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               A FEAR OF THE DARK
                                               by J. Steven Fischer

It was October in the mountainous western North Carolina county of Sylvania, the
month for ghosts, goblins and creepy things of all sorts to hold sway.  Even here,
in the slow-changing South, Hal'ween had become a month-long celebration, all
in the name of good-natured fun, for most.  Fall festivals abounded, Halloween
parties sprung up like autumn's last flowers had, before the killing frosts carne.  
Decorated homes, and front lawns were frequently seen, while numerous jack
o'lanterns flickered on porches, this evening of the thirty-first.  The gourds
almost seemed haunted by forlorn spirits themselves, tonight.
Sadly, for twelve year-old Tommy Drake, it was his least-favorite holiday.  He'd
endured a life-long struggle against various phobias, the most intense of which,
was his fear of darkness.  This particular phobia had been treated, of course, but
with only modest success, and it continued to cause the flame-haired youngster
no end of abuses.
This fact held true even with Tommy's alleged friends, one of whom, Dennis
Thomas, had walked the two miles along Silver Lake road from his own home.  
The primary purpose of Dennis' visit was to pester Tommy, as much as anything
else.  Tommy had made the mistake of phoning the fourteen year-old Thomas,
and informing him that he would be alone for some time that evening.  This
situation rarely-occurred, given Tommy's medical conditions, but an emergency
had arisen - Tommy's grandmother was dying.  
The crisis had occurred so abruptly, there hadn't been time to find substitute
sitters for him; his usual ones were away at parties.  Tommy had finally decided
to stay home, anyway, as he also suffered a phobia about hospitals, as well.  
"I wish I'd never called you, you jerk!," Tommy yelled out at the blonde Thomas.
"You're supposed to be my friend, Dennis!  Why do you want to come over, and
make fun of me about my
Dennis looked up at Tommy through the early evening dusk, swinging his
werewolf mask in one hand, his candy-bucket in the other.  He couldn't decide
which was more pathetic.  Tommy's being
afraid of most everything, or the fact he had chosen him as a friend, however so
briefly.  With a smirk on his face, he retorted.
"O.k., pansy, fine! If you won't go trick-or-treating, stay hidden away with your
lights - see how much I care!," and he started to leave.
Tommy fought back his tears, then began to say something more, when Dennis
stopped, and turned around towards him.
"Wait 'til the guys at school hear about this! You'll have to sit with the girls at
lunchtime!," he shouted at Tommy.
With that insult, Dennis continued for the gravel road.
"Dennis! ," Tommy hollered, tears flowing freely down his cheeks, now. "Don't tell
everybody, please! You know how much trouble they give me at school now!," he
Dennis stopped again, at the road's edge, and gazed back at Tommy,
silhouetted in his brilliantly-lit window.
“Kenny Galloway told me I'd picked a geek for a pal!," he shot back at the crying
boy.  "Guess I should've listened to him!"  Pulling his werewolf mask on, Dennis
trotted away down the road, happily swinging his glow-in-the dark candy bucket,
while his costume steadily became more dusty from the dirt road.
"Dennis! ! ,” Tommy screeched after his receding form, but Dennis paid his
entreaties no mind, vanishing into the deepening night.  Turning away from the
window, Tommy wiped off his tears on
his arm, and plopped down on his bed, imagining the future torments waiting at
Damn them all!, Tommy thought, bitterly wishing his father's job hadn't made
them return to North Carolina, from the west coast.  There, his classmates had
been slightly-more understanding.  They all act like it’s my fault, that I was born
with this sickness!, he brooded.  Sadly, he removed a book from his bedside
bookcase, hoping it would help him forget the unpleasant incident, for awhile.
Meanwhile, having traveled maybe a quarter-mile back towards his own house,
Dennis was having decidedly-dark thoughts of his own.  Only much more
malicious ones.
What a wimp!, he told himself, walking along the lonely road.  Dennis looked
skyward at the full moon, large and orange, as it was just clearing the tops of the
trees.  It cast a bright yet slightly-sinister glow over the countryside. Some dead
leaves skittered across the gravel road ahead of him, like large spiders hurrying
along their way.
Well, it's not very late yet!, Dennis thought.  If he's so damned scared of nothing,
I'll, give him something to be scared of!
He turned off the main road, and down an overgrown trail, which had once been
a driveway.  It led to the abandoned Mcltosh farm, where the items Dennis
needed awaited.  An evil grin spreading over his face, the. plan shaped itself as
Dennis went along.  
