By Robert Pettus
It was New Year’s Eve. It was colder than shit. The pavement was unobstructed, even though dry, powdery white snow floated peacefully down from the black, starry night sky. The Presbyterian Church was the best place for skating – at least for skaters of our skill level, and we were the only skaters in town. It’s parking lot featured a nice little gap, and an absolutely pristine three-stair. We would ollie it again and again, late into the night – well into the early morning.
It was ten o’clock. I looked to Percy Huck, who held in his hands a video camera:
“Watch this shit,” I said to the lens.
I pushed forward and cleared the three-stair with a pathetic, limping ollie. I was proud of that limping ollie. I cruised across the narrow street, into the adjacent dentist’s office parking lot, doing a pop-shove-it before turning back to Percy:
“You get that shit?”
“Oh yeah,” he said, “I got all of it.”
Eliot Florence, cruising up to the edge of the three-stair, looked over to Percy:
“Check this shit,” he said.
He skated up to the stair, ollieing high into the air and kickflipping, landing smoothly on the street below.
“Fuck yeah!” said Percy.
I looked on in amazement.
I wasn’t jealous of Eliot – I liked him; he was a good dude. I was comfortable with the fact that he was a significantly better skater than me.
Nothing really happened for New Year’s in Abry. It’s just not much of a big holiday in central Kentucky. The Abry Presbyterian Church was having a celebration, though. They liked to have gatherings for the local high-school kids on typical party nights, to keep them off the street. Help them maintain their virginity, sobriety, and whatnot.
It was cold.
“It’s cold,” I said, “Let’s go inside and bash some goddamn Cheetos.”
“I’m down for that,” said Percy.
“Shit!” said Eliot, “I’m going to stay out here a little while longer. Get a few more runs in. Send Nate out, if you see him.”
Nathan Keaton was another one of our friends. He loved skateboarding, too – probably the most out of all of us, but he couldn’t hang out and skate as often anymore. He was always stuck following around his girlfriend – Celia Quinn. She controlled the hell out of him, and she liked it.
“You know he won’t be able to come out,” I responded.
“Well at least try your best!” said Eliot, walking up the stairs and flipping his board around, moving to ollie it again. He did, though this time with a simple, clean backside 180.
Nothing much was happening inside. They had Cheetos – both the classic and flaming hot varieties – which Percy and I began greedily inhaling. Some video game stations were set up around the interior of the youth room, which was pretty large, as far as small-town youth-group rooms go. Captain Razorbeard – the church’s youth minister – was playing Street Fighter 2 Hyper Fighting against some elementary-aged kid I didn’t recognize. Some others were playing Halo 3. Others were playing Madden. Those were the only games we ever played at the church: Street Fighter, Halo, and Madden, and we were serious about all of them. I was very proudly the Street Fighter champion. No one could fuck with me in that game.
Razorbeard frantically clicked at his sweat-covered PS2 controller as Blanka – squatting aggressively like a rabid wolverine – shocked the opposing Dhalsim into slow-motion, crashing defeat. As Dhalsim soared across the screen, his electrocuted body flashed, repeatedly revealing his skeleton. Elephants trumpeted in triumphant declaration of Blanka’s victory.
Razorbeard wasn’t his real name – his name was Tim. We only called him Razorbeard because one of our friends had once accidentally brushed his arm again Beard’s well-groomed, black beard, causing a rash. He was Captain Razorbeard because of that.
“You ready to challenge the champ?” I said, walking up behind Beard, who was still standing at the TV.
“I’m always ready,” said Beard, “Let’s go!”
Beard selected Blanka again – that was his favorite character by far. I chose Ryu, my preference. Blanka’s electricity gave me some trouble initially, as it always did, but I turned it into a ranged battle, keeping my distance while repeatedly launching blue-flaming Hadoukens. This forced Blanka to move at a riskier pace, unable to continue the protective shield-wall of his electric shock. When he got close enough, I launched Ryu into a Tatsumaki Senpukyaku spinning kick, knocking Blanka unconscious.
“It was worth a shot,” said Beard.
“Maybe you’ll get me, one of these days,” I responded, “I doubt it though.”
Percy stood watching behind us, munching on a bag of flaming-hot Cheetos.
“That’s what you get for beating up Dhalsim, Beard.” said Percy. Dhalsim was Percy’s favorite character.
In the corner of the room, I noticed Nate talking to Celia. She was unhappy, pointing aggressively outside while glaring at him. She stamped her feet and gestured out of the room. Nate sulked pathetically, his posture like Eeyore, his glum face like a chastised, droopy basset hound. They walked past us, making to exit the building.
