“Bloody Mary….Bloody….Mary…Bloody…. I can’t do it, what if she really comes? What if it’s real?” Joey’s voice trembled with each word.
“Come on, don’t be a sissy, it’s just a story.”
He sat down on the floor in defiance, “But what if it’s not? I’m not getting eaten or killed or stalked by some stupid ghost!”
“It is. It’s just a story.”
“Then you do it.”
I froze. Don’t get me wrong, I was at least 85% sure it was just a story but there was that 15%. And it’s one thing for someone else to take a 15% chance that they’re summoning evil, murderous spirits from beyond the beyond, it’s an entirely different thing for you to take that chance. I mean, I wouldn’t get in a bus that had a 15% chance of blowing up on the way to school, would you? So I did what all great leaders do, I used misdirection.
“I’ve already done it. I did it last night.”
Ok, it wasn’t exactly misdirection. It was more lying. But lying and misdirection are practically the same thing. Just ask Richard Nixon.
“Nuh-huh, you’re just saying that.” Joey was smarter than he looked. Though that wasn’t saying much since, and I’m just being honest here, Joey looked really dumb. He was two and a half years younger than me which made him barely ten (I, on the other hand, was a teenager). His sandy blonde hair was parted down the middle and had grown a little too long so it hung in front of his glasses. He was always pushing it back, trying to keep it out of his face. It reminded me of that Greek God, the one who had to push the rock up the mountain every day. Only Joey’s rock was greasy hair that needed to be cut and his mountain was his egg-shaped forehead.
I didn’t understand why he didn’t just get his hair cut but there were a lot of things I didn’t understand about Joey – or his family. Which, incidentally intersected with my own. Joey’s mom was my mom’s sister. His dad, on the other hand, was on vacation…a lot. As in, I’d never met the guy. But no one really talked about it. As mama sometimes says, some things are better left unsaid. So I’ll just leave it at that.
“I’m not just saying that. I really did do it. Last night, in my bedroom. And nothing happened. So just say it!”
Joey blinked, his coke-bottle glasses making his eyes look like saucers.
“Pinky swear?” He shoved his finger in my face and left me with quite a dilemma.
To lie or tell the truth, that is the question.
I thought for a moment and then decided I’d go with misdirection.
“Yea, yea, yea.” I locked my pinky to his, “Okay?”
He stared at me with his big bug eyes and for a moment, I thought he might see through my misdirection.
“Ok, I’ll do it.”
But he didn’t.
We’d been sitting in our grandmother’s bathroom for what felt like hours but was probably more like fifteen minutes. The room was pitch-black except for the light that came crawling out from under the door and left an eerie glow on everything it touched. I sat down on the toilet while Joey stood up and faced the mirror one more time. Just to be clear, I wasn’t actually on the toilet. I was sitting on the lid of the toilet. Grandmaw had one of those carpet toilet covers and as Joey stepped forward, I gripped it, feeling the little pieces of fabric tickling my fingers.
“Bloody Mary…” He took a deep breath.
“Bloody…Mary…” Another deep breath.
“Would you just get on with it?” I gave him a little shove and he spooked. He looked back at me with anger in his eyes. Don’t quit now. But then a certainty took over and he squinted those big, bug eyes so I could barely see them in the dark. He faced the mirror once more and uttered his final word.
Light shone all around us and a terrifying voice boomed, echoing off the walls of the little bathroom.
“What in the name of all that’s holy are you two doing, sitting here in the dark?” I was sure Bloody Mary’d gotten tired of almost being summoned so many times and finally just decided to show up. Fortunately, it was just Grandmaw.
“Can you boys hear? I’m talking to you.”
I hadn’t realized that Joey had fallen on the ground and had his head between his legs. He must’ve believed he’d really summoned Bloody Mary. What a dope!
“Hey dummy,” I slapped him on the back of the head, “It’s just Grandmaw.”
He slowly raised his head but only had one eye open – as if holding one eye shut would keep a demon from doing something to you. Remember what I said earlier about Joey being ‘smarter than he looked’? I think I’ll take that back.
“What were you two doing in here – in the dark?”
We spent the next half-hour explaining the Legend of Bloody Mary to Grandmaw. I did most of the explaining. Joey tossed a word of agreement in here and there. We sat at her kitchen counter, talking while Grandmaw made us both hot chocolate. When she finished, she set a mug in front of all three of us and sat down on one of her bar stools.
“So that’s it. Robert Lejeune, he’s this kid from school. He told me about it and said he knows a guy whose cousin was killed by Bloody Mary. It’s in the paper and everything.”
Grandmaw closed her eyes like she was thinking about something and then slowly opened them and looked at me real hard.
