Maxwell Hearns, the eleven-year-old son of Ed Hearns, sat outside of the funeral home. It was late March and the last bits of winter snow had finally turned to mud. The roads were wet with water and the whole world looked brown and dirty. Maxwell, whose black pants became coated with the yellowish grime of the funeral home’s steps as soon as he sat down, was crying into his upturned hands. Nobody was around except for his father, who initially hung back near the front door. After privately debating whether he should interrupt, Ed went over to his son and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder.

Ed sighed first, then opened his mouth.

“Want to hear what happened to me when I was your age?”

Maxwell didn’t say “yes” or “no” or do anything except for shake with grief. Ed continued on anyway.

“It was the best and worst year I ever had. I used to just call it the ‘The Time’ whenever I thought about it, which used to be a lot. Now that Mom’s gone and you’re just a few years away from high school, I’ll probably think about it more.”

Ed reminisced haltingly. This was not because his memory was disastrously rough or shoddy in some patches. Rather, Ed told his story with hesitating steps because people at his office called him “Ghoul.” They called him Ghoul because Ed never knew a sunny day that he couldn’t ruin. A perpetual worrywart and a cynical working stiff who never got over his failed attempt at being a professional writer, Ed saw the world not in black and white, but black and blacker. Usually, he didn’t give a good damn if he spoiled other people’s Mondays, but he had enough of a heart to not want to further distress his son right after the wake. So he continued with the story, but told it slow and steady with hands firmly placed on his own knees.

“Where I grew up, there was this neighborhood below us that was full of mean kids. Really mean, like the type of kids who would set houses on fire during the last day of school or throw rocks through a family’s windows. Well, in our neighborhood, there was this kid named Ethan.

“Ethan was a football player, so he was big, tall, and strong. Nobody messed with Ethan, but then again nobody wanted to. Ethan was everyone’s favorite, and even the grown-ups liked him. For a while, I looked up to Ethan, and when I was eleven, Ethan and I used to ride our bikes all over the town until dark. People didn’t worry so much about what kids did during the day back then, so me and Ethan and our friends lived almost independently between the hours of eight and eight. Summers were the best.”

Ed’s voice trailed off as he remembered those summers so many years ago. The taste of ice cream from the ice cream man’s truck. The feel of sand as your best friend buried you. The sound of cicadas. Ed had lived through many summers since then, but had never savored them like he had when he was eleven. Just thinking about it all made him want to sleep and dream forever.

“Anyway, so Ethan was the type of kid who stood up for things. You know, like when a bully picks on a small kid with glasses, or when some kid switches or steals mail from out of mailboxes. Ethan was like that: a genuinely good person. Ethan was the first kid in our neighborhood to say enough was enough, so he challenged the kids from the other neighborhood to a fight. They agreed and we all decided to do it on Halloween.

“For a while, none of us knew how serious the fight was going to be. We originally thought if enough of us showed up, then we might be able to scare the other kids away. Then, when Tommy Wiseman found out at school that about thirty kids were coming from the other neighborhood, we realized that we had to fight.

“I had never been in a fight, or at least a real fight at that point. Me and your uncle Josh used to wrestle a lot and horse around, but even when it got heated, we never really tried to hurt each other. This neighborhood versus neighborhood fight was more like a battle, and I was scared for weeks. I even told Ethan about how scared I was, but he calmed me down by promising that he would protect me. I believed him too, because everyone believed Ethan.

“A day before the fight, Tommy Wiseman heard a rumor in school that the kids from the other neighborhood were planning on bringing weapons. We didn’t know if it was true or not, and a lot of us distrusted Tommy Wiseman because he used to lie all the time about winning one-on-one basketball games or having girlfriends, but Ethan decided that it was smart to bring weapons just in case.

“I’m not going to lie: I wanted to back out right then. Throwing punches was one thing, but dodging baseball bats or even knives was something else entirely. But again, Ethan assured me that everything was going to be okay. Besides, if I backed out at that point, everyone would’ve called me a chicken and I would’ve gone through middle and high school with the big C for ‘coward’ on my chest.

“So I went into your grandpa’s garage the afternoon of the fight and picked out a steel shovel because I knew it would hurt someone if I had to use it. Then, when the streetlights came on, I snuck out of my bedroom window and met Ethan and the other kids right in front of Mr. White’s yard. From there, we all walked together to the meeting place, which was a clearing in the woods right behind the Hart house on Locust Avenue. It was just us for an hour, then we started hearing the other kids coming up the hill. They made a lot of noise and called us some really dirty names. We yelled back and taunted them too. I called them all ‘assholes’ and was real proud of myself because I sounded just like Grandpa.

“For the first few seconds, I still didn’t think it was going to happen. Then, when Steven Kritzer got hit in the nose with a rock, we all just reacted, you know? I remember Ethan used a dog chain to smack some kid in his ugly face, and it drew blood. Even Tommy Wiseman, who brought a steel chair like he was Hulk Hogan or something, got a chance to wallop someone. Not me: I clinched up, got scared. I’ve never shaken that bad feeling ever. I could barely hold the shovel, so I just tried to remain hidden among the larger bodies on our side. I tried to blend in like camouflage so the real killers couldn’t see just how terrified I was.

