Monday, December 12, 2011

The Pillar

I was experiment with a few things when I first drafted this story. This my first attempt at writing in the third person omniscient point of view, setting my story in a real location, and having such a large cast of characters. I have to say I'm proud of what I created. Still, this is not a perfect draft there are errors that I will fix. Special note to all my Augusta readers, I realize it list of stops on the tour are not geographically feasible, specifically walking from the James Brown statue to the Augusta Canal and then to the cursed pillar. It will be changed. I promise. So slow your roll. Also, the names of the characters do not reflect real life people. When I write about the people in my life, I always change their names. Otherwise I hope you enjoy the story as much as I enjoyed writing. Can you guess my favorite character (s)?

The Pillar

It wasn’t everyday that the patrons of downtown Augusta saw a fully uniformed confederate soldier standing in front of the James Brown statue. Only Fridays and Saturdays after dusk, given good weather. When Thaddeus first appeared, the regulars who populated the bars and restaurants paid little attention to him because they assumed he was just a passing apparition. No one imagined that Thaddeus and his haunted tour would get a steady stream of customers. Augusta had not figured out how to set a tourist trap. The first week of April always brought droves of out-of-towners for the Master’s tournament but the golf fans weren’t particularly interested in ghosts. The regulars were right about the steady stream. The best Thaddeus could hope for were trickles, but they had underestimated his commitment. He had been returning to his post every fair weather weekend for over a year. Long enough for the regulars to accept Thaddeus into their circle. It started with the drunks heckling him. Then the more sober patrons talked the drunks into taking bets each night on how many fools would show up for the tours. The heckling and the gambling convinced the rest of the regulars that there must be something interesting about what kind of people paid for these tours. It only took three months for that confederate soldier to become the highlight of their weekend, but it wasn’t until Thaddeus sweated out a summer in that itchy, wool costume that he earned the downtown inhabitants’ respect and compassion.

As he leaned against James Brown, Thaddeus thanked October for both the cooling temperature and the growing clientele. With Halloween approaching, more people embraced the opportunity to be scared. When he began this venture, it had been a labor of love. He had a B.A. in History but drama had always been his true passion and he had figured that running his own ghost tour would be the perfect combination of the two. Still, the months of low turnouts and skeptic listeners had taken their toll and the fact that he hadn’t yet earned enough to quit frying chicken at Wife Saver’s restaurant didn‘t help his morale. He had even stooped to fudging the details to encourage bigger audiences and satisfy the skeptics. It wasn’t his fault that people wanted proof that they could see with their own eyes or sensational tales to keep them up at night so he had added a bit of dramatic flare to the legends and crafted props to pass off as evidence. He found it disheartening that his clientele embraced the sham easier than they accepted the legitimate tales. Thankfully, people were more eager to believe around Halloween. The October groups gave Thaddeus the strength he needed to make it through the rest of the year.

Thaddeus straightened up his stance as dusk neared. He had a role to play and it wouldn’t do for a soldier to be caught slouching. He tugged at the bottom of his gray jacket and checked that none of the brass buttons were askew. For the millionth time, Thaddeus sighed at his empty bayonet scabbard. He promised himself that he would buy a Civil War bayonet with the money he earned this month. But he pushed these thoughts aside as the first customer drew near.

Lydia didn’t mind that none of her friends wanted to go on the haunted tour with her. It allowed her to arrive early and they would have distracted her from her purpose. Her friends didn’t understand her fascination with Augusta’s legends and ghost stories. She approached the tall tour guide with the hope of finding someone who shared her passion. He smiled warmly and tipped his hat with a “Good evening, ma’am.” Lydia tried to be as friendly in her response, as she wondered how scripted his greeting might be and debated whether the feminist in her should be offended by the “ma’am” or not. She decided to play nice for the moment and exchanged pleasantries as she studied him. His face was round with large hazel eyes and a generous helping of freckles. With his slender build and baby face, Lydia figured he wouldn’t have lasted a month in the actual Civil War.

“I’m a student at Augusta State. I’ve spent my whole life here,” Lydia responded to Thaddeus’s inquiry. Then she raised one thin black eyebrow. “Why don’t you have a bayonet?”

Thaddeus dropped his warm demeanor. “It was destroyed in battle.” Then he turned to welcome a new trio joining the group, ending his conversation with Lydia. She smirked behind his back. Forget a month. He wouldn’t have lasted a week!

