Off the road, nestled behind pine and oak trees, was a small cabin. A wrought iron fence blocked the entrance to the drive. People would pass by and slow down to look. 

‘Maybe he’s out today,’ seemed to be the consensus of everyone in town. A sign hung from the gate, its message was clear: Trespassers will be shot, survivors will be shot again. 

No one dared to trespass. As is the case so often, stories were told of the hermit that lived in the cabin. 

He once ate the flesh of a kid. When the cops asked why he’d done it, he said, “me’s like tender meat.” Other tales circulated about the loner. Some tales were more fantastic than others, but they all centralized on the fact that he was a monster.

Annabelle, Belle to her friends, stood by the gate with her friend Billy. She scratched her cheek and peered down the drive. The Mississippi heat and humidity was hellish today and made Belle cranky.

“Let’s go down there and have a look, Billy.” Billy Thurston, 13, shook his head no. 

“Are you nuts, Belle? You know the stories about this recluse. He ate children to survive the war. The old folk say he returned from the war with a thirst for blood.”

Belle scrunched up her nose and spit on the ground. She nudged Billy with her elbow. 

“You know there ain’t no truth to that crap. The old folks just say that. They’re yanking your chain. Don’t nobody check on the poor fellow. What if he was hurt?”

Billy shrugged. It wasn’t his place to check on the hermit. Billy crossed his arms and shook his head.

“I ain’t going. It’s modern times. Pretty sure he’s got a phone.”

Belle watched Billy get puffed up. She liked to get him riled up. She spit on the ground and feigned indifference. 

“Fine. Stay here scaredy cat. I’m going down there to check it out. I don’t need no bodyguard.”

“Good. Cause I ain’t going with you. Don’t get eaten.”

Annabelle jumped the fence and started down the drive. The driveway was brick, like they had back in the olden times. Shoots of grass came up through the brick. Moss covered some of it and made it slick. The yard was multi-level. Rows of flowers that hadn’t been weeded in a long while ran along the fence. Poison Ivy hung from some of the posts. 

Belle skipped along humming to herself. She heard a noise behind her, so she whipped around to confront whoever made the noise. It was Billy. 

“What are you doing, Billy. I thought you was frightened.”

Billy rubbed his arms like he had wandered through Antarctica naked. He glanced around. 

“You called me a scaredy cat. I’m not. I’m a thinker, and I don’t think this is a good idea.” 

Belle giggled, and punched Billy on the shoulder. Sweat drenched Billy’s brown hair. She was jealous of his thick mane. Belle was sandy-haired, and it was thin. Her hair would never stay in place for long. 

“Too late.”

Together, the pair made their way toward the cabin. Curtains hung in the window; they were pulled closed. Spider webs were visible on the porch. Angels stood in the flower beds, but they were in bad shape. Some had broken wings; others had cracked faces.

“I hope that ain’t a sign,” Billy whispered. 

Belle hushed him and made her way onto the porch. Just as she went to knock on the door, it opened. Her eyes grew to the size of half dollars. Belle backed up, and Billy found it hard to swallow. 

“Can you kids not read,” a deep voice asked. 

Belle shook her head yes but had not found the words to answer. A short, bald man walked out on the porch. Billy gripped Belle’s hand and prepared to run. 

Belle freed her hand from Billy’s grasp and extended her hand. The man looked at her offered hand and then back at her.

“Howdy, neighbor. I’m Annabelle, and you are-“

“Not interested. Beat it kid. Don’t come back.”

Belle stood her ground and locked eyes with the hermit. The hermit did not back down either. Billy decided to intervene. 

“Sir, we didn’t mean to disturb you. We should be going.”

“Uh-huh. That’s a great idea.”

Billy took Belle by the hand and pulled her toward the gate. She swatted his hand, but he refused to let go. 

“Why,” she shouted, “did you drag me off the freaking porch, Billy?” She slapped at his hands and arms. Billy didn’t flinch. Once they were at the gate, he released her hand. 

“Because you’re a brainless idiot!”

“I am not!”

Belle crossed her arms and turned from Billy. She had made it to the porch and found the guy, but she did not get to talk to him. It incensed her further. 

“Everyone around here knows the man is a psycho, except for you. Belle, what would you have done if he decided you would make a meal?”

Belle turned her nose up and refused to answer her friend. Billy shook his head in disgust. 

“I’d imagine Billy, if that had happened, I would no longer be here to give a crap.”

“But…”

“But nothing. No one in this town has ever went to see this poor man. Ain’t nobody gave a rip. ‘Oh, he’s this or that.’ Don’t nobody know nothin’. Was there blood coming out of his mouth, Billy? Was he munching on a human leg and sucking the marrow out?”

“Don’t be dumb, Belle.”

Annabelle punched him dead in the chest. She reared back to hit him again, but he sidestepped the second blow.

“You don’t be dumb, Billy. Out here believin’ everything people tell you.”

Billy kicked dirt and crossed his arms. He went down there with her after he said he wasn’t going to. Heck, he had even saved her life from being cannibalized. Was she grateful? Heck, no.

“I should have left you on the porch,” he snapped. Belle picked up a rock and threw it at Billy.

“You dang right you should have. I’m a grown woman, Billy. I don’t need no man bossing me around.”

“You’re 13, Belle. I’m sorry, okay?”

“Age don’t mean nothin’, Billy. Womanhood is different from manhood. You’d know that if you weren’t so dumb.”

Billy went and sat down by the post. He leaned back against it and waited. Belle was furious. There wasn’t nothing to do but let her cool off. He pulled the brim of his hat down and closed his eyes. 

He could hear her muttering and kicking dirt. Billy dozed in the lazy sunshine. After a while it got silent, and he felt her drop to the ground beside him.

“We were so close, Billy.”

“Yeah. Sorry, I dragged you off the porch.”

“Yeah,” Belle sighed. “Sorry, I called you dumb.”

“It’s alright. I am dumb. I’m friends with you.”

Belle scrunched up her nose and giggled. Billy gave her a crooked grin. He stood to his feet and offered his hand to Belle. 

“Ready to head home?”

Belle took his hand and got to her feet. She detested parting from her friend and hated the idea of going home. 

“Yeah, but I wished I didn’t have to.”

“I know, but it won’t always be that way, Belle.”

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