On a late summer night,
When stars give no light,
Out from the grove,
To take a new member,
In the full moon of September,
You’ll never come back,
Once in their cursed pact.
That was the saying that every member of Grovetown knew. The tiny town surrounded by farmers’ groves looked upon this time of the year with horrified dread. Shutters were tightly closed as fearful looks were given along with the whispered gossip of who would be taken this year.
The Grovemen. That’s what they were called by anyone who knew. Rumor had it that they would visit three individuals and hear their pleas to not be taken on the last full moon of September. The dark clouds in the sky that would block out the stars tonight matched the cloudy feelings of anxiety that almost every town member was feeling.
Jeb McCrea sat on his dusty couch in the middle of his decrepit living room, drinking cheap whiskey from a plastic bottle and watching two college football teams he didn’t care about. It was mostly on for company. The image of his wife behind a cracked sheet of glass in a chipped frame smiled lovingly at him from the wall. The photograph brought more regret as he remembered the night of her passing.
It had been a warm night when she had passed. Jeb- in his usual post-work intoxication- was in a screaming fit of alcohol-induced rage at his wife for being angry at him for giving their son, Walter, a black eye. Walter’s grades had been slipping again and Jeb had deduced that the only thing that would put the kid back on track was a good beating, just like Jeb’s old man had done to him.
Margaret McCrea, in her petit, yet fierce frame, was howling insults at Jeb to take his mind of their son.
“Just like your father!” she hurled.
“All McCrea men are nothing but alcoholic losers!” another attack.
Jeb had had enough. Without thinking, he had thrown a glass bottle half-filled with Irish whiskey at her. The projectile missed by a long shot, but Margaret took the message and stormed out of the house. She had made it to the road right as a semitruck was passing by. She never saw it coming. Three years later, when Walter was old enough, he had left town and never came back- Jeb had not even received so much as a letter from his son in the thirty-two years since.
Jeb took another swig of whiskey, trying to keep his mind off of his past mistakes that had lead to him losing his family. Nothing worked. A knock came at the door and Jeb’s heart dropped to his stomach, knowing who would be on the other side of the door.
The faces were worse than he could have imagined. Lifeless eyes gazing at him from over a hundred different heads, each grey and moldy with signs of decay. The bodies were dirty and their torn clothes revealed twigs and leaves growing from the lifeless skin.
Jeb McCrea, the Grovemen said. It was the collective whisper of the entire congregation of the dead outside. To Jeb, the voices were like nails screeching across a chalkboard. We come from the grove to take your thy soul. You will become one of we, unless you can give three reasons to save thee.
Heart beating against his chest, Jeb had the sudden realization that he had dropped the bottle from his hand. The plastic bottle sat on the ground in a puddle of brown liquid that seeped into the floorboards of his front porch. His mind raced for a redemptive fact to be saved.
There was the time he had tried to call his son to apologize, Walter had never answered, though. What about the day that he had given some old clothes to the homeless shelter in the city? No, that wasn’t big enough. The only recent good deed had been when little Matthew Whitfield had been caught shoplifting a carton of milk and some canned soups from Bobby Reinhart’s shop.
Jeb had been picking up a carton of cigarettes when he heard Bobby screaming at Matthew and tried to pay for the things the kid had stolen. The tearful eyes of the kid and the knowledge that he was the poorest kid in town had made Jeb feel sympathetic that day. It was of no use, the successful owner of the shop and the man with the biggest farm in the state would not accept the money for the kid.
“I-“ Jeb McCrea began and broke off. The sixty-seven-year-old knew that he did not deserve saving, “I have no reason to not be taken. I am a pathetic alcoholic who killed his wife and ran his son off to never see me again. I can’t hold a job, I miss paying my bills more often than not, and I haven’t helped a soul in nearly four decades. Take me with you, I deserve it.” His eyes teared up as he shut them tight, waiting for the fires of hell, the fog of the groves, or the cold hands of the Grovemen to carry him away. They never came, though.
You have done much bad in your life, the whispers spoke- Jeb realized that none of the mouths moved when the voices came. It was almost as if the wind were speaking. We see your conflict and strife. Another chance we will give as you make things right while you live. Quit your drinking and do not regret, things will get better if you clean up your life and repay your debts.
“B- but what do I-?” the congregation of dead were gone before Jeb could finish his question. Without a second thought, the old man pulled all the booze and cigarettes out of his cabinets and threw them into the garbage. With shaking hands, he began to clean his living room.
Matthew Whitfield woke up from a nightmare. Though he couldn’t remember what it had been about, he knew it must have been a horrible one since he was shaking so badly. The room felt abnormally cold. He decided getting a glass of water would help him feel better before going back to sleep.
Creeping across the squeaking floors of his little house to not wake his mother, he had just reached the refrigerator when a slight tapping came from the front door. Heart stopping for a moment, Matthew scanned the room for his mother, who would give him hell for being out of bed so late. She was already upset with him for stealing milk and food from the store.
