I do not know truly if what I recount to you now is fact or fallacy, but I know with every fiber of my being that this event did indeed happen to me twenty years ago, when I was but a boy. I was not a quiet child, and was prone to excited fits of activity as well as a trend for the obnoxious. However, this trait was well-loved by my childhood playmates, and I was always the center of attention, which suited me quite nicely. I lived in a modest two-story house in the suburbs with my cheerless, rotund mother and my ever-absent father, whom I knew only through the occasional blow and birthday present. Thus, I spent most of my time exploring the urban ruins near our suburb with my fellows. The buildings were ruined shells of their former glory, crumbling and covered in vandal art. Yet, to us these were our homes, more familiar to us than our own dwellings. Everyday was spent in those decaying edifices of concrete, steel, and glass, playing amidst the rubble like the children we were, heedless of the danger they presented. Many games did we play in those old tombs, from lively rounds of tag to our favorite; hide and seek. What could be more fun than seeking your fellows in the corpse of times past? To our minds, there was no greater pleasure.
The day I recount to you was exceptionally sunny, with not a cloud in the sky, allowing the golden rays of the Summer sun to caress our flesh with yellow tendrils of loving warmth. It was July, and the four of us were out in the ruins as we always were, playing our games of childhood freedom. Today, I was one of the hunted, to be sought out by the freckled girl with red hair, whom I had for some time hidden my attraction. Sadly, the passage of time has dulled my memory, and her name is nothing more than a dream I cannot recall in full. In my cunning, I had hidden myself away in a rusted locker, whose interior was as black as sin, and whose door hung crookedly at an angle. Slipping myself inside, I stealthily closed the rusted door, peering out carefully from the slats in watch for my playmates.
It was another half-hour before I was found by the red-haired girl, who laughed at my messy hair and dirt-streaked face. I remember taking offense at the comment, for I liked her, and did not want her to find any fault, no matter how small, within me. Yet, I smiled, and laughed with her, which relieved my hurt and allowed me to look back at her and marvel at her beauty. As I looked, I could see my friend Tony running along towards us, his bespectacled face pale and wet with fearful tears. He told us that he had seen a dead man dressed in fine clothes, complete with a little round hat. He said the man had no eyes, and that he could hear the buzzing of insects when he was about, that he carried a long, crooked stick he used to tap the walls. Tony spat out that he had seen the Ragged Man.
The Ragged Man! The horrid apparition that was said to haunt the old schoolhouse was said to be the phantom of a dead man who took great delight in luring schoolchildren from the playground at recess and murdering them cruelly in the woods near the school by beating the souls of the young from their bodies with a twisted stave. He had been apprehended by town officials over fifty years ago and executed for his crimes. The school was soon after shut down, for too great was the black stain the Ragged Man left behind in his murderous wake. Sometimes, if you were unlucky, you could hear the Ragged Man tapping his death-stick on the walls of the schoolhouse, looking for more of the little ones to slay. Or, so the children said.
We sought to calm our friend, telling him he had seen nothing more than an ill vagrant, but Tony insisted that the man was dead, and that the man had looked at him without eyes, and had tapped his stick on the floor in front of him and moved towards our friend. We wanted to dismiss such claims, but Tony's genuine fright could not be so easily dismissed, for he was the brave one of our troupe, the first to jump from roof to roof or to enter a dark cave. If something had shaken him so badly, then it must be a cause for concern. We asked him where he had seen the ghoul, and he told us he had seen the monster in the ruined schoolhouse across the crumbling street of asphalt whilst looking for our playmate Noah, whom Tony had seen enter the building.
The schoolhouse: that accursed building that even we avoided. It had sat there for untold years, caught in a cycle of decay that had rendered it into little more than a large boarded-up shack. We held that building in great fear because of the legends surrounding it, and never went near it after dark. Yet, we had no choice but to enter if we wished to save our friend, so steeling ourselves, we dared near one of the windows. Grunting together, and moistening our backs with perspiration, we tore the boards from the window, and ventured to crawl inside. The interior was old and filthy, and I espied a rat run pell-mell across the floor until it disappeared into the next room with a squeak. It was apparent that the place had seen not a living soul for many a year since the school had been abandoned. As such, the air was stale and sour, filled with the reek of fungus and vermin droppings. Utter silence reigned as we entered the decrepit building, each of us afraid to utter a sound for fear of the Ragged Man.
It would be prudent to note that not one of us (save Tony) actually believed that the Ragged Man was on the prowl, or rather, we let none of that belief show on our faces. To openly speak the dark thoughts squatting morbidly on our brains was to risk making them reality, and so we remained silent on the matter, mentally reaffirming our own fabricated vagrant story. With that point firmly in your head, I will commence with the continuation of my tale.
Our shoed feet made clearly defined indents in the plain of dust that covered the worm-eaten floorboards, which creaked and moaned as if in greatly pained by our footfalls. We began our search where we had entered, in a side hallway that spread to either side of our vision. It would be untrue to say we were without fear, indeed, the niggling notion that the phantasm of our night-terrors made manifest may have been walking the very same halls as we did nothing to quell our unease. The filthy place was illuminated only by the fading sunlight that streamed from the window we had unbarred. Shadows stretched hungrily towards us, a fact I found odd. Should not the shadows reach outwards instead of in? I mentioned this to both my amour and Tony, who tried to be nonchalant, but failed to hide their unease at my statement. It was plain that both of them would rather be anywhere else than the rotting house of learning, and I must confess I felt the same, but Noah was still within, and we could not leave him behind, so onwards we trudged into the dark.
