In honor of my favorite holiday, Halloween, I give you a spooky story by yours truly. Happy Haunting!
The Tale of Eliot Dodge
By Luthien T. Kennedy
“You gotta be kiddin’ me!” I laughed. “Are you dim or what?”
“Hey, you can piss off, Mikey. Everyone knows the cemetery’s haunted,” Austin shouted. “I ain’t goin’ in there!”
“We’ve still got two good hours of daylight left,” Jordan grinned, rubbing his thigh nervously.
“IT’S FULL OF DEAD PEOPLE! You two wanna go in there, go right ahead, but I’m stayin’ out here where it’s safe,” Austin answered, clutching tight to his bike handles, his foot on the pedal, ready to ride at the first hint of anything even remotely creepy.
“Nobody actually died there, Austin,” I answered, annoyed. “Ghosts aren’t real, and if they were real, they’d leave their ghosts where they died or haunt their own houses, not come hang out at a boring old cemetery for the rest of eternity. Jeez.”
“Never mind the ghosts, what about zombies?”
“Oh my God, Austin, if they were going to turn into zombies, they’d have done it by now!” I laughed.
“Well, if Austin’s not goin’ in, I’m not goin’ in,” Jordan chuckled, looking slightly relieved that he wasn’t the first one to cave.
“This is bull,” I answered. “What did we come out here for if both of you were just going to chicken out?”
“I said back at your house I’d ride out here with you, but I wasn’t going in, didn’t I, Jordan?” Austin answered.
“What a bunch of babies! I’ll go in by myself then, and you two can stay out here, have a cuddle and pray I come out safe,” I said, hopping off my bike, tugging my backpack up on my shoulders and heading for the entrance. I didn’t believe in ghosts, but that didn’t stop my palms from sweating or the lump from growing in my throat.
“You don’t have to, Mike,” Jordan said. “Let’s just go back and look it up on the internet like everyone else.”
“I’m going in there to get the answer, and I’m going to prove to you losers that there’s nothing scary about a stinkin’ cemetery.”
I’d been to a cemetery before, but not quite like this one. My grandpa Ed died two years ago, and my mom didn’t want to leave me with my dad because she didn’t trust him to remember to pick me up from school. Besides she said she thought it was important that I understand death, like somehow I had gotten to the age of ten, watching the Disney Channel every day, without ever realizing that people died in the end. “Death is just a part of life, Mikey,” she told me. “It’s the one thing we all have in common,” which was pretty smart, I thought now that I was twelve and headed into Ridgefield’s cemetery alone. What had I learned at Grandpa Ed’s funeral that would help me now? I learned that funeral homes smelled funny and dead people generally look weird, not gross, but not like themselves. I also learned why they call dead guys stiffs. While nobody was looking, I touched Grandpa Ed’s hand. He didn’t even feel like he had ever been real.
The place where Grandpa was buried was newer than Ridgefield’s cemetery, and all the headstones were set in neat rows and there were hardly any trees, except up by the little building where my mom said they held non-religious services for families. Ridgefield’s cemetery was older than old and overgrown with trees so that even during the day the ground was dark with shadows. The newer parts, up over the hill, looked a lot like where Grandpa was buried, straight and orderly, but the parts closer to town, down in the valley where there were graves more than two hundred years old, the plots were haphazard, almost as though the grave diggers had just fit people in wherever they could get them. There was every kind of grave there, with tombstones shaped like crosses and with gargoyles sitting atop them and statues of angels standing watch, crypts covered in moss and great, molding mausoleums where whole families had been laid to rest.
“You need anything, Mikey, you text me,” Jordan said as I headed off toward the darkness of the oldest part of the cemetery, off to find out for myself who the first person buried at Ridgefield’s cemetery was and what year they were buried there. Our history teacher, Mr. Sparks, had set the assignment. He told us we could go to the library or even use the internet for help, but for the more adventurous among us, he had drawn out a map leading the way right to our morbidly buried treasure.
“Like your wimpy butt’s going to come in after me,” I mumbled under my breath as I left.
