Growing up in a small town in the early 1990s was sometimes both a blessing and a curse, at least to the mind of a child. I enjoyed that I could easily walk anywhere in the town, and that almost everyone knew each other. There were so few children, that we all banded together in friendship to avoid being alone. My parents never worried about me being out all day and well into the evening because they knew our neighbors were good people that would keep an eye on all of us. We had small street fairs and block parties for holidays and, sometimes, even just to have something to look forward to on a dull summer day. Despite the comfort in closeness, it was still a small town with none of the big attractions or diversions of a city. We didn’t have a movie theater or shopping mall in which to spend our free time. We didn’t have arcades or toy stores. We had a small, rundown park and each other. My friends and I had to make our own fun.
From older siblings to younger siblings time and again, the kids in my town passed down scary stories. Some were fantastical tales about monsters, ghouls, ghosts, and other nightmarish creatures, while others were about the darkness of the human soul and the horrors wrought by ordinary people. Kids told these stories in hushed voices on dark nights to ensnare the attention of bored peers and to pass the time. We camped out in pup tents in the woods behind our houses and told these stories for our own dark amusement.
One story that had always haunted my dreams was about old Mr. Matthews, an elderly man that lived in a dilapidated house with few neighbors nearby. I had only seen him a handful of times and never had heard him speak. He never showed up to town events and lived a secluded life. I guess that made it easier to believe a terrifying tale about and his sinister pride and rage having terrible consequences.
The story goes a little something like this:
Mr. Matthews was a selfish and cruel man who cared for little more than himself and his beloved car. He’d spend hours fixing, cleaning, and otherwise caring for his prized possession, a 1957 Chevy Bel Air. He’d wax and polish the bright teal paint and shining metal trim. He kept mostly to himself, but would indulge in a little conversing if someone commented on his pride and joy. The car stood proudly in his driveway for all to see, except on Sundays when he would take it out for a slow and relaxing drive. This all changed one Mischief Night in 1981. For those unfamiliar with Mischief Night, it’s an excuse for kids and teens to treat themselves to some pranks and minor vandalism. In our neighborhood, it was celebrated every year on October 30th, the day before Halloween.
A boy, whose name changes from telling to telling, decided to relieve the grocery store of a few dozen eggs and had just one dozen left after an egging escapade. He pondered on where to throw the last eggs and wanted to egg something that no one had ever dared to try. That thought was followed by fateful inspiration when he came upon the polished and beautiful Bel Air. As he laughed and let egg after egg fly and crash against the shiny exterior, he didn’t notice the man charging towards him from the backyard of the house. The boy was never heard from again.
As legend has it, Mr. Matthews discovered the vandal and didn’t appreciate the attack on his precious car. He quickly ended the boy’s life in a fit of rage (and in a manner that also changed from telling to telling) and shoved the body into the backseat of the car. He covered the car in a tarp to hide any evidence of his lapse in self-control. That night, and every night after, the formerly cherished car was hidden underneath a brown and drab tarp.
Neighbors whispered about the missing youth, some suspecting foul play while others suspected that he’d run off to somewhere more exciting. They also whispered and wondered why Mr. Matthews’ car was always under cover and he had stopped his meticulous care of the machine. No one ever made the connection between these changes, because after all, we live in a quiet town where everyone looks out for one another.
As Mischief Night approached in 1995, my friends and I were looking to stir up some trouble. We often dared each other to engage in childish pranks that we thought were quite clever at our young age. My turn came up and while my friends pondered my dare, one voice spoke up. “We dare you to go and lift the tarp on Old Man Matthews’ car!” said Anthony, a boy a few years older than me. He saw the less than enthusiastic look on my face and chuckled. “I knew you were just a scared little girl, and not cool enough to hang with us,” he joked. Anthony was the leader of our little group and his words stung. I felt the heat of a blush take over my cheeks, but held my head high. “I’ll go look into the stupid car, and nothing’s gonna be there. It’s just a story,” I managed while hoping that no one saw through my false bravado.
Our group of eight gathered on the sidewalk a mere 20 yards from the shapeless, covered vehicle still parked in the driveway after all this time. My friends whispered words of encouragement and assured me that if I pulled this off, I would be considered the bravest among them despite the fact that I was also the youngest. Swallowing my fears, I knew that it had to be done. With this one feat, I’d cement my place among the kids that would probably be my closest and only friends in my young life. I took a deep breath and started my slow walk to the car, crouched low and praying not to be discovered by any adults, murderous or otherwise.