Matthew couldn’t help it, though. He knew money was tight. The only food he had been able to eat for his last eight meals was a single slice of bologna on stale bread. The twelve-year-old thought he was doing a good thing. Having the smallest house in town and no father around had made Matthew the poorest kid in class- something the other students would never let him forget. Especially the Reinhart boys- they had had a field day after their father caught the kid trying to shoplift. First, Mr. Reinhart berated him for an hour before old Mr. McCrea had attempted paying for the meager stolen items, then his mother had had to work at the shop to pay for the stolen items for a whole week after her shifts at the diner, and finally, the Reinhart boys had made sure to pummel Matthew with their fists and insults every day after school since that day.
The tapping came again, more urgent this time. Matthew almost screamed when he opened the door to find the Grovemen crowding the front yard of his house.
The whispers of a hundred different dead people spoke at once, Matthew felt his bladder release as piss ran down his leg. His throat dried beyond his initial thirst.
Matthew Whitfield, you have done a committed a sin within this very season. Your mother was forced to pay in ways that to you she cannot say. Give us a reason not to take you or eternal damnation will ensue.
It was even worse than what the kids at his school described it being as. Matthew wanted to cry. What did they mean by, “Your mother was forced to pay in ways she cannot say?” His mind raced for something to speak, but all that could be thought of were images of becoming one of the Grovemen with decaying flesh and plants growing from his abdomen.
From somewhere he willed his voice to speak, “I d-d-don’t know what I have done to repay for my sin. I feel horrible about it. Maybe the Tommy and Chad Reinhart are right, I do deserve to be one of you.”
For an excruciating moment, everything was silent. The Grovemen stood still as statues as Matthew waited to be taken. All of the sudden, they spoke to him.
You are the poorest in school, you have little to eat. One time you have acted as a fool, but it was for a noble feat. You are safe for tonight, but remember to stay bright. If you commit the sin again, to you once more we will send.
Tears streaked down Matthew’s eyes. A sudden overwhelming mix of regret, sorrow, gratefulness, and fear ran through his body like a bolt of lighting. He reached up to rub his eyes and found his front yard empty upon opening them again. Immediately, Matthew went back to his room to change into a clean pair of pajama pants and writing his mother an apology letter stating that he would never do something like stealing again.
Thirty-eight-year-old Bobby Reinhart shut off his expensive pickup truck as he arrived home well after midnight. Making one last look in the mirror to check that all the lipstick from his mistress was wiped clean, he hopped out of the driver’s seat and whistled on his way to the front door.
He took a final sweep across his farm- the biggest and most successful farm in the state- and smiled to himself as he remembered how rich he was. Sure Bobby cheated on his wife from time to time, but he was a man with a high drive. Besides, his successful shop and the farm provided for anything his wife and children wanted, he was a good man in his own mind. The lock had just turned with his key when Bobby felt a cold hand touch his shoulder. He turned around and jumped at the sight of a group of dead people staring at him.
‘How could this be?’ he thought to himself, ‘The Grovemen don’t exist, and even if they do, there are people more deserving to be taken than me.’
A whispered voice from unmoving lips sent chills throughout the man’s body. Robert Reinhart, you live an uncaring life and you are unfaithful to your wife. We know what you do in your secret time, your unjust thoughts and deeds of unkind. Tonight we will take you to be one of us unless you give a reason for why we should trust.
What the hell were these assholes talking about? Sure, he screamed at that little shit, Matthew Whitfield, and made his mother work shifts for no pay, but what was a man supposed to do when he catches someone stealing from him? If he let Whitfield steal unpunished, everyone else in town would do the same thing. And sure, he made Ms. Whitfield pay in more… indecent ways… but she’s a tramp who had a child out of wedlock and has a rockin’ body! How could he resist himself? Especially when his wife wouldn’t put out anymore.
Fear took over Bobby as he began his plea, “I’m a good man. The Whitfields deserved what they got for stealing. Karen Whitfield is a whore anyway! And so what I’m having an affair with the librarian in town? I’m paying for her apartment and I still provide for my family. Take someone who deserves it. I am a good man!”
Make a better case for yourself, or yourself or you will join our damned shelf.
“What about Matthew Whitfield? He stole from me and he gives my sons trouble at school every day! Or his mother, she will suck anything to keep her son out of trouble? What about that old man, Jeb McCrea? He yelled at me for discipling Matthew and he killed his wife back in the eighties!”
We have heard your plea, and you are not worthy. You have been chosen to join our group, and spend eternity in our hopeless loop.
“No! No! Take my wife, even one of my kids, take them!” Bobby Reinhart screamed and begged. “I don’t deserve this! I am a successful farmer and business owner! Take someone else!”
It was too late, the congregation of dead surrounded Bobby and carried him into the screaming fog of the groves outside of Idlefield. The next December, a sober and clean Jeb McCrea got a call from his son asking if he and his family could spend Christmas with Jeb. In the February of the following year, Karen and Matthew Whitfield got a large inheritance from a wealthy relative who had passed away. Bobby Reinhart was never seen by his family or anyone else again, except for those unlucky enough to be visited by the Grovemen each September.