Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Lesson in All Hallow’s Reading – Part 7

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.
                Happy Halloween!

Halloween is here, and so is the final chapter! Hope you have a blessed Samhain!

title
Part 7

Katie’s parents kept her home from school the next day, even though she was eager to go back. After spending most of the morning with her folks, she retreated to her room. She sat down at her laptop and worried for a moment about what she should write. How could she complete her project now?

She’d connected the lack of a Hallow’s Eve festival with the tragedies of the missing children, but she’d promised Mr. Lars she would not mention what happened out in the woods. Finally, she decided to treat it as a creative writing project. Mr. Lars had told her that the original assignment was about traditions, and what is more traditional than a telling spooky tales on Halloween? Suggesting that the town might possibly be beset by a curse, she speculated in her paper that perhaps all residents had a requirement to celebrate All Hallow’s Eve, for the greater good. She suggested that there was a need to practice ‘fright’, like an exercise, in order to strengthen their psychic shields and so protect the boundaries between the worlds. They had a duty to continue the spooky traditions, and keep the monsters, big and small, from getting through. As a way to conclude her paper, she proposed that she could help hold up her end of the bargain by organizing a reading booth at this year’s All Hallow’s Eve Festival.

She proofread her own paper, then she brought her laptop down to her dad for revisions and grammar checking. He was a bit surprised by her positive mood over homework, but happy to see it. When he read through the paper and got to the part about the reading booth, he asked her if this was just part of the assignment, or did she really want to do this?

Explaining that she thought it might be fun, he offered to stop by the library and local book shops to look for book donations, if, that is, her teacher approved of it. Katie thought that was a great idea, and added it to the notes in her paper.

Mrs. Lincoln drove Katie to school on Tuesday, but she was still ambushed by her curious schoolmates as soon as she stepped onto school property. She couldn’t go five steps without having to answer a question or explain, yet again, how she found the old gate or recount how dark and scary the woods were in the night. They gasped at her explanation of following Jaxon’s crying through the dark, these tiny sounds all that she had to go on to find him in the small clearing, hidden in the fog and brush. When she told how the moon kept dipping behind the clouds, leaving them in pitch dark blackness with only the groaning of the winds for company, many of the kids shivered with goose-bumps in sympathetic fright.


Many of her peers expressed curiosity about Mr. Lars’ book because the TV news reporter, that Katie had spoken to the night she’d found Jaxon, had shared the fact that she’d been driven to search the cemetery after reading the town history. A couple of the kids proudly displayed copies of the book of their own, old books that they had found in their family libraries. Individuals broke off from questioning her, to gather together in twos and threes to compare notes about the book with other readers. Keeping her promise though, Katie said not a word about their staff-wielding defender.

When 4th period Language Arts rolled around, Katie eagerly made her way to class. By this time in the day, most students had already satisfied their urge to interrogate her about the rescue, and she made her way mostly unhindered to class. She walked into the class room with five minutes to spare before the bell. She approached Mr. Lars at the whiteboard. When he turned and saw her, he gathered her up in a very unprofessional hug.

“I am so proud of you!” he said. “To act on your instincts and save that boy…” and his eyes got all misty for a minute.

Awkwardly, Katie quickly held out her paper to change the subject, overwhelmed by emotion herself.

“You finished the project?” he exclaimed, “you actually had time to read a novel, run off into the woods, save a child, and still write an essay?!” A sly smile stole over his face. “You have set the bar high young lady. You know that I will be expecting nothing else but greatness from you this year! Let me glance through this.” Sitting down at his desk, he hurriedly read through the three pages that Katie had typed up.

Reaching the end, he looked up at her. “This is very good. I really like how you explain various traditional beliefs concerning the veils between the mortal world and spirit world thinning at this time of year. Your speculation that our little town of Hickory Falls might connect to a place of particular darkness is an interesting one. That our ancestral instinctive fears of unknown evil provides a psychic barrier, that we are not even aware of, which closes the thinning tears in the veil, protecting us from that darkness, is positively brilliant! He read out loud a passage that Katie was quite proud of, ““Like a vaccine, we must inoculate ourselves with small doses of fear to keep our immunities strong.” Ah! I love this!” he exclaimed! And you got all of this from the book? You’ve truly outdone yourself Katie!”

Somewhat disconcerted by his complete lack of allusion to events in the woods, Katie tried to match his resolve to keep his part in it hidden. “I found the book very interesting, although quite sad, and it helped me understand how our modern celebrations evolved from ancient beliefs and how superstitions and traditions come to be.”

“Yes.” He said with a more sober tone. “This book is always difficult for me to read. I was very young, but the events in this book are true. My big brother did disappear and my father was driven mad, and eventually away from us, because of his grief. My mother and I got by and we have done very well since, but that was a dark chapter in our lives.”

By this point, more children had arrived for class and had gathered around Mr. Lars’ desk. He looked up at their quiet faces and smiled. “I think that I may have to dig out some more copies of this old book, maybe?” Shy giggles came in reply. “Miss Katie has already used this text to complete a make-up essay for not following instructions on the last project.” He paused to give her a mock frown, and Katie played along by hanging her head and glancing back up with sad puppy eyes. “However, I am sure that we can work it into our class somehow. Let me think on this. And get back to your own seats! How can we have a proper class with everyone sitting at my desk?”

They proceeded with their regular classwork. Today’s assignment was peer reviews of last week’s reading buddy assignments. Katie was instructed to use her original papers, even though she’d ‘cheated’ on the actual assignment, as it was still a good exercise in grammar and paragraph formation. The kids found themselves often side-tracked in their work, as they would digress into discussions about the books they’d read and how much their reading buddies had enjoyed the stories. Katie found herself wishing that she’d actually read her book as she had no such story to share!

The bell for 5th period rang, and as she started to gather her bag and walk out the door, hoping to catch up with Carin so they could walk to their next class together, Mr. Lars called out and asked her to stay behind just a minute. He finished looking over a couple of papers for other students, and signed a form that Mrs. Carlos, the band teacher brought by, and then he finally turned to Katie.


“Are you serious about the reading booth at the town’s All Hallow’s Festival this year?” he asked. “We are cutting it close, time-wise, but we may be able to squeeze it in there if this is something that you really want to do. I would need you to help organize it and get volunteers.”

“Yes!” said Katie. “While I was reading your book, I noticed that most descriptions of past celebrations always included the telling of ghost stories. I don’t remember ever seeing that at the festival! We have booths with food and crafts. We have apple bobbing and carnival games. Sometimes they host a hayride, in the daylight not the dark, and sometimes they have a hay-bale maze. But I don’t ever remember ghost stories. We haven’t ever had a haunted house either. As I was writing my essay, I couldn’t help but think that our festivals weren’t doing very much to “inoculate” us with fright, and that it might be fun to bring back this scarier part of Halloween night.”

“We still have the books that we read to the kindergarteners,” said Mr. Lars. “and we can include some more frightful young adult books for after sundown. You start thinking about how to decorate such a booth … posters, props, etc., although don’t go out and buy anything yet, and we’ll discuss this more later. I must bring this up with Ms. O’Donald for permission first. I don’t think she’ll have a problem with it. This is truly a grand idea Katie!”

