Happy Halloween! As promised, here is a spooky, creepy short story by S.A. Newby, grand prize winner of the Haunted Contest. Chilled me to the bone....
THE MEN WITHOUT FACES
by S.A. Newby
We guarded our secret closely, as only the young can do, savoring it as we told our tales in the bright sunlight of day. At night, it became all too real and our fear too personal as we cocooned in our beds, praying for safety through the night.
There were only four of us in our unusual little club. At nine, Fred was the oldest, while I came in second at eight along with Jimmy. Little Mary was the youngest, but it was through her that we all came together.
In the projects, we played in the space between the buildings. Four of us had secrets held tightly private. On a hot, bright August day we realized we weren't alone. All thanks to young Mary.
We were bored and deathly tired of the same old games. Maybe it was the heat of the day, but as we debated games, finding fault with one after the other, three gasped almost as one as Mary offered her suggestion.
"Let's play Men Without Faces."
While the others made fun of Mary, three pairs of eyes set in suddenly pale faces quickly found the truth as we glanced around the group. We weren't the only ones who had seen them. Fears, once ours alone, were now shared.
As one, the three of us quickly pulled Mary from the larger group. "Tell us about the Men Without Faces," we demanded.
"You know, they come at night to visit and their faces aren't there; they're all fuzzy. Momma says I've got to quit making up stories, but I'm not. Haven't you seen them? Why doesn't everybody see them?"
If possible, even more blood drained from our faces. One look around was all it took to confirm the fact we'd all seen them—the Men Without Faces.
Soon the tales began to pour out of us, as if we could expel our fears with their utterance in daylight. Our stories all held similarities and soon we were connecting the threads.
Indeed, we only saw the Men Without Faces at night. Late, late at night when our parents thought us tucked safely in bed.
And our sightings were generally tied to the attic crawlspace that ran the full length of each building. For the longest time, I had been spooked by the panel at the top of the stairs. Especially when I found it askew, partially or even fully uncovered.
Mom, heavily pregnant with my youngest sister, wasn't given to walking up those stairs except to get to the bedrooms at night. Especially to investigate the fears of an overly-imaginative eight-year-old.
"Tell your father," she'd say. But Dad was going to college, playing baseball, and working in a factory at night and I knew better than to add to his burden.
So when the panel was open, partially or fully, I'd know the Men Without Faces would probably be out and about. And they scared the bejeezus out of me.
My first encounter with the Men Without Faces came the night we moved into our apartment. Securely tucked in by Mom with our traditional "Good night, sweet dreams, and I love you," I was soon off to the Land of Nod.
But not for long as I awoke chilled to the bone. Reaching for the blanket at the foot of my bed, I quickly froze. For surrounding my bed were three men. Not just any men, but men without faces. Blank spaces where a face should be: no nose, no lips, no eyes. Just about the time I convinced myself I was dreaming, somehow I heard them say, "This one's okay. No need for aid."
The next morning I assured myself it was all a dream. After all, how could men without faces, no mouths, speak?
And so began the saga of the Men Without Faces.
They never did anything to me, nor any of us. It was just those faces. Or the lack thereof. And the air of sadness and fear one felt all around them. And the fact that sometimes, just sometimes, they would look at you. Or at least we all felt that they were looking at us. Hard to tell, really, when there were no discernible faces.
We told our tales, but, given our rampant imaginations and the times, the Men Without Faces were nothing so mundane as ghosts. We had decided they were aliens here on some mission we had yet to fathom. But, believe me, we were working on it.
One morning there was a commotion at one of the apartments. The police and an ambulance came. Parents gathered outside, talking in hushed whispers and shooing us youngsters away. They always underestimated our resourcefulness.
Soon we reconnoitered around the side of the building to share the information we had gleaned.
"They found him on the stairs, on his mattress. Halfway down," one reported. "He's a wino, my dad said, and must have pulled that mattress down the steps before he had the heart attack."
"They're saying he was delirious or crazy. He was mumbling about people without faces coming to get him."
We looked solemnly at each other, 'til Mary piped up, "They were here last night. They were trying to save him. They were awful sad when they left."
But Mary's insights were lost to us, as bound as we were to our fanciful theory of aliens. Last night, we decided, they had to take a human for experiments and Old Man Webb was probably a good choice since he lived alone and was thought to be "a little off the beam."
One evening much later, Mom hollered and I rushed down to find out that Dad had been hurt in a baseball game and his friends had taken him to the hospital with a broken ankle. They were on their way home and I was to stay out of the way.
I reluctantly headed upstairs to my parents' bedroom window where I could see what was going on. Soon our car pulled up and Dad's teammates got him out of the car, supporting him as well as they could.
When I'd seen the Men Without Faces before, they were already there. But that night, before my very eyes, they just kind of materialized. One minute they weren't there, then they were.
I wasn't scared for Dad and his friends. I was dumbstruck. And then it hit me: they weren't a threat. Moreover they seemed to be solicitous of my father, walking alongside his friends as they brought him in. Maybe Mary was right.
I rushed downstairs to see if they had come into our apartment, but they were gone.
I would see the Men Without Faces only once more.
Months later, I again noticed the crawlspace panel ajar. Lately the fear that once engendered had turned into a tingle of anticipation. I tried my best to stay awake, but all too soon drifted off, only to be awakened later by more loud voices, this time from our living room.
Jumping up, I padded as quietly as possible down the stairs, peering around the corner to find, to my amazement, my parents forcing a glass of buttermilk on a clearly inebriated man. Soon enough I was spotted and shooed upstairs where I made for my parents' window.
The quietened voices downstairs moved and I heard the door open. The "buttermilk" man staggered down the sidewalk, but he wasn't alone. The Men Without Faces accompanied him, one on each side, one following behind.
As it goes in life, Dad graduated from MTSU and got a coaching job at another small Middle Tennessee town. I never heard from Fred, Jimmy, or Mary again.
And the memory of the Men Without Faces receded into the far corners of my mind, soon cataloged as an oddity, surely a childhood fantasy. Whenever I allowed myself to recall the reality, that memory always carried a frisson of wonder, tinged with amazement.
It was only decades later that it hit me.
Traveling to the sprawling university town that once-sleepy Murfreesboro had become, I drove to one of the malls on a route that took me right past the old "projects" we had lived in during the year of the Men Without Faces.
Stopped dumbfounded at the red light, I stared straight ahead at what I had seen a million times before without really seeing.
The pieces of the puzzle soon fell into place.
The Men Without Faces weren't aliens on a mission.
They were ghosts on a mission.
A mission to aid their fallen comrades.
For straight ahead of me lay Stone's River National Battlefield—one of the many Civil War battlefields across the state where soldiers killed in bloody combat are said to still wander in the night.
There the Men Without Faces may well still roam looking to aid their fallen comrades, not realizing that they, all those years ago, were among the fallen.
September 30, 2011 | S.A. Newby