“Lejeune? I wouldn’t trust a cajun to tell me the truth. Cajuns lie like dogs.”
I thought about Robert. He seemed like an honest enough guy. He always got good grades and this one time when I tried to borrow his answers during a test he wouldn’t let me. I figured he was mostly honest.
“I don’t know about other cajuns, Grandmaw, but this one tells the truth. Honest.”
“Well, did you see the paper?”
“Umm… No. I mean, I didn’t ask him if he had it on him. We were in school. Who carries around newspaper articles in their pockets?”
“I think your friend, Robert, was telling you a fib.”
Joey finally spoke, “So there isn’t a Bloody Mary?”
“No…” Grandmaw started to say something else but then stopped herself.
“What is it?” Now I was curious. She was holding something back.
“Well, there ain’t no such thing as Bloody Mary – that’s for sure. But that don’t mean there aren’t other…things out there.” She said the word ‘things’ with a peculiar emphasis. Like she was searching for some other word, some specific word, but couldn’t find it. So she had to settle for the most vague word possible.
“What kinda things?” Joey whispered.
Grandmaw’s eyes glanced between us and then searched the rest of the kitchen and into the living room. Like she was looking for someone…or some thing.
“The Shadow People.”
“The Shadow People?” we asked in unison. I was tempted to call ‘jinx’ but couldn’t open my mouth.
“Jin–” Joey started to say it but I socked him in the leg before he could get it out.
“What are the Shadow People?” I asked, unsure of whether I really wanted to know.
“Nobody really knows who or what they are. But they can show up anywhere and at any time. In fact,” she moved her head toward us and began to whisper, “chances are there’s at least one right here…right now.” Her last words barely made a sound.
I could feel goosebumps running up and down my arms as I looked toward the living room and, for an instant, I thought I saw something move.
It’s just a story, I tried to convince myself.
“That’s why we have to be careful what we say and what we do. The Shadow People are watching.”
The sound of something rattling came up from below and I nearly jumped off my stool but when I looked down, I realized it was just Joey’s leg shaking. He started to speak but Grandmaw cut him off.
“Do you remember ol’ man Masterson? Used to live down country road a mile or two from here?”
We both nodded. Everyone in town knew about old George Masterson. He’d devoted his free time to rescuing wounded animals and nursing them back to health. A couple of years earlier he’d had a heart attack and died. It was months before anyone found him – his body barely more than bones. Eaten by the creatures he’d tried to help.
“And do you know how ol’ man Masterson died?”
We nodded again.
“He had a heart attack. And then…well, everyone knows what happened after that.”
Joey’s leg was still making that rattling sound.
“That’s what they tell everybody,” Grandmaw started, “But that’s not the truth. The truth is that the Shadow People got ‘im.”
A shiver ran down my spine as I imagined Mr. Masterson sitting in his old rocking chair, Shadow People gnawing on every bare patch of skin.
“But why? Why’d they get him?” I heard Joey ask. His voice cracked.
“Who knows? The Shadow People don’t need reasons. Though I have heard that they prefer young boys. Especially young boys between the ages of 10 and 14.”
My heart pounded harder with every word.
“But the thing you have to remember is, the Shadow People are nocturnal. They usually come out around…11 pm. You don’t have to worry about ’em too much before then. And as long as you’re asleep, they don’t bother you. They’ll think you’re already dead.”
My eyes searched for a clock with no success.
What time is it? I wanted to scream but I couldn’t lose my cool. Joey hadn’t lost his yet.
“What…time…is it, Grandmaw?” Joey sputtered.
Grandma pushed up her sleeve to reveal a big silver watch. She tapped it a few times and held it up close to her face.
“That’s funny. This can’t be right… It can’t already be that late, can it?”
“How late?” I couldn’t stand it anymore.
“Well, it says here it’s 10:47pm. That means…”
“The Shadow People!” Joey and I jumped off our stools and raced to the bedroom we shared while we were staying with Grandmaw.
We heard her holler down the hall as we ran, “Don’t forget to brush your teeth! The Shadow People love stinky breath.” We heard her chuckle but it didn’t stop us. We were on a mission: don’t get killed by the Shadow People. We both brushed our teeth before a minute had passed. We had twelve minutes left.
Joey and I jumped into the same queen-sized bed that our mothers had shared when they were children. I pulled the covers up to my eyeballs and gripped them with all my might. I held my eyes shut, as if opening them would sentence me to death. My heart pounded. I could feel it in my ears, like a loud drum beating. Ba-Bum, Ba-Bum, Ba-Bum. The more I listened to it, the faster it got. Soon I could feel it too – like the ends of all my fingers and toes were going to explode.
