It was the summer of ’76. The Bicentennial. Jared remembered it well. He could still picture the explosions of the fireworks and all of the red, white and blue that covered the small town. Banners, posters, flags, American patriotism was all the rage that summer. It should have brought back happy memories for him, but instead it left him with a cold chill. It was the summer of ’76. The summer that his best friend Darrin disappeared.
School was out and back in those days that meant spending all day outdoors. Kids today just don’t understand the value of playing outside. Off came the button down shirts and long pants and on went the ragged T-shirts and cutoff jean shorts. Baseball caps and sneakers completed the ensemble and the only thing to do was waste the hours away.
Many afternoons starting in June were spent in the vacant lot next to Krisher’s Auto Repair shop. It was a small field really and the only structure that bordered it other than the repair shop was the wooden fence that marked the end of Old Man Peter’s yard. Just recalling his name again sent a shiver down Jared’s spine. Through holes in the knotty pine planks that made up the fence, one could see the long grass of the unkempt yard of the most feared man in town. Few people actually saw him but his reputation kept kids and even some adults at bay. He was the town boogie man: the mysterious hermit that was the source of more than one scary story told around the glowing light of a campfire by kids year after year.
It was said that his wife died in the house many years prior and after that, he rarely ventured outside. The local grocer sent a young man over once a week to the front porch and he retrieved an envelope with a grocery list and $20 cash. He would return with the groceries in brown paper bags. He kept whatever change was left over as a tip, although it was said that it was always less than a dollar. Old Man Peters also had a reputation of being a skinflint.
Stories came and went about what lie within the walls of that two-story house. Some said Old Man Peters was dead and that his ghost haunted the residence, but then someone would quickly point out that ghosts don’t eat food, so why would he still buy groceries? Others said he was crazy from the grief of losing his wife and from years of living alone and that he killed small animals and even children that wandered into his yard. Still others believed the house itself was evil and it was that evil that killed his wife and he was forbidden to leave. Many variations on these stories circulated around town, all lending to his legend. Consequently, no one dared to set foot on the property.
It was an unwritten rule that kids were not supposed to hit the ball towards his house, which sat adjacent to the vacant lot in what would have been far right field. On the rare occasion that a ball flew in that direction and over the fence, it was considered lost and if no one else had brought a baseball, the game was over until a replacement was procured.
It was six days before the Fourth of July. Six days before the parade and sparklers. Six days before the sky erupted in breathtaking colors; but no one was thinking about that on this humid day. A baseball game was raging on in the lot and it was serious business. Jared, Darrin, Kevin, David and Walter were on one team and Mike, Andy, Carmichael, Johnny and Dennis were on the other. The warm Wisconsin sun beamed down on the boys and sweat ran profusely off their foreheads, but no one cared. It was 4-6 at the bottom of the seventh. Darrin was at bat and Kevin was on second. They were behind two runs and all Darrin could think of was sending that ball to Mars and bringing in the tying run. One ball and one strike was the count and he adjusted his grip on the bat. He felt confident he’d get a hit. This was a brand new Louisville Slugger his dad had bought him for his birthday only a month earlier. He was going to peel the skin off of that ball.
Dennis held the ball and then went into his wind up. He had great form but not much of an arm. His pitch came in slow and easy, just the way Darrin liked it. Darrin swung hard, never taking his eye off the ball, just like his dad taught him. As soon as he felt it connect, he knew it was a home run. The loud crack of the bat rang in his ears and the ball screamed off into outer space, or at least that’s how it had seemed. In truth, the ball sailed high and to the right, far above the heads of Mike, who stood off of second base and Johnny who was in right field. Johnny raised his gloved hand for a moment like he was going to try to catch the fly ball, but the momentum carried it over the fence and into the yard of Old Man Peters.
Jubilation turned to disappointment as all ten boys watched their only baseball vanish into the realm of lost balls. Darrin had just cornered past first base when he slowed his run to a jog and then to a complete stop. A collective groan was heard across the lot.