“Oh! And before you go on to your next class,” he said, abruptly changing the subject, “I have something to show you.” He reached into his drawer and pulled out an old envelope. Gingerly opening it and carefully shuffling the contents into his hand, he held out an old black and white photo. Standing in the driveway next to an old car with lots of chrome and outrageous looking taillights, was a small blonde boy in shorts and a much taller version of himself. The teen was in shorts too, and his long blond hair was slightly lifted in what must have been a warm summer breeze. He leaned casually on a long wooden staff and was smiling down at whatever it was his little brother must have been telling him at the time.

brothers2

“This was my brother, Colin,” Mr. Lars said, “he had broken his leg badly a few years before this picture was taken and he used that old staff as a cane. He teased me relentlessly, and always threatened to “whup me” with it, but he never would and I knew it. He was my hero. I wish, Katie, that somebody had investigated my brother’s disappearance, and that of the other kids’, like they do for kids now. We didn’t have Amber alerts or emergency broadcast systems or 911 or national missing kids registries. It breaks my heart still to think that whoever killed them managed to get away scot-free. It’s been so long now that the perpetrator is no doubt long dead and gone. But maybe, just maybe, if someone had looked for him like my dad tried to do… ”

“Anyway,” he said, interrupting himself with a sigh and a sad smile, “I’m sure that you don’t want to hear this moroseness and long ago loss and gloom. It was great luck that you found little Jaxon. I don’t know what possessed me, exactly, to have this book handy the other day when I assigned it to you, nor what possessed you to actually go look for that hidden grove, but the fates were smiling on us, and on little Jaxon in particular. When I heard the news, I knew that I had to share this photo with you. See, when Jaxon was reported missing the other day, well, it wasn’t just my family that had old wounds opened. You might not hear it from anyone else, but those of us who lost loved ones before, we all have our own reasons to be particularly happy that this weekend’s story had a much better ending than the tragic story that we lived through long ago.”

And as Katie took one more deep look into the long ago eyes of the elder Lars brother, she was glad that she’d kept her promise not to mention seeing her teacher in the woods the other night, as it would seem that he was not, indeed, ever there.

The End.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Lesson in All Hallow’s Reading–Part 6

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.
Happy Halloween!
title
Part 6

Completely immobilized, Katie watched the beast cover the distance between them in seconds, but it was so intent on her that it never saw the staff swing out and around. It was expertly maneuvered, inches from Katie’s face, and it smacked with deadly force into the muzzle of the approaching animal. With a blast of air that was filled with sharp pellets of pure ice, the creature disintegrated around them.

“Focus!” the man shouted, “You have to block them. Do not let them use your fear against you!”

“Ok! Ok!” Katie said, tears still running down her face, “I’m trying but, what are they?! Why are you here? I don’t understa… Watch out!” she screamed, as another of the beasts dove in from behind Mr. Lars.

He brought the staff up high as he spun around, and with a double-handed maneuver, swiftly brought the weapon down and clubbed another of the beasts into oblivion.

There were three of the monsters left. Yowling as they dashed in and out of the gathered dark fog, they were undeterred in their quest for violence. They were wary though, now realizing that they weren’t the only danger in these woods. They pulled back further, but they weren’t going very far. They used this distance strategically - a couple of the beasts would thrash about in the brush while the other would run in and out of the clearing, testing their reflexes and defenses. At every move, the fiend-like animals were met with a staff at the ready.

With devilish intelligence, they changed their tactics. All three took spent a moment, rushing about the perimeter, when suddenly, two wolves dashed forward at once. Katie and Mr. Lars were nearly back to back, and one wolf attacked each of them simultaneously. The staff was already in motion in one direction when Katie realized that the other wolf was in mid-leap towards her and Jaxon. She could hear the deadly thud as sturdy staff met wolf skull behind her, but knew that there was no way it could be swung back around to her side in time. She threw up her arms and with all her will, imagined a mighty shield of force between her and the wolf.

With a pained yelp, the creature bounced up and over her head. Katie went down hard from the impact and Jaxon fell down on top of her. As she hit the ground, she saw the stunned beast fall into the chaotic path of Mr. Lars’ second and less graceful swing. The connection was messy, but effective, and this beast too dissolved into a shower of ice shards. The impact knocked the very slender man off balance, and as he fell, the staff flew from his hand and bounced away out of reach, then, before either could regain their feet, the last wolf leapt into the clearing, diving straight at Katie’s throat.

Moving faster than she’d ever seen him move, little Jaxon rocked off of her from where he’d fallen, and up onto his knees. Locking eyes with the shadow nightmare, he screamed “NO!” and held his arms out straight in front of him. Surrounding his tiny fists, a brilliant ball of the whitest light exploded forth and blasted out into the approaching terror. When the light hit it, the creature was instantly and soundlessly bathed in pure light, and momentarily expanding, it exploded in a great burst of blinding sparks and glares.

blast

The trio was left blind in the dark as the glare faded, night vision, what little they’d had temporarily wrecked. There was no howling now, only the more natural sounds of wind through trees. As they gradually re-gained their ability to see in the scant light, Katie sat up and gathered the little boy into her arms again. When she noticed that he was still shivering, she was pleasantly surprised to discover it was chills and goose bumps from the cold that afflicted the little guy. His fear seemed to be completely under control. She let him go long enough to slip out of her rain jacket and wrap it around him, then she held on to him once more.

Off to the side. The dark shape of their companion rose from long grasses. He stooped to retrieve his staff.


“What happened?” Katie asked him. “What were those things? Is this what killed those children all those years ago. Is this what you were trying to warn me about?”

“I … I don’t really know,” sighed his voice, no longer sounding as familiar as it had before. “I don’t know what they are, but yes. This is part of the evil that comes through when we stop guarding against it. The ancient people had it right when they talked about the veils between the worlds thinning at certain times of the year. We are particularly in danger in the fall, at this time of year. Fear of those monsters, of what we just experienced, used to be passed on from generation to generation. Our power to resist them comes from our accepting that the danger is real, that monsters are real. We CAN stop them… when we know to watch out. When we remember to guard and to shield. When we remember to be afraid. Our very instincts protect us. Like when you threw up your arms and blocked that one that leapt at you.”

“And when Jaxon took down that other one!” Katie exclaimed.

“I told him “NO!””, Jaxon said wondrously, looking down at his hands. “I told him “No!” and he went away.”

“You sure did sweetie!” she said, holding him closer. “Why is that?” she asked the other.

“Younger children are more in touch with their instincts,” the shadowy man said. “Their thoughts and dreams are more pure, focused and real. Their fear is probably stronger as a result. It probably makes them the greatest enemies of these beasts. Perhaps that is why it is the children who are stolen, the ones who can believe in monsters… ” His voice trailed off with a deep sadness.

“And so when we stop passing on spooky stories and scary traditions,” said Katie, the truth dawning, “then our strongest defenders are left weakest! That’s why they attacked the children. To get rid of them before they could gain this power of fear… although, by doing so… the whole community was driven to terror, which also closed the walls between the worlds. Oh no! We NEED spooky stories! We need scary hayrides! We need to celebrate All Hallow’s Eve!”

“Yes.” said Lars, the silvery blonde of his hair becoming more apparent as clouds drifted away. “I think that you may be right. Now, you two need to get out of here! I have no doubt that you are being looked for. And Katie…?”

“Yes?”

“Don’t mention seeing me here tonight. Nobody will believe the truth. Just… remember…”

“You’re right.” She said. “I won’t. I understand.”

As the pale moon beams slowly peeked out from behind the clouds and penetrated the dark grove, tendrils of fog could be again be seen drifting higher amongst the branches. They paused to watch the mystical tentacles weave through the branches. And then, without looking back, Katie picked up little Jaxon and, surprisingly confident in her sense of direction, headed back towards the cemetery gate.

