Halloween used to be fun. Our parents would take us to the school gym, where we would have a costume parade, dunk for apples and get bags of treats. That was fine when we were seven or eight, but we were fourteen now and going to school for a Halloween party was for little kids. I wanted to do something different, something exciting, something kinda scary. So I asked my two best friends, Bob and Denny, "What are you guys gonna do on Halloween?"
"Don't know," said Bob bouncing alongside of me over the oiled country road in the Alhambra, Illinois, school bus. "But I don't want to go to the school gym again!"
"Me neither. Got any ideas?" Denny chimed in as he turned around to look at us.
The silence dragged on while I watched the trees that bordered my dad's soybean field pass through the bus's smeary windows. Then it hit me. My parents were going to a farm implement show in St. Louis on Friday. Why not have Bob and Denny come over that night?
"Hey, what about this?" I whispered. "Why don't you and Bob get off at my stop Friday and come home with me? My parents are going to spend the night in St. Louis after Dad drops off his grain at the elevator. We'll watch old Frankenstein movies on video tape. How about it?"
"Your parents are gonna let you stay alone?" Denny asked.
"Shhh! No, Mom asked me to see if I could stay with one of you. I'll tell her your mom said it was okay. That way my mom won't know, and we can do what we want. Come on, let's do it."
"Come on Sam, what's the big deal with scary movies?" Bob questioned, shaking his head at me.
"Well, what about camping out behind my old barn," I suggested.
Denny leaned his head closer to us and whispered, "No way! Campout in the backyard? That's for sissies. I have a better idea."
"Oh, yeah! What?" I said.
Leaning closer, Denny softly whispered, "The abandoned cemetery. It's scarier than a movie or a backyard campout any old time."
"Why are you boys whispering? Dennis, turn around. Samuel get your books together. We're almost at your stop," snapped Mrs. Conrad the school bus driver.
We smiled. Okay, we all mouthed. It was decided. Denny and Bob would tell their moms they were going to spend Halloween at my house, and I'd tell mom I was going to stay at Denny's house.
Somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered something about spirits of the dead waking up and roaming the earth on Halloween, but right now it was just a little nagging thought. The cemetery was a great place to campout.
Friday after school Bob and Denny got off at my stop, and we began to gather what we needed for the campout from around the house. Bob got the tent, a tarp and a hammer to pound in tent stakes. Denny got the matches, snacks, wieners and a couple of blankets; and I got a hatchet, three two-liter bottles of soda, a lantern, and flashlights. After eating Hot Pockets and drinking soda, we were ready. As we entered the woods, which started just on the other side of my dad's soybean field, I dropped back to let Denny lead the way, as he usually did when we played war. He stopped. "What's the matter?" he asked.
"Nothin'. I always follow you when we go into the woods."
"So? You afraid of the dark?" Denny said with a sneer.
"You're the biggest," I said.
"You're scared! Aw, little Sammy is scared of the dark woods," and Denny began to make fake crying sounds. "They're your woods. You lead the way."
"Hey, we don't have to campout in the cemetery tonight. We can campout in Sam's back yard. It'll be a lot easier," Bob volunteered.
"What? Now you're afraid of the dark, too? What a bunch of chickens! Bawk, bawk, bawk, bawk," and Denny started flapping his elbows and prancing around like a chicken.
Watching him hop around would have been funny -- in the day, but not tonight.
"I'm not scared," I said; and I stomped off into the lead.
I looked up as we went into the woods. Its dark leafy canopy almost blotted out the sky. While we'd been here many times in the day, we'd never been here at night, and it didn't look quite the same. A twisting path led up a hill through weeds and over a small marshy area full of sticky, shoe sucking mud. Our shoes squelched through the wet ground and we splashed in pools of standing water from the creek that emptied into the area. The sound of our footsteps did little to penetrate the eerie silence. I felt a little worried, but I couldn't back out now. Besides, what could happen? The closely spaced trees blocked any view beyond the path which was so narrow I felt the thorny fingers of brush scratch against me and tug at my clothes. I pushed through patches of undergrowth, skirted large brush piles, and passed huge trees as I worked my way toward the cemetery. Our flashlights probed the dark shadows. I began to feel uneasy. Other than the noise we made, there wasn't another sound.
