By Gregory Lamberson
Illustrated by Kelly Forbes
My second novel, Johnny Gruesome, was originally published as a Limited Edition hardcover by Bad Moon Books (the trade paperback edition from Medallion Press came one year later and is still available). When there was a delay in the publication of the LE, I wrote this short story for the people who had already pre-ordered the book. The novel features a handful of flashbacks illustrating the childhood friendship between Johnny Grissom and Eric Carter. For this story, I expanded that story to include an incident from Johnny's childhood which shaped his remaining life, providing greater motivation for the wrath he visits upon one of his victims. The tale was posted on Johnnygruesome.com, and disappeared when I failed to renew that domain name. Here it is for your enjoyment.
“The Johnny Gruesome Halloween Special”
Johnny sat alone in the first row of the viewing room, his eyes focused on his transparent reflection on the casket’s sleek surface. Behind him he heard the muted voices of mourners who had come to pay their respects to his mother: neighbors, his parents’ friends, his father’s co-workers. Hearing the pity in their voices, he knew they were talking him, and the back of his neck turned red. He had avoided their eyes in the when they offered him their condolences in the reception area. Where had they been when his mother needed them, during her final weeks at Lewton Hospital? Too busy with their lives, he supposed. As long as he remained sitting, and didn’t explore the spacious rooms of the Lawson funeral home, they would leave him alone.
If only Eric’s parents had allowed him to come; then Johnny would have some company. But the Carters thought they were better than other people, and he knew they looked down on him. Johnny had been hanging out with Eric for less than six months, but they had formed a strong bond. Eric had dropped hints that his parents didn’t want him to attend the funeral, so Johnny had been prepared to brave it alone.
Now he stared hard at the coffin’s side, grateful that he could no longer see his mother trapped inside it. No, not trapped—packed like an artificial Christmas tree bound for storage. Except Helen Grissom would never leave her grave. After watching the color drain from her face during those awful last weeks, it had been discomforting to see her in makeup again. He had grown accustomed to her grayish pallor, and now she lay there, stiff and hollow, her face resembling that of a department store mannequin. Her eyelids fascinated him in a dreadful way and he wondered with if Mr. Lawson, the funeral director, had glued them shut or sewn them. Either way, he knew they would never open again.
He looked up, startled. The man standing in the aisle beside him offered a tight smile. Graying brown hair jutted up from his scalp in a harsh crew cut, a roll of flab undulating beneath his square jaw. The man clasped Johnny’s right shoulder with a firm grip. “How are you, son?”
Johnny swallowed. Something about Father Webb intimidated him, something besides the white collar around his thick neck. Father Webb had stayed in pretty good shape following his tour as a marine, and he cut a formidable figure even now that his body was turning soft. But it was his voice that really unsettled Johnny: it reminded him of the sound the sump pump in the basement of the Grissom house made when rain fell late at night; a sound that caused him to bolt up in bed and listen with rapt attention despite its familiarity. At least Father Webb had visited his mother, who had taken comfort from his attention.
“I’m okay, I guess.”
Father Webb continued to clasp his shoulder. “How old are you now?”
“That’s a nice suit you’re wearing.”
Johnny steeled his emotions. His mother had bought these clothes, right down to his shiny shoes, just months earlier. She knew, he thought. She knew she was dying and she never told me. Never said goodbye. “Thanks.” He wiggled his swelling toes within the confining leather.
“Your mother was a good woman. I’ll miss her gentle humor at St. Luke’s.”
Johnny willed back tears; he did not want to cry in front of this priest.
“Do you intend to continue your Sunday school lessons?”
A noncommittal shrug. “I don’t know.” He hoped his quivering voice did not betray the lie. His father didn’t attend church, and Eric and his parents were Methodists. Without his mother dragging him out of the house every Sunday morning, Johnny planned to sleep in instead. It was so hard to get up after staying up all night watching movies…
“Well, I hope you do. If it’s a matter of getting a ride, I’m sure we can find someone to give you a lift. And remember, if you ever need someone to talk to, about anything at all, you know where to find me.”
