I wrote this slightly creepy, family-appropriate story around 15 to 20 years ago, and dug it out of mothballs to read to my kid tonight after trick-or-treating.
I thought it might be fun to share it here too, for All Hallow’s Read. You know, just in case any of you might want to read it to your own kids tonight. Get them in the spooky spirit. (If you’d prefer a much scarier story for grown-ups, try this.)
A few weeks after my thirteenth birthday, three friends and myself began to concoct one of our usual mythic dreams of adventure. I grew up in either a large town or a small city, depending on your economic point of view. Almost the entire city-town was a suburb. We had a downtown, but there was hardly anything there other than city hall and the jailhouse. We had an indoor shopping mall, which was rather small but still the central vein of commerce for the area. Although such things never bothered me much as a child, I now sometimes wonder where anyone made any of the money they spent at the mall. The rest of the city-town was houses. Houses and woods. There were lots of woods.
My house sat in a neat suburb in the west end of town. The west end was, apparently, where the rich people lived. I never thought of my family as rich, though…which I suppose was more or less accurate, and became evident not even a year after the event I’m about to describe, when our landlord politely evicted us from our home a few days before Christmas. A few months prior, in the prime of autumn, is when my birthday occurred and the scheming began.
There was a section of woods near my house, beyond some oil fields, which was reached via an old shale road. It was forbidden by the parents of the neighborhood that any child should venture beyond the small patch of woodland before the road, which was really just a facade to hide the oil fields. I suppose the fear was that one of us would undoubtedly, and rather stupidly, attempt to inspect one of the insect-like oil pumps and be caught and mangled in its machinations. Whatever the parental logic, it was a commandment sent from on high to us children – and we dared not break it. Well, most of us dared not. All save one.
His name was John Westgate, but we all called him Bird for reasons I’ll get to in a minute. He was a terribly sick little boy, severely undeveloped for his age, and constantly on medication of some variation or another. He’d had open-heart surgery shortly after his birth, to correct some defect which none of us could pronounce except for Bird and his parents. He was one of the first babies the procedure was used on, which was a fact he reminded us of constantly. His mother worried over him without end, as one would expect, and rarely let him out to play with the other kids in the neighborhood. This method of parenting created a rather strange child that was more introverted at age ten than most adults I’ve met as I’ve gone through life.
On the rare days when he was feeling healthy and able, or when his mother wasn’t looking, Bird would come out to play with us. We’d taken to calling him Bird earlier, during the summer, when another neighborhood kid got a BB Gun for his birthday.
There were scores of birds in our neighborhood, which was odd considering the severe and curious lack of trees in the area. In the entire neighborhood, excluding the woods of course, there were maybe seven trees. There were a lot of saplings, but only seven trees. However, we had power lines galore and the birds seemed rather fond of them. One afternoon that summer, myself and Andy, Bird, and a kid named Charlie all met in a vacant lot a few houses down from my house. Here, power lines crisscrossed and it was a favorite resting spot for the birds. Andy was first, since it was his gun, and after loading a palm full of BB’s into the rifle, he pumped it up until it took both he and Charlie pushing together to close the plunger. Andy carefully took aim, spouted off some hunter-in-the-woods Errol Flynn nonsense, and squeezed the trigger. The shot apparently missed enough to not startle the birds in the slightest. Next up was Charlie, who missed as well. I was next, but for some reason that I can’t recall at the moment, I passed the gun to John. Andy pumped it for him, since he lacked the strength for anything beyond three pumps, and handed the rifle back to John. He took aim, very carefully and very quietly. He pulled the trigger slowly, and a bird fell from the wire as hundreds of feathers began flapping madly above us through a deafening squawk of panic. We all screamed in excitement and ran to where the bird fell. Andy was the fastest runner, so he got there first. “Guys! This is awesome!” he shouted. Charlie and I ran up behind him and looked down. The bird was there, slowly moving itself a bit. There was no blood, though, and the BB hadn’t broken the skin. “Aw, it’s just stunned,” came from Charlie. Just before John caught up to the rest of us, I started prodding the little thing with my foot. As John walked up, it began to try to stand and squawked a bit. It was a pitifully tiny sound, and it made it just as he got to the scene and looked down.
“Man, this sucks,” said Andy as he kicked some dirt beside the bird.
“I don’t know,” said Charlie. “It might be dying.”
I jumped in, offering brilliant kid logic. “It’s not dying, moron. It’s just stunned. If it was hurt, there’d be blood.”
