Autumn Scary Romance Throwback Before Christmas

I am getting ridiculously excited for Christmas. It’s carols and twinkle lights and homemade fudge all the time here at Griffith Magna. But there’s no snow. Well, duh. This is Arizona. We are still running the AC most days at least for a while. And definitely in the car. And the color on my backyard nectarine trees is finally beautiful. Oranges and yellows…love it.

So it still feels like fall. Even though we’re singing about sleigh bells and hearing the snow crunch, etc.

And something is still kind of looming–forever ago I was going to post the full text of my sorta-creepy story I wrote for the Jolly Fish Press Creative Frighting Contest (which Teri Harman won with her creepy “wheel” story.) I’ve never been much for Frighting. I remember a really bad date where I foolishly agreed to go with my good friend Lars Larsen (who was about 6’7″) to the haunted house and I spent the whole time with my face buried in the back of his coat.

I was not a good haunted house date.

So…without further ado, here’s the not-so-frightening entry for your lingering autumn enjoyment.

 

Knock, Knock, Scream

            A girl your age shouldn’t live on her own in the country. It doesn’t look right, my parents insisted, frowning at my farmhouse.

It’s the 1950s, I countered. The war is over. A girl can be what she wants to be—a farmer and a school teacher.

Even though Mr. Thurgood was by far the handsomest man on the high school faculty, I wished he hadn’t called me tonight.

“This storm’s going to be brutal, Miss Young.” His soulful voice broke up as the connection crackled. “You’ll call me if the electric goes out in that old farmhouse, won’t you?”

“I’ll be fine,” I insisted. The storm wasn’t my biggest worry, and Mr. Thurgood knew it. Everyone in the school knew it, students and faculty. When the threats started coming, my principal said he would call the county sheriff, but what could the police do, short of putting a watch on my place round the clock?

They couldn’t, but I wished they would.

I fingered the cloth-covered coils in the telephone cord to untangle them, pressing my hand against the wall to steady me. Thunder rolled, and branches were lashing the side of the house as if flogging an infidel.

Back in the happiest apex of springtime blossoms, the McMillan farmhouse had looked like an idyllic retreat, a place where a young school teacher could plant a flower garden, raise chickens, be awakened by a rooster, keep a large dog like my bull mastiff, Voltaire.

In my spring fever I’d bought the house, furnishings and all—from the books in the study to the full zoo of Old Mr. McMillan’s hunting trophies that still littered the house.

My parents didn’t like the idea.

Eventually they relented.

But now in the last throes of fall, the old house lost some of its charm, as did the pesterment of skunks that regularly invaded my henhouse and ate all my farm fresh eggs. This, after Voltaire got the sorry end of a fight with a porcupine. Poor pup.

And that infernal wind! It rattled my soul.

The kettle atop my wood stove shrieked, shaking me from the worries of school and weather. My floors were cold. I shouldn’t go barefoot. I never know when I might need to run. Wind seeped in through the wood slats of the walls. It rattled the front door, whipping back the old screen door and slapping it shut.

Why had Mr. Thurgood called and brought up the threats? Broad shoulders aside, I didn’t need the reminder. Not tonight.

Hot water into the teacup, my emotions astir.

Miss Young. Sophomore thug Giles Beeman’s narrowed eyes had pierced me that morning. You’d better watch your back. His lips stretched so far back I thought the skin might split.

Mr. Beeman, take the criticism and sit down. I’d responded with all the calm I could muster, but I knew a tremor marred my voice.

My cup trembled and spilled a little on the old Formica table. I jumped up to get a dish towel and toppled the rest of the drink, shattering the cup on the floor. The liquid spread like ooze from a wound.

I’m a mess. Shame blotched my cheeks hot. A grown woman should not have these irrational fears. He was a measly sophomore, for heaven’s sake. A child.

Reading. Reading would get my mind off the storm.

Making my way down the hall to the study, I pulled the collar of my bathrobe close to my neck to shut out the drafts.

Light poured bluish green all around. A book would transport me, but mine were still all in boxes. I sorted through the McMillan family’s abandoned tomes.

Aha. This would do.

I brushed a skiff of blue-grey dust off one called “Family Photographs.” The first page was labeled 1934. A bride clutched a bouquet of lilies and lilacs. The groom clutched the bride.

Yes, here’s good medicine: a trip two decades into the past and away from this storm.

Another page, 1935 scrawled across its top. Mother with damp hair, a newborn in her arms, its face all puckered and obviously upset. Proud father, hands on hips, gazes at his accomplishment.

