The Dress-Up Mirror – A Time-Travel Adventure (Excerpt)

The Dress-Up Mirror, by Raymond Bial, cover image

(From The Dress-Up Mirror, by Raymond Bial.)

“I know it’s a lovely mirror, Liddy,” her father chuckled. “But I can’t believe you paid two hundred dollars for it!”

“It was for a good cause,” her mother said. “The annual fundraiser at the county historical museum.”

A full-length oval mirror with scalloped edges stood in the corner of the dining room. It was held upright on a mahogany stand by brass hinges so that it could tilted forward or backward.

“It’s an antique,” Liddy Tucker went on. “I thought it would make a lovely house-warming present for ourselves.”

“We’ve already sunk a fortune into this house,” Steven moaned. “We have to be careful with our expenses.”

A delicate woman with dark brown hair and eyes, Liddy touched her fingertips to her forehead. “I know, but I couldn’t resist bidding on that mirror. You’ll laugh, but I felt drawn to it.”

Amanda eased into the room and exclaimed, “What a beautiful mirror! Where did you find it, Mom?”

“I was out for my morning walk,” Liddy Tucker explained. “It’s strange, because I don’t usually walk that way, but I passed by the historical museum, and they were having an open house and auction for all kinds of antiques. I stepped inside and saw lots of lovely items. But like your father says, money is tight for us now. So I just poked around a little, and I was about to leave when I noticed this mirror. For some reason, I just had to have it, and I could have gotten it for a song, except this old man kept bidding against me. I do believe he would have paid any price for the mirror, even a thousand dollars, but he hadn’t brought enough cash and the auctioneer wouldn’t extend credit. Luckily I had my checkbook with me. I have to say it was odd how mad that old man became when I got the mirror.”

“Mad?” Amanda asked.

Liddy nodded. “Furious. He offered to buy the mirror from me—said he’d give me double the price I’d paid. But he was so nasty and annoying that I didn’t want to have anything to do with him. He made quite a scene. He got so angry his face turned purple, and he ranted that the mirror was cursed and I’d be sorry. He raised his cane, and I thought he was going to hit me. But instead he lunged at the mirror and yelled, ‘I have to shatter it once and for all!’”

Amanda and her father were speechless.

Liddy continued, “Fortunately, some men rushed forward and restrained him. They called the police, but I didn’t want to press charges—he’s just a poor, senile old man. The police escorted him from the museum. Everyone apologized, saying the man’s family had lived in Maysville for generations, although curiously no one knew him well—he apparently keeps to himself. They assured me that he’d always been mild and painfully shy. He certainly had never acted that way before.”

“That mirror is probably jinxed,” Steven joked. “If I look into it, maybe I’ll go cross-eyed. Or my hair will fall out.”

Amanda couldn’t pass up the chance to kid her father. “Don’t you mean the rest of your hair, Dad?”

“It’s so strange that the old man claimed the mirror is cursed,” Liddy chuckled. “Can you believe such a silly thing? In this day and age?”

Amanda asked, “Where did the mirror come from originally?”

“That is a mystery,” her mother said, shaking her head. “Nobody at the historical museum could tell me. Apparently, one morning someone left it by the front door with a note, saying that it was a donation to be auctioned off.”

“An anonymous donor,” Amanda wondered. “Who it could be?”

“Many generous people don’t like to draw attention to themselves,” Mrs. Tucker explained. “Like the person who always slips a gold coin in the Salvation Army bucket just before Christmas.”

“It is a fine mirror,” Steven acknowledged. “And it goes perfectly with the house, as if it belongs here. It appears to be from the same time period—turn of the century. But may I ask one question?”

“What?” Liddy asked cautiously.

“Uh, where do you intend to put this mirror?”

Although the Tuckers had just moved into the house, it already seemed quite full with books, toys, photographs, and keepsakes, besides all their furniture—not to mention the computers and large-screen television that were the special love of techno-whiz Sally, who at the moment was shoveling down another bowl of cereal in the living-room. Amanda was sure Sally had her eyes glued to an episode of Saturday morning cartoons, in between emailing or texting friends on her laptop and cell phone.

Gazing at the antique mirror, Amanda had an idea. “How about the attic?” she suggested.

“The attic?” her parents asked simultaneously.

