Racism is still with us. But it is up to us to prepare our children
for what they have to meet, and, hopefully, we shall overcome.
– Rosa Parks
©2018 L. E. Gay. All rights reserved. ISBN 978-1-387-81904-1
August 16, 1980
The campfire was by no means impressive. Amid the faint, blue glow of the moon’s waxing crescent, the boys’ faces scarcely stood out in the flickering light of their feeble flame. As the warm winds of late summer toyed with the embers glowing at their feet, elder pine trees stretched into the stars far above their heads, swaying with the promise of a gathering storm. The boys tried to keep their volume near a whisper when they remembered, which was rarely. Their voices carried easily through the thicket when the suspense or excitement of their ghostly tales proved too much to contain.
The click of a flashlight, illuminating four pairs of worn, dirty sneakers, earned a scolding. “Stop turning on the damned light, Sully. Quit being a puss. I’m trying to finish my story!”
Emily scowled at her older brother’s language. She sat in her usual spot, just outside the circle of boys around the fire, sheltered by the darkness, her face barely detectable. She didn’t mind being dragged along. She enjoyed the stories, although they frequently made it difficult for her to sleep at night, especially when Ronnie had the knife. Ronnie told the best tales, at least Emily thought so. Pushing her stringy, red hair back over her ear, she wrapped her arms around her scrawny knees and leaned in, listening.
“And with warm blood still dripping from his fangs, the creature revealed its true form to the terrified townsfolk… Mandog! Half man, half hound of hell,” finished Jeff with a quivering voice meant to strike fear into the hearts of his companions.
“Pssh. That wasn’t even scary. I saw my grandma in her cold cream once, and she gave me a bigger fright than that load of crap.”
“Shut up, Band-Aid!” Jeff shouted, before remembering to keep quiet. “You can’t do any better. Ronnie’s been besting you for weeks. Remember that night you wasted half an hour telling us that damned story about the Zombie Frogs of Booger Swamp. Lame!”
Emily scowled again and shoved her brother hard in the shoulder.
“Alright, alright,” Jeff mocked. “I’ll watch my mouth. Wouldn’t want you running home to tell Dad.” Jeff teased his little sister in front of the other boys, but he knew she would never really tell. Over the last two months, they snuck out of the house half a dozen times to meet the group at the clearing and tell ghost stories in the dark. If she hadn’t squealed by now, there was no way she would rat him out for an occasional swear word.
“Okay, my turn,” said Sully, stretching out his palm.
“No way!” snapped Jeff, tightening his grip on the knife. “Clicking the flashlight earns punishment. You have to go last.”
“That’s not a rule,” chimed Ronnie, screwing his face in confusion. “That’s never been a rule.”
“Well, I’m making it a rule,” Jeff replied curtly, cutting his eyes at Ronnie with a scowl. Huskiest of all the boys, Jeff often used his size and brawn to intimidate others. He was the type of boy coaches would start recruiting for the football team when summer was over. Though not as tall as Band-Aid, Jeff packed some meat on his bones. He was not fat by most standards, but bulky enough to be called so by one of the Mayfield twins. A hard fist to the mouth shut the boy up, slicing his top lip all the way through in the process. The scar made it easy to tell the twins apart after that, and no one at school dared pick on Jeff since. “Besides, I have the knife,” Jeff went on. “That makes me story master. I choose who goes next, and since Band-Aid thinks Mandog was so stupid, I want to hear him try and top it.”
Holding the knife by the blade, Jeff bobbed it in the air until Nate “Band-Aid” Bradley stretched out his hand. He smacked the handle into Band-Aid’s open palm with such force, the skinny boy winced and recoiled.
“But I’ve got a good one,” insisted Sully, while Band-Aid rubbed his palm and glared at Jeff. “I’ve been working on it all week.”
“It’s not another tale about old man Morrisey, is it? Everybody knows those stories already.”
“Not everybody,” Ronnie spoke up. “I like those stories. I heard a lot of them are true.”
Jeff rolled his eyes. “I’ve told you before, they’re just rumors. The old man is creepy, so people make up stories about him. They aren’t real.”
“Some of them are,” Sully said, clicking his flashlight on again. “I overheard my mom and dad talking about him.”
“Just because your folks say it, don’t make it so,” protested Jeff, but Sully already had the group’s attention.
“They said strange things go on over at his place. Nobody knows what he keeps in those sheds out behind his house, but I heard Richie Stevens’ older brother peeked in one once, and it was stacked with dead bodies from floor to ceiling. He said they were all wrapped up in white cloth like mummies or something.”
Emily shuddered. She heard plenty of rumors about old man Morrisey, but never one involving corpses stacked in a shed. Quietly, she inched closer to the group, tucking herself in beside her brother.
“I’ve spotted him walking through the woods a couple of times,” added Band-Aid. “He’s always got a shovel slung over one shoulder. I heard he kills and buries anything he finds on his land… rabbits, cats, dogs, even children. People say he killed his wife years ago and buried her somewhere behind his house.”
Sully swallowed hard, wide-eyed in the beam of his flashlight. “I heard that too. They say kids have disappeared…”
“Shows what you losers know,” interrupted Jeff, scoffing. “If he kills trespassing kids, how come we’re still alive? We’ve been meeting right here on his land for two months now.” Stabbing a finger at the ground beside their fading fire, Jeff panned the group, watching for reactions. The younger boys held their breath, trading looks of suspended terror, as if the principal just asked them all who broke the window in the boy’s bathroom. Jeff let the idea linger until the boys began to squirm, then cackled out loud. “Ha! You guys are stupid!” he laughed. “Old man Morrisey’s land starts a quarter mile north of here, on the other side of the old fence line. Ha ha! That was the best story yet. I should get to keep the knife just for that one.”
