Children's Fiction, Middle Grade Fiction, Short Story Middle Grade

SHORT STORY: The Graveyard Game by Jerry Purdon

A cool, late autumn breeze rustled the leaves at Lisa’s feet as she stood before the open cemetery gate. She wasn’t scared, but chills had settled along her neck and shoulders. Lisa’s gaze centred on the hulking Oak in the middle of the graveyard. Its bare branches stretched out across the landscape with limbs that looked like huge arms waiting to pluck anyone who dared to enter.

        “It’s no big deal,” Tommy said.

        “Then why do I have to do it?”

        “There’s nothing to it. All you have to do is run in, go past the oak, stab a grave, and run out.” He made a quick hand gesture as he stabbed down at the air and moved his arms as if running. A mischievous smile followed his mimed actions. “And when I say run out, I really mean get the hell out of there.”

        Lisa stared at him and focused on the gleam of his blue eyes. The part in his short brown hair swayed in the late afternoon wind. As her pause lingered, she continued deep in thought and searched for an excuse.

        “Why can’t I wait until summer when the others run?” She asked with a tilt of her head allowing her bangs to slide down her forehead. Her dark, shoulder-length hair followed with a shift across the collar of her denim jacket.

        “Because you are already in the eighth grade which makes you well past the seventh grade which is the grade that everyone does it. Any new kid our age or older has to make The Run”.

        “Even if I were a senior?”

        “If you want a date to the prom.”

        At first, Lisa had thought “The Run” was a local joke played on any new kid, but she soon realized just how deep this tradition went in the small town of three thousand. From then on, she wished she had failed the sixth grade twice. She did not want to mill around any graveyard at midnight including the one she visited now. Her only choices were to either play their game or become invisible.

        “I don’t like that tree,” she muttered.

        “Wicked ain’t it?”

Graveyard 2

        She jumped at the sound of a car horn before she could reply. An old green Chevy truck waited to pull onto the gravel driver where they stood. Above a large rust hole in the bottom of the door read ‘Nessler’s Lawn Care’ in faded yellow print, and the faded phone number deemed its lettering under the mixture of rust and dirt. An unfriendly, white-whiskered face peered through the half-opened cab window. His grey eyes pierced through the two young teens.

        “Ya’ll gonna move, or do I get to flatten ya?”

        His coarse voice ran like fingernails across a chalkboard in Lisa’s ears.

        “Come on,” Tommy tugged on her jacket sleeve, “I’ll walk you home.”

        As they walked away, the truck rolled to the front gate and the driver got out.

        “Hey!” The old man yelled. His gruff sound followed them along the sidewalk. Tommy quickened his pace.

        “You stop when I’m talkin’ to ya!”

        Tommy froze and kept his face forward. Lisa followed her new friend’s lead.

        “Night’s are longer now. Don’t wanna see any of you kids hangin’ around here. If I catch ya playin’ games here I’ll skin your hides. Hear me? You HEAR me? You got your own pissant yards. Now scat!”

        Lisa followed Tommy to the street corner where he stopped.

        “Get ready,” Tommy whispered and turned toward the old man locking the gate. She could hear the chain clang against the iron gate. “Hey, Old Man! Blow it out you ASS!”

        They ran. It was a few short blocks to the plain two-story house where she lived. Her Dad looked up from raking leaves as the two kids slowed to a trot.

        “Hiya Dad.”

        “Hi Lisa. Tommy.”

        “Hi, Mr. Collins.”

        “Don’t you mean blow it out your ass,” Lisa mumbled. Tommy stiffened.

        “What’s so funny, Hon?”

        “Nothing Dad. I’m just giving Tommy a bad time.”

        “You mean about the ol’ Eddie Haskell routine?”

        “The what? Who’s Eddie Hassle?”

        “Haskell…Never mind.”

        “I love doing that to him,” she whispered to Tommy.

        Mr. Collins went to the side of the house and the two adolescents said their good-byes. Lisa waited for Tommy to kiss her as she had hoped for him to do for the past two weeks, but he shuffled his feet too many times. She realized after his head ducked that there was no hope no matter how far she leaned forward.

        After Tommy had gone, Lisa continued her usual evening routine. She ate supper and dodged questions about Tommy from her father. She finished her homework then watched a bit of television before retiring to bed. The only difference in her evening was that she had her day clothes concealed under her flannel nightshirt. She was ready to meet Tommy to escort her to “The Run.”

