Things that Go Bump in the Night
My senses were on full alert, but there was nothing to awaken them other than the mysterious noises of the countryside, the breathy night air, and the shifting moonlit sky. No house showed the smallest glimmer of light: the occupants were either in bed or their blackout was well in place.
I reached Gables Corner without mishap. The screech of an owl startled me. Owls are a bad omen. Other than that, nothing stirred. I turned myself into a spectre of the night and glided ahead, ready to freeze or flee at the slightest alarm.
From under the railway bridge I scanned the road across the water meadows to the footbridge. Was there someone lurking in the shifting shadows of the hedge? Of course not, I reassured myself. I slid silently along to the footbridge over the river, and crouched in the uncertain shelter of the parapet. The river gurgled ominously below.
The church spire was close now. It lanced through the torn clouds and stabbed awake my unavowed apprehension. I would have to go under its fang into the funereal graveyard. I began to regret my incautious boasting to Selena and my subsequent wager. Perhaps the shades of those buried there really do slither at night from their ghastly tombs in the lurking loom of moonlight.
I tiptoed to the graveyard gate. It was nearly invisible in the sombre shadow of two huge guardian yew trees. I must pass through the inky void between them. Should I run?
I crouched by the gate, trying to still the deafening tom-tom of my heart. Every woeful wraith beneath every baleful tombstone must hear it. My hand shook as I reached for the handle.
The latch flew up with a clack to waken the dead. I trembled. I could go no further. The emptiness between the yew trees was an evil, black barrier.
God lived in the church. God was my father. He loved me. I'd be safe in there.
This frail comfort got me through the gate. I sprinted for the porch. Gravel scattered under my feet to deter the waiting wraiths. The porch engulfed me in its gloom. I clutched a pillar of the inner door and hugged it, panting. Nothing had got me. But they were waiting— just waiting—
I slipped inside and leaned against the inner door. The church was cool, and quiet, and dark, and— spooky. My heart hammered. This was my father's house; I ought to feel safe. But I didn't feel safe; not safe at all. I felt terrifyingly alone. I didn't want to stay; so please help me, God!
Exactly how I did it, I don't know. I made no specific resolution to defy the demons. I began to walk slowly and deliberately to the centre aisle and then up to the chancel. There was just enough light from the moon flickering through the windows, to see my way between the black rows of pews.
I felt my way up the three chancel steps.
The familiar choir stalls gave some slight protection from the terrors of the dark. I collapsed trembling into Selena's seat, and listened intently.
My thumping heart covered all other noise. I must find the envelope and get out of here. Fearfully, I switched on my torch and found the hymn book. There were two envelopes inside. One was marked, ‘Selena’; the other bore my name. I stuffed them into my pocket and prepared to flee.
There came a soft thump from the nave.
I switched off my torch and cowered, terrified, in my seat. My ears, like huge alert saucers, turned towards the sound. I heard a stealthy, horrifying shuffling. I became an icy block. I stopped breathing. The shuffling came closer. Something awful was coming. My heart stopped.
‘Peter?’ it whispered.
I died. It knew my name. Was it God calling me?
‘Peter?’ it whispered again. ‘B'ist thee?’
My heart restarted. I drew a deep shuddering breath as I recognised a friend. ‘Daniel?’ I murmured.
‘Aye lad— 'tis ol' Dan'l.’
‘Are you dead?’
‘Nay, Peter lad. Shine a bit o' light so's ol' Dan'l c'n see the steps.’
I switched on my torch. Daniel came up the steps, eased his bulk into the choir stalls, and sat beside me with a sigh.
‘What are you doing here, Daniel? I've never seen you in church before.’
‘Nay lad— the church bain't fer the loikes o' ol' Dan'l: all them fine folks in their fancy clothes. Better fer Dan'l when there bain't be nobody else around.’
‘You only come to church at night?’
‘Aye— at night.’
‘Aren't you afraid?’
‘Dan'l frighted? Frighted o' what, Peter lad?’
‘All those dead people in the graveyard.’
‘Dan'l bain't be frighted o' the dead. 'Ee be more frighted o' them wot's livin'. O' them wot'll turn 'im off'n the allotments an' outta 'is hut.’
‘Is that why you came to the church: to pray?’
‘Pray? Nay, Peter lad. Dan'l bain't be 'avin' the words. 'Ee don't rightly know 'ow to be a-prayin'.’
‘Why do you come to church then?’
‘Arrgh. It be roight peaceful in 'ere when there bain't be no other folks around. Ol' Dan'l c'n rake together 'is thinkin'— loike 'ee does the leaves, come autumn, afore they be burned up. An' loike when little lettuces come a-pokin' through the dirt.
‘An' there's that feller Jesus, wot they put up on the cross in the olden days. Arrgh— reckon as 'ow 'ee were worse off 'n ol' Dan'l.’
‘You think of all that, and then you feel better?’
‘Arrgh— reckon as 'ow we both be a-diggin' in the self-same patch.’
‘I reckon, Daniel.’
‘Didst come too ter rake up some leaves?’
‘Not exactly, Daniel— not exactly.’
I was tempted to tell him about the bet and the money for our project. But suppose we failed. It would be cruel to raise his hopes until we were more certain of success.
‘No need ter be a-tellin' ol' Dan'l. Heh, heh— loike my dad allus said: A seed is all secret 'till it shoots. Bain't it be so?’
‘Aye, Daniel— it be just so. Are you going home now?’
‘'Ome? Ol' Dan'l bain't roightly got no 'ome. Not now the allotments be a-goin'.’
‘Sorry, Daniel— I meant back to the lockup; or rather, your room above.’
‘Heh, heh— When Dan'l drinks a pint 'o beer, folks shake their 'eads, an' then tis one or t'other. Wicked ol' Dummy, they say. Don't faze ol' Dan'l overmuch. Then them wot shakes their 'eads when 'ee sings a bit in The Street, they comes in 'ere an' they drinks some wine an' they sings their sober 'eads off. They be good, straight an' narrer folks they be. Heh, heh— That don't faze ol' Dan'l none neither.’
‘Daniel, I need to be getting back. If my aunt finds out I'm not in bed, I'll be for the lockup too.’
‘Heh, heh— Loike ol' Dan'l said: we both be a-diggin' in the self-same patch.’
‘Yes, except you don't have an aunt to keep you on the straight and narrow.’
‘Ye bain't be wrong tha: ol' Dan'l's got the whole village agin 'im 'cept thee an' thy friends.’
‘Like Molly an' Winnifred?’
‘Aye, an' the others in thy gang.’
We moved towards the door. The church was calm and peaceful. The silver-black of the graveyard welcomed us. It was not in the least threatening. Why had I been so frightened before?
(Adapted from "Gang Petition" chapter 11.
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