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Devil On The Tombstone
By Cara Swann
Brent turned onto the narrow dirt road, the headlight beams raking over the rural countryside. He noticed that the others in the car, his girlfriend, Sally, their double-date Rob and Karen in the backseat, had gotten quiet. They'd all been joking, laughing and making dares a moment ago, but now that he was actually heading toward the isolated cemetery, no one spoke.
Lush foliage scratched the car as Brent drove slowly along, creeping by the thick pines and oaks that grew close to the roadside. The road was washed out from recent summer thundershowers, and left deep ruts as they bumped toward their destination two-miles ahead. Brent said, "Hey, you guys, who goes first when we get there?"
Sally laughed nervously, but neither Rob nor Karen replied. The silence resumed as they neared the small clearing Brent could see faintly in the distance; he wondered if he had let superstition overwhelm his good sense? Just because a bunch of teenagers said there was an eerie 'mark' resembling a devil on one of the tombstones in this isolated cemetery didn't mean it was true. And even if it was, Brent figured there was a good explanation for it: some sort of peculiar stain, nothing paranormal at all about it!
When the car came into the tiny clearing, Brent stopped, and looked out into the moonlit graveyard. It had been abandoned years ago, no church nearby anymore, but a few relatives of those buried here apparently came to keep the worst of the weeds and briars beat back. Still, he could see patches of tangled weeds covering some of the graves here and there...the old, darkened headstones pointing sharply skyward, some cracked and crumbling. He pulled up a little, so that the headlight beams shone across the cemetery, illuminating the eerie specter of tombstones.
Sally said, "Geez, this place is creepy! Looks like some of the tombstones are falling apart, and it's...."
"Decaying," Rob said, leaning forward over the front seat, staring out and then adding, "Yeah, look at all those stones, how we supposed to know which one has the devil on it?"
Karen moved toward the front seat, joining Rob in getting a better view. "Sally, how'd you say it could be found?"
Brent looked toward Sally, could see her tiny, heart-shaped face in the dashlights; she was frowning, as if deep in thought, then said, "Jennifer said that if the car headlights were trained at a certain angle, you could see the tombstone without even getting out of the car."
Rob gave a disdainful snort. "Come on you guys, we drive all the way out here and then stay in the car?" He gave Brent a shove. "Man, let's go out there and show the girls it's no big deal!"
Brent knew he didn't want to go out into that spooky cemetery, searching for something that might not exist at all. However, he couldn't let the others see his skepticism (and fear)...so he bluffed, "You first, Rob. Remember, you took the dare!"
Karen piped up, "I'm sure not going out there!"
Sally agreed, "Me either!"
Brent asked Sally, "How did Jennifer say we should park, for the headlights to pick out the right marker?"
"From what she said, I figure we're in the right position now. I mean, the lights are focused directly into the graveyard...we're on this little hill, looking down at it all."
Brent looked out again at the small cemetery, how the deep woods surrounded it, giving it a closed-in appearance, as if soon the forest would claim the tiny clearing too. He suddenly switched off the lights, and the girls yelped, but he quieted them, saying, "Listen...let's see what it looks like in the moonlight, it's so bright out there tonight, a full moon."
Sally added, "Yes, Jennifer said that sometimes you can make out the tombstone, it's white marble...and..." She was peering out the windshield, and exclaimed, "Hey, look, see that tall stone, the bullet-shaped one that is almost luminescent in the moonlight? I think that's it!"
Brent asked, "And what was that man's name, the one buried there?"
"Henry Rodale. Weird story about his life..." Sally paused for dramatic impact, then continued in a low voice, "He was supposed to have been real mean, one of those abusive types, beat his wife, his children, drank alot. This was back in the late 20s, early 30s...when the KKK was still active, had their secret society here in the South. Rumor had it that when there was a bad man in the community, like Henry, the KKK would pay him a visit and teach him a lesson. Give him a kinda warning, to stop harming his family, and if he didn't, then the next time, they'd hang him."
Rob gave a low whistle. "Wow, is that true?"
Karen and Rob were both still halfway hanging over the front seat, peering out the windshield at the eerie spectacle of the moonlit graveyard, trying to focus on the tombstone that stood starkly white and taller than any others. Karen said, "I don't think it was ever proven, but it probably did happen like that sometimes. My grandpa told me that same story, so it must have a grain of truth in it."
