Several months ago I was speaking to my wife on the phone. That happens every day while I'm on the road. Sometimes we speak several times, though usually for brief periods. Near the end of the conversation she told me that she had what was probably bad news. She told me of how in reading the local paper she had read the obituary section, and a relative of mine had died. She wasn't sure we were related, but when she repeated the name and age I told her that yes, he was one of my first cousins. The local paper comes out weekly, and by the time I got the news he was already in the ground. No one had bothered to call and let me know, not even one of my brothers. The cousin and I were far from close as there was a large age differential, but still, we're blood kin. I asked my wife to save the obit column for me until I got home.
After we hung up I went off into that place inside of my head where I muse about things, chewing them and digesting what they may mean. The event of my cousin's death meant something to me, something that was chilling. It meant he was the first of my cousins to die, the first of my generation to leave this world. The message came across loud and clear. The invisible barrier to death that had heretofore existed, if only in my mind, had been blown asunder. It is only a matter of time, now.
the writing on the wall
Upon returning home I got around to reading the obituary notice. I learned just how wrong one can be, assuming certain facts while being totally wrong about them. He wasn't the first to go down to the grave. He had been predeceased by one of his sisters, and I didn't even know.
Upon a little research I learned that another cousin, this one the youngest of the lot, had died. I'm 3rd youngest of a host of cousins. There is apparently no protection afforded by being far back in line.
My family is probably like a lot of others. I'm a baby boomer, one of the kids borne of the optimism and energy following WW II. My parents both came from large families, there being 8 children in each of their households. They in turn had fewer kids, but still more than the average family of today. My family consists of my 2 brothers and myself. We are on the low end of the scale, most of my aunts and uncles producing more children than my parents. I have dozens of cousins.
In the process of reading that obit notice, I also looked to see if anyone else I knew had shuffled off this mortal coil. There was another name I recognized. I looked at the individual's name and age, saw that it was the father of a high school acquaintance and quasi friend. The man in the obit column was the 3rd generation to bear his name, my friend the 4th. There was a sense of relief for a moment, just a short space until reading further I noted that the elderly man had been predeceased by his son.
Tom was older than me, a senior when I was a sophomore in high school. He was arrogant and cocksure which coupled with his icy blue eyes made him seem somehow wolfish, willing to snap at any given moment. His sister was a classmate of mine. She had the blue eyes, but hers were a warmer hue. She had long blonde hair too, which always earns extra points. Unfortunately, she also had a very high little girl voice that was incredibly irritating. Both she and her brother had the honor of attending my school, and we all shared the burden of being of a similar age from the same geographic area, making us schoolmates.
Tom had taken up with a friend of my girlfriend, both from a neighboring school. Barb was alright, just a very loud kind of gal. She was wide open, nothing held back, no reserve at all. Being around her was an experience which wore on your nerves after a bit. She was like a strong flavor, good but best kept to small doses.
A little later I had married (at too young an age), and Tom and Barb had come by to visit. Barb's sister, accompanied by her boyfriend (another high school jock, since graduated) came by to raise hell with them as Tom was apparently not good enough for little sis. I had to threaten to call the sheriff to convince these morons to get the hell off of my property.
The obit sent me down another path, this one a remembrance of the summer between my sophomore/junior year. Tom, myself, and about 8 others had embarked on an adventure that summer.
That was the summer I turned 16, got my drivers license and my world had expanded, changed forever. The newfound ability to actually go somewhere on my own, to be free in a way I'd never experienced before was exhilarating.
Remember what is was to be 16 and at midsummer. Boundless energy unshackled from any semblance of common sense, awash in the sheer glory of being young, strong, and unencumbered by adult cares.
Our town annually hosts a carnival, an event which sits astride July 4th week every year. It was (and still is) book ended by the weekend before and following July 4, so it was about 9 days of something different, a chance to meet up with friends you hadn't seen all summer, a chance to meet new people, talk to relatives, eat candy apples and vinegary french fries. Time to get sawdust in your sandals, laugh and run like a 6 year old one more time before adulthood came along and smothered you with its insidious cares.
The first weekend of the carnival was wild, the opening act of the extended event, people coming out of the woodwork to see others they hadn't seen since last year. The second weekend was also charged with a manic energy, the final act of cramming in every iota of experience, hoarding it away, enough to last until next year rolled around.
It was midweek of the carnival, the chaos of the opening weekend subsiding to a more deliberate pace. The new had begun to fade a little, the makeup wearing just a bit thin, the facade cracked and a more measured down-to-business chaos held sway.
a hunting we will go
It was late on a moonlit July Wednesday evening, a pale ghostly orb riding through the velvety darkness above the garish colored lights. A couple friends drifted by and we said a few words, nothing significant. Tom joined the group and the idle chatter. He told us about a church he had heard was haunted and suggested we go check it out. We all agreed it was a great idea and set off to the cars. Other friends saw us leaving in a purposeful way and came to see what was up. We told them and asked if they wanted to come along, a proposal they were all too willing to accept.
