The Devil’s Promenade


“I’ve seen it,” the old woman said and flicked her cigarette. Ashes flew and scattered across her lap. Some fell to the floor; a few landed on my converse tennis shoe. I shook them free.

“What did you see?”

Her eyes left my face and wandered up as if she were staring at the blinking exit sign in the far-right corner of the room. A student of facial expressions and body language, I knew it was not the lit sign that she held in her vision but a visual construct of the past. Her still dark eyebrows pulled together, and I saw fear register in them. With narrowed eyes, she held her stare, and the moment ticked on.

“Grace,” I said with a gentle tone and reached to touch her knee, hoping to draw her back to look into my eyes, where I would work to keep her attention with my expressions of interest. “What did you see?”

As she turned back to me, her face changed from fear to anger in a flash, but then, she smiled again. “It was a long time ago,” she said, and her bony hand came down over mine. She squeezed and then patted, never leaving eye contact. “A long time ago.” The smile she bore fell into a pursed grip of lips, and I felt my window of opportunity shrinking in the repeated words and passing seconds. She removed her hand from mine, and then took a long drag on her cigarette. She studied me. Silence stretched between us, and the air grew thick under the weight her stare and because of my increasing awkwardness.

Needing words to fill the silence, I announced, “I’m going there,” and I sat up straighter in my seat, keeping careful contact with her eyes. A muscle in her cheek flexed, and with slowness, her right eyebrow arched. No other words came from either of us, only an exchange of facial muscles twitching, indicating the stand-off taking place in our minds. She broke the silence.

“I’ve seen it.”

“You have?” Hope filled me, and I leaned forward a bit to indicate interest in what she would say—I wanted her to feel comfortable with me. To trust me.

“Yes,” she said, and her chest lifted with a deep intake of breath, which she exhaled, then removed her eyes from mine. “It was a long time ago.”

She repeated herself. Again.

A grandfather clock chimed from the lobby, and it rang clear, reminding me of my grandparent’s home and spending the night as a young girl. It chimed the hour every hour, and I never tired of the sounds. They floated in and out of the rooms along the hallways, reaching where we sat in the music room of the assisting living facility, and I felt the chimes—my heart fell in tune, and its beat matched the tone. I pictured my grandfather sitting next to the clock at the dining table, motioning me to join him in a game of Scrabble. I felt a small smile curve on my lips and touched it, feeling for him in a way, trying to bring back any of those days where we sat at his table playing word games, stifling the emotional flood threatening beneath my finger-covered mouth. Those were treasured memories.

“Johnny, Frank, me, and Mabel. We saw it.”

Grace’s voice spoke the names slowly, with purpose, and my mind snapped back from my memory bank where Grandma’s cookies were about done in the oven, and I smelled their sugary concoction as I organized the letters on my Scrabble rack. M. O. Q. I. T. E. L. Mite? Lite? Motel?

“The four of you?” I asked, my attention back on Grace’s eyes, which sat deep in her once beautiful face. She was still beautiful but aged, and her eyes were much smaller than the photos I had seen in her room proclaimed. She had stood next to her husband in their wedding photo; her eyes were the most prominent feature of her face—once bright blue and alluring, but now were small, hardened – and green? Had they changed color? I blinked and looked again—no, they were blue.

“Johnny borrowed his dad’s car that night, told him that he and Frank had to study at the library, that he needed the car to pick Frank up. Said it would be a late night, because of final exams. Johnny’s dad never questioned him, just let him go. Mabel asked if she could go, and Johnny tried to say no, but his dad said he should take his siste—the library would be good for her.”

She paused, tilted her head down slightly, and looked up at me with sad, dark eyes. Green again, I thought and blinked again. No, still sad and a dark ocean blue with flecks of the sun. Perhaps, the flecks were mixing with the blue and confusing my vision.

“Mabel was fifteen; she thought she was twenty. Johnny always told Frank and me about the trouble she caused him. We were seventeen, the three of us: me, Frank, and Johnny. Thick as thieves we were—did everything together. Sometimes we had to take Mabel along; she always got on my last nerve. . .” Grace dwindled off, lost in thought.

“She was irritating?”

A small, sardonic laugh, which ended with a smirk, escaped from Grace along with a soft “Yes.” She took another drag of her cigarette and exhaled slowly; the smoke coiled upward in a mystical dance until it reached the ceiling and dissipated. We both watched it.

