The morning dew tastes of death. It might be imagination, or the thinly veiled disgust felt upon arrival. But it’s there–in the mist, in the water.
No one speaks of Gregham’s Gulch. Why would they? It’s dreadful.
One rotting gate opens to the town, because the other has taken root in the marshy ground. Even if it hadn’t, it’s secured by sickly rose bushes, which are long since dead, withered. But still the last semblance of life.
The gate’s jaw opens to a narrow tongue, bound in with blackened teeth. At its lip, a decrepit building sags, threatening to fall to its chin–an otherwise occupied space. The building below could be older, the roof caving in. But in their shriveled lean, they share a kinship, forever frightened by the sun. A trait that’s been contributed to their owners, from where the kinship was born.
The legends are what keep the town thriving, even as it descends towards the sea. Two founders who survived every winter, and who plan never to leave.
On a blustery day in the dead of summer, a cheery boy closes his rigorous journey regurgitated into the Gulch’s unflinching mouth. He passes through to the tongue, follows its unspoken instruction to the first founder’s home, and knocks–against his better judgment. That’s something he doesn’t seem to be aware of though. He’s an oblivious one.
The founder that greets him is a splendid sort. His well-groomed image is precise. Clean. In other words, in complete opposition to the second founder. Who, though present for this initial impression, brings a poor showing. His clothes must be centuries old, and a gulch rat would likely take offense at his wafting scent. As abhorrent as the second founder is though, the first still dares rest a delicate hand on one of his crooked shoulders.
“I’ve come for the celebration,” the boy announces. What an amiable smile he wears. Sadly, the founders aren’t as charmed. While the second readies himself to cast the boy out of town, the first produces his pocket square. Unfolding the square with practiced strokes, he then shoves the cloth between the second’s foul chompers.
“Where do you hail from?” The first furrows a careful brow, before he forces his porcelain features to smooth. Isn’t he awfully reticent?
“Beyond the oceans,” the boy, however, is not. Words spill from his tongue with ready abandon. “I chanced upon your festival when I arrived at the docks. I overheard a local.”
“What luck,” The first turns a cautious glare to the rotting second. He’s just finished peeling the kerchief from the deep crevices of his mouth–a regular plover. Without flinching, the second rests the kerchief into his hand, only to press both into the first’s face. A lifetime together would certainly cause some tension; young as they look, fine as they–the one looks.
“Not a local you claim?” The plover eases into the boy’s personal space. Even a bend into the boy’s neck doesn’t seem to startle him. He blinks, unconcerned. So, the plover inhales.
“Allow me to escort you to the hotel. A walk would do me well.” The first slides one finger into the plover’s chubby cheek, ripping him backwards. One streak of blood forms on the first’s knuckle, but he casually pockets the hand. The poor, heedless boy doesn’t notice and readily agrees. He’d make a fine sheep. Clip him nude when the mood strikes, and he’d still never understand chagrin. Simply adorable.
The first slams the door behind him. Between him and the plover…it’s best if we continue with him. Them. The sheep and his escort: our gator, slick as he is beautiful.
Oh, the story? I suppose.
“You’ll find a difficult atmosphere here,” our gator admits to the precious sheep, “after our last festival…our people have been reluctant to hold another.” His reservation is fading.
“Why?” Curious one.
“In no small terms can I present this,” our gator sighs, “it was a catastrophe.” As he begins his tale, he gestures for the sheepish boy to pass him. They’re about to reach the most beautiful feature of the Gulch, simple as it is: a bloody marble staircase as rusted as the timber on either side. Though their color is the only trait they share, for while the timber has a shameless inclination to burn, the marble stairs will never. It’s a blood river that will remain as pristine as the day it was built. Our gator’s pride.
The sheep bleats excitement the moment his tarnished boots clack on the first step. Mud, grime, and excrement throw themselves freely from his soles, one step turning into a lively prance. As displeased as he is by the outcome, our gator maintains his practiced smile. He proceeds down the steps with grace, using his own boot as a broom. His careful movement a ballet. What a wonder.
“Our people are hoping the festival will have less…casualties,” our gator finally continues.
“Of your people or the guests?” The sheep should be frightened. His oblivious nature is almost endearing.
“Imagine me not remembering such a minor detail,” our gator chuckles under his breath, reaching the last step. He’s a brilliant liar, but I doubt the sheep would know either way. He eyes the sheep, and then he’s leading once more. The building they approach is three stories, the tallest building in all the Gulch. But that’s not the only reason it stands out. The facade is glamorous. Newly constructed stucco walls embrace black framing, which delicately cradle gleaming glass. This seems the perfect home for our gator, not his crippled hovel.
“The festival awaits you,” he gestures inside. “Against my people’s wishes, I proceeded. All I ask is for you to mind your manners.”
“Will you not join the festivities, sir?” The sheep peers up at our gator, such a luscious rosy color glowing beneath his skin.
“You’ll find my companion and I prefer the evening,” our gator tilts his wide smile, “the festival is simply aglow in the dark.” Oblivious once more, the sheep nods.
“I’ll await your return, sir. I look forward to hearing the many tales of your town,” he beams.
“I imagine you do,” our gator moves to return up the stairs, “but I don’t remember promising such tales.” He doesn’t await an answer. His slender legs carry him higher with dignity, his shoulders set. As much as it pains us for him to leave, we’ll stay with the sheep. Rosy cheeks and all.
