BY TED WOLFE
Copyright is held by the author.
IT HAPPENED in Hamilton’s South Central playground. There was something under a lilac bush, something that wasn’t there yesterday. Greg and Rob peered underneath the lilac bush through the shade and buzz of insects. They saw a pair of saddle shoes. Someone was lying there and when they went to the other side of the bush Greg moved branches and foliage aside, looked, and let go again. His face turned pale. Rob saw it too. The attractive young blond woman lay face up, blue eyes wide open but no longer moved, her tongue lolled from her mouth — the front of her body was covered in blood. They stared. They were actually seeing a dead person. An insect bounced off Greg’s ear and jolted him into awareness. He and Rob ran home crying and gibbering to tell their parents who called the Police. A Constable O’Hara of the Ontario Provincial Police came to their homes and asked Greg and Rob to tell him what they saw and what they did.
Their parents worried that they had been traumatized. On the way to St Joseph’s Hospital they saw the chaos of flashing lights, police cars an ambulance and yellow tape surrounded much of Hamilton’s South Central Playground. At the hospital they were examined and questioned and finally Greg heard the Doctor tell the anxious parents that they’re fine. “Kid’s are pretty tough,” said the Doctor. “Their young minds can come up with some amazing defenses against something like this. Chances are they’ll have a period of recurrent nightmares but in a few months they’ll be none the worse for it. Just be there to comfort them.”
But Greg’s mother and Rob’s parents were still worried. Greg Lukens and Rob Sperling would never know Mary Fulford and Greg heard part of a muttered conversation between his mother and Aunt Maggie, “And to think. This poor girl would have been their teacher in September.”
It began two years ago. A series of assaults caused the deaths of several young women. It was always at night. It was always a woman.
That night as Greg got ready for bed his mother ran her fingers through his blonde brush cut and looked at his bespectacled face, wondering how he would come through all this. A slight build, awkward and uncoordinated at sports, he stood on the sidelines at school, every inch a bright, active ten year old who found his joy in comics and books. He lived with his mother in a tiny two bedroom apartment on the ground floor at the rear of a three floor walk-up apartment building in a neighbourhood that looked and was different in the nineteen fifties. Under high Elms and Maple trees that arched cathedral-like over the street, stately old houses sat back on expansive green lawns, aging survivors of a bygone century. There were apartment buildings interspersed between the old houses and an alley that ran between streets separating the back yards.
Their building had a small back yard and garden and at the rear of the yard was a gray, clapboard sided, flat roofed garage which was not quite a barrier to the alley. On one side of the garage was a boardwalk leading from the back porch to a gate to the alley. On the other side, between the garage and the weathered fence next door, was a gap; not quite wide enough for a person to squeeze through.
Beyond was the alley. By night it was a black corridor, throbbing and quivering with energy, filled with a million non-human voices — creaking, croaking and murmuring, a wilderness beyond the back yard that cut through the heart of civilization, a place of and mystery and wonder, of creeping terrors waiting to pounce. It was never still.
By day it was an immense seething cauldron of steaming vapors and the sweet, sour, sulfurous reek of decaying garbage, the buzz of flies, and what Greg had insisted was rice on the inside of freshly emptied garbage cans until he saw the rice move. He saw the dust and cinders of ash bins, the kaleidoscope of automobiles, garbage trucks and garages, school children taking the alley as a short cut home and the licorice tar that swelled between the seams of the alley’s rough, concrete surface in the relentless furnace of a summer’s day.
Today the routine of the back alley was broken by the Sheenee Man with his tired draught horse and the mysterious wagon of junk rumbled by, his cry heard long before he was seen.
There were two people in the wagon; the Sheenee Man who nodded in Greg’s direction; his mouth permanently agape. He gazed absently ahead again as if charging himself up to launch another great cry. His helper, was tall, thin, dark complexioned, wiry man with unkempt black hair, a thin face and wide, sparkling, dark eyes. He beamed an almost sardonic smile as they passed. Further along the wagon stops and the dark wiry man alights to examine some potentially salvageable item inside a garbage bin. As he climbs aboard again, grinning and celebrating his booty, something shiny falls and bounces next to the pulverizing wheels which begin to turn.
