And now, Scary-Crayon presents...
Hazel Wheatkettle's Dying Wish
by: Wes

Hazel Wheatkettle didn't say anything when the doctor told her that she had less than three months to live. She didn't curse the physician or ague the point or dispute the diagnosis, as other patients are wont to do. She didn't collapse into a quivering mass of grey pudding and tears and bury her face in her husband's chest while wildly clutching at his shoulders and begging him to sit her up in their bed at home because this just had to be some awful dream. No, when Hazel received the news, she didn't even look at her husband, though when he squeezed her hand she acknowledged his presence with an upward turn of the right corner of her mouth. The left side followed, and then, with this sad, feeble smile stretched across the lower hemisphere of her face, she closed her eyes and nodded solemnly.

That night, Hazel Wheatkettle's husband took her small hand in his spotted, wrinkled mitts and asked if there was anything she really wanted to do or see before she passed away. Again, she smiled; then she leaned forward and kissed his cheek with withered lips. Lingering there for a moment, she finally whispered, "No." Then she leaned back in her chair, her eyes sparkling with humor at having once more assumed the role of one of her characters. She had been something of a playwright in her younger days, and her favorite scenes to write had always culminated with dramatic gestures and simple, curt replies. Her husband frowned.

"Haze," he said.

Hazel sighed, and now he saw that her eyes were no longer glistening with amusement. They were wet with tears that refused to fall, for they had fallen countless times and had always returned and had long since concluded that they might as well stay put. These tears were older than Eugene's relationship with Hazel Wheatkettle. They had been with her far longer than he; they had shared her sorrows before he had ever known her name or seen one of her plays performed at the local community theater. He knew better than to question their ways.

At length, Hazel said, "Before I die, I should like to see my son again."

Another man might have placed a gentle hand on his wife's shoulder and told her that she would be reunited with her son soon enough -- in Heaven -- but not old Eugene Soddenstaff. For one, he didn't believe in the truth of the reassuring words. Certainly he thought it was possible -- who was he to say what does or doesn't happen to the soul after death, if the soul even exists -- but he didn't believe in Jesus or Heaven or a red devil in Hell. Besides, Hazel Wheatkettle would hardly have found comfort in the promise of a reunion on high, and Eugene knew it. When her son disappeared one fine Sunday afternoon -- after having attended church, no less -- she'd fallen to her knees and cried out and beseeched the good Lord to return Jason to her safe and sound, and she'd lost her faith three weeks later when two policemen came to her door and told her about the bones they'd uncovered behind the abandoned schoolhouse in the woods that hedged the main road leading out of town.

She'd tried to get it back, of course. She'd met with the pastor in private, gone on numerous retreats, read the arguments of sundry philosophers and theologians regarding the problem of evil. Hazel Wheatkettle had explored the ins and outs of more incarnations of the free will defense than any native English speaker who wasn't studying for a PhD or memorizing quotes for the purposes of showing off to academics at cocktail parties, and she understood the arguments better than the vast majority of persons in either group. Yet, in the end, she'd decided that a world in which the actions and impulses of men were checked by divinely imposed limitations would have been a great deal better than this one, in which men were free -- yes -- but free to butcher eleven-year-old boys as they pleased. In the case of her murdered son, they were also free to get away with it.

Eugene knew, then, that to speak of a reunion beyond the grave in a place of unclouded bliss would only have earned him a scowl from his wife. Besides, even if Jason were in a place rightly called "Heaven" -- the Scriptures were quite clear on this point -- Hazel, who lacked the requisite faith for admission, would not be joining him. This thought saddened Eugene even further, and it was here, as he squatted at Hazel Wheatkettle's feet with her hand in his, that he made up his mind to fulfill his wife's final request.

Now -- here -- Eugene's resolve might strike one as admirable, but futile -- if not insane. But Eugene Soddenstaff was no madman, nor would he have made such a vow had he not had the slightest idea of how to go about fulfilling it. The man was something of an amateur occultist -- or, at the very least, he found the literature to be intriguing -- and to this end he had been combing the local newspapers for years and collecting clippings of stories concerned with unexplained phenomena. Disappearances, sightings of dead persons, hauntings, even murders -- the latter of which, though not technically "unexplained," he nevertheless included in his studies -- had all been carefully excised from their publications with an x-acto knife, laminated, and filed away in unmarked photo albums for future reference. And as Eugene swore to reunite his wife with her murdered son, he recalled that each winter for the past few years, local hunters and campers had reported seeing floating lights and hearing strange noises emanating from the crumbling schoolhouse in the woods in which -- it had been assumed, owing to the wash of dried blood on the floor and the torn clothes found in a desk -- Jason Wheatkettle had breathed his last.

So it was that, two months later, with Hazel Wheatkettle permanently relocated to the hospital and resigned to the bed in which she would most likely die, Eugene Soddenstaff made his way into the woods one mid-January eve. The preceding days had seen heavy snows -- there was no snow falling now, save that which fell from the branches when Eugene disturbed them as he pushed past -- such that moving from the cleared streets, across the dirty grey mounds at the edge of the forest, and then into the forest itself, had been like passing into another dimension altogether. The outside world was all grit and grey, but here everything remained shrouded in purest white, untouched but for the occasional tracks of animals and the bootprints of their human pursuers. In the town, streetlamps flickered on, but in the heart of the woods, the reflection of the twilight on the white snow floor bathed the woodland in an almost supernatural glow -- but though a flashlight would have been unnecessary, the brightness had no effect on the winter chill. Eugene saw his breath clearly and resisted the urge to follow it.

