Short Story

The Bootlegger

This was written for a literature class at Wittenberg. The assignment was to write a story in the gothic tradition.

Moe thrust the shifter into gear and pulled his foot off the clutch, turning hard into another turn, momentarily erasing the red and blue lights trailing behind him. Thirty gallons of liquid sloshed from one side of the tank to another. The force of the turn pushed on Moe’s chest, dropped his stomach. Around the turn, he mashed on the throttle and the trailing lights returned. The Revenuers had followed him for too long, far longer than anyone had ever kept up with the coupe before. He had long since lost Pike County and now roared through some unknown road that snaked through the Appalachians at a speed that nearly outpaced his headlights.

Moe took the next turn even harder, downshifting early and almost sliding the rear end out, the great weight of his cargo slopping about. Blasting through an s-curve only to be confronted by a fork, Moe had a split second to decide and veered left. Down another s-curve, wrapping down the mountain, the siren’s scream faded in the distance. Moe didn’t let up. He blew by a mailbox labelled “Stillwater,” past a large fallen oak lying parallel to the road, past the glowing eyes of an owl on an overhanging branch.

It was an old road in disrepair. The coupe jumped and shook as it fought its way along, the engine screamed to lug its load as the road ascended to some dark unknown, tunneled by the twisted branches of ancient trees. No longer could the howl of his pursuer be heard, the sounds of summer night had wholly displaced its menacing noise. Chirping and hooting and creaking and crying.

Moe passed a collapsing barn, crossed a rickety bridge, then the elevation took another steep dip, plunging into a dark hollow.

Sucking in a deep breath, wiping the sweat from his brow, he allowed the relief of freedom to wash over him. Engulfed in the darkness of the woods he could barely see the road. He looked for a sign or some landmark but his eyes could only make out the brief glimpse of the road the car would be over top of the next moment.

The next moment.

He was blind to all else and before he could comprehend what he saw it was already there with the next next moment before him ready to overtake the current one. Slowing down, he took out his flask and gulped deep.

Moe passed a mailbox, the name on it read “Stillwater.” A fallen oak lay on the side of the road running parallel to it. An owl stared down at him. He had been here before, he had gone in a circle. This time he ascended slower, keeping his eyes peeled for another road. Forest everywhere on either side. Once again past the collapsing barn, across the rickety bridge, and the descent that followed.

This time Moe rode the brakes all the way down, creeping as best he could, the brake shoes and springs crying the whole way down. No roads. Just the embankment and the woods beyond. Looking for the road that brought him to the loop all he saw were woods, woods, and more woods. How did he get here?

Moe saw “Stillwater” and slammed on the brakes. He whipped the wheel around and pulled in the drive, popped the transmission into reverse, and backed out on the road facing the other direction. Back the way he came. He would get back to somewhere.

Creeping along at twenty miles per hour, his head darting from side to side like that of a bird of prey searching for a meal, but before him only trees and darkness, trees and darkness. No exit to be found to emancipate him from this eternal prison of trees and darkness.

The nose of the coupe reared upward and Moe had to downshift to keep it from stalling out, crawling up the hill in first gear. The glow of the headlamps revealed on either side of the road an unbroken wall of trees. Darkness lay beyond. Darkness that contained nothing but more darkness.

When the road flattened out the tires rolled over the clickity-clack of boards. Past the old bridge the dark outline of the dilapidated barn impressed itself against the black night. Moe pulled the coupe off the road, approached the old structure, pushing down weeds that grew taller than the hood. He killed the engine and got out.

The grass and weeds before him looked in the darkness to be some large body of water, the mass of which swayed and rolled to Moe’s ill-perceiving eyes. It trembled with the chirping of insects and the soughing of the wind and the pulse of the darkness as if the night were alive and all things within its grasp worked to execute its nefarious designs.

Thinking on this, Moe pulled out the flask and shot back hot liquid. It burned his gullet, the heat creeped down to his stomach and dispersed itself throughout his body, a fire that tempered his spine. He could do it. He just had to make it through one night.

Wading his way through the sea of weeds, the barn grew larger before him. The susurrate weeds and grass brushed him with their itchy caress, cooled him with their dewey tears. His skin moistened from the graze of the damp night air. By the time he fumbled into the barn through a hole in its broad side he dripped as if coming in from the rain.