The three brothers raced to the statue. At 17, Keondre usually refused to participate in such a kiddish game but he couldn’t let his little brothers think they were faster than him. With his long legs, they never had a chance. He turned away from James Brown to gloat at his brothers, who immediately stopped and tried to pretend they weren’t involved in the game.

“You babies are such sore losers.”

“We didn’t lose!!” K.J., the youngest, bristled over being called a baby and a loser. Keshaun, also bristling, jump into the argument. “Yeah, we weren’t playing your stupid game. ‘Race you to the statue’ is lame.”

“It was K.J.’s idea in the first place!!!” Keondre straightened to his full height so he could tower over his brothers. Being only eleven, K.J. wasn’t immune to Keondre’s intimidation tactic so he ease behind Keshaun, who wasn‘t so easily cowed. He might not be as tall as Keondre but he had more muscle than his scrawny limbed big brother.

“Y’all here for the ghost tour?” Thaddeus had witnessed the tensions building between the three boys and hoped defuse the situation before it broke out in violence.

“Yes.” Keondre answered without taking his eyes off of Keshaun but K.J. was immediately distracted by the uniformed soldier talking to them. He ran to Thaddeus with a million questions flying from his mouth. Keshaun glanced toward K.J.’s excitement and noticed the brunette honey standing all alone behind the soldier. Forgetting all about the fight, he went to introduce himself and keep her company. “Hey, sweet thang. You’re too pretty to be left on the sidelines.” Full of frustration, Keondre leaned against the statue and sulked.

Three Marines arrived as the brothers dispersed. It was pay day at Fort Gordon and they needed to kill time until the bars came alive. Jesus had suggested that a ghost tour might be entertaining and Jay and Ben hadn’t come up with a better idea so they called a cab and headed downtown. The trio stationed themselves near the young woman and the kid, enjoying her stunned look as the kid continued to drop pick up lines.

“If we only get to have one woman in the group, at least she’s cute.” Jay spoke lowly so only Ben and Jesus would hear.

“Here comes the real eye candy.” Ben motioned to the blond-haired goddess, walking toward the costumed soldier with two guys trailing behind her.

Tiffany turned around and grabbed Pete’s hand. “Hurry up, slow pokes,” she teased, smiling at him and his older brother, Lenny. Pete laughed at her silliness but Lenny shook his head in disgust. Tiffany looked away from Lenny, trying to keep her smile from falling. Pete slipped his arm around her waist and kissed the side of her forehead. Tiffany’s smile became a little more genuine. She needed tonight to go well so it would smooth over any bruised feelings left over from her fight with Lenny yesterday. She was still embarrassed by her behavior. Not that she regretted defending herself and her family but her mother always told her that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar and shrieking like a banshee wasn’t attractive in anyone. She wanted Lenny to accept her so desperately that she had been nothing but sweet Georgia honey no matter how ugly Lenny treated her until last night when he insulted her family. Tiffany stomped down the anger creeping up inside her as she thought about last night. Resentment wasn’t going to help her relationship with Lenny so she forced her thoughts on the present and offered a bright smile to the confederate soldier. Tiffany silently prayed that a miracle would happen tonight and Lenny would realize what a wonderful person she was or at least that he would hate her a little less.

After collecting everyone’s payment, Thaddeus led the group over the cracked and uneven pavement toward the Springfield Baptist Church. He was pleased with the group as a whole. Ten clients was a respectable number, though he could have done without the know-it-all college student. Still, everyone else seemed to be getting into the spirit of the tour.

Keondre, Keshaun and K.J. were the most enthused. The older boys delighted in scaring K.J. at every opportunity, while K.J. denied any sign that he was frightened. To escape his brothers, K.J. walked next to Thaddeus and launched even more questions at him about ghosts and the life of a soldier. Since he could no longer torment K.J, Keshaun decided to flirt. He decided to try his charms on Tiffany. He might only be 14 but he already had a reputation as a player at his high school and he certainly was not going to limit himself to just Lydia.

“Hey, hot mama, where you been all my life?” He waited for Tiffany to melt, knowing she wouldn’t be able to resist his golden brown eyes.

Tiffany put on her pageant smile, which was her go to response whenever she was at a lost for the correct answer, and hoped the words would come to her when Pete rescued her from the awkward moment. Laughing, he held up her left hand so Keshaun could see the engagement ring. “Sorry, Romeo. This one’s taken.” Then he kissed her.

Keshaun didn’t doubt that he could steal Tiffany away from Pete but he decided to leave them alone and pursue Lydia. He knew she probably heard him chatting up Tiffany but he figured she would be thankful that he came back to her. “Sweetness, if you’re scared, you can hold on to me,” He flashed his lady-killer smile.

