The Friendliest Little Town
in the Northeast
by Adelaide B. Shaw
Jacob ran into the woods to escape the torments of the village children. “Dirty beggar,” they called. “Cripple.”
He was 13 years old, his right arm deformed, shorter than normal, the hand twisted like a claw, the result of a wagon fall down a steep bank when he was two years old. “I’ll get you,” he yelled at his tormentors. “I’ll get even. Just you wait.”
The sun was low in the sky. The autumn trees on this last evening in October were nearly bare of leaves. Jacob ran further into the woods, further than he had ever gone, only stopping when he no longer heard the shouts.
Sitting under a tall spruce he drew his knees up to his chin and rested his head. When he awoke, it was dark, the full moon high in the sky. He stretched his stiff limbs and contemplated the way back, but which way? In the shadows all ways looked the same. Perhaps he should wait until morning.
No. Old Ma would worry. She needed his help more than ever now. Infirm and nearly blind, Old Ma had taken care of Jacob since the wagon accident had injured him and killed his parents.
Trusting to instinct he set out. When clouds shrouded the moon he continued. Suddenly the ground slipped out from under his feet. He was sliding, tumbling, his good hand reaching out to grab a tree or branch.
At the bottom of the ravine he took stock. He hurt. Chest, back, head. The sharp edge of a rock had punctured a hole in his left thigh. Blood flowed. Pressing his cap on the wound he tried to stop the bleeding. His calls for help came out in a raspy whisper, the air escaping from his chest slowly. It hurt to breathe.
Old Ma would wait quietly all night, sitting in her rocker. Jacob called again. The pain raced through him. No one would go to Old Ma. No one would look for him. They would both die. Slowly and alone.
* * *
Dave and Marge were pleased with the move to Elmdale, a small town in a rural community, miles away from the congestion and pollution and crime of city life. Dairy and beef cattle, horse ranches, the odd goat farm, corn fields and vineyards. Bucolic and serene.
The streets really were lined with elms, their presence as beautiful as it was remarkable. This area of the northeast had escaped the devastating Dutch elm disease. Their own property was graced with one nearly 100 feet tall, a 200-year old specimen.
After only four months, Dave’s law practice was busy. He and Marge were members of the country club and had made several friends. The boys, Paul, aged six and Robbie, aged five, had settled in their classes with ease.
The village had really measured up to the hype on its official web page: The friendliest, the kindest, most congenial little town in the northeast. There was nothing to be concerned about, yet Marge had a small doubt about their perfect life. It had been too easy.
“Do you feel you need to suffer first before you can enjoy good fortune?” Dave asked.
“No, but I haven’t done anything really to deserve it. How did we get so lucky?”
“If it will make you feel better, volunteer for some community service. Help out at the senior home. Our neighbor Ginny does it. Give her a call.”
“Hmmmm... Maybe. When I have time.”
“Well, just so you know, I’ve joined the Historical Society. In addition to preserving the history of the town, it raises money for kids and families who need it. And, I’ll be doing some pro bono work.”
Days and weeks went by. Summer was full. Golf and tennis, pool parties and club dances. “I thought at first that living here would be too quiet after the city, but I’ve never been so busy,” Marge said. “Now that the Paul and Robbie are back in school, maybe I can get a break.”
“Did you ever call Ginny?” Dave asked.
“Ginny? Oh, about helping at the senior home? No. Maybe next month. There’s the ladies’ golf tournament coming up and Halloween to plan for. By the way, I heard a weird story about Halloween. Verna Landsdale told me. She must be over 90. I stop and have coffee with her sometimes when I’m out jogging past her house. Doesn’t that count as community service?”
“Not quite,” Dave said. “So what is the weird story?”
“Some superstitious legend about every thirteen years on Halloween someone goes missing. Verna got real worked up about it.”
Verna had a grand Victorian house close to the center of the village. Except when it rained, Verna was out manicuring her garden. It was picture perfect without a weed, dead leaf or wilted flower anywhere.
“Born here,” Verna Landsdale told Marge, “right in this house. Mother, grandmother, generations going way back. I wouldn’t leave for all the money in the world. Had my eight children here too. They all moved away as soon as they could, and when my husband died ten years ago, I closed up the top floors and live on the main floor. Suits me just fine.”
Over coffee and cookies, Verna told the story of Jacob Van Welk, unraveling a little at a time, like tangled yarn, stopping often in the middle and waiting until Marge’s next visit to continue.
