“This has to be the worst day ever,” John Bailey exclaimed as he kicked at a stone in the well worn gravel road.
It had all started with the English paper, the C+ English paper. He had put his heart into that short story, working on it for a week.
“Why is it always the spelling?” he lamented, his weakness dragging him down again. He would kick himself if he could, he should have given more effort to spelling in grade school. Now it was a recurring problem, made even worse by the fact that his family couldn’t afford a dictionary.
“How does a dictionary feed the animals, or plant the crops?” his Pa would pipe in every time he brought the subject up. His Ma was sympathetic, hoping he would continue on to college when he graduated high school, but there was only so much money to be had. He was the only one in the whole family that had even gone to high school, and he was proud of that, even though it meant he had to work part time to afford it. But work left him no time for the school library, or their dictionary, so he had to do his work at night at home.
Work, another piece of the puzzle that had made this day one he couldn’t wait to end. His job was working with the janitor after school, and this was floor scrubbing day, the worst day of the week. Every week Mr. Beazley would pick one room to scrub, which meant that he would have to scrub it while Mr. Beazley would go off to do the more important work of the school. Apparently, gin had something to do with the important work, for he always returned smelling of it.
John had gotten busy, scrubbing the floor with a brush on his hands and knees, hurrying through the task as it always made him late for chores. Every scrubbing day he heard it from his Pa about getting home in time to feed the cows and the mangy horse.
Finishing after two hours, he nonetheless felt proud of the job he had done, for about two minutes. That’s how long it had taken him to carry the dirty water bucket down the hall and accidentally dump its contents throughout the long wooden corridor. Mr. Beazley was livid, shouting at John to get some clean water and clean up the mess before turning back toward the furnace room for more gin.
Forty-five minutes later it was done. Putting everything away and shouting goodbye to the janitor, he gathered his books and ran out of the building…into the dark. It was already Halloween and the nights were getting darker earlier. Boy would his Pa be angry.
He started up the three mile trek for home over the rutted gravel road, angry at himself over spelling and spilled swill. Leaving town, he passed under the railroad trestle as a locomotive chugged by overhead, a hot ember from its stack falling down upon him, slipping into his collar and sliding down his back. He dropped his books and did a dance in the middle of the road as he quickly tried to work the burning cinder away from his skin and out from the inside of the shirt. Finally pulling out the tail of his shirt released the cinder onto the road, but his relief was short lived when upon tucking it back in he felt the hole that had burned through the back.
“Jeepers, now Ma’s gonna be mad!...DARNIT!” he shouted at the receding train as it rounded the bend out of sight.
Picking up his books, he kicked at another stone and continued on his way, anxious to get home. As he walked, he noticed the waning moon partially covered with swiftly moving black clouds, causing the shadows to move around him. Gulping loudly, his anger drained away, but had been replaced by a creepy feeling that crawled up his spine; the back of his neck was tingling.
Shaking off the feeling with a nervous laugh, he continued on his way, but a little more alert to his surroundings. Rounding the next curve however revealed a sight he hadn’t given a thought to until now…and one he suddenly dreaded beyond belief.
“Kid stuff,” he said to himself when he realized he was creeping himself out. After all, he was almost fifteen! Resuming his walk with determination, he found that this determination that he had only moments ago summoned was quickly waning the closer he got to the boundary fence.
His grandma had always said ‘when you is scared and there ain’t no moon, stare at the ground and hum a loud tune’, so he concentrated on the pebbles passing his feet as he hummed a song, but all he could think of to hum was Mary had a little lamb! He was certainly glad no one was around to see him…or hear him for that matter.
As he approached even closer to the boundary fence, another thought crept into his head…and his soul.
Ol Red Eyes!
“That’s just a story,” he said out loud, but his mind was racing, reliving the local legend that he had heard his whole life. Seven feet tall, with a huge black shadowlike body, he carried a massive double-headed ax. Supposedly, he had an eerie growl like that of a wolf, but lacking a head, his glowing red eyes floated over where his neck would be. The chilling image was forming in his head, so he snuck a peek along the road ahead, seeing nothing. He was chilled now as his skin became clammy with fear.
His grandma had told him the story years ago, before she died, her body now buried in this very cemetery. On ‘All Hallows Eve’ the ghost would come out of the cemetery, to take the head of some unwary traveler for himself. According to his grandma, there were supposedly several instances over the years of finding headless bodies in the area on November 1st. No one would admit that they believed the story, but everyone avoided the cemetery on that night.
