“A week after my birthday I was sitting on the sofa watching my favorite classic movie, The African Queen, with a big stainless steel bowl of popcorn in my lap. The next thing I knew my eyes began exploding with kaleidoscopes of color. The room spun counterclockwise. I fell sideways onto the sofa then rolled with a hard thump onto the floor.
“The bowl flew from my lap, clattering on the coffee table after scattering popped corn everywhere. My body stiffened like a board and I found I couldn’t move. It was like I was in rigor, but not dead. For an instant I recalled a Stephen King story about the man bitten by a snake who was paralyzed all through his own autopsy.
“Anyway, as I stared at the television screen I saw my brother, Quinn who was a year younger than me, running across a grassy field screaming. I couldn’t imagine how I was seeing this or why because I was sure the movie was still actually on the screen. Then I saw a teenage boy with blonde dreads wearing a black leather jacket and ripped jeans toss some liquid from a small red can onto Quinn.
“Next a smaller boy with red hair that stuck straight up, wearing identical clothing, tossed something small that glowed in the dusk. Quinn lit up like a bottle rocket. His arms flailed wildly, like he was trapped in a giant spider web. He roared as the flames raced around his body engulfing his clothing, face and arms. I smelled the acrid sour stench of burning flesh and hair but could not scream or tear my eyes away from the spectacle. Black smoke curled into the late-day sky.
“Quinn ran in circles screaming a high-pitched banshee wail of pain. A third boy, with a long black ponytail and a black leather jacket squirted still more of the volatile liquid onto Quinn and the flames flared higher and hotter. I felt the flash of heat on my face. The boys cackled and roared, clapping and hopping around in hilarity.
“ Eventually Quinn fell onto the scorched grass face down. The first boy stepped up and kicked Quinn in the head with pointy-toed snake-skin boots.
“I heard him say, “Watcha gotta say fer yerself? Shulda paid me back, slacker.” His voice slithered slowly like the snake his boots used to be.
““Yeah. Wut video game did ya buy anyway? Sumthin’ with demons I hope!” the small boy squeaked, his high-pitched voice grating on my nerves. All three of the boys roared with laughter.
““Loser,” the black haired boy said. A wad of spittle flew onto Quinn’s back and sizzled there for a moment.
“I was supposed to speak at his funeral since he and I had been so close being a year apart. He was really the only sibling I got along with and enjoyed. But I kept looking around at the people who’d come to say goodbye and my throat would close up so I couldn’t even breathe. I was surprised how many of his and my school friends came. It seemed most of the school was there. I’d wager most were spectators, curious because of the conditions under which he’d died. But since he’d been cremated he was ensconced in a gilt urn on the table up front with his high school photo beside him. There was no hint of the trauma that had taken such a young life. They’d all have to go home disappointed.
“My dad, brave soul that he is, stood behind the wooden podium trying not to cry as he talked about what a great son Quinn had been. “And now he’s trapped forever in a tiny jar. Quinn, the one with major claustrophobia, now has to spend eternity in a can. Just the thought of him in there screaming to get out, pushing on the sides of the metal….” Well, maybe that’s not exactly what he said, but it’s what I heard.
“I ran for the bathroom just as my dad announced my name. I could feel everyone’s eyes on my back as I rounded the corner of the hallway at a run.
“Later, in the long black limo dad had rented, we wound for what seemed hours around the high old Celtic crosses and low modern marble grave markers inside the cemetery. The place covered easily fifty acres and the asphalt path twisted and wove like a black snake on a carpet of green. Finally I saw the green tent hovering over a rectangular hole lined with fake green grass, like that would fool anyone. I counted the five folding metal chairs lining the back side of the hole thinking there was one missing. But it was only an instant before I realized Quinn wouldn’t need a chair, ever again.
“Sitting in the shade of the canopy I was glad to be out of the burning rays of the hot Florida sun. The glare off Quinn’s glossy memorial card, with his picture and life summed up in seven short sentences, flashed back and forth as sweating guests fanned themselves. The perspiring priest, dressed in full raiment, droned on and on. My eyes shifted to a giant live oak tree across the path behind him. Its shade stretched across at least twenty graves.
“As I contemplated the massive life span of live oak trees, wondering how many graves the roots had invaded, stabbing skeletons through the head or chest as they defied death in search of life, a flash caught my attention. I looked harder in the deep shade at the trunk of the tree.
“Three boys lounged in the shade. One boy stood with his foot propped against the tree. One sat on a huge root extruding from the ground and one lay on his stomach. I watch these boys wondering why they would hang around a cemetery. That’s when I realized they looked familiar. I leaned forward, squinting, trying to see through the dark shadows.