“It would be perfect for dress-up,” Amanda explained. “I’ve already got all my old clothes and a lot of other stuff up there.

“Besides, it will be perfect for my sleepover tonight.”

_____________________

The Dress-Up Mirror (excerpt)
by Raymond Bial

copyright 2015, Raymond Bial. All rights reserved.

Click here to order the book, The Dress-Up Mirror.
Available as a Kindle eBook for just $2.99.
Softcover edition, $13.95

Shadow Island – A Spooky Tale of Lake Superior (Excerpt)

Shadow Island, by Raymond Bial

(From Shadow Island: A Spooky Tale of Lake Superior by Raymond Bial.)

Standing alone on the cabin porch overlooking Lake Superior, Amanda was certain that someone was staring back at her across the waves, now edged in silver.

“Who are you?” she whispered. She did not believe in the supernatural, yet there was so much in the world that was beyond explanation. And she was tangibly overtaken by a premonition regarding Shadow Island.

Easing the screen door shut behind her as she slipped out onto the porch, Roxanne whispered, “There you are, Amanda. I thought you’d wandered off somewhere.”

“Is everyone asleep?” Amanda asked.

“I think so.”

“Good.”

Without another word, Amanda crept quietly into the cabin and returned in a few moments with her telescope, which she had brought along to do some stargazing in the northern sky.

“What are you doing?” Roxanne whispered.

“There’s something I have to find out,” Amanda whispered back as she spread the tripod legs on the porch floor. She aimed the telescope across Lake Superior and bent to squint into the eyepiece.

Rising out of a jagged clump of silhouetted pine trees, the gray hulk of the Stardust Hotel filled the lens.

Roxanne squirmed. “What are you looking for?”

“I see something!” cried Amanda. “I think . . .” She peered through the telescope—at a light that pulsed as delicately as a firefly in the August night.

Roxanne gasped, “What is it?”

“A light!” Amanda whispered. “From an upstairs room in the hotel.”

Roxanne’s mouth dropped open. “It can’t be. Nobody would dare go out on that spooky island.”

Amanda became very quiet.

“No way!” Roxanne cried. “I know what you’re thinking! You want to go over there and explore the hotel.”

“Of course not,” Amanda assured her. “But . . . we could go out in a boat for a closer look. I can’t see too well from here, not with all the trees in the way. We’d have a much better vantage point on the open water. You and I were taking turns rowing with my dad this afternoon. It’ll be easy.”

“We were only in the inlet,” Roxanne said. “Remember what Mr. Willoughby said? There could be dangerous currents around the island. And the weather can turn in the blink of an eye. Besides, it’s after ten o’clock. I know you have more sense than to go anywhere near a deserted island in the middle of the night.”

Amanda debated whether she should tell her friend about the strange feeling that someone was watching her, but decided that Roxanne would only become upset.

“We’ll just be out on the water for a few minutes. And we’ll be sure to wear our life jackets.”

She added, “Aren’t you the least bit curious about the island?”

Licking her lips, Roxanne asked, “May I please have a look?”

Amanda stepped aside, and Roxanne squinted into the telescope. Peering across the water that had a bluish-purple cast in the deepening night, she wondered out loud, “Who could be out there?”

Amanda’s eyes brightened. “There isn’t anyone over there. Unless that island really is haunted.”

“Amanda, you know as well as I do that ghosts are just make-believe.”

“Down at the bait shop they said the island is inhabited by the ghost of that old lady. What was her name—Ruby Shaw?”

“They also said that nobody who’s ever gone over there has come back alive,” Roxanne reminded her.

“Mr. Willoughby was just trying to scare us. Besides, I thought you didn’t believe in ghosts,” Amanda scoffed.

“I don’t!”

“Well then, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Roxanne thought of the old man with his one bright violet eye and white handlebar moustache. Was he just telling a whopper to the gullible visitors from Illinois, for the benefit of the locals who knew better?

Both girls stared across the dark waters at the Stardust Hotel. Of palatial elegance, the hotel had a wraparound porch as broad as a promenade. Each of the upstairs rooms had its own balcony, and on the southwest corner rose a high turret.

Of Victorian design, the old hotel had lavish gingerbread trim. The first floor windows had long since been boarded up. But the rectangles of the upper windows were as black as velvet.

Except for the one with the faint yellow light.

