Our town doesn’t get many visitors. The roads leading through it don’t come from anywhere important, and they don’t go anywhere important either. Hell, I don’t even think we rate a drop of ink on most maps of the area. You’ve never heard of it, I’m almost sure—but for ninety-six people on this planet, Bertrand, Montana is home.
I once heard a rumor that Bertrand is the oldest city in America. I don’t mean we’ve been around the longest, of course, but if you add up the ages of all our citizens, and divide that number by the number of citizens we have—well, let’s just say you’d be hard pressed to find another town in the homeland where the average age is 73 years old. And counting.
There are no children here, and there likely never will be again. Not in Bertrand. The youngest among us, Tommy Bellweather, is 52. When it happened, young Tommy was thirteen years old, short for his age, and the most insolent little bastard you ever laid eyes on. Now he runs the laundromat in town, always armed with a bright smile, a kind word and a Colt .45.
Don’t ask me why he’s stuck around, ‘cause I don’t know. I’m not sure why any of us have. After everything that happened, everything we went through, you might think we couldn’t get outta here fast enough. Oh, some of us did, of course. But the rest of us stayed, for we are Bertrand, and Bertrand is us, and it’s all we know in this world. We’re all still wounded, some of us pretty deep—but I suppose nothing can heal old scars like the familiarity and the comfort of home.
It all started in July of 1968. It was a bad time for America, but a good time for Bertrand—we were so small and insignificant that we always felt a bit removed from the rest of the country. Still, there were upwards of four hundred living here in those days, and children too. Plenty of children.
Three of ‘em, all under the age of eight, belonged to old Sandra Hill. She was beautiful back then, a bona-fide dime, although I’d never have told her that. Her husband was the deputy to the town marshal, and more gung-ho than any young lawman you ever heard of. He was also very devoted to his wife, and she to him, and not even the most lustful fellow in town would think of coming between the two.
Anyway, Sandra was friendly in those days with my sweet Irene (god rest her soul). Our only child, Jodie, was around the age of the oldest Hill child and they had frequent playdates. While the children gallivanted around, Sandra and my Irene would sip tea, out on the porch in the warm months, and talk for hours on end. Irene would come home and ceaselessly regale me with the tales of Wendell and Sandra Hill, which bored me terribly though I usually made an attempt to at least half-listen. But on this particular night, Irene said something I found very interesting indeed.
“Say, have you heard of any ice cream trucks around town?”
I responded, of course, in the negative. Nobody in Bertrand owned an ice cream truck, of that I was sure, and the idea of somebody driving clear out here to peddle frozen treats to our sparse population was frankly laughable.
“Why do you ask?” I added, almost as an afterthought.
“Well, because little Polly Hill claims that she’s seen one driving about,” she responded. “Sandra told me about it just this afternoon. She says Wendell isn’t worried, that nobody else has mentioned anything strange and something about children having imaginations, of course, but she did seem a bit frightened.”
I agreed with Wendell that the likelihood of an ice cream truck in Bertrand was low, and that a child’s daydream was a far more realistic explanation, but I still felt somewhat uneasy. If there was indeed somebody driving an ice cream truck around without anybody knowing, that could very well mean our children were in danger. We were removed from the world, as I said, but we weren’t naïve. Predators could come to our town as well as any other.
“This is the first I’m hearing about it, sweetheart, but I think we should warn Jodie again about, you know, not taking things from strangers. Just to be safe.”
Irene agreed, and the two of us walked into Jodie’s room. It was a short conversation. She hadn’t seen the ice cream truck, and of course she wouldn’t take anything from strangers, even if it was something as delicious as ice cream, she said as she rolled her eyes. Satisfied, we let the matter alone, and there it rested, untouched, for almost a week.
It was Jodie who saw it first.
She and I were walking out of a matinee at the Towne Cinema, our local one-screen movie joint. I don’t recall what film we saw. We strolled leisurely down the bright, sun-baked street, shielding our eyes with our hands in a funny sort of salute. After a couple of blocks, the crowd from the movie had dissipated. It was just she and I.
As we walked and talked, her voice began to trail off. I looked down at her and saw she was peering down a side alley, at the end of which was another road, parallel to the one on which we stood. I asked her what she was looking at.
“I thought I saw that ice cream truck you told me about,” she responded, a slight mystic tone to her voice.
Worried and a bit intrigued, I squinted my eyes into the shadowed alley but could see no vehicles on the other side.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “It doesn’t look like anything’s over—”
I paused, raising my hand to my forehead. I could suddenly feel a headache coming on, sharp and acute. It felt like it was directly in between my eyes, about an inch or two behind my skull. A strange sensation, to be sure, but that’s all it was at the time. My daughter asked if I was okay. I responded in the affirmative.
As we continued our march down the street, though, the headache grew more and more noticeable. I began to worry a bit. We turned a corner, and I kept my eyes fixated on the ground, focused on the weeds growing from the cracks in the sidewalk, until—
“Daddy, look! There it is!”
