“Later, Richard,” Devin said,
flicking imaginary sweat from his forehead. Rich hated being called RICHARD—and
yes, ‘hate’ was a strong word. He
watched Devin cross the street and remove the lanyard with the black painted
key from around his neck. Devin painted the key in art class a few months back,
using a thin coat of paint with an even thinner brush. It took almost an hour
and Rich watched its entirety just as he was doing now.
When Devin entered
he looked back and stuck his tongue out before slamming the door behind him.
Rich huffed and pulled on the straps of his backpack, making them taut around
his shoulders. The wind combed through the freshly cut blades of grass right
before Rich left size seven and half shoe prints in his wake. He had his index
ready to poke the doorbell when he noticed his grandfather sitting on the porch
bench. He had a printed newspaper in hand, the Clifton Bell, and his reading glasses
wired around his ears.
open, sport,” he said
and leisurely turned a page without looking up.
didn’t know you
were coming over today,” Rich said and walked over to the bench. Grandpa’s eyes
peered over the horizon of the Clifton
Bell, above the headline stating: the
year’s harvest up 13%.
“As you well
know, since your
grandmother passed on, I don’t have anyone to spend the Day of Betterment with
at the house, so your mom asked me to come by.” It was hard to miss how wide
Rich’s eyes had gotten. It made his grandfather fold his newspaper.
old were you
when you spent Betterment Day with your parents?” Grandpa took a moment to lick
his lips and bend them into his mouth.
grandfather let me
partake after I turned fourteen. He was adamant about it. Said it was my rite
of passage into manhood, but my mother, your great grandmother, insisted that I
did not have to if I did not want to,” Grandpa said.
“So did you
want to do it? Or
did your dad make you?” The bench creaked as grandpa leaned forward.
“I was uncertain.
we’re not supposed to talk about the specifics with those of us that have not
partaken yet, so you could imagine how a boy at my age, at fourteen, would feel
if I was left out while all of my other friends were joining their parents for
the night. But the unknown was what scared me. I am grateful that my father
made me go through with it because this is how we, as a community, prosper,”
Grandpa said, “Why are you so interested in grandpa’s story? You usually head
inside and play your game.”
just turned thirteen
and my friend Devin’s parents, the Howards across the street, are letting him
join them for Betterment Day. And I was wondering if you think mom would let me
join too?” Rich asked. Grandpa sent out a discouraging stream of air from his
nostrils and then said, “Probably not. I’m sure your mother wants you to wait
another three years as required by law.”
letting him join. Are they breaking the rules?”
“Well the law
everyone must start to partake annually by at least sixteen, but I know that
there are some parents that let their kids join them before that age like Dr.
Cole, the dentist, his girl. She’s a little older than you now, but when she
was about your age, I heard she eagerly attended,” grandpa said, “So it’s
possible your parents will let you join. As long as you pitch a convincing
Rich found his mother beneath the chassis of a Nissan Sentra. It was Mrs.
Holden’s car and mom had been working on it for the past two days. Her private
auto repair business was more like a hobby, taking as little as $20 sometimes.
Mom enjoyed using the skills grandpa taught her to help out the people in
Clifton. The dolly wheeled her from beneath the car as she heard Rich approach.
here,” she said as
she wiped sweat from her brow, only to leave a streak of dirt and grease on her
“I said hi,
he’s on the porch.
He said he’s here for Betterment Day,” Rich said.
me that water.”
Rich grabbed a plastic bottle that sat on the floor next to his mother’s tool
“Did you know
are letting him join them for Betterment Day?” Rich said as he handed his
mother the bottle. She took a large gulp, making the bottle parallel to her
“I did not know that,” mom finally said and there was that expression of knowing
she had in her eyes whenever
Rich was not being completely honest. It was best to just come out and say it.
“Can I go with
you and dad for
Betterment Day?” Rich asked.
want to wait until
you’re sixteen? I’m sure some of your other friends are waiting until then.
What about Calvin? I spoke to his mom and they said he was going to wait until
then,” his mother said.
not really friends with
him. We just had that one project Mr. Jones made us do together. He’s weird,”
not nice. He’s not weird.”
on! Can I?” Rich
asked. His mother looked sullen and for a second he thought he was about to
hear a big fat ‘NO’.
“You sure you
want to do
this?” she asked. Rich thought about Devin’s teasing on the walk to Worth
Street as well as on the school bus, the way he rallied the other kids around
him. Devin always made himself look bigger than he truly was by belittling
everyone else, especially Richard Berry.
“Yes, I want
to,” Rich said.
still have work to
do and your father is going to be home late so ask grandpa to help you prepare
for tonight,” she said.
