's 2016 Horror Write-off:


Submitted by Daniel Hale (email)

I didn't consciously make up the legend. It just pulled itself together from half-remembered ghost stories I read as a kid, and tidbits of history I'd picked up as a volunteer at the local museum, and the vague impressions and ideas left behind by a really bad waking nightmare. I know for a fact that none of it was true, because I spent a month looking in the public records after Jacob disappeared. It never happened anywhere outside my imagination.

           It came to me one day in class. I went to a secondary school for 'developmentally disabled' children, although most days I wasn't really sure why. I was quiet compared to the other kids, and usually better behaved. I was passably smart, with okay grades, and was probably something of a teacher's pet. My classmates' had wandering attention spans, and talked amongst themselves when tests were going on. It was unusual for a day to pass without at least one person throwing a tantrum, and sometimes, when things were so disruptive I couldn't concentrate, I'd be the one throwing it.

           Lessons had to be a little flexible, so sometimes we got to do some interesting things. One day in the fall our English teacher turned out the lights, played a CD of 'Dark and Stormy' noises, and with a flashlight under her face, asked for volunteers to tell campfire stories.

           I wasn't a talker, let alone a storyteller. But the idea for the legend had been in my mind for a while, so in a fit of daring I volunteered.

           I told the story, and told it badly. I choked trying to imitate Vincent Price, and stuttered and lost my place. I was pouring with sweat and tears of embarrassment. My hands shook holding the flashlight. I'm not sure what I'd said by the time I was done, and the applause was more out of relief that it was over than appreciation for my public speaking gifts.

           For the rest of the day I resolved never to speak to another person for as long as I lived, a resolution that lasted until I got on the bus home, when Jacob spoke to me.

           He wasn't one of the popular kids (developmentally disabled teenagers are still teenagers, and cliques are inevitable), but he had the easy confidence of one. He called himself a nerd, and he looked enough like the part. He had glasses, and front teeth that never quite seemed to fit in his mouth. He always had a book with him wherever he went, usually the kind of hefty science fiction novel that seemed nearer to a textbook than entertainment. Sometimes it'd be something with a title like The Spirit Spotter's Almanac, or On the Habits of Cryptids.

           We were fine with each other, in the way that social outcasts are. I left him alone, and expected the same treatment.

           "Where did you hear that story?"

           It took me a moment to realize he was talking to me. He sat in a seat behind me and across, his legs stretched over the aisle. He was staring at me with what he must of thought was an appraising look, but really only gave him a squint like his glasses were dirty.

"I just heard it somewhere."

           "It's real, right?" He had a nasally voice, which kind of spoiled the effect of seriousness he was trying to pull off. "I mean, it really happened?"

           As I said, it didn't, but I didn't feel like telling him that. It wasn't that I wanted him to like me, or that I was afraid of being caught in a lie. I wasn't feeling sufficiently devilish to pull some kind of prank. It just seemed easier to believe (or pretend to believe) that I had a secret that I could pass off without fear.

           I shrugged, and said, coolly: "So I've heard."

           He nodded, as if confirming what he already suspected. "And the graves?"

I invented on the spot. "They dug them up after they tore down the park. Not sure what they did with the rides and things after they dismantled them. There's a horse from a merry-go-round in the museum archives they keep locked in a closet. The curator told me it still makes music in the night." I kept going, carried away. "And there's kids who turn up walking in the halls that're, like, wearing clothes that are years out of date. They all look pale and dirty, but they only turn up on the security cameras and nobody can find them in person."

           He stared at me a little less seriously. "I'm not supposed to talk about it though," I added, lamely.

           "They were probably just trying to scare you. Full-body apparitions are incredibly rare, even in cases of traumatic death."

           "Oh, yeah?"

           "Yeah, and they probably wouldn't be in the museum anyway. Unless the spirits have some kind of sentimental attachment to an object, they'll almost always bind themselves to the site of their death."

           "What about their killer, though? Won't they want to follow them and get revenge for their death?"

           "Maybe," he said, doubtfully. "There's some accounts to suggest that, but they aren't very reliable. It didn't happen in this case, it sounds like."

