Title: The Legend of Stiffy Green
Word count: 4060
Spoilers: None really, but it would take place shortly after ep 3x06, Indianapolis.
Disclaimer: Sadly, I don’t own any part of Parks and Recreation.
Summary: Leslie realizes that Ben hasn't seen the scariest landmark in all of Pawnee.
A/N: Although it's a few hours late, this was written for the first round of Hiatus Fest 2011. I used the third prompt, which asked for Ben to to visit an obscure Pawnee landmark. I have borrowed Stiffy Green from Terre Haute, Indiana, but I've played fast and loose with the poor thing’s actual history. The inscription on the tombstone described in this story is real, but it’s from a cemetery in Virginia. Also, while I’m sure John Heinl was a lovely and accomplished man, he did not invent corn syrup.
A very special thank you to lunar47 for jumping in with a lightening fast beta and for her sweet and encouraging words. Your help was greatly appreciated.
Ben Wyatt hadn’t known he could jump so high or move so fast.
The knocking on the door had startled him out of a deep sleep and before he’d fully processed the situation he was standing in the middle of his motel room with his briefcase clutched against his chest for protection.
“Who is it?” He cried out, cringing when his voice sort of cracked in the middle.
The knocking persisted, but no one answered. His heart pounded in his chest as he crept over to the door and looked through the peephole. All he could see was darkness.
This, Ben remembered, was exactly what had happened to his coworker, Harry Roth, six months ago in Terre Haute. The man had been shot through his hotel room door in the middle of the night after he’d made cuts to the libraries. Ben had never really thought of librarians as unhinged until that had happened, and meeting Ron’s ex-wife had made him wonder if they all might have a touch of crazy about them.
Ben pressed himself against the wall and out of the possible line of fire as he weighed his options. He could try to look out the window and maybe get shot through the glass by some disgruntled Pawnee city employee, or he could grab his phone, call 911, and barricade himself in the bathroom.
“I’m calling the police!” He shouted.
“What? Ben! No. It’s me, you big baby! Open the door.”
His heart was still thumping wildly when he threw open the door and found her standing there with a mischievous grin on her face. She was wearing an all black outfit, her cheeks were pink from the cold, and her hair was peeking out beneath a knit black skullcap. She looked adorable.
He shook his head to clear the thought. Adorable or not, they’d been bickering all week and he couldn’t imagine what she needed from him at this hour. “What are you doing here?”
“Nice briefcase.” She giggled.
He dropped it from his chest to his side instantly and felt his cheeks flush with embarrassment. His mouth opened and then closed as he tried to think of a rational excuse for why he would be holding it like that.
“Um, I, well-” he faltered.
“Was that, like, your protection?”
“I didn’t exactly have anything else,” he mumbled. “You could have been a serial killer for all I knew.”
“God, Ben,” she said with a huff. “You’re such a drama queen!”
He took a deep breath and changed the subject. “What’s going on? Why are you dressed like a burglar?”
“Get dressed,” she said brightly. “We’re going on an adventure.”
“Just get dressed, preferably in all black. We don’t want anyone to see us.”
He swallowed hard as he nodded, but his mind was whirling with the possibilities. She seemed fine, but maybe something was wrong. Had something bad happened?
“Leslie, are you in trouble? Are we about to commit a crime or something?”
She rolled her eyes at him. “The only crime is that you’ve been in town for months and no one has taken you to see Stiffy.”
Ben’s mouth turned up in amused curiosity. “Stiffy?”
“Stiffy Green, Ben. The ghost dog of Pawnee.”
The ghost dog of Pawnee.
Six months ago his life had been normal, if a little empty. He’d lived a quiet life where no one knocked on his door at three o’clock in the morning and then proceeded to drag him out into the crisp air of a late fall night. His life was less empty now, but it was also substantially less normal. If Leslie had asked him when they had first met to give her a boost over the wrought iron fence of one of Pawnee’s oldest cemeteries, he would have said no. And then he would have fired her. Yet here he was cupping his hands so she could use his body as a makeshift ladder and somehow her job was completely safe.
