“You sure you don’t want me to come in?” my mom asked. She peered out the windshield at the rundown farmhouse where she was dropping me off to babysit. It was late October, 1977 and the freshly picked cornfields surrounded us, the stubble sparkling gold in the early evening sun.
“Mo-om, I’m 15. I can handle it. I’ll be home by midnight.”
I got out of the car and walked to the front door. This should be an easy job; there was only one kid to watch. The Bakers didn’t have a regular babysitter and needed someone to watch four-year-old Kenney while they went to a party. They got my name from a friend.
The Bakers were dressed in costumes for the party as a 1950s preacher and wife. He was stern in black shoes, pants, and shirt. His preacher’s collar was stiff and spotless white. His wife looked unhappy in a long sleeved, high-necked dress. Kenney clutched her heavy dress and peeked around her knees at me. “Creepy,” I thought.
After the parents left, we went outside to play. It was a gorgeous fall day and their dog, Bugsy, romped through the leaves in the yard with Kenney. “Let’s go for a walk,” I called as I started down the lane.
“NO, this way,” Kenney screamed back as he started along the cornfield. Bugsy ran ahead toward the timber in the distance.
I hurried to catch them; turning and running after Kenney. “Hold on,” I cried, my chest heaving as I caught hold of his shoulder. We were already half way across the field. Bugsy was running into the trees.
“Come on,” Kenney said as he led the way into the timber. It was dank and gloomy, the air cloying. I wanted to turn back but Kenney ran ahead, disappearing into the trees.
I hurried on, stumbling on the uneven ground and pushing branches out of my way. Finally, I pushed a branch back to reveal a clearing. Small and well kept, there was, maybe, a half acre beautifully mowed and trimmed. A small white building stood in the back corner surrounded by large trees. Stone pillars flanked the gravel drive leading into the yard. Bugsy looked like one happy dog, running from one spot to another, sniffing and peeing. I swear he was grinning.
Kenney knelt at the edge of the clearing and I walked up behind him. He jumped and quickly turned to face me, hiding something behind his back. Bugsy sniffed the leaves and growled.
“What is it?” I asked, brushing the leaves away to reveal three, small, white tombstones. They were old, the soft stone worn away, and whatever legend was once inscribed on them faded away.
“Nothing,” Kenney sang as he jumped up and sprinted to the building. Windows lined either side of the one-room structure and I wiped away cobwebs to look in. The interior was painted an old fashioned green. A center aisle was lined with wooden benches. A small wooden plaque beside the door was engraved with the words ‘Camp Creek Church’. Kenney pulled at the door.
I undid the latch for him and pushed the door open. We went in with the dog on our heels. Bugsy stopped on the threshold, a low growl rumbling in his chest. “What’s the matter, boy? Come on,” I turned and started back for him and the door slammed shut in my face.
Bugsy’s growl erupted into frantic barking on the other side of the door. Kenney laughed behind me. A shiver crawled up my spine as I anxiously pulled at the door. Why wouldn’t it open? We had to get out! I pulled on the latch and the door sprang free, opening to a frantic Bugsy, barking and growling. His hair stood on end and ears were laid back. Kenney was laughing uncontrollably, a high pitched tinkling that sounded like hysteria. I grabbed his hand and pulled him outside, slamming the door behind us.
The shadows had grown long and the sun was just slipping over the horizon as we made our way back to the house. I was shivering, thoroughly freaked out, and not looking forward to several dark hours waiting for the Bakers to return.
We left the dog outside and went in. Every creak in the old house made me jump. The house was chilly and smelled musty, like it had been shut up for a long time. I let Kenney stay up late, so I wouldn’t have to sit alone. When he started to doze on the couch I carried him to his room, ducking under the slanted ceiling to tuck him in his small bed. He opened his eyes and softly touched my cheek with his small hand. “I’m scared,” he whispered.
The view from his window caught my eye as I turned to leave. Across the fields, the timber glowed bright. The light danced from a big fire. The tree shadows fluctuated and swayed. I could smell wood smoke. Bugsy sat at the edge of the yard watching, yipping, and whining.
Mr. Baker came home alone and I told him about the fire in the distance. He said he didn’t see anything and drove me home.
As we pulled up in front of my house, I tried again to warn him of the fire. He brushed me off and handed me a check. I smelled smoke.
Years later, I was back at my parent’s house. I had the unhappy task of putting their affairs in order. I made a cup of coffee and sat at mom’s desk to sort papers.
A piece of carefully folded, yellowed newspaper caught my eye. I pulled it out and read the date: October 28, 1952. An old check addressed to me and signed by Rev. John Baker fell from the folds of paper. A chill enveloped me as I read the faded headline, “Country Preacher Goes Mad; Burns Wife, Child and Dog in Church.” I smelled smoke.