Ghoul, fiction by Corey Mesler

It was a folk tale, an urban leg­end. That’s what we told our­selves though it was scant com­fort. I think I heard it first from my old­er brother’s friends on a night I was sup­posed to be asleep but, instead, had crept out­side the liv­ing room door to hear how my elders con­versed. There were three girls. I knew their names and some­thing about them. And my broth­er and his friends, Peck and Bil­ly. Bil­ly was our preacher’s son and he was mean as Medea. He used to hold me down and call me ‘lit­tle girl,’ and let his spit dan­gle over my face, forc­ing me to watch it as it fell onto my own mouth.

My broth­er, Damon, is sev­en years old­er than me. He let his wolfish friends treat me like a fig­ure of ridicule. He stood by. I revered Damon, and he knew it. This was 1965. We lived in the sub­urbs like every­one else. I was ten.

This night one of the girls had a sto­ry to tell. I think her name was Shelly Eliot. She was pret­ty, in a Diana Durbin way, and I believe my broth­er loved her at this time but thought she was out of his league. She prob­a­bly was.

Shelly, in a breath­less voice, was telling a sto­ry that she had been told. The once removed aspect of it made it both believ­able and slight­ly less harm­ful. These things only hap­pened to oth­er peo­ple, to strangers, to friends of friends, or kin of kin.

She told me she was at home alone,” Shelly was say­ing. “Her par­ents were out of town and she was at home alone because her younger broth­er had gone to spend the night at a friend’s house. Anna (this name meant noth­ing to me and it seemed to mean noth­ing to the oth­er lis­ten­ers) said she had just watched Fan­tas­tic Fea­ture. ‘Fool­ish of me to watch a hor­ror movie before going to bed alone at home,’ Anna admitted.

Anna con­fessed she was already agi­tat­ed so that when the neighbor’s dog set up a din it spooked her fur­ther. She got up in her night­gown and crept to the win­dow, look­ing out upon her back­yard, which was sep­a­rat­ed from the neighbor’s by a ten-foot wood­en fence. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim night but as things came into focus the dog’s cat­er­waul­ing ceased abrupt­ly. And it was then that she saw it. Or its head and shoul­der at any rate. She said she saw him reced­ing, walk­ing away from her in the night­time, the back of his elon­gat­ed, thin head, and his bony shoul­ders, just vis­i­ble over the neighbor’s fence. The wood­en fence was ten-feet high! Anna screamed and her scream died away with an echo. Need­less to say, for the rest of the night, she did not sleep. She sat up with a base­ball bat beside her in bed and the poems of Anne Sex­ton in her shaky hands.”

There was silence when Shel­ley fin­ished her sec­ond-hand tale. Then one of the boys, it might have been the hor­rid Bil­ly, said, “Bull­shit. That’s a sto­ry you make up to scare small chil­dren. Ain’t no small chil­dren here, Shell.”

I only tell what was told to me,” Shel­ley said. Her tone was emphatic.

Let’s wake your lit­tle broth­er and tell him,” Bil­ly con­tin­ued. “Let’s watch the lit­tle girl squirm.”

Like Anna I spent the rest of my night awake, after I crept back to my bed. Instead of poet­ry I read Mad paper­backs until dawn.

This would have been the end of it, for morn­ing came and my fear dis­si­pat­ed like the dew, send­ing those black night-thoughts back into their shad­ow cor­ners. This would have been the end of it if three nights lat­er, had not my friend Eddie Main, told a sim­i­lar sto­ry, this time some­thing his cousin had told him hap­pened to him. The cousin lived near Bartlett High School, sev­en miles east of us.

The thing was taller than a man on stilts,” Eddie said. “And he was thin like a scare­crow. His legs were awk­ward, stiff things, as if he real­ly had stilts for legs, and his move­ments were jerky and clumsy.”

I stared at Eddie, my mouth half open. It was like I couldn’t focus on what he’d said.

