A star-spangled blanket draped over the pine box as Brian stood steady. He had to be strong for his mother, who was currently buried against his borrowed black suit, sobbing heavily. He only flinched when the crack of the rifles echoed through the air. Men in uniform, both military and Cincinnati Police gave their respects. Tokens of gratitude coated the coffin, and a neatly folded flag was placed in his mother’s hands. She clutched it tightly, as if it were the only thing in the world.
Brian rubbed her back and stared down toward a box containing a stranger. He had not had a chance to know his father, despite all he had heard from his mother and his father’s friends. Each one had a story about Rick Sawyer, his heroism and bravery, honesty and loyalty. He was the greatest man many of them had ever known.
That wasn’t the man Brian knew. His father was an empty seat at dinner and a vacant place holder during school events. Brian’s mother always assured him that his father loved him, just hadn't been as affectionate since his time in the war. Brain never knew, those three words had never come and now they never would. The last thing his father ever told him was that the world was an evil place and that he should be wary of it.
He left that day, more confused, lost, and angry than ever. After walking his mother to her car, he found a place on a bench at the edge of the cemetery to think. Reaching up, he brushed at his hair and pushed away his perspiration. The long draping hair, in style for his age, made it unbearable in the summer months. His mother would always say he looked so much like a younger version of his father. Thinking about that now made tears well up around his green eyes.
The crowd slowly left the plot, but one remained, leaning over to place a small gift upon the headstone. Brian couldn’t place him as one of his father’s fellow soldiers, officers, or friends, at least not the ones he had ever met. He was tall and thin, dressed fairly well even if slightly out of date. His hair was dark and slicked back; it made him look professional even in this dreary place.
He was curious to see the gift that had been left there and quickly rose from the bench to investigate. Clouds closed over the sun as Brian approached the man and droplets began to tap at his shoulders. The figure turned and waved slightly toward Brian and in turn Brian tossed up a few fingers. He cursed to himself as the drops came quicker, his hair becoming matted to his face. He quickly pulled his jacket up over his head for shelter, but when his eyes returned to the grave site the man was gone.
When his feet came to rest over his father’s resting place, he turned in each direction in search of the final visitor. The man had disappeared, but his gift remained. Lifting what appeared to be a coin with an etching of what appeared to be a star, Brian examined each side. It was rough to the touch, jagged at the corners and obvious to Brian that it had been done with a rough instrument. He shoved the trinket down into his pocket and sprinted toward his car for shelter. He looked for any sign of the man as he exited, but there was none.
The next few months had been spent preparing for the sale of the family home. Brian’s mother claimed she didn’t think she could live in a home that constantly reminded her of Rick. Eventually, a potential buyer expressed interest and any items that remained would need to be cleared out. The two of them had already found a smaller apartment that would suit their needs and his mother did not wish to return to the old home. Brian would be off to college soon, but he wanted to make sure he had everything taken care of before-hand. His mother still wasn’t quite ready for him to go, and Brian knew this, but he also had a life that had been put on pause ever since his father’s death. Brian offered to clean out the old house. He selfishly had his own reasons for wanting to go, though. He had always wanted to see what hid behind the door of his father’s study. It had been a place he had so often been warned clear of and this was his opportunity to learn a little bit about the man he seldom ever saw.
It took a week to get the majority of the house packed away in boxes. Most wouldn’t be making the move to the apartment. What they needed would come with Brian. The rest would be sold or donated. Brian saved one room for last intentionally, granting himself time to investigate. His hand shook slightly as he reached for the shiny bronze knob, remnants of days when the effort could lead to an argument. He honestly had no idea what he would find. Then steeling his nerves, the knob turned and the door gave way.
It was underwhelming at best. A small wooden desk with a lamp, a leather arm chair tucked in the corner, a large book shelf upon one wall, and file cabinets on the other. A window behind the desk illuminated the only mystery of the room, his father’s work. Brian’s hands feathered at the papers, mostly news articles and files that hadn’t been returned to their place. Everything had already been coated in a very thin layer of dust. He picked them up, one at a time, shuffled through them, and sorted each into specific boxes.
After clearing out the file cabinets and removing the books from all the shelves Brian took to the desk. Each drawer filled their own box, and he neatly printed, “Dad’s Study” on each one. Bending down, he reached for the last drawer at the bottom. To door fought back and an audible “CLINK” was heard. “Damn, locked,” Brian huffed. He dug through his pockets for the set of keys his mother had given him. It took a few minutes, shuffling through two dozen keys before finding one that would fit.