I jerked my head upward, and there, approaching us in the road from a distance of approximately a hundred yards, was an ice cream truck.
My head exploded with pain—pain that seemed to course in waves through every inch of my body. I fell to the ground, trembling, unable to even scream. I saw my daughter through a wall of tears, standing limply, her head dangling slightly to the side, as if in some kind of trance. She seemed utterly unconcerned with me, though I lay writhing beside her shoes on the concrete.
“Jo—Jodie,” I croaked out through moans. The pain was exquisite, sharper and more real than any I have ever experienced. Still, my first thought was to get her away from the ice cream truck, which I could hear slowly creeping along the road. Above the hum of the engine I could hear a melody, played in happy chimes: Pop Goes The Weasel.
I forced myself to turn toward the truck. It was passing right beside us. I could only glance at its side long enough to see a caricature of a man’s face, grinning widely on a baby blue background, mouth open and chewing on something—presumably some kind of frozen treat. Something was written in a little half-circle below the image, but in my awful state I couldn’t tell what it said. The pain was severe beyond words and unrelenting and I could do nothing but slump, half-conscious, onto the curb.
“Dad? Dad? Dad?!”
Jodie was shaking me fiercely. I awoke in an instant and scrambled to my feet, grabbing hold of my daughter’s wrists with both hands.
“Jodie, the truck. Where’s the truck?”
“What truck?” she asked. She was either the world’s greatest actress or dead serious—she had no idea what truck I was talking about.
“The truck, the ice cream truck that was just here,” I replied in disbelief, crouching my face down close to hers to illustrate the gravity of the situation. A dull ache was left in my head where the pain had been—I felt like someone had bored through my tear ducts with an awl.
“Ice cream truck? Oh…” A dawning realization mixed with a genuine, confused innocence crept over her face. “Right, I don’t know where it went. What happened to you?”
“I got…I had a headache…wait, what do you mean, you don’t know where it went? Didn’t you see it go somewhere?”
“No,” she replied simply. Again, she seemed almost to be in a trance. “Let’s go home, we’re almost there!”
Two days later, Sandra and Irene sat out on our porch, rocking in the cushioned swing and talking so fast it’d make your head spin. Both were wearing sleeveless floral blouses and nursing iced teas, and beads of sweat ran down each of their foreheads. It seemed to actually be hotter than hell outside.
My wife called me outside and instructed me to tell Sandra what had happened, how Jodie and I had seen the ice cream truck. I wasn’t keen on spreading such a bizarre tale, but the ladies persisted, so I spilled everything—the headache, the music, the trancelike state of my daughter in the aftermath. Sandra listened intently, at one point spilling a bit of tea down her face during a distracted sip. She dabbed herself with a napkin almost absentmindedly as she heard, and her eyes never left me.
The second I finished speaking, Irene turned her attention to Sandra.
“Alright. Now tell him.”
“Tell me what?” I asked, with a hint of dread. This didn’t sound good. Sandra took a deep breath.
“I think our children are in danger. All of them. Polly saw the ice cream truck last week, and you and Jodie saw it too. But there’s more. Two little boys came walking into Polly’s class late yesterday. They were both holding ice cream bars. When the teacher asked them where they’d gotten them, and why they were late, they said they were talking to a man named Edward in an ice cream truck.”
“Jesus Christ,” I muttered, trying to keep my cool. “How did you find out about this?”
“Polly’s teacher told me and a couple of the other moms, but it gets worse. Mary Sutherland’s daughter, Jacqueline, always has some new imaginary friend—and apparently, the latest friend’s name is Edward, and he’s an ice cream man. Mary didn’t think anything of it until we spoke to the teacher.”
“Well, that doesn’t necessarily mean—”
“Wait,” Sandra said, shooting me an earnestly worried look. I glanced over at my wife. She bit her lip, eyes fluttering wildly, nervously around. “Last night, I asked all my children if they had recently met or heard of a man named Edward. Polly said no but I could tell she was lying; Jack refused to answer entirely.”
“And Victoria?” I responded, inquiring after the youngest Hill child—scarcely older than three.
Sandra looked down at her lap. “She clapped her hands together and shouted ‘Ice cream! Ice cream!’ over and over again.”
I stood up abruptly. “Let’s go talk to Jodie,” I said to Irene. Sandra followed behind us. The three of us crowded around my only child’s bedroom door. I gave it a light knock and called her name.
She almost immediately opened it, clearly delighted to have company. We stepped into her room, where she had a dollhouse and other toys spread out on the floor. She returned to her playthings as I began to question her, as casually as I could.
“Say, Jodie, do you remember that ice cream truck we saw the other day?”
She glanced up at me briefly, but didn’t respond. Within a few seconds, her toys had her attention again.
“Have you seen it around since?”