           "No. Not that I know of."

It really was a painfully awkward and pathetic game we were playing, and I'm sure it was a game. I don't think Jacob seriously believed in ghosts, for all that he read about them. He wanted to be the Mysterious Man Who Knew Things, the brooding adventurer with a suitably vague and presumably checkered past, who casually spoke of the Things Man Was Not Meant to Know as if he'd been there, done that, and been printed on the t-shirt.

I'm being a wee bit hypocritical here, I know, because I wanted something similar. Take it from me, there's nobody more vane than a nerd.

           He didn't ask any more questions, just spent the rest of the journey staring out of his window, looking faraway and lost in thought. He didn't speak again until the bus came to my stop. "You can drive, right?"

           I told him I could.

           "Why don't you come over some time? We can talk some more about this. I can show you my equipment."

           The urge to make a dirty joke manifested and died in my throat. I said that sounded cool. He took something out of his pocket, and handed it to me.

           It was a card. Between his name and phone number it said:

Anom Phenomena

Media and Investigations

           "My brother made those out for me," he said, a little self-consciously. "It's still getting started."

           I wanted to ask him what was still getting started, but the bus driver called for me to get going.

           Jacob shouted out the window as the bus pulled away. "Friday night."

           I did know how to drive, but I didn't even have a learner's permit yet. My mom worked late, and had to sleep during the day, so she hadn't been able to work out a time to take me to get my temps. She trusted me to drive her car, on the grounds that nothing I could put it through would make it look any worse.

           It was a decade-old red caravan, although the red had mostly given over to rust. The front fender was held on by an elastic cord, and the tailpipe had a tendency to thump against the road whenever it hit a pothole. It was a wonder I'd never been pulled over for the plain risk of driving the old wreck. But I was careful to the point of paranoia behind the wheel, and mom didn't have problems with me going out once I'd dropped her off at work.

           Jacob's house was a small bricked place that was set at an intersection to 77. It looked rundown and abandoned in the dark, with grass and hedges that were badly in need of a trim, and a chain link fence. As I pulled in I saw Jacob sitting on the porch. He stood up as I got out, hands in his pockets in a pose of studied casualness.

           "My mom made pizza," he said. "I'll get it. You head out back to my office. It's in the shed."

           A security light kicked on as I went to the back yard. The door to the shed was open, and the light was on. It turned out to be Jacob's bedroom; a camp bed was tucked under the shelves in the corner. There was a handmade desk and a laptop computer, turned on to show a screensaver slideshow of spirit photography. Orbs hovered in a graveyard, a limb of ectoplasm pulled itself out of a medium's mouth, a priest's shadow on the wall took on shapes suggesting horns and multiple arms.

           There were his books on ghosts and UFOs and cryptozoology, crammed onto shelves that also looked to be handmade. A worktable held equipment of dials and needles, which I assumed were used to detect ghostly phenomenon. There was a rack of tapes, each labeled with the letters EVP, followed by a date. From the walls hung more exotic-looking pieces, crystals and charms attached by silver chains, and a pair of dowsing rods crossed over the door like swords in a coat of arms.

           Jacob found me staring at a crystal ball as he walked into the shed. "That one doesn't do anything. Not so far, anyway. I try to respect the methods that came before. It sounds weird, I know, but ancient peoples seemed to have more luck contacting spirits with their own tools than we do with our modern ones. That's what a lot of the experts say, anyway."

           The pizza tray was wrapped in tin foil. He also carried a liter bottle of cola and some paper plates under his arms. "Take a plate and a drink. We got a lot to talk about."

           Jacob, for lack of a better term, interrogated me for information as he plied me with homemade square pizza and warm soda. I'm not sure if he thought he was seeing how far I would keep things up, or trying to persuade himself there was something to my story. He asked me for precise dates and names, whether there'd been some public outcry or if the entire incident had been buried, whether any credible names had been involved in documenting the subsequent manifestations.

           Mostly I told him that I didn't know, or invented details that I was reasonably certain he couldn't check up on. I matched him for A-grade bullshitting ability, reasoning that I had the moral high ground. It wasn't as if I'd made the legend about me.

