feature 444 

Darren. A story for Halloween Fiction by Chris "Midnight Stalker" Woodall Darren loved to go to school. As soon as it was September, there he would be at his favourite place at the back of Mrs. Barker's Grade 4 class. He would be in his seat even before the rest of the class walked through the red front doors of Myrtle Philip School, a big grin on his face, his hands on his desk. Waiting. He never missed a day… even though Darren had been dead for 25 years. No one knew how Darren had died. It just happened that there he was at the back of Mrs. Barker's Grade 4 class. When Myrtle Philip School moved from its old location in Whistler Village to its new one on Lorimer Road and Mrs. Barker changed her first name from "Miss" to "Mrs.", there he was again at the back of the Grade 4 class. You could see right through Darren of course, because he was a ghost. You don't get to be a ghost for 25 years and not be seen through. Darren even had a ghost desk. You could see the floor right through the table and chair, but only when Darren was in attendance, because when Darren was gone, so was the desk. Now, you might think having a ghost as a Grade 4 pupil would scare the rest of the students, but no one seemed to mind. And anyway, Darren was fun to be with. Instead of answering one of Mrs. Barker's questions by raising his hand like the rest of the children did, Darren would simply make his hair stand on end. There he would be, grinning and grinning, glowing green and blue and yellow and green again, and Mrs. Barker would ask the class: "OK class, who was our first prime minister?" Darren's hair would shock to attention, sometimes beating everyone with knowing the answer. If Mrs. Barker waited for others to come up with the right answer, Darren's hair would start waving, curling, knotting and getting really excited. It even got longer and longer, the longer he had to wait before he or someone else got to say the right answer. "OK Darren, who was our first prime minister?" But Darren couldn't speak. He was dead, after all. His mouth would move, but you couldn't hear anything. Instead, Darren would also raise his arm slowly and point at the chalkboard. A piece of chalk would wobble in the rack, and lift into the air, then begin to write: "John A. Macdonald." The chalk would hover like a helicopter. Waiting. "That's wonderful, Darren!" Mrs. Barker would say. The chalk would fall, Darren's hair would fall and you could tell he was happy he had got it right by the livid blue colour in Darren's face. Raising the hair to answer questions was Mrs. Barker's idea. Darren used to raise his hand like all the rest of the children, but one day he was so sure he knew the answer he raised his arm so fast it tore right off his shoulder and hit the ceiling! Because Darren had been dead for 25 years, it didn't hurt, but it took him a few minutes to get the arm to float back where it should be. One time, the arm returned to Darren, but the hand grabbed onto Darren's head, sitting there with the rest of the arm sticking straight up like a long hat. Darren, and his arm, liked to be mischievous. Being dead for 25 years didn't mean being a poop for 25 years. Along came the end of October and with it came Halloween. Along came rain. Along came darker and darker days. Along came winds making the tree birds jump and hoop and boink through the air with each gust of turning weather. Turning colder. Turning darker. Turnings and turnings that say the end of the year is coming. Soon. Some leaves turn colour, from green to a kind of yellow. Some leaves that weren't from here, but were brought to Whistler sometime in the last five years, turn to a kind of red. But they are small trees. A hopeful thought that turned sad would crush those red trees, they are so small. Dry ground turns into muddy ground. Dry masts of trees that lay along the edge of the Myrtle Philip School playing field, so boys and girls could sit to eat their lunches, turn to black slippery ick that leaves a dark mark on anyone who sits there now. Even the birds that fly above have turned colour. Royal blue Stellar's jays and the shimmering orange hummingbirds turn into black ravens, skulking about to tell us all that, oh yes, the season turns, changes, celebrates its summer and now must celebrate the autumn that comes before the silence and sleep of winter. On this year, Halloween was on a Friday. All the students wore their going-out costumes to school. And Darren? He was a ghost who had been dead for 25 years. He didn't wear anything new or different. He just grinned and grinned. Well, maybe he'd make his head slowly spin around, or make his hair do a special dance. It seemed like the right thing to do. Everybody ooh'd and ahh'd. It was as if everybody forgot that Darren had been dead for 25 years. Every Halloween it was as if Darren was something brand new and fun-scary. Myrtle Philip School always quit at lunch time so the children could get ready for the trick-or-treats in Tapley's Farm. The whole Village of Whistler had decided that Tapley's Farm — a neighbourhood nestled right behind Myrtle Philip School — was the best place for all the Halloween trickers and treaters to go house-to-house. Everyone in Tapley's Farm agreed. It was a neighbourhood full of children who attended Myrtle Philip School and it was a great honour to be where everyone else in Whistler and the hamlet of Pemberton to the north sent their sons and daughters to be safe on Halloween Night. Darren didn't care about that because