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The Girls of Elkston PA

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

It’s been five years since a boy has been born in the town of Elkston, and the men want to do something about it.


Louise Thompson shouldn’t have been surprised to hear that Al Horner and his wife had left town.

“The Horners? Really? That family goes back generations.”

“It’s only temporary,” said Marla Slezak, squinting at a detail she’d painted on a ceramic mug. “Whatever it takes to…”

“Oh, right,” said Louise. “Trying to escape the Elkston Curse.” She turned back to the needlepoint pillow cover she was stitching for the fall crafts fair.

“Lou, I hate that expression—Elkston Curse. I just wish everyone would stop saying it, like they’re saying that having girl babies is a curse.”

Only girl babies,” said Louise. “No boys born or conceived in Elkston since 1977. That’s over three years and counting. Why shouldn’t the Horners try having a baby out of town?”

“I suppose, if they think this town is cursed,” said Marla. “But I think it’s ridiculous. Much as George and I would love to have a boy, we’re stopping at three. Sure we’re disappointed, but it’s not the end of the world.”

Louise rested her hands on her swollen belly. “Jason and I really hope this one’s a boy, after two girls. He’d have probably moved us out of Elkston if he could have. But his job’s here. Not many people can afford to move like the Horners.”

“That hasn’t stopped some people from doing it anyway, even if they have to take a financial hit. Do you think it’s a curse, Lou?”

Louise rubbed her belly. “I don’t know. Maybe?”

“It’s the men who came up with that expression, and when we repeat it, we’re just buying into their superstitious… crap. Sometimes it feels like they’re blaming us, like somehow we’re making this happen. What do you think, Susan?” She turned to the woman with the bright blue curls working on a large canvas in the corner. “You’ve been awfully quiet. You’re someone who knows about superstition.”

Susan Brooks put down her paintbrush. “Superstition? Not really.”

“But that meditation thing you do,” said Marla. “With that spirit guide thing. I’m not sure I get it.”

“I’ll tell you more about it if you’d like. Teach you—”

“Not for me,” said Louise. “It sounds a little… witch-y.”

Susan picked up her paintbrush and waved it like a wand. “The witches of Elkston,” she cackled.

“Careful,” said Marla. “Next thing you know, they’ll be talking about burning witches at the stake.”

Susan frowned and set her brush down on the easel.

“Only kidding,” said Marla. “I didn’t mean to imply we’re hicks.”

“If I thought you were all hicks,” said Susan, “I’d never have moved here from Philly, no matter how much I needed artistic inspiration.” She rested a hand on her canvas, a landscape of rolling hills draped in a jeweled carpet of fall foliage. “I’m not sure everyone’s entirely comfortable with people like me.” She ruffled her hair. “But most everyone has been polite. And I feel a special connection with you and some of the other women. A kind of sisterhood.”

“I know what you mean,” said Marla. “When George and I went off to college, we never planned to come back. We enjoyed city life, and there were lots of jobs in Philly for nurses and engineers. But after we had Lila and I was pregnant with our second, we realized we were homesick, and knew we wanted to raise our children in Elkston. It was familiar. It was community. It was home. And, as it turns out, there were good jobs for us here.”

Marla wanted to continue the discussion with Susan, but the baby monitor squawked. “Sounds like Riley Mae is waking up. And my other two will be coming home from daycare any minute. We should call it a day.”


Walking to the hospital the next morning, Marla was struck by how little the town had changed since she’d been gone—during her lifetime, actually. A whistle sounded, signaling a shift change at Clinton Energy, the power company that had saved Elkston when the Pennsylvania Railroad had closed shop years earlier. And they’d hired her husband, which had made it easy to move back.

She walked past Faith Evangelical Church, where the signboard read: “Sinners Repent and Return to God.” At least the Methodists have a sense of humor, she thought. Their signboard read: “Here’s Your Sign to Come to Church.”