“Mabel was,” Grace said, “… well, she was Mabel. So, Johnny showed up at the library with Mabel in the back seat. Frank and I had been there waiting a while – see, Frank lived a couple of doors down from me on Wall Street, close to the library, so we walked there together. Funny that Johnny’s dad never knew where Frank or I lived.” Her eyes became soft, and I wondered if any romance ever sparked among the three best friends. It was my nature to look for romance everywhere – and a triangle of friends was surely fodder for romantic entanglement.

“Sounds like he was happy to get the kids out of the house,” I said, avoiding the love triangle for now.

“Yes, he was,” she said, and then leaning forward like a conspirator sharing a lurid secret, she whispered, “He had a drinking problem.” There was no one else in the room now, no one to hear the secret, and I smiled, knowing Johnny’s father had been gone for a good, decent amount of time—and the secret would not have mattered to anyone who might have heard her had they been in the room. He was long gone and forgotten. Grace, herself, was pushing ninety.

“Did they have a mother?”

“No,” she said and shook her head. “Poor man. He made me uncomfortable.” A shiver ran dramatically through her; it began in her shoulders and ran down to her feet. I had to bite my lip to keep from emitting a small laugh. I had to ask why.

“Why did he make you uncomfortable?”

“Always lookin’,” she said. “Looking at other girls and at me. I saw him and gave him no attention that he wanted. I stayed away, always telling Johnny to meet us at the library. His dad must have thought Johnny was going to be the Valedictorian because of how many trips he made to the library.” A deep laugh escaped Grace, and a twinkle lit her eyes—the golden flecks flashed—and then her eyes changed, a faraway look took them over. The dark, ocean blue returned to them, and she put her cigarette into the ashtray next to her, bobbing it a couple of times before releasing it. “At the library, we stood around in the parking lot trying to decide what to do. I wanted to see a picture show. Frank wanted to get sodas and dance. He nudged me when he said it.” She smiled—obviously remembering the moment. “Frank was always sweet on me.”

“And were you sweet on him?” My curiosity took over, and I had to ask.

Grace looked at me—I saw at first trust but then distrust in her eyes, and I wondered why. She chose not to answer my Frank question, but instead, she kept telling her story.

“Johnny said we could do both, but Mabel called us dull, saying we should do something exciting, like find the Spiva pool. I tried to sound sophisticated and said we had already done that. We hadn’t, but I had heard stories, and I was not going near the place. My cousin and her friend George almost fell off the ledge of a cliff there in the dark trying to find it. I am afraid of heights, always have been, so the Spiva pool was not an option. Mabel was undeterred. She said then we had to see it. She emphasized it, and I did not like how she said it.

“It? The Spooklight?”

She corrected me by saying, “The Devil’s Promenade,” with a deep breath, and her eyes clouded a second—almost milky and clear, but no, they were blue. After blinking, I watched her eyes, and while I waited for her to continue to speak, I pushed the record button on my cell phone, not wanting to miss a thing. Garnering eyewitness accounts of the Spooklight was the next step in my research. I had already spoken with some teenagers, a few middle-aged people, a gas station attendant, all who claimed to have seen the light that goes by several names: the Hornet Light, the Devil’s Promenade, and the Joplin Spooklight. There were multiple names and multiple theories about its existence. The most recent thing I’d read stated that a scientist said he’d determined that the Spooklight was simply a reflection of vehicle lights from nearby Route 66. What they were reflecting on to create what people have seen for years on that stretch of deserted road, he wasn’t clear on in the article. His theory on the phenomenon seemed questionable to me. The eyewitness testimonies did not seem to support what he purported to be happening on Spooklight Road, though I would be including his theory in my research project for school.

“Frank said that sounded like a good idea, and Mabel cheered, then tugged on Johnny’s arm, asking him, ‘Can we please?’” Grace’s voice brought me back to the story at hand—it never ceased to amaze me how quickly my mind wandered. She continued, “Johnny searched my face, and I shrugged, not knowing what to think. My cousin and George had been there too, but they had not seen anything. Some people say they saw something; others weren’t sure. We had four hours before any of us would be missed, so, Johnny said, ‘Let’s do it,’ and we piled into his car, me in the front next to Johnny and then, Frank and Mabel in the back.”

“Were you sweet on Johnny?” The question slipped out of my mouth before my brain told me not to ask it. Grace’s eyes narrowed, and I braced for what I could see would be a pointed, vague response.

“Now why do I need to have fancied one of those boys? Could we not just be friends?”

I felt myself duly scolded. “I’m sorry, Grace—it’s just who I am, I suppose. Always looking for romance in everything and everyone. I’m a romantic.”