What’s with you, Poindex­ter? You don’t believe me?”

Don’t call me Poindex­ter. As a mat­ter of fact I do believe you. I believe you whole­heart­ed­ly because I heard a sim­i­lar sto­ry this past week.”

Seri­ous­ly?”

Seri­ous­ly. Hap­pened a few streets over (this part was embell­ish­ment for effect—I had to make him see that this was more than coin­ci­dence). Killed a dog, we think. And was seen over the top of a ten-foot fence, mov­ing off like a demon.”

Eddie thought for a moment. His eyes were wide. “Like a ghoul,” he said.

A ghoul,” I repeat­ed for no good purpose.

These things pop up like mush­rooms,” Damon said lat­er when I relat­ed Eddie’s sto­ry. “Stop tak­ing this crap so seri­ous­ly. I think Shel­ley made hers up on the spot.”

But the details were just like the sto­ry Eddie heard.”

It’s always sec­ond-hand, Jim. These are urban leg­ends. It’s like jokes. You can hear a new joke in Mem­phis, fly to Boston and that same night hear the joke in Boston. No one knows quite why but these things happen.”

This was, nat­u­ral­ly, long before the inter­net, so, if what Damon was say­ing was true, it was as much a mys­tery as an ambu­la­to­ry crea­ture out of nightmare.

But—it’s a ghoul, Dame,” I said. “Per­haps,” I added softly.

A ghoul. Jim, stop being such a sissy.”

This stung. It always did. I nev­er got used to it and I nev­er could just shake it off with a laugh. Lit­tle girl. Sis­sy. Pansy.

A fort­night went by and we all for­got the pur­port­ed sight­ings. Even Eddie didn’t want to talk about it any­more. He had just dis­cov­ered The Pat­ty Duke Show and she was all he want­ed to discuss.

She plays both parts,” he told me as if he’d under­stood E=MC². “And she’s so good-look­ing both ways, nerd or princess.”

Yeah, she’s cute. But Lau­ra Petrie.”

You always say Lau­ra Petrie.”

Lau­ra Petrie.”

Poindex­ter.”

So, it came out of left field, when at a cam­pout, some­one new relat­ed a sim­i­lar story.

There were six of us and we had pitched 3 pup tents in the vacant lot at the end of Blue­field Street. The ground was hard and cold and we had built a fire, light­ing it with char­coal starter that Eddie had brought. Gary Gun­ther start­ed it all over again.

I’ve got a wild sto­ry to tell,” he began.

You kissed Rita Ferguson?”

Shut up, Poindex­ter.” He was speak­ing to Bob­by Sullivan.

This hap­pened to George Jen­nie, you know, the half-Asian kid goes to Scenic Hills.”

Yeah, I now George,” I said.

George was com­ing home late one night from his job at the Esso sta­tion. He usu­al­ly walked if the weath­er was nice. On this night, as he turned the cor­ner to his street, Scot­land, he saw in the dis­tance, scut­tling between two lamp­posts on oppo­site sides of the street, a giant with the head of a fox and long limbs that made him seem unbal­anced. George said he thought the thing was going to keel over as it tried to go from shad­ows to shad­ows. He said it was twelve feet high.”

None of us slept that night but we did not admit it was from fear.

I took this infor­ma­tion back to Damon the next day.

Stop it, Jim. I told you to drop this. I explained to you how urban leg­ends spread.”

But, Dame, this is three sightings.”

Three means noth­ing. You guys are crazed. Puber­ty does that to you. And why are all the wit­ness­es young peo­ple, huh? Why not a cop or some­one in author­i­ty? This is fairy tale right out of The Blob.”

This did give me pause and, in think­ing about it, I hit upon the obvi­ous next step of inquiry. I gath­ered Eddie, Gary and Bob­by togeth­er and told them my plan.

We have to take this to Old Yates. He used to be the sheriff.”