“Ready?” He asked.
She nodded and then in a blur she was rising. There was a small grunt as she pulled herself up onto the top of the fence and then he heard her successfully land on the other side with a small thud.
“I’m in!” She whispered triumphantly.
Ben brushed the dirt off his hands and smiled at her through the bars.
“Okay, now you!”
He took in the gate before him and with a pang of embarrassment realized that he was going to need his own boost to clear it.
“Leslie, I…I don’t think I can get over.”
“What? Oh no, don’t worry about it.”
He heard the scraping sound of a metal latch being released from the inside a moment before Leslie opened the gate for him to walk through.
“Couldn’t you have reached through the bars and done that from the other side?” He asked.
She shook her head slightly and crinkled up her eyes in confusion. “Well, yeah, but where’s the fun in that?”
Ben knew that in Leslie's world that was a perfectly logical explanation, but before he could argue the point on behalf of the actual world she grabbed his hand and started leading the way through the maze of tombstones. All thoughts save the one about how nice her hand felt in his fled his mind as their fingers wove together.
They wandered quietly for a few minutes and just when he was about to ask if she was sure she knew the way, she pulled a flashlight out of her bag and checked a little handmade map. The moon was bright enough to illuminate the grounds on its own, though so she didn’t leave it on when she started to walk again. When she pulled him after her he resisted.
“Are we lost?”
“Shh! No.” She tugged on his arm encouragingly.
“Where are we going?”
“Are you trying to get us caught?” She whispered at him accusingly.
“No, I just don’t want to-”
Leslie sighed dramatically and then turned her back on him and started walking briskly away.
She spun around on her heel and shushed him thoroughly before continuing on.
Ben hadn’t said anything to her, but the whole thing was kind of freaking him out. He’d always been someone that was easily spooked and creeping through a cemetery while looking for a ghost was not his idea of a good time. He knew it was irrational, but his skin had been crawling from the moment he’d stepped through that gate.
It was super quiet, which somehow only served to set his teeth on edge. He took a moment to take a deep, calming breath. It was only a cemetery; nothing was going to hurt him. Pawnee was a strange place but it wasn’t as if there were zombies here. He looked at his surroundings just to make sure it didn’t look like anyone had crawled out of their grave and realized that the tombstones around him were very old. These were the final resting places of the people who had shaped Pawnee during the 1800’s. One rather large stone drew his eye and he walked over so he could crouch down to read it.
Here lies the body of IZATIS ANDERSON, late of this county, who was born on the 7th day of February, 1779, and died the 11th day of August, 1823, Aged 44 years 6 months and 7 days. He was a worthy and estimable man, a kind neighbor, a faithful friend and good citizen. In other relations of life he might have been equally praiseworthy, but he died a bachelor, having never experienced the comfort of being a husband or father. This situation he found so comfortless that in his last will he directed this stone to be placed over his remains, with an inscription warning all young men from imitating an example of celibacy, which had yielded to himself no other eventual fruits but disappointment and remorse. Inscribed at his request by his friends, Hierom L. Opie and Fleming Bates.
Well, that was depressing.
And a little heavy handed if he was going to be honest about the whole thing. What was it about this town that even the dead wanted you to hear their opinions?
Celibacy hadn’t been yielding any fruits for him either, but you didn’t see him ordering his friends to lecture the world about it. Usually his perpetually single status didn’t bother him that much, but it was all he could think about for the last few months. The restraint he was exercising in terms of Leslie had done nothing but make him short tempered.
He peered over the top of the stone and saw her watching him warily from about 50 feet away. Guilt washed over him as he realized the smile that had been plastered on her face since the moment he’d opened his door was gone. He was ruining her fun by being Mean Ben again. It was entirely possible that they only had a few days left together and he wanted them all to be good ones.
