A spooky fog arises... lightning suddenly shatters the dark and angry sky... Strange cackling noises bubble up from the ground at your feet... chills run their eerie fingers across your goosebumped arm... IT MUST BE TIME FOR HALLOWEEN STORYTELLING AGAIN! Beginning in the graveyard in the OOC as soon as people show up...
Ghastly green lights flicker outside the edge of your vision... whispering starts somewhere below the threshold of hearing, deep in your inner ear... it must be time for storytelling in the OOC graveyard...!
Clouds scud across the sky like great sailing ships racing before a storm, alternatively obscuring and revealing the silvery disk of the moon, while the wind plays a cacophanus discordant melody in some weird minor key. The smell of decay assaults your nose and an ominous feeling descends upon you. To either side, the ground is obscured by an eerie fog which twists and turns among gravestones like vaporous serpents. Left and right in the distance can be seen the gaping maws of sepultures and crypts where half-visible shapes flit and caper as in some insane dance to the music of the wind. The moonlight through the twisted limbs of grotesquely deformed trees sends shadows wiggling and crawling across a white gravel path beneath a massive wrought iron gate set in a massive stone wall which rings the hollow. The phosphorescent path passes among ghostly white tombstones and monuments ending at a bright yellow glow. Amid a ring of tombstones set like seats at an ampitheater on the sides of the depression, a vast bonfire blazes throwing back the darkness, but not quite dispelling the ominous forboding the place inspires.
Small tremors shake the ground... the clouds shimmer uneasily, as if a giant ethereal hand were disturbing them as they curtain the sky... as the wind rises, you realize it must be last call for storytelling in the graveyard... The moon rises and sets four times in quick succession, each time a different shade of red dripping down into the sky and leaving trails across the Milky Way... The third annual Halloween storytelling must be starting...
Billows of smoke rise up from the ground and coalesce into a shimmering ghostly figure with tears shining on her face. The figure says, a catch in her voice, 'If you use socials or spam the storytelling, you could end up like me--forever caught between life and death. So don't.'
Ptah banishes the ghost.
Ptah pokes the campfire, and sparks rise crackling into the sky.
Most scary stories begin in the dark... They begin at the witching hour, the time of night when sleep has its firm grip on our minds and our life is at its lowest ebb, the blood sluggishly pulsing through our bodies. At night when you breathe, say these stories, the ghosts and memories gather hovering over your chest, and watch the rise and fall of your breath in the night. For the memories are much more terrifying ghosts than the dead are, as we all know. They are the ghosts that cannot be exorcised, and the spirits that embody different sorts of fears.
But this story is not going to start in the night. It will not hover around corners and jump out and say Boo. Instead, it begins in the shining midday light, in the place most unfamiliar to us, the one that scares us most deeply because we know it so well. It begins with a boy on a bicycle on a sunny Sunday afternoon, in his smalltown hometown, somewhere that I'm sure you'd recognize if I gave the name of the place.
On this particular Sunday, little Will had just come out of the mossy old church where he sang in the choir. He'd done the usual stop at the outside wall by the parking lot, there where the bushes grew thick and spiny against the stonework. He liked to stop there because he could chase the fuzzy caterpillars through the leaves with his fingers, and they would curl up into furry little balls, nestled around his finger. He'd gather them up and put some in his pocket, to try to keep alive on the ride home, but somehow they always ended up mostly dead and gooey from the bike ride. Once he even got some to live long enough to set on the mulberry tree next door, but they wouldn't eat and they wouldnt make silk...
He was older now, but he still daydreamed of silk.
And now Will was racing home on his bike, outpacing the barking of the neighborhood dogs and even the sun at his back. Will usually took the same route, but today he decided to vary it a little. Through the Rough this time... I'm sure you all know the Rough.