Old Yates! Jim, the guy’s 100 years old,” Eddie said. “And doesn’t he have it in for you?”

I don’t think he has it in for me. He just took my sling­shot away because I was shoot­ing acorns at his slid­ing glass door.”

The guys laughed. “I think it’s a great idea, Jim,” Bob­by said. And, because Bobby’s sup­port usu­al­ly meant we would fol­low, the four of us vis­it­ed Mr. Yates the next after­noon after school.

What’s up, boys?” the cranky old man said, in greet­ing. “Here to get your weapons back?” He was stooped and his gray hair was wild where it wasn’t miss­ing, and the sweater he was wear­ing had seen bet­ter days.

No, sir,” I said, step­ping for­ward. “We have a mys­tery for you. No one will believe us.”

And you think I will? What gave you that impres­sion, that I was a gullible old gull?”

May we come in, sir?” I persevered.

Alright,” he said, step­ping aside.

The house smelled like my grandmother’s. And it was dec­o­rat­ed sim­i­lar­ly. Every sur­face held a framed pho­to­graph or knick­knack, an entire army of glass fig­urines, numer­ous beer steins.

Oh, guests,” Mrs. Yates said. “Shall I get some lemonade?”

They ain’t gonna be here that long,” Sher­iff Yates said.

Ed,” Mrs. Yates said, and returned to the kitchen from whence she had come. We could hear her rat­tling glass­es and open­ing and clos­ing the fridge.

Spit it out,” Old Yates said. No offer to sit. He rest­ed him­self by lean­ing on a walk­ing stick.

I looked at my friends, took a deep breath, and told him a suc­cinct ver­sion of what I have iter­at­ed above. Some­time dur­ing my recita­tion Mrs. Yates deliv­ered a tray of lemon­ade and, when I was fin­ished, my throat was parched. I downed my glass.

Old Yates fixed us with watery eyes. Then he shook his leo­nine head.

I ain’t got time for such malarkey,” he said. “Now, beat it. Go tell it to some­one who will lis­ten. Maybe some­one at Bolivar.”

In Boli­var, Ten­nessee there was a sana­to­ri­um for the men­tal­ly unhinged. We had heard about it all our lives, usu­al­ly as part of a half-heart­ed threat. “Shut up, or you’re going to Bolivar.”

We left Old Man Yates, our behinds dragging.

Maybe Damon is right,” I said as we walked back up Ken­neth Street. “No adult’s seen this thing.”

Ghoul,” Eddie said.

This ghoul. Maybe it is just hysteria.”

A week passed and talk of the ghoul fad­ed out. There was oth­er news. Bob­by had found a shack in the woods south of Ken­neth Street, a shack with a bed, a mucky plank floor, a cou­ple can­dle stubs, and some dirty mag­a­zines. Bob­by said it belonged to Peck With­ers and he took his girl­friend Win­nie there when they were sup­posed to be at the movies. We tried to imag­ine that. All alone with Win­nie Park­er, blond, busty Win­nie Park­er, in a room with a bed, hid­den from all eyes. We tried to pic­ture Win­nie naked but our imag­i­na­tions were weak. We vowed to go back and pil­fer one of the magazines.

It was about this time, that Mr. McPher­son, a fire­man and drunk­ard, crashed his car into the fire hydrant in front of his home on Ken­neth, at one a.m., leapt from the car and stum­bled into his house, his shirt-tails fly­ing, his eyes wide, his face con­tort­ed in terror.

It wasn’t booze that sent him into that fire­plug and sprawl­ing across his lawn. He says he seen some­thing,” Dan­ny Water­meier said. “He said it was a monster.”

