Pandemic Files

Welcome to Paradise

The story of the creature had been passed around town in an ongoing, circular fashion ever since Sharon was in preschool, the tale itself as shifty as a four-year-old’s attention span. Once she’d been told the creature stood on its hind legs at six feet tall and ate rotten apples by the ton. Another person claimed it had cat eyes and ran faster than a gazelle. Sharon grew weary when Kate, her best friend since fifth grade, told her she’d seen the thing once; that it had bat wings and hovered over the wheat fields on the outskirts of Marsden—their tiny hometown—swooping down in the middle of the night to capture rabbits and frogs and other small unsuspecting animals roaming the territory. The only consensus Sharon ever got on the matter was the creature could usually be spotted near Wildturn Creek, a mile or so from Mr. Johnson’s farmhouse.

The night Sharon saw the creature though—a few weeks after her nineteenth birthday—it was much, much closer to Mr. Johnson’s farm.

Sure, it could have migrated, but the more likely reason was that only one person had ever actually seen the creature before, everybody else latching on to a story that was too good not to recycle. In which case Sharon was the first to actually glimpse the creature since the tale’s inception.

Whatever the case, up until that point, the creature’s story had gone through the usual stages of children’s folklore, the proportional relationship between growth and belief: each year that Sharon aged was another level of credibility the tale lost. By time she was twelve, it had gone the same route of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

The myth lost all its momentum with her generation once Mr. Johnson’s farm became a local hangout. Mr. Johnson himself was a friendly, young corn farmer who had inherited the land from his father (Mr. Johnson Sr.) when he was in his late twenties. Senior suffered a heart while Junior was on his second tour in Afghanistan, about two years after the Twin Towers dropped. As a result, Mr. Johnson returned from war to find himself the sole proprietor of 40 green acres.

Sharon heard that the junior Mr. Johnson lived and worked alone because times were rough, and he couldn’t afford any help. This was part of the reasoning made by parents around town for why Mr. Johnson allowed nobody to go too far onto his property. Years ago, cotton and wheat had taken over as Texas’ main agricultural income, corn falling by the wayside. Mr. Johnson still brought in enough to support himself, but he otherwise seemed to live a pretty simple, secluded life.

A few of the other kid’s parents had known Mr. Johnson before he was old enough to deserve the title “Mr.” When the children asked questions about him, most of the parents in town just shrugged and said things like “he’s a private man,” and “he’s all alone up there, but it seems to suit him.” Whatever the case, Mr. Johnson didn’t seem to mind the local kids playing football and riding their bikes in his outer fields and, later on, drinking beers and smoking cigarettes with their cars parked at the head of the dirt path that led to his house. They took advantage of this freedom, at first only in the few hours after school before they had to be home. As they grew older though, Sharon and the rest of Marsden’s youth would hang out at Mr. Johnson’s farm well into the night. It was during these late night sessions that Sharon started to feel the draw of the outside world, an inclination that began as a prick of curiosity and grew into a burning need by time she graduated high school.

As the towns’ kids grew, Mr. Johnson remained a constant, smiling his smile whenever he was noticed, giving his little wave and rolling on into the cornfields behind his house. His only rule was that nobody come closer to his house—and the farmland behind it—than the peach tree that sat about a hundred feet inside the gated entrance.

“Not a foot past, or no more fun,” he’d say, with a smile and a wink.

The rule itself gained an enigmatic quality that led to all sorts of discussions about possible consequences. Most of the imagined penalties were terribly bloody and gruesome, creating this invisible line in the grass on Mr. Johnson’s property, one that Marsden’s children could see as clearly as if it were spray painted across the field. This, however, still gave them a 100 foot by half-mile square of land to work with.

Sharon spent countless hours out on that field with Kate and their other friends, night and day, especially during the balmy summer hours. They sat and gossiped with each other and flirted with the boys that ran around hooting and hollering, footballs floating through the air like kites wherever they roamed.

Over the years, because of his kindness and generosity, Mr. Johnson’s image went through an inevitable transformation. Due to the fact that he was so cool about them using his property—coupled with the big, pearly-white grin he flaunted regularly—there was bound to come a day when Sharon and the other girls in town would develop minor crushes on Mr. Johnson. As they reached ages of considerable impression, most of them noticed Mr. Johnson’s perpetual solitude and grew more vocal about their fantasies.