        She tried to sleep, but her anxieties kept her wide-awake. Her mind focused on all the stories she’d heard. Especially about the girl who died doing “The Run”. Lisa knew it was impossible for a healthy teenage girl to get too scared and die of a heart attack. Most likely no one had ever died, but it was just one of the local rural legends. Besides, she had surmised that if it were true then most likely the girl had some unknown heart condition. The thought that maybe she had some unknown heart condition now went through her head.

        The dead girl had supposedly been beautiful, but her beauty didn’t help her when she screamed. Everyone had run far away from the cemetery. The next day, someone found her in the graveyard with one foot stuck in a grave like something had tried to pull her down into a crypt.

        Lisa could never get the girl’s name. She didn’t find any such story in the old local newspapers at the library or from the internet. She knew she couldn’t ask her parents or another adult because then word would be out, the kids had planned another “Run”.

        The only other story of legendary status had been a boy named Samuel Brown. Old Man Nessler had apparently bailed him out of his trouble. The only problem with Samuel is that he would never talk about it. No one really ever knew what happened other than to say that Old Man Nessler had played a trick on him. Tommy speculated the Old Man and Samuel had cut a deal, so the Old Man could continue to terrorize any kid that dared enough to visit after dark.

        One thing she did notice about both stories was that both of the kids had been alone in the cemetery. All of the summer runs only had tales about kids running into one another, someone accidently cutting themselves, or a boyfriend and girlfriend making out over a grave. Those were the fun stories. No, she was going during late fall, at the darkest time of year and alone. Just like all the bad stories.  

        Lisa had been assured that no one would really know when “The Run” was scheduled. Nobody’s parents would go for it, especially, after midnight. She knew her parent’s perspective; those hours belonged to witches, bloodsuckers, drug dealers, car-jackers, and young lovers waiting to be mutilated.

        Her barely audible phone alarm came alive at midnight but loud enough to make her jump. It was her cue to rise. With a slight hesitation, she reset the alarm for school and got out of bed. Lisa took an extra pillow from beneath her bed to create her shadowy under-cover look alike. She wasn’t worried about her parents ever attempting to open her locked door. Her parents had never violated her private space.

        A quick pause by her mirror within the shine of a lamplight allowed time to primp her hair and apply a quick coat of lip-gloss before opening the window to slip out. In the background, her teenage influences stared from their various positions on her wall. It was as if they were jealous she mused. With a quick wink, she waved ‘bye’ and headed out her window.

        She was on the second floor but heights didn’t pose a problem for her. The ledge underneath her window jutted out about two inches further than her feet. From this point, the ground was only eight feet below. She jumped, landing with a sudden thump and rolled with the motion. Lisa realized how glad she was her dad had raked the leaves. It would have taken her an hour to get them all out of her hair and clothes.

        Lisa scrambled to her feet and brushed her hair back with the breeze. Tommy stepped from behind an aged maple tree and almost caused her to scream. She remained calm. She didn’t think he saw her jump.

        “Did you move the ladder to the side of the house?”

        “Relax Lisa. Everything’s cool.”

        “You sure?”

        “It’s right over there.”

        He motioned in the dark, but she couldn’t see where he pointed.

        “We’d better go,” Tommy said has he grabbed her and began to run with her. They trotted along the sidewalk staying out of the light of a street lamp. Only twice did they veer from the complete coverage of the trees that stood in manicured yards. They walked once they reached the corner. Lisa thought about how much of a disadvantage it was to live so close to the cemetery.

        “Are you ready?”

        “I hope so.”

        “Scared?”

        “The pee my pants kind.”

        “I would pee my pants if I went into a graveyard by myself in the middle of the night.”

        “Tommy! Just stop it.”

        “Oh, come on. It’s no big deal.”

        “So why do it?”

        “Because we all do. Besides, you don’t want the dweeb label.”

        “Is that all I’d get?”

        “No, I’d stick around.”

        She could see his smile. It was faint in the lamplight, but she could see the white of his teeth. She had memorized his smile from the first day she’d met him and knowing it existed made butterflies in her stomach.

        “Well then, let’s get the ladder and I’ll go back to bed.”

        “I’m not going to let you chicken out.”

        “If you need me, just scream and I’ll be in there before you know it.”

        His words comforted her though she had decided to scream anyway. Since she was terrified about doing this, she decided to make some fun at others’ expense. It eased her mind to think she was playing a joke on a night filled with early teenage hazing.

        Before she had more thoughts of what she could do to make the night memorable, they had reached the cemetery. Her heart had already picked up its pace.

