From Kate DeJonge’s book ‘Nightmares: A Collection of Scary Stories’ the short horror story ‘Small Town Secrets,’

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By Kate DeJonge

St. Ignace is a small town in the foothills of the Laurentian mountains, once famed for its beautiful views and robust timber mills. At the height of its development in the 1840s, more than 5000 people lived there enjoying prosperity and good health. The church of St. Ignace was built before that for earlier settlers, and the congregation quickly outgrew its walls. Rather than building a new church, though, the town chose to extend the existing nave and altar into the back of the property. They tore down the back wall and removed the headstones from that section of the churchyard, then erected the new section on top of those who rested below. The priest was a pragmatic man who believed that the cost of exhuming those loved ones and moving them exceeded the level of sin they were committing by building over them. He had their headstones placed along the outer walls of the new extension and planted a tree in their honor.

Abandoned old spooky granary at night

When the rivers that fed the mills dried up near the end of the 20th century, most of the townsfolk left. Cell phone service was spotty at best in the mountains, and jobs became scarce with the closure of the mills. By 2015 the population had been reduced to just 350 people with one general store that sold everything they couldn’t buy online. St. Ignace remained the only church in the town, but they no longer hosted a parish priest. One man took care of the cemetery, a retiree named Peter who liked to keep busy outdoors. The last Sunday service had been held before he volunteered to be the groundskeeper, but the last interment was more than 20 years old. The old graveyard was a peaceful place to work in – during the day.

Everyone in St. Ignace knew the stories, they’d been passed down for generations. Every small town in the foothills had its own version of the legend, and they all believed them to be true. No child of these villages has ever stepped into their churchyard after dark, and in the few towns that still exist, none ever will. They all know about the ghouls.

In the summer of 2015, Michael Wallace drove up to St. Ignace with his wife and two children to place flowers on his grandmother’s grave. He was careful to plan the timing of his trip so that they would arrive before noon but did not tell his wife why. Villagers rarely shared the legend of the Laurentian ghouls with outsiders; they respected the lore enough to protect it and did not want thrill seekers exploring their cemeteries recreationally. It wasn’t just desecration that they were worried about; the towns no longer had the infrastructure to perform search and rescue missions every time a drunken teen wandered off into the woods.

When Michael arrived at the cemetery the grass was freshly cut, and Peter was headed for his car in the small parking lot. They waved a friendly hello to one another, but Peter didn’t stop to chat. This was fine by Michael’s wife, Marcie, who hated cemeteries and wanted to be back on the road as quickly as possible. She ushered their two girls out of the car and gave them a gentle shove when they hesitated to follow their father through the low iron gates. With the promise of ice cream, if they were good, they picked up the pace and went back to their usual non-stop chattering.

Michael wove between weather-worn stones barely glancing at them. He’d been visiting his grandmother there for years, there was nothing new to look at. When he found her stone in the back third of the yard, he placed a bouquet in front of it and squatted. The girls ran around behind him, tagging one another while he spoke to her. They had shared a close connection when he was a boy, probably more so than he shared with his own mother. He felt tears welling in his eyes as he remembered moments with her fondly. Marcie held back near the gates, watching the girls. She told him once that she was respecting his privacy, but he knew better. Anything having to do with death freaked her out, and cemeteries were the worst. That was the main reason Michael never told her about the ghouls. He was just placing a hand on his grandmother’s stone to say goodbye when a high-pitched shriek startled him to his feet.

“Chelsea!” Marcie screamed, running into the graveyard with one hand over her mouth.

Michael turned on his heel and looked for Chelsea. She wasn’t there. Marcie stopped and dropped to her knees and called for her daughter again. When Michael reached her side, she was crying, hard. His eyes went wide as his mind caught up with his vision; a small hole had opened in the lawn.

“I didn’t do it, Mama!” Sarah said, her body rigid with fear, her face staring down in horror.