The sto­ry from Mr. McPher­son, as clar­i­fied lat­er, went like this:

He had pulled the late shift, along with Curt Bran­son, who lived in Fra­zier. Curt was sleep­ing and Mr. McPher­son was bid­ing his time, watch­ing the Late Late Movie, Red Riv­er. The fire­house dog, a Dal­ma­t­ian mix because they couldn’t afford a pure breed, was in anoth­er room and, at some point, McPher­son thought he heard the dog grum­bling in his sleep. A while lat­er the grum­bling turned to a whine and then a quick, loud, des­per­ate yelp. At this point McPher­son hur­ried into the adja­cent room but the dog was nowhere to be seen. The door at the south end of the room was open and the night air, with a bit of a nip to it, had entered the fire­house. “Ducky,” McPher­son called. “Ducky, come here boy.”

McPher­son thought he heard some light scuf­fling sounds out­side the door and made his way through it. There he saw, by a dump­ster, a side-view of a hor­rif­ic fig­ure, a good thir­teen feet high, with a body seem­ing­ly bent and mis­shapen, and a face like an elon­gat­ed demon’s. Its col­or­less hair was lank and sparse, its sick­ly gray skin mot­tled. It turned when it sensed the fireman’s approach and McPher­son saw, for the first time, that the beast was hold­ing the dead body of the fire­house dog. The dog was half-eat­en and the giant’s face was smeared with blood. Instead of flee­ing the crea­ture made a hiss­ing sound, dropped the dog and turned to face the fire­man. He didn’t approach but he didn’t flee. Instead he stood and stared, his gore-fouled mouth half-open, rasp­ing, like the mouth of an asthmatic.

McPher­son backed away through the door­way. It didn’t occur to him to wake Curt Bran­son. Instead he exit­ed through anoth­er door and jumped into his car, dri­ving like a mad­man until com­ing to a halt at the fire­plug in front of his home. Lat­er, we found out that Mr. Bran­son had slept through the whole affair. McPher­son stayed up all night, fright­en­ing his wife, who, for the first time in their mar­riage, asked her hus­band to have a belt of whiskey.

I tell you I was as sober as a judge,” Mr. McPher­son told Mr. Yates. His instincts, like ours, took him to the ex-sheriff’s house the next morn­ing. Mr. Yates had called my par­ents and asked if I could join them at his house. This is how I came to hear the fireman’s story.

From here the sight­ings increased in fre­quen­cy, some born of atten­tion-seek­ing, some seem­ing­ly gen­uine. Old Man Yates called the cur­rent sher­iff, Jock Whitak­er. Mr. Whitak­er was a hand­some man of thir­ty-five. His hair was pre­ma­ture­ly gray, but his face was as smooth as a child’s, and his gen­er­al appear­ance one of vital­i­ty and good humor.

Jesus, Sher­iff Yates,” he said, after lis­ten­ing to the tales the first time. “This seems, well, high­ly improb­a­ble. Perhaps—“

But he had no per­haps. And, as more sto­ries start­ed com­ing in, he was forced to form a task force to try to get a han­dle on what was hap­pen­ing. What was happening?

Among my peers I was now some­thing of an author­i­ty and I for­give myself, at this remove, for my swollen head. I admit I talked big.

The Leathers lost their cat. Two dogs, pit bulls, on Scheibler. Ken Wis­ter lost his entire brood of hens. Rab­bits, squir­rels, even bats, were found gnawed. The pet pop­u­la­tion was dwin­dling and there were more noc­tur­nal sight­ings. Guns began to pop up in many hands. Eddie’s father thought he caught the ghoul in his shoul­der with his 30–06, as it loped away, in the fields near Sum­mer Avenue, to the south. Eddie’s father said that it moved awk­ward­ly but faster than one would think it capa­ble of.