From his pocket, Moe pulled out a lighter and flipped it open. The lambent flame pierced his eyes, igniting a nova within them that momentarily blinded him and pushed him back a step. When his eyes adjusted he barely saw more than he had without the light. Finding a wall, he slumped down against it and resolved to stay in that spot until dawn.

Moe snapped the lighter shut, allowing absolute darkness to envelop the barn, and reached for his flask. As he unscrewed the cap the metallic scraping of the threads echoed against the decrepit walls of the empty building. He gulped deep, draining the last drop from the small vessel, followed by a sigh of regret for not filling it before leaving the coupe. Returning the flask to its home, pressed against his heart, he withdrew some tobacco and papers and blindly rolled a perfect cigarette, an action so long ingrained in his fingers they needed not the assistance of his eyes to complete their mechanical task. He closed his eyes as he lit the cigarette to avoid the ocular nova and sucked deep on the comforting smoke allowing its calming effect to soothe his nerves.

At this point one might be inclined to reflect on the current predicament and the series of events that had led up to such a lowly moment. But not Moe. As far as he was concerned, that particular time and place existed at an elevation that overlooked his nadir by an unfathomable distance. Little did he know of the nature of the void that encompassed him, of the depths which caverned beneath the deepest pits of hell. A drink and a smoke pacified his nerves and cocooned his soul from the hellfire of awareness.

Moe sat and stared into the blank darkness, dragging on his cigarette that glowed like the fire of a solitary lighthouse on the shore in a cloudy night. A rustling from the darkness startled him back to alertness. Floorboards creaked to which Moe cocked an eyebrow. An odd thump reverberated and Moe’s heart thumped in kind. Another odd thump followed by and other and then three more.

Footsteps.

Moe extinguished his cigarette against his palm, unaffected by its hot stab. The footsteps continued their approach, uneven and dragged, unsteady yet unafraid. Moe held his breath, his eyes vainly shot back and forth as a sort of panicked instinct despite being unable to discern the slightest hint of his surroundings. Closer and closer, the footsteps drew near and came to a stop directly in front of Moe. He continued to hold his breath. Before him a rustling, a shifting, a breathing. No longer able to abstain from oxygen, Moe inhaled and did so too deep. Too loud. He had exposed himself.

The figure in the dark remained silent except for its eerie breathing.

“Who’s there?” Moe demanded.

Was that a snort? A chortle? What did the muffled non-reply of the darkness mean?

“Look here,” said Moe, “I didn’t mean to trespass none. It’s just I got lost, you see, and I can’t find my way outta this damned holler.”

No reply but the whisper of the unseen’s breath. So close he could feel its warm gust kiss his cheek. Anger took precedence over fear and Moe whipped the lighter out. The nova of light burst within his eyes and his vision pieced together an image of devil eyes staring directly at him from the darkness. A black goat stood before Moe as if it expected him to furnish it with some gift or alms or sacrifice.

“Go away,” said Moe, threatening it with the dancing flame.

The goat bleated in response, undaunted by Moe’s words or gestures, its rectangular pupils reflecting the licks of the flame.

“Go away, dammit!” Moe hurled the cigarette butt at the goat, missing.

The goat bleated in response.

“Goddammit!” Moe unleashed a barbaric cry and took a swing at the goat. The beast took a step back and Moe’s fist hit nothing but the muggy dark air, throwing him off balance, sending him crashing down to the ground. Total darkness returned. Somewhere in the pitch black the lighter clanked against the dirt floor. Moe felt around for it only to dirty his hands.

The goat bleated once more as if to comment on Moe’s desperate state. Shuffling back to his anchoring wall, Moe scowled in the dark at his livestock adversary.

“Stupid goat,” he muttered, crossing his arms and lowering his head for sleep.

In the darkness the goat rustled about. Its footsteps softly thumped about the barn and gradually grew closer. Once again Moe felt its hot breath upon his face. Its dark presence. Unable to restrain himself any longer, he screamed at his unholy bunkmate. He screamed and screamed until his voice became hoarse and his throat burned from parchedness and the rawness of it all brought him into a fit of choked coughs.

The goat bleated in response.

“No!” Moe protested, stumbling to his feet, palming the boards in a desperate search for the exit then pounding as he sidled his way along the wall. The darkness held too close to him and its vast emptiness gripped and trapped him. Though he could move to and fro, go here and there, everywhere he went he wore a cage like a sort of suffocating garment locked to his person. He pounded and pounded. He hit nails and bled yet he continued pounding.

And then he pounded air.

