Readers, here’s my short ghost fiction, The Lawn Jockey, from my book Death Be Not Loud: Ghosts, Haunts and Tall Tales for Restless Nights. Enjoy this brief, unPC horror tale!
It was so perfect! The ideal color, and in such good condition! Clay had wanted one forever. Look at him, extending a hand for your horse’s reins. A bit of history, that. (Of course, Clay wanted a real antique, not a fiberglass copy from Sri Lanka). Not for Clay the pink flamingoes, the bathtub Virgins (he was not Catholic) or those silly garden gnomes.
He’d nearly caused a four-car pile-up on the boulevard, he’d braked so hard. There it was! The very lawn jockey of his dreams. He parked and crossed the street. Estate Sale, the sign said. Tables full of dishes and knickknacks, linens, even an ancient Electrolux vacuum cleaner, the hose coiled: an inert python. The house, set back from the street; shuttered and quiet in the shade as its former contents were handled, perused, and carried away in Piggly Wiggly bags. It squatted there, hulking, ready to pounce, thought Clay. But that was ridiculous, he lectured himself. (His sixth sense said otherwise, but Clay would have none of it).
The lawn jockey was white, dressed in riding attire, which had faded with the years. Once it had been crisp and brightly colored. Its left hand extended; it held an iron ring. Sure enough, this statue had been used as a hitching post, thought Clay. This was not the racially insensitive lawn jockey of the Uncle Tom-ish sort, but rather the “cavalier” style: a symbol of gracious living: mint juleps on the front verandah with the planters down the road, and the Methodist minister. It was taller than was usual: quite nearly life size. This made sense to Clay: a small one would look fine next to, say, a suburban tract home, but would be dwarfed by the mansions this one doubtless once graced. He was drawn like a moth to a fire sale. Clay found the man in charge.
“How much for the lawn jockey?” he inquired, as casually as he could. (No sense overpaying, he thought, trying his best not to look overly eager). The man, who wore a Hello My Name Is nametag with Derwin scrawled in black Sharpie, smiled and scratched his head.
“Oh, you mean Mr. Smith?” he replied. “That’s what we call him,” he added with a grin. “Let me just look him up in the inventory list,” he added, scanning a price sheet.
“Seems like they have him down for… naw, this can’t be right. It says here if the buyer covers the moving cost, this item’s free of charge. Thing is, you can’t return him: we’re closing the house up, so sold is sold.” He added, “‘Course, if you decide you don’t like him you can always pass him along. People just love these things. I’ve never understood why. They kinda give me the willies.”
Clay was ‘way too delighted either to consider those words or to contemplate gift horses. He was also totally (and if I may say so, quite unwisely) deaf to his sixth sense, which screamed “No! Bad!” Thus it was that Clay immediately took the deal. Later he came back with a pickup truck from Home Depot. He drove to his small cottage in Jacksonville, and after careful consideration, placed Mr. Smith up front, right there, by the mailbox. This way everyone who drove by would see it. Clay knew his neighbors would be positively green with envy.
He was exhausted, though. What a lot Mr. Smith weighed. Clay had needed his hand truck to move it (he’d almost thought “him!”) out of the truck and into the right spot. Clay went back to the house for a sweet tea. Thirsty work, this moving. Later he returned to sit on his porch swing and admire his acquisition. What a stroke of luck!
Ouch! Damn, er dadgummit, he’d got a splinter from the porch railing. He’d kept meaning to sand it down. He bled a little, and a drop or two fell onto the old wood. Heck. He went in to see to his wound and ended up before the tv, binging on Unsolved Mysteries.
The following day, Clay slept in. This was unusual for him but then so was acquiring a statue. He wrote it off to the excitement of his purchase and poured himself his morning mug of Nescafe and French Vanilla Coffee-Mate. He brought some letters to the mailbox and took a moment to admire his new acquisition. But wait. Could it be? Mr. Smith looked as if he’d been polished! Somehow, less faded. His mouth, which had been expressionless, formed the beginnings of…could it be a smile? Clay liked to think so.
Clay went off to do his weekend errands. It felt good to see Mr. Smith in his yard.
When Clay returned, he thought he’d been pranked. Some folks couldn’t resist, could they? Mr. Smith had been moved. He now stood, helpfully reaching for the reins, halfway between the house and the street, about ten feet from his former placement beside the mailbox. But after a quick perusal, Clay saw that no harm had been done.
