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They say magic is all around us during childhood. It can be
found on a glorious Christmas morning, under your pillow once the tooth fairy
has claimed her prize, or at the seaside, as rolling waves crash and silver
blue sailing birds fly.
Sometimes, though, magic takes us down darker roads… and
what we find there clings to our dreams, even when sunshine is at its
We lived at the top of Franklin Street hill in Waterville,
Maine, back then. The street,
unfinished to this day, dropped precipitously into a wooded gully, with dense
forestland and fields that seemed to stretch on and on (alas, short-sighted
developers eventually cleared much of it—but the gully has remained untouched).
Our house, #40—an orange Cape— was last on the left, directly across from
#39—home of my absolute best friends, Peggy, Sue and Sally McGowan.
Oh, how I loved that gully and especially the woods. I’d
oftentimes lean out of my bedroom window, watching treetops bend and sway,
feeling as if I could fly—if I just had nerve enough to take an extra step into
pure Infinity. The wind’s mournful whisperings spoke to something inside
me. A spark of the primeval,
perhaps? An untamed part of my psyche, living free beneath the surface of skin,
Civilization, and sensibility?
In August of 1961, I was 8 years old and knew each
neighborhood kid, dog and cat by name. Summers were long, lazy affairs, with
raucous outside play lasting into the night. When not riding my bike and doing
typical kid things, like begging mom for 10 cents to buy an orange Popsicle
from the “ding-ding man,” I hung with the McGowans.
Sue and Sally were a year older than me and twins. Peggy was
exactly my age and cute as a button—blonde hair in pigtails, blue eyes, a
wonderfully effervescent personality. I could always depend on them for a fun
time, whether it be climbing trees, flying kites, trick or treating or catching
caterpillars and another assorted creepy-crawlers.
This particular hot August afternoon, I craved adventure.
So, I traipsed across the street to the McGowan’s. Maybe we’d explore the fields behind my house. Plenty of
good stuff there—garden spiders, monarch butterflies, blueberries, choke
cherries, and wildflowers. Our moms would love a bouquet of daisies, and if
enough berries were picked, my mother promised to bake us a pie!
I skipped up the gravel driveway and climbed onto their back
porch. No one was outside, but they were home, I could tell. Pepper, Peggy’s
annoying rat terrier, yapped from within when I knocked on the door. Pepper
liked to bite and scratch, which meant I didn’t like Pepper!
Mrs. McGowan answered. “Hello, Rodney,” she said, wiping her
hands on a dishtowel. “What can I do for you?”
“Is it ok if Sue and Sally and Peggy come out and play?” I
“Not right now, no. They’ve just finished eating and are
taking naps. Come back in a half an hour.”
“Ok. Can I swing on the swings?”
“Sure. Just be careful.”
“Thanks!” I jumped off the porch and headed straight for
their state-of-the-art jungle gym. Our own swings, an ancient contraption of
metal and rope, belonged to my older sister in the late 1940s. Nothing at all
like this glitzy confection! Teeter-totter, balancing rings, a slippery slide
wrapped up in 60s day-glow colors—the whole shebang. Wow.
Of course, I was well-versed in the kid art of swinging,
pumping air to achieve maximum height. My feet went up, then down, and up, up,
uupppp, pointing toward a blue, cloud-spotted sky. With every swoop, the entire thing moved slightly, anchors
pulling out of the ground and thudding back again. If I pumped really, really
hard, could I swing in a complete circle?
Well, I tried and tried but only went so far. The thrill
quickly dissipated, and I dragged my toes in the dirt, sighing. Here it was, a
gorgeous day in August, and Mrs. McGowan made her kids take naps. This struck
me as strange, despite Peggy’s solemn assertion that stomachs needed to digest
meals by “resting.” My dad slept in the daytime, but he worked the night shift.
Regular people were up and about when the sun shone and adventures beckoned.
Yep, a sorry situation, indeed.
what? I had nuthin’ to do! Bored, disillusioned, I spied four child-sized
folding chairs along the lawn’s edge, where woods met grass. Hmm. If I sat in
one of them, I’d be able to gaze at Sue and Sally’s bedroom, somehow mentally
infiltrate their dreams and cut the unnecessary sleepy-time short. Eh, worth a
Before going any further, let me tell you that the woods on
this side of Franklin Street were and are significantly different. No gully, for one—and the land’s
flatter. Birches, fir and ash trees hold sentry there, thinner adjacent to the
McGowan property, and the ground’s covered with underbrush, leaves and weird
yellow flowers on long stalks. “Man eating plants,” Sally used to say, a tone
of fearfulness in her voice. I didn’t believe her, though they did remind me of
creatures from a scary movie.
I chose the first chair, sat down, and crossed my legs.