“I leaned so far forward the chair threatened to collapse nearly tossing me into the open grave. Mom grabbed my chair and I sat back, flushed with embarrassment. My heart beat a mad tattoo against my ribs, but I was still watching the boys. I looked away for a moment to straighten my dress and when I looked back they were gone.
“The feasting ceremony back at the house made me want to vomit. All those hypocrites saying how sorry they were and all. I knew they’d forget about Quinn the moment they left our doorstoop. They were there for the free corn nuggets and fried chicken, broccoli casserole and apple pie. I managed to hang around for a while before the odors of the food mixed together made me queasy. I told mom I had to get out of there and left. I drove my awesome new car to Friendship Park and sat in it with the engine off, enjoying the silence and solitude until I was sweating like a glass of lemonade in the summer and had to get out.
“As I headed for the park I watched my feet – having forgotten my sunglasses on my dresser at home — following the glaring white path through the columns lining the entrance. Suddenly two pairs of sandaled feet faced mine on the sidewalk. I looked up and stood nose to nose with a pair of hippies. The woman’s long red frizzy hair stood out like a lion’s mane and the man’s blinding yellow Hawaiian shirt made me blink and back up.
““Excuse me,” I said politely. I stepped to the side to go around them. They stepped with me, still in my way.
““I said to excuse me and let me pass,” I said more firmly. I stepped the other way. They did, too.
““Have you gotten the word?” the woman asked, her voice was soft but firm. She held out a fuchsia-colored flyer. The color glared in the bright sunshine.
“I took a step backward and looked at this odd couple. Her face was pleasantly covered with freckles, her eyes such a pale blue they seemed white. “I’m not interested.”
““You MUST be interested, Myrna.”
“Her use of my name startled my heart into a racing beat. “Who are you?” I asked, my eyes narrowing.
““That doesn’t matter.” The man shoved the flyer further into my personal space, touching my hand until I took it. His almost-white eyes blazed like a candle.
“I glanced at the brilliant paper:
The time is nigh
The end is near
For your soul
Our Lord doth fear
Hell is hell
But Heaven is too
We hope you’ll see
Mind the Signs!
““Well, isn’t that cryptic?” I said. When I glanced up from the paper, however, they were gone. I was talking to air. I crumpled the paper and tossed it toward the mesh trash can beside the path not caring if it went in or not.
““Mind the Signs,” a pair of voices said in unison.
“I spun in a circle, but there was no one near who could have spoken. I stepped forward into the park, hesitating slightly in case they popped into my path again, but they didn’t. I glanced up at the huge old three-tiered concrete fountain in the middle of the park where all of the paths joined.
“The boy with the blonde dreads from my vision stood beside the black haired one and on the other side was the odd red haired runt. They stared at me. I stopped. A cold chill ran up my spine.
“All six eyes staring at me flared red. The three of them had the same fixed grin on their faces that reminded me of the old Dracula movies when he was about to pounce on his victim.
“I didn’t wait to see what came next. I turned and ran for my car. My stomach crunched into a tight ball as I jammed the key into the lock of the door and jumped inside. The Tesla was so compact I banged my knees on the steering wheel and my head on the roof frame. With tears running down my flaming cheeks I turned the key in the ignition and swung around to check the rear passenger floor. At the same time I flipped the lock button on my door. Jolting the gear into reverse I sped out of the parking lot. In my rearview mirror I saw three dark spots in the same place at the fountain.
“The next day we all decided to return to school rather than moping around the house. Since I didn’t have a first period I sat on the front stoop to enjoy the cool morning air before it warmed up later in the morning. In an effort to forget about yesterday, I sipped my sweet coffee and watched my sister, Marcy who was fourteen, walking beside my brother Jarrod, who was eleven.
“They had to walk about two blocks past the high school to reach the middle school. I could tell by the way they dilly-dallied they would be late. There were plenty of mornings Danielle and I had sneaked into the back of the classroom after taking our time getting to school. I chuckled at the memory.
“As I took another sip I raised my eyes from the creamy liquid to the sidewalk. My arm jostled and the coffee burned my lips. The same three boys I’d been seeing lately were following Marcy and Jarrod. They had just appeared out of thin space. They skipped and pushed each other about twenty feet behind, looking much like cajoling monkeys. I could tell they were taunting Marcy and Jarrod.
“But Marcy and Jarrod must not have seen nor heard them because neither turned to confront them. Finally the boys all froze in their tracks and spun, staring directly at me. I dropped my cup which shattered on the concrete stoop. The coffee ran down my legs and into my shoes but I didn’t feel a thing because I was too stunned. Their eyes blazed as red as lasers. Horns had sprung from their foreheads and long barbed tails twitched and snicked behind their backs.
“The black haired boy, with whom I had been alone in a car just a few nights ago, roared with laughter, lifting his toothy dragon maw to the sunny morning sky.
“But apparently only I heard or saw him.”