Pages of old cars, houses, family gatherings, a little boy, followed. Then ah, this farmhouse, stately and new. The child, a boy now about six, rolled in a pedal car down the new sidewalk.

I looked again. Something about his picture wasn’t right. His expression unsettled me. I quickly turned the page.

My mind calculated. The boy would’ve been about my age.

I turned the page, expecting to see his sports accomplishments. Instead, I found solemn stares of the mother, her mouth pressed into a flat line, flanked by older people, her husband standing apart, his face also twisted in a frown.

They were standing in front of a small pine box piled high with lilies.

The rest of the pages were blank.

 

I clapped the book shut and shoved it back on the shelf. Branches of the cottonwood thrashed the house as if flogging an infidel. I shot to my feet and paced.

A boy had died. How, I didn’t know, but I knew he’d lived here.

A familiar hostility burned in those eyes.

Giles. His face was the same as the child’s. The two faces merged in my mind. I shuddered and went to the kitchen. From the drainer I took a tin cup, then lifted the pump handle and pumped twice for a drink.

The cold water hit my teeth just as the electricity snuffed out and I was plunged into darkness. Cold water pouring down my throat mirrored the cold chill down my spine.

My emergency candle was upstairs in my bedroom. I felt my way toward the loose banister, another project I’d procrastinated, and let the chair rail guide my fingertips toward my bedroom. Suddenly I stopped.

What was that? It couldn’t be knocking—not here. Not at this time of night.

But it was. And it was persistent.

Fumbling, I found the candle and matches. It took five tries before I could light it. Who would come down my dirt lane half a mile? No one. I thought of the dead boy.

The knocking came more insistent now, almost desperate.

Creeping down the stairs, I shielded the candle so it lit my steps but not the walls or the ceiling, but its flicker made dancing patterns on the wall.

Should I answer? I stood beside the door, torn. I rested my hand on the doorknob and let the door shimmy open a crack.

“Yes?”

No one was there. But the ghost of a dead boy wouldn’t knock. It wouldn’t.

A truck with its lights off tore out of the driveway, spitting gravel. A cold gust hit my neck, and the wind suddenly changed directions, snuffing out my candle once again. I was plunged into inky darkness. A peacock cried from my henhouse, Help, help, help!

I gulped.

Mr. Thurgood. Maybe I should call Mr. Thurgood. He did say to call if the power went out, but I couldn’t remember his number. Something with threes and fives?

Upstairs was another match. I dropped to my hands and knees to feel my way through the parlor toward the staircase.

The darkness disoriented me. I reached for the front doorframe and couldn’t find it. I patted the floorboards, wooden and smooth, reaching for a landmark, the sofa, a chair, anything. Pat, pat, pat. Reaching out, my hand gained purchase on an object—bony and covered with hair.

A head!

I snapped my hand upward, and it sliced against something razor sharp and caught there.

I screamed. Something was biting me! A bat! A creature! A rat infested my house and was eating me alive!

I wrested my hand free and jumped to my feet, careening away, simultaneously stomping at the rat and jumping as high as I could to avoid letting it bite my feet. How many of them were there? My shoulder crunched into a lamp, toppling it onto the horsehair sofa. Springing in terror, I leapt the back of the couch—and then remembered the raccoon hunting trophy back there. I wasn’t being eaten, after all.

Still, adrenaline gave me the superhuman skills to make a beeline up the stairs to my room where I lit the candle and jumped into bed.

Flickering images against the walls made eerie patterns. I wish this night would be over. In the flashes of gold and grey I saw those angry eyes.

Miss Young, you better watch out.

I am your teacher, Giles Beeman. Now, straighten up and fly right.

I know where you live. You bought the old McMillan farm. Where that boy was murdered.

            Nobody was murdered on my farm, now back to work.

That afternoon I bought a deadbolt that afternoon at the hardware store. Why didn’t I make time to install it? It sat in a paper sack on the porch doing nothing. Like the corpse of my mastiff buried in the back cherry orchard. Useless.

My sheets knotted into ropes. I kept seeing Giles, the McMillan boy, Giles. A sinister laugh seemed to emanate from the images, echoing in the howl of the furious wind. I pressed the heels of my hands against my ears to block it out.

A boy had been murdered here. No. It was just something Giles made up to get me off balance. It wouldn’t work.

