I should have just gone to play baseball like I wanted. It was the summer of 1975 and I was eleven. All I really wanted to do that day was ride my bike the mile or so into town and see if anyone was playing ball up at the park. I felt lucky that day. Maybe I would have hit a home run that day. But in all fairness the outfield fence was only one hundred and fifty feet from home plate. It’s not like no one had done it before. I hadn’t, but once I hit one that hit the bar that ran along the top of the chain link fence that was the outfield wall. Everyone on the other team called it a home run and let me take all my bases but in my heart I knew I hadn’t hit an actual home run.
That is all I had planned on this lazy Sunday afternoon. If I had gone then maybe things would have been different. Instead that summer turned into a whole mess. A mess that I will never forget but it seems like everyone else has. It started when my older brother Sam decided he wanted to go fishing.
Sam was two years older than I was. So of course I thought he was greatest person in the world. I would follow him around most days. He was pretty good about letting me tag along. There were only a few times he seemed to not want me around. That was when ever he was around Sara Fletcher. I think he was sweet on her and didn’t want his little brother hanging around while he was trying to figure out a way to kiss her. But at the time I thought that was gross and would have much rather been as far away from that as possible.
This particular day Sam wanted some company down at the fishing hole. I really just wanted to get into town before a game got to far in play that I couldn’t jump in. In the end though Sam won. I mean when it came down to it just the fact that he really wanted me to come with him made me push all the baseball nonsense out of my head.
“Come on,” Sam said. “We’ll catch us some fish and then take a swim over at bowling ball tree.” Bowling ball tree was a large tree that hung over the creek that flowed through our woods. The creek was pretty small most of the way through the woods but by bowling ball tree it formed a huge pool. Past bowling ball tree it shrank back down to the small trickle. The name came from a story that someone’s older brother heard from someone else’s older brother had told them. Apparently back in the Fifties someone had thrown a bowling ball into the water from one of the highest branches of the tree just to see how much of a splash it would make. When they went to retrieve the ball (probably their dad’s if the story was true) it was no where to be found. Either it had been sucked into the mud at the bottom of the water or had been swept away by the current. So every time someone swam down by the tree they were always keeping an eye out just in case they happened to stumble upon the aforementioned bowling ball. While no one could tell if the story was true just about everyone in town had heard it. Thus the tree now had the nickname of Bowling Ball Tree.
“It’ll be great. I bet we even find that old bowling ball. Come on Tommy Gun.” My name was Tom but Sam always called me Tommy Gun. To this day I have no idea why. He must have heard the phrase tommy gun somewhere and it stuck in his mind. And of course I immediately put baseball out of my mind and headed inside to put on some old shorts and an old t-shirt. If we wore anything somewhat new and got dirty down in the woods our mother would have skinned us alive.
So off we went with our fishing poles resting on our shoulders. Sam carried a small tackle box. I carried a small net. Sometimes I would use the net to catch frogs while we were down there. Most times I wanted to keep them as pets but none of them seemed to last very long. Of course at that age I didn’t seem to realize that they needed a lot of bugs to eat to survive.
The fishing hole we were going to was through a dense patch of trees at the end of our family’s property. We first had to walk across a cornfield, through the dense patch of trees, down one side of a large ditch, up the other side, over a small fence that marked the end of our property, and finally down a small slope to the bank of the large pond. Nothing more than blue gill and catfish swam here. Most of the time we ended up throwing the fish back as they were too small to account for the trouble of gutting them. It was fun just the same.
When we finally got there and approached our usual spot a large bull frog jumped in making a large splash. I gripped my net. Maybe I would be going home with a new pet today. We baited our hooks and threw them in. For most of the time at the fishing hole we talked about the usual stuff. Music, TV, whom at school had seen so and so’s b***s. The whole concept of feeling a girl’s chest seemed completely foreign to me but Sam was just entering the era that all boys enter. The b**b era. One minute girls were gross and then the next moment b***s seemed to be the only thing you could think of. How did they feel? Were they soft? Were they heavy? Usually by thirteen all of this was running through a boy’s head about twenty times a second. I just let him tell me and I sat amazed listening to life as a thirteen year old.
