When Old River Bend turnpike was widened and renamed route fifteen, Dennis Kratch was the first to scoop up the re-zoned cheap lots, expanding his land-clearing business. He erected giant metal garages to store his growing collection of grapple trucks, skid steers, stump grinders, and chainsaws. Everything was stenciled with his logo, from the largest truck to the smallest gas can. His wife was thrilled to have a front yard again, and his daughter could sleep-in without the crack-of-dawn rumble of diesel engines. He won the contract to clear the way for every lot on route fifteen, except for one – a dense wooded parcel between him and the church. A few old codgers were holding out selling, and some land was tied up in probate, which Dennis assumed was the case with this one. Business was good, but could always be better, and he wanted that lot.
Dennis started right out of high school with nothing more than a sharp axe and a pull-behind trailer, going house to house after storms, offering to take away fallen limbs and dangling widow-makers. He was skinny but strong, the first to the top of the climbing rope in gym, using those skills to scamper up hundred-foot-tall trees with nothing more than a flip line. Looking back, he’s amazed he didn’t kill himself; there were plenty of near-misses. Over time he hired a team of trained arborists, with worker’s comp, and loads of insurance should anything go wrong.
Working late in his office over the garage, a faint light shone in the woods. He thought it was a bon fire set by bored teenagers looking for a hiding place to drink and smoke pot. Dennis would know, he was once one of them. It wasn’t a fire, but the light from a house hidden behind bushy hemlocks and white pines, the light flickering like a flame from the swaying trees in the blustering autumn wind. Curious, Dennis asked the old timers at the gas station about the house. They told him crazy Emmaline Bell lived there, that she chased the developers away with a loaded twenty-gage, and Father Glowacki from the church was the only one brave enough to visit.
Weeks later, driving his dually pickup, he saw Emmaline Bell checking her mail. He hit the brakes at the sight of her so close to the road, fishtailing on the snow-slick surface. She looked about eighty, and didn’t notice she was almost killed, shuffling back down the long driveway that was not much more than a cart path. It wasn’t until a nor’easter blew that winter, he met her. A towering, needle-heavy white pine uprooted in her yard and toppled onto Dennis’ lot, crushing the front end of his plow truck. He would need to address it with her for insurance purposes, but his crew had storm damaged trees to clean up for his customers. The power didn’t return for three days.
The listed phone number didn’t work, which he assumed was due to the storm, so he took a stroll to her house. The moment he stepped on her property; it was as if he entered a jungle. Thick ropes of invasive bittersweet and poison ivy hung like stringy, unwashed hair, strangling the forest around the house. Dead wood laid everywhere, some from the natural aging of trees, some from disease as seen by the patches of red, swollen pustules on the beech’s bark. Dennis stepped on, then over, a white oak, the girth wider than he could wrap his arms around, and at six-three, he had an impressive wingspan. This meant the old woman had not left since the storm, and he could not imagine her hurdling over the fallen tree.
The house itself was a green cape, the roof moss-covered and lichen-eaten. There were screw holes where gutters were once affixed, and Dennis could tell by the rotted fascia boards, they had been missing for a very long time. The uneven brick path was slick with a silken mat of orange pine needles. The storm door yawned wide, bent from the strong winds. As he approached, he smelled something burning, like the horrible odor of burning hair he remembered as a child when his sister left the curling iron in too long. Dennis pounded the door and the whole house rattled.
“Hello?” he yelled through the single-pane glass in the door. He turned the knob and it opened, but was blocked on the other side. “Hello?” he yelled through the crack, pushing against it, but to no use. “Something is burning, is anyone in there?” He ran to the back of the house, leaping over toppled chairs, and large fragments of pottery on what was once a patio. He didn’t knock, instead burst through the rear door and frightened old Emmaline Bell in her bathrobe.
“Get out!” she yowled like an old cat. “Get out!” She beat Dennis with a magazine she grabbed from a stack piled high on a wicker chair.
“Something is burning!” he put up his arms in defense of the flapping pages, hitting him with the force of a summer breeze. She stopped.
“Oh, I’m making clam chowder,” Emmaline said, as if just remembering, and padded into the kitchen. Dennis followed, sniffing the air for the source of the smell. A small pot of soup bubbled, balanced on a three-legged camp stove on the counter. A knit sweater hung from a hook, the sleeve draped over the flame, glowing orange and shrinking back as it burned. Dennis pulled the sweater away and stamped out the burnt edge to a black powder. Emmaline stirred the pot unaware of the sweater or the smell.