Johnny nodded in reply and Father Webb released his shoulder. Johnny felt relief as the man returned to his congregation.
He didn’t even look inside the coffin, Johnny thought.
“Let’s have it, son.”
Johnny froze. Damn it!
Shifting his eyes sideways, he saw the store manager looking down at him, one hand outstretched. Glasses. Vest. Bowtie. Nametag. Asshole.
The man snapped his fingers twice. “Now.”
With an exasperated sigh, Johnny turned his back to the store manager, who fumbled with the clasp on his backpack. Facing Eric, Johnny saw exactly the dumbfounded expression he expected. He felt the manager digging through the backpack’s contents, the rough motion throwing him off balance. If he had come to the department store alone he could have split as soon as the manager addressed him: straight out the front doors, around the block, under the Main Street Bridge, then home through the woods. He could get just about anywhere on one side of town through those woods. His mother had done everything she could to dissuade him from utilizing the network of shortcuts, but Aunt Alicia was lax with him, probably out of pity. He knew that Eric would hesitate in such a scenario and get caught, and the Carters would give Johnny up. Judging by the disapproval in Eric’s eyes, the manager had discovered his loot.
“Turn around,” the manager said.
Johnny acquiesced, a defiant spark in his dark eyes.
The manager waved the shrink wrapped DVD at him. “What’s the matter, kid? Don’t your parents give you an allowance?”
“My mother’s dead and my father spends all his money on liquor,” Johnny said in a harsh tone.
The manager’s face paled; Johnny liked that. “I’m sorry…”
“I have my own money.” He had been saving dollar coins for as long as he could remember, to use for college someday. “But your clerks won’t sell me that movie.”
Furrowing his brow, the manager focused his eyes on the DVD case. A look of disgust spread across his features. The front of the case displayed the rotten, grayed features of a dead woman, her mouth open in a perpetual scream, reflected in the lens of a camera. “I hardly think Cannibal Holocaust is appropriate for someone your age.”
Or for any one else, I bet, Johnny imagined the man continuing in his self righteous tone.
“I’m sorry, but I’ll have to call your father.”
“He’s working and can’t be bothered.”
The man appeared unconvinced. “Who takes care of you during the day?”
He withdrew a pen and a small pad from his shirt pocket and he clicked the end of the pen. “Phone number, please.”
With his tear stricken face buried in his pillow, Johnny listened to his father arguing with Aunt Alicia downstairs. His butt cheeks stung where his father had belt-whipped him minutes earlier.
“Give the boy a break,” Alicia said. “Helen’s only been dead four months.”
“Don’t tell me how to raise my son,” Charlie said. Johnny heard the familiar hiss of a beer bottle opening.
“Then raise him. He needs your love and understanding right now. Not your anger and not your belt.”
“You think it’s easy for me? I have to be a father and a mother now. Work all day and come home to this. It’s always something. I can’t let him get away with this behavior. The boy’s got to learn right from wrong. What do you think Helen would say about the way he’s acting?”
Rolling onto his back, Johnny stared up at the darkened ceiling light fixture. Narrowing his eyes, he imagined it was the moon waiting to show itself in the night sky. I’m never going to cry again, he promised himself. And then he thought about how he planned to get his hands on that Cannibal Holocaust DVD.
Despite his vow, he awoke in the middle of the night with tears in his eyes.
The wind whipped Johnny’s dark hair as he stood on the sidewalk outside St. Luke’s church, in the Red Hill town square. Seven months had passed since his mother’s funeral; he’d endured a birthday and started sixth grade. He cast a glance behind him: on the far side of the park, yellow school busses filed along Main Street, the excited screams of school children issuing from half open windows. He lived less than a mile from the school, and another half mile from the square, and most days he walked to school and home again. Today he continued past the Green Forest Cemetery, heading downtown. He couldn’t wait until he was old enough to drive his own car. Five more long years…
He studied the church’s brick face and steeple. How often had he heard those bells ring? He hadn’t set foot inside since his mother’s death. Instead, he had passed time at the creek, in the woods, and at the cemetery.
