Halloween Ghost Story Contest -- 2004
Adult Winners

Second Place

Our second place winner in the Adult category is Marlys Pearson of Indianapolis, IN.

The Contest

Marlys Pearson

I’ll never forget the 57th Annual Wyncham Corner Ghost-Story Telling Contest as long as I live--maybe even longer. I think they’ve done away with it now, but it used to be held the last Saturday night in October, rain or moonshine, on Wyncham Corner Common. Crowds of people would come from all over Caledonia County—heck, all over the Northeast Kingdom—to tell their stories on the bandstand in the middle of the common, with all the kids sitting on the grass around it, shivering with cold and fright, while their parents stood behind, tending the bonfire from time to time and sharing nips from their hunting flasks.

The year of the 57th, it was just a little warmer than usual. Fall had been long and mild, and there were still even a few bright leaves clinging to the maples on the mountains. I was nine years old, and it was the first time in my memory that the contest had the luck to fall on All Hallows’ Eve itself. I loved a good ghost story, and this year the pickings should be good. Old Man Desroches had won four times running, but last year Mrs. Merchant had come real close with her story about the haunted washtub. I could see them both warming their hands at the bonfire now, eyeing each other like my dog Hush eyed the pickups on Route 2B. I’m gonna get you, that look said. Just wait and see. Mrs. Merchant had dressed for the occasion in a dusty old black dress she probably only wore to funerals, topped off by a dime-store witch’s hat, its stiff  rayon point pulled crooked by the shoddy stitching. Old Man Desroches turned up his craggy nose at theatrics like that. His wore his customary flannel shirt, but a close observation showed it was so newly-bought from Caplan’s up in St. Johnsbury that the fold creases were still in the fabric. It wasn’t cold enough for a coat, but like many other men present he had a bright-orange hunting vest over his shirt.

I recognized a lot of other people in the crowd. Mrs. Dabney, old and frail, who looked like everbody’s granny and would accept no help when she tottered up the bandstand steps. Her stories, if you could get close enough to hear her reedy little voice, were gorgeous and funny and full of sly observations about other Wyncham folk. The trouble was, they weren’t scary, even though she made a point of working in a spirit or two. If we’d had a general storytelling contest, she’d have walked off with the Golden Pumpkin all fifty-six previous years, but rules are rules.

Jerry “Handsome” Daniele. He never took the stage unless he was stinking drunk already. Kids loved his tales, which were full of still-beating hearts and eyes hanging down cheeks by a thread, told with gusto and wild hand gestures. Coherent? Not really, but one year he took the Bronze Pumpkin anyway, for sheer gruesome description.

There were a bunch of newcomers, too, wearing the yellow badges showing they had registered for the contest. The one that caught my eye was a cadaverously-thin man with sunken cheeks and grey lips. If ever somebody looked like a walking corpse, it was he.

I nudged the kid sitting next to me on the grass, a familiar-looking boy I sort of knew from inter-mural sports or something. We’d had the same idea for a Halloween Costume, although my take on Murder Victim was more convincing. My mom might make the worst tuna-noodle casserole in Vermont, but give her a little corn syrup and red food coloring and the woman could whip up fake blood like nobody’s business. “Jeesum. I think it’s the Grim Reaper himself,” I said.

He grinned back at me. “That woman’s even scarier.” His head nodded towards someone I hadn’t noticed before, and I saw what he meant. The lady seemed almost normal, if dressed a little fancy for this part of New England. Maybe she was up from Boston, or something. Then you got a look at her eyes, and the hair on your arms stood up. Cold. All the worst bits of winter, stinging wind and numb toes and snot that froze on your upper lip, were in her gaze.

I shuddered. “Yeah. Hey, is your name Bobby?”

“Robbie,” he said. I apologized, but he waved it off. “Pretty close. You’re Jake, right?”

I was. We watched the crowd, sharing my trick-or-treat haul while we waited for the contest to begin. The rest of the contestants were pretty normal looking, but I sure looked forward to our two local front-runners and the creepy out-of-town folk. Just before the storytelling began, a portly guy in a suit jacket joined me and Robbie in front of the bandstand.

“There you are,” he said in a peevish voice. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.”

Robbie rolled his eyes at me. “This is my Dad.”

I introduced myself and held out my hand. It had a little chocolate on it, but that was no reason to give me the look he did and keep his own hand to himself. He just gave me a nod and narrowed his eyes at his son.

“You’d best not be eating a lot of candy. You had three cavities last dentist visit.”

I would have spoke up to defend Robbie, but just then the mayor leapt up the bandstand steps and blew his whistle.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 57th Annual Wyncham Corner Ghost-Story Telling Contest! We have nine entrants tonight, and we ask that you hold your applause until they have all finished their stories. At that point, all the contestants will join me here on the bandstand, I’ll introduce each one, and your applause will determine the top three finalists. There’ll be a final clap-off for those three, where your enthusiasm will award the Golden, Silver and Bronze Pumpkins. Thanks, as usual, to the Bedors for providing the pumpkins, and Miss Shelby’s art class for painting them up. Let’s begin!”