_____________________

Shadow Island (excerpt)
by Raymond Bial

copyright 2013, Raymond Bial. All rights reserved.

Click here to order the book, Shadow Island: A Spooky Tale of Lake Superior.
Available as a Kindle eBook for just $2.99.

“Dripping Blood Cave” – A Spooky Story (Excerpt)

Dripping Blood Cave, by Raymond Bial

(From the title story of the book Dripping Blood Cave and Other Ghostly Stories by Raymond Bial.)

“So you’re curious about Dripping Blood Cave?” Mr. Satterly asked, sighing deeply, as he eased his old bones onto the liars’ bench one evening in June.

“Well, that’s a long and sorrowful story.” . . .

“Fact is, best I can recollect, nobody has ever gone anywhere near that cave and come back alive,” Mr. Satterly went on. “Leastways, not anyone who ventured there at night.” . . .

Turning to Mr. Satterly, Hank asked, “Do you suppose it would be safe to go back there as long as we kept our distance from the cave?”

“You’d be taking a mighty big risk,” Mr. Satterly told him. “But I’ve never heard of anyone disappearing outside the cave, in the hollow that the creek flows through. Just don’t venture too close.”

“Don’t worry, Hank,” Clifford said, reaching up to clap him on his broad shoulder. “I’m a natural-born Indian fighter. I’ll protect you.”

Hank snorted. “Like on all our other adventures?”

“Why sure!” Clifford said, gazing back at him with a straight face.

Hank just shook his head again. There was no point in arguing with Clifford.

Clutching Hank’s arm, Rosie said, “I’m going with you.”

“Me too,” Mary Ethel added. “I have to look after my sweet baby Cliffie.”

“Who you calling a baby?” Clifford sputtered in disbelief. “I’m more of a hunter and scout than most of the frontiersmen who ever wandered those woods. I’m like my great-great-great Uncle Silas Philpot. It runs in the blood.”

“Maybe you ought to go home and get your coonskin cap,” Hank suggested.

Hank was joking, but Clifford nodded thoughtfully.

“You think I should?”

“Let’s just go,” Hank sighed. “Before it’s baby Cliffie’s beddy-bye time.”

“I am not a baby,” Clifford pouted, his squeaky voice going up another notch. “We’ll see who’s the trailblazer when we get back in those woods.”

As the four young people climbed into Hank’s old Chevy pickup truck with its bulgy fenders, the little guy was still seething, muttering to himself, “Call me a baby, will you? I’ll show you. I’ll show all of you.”

“You be careful,” Mr. Satterly called after them. “Careful and then some.”

Nodding soberly, Hank said, “We will.”

It had been dark in Myrtleville, but the deepest black of night pressed around the four young people as they drove out of town and into the countryside. As they crossed the rolling landscape, occasional clumps of trees were barely silhouetted in the nearly moonless sky. Twin cones of yellow light from the truck’s headlamps bored through the gloom, leading them from open farmland of pasture and cornfields into even more shadowy hills and hollows, blanketed with thick woods.

Hank knew the general location of the cave, which was good, since it was at least twelve miles from Myrtleville, beyond even the most remote roads that twisted through some of the thickest stands of woods in their part of Indiana. He had actually explored these woods, even had once glimpsed the cave Mr. Satterly had described, but from a distance—and that had been in broad daylight. He knew that the rolling hills thereabouts were laced with streams, deep ravines, and a good number of caves.

But none of the caves was as terrifying in local legend as the one to which they were now headed. Dripping Blood Cave was hidden away, far from any trail, let alone the faintest trickle of a road. And, as Hank himself had read in old issues of the Myrtleville Weekly Gazette, more than a few poor souls were reported to have mysteriously died in or near that cave.

Slowly making his way deeper and deeper into the woods, Hank wound the pickup down one narrow gravel road, then another, as stands of trees closed in closer and closer on both sides, leafy branches occasionally swishing onto the windshield. Finally, Clifford whined, “You’re lost, Hank.”

“No, I’m not,” Hank answered as he came to a stop at yet another crossroads. Just for the fun of it, he asked, “I suppose you know which way to turn, Clifford.”

The pipsqueak swallowed. “Why sure.”

“Then which way?”

Clifford glanced this way and that, then he declared with an air of authority, “Right!”

Hank promptly turned left.

“Hey, I thought you didn’t think you knew which way to turn?” Mary Ethel asked.