Again, no response. I wasn’t one to push my child to speak when she didn’t want to, but I tried one more question.
“Do you know a man named Edward?”
At this she set her toys down and fixated her eyes on mine. She looked—what was it—surprised? Scared? To this day the expression haunts my dreams, and a good deal of my waking thoughts too.
“You’re not supposed to know about him,” she said with an air of accusation.
I crouched down so my eyes were level with hers. “Who is he?” I asked.
“He’s the ice cream man, but Dad, you’re really not supposed to know about him. That’s why he made your brain hurt.”
She paused for a moment, then added, almost as an afterthought:
“He’d be really mad if he heard you asking about him.”
Another week went by. I had just gotten home from work and I walked past my daughter’s closed bedroom door. I could hear her playing in there, hear her singing, but I couldn’t make it out. With a light smile on my face, I pressed my ear against her door to listen. As I did, the words became clear:
A penny for a spool of thread!
A penny for a needle!
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.
It was the last time I ever heard my daughter sing.
Word gets around in a town like ours—even back then, in our heyday—and by this point, everyone knew something was wrong. None of the adults besides me had seen anything, though, nor heard the music. They simply had to take the word of practically every child in town that there was an ice cream truck nearby and that it was presumably being driven by a man named Edward.
There was an emergency town meeting, in which Tommy Bellweather’s father, Lionel, sheepishly suggested that this was nothing more than an elaborate joke on the part of the children. After all, his own son, then thirteen years old, hadn’t seen anything—nor had any of the youth older than he. This notion was respectfully but firmly shut down by many of the citizens, who found it difficult to believe that three-year-olds who’d barely learned to speak could be in on such a thing. And, of course, there was the matter of my own eyewitness testimony. This truck was real, and everyone knew it.
It was decided that children should be accompanied at all times, and everyone in the marshal’s department pulled extra shifts patrolling the streets—the most eager, of course, being Sandra’s husband Wendell. These measures seemed appropriate, if not entirely adequate to quell the town’s worry. But in the end, there was nothing more we could do. We could only watch in disbelieving horror only two nights later—the night that all went wrong.
It was around one in the morning. Irene and I had recently moved Jodie into the bedroom adjacent to ours as a safety precaution—the way our house was laid out, she literally couldn’t get out of her bedroom without crossing through ours. The moon shone through the bedroom window, shades undrawn and cracked open to let in a bit of the summer night’s air. My wife and I both awoke to the sound of Jodie’s bedroom door creaking open.
Irene got out of bed and began to walk toward Jodie, who was standing in the shadow of her doorway. The moonlight reflected against her bare feet. I felt deeply uneasy, but it took my brain a moment to process why: a familiar melody was gently breezing in through the open window.
Jodie didn’t even look at us. She just took a step forward, then another, making her way toward our bedroom door. Irene made to step in front of her, then suddenly froze. She could not move.
“What the hell?” she shrieked, calling my name. “Help! Sweetheart, stop her!”
But I was frozen too. I could speak, move my eyes, swivel my head, but everything below my neck was stuck in place. I was powerless to do anything but watch as our daughter walked out of our bedroom, her loose blonde curls bouncing gently as she went.
Oh, we screamed, of course. We heard her walk down the stairs and out the front door, and screamed our throats raw. But we could do no more. And through the window, as the music grew, other screams from other houses, each sounding as anguished as ours, poured in.
“Honey—look,” Irene sobbed in despair. I turned my head as far as I could, and as the ice cream truck passed our house, my wife and I watched together as Jodie crossed the front lawn. Neither of us were screaming anymore. We only gazed on in horror as our daughter joined a throng of young children, all from the town, all trailing behind the slowly moving vehicle, locked together in a haunted march. Some of the youngest children held the hands of older ones as they walked, and the infants were carried along in arms.
The truck rolled along, and I could see that it was the same one I had encountered before. This time, though, there was no blinding pain in my head and my view was as clear as could be. The picture of the man on its side remained, with an inhumanly wide smile that revealed a mouth full not of frozen treats but of tiny, bite-sized children. Below the face were printed, in a sweeping half-circle, the following words:
ALL KIDS SCREAM FOR EDWARD’S ICE CREAM!
I was crying by this point, but I couldn’t move my arms to wipe my eyes. Struggling to blink away my tears, I could barely make out one last horrifying detail as the truck crept farther away. A springy antenna stuck out from the roof, and around its base lay a puddle of dark liquid. The antenna waved gently back and forth with the motion of the truck. At the end of the antenna was the severed head of Sandra’s husband, Wendell, the deputy marshal hat still perched atop it.
About ten minutes later, myself, Irene, and the other adults in town began to regain mobility, and you’d better believed we hunted high and low. But it was too late—far too late. The ice cream truck and our children behind it had already turned the corner, vanishing from view and from Bertrand forever. The music had trailed off, the screams had ceased to pour through the open window, and that summer night was still and silent once more.