A piece of horehound candy was stuck in the boy’s teeth. He chewed on a jawbreaker to dislodge it. It was Halloween and little Petri was walking to the town church for the evening’s festivities. The crisp autumn air stung his cheeks as he walked. It was a cloudy afternoon and the dark twisting limbs of the trees defined themselves sharply against the fall sky. Petri was a small pale-faced boy of eight years with skinny legs, blond straw-like hair and bright green eyes. The boy loved Halloween, everything about it. The costumes, the decorations, the festivities. The candy. But more than anything else he loved the stories. Ghost stories. And his hometown of Shadow Grove was full of them.
Shadow Grove was a sleepy colonial town not quite hidden among the backwaters of the Chesapeake Bay in the woods of Virginia. Nestled between the Belfonte River and the Powhatan Forest, Shadow Grove claimed itself to be the best preserved town of the Colonial Americas. City records showed that it had been founded shortly after the settling of its sister colony Jamestown in the south. The oldest known graves that the Shadow Grove cemetery featured dated back to the 1620’s. But the town cemetery was not the graveyard Petri had on his mind that afternoon.
The brittle red yellow leaves crunched under the boy’s feet as he walked along the cobble-stoned streets. He liked to hear them crunch. He waved to old Mrs. Bradford as he walked by her front porch. She was draping cobwebs on her American flag. She waved back. Petri popped in a fresh piece of saltwater taffy. At Belfonte Elementary that day, the kids dressed in costumes and passed out candy and cards to each other. Afterwards Mr. Barton led a class discussion about Shadow Grove and its history. Quickly this led to stories, the ones Petri liked best.
Like many old towns, Shadow Grove had a vast array of fantastic stories and folktales—campfire lore, the types of fearful whisperings that little boys told while lying awake at summer camp, reminders scrawled on the wood of restroom stalls. The stories were cautionary tales for Shadow Grovers who weren’t brushing their teeth and saying their prayers. Stanley Dowder, a sixth-grader, was the school expert on the subject, the self-appointed town chronicler. Petri’s mother said the boy was a liar, but Petri knew better. Dowder spoke of 17th century mass witch burnings, like the ones they were having in Salem except these witches were real. Dowder had seen Colonial frigates sailing up the river at night, vanishing into the fog without a trace. He and his buddies had fallen asleep at the town cemetery one night, only to wake up with some of the headstones rearranged. Dowder had seen things in the woods, strange things, and everybody knew about those kids who disappeared without explanation a few years back when Petri was too young to remember. Of course the adults had an explanation for this, but Dowder didn’t buy it. Neither did Petri.
As Petri walked through town he saw a crow buzzing atop the central mailbox in front of the post office. Petri threw a piece of black licorice at the bird. It squawked, flying off into the woods. Postman Henderson gave him a wink. He was locking the post office door, probably getting ready for the festivities. There was going to be a Halloween festival that night at First United Church. The entire town would be there. As one of the first buildings in Shadow Grove, First United Church’s roof was constructed from the hull of The Constable, the ship in which Captain Belfonte and the town’s founding fathers had arrived many years ago. Petri could see the church’s high steeple away in the distance. It was getting darker, the clouds settling in for the night. The boy shivered. It was going to be foggy soon. Petri ate his licorice thinking of his favorite ghost story, a Stanley Dowder classic and an absolute legend among the kids at Belfonte Elementary: the tale of Scarback, the savage Indian.
From what Petri knew of Scarback, his entire tribe had been slaughtered by Captain Belfonte, Shadow Grove’s founding father, during the settling of the town in the 17th century. The bodies were buried deep into the woods where they could never be found. Scarback, an infant at the time, was the sole survivor of the massacre, who years later killed Captain Belfonte and to this day wanders the Powhatan Forrest trying to find the bodies of his family. Petri’s teacher Mr. Barton gave no credence to the stories. He said that Captain Belfonte was a notorious drunk and had most likely died of severe liver damage. But Petri knew that the Captain’s throat had been slit by the hand of Scarback. Dowder said he had seen Scarback one night in the woods. Another night Dowder had heard Scarback sharpening his knife down by the river. Petri’s mother dismissed these stories as tall-tales, but Petri knew they were true. Adults always make up explanations for things they cannot understand.
Petri continued walking through the town. The fog was creeping in and he knew he was being followed. A ghost perhaps. He popped in a handful of candy corn and smiled. A few early trick-or-treaters were out already. Petri waved at them. He was excited about the Halloween festivities at the church later on. The whole town would be there. Everyone except for Stanley Dowder. Petri had heard that Stanley Dowder and his friends were going out to the woods. They were going out to the woods to find the Indian graveyard. They understood what the adults did not. So did Petri. His mother would not let him go into the woods. He would go when he was older.
By the time Petri reached the church, the town of Shadow Grove was covered in the fog. The boy could hardly see the front entrance to the church. He didn’t mind. He could hear the laughter and festivities from all the way outside. He smiled and swallowed a lemon drop. Petri loved Halloween and he believed that the Shadow Grove folktales were true. He believed that they were true even when Stanley Dowder and his friends never came home that night from the woods. And he continued to believe them when Stanley Dowder and the boys were never seen again. The adults tried to explain it, but Petri knew what had happened to them. And so he never told anyone that sometimes he saw Scarback looking in his window on dark autumn nights when Shadow Grove was sleeping.