(inspiration: Steven Womack)
Scale of dragon; tooth of wolf;
Witches’ mummy; maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark;
Root of hemlock digg’d i the dark…
Macbeth Act IV, Scene 1
So, Jolene’s acting weird, Billy Ray thought as he drove out the dirt driveway of Fair Acres Mobile Homes Park. So what? Tell me something new.
Lately though, some things had been different. Like the night he came home and that strange smell was coming from the back bedroom. It was a pungent odor, kind of like…burning hair. And that other smell…incense? Then there’s poker night. Jolene usually gave him hell when he went over to Tiny’s to play cards, but tonight she couldn’t wait to get him out the door—she even stood on the stoop and smiled and waved goodbye. That final, uncharacteristic little display of affection cemented Billy Ray’s determination to get to the truth.
Billy Ray went on up the road a ways and parked out of sight, just past the windbreak tree line, halfway in the ditch. He got out and gently shut the door to his pickup truck, then proceeded to creep through the adjoining field toward his and Jolene’s double-wide. A yellow moon peeked out from behind the clouds; a nighthawk called from the nearby woods; the high grass rustled against his boots; beneath the bedroom window, he went up on tiptoes and peered inside. What Billy Ray saw made his eyes go wide and his jaw clench.
As he stalked around to the front of the trailer, Billy Ray made sure to crouch low when he passed by any windows The bent-up screen door popped and squeaked as he eased it open; Billy Ray silently cursed the hundred times he thought about hosing the thing down with WD-40, but never did. He paused and listened for any sign that he’d been discovered, but the brouhaha inside the trailer sounded like a party had broken out, so it wasn’t likely Jolene had noticed him sneaking around outside. He twisted the knob on the inner door and slowly pushed it open.
Billy Ray stepped up off the stoop and inside the trailer then gently closed the door behind him. The skinny pole lamp next to the raggedy motel chair didn’t provide much cover, but it didn’t matter, because Jolene didn’t even notice him.
She had that stupid Tammy Wynette tape on again, turned up all the way like some gearhead listening to Aerosmith, while she pranced around barefoot in the kitchen dressed in skimpy denim cut-offs and a flimsy top with nothing underneath, her eyes closed as she sang into a big wooden spoon like it was a microphone.
“Me and little J-O-E…will be goin’ away…”
Before Tammy’s next line, Jolene spun toward Billy Ray and opened her eyes. She screamed, slapped the spoon down on the counter and shut off the music.
“Don’t sneak up on me like that,” she said.
Billy Ray eased out from his ersatz hiding place. “Comin’ in the front door ain’t exactly sneakin’ up.”
“You know what I mean, dad-gummit.”
Billy Ray chuckled, when Jolene took to cussin’, she sounded like a combination of Gabby Hayes and Mammy Yokum.
“I thought you went to play cards,” Jolene said, giving Billy Ray a suspicious once-over as he came towards her.
“There’s a roadblock at the bridge…” Billy Ray nonchalantly stuck his hand into a bag of corn chips laying on the edge of the kitchen counter, “they’re gonna evacuate the parish.”
Some of the color left Jolene’s face. “What…?”
Billy Ray smirked through his mouthful of Golden Flake. “I’m foolin’. Forgot my wallet. I’ll just duck in the bedroom and get it.”
Jolene pursed her lips, but didn’t say a word or try to stop him.
When Billy Ray got in the bedroom, he closed the door and quietly searched the room from top to bottom. He finished the quest on hands and knees, fishing around under the girly four-poster Jolene had recently purchased from Furniture Circus without even asking him, all to no avail.
He did a slow burn as he shoved the dirty laundry and Jolene’s Magic Wand back underneath the bed where it had all come from. Then he slapped the frilly dust ruffle into place and got up off his hands and knees. The thing he’d seen through the window was gone. He decided right then and there, that Jolene wouldn’t get off easy this time.
Billy Ray sauntered back into the kitchen and found the petite blond standing over the stove. She hummed a tune as she worked the big wooden spoon-cum-microphone in a rolling, simmering cauldron of a kettle. Little freckles showed through her thin, cotton top, where it clung to a line of perspiration that ran down her back. The sweet smell of her glowing mixed with that piña-colada shampoo she’d just started using lately, brought a wicked smile to Billy Ray’s face. He positioned himself behind Jolene and leaned heavily against her shapely derriere; Jolene flinched at his touch.
“Whatcha’ makin’, Jolene?” Billy Ray said, looking over her shoulder. “That pot’s big enough for stewin’ a hogshead.”
“Uhmm…” Jolene glanced down at the open magazine on the counter. “I’m making falafel.”
“The hell’s falafel?”
“Oh, you know.” She scanned the list of ingredients. “Chick peas…parsley…and a buncha’ other stuff.”
Billy Ray sniffed the vapor wafting up from the pot. “Why’s it smell so bad?”
“Garlic. It’s got a lotta garlic.”
“Garlic.” Billy Ray backed off Jolene. “You know I hate garlic. That’s another thing you’ll be eatin’ by yourself.”