As she carried him off, Jaxon looked back into the shadows toward their savior. The face looking back was familiar, but seemed much younger, and much paler, than before. As he watched, the figure slowly faded into the fog. He was not alarmed though. He was only tired, and so giving a four finger wave at the vanishing figure, he snuggled his face into Katie’s neck and held on tight as she carried him through the trees.

They reached the rickety gate, and Katie had to put Jaxon down for a moment. He was a little boy, but she wasn’t all that big herself. Being a very active girl gave her the muscle to carry him, but she needed to catch her breath. She yanked the gate to open it a bit more and then helped Jaxon through before squeezing through the gap herself. When they both were through, he turned to her and lifted his arms to her again. She was tired, but she didn’t hesitate to pick him up and carry him on.

She’d made it past they scruffy underbrush of the outer areas of the cemetery, and back onto the more manicured grass of the main gardens, when it finally dawned on her that the lights that she had begun to see around them were not those of the front gates, rather they were headlights and flashlights of searchers inside the graveyard itself. That one set of lights must be the blue and red of a police cruiser also finally penetrated the fog that her brain was floating in and she so stopped, looked around, and realized that, while still un-noticed, they were no longer alone.

The bobbing of lights off to the right indicated the presence of searchers poking around in that back corner. More lights near the road was a tip-off that they’d found Ms. Granger’s bike. She hoped that they appreciated how well she had taken care of it. She’d apologize to Ms. Granger tomorrow.

Remembering to call out for help did not even occur to her until Jaxon mentioned the police car, and finally, she thought to yell to the nearest searchers.

Immediately, like a synchronized squadron of coordinated fireflies, all of the flashlights popped up and started bouncing across the fields in their direction. Many voices were calling her name.

return

The first searcher came near, a man wearing overalls and a long sleeved tee-shirt - not at all familiar to her. He stopped and stared, as did the next two civilians and one of the policemen. It was the guy in overalls who yelled out first. “She’s got the boy! She found the little boy!!! We got ‘em both!!!” Shouts of disbelief, followed by whoops of joy and relief, soon filled the quiet graveyard. The spirits were not resting in peace tonight.

What followed was chaos. Katie’s parents were among the searchers, having found her note after Ms. Granger, also present, had returned home to find her bike missing and garage door open. Ms. Granger had run over to Katie’s house to report the theft, and after a quick search of yards, garages, and house they’d gone upstairs to find Katie missing. When she saw the fear and worry in their eyes, Katie was very glad that she’d left the note for them. They had called the police and rushed immediately to the cemetery, but had no luck tracking which way she’d gone after parking the bike by the tree. And yes, her dad was proud of her responsible handling of the borrowed 10-speed.


Everyone piled into cars. Katie and her mom and Jaxon rode in the squad car; her dad followed in his car. Jaxon was almost too tired to be excited by this mode of transport. Phone calls were made from the graveyard, and after a siren-led convoy across town, Jaxon’s family joined them at the local medical clinic, escorted by the rest of the local law enforcement team and most of the volunteers who had been out searching for him. The doctor on duty at the small urgent care clinic had to put his foot down and chase out all but the parents, police, and a limited number of supporters as they place was simply too small to hold everyone who wanted to be there.

Katie did her best to downplay what had happened. She admitted to reading the history book, learning about the hidden area outside the cemetery, and being filled with the need to go check it out. She did not mention Mr. Lars.

Jaxon however, answered many questions. He talked about the wolves that had chased him away from home, he talked about how he’d been lost in the trees, but managed to get out to the place where Katie had found him, and about being scared of bad shadows in the wind. He also had plenty to say about howling monsters and ninjas with capes.

It was eventually decided that he must have been chased by a dog, run off, and got lost. Or perhaps he’d seen something on TV and had wandered off to re-create an adventure he’d seen in a show. After a full check up by the doctor and pronounced perfectly fit and fine, if a bit dirty, Jaxon was released to his parents. He ran over and gave Katie a huge yawn-filled hug. She gave him a big squeeze in return. Then the tired boy was picked up carried out by his parents, who had also already hugged Katie as many times as they could, when they could get her away from her own parents.

As they walked out the door, Jaxon was already half asleep across his daddy’s shoulder and he never noticed the flashbulbs and news cameras. His parents told anyone who would listen that they would be much more careful about what shows the boys were exposed to, but it didn’t matter. After this adventure, Jaxon was no longer interested in the TV. Instead, he would take to wearing a black cape, carrying a kindergartner-sized staff, and ninja-fighting pretend shadow wolves.

ninja

Katie didn’t know how to explain to her parents what had happened. She didn’t know how to tell them why she ran off, but she didn’t have to. They had been so scared that they didn’t care about the why. They had the note, they had the story about the graveyard that set her off, and that was all they needed. They were just happy to have her back safe and sound. Even Ms. Granger was in tears! She told Katie that if she ever felt the need to run off against her parents’ will ever again, that she should come get her and, no questions asked, she’d run off with her. Just to keep her safe!

Katie felt somewhat guilty. As if she were lying to all present, but at one point, during all the confusion and talk in the clinic, as she listened to Jaxon tell his momma about the wolves and about the ‘ninja’ with the flying hair and deadly staff, her eyes met those of the old sheriff, and she knew that there was something there. And the doctor. He looked over at her, and for a moment, there was a connection. She knew that he knew. But then he turned away, put his happy Dr. Johnson face with the sparkle-y eyes back on, and continued his paperwork. The old guy from the cemetery in overalls, who Katie had learned was the groundskeeper, also came over to her at one point and gently held her hands. He didn’t ask. He didn’t say anything, but Katie knew that he knew. It was a secret that had to remain quiet, and although she was just a kid herself, she knew what her responsibility was.


Katie too had to wade through the local media and news crews, but these were polite and friendly local folk, and with the help of the sheriff, statements were made and the Lincolns were soon able to gather their daughter into their car and drive home for a much needed hot shower and sleep.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A Lesson in All Hallow’s Reading–Part 5

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.
Happy Halloween!
title
Part 5

The driveway led up a short drive which opened up, left or right, into a big circular loop that wound around the main grounds. Choosing to turn left, at random, Katie biked further into the graveyard. She’d never visited this cemetery, but as she left the open road and rode deeper into the open area, surrounded by headstones and crypts and their residents, deep in endless slumber, Katie felt instantly safer. As if nothing could touch her here. She was surrounded by peace and an eerie silence, and she could almost feel a warding presence surrounding the area that grew stronger the further into the interior she rode. She could hear the wind, but the dark pressure and the almost heard noises from the forest seemed far away, so distant as to be forgotten, convincing her that it had been nothing more than her imagination chasing her down the darkened street.

Soon enough though, she found herself on a section of the road that curved back around to the right and she realized that she must have met with one of the back corners of the lot. She couldn’t see the outer boundaries though. Back here it was much darker. If not for the moon peeking from the clouds it would be almost too dark to see at all. She stopped the bike and looked around. How was she supposed to find a hidden fence, in the dark, in a place that she’d never been before? This fence and hidden area might not exist at all. Standing still and quiet, kicking herself mentally for not planning this very well, or more precisely, not at all, she stared into the night.

darkcemetery

Off to the right, that had to be the direction of the river, didn’t it? She didn’t want to go to the river. Unsure, she tried to recall images of maps she’d seen and she kept coming up completely blank. In the direction where she thought the river might be, an owl hooted. Three times its forlorn voice spoke to the night. Was that a sign? And then the wind picked up. The owl quieted, but then, from the left side of the cemetery, she heard the low and ominous mumblings that had so frightened her on the ride over. Filled with dread, she knew which direction she had to choose.