“Oh man, why’d you go and do that?” whined Mike, looking directly at Darrin. “No hitting into Old Man Peters yard.”
“Yeah, now the game’s over,” echoed Carmichael, who had been playing catcher.
“Man, I just got that ball,” complained Kevin, who was contemplating a walk to the fence to see if maybe his eyes had tricked him and the ball had not passed beyond the point of no return.
“Hey, I’m sorry, ok?” said Darrin apologetically. He felt really bad. Not only had he ended the game, he was robbed of what was sure to be a fantastic home run. His Louisville Slugger had done its job too well.
“Well, now what do ya wanna do?” asked Walter, looking down at his dusty shoes.
“We could go back to my place and see if my dad will turn on the sprinkler?” offered Andy hopefully.
There were murmurs of discussion on this idea but Darrin wasn’t paying attention. Something inside of him wasn’t ready to give up on the game. Not yet. He wanted that ball back. He wanted his home run back. He wanted to play this game they had started and he wanted to win. He started jogging towards the weathered fence.
“Hey, Darrin, where are you going?” asked Jared.
“I’m gonna go see if I can find the ball,” Darrin replied, not looking back at his best friend.
“What?” cried Jared. “No way, it’s gone, man. Just let it go.”
The other boys stopped talking and all were watching Darrin running across the grassy lot.
“C’mon,” said Johnny, motioning with his hand for everyone to follow Darrin.
The pack of boys followed their companion to the edge of the fence. There was a hole in the wood large enough to see through with both eyes. When the boys caught up with their friend, Darrin was already on his knees peering through the hole.
“Can ya see it? Is it there?” someone asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Jared. “Even if he can see it, no one goes over there.”
“Yeah, but maybe if it’s close…” offered Mike.
“Could we get it with a stick?” asked Walter.
“A stick with gum on the end,” said Dennis, “that might…”
“I see it!” cried Darrin excitedly. “It’s on his back porch.”
“Oh man!” sighed David. “Forget it. It’s gone.” He was the pessimist of the group. When everyone else thought something was a good idea, David would remind them of how silly or dangerous or improbable the idea really was. This did not make him very popular, but the boys had needed a tenth player for the game, so David was allowed to hang out with them today.
“Shut up, David,” someone said reflexively. That was a common response to anything David ever said.
“No, I think I can get it,” said Darrin enthusiastically. “All I have to do is get over the fence and run up and grab it off of his porch. It’s like maybe… twenty feet from here… or so.”
Jared reached out and put his right hand on Darrin’s left shoulder. “Hey man, listen. Just forget about the baseball. It’s spilled milk.”
“What?” asked Carmichael. “What does milk have to do with this?”
“No, it’s something my dad says,” said Jared. “Like, after something bad happens you say ‘No sense crying over spilled milk’. It means what’s done is done and you can’t do anything about it.”
“Who cries when they spill milk?” asked Carmichael, clearly not grasping the idea. “Only babies do that.”
Andy took off his baseball cap and smacked Carmichael in the head. “You dope!” he yelled. “Don’t you get it? It’s like Jared said. What’s done is done. The ball is gone. Just let it go and forget about it.”
“Easy for you to say,” said Kevin. “I just got that ball. Took two weeks allowance to buy it. Is someone gonna buy me a new one?”
“I need somebody to give me a boost over the fence,” said Darrin.
“Darrin, don’t,” said Jared with concern in his voice. “That’s Old Man Peters. No one goes into his yard. Bad things happen. You can’t go in there.”
“Stop being a wussy, Jared,” said Kevin. “He knocked it over there. Let him go get it back.”
“If you want your damn ball so much then you go get it!” yelled Jared. All discussion stopped for a moment. Jared had used the “D” word and that was serious stuff.
Finally Darrin broke the silence. “Jared, it’s cool. I’ll be fine. It’s broad daylight. What could possibly happen?”