I decided to break the silence by saying, "Boy, this is great! Just think about it. Frankenstein was assembled out of parts from dead bodies dug up in a cemetery. A lot of ghost stories take place in cemeteries."
"What'd ya got? Frankenstein on the brain or somethin'?" Denny responded.
"No, it's cool," I said. "Where else would you want to be on Halloween?"
"Shut-up! You two are scaring me."
"Aw, Bobby is scared. Bawk, bawk, bawk bawk," and I copied Denny's earlier behavior.
I was pushing through head-high, tangled brambles that were as thick and tough as brown steel wool with spikes. I couldn't see to the other side. The sudden cry of a bird caused me to jump, and a thorny branch hit me in the face. "Ow! Damn it!" But I was through it and in the cemetery. "We're here," I called back.
"It's about time. I thought you were lost," Denny snapped, stepping through the brambles.
"My dad thinks the brambles are the remnants of wild rose bushes planted by church members as kind of a fence. Isn't this great? What do you think?"
Denny and Bob sort of grunted and began to look for a place to build a bonfire. Maybe they were feeling that this wasn't such a good idea after all.
The cemetery was a bunch of old weathered headstones, some covered with moss, others jutting up like jagged teeth through the ivy. It was more spooky at night than in the day, and I wished we had stayed home and watched scary movies. For me, it was getting easy to imagine fearsome creatures lurking in the shadows of trees and vines. That little thought at the bottom of my mind about spirits waking on Halloween moved closer to the surface, but even if it became a conscious thought, I would have said, No way. That only happens in movies or horror stories, not in real life.
"Hey, look what I found!" Denny was standing in a sunken grave holding a skull! "They sure didn't bury bodies very deep in the old days." He put it on the headstone.
All of us gathered around to see. Then I began to toss it up in the air like a beach ball. "Hey! Don't do that, it's illegal," Bob said.
I sneered. "Lighten up, Bobby-Wobby. This isn't a real cemetery anymore. The grave markers are from the 1850s! Hell, nobody remembers anyone buried here."
"Keep your voice down," Bob whispered. "Show some respect. It was a cemetery then, and people were buried here, it's still a cemetery. When someone dies, you don't dig 'em up and play with their bones. It's illegal or somethin'," and he grabbed the skull.
"I didn't dig it up. I found it, jerk," Denny retorted and snatched it.
"Bob, you're a pain. Hell! Nobody will care. We'll re-bury the skull and no one will know." I swiped the skull from Denny, stuck it on a long stick and jammed that into the ground. The back of my neck tingled and I turned around, but nothing was there. A cold draft of air from the collapsed grave made me look down and then for some reason at the skull. The eyes stared back at me. They were two black pools of energy. My blood chilled. "Come on, let's get a fire started. I'm getting cold."
We built a bonfire alongside the old grave to roast hot dogs and settled in to tell scary ghost stories to each other. "Sam, when did you find out about this place?" Denny asked.
"Shortly after my family bought the farm, my father discovered the cemetery and asked our neighbors about it. The Hayfield Parish Church was here and owned the cemetery in the early eighteen hundreds, but then abandoned it."
"Some of the old timers around here said hundreds of spirits rose from their graves one night and returned to their earthly homes. Others said that the cemetery was cursed. The only thing that the neighbors agreed on was that the parishioners burned the church and abandoned the cemetery in order to rid themselves of the spirits. The place hasn't been used in over a hundred years."
Denny snapped, "You're shitting me! What's the real story?"
"I'm tellin' you guys the truth!" A cracking branch made me jump and turn around. Only the skull in the flickering light of the bonfire was there, but something moved in the underbrush and then stopped. Beads of sweat went down my back, and my palms were moist. Without revealing itself, whatever it was moved away. Probably a deer I thought, but I shivered a little with uneasy thoughts of the Hayfield Church burial ground spirits. The skull glared back at me.
Denny and Bob told ghost stories as our Halloween campout progressed. As they talked, a wind began to moan through the trees, and the dried oak leaves rattled overhead before falling to the ground. The temperature dropped, and it seemed to me to be at least ten degrees colder. I pulled the collar of my coat tighter around my neck. Denny was having a great time loudly laughing and telling ghost stories. The dark woods seemed to absorb his voice like a sponge, and when no one spoke, spooky silence surrounded the place. I could tell Bob was afraid. When he spoke, it was just above a whisper; and he sat all hunched up with a blanket over him. I was uptight, so I jammed a burnt hot-dog into my mouth. It kept my teeth from chattering.
