22 Jan A Day at the Park
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"A Day at the Park"Written by Shannon Higdon
Estimated reading time — 18 minutes
The girls were adamantly opposed to the move. This, of course, was no surprise; most children hate having their lives upheaved and relocated. Especially at the ages of eight and eleven, like Mary and Sarah were. Sarah, in particular, had a very difficult time leaving her best friends in the fifth grade whom she fully expected to know and love for the rest of her life. At that age, the world is painted in a very unrealistic hue with things seeming much larger than they actually were and she was quite convinced that it would be impossible to ever cultivate such relationships again.
Mary was a little easier to convince as the thing she lamented leaving the most was her tiny swing-set in the backyard and that concern was quickly put to rest the moment she saw their new home. The two-story Victorian was an old house in an old neighborhood, with massive oaks and cherry trees dotting the landscape. To Mary, it looked just like a larger version of her favorite dollhouse and, as much as she loved it, even that wasn’t what sold her on the proposition. The icing on the cake that finally pushed both girls into a positive frame of mind was the Lakeland Park.
As a simple neighborhood park, it wasn’t very big and wouldn’t really be a draw for anyone outside the neighborhood, but what it did have was two large swing-sets, a sandbox, teeter-totters, metal rocking-horses, and a large nautical-themed play-set with slides, jungle-gym and elevated club-house. It was a dream playground and it and the park sat right next door to their new home; the slides actually closer to their front door than their mailbox. Even Sarah, who was on the verge of growing out of such things, had to admit that it was “pretty awesome”.
The only detriment was that there was no direct entrance to the park from their yard. It was fully enclosed by a wrought-iron fence with an opening on each opposite end. The girls had to walk around to the front of the house and then down the sidewalk about thirty feet to the stone archway that served as the park’s entrance and that short walk was the only time their mother would be unable to see the girls from the large bay windows on that side of the house. It was truly an ideal scenario and the girls found themselves there nearly every day.
Unfortunately, the neighborhood was home to retirees for the most part so there weren’t any other kids locally that they could play with but the girls still had their fun. Mary was very mature for her age and Sarah was…well…not, so it provided them with a happy middle ground to play with each other in. The sisters were very close and loved each other very much, which isn’t to say they didn’t have their arguments, but for the most part they were tighter than most siblings separated by that many years. It definitely could have been worse.
The park’s visitors were almost always the same and the girls learned their faces pretty quickly. There was Mr. Lyman, who always wore a bowtie and khaki pants and who was always reading a thick book at the same bench next to the grills. Mr. Lyman lived somewhere in the area and introduced himself one afternoon on his way out. Sarah though he said his name was “Peter” or “Perry” or something like that but neither could remember. It wasn’t the sort of thing that made a strong impression on their memory banks; not like the fact that he wore coke-bottle glasses and tried to comb his two or three hairs over the shiny bald spot on top. Those things stood out…and were hilarious.
Then there was Mrs. Mary Winter. They remembered her name because it was the same as Mary’s, obviously. Mrs. Winter, was an octogenarian widow, although most people wouldn’t have put her a day past sixty and she always sat in the same spot as well: a picnic table about fifty feet away from the playground. She carried a beige bag that was larger than most suitcases the girls had seen and could pull any number of things from it from crocheting materials to a crossword puzzle book to a laptop computer. Sometimes they would guess which items would come out on certain days.
Mr. Lyman and Mrs. Winter were the only dailies. Occasionally the Rayburns would come through with their two golden retrievers and the girls would play with the affectionate dogs. Once a week, two couples that never introduced themselves would come down at dusk and grill steaks and drink a bottle of wine. Beyond a few stragglers passing through here or there, that was pretty much the only clientele the Lakeland Park received. Which was just fine to Sarah and Mary. Their only regret being the lack of other children.