A mosquito droned nearby, buzzing dangerously closer
whenever I wasn’t looking. In the
distance, a dog barked, a car horn honked. Far away, summery sounds—comfortable, reassuring, and
Minutes passed, and my eyes dreamily took in familiar
sights: the McGowan’s house, a Cape like ours, white shutters and bricked
fireplace chimney, side lawn, bushes and shrubs, part of Franklin Street. For some reason, I started thinking
about Archie comics and my uncle’s swimming pool (with fishes painted on the
bottom)…and as I sat and observed and thought little boy thoughts, I noticed a
peculiar stillness. And quiet. As if someone had turned down the volume knob on
a cosmic radio.
This wasn’t the kind of stillness that comes from sitting
alone in a kid-sized folding chair—but one affecting clouds, wind, mosquito,
breathing. A complete, pervasive stillness. Even the shivery cicadas vibrating
to one another from the trees had stopped. The mosquito was gone, the distant
dog no longer barked.
What the heck?
Suddenly, a sense of unease, of genuine dread, overwhelmed
me. The hairs on my arms stood up, and I trembled. Trembling when it’s hot?
This just did not make sense.
Turn around, my mind screamed.
The woods were bright, a cacophony of greens and yellows and
browns. Birches, ash, blackberry brambles, brush and firs. A few leaves
funneled down, catching sunlight, twirling, dancing. The yellow flowers grew in
As my vision focused, I saw him. Approximately 25 feet away.
A boy, no older than 10, standing beside an Oak tree. Our eyes met and locked,
and my brain instantly took a mental snapshot, stamping an indelible memory—a
clear, sharp, defined image: black sparse hair, bloodied lips, determined,
penetrating expression. And sticks. Sticks growing out of his pale, wan face,
tiny gnarled branches breaking off into several smaller branches.
In those indeterminate seconds, I realized he’d been
sneaking up on me, through brush and dead leaves, from somewhere and nowhere.
Like an animal sensing certain doom, my feet instinctively
took over. Down the McGowan’s lawn, I ran—across the street, into my driveway,
my garage, my kitchen. Safe from stick boys and whatever other horrors prowled
“My stars, what’s gotten into you?” mom asked, when I
pounded up the stairs. “You’re white as a sheet!”
She was changing our beds, her usual chore for Mondays. It
struck me as so odd, that she could go about her daily routine, while the world
had opened up and released devils.
“Nothing,” I replied, not daring to tell her. “Gotta find my
View Master. Peggy and me are gonna trade reels.”
“Don’t you give away any of your new toys,” Ma warned.
“I won’t, just what’s old and broken.”
Later, the McGowans came over, and I spilled my guts about
the stillness, how everything had become muddy and sludgy, and—most
importantly—about the Stick Boy. They wanted to check out this phenomenon for
themselves. I reluctantly went along, figuring there was comfort—and safety—in
The chairs were lined up, except mine was now facing
“It wasn’t some dumb kid from the neighborhood wearin’ a
mask?” Sally asked, peering intently at the spot where I’d seen him. “Billy
Russakoff or Joel Merry? Bill has a werewolf mask that costed 10 whole
“Not them. This kid was a stranger,” I replied. “He weren’t
wearin’ no mask.”
“Spooky. A stick boy, huh?” She leaned on her toes but went
no further. “Wonder who it might’ve been.”
“Or what,” added Sue.
“I know,” said Peggy, looking at us. “It was a wood sprite.
And he wanted to snatch you away, Rodney, and bring you to another place.
You’re lucky you saw him. Otherwise…”
We all nodded. Yes, I was very lucky.
In 1962, Mr. McGowan had an opportunity with Ralston-Purina
Company, and the family relocated to St. Louis, Missouri. I forlornly waved
from my front lawn as they drove away, a big chunk of my childhood going with
them. Sue, Sally and Peggy waved back, and thus, our friendship ended. Simple,
clean, concise...and sad.
Life went on, and at the close of my freshman year, we also
moved from Franklin Street. Our last week, flooded by nostalgia, I revisited
familiar touchstones: exploring the berry-bursting fields, riding my bike,
catching rays in the back yard. But I didn’t go into the woods again, oh, no.
I graduated from high school and college, established a
healthy writing career, and laugh lines dug themselves in around my eyes. Age
granted me Reason, a logical outlook. Friends consider me rational, even
pragmatic. No nonsense, you might say.
Their gullibility makes me laugh. Pragmatic? Hardly.
Perpetually frightened? Hell, yes.
Memories are funny…good or bad, they drift like milkweed
fluff… but for me, none have ever had the lasting impact of what was standing
in the sun-dappled forest that sweltering August afternoon in long ago 1961.
My buddy Nate was particularly intrigued by the Stick Boy
tale, since I’ve told it often. So intrigued, in fact, that last October—as a
kind of Halloween excursion—he suggested a road trip to Waterville.
I didn’t exactly relish the notion, but Nate was adamant.
“C’mon, dude. You’re a writer. It’ll give you inspiration for a kick-ass horror
“Or another nightmare,” I laughed, not really finding
anything funny about it.
