They’re heading out to the derelict gas station down by Mill Street to raid the iceboxes for treasure. Tim is in the lead, Bob and Ed and Don following, like always; nothing special in it save the magic of nighttime meanderings and ghost stories told on the open road. The sky is that pale ash grey that comes just after twilight; the wind soft in the low grass; crickets singing to each other across asphalt and gravel roadways cutting through rolling, occluded fields.
It’s deep in the heart of late May, and Tim has been sick for a long time. It isn’t showing yet — that’s the way of what he’s got — but in a month or two it’ll start to tell. He kicks a can down the roadway just to hear it rattle on the bare macadam. He’s already starting to lose feeling in his legs, and he savours every touch, every jolt.
They all watch the can bounce, waiting for something special to happen. It’s the way of boys in the night, with the world asleep and the sky above clear and star-pricked, heading on toward moonrise: to want for magic. It’s in the blood of every boy who’s ever lived, like running in the wind till it burns your cheeks and hollows out your lungs, or feeling the sun burn down on your belly while you lie with the dry grass digging into your back.
Magic lives in the blood, in the soul.
But right then, right there in the false midnight of May, everything is waiting on a sign.
“What you wanna do?” Bob asks Tim’s back. Tim is the leader; Tim has always been the leader. Even when he is gone they will walk behind his brassy shadow, his ghost leading them on perilous adventures as pirates, knights faithful to a lost but not forgotten crown. Then as kings in their own right: on into the less defined roles of manhood.
But now, it is Maytime, in the cool night, and Tim stops in his tracks as he considers the question. He scuffs up the hair at the back of his head, rubs at the sore spot where, deep beneath the surface, the tumour is starting to put pressure on his brain. “If you guys don’t wanna check out the leavings, the waterhole’s not far.”
The others grumble in low tones and shuffle their feet noisily, not really interested in the pond.
“Could dig for grubs in the quarry,” suggests Don.
Ed pokes a finger into Don’s shoulder. “What are you, four?”
Don swats it away and rubs at his arm, hugging it to him. “It used to be fun.”
“No,” says Tim. All eyes turn to him, expectant, arguments forgotten as they wait for the Word. “We should go poke around the Traveller’s Bane.”
Don and Bob and Ed all trade quick glances. Nobody’s been out that way since the county shut it down when Hettie Langstrom passed, on account of all the bodies they found after she died. Of the many who died there, only she died quiet in her bed, long before the local name came into use and the question of how Hettie kept the place up in such lean times was finally answered.
“But — ” starts Don.
“ — What?” interrupts Tim, turning round to stare at the three smaller boys. He’s only got a year on them, but it’s enough to silence them all. “You chicken?” he goads, and Don shies away a little.
“No,” says Don quietly.
“What if she’s still there?” asks Ed.
“She’s been dead twenty years.”
“My mom says she kept her son chained in the basement, and she’d do all this weird stuff to him. Only she won’t tell me what,” Bob says in a rush of breath, his lungs weakened from too many years of asthma.
“My dad says she killed all those people and stole their money, so they raised her up to haunt the place with them.”
“That’s not what he said.”
“Yes, it is — ”
“Nuh-uh,” Bob puffs. “He said that they raised her up so they could do to her what she did to them.”
“Hey!” shouts Tim. Even the wind dies down for him. “She ain’t there. Nobody’s ghost is there. It’s just an old building with stuff still lying around ‘cause nobody wanted it.”
“What stuff?” asks Don warily.
“I don’t know; stuff. Leastways, that’s what my old man said. Said there was a mound of stuff in there that nobody ever bothered taking on account of the place being so soiled.”
The others stare at him with blank expressions on their faces, and a raised eyebrow or two. “Your old man said nobody touches the place ‘cause it’s dirty?”
“No,” spits Tim “You know what I mean: all the murders.”
“Oh,” whistles Don, and the others both nod in silent revelation. “I still don’t wanna go.”
“You guys are such pansies,” Tim says, and starts into the woods, to the embankment just off the highway where the broken bones of the Traveller’s Ease lie: crumpled and abandoned. Going to rot.
