“Ain't You Scared?” by Gillian French is the First Place winning story in the horror category for the Eighth Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with Grand Prize winner Sandra Anthony and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine. And click here for more information about entering the Ninth Annual Popular Fiction Awards.
In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Gillian’s winning entry.
Ain't You Scared?
by Gillian French
The children needed a new game. Used to be they’d kick a B&M can around till summer dusk, till mamas paced back steps, hands on hips, squinting to gauge which shadow belonged to them.
“Lou-ise, supp-er time!”; “George William? Come on inside now.”
But slow, gravy-gray winter spread across the Southland and the can was left to rust. By the time the corner lot bristled with June weeds again, the whole thing seemed a baby’s game. Chasing around an old bean can? Shoot.
Freeze tag held a brief attraction, then red rover. Dodgeball was out because Donna LaBrie was a headhunter, a rare majority-rules decision made by the younger children. Donna was a sixth grader, oldest on the block, slim with a smooth dark head like a mink’s. It was she who invented the Rain Barrel game. She had the details of the murder memorized like a catechism.
“We need a victim.” Donna bit her thumbnail. Knowing looks were shared around the gang, and they moved towards the hump of dirt visible on the far side of the lot.
Herman Prouty never played with anyone. He joined the neighborhood in the middle of Christmas break and had no mama or daddy, instead living with his unseen nana in an asbestos-shingled apartment house. The few times any of the children had approached Herman, they decided he talked old. Old-person conversation puffed from him like attic dust, along with smells of talc and cooked cabbage. He wanted to talk about the weather, for Pete’s sake, or else some book. Everybody had observed him hauling dirt in a sand pail to his backyard, building a world unto himself.
“Hey.” Donna stood atop the mound, backlit by sun, head tilted to one side. “Whatcha doing down there?”
Herman started, toy truck in hand. He’d created a system of roadways for his dye cast vehicles, and he wore filth clear to the crooks of his elbows. “Delivering a truckload of parts to Shamrock.” He sounded thickly congested.
“Well, quit crawling around in the dirt like a baby and come play a real game. We don’t mind teachin’ you. Do we, gang?” The children shook their heads, though they didn’t yet know the rules either. Solidarity was key, especially while the goose was being plucked.
After some fussy arrangements of his world, Herman tagged along. Last summer, Donna might’ve stomped his roads to pieces to watch tears roll clean streaks down his face. She craved that bit, the hurt. But a lady had SELF-CONTROL, Mama’s two favorite words, and despite all her salt and thorns, Donna LaBrie was trying to learn. She’d been last caught on Easter, when Suzy Jean Merrill stole her candy cross sucker, the fink. After everyone filed out of church onto the lawn, Donna yanked Suzy’s dress up and whacked her butt cheeks with her purse until the girl shrieked and fell down. Donna didn’t give two figs for Suzy or what the pastor thought, but later, she’d overheard Mama crying into her lace hankie in the parlor.
Now Donna was careful, even when dealing with nasty little frog turds like Herman Prouty. He was wearing the usual argyle sweater vest, no proper shirt beneath, hair peaked in a greasy cock’s comb. Squinting like he needed spectacles, he glanced from face to face, fingertips working the let-down hems of his shorts.
Donna spoke: “You know there’s a ghost lives round here, don’t you. There is. His name’s Joe Tanner. He mostly keeps towards your side of the lot ‘cause that’s where he got killed. His daddy drowned him in that rain barrel yonder.”
The barrel sat some twenty paces off, crawling with a grayish-green scum and stinking like a sweaty handful of pennies. Mechanism of murder or not—and most of them had their doubts on that score—it was a foul thing.
“Nossuh.” Herman looked dubious.
“Oh, you better believe it. Drowned him like a cat.” “How come?”
“’Cause Mr. Tanner couldn’t feed his family.” Donna leaned down, giving Herman a fine view up her long nose. “He was a railroad man. Lost his job.” Most of the children’s daddies worked on the line in one capacity or another, engineers or brakemen. George William’s daddy was the yard dick, whose job it was to crack the skulls of any tramp he found in the cars or wandering towards town. These men, George William’s daddy informed him, came in three varieties: Thieves, Perverts, and Drunkards. The yard was no place for children, but the corner lot was near enough that the taste of cinders sometimes carried to them on a hot, tremulous breeze. “There were eight Tanner kids, and finally, one day, when there was nothing but a piece of moldy bread in the pantry, Mr. Tanner went clear out of his mind. He knew he couldn’t split that crust eight ways.”