“You’re cute but it’s illegal for 20 year olds to ‘hold on to’ 14 year olds.”

“That’s only if people find out.” His persistence left Lydia speechless as she scrambled for a way to let him down gently. The three Marines laughed at her predicament. The tour was just starting and they were already entertained by the teenage Casanova chasing after Tiffany and Lydia.

As the group stopped in front of the church, K.J. continued to question Thaddeus. “Is that a gun holder?”

“It’s for a bayonet.”

“What’s a bayonet?”

“It’s a blade that goes on the end of a rifle.”

“Cool. Where’s your bayonet and rifle?”

“I left it at home.” Thaddeus flushed when he realized that the rest of the group had overheard. Several of them snickered, including Lydia and the Marines. Thaddeus took a composing breath and jumped into the telling of Springfield Baptist Church‘s history. “The church was founded in 1787 and had survived the Civil War and the Great Fire of 1916, so it made the perfect home for a ghost or two.” He knew he had the group captivated as he began to list the evidence that spirits continued to inhabit the building: unexplainable sounds, objects moving on their own, and strange voices.

“This picture was taken a year ago.” Thaddeus held out a photo of the church with bright circles floating in front of it. “Those glowing circles, called orbs, are ghosts.”

“That’s just light reflecting off dust,” said Lenny, the businessman from New York City. He had been dragged on this tour by Pete and Tiffany. The ghost tour was Tiffany’s idea and Lenny wanted to prove that it was a foolish one. The only reason he had taken a long weekend and flown down to this hick town was to keep Pete from marrying the gold digging queen of the trailer park. Lenny was certain that Pete had been thinking with his dick when he proposed to the blond-haired, blue-eyed, big-breasted Tiffany. There was no other explanation for Pete to leave his family and career behind to settle down in Augusta and marry that bimbo. Lenny refused to allow Pete to throw all his potential away for a good lay. Still, Pete could be stubborn, so Lenny strong evidence that Tiffany was a shallow, money hungry moron.

“No, it’s definitely orbs,” Thaddeus explained, when Lydia snatched the photo out of his hands. She sighed in disappointment. Despite Thaddeus’s incomplete uniform, Lydia had carried high hopes for this evening. Since he chose this profession, he should have loved the quirkier side of Augusta’s heritage and felt the same passion to preserve it that burned in her. Then, why did he have fake proof? It had to be out of laziness or ignorance. Either way, it was irresponsible because such fraud held the potential for making skeptics out of believers. She couldn’t let his hoax continue.

“Nope, it’s definitely dust. Orbs would be brighter and there wouldn’t be so many. You should know better.”

Thaddeus gritted his teeth. Of course, he knew it was only dust. The picture was one of his props. He would have shown them a photo of real orbs, if he had one, but the spirits seemed to be camera shy so he presented the dust particles as orbs and everyone was happy until this group came along.

“All orbs are simply dust or debris in that air.” Lenny smirked at Lydia. “And a building that old must be full of vermin, which make all the strange noises.”

His words sadden Lydia and she blamed Thaddeus with his fake orbs for Lenny’s disbelief.
Thaddeus was mortified and pissed. What happened to his scare-easy full-of-faith Halloween group? He considered ending the tour right there but then he spied the hope and curiosity in K.J.’s eyes. Someone believed in him so Thaddeus would persevere. “Let’s move along.”

He continued the route, hitting the Augusta Canal, the Confederate Powderworks Chimney, and the boyhood home of President Woodrow Wilson along the way. Each stop brought more of Lydia’s critique and Lenny’s cynicism. While K.J. remained engrossed in every tale, the older boys much have picked up on the tensions created by Lenny and Lydia because Keondre and Keshawn came to blows before the whole group could gather around Thaddeus in front of the old Medical College of Georgia. Two of the Marines, Jesus and Ben, pulled the boys apart. Jesus dragged Keondre to one side of the group, while Ben led Keshawn to the opposite side. “Cool down and listen to the story.” Thaddeus took Ben’s order as his cue to start.

“This was the original Medical College of Georgia building. A man named Grandison Harris had the duty of providing the students with cadavers. Most of students knew him as the Resurrection Man because he stole the bodies from Cedar Grove Cemetery. After the students finished practicing on a corpse, the Resurrection Man would dump it in the basement of the school.”