        “We need to run across the street at an angle. We don’t need to get in that light.” He pointed to another street lamp.

        When they had reached the gates other kids were there. Except she saw no smiles. There were a few remarks of “good luck” from kids who were familiar faces in classes and the hall.

        One girl, Denise Johnson, who seemed to be the most popular in the school, patted Lisa on the back and congratulated her for showing up. Lisa caught an occasional sparkle in their eyes, but for the most part it was too dark to see anyone clearly. The solemn mood of the crowd bothered her.

        “Do you have a knife?” one kid asked.

        “Oh crap, I didn’t know I was supposed to bring one.”

        “What the hell did you think you were going to stab the grave with?”

        “Tommy didn’t mention it.”

        “They’re just picking,” Tommy stated.

        There were a few chuckles. She relaxed a bit realizing everyone had played their part in an attempt to freak her out just a little more. It’s all a game she thought.

        “Here.”

        Tommy handed her a knife, but it felt like a sword in her hand.

        “What kind of knife is this?”

        “Hanson’s old man is a butcher. It’s one of his knives.”

        “Oh.”

        “Just be sure to bring it back with you,” Hanson reminded.

        Lisa went to the brick wall just to the right of the gate. The wall was only a few feet high. She placed her hands on top and lifted herself up. She rested facing toward the street. Tommy grabbed her hand.

        “You remember the rules?”

        Lisa nodded. She thought she knew all of the rules.

        “Still, I’m going to go over them. You have to go past the Oak where the drive splits. Then you can stick any grave after that point. You’ll be in the centre of the graveyard. Then you just run back.”

        “With the knife,” Hanson added.

        “Got it. Anything else?” Lisa looked around to see if she was really supposed to go through with it. She knew the whole thing was stupid. She had decided it was somehow going to be a fun.

        “You’re free to run in anytime you want,” Tommy said.

        “See ya.”

        Lisa swung her legs over and jumped down. She trotted over to the gravel drive and jogged toward the Oak.

        “Wouldn’t want to be ya,” Hanson muttered.

        Lisa heard him. She kept her butcher sword forward mainly to keep from cutting herself. Her nerves were on edge but she steadied them to be ready for other kids to jump out at her.

        It was dark, but she could see the faint white gravel of the drive beneath her feet. The headstones along each side of her were like individual beacons. The farther she went from the gate the more she felt like she was on an island by herself.

        There were noises. She knew everything could be explained. She told herself it was the normal nightlife in a cemetery, but she wasn’t sure what classified as normal noises. Her imagination had corpses rising from the grave. Then she forced her mind to picture something else like maybe squirrels playing in the dark. She took nature over zombies.  

        She couldn’t hear anyone from the gate. It was yards behind her now, but it felt like miles. She couldn’t see anyone behind her and for that matter she couldn’t see the gate. Lisa turned forward to see white gravel dim in the dark; but even in the night, she saw the Oak. It stood high and huge. Each branch seemed to reach every point of the cemetery. She knew this was impossible, but it gave the appearance of being able to reach anywhere. Lisa began to think it was even larger than from when she had seen it earlier that afternoon.

        She was at the edge of the drive where it split east and west. Two graves were between her and the Oak. She walked between them and headed around the trunk of the massive tree. Lisa stepped over some roots that jutted their tops above ground. She pictured that its roots stretched out underneath the cemetery just as much as the thick heavy branches did above. The sudden image of roots that had pierced through the older coffins for things to get through to feast made her shudder. An alternative thought rose for if something could get in then something could claw its way out. She cleared her mind and refocused on the task at hand.

        Lisa reached the other side of the tree. Nothing happened. She was disappointed and now expected some big explosion of ghosts or teenagers jumping out at her. Instead nothing greeted her except scattered headstones.

        She wanted to get this done and go home. Lisa stepped forward to the nearest grave. The knife felt heavy in her hand. From behind her, she thought something moved. Lisa turned quickly. Peripherally, she thought she saw a white dress flutter behind her head. Nothing was there when she focused.

        She smiled and knew someone was going to step behind her and say “boo” as soon as she struck the ground with the knife. Either her classmates or the old spook Nessler himself. She hoped it would be her classmates. She fully expected to face the exact same prank, as Samuel did not so long ago.

        “Losers,” she muttered and knelt next to a gravesite. The light hairs on her neck and arms bristled. Warning bells in her mind went off and a sudden dread came over her.