Jolene laid the spoon on the stove, turned around and gently placed her hands on Billy Ray’s chest.
“Why don’t you sit down,” she said, with a coy look, “and let me make you a drink before you go back to Tiny’s?”
“Yeah.” Jolene glanced at the magazine again. “How about, a Cuba Libre’?”
Billy Ray looked down at the glossy periodical, slapped it closed and then picked it up from the counter. “Martha Stewart Living. I told you before, darlin’, don’t try to get above your raisin’.”
“Oh, go sit down.” Jolene gave him a flirty kiss on the cheek. “I’ll fix you a rum and coke.”
Billy Ray figured, why not? He had Jolene dead to rights, might as well get comfy and watch her squirm.
Billy Ray sauntered across the room and settled into the Barcalounger, thumbed through an old Hot Rod magazine and leered at the shapely blonde up on tiptoes with her slinky body all stretched out as she reached into the cupboard for liquor. Jolene was nice to look at—but that didn’t mean she could do whatever she goddamn wanted, did it?
Jolene waltzed over to Billy Ray and seductively handed him the drink. “Here you go, hon’, bottoms up.”
Billy Ray took a big swig and watched Jolene sashay back to the kitchen.
Jolene stared intently into the pot and stirred the contents vigorously.
“I’m not goin’ back to the cannery just so you can lay around here all day and smoke hooch and listen to Pink Floyd…or run around in the woods and play army with Tiny.”
“We don’t ‘play army’, it’s called paintball, darlin’.” Billy Ray took another slug from his cocktail. “And you know Tiny and I got our business we do at night.”
Jolene burst out with a laugh. “Poaching the occasional gator ain’t exactly a business.”
“Well that’s my business,” Billy Ray said. “And your business is gettin’ that pretty little butt of yours back to that cannery and make us some money.”
“Well, here’s a newsflash for you, Mr. Big.” Jolene cocked her hip and pointed the spoon at Billy Ray. “This pretty little butt ain’t setting foot in that miserable place ever again, and Belle’s not going back to the cannery, either.”
“Why not?” Billy Ray said, flushed with anger. “She gonna take that beautician’s mail-order course like you?”
Billy Ray finished the drink in one big gulp. Jolene stared across the room at him with a wondering, scornful look.
“Beautician’s mail-order course?” she said. “What in the hell are you talking about?”
“I seen that dummy head with the wig laying in the bedroom tonight, and I know those awful smells when I come home are—”
“You don’t know anything, you redneck dumb-ass.”
“I’m gonna come over there and show you what I know.” Billy Ray tried to get up, but he couldn’t move. “Hey…”
“Just relax, darlin’,” Jolene said, “you’re next.”
While his whole body went numb, Billy Ray watched Jolene use the big spoon to bring something out of the pot.
Something small, dark, and gnarly.
Something that looked like a shriveled up monkey head.
“Done to a turn,” she said, like butter wouldn’t melt.
Then Jolene smiled, lifted the steaming blob by its topknot and turned it Billy Ray’s direction.
As the lights dimmed, Billy Ray sat there with his big old cake hole hanging open, amazed at how much that itty-bitty…ugly thing…looked like, Tiny.
©2012 j.edwardfitzgerald ~ all rights reserved
THE KING OF DARE
If you don’t know where you are going,
any road will get you there.
Halloween has always been my favorite holiday. It’s better than Christmas, Easter and the 4th of July all rolled into one. You get to see a lot of scary movies, carve pumpkins and run around town after dark collecting more candy in one night than you could eat in a year. You can dress up however you want and pretend to be whatever you want to be. I knew a girl who dressed up once like Hercules, and a boy who dressed up like a girl. Good thing he was tough-as-nails.
Yeah, Halloween is the best holiday of all time. As a matter of fact, I owe what I am today to Halloween, or more precisely, to what happened on one particular Halloween.
But I laid the groundwork way beforehand, one summer day, a long time ago, when I ate a frog. It was a very small frog, green like a lime Popsicle. I can guarantee that it didn’t taste like no Popsicle though, but that didn’t stop me, once I got going.
You see, my cousin Bobby had laid down a dare and no way would I beg off a dare from my cousin Bobby. I never begged off a dare from anybody.
Now, before you start thinking that I’m just some kind of nutcase that will do whatever crazy thing somebody thinks up, let me define ‘dare’ for you. A dare is a challenge that requires boldness, not stupidity. If someone ‘dared’ me to lie down between two steel rails and let a freight train roll over me at a hundred miles an hour, I’d tell them to take a flyer.That’s a jackass stunt, not a dare.
A dare is something like snatching the long underwear off Mr. Pennebaker’s laundry line in broad daylight when you’re certain the old man is at home. See, everybody knew he kept a shotgun loaded with rock salt leaning right next to the door of his back porch. He’d threatened us kids with it on numerous occasions as we cut across his yard on our way to Harmon’s Woods. Sheriff Caldwell had told us that the ‘cantankerous old goat’ might be be within rights to shoot someone for stealing, but not for shortcutting across his property. The Sheriff also told us not to count on that fine point of law keeping the crazy old man from pulling the trigger.
