I’d like to tell the person who inspired this story that her strange behavior is the fodder for this story.
But…she wouldn’t understand, so unless I become rich and famous, lol, it will be between you and me!
Before I share what happened to spark the idea for this story I need to tell you a little about myself.
I moved to Wisconsin…I’m not a native.
Most of the people in this area don’t care to associate with anyone who is “not from here”. Those who will speak to you pretend to be nice and interested in getting to know you, but in reality, they’re just “checking you out”.
Of course, I didn’t know this when I accepted her invitation to bring my family to have dinner with she and her husband, so I naively assumed that she liked me and wanted us to get to know each other better.
So as I said, she was the inspiration for the short story (see below).
After dinner, she asked us to write our names in her guestbook.
It had a lot of names in the book already, so obviously, this was a habit of hers.
Maybe this is typical for Wisconsin, I don’t know, but the icing on the cake was that after the dinner I didn’t hear a peep.
Before that, she’d kept after me to get everyone over there, but then after…nothing, nada, zip.
So, of course, this odd behavior led to an odd story from an odd mind!
The Name Collector
Betty was a small town girl, but that didn’t mean she always would be.
It would take about a year at this rate to collect the names…but that was not soon enough so she had to step it up. Faster.
The plan was simple, really.
Just begin by tapping into the church social circle to see who hadn’t been to the house yet for dinner. Her folks always invited new church visitors over for dinner. After she’d written down all of the right names from her family’s church she’d look at others.
There were some new members…the Carlyles. A man, his wife and two boys.
Mrs. Carlyle…Angie…was hard to speak with because she always slipped out before Betty could corner her.
Angie rarely brought her husband but her son Mason always came. Lewis stayed at home with his dad.
Typical, thought Betty.
Jedidiah had told her 65 names was what it took for her dreams to come true. Just give him the names and she would be able to leave this stupid town and never look back.
He gave her a book. A number of strange symbols were carved into the cover which was made of leather…or something that looked like leather, but it didn’t smell anything like leather. It had a strange, pungent smell that made Betty’s eyes water every time she wrote in it. That’s why she waited until she had a number of names before she wrote them in the book.
Betty wondered what Jedidiah wanted the names for. Maybe they owed him money or something. She didn’t know why he wanted them and she honestly didn’t care. All she wanted was out of here – no matter what.
Carol Delaney interrupted her thoughts.
“Hey Betty…wait…wait!” Carol was running towards her. She stopped, holding one hand in the air as if to stop Betty from saying anything. She then leaned over, her hands on her knees, as she took in quick, sharp gasps.
“You won’t believe…”said Carol, pausing to catch her breath, “you won’t believe what happened at church Sunday!”
“What?” Betty said, taking a seat on the bench while she waited for the H66 to wind its way back to city center.
She looked up at Carol who was staring intently at her.
“Betty…something’s different…are you ok?”
Betty rolled her eyes, sighing as she dismissed Carol’s words with a wave of her hand.
“Don’t be ridiculous…of course…now what were you saying about church?”
“Pastor Branigan was almost in tears when he told us about Pete Franklin. His wife found him dead, in the bathroom. He had blood on his head, and the cops say it looked like he hit his head when he dropped.”
It’s just a coincidence, Betty told herself.
She looked at Carol, raising one eyebrow.
“So? Some old dude croaks…what does that have to do with…”
Carol sat down on the bench, her eyes wide. “But…Betty, what’s wrong with you? You’ve known Pete for…”
“Carol, death is just part of life. I mean, we don’t live forever you know.”
“Yes, but he was only 35…!”
“Yeah, and we’re only 17…what does that have to do with anything? You or I could drop dead at any minute. That’s why I’m getting out of this lousy town. I’m going to New York, where…”
Carol snorted. “Yes…we’ve all heard it before…you’ll go to the Big Apple and be some big shot reporter…”
“Better than what you’ll be doing here in loserville.” said Betty, glaring at Carol.
Carol’s eyes opened wide. She didn’t know what to think about her friend anymore. She opened her mouth as if to say something, but then clamped her lips shut, staring at the ground.
The H66’s horn was loud as it pulled into the bus station.
Betty jumped up and walked quickly towards the bus. She yelled at Carol over her shoulder.