Heavy mist gradually filled the air. Trees became hazy shadows. Wisps of vapor lazily climbed the gravestones. We pulled logs up to sit on. For a while, the fog crept out of the woods and seeped along the ground hiding everyone's feet in a smooth, white cloud only disturbed by our movement. After our stories, it was easy for me to imagine devils and witches hiding just beyond the fire light. For some reason the image of a black caldron with a bubbling brew came to my mind. The fire cast a flickering light on the cemetery. Beyond its warm glow, darkness covered everything like a black cloth. It was a perfect night for Halloween, but thoughts about spirits rising from their graves now slithered silently through my thoughts. I stuck another hotdog into my mouth and looked at my watch.
Midnight, the witching hour.
I didn't like the campout. I wanted to go home, but I wasn't going to be the first one to say so. Nobody wanted to be the first to say it. From the way Bob looked, I could tell he was just waiting for an excuse to leave. He was almost white.
Denny was looking at me telling us about how hard he had laughed during Scream 3 when Bob squawked, "Look!" He pointed at the nearest gravestone.
Denny shouted, "Whoa! What's that?"
All of us jumped up as blue-white transparent shapes slowly rose from bases of head stones and circled them. They raced to the tree tops. The hair on my arms stood on end. Were these the same spirits that frightened the Hayfield parishioners over a hundred years ago? I kept reminding myself that the dead don't return. It was physically impossible. That was the theory anyway. As if on cue, more spirits rose from other graves and joined the first group emitting an ever increasing hiss that sounded like a hundred blow torches. The graveyard was thick with them. They swarmed in mad gyrations like crazy moths caught in the bright light of the bonfire and swooped down almost to our heads in their wild flights. We flailed away at them without success. It was like batting at smoke. They formed a whirling ring around us and slowly contracted until we were huddled tightly with the bonfire at our backs.
From the darkness of the woods, came shrill crazy laughter. Something was out there! Something I didn't want to see. The ground above each grave began to bulge and ripple as though something was just beneath the surface. The smell of rotten meat filled the air. Thousands of white maggots began to ooze out of the graves forming a wet quivering carpet. I couldn't help it; I wet my pants. We were trapped! The fire was behind us, squirming maggots were in front, and swirling spirits were around us diving at our heads. Again, dreadful laughter came from the black woods. It rose in pitch and fell into wicked snarls that made me shiver.
"SSShit! Let's get out of here!" Bob yelled.
I closed my eyes and plunged into the encircling spirits and stepped on the squishy mess of maggots with my sneakers. Bob and Denny did the same. My scalp tightened and tingled as if lightning were to hit. My ears filled with a loud hum. We fought through the spirits, but bony hands erupted from the graves, and grabbed and tried to trip us. One skeletal hand caught my pants' leg and wouldn't let go while another blindly clawed for my free foot. I jerked my leg away, and the hand popped out of the ground still clinging to me. I kicked at the other and broke it to pieces. I grabbed the lantern and ran, but I tripped over a sprouting bone and fell. The lantern flew out of my hand, hit the ground and shattered spreading fiery kerosene over the dry leaves. Maggots swarmed over me. They were on my face, in my mouth, my hair, crawling up my nose, and under my clothes. I got up and stomped, shook and pulled them off as best I could. Suddenly the graveyard was on fire. The bacon like crackle of frying maggots filled the air. The stench was awful. We began running blindly into each other like bingo numbers in a rolling drum. We fell over gravestones. We tripped over bones. Above all the noise, the high grating cackle of laughter boomed out of the black shadows.
Bobby grabbed his flashlight and ran in the direction of the path. We ran after him. A volcanic eruption from the bonfire sprayed out burning embers and sparks, which arched in the air like Fourth of July rockets and fell around us like rain. Dry leaves and needles exploded in flame, and a tall pine turned into a hissing white-hot torch. The fire raced and gobbled each clump of brush like a wild animal tearing at its kill. I ran as fast as I could. Off to the side, out of the corner of my eye I saw a floating dark shape, black as night and barely visible moving between the trees. I was scared shitless.