Then the sounds started. First it was the creaking of old wooden floorboards. Someone was walking. Was it in the hall? On the roof? Under the bed? I couldn’t tell.
It’s just Grandmaw. It’s just Grandmaw. It’s just Grandmaw. I repeated it like it was a mantra meant to ward off demons.
Then the scratching started.
It’s a tree limb. It’s Grandmaw. It’s a tree limb. It’s Grandmaw. With every subsequent sound, I added another phrase to my demon-warding spell.
Finally, there was a voice.
“Timothy…” It spoke my name. A familiar voice. A voice from the past? A ghost?
I thought I might strain something as I pressed my eyelids as close together as they’d go.
“Timothy…” I heard it again.
“Timothy, do you see that?” Then it hit me. It was Joey. I was scared of Joey.
I opened one eye and looked over at him. He was staring right at me with his thick glasses still on, his eyes looking as big as ever.
“What?” I asked.
“Do you see that?” He pointed above us by jerking his nose upward.
“What?” I raised my eyes and saw the same eerie glow from the bathroom creeping into the bedroom and sending shadows dancing above us.
“It’s nothing. Go to bed.” I tried to sound confident. I closed my eyes and tried to think of anything else but the sounds kept coming.
It felt like hours were passing. Part of me thought the sun would start shining through the window any minute but the night dragged. Finally, I heard what sounded like a freight train leaving the station. When I opened my eyes, I saw Joey snoring. What a dope, I thought.
But as I rolled over to get in a more comfortable position, I saw it. A Shadow Person. He hung on the ceiling like Spider-Man. He wasn’t like the other shadows – he was darker. Much darker. He wasn’t just a dark gray – he was black. He wasn’t just not reflecting light – he seemed to suck it right out of the air.
I closed my eyes and opened them again but he was still there. Staring at me. Watching me. I can’t explain how I knew but I did. It was the same feeling you get when you’re walking down an empty street but you just know someone is there – noting your every step. I could feel his eyes.
And then he moved. He began crawling slowly across the ceiling and as he moved, it became more and more apparent that he was not a normal shadow.
I closed my eyes again, held them closed and then opened them. He was still there. Moving one hand (or foot or whatever it was) after another, slowly making his way toward my side of the ceiling. And not only could I see him, I’d swear I could hear him. I could hear his shadowy steps, like a rustling of wind or a shallow breath. But it was there. And as he came closer, his steps grew louder.
I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. Remember what Grandmaw said, he won’t do anything if he thinks I’m asleep. But the sounds just got louder. And when my eyes were closed, the sense of being watched was even greater. I could feel him above me now, hanging there, his eyes focused on me.
I felt a breeze brush against my face. It was a breeze I couldn’t logically explain since the windows were shut and the fan was broken. But it was real. I could feel it. My heart continued to pound as I slowly opened one eye. And as I looked up, he was gone.
I opened my other eye and looked to my sides but there was nothing there either. It was just a normal ceiling and normal walls in a normal bedroom on a normal street. I breathed a deep sigh of relief and was just about to close my eyes when something moved at the foot of the bed. I jerked up and looked but before I could move he was on me – choking me – squeezing so tightly that I couldn’t breathe. And then, there was nothing but darkness.
The next thing I knew, I could hear Grandmaw singing gospel songs and bacon sizzling on a hot, iron skillet. The smell of freshly brewed coffee and burning fat filled the air as my eyes opened. I rubbed them and looked next to me. Joey’s side of the bed was empty, his covers bunched up next to me. I lightly touched my neck and looked at my fingers. It was all a dream. A really bad dream…
I crawled out of bed, still in my jeans and t-shirt from the day before, and walked out of the bedroom and into the kitchen. Joey was sitting at the counter. Grandmaw was singing and dancing, and cooking as she went.
“Timothy!” she hollered, unaware that I was already up and in the kitchen.
“I’m up, I’m up…” I trailed off, still feeling groggy. I’ve never been a morning person.
When Grandmaw turned around and saw me, her mouth dropped open in horror. Joey, wondering what was going on, turned and when his eyes met mine, he nearly fell out of his chair.
Suddenly, I was a morning person.
“What? What is it?” I asked, trying to figure out what could be so terrifying.
“It’s your…” Joey started but Grandmaw finished, “Your neck, son. What happened to your neck?”
I touched my neck again but felt nothing unusual.
“What do you mean, what’s wrong with my neck?”
“What happened last night?” Grandmaw asked, her jaw still slack.
I took three steps back into the living room and immediately stopped when I saw my reflection in Grandmaw’s big mirror. I looked the same as I had the night before, except for a thick ring of black and purple bruises wrapped around my neck like a choker.
I’d had my first encounter with the Shadow People.
It wouldn’t be my last.