One day during her junior year in high school, Sharon was hanging out on the field with Kate and Ashley, a mutual friend. Sharon lay back on the hood of her car, a dusty ’98 Ford Escort, with Kate lying next to her and Ashley leaning against the front bumper. The trio was one of many iterations of their social circle over the years, having gone through half a dozen since middle school with Kate always remaining home base. Everybody knew everybody in Marsden (it was hard not to in a town where the population was just under a thousand, and fifty percent of that thousand were old people who figured they’d lived their whole lives in Marsden and might as well die there). But Sharon had figured out long ago that knowing everybody did not equal liking them.

The three girls stared longingly at Mr. Johnson’s house, the lights in the windows flickering steadily. He liked candles, they knew. They knew a lot about him by then. Like how it was lights out at eleven every night, without fail, awake at 6 am. They’d discovered this last part after one evening of drunken giggling kept them out until sunrise, at which point Mr. Johnson had come rumbling up the path in his dusty pickup truck, smiling and waving at them as usual. Heads had rolled at Sharon’s house that morning, her parents strict Baptists who believed a lady’s place at 6 am was not out in the streets.

The girls also knew that Mr. Johnson harvested his corn every three months, and on those days—when he came down the gravel driveway leading from his house with the cabin of his pickup filled to the brim—he’d always hand them a few ears. Everybody in town knew Mr. Johnson’s corn was, by far, the best sweet corn in all of West Texas. When the girls were able to keep his attention for more than a second and ask him how he did it, he’d chuckle and say, simply, that he was glad they enjoyed it.

The list of facts the girls knew about Mr. Johnson seemed nearly endless, and made him all the more endearing: how he wore red more than any other color; how he cut his hair once every two weeks (apparently himself); how the smell of fertilizer didn’t stick to him the way it did to other people’s dads who worked out on the corporate cotton farms over in Littlefield. Maybe because he didn’t use any, the girls pondered. Or maybe because he was perfect, another one would add. They’d all nod and giggle some more, then sit back and watch the house until the flickering candlelights went out.

Youthful affections are fleeting though, and as they rolled into their senior years and graduation, Sharon and Kate fell into a rhythm with the boys around town. And the boys—taking lessons from, among others, Mr. Johnson himself—tried the smiling and waving number on the girls and the girls, skeptical at first, eventually began to fall for the boys. By time Sharon donned her cap and gown, all the years she’d spent out by Wildturn Creek with lurid images of Mr. Johnson in her head seemed distant memories. She thought back on that not-too-long-ago-past as she waited for her name to be called at her graduation ceremony. The memories made her feel childish, she and her friends out there crushing on a grown man who probably saw them as nothing more than little girls. Children. Which they had been. Which they were. It was kinda gross, now that she thought about it.

Nevertheless, the day before she left for college, Sharon and a good portion of her graduating class (all seventy-five of them) made a pilgrimage to Wildturn Creek for one last big hurrah outside Mr. Johnson’s farmhouse. It was a graduation party first and foremost, but also incidentally a celebration for Sharon herself, who’d managed to be the only person in her grade to be accepted to college on a full scholarship, and to none other than Stanford University. As her high school’s valedictorian, Sharon had pushed for the opportunity.

Sitting there in Mr. Johnson’s field, Sharon thanked the various familiar faces that approached her throughout the night, clapping her on the back and offering words of congratulation. She took it all in stride, soaking in the very limited amount of time she would be seen as something special. All across the field, people she’d known all her life consumed various grades of alcohol and marijuana smuggled into town by the Brady brothers. The two mullet-headed siblings lay on the grass a few feet from her, blitzed out of their minds. Sharon partook in none of it though, choosing instead to direct her attention at Mr. Johnson’s farmhouse, at the candlelight flickering in the windows.

After midnight, most everybody had either left or lay passed out on the field, but Sharon stayed awake, watching the darkness of Mr. Johnson’s home and thinking about how glad she was to be getting out of Marsden. She hoped Stanford was a place where sitting outside of an old farmhouse owned by a lonely man would not be anybody’s idea of fun. Sharon vowed then to experience things she never could experience here, vowed to make a point of it. That night, she said a silent goodbye to the farm and the town, hoping this would be the final word on the matter.