“I know you didn’t, baby! Chelsea!” Marcie was reaching into the hole, trying to find her younger child.

Michael pulled her back, away from the hole. She struggled against him, scrambling to find her footing so that she could reach into the hole again. She had to find Chelsea.

“Marcie, stop!”

Michael was pulling her harder now, wrapping his arms around her waist and lifting her off the ground.

“Sarah, get back!” he barked.

Sarah jumped, took two slow steps back, and then saw her mother flailing in her father’s arms. He yelled again, ordering Sarah to back up. She stumbled over the base of a headstone and fell on her backside, bursting into tears. Michael was yelling at Marcie who was kicking and screaming, beating his strong forearms with her fists. Finally, he dropped her, and she landed on her feet. He grabbed one wrist to hold her back, trying to get her attention. She would not listen, could not, as long as her baby was still missing down that hole under the graves, unresponsive. Michael pulled his other hand back and slapped Marcie hard across the face.

Sarah screamed and ran to her mother. Her father had never slapped any of them before. Marcie turned to face Michael holding a hand over her cheek. She was silent now and fuming. He held out both palms and waited.

“Marcie, I’m sorry. Listen to me! We don’t have time-“

She ignored him and turned back toward the hole with Sarah clutching at her skirt.

“Marcie!” Michael’s voice boomed. Marcie didn’t stop, but Sarah was startled enough to turn around and look at her father in surprise. Everything was happening so fast; she didn’t know what to do. In one quick movement, Michael separated Sarah’s hand from her mother’s skirt and tackled Marcie to the ground.

“Listen to me!” he screamed in her ear. Sarah covered her face with her hands, but Michael finally had Marcie’s attention.

“What, Michael? I have to get her! I have to help Chelsea!” Marcie wriggled beneath him, unable to throw his weight off her back.

“I will get her! I! I will go!”

Marcie struggled to breathe under his weight, but he was not moving until she settled down. He shifted a little to relieve the pressure against her torso but kept her pinned.

“Did you hear me? You wait with Sarah. I will get her!”

Marcie breathed hard but nodded her assent. “Okay.” She looked around for Sarah and saw her cowering against a headstone. Sarah was three years older than Chelsea but was almost the same size as her little sister. She needed protection, too. Marcie’s mothering instincts transferred to her older daughter, and she stretched out a hand toward her.

“Sarah! It’s okay, baby, it’s going to be okay!”

Seeing that Marcie was refocused, Michael got up and let her go. She scooted to Sarah and sank to her knees to wrap her daughter in her arms. Sarah collapsed, crying loudly into her mother’s chest. Michael went to the edge of the hole and tried to see inside. It was too dark; the hole was too small to let enough sunlight in. He took his cell phone out of his back pocket and swiped the screen to turn on the flashlight. Kneeling beside the hole he lowered it in and tried again. All he could see was plant roots and soil.

“Chelsea?” he yelled directly into the hole. He twisted his face to put his ear closer to the surface and shook his head. She wasn’t answering him. Looking around the cemetery for something helpful, he spied the groundskeeper’s shed that Pete always left unlocked. No one in St. Ignace would bother with the tools inside; it was a safe little town. Running for it, he yanked the door open and pulled out the first spade he found. Most of the shed was draped in cobwebs; Pete didn’t need much to keep the grounds tidy.

While Marcie and Sarah watched, Michael chipped away at the edges of the hole until it was large enough for his body to fit through. He dropped the shovel on the ground and took one more look at them.

“I’ll be back. I’ll find her.”

He lowered himself through the hole and dropped to the ground below.

He was surprised to find that he was in a tunnel, formed without tools from what he could see by the light of his cell phone. He checked the battery status before continuing: 72%. Good enough. While he knew about the ghouls and how they survived, there were very few stories about how they lived. It made sense to him that they would need tunnels under the graves to access their meals. He and his friends had always assumed that they lived in the mountains and accessed fresh burials from above, but he had been very young when the last burial took place at St. Ignace’s churchyard and hadn’t given the ghouls much thought since then. While they all knew it to be true, the ghouls were so elusive that they fell into the same category as the Sasquatch farther north. They were there, but you’d never see one so you didn’t really need to think about them.