The picture of me speeding off on my bike with my hand full of old man Pennebaker’s red union suit flapping in the breeze like a captured enemy battle flag and him standing on the porch howling like a stuck dog, went a long way toward building my reputation among the kids in town as The King of Dare.
But being The King of Dare really didn’t make me that much different from the average kid. I liked and disliked school, just like any average student. I could throw a baseball from left field and make a decent play, but I never distinguished myself with a bat in my hand, just like many other average little leaguers. Girls didn’t seem to get very excited by my presence, just like any other average twelve-year-old boy. Except when they were part of the audience for one of my accepted dares. Then, they paid attention to me. Maybe that’s why I kept it up. I discovered early on that I liked girls more than baseball or geography.
My family called me Widdershins. I got that name from my German grandmother after a somewhat daring-stunt-gone-awry during the annual Sacred Heart Church Picnic.
“Hey, King of Dare,” Susie Driscoll said, after marching up to me, backed by a small phalanx of kids. “I want to show you something.”
I casually slid off the picnic table and followed her lead, accompanied by my two best friends, Ralph Leacock and Sam Peoples. At the edge of Lake Ann, Susie pointed to a big oak tree and a kite ensnared in the outer reaches of one of its upper limbs, a limb that jutted about thirty feet out over the lake.
“So?” I said.
“So, I dare you to climb up there and shinny out and get that kite down for me.”
“You’re dumb enough to get your kite up a tree,” I said, “but not smart enough to get it down?”
That brought a few sniggers from my challenger’s entourage.
“I don’t care about that stupid thing,” Susie said, after giving the kids behind her a threatening glance. “My Daddy will buy me a new kite.”
“So, it’s a pure dare. If I get the kite down, it’s mine.”
Susie pursed her lips. “Let’s see you do it, Mr. Smartypants.”
I gave her a wink and headed for the tree.
“That branch is awful high up,” Ralph said, as he followed behind me.
“You should take a rope or something for a safe line,” Sam added, as we reached the base of the huge tree.
“Then I might as well just call the Fire Department and forget the whole thing, right?”
I surveyed the high branch and scanned the tree looking for a path to the stranded sky-walker. I spotted a low foothold where I could get started.
“You guys boost me up. I’ll be back down with stupid Susie’s kite and maybe we can sell it back to her.”
“It’s your funeral,” Sam said, as he and Ralph got positioned near the massive trunk and linked hands.
I grabbed a hold of that first branch, clambered up onto it, looked above me, and saw the path skyward clear as anything. My quick ascent seemed so easy, I felt like Tarzan; It was just like climbing a ladder.
When I reached the branch that held the kite hostage, I shinnied halfway out. Then I looked down. Lake Ann must have been fifty feet below me. Some of the kids clustered around Susie pointed and elbowed each other. A small girl had her hands clapped over her mouth.
“What are you kids doing?” a grownup voice called out.
Then one of the parents from the picnic strode out from the tree line, stood behind the group of children, followed their upward stares and spied me out on the limb.
“Get down from there,” he yelled up. “You trying to break your neck?”
The dare took on added urgency. I knew I didn’t have much time, that kind of talk would just bring more parents, mine probably among them. I hurriedly scrambled out the limb. Then just as I grabbed hold of my prize, I heard a loud cracking. Next thing I know, I’m riding a leafy wooden bird down into Lake Ann.
I instinctively pushed away from the limb just before I hit the water, but I got turned around and slammed into the surface, back first.
As I went under, I felt like a steamroller had run over me. I clawed my way up to the surface, saw stars all over the place and went down again.
In the inky darkness, I felt someone grab hold of me. Then I blacked out. The next thing I know, I’m laying in the grass with a bunch of people towering over me.
“Oh, he’ll be fine,” I heard someone say. “Fool kid just knocked the wind out of himself and swallowed a little lake water is all.”
I rolled my head to one side, saw the kite in my hand and smiled with satisfaction at another dare successfully completed.
I looked up again and saw my Grandmother hovering over me, shaking her head and saying, “Widdershins…widdershins…”
Later on, wrapped in a blanket and eating watermelon after the big potluck picnic, I asked my Grandmother what that word meant.
“It means you’re crazy,” she said, with a trace of a German accent coloring her words.
“Widdershins. You do things contrary, backwards. Like a clock that runs the wrong direction. If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself in big trouble one day.”
“Widdershins,” I said slowly, letting the word roll across my tongue. “I like the sound of that.”
My Grandmother just harrumphed. “Stop talking foolish and eat your watermelon.”
After the church picnic, the school was abuzz with talk of my latest derring-do. All the attention exasperated my nemesis, Tim Sloan, who considered himself rich and better than the rest of us because his father ran a store on Main Street called Sloan’s Haberdashery. Fancy name for a place that sold pants.