The Rough is that one block in the town that always seems to be left a vacant lot, for some reason. There are rusted bits of unidentifiable things that people left abandoned there, there are broken bottles, and maybe an abandoned car or two, the rust scabbing on the body like a disease, and there are trails running through it, a sandy color of brown like no dirt that exists anywhere else in the town... they criss and they cross and they twine like crazy snakes. And those trails, well, nobody figures they lead anywhere, because there's no anywhere in the Rough. After all, the mamas, they say "Dont you go playing in there, you hear me?" And the daddies, they just shake their heads and get that strange grin of their faces, like they are remembering something that they don't think they can tell you about yet. And the grandparents--well, you can usually trust the grandparents to talk straight. Something about the weight of the time that they have to carry in their heads--and it weighs real darn heavy, right over the eyes--something about that makes them speak truth.
When Will had asked his grandpappy about the Rough, and why it was a vacant lot, and who went there to mess it up, and why he shouldn't play there, and whether grandpa had ever been in it, well, he got an answer. Grandpa said to him, "I'm not going to tell you to stay out, because a kid like you is bound to play in there from time to time. But that lot, well..." And he'd shake his head and empty his pipe, while he sat there on that white porch, glass of lemonade beading water until it shone like mercury...
"That lot is Different, if you know what I mean. Its the kind of place where you go when you realize you're getting older. The kind of place that is there waiting for you when you are ready for it."
Will figured at the time that this had to do with S-E-X, of course. And grandpa, well, he figured that Will figured that, too, because he looked up sharp and tapped his glass with those fingernails that looked like they were fossils already, all horned and cracking and veined like bark. It sounded very loud.
"Don't you go thinking thats what I mean... because it isn't. That... that stuff isn't what growing up is about, though a lot of folks seem to think it is. When I say the Rough will call you when you are old enough, when you are ready to understand what it means, I mean just that. And some folks they just don't come back. And some folks, they just don't grow up, and they never hear the call."
And Will said (on that long-ago afternoon before Grandpa had the stroke, back when he still talked instead of drooling in his chair like some puppet, smelling like he was half dead already)--Will said, "Did Dad ever go in the Rough when he was a kid? When he grew up?"
Grandpa snorted. "Your father hasn't grown up yet, and I doubt he ever will. Your mamma now... she was in there. Gave me a fright..."
And Will thought he could understand that, because sometimes when his mama sat at the kitchen table, and leafed through the pages of magazines, when she saw pictures of castles in Scotland or of the beaches shining, like they were painted around the edge of the sea, somewhere in Australia,he saw something in her eyes that scared him. And he figured that is what it means to grow up... to have those regrets in the back of your eyes, so when you speak straight to a person, there's a sadness tinging your words.
On the day that Will decided to ride through the Rough, he stopped with his bicycle wheel balanced on the very edge of the sidewalk. He sort of rocked it back and forth there, gathering his courage, wondering where exactly a trail through there might lead.
He knew that one entrance led past an old and gnarled rosebush in the back of Mr Roessenbach's yard. Mr Roessenbach's wife had cooked Will apple-rhubarb pies when he was younger. It was their front yard that had the mulberry tree where the dead caterpillars would pile up on Sunday afternoons. Mrs Roessenbach had thought that gathering the caterpillars was a filthy habit, but she made him the pies anyway, until she died of the cancer.
Another entrance, Will knew, surfaced out of a lilac thicket along the side of the school. It was a dark little hole, and the younger kids would sometimes use it for hide and seek... but they never stayed there for long, the spiderwebs and the rustling would scare them out, and they'd make a break for Home. They'd always get caught, too. It was under the window where Will learned Algebra, where Miss Thompson smacked her ruler against her thigh so hard that bruises must have grown there like little black flowers.
From inside that classroom, when the smell of pencil shavings from the old metal pencil sharpener hung in the air, you could sometimes see the sky peeking out from over the lilac bushes. You could daydream about the way pilots crossed that blue with a daredevil look in their eyes, or you could wonder what shade of light blue Mrs Roessenbach's wings were when she flew to Heaven, trying to dodge the contrails and the jet engines on that long climb.
Will sat at the edge of the Rough on his bike, rocking back and forth on the tires, and wondered which trail he'd come out at.