“Bet you five bucks he gets scared and comes back with some story about how he couldn’t find it,” I heard Austin say.
“Maybe we shouldn’t let him go alone,” Jordan answered. “What if something happens to him?”
“Yeah, like he stumbles across an axe murderer who’s using the cemetery as a secret hideout and he kills him and eats his kidneys. Oh, or one of those big tombstones falls on him and crushes his head! Squelch! Wonder what his brains look like all squished?” Austin laughed.
“If he’s not back in half an hour, we’re going in after him,” Jordan chuckled.
“Correction: you’re going in after him.”
“But then the axe murderer would get you, and we’d come back and all we’d find is your right shoe and your bike.”
“Piss off, Jordy!”
“You piss off,” he laughed. “Why do you always have to tell people to piss off?”
“My dad says it all the time, and it makes my mom mad,” Austin answered seriously.
I listened to their voices as I hurried along the outer path, the dates on the gravestones growing older and their voices growing fainter with every step, until I couldn’t hear them anymore. Anything might have happened in that place, and no one would know about it for all the trees, I thought, which was a mistake, because my heart started to echo in my ears and I wondered if twelve year olds could die of heart attacks. The only thing that kept me going was the idea of rubbing Austin’s nose in finding the grave, and refusing to let him cheat when I knew the answers for Mr. Sparks’ assignment and he didn’t.
I turned up the dirt road that led to the abandoned church at the top of the hill, where I’d have to pull out Mr. Sparks’ map in order to find the right grave. Being a history teacher, Mr. Sparks had a thing for local lore, as he called it. He said no one had attended Ridgefield’s original church there in the middle of the city cemetery in more than a hundred years, and from what I could see of the place as I started toward it, it looked like no one, including me, would ever want to go there. As Sparks told it, the year the church closed its doors, the cemetery had run out of room for new plots and the city needed to purchase more land. Unfortunately, none of the farmers with land surrounding the place were willing to sell, which meant the only option was for the church to give up its churchyard at the top of the hill, where parishioners and members of the community had held picnics under the shade of the giant oak every Sunday in the spring since Ridgefield was barely more than a settlement. The dispute between the pastor and the mayor of Ridgefield was big news at the time, and it was a few months of heated negotiation before the city was able to purchase the church and its land for enough money to build a bigger and better church in town, which was built that same year a hundred years ago, at the corner of East Fletcher Road and 21st Street.
The old church was supposed to have been demolished to make room for even more plots, but a woman from the congregation asked if she could buy the building and help tend the graveyard. She didn’t have much money, her husband having died several years before, but she believed that the dead needed God to watch over them, and she said that it was a sacrilege to tear down a house of worship, which I assumed meant something pretty bad would happen, probably involving demons and exorcisms. She had been married in that church twenty-six years before. Her son, who had died only a few years before, had been baptized there. That church was her family, and even though they were building a new church, the idea of losing the old one, where so much of her life had been spent in happiness and sadness, was too much to bear. After all that argument with the pastor, the mayor agreed to sell the church building to the woman for a dollar, on the condition she helped tend the graveyard, and she apparently lived there for several years and was known for planting flowers at every grave each spring, until she died many years later and was buried in a plot right under the giant oak. After her death, the old church house was left standing, in her honor, Sparks told us.
Left to ruin, I thought as I came up to the front porch and looked up at the old building, gray and crumbling. Even though it was in a terrible state, there was an eerie sort of calm there, like God and that old flower lady were both looking on, watching me as I scanned the building. The steps leading up to the porch were all termite-eaten and broken to pieces. The front doors were chained shut with rusting chains and a padlock that was so old it only had a keyhole and no knob for putting in a combination. The stained glass windows were missing pieces, and boards had fallen off of the building so that one could see right inside to the pews, if a person was brave enough to look, which I wasn’t. But the grounds were strangely well-kept, like that old lady had stuck around for a hundred years, still making the flowers grow, likely sad that her church, bought for a dollar, had been allowed to decay after her death. The thought gave me shivers.
“You one of Sparks’ kids?” came a voice from behind me.
