“I ain’t no coward,” Tommy thought to himself. There was absolutely no way that he was going to lose his five dollars to anyone like Cole Pinckney. “I won’t give him the satisfaction anyways,” he muttered to himself as he walked slowly down the dark misty corridor of live oaks.
Somehow the Spanish moss made them come to life, but not in the cheery way of the color picture books he had seen in Charleston when he was a bit younger. The moss looked to him like giant cob webs as he started to pick up his pace. The live oak branches reached out like spider legs to grab him, and the warm air carried more than just the salty smell of the Atlantic Ocean.
How long had he been walking anyways? It seemed like he had been moving for hours. He paused for a moment to remove a bleached oyster shell from his worn leather shoe. Suddenly, the metal hinge on a nearby gate creaked and sent such a shock up his spine it felt like a lightning strike!
Tommy turned and started to run as fast as he could. The hot, humid air smacked his face as he panted hard at a sprint. He had left his shoe behind, and pain shot up his leg as he put the weight of his bare foot onto a bit of cracked oyster. The sprint became more of a hobbled gallop, and finally he slowed to a crippled hop as he realized what a wimp he had been. Sweat dripped from his face as he knelt to see the damage to his foot. Sure enough, he had gouged his flesh deep and blood was seeping into the bleached, sandy road. “What am I doing?” he asked aloud as he realized how foolish he was acting. He wondered why he was bleeding after midnight on a Saturday morning on this spooky road in the middle of nowhere in Beaufort, South Carolina. Then he remembered the bet…
Two days ago, Tommy, Cole, Edward, and Vince floated in an inlet looking over the marsh covered banks of the Port Royal Sound. Their boat was hardly sea worthy, but it could hold all four of them and made for a decent perch for fishing the inlets and estuaries of the Lowcountry.
The boat belonged to Edward and “Two-toothed” Vince McKenzie, brothers who shared a name but whose looks and personalities were miles apart. Edward was older and more suited for life on the coast. Vince was more suited for the family farm, but being only 18 months younger than his brother, he felt the need to escape Edward’s shadow. Unfortunately, Vince seldom did, and one such attempt had left him with the nickname.
Tommy and Edward had been friends since birth, and Vince tagged along whenever he could. Cole was new to their group, and Tommy didn’t care too much for him. But Tommy’s momma was the spokeswoman for Southern hospitality and made sure he took Cole on every adventure since Cole’s family had moved to the island from Spartanburg. Cole was annoying and talked funny and didn’t know anything about anything – at least in Tommy’s opinion. Tommy wondered why Cole always felt the need to be superior to everyone else, but decided it was best to just ignore Cole’s lies and have fun with the guys anyway.
The boys were all teenagers and had grown up in Beaufort- with the exception of Cole, whose family had arrived about 10 months ago. They were fit young men and fairly intelligent for the most part, but like all boys transforming into men, let their hormones get the better of them.
As they fished from the ramshackle flats boat, Edward spoke up first, “After church last Sunday, I overheard Benji and Sam talking about how the old cemetery by the Chapel of Ease has a dozen ghosts. If you visit after midnight, they steal your soul!”
Vince added, “Yeah, and then you become a zombie and your body is controlled and you end up walking all around moaning and grabbing people to take back to the graveyard too!”
“Shush guys, you’ll scare Tommy.” Cole flashed a taunting grin at Tommy and continued, “You know how Tommy gets creeped out. He can’t handle y’all’s ghost stories.”
“You better think twice before you call me a coward, Cole!” Tommy interjected. “I ain’t scared of anything, let alone some lousy farfetched tale like that one. Besides, there ain’t no way that has ever happened. Y’all ought to stop listening to them kids that ain’t got no business at church in the first place.”
“I’m just saying what I heard,” Edward responded. Vince nodded in approval.
“If you aren’t scared, why don’t you prove it?” Cole challenged. “I bet you wouldn’t have the guts to see for yourself. I would go in a heartbeat, but you’d get scared and run home, I’ll bet.” He started laughing loudly and flashed a mocking, scared expression at Tommy.
“You ain’t nothing but an idiot, Cole!” Tommy’s face was getting red, and he wanted to push Cole right into the pluff mud in the marsh behind him. “I ain’t scared of any ghost tales, and I’ll prove it!”
Cole’s laugh turned into a muffled chuckle, and he composed himself again to ask, “Willing to bet on it? I’ll bet $5.00 that you get scared and run home.”
$5.00 was a lot of money for Tommy. He would have to shuck oysters for a week to make that much. He hated how Cole’s parents gave him money when he himself had to work for any he got. His parents weren’t rich, but owned some farmland on Saint Helena Island and felt their son should learn to earn whatever he could. The depression had hit Beaufort just like everywhere else, and money was now harder to come by.
“I’ll take your bet just to shut you up,” Tommy said. “This Saturday, I’ll spend the whole night at that cemetery. You better not short me when I see you at church Sunday mornin’!”
Cole burst out with laughter again, “Yeah, sure! I’ll expect you to bring my money when you run home to cry to your momma!”