Kenny and I found that bull' s skull just the other day!  I can use it to fix 'Mr.
Chicken-shit' up proper-like at the barn!  
Dennis knew that Tommy sometimes hung around the old barn afternoons after
school.  Tommy
had unwisely trusted the mean-spirited boy enough to go there with him a couple
of times.  Dennis pushed his way through the crackling dead weeds, until he
came upon the deceased bovine's final resting place.  Its skull, along with a few
scattered bones, were all that remained.
“There we are!,” he said aloud, as his light’s beam picked out the large skull.  I’ve
told the chump enough scary stories about the community, that this should do
great!, he thought, plucking the skull up, then making for the barn.  I can
probably find everything else I need around the barn, or in it!, he mused,
pleased at his inventiveness.
Tommy, about the same time, was halfheartedly trying to focus on his book,
wishing his parents would return, or call, anyhow.  He'd just closed the covers,
when a transformer at the main substation for Silver Lake, exploded in a shower
of fiery red, and yellow sparks.  This event plunged the entire upper area of
Sylvania county into darkness, relieved only by the moon's baleful light.
"Oh, shit!," Tommy cried, and quickly reached for his flashlight on his night table,
only to knock it off; it shattered loudly on the polished wooden floor.
"No! Please, no!," Tommy whimpered, panic rising inside him.  Rising, he
remembered the cellphone on his desk, near the window, across the room.  In his
haste to reach it, though, Tommy ran into his shelf of action figures, plastic
model kits, etc., which, in-turn, sent him falling against the desk.  That resulted in
most of the items there-on clattering to the floor, with the sound of much
"No, damn it!," Tommy yelled out, his knees bruised, and aching.  Kneeling down
in a shaft of moonlight streaming through the window, he desperately felt about
the debris for his phone, to find its broken parts among them.     Oh, God!,"
Tommy burst out, fighting to keep his rising terror down. "What do I do now!?"
Tommy rose to his feet again, fresh tears flowing, and looked out at the moon,
now fully-risen.  With a shudder, he couldn't help thinking its face looked like a
skull.  Turning away, he
trembled violently a few moments - then, he recalled the other phones
downstairs!  They should be o.k.!
With this hope, Tommy inched his way through his dark room, to the door.  He
passed through into the hallway, feeling his way along the wall.  He came to a
now-useless wall-mounted hall light.       Why couldn't they have bought me some
self-glowing lights?, he cursed, silently, passing onward, then realized he was at
the top of the stairway.  Cautiously, he began easing his way down the steps.
Halfway down them, a dead tree limb broke off the maple tree in their yard.  It
smashed loudly  against the wall, then scratchedits way down to the brown grass.
Tommy's heart nearly jumped out of his chest at the racket, and he almost lost
his footing, but saved himself with the banister.  At last, he reached bottom, and
turned for the kitchen, where two of the family's main phones waited for him.
Heart pounding, Tommy entered the kitchen without further incident, crossing its
slick, tiled floor carefully. Some light was provided, again, by moonlight pouring in
the windows.  Finally, he made the countertop, and carefully felt for the cordless
phone, then grasped it - and realized it'd been left out of its recharging base.
"Damn it again!," Tommy erupted towards his parents. "Can't they do anything
right!?," he yelled, as he sent the dead phone sliding across the counter, to
clank to a halt in the sink basin.
Calm down! , he told himself, and breathed deeply, stress-induced sweat running
down his back.  There's still the regular phones - surely, they're still working!
Eagerly, Tommy felt his way along, for the kitchen's wall-mounted phone, found
it, and lifted the mouthpiece to his head.  He began to push 911, only to be
greeted by a silent tone.  The breezy Halloween winds had taken down a dead
pine tree directly across the telephone lines, not over a mile from his house.  The
utility company had promised to remove such trees, and the like, but, as usual,
hadn't actually gotten around to it.
Hurling the phone into the wall, it broke apart with almost a mocking sound, then
its remains twirled around, and around on its cord, until, finally, it hung still.  
"What should I do!?," Tommy' cried, plentiful tears running down his face, as he
fought to push back a panic attack. Do I try to find a flashlight, or what?, he
asked himself, silently.  He looked outside at the brightly-illuminated countryside,
the moon riding high, now.