Ben ran his hand over the stone before him.
“Message received, Mr. Anderson,” he whispered.
He stood up and smiled at her as he began walking towards her. “Did you find Stiffy?”
Leslie tried to hide the upward curve of her lips behind her index finger as she shushed him again, but he could see it anyway.
When he finally reached her side he reached out and took her hand. “Lead the way, Ms. Knope.”
The smile was back.
After another 5 minutes Leslie stopped in front of a large stone mausoleum. “We’re here,” she whispered.
“Here where?” He whispered back.
She turned dramatically to face him and with a rather grand swoop of her arm she positioned the flashlight directly under her chin. She clicked it on and her face glowed creepily in the darkness.
She began speaking in what he assumed was her best Vincent Price impersonation. “Welcome to the Heinl family tomb, Ben Wyatt. Prepare to meet the guardian of the underworld! Ah ha ha ha haaaaaaah!!”
“Leslie, come on.” He said a little more nervously than he intended.
“Here lie the bones of Pawnee’s greatest son, John Heinl, and his faithful companion, Stiffy.”
“So Stiffy was his actual name?”
“Mock him if you dare, Ben Wyatt! But know that no man can stand unafraid in the presence of John Heinl’s fearsome beast.”
“Who’s John Heinl?”
Leslie dropped the flashlight from her face and her voice shot back up to its normal range. “Are you serious?”
Ben shrugged his shoulders. “Yeah, I’ve never heard of the guy.”
“John Heinl is only the man who invented corn syrup, Ben. Sweet, delicious corn syrup.”
“Really? Corn syrup was invented in Pawnee?”
“We didn’t get to be fourth in obesity because we invented whole grains or fiber, you know. God!”
Ben smiled. “Okay, but diabetes inducing inventions aside, what are we doing here?”
Leslie stepped towards him in exasperation. “This is a quintessential Pawnee experience, Ben, you have to be patient. If you had grown up here, you’d have done this hundreds of times by now and I wouldn’t have to explain it all. I’m just trying to help you catch up!”
Ben didn’t understand how that was supposed to make sense or why it mattered if he caught up or not, but her eyes were sort of sparkling in the moonlight and she was standing so close to him that he wasn’t sure his brain was working right any more. It might be possible that she was making perfect sense.
“Oookay…so what’s the deal with Stiffy?”
Leslie gave him a huge smile before whirling around to face the mausoleum. Her voice was low again when she spoke. “Stiffy Green, Ben Wyatt summons you from the underworld. He calls on you to make yourself known!”
She raised her flashlight and aimed it at the frosted glass doors of the tomb before she slowly ran the beam of light over them. Suddenly two small green orbs glowed in the glass.
“Holy shit!” He hoped his voice sounded lower to her ears than it did in his own head.
“Stiffy Green sees you!”
Ben laughed nervously. “Stop it, Leslie.”
“He knows all your secrets! Tremble before him!”
Ben felt a shiver run up his spine. He knew it was silly and that there had to be an explanation, but the truth was that he was standing in a cemetery in the middle of the night and there were two green orbs glowing through the door of a tomb that hadn’t been there a moment ago. It was extremely creepy. A light wind blew against his cheek and rustled the leaves that were scattered on the ground. Leslie clicked off the light and gasped, “He’s coming!”
In the years that followed Ben would deny it, but in that moment he jumped, perhaps even leaped, into Leslie as if she could protect him from the spirits beyond the grave.
Leslie’s laugh broke the spell.
“God, Ben! You’re such a wuss!”
He backed away quickly and tried to compose himself. “How did you do that?”
Leslie laughed, “Those are Stiffy’s eyes. Well, his fake eyes. His real ones rotted out.”
“I think you think that I’m following this conversation, but honestly, Leslie. I have no idea what’s going on here.”
