While the town name is real, the setting of this story is an amalgamation of several places I’ve been to, or through, in both Illinois and Missouri. I took bits and pieces of these places, sprinkled in a bit of fantasy, and created a disturbing piece about a boy discovering that everything is not always as it seems.
It’s a longer piece, but you really ought to stick with it through the end.
The World’s Largest
by Curtis A. Deeter
Nothing could have prepared Frank for his nightmarish visit to Cairo, Illinois. No number of fairy tale or B-list horror flick, none of the other bizarre roadside attractions he’d seen over the summer: neither the great Piasa Bird watching over the waters of the Mississippi, allegedly feeding on her children, or the pirate cave filled with fake gold doubloons, rusted rapiers, and a real-to-life skeleton. Not even the world’s largest cross off I-70 could steady his mind for what he’d uncover in Cairo.
Despite the ceaseless storm and the screaming voice in the back of his mind, Frank’s eyelids grew heavy. The dimly lit road ahead grew hazier around every corner. It might have been the steady whomp-whomp, whomp-whomp of the windshield wipers, or the way the headlights evaporated off the blacktop, reminding him of a warm shower on a cold winter morning, or even the solitude of the road, but something lulled him into brief, catastrophic sleep.
A heartbeat of a moment later, he jolted awake. There was a collision, followed by the scream of metal on pavement. Sparks shot out from his car’s muffler as it dragged pitifully behind.
He eased to the side of the road, car sputtering and grinding. The whomp-whomp, whomp-whomp of the wipers was suddenly infuriating, while he was suddenly wide awake. How could he have let this happen?
Frank leaned forward and banged his head on the steering wheel a few times before braving the rain to investigate. Sure enough, the entire front bumper lay mangled underneath the car, bits and pieces strewn about like the guts of some unfortunate deer. The front tires sagged, one rim bent and useless, while he could hear the other spinning somewhere off the road.
He squinted into the darkness to identify the culprit. With the way the shadows of the surrounding woods danced on the sheen of the wet highway it was hard to be certain, but a pothole taking up the width of the lane appeared to be responsible for the wreckage. From afar, it looked like the pit to oblivion. The resemblance uncanny. He’d ran his Saturn straight into the void.
Soaked to the bone, Frank retreated to the safety of the wreck. He tried the ignition, but the car just groaned and whined. He turned the key again and again. Nothing.
Frank punched the ceiling. “For fuck’s sake,” he said, rubbing his knuckles. Stranded, cold, and now in pain, he wondered how his situation could get any worse.
As if in response, lightning cracked nearby, splitting an oak tree. The sound deafening, he cupped his hands over his ringing ears.
After recovering, he opened the center console and pulled out his cellphone. He’d let AAA sort this mess out. They’d come pick him up, tow his car to the nearest repair shop, and he’d be on his way. It wasn’t ideal, but he needed a night’s rest and some reprieve from the rain. There might even be a decent hotel nearby. One with a hot tub and something to drink. Besides, there was no telling how long until lightning struck again.
No bars. As everyone knows to do in such situations, Frank held the phone above his head in search of a signal. The higher he held it, the lower his spirits sank. Dejected, he tossed it into the backseat before slamming his palm on the horn.
“Deep breaths, buddy,” he told himself. “All just a part of the ‘ole college experience.”
A half hour passed. No cars came to his aid, and he had no luck starting his own. Shivering, he contemplated prayer, and hummed himself the anthems of the nineties. What else was a man to do?
He knew he couldn’t head back the way he came. The last town, a deserted shell of a small mining community, came and went over a hundred miles ago. It hadn’t had as much as a gas station or a McDonald’s. The streets had been deserted. A mural of a three-story miner kissing his wife after work bleakly contrasted the boarded-up windows and spider-webbed entryways. If he had passed a house or anything since then, it had been too dark to tell. His only option was to set out on foot further down the road. Well, he could also shiver himself to death in his car, but that had about as much appeal as Dr. Frankel’s 8 a.m. lecture.
Finally, another half hour gone and his feet aching from the dampness, headlights appeared in the distance. Frank shielded his eyes from the high beams as they approached. The police car squelched to a stop a few feet in front of him.
