Graveyard at the Red Clay Creek Church
By Jake Mosberg
By Jake Mosberg
1. In 1956
“Billy’s father is the devil,” she once heard, though actually Minister Thomas had said the old drunk has the devil. Why don’t they put him in jail, Willa thought, if he’s the devil?
The previous weekend, just at summer’s end, Billy and Willa kissed in the woods behind the church. After Sunday school, Billy had boasted of catching many frogs. When Willa squirmed, Billy had vowed to launch a frog in amongst her brown curls. Shrieking, Willa fled, but she ran straight for the Red Clay Creek where the frogs gathered to sing the summer eve into night, and the night into midnight, and midnight into morning.
But at the creek Billy ceased his taunt. He caught up to Willa, took her hand, and stepped closer. While holding her hand, Billy balanced on a smooth, wide creek stone.
“You believe in God?” He teetered, then hopped off the stone.
“Reverend Green says God’s as real as the trees, the rain, the seasons, and the people.”
Billy nodded and clicked his tongue on the roof of his mouth, pondering. “Then he’s as real as the frogs.”
They searched for evidence, but the muddy banks were empty of frogs. They roosted somewhere in the dark water, invisible.
“I’m not supposed to be in these woods,” Willa said.
But Billy only stepped closer and squeezed her hand, signaling to her that she was safe with him, beyond danger and beyond reproach. Soon, he kissed her. His lips were dry from summer. It was a single pluck, and he withdrew quickly as one might excise a dandelion from spring fields.
On the first day back to school, Billy sported a black eye. Willa asked what happened. Billy said he had fought off many robbers who were after his secret fortune of pirate treasures. Willa cried because she knew he was lying to her. That was the last day that Billy came to school.
Willa returned to the edge of the woods every night, sneaking out after she finished homework and chores in order to search for Billy. On the fourth night, she found him. By then, the frogs were singing inside the woods. She asked him what he was doing, why he hadn’t come to school.
“I ran away,” he explained.
“Why don’t you go back home?”
Willa pleaded with Billy to leave the woods, but he insisted that he had to remain hidden from the gang of robbers. She promised to bring him food, but insisted she would not go inside the woods where she was not allowed to play.
“Then meet me here in the graveyard,” he said.
For a week, Willa brought him food—bread, cookies, sweets, apples—lifted from her mother’s kitchen, and though she pulled off her heists, buzz over the missing boy covered the town. Minister Thomas went looking for Billy, but his father—the last to see him besides Willa—was a drunk and could not be relied on to account for the boy. Some townsfolk came to aid the search, but Billy’s family was not well liked. Rumors circled: what had the boy done or where had he got to?
On a Friday, Willa set out again. It had been 14 days, she counted, since their kiss. Perhaps, she thought, perhaps he will kiss me again tonight. Outside the house, before the daylight vanished, Willa had hid her Sunday dress. After sneaking out, she changed and ran to the graveyard, holding the bread in both hands, anxious to present herself on their fortnight anniversary.
But Billy did not show. So much she wanted to be like Billy, to brave the dark places where she should not be. The night air gave her a chill and her teeth chattered. For a time, she tried to distract her imagination by counting the stars.
Then a voice entered the graveyard. It was too deep for Billy, and too slurred for her father, but the voice was calling after someone hiding in the graveyard. She dropped the bread.
“Billy, I know you’re in here! Got the law bangin’ on my door. Best get, boy!”
A lantern appeared among the graves. It was Billy’s father come aware of the runaway’s hideout. Willa ducked behind a tall grave and closed her eyes, as if by not seeing the light herself, it would not catch her in the dark. In her mind, she saw his rocky fist gripping the lantern. So it was Billy’s father, the devil, who had marked his eye with a purple swell. Perhaps, she thought, perhaps I knew already. She clenched her eyes tighter with the devil’s voice shouting still, “Ain’t no use in hidin’!”
Just then, in the opposite direction of the lantern, she heard quick footsteps, then saw a silhouette fleeing. Its shadow moved once in the lantern light.
“I hear you runnin’!” the devil called.
Willa felt the lantern’s light on her back, but soon it passed beyond her, closer to the woods. The light followed the shadow, trying to capture it and make it whole. Just before the light and the shadow disappeared beyond the churchyard, she heard another shout. Then, in the woods, even their rustling quieted, and though her curls were safe from the creek frogs, her heart broke early.
2. The Creek Monster
Flashlights zipped around the graveyard—from across the street, it looked as if the dead were at disco. Within the stony field, screams and laughter mixed together while a September wind mastered the kids’ jubilee. Before the light gave out, they had played capture the flag, but in the dark, they took up those flashlights and chased each other among the graves. The boys howled like ghosts and wolves. They hid behind old and new stones, leaping out when the girls passed, grabbing at their bony shoulders, wrapping around their scrawny waists, or clipping their chicken legs. All the young shrieks blended together, each an equal shrill.
Soon, two of the boys grew tired of the aimless chase. One said to the other, “Wanna see the grave of a ghost?”
Peter, who was one year younger, followed Derrick to the back of the graveyard.
“How’d he become a ghost?” Peter asked.
“You know about the Creek Monster?”
“There is no Creek Monster.”
“Yes there is, dummy.” Derrick pointed to the woods. Their parents prohibited them, as did the parents of all the children, from wandering into the woods past the churchyard. They were unkempt, full of poisons and ticks and god-knows-what-else. Only the older, reckless neighborhood kids ventured there. “The Creek Monster is like Swamp Thing except he has ten heads and fangs. He carries a lantern so he can find his victims and eat them whole.”
“Ten heads. That’s stupid.”
“You won’t think it’s stupid if all the heads eat you.”
“Then what is he made outta?”
“Dead frogs, sewage, and tin cans.”
“What are his fangs made of?”
“He cuts them out of the tin cans and uses frog slime to stick them in his gums.” Derrick cocked his head back and made a motion meant to mimic how one might affix a tin-can fang to a frog-slime gum.
“How ya think the ghost became a ghost, stooooopid? He went near the creek at night when the Creek Monster was out. Everybody warned ‘im not to go, but he did it anyway.”
“Cause he wanted to be brave.”
Soon, Derrick stopped trudging and shined his light on a small grave. Peter read the name and date over and over and over.
William Daniel Vance
Peter counted the years of the boy’s life, then counted the years since his death, then whispered them: 14, 41. 14 was what he would be in 14 months. 41 gave him a chill; it was his street address.
“The Creek Monster.”
“There is no Creek Monster.”
“How do you think he died?” Suddenly, Derrick’s ears perked. “Hear that?”
Each boy leaned toward the forbidden woods, listening for the ghost.
Among the night’s noises, wherein it was said the wretched Creek Monster’s dead frog songs could be heard, a powerful gust blew over, and the boys shielded themselves, lest they tip over into the short, thick fescue. The dark oaks above Red Clay Creek, higher even than the church’s steeple, swayed and mewed. In the gust’s wake, they listened again. They listened for the monster or the ghost, but nothing sounded above the children, all ado over their nameless games invented in the moments they were played.