On Main Street, the neon sign “Open 24 hours, breakfast served all day” welcomed customers to the Last Drop Café. The Last Drop had been a popular place to congregate since the days of the Pennsylvania Railroad. And she wasn’t surprised to see some of the regulars at the table by the window. The Morning Joe Boys, they called themselves. From across the street, she could make out Louise’s husband Jason among them, but sun glare prevented her from seeing who else was at the table.

Marla knew Jason would be spreading strawberry jam on his toast, adding three teaspoons of sugar to his coffee, and tucking into his three-minute egg as he did every morning, according to Louise. The people of Elkston PA were like that. Why make changes if you don’t have to? Why move to a different town, even if things aren’t how you want them? Why move to a different table if the one by the window has been perfectly fine for the Morning Joes as long as you can remember?

A cloud passed in front of the sun, and with no glare Marla could make out several other “Joes” at the table, including old Isaac Perkins, who was probably only fifty, but seemed a lot older. That man gave her the creeps with his obsession with God, sin, and Satan. She could only imagine what he was thinking.


“When’s Louise due?” said Jim, one of the long-time “Joes.”

“Two months,” said Jason. “Maybe she’ll break the Curse and we’ll have a boy.”

“The docs say there’s no scientific reason why this is happening,” said one of the other Joes. “Nothing has changed. There’s nothing in the water, or anything. So they chalk it up to coincidence. Like in roulette, there are winning streaks and losing streaks. Sooner or later, we’ll have a winning streak.”

“So, when’s it going to happen? When we all have gray beards like Isaac?” said Jason. The men laughed and looked at Isaac, who seemed to have tuned out. Someone at the next table was griping about the Phillies’ latest losing streak. Which reminded Jason how his father taught him to throw a baseball when he was a kid. He remembered batting practice with his dad, the crack of the bat connecting with the ball when he made his first solid hit, his dad’s smile. Jason couldn’t do that with a daughter. It just wouldn’t be the same.

“Yeah, no good reason why we shouldn’t have sons,” said Jim. “But you never know. There’s that town in Poland where a boy hasn’t been born in ten years.”

The men groaned, and Jason’s heart dropped to his stomach at the thought of having a family of girls. It wasn’t fair.

“Jesus Christ,” he said, slamming his toast down into the remains of his soft-boiled egg.

Isaac glared at him.

“Sorry, pops. I meant Jeez,” said Jason wiping yellow flecks off his shirt. “Louise and me can’t wait ten years.”


Isaac Perkins knew the Elkston Curse was God’s punishment for something. Though he still hadn’t figured out what it was, he’d keep praying on it, and eventually God would show him the answer. The other men at the table chatted about their families, their jobs, the weather, but when the talk circled back to the Curse, as it always did, he smiled. He was the one who had come up with that expression, and now the whole town was using it. “Cursed is everyone who doesn’t continue in all things that are written in the book of the law, to do them.”

“Something has upset the natural order of things,” said Isaac, his voice rising as if he were preaching. “And God said: ‘Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the country… Cursed shall be the fruit of your body.’”

Jim nodded. “Deuteronomy. From the pastor’s sermon last Sunday.”

“Yes,” said Isaac.

“I’m sorry, Isaac, but I don’t believe that… stuff. We have to do something, not God.”

Isaac was quiet as the others talked. Why can’t they see what’s going on? God says in Genesis: “Man and woman He created them.” If God has stopped creating men, there has to be a reason. Something has displeased Him. What happened three years ago that God saw fit to punish?

He looked out the window and—praise God—there it was. The answer. That city woman. The one with the blue hair always mucking about with the local women. Everything had changed when that woman had moved to Elkston. She had to be a witch.


Four years after the last boy was born in Elkston, nurse Marla handed the newborn to her mother. “Meet your baby girl, Mrs. Carter. She’s beautiful.”

The new mother cried tears of joy as she cradled her daughter. That moment of elation never got old. One of the rewards of being an OBGYN nurse. But here at Clinton General the feeling didn’t last, because her next task was to deliver the news to the father. She wished more men stayed with their wives during childbirth and learned the sex of their babies at the moment of birth. Here in Elkston, most men chose to wait it out while their wives labored.

