The Trestle

 

The Trestle

Haunted iron and wood.

The November moon washed the leafless trees with blue silver. The air was cold and damp, chilled by the black rushing waters of the Lehigh river. Frosty plumes flowed from Dave’s mouth with each phrase, like wispy ghosts carrying his words into the autumn night air. He smiled that smile that I knew so well. Though we were both 13 at the time, Dave was about an inch shorter than I, with dark wavy hair of medium length. His blue eyes blazed with pale fire in the moonlight. He was a tough and scrappy kid, with some boxing training that gave him quick hands and a powerful jab. I knew not to get on his bad side, which, luckily, was quite difficult to do, since his demeanor was rarely aggressive or angry.  He was a curious person by nature, with a peculiar habit of complimenting you while at the same time gathering information that he could use for his own benefit, a sort of cheerful inquisition through friendly bonding and universal truth. It was that quest for answers that led us to this particular place on this particular night.

“All right. We wait until 10:30. Then we go out to the middle. That’s where stuff’s supposed to happen.” said Dave, waving his kerosene lantern toward the old railroad trestle before us.

I had known Dave since first grade.  He was a middle brother, sandwiched between older and younger siblings, and mostly ignored by his parents.  He spent a substantial amount of time at my house, often into the later hours of the evening, with seemingly little concern from his family.  His company was always appreciated and his inquisitive nature always refreshing.  I often felt particularly privileged to count Dave as a friend of mine.

I stared at the hulking iron bridge known as the West Catty trestle. Its frame had rusted to a dark purplish-brown from decades of sun and rain. Big round rivets, as large as our fists, still held all the trusses and plates together. The rails had been removed, leaving silvery wooden railroad ties from one end to another. There were large gaps where some of the ties had fallen off into the river fifty feet below. Dave and I had crossed that old bridge many times during the day. We knew how to walk toe-to-heel, arms out for balance, along the frame where the ties were missing. We had mastered the “West Catty Wallenda” despite our parents’ warnings to stay off the old relic. But this was different. This was at night when the spirits of the wreck of ’39 were said to walk the bridge in search of souls.

“The accident happened after 10:30, so that’s the best time to go out and see the ghosts.” Said Dave. He blew hot air into his fist for warmth.

My grandfather had told me the story of the great wreck. It was back in 1939, just before the war. A few steam engines were still in service along the route from Allentown to Scranton. Those tracks paralleled the Lehigh river on both sides for hundreds of miles. The trestle provided opportunity for trains to switch from the southbound side to the northbound side and vice versa. The problem was that it could only accommodate one train at a time. The switch masters had to stay vigilant so as not to send two trains across the bridge simultaneously. Of course, that’s exactly what happened on a cold moonlit night in 1939. The night before Thanksgiving.

America was still reeling from the depression and bands of vagabonds rode the rails in search of employment and adventure. Several had found the switch man earlier that afternoon, then alert at his post, and bartered their homemade gin for his lunch. The switchman gladly obliged when presented with the more unsavory alternative of a beating. Shaken, but not deterred, the switchman remained at his post after the rowdy bunch left. To calm his nerves, he drank some of the gin, but alas he underestimated the strength of the spirit and passed out at his post around ten o’clock that night.

The two trains collided just after 10:30, leaving five dead and seven injured. The switchman was arrested for negligence. A week later, after being released on bail, he committed suicide by leaping from the trestle to his death in the river below. His body was never recovered. The legend says that on the anniversary of the crash, the spirits of the dead can be seen on the bridge, waving large black railroad lanterns, pacing back and forth in search of souls. The legend also recounts a more malevolent spirit, that of the Conductor, who walks the trestle in search of the switchman in order to exact some manner of revenge. It has been said that an encounter with the Conductor by any living person is deadly, with several accounts of brave adventurers never returning from a late night pilgrimage on the anniversary of that fateful night.

My grandfather warned us years ago to stay away from the trestle, even during the day. He said that all the death and sorrow had poisoned the iron and nothing good could ever happen near the bridge. Several years later I realized that it was just a story to keep kids away from a deteriorating and dangerous old structure.

So now I stood here with Dave, shivering on a cold November night, gathering my nerve to walk out onto that bridge and put an end to an old ghost story and prove to my friend that this whole thing was a lot of nonsense.

“What time is it?” I said.

“Ten twenty-five.” said Dave.

“Well, let’s do this, then, so you’ll finally understand that this is all a bunch of crap.” I raised my lantern and led my friend out onto the trestle.

The roar of the river forced us to raise our voices a bit as we stepped carefully across the old railroad ties. One of them shifted beneath my tread, throwing me off balance for a moment.

“Watch that one!” I shouted, and pointed to the loose tie.

Dave nodded and stepped around. I did this several times, to keep Dave from tripping. We proceeded slowly, carefully calculating each step before committing our full weight. The roar of the river grew louder as we neared the midpoint. A large gap in the ties was before us, revealing two thin iron rails, running parallel about six feet apart, for about five yards. I looked at Dave. He smiled.

“After you!” He said, swinging his lantern over the chasm. I stared down into the gap. The river looked like a great black serpent in the moonlight. It hissed below us, angry that we were just out of reach. Slowly, I began the high-rail act. One foot, then the next. I kept my arms out for balance, wobbled twice, but finally made it across the chasm.

“C’mon Dave!” I said.

Dave stepped gingerly out onto the narrow rail. He held his arms out and inched forward.

“I got this.” Dave said, concentrating. He was halfway across when I heard a distant sound, like a bell clanging. I checked my watch. 10:30 on the nose. The trestle began to vibrate. It started low, but quickly intensified. Dave looked up and lost his balance. He dropped the lantern which shattered upon the rail, spilling fire across the iron between us. He fell to his knees and grabbed the thin rusty rail with both hands. I reached out across the gap, but the fire had flared higher, creating a gold and orange barrier. I could see Dave’s face between the flames, a mask of panic and confusion, distorted by the heat.

