"The Ghost in the Hills" ©2000 by John Jude Palencar

by Tim Pratt

Rough hands shook me awake, and I swam up out of my dream — bodies pressed against walls, people stampeding across a train platform, Saratorn away by the crowd — into the darkness of my childhood bedroom. I wanted to say "You shouldn’t shake someone with post–traumatic stresssyndrome and survivor’s guilt awake in the middle of the night," but all that came out was a sleep–choked nonsense syllable, "Muh?"

"Andy, come on, now. Jubilee, just past Barefoot Creek."

The man in my childhood bedroom, hand on my shoulder, was Bill Waters. I hadn’t seen him in ten years, since I headed west right after high school graduation, but he hadn’t changed much, still football–player big, running a little to fat, with narrowed eyes and a big grin.

I swung my legs out of bed, blinking, and Mom chose that moment to flip on the lights, dazzling me.

"C’mon," Bill said again. "I got a thermos of coffee for you, but we’ve got to go. Your mama’s got that big old cooler ready for us."

"’kay," I mumbled, wondering what time it was. Three, four a.m.? I was still scrambled from the plane ride and the time change, three hours lost in the trip from California to Alabama, and hadn’t been sleeping much anyway since what happened with Sara in the train station, underground. I was exhausted. When the first shots were fired on the platform, I’d started running, and in some respects I felt like I hadn’t stopped running since.

I pulled on a pair of jeans and a shirt, the clothes I’d worn on the plane, and went to the doorway, where Bill waited impatiently. My Mom hovered in the background, the way she had for most of my childhood. My dad had died when I was young, and my Mom had always been something like a ghost, too. Still, home was the only place I’d known to go, after my life got trampled. I kissed Mom on the cheek. "You coming?"

"No, no," she murmured. "I’ll clean what you bring. Go on now."

Two minutes later I was in Bill’s enormous truck, zooming down the dark back roads toward Barefoot Creek, the waters of Mobile Bay occasionally visible through breaks in the trees to the west.

"We were all real sorry to hear about your girl," Bill said. "We were looking forward to meeting her."

"Thanks," I said, though I wouldn’t have thought to introduce her to Bill, even if he did live next door to Mom, now. We’d never been friends. Or enemies, exactly — I was just somebody Bill beat up in junior high and ignored in high school. And now we were grown up, and he was taking me to a jubilee. Hell of a way to come home.

"Not too many people here yet," Bill said, satisfied, pulling the truck off to the side of the road. I remembered him as the kind of person who went to an all–you–can–eat buffet and loaded up his plate with a towering mountain of food, as if supplies were going to run out, or as if someone else might get the choicest bits. At a jubilee, there was plenty to go around, but Bill was still pleased to beat the rush. I was, too, but only because I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I only wanted to sleep for a week and be spared consciousness and memory. Dragging me out of bed and to the jubilee was a classic example of Southern therapy, community outreach to take my mind off tragedy. I could appreciate it, in a way.Back in San Francisco, none of my neighbors even knew me, and none of them bothered to ask where that woman I lived with was lately, or why I was crying on the sidewalk. They just walked around me. In San Francisco, I’d wished for comfort and sympathy, but now that I was back home, I only wanted to be left alone.

Bill got out of the truck and went around back, and I followed. The air was warm and moist, a breeze coming in from the east, the smell of the bay so familiar and long–forgotten it made my bones ache. When I looked up I could see mosquitoes buzzing against the face of the half–moon. Bill took a cooler out of the pickup, along with a few big net bags and a long three–tined spear; a gig, for frogging or spear–fishing in the shallows. I helped with the cooler and, holding it between us, we crossed the road and followed Barefoot Creek (a two–foot–wide trickle) down to the gritty sand shore of Mobile Bay.Here in the moonlight, the shore seemed scattered with diamonds, a shimmering field of sparkling silver along the edge of the black water. The shallow water boiled with life.

Thousands of fish — dead, dying, or flopping in the shallows — littered the shore. A dozen people in their nightgowns, pajamas, or hastily–thrown–on street clothes moved along the shore, bending, exclaiming, whistling, laughing. Some had flashlights, but most worked by moonlight, scooping up flounder, blue crab, and shrimp. Some carried coolers, while others improvised with washtub or trash bags. One woman, armed with a gig, speared three flatfish in one strike, a wriggling kebab that she raised up for a moment before depositing her catch in a basket. More people were arriving now, and the voices and laughter multiplied.This was a jubilee, as I remembered them, a pre–dawn beach–party to celebrate the mysterious bounty of the bay.

"Lorrie Perkins was sleepin’ out on the pier," Bill said, gesturing toward a little spur of wood and pilings jutting out into the bay, just long enough to accommodate a small boat. "The water was real calm yesterday, so he thought it might be a good night for a jubilee." We set down the cooler. "He called me, and some other people, it looks like, and I figured you wouldn’t want to miss it. Some luck, this happening the first night you get home, huh?"

"Sure is," I said, and Bill went off toward the water, gig in hand, hailing friends, then set to work spearing the masses of bewildered, jostling fish.