Brian paused for a moment before opening it. Standing there in a once forbidden room, opening the only thing that was locked was almost adventurous. He could feel a smile play on his lips, like a pirate opening a chest, surely full of treasure. As the drawer opened, Brian’s eyes fell on something less than astonishing. The most notable item, at first glance, was the bottle of scotch and the glass to accompany it.
He had never witnessed his father drink and could not recall a time alcohol had been any in the home. He smirked a little at the thought of his dad sneaking a drink those late nights in here alone. He lifted the bottle and glass, sitting on the desk before removing the only other content of the drawer. It was a thick leather-bound folder, a leather binding wrapped around, then looped closed upon a coin that had been fastened as a make-shift button. He reached to his pocket and removed the coin he had retrieved from his father’s grave stone and noticed the resemblance.
He placed the folder down next to the bottle of scotch, tapping a finger upon it. The dim remnants of the day began to fade away, soon he found himself flicking on the old desk lamp and leaning over the folder. He wondered why something so simple had been hidden away from the world and why the man had left another at his father’s grave. His curiosity peeked, considering if anything within might give him some insight into who his father was, and maybe even who the man was at the funeral. He let his childhood memories fill his mind as he reached for the bottle, trying to recall if he might have met this person at some point.
The cap turned freely and the amber liquid soon half-filled the glass, remembering the last time he was scolded for attempting to enter this room. Brian lifted it and turned it in his hand, the light refracting through the liquor and tinting the desk ahead. He took a quick sip, the burning trickling down his throat, before placing the glass down and grabbing for the folder. Unwinding the fastening and laying it open, he was greeted by a collection of various things. First, was an envelope, then a journal, and a stack of smaller files that included their own stacks of paper.
He lifted the envelope and took another sip of scotch before pulling a wrinkly, yellowed letter from within the matching envelope. He instantly recognized the writing, even behind the stains of dirt and grime: it was shadows of his father. His thumb caressed the page as he stood up from the desk, shoving the coin down in his pocket for later. Then he grabbed the glass and downed a quick swig while reading what appeared to be a letter to his mother. He had seen many of these that his mother kept, but not this one. It had never even been mailed, and that made it even more interesting.
August 15, 1944
We have taken the beaches along the Riviera. The locals keep calling it something else I can’t pronounce. My Sergeant said that the Germans where weakened already and that this was going to be an easy fight. He must have been in the shit awhile, since this was his idea of easy. I found moments of fear, I can’t lie, especially seeing how many men we lost. Wilkins seems to think that will be the worst of it and he’s been here longer than me, so I have to trust his word on that one.
The main reason I am writing is I saw something I wanted to get down on paper. I have heard stories of men losing it out here and seeing things that aren’t there. I don’t know if I really saw him and I haven’t told anyone else about it for that very reason. I just need record of it and hopefully make sense of it when I’m out of here, that is, if I get out of here.
We were passing through an area near Cannes and at a half-destroyed café I saw him sitting at a table, sipping coffee, just like any other Tuesday evening. He even seemed to ignore the troops that passed him by, just as much as the troops ignored him. Then he suddenly noticed me, raised his glass as if toasting, and took a sip. He gave me that smile again. There is no reasonable explanation for him being here, half a world away from where I saw him just a month ago but there he was. Scratch was here, and I have no idea why.
PFC Rick Sawyer
Brian sat back down, still holding the letter, wrinkles forming on his forehead. He had never heard the name Scratch before, maybe it was a nickname of someone his father once knew. He pondered this as he laid the letter down and began to unwrap the leather binding upon the folder. As it fell open, the first page was just words in series. Something like you would do if you had been brainstorming an essay.
“Scratch, Coin, Robert Johnson, Mississippi,” is how it started and articles had been folded up in the creases of the book. Brian pressed them open to reveal a message that had information about a young black man dying in Greenwood, Mississippi. At the bottom of the page was two drawings, one that resembled the coin that Brian now possessed and the other looked remarkably like the man he had seen at his father’s funeral. “Scratch,” Brian read the words under the image and wondered if it really was the same man. He seemed to have stumbled on his mystery, and it was getting interesting.
