Spirits roaming free

October 2020

In this upside-down time, when few kids will get to trick or treat, when masks are worn every day instead of once a year, I find myself thinking back to the Halloweens of my past.

The holiday was still mostly for kids in the late sixties and early seventies-it hadn't become the rather bloated thing it is now. Only the smallest children went with a parent, the rest of us paired up with older brothers and younger sisters and groups of friends. We were free spirits roaming the night, unsupervised and giddy with excitement, more than a little scared although we wouldn't admit it. The fear was delicious, better than the candy we collected.

Costumes were cobbled together from the ragbag or bought from Zayres or Caldors. Decorations consisted of carved pumpkins and homemade scarecrows slumped in lawn chairs or sheet ghosts hung from trees.

It was the first time we truly understood how different the world is in the dark. The familiar streets were black and strange. Shadowed figures, half-seen, vanished in the dark. The neighborhood that we knew so well was strange new territory. The driveways seemed longer and the distance between houses immense. The front steps and porches were welcome pools of light. We hung onto our younger siblings hands and told ourselves it was so they wouldn't be scared.

Everyone talked about the kid who got a razor blade in an apple but no one knew whether the story was true. We gorged on Sugar Babies and Milk Duds while we walked, and no one checked our candy bags when we got home.

One year, right before Halloween, my best friend and I staged a haunted walk in the woods behind her house. We made the neighborhood kids stick their hands in a bowl of Spaghetti-Os, and called it eyeball soup. We concocted a tale of a family buried alive, while we stood over a roughened patch of dirt we had dug up that morning. Everyone was terrified and one girl cried.

Another time, while trick or treating at the end of our street, a friend and I dared each other to go up the back stairs of a house after no one answered the front door. It was pitch black. The steps were steep and narrow. We got to the top, clinging to each other, and knocked on the storm door. There was a scuffling noise and out of nowhere, a cat screamed down on top of us. We nearly fell down the stairs in terror, the cat plunging through the darkness with us. Candy spilling everywhere, we sprinted away, shrieking with fear and laughter.

But something happened late one Halloween afternoon that I still can't explain, even 45 years later. I had been riding by myself at the old farm where I stabled my horse and the ancient barn was empty when I got back. Everything was quiet, and the only sounds were the horses moving in the paddock. I called out but there were no answering voices.

The sun was low in the sky and the air was cool. I shivered in my thin jacket. Where was everyone? Suddenly panicked, I got on my horse, bareback this time, and rode out again. I had never ridden so late in the day and my heart was hammering. My horse was uneasy, reluctant to leave his stall. Shadows were gathering beneath the trees and the fields were nearly dark. I shouted but still no one answered. It seemed, for one impossible moment, that I was the only person alive.

It was almost dark as I headed back to the barn, trembling. And now there were lights and people--my sister and the barn workers. "We were here, what are you talking about?" they said, when I slid off, crying, demanding to know where everyone was. "We were right here all the time!"

Spirits roaming free, indeed

The headless biker 

of Harold Parker

An urban legend, reimagnined

The motorcyclist harassed people. That much everyone agreed on. He rode too fast and followed cars too closely. His bike was loud, too loud.

He wore all black from head to foot and roared around the streets of North Reading and through nearby Harold Parker State Forest almost every night. No one knew who he was, but he was a menace, that was certain.

The biker bothered everyone but he angered one man in particular. Often, just as the man was drifting off to sleep, the biker would thunder by, revving his bike as loudly as he could, and the man would leap terrified from his bed. He's targeting me, the man cursed. He's trying to drive me out of my mind.

Someone has to do something, the man thought.

I have to do something, he decided.

And one moonless night, he did.

The man strung piano wire between two trees on one of Harold Parker's narrow curving roads. He gauged the height carefully. And then he crouched in the woods and waited.

Soon he heard the familiar roar, and then the biker flashed by, going full-throttle. He hit the piano wire at neck height, exactly as the man had planned. The motorcycle skidded and careened off the road and into the trees in an explosive crash. The biker flew through the air. The silence was suddenly deafening.