Just then, John got on his knees and reached out for the bird. Andy shot his hand out in front of him as John reached for the confused creature. He shouted, “Don’t touch it! You’ll get rabies!”
Charlie, always handy with a random fact, chimed in. “Birds don’t carry rabies. You might get mites, though. Get it? Might get mites?”
“Shut up,” said John. He reached out and picked up the bird. It squirmed in his hand as its squawks got louder.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Shut up,” he replied. Without saying another word, he just turned around and started out of the vacant lot, back toward his house.
We all ran up behind him, shouting all sorts of nonsense about how the bird was fine and who cared, anyway? But John didn’t say a word. He just kept walking silently away from us. Just before we left the field, I grabbed his shoulder.
“Come on, man. It’s just a stupid bird. It’s not your fault,” I said.
John turned, looked up at me, and told me to &!%$ off. None of us had ever heard John swear, ever. I took my hand off his shoulder and took a step back. I could see tears in his eyes.
A few weeks later, we’d all but forgotten about the bird. John and his mother tried to nurse the thing back to health, but it died anyway. John wanted to take it to the vet, but his mother convinced him that it wouldn’t have done any good. They’d buried it after a few days, after John’s repeated insistence, in a private ceremony in his backyard. Once we got wind of that, his name was permanently changed.
The scheming after my birthday began as it usually did. We wanted to set out on an adventure. Andy offered up stories about how some bank robbers had stashed their loot in the woods beyond the shale road and oil fields. Charlie told him he was full of it, and I offered up my own idea for adventure. I’d heard my mother tell me about a kid that got caught in one of the oil pumps, and how horribly he died. Of course, it was just a story to keep us from venturing out there, but it was a story apparently concocted in unison by all the parents of the neighborhood – so we’d all heard it, and we all believed it. What the other parents didn’t tell their children, though, was something that my mother was happy to embellish upon. The kid’s ghost still walked the woods around the oil fields, trying to find its lost head. I, in turn, embellished further. I spun what was apparently a very convincing yarn about how there was something evil in the woods that kept the kid’s ghost alive and walking. The kid’s moaning could be heard at night, if you listened closely enough. This was true, in the sense that you could hear something coming from beyond the shale road at night. Granted, we all knew it was merely the metal of the oil pumps expanding and contracting – but it was enough to convince the other kids that my story could be genuine.
This all sounded like a great adventure, and one in which we could potentially dare each other into grand acts of stupidity and torment. We decided to camp out one night beyond the oil fields. I’d pick the spot because I knew where the ghost was. Andy would provide the sleeping bags, and Charlie would supply the cover story. His parents traveled a bit during the year, on the weekends, to visit his sister at school a few hours away. He was the oldest among us, beating me to thirteen by about three months, and his parents let him stay home alone. We would all sleep over at his house, if we could get our parents permission. We could and we did, although I had to swear to keep my room clean and practice my piano every night. Andy didn’t really have to make such concessions. His mother let him have a surprising amount of freedom, which we all envied. We couldn’t understand then why his divorced mother would let Andy go where he pleased and stay as long as he wanted, provided she had a boyfriend at the time – but secretly I think that we all wished our mothers would do the same.
The three of us were at Andy’s house, gathering supplies and preparing for the outing, when Bird knocked on the door. We hadn’t invited him on the camp-out for the simple reason that, if we had, there would have been no camp-out at all. He would tell his mother, who would tell our mothers, and then the whole thing would be over before it ever got started. We took turns explaining to him that we would have invited him, surely, but we hadn’t seen him at school the past week and assumed he was sick. He assured us that he was fine now, and we had no real choice left but to invite him.
Surprisingly, Bird didn’t tell his mother. Instead, he brought his own sleeping bag and three flashlights. Part of our arrangement was no flashlights though, so we left them at Charlie’s and headed out for the woods beyond the shale road.
We never made it past the oil fields. We set out late in the afternoon, and dusk was on our heels as we headed down the shale road. The sun had fully set by the time we neared the first of the pumping rigs. It was monstrous in its size. We’d all seen them, from time to time, along the highway – but this was the first close encounter with them for any of us. We pressed on a bit, past a few more pumps, until it was almost completely dark and the noises started.
They were subtle at first, small metallic pings from every direction. Andy was the first to notice them. “You guys hear that?” he asked. None of us answered, save for a unanimous head nodding. “Maybe it’s just the pumps,” he offered hopefully. We tried to keep walking, but the sounds started getting louder. Louder, and different.
