WINNER Campfire Tales Ghost Story Contest: Debt Collectors by Cheryl Anne Gardner

I’d taken about a hundred hits before my center gave way like blubber piled on a shit-stained mattress. I’d done the couch surfing dream sex thing to my father’s porno mags; the bed-wetting thing, hunkered down against my mother’s incessant prayers, which she thought would save my soul; hell, I’d even dragged in a few shaved cats when I was in college. Ma said I was blessed by the Devil, so blessed, I’ve had all the cancer therapy a person can stand before they start to feel suicidal. So here I sit, toking it up until I can hear my own voice echoing off the back of my head. A baseball game is being called out in earnest on the radio when the streetlights start to flicker. I don’t notice right away because I’m sat here thinking about whether or not I had already put fresh brick dust across all the open doorways. “Dusk to dawn, dust them gone.” Ma said that. Said the shadows were on the move. I can remember running down this very street as a kid, trying to hit the porch step before my pop came out and grounded me for being out after dark. “It’s a simple thing,” he used to say while running his fingers over his belt buckle. He’d had a metal plate in his head for a while, but the government replaced it with plastic. That’s why I had to be inside before the streetlights came on. Before the shadows. Those lights were the only warning, pop said, because he’d lost radio reception on account of the plastic, you see. He’d fought in THE WAR. Never said which one, never said he was afraid. Sometimes I thought he was still fighting it. He’d wring his hands a lot, and I heard him tell Ma once that he felt unclean. When he wasn’t in the basement, he was on the porch. He’d sit and listen to the static on the radio for hours, his eyes focused hard on the dark just beyond the porch rail. He’d point every once and a while and say, “Look there boy!” and I would look, squint my eyes, but I wouldn’t see anything even though I said that I had. BASTARDS! he called them. “Fascist F.A.G. f@!#ing ni@#!rs,” he’d say while chucking rocks into the darkness, and I thought his anger seemed kind of personal even though I didn’t know what any of those words meant at the time. Now that I think about it, between the layers of smoke and the equally vague layers of pain, maybe it was personal – for him. Maybe those shadows weren’t for me to see.

Pop didn’t make it home one night before dark. He never came home. Ma blamed the shadows, and I didn’t see them when they came for her either.

So now I sit here on this miserable-excuse-shanty-shack hunk of termite shit porch, nothing left of me but blanched skin. Ma’s gone. Pop’s gone. All I’ve got left is this dilapi-shack, Pop’s hate, and that damn dirty basement. I take another toke on my cigarette and exhale just as the streetlights snap on. I know they’re coming, can feel a tightening in my chest, so I reach down and turn the knob on the radio until I’m tuned into the static.

Then I stare into the dark just beyond the porch rail … I stare, and I stare, and I stare until I scream.

By Cheryl Anne Gardner

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3 responses to “WINNER Campfire Tales Ghost Story Contest: Debt Collectors by Cheryl Anne Gardner

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