It was about two weeks before the end of summer vacation and they had been living in the new house for exactly a month and a half when the creepy guy showed up. For several days in a row he would stand on the sidewalk outside the park and stare in at the girls while they played. At least, they thought that he was staring at them…it was difficult to tell. His silver-streaked hair was long and frizzy, hanging past his shoulders, and, with the camouflage ball-cap he wore, it was pushed down over his eyes concealing them entirely. The wild caveman look was completed with his greying, ZZ Top beard that fell well below his chest. With boots, camo pants and a green military overcoat, he looked like something that escaped the VA psychiatric hospital.
They girls didn’t like him at all; he scared them. However, he had easily caught the attention of both Mrs. Winter and Mr. Lyman and both made it quite clear, by putting away their respective items, that they were closely surveying the situation. Beyond that, there wasn’t a whole lot they could do; the man wasn’t doing anything illegal. Plus, he generally didn’t stick around for very long: fifteen or twenty minutes at most. That was, until the fifth day he came, when he showed up around 2:30 and was still there at 3:20, ten minutes before the girls were told to be back home; and was in the direct path they had to take to get home.
Both Mr. Lyman and Mrs. Winter were present again and they could both see the indecisive anxiety the girls were experiencing; they knew the girls routines as well. Mr. Lyman was the first to approach, large book in hand.
“Sarah…Mary…is everything okay?” His voice was very soothing. The girls looked at the strange man and then at their feet and then back to the man; neither of them able to verbalize the fear they were feeling. It didn’t take a genius to figure it out, however. That was, after all, why he had walked over to them in the first place under Mrs. Winter’s approving gaze.
“Would you girls like for me to walk you home?” Both girls smiled and nodded vigorously and Mr. Lyman returned the expression. “Okay…we can do that. I tell you what though…” He looked at the strange man and then back to the girls before kneeling down and whispering conspiratorially. “I’m going to be honest girls. I think that guy’s kind of scary too.” The girls giggled at his candidness. “I think we should go out the other end of the park and walk around.” Mr. Lyman pointed to the far end of the park and the sisters looked at each other with uncertainty.
They had never been to that end of the park before…it was out of view of the house…and they had definitely never been outside the park on that end before. It was not a pleasant prospect and Mr. Lyman could see it on their faces.
“It’s okay ladies. My house is down there. Instead of having to walk all the way around the big block, we can just cut through my back yard. It won’t take too much longer and we won’t have to walk past ‘Bigfoot’ over there.” The girls giggled again. “And when we get to your house, I’ll talk to your mom and explain why it took a little longer. What do you think?” Sarah, being the oldest, knew the decision actually fell on her and she contemplated the suggestion.
Mr. Lyman was an adult. Mr. Lyman wasn’t a stranger. True, they didn’t really know him, but they had seen him every day for a long time now and he was a nice, little man with no hair who like to read big books. Sarah considered all the options at hand and made up her mind. The bottom line was: she trusted him. She nodded okay and took Mary’s hand reaching out, instinctively, for Mr. Lyman’s hand with her other; that was, after all, the way they had been taught to walk with adults in unfamiliar environments.
Mr. Lyman took her hand with no awkwardness. He must have kids or be a teacher, Sarah thought. The three of them made their way to the far end of the park…the scary end. Sarah looked back and could no longer see the creepy guy. For a moment, she considered just telling Mr. Lyman that they would try their luck and go back the regular way, but the thought passed. She had already relinquished control of the situation to a qualified adult and, much as she had been conditioned to do, she would leave all the decisions up to them from this point forward.
It was okay. Just because she couldn’t see the creepy guy didn’t mean he was gone. He could have been hiding behind a tree for all she knew. Mr. Lyman was a nice man…he would take care of them. They left the park and started on the sidewalk in the general direction that seemed right. Mr. Lyman didn’t say a whole lot but every time either girl looked up at him he returned the gaze with a sweet, comforting smile.
They passed three houses before Mr. Lyman turned them into the driveway of what appeared to be a vacant house. The yard was overgrown by several feet and at a level no ordinary lawn mower would have a chance at and the windows on the front of the house were shuttered and boarded shut. It looked like the haunted house on the cover of one of Sarah’s “Goosebumps” books. Mr. Lyman began leading them to the cement path that led to the side of the house and the door of the ten-foot wooden fence which enclosed the back yard. Sarah pulled back. This didn’t seem right at all.