Hank confessed, “I wasn’t certain—until wrong-way Clifford said to turn right.”

“I’m a trail blazer!” Clifford insisted. “I go right through the woods. I don’t know anything about roads. They’re too civilized for me. You’re just lost, Hank—and trying to blame me.”

Hank slowed the truck.

“We’re almost there,” he sighed, his words frighteningly true. A chill swept through him—from the base of his spine to the back of his neck—as they eased down a skinny dirt road near the haunted ground around Dripping Blood Cave. We shouldn’t go back there, Hank kept telling himself, his hands kneading the steering wheel. There wasn’t a house for miles around in this stretch of thick woods.

Overhead, the dark trunks of hardwood trees with a canopy of leaves swished ominously. Their leaves blotted out most of the dim light of the stars and a sliver of moon.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this. Maybe we should just get the heck out of here,” Hank said softly. He was fairly breathless, his hands shaking a little.

“Now who’s being the baby?” Clifford sniffed. “You’re just lost and don’t want to admit it, baby.”

“But we could get swallowed up in these woods,” Hank said. “If something happens to us, they might never find us.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll lead the way. I know all about the wilderness,” Clifford crowed. But Hank noted that his friend was already trembling like a puppy left out in the cold.

Having come this far, Hank supposed that they could at least creep up to the cave, but not too close, and listen for the cries of the dancing warriors. Then skedaddle out of there.

“Okay,” he sighed, “as long as we don’t get anywhere near that cave or the creek. We’ll stay way back on the high bank overlooking the creek and cave. You hear me?”

“And he says I’m a baby,” Clifford grumbled under his breath, but he didn’t object to Hank’s plan to keep their distance from Dripping Blood Cave.

Hank turned down one more dirt road, then slowly turned the pickup into a hunter’s lane. It was faint and narrow—barely two tire faint tracks winding through the floor of the woods. Leafy branches slapped against the windshield. They bumped along as Hank eased the pickup through the dense undergrowth. They continued deeper and deeper into the woods. Then Hank swung the pickup around until they were facing the way they had just come.

“What are you doing?” Clifford demanded.

“We want to be headed in the right direction—in case we need to make a quick escape.”

“You’ll be hightailing it out of here, but not me,” Clifford snorted. “I’m not scared of—”

Dried leaves rustled just outside the pickup.

Clifford nearly choked on his words. “Lock the doors!” he squealed.

“What was that?” Rosie gasped.

Probably just a raccoon, Hank thought, but he said, “I’m not sure. Why don’t you get out and investigate, Clifford?”

“Me?” Clifford squeaked.

“Yes,” Rosie scolded. “Didn’t you say you were a man of the wilderness?”

“Uh, yeah,” Clifford muttered. “But you know me, I don’t want to show off.”

Hank cut the headlights, plunging them in utter darkness. Clifford squealed, “Eeeek!”

Then everyone went quiet, stunned by the night, which seemed to swallow the four of them in its depths.

Hank grabbed a flashlight from the glove compartment. Ever so cautiously, he climbed out of the pickup.

“Uh, maybe the girls and me should stay here and wait for you, Hank,” Clifford mumbled. “That way I can, uh, protect them.”

Rosie got out of the pickup. “I’m going with Hank.”

“Me too,” Ethel said, joining her friend.

“Don’t leave me!” Clifford cried as he scrambled from the pickup and rushed over to Mary Ethel.

Drawing a deep sigh, Hank whispered to the girls, “Keep an eye on Cliffie.”

Clifford didn’t offer even a whimper of protest.

“I’m holding Cliffie’s hand,” Mary Ethel assured Hank.

“The cave is over this way,” Hank whispered as he flicked on the flashlight. “A couple hundred yards from here. But I don’t see a deer path leading to the water. Looks like even wild animals steer clear of Dripping Blood Cave.”

“How come you know so much about this place?” Rosie asked in a hushed tone as she grasped Hank’s hand tightly.

“I’ve heard about it like everybody else,” Hank whispered. “And then I came out here once—in broad daylight. But I got a creepy feeling and didn’t like being here alone, so I left before I got close enough to really see inside the cave.

“I’m curious about the place, but I’m not so sure what we’re doing right now is a good idea. If we get ambushed way back here, nobody will be able to help us.”

