CHAPTER 3: WHAT LIES BENEATH (conclusion)
In the following weeks, Mike and Jacob’s Saturday evening porch sleep outs became sneak outs. It was all rather simple. They alternated sleepover locations, the excavation gear tucked discretely away. Conditions had to be perfect, but a drought had left the earth dry and too hard to dig. They passed the time by listening to AM radio and singing along to songs like “Hooked on a Feeling,” “American Woman,” and “Venus,” while rotting their teeth on Sugar-Daddy’s and Clark Bars. As an early June moon floated ever higher across the night sky they read Incredible Hulk and Amazing Spider-Man comics. And they wore away the evenings debating lofty questions of mammoth importance.
“When he’s Bruce Banner, his pants are blue. When he’s the Hulk, his pants are purple. How does that happen?” Jacob asked.
“I don’t know.”
“And why do they get torn up around the waist when he’s the Hulk? I’ve never seen pants do that.”
“Again, I don’t know. The bigger question is, how does he afford to buy new clothes so often?”
Jacob scoffed. “He’s a scientist, dummy. They make, like, a billion dollars a year.”
It was just something to do to kill time while waiting impatiently for the midnight hour and the sound of the Star-Spangled Banner to begin playing on TV. Before the age of nonstop shows, the patriotic sounds of Francis Scott Key’s national anthem meant that another day’s programming was at an end. And when the TV shows ended, Jacob’s parents scampered off to bed. Mike’s parents enjoyed reading. His mom devoured magazines, novels, and catalogs. Mike’s dad was an enthusiastic newspaper reader. Thus, it wasn’t unusual for the old man to stay awake past 1:00 a.m. perusing the sports, business, or entertainment sections of the daily news. The boys tried, but they could seldom remain awake so far into the night. The energy surge that resulted from mass consumption of sugar-filled candies and soda was short lived and typically resulted in burnout before midnight.
“I’m a genius!” Mike said, on the night of the next sleepover, which took place on his parents’ back porch.
Jacob set aside his G.I. Joe action figure. “How so, Einstein?”
“Listen,” he said, lowering his voice.
“I don’t hear anything.”
A few moments later, Mike’s dad called from inside the house.
“Has anyone seen today’s paper?”
“So?” Jacob asked.
“God, you’re dumb. Look, birdbrain, he’s not going to find that paper, and that means he’s not going to stay up late reading it.”
“You hid it?”
“No, I ate it. Of course I hid it, you dodo.”
Sure enough, as the night wore on, the lights in Mike’s house went out.
“I’m going to have a word with our paperboy next time I see him,” Mike’s dad insisted, as he and his wife trotted off to bed.
“11:05,” Mike said, repeating the words of the AM disc jockey spinning hits on station 13-Q. “Let’s go.”
Slowly and quietly the boys unzipped their bags, laced up their sneakers, and crept across the soft wet grass through the neighbors’ yards. To remain unseen, they avoided the main streets. This was the first of six separate outings in their efforts to unearth the truth.
“How come I have to carry the shovel while you get to carry the flashlight?”
“Because it’s my flashlight,” Jacob said.
“It’s also your shovel.”
“No, it’s my dad’s shovel, so it’s better if you carry it.”
“That doesn’t even make any sense, lamebrain!”
“Shhhh. You wanna wake up the whole neighborhood?”
Against the moonlit sky Mike and Jacob looked like a pair of cartoon thieves, though Jacob felt certain that the only theft would be the pilfering of Mike’s Silver Surfer poster.
“Dim the light,” Mike said, as they approached Mrs. Gorman’s house.
The weeds in the Gorman yard were thick; their edges glowed silver from the reflecting moonlight. The boys crept further into the yard. The silence of the night was broken by the sounds of crackling and crunching as the tall weeds fell before their trespassing feet. Finally, they stood at the edge of whoever or whatever was buried in the dirt beneath Mrs. Gorman’s property. Just overhead, the great willow rested like a guardian ready to envelop intruders. The sudden wind raced through the tree’s drooping branches and withering leaves while distant cries of barking dogs that guarded the front gate to Johnny Clippa’s Salvage Yard a few blocks west echoed throughout sleepy Millsburg.
“What was that?” Mike asked, nervously.
“I didn’t …”
“There it is again,” he whispered.
Jacob’s heartbeat quickened as his arms and neck became a sea of goose flesh. He glanced at a second-story window and a silhouetted figure. The moon slid behind a series of fast-moving clouds. The sound of metal upon metal, like a rusted chain being slowly dragged across a concrete floor, echoed. Imagination quickly consumed Mike and Jacob. The boys responded by doing what most anyone else in the same situation would have done: they chickened and ran.
“I swear, I swear I saw Mrs. Gorman watching us through an upstairs window,” Jacob said, a few minutes later after they’d retreated to the safety of their sleeping gear.
“I know what I saw. She was standing there, and she was holding something–like a baseball bat … or an axe.”
“I’m not going back there.”
“Then you forfeit,” Jacob said, more than a little relieved.
“Uh-huh, and I get the Surfer poster.”
“Fine,” Mike said. “Next week we’ll go back and try again.”
The boys didn’t talk much the rest of the evening Sleep finally arrived around 3:15 a.m. All the dreams were nasty.
Exactly one-week later Mike and Jacob stood at the exact spot in Mrs. Gorman’s yard. The air was warm and the wind light.
“Okay, start digging,” Mike whispered.
“You start digging,” Jacob insisted.