He looked directly at his best friend. Darrin always had a way of making things seem like they were going to work out. He’d even convinced Mike that jumping off the train trestle outside of town and into turtle pond was totally safe the summer prior. Mike’s broken arm was testament to the fact that Darrin had been wrong, but no one had blamed him.
Jared looked back at his friend with worry in his eyes but said nothing.
“C’mon, I’ll give you a boost,” said Walter, ever the instigator. As long as he was not the one risking anything, he was game for any crazy idea someone hatched. He cupped his hands together and several of the boys crowded around Darrin as he slipped his foot into Walter’s hands and stood tall. Hands reached out to him and the boys lifted the savior of their game over the fence. Most seemed caught up in the excitement of retrieving the ball and the amazement that anyone would dare venture into Old Man Peters yard, but Jared stood back, a look of concern on his face.
Darrin flipped over the fence, which stood all of about six feet from the ground. As soon as he was over the boys crowded around the hole that sat at knee height. After a moment of tussling, Mike ended up with the lucky position of being the “spotter”. Jared stood back from the group, arms crossed.
Darrin took a moment to look around. He stood only a few feet from where he’d been standing moments before, but everything seemed different now. He was in the dragon’s lair. A rush of electrical excitement course through his limbs and across his chest. He managed a grin.
Slowly, ever so slowly he stepped forward. He felt like Neil Armstrong on the moon. One small step for a boy, one giant leap for boykind. Nothing happened. No yells or growls or bells or sirens or anything at all sounded to announce that he was treading on forbidden real estate so he took another step. As with his first step, only silence greeted him. He heard muffled talking from the other side of the fence.
“Can you see him? Is he there? What’s happening?”
Mike waved off his friends. “He’s fine. He’s walking towards the porch.”
Darrin continued to walk slowly, deeper into enemy territory. All remained quiet. The porch seemed so far away. Each step he took felt like he was crossing miles. He stepped closer and closer. The porch was only about 15 feet away. He could see the baseball sitting on the porch near the old door. 10 feet now…. 5 feet… and there he was, standing at the steps. Three wooden planks with most of the dark green paint chipped off led up to a small porch and the back door. In another few seconds he’d have his hand on the ball. He’d done it. Stories would be told for years of his bravery and how he had fearlessly crossed the forbidden zone of Old Man Peters yard. Darrin could already see the way that Shelly Sanderson would look at him once she heard about this. She’d finally give him the recognition he deserved. She might even break up with Brad Lerner and go steady with Darrin.
“What’s he doing now? Andy asked Mike, who as still kneeling and staring through the fence.
“He stopped at the steps,” answered Mike.
What? Why did he do that? Is something wrong? Did someone come out?” asked Dennis.
“I don’t know,” hissed Mike. Nothing happened. “He just… stopped. Wait, now he’s going up the steps.”
Darrin broke the spell of his daydream and put his right foot on the first step. The board creaked. Normally, a sound like this would not have caught Darrin’s attention, but every noise seemed amplified in this gloomy back yard. Even the sun seemed not to shine so brightly here.
He placed his full weight on the board and then stepped to the second plank This too made a loud squeak and from behind him Darrin heard a booming “Woof!”.
He turned to look at the small shed that sat in the far corner of the yard. He’d not even noticed it when he first jumped over the fence, but now his attention was glued to the open door as a very large, muscular dog came bounding out. In the back of Darrin’s head he recognized the breed as a Rottweiler, but his conscious mind was frozen. The dog gazed his way and for just a moment, the two stared at each other in the stillness of the hot summer day and neither moved a muscle. Then, with a roar that seemed to emanate deep from the chest of the beast, the dog lunged forward as if it meant to cover the full distance of about 30 feet in less than a second.
Darrin broke his trance and bounded up the stairs in full panic. His mind raced and yet he still had enough control to grab for the baseball that lie next to the open back door.
Open door? He didn’t recall seeing the door open, but he was acting more on reflex now and hurtled into the house before even realizing what he had done. All he could comprehend was escaping the gnashing jaws of the monster that pursued him.