As they crept ahead, following the narrow cone of light, the black leaves of the underbrush fluttered about their faces. Clifford held onto Mary Ethel’s hand for dear life, and was silent, which was quite uncommon for him. As the four young people crept near the creek and cave, Hank glanced at his sidekick, who stumbled along, mouth open, in wide-eyed terror.

Wings flashed silently overhead and Hank glimpsed an owl descending on its prey, perhaps a mouse skittering through the leaves. Clifford lurched again as the faint shadow of the bird swept over them.

“When we get closer, I’ll turn off the flashlight, so the ghosts hopefully won’t see us,” Hank suggested. “Then Clifford the frontiersman can lead us the rest of the way.”

However, Clifford seemed have been struck dumb. His eyes wide open, as if in a trance, he stared ahead as Mary Ethel guided him through the woods.

As the four of them approached the creek, Hank gradually heard the music—the faint rhythmic pulse of the drums and the high, ringing voices.

Was it a chant? A song? The mingled voices were as mournful, wild, and dangerous sounding as howling wolves. Hank did not understand a single word, yet he sensed both grief and outrage in the tone.

Switching off the flashlight, he led his three friends toward the faint, wild singing. They crept up to the high bank and hid behind the rocks, bushes, and pale trunk of a sycamore tree that overhung the creek.

Hank kept everyone well back from the ledge, where the bank dropped sharply, falling about ten feet to the floor of the steep hollow through which the creek ran, with a branch of it coming right out from the cave.

Leaning forward through the thick brush, Hank glimpsed a band of Indians—men, women, and children—singing and dancing around a campfire on a sandbar in the middle of the creek waters below, just outside the yawning black mouth of Dripping Blood Cave to their far left.

Vividly painted, wielding war clubs, the men shuffled and stomped, tracing a circle around the fire. Occasionally, they shook their war clubs and raised their heads upward into the night sky. Orange light from the campfire flickered on their faces and reflected in the ripples of the water flowing on either side of the sandbar. Gathered around the dancing men, at the perimeter of the light, the women and children joined them in song.

Their bodies glistening in the light of the campfires, the Indians appeared tangible, yet hazy, like the bluish smoke rising around them. They seemed to have shape and form, but somehow not the substance and weight of living bodies.

“They’re ghosts,” Mary Ethel whispered, short of breath.

_____________________

“Dripping Blood Cave” (excerpt)
A Story by Raymond Bial
from the book, Dripping Blood Cave and Other Ghostly Stories

copyright 2010, Raymond Bial. All rights reserved.

Click here to order the book, Dripping Blood Cave and Other Ghostly Stories.
Available as a Kindle eBook for just $2.99. Includes the full text of “Dripping Blood Cave” and 7 more humorous ghost stories.

“The Fresh Grave” – A Spooky Story

The Fresh Grave, ghost story by Raymond Bial

(Title story from the book The Fresh Grave and Other Ghostly Stories by Raymond Bial.)

Out on the side porch, Hank Cantrell was easing back and forth on the wooden swing in the black of a moonless June night.

As they did most every evening, frogs chorused down in the marsh and crickets fiddled in the high grass. The hills and woods around Hank’s farm made the hours after sundown absolutely pitch-black, as if the very light had been swallowed up by the hollows. So he was startled when across the pasture there flowed a white essence, spiraling like a whirlpool. At first he thought it was just a wisp of fog easing up from the creek bottom.

A strapping boy with blue eyes and straw-colored hair, Hank stood up to see better, his hand trembling on the cool metal of the pump handle. The approaching white fog might have been a trace of mist, but instead of drifting randomly, it flowed directly toward him. At age fifteen, Hank knew every rock, fencepost, and tuft of grass in that pasture, from doing chores and taking care of the livestock, and the unusual appearance of the mist traveling toward him disturbed him considerably.

He started to retreat into the house where his parents and brothers and sisters were reading and playing board games in the parlor, but he was so curious, he couldn’t take his eyes off the strange mist advancing over their land. Gradually, as he watched, it assumed the shape of a person and he stepped back in shock. Then as it whisked across the strawberry patch right next to the house, the face of a woman emerged from the fog—old and creviced, with keen eyes reflecting light like an animal caught in the headlights of a car. Hank couldn’t determine the source of that light, not for the life of him, because it was so dark that the stars seemed to be drowning deep within the sky.