Jesus nudged Keondre and made him start, which Keondre tried to cover up with a stretch. Jesus smirked but didn’t comment on Keondre’s behavior. “K.J. is completely sucked into the story,” Jesus pointed out in a whisper. He nodded his head toward the youngest brother, who stood at the front of the group with his mouth gaping open and his eyes glued to Thaddeus.
Keondre grinned so wide all this teeth showed. “Yeah, K.J. eats this stuff up. He gave up on Santa years ago but he still believes in ghost.”

“And you don’t?” Jesus teased.

Keondre shrugged, “Do you?”

“I don’t know. Every place that I have been stationed has come with its own set of ghost stories. So many people believe in them, who am I to say any different?”

Lenny chose that moment to interrupt the story with his arguments against everything Thaddeus had said.

“That guy definitely isn’t a believer,” Keondre whispered.

“That guy’s an idiot.” Keondre started to laugh but stopped when he saw how closely K.J. listened to Lenny. Jesus noticed it, too. “Why don’t you go distract K.J., while I try to get the idiot to shut up?” Keondre headed straight for K.J.

Jesus glared at Lenny. The guy was such a prick he probably spent his free time telling kindergarteners that the tooth fairy didn’t exist. Jesus knew that the ghost stories were a bunch of bullshit but he had seen enough of the world to realize that you didn’t shit on other people’s beliefs. Sick of Lenny’s mouth, he spoke up, “Look, I don’t want to spend my whole night on this tour so let’s move along.” Ben and Jay had reached their limit with Lenny so they took Jesus’s suggestion as an order and began to head in the general direction down Broad Street that the route had taken. Thaddeus rushed to take the lead and the rest of the group had no choice but to follow.

As they approached the Augusta Chronicle Building, Thaddeus announced that it was the second to the last stop. “Thank you, Sweet Baby Jesus,” Tiffany mumbled under her breath. Pete squeezed her hand, letting her know that he had heard her. “I don’t know how much more I can take,” she whispered, half explaining and half apologizing.

“You shouldn’t have to take any of it. Lenny is acting like an ass.” Tiffany didn’t voice her agreement but she felt it. This night had turned out to be a complete failure. Instead of getting Lenny to like her, Lenny was making her hate him. She cringed over the word hate but she couldn’t feel any other way towards someone who kept attacking the things she held dear. Last night it was her family and tonight it was her hometown. She didn’t want to think about what Lenny would go after tomorrow night. Plus, the way he insisted on publicly arguing with Thaddeus made her mortified to be connected to him. She was going to have to apologize to the tour guide for bringing Lenny. So yeah, Tiffany definitely hated her future brother-in-law but she couldn’t let Pete know. She would not be accused of causing problems between the two brothers, so she kept her mouth closed and hoped she could make it to the end of the tour without giving Lenny a piece of her mind.

Pete wrapped his arms around Tiffany as Thaddeus began to talk about a ghost named Isabella. Pete tried to focus on the story but he was too pissed at his brother to concentrate. He had looked forward to the ghost tour. Tiffany had gotten him to fall in love with her home town almost as hard as he had fallen for her and he enjoyed uncovering the town’s and Tiffany’s quirky little secrets. He should love every moment of the tour but Lenny ruined it. Pete was an intelligent guy and he knew his brother well so he had a good idea why Lenny kept acting like an ass. By choosing to start a life with Tiffany in Augusta, Pete refused to follow the plan his family had charted for him. Lenny and the rest of their family expected Pete to become a partner at a major law firm, marry some Ivy League heiress, and have a New York style happily ever after. Instead, Pete found Tiffany, the beauty queen who wanted to save the world or at least her little slice of it. She taught him what it meant to have a home and he couldn’t imagine ever leaving her or Augusta. All of Lenny’s efforts to drive the couple apart only succeeded in pushing Pete away from his brother.

As the group moved on the final stop, Lenny decided he needed to something drastic. He had managed to shoot down the tour guide time and again, but he couldn’t get a response out of Tiffany. It would be easier to prove to his brother that Tiffany was a superstitious fool if she would argue with him. He had to get a reaction out of her. Lenny overheard her whispering to
Pete, “Oh, the Cursed Pillar. It’s the one I told you about. Remember?”

Pete laughed at her excitement. “The one that will kill you, if you touch it?”

“Yep.” Lenny knew what he needed to do.

Relief flooded Thaddeus, the worse tour night of his career was almost over and he would be able to escape from Lenny and Lydia. The group gathered around the pillar, while he paced between them and it. “This pillar used to be part of a large farmer’s market, which stood from 1830-1878. Farmers traded all kinds of goods here: cotton, tobacco, livestock . . . and slaves. Legend has it that many of the slaves were chained to this very pillar and whipped, until one of the slaves put a curse on the pillar. On February 8, 1878 a tornado blew through town and toppled the entire market, except for this lone pillar. To this day the locals believe that if you touch this pillar, you will immediately be struck dead.”