He had finished his glass without realizing and tried to pour nothing but air down his gullet. He shook his head a bit before refilling his glass and taking a bit down and turning the page. Directions had been left that would lead someone from Cincinnati, Ohio, all the way to Greenwood, Mississippi. He scanned down the page, noting each turn and once it ended he turned the page. Again, folded between the pages, there was more paper that unfolded into road maps. The highways had markings on them in pen as if someone had been keeping track of their destination.
The following page had more notes, each line including names and statements. The whole page and the following seemed to be from interviews that his father had conducted once reaching his destination:
David Pellum, 44 – October 2nd, 1950 (Greenwood, MS)
According to witness, Robert Johnson was murdered by a man that had caught him sleeping with his wife. Local police reports do not suggest this and neither does my experience.
Bobby Wyatt, 39 – October 3rd, 1950 (Greenwood, MS)
Common rumors say that Robert Johnson made a deal with the Devil. His talent was “unnatural.” – Sounds like Scratch.
Regina Moore, 32 – October 3rd, 1950 (Greenwood, MS)
Rumor has that the deal was made 60 miles north of here, Clarksdale, MS.
Willie Brown, 62 – October 4th, 1950 (Greenwood, MS)
Received directions to an intersection, HWY 61 and 49, Clarksdale, MS. “Devil’s Crossroads”
Intersection 61/49 – October 5th, 1950 (Clarksdale, MS)
Two roads intersecting, there was a phone booth but no Scratch.
Patrons at Abe’s Bar-B-Q – October 5th, 1950 (Clarksdale, MS)
Most people were hesitant to even speak to me, and I didn’t get many answers. No one knows more than I learned back in Greenwood and no one has heard of a man named Scratch. The owner suggests I speak to the musicians that perform at the local club.
After speaking to a few musicians who knew or knew of Robert Johnson I am inclined to believe the rumors but have hit a dead end on my leads. No one knows Scratch, but a few of them have noted a man by that description frequenting the club.
Brian sat amazed at the continuing list of names and statements, unsure of what to make of it. Everything pointed to a completely impossible notion and that was his father had been looking for the Devil, himself, in Mississippi, of all places. The liquor warmed his throat again as he shook his head. He paused and scanned the now empty room for a moment before letting a little chuckle out. This had to be a joke, and it was simply left to taunt him, Brian thought. He flipped through the pages, scanning the notes and unfolding newspaper articles that had been left sporadically throughout the journal. All of them seemed to point toward the same unbelievable fact. The more he read, the more real it all seemed to become. His humor was replaced by a growing sense of fear. Small sketches became regular occurrences at the bottom of his entries, most of them where symbols that meant nothing to Brian, but others seemed to depict rituals involving sacrifice.
The further he read the more grotesque they became and soon started to truly worry about his father’s mindset. His fingers turned to the final page, realizing it to be another letter. Brian almost spat his newly consumed scotch when he realized it was directed to him.
I know that if you are reading this it may very well be too late, but I would like to start with an apology. I have not been the father you needed or deserved. I have made many mistakes in my life, but know that you are not one of them. Do not ever let my actions or lack-there-of take away from your experience in this life. I wish the best for you, always.
If you have taken the time to read these passages and feel like your old man has become crazy, I would understand completely. Trust me in this, there is evil out there and even though you never truly understood when I said so, please listen to me now. Do not go looking for Scratch.
There are some things you cannot undo and I would not wish that on you for anything. If he approaches you, for the love of God, do not make him a deal. The price is so great, you will not be able to repay it. I hope you learn from my mistakes and rely on the things in this journal as proof. Take care of your mother and yourself. Please forgive me for what I have done.
I love you,
Brian had turned into a drunken, sobbing mess upon finishing the letter. He had so many questions that where unanswered but the one that meant the most had been finalized in his farewell. “My father loved me,” he whispered to the dark, wiping away the years of uncertainty that had drenched his cheeks. He placed the letter, the journal, and the bottle into a box before scribbling the word, “Brian’s” on the lid.
As he pulled into the parking space of the apartment complex, Brian was still brushing away tears. He didn’t want his mother to worry about him anymore than she already did. He simply grabbed the gift his father had left him and made his way up the steps. Upon entering he could see the dim glow of the kitchen light, his mother had waited up for him again. “Brian,” she called from the next room. He assured her it was only him and walked in, placing the box upon the counter. She gave him a faint smile, “All finished?” Brian nodded and stepped in to hug her. She laughed a little and squeezed back before questioning, “What’s got into you tonight?” He released his hold on her and smiled sheepishly, still unsure if he should ask her about his father so soon.
