Wormwood Tales are stories written by the Wormwood creative team, designed to tell stories before, after and around our central tale. These stories may contain clues to the mysteries of Wormwood. Or they may not. We’ll never tell.
We hope you enjoy.
John and Jack: A Tale of Twins
By Rob Allspaw
John was sitting in jail. John had been convicted. John was to be executed in two days for a crime he had not committed. John was finally angry at Jack. Jack should be sitting in jail. Jack should have been convicted. Jack should be waiting to be executed in two days time for a crime he did commit. Jack was a murderer.
It started twenty-nine years ago to the day when John and Jack were born. Identical twins so identical you couldn’t tell them apart physically. Physically, that is. Personality was a completely different matter. When you were talking to them you could tell who you were dealing with. As nice as John was, Jack was twice as mean. Kentucky whiskey drunk mean.
John would save stray animals, Jack would hunt them down. John knew what Jack was, but John always thought that he could redeem Jack. John was a good person, and that was the only thing he wanted. Jack thought John was a sap, a sap to be used and taken advantage of. Which is why John was in prison awaiting the hangman’s noose.
John and Jack grew up in the way most boys in a small town grew up. The town they grew up in was north and a bit east of San Francisco. Its name was Wormwood. Needless to say the town had never been a tourist attraction. Not with a name like that. Southern Pacific scrapped its proposed plan for the railroad to run put a stop in town when the town refused to change its name. The railroad argued that nobody would want a rail stop named Wormwood. The stop instead went to Lyonsville, a town just a bit further north. That put the nail in the proverbial coffin and doomed the town to a life of obscurity.
John and Jack played in the woods with the other boys, but their playmates soon learned to avoid the brothers. Jack played to win, no matter what the cost and who it hurt. More than one of the boy’s had wound up in the doctor’s office, a victim of one of Jack’s schemes. John would always protect Jack, even if it meant a life devoid of friends and playmates.
As they got older it wasn’t only the children that did not want them around, it was the school. They claimed that Jack was way to disruptive in class and cruel to the other children, so their mother took both of them out of school and taught them herself. That was no easy task. Their mother only had the equivalent of secondary school education. Jack was a handful, but once he learned that most people did not have much education — and therefore did not know as much — he studied hard and learned much. Jack had been mean. Now Jack was both mean and brilliant — a deadly combination as we would soon find out.
On the other hand, John could not or would not take to book learning. This aggravated Jack to no end. John was as good with his hands as Jack was good with his head. At fifteen, John and Jack were put to work in the fields of their father’s farm. Their father said that they had learned enough from books; now it was time for them to earn their keep. And earn it they did. Jack chafed under their father’s stern gaze and heavy hand. John took to farming like a duck to water; he had finally found a place where he belonged.
Two years later, Jack would end that.
As brothers often do, they had the same taste for food, drink, and girls. John and Jack both noticed Naomi the moment the bus pulled into Wormwood. Naomi’s father had been fired from the factory in San Francisco after trying to unionize the dock factory he worked in. That shop would be last unionized shop in the city of San Francisco. Naomi’s father was a pariah on the docks and could not find work, so he packed up his family and moved to Wormwood. His wife’s second cousin was from the small town and had offered to put them up while they got settled. Naomi‘s father had taken a job as a farm hand at John’s and Jack’s family farm.
As Naomi’s father worked along side of John and Jack, he got to know them. He liked John immediately, as the boy had a generally kind and good demeanor. Jack, on the other hand, terrified the farm hand. Naomi’s father was a slight man, but he was strong and able-bodied. Now seventeen, John and Jack both topped six feet two inches, giants of men in 1917. They had filled out remarkably while working the farm. They were handsome young men, and they knew it. Especially Jack. Jack had learned to channel his rage. He had learned patience. And he had learned to manipulate. Most of the girls in town knew his touch, but most thought they were with John, at least until the end, when Jack would reveal his identity in mid-coitus, laughing maniacally. He would often tell the girls that if they told anyone he would come and kill them in the middle of the night. The girls knew Jack was not joking.