No!, he told himself repeatedly. I won't panic! Then, thinking a bit more calmly,
another idea carne.  It's a couple of miles to Dennis' house! I could probably be
halfway there, by time I find a light, or glowstick in this murk!
Having decided his next move, Tommy groped his way to the back door, and
went in to the yard.  He could easily see part of the road in the moonshine, and,
hurrying for it, tripped over something, and fell flat on his chest.  Fighting his way
up, he wiped away some dirt from his pants, and saw that he'd fallen over the
soapbox derby car he, and his father, were building from metal, and wood scraps.
Silently cursing the car, the blackout, and Dennis simultaneously, Tommy rubbed
his bruised chest, and ran for the road.  Never much of an athlete, he still
managed a reasonably-fast pace.  He glanced up at the sky, nervously, half-
expecting to see a witch passing overhead on her broom, or
worse.  His gaze was greeted only by a heavy sprinkling of stars, glowing like
diamonds; an especially-brilliant meteor streaked across the sky, leaving a long
Tommy ran on, passing into a patch of inky blackness cast by a stand of oak
trees, then he was back in the moonlight.  How he wished somebody would
happen along, and give him a ride the rest

of the way!  Alas, his house, and the Thomas residence, were the last two on the
dead-end Silver Lake road.  So, unless he were to meet his parents returning....
Passing beneath a walnut tree growing too-near the roadside, his breath corning
in short, hard gasps, something fell from it, directly onto Tommy's head.  It was a
shell of a nut a hungry squirrel had dropped, but it was far worse in Tommy's
"Oh, sweet Jesus!," he shrieked, terror electrifying his body. "It's a monster or
maybe the ghost of old 'witchlady Ward' Dennis told me about! She used to live
close to our house!"
All thoughts of continuing the creepy trip to Dennis' house were now forgotten.  
Tommy's eyes searched for respite from his overwhelming fear.  Suddenly, he
remembered the McIntosh barn, where he'd stashed a kerosene lantern in a
caved-in cattle stall, for some emergency.  He'd have light there, and a place to
hide from the monsters!  Pouring his remaining strength into his flight, Tommy
soon found the old drive into the farm, after nearly rushing past it, and raced
down its path.
The dark shape of the decrepit barn loomed up before him, relief flooding into
Tommy.  He snatched hold of the rotting door, yanked it open, and rushed
inside.  A faintly-white, horned demon
carne sailing towards him, passing just overhead with a swish of chill autumn air.
"The witch's ghoul!," Tommy screamed, as his heart skipped several beats, then
stilled itself; he toppled backwards to the ground.  Above his body, the bull's skull
swayed back and forth on its grapevine rope, its empty eye sockets seeing

                                       ***, ###

Later that night, in the early morning hours, Dennis awoke from his sleep (which
he'd fallen into quite pleased with the vicious prank he'd set for Tommy) by
voices.  They came from the living room, it seemed; sitting up, he listened
closely, becoming intrigued by what his parents were saying.
"She said Tommy was gone when they got back from Breverton hospital," Alicia,
his mom, said. "They already have the Sheriff's people, and alot of others out
looking for him.  Do you really have to go?"
"Well, it's only right that I join the search, Alice.  The kid could be lying with a
broken leg, or  something," Bob, his dad, replied, throwing on his coat.
"All right, dear," his mom's voice came. "If you feel you must.  Dennis says he's
never met a stranger kid - a more nervous one, I mean  she clarified. "And he is
an only child."
"Right," Bob responded, stepping outside. "Don't bother waiting up - it'll probably
be sunrise, or after, before I'm back," and the door shut behind him as he
What could've happened to the punk?, Dennis wondered, with a growing sense
of worry.  I never thought he'd have the balls to go out alone at night, even
during a power failure!  They must've had
plenty of flashlights, and stuff!
After a few moments, Dennis made up his mind, and slid out of bed.  He drew on
his pants, and a heavy shirt, then plucked his flashlight off the dresser.
I'd best sneak over there, and take a quick look around for myself, he thought.  
Mom thinks I'm sound asleep, and she hardly ever wakes me before morning!  It
shouldn't take very long, anyway!
Quite as a cat, the callous youth crept out onto their rear patio, close-by his
room, and was away through the late-night gloom.  He jogged along easily, being
a regular runner, wondering about Tommy.  He had to toss himself into the
underbrush alongside a couple of times, to avoid passing sheriff's vehicles.  As
the moon dropped lower in the southwestern sky, Dennis came to the McIntosh
farm trail.  He hesitated a moment, then turned down it.  
