Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Dream of Smiles

Anne Elisabeth Stengl challenged bloggers to write a spooky story about a childhood fear. Happy Halloween!

The first time I saw it, I was six.

It was late. Later than I was supposed to be up. My parents had sent to bed hours ago, and I stayed up. They couldn't tell me what to do. I was my own man.

And I lay there, in the dark, not sleeping because I didn't want to, and I heard the door open with a soft click.

My parents, I assumed, were checking on me, so I closed my eyes and stirred convincingly. No sense making them angrier.

The door closed. I stayed still, figuring they would be listening for telltale sounds of movement. I was too smart for that. So I waited, and waited, and waited, until I was sure they were gone. Proud of my ruse, I rolled over to turn on my lamp, and felt my heart leap into my throat.

There was a man in my room.

Not a man, exactly. It was as tall as a man, but where its face ought to have been, there was only shadow. It wore a tall, silk hat, and when my eyes fixed on its face, a slow smile slimed its way open. Its teeth were very bright.

I wanted to scream, but it held a thin finger to its lips. I could only tell what it was doing because the finger eclipsed the gleaming of its teeth.

Someone's been bad.

I heard the words in my head, but the creature's lips did not move. It held up three fingers, and slowly curled one downward. It laid its fingers on my eyes, and I fell asleep.


I did not disobey my parents again after that. I went to bed on time, I followed orders, did my homework. Someone had been bad, and I wouldn't be bad again.

When I was nine, my sister and I got in an argument. She called me stupid and I called her fat, and then she said I would die alone, and so I hit her. My mother told me to go to my room, and I retreated. My palm was red where I'd hit her, and the blood pounding in my head made my anger fiercer. I could have boiled water by touching it. It felt like being on fire.

When I went to sleep, I was still angry, still throbbing with the energy of hitting something. It felt so good, I forgot what was coming.

It was midnight when I heard the door open. I woke up just enough to think my parents wanted to make certain I was sleeping, and then I heard the breathing.

Someone's been bad.

I creaked my head backward, and there it stood, with that gash of a smile in its shadowy face.

Very, very bad.

It held up two fingers, and curled one down, and then it left.


I've tried to live by a law since then. I never swear, cheat, steal, lie, or lust. I've never hit another person. I speak soft, when I speak at all. I'm a good boy. When the anger rises in my throat like bile, I swallow it back down. It collects in my guts, weighing in me. Better than the alternative.

I have been researching my visitor, trying to find evidence it has been seen before. There are no legends about such creatures. No one else has seen one. How could they, when there are so many bad people? It would have found them all, if it were looking at them.

But it isn't looking at them. It's looking at me.

I am writing this in hopes someone will find it, since it will probably move on soon. Find someone else to torment.

You may wonder how I know. That answer, at least, is straightforward. I say I've tried to live by a law. But I can't be perfect.

It always comes at midnight. It is 11:59, now. I suppose I haven't much time.


Please, God.

There is a breathy sound behind me, just outside.

Please. I've been so good....


Prince of Graves

In the dark the boy walked, climbing toward the gate and wishing he were somewhere else.

The wind came, so cold he felt it touch his bones. He shivered a shiver that went all through his body, from his toes to his pitter-patter heart. He wished he had gloves, or a coat. Anything to keep warmer.

In the dark hung the moon, and it was old and lifeless, its leering eye reflected by hoarfrost and ice. The boy felt its stare in his brain, and wished he were brave, and knew it would not have mattered.

In the dark he walked, and wished he had not come.

He could see the top of the hill now, and the gate that stood there. It had five prongs, like the grasping finger bones of a long-dead giant, thrust through soft dirt. He wondered if they would curl inward when he touched them, and crush him with their deadened strength.

He scrabbled the last hundred feet and he was there, staring through the finger-bones at the silvered land beyond it. The plaque on the gate said Westminster Cemetery, but the kids in school called it Old Bill’s Graveyard.

Old Bill was William Friesen, the caretaker, and he was legend. He lived in the house at the bottom of the hill. He hated children, particularly the sort who sneaked into the cemetery late at night for dares. The stories made him out to be terrifying: seven feet tall and thin as a rake, with a face like a crocodile’s and eyes that could see in the dark. The boy doubted these were truth, but all the same he was glad that Old Bill didn’t like coming out on cold nights. It hadn’t stopped the man from leaving signs all the way up the hill: NO TRESPASSING.

The boy gripped the bars of the gate. Cold, he thought, so cold his fingers burned at the touch, but he couldn’t focus on that. The only way to stop Tommy calling him chicken was getting into Old Bill’s, and the only way into Old Bill’s was climbing the gate.

He swarmed up the bars, clambering like a spider, pushing against them with his shoes. His fingers were already blued, and his breath came harsh and sharp, but he could not stop. Relentlessly he scrabbled upward, gritting chattering teeth, until he achieved the top. The bar was thin, and he could not feel his fingers, but he balanced there for a moment, thrilled.