Hoping this time might be different, Marla crossed her fingers and opened the door to the waiting room.

“Mr. Carter?”

A gangly young man with stringy blond hair and ruddy cheeks looked up with an air of nervous excitement.

“Everything went fine,” Marla said. “Mother and daughter are doing well.”

“Another girl,” he said, trying to hide his disappointment.

The man next to him poked him with his elbow. “Guess you’ll have to try for a third.”

“Yeah, guess I will.”

“Come,” said Marla, extending her hand to Mr. Carter, “let me take you back to see your wife and baby.”

The maternity ward was bustling, every room full, the nursery lined with the cribs of newborns in pink knitted caps. Most new mothers were no longer choosing to “room in” with their newborns, because they needed a rest from taking care of the “let’s-try-again-for-a-boy” additions to their families.

Marla left the hospital at three p.m. Despite her fatigue, she welcomed the walk home to clear her head of the disturbing changes that were occurring more and more frequently. Women presenting with vaginal tears, hematomas, pelvic bruising, and lame excuses: “Bumped into a door, tripped on the steps, clumsy me.”

She was walking too fast and stopped a minute to catch her breath. I’ve got to calm down. She caught a glimpse of the mountains and fall foliage rising in the distance, and it lifted her spirits. I’ll try not to think about what’s happening in people’s houses and bedrooms. At least until my next shift. I should ask Susan to teach me how to meditate, even if it includes that stuff about spirit guides. She says it calms her down.


Jason was sitting on the bed holding a foil packet when Louise came out of the bathroom.

“Jason. What’re you doing?”

“Just thinking.”

“About my birth control pills?”

“About how you should maybe put these away. How it might be time for another baby.” He handed her the packet.

“Another one? Brianna’s only five months old.”

“I know, but… you’re almost forty. Ain’t much time left.”

“Thanks for the reminder.” She rolled her eyes. “But three kids under five is quite enough for me.”

“Three girls.” Jason’s words hung in the air.

“I should have known that’s what this is all about. You know I wanted a boy, just like you did, but I’m over it.”

She don’t get it. Maybe it’s only us guys who do. Like, are you a real man if you can’t have a son? He clenched his fists, crushing the pill packet.

“Jase. I’m sorry, but I think we should give it up.”

“Give it up?” His face was red. “You always said you wanted a big family and be a stay-at-home mom like your mother. Are you afraid I can’t support you? Is that it?”

“No, Jase. That’s not… it’s not about you. It’s about me. I’m just so tired all the time.”

“So, it’s all about you.” He grabbed her forearm and squeezed it. “You don’t think I’m not tired, working all day to put food on the table.”

“Jase, you’re hurting me.”

He let go of her arm, leaving angry red marks.

“I’m sorry, Lou,” he said, though in reality he was annoyed she was being such a spoiled brat about this. Why couldn’t she understand how much he wanted… needed a son? The bond that only fathers and sons could have. And who would carry on the family name? The girls would get married someday, and his name would be erased. Hed be erased. That wasn’t going to happen. They were going to make a baby. Tonight.

“Hey, babe,” he said, rubbing her breast. “You always liked making babies before.” Her nipple hardened. She wanted it. “Let’s do it now.”

“No, Jason. I told you…”

He squeezed her breast and she cried out. She is not going to erase me. He rolled over and straddled her. They said the deeper the penetration, the greater the chance of having a boy. He pulled up her nightgown and used all his strength to do what he needed to do.

Afterward, when he saw the tears in her eyes, he said, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I promise it’ll never happen again. So help me God.” And he meant it, which is why he hoped they’d made a boy baby tonight.


Hidden behind a bush, Isaac watched the two women. He was close enough to her porch to hear most of what they were saying. It sounded like the witch was teaching Marla Slezak how to be a witch like her, with all that talk about spirit this and spirit that. Perched on an easel by the railing was a huge painting of a forest with dark, misshapen creatures peeking out from behind the foliage. Demons. “Cursed is anyone who carves or casts an idol and secretly sets it up. These idols, the work of craftsmen, are detestable to the Lord.”