Anywhere but church.
Gazing at the double wooden doors, he stepped forward, mounted the concrete steps, and grasped one of the long brass door handles. The door swung open, the sun behind him casting his shadow into the vestibule ahead. He followed the shadow inside, allowing the door to swing shut. His shadow vanished with the sunlight and he found himself alone in the silent stillness. Opening a second set of doors, he peered inside St. Luke’s: at the far end of the darkened aisle, candles burned on a shelf near the pulpit. He moved forward, his sneakers scraping the carpet and his eyes fixed on the life-sized statue of Jesus Christ crucified on the far wall. He thought of the religious paraphernalia his mother had used to decorate their upstairs hallway, which his father had been unable to bring himself to remove. With minimal breathing and his eyes darting from one side of the pews to the other, he penetrated the gloomy interior. He raised his eyes toward the stained glass windows above him, glowing with feint sunlight. Somehow, the church felt smaller than it had the last time he’d been there, even though he hadn’t grown much. Stopping near the pulpit, he gazed at the confessional built into the wall on his right side. He regretted that his first communion had been the last event he had celebrated with both of his parents.
On the far side of the confessional, Father Webb exited the hallway leading to the administrative offices.
“Hi, Father.” His voice squeaked and then echoed, which embarrassed him even more.
Father Webb glided over to him, his long robe flowing into darkness. “It’s good to see you. How have you been? I’ve been meaning to stop in and see how you and your father are getting on.”
Johnny glanced at the priest’s outstretched hand, then shook it. The man’s flesh felt soft and oiled, like a woman’s.
“I ask your aunt about you all the time. Are she and your uncle all packed?”
Johnny nodded. “They moved two days ago.” He missed Aunt Alicia already.
“That’s right! I remember her telling me Tuesday was the big day. Well, I wish them luck. There’s certainly more work in North Carolina than there is in Western New York. But I like to think we still have something to offer people right here in God’s country. Don’t you?”
Johnny shrugged. “I guess so.”
“Alicia told me she’d persuaded you to stop by. I understand you have a lot on your mind that you’d like to discuss. Shall we begin with your confession?” He gestured to the confessional.
Staring at it, Johnny shook his head. He had developed an extreme dislike for confined spaces.
“I honestly think it will make you feel better.”
Johnny bit his lower lip. “Isn’t confession supposed to be anonymous?”
“Anything we discuss will be between you, me, and the Lord.”
Johnny considered this. Hadn’t his mother trusted Father Webb? “Okay.”
Johnny closed the confessional door behind him, shutting out the candle light. The space felt wider than he had feared and he lowered himself onto the kneeler, his back to the chair reserved for the aged and the disabled. The sweet aroma of the scented candles failed to mask the smell of sweat that permeated the compartment and he imagined the wooden walls perspiring. He discerned the shape of a cross hanging above him on the partition separating him from Father Webb. A wooden panel slid back and dull light seeped through the exposed lattice, outlining the priest’s silhouetted profile.
Johnny cleared his throat. “Bless me, Father. I’ve sinned.”
“Go ahead, my son. Tell me your troubles.”
“It’s been”— He made the calculation—“a year since my last confession. Maybe longer.”
“I’ve done bad things--things that would make my mother ashamed of me.”
“Such as--?” The priest’s voice seemed oddly anxious.
“I’ve stolen things: DVDs, CDs, candy. Things I don’t even need. Right before my aunt and uncle moved, I found a switchblade in my uncle’s army footlocker and I took it. I think I just want to prove to myself that I can get away with things. And if I get caught, I think I do it just to piss my father off.”
“Language, my son…”
“Sorry.” He paused to swallow. “I miss my mother so bad. It hurts all the time.”
“I don’t understand why she had to die. She was a good person. She believed in God and came to church every week.”
“The Lord works in mysterious ways, son. Surely you’ve heard me say that before? Ours is not to question why. Your mother’s gone to a better place.”