“That’s how the whole fight was for me until the very end. Right before the neighborhood parents came and right before the ambulances showed up (one of the other kids broke his collar bone after trying to block Alex Mortimer’s lacrosse stick), I detached myself from the gang of older boys who were unintentionally protecting me by successfully beating the snot out of younger and smaller boys. I weaved and wormed because doubt was gnawing at me. As much as getting in a real fight scared me, I didn’t want to be the only kid in the whole neighborhood who had done nothing. I had to have a story about hitting some no-name kid from the hated neighborhood below us. I didn’t want to face a day in school where the other boys would talk quietly with me in the room about how I hadn’t done my part during an all-important battle. Most of all, I didn’t want to let Ethan down after he had drawn first blood for our side: the winning side.

“When I left relative safety, it was because I saw one of their kids down. He was grabbing his ankle and calling it a sprain. Nobody was helping him at all, and his closest ally was then being pummeled by some football player who had him in a tight headlock. He was—I hate to say it now—defenseless, hurt, and completely vulnerable to anything. I knew I couldn’t lose; I knew either way I was going to be the one to walk away without any damage. So, with the kid looking right at me with “Please help” eyes, I took your grandpa’s shovel and socked him in the chest.

“The wind went right out of him. His hands, which had been holding his ankle right before, started to clutch his stomach. I could see his muscles contract underneath his t-shirt. His breathing became a wheezing machine gun of air shot out in short bursts. He started to cry, which for some reason or another set me over the edge. I jumped on him, put my knees on his shoulders, and used my forearms and elbows on his cheeks and forehead. I didn’t count, but I couldn’t have hit him more than four times. I didn’t even draw blood, but it was enough to make me proud. It was Ethan who pulled me to my feet when he saw a bunch of flashlights coming our way.

“Afterwards, we never had trouble with the other neighborhood again. When there were fights, they remained in-house. During all other occasions, we talked about what we had done. We treated each other like veterans of some foreign war, and after we were all grounded, we began to feel more and more like some band of dirty sumbitches who had pulled off some kind of massacre.

“Of course, the more the story got told, the crazier it got. Tommy Wiseman tried to convince people that some kid had died, while other boys were content to pump up their own figures for the sake of their reputations. By the next summer, half the neighborhood had fought the battle single-handedly.

“For my part, I only embellished a little bit, or that’s at least the lie I’ve been holding on to for over two decades. You see, when I used to tell this story, the other kid could fight back. He was standing tall instead of on the ground with an injury. In some versions I gave the kid credit and said that he had punched me a couple of times before I took him out. In others, I just simply mauled him with superior strength and skill.

“Although my memory isn’t what it used to be, I’m pretty sure the second version is the one I was feeding to your cousin Sam one day in August. It was near sunset I remember, and we were both playing basketball outside. Your grandpa had bought a portable hoop for me, and since so few cars ever came into our area, we tended to play pickup games on the street. Sam, who was living in Clarksburg back in those days, was over for a weekend visit because his mom was away on business. Sam hardly ever came over, so your grandma made a big deal out of it. We weren’t allowed in the house all day because she had to make sure the place was clean enough for just little old Sam.

“We didn’t mind that because the summer was almost over and we wanted to spend what little time we had left outside. That game of basketball came after hours and hours of random activities, from bike races to a game of hide and go seek with cap guns. By the way, one of the main reasons why your old man can’t hear so well is because Sam “tagged” me that day by shooting off a couple of rounds directly into my ear. I try to remind him of that when I see him and you should too. It’ll be our little game, okay?

“While Sam and I played basketball, he begged me to tell him about what really happened during the Halloween Brawl. That’s what other kids in the area called it: the Halloween Brawl. To them it was already a myth or an urban legend, and I helped the story to get bigger by outright lying to Sam. I’m sure I told him some whoppers.

“The problem was that we both got so into the story that we didn’t see the car coming. It was moving slow and it wasn’t coming towards us. Its radio was off, and even though it was getting dark, its lights were off. We probably would’ve never known it was there if it hadn’t picked up Gracie White, who was eight and lived in front of our old house. She used to play with her dolls in her family’s driveway. We never talked to her because she was too young and we all thought she was a little weird. After all, who plays with dolls in their own driveway?

“But I guess the guy in the car knew her because I remember hearing her talk to him. She didn’t sound scared, and nobody who was there would ever say that she had been forced into accepting the ride. She volunteered to go with the man, whose voice I heard but can’t remember. God, how I wish she hadn’t done that. She should’ve kicked and screamed and bitten the bastard, but she didn’t. She went softly and meekly. And when they found her, she….”

Ed stopped because he knew he was alone. At some point, Maxwell had gone back inside. Realizing that he had been talking to himself for some unaccountable length of time, Ed whispered the conclusion to himself. Once finished, Ed stood up and eyed his surroundings. When he found no one watching him or paying attention, he punched himself hard in the stomach.


This is an excerpt from Benjamin Welton’s new anthology, Sick Inside the Citadel. You can purchase the book from Terror House Press here.