We mounted up, filling 2 cars with amateur ghost hunters. We slid out of town like oily water, not a ripple to betray our quest. The church was maybe 10 miles distant down a one lane country blacktop, the kind of road where 2 cars meet and both kiss weeds on the side of the asphalt to pass. We didn't want to give away what we were doing to the neighboring houses so we parked down the road on the shoulder maybe a quarter mile away. We took to our feet to finish our approach, keeping the sounds of shoes and words low to avoid attracting unwanted attention.
We came to the church, a small wooden structure sitting off the road, surrounded by a lawn in front and a graveyard to the rear. A railroad track also passed by the front of the church, the roadway describing a lazy 'S' shape to cross from one side of the railway to the other. The church grounds were contained within a gated fence, one more to delineate the property boundaries rather than actually keep anyone out.
We approached the gate where we paused to debate a course of action. We decided we'd go to the left side of the church and sit in the grass while we decided our course of action. The left side was shadowed, unlike the right side which was under the glow from an overhead light.
We assembled in the darkness beside the church about halfway down the length of the building. We sat down in the grass which was already baked brown under the merciless July sun. It hadn't rained in weeks and the grass was dried, crackling underfoot with each stealthy step. We could see all around due to the brilliant moonlight. The nearby houses, their vehicles and outbuildings, the cattle grazing along the hillside to the rear past the graveyard. Not a breath of breeze was blowing. It was dead calm except for our low voices there in the darkness in the shadow of the church.
I don't recall who heard the sound first. Someone gave a sshhhh sound to the rest of us. Someone asked "What?" The one who'd given the all quiet signal said "Will you guys shut up and listen a second?" We all did and then we all heard the sound. The sound of quiet, measured footsteps. They sounded like they were perhaps 20-25 feet away. They were perhaps 5 seconds apart, very slow and deliberate, and they were getting closer. They came to a distance of 10 feet from our group then stopped. While these steps were coming toward us we were all looking at one another, trying to spot the jokester. Who was making that sound, so distinguishable there in the darkness? No one was moving, not so much as a finger, and those steps just kept coming. We all had a sense that someone (or something was standing there in the darkness, just watching us while we were busy seeing absolutely nothing.
It was then that someone contributed the brilliant idea "Let's get the hell out of here!" It seemed like a marvelous strategic move, so we got to our feet and hauled butt out of there en masse. Down the road we went, bundling ourselves into our trusty rattletrap vehicles and made the return journey to the carnival. The ride was punctuated with "Did you guys hear that? Didja hear those footsteps?" We all agreed that footsteps were exactly what we'd heard, but were stumped at what the source might have been. Our curiosity had been whetted. There being nothing else entertaining to do that evening so we all agreed to meet again next night and return for another go at the church and it's mystery.
back for more
The next night came around and there we all were. We milled through the crowd, enjoying the sights, sounds, and flavors of the carnival until it grew late again. Off we went again to our cars, down that winding ribbon of darkness to the old wooden church. We parked in the same spot as the night before and took to our feet once again. On the way we agreed we'd go inside the church itself if we could gain entry. We slipped through the iron gate like candy apple scented shadows. We climbed the concrete steps, gathered at the doorway and someone grasped the doorknob, twisted and pushed. The door opened without a protest, surprising us all with the fact of being unlocked. The deep darkness of the unlit interior lay before us. We stepped inside.
Our big plan was to go inside and simply sit quietly, waiting for whatever was there to manifest itself. There were perhaps 20 rows of wooden pews, very spartan and quite uncomfortable, possessing no cushioning or upholstery. Three guys sat across the front, three across the middle, and three across the rear. This pattern had us scattered throughout the seating area. To the front center was the lecture, situated on a raised dais. To the left of this dais was a piano loft, on the same level as the pews themselves. The dais and piano loft were separated from the pews by a low wooden rail. Along both sides of the seating area were tall casements holding clear panes of glass which allowed the moonlight and the light from the overhead pole light outside to filter in. From time to time the headlights of a passing car also invaded the sanctuary.
We watched the way the car headlights moved along the walls, moving from side to side as the car passed by outside. We sat quietly for a half hour, silent as the shadows themselves. It became boring, just sitting there in a dark empty church. The boredom was alleviated when someone farted on a hard church pew, emitting a high pitched wail. We all smothered laughter, sitting there in the darkness.
Another half hour passed and we decided it was time to go. We consulted in quiet tones and Tom said "From what I hear, you can invoke ghosts, invite them to show themselves." So far nothing had happened, so we agreed to give the invocation thing a shot. Tom stood in the center of the sanctuary and said "Show yourself." Nothing, zip, zilch, nada. He tried again with the same result. We had all turned to make our exit when in exasperation Tom said in a louder voice loaded with sarcasm "In God's name, what do you want?"
why did you have to say that?
Immediately there was a glow from near the ceiling above the piano loft. It was an amorphous glimmer, a mist, and it was descending toward the floor like a spider winding down a line of web. When it got to floor level it stayed there, behind the rail but in front of the piano. It was moving slowly back and forth almost as if it were shifting from one foot to the other.
