by: Rylan Hynes
The children were older than they looked, crouched down behind the iron fence surrounding the graveyard on a hill. Here, at the crown of the small town, they lurked behind a rise in the grass, a sheltered dell littered with crushed beer cans and snubbed out cigarette butts.
Lauren felt strange among these Dead Falls townies, except for Patrick. Patrick Hanley was beautiful. He picked her up that night in his very own car, and though the seats were dirty and the model dated, his blue eyes and the music drifting soupily through the radio gave the evening glamour beyond her wildest dreams. She held her beer bottle uneasily among the other teenagers, feeling out of place until she caught his eye once more across the dell. He smiled at her. She beamed back, took a sip of the bitter froth and dawdled over to lean next to him.
“Come on guys, this is boring,” whined one of the younger kids, Ralph. Ralph wore a frayed t-shirt pocked with holes, round like cigarette marks. He pulled a squashed pack of Marlboros from his pocket and ignited one against the night. “We’ve been here for hours and nothing’s happened.”
They had been there for a while, hoping for a glimpse of a ghost or some other spooky resident of the graveyard to appear on Halloween. Lauren never broke curfew, but this seemed worth it, even if she was grounded when she got home.
“We could start a fire,” suggested the other girl. She was plain with long brown hair twined into two braids. Not a threat, but she knew Patrick better by virtue of living in the same town and that annoyed Lauren. “And tell ghost stories.”
“We all know the ghost stories,” complained Ralph through a breath of smoke. “We’ve heard them a million times before.”
“I haven’t,” said Lauren. “I’m not from around here.”
“That’s right,” said Ralph, exhaling once more. The haze of smoke tickled through the cold night air towards Lauren. “You’re not.” He looked at Lauren with hungry eyes trailing up her unevenly shaved legs to her t-shirt. It was a little too tight across her chest. She had worn it for Patrick, not this pimply boy who smelled like nicotine. She scowled at him.
“So?” Lauren said to Ralph. Ralph responded by stubbing the cigarette out on his own skin. He didn’t flinch.
Patrick looked over at her.
“Are you sure you want to hear them?” he asked. The doubt in his voice felt like a challenge bubbling up through the golden beer swirling in Lauren’s stomach. “Maybe I should take you home. You might not like it.”
“No, I don’t care. I’m not scared.”
“I’ll get a fire going, then,” said the girl with the braids, and she strode off into the woods to collect kindling and wood. Lauren tried to remember her name, but the drink made it difficult. Priscilla, or Patricia…something funny and old-fashioned like that.
Lauren couldn’t help but admire the girl’s competence when she came back and arranged dead grass, twigs, and logs into a stack at the center of the grove. She kept a few pine branches set aside from the rest, telling Lauren that they were for later.
“You put them on the logs and they’re like fireworks,” she said as Ralph held his lighter to the nest of grass and wood. The flames nibbled at the twigs as the four of them sat down around its weak glow. Lauren made sure to sit near Patrick, and was rewarded by him wrapping his arm around her. He was chilly and so was she. Halloween was never warm in Maine.
“So who’s going to tell it?” asked Ralph.
“I will.” Another boy emerged from the woods, stepping from the gloom into the fire’s light. He looked older than Patrick, like he might have been a senior or even in college.
“What are you doing here, Rob?” asked Patrick. He sounded peeved.
“I saw your fire through the woods and didn’t want to miss out on the festivities,” said Rob. He wore an old leather jacket that creaked as he settled down next to the other girl, who looked nonplussed, so that he was between her and Lauren.
“Hi Priscilla.” The girl didn’t say anything back. “And who would you be? I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure.” Rob turned to Lauren. His eyes were dark and mischievous.
“I’m Lauren,” she said. “I’m—“
“—not from around here. I know. Let’s leave it at that. Better not to tell, you see, or you might receive an unexpected visit from me some night,” he said. A chill shivered down Lauren’s spine. It wasn’t all together disagreeable. Patrick noticed and dropped his arm from her shoulder.
“Want a light?” Ralph offered his beat up pack of cigarettes up to the newcomer.
“I brought my own, thanks,” said Rob, and he pulled something out from behind his ear.
“Is that weed?” asked Lauren.