Under my tutelage, Tim learned how to lay down a proper dare. He started stupid, like saying in the dead of winter, “Dare you to lick the flagpole”. I dressed him down in front of the other kids by explaining that everybody knew what happened when you did that, but if he didn’t know, maybe he should try it himself and find out. That pretty much lit a fire under him. Since that day, Tim Sloan seemed to spend an inordinate amount of his time thinking up dares to challenge me with. And I always met his challenge.
During that October, filled with sunny days and cold nights, all us kids, as usual, were distracted by the approach of Halloween. In an attempt to solve a few technical problems with my robot costume, I invited Ralph to bring his brain and Sam to bring his nuts-and-bolts expertise over to my parent’s garage. As we hovered over the patient, laid out on a sheet of plywood supported by a couple of saw horses, Tim Sloan and Manny Ratkowski—Manny the Rat we called him—sped into my driveway on their bicycles and skidded to a halt. Sloan had a look on his face that my Grandma would call ‘like the cat that ate the canary’. He started right in with the smart-ass remarks.
“What’s that pile of cardboard supposed to be?”
“A robot suit, Dum-Dum,” I said. “Working on the ray-gun right now. You might be the first person I vaporize.”
“That’ll be the day,” Sloan shot back.
I looked at him and shook my head, underwhelmed again by his complete lack of wit.
“I’ve got a dare for you,” he said.
“Yeah, well some other time,” I said. “I got more important things to do right now then entertain the feeble-minded.”
Sloan seemed to have to think about that for a second. “You probably won’t take it anyway, you’ll be too scared.”
“If it has to with vicious dogs or speeding traffic, forget it. There are dares and there are jackass stunts—”
“Yeah, yeah…” Sloan made a dismissive gesture. “You’ve said that a hundred times before. But this dare is nothing like that kind of stuff.”
“Well, what is it, then?”
Sloan and Manny the Rat shared a buck-toothed sneering rodent look between them. “Get on your bike, I’ll show you.”
“Right now? I’m in the middle of something.”
Manny the Rat clucked like a chicken. I knew that blowing them off right then could result in some damage to my reputation.
“Alright, how far we got to ride?”
“Don’t worry about that,” Sloan said with a devilish grin, “not far.”
So, me and Ralph and Sam hopped on our bikes and followed Sloan and Manny the Rat out of the driveway and down the street and out of my neighborhood and across downtown and past the school to the Old Mill Road. Once we got that far, I pretty much figured our destination could only be one of maybe three places: the Sandbanks, the abandoned oats mill, or the oldest graveyard in Raven.
We finally hit what we called the Big Hill. We coasted like wheels on fire down the steep grade, leveled out, rolled another quarter mile and Sloan led us through the arched iron entryway of Saint James Cemetery.
I’d only been in the place twice before; once with my parent’s for my Great Aunt’s funeral, and another time when I’d rode in one Saturday on a whim. The second time, I was run off by the weird, old curator. He appeared out of nowhere and scared the shit out of me while I stood straddled on my bike, transfixed by a colossal headstone.
The place is loaded with colossal headstones, depicting anchors and broken columns and lambs and torches and oak leaves and triangles with one eye in the center like the one on the back of paper money. And angels, lots of angels. Saint James looked weird in the daytime, and after dark, like one of the fog-filled cemeteries in a Dracula movie. I didn’t know anyone who had the nerve to even claim to have been inside the fence of this boneyard at night.
Sloan stopped his bike at a big mausoleum that stood at the intersection of the main gravel drive and a narrower road that led further into the cemetery. He dismounted and turned to me with a gloating expression.
“Well, here we are,” he said, as I popped down my kickstand.
“Wherever you go, there you are,” I said.
“You’re so funny,” Manny the Rat said to me, “I laugh every time I think about you.”
“I didn’t know rats could think,” I said.
Manny got off his bike and started toward me.
“Alright, Manny,” Sloan said, “don’t get sidetracked by kid’s stuff. We’ve got a dare he won’t take and after we tell the whole town, he’ll end up being a queen, instead of a king.’
“That’s right…” Manny guffawed. “A big, fat, queen.”
“Alright, Sloan,” I said, “what’s the dare?”
Sloan walked off the gravel path and onto the grass toward the mausoleum. It looked like a miniature version of the Greek Parthenon, which I’d seen pictures of in our sixth-grade geography book. A bronze door with a big handle and a bulletproof-looking lock sealed the inside from the outside world. I wondered what the interior looked like. A small church, maybe, with a few pews and lectern or altar? Amazing detail cut into the stone caught my eye, like a kaleidoscope that invited appreciative close inspection.
Sloan leaned on one of the stout pilasters and pointed up at a large angel standing forth, with wings that sheltered a group of children huddled at her feet.
“There’s your dare,” he said.
“Funny,” I said, glancing over at him, “looks like a stone angel to me.”
“You won’t think it’s so funny.” Sloan looked at Sam and Ralph, acknowledging them as witnesses to the dare. “At midnight on Halloween, you have to come in here, climb up on the heads of those stone kids and plant a big old kiss square on the cold lips of that angel.”