“Carol, I’ve got to get home…I’ve got a lot to do. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
The bus doors had opened and Betty quickly pushed her way onto the bus, ignoring the complaints of the exiting passengers.
Once she found a seat, Betty looked out the window at Carol who was still standing there, her mouth drawn and her hands on her hips, shaking her head. As the bus pulled away from the curb, Betty thought about what Carol had said.
She didn’t know what to think about Pete’s death.
He was a nice guy. Too bad. I must be thinking of someone else…it couldn’t be him. When I get home I’ll take another look at the book.
By the time the bus dropped her off Betty was starting to have second thoughts.
No, I’ll just wait until I’ve got more names. I hate the way that book smells…and it feels slimy too. God, I can’t wait to get out of this stupid town!
A loud crash met her ears when she opened the door to the house. It sounded like it came from the kitchen.
Opening the coat closet by the door as quietly as she could, Betty reached into the corner and pulled out her father’s baseball bat. She wished for a gun as she thought she heard voices coming from the kitchen, but when she pushed the door open nobody was there.
She listened close, trying to hear past the thumping of her own heart.
Betty examined every room, looking in closets and under beds. She didn’t know what she would do if she saw anything, but she had to look.
Her parents were both at work and her sister was staying the night at her friend Rachel’s house, so she would be alone for at least another hour or so.
She shrugged. It must have been the neighbors fighting again.
She decided to watch some TV to get her mind off of the book and Pete.
The dim glow of the TV was the first thing she saw when she opened her eyes. It was dark outside.
Betty sat up, looked at her watch and frowned.
I must have dozed off. I wonder where Mom and Dad are?
Betty yawned and stretched, then got up and walked to the kitchen for a bite to eat. It wasn’t like them to not call but maybe they’d said they would be home late and she hadn’t heard them.
As she was making a sandwich, Betty thought she heard the strange noise again, only this time it sounded like it was coming from her room.
Tip-toeing across the kitchen floor towards the center island, Betty reached for the large butcher’s knife, the blade’s edge lightly scraping the wood block as she pulled it out.
She checked all of the windows and the doors. Everything was locked. For the second time tonight she searched for the source of the noise. She didn’t know what she would do if she saw anything, but she had to look.
As she walked towards her room she heard the sounds of muffled voices, mixed with screams and howling – not loud, but just on the edge of her perception.
Taking a deep breath, Betty reached for the door handle. The instant she touched the cold metal the sounds stopped.
As she started to turn the knob, the front door opened and she heard her mother and father come in, chatting between themselves.
Betty dropped her hand and quickly slipped back to the kitchen to replace the knife.
If they saw her standing in the hallway with a knife there’s no telling what they would say – or do.
“Hi Bitsy”, said her father, using the pet name that he knew she hated.
Betty frowned. “Hi Dad, why are you guys home so late?”
Giving his wife a quick glance, Frank said, “We stopped to pay a visit to Susan Franklin – you remember her and her husband Pete don’t you?”
Betty nodded, not wanting to hear the details. That would make it much too real.
“Carol told me about it.”
A sad smile on her face, Betty’s mom gave her a quick hug and then walked towards the kitchen.
Betty could hear the sounds of pots and pans being moved as her mom started preparing dinner.
“So how was school, sweetheart?”
Betty rolled her eyes. “Boring, Dad…and everyone is so dull!”
Frank chuckled. Yes, she was just like him.
“Not enough adventure, eh?”
He knew Betty wasn’t happy – that she wanted to get out and make a name for herself. He understood the feeling, but he guessed he didn’t have the same drive as she did. Besides, there was Natalie…she was all he ever wanted and each day he woke up next to her he felt like the luckiest guy around.
So he just changed his dreams, took over his father’s bait and tackle shop, settled down with Natalie and lived in domestic bliss these past 25 years.
“So, how is Mrs. Franklin?” said Betty, not sure she wanted to hear the answer.
“Hm? Oh, fine dear…well, as good as can be expected under
these circumstances. She’s got her children to comfort her.”
Betty nodded, telling herself that she would have another look at the book tonight. She’d probably dreamed the whole thing up…Pete’s name wasn’t in the book.