“I wish I could punch that Cole right in his upcountry face!” Tommy thought to himself as he wrapped up his bloody foot. “There ain’t no ghosts out here, and I ain’t going to lose my soul, no matter what Vince or Edward said. What do they know anyways? They’re just as scared as Cole.”
He turned around and walked back towards his original destination. The road was long and narrow and the trees hung over the street letting the moonlight pass through only in bits and pieces. He reached for his shoe and heard the creak of the gate again. “It’s just the wind,” he told himself and continued down the long straight road.
About 10 minutes later, he saw the first row of tombstones in the empty cemetery. The trees looked more forlorn here – like they shared the grief of the families whose names marked the cool stones. Magnolia were piled in a thick mat near the entrance to the cemetery, and the ground cracked and crunched with every step. Tommy paused near a burial vault and read the name aloud. “Edgar Fripp,” his voice came out as a squeak and an owl in the nearby woods let out a somber “whoo-oooo!” Tommy nearly turned to run again but regained his composure. “There ain’t no ghosts out here. I’ll show that stupid Cole.”
He found a comfortable spot and laid down with his back against a smooth crepe myrtle tree. He convinced himself that there was nothing to be afraid of but said a prayer anyways. Then he tried to sleep. Try as he might, he couldn’t find rest until after he got an idea: “I’ll show Cole who’s a coward.” Just like that, Tommy fell asleep.
The next morning, Tommy woke to warm sun-rays, and the humidity of the morning was already bringing sweat to his brow. He carved his initials into the tree he had slept under with the inscription “ain’t no coward” under the “T.W.” of his name. Next, he started digging.
Edward and Vince looked at each other uncomfortably at church on Sunday morning. They hadn’t seen Tommy on Saturday or at church this morning, and both of them were starting to get worried.
“It’s not like Tommy to skip out on Sunday service,” Edward whispered to his brother. “I wonder what happened to him.”
“Maybe he got turned into a zombie!” The boys’ momma flashed them an annoyed look when Vince shrieked the sentence a bit louder than he meant to. “Sorry, momma,” he whispered and turned back to his brother. He made certain to control his voice this time and said, “Should we go out and look for him?”
Cole scooted a little closer and leaned over to add, “I thought for sure he would chicken out and run home, but I heard his momma came over yesterday asking mine if he stayed the night at my house. What if something really happened?”
“Shhhh!” Edward and Vince’s momma flashed them all another aggravated look and put her finger to her lips.
“Yes’m,” they all responded quietly at once and remained quiet until the end of the service.
That afternoon, they all decided to go over to Tommy’s house and see if he was at home sick. Edward knocked on the door. “Hello, Mrs. Washington, is Tommy home?” he asked when Tommy’s mother came to the door.
“Oh boys, I haven’t seen him since Friday night. I had assumed that he was staying at y’all’s place for the weekend. Is everything alright?” Her face showed how nervous she was, but she controlled her voice well.
“It’s all my fault!” Cole blurted out as he ran his hands through his hair. “I put him up to it and now who knows what’s happened to him!”
“What are you talking about, Cole?” Mrs. Washington asked as she stepped out onto the wide porch.
The boys went into a frenzy of explanations all at the same time. She couldn’t understand one from the other. “Boys. Boys. BOYS!” she finally raised her voice to get their attention, and they all fell silent at once. “Vince, tell me what happened?”
His answer came in a rush “Well, we h-had told him about how some kids at the church were talking about the cemetery, and how if you go there you become a zombie, and Cole bet that Tommy couldn’t stay out there because he was scared, and Tommy started getting angry and said he wouldn’t be scared, and now he might be a zombie! I didn’t want him to be a zombie, Mrs. Washington!”
She scowled at Cole. “Mrs. Washington, we will go find him, I promise!” Cole interjected.
Just then a low moaning noise started from the side of the porch. The boys fell silent and turned their heads at the sound of Tommy’s momma’s gasp. At the bottom of the porch steps was Tommy, but he was covered in dirt like he had been buried and dug himself from the grave. Moans and shrieks sounded from Tommy’s corpse as he shamble up the stairs to the three teenagers and his momma.
“AHH!” The boys all screamed loudly at once and they pushed each other as they tried to get past Tommy’s mother. They were shaking and Cole’s eyes were tearing up when Tommy burst out into laughter.
“HA, ha, ha! You guys are all a bunch a cowards! Not me!” Tommy laughed with satisfaction. “Cole, are you… are you crying?”
“No! You just flung dirt in my eye when you came bumbling up them stairs like that!”
The other boys started laughing loudly and proceeded to shove Tommy and punched his shoulder. Cole finally started laughing with them too and said, “What happened, anyways?”
Tommy told them about how he had gotten spooked at first, but came up with the idea to scare them, and that it was easy to spend the night out there while he was hatching his plan. Tommy’s momma had been in on the plot since Saturday when he had gotten home and decided to play along to help teach Cole a lesson.
“Well,” Cole said “I guess you ain’t no coward afterall.”
“Don’t worry about the $5.00 you owe me. Seeing the expressions on your faces was payment enough for me!” Tommy smiled. They all smiled then and went running towards the inlet behind Tommy’s house to wash off the dirt and cool off from the warm Sunday afternoon heat.