In a clearing in the woods, the old one-room schoolhouse had the appearance of a secret temple kept hidden from the world by a vast expanse of marble columns stretching to the sky; a lone holy vessel floating in troubled white waters, hedged on all sides by glaciers and giant white pegs -- failed attempts to sink a small warship of unknown coordinates. There were lights circling the interior of the building. As Eugene drew nearer, he could see them as they passed the open doorway and large gaps in the boards that covered the windows -- but these vanished when the crunch of snow beneath his feet signaled his approach to the haunts within.

"Hello?" he called. He received no reply.

When Eugene Soddenstaff crossed the threshold, something small twitched in the darkness.

*   *   *

I'm afraid she won't last another hour," said the doctor, "and certainly not the night. She's conscious now, so if there's anything you want to tell her..." The doctor's voice trailed off, but he placed a hand on Eugene Soddenstaff's shoulder to finish the thought. With tears in his eyes, Eugene nodded.

Hazel Wheatkettle shifted on her soaked sheets and smiled feebly when her husband stepped into the room. He took the chair next to her bed and clasped her trembling, sweaty hand.

"Hey, Haze," he said. "How do you feel?"

A sudden fit of coughing melted into a few violent chuckles and then, before ceasing, became coughing once more. Then she sighed as if perfectly relaxed.

"You know," Hazel whispered, "that's what the reporter asked me two hours after they found Jason."

"Haze?" Eugene had never known her to talk so candidly about anything even remotely pertaining to the demise of her only child. Believing this really was the end, he patted her hand aid said, "Haze, I went to the schoolhouse." Eugene braced himself, but Hazel Wheatkettle did not scold him as he had expected.

"Did you?" she said, her eyes twinkling as if to say, "You silly old fool, what will you do without me to keep your crazy soul in check?" Her smiling lips parted again as she added, "And what did you find there?"

Eugene Soddenstaff pushed away from the bed, and at that moment a small child appeared in the doorway. Hazel slowly turned her head towards the opening, blinking rapidly and repeatedly upon catching sight of the boy now entering her hospital room.

"Could it be? Jason...?"

Sure enough, the figure approaching her bed bore an uncanny resemblance to her dead son. Why, he looked just as he did when she'd last seen him that Sunday afternoon, with his blonde hair parted in the center and still wearing the same navy blue suit in which he'd taken his 4th grade class picture. But as he neared her bed, through tear-clouded eyes Hazel Wheatkettle noticed that there was something different about her Jason.

"You... you've grown," she whispered. She couldn't exactly tell if he'd gotten taller -- though that certainly seemed to be the case -- but there was no mistaking the passage of time reflected in his gaze. He knelt at her bedside.

"Yes, mother," he said. He sounded older, too.

"How...?" Hazel stammered, reaching for him with a single clammy hand. He seemed to shrink from her touch, but at length leaned forward and allowed her to run her fingertips over his face, basting it with cold sweat.

"Certain experiences," Jason said quietly, "can cause one to mature far beyond his biological years... though I suppose terms like 'biological' only apply to the living."

More tears welled up in Hazel Wheatkettle's eyes. From elsewhere in the room, Eugene Soddenstaff gave a loud cough, causing his wife to turn her attention to him. With one hand resting against Jason's cheek, Hazel lifted the other and beckoned to her husband. He came forward, took it, and tenderly pressed it to his lips.

"My Genie," she said sadly. "Thank you, thank you, thank you. I never would have thought it possible to see my dear son again" -- here, she stroked Jason's cheek -- "but you granted a dying woman's wish and made sweetest dreams manifest. Eugene, my darling husband, my Genie in the lamp, I love you."

He nodded, tears streaming from his eyes, and opened his mouth to speak, but she added, "Now, my love, goodbye -- I wish to be left alone with my son." And with those words she pulled her hand from his and dismissed him with a slight toss.

Heartbroken, Eugene Soddenstaff wiped the tears from his eyes. Then he did as he was told and closed the door behind him.

He was discussing Hazel's final arrangements with the doctor when, minutes later, the door swung open and young Jason Wheatkettle came marching out, wiping at his wet face -- thoroughly disgusted. Eugene pretended not to notice him and went on talking to the doctor, but the boy stopped right at his side and, at length, became impossible to ignore.

"Excuse me," said Eugene, turning on his heels to glare down at the boy. "What is it?"

"She's dead," said Jason. "Now, about our arrangement..."

"What?!" cried Eugene. "My wife isn't even cold, and you --"

"-- haven't forgotten our deal, old man," finished the boy.

Frustrated, Eugene tore into his pocket and produced a wad of green bills, which he shoved into the outstretched hand of the boy.

"It's all there," Eugene Soddenstaff spat.

"Much appreciated," said the boy with a bow -- and without another word, he disappeared into the elevator at the end of the hallway.

From that day forward, there were no further reports of floating lights or voices in the vicinity of the abandoned schoolhouse in the woods. With the money he'd been paid for his impersonation of Jason Wheatkettle's ghost, the seventeen-year-old "haunt" got himself a room at a local inn, and, dressed to impress in his new navy blue suit, fared quite well at subsequent casting calls.

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