The window rolled down about halfway. “Evenin’, stranger. It’s raining cats and dogs out here. Need a lift into town?”
“Oh God, yes. I’m soaked through,” Frank said, sloshing across the road to the passenger side and climbing in. The heat blazed and bluegrass played through a single blown speaker. Doc Watson never sounded better. “Thank you so much, Officer. I really do appreciate this.”
“Gary,” his savior said. “Call me Gary. What in the world you doin’ out here to begin with?”
“Car trouble. Hit one hell of a pothole by the looks of it. Left my car back about… well… it’s back there a way.”
Lightning cracked and Frank saw a bit of hesitancy on the police officer’s face, but Gary turned the car around and they headed on down the road.
“Didn’t think to call no one?”
“Phone’s not working,” he said, patting his pockets for his cell. Damn. Left it in the car. “Doesn’t seem to be any towers or anything around here.”
“Sounds about right. We’re a bit off the beaten path.”
The next few minutes passed in silence save the rambling of the storm. It would inundate the world if no one stopped it. Frank hugged his arms around himself, despite the heater working hard to dry his sweatshirt.
In brief flashes of light, he developed a picture of the local landscape. Thick woods reached over the road, creating an ominous tunnel of trees that reached as if they might grab a person and never let go. Beyond them, seen in the occasional clearing between thickets of trees, flatness stretched out for a few miles until rocky foothills rose up toward the low, gray clouds. He looked closer and saw where the world ended between the flats and the hills. There was the true void.
“Someone ought to rope those off or something,” Frank said, interrupting the silence between them. “A guy could fall in without even seeing it on a night like this. Ever have those dreams where you’re just falling endlessly?”
“We stay clear of them woods. I suggest you do the same, young man. ‘Specially on a night like this, as you said.” The way the officer’s eyebrows furrowed told Frank this wasn’t a polite suggestion. Then, Gary smiled and said, “You’re not from here, I reckon. Can’t place your accent, though. Where’d you roll in from, son?”
Frank never thought of himself as having an accent. Born in the Midwest, the people on television spoke like him. They ate the same foods, wore their hair the same way, and played the same stupid games. Until he started travelling, he just assumed everyone spoke like him.
“I’m from Normal,” Frank said, plainly.
“Oh, I highly doubt that. No normal boy’d be wanderin’ round down this road in a thunderstorm.”
“No, no. Normal, Illinois. It’s about two hours northwest of the City.” Gary raised an eyebrow. “Sorry, Chicago.”
The police officer nodded. “I see. What brings a yank like yourself down our way?”
“Research. I’m writing a paper about tourist tra…” Frank stopped himself. He didn’t know what sort of place the police officer was from. It might very well be one of the tourist traps on his itinerary, and he wasn’t sure how the man would receive such a label. He went with the safe response, not wanting to offend a stranger in the dark of night. “I’m studying roadside tourism in America.”
“So, you’ve come to see the world’s largest rocking chair. And the world’s largest wagon wheel, huh? Folks don’t know it, but we got about a dozen ‘world’s largest’ in Cairo. Reckon you never thought you’d see the world’s biggest cuckoo clock, huh? She’s gonna be a beaut. Lotta people come to see and, heck, some of ‘em don’t ever leave.”
Frank tittered. There was ice in the officer’s tone, which superseded the obvious pride in his town.
“Anyhow,” Gary said, after an awkward silence, “I’ll have Carla drive out and tow your car to her shop. She’ll have a look at ‘er and it’ll be right as rain before you know it. Pardon the expression.”
“I’m grateful. Really, I am.”
“You can thank me by buying drinks. Cairo’s also home to the world’s best hole-in-the-wall,” Gary said, noting the clear discomfort in Frank. “Don’t worry. My shift’s been up for about twenty minutes now. I always like to end it by driving a bit out of town, makin’ sure folks are getting through the night alright. It’s a good thing, too.”
“Yeah,” Frank said, glancing out the rain-streaked window. “A good thing.”
