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You Pedal, I'll Steer (part 9)

Poor John! Stuck between a gravestone and a curse. He had to go visit the deaders to beat the curse of Witch Hatten. Let's rejoin him on that Saturday morning....


Since we didn’t have a bike anymore there was no riding after our routes. That was too bad. I was getting good at it. I told Alec that I was going to meet a friend for a while and we could make fairy clothes after lunch. I snuck twenty cents from our stash for streetcar money and headed up to Kingston Road.
I’d never been a sneak. I never kept secrets. And I really never go off on my own like this to do something dangerous. The whole thing was wrong. There was a chance I may never come back. But I had to go. Better that than get the whole family cursed, or get chopped up by the witch and buried alive in her backyard.
Kingston Road was always busier than Queen Street and definitely outside my world. I only ever went up there to a couple of stores and never took the Bingham streetcar alone. I sat right behind the driver as it rattled along past a blur of unfamiliar shops and apartment buildings. I tried to watch for a Woodbine street sign but they went by too fast. Maybe I’d already gone too far. Maybe I was already halfway downtown. How would I know when to get off? Why didn’t I think of that before I got on? Should I ask the driver? I was too scared. He looked busy. My chest felt like some fat guy was sitting on me.
Each time the stupid trolley stopped I felt like making a run for it. But then I’d be worse off because I wouldn’t know which way Woodbine was. I know, I thought, I’ll just cross the street and go back. It can’t go past the Bingham loop where it turns around. I know how to get home from there.
I thought I was going to puke. Sitting on this rail rocket, headed deeper into trouble with every rattle and stop. Too scared to even get off. I must be crazy.
“Woodbine!” the driver called out.
Ohmygod. He just called my stop! Did I imagine that? Did he really say Woodbine? Should I ask? I dinged the bell and hopped off. The instant my feet hit the ground a load got lifted off my shoulders like you can’t believe. I looked up and read the street sign. It was Woodbine alright. What a relief.
Before I noticed anything else, I saw the graveyard. It was real big. The wire fence went off in both directions from the corner like it took up a whole city block. It looked like there was a gate in both directions.
I fingered the last dime in my pocket. My ticket home. I could just get on the return car and forget the whole thing. The light turned green. No turning back now. I crossed and stared through the fence at the rows and rows of stones. Then I dragged slowly along like I had lead weights in my shoes. No sense being in too much of a hurry. I was already breathing deaders just being this close.
Down Kingston Road a bit was a big arch with open iron gates. On the stone arch it read ‘St. John the something something cemetery’. All I could see was the name John. If I had any brains I’d turn around now. If I had any brains I wouldn’t have come. But I didn’t. I didn’t turn around and I didn’t have any brains.
I stepped close to the gate without going in. There was a wide road that went up to and around a big building straight ahead. On either side of the road I could see gray and white stones all lined up like teeth. I gulped.
“Maybe the fairies use our teeth for something more sinister than building houses,” I mumbled aloud.
I stood there like one of the stones. It was sunny and blue skied. Everything looked safe. Nothing to worry about, right? Maybe that was just to trick me. My legs weren’t budging. They knew better.
“If we have to hold our breath when we drive by, imagine what kind of a dose I’m taking in now,” I told myself. “Isn’t that enough?”
The answer in the pit of my gut was a loud gurgley ‘NO’. Something told me I had to go in and maybe even touch one of the graves.
“So, go already!” I took a step. Stopped. Then another. This was brutal. It was like trying to get used to cold water by wading in slowly and letting your legs adjust. Alec always said it was better to dive in and get it over with. I never believed him.
I kept my eyes on one grave stone near the gates just off to the right. It was still a ways in but if I could make it that far, touch it and leave, I’d be cured. One more step. I was at the gate. Two more and I’d be through. My skin tingled like I was crackling and popping in the deep fryer. I was breathing so fast, I must have sucked in half the deaders already.
 All of a sudden, the whole world went quiet. All the honking, whizzing traffic on Kingston Road behind me just disappeared. All there was left was me playing chicken with that snapped open gate like a corpse’s mouth waiting to swallow me whole. Do I run in, slap the stone and run out before it has a chance to slam shut on me? I was pretty fast. Was I that fast? When I ran a race, I could feel my legs take over, like they were on their own, pounding away with me along for the ride. It’s hard to explain but it worked like magic. Maybe I could outrun anyone at school. But could I outrun the deaders? Or a bad spell? I took another deep breath and held the potent stuff in my lungs as long as I could stand it.
“I didn’t come here for nothing, you know. I’m not afraid of you.” I lied and I took off running flat out before I had a chance to think again.
I got to the stone I had my eye on in a gut flash. It was old and thin and mold gray. I slapped it hard and grabbed a couple more big swigs of graveyard air. “Take Miss Hatten’s spell off me, you ghosts. Take her back where she came from. I hereby give you back the curse!”
I heard a voice somewhere. I don’t know what it said but it sounded bloodthirsty.
I beat it back out of there fast and kept running. I don’t even remember what direction. My lungs were on fire, my legs were pounding and my brain was deranged. I had to stop soon. I had to.
Finally, I fumbled to a stop and leaned my hands on my knees to catch my breath. Panting away like a dog, my mind whirled around what I just did. The gate, running in and slapping that stone, all replayed like a slow motion dream. Suddenly, I could see the writing carved into the flaky old stone plain as day. Jonathan Vie, age 8. It was a kid’s grave. A kid about my age. A kid named John. A graveyard named John.
That sealed it. The deaders worked for the witch. Not the other way around! They were letting me know they had me. “She’s going to lock my soul up in that place forever. I’ll be clawing my way out of a dirty grave for eternity.”
I slumped down against a wall. I was real thirsty. I wished I had some money for a pop.
“Hey, beaver face!” a boy’s voice called out. I looked up. John Payson and Puny Adams were coming out of a variety story on the corner!
I just blinked. Were they even real? Did  the witch transport them here? I looked around. Where was I?
“What are you doing here, loser?” asked Puny. “We waited around for you last night. You snuck away like a chicken.”
They were getting closer. I couldn’t run another step. I was too pooped and I had a cramp in my side. I pushed myself to my feet and Puny grabbed my arm. He was shorter than me and meaner than a starving dog. He dug his claws into me real hard.
 I yanked hard. “Lemme go!”
“Go ahead, you little weasel, pull all you like. This time you can’t run away.”

