Red Squares and Blue Overalls
Jack's Invisible Playmate
When I first heard the blood curdling screams coming from our son’s bedroom, my only thought was that he was having another nightmare like the ones he’d been having ever since his cousin told him about the boogie man. Little did I know of the gruesome story that was about to unfold, the story of how a young unfortunate waif, clad only in a shirt, dotted with red squares, and blue overalls had died many years ago and was now coming back to life as my son’s invisible playmate.
The first time I laid eyes on the big, white, wood framed house with its large white two-foot wide columns supporting the L-shaped front porch, nestled inside a small forest of huge Black Walnut, Oak, Maple, and Cottonwood trees; their leaves just beginning to turn yellow, orange, and red in the autumn coolness, I fell in love with it. Apparently so did our four-year-old son, Jack, or rather, he fell in love with the old black and white soccer ball lying strikingly bold against the green of the newly mowed lawn in the back yard. He wanted to play with it so badly that he could hardly wait to get out of the car. With every ounce of strength I could muster I managed to restrain him as I laughingly said “we’ll have to wash all the dirt off of it first.” Had I known at that moment how powerful a role that ball would play in the coming events, I would have insisted he get rid of it immediately.
As we entered the house, the very first sensation to infiltrate my nostrils was the irresistible aroma of fresh baked bread. “What a lovely surprise” I thought, as I assumed that Mrs. Jennings,my husband’s boss’s wife, must have left a nice welcome gift for us. Although she was a 10th grade teacher at one of the local high schools, her specialty was making all sorts of pastries, pies, and breads. She loved to bake so much that she had won several ribbons at the county fair, and would always receive lavish compliments whenever she distributed her goods throughout the community, especially to the newcomers. We could also tell that she enjoyed eating the pastries almost as much as she loved sharing them because of the plumpness of her waist, and the dimples that widened on her pudgy cheeks when she smiled.
As I looked around the large kitchen, with mahogany paneled walls, spacious wall-to-wall cupboards, a large double sink, and a small pantry off to my left, I saw no gift basket. The only items I saw were a small wooden table and four chairs, a modest-sized refrigerator, and a large gas cook stove that looked as if it hadn’t been used in years. However, because the delicious aroma was so intense, I thought that perhaps she had left the bread in the pantry. As I opened the door I was immediately assaulted by the awful stench of alcohol. The odor was so strong that it made my eyes water and my nose burn like fire!
I immediately slammed the door shut and was about to flee from the room because I was becoming quite nauseated, when I happened to glance out the smaller of the two kitchen windows. I was startled to see what looked like a dark shadow, of perhaps something or someone quite large, dart inside the barn. “Was there a man, or perhaps some wild beast out there, hiding, lurking in the dark?” I asked myself. But when I pulled back the white lace curtains and cautiously looked again, it was gone. “Oh well” I thought “It’s just my imagination playing tricks on me again,” and walked outside for a breath of fresh air.
Everything went smoothly for the next few days as we continued to unpack. The old house was a sturdy well-built structure, having been built of native Oak back in the early 1900s. It’s being nestled among the trees also made it deliciously cool in the hot and humid southern climate. Besides the customary kitchen, dining room, and living room, the house had two large bedrooms at either end of a long narrow hallway, and a smaller bedroom in the middle. We decided that this small yet comfortable room would be Jack’s, so he would be close to grandma and grandpa on one end of the hall and my husband and I on the other.
The house also had many tall four-paned windows that provided lovely views of the countryside all around, hardwood floors throughout the interior, and beautiful French doors leading from the dining room into the spacious living room. Even Jack, who did not have many friends as of yet seemed to be content in his new surroundings as he played with his cars and trucks out in the barn, and of course, the old soccer ball.
We were finally a contented family once again after having been uprooted several times in the past few years, or so it seemed. However, I could not forget the feeling I’d had when I saw that image out near the barn that first day. I even thought I heard Jack talking to someone once, and could have sworn I saw the ball mysteriously roll back to him, as if someone else had joined him in the game. However, my husband told me not to worry because all children have imaginary friends at times, and the ball had probably been thrown up hill and was simply rolling back by itself. But still I wondered. Whenever I placed it on the top shelf of Jack’s closet each night, it would mysteriously end up on the floor by the next morning, even though I had tried to keep it in place by placing items in front of it.