“What do ya’ say there, Nate?” said Percy, punching him in the arm. Celia glared at Percy.
“Not much,” said Nate quietly, rubbing his arm. He was uncomfortable, though not from Percy’s punch – just from the awkwardness of the situation.
“We’ve got to go,” said Nate, “I’ll see you guys later.”
“Eliot is looking for you,” I responded, “He’s outside skating by himself.”
“Ah, man,” said Nate. “Unfortunately, I can’t skate right now. I’ve got to go.”
“Suit yourself, dumbass,” said Percy. Celia again glared at him.
“Hey!” said Beard from his spot at the TV. He was again playing the young kid in Street Fighter, “Chill it on the language!”
“Right,” said Percy, “My bad, Beard. Won’t happen again.”
My friends and I loved swearing. We did it at every available opportunity – the dirtier our language, the better. I think it made us feel a sense of freedom. There are lots of culturally constructed restrictions in Abry. People don’t like you to do all kinds of shit – whether for religious or just other, more ridiculous socio-cultural reasons. By cursing, we felt we were rebelling against our conservative upbringing. Our use of language was dirty as shit, all the time. We didn’t want to put Beard in a bad situation, though. He was supposed to be guiding the youth of the church toward Christ, and whatnot. If the older members of the church heard his young flock saying fuck and shit all the time, it could damn-well cost him his job. We didn’t want him to be fired.
“You want to run it back?” said Beard after again defeating the kid’s Dhalsim.
“I’m good for now,” I said, “Maybe I’ll catch you later. We could play Halo; might give you a better shot at winning.”
“You’re on!” said Beard, “Assuming we can get the Madden guys off the Xbox.”
Percy and I went back outside to see what Eliot was doing. The snow was worsening – now a barrage of fluffy white. The concrete path leading to our cherished three-stair was covered in slippery snow. No one would be doing any skating for a while.
“The hell is Eliot?” said Percy, “Did he say he was going anywhere?”
“Not that I remember,” I responded.
The two of us kicked around briefly at the gathering fluff. It was a cold night; cold enough that the swirling snow was like a magical dry fleece – seemingly no moisture in it at all. We looked around the area. The night was quiet – no one was there. Streetlamps sat idly glowing; one of them flickering lonesomely as if to communicate by Morse code. Across the street, the lights were off in Dr. Robert’s Dentistry, though one of the spherical, perfectly trimmed bushes in front of the building was jiggling. We stared at in anticipation. Out from withing scurried a stray cat, which, after noticing us, darted away down the street into the blackness of the night.
“Pretty sure I hid a Snickers in that bush,” said Percy, “Wonder if that bastard cat stole it?”
“Are you fucking kidding?” I responded.
“Never know when you might need a snack,” said Percy.
Atop the dry powder we saw fresh footprints leading from the three-stair, across the front yard of the dentist’s office, down the road toward Main Street, at an angular point not far off merging with the cat’s prints in the dentist’s office front yard.
“You think those prints are Eliot’s?”
“Shit,” said Percy.
“What?” I responded.
“I’ll bet Eliot went over to Nolan Jones’s place.”
“Why would he do that?” I said, genuinely oblivious.
“Apparently Nolan got with Kristin a while back, at some party, after Eliot and Kristin broke up.”
“Dude,” I said, “They’re just some footprint through the snow. It could mean anything. We don’t even know they’re Eliot’s prints, and even if they are, we have no reason to believe he’s going to confront Nolan. He seemed totally fine earlier.”
“Very true” said Percy, “But regardless, let’s find out for sure.”
“God dammit,” I said.
We followed the prints through the yard of Dr. Robert’s office, out onto Lincoln Park Road, down toward Main Street. The tracks stayed visible – no one else was out on the streets. The gusting, frozen darkness reminded me of the Silent Hill video game – it was like following a ghost through an empty world. I imagined Eliot creating the prints – likely only moments ago. What was he thinking about; where was he going?”
“You know how we could tell for sure if these are Eliot’s tracks?”
“How’s that?” said Percy.
“Look for skateboard markings. If these are Eliot’s tracks, you know he threw down his board and ollied something somewhere along the road – even in this snow, he wasn’t going to just walk the whole way.”
“Fuck yeah,” said Percy, “You’re right!”
Sure enough, we saw slithering across the street, up a two-stair leading to the front porch of a random, pink-painted house, the markings of Eliot’s skateboard.
“Good thinking, Ed!” said Percy.