Jer­ry Moll’s sto­ry changed the shape of the leg­end: he said he saw the thing one moon­less night as it slipped into a sew­er hole. Mr. Moll worked with my father at Har­vester. He retrieved his pis­tol and a flash­light and went after it. He found it a few blocks over. It was attempt­ing to slink its enor­mous length upward through a grate. Mr. Moll fum­bled with his pis­tol and flash­light, chang­ing hands and then get­ting off a wild shot that ric­o­cheted around the con­crete pipe. The thing dropped and turned toward him. This time, instead of its pas­sive stance afore­men­tioned, it ran, hunched over, straight at Moll with great, scam­per­ing speed. Jer­ry raised his pis­tol and shot it direct­ly into the thing’s abdomen just as he was struck across the face with one skele­tal, long-fin­gered hand. Then it turned and ran, hold­ing a hand over its mid­sec­tion. “It felt like being hit by a hot rake,” Moll said, and his scarred face fright­ened us all for some time afterward.

Then the unthink­able hap­pened. Kathy Hol­lan­der, age 11, was found in Blue­field Woods. She was blood­ied and naked, though the police said they were unsure about sex­u­al pen­e­tra­tion. Her body bore marks of rough han­dling but had not ‘been chewed at,’ accord­ing to Sher­iff Whitak­er. We were all sick. My group of friends stopped get­ting togeth­er for a while. Sud­den­ly, Gun­smoke, Man­nix, Wild Wild West, Man from UNCLE, and The Rat Patrol, all seemed more impor­tant than wan­der­ing about talk­ing about girls. Or monsters.

And that was the last we heard of the ghoul. There were still some sight­ings com­ing in but Sher­iff Whitak­er said they were untrust­wor­thy and, after a few months, talk about the thing died away. Kathy Hollander’s death was un-offi­cial­ly list­ed as the one human death from the ghoul’s unlike­ly appear­ance. One the­o­ry I heard, which makes sense to me, is that the poor girl’s death had noth­ing to do with the ghoul, but the inten­si­fied night­time hunts, her death engen­dered, forced the crea­ture to go under­ground, or to go else­where. If so, no one will ever be charged with her murder.

The ghoul had gone as abrupt­ly as it had come.

I tell you this here, forty years lat­er, so that you will under­stand what is hap­pen­ing now. Its reap­pear­ance sur­prised even me; my mem­o­ry of the first vis­it was still ripe in my mind, though it often seemed like a bad dream I had had as a child and out­grown. Again the ear­ly reports were all from ado­les­cents. Per­haps the young have more sen­si­tive anten­nae, or per­haps they have not yet learned to tune out the improbable.

Most of the adults from that first time have passed away. Raleigh was incor­po­rat­ed into the city of Mem­phis in 1974. Sher­iff Whitak­er was killed on a rou­tine traf­fic check by a gun-nut motorist. Kathy Hollander’s par­ents moved to North Car­oli­na. McPher­son, the fire­man, was relieved of duty and died by his own hand in 1978, leav­ing behind a wife and wall-eyed daugh­ter. I believe Jer­ry Moll is still alive but I can’t say for sure. Most of my peers have scat­tered to the four winds. My broth­er, whom I looked up to in my youth as if he were a Colos­sus, moved to Maine. We are estranged now, by his choice. I stayed in Raleigh and mar­ried my wife, Faith, in 1985. By coin­ci­dence, she is Shelly Elliot’s cousin. We have two chil­dren, Chet and Phil, ages 5 and 7. They are now as afraid as we were back then. They crawl into our bed at night and want me to reas­sure them that there is no such thing as a 12 or 13-foot tall ghoul.

This I tell them. There is no such thing.

meslerCOREY MESLER has been pub­lished in numer­ous antholo­gies and jour­nals includ­ing Poet­ry, Gar­goyle, Five Points, Good Poems Amer­i­can Places, and Esquire/Narrative. He has pub­lished 8 nov­els, 4 short sto­ry col­lec­tions, and 5 full-length poet­ry col­lec­tions. His new nov­el, Mem­phis Movie, is from Coun­ter­point Press. He’s been nom­i­nat­ed for the Push­cart many times, and 2 of his poems were cho­sen for Gar­ri­son Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. With his wife he runs a 145 year-old book­store in Mem­phis. He can be found at https://​coreymesler​.word​press​.com.

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