The Scent of Death

I have ridden over the roads of Sleepy Hollow, my horse sucking in big breaths of night while I breathe nothing, for decades upon decades. Here, in this enchanted land, cupped gently in the green palm between the shivering mountains, where songs are real and magic lives under the water of the valley’s streams, they tell stories about me.

They say that fire streams from the nostrils of my coal-black steed and sparks shiver from beneath his hooves. They say that I ride along the main Chancery road, urging my horse ever faster, stopping only for the old covered mill bridge because I cannot cross water. They say I carry my head beneath my arm. They are right.

They say that, two hundred years ago, a man named Ichabod Crane rode a horse named Gunpowder along the Chancery Road in the black of Halloween night, and they say that I killed him. They are wrong.

Ichabod Crane did not die because he saw me.

He saw me because he was about to die.

* * * *

If I ever saw another donut again, I was going to throw up.

I stuffed my ugly blue coat into the passenger seat of my little dead Toyota coupe and gagged a bit as the smell of fresh donuts wafted off the sleeves. Footsteps padded on the asphalt behind me.

“Ansje?” It was Brian, my former boss. He still hadn’t learned to pronounce my name properly. I guess I hadn’t really given him a lot of time to figure it out. “Where are you going?”

“I told you, I’m quitting,” I said. A gust of wind from the mountains carried the scent of woodsmoke to my nose, obliterating the scent of hot oil for a moment. I reveled in it; took a tiny vacation in the smell.

“It’s only been three hours.”

“Ha!” I replied, turning to face Brian. Even just looking at him made me think of thousands of donuts proceeding under a cascade of sugary glaze. My stomach churned. “Ha! ‘Only’!” I realized I was still wearing the Dizzy Donuts hat and I thrust it at him. “Only is for places like pony farms and ski chalets and libraries. ‘Almost’ is the word for Nickelback concerts, hell, and donut shops.”

I left Brian the Donut Guy standing in the middle of the parking lot, holding my hat, as I drove away into the evening. In my rear view mirror, he cut a sad figure in his day-glo orange Dizzy’s apron. The orange looked even more hideous in comparison to the true orange of the autumn trees behind the store. There should’ve been a law against making textiles in colors not found in nature.

In the seat beside me, my cell phone rang — Vampire Weekend — as I navigated Chancery Road past the Walmart and the Rite-Aid.

I dug the phone out from under my coat. “Ansje.”

The voice was rough, with a grate to it. “Hi, it’s Hudson.”

Instantly donuts disappeared from my mind, replaced by hard biceps, leather jacket, hot Chevelle, the taste of alcohol on our lips, my back up against a wall. Normally I couldn’t speak once I heard Hudson’s voice, but I’d practiced a line at home to use every time he called. It unstuck my tongue and was always relevant. I used it now: “What are you doing right now?”

“Wondering what you’re doing.”

“Being unemployed.”

Hudson said, “I should have been more clear. I was wondering what you were doing tonight. For Halloween. With me.”

I hadn’t prepared a line for this. Fact was, I’d sort of told Owen Stone that I’d hang out with him this evening and watch some marginally scary movie. Hudson and I had this on again off again relationship. Emphasis on off. So I’d thought that if I wanted someone to snuggle with, I’d have better luck with my best friend than my ex-boyfriend.

I stalled. “I walked out of a job at the Dizzy Donut after three hours.”

Hudson laughed his sexy, sand-paper laugh. “Why — the smell?”

“How’d you guess?”

He just laughed again.

“So, I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said. “You’re breaking up.”

I hung up. It wasn’t a terrible excuse. Here in Sleepy Hollow, cell connections broke off without reason, sometimes right next to cell towers. Something about the mountains and the valley and the past thick enough to eat with a spoon.

Most days, I just laughed it off. But most days weren’t Halloween. I was glad Owen was coming over.

* * * *

I heard the familiar thrum of Owen’s car below and went to the door to let him in. My apartment was a second floor affair, hosting me, the princess, at the top of of a concrete exterior staircase that offered views of the valley and the mall. As I watched Owen climb the last two concrete stairs to my apartment door, I briefly smelled something like grass and sulphur.

Owen stopped in front of my door and held up a plastic SuperSave bag. “Loot,” he said. “Of the pimple-making variety. Happy Halloween.”

I grinned at him until I saw Hudson standing just behind his shoulder, looking dangerous and handsome next to Owen. “Halloween is for the dead,” Hudson said. “Look around. Everything’s dying. Look at the trees and the grass and the insects. They’re all dead. Everything’s dead.”

Around us, the wind scuttered dry leaves across the concrete stairs, the ones trapped by the stair raillings flapping and chittering.

Owen turned to follow my gaze, but of course the stoop behind him was empty. Just Sleepy Hollow being Sleepy Hollow.

My mom, before she moved, told me that once she’d seen me come down from my room, get my breakfast, and leave for school — the week that I’d been staying with my grandmother six-hundred miles away.

“Something?” Owen asked.