The tracks didn’t lead all the way to the door of the house, though – they turned and continued southward, across Main Street – up to Cemetery Hill – up near Nolan Jones’s house. We heard the distant rumble of some celebratory music, which was cascading down Cemetery Hill onto Main Street like an auditory avalanche.
“Fuck,” said Percy.
“What?” I said.
“Nolan Jones is having a party. I bet they’re going to set-off some New Year’s fireworks from the top of Cemetery Hill.”
“At least we know where Eliot is,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Percy, “I guess.”
The trudge up the hill was difficult. The snow, though fresh and dry, was still at times slick. At one point, I slipped and busted my ass, momentarily sliding backward down the hill. Percy grabbed my leg and dragged me back up.
“They’re having a party up here?” I said from the ground, “No one is going to be leaving tonight – the road is covered!”
“I think that’s the point,” said Percy.
Nolan Jones’s house wasn’t very big – it was wooden, cabin-like structure not far from the cemetery gates, which made it made it look creepy – but he loved it. He always had parties on the weekends. Nobody in town seemed to care – I guess a cemetery is as safe of a place for kids to party as any. Nolan was a good guy, but his parents didn’t give a shit about much of anything. They were never around when he had the parties, and if they were, they were usually sleeping, and not the kind of sleeping easily awoken from – passed out hard, a chemically induced slumber.
Smoke billowed from the cabin’s old brick chimney, disappearing like toxic fog into the blackness of the winter night. The lights were on inside – the glow of a television flashing – but numerous voices could be heard from within the darkness of the sleeping cemetery behind.
“Well, I guess we know where they are,” said Percy.
“Yeah,” I said. “It creeps me the hell out, walking back there at night.”
“Shut the hell up,” said Percy, “We come up here to burn cigs damn near every day after school.”
“Yeah, that’s in the afternoon, though; not in the darkness, in the snow. What if the dead awake at night?”
“That would be fucking awesome,” concluded Percy.
We followed the sound of the music. They were listening to Caring is Creepy, by The Shins. The high-pitched vocals and ambient organs flew up and hid among the limbs of the needly evergreen trees before swirling out and into my cold red ears. Nolan had terrible taste in music, so I know he wasn’t choosing the jams.
Dueling tire tracks, at first unseen, were now noticed pacing tunnel-like from the cabin back into the cemetery, in the direction of the music. Continuing our sliding stroll, we at last saw flickering, shadowy figures in the distance. They were huddled within a collection of evergreens, around a fire near the tombstone of Mercer. Nobody knew who Mercer was – he died around the time of the Korean war – but his gravestone was the preferred chilling locus of many Abry teens. It was where me, Percy, Eliot, and our other friends went every day after school to smoke L&M Reds. It was now where Nolan Jones was having his New Year’s Eve celebration. Percy and I strolled up casually; Nolan didn’t have any reason to dislike us.
“Hey there, boys!” said Nolan upon seeing us. He was leaning at the side of his large, pale-green Chevy Silverado. The music was coming from the truck, it’s engine idling, sputtering smog out into the misty, wintry darkness. Huddled shivering within Nolan’s extended arm, wearing his thick brown Carhartt jacket, was Kristin. The brightness of her blonde hair stood in contrast to the dark greens and blacks of the truck, the jacket, and the nighttime cemetery forest.
“Hey guys!” she said with forced, manufactured excitement. Her voice was quivering, and not from the cold. We waved in return, not having much to say to her.
“You want a beer?” said Nolan, “I’ve got a case of Busch iced down in the snow over there; feel free to grab one.”
“Hell yeah,” said Percy, “I’ll take a cold beer.”
Percy took a couple cans from the opened box, tossing one of them to me. I fumbled it briefly before dropping it in the snow. It was undamaged, though – the snow was nearly a foot deep. Removing the can from the fluff, I cracked it; bubbly, hoppy liquid ejecting from within the can, fizzling in the snow below.
“Don’t be wasting it!” said Nolan, “That’s the only case I’ve got! And I don’t have a fake ID anymore; damned cops took it from me. If I run out, I’ll have to go haggling on High Street to get someone to buy some more for me.”
“Right,” I said, taking a healthy swig, looking down at the beer as I removed it from my lips. It was one of the camo cans – dark green and bright orange, featuring a bugling elk.
“Hey!” came a voice from behind. It was Nathan Keaton and Celia Quinn.
“What’s up, man?” I said, “Didn’t expect to see your ass here.”
“I didn’t expect to see you here,” said Nate, “I thought I was going to spend my night standing around awkwardly, wishing I could go skate. Hey – you’ve got a beer!”
Reaching back into the box, Percy also threw Nate a Busch. Nate, snagging it one handed, ripped open the tab and crushed most of it in a singular gulp.