About three weeks after we moved into the house and had settled in for the night, I was suddenly awakened by the sound of a door opening, footsteps stomping down the hall, and water running in the bathroom, which was next to Jack’s bedroom. Thinking that he had gotten up to use the toilet and had left the water running in the sink, I slipped out of bed and tiptoed down the hall. As I peeked into his room, I saw that it was empty, so I continued down the hall. However, when I opened the bathroom door I found it was also empty, with no water running. I then began methodically checking each room of the house, but Jack was nowhere to be found.
I was extremely terrified by this time and awakened everyone. We all began searching the house and grounds and calling his name, but to no avail. Then just as we were about to give up and call the police, I passed the open doorway of the barn and heard Jack whispering and giggling inside.
As I stumbled into the pitch blackness, with only the beam of the flashlight’s glow, I finally found Jack sitting in the middle of one of the stalls. As I cautiously stepped forward, not wanting to scare him, I heard him talking to someone. I stopped and listened intently, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. Jack would say something, pause, and resume the conversation once again. Eerily, it seemed as if someone was answering him, but I saw no one. All I saw was that old soccer ball slowly rolling back and forth!
Dazed and confused, I stepped forward and asked Jack who he was speaking to. “Oh, that's Bobby. He and I are friends now” he replied. “What does he want?” “He just wants me to play with him because he’s lonely.” “Did you know he used to live here?” “No I didn't" I answered. "Why does he want you to play with him out here in the dark?” Jack replied, “This was always his favorite place to play when everyone was asleep and his mom wasn't bothering him. He says I don’t need to be afraid of the dark anymore, as long as I’m with him.” I didn’t want Jack to see just how frightened I really was, so I gently grasped his hand and said “Come on, let’s go back inside. We can decide what to do about Bobby tomorrow.”
For the next few weeks, everyone kept a close eye on Jack and made sure the doors were all locked at night. However, this only seemed to make matters worse for him. He began waking up crying every night, saying that Bobby was still insisting that he go outside to play ball. Then one night we heard him cry out in pain. My husband and I ran to his room. There he was, sitting up in the middle of the bed, holding his hand, and wailing loudly, with tears streaming down his tiny face. The look of fright and bewilderment in his eyes was one of none other than pure terror.
However, it wasn’t his hand or his crying that shocked me most, although I'll admit I was deeply concerned about his wellbeing. His bed, a very heavy, four polstered one, had been shoved against the far wall so hard that there were deep black gouges crisscrossing the painted floor. Then just as I was about to say something, Jack saw us and began screaming “Bobby did it! Bobby did it!” My husband grabbed him up, swiftly carried him into our bedroom, and after examining his hand to make sure he wasn’t hurt badly, tucked him into our bed. We then both decided that he would not sleep in that room ever again. But, the trouble did not end there.
The eerie sights and smells continued, even after my husband and I began sleeping in Jack’s room. However, he had begun to sleep more soundly and had stopped saying that Bobby was talking to him, so we were satisfied that we were doing the right thing by switching rooms. We had even begun to think that perhaps it was the room itself that was scaring him. “This room would scare anyone” I thought as I looked around at the large imposing window that took up most of the wall to the right of his bed, the high ceiling with the heavy chandelier hanging overhead, and the big old leafless Oak tree with one jutting branch that looked similar to the Headless Horseman, looming just outside.
Then one night when my husband was working late Jack awoke, screaming louder than ever. Then I heard him shout “No, I can’t! I don’t want to! Stop bothering me! MOMMA, MOMMA!” I rushed to his room, and tried to open the door, but it had jammed. When I was finally able to force it open by slamming my body against it until my shoulder was bruised and sore, I found Jack sitting upright in the bed, with eyes wide open in shock and disbelief. He was staring past me, white faced, as if he had seen a ghost, and he was sobbing profusely.
At first I thought he was having another nightmare, and wished only to comfort him. “What’s the matter sweetheart? Did you have another bad dream?” I asked, as I cradled him in my arms. “No mom” he finally garbled out between sobs “Now Bobby wants me to go swimming with him!” He wiped his eyes before he continued. “When I told him you’d be upset if I went down to the creek, he got really mad.” “Where is Bobby?” I asked. “Right there behind you!” he whispered while pointing his finger toward the wall behind me. I swiftly turned around, but no one was there. Still hoping he was dreaming, and wanting to reassure him that no one else was in the room, I asked him what Bobby was wearing. “Red squares and blue overalls” was all he said.