I looked up into the blank eyes of the looming icon and reminded myself to shut my gaping mouth. It seemed like a creepy notion, unnatural and unholy in some kind of dark recess of my Catholic schoolboy’s mind. My blood ran a little cold.
Sloan chortled. “I knew it, deep down you’ve got the guts of a chicken. Wait till the kids hear about this. Susie Driscoll will wet her pants before she’s done laughing.”
The thought of Susie Driscoll getting her jollies at my expense, snapped me to attention.
“Doesn’t seem like much of a dare,” I said, trying to bluff my way through this challenge. “More like a waste of time on stupid kids’ stuff when I could be—”
“Not according to what old man Pennebaker told us,” Sloan said.
I stopped short and looked at the suddenly grim faces around me. “Old man Pennebaker. What’s he got to do with it?”
“He caught us cutting through his place the other day,” Sloan said, with a sheepish look that quickly turned wolfish again. “Trapped us, and held his shotgun on us until we told him who’d swiped his long-johns.”
“You weasel-faced blabbermouth,” Sam said to Sloan.
“Shut up, Sambo,” Manny the Rat said to Sam.
“And your mother, Polack,” Sam answered, coming toward him.
“Hang on,” I said, and got between them.
“Yeah, hold on, Manny,” Sloan said. “We’ve got him right where we want him. Don’t blow it.”
I turned to Sloan. “So what’s old man Pennebaker got to do with this?”
“He said if you were such a daredevil, then I should challenge you to go into the Saint James Cemetery at midnight on Halloween and kiss the angel on widow Hollingberry’s mausoleum.”
I looked at Sloan with my best pity-for-a-fool expression. “And what makes that such a big whoop-de-do that I should even waste my time?”
“Because, old man Pennebaker said no kid had done it for sixty years and the last one that did vanished forever from the face of the earth.”
“And you’re gonna believe any old crap dished up by some crazy old man?”
“He saw it,” Sloan said. “He was there.”
The way Sloan said it, you could tell he believed the story; that old man Pennebaker believed the story and told the truth about something weird that happened when he was a kid a hundred years ago. Or the truth as he knew it, I figured. While I stood there ciphering, Sloan walked away.
“Come on, Manny,” he said, “I can’t wait to start spreading the news.”
“Hang on,” I called to him, as he climbed on his bike.
“Forget it,” Ralph said, touching my arm. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
“I’ll do it, Sloan,” I said. “But where are you going to be, at home hiding under the covers?”
“You have to come in alone, that’s part of the dare. But I’ll be right out there…” he pointed to the eight-foot wrought iron fence that bordered the cemetery, “with a front row seat, making sure you don’t try and pull a fast one. Me and Manny and whoever else wants to watch The King of Dare sprout a yellow streak up his back and tumble from his throne.”
“I’ll be here,” I shouted at them as they rode away. “I’ll be here…just make sure you don’t chicken out, Sloan”
Manny the Rat looked back over his shoulder and grinned with his ugly teeth hanging out.
Back at my garage, Ralph and Sam helped me finish up my robot costume. More precisely, they finished it for me. I stood and watched them, filled with ‘a sense of foreboding’, as our teacher Miss Wynkowski was so fond of saying before she killed us with a math quiz, distracted by the thought of going into Saint James Cemetery at midnight on Halloween.
At midnight. Alone. Tomorrow.
My Grandmother’s call to dinner ended our tinkering with the wire and foil and grey duct tape that made up the details of my automaton costume. Ralph and Sam saddled up and rode home. I lingered for a few more minutes alone in the garage, imagining putting my lips on the stone cold lips of that angel. Not only did it give me the creeps, I also wondered if maybe this dare was somehow going to put my soul in jeopardy. Where would it end? In another dare that put me in a lip lock with the statue of the Mother Mary in the church sacristy? The final call to dinner yanked me out of my morbid ruminations.
My Grandmother turned from the kitchen stove as I walked in the back door.
“Hurry and wash up,” she said. And I just blurted out the question, without even thinking about it first. “Grandma, do you know anything about the widow Hollingberry?”
She turned fully around with a wooden spoon in hand and a solemn-faced look. “She was a saint. Had enough money to buy and sell everyone in this town ten times over, but she used her fortune to do good for orphaned and wayward children. Took them in her home like a guardian angel, rescued them from whatever unsavory fate they were headed to. The poor woman died before her time, some sixty-odd years ago, when I was but a child.” Grandmother gave me the cock-eyed suspicious look that was always her harbinger of judgment. “Why do you ask about her? Where have you heard about the widow Hollingberry?”
“I don’t know,” I said, trying not to look guilty for something I hadn’t even done yet. “I must have heard some kids talking about her.”
My grandmother lightly pursed her lips and nodded. “Well just go wash up. I would like to see you at the table for once before the food is served.”