Gary eased the squad car into a parking space outside a bar. A simple, green neon sign flickered “Tavern”. Across the street, a truck idled alongside the single gas pump of Casey’s General Store, which was a step and a half up from Frank’s last glimpse of civilization. Darkness occupied the rest of the town. Darkness and the suggestion of a dozen chimney places warming the bones of Cairo’s restless citizens.
Inside the bar, a bald man in a grease-stained apron filled a smudged beer mug. He shut off the tap and beamed at the newcomers. “Officer Smalls, good to see you. The usual?”
“Better make it two, Leroy,” he said, gesturing to Frank.
“Lost yourself, then?”
It took Frank a moment to realize the barman was talking to him. He had been busy taking in the eclectic, mock-pastoral interior of the bar. A jukebox stood at the far end, completely normal, but the decor around it begged further investigation. The walls displayed wooden objects of an infinite variety: spoked bike wheels, small garden wagons, archaic tools with rusted, iron heads, a rocking horse, trains, sculptures of bluebirds and turkeys, and even the profile of an old, 1960s sportscar. One wall, the wall directly behind the jukebox, was reserved for a giant set of glossy, wooden tableware, the rings of the tree they once were clearly visible cut at just the right angle.
“Them there are the world’s largest utensils, ya? A spoon big enough for God to eat with,” Leroy explained.
Frank realized he was staring, mouth gaping, and turned to the barman. “Did you make all of this stuff?”
The barman and the police officer exchanged grins. Leroy said, “Nah. I pour the beer. Mix the whiskey shots. About all I’m good for. Greta does all the woodworkin’ here. Put Cairo on the map. She could give Jesus Christ himself a run for his money once she gets whittlin’. Cooks a mean brisket, too.”
As if listening to their conversation, the welcome bells chimed and Greta walked in. Frank knew it was her immediately. She wore a black smock and smelled unmistakably of sawdust. Although not entirely unattractive, Greta was a goliath of a woman, built like a mountain yet with a face as bright as the sun.
“Hey, ladies,” she said, slamming her hand on the bar. “Who’s buyin’ me a drink? What about you, kid?” Greta winked at Frank. “Wanna’ get me drunk?”
Leroy brought her an overflowing mug. She beckoned him to bring her more. As it turned out, he already had a second glass poured. “S’on me, Greta. My wife loved the clock you made for her. S’least I can do. We’re a might excited for the big one. Coming along okay?”
“This is…” Gary began. He turned in his bar stool to face Frank. “I never got your name, stranger.”
“Frank. I’m Frank.” Greta shook his hand. Her rough fingers about broke every digit, yet there was a softness to them. He managed to say through gritted teeth, “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“So damn proper,” she belched. “Lighten up.”
Over the next hour or so, he did. Through inebriation, the four became the best of friends. They went out of their way to berate Frank, of course. Mostly for being too proper or too well-educated for them, stupidly sounding out words with more than two syllables, but they also took a few jabs at how he smelled. Wet seal, it was agreed upon. He did his best to laugh along, even when Greta elbowed him in the ribs hard enough to knock the wind out of him and made him spit up his beer. When he did so, they howled and hooted and slapped him on the back.
Eventually, Gary said, “I need to get on over to Carla’s. Frank here’s got a car sitting on the side of the road. I reckon he wants to be rid of us at some point.”
Before Frank could interject, the police officer was fumbling through his pockets for his keys and holding up a finger for him to be quiet. He closed one eye and picked through the keys until he found the right one. On his way out of the bar, he saluted and stumbled over the threshold into the storm.
“Should he be-”
“Ole Gary’s fine,” Greta said. “He’ll do more harm to himself than anybody else.”
Frank slapped down a wad of cash on the bar and gestured that he was paying for the room. It was late and he was tired.
“Where can I find a motel around here?”
“Stuff and nonsense. I have plenty of room for ya.” Greta stood up, not even slightly wobbly, and put her arm around his shoulder. It was like being hugged by a bear. In a mocking tone she said, “Shall we adjourn, Professor?”
“That’s a big word, Carpenter,” Frank said. Greta glared at him for too long before bursting into tearful laughter. He sighed, relieved, and joined in.
“Not a carpenter, Frank.”
“Not a professor, Greta,” he said, checking his pockets for his phone. He wanted to check the time, but he couldn’t find it.
