A refreshing chill
came with the late autumn breeze. The sun set in angelic bands of
ginger behind Shady Meadows. Jeff gazed out his window, watching
crisp red maple leaves float on the light breeze. They landed
silently, creating soft mounds on the groomed front lawn.
Occasionally he would
hear a truck engine or distant passenger train passing the
subdivision, but the community was empty. All of the people had
abandoned this isolated pseudo village. Some willingly, though
broken. Many others had left under the guns of the sheriff …
foreclosed on by banks, having hung on until the end … with nowhere
to go … tossed out of houses with no resale value. Jeff knew there
was a shantytown down in Wildfire Valley, but he’d never worked up
the courage to walk down and talk to his old neighbors. It was an
idea that haunted him; he refused to end up there … this was a fight
to the end … and perhaps the end had come.
No one had expected
such a miserable conclusion to the American Dream. In the past
housing prices had risen steadily across the nation. A home used to
be a guaranteed investment. Now a man’s castle was his sinkhole as
high mortgage payments, prices and negative equity brought the roof
Jeff was just another
guy caught in the quicksand.
Most of his life he’d
been a tenant. Sleazy places in the city where kids pissed in the
hallways … three horrible divorces from unfaithful shrews. Children
he couldn’t visit … a world gone wrong. Then came the great escape …
after hurricane Katrina the President changed the rules. Before
long, the big banks were giving everyone a home. You could buy a
house with no money down, no income, no job, and no assets … at one
percent interest. And that’s how Jeff bought his home and escaped
the city for Shady Meadows.
Just after the move a
union factory job came in … he was a man with his big friendly dog,
escaping into quiet neo rural life.
The whole deal seemed
too good to be true … he’d always felt that way deep inside. Then
the manure hit the meadow breezes. His job ended in termination … as
the factory joined many others in off shoring production to China.
He became one of millions of people who lost out due to unregulated
globalization, and like them, he became a number on the unemployment
His lifestyle became
as bland as chewing on food stamps, but he had some money saved and
invested. If it got worse, he could flip the house and use the gain
to buy another. Then the markets collapsed in the credit crunch …
his home lost value and like many others, he finally got around to
reading the fine print in his mortgage papers. An ARMs deal,
adjustable rate, meaning that this year and the next his payments
would rise at an incredible rate. He couldn’t pay those rates.
Nobody could. Then the markets sank even more and his investment
portfolio became worthless.
Around that time, the
neighbors started to disappear. Jeff investigated and was shocked at
what he found. People wanting a home and a quiet community didn’t
populate Shady Meadows or many other small places. Many of these
fakers were flippers … buying houses … fixing them up, running up
some bills at Home Depot and then selling for a profit as they moved
on to the next home and deal.
They were gone now as
were the factory workers. Jeff had no friends left, no job, and his
dog Zero had been shot by the sheriff during the eviction of the
Montero family next door.
He couldn’t go back
to the old life … not at his age. And most Americans were aging like
him. He’d be single, struggling with low wage part time jobs, for
the glorious privilege of a drab apartment and empty nights watching
the tube. He couldn’t go back so he was standing on a kitchen chair
with a carefully constructed noose around his neck as he watched the
last leaves fall.
Then … god damn it …
his eyes flicked to the TV screen. Why in the hell hadn’t he turned
it off? Even worse, it was a show on the foreclosure crisis … and
super rich Donald Trump was tossing out his combed-back opinion to a
talking head with a lacquer perm. “When you're in a hole, keep
digging as hard and as fast as you can,” Trump said. “Don’t let the
foreclosure happen. Go back and make another deal with whoever holds
the mortgage. If you work at it, they’ll give you a better deal.
Believe me, the last thing the bank wants is your house. What can
they do with it? They can't find anybody to buy it right now. It’s
to their advantage to have you pay, even if it is much less than the
Jeff felt thick hairs
rising on the back of his neck. His house, it was all he wanted.
“Damn it, I’ll do it,” he muttered. “I’ll renegotiate and they’ll
have to deal.”
Determination set in
the lines on his jaw, but in spite of that he slipped on the chair
and the autumn sunset turned to blinding silver spots and a final
black curtain as the noose bit in hard.
Jim Paulison was at
the wheel of his Cadillac when the odious voice came again. “I want
to renegotiate the ARMs deal, and you’re going to help or else.”
This time it was on his cell phone and it disturbed him so much his
hand slipped on the wheel as he yelled, “Or else what!”
Jim’s eyes popped as
he watched a speeding cube mail van head straight for him while
hearing the voice say, “Or else, you pay my price!”
He turned hard, back
into his lane, then pulled off on a side street and parked at the
curb. Bitterness showed on his thin lips … he watched dusty litter
blow like ghosts up the gloomy road, then Don answered at the bank.
Jim sighed, and began to bellow and threaten. Someone was definitely
going to be terminated for giving that lunatic his cell number.