Yelling, Greg ran after the wagon and pointed at the ground.
“Hey! Heyyy! You dropped something!”
Greg ran up the alley after the wagon and picked up gold locket. It was open. Inside was a picture of a woman and two small children. The man jumped from the wagon, eyes wide and disbelieving as Greg approached and handed it to him. He cupped it in his hands with great tenderness and put it back around his neck. In the heat and dust the dark, wiry man looked at Greg then looked skyward, closed his eyes, an expression of pain creased his face as he pressed the locket tightly against his chest. And then, he suddenly smiled, his eyes bulged; his head rocked in a peculiar way on his neck; he held up his hands, and sang and gestured in Greg’s direction as if he were praying in a language Greg did not understand. Greg was mesmerized by the performance. This went on for a few seconds until he came right up close and for the first time in Greg’s young life, his nostrils and sinus cavities were filled with the pungent odour and sweat of someone who bathed infrequently. He looked down at Greg and said, in broken English, “I have asking that Protector be given for look after you and loved ones forever.”
Greg backed away suddenly frightened. Protector? From what? The dark, wiry man with the thin face and the sardonic smile got back on the wagon, and beamed with gratitude.
Moving on, the wagon wheels resumed their rumbling and grinding. A minute passes and the rumble was part of the background noise; now gaining distance in the dust and heat shimmer. The dark wiry man turned and waved. Greg waved back. Another few seconds passed.
Greg said nothing to his mother about the encounter.
In the soft night Greg listened to the sounds of the neighbourhood as it prepared to sleep, the distant twang and slap of a screen door, distant voices sounded clearly; then trailed off in the growing darkness. And he began drifting in quiet peace.
At some unknown hour in the deep morning, a black and fathomless pit opened to disgorge something. Greg began to awaken to a distant rushing noise that came from the alley, through the space between the garage and the fence, drawing closer and closer and louder. Greg’s bed began to vibrate. Something dark and unthinkable was about to enter his room. Penetrating cold insinuated into his fingers and entered his bloodstream like icy venom. He struggled to wake up and yell but his bones and vocal chords were like frozen steel. He saw a tiny flash of light along the seam of the corner at the foot of his bed followed by a sound of a small bell. “Bing!” The rushing noise began to fill the room as a black, vertical form slid out of the corner, straight edged and it covered the wall from floor to ceiling as if the wall had turned itself inside out to reveal its negative side. Locked in his icy rigor, Greg saw the form move slowly, deliberately, along the wall next to his bed, as if it relished his terror. Two objects appeared out of the blackness, scraping and rasping as they slid along, then slowly and gently reached down and touched his back which is turned to the wall, producing a tickling sensation like a gentle electric shock. It left as it had come, slid back along the wall into the corner until the black form disappeared with an abrupt “Bing!” and a tiny flash of light. The rushing noise sounded hollow and distant as some huge and monstrous thing hurtled on into a dark void. Greg sat up, breathing rapidly, suddenly released from the grip of ice and terror. He saw nothing but inky blackness. The cold silence wrapped itself around him and in his mouth was the dry, metallic taste of fear. The nameless terror had banished sleep for the rest of the night. If he fell asleep, it would come again. It always did.
On those occasions when this visitation was particularly real, he cried out. His mother gently and soothingly rubbed his head for a while and he presently dozed off. As soon as she left he felt the cold in his fingertips and heard the rushing noise begin and jolted myself into wakefulness before it took hold again. He said little to his mother about the constant coming and going of the nightmare, as he called it, accept an occasional reference to it when he woke in the morning. It was as if telling her the exact details would somehow make it worse.
The following night, in the early part of a dark, moonless Halloween, the street, with its old dark houses, was full of little ghosts, goblins, vampires, witches and super heroes. Greg and Rob were Batman and Robin. People shelled out the usual treats and some were in costumes themselves scaring the hell out of kids when they opened their doors in response to “Trick or Treat.”
With a pillow case full of candies and treats, most of which would be judiciously sorted and disposed of by his mother in the morning, a tired Greg Lukens got into his pajamas. He went to bed shivering, and as he settled into reverie, he heard the hollow booms of a train shunting on the south end of the city.