“Hang on! Stay down low and inch back away from the fire!” I shouted, motioning Dave backwards.  A strange sound rose in the cold night air. I lifted my head and heard a steam engine, chugging above the din of the river. It seemed to come from behind us, growing louder with each second. And then I heard another engine, approaching from the opposite direction. Dave and I looked all around, but could see nothing.

“Holy crap!” shouted Dave.

A phantom steam whistle shrieked and echoed from the river banks. The trestle began to heave and moan. I heard what sounded like metal bend and buckle as if under some immense strain followed by a cacophonous thunder of iron colliding with iron. The bridge shook and knocked me to my knees onto the wooden railroad ties.

I looked up and saw Dave nearly shaken from the rail upon which he now clung. He fell, but caught the iron beneath his armpits. He wrapped his arms tight to his chest, while his legs dangled and flailed high above the dark rushing river.

“Hold on!” I shouted but I doubted he could hear me over the sound. The bridge shuddered and shook and I felt air rush past, as if large objects were careening close to me. Several loose railroad ties dropped into the river. I instinctively covered my head and ducked down, crouching for safety atop the vibrating timbers.

The sound reached an unbearable crescendo and then stopped with one last metallic groan and a release of steam. I looked up and saw Dave, heaving himself back up onto the rail. The fire had been blown out by the wind, allowing him to crawl to safety next to me on the wooden railroad ties. He exhaled and rolled over on his back.

“What the hell was that?” Dave said, exhausted. “And don’t tell me it was an earthquake!”

Before I could answer, a low moaning sound filled the air around us. I looked up and squinted to focus down the length of the trestle. The moans transitioned to sobs and I began to make our dark forms strewn about in various places along the bridge. They looked like bodies, some on the timbers and some suspended in mid air, a few feet from the railroad ties. They appeared to be intermittently solid and vaporous, vacillating between form and formless.

“Holy crap.” I whispered. “This is not happening!”

I looked at Dave and his blue eyes were wide, his mouth agape. Suddenly, he gasped and pointed at something behind me. I turned and recoiled in horror. A burley bearded man, dressed in coveralls, was reaching toward me. His face was covered in blood and his hands and arms black with soot. I noticed that his body had been severed just below the rib cage and his entrails spilled out behind him like a grotesque wedding train. He clawed at the air and turned his palm up, as if begging for something. His mouth opened and released a moan that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I tried to back away but couldn’t for I was at the edge of the railroad ties, with nowhere to go but down.

The moaning man began to drag himself toward me, his ribcage scraping across the wooden railroad ties.  Slowly, and with great effort, he pulled his half body toward me. I waved my lantern and yelled, hoping to change his course, but to no avail. His hand reached up and touched mine. I tried to pull back but was unable. In that moment, that brief touch, I felt the searing pain of his injuries followed by an infinite emptiness. I saw the life of a young railroad worker, his family, his mother and father, his children all whir by In a flash. I felt an uncontrollable scream well up inside me. I closed my eyes and screamed as loud and and as long as I have ever screamed in my life. I opened my eyes and the apparition swirled into black vapor and disappeared into the night breeze.

“Are you OK?” said Dave, clambering next to me.

We paused and looked around. The other apparitions had begun to move. One young man with a missing leg groaned an hopped toward us. Another one with a crushed head that drooped to one side staggered in our direction. David and I surveyed the situation for an escape but realized that we were trapped, caught between the mangled spirits and a deadly fifty-foot drop to the river. Dave reached down and pulled an old iron railroad spike from one of the timbers and readied it for a defensive launch. I did the same, preparing to fight off the creatures with whatever means available.

Just as the dead were drawing near, I noticed a light at the far end of the trestle. It was suspended about shoulder height and swayed back and forth as it moved toward us. Loud footfalls shook the railroad ties and the iron of the bridge frame groaned as if it were under the stress of something massive.

Dave and I stared, petrified. We could only make out a dark silhouette behind the light, but soon recognized the outline of a conductor swinging his railroad lantern. The other spirits which now surrounded us took notice as well. They stopped and turned their attention toward the approaching specter. As I stared, the creature howled a deep and mournful cry that reverberated through my body. The sound made my legs tremble.  Dave and I dropped our iron weapons to shield our ears from the horrible wail. We fell to our knees, hands over our ears, and cowered beneath the unearthly onslaught.

The other spirits whirled into black wisps of smoke and vanished into the air, as if scurrying away from some deadly predator. My heart raced and I realized that this must be the legendary Conductor. That very same mythical creature that my grandfather had warned me about. I knew we had to move quickly and with the other spirits gone, we were once again safe to traverse the bridge.

I grabbed Dave by his coat and pulled him along the trestle, back the way we had come. We practically ran across the open railing. We nearly lost our footing several times, but managing to safely reach the other side. I looked back over my shoulder and the Conductor was getting closer. I heard him growl like a beast from some dark region of hell what sounded like the word “switchman”. Dave ran ahead of me and we were nearly two-thirds of the way to the other bank of the river when suddenly the Conductor appeared directly in front of us, our exit from the trestle now blocked by the evil thing.

Dave tried to stop, but stumbled and slid right up to the feet of the phantom spirit. He cried out in horror as the Conductor grabbed him by the throat and lifted him from the ground with one hand. Dave swung his fists in a flurry of punches that passed right through the apparition. I ran forward and tackled Dave, driving him through the creature and breaking its deadly grip.

Dave tumbled forward and was able to get off the trestle. I, on the other hand, had captured the attention of the Conductor. He grabbed my neck and lifted me close to his face. In the lamplight I could see his burnt and blistered skin, charred red and black in spots and hanging in loose, peeling shards. He had the traditional conductor’s cap and round wire rimmed glasses. His eyes glowed blue and milky, with no pupils. With his head cocked to one side, he hissed the word “switchman” through broken teeth and carried me back toward the middle of the trestle.