It was all over in a flash. At the same time it felt like hours went by. It’s hard to explain.
The three creeps shoved me into an alley and started to push me around. I don’t remember what I did. I know I didn’t fight back.
“Next time we tell you to do something, you do it!” Puny ordered. Then he hit me.
“You understand?” Payson added with a kick.
“Crap like you doesn’t deserve to disobey us.”
“You’re face is messed up because you’re a loser.”
“We’re the boss of you from now on.”
“Why don’t you fight back, you sissy?”
They kept that up for a long time. Hitting and pushing and shaking me until they were tired or bored or both. They stole my jacket and left me lying on the road.
I stayed there for a long time. Better to be sure they weren’t just out of sight waiting for me. When I sat up it hurt like crazy. My arms and chest were sore and there was blood on my face. My leg hurt, too, but I didn’t bother to look. I didn’t really want to see.
I guess they were right. I was no good. If I was any good, I would have fought back. I could have been Fantam and punched them out. Instead, I was just weak little John getting beat up.
I limped out of the alley and found my jacket down the street. The pockets and sleeve were torn and my dime for the streetcar was gone. I was lost and far away from home. I didn’t even remember which way the graveyard was.
I shuffled along until I found a main street with traffic and stores on it. I didn’t even remember which way the corner store the two creeps came from was. I just walked. I came out on Woodbine where cars were whizzing by pretty fast. There weren’t any stores but I knew that Kingston Road couldn’t be too far off. I wonder which way?
I was going to have to walk all the way home. That could be miles. It might take days. I wonder how long it’ll be before they miss me? Will Alec make fairy clothes on his own? I saw a traffic light way down the street and headed that way.
Boy, was I in luck! It was Queen Street. All I had to do was figure out which way was home. What would Fantam do? How would he figure it out? I squatted down in the dirt in a used car lot to draw a map.
“This line is Woodbine and this line crossing it is Queen. I came down from here so that means that Kingston Road has to be the other way up Woodbine. Kingston runs the same direction as Queen so...” I mumbled all this to myself and drew a line that ran the same way as Queen. Now I had three lines. “Which way is home?”
“Let’s see. If I turn this way it’ll take me to the... On the other hand, if I go down that way I”ll be on...” This was too confusing. If I had a coin, I’d a flipped it and taken my chances. I decided to be more scientific than that. I stood up and closed my eyes and spun around a few times until I didn’t know where I was. I opened my eyes and was looking down Queen Street.
“That’s the way I’ll go,” I said and started walking and walking and walking. It was busy. Lots of cars and people and open stores. I didn’t go in any one of them. But I looked in lots of windows. Groceries, clothes, records, restaurants. I didn’t recognize any places.
I stopped a few times and wondered if I was going the wrong way. Should I go back? I was too scared to go back, I’d walked so far. But if I was going the wrong way I was just getting further from home. I was too timid to ask anyone so I had no choice. Keep on walking.
My knee hurt. There was dried blood on my face. Dad was probably out looking for me by now. I should have told Alec where I was going. What if they never find me? Would they blame John Payson for my disappearance? Would he confess to what he and Puny did?
Wait a minute! “There’s the Goof!” I called out.
It was the Chinese restaurant at the corner of Beech and Queen. We called it the Goof because of the missing letter in the sign ‘GOO  FOOD’. The good old Fox theatre where we pick up our paper bundles was right across the street. And there’s Mike’s Bikes!
“I’m home. It’s really home.”
I ran. That was stupid. By the time I got to the top of our hill I was practically crawling. After everything I’d been through, I felt like I just escaped from Devil’s Island and hadn’t been home in years.
I got to the house. No cop cars out front. That’s strange. Maybe they already started the manhunt.  As I walked through the door I heard girls voices and music inside.
Down the hall in the dining room was Dad with a stack of bowls in his hand. He smiled.
“John. You’re just in time. Call everyone down for lunch.