With each step, horrible thoughts and questions came to mind. What if this was all true? That poor kid died for a prank which was a terrifying thought considering my current mission. What would his parents think if they knew that he had been rotting in the back seat of some crazed man’s car while they were searching for him? What would he look like after 14 years? What would be left of him? I realized that I needed to clear my head of such dark thoughts and focus on myself. All I had to do was walk the remaining five or so yards, lift up the edge of the tarp and peek inside. There would be nothing in there and I would be hailed as a hero among my peers. A devious thought entered my mind that maybe I could pretend to see something and when my curious friends came to investigate, I could scare them with a well-timed “Boo!” Yeah, that’s what I would do. I’d be a legend and we’d all be talking about this Mischief Night for years to come.
I closed the distance to the back of the car and knelt down to grab onto the edge of the tarp. It felt rough and grimy in my small hands as I slowly began to lift it with eyes squinted shut. I took one more deep and calming breath before I pulled the tarp up enough to expose the back window. I opened my eyes and peered into the dusty window. There in the backseat was a blanket-covered form with something sticking out from underneath it. The scream began in my throat as I realized it was a glove-covered hand holding onto a brown egg carton that was surely attached to the body that must be under the blanket. I felt numb and that I could not get enough oxygen into my lungs despite my gasps. I felt so light headed and didn’t realize that I was fainting until I had started to drop to the ground. My last thought before the blackness rolled in was that I was going to share this boy’s fate when Old Man Mathews found me by the car.
My head was pounding as my eyes struggled to open. I looked up to see the blurry and spinning faces of my friends circled around me. Their murmured words of concern were too hard to understand at first, but I regained my wits and slowly sat up. “I thought you were a goner,” whispered Nina. “It’s all true…” I started to say until I was cut off by a low and deep chuckle from behind us. Terror gripped my spine as I turned to gape at the old man sitting in a rocking chair just a few feet away. I felt faint again as I realized it was Old Man Matthews chuckling at me and that I was sitting up on his porch where my friends must have moved me to after I passed out earlier. I stammered and tried to get out the words that my friends needed to hear. He was a murderer. We needed to run for our lives. I couldn’t form the words as he slowly stood up and walked around us, down the porch stairs and towards the car.
He pulled up the tarp and opened the rear door. Tears streamed from my eyes as he began to pull out a blanket-wrapped figure. He hoisted it over his shoulder and began to walk back towards us as the egg carton fell out from underneath the blanket. I scrambled to back up further on the porch, but couldn’t understand the reason why my friends weren’t following suit. They all sat so calmly, some even smirking at me. Matthews heaved the lump from his shoulder and it landed with a thud on the wooden planks of the porch. I covered my eyes with shaking hands as I heard him say, “You’re going to want to see this, girl.”
I peeked through my fingers as he slowly pulled the blanket off. I stared for a moment that seemed to stretch into eternity as I tried to make sense of what I saw. Lying face down on the porch was a form wearing a hooded sweatshirt and jeans, but was bent in such an unnatural way. Mathews bent down and turned the figure onto its back, but I was not prepared for the shock of what I’d see. It was a crudely made dummy dressed as a young teen might have been. The look on my face must have been quite amusing as Matthews began to laugh again. Nina helped me to my feet and the rest of my friends led me off the porch, down the sidewalk and around the corner towards my own house and sanity.
When I was safely at home and calm, it was explained to me that we’d all been fooled. Matthews knew about the cruel story children told about him and that it was almost a rite of passage that saw kids sneak up to take a peek into his car to see his supposed victim every few years. To have his own fun, he made a dummy that he’d hide in the car every year on Mischief Night to give some kid the scare of his life.
While I was unconscious and my friends were torn between wanting to rescue me and wanting to run for their lives, Matthews appeared and explained the prank. He told them to move me up to his porch to allow me time to recover. He told them that he wouldn’t call our parents or the police about our trespassing if we promised to keep his trick a secret amongst ourselves. When Anthony asked why, Matthews had a simple answer. “Every few years I get some brave, but stupid kid coming on to my property thinking he’s entitled to poke around my things. Watching the color drain from their faces as they look into my backseat is the best laugh I get all year. Besides, you kids need something to whisper about in this boring, little town.”