“Fine, but we take turns. I’m not tearing this ground apart all by myself.”
“Okay. Wait a sec. Who’s that?”
“Where?” Mike asked.
“There!” Jacob said, pointing a finger at a figure walking toward them.
The body was thirty yards away, and the shadows of the night made it impossible for Mike or Jacob to identify the stranger. He or she staggered toward them, arms swaying back and forth and head lightly bouncing from side to side.
“That’s no person … it’s a zombie,” Mike said, recalling a recent horror film he’d seen on Chiller Theater.
The boys fled quickly, running past Gorman’s Pond and falling several times on the stretch of pebbles and grass covered with evening dew. Neither boy looked back as they raced to the safety of Jacob’s home. But upon arrival, feelings of safety seemed far away.
“Maybe we should, you know, sleep in the house tonight,” Jacob said.
“No maybes about it,” Mike said, anxiously dragging his Hot Wheels sleeping bag inside.
The boys’ third, fourth, and fifth efforts ended just as badly as the first two. Attempt number three might have succeeded but for a sudden rainstorm that began the moment their shovel struck the earth. There was nothing unusually scary about their fourth effort. The boys got off to a late start, and by the time they reached the Gorman house, both Mike and Jacob were simply too tired to dig and, so, staggered back to base camp. Their fifth try was interrupted by the distant sound of a woman’s scream that lasted several seconds.
“What the heck was that?” Mike asked.
“Could be anything. Maybe she saw a mouse, or a spider.”
“Even girls don’t scream that loud over a mouse. I think … I think whoever made that scream met up with something bad. Something supernatural.”
“Like a werewolf?”
“Or a vampire. Or a zombie or a witch.”
“Maybe tonight’s not the best night for digging up a grave,” Jacob said.
“I guess not.”
The boys retreated to the security and safety of their sleeping bags once more.
“Maybe we should just forget this whole stupid thing,” Mike said, his breath heavy with fear.
“Okay, if you’re forfeiting … then I’ll take my Surfer poster.”
“Um, maybe we’ll try just one more time, in a couple of days.”
Several days became several weeks. On the evening of June 6 conditions were perfect.
“This is it,” Jacob said. “We do this tonight and we see it through. No excuses.”
“What about a monster sighting?”
“You must really want that Silver Surfer poster,” Mike said.
“I guess. I mean, it is Kirby.”
“Yeah. Kirby’s a pretty good artist.”
“He’s the King. Don’cha know that?” Jacob asked.
“I read the same comics as you, birdbrain. Of course I know that.”
“I’m just saying is all.”
“Just make sure your Topps collection is ready for plucking,” Mike said, confident that he would emerge victorious.
As they crept along through the dark, Mike whispered, “Marjorie Wilson told me that Mrs. Gorman talks to demons.”
“What kind of demons?”
“I don’t know. But they can’t be good. There’s no good demons.”
“I don’t think Mrs. Gorman talks to demons.”
“Well, that’s what Marjorie said.”
“There’s no such thing as demons …”
“Excuse me. Demonicus? Attic? Have you already forgotten?”
“Okay, but even if demons exist, what does Marjorie Wilson know about ’em?” Jacob asked, though his voice lacked the enthusiasm it might have had thanks to the recollection of the painting he and Mike had seen in the attic not long ago.
As they had done several times before, the boys snuck past the great willow on Mrs. Gorman’s lawn and tip-toed toward the dirt mound. With thoughts of demons lingering in his mind, Jacob’s Bat-Man flashlight trembled in his shaking hands as Mike drove the shovel into the dewy earth.
“I just thought of something,” he said, turning toward Jacob.
“How come I’m doing the digging?”
“We’ve been through this before. Don’t worry, we’ll take turns.”
“All right then,” he said, returning to his task.
The ground crunched against the tip of the metal spade like the breaking of bone. Mike dug for several minutes, making little if any headway. “Ground’s too hard. This is hopeless.” The white edges of Mike’s Keds were soon stained by the earth. “Dang it. We’re going to have to clean our sneakers.”
Without warning, the quiet of the night was stabbed by a long, high-pitched squeal as a rusty-hinged door slowly opened.
“Who’s out there?” a gruff voice asked.
The light from within the house was Halloween orange. It shone onto the lawn and the shadow that soon filled it was massive.
The boys hesitated not one second. Mike dropped the shovel and they ran, sprinting as if competing for gold at the summer Olympics. They raced all the way back to Mike’s porch, certain that Mrs. Gorman, or more likely a creature under her command, was mere yards away, no doubt wildly swinging an axe stained with the blood of other children who were less quick on their feet. The boys sprinted up the porch steps two at a time. Jacob dove into his army-issue sleeping bag and yanked the zipper closed. It was the safest and most vulnerable he had ever felt. He knew that no matter how high the zipper closed, no amount of insulation could hold back the undead. Mike zipped shut his sleeping bag and held the top closed with trembling hands.
Certain an attack was seconds away, they waited silently.
After several anxious minutes, the boys peeked their heads out and gazed into the yard. To their relief there were no monsters, only a family of rabbits grazing innocently on the moist grass.
“No more,” Mike said, still trembling.
“No more,” Jacob agreed. “But you still have to go back and get my dad’s shovel.”
Thus, their bet ended. Jacob kept his 1972 Pirates bubblegum cards. Mike kept his Silver Surfer black light poster. And the mound in Mrs. Gorman’s yard kept its secrets.
NEXT: BANANA SEAT SUMMER – OH, KARA begins