A haunting memory is a helluva thing.
It stood for 150 years and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Nestled in a remote area near Ottumwa, Iowa, it welcomed picnics, social gatherings, weddings, and, sadly, some primal morons. I’m talking about Mars Hill Log Church, a one-room structure that was burned to the ground last month by two adults and three teens. Although I don’t go to church---too many hypocrites---I always admired Mars Hill because of its history and location. My first visit there was in 1969, at the hormone-raging age of 17. Now I had heard that the place was haunted and was home, sometimes, to a black panther that wouldn’t attack anyone who was connected to a can or bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Although I didn’t like the taste of beer---and still don’t---I got acquainted with a six-pack and, along with my buddy, Randy, drove my ’54 Chevy out to Mars Hill, despite knowing I had no spare tire, no turning signals, and no left headlight. But hell, I was 17, that age when worries are mere seedlings.
Sweating in August heat, we arrived at our destination at 12:30am. Apart from the deceased in the small graveyard, Randy and I were alone, each nursing a warming can of brew. Suddenly a dim glow appeared out from behind a headstone that was standing near the middle of the graveyard. It looked as if someone had ignited the mantle in a small lantern.
“Jesus!” Randy shouted, his hand tight about his can of brew.
The light disappeared in an instant.
I had gulped loudly, heart pounding, sweat insulting my organs of vision. “It’s gotta be a jo-joke. I’d bet my left nut that Dave and his brother are out there, trying to scare us.”
I worked with Dave Stout at a gas station in Ottumwa. He and his younger brother, Ron, were pranksters.
Randy cringed. “Dave and-and Ron know we’re out here?”
“They were in the station (my place of work) earlier today. I told ’em you and I would prob’ly be here aroun’ midnight.” I inflated my lungs and then released the dead air slowly, hoping to the core that Dave and Ron were responsible for the light behind the headstone. I then stuck my head out through the window opening to my left. “Hey, Dave and Ron!” I shouted. “We know you guys are in the cemetery. Fun’s over. Show yourselves.”
The firefly took to the calm air.
I activated the car’s dome light, feeling a little better now because of the dim light. “We’re not alone. I don’t know for sure who’s breathin’ in the cemetery, but we’re not alone.” I glimpsed Randy. “There’s a flashlight in the glove compartment. Hand it to me.”
No sooner had I spoken than another glow appeared in the graveyard, also dim but in a different part of the cemetery, about fifteen feet from where the first attention grabber occurred. Like Randy, I was experiencing a dose of the creeps the like of which I had never felt before.
The glow disappeared from sight; I activated the flashlight, relieved that the beam was strong. Then, my shoulders drawing inward, I opened the driver’s door, slightly, hearing the chirping of many crickets, some of which were within spitting distance of the resting car I was in.
Randy had exited the vehicle and was, along with me, standing a few feet from the front of the Chevy.
“If Dave and Ron are tryin’ to scare us,” I said, speaking just above a whisper, “where’s their car? They sure as shit didn’t walk to this place.”
A distant owl sounded off, its haunting hooting causing my eyes to widen.
“Anybody in the graveyard?” Randy shouted suddenly, standing as close to me as possible.
The hooting stopped.
I, using the flashlight, gestured at the abused wire fence that separated the cemetery from the dirt road. “Let’s go.”
He gulped. “To the-the graveyard?”
A stick snapped sharply in the nearby woods.
Randy shuddered. “You think the black pan-panther’s in the woods?”
I spat, despite experiencing a dry mouth. “Let’s hope the hell not.” I directed the beam of the flashlight back to the cemetery, my organs of vision narrowing at an old headstone that was leaning toward the woods. “We---”
“Shhh!” Randy whispered loudly.
I turned to him and saw that he was peering at the church. “What’s wrong?” I spoke softly, my nerves once again assuring me they were alive and well.
“I-I thought I heard something come from in-inside the church.”
I moved the flashlight, the beam scarcely able to reach the old structure. “Show yourselves, dammit!” I shouted.
Another stick snapped in the woods, this one a little louder than the first.
“What the---!” Randy began, then nearly buckled at the knees, for in view now was Ron Stout, naked and having just stepped out of the calm timber, walking toward the church, arms limp at his sides.
I backed to the car, the shaky beam of the flashlight following Ron as drew closer to the structure, seemingly walking through headstones as if they weren’t there.