She propped Ms. Granger’s bike on the side of the road, leaning it against a small tree. Her dad would fuss at her, griping about rusty metal and dirt in the mechanisms, if she dropped her own bike in damp grass, so she took pains to protect her borrowed ride. Gathering what little of her courage remained, much of it tied up with the thought of a small boy in a yellow tee shirt and big dark eyes, she started walking resolutely towards the darkest group of trees to the left.

With the help of the scant moonlight, she saw the old fence before she actually got to it - surprisingly. On the edges of the graveyard, the grass was much longer and filled with rough brush. She had to slow down and pick her way carefully or risk tripping. One section of the fence looked a slightly bit off kilter compared to the rest, and she trudged over in that direction. As she drew nearer, she saw that it looked odd because part of the gate, and she had indeed found the gate, had fallen from its hinges and one side was hanging askew. She couldn’t see beyond the gate, but she knew she was going to go through no matter what. The remaining hinge looked wobble-y enough that a few good tugs should open it enough for her to squeeze through.

Grabbing the gate with both hands, she gave it an experimental tug. With a powdery crack, half of the wooden plank in her hands broke loose and crumbled into several pieces. Oh great… now, not only was she going to get in trouble for sneaking out, she was going to catch heck for vandalizing public property! Church property at that! It was an old gate though, and she comforted herself with the thought that even her small allowance should cover a new piece of wood. Promising to make amends, she steeled herself for what she might find on the other side, and one leg at a time, she squished herself through the widened gap.

Stepping through the broken wood gate was like stepping into another world. A world that she really didn’t want anything to do with! The gate had blocked all of the meager light from the cemetery behind her, and the heavy forest ahead blocked out the moon. Hesitating, Katie’s will left her. All of it. She felt like a pasta strainer and whatever bravery that she had thought she owned, poured out of her like water from a hundred tiny holes. She turned to slink back through the gap in the gate, and just as she reached for the nearest plank, she was stopped by a tiny cry. It was human. That was Jaxon. She spun back around and froze. Where? Where did it come from? She could not see anything!

Despairing and lost, she stayed still, straining her ears for some clue, some meager guide, anything, and again, in the distance, finally, she heard him. Quiet, but he was crying now. There. It had to be! She ran off toward the small noises, too terrified to call to him. Her mouth was so dry that she wasn’t sure that she could call even if she found the courage. She ran fifteen or twenty meters into the woods and listened again.

Nothing.

She was sure that she’d heard him. Again she froze in place and listened, but this time, all she could hear was the wind in the trees and her own frantically beating heart. She lifted her eyes looking for the moonlight, and saw only darkness above. The trees were old here, old and protected. No light shown down on her… but there… wait? Ahead.


There seemed to be a change in the light, high in the trees, directly in front of her. She forced herself to move again, one stiff step after another, eyes focused unblinking as if by will alone she could create the clearing that she desperately sought. Stumbling along, she could tell that yes, it was indeed getting brighter, but the wind too was noisier here, as if taking advantage of the merest openings among the tall trees to swoop down and test her will again. Glancing about her, she also noted wisps of ground fog among the great tree trunks surrounding her, snaking through the brush and writhing through the dark as if alive.

She kept herself moving by counting her steps and repeating Jaxon facts to herself. Facts that she’d learned from him as they sat behind their book and whispered together. Jaxon likes yellow. Jaxon likes macaroni and cheese. Jaxon like to sprinkle glitter, but doesn’t like to use the gluesticks. Every little Jaxon-fact that she could recall kept his little face up front in her mind, and gave her the strength to keep picking her feet up. One foot, and then the second, and then the first again.

Then she was there. One moment she was in the dark woods, and the next, she’d stepped into a moonlit circle of trees. The almost bare forest floor replaced with long flowing grasses, rippling like waves in the gusting winds. Bathed in the silver of the moonlight, and draped with wisps of mist and fog, the circle was incredibly, unworldly, beautiful.

And then she saw him. A tiny pile of child. Balled up into a pitiful parcel of jeans and red jacket, and he was crying so quietly that she almost couldn’t hear him.

“Oh! Jaxon!” she exclaimed, “oh no!” and she rushed to his side, dropped down to her knees and reached to touch his jacket. She’d not even laid a single finger on him, when he bolted upright and screamed! A small cry no more, he opened his throat and let loose a scream of terror as he jumped away from her, scrabbling through the grass to get away. Scared that he might dash into the woods, she caught him by his jacket and gathered him into a bear-hug, holding the little boy tight as he thrashed to get away. She kept repeating his name and repeating her name until, accompanied by a particularly strong gust of wind, a heavy cloud closed over the moon, dropping them into darkness. Jaxon’s little body went stiff and he immediately grew silent. Shaking.

“Jaxon! Jaxon!” Katie said to him, “It’s me, Katie!”

His eyes finally jumped to her face and widened in shock. His face was covered in dirt and tear streaks. “Katie? Katie!”

“Yes, it’s me! Oh my god! Let’s get…” but Jaxon reached out a grubby hand and clapped it over her mouth.

katiejaxon

“Quiet Katie.” He whispered. “Quiet! And hide your face! We need to hide and not see. The wolves are coming” he said, as fresh tears started flowing.

“It’s ok, Jaxon, there are no wolves around here.” She tried to use a reassuring tone, but her voice refused to be anything but shaky. “We need to get…” and she was interrupted again. This time it was not the small dirty hand of a scared child, but savage howls that seemed to separate themselves from the very wind.

“Hide!” squeaked Jaxon, and he crouched on the ground beside her, with his head tucked into his arms.

Katie scanned the woods all around them. The winds thrashed the branches high above, and the fog near the ground drifted in odd patterns. She saw nothing, there was nothing there… but she felt it. The pressure. As if the very forest was breathing. The mad howling grew nearer and she could hear multiple guttural voices circling the tiny clearing.

“Please Katie!” whimpered Jaxon, “Don’t look! Please!”

She still saw nothing. The howling became barking and growling, and off to her side, always just out of her direct sight, shadows moved. Moved in ways that shadows should never move.

“Pleeeasssse Katie!” Jaxon begged, and finally, deep in her mind, something primal kicked in. Some ancient instinct from some primitive ancestor, one who managed to survive and pass down through his genes, or perhaps his soul, his own experiences of terror, life and death. Katie tapped into that… and hid. She dove to the ground, wrapped herself around Jaxon, and buried her head in his hair, hiding her eyes as she sheltered his little body with her own.

The wolves came.

The ground shook with the weight of these massive beasts and their howling and growls became deafening. She could hear each paw as it struck the ground, and when one drew too near, she could feel the harshness of its long fur as it raced past. Circling and circling, dashing out and then darting back in at them in a deadly tease. The temperature of the small clearing seemed to rise several degrees from the heat of their exertions, and she could smell them. It was not the nice stinky smell of a domesticated animal, no, these creatures smelled of earth, and trees, and blood and fear.

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One of the beasts leapt towards Katie’s right leg and slammed to a stop. The dirt kicked up where its front paws dug into the ground, just inches from where she cowered, and she felt the clods of earth as they flew up and hit her body. Growling deeply, its hot breath washed over her leg, even through the thick denim of her jeans. She could feel the warmth and wetness. Jaxon’s feet were near too, and he tried to cringe away. She held him tighter. “Don’t look Jaxon! I’m here. Don’t move!” she whispered. The monstrosity galloped away.