Greta’s house sat just outside town limits. It sprawled endlessly in the style of a single-story wood cabin, but was more of a fortress than a relaxing summer hideaway. Even through the storm, Frank could see an imposing warehouse-like building in the backyard. He couldn’t take his eyes off it.
“My workshop,” Greta said, noticing his interest. “Only two things are off limits. And that’s one of em.” She made a crude gesture, clearly implying what the second one was.
“Matter of fact, just stay far away from the area. Both of ‘em. Better safe than sorry, yeah?”
The inside of her house impressed upon him a sense of unsurmountable accomplishment. It was a trophy room, broken into dozens of antechambers, each more impressive than the last.
One room, lined with shelf after shelf, displayed thousands of wooden toys. Construction vehicles, trains, race cars, dollhouses, action figures, puppets, and more. Frank never imagined such playthings could be fashioned out of wood.
“Do you have kids?”
“Nah.” Greta said. “Tourists buy this stuff up like hot cakes. Gotta pay the bills somehow. I always keep my favorite pieces for myself, though. As you can see, s’been a lot of ‘em.”
He couldn’t begin to fathom how many. If these represented a mere selection of her favorites, how many had she carved? Ten thousand? Over a million?
Intricate wooden statues stood at attention in the next room. Maya Angelou, flashing her pearly whites, or pearly maples in this case. Scott Bakula, preparing to leap through time. George Washington Carver, sporting a wonderful mustache. Greta had carved out a myriad of famous people, from pop stars to presidents. Even serial killers. Hidden in the back, behind Earth, Wind & Fire, stood Johann Otto Hoch, the Bluebeard Murderer.
She showed Frank to a bedroom at the end of the main hallway. Cuckoo clocks covered the walls. An incessant tick-tock filled the spaces in between.
“Kind of a newfound passion of mine. You build big ole honkin’ furniture for so long, somethin’ dainty and intricate just feels right. There’s somethin’ about the inner workings, too. You build ‘em just so and they’ll outlast time itself.”
“They’re beautiful,” is all Frank could say. And they were.
Greta left him without another word. She grunted and pointed at a mahogany chest, clearly of her own making, and disappeared into the shadows of the house. In the chest he found blankets and pillows and a change of clothes. It was late, yet the storm raged on. Dizzy from the events of the evening, Frank crawled into the sleigh bed. Soon, he drifted into a dreamless sleep, awash in a calm he hadn’t felt for as long as he could remember.
A loud rumble followed by a tremor woke him in the early hours of the morning. Sun rays filled the room through the only window, temporarily blinding him. After stretching and wiping sleep from his eyes, Frank walked to the window and greeted the world outside with reluctance.
It was no longer raining, but the aftermath of the storm had scarred the landscape. Tree branches were strewn across the lawn, tables and chairs were knocked over, and much of Greta’s property was flooded. Rainwater pooled in craters like the spots on the moon.
Birds twittered loudly, much more eager for the dawning of a new day than Frank. He couldn’t figure out why. His car was still decimated. He was staying in a stranger’s house. And he could feel a cold coming on. Even if he wanted to call someone to pick him up or bring him a fresh set of clothes, he didn’t have a cellphone. Now he knew his trip couldn’t get worse.
“What the hell are you so happy about?” He cursed the birds.
His head throbbed. Through hazy eyes he saw something massive moving outside at the edge of the woods. Before he could focus on it, it was gone.
The house was empty. Greta must have left earlier in the morning. She set him out half a pot of coffee in a carafe and a couple of cinnamon rolls. The coffee was brewed just right, strong and black like he liked it, and the cinnamon rolls were the perfect balance between flaky and gooey.
As he idly fingered the last bits of icing off his plate, something flashed in his peripheral vision. Out the kitchen window, he had a similar view of her property as the one he had upstairs. A patch of trees shook, as if something had just moved through them. No matter how hard he squinted, Frank couldn’t see anything abnormal in the woods.
You’re losing it, buddy. He decided to head outside to investigate. Besides, the wooden puppets hanging from the walls all around him were starting to freak him out.