Thaddeus paused for the group to react. He waited in dread for Lydia to bring up the fact that this wasn’t the original pillar. The first one had been destroyed when a car hit it in 1935, but that fact took away from the magic of the tale.

This time Lydia remained quiet until Lenny spoke up. “That’s a bunch of bull. I’ll touch the pillar and prove it.”

The entire group shouted “No!” There was something about ten voices raised in unison that made even a self-assured man like Lenny pause. Thaddeus took the moment to put himself between Lenny and the pillar, “You really should leave it alone.” He prayed he had enough authority to make Lenny listen. He didn’t want to think about how everyone would react if Lenny touched the pillar and nothing happened or if the impossible happened and Lenny actually died.

“You can’t touch it,” Lydia chimed in and stood next to Thaddeus. She thought he was a completely inept tour guide but she supported Thaddeus in guarding the pillar. They couldn’t allow people to stop believing in the curse.

K.J. stared at Thaddeus and Lenny in wonder and dread. He hoped and feared that Lenny would touch the pillar. Keondre and Keshawn didn’t want to deal with K.J.’s broken heart, if Lenny proved the curse was made up, or K.J.’s horror, if the curse proved true.

The Marines were disgusted by Lenny’s disrespect for the town and his carelessness over the influence his actions had over the three boys. They moved to stand in front of the brothers in an attempt to block their view of the train wreck the tour had become.

“Lenny, please don’t do this.” Tiffany’s big blue eyes welled up with tears. She knew if he disillusioned her and the rest of the group, she would never be able to forgive him.

Pete didn’t think he had ever been so angry at his brother, but he knew fighting with Lenny would only encourage him to touch the pillar. Instead, Pete forced himself to speak in a calm tone as he put his hand on Lenny‘s shoulder, “Yeah, man. Let’s just go home.”
Lenny felt victorious from finally getting Tiffany to react, but it was the urgency in Pete’s eyes that sealed Lenny’s fate. He couldn’t believe that his intelligent, educated brother had bought into this shit. He shrugged off Pete’s hand, stepped around Thaddeus, and placed his hand flat on the cold stone pillar. Everyone stared at him. Not even their breathing interrupted the silence of the moment. As the seconds passed and nothing happened, Lenny removed his hand from the pillar. He threw his arms out wide, embracing his fate, and still nothing happened. He laughed but the rest of the group remained silent. He smirked at them. “See, no curse.”

K.J. looked up at Keondre. “So it wasn’t true?” Keondre could only shake his head as a tiny bit of K.J.’s faith and innocence faded away. Thaddeus felt the waves of anger rolling off the group and he waited for them to turn on him. After all, he had sold them a lie. But everyone’s rage focused on Lenny.

“You had no right,” Tiffany started yelling at him. “You’ve acted like an ass this whole time and I’ve tried to turn the other check but you’ve gone too far this time!” She stormed off before Lenny could respond. He expected Pete to finally understand but he seethed at Lenny. “Your plan failed. You haven‘t broken Tiffany and me apart. You can‘t break us up. But you did manage to ruin mine and your relationship.” He followed after Tiffany.

Lenny watched their retreating forms and then he turned back the rest of the group. They all had violence in their eyes as they stared him down. Lenny kept his mouth shut and wander off back up Broad street in the direction of Pete’s car.

Keondre motioned to his brothers. “Come on, let’s go home.” The three boys headed back up the street. The Marines joined them, doing their best to make the brothers laugh and fix whatever damage Lenny caused.

Thaddeus and Lydia lingered behind.

“Thanks for not mentioning that the pillar is a replica.”

“And make a bigger ass of myself than Lenny! No, I could never. Did you really think I would?”

“Well, you had plenty to say at all the other stops.”

“That was because I wanted you to do your job better. I would have never destroyed the legend like that. The cursed pillar belongs to all of us Augustans. It’s our story, our superstition. Regardless of what an individual person believes, the community believes that the pillar is cursed and so it must be.”

Thaddeus smiled and nodded in agreement. “Come on. I’ll walk you to your car.”

They walked back toward the James Brown statue. Lydia couldn‘t stop herself from pointing out, “You know it would make more sense, if the route of the tour made a circle . . .”

Thaddeus groaned. “Not if the stops won’t fall into that circle.”

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