Most summers when I was a kid we went to the Jersey Shore, and I always brought my makeup along because you never knew when a situation would present itself. But the summer I was eleven we took a trip instead to Glenora, near Watkins Glen by Lake Seneca in upstate New York. Glenora was a gothic place, wild, dark, rocky, and inhabited by a ragtag bunch of barefoot kids in calico and gingham —I swear, they were like nineteenth century farm kids. They didn’t even have televisions. The house we stayed at was grand and old, set back in the trees, with a twenty-foot waterfall in the back yard. Decades later, after my mother died, I was on the phone with her friend, the lady of the house, elderly by then, and she said she’d never forget that summer. The day we arrived she went up to the guest room to unpack my little valise and found the only thing in it was an opera cape. Not even a bathing suit, she said. I guess she didn’t notice the makeup kit.
That first morning I was sent by myself to the so-called beach by the lake. It wasn’t sand, it was cold gray shale. As I sat shivering and skinny in a borrowed man’s bathing suit that billowed around me like a parachute, some local kids came by, and we got to know each other. I remember they taught me to play spin-the-bottle, a game I had only heard about. Every time I spun it, it pointed at Steve, Nicky Peal’s handsome boyfriend who was thirteen, and they all shouted, “Spin it again! Spin it again!” When it started to get dark and I had to go back to the house for supper, Nicky said to come out later, they’d be down by the creek. But I said no. I told her I was never allowed out…after sunset…
Beginning that night the kids in Glenora began to see things as soon as the sun went down. One kid saw a strange, pale-faced person in black standing stock still in a clearing high up on the ridge above the lake. He ran to get another kid but when they came back, the clearing was empty. Nicky saw a cloaked form run behind the boathouse, and she chased after it —she was a tomboy, the only girl who wore denim— but when she turned the corner onto the dock there was nobody there. It got so the kids of Glenora wouldn’t go out alone after dark anymore.
The last evening I was there, just before sunset, a bunch of them were standing together in the middle of the little wooden creek bridge, staring up the road toward a shadowy figure that had broken off from the larger shadows cast by enormous old growth trees that blocked out the sky.
It was dark at twilight in Glenora, heck, it was dark in Glenora at noon, and the gloom was getting gloomier by the minute. What the kids on the bridge saw coming down the road was a figure clad all in black with a white face and no eyebrows, and staring eyes limned black. No hair, maybe? Or just plastered down? Hard to tell. No lips! A thin red trickle at the corner of the mouth. Floating, gliding down the narrow road toward them. Drifting. (You see, the cape I kept closed, and it was just long enough to cover my sneakers but no longer, and I found if I didn’t walk normally, bouncing, but kept on my toes, I could appear to be hovering just inches above the surface of the ground.)
As I came down, they began backing up together, up the road on the other side of the creek, up the hill to the top where the road wound around a rock face and disappeared from view. We moved steadily and silently in tandem, I coming down, they backing up, as if there were an invisible thread between us, like some Martha Graham ballet. And as I came slowly down to a stop in the middle of the little creek bridge, they came slowly up to a stop at the crest of the hill. And there we stood. For what seemed like minutes. It was so dark you almost couldn’t see, but almost wasn’t good enough. There was no fadeout, no blackout, no curtain to ring down. Nothing was happening. This wasn’t any good, I had to do something fast—all the drama was seeping out of the situation.
So I reached down, grabbed the hem of my cape and jerked it up fast, with a FLAP! —my arms up, my fingers curled out like talons. And … now, I would love to tell you how they reacted to this, if they jumped or if they gasped, but I never knew, I never saw. At that moment, on he instant following my sudden FLAP, out from under the bridge came bats —dozens of bats— swooping and flitting and filling the air. I just stood there staring at them in the dim light, staring in disbelief, as they swirled thick all around me. When I finally thought to look back up the hill, there was no one there. Not a soul. Whhhist, all gone, out of there. So, I stood alone in the gathering dark because Glenora was very suddenly empty and silent. All the children had gone home except for me—well, except for us. And then… night fell.
N.B. Adapted from a longer version of the story in the collection Queer Stories for Boys: True Stories from the Gay Men’s Storytelling Workshop, Published by Thunder’s Mouth Press © 2004 Douglas McKeown.
Queer Stories in G&S are dedicated in memory of Holden McCormack and edited by Robin Goldfin,illustrations by Dmak