They had drawn lots for order, and one of the regular-looking out-of-towners went first. He seemed a bit unsure of himself, and stumbled over his own words a few times, but that was no reason for Robbie’s dad to be so mean.

“I don’t think that man even belongs up on the stage,” he sniffed.

I bit my lip, annoyed. This guy seemed not even to know, or care, that he was sitting in the area reserved for kids, blocking Jenny Ouimette’s view, but he sure was critical of other people. It didn’t get better. He yelled at poor Mrs. Dabney to speak up, and snorted at Hansome Daniele.

“Might not be much of a story, but at least the guy’s dead drunk,” he said, pleased with his own meager pun. Robbie’s shoulders hunched in, and I snuck him another piece of Laffy Taffy.

Robbie’s father ruined the competition for me with his running comments. The stories were dumb, boring; the contestants (he said over and over) weren’t even qualified to take part. Just wait, he told us, and he was going to show us all. I didn’t notice until then the edge of the yellow contestant’s badge peeking out of his jacket pocket.

Okay, now it made sense. Robbie’s dad was going to compete, and his criticism of the others was because he was afraid he wasn’t good enough. That’s why my Mom said Steve McCracken always picked on me, because I always beat him when we did the hundred-yard dash in phys ed. He called me all kinds of names, and even threw rocks at me on the playground when nobody else was looking.

Robbie’s father did seem to approve of Mr. Death, whose name turned out to be Johnson, actually. “There’s a man who looks like he should be there on stage,” he said.

But looks aren’t everything. The corpse’s story, about a girl whose cat turns out to be a vampire, started off great but went on too long. When her Husky dog started to change into a wolf during the full moon, he lost a lot of votes. I mean, like you could even tell.

The cold-eyed woman was better. Her tale of murder and other-worldly revenge in the frozen north (somehow so appropriate) would almost certainly place her in the top five, if not among the winners. Still, Robbie’s dad found something nasty to say.

Mrs. Merchant, however, was extraordinary enough to shut the self-appointed critic up. Her voice now low and thrumming, now soaring into the night, wove a magical morality play about three brothers who made bad choices—very bad choices—and paid a terrible price. There was dead silence when she finished; not even the stray rustle of a furtive candy wrapper. It was her year, you could sense it.

Then Old Man Desroches, Louis Desroches, still straight and tall at seventy-five, took the stage. He was the eighth contestant, and only Robbie’s dad was next. Mrs. Merchant had the stuff this year, but Old Man D. wasn’t going down without a fight. “This is a true story,” he began, in his gruff and gravelly voice. “I don’t talk about the Great War often, and soon you’ll understand why. It was winter in France, and Hell itself in the trenches, and when I say Hell I mean this…”

I couldn’t breathe by the time he was finished, my lungs had frozen with sheer terror, and my hands were as clammy as Louis Deroches’ best friend’s were when he—but I can’t even think about that, even now. Glancing at my companions, I saw that Robbie was as scared as I was, but his dad scowled displeasure.

“Aren’t there any rules?” he muttered, as he took his feet and stalked off up the bandstand steps.

Robbie’s dad was a good storyteller. I was surprised, but it turned out his crabbiness made him as keen a human observer as Mrs. Dabney, and twice as bitterly funny. It was like Woody Allen had come to Wyncham, and by the time he got to the part about his boss and the billy goat, the laughter was so loud he had to stop for fifteen seconds to give us all a chance to recover. But if his talents were Mrs. Dabney’s magnified, so was his one fault. She at least knew she had to at least give the supernatural a passing nod to compete in a ghost-story contest, but that requirement seemed to have passed right over the head of Robbie’s father. It wasn’t until the last mis-filed memo was found and read out to the office in its hilarious entirety that any of us realized that there wasn’t a single spook, not a lone shiver in the whole  account.

The applause told the final story of the night. The finalists were Old Man Desroches, Mrs. Merchant, and the cold-eyed woman from Boston, and if we’d gotten that far, they would have taken the Pumpkins in that order, I think, although the Merchant supporters would probably argue that. But as the top three were singled out, Robbie’s dad stamped his foot on the bandstand.

“That’s not fair!” he shouted. “It just isn’t fair!” Red-faced, he gestured at the other eight contestants, his suit jacket gaping open as he did so to reveal the dark-red shirt beneath. “I’m the only one up here who even qualifies to be in this contest!”

Jenny Ouimette, who was in my class at school and really good at grammar, scooted up next to me and touched my arm. “Look!” She pointed up at the banner hanging off the bandstand. “Somebody forgot the hyphen.” Her fingers shook on my wrist.

57th Annual Ghost Storytelling Contest, it read. I didn’t get it for a minute, and then I did, especially once I looked closer and saw that not all of Robbie’s dad’s shirt was dark red. It was a white dress shirt, blotched with color at about steering-wheel height, if you were sitting in a car. Still complaining loudly, he stomped off the stage and grabbed Robbie by the hand. Robbie, face pale beneath the trickle of blood I thought someone had painted on his temple, gave me a weak grin.

The two of them flickered in the uncertain light of the bonfire, and then they went out. Gone. And I don’t have to tell you what the State Police found the next morning crumpled in a ditch on Route 2B. Do I?

Continue to the 1st place story

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