You want to know what we called them ‘Preachers’? Because they came to judge.
It started with Todd McDonnel. He was a known figure around town. The exact sort of thing you expect from a tiny village in northeast Alabama. He was the sort of guy who showed up in the news and embarrassed the rest of us. Todd was class of ‘85, and he hadn’t done shit with his life since he tore his knee up playing football his senior year. He liked to talk shit and start fights he couldn’t win. On a good night, he was only drinking and driving. On a bad night, the cops would be called out to his trailer on Flannigan Street, but it didn’t do much good. You see, Summer Springs was too small to have it’s own cops. We don’t have much but a post office and a volunteer fire department. Since the cops had to dispatch from the county seat 20 miles away, whatever was being called about would be long gone by the time they arrived.
Just more drama for the townies to discuss at the general store.
That night was different. The story goes like this: ol’ Todd was driving down highway 24 around 8 o’clock at night, when the stubborn summer sun is finally thinking about setting. As he drove along that lazy, winding road, he saw something strange on the left side. He later said that his eyes were drawn to it, like God told him to look there. But I say that’s nonsense. If God was going to talk to that man, it would have been about the way he treated his wife, or how he spent his adult life crying for the shallow glory days of high school sports. It was like some part of that man died without the uniform, but I never had any pity for it. He’d have had to hang it up in by season’s end anyhow.
But Todd, he needed a prop to use as his identity. He needed some kind of prestige. And that day, he went from being ‘worst mugshot of Gallegina County” to “the first man to see an Appalachian Preacher”.
He couldn’t describe it too well. Said it was tall and stood like a hunched over man, and it looked half-starved. It had the head of a goat, he said, or maybe a deer. Red eyes. But what he remembered best were the long, boney fingers. No skin on them, just long, curled fingers with hooked claws. It pointed as he drove by.
He about crashed, but managed to swerve his shitty Ford back onto the highway. Next day, he was raving about it to anyone who would listen to him at the general store. That’s where folks went to meet and mingle, you know. That or the church. And you better bet he was at church next Sunday, telling the whole county about the demon he’d seen on highway 24.
That might have been enough to make a small town legend. Nobody else even had to see it, we just all had to hear. And people would repeat, and embellish, and change little things here and there, till we had our own bonafide mountain monster. We could put up a sign and everything. Problem is, it didn’t end there.
Two weeks later, Todd came home from work to find his trailer empty. Everything, gone. He thought he’d been robbed at first, but inside, he found a letter from his wife. I don’t know firsthand, but I was told that she didn’t say much. Just a “Fuck you, asshole,” and a promise that he would hear from an attorney.
The community came together for Todd, at least on the surface. People call it “southern hospitality”, but I heard the way people kept talking about him, even after he claimed he’d rediscovered his faith in Jesus and started going on about demons. There were bake sales and church fundraisers and all that good stuff, and the speakers and organizers went on about the tragic story of this once-promising high school athlete, a well known and well-loved figure in the community, but we all still knew the truth.
And you know what I think is true? None of those people gave a damn about Todd McDonnel. Sure, they raised some money, but that’s because it’s what people expected them to do. They raised enough for him to replace his furniture and turn his lights back on. But as soon as the excitement wore down, they forgot all about him. Just as well, I suppose. He was an asshole before, and the same asshole after.
What bothered me was the attitude. People gave $2 here and $10 there because it was expected. They listened to his story about the demon because it was interesting. But they talked the same sour, hateful way as before, all while smiling. I was young at the time, only thirteen. But I quickly realized that they’d treat almost anyone this way. They hungered for it.
That was when I realized something was very wrong with Summer Springs.