After hearing the sound of her voice, the growling grew more excited and another one of the creatures drew nearer. She didn’t have to look to know that its mouth was agape, the monster slowly leaning in was about to wrap its jaws around her thigh. She huddled lower, whimpering, anticipating the moment those sharp teeth would tear through the denim fabric of her pants and into her leg. The wild antics and pacing of the other wolves grew more frantic. They wanted blood. Tears were running down her own face now, and she wrapped her arms more tightly around Jaxon. The breath of the beast beside them rasped wetly, and around them the winds and wolves howled. The blowing gales brought sudden darkness as the moon was shadowed, neatly hiding the slaughter to come in pitch blackness, when shockingly, a solid “THWACK!” rent the air beside her.

The unknown noise made her heart skip, and she shivered in the flowing cold darkness that accompanied the attack, but the wolf at her leg fell away. The remaining wolves yowled in anger and frustration. There was hesitation in their voices too. The beasts were suddenly less bold.

The gallop of the clawed paw-pads slowed and took on a new tempo. Their kill was no longer certain and they reverted to a hunting posture, they circled out further away, but did not abandon their quarry.

“Katie?” spoke an almost familiar voice. “Are you Katie? Get up! The time to hide is over. Now you must fight or die! Get up!”

With Jaxon still crying quietly beneath her, great shudders racking his small frame, Katie cried out “No! No! We can’t!”

“I’m sorry,” said their unknown companion “you fear is un-focused now and the shadows can get past. You have to stand. You have to focus, or you and the boy will be lost. Stand up and look these beasts in the eye. Know that you are shielded and you WILL be shielded. You must!”

Katie slowly raised her eyes, she determinedly looked away from the howling wolves and looked toward the owner of the voice. In the blackness, she could not see his legs, but she could sense where he stood. Glancing further up, she saw a billowing black jacket, and a long staff held in a defensive pose. Willing herself to raise her head further, she looked to his face, but it was hidden in the dark. However, familiar long blonde hair, whipping about in an errant gust of wind, caused her to cry out, “Mr. Lars!”

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At that, even Jaxon quieted down. Katie felt a sudden ray of hope and she struggled to pull her legs underneath her in order to stand. It seemed that all her muscles had turned to useless mush. At first, she couldn’t move at all, but the harsh chuffing and growling of the wolves bolstered her will and her limbs began to function again. As she pulled herself up, she was aware of Jaxon rising too, thin arms around her waist and face buried into her stomach. She couldn’t tell which of them was shivering harder. Holding him tightly, she finally dared to move her gaze away from their protector, and slowly she looked out to the trees surrounding them.

She didn’t see the wolves. Not immediately. The light from the moon was completely blocked, and with the wind whipping the branches about, the night around them appeared to be nothing more than an ocean of flowing blackness, feral noises, and evil. Gradually, she became aware of individual shapes and she gasped in horror. The wolves were not wolves. These were nightmares that circled them now, nightmares as solid shadows, only occasionally adopting a wolf-like form as one leapt in the air and snapped, or another dodged around a bush and darted in, and then suddenly out, testing their boundaries. One turned toward her, and out of the black nothingness, it formed a face of gnashing white teeth and red glowing eyes. Sensing her fear, it lunged at her.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Lesson in All Hallow’s Reading–Part 4

 
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.
Happy Halloween!

title

Part 4

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.

tea

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.

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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.

bikeride

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.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

A Lesson in All Hallow’s Reading–Part 3

AHR13_FacebookCoverImage

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.
Happy Halloween!

title

Part 3

Language Arts came around again, after lunch as always, and as Katie had been having a fairly busy day with her other classes, she had almost forgot Mr. Lars and his suspicion. However, after class, Mr. Lars was waiting at the door for her.

“So Katie, how’d you like the book you read yesterday?”

“Well… um… it was a little dark” she said, “but I told it in a light and funny way, so it was ok...”

“Was the pig your favorite part too? The same as your reading buddy?” Mr. Lars asked. “Rather good how Lucy rescued it for her little brother, wasn’t it, seeing as it was his favorite toy.”

“Yea,” Answered Katie, “that’s probably why Jaxon liked it.”

“You didn’t bother to read the book, did you?” accused Mr. Lars. “The pig was Lucy’s.” Not waiting for her answer, he continued. “I ought to fail you on this assignment! You were not following instructions and I am very disappointed, especially after the talk we had!”

“I’m sorry Mr. Lars! Honestly! I was going to read it… but…” she began, but Mr. Lars interrupted gently. “But he was scared, right? Your reading buddy was scared.”

“Yes sir.” She answered meekly. “He specifically said that he was scared of dogs.”

“I saw you Katie.” Mr. Lars said. “I was watching you and I could tell that the two of you were giggling and carrying on and very obviously not reading the story that I assigned to you. That was very sweet of you, your caring for the boy’s feelings, but this exercise was more important than you realize or give it credit for. You did not uphold your part. I should give you a failing grade for the whole assignment, but I’m going to give you a second chance instead.” He pulled a small paperback novel from his jacket, the overly long black one that he had taken to wearing as the weather got cooler, and he handed it to her. “This is a novel about the history of our town, Hickory Falls. Some of it you have heard before, no doubt, but this is more in-depth. It covers some of the older lore and traditions. I want you to read this over the weekend and write an essay on the history. You must include your opinions on how it might connect to our current Halloween traditions. It’s due the Tuesday before Halloween. Not a day later. No excuses. Do a good job on this, and we’ll forget about your fibbing to me and your failure to complete the reading assignment with little Jaxon. If not, there will be consequences.”

Almost in tears, Katie stuffed the book into her backpack and made her way to her next class. She made it through math and science and finally PE. She was quiet on the bus back home and all through dinner too. When questioned about her mood at the table, she mumbled about having a bad week and being tired. Eventually, she was able to make some excuses and went upstairs to bed early.

dejected

After slouching into her old flannel P.Js, and brushing her teeth, she pulled the dog-eared old book out of her bag and looked at it. “Hallow’s Eve in Hickory Falls – Our Past and Present”. A quick look inside showed that the ‘present’ was more than 30 years ago. The temptation to toss it on the desk, ignore it, and take an “F”, passed quickly. She was angry, but not unreasonable enough to sacrifice her history of good grades. She climbed into bed, snugged under the warm blankets. She opened the old book, and began to read.

It started with the typical hype and glory of a cheesy tourist brochure. The founding fathers. The first settlers. The first church, and the first school. On and on. Blah blah blah. As Mr. Lars had suggested, all of this was stuff that she’d studied before in her community culture lessons, and it was, no doubt, incredibly similar to all such lessons, about any small American town, anywhere, but determinedly, she plowed through it. A couple of chapters in, about the time that the people of the town had really settled in and gained a good degree of stability, there was a chilling tale of the peaceful community beset by tragedy. One after another, six children disappeared, never to be seen again. Their disappearances were never explained.

Katie put the book down, feeling troubled. She’d never heard about this woeful part of the town’s history before. She listened to the fall wind blow through the trees outside her window, and allowed the sadness of this long ago loss flow through her. After a short consideration, she assumed that the story of the missing children was removed from her previous classes in order to keep her elementary history lessons more bright and cheery. It was getting late by this time, so she put the book down, and turned off the lights. The storm continued to build outside, but she was quickly asleep despite the wails and whistles of the wind gusts shivering through the branches of the old oak out front.