“Oh…it’s okay sweetie,” Mr. Lyman soothed, seeing her unease. “This is my house. Remember…I said we’d be able to short-cut through the back yard. This will save us a long walk and…wow…” He looked at his watch with what seemed like real concern. “It’s getting late. Your mom’s probably going to be really upset with you guys if we don’t get you back soon. Don’t you think we should hurry now?”
“But,” Mary piped in, saying what both girls were thinking, “it looks like no-one lives here.” Mr. Lyman nodded in agreement.
“You’re right sweetheart. I just bought the place and I haven’t even moved in yet. Sorry it’s so dirty, but we’re just cutting through the yard…not spending the night.” He laughed heartily and…it did, kind of, make sense. He did say that they were going to cut through a yard just a few houses down and…that’s what they seemed to be doing.
“C’mon…” Sarah pulled her sister forward. “It’s okay…we gotta get home.” Easy going Mary just shrugged her shoulders. If Sarah trusted Mr. Lyman and she trusted Sarah then it was basic math and even she could do basic math. The large fence door was unlocked but there was a padlock on the ground next to the door that seemed to have been cut; neither sister gave it much thought.
The overgrowth in the backyard was, if possible, worse than the front with the weeds having grown well above Mary’s head and right to Sarah’s eyes. It was a pretty large yard but Sarah could see the fence all the way around it and as they cut through to the back she kept wondering where exactly they were going to be able to get through. There were no obvious exits anywhere else in the barrier. When they finally reached the end, Mr. Lyman stopped and turned to them.
“Hey you girls want to see something cool?” The hairs on the back of Sarah’s neck stood on end as she realized she had no interest in seeing something cool. This was taking an unexpected turn and all she wanted was to go home. Mr. Lyman got down on his knees and put his arm around Mary and brushed the hair from her cheek. Sarah was frozen to the spot, unable to comprehend what was happening.
“You’re such a pretty girl.” His voice was different somehow…not as soft. “You’re both such pretty girls.” He looked at Sarah whose eyes began to pool with tears. Mary still had no idea what type of situation they had found themselves in, but Sarah knew that wouldn’t last long. “You know Mary,” he said turning his attention back to the younger sister, “has anyone ever told you how sexy you are?” Mary’s eyes widened significantly. She knew the word ‘sexy’. She had no idea what it meant other than it had something to do with adult stuff and girls in bikinis…and that it was something that should not be applied to her.
Mary saw the tears in her sister’s eyes, the expression of horror on her face and Mr. Lyman beginning to rub his crotch with his free hand and it all sort of clicked. This was exactly the thing mommy and daddy tried to warn them about; the type of thing they always thought was a big joke. This was “stranger danger”. She tried to pull away but Mr. Lyman’s hand that was wrapped around her, grabbed her arm…hard. Mary screamed out in pain and Mr. Lyman pulled a large pocket knife out of his back pocket and held it to her cheek, silencing her instantly.
“We’re going to play a little game girls and if you don’t play along, I’m going to cut you both into a million little pieces. Do you understand?” There was nothing caring about his voice anymore and both girls nodded, the only movement their complete and utter fear would allow. “Good,” he continued, “I’m going to introduce you to your new best friend: Mister Popsicle. Don’t you want to meet Mister Popsicle?” The girls were unable to nod this time and Mr. Lyman was beyond the point of caring anyway. “Don’t run,” he hissed at Mary as he took his arm off her and reached for the top button of his grass-stained khaki pants. It didn’t quite make it.
“Hello!?” The female voice came from the front yard and froze Mr. Lyman on the spot. “Hello…girls? Girls…is that you?” It was Mrs. Winters. By some miracle she must have heard Mary scream.