"Denny, we're being chased!" I yelled.
"Those smoky things?"
"No! Something big and black," and I pointed to where I'd last seen it.
He turned his head. "Nothing there. Run!"
We turned back to the bramble barrier we had pushed our way through earlier that night. Bob skidded to a stop and Denny and I ran into him. In front of us, a black hooded shape appeared to block our escape. A chill wormed its way through me as Bob's flashlight illuminated the head. It was the skull. The two black pools of darkness that were its eyes held and swallowed me in their stare. The mouth slowly opened revealing black teeth and a red tongue that flicked back and forth like a snake. Its screeching laugh trailed off to delirious cackles as we came closer. I'd had it. I could get burned up like an over toasted marshmallow, or fight. I was getting out of there. Bob, Denny and I glanced at each other and began to yell. We charged forward into the black mass like battering rams. It was cold and black inside. I couldn't see anything. My feet felt as heavy as lead. An invisible membrane tried to wrap me in a cocoon and pin my arms against my chest. I frantically pushed against it. I clawed at it as it tried to cover me. It was like black plastic wrap -- slick, smooth, and tough. My efforts tore a hole in it. Frantically, I yanked at the edge. First, I forced my head through. Then I ripped it from my chest and pulled my legs out. I was free.
But where were Bob and Denny? I saw a clenched fist pop out of the black shape. Then another hand grabbed at the hole the fist had made. Both tore at what looked like a black shroud. Then Denny's head appeared. I grabbed a black edge and ripped it back. Denny wrenched himself free and Bobby was right behind him. We ran out through the briers. As I broke through the last of them, something snagged me by the shoulder. I looked back. The skull was holding me through the shroud. It glared at me with its empty eyes. They told me something. I knew what had to be done. I grabbed the skull and pulled it off the stick. I felt its pulsating energy. We never should have removed it from the grave. I looked around for Denny. Great! Just when I needed his strength he wasn't there.
I faced the briers. The fire was a gigantic monster. It was hotter, stronger and larger as it continued to feed on new sources of fuel. The fierce blaze was drawing air toward it making its own draft and becoming uncontrollable, growing ever stronger like a storm. Flames ran through dry leaves, bushes roared like fiery furnaces, and trees became torches to heaven. The smell of smoke filled the air. I stepped back a few paces, ran toward the briers and threw the skull as far as I could, over them, back into the cemetery. I didn't wait to see where it landed before I turned and raced toward the marsh. There wasn't time to find firm footing. I slipped, slid and splashed in the cold water before I reached dry ground. Dripping and squishing with every step, I raced up the hill to the road. I ran right into Denny and Bob on the other side of the hill.
"Where were you?" they shouted.
"Run," I shouted and took off. All kinds of thoughts were flashing through my mind. What were my parents going to do when they found out? Aw man, I mean, a fire in the woods! Lying to mom about what I was going to do tonight. Aw shit!
"What happened to the fire?" Bob yelled after me.
Without turning I yelled, "It's behind you, Dummy."
This time it was Denny. "No it isn't! How did you put it out?"
How did I put it out? What was he talking about? I looked back over my shoulder. I could see Bob and Denny because of the flashlight, but that was the only light. There was no fire behind them. It was completely dark. I turned around and stared. I couldn't believe my eyes. The night air was peaceful and still without even a trace of smoke or a minor crackle or spark, as if the fire had never been. The fire was out!
I remembered the thought that had flashed through my mind when looking into the skull's empty eye sockets. It was part plea and part threat. I had known to return it to the cemetery or the worse nightmares of my life would be nothing compared to the what I would have had to endure for the rest of my life. None of us would ever have had any peace unless that skull was returned.
Now, in the autumn, when the air turns crisp, leaves shrivel and die, and
the days become dark, it reminds me of that Halloween with my friends.
I'll always remember that night when we woke the spirits and met the
souls of the dead. It's something I never want do again. May they rest in
© 2002 William H. Miltenberger, all rights reserved
appears here by permission
I wrote this story with the idea it might make a good story to tell around Halloween. The cemetery in the story exists in a heavily wooded area on my brother-in-laws farm. It was while I was in the cemetery this past spring with my wife looking for mushrooms, that I got the idea for the story. I went back to it at night, and it is as spooky as I described.