The others watch Tim go, listening to the crickets resume their nightsong; to the wind whistling down the empty road. In unanimous assent, unvoiced, they follow him: into the woods, all thought of the old gas station and its blemished treasures forgotten. They slow to skirt the steep ravine: even in the moonlight it’s treacherous, ridged with small but jagged rocks. Like thieves in the night the four boys come skulking, skulking, up to the old inn door, the moon lamplight pale in the sky behind them. The walls have gone ragged, paint peeling and splintered, and the windows are cobweb-cracked. The shadows are long and deep here; the empty door a sucking maw.
Bob and Don and Ed hang back, shuffling their feet, as Tim walks up to the non-existent door and stares in. “Empty save for the dust,” he decrees. The moon lights his teeth in a skull’s grin.
Bob shudders. Ed and Don just hunch their shoulders and follow, half-dragging Bob along.
The wind whistles everywhere in the house.
Cobwebs and dust coat once-proud furniture; line hallways worn smooth by shuffling feet. Tim adds a low whistle to the creaking and settling: “Like I said, nothing’s been touched.” He lopes toward the kitchen at the back of the house. The other boys, huddled together, follow in the tracks his boots leave in the dust.
“What about her son?” whispers Bob.
Ed hisses: “She never had a son.”
“Not what I hear,” Don adds.
“What if he never left?” Bob stares furtively at the shadows clawing at the edges of the moonlight; seeping in through the broken windows.
“He’d be long dead then,” Don mutters, “on account of no one’s seen him for twenty years.”
The three boys pointedly ignore one another, pressed together in air long gone stale and damp. The clatter of Tim excavating in the kitchen drifts back to them: Drawers slam and cupboards stutter, punctuated by invective, Tim’s high voice rattling wall to wall. They follow it, pulled in its eddy, floors creaking under their tread.
The long shadows lean in closer, stealing the breath from their lungs. Hoarfrost slides across the wooden banisters and prickles gooseflesh up the backs of their necks. The wind blustering through the broken windows swirls low, and for a moment, just a moment, each would swear the house is thinking on them.
Don and Bob and Ed swallow hard. Bob’s breath starts fluttering in his lungs as he fights off an asthma attack, shoving the hacking breaths back down his throat while Don grabs his arm and digs his fingers in deep. The house and the weight of its roused occupants bear down on them, the boys fixed by the shuttered dark closing in on them—until Tim’s voice breaks the spell.
“Hey, guys,” Tim comes around the pantry door shouting, “you gotta see this.”
The chill fades back into the walls; the house goes silent in the suddenness of his presence. Grin wide, flushed as a tick, he rolls up midstride, watching them cower. “What all happened to you?”
“Nothing,” says Don. They split apart like water round a river rock. Bob wheezes behind his hands, and Tim turns a slow rising eye on him. Bob waves it off.
“I’m good,” he croaks.
“Never mind,” shrugs Tim, hitching a thumb back at the pantry. “Guys, sonuvabitch is just — ”
That’s all he manages before something black and immensely tall, born of shadows and trailing filth, grapples him from behind.
The three boys scream, high and shrill, as the wraith tightens its hold on Tim; drags him up from the floor bodily and swallows him whole. He bellows with surprise, legs kicking a rough beat in the air.
Miles below, Bob and Don and Ed hesitate, feet ready to call their own retreat. Eyes wide, Tim gapes. “Where in the hell are you all going?”
Don, then Ed, then Bob break.
As one they rush the thing with its arms wrapped around their boy king. They bellow, no words in it: all bluster and love and fear still dug down deep. Headlong, heedless of themselves, they sweep in to save Tim — a sea of small and faithful boys crashing up against the breakwater of shadow towering over them.
They slam up against it in a pummelling wave, drive it back through the pantry door, and the world becomes a tilt-a-whirl as the wraith staggers and they go with it. All five tumble out the screen door, rip it off its hinges, wire and metal and mesh tearing away as they fall out the back of the house and across the weed-choked field into mud and brush and bracken.
Bob and Don roll free in a tangle; Ed and Tim go down on top of the mass of septic tank stink and roll, Ed with his arms locked around the horror’s leg, Tim’s fists wild and flailing. The horror swats them free and staggers up.
It makes it to one knee before Tim picks up a thick log from the ravine’s edge and swings it like a bat.
