Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Short Story: The Not-So-Brilliant Short Cut

Graphic artwork and story by Patricia Schuyler

Walking briskly with her arms swinging at her sides, Julie tried desperately to keep her fear at bay. Why, oh, why had she stayed so late? Her simple, white tennis shoes cut through the thin mist swirling over the concrete path that went through Clydesdale Cemetery. She paused and shivered, taking furtive glances around her.

She’d lived in Clydesdale all her life and not once had she ever considered stepping foot in the old graveyard after dark. Some of the boys in town dared each other to do it from time to time, but Julie had always thought that they were stupid. Tonight though, she had no choice as she was thirty minutes past her curfew already.

Julie’s dad had talked with her just yesterday about being on time, and she’d promised to try harder. Her mom had sat beside him, wearing her peach house robe and listening quietly until he was finished with his lecture. She’d gazed at Julie then with her big, caring eyes and said softly, “I get so worried when you’re still out after dark. And when you are late, it’s even worse.”

A part of Julie had resisted both her dad’s firm words and her mom’s loving ones. She was sixteen now and not a baby, but she knew that her parents loved her and she was glad to see their relief when she didn’t argue or complain about the new curfew rule.

She’d lost track of the time again while hanging out at Sandra’s house. Sandra was the new girl in town, and Julie’s parents had encouraged her to make friends with her. The Capshaw’s house was on the other side of town, and she’d spent the last month going over there after school almost every day. Sandra had her own computer and a ton of neat games. They had been playing with Sims when she’d glanced over at the clock on the wall.

“Oh, no!” She’d jumped up and grabbed her backpack. “I’ve got to go. I’m sorry, Sandra, but if I don’t hurry, I’m going to be in so much trouble!”

She was so late and she knew that the old cemetery was a short cut. It would take twenty minutes to go around it, but only five to go through it. With her mind made up, she’d stepped between the sagging iron gates that never closed properly and began walking.

The new cemetery at the other end of town had just one big statue near the entrance and a grand mausoleum in the very back. A broad lawn of freshly mowed grass stretched out as far as the eye could see, with young trees planted here and there. All the graves were marked with flat little ground plaques.

There was no room in this cemetery for new graves, and the big monuments and tombstones were very creepy. Some of the gray and brown headstones that crowded the ground were so old that they leaned to the left or right. The taller ones had stone crosses on top, reaching for the dark sky. The big, leafy trees stood tall and imposing, having become overgrown in neglect. Their huge trunks obstructed her view of the grounds around her, and the hair rose on the back of her neck as she thought of all the things that might be lurking behind them.

Taking a deep breath, Julie drew in the damp, earthy smell permeating the air around her and eyed the gray headstone that was set really close to the path up ahead. It reminded her of the Haunted Mansion at Disney World. Last summer, the ghoulish characters popping up behind the headstones had made her jump and laugh. Julie slowed her step and edged as far away from it on the path as possible.

She glanced around nervously and spotted the small gap in the wooden fence that doubled as an exit and sighed in relief. Not far to go now. Hearing leaves rustle behind her, she took one step then hesitated before resuming her walk, quickening her pace. She was just telling herself that she only had a few more steps to go before she would be out of the eerie place, when more leaves rustled behind her.

Oh, gosh, is someone following me?

Julie was suddenly wishing she’d really thought this not-so-brilliant idea for a shortcut through. She could have just called her mom from Sandra’s house, apologized for being late and asked for a ride home. But when she’d seen what time it was, all that she could think about was getting home as fast as she could. What use was a shortcut if she ended up dead and never got home?

The sound of metal scraping against the rough concrete wrenched through the air. Panic rose up from her stomach and squeezed at her throat. She desperately wanted to run, but her feet wouldn’t listen and she stood frozen on the path. An owl hooted. Clasping both hands over her mouth, she stifled a scream and squeezed her eyes shut.

“Hey, you!” a deep raspy voice rang out in the stillness.

Julie’s eyes went wide at the sight of a man in dirty overalls and a black t-shirt coming down the path at her with a shovel in his hand.

“You can’t be in here.”

She put her hands to her cheeks when the heat of embarrassment came flushing over her face. It was just old Mel, the caretaker.

“I’m sorry,” she told him while backing up. “I’ll go now.”

She turned and ran the last few feet before ducking down and squeezing through the hole in the wooden fence. She jogged lightly down the sidewalk and was just coming to the end of the street when she let out a scream as a figure came around the corner and right into her path.

“Hey, watch it!” a scantily clad women said, slurring her words. The women pushed Julie to the side and walked by her on shaky legs.

As soon as her heart dislodged from her throat and her breathing slowed to normal, she walked briskly down the block and stopped at the next street corner to lean against a signpost. A few cars were parked at the well-lit convenience store across the street, and a couple of the young deadbeats were hanging out by the payphone with their brown bag covered bottles. She knew most of them, because they were all dropouts from her high school.

She stood tall, took a deep, calming breath and walked across the street. She giggled uncontrollably and the older boys watched her curiously. She didn’t care. She was safe and that was all that mattered. Julie Downs had crossed the old Clydesdale Cemetery at night. She couldn’t wait to tell Sandra about this. No one would believe her, especially not the boys. She giggled again.

Julie would have to wait three days before she could tell her friends. When she’d gotten home, her parents had been none too happy. They’d calmly informed her that she was grounded for the entire weekend. No phone, no TV, and no going out of the house. She took it quite well, knowing that she deserved it and feeling as if she’d gotten off lightly with only one weekend of punishment. It was settled in her mind that she would never be late again.

She spent the weekend reading a scary novel that her dad had tucked away on a bookshelf. Julie held the large hardback book up on her lap, while she sat up on her bed and leaned against the headboard. Shivering in delight as she turned each page, the weekend passed quickly for her.

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