The grip around my neck was like a cold steel vise. It chilled my soul like nothing I had ever felt and churned my stomach with icy fear.  I couldn’t breath much less scream. I flailed my arms and kicked my legs but all efforts passed right through the phantom being that carried me.

“Switchman!” The Conductor hissed again and stopped.

We had reached the middle of the trestle and he dangled me over the hole where the railroad ties had long since fallen away. I felt dizzy and the world began to fade as the creature’s hand closed tighter, choking the consciousness from me. I struggled one last time and twisted my head around in time to see Dave, just behind me. He reared back and hurled a railroad spike at the Conductor. The rusted iron tumbled end-over-end through the night air and struck the the evil entity squarely between the eyes. To my surprise, it stuck, jutting from his forehead, nearly half its length sunk deep into the skull of the Conductor!

I was immediately tossed backward onto the wooden planks next to Dave. The Conductor reeled, staggered and nearly fell from the trestle. I remembered some folklore about spirits and iron and thought how clever Dave had been. The Conductor paused for a moment and regained his balance.  He reached up and began to pull the spike from his head. I glanced at Dave who pointed to the other side of the bridge where another dark figure had appeared. It shuffled forward, dragging one badly mangled leg behind, but advanced quickly toward the Conductor who had just put down his lantern in order to get both hands on the offending iron spike.

The placement of the lantern revealed the identity the other figure. In that golden shaft of light I discerned a man about six feet tall, with blue coveralls, thick black boots and a long beard. He was soaked in water from head to toe and his skin, which had come loose from his bones in places, was pale white and hung in rubbery flaps, often revealing the bone beneath. I had seen bodies pulled from the river after weeks of exposure and I immediately recognized the same condition here. I stared into his eyes, which were black holes that seemed to absorb light. His mouth hung open in a silent moan.

Remembering the legend, I guessed that this was the Switchman who had thrown himself from the bridge in a fit of guilt. Dave and I exchanged glances and slowly backed up. In that moment, the Conductor wrenched the spike from his forehead and tossed it into the river. His blazing eyes found us again and he lurched toward us. He floated above the  wooden railroad ties, and covered the distance between in the blink of an eye.

Once again, both Dave and I were in his clutches, strangled without breath or voice. The Conductor laughed a laugh that sounded like gravel and steam wheezing through a haunted harmonica. His breath, a cold blast of decay, washed over us like a toxic tide. My eyes burned and I closed them for a second. When I opened them again, Dave was punching with all his might, delivering rabid-fire blows like a golden gloves champion.

Unfortunately, his fists again passed through empty air, leaving the apparition unfazed. What happened next is still unclear as I had begun to black out. I remember a terrible pain in my legs that pulled me back to consciousness. When I had regained my wits, I was on my knees a few feet from the Conductor. I blinked for moment, not comprehending what I saw. The Conductor appeared to be locked in the grasp of the Switchman!

As they lurched from side to side, I swear I heard the Conductor’s gravelly voice exclaim “You!”. In the next moment, the Switchman lurched and twisted, dragging the Conductor into the gap and down to the black river below. I expected a splash, but heard none. The Conductor’s lantern, which was still on the trestle, vanished in a swirl of black vapor.

I rubbed my eyes and looked over at Dave. He stared, slack jawed, at the spot where the struggle had just ended. We wasted no time getting off that trestle. I checked my watch and the time was 10:31.  Could all that just transpired have really taken only a minute?  It made absolutely no sense at all.  Perhaps we were caught in some time warp of repetition, a spiritual wrinkle in the space time continuum.

I was still shaking when I got home and Dave and I often conjecture about events of that night in November. Did this drama play out every anniversary of the great wreck of thirty-nine, or was this a one time thing? Did the Switchman save us to atone for his sins? I fear we will never know as we never set foot on that trestle, day or night, ever again. One thing is certain, the scars on our necks, particularly the handprints, are proof that what happened on the trestle that night was very, very real.  Needless to say, roast turkey, stuffing, Cope’s corn and cranberry sauce never tasted better than on that particular Thanksgiving.

—-This story is dedicated to the memory of David Bandle who left this world far too early.  Rest in peace dear friend.  West Catty 4ever.—

skulldugjerry

SkullDug Jerry

Road Work

Night Highway

If you would just stop and ask for directions…

The headlights of the blue BMW drilled into the night, illuminating the black tarmac that flowed like a river of madness through the Pennsylvania mountains.  A double yellow line split the road lengthwise from Tafton to Mountaintop – 26 miles of harrowing hairpin turns and wild camel humps –  a roller coaster ride through old-growth Pennsylvania forests.

Ken kept both hands firmly on the steering wheel – his eyes forward, scanning the shoulder of PA route 390, vigilant for suicidal deer hiding in the darkness between the trees who were more than eager to bound into the path of his speeding vehicle.

He toggled the high beams but they were no match for the darkness that sent it’s fingers through the trees, squeezing the road into a narrow blue tunnel through the woods.

Tanya stared out the passenger window.  She shook her head and tossed her bobbed black hair – releasing dim shimmers of blue in response to the cold dashboard illumination.

“You always do this.”  she sniped.

Ken adjusted his jaw from side to side.

“The traffic was stopped.

For twenty minutes.

I had to get off – I can’t just sit there like that.”

Tanya frowned.  “We’re lost.  You have no idea where we are, in a place that we have never been.”  She pulled her cell phone from her purse and sighed.  “AND we have no signal.  Of course – we have no signal.  We’re in the middle of NoSignalVania.”

Ken winced at every word.  Tanya’s shrill, nasal voice had evolved into a first class irritant as of late.  It was like a million sewing needles stabbing and gouging his eardrums with each sentence. He found himself drifting away during her monologues, staring off into space, dreaming of the days before marriage and wondering how he could have been duped into matrimony all those years ago.  How could he not have noticed that sputtering, insidious, acrid tongue?  A tongue that found him time and time again musing on just how to tear it out, to cease it’s wagging forever so that he might find peace. Instead, he soldiered on in silence, obedient to the stereotype of the henpecked husband.