“That’s fine, dear. We can’t all be clear-minded,” she said—and I was not sure if that had been an insult or not, but I chose to disregard it as I was quite comfortable with who I was. She continued, “It was twelve miles south of Joplin, and it took us about a half an hour to get there. We tried to sing the lines from songs in “Broadway Melody,” Fred Astaire’s newest movie—we had seen it the week before. Have you seen it?”

“No, I have not,” I said.

“That’s a shame,” she said, and then, she added, “We sang for a part of the drive, and we were horrible.” Smiling, she paused and reached for her pack of cigarettes on the sofa beside her, picking it up, and shaking it against the palm of her hand, she knocked one free from the pack. With unsteady fingers, she lifted the cigarette to her lips and placed it between her lips. The pack went back to its place, and she looked back toward the nurses’ station and nodded her head backward. Without saying a word, the orderly attended to her cigarette, lighting it for her. He smiled, and she looked back out of the window and took a long drag on the cigarette. Smoke circled around her face as she exhaled, and when I caught a glimpse of her eyes through the flog, they looked lost – as if she did not know what the topic was or that she was even having a conversation. She was outside somewhere, reliving something, so I spoke up to draw her back to the story. “You were singing in the car.”

“That only lasted so long,” she said and turned back to me with a smile, though this one was a forced smile—pain lay behind it, and I felt a creeping sensation of guilt, but I wanted information. I needed information. I said, “I have experienced that,” as I thought of a time a few friends and I had gone on a road trip to a funeral out of town—and halfway through the drive, each of us was lost in sorrowful thoughts – and the music ceased though no one noticed when it did.

She nodded slightly, acknowledging our commonality, and continued, “Frank told us what he had heard about the Hornet Light. It wasn’t always called the Spooklight. Did you know that?”

“Yes, I do,” I said.

“Good, good,” she said, and took another puff on her cigarette. “Frank said some people believed that the Hornet Light was the souls of two Quapaw Indians kept from loving each other by their families, and their souls, forever on that road, searched to be together. Johnny laughed at that idea. He said no way was it going to be a romantic story that he would believe; he said it wasn’t even clever. Frank said, ‘All right,’ and he told of how other people said that a miner in the area back in the early 1800s had a run-in with some Native Americans, and that a few days later, his children went missing. He never found them, and the light is him searching for his children—a girl and a boy, both teenagers, the boy older than the girl. Johnny said that sounded better. I said nothing—I was still nervous about going. Mabel squealed with delight, clapped her hands, and hung over the back of the seat with her face too near my own, and Johnny turned the car down a dark road. The road sign said E-50. I remember my heart started racing, and I gripped the door tight. The only light anywhere around us was the car’s headlights. I said to Johnny that I did not think it was a good idea. Frank laughed at me. I will never forget that he laughed at me.”

Her eyes went up to the ceiling, off to the right, and she winced, then stared as if she were watching something in the corner. I looked and saw nothing where her eyes were focused.


She shook her head and closed her eyes tight before she opened them and turned back to me, and then, she continued her story, “We crept into the darkness down the road, and I asked what we were supposed to do. Frank said, ‘Nothing.’ He said the light would find us. Mabel told Johnny to drive farther down the road and park, that she wanted to get out and sit on top of the roof of the car. He laughed, and I knew I would not be able to convince him to leave – he was enjoying his sister’s excitement. ‘Okay,’ he’d said to Mabel. And we moved slowly down the road into the darkness. Around us in the dark, I made out branches of trees; they closed in on us the farther down the road we moved. They came nearer the road, and my heart seized in my chest. I know the trees moved; they bent down to the road and then snapped back up – all together they did, and there was a light shining between them. Mabel said, ‘Stop the car!’ and when Johnny put the car into park, she opened the door and climbed on the roof of the car. Frank followed her. Johnny asked me if I was coming. I could only stare at the light and stay in the car.”

Grace’s eyes were wide—she looked off toward the wall and continued to recount her story as if she were narrating a documentary which played out on the wall where her gaze was riveted.

“It just hung there in the air suspended, dancing almost, just a ball of green light. At first, it was small, and whether my eyes adjusted, or it grew, then it was larger. It moved to the right and stopped, then moved back to the left, and then it disappeared, covering us in complete darkness. I could see nothing for a few seconds, just blackness. Mabel pounded her disapproval on the roof of the car, yelling for the light to return. I just stared, trying to see something, anything. Frank said, ‘Grace, come out here,’ and I saw it again, this time closer, larger, and it was blue. Johnny and Frank let out a whoop! Mable said she wanted to run to it, and before Johnny could stop her, she slid off the roof and ran down the road ahead of us. Through the car’s windshield, I could only make out her figure for a second, and then she disappeared into the overwhelming dark. The light went out, and there was nothing. An owl hooted off in the forest, and everything stood still. Johnny called out, ‘Mabel!’ and Frank said, ‘Get back here, Mabel!’ They stood outside the car and argued about who would go after her. ‘Mabel!’ Frank called out again, and Johnny cursed. He opened the car door and slid into his seat. Frank got in next to me. Johnny cursed again. We sat there, all in the front seat, without Mabel, scared. None of us knew what to do.”