That night, I had weird disjointed dreams. About Sloan and Manny the Rat. And going into the cemetery and staring into the face of that stone angel. I tumbled right into the scooped out place in the center of one of those granite eyeballs and found myself running around and screaming with a bunch of other kids until I jerked upright with the sheets tangled around me, all sweaty and breathing a hundred miles an hour.
When I was little, I’d run and jump in bed with my parents after a nightmare like that one, but those days were long gone. I was on my own now as far as scary dreams were concerned. I was supposed to be a big boy.
We had our usual Halloween day of dress-up and goofing off at school and an assembly where we watched The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow. I’d seen that thing a dozen times, but this time, I actually got the creeps from watching it. The lights went on at the film’s conclusion and relief spread over me.
Manny the Rat bumped into me on purpose as we filed out of the school’s third floor meeting room, headed toward the down stairs. I turned around and saw Sloan, made up like a zombie, with Susie Driscoll at his side, sneering and resplendent in a witch costume. What a lovely couple.
“How about that headless horseman,” Sloan said, as he gave Driscoll a look.
“Wouldn’t want to meet anything like that, stuck inside a graveyard after midnight on Halloween.”
“Well look who’s here,” I said, shuffling along with the line, my cardboard robot head stowed under one arm, “Mr. and Mrs. Frankenstein. Hey, do the world a favor and make sure you two don’t have any kids, okay?”
Susie Driscoll stopped short. “Oh, you’re so smart, always with the wise-mouth. Well we’ll all be laughing at you tomorrow, after we—”
“After we see you chicken out,” Sloan said, cutting Driscoll off.
The look on her face told me that she had almost said something she wasn’t supposed to say. I wondered what.
“I’ll be there,” I said to Sloan. Then I looked at Susie Driscoll. “If you’re coming, just leave your broomstick at home, shovel-face.”
“Creep,” Driscoll said. “You’ll be sorry.”
For the rest of the school day and all through that evening of trick-or-treat, I kept wondering just what Sloan and his posse of mental midgets had cooked up for me at the cemetery at midnight. Maybe they’d be no-show and then call my house and tell my parents where I was; but they’d just get in trouble too, for that. Maybe they’d conned someone into waiting inside the cemetery to scare me when I went in alone; but that would be against the rules of engagement and negate the dare. I couldn’t figure out their angle, but I wasn’t too worried, I’d have Ralph and Sam there to cover my back.
The three musketeers split up about 9:30—after a record candy haul, I might add—and Ralph and Sam promised to rendezvous at Saint James Cemetery no later than 11:45. At home, everyone had all but called-it-a-day. I padded up the hall to my parent’s room, tapped lightly on the closed door and said goodnight. The soft drone of their dresser-top TV was the only reply. I knew they were down for the count, and that cleared the way for my sneak-out, about two hours later.
I went in my room and quietly closed the door, got out of my robot get-up and changed into jeans, t-shirt and sneakers. Then I laid on the bed and thumbed some worn comics and tossed and turned and got up and looked out the window about a dozen times and checked my bedside clock every two minutes, ‘filled with a sense of foreboding’.
At 11:15, I opened my bedroom door and listened to the stillness. Then I tiptoed down the hall. I paused at my parent’s door and heard nary a rustle. As far as someone raising the alarm, Grandma was the only real worry. And as I slowly got off the staircase and looked out toward the kitchen, there she was, puttering at the stove, making coffee or tea or something. No wonder she can’t sleep.
I crouched in the darkness and waited for her to finish farting around. Seven minutes passed, setting me to wonder if I should try to find another way out. She finally gathered her stuff, went to her room at the back of the kitchen and shut the door, plunging the rest of the house into darkness.
I crossed that kitchen like a mannequin with arthritis. It seemed to take forever, but if Grandma caught me, I wouldn’t make it out of the house. You never realize how squeaky a screen door can be, till you open one in the middle of the night. I finally got to the garage, wheeled my bike from out of the shadows on the north side, rolled it to the street and then up the block before I mounted and sped off.
The night had turned damp and cold air sliced through my windbreaker as I sped across Main Street. The courthouse clock struck once—11:45—letting me know I had no extra time to get to the graveyard. The graveyard. That word sounded menacing compared to Saint James Cemetery. But that’s where I was headed, the graveyard, the boneyard, the land of the dead, to kiss the cold stone lips of an angel guarding some long-gone widow’s mausoleum. It all made me wish right then that I’d never embarked on my illustrious career as The King of Dare. I decided this would be my swan song, ‘cause the stakes would just go up after this dare and sooner or later I’d find myself in real trouble. And what better way to go out than in a blaze of Halloween glory? The story just might be grandchildren-worthy.
I crested the Big Hill, flew down to Saint James Cemetery and found Sloan, the Rat and Driscoll clustered at the front gate.
“Wondered if you were going to show,” Sloan said, as I coasted to a stop.
“Have no fear, Captain America is here,” I replied, with as much bravado as I could muster. I looked around for my associates. “Seen Ralph or Sam?”
“Guess they’re home with their mommies,” Manny the Rat said.