        “How would they know,” she thought as she gripped the knife in her hand, “unless they lurked from the shadows.” In her mind, that would explain her self-alarm and the feel that something watched her from close range.

        “No offense,” she whispered as if to coax the earth beneath her feet.

        Lisa raised her hand back. The knife fully brandished above her head reflected no light. It waited in the dark. The warnings continued a vigorous shriek and filled her mind with the dread of wrong.  A cool whispered sound brushed her ear.

        “What?” She asked and her immediate shiver helped to shake her fear. Lisa knew she was scared, and her imagination was getting the best of her through noises in the wind. Lisa waited as she stood underneath her nemesis. She knew someone would jump out. Probably just on the other side of the tree. Again, she thought she saw a flash of white clothing just behind the trunk.

        “Oh, screw it,” Lisa muttered.

        She held the knife high and paused as she readied herself to plunge it into the grave where she knelt. Lisa knew she was going to scream. A chill ran across the back of her neck. She inhaled all the air she could take. Her arm flung full force easily thrusting the knife through the dirt. The air around her became ice cold. She knew something was behind her and a hand grasped her shoulder.

        Lisa exhaled through her scream though it may have been planned it was not part of her script. She struggled to stand but the strong hand held her to keep her in place. She let go of another scream.

        “Shut up, Missy.”

        She recognized the gruff voice. She knew she was busted and a different type of dread enveloped her down to her gut. Lisa suddenly lost the urge to go home.

“You shouldn’t be playin’ games this time of night! You could get hurt bad.”

She stayed put with her head ducked. Tears welled up in her eyes.

“Come on. My truck is by the back gate.”

The old man extended his hand. She grasped it and stood. His hand felt like ice and the cold air hit her face like a splash of cold water waking her from a dream.

“Why is it so cold?”

“You always ask so many questions?”

“It was just one.”

        “That’s too many. You kids are a bunch of wiseacres anyway. You always know what’s best. Besides, I already said to come on and time’s a wastin’.”

        She followed the old man. He seemed dull and moved slow as if concentrating to keep each step in the rightful place. Any glimpse of light seemed to fade on him. His steps carried them past the oak tree.

        Something brushed across the back of her neck. The wind softened, and a breeze whispered in her ear. Lisa turned to look bur nothing was there. The cold surrounded her again.

        “Cemeteries play tricks like that. Just ignore it.”

        “I don’t like it.”

        “Well, Missy, that’s just too damn bad!”

        She got the idea that maybe the mean in him had sucked his colour out. The air softened and this time there was no breeze, “Don’t follow him.”

        “What was that?” she asked.

        “Kelly, you leave us alone. You hear?”

        “Who’s Kelly?”

        “Never you mind. Now let’s go.”

        The breeze brushed by her again, “Don’t go, help is coming.” Lisa looked toward the old man, his eyes lacked a sparkle. There was no flash in the growing moon light. They just seemed dull and empty. Fear flooded every part of her body.

        “I’m not going.”

        “Yes, you are, Missy!”

        He grabbed her shoulder and Lisa collapsed. The old man didn’t waste any time, he just bent over and grabbed an ankle. He started dragging her along the ground. He pulled her along with little effort or concern for what her head bumped. She kept trying to plant her free foot, kick at him, or grab a plant. Nothing helped her, the ground seemed to loosen to make it easier for her to slide across.

        “STOP IT!”

        The old man chuckled as he continued to move forward. Her words had no effect. Lisa screamed again. As loud as she could and was inhaling again when she felt another cool, gentle breeze across her face, “Help is coming.” She relaxed with those words.

        “Kelly, now leave us be,” the old man grunted the last word. “You’re not talking about that boy are you?”

        There was no response. It was as if the two had been left alone.

        “About time you learned your place,” he shouted to the air. He smiled and turned back to Lisa, “and about time you learn yours.”

        Lisa tried to jerk her leg back, but his grip was too tight. The cold from his fingers seemed to run up her leg. It felt as though her whole leg was numb. She jerked again, but he only began to tug with more might.

        “That’s all you got, Missy?”

        She closed her eyes and soon felt some cloth drag across her face. Her eyes flew open and she could see the hem of a white dress.

        “Kelly, I said for you to stay out of this.”

        “Let go of her you, old ghost.”

        Lisa tried to look, but the cloth shielded her eyes. Her hands had dug into the soil and she wasn’t about to let go in case the old man started to drag her again. Each time she moved her head, the dress hem remained bunched over her eyes. Still she managed to see a flash of bright light through the cloth.