In our gator’s absence, an array of faces appear. Behind glass windows, dirty and cracked, the faces linger. Home after home. Every bouncing step our sheep trots, the faces follow him. If he happens a glance in their direction, the curtains fall closed. The caged locals are weary of freedom.
The sheep heaves both hotel doors open, planning some grand entrance. That spooks all his voyeurs. There’s a flutter of curtains behind the oblivious one. And then he enters.
As promised, the festival is underway. A bleak assortment of desserts are laid out on a fading table. Beside them are aged candles, drained from consistent use. They’re yellowed and sickly. Does that remind anyone of the plover? No?
Right. The sheep.
The festival is a rotten disappointment. It’s lackluster, grey, gloomy. And there’s only a small group of attendees. But nothing could dampen our sheep.
“What a glorious display!” He rushes to join the others. But they drift away, one entity. A murmur of discomfort passes between them. But our sheep could never understand an insult, even one directly addressed to him. He’d find an olive branch in one word, any word. “A proper Halloween couldn’t compare to this.” He doesn’t seem to remember it’s summer. Or perhaps his fantasy world is that expansive.
Our guests avoid him at every turn. They become so accustomed to it, they barely realize the sun has set.
It’s acceptable to bound forward. The little sheep has been waiting a full party for the return of our gator. As we all have. But he’s not the first to enter the hotel. No, the sheep is first met with the locals. Who, flighty figures as they are, immediately plaster themselves to the front door. The attendees do the same, on the opposite wall. Only the sheep is left in the middle.
He’s the one they’re most fearful of. At the moment, for good reason. He stands over a pumpkin, axe in hand. This oblivious little one doesn’t notice the tension of the room. He brandishes his axe with fervor, a wild cackle escaping his grin as he swings it. The pumpkin splits. But only barely, one thin wound visible on its shoulder.
“Damn,” the sheep grumbles, lowering the axe. The despair of an impossibly merry sheep is enough to still the room. He steps back from the pumpkin, lifts the axe again, and raises furious eyes. A hushed gasp erupts through the locals. He releases the blade. Inches from the already suffering pumpkin’s neck, it stops. An attendee wrestles the axe from the sheep’s grasp, sending him to the floor.
“Step aside man,” a gravelly voice orders the sheep. He’s a bearded creature, arms nothing more than slabs of wobbling flesh. But he’s certainly wielded an axe before. “I came for answers.”
“And answers you’ll have,” oh the smooth voice of our gator. He lowers himself beside the sheep, offering a kind hand. Our sheep accepts it, the elation returning to his moist eyes. “But I ask that you do so without weapon in hand.”
“I will do no such thing, monster,” the beard snarls. His entity of attendees cluster around, forming a unified force. They jeer, they spit, they raid the party of weaponry, and they advance on our gator. But his plover came with him. The plover carries his molding self to meet the beard and his crowd.
“I assume this isn’t over our last festival,” the plover’s tone is awfully sarcastic. He tilts his head from one shoulder to the other, resting both pudgy hands on his hips. As his head straightens, two silver fangs descend through his gums. Our sheep clings to our gator, a frightful recognition passing over his features. Oh our oblivious little one. “As you are now, your loved ones were the first to threaten us. Their fates were unavoidable.”
“We lost one of our own,” the sorrow in our gator’s voice is heartbreaking.
“That doesn’t justify a slaughter,” the beard insists. But the sheep understands. To the surprise of all, he steps around our gator, even marching past the plover. Our gator so desperately wants to stop him, but he doesn’t. As we have a penchant for him, he does for our sheep.
Without a word, our sheep puts a hand on the axe. He meets gaze with the bearded crowd, and then he tugs. Bolder actions have never been done, by a sheep’s small hooves no less. Perhaps a sheep is what the humans needed to understand.
Or perhaps not.
“I won’t be thwarted by this monster’s pet,” the beard shouts, striking down our brave little sheep. He tumbles to the floor, one scrape on his knee. But it’s injury enough to insight a massacre. One swing over our bleating boy has our gator sinking his fangs into the beard. The axe clatters to the floor and our sheep rushes for it. He forces his way between our gator and the beard, his back to the former. The one he trusts most. The one we all do.
“Leave. Never rest a cruel foot here again, and we can do no harm to you.” Our sheep cries out. Of course he’s grown attached. It was just destined to be.
No, really. Who’s telling the story? It’s not you.
At his powerful assertion, and with the screaming pain of a vampire’s bite, the beard relents.
The attendees take their leave, with our sheep swinging a few menacing strokes. As oblivious, as adorable, as excitable is he, there lies a dormant fury; something we bore witness to only a fraction this day. But it peeks our gator’s interest aplenty.
“Your pumpkin awaits,” he laughs, for he knows only our sheep could take enjoyment in this town’s festivities.
The legends of our two founders are what keep Gregham’s Gulch thriving. Travelers, tourists, curious passing locals, they feed the economy. And with the violence of prior festivals forgotten, the allure is stronger.
No, the addition of our sheep is the true allure.
The young, oblivious little thing still swings a wild axe every festival. But the locals are no longer fearful of his voracious excitement. It draws them to participate, a kinship built to shadow the one that once was. And they survive each winter, with plans never to leave.
Why would they? It’s dreadful out there.