A Glutton for Punishment
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 by Frank Shortt
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A small, impressionable boy, probably not even ten, went alone on a dark, deserted path from Grandma’s home to his own home. He carried no flashlight! His imagination soared as the moon cast shadows through the limbs of trees. He imagined he heard footsteps before him and behind him. He was remembering what his uncles had told him as he left the safety of Grandma’s house,

“Watch out for them haints out thar, ef one grabs ye, holler real loud and we’ll try to rescue ye ‘fore he carries you off to his dark cave on the hillsides of old Grassy Creek! Watch out for that tribe o’ gnomes who built that bridge across the creek below the cemetery. We hear they air lookin’ fur slaves to build another bridge lower down so they can come acrost at night and wreak havoc with them farmers down at Grimsleyville. Somebody said they had killed Ord Wade’s horse just to hear him scream!”

Freddie thought of this and many other things he had been told this night. It is a good thing he knew the pathway by heart and could navigate his way homeward. One fault that accompanies all youth; they are very impressionable.

Somehow his uncles took joy in scaring the daylights out of this boy Freddie, probably because he was small for his age and skinny as a fence rail. Mostly, Freddie was easygoing and carefree and had gray-blue eyes that seemed to reflect whatever he was wearing, which was usually bibbed overalls from Sears and Roebucks. Summers he always went barefoot, the exception being, when he went to church with his parents, then he wore his brown brogans. It was not unusual for Freddy to have a rag tied around one of his stumped toes torn from an old leftover baby diaper. Gray, protruding rocks are hard to see, especially at night.

As Freddie made his way along the lonely pathway, a hoot owl began his mournful notes. To Freddie this was a demon, talked about by the local minister during last Sunday’s gathering. The cry of a night bird, probably a barn owl, startled Freddie out of his wits. He imagined it to be the troll his uncles had just recently told him about that lived in Freddie’s favorite Beechnut tree. Every tree root, felt under his bare feet, became boa constrictors ready to swallow him because he had disturbed their sleep. The smaller roots were copperheads ready to strike his dirty feet. “What am I gonna do? Freddie pondered.

Why does a child crave to be scared? The answer is simple. It is the excitement, rather than fear that makes children crave dangerous appearing situations. Deep down inside they know there is no real danger, like going on a terrifying carnival ride, the thrill is temporary and the child knows that, unless something goes wrong with the ride, the excitement will be over soon. The only danger posed by going to a scary movie is that the child might have nightmares afterwards.

Freddie was not thinking of past times he had been scared. He only thought of the stories his uncles had told him this very night. Every stump along the trail became the giant black bear that he was told roamed the Buchanan hills at night looking for human prey. Every tree became a tall giant who lived upon Osborne Mountain but came down at night to suck up water from Grassy Creek, as well as, all the fish left in the creek, unless he could find a fresh young sapling of a boy to sate his appetite. This is probably why when Freddie went fishing there was nothing but horny heads to show for his efforts. Giant arms sought to snatch Freddie up as low-slung limbs wielded solid, scathing blows. “This is worse than that movie I saw last week, “It Came From Outer Space!” Freddie thought. He had, in fact, gone to see the movie as chaperone for his older sister and her boyfriend. Parents required this in the early fifties.

Freddie walked gingerly as he passed the animal graveyard, where many funerals had been preached over pets that his family had lost. He whistled softly as he imagined them rising up to wreak havoc on the only victim within their reach. “Stay away from me!” he warned. Then Freddie remembered that he had been required to shoot Blackie, his dog, because the family could no longer afford to feed him. Freddie could almost feel the hot breath of Blackie nipping at his heels as Blackie had risen up out of his moldy grave. This caused great panic to the boy causing him to run even faster, until……!

As Freddie approached the barn, where he and his brothers and sisters played on rainy days, ethereal darkness yawned from the hay storage attic where now only ghosts and goblins resided. He dreaded having to pass the blaring, open doorway. He just knew he would be pulled inside and devoured just like his uncles had predicted.

By the time Freddie reached the safety of home he was even dodging his own shadow cast by the paling moon. He climbed into bed after hastily swabbing his dirty feet, giving them a lick and a promise, with a wet washcloth left by his mother for that purpose. He snuggled up next to his brother who became his savior and protector.

Suddenly, in the middle of the night, Freddie was awakened by his brother who was moaning, “Help, I’m up in the air and can’t get down! Help, I’m up in the air and can’t get down!” Freddie’s mother, hearing the calls for help, being a dutiful mother, came running into the room and pulled the light chain. Just as the light came on his brother cried, “I’m down now!” After some jostling around, getting into a restful position once again, the boys slept until morning light.

Next day brought a welcoming respite from the occurrences of the previous day. After his evening chores were all finished, Freddie made his way to Grandma’s house, just like the swallows of Capistrano, to be frightened out of ten more years of growth by his unthinking uncles.