Heat and sweat.
That was the sum total of summers at Gravestone Hill.
Thankfully, Kevin had no shortage of cars, and trucks, and trains to keep him busy. Video games were fun, too. But most days he stayed inside, cooling off while books transported him to a universe of dragons and fairies and knights in shining armour.
It was a pity people didn’t need knights anymore. He had a good feeling he would have grown up to be a dashing young lad, on his fine black steed. He would have named him Midnight, and brushed him so he shone when the sun was high and the moon was bright.
Mother was always good for distraction as well. She was a library on legs with lips to share her tales. There was no bit of history she didn’t know – or couldn’t fabricate.
Still, it wasn’t enough. “When can we get a dog?” he asked her one night, for the millionth time.
They had owned a dog once – a dog that was almost a brother. His mother had gotten the pup as a gift at her baby shower, and Kevin had popped out to say hello far too early, just two months later. But when they moved from the big house in the suburbs, the dog had to go.
“When we get our own place,” his mother answered. It wasn’t the first time he had heard that, either.
He wanted to press her for a bit. He had been thinking lately, and already worked out all the ways they could keep a puppy in their tiny apartment. He would walk it and brush it and love it and… he fell asleep.
The following morning, his mother greeted him with breakfast. “Guess what!” she said excitedly, as he gobbled down eggs and toast in bed.
“We have neighbours. I spied a little girl on the other side of the fence this morning. I know Mrs. Williams doesn’t like it much when we head out there, but if you’re quick, she probably won’t notice!”
Kevin pouted. Why did it have to be a girl? But then knights always rescued young damsels in distress. And there were so many stories of young puffy-faced cootie-having girls growing up to be as beautiful as his mother. He might just get lucky!
He handed her his empty plate and jumped out of bed. After a quick shower, he then tore through his closet to find something to wear.
How did knights in the 2000s dress? Should he wear a cape? What about his hockey knee-guards and elbow pads? Did that count as armour?
“You’ll be good?” his mom popped in to ask.
He flashed her his winning smile – the same one his dad had used far too often to bend her to his will. His father often joked that it was a hereditary trait, passed down from father to son. But he didn’t want to think of his dad now. That only made him sad.
“I’ll be good!” he assured her.
The sun was high in the sky and the mosquitoes were hungry. The smell of fresh meat as he crossed the yard, drew them to him like flies to carrion. Though his mother had sprayed him well before he left, the sound of them whizzing about his ears was no less annoying.
It was just his luck that he would get to the end of the property line before the fence met the little girl’s residence. By then he had climbed up the little excuse for a hill that allegedly gave the town its name, ignoring all the No Trespassing signs as he went by.
She was waiting by the fence when he saw her. Maybe his mother had told her family he might drop by. Or maybe summer had begun to bore her as much as it did him.
“I’m Cindy,” she greeted him. “I just moved here.”
“I’m Kevin,” he replied, trying to ignore the mosquitoes whizzing by his ear again. “I guess I kind of just moved, too. We’ve been here for a year, I think.”
The girl looked up into the sun, shielding her eyes as she did. “Do you like it here? It’s really hot.”
He shrugged. “It’s okay.”
“What do you do for fun? Do you have a bike?”
He perked up and nodded. “Yeah, and skates. Do you know how to ride?”
She looked at him as though he had lost his mind, and then started to laugh. “Of course I can! I’m almost nine.”
He was almost eight, and had never met any girls who rode or skated. All the girls he knew only ever wanted to play with their dolls. Not even his dog had been safe from their efforts at domestication.
“I read a lot, too,” he half-mumbled. The boys at school had not taken kindly to his bookworm tendencies, but maybe this girl would understand.
“Me too!” She gripped the fence and mashed her face into the wires as though to get closer to him. “I love stories about knights and dragons! I wish I could be a knight some day!” She let go of the fence and wielded her imaginary sword.
He wanted to tell her only boys could be knights, but he’d been wrong about the bike-riding, so maybe he was wrong about that, too. No use looking like an idiot in front of an older kid.
Besides, he liked her already. It never occurred to him how much he’d miss seeing another youthful face when school was out. It had been different in the suburbs. But here, every neighbour was a car ride away.
Kevin looked behind him at the grave markers. “Our landlady’s husband and son,” he told her. “They died in the war.”
Cindy wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. “Is the place haunted? Have you seen any ghosts?”