Moe plunged through and landed in the sweet itchy wet grass. Looked up to see the glorious shine of the scant exposed stars through a break in the clouds. Composing himself, Moe lifted himself up and made his way back through the weeds and grass to the coupe. He popped the truck, quickly and shakily unscrewed the cap from a mason jar and quenched his awful thirst.

Back in the coupe, he turned the ignition and fired up the engine. The headlights reintroduced color to the world, shining on the grass and weeds and the ominous barn that stood beyond. He backed out into the road in such a hurry that the tires spun and kicked up dirt. On the road, he threw the car into first and took off, kicking the accelerator all the way down to the floor. The coupe shot off and raced through the tunnel of trees, up and around the winding curves, past the felled trunk along the roadside, and screeched to a sliding stop before “Stillwater.”

Moe turned into the driveway. It was long and wound around and overgrown bushes scraped the sides of the coupe with their nails-on-chalkboard sound. Eventually he came to a house, old and slanted and long in disrepair. Running out of the vehicle, he stormed up to the tattered porch and pounded on the door, which immediately swung open as there was no latch to resist his blow.

“Hello?” he called, keenly aware that the effort was in vain. The house had obviously been abandoned for years. Though he could hardly see anything of the interior for want of light, what little he could see of the exterior had long been disused. He entered and laid down on the floor, figuring this shelter to be better than the last if only for the lack of an unholy night guest. The house had a haunted look about it, a haunted feel, but Moe preferred the company of ethereal spirits to the goat made of flesh.

Perhaps he could return one day and fix the place up. It was nice and isolated. Moe liked that. Lying on the old wood floor in the dark, Moe imagined the various things he could do to overhaul the place, make a home out of it. He could grow some corn out back, make his own still. All he needed was a little cash to get started and a woman to make him a family.

Thunk.

From the darkness in the house came the foreboding sound, startling Moe away from the cusp of sleep and turning his chest into a relentless throbbing machine. Staring into the blackness of the house despite the futility of the action, Moe’s eyes widened and widened until he felt the flesh on his face stretch to the point that it felt like it might tear.

Thunk.

That one was definitely real. It was no precursor to a dream.

It happened.

Something was there.

Thunk.

Footsteps.

They moved closer and their source emitted a ghastly breathing as it approached.

Moe ran. Scampered off the old porch, down the front walkway, and dove into the coupe. He locked the door and sat staring at the wicked house, gasping for air, a horrified grimace fixed upon his face. Reaching into his pocket with trembling hands, Moe pulled out his tobacco and fought through the bodily quakes to roll a cigarette that ended up looking like a wishbone. He put it to his mouth, searched frantically for his lighter, and came to the dreadful realization that it was gone. A feeling of hopelessness washed over him.

A dark figure emerged from the house. Moe squinted, struggled to decipher the form, wiping sweat out of his eyes, locking the already locked door. The figure approached the car and stood before it. A short figure, an inhuman figure. Panting like a bellows working to feed the fires of hell itself, Moe slowly built up the necessary courage and turned on the headlamps.

The unholy eyes of the black goat stared into Moe’s soul and bleated at the light.

“No!” Moe screamed, turning the engine over and throwing the lever into reverse. He backed out of the driveway as fast as the coupe would allow, using the outstretched arms of the overgrown bushes to navigate his way. Out onto the road blasted the coupe with a screech. Popping it into first a little too early making it grind into place, the coupe lurched forward and Moe quickly made his way through the gears. He flew past the fallen oak, past the glowing eyes of the owl which now seemed more sinister than before, as if the eyes belonged not to an owl but to some evil force the owl functioned as a conduit for.

Pushing through the twisting tunnel of trees, past the wretched barn, over the bridge. He searched and searched but no exit could be found. Yonder in the road a dark figure appeared. The black goat. Bleating and staring and daring Moe to continue forward.

He had no choice. He swerved off the road and the coupe dove into a tree. The trunk cut into the hood and smashed the windshield, then sent the helpless vehicle pirouetting into the woods, crashing from one tree to the next. It rolled down a hill and finally attached itself to a giant elm. Coolant hissed and the engine ticked. The final, subdued death throes of the coupe cried into the empty night.

Hanging out of the remains of the coupe, broken and bleeding, the elixir of life draining out of his body just as the elixir of spirits drained from the coupe, Moe looked up to see a dark figure.

The black goat bleated.

It licked Moe’s blood and drank from his life as it slipped away.