Don answered calmly.
“I don’t know how he does it. He’s been phoning everyone at our
bank. Says he’s been foreclosed on and wants to renegotiate. The
whole thing is spooky. We called the police and they said the number
we traced belongs to a dead guy. That line has been disconnected.
Maybe I should look up our files on this jerk so I can talk to him
personally and get rid of him.”
Paulison ran his hand
through his thinning gray hair. “Do that. Just find him and erase
him,” he said, and then he hung up.
Thirty minutes later
Paulison was home and looking in his mirror. Sadly, he looked every
bit the caricature of an evil banker … the well-worn suit, sparse
gray hair, small potbelly and cruel blue lips. The hair transplant
and laser work had done little for his face. The worry lines had
been too deep to erase, the dark guilt sacks on his eyes of a
mountainous magnitude. He looked evil because he was evil, but in
spite of it he smiled, then he heard his ring tone.
It was Don calling
back. “I’ve traced him and wow is this creep clever.”
“Give me the dope on
“The dope is that
we’re dopes. Jeff Connors is another one of those guys we never
should have lent to … but of course, we did in order to repackage
and sell his debt. At least that was the idea, but it didn’t
“Could you get to the
fucking point here!”
“He lives in Shady
“Are you crazy,
that’s a ghost town. We cleared the whole thing out with
foreclosures. We have camera surveillance on the area to make sure
squatters from the valley don’t move in or strip everything from the
houses … no one lives there. That I know.”
“Well, the thing with
Jeff Connors is that he hung himself. The body was taken out and the
sheriff never arrived to move him out.”
“What in the hell are
you talking about?”
“Fraud. He obviously
faked his own death because the calls are coming from there and he’s
still living there. He’s the lone resident of Shady Meadows.
Ridiculously, he wants to talk to you to renegotiate his mortgage.”
“It’s a simple
matter. Call the police. Have him arrested. Multiple charges. Maybe
everything from fraud to terrorism.”
“Not that simple. The
police won’t even go there. It appears Shady Meadows is not paying
for policing, and their records show that Connors is dead.”
“Shit. Never mind
then. I’ll take care of it personally.”
“You mean you’re
going to negotiate with this nut?”
“No. I mean get rid
of him. First I want to check the camera surveillance, then I’ll go
in and deal with him.”
refurbished luxury Cadillac drove speedily through a heavy fall of
autumn leaves, a fast camera replay showing on his screen as he ran
through the last few days of surveillance at Shady Meadows. Some
movement appeared on the screen and he froze it; then a whirl of
leaves blinded him, he heard the calls of blackbirds and saw a tall
man blocking the road ahead.
He screeched to a
stop; the thin shabbily dressed man approached him arrogantly.
Paulison opened the window and watched the man leer.
“The toll is 10
dollars, or any cigarettes you may have,” he said.
A strong gust blew up
a whirl of pine duff and leaves. Paulison batted away a shotgun twig
and his eyes caught sight of the outlandish view over the embankment
… the tent and shantytown below, some of the people moving about
like lost scarecrows come to life in the wind.
“This isn’t a toll
road!” he shouted. Then the man’s arm burst through the open the
window. Paulison hit the gas and drove off, sending the man rolling
along the side of the car and down to the hard asphalt.
The exit to Shady
Meadows appeared ahead under glorious sky on the left … the ghost
town resting quietly against a golden backing of autumn hills.
Paulison seized a slip of paper with Jeff’s street address and
cruised the quiet streets … pumping himself up for the showdown.
Then the phone rang.
Don was on the other end. “Have you evicted him yet?”
“No, I’m just
“Then don’t. We need
“What? Are you mad?
Why would I negotiate with this crackpot?”
“It has to do with
the President. He came through on his promise for a bill to help
homeowners in default. At least some of them … not many. The way the
fine print works is if we get even one person to sign for Shady
Meadows, and can prove he still lives there … a financial relief
package will come in for the whole place. We can allow Jeff Connors
to keep his house; we pocket the rest and later sell Shady Meadows
when we can get a price on it.”
“Damn, that’s good
news. Are you sure of it?”
“Damn sure. I’ve got
the full package and the legal advice on it.”
“Okay, it’s a go …
I’ll just have to figure out how to deal with this lunatic.”
Paulison pulled in on
Jeff Connor’s street and scanned for the address, finding it about
halfway down. “Sure this is a ghost town,” he thought, “but does
Connors' place have to look like the command centre of
It was a nice house
for the price … when it had a price. But Connors was the sort of
owner everyone hates. In the midst of what had been a clean suburban
type community he’d managed to create his own hillbilly heaven.