He scoffed at her for that. “Everybody knows ghosts aren’t real.”
She gave him that look adults wore when they knew something he didn’t, and had no intention of explaining. It made him feel stupid.
Stupid girls! Why did he even come all the way out here to say hello?
“Did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” he folded his arms defensively across his chest. He wasn’t about to let her make a fool of him.
“That!” she took a step back from the fence.
He heard it now, too. It was the sound of movement. And what was worse, it sounded like it was coming from underground, in the grave.
Surely, that couldn’t be right. And yet the sound echoed again – louder this time – like bones rubbing against wood, or each other.
Cindy shrieked, or maybe that was him. He took off at break-neck speed and ran all the way back to the house. Out of breath, he slammed the door behind him and shut all the windows.
Can windows keep ghosts out?
They should never have moved to this quiet neighbourhood with creepy old people and creepy old graves.
His mother rushed into the living room, heart racing. “Kevin, are you alright?”
A knock sounded at the front door before he could answer.
She ignored his plea, and checked the peephole. “It’s only Mrs. Williams.” Kevin ran to the other room to hide, as she opened the door.
“Miss Peters, I done told you that boy ain’t allowed up there in them woods. I saw him up there just a minute ago!”
“Kevin?” she said, with believable disbelief. “He must have been looking for his lost ball or something. He never goes up there.”
“Mmhhmm – whatever you say ma’am. That’s all I’m saying,” the old woman cackled. “We had an agreement. So keep your boy away from there, or one day he mightn’t come back.”
“Excuse me? Are you threatening my son?!”
“You heard me,” the old woman replied, and then she pulled the door shut.
His mother returned to the room in a temper. “What did you see up there, Kevin?”
He only shook his head. Cindy was probably rolling on the floor, laughing her head off at this point. No way he was going to look like an idiot in front of his mom, too.
He could barely sleep that night. In the dark, every fear was magnified. Every creak and groan of the house sounded like a ghost creeping through the hallways. Every shadow on the wall was a monster.
Just as sleep finally claimed him, he heard the front door open, and then glimpsed the beam of a flashlight outside. It was probably just his mother, looking for another lost earring. Or maybe she had a date she hadn’t told him about.
He yawned and fell asleep again.
When next he awoke, his mother was shaking him.
She smelled of sweat and grass and fear. Her eyes were bloodshot red, her dress torn, her hair matted with leaves. “Kevin, wake up! We have to leave!”
He rubbed his eyes. “Leave? For where? What’s happening?”
“Grab your things!”
There was a pounding on the front door. For a moment, she panicked. She paced the room and raked her fingers through her hair. “Oh God, oh God, oh God…” became a chant she couldn’t end.
The pounding grew louder.
She snapped out of it. “Get under the bed Kevin! Now!”
He grabbed his favourite teddy, and scooted under the metal frame as quickly as he could. She pulled the covers down on his side, and then pulled the blinds shut by the window.
The pounding grew louder and louder – and angrier. She bent down on the floor and shifted the blanket aside so she could see him. Her cheeks were wet with tears, and her eyes wide open with fright.
“I love you, Kevin. Please, please stay quiet. And don’t go back up to that hill!”
The sound of broken wood and glass reverberated through the tiny flat. He had never heard the sound of someone kicking in a front door before, but he was certain that was it.
She rushed to her feet, and fled from his room. From his hiding spot beneath his bed, peering through Batman sheets, he heard her screams. For a long time, it was all he heard, and then suddenly it all went quiet.
There were no more voices, just the slow and deliberate sound of heavy boots on old and rotting floors. He shuffled further to the back of his space beneath the bed and waited. The door opened with a long groan, and then the shadow slid onto the adjacent wall.
Dark and ominous it stood there. For a long time it lingered, unmoving. Then there was the shuffle of feet, and it carried the dark shadow away.
It was morning before Kevin found the courage to leave his hiding place.
It was uncommonly cold. A chilling wind was sweeping in through the empty doorway. Splintered wood was strewn all about the living room floor, mingled with broken glass and other odd bits and ends.
But it was in the kitchen that he found her.
He shook her as she had shaken him that night, though he knew it would never wake her. He had tried the same with his father when cancer had made a long and painful mockery of his life. Death had been a mercy, though Kevin had felt the pain no less.
It was an hour of tears and hopelessness before he finally looked up to see the writing in blood on the wall. The threat was brief, but heavy with meaning.
LEAVE OR DIE.