Darren was never there. Just like any other day, once school was over, Darren was gone. Darren's desk was gone. But this year, Halloween was on a Friday. And there would be a full moon that night. At morning recess all the school was out to play in their costumes. Kenneth Green was a Spaceman with a TV antennae in his bicycle helmet. Steffy Stiff was a red Witch with silky tatters for a dress. Davie Kite was a Dracula with store-bought fangs, but a cape he made himself (and his granna's help). Darren was Darren. They were playing marbles down by the end of the soccer field. Darren was using his "specials" to play marbles. Darren played with his eyes. Darren simply popped them out — Pop! — and soon he was a Marble King. The Marble King was the player who had the most marbles… or soon would have because of his or her par-tick-u-lar skill at playing marbles. Darren could have been the Marble Emperor, or even the Marble God, but there wasn't any such job title so Darren was the Marble King. That seemed enough for Darren, for as always he just grinned and grinned. What made Darren the Marble King was that the marbles — as eyes — could "see" and why not: they were eyes after all, even if they were ghost eyes and even if they were popped out to be marbles. You could watch a shot by Darren — make no mistake, and on this everyone agreed, it took some special skill to get the eyes to get-a-goin' in the right direction and at the right time and speed and grace of finesse — to start off in what seemed to be the wrong direction but come around the right way to poink Nancy Barrister's boulders, cats eyes, coloureds, or clear-zies. Nancy was the Marble Princess always trying to be Marble King… year after year the second best marble player was the Marble Princess or Marble Prince, but no matter if you were a girl or boy you wanted to be the Marble King… but that was Darren's crown to hold or fold up. Darren's specials would zwoop and spin, hop and spin, rip and bling around and among the enemy marbles until it could… klumpta!… boink a Nancy Barrister mega-boulder into the cup that was a hand-dug pit that held the losing glass balls. There were a million rules for a million types of games. Sometimes the King (Darren) won (well, a lot, really) and sometimes Darren lost. You had to lose three times in a row to give up being Marble King and Darren never lost that often. And here it was Halloween and there was Darren doing very well with his "specials" at the marble fields down by the end of the soccer pitch. Darren had just launched his left-eyed special at the last of Nancy Barrister's marbles (a red cats eye, a multi-coloured swirl, and a semi-boulder that had a little Mickey Mouse inside of its ball of Coke-green glass). Just as Darren's shot knocked the semi-boulder into the cup and was gunning for a rebound at the red cats eye, a very large and very old raven swooped in and snatched up Darren's special in its beak! Off flew the raven, cackling mightily at what it thought was to be a specially dainty morsel of food, for ravens don't often get to eat a little boy's eyeball, even if this one belonged to a ghost who had been dead for 25 years. Ravens aren't fussy about these things. Darren ran off after the raven. The raven gained height as it started to leave the Myrtle Philip School grounds. Darren could see through his missing eye even as it was in the raven's mouth, looking back at the raven's evil tongue and the throat that would soon swallow Darren's eyeball if something couldn't be done to stop the raven. Darren made a fist with his right hand and flung his arm at the escaping old raven as hard as he could. This caused his hand to break off from the end of Darren's arm and zoom at the raven. But the nasty old raven dodged the hand, cackled some more and flew on. Darren's right hand landed safe enough and fingered like a spider back to Darren's right arm. At this success, the grumpy old raven opened its beak wide and — garp, garp, gulp! — swallowed Darren's eye, doing a barrel-roll to celebrate such a tasty treat. Darren stopped suddenly at the very edge of the Myrtle Philip School grounds. He had never gone any farther and he could not go one step beyond the grounds now, even with his eye in the gronky old raven's stomach. But Darren wasn't quitting yet. He concentrated and thought of his lost eye sitting in the horrible darkness of the raven's stomach. The lost eyeball started to get hot. And hotter. And hotter until the terrible old bird started to flip and chip and tumble in chaos as it tried to shake up its stomach and maybe cool off this searing thing it had eaten. The raven even started to peck at its own innards to give it some relief from the shocking pain. In the air the bad bird pitched and careened to escape. Of a sudden the black nasty raven opened its mouth as wide as it could ever do in its life and — urrp-kackk — brought up Darren's eyeball. The eyeball was as flaming red as it was hot and fell to earth. But although it had escaped being truly eaten by the old raven, Darren's eyeball fell somewhere deep in the swamp lands that lay for acres and acres to the north-west of Myrtle Philip School. Darren stood at the edge of the soccer field and watched his eyeball, a far red dot that cooled as it fell, disappear. No one saw it, but Darren's grin disappeared, too, even as Darren faded out of sight. For the next few weeks, the loss of Darren's eyeball became first a topic of talk and then it was as if it had happened long long ago and was