“Of course it is,” snapped Rob as he leaned towards the fire, just enough to spark the tip of the hand-rolled joint alight. “Honestly, Patrick, where do you find these geniuses?”
Lauren looked quickly at Patrick, who was unable to hide his blush in time. Was she not the first girl he’d lured out at night and brought to this little spot in the woods? The beer in her belly made her queasy at the thought. She wrapped her arms around her knees and glared into the flames.
“Just tell the story, Rob,” said Patrick, grumpy. “It’s getting late.”
“Some might say early,” Rob said. “But it’s all a matter of perspective, I suppose.”
The others said nothing while Rob took a long drag on his joint, and then began.
The town of Dead Falls was founded in 1666, and for one hundred and fifty years, the New England colonists lived and prospered here, felling timber and using the river to send logs downstream to sell. Since the town is so old, no one knows for sure how it came by its name. Some say it’s from the valleys filled with the branches and stumps hewn away from the logs before they were sent downstream. Others think it comes from the waterfall along the river, where many timber drivers lost their lives dancing among the logs and rapids.
“I like the waterfall theory, personally,” said Ralph.
“Where is the waterfall?” Lauren asked Patrick. It sounded pretty.
“You mean Patrick hasn’t shown it to you?” Rob frowned. “I guess you haven’t gotten a proper tour of the town yet. I’ll have to take you there sometime.”
“Oh shut up, Rob,” said Patrick.
“How am I supposed to tell the story and shut up at the same time?”
“You know what I mean. Just get on with it.”
“As I was saying before I was rudely interrupted,” said Rob. “The colonists prospered here for one hundred and fifty years.”
“You already said that,” said Priscilla.
“Do you want to tell the story instead?”
“Then let me finish, for fuck’s sake.” Rob took a long drag on his joint, and continued.
In the year of 1816, disaster struck. It was a year without summer, where snow fell in July and August. Crops withered and died. People starved. Finally, on the 24th of December, the cold, hungry villagers were all huddled together at the Methodist church for the Christmas Eve service, when —
“I thought it was a Congregational church,” said Ralph.
“No it was Methodist,” argued Priscilla.
“Okay, whatever, let’s just say Protestant, shall we? Does that make everyone happy?” asked Rob, exasperated.
“I thought they were in the church on All Hallows’ Eve,” said Patrick.
“People don’t go to church on All Hallows’ Eve, stupid,” said Priscilla.
“Well that’s the way my mom always told it.”
“Your mom’s about as smart as Lauren,” said Rob. “No wonder you two get along so well.”
Lauren was stung. One minute this Rob guy seemed like he was flirting with her, and the next he was insulting her. She couldn’t keep up.
“Just shut up and finish the story, asshole,” she said. Rob raised his eyebrows at her.
“If you insist. After all, you’re the guest.”
It was Christmas Eve and all the villagers were inside the church while a snowstorm swirled outside. The villagers prayed for warmth, for food, shelter, and for summer to come the following year, as it usually did. Mostly they prayed just to make it through the winter.
But during the service, the church caught fire. Some say it was —
“A candle that fell over from the altar.”
“Freak lightning during the snowstorm.”
“It was the minister. He went mad and torched the place on purpose because he was starving and he wanted to eat everyone.”
“Thank you for all of those creative suggestions,” said Rob, accustomed to being interrupted at this point, and moving on without missing a beat.
The flames roared throughout the pews. The humble decorations, the thin paper of the Bible’s and hymnals, and wooden pews went up in an instant. The people panicked and all ran towards the doors, but they wouldn’t budge. During the service the storm had gathered strength and piled up great drifts of snow against the doors of the church, pressing them shut and trapping the parishioners inside.
It was a terrible sight. Knowing they were trapped, the settlers sang, hoping their faith would protect them. They sang hymns as the rafters and walls around them burned and fell. Inside the fire consumed everything. Everyone was burned to cinders by morning.
Some people say that it’s just a local legend, surely it can’t all be true. If everyone died, then who lived to tell the tale and pick the story out from among the cold bones lying in the ashes and snow the next day?
After that winter, many settlers gave up their homesteads and moved south. They had enough winter to last a lifetime. It’s possible that whoever remained in Dead Falls did the same. Either way, by spring the town was deserted.