Leslie shrugged her shoulders. “Stiffy was John Heinl’s dog and after John died, Stiffy would come here everyday and sleep at the mausoleum door. One day he never woke up, so they stuffed him and put him in with his master. They replaced his eyes with green glass ones and when they catch the light they glow. It’s awesome, but it was even more awesome when I was a kid.”
He nodded his head. “Because you didn’t know how it worked?”
“No, because there didn’t used to be frosted glass there. It was just open metal work. You could see the whole dog. It was terrifying.”
“So what, they added the glass because people were scared?
“No,” Leslie murmured quietly, “they did it because…”
Ben watched as she looked down at her feet and shuffled them in the dirt. She almost seemed nervous or embarrassed. A million scenarios about what could possibly go wrong with a stuffed dog in Pawnee ran through his mind. Nothing seemed implausible.
“Weeell, because it cost a lot of money to restore him after the shooting.”
Ben’s eyebrows leapt up. “Someone shot a stuffed dog?”
“They didn’t mean to!”
“How could they not have meant to? I mean, who even brings a gun to a cemetery?”
Leslie stopped for a moment and he could practically see the wheels in her head turning.
“If I tell you something, do you promise not to tell anyone else, like, ever?”
“No, I mean, you have to swear, Ben, on your life or your plaid shirt collection or something. No one can ever find out about this.”
She stared at him silently for a moment.
“Leslie, seriously. I swear.”
“I’m the one that shot him.”
“What?” He started laughing. “You shot the dog? You shot Stiffy Green?”
“Shhhh! Ben!” She looked around nervously before whispering, “I didn’t mean to! I was 16 and Michael Poole, the boy I was totally dying to go out with, brought me here because he wanted me to see Stiffy.”
“I bet he did.”
“What?” Leslie slapped his arm. “Ew, Ben. Don’t be gross."
Ben held his hands up guiltily, "Sorry!"
"Anyway, he made a big show of us having to be brave and he brought an air rifle because the rumor was that hell-beasts were afraid of the sound of gunfire-“
“And you believed that?”
“I was 16! I thought taking a moonlit stroll through a cemetery to see the ghost of a dog was romantic I was willing to believe anything.”
“Okay, so what happened?”
“Well, he brought me to this spot and handed me the gun so he could aim the flashlight at Stiffy. I was fine when I saw his eyes glow, I mean it was spooky, but I didn’t freak out the way you did-”
“The thing was that there were some leaves in the bottom of the tomb and they blew a little in the wind, so it looked to me like Stiffy moved. I panicked and shot him with Michael’s gun.”
Ben doubled over with laughter.
“Shhh! It was awful. There were bits of him floating in the air. Half of his face was on the ground. Stop laughing at me!”
Ben was laughing so hard that there were tears rolling down his cheeks. He bit down on the inside of his lip to try to stop. He wiped at his eyes and then nodded at her somberly.
“So what did you do?”
“We ran like crazy. We got into his truck, swore to each other that we’d never tell another living soul, and then he brought me home. We never spoke again. It was like one of those movies where the teenagers kill someone and then promise to take the secret to their graves. Except no one ever taunted or tried to kill us over it and neither of us ever told. Well, until now.”
She looked up at him and he realized she was nervous that he would think badly of her about the whole thing. He smiled at her as he threw his arm around her shoulders.
“I’m honored to know your secret, Leslie Knope and I promise not to tell anyone”
Ben looked at the tomb before them and laughed once again. “You shot the dog. I have to say that’s probably the greatest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Leslie elbowed him in the ribs. “It’s not! It was terrible! I had to sit at dinner the next night and listen to my mom rant about the hooligans that were ruining Pawnee. I had to go to the town meeting where they decided to put the glass up! People cried, Ben. It was the worst.”
He smiled down at her. “You have to think it’s a little bit funny now, though, right?”
Leslie smiled back at him. “I guess, so…yeah. I mean, I still feel bad about it, but, yeah, it’s pretty funny.”