        “Kelly, for the last time, I ain’t amused. PISS OFF!”

        “I don’t think so. Now let go.”

        The words still seemed to float in and out of Lisa’s ears. It was as if the words were notes from a song, and the last note vibrated from a final chord. There was another flash, and nothing held her ankle.

        “Someone else is coming and now it’s either her or the boy. Make up your mind, Kelly.”

        “Your brother is almost here.”

        Lisa could feel cold air as it surrounded them. There was no wind. She could see ice begin to form on the ground.

        “I will get him then.”

        With the old man’s words there was a flash. It wasn’t as bright as the first two. The dress seemed to vanish above her. Lisa was able to sit up and look around but in the dull moon light she could see nothing.

        The air was still cool, but the freeze had past. Standing up, she headed back toward the tree. Lisa knew that once she found the gravel path that she could get out of the graveyard.

        She ignored the thoughts that formed in her head. Like who was the boy and who had pulled her? Who was the brother? Lisa knew she had to get out as fast as she could get to the path.

        Lisa reached the tree and she could hear an angry man’s voice but it wasn’t Nessler’s.

        “He’s mine.”

        “No, he’s only knocked out.”

        A beam of light whitened the gravel path ahead of her, not as bright as the flash, but steady like car headlights. She knew the headlights were from Nessler’s truck. He must have just pulled up and now his headlights pointed just to the left of the main gate.

Graveyard 1

        In that glow, she could tell someone was on the ground with two figures standing over them. It looked like the girl in white and the faded old man.

        “Carl, you leave that boy alone.”

        Nessler had approached from the gate and stood in his truck’s luminescence.

        “Stay out of this little brother.”

        “You ceased being my brother when you became a haunt. Now scat or I’ll be back with Father Paul.”

        With that the faded ghost was gone. The white-dressed girl turned to look in Lisa’s direction and with a good-bye wave there was nothing left but the person on the ground and Nessler.

        “Come over here, Missy.”

        She ran toward Nessler and stopped short of him with a slow walk. Her eyes focused on Tommy lying on the ground. She could see a cut on his forehead. Nessler picked him up. Lisa watched in wonder as the old man lifted Tommy without a strain.

        “Okay, Missy, we’ll leave for the Doc’s. From there, we’ll call your parents.”

        Lisa didn’t say a word, following him to the truck and watched Tommy get placed in the middle of the bench seat.

        “Come on, get in.”

        Lisa climbed in the truck, closed the door and sat silently. Nessler laid Tommy over toward her and she allowed the boy’s head to rest in her lap. Blood matted to the parting in his hair. She just wanted him to wake up and smile. Tears began to well up in her eyes.

        “Don’t worry, Tommy will be fine. He’s just in shock and a bit dazed. Did you scream or something?”

        Confused, she just stared at the old man.

        “Did you scream when the yard went cold?”

        “Yes sir.”

        ‘You seem more pleasant when you use your manners and not phrases about what I can do with my backside.”

        The old man kept his eyes on the road. Lisa could see the glare of the dashboard lights reflecting from the old man’s eyes. She just wanted to melt into oblivion.

        “Tommy must have really liked you,” the old man commented after a bit.

        “Really?”

        “Yeah, he has grown up here and knows the past pretty well. Most likely didn’t ever believe the stories, but when he heard you scream he headed to help you. Knowing all those tales and still running in there took some courage. All those stories are true.”

        “He knew about the ghosts?”

        “Nah, that was just you and him seein’ things. Still, you stay out of the yard at night especially this time of year.”

        “Kelly wasn’t my imagination.”

        “She sure wasn’t, but you wanna keep her there. She was just a bit older than you when she died in that place. Don’t mention anything about seeing her and people ‘round here will leave you be, yet if you talk about it people won’t like it. That could get pretty bad. Just best to stay out of that yard. You hear me?”

        “Yes sir.”

        The ride seemed to take forever but she knew she would never go back to that cemetery again. Then she remembered the knife. Lisa realized that it just wouldn’t be her and Tommy getting grounded. She smiled.

        “Stupid small town traditions.”

 

 

Jerry Purdon

Jerry Purdon is an up all night storyteller who writes fantasy and horror stories for readers of all ages.  He has published poetry in literary magazines, Grasslands Review and Metropolis and holds a B.A. in Literature from University of Houston – Clear Lake.  He is married to his ideal reader and is father to two young adults.

You can find out more about Jerry here.

 

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