“If you make a peep I’ll kill you both,” Mr. Lyman whispered viciously and the girls didn’t make a noise. It didn’t matter. The door to the fence opened and she came into the back yard. Mr. Lyman grabbed the sisters and pulled them down to the ground but it was too late…Mrs. Winter’s had seen the movement. A few hour-long seconds later she was standing over the three of them with her Glock 43 9mm Luger trained on Mr. Lyman who still held both girls in a bruising death grip.
“Take your hands off those girls before I take your head off with my gun.” Neither Mary nor Sarah had seen anything like it and were in, for lack of a better word, ‘awe’ of her pure bad-assery. Their mother was sweet, loving and compassionate and their grandmothers were very much the same; they had no female role-models in their lives yet that portrayed such strength and power. It was inspiring…and terrifying.
Mr. Lyman seemed less impressed as he let go of Mary and went for his knife. It wasn’t too certain exactly what he planned to do from that vantage point; perhaps he had never heard the adage that “you don’t bring a knife to a gun-fight”. Whatever the case, he had just enough time to bring the knife up to bare before Mrs. Winters made good on her promise and removed the top portion of his skull with a single, well-placed shot. Both girls screamed and ran, crying, into Mrs. Winter’s embrace. She led them through the tall grass to the back porch of the house where she proceeded to try and soothe and console them in the manner which only grandmothers are accustomed to.
“Girls,” she said after finally getting the tears to slowly subside, “I know you both want to go home now, but I called the police before…well, before; and now that this has happened we have to wait here for them. The police will want to take you home and talk to your parents.”
“Are we in trouble?” Mary asked between sobs and Mrs. Winters gave a sweet chuckle.
“Oh no sweetie. You’re not in any trouble at all. In fact…” She got a big smile. “I think you ladies may be heroes. The police might want to give you both medals.” This garnered genuine smiles and a complete end to the tears.
“Come on girls,” Mrs. Winters said as she got to her feet and brushed the dirt off the front of her dress. “Let’s go inside and wait. I’ll make you some hot cocoa while we wait. It shouldn’t be long.” Caught on a roller-coaster of emotions, confusion was the order of the moment.
“We didn’t think anyone lived here,” Sarah offered as Mrs. Winters slid open the unlocked patio door which led into the kitchen and dining room area. Mrs. Winters only gave her granny chuckle again.
“I don’t know where you silly gooses came up with something like that. This is my house.” She walked into house, still talking, and the girls followed hesitantly. “I know the yard is an absolute mess but the people I hired to mow it just stopped showing up. I suppose I need to contact someone else. Have a seat at the table girls.” She motioned to the kitchen table while heading into the kitchen. Plopping her bag and the gun on the counter she began rummaging through the cabinets as if she’d done it a thousand times before.
Her familiarity would have been a comfort to the girls had the house itself not been nearly devoid of any other furniture and in a destitute condition, greatly in need of repair. There were large holes in the walls and graffiti, large rips in the carpeting and dust and dirt in every corner. The girls sat nervously on the only two chairs at the table and Sarah watched as Mrs. Winters pulled out a tea-kettle, filled it with brown tap water and placed it on the electric stove which had no power to heat it. From above the sink she pulled out a molding container of Quaker Oats and from beneath the sink a container of Borax; mixing the two in a couple of chipped coffee mugs before pouring in the brown water and blending it all with a spoon.
Sarah couldn’t look away. There was a ghastly fascination with the truly baffling actions of the old lady and the absolute certainty she performed them with. When she sat the two cups of toxic mush before them those hairs on her neck began to stand up again. This was wrong. She hadn’t listened to her instincts the first time and it had nearly led to unthinkable circumstances…she wouldn’t do that again.
“We have to go to the bathroom!” she blurted out, nearly startling the old lady. Mary looked up in surprise but when she saw her sister’s eyes she knew immediately that she needed to agree and when Mrs. Winters looked at her for verification she simply nodded and said, “I have to pee.” Mrs. Winters smiled and pointed down the hall.