Donna kept leaning, staring into the whorl of Herman’s cowlick. “That night, Mr. Tanner carried Joe to the barrel while his boy was all muzzy from sleep. There’d been a big rain the day before, so the barrel was full. Joe’s daddy tipped him down”—Donna mimed holding someone by the scruff of the neck and the seat of the pants—“and didn’t let go till Joe quit kicking. Know what Mr. Tanner did next?” Herman waited. “Not a thing. Left Joe floating and went inside. Sat in his old rocker until one of the neighbors called the paddy wagon.”
“Why Joe?” When Donna simply looked at Herman, consternated, he said slowly, used to repeating himself for elderly ears, “How come not one of the other eight kids?”
Donna thought. “Because Joe was the runt. Runty and stupid.” “Lordy. How do you play a game out of that?”
Donna stood at odd angles while she considered, fist pressed to her hip, elbow out. The other children fidgeted. “It’s like this. Everybody knows if you cross this field at night, Joe Tanner’s gonna be right behind you every step of the way, reaching out to put his co-o-old fingers around your neck. He touches you, you drop dead on the spot. That’s how it is with spirits. They get bound to where they died or them that did for ‘em.
First, we need us a ghost.” No one was foolish enough to put up their hands. “It’ll have to be you, Herman. Now do what I say.”
Donna stuffed him behind the barrel, into the stink and the wet. There he crouched without protest, a scruffy little barnacle who knew the futility of making a fuss, having been either disdained or ignored most of his life. Charles went to the bushes, acting as scout while the other children scattered around the lot, keeping their backs turned as if playing red light, green light. Donna chucked a handful of pebbles at the barrel to prompt their ghost.
Herman emerged, hands in pockets, chin down. “That ain’t scary!” Donna bellowed, and he began hurrying, arms outstretched like Frankenstein’s monster.
Charles said, “Here comes Joe Tanner!” Everyone scrambled, giggling. A gleam grew in Herman’s eye; even he recognized the game of chase.
Children ran figure eights, shrieking, as Joe Tanner’s ghost gained. He touched George William’s back, then Louise’s, then Mike’s, but nobody stopped running or was told to sit down. They’d pulled a similar stunt with Charles’s heavy, morose North Carolinian cousin; the boy had eventually reeled towards the bushes to vomit before blundering home. The dizzying pursuit had Herman Prouty breathless, hair sweated to
his brow. Donna was so long-legged she’d never be caught, but the more she danced and jigged, the clearer it became that the turd was not going to give in, drop to his knees, or cry uncle. “Hold it.” Everyone did. “Charles, you be Mr. Tanner now. You’re chasing after Joe to toss him back in the barrel. Joe, you keep trying to get us.”
After that, it became more of a real game than a trick. Herman proved to be a slippery one. A jail was instituted for those who died from Joe’s Cold Hand of Death until Donna deigned to resurrect them. It was a till-dark kind of game, at last, interrupted only by dinnertime. The children found their way home to their mamas, who waited with sandwiches and sweet tea. Herman, whose nana often napped through lunch, returned to his dirt mound to scoot trucks around a route which suddenly seemed much smaller, and kept an eye out for the gang’s return. They probably wouldn’t want to play again. That was the way with most folks his age.
But the game grew. Louise came back up the street carrying a shawl from her dress-up trunk for Herman’s death shroud, and a painter’s cap (the closest thing she owned to an engineer’s hat) for the alternating role of Mr. Tanner; it was too large and sunk low over the pursuer’s eyes, lending him a sinister anonymity. Everybody pitched in to cordon the jail with rocks and junk, including the rusty old bean can. Donna’s supervision wasn’t needed, and she grew prickly.
“Ya’ll know this don’t make any sense.” She returned their stares blandly and pointed at Herman. “Joe Tanner lives in the barrel. You ought to be in it, not behind it, knucklehead.”
Herman looked up, surveying the faces of the other children. Smiles dropped uncertainly. Some stares smoothed over into flat mica again.
“Sissy britches. Too scared to get in an ol’ barrel?” Donna pushed the barrel with all her might. It made a great sucking sound and fell, splashing water across Herman’s legs. “Go on.”
The children gaped. The rosy hue in Herman’s cheeks dissolved. “Nope.” “Say again?”
“Not doin’ that.” Again he mistook her silence to mean she hadn’t heard. “I don’t want—”
Donna knifed her palm down, stinging both his cheeks with a true artist’s flip of the wrist.In the moment that followed, Donna’s glower dimmed. Sure, Herman’s eyes were wet, his hands pressed to his sore spots, but he wasn’t surprised. Suddenly she saw that she could slap his flesh a hundred times without satisfaction, like beating a tar baby.