Clay took his groceries inside. He went to the stove heat up some weenies and beans for lunch when, quite unaccountably, the gas flame shot out from under the burner. It licked the edge of his sleeve, which, being polyester, caught fire. Clay ran to the sink and turned the faucet with his other hand. Ssssssst, ouch! Looked like he’d got a bit of a burn on his wrist. This was odd though. It felt as if the flame had somehow been . . . reaching for him. Ah, he shook his head. His imagination. His mom always told him it’d get the best of him if he didn’t stick to business.
Clay went outside to water the petunias and phlox in his window boxes. He took a damp rag to go over Mr. Smith when he noticed the lawn jockey appeared to be wearing a brand new coat. The old one had faded to a pale dusty rose. Now it was a brilliant vermilion. His riding pants were crisp and white, no longer yellowed and scuffed. His boots, polished ebony. His face looked … fuller. Rosier? Hard to say but the entire effect was one of overall … satisfaction. Maybe someone had taken to Mr. Smith and was touching him up while Clay was otherwise occupied. He smiled to himself. Maybe it was that nice Mrs. Hummel from down the road. She was such a dear. Often bringing pound cakes round to the neighbors, and extra zucchini and tomatoes when her garden ripened to overload. And so kind to those kids, Hans and Grethe from ’round the block: always had cookies for them. Yes, it must have been Mrs. Hummel. (Clay’s sixth sense had shouted itself quite hoarse by this time. But Clay tuned out and had clicked his mental remote to something pleasant, as was his habit).
Clay took his latest library haul out to the porch swing; time to read. This trove included a collection of ghost stories. He adored these but never read them at night: that would be far too creepy and he’d surely have trouble sleeping! No. Sunny days only. He grinned and got comfortable. He had just finished F. G. Cottam’s Dark Echo and had been quite terrified: it was so realistic, and eerie. And Andrew Taylor’s The Four Last Things: that Canon Youlgreave, brrrr. Clay loved a good shiver but tended to worry long after the book had been placed back on the shelf.
Today, let’s see. M. R. James? Yes, perhaps “O Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” Boy, that was a dark one, all right. Shows what happens when you dig around where you shouldn’t. Some things should stay buried. Count Magnus, for instance, why on earth did that silly professor go and tempt fate by hanging round that tomb? He’d asked for it, hadn’t he, said Clay to himself. Hmmm. People just didn’t heed the warnings. He reflected: maybe today, no horror tales. He chose a cowboy book instead.
That night Clay was hand-wrapping his custom fishing rod. He had spools of colorful thread in orderly rows on the kitchen table. He was focused on this work when he felt a sudden, scalpel-sharp stab of pain in his hand. Yikes, what had happened?
He looked up and saw a large fishing hook embedded in his palm! How on earth had it got there? He was so cautious with his fishing tackle. “A place for everything and everything in its place” was his motto. But no time to wonder, this was bleeding like a sonofabi … gun. Clay’s mom had taught him never to swear. That the devil would get him if he did. For luck he’d always cross his fingers and thank Jesus for reminding him, any time he caught himself starting to say a bad word. Yes. Clay was nothing if not careful.
Which was why this injury was so unsettling. Clay just couldn’t work out how it happened. He went to the bathroom and after carefully extracting the hook, he disinfected the cut with some antiseptic spray and then bandaged it well with gauze and adhesive tape (the cut was too deep for a bandage from the Walgreen’s box). He briefly thought about popping over to the urgent care clinic but decided to pass. The doctors, while nice, were always from someplace foreign: he had a hard time deciphering their thick accents and frankly, the one in the sari quite put him off. Why didn’t she just blend in, Clay wondered. Ah. Well. It wasn’t for him to say, maybe she was just homesick.
As Clay was getting ready for bed that night, another strange thing occurred. His electric toothbrush gave him quite a shock. Yes indeed. He felt a huge jolt. Afterward, he fell and was unable to move. He felt sore but not unhappy. His mind was frozen in place, stuck in a single groove like a phonograph needle on a scratched LP: permanently contemplating which ice cream he would buy tomorrow and whether to get the store brand Neapolitan or use his Starbuck’s coupon for Chocolate Chip Cappuccino.
Had Clay had the capacity as well as the motivation to take a peek out his front window just then, he would have noticed something quite curious. Mr. Smith was now at the front door. His hand was held out as if, instead of visitors’ horses’ reins, he was reaching for the doorknob. The lawn jockey was now most definitely smiling, and his red lips were slightly parted, to show a row of even, razor-sharp little snow-white teeth. The tip of his pink tongue could be barely discerned by the close observer.