The weather had taken a definite turn for the worse by morning. After breakfast, and after glancing outside and at the weather channel, Katie decided it would be a good day to stay inside and read. She parked herself on the living sofa, with her book and a fuzzy blanket, and started reading again, middle of the chapter, where she’d left off the night before. Following the tragedy of the missing children, the town went through a series of upheavals. For many years, it looked as if the town itself was in danger of disappearing, as disappointment followed misadventure followed misdeeds. This was not part of the sanitized history that Katie had studied previously. This was dismal indeed! But in the year 1877, for some unknown reason, the town held its first annual Fall and All Hallow’s Eve Festival. It was a simple enough event with the details recorded in the annals of the local church. A community harvest feast, potlatch dinner, and for fun, the school teacher read a number of ‘tales most frightful’ and the children were taken on a hayride through the dark.

For many years following, the town thrived. Farms flourished and businesses arrived. By the 1920’s the town had grown so well, and had so much automobile traffic, that they could boast of one of the first ever electric traffic lights in the region, and each fall, they continued to host the annual Fall and All Hallow’s Eve Festival. Until 1942. In that year, a women’s group from the Baptist church protested the event. With the Second World War in full swing, these ladies objected to the frivolity, waste, and occult-ish theme. After much argument, and perhaps owing to a depressed economy and mood, the Festival was cancelled, and life went on.

protest

In October of 1944, little Sarah Jonson, six years old, disappeared while walking home from school. The community was upset, but as the girl was known for defying her parents and playing down by the river, it was assumed that she’d fallen in drowned. A few days later, the Carter children, brother and sister, also went missing. These kids were also known to frequently play in the woods by the river and, as the rains had been high, it was again assumed that the missing children were swept to their doom – other town children were warned away and kept close to home. A week before Halloween, Willy Marks was taken. His family lived across town from the river. He had been recently seen playing by the family barn, but he suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. It finally became clear to the townsfolk that perhaps something more horrible than a swollen river was to blame for their losses. Autumn storms grew worse in the area that month, and the already distressed residents were found to be exchanging wild stories of thumps on their roofs at night, growls from their cellars, and eerie howling that warbled out of the woods on the winds. Two more children disappeared.

At that moment, the lamp behind Katie’s head flickered off, as did all the power in the house. The winds outside had been growing in intensity all day and branches were creaking and cracking and swaying madly. Katie’s dad had been worried about the overhead power lines, and it seemed that his prediction had come true. Fortunately, her family owned a generator, and while not wanting to waste the power to light the whole house, Katie’s mom used it to light up the kitchen area while she cooked. Katie moved to the dining table to continue reading the book.

As in the town’s past, these missing children of the ‘40s, were never seen alive again. Several days after Halloween evening, as the keeper of the town’s cemetery cleaned up a family plot in the rear of the gardens, he heard a disturbance out beyond the grounds of the cemetery itself, outside of the perimeter fence, and past the boundaries that marked the blessed and sacred earth. Investigation uncovered a horror. Within a small grove of old trees, he found the six small bodies of the lost children. Arms wrapped around one another, no marks upon them, and all six deceased. Their eyes were frozen open in utter terror. When the sheriff and coroner came to investigate, tragedy on top of tragedy was discovered as more small skeletons were found in the mossy detritus beneath the fresh corpses. Six small skeletons. Very old.
The children were buried. The old bones too were prayed over and interred. The area behind the cemetery was fenced off and left to grow thick with brush and vines and ivy.

graveyard

Families fell apart and moved away. Businesses closed. Churches closed. As the town sunk into deeper and deeper trouble, a new mayor was elected in 1954 and this optimistic representative of the people was desperate to find some way, some miracle, to save his city. Studying records of the past and more prosperous times, he found flyers and posters about the Fall and All Hallow’s Festival. He remembered the joy of celebrating at these events as a small child, and barely remembering the pain of losing classmates who were not quite the right age to be his peers, he decided to revive the tradition, simplifying the name to “Hickory Falls All Hallow’s Eve Fest”. Some questioned the move, but the celebration turned out to be a great success. The event was great fun when repeated the next year as well, and so it continued as a renewed, and much loved, tradition for many years, thriving as the town thrived.

The chapter ended and Katie was filled with dread. She could guess what the next chapter would bring, and she was correct. The town thrived as long as the festival continued, but this was to end too soon. In the late 1960’s, in a strong and conservative backlash against the hippy, flower child, Woodstock culture of the day, the local churches again rose up against the “ungodly Pagan perversion of a feast”. Yanking on some of the fundamentalist religious and backwards cultural attitudes present in parts of the community at the time, the church killed the festival in 1967. And again, by fall of 1968, children began to disappear.

The first to go missing were the unschooled, almost feral, kids belonging to a troublesome transient family. Nobody believed the parents’ protests of innocence, and at first the couple was thrown in jail. However, unable to prove any actual wrong doing, they were released and run out of town. But then the pastor’s son disappeared while on a supervised boy scout outing, and a police officer’s daughter disappeared from her own bedroom from their locked home. A farmer’s boy, and a no-nonsense strong boy at that, never made it home from the fields, and the librarian’s eldest child, a tall lanky high school senior studying for his final exams, was taken from the cellar of the town library itself as he studied. That boy’s name was Colin Lars.

Chilled, Katie put the book down. Lars. Like her teacher. It had to be the same family. Cold shivers traveled up and down her arms and it was several moments before she could pick the book up and read further.

Friday, October 25, 2013

A Lesson in All Hallow’s Reading–Part 2

AHR13_FacebookCoverImage

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.
Happy Halloween!

title

Part 2

The elementary school was near to the middle school, so the 6th graders simply walked the short distance. Katie scuffed along the leaf covered sidewalk with Lily and Carin, listening to them discuss their books. Sweet, girly Lily had a book of strange poems, something about a kid who swallowed a bunny that got caught in his throat, and another poem about a guy who lost his ears in a shears accident. Tomboy Carin had ended up with some overly cute tale about a cartoon pony lost in a pumpkin patch. Both desperately wished that they could trade for the other’s book, but as they were in different Language Arts classes, and they’d already completed their predictions work, it was too late to swap. Carin turned to ask Katie about her book, but by this time, they’d arrived at the other school and, after a short briefing, they were split up and sent to different kindergarten classes.

leaves

Katie walked into the Kg4 room and looked around. Handprint paintings of turkeys, tissue paper ghosts, and cut-out crayon-colored witches with long stripy legs dangled from the ceiling. While her classmates ooh’ed and ah’ed at the adorableness of it all, Katie bitterly reflected that the holiday brain-washing surely started at a very young age. She looked around for the kid that she was assigned. Jaxon. Jaxon Smith. Each child had his or her name on a name-tag taped to their desk, and she finally found her boy. A small, very slim, boy with dark, messy hair, wearing a stained shirt with a cartoon puppy on the front, sat hunched at a table in the corner. Here we go, Katie thought to herself. She pasted a smile on, and wandered across the room.

kid art

Not having younger siblings, Katie wasn’t quite sure how to talk to the little boy. She led with a safe “Hi!” and told him her name. He responded by looking up at her quietly. Fortunately, Katie remembered the paper that the teacher had handed her when they arrived, and she glanced down at it as if she knew what she was doing. She read: “After you meet your assigned student, go to the reading area, find a spot on the carpet, and read your book together.”

“Ok Jaxon.” She said brightly, “Do you like books? Shall we go read together?” He thought a moment, then nodded his head, and without a word, stood up. Not knowing what else to do, she held out her hand. Jaxon took her hand in his and surprisingly, took charge and led her to a cozy spot next to the window on the carpet. Other partners were already sitting and reading, while some were still introducing themselves. A few had been led by their little buddies to explore the classroom, the small children eager to show off their favorite work stations or works of art. Katie and Jaxon sat down, side by side, leaning comfortably against the wall.