After dinner, Betty excused herself and went to her room.
She sprayed herself with perfume to block some of the smell that would come from the book when she opened it, and then grabbed the notebook from her backpack that had everyone’s names she’d collected.
Jedidiah had been perfectly clear on what he wanted and how the names would be chosen and added to the book.
He wanted only people who were involved in the church. Not mere churchgoers, but people who actually had a part in the church.
Pete was a deacon at the Woodbury Community Church for the last
10 years so of course he’s in there…
Betty frowned. Dropping to her hands and knees she felt underneath her bed. The book was stuffed in a shoebox, surrounded by a sea of stuffed animals.
The box felt oddly warm as she pulled it towards her, but that was nothing unusual. She was used to it by now.
Taking out the book, it felt heavier than she remembered.
The first time she wrote in the book it felt as if she were carving flesh not writing on paper. She didn’t like the way it felt. It took her a while to work up the nerve to write in the book again, but she had to do it – she didn’t want Jedidiah to think she wasn’t holding up her end of the bargain. She knew that he would somehow know if she just made up some names.
Betty listened for her parents. They were wrapped up in an episode of The Walking Dead and were oblivious to anything around them. She had time.
Sitting on her bed with the book lying before her, Betty opened the cover.
Betty sat up straight, looking around her room.
What in the hell?
Her heart pulsing in her ears, Betty looked around, listening closely for another sound, but all she heard was her parents discussing the show.
Turning the pages, she looked for the last entry. It was getting harder and harder to find names. She’d started with her
family’s church and then slowly added names from the other churches in town.
It wasn’t just a matter of finding church directories. She had to go to the churches, find out who was involved in Sunday
school teaching, who was the preacher, deacons…even the church secretary. It was exhausting…and time consuming.
The thought of attending yet another church this weekend was disturbing. Besides, her mom and dad were always suggesting that she come back to their church. They just thought she was going through a phase, but still, she hated lying to them.
I wonder if Jedidiah would let me call it quits. There’s got to be another way…
She felt something crawl on the back of her neck.
Betty flinched, reached for her neck and turned around, but saw nothing.
She heard a voice that seemed to come from all around her.
“Screw this,” said Betty, as she slammed the book shut and started for the door.
“Betty…what are you doing?”
She stopped in her tracks. A tall, lanky boy who looked about her age dressed in faded jeans and a Godsmack T-shirt was leaning against her door.
“Jedidiah….how did you…?”
His voice was low and calm. “Betty, what are you doing? Do you have the names yet?”
Shaking her head, Betty took three steps back to the edge of her bed and then plopped down, the book gripped tightly in her hands.
Jedidiah smiled. Walking towards her, he didn’t seem to notice her shaking.
“So, how many names do you have?”
“I…I’m not sure,” lied Betty.
“You know…you’ve been keeping a list, haven’t you?”
Betty tried to hide her surprise, but she obviously failed because Jedidiah’s mouth seem to split his face in two – his grin spreading from ear to ear.
Her heart sank.
“Here, let me see it,” said Jedidiah, holding his hand towards the book.
Betty held it up to him, glad to have it out of her hands.
Jedidiah took the book and sat down on the opposite edge of the bed. After looking through the pages of names she’d collected he nodded his head, stood up and said, “alright then…this is a good start. When do you expect to be finished?”
She looked into his cold black eyes and suppressed a shiver.
“I’m supposed to go to the Missionary Baptist in Fitzgerald this weekend, but..”
Jedidiah look at her intently. “You’re not thinking of backing out on our deal are you?”
Betty looked down at her hands..
“Uh, well, uh…what do you need those names for anyway…haven’t I gotten enough?
Look, you don’t even have to help me, I’ll..
A knock sounded on the door.
“Sweetheart…Mrs. Delaney just called. Have you seen Carol?”
Betty gasped, looking at Jedidiah. A smug smile on his face, Jedidiah nodded his head, as if to answer Betty’s unasked question.
Her eyes pleaded with Jedidiah. “I saw her at the bus stop, mom…maybe she went over to Vicky’s house.”
“Remember our deal Betty…you don’t want to go back on your word.”
“What did you do to her, you bas..” hissed Betty.