The witch was teaching the Slezak woman how to consort with Satan. How many other women had she corrupted? He could grab the Slezak woman and save her from a descent into a world of sin and depravity, but he knew he couldn’t do it alone. He would need God’s help.

He heard a drumbeat and wondered if God was answering him. But, no, the sound was coming from the porch. A recording.

Part of the satanic ritual.

If he couldn’t rescue George Slezak’s wife, he’d do the next best thing. Talk to George and tell him what was going on. If George didn’t take his wife in hand, he’d be a fool.

Isaac waited until the women went inside before creeping out from behind the bushes. He ripped out a handful of stinky herbs from the witch’s garden, leaving an ugly patch of brown in a field of green. One day soon he’d come back with a shovel and take care of the rest.


It had been five years since the last boy was born in Elkston, and once again, the day of the annual Fall Foliage Festival crafts fair was approaching. Marla had set up worktables in her den to accommodate the women working on their projects. Susan was at her easel, and the other women were stitching, weaving, painting, and gluing, hoping to have their handicrafts ready to sell. Susan’s canvases were always popular with out-of-town visitors who knew something about art. To Marla, her paintings were kind of weird, with trees that looked a little spooky, and fantastical creatures that peeked out from the foliage and from the windows of mysterious gray structures. But every year, someone paid a surprising amount of money for her work.

Last year the crafters made a lot of money selling their wares—more than they’d ever made before. Elkston billed itself as having the most spectacular display of autumn splendor outside of New England, and they’d always attracted a sizeable number of tourists, but the crowds had been especially large the past couple of years.

And as Marla discovered, it was more than the foliage that was attracting out-of-towners. She told the ladies in her den about discussions she’d had with visitors at last year’s crafts fair. One first-time visitor had told her that the foliage was the main attraction, but it was also the “girl thing” that was going on. She said she saw people taking pictures of their little boys in front of the Welcome to Elkston sign, adding slogans to their social media posts like: Eat your heart out, Elkston; Girl Capital of the World. But a couple of women had told her they’d actually come here to try for girls. One of them said she’d conceived two girls the two times she’d stayed here.

“So a lot of them are making fun of us,” said one of the women in Marla’s den. “Everyone knows they’ve been writing about us. We were even featured on that new cable channel out of Atlanta, and some of our men are embarrassed. My brother-in-law told my husband that the men of Elkston must be pussies because they can only make boy babies.”

“Or maybe it takes real men to make a town full of girls,” said Marla. “I think I like living in the ‘Girl Capital of the World.’”

They worked in silence until one of the women asked where Louise was.

Marla checked her watch. “I don’t know. She said she was coming, but it’s late. It’s not like her not to show up. I’m going to give her a call.”

No one answered. That’s odd. She called a couple more times, thinking maybe they’d all gone out somewhere.

Marla tried to concentrate on her ceramics project, but her mind was whirling. The maternity ward filled to overflowing with baby girls. The increasing number of battered women coming to the hospital, the uptick in hunting accidents and gunshot wounds, the religious talk…

She told herself she was being an alarmist, but if she didn’t hear from Louise that night, she’d check on her the next day.


Marla stopped by the library when Louise was scheduled to begin her shift. Louise had taken on the library job after they had their third child. It didn’t pay much, but they needed the extra income. She found her friend in the back room sorting used books for their monthly sale. Normally Louise would be working the front desk.

“Lou, honey, you haven’t answered my calls and I’ve been worried about you. When I couldn’t reach you, I… oh.” Marla’s eyes widened and her mouth went slack at the sight of Louise wearing an oversized pair of dark sunglasses that hid half her face.

Marla rushed over and tried to hug her friend, but Louise pushed her away.

“What happened to you?” she asked, though the glasses made the answer obvious. She sat down across from Louise.

“N… n… nothing. Just an eye infection.”

“Eye infection, my ass,” said Marla. “We need to talk.”