I made it, he thought. I made it—

His fingers faltered. He shrieked, but only briefly, as he tumbled over the gate.


The boy woke because someone was touching his face. His eyes opened, weakly, and he couldn’t be sure if the stars he saw were really there or merely pain-points, shunted to the front of his skull.

“You okay, kid?” said the voice. “Kid?”

The boy sat up, and the one who had woken him skittered backward like a beetle. From the new vantage point, the boy could see his leg, twisted away from him at an absurd angle. Seconds after the sight came the pain, and he sucked in a breath.

“So you aren’t okay,” said the other one, eyeing him warily. The boy did not recognize this Other One; he was skinny and pale, with wide, lamp-like eyes.

“What happened to me?” asked the boy.

“You fell,” replied the other. “Off the gate. I saw it. You slipped and your leg got all tangled up beneath you and it’s twisted weird. I saw it,” he said again. “Are you very hurt?”

“Yes,” the boy moaned. “It hurts.” But the pain was fading a little, numbing. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”

“This is my place,” said the pale one simply. “I’m Charlie, by the way. It’s not my name, except it almost is. You can call me Charlie, I mean.”

“Your place? That’s silly, it can’t be your place. It’s Old Bill’s Graveyard. Everyone knows that.”

“Old Bill?” Charlie laughed. “I know Old Bill. Old Bill knows me. We don’t like each other much. Actually that’s not true. Actually he hates me. He hates me because this is my place, not his. He can’t change that, no matter what.”

“Why is it your place?”

“It just is,” said Charlie. “What about you? Who are you?”

“I don’t think I should tell you my name,” the boy said. “You shouldn’t have told me your name, either, Charlie. Everyone knows you don’t say your name in a graveyard, or the ghosts will crawl out of the earth and swallow it up, and then you’ll never have a name again.”

“Well, you know something. But don’t worry about me. The ghosts don’t want my name. Wouldn’t do them any good, neither.”


“It just wouldn’t. They can’t take my name away. It’s mine.”


“Will you at least tell me why you’re here? You ought to do that, since you won’t tell me your name. It’s only fair.”

“I have to spend the night here,” the boy said quietly.

“What? Spend the night?” Charlie’s eyes got big. “Why?”

“A dare,” said the boy. “It’s something the kids do around here in the summer. They tell their parents they’re sleeping over, and they sneak in here and they spend a night in Old Bill’s Graveyard. And if you don’t, then you’re chicken.”

“Seems silly,” said Charlie. “Why didn’t you do it in the summer?”

“I only just moved here. For Dad’s work.”

“Oh yeah? What’s that like?”

“I hate it,” said the boy flatly. “All of it. I hate this town, and I hate my school, and I hate my house. It’s all awful.”

“If it’s so bad, why are you doing this?”

The boy paused, and slowly said, “Rachel, I guess.”

“It’s always a girl.”

“She’s the only thing I don’t hate here. She’s so nice, and smart and pretty. She has big brown eyes and red hair. I want to grow up and marry her.” He didn’t go into detail about how much he liked her laugh, her skin, her smile. He wasn’t a wuss, after all.

“Best of luck on that one,” Charlie said in a low voice.

“She doesn’t like me, though,” he said. “She likes Tommy.”

“Ah. Tommy, eh? I’ll bet he’s impressive, ain’t he?”

“Not really,” the boy said. “I sure don’t see why she would like him.”

“’Course not.” Charlie looked thoughtful. “This Tommy kid. What’s he look like?”

“Big. He’s as tall as Martha Ann, and she’s two whole years older than us.”

“Dark hair, blue eyes? Sort of look like a dog that figured out how to walk upright?”

“That’s him! How’d you know?”

Charlie laughed harshly. “’Cos I seen him. He came to my place a few years ago. But I’ll tell you a secret, seeing as how we’re friends and all: he didn’t stay all night. He got scared. He snuck out.”

The boy’s face lit up. “No!”

“Oh, he did. He did. He couldn’t see me, but I was there.”

“How’d he get out?”

“There’s a door in the wall, near the back,” Charlie said. “Old Bill doesn’t know about it. It’s as the hill goes down so it gets all covered in snow and nonsense, you know, so it’s hard to find. This Tommy boy, I remember him. He came here one day with his big brother. Did some exploring, adventuring, he found that little door and next week he comes here in the night. Bet you anything he started that dare thing you’re doing.”

“You’re lying.”

“Am not. I’ll show it to you. Come on. Your leg getting better? I bet you can walk on it now.”

Charlie was right; the boy’s leg didn’t hurt near as much as it had. All he could feel in it was a sort of dull ache, numbed by the cold. He felt uneasy about that, but the uneasiness was nothing compared to the excitement at the thought of the door. He could go home, could get warm, and he would have something over Tommy. What would happen if he told all the other kids that Tommy had chickened? Maybe Rachel would stop liking him….