           To his credit, he kept himself from digging too deep. He was just taking in the details, absorbing the story, mentally fixing it and polishing it, till he could tell it himself. I finished off the pizza as he explained his idea.

           "They weren't great at record keeping back then," he told me. "It's understandable that a lot of details are fuzzy. The families probably got paid off, too, and then the whole thing would have gotten put in a file that was conveniently lost. But they couldn't have kept everyone from talking about it. If even an altered version of it comes out, the rest will too."

           Honestly, I think he was hoping to start a new craze. The Blair Witch Project hadn't yet gotten the ball rolling on found footage horror back then. YouTube was starting to fill up with professed 'firsthand evidence' videos of the paranormal, but its full potential hadn't been realized. Jacob was thinking of forums full of theories and debates, spreading his video every which way down the World Wide Web. He was thinking of fanart and memes before those terms were a thing. He wanted to franchise.

           I'm not sure if he thought much about the technical details. I don't know how computer savvy he was, or if he thought he could work out how to make a convincing video on his own. 'Convincing' isn't really the right word, I guess. It just needed to strike a chord.

           "Do you know how to use a camcorder? My mom has one we can borrow. We just have to find a place that looks right to hold an investigation."

           "What are we investigating?"

           "Nothing, really," he admitted. "We don't have the experience to launch a professional operation. The point is to give people something to talk about."

           What can I say? It sounded like fun. I could still get behind a round of make-believe, even if I had to act like it was the real thing.

           I'm probably not casting myself in the best light here. That's deliberate. Nobody thought twice to suggest I had something to do with Jacob's disappearance, but I only told them most of what happened. Even if nobody believes me, I have to get this down. I doubt they'll make any more of it all for knowing, but there's always the chance I'm wrong.

           Jacob didn't get back to me until the next weekend. I saw him at school, but whenever I tried to ask him what we were doing he'd just shrug and tell me he was looking into it. Then he'd take off before I could ask what 'it' was. I was beginning to think he'd given up on the idea and was trying to let me down gently. I wasn't too surprised, but I was a little disappointed.

           Then he texted me Friday night, at 11: FOUND A PLACE. COME OVER?

           I replied: GOTCHA.

           He was waiting for me outside his house again, but this time jumped into my mom's car before I could get out. He was wearing what qualified for him as a suit: black jacket with the top button undone and the collar flipped up, black jeans. I swear to god he even had black nail polish. I'm not sure which he was going for, Rod Sterling or Marylyn Manson.

           He handed me a paper printout of a map from his house to where we were going. The address was just a street across town. "Where are we going?"

           "Just head to Memorial Park. There's a parking lot outside you can use after dark." He looked at himself in the passenger mirror, fussing over his hair.

           "Where's the camcorder?"

           He stopped preening, clucked his tongue impatiently and jumped back out.

           I called after him. "Put your collar down!"

           I wouldn't say we ended up in the seedier part of town, because everything looks pretty seedy late at night. Having to walk through the park at that hour didn't help either. Jacob used a flashlight to read some more directions he'd written on the back of the map. I resisted the urge to take off at every late night jogger or snapped twig that went off as we passed.

           I don't have a good memory for directions. I remember the bike trail took us under that bridge on Link Way, then a right turn along a wall before the trail shot off at a right angle into the forested part of the park. That's all I remember before the way gets vague, and suddenly there was the entrance: a wrought iron archway standing in the pitch black woods. It was too dark to read the sign over the path, but I could see the shapes of metal letters.

           Jacob turned his camera on, showed me how to activate the night vision, and told me to keep it on him. Then he turned on his lapel mike, and told the story the way I'd tried to tell it.

           Calvin Megs was generous, Jacob said. He was wealthy, and he shared his wealth at every opportunity. He was the only son of a local pharmacist, a man who sadly died before he could perfect his new formula for cough medicine. Calvin sold his father's research, but the good he did with the money surely redeemed him a hundred times over.

He built properties for the poor, leased them on credit until his tenants could repay him. His house was always open to his neighbors. Every meal was a lavish potluck, seating the highest in the land to the lowliest ne'er-do-well. Calvin Megs saw no wrong in anyone.

