What you don't know

In the end the town councilors wouldn't allow the wooden cross to be erected on the roadside where Henry had been hit and killed, left in a state that had even the hardened EMTs vomiting in the bushes.

Owen had fought for months to get the cross put up, gone to meeting after meeting, but it was all for nothing. Something about town ordinances and no religious symbols on state highways. The cross could go nearby in the woods, off the walking trail, they said, but it couldn't go on the roadway.

Leaving the town hall, Owen had walked right behind the two town councilors, quiet as a shadow. They were talking together in low voices. "He's dead. He doesn't care where his cross goes. What you don't know...," one said, his voice trailing off. They both laughed loudly and parted with a wave as they headed to their cars.

Owen had stood in the parking for some time, clenching and unclenching his fists. He tried to summon up his favorite memory of his boy--sitting at a picnic table in the sun, smiling a little crookedly, handsome and whole--but it was too late.

He bent over in agony as the memory came roaring over him--the memory of a thing on a cold metal table that they told him was Henry. The coroner had tried his best, but very little could be done. The speeding car had inflicted too much damage.

The driver served five years and every day of those years felt like an insult to Owen. At least that man was alive, breathing, eating, while Henry was cold and dead in the ground with only a headstone in the cemetery and a wooden cross in the woods for the world to remember him by.

It was during those minutes of agony in the parking lot when the idea came to Owen, like a gift out of nowhere. Stunned, he accepted it. He stood up shakily. For the first time, for the first moment, since Henry had died, he felt a sense of relief. Now he knew what he had to do. Now he could wait as long as he had to; he could wait years.

And he did.

It was the only way.

When the time came, the act itself was surprisingly easy. The man who killed Henry like a dog lived alone, a few towns away. He had been out of prison for six months. Owen slipped in, quiet as a shadow. The door was unlocked--an invitation? The place stank of alcohol and worse.

Owen had pondered for a long time whether he should kill the man face to face, let him see the father of the boy he had reduced to a broken, bloodied carcass. In the end he decided not to. What good would it do? Only death would serve, and the quicker the better. He fingered the belt in his hands, Henry's belt.

At the last moment he couldn't help himself. When the man had nearly stopped breathing, Owen flung him over to look into his eyes. He saw fear and pain, yes, but mostly what looked like resignation. It was almost as if he had been waiting for this as well.

That he, too, knew it was the only way.

Owen let the dead man crumple to the floor. Now for the hard work. This was the part that Owen had lain awake nights dreading. What if he didn't have the strength? What if the night wasn't long enough?

But he did, and it was. Somehow it was, just barely. Digging the hole deep enough so the body wouldn't be unearthed was the hardest thing that Owen had ever done. But his battered, blistered hands, his wrenched back--they didn't matter. It didn't come close to the pain that Henry had suffered.

He finished just as dawn was breaking. He couldn't straighten up but he raised his eyes to the large wooden cross with Henry's name on it.

The dirt around it was undisturbed, Sticks, pine needles, broken branches-everything was as it had been when the night began. People walking by, biking by--all they would see was the same big cross in the woods, the memorial to Henry. Nothing looked different.

"What you don't know," Owen murmured, wiping his bloody hands on his pants as the first rays of sun slanted through the trees.

So very sharp

Judith shoved the knife back in the drawer in disgust. What a waste of time and money—again. Could no one sharpen properly anymore?

She thought of how father would take hours sharpening the family's knives, how the food being cut seemed to simply fall away when the blade drew through it. No one was capable of this nowadays. She had tried all the local hardware and kitchen stores. Failures, every one.

Judith noticed a water spot on the black and grey granite counter. She took out a microfiber cloth and began idly polishing the already shining surface. Soothed, she recalled a sign she had noticed recently on a side street on the far side of town. "Johnson's Knife Sharpening" it said. She had ignored it at the time—how could some yokel working out of his barn be any good? But thinking about it now, she wondered…maybe he was like her father. Maybe he was a skilled artisan, honing his skill. Maybe he was the one who could actually do something right for a change.

The next day Judith wrapped the knife in a plaid dishtowel—she decided to start with just one, a Wusthof 8-inch Chef knife, her favorite. She headed across town and drove up the long driveway with the sign on the lawn next to it. The small white house was dwarfed by the ramshackle barn beside it. She looked around and saw an old-fashioned metal milkbox next to the house with a piece of paper taped to its front-- DROP KNIFES HERE. $15 PER KNIFE-- COME BACK IN A WEKK, 6 pm.

Wonderful, Judith thought. She was probably never going to see her knife again. But then the idea of this man—she assumed it was a man—possibly being like her father, so skilled, such a perfectionist, led her to open the lid of the box and carefully place the towel-wrapped bundle inside.

The week passed. She thought of her knife now and then, and felt mildly resentful at being told exactly when to pick it up—6 o clock, for heavens sake! It was dinnertime for most people, so inconvenient. She never ate her own dinner before 7 pm, but still she felt annoyed.