Outside, he tried the workshop first. It was big enough to house a family of performance elephants. Frank wouldn’t have been surprised if she were inside whittling a whole oak circus. A padlock held a series of intricate chains together, too thick for any normal person to maneuver. Thor’s hammer couldn’t break in. Frank tugged at it anyway, channeling the strength of Mjolnir to no avail.
Then, he decided to amble. Ambling always relaxed him when he was on edge. His tennis shoes squished in puddle after puddle. As he had only planned to drive through, check out Cairo for his research, and head on down the road, he was unprepared for dealing with the elements. He tried not to let it bother him.
As he approached the woods, avoiding the craters of water to the best of his ability, a low, periodic rumbling caught his attention. The sound came from deep in the woods, beyond where he could see, and moved steadily away from him. When it was gone, he realized he’d been standing still with his ear to the tree line for longer than acceptable. Luckily, no one was around to question his peculiar behavior. His feet compelled him into the woods.
It wasn’t as thick as he expected. The further he wandered in, the fewer standing trees he encountered. The ground was littered with them, though. Broken oaks and splintered pines gave way to entirely empty clearings. Frank never even thought to question where Greta got her wood from. Apparently, the master craftswoman used all her own materials. This made her creations that much more impressive, both the record-breaking, touristy ones and the creepy, personalized ones.
Coming out the other side of the woods, the world’s largest rocking chair couldn’t have prepared Frank for the sheer vastness of the crevice between the flatlands and the hills beyond. He stood at world’s edge. He hadn’t been aware of exiting the woods to begin with. Now he was staring into the entryway to Hell. He kicked a rock in, but never heard it hit the bottom.
About a quarter of a mile down the edge of the crevice, the sheer drop tapered off until it finally ended. Where it ended, a depression separated the land. As he approached, he noticed an opening the size of a mountain pass. Deep in the cave, firelight flickered. Otherworldly humming bellowed out into the calm morning. The sound of saws teething wood accompanied the dissonant melody.
A large hand clamped down on shoulder, nearly giving him a heart attack. He turned slowly to look up into the wide eyes of Greta, her hair pulled back into a tight ponytail. The familiarity about her brought him back to the calm he’d felt the night before.
“Greta,” he whispered. “You scared the hell outta me.”
“Men always say that sort of thing. Hope I didn’t scare you all the way away.”
“No, no. Of course not. I just… I thought I was alone.”
“Well,” she put her powerful arm around him, “you’re not. What are you doing down here? I told you to stay away.”
“The cave… what’s in there?”
She didn’t miss a beat, as if her response had been scripted a hundred times over. “Wolves maybe. I don’t know yet. Could be a bear. Been tracking the beast, or beasts, all morning to this cave and you found ‘em without even looking. I’d hate for a smart guy like you to be the next to fall in and never be seen again.”
Frank heard her, but distantly. He found himself repeating the word “next” over and over again in his mind. In between thoughts, he pieced together an article he’d read online a few weeks before. Wolves had been extinct in Illinois for over a hundred years. Had they recently been reintroduced? He couldn’t quite remember what the author had said. He wasn’t sure about the possibilities of a bear, but a ravaging pack of wolves seemed highly unlikely.
Seeing the look on his face, Greta added, “Several folks—mostly out-of-towners because the locals know better—have gone missing in these woods. They think they’re great explorers, taking to the last great frontier of the Midwest, and get snatched by… whatever it is that’s out here. Officer Gary’s been investigating it, putting in overtime doing so. Don’t tell nobody, though. We want to make Cairo famous, but not for this. Understand?”
“I suppose so.” He didn’t.
“Perfect. Speaking of Gary, he was looking for you I believe. Now, if you’ve had your fill of coffee and trouble for one morning, I’ll drive you to the station.”
Back in the passenger seat of the police car, Frank digested the bad news.
“Sorry, kid. She did the best she could to salvage the car. You really did a number on it. I’m surprised you’re okay.”
He stared out the window, watching the small world of Cairo go by from outside of his body. Gary was telling him about his family and about the town’s history, but it all sounded like the teacher in Charlie Brown. Wah-wah wah, wah wah. He tried snapping out of his daze, but couldn’t.
