Halloween is fast approaching, and a favorite author of mine, Mr. Neil Gaiman, has proposed a new tradition. All Hallow’s Read.Inspired, I wrote a short story for my kids and am sharing it with you too.
She turned to the next chapter. Unlike most of the townsfolk, the father of Colin Lars did not believe that his son had been taken by natural means. As librarian with much time on his hands, and access to all of the town’s records, he had studied the history of the town. He had read the old texts and newspapers.
Unfortunately, his rantings about feasts and curses, evil spirits, rituals, and mysterious graveyard circles, were misinterpreted as the ravings of a father filled with crippling grief, and so he was dragged off to the nearest mental health hospital. Pumped full of narcotics and knock-out drugs for weeks. It was a month or more past All-Hallow’s Eve before he was allowed to sober up and, finally, be evaluated by the doctors. His continued ravings did not help his case any. He begged all of his visitors to search the old section of the cemetery, and finally, an old high school chum decided to humor his tragic friend. He hiked out to the back of the cemetery, squeezed through the rusty fence in the back, and entered the silent grove. There he found the lost children. Huddled together in death, and despite the horrid decay, there was abject fright still discernible on every innocent face.
After several years of therapy and confinement in the hospital, Mr. Lars finally returned to his family. He put on a rational façade, for a short time, but walked out on his wife and youngest son one day. Some rumors said that he’d simply moved across country, started a new life, and did his best to pretend that he had no past. Some believed that he’d committed suicide. Nobody was quite sure of the truth and his family never spoke of it. He left behind a handwritten manuscript of the events and history of Hickory Falls as he saw them, and then he was, simply, gone. Mrs. Lars had thought to toss out the papers and pages that her grieving husband had left to her, but instead, locked them away in her desk. It was a few years later, shortly after her second marriage, that she found these papers again. She sat down, and read them. Herself unsure of why, she decided to edit the manuscript, polish it up a bit, and publish it. The result was this book. The book in Katie’s very own hands.
And that was it. The end. Stunned, Katie closed the book and put it down. Her mother looked over at her and caught the odd look on her daughter’s face.
“What is it?” she asked.
“It’s this reading assignment I have...” And then Katie found herself explaining the entire situation. She explained the Wolf book, Jaxon, being found out by Mr. Lars, everything. She handed the book to her mom and asked if she’d ever seen it.
Looking puzzled for a moment as she glanced over the tattered cover, she suddenly smiled. “Oh yes! I remember this! When your dad and I moved to this town, a few years before you were born, I remember picking a copy of this up at the local book store! The owner said that it was written by a local author and it sold quite well at the time it was published. More so to people outside of town than here, but this is a small farming community and I guess there aren’t that many readers. I remember seeing it sold at stalls at the annual Halloween festival, but not for many years. Nowadays, kids want to buy candy and toys and plastic vampire teeth. They’re not much interested or impressed with spooky stories or books.”
“You mean, these things didn’t happen? This is all a story? These kids did not actually disappear?”
Mrs. Lincoln looked a little troubled, “I’m…. I’m really not sure. I’ve heard rumors of kids missing, but I do not actually know if these were real stories, or locals passing off tales from this book as truths, you know, just to mess with us new folks. I never followed up on it and assumed that they must have been teasing.”
“I could probably research the stories,” Katie said, “even though most of them may not be available online. But it’s not like I can get to any news archives online with the power and internet out. I can see why Mr. Lars gave this book to me to read though. It’s spooky and it’s all about history and tradition too. To make sure I really understand, I could go to the library and look through old newspapers.”
“Not at 7pm at night in the middle of a storm,” her mom said reasonably, “and the library is likely closed anyway, with the power out.”
“Ah. You’re right!” agreed Katie, and decided that, with not much left to do in a dark house and tired out from reading all day, she should call it a night. Worried that the frightening topics she’d spent the day with would keep her awake, she lay quietly on her pillow and slowly counted backwards. Perhaps as a result of a stressful week at school, sleep quickly overtook her in spite of her confused state of mind. In the last moments, as she drifted into slumber, she thought she heard a mournful howling coming from the woods in the distance, but her eyes remained closed, and she slept.
Katie woke to a somber gray, but much calmer Sunday morning. Happily, the power was back on and the house was heated and cozy. She dressed in her favorite faded jeans and green baggy sweat shirt. Not glamorous, but very cozy on a bleary October morning. She thought about asking her mom for permission to run over to the library to research the town history, but instead, she sat down at her laptop and began to work on the writing portion of her assignment. Despite her initial dismay over receiving the work as discipline, she soon found herself absorbed in her essay. Deciding to treat the story as tall tale, she set about discussing the lack of an All Hallow’s Festivals and the unfortunate disappearances of the town’s children. It seemed that, without the first, the second was sure to follow, as if the town was cursed, although she rationally added, there was no such thing as curses.