Supposedly, facing old terrors is therapeutic. The past can
be resolved, old issues eliminated, and happier futures assured. What doesn’t kill you supposedly makes
you stronger, right?
I understood the logic in that. I’m an adult, grown-up, a
man. The 8-year-old kid no longer exists…and neither does the Stick Boy.
Ha. So much for Reason.
We drove to my home town early one Saturday. The morning was
picture-perfect. New England’s foliage was in full power. Balmy breezes gusted
against Nate’s Toyota, red and gold Maples dotted the highway, and houses and
yards were decorated in Halloween finery. A pleasant ride, full of laughs and
At the West River Road exit, major developments smacked hard
against my scrapbook memories of Waterville: Wal-Mart, Staples, Home Depot and
other big box stores blocked the horizon. Two McDonald’s, a Taco Bell/KFC, dozens
of gas stations, convenience markets and Rent-a-Centers spoiled what had once
been pristine farm land. And there were more street lights, which meant more
But as we swung a right onto Collette Street, I felt myself
traveling backwards through Time, a disquieting perception. There was Judge Poulin’s stately house,
with its front wall covered in ivy, and the corner where I used to wait for
South Grammar’s rickety school bus.
“Franklin Street, straight ahead,” Nate said, and I saw the
familiar sign, outlined against rolling
He gave a signal, took a drag on his cigarette, and we were
back in the hazy realm of my childhood.
Franklin’s post-World War II houses had been remarkably
preserved, with new garages, decks, barbeque grilles, and other upper
middle-class accoutrements. Mine
would be last on the left. Would I
see ghosts of Sue, Sally and Peggy, running for a phantom ding-ding man, dimes
held high? And me, following in their joyous wake?
We crested the hill, and I laid eyes on my old home. Words
failed me. Aside from an amateurish paint job (an ugly gray), and our
distinctive white fence now replaced by short pine trees, it was exactly as I’d
remembered. The sky, for example—how it swept majestically over the yard. And
those whispering trees, swaying in an October wind. Swaying and calling to me.
You’ve come back, you’re here. Stay with us. Never leave.
“Is that where you saw the Stick Boy?” Nate asked. He’d
braked and was pointing to the right.
“Awesome. Let’s bail,” he said, but I was reluctant to get
out. This whole set-up struck me as strange. What were the chances that the
McGowan’s house would be uninhabited, a “for sale” sign hanging by their front
The coast was clear, and Nate and I could actually set foot
on the property without anyone questioning who we were and why we were there.
As if maneuvering through a dream, I followed Nate up the
familiar driveway, growing younger,
years vanishing. Dead leaves skittered, swirled, and caught
on my windbreaker.
I couldn’t believe it—the back porch was so much smaller and
shabbier to my adult eyes. I studied the door, imagining Mrs. McGowan from all
those years ago. What a strange sensation, returning to the place of your
Neither of us uttered a single word, until I mumbled, “This
“Weird, like that day?”
“Yeah. Wow. Just like that day.”
My heart began to thump, telling me to stop, retreat.
Instead, I walked toward those mysterious Franklin Street woods.
“Right here. The chairs were right here, facing this side of
their house,” I said, spreading my arms. “It was a beautiful sunny day.”
“Like today,” Nate added, grinning wickedly at me.
“Yeah, heh, like today.”
“And he was sneaking up on you from?”
I turned. Strange yellow flowers, thin birches, blackberry
“There. Beyond the trees, before it gets dense. A fucked-up
scene, bro. Quiet and still. Just…like…now.”
And as those last words died on my lips, I stared hard into
the forest. Leaves and twigs were tumbling down, lazily sailing through autumn
air. And again, that pervasive stillness, creeping like a slowly encroaching
A distant car horn. Archie comics and pumping my 8-year-old
feet higher, higher. I’m going to swing in a circle!
“Dude,” I heard Nate say. “Dude, what’s happening?”
Through the branches and blackberry canes, standing just
where forest grew into shadow, I saw him. He’d morphed out of the trees, face
pale and wan, bloody lips twisted into a smile of recognition.
The Stick Boy.
Hands were on my shoulders. “Run,” Nate shouted, or that’s
what I was thinking, pulse racing in my head. “Run, goddammit!”
Clouds and sky, the McGowan’s house, bushes, a “for sale”
sign, Nate’s car…reach for the door. Don’t look behind you.
“Get in, man! Get the fuck in!”
Safe and away from stick boys, the seat belt tightening
across my waist, the strange miasma that had settled around me dissipated like
We were peeling rubber, kicking up clouds of dust.
My tongue was thick. I needed a drink of water badly.
“Dude, oh, God,” Nate gasped, flooring it. “Am I losing my
fucking mind? That was a fuckin’ wendigo, man. A cannibalistic Indian spirit!”
“Did he…touch me?” I managed to croak.
The question hung in the air. He did, he touched you. And
now, you’re his. You’ve always been his.
I put my head against the cool window pane.
Sometimes, magic takes us down darker roads… even when
sunshine is at its brightest.
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