I nearly peed my pants as I jumped around, yelling, holding my hands out in front of me like I knew judo or something. The young man, maybe twenty, wore a blue work suit stained with dirt and sweat. He had a small shovel in one hand and held the other hand on his hip like he was tired and couldn’t wait for the day to end and didn’t have much time for kids in his cemetery. His skin was pasty white, I thought.
“Sparks’ kids, yeah, yeah,” I said, breathless. He must have been a groundskeeper, and I must have looked pretty spooked being out there all alone, because he laughed at me, as he wiped his dirty sleeve across his forehead.
“You got your map then?” he asked.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said, dropping my pack off my shoulders and kneeling down to unzip the bag. I didn’t know why I kept repeating myself. It was just a guy in a blue jumpsuit, with a shovel, in the middle of a cemetery. There wasn’t anything strange about that, was there? “Anybody else been out here yet?” I asked, trying not to sound too nervous.
“Not that I’ve seen, but they rarely come. We get maybe one a year, and any more than that always come in groups, though they usually do more to frighten each other than they would do coming alone. Kids tend to work each other up.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I laughed, then frowned at myself for sounding stupid again. “My friends are waiting for me at the gates.” I may have said this because it was true and on topic, since my friends had managed to give me the creeps even though I left them back at the entrance, or I might have said this because I didn’t want the man to think I was there alone.
“Lily-livered?” he chuckled.
“Yellow,” I nodded, pulling out the map and unfolding it. “Right, so from here it looks like I go… that way,” I said, pointing to the southeast, down the hill into the valley.
“I’ll show you the way, if you want.”
I don’t know why, but my guts told me I should just let the man get back to his work. I didn’t know anything at all about him, except that he worked at the cemetery, and what sort of person worked at a cemetery anyway? “Um… I’m pretty sure I can find it on my own,” I answered. “What’s your name anyway?”
“Eliot Dodge,” he smiled. “I don’t blame you, not wanting a stranger’s company, and in a cemetery no less. Tell you what, kid, I’ll be up here working, if you need anything, but I doubt you will. You’re certainly not like most kids.”
“The ones that make it this far usually just ask me for the answer and leave as fast as possible,” he laughed.
“Yeah, I guess I’m not like most kids,” I grinned, proudly. “Thanks for the offer, Mr. Dodge.”
“You’re welcome. You tell Sparks I said hello,” he smiled, and turned away, to head off around the side of the church where the old oak stood, leaving me very much alone.
As he disappeared around the corner, I gave a pretty big sigh of relief. “Axe murderers,” I whispered, pulling out my phone to check the time and make sure I had bars. I snapped a selfie with the old church behind me before grabbing up my backpack and heading off, using the map as my guide.
A few minutes later, after winding my way down a path into the valley, turning left at a statue of an angel with its wings stretched six feet wide, then right at the grave of Nelson and Millie Grover, I found myself stood in front of the oldest grave in the cemetery, with my hands on my hips, feeling a bit let down, because I guess a part of me thought it would be more eventful than it was. The bones of Julian Parsons were buried there, or at least I figured there was likely only bones left of the man after so long—there had likely been little more to him than bones when Parsons died in 1723 at the ripe old age of 96, which was incredibly old, I had to admit, especially for so long ago. While we were studying the colonies, Mr. Sparks told us that back then an “elderly person” usually didn’t live past 40, so Julian Parsons had more than doubled his life, likely outliving his own children and even most of his grandchildren, if he had any. I wondered if this was what Mr. Sparks had really sent us to find out as my phone buzzed in my pocket. It had been almost a half hour and Austin wanted to know if I was officially the first person to die in the cemetery. I messaged him “OFFICIALLY NO!” and took a picture of myself in front of Julian Parson’s grave, to prove I’d been the only one brave enough to use the map.
But when I turned back toward the hill to leave, my stomach clenched and my palms began to sweat again. I took a few steps forward, but something was telling me I really didn’t want to go back by way of the old church. I looked off across the cemetery grounds, toward the road back to town hidden behind so many trees. It was already six and getting dark down in that valley, and I would have had to walk through hundreds of graves if I didn’t stick to the map. I was tempted to yell for Mr. Dodge or to call Jordan and have him talk me through getting back to the gate, but I thought that was something only a chicken like Austin would do (even though Jordan wouldn’t have held it against me, I would have held it against me, and Austin definitely would have held it against me).
