Bowen Manor sits on a long, narrow track of land on the southern edge of Joplin. The Manor, sitting at the top of a steep incline, is ringed on three sides by marshland. It is a stately home built of red brick, mortared with mud from the nearby marsh. Its wrap around porch the perfect place to watch either the sunrise or sunset. A turret protrudes from its otherwise flat roof and a basement is housed within its foundations.
Bowen Manor was once the crown jewel of the Shoalsburgh neighborhood. After decades of neglect, the Manor has begun to collapse in on itself. Like a crumbling cornerstone, as the Manor has degraded, so too has Shoalsburgh around it. Long in disrepair, the Manor now overlooks a neighborhood on the verge of decay.
Even from deep within the basement of Bowen Manor, the creature hears the car coming up the hill. Without a muffler, the car roars and disturbs the night's silence. The engine's distinct rattle announces the arrival of intruders and the creature rises to investigate. Its annoyance at being disturbed gives way to eagerness as it hears two car doors open.
The doors bang closed and two teenagers run around the back of the Manor. The creature hears them giggle as they crawl through a deteriorating section of wall before making their way into the Manor's parlor. Unafraid, they fumble through the darkened room. Finding a sturdy table, the teenagers set about their amorous business.
The creature feels the teenagers' heartbeats quicken. Smells the pungent aroma of sweat and desire. Senses the heat rising from their bodies.
Transforming its body into mist, the creature floats upward through the rotting floorboards. It stands in the doorway of the parlor. Enraptured by their love making, the teenagers do not notice him.
"Oh, Jonah," the female moans.
With a wave of its hand, the creature wraps shadows around the teenagers until they are surrounded by a curtain of darkness. It is only after they have finished copulating that the teenagers notice they now stand in utter blackness. The inky embrace of shadow peels back to reveal the creature. Its eyes shine with luminescence as it steps forward. The teenagers meet its gaze and their muscles go slack; their minds turn blank.
Mesmerized as they are, the teenagers are easy prey.
Rows of identical apartment buildings with cracking concrete walls. Chasing friends through the twisting maze of alleys that run between the apartments. Large plots of land, stuffed with small houses, each sharing a central driveway. Winding streets lined on each side by deep gutters. Running along those gutters after a heavy rain, chasing paper boats.
These are the things Paul remembers about growing up in Shoalsburgh. Memories flip through Paul's mind in a slideshow as his car crests the hill of Highway 239 and Joplin comes into view.
It has been many years since Paul last returned home but the city looks the same. Its streets are laid out in a perfect grid. The squat buildings of downtown form a stubby skyline. Like a flowering bud, perhaps one day it will bloom into the type of towers and spires common to larger metropolises.
Paul continues driving south. The city looms beyond the tree line on his right. The land on the left fluctuates between farmland and massive mounds of stacked rock. These piles of tailing leftover from the days when Joplin was the lead mining capital of the world.
Legacies such as this prevail over Joplin. History is the city's lifeblood. Route 66 bisects its center. Bonnie and Clyde hid out in Joplin during the height of their crime spree. In the Murphysburg District, the architecture offers a snapshot of the previous century. Yet, for all the city remembers, it has forgotten Shoalsburgh.
For decades, Shoalsburgh stood apart from Joplin. A quaint village home to the descendants of miners and freed slaves. Five years ago, the citizens of Shoalsburgh voted in favor of annexation and the village became another of Joplin’s neighborhoods.
While Joplin has enjoyed the added tax revenue, Shoalsburgh has yet to see any of the benefits originally promised. Potholes mar the streets. Social services are sparse. The city's police officers are reluctant to answer calls in the neighborhood.
Shoalsburgh has the highest percentage of minorities out of all of Joplin's neighborhoods. Accustomed to hardship and unfair treatment, the residents of the neighborhood support each other. They persevere and live full lives even as their neighborhood degrades around them.
Paul crosses into Newton County and his hands tighten around the steering wheel, his dark skin stretching tight over the peaks of his knuckles. Beads of sweat perch on his brow. As he nears the neighborhood, Paul hopes he has what it takes to save Shoalsburgh.
Paul pulls up in front of the Gilyard Community Center. He steps from the car and starts toward the Community Center's door. He stops in his tracks when he catches sight of the covered bulletin boards that stand on either side of the chipped concrete walkway.
Both bulletin boards are covered in missing posters. Layer upon layer of fading paper, overlapped and creased. Tacked to the boards in an effort to stave off hopelessness.
The faces of pets, children, and adults stare out at him. Inked in black and white, the innocent smiles and deadpan stares are stark reminders of what has brought him back to Shoalsburgh.
Disappearances have always been common in Joplin but in Shoalsburgh, they are an epidemic. Most are attributed to people leaving the area. The city's reputation as a major transportation hub combined with the pull of the open road too great to be overcome. The common assumption being that the vanished left to seek better lives and never returned.
