It was a cold autumn night. A dense fog had rolled across London, it was impossible to see anything more than five feet ahead of you. The mist reduced people to vague, ghostly figures, or disembodied voices.
In short, it was the perfect Halloween night.
Fifteen year old Michael Blake shivered as he walked through the fog with his best friend, John. On John’s insistence, he’d managed to give his parents the slip so that they could perform that time -- honored Halloween ritual -- to walk through a deserted cemetery in the middle of the night. Conveniently, there was a supposedly haunted neighborhood cemetery nearby.
Trust John to come up with an idea like this, thought Michael. But he wasn't going to complain. One of John’s ideas had once saved his life. Somehow, John always seemed to know the right thing to do, even if it seemed absurd at the time.
And then, out of the fog, the cemetery gates suddenly appeared before them -- old and disused. The iron had rusted to brown so that they looked like twisted pieces of wood that had been bound together. In fact the entire cemetery was in disrepair; the authorities weren't bothered about it and the relatives of the people in the cemetery didn't complain.
The cemetery is abandoned and unloved, thought Michael, perhaps just like the souls of its residents. Then he chided himself. Why did he let such weird thoughts enter his head?
John kicked the cemetery gates, which swung open with a loud groan of protest. Michael looked around nervously, but nobody seemed to have heard them.
As they entered the cemetery, John suddenly stopped.
"I almost forgot," he said casually. "We’ll have to watch out for gravediggers."
"The poorest of London’s poor. They’re usually homeless and jobless. They go about stealing from the dead. They rob graves of glasses, watches, even the clothes worn by the corpse, if they’re desperate. And most of them are armed with knives."
Nice of him to tell me now. Michael shivered. But once again, he didn't complain, and followed John into the cemetery.
This is so cliché, Michael thought to himself. Two friends performing a Halloween dare get a lot more than they bargained for. He could see the phrase on the back cover of a dozen cheesy horror flicks.
John kicked aside a pebble. It skittered and came to a stop in front of an old tombstone. Despite the fog, Michael could make out the words inscribed on it-
Here Lies FRANK JONES
Died as he lived- in the pursuit of justice
He must have been a policeman, thought Michael. It was a strangely comforting notion.
They continued onward through the cemetery. Michael had to admit, it made him irrationally nervous, even though he had thought that he had long since ceased to be afraid of ghosts. But the cemetery itself scared him. Unlike in a typical cemetery, there were trees planted at seemingly random spots, casting long shadows in the foggy moonlight. Birds squawked and chattered in the trees. The idea behind the planting of the trees was that the remains of the dead would give rise to new life. However, the trees had never been trimmed, and at this time of night, they only heightened the uneasiness one would naturally feel in a cemetery. They made the entire place look wild and overgrown. Michael imagined those branches reaching out to grab him...
He shivered and trudged forward, trying to keep up with John, who had gone totally silent. John went through these moods- he would be happy one moment, surly in the next. Right now he was making Michael feel nervous.
Don't be stupid, he said to himself. It was the cemetery creeping him out, not John. He had no need to be afraid of John, or to be distrustful of him.
In front of him, John suddenly stopped, and pointed to a spot a few feet in front of him. The fog parted and Michael saw a crouching figure. He seemed to be digging into the ground.
A gravedigger, thought Michael. What had John said? Most of them were armed with knives. They were homeless, desperate. What if this man tried to steal from them, or kill them? He tried to pull John back. But John pushed him away.
"Who’s that?" he said loudly, and boldly walked forward. Michael hesitated, then followed.
As they walked up to him, the gravedigger gave a sudden start. He rose up and drew out a knife.
"Didn't see you there, laddie. You shouldn't be out here alone at night, a nice lad like you."
He slowly moved towards Michael, making slow circular motions in the air with his knife.
Michael’s eyes were fixed on the blade- a few inches of metal that could mean his death. He was rooted to the spot with fear.
But as the gravedigger reached him, he crumpled, falling towards Michael. Michael grabbed him to stop his fall, and the gravedigger leaned on Michael like a dead weight. He could see the man’s strangely blank eyes, smell his rotten breath. Then, he pushed the gravedigger away, and he collapsed and lay there as if dead.
In front of Michael stood a policeman. Clearly, it was he who had knocked out the gravedigger. Michael sighed with relief, then gasped when he clearly saw the policeman.
His face was a pale milky white, with a crooked nose and two deep-set eyes that were pitch-black in color. Somehow, it did not look entirely human. The policeman looked unnaturally thin. Corpse-like was the phrase that came to mind.
"That was a close one wasn't it?"
Michael just nodded.
The policeman moved forward to stand right in front of Michael and frowned down on him.
Michael saw his name tag, and gasped again.
The tag read ‘F. Jones’.
"What exactly are you doing out here?" asked Jones.
Michael stood speechless, staring at him. His heart was thundering- it seemed about to burst out of his chest. It seemed impossible, but it looked as though he had been saved from the gravedigger by the ghost of Frank Jones.
Michael turned to John, his throat dry.
John had gone completely white.