Every step back along the path through the graves toward the church on the hill was deliberate so that I could be as soundless as possible. Even the birds had gone silent, as though they didn’t want to be heard returning to the churchyard any more than I did. From this view, the church looked even more ominous sitting up there in all its deteriorating glory, presiding over thousands of dead Ridgefielders, a rotting corpse hardly more than bones herself. I didn’t know what I was so afraid of or what I thought would happen when I got back to the church, but I knew I didn’t really want to make it up to the top of that hill. I kept imagining horrible things, like Jordan laying on the ground in front of the church steps with Dodge’s shovel sticking out of his eye socket and that little old lady up there in her church, watching me through a hole in a stained glass window, angry that I had let her home go to ruins, though I knew I was only twelve, and it didn’t make any sense that if ghosts existed, the old lady would hold what had happened to her church against me when there were thousands of other people, both living and dead, she could hold it against. Surely all old ladies had a soft spot for boys, even dead ones?
When I was close enough to the top of the hill to feel comfortable, I cut the corner rather than going up past the church, darting between graves to get to the dirt road. It felt like what that old lady would have called a sacrilege to be stepping over those graves the way I did, but all I wanted to do was get to the road and make a mad run back to my friends, to my bike, to my mom and the comfort of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a big glass of milk, and some happy Disney Channel movie with absolutely no dead people and no cemeteries and none of Mr. Sparks’ idea of adventure. But as I was almost to the road, still a few graves to go, hurrying between the foot of one grave and the headstone marking the next, I heard a sound in the distance, like a tree creaking. It sounded strangely like my old rope swing sounded now that I weighed ninety pounds, but this heavier, like someone too big had decided to have a slow ride, and was stressing the rope and the branch, as they swung.
I was tempted just to dash right over the last few graves, but I stood there listening for at least a minute, frozen in fear as my heart pounded furiously in my chest, but slow, like the beating of a war drum. “Mr. Dodge?” I called out, my voice cracking as I pulled my phone from my pocket and dialed Jordan’s number. The sound came again, creaking dangerously, and I looked up at the church, thinking it must just be settling into its death.
I put the phone to my ear and heard Jordan’s voice, a welcome sound now that my hair was standing on end. “What’s up? You find the grave?”
“Just a minute,” I whispered, still standing there surrounded by the dead, frozen in my tracks. Maybe Mr. Dodge was messing with me? But what if something had happened to him and he needed help?
“What’s wrong, man?”
“Is he dead?” Austin laughed in the background.
“Mr. Dodge, are you all right?” I called out, stepping right on top of Nancy Dowdy and James Fisher as I turned toward the church.
“Who’s Mr. Dodge? Don’t play games, Mikey. Come on, I’m not scared,” Jordan said, though he sounded like he was. I wished he and Austin were there with me. I’d even hold their hands, I thought as I took a few careful steps toward the old building.
“Did you say Dodge?” Austin asked, his voice high-pitched. “What the heck, Mikey, stop kiddin’ around!”
“Shut up, Austin,” Jordan said. “Mikey, what’s going on?”
“I’m up at the old church,” I whispered, moving slowly toward it. “There’s a man here, a groundskeeper, named Eliot Dodge. I heard something. I don’t know what it was, but he won’t answer. He’s probably just trying to scare me.” As I walked toward the far side of the churchyard, the sound of the old tree creaking grew louder. I could see lots of its twisted branches, its leaves turning red as fall took hold. “Mr. Dodge?” I called again, pausing as I came to the corner, trying to get up my nerve to look. The old lady was buried under that tree, I thought. She’s buried under that tree. All that’s over there is more graves. But Dodge had gone around there.
“You get out of there now, Mikey,” Jordan said.
