“We’ll just double back,” I said. “We’ll go home.”
“It’s still early,” Bobby objected.
“Are you going to tell me that you haven’t had enough trick-or-treating for tonight?” I asked. “Let’s face it: We were probably a little too old for this, anyway. We only went out tonight for the sake of ‘one last time.’”
“For nostalgia’s sake,” Leah added.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “That’s as good a name for it as any, I suppose. I think we’ve all made enough memories for one night, and collected enough candy, too.”
“I’ll say,” Leah said. “I don’t care if I never taste chocolate again. I only want to get out of here. I just want this to stop.”
“So what’s your plan, Schaeffer?” Bobby relented. “Do you want to go back and drive a stake through the heart of that vampire lady? Maybe sprinkle holy water from church on the ghost boy and…” he involuntarily swallowed—“all those ghost kids?”
“No.” I did have a plan in mind, but it didn’t involve direct confrontation. “We should simply backtrack—go home. We can take a shortcut down Old Orchard Lane. That will take us within a quarter mile of Leah’s house. You and I will walk Leah home. Then we’ll go to my house. I’ll get my mom or dad to drive you home.”
This last step would be necessary because Bobby lived outside the neighborhood. I hadn’t yet decided how much I was going to tell my parents about what had happened. Worst case, Bobby could plead stomach cramps or a twisted ankle. In any event, either Mom or Dad would probably agree.
Bobby nodded. “Okay.”
“Sure. That sounds like a good idea, Jeff. Simple and straightforward.”
“Let’s go, then.”
On the way back, we gave the house of the ghost boy a wide berth. Nevertheless, I saw Leah glance anxiously toward the doorway where the ghost boy and his unearthly guests had revealed themselves to us a scant ten minutes ago.
Taking a chance, I reached out and took her hand. She glanced at me in surprise at first, then relaxed and squeezed my hand back.
Despite the circumstances, warmth flooded through me—and another feeling that would become more familiar to me in the years immediately ahead. Puberty was new to me, and I was a bundle of raw nerve endings and unrestrained reactions.
Then I saw Bobby notice Leah and I holding hands. He looked away without comment.
I released Leah’s hand when we passed the house of the grave markers. There were noises up ahead, and they didn’t belong to people, in all likelihood. Maybe not even to ghosts.
“Is that a dog up there?” Bobby speculated.
There were a few vicious dogs in the neighborhood—or dogs that you were best to watch out for and avoid at the very least. Most of the year, they weren’t an issue for us; but an overly aggressive dog was always a potential hazard for a kid on a bike. On more than one occasion during the previous summer, Bobby and I had pedaled madly away from a large German Shepherd or Doberman mix that had materialized from the perimeter of a neighborhood house and run barking down to the road.
We all stopped to listen to the growling in the distance. It didn’t sound exactly like a dog, though. Whatever was making that noise had a bigger set of lungs than the average dog. There was also something about that growl that sounded distinctly unhealthy—as if the animal were having trouble breathing.
“That’s not a dog,” I said.
A large shape revealed itself by moving across several sets of porch lights. Although my instincts urged me to recoil (to run in the opposite direction, in fact) I forced myself to step forward by several paces, so that I could gain a better look.
Silhouetted against the moonlight, the oblong snout of a large bear revealed itself.
Bears, of course, are practically unknown in the populated regions of Ohio; and the bears that do exist in the Buckeye State are smaller black bears. The specimen far ahead of us must have been a full-grown grizzly. There are no wild grizzly bears east of the Mississippi, or far south of the Canadian border.
Some of these specifics would have been beyond my grasp on that night, but no one had to tell me that the bear’s presence was unnatural.
Nor was the bear itself a normal phenomenon of nature. The animal ambulated with creaky, jerky movements. After pacing back and forth across the road several times, it stood in the middle of the blacktop pavement and barred our path.
“Oh, my,” Leah said. “That—that thing is from the Dolbys’ living room. Don’t you recognize it, Jeff?”