John and Jack wooed Naomi almost from the moment she arrived in Wormwood. She was exotic and new and from a large city, a fact that excited Jack. He ached to leave Wormwood, but he refused to leave poor. Soon he would leave, and he would leave with money. But something was happening to Jack as he romanced Naomi. He started to feel something he had not felt in his life: Love.
Jack was falling in love with Naomi.
But so was John.
Naomi, for her part, loved them both. She knew she had to make a choice: dependable John or exciting Jack. John, you could build a life around. With Jack, you could live life to its fullest. Naomi knew who she must choose. Her father had made it clear for her. He felt that once she made her decision, things could be put right. However, that wasn’t the case. Naomi chose John, and Jack flew into a rage. He left Naomi crying and ran to the local saloon. There, he beat a man near to death for insinuating that Jack was not man enough to drink at the bar. After the savage beating, Jack picked up the man’s whiskey, took a drink, and spit it into the man’s pulped face. It took the sheriff, three of his deputies, and Jack’s father to wrestle Jack down and put him jail. Jack’s father would always walk with a limp after that encounter. The man beaten in the fight would not be so lucky. Jack beat his face so badly that his wife did not recognize him, and his children were scared of him. He would later hang himself after his wife left town with their children. She claimed it was not a safe environment in which to raise children.
Outside of Wormwood, the world was slowly tearing itself apart. They were calling it the War to End All Wars. The Great One. Germany had invaded Belgium and all hell had broken loose.
The draft was coming.
Wormwood was not large enough of a town to have a permanent court house and presiding judge. When a large enough crime happened in one the remote hamlets of Northern California, the federal court would appoint a roving judge to the trial. The judge that was assigned Jack’s case believed this had been a case of “boys will be boys” and “the drunk got what was coming to him.” The local doctor testified that almost every bone in the drunk’s face had been broken. If he recovered he would be unrecognizable.
After reviewing the facts, the presiding Judge claimed the he recognized heart break when he heard it. Instead of giving Jack 20 years hard labor, which the jury had recommended, he commuted his sentence as long as Jack joined the military as part of the war effort. It was the military or prison.
Jack quickly joined the United State’s Marine Corps.
John enlisted, too. John felt responsible for Jack, and he would bear the punishment along with his brother. John told Naomi that he would be back and to wait for him. She said she would.
After basic training, they both were sent to Europe and saw action fighting the Germans. In France, Jack rose to fame and celebrity during the Battle of Belleau Wood. His savagery and bloodlust saved countless Marines. Jack had finally found his place in the world, even if only he and John knew it.
Two weeks later John would end that.
After the Battle of Belleau Wood, John and Jack were assigned to a regiment in charge of clearing out stray German soldiers from the surrounding areas. They were two weeks out when the ambush happened. John was badly injured and the rest of the squad was killed. A mortar shell had exploded in front of John and another soldier. The other soldier, a thin teenager named Leonard Barnes, absorbed most of the concussive blast and all of the shrapnel. John was thrown nearly twenty feet into a pile of rubble.
The ambush left John in a coma for four months. When John awoke, he asked for Jack, but Jack was nowhere to be found. John asked the locals who had nursed him back to health if anyone else had survived the attack. They told him that he had been alone when they had found him. They had buried what was left of the squad in a field two miles away. The locals told John that there had been one soldier who would never be recognized; his face and chest were destroyed by a mortar blast. The same mortar blast that had sent John flying.
After hearing Jack and the rest of the squad were dead, John became morose. John’s mourning was so deep that he would spend hours staring at the war torn French countryside without moving from his chair. At times, the villagers became fearful for his life.
They thought he might become suicidal. John would eat only what was placed directly in front of him and move only when he was directed to do so.
If only John could know for sure that Jack was dead. The uncertainty tormented him. John had been injured early in the attack and the last thing he heard was Jack’s screams of bloody rage. It was possible for Jack to have survived, John thought. Maybe he had been taken captive by the Germans. It would be tough, as the trail was at least five months old, but John knew that he would never find peace as long as there was still a chance Jack was alive.