The way grown-ups run around like idiots when they're really worried, they
probably haven't thought to check at the barn, yet!, he thought, as he ran along.  
If I find the geek hiding there, I'll end up a hero!  He smiled broadly at this
thought, then, the barn appeared ahead.  Casting about his flashlight's beam, it
revealed something on the ground near its front.  Slowing to a walk, a lump
began forming in his throat, and then, Dennis found himself next to Tommy's now-
cold corpse.
"Good God!," he uttered, stumbling backwards several feet.  "What could've
happened to him!?," he asked. Aiming his light around, he spotted the bull's skull
hanging above Tommy, and the circumstances became clear to him.  That dumb
bastard!, he thought.  He must've ran down here during the power failure, and
blundered straight into the 'skull trap' I rigged for him!
Struggling with his own nerves, Dennis considered his options for a minute, or
two, when he heard a vehicle approaching on the road.  Glancing that way, he
saw it stop, with its headlights pointed roughly towards the farm.
Can't let anyone know I was involved with this!,        Dennis thought, terrified, and
hurriedly snapped off his flash.  They'll blame me for his death, even if it was an
accident!  I'll go to reform school, sure as hell!
Moving with a speed that surprised himself, Dennis scampered up the creaky
boards, and feverishly cut down the skull with his pocket knife.  Silver Lake’s not
that far from here!, he told himself as he hurried back to the ground.  I can go
there, dump the skull, and get back home before I'm missed!  He wasn’t entirely
convinced he actually could do so, but it was the only thing he could think of.
Dennis fled out the absent back door of the barn, as faint voices came to him
from the trail to the property.  He knew Tommy's body was about to be
discovered, which added extra speed to his flight.  Dennis hurled himself along a
seldom-used fishing trail to Silver Lake, his heart threatening to pop inside his
chest, as he raced along.  The trail was little-used, he knew, because the lake
had a reputation for misfortune.  A woman had drowned her infant, and herself in
it, he recalled, many years ago.  It was even said that two, or maybe three people
had vanished there, and were never heard of again.
All Dennis worried about now, though, was dunking the skull as far out in the lake
as he could, then get ting home asap.  Running frantically, Dennis almost rushed
over the lake’s bank, into its dark waters.  He skidded to a halt, and, breathing
heavily, flashed his light about, sweat pouring down his body, his clothes sticking
to his skin.  An old fishing dick came into view, then, and he made for it, grasping
the skull tightly.
Reaching the dock, Dennis hurried out onto its rotting planks to the end.  There,
with all his might, he threw the skull, grapevine rope still attached, outward.  It
arced down, and hit with a loud splash.  The skull sank a good twenty feet, to
lodge beneath a waterlogged tree, swept there decades ago by a flashflood.  It
settled into the depths, never to be found.
"There! ," Dennis told himself as he turned to begin the return trip home.  Even if
they find sign of someone else at the barn, it'll be damned hard to ever prove it
was me!, he thought, stepping solidly on the weathered timber of the dock.  The
ancient wood gave way, as Dennis uttered an abortive cry, his head striking the
edge of the dock. Rendered unconscious, he tumbled into the water, to slowly
drown, while his still-lit flashlight sank to the bottom.  Its dimmed light still shone
upwards to the now-still surface of the lake.

***, ###

The funerals for both boys were held only a few days after Hal'ween, although in
different cemeteries.  Dennis' body had been discovered the next day after he'd
gone missing, also.  County
Medical Examiner Paul Taylor had seen his share of unpleasantness, of course;
the pair of youngster's deaths bothered him more than most, though.  He finally
had no choice, but to put Tommy's cause of death down as 'death due to
misadventure.' He knew full-well that the anxiety-plagued boy had been
frightened to death, probably by his own imagination.
As for the Thomas boy, his 'death by drowning' was obvious, although no one
could explain why he'd gone to Silver Lake late that night.  The fishing trail's
surface was too hard, and rocky to leave many prints, and little evidence of
Dennis' presence at the barn had been found.  Thus, no connection could be
established between the two boy's deaths.
Ah, well, ME Taylor sighed as he closed his reports on their deaths.  Kids
sometimes got strange ideas into their heads.  A terrible double tragedy, people
would say, not knowing the full details of the affair.