Zeke hadn’t experienced a single visitation since he’d set fire to the house last Saturday. Score. Seven nights of uninterrupted sleep was a record, but adjusting to life in the garage, not so blissful.
The wooden structure listed drunkenly to one side and the rafters were bowed from eight decades of deferred maintenance. From inside it looked more like the skeletal ribcage of a leviathan creature than a place to set-up housekeeping. He’d shifted the rusted solvent dispensers and half-empty paint cans against the far wall but the odors permeated the interior. The shed might be dilapidated but its concrete slab foundation was fifty years younger than the house and it featured superior construction – seeing that it was more than rubble and ashes.
Sputters accompanied the drip of water through the unbleached filter and generated a fragrant steam. Mouth watering, Zeke hovered above the battered percolator he’d bought from the second-hand store and inhaled the moist flavor. The aroma of early morning coffee stimulated him as much as the scent of late night female. Not that he’d had any of that lately.
He scratched at the waistband of his sweats. The garment hung low on lean hips and the frigid air rising up from the floor shriveled his nutsack tight as a walnut. He shivered.
Filling a mug two-thirds with extra strong brew, he scorched his tongue lapping at the hot liquid. The rickety walls offered meager protection from Georgia’s cold winter wind and sent him scooting toward the makeshift bed in the corner. He hadn’t asphyxiated himself with the propane heater. Count that as a plus.
Zeke-the-Arsonist scores two.
Rawlington’s inhabitants thought he was a tub-thumping lunatic and he couldn’t blame the townsfolk. Old-timers knew his family line wasn’t right. Hell, twelve generations back the newly immigrated Hans Holsbrook proved he was batshit loony by settling the wet bottomlands of Jasper County.
Rummaging with one foot until he located his remaining pair of clean socks, Zeke calculated his net worth at less-than-tits. Setting the mug on the bumper of his truck, he slipped them on, then his jeans and stuffed his feet inside sneakers before pulling a sweatshirt over his head. The faded crewneck binding haloed the wrinkled face of the old man only inches away. Zeke yelped and dropped, scrambling onto the scattered sleeping bags and blankets.
“Holy shit Gramps. You scared the piss outta me.” He peered up and his heard thudded. “Ah, fuck me…” The telltale grey glow burned in the old man’s eyes. “Incinerating the house was supposed to break the cycle.”
His grandfather shrugged. “Didn’t work.”
Zeke stabbed an arm through the sweatshirt. “No shit.”
“Get up, you look like an idiot.” His grandfather reversed and approached the folding chairs, sat down as if he still owned a corporeal form.
Zeke eyed his grandfather. Questions spun through his mind. When had the old man died? Yesterday he’d crossed the woods and spent the morning alongside Gramps cutting and quartering fallen trees into stove tinder. The stream, swelled with rainwater, almost stranded him there. He forced the words out. “Your body been found yet?”
Gramps beetled his brows, listened hard and finally shook his head. “Don’t think anyone will. I skidded off the log and got swept away by the water.” His grin became a gap-toothed smirk. “An abundance of rye in the mud,” he pointed at the whiskey bottle and cackled, “I’m fish food now, boyo.”
Retrieving the ceramic cup, Zeke gulped the remains. He refilled, added a shot from the fifth on the shelf, and propped his hip against the washing machine to contemplate his company. “Seen anyone?”
“You mean kin?” The old man crossed one leg atop the other and tilted sideways in the chair. “Nope. They all went up with smoke from the house. There must be something to those old stories after all.”
Grandpa’s focus was increasingly distracted. He wouldn’t linger long before he snapped out for a siesta. The fresh ones took a while to adjust.
“What do you want me to do, Gramps?” Zeke sipped, welcomed the alcohol heat when it jolted through his veins.
“Guess you best call the Sheriff. A wad of cash is stuffed in the wallet pocket of my black suit coat. As the last Holsbrook, it’s yours to spend.” He peered around. “Sakes alive Zeke, move into my house. It’s probably a good idea to compass some distance from the old homestead anyhow.”
Gramps stared up. He wore the same displeased expression every time an overcast sky blocked the sunlight. Zeke estimated only a few minutes more before he winked out. “I’m sorry you pushed on the way you did, Gramps.”
The old man swiveled his face and gazed for a moment without recognition, then the familiar personality slid home and he snickered. “Don’t matter in our case, do it?”
His laugh curved Zeke’s mouth into a smile. One spirit jawing in his ear was an improvement over the hundreds of buzzing whispers prior to burning down the house.
“One thing you need to know, Zeke.” His grandfather’s tone turned urgent. “Don’t let law enforcement nose about the woodshed.” The old man’s attention drifted to the sagging roof. “Under the greenstick is where I planted the corpse.”
Zeke’s lips moved but his vocal cords produced no sound. He coughed and the question tumbled from his mouth in a breathless rush. “What poor bastard is buried out back?”
The old man never blinked. “He arrived late last evening. Wanted to make trouble. Things went south.” Lifting a lazy finger, he pointed in Zeke’s direction. “He’s waiting over there, for you. Apologize for that.”
Breakfast blend slopped on the lid of the dryer as Zeke darted forward. Dread shivered along his spine, raised chill bumps across his biceps. Murder victims were angry and violent, hard to control. “Who’d you do in Gramps?”
His grandfather’s voice was slow, the words sluggish and heavy right before he disappeared. “The unexpected guest.”