Sam had also taken up smoking. When we were out like this he smoked openly. If our parents knew that he was smoking he would have been lashed numerous times by our father’s belt. Which was ironic since our father smoked at least two packs a day. I was sworn to secrecy. Of course if confronted with a lashing of my own I would have given Sam up in a minute to save my own behind. But he didn’t know that.
The fish didn’t seem to be biting that day. I caught one fish but it was almost the same size as the hook that had caught it. So I threw it back in the hopes that I would catch it another day in the future. The frogs were being pretty sneaky that day too so by the time we had decided to head over to Bowling Ball Tree for a swim I hadn’t caught one.
We made our through the woods until we ran into the creek. Then we followed it along until it widened into the large pool. Bowling Ball Tree sat at the edge of the bank. It was tilted slightly and leaned out over the pool. A lot of kids from around the area came here to swim. It was surprising there was no one here this day. If you climbed up the tree and went out on one of its branches you could swing yourself off and into the water. There used to be a rope tied to one of the branches but time had taken its toll on it and a few summers before it finally broke while one of the Easley twins swung out over the water. No one had seen to replace the rope for some reason.
I took my shirt off and threw it on a nearby bush to keep it off the ground. Sam threw his up on the bank by the tree. He seemed to be less worried about something crawling into than I was. We both jumped right in with our old pair of sneakers. It was wise to wear your shoes while walking around in the creek. Sometimes high school kids came down here to drink and threw the bottles into the creek. Timothy Lamansky had been down here two summers ago and was walking without his shoes on. He stepped on a broken bottle and it went straight through his foot. Luckily I wasn’t there that day but a few people at school who were told me about it. They said you could see a large jagged piece coming out the top of his foot. I made sure to never venture in the water without shoes again.
This day me and Sam made the most of having Bowling Ball Tree to ourselves. We would do cannon balls off the high embankment. Sam would go out over the water on a branch and swing so he would do a back flip into the water. All the while we both felt around in the mud with our feet and hands to see if we stumbled upon the old bowling ball. Neither of us did. If we had just left ten minutes earlier the day would have ended perfectly.
We were pretty much bored with swimming and I had gotten out and put my shirt back on. Sam wanted to go up for one more jump from the branch. I sat down on the embankment next to the tree to watch him. He climbed up the leaning tree and made his way, hand over hand, out onto the branch. Sam began to swing back and forth until he got enough momentum going and then swung himself forward so we did a back flip in the air and landed in the water feet first. I clapped after he landed.
Sam burst out of the water smiling. I got up ready to start the trek home. When I pushed off the ground to get myself up the edge of the embankment began to crumble away. I grabbed at the edge to keep myself from falling but it was too late. I tumbled down the muddy wall of dirt and hit the water. Sam started laughing and pointing. It wasn’t a huge deal since I had just been swimming in this same water. When I looked up at Sam I saw that he had stopped laughing and was looking at the wall of the embankment that I had just had the pleasure of sliding down.
I turned to look and saw something that was a dull gray color. Sam swam over and walked up to the wall of dirt. He gently began to brush away some of the dirt. More and more gray began to show. Eventually a large stone appeared. It had some strange carvings on it. One looked like a sun. It was a round circle with lines coming off it as if rays of sunshine. The next one looked like a wolf. The third one was hard to make out. Time had worn most of it off. Sam pulled at the rock and it seemed to move.
“Help me Tommy Gun.” I went walked over and grabbed one side of it. Sam counted to three and we both pulled. At first it didn’t seem like it was going to come loose but at last it began to give. With one last tug it came off and Sam almost fell over backwards. The large stone fell into the water and sank to the bottom. I went to reach for it when Sam let out a whoop. “What the hell!?” I looked back at where the stone was and saw a hole in the dirt wall. Inside was a skull. My first instinct was to run away but Sam was standing steady so I didn’t want him thinking I was chicken.
Sam looked into the hole. The skull lay on its side. Upon getting closer I saw that a full skeleton. It had seemed to me now that we had opened an end of an old burial coffin. The area was known to have been home to multiple tribes of Indians. Sam began to reach inside but I grabbed his arm.