never thought much of. Darren grinned and grinned as he "tried out" different types of replacement eyes. One time he used a golf ball and had "Titlest" showing where his pupil would be, even moving it back and forth so that the Titlest signature moved as if it could actually see. Another day Darren used an olive, the one with the red pimento in it. Then Darren would tap the back of his head and the olive would shoot out of Darren's eye socket and bounce off the window or the back of Kristi Wells's head, who sat near the front of the class. But then Darren stopped experimenting and left the eye socket empty. At about the same time Darren did that, he also stopped something else. Gradually and gradually, Darren didn't try to answer Mrs. Barker's questions as much as he used to do. Until one day in December, Darren didn't raise his hair once to tell Mrs. Barker he wanted to answer a class question. Mrs. Barker noticed. She wondered what was happening. "It must have something to do with Darren losing his eye," she told herself one day as she looked out the window of the staff room, watching soft snow flakes like white cotton apples fall steadily from a sky of chalky milk. For one week straight, Darren didn't participate in class, even when Mrs. Barker asked Darren direct questions. Darren just shrugged as if to say, "I don't know." But Darren still attended every school day and Darren still grinned and grinned, and Darren still went outside for recess or lunch. When it was two weeks until Christmas, when everyone else in school was building in excitement for the coming holidays, Mrs. Barker decided she must find out what was going on with Darren. She knew that once three o'clock rang, school was out for the day and Darren would disappear no matter what. So one Friday, Mrs. Barker told the class they had worked very hard all week and were given permission to leave fifteen minutes early. "Darren, could you stay in class for a minute?" said Mrs. Barker as the students filed out. Darren sat at his desk and grinned and grinned, although his bluish green colour seemed to pale somewhat at being singled out to stay behind. Mrs. Barker waited for the silence in the classroom to be complete. Then she asked Darren The Big Question. "Darren, is there something wrong? Is it because you lost your eye?" Well, I guess that's really two big questions, but they were the same thing. Darren raised his arm and pointed at the chalkboard. A new piece of white chalk rose from the rack. "Yes." Mrs. Barker had another question. "Is there something else?" The chalk made to write some more. Its tip pressed against the blackboard, but it did not move. "What is it?" Mrs. Barker asked. The chalk started writing. Slowly. "I… am… afraid," Darren told the chalk to say. Mrs. Barker waited for more. "Being dead is being… alone." "But Darren," Mrs. Barker said, "you are always grinning and grinning." The chalk moved some more. "That doesn't mean I am happy. I thought if I grinned and grinned I could make being alone partly bearable." The chalk kept going. "It isn't bearable. When I lost my eye I thought, well, that's death for you. I even thought it made me more like alive boys and girls who lose a leg or an arm… or an eye. "But I'm not an alive boy. Losing my eye made me see that. I'm different, I'm dead and have been for 25 years," Darren wrote. "Is this all there is?" It was getting close to three o'clock and Darren would fade away for the weekend. Mrs. Barker looked at the blackboard completely covered with all Darren's writing and then Mrs. Barker looked at Darren. Darren wasn't grinning. The chalk started to write again, making its skritchy noises as it worked out letters, but Mrs. Barker kept looking at Darren and trying to think of something she could say to make things better. Just then the clock clicked to three and Darren faded away, a tear just coming out of the socket where his left eyeball used to be. "Is this all there is?" were the only words on the blackboard, the question repeated over and over 100 times. ( … ) The next Monday was the last week until Christmas. Myrtle Philip School was decorated in red and green and yellow and blue. The front entrance, inside and out, had limbs of fir trees and pine trees woven in a big arch around the doors with glass balls with every student's name on it hanging from little hooks here and there among the boughs. Darren's name was there, too, as it had been for the past 25 years. Darren was in Mrs. Barker's Grade 4 class, sitting where he always sat. This is the only time of year where every student did what Darren was no longer doing. They were all grinning and grinning. Darren didn't grin. Darren didn't frown, either. He just sat there, looking straight ahead like he was dead or something. The Christmas Pageant was Wednesday. Darren didn't go. Thursday took a million-billion hours to get done and then it was Friday. It was Christmas Eve and it was the last day of school until after New Years. Myrtle Philip School always kept the students until noon of Christmas Eve because the school board wanted to give taxpaying parents their money's worth. If the alive children in Mrs. Barker's Grade 4 class had been ghosts, they would have levitated right to the classroom lights, they were that excited. Darren was a ghost and could have levitated any old time. But Darren didn't levitate or move so much as a wisp of hair. The children sang a few carols, led by Mrs. Barker on the pitch pipe. They sang O Little Town of Bethlehem, Frosty the Snowman, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Mrs. Barker was going to start her students into God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, but she couldn't do it when she happened to glance at Darren. Mrs. Barker went for We Three Kings. It was a special version. Mrs. Barker wrote it herself. "We three kings all live in a jar./ None of us can fit in a car./ Itchy, scratchy, dog-eared and pa-aatchy/ We love a good hamburger bar./ Ohh, ohh!