Paul knows differently. He knows that something stalks the streets of Shoalsburgh. He has spent years preparing to finally end its reign of terror. Standing on the walkway, part of Paul wonders if he should have returned sooner. Another part worries that he has returned too soon. He’s nervous that he isn't ready. That he won't be enough to end the scourge that has plagued his neighborhood for decades.
"Father Paul!" a voice calls, pulling him back to the present. Paul looks up to see the familiar face of Howard Mason, the Community Center's director. The two men shake hands before standing back and looking each other over, taking in all the years that have passed since they were last together.
"Welcome home, Paul," Howard says, a wide smile deepening the plethora of wrinkles that line his face. "That collar suits you. I'm sorry you aren't here under more fortunate circumstances."
Somberly, Paul replies, "me too, but it's good to see you nonetheless."
Gesturing toward the Community Center, Howard says, "Here let me show you where you'll be staying."
The next day Paul stands in a cemetery, a sparse crowd of mourners spread out in front of him. As the casket is lowered into the ground, Paul throws in a handful of dirt and begins the Rite of Committal. Having recited the liturgy many times before, Paul goes through the service automatically, his mind on his best friend Micah.
Micah's son Jonah is the most recent person to have disappeared. When Micah asked him to lead Jonah’s service, Paul decided it was time to return to Shoalsburgh. First comes the burial. Then it will be time to hunt the creature responsible for the disappearances of Jonah and so many others before him.
That night, Paul sits at Micah's rickety kitchen table. The whiskey flows faster and freer than the tears that fall from Micah's eyes.
Eventually, Paul turns to his friend and says, "I'm going to end this, Micah. Jonah will be the last one."
Micah merely nods, not looking up. Unfazed by his friend's lackluster response Paul begins to lay out his plan. He explains that he's spent the last twenty years learning the exorcism rituals of Catholicism and the Yoruba religion. He has analyzed folklore and studied geology and topography. He has spent untold hours strengthening his faith as well as his spiritual consciousness, known among the Yoruba as ori-inu.
Paul assures Micah that he has returned to cast out what he believes to be an aberubaniyan, a creature of darkness that feeds on the souls of the living. With a sigh, he admits that although he’s determined to succeed, it may take some time to locate the aberubaniyan's lair.
Hearing this, Micah finally breaks his silence and says, "Maybe not as long as you think. You know I've been working for the Conservation Department, right? The day he disappeared, Jonah and I traded cars. That night, he left before I could get my equipment out of the trunk."
Micah takes a long swig of whiskey before continuing, "see, I left an active radio collar in the trunk. After he disappeared, I used the frequency to track everywhere the car had been. Before they found it by that old mine shaft, the last place the car went was Bowen Manor."
Lying on Micah's sofa, a memory plays through Paul's mind.
As a boy, Paul loved to go camping. His favorite spot was on the edge of the marsh next to the ventilation shaft of a defunct mine. One night he was awakened by a car pulling up to the edge of the shaft. A man got out of the car and opened the trunk. From the trunk rose a mist that formed into a tall, lithe creature.
Paul watched in terror as the man followed the creature toward the shaft. The creature moved like smoke on the wind. It seemed to slither rather than walk, a living shadow moving across the rocky ground.
Reaching the edge of the shaft, the creature turned, seized the man, and sunk its fangs into his neck. When it had finished feeding, the creature tore the man's head off and tossed it and his body into the shaft’s gaping mouth. Then the creature transformed itself into mist and floated away into the marsh.
Paul tried to convince himself that it had all been a dream, but the memory haunted his nightmares. Years later while attending college, a classmate lent Paul a book on Nigerian folklore. That was when Paul realized the creature he had seen all those years ago, the thing that had been preying on the people of Shoalsburgh, was an aberubaniyan.
Paul dropped out of school and entered the priesthood, spending years preparing to one day face the aberubaniyan. Now, that day had arrived.
Staring up at the ceiling of Micah’s living room, Paul prays that his resolve is strong enough, his focus sharp enough, and his faith bountiful enough to finally end the aberubaniyan's reign of terror.
The next morning, Paul and Micah walk up the steps of Bowen Manor. Paul had urged his friend to stay behind but Micah was insistent on coming along. Seeing that Micah would not be dissuaded, Paul passed on a single piece of advice.
"Whatever you do, don't look into the aberubaniyan's eyes."
The two men make their way through the Manor until they come to the basement steps. Before descending, the men light several flares. Paul tosses one down the steps. It clatters across the basement floor, illuminating the staircase and keeping the darkness at bay. Each holding a flare above their head like a torch, Micah and Paul make their way into the basement.
The basement is perpetually damp. Moisture from the marshy soil seeps through cracks in the foundation, creating a pall of dankness within the enclosed place. Shallow pools of water reflect the light from the flare that lays in the center of the room.
Paul tosses his flare into the opposite corner and lights another as Micah pulls out a pistol. The light from the flares reveals nothing but an empty room, yet Paul remains alert. The aberubaniyan can manipulate shadows and despite the flares, darkness still clings to the basement's walls.