Some folks say that if you walk through the ruins of the old church at night, you can still hear their voices, singing and praying.
Priscilla put a shaggy limb of pine needles on the fire for effect. It sparked green and yellow up towards the stars and felt menacing in the wake of the ghost story. Lauren shivered, despite its warmth. There was something sinister about the woods on the edge of the graveyard now and the way Rob had described the story, as if he had been there and seen the people roasting alive inside the church.
“Where was the church, if this is the graveyard?” she asked. She looked up from the fire to find all of the others staring at her. The flickering flames reflected in their eyes. For a moment, they all looked dead and hungry, like the colonists from the story. Then Rob spoke, breaking the spell.
“Just on the other side of the hill.” He jerked his head towards the edge of the trees. “Anyone want to see if we can hear them?”
“I don’t know, guys. It’s almost dawn. I should take Lauren home,” whined Patrick. In the wake of the story, he seemed weak and cowardly to Lauren. She wasn’t sure what she was doing with him here in this clearing. He certainly wasn’t as attractive as Rob, nor as brave.
“I bet Lauren wants to go see the ruins, don’t you Lauren?” Rob was leaning on the ground, propped up on his elbow staring at her, his dark eyes a dare. “Want to go with me?”
“Yes, I do,” she found herself saying.
“Okay, then I’m coming, too,” said Patrick, standing up.
“We’ll all go,” said Priscilla. Ralph rolled his eyes and stood. Patrick held out his hand to help Lauren up, but Rob had beaten him to it. She took the older boy’s hand as Priscilla stamped out their bonfire.
The sky was not as black and empty as it had been when they first squatted down beside the burning wood. The five of them jumped over the mangled iron fence and into the overgrown graveyard. Cold dew brushed from the long grass onto Lauren’s bare legs as she walked. Why had she worn shorts? Rob was right, she was stupid. She felt so much older than she had when she got into Patrick’s car hours ago. She wrapped her arms around herself and trudged on, head down.
“Is it this way?” she asked her companions. There was no answer. She didn’t need to look up to know that they were gone, but still got a fright when she saw that she was alone in the middle of the graveyard. She turned in a circle, but there was no one to be seen.
“Oh, very funny guys,” she said. They must have been hiding among the tombstones, trying to give her a scare. “Real mature.”
Still there was only silence, other than the leathery flap of bat wings up above as they returned to their roosts for the day. Determined to prove her theory, Lauren poked her head around the crumbling marble and faded grey slate headstones. Nothing.
Exasperated, she sat down. The light was growing, shifting the sky from black to grey. In the gloaming, she could just make out the names on the stones around her.
She stood up. It had to have been a trick of the light, but she didn’t want to go back to check. She walked quickly towards where she could squint out another clearing, larger than the one they had gathered in. That had to be it, the ruins of the old church. Maybe her friends would be waiting there. If they were friends or waiting at all.
The trees were younger around this empty patch of grass. Lauren fancied she could still see the rows of where the pews stood among the weeds. Two great trees framed the far end of the glade, creating a pagan altar of their own. She stepped inside where the old church once stood.
As she did, she heard the wind sigh through the trees and the bright twinkle of a dawn bird song. It took shape into words.
“See how great a flame aspires,
kindled by a spark of grace.
Jesus’ love the nations fires,
sets the kingdoms on a blaze.”
She looked around to find the source of the song. Rob stood at the edge of the clearing. The eerie words hummed around them.
“Can you hear them?” asked Priscilla, emerging from the shadows with Ralph and Patrick. “Do you hear the voices?”
“We can’t come in,” Patrick said. “We’re not allowed.”
She stared at him. She didn’t understand.
“Stay here until the sun comes up,” said Rob. “Don’t leave until it does.”
They vanished. Lauren did not move. The song grew in pitch as the sun rose to the east.
“… more and more it spreads and grows,
ever mighty to prevail;
sin’s strongholds it now o’erthrows,
shakes the trembling gates of hell.”
Rylan Hynes is a former bookseller of several independent bookstores, including Chicago’s Women & Children First, and was previously the editorial assistant at Alice James Books. Hynes is a member of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance, which awarded them with a Martin Dibner Fellowship to attend the 2020 Harvest Writers Retreat.