When he started out, it was easy; the Rough didn't dip and swerve much until a few more yards in. But it was hot, and flies buzzed, and it seemed to him that everything fell silent. In his head a crazy little sports announcer started up, like it did when he played pick up basketball on the church court in the summer.
"And Will there's got the trail, he's heading down--what STYLE, ladies and gentlemen! Look at the handlebars twist in his hands... Yessir, it's going to be a fantastic Rough today...!"
But soon even that faded away into static, as Will headed in. It was very quiet. The sound of the tires munching the dry grass, the squeak and the pop of the bike, and his grunts in the sun... they did their noisy duty in a muffled way.
Will almost ran the girl over before he saw her.
She was sitting at the bottom of the first gully, out of sight of the road. Her hair was a mousy brown, and she wore it tomboy fashion, pulled back in a ponytail that was ragged and dusty. Her eyes were a brownish hazel like the grass they both stood in, surprised. And she looked of an age to begin to eye boys Will's age, and think they were too young for her. She was sitting half-cradled in a mattock of grass that framed her, and she looked startled when the bike dropped down over the edge almost onto her.
"Oh, hi," Will said, in that offhand, I-go-biking-through-the-Rough-every-day-because-I-am-an-invincible-preteen sort of way.
"Hello," she said, and ducked her eyes.
Will figured he had made an impression. "Uh, what's your name?" he said casually.
"Angela," she said, looking at him. Her bangs fell over her eyes and her tanned forehead, and Will was POSITIVE that he'd have seen her before in St. Gabriel's Parochial School if she lived here.
"You from around here?" he asked, trying to seem nonchalant.
"No, I'm visiting with my dad, he lives over by Elkwood. I'm just here for the summer."
That explained it all in Will's mind.
Being a normal boy meeting a strange girl in the wilderness at the start of the summer, on an afternoon when the sun seemed heavy as a rock, he started to daydream about maybe this being The One. The One, you know, the summer romance that introduces you to the world beyond the schoolyard. The One, with the first blushes and the tentative holding of hands. The mushy stuff that George (who was a dope) still whined about, but which the rest of the guys had started to secretly sort of be interested in. And he remembered what Grandpa had said: "it's about growing up" in that gruff old voice (before the stroke). And Will thought that maybe he drew the lucky card this time.
Do you remember growing up? The exact instant? The moment when you looked around at the world and realized that it wasnt the places you saw and the things you breathed in the air around you? Well, Will started to think that maybe, in a dim sort of way, he could understand that moment, and that it might be coming down on him. And it was a little scary.
But not enough.
Angela was still watching him, and he didnt know what to say. He got off his bike, let it fall in the dusty grass. It blinked and winked and spattered sunlight all over (he tried to keep it looking nice). And Angela said, while he was nudging it out of the way, "I've got something to show you. Do you come here often?"
And he didn't dare say, "Are you NUTS? Nobody comes here often, the kids say it's haunted and the grownups say it'll give you tetanus and the old folks talk in riddles about it!"
So he just said, "No, I was just taking a shortcut," which may be the best way of describing growing up anyway. He said, "I was just taking a shortcut through the Rough instead of staying on the sidewalk like my..." and clapped his mouth shut.
--like my mother says to do-- but she got it and was nice enough not to say a word, and he let it slide and they just understood each other, bound by the common tyranny of parents.
"I know," she said, "my dad didnt want me to come here either." She got a twinkle in her eye. "So soon as he let me out of the house after I unpacked my stuff, I ran right for it!"
Will laughed, and stopped feeling like she was the ghost of a murdered girl whose body had been found here forty years ago (like the eleventh graders once tricked Georgie into believing), and he stopped thinking that she was the half-human servant of a dread spider beast that lived in the thicket and lured young boys into a cobwebby doom. In fact, he stopped thinking about her being more than just a girl who had snuck out of the house (past the screen door and her dad who was watching the football game on TV, even with the flies who buzzed in through the holes in the screen... down along the creaky half painted proch that striped and streaked blue where the white peeled off, and away from the yard that her dad had said she ought to mow, she was such a boyish girl, she could make a few bucks that way this summer...). Just a girl who snuck out of the house. And thinking that anyone you meet is just another person, well... thats another part of growing up, isnt it? Just coincidence that they met when they were both taking their shortcuts through the Rough.