“Why are they always doing construction in Pennsylvania.  Everywhere you turn, a lane is closed or an exit is under repair.  I hate this state.”  Tanya shook her head.

“We are not lost.  We’re just…temporarily confused.”

Tanya shook her head and scowled.  She glanced back at the road.  “Jesus!”  She braced her hands on the dashboard and dug her feet hard against the floor of the car.

Ken snapped his gaze back to the road in time to see a deer flash past the headlights.  He  jammed both feet onto the brake pedal as the car began to skid sideways.  Suddenly, another animal, this one thicker with dark gray and black streaks, sprang into the path of the sliding car.  It moved like a cat stalking prey, low to the ground and surprisingly agile for its bulk.

There was a moment that seemed an eternity.  It was filled with clenched teeth, white knuckles, squealing tires and the smell of burning rubber and hot brake shoes.  It swam slowly into focus and then WHAM!  The sickening thud of metal hitting flesh and the tinkle of shattered glass broke the spell.

The collision spun the car 90 degrees off the road and into a shallow swale on the right shoulder.  Thick ferns and mountain laurel cushioned the car to a shuddering stop.

“Oh my god.  Are you OK?”  Ken reached over and touched Tanya.

“I think I bit my lip.”  She dabbed her mouth and examined the bright red that coated her fingertips. “Yeah, I’m OK, I think.”

“What the hell did we hit?” Ken unbuckled his seatbelt.

“A deer.  I think I saw a deer.”

“No, we missed the deer.  Something came out of the woods after it.  Something bigger like a bear.”

Ken opened his door and circled around to the front of the car.  The grill was mangled and steam seeped from under the crumpled hood.  The right quarter panel was crushed and the right front tire was rotated at an impossible angle.  Thick black goo was smeared across the damaged areas.

“Shit, shit, shit.”  Ken kicked at the ferns.  “There goes my insurance.”  He turned and looked back down the road.  A dark mass lie motionless on the blacktop, partially blocking the right lane.

“I think you hit a bear.”  Tanya was standing next to him, dabbing her lip with a tissue. “Way to go Mario”.

“Just call Triple A.”  Ken began walking toward the shadowy shape.

Tanya fumbled for her cell phone. “Uh, can’t.  No signal.  Unbelievable.”

Ken slowed his steps as he neared the carcass.  A musty odor, somewhere between cat urine and vinegar, wafted through the night air.  Ken recognized more detail in the moonlight.  The entire creature was about five feet long and had four legs, the front ones longer than the hind and all four capped with five to six inch glossy black claws that looked as if hewn from obsidian.  It appeared to have a small amount of black fur on it’s back which was streaked with dark gray patches that mimicked forest shadows.  Overall, Ken thought it vaguely resembled some kind of deformed black bear mixed with a mountain lion.  The fur gave way to black velvety skin that concealed sinewy muscles throughout the body of the animal.  The shoulders were bulky and the head was elongated and wide, with an odd sloping forehead and two large eyes, shut tight into ten inch slits.  A twisted pair of foot long black horns jutted from just behind the creatures large pointed ears.  The most astonishing feature, however, was the nightmarish mouth of the beast.  It gaped slightly open, and was circled in a row of black teeth on the outside, and rows of similar fangs on the inside.  It was as if a shark’s mouth had been turned slightly inside out around the edges and painted gloss black.  A black forked tongue lolled from the open mouth, dripping with gooey dark saliva.

“What the hell IS that thing?”  Tanya had joined Ken.

“I have no idea.  Maybe a bear that was burned or something.  But it has horns, I think.

“Bears don’t have horns, moron.”  Tanya looked at her phone again.  “How the HELL are we going to get a tow truck.

“We’ll have to walk and get help”  Ken looked around at nothing but shadowy forest as far as the eye could see.

“I’ll bet that’s some kind of endangered animal.  I’ll bet this dumb-ass state is going to fine us on top of everything.”  Tanya started walking back toward the disabled BMW.  “And there’s no WE in this whole walking to find help thing.”

Ken shook his head.  “Seriously?  What the hell are are YOU going to do while I’m walking?”

Over his shoulder, a pair of headlights flickered their way through the winding darkness of the stoic trees, distant tires clinging to the blacktop, hissed through the curves like a mechanized serpent as the vehicle neared.

“Looks like someone just caught a lucky break.”  Tanya stood, hands on hips, a smirk writhing across her red lips.

Ken ran toward the approaching vehicle, arms waving.  Blinded by the headlights, he could make out the dark shape of a late model pick-up truck, slowing to a stop before the motionless body of the strange creature.

“Hey, hey!”  Ken waved his arms.  “We hit something and we need help.”

The driver opened the door and stepped out.  He walked past Ken in a flurry of flannel, scraggly beard and greasy hair, eyes fixed on the creature in the road, the scents of sweat, tobacco and body odor swirled about him in the night air.

“Hey, thanks for stopping, we…” Ken put his hand on the stranger’s shoulder.

The truck driver spun and pushed Ken away.  “Nacht Teufel!”  He hissed through broken teeth and began to back away toward his truck.

“What?”  Ken stumbled forward. “Hey, what the hell?  Where are you going?”

“Ein Junge Nacht Teufeufel!’, shouted the bearded stranger as he climbed back into his truck and gunned it in reverse.

“No, no, no!”  Ken sprinted after the truck as it sped away into the darkness.  He waved his arms and shouted until the tail lights disappeared into the night.  He hung his head and slowly turned back toward his wife.

“What the hell was that?”  Tanya raised her arms, palms toward the sky.  “Did he not speak English? Why didn’t you stop him?”

“I don’t get it.  How could he just leave us here?”  Ken shook his head.

“I’m going to take a nap in the car.  Good luck on your walk.”  Tanya turned and headed back to the car.

“Seriously?  You’re gonna sleep while I walk alone on this ridiculous road?  In the middle of the night?” Ken spread his ams wide in disbelief.