She eventually got stuck. She wasn’t sure how to tie everything neatly together and summarize the whole project. Should she point out the foolishness and ignorance of believing in curses when there might be perfectly logical explanations? Should she talk about how such coincidences elsewhere might explain other tales of curses in history and literature? She considered adding a speculation that, had townsfolk paid attention to history, children’s lives may have been saved. She penned several rough drafts of her summary, but by lunch time, had to give up and take a break. She decided, while having a sandwich and some tea, she would head to the library. Maybe a little research and actual town history, by way of reading the microfiche archives of old newspapers, would give her another bit of the story to explore and might possibly add to her writing.
She didn’t get the chance. As she cleaned up her lunch mess, her mother came downstairs and invited Katie to a matinee showing of a movie that both of them had been interested in seeing. The price of this movie, for Katie, was to then help her mother with grocery shopping and a few other errands before returning home. It was nearing sunset by the time they’d finished. As they wandered in and out of the front of the house, delivering bags of groceries from the car to the kitchen, Katie’s mom hit the TV remote, powering it on for no other reason but to provide some background noise. As her mom got to work storing the frozen goods, Katie filled the kettle with fresh cold water, put it on the stove, and set out the tea, sugar and cream, then she got to work storing the canned goods.
The kettle whistled as Katie’s dad walked in from the back yard. He’d been outside nearly all day raking the Autumn leaves, double-checking the coverings on their small above-ground pool and its filter mechanism, and generally going through all of the various steps of his annual ritual to ready the garden for the cold season. In the winter, Katie missed the padded lounge chairs under the trees the most, but she was pretty sure that it was the big gas grill that was most difficult for her father to put away.
All work finished, the family prepared their teas and gathered at the table to relax a few minutes before time to move on to dinner preparation. Katie was in the middle of re-hashing her favorite bit of the movie, when they were interrupted by the strident electronic wailing of the emergency broadcast system alarm. All three rushed to the TV in the living room when they realized that the noise was not the typical ‘test’ broadcast. The TV was already tuned to the local news channel, and they stood quietly in the doorway of the living room, watching the official text scrolling ominously across the bottom of the screen, as a familiar looking journalist spoke with the town Sherriff.
A child was missing. At approximately 4pm this afternoon, the boy went missing from in front of his family’s home, which was located on a quiet cul-de-sac in the Oak Valley neighborhood. He had been riding his trike with his big brother, when the brother went inside for a short moment to ask for a snack. When the older child returned, the smaller boy was gone. The parents started searching the area and calling for him, but as it was not in the child’s nature to run off or hide, they quickly called 911. The search of the local area had been ongoing since the boy’s disappearance, and an Amber alert was issued for the surrounding counties, but not a trace of the child had been found. The boy was described as approximately 3ft in height, slender, with dark hair and dark eyes. He was last seen wearing jeans, a yellow tee shirt, and a Disney Cars red jacket.
A chill ran through Katie. Even before the familiar face was shown on the TV screen, she knew that it had to be Jaxon. She felt it in her soul. As her eyes fell on the dull face in the slightly fuzzy blown-up black and white photo, she knew that he was in dire danger.
“Mom!” she cried, “Can we go over there? Please! I know him. That’s my reading buddy! That’s Jaxon! We have to go over there!”
Her parents exchanged worried looks. Their own parental worry, the type that grips all parents when faced with the news of any child in harm’s way, clear upon their faces.
“No,” said her father finally. “This is horrifying and very scary news, and I am sorry that your little friend is missing, but unless the Sheriff calls for more volunteers to search, we would just be in the way. If we truly want to help your friend, we need to stay away and let them do their jobs.”
Katie wanted to blurt out the story of the missing children from Mr. Lars’ book, but… what if it was just a make-believe novel? It was nuts wasn’t it? Supernatural forces stealing children when All Hallow’s Eve was not observed? Besides, the Festival was still held every Autumn! Hayrides, booths selling all sorts of food, live music and crafts. There were even carnival rides these days.
But… said an ominous voice in her head… there was no spookiness. No horror stories, no haunted houses. No trick-or-treating or fright-filled mazes built of stacked hay bales, no costumed monsters leaping out to frighten you as you stumbled around in the sweet smelling cut grasses. Was it truly a Halloween festival, or a simple fall fair?
“Nonsense!” thought Katie. This is stupid! Maybe he’s just run off. Stuck in a tree. Maybe he decided to play hide-n-seek and fell asleep on a neighbor’s back porch and he’ll wake up as soon as he’s finished napping.