From the hush, Louise’s quavering voice rose. “How come . . . you always haff . . . to be so mean?” When Donna wheeled on her, Louise fled, followed by her brother Mike, who held his shoulders up around his ears as if expecting Donna to summon a hail of stones.
Donna chased them a ways. “Don’t try coming back here, you two! You are banned!” Returning to the lot, she stood nose-to-nose with Herman. “Ain’t you scared?”
He swallowed. “Huh-uh.” “How come?”
Donna took him to the ground. “You get your ass in there!” Somewhere beyond the maroon curtain of her anger, she marveled that she sounded just like her daddy, who she had great respect for, as he was the meanest living soul she’d ever met. Other than briefly bracing his Flyers against the barrel’s mouth, Herman was easy to shove inside.
Draping herself over the top, Donna blocked the opening with her legs while Herman butted wildly. “Not so tough now! Whatcha gonna do, dead boy, huh? You gonna cry?” She set the other children into action with a glance. Rocks and sticks were seized; the chant of “Dead-boy, DEAD-boy, DEAD-BOY,” rose as they battered the sides of the barrel. Donna rolled it till she heard Herman thump over, losing his balance again and again as they took him on a tour of the lot, leaving a flattened trail.
“Heeerrrr-monnn?” The call might’ve issued from the mouth of a stray cat. “Heeerrrr-mooon?”
The children stopped. On the back step of the shingled apartment house stood a landslide lady, breasts and belly straining against her housecoat, old jowled face melting into her turkey neck. She actually leaned on two canes, and some of the children uttered disbelieving laughs, forgetting the sticks in their hands. Hermon’s nana goggled around, eyes lost behind mother-of-pearl frames. “Herrrmon, I nee-eed yooouuu dumplinnn . . . .”
Hermon wormed around Donna’s legs; he was gasping, chalk-faced, slimed. His nana finally saw him through the weeds and waved, obviously half-blind, before going inside; the second she did, Donna kicked him in the butt. “How’d you like that, Mr. Hard Man? Want some more?”Herman stared at her while rubbing his rump.
“Still ain’t scared?” She hesitated. Why wasn’t he crying yet? The kids were watching, staring at her with their eyes big around as pop bottles and their stupid mouths open. “All right. Meet me out here. Midnight. I’ll show you the real ghost. Joe Tanner’ll walk up and spit in your eye, how ‘bout that?”
Midnight made Herman blink. “We can’t . . . .”
“I can. What’s the matter, ‘fraid of getting caught?” She dug her nails into his arm. “You’re just as yellow as a streak of chicken shit after all, ain’t you?”
Herman dipped his chin, holding her gaze.
“Then hide in them bushes tonight till I come, and we’ll walk the lot. Remember, one touch from Joe and you’re dead. Better be careful he don’t find you before I do.” With uneasy triumph, she released him, and Herman walked away.
The children exchanged glances. As oldest boy, only George William had the courage to say, “You ain’t really—?”
“We’ll see.” Donna took herself home.
* * *
That night, Donna lolled in bed, one leg hanging over the mattress. Herman. The turkey fart was probably sweating through his diamond-patterned vest right now, counting the hours before he had to face old Joe Tanner’s ghost. He’d wet his pants first.
In a crib nearby, Donna’s little sister stirred, jockeying her thumb in her mouth; tonight, Donna didn’t even smolder over being forced to share her room with that sissy- baby invader. The electric fan was cool, and she had tomorrow to dream of, showing Herman Prouty up as gutless. He might come creeping out of his house tonight, or he might not; Donna certainly had no intention of doing so. Tomorrow, she’d tell everybody that she waited and waited—and guess who never showed? Might even tell everybody
Joe Tanner made an appearance before her very eyes. A cold light in the rain barrel, a shadow looming over the lot. When the sandman came creeping, Donna went with him effortlessly.
* * *
Morning sun painted pitiless angles across the town, baking up strong odors of cut grass and blacktop. Donna arrived at the lot first, staking her ground, arms crossed. The rest of the gang filtered in. Herman didn’t appear.
“Well, chicken is right,” she told George William and Charles, who stood around looking sweaty and hangdog. “Here I sat twiddling my thumbs last night, and now he’s too ashamed to show up at all.” Donna grinned but it felt tight, as if her cheeks were sunburned. “Shoot. Never mind. Here comes Grace and Mike. Let’s do somethin’.”
But the rain barrel game had been best. No one dared suggest it. They went through the motions of freeze tag, everybody cranky and squabbling over nothing. Herman’s dirt world sat empty. Some careless person had tracked right through it, leaving great, crumbling sinkholes.
Around one o’clock, a maternal parade marched up the sidewalk, wrapped in flour-sprayed aprons and kerchiefs, hands dripping Joy suds, their expressions tight with something like anger.