“Don’t let your boys go out on Halloween this year,” Verna warned. It was the week before Halloween. Verna had a distant look in her eyes, as if she were looking directly into the past. “Nobody in my family ever went out on the 13th year. My kids hated me for it. They had to stay home.”
In her kitchen with its high ceiling and old fashioned appliances and only the loud ticking of the grandfather clock, Verna spoke in a low voice when she told these stories.
“They were poor and alone.” She leaned closer to Marge. “It’s his revenge, you know. No one realized Jacob was missing for a week or more,” Verna said, “or that Old Ma was by herself. By the time someone gave a thought to them it was too late. Old Ma was dead and Jacob’s body was mostly eaten by animals.”
Marge shuddered. “I’ve got to go now.” She rose from her chair, but Verna pulled her back down.
“Silly, they all said I was,” Verna continued, “but how do you explain Nicky Carlton disappearing on the way home the year my eldest was four? A big bully, he was. Then there was 12-year old Frankie Locasto. A sneaky little thief. Stole things, even from his mother. He was last seen creeping along Main Street late that night when he should have been home.”
Verna had other tales of disappearances, tales her grandmother and mother told her. She believed all of them. “Not just children,” Verna said. “Adults, too. Silvia Gorman, a pretty young woman back in my mother’s time, but a bit of a gossip and stuck-up. She went out to meet her boyfriend and was never seen again. And Lionel Morgan. A drunk and a wife beater. Last seen leaving the pub weaving his way home. Never got there.”
“Didn’t anyone see anything?” Marge asked, not crediting Verna with telling the truth. “And why do you think it’s Jacob’s revenge?”
“He vowed to get even, didn’t he? The other boys heard him. And Jacob was 13. Something in that, isn’t there?” Verna tapped a knobby finger on the table for emphasis. “I can see you’re a non-believer, but take care. It’s the 13th Halloween again. Be warned.”
Marge dismissed the stories and Verna’s warnings. She’s a crazy old woman, she thought. Superstitious and crazy.
On Halloween morning Verna, out in her garden as usual, called to Marge as she jogged by. “Don’t let your boys go out, Mrs. Sonders. Or you and your husband, either. Stay home. Check out the old cemetery. You’ll see.” Verna’s voice faded as Marge continued past with just a wave.
After lunch Marge drove to the old cemetery, a burial ground going back to the 17th century. Small, overgrown with weeds, most of the headstones were askew or sunk into the ground. Inscriptions were barely legible.
Marge went through the rows. Porter, Smyth, Richter, Dodd, Van Welk. The carving still visible, Marge read: Gone to God. In loving memory. Karl Van Welk, b. 1688, d.1712; Marta Borse Van Welk , b. 1692, d. 1712. A devoted son and his good wife.
Where were Jacob and Old Ma?
At one side of the cemetery, separated by a row of tall and rangy hedges, were 10 or 12 smaller, plainer headstones. Only the names and dates of birth and death had been engraved. Paupers’ graves paid for by the town, Marge thought. The poor and forgotten ones. As she suspected, there was another Van Welk headstone. Greta Van Welk, b.1649, d. 1723; Jacob Van Welk, b. 1710, d. 1723. No loving memories there or prayerful farewell.
It was sad, but what did the graves prove? That they lived. Once. And died. End of story. No ghosts. No vengeful spirits. Still... Marge felt a shiver run through her. Verna’s warnings were unsettling. What if she were right?
After she picked up the boys from school, her neighbor Ginny rushed over. “I need some help with my seniors this afternoon. One of my helpers broke her ankle this morning. Dave said you’d like to help out. It’s just for an hour. I’m desperate for some help. You can bring the boys. I often take my kids.“
What was Dave doing talking to Ginny, volunteering her time? Marge would have to speak to him. “Well, I would help out, but I can’t today. Sorry, but I’ll do it another time, O.K.?” Really. Such bad timing. It was Halloween. Paul and Robbie were too excited for the senior home and would have been in the way.
Marge changed into the cat costume she would wear to the neighborhood party at the Carters’ later. With careful strokes she applied her make-up, drawing the whiskers with a fine mascara pencil. She hadn’t thought about Verna’s warnings for several hours, but they all returned to the forefront of her mind as soon as Dave came home.
“Don’t take the boys out,” she blurted to Dave when he came home from his office. Let’s ask a few of their friends here. It’s not too late for a kids’ party.”
“You’re letting your imagination run wild,” Dave said to her objections.
“I saw the graves,” Marge said. “Jacob and Old Ma are buried alone. Paupers’ graves.”
“There was probably no family left to pay for a proper burial,” Dave said. “That doesn’t prove Verna’s stories.”