"You explain," he said to Michael, then turned and fled into the fog.
I should have expected that, thought Michael, staring after John.
Officer Jones followed Michael’s gaze into the fog. But John was no longer visible. It was as if the fog had swallowed him up.
Jones frowned, then turned back to Michael.
"Well, boy? I’m waiting for an answer," said Jones. He was speaking softly, almost whispering. "What are you doing here? Only gravediggers come here at this time of night. This place is one of their frequent haunts."
Haunts. Funny choice of words.
Michael trembled. He was about to start speaking, but Jones interrupted.
"Unless...unless you’re a gravedigger." Jones smiled. His teeth were yellow and rotten. Decaying. Now Michael was sure. Officer Jones was a ghost.
"You’ll have to come with me," Jones continued. "Oh yes."
He smiled again, and licked his grey, cracked lips with his grey tongue.
Michael was terrified. Jones thought he was a gravedigger. And what did he mean by "You’ll have to come with me?"
"I... I’m not going anywhere with you!" Michael screamed. "This is a mistake! I’m not a gravedigger!"
But it was useless to argue. Michael could see that Jones did not believe him. An evil fire had lit in his eyes.
"Save your protests for later, boy. You’re coming with me, where you belong!"
And Jones reached for his belt. Michael saw his hand close around his gun. Jones was going to kill him!
And so, without pausing to think, Michael acted.
He pushed his legs forward, falling as if he had slipped over something. Jones was right in front of him and Michael’s legs crashed into Jones’ feet. It was the last thing Jones had expected. He fell right on top of Michael, and as he did so, Michael punched him where it hurt most. Jones howled with pain, and Michael pulled Jones’ gun out of its holster.
I have to move quickly, thought Michael. Before Jones could react, Michael pushed him away, pointed the gun at his face and pulled the trigger. Blood spurted from Jones’ head and into Michael’s eyes, but he didn’t care. He was alive! He’d done it. For once, he’d saved his life without John’s help. He laid on the ground, laughing with relief.
Then he heard footsteps behind him. He got up, but before he could turn around, he’d been expertly cuffed and twisted around. It was another policeman. He stood staring at Michael, his face white. Then, without a word, he walked Michael to a nearby police station. He was taken to a holding cell. For what seemed like hours, he was left alone. Then the policeman who had arrested him walked in.
"What did you do?!"
And Michael told him everything -- about the Halloween dare, Frank Jones’ grave, the gravedigger, and the ghost.
The policeman stared silently at him. Then he pressed a buzzer and Michael’s parents walked in. They looked pale, shocked. It seemed they had heard everything.
"Michael, how could you do this?" his mother asked in between sobs.
"I had to protect myself."
"Why did you leave the house without telling us?" his father screamed.
Michael looked at him sadly. He had reacted similarly- last time.
“It was John’s idea,” Michael said.
"Did... did you say John?" his mother asked. She seemed to have gone even paler.
"Yeah, Mom. He told me to walk through the cemetery with him. He told me about the gravediggers."
"No Michael!" his father said, clutching at his hair. “I told you about the gravediggers a week ago!”
He left the room with Michael’s mother and the policeman. Michael could hear parts of their angry conversation outside.
"...let him leave the house!" the policeman was saying.
Michael strained to hear his parents’ reply.
"...stabilised...they let us ... for a few days... we never dreamed..."
“You should have,” the policeman snapped. "I lost a good friend today."
And then all was silent for a few hours.
The policeman entered the room again. He grabbed Michael and took him out of the station and into a car. They drove him to the last place he wanted to be. His home for the last few years, until a few days ago.
They took Michael to a cell- his cell, deep within the facility.
They tried, once again, to feed him their lies. They told him that Frank Jones had been a criminal lawyer who had a heart attack while cross-examining a murderer.
They told him the policeman’s name had been Francis Jones. He had been a young, enthusiastic officer. When he confronted Michael, he had been reaching for his cuffs, not his gun.
And Michael had killed him.
Of course, Michael didn't believe them. Six years ago, they had also lied to him. They told him that John, his best friend, was imaginary! It was a lie! John was real, but he was a ghost. Only Michael could see ghosts. That was why he had been able to see the ghost of Frank Jones tonight.
Six years ago, John had saved Michael’s life by warning him that his teenage cousin, David, was planning to kill Michael and his parents. Michael remembered the feeling of intense relief he’d experienced when he wrapped his hands around David’s neck and squeezed the life out of him- the same relief he’d felt when he shot Jones.
And they had arrested Michael for killing David, when he had actually saved his family! And now he was back in this hellhole for ‘killing’ Jones. Damn them all!
But Michael knew the truth. The policeman he had shot was the ghost of Frank Jones. Of course, shooting a ghost wasn't a crime! And John... John was not imaginary. Michael knew that John would help him escape this place...someday...
And Michael laughed and laughed, his laughter mingling with that of some of the other souls condemned to spend their lives at London’s maximum security prison for the criminally insane.
Inspired by Anthony Horowitz’s THE HITCHHIKER