by Kerry Alan Denney
aka The Reality Bender
A Halloween Tale of Terror
(short story originally published in
Dark Moon Digest #16 July 2014)
The ancient jungle gym, swing set, see-saws, and monkey bars in the abandoned playground at the edge of the woods look like giant mutant insects from a lame old black-and-white horror flick. Their angular shadows are growing long in the coming twilight.
Me and the guys are sitting in the outfield of the town’s only baseball diamond, sixty yards from the hulking structures.
“Even older kids say it’s haunted,” I say.
“That’s bull and you know it,” Gary says. “Ain’t no such thing as a haunted playground.”
Brian snickers. “I ain’t scared.”
“Yeah?” Gary laughs, always daring us to do something that will land us in deep shit. “I don’t remember ever seeing you over there. Wuss.”
“That’s ’cause my dad’ll tan my butt raw if he finds out I did, dickweed.”
Mike nods. “Mine too. He says he can’t afford the technis shot if I get cut on that crap.”
“Tetanus, you goober,” I say.
Mike smirks. “Whatever, Poindexter.”
“Yeah, Robbie,” Gary says. “You’re such a book geek.”
I flip him a bird. “How come we never see you there, Gary?”
“Bite me, Rodgers. I don’t wanna get caught by the creepy old guy in the woods. Carries a loaded shotgun everywhere he goes. Always has a gigantic mean-ass wolf with him.”
Brian snickers. “I heard he kidnaps children and eats ’em. Like Hannibal the Cannibal.”
“Y’all are so full of it.” I watch the swing set. One swing gently sways back and forth. Probably just the late October breeze—although the air is unnaturally still. “Besides, have you ever actually seen this ‘creepy old guy in the woods’?”
They shake their heads.
Gary grins. “You never see him until it’s too late. Then you’re lunch.”
I laugh. “Talk about bull. You’re such a douchebag.”
Mike chuckles. “Yeah, Gary, that fake spiderweb shit’s for babies.”
Gary gives us a double-bird flip-off. “All of ya blow me. It’s cool, ’cause girls like to be scared.”
We laugh at him. He’d strung the sticky white stuff across his handlebars, and stuck a big black rubber spider in it. Our school halls are decorated with the cheesy fakery, along with orange and black streamers, tissue-paper ghosts, and green-faced witches.
I’ve always loved Halloween, and trick-or-treating with my little brother. It’s the only time our parents cut us loose and let us terrorize the neighborhood after dark. But I’m too old for kiddie stuff now—although I still love the candy.
We’re all about to turn thirteen next year. We have to act like the adults we are. More than just our bodies are changing. Our minds are changing too, and now many things look different than they did just a year ago.
Gary grins and snorts at me. “You think you’re Mr. Too-Cool, Robbie? Let’s see you go over there. Just sit in a swing. I double dare you.”
“Triple-dog dare!” Mike and Brian say together, laughing.
I smirk at them. “Fine. See you ladies later.” I grab my ball, bat, glove, and book bag and head toward the playground.
I’m not afraid. Pinky-swear. I suck in a deep breath as I approach the rusty swing set. The air feels colder here, and the battleship-gray sky is darker than it was a few minutes ago. Twilight has arrived, the witching hour approaching.
I drop my stuff in the sand beside a swing and sit in the moldy seat. I hear laughter, and look back. The guys are speeding off on their bikes, cackling at me.
“Bunch of chickenshits!” I yell, sounding a lot braver than I feel.
A stiff breeze kicks up, blowing crackling leaves around in a whirlwind in front of me. The mini-cyclone blows right through me, spraying sand in my face. I close my eyes and shudder. It feels like the touch of icy fingers on the back of my neck.
I don’t recall seeing these kids in class, or in the hallways, or anywhere around here for that matter. Strangers in a small town where everybody knows who’s who.
“Did you come to play with us?” the retro-girl asks, licking her lips.
My heart thunders in my ears loud enough to wake the dead, and I wonder if these kids hear it. “Huh?”
“I’m Lizzie. What’s your name?”
“Ruh…” I clear my throat. “Robbie.”
“Hi, Ruh-Robbie.” She points to the gang. “That’s Belle, Jeffrey, Eddie, and John. Ted’s the cute one. Jimmy’s the one with the grape Kool-Aid.” She rolls her eyes. “Always.”
Jimmy offers me the bottle of purple liquid. “You want some? It’s good. Everybody should have some.”
I grimace. “No thanks. Gross.”
“Yeah, Jones,” Ted says, laughing. “Nobody wants your nasty-ass Kool-Aid.”
Jimmy sneers. “Eat me, Bundy.”
John sneaks up behind Lizzie, yanks the wooden barrette out of her hair, and leaps back. Lizzie springs out of the swing and dashes toward him, face scrunched up and scowling.
“John Wayne Gacy, you clown, you give that back now!”