"Anyway," she said, "anyway. I wanted to see if you'd ever seen this spot over here." And they walked together towards it, Angela leading the way. "My dad told me I'd get tetanus here or something, that there was rusty metal and nails and broken glass all over," she said as they walked, pushing past the thick hanging branches that covered another gully.
"Yeah, my dad said the same thing," Will said self-consciously.
"My dad also told me that the quote hoodlums from the bad part of town unquote hung around here and tried to get the girls to come down into the gullies."
Will had had less experience with that sort of threat, so he didnt say anything. He might even be considered one of said hoodlums, he supposed. Angela supposed too, since she was trying to get him to go into this gully.
And once they were inside it, their arms scratched up and welted, and probably coated with poison ivy (and wouldnt they catch hell...), well, it wasn't what Will had expected. A little brook ran down the middle of the gully, water as pure and clean as an apple near dawn eaten in the shade of a barn, water as gentle as the smell of clothes when they comeout of a dryer, and little plants bowed over it like they were praying, and flowers grew like a paint can spattered on the grass.
And Will figured that there wasnt any way this was in the Rough. It sort of slipped out from him.
"This can't be here," he said.
Angela stopped suddenly, and looked at him sharp. "What do you mean?"
"This can be here. Its a... um... it's apples and crap in the dawn and it's stupid Downy fabric softener... it's not real." He couldn't figure out how to say it, you see. And not knowing how to express something very simple, well... thats part of growing up, isn't it? So he kicked the perfect little blossoms that crept along the grass and mushed down the grasses that arched perfect and green over the water, because boys kick things that they don't quite understand.
And Angela smiled. "I bet you're right," she said. "And that's why I wanted you to see it."
"What do you mean?"
Angela said, "I mean that there couldn't be a place like this in the Rough, or else everyone would know about it and they'd make it a park or something."
And Will sort of got distracted by the second part of it, and lost track of what was really getting said, so he missed one more chance to go back.
They sat down beside the little brook, and tossed ripped up grass into the water and watched it eddy and bob.
"So, tell me about yourself," Will said finally. He had heard that being a good listener was the key to making girls fall for you.
Angela kept her head down, looking at the grass. Sun made her brown hair turn golden when it hit at the right angle. "I dunno," she said. "My dad is here because he lost his job, he couldn't keep it together after my mom died."
"I'm sorry," he said automatically. Will didn't know how to deal with death, really. Mrs Roessenbach had mostly been a rhubarb-apple pie to him, after all, and grandpa wasn't dead yet, really.
Angela shook her head. "No, it's OK," she said. "I'm over it. It was dumb anyway."
Will figured he better not pry.
Angela tossed a clump of dirt into the water, and it swirled and stained it dark. "You figure that when we all grow up, stuff gets easier?" Angela asked him suddenly.
"Yeah, like we stop worrying so much about the things that bug us, and we get worries about stupid stuff like paying the rent, or mortgages or something. Like worrying about mothers dying, or about the dog running away, or some crap like that... do ya think it gets easier to do?"
Will was going to say, I dunno, and get up, and make some comment about how he needed to get back to his bike but it was very nice to talk to you and maybe they'd see each other again sometime, because Angela was starting to creep him out, and he figured creepy girls were not the right sort to take into gullies, even if they were cute.
But Angela stood up first, and she said, "You know, you're right, none of this can be here." And she kicked the dirt into the water even faster, like she was trying to fill it in. She started to cry, and to yell, and say, "And if I don't want to move to this stupid town, and if I don't want to just be stuck in these stupid suburbs and I don't want to just marry a nice football star at the high school?"