George William’s big half-Sioux Mama: “Any of you seen that Herman Prouty today? Tell the truth.”
Whatever bilious substance had boiled in the children’s bellies all morning began oiling its way up.
“Well. He’s gone missing. His grandmother found his bed empty this morning, and she’s called the police. Y’all better come home till this gets settled.”
The mamas expected a fight but got none. Stunned, gray-faced children trailed them home, looking back at Donna, who stood still. Finally, she broke and ran, pressing against the soft carnation pinkness of her mama, who hugged her shoulders and promise cookies and iced tea on the porch if Donna would try to be just a little good this afternoon. Donna opened one eye, looking back. From this angle, the fallen rain barrel resembled a cocoon, left behind after its occupant crawled free.
* * *
Doom came softly with morning. Still no sign of Herman. Ghosts walked familiar floors, lurked in every threshold. The children’s dread sat as solidly as their daddies’ portholed Oldsmobiles, as certainly as the track of sunlight across their bedroom walls. Joe Tanner knew their scents now. He’d heard their jeering and doubt. He’d
taken Herman for starters. The children buried themselves in comic books, paint-by- numbers, mamas’ affection. No one was fool enough to tell of the game or the dare.
Donna spent the hours playing with her sister, rolling a ball back and forth, tottering dolls around, and staring off at a distant point. She would not think of ghosts, of silly half-made-up lies that would only scare a baby. Mama watched her girls with something like relief—she couldn’t remember that last time Donna had played with Sissy without dumping a snake in her lap or locking her down cellar—and paged through her Look magazine.
* * *
It was rich dusk when a search party of neighborhood daddies found Herman Prouty. Facedown in a bramble-clotted ditch off the rail yard, Herman’s naked arms and back shone briefly in the flashlight glow, catching the sheriff deputy’s attention. Afterwards, in smoky basement rec rooms, across green-felted poker tables, daddies moodily recalled the placement of the boy’s arms, as if he’d died trying to claw his way out of the ditch. But the county M.E.’s findings made that impossible. He was dead before he hit the ground. It was simply how his body had slid down the loose silt after he was dumped.
Two blows to the head, possibly with a blackjack or pistol butt. Clothing stripped. George William’s daddy said he’d known some tramps to carry doorknobs, even, to sling in a fight. God only knew what the Prouty boy had been doing outside in the dark that night; he’d been a strange, solitary one by all accounts, perhaps a little neglected by a grandmother too ill to care for him, and the police had gotten a look at Herman’s world of dirt. He’d probably snuck out there to play around midnight, and had the misfortune of being spotted by this vagrant, this creature—riding the rails for free, sly enough to wait until dark before seeing what he could bleed from their town.
* * *
After that, the children’s boogeyman reshaped into the same whiskery, gin-soaked pervert they’d been warned of their entire lives, shambling wrecks of men with no more connection to society than a vulture on the wing. No one played in the lot anymore, not while the killer was free, though the police had been frank about the chances of ever catching him. Most likely he’d hopped the next freight out, wearing a spray of Herman’s blood like a nosegay. That corner lot was a dirty place, anyway. Town was full of
stories about it. In time, this fear, too, would fade. Herman Prouty’s grave would grow a healthy mantle of grass and the townsfolk would feel safe again.
Donna’s mama called the doctor the day after Herman was found. Her eldest wouldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, and woke the whole house hollering about ghosts. The doctor said it was nerves. He prescribed a strong sedative.
The pills made Donna feel like she lay at the bottom of an aquarium, crushed by the immovable weight of water, seeing everything through a rippling haze. Here was Mama, showing her how empty the bedroom was, how free of ghoulies before she turned off the lamp. “See?” She opened the closet.
Herman Prouty hid inside, his eyes and nose just visible through Donna’s Sunday dresses. His ashen feet jutted below, cold, bruised from that final desperate run. His mouth vented white steam. Donna was only capable of a gurgle.
Next, Mama crossed to the bed, kneeling. “Now. Let’s check under here.” Herman’s small, blue fingers tiptoed out from beneath the bed skirt, tickling Mama, who didn’t feel it. “Not a thing. Safe as can be, butter bean. Think you can sleep now?” Donna hiccupped, squeezing her eyes shut as Mama kissed her hair and was gone, gone.
Donna breathed shallowly for a time, trying to imagine him away, to wish Herman back to his world in the corner lot, to his dirt roads and toy trucks. But she was his to haunt now.
Herman glowed softly beside her bed, arm outstretched. They would spend the night this way, Herman slick with moonlight, reaching, straining. Perhaps tonight he would get her. Donna knew how cold his touch would be.