Ronnie breathed a heavy sigh of relief with the rest of the boys and stole a quick look at Emily to make certain she was okay. Deciding she was, he quickly cut his eyes back to the fire. “You had me going on that one,” he said, with a tremor in his tone, fearing Jeff may have caught him making eyes at his sister. “I could almost feel old man Morrisey swinging that shovel at the back of my neck.”
“Me too,” said Sully, rubbing the soft flesh at the base of his scalp and monitoring his friend closely. He saw the look Ronnie exchanged with Emily and read his apprehension. Sully imagined Ronnie had every reason to be nervous. He knew what would happen if Jeff caught a boy ogling his sister, especially a black boy like Ronnie.
“Alright, alright. That’s enough stalling. Douse the light, Sully,” said Band-Aid, noting the rumble of thunder in the distance. Clearing his throat he lifted the blade as the flashlight went dark once again. “Everyone quiet, as I tell you about the Courier of Souls.”
As if on cue, a train whistle sounded faintly over the pines as Band-Aid began the tale of a lonely man, waiting on a platform for a tall black engine puffing smoke over a crimson passenger train. The boys listened intently as the train rattled along the tracks in the distance, its whistle growing louder as it drew near. The clacking of box cars added a flair of suspense to Band-Aid’s story, but did not alarm the group. The tracks ran just a quarter mile south of the clearing where they held their clandestine gatherings each week. Trains passed regularly, generally each time they met. In truth, it was the sound of a freight train at their last meeting that gave Band-Aid the idea for the story.
“As the other passengers’ behavior grew strange, the man got nervous, stood up and called to the porter,” Band-Aid said, keeping his voice hushed. “‘I want off,’ he cried. ‘Stop the train!’
“The porter just smiled. ‘My good man,’ he said. ‘This train cannot stop until it reaches its destination.’
“‘But what if there is an emergency?’ asked the man. ‘Someone could die.’
“The porter tilted his head in confusion. ‘But sir, don’t you understand? Everyone on this train is already dead… everyone. This train is bound for the afterlife, sir. It does not stop until we arrive.’”
Band-Aid took pride in weaving his tale slowly, building suspense and watching the group fidget, their eyes wide and curious. Gauging their fear by how tightly they hugged their knees and how vigorously they rocked back and forth, Band-Aid crept up close and waved the knife dramatically over the fire as he spoke. Just as he was coming to the story’s climax, the first drops of rain began to fall. A gust of wind stoked the glowing embers of the campfire, scattering sparks into the night air like fairies taking wing. When the wind died, so did the flame. Disheartened, Band-Aid quickened his pace to finish the tale, cursing the weather in his mind. “As the man crumpled his hat in his hands and reflected on the deeds of his life, he asked the porter, ‘Will it be much longer until we get there? I am anxious to see what heaven looks like.’
“The porter tipped his hat and punched the man’s ticket. The thump of the puncher echoed through the car like thunder as the train’s lonesome whistle bellowed over the night. ‘Heaven?’ the porter asked, with a devilish grin. ‘What makes you think you’re bound for heaven?’
“The man lowered the fogged window next to him and saw the flames of hell rising in the distance as the porter laughed louder and louder.”
One by one, Band-Aid’s tale-spinning brethren began to grin while rain raced steadily down their cheeks.
“That was a good one. Definitely better than mine,” confessed Sully.
“Yeah, I saw the ending coming,” said Ronnie, “But you told it really good.”
“It was supposed to be longer. I could’ve done the ending better if it wasn’t for the stupid rain,” Band-Aid claimed, as they all rose and kicked dirt on the struggling embers.
“We didn’t get to finish,” said Ronnie, barely visible in the moon’s dim glow until Sully clicked his flashlight again. “How do we decide who keeps the knife this week?”
“Band-Aid keeps it,” said Jeff. “He was the last story master before the rain kicked in. Besides I think we can all agree his story was better than mine. Good job, Band-Aid.” The group agreed as more flashlights sparked to life.
Donning his backpack and retrieving his bicycle from a nearby tree, Ronnie complained. “But I had a good one,” he said, staring at the sky with disappointment as a distant thunderbolt silhouetted the treetops.
“Well don’t cry about it,” Jeff snapped, as Emily shot a nervous glare at Ronnie. “Just save it for next week.”
Ronnie returned Emily’s gaze, suddenly unconcerned whether Jeff noticed or not. “It’s okay. My story will be better next time, anyway. There’s going to be a supermoon next weekend. They say it’s supposed to be bigger and brighter than ever.”
“I smell a werewolf story,” laughed Band-Aid, tucking the knife into his backpack and toeing the kickstand on his bike. Shifting his weight onto the front pedal, he spun his tire through the dirt and headed south through the woods, toward the railroad tracks. “See ya’ next time, suckers!” he called as he disappeared into the blackness, howling like a wolf as he went.
Sully and Ronnie shook their heads in unison as Emily mounted the pegs of Jeff’s bike and wrapped her arms around her brother’s waist.
“You ladies gonna get out of the rain or just stand there and make kissy faces at each other?” Jeff asked, laughing and turning his bike toward home.
“I’m gonna get that knife back next week, Jeffrey!” Ronnie taunted. “Just you wait and see! I’m gonna have the scariest story ever!” he called over the night as the group dispersed.
From his hidden position among the cluster of young pines, the old man covered his head with the hood of his dark raincoat and watched the last embers of the campfire succumb to the warm summer rain. Savoring a final drag from his cigarette, he crushed the butt into the damp pine straw beneath his boot, lifted his shovel onto his shoulder, and started up the hill toward the old fence line. His rugged face grimaced as his aged knees struggled against the slope of the ground, but he soldiered on, trying to recount the details of the story in his mind. “Heaven?” he mumbled. “What makes you think you’re bound for heaven?”