“Good luck.”  Tanya climbed into the back seat of the disabled BMW and slammed the door.

Ken stood motionless, mouth open.  And then he heard it.  Low at first, but growing slowly louder.  A low growl rattled from the carcass on the road behind him.  He turned around and his legs buckled.

The creature’s claws made a rasping sound as they scraped the blacktop.  The eyes were wide open, luminous and green, and as big as pie plates with no visible pupils – just two organic headlights glowing in the thick night.  Slowly, it struggled upright, tilted its  chin into the night air and began to howl.  It was low and mournful at first but built quickly to an ear shattering crescendo that echoed through the black forest.

Ken clamped his hands over his ears and gathered his legs beneath him.  Gingerly, to avoid drawing attention to himself, he began to step backwards toward the safety of his car.  After a few steps he turned and broke into a run – his shoes clacking on the hard surface of the road.

The creature howled again and Ken quickened his pace.  Behind him, he could hear claws scuffling on the blacktop as it tried to regain it’s senses. He reached the car, grabbed the door handle and yanked.  It was locked.  He pounded on the window.  Inside, Tanya shook her head and extended her middle finger.

“Unlock it!” he yelled.  Tanya extended both middle fingers and lounged back down on the back seat.

“C’mon!” Ken bellowed and beat his fists bloody on the window until he was out of breath.  He paused and looked past the car into the dark forest.  Everything had gone silent.  All the katydids and crickets and tree frogs were suddenly mute.   The night seemed somehow darker as the soft rustle of the grass and the wind in the leaves coaxed a pair of giant luminous green eyes from between the trees. Ken’s blood ran cold and he felt light headed.  Slowly, a second creature, identical to but about twice the size of the injured one behind him, emerged from the shadows directly across the road from his disabled beamer.  It moved with careful determination, barely making a sound in the forest night, confirming it’s status as an evolved nocturnal predator.

Ken dropped to his knees and hid behind the car.  His heart pounded in his temples and his hand rested on his thighs where he felt something solid.  He fumbled in his pocket and pulled his cell phone and 2 receipts free before finding his car keys.  Warily, he stood back up and peered over the car.  The creature was gone.  He turned and looked behind him.

The larger creature was now tending to the injured smaller one, nuzzling and grooming it’s wounds with a giant black forked tongue.  Short chirps and whimpers drifted through the dark air as mother creature cared for her child.

Ken fumbled with his keys and dropped them, tinkling into the thick ferns.  “Shit!”  He bent down and began to rummage his fingers through the thick foliage.  Suddenly, he felt warm air on his neck and that acrid smell from before.  Before he could turn, giant, powerful jaws clamped around his torso, and bore down with unbelievable force.  His head felt as if it would burst from the mounting pressure. He felt his ribs snap and the blinding burn of his flesh tearing beneath the black razor teeth of the beast.  He was lifted above the car, sideways, his head slightly lower than his legs, which he could no longer feel as the pressure continued to increase to impossible levels.  He felt gushes of warm blood running up his back and coursing along his neck and chin.  His head swam – the pain was blinding and mounted to a crescendo of cracking bones and rending flesh followed by swirling blackness as he lost consciousness.

And then Ken was hovering above the entire scene.  He could see his limp body in the creature’s massive jaws, like a rag doll, flopping as the creature began to thrash from side to side.  After a few flicks, his body split in two, blood and entrails spilling onto the tarmac. But Ken felt at peace.  There was no pain.  In fact, no feeling at all. He looked down upon the creatures as they milled around the disabled vehicle.  Far away, he could hear his wife’s shrill screams as the mother creature pried the car doors open with giant black claws.

A white light opened up above him, drenching the night in a glorious glow of salvation.  It washed his floating spirit in joy and redemption and mitigated all earthly sounds and images, beckoning his weary soul to eternal bliss.

A feeling of unprecedented warmth and contentment flooded through Ken’s being.  He grinned and dove headfirst into the light, delighted by the realization that he was finally free of his wife’s acrid tongue forever.

Night Eyes

Here kitty, kitty…

Jerry SkullDug

Thanks for digging the dark

 

 

 

 

Greetings from the Poconos

Beware the forests of Pennsylvania. They’re dark but they’re watching you. You can feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up on end because you know that something is waiting in the darkness between the trees. Watching and waiting for you to turn your back. Just for a moment…

Go ahead, turn around...

Go ahead, turn around…

Tales from the Boschard – Chapter 1 – The Mound


Tales from the Boschard Logo 
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I grew up in an area of northeastern Pennsylvania that was struggling from rural to suburban in the early 1970s.  New housing developments elbowed their sterile green lawns into seventeenth century farmland, upstarts shaking their fists at the old Pennsy Dutch hex signs and traditions.  In many ways, it was a culture clash, but it also provided an interesting fusion.  Much like turn of the century railroads, telegraph and automobiles invaded the old west – with Model-Ts chasing horses past swing-door saloons, modern times were hot on the heels of the stubborn Pennsylvania Dutch agrarian ideologies.
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These same ideologies had deep roots in Germanic storytelling.  Grimm’s fairytales, the original German ones, lived up to their author’s namesake for they often veered into dark waters.  Consider Ashenputtel (Cinderella) in which white doves peck the evil sisters’ eyes out at the conclusion.  And who can forget the adorable ending of Schneewittchen (Snow White) that finds the evil queen locked in a pair of red-hot iron shoes and dancing herself to death.  Fusing the dark, traditional tales with modern interpretations and mutations, I heard plenty of creepy stories, deviously attached to the real places and characters around me.  Compound that with my childhood home being legitimately haunted (just ask the rest of my family).  Perhaps that’s part of the reason I gravitate toward dark corners of the psyche with my content.  Or perhaps I’m just a bit twisted.
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Tales From The Boschard was born of that fusion – the name Boschard is a mash up of old and new.  The ‘bos’ from the Old German for a wooded area (Bosc) and the new English word, orchard, providing the ‘chard’ part.  I’ve tried to re-create that linguistic fusion in some of my characters as best I could as well – particularly for the old-timers who routinely lapsed from English to German to Pennsylvania Dutch, often in a single sentence.  Here’s a commonly used example of Pennsylvania Dutch  that my father asked me to decipher when I was a kid:
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Saville der dago
tousand buses inarow
nocho demis trux
summit cows and summit dux
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Here’s the translation:
Say Willie there they go
a thousand buses in a row.
No Joe, them is trucks,
some with cows and some with ducks.
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Many of these tales are haunted folklore passed down from family members and acquaintances and others are based on actual events.  I think that all of them will give you a glimpse into that place where my darkest dreams routinely came true – haunted, weird, northeastern Pennsylvania.
Hex signs

What The Hex?

