Grade schooler Fenster Loomis has a secret morbid hobby that will come back to haunt him; by Bill Tope.
|Image generated with OpenAI|
Fenster Loomis, an eight-going-on-nine-year-old boy, loved playing in the cemetery. In school, he had been struggling to read, but now he was enjoying much success at perusing the tombstones, grave markers, and monuments in the old graveyard. It helped build his math skills as well; with the subtraction of the dates of birth from the dates of death he could calculate the age at which each person had been at the time of their passing. He was becoming markedly talented at arithmetic for a third grader.
His parents, when told that their only child was whiling away his time at the old graveyard, with its black metal fence, overgrown weeds, and ancient grave markers, simply shrugged. Who was there to care enough to lodge a complaint against young Fenster? What trouble could he possibly get in there? What Jesse and Helen Loomis did not know, nor even suspect, was that their son, now on summer vacation prior to entering the fourth grade, had taken to vandalizing the eternal resting places of the village’s forebears.
Fenster would deface the tombstones with a hammer and chisel in order to make nasty words from what was inscribed. He would struggle mightily to overturn the markers of those whose presence for whatever reason did not please him. He would pee on the monuments, screaming giddily all the while. Fenster Loomis was, of, course, quite insane.
Few people visited the old burial ground; it had reached capacity at least seventy-five years before, which meant that no one remembered anyone who was there interred. Which suited Fenster right down to the ground.
Just prior to his ninth birthday, young Fenster was struck by a new and exciting idea, which was engendered by an old creepy movie he’d seen on channel 8 late one night: grave robbery. Fenster didn’t aspire to collect body parts in order to fashion a monster, as the uncanny Victor Frankenstein had done. No, he wanted the watches, rings, bracelets, necklaces, and other pricey baubles with which the dearly departed – or, as Fenster unfeelingly called them, the corpses – had been buried.
Employing a pick and a spade borrowed from his father’s garden shed, he made his first ambitious foray into grave robbery. Working in the late afternoon sun of July, Fenster worked through nearly four feet of turgid soil before he struck paydirt: the coffin lid. With a final swing of the pick, he smashed through the casket with a loud crunch. His eyes wide, Fenster knelt before the revealed sarcophagus and shoved his hands into the depths of the vessel.
Not really knowing what to expect, Fenster allowed the excitement of the moment to carry him away. Thrusting his hands into the muck, he was relieved to find not goop, guts, and glop, but rather, mere layers of dust. Using the spade, he enlarged the aperture and sifted through the contents. At last he found something hard and small and, pulling it out, shiny. It was a ring – a wedding ring. He peered at the tombstone, which disclosed that the deceased was Margaret Hatcher, who had lived between 1825 and 1879. “She was 54 when she croaked,” murmured the graverobber indifferently. In more than a half century, Fenster decided, the old broad should have accumulated more than one lousy ring. He plunged again into the hole he’d made and threshed through the bodily remains of Margaret Hatcher, but turned up nothing else. Glancing at her tombstone, he noted that she had died on this very day, July 7.
Next, Fenster disinterred the remains of another corpse, this time a man, Elmer Wooden, who had lived seventy-one years, between 1840 and 1911. Elmer offered up several valuable articles: a well-used but finely-crafted meerschaum pipe, a diminutive pinkie ring, and curiously, a rather garish brooch. Rummaging through the old man’s suit jacket, he also found a really stunning bracelet that was festooned with gems. Glancing back at the gravestone, Fenster noted that Elmer had likewise passed on that very day, July 7. Huh, thought Fenster. That was a coincidence. Pocketing the bracelet and necklace, he stored the pipe away and slipped the ring onto his finger. Fenster moved on to the next grave site. And so it went. over the remaining three weeks of July, Fenster, motivated by the riches he’d so far purloined, despoiled more than 100 graves, none of which produced any more treasures. Fenster grew disheartened, tossing off his earlier success as beginner’s luck. As August commenced, it became just too hot to continue with the toil, and Fenster quitted the cemetery. He took with him his concealed stash.
Curious, he consulted the village library to check out Margaret Hatcher and Elmer Wooden, who had generously provided him with the five keepsakes that he now kept in a cigar box in the bottom drawer of the dresser in his bedroom. What he found intrigued him: Wooden had served time in the penitentiary for – get this – graverobbing. His whole family seemed to have had a scurrilous reputation for one thing or another. And Mary Hatcher was Elmer Wooden’s maternal aunt. Fenster filed this information away for later use.