“So what happened to Michael?”
“Oh, he ended up moving down to Indy. He married his high school sweetheart and they have two or three kids now. I think he sells insurance.”
“Well, thank god you dodged that bullet, no pun intended. You could have ended up married to some boring old insurance agent!”
Leslie laughed. “I know, right? Can you imagine? Horrifying!”
“So,” Ben began after a moment, “This is where Pawnee kids used to come on dates, huh?”
“Oh, yeah. This was like the place. People were always here, either on a dare or because it was a good place to make out.” She looked around wistfully. “I guess it’s not that popular anymore.”
Leslie was right. They were definitely the only ones there, and the ground didn’t look like it had been disturbed by anyone’s footsteps for quite a while. In his mind he could see a teenage Leslie coming out here with her friends in order to see who the bravest one was. It was something he and his friends would probably have done if Stiffy had been in their town. It was a shame that the kids of Pawnee were missing out on this.
“Maybe we should replace the frosted glass with plexiglass.”
Leslie looked up at him in surprise. “What?”
“It’s like you said, the frosted glass doesn’t give kids today the full experience. If we put in clear plexiglass they could see the whole dog again.”
“Where would we get the money?”
“It can’t cost that much, I could probably find it somewhere. Or maybe we could get someone to donate it. Or maybe we could put a little donation box off to the side of-”
His thought was cut off when Leslie spun in his arm and pressed her soft, warm lips against his.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that it was the best kiss of his life.
One of his arms was wrapped firmly around her waist, while his other hand was tangled in her hair. He didn’t know if he was channeling his inner Twilight fan or what, but all he could think was that she felt perfect against him.
It had been a long time since he’d really kissed anyone and he was actually a little nervous that he might be rusty. Leslie didn’t seem to mind though. Her hands were fisted into his jacket, as if she was holding him in place so he wouldn’t run, which he guessed wasn’t a terrible assumption on her part.
Leslie tore her mouth away abruptly and buried her face in his chest.
“I don’t want you to go,” she said.
“I think you should stay here.”
Ben nodded as he wrapped both of his arms around her. “Yeah, I think I should too,” he said quietly.
She looked up at him. “Really?”
She leaned up and kissed him again, but just as his tongue slid against hers, she pulled her mouth away.
“You’ll have to quit your job though and maybe get a job here. Although, that might be tough because you instituted that hiring freeze, but I’m sure we can work our way around that. Someone has to be retiring, right? And then we’ll have to get all your stuff in Indy and bring it here, and well, I mean, you can stay with me, but it might be better if you got your own place, because living together right off the bat is a lot of pressure-”
He leaned down and stopped her mouth with a kiss. When her body finally relaxed against his, he drew back.
“Look,” he said softly. “There’s a lot that has to be sorted out, but it’s getting really cold out here. Why don’t we hash it all out someplace warm, or someplace where there’s coffee.”
Leslie thought for a moment. “JJ’s is open."
“Good. Then let’s go figure it all out over waffles the way civilized people do.”
“Don’t mock the waffles,” she said as they began walking. “They make me think better.”
The walk back to the car seemed much shorter than the walk in had been, although that might have been because they were holding hands and teasing each other this time around. When they got to the gate, he pulled the creaking metal shut behind them and smiled as the lock clanked into place.
He laughed when they reached her car.
“Do you realize we just made a plan to spend tax payer dollars so that teenagers can have a place to make out again?”
Leslie stood next to the car and thought for a moment. “Hmm, maybe we should put a condom dispenser next to that donation box you were taking about.”
His hand froze on the handle of the car door. “Leslie! We can’t-”
“I’m just kidding! Seriously Ben, sometimes I don’t think you have a sense of humor.”
He smiled as she disappeared into the car.
“Come on slow poke, let’s get our waffles on,” she shouted.
He climbed into the car. Breakfast food had never sounded so good.