Chapter 1 – The Mound
 
He had us corralled like sheep – trapped between the garage and a chain-link fence too high to scale.  His snow white hair, breeze-blown up in the back, completed the portrait of a mad white rooster.  He squinted at us through black, beady eyes, barely visible between the leathery creases of his withered face.  His skeleton right hand clutched a hefty cane – that bone-white instrument of retribution.  We had all seen him hurl that rod with frightening accuracy at cats, dogs and wicked children.  He clutched the polished weapon with hands covered in worn, yellow gardening gloves. It was strange, but we had never seen him without those gloves, even in summer.  His long sleeve shirt hung on his gaunt frame like rags on a scarecrow.  Even his work trousers seemed two sizes too large for his wiry legs.
 
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“Naah I got yous!” his gravelly voice rumbled.
 
Pappy Zanders had finally caught us.  Nearly a month of torment at the hands of three eleven-year-olds had come to an end, right here and now in the old devil’s yard on a sunny day in July.  Not that we didn’t deserve a show-down with our nemesis – we had surely earned his attention through apple thievery, tomato tossing and numerous other pranks that would likely have resulted in lawsuits in today’s world.  Perhaps it was the challenge that lured us to this moment – Pappy was old, but he was angry and very agile for man of his years.  The thrill of the chase and the ultimate satisfaction of eluding a mysterious old man was just too good to pass up.
 
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I glanced over at my accomplices, Steve and Ritchie – their eyes were as big as pie plates.  Steve’s lip trembled beneath his enormous nose.  Had I not been so scared, I would have chuckled at the sight of an eleven-year old boy with the face of Jimmy Durante, twitching and pale with terror.  In that distracted moment, however, Ritchie , the smallest but arguably the most daring of the three of us, decided to make a break for freedom.  He darted to the right of the old man, his spindly legs slipping on the dewy grass.  I watched with astonishment as Pappy wheeled around and brought his cane down across the shins of the floundering young boy who dropped to the grass, clutching his legs.
 
