumber, and less sensitive than he actually was. He was the complete opposite of Jerritt, who was so secure in his own intelligence and place in the world that it often annoyed his friends. Melissa was always in competition with Jerritt over grades and attention. Alice was the creative one.
They all fell asleep sometime around two in the morning, but they would not be asleep for long.
“What was that?” Melissa yelped.
“I heard it, too.” Jerritt whispered.
“What, you guys?” Sonny said.
“Leaves crunched – like someone was walking out there,” said Melissa.
“No way you just heard that, whiskey breath,” Sonny remarked.
“There was a loud cracking sound first – that woke me. Then, the leaves.”
“What kind of cracking sound?”
“Like a stick breaking, or a snap from a fire, or a soft thunder.”
“A soft thunder, are you serious right now?” Sonny said, screwing his face up in disbelief.
“I don’t know, you jerk! I just heard something.”
“I did, too,” said Alice.
“Someone should go look outside,” Melissa suggested.
“Hell no! You go!”
“I’ll go,” Sonny said with a sigh.
Sonny unzipped the tent and slowly stuck his head outside. He glanced around, listening intently, before finally getting all the way out of the tent. The others heard him walking around the tent for a few minutes. They heard his footsteps start to go father away, and then they heard him scream. It wasn’t the sort of roar that he had during a football game. Nor was it the boyish screech he had on carnival rides. No, this was the sort of scream one utters only once in a lifetime.
The others scrambled out of the tent as fast as possible. Jerritt grabbed the axe from the back of the Jeep and they ran towards the source of the scream. When they got there, they saw a dark figure that seemed to consume Sonny. Sonny was a large guy, but the shadow figure eclipsed even him. It was too dark to really tell what was happening; all they knew was that the dark figure was causing Sonny excruciating pain. Jerritt began swinging the axe and the girls, trying to save their friend, leapt toward the figure with all their might.
That was when I ran. I ran as fast as I could into town and over to the saloon, but it was closed. The whole time, I couldn’t help but feel really guilty. I hadn’t heard anyone outside until the kids were already outside of the tent and screaming in terror. If I had seen him, I could have pounced on him – scratched, bitten, done something! I could have at least barked to warn them that someone was out there. But at my age, my sleep is deeper and my hearing is not what it used to be.
Racked with guilt, I barked as I had never barked before outside the first house I came to in Jarbidge. A middle-aged woman took ages to answer the door. She saw my tag and thought I must be lost.
“Calm down, Sweetheart,” she said. “We’ll call your owner right now. What does this tag say? Oh, you’re name is Rudy. Well, Rudy, the phone is…yes, hello? My name is Sandy O’Grady and I believe I’ve found your dog.”
I heard some confusion and such back and forth between the two of them, but I just wanted him to hurry up and get here before his daughter - my best friend – was lost to us forever.
When he finally arrived, he picked me up and we drove immediately to where Melissa told him we were camping. The sun was starting to come up by now, and you could see the blood glistening on the rocks and the aspens. The tents were shredded. Dan Reynolds fell to his knees. On the ground right in front of him was a picture of a man in a fire, eyes as evil as the Devil himself.
I am now familiar with the type of guilt the stranger foretold. Guilt will chew you up inside, as though your very organism was imploding upon the weight of its ineptitude. Why didn’t I wake up? Why didn’t I bark? They’re not dead, you know. Each one was burned and bloody, but still alive. Alive…if you could call it that. They’ve been in a mental hospital for several weeks now. The psychiatrist tries to help, but they keep responding in the same way: making drawing after drawing of demons in fires. Some say it really was the stranger in town pulling a vicious, criminal trick on the teens. There is no real evidence to make that case, however. Others swear up and down that Jarbidge is truly an evil place, and that no one should be in those woods. If you ask me, I think something was lurking up on those mountains. A homicidal maniac, a cannibalistic demon, the shadow of extreme guilt – it could have been any of these things. All I know is that there’s evil in Gods Pocket.