“Not now.” Louise pointed to her three-year-old playing in the far corner of the room.

Undeterred, Marla leaned across the table and whispered. “We need to talk. Now. We can use our library voices.”

“What do you want to talk about?”

“This,” she said, reaching over and touching the frame of Louise’s glasses. “What happened to you?”

Louise froze. Marla took her friend’s hands and waited until she finally broke down, sobbing. “I… I don’t know what to do.”

“Talk to me, Lou.”

“I’m pregnant again. Three months now. Anyway, Jason… he… he insisted we find out the sex of the baby. Amniocentesis. They stick a needle in, and it can sometimes cause miscarriages. Jason told them we wanted the test because I was older and there was more of a chance something could be wrong with the baby. When they told us it was a girl, he said I needed to get an abortion. An abortion. And he calls himself a good Christian. I said no, and he did this.” She lifted her glasses and Marla gasped. Louise’s red eyes were drowning in a sea of black and blue. “He got down on his knees afterward and apologized and promised he’d never do it again, and he was crying, and I wanted to believe him. He didn’t hurt me when we were first married. But…”


“This wasn’t the first time it happened, but it was the worst. And he’s still talking about an abortion. I’m so scared.”

“Honey, you’re not alone. Believe me. If you don’t feel safe, you can come stay with us for a while.”

“But George…”

“Don’t worry. My husband will be on board. He never believed that bullshit about the town being cursed. But staying with us isn’t a permanent solution, so we’ll have to find a place where you and others can be safe. Until your husband sees reason.”

“But I’ve never been on my own. I don’t know how.”

“You know enough to raise three, soon to be four, beautiful daughters. We’re all stronger than we think we are.” She hugged Louise. “I have an idea. I’ll need to investigate, but…”

“Oh Marla.” Her loud sobs got the attention of little Lila, who rushed over and put her arms around her mother, gently patting her back.

“Don’t cry, Mommy. Please don’t cry. Everything’s going to be okay.”


A week after Louise and her kids moved in with the Slezaks, Jason called and demanded to talk to Louise. He threatened to come by and snatch them back, report his wife for kidnapping.

“Louise doesn’t want to talk to you right now,” Marla responded calmly. “She wants me to tell you she’s sorry she left, but it was something she had to do.”

Which wasn’t completely true. Louise had told Marla she was afraid she’d overreacted when she left Jason. She said there had been tears in Jason’s eyes when he apologized. Marla conceded that Jason may have promised he’d never lay a hand on her again—and maybe even believed it when he said it—but chances were it would happen again unless he got help.

“Please, Marla,” said Jason, “I’m sorry I lost my temper just now. I just want to tell her how sorry I am for everything.”

Marla doubted that.

“I’ll never do… anything like that to her again.”

Marla doubted that as well, but answered, “I’ll tell her, but that’s not good enough. You’re going to need help working this out.”

“A shrink?”

“Let’s call it counseling.”

“Bullshit,” he muttered under his breath. Then, “I heard you’re taking Louise and the kids to Harrisburg.”

“Not Harrisburg,” she lied, “and she’s not the only one who’ll be going. Think of it as a cooling off period.”

“B… but I l… love her.”

Marla could never have imagined Jason Thomson stuttering, but there it was. Well, if he truly loved her, he’d have to learn how to do it right.


It was a month before Isaac made good on his promise to return to the witch’s house. And now, a week after he’d ripped out all her herbs, his workshop still smelled of basil, rosemary, and sage. The pungent scent seemed to linger on his skin, nauseating him. He hadn’t meant to bring any of it home, but some of it had gotten stuck in the cuffs and pockets of his pants and on his shovel.

Isaac went back into his house, took a shower, and scrubbed his hands with soap and water for good measure, as he had done many times before, but he could still smell it on his body. How he hated that woman! He knew it wasn’t Christian to hate, but sin was sin, and she had cursed the town. No doubt about it. He banged the table in frustration.