Rich glided to his
grandfather’s side who migrated to the kitchen. Grandpa was fixing himself some
iced tea from the glass pitcher in the fridge.
“She said yes!”
surprised,” grandpa said
with furrowed eyebrows, “We’ll get started after dinner then.”
The sun struck the horizon at half past seven, leaving purplish abrasions
upon the cloudless sky. Rich usually spent this evening in his room playing
video games and blasting music with the curtains zip tied, but tonight he
followed his grandfather to the porch as the old man burped off the rest of the
roasted ham they had for dinner.
almost time, but there
are some things you need to know first,” grandpa said. They were not the only
ones out at dusk. The Smiths across the street were slowly pouring out of their
yellow paneled house. Mrs. Holden was letting her yapping Chihuahuas back
inside one by one. Rich gazed towards Devin’s house and the lights were on, but
there was no sign of the Howards.
“When the binders
important that you don’t move or else you will disgrace the family and people
will be talking about us for the rest of the year,” grandpa said.
would I move?”
“Just do what
I tell you to
do—hey, you understand me, Richard?” grandpa placed a wrinkled hand on Rich’s
shoulder, reeling in his attention from Devin’s house.
grandpa. I understand.
I can’t move.”
eyes open and
whatever you do, don’t scream,” grandpa whispered and the words slivered
through Rich’s spine.
I scream?” Rich
asked. His grandfather was silent. He had never seen his grandfather like this.
The way he tapped his index and thumb together and stared off at the sinking
sun. It was unnerving.
The driveway lit up from the headlights of dad’s Buick and Rich jumped from
the sudden flash of illumination. His father slid halfway out of the car and
paused with a perplexed expression on his face.
he can join us
for Betterment Day,” grandpa said to Rich’s relief. He felt like he was doing
something he wasn’t supposed to and that did not change when he saw the
confusion on his father’s face melt away, revealing a layer of fear.
dad said, shutting
the car door. He entered the house, but not before patting Rich on the head and
sharing a strange look with grandpa.
The evening brought
on a cool
breeze as the streetlights flickered on. Rich heard his parents’ voices rise
and fall from inside the house. He knew they were arguing and he was certain
that it was about him. Now he truly felt like he was doing something wrong and
that he would be forbidden to partake with them. Don’t scream, his grandfather
had said. Maybe it will be for the best.
worry about it,”
grandpa said, reading his mind, “This is your coming into adulthood.” Rich
Mom and dad joined
them on the
porch with a noticeable five-foot distance between them.
you’re doing this
then there are some things you need to know,” dad said.
gave him the
rundown. He knows everything he needs to know,” grandpa said.
you, I’m sure my son is well prepared,”
dad said. He placed two large hands on Rich’s shoulders and bent down, eye to
eye. “You sure you want to do this? You don’t truly know what you’re asking
here. It’s alright if you want to wait until you’re sixteen. I did and I felt
like I was a little bit more prepared.” Rich’s stomach turned. The roasted ham
had been sitting pleasantly in his belly, but now it stirred violently from
Rich began to say.
fine. Right, Richie?”
Rich muttered and Devin
Howard stepped out of his house across the street. His cocky eyes met with Richard.
“Yes. I’m fine.”
“Good. I think
it’s going to
start soon,” grandpa said, pointing down the block. A pickup truck rolled a
couple of miles per hour up the road. A litter of masked men and women strolled
beside it brandishing mallets and bundles of rope. Grandpa descended the four
porch steps and walked out onto the yard. Rich detached from his father’s
embrace and walked with his mother to join his grandfather. Dad had his hands
in his pockets as he followed, five feet,
behind. More and more people began to come outside, mostly adults and a few
As the truck rolled
Rich could see the pile of wooden stakes piercing out of the flatbed. One by
one the masked men and women formed an assembly line, pulling stakes out,
handing them to the next person until it reached the closest lawn where the
final person speared it into the ground to then pound it with the mallet. This
went on, pull, pass, stab, hammer, all the way to the Berry’s front yard. A
masked man pounded the stake into the ground, ruining the yard. Rich cringed,
but he was the only one to react in such a way. Even his father who had mowed
the grass just the day before was unfazed by the vandalism.
Four stakes stood
them and Rich knew he had to stand in front of one, just as the rest of his
family had done. He chose the one next to his grandfather or was it that his
grandfather had chosen it for him when he instructed him to follow? One of the
masked women—binders grandpa called
them—started to tie his parents legs to the post and then their arms were next.
When she came to Rich, grandpa halted her with an outstretched hand.
the boy’s first time,
let me do it,” he said. The woman said nothing and then handed grandpa the
rope. Rich’s grandfather groaned as he kneeled to bind his ankles to the post.