Motioning to Micah to stay on his guard, Paul begins to whistle, knowing that the sound should draw out the aberubaniyan. For a few moments, nothing happens. Then a figure steps out of the darkness. Seeing his son Jonah standing before him, Micah drops his flare. He rushes forward and wraps Jonah in a hug, oblivious to Paul's shouted warning.
Suddenly, Micah's body jerks. He staggers backward as Jonah pulls a knife out of his father’s stomach, its blade glistening with fresh blood. Micah raises the gun and fires blindly. Two bullets strike Jonah in the chest, but he still manages to raise the knife and slash its blade through Micah's throat.
Micah falls to his knees and Paul gets a clear look at Jonah. Realization washes over Paul, a downpour of shock. Jonah has become the aberubaniyan's thrall. Nothing more than a lifeless husk driven purely by the creature's hypnotic influence.
His fully dilated pupils looking like black holes, Jonah steps toward Paul and raises the knife. Paul reaches into the satchel on his belt and pulls out a handful of salt, purified and blessed a few hours earlier. Reciting a Yoruban prayer, Paul throws the salt. The coarse white granules spread out in the air and leave a light dust on Jonah's skin and clothes. Jonah takes one more step, shudders, and then slumps to the ground as the aberubaniyan's spiritual tether is severed.
Paul rushes to Micah but finds that his friend has already bled out. Kneeling between their bodies, Paul prays over Jonah and Micah. When Paul finishes praying and raises his head, he sees that the smoke from the flares is gathering along one of the basement walls. Placing Micah's pistol inside his boot, Paul moves to the side of the room. He pushes against a section of wall and the stone slides away, revealing a tunnel that leads down into the earth.
Lighting his last two flares, Paul makes his way down the tunnel. His breath fogs in the deepening cold, mixing with the smoke from the flares as he slowly descends. Soon, Paul finds himself in a large cavern. Abandoned mining tunnels branch out in front of him, each running in a different direction.
From his topographical research, Paul knows that old mining tunnels run beneath the majority of Joplin. Rage overtakes him as he realizes that the aberubaniyan had access to the entire city yet chose to primarily hunt in Shoalsburgh. Preying on people who were already poor and underprivileged.
Channeling his rage into a righteous anger, Paul steps to the center of the cavern and places one of the flares at his feet. He raises the second torch above his head, pushing back the darkness. He stands in the center of a slender circle of light.
Paul pulls a small totem from his pocket and holds it in the palm of his left hand. The totem is made of rough, dark wood and topped with a wrought silver crown. A tripartite column of stacked tiers, the totem resembles a layer cake flipped upside down. The totem, handcrafted by a Yoruban shaman, has been blessed by priests and infused with ase, the spark of life.
Paul keeps his eyes cast on the ground, using his peripheral vision and sense of hearing to scan the area outside the circle of light. He alternates between whistling a negro spiritual and chanting a short Yoruban prayer. The whistled tune, sad and haunting, drifts through the tunnels. The chant is closer to song than speech. Rhythmic and joyous intonations pour from Paul's lips and bounce off the walls of the cavern.
Long minutes tick by and then Paul perceives movement to his right. It takes all his willpower not to turn his head and look in that direction. Around him, the darkness pulses and bubbles. Paul knows the aberubaniyan is close. He focuses on the totem and begins a new chant, this one deep and guttural.
Keeping his head down to avoid looking into the aberubaniyan's eyes, Paul tries to track the creature's movements, struggling to discern its motion from the roiling shadows.
Suddenly, stars flash in front of Paul's eyes as a stone smashes into his temple. In the next instant, the aberubaniyan is upon him. The aberubaniyan strikes Paul in the back, knocking the flare and totem from his hands. Paul is thrown to the ground and the aberubaniyan springs on top of him, pinning him to the cavern floor.
Pain sears through Paul's body as the aberubaniyan sinks its fangs into his shoulder. It wraps a hand around Paul's throat, cutting off his air as it drains his life force. The aberubaniyan is so set on ending him, that it does not notice Paul's hand slide to his boot.
In one fluid motion, Paul draws Micah's pistol. He raises it quickly and fires a single bullet through the aberubaniyan's skull. Convulsing, the aberubaniyan falls backward, and Paul is freed from its grip. Crawling forward, Paul scoops up the totem and turns toward the aberubaniyan.
Before the aberubaniyan can recover its strength, Paul begins to chant. The aberubaniyan tries to resist but soon the power of Paul's faith reduces it to a cloud of vapor that is drawn into and sealed within the totem.
At first, Paul is elated. After years of study and strife, he has vanquished the aberubaniyan. With the residents of Shoalsburgh finally safe, Paul breathes a sigh of relief. He tries to stand and finds his body is going numb.
Horror washes over Paul as he realizes the aberubaniyan has passed on its curse. He knows that there is only one way to stop the transformation and truly save Shoalsburgh. After saying a quick prayer, Paul picks up the pistol, places the barrel against his temple, and pulls the trigger. The gunshot roars through the mining tunnels. Then, there is only silence.