“Come on Mike; you’ve slept through the carnival.” As I tried to clear the cob webs from my brain, my brother Craig’s words seemed to come from a different world. “Let’s go,” he said, “they’ve already started trick or treating.”
Still groggy, I scrambled into my costume. I had missed the town’s Halloween Carnival; I didn’t want to miss anything else. “Hurry.” Now I was the impatient one. “We don’t want to miss out on Mrs. Harrison’s popcorn balls.”
In our town in 1958, Halloween treats were an art, and Mrs. Harrison was an artist. The only problem was that her six or seven dozen balls would last only part of the evening. Latecomers would get those little orange and black jack-o-lanterns that tasted like candle wax.
“We’ll make it,” my brother reassured me, “but first I promised Swatz that we’d meet him and a couple of other guys at Roadside Park.”
“You don’t mean,” we both said the next words in unison, “The Place.”
Roadside Park was a picnic spot on U.S. 87 just 200 yards south of town. The Place was a spot in the marshy bottom of Tierra Blanca Creek, which ran through the park, and where two and one-half years earlier a drifter named Clarence Thomas Higgins* had hidden the lifeless body of hitchhiker Robert Billingsley*. Higgins had stabbed and slashed his victim 14 times with a bayonet. Whether we thought Clarence might escape from prison and return to the scene of the crime or that the ghost of Robert Billingsley still haunted the area, I don’t know, but The Place had become the new test of manhood in Canyon, Texas.
“No way; I’m not going,” I said, trying to sound annoyed rather than frightened.
“Give you my popcorn ball if you do.”
“OK then. Besides, Swatz said you wouldn’t come. Said you were chicken.”
Nine-year-old boys may not have the hormones of a teen-ager, but we do have enough testosterone to do some pretty dumb things, and, when we arrived, the park had all the makings of a horror flick: pitch black, ominously deserted, eerily quiet.
“They’re not here. Probably just wanted to lure us away from the popcorn balls,” I told Craig.
“Wait a minute.” My brother’s flashlight had caught sight of an object near The Place. Suspended from a stand of cattails where it swung slightly in the cold night breeze, Swatz’s purple and white sweatshirt was covered with something dark and sticky.
“You guys can do better than this,” Craig yelled as he handed me the school colors. “Probably catsup,” he said to me.
“I’ve had enough nose bleeds to know the real thing,” I whispered. “This didn’t come from a bottle of Hunts.” Craig could hear the terror in my voice. We bolted.
Craig was much faster than me, and soon he was only a flashlight bobbing in the distance. I of course had no light, but it wouldn’t have helped anyway. Anyone who has ever seen a horror movie knows that you can’t outrun a ghost, and the ghost of Robert Billingsley seemed to have me in his sights. I could hear his crashing footsteps, could feel the hot breath on my neck, could smell the rank aroma of rotting flesh. And then a hand gripped my shoulder.
Yet the hand that held me some 40 Halloweens ago belonged to good not evil. It had reached in from another world to rescue me from the only ghost I have ever encountered.
“Mike, Mike, Wake up,” my mother said as she sat on the edge of my bed and gently shook my shoulder. “You don’t want to be late for the carnival; do you?”
*Names have been changed.
*** I wrote this piece for the Amarillo Daily News in October of 1998. Thought you might enjoy.