“Don’t,” I pleaded. Sam just shook me off and reached in. Out he brought what looked like a stone pendant. It looked similar to the wolf that had been carved on the stone. A leather strap went through a hole at the top of it. As Sam pulled on it the leather strap broke easily. What happened next has been burned into my brain ever since. As soon as that leather strap broke howls went up into the air all over the woods. Both Sam and I jumped. None of them sounded close but they seemed to come from all over the place. It scared us enough to grab our things and take off towards home. We ran most of the way. Once we got out of the woods and into the cornfield behind our house we slowed to a walk. Howls still went up occasionally in the woods behind us but we were far enough out of there now that we didn’t much care. Sam studied the stone pendant most of the way home.
“Probably best not to say anything to Ma or Dad about what we found. They might not let us go down there no more.” I nodded but in truth I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to go back. Knowing there was a skeleton in the wall of dirt by Bowling Ball Tree made that seem like a less attractive place to hang out.
The rest of the night went on as usual. We had dinner and then me and Sam took turns getting our baths in. I spent some time reading in me and Sam’s room. His bed was on one side of the room and mine was on the other. I was in the middle of a paragraph when he came in wearing the stone pendant. He had found a string and put it through the hole at the top. I looked over the top of my book at him. Sam just flopped down on his bed and seemed to not notice me looking at him. Outside a howl went up in the night. I turned to look out the window when mom came poked her head in.
“Time for bed you two.” I closed my book and said my good nights. Mom flicked the lights off and before long I had fallen asleep.
Sometime in the night I heard a howl and jumped up in my bed. I looked over at Sam and saw his form lying on his side asleep. I went to lay back down when another howl went up. This one sounded like it was close. I turned and looked out the window. Sitting there in the back yard was a wolf. It was looking up at the second story window of our bedroom. Again it raised its head in a howl. I watched as it stared at our window. Eventually it stood up and walked back into the darkness.
The next morning I had almost forgotten about the wolf until I saw Sam come to breakfast. He was wearing the pendant under his shirt. I could see the string around his neck. It led down into his shirt. We did our usual chores and then I headed in town to see if there were any baseball games going on.
After playing in three different games the sun began to dim. I jumped on my bike and headed back home. Just as I pulled up in front of the house I saw my dad making his way into the house. He had worked overtime today. I tried not to get in his way. He was a nice man and I loved him dearly. On days he had to work overtime he was less than happy by the time he got home.
I made my way in and found mom just putting dinner on the table. I walked into my room to put my glove by my bed. Sam was in his bed. He was asleep. I asked mom why he was asleep and she had told me that he hadn’t been feeling well all day. That night I stayed out of our room most of the night so Sam could get some sleep. I read in the living room while dad watched a baseball game on TV. When it was time for me to go to sleep I made my way in quietly without turning on the light.
That night I awoke to howls again. I looked out and saw this time that there were now three wolves sitting in our backyard looking up at me. They sat staring. The moon made their eyes shine. After howling again they turned and walked back into the darkness. I didn’t sleep much for the rest of that night.
The next week Sam was in bed sick. Mom had taken him to a doctor but all they had said is that it must be a strain of summer flu and he just needed to rest. I tried to stay out of the room as much as I could. The only good thing seemed that no wolves had visited our house that week. Or their howls hadn’t woken me. I prefer to think that they didn’t come.
Finally the night came where howls awoke me and I looked out the window. There had to be more than twenty wolves now in the backyard. I sat transfixed on them. They just sat and stared. Almost daring me to come outside to meet them. I sat and waited for what had almost become a game. Soon they would turn and walk back into the darkness. I kept waiting for it but it never seemed to come. Eventually some of the wolves got up and moved leaving a large space in the middle of the group. I saw something moving in the moonlight but had no idea what it was. As it stepped closer I saw that it was a person. The figure dragged one of its legs behind it. When it finally stopped below the window I had to cover my mouth to keep from screaming. Below me was a skeleton. Parts of it had mud and leaves falling off of it as if that were its skin.
I jumped back from the window and covered myself in my bed. I squeezed my eyes shut. When I finally got my courage back I looked back outside and the backyard was empty. I looked over at Sam and he was snoring away. I tried to make myself go back to sleep but every time I closed my eyes all I saw was the deadly crowd that had gathered in the backyard.