“Scratches,” said Charlie, “it sounds like something’s making scratches.”
We all took turns looking around, peering out into the impenetrable darkness. I spoke softly. “We should have brought flashlights,” I whispered. I felt a light tap on my shoulder, and turned to see Bird’s hand pulling back. “What?”
He said nothing, but instead pulled a flashlight from his jacket pocket.
“Excellent,” I told him. I aimed in the general direction of the closest noise and turned the flashlight on. Andy, unaware of the flashlight’s presence, let out a quiet yelp when a bit of an oil pump was illuminated out of nowhere.
Charlie punched me in my arm. “We said no flashlights. What’s the matter? Scared?” he said, insult dripping from his mouth.
“Bird brought it,” I shot back in defense. Charlie just sighed, and in one motion managed to roll his eyes, turn his head, and kick some loose dirt onto my foot.
“Whatever,” he said.
I traced the pump with the beam of the flashlight, exploring for any hint of what was making the scratching noises. Aside from an expected group of roosting birds, which appeared very much dormant until I shot at them with the light, there was nothing. They flew away, Andy and I jumped back dramatically, and then it was quiet again. Quiet, except for the tinny pings and the scratches. We could place a vague direction for each little creak and moan of contracting metal, and so our confidence in that regard was boosted somewhat. Of course, the yin to that yang was that, while we had no idea what was making the scratching noises, we were also at a complete loss as to being able to detect exactly where those noises were coming from. Andy snatched the flashlight from my hand.
“Look,” he shouted as he painted a nearby tree with the beam.
“What?” asked Charlie.
“It’s just a tree,” I said.
Andy argued. “No,” he said. “Look, right there on the ground. Beside the tree. What is that?”
We squinted our eyes for no reason.
“Get closer,” I commanded.
Andy took a few steps forward before turning back to look at us. He didn’t have to say anything for us to know that he needed backup. Charlie and I exchanged a quick glance and a mutual shoulder shrug, then caught up with him. We walked slowly forward toward the tree. Just when we were almost near enough to make out the shape lying quietly in the shadows, a loud shriek shot through my right ear. I jumped back in terror as my heart decided that this was no place to be at all, and tried to crawl down into my stomach. I closed my eyes, and only managed to muscle them open with great effort. When I could see again, I was greeted with a vision of a maniacal Charlie, who was clutching his stomach in exaggerated hysteria.
“Screw you,” I barked as I turn my back on him.
“Shut up, both of you,” commanded Andy, who was a few steps in front of us now, and right on base of the tree. He froze. Charlie quickly stopped laughing, and we moved in beside Andy.
There was a small patch of leaves covering something, with hints of gray sticking out between the foliage. A thin ribbon of pink was slipped underneath and to the right, and there was movement all across it. I knelt down while Andy focused the light. I realized what the movement was, but Bird beat me to it.
We’d all forgotten he was even there. I remembered him giving me the flashlight, but that was my most recent thought of him. He’d been rather quiet through all of this. He walked up now, slowly and calmly. He picked up a stick from the ground and brushed away the leaves with it.
“It’s dead,” he said in passing. “Probably died a few days ago. Look at the flies on its tail.” He knelt down and started prodding the thing with the stick. “Look at how mushy it is.”
Andy, who was bent over slightly and holding his hands on his knees asked, “What is it?”
Bird stood up and let go of the stick, which fell silently to the ground. “It’s a possum. A dead possum,” he said.
“How do you know?” asked Charlie.
“Because flies are eating it,” Bird responded.
Charlie shook his head. “No, how do you know when it died?”
Bird just looked at him. “Because that’s what happens after a few days,” he said sharply before turning his back to us, walking away into the woods past the oil fields.
I don’t remember much of what happened next. Bird just walked away, leaving Andy, Charlie, and I standing by the tree. After a few seconds, I remember that one of us yelled something at him. He didn’t yell back. All I remember after that is the noise. In the excitement of our discovery, we’d forgotten about the scratches. They decided to remind us that they were still there. They started small, with a tiny scratching somewhere in the distance. Then they grew louder as they also grew in number. Eventually they surrounded us, light taps and scrapes on metal grew into louder and heavier chalkboard nails. Louder and louder they grew, behind us and beside us, above us and all around us. They grew heavier, too. It was no longer a scratching on metal, but a slashing of it. We could hear it with enough clarity to picture all of the oil pumps around us being ripped to pieces by something that we couldn’t see. Gashes appeared in the metal around us, in our minds, and something was slashing at it. Slashing at us.