Just as he was about to flee into the house, a voice called to him, “Hank.” The sound wafted across the distance that separated them, reaching him in a whisper. “Hank Cantrell, I need you.”

The boy’s hands shook. He was so frightened that his entire body felt on the verge of breaking apart.

“Come here, Hank,” the old lady called from the mist. “I need you.”

Hank glanced over his shoulder to the safety of his family. He could run inside, but he kept telling himself, “I know this land. I should be safe on my own farm.” Yet as he stepped off the side porch and approached the old lady, he could hardly feel his feet beneath himself. “What am I do­ing?” he repeatedly asked himself, as if he had lost control over his own actions.

But when he was just yards away from the figure, it spoke again, “It’s me, Hank. Hattie Rutledge.”

Instantly he recognized old Hattie and, much relieved, said, “You gave me a start, Mrs. Rutledge. I thought—well, uh, never mind. Say, what brings you out tonight?”

Wisps of gray hair floating about her face, she said, “I want to talk with you.”

Hank wondered why she was dressed entirely in white, the fabric so delicate that it floated as light as air. Her pale blue eyes had a wild, almost transparent look to them. He glanced back to the porch window from which a comforting light shone and said, “Why sure, Hattie. Mom and Dad will be glad to see you.”

“No, out here,” she said. “No one must know but you, Hank.”

“How come?” Hank wasn’t in the habit of keeping secrets from anyone, least of all from his parents.

“No one but you, Hank!” she cried, her eyes flaring with an eerie blue light.

Goosebumps rose on Hank’s arms, and he shivered like he was freezing from the inside.

Now, Hattie Rutledge was just about the oldest person in Varnell County, loved and trusted by all, and she knew more about local history than anybody. For many years—as long as Hank had been alive and then some—she had made a study of it, writing articles for the Myrtleville Weekly Gazette and even a book which had been published by the Varnell County Historical Society.

Hank was well-acquainted with Hattie and he knew that she could be trusted completely. So he followed her past the strawberry patch and the chicken coop. Just under the basketball hoop on the side of the barn, she paused and told him, “I’ve got a little job that needs doing, and I’m counting on your help.”

“Why is she asking me?” Hank wondered to himself.

Seemingly able to penetrate his thoughts, she explained, “You’ve always been a boy that folks can count on, Hank. You’ve always been a hard worker.” Aware that he had that reputation, Hank swelled a little with pride, yet for the sake of humility he maintained a sober expression on his face. Hattie went on, “You’ve always been able to do a good day’s work. Well, tonight I’ve got a good night’s work for you, if you’re willing.”

Hank shuffled his feet. “Well, I don’t know, Hattie. It’s getting awful late.”

Hattie pleaded, “It’s for a good cause, Hank. And it can’t be done without your help.”

Anxiously, Hank rubbed his palms on his jean legs. He was scared all right, but offered, “I’m willing to help ’long as it’s for a good reason. I know you wouldn’t steer me wrong, Hattie.”

“You’ve got to promise never to tell a living soul!”

Although he didn’t know why she was asking him to keep a secret, Hank swallowed and told her, “I promise.”

“Come on!” Hattie urged, suddenly agitated.

“Where are we going?” Hank thought to ask.

“To Spring Hill Cemetery.”

Hank stopped cold. “Just what are we going to do there?”

“I’ll explain on the way,” she said, taking his arm. Her touch felt light and cool to him. “We’ve got to get there be­fore it’s too late.”

They walked along through the dark, down a tractor path that led to a bridge over the creek. There were scattered woods on either side of them, which further obscured the faint light of the stars.

Glancing over her shoulder, as if to make sure no one was eavesdropping on them, Hattie explained, “Lately there have been grave robbers at work in Varnell County.”

Hank nodded. He had heard the stories.

“More’n likely they’re plain vandals. God knows there’s nothing of value to rob hereabouts, especially in graves. People die as they lived—dirt poor. But once they’re dead, poor folks have got as much right as anybody to rest in peace. Trouble is those grave robbers are hard to catch. Sheriff Rollins has laid out there more’n one night already trying to catch them, but he usually falls asleep. And those violators are crafty. Likely they’ve spotted him on those nights and haven’t dug up any graves or done any other damage. But old Roily can’t spend every night camped out in the graveyard. So I’ve got a plan to stop them good, and permanent.”

