THERIOPHOBIA: FEAR THE BEAST Part 40
The heat refused to yield to the coming of autumn, the setting sun providing but a minor respite to the crowds gathered in downtown Ironwood. Just like every year, the next-to-last weekend in October marked the culmination of the week-long “Miner Days” commemorating the founding of the town, but this year was the hottest anyone could remember, with humidity so high people felt they could wring water from the night air with their hands. No breeze fluttered the banner strung up between the Ponder General Store and the old State Bank building, sitting untenanted. Yet the number of attendees remained as high as previous years despite the discomfort, and despite the recent unpleasantness. Folks in lower Alabama had learned to live with the heat. And they were already learning to accept the latest chapter in their town’s bloody history, a heritage of Indian massacres and Civil War battles and mining disasters. The people of Ironwood had a long tradition of responding to tragedy with celebration, of laughing through their tears.
They were laughing tonight.
From the stoplight at the junction of Main Street and Highway 63, booths and attractions lined both sides of the downtown area all the way to the railroad tracks. After that, Main Street reverted to County Road 13, meandering out of town to cross the Interstate before reaching the two twin industries to which Ironwood owed its continuing survival. The Lawrence family cornfields came first, culminating at the sprawling cemetery grounds of Providence Baptist Church. Less than a mile from the last headstone was the entrance to the Black Belt Coal Company’s largest mine. More than a few of those interred in the historic graveyard had met their ends down in that mine; more would do so in the future. Yet coal was the town’s heart. As it had taken away, so had the mine given, and the people of Ironwood were not ungrateful.
Traffic had been blocked off for the festival. Vendors sold foodstuffs as varied as cotton candy and funnelcakes, polish sausages and gyros. Fresh lemonade surpassed fountain drinks in popularity, though, had the town not maintained a moratorium against alcohol, it would have been a secondary favorite to beer. In addition to serving food, all imaginable craftworks were displayed, from hand-woven baskets to homemade lye soap. Canned fruit preserves were an annual bestseller, bested only by homemade sorghum.
No one had wanted the festival to be cancelled. For over a century, the citizens of Ironwood had come together to remember their past, to celebrate their lineage. No one wanted a break in that ongoing tradition. But neither could anyone stop talking about the murders. All were thankful to put such an awful business behind them, but it would provide fodder for conversations for years to come. Ironwood had a long memory.
The parade had passed down Main Street, the procession headed by the Volunteer Fire Department’s newest fire truck, polished and primed, lights flashing, the Mayor waving to the crowd from the passenger window. The night’s entertainment had begun with the National Anthem, performed by Ms. Nell Lawrence, a teacher at the elementary school, and would conclude with an Elvis impersonator at 10 PM, with a fireworks display to follow. Just now the stage, located in front of Coleman’s Furniture, was occupied by a string quartet working a set of old Gospel favorites. The crowd clapped along to “I’ll Fly Away” in the glow of the streetlights. Somewhere, a car alarm bleated. Someone shouted a greeting. A child’s balloon burst.
Then, above the mingled noises, rose another sound.
It repeated, louder, closer. One by one, then in groups, people paused to listen. Laughter and conversation died down. The sound came again. A howling. Strident, piercing. Guttural. People exchanged nervous glances, curious stares.
And then, from somewhere down towards the train tracks, someone screamed.
The Beast had arrived for the celebration.
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WAYNE MILLER is the owner and creative director of EVIL CHEEZ PRODUCTIONS (www.evilcheezproductions.blogspot.com, www.facebook.com/evilcheezproductions), specializing in theatrical performances and haunted attractions. He has written, produced and directed (and occasionally acted in) over a dozen plays, most of them in the Horror and Crime genres. His first novel, THE CONFESSIONS OF SAINT CHRISTOPHER: WEREWOLF, is available for purchase at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/734763
MORTUI VELOCES SUNT!