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“Get in the garage, naw yous hooligans!”  Pappy shook his cane and hissed through crooked yellow teeth. We pulled the groaning Ritchie to his feet and shuffled through the open door and into our purgatory – the garage of Pappy Zanders.
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My eyes took a moment to adjust to the dark interior.  The smell of auto tires and turpentine with a just a hint of Pine Sol bullied the air.  The tools were meticulously arranged – hung on pegboards in perfect symmetry. The boxes were neatly stacked and aligned with precision.  The floor, painted and buffed, seemed clean enough to eat from. There were glass jars of nuts, bolts, nails and other hardware tidbits, carefully arranged along the top of a massive wooden workbench with a giant iron vise anchoring the left hand corner.  To most, the immaculate workspace would have seemed shocking.  But to those familiar with the ways of Pennsylvania Dutch craftsmen, this garage was more the norm. Old Pappy Zanders was no exception.  His garage was a model of cleanliness and order – the pride of the Pennsylvania Dutch.
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“Sit daun!” he snapped and waved his cane toward a bench against the wall.
We complied and Pappy slowly approached, tapping the cane upon the shiny concrete floor.
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I saw a grin begin to twist it’s way across Pappy’s gnarled face and I stared up at him, my mind racing with images of a sadistic old man beating the consciousness out of my head and then burying me in the back yard – only to have my own father dig me up and rescue me so that he could beat me again for my indiscretions. I heard a  raspy chuckle wheeze it’s way through Pappy’s leathery throat.
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“So yous like my apples, huh?”  Pappy reached up and pulled a dark, dusty bottle from a high shelf.  “Me too.” he sniffed and pulled the cork from the top with hollow “plunk.”  “Bet yah never had apples like these!”  He handed the bottle to Ritchie.
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“Go ahead, have a swig – puts hair on your chest.”
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Ritchie took a sip and grimaced but managed to swallow a solid gulp.  He coughed and sputtered.
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“Ha!”  Pappy laughed and took the bottle back.  “Here, you try it!”, he said and handed the dusty bottle to me.
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I looked down the barrel at the silvery liquid and gave it a sniff.  It smelled good, like apple cider.  I put the bottle to my lips and took a mighty swig.  Instant fire raced down my throat and spread warm fingers through my stomach.  I felt my dinner begin to stir and try to come back up but I managed to cough and choke back the urge to vomit.
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Pappy chuckled again and yanked the bottle away. “Naw that’s good apple jack!” he hissed.  It was Steve’s turn.  Pappy pressed the bottle into his hands and bade him drink. Steve took a big, deep swallow.  He paused and looked up. His eyes began to tear, his face turned pale and his stomach began to heave.  He dropped to his knees and spewed a seemingly endless waterfall of chicken pot pie all over Pappy’s clean garage floor.
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“Naw you’re cleanin’ that up, yah hooftie!”  He snarled and tossed a shop towel to the wretching boy.  And then Pappy began to laugh.  He swung his can back and forth and laughed loud enough to echo through the rafters of the garage.
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I glanced at Ritchie who shrugged.
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“I remember ven I vas your age.  I used ta do the same dumb stuff as yous do.”  the old man mused. “I would hop on da trains and ride ’em all da way to Wilkes-Barre and my mom would give me such a beatin’ ven I got back!  Onced, I even stole da cow from Shitzy Emery’s barn.”
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He pulled a stool over and sat down.  He pointed a crooked finger at me.  “I know you, your Cheralt’s son from up the hill on first awenue.  I know your pop.”
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I nodded.
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‘Well naw.  Tell yous what.  Sit here for bit and listen to an old man’s story and maybe I’ll keep dis incident chust between us.  ‘stehen sie?
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We all nodded.
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“Vell then.  I’ve got a real good one for yous today.  You know that mound up the hill in the cemetery?”  He pointed his cane out the window toward the graveyard beyond the woods.  “Ever vonder vat’s inside that thing?”
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We nodded again, recalling the thirty foot hump of grass in the middle of the graveyard affectionately known as “the mound.”  It looked like a big sodden pimple in the middle of Fairview cemetery.  We had tugged on the chains that kept the massive gray slate doors of the crypt closed.  We’d even shouted down the vent in the top – calling to the dead that we presumed were listening and waiting patiently for someone to set them free so they could haunt the tombstones and neighboring woods.  We all imagined hideous things run amuck inside the mound after sundown.
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“Ahh, I see yous all know the mound real well.  Did cha know I was the caretaker when I vas younger?”
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We looked at each other.  Steve was still a bit pale, but he shook his head.  I nodded and spoke up.  “I think my dad may have mentioned it to me.”
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“Vell, what dit he tell ya?”
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“Not much, just that you worked up there when you were younger.”
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“Ha – I worked up there every summer until I vas twenty-two.  I used to clean that mound every other Saturday.  One Saturday, July 7th, I got locked in that place ower night.”
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Once again, old Pappy Zanders had us – but this time, we were happy prisoners of the old man’s story.  We leaned forward, eager to hear the secrets we had only been able to imagine.  Even Steve managed a grin through his vomit flecked lips.
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“It was summer, so I was up there later than usual.  I always kept the mound for last – I don’t know why.  Naw yous boys know that place is cursed, doan cha?”
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We looked at each other.
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“Well it is.  The West Catty Witch cursed that whole cemetary in the early twenties.  And the Delaware indians before dat.  Ever notice how cold it is up dere?  Always a good ten degrees lower than the rest of da woods around.  But that’s another story.”  He shifted in his seat, settling in for the long haul.
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“So it was gettin’ dark and I was chust finishin’ everything up for the evening.  I unlocked the padlock on them big chains and pulled doze heavy slate doors vide open.  Naw remember, there was no real lock on them doors, chust the chainz and padlock and I always brought dem inzide with me.”
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Steve cocked his head.  “How could you get locked in then?  And what’s it look like in there?  Are there coffins and stuff?  Can you see dead bodies?”
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Pappy’s eyes became slits and his nostrils flared.  He thumped his cane into Steve’s chest.
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“You gonna yap all through MY STORY?”  he snarled.
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Steve clutched his chest and recoiled, shaking his head. “No” he sulked.  “I was just curious…”
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Pappy interrupted, “That’s Okay.  Everybody wants tah know what it’s like in there, but I’ll get ta that in a minute, chust keep your shirt on, Gibby.” He pointed his cane at Steve who returned a nervous grin.
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Pappy took another swig from the bottle and exhaled.  “So, I remember takin’ them chains in with me that night too.  I put ’em on da bench chust inside the doors. But when day showed up to get me aut that night, they was on the outside, wrapped up und padlocked shut chust like I vould ah done.”
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Ritchie had recovered from his shin whippin’.  He leaned forward.  “So what happened in there?” he queried.
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Pappy’s face seemed to change before our eyes.  The ruddiness of his skin gave way to a more ashen tone and his eyes softened.  His voice changed as well.  It no longer carried the ferocity it had moments ago.  Even his shoulders seemed to slump forward as he rested his cane on the garage floor.
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“Yah sure yah vanna know?” whispered Pappy.
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We glanced at each other and nodded “yes” in unison.