His older brother Gerrard was the first to tell him about the ghouls when he was only six years old. He had run crying to his father, but instead of getting the belt, Gerrard had been asked to leave the room. Their father lifted Michael up onto his knee and whispered the legend into his ear. He made Michael promise not to play in the churchyard, and to never, ever, talk about the ghouls with outsiders. Michael didn’t sleep that night or the next, but eventually, the story faded and became just one more thing in the background of his young mind.

Now, holding his cell phone light in front of him, he tried to recall every detail he’d ever heard. Ghouls were humans or a version of humans. They lived in the mountains and fed on dead things. They could be immortal if they continued to feed, and they kept the towns free of rats and other pests. The towns in the Laurentian foothills prospered because the ghouls kept them free of pestilence, which meant the villagers could live a prosperous, healthy life because of them. Anyone who died in the foothills was buried in the town churchyard, but once in the ground, the bodies were considered food for the ghouls. As the towns began to empty out in favor of bigger cities, villagers noticed some of their family pets disappearing but let it go. It was a small price to pay to keep the remaining population happy and healthy.

There wasn’t a lot of money coming into St. Ignace anymore, with the mills closed and most of the population gone, but those who remained still did well for themselves. Michael didn’t know the specifics, but he understood that Pete was the key to the town’s continued wealth. It had something to do with his job at the cemetery. He met Marcie during their first year at the University, and he never moved back to St. Ignace. There were holes in his knowledge about the goings-on in St. Ignace, now.

Michael followed the tunnel until it forked and then mentally flipped a coin to decide which one to search first. He tried calling Chelsea’s name every few minutes but received no answers. By his estimation, he was under the church extension when he saw the first broken coffins. It looked like they had been released from the dirt from below, falling into the tunnel in bits and pieces. Most of them dangled at odd angles, their holes not large enough to allow the entire box to fall to the tunnel floor below. Their lids were splintered or missing, with only shreds of dusty material laying listlessly against the surfaces that remained. Michael walked past a pile of debris and pulled up fast when his flashlight shone on a stack of bones. There were dozens of bodies, based on the number of skulls he saw, and they were all picked clean. These bodies had been eaten long ago; there was no scent of rot in the air.

He turned around and found his way back to the fork, entering the other tunnel with his cell held high. He called Chelsea’s name again and stood still listening to silence. Stepping forward carefully, he dodged more collapsed coffins, crawling over and under whatever lay in his path. The tunnel narrowed until it was almost too small for his large frame, but his flashlight glinted off something shiny just ahead. He wedged himself between the dirt walls, stepping sideways with his arms outstretched, his face turned toward whatever was reflecting under his light. He felt a slight breeze against his hand, the one holding the phone, and almost dropped it, imagining spiders or ghoul breath against his skin. His ribs were stuck; he could not move any further. He twisted his wrist around, trying every angle he could manage with the light, but he could not see what was shining back at him. With a sharp inhale, he raised both arms above his head and transferred the phone to his left hand. Closing his eyes, he reached back into the void with his right and felt around. There was a ledge of some sort dug into the dirt, and he thought he felt something there. He pushed himself, stretching his arm as far as he could, and his fingertips made contact. He grasped thin cold metal and scooped it into his palm to pull back toward the light. He held it above his head and looked. A golden necklace, thick with jewels. Shocked, he dropped the necklace and reached for the ledge again. He danced his fingertips in every direction as far as he could and found another object: a ring.