“It’s the first door on the right. I’ll be here when you get back.” The girls slowly shuffled down the hall as the old woman settled into a vacated seat and raised up a mug as if considering drinking what she had made for her guests. Once in the dirty bathroom, Sarah locked the door behind them. Mary was scared…she could tell that Sarah was scared and it was contagious, but she remained quiet and calm and trusted that her big sis would figure out something.
There was no signal on her cell-phone; no bars at all. Even 911 didn’t go through even though they had been told that 911 would always connect whether they had a signal or phone plan or anything. What else had they lied to her about…because the scoop on cell phones, old ladies and bald guys with books was proving to be bullshit? Not that she would ever use that word out loud but it fit perfectly with the way she was feeling at that moment.
There was nothing useful in the bathroom and Sarah turned her attention to the window which she had to stand on the back of the toilet tank to reach. It would have been big enough for them both to have crawled through but she found out the hard way that it wasn’t going to happen by cutting a finger on one of the nails used hammer the frame shut.
“Shit.” Sarah exclaimed before putting her bleeding finger in her mouth. Mary’s eyes got a little bigger but she didn’t say anything; only looking at her with concern. Under normal circumstances something like that would have warranted an “Ahhh” along with an “I’m gonna tell” and then some type of blackmail request to which she would usually give in, but these weren’t normal circumstances and neither girls was worried about anything other than each other’s safety.
“When will the police be here?” Mary whispered quietly. That was a good question. Shouldn’t they have been there already? A loud hammering at the bathroom door kept her from answering and caused both girls to jump in surprise and fear and wondering…what’s next?
“What are you bitches doing in there!?” It was Mrs. Winters…sort of. It sounded like a wild animal version of the old lady…a voice that she should not have been capable of producing. “BITCHES! BITCHES! Open this door before I huff and puff!” She began clawing at the door and the sound was unnerving. Mary ran to Sarah’s embrace and buried her face in her sister’s chest while covering her ears.
“What’s wrong with her?” Mary asked below the ruckus. Sarah didn’t have an answer. She knew about dementias like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and Sun-downing but they had never seen her exhibit any symptoms before, at any one of the many, many times they saw her at the park. Finally the clawing stopped. They could still hear her breathing outside the door for several agonizing minutes before she spoke again; this time in the soft, loving grandma voice.
“Okay ladies…I’ll wait for you in the kitchen. You need to hurry up. Your cocoa is getting cold.” If she still expected them to drink that crap then she was obviously still messed up. They could hear the old lady make her way back down the hall to the kitchen where they could hear her opening and closing cabinet and scraping pots together. This could be their only chance.
Putting her finger over her mouth to indicate complete silence from her sister, Sarah took her by the hand and slowly led her out of the bathroom and into the hall. Every time the floor creaked they froze in their steps fearing that she would hear but she continued to totter away in the kitchen providing enough noise to provoke forward progress from the sisters. The back door was out of question and they hugged the wall as they came around the living room corner leading to the front door. If Mrs. Winters were to step out of the kitchen at all, she would see them.
It wasn’t that Sarah was entirely convinced that the two of them couldn’t take the old lady if it came to a physical confrontation, but they had just witnessed her kill a man. She didn’t really want to take any chances. The front door had two locked deadbolts with the knobs literally sawn off; basically it was a dead end. Who would do such a thing? Sarah gave Mary the sign that they were heading back, still not sure where they were actually going to go and they began to edge their way back to the hall. A few feet down the wall, Mary accidentally kicked an empty soda bottle and the ensuing clatter was more than enough to bring Mrs. Winters into view.
She looked wild and feral. With her legs spread and hunched over she looked like she was ready to play point guard for the Knicks, except instead of a basketball she held a long kitchen knife. The girls screamed and she screamed and they all took off at the same time. Had the old lady not lost her footing right off the bat she might have caught them just before they hit the hallway but fate was in their favor at that moment. Sarah pulled Mary past the bathroom. They had already been stuck in there. It was a lost cause.