It’s no wonder she didn’t notice, the house reeked of mold and must, like the heady decay of fallen leaves outside. Every inch of wall was covered in hooks of brass and iron, an old-timer’s solution to save themselves from bending over. They held blankets, cast iron pans, a flashlight on a string, and plastic bags overloaded with chocolate Yodels and batteries. One kitchen cabinet was missing, exposing the line where peeling floral wallpaper and drywall met. The hardwood creaked under Dennis’ weight, and he worried he’d fall through to the basement, shivering at the thought of what that space looked like compared to up here. A mouse scurried from one dark room to the other.
“I’ve ruined my chowder,” Emmaline said, frowning.
“Miss Bell,” Dennis said, “I’m Dennis Kratch, I own the business next door-”
“I know, I know,” she waved a hand and poured what was edible of the milky-gray substance into a ceramic bowl, then scraped the burnt skin on the bottom of the pot into an over-filled trash bin with a glop. “I hear your trucks start up in the morning. Rumble, rumble, they go!”
“Yes, there are a lot of trucks. Um,” he wanted to broach the topic of the fallen tree, but by the look of things, couldn’t imagine she had insurance. “Can I buy you lunch?” She didn’t look like she’d eaten a proper meal in years.
“Lunch? Oh no,” she looked down at her bare feet, her toenails long and black, “I’m not properly dressed.”
“Please, I insist. There’s a tree down across your driveway, I’m going to have it cleared, and call the power company.”
“To have them reconnect the line.”
“There’s no problem with my line,” she said. “I just don’t have the money to pay them. Forty-seven dollars a month they wanted to charge me! Can you believe that?”
Dennis peered out a grimy window and saw she was right; the power line was still connected to the house. “How long have you been without power, Miss Bell?”
“Stop that nonsense, call me Emmaline.”
While Emmaline and Dennis ate in the nearby diner, his crew chopped up the white oak blocking the driveway and the pine. They returned the next day to tackle vines and threatening limbs.
“They’re like monkeys!” Emmaline said as she watched the men swing from tree to tree. She clapped when their chainsaws revved to a high-pitched whine, followed by the heavy thud of a tree limb hitting the forest floor.
Emmaline had the innocence of a little girl, and reminded Dennis of his own daughter when she was young. Emmaline was born here, educated in the one-room school house that became a charming historic site, and was sheltered by her father, who left her with little understanding of the changing world. The local kids called her “the witch”, and dared each other to go near her hovel in the woods. According to Dennis’ daughter, no one has made it past the mailbox.
Over the next several months, Dennis took Emmaline’s mail down the long driveway and bought her groceries (she was especially fond of Lunchables). The camp stove was replaced by a George Forman grill, with automatic shut-off, but he encouraged her not to cook as much as possible. Heat and electricity were restored through a “town program” Dennis said, but he was footing the meager bill, a fraction of what he paid at his house and the garage. There was evidence of Father Glowacki’s visits from his shoeprints on the driveway, first in snow, then in the mud as winter diminished. He didn’t seem to do anything for her, at least not to Dennis.
One spring day, Dennis spied someone walking down Emmaline’s driveway. He dropped what he was doing and marched over to evict the suspected solicitor – the realtors were getting brave again. When he came around back, Father Glowacki was sitting at the little patio table with Emmaline, a six-pack of Pepsi between them. She didn’t need more sugar in her diet, devouring an entire sleeve of Oreos that Dennis had to ration.
“Hello Dennis,” Father Glowacki said, offering Dennis a soda. He turned it down.
“What do we owe the pleasure, Father?” Dennis was wary of the man’s intentions, long-robed clerical vestments or not. He heard the church was looking for land for a nursery school, and Emmaline’s was the perfect location.
“Father brought me this!” Emmaline held up an easter basket brimming with chocolate eggs in metallic pink, and a blue bunny.
“I was just asking Emmaline if she’d like to join us for Sunday prayers. There are muffins and juice before we start.” Emmaline smiled with delight at the thought of muffins. Dennis maintained his stony stare. “It’s set then!” Father patted the tops of his thighs and stood, “I will see you on Sunday.”
When Father Glowacki left, Dennis took his seat and rifled through the Easter basket. Emmaline had devoured half the contents.
“He’s so nice,” Emmaline said, rubbing the soft bunny against her cheek.
“I don’t trust him,” Dennis said.
“Dennis!” Emmaline scolded.
“He is from the church,” Dennis replied with a grunt.
It was Father Glowacki’s fault Emmaline became used to people again, being amongst the church-goers each week. As the weather warmed, slick realtors and salesmen swarmed like summer mosquitos. They persuaded her that she needed a new roof, new windows, and solar panels, though not one spec of sun light penetrated the woods. Financing was easy to pay for it all! Each time, Dennis came over, tore up anything she signed, and ran them off the property.