Isaac told George he’d overheard Susan teaching his wife witchcraft. But George had laughed, said Susan wasn’t a witch, and told Isaac to get a grip because he was beginning to sound crazy. Isaac said he wasn’t the only one who believed God was punishing them, and George said those folks should back off, too.


My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations.”

It was nine p.m., and the light was on in the witch’s studio. Isaac peeked in the window and watched her dab spots of paint on that ridiculous canvas with the white-eyed demons hiding in the trees.

The front door was unlocked. Stupid woman. Didn’t she know how dangerous life was, or did she think she was protected by Satan and his demons? Shotgun in hand, he tiptoed in, trying not to make a sound, but a floorboard creaked, and she turned. Her eyes were wide, her mouth open.

She’s afraid. Good. Isaac tightened his finger on the trigger. It was time to end the curse. The men of Elkston would thank him when it was done. God, give me the strength to do what I need to do.

“What do you want?” Her voice shook.

“You know what I want.” He raised his weapon. “It’s not right what you did to this God-fearing Christian town.”

“Please, you don’t want to do this.” The paintbrush fell from her hands as she reached out to grab the gun.

The demon figures in the painting behind her seemed to glow and change shape. Now they looked like babies—girl babies. So that’s how she did it. “These idols, the work of craftsmen, are detestable to the Lord.

Isaac hesitated, remembering that God said, thou shall not kill. Am I not disobeying God’s commandment if I kill this woman? No! God commanded the Israelites to kill the Philistines so they wouldn’t teach His children to worship false idols. The Israelites could kill because they were instruments of God. And so am I. “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

“Be gone,” he yelled and pulled the trigger. “Burn in hell!”

Susan fell to the floor, and he shot her in the heart, watching till she breathed her last.

Now that he’d killed the idol maker, he had to destroy the idol. He found a sharp knife in one of the kitchen drawers and slashed the blood-stained canvas down the middle, the ripping sounding like the canvas itself was in pain. Isaac was breathing heavily as he attacked the canvas again and again until it was reduced to ribbons. Only then was he certain he had broken the curse.

Later, the police found a dazed Isaac Perkins sitting on the floor next to Susan’s body, his clothing spattered with her blood.


Shortly after the tragedy, they changed the sign in front of Faith Evangelical Church to: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” though the change of message had met with some resistance in the congregation. All the parishioners had been shocked by the violence, but some felt that the congregation should continue to emphasize sin and repentance, which remained a core tenet of the faith. But the majority insisted that now was the time for messages of peace, and many of the church members planned to attend Susan’s memorial, though not Isaac Perkins, who was now residing in the county jail.

Susan’s memorial service was held outside her house, with people crowded onto her porch and front lawn. After the eulogies, Marla scattered a handful of Susan’s ashes over the herb garden and invited others to do the same. Jason watched from the porch as Louise took a turn. They had not yet spoken to each other.


In time, Susan’s herbs grew back in defiant profusion. Some of the men of Elkston and a few women continued to refer to the lack of male babies as a curse, hoping that Susan’s absence would change things. But in the months following her death, twenty girls were born at Clinton General. Sadly, those men would have to wait.

Before Louise agreed to return home, she told Jason he needed to show her, and not just tell her, how he’d change his ways.


Jason sat in the stands and watched his wife coach Elkston’s first all-girls t-ball team, a group of four-to-six-year-old girls that included his two older daughters.

As Lila, his oldest, approached the tee, Jason flashed back to his childhood and the bond he and his father had shared over baseball. He would never have that experience with his own son. He wondered what would become of Elkston if there were no more boys. Like, who would man the police and fire departments if there were no men?

It ain’t right that I’m sitting here in the stands. It’s a father’s job to coach. Even if it’s just girls who don’t know what they’re doing…

Louise don’t know what she’s doing either, but she sure looks good. I wish she’d let me touch her again, just a little. But I gotta play it cool, do the therapy, show her how I’m changing.

And bide my time.

Lila took a swing and smacked the ball to the far end of the field, and everyone cheered.

Published in the Issue #8 of CERASUS Magazine.

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