The next night when I was told it was time for me to go to bed I tried to protest but I knew that would only save me for a few hours. I didn’t sleep for a few hours after getting into bed but eventually it overtook me.
I heard the howls and opened my eyes. I didn’t want to look. I knew it would be out there staring up at me. The howls kept coming and I knew that they weren’t going to leave until they knew that I had seen them. I slowly looked out and again the yard was full of wolves. This time they covered just about the whole backyard. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a giant light came on and I saw that they covered the entire field behind our house.
Standing in the middle was again the skeleton. He looked up at me. Slowly he raised his hand and pointed at me. Again I jumped back into my bed and covered myself up. I didn’t look out the window again that night.
When I woke up the next morning I went over to Sam and sat next to his bed. He looked horrible. His skin was pale and his forehead was wet with sweat.
“I think it wants it back Sam,” I told him. He didn’t really respond. “I have to take it back for you.” I took the pendant off Sam and put it in my pocket. As much as I didn’t want to I knew where I needed to go that day. I made my way out into the backyard.
I turned and looked up at the window. This is where it stood. Looking at me. I made my way out into the field and into the woods. I found the creek and followed it until it opened up into a large pool. As I approached I was glad that no one was there. Somehow most of the kids around here must have had a subconscious urge to stay away from Bowling Ball Tree. If only me and Sam had picked up on it. I saw the small hole in the dirt wall.
I looked around to make sure there were no ghouls about. Nothing in the woods seemed to even move. No birds chirped. No bugs seemed to call out to each other. It was silent. I took my first step into the water. The water was nice and cool in the warmth of the day. I swam over to embankment. Some dirt had fallen and closed off part of the hole. I inched forward with the pendant held out in front of me. I really just wanted to throw it into the hole and then run for home. As I got close to the hole I heard a howl go up in the air. It sounded as if it could have been from only ten feet away. I jumped and then began to look around to make sure I wasn’t about to get mauled. When I turned my attention back to the hole I saw that the skull was facing out looking at me. I let out the loudest scream I had ever heard. It began to move as if coming out after me.
I threw the pendant at it and jumped back into the water. I swam back to the other side. When I glanced back I saw it pick up the pendant. That was I needed to see. I began to run. Suddenly all around me howls went up into the air. When I finally broke out of the woods into the field I sat down and began breathing hard. Finally the howls stopped and I got up and jogged back to the house.
When I came in I saw Sam walking out of the bedroom. He had regained a little of the color in his face. For the first time in a week he was able to eat and keep it down. That night I slept all through the night. When Sam finally regained his health I tried to tell him about the whole experience but for the most part he seemed to shrug most of it off.
Three years later my brother was out hunting with my father. They had separated to see if they could rustle some rabbits out of hiding. My dad said he heard Sam scream and ran over only to see a wolf running away. Sam had his throat ripped out and large chunks of his arm that he had tried to defend himself with were gone. Most people attributed it to a rabid wolf. ‘What a sad occurrence.’ most people said. Personally I think it wasn’t a random act. Of course if I tried to tell anyone why they would think I was nuts. So I let it go. But part of me always looks over my shoulder to see if a wolf might be lurking.
Not surprisingly I left the country for the big city of Chicago. Less chance of random wolf attack I think was part of it.
I only went back to Bowling Ball Tree once after all that. Dad had died back in 95. Mom held on for a long time but it came time that she had to be put into a home. That only lasted about two weeks before she finally let go. When I came back home to take care of the sale of the land I made my way back through the field and into the forest. Now that I’m a grown up it’s a forest. When you’re a kid it’s the woods. I found the creek and followed it. I finally got back to the part where it opened into a large pool and I was both sad and relieved to see that the tree had fallen over. Somehow it had fallen sideways. Maybe in a storm or something. And it now blocked the embankment. Hopefully that would keep any curious children away from climbing up the dirt wall and discovering the small opening that was in there.
When I turned to leave, off in the distance a howl went up. Even then I began to hurry out of the forest and back into the field. When I signed the papers off on the sale of the old house part of me was happy to be done with all of that.
The other part of me still gets awakened at night in my nice apartment in Chicago by a strange howling. Hopefully if I ever get the courage to look out the window I won’t see them all staring up at me. And part of me knows that if I do look that instead of a skeleton leading them it will be Sam.