Dennis’ wife thought he was doing too much, his daughter was teased about it at school, and the old timers at the gas station didn’t understand what he got out of helping crazy Emmaline Bell. “Maybe she’ll include me in her will,” he said, and was met with raucous laughter. Father Glowacki continued to bring Emmaline candy, cookies, and toys meant for kindergarteners. When Dennis took her to her annual checkup, the doctor told him Emmaline’s blood sugar was surging to dangerous levels.
Dennis paid Father Glowacki a visit, “This isn’t what she needs,” he deposited a handful of candy wrappers on the Father’s desk. “She needs nutritious food, companionship…mouse traps, goddamn it!”
“You are in the house of the lord!” Father Glowacki said.
“House of the lord, my ass. Where have you been while I’ve been taking care of her? You’re next door,” Dennis pointed in the direction of Emmaline’s house.
“Calm down, Dennis. We help many in need.”
Dennis walked over the bookshelf and ran his thick finger over the spine of a Bible. “I don’t want you going there anymore.”
“That’s not up to you, that’s up to Emmaline.”
Dennis laughed out loud, “I know what you’re doing, it’s called bribery.”
“Perhaps you should look at your own actions. If I may quote from Ephesians: their evil intentions will be exposed when the light shines on them.”
Dennis shook his head and left in a huff.
In August, the trees around Emmaline’s house were thick with cicadas, drowning out the comings and goings of Dennis’ trucks next door. He affixed screens to the windows to let in fresh air, and tacked up cheap gutters to slow the progressing decay of the house. He would do more, for Emmaline and the house, but they were too far gone. He was running out of time.
Each bag of treats Dennis confiscated, another appeared. Father Glowacki didn’t heed Dennis’ warning, picking his way through the woods to avoid walking down Emmaline’s driveway. Emmaline stopped attending church, because her weight ballooned, putting pressure on her eighty-year-old arthritic knees, and she was tired, often not waking until she heard the slapping of the screen door when Dennis came by.
“This is your doing,” Dennis slammed a prescription on Father Glowacki’s desk. “She was perfectly healthy before you came along, and now she has a urinary tract infection.”
Father Glowacki leaned back in his leather tufted chair, hands folded; “I don’t know what you want me to do about it, Dennis. I’m just providing happiness to a woman who doesn’t have much.”
“You’re killing her. And you’re doing it on purpose.”
“We are cut from the same cloth, if you will. We both want the same thing.”
“We are not the same,” Dennis’ voice lowered.
Father Glowacki shifted in his chair, “What’s the plan? Build another ugly garage, litter it will all sorts of gas guzzling machines? A nursery school would be far more appropriate.”
Dennis’s fist clenched at his side. He could knock Father Glowacki out with one hit, maybe even kill him. A man of God or not, Dennis wouldn’t care. “I am not willing to kill her for it.”
“You joke about getting in her will, but you’re serious, aren’t you? You are waiting for payback for all your help, but you’re running out of time, Dennis!” He chuckled.
Dennis leaned forward on Father Glowacki’s desk, hands planted firm, “If I see you at Emmaline’s-”
Father Glowacki put up his hand, “Threatening a priest never looks good, Dennis.”
That night, Dennis worked late in his office above the garage, and caught up on paperwork pushed to the wayside taking Emmaline to doctors’ appointments. At one a.m. he called it quits. On his way out, a gas can was missing. He’d ask one of the guys about it tomorrow.
His wife was sound asleep, but he couldn’t join her; his body hummed with anger at Father Glowacki. He checked on his daughter, who was growing into a woman, but asleep, looked like a little girl. He leaned down to kiss her temple, but the vision of her sweet, peaceful face was tainted by the smell of cigarettes in her hair.
At two a.m. Dennis heard sirens. Not unusual in summer when police chased down drunk teenagers doing donuts in the town baseball fields, or lighting bonfires in the woods. More vehicles joined the growing chorus and he identified the blast of a fire engine’s horn. At two-fifteen his cell phone vibrated; “Boss, there’s a fire…it’s Emmaline’s house.” Dennis pulled on sweatpants and sped down route fifteen.
When he arrived, billowing smoke glowed orange. Fire trucks sprayed from hoses with the effect of a child’s water pistol on the combusting old house and dry tinder. Police cars blocked the road. Dennis got out of his truck to continue on foot, and was stopped by the Police Chief, a stenciled gas can in his hand.
“Dennis Kratch, you’re under arrest.”
Alexis Kelleher earned my Bachelor of Arts in English with a Certificate of Concentration in Creative Writing from the University of Connecticut and was a panelist for the University’s literary publication Long River Review. She lives in Connecticut and is working on her first novel.