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“Vell alright then.  I’ll tell yous the story.  Like I said before, I saved cleanin’ up the mound for last.  It was around sewen-thirty or so und the sky was getting that pink glow chust before the sunset.  I unlocked da doors and took them chains in an set ’em on a bench in the back.  Now it’s alvays dark in the mound ’cause there ain’t no lights, but with da doors open and the sunlight comin’ in, you can see pretty good in there.”
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Steve raised his hand.  “What’s it like in there, Mr. Zanders?”
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“It’s like nothing you ever seen.  There’s one big room in there with wooden drawers all round da sides.  The ceiling is made of big wooden arched trusses, all hand carved with the strangest stuff I ever seen.  Old pagan symbols from ancient times, indian words, stuff in languages I never recognized.  Looks like a bunch of weird totem poles them indians used to make.  In the middle was this brass bowl on a vooden stand and a five pointed star was painted on the floor – musta been five feet across – in dark red, like blood it looked.
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“Now them wooden drawers along the edges, that’s where the bodies are.  And the fronts of them is all carved up wit strange symbols and other words I couldn’t make no sense aut of.  I didn’t like to get too close to them anyways ’cause I know them bodies were right there.
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Pappy took another swig of apple jack and swallowed.  “Anyhow, I went over to the right side where I kept the broom and I headed to the back of the mound – I used to sveep it aut from the back to the front an chust sveep all the dust aut them doors.  But when I got to the back and before I could turn around, them doors slammed shut and I heard the chains bein’ wound around the handles.  Everything vent pitch black chust like that” Pappy snapped his fingers.  “The only light was chust that little sliver that leaks through the vent way at the top of da mound.  I thought “somebody is playin’ a joke on me.  And not a wery funny one”.
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Ritchie spoke up.  “What did you do?”
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I ran in the darkness to them doors and threw my veight against those big slates.  I pushed and pushed but I could hear them chains clinkin’ on the other side, so I knew I was locked in for good.  But I kept on pushin’ until I chust about passed aut.  I slid down against the cold doors and sat on the damp floor.  And that’s ven I heard it.”
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“What?”  I gulped. “What did you hear?”
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Pappy’s eyes narrowed and he took another swig.  “I heard this soft swishin’ kind of sound.  All muffled, like sandpaper rubbin’ together inside a shoebox.  I thought maybe it was rats scratchin around in the dark but then I realized what it was.  It was breathin’ –  real slow and raspy, comin’ from inside of them coffin drawers.”
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Steve shook his head.  “You’re fulla crap.”
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“Naw, you’ll change your tune whan I’m done, I’ll guarantee that!  ‘Cause then I heard them drawers slidin’ open.  I couldn’t see nothing in the dark, but I could hear everything and it vas comin’ from all around me – all da drawers was creakin’ and slidin’ open.  I grabbed my broom, the only thing I had to defent myself with.  And then I heard this other sound – like a long hissing visper.  And I smelt da most awful smell I ever smelt.  It was like earth and rot and mildew and sawdust all rapped up in one – and it was gettin’ clozer und clozer.”
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“Holy cow”, I muttered and looked at Ritchie.  He was leaning closer to Pappy, his eyes wide.  Steve had a smirk on his face.  “I’m not buyin’ it,” he whispered.
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“So I stood up and and kept my back against the doors and started screamin’ and swingin’ that broom.  I could hear what I imagined were five or six pairs of rotted feet, shuffling across the floor – all headin’ straight for me.  So I started svingin’ as hard as I could.”  Pappy demonstrated with his cane, swinging it wildly through the air of the garage.
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Ritchie was smiling.  “Did you hit any of ’em?”
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“Well”, Pappy stopped swinging his cane. “I ain’t sure ‘cuz of the darkness in there, but I hit somethin’ and I swear I knocked somethin’ loose, cuz I heard it fly off and clatter across the floor.  Maybe it was an arm or a hand.  I kept svingin’ an hittin’ and svingin and hittin until my shoulders nearly popped off.  But they kept on comin’ at me – gettin clozer und clozer.  That’s wen the got damn broom snapped in two.”
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Pappy dropped his cane.  So I started svingin’ my fists.”  Pappy threw wild hooks and upper-cuts in the garage air.  “It felt like I was punchin’ flimsy, rotten fabric with brittle twigs packed inzide that would crack with each strike.  The smell was almost too much and I started gettin’ goofy.  I could hear ’em breathin’, raspin’ and shufflin’ and then, one of ’em grabbed me by the arm.  The hand vas nothing but bone and dried grizzle but the grip was like iron.  I tried to get loose, but a couple more grabbed my arms and legs and held me still.  Then, dey started to moan.  Low at first, but then they got louder and louder and I could feel my hearbeat gettin’ slower and slower.  My chest felt like it was in a vice and I couldn’t hardly breath.  I remember this burnin’ pain climbin’ up my arms and wrappin around my ribs.  I felt like they vas drainin’ the life outa me and I finally must’ah passed aut.”
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“But how’d you get out?” I asked.
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“My parents called the cops when I didn’t come home at the regular time.  They searched the cemetary and finally got a pair of bolt cutters to get the chains off the doors of the mound.  They said I was layin’ on the floor, unconscious against the doors ven they finally got in.”  Pappy took another swig of apple jack.
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Steve stood up.  “That story’s a load of crap. There’s nothin’ but old, dead bodies in that mound and you were never locked in.”  Steve smirked and walked out of the garage.
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Ritchie and I looked at each other.  “Did that really happen?  Did you get locked in there that night?”, I asked Pappy.
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Pappy frowned.  “What I didn’t tell your goofy friend is that when the cops found me, my hair was the color you see right now – snow white!  But when I went in it was chet black.  It had changed in the time I was trapped in there.”  He paused. “How old do yous think I am?” grinned Pappy.
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“I dunno, Seventy or Eighty?” Ritchie shrugged.
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“I’m thirty-eight” , whispered Pappy, the smile withering from his face.
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“Holy crap, that’s just six years older than my dad!” I said.
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“Them things in that mound drained the life outa me that night.  And anyone who spends any time with me gets drained too.  Every woman I ever courted died after a month.  All my dogs and cats, dey don’t last two veeks with me after I pet ’em.  Here, look at my arms where they grabbed me.”  Pappy rolled up his sleeves.  I gazed in horror at the black marks that criss-crossed Pappy’s arms.  Deep indentations furrowed his skin where the boney fingers had grabbed.  The black color spread from those furrows like vines winding their up way past his shoulders where they disappeared beneath his sleeves.  He lifted his shirt to expose his chest.  The black vines swirled around his ribcage and encircled the center of his chest – surrounding his heart like a thicket of doom.
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“What da ya think ah’ them apples, huh?”  Pappy chuckled and pulled his shirt back down.
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Ritchie and I backed up towards the door.  “Ah, Mr. Zanders,”  I stammered.  “Um, I think I gotta get home now.  Thanks for the story.”  We ran out of the garage and up the hill to my house, not stopping once to catch our breath or look back.  From that day forward, we never went near Pappy Zanders again.  We would wave to him and say hello if we saw him, but we never played any pranks on him.  He passed away 2 years later – my parents told me it was a heart attack.
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Now it’s possible that ole’ Pappy Zanders had some kind of weird disease or heart condition and very possible that he was NOT thirty-eight years old and that he made the whole thing up.  Perhaps it was the dim light or stagnant air of the garage that made our imaginations run wild, or maybe there were some tailings left in that apple jack that made us hallucinate the whole thing.  Years after that, we ran around that cemetery and played in the nearby woods, but none of us ever ventured anywhere near that mound again – just in case.  To this day I still remain uneasy for having shared a bottle with old Pappy Zanders and I can’t help but wonder if someday the black lines will appear on my skin and begin to drain the life from me just as they had done to that old man.
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Beware the mound

Beware the mound

Copyright SkullDug Films 2013

Jerry SkullDug