“She’s okay…she’ll just have a headache, that’s all. But if you don’t finish what you’ve started, well…I can’t control what happens next,” said Jedidiah, grinning.
“Betty…who are you talking to?”
Opening her door, Betty said, “Nobody, Mom…I’m just watching videos.”
“Oh, well, do you want to speak with Martha…she’s beside herself with worry.”
Betty swallowed hard. “Not really…I don’t know what else I could say.”
Natalie looked at her daughter. What had happened to her? She’d changed of late – and not for the better. Looking in her daughter’s room she spotted the book laid open on the bed.
“That’s an interesting book, what is it?”
“Uh, it’s for my humanities class mom. I’ve really got to get back to work…I’ve got an essay due on Friday and I’m nowhere near done!”
“Okay, Betty…I’ll leave you to it, then. Remember – your dad and I will be at church tomorrow night. If you want to come along, let me know in the morning so I can make arrangements to come home first.”
Nodding her head, Betty closed the door and looked towards the corner where Jedidiah had been standing.
It was empty.
No surprise. I didn’t even hear him leave…or arrive, for that matter.
Shaking her head, Betty looked again at the book. When she received the book it measured 15 x 17 and only had about two or three pages, all empty with only lines on the page…nothing else.
The pages were stock weight, so it must have been a pricey book.
The funny thing though…it seemed to be getting heavier.
Just when she had written on what she thought was one of the last pages it turned out there were more the next time she opened it. Strange.
Betty didn’t really care…all she knew is that Jedidiah wanted the names written in the book so that’s what she did.
She didn’t really care…or want to know why he needed the names.
She just knew giving him the names would buy her ticket out of this one horse town and that’s all that mattered.
Yawning, Betty decided she’d add the names tomorrow. She really did have an essay due Friday, but she’d get it done in home room in the morning. Easy, peasy.
Shrugging into her nightshirt, Betty climbed into bed, dropping off to sleep in minutes.
She never thought school would let out. The ride home was peaceful…a lot of kids didn’t show up for school today – so many that Betty wondered why she bothered to show up.
Finally. Mr. Brown is such an ass. I’ll be glad when I don’t have to listen to his boring lectures.
When she got home Betty slipped into the kitchen for a drink. She saw a note from her parents. “Betty, your father and I will be at the Franklin’s. Your sister’s with us. If you get hungry before we get home there’s leftovers in the fridge. Love you, see you at eight.”
“Okay, Mom,” said Betty. Good – that’s plenty of time to put the last of the names in the book.
Only five more names. Boy wouldn’t everyone be surprised to know that she’d really done it…she’d made it to New York and more importantly, she’d become famous.
When she had the money and the contacts in New York that Jedidiah promised her she would be so gone she would be a distant memory. Of course she’d wait until graduation – it was only a few months off – and instead of going off to college in Simmons like her parents expected, she’d be headed to New York.
Betty hit pay dirt at the Woodbury Community Church. All she’d needed was 5 names and she got them.
Finally…she’d put those names in the book, give it to Jedediah and be on her way to New York.
If he comes through…
Sitting down with the book, Betty opened it, listening for noises like last time.
All she heard was the hum of the air conditioner.
Looking at her notebook she took her pen and read the last few names she’d entered.
Betty stared at her name. Her heart started pumping wildly as if she’d run a marathon. She felt a heavy weight begin to press down on her chest. It became harder and harder to breathe.
Looking at her reflection in the mirror Betty saw a hideous beast sitting on her shoulders, its long talons lodged deep into her head, an evil grin on its face.
Screaming, she began waving her arms, frantically trying to dislodge the creature from her back, but when she reached behind her she felt only air.
Eyes wide, she looked in the mirror again. She noticed Jedidiah leaning against the wall behind her, a smirk on his face.
The pain subsided. A quick glance in the mirror showed her there was nothing on her back.
“Thank you Betty…I’ve got my names now.”
“But…I didn’t write my name. There’s a mistake…I have more…”
Jedidiah sighed loudly, shaking his head. “Betty, Betty, Betty…how long have you been going to church?”
Betty blinked in surprise.