He got out of the chair and gathered up his meager possessions. John slowly walked out of the cottage, stopping only once. John stopped in front of an old man named Alain, the bearded gentleman who had most often stayed at his bedside he slowly healed.
“Thank you for my life,” said John, sincerity gleaming in his eyes and catching in his voice. Alain grabbed John’s shoulder once and nodded, then turned and walked away.
John traveled the French countryside for months searching for any sign of Jack, but everywhere he went there was nothing. No one had seen him. When he needed money or lodging, John would stop in a village and work on someone’s farm, repair a roof, or even herd goats. Soon the traveling became less about finding Jack and more about healing John.
Finally, John could no longer lie to himself. Jack was dead. No amount of wandering was going to bring him back. John trekked back to the village that had healed him and found the soldiers’ burial site. John said a brief prayer and then told Jack goodbye. It was time for John to move on and find his own happiness and peace.
After months of bureaucratic delays and snafus, John eventually made his way home to Wormwood, four years after he and his brother had left. No one had heard from him in over two and a half years. Word from the Marines had reached their Mother thirteen months ago. The telegram told her John had been killed in action. Please accept our condolences, said the telegram. There was no word on Jack.
On an early spring morning, John walked down Quarry Lane into the main artery of the small rural town he had once called home. As he drew closer the citizens of Wormwood emerged from their shops and homes. Most thought they were seeing a ghost. John tried to wave to some of the families he had known most of his life, but the look on their faces stopped him. It was a look that mixed fear with relief, hope with despair, and joy with sadness. John had not been prepared for the Wormwood’s reaction.
And then he heard a voice that he thought he would never hear again. “John? Is that my John?” His mother’s voice questioned. “Momma,” said John, “It’s me. I’ve come home.” John’s mother grabbed her son and held him fiercely, crying and laughing and proclaiming that her baby boy was not dead. He had come home safe from the war.
A gruff voice from behind the two cut the reunion short. John and his mother turned. It was Naomi’s father. He told John to come with him “Look,” said his mother. “John is home.” Naomi’s father did not seem pleased to see John. He asked him again to follow him and began to walk up the street.
John and his mother followed Naomi’s father up the street to John’s old house. Inside, John saw photos of Naomi with a small child. His heart sank. He turned to look at the rest of the room and saw his mother move toward the back of the house. Naomi’s father motioned for John to come into the living room and sit down. In hushed tones Naomi’s father proceeded to tell him of life in Wormwood since he left to fight a war a half a world away.
A year after they had enlisted, John and Jack’s father had been killed in a farming accident. The plow had started to back up, and as he tried to clear the excess soil, the plow sucked him under and eviscerated him. After the accident, John’s Mother’s health started to decline, and without word from John or Jack, she eventually had to sell the family farm Naomi’s Father. Knowing she had no where else to go, he invited her to stay with his family. John’s mother accepted his offer; He was a good man with a good heart.
The biggest change of all happened to Naomi. A month after John and Jack left for basic training, she discovered she was pregnant. Naomi would not tell her parents who the father was. They assumed it was either Jack or John. They prayed it was John. Naomi’s father looked John straight in the eye and asked John if he was the father. John told him one of Jack’s biggest frustrations was that Naomi had told him no and would not go with him.
On the night before he was to ship out, John and Naomi had stayed the night together. John asked Naomi to marry him when he got back. “The child is mine,” said John.
The old man asked John what had happened to Jack. John told him that Jack was dead and buried in France. Naomi’s father visibly relaxed upon hearing John’s words. John was so wrapped up in learning of his child, he had failed to notice the man’s tense stature. John grew angry. He demanded to know why he was never told of the child. He wanted to know where Naomi was.
Naomi’s father smiled and asked him to calm down. He told him that everything was all right; he would explain. He told John that since Naomi had never confirmed John as the father, he didn’t want to tell him and worry him while he was fighting the war.