The man crept out from behind the trees and stood there, his heart pounding. There, in front of him, was the biker's head, severed and bloody. His eyes were open and staring. The man shuddered. He backed away, and started to run. He reached his car and drove home, panting, his hands clenching the wheel.

Lying in bed, he couldn't stop shaking. But it was quiet. There would be no motorcycle tearing through the night, disturbing decent folks' sleep. It would be peaceful again.

But wait, what was that sound? No-it couldn't be! It was the sound of a motorcycle, louder than he had ever heard it. He raced out of house, the door swinging behind him. There in front of him was the biker-and where his head had been was there nothing, only a severed neck, streaming blood.

The cyclist pointed at the man. He pulled the bike into a wheelie and disappeared. But the noise went on. The man fell to the ground, his hands trying to block the roar that was shattering his eardrums and shredding every coherent thought.

The man was found the next morning on his front lawn, dried blood covering the sides of his head, his eyes wide open. His heart had stopped.

And to this day there are people who say that they hear the roar of a motorcycle in Harold Parker, late at night when all decent folks are in bed... and it's loud.

Too loud.


a Rockport ghost story

It was late afternoon on Halloween but there were still plenty of red and yellow leaves left on the trees. I stood up on my pedals to avoid the worst of the bumps as we biked the highest part of the rocky trail surrounding the steep-sided quarry. I always shivered a little here, thinking what would happen if my front wheel wobbled sideways and I pitched down into the water from this height. I had never had a problem--maybe because I was so wary of it--but I still disliked this spot and was always glad to be past it.

Soon we came off the trail and onto a dirt road. This area was usually deserted but up ahead I thought I could see a figure. He disappeared as we rounded a bend then came into sight again. We drew closer, rocks flying under our tires. His back was to us but I could see him distinctly now, tall and lanky, wearing an old fashioned baseball jacket. His walk was halting.

We pulled even with him him and I slowed as he spoke to me, but I didn't catch his words. I put my foot down, stopping my bike. Ahead of me David did the same. "I'm sorry?"

He raised his head and though he was staring straight at me, it felt like his eyes were looking sideways at the same time. He was young, probably 16 or 17. His hair was very short, and he clutched his jacket tightly around himself.

"I said, lots of bwanches down. From the wind." His voice was pitched low, his speech garbled.

"Yes, there certainly are. Big branches down everywhere," I said politely, lifting my foot and preparing to pedal again.

He raised his hand and again I felt like he was looking in a different direction even though his eyes were meeting mine. "Be carefwul."

"Thank you." I forced a smile and we moved off. We came to the pavement, and for reasons I still can't explain, I stopped my bike and looked behind me. I could see straight back to where we had stopped to talk to the boy less than 30 seconds before.  There was no one in sight.  I pointed and David turned his head. His eyes widened. I felt an electric shock run through me, right to my fingertips.

We rolled fast down the hill, pulling up at the bottom. We stopped and stared at each other. I felt sick.

"You guys look like you've seen a ghost."

The man raking leaves in the yard opposite where we stopped spoke quietly. We both turned.

"You saw him, didn't you?"

I shook my head a little frantically. "What? Who?"

The man nodded back toward the top of hill. "Robert, or at least that's what people say his name was. Supposedly happened in the 1950s. He was different.  Always got picked on. A bunch of kids lured him to the quarry as a joke." The man leaned on his rake. "The story is that they got him drunk and left him at the steepest part of the quarry ledge at the high point of the trail. You probably know it.

"Oh my god."

The man looked at us more intently now. "They were probably thinking they would just scare him, but he must have fallen.  The crazy thing is that his body was never found. How could that be? That quarry is deep but it's not that big. Bodies always eventually surface, but his never did, or so they say."

We had drawn closer together. I whispered, looking back up the hill. "Have you seen him?"

"Twice in my life, though not for a long time now.  I don't walk up there anymore." The man stuck his hands in his pockets, the rake leaning against his shoulder.

We looked at each other for another moment, and then he nodded to us and resumed raking. We pushed off, heading toward the main road.

We didn't say anything to each other, but I knew that we wouldn't be going back through the quarries. 

Not today.

Maybe not ever.

November 1, 2021