“Which is where you’re going to wish you were in about five minutes,” Driscoll chimed in.
“Speaking of five minutes,” Sloan said, “you don’t even have that long till you’ve got to be in a lip-lock with that statue. Let’s go.”
“I want to wait for Ralph and Sam—”
“Forget them, it’s your reputation on the line,” he said. Then he adopted a best-pals kind of tone. “Don’t worry, you get caught and we get caught. We’ll have our eyes peeled for any trouble, like the cops or something, while we’re watching you make out with that statue.”
“Alright, let’s do it.” I started to roll my bike toward the gate.
Manny the Rat grabbed my saddle. “Hold up, you got to walk in.”
“That’s right,” Driscoll added, “a real daredevil would want to savor the experience.”
I looked from Driscoll to the Rat to Sloan, and realized that this new girl-challenge would have to be met. I leaned my bike near the iron gate and smirked at Driscoll.
“Screw you,” I said quietly.
Driscoll glared at me and twisted her pink and white tasseled bike grips. “You’ll never have that pleasure in your lifetime, creep.”
Man, her voice always sounded like chalk screeching on a blackboard. I didn’t know much about sex and even less about love, but I did know that the chump who got stuck with Susie Driscoll for the rest of his life would be what my old man would call, ‘one sorry SOB’.
We all exchanged a final look; Sloan, the Rat and Driscoll seemed to sneer in unison, like some kind of gargoyle choir. I put on my game face. Then I turned and strode through the gates of Saint James Cemetery like St. Michael going off to meet the dragon.
About twenty yards in, a large cluster of clouds swept over the moon. I looked over my shoulder through the darkness and could no longer see the gate behind me. All those towering monuments, the anchors and columns and obelisks, stood out in bas-relief against the luminous hazy light of the clouds racing overhead. On the ground below the heavens, the shape of the big iron bordering-fence had melted away into the shrubs that fronted it and the vines that covered it. Without moonlight reaching the ground, I would never be able to see Sloan, Driscoll and the Rat behind that camouflage. But I was pretty sure that they’d be able to see me.
Then I heard it, a soft little voice, calling my name.
I first figured it must be Driscoll trying to scare me, but the little girl-sounding call seemed to come from inside the cemetery, up ahead in the direction of widow Hollingberry’s mausoleum. That creep Sloan had probably talked some kid into coming inside and hiding somewhere to try to scare me and run me off the dare. I was having none of that. If I caught the kid, I’d kick his ass and then Sloan’s right after. I balled my fists, ready for action, and strode on toward my destination.
I reached the fork in the cemetery’s gravel road and stared up at the stone angel. Then I looked off deeper into the cemetery. Fog rolled up from the swale where the proverbial little babbling brook ran through the place. It really looked like I’d been dropped into a horror movie now. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Time to get the dare done and get the hell out.
Problem was though, that angel’s lips were about eight feet off the ground, something I hadn’t thoroughly taken notice of before. Sloan had been right. The only way to reach her would be to stand on the head of one of the little stone kids clustered around her feet. I selected the most promising, a girl with her face turned upward in an expression of adoration. Her forehead would be the ideal stepping-stone. I planted a sneaker on the bridge of her nose, grabbed the folds of the seraphim’s stone robe in each hand and pulled myself up.
Then I heard the voice again, calling my name.
“Who’s down there?” I called out, and immediately felt like a fool for letting Sloan even think he’d scared me at all. Then I looked toward the fence, and wondered if Ralph and Sam had showed up yet. I yelled out, “Hey Sloan, here I go. Check it out, chump.”
I moved my face toward the stone figure, with lips puckered—like I imagined they would be if I ever got the nerve to kiss Patty George—and laid them on the cold stone. But the stone lips didn’t feel cold, they felt warm and alive and moved against my pursed lips. My eyes shocked open and I met a vibrant blue-eyed gaze. Then something like an explosion happened and I found myself flying backward through the air, scared I was gonna die.
I came to in what must have been seconds, flat-ass on the ground and leaning back on my hands. I looked up and about shit my pants as the angel stretched and spread her wings and rolled her neck like she was all knotted up from standing in the same position too long. Then I heard that soft little voice again.
I looked up and fell in love. A girl about my age with long blonde hair in ringlets and dressed in a smock like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm stood hovering over me.
“Come on, we have to run away, it’s our only chance.”
I reflexively hopped up, ready to go with her to wherever, and noticed other kids around us. In addition to the girl, two boys my size, and another kid about five years old—couldn’t tell in the dark whether it was a boy or girl. They all tore off toward the main gate. I lit out after them
One of the boys reached the closed gates first and yanked on them. As the rest of us arrived, he turned and said, “It’s chained and locked.”
That sent a bolt of fear shooting down my spine.
“Let me see,” I said, pushing him aside.