“It’s going to be okay,” he suddenly heard the police officer say. “Carla ordered you a runner to replace it. At least get you where you need to go. Should be here by tomorrow. In the meantime, we’ll make sure you’re taken care of.”
Frank knew the last part wasn’t a lie. They’d already been more kind to him than any of his friends or family would have been in a pinch. Especially Greta. Thinking about her, and about the paper he still needed to research, he felt like a prisoner in the world’s worst nightmare. Sooner or later it had to end.
“Thanks,” he managed to say, resting his forehead on the windshield.
“Buck up, kid. Wanna see the place?”
“What place?” The image of the mouth of the cave, foreboding, and the siren song coming from within, popped into his head. How long could he resist the urge?
“Cairo, ya ding-dong. For a college boy you ain’t all that bright.”
Knowing he had little say in the matter, Frank agreed to a tour, but only after making the police officer stop at Casey’s for a small notepad. If he was going to explore the town while he waited for a ride out, he might as well finish some of his research. Maybe he’d make this his last stop. If it got any worse, maybe he’d just throw the paper away and go back to waiting tables.
They rounded a corner. Out in front of the hardware store, a white and blue sign promised “big things in a small town”. So far, he hadn’t been disappointed.
Gary took him inside. The cashier didn’t bother to look up, but grunted a greeting. The officer rolled his eyes jovially. Near the back of the store, velvet ropes, much like those found in a movie theatre, wound their way out of the gardening aisle and around a large well-lit, empty space. The maze of rope, which they ducked and hopped over, took them to a set of nondescript double doors.
Weird, having an exhibit like this in the back of a hardware store. He reminded himself he’d seen weirder.
“Ready to behold some of Greta’s finest work? Most of these have been around for a long, long time. Longer, even, than I’ve been here.”
“When did you move to Cairo?” Frank asked.
“I didn’t move here. Cairo just sort of found me. Bout twenty-five years ago now. Maybe a bit longer. It’s hard to say, really,” Gary answered, his words trailing off. For a moment, he seemed morose and lost, but recovered quickly. “Come on then.”
A whole new world opened on the opposite side of the double doors. It was a world of gargantuan proportions. An intimidating world. A world created by the hands of a truly brilliant artist. Hanging above all her masterpieces, a wooden chandelier, dripping from the ceiling like a dozen stalactites, lit the room with a dull, flickering light—artificial light. The eeriness of Greta’s house hadn’t come close to matching the splendor of the objects preserved here.
There was a birdcage the size of a small house, covered in a patina that made it shine. Along one side of the wall, a dozen beer barrels sat, each larger than most breweries. There was a mailbox. And a golf tee. Both trifles compared to the almost practical objects surrounding them. There were so many objects, of such immense size, that Frank shrunk before them. The world beyond the hardware store spun around him, leaving him disoriented. He nearly threw up and had to sit for a while. Gary helped him over to the wall.
After a while, the police officer said, “Well, ready to see the best part?”
Gary took him out back where they found a rocking chair taller than the three-story warehouse connected to the store. Beside it sat a dinner table, fashioned out of a single tree by the looks of it, that could have served a meal to the every one of the gods. Greta was truly gifted. How was it that there wasn’t a line out the door to see these wonders?
Frank realized his mouth was open. He decided to say something, but couldn’t remember what came out. Something about Valhalla and the world’s largest splinters. The police officer just laughed and gestured him back around to the front of the building.
After lunch, Frank road along for a couple of calls. Nothing major. The people of Cairo seemed contented enough to keep to themselves. Most of the house visits seemed to be social. Everyone was fascinated by the mysterious college student. They asked him about his paper and about his hometown and where he’d been before. He told them, keeping his monologues as short as possible, and they hung on his every word. He noticed a sadness in them when they exchanged parting words, just as he had seen the sadness in Gary’s eyes earlier.
As the sun started to set, he grew anxious. It’d been too long since he’d been cut off from the outside world. His car, his cellphone, his life. He asked if they could stop by Carla’s to grab his phone. Gary agreed. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a charger either. It had gotten ruined in the storm the night before.