Hank swallowed. “Permanent?”

“Yes, for forever and a day. You said you were willing, didn’t you?”

“Well, I. . . uh . . .”

“Then let’s hurry!”

“What about my parents? Shouldn’t I have told them?” Hank asked, glancing back to his home, the lights of which were fading in the distance.

“Don’t worry about them,” Hattie said. “They’ll think you’ve gone to bed and won’t miss you.”

Hank wondered how she could be so certain that his parents would not discover his absence. He wasn’t at all sure that he wanted to get mixed up with these violators of the dead, especially as Hattie began to explain her scheme to him, but he had already promised her. It was a little over three miles to Spring Hill Cemetery, that is, if you took a shortcut through the woods and pasture. The old graveyard covered most of a field at the south edge of Myrtleville. Like so many teeth, the tombstones littered the slope at angles, interrupted by clumps of daylilies and oak trees.

“Are you sure this will work?” Hank asked, short of breath, wondering why Hattie wasn’t in the least winded by their rapid pace.

“Dead certain.”

“Don’t say that.”

“There’s a fresh grave on the slope just waiting. For you, Hank.”

For me, Hank thought, with a ringing in his ears, because the plan called for him to be buried alive.

Hattie removed a small bag of flour from the pocket of her white dress and used it to powder Hank from head to foot. Then, indicating the open coffin at the bottom of the rectangular hole, she said, “Climb in.”

He hesitated. “I’m not so sure I can do this, Hattie. What if you can’t get me out in time? There’s only so much air in that coffin and—”

“Have faith, boy!”

“But how will you get me out?” Hank asked.

“I won’t,” Hattie said. “It’s the grave robbers who will dig you up.”

“What if they don’t come?”

“Then I’ll dig you out myself.”

Hank wasn’t so sure. Hattie might be spry, but she was too old to be handling a shovel for any length of time.

“How long will I be buried?” he asked.

“Until they come for you.”

“But how long before my air runs out?”

“You’ll have a couple of hours or so,” she said.

Since he had promised, and since Hattie was a person to be trusted, Hank climbed down into the cold hole and lay down in the pine box. For a second, he caught a glimpse of the wide-open sky, flecked with stars. Never had he seen a more inviting sight. Then the wooden lid slammed down upon him.

Instantly he was trapped in absolute black.

In panic he tried to push open the coffin, then he beat upon the walls, but shovelsful of damp earth were already thudding down upon the lid, much more quickly than he imagined Hattie could possibly work with a spade. As the earth accumulated over him, the sound gradually softened, coming from a greater and greater distance, and then all was silent.

Hank tore at his hair. He beat and kicked at the coffin walls, and scraped the inner surface until his fingers bled, all the time reproaching himself, “Why? Why? Why did I agree to this crazy plan—to be buried alive! Hattie must have gone mad!” His thoughts swirled in confusion. Then he fainted outright.

It could have been minutes or days before he gradually surfaced to consciousness. His mind was lost in a blur of visions and colorful fragments of dreams, and he was certain that he was asleep at home in bed. Grinning to himself, he sat up—only to knock his head against the lid of the coffin.

“Why?” he demanded of himself. “How could I let myself be buried alive?” Again he vented his terror on the walls, until gradually, in that absolute black, he lapsed into a strange calm.

He wondered if he would have enough air in the narrow box, if he would ever stand on the earth again, if he would ever again behold the sweet light of day. After a while, he simply lay there thinking of nothing, until—

“What was that?” he asked himself, the sound echoing back to him in his confinement.

“It must be my imagination,” he told himself. Then he heard it again—a muffled thudding and then a scraping of metal on the wooden lid directly over him. Faintly, he heard laughter, drunken snorts, and a rough voice insisting, “I get to crack this one open, Junior!”

“No, you don’t!” another man’s voice answered.

“But you got to bust up the last one!”

“Well, you done wrecked two in a row before that!”

“I sure as heck didn’t!”

“Okay, we’ll all open up it together.”

Hank collected himself, lying stiff and wide-eyed as Hattie had instructed. The creaking of the lid as it slowly opened sounded to him like the entire sky wrenching itself apart. In the distance there were brilliant, sudden flashes of heat lightning, but not a sound of thunder, just that an­guished creaking sound as the lid was pulled back.