“Oh yeah!” he said, “Let’s get drunk!”
“Now don’t go drinking all my beer,” said Nolan, “I already told these other two that I don’t want to have to go trekking back up to High Street.”
“Right…” said Nate, chugging the rest of the beer. He crushed the can and tossed it in the fire. “That’s for you, Mr. Mercer,” he said, burping loudly.
“What the fuck are you doing?” said Celia. She was standing behind Nate, her arms crossed in vexation.
Nate turned to face her, startled and red-faced. It was as if he had momentarily forgotten she was there.
“You know you’re supposed to drive us home, right?” She continued, “I’m the one who wanted to come to this party; I’m the one who was excited about it. I get to drink with my friends and you have to be the DD.”
“Right…” said Nate, lowering his head in embarrassed shame, “Sorry, I forgot”
“Say Nolan,” said Percy, “You seen Eliot anywhere? He disappeared and we can’t seem to locate his ass.”
“Disappeared?” said Kristin with concern.
“Why the hell should I know where that bastard is?” said Nolan. “Hopefully he doesn’t think he’s invited up here; I don’t want to see his ass.”
“We thought he might be up here,” said Percy, “That’s why we came. We’re a little worried about him. He’s not answering his phone, or texting back.”
Nolan looked to the ground thoughtfully, kicking around in the accumulating snow. “Well, let’s go find him,” he said, “We can take my truck. It handles the snow well. I’m not drunk yet, so I can do the driving.”
“Thanks!” said Percy, “We really apprecia…”
“Heeeyyyyyy!” came a slurred bellow from within the darkness of the forest. As if on cue, Eliot stumbled out of the woods. He was sliding around in the snow, waving his arms chaotically like a 1930’s swing dancer. His black Vans zip-up hoodie was covered with matted snow, presumably from where he had repeatedly fallen while scaling Cemetery Hill. He was carrying a plastic-bottle fifth of Wild Turkey 101 in his right hand, which had been mostly drained. An unlit cigarette hung from his lips. The red of his bloodshot eyes was visible even through the deep darkness.
He stumbled up, putting his arm around me. “Heyyy there, Ed!” he said, “What do you say, boy?”
His breath was noxious; I thought likely potent enough to melt the snow – strong enough to aggravate the fire and set ablaze the forest surrounding Cemetery Hill.
“I got some problems with you!” he said wavering, pointing in Nolan’s general direction. “You’re lying to Kristin! You’re trying to swoop in like some sort of… Prince fucking Chhaaaarming… making it seem like you’re a good dude. You ain’t no good dude! You’re a stinky little piece of shit.”
“Chill out, man,” said Nolan, his face reddening with anger, “You’re drunk.”
“Listen to him, Eliot,” said Kristin, “He’s trying to help you. He’s not trying to fool me – he’s a good guy; I like him. We just weren’t right for each other; you and I – you know that. You agreed. You said it yourself.”
“Aw, hell,” said Eliot, wobbling back and forth, “Bullshit. Hey, hold this, Ed.” He handed me the bottle of bourbon, subsequently sauntering toward Nolan.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” said Nolan.
Without response, Eliot cocked back, launching a slow moving, inaccurate haymaker. Nolan moved out of the way, but he didn’t really need to. Eliot swung with full drunken force, missing Nolan and instead punching the window of his truck. The glass cracked. Eliot, pulling his hand away, was bloodied. He made to strike again.
Running up from behind him, Percy grabbed Eliot’s arm to prevent him from swinging again. Slipping, they both fell to the muddy-snow, half-melted from the nearby fire and marinated in the dirt of Mercer’s grave-plot, covering their coats.
“Get the fuck off me!” yelled Eliot, scrambling atop Percy and making to beat his face into the dirt.
“Dude!” said Percy, “Chill!”
Eliot, before making even an initial swing, fell back to the ground, exhausted – he had given up.
“You cracked my window,” said Nolan.
“Yeah, whatever,” said Eliot, “You’ll be fine, I’m sure. Maybe Kristin will fix it for you.”
“You know what?” said Nolan, “You could really use a good ass-whippin’. It’ll help you out, in the long run.” Nolan paced over to where Eliot lay drunk in the snow.
“Yeah!” shrieked Celia, “Get his ass, Nolan!” Nate looked at her uncomfortably. He began rubbing his hair – flattening his natural curls straight – a nervous habit he performed by reflex.
