Old Man Cook
My friends and I took off on one of our missions. I was twelve, and the woods and fields behind our house provided excitement for boys our age. We entered the trees at the top of a deep ravine and crept down the side, using branches for hand-holds and rocks as stepping stones.
A small creek ran through the valley at the bottom, and we stopped to roll up our pants and wade in the water, searching for crayfish. A kid had to be careful because the stones in the bottom were moss-covered and slippery.
We didn’t find any crabs, so we grew bored and decided to climb the other side of the gully. We went up the same way we came down, grasping smaller trees and shrubs and using jutting rocks for leverage. It was a warm day, and we flopped on the grass when we reached the top.
We’d been in these woods many times, so we knew exactly where we were. A small concrete road ran about fifty yards from out landing spot. There was a farm across the road where we often went to chase cows and chickens (we were stupid kids and didn’t think about how much we upset the animals).
The barn was usually locked, but today, we could see the wide-open main door. It made me skeptical of going in since it might mean someone waited for us. On the other hand, if it were a trap, the excitement of escape would be fun. No chance Old Man Cook could catch us if we ran for the woods.
I led the other boys single file to the barn door. I stuck my head around the corner to see if anyone waited. Nothing. I went in farther, the gang still on my heels. Just then, a weird creaking noise startled me. I looked around and saw nothing. Then I looked up.
Feet swayed not far over my head. The creaking noise came from a body that hung by a rope from a beam high in the roof. A dead body—or so I thought. I stepped back to get a view of the face. Old Man Cook. It was him. I tore out of there like the hounds of the Dog Queen were chasing me. The other kids followed, nearly knocking me over in their haste to escape.
We ran all the way to the center of town. I entered the grocery store and stopped, bent over, my hands on my knees, trying to catch my breath.
“Mr. Clark,” I said, gasping. “Mr. Clark. Come quick. Old Man Cook.”
After I quieted down, I told him about our discovery. I lied a bit since I didn’t want him to know we’d gone there to chase cows.
He was on the phone in less than a second, calling Jumbo, our local policeman.
We ran back the way we’d come. The excitement of seeing the police discover the body would be extreme, and we might be called as witnesses. By far, the biggest news to hit our little town in years.
Jumbo’s cruiser already sat in front of the open barn door. We ran up shouting.
“You kids are in big trouble.” Jumbo said, walking down the driveway.
“We didn’t do it,” I shouted, all my friends echoing what I said.
“You filed a false police report,” Jumbo said. “I’ve got a good mind to arrest the lot of you, but I’ll speak first to your folks. He stomped over to the police car. “Don’t ever waste my time again,” he said through the open window. “Go home and behave yourselves.”
We stood there, dumbfounded. I crept toward the yawning black barn door and peeked inside. No body. No Old Man Cook. I looked around, expecting him to fall on me or something creepy. I had not imagined it, nor had my friends.
We talked about it all summer and came to the conclusion that we had suffered from mass hysteria. I had ‘seen’ the body and convinced the others. It seemed logical.
Autumn came and we went back to school. Some kids teased us because they’d heard the story. I punched one particularly obnoxious little fart in the eye and got two day’s suspension. That was okay with me since I always got straight A’s on my report card.
The night before Halloween was ‘Beggars’ Night” in our town. All the kids dressed in costumes and went door-to-door collecting candy and cookies that we had to throw away in case they contained razor blades. I always suspected old Mrs. Pringle down the block of being a serial killer (just kidding).
I dressed in the same thing I’d worn almost every Halloween—a tramp outfit. Black charcoal on my face for a beard and mustache and baggy overalls with a torn shirt. Not exactly inspired.
The usual gang walked down the darkened sidewalk. We were the last ones out on this particular night and looking for an outhouse to turn over. When we passed by the deserted old schoolhouse that sat just up the street from my house, I heard a noise. A creaking.
I stopped and I told the others to hush up. Now, we all heard it. I turned on my flashlight and scanned the bushes and trees.
“Up there,” Billy, one of my friends, shouted and pointed to the sky.
I turned my beam upwards toward the steeple that crowned the old school. Something moved, swaying back and forth. I shot the light higher.
“Old Man Cook,” I said in a strangled voice. The flashlight shone squarely on the face of the man we’d seen hanging in the barn that summer.
“Run,” Billy shouted, and we took off like bats out of hell.
“Did you guys see what I saw?” I said.
Everyone nodded, fear etched across their faces.
“We can’t tell Jumbo. He’ll think we’re crazy, but I say we have to climb up there in the daylight and check it out.”
This time, everyone shook their heads.
“Not me,” Billy said. You go if you want, but I ain’t goin’ near that zombie creep.
I guess it sounded like a bad idea to me, too, because the next day, I walked past the building on my way to school and didn’t even look up. I felt a shiver move from my tailbone to my shoulders and knew he was watching me. I started walking faster, then faster and faster until I ran all the way to classes. No way was Old Man Cook going to catch me.
Years later, the rumor about the body hanging in the steeple had reached many people in town, and many dark nights, you might see flashlights pointing to the sky and hear a scream. Me? I never went back. I’d seen the real thing that day in the barn—bulging eyes and tongue hanging out. I didn’t need to be reminded. I did take my children and grandchildren whenever we were in town, but while they looked at the sight, I kept my eyes fastened on the ground. Sometimes, deep in the night, I dream about Old Man Cook and see him walking toward me, arms outstretched as if beckoning. But I wake up, and he is gone. That’s good, because I never want to see him again.