Instead, they went for the last room on the left…an empty bedroom. Sarah slammed the door behind them and, again with a great stroke of luck, locked the deadlock which, for some unimaginable reason, had been installed in the bedroom door. Mrs. Winters fell against the door and began stabbing at it with the knife. It was almost as bad as the clawing. The sisters ran to the windows and desperately began looking for a way out. There were two and they were much larger than the one in the bathroom, but, much like that one, they were also nailed shut in about a dozen different places.
It was there, with her face pressed against the glass so close to freedom and the sound of a psychotic old lady digging at the door behind her, that Sarah felt hope begin to slip away. She looked at Mary…sweet Mary…she was supposed to have taken care of her. Even though Mary was always the more grown up, she was still Sarah’s responsibility and her parents never let an opportunity pass to remind her of that. She loved her sister, possibly more than anyone, and if it came to it she would throw herself on Mrs. Winters in order for Mary to get away. There was no way she was going to get both of them.
“Sarah look.” Mary was pointed out her window and Sarah rushed to her side trying her best to ignore the door rattling in its frame. It was the creepy guy. Of course…of all the people that could have been out there…it had to be him. The expression, “beggars can’t be choosers” could never have been truer and both girls pounded on the window and screamed for his attention. He seemed to be looking at them, at least in their general direction…with that hair, who could tell? He just stood there, however, immobile and un-emotive. Sarah was starting to think that he was as much a dead end as the front door.
The door behind them suddenly became quiet and, after a couple of seconds, Mrs. Winters was back to her sweet voice. “Girls…I have a secret to tell you. Do you want to guess?” They didn’t. After a second or two she figured as much. “I’ve just been playing a little game with you angels. You see, I don’t really need for you to open this door for me after all. Would you like to know why?” Again they didn’t answer, only staring at each other in horrible anticipation. “Because…I have a key.”
They both held their breath as the deadlock slowly clicked open and the door slid open. Mrs. Winters looked like a possessed version of herself and the girls never imagined that anyone so old could be so terrifying. Her eyes were wildly darting about the room as she strolled in, gunslinger style, and stared the girls down; knife still in hand. Sarah looked at her petrified sister.
“When I say ‘run’, I want you to run to the back door and home as fast as you can.”
“Oh no, no, no, no…” Mrs. Winters cut in, bringing both girls attention back to her. “That’s not going to happen, little birdie…birdie…BITCHES!” She was obviously out of her mind.
Sarah shoved Mary to the side and screamed, “RUN” before lunging at the old woman herself. She did not take the time to think about it or consider the consequences because that was the measure of true sisterly love; and she would do it again a hundred more times. Mrs. Winters wasn’t ready for the split and she went for Mary. In that split-second they were in a triangle with only a few feet between them and that was when the shot rang out from the hall, slamming into the old lady’s chest and propelling her across the room like a rag-doll.
As loud as the gunshot seemed outside earlier, this was ten times louder as it echoed through the house and rocked their eardrums. Sarah grabbed Mary and squeezed her sister tight. In the doorway to the bedroom was the creepy guy with Mrs. Winters’s gun in his shaking hands. Slowly, as if it were fit to explode, he set the gun on the floor and then backed up into the shadows of the hallway without saying a word. It was the last time they ever saw him.
The police did come about fifteen minutes later, but it was the next door neighbor that called them…not Mrs. Winters. A couple of gunshots in a quiet neighborhood will do that. The investigation lasted for six months and yielded some interesting, if not utterly confusing, results. Neither Mr. Lyman nor Mrs. Winters owned homes in the area and both had an unhealthy fascination with 410 Hawkes Lane which was the unoccupied home that both were found dead in. Another intriguing aspect to the case was the house itself. These were only the latest in a long line of bizarre deaths associated with the residence…including the last owner. These new tragedies did nothing to deter the rumors that the house was actually possessed and that it encouraged…unhealthy…behavior. Spending significant time in the house would bring paranoia, anxiety and even psychosis. True or not…Mary and Sarah never stepped foot on the property again.
Credit: Shannon Higdon
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