“Nothing,” I said. And it must’ve been, because Hudson would’ve never put that many intelligent words together in a row. I stood back to let him into the apartment and shut the door.

Inside, Owen made himself comfortable on the couch and dumped out the bag of candy on the cushions beside him. “So what’s new in the land of Ansje?” He was the only one who ever said it so it sounded right. Not just the sounds of the letters, but the sound of his voice when he said it, soft and friendly.

“I find myself gainfully unemployed once more. Dizzy donuts was a bust,” I said, sliding a DVD into the player and joining him on the couch, the pile of orange-wrapped candy between us. “I’m sure you’re shocked, of course. You may pretend to be shocked now.”

Owen put a hand over his mouth and gasped. Then he ate a bite-sized candy bar. “I’m surprised you even bother looking for jobs in food service now. You have to know that you’ll hate them.”

Shrill strings screamed out from the television, announcing the start of our movie. We ate candy until the movie got too scary, and then I shoved most of the candy onto the floor so that I could hide my face behind Owen’s arm. He leaned his cheek onto the top of my head, careful to not bend his wire-framed glasses, and covered half my face with his hand, letting me peek out from between his fingers.

My mom had told me once that Owen wasn’t boyfriend material. And I guess Owen didn’t look like Hudson, with his tall, lanky
body and loose-jointed arms. But I’d known him so long, even before I ever started dating Hudson, that I didn’t even really think about what Owen looked like anymore. I liked best that he didn’t smell like anything. Hudson had a sort of evergreen aftershave that he wore, and he smelled like laundry detergent and beer and the leather seats of his Chevelle. Which was nice, I guess, at first, but over-powering — like living at an AC/DC concert instead of just watching one show.

But Owen didn’t smell like anything — I think he had stopped wearing cologne after he met me. So I could just sit with him forever.

The lights flickered, dimming to the point of blackness, and then came back again.

“Good old Sleepy Hollow,” Owen said. “You’re going to think I’m a chicken, but whoo am I glad I’m here tonight instead of alone at my place. What?” The last part was because I was looking at him.

I kissed him. It seemed long overdue, once I was actually doing it, and he was so much better to kiss than Hudson. Kissing Hudson was an Olympic sport; you had to build up some endurance before you even attempted it and then it was a question of whoever went down first lost. Kissing Owen was all soft and careful and tongue and fingers walking up my side and his breath in my mouth. I could do it forever.

Except we didn’t, because a voice said, “Get the hell off her.”

And it was Hudson. Only this time it really was Hudson, because I smelled evergreen and alcohol, biting at my noise. He stood behind the sofa, and anger shimmered off him.

“What are you doing here?” I demanded.

Hudson spoke to me, but he didn’t take his eyes off Owen. “Your door was open. I told you we were doing something for Halloween.” But I saw the key I’d given him long ago dangling in his hand.

“And I told you I’d see you tomorrow,” I said, standing up so that I could better face him. Owen stood too, a couple feet away from me, not looking at me.

“Get out,” Hudson told Owen.

“It’s my apartment!” I said. “I reserve the right to say ‘get out!’”

“I’m going to kill you,” Hudson said to Owen, matter-of-factly. He shifted the key in his hand so it looked more like a weapon.

The lights flickered again, and I smelled sulphur again. Hudson glowed with anger, and in my head, I heard his voice again, telling me that Halloween was for the dead.

We’re getting out,” I said, and I reached over to snag Owen’s sleeve with my fingers. “We’re going to his place. Enjoy the movie by yourself, Hud.”

Hudson started around the corner of the couch, the key flashing in his hand, and said, “I don’t think so.”

The key in his hand was a knife. Had it been all along?

“Owen!” I shouted.

Owen stared for just a second, and then he threw my cheap IKEA end table at Hudson’s head. Hudson staggered, and I grabbed Owen’s hand and bolted for the door, slamming it behind us. Our footsteps echoed as we ran down the stairs. We didn’t have to say he’s crazy because the voices in our head whispered it back at us, shimmering around the now-dark valley.

“I hate Halloween here,” I whispered as we ran past Hudson’s black Chevelle to Owen’s Mustang, both cars sporting the tiny Sleepy Hollow drag racing badge next to the license plates.

Owen yanked open the driver’s side door to his car and I scrambled over his seat to get to the passenger side. He slid into the driver’s seat and slammed the door just as Hudson careened down the stairs. His face was mottled and the knife in his hand looked even bigger than the first time I’d seen it.

I pounded the dash. “Go, go, go!”

We went, the headlights of the Mustang momentarily probing the starry sky above as Owen gunned it hard enough to lay down rubber. Behind us, I smelled Hudson’s Chevelle as it revved up.

We tore onto Chancery, Hudson fast behind us, darting through traffic and blowing through red lights to keep up with us. The air around us glittered with spirits and visions, the collective imagination made real for this night. I could smell Owen’s sweat on the palms of his hand, gripping the gear shift knob. And I could hear the roar of Hudson’s car behind us. The Chevelle was still tight on our tail as we roared through the final traffic light in town and onto the dark two-lane that led over the mill pond and then, beyond the pond, to the mountains.