Randy, having joined me, shuddered violently. “Ron? It’s me: Ran-Randy. Why are you na-naked? Where---” He turned to me. “My God, he was in the woods---without a flashlight. Jesus!”
Ron was about to reach the door of the church.
“Hey, Ron!” I fairly
screamed. “Look at us, dammit!”
The door began to open, apparently doing so on its own.
“This can’t be happening,” Randy muttered. “This---something’s wrong, man. Something’s very wrong.”
I swallowed hard, scarcely believing that Ron had been in the woods without a light of some sort. “”Let’s go.” I walked away, heading toward the church, wondering if I was doing the right thing.
We were approaching the now-closed door, aware that the crickets had silenced themselves. I recalled what my dad said when I was a boy: “When crickets stop sounding off at the same time, it’s usually ’cause there’s a snake in the area.”
But it wasn’t snakes I was worried about; it was Ron. His sudden appearance in the graveyard, his nakedness, his failure to speak to Randy and I, I could not explain.
Experiencing a major dose of the creeps, I, after reaching the door, pushed it wide open with a foot, my lungs on pause. Because Randy and I had been in the church many times, we knew it had in it wooden benches, a crude lectern, and an old organ that wouldn’t sound off. We also knew there were two, four-pane windows at the north and south sides of the place.
Randy followed me into the church, our eyes following the side-to-side movement of the flashlight, the old wooden floor sounding off under our cautious feet.
“Ron’s not here,” I said. “But, that’s not possible. We saw him enter this place.” I hustled to the lectern and looked behind it. No Ron. I then went to each window and noticed they had been nailed shut, the heads of the nails quite rusty.
“What the hell’s going on here?” Randy asked, standing a few feet behind me.
“Good question.” I directed the beam of the flashlight out through a south window, squinting at what little I could see of the graveyard. “If this is a prank. . .it’s a damn good one.”
A dim light appeared in the graveyard, about fifty feet from the window Randy and I were standing at. This time the light was about six feet in height and about two feet in width. But no sooner had it appeared than it went away.
Randy shuddered. “I think it’s time we get-get our asses outta here. I’ve seen enough.”
I was quick to agree.
My hand was tightening about the flashlight as I, along with my buddy, departed the church, warm air greeting our nerve-wracked bodies. Suddenly our ears were struck with a most eerie wailing sound---and it was coming from the graveyard. Strongly was I wishing we had stayed home.
In the cemetery, we were approaching the car, picking up speed, frequently zigzagging to avoid contact with headstones. Like Randy, I knew the wailing sound was coming from where the light had been, yet there was no one in that area.
Downright scared, we had just reached the fence when the chilling wailing sound stopped, causing us to stop and turn, the beam of the flashlight coming to rest on a headstone. On it was the name Jesse Parks, who was born in 1833 and died in 1896.
I was about to swing a leg up over the fence when the wailing sound returned, followed by not one. . .but two lights, one beside the other, one no brighter than the other. The sound stopped abruptly. Then: “Please, tell us where to go.”
Randy gasped loudly. “Dave. That was Dave Stout’s voice! Jesus!”
The lights began to fade, slowly revealing two bodies.
“Oh-my-God,” I muttered, wide-eyed.
“Please, tell us where to go,” Dave repeated, then came into full view as did his brother. Like Ron, Dave was naked. Both looked as if they were in a trance, and both were giving off an odor much like that after a match is extinguished.
I swallowed hard, scarcely believing what I was looking at. “Dave? Ron? Why are you guys---”
Both turned simultaneously and began to walk away, heading toward the woods in single file, arms refusing to move.
“Stop, dammit!” I shouted.
But they didn’t stop. Kept going until they disappeared from sight in the inviting woods.
Each experiencing a tingling sensation from head to toe, we rushed to the car and was on our way home in a heartbeat. It wasn’t until the following day did we learn that Dave and Ron Stout, while swimming, drowned after being pulled down by a strong current in the Skunk River. Their bodies were pulled from the murky water about six hours before Randy and I left to go to Mars Hill.
News about our chilling experience traveled quickly. Many people went to Mars Hill, hoping to see the ghosts of Dave and Ron. Apart from Randy and I, no one ever seen them. How the lifeless brothers managed to make it to Mars Hill on the night Randy and I were there is something I’ll never know. One thing for certain, the words ‘Please, tell us where to go’ will haunt me for the rest of my days.
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