The next day Sharon’s parents made the long drive to Lubbock and saw her off at the airport. Sharon took one long look back at them before getting on the plane. Her heart surged as the flight took off, and she smiled out the window as Texas faded beneath her feet.

Sharon’s first semester in college flew by in a buzz of midterms and finals, parties and all night study sessions, alcohol and pot after pot of coffee. By time she got back to Marsden for winter break, her home town seemed a myth to her.

After a few hours in her old house though, she quickly realized not much had changed and—more importantly—nothing much ever probably would. Small towns were stagnant like that sometimes, she’d realized. Prone to repetition and tradition, neither of which was exclusive of the other. Kate called her on her first night back and Sharon knew what she was going to ask before she even said anything.

“You want to hit up Johnson’s farm?” She clucked her tongue the way she always did when she was about to say something tantalizing. “Rob’s meeting me after work, bringing one of the O’Toole brothers. Ronnie, I think, you remember him. He was a year or two ahead of us, just got back from the desert.” She paused, then added “He’s, uh, filled out nicely.”

Sharon sighed and agreed to go, if only because she had to spend the next two weeks at home and Kate was still…well, Kate. It had become obvious to Sharon by that point that her and her best friend were headed in different directions. Kate had barely graduated, and during the semester that Sharon had been away, she’d managed to both move in with her boyfriend Rob and, subsequently, get herself knocked up. She told Sharon this in a matter-of-fact tone and made her promise not to tell Rob. When Sharon pointed out that Rob would eventually find out, Kate chuckled.

“Gonna be one hell of a surprise, huh?”

That evening at Mr. Johnson’s farm began as many others had throughout their childhoods. Beneath it all though, there was something oddly different about things for Sharon. With her and Kate both laid out on the hood of Kate’s rusty pickup—Sharon’s parent’s station wagon parked facing them—Sharon felt as if she’d been transported to the Twilight Zone version of her hometown, as if everything were largely the same but with minute differences that cast an eerie quality over the familiar.

Kate lit up a joint and inhaled a ghastly amount of it before passing it to Sharon. Sharon took it and held it close to her lips, pausing as a wave of sadness suddenly washed over her. The feeling was strong and surprising, mostly because it had nothing to do with herself. The deep sadness she felt was directed at her best friend, her best friend’s boyfriend who was on his way to meet them, and to this whole town. And, she thought, glancing over at the farmhouse, for Mr. Johnson, a man she now realized must be the loneliest person in Marsden, one of the loneliest towns in the country. For years he’d had to sit and watch the children on his field grow from kids to teenagers to, now, that edge of adulthood where decisions can have lifelong effects.

Sharon took a small puff of the joint and handed it back to Kate. Right then, Rob pulled down the gravel path and parked next to them, grinning out of the driver’s window. Other than him the car was empty. He shut off the engine and stepped out, looking at the girl’s sheepishly.

“Ronnie couldn’t make it,” he said. “Sends his apologies.”

Kate scoffed, on the verge of a hissy fit until Sharon patted her on the back.

“I don’t care,” she said. “Just happy to see you guys.”

“Aww,” Kate said mockingly, curling a finger around Rob’s belt buckle and pulling him in close. “Isn’t she sweet?”

“You’re sweet,” Rob said hungrily, planting his lips against hers. Sharon studied them, comparing them to the memories she had of growing up with the two through the years. Rob had been in Sharon’s P.E. class in seventh grade, and his chest had been bird-like then, his ribs making his skin ripple around his nipples. Kate had the same bird chest back then too, wearing a padded training bra just to make it seem like she’d grown something. Her thighs and butt had left so much slack in her jeans that she took to wearing sweat pants to school most of the time, until around tenth grade when she’d suddenly sprouted a figure. Rob’s face had darkened with hair around the same time, gotten a little more serious, and the transformation of his body had coincided with Kate’s so perfectly that they’d locked eyes and panted their way into each other’s bedrooms by that spring.