“What is wrong with him?” Owen said. He had to shout to be heard over the roar of the Mustang’s engine. White lines flew beneath us and he downshifted into third to race around a tight turn.

“I don’t know! I didn’t know he would get that jealous!” As I said it, I smelled sulphur again, strong, and heard some sort of rhythmic thundering.

The Mustang shuddered as Hudson smashed his bumper into ours. Owen’s hands clutched the wheel as it darted back and forth in his grip.

I smelled a horse.

Lights danced in the sky — ghostly, I thought, at first, until I saw that it was our headlights, a second before I realized that Hudson had forced us off the road and up over a bank. My teeth chattered together as the car plummeted, out of control, along the sloping ground.

“The pond, Ansje, the–” Owen went for the hand brake as, to our right, the mill pond bridge loomed, and before us, the water of the pond itself glittered. Hudson charged over the bank beside us, his car actually lifting into the air from the angle.

I smelled leather saddle, mud in hooves, grass and death, and heard a high whinny, just as Hudson’s Chevelle spun and Owen wrenched up the parking brake.

The Mustang spun wildly to a halt.

The Chevelle smashed into the side of the bridge.

Somehow, we’d ended up nose to nose with the Chevelle. The windshield was broken, split into huge slices, and one of them was embedded in the driver’s seat. Hudson’s head lay on the dash.

I heard hoof beats echoing through the covered bridge, and then . . . nothing. There was nothing but the smell of hot rubber. And then just nothing at all.

Author’s Note: mmm I want a 1970 Camaro. That’s off-topic, isn’t it? Happy Halloween, y’all!

image courtesy: ZuRe

33 thoughts on “The Scent of Death

  1. MUSTANG WINS!!!!! Ha!

    “Instantly donuts disappeared from my mind, replaced by hard biceps, leather jacket, hot Chevelle, the taste of alcohol on our lips, my back up against a wall. Normally I couldn’t speak once I heard Hudson’s voice, but I’d practiced a line at home to use every time he called. It unstuck my tongue and was always relevant. I used it now: “What are you doing right now?””

    BEST. PARAGRAPH. EVER. You are the queen of insta-characterization. Srsly. Can I have some of that, plz?

  2. Also, I love the donut stuff. AFter reading those five paragraphs of Irving’s description of Dutch pastries, I was pretty sugared-out, too. Heheh. Awesome touch.

  3. This is a long one, and a good one. Lots of nice favourite bits. I liked the kissing, followed by this … “Hudson’s head lay on the dash.” Take that!

    Times most bad!
    Without the scope of hope
    Of better to be had! — Robert Herrick. (thats for you Hudson)

    Happy Halloween. You will get a 1970 Camaro. Oh, and what Tess said. She says stuff good.

  4. LOL. Like Spiderman, you already have these powers at your disposal, m’dear, you just are ignoring them and trying to pretend to be a Normal Girl.

  5. Brilliant! *GLEE*

    Seriously, I was kind of “meh” about the Sleepy Hollow challenge for this week, and then I read Tess’ contribution and got creeped out and then I read your modern take and now I’m ready to put on my Sleepy Hollow cheerleaders outfit or something!

    Which is to say that I liked it.

  6. Well, you had me at the creepy opening followed by a line about donuts and then a cut tag. Nice work!

  7. I know, it seemed like such a good idea until I actually STARTED thinking about it . . . and then I was meh . . . until I thought . . . hot cars . . . hot cars is always a good idea. And donuts . . .

  8. Love it!

    My first serious bf had a 1966 Chevelle… robin-egg blue with white pin-striping… uh – I want that car!

  9. Headlessness? Check. Donuts? Check. Slight nookie? Check.

    I think it’s safe to say this story is awesome.

  10. Y’know what? All three of you guys fucking rule. All three stories this week are some of my absolute favorites.

  11. Yeah, baby, WE DO! Nah, I’m kidding, we don’t always.

    And thanks, I do think this week we were doin’ okay. Common prompts are so fun.

  12. Oh, I really like this one. Great voice + characterization for such a short piece. And the donuts stuff is just hilarious. I’ve always found donuts rather nauseating.

    I love the sort of matter-of-fact stuff about the ghosts/phantoms/whatever, especially that line where they’re in the car and imaginary things are swirling all around.

    Though I have to say that Sleepy Hollow stuff doesn’t usually get me. Especially because Tarrytown is like, “one of those towns they use on the news to reference the weather.” I think I went to Irving’s house once. I remember boredom and a gift shop.

  13. LOL. I, for the record, love donuts, but I also remember loving fudge and working in a place that sold it all the time. I now can no longer touch the stuff.

    Sleepy Hollow was kind of fun this week!

  14. I love it! Particularly the use of smells (off-topic: I broke up with a boy in HS for myriad legitimate reasons, but the deciding factor was that I couldn’t stand the smell of the air freshener in his car).

    Oh, Hudson. The car. The car. *sigh*

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