Stepping back, Brian rested his hand on the box and pondered for a moment how to bring up the question he needed to ask. “Well,” he started and paused again. He had not wanted to upset his mother, but he had to know about Mississippi. After a few moments of debating he gave in to his curiosity, “I don’t remember Dad taking many road trips, but I found some directions to Mississippi amongst some of his things. It looked pretty interesting.”
“Haha,” she blushed a bit, “I haven’t thought about that in a long time.” Her eyes turned to the floor as she smiled, getting lost in a memory. “No, you wouldn’t remember that,” finally looking up to her son, “You weren’t even a year old then.” Brian pushed a little harder, wondering what sparked his father’s interest in the south. “He went down to visit a friend of his, from the war,” she said nodding to herself as if she was trying to verify her thoughts with facts. Brian leaned in as she spoke, intently waiting for his answer. “Yeah, that’s what it was. Your father swore he would have never made it back if it wasn’t for him and wanted to thank him again personally and see how he was doing,” she continued as if the moment in time was coming back to her in pieces. She sat down slowly at the table where she had left a cup of coffee, her hands forming around it slowly.
Brian couldn’t help himself, “Mom, do you remember his friend’s name?” She tilted her head slightly, her eyes squinting as she searched for the answer.
She shook her head gently, “No, he always referred to his buddies by those silly nicknames they gave one another over there. He called him… um… Sketch? Scotch?”
Brian’s eyes widened a bit, “Scratch?”
His mother smiled, clapping her hands together before pointing toward her son, “That’s it! How did you know?”
That night, as Brian settled into bed, he found himself thinking of all the things he had discovered. His life had not been quite as he had thought and now he must consider the truth of it all. His father had not despised him and may have kept his distance to keep him safe. All of this swirled about within his mind until his eyes grew heavy and he drifted off to sleep.
His dreams had become a collaboration of the events of his day. He envisioned himself at the desk again, reading about his father. The words drew him in close and the scene changed, much like a movie. The light dimmed and clouds rolled overhead. He found himself sitting amongst rubble, confusion setting in. It was not a place he was familiar with and the dream seemed so real that he could smell smoke in the air. He explored the battered building he stood in, death and destruction greeting him. Coming to a stop amongst a group of soldiers, his eyes fell upon a man that he knew to be his father. Large streams of salty liquid came from his father’s eyes. He seemed to be praying, but his words had been muffled by the sound of gunfire. Brian knelt beside his father, but seemed to be unnoticed.
After a few moments his father stood slowly, pulling a coin from his pocket. He began to limp across the room before stumbling against a pay phone on the other side. Brian followed him at each step and watched as his father picked up the receiver and dropped the coin in the slot. Within seconds the man he had come to know as Scratch appeared at his father’s side. A wicked grin played across his lips as he patted his father on the shoulder. They spoke to one another, but the words seemed garbled. Brian drew closer in an attempt to hear. He must have come within a foot of the two of them before hearing the words.
“So, we have a deal?” poured out from Scratch’s sinister smile as he extended a hand. Brian’s father shook it and nodded. Brian tried to scream out to his father. He tried to beg him to stop, but his words never came. With every effort only silence found him. Then in an instant Scratch turned toward the young man that no one else could manage to see. He drew closer and Brian attempted to back up, his feet stumbling over rubble. He came crashing down but no sound could be heard. Scratch hovered over him for a moment, his eyes now glowing a sickly yellow. Before Brian could react, the man lunged at him with mouth agape. His jaw opened unnaturally, growing large enough to swallow Brian whole. Again, he tried to scream in vain. Soon, he was enveloped by this thing and was plunged into darkness.
Brian jolted upright in his bed, sweat cascading from his body. He leaned over to flick on the lamp at his bedside, air rushing in and out of his chest. He was still at home, in his bed and perfectly fine. The dream had made it all seem so real; he still felt dirty from landing on the floor. His hands brushed at his arms and fear crept up his spine, making him shudder. Grime had stained his clothes and bits of debris had accompanied him within the sheets of his bed. Unable to make sense of it all, his eyes turned to the coin that rested by his lamp. Reaching for it, he began turning it between his fingers and thinking of the last line of Rick Sawyer’s final words to his son.
“Please forgive me for what I have done.”
Written by L0CKED334