Grace’s words came faster—matching the rhythm of my racing heart.

“Johnny started the car, and the headlights bore a hole through the darkness down the road—no Mabel. We crept forward, nobody speaking. The trees bent in over us. Their fingers scratched the roof of the car, and I clung to Frank’s arm—he didn’t notice me, his eyes searched the forest. ‘Mabel,’ he shouted into the darkness just as brilliant light filled the car. White light, flashing blue, then green, radiated around my face, and it was hot. It moved inside me and through me. It knew me, and I felt myself lift into the air. All goodness and warmth were in the light, and I welcomed it, wanted it, and I lifted myself to it, rising there in the car, and I was flat against the ceiling of the car. Frank and Johnny held my arms, pulling me down, and I did not want them to. The light changed red and burned my skin; it was angry, and they pulled on me more, and both boys were shouting—I do not know what they said. I have no idea what they said. The light pulled me toward the window, changing from red to green to colors indescribable, and I wanted to go to the light. . .it was beautiful, and I wanted to dance in it, to revel in it, but Frank yelled, ‘No!’ The light pulled me harder, and I fell against the window, cracking the glass, and Frank’s strong arms went around me, and he yelled, ‘Johnny, move!’

“The car went backward. The tires squealed. I remember that, and the light left me, dropped me, it rejected me. . .It followed us down the road, hovering over the hood, taunting Johnny, playing at the window in front of his face. He shook his fist at it and kept yelling ‘No!’—and then it went up into the sky and disappeared. Johnny stopped the car. ‘Where’d it go?’ he said, and he put his face near the windshield to look into the sky. I felt myself crying, lying crumpled in Frank’s arms there in the darkness. My skin burned all over, my clothes stuck to my skin, and my hair dripped sweat on my face. Frank held me; his heart raced. I felt it, and I heard it until the car convulsed. I screamed! The light came down behind us, looming over the road, taunting, daring, and then it moved to Frank’s side, flickering there, holding still, whispering foreign words, but not words—it was haunting, alluring music as it danced by Frank, flashing from green to blue to purple to white. Johnny tightened his grip on the steering wheel and pushed on the accelerator just as Frank loosened his grip on me. His car door flew open as we moved down the road! Frank was there and then gone, just the light remained, and it glowed brighter still—and it split into two lights, hovering close together and there was music to their dance – they pulled at me, and I place a hand toward the open car door. Johnny tossed himself over me and pulled the car door closed, even with the car moving. I saw the whites of his eyes, wide and frightened, as he lay across me, holding onto the door handle for our lives. The moment hung, and the lights disappeared. We sat frozen in the car, no longer moving, just Johnny and me. He put the car into reverse, and the tires spun, sending pebbles into the air on all sides. I heard them, could not see them—it was full dark again.

“Flying backward down the road, Johnny kept his eyes behind us, and I stared forward into nothing. Nothing. The light was gone. Mable was gone. Frank was gone. There was only darkness. Only darker spots in the dark where trees stood darkly rooted in time. The car jolted and creaked, knocked out of joint by a pothole we had not hit earlier. Johnny cursed, and I turned to look back, taking my eyes from the road ahead just as a fierce glow surrounded the car, and we lifted into the air, suspended. A figure stood there—a man, missing teeth, in disheveled clothes; he held a lantern in one hand, and he held the car in the other as if it were nothing more than a cardboard box. Johnny gunned the engine, and the tires spun in the air – the man roared in laughter, and then her face filled the back window, but it wasn’t Mabel’s face anymore! Her hair was wild and undone, flying all about her face like Medusa’s snakes! Her eyes were white with no pupils; they glared wide and bright into the car at us, changing from green to blue to fiery red. ‘Father’s found us,’ she said, and her voice bit into my flesh—low, gravelly, not Mabel . . .Johnny revved the engine and kept his face locked on hers. ‘Wants you, too,’ she growled. ‘No!’ Johnny said, and we were on the ground again, moving backward. I felt her pass by me—she raked at my skin with claws, and then she was through the car, and we kept going, leaving the light … leaving Mabel. Leaving Frank. Leaving the Devil.”