Johnny stifled a sniffle. Any place seemed better than Red Hill. “I wish I could be with her.”
Father Webb’s surprise hung in the air between then like fog. “That’s no way to talk. I’m sure you don’t really mean that. You have to be strong--for yourself and for your father. He’s in pain, too.”
“I know that. He drinks all the time to make his pain go away. But I can’t do that, can I? I wish he would talk to me, but everything’s changed. Our lives stink.” His chest heaved several times and finally the sobs came, his voice cracking. “Why does it have to be like this?” Damn it! Not here! Not now! Tears streamed down his cheeks. The screen slid back over the lattice, enshrouding him in darkness.
Wiping his eyes, he stared at the solid black and wondered if his confession had been rejected. Is that it?
He heard a door latch and felt a slight vibration, followed by soft footsteps that still echoed. Taking a deep breath, he shifted his gaze to the door. The footsteps stopped and his heart beat faster. Even though he expected the door to open, he still jumped when it did. Father Webb’s imposing frame filled the doorway, silhouetted by the candles’ glow. Johnny’s instincts told him to rise, but he did better than that—he sprang up, flattening his back against the wall.
“It’s all right to feel pain, son. We all do, at one time or another. Even me.” Father Webb’s voice lowered to a whisper. “I understand what you’re going through. Don’t be afraid. I feel your pain.”
Johnny’s heart hammered in his chest. This wasn’t right. Father Webb didn’t belong in this compartment…
A black void filled his vision as the priest stepped forward; only the man’s clerical collar gave Johnny a reference point. Then he felt powerful hands on his shoulders and he recalled the discomforting sensation he had felt when Father Webb had touched him at his mother’s funeral. The confessional grew smaller around him, tighter.
“Let me take the pain away.”
The white collar drew closer.
“I can make you feel better. Much better.”
Alarm bells rang in Johnny’s brain.
“Don’t worry. No one else will know. What happens in here is just between us.”
And God? Johnny wondered. And then he heard another voice, this one deep in his mind: Get out of there!
Feeling hot breath on his face, he shot his right hand forward, aiming his pointer and index fingers at the center of the silhouetted head before him, targeting where Father Webb’s eyeballs belonged. His middle finger struck something soft and the priest cried out. The sound caused Johnny to flinch as the collar rose.
Father Webb’s voice filled the confessional: “GOD DAMN IT ALL!”
Johnny’s fear multiplied. The powerful man was sure to hurt him—or worse.
He darted forward, skewing his body sideways so it fit between Father Webb and the door frame. As he emerged from the darkness of the booth into the dim light of the church, his fingers clawed at the edge of the door, which he slammed with all his strength. He drove Father Webb back into the confessional, pinning his arm between the door and its frame. The priest’s hand protruded from the darkness like a disembodied appendage, fingers spastic with pain. Johnny aimed his eyes in the direction of the vestibule doors. The aisle appeared longer than it ever had before. Realizing that Father Webb could force the confessional open as soon as he applied leverage, he released the door and sprinted forward, sneakers pounding the rug and footsteps echoing through the church.
He didn’t have to look over his shoulder to know that Father Webb had escaped from the confessional. Panic drove his arms and legs faster and he slammed into the vestibule doors.
For an instant he felt the doors resisting his weight and feared that Father Webb had managed to lock them before entering Johnny’s confessional compartment. Then the doors parted with a sudden rush—as if pulled by someone standing on the other side--and he leapt into the empty vestibule and threw himself at the front doors. Sunlight filled his eyes, blinding him, and he felt cold, fresh air on his face as he staggered outside. He tumbled down the steps to the manicured front lawn, picked himself up, then sprinted across the street and through the park, his back to the church.
He kneeled on the earth before his mother’s grave, rain water soaking the knees of his jeans. The gravestone bore both his parents’ names, with the date of his father’s eventual death waiting to be engraved. He stared at the polished stone, his chest rising and falling as he imagined what Father Webb might have done to him.