Fifteen minutes of quiet drifting passed before the dreams began to come. Greg drifted through corridors and rooms of strange buildings in a strange city that filled him with a vague uneasiness. One dreamscape followed another until he arrived in a place he knew he should not be, a place that was deep in the earth and stood at the edge of a black pit. He heard a stirring and an oncoming rushing sound that was all too familiar. He turned and ran, terror struck, through the trackless void. The Nightmare was right behind him and he was back in his own bed with the darkness and ice beginning to invade his blood.
As the rushing sound filled the room, everything suddenly paused. He heard other sounds, sounds from outside, sounds of someone outside his mom’s bedroom window, the grating sounds of a blade cutting through window screen and finally, his mother’s scream. Greg was locked in frozen steel and helpless in his bed.
“Eeeee! Help! Greg! Help!”
He heard muffled sounds as someone put his hand over her mouth. “Bing!” There was a tiny flash of light and a black vertical form emerges from the corner and pauses as if listening. In an instant, it slid back into the corner and re-emerged moving along the wall at the foot of Greg’s bed, quickly curled around the frame of his window and went outside towards his mother’s bedroom window. Through the darkness there was a second voice, a yell that is not his mother’s.
The yelling intensified into a scream.
Then there was a loud thud; glass tinkled; wood splintered.
There was a man’s voice in a hoarse scream that was pleading, “Let me go you son of a bitch.”
From the alley there was a final, piercing shriek. Then silence.
And once more Greg was released from the grip of ice.
The whole neighbourhood began to awaken.
“What was that? What’s going on?”
“Didn’t sound like a cat fight to me?”
When Uncle Jack and Aunt Maggie came rushing in they found Greg and his Mom holding one another. His Mom was shaking uncontrollably. In a matter of 30 seconds, flashing lights of two police cruisers filled the alley and adjacent back yards, and from the darkness the beam of a flashlight and a loudspeakered voice told people to stay indoors until they determined what happened here. Grayish first light brought a swarm of activity to the alley.
“Hey! What happened?” asked a pajama clad Rob Sperling. In the dim flashlight beams they saw that the fence next to the garage now leaned slightly out into the yard next door. Something or someone had been pulled through the space between the garage and the fence.
Greg and Rob and a small crowd of neighbours saw what lay just protruding from the space between the garage and the fence. Some policemen hovered around and over what shortly before had been a living human being and was now just a thing. One Officer perches on the fence taking photographs. There was blood — lots of it. The front of the body had been ripped open and the face of the dead prowler was frozen in a final rictus of terror.
“Well, said one police officer, it’s him all right. Tonight he was the victim.”
“Looks like he got as good as he gave” said another. “We found his favourite toy on the floor in the bedroom.”
The Detective held up a plastic bag that contained a boning knife.
One of the officers said something into his cruiser’s radio and a short time later an ambulance arrived. Then they lifted the remains out to a waiting body bag and on to a gurney.
“Wonder who killed him?”
“Don’t know yet! said his partner. “We’ll find out soon enough.”
Greg’s mother, dark bruise marks visible on her neck even in the pre dawn light, gave her statement to the police, “In the darkness I could just make out a big shape on the wall; looked like someone wearing a Halloween costume. Whoever it was wore a long face mask with deep, empty eye sockets and had long claw like limbs. Never seen anything like it.”
“Somebody saved your life Mrs. Lukens,” said one of the officers. “You’re damned lucky; this guy was a sicko.”
In the days that followed the police telephoned several times to ask if she.remembered anything else. She didn’t.
A few nights later, as he helped her clean up the dishes from supper, Greg said to his mother, “I think my nightmare was a protector that came and saved you, Mom.”
“You have an overactive imagination young man”
The Nightmare came less and less frequently. Greg imagined that it came through that eighteen inch wide passage in the cellar where there was a direct entrance into the void. A flashlight revealed a sewer stack at the far end in the stygian blackness. One afternoon when Mom took him to the cellar to get some mason jars for her chili sauce, he saw something in the passing beam of the flashlight, a small stirring of dust, a barely perceptible movement — a small flash of light.
“Eeee! What’s that?” he squealed.
“Probably just a mouse” said his mother.
But Greg wasn’t so sure.