Her father clicked off the television, and Katie looked up at him, startled, about to protest. “Honey,” he said gently, “we can’t do anything right now. I’ll keep checking on the news and let you know what happens. Right now though, you are white and you’re shaking. Let’s go make some dinner and try to calm down. Tomorrow is a school and a work day. Come on.” And after gathering her in his arms for a big hug, he led her into the kitchen.
True to his word, Katie’s dad kept a check on the news – none of it good – throughout the evening. Katie did her best to not cry. She nibbled a bit of her dinner, and eventually allowed her mom to talk her into going upstairs for a shower and to get ready for bed. Her mother and father both came in to hug her and kiss her goodnight. There wasn’t much they could say. What words would make any of them feel better or any safer? Her mom adjusted the blankets, and they quietly stepped out and closed her door. She could hear them return to the living room, and she also heard the tv come back on quietly.
Katie knew that there was no way that she would sleep. She lay back on the pillow and listened to the wind blow. It was getting cold outside. It wasn’t yet winter, but it was cold. It seemed terribly unfair that she was home, tucked in warm in her bed, and little Jaxon was out in the woods in the cold dark night. With that thought, Katie sat straight up in her bed. It was not logical to think Jaxon was outside! Nobody knew where he was! But she could not shake from her mind an image of the small dark-haired boy, huddled and scared and cold, alone in a dark circle of trees. She didn’t even know if such a grove existed! She knew where the cemetery was, but had never been inside the main grounds, much less into any hidden areas that might exist away from view. Yet she was haunted by the possibility that he might just be out there, like the last group of children mentioned in her book. Alone and waiting for someone to come get him.
The Town Cemetery was about a mile from the house, between her home and the school. Not much was visible from the road, but her dad said it went way back and was quite interesting due to its age and how well it had been maintained. Katie knew that her parents would never agree, but she also knew exactly what she had to do. She could never forgive herself if she did not at least go out there and look.
She slipped from her bed and quietly dressed in her jeans, a long sleeved shirt, and her green sweatshirt. She also grabbed a rain jacket in case the stormy winds turned wet. Choosing thick socks and her good hiking boots, Katie started for the window. She’d never climbed out before, but the flat porch roof and sturdy trellis would not be an obstacle. She started to lift the window and then paused. Gathering a pen from her backpack, Katie scribbled a quick note to her parents. She picked up the worn copy of “Hallow’s Eve in Hickory Falls – Our Past and Present”, and dog-eared the pages that talked about the hidden circle of trees. Katie left the note and book on her desk, and quietly slipped out the window and down to the ground. She started around to the back to get her bike… and stopped. Her father had locked it in the shed. She couldn’t go back into the house for the key, but she didn’t want to have to hike a mile down the highway in the dark! She was nervous enough about the coming trek, as it was, but the thought of riding quickly down the shoulder of the highway, confident in the saddle of her trusty 10-speed, had given her a little boost in confidence.
Walking quietly around toward the gate, thinking to check the lock anyway, just in case, her eye fell on the side door of her neighbor’s garage. Ms. Granger, a hygienist at the dentist’s office in town, was a long-time family friend and she had a bike! She also never locked her garage. Katie trotted over and eased the door open. Slipping in, she triggered the auto-sensor that turned on the interior light and she jumped as the cluttered area was filled with light, but Ms. Granger’s car was not in the garage. She wasn’t home. The bike, a 10-speed like her own, was propped in the corner. Wheeling it out of the side-door and down the driveway, she didn’t hop on and start pedaling until she made the street, and once she began to ride, she pumped the pedals as hard as she could to race out of the neighborhood. She was gripped with a worry that someone, anyone, might step from a house at any moment and stop her from leaving. She had to get away and go check. She had to.
Forcing herself to slow down a little, she leaned into the sharp turn out onto the main road. It was much darker now, away from the closely clustered houses, but she knew that it was a straight ride out to the cemetery gates. Having passed it at night many times, she also knew that there were lights on at all hours. Well, she argued with herself, she knew that there were lights left on near the street, she didn’t know if the interior of the park was illuminated or not. She considered for a moment that she should have brought a flashlight, but it was too late to go back now.
As the lights faded behind her, and the darkness of the surrounding woods engulfed her, Katie focused her attention on the sound of her tires on the blacktop and the smooth metal noises of the chains and the gears on the bike. It distracted her from the whispering winds and the unnatural sounds that she imagined were following her through the darkened trees. Only ten minutes or so of steady riding passed before she finally saw flickers of light peek through the gloom ahead of her. The tiny bits of cheerful glare gave her the incentive needed for a final burst of speed, and in relief, she coasted the final few meters to the driveway, and up into the well-lit entry way. Unlike many larger cemeteries, this one had no locked gate and she breezed right through the concrete and river rock archway decorating the entry.