He pulled himself out of the crevice he’d wedged himself into and bent to retrieve the necklace. Holding both pieces of jewelry in front of the flashlight, he knew they were antiques. He pocketed them both and kept moving. Had the jewelry fallen out of a coffin? What was above that ledge? Suddenly it dawned on him. The wealth of the townspeople. They all lived very well despite the decades without jobs or tourists. Was this some kind of deal they had with the ghoul? All you can eat buffet in exchange for a steady source of riches from the dearly departed? His stomach lurched.

He found himself wandering through the tunnels aimlessly and realized he’d made a mistake. Allowing himself to ponder the jewelry had taken his attention away from calculating his position under the graveyard. He could trace his steps back to the pile of bones under the extension, but he knew Chelsea wasn’t there. That would be a waste of time. The tunnels could not go on forever; the ghoul only needed access to his food, the corpses the villagers buried. It would be difficult for him to get lost in such a small area.

A scuffling sound echoed in the distance and Michael froze.

“Chelsea?”

The scuffling was coming toward him. He waved his flashlight into the darkness furiously.

“Follow the light, Chelsea! I’m right here! Daddy’s here!”

A pair of tiny green lights flashed back at Michael, caught in his cell light’s beam. Michael assumed it was Chelsea’s eyes and bent down on one knee with his arms spread wide to take her in a relieved embrace.

“Chelsea! Thank Go-“

It wasn’t Chelsea. The ghoul took another step toward Michael and growled. His skin was a ghastly white, almost translucent where it ran closest to his bones. Michael saw the blue worms of his blood vessels squirming beneath the skin and screamed when the thing’s torn black lips peeled back in a grimace. The ghoul’s teeth had been sharpened to points, and its dark tongue dripped thick saliva that looked like slime. Its odor was overpowering.

“Michael!” he heard Marcie calling, the edge of panic biting at her voice. She had heard his scream. He wheeled backward, away from the ghoul, and dropped his cell phone. The flashlight turned off. Michael had never seen so much as a drawing of a Laurentian ghoul before, but the image would forever be etched in his mind now. He felt its fingers wrap around his wrist and recoiled, repulsed by the touch. He opened his mouth to scream again, but the ghoul wrapped its other hand around his throat and collapsed his windpipe. Michael dropped to the ground, silenced.

At the edge of the hole in the cemetery, Marcie was losing her mind. She kept calling for Michael and Chelsea, but after that one scream, all she could hear was silence. Sarah was beside herself, crying so hard she was retching.

“Come on, Sarah, we need to get help. Come on baby, get up, we’re going to get help.”

Marcie took Sarah by the hand and pulled her to the car. She had her own set of keys in her purse, and she knew where the general store was from previous visits to Michael’s grandmother’s grave. It took less than three minutes to drive to the store and there were no other cars parked out front. The sun had slid substantially across the sky since their arrival. Marcie glanced at the clock in the car and was shocked to see that it was almost 5 PM. She told Sarah to wait in the car while she ran in to find someone to help them rescue Michael and Chelsea.

A small bell chimed when she opened the door, exactly what one would expect in a small-town general store. A tall man with white hair stood behind the register reading a magazine.

“Bonjour! Puis-je vous aider?” Can I help you?

“My husband,” Marcie began in English, “My daughter, they fell in the cemetery, they-“

The shopkeeper held up a hand.

“Please, madame, slowly.” Marcie took a breath. Many in the Laurentian valley small towns did not learn to speak English if they didn’t need to. Clearly, this man knew some but was not fluent. Marcie had a decent grasp of the French language but reverted to English when she was trying to say something quickly. She needed to be clear, now, so spoke slowly.

“We are here to visit my husband’s grandmother’s grave. A hole opened up in the ground and my daughter fell in. My husband went down to get her but hasn’t returned. That was,” she looked at her watch, “about five hours ago. I have another little girl in the car. I need help!”

The shopkeeper stroked his stubble with one hand and clicked his tongue.

“The cemetery, you say. I am sorry, I cannot help you.”

Marcie stared at him for a few seconds then tried again, assuming he had not understood her.

