They Say a Kid Died Out There
“They say a kid died out there,” I tell them.
They oooh and awww and dare each other to go, playfully poking each other in the ribs, just like they always do. We stand at the edge of the field, a safe distance from the shack. It's a strange little structure surrounded by a cluster of thick trees in an otherwise empty meadow, like a dark oasis in a desert of tall, yellow grass. The shack is tiny—far too small for someone to live inside. At least not comfortably. Its windows are boarded up with plywood panels and someone had long ago spray-painted “Zac's 1st birfday” on the rotting walls. The kids always ask what it means and I tell them I don't know.
“So what happened to the kid?” they ask. “How did he die? Was he murdered? A wild animal? A serial killer?” They always want to hear The Story. I stay silent for a bit and let them wonder. It doesn't matter what The Story is, not really. They just want it to be dark and messy. They always do. If I told them it was an accident or some family dog that went rabid, the whole thing would lose its magic. They need it to be a horror story. They want someone ripped to shreds by a faceless stranger who lures kids to creepy shacks with promises of candy and video games. They want fanged demons that drag kids to the grave and ghosts that can turn their tiny hearts to ice just by looking into their eyes. They want blood and nightmares, and that's what I give them.
They look up to me because I'm older, usually by a year or two. They trust that I know what I'm talking about. I don't know why. They seem to believe that once you get to 6th grade, you learn all of your town's dark secrets. Like there's some kind of ancient book of local lore that's passed down to those who are old enough and wise enough to attend middle school. I let them believe it. It makes the stories better.
They stare at me wide-eyed and excited, waiting for me to spill the gory details. This is my favorite part, the suspense. I make them wait as long as I can, until they're practically drooling with anticipation. And then I begin.
“About ten years ago there was this 5th grader named Zac,” I say. Sometimes it's Mary, sometimes Sammy. Sometimes I tell them no one remembers the kid's name. It doesn't matter. It only matters that they died, right over there, in that shack, in this field, in our town, and they were your age. He could've been your friend, if you were around back then. He could have been you.
“Zac was a popular kid. Everyone thought he was a real tough guy. He wasn't afraid of anything.” The kids nod and shrug and mutter something about how that makes sense. They see themselves in Zac. They're brave. They're cool. Right? Of course they are.
“One day Zac got into an argument with another kid during recess. The other kid said Zac was faking it; that he wasn't really that tough. In fact, the kid said, Zac was a coward. A chicken. He wanted Zac to prove just how brave he was. He said, 'If you're really as tough as you say you are, I dare you to stay a night in that shack.'” The kids look at each other, silently asking themselves if they would be brave enough to take the dare. It's always the same. Of course I'd do it, their eyes say. Wouldn't you?
“So Zac accepted the dare,” I say. “And that night he put a pillow and a flashlight in his backpack, snuck out of his house and went down to the shack. Back then the windows weren't boarded up, so it was easy to climb inside.”
By now I have their complete attention. They hang on my every word. They're already making up stories in their heads about the horrors Zac must have found in the shack. Their stories are worse than anything I could make up.
“The first few hours were easy. Zac played cards with himself and just waited it out. Soon it'd be time for sleep and that would be that. He couldn't wait to rub it in that kid's face at school the next day. His friends would call him a hero. He'd forever be the boy who wasn't afraid of anything, especially some stupid shack. He'd be the most popular kid in school! But then he heard scratching on the wall... A long, slow SCRI-I-I-I-I-T-CH coming from right outside. Then again. And again. Faster each time.”
There's no way anyone could possibly know this. It's so obvious that I'm making it up. They just have to think about it for a second to figure that out. But the kids are on the edge of their seats. They can't wait to hear what happens next. They believe every word. They always do.
“Zac was getting scared. He'd never admit it to anyone—even himself—but he was terrified. The scratching got louder and faster until he didn't think he could take anymore. And then it stopped.” I love this part. I can see the disappointment in their eyes. They feel like they've been robbed. They want the monster, ghost or demon to tear through the wall and eat Zac whole. But I make them wait.
“Minutes passed but it felt like hours. All he could hear was the whistling of the wind and the sound of his own breath.” I pause and breathe heavily for effect. It works every time.
“Then suddenly a deep, raspy voice whispered into his ear, 'I'm so hungry.' Zac was too scared to move. He couldn't even scream. 'I'm so hungry,' the voice said again. 'And you have so much skin...'”
The kids are silent. I watch their eyes and try to imagine what they're picturing in their heads. What does their evil skin-eating beast look like? I hope it's absolutely terrifying. I hope they have nightmares every night until they finally die of old age. I hope they never sleep again.
“No one knows exactly what happened after that,” I say. The kids look relieved. They don't need the details. They already wrote the rest of the story for themselves. And it's a good one. Better and scarier than anything I could've come up with. They make it too easy.
“The next day, the police found his body lying in front of the shack. His skin was completely gone. Ripped from the bone and nowhere to be found. No one could figure out what had happened that night. The only clue was a single word scrawled in Zac's blood on the wall of the shack—EAT.”
I watch them shiver. It's wonderful. I could've used any word. Bones. Die. Kill. Dead. Whatever. It would've had the same effect. The kids all look at each other, silently competing over who's the least scared. This is the part where I stare at the shack and sigh. I let them listen to the sound of the whistling wind and their own breath. And then it happens... It always does...
“Well, I'm not scared,” says one of the kids.
“Me neither! I'd totally spend a night in the shack!” says another.
“I dare you!” says a third.
And so on. I let them talk it out and I stare off into the field, watching the tall, yellow grass blow in the wind. It's always the same. All but one will back down. The Tough Guy. The kid who wants to be a hero. He'll take the challenge. After all, he's not scared of anything.
And then, just like always, I tell the Tough Guy how brave he must be. I tell him I wish I were even half as brave as he is. I say I've gotta be home for dinner and I walk away with my hands in my pockets, listening to them excitedly discuss tonight's big plan. When I get home, I lay in bed and try to imagine what horrors they must think wait for them in the shack, scratching at the plywood walls and starving for the skin of children. I fall asleep and don't dream.
My mom wakes me up in the morning with a kiss on the forehead, just like she always does. I go downstairs and sit down for breakfast. Bacon, toast and scrambled eggs. I watch the morning news on the TV while my dad gets ready for work. It's always the same.
“The body of Todd Michael Crawford, age 10, was discovered early this morning...” I smile. I don't need to hear the rest. I finish my eggs, kiss my mom on the cheek and walk up the street to wait for the bus.
I'll wait a few weeks. I always do. Then I'll see some kid, a year or two younger than me, maybe at the local park, bragging to his friends about how he's not scared of nothin'. I'll walk up to them, hands in my pockets, and I'll say, “Hey, you guys wanna know something cool?” They'll say yes. They always do. I'm an older kid, after all.
“You know that old shack out in that field over there?” I ask. “They say a kid died out there.”