A splinter pricked his skin, but it was a tiny speck in the cauldron of fear
brewing inside of him. His arms were next and the friction from the rope pulled
his skin as it was tightened at his waist and elbows. When grandpa was sure
everything was secure, he retreated back to his post and the masked woman
continued her duty with a fresh set of rope. The binders proceeded down the
rest of Worth Street and finally turned the corner. Rich looked over at the
Howards’ house and Devin was already bound and pouting at Rich once they made
eye contact again. Rich grinned. The triumph slowed his heartrate for a moment
and the air did not feel as thick, but moments like these left as soon as they
came. Just like the streetlights overhead.
A tarp of darkness
over the neighborhood. Even the lingering glimmers in the homes were mere
needles of light in a haystack of blackness. Rich could no longer see Devin or
the trees or even the sidewalk.
a voice called
from the darkness. “Tonight is an honorable night indeed.” Rich recognized the
voice as Principal Greene. His voice was not filtered through a loudspeaker
like Rich was accustomed to and sounded only a few feet away even though he
could not see him.
Principal Greene went on, “Our town has held and partaken in this sacred day
for decades and we hope to keep this tradition for many years to come after
tonight. We celebrate this day to maintain the wealth and prosperity of our
wonderful little town.” There were verbal affirmations all around, including
Rich’s family. “We take notice and honor those who have sacrificed for us all
and our children to come. Now without further ado, let the evening commence!”
Silence poured all around them, slow and as thick as honey. At first Rich felt
a tingle on his neck, but it was a line of sweat navigating through the rising
The first scream
shroud of darkness so abruptly that Rich nearly ripped his arm from the socket.
and stay quiet,”
But Rich couldn’t. He pulled at the restraints, feeling twisted fibers dig
into his wrists and ankles.
“Just try to
But Rich couldn’t. His face was sweaty and all the oxygen in the world
could not sate his lungs right now.
boy! It’s too
late for that. This is what you wanted, right? Ride it out like the rest of
us,” grandpa said. Rich pulled once more, this time he fruitlessly tried to saw
through the post with the rope, but only managed to prick himself with even
more splinters. He froze.
The red glow was
a dot when
Rich first noticed it, he thought he might have been seeing spots because his
lungs were flooded with air. But then it crept closer, like a car with a single
taillight reversing up the street.
“Be still,” grandpa said. The ominous light swayed as it approached,
growing with each swing until it shined redly on Devin Howard’s face. Devin was
crying and it was entirely unbecoming and strange to see this kid, Rich’s rival
in all things, look so terrified that he would shed his skin and slither away
if he could. Rich was staring so intently at Devin that it took him a moment to
see the light was contained inside of a lantern held by an arm that was far too
long for any human torso. It was hard to make out who or what the arm was
attached to. It seemed as though the arm was reaching out of a pit of darkness.
Another arm broke through the blackness, just as long and double jointed. In
one instance Devin was there, bound to the post, crying large tears that
absorbed the reddish hue and then he wasn’t. Devin’s sharp scream haunted the
air, but he was gone. The top half of the stake swayed on a thread streaked
with blood, garnished with frayed rope. The remaining Howards were quiet and still.
If they showed any emotion under the red light to the loss of their son then
Rich missed it.
The light began to
Closer. Careening towards 64 Worth Street. The red came for him and Rich held
his breath. If he opened his mouth
the scream of a lifetime would escape. Rich shut his eyes and he could hear the
lantern jangle before him. The light was heating up his face and seeping
through his shut eyelids.
peek. One peek. JUST ONE PEEK, he told
Its eyes were two
went on forever. Its face was disfigured, jaw pushed too far to the side one
way while its crown pivoted the other way. Its leathery skin was pale and
spotted with blood. Devin’s blood. The thing extended its free arm and Rich
regretted opening his eyes, regretted letting his grandfather tie him to the
post, and regretted asking to go through with this in the first place. The arm
came down and Rich screamed. It was one of those first time meeting a clown at
your sixth birthday party type of scream that lasted long and the entire body
took part in it. Rich felt sensation melt away from his face and urine warm his
pants. He was still attached to the post and the thing was moving on, dragging
a sullen sack behind it. He was still alive. Rich felt that now was a good time
to breathe. His chest heaved rapidly. He looked at his parents. They were both
quiet, but their silhouettes were still there. Thank God! Rich thought. He looked
towards his grandfather, but all
that remained was half a bloody stake and grandpa’s shoe with his foot still
tied into it.
Malik Mandeville was born in
Brooklyn, New York where he first developed his passion for writing. He
graduated from Arcadia University with a degree in sociology and has given back
to the community through the various non-profit work he has done. Malik had his
first work My Nighttime Parents
published in Black Petals Magazine Issue #89 and hopes to further his writing
career in the years to come.