"Yes, I heard it from my grandparents too," Sally said, looking at Brent.
He felt like an outsider, since he'd grown up in Michigan, only moved to the South this past year; and at seventeen, he was a year older than the others, but desperately wanted to fit in. It sounded to him just like the kind of thing that Southerners might say to justify the existence of a bunch of red-neck renegades...but he just shrugged, said nothing.
Sally continued, "Anyway, the story goes that the KKK warned Henry, gave him a severe beating, asked him if he liked getting beat up on like he beat his family. And then they warned him that they'd be watching him, if he ever laid so much as a finger on his family, they'd come back and pay him another visit, only they'd make sure he never hurt anyone again."
Rob asked, "So what happened? Did that make him straighten up?"
"No." Sally paused dramatically, then resumed: "He went home and murdered his whole family."
"Oh my God," Karen exclaimed, "how horrible!"
Rob slapped Brent on the shoulder, said, "Hey you Yankees would say that's the reason the KKK shouldn't administer vigilante justice, huh?"
Brent nodded, "Right. Never can tell what a man will do and sounds like the KKK pushed old Henry right over the edge."
"What happened to Henry, did he have a trial?" Karen asked, looking expectantly toward Sally.
"No. He went out in the backyard and shot the dog and then killed himself too."
"Oh wow, that's awful." Karen moved slightly back, disgusted.
"Then, after they were all buried, the family in another cemetery, for some of the wife's people wouldn't allow them to be buried by Henry...about six months later, someone noticed the devil on Henry's tombstone. Said he was so mean, the devil appeared there." Sally sighed. "That's the story anyway."
Rob said, "So we going out there, or not Brent?"
Brent started the car, flicking on the headlights, peering out toward the looming tombstone, saying, "I'm game if you are."
"Okay, we're going. If you girls get scared, don't take off! We'll be back in a few minutes. You got the flashlight Brent?"
"Yeah." Brent reached down underneath the seat, pulled out the large flashlight and said, "Let's go."
Both car doors opened at the same time, and the boys slid out, stood and started immediately toward the cemetery, ducking the low treelimbs. As they rounded the car, Sally said, "God, they looked scared to death!"
Karen giggled nervously, and leaned over the front seat, watching the two boys in the bright headlight beams, seeing how they nearly marched across the grassy graveyard, playing the flashlight across the tombstones, feigning bravery. She shivered, said, "Wow, you couldn't get me out there!"
All at once, just as the boys approached the grave of Henry, there was a loud noise behind the car; both girls shrieked and began jostling around, wildly scared....and somehow, in the confusion, the car got knocked out of gear and since they were parked on a knoll, it started to roll downhill toward the cemetery...picking up speed as the bewildered, frightened girls screamed and tried frantically to stop the car. Sally slid over underneath the steering wheel, and tried to find the brake, but instead hit the gas pedal and they swooped forward faster, faster and suddenly were crashing through the graveyard, heading for the boys who had turned to see what was going on, petrified in the glare of the headlights as the car sped toward them.
Karen was screeching and yelling, and saw that they were about to run over the two boys, who had stopped dead in their tracks, pinned in the headlights like deer stunned and frozen. But Rob quickly ducked off to the side as Karen felt the thud of headstones hit the car as it bounded onward, mowing down the few small ones as it raced out of control toward Brent. Covering her eyes, she couldn't bear to see what was happening.
Within seconds, there was a horror-filled scream that echoed through the cemetery, through the deep woods as Brent saw the car upon him, and turned to run, but instead found himself pressed against the looming tall tombstone of Henry...coming face-to-face with the darkly stained image of a horned devil, his last conscious thought being that indeed, there was truth to the legend of the devil on the tombstone.
When the commotion was over, the deep stillness surrounded the little isolated graveyard, and all was quiet again. Before the crying started, and the horrid reality of what had happened dawned on the other three, the car that had pulled up behind theirs made a sharp turn and headed back to town to get help. The teenagers inside were unable to make sense of it, but one kept saying, "It's the devil, the curse of the devil on the tombstone!"
[Author's Note: This is loosely based on a regional legend in the South, about the image of a 'devil on a bad man's tombstone'...and teenagers do go there to see it. Fortunately, nothing so tragic ever happened there.]
© Cara Swann - The Prose Menagerie