My husband and I had finally accepted the fact that our son was being tormented by a force we could not control, so we decided to try to find the cause of his mysterious visits. We knew that the house had been in the Jennings family for generations so we decided to ask Bill, my husband’s boss, if anything strange had ever happened in or near the house. When we relayed our story to him, his face went ashen, and his jaw dropped in utter amazement. Then he told us a very gruesome tale.
A family of three, the Jackson's, had lived in that house approximately 40 years prior to our incident. At first they had seemed like a normal family. However, their only son, who was approximately four or five, was never seen in public. In fact, he was rarely seen at all. On the few occasions that Mr. Jennings recalled seeing him, he would be standing out in front of the barn, holding what looked like a soccer ball, and looking quite forlorn. He was always shabbily dressed, and his body looked frail and deformed, as if he may have had polio or some other disfiguring disease. Mr. Jackson, Bill recalled, seemed to be quite friendly, even though he didn’t say much, and never discussed family matters. However, Bobbie’s mother seemed to be quite the opposite.
According to Mr. Jennings, some in the community assumed that she was an alcoholic; many claimed she was mentally disturbed, and still others suggested that she abused her son. One thing he did know was that she could often be seen standing in the front yard, cursing and accusing all the young ladies of flirting with her husband, and shouting "You ain't going to take my son away." Even Mrs. Jennings became quite concerned about Bobby’s wellbeing at one point, and had thought about calling the authorities when she noticed a rather odd looking bruise on his tiny arm. Mr. Jennings remorsefully admitted that he was sorry he had discouraged her from doing so.
Mrs. Jennings had decided to have lunch with her husband out on the farm that day, and as usual, had packed too much food for the two of them, so she decided to give the leftovers to the Jacksons, who had just rented their house, instead of lugging it all back home. She knocked on the front door, but when no one answered, she walked around back, thinking that Mrs. Jackson might be doing the laundry on the old wringer washer, and hadn’t heard her knock.
As she rounded the corner she spotted Bobby standing in the middle of the yard. “Is your mom at home?” She asked. “Yea, but she’s sleeping.” “I made way too much food for Bill and me, do you think she would mind if I give some to you?” “Naw, she won’t wake up till this evenin’ anyhow, and me and papa are fixin to go fishing just as soon as he brings home the bait, so maybe I’ll just surprise him with it and we can take it with us. So, if you don’t mind, it’ll just be our little secret, okay?” “Well okay then," she prompted "come along and help me unload the trunk of my car.”
Bobby held out his little arms while Mrs. Jennings began loading him up. That’s when she spotted the bruise. It wasn’t large, but she could tell that it was painful because he winced when she touched it. “How did you get that bruise?” she asked. “I bumped it. Hey, is that homemade bread?” He was pointing at a cellophane package that had fallen out of the box. “Why yes it is, and you can have it too, if you want.” “Good, me and papa love it, but mama don’t make it anymore.” “Did someone hit you?” she asked. “Where?” “On your arm?” “No!” By his curt reply, Mrs. Jennings knew that he wasn’t going to give her a satisfactory answer, so she decided not to press him any further. However, later, she confessed that she wished she had done more to help little Bobby. According to Bill, in reminiscing about that day, she wondered how things might have been different, had she actually called the authorities.
According to Mr. Jennings, no one knew for sure why or what had transpired that dreadful day, except that it was raining when the police were called to the Jackson residence. All anyone knew was that Bobby was missing, and after an extensive search of the area, the little boy’s body was found floating face down in Village Creek, approximately a quarter mile away.
When I asked Mr. Jennings if he remembered what color of clothing little Bobby was wearing when they pulled his body from the water, he replied “I remember quite distinctly that he was wearing a red checkered shirt and blue overalls.” “It’s funny how such a thing should stick in my mind after all these years, but those darned red squares just seemed to stand out so, against that muddy water.” “However, there is one thing that has puzzled me to no end. You see, the incident occurred just after the cotton harvest, when there was nothing but stubble left in the field, and the body was bare footed, yet there were no cuts or scratches on his feet.” He paused before continuing. “The sheriff just said that his shoes might have come off in the water, but I never did buy that.” He then began fiddling with his beard, twisting it into tiny coils, as if puzzled by something else. “And Mr. Jackson, well he was found the next day, hanging from a rafter in the barn." "But what was queerest of all" he recalled, "was that I saw Bobby's soccer ball still lying in the yard when I pulled into the driveway, and I doubt that that kid would have gone anywhere without it."
