Only one name remained.
“You know anything about this Mr. Bernard Tollerson fellow?” Cathy chewed at the end of the pen. It had started out pristine this morning.
“Uh, he’s Scandinavian?” I asked, smiling.
Cathy wrinkled her nose. “Duh.”
Mr. Tollerson’s house sat way back from Miller Road. A rutted gravel drive and an overgrown yard full of foot-high dandelions indicated the guy must be old or negligent.
“Would you do this one?” Cathy peaked her eyebrows and bit her lower lip. The lower whites of her eyes glowed like a puppy dog’s.
“No. I did the last three.”
One would think that counties, even rural ones like Larson County, could figure out a better way to keep their records up to date. Door to door checking, after arduous phone polling, fell onto the shoulders of the summer interns. The half-map, half-records register was mandated by the state to be kept three-years current.
Tollerson’s residence hadn’t been checked for six.
“Fine,” Cathy said flatly. “But don’t stand so far back this time.”
She breezed past. Not even five hours of Kansas heat could fully vanquish that clean, twenty-something girl smell of soap and cheap shampoo. She behaved like a tomboy but her waist-tied blue checkered shirt and round-hip jeans belied the truth. Fact of the matter was, I didn’t get enough time walking behind her.
She looked over her shoulder as we meandered the drive, her golden spirals tumbling as she spoke, “Closer please. This place is the creepiest one so far.”
Decayed trash and sun-faded beer cans dotted the ground beneath pine trees that surrounded the house. Every pane of glass on the eight or so windows was cracked or puckered with holes. The ratty, screened-in porch wouldn’t have kept out a flock of sparrow much less mosquitos. Cathy started up the wooden stairs, skipping the rotted first.
“Stand right behind me, OK?”
As soon as Cathy pulled open the screen door, the inner door to the house swung wide and a pair of pale, nearly albino children, maybe five to seven, stepped to the threshold. Long haired, barefoot and naked from the waist up, their androgynous appearance disguised their gender. They stood there, silent.
The smell that wafted from inside boiled in the hot, stagnant air. Sweet and pungent like strong cheese with an undercurrent of ammonia and vanilla, no, more like rotting meat, the odor flared my nostrils.
Cathy took one step back down. “Um, hi there. Is Mr. Tollerson home?”
The blue-eyed zombie children just stared. Then another joined them, taller, maybe twelve, same complexion, same absent stare, but clothed in an Aerosmith t-shirt and ragged cut-offs. Twelve turned and called into the house. “M’Beth, come now. Strangers come to take Jig and Twee again.”
“What? No, no. We just… Can we talk to your parents?”
The one called M’Beth arrived, her angelic features more animated but just as distantly hostile. “Wha’d you want?”
“Your uh, your parents? A parent?” Cathy stumbled back, missing that decaying step. “We’re just here doin’ a count. Does Mr. Tollerson still live here?”
I caught Cathy’s waist as she stumbled, steadying her then standing protectively at her side. Around the corner of the faded red house, around the disconnected drainpipe leaning out into space, yet another white-haired child materialized. This one’s age appeared to be somewhere between Jig-Twee’s and Twelve, a tape-handled shovel in the boy’s hands. He leveled it, spread his legs and stared.
“Cathy, I think it’s time to go.”
“But, we haven’t…”
“Tollerson’s our granddaddy, gone. He’s gone to the store.” M’Beth sauntered forward and hung on the screen door jam. Her eyes drilled into mine like she was deciding which cooking method might render me tastiest. When Cathy spoke, the girl, maybe fourteen going on twice that, sneered, showing fangs.
“Excellent,” Cathy responded, her clipboard out, gnarled pen at the ready. “Can you tell us how many people live here now?”
M’Beth looked back my way. “Tell her ain’t none of her business. We’re done here.” The girl pulled her yellow t-shirt tight around her waist, crossed her legs and cocked her hip. “But if you wanna come around later, mister…”
Cathy grimaced, grabbed my arm and spun me around. “Thank you for your time. That’s all we need.” She towed me down the gravel road, casting furtive glances back at the squadron of angels who’d gathered to gawk.
When we reached the blacktop she ceremoniously scratched the last name off the list and said, “That was fun. I could use a beer.” Then she turned and placed her wrist on my shoulder. “Unless of course you have plans to go back up there.” She poked her pen toward the house.
“Tempting. But, beer is good.”
She swatted me with the clipboard. “How many do you think?”
I took the pen and clipboard and stashed them in my satchel. “Occupants? All I saw were ghosts.”
“Ghosts? Angels?” Cathy smiled and hooked my arm as we walked up Miller Road. “Demons, more like.”