Austin started spitting curses, yelling at Jordan to give him the phone, yelling at me to run as Jordan could be heard trying shove him away, yelling at him to shut up, Austin arguing with him that he had to tell me something, saying something about Dodge, but it was Austin, I thought. He had an overactive imagination, and I knew he wanted me to be just as afraid as he had been. He didn’t have to worry about that though. I was so scared by that point my whole body was freezing and my teeth had started to chatter even though the sweat poured off of me in buckets.
“Mikey, what’s happening?” Jordan asked, Austin saying, “Oh, God! Oh, No! Mikey, come on, get outta there, man!” in the background.
“Mr. Dodge?” I called out again, hesitating at the corner, arms out, ready to do some old movie kung fu on Dodge, sure he was waiting for me to come around that corner so he could jump out and scare me.
All I heard was the sound of that rope swing making the tree creak and Austin repeating, “God, oh God, oh God, “ sounding like he was pacing circles.
“Mikey, Austin’s having a nuclear meltdown out here. Stop messing around and come on,” Jordan said in my ear.
“All right, Jordan, I’m on my way out now,” I said loudly. “Tell your mom I’m sorry I made you late for dinner again.” And then I did the stupidest thing I’ve ever done—I darted around the corner yelling, “Aha!” like I thought I was going to scare Eliot Dodge before he could scare me. Boy, was I wrong.
As I came around the corner, the end of my word of surprise caught in my throat, turning to a long scream of terror that didn’t sound like it came from my body. I wanted to run, but my feet were stuck there to the hallowed ground and Jordan was yelling in my ear, “Mikey, what’s wrong? Mikey, stop screaming!” He swore loudly, yelling at Austin to come back, yelling at me to run, telling me he was coming in for me, but I just kept screaming, panic overwhelming me, heart racing a million miles a minute.
There was Mr. Eliot Dodge, swinging by the neck from the old oak, hanging right over the old woman’s grave, overgrown with flowers. His work jumper had been ripped, and the skin on his face, neck and chest had been eaten away, picked at by crows and bugs, like he had been hanging there for several days, not a few minutes.
I took a gasping breath and finally my feet came loose from the earth and I turned to run as fast as I could, screaming louder, back down dirt road, back down the hill, Jordan still yelling, “I’m coming, Mikey! I’m coming!” I must have been running faster than I’d ever run in my life, because Jordan had hardly made it twenty yards up the path when I met him, the shriek still pouring out of me, and the look on his face when he saw me was just as frightened as I felt as he grabbed my arm and we hurried out the gate together, jumped our bikes and rode away. It wasn’t until the cemetery was good and behind us and I had gotten winded, pedaling as hard as I could, that I finally stopped screaming.
“What did you see?” Jordan shouted. “Mikey, man, you’re really cryin’? What the heck? We gotta call the police or something?”
I didn’t tell him. I couldn’t tell anyone what I saw. No one would believe me. I didn’t believe me.
I didn’t have to tell anyone.
By the time Austin and Jordan got done with school the next day (I had faked being sick to avoid it, but I regretted being at home alone all day), they made sure everyone knew I’d been to the cemetery alone and had an epic breakdown. My mom didn’t know about any of it, I’d told her we were just riding to the store, so she was surprised when Mr. Sparks rang the doorbell that evening and asked to speak with me.
“Hello, Mikey. So I heard you saw Mr. Dodge at the cemetery? Are you sure you didn’t just look up the cemetery on the internet and decide you’d try and pull a prank to get out of school or something?” Mr. Sparks chuckled as he sat down across from me in the living room.
“You went to the cemetery?” my mom said, sounding pretty angry with me.
A chill washed over me, and all I could think about was the sound of that tree creaking and my feet beating against the ground as I ran. “It was for an assignment. I just wanted to be able to say I did it, Mom,” I whispered anxiously. “And I can prove I was there, Mr. Sparks,” I added, pulling out my phone and turning it on. I’d left it off so I didn’t have to face Austin and Jordan. I didn’t believe in ghosts. I didn’t believe in zombies or paranormal experiences. Death didn’t scare me, after all I had touched a dead man’s hand when I was ten. But I couldn’t get the image of Dodge hanging there over that grave out of my mind.