Still, it had been nice to say goodbye to the Saturn. It was his first car. He’d bought it when he was fifteen years old, anticipating the day he could take the driver’s test and truly find freedom as an adult. He never anticipated that freedom would strand him here, though, more than ten years later.
Once Gary was off the clock, he drove them to the tavern. “I’ll buy tonight,” the police officer said. “We like to spread it around in Cairo.”
Greta was already there. She looked upset, staring into an empty mug. Leroy, checking over the books, waved them in.
For a while, everyone sat and drank and searched through their own souls. The mood had turned completely around from the night before. Frank didn’t mind. Sometimes he needed time to reflect. On occasion, his companions would turn to him, begin to say something, and then retreat inwards with a grunt.
Eventually, Greta stood, stretched out, and walked to the back to use the restroom. On her way out, she shoved a wad of cash into the jukebox and hunched over the thing making her selections. By what came out of the speakers, she was ready to get the party started.
“Dance with me, Professor,” she said, all but lifting Frank out of his seat.
They did the jitterbug, the swing and the bop. They did a remarkable rendition of the opening dance scene from Grease. Greta was the only one who knew the moves. Her hands moved with graceful precision. Frank even slow danced with the artificer a couple of times, her strength soothing his wearied soul.
After the dancing, all sweaty and giggly like schoolgirls, they sat back down at the bar. The mood had lightened up a bit, but the ecstasy didn’t last long. Nothing good ever does.
“I can’t believe I’m still stuck here. I was supposed to be moving into Ohio tomorrow morning,” Frank said, mostly to himself. “To follow some of the best haunts and oddities I’ve ever read about.”
Greta slammed her mug down on the table. “The hell is wrong with here? Weren’t we just having the time of our lives? If you don’t want Cairo, Cairo don’t want you.”
On the other side of her, Gary grumbled.
“No, I’m sorry. We were. It’s just that I feel sort of lost, still. Trapped. I’ve enjoyed my time here, but not being able to leave when I want, not having that freedom of choice, is sort of wearing on me. Know what I mean?”
“Ah shut up, kid,” Gary said, unable to listen anymore. “Should have Greta here, bless her heart, build you the world’s largest crib for the world’s largest baby. Get over yourself, would ya? Things could get much, much worse for you.”
And that was that. There was nothing else to say on the matter.
One by one, the unnamed patrons of the tavern paid their tabs and made their way out into the night. Faceless, they slithered back to their hovels, wherever they might be. Soon, the gang would disperse, too.
“Come on, Professor. Let’s go home,” Greta said.
The second time around it did feel like home. The toys and the puppets and the statues didn’t seem to bother him. In fact, he didn’t think twice about them. Instead, he thought about the woman herself. He envisioned those hands and the incredible things they could do. He imagined them touching him, holding him. He couldn’t tell whether it was the drink, the loneliness, or something deeper.
Alas, he’d fall asleep in the sleigh bed, leave in the morning and never know how her hands felt. Maybe he’d come back to see the clock finished. Maybe he’d even commission something for himself. He was quite fond of totems and a four-story mortuary pole wouldn’t look half bad in the yard of his imaginary home.
When he turned down the hallway towards the guest room, Greta put a hand on his shoulder and said with a wink, “Where you going? My room’s this way.”
Again, he awoke to an empty bed and an empty house, but this time in a room without wood. A stark white room with a single mirror on the wall beside the bed. He looked at himself, thinking he should feel something about the bags under his eyes or the crinkles on his forehead, but shrugged and got ready for another day in Cairo.
Down in the kitchen, he found biscuits and gravy and the same carafe of strong coffee. What a life. Only two days in and Frank could already see himself settling down in a place like this with a woman like Greta.
Still, there was something infernal tugging at his curiosity. He still needed to delve into the cave mouth at the end of the world.
Throwing better judgment to the wind, Frank carefully made his way out of the house, through the woods, and down and into the mouth of the cave. The same humming and sawing from the day before had somehow grown louder. It got closer as he felt his way along dark, dank walls, guided only by dancing shadows from a fire he couldn’t see but could certainly smell. The woodsy aroma propelled him ever deeper. He expected the cave to narrow as he got further in, but it did the opposite. Soon, the walls on either side of him gave way to a vast antechamber. His quickening heartbeat echoed in the vastness of the place.