Pervert, he thought. “How could you trust him?” he demanded of his mother. “He wanted to touch me!”
There was no response; not even a rustling of wind.
But his mother had spoken to him. He had heard her voice clearly inside his head, warning him to flee the church. And he could have sworn that someone had opened the inner church doors, allowing him to escape.
He dug his into the dirt. “Tell me what to do!”
He supposed he’d just imagined that he had heard her; that he’d only heard his own thoughts under extreme distress. And if she had returned to warn him, she had abandoned him now. He was all alone again.
His mind raced, a jumble of thoughts: I know I heard her… He tried to touch me… Go to the police… Everyone will know… Tell my father… They’ll all laugh at me!... Get another whipping…
It didn’t take long for him to decide to keep the incident to himself. He wouldn’t even tell Eric.
Johnny stopped in his tracks when he saw the two vehicles parked in his driveway. The truck belonged to his father, but he didn’t recognize the shiny black Lincoln. When he entered the two-story house through the front door, his heart skipped a beat: Father Webb sat on the living room sofa, chatting with his father, who sat in his leather recliner. Both men turned their heads to look at him.
“There you are,” Charlie said, rising. “I thought you were going to miss dinner. Father Webb stopped by to see how we’re getting along.”
Johnny stepped forward, anger rising within him along with fear. How could Father Webb come here, to his home?
“I told him we’re still adjusting, but things are getting better,” Charlie said. “Right?”
Johnny’s eyes locked onto Father Webb’s. He saw vague amusement in them, mixed with menace. The man knew no shame.
“That’s good,” the priest said. “I’m glad to hear it. Your sister told me Johnny was going to come visit me, and when he didn’t, I thought it might be easier for me to make a house call.”
Johnny felt his jaw tighten. “What happened to your eye?”
Father Webb raised one hand to his right eye, his fingers stopping just short of touching it. Crimson filled the eye’s inner corner. “Oh, this? I walked right into a thorn bush outside the church. Can you believe that? I guess it’s time for me to consider glasses.” He winked.
Glaring at the priest, Johnny heard his breath whistling through his nostrils. “Fuck you.”
Father Webb’s expression cooled but his eyes burned with anger.
“What did you just say?” Charlie said in an incredulous tone.
Johnny faced his father, then turned back to the priest. “I said, ‘Fuck you, Father Webb!’”
Charlie trembled with rage for a moment, then steamrolled toward his son. “Why, you little--”
Johnny backed up, clenching his fists. He had been tempted to strike back at his father for months. He would get in at least one good shot but before Charlie flattened him.
Leaping from the sofa, Father Webb held Charlie back. “Charles, no! Can’t you see the boy is distraught? He needs therapy, not a beating!”
“Fuck you!” Spittle flew from Johnny’s mouth and his face turned beat red. Struggling in Father Webb’s arms, Charlie roared. Johnny spun on one heel and charged into the hallway and up the stairs.
Slamming his bedroom door shut, Johnny turned the lock and pulled the string dangling from the overhead light. He darted to his CD player and powered it up, cranking Slipknot over the speakers, drowning out the sound of fists pounding on the other side of the door. He had never played music so loud before. Sliding one hand beneath his mattress, he withdrew the narrow object he had hidden there. Flopping onto the bed, he turned the slender object over in his hands. He knew he’d have to deal with his father before the night was over, but that was okay; they would both cool off after dinner.
Gazing across the room, he focused on the action figures and assembled models on the shelf above his TV. He pictured Leatherface chewing through St. Luke’s vestibule doors with his bloodstained chainsaw, wood splintering as sawdust spewed around him; he imagined Freddy using the razor blades on his glove to carve an opening in the confessional booth; and he fantasized about Michael Meyers teaching Father Webb the meaning of silence.
I’ll keep your secret, he thought, triggering the switchblade in his hand with absent minded detachment. But he knew this much: he would never allow Father Webb to lay a hand on him again. Later, he closed the knife and watched Cannibal Holocaust.