As induction into the 4th grade neared, Fenster wondered just what he should do with the swag he’d confiscated. An answer appeared straight away on the occasion of his father’s 39th birthday. His mother, Helen, as was her habit, gave Fenster money with which to purchase a gift for his dad. Rather than journeying to Macy’s, as she had suggested, Fenster took out the meerschaum pipe he’d found with the late Elmer Wooden, wrapped it gaudily – he knew his parents were charmed by the infantile and primitive manner in which he packaged their presents – and gave it to his father.
Jesse Loomis was impressed. An avid pipe smoker, he regarded the gift with keen appreciation. “You know,” he said around the table at the birthday dinner, “they haven’t made this particular meerschaum for at least a hundred years.”
Uh oh, thought Fenster regretfully.
“Where did you find it, Fen?”
Fenster furrowed his brow in thought, straining to find a convincing answer. But, in addition to being an abject graverobber, Fenster Loomis was also an accomplished liar. “At a Resellit shop in the village,” he replied duplicitously.
“I love it, son. Thank you.” Father and son grinned happily.
Later, as they were doing the dishes, Jesse leaned close to Helen and remarked, taking up and fingering the high-relief meerschaum, “I wonder how Fen could possibly have afforded such a thing?”
“Why,” asked Helen, “is that one expensive?”
“Yeah. In this shape. It must have cost at least $300.”
“Really?” asked Helen, her eyes widening in surprise. “I only gave him $40.”
“Well,” said Jesse, gripping the stem of the old pipe comfortably in his jaws, “he got it at a Resellit shop. Maybe they didn’t realize what they had.”
On the first day of fourth grade, Fenster took a fancy to blonde and pretty Hermione Brown, probably the hottest girl in the class, he thought. He longed to get close to her. She, on the other hand, did not return Fenster’s feelings at all.
“Go play in the traffic,” she snarled when he asked her to sit by him at lunch. Fenster blinked in bewilderment. Not only was he the tallest boy in his class, but he was by this time the best reader as well, plus he was a whiz at math. So he sat by himself and contemplated his dilemma. The solution occurred to him almost instantly: the trove of loot that he’d ripped off from the corpses at the cemetery.
The next day, he walked boldly up to Hermione and said, suavely, for a nine-year-old, “The sun rises in your eyes and reflects in the gems in this necklace.” Not bad, he thought to himself, proffering the brooch.
Hermione was utterly shocked, and being a greedy child, she immediately took possession of the bauble and dedicated her soul to her new benefactor.
At Christmas, the fourth grade celebrated the holiday with a party. Because there were students who came from poorer homes, it was decided not to exchange presents. Ms. Bristol, the teacher, however, eagerly accepted anything that the children brought her way. And Fenster, taking advantage of his diminishing cache of gems, gave Ms. Bristol an elaborate opal ring – the pinkie ring he’d discovered among the effects of Elmer Wooden. Ms. Bristol’s eyes opened wide, then she relaxed. No fourth grader would gift his teacher a real opal, diamond, and gold ring; it was obviously a knockoff, but it was sweet, she thought. At once, she raised Fenster’s grade point average by a half point.
The ensuing summer, Fenster attended summer school, taking an advanced algebra course with students two grades ahead of him. What with his studies and his unofficial girlfriend, the beautiful Hermione, still fully smitten by his largesse, Fenster had no time for graverobbing. But then a strange thing occurred.
On July 7th, algebra class was in session. Ms. Bristol, the fourth-grade teacher, was subbing for the algebra instructor, and wearing her fancy ring. She had tried several times to remove it from her finger, but it was stuck on. Baby oil, soap, petroleum jelly – you name it – nothing worked. But it wasn’t too tight, and it was gorgeous, so she just kept it on. As her students grappled with a math test, Ms. Bristol began feeling the ring tighten on her finger. It was crushing her! Students looked up curiously as he strained to remove it, but it was hopeless. She screamed frightfully as the ring cut all the way through her finger, leaving a severed, bloody digit wriggling eerily on her desk. Students shrieked in alarm, and Ms. Bristol sobbed in pain. The blood kept flowing out of her mangled hand, and she soon bled out.
Fenster, like all the other kids, was shaken. He only vaguely associated Ms. Bristol’s terrible fate with his gift. He hadn’t noticed that she was even wearing his ring. Paramedics, police, and the coroner were all summoned; class was cancelled for the remainder of the week, until a new instructor could be found.