He gasped when he saw them.
They saw him too, but only because they heard his panicked voice and smelled the fear running down his leg.
Greta, stepping out from behind the larger ones, knelt to put down the wooden bird she was working on. She held it in both arms, like a baby or a boulder, and bent over to ease it onto the rocky cavern floor. It was a blue jay. A dozen or so other birds lay scattered about the cave, as well as a variety of miscellaneous pieces of wood and what he assumed to be woodworking tools. And, intermingled with their supplies, bones.
“You shouldn’t have come here, Professor. I warned you.”
“I’m not a professor yet,” Frank said. Why had he chosen to say that? He realized it was shock. The occupants of the cave stared at him, awaiting some sort of reaction. “What… it can’t be… these…” he stammered.
A cruel smile crossed her lips. She clapped her hands together and a cloud of sawdust billowed outward from them. Turning away to grab a hammer, she said, “Frank, meet my parents. Didn’t expect it so early in our relationship. Thought you’d at least have taken me to dinner first.”
“Just messin’ with you, Frank. Lighten up.”
“What… “Frank struggled to find words, yet alone to fully grasp the direness of his situation.
“I SAID MEET MY PARENTS,” Greta yelled, as if to an old person who was hard of hearing. She laughed at this.
The two giants, standing over the skeleton of a clock the size of a school, waved dumbly. They appeared to try to speak, but their words came out as grunts. The big one sneezed and covered Frank in a gallon of slime.
“Excuse my pops. Never one for manners.”
Frank wiped his face as clean as he could get it and flicked snot onto the fire. It sizzled, but didn’t go out.
“Now, what do we do with you?” Greta asked, approaching him. He took a few steps back, trying to get away from her, but tripped over something. When he got back to his feet, he saw it was the biggest cog he’d ever seen. Her voice, once amiable and warm, frightened him. “Now, now, we can’t have ya leavin’ here, can we?”
Without a word, Frank turned around to run. Instead, he faced an army of wooden people. These statues didn’t resemble celebrities or politicians or innovative minds. No, these statues were carvings of ordinary people, just like him. They were almost too real, disturbing in the dim and unreliable firelight. When he looked closer, he noticed the tiny imperfections of the handcrafted soldiers—the terror in some of their glazed eyes.
Nearby, a pile of picked-clean bones he hadn’t noticed before stole his attention from the wooden statues. Dried blood was smeared on the rocks around them.
Greta noticed his averted attention. “People never listen. Mom and pop like deer and the like alright enough, but nothin’ satisfies their appetites better than trespassers.”
“I’ll tell Officer-”
“You’ll do nothing of the sort. Officer Smalls commissioned my most recent project. The world’s largest cuckoo clock. What? You don’t think I built all them things myself, do ya? I know I’m a big lass, Professor, but I can’t move slabs of wood that size. Come on, now. Think.”
He began to protest as Greta brought the great hammer down on the top of his head. Everything went eternal black for Frank there in that cave of horror. He’d never write his doctoral paper on American tourist traps. No one would hear his story. The last thing he’d see was the askew image of a giant reaching for a carving knife. The last thing he’d feel was the rough leather of Greta’s smock as he tried in vain to keep himself upright.
Several hours later, a giant picked his teeth with a bone he had just chewed clean. He plopped down in the corner of the cave and belched, satisfied. Momma Giant slept noisily beside him cuddling a fresh skull.
Greta maneuvered her newest creation into place alongside the army of statues. A petrified Frank, eyes wide and mouth agape, stared at her. The clock, her greatest achievement, was almost ready. The surprise in his stance and shock on his face would make a perfect centerpiece for the noon theatrics of the clock. It was all coming together and just in time, too. The next wave of tourists, seeking the world’s modern marvels, would soon wash in.
She’d memorialize them, like she always did for people who touched her life. In doing so, she’d put Cairo on the map, seal its place in history.
It was a shame, too. Greta had liked Frank, but she happened to dislike trespassers and college boys who didn’t listen even more. But that’s just the way the wood splinters sometimes. People come and people go, but one way or another they’ll all remember Cairo, home of the world’s darkest secret.