It took me a moment to grasp what Leah was talking about. At the far end of our street lived an elderly couple, a Mr. and Mrs. Dolby. Despite the age difference, the Dolbys were well-loved among the neighborhood children. When I’d had a paper route two summers ago, Mr. Dolby had routinely tipped me extra when I came around for collections. The Dolbys were always good for the purchase of a raffle ticket to support little league, or a one-year magazine subscription to support the school band.
On one especially hot day, Mrs. Dolby had invited me to step inside their house while she retrieved my paper money (plus a glass of lemonade). That was when I’d noticed Mr. Dolby’s bearskin rug.
“Oh, that old thing,” Mrs. Dolby had explained. “That belonged to Mr. Dolby’s grandfather. I believe that his grandfather’s father shot the bear in Montana. That would have been sometime during the 1800s—not long after the Civil War, in fact.”
“I’ve seen the rug,” Leah explained now. “The bearskin rug. I remember it from a few years ago, back when I was still in Girl Scouts and we were selling cookies.”
That explained the bear’s almost mechanical movements. It was really a bear—a bear that had been dead for a very long time.
I recalled my mother mentioning something a week or so ago—about the Dolbys leaving early for Florida this year. So at least the reanimated bear carcass—if that was indeed what it was—wouldn’t harm them. But our safety was another matter.
“We can’t go that way,” I said.
“Maybe we can go around it,” Bobby suggested. Bobby separated himself from us and stepped into the grass of the adjacent lawn. He took a few steps forward, in the direction of our intended destination.
The bear moved laterally to counter him. It bellowed—a hollow, unnatural sound, nothing like a real bear, in all probability. But the message was clear: If we tried to go directly home, we would have to contend with that thing first.
Bobby walked carefully backward, his gaze fixed on the bear.
“I wonder if those jaws work?” he asked.
“Do you want to find out?” Leah challenged him.
The bear now moved two or three feet in our direction. It wasn’t quite a charge, but it was enough to make us move correspondingly in the opposite direction—back the way we had been going.
“We can’t go this way,” I said. “We have to go back.” I understood now what was happening—or at least I thought that I did. The bear was there for a purpose. We were not supposed to go home early—it wasn’t going to be that easy.
The bear reared up on its hind legs. From this distance and angle, and given the poor lighting, it was impossible to discern if the bear was merely the hollow shell of the rug that it had been, or if it had taken on a more solid, substantial form.
In either case, though, the bear had those teeth—and I didn’t doubt that the reanimated creature was dangerous.
“Where is ‘back’?” Leah asked. “I thought we were already going back.”
“I mean ‘back’ as in the way that we would have gone if none of this had happened,” I explained. “We need to take the same route that we’ve taken every year. We need to complete our normal circuit of the neighborhood.”
The bear let out a hollow, wheezing growl. A sudden stiff breeze caused a part of the rug to ripple audibly. Then we all heard the jaws move open and snap shut. Any questions about the danger posed by the teeth were thereby put to rest.
I began walking backward—in the direction whence we had come. Leah and Bobby both followed without any specific instructions from me.
“Are you sure about this, Schaeffer?” Bobby asked.
“I’m sure that we can’t get past that bear,” I said. “And I’m pretty sure that if we keep moving, we’ll eventually get to the end of this.”
“Of the ‘curse’?”
“Like I asked you before: Do you have a better word for it?”
Bobby didn’t reply. They both followed me, back past the house of the gravestones, and past the house where the ghost boy presumably still convened with his macabre guests.
I was the leader now. I was responsible for telling others what needed to be done—for the first time in my life.
I wasn’t a formal leader, of course. No one had appointed me, nor had there been an election. I had become the leader by default. For a while, anyway, Bobby and Leah would do what I told them to do, and it was my de facto responsibility to guide them through this.
I had never led people before—I had never thought of myself as a leader in any way. I wondered if I was ready.