There’s a sickening crack as the heavy wood hits skull, and a terrible, frozen moment where even the wind dies before the man pitches down the wall of the ravine. He splashes into the clear water, mud seeping slowly off his still form into the flow. A long brown streak fans out, carried off down the current.
The four boys move cautiously to the edge to stare down, three crawling, one striding and coughing up his lungs with his weapon jouncing on one shoulder. They squint down into the sheltered ravine as the moon breaks free of the clouds.
The corpse is filthy: covered in sorry hobo’s rags that have already begun to soak up the muddied water. Their waterlogged weight drags him down to the stones at the base of the creek: an inverse cairn, polished slick, with the earth made crumbling sky.
The thick branch falls from Tim’s fingers as he realizes what he’s done; as the others see the revenant for what it is. None of them say a word, not even as the body submerges entirely into the water and begins its slow descent downstream: under the bridge that demarks the edge of the county, to the demolished dam where the river widens and meets the estuary; never to be seen again.
Tim watches the corpse’s progress long after it slips out of sight; an ache in the pit of his stomach and the back of his head.
For a long time, no one says anything.
It’s Bob who speaks first. “Could he have been her — ” he begins, before Tim cuts him off: “No.”
“He was a vagrant, right?” says Ed quickly. “It’s not like anybody’ll miss him.” The eyes of the three younger boys meet, then seek out Tim’s.
He feels their eyes on the back of his neck, but doesn’t turn to meet them. A steady stream of silt like congealed blood coats the river. There’s a dull pressure thudding in his head, but it’s his nose leaking that finally pulls him away. Tim sniffles it back, thinking it’s just running; then he tastes the copper edge. He puts a hand to his upper lip. In the moonlight the slick across his fingers is a set of burgundy lines.
All the strength drains out of his limbs — whether from the sickness burrowing through his skull or what he’s done, he couldn’t say. He doesn’t even try. Instead, he glances back down at the river. The current has swept it clean. All sign of the body is gone.
“Tim?” whispers Don.
He turns to them: these three boys who need him to speak the Word and make everything right again. He wonders how he ever felt that young. He can give them what they need; trade his peace of mind for theirs. He won’t have to live with the secret long.
Tim, boy king, leader, ghost, turns his back on the river. “Don’t talk. Don’t none of you say a word.”
“Tim,” tries Bob.
“No.” Ed shoves Bob aside. “Hell with him. In this place? What’s one more?”
Tim turns to answer, but he doesn’t have the words. And in that quiet, he feels the shift in the house. Over his shoulder he can see them now. Faces peering out of windows; sighing in the gentle dark. All those lonely men and women came and never left.
A low wind rattles the shutters of the inn, and it’s cold like the beginning of fall; like the rainy weight of autumn; all blustering winds and burnished leaves gone helter-skelter cross a dusk-gold sky. The house is fair aching with the weight of its season — so full of ghosts it’s bursting at the seams.
There’s hands held out for Tim in that quiet congregation, all hollows and narrows. Beckoning equal hard as the hands of the boys he loves, even the ones who don’t love him back anymore.
Caught: afraid to leave summer; afraid to go on to autumn; Tim’s tears come bursting out like a busted dam, as he sinks to the muddy ground. Tim still a boy for all his tall talk. The crickets keep them company as Bob and Don hold him, their arms a tangled copse of childhood, held tight. All still waiting on a sign.
Michael Matheson is a writer, editor, and book reviewer based in the urban wilds of Toronto. He also spends his time working as a submissions editor for Apex Magazine and a marketing/editorial assistant with ChiZine Publications. Sometimes he writes fiction. Sometimes it sells, including to anthologies like Future Lovecraft, Dead North, and Chilling Tales 2. Find out more at michaelmatheson.wordpress.com. He says:
I keep coming back to the idea of “childhood” in my fiction. We like to paint childhood in broad strokes, don’t we? Make an easier, cleaner thing of it in the remembrance: “a simpler time”; “a better time”; “a time of innocence.” When, really, childhood is anything but: childhood is about wanting, and needing, and loving, and hurting so deep and so hard it tears a hole in you as big as the world. To me, there is something at once numinous and sinister about those early years when we first begin making all the choices that will eventually shape the paths of our lives, for good or for ill. And the stories we tell about those years should not be simple. Because things never are.
Photograph of a house in Italy by flickr user TM is provided under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.