All of this took place within a matter of seconds. Mike heard the dog, but did not see him until he was almost upon the porch. By that time he’d watched his friend dash up the remaining step and onto the porch. All he could manage to scream was “Oh NO!” to which he received multiple inquiries from his friends as to the state of the affairs transpiring beyond the wooden barrier.
Mike watched in horror as Darrin swooped down to snatch the ball and then disappear into the house. Mike had also not noticed the door opening but after Darrin disappeared into the darkness of the house, he saw the door close. Half a second later the rottweiler leaped onto the porch and barked loudly at the closed door, obviously angry that he’d been robbed of his target.
“Oh my God!” yelled Mike as he pulled away from the fence.
“What happened?” shouted the group.
“He… Darrin… he went… into the house!” Mike said in disbelief.
“What?” yelled Jared. “How did he get in?”
“The back door was open. He jumped onto the porch, grabbed the ball and went into the house.” Mike said, still trying to work things out in his head.
“Let me see!” yelled Jared excitedly.
He knelt down and pushed Mike out of his way. Peering into the hole, he quickly surveyed the yard and, not seeing his friend, focused on the back door of the house. It was closed. The rottweiler stood outside the door and barked but was calming down. Jared watched as the dog eventually stopped barking and began sniffing around the porch. The door did not open.
Jared looked to see if he could spot any sign of activity in the house. There was a window not far from the door, but a dark, heavy curtain blocked any view of the interior. Nothing moved inside. Finally, the dog wandered off the porch and out of Jared’s line of sight.
The guys were buzzing behind him. Everyone was talking and asking questions and Mike was trying his best to described to the rest of them what he’s seen. There were several gasps of disbelief and surprise.
“Did he come out?”
Jared had had enough. He stood up and turned to his friends. “Boost me up. I’m going over.”
“Are you crazy?” asked David. “You can’t go over there!”
“David’s right,” said Carmichael, which may have been the first time those words had ever left his mouth.
“Yeah, you can’t go in there,” said Johnny. “Didn’t you hear that dog?”
“What are we supposed to do?” yelled Jared, his eyes just beginning to brim with tears. “He just went into Old Man Peters house! His house! We can’t leave him there!”
“We gotta tell someone!” said Kevin. “Maybe we can call the cops.”
“He’s right. Let’s go tell our parents.” said David, obviously worried.
“We’re gonna tell them that he trespassed on someone’s private property?” asked Mike. “We’ll all get in trouble.”
“Is that what you’re worried about, Mike?” asked Jared accusingly. “Darrin is inside there and all you care about is getting in trouble? Forget it. I’m going home and telling my dad. I’ll tell him to call the cops if we have to. I’m not leaving my best friend in that house.”
With that, Jared ran off heading for his home two blocks away. The rest of the boys looked at one another and scattered.
An hour and fifteen minutes later, Jared stood next to his father on the sidewalk outside of the creepy house that had “Peters” written in barely legible paint on the side of the mailbox. His father looked at him and Jared couldn’t tell if his dad was angry or concerned. Grown ups never see things the way kids do and he was sure his father thought that this was a great big pile of nothing. On the other hand, when he had burst into the kitchen where his dad had been making himself a sandwich and started telling his father what had happened at their ball game in machine gun staccato bursts, his father had shown some concern, especially when Jared mentioned Darrin disappearing inside the house and not coming out. The legend of Old Man Peters had lingered for years and even many adults gave that house a wide berth when walking by.
Dale Thompkins strode up the broken concrete walk to the front porch of the Peters home. When he’d received the phone call from Jared’s father about Darrin, he was slightly angry at first. When he found that it had been at least a half an hour and no one had seen his son since going into the house, his concern trumped his anger and he asked to have Jared and his father meet him in front of Old Man Peters home so that he could “straighten this mess out.”
Mr. Thompkins stepped up to the front door and knocked three times quite loudly. Jared watched with mixed feelings of hope and dreaded anticipation. Seconds ticked by. Out of the corner of his eye, Jared spied the rest of the baseball group lurking about, hiding behind trees and parked cars, clearly wanting to watch the events unfolding but not wanting to make their presence completely known to the adults. There was no reply at the door.