“No. My daughter, she is seven years old, fell into a hole in the graveyard. It’s deep. My husband lowered himself into the hole to look for her and never came back. They must be injured. We need someone to come with a ladder and rescue equipment.”

The shopkeeper looked at her blankly.

“I’m sorry, I can try in French.” Marcie offered.

“No, madame. I understand you perfectly. I am telling you I cannot help you. No one else in this town will, either.”

Marcie’s jaw dropped.

“What do you mean no one will help us? How do you know that?”

He had a hand up again, telling her to stop speaking.

“I have ladders and ropes here, but no one will go with you to the cemetery.”

“You must have police here or a firehouse. You must have someone who is trained to help in rescue situations.”

“It is not that no one is trained, madame. It is that we will not go under the ground in the cemetery. I am sorry, you are on your own.”

He turned his back and began walking toward the back of the store.

“You can’t be serious!” Marcie yelled. “What would you do if it was your child? Would no one help you?”

The shopkeeper lifted a roll of rope from a peg and threw it over his shoulder. Marcie continued to batter him with questions and insults meant to box him into helping her, but he did not acknowledge what she was saying. He picked up a shovel, a flashlight with a crank that didn’t require batteries, and a pair of work gloves. She followed him as he returned to the register and dropped the supplies on the counter. He punched buttons on the register and finally met her eyes.

“$46.75, please.”

“Wh-what?”

“These are the things you need to go into that hole. The total is $46.75. Cash or charge?” He held a debit terminal out to her.

Marcie was a little surprised that they offered debit as a payment method in the foothills and really wanted to fill the man’s ears with a stream of expletives but was more concerned about getting back to the graveyard before the sunset. It was still only 5 PM on a summer day, but the fact that she’d sat at that hole for five hours without realizing how much time had passed worried her. She pulled her wallet out of her purse and begrudgingly tapped her card.

“Thanks, so much, for your help.” She said sarcastically.

“A bientot!” he replied with a polite salute. The bell jingled again as she left the store.

Marcie popped the trunk and dropped the equipment inside. Sarah was quiet in the back seat, watching her mother carefully. Marcie slid into the front seat and turned the engine on again with a glance at Sarah in the rearview mirror.

“It’s ok, sweetie, I have everything I need. We’re going to get Daddy and Chelsea out of that hole now!” She threw the car into reverse and sped back to the cemetery. When she parked, she had Sarah help her carry the equipment back to the hole.

“Sarah honey, I need you to wait here,” Marcie said, tying the rope around her waist and securing a few knots in it. The other end was tied around a tree trunk near the extended end of the church. Sarah was crying again, protesting that she didn’t want to be left alone. Marcie sighed. She didn’t have time to calm her daughter, but she understood the girl’s fear.

“Here,” Marcie said, holding out the rope for Sarah to take. “See that tree over there? I’m tied to that. You hold the rope, and then you’re attached to me, too. Do you see?” She moved around while Sarah held the slack rope, demonstrating how her movements made the rope pull taught. “You keep holding that, and you’ll know I’m still with you.”

Sarah gave the rope a tug but was still upset.

“I know, baby.” Marcie kissed the top of her head. “I’ll be back quick, I promise. I think Daddy and Marcie might be stuck, but I’m going to make that hole bigger with this shovel. Then I can help get them out. Okay?”

Sarah would not meet her mother’s gaze. Marcie gave her one more kiss and told her not to move from her spot. It only took a few jabs with the shovel to break away enough earth for her to slip through comfortably. She pulled on the rope, testing its hold against the tree. Sarah’s little hands remained clamped to the section her mother had given her. Marcie gave her a weak smile then lowered herself into the hole.

When her feet met solid ground again, she cranked the flashlight and shone its beam around. She saw the same tunnels Michael had, but through the eyes of someone who had never heard of ghouls. She was shocked. Had the town built their graveyard over an old mine? What kind of animal would burrow tunnels this big? She was able to stand in them without bending over. She took a few steps forward before she noticed the shoe prints in the dirt. Michael! She followed the trail, winding the flashlight every other minute, terrified that she might be left in the dark under the graves.