Our fear gradually mutated into creeping dread as our hour of search turned up not a sign of Noah. Tony began to whisper that the Ragged Man had indeed led Noah's spirit on a speedy exodus from his fleshy shell at the end of a twisted cane. I demanded that he be silent, and not trouble us with such nonsense. Yet, even I was beginning to worry. By now we should have discovered our wayward playmate and companion and returned home for supper. Onwards we continued our search into the dilapidated remains of the main office, where old papers had been left by those who did not care enough to sweep them aside into a garbage bin. My amour was the one whom pointed out the odd odor in the room, something unlike the musty aroma of dust that permeated the other rooms of the building. It was foul with rot and corruption and ripe with decay, yet howling with the scent of acrid copper; a smell I will never forget, be this recount reality or some dark dream. In an effort to locate the source of the reek, mine eyes fell to the great oaken desk laden with curling paper. Not only was paper that which adorned the desk, but a grisly varnish of dark crimson as well, flecked madly over the wood like a Pollock painting. Fearing for the very worst, I began to feel tears welling up inside me in an ocean of grief and panic, but I felt that I must set an example in the face of such adversity, and as such I gulped back the sea and peered over the desk, dread deep in my breast.
The sight that greeted me confirmed my worst fears, my darkest nightmares made manifest by what mine eyes beheld. Noah lay crumpled like a soft puppet on the ashen floor, so smashed and beaten was he that at first my mind was baffled by the sheer number of new joints in his spindly limbs. His bones protruded at angles inhuman and terrible, and the shock of such a sight unleashed the ocean within me and I cried mightily for many a moment. My amour and Tony did not hesitate in their terror-fueled tears either, and we wept as we leaped back from the body of our once friend and companion and ran as fast as our young legs were able. We reached as far as the cafeteria ravaged by time and vandals when we stopped, out of breath and the will to continue. We slumped down into the dust, our chests heaving in woe at what we had just seen. We wept and proclaimed loudly in our young voices the horror of the experience, wondering with fright if it had been indeed the Ragged Man that had so directly slain our playmate. It was Tony who mentioned the prospect of telling Noah's mother of his slaughter, a kindly woman late in years to whom Noah was the only thing cruel Fate had left her after it had stolen her husband and her youth. She had been good to us, and the knowledge that her grief and horror would far outstrip our own made the task that much more difficult. We fell silent for a moment after that, compiling our thoughts and using every ounce of our willpower to remain in control of ourselves. That was when we heard a sound that chilled the very blood in our veins.
Clack. Clack. Clack.
The rhythmic tapping of wood on stone echoed throughout the schoolhouse, announcing the presence of the lurking fear we had secretly been ever dreading since our arrival:
The Ragged Man.
Clack. Clack. Clack.
What else could the demon sound herald? For we had seen the corpse of Noah, and secretly all knew who the culprit was, the butcher of children with his bloody cane held high.
Clack. Clack. Clack.
Closer now, the sound drew nearer, and paralyzed with fear, we could do nothing as the hideous specter rounded the corner. I surmised that the tale-spinners were correct to call this thing, this aberration, the Ragged Man, although 'man' was clearly in error. The creature was nothing but inhuman, a spindly figure of over eight feet composed of grey, alien flesh, its skin drawn tight across its cadaverous frame. Long, thin arms nearly scraped the floor as freakishly flexible fingers coiled like serpents around the bloody rod clenched in its pallid hand. The weapon was black as night and bore no extraordinary features save for the slick sheen of blood and hair that coated its surface. Ever did the cane tap the floor with that damning rhythm! The monster had no lips, indeed, it appeared that the skin around its mouth had been peeled away to reveal stark white teeth that seemed to shine brightly in the gloom. Its eyes... Oh, God, its eyes...! But it had none! Only black pits sunken deep into its hairless skull, holes that showed not the absence of light, but the presence of darkness itself.
It came towards us, cane tapping and sockets fixed upon us with murderous intent, its exposed teeth causing the creature to grin maniacally. We could not even cry out as it approached us, so afraid were we! Before we could breath, we saw the monster towering over us, its sexless body skeletal and pale. What broke the spell over my amour and I was the sound of the black cane splitting Tony's skull open like a raw egg, the heavy cudgel turning his skull to glass shards and his brain into jelly with a single overhead swing. Tony toppled over, his useless cranium spilling its contents onto the grey tiles in a horrifying fashion, the monstrosity of the act giving us the push we needed to attempt our escape. We ran through the only other exit in the cafeteria, wailing and sobbing as we did so, the Ragged Man pursuing slowly, hungrily, its limbs distending and snapping weirdly as it dragged its bloody cane behind it through the dust. I turned my head once to look back, and my eyes met the black pits above the leering face, showing me a darkness deeper and more tenebrous than I could ever comprehend.
I feel we were allowed to escape that dark and horrible place of murder and monsters only because the Ragged Man wished us to. I know not why the horror would do such a thing, take the lives of two of our playmates yet spare us. I spoke little to my amour after the event, both of us too afraid to walk down the path of remembrance we feared would lead to madness. When I am alone, and the lights have all been extinguished, I can sometimes see the awful outline of the Ragged Man in the shadows, those black pits darker than the night surrounding them. Below them, the leering smile grins at me from the darkness, the white teeth glittering in the dark. Then, he taps his cane on the wall, as if to remind me that I live at his leisure. I still do not know why he has chosen me, but I fear whatever fell purpose I might serve. If it were but insanity that plagued me, and not some living horror, I would rejoice. But the Ragged Man knows these thoughts, and by wounding me with his cane while I sleep proves to me the lies I tell to protect myself from the dire truth.