Darrin’s father pounded on the door a second time and accompanied the knocking with a terse exclamation.
“Mr. Peters!” he projected loudly. “Mr. Peters are you in there?”
Another long moment passed and Jared could actually feel his heart beating in his chest. He gripped his father’s hand tightly, realizing that he probably looked like a baby to his friends for holding his dad’s hand, but he didn’t care. He was scared.
Suddenly, the door made a clicking sound and slowly it creaked open. From his vantage point, Jared could make out a short man with flyaway wisps of long white hair on his sparsely covered head, spectacles on his nose and a dirty white T-shirt covering his upper torso. The man wore dark brown trousers and Jared could not make out if he was wearing shoes or not. His skin was a pale white and was wrinkled and saggy and in some places it appeared to almost hang off of him.
“Whaddyoo want?” the man asked in a gravely voice, clearly not in the best of moods.
“Mr. Peters, my name is Dale Thompkins and I’m sorry for this intrusion…” began Darrin’s father.
“You better be sorry,” said Mr. Peters angrily. “I don’t like visitors.”
Summoning up a bit of anger of his own to counter the indignation that he was clearly facing from Old Man Peters, Dale Thompkins stood up a bit straighter and said loudly, “Mr. Peters, I’ve been told that my son Darrin came into your house today. Through the back door, actually. He was trying to retrieve a baseball that had flown into your yard and he was chased by your dog. Is he in there?”
Old Man Peters looked at him for a moment as if he was sizing up an opponent for a fight. He was not intimidated.
“Look, I don’t know who you are and I don’t know who your son is, but no one has been in my house. I live alone and I don’t like visitors!” he said gruffly, emphasizing the last part to make sure his message was clear. He looked as though he were about to close his door when Darrin’s father spoke up.
“Mr. Peters, my son’s best friend,” Darrin’s father turned and pointed at Jared, “said he and his friends saw my son enter your house in the back. He hasn’t been seen since. Now if I have to call the police to have them come here and search your home, I will. I want to know where my son is!”
Jared’s heart nearly stopped when Darrin’s father pointed at him. Old Man Peters had followed the pointing finger with his gaze and when the old man’s eyes rested on Jared that piercing glare cut right through him. Jared felt ice-cold. The look was one of knowing. It was a look that said, “I know you now. I see you. You can’t hide from me.” It was the look of pure hatred, Jared thought.
“Well call your damn cops then, because there ain’t no one here!. Now get off my property or I’ll call the cops on you!” With that he turned and slammed his door shut.
Later that day Dale Thompkins returned to the Peters house with two police officers in tow. The house was searched and nothing was found. Not even a baseball.
As he walked home with his father, Jared asked what would happen next. His father had replied that he shouldn’t worry about it. “What’s done is done,” he said. “There’s nothing more you can do now.”
“What’s done is done,” rang through Jared’s head all that day. “Spilled milk, just like losing the baseball.” Jared wondered how his father could treat his friend with such indifference.
Darrin Thompkins was never seen again. About a year later Jared and his family moved away from that small, sleepy Wisconsin town. He grew up, had a family and slowly surrendered his youth as all men must do. Years passed and cast a haze on some of his memories, but he never forgot his friend or the man that he knew was responsible for his disappearance. The look that Old Man Peters gave him that day conveyed the horrible truth that never left him. He sometimes thought that if he had stayed in that town he might have ended up missing as well. More spilled milk.
It had been the summer of ’76.
[Author’s note: The components of this story are by no means unique. This plot device has been used many times before. In my head, I mixed my own memories of summer baseball with my friends and scenes from the movie “The Sandlot“. I just wanted to take something that was tried and true and give it my own personal touch. The story really is more about memories from childhood and the demons that haunt us from those early days. Oh and yes, sometimes the scary people in the world really are scary for a reason.]