That evening, Fenster met with his unofficial girlfriend in the park. Sitting on a green-painted bench, they reflected on the unhappy ending of their fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Bristol. Fenster recalled with relish the untimely demise of their teacher. Remember: he was insane. Tears seeped out of the little girl’s eyes; she’d loved her teacher and, though greedy, Hermione wasn’t crazy. Soon they were talking gaily about happier things when suddenly Hermione drew her hands to her neck and gasped in pain.
“What’s wrong?” asked Fenster with concern. He really liked Hermione.
But Hermione couldn’t talk; the necklace was cutting off her wind and strangling her. Fenster tried to dig his fingers under the necklace chain, but it was too tightly fixed to his true love’s neck. Fenster shouted at others in the park to help, and a policeman turned up; but he had no better luck than Fenster. After struggling for ten minutes to help the little girl, the policeman and the EMTs he’d called failed. Hermione was dead.
Mr. and Mrs. Loomis showed up at the police station to reclaim their son, whom the authorities had taken into protective custody to question. They also feared the obvious trauma that observing a teacher as well as a friend mysteriously die would have on any child. No one could offer any explanation for the sudden and violent deaths of the teacher and the girl.
The Loomises did their best to console their son. Speaking out of his presence, they conversed on young Hermione’s tragic passing. “I wonder,” said Helen, “where she got that horrible necklace?” But Fenster heard. He often eavesdropped on private conversations. His eyes grew big as saucers as he recalled that it was he who had given the jewelry to both Hermione and Ms. Bristol. What could it mean? he wondered wildly. Was it some sort of retribution from beyond the grave? He found himself panicky and sweating.
Then he remembered: the meerschaum! He had given his dad the antique pipe he’d found in the old man’s casket. Was it some kind of bizarre coincidence? he wondered. What might happen to his dad? He rushed from his room and into the living room, where his dad was scrunching tobacco into the meerschaum. Before Fenster could say a word, his father scraped a kitchen match on the side of the box of matches and applied the flame. Then Fenster thought, it’s only a pipe; what could possibly happen? His question was answered moments later, when the air grew fiercely hot around the chair in which Jesse sat. Then a miasma of burning flesh suffused the air, and a potent, terrible effluvium of gray smoke wafted through the air.
Mr. Loomis seemed not to even be aware of what was happening. He drew heavily on his pipe, smiled with pleasure, and then released a stream of fragrant smoke. Next, he suddenly and spontaneously combusted. Tentatively, Fenster approached the recliner and saw there was on the cushion a thin, charred outline of what had once been his father.
Fenster Loomis, already insane, had in a matter of hours lost his girlfriend, his favorite teacher, and his beloved father to horrific violence and death. He never recovered from the trauma and was institutionalized for his own good. There he remained for twenty years. Upon release, the first thing he did, even before going home to his mother, who he had not seen since he was nine years old, was visit the old cemetery, where all the trouble had begun. The shadow of despair seemed still to hang over the place, although it had in fact been paved over and converted into a parking lot for a 7-Eleven store. Shrugging, Fenster walked the half mile to his former home. What he found there surprised him.
His mother, Helen, had remarried – to another woman – and Fenster, whose awareness of LGBTQ issues had been impeded by the two decades in the state hospital, could not come to grips with her decision to wed “Barb.” Helen gave Fenster a warm, if awkward, reception, hugging him fiercely. He met his new stepmom, but they had little to say to one another.
“Your old room is there for you, Baby,” Mom told him through tears of joy. As Fenster shuffled down the hall to his room, he eavesdropped on Helen and Barb:
“I swear, Helen, this isn’t what I bargained for five years ago when we were married. I think he’s not too tightly wrapped. Did you see the way he stared at me? It was creepy! I’m afraid. I think he’s dangerous.”
“He’s my only child, Barb,” said Helen. She had lived alone for years before she had met her wife and desperately didn’t want to lose her. “Give Fen a chance,” she implored. “Your birthday is next Friday, on July 3rd. Fen will help celebrate it. Be patient. Just through the month… okay?” At length, Barb grudgingly agreed.
When Friday rolled around, Barb’s misgivings hadn’t changed, although Fen tried to reach her. At the party, he even handed her a gift he’d wrapped in his own inimitable way. She was taken aback.
“Oh, Fen,” she said. “You didn’t have to buy me a present.”
“It’s a bracelet,” he told her. “Mom said when you were married, you never exchanged rings.” She opened the package.
“It’s beautiful,” she managed, a little guiltily. “Where did you find it,” she asked, slipping it around her wrist.
“I bought it at a Resellit shop,” he told her, smiling.