We ran. I remember that much. Running and screaming, the beam from the flashlight bouncing wildly around in front of us, not so much showing us where we were going, but all the places that we weren’t. Eventually, Andy stumbled a bit and dropped it. By then, though, it didn’t matter. We were back on the shale road, out of the oil fields and near enough to the neighborhood to pick up the spilled light of the street lamps. Once back on blacktop, we slowed down. Feeling more secure under the glow of the street lamps, and surrounded by cut grass and landscaped shrubbery, we stopped and allowed the breath we’d left behind in the fields to catch up with us and get back in our lungs where it belonged. We were so relieved, each of us, to be back in the security of civilization that it took several minutes before we realized that one of us wasn’t there. We’d forgotten Bird.
Our parents, minus Andy’s mother, formed a makeshift search party the next morning. We went with them, in the daylight, out onto the shale road and beyond it, into the oil fields. What we found when we got there was absolute normalcy. There was no ripped metal, and no oil pumps lying in ruin. Everything was as it should be. Everything, that is, except Bird. He wasn’t there. We led our parents to the tree where we’d found the possum, only it wasn’t there either. The patch of leaves, yes. The stick Bird had used to poke at its carcass was there as well, but the animal was gone. We all fanned out, each kid sticking close to his parents, with Andy following Charlie. We looked for hours. We shouted until our voices rasped with gurgling consonants. We couldn’t find him.
After hours spent searching, we gathered together into one group again, and headed back to the neighborhood. Our parents decided to call the police. Johnny was missing.
I remember the walk back the most. I don’t remember the details of the it, except that it was silent. Barring the crunching leaves beneath our feet, there was no sound. No sound that I could hear, anyway. I was feeling something then that I’d never felt before. There was a hole where my stomach should have been, only it was more than a hole because it seemed to be sucking the rest of my insides into it. Our friend was lost, and it was our fault. My head was filled with concentration on the happenings inside my body. I completely lost track of my feet. It was more like I wasn’t there than anything else. A kind of floating. Then, without warning, there was a commotion. My stomach found its way back home, my mind reassembled itself, and I located my missing feet. They were running toward something. I looked ahead, and could see where they were heading.
The entire group of us was racing to an oil pump. We’d passed it on the way in, but there was something new about it now. Something beside it, sprinkled with leaves. We got closer. There were flies. A man shouted. A woman fell to her knees. I saw what it was.
He was lying there beside the oil pump, a few handfuls of leaves having fallen on top of him. Someone brushed them off. Something red smeared on his jacket. Blood. There were flies.
I don’t know how we didn’t see him when we passed the pump on our way in. I don’t know what happened after my mother dragged Andy and I away and back home. I only remember seeing the blood. It came from what must have been thousands of tiny scratches all over his face and hands, his clothes, his eyes. His throat. Thousands of them. Tiny. My mother dragged us away.
That night I couldn’t sleep. I was in my bed, covered up with my mother beside me. I’d been too scared to sleep alone. She fell asleep holding me, and I was caught under her arm. I tried closing my eyes. I tried counting sheep. I tried not trying. I just couldn’t stop hearing the scratches. They were in my head now, scratching at it from the inside, scraping against my skull. Then there was a tap. It was light at first, then another came. Tap. Tap tap. Louder, and not inside my head this time. Tap tap tap. I shot up. My mother startled awake. She slurred confused questions at me, wanting to know what was wrong. I didn’t hear her. I just heard the tapping. The tapping. I looked around. Tap tap. It was coming from my window. I shoved myself back against the wall my bed rested on. I brought my knees, shivering, up to my chest and held them there. My mother shook me, begging me to tell her something. Instead, I just pointed. I pointed to the window. She got up, went to the window, and pulled the curtain cord to raise the blinds. There was nothing there. Tap tap. My mother looked down at the window. I shivered – she’d heard it this time. It was real. She looked out. Tap tap tap. It got dark.
The next thing I remember, my mother was stroking my hair and humming to me. I’d passed out.
“What was it?” I asked her, pleadingly.
“What was what?” she asked back.
“At my window,” I said with a shake in my voice, not really wanting to know the answer.
“Nothing,” she said, as she rocked me in her arms. “Just a bird.”
© 2015 – 2016, Kristian Bland. All rights reserved.