John darts off, cackling. He trips on a broken branch as thick as an axe handle and falls face-first in the withered grass. Lizzie leaps on his back, grabs the branch, and starts beating his arms and shoulders with it.
“Whack him, Lizzie!” Eddie cries.
“Yeah, Lizzie!” Belle hollers. “Whack him good!”
The hairs on my arms and neck stand up and goose bumps form on my flesh. I shudder. Something about this is hauntingly familiar. And deeply wrong.
I stumble out of the swing and stagger toward Lizzie, who’s whacking John really good--about forty times now, an eerie voice whispers in my head. John is alternately howling and laughing.
“Hell no.” Jeez, what a creep. I push him aside and approach Lizzie and John. “Stop it!” I grab the branch and yank it out of Lizzie’s hand.
“Hey!” She turns and sneers at me. “You shouldn’t’ve done that.”
“Leave him alone.” I scowl at John. “And you, buttface. Give her barrette back. Asswipe.”
Somebody pushes me from behind, and I stumble and fall flat on my face. My head hits a big rock poking out of the ground, and bells clang and stars flash in front of my eyes. The playground spins around me in roller coaster circles. I wipe sticky wetness out of my eyes and finally figure out who these kids are.
October’s children gather around me.
Somebody kicks me and I curl up, trembling and praying to God to rescue me from these freaks and get me out of here alive. They laugh, join hands, and dance around me in a tightening circle, leering and chanting.
I retch, about to piss my pants and barf my guts out.
Lizzie shrieks, then cackles. “Come play with us tonight, Robbie! The gang is all here!”
“We’ve been waiting for you, Robbie,” Ted says, grinning like a cat with a mouse clamped between its jaws.
“Join us for dinner, Robbie,” Jeffrey says. “You’re the main course!”
“Let’s tie him up,” John says with a wicked grin, clenching his fists.
Their laughter is a demented symphony, musicians all out of tune. From somewhere far away a horn or siren wails, warning me to hurry before it’s too late.
Lizzie leans over me, her glassy eyes about to drown me in an eternity of darkness. She leers at me. “Whenever you close your eyes, Robbie, we’ll be there.”
Without warning, all sounds but the alarming klaxon stop. Something coarse like wet sandpaper scrapes across my cheek, and something hot and stinky crinkles my nose. I wrench my eyes open, ready to meet the Grim Reaper, and gaze up into a wrinkled leathery face.
Full white beard, veiny hands mottled with liver spots, dirty overalls.
The creepy old guy from the woods.
No shotgun; just a gnarled old cane he leans on. His ancient blue eyes seem kind and wise. A scraggly hound dog beside him is licking my face, tail wagging. Ha. Some giant wolf. The old-timer smiles, reaches down, and pulls me up.
“Nasty fall you took there, fella. Need to get that looked at pretty quick.”
I swipe blood out of my eyes, shivering like a wet dog in a blizzard, and he squints at me.
“You saw ’em, din’tcha, boy?”
We both know who he’s talking about. I’m too terrified to speak, can barely move. I nod, glancing around at the empty playground, knowing the gang’s still here, will always be here.
“Best get on home now, son. Your Momma looks pretty impatient over there.”
There she is at the curb in her Lexus a hundred yards away, leaning on her horn. Nothing ever looked so good, and suddenly home seems like a damn fine place to be. Maybe I can do something to get myself grounded for the rest of the year. Stay in my room with my books.
“Thank you,” I mumble. I grab my stuff and take off like a fox fleeing from rabid Hellhounds.
“You’re bleeding. Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Can we please go now?” I look back at the playground, still trembling.
Deserted. In my mind, I hear the gang singing a familiar haunting song about Lizzie Borden whacking away with her bloody axe. Soon David Berkowitz, Charles Manson, Dennis Rader, and Wayne Williams will join them—after they do the living a favor and finally kick the bucket.
Mom sighs and hands me some napkins. “We’ll clean you up when we get home, okay?”
“Okay. It’s just a scratch.”
She turns onto Elm Street, and Unforgivable Crimes: America’s Most Notorious and Gruesome Serial Killers and Murderers spills out of my book bag.
Mom sees it and groans. “How can you read that horrible stuff?”
“It’s for a book report, Mom.” With some unexpected terrifying personal experience thrown in for realism. I try not to laugh. I might not stop if I do.
She grimaces. “Yuck. Are you taking Rodney trick-or-treating tonight?”
“No. The guys are coming over. Galactic Warrior championship.”
“You guys and your video games. Well, you’re getting too old for trick-or-treating anyway.” She ruffles my hair, and for once I don’t groan and push her hand away. “My handsome young man. You guys can raid the candy bowl after the little monsters are gone, okay?”
Little monsters. I shudder. “Thanks, Mom.”
No way in hell I’m setting foot outside tonight.
The gang might all be there.
Waiting for me to come out and play.