Nolan dove atop Eliot and they began wrestling in the snow. Eliot was taller and lankier than Nolan, but he was also shitfaced wasted. Nolan was a bit stalkier, but he was also very uncoordinated. Nolan used his weight and sobriety to get atop Eliot and began burying his elbows into Eliot’s head like a bloodthirsty MMA fighter. Eliot’s muscles relaxed – his mind now apathetic – he couldn’t prevent the onslaught.
Without thinking, I took a swig of Eliot’s bourbon, rushing ahead to the campfire. I spit the bourbon into the fire, blowing it all over the pair of combatants. Since Eliot was buried in the snow, most of the flame covered Nolan. The blaze engulfed him; remnant bits of enflamed alcohol covering his coat. He shrieked, lifting himself off Eliot. He ran circularly around the area for a time, squawking like an frantic chicken – his coat somehow still aflame – before realizing that he could simply remove the coat and douse it in the snow.
Screaming like an imprisoned banshee, he unzipped his blazing jacket and hurled it to the snow. It sat flaming before beginning to extinguish.
I stared at it in detached wonder – Nolan was going to miss that jacket, I was sure. I then felt a strong, frozen wind blow from behind me in the direction of the jacket. I turned behind – nothing was there; no one was there, only Mr. Mercer’s gravestone.
I turned back to Nolan’s jacket. The flame engulfing it had reignited, blazing a heated blue flame, though also somehow smoking and smoldering. The smoke was thick – like that you might see rolling off a house fire after an arson. The jacket then, amazingly, lifted itself from the ground. It took shape – standing upright as if someone were wearing it. The swirling, blue-flaming shadow took a swirling, smoky step toward Nolan.
Cyclopean footprints in the snow.
Nolan, only briefly calmed from his intense fear, returned to his sanity-shattered, babbling fright. Spittle and snow, spewed out continuously from his confused, wide-eyed face, flowed down his chin like a polluted stream from a sewage pipe.
The shadowy, humanoid flame stepped closer to Nolan. Though it appeared hot – it was flaming; smoke was billowing from it – it was somehow cold as a lonesome stone. It took another step closer to Nolan. The snot covering his face froze instantly. His eyes further widened – his eyebrows covered in frost. The shadow, then quickening its pace, engulfed Nolan. Nolan unleashed only a whimper before his vocal cords were frozen solid. The shadow swirled around him – the blue flame engulfed his body entirely.
Finally removing itself, it revealed a frozen, perfectly sculpted humanoid block that was once Nolan. His arms were spread, his mouth was stuck in a quivering and confused position, just like Han Solo in Star Wars. Nolan fell crashing to the ground. The ice cracked a little, but he stayed mostly intact. His body, now so slippery, slid down the side of Cemetery Hill and into the forest like a Christmas sleigh. He disappeared into the darkness.
“Ahhhhhhhh!” shrieked Celia. “What the fuck?” She then pointed at me, “This is your fault! You’re a fucking devil-worshiper! What did you do to him?”
The flaming jacket, now suddenly scorching hot, flew in Celia’s direction, swirling around her and catching her ablaze.
Screaming in horrified, burning anguish, she ran wildly away – back down the hill – in the same direction Nolan had just slid.
The magic flame then disappeared. I felt another gust of wind, this time hot and rancid. I turned. I saw Mr. Mercer’s gravestone. It shook a little – I swear that it shook! – as if in recognition.
“What the fuck, dude,” said Percy.
I didn’t know what to say. I looked down to Eliot. He was awake, but much less confused, as if his drunkenness allowed him to accept the reality of this bizarre, apparently demonic occurrence.
“Hey!” came a voice in the distance. It was Beard, “Hey! I thought I would find you guys here. And Kristin! Hey, how are you doing? Haven’t seen you in a while. Well, I’m parked at the bottom of the hill; come on back to the church – it’s getting too nasty out here.”
Razorbeard pointed at me: “Hope you’re ready to get whipped in Halo! Or Street Fighter – let’s game all night!”
About the author: Robert Pettus is an English as a Second Language teacher at the University of Cincinnati. Previously, he taught for four years in a combination of rural Thailand and Moscow, Russia. He was most recently accepted for publication at Allegory Magazine, The Horror Tree, JAKE magazine, The Night Shift podcast, Libretto publications, White Cat Publications, Culture Cult, Savage Planet, Short-Story.me, White-Enso, Tall Tale TV, The Corner Bar, A Thin Line of Anxiety, Schlock!, Black Petals, Inscape Literary Journal of Morehead State University, Yellow Mama, Apocalypse-Confidential, Mystery Tribune, Blood Moon Rising, and The Green Shoes Sanctuary. He lives in Kentucky with his wife, Mary, and his pet rabbit, Achilles.
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