In the year or two since, Sharon had gotten used to their public displays of affection. It was like background music, Kate and Rob lying back on the hood of Kate’s truck devouring each other. Sharon used to think it was gross. Now it was just inevitable, especially if one was away from the other for more than, say, an hour. Like mud after rain.

When they were done, Rob made light conversation with Sharon, asked her about Stanford, how it felt to be rid of Marsden. The way he described it made it sound like the town was a coat that could be shrugged off. Sharon liked the description. Every few seconds she glanced at Mr. Johnson’s farmhouse and the flickering candle light in the windows. When the tension rose to a certain level in her throat, Sharon let it out.

“Has anybody seen him lately?” she said, nodding towards the farmhouse.

Rob and Kate gave each other knowing looks and Kate shrugged.

“Same ol’,” she said. “It’s Johnson. He’s not going anywhere. When we have kids, they’ll come out here and play and grow up doing the same shit our parents yelled at us for.” She glanced at Rob, studying his expression. It was blank, as usual. Kate faced Sharon again, looking slightly pleased. Sharon raised an eyebrow.

“You think he’ll live long all alone like that?” she said.

“What do you mean?” Rob said, looking genuinely confused.

“I mean,” Sharon said, looking back at the house. “Being alone like that, for all those years. That can’t be healthy.”

Kate made a pshhh sound and waved her hand.

“He’s fine,” she said. “It’s Mr. Johnson. If he didn’t want to be alone, I know twenty women in town who’d be here in five minutes.” She smiled, the expression fading away quickly. “He chose to be like this.”

“I don’t know,” Sharon said. “All these years we spent hanging out here, nobody ever thought to ask him if he wanted to join us for like a beer? Or just to talk or something?”

“Why would he want to talk to a bunch of kids?” Rob said.

“I’m just saying,” Sharon mumbled. “We should invite him one of these days.”

“You know his rule, Shar,” Rob said. “Peach tree’s still standing right there and I ain’t taking a step past it. We got a good set up here. I bet kid’s in other towns got to hang out in like…libraries or some shit.” He spread his arms and tilted his head back, spinning in a slow circle. “We got all this, with permission.”

“I’m just saying,” Sharon repeated quietly, then dropped the subject.

They made small talk for another ten minutes, at which point Rob went back to his truck (a vehicle equally as beat up as Kate’s, as if they bought them at the same time on a two-for-one junkyard deal) and produced two six packs of Natty Light. He smiled at Sharon when he returned with the beer and told her they were in honor of her first completed semester, said he’d heard that Natty Light was the chosen beer of most college parties. Sharon laughed and told them she drank heavier than that when she partied up at Stanford: lime and tequila shots usually. She told them about the parties, about class, about studying ‘til sunrise, about the beautiful campus and her plans to go abroad to England for a summer semester. Sharon reveled in their amazement and obvious jealousy, feeling a bit like a one-woman show. When the beers were gone and everybody was swaying a little—using the car hood for support—Kate and Rob decided they were going to head out.

“It’s good to see you, Shar,” Kate said, hiccuping and smiling mischievously. “And if you really want to fuck Mr. Johnson, you should just ask him.”

“I do not want to fuck Mr. Johnson,” Kate said, slapping Kate lightly on the shoulder and glancing at the house. “I’m nineteen. He’s, like—fifty. That’s gross.”

Kate glanced at Rob who was standing near his truck, staring aimlessly at the sky. Kate came close to Sharon and whispered.

“He’s still hot,” she said, then looked down at Sharon’s body. “And in case you haven’t looked in the mirror lately, so are you.”

She winked at Sharon then hugged her and walked over to Rob. Sharon waved at them as they got in their separate trucks and followed each other down the dark street leading back to town, both cars swerving the whole way out.

Sharon walked over to her parent’s car and paused to glance again at Mr. Johnson’s farm house. What Kate had said—the idea of what Kate had said—was absurd, sure. Mr. Johnson wanted nothing to do with a freshman college student, no matter how “hot” Kate thought she was.

“But,” Sharon said out loud, trying to stop her words from slurring and failing. “But—I could still say hello. Nothing wrong with a little hello.”