Strangely, Hank felt that he was high up at a great distance, looking downward, and that the sky far below him was nothing but a vast ocean into which he was about to plummet. The wind flashed around him as he slowly sat up, tilting forward, into an immense void. If he kept falling into the deep sky, he would end up orbiting the earth, he thought, always looking downward, without a body or a soul, just himself and the universe around him.

Out of the corners of his unblinking eyes, he saw the utter terror in the faces of three men—the Leach brothers! Usually Orville, Junior, and Ferris Leach hung out at the Sinclair station on the way to Boggsville. They had been a few years ahead of Hank in high school, before they’d dropped out, but they didn’t recognize him now, not with the flour dusted all over him.

“It’s alive!” Junior gasped.

“No it ain’t, it’s dead!” Ferris answered.

“Then how come it’s movin’?” Orville asked.

“It’s a ghost!”

As Hattie had instructed him, Hank raised his hands as if to strangle them and demanded in a deep, formal voice, “Why do you disturb my rest? Can I not rest in peace?”

Their faces twisted, the three guys were already stum­bling backward. Junior cried, “We didn’t mean nothin’. We was just havin’ us some fun. We won’t do it again. Not ever again.”

Hank sprang out of the coffin and screamed, “If you ever do, I’ll bury you alongside of me for all eternity! Do you hear me?” He made like he was going after them, and they ran as if they’d seen death itself—which, in their minds, they most certainly had.

Getting the shakes again, as he recalled his recent burial, Hank scrambled out of the cold hole. From behind a spruce tree, Hattie appeared. She cackled, “It worked! I’d say we cured them once and for all!”

“Do you suppose so?” Hank asked, unable to control his nerves which crackled like electricity through him.

“Yes,” she said, looking at him curiously. “I expect that the only thing worse than being dead and buried is to be buried alive. Wouldn’t you think so?”

Knowing the feeling all too well, Hank nodded.

“Well, thank you,” Hattie said. “I know it was hard for you to lay down there, Hank, probably the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your young life. But now you know something—more than most folks, old and young alike, and here you’re only fifteen.”

Hank asked, “You want me to cover up the coffin?”

She looked strangely at him, her blue eyes going soft. Then shaking her head, she said, “No, honey, you’ve done more’n enough work for one night. What’s left to be done, I’ll have to do myself.”

Hank glanced briefly down at the black rectangular hole, then turned back to her, but Hattie Rutledge had vanished.

That night he walked home, neither scared nor happy, just filled with wonder over the amazing complexity of the universe.

At the hand pump on the back porch, he washed off the flour, at least most of it. Then he quietly entered the house and slipped into his bed, sleeping so long and deep that his mom had to call to him several times before he awoke the next morning.

“Hank, I’m not yelling up these stairs again,” she said. “You’ve got chores to do and here it is practically six o’clock in the morning!”

He bolted upright, dreaming that he was still buried alive, and was thankful to see the light angling in through the window. At first he thought the whole thing had been a dream—until he noticed the flour which remained in the folds of his shirt and jeans. He dressed in clean clothes and went downstairs where his mom asked him, “Are you going to the funeral today?”

“Funeral?”

“Yes. You mean you haven’t heard? Old Hattie Rutledge died the day before yesterday.”

“Day before yesterday? But I just saw her. I . . .”

His mom looked at Hank a moment, then said, “It couldn’t have been her, Hank. She’s been dead for nearly two days. Now eat your eggs before they get cold.”

Hank shook, suddenly chilled to his very bones at the thought that Hattie really had been a ghost.

“Are you all right, Hank?” his father asked, his arms planted firmly on the table.

“Sure,” Hank muttered in the general direction of his plate.

“He just doesn’t understand much about death,” his mom said gently. “He being so young.”

But Hank knew something about death, which thereafter gave him a better appreciation of every day of his life. That afternoon, he stood at Hattie’s graveside, and found himself looking down into the very same hole he had occupied the previous night.

The Leach brothers were also in attendance. They were shaking like they had a bad case of the chills, and, though Sheriff Rollins could never figure out why, there never was another grave disturbed in all of Varnell County.

_____________________

“The Fresh Grave”
A Story by Raymond Bial
from the book, The Fresh Grave and Other Ghostly Stories

copyright 1997, 2014, Raymond Bial. All rights reserved.

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