A foul smell hit her nose at the same moment that she tripped and landed on her knees with a crunch. She gasped and dropped the flashlight, gripping both kneecaps with her hands. The ground was solid enough to cause damage, but she didn’t think they were broken. She rubbed them for a moment, biting back tears, then reached for the dying flashlight. She wound it again and looked to see what she had tripped over. A shoe. Michael’s shoe.

“Michael!” she screamed. “Miiiiichaellll!” The silence rang in her ears. The rope around her waist was moving; Sarah was pulling on it from above. She became aware of the stink again and screamed as the ghoul grabbed her by the hair and pulled her onto her back. It yanked her through the tunnels quickly while her mind tried to reconcile what it was experiencing. Above the ground, the sudden pull on the rope burned Sarah’s palms and she dropped it.

“Momma!” Sarah cried, throwing herself to her belly on the ground at the edge of the hole.

“Mommy!” she wailed into the hole.

Marcie heard her and returned to her senses enough to try to fight back. She pounded at the hand that gripped her hair and dug her heels into the dirt. The thing was strong, though, and kept pulling her through the darkness. When it finally stopped, Marcie was thrown a small distance and landed with her leg raised across a soft surface. She blinked hard, trying to shake the pain in her head and knees away so she could concentrate. As her eyes adjusted, she saw a crack of light above. There must be another hole in the cemetery lawn! She gripped the rope dangling from her waist and pulled, but it was far too lax. She gathered less than ten feet into a pile in her lap when she felt the frayed end. The thing had severed it. Sarah was all alone now. Whimpering, she propped herself on her elbows and tried to look around. She moved her raised leg but her skirt was caught on something. She felt around and bit back vomit. The zipper in the back of Chelsea’s dress had caught a loop of thread in her skirt. Her baby!

Frantically she slid her hands over Chelsea’s still body. She was warm. Marcie heard a groan close by and twisted her body to face it. Michael! She called out to him quietly, aware that the thing could be there with them.

“Michael!” she whispered, “I found Chelsea! We have to get out of here!”

Michael didn’t answer her. She couldn’t see him in the dim light, but she knew he was there. She could feel him.

“Michael!” she tried again.

“Mommy!” Sarah’s voice found its way through the tunnels to her.

Sarah was sitting up again, her feet dangling into the hole. She didn’t want to be in the cemetery alone. It was getting dark, and she was afraid. It was her fault that Chelsea fell into the hole, they had been playing tag. She would be a big girl and go down there to find her family. All she needed to do was jump. She had jumped before; she was good at jumping! She would be okay. She swung her feet preparing to jump.

A hand from below rose up and gripped her just above her frilly ankle sock. She shrieked as it pulled her into the hole, her voice trailing as she disappeared.

Down the street, the shopkeeper closed his door. He’d been standing in the entrance, listening keenly. With that last shriek, he knew it was done. He shook his head. If only they’d moved those damn graves when they’d built onto the church so many years ago. They should have known their disrespect would curse the village. Ghouls chose their homes carefully; they knew which cemeteries were cared for and which weren’t. The people of St. Ignace had all but asked for this.

Sighing loudly, he flipped the open sign to closed and locked the door. At least with that amount of food, two adults, and two children, the ghoul should be satisfied until the following spring. They could worry about its next meal then.

Used by permission of Kate DeJonge.  From her book Nightmares: A Collection of Scary Stories
Copyright © 2021 Kate DeJonge.

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Portions of this book are works of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real places are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and events are products of the author’s imagination, and any resemblances to actual events or places or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

First Edition 2021

Kate DeJonge

23-470 Stone Church Rd E

Hamilton, ON

L9B 2A6 CANADA

 

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