Her mom and dad seemed to believe in all of this heaven and hell stuff, but she didn’t. Not really. She pretended that she did but in truth, she didn’t know what to believe. She liked the
here and now and things she could touch. Anything else was a bedtime story.
“Church? I don’t know…all my life? “My parents have been going to church since before I was born.”
“Yes, and do you remember what the Son of God called the Pharisees?”
Betty nodded. “Yes, I think he called them vipers or something like that, but what has that got to do with the names?”
“Do you remember the first name you wrote in the book?”
“No, that was months ago.”
“Think, Betty. Do you remember how you felt when you wrote it down?”
She didn’t have to think long at all. “Yes, it felt…wrong…creepy.”
“Did anything happen the next day? Think about it Betty, do you remember anything odd happening?”
Betty had tried to forget. “Yes,” she whispered.
“I’m sorry, Betty…I didn’t hear you…”
“Yes,” she said louder, her cheeks beginning to turn red.
“He collapsed behind the pulpit Sunday morning. The doctors said it was a heart attack.”
“Didn’t you think that was odd? I mean, you had just written his name in the book and then ‘bam’, he’s dead…stone cold.”
Betty started to sweat.
“No, I mean, he was in his 60s, er, or something…it happens…”
“Okay, fine. But what about the next one? The next 10, actually because I know that you waited until you had a list before you added them to the book.”
Betty swallowed. “I know what you’re going to say, Jedidiah…it was just an accident. The semi driver fell asleep
at the wheel and the church bus…”
“Do you really think that?”
Betty hung her head. “No.”
“If you thought that writing names in the book might bring harm, then why did you keep doing it?”
Betty had no excuse. She knew it, Jedidiah knew it. He looked at her, his eyes full of hunger. A smile slowly spread across his face, yet his eyes remained black…cold.
Betty gasped. She felt as if a sharp sword were being driven straight through her head. Looking in the mirror she saw the beast again. The demon had grown bigger, it was sitting on her shoulder, sinking its claws deeper in her brain.
The pain lessened to a dull throb, but she still felt the weight of the creature on her back, growing heavier as the minutes ticked by.
Jedidiah started to laugh. Betty ran out of her house, trying to get away from him – to find a place of rest.
The church…I’ve got to get to the church…
It was dusk, but she didn’t care. She had to find a priest…someone to help her get this beast off of her. She kept running, swatting at her head, but the pain didn’t leave…the demon stayed put.
She turned the corner and was about a block away from the church when she heard him.
“Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.”
The words of the street preacher rang in Betty’s ears. She stopped running, grasping at the preacher’s arms.
“Help me, please! He’s after me!”
The preacher turned his blue eyes on Betty, looking at her with pity.
“Betty. You knew Truth, but you rejected Him and sought the Prince of this world. You chose Deception and now you’re in his grip.”
“You turned a blind eye to the suffering caused by your actions. You knew evil would befall each person yet you chose darkness and shunned the Light.”
“But…I didn’t know…not really! What can I do? Help me!”
“Repent for your sins. Even now, at this final hour there is still hope. Do you hear Him? He says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,if any man hear my voice and open the door I will come in to him and will sup with him and he with me.”
Betty just stared. She’d heard that before and she felt the same tugging at her soul as she did that day.
She started to speak, but something stopped her. The demon’s claws sunk in deeper.
Betty…what about your dreams? the voice whispered softly. You’ll be rich beyond your wildest dreams – everything I have will be yours. Just come with me!
Betty made her choice.
“I’m sorry, but you’re lying. I don’t believe in all that stuff. It’s just a story told by people who wanted to control others. It’s not true.”
The grim faced preacher looked at Betty and then at a form standing behind her. A deep sigh escaped his lips as he turned away, shaking his head, muttering prayers under his breath.
Betty turned around. Jedidiah was standing behind her.
“It’s time, Betty. Your bags are already packed and it’s time to catch your flight. New York is waiting.”
Using the book which he’d retrieved from her room Jedidiah opened a portal, then held out his hand.
Deception had completely filled her mind, its slimy, cold essence absorbing every last cell of her body, shifting, merging until you couldn’t tell where Betty ended and he began.
Betty smiled up at Jedidiah, placing her arm around his as they walked through the portal. The infernal doorway collapsed on itself, abruptly shutting out the screams.