           More than anyone, he loved children. It was his fondest wish, he always said, that the lot of inner-city youth be improved to the extent that they would know nothing of crime or hardship. If ever there was a chance for peace and prosperity, it would have to start with children. Only children could believe something fiercely enough to make it real.

           The children believed. They believed everything Uncle Calvin told them. They believed him when he said he kept his private playroom in a room a thousand feet below his house, with a swimming pool as big as the ocean, and a toy factory that created walking, talking dolls and robots and dinosaurs you could ride. They believed him when he said that only the most special little boys and girls could come see his playroom, and that nobody who saw it would ever want to leave.

           And they believed Uncle Calvin when he said he wanted to share his wonderful toys and games with everyone in town. And they listened, awe-struck, as he talked about his plans to build the greatest amusement park in the world, right here in the city. A place ten times the size of Disney Land or Coney Island, with rides and food and fun more fantastic than anyone could imagine.

           Pretty soon the children could talk of nothing but Uncle Calvin's park. Most of the adult citizens continued to exclaim how nice it was of dear Mister Megs to do something for the city. Only the parents were doubtful, and most of them dared not say so. Not even when they saw Mister Megs pull gaggles of children away from his public dos to play hide and seek in the other floors of his house, or when families up and moved away without explanation. You didn't speak of such things in those days, and you gave dear Mister Megs, who was so loved and admired, the benefit of the doubt, if you knew what was best.

           Calvin got the permits and the land to build his park. He called it Whatchma World, and went on and on about what a wonderful place it would be once it was finished. He led groups of children through the site, told them all about the rides they would ride and the games they would play. He told them about Whatchma, his special friend who would come to live in the park, and stand at the gate to welcome all to Whatchma World.

He's the silliest thing you ever did see, he told the children. He has a long, narrow head, shaped like a canoe. He has big wide eyes, wider than an owl's by far! And he has this great big mouth, opened all the way to shout, with all his might: welcome to Whatchma World!

The children told their parents, who made a show of sharing their joy. But the doubt had been growing as Mister Megs' influence over their children grew. It grew as his grin did, larger and toothier. It grew as the police and city officials who attended his gatherings waved away any vaguely worded worries with a smile nearly as wide as Mister Megs. He's a character, that's all, they would say. A character.

Construction for Whatchma World was still underway. The rides that went up were typical of any funfair: there was carousel, and a Ferris Wheel, a Tilt-o-Whirl. All of it was custom-made and unpainted, and they stayed that way for some time as construction slowed. Adults who saw them remarked that they did not seem especially magical, but the children shushed them. He'll make them magic. You'll see.

Then a child went missing. A little boy, last seen led by the hand through the future site of Whatchma World. Everyone fretted, especially Calvin, who badgered the police into calling a citywide search, encouraged volunteer efforts, gave several impromptu speeches expressing his horror that someone could be so cruel as to kidnap a child, and, when the effort proved wasted, wrote the parents an anonymous check.

Who can say it was calculated misdirection? Even in those days of aspired austerity, rumors began. Calvin had been too long used to getting his way, had perhaps been so generous before to build up some karmic credit with the locals. If that was his intention, it failed just as soon as another child vanished.

Now the parents' concerns were not so vague. Now they were shouting down his insistence at another search, sneering at his offers of funds and volunteers. Now the mayor and his cronies were sweating to see their people call for blood.

Calvin broke. His last chance at rallying his once-loved neighbors fell apart as he did, the focus of city hall, red-faced and trembling, admonishing the adults for scaring their children. You'll spoil their dreams, he screamed. You'll ruin them all.

That was the last anyone saw of Calvin Megs in the living flesh. The night after, the police announced his body had been found on the property of his proposed amusement park. It was lying in the mouth of the park's only finished construction, a large, oblong head with large eyes.

"They found the bodies of the little boys soon after. One was buried beneath the wheel, the other the carousel. Neither ride would ever run, nor would any fun be had at Whatchma World. The rides were dismantled, the property condemned.