She pulled her book out of the bag, and showed it to Jaxon. “See! We have a Halloween book to read! Your teacher told you that we’d be reading about Halloween, right?” Jaxon nodded again, and although Katie was beginning to wonder if the boy could even talk, she continued. “We have this book about wolves. See? It’s called “The Wolves in the Walls”. Do you like wolves? You have a doggy on your shirt. Are dogs your favorite?”

He looked up at her, his dark eyes big, and whispered “I’m scared of dogs. This is Adam’s shirt.”

Katie paused, startled, and asked, “Who is Adam?”

Jaxon, in that same small voice, said “Adam is my big brother. I don’t like dogs. Dogs jump out, and bark loud, and bite.”

Not sure how to proceed, Katie slowly open her book. She felt that the little boy had reached out to her and entrusted her with an important matter, his fear of dogs… and here she was with a book about dogs, the most scary BIG monster dogs you can find, wolves! The hand-out from the teacher did NOT cover this scenario. She thought for a moment, remembering her promise to her mother and her teacher, but finally decided that she could not be the one to bring nightmares to this small boy. Scaring the kid would not inspire him to read, and in fact, might accomplish the exact opposite. As the teachers from both of their classes were only wandering about, chatting with each other, and did not seem to be listening too closely to the stories being read, Katie easily made the decision to fake it. It wasn’t like the kid had to do a book report or anything, he just had to scribble-scrabble some paint on a poster paper and all would be fine, right?

She opened the book to a tame looking page, and whispered back to Jaxon. “I don’t like scary dogs either, or scary stories, or even Halloween.” He looked up at her in surprise. She continued in a whisper, “How about we pretend to read the book together, and then we can draw a picture about a dog? I think this is a story about a girl who saves her little brother from wolves. That’s what we can tell the teachers about the story. Can you do that?”
“Really!?” he said, “we don’t have to read the scary book?!”

“Not if you do not want to,” she answered. “I’ll leave it up to you.”

“Ok!” he grinned, “I really do not like scary dogs or scary stories!” And with that, the two of them sat back and spent the next 15 minutes or so, whispering together behind the open book. Katie kept an eye on the roving teachers, and pretended to read when she thought it necessary. Jaxon told Katie about his big wheel bike and his teddy bear and his wooden train set. He told her that he loved Disney Cars and also kittens and big cats, but mostly kittens. He repeated again how badly big dogs really scared him. Once free of the obligation to listen to a tale of fright, he opened up to Katie and she found him to be a sweet and engaging little guy. It made her almost wish that she had a little brother of her own. Almost…

Soon enough, the teacher rang her silver hand-bell and they all returned to their tables for the art project. Jaxon had grabbed Katie’s hand to lead her around, even before she reached out to him this time. They got a yellow paper, Jaxon’s favorite color, a tray of water colors, some brushes, glue and glitter. With a number of somewhat controlled swipes and blobs, they drew a wolf. At least it was a shape that mostly resembled a wolf. They also made a small pink pig, which was one of the illustrations in the book that Jaxon had actually liked. The glitter was for a moon, because they both had thought that a nice moon would fit in a poster about a Halloween book.

jaxonspainting

Jaxon’s teacher came around and exclaimed over their picture. She fussed over the animals and the glittery moon, and then she asked Jaxon if he’d had fun reading with Katie. “Yes!” he said excitedly “Katie is my new best friend!” which made Katie grin goofily in spite of herself. Then the teacher asked Jaxon, “What was your favorite part of the book?”, and Katie held her breath. This was not exactly what they’d rehearsed! How would he answer? Little Jaxon just grinned and pointed to the pig. “The pig! I liked the pig the best!” This made his teacher happy, but out of the corner of her eye, Katie saw Mr. Lars look at the grinning child, and he looked very, very suspicious, but what could he do? Katie was pretty sure that they’d gotten away with the deception.

After sharing snacks with their kindergarten buddies, and lining up for a class photo, the big kids told the little kids goodbye, and then made their way back to the Middle School. Katie saw Mr. Lars look meaningfully at her several times on the way back, but she managed to avoid him. When they got back to the school, the final bell was only five minutes away. They had the chaos of dropping off books and supplies in class, packing up, and that’s it. The bell rang and Katie made her escape. Until, the following day that is.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Lesson in All Hallow’s Reading–Part 1

AHR13_FacebookCoverImage

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.

Happy Halloween!

title

PART 1

The bus arrived in front of Hickory Falls Middle School at its usual time, quarter to the hour, granting fifteen minutes for the students to get to their lockers and get their morning acts together before class. Katie met up with her best friends, Lily and Carin, in the parking lot and they walked in together. At the brick and glass institutional-looking entry way, jolly Mrs. O’ Donald, the principal, was unpacking a large cardboard box, carefully handing gaudy orange and black decorations up to Mr. Carol, the head janitor and superintendent.

“Lovely,” thought Katie, “This mess again.” She’d been hoping that middle school would prove to be a more mature environment than elementary school, and that she might finally escape the foolishness of dressing in doofus-y costumes, the endless pumpkin themed art projects, and pretending to enjoy spooky pranks. Apparently this was not to be the case, at least not in sixth grade.


Lily and Carin were not on the same sheet of music as their friend. Catching sight of the fake spiders and plastic-bag ghosts, they immediately set off in an excited discussion of this year’s costume choices. Carin was, as typical, interested in out-grossing her older brothers and was leaning towards some sort of zombie nurse costume. Lily was devising ways to convince her mother to let her wear a Goth rock girl costume. At eleven years of age, she wanted to look more girl-y in her dress choices, but her mother was fighting her every step of the way. Lily was concerned, and with good reason. Knowing her mother, she could very well end up in last year’s putrid peach Care Bear suit again if she didn’t find a good way to successfully present her side of the argument. Katie followed quietly along beside them. “Traitors.’’ she thought to herself.


As the day progressed, after homeroom and between each class, more and more of the hallways filled with holiday décor and the students became more and more excited as the orange and black color spread throughout the school. Halloween was still two weeks away, but this initial display brought about an instant festive mood. Festive for most kids, but not Katie. By the time that she arrived at Language Arts class, fourth period, she was already sick of the whole thing. She was done with the decorations, the mood, the whole holiday! Her mood was definitely not brightened when her teacher announced this week’s class project. They were to be teamed with one of the kindergarten classes at the school next door, each student paired with a younger child, to read spooky Halloween stories and create small posters about each book.

hallway

She silently fumed about it all through class, only half paying attention, and found that she was still bothered by it by the time the final bell rang after 6th period. Hoping for some sort of exemption, Katie returned to her Language Arts class to talk with her teacher, Mr. Lars.

“Do we have to use a book on Halloween?” Katie asked. “I do not like this holiday and would much rather read a story on Autumn, or harvest time, or some other subject.”

Mr. Lars was taken aback. “Halloween is a day of fun and fright, and the little ones at the kindergarten are really looking forward to joining us in this project. It has been in the planning between our school and the elementary school for weeks now. I’m sorry, but the subject remains as it is, with the spooky books, and it is part of your grade this quarter.” Mr. Lars was a tall thin man with wire glasses. His blonde hair was long enough to pull back in a severe ponytail, which is how he always wore it. Katie had found him to be quiet, but quick to smile. He could also be very serious, and it was his serious face that he wore now.

Katie climbed onto her bus, uncharacteristically mad. This was not over.

By the time her parents had arrived home from work, Katie had already finished her homework and completed the few chores scribbled in on her column of the family white board to-do list. After dinner, obligations satisfied, she retreated to her room and spent the rest of the evening researching her case on Google. It was slightly past her bedtime by the time she finished her arguments.