“Bunkum!” he said, stopping in place and taking a breath, trying to calm his nerves. He was too old to believe in a kid’s ghost story. Nevertheless, he looked down onto the road and continued his humming as he continued on his way.
He had heard it, his heart had skipped a beat when he had heard it, but he kept walking determinedly forward. It had been a figment of his imagination he was sure, and he didn’t want to stop anyway.
Then there were footsteps, beside him, gravel crunching, more than his own. He hummed louder.
“When you is scared and there ain’t no moon, stare at the ground and hum a loud tune.”
He froze, his feet would no longer move, his eyes squeezed shut. His teeth were chattering from the chill and the fear he now felt.
He felt a hand suddenly in his, a comfortable hand. Opening his eyes, he was looking into those of a little girl in a gabardine dress, a smile spread across her freckled face.
“Who are you, and what are you doing here in this spooky cemetery in the middle of the night? Do your parents know you are here?”
“My name is Mary, I’ve come to help you as we don’t want anything to happen to you.”
“Help me do what?” John asked, calmer now, but confused.
“Why, to help you get through of course, silly,” she answered.
“Through...?” the question hung in the air, unanswered until the little girl pointed on down the road, a serious look now on her face.
Glancing down the road, the icy chill returned as the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. Two dim red orbs seemed to be staring at him. The large flowing shape of a man dressed in black fog could be made out below the glowing spheres, a humongous ax head down in one hand.
He realized that he had forgotten to take a breath, inhaling sharply now, the breath loud on the dark road.
“I thought it was just a story, he really exists?”
“Yes, he is real, but we must hurry, his powers are stronger as it approaches midnight. Walk with me,” the girl finished as she pulled John into the cemetery. As they made their way through the stones, Red Eyes could be seen following on a parallel course, a low growl marking its way across the gravestones.
“Listen to me,” Mary whispered, “there are a couple of things you need to know.”
She leaned into him, pushing him slightly to the side to miss a stone that had appeared before them.
“Firstly, he is not very fast, so your escape needs to be quick, as quick as you can run!”
“Ok,” John answered, not feeling as confident as his response indicated.
“Secondly, you can’t look at him, his eyes are hypnotic, if you look at him when you are close, you’re a headless corpse.”
“Last thing you need to know, he can only go to the boundary fence, once you get past that, you’re free.”
She leaned up on her tiptoes and gave him a peck on the cheek. “Are you ready Johnnie? We’ll turn around quickly, and run like the wind back to the road and past the fence. If he gets close, I’ll try to distract him, he can’t hurt me.”
“Ok,” John whispers, tensed up and ready to run.
She looked at him, “Ready….NOW!”
They turned and ran, he as hard as he could, she seeming to float above the ground, pulling his hand and they made their way through the stones. An angry growl came from behind him to the right as the black apparition came quickly on an intersecting course.
With three rows of stones left, Mary pulled him to the right, angling through the stones toward the boundary fence, the growls now just behind him.
He was on the road then, running for all he was worth, his legs pounding on the gravel, Mary still tugging at his arm. Looking over her shoulder, she sees the red eyes closely behind them.
“Keep going Johnnie!” she shouted as she let go of his hand and reversed course. He heard a commotion behind him, but put on a spurt of speed without looking back.
Clearing the fence, he kept running for a hundred feet before chancing a glance back…nothing. He dared to stop and catch his breath, warily watching behind him, ready to run in an instant.
“No one is going to believe this!” he thought excitedly to himself, the adrenalin still flowing through his body. Thinking about it more, he realized that, no one would believe it, especially his Pa, thinking it just an excuse to get out of chores.
Looking back once more, he could see nothing, no Mary, no Red Eyes. Picking up his books from where he had dropped them on the ground, he started for home, never so anxious to be with his family as he was tonight. Although he had truly felt the fear of death tonight, he was happy to be alive, and it had changed him in ways he couldn’t yet fathom.
After about a quarter of a mile, he was almost certain he had heard Mary calling after him.
“Bye Johnnie, it was great seeing you again!”
He wasn’t sure if he had heard it, but the thought pleased him. But why had she called him Johnnie? And what would she have meant by it was great seeing him again?
There was only one person in this world that had ever called him Johnnie, and she was…
A smile formed on his lips and his steps were more lighthearted as he continued on his way to home, the thought striking him a moment ago changing everything.
His grandma’s name had been Mary.
Copyright 2011 JT Lewis