Charlie grinned at the boy’s mounting excitement and held out a hand. “Good then. Come on, kid, I’ll show you. You can lean on me.”

The boy took Charlie’s hand, and Charlie pulled him to his feet. They leaned on each other, the nameless boy favoring his weirdly twisted leg, and Charlie led them to the back of the graveyard, navigating around snow-encrusted tombstones.

“What do you mean this is your place?” the boy asked again. “How did it become your place?”

“It’s just mine, that’s all,” Charlie replied. “You stay somewhere long enough, eventually it becomes yours.”

“You stay here? How long have you been here?”

“I don’t know. A while, I guess. Since I left.”

“But how did you get here? Why doesn’t Old Bill kick you out?”

“He can’t. He can’t do nothing to me. Told you, didn’t I? This is my place. Not even Bill can throw me out if it’s my place. Nobody can.”

“I wish it was that way with me,” the boy said. “Then we wouldn’t have had to come to this stupid town.”

“Grown-ups.” Charlie sneered. “They’ve got no respect for us. They don’t ever care for anybody but themselves, kid, and don’t you ever forget it. That’s why I’m here, you know? That’s why I made this my place. My papa didn’t care for no one but himself, so I just . . . you know, I left.”

“You live here alone?”

“Not alone,” Charlie said. “Not all the time.” His voice was low and final, and the boy could tell Charlie didn’t want to answer the obvious question.

They hobbled in silence for a minute, until Charlie said, “Here it is.”

Charlie pushed aside a mound of old snow to reveal a door built into the wall. It was painted gray, and covered in intricate designs that reminded the boy of spider-webs. There seemed to be a pattern to them, but he couldn’t quite find it: following one strand inevitably led to following another, and another, and another, until he couldn’t tell where he’d started or how long he’d been looking.

“This’ll take me out?” he asked.

“Right in one,” said Charlie. “You’ll be all set.”

As he spoke, they heard a high screeching of iron against iron. They turned to the gate, and the boy’s heart stopped.

“Old Bill,” he said.

“Hurry,” said Charlie. “Hurry, get the door open. He can’t punish you if he can’t catch you.”

The boy grasped the metal handle and yanked with all his might. The door was barely taller than him, and should have opened easily, but it was fused to the wall with ice and rust. He yanked harder.

“You!” shouted a harsh voice. Old Bill had pushed past the rotted old gates and was stampeding through the graveyard, hair trailing behind him, fiery white—

“Hurry!” Charlie urged. “Hurry! You got to!”

“Don’t open that door!”

The boy gritted his teeth and pulled in desperation, frenzied. His lip must have gotten caught in between his teeth—rivulets of blood were trickling down his chin—

The door gave way. He tumbled through it, moving awkwardly on his bad leg but feeling no pain in it. He cast a glance over his shoulder to pale-eyed Charlie, who stood at the door with an eerie grin.

“Are you coming?” asked the boy.

“Nah,” said Charlie, still with that narrow smile. “You go on ahead. He can’t hurt me. Bye, kid. Thanks.”

And he slammed the door closed before the boy could even ask, For what?


William Friesen carried the boy out himself, hefting him effortlessly, like a sack of potatoes. He carried him all the way down the hill, to his lonely little shack, and wrapped him in blankets before calling 911. His teeth chattered and he missed the numbers twice before he managed to get the line active. The girl on the other end sounded youngish, and very serious.

“What is your emergency?”

“A boy,” Old Bill stammered. “Erm, young boy. Sneaked into the cemetery. He’s hyper…hypo…he’s cold. Colder’n he ought to be.”

“Where are you, sir?”

He told her, and went on, “You need to hurry.” He hung up.

The boy was shivering beneath the blankets. Old Bill sat beside him, thinking he ought to pray, knowing it would not matter. He did so anyway, babbling out words his grandmother had taught him, words they used to say before science made the world a simple place. He didn’t remember what they meant. Only what they were meant for.

The ambulance arrived quickly, lights flashing, eager medics stampeding all over Bill’s home. They wheeled the boy away on a stretcher, and Old Bill followed, chewing his lip to ragged bits.

Before they pushed the boy inside the ambulance, his eyes opened. Moonlight shone in them, made them milky. They roved, briefly, before landing on William Friesen.

“You saved me,” he murmured, speaking past a leaden tongue. “Thank you, Mr. Friesen.”

The paramedic beside him checked his pulse, moving with old-hand efficiency, and signaled a discreet thumbs-up to the caretaker, mouthing, he’ll be okay. He turned to the shivering child. “How are you feeling, kid?”

“Good,” the boy muttered. His eyes were still fixed on Old Bill, and they shone, lamp-like. “Really good. I feel like it’s my place.”