It was at that moment Sharon realized how starved for attention she was. Stanford had turned out to be a haven of academic integrity and advancement, sure, the halls brimming with legacy and promise. But what she hadn’t wanted to admit to Kate and Rob was that—aside from the occasional raucous party—things had turned out to be just as routine up there as they were in Marsden. The only difference was she didn’t know anybody up there, which made it even more oppressive. She had been showing off in front of Kate and Rob; the reality of it was she missed the town she had been so quick to disown. She missed the people she could rely on to be so predictably obtuse, the guys who would whistle no matter how many times she walked by the pub on Baker’s street, even if it was five times within the hour. She’d gotten annoyed with it while she was here, but the complete lack of boisterousness at Stanford had given her a different perspective. The guys up there were educated, reserved. Husband material.

Every once in a while though, Sharon just wanted to be hollered at.

She doubted saying hi to Mr. Johnson would fix that need. He definitely was not the hollering type. But, she thought, maybe it could open her back up to the town she’d so easily shut out of her mind. She was going to be home for two weeks; she might as well make the most of it. And Mr. Johnson had always had a bit of a glint in his eyes when he smiled at her on his way past the peach tree. At least, Sharon thought that’s what she saw.

Sharon walked over to the peach tree, rubbing the trunk, stray bits of bark floating to the grass. The dirt trail leading up to the farmhouse twisted down a slight gradient, stopping at the bottom where a stone path pointed towards Mr. Johnson’s front porch. Standing at a higher point of the hill, Sharon could see over the house, to the rows and rows of corn growing out back. She swayed a little, planting a hand on the tree to steady herself. Hesitating for just a moment, she took a tentative step past the forbidden peach tree. She was surprised when nothing happened, then felt stupid for the surprise.

Sharon pushed away from the peach tree and walked down the dirt path to Mr. Johnson’s house, looking up at his windows the whole time. Candlelight flickered in what she believed was his bedroom. Behind Sharon, the night seemed to follow her, swallowing the path behind her along with the field and her car. She glanced at the darkness and it shot back a melody of crickets with a few errant bird chirps tossed in.

Sharon reached the front porch and walked up to the front door, pausing with her fist raised to knock. She thought about what she was going to say when he answered the door, and realized she had no idea what to say.  Assuming he even answered at all. For all she knew, he was sleeping and had just forgotten to blow out the candle. And even if he wasn’t sleeping, he would probably be pretty miffed about Sharon breaking his only rule.

What if, by passing the peach tree, she had just ruined things for the other kids? The ones younger than her? What if, because of her, future generations of Marsden youth would be robbed of the same experiences she had out here on Mr. Johnson’s farm?

The thought made Sharon’s throat constrict. She didn’t want to be responsible for that.

Sharon looked down at her feet with disgust, as if they’d betrayed her by bringing her past the threshold. Her head was clearing a little from the alcohol, and her mouth tasted like old beer which she knew from experience only got worse and more nausea-inducing the longer she stayed awake.

Sharon turned and was about to trudge back up the path to her car when a noise caught her attention. She turned and cocked her head to the side, listening. There was nothing else for a while and she was beginning to think it had been her imagination when the sound came again, more distinct this time.

Sharon turned to the side of the house, facing the direction the sound had come from, trying to rewind and play it again in her mind. It had sounded a little like someone speaking, a kid actually.

Sharon waited and the voice came again, somehow sounding both more distinct and further away. It definitely was a child, saying something in what sounded like Spanish:

Sígame al paraíso.

Sharon couldn’t be sure. She didn’t know Spanish except for what she’d learned in high school, which hadn’t gone much past the hola/gracias/por favor stage. But the words had the feeling of the language. They’d been uttered, almost whispered, in the strangest pre-pubescent voice; an asexual sound, almost alien.

It was right then that the long forgotten childhood stories of the creature—the one some people claimed to have seen a mile away from Mr. Johnson’s farm—returned to Sharon. She chuckled in spite of the fear that suddenly sprang up in her chest. In fact, she chuckled because of it, the anxiety gripping her for all of a second before giving way to embarrassment. She looked at the shadows protruding from the side of the house and shook her head. The stories of the creature had been absurd to begin with, but in her self-induced moment of panic, she had ridiculously added to the story in a way that made her not want to take her own mind seriously.

There was no creature at Mr. Johnson’s farm. And even if there were, it most certainly did not speak Spanish.

