The arm in question was shriveled, blackened veins spread from a group of wounds near the elbow. The wounds themselves, five small crescent-shaped marks, glowed with a sickly purple light, pulsing gently with each heartbeat.
“Yup, that’s a real curse you got there” Joseph Jacob Bigelow IV sat up from the surgical magnifier that he had been hunched over and finally looked into Earl’s eyes. They were filled with fear, the kind of fear that unmakes a man. The kind of fear that takes someone from a buck hunting macho man to a whimpering sack faster than you can say ‘Ia Ia Ftagn.’ Joe turned off the lamp on his magnifier before getting up to walk over to the fridge and grab two beers. Earl finally looked at Joe when he popped the two cans open with his index fingers and offered one down to Earl. Joe stood beside Earl for a few moments sipping the beer in silence.
“What do I do Joe?” Earl was a big guy, shaped like a bull, about as smart as one too. quick to get into a fight, and just as quick to buy the guy a beer as soon as it was over. Joe looked him over, from his crew cut of peppered black hair, round head and massive shoulders, the beer gut, and camo pants completed the look of a backwoods idiot perfectly, just the kind of person Joe had come back home to save.
“Don’t get yourself too worked up now, Earl.” Joe could hear his own southern accent, it had been a constant sticking point to his classmates when he was in culinary school. But he had proven himself in the kitchen, a near-perfect palate, exceptional knife skills. His instructors thought he would end up at some Michelin star restaurant. Chef Jordan would be horrified to find him cooking in some greasy spoon in Sour Lake, Texas, Chef Mims would think that it’s wonderful, he was always a fan of cooking, no matter what or where it was. Joe was lanky, the type of chef you would look at and say, ‘never trust a skinny cook’. He ran one of his long thin hands through his sandy blond hair. “First thing first Earl, we gotta get over to the diner, I’ll get you something to help out with that there arm.”
“You can fix it?”
“Hell yeah I can fix it Earl, but, you gotta tell me everything that happened, and drink your beer, it’ll help with the pain.”
Joe had driven the two of them to the greasy spoon in his old truck, a Ford chassis with so many frankenstiened parts underneath the hood that no one could possibly tell what it had started life as. The diner itself had the classic look of a 1950’s establishment, and in fact had been around since the late 40’s, on the side of highway 105, proudly serving those who got lost and turned around on those east Texas back roads.
Earl sat in one of the many empty booths, this time at night, there was hardly any chance that anyone would come by the diner, hell, it wasn’t a huge issue during the day either. Joe had his share of regulars, locals who would come in between work shifts, or during their commutes into Beaumont, but by and large, he knew they would be largely undisturbed here.
Nancy, a woman who was old when the diner first opened moved through the aisle with a pot of coffee, Joe didn’t bother to ask if it was fresh, it was always fresh, Nancy had a preternatural gift for knowing what customers needed and wanted. It’s how she had held this job so many years. She also never asked any questions about the things that happened, the things that came into the diner, which Joe appreciated, even if he didn’t quite understand.
“Got yerself bit up there Earl.”
“Well, I’m sure Joe will fix you up just fine.” Nancy patted Earl’s good arm, and began moving back behind the counter, but not before sparing Earl’s bad arm a hairy eyeball. When she came around, she walked to the kitchen window and leaned against it. “That ain’t no bite Joe Jack.”
“No, Nancy, it ain’t.” He didn’t look up from the cutting board he was working on, chopping thistle, toadflax, and hydrangea as fine as he could before separating out half of each. He dumped half of the herbs into a foul-smelling liquid and dipped a cloth into that, the rest he mixed with chili peppers, salt, and a few other seasonings. He went to work with the movements of a surgeon, prepping potatoes, carrots and a nice meatloaf, coated in the seasoning he had created earlier. He tossed the vegetables into a small pressure cooker with some aromatics before pushing the meatloaf into an oven. With a timer set, he walked back out of the kitchen and sat heavily across from Earl. “Alright, man, you spill what happened, and where.”
Earl looked pained, but not because of his arm. Joe had seen the look plenty of times, usually from a dog that just shit on the carpet.
“Well I was out deer huntin’ you know it’s the season, and I just got this new rifle, so I wanted to bag a nice deer or two, get enough meat to last a bit, and then Ethel been askin’ for some hide to make a new jacket, so I thought I would take a quick trip up into the woods.”
“Pine Woods Estate, right?”
“Uh Yeah, Joe.”
“How far north Earl?” Joe knew the answer, he knew because it was the only reason Earl had come back looking like a beaten dog that did wrong, instead of trying together a posse. But Joe wanted him to say it, to admit that he did wrong and that he knew he did wrong.
“I went past the creek.” There were a lot of creeks and ditches in Sour Lake, even more in Pine Wood, but Joe knew what creek he meant. There was only one creek it could be. There weren’t a lot of rules out there in the woods, you tried not to be a huge dick and things tended to work out all right.
“You went past the creek, which you know better than to do, and then you did something to piss off the Pleasant Folk.” Joe heard Nancy stop suddenly, the diner was dead quiet as if just saying the name of those things that lived deep in the pine forests of East Texas was enough to bring them about. “What did you do Earl?”
“Nothin’ I promise Joe Jack, I promise I didn’t do anything to no one out there, I was just deer huntin’” Earl was almost desperate, pleading, grabbing at Joe’s hand begging for him to understand. After a few moments, Joe pulled his hand back. “Alright Earl, listen, I’m gonna fix you up, and I’m going to fix this, but you’re gonna owe me, and you’re gonna owe the Pleasant Folk, and that ain’t ever pleasant.”
Joe stood up and grabbed the cloth he had been soaking, handing it over to Nancy. “Bandage up that arm for me.” He pulled the meatloaf out of the oven and began plating the food, not that anyone in Sour Lake could appreciate the presentation, but he would be damned if he served a sloppy plate to anyone, even Earl.
A few minutes later Nancy watched wearily as Joe prepped for his own trip into the woods, a leather apron went over his work shirt, he wore jeans and hiking boots to protect his feet. He stood there sharpening a cleaver with an old whetstone, silent other than the consistent sound of blade on stone.
“I can feel you staring holes in my head, Nancy” He finally said, quietly enough that Earl, eating his dinner in the main room of the diner couldn’t hear.
“This is some foolishness boy, you don’t think them Pleasant Folk like you no more than him, do you?”
“Nah” Joe smiled, crooked ever since he and his dad had gotten into a fist fight so many years ago, his jaw had never been set right, in order to avoid awkward questions from child protective services. “But I think they would be more willin’ to talk at me than Earl, waving his gun around.”
“You ain’t takin’ a gun?” He wouldn’t have thought anything could surprise Nancy.
“Of course I’m taking a gun, I ain’t stupid, I just ain’t gonna wave it around, ‘less I need to.” Joe pushed the cleaver into his apron before turning around to grab his shotgun from beside the door, along with a few extra shells and slugs, just in case. “It’ll be fine Nancy, trust me, I ain’t exactly new to this part.” Nancy pursed her lips together but said nothing as she headed back out to check on Earl.