"Nobody can say what it was Calvin Megs was trying to accomplish," Jacob said. I tried to keep my hand steady as the camera recorded his words. "There were churches built with priests and children in the walls. Perhaps these boys were a sacrifice to the greater good, an attempt to appease the notion of merriment and carefree unity Calvin wanted all to enjoy. Perhaps there were less wholesome desires buried in his smiling heart. Perhaps he believed that those children, who dreamed so purely, would bring his dream to life. Perhaps they would imbue it with the magic only children could believe in.

"Regardless, Whatchma World was never completed. But people can't resist a tragedy, can they? No matter how heinous, they will flock to the site of death more readily than the most ravenous buzzard, and thus bear witness to the unnatural blooms sewn by the spilling of blood.

"Those who were foolish enough to scale the fence came back forever changed, raving about sounds somewhere between the laughter and screams of mad children, about giant spectral constructs that ebbed and flowed to some invisible beat, the Whatchma World dream that never was.

"Anom Phenomena is now taking it upon ourselves to bear witness to these atrocities. Behind me stands the gates of Whatchma World. In just a moment will step through the threshold, and see for ourselves what dreams under this cursed soil. Will we wander aimlessly in the dark for nothing? Or will we disturb the sleep of something more than human, something beyond the realms of death?

"Either way, we'll have to see."

Jacob held his serious face for a moment, then looked to me anxiously. "How was that?"

I didn't know what to say. The story was almost unfamiliar to me. Had I really come up with that? All that stuff about the dreams of dead children and innocence soiled for innocence's sake sounded too neat an idea, too well formed and polished. It sounded like actual folklore, too clean to have happened, or at least happened like that.

I handed over the camera. Jacob eagerly watched the footage of his monologue, and didn't notice me walking away until I was well away.

I wasn't really abandoning him. Truth to tell I expected him to come after me, to get whiny that I was quitting on him before we even got started, to go into his plans to make this place the next conspiracy sensation. I expected to whine myself about his stealing my story, changing it into something it wasn't, using it to trick people and make himself famous. I was expecting to utilize my trump card, the car keys in my pocket, and him grumbling all the way back to his house.

 He didn't come after me. I heard the gate creak open and shut, and Jacob walking off into the dewy, overgrown grass. I suppose he decided he could film the investigation himself.

Now I was in a quandary about leaving him. It kept me stuck there for I'm not sure how long. There was every chance he could find his own way home; it wasn't inconceivable that he could walk. On the other hand, how would it look to his parents if I'd abandoned him? More to the point, how would it look to mine? And really, what was I afraid of? This wasn't the place. There was never a Whatchma World.

I dithered long enough for the sky to pink, and the first of the morning chorus to begin their tentative trilling. Annoyed with myself and lightheaded I finally went back to the gate.

"Jacob!" I shouted. "Did you get the video already? Let's go."

I was sure he was punishing me. There was no immediate sign of him in the uncut grass. I pushed my way through the tangle of overhead branches, trying to focus through my exhaustion. I wondered who owned this property, and if they would be angry to find us walking around in it.

For the record, when it was all over and I was sure nobody was paying attention, I tried looking for it again. I didn't have Jacob's map, and I can't be sure, considering it was night when I was there, but I'm almost positive the place doesn't exist anymore. No fence, no gate, not even that wild field remains. The only possible evidence for its existence would be whatever footage Jacob got. And the camera's gone the way of the park.

I didn't see it anywhere when I found...I'm not sure it was him. All I really saw was something wrapped in a tarp, lying on the ground, inside a structure like an open shed. It was pale white and plaster, unpainted, and molded to resemble a long, bug-eyed face.

I told police the truth, more or less. I told them Jacob and I were out late one night to do a video, and got separated. I must have seemed nonthreatening enough to be believable, because they didn't press the issue as to where, precisely, I'd seen him last.

That was it. There was no trial, no real interrogation. I never even met Jacob's parents. Mine were just relieved I was ok.

Am I like those children? Did I bring a dream to life?

I've written this because it feels like the right thing to do. A disappearance demands that the whole truth be written down somewhere, no matter how strange it reads. Records must be kept. They are always kept, whatever Jacob believed.

But I'm not looking for them anymore.