Supposedly Mr. Jackson committed suicide because he was grieving for a son he had loved so dearly. However, there are those like Mr. Jennings who suspect that Mr. Jackson had come home, found his son missing and his wife lying drunk on the couch, killed her in a fit of rage, and buried her body out there near the creek before taking his own life. This is because some people claim to this day that if you stand out there just past the barn on a misty cool evening, just after the harvest, you can hear a haughty sort of laughter, like that of a hysterically shrieking woman, coming from somewhere out there along a particular bend in the creek.
That night I lay sleepless, tortured by the story I had just been told. Suddenly I heard the sound of a door opening, boots stomping down the hall, and water running once again, only this time it was much louder than ever before! Frightened but curious, I quickly put on my slippers and robe, and slowly tiptoed down the hall toward the bathroom. But this time, instead of opening the door, I got down on my knees and peeked through the keyhole. There, to my utter amazement was a robust woman, who fit the description of Mrs. Jackson, bent over the tub, with her back toward me, yelling, with jaws agape, in that ghostly silent way that nobody hears but you, "They can't have you, I'll see to that!"
The woman seemed to be so busy that she failed to hear the floor squeak under my weight as I shuddered, horrified at the scene unfolding before me. Then suddenly I saw a head pop up from the tub, spitting, sputtering, coughing, gulping for air, with arms flailing wildly, as if trying to grab onto something or loose the huge rough hands that held the child so firmly! Only to my horror, it was Bobby, right there before me, fighting for his very life! Down into the water he was thrust by those huge calloused hands, again and again, down into the cold merciless water, until finally his little broken body went limp and the water stilled. Finally I knew why he had wanted Jack to go swimming. He hadn’t wished to hurt him at all; he had only wanted to tell someone the truth about what had happened to him.
After assuring herself that he was dead, Mrs. Jackson turned around, and with a devilish grin, one that was full of satisfaction at what she had accomplished, looked right at me! Startled, I jumped back, and hid behind the bedroom door! Then, still mesmerized, I watched her carry the wet, limp, barefoot body, dressed in a red checkered shirt and blue overalls, down the hall. She glided right past me, as if I wasn’t there, and slipped out the back door.
Shaken, yet knowing I had to know the truth, I followed her through the rain soaked field. I can still see her boots slipping in the mud and hear them crunching in the cotton stubble, all the while singing “Hallelujah” at the top of her lungs, until she reached the bend in the creek. Once there, she shrieked “So ya like to go fishin’ with your papa do ya? Well, he can't have you either! I'll let the damned fish eat ya first!” Then, with a mighty heave she threw the little body into the muddy water, as swiftly and easily as if it were a twenty pound sack of potatoes. All the while, I watched, frozen in fear, as I lay hidden behind a small clump of weeds.
Just then a twig snapped under my feet, the sound reverberated so loudly one would think it could be heard from a mile away. I held my breath and stayed as still as a mouse, listening to every beat of my heart's pounding. It was as if the sounds coursing through my ears were those of a thousand drums beating to the tune of an African mambo. I stayed this way until I felt my lungs about to burst, all the while hoping frantically that she hadn’t heard. Then suddenly she turned and looked right at me with eyes ablaze and as red as fire! Then, with an evil grin on her face that would make anyone’s hair stand on end, she laughed hysterically as she advanced toward me, with her fists shaking furiously as she held them high overhead, screaming "I'LL KILL YOU TOO!"
I jumped up and turned around so quickly that I lost my shoes in the sticky black mud, but I didn't care. All I could think about was getting out of there before she grabbed me. I ran, slipping and sliding, not even feeling the stubble as it sliced through my bloodied feet with every step, all the way home as fast as my slender legs could carry me! Never once did I dare to look back! Now, if I stand out there at the edge of the field on a misty cool evening, just after the harvest, when the wind is blowing just right, I can hear her voice calling me, "Come back, come back! See, I told you that he's mine, all mine! HAW-HAW!"