But the scrapbook did end abruptly. With the pine box and lilies. Tonight the farmhouse seemed intent on telling what it had seen. Whispers arose from the cracks. Murder. Creaking timbers moaned. Avenge me. Violence lurked in the darkness as the peacocks resumed their cries of help, help, help. My pulse doubled. No matter how hard I pushed my palms against my ears, the sounds wouldn’t stop racing through the corridors of my brain.

Knock, knock, knock. Suddenly, the insistent rapping began again, sharper this time.

He’d come. Giles had come. He had come to get his revenge.

Knock, knock, knock, knock! I pulled the sheet up over me, knowing there was no place to hide. Knock, knock, knock, knock, knock.

Go away, I muttered. Just go away.

Suddenly from the back yard, an anguished scream pealed, the voice of a small child. It sailed over all the whispered and groans, the cries for help and for vengeance attacking my ears, over all the wind’s angry orchestra.

A child—a little child is in my back yard in peril!

I shot from my bed, heedless of the danger knocking at my door. Forgetting Giles, I grabbed the candle and raced toward the sound, pounding down the stairs, hot candle wax splashing onto the back of my hand, searing it. It would just have to blister because the screaming persisted, filling the whole immensity of space, rattling through the chambers of my soul.

Wait. The knocking at the front door had stopped.

Did it stop before the screaming or after? I didn’t know. Oh, mercy! It didn’t matter. What mattered was saving the child.

I bounded over the top of the stuffed beaver and peccary beside the back door, only stumbling once as the hem of my nightgown caught on the tusk of the hairy pig. It tore as I yanked it away at full speed.

My right hand gained purchase on the back door knob, the cold of the metal sending a chill down my spine, just as the report of a shotgun slammed against my ear.

The screams ceased.

A flutter of wings, followed it, and I threw open the back door!

“No! Don’t shoot! Stop!” I screamed. My eyes scanning the candlelight’s meager circle for evidence of a dead body, or a culprit running away. Wind snuffed out the candle, and all went black for a dead moment. A flutter of wings from one of my chickens came, followed by a nervous clucking and semi-flight away.

“It’s done,” a man’s voice declared.

“Who’s there?” I begged. My heart beat high up in my throat. “What’s done? Please say no one is dead.” My words came hoarse and terrified.

A sudden gale thrust the clouds away from the moon, bathing my yard in silver light.

“I’m sorry, Miss Young. I had to kill it.” It was Mr. Thurgood’s voice, sonorous and regretful. There at his feet lay the body of a skunk, its teeth bloody and chicken feathers all around. Its smell hit my nose like a Massey Ferguson tractor.

“Chickens, Miss Young? Their screams can sound like little children. When I heard it, I came round back. I had to shoot before it could spray me. You said you’d been having problems with the skunks, didn’t you?”

I nodded slowly. My heart rate began to regulate as I stared at the black and white corpse.

“Had a chicken by the neck, but not too bad. I think it’ll live.” Mr Thurgood pointed to a wounded chicken racing toward the henhouse. He was right. It would live.

I couldn’t speak yet, but Thurgood could.

“I came out here an hour ago, but you didn’t come to the door. I figured you were asleep, and then I felt like a fool for pounding so loud. Then no sooner I got home, I had this feeling I couldn’t shake. I had to come back out here and tell you—the Beeman boy’s been sent off to military school. He’s gone.” Thurgood shifted his weight. “I feel like a total idiot for waking you up, now that I see you’re all right.”

My hands stopped shaking, and I looked down at my torn nightgown. The lights in the house suddenly shuddered and came back on, illuminating the back porch and the house and Mr. Thurgood’s handsome face. He really was the best looking teacher on faculty, by a long shot.

“No, I appreciate it very much. I was a little nervous, in fact.” Understatement. I bit my lip. “It’s very late, but I’d like to thank you. Can you come inside for a cup of something?”

His eyes looked me over in the new light. “My, but you’re pretty with your hair down, Laura.” He shook himself and seemed to refocus. “Let me take care of this mess and I’d like to come in for a cup of something. Have you got a shovel?”

And while I found a second teacup in the glass front shelves in the study, I ran across the McMillans’ scrapbooks from the years 1937 to 1951.

The next day I packed them up and took them to his relatives who lived in town. They promised to get them to the son, who had started a law practice in Lincoln. His new bride would enjoy them very much, especially the photos her husband had taken of the family funeral for his favorite bull mastiff, which they’d buried in a pine box covered with lilies, against his parents’ wishes.

 

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