“Please,” John asked, “Can I see Naomi and my child? I have so many questions and not nearly enough answers.” As if in response, John’s mother returned from the back room. Naomi was with her. She looked just a little older, perhaps a little thinner, but she was as beautiful as he remembered. John’s mother was carrying a small child. John grabbed Naomi and clutched her tight. He told her how much he missed her and how he was never going to leave again. She just clung to him. Tears filled her eyes.
When the embrace ended, she took the small child from John’s mother and introduced John to his son, Joshua James Detael. Naomi had named their son after both of their fathers. Joshua looked at his father for the first time in his life and smiled. John knew everything was going to be all right.
Years rolled past and life return to normal. John put the war behind him. He worked the farm with Naomi’s father. The older man was going to retire soon, and he wanted John to run the farm when he stepped down. When Naomi knew she was pregnant they told people that John and Naomi had secretly married on the night before he shipped out. Everyone knew it was a lie, but no one really cared. So when the real wedding came around everyone turned a blind eye and had a good time.
Joshua was the spitting image of John. Everyone loved the little boy. Everyone loved the little boy the same way everyone should have loved John. The difference between Joshua and John was that Joshua did not have Jack. In fact, Jack was not a topic that was rarely brought up. Most of the town folk were relieved that Jack was not coming back, and they believed it when John told them Jack had fought bravely in the war. They believed that Jack was dead and buried in France.
It was toward the end of summer. John worked the farm as if he had never left — as if the war had never happened. John’s father-in-law was soon to retire; this harvest was his last. John was plowing a secondary field when it happened. As he tilled the farm bringing up the nutrient rich soil from below ground; a rock flew up from the plow and struck him in the head. The blow instantly knocked him out and threw him from the plow. Fortunately, the plow stalled out before it took the life of the son as it had the father.
John awoke in the Wormwood Quarry. The last thing he remembered was being working the plow. Now, he found himself covered in blood, a shotgun lying at his side. The county sheriff and several of his deputies found him in the quarry and arrested him on site. The sheriff tossed John in jail, but John protested his innocence. He told the sheriff, he had no idea what had happened or why he was covered in blood. John asked the sheriff to bring Naomi to the jail. She could help John figure this out. The sheriff looked at John with contempt and punched him in the face. The sheriff spat at John and said, “After what you did to her, nobody will ever see her again”.
John yelled at the sheriff, pleaded with him to tell him what had happened to his wife. The sheriff stopped and shook his head. He has seen it before. The Forgetting. People erased the memories of unpleasant events, especially when something tragic or brutal had occurred. He realized that John didn’t remember brutally murdering his wife and In-laws. The sheriff reluctantly told John the truth; he was being arrested for the murder of Naomi Detael and her parents. John went white. He couldn’t say a word. He just shook his head and mouthed the word, “No.” And then he remembered his son. He asked the sheriff to tell him what had happened to his boy. The sheriff told John that the boy would be fine – for an orphan.
According to the eyewitness testimony during the trial, John had been seen tearing though town, “mad as all hell,” as one witness claimed. He stopped at the bar and proceeded to get good and drunk, muttering that he was “going to get that two-timing bitch.” The bartender asked John what it was he was talking about. Was Naomi stepping out on him? John looked at him with bloodshot eyes and a dead stare and told him that he was going to fix her and the guy she was cheating with. The Bartender told John that he was mistaken and knew Naomi was not stepping out on him. He would know, the bartender added, as most of the local gossip ran through his bar at one time or another. He told John to go sleep it off and then go talk to her in the morning. At that point, John looked confused and told the bartender that he was going to go sleep it off. He told the bartender that he couldn’t believe he was sitting in a bar drinking in the afternoon when there was work to be done. The bartender didn’t think of it again until the next morning.
Nobody truly knows what happened that night at the Detael family farm house. John’s mother had taken Joshua over to a friend’s house for a visit when John arrived at home. Both of Naomi’s parents were slain with shotgun blasts to the back of the head. Naomi got one in the face and in the groin. It was one of the most gruesome scenes the town could recall.
John could not remember what had happened. The feeling gnawed at him.