“You’re trying to tell me you think you really saw the ghost of Eliot Dodge?” Mr. Sparks laughed.
“Mikey, what’s he talking about?” my mom said, rubbing her hand over my hair, looking worried.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Peterson,” Mr. Sparks said. “Every year I assign a bit of investigative work to my history students. Their goal is to see if they can find out who the first person to be buried in Ridgefield’s cemetery was and what year they died. It’s meant to be a fun project, leading into the Halloween season, not meant to scare them so bad they start skipping school. For the braver ones, I’ve drawn out a map to the site—no research, just pure exploration. I hear all sorts of things about kids’ trips to the cemetery. They like to pretend they’ve seen the ghost of a young man who died there more than a hundred years ago, up by the abandoned church. It adds a bit more excitement to the experience.”
“A hundred years ago?” I asked, feeling my eyes grow wide. “I saw him! I talked to him, Mr. Sparks! He told me to tell you he said hello! He was as real as you and me, standing there in front of me, and then I came back, and he was—he was—“ I felt the little bit of cherry jello I had managed to eat since Mom got home rise dangerously in my stomach. Mr. Sparks looked concerned, and leaned forward, expecting me to continue. “I saw him,” I whispered. “Hanging from the old tree. The meat had been picked off of him. ”
“You saw him hanging over his mother’s grave?” Mr. Sparks answered.
“Are you two making this up, or have you been planning all of this to scare me?” my mom said loudly, causing us both to jump.
Mr. Sparks cleared his throat and chuckled, though the grave look in his eyes didn’t change. “You caught us. Just a little joke, Mrs. Peterson,” he lied. “I just wanted to check in on Mikey, bring him his make-up work and make sure he would be at school tomorrow. There’s another assignment I don’t want him to miss. Not quite as exciting, and no more cemeteries, I swear.”
My mother made the noise she always makes when I’m being difficult and shook her head at him, crossing her arms over her chest. “I’ve got to finish making dinner,” she said impatiently. “Thank you for stopping by, Mr. Sparks. I look forward to seeing you again at Parent-Teacher conference in a few weeks.”
“Mikey might need some help with the math lesson from Mrs. Pruitt,” he answered quickly. “Mind if I take a moment to explain it before I go? Mikey can see me out.”
“Of course,” she answered and hurried off to the kitchen as Mr. Sparks pulled a small stack of papers from his bag, watching her back as she left the room.
“You really saw him?” he whispered, handing me my homework.
“I really saw him,” I answered, shuddering at the idea.
“Mikey, Dodge had been missing for five days before the pastor of the church found him hanging there, half eaten. They never found out if he hung himself or if someone strung him up there, but there weren’t any news articles about the state they found him in. It was a different time. People might have talked, but they all expected to be treated with dignity, when it came to the news, like they didn’t want to know too much. The only record that mentioned how he was discovered, hanging from that tree where his mother was later buried, was in the police reports, so how did you find out about this?”
“I saw him,” I whispered.
“Can I see the picture you took, just to make sure you’re telling the truth about being there? I mean, maybe you’re an excellent sleuth and managed to dig something up on the internet.”
“I was there, Mr. Sparks. There are two pictures,” I said, opening the gallery on my phone and scrolling down to the end, while Mr. Sparks looked on expectantly.
But it turned out I had taken three pictures by mistake. One was of me grinning dumbly in front of the old church. One was of me, again grinning dumbly, in front of Julian Parsons’ headstone. The third was blurry, because I had taken it by accident while I was running away, and my finger blocked most of the view, but there in the corner of the picture hanging from the old oak by the church, dead more than a hundred years, was Eliot Dodge’s ghost.
Mr. Sparks said the image was too blurry to know for certain what it was he was seeing, and before he left that night, he decided that me and my friends could have gone up there to rig the shot, proof of all the rumors of Eliot Dodge’s mysterious death. He didn’t want to believe it, even though I know he could tell I was telling the truth. I can’t blame him. I didn’t want to believe it either.
Happy Halloween, from my family to yours!