The moon broke from behind the clouds and revealed a heavy, rusty iron chain threaded through the black bars of the gates, two of it’s links fastened by a shiny new padlock. That fuck-shit Sloan had locked me in the cemetery, knowing I’d be stuck there at least until the caretaker showed up in the morning. And he’d probably arranged for Ralph and Sam to get waylaid before they reached the cemetery. He had the money to hire muscle. A rumor around town had it that the Doolittle cousins had beaten a bigger kid that had messed with Sloan.
“My parents are gonna kill me,” I said. Then I turned around, looked at my companions and wondered—who the hell are these kids?
“I’m heading for the back fence,” said the boy who had tried the gate. “There’s a tree I can climb and jump to the outside.”
“No,” the girl about my age said. “They wait for us back there, you’ll never get away.”
“I don’t care,” the boy said. “I’ll take my chances.”
Before I could ask a question or voice an opinion, the kids all took off in hot pursuit of the vociferous boy.
The moon disappeared behind the racing clouds again as we ran breakneck, deep into the Saint James Cemetery. The fog and mist thickened as we approached the brook and I wondered just what the hell I thought I was doing, chasing through the dark after a bunch of kids who could be ghosts for all I knew. I wished I’d never come here and swore I’d marry Susie Driscoll just so I could be punished for the rest of my life for all the terrible things I’d done if I could just get home and be safe in my own bed and wake up and see the sun shine.
The moon broke through the clouds once more and the kids all came to a sudden stop. Through the billowing fog, I saw large, squat silhouettes, off in the distant trees.
“What’s that?” I said, then turned to look at my companions. Their expressions and gaping mouths told me it wasn’t anything good.
“The Gray Things,” the beautiful little girl whispered.
“The Gray Things…what are they?”
“They are very bad,” she said.
“Oh yeah, why is that?”
“They eat children.”
That clinched it for me: I figured either I was in bed dreaming or I’d gone insane.
The boy intent on escape took off running toward the brook.
“No, Timothy…come back,” the beautiful girl screamed out as she ran after the boy.
Instead of heading back towards the gate and figuring my own way out of Saint James Cemetery, I ran off after the girl. The fog got thicker the closer we got to the brook. The girl stopped short. The other boy and the small child clustered around her. I reached them just as she called out into the dense mist.
“Timothy…oh, please, Timothy, come back.”
“Oh God, no…” the beautiful girl said. She roughly wiped her lips with the back of her hand. “We have to go back now. We’ll never escape this time.”
I glanced again towards the killing sounds. The bestial growling and rending filled me with terror. Off in the distance, an explosive spray colored the grey mist, crimson.
Before I could say a word, the girl turned and ran back across the yard, over the graves, vaulting low stones as she encountered them, followed closely by the other boy and the younger child. I turned heel and set out in hot pursuit of my new companions.
Several things soon became evident: the children were headed back to the widowHollingberry’s mausoleum, the Gray Things had finished with Timothy, and now they were heading for us.
The guardian angel mounted on the mausoleum greeted us with wings unfurled and arms spread wide in welcome. The beautiful girl fell to her knees and clasped the hem of the seraphim’s effulgent gown. The boy and the young child each took a station, arraying themselves around the angel like figures in a sculpture. I stared down at the Beautiful Girl…filled with a sense of foreboding…then looked back over my shoulder at the approaching Grey Things.
“Hurry, join us,” she said. “Its the only way for you to be safe.”
I wanted to be safe—and be with her—but something inside told me to run, run as fast as I could, and if the Grey Things got me, well that would be too bad.
“Hurry,” she said, “or you’ll end up like Timothy.”
Timothy-Torn-To-Pieces, my mind screamed. I looked back again. Two of the Grey Things jumped a stone not thirty yards away, with six more close behind them. Their pendulous jaws snapped and horrifying growls welled up from their throats. No way I could outrun them.
I fell to my knees and grabbed the angel’s gown.
“That’s better,” the beautiful girl said. Then she smiled so sweetly that it nearly broke my heart. “With Timothy gone, I just had to have a new playmate. Now we can be together, forever.”
Then the beautiful girl gazed back up at the protecting angel with the same beatific look that had been on her face the first time I’d seen her, before I’d used her forehead for a stepping stone.
From ten feet away, the largest Grey Thing launched himself toward us. As those terrible claws and gnashing teeth descended upon our little group, I closed my eyes, and prayed.
Before noon the next morning, All Saints Day, the police found my bicycle outside the locked gates of Saint James Cemetery. The caretaker arrived shortly thereafter and made it be known loud and long that he did not have a key to the lock on the chain and why would he trap any child inside the cemetery at night? Did they all think him to be some kind of fiend because he tended to the dead? They searched and searched, but never found me. Talk about hiding in plain sight.
Anyway, if you’re ever in Saint James Cemetery on Halloween night, visit the widow Hollingberry’s mausoleum, it’s the best monument in the place. And if no one happens to be around, go ahead and kiss the guardian angel standing next to the big brass door. You can use the beautiful little girl’s forehead for a step-up, she won’t mind, I promise. Don’t think too long about it though, just go ahead and do it.
I double-dog dare you.
©2012 j.edwardfitzgerald ~ all rights reserved