The next morning, Katie didn’t wait for her friends in front of the school. She marched straight to the Principal’s office, and when she paused, trying to think of a good way to ask to speak to Mrs. O’ Donald, the lady herself walked into the room. Dressed in her normal navy suit and skirt, she looked much more professional than the casual outfit she’d worn yesterday when climbing ladders and stringing cobwebs.
“Mrs. O’ Donald?” Katie asked politely, “May I speak with you a moment?”

“Of course you can… um… you’re one of our new students, correct?”

“Yes ma’am. My name is Katie Lincoln and I am in 6th grade this year. I just came here from Yates Elementary.”

“Of course. Katie. Katie Lincoln.” she said, seeming to file Katie’s name away somewhere. “What can I do to help you?”

“Well, I don’t wish to be trouble,” Katie said hesitantly, “but I have an objection to one of my assignments. I don’t want to be forced to celebrate an occult holiday. However, my Language Arts teacher will not substitute an alternative topic. Studying what is considered a religion by pagans is a violation of my religious freedoms. I don’t think that it is appropriate for this to be promoted in school.” Katie talked a little bit more, laying out what she’d learned about the 1st amendment and some history that she’d researched about Halloween, or Samhain, as it was called in Pagan faiths.


“I see…” said Mrs. O’ Donald slowly. “This is a serious concern, and you have made a good point. I’ll talk to your parents and your teacher and we’ll see what we can do. Run along to class now and we’ll talk again soon!”

Katie walked out of the office with mixed feelings. She felt very satisfied with the Principal’s reaction and answer, but she was concerned about the call to her parents. As the school day progressed, she began to wonder about the wisdom of speaking to the principal before speaking to her family.

At lunch time, an older student who Katie did not know, found her in the courtyard where she was hanging out with Lily and some other girls, discussing the most recent episode of their favorite show, and he handed her a note requesting that she come to Mrs. O’ Donald’s office. As Katie walked into the office, she felt her heart drop down to her stomach. Mrs. O’ Donald was not alone. Sitting in the cramped room, surrounded by papers and files strewn about madly on all available surfaces, was her mother and Mr. Lars. Her mother did not look happy. Neither did Mr. Lars. The patient and kind look on Mrs. O’ Donald’s face was the only thing that stopped her from turning around and running away.

“Come in, Katie.” said the principal, “Let’s talk.”

Katie slumped into the room and sat meekly in the remaining empty seat, not looking at anyone.

“Katie,” began the principal “I had a good talk with your teacher and your mother about the issue that you brought to my attention this morning. You presented a very mature and well-thought out argument, however…”

“I can’t believe that you didn’t talk to us about this last night!” cut in Katie’s mom. “Or, this morning! Religious objections? We don’t have any religious objections! You’ve always celebrated Halloween!”

“But I don’t like it anymore!” Katie protested, her head finally coming up. “It isn’t right to force it on me when it IS a pagan holiday! That’s not even a real religion!”

“Your Aunt Carla is a Wiccan!” her mom countered, “Are you going to tell her that her religion is fake?”

“Uh… no…” said Katie, suddenly very unsure, “No. But I’m not pagan, so why do I… ”

“Do you go to church every Sunday?” her mom countered. “I’ll answer that. No. So, should we cancel Christmas, too? Should we stop attending grandma’s Easter brunches? I would sure miss her honey ham! And what about dad’s friend from work, Mr. Nazir? He invites us, every year, to celebrate Iftars during Ramadhan with his family. Are we going to start declining these events too? I thought you and Nour were good friends and that you liked these get-togethers!”

“Halloween, ahem, is a long-time tradition in the western world,” inserted Mr. Lars, “and a large part of our American holiday culture. You don’t have to be Pagan to celebrate. We are not asking you to participate in a witch’s Sabbath, or anything of that nature, no more than our singing Christmas songs in December is an attempt to convert anyone to Christianity. What we study in school is merely the literature, the history, and how the holiday contributes to our traditions and culture.”

“You WILL do the work that your teacher assigns you.” concluded her mother. “And while I am not upset to have been called today,” glancing at the teacher and principal meaningfully, “please do call us at any time... Right now, I have to get back to work. In future, it would be very helpful, and more appropriate, if you talked to us before starting any future protest campaigns at school. Are we understood?”

“Yes ma’am” replied Katie dejectedly. With a quick hug and kiss goodbye, shaking hands with Mrs. O’ Donald and Mr. Lars, her mother departed, leaving Katie with her teacher and the principal.

Mr. Lars cleared his throat, breaking the somewhat awkward silence. “Katie, I am sorry that you object to the assignment, but the topic will not be changed. Learning about the traditions of our culture, local and American, and why we celebrate as we do, is very important. It’s also very important to pass on a love of reading to the younger kids. This sharing project is a fun tool to use in accomplishing that goal. I hope that you will find a way to proceed with this assignment in a more positive manner, even if you do not enjoy the subject matter.”

“Yes sir.” said Katie. “You’re… you’re… not mad at me?”

“Well, I admit that I was, disappointed, at first,” said Mr. Lars smiling softly, “but Mrs. O’ Donald explained to me how you presented your arguments this morning and I admit to being very impressed with the research and mature conversation skills that you used to bring this to our attention. Keep it up and you will do well in Middle School – as long as you are as equally diligent with your assignments… ” he finished, giving her a one-eyebrow-up mock stern glare, and then he too walked out.

“Well then Miss Katie! Is there anything else we can talk about today?” asked the principal.

Katie lowered her eyes and shook her head.

“Now, now,” said Mrs. O’ Donald, “as Mr. Lars pointed out, you brought your argument to me in a very mature and intelligent manner. I like this. So what? This time, you did not win your point. That happens. You will not always get your way in life, but you presented yourself very well. This matters! All in all, Miss Lincoln, I am very happy to have had this chance to get to know you better and I look forward to the rest of the school year with you!” And with a gentle hug, and a promise that her door would always be open, the principal sent Katie on back to finish lunch.

When Katie arrived in Language Arts class, Mr. Lars said not a word about the lunch time meeting. He passed out the syllabus for the project and the books that would be read to their kindergarten ‘reading buddies’. He passed out permission slips for the trip to the nearby school – Katie had no doubt that hers would be signed. Other than reading and helping the children with a poster, the 6th graders had additional assignments. One was to write an essay on the importance of early reading and peer tutoring. “Easy enough.” thought Katie. The other part of the assignment was to predict how their assigned student would like the story, and later, to write up how their prediction matched the reality of the encounter.

Most of her classmates immediately opened these kids’ books and started reading. The class quieted as the students dove into their books, disregarding the difference between these and their own reading levels. Many enjoyed the opportunity to re-read books that were old favorites, and some even passed their books around to share with their friends. Katie looked at the book that had landed on her desk. “The Wolves in the Walls, by Neil Gaiman.” She had never heard of it. She looked at the pale girl on the cover, and without reading, skimmed through the pages. The dark coloring and odd angles were somewhat disquieting, so she penned her predictions based on those feelings… a dire warning of gloom and fear, confusion and nightmares. She wasn’t pleased to have to do the work, but she put good effort into it, not wanting to have to spend too much time having to redo it later. She was very relieved when the school bell finally rang.

lucy

The evening was a little awkward for Katie, but her mom had had a good day at work and her dad had a ball game to watch on T.V with friends, so she had a quiet few hours to herself. Having her mother sign her permission slip was not as painful as she thought it might be. The next morning she headed to school again, resigned to the field trip, reading the wolf book, and making sure that her assigned kid was ‘inspired’.