Will didn't quite know what to make of that, so he sort of backed away, and quietly clambered up out of the gully, and looked back at her from up there. Angela was sitting again, by the bank, head down in her arms, crying some. He figured that he ought to go say something chivalrous-like, but he didnt know what to say. He realized that there really aren't supposed to be places like the brook in the middle of the Rough, because otherwise they might make people like Angela cry because they were hidden, and people might keep those places secret, because they didn't want to spoil them, and people might make up stories about the ugly places that surround the pretty places, stories about homeless men with one eye that live under abandoned cars and eat babies, when really, inside the abandoned car was probably where Doris Isaacs lost her virginity (like he had overheard her whispering to her friends in study hall last fall, not that she thought Will was human, of course).
So Will didn't say a damn thing.
Instead, he walked back to his bike.
Angela stayed in the thicket, and the further he got away from her, and the further his thoughts got from her, the more the sound seemed to come back into the air. And he got on his bike, and he came out the same trail he came in on. And that of course, is the way that people usually grow up too, going out the same way they came in.
And he went home.
Mom had grandpa out on the porch again. She said that he liked to feel the sun. Will figured it was stupid, since who could tell what Grandpa liked anymore. But he still said hello to him every time he walked by. He figured that if there still was a grandpa stuck inside that place, in that chair, with that lemonade maybe trembling in imagination just outside the reach of his fingers, that probably hello was the polite thing to say.
Then Will went inside. His mother was sitting at the kitchen table, reading her magazines again. When Will plopped down in the chair opposite her, she looked up, and a tired smile creased across her face.
"Mom," Will asked, "you know the Rough?"
She frowned. "Now, William, how many times have I told you not to go in there. You can catch tetanus from that rusty metal..."
"No, mom, I mean, have you ever been in it."
A different sort of expression came over her face. "Well, now. I've lived in this town for thirty or more years. If you promise not to go in there, maybe I'll admit to it." And she got a tiny grin on her face.
And Will said, "A very strange thing happened to me in there today, I was taking a shortcut, and I had my head full of the stories grandpa told me, and..."
His mom shook her head, laughing. "I remember the stories he told me when I was a girl. He was sure that the woods were full of biker gangs ready to rape... er, to take advantage of me."
And Will just looked at her, till she ducked her head.
"This is a really neat article, Will," she said finally. "Its all about the Barrier Reef, and how wonderful the beaches are there. Wouldn't it be nice if we could go there someday?"
Will said, "Yeah, sure, it'd be great," and got up from the table. His mom had a misty look in her eyes now, and it sort of made Will's skin crawl.
She said, "I remember when my mother died, and we moved here. She had always filled my head with stories about travelling around the world. Worst thing, she told me, not too long before she died... don't get stuck in one place, Angela, she said. Don't settle for something small and crude, don't just marry the hig hschool basketball star. She said that she had done that, and look what it had gotten her."
Will just stood there listening.
His mom looked up at him, and said, "I don't want you going into the Rough, you hear me, young man? You could run into some ugly stuff down there."
Will said, "I know, mom," and went upstairs.
And he grew up that night, when he lay in bed as the owls hooted the night away in their strange parties. And he heard his mother cry, and he wondered how exactly his grandmama had died, and he wondered why it was that his father never understood his ma. He wondered why he couldn't have had the common decency that afternoon, to give someone named Angela a hug when the clean water and the pure skies and the quiet moments slipped out of her life.
He wondered which Angela needed the hug more.
He wondered what this urge was of his to grow silk to drape across the broad and waxy leaves of the mulberry tree in the Roessenbach yard, and why he kept trying every week, even when all the caterpillars he could gather were always crushed before he could get them home to safety.
And he decided to stop trying, with regret.
Those were the ghosts that came to him that night... the regrets, you see. Not the spooky guys that rattle chains and make oooo noises at all hours. Not the sort that suck red blood.
Next day when he went to the Rough, the brook was muddy and there was a mess of scrap iron in it. He figured that the pretty places tend to do that to you.
Except maybe in the magazines.