The night before the trial began, he went to sleep in his jail cell, and he dreamt. When he awoke, he knew the dream was more than a dream. It was a missing piece of his memory. It was night, and he saw Jack, grinning in the dark, his face half-light in the moonlight. He had seen that grin before. John had seen it when Jack had beaten a drunk man half to death.
John knew who had killed his wife and her family. It could be no one else, yet it didn’t make sense. John tried to explain his theory to the lawyer. The Lawyer shook his head sadly and told him his only chance of escaping death and getting life in prison was to say he was crazy from the war. He had to tell the judge that he had seen horrible things there and it eventually made him snap and see things that were not there. That was the only chance he had, and it was not a very good chance at that. John told the lawyer that he was innocent and would not say he was crazy or guilty. He did not pull the trigger on his wife. He loved his family.
The jury found him guilty in an hour after closing statements. The judge, a competent one this time, sentenced him to hang from the hangman’s noose until he was dead. John told his court appointed attorney not to file any appeals. Life wasn’t worth it any more. His mother and his son had not been to see the entire time he was incarcerated.
The night before John was to be shipped to a state penitentiary to await his sentence, he had a visitor. His mother. She had finally come, but she came alone. She did not bring Joshua. She told him she preferred Joshua to remember her father as the good man he was, not the murderer he was convicted of being. John’s mother knew the truth of the matter. She believed John. She knew who had pulled the trigger. She knew Jack wasn’t dead and buried. She knew because you can never outrun your past.
“Momma you came to see me. How is Joshua? Why did you not bring him?”
“John,” she said, “I want you to listen to me. I love you very much and I believe you, but the devil must be given his due. Responsibility has to be taken and payment made, and you’re here to do that. They didn’t deserve what they got and you don’t deserve what you’re getting. Isn’t that right, Jack?”
John just stared at her. “Momma what are you talking about?” asked John.
“Isn’t that right ,Jack?” she repeated.
John’s shoulders lifted and straightened. A scowl appeared on his face. The man sat upright and sneered. “Well, well, Mother. I never thought you would have figured it out,” said Jack.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because I could,” came the reply.
“Why?” she asked again.
“Mother,” said Jack, “It’s quite simple. I could and did. She had it coming. She choose that poor sap over me, and that was that. That was the power she gave him over me. I was becoming a thing of the past for John. That’s why I nearly killed that man in the bar, back before the war. What I…what we did to that poor guy…it almost drove John mad with guilt. All he did was ask if we were old enough to be in the bar. Sometimes it just doesn’t pay to be friendly. I hear he killed himself. Was he that deformed? I would have liked to have seen that.”
Jack’s mother finally accepted that this creature was not her little boy anymore. It was evil, pure and simple. She should have let her husband drown it in the river when they had had a chance. The pain from that would have been less than the pain she felt now. The pain she had caused so many others.
Jack went on gloating. He said the best part about all of this was the memories that John was going to remember. The memories that Jack had been holding back as a final “fuck you” to his ersatz brother. John would remember what he had done to Naomi before he pulled the trigger on her. John would remember his time in France before and after the ambush. But the real best part was that John was going to suffer in prison, not Jack.
“Because after this conversation,” he told his mother, “I am going to simply disappear. Not like before. I will simply go away, and he will be stuck with the memories of everything we have done. I think the memories will drive him mad, and they don’t execute crazy people, do they?”
With that he started to cackle with glee.
Laughter echoing off the concrete walls, Jack’s mother pulled her dead husband’s revolver out of her purse, kissed it once, and shot her son in the chest. The noise was deafening. She fired again and again and again and again and again until all she heard was a clicking noise. The force of the impact threw her son across the cell and slammed him into the wall.
He slid to the floor as blood poured out of his wounds. Coughing and sputtering, he asked her why. She stared at him.
“Why?” he asked again, coughing up more blood.
“You are not my son. You are evil. You should suffer for what you have done.”
“But why, Momma?” he asked once more before she shuddered and grew still. The old woman began to cry then, because she knew the last question had been from her son. Jack’s final gesture to her had been to return her son to her once more.