Grace took a drag on her cigarette. Her eyes closed as smoke coiled up around her face, disfiguring her for a few seconds. A shiver ran through me before the smoke dissipated above her head. There was something unearthly in that moment that I could not ascertain, though I knew it to my core—something, and not just Grace’s story, hung in the air—something was there with us, and I was cold. The hair on my arms stood on end, and I watched Grace closely as she again lifted the cigarette to her lips. Her eyes gazed out the window, and the shiver hit me again as I saw the blue, narrow eyes turn green, then gold, then blue again. Am I seeing this? Grace stared, and I stared.

We sat in silence for a moment longer, and Grace continued to smoke. I had no words. I had heard stories about a young couple who went missing in 1940 but had not thought, had not considered their story to be Grace’s. This interview was supposed to be lighthearted – an addition to the piece about the Spooklight for my college’s newspaper— a collection of Joplin’s legends and tall tales from inhabitants of all ages. I didn’t know.

“I’m sorry, Grace,” I said. I had to say something. “I had no—”

“I’ve never spoken of it.” She gave another forced smile, and then, she unbuttoned the sleeve on her right arm, lifting her arm to reveal scarred scratch marks over burn scars on her forearm. “From that night.”

The shock I felt at her wounds stole any words I might utter.

“No more,” she said, and she looked away, out of the window, and she held a hand over her scars, caressing them with her crooked, bony fingers. I watched, knowing my time with Grace was about done. There would soon be no more interview, no more story before she sent me on my way. “No more,” she had said, but my curiosity kicked in—and I had to ask one more question—to satisfy my story. This was all far more than I had expected, and I had to carry the interview through, if even for myself.

“What of Johnny?” I asked, still recording, and not wanting to miss anything. More questions came to me, and emboldened, I sat forward, hoping to goad her to say more with my interested body language. She was unmoved. She stiffened, turned to look at me, and her eyes flashed in anger. The golden flecks sparked, and I knew not to press her. I dared not move the conversation to Johnny, but I wanted to know. What of Johnny. Were they questioned? What about his father? Frank’s family? “Did they ever find anything?” I risked that question, and her eyes still held the anger. A muscle in her cheek flexed; her jaw squared tight. She looked me up and then down with steel, cold eyes, and my skin crawled, a burning sensation covered my face, and I sat up straight under the weight of her darkening eyes. For a moment, I thought she would not answer. Then, she closed her eyes and stayed that way while. I gulped from holding my breath, and I took what breath and courage I could from the smoky air surrounding us. But before I could utter another word, her eyes opened and flashed green, then blue, and no pupils were there. And then red.

“No,” came a voice from her lips that was not hers any longer followed by a young female laugh—and Grace shook.

Stumbling from my metal chair, I knocked it over when I stood, and it clattered closed onto the floor—I jumped at the clamor of metal on tile and did not bother to pick it up. Five orderlies dressed in white came to Grace’s side; one of them kicked away the chair, and I stepped backward through them as they swarmed her, bumping into other chairs, knocking them over, and falling to their knees around the woman – someone knocked the cigarette from her hand. It fell to the floor still emitting smoke which coiled into the surrounding air.

“She’s gone,” someone said, and he held her thin wrist in his hand—his fingers unable to locate an indication of lifeblood flowing through her veins. With a shake of his head, he announced there was no pulse. The cigarette lay on the floor near her chair—smoke wafted into the air, snaking up into the room. Someone’s shoe stomped it out. The swarm surrounded Grace, and none of them noticed me. None of them noticed the light hovering above their heads—at first green, then blue, and it danced. Beautiful. It danced for me inside the remaining trails of smoke from Grace’s dying cigarette, and the melody was gentle, and I held out my hand.


Born and raised in Southeastern Oklahoma, Dacia Lene’ Cunningham is an author, an amateur photographer (if Instagram counts), and an Assistant Professor of English at Tulsa Community College. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with her husband, who is the love of her life, her very best friend. Mother of seven, she is also the mother-in-love of two and grandmother of two. . .three if you count her grand-dog. She’s a cowboy boot-wearing, motorcycle-riding, Mexican food-loving, family-time hoarding, adventure-seeking kind of gal who loves tromping around in the woods and watching BBC detective shows. #alltrue

Jamie Cunningham is a Cherokee tribal member (wolf clan) and the author of Collapse of Chaos and Broken Parachutes, a collection of his short stories His short fiction has appeared in such literary journals as Confrontation and The Iconoclast.  He is also an accomplished guitarist and musician, playing on stages across the Midwest and appearing on a dozen albums over the years, and is a skilled portrait artist and graphic designer, as well. Alicuius mens in scriptis spirat.