The plot against old Jacobson was our first deliberate undertaking since school had been let out. We were wild, but not nearly as bad or tough as we considered ourselves. We relished anything fun, dangerous, and slightly illegal. Sean’s grudge against the old recluse focused our youthful insanity into a purpose.
“We don’t want to kill him or anything,” Sean had said. We were squatting around a low campfire late at night, trying to decide on a punishment for Jacobson’s vague wrongdoing. Mosquitoes and black flies buzzed at the edges of the smoke. “Don’t want to break his windows or burn his house.” We nodded. “I just think we should scare him. Let him know he can’t treat us like he did. Shock him, you know?”
The old eccentric had never done anything to the rest of us, but that didn’t matter. We weren’t sure what had happened between Sean and Mr. Jacobson, and we didn’t really care. An affront to one of us was an affront to all. We made our plans, unaware that our escapade would collide with solemnity.
Mr. Jacobson lived on the outskirts of town, at the end of a winding gravel road. No one knew much about him, except that he had moved to our town from Toronto during the seventies. Bart’s mom said there had been a Mrs. Jacobson, but she passed away years ago.
The night of revenge came at last. Our preparations were complete. We careened down the empty highway and onto the dirt road. Sean drove, since it was his father’s truck. Also, he was nearly sixteen and almost knew how to drive. Soon a rotting sign bearing the old man’s name loomed in the headlights. Sean pulled over as close to the ditch as possible, then shut off the engine. A rutted driveway led into wooded darkness. We stumbled out of the hazy interior of the truck, trying not to laugh and talking in hushed, excited voices.
Sean triumphantly lifted the centrepiece of his revenge from the bed of the truck. It was a coat stand, also stolen from his father, wrapped in a tattered sheet. Atop the stand a leering plastic skull was fastened. Sean placed the stand upright on the gravel road.
Moonlight cast an unearthly glow on the skull’s smooth face. The cavities of the eyes and mouth were full of shadows deeper and more ancient than the night. The sheet fluttered and shifted like a sail of bone. We grinned to each other and felt shivers of exultation and terror. I realized that we somehow feared this makeshift angel of death. It seemed at home in the darkness.
We made our way up the driveway. Sean took the lead, a dim flashlight flickering in his hand. Darren and Bart carried our ghoul and I brought up the rear. The old man’s squat little cabin blotted out the jagged shapes of the swaying trees. A light above the tiny porch cast a grey hemisphere of light onto the front of the house. Sean halted and covered the flashlight with his hand, turning to us and beckoning us to huddle together. Darren and Bart placed our hobgoblin on the ground. It hovered behind us like an otherworldly observer as we muttered together.
“Okay, here’s what we do,” said Sean, trying to sound brash and confident, but his whisper shook. “We’ll set up our, our… thing on the porch. Then we’ll knock on the door, go around and rattle on the windows, and wake him up. He’ll come to the door and…” A despairing howl rent the heavy air of the summer night. Darren tried to laugh.
“Must be his dog.” he said, with unconvincing jauntiness.
“Dog? I didn’t know he had a dog!” Sean wheezed. “Is it big? Sounds big.” Darren shrugged.
“It’s not too big. And it’s old, like Jacobson. Won’t hurt us.” He winced as another heart-stopping cry pierced the darkness. Sean gestured to our apparition.
“Okay. Let’s just do this before that dog wakes him up and ruins everything.” The howling continued as we placed the coat stand on the porch. We looked to Sean uncertainly.
“What now?” asked Bart. “I think that racket would have woke him up. Should we go hide?” The howling was nearly constant now, and it had clearly unsettled Sean. After a moment of internal struggle he rapped sharply on the door, then pressed his ear to it. No lights came on. Nothing stirred. The dog inside whimpered then howled again.
“I think something’s wrong,” hissed Darren. “We should go check.” For several minutes we argued in shrill whispers until at last I could take it no longer. In a burst of recklessness, I tried the door and found it unlocked. The others followed hesitantly as I entered. A strange reversal, me leading, Sean at the back. An odour I had never smelled before pervaded the house. Running my hand along the wall, I found a switch and flicked it.
We all blinked and squinted, dazzled by the brilliance. The interior was sparsely furnished. Nothing adorned the walls except for a large, discoloured photograph of a smiling young woman at work in a flower garden.
Something that had once been Mr. Jacobson sprawled in a rocking chair, swathed in a grimy bath robe. Eyes open, mouth open, delicate skin sagging on bones and sinews. The grim king on his throne. The shaggy mutt on the floor looked up at us with bared teeth and lamented again. We fled, leaving our childish facsimile of death to stare in across the threshold at an eternal solemnity.
Matthew Schneider is a writer from Northern Ontario.