Exactly a week later at 6 pm she pulled up the driveway again. The sun had nearly set and there no lights showing in the house or by the back steps where the milkbox was. A dim glow from the barn was the only Iight she could see. She walked toward it cautiously. A low buzzing sound got louder as she entered.

"Hello? I'm here for my knife" she called out, and now she saw a man sitting at the large machine which was making the noise. He stood up and she had a moment's shock at his eyes—they seemed to be looking in two directions at once. He was younger than she expected, not like her father at all. He's just a little cross-eyed, one eye drifting, she thought confusedly, but why was her heart pounding so?

He was very tall, with dirty blond hair falling across his face. She couldn't have said later what he was wearing, workman's clothes most likely.

"You dropped it off a week ago? In the box?" His voice was thick, the words slightly slurred. The thought that he had been drinking flashed through her mind. Surely not, working with machinery and knives as he did? He came toward her and she was suddenly conscious that no one knew where she was. There was no one to know, no one who would miss her since her father had gone. And that was years ago now.

The man turned around and when he faced her again he was holding her plaid dishtowel. He unwrapped it and held the knife out. "It's done. It's sharp. That's a good knife."

She wanted to leave very badly now and fumbled with her purse. "Thank you, that's wonderful." She took the bundled knife and handed him a $20 dollar bill she had clenched in her fist. "Please, keep the change." He nodded and turned away.

The strong floral scent hit her nose as soon as she closed the car door. She only used unscented laundry products, couldn't bear the sickening fake-sweet smell of most detergents. The dish towel had obviously been laundered.

When Judith got home she dropped the towel in the washing machine and turned it on, even though there was nothing else in it. In the kitchen she took a tomato from the bowl by the window. Laying it on the cutting board, she drew the knife through it.

Oh my. There it was. The tomato halves fell away effortlessly, surrendering to the knife without yielding a drop of juice. She cut into an apple, then a piece of celery, and it was the same. The food seemed to drop away with a sigh, to give itself over gladly to the surgical precision of the gleaming metal.

It was when she was cleaning the knife that she noticed the nick. It was toward the end of the blade near the handle, quite small, but she knew it hadn't been there before. No knife of hers had damage like that—she wouldn't have tolerated it. For a split second she thought she would have to throw it away, actually opening the trash can before she could stop herself.

NO! No, for goodness sake, no. Judith shook herself, put the knife in the drawer with the others before she could do anything else. She had finally achieved cutting perfection, something she had searched for high and low for years, ever since her father. It didn't matter that the knife it wasn't flawless anymore, the cutting was what mattered—the pile of perfectly rendered fruit and vegetables sitting on the counter was proof of it.

About a month later she was making dinner, using the Wusthof of course. It was such a pleasure to cut with, so very sharp, that she was happy to use this one knife for everything. She would get the other ones sharpened soon. She ignored the memory of her uneasiness. What was a moment or two of discomfort compared to the exquisite pleasure of this beautiful implement?

She had the local news on in the background but as she glanced up idly, hearing her town's name, she gasped. On the screen was a picture of a knife almost exactly like the one she was holding in her hand. What were they saying? She scrambled for the volume control, raising it so loud it hurt her ears

"Police are searching for the killer of a local West Cedar man, possibly with a knife like the one pictured," the newscaster was saying. "The killing was bloody and savage, with the victim being stabbed multiple times. Anyone with any information is urged to contact the authorities."

Judith turned off the television. She stood perfectly still for a few minutes. Then she cleaned the blade carefully, studying the nick that hadn't been there before. When she was finished she opened, not the knife drawer but a lower one, where she kept dish towels and tablecloths. She slipped the knife inside an oven mitt she rarely used, burying it at the bottom of the drawer beneath everything else.

If anyone came looking, they would not find the knife there, and she could still access it easily.

After all, she had more knives that needed sharpening.

Robert-a North Shore ghost story

It was late afternoon on Halloween but there were still plenty of red and yellow leaves on the trees surrounding the old quarry. I stood up on my pedals as we biked the highest part of the rocky trail. I always shivered a little here, thinking what would happen if my front wheel slipped and I pitched down into the water. I had never had a problem--maybe because I was so wary of it--but I still disliked that 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. I slowed as he spoke to us but didn't catch his words. I put my foot down, stopping my bike. Ahead of my husband did the same. I said "Excuse me?"

He raised his head. He was staring directly at us, but 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, although the day was warm.

"I said, lots of bwanches down from the wind." His speech was 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. The dirt road ended shortly, and we came to pavement. 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 my husband looked back. His eyes widened. I felt an electric shock run through me.

We rolled fast down the hill, pulling up at the bottom. We stopped and looked 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 and stared at him.

"You've seen him, haven'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. It happened in the 1950s. He was different and always 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, thinking they would just scare him. But he supposedly fell off the steepest part of the quarry ledge, at the high point of the trail. You probably know it.

"Oh my god."

The man stared at us more intently now. "The crazy thing is that they say his body was never recovered. 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. I don't walk up there anymore." The man stuck his hands in his pockets.

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

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 running from his ears, 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.

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