Flowering weeds, grubby scrub and tall beaten grass growing to
infinity in a medium size yard … a doghouse the size of a storage
shed. The side garage collapsed with two wrecked and rusting autos
poking out. Half the front lawn, the south side and the back yard
were dumps … apparently Connors collected everything the evicted
neighbors had left behind. And to add to the bizarre appearance was
the neat portion of front yard outside the kitchen window … leaves
raked into piles, grass and weeds trimmed, but only in that small
Paulison got out of
the car, tripped over an empty paint can in the cracked weed-grown
driveway and cursed as he made his way through twilight and rubbish
to the front door.
The whole place
stank like garbage. It was getting dark and soon it would be murky.
He wondered how Connors could survive in a dead community where the
power had been cut. No lights were on in the house yet but he
assumed the man had generators.
To his amazement, the
doorbell lit up and rang. Moments later Jeff Connors appeared at the
door. Darkness backed him. Paulison saw a big shock of blond hair
and a wide grin set in an aging and sunken face.
“Ah, Mr. Paulison. I
knew you’d see things my way. Come on in.”
energized. Paulison followed the gangly and limping figure to the
kitchen, thinking that the man resembled a bag of poorly clicking
bones. “Perhaps he hasn’t eaten much in a while,” he thought. “Or
he’s too eccentric to eat.”
Jeff gestured to the
sparse kitchen table and Paulison followed his lead and sat
reluctantly. He couldn’t see much in the dim light, other than that
Connors was rather old and repellent. A sight that led him to the
tendency of looking out the window as they conversed. There he could
see twilight falling like beauty on that clean portion of lawn
Connors kept; and it gave him an understanding of Connors. He kept
that one clean place just for when he looked out his kitchen window.
Probably for the morning when he was eating breakfast. The rest of
his place was his slob’s paradise. He didn’t give a damn about the
neighbors, and wouldn’t be missing them now that they were gone.
Clearing his throat,
Paulison spoke. “Your message has come through loud and clear down
at the bank. We took your case so seriously that we appealed to the
“The President,” Jeff
said, revealing a raft of decaying teeth. “He really cares about my
Paulison grinned, his
sucker’s grin. One he reserved for those lovely moments when the
sucker was on the hook. “The President does care, and he’s come up
with a plan to save your home here at Shady Meadows. It’s a done
deal, just a matter of drawing up the paper work and getting your
Jeff’s mangy brows
rose like dark clouds in a sudden storm, distrust crossed his pitted
face like rare lightning. He knew the rain of lies would come as it
always had. Then he glanced off into the darkness. He reached out,
and when he pulled his hand back, he was holding a twisted rope.
In that moment,
Paulision got a genuine look at Jeff’s eyes. He realized he’d fooled
himself. There were no eyes there, only dark bloody holes and an
evil that penetrated. He suddenly felt like screaming in his loudest
and most humiliating voice, but his breath escaped him in an
“I hung myself with
this rope,” Jeff said, hate nearly visible in his foul breath. “It
was because of my home. Look out there … there’s nobody … just
homeless people living in the valley. You made promises to them and
you lied. Now you’re trying to lie to me again. You tore their
hearts out and now you want mine.”
Rising with the look
of slow death on his face, Jeff threw the table aside in a vicious
motion. Paulison stood in the same moment and staggered back,
watching Jeff’s hand reach for him. The hand bore no flesh, being
nothing more than bones in the shape of a great claw. “Now it’s your
turn,” he said, “because I’m going to tear out your heart.”
Blood flowed freely
like a gusher of struck oil as the hand of revenge ripped into the
electrified Paulison. His pale and shaking corpse slid down, went
limp and the walking corpse that had been Jeff held up the fistful
of flesh it had torn out.
The evil heart, but
the heart wasn’t there, only empty clumps of bleeding flesh. And on
the floor, the corpse began to rise.
Paulison got to his
feet slowly and faced off with Jeff. His narrow eyes opened to slits
and his purpling face gathered a knowing arrogance. He smiled and
hissed. Yellowed fangs showed in his mouth. “I’m a banker. I’ve
always been a banker, born into the system,” he said. “Surely you
didn’t expect me to have a heart.”
again at Shady Meadows
and Jeff emerged from his front door and wheezed deeply as he walked
through tall thistles and rubbish. Across the road and throughout
the rest of the village sprouting weeds were choking the prayers and
dreams of Americans. He wondered about many things, about the
powerful and the weak … he wondered about their God or god or gods
that had abandoned them. He heard a car in the distance and knew it
was Paulison’s engine. The banker was returning with the final
God bless the
President and God bless the bank. His home had been saved. Shady
Meadows, at least for now, would be the property of Jeff Connors and
the bank. If it came time to sell, it would be in the distant future
when the price was right.
Of course, there were
conditions. He’d have to maintain the grounds, keep the camera
surveillance working, and make sure those miserable squatters
remained down in the valley where they could do no damage to Shady
Meadows. But that was nothing new; it was a job that had always been
done, by the bankers, the walking dead and the heartless.