It was what Marge had thought earlier. She let herself be convinced that Dave was right.
“Just, the same, take your cell phone.” Marge thrust it in Dave’s hand. “So you can check in. Please. I’d feel better.” With an exasperated sigh he agreed, kissed her on the cheek and hurried after the boys. “Keep hold of their hands,” she shouted as her two little pirates and Dave walked across the lawn to the next house.
All the porch lights on Azalea Street were on. It was bright enough, and Dave and the boys had flashlights. Get a grip, she admonished herself. Verna’s just a lonely old woman who likes to feel important by frightening other people, especially new arrivals to the village. Neither she nor Dave had heard these stories from anyone else, although Marge had asked. Her queries had been met with an embarrassed silence as if Marge were a simple and gullible girl.
She waited on the porch, clutching her cell phone in one hand. Groups of children, some with a parent lingering in the background, streamed by as she automatically doled out candy. “Trick or Treat! Trick or Treat!” Excited, laughing. Jostling to be first. Clowns, soldiers, gypsies, fairies, princesses, monsters, Martians. Beautiful costumes, cute and clever. Ugly and grotesque. Squinty eyes, matted hair, scars, fangs, smeared blood, a claw-shaped hand.
Marge felt a cold sweat trickling down her back and her chest. Stepping back suddenly, she banged her head against the door. Oh, God! What was she thinking? They were just children. Neighborhood children. That werewolf looked like Kevin Ryder. And the old hag. His sister, Lisa. How silly she was. She let out a small, tittering laugh and came forward with the candy, being overly generous handing it out.
In the lull between trick-or-treaters she began to pace the porch. Where were Dave and the boys? He had called twice, but she couldn’t wait for him to call again. She dialed his cell phone.
“Where are you now?” she shouted.
“For heaven’s sake, Marge! I called you less than five minutes ago.”
“It was fifteen minutes, Dave. You know I’m nervous.”
“I was just about to call you. Forget Verna and her stories. We’re at the Carters’ now. Everyone’s here. Come on over.”
From the porch Marge saw the Carter house on the other side of Azalea Road, three houses down. It was lighted up with pumpkin lanterns strung across the roofline. A large inflated ghost glowed in the front yard. Shadows moved back and forth across the porch and into the house. Strains of music and laughter reached her. The neighbors were having a good time. The Halloween legend didn’t interfere with their fun.
All those missing people. It was just a legend, exaggerated and embellished by Verna Landsdale, who had nothing better to do. Paul and Robbie and Dave were safe. Nothing had happened. Marge would go to the party.
It was nearly as bright as day. The streetlights on Azalea Road seemed to shine with an intensity she hadn’t noticed before. Even the moon was unusually bright. It was luminous, unreal in its brilliance. Marge grabbed her jacket and purse and slammed the door, still holding her cell phone to her ear.
“Don’t hang up,” she said to Dave, as a chilly breeze rippled over her, bringing with it a portent of winter. “Keep talking to me.”
“Honestly, Marge.” Dave began to whistle.
“Is that you, Dave?”
“Yes, of course. Who else?”
“Well, talk. Don’t whistle. Go outside where I can see you.”
Marge stepped off the curb onto the road. More whistling. “Dave, don’t whistle. Talk to me. I can’t see you. Why have the Carters turned off their lights? Why has the music stopped? Dave! It’s getting darker. I can’t see you.”
The streetlights on Azalea Road grew steadily dimmer until they were out. Thick, thunderous clouds passed over the moon, creating an inky blackness. From a distance began a low shushing sound.
The wind became stronger, twisting the branches of the elms, oaks and maples, shaking loose the last of autumn’s leaves, blowing them around Marge’s feet, swirling them higher, higher, until she was engulfed in a whirlwind of leaves. She felt herself rising slowly. “Dave! Help! What’s happening to me? Where are you? It’s so dark.”
The lights switched on again. With the street glowing below her, Marge was sucked up and over the houses, increasing in speed, toward the moon and the stars, beyond the known into a blue-black nothing.
She felt herself growing weak, dizzy. “Why? Why?” she called into the wind. What had she done? “I didn’t do anything. I didn’t... do...” Was that why? Because she didn’t do anything? Didn’t help the seniors? Didn’t help Ginny? Anyone?
In her last conscious moment she looked down at the Carter house, shimmering with its festive lanterns, rocking with music and laughter. There was someone running across the street toward her house. Dave. Shouting into his cell phone. “Marge! Marge! Where are you?”
Copyright © 2008 by Adelaide B. Shaw