Sharon laughed out loud at herself, almost drowning out the voice again. Almost, but not quite.

Sígame al paraíso.

This time, it had a beckoning quality to it, and Sharon found herself walking towards the shadows beside the house, captivated by the melodic quality of the voice. It reminded her of when she was about eight and her grandmother had come to stay at the house while her parents had been away for their tenth anniversary trip to Mexico. Her grandmother—a staunch, God-fearing Catholic (who spoke of her parents Baptist affiliation as if it were a malignant tumor they should look into)—had taken Sharon to a church in the next town over since the two churches in Marsden weren’t “appropriate.” At that Catholic Church, there had been a choir consisting mostly of boys Sharon’s age, young and pure. They had sung hymn after hymn that day, and though the actual sermon hadn’t interested Sharon whatsoever, those boys’ voices had. The voice she’d just heard coming from the side of Mr. Johnson’s house reminded her of the choir: sweet, captivating, innocent. She smiled a little, dazed, rounding the corner of the house.

In the darkness, she could see nothing but the corn stalks and the low-lying moon, big and yellow and half-hidden by the crops. It shined off the tops of the swaying corn, throwing around the shadows as Sharon crept forward. She stood at the edge of the cornfield and waited for the voice to return. When it came again, she snapped her head to the left, towards a row of corn just in front of her. That stab of fright tapped at her heart again. She stared at the corn stalks and stepped towards them, walking the couple of feet of grass to the row’s opening. She glanced up at Mr. Johnson’s bedroom, the candlelight still flickering. A shadow passed across the back window and Sharon paused, wondering if Mr. Johnson would choose right now to take a look outside and catch her in the act.

No sooner had the thought occurred, Sharon turned back to the row of corn and looked down to find the creature standing in front of her.

She knew right away that it was the creature, not just because it looked like a creature but because it was very obviously a compilation of the different descriptions people had ascribed to it over the years.

As Sharon stood there staring at it, the creature began to change shape, expanding and contracting, growing new appendages while absorbing others back into itself. When Sharon first faced it, the thing was much shorter than her, about half her height, and standing on two clawed feet. Small, bat-like wings twitched on its back, as if it was considering flying away but couldn’t figure out how. Then, suddenly, it started to grow, the wings sliding beneath its scaly skin as it rolled itself upward. Her eyes followed its ascent until it maxed out around seven feet then fell to the ground on all fours. It looked up at her and its eyes twinkled with the candlelight flickering in Mr. Johnson’s window. It’s spine was ribbed all the way down to a short nub of a tail, like a Doberman, if a Doberman and an alligator could mate.

Sharon stared at the creature and the creature stared back. For a solid ten seconds, a single thought repeated in Sharon’s mind, three words running like a marquee banner in a circle around her head:

So it’s true.

It had all been true. They had all been right, all the people who’d claimed and claimed and who she’d discounted over the years. The shocking reality of the statement made her wonder about a lot of things right then. About the reality of other such stories she’d relegated to myths in her mind: Santa, the Easter bunny, God.

What if it was all true?

What exactly did that mean?

The thoughts stayed with her even as the creature bared its jagged, crooked teeth, a drop of saliva forming in the corner of its mouth and dribbling down to the grass. It moved quickly, too quickly, one of its clawed feet seeming only to shudder before there was a sudden, searing pain in Sharon’s stomach. She looked down and—even as she recognized her own steaming pile of intestines rolling out of her belly and flopping onto the grass—she could still only think of the possibilities. The shift in perspective. The disproving of physics.

Should she scan the skies on Christmas Eve? Should she start to pray again?

Sharon looked up at the sky, at the bright moon, and slowly fell to the grass. She rolled onto her back as she did, facing Mr. Johnson’s bedroom and noticing then that his candle had gone out. Then her face was washed in light. She struggled to raise her head, squinting at the oncoming headlights of Mr. Johnson’s pickup truck. It turned and drove past her, and Sharon caught a glimpse of Mr. Johnson behind the wheel with a solemn look on his face, looking right back at her and shaking his head.

Then the view was blocked out by the creature’s face hovering over hers, its cat eyes winking as it whispered in its choir boy voice:

Bienvenido a paraíso.

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