It was a dark and stormy night. Just kidding. It was really a hot summer night, back in the day where you could stay outside and play until the street lights came on. Yeah, that far back.
This was about the mid to late 1970’s. I was in grade school and parents didn’t fear having your children outside. I think I was about 10 maybe 11 and used to ride my bike all over with my best buds, Tom and Brent. We went to school together, rode the same bus, hung out, we were cool in our own young minds.
Thinking it was the summer of ’77, but I digress. We were staying at Tom’s house whose parents were really cool. They let us camp out in the backyard and left us to our own devices. Here we were sitting inside our tent talking about scary things when Brent comes up with the idea to check out the local cemetery. Urban legend said that something was out there, something that roamed the old graveyard.
The cemetery was old. Old like it contained the people who founded the city, old. There were graves dating back to 1840, that’s how old the place was. And it was huge. In a kid’s mind, it went on forever. And it was still being used. I’d been in there a few times in the daytime but Brent was adamant that we had to go there at night. Tonight to be exact. We had to know if it was real, whatever it was that supposedly hanging out there.
We geared up. Fruit roll-ups, orange Crush soda, some Red Vines and of course, our G.I. Joe uniforms that we used to play army in the battlefields of our backyard. ($19.99 at the local J.C. Penny).
The trip went fast, maybe it was excitement, maybe it was adrenaline. The cemetery sat on a hill overlooking the town, its fence, stone and iron and the gates always open. I think that maybe the gates were so old and rusted that they couldn’t be closed. I’m sure you’ve all heard the joke about why cemetery’s have a fence around them because people are dying to get in, but in this case, we all secretly wished that the gates had been closed and locked. We wheeled our bikes over to the fence and hid them in brush before stepping into the entrance and gazing at the garden of stone.
In the center, almost as a line dividing where the old section ended and the new began stood a building that held the urns of the cremated. A mausoleum. In the moonlight, it stood out with its white marble like columns. Somewhere past that building was a small reflecting pond and the new development.
Our mission, should we undertake it, was to get to the building. Simple. However, according to local legend, there was supposed to be ghosts here along with whatever resided inside the mausoleum. Standing in the entranceway, I looked over the monuments half expecting to see some white sheeted apparition floating among the headstones. None were present and that called for a couple of hearty chugs of orange soda. We fortified ourselves with licorice and soda then stepped inside. Nothing happened.
We stepped further inside, still nothing. We looked at each other with silly grins. Whatever was here knew who we were. We were Los Tres Bastardos, the three amigos, the three musketeers; we were Billy Jack, Bruce Lee, and Chuck Norris. Nothing dared come near us.
Confidently, we continued on our mission. About halfway to the building, we heard something. It was subtle but it was there. We paused, tilted our heads to listen and then caught it. It sounded something like thumping, making a dub-dub sound. We looked around, none of us wanting to show fear in front of our best buddies.
There it was again, a little louder. We shrugged it off and continued. Would John Wayne have let a little noise rattle him when he was storming the beaches of Iwo Jima? No way. Not the Duke.
As the building drew nearer, the sound grew louder. With each step we took, the sound increased in tempo and volume until it was steady, like a heartbeat. A rapid heartbeat.
With each step closer to the urn repository, the heartbeat grew in volume. I can remember looking over at Tom and Brent and seeing the wide-eyed look which I’m sure I mirrored. All we had to do was reach the building, check it out and then leave. That was it. We could do that. Pretty sure we could. The goal was right there, just a few feet in front of us. But so was something else. Something inside or in the darkness around us.
I could hear Tom and Brent breathing heavy. I was sure I was doing the same. In reflection, I realize that we were in the flight or fight mode, increasing our blood to oxygen ratio in preparation for whatever.
The mausoleum was right in front of us. It was so close we could make out the names and dates on the plaques. The heartbeat was right there with us as well. It was loud. Loud enough that I swear that filling that I had gotten a few months prior was vibrating.
We stepped closer to the mausoleum, close enough to trace the etched names with our fingers. The noise was incredibly loud. It came from inside, from everywhere. We all touched one of the plaques and looked at each other. Mission accomplished. We had reached the mausoleum, touched it, now it was time to extract. Time to get the Hell out of Dodge. Make like a tree a leave. As one, we turned and faced back the way we had come. It was clear. All we had to do was make it back through the monuments, out the gate and to our bikes. We were home free.
The heartbeat stopped replaced by ethereal silence.
We hesitated. Looking at each other in confusion and then back out at the cemetery. It was a group decision, a mental decision but it was still a decision. Summoning up my best adolescent imitation of Vic Morrow in the Rat Patrol, I shouted:
“Let’s get the Hell out of here!”
Like a shot, we were off. Full spring, dodging headstones, graves, whatever, we looked like profession broken field runners. We reached the gate only to find it closed and padlocked.
In a panic, we grabbed the iron bars and yanked on them to no avail. It was then that the heartbeat started up. Louder, closer, right behind us. I swear I could feel the hot breath of something on my neck.
“We got to go over!” Tom shouted. The three of us grabbed the bars and climbed like our lives depended on it. Hitting the ground on the other side hard enough to sting our feet through our Converse high tops, we grabbed out bikes out of their camouflage and rode away like Satan himself was on our heels.
The ride back didn’t take very long. We dropped our bikes in the backyard and dove into the tent. Safe. Exhaustion claimed us and we slept until morning. In the daylight, we swore each other to secrecy that no one would ever know how we had turned tail and ran from something other worldly.
Years later, I heard the same story from a group of middle school kids. They too had experienced the sound. As an adult, I can conjure up all kinds of theory’s that the sound could have been produced and by what. But, for some reason, I’ve never returned to that cemetery, in daylight, to prove any of those theories.