/ Bar of wonder, bar of light/ Bar with hamburgers packed real tight./ Toppings of fish heads, candy and catguts!/ We know these will taste just right!" There were one or two other verses, but the bell went off for recess. All the students raced for boots and coats and mittens for there was three feet of new snow outside. Darren faded out. Mrs. Barker faded a little, too, but she had school yard duty and went outside. ( … ) The sky was deep grey. It wasn't too cold. Because of all the snow, the children played close to the Myrtle Philip School building. Mrs. Barker liked deep snow and a temperature that wasn't too cold. She had met a man, who she eventually fell in love with and married, on a day just like this. Darren was outside, too, but over by the soccer field where he could watch the alive children play near the school. Then he turned to look at the swampy bush land behind Myrtle Philip School. The scrubby trees wore hoods and capes of heavy snow. Swamp plants were clumped together by the snow so that they looked like a series of little huts. And at the very edge of the school yard where the acres and acres of swamp began was a little girl. The little girl slowly raised her arm to wave at Darren. The little girl shimmered when she waved. Darren had never seen a girl who shimmered. He went to the edge of the school yard to get a closer look. When he was two feet away, Darren stopped. Darren glowed blue and green as if each colour was a breath in, and a breath out. The girl wasn't so little when seen up close. Indeed she was the same height as Darren. The girl looked at him, but didn't smile. Instead she reached up to her neck and took off a loop of string that had a little bag on the end. The girl opened the bag and there it was, Darren's lost eyeball in the palm of her hand! She offered the hand with the eyeball to Darren so he could take it. When he touched her hand as he recovered his eyeball, he mouthed the words, "Thank you." And that's what he said, "Thank you." Right out loud. Darren pulled his hand back, eyeball and all. In all his 25 years as a ghost, Darren had never said a single word. This was Weird. The girl was clothed in a kind of leather dress with a little bit of beadwork around the collar and the bottom. Her hair hung straight and dark down her back. She had moccasins on her feet, but Darren couldn't see them because of the snow. The girl held out her hand again. Darren stared at it and then reached out to hold her hand. "Are you a ghost, too?" Darren asked. "Yes. My name's Myriam. What's yours?" said Myriam. "Darren. Why haven't I ever seen you before?" Darren asked. "I guess it's 'cause I spend all my time in the swamp and in the forests beyond. I never knew of you, either, until I found your eyeball, but I never thought who it might belong to until today when I first saw this place and I saw you were the only one with one eye. What is this place?" Myriam asked. "Is it your home?" "No. I have no home, really. This is just a place where I've been," Darren explained. Darren was holding the little girl's hand all this time. And the little girl was holding his hand right back. "Are you a ghost, too?" Darren asked. "Yes. I've been dead for hundreds of years," Myriam said. "I've been dead for 25 years," said Darren. "I guess that's not very long compared to you." "It's long enough," Myriam said. She smiled. Darren smiled, too. Not a grin like before, but a real smile. The school bell rang to signal the end of recess. Darren let go of Myriam's hand and looked back at Myrtle Philip School. The children were almost all gone inside. Darren could see Mrs. Barker. He was sure Mrs. Barker could see him and Myriam. "Do you have to go back?" Myriam asked. "I guess. It's what I always do," Darren said, holding Myriam's hand maybe one last time. But then Darren said something else. "I wish I didn't have to," Darren said "You could come with me," Myriam said. "It would be nice to have someone to talk to and do things with for the next hundred years." Darren ventured a grin. "I'd like that," Darren said. So they left, hand in hand, turning and walking into the swamp lands, but making no foot prints in the fresh deep snow. And as they left, two things happened. The first is that as soon as Darren and Myriam stepped into the swamp lands, a change happened. It was a change of Might Have Been. Myriam shimmered and grew taller and taller until she was adult sized. And beautiful. Darren glowed blue and green and also grew taller and taller until he, too, was adult sized. And although he wasn't as handsome as some ghosts can be, it didn't matter. The two would be adult sized, then child sized, then a size somewhere in between, than be adult sized again as they walked around bumps of bushes and shrouds of trees until they disappeared. The second thing that happened is that Mrs. Barker had been watching Darren. Mrs. Barker watched the two children walk into the swamp until they faded away. Mrs. Barker waved goodbye. o THE end o


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