We all agreed we saw it, though we didn't all see the same thing. It was vaguely human in size and shape. I and some others could make out a head but others couldn't distinguish that feature. We thought it may be light coming through the tall windows, so we each stood in front of a casement trying to cast a shadow. We were unable to cast a shadow on it, our efforts having no discernable effect.
I decided to approach it, see if it possessed the "cold zone" we'd all heard could manifest during a ghostly appearances. I got to the end of the center aisle where I needed to turn left to make my final approach. My body stopped moving of its own accord. I told myself "Go on, turn left and let's do this!" My body didn't move a single flicker, totally disobeying a direct order. I remember being shocked by this dereliction of duty by my flesh.
Tom was more successful than I was, forcing himself to not only approach but to flank our quarry. He had silently stepped over the wooden rail and launched an encircling maneuver. I could see him behind the glimmering shape, visible through it. As he looked toward me I could see his face. His forehead was shattered, a dark channel blasted through it, and his blood had flowed outward, cascading in a black stream down his face onto his shirt. I felt my gag reflex kick in and I almost blew chunks onto the cheap carpeting of the aisle.
Tom finished his circling maneuver, and as he came out from behind the figure his face was clearly visible. There was no hint of the horror I'd seen through the lens of this misty specter.
One of our band of adventurers was sitting on a pew, talking rapidly to himself, muttering something indecipherable. One of the others approached him and whispered to him, asked him what was wrong. He didn't notice, maintaining his rapid fire muttering. It was low and almost a sing-song chant, frantic yet quiet. He was breathing rapidly between his chant, eyes bright through his black plastic framed glasses in the reflected moonlight. A voice said "Oh crap, he's lost it, man. We'd better get him out of here before he passes out or goes nuts."
Everyone agreed it'd be a really good time to make our escape. A thought drifted through my mind asking the highly relevant question "What would you do if it came down blocking the only exit door?" I admit to not having a good answer to that question. We got our buddy to his feet and turned toward the door. He was moving, but just barely, still chanting whatever he was saying in whatever language he was using. It definitely was not English. We all got outside into the night, relieved to simply be out of that building once again. There's a lot to be said for running room, if you feel the need to make a run for it.
a different kind of bad
We went as a group, still closely packed, half leading/ half carrying our zoned out friend. We had made it across the railroad tracks on the way back to our parked cars when a porch light illuminated the night. A voice called out "Who's out there? Answer me, you hear?" We didn't answer, of course. Then the night was shattered with the roar of a shotgun blast splitting the warm July darkness. "Feets don't fail me now", I thought. We took off running, a thundering herd in tennis shoes. One of our friends was our class nerd, back before the term nerd had been coined. He was tall and gangly, had sallow skin and huge clown feet. We heard his shoes flapping against the blacktop as we ran, then the silence of those clown feet, followed by an immediate splashing sound. He'd jumped off a small bridge into the creek underneath, unmindful of what hazards might be obscured by the darkness. We heard him scrabbling through the weeds and brush up the creek bank to get back onto the road. He gasped "They shot at me...I jumped in the creek!" I wanted to fall down right then and there on the road in the moonlight and howl with laughter, engulfed by the sheer bizarreness of this whole fiasco. Down the road we flew, his wet feet squelching along in soaked tennis shoes. Somehow we got his soaking wet butt and our almost comatose and incoherent companion into the vehicles and roared off back to town.
The next evening I wasn't free to join in any further adventures. I heard the guys made another foray only to be stymied by a new lock on the entrance and being caught by a deputy sheriff who told them to stay away or they were going to get charged with trespass. They retreated and that was the end of our ghost hunting.
return to the present
That was almost forty years ago. Our friend who had lost it will not go in that church. If you ask him if he'd like to go with you to visit that church he'll very firmly tell you to go straight to hell.The tone of his voice echoes the terror he felt on that July night.
My buddy who jumped off the bridge and into the creek has since moved away, married and divorced, climbed the corporate ladder.
Me? Well, I'm older, rounder, and I like to tell myself a little wiser. That leaves Tom.
making the call
In reading the obituary I decided to call Tom's little sister, my classmate. I tracked her down, got a number and made the call. It took a little while to refresh her memory of exactly who I was. "So much for having made a lasting impression", my mind cackled. We gave each other a quick run down on what we'd been doing all these years. I told her I saw her Dad's obituary and I just wanted to say I was sorry. She thanked me for the sentiment and I asked her what had been on my mind. I told her I saw that her brother Tom had passed away. She said yes, he had died five years ago. I asked her what the cause was as he was still not an old man by any means. She told me her brother had died in a robbery, an innocent bystander who had the misfortune to catch a bullet in the head. The killer has never been apprehended. I numbly thanked her and repeated my condolences and hung up the phone.
Cold fingers played up my spine, caressed my thinning hair, stroked the pale skin covering my skull. I remembered the vision of Tom's shattered head viewed through that specter all those years now so long gone, just a memory of a hot July night.
The Night's Plutonian Shore: The 2007 Halloween Horrorquest