Below is the title story. It is available as part of the short story collection, as well as a standalone horror novelette on Amazon Kindle:
“What’s the scariest thing you ever saw, Gramps?”
It is odd how an innocent question like that can bring back such horrible memories; and even odder in this case, since the question came from none other than Lisa, my little great granddaughter.
Today is Halloween, and Lisa’s mother, Emily, brought her over to visit her sole surviving great grandparent before an evening of trick-or-treating. Lisa was wearing one of those plastic Halloween costumes that parents nowadays buy for their kids at Walmart or Target. This particular one looked like a cartoon ghost character that I have seen on television over the years.
“What’s the scariest thing you ever saw, Gramps?” Lisa was standing in my living room, unable to contain her self-delight over her Halloween disguise. She was holding a trick-or-treat bag that bore the image of a typical Halloween cliché: a witch flying on a broomstick, silhouetted against an oversized full moon. I had just dropped two Snickers bars into her bag—her first of many before the end of the evening, no doubt. Lisa was filled with energy even without all that sugar.
“Tell me what’s the scariest thing you ever saw.” She repeated. “Tell me, pleeeease! You always tell good stories, Gramps.” She stamped her foot once on my living room carpet.
I didn’t answer her right away, because the images that stirred as I considered the question made me lose my breath for a few seconds. Then I struggled to think of a suitable response. My answer would be a lie, of course. Not for a million dollars would I tell my great granddaughter the truth.
“Well, once this scary little ghost came into my living room.” I said, recovering myself. “And I’ve never seen anything scarier than her.” I pulled Lisa gently onto my lap and she began giggling. She is only eight years old, and still light enough so that her weight doesn’t hurt my knees—even though my arthritis has gotten quite bad in recent years.
“Lisa, say thank you for the candy your great grandfather gave you.” Emily said. Lisa responded with an enthusiast thank you and more laughter, her voice muffled by the plastic mask that came with the discount store Halloween costume.
“Will you be alright here by yourself tonight, Grandpa?” Emily asked. Emily is now what—thirty-six?—and it doesn’t seem like so many years since her own mother used to bring her here to visit me, and she would be the one sitting on my knee. (Or I should say visit us—as that was back when my wife Elsie was still alive.)
“I’ll be fine, dear. Don’t you worry,” I said. “Just take this little girl out trick-or-treating before she blows a gasket. And be safe, the both of you.”
They visited for few more minutes, and then bid me farewell. As they were walking out, Emily’s husband Todd called on her cell phone, and made arrangements to meet them for a quick dinner before taking Lisa out trick-or-treating. Emily invited me to accompany them but I declined. I knew that I would be an imposition; and anyway, I suddenly found myself in a thinking mood—not a talking mood. So I waved goodbye to them from my front porch; and they both waved back at me from the front seat of Emily’s SUV.
And then I was left alone with my own thoughts. From my front porch I could survey the jack-o-lanterns and cardboard skeletons that adorned the houses across the street. The afternoon sun was fading. In a few hours, an army of imposters would descend on the neighborhood: goblins, witches, and more ghosts like my little Lisa.
(“What’s the scariest thing you ever saw, Gramps?)
Every life has its dreadful episodes, its junctions with stark, naked fear; and mine is no exception. I have been profoundly frightened on a handful of occasions. I was in the war—the big one in Europe; and I had several close calls there. But those involved the simple fear of death. And when you cheat death, the feeling afterward is more often relief than dread. That was close, you tell yourself, but I made it out alive. And after you have put the memory sufficiently far behind you, it even makes you feel lucky to be alive—or blessed—depending on your view of the world.
Once, though, I cheated death in another way—and perhaps I cheated something even worse than death. I escaped; but rather than relief, I am left with a memory that still causes me to wake up screaming from time to time—more than seventy years later.
Not that it is always with me. For years at a stretch, it leaves me alone. But then something—usually something casual and insignificant—drudges it up. And then I’m back there again—just like tonight.....