Here’s the second chapter of my grade school anthology book – Middletown Middle. The school with more mysteries than students. Read Chapter One – The Nickname Curse
Chapter Two – Unktomi
November 25, 1987
It was Big Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, which meant a half-day of school before a long weekend. Twins Jenny and Jason Greenwood are looking forward to three days of saving princesses on Dragon Quest and Zelda, and on one day, eating mashed potatoes and cheesecake. “Beats Christmas,” they agree. On the way out of the classroom door, Ms. Grace, their fifth-grade teacher, hands each of the departing children a large envelope.
“School photos,” she repeats robotically. “Wait till you get them home. Have a great Thanksgiving. School photos. Wait till you get them home. Have a great Thanksgiving.”
The weather had become cool, almost cold, but the pictures had been taken on a hot and humid day, way back in the second week of school, and then forgotten. Jenny and Jason forgot the photos again as they rushed to the basement to play Zelda.
“If I’d made this game, the princess wouldn’t need saving,” Jenny says. “It would be a dumb prince instead.”
“Yeah, as if,” Jason responds. “Who would want to save a prince if he’s that dumb? Then you get a dumb king.”
They had only made it to the second dungeon when the phone rang in the kitchen. The kids were too far away to hear the conversation, but shortly afterward, their mom calls them.
“C’mon Mom,” Jenny yells. “We just started.”
“She said Jen-ni-fer. Not good,” Jason whispers.
“Fine. Pause it,” Jenny orders. She runs up the basement stairs with her brother right behind her.
“Who was on the phone?” Jason asks as soon as he’s in the same room as their mom, Hillary Greenwood.
“Mrs. Johnson,” Hillary replies. “She says I need to look at your school photos, right away. Can I see them?”
Jason finds his backpack and pulls the envelope out carelessly, bending it.
“Careful, Jason,” Mrs. Greenwood chides. “We’ve got to give them to Grandma tomorrow.”
At the same time, Jennifer takes hers out of her bag slowly, making sure she doesn’t bend them.
Mom looks at Jennifer’s pictures first. Cute smile. Eyes open. Long hair straight down over her shoulders. Glasses off. Looks good.
“You look like a dweeb,” Jason laughs.
For that, he earns a punch on the shoulder from his sister.
Mom sets Jenny’s photo aside and moves on to Jason’s. It doesn’t take long before a look of horror dawns on her face. “What in the name of…?” she mutters.
Jason leans in, and his eyes widen. In his photo, Jason faces slightly to the right. His outfit is on point. The smile is a bit wonky but still passable. His short hair, combed to one side, looks as good as it can, but his hair isn’t the issue. The issue is his ear. In his school photo, his left ear has been removed and replaced with skin. From the looks of it, the skin was copied and pasted from his forehead.
“I have no ear!” Jason exclaims.
Jenny laughs. “I look like a dweeb? You look like a Q-tip.”
“Why is it like that, mom?” Jason asks, ignoring his sister “Where’s my ear? Why did they take my ear off? That’s so weird.”
“It’s psycho,” Mom agrees. “Grandma won’t want this picture. No offense, Jason.”
“None taken,” Jason responds with a smile. He always wanted to say that.
Mom runs back to the phone hanging from the wall, its long red wire nearly dragging on the ground.
“Who are you calling?” Jenny asks, examining her own picture, wondering if her hair was supposed to hang down like a curtain or if the photographer removed her ear too.
“Yeah, exactly like you described it,” Mom says to someone on the phone, probably Mrs. Johnson. “Nobody has any ears. Let’s go. Gather the team.”
She hangs up.
“Into the minivan, kids. Bring the envelope with the address.”
The three climb into the van and head to Bernard’s A+ Photography Studio.
“I look so creepy,” Jason exclaims from the back seat, reexamining his photo.
“You do not,” his mom turns around and grabs it from his hand. “The PTA’s gonna get your ear back, kiddo.”
“But can the PTA help me un-see Jason’s weird face?” Jenny laughs. “Or save me from any future nightmares about my un-eared brother?”
She gets no response.
Bernard’s A+ Photography Studio is housed in the former home of the Middletown fire station. It still looks mostly like it used to, save for a new sign. Fifty confused and angry moms huddled outside with their kids.
“I see him in there,” they hear one mom say as they pull up.
Mrs. Greenwood finds Mrs. Johnson.
Their kids hang around awkwardly. No ear? Yeah, no ear.
In Middletown, the PTA is more powerful than the police. While a few parents bang on the oversized garage doors, a window above them bursts open. A man with hair like a badger pokes his head out and shouts.
“Look ye, look ye!
Unktomi will destroy us all.
Look ye –“
“Excuse me. Excuse me, Bernard,” Hillary interrupts coldly. “As president of the PTA, I’m asking you to stop with the poetry and let us in.”
“Who is Unktomi?” Jason whispers to Jennifer, who shrugs.
“Kids, stay out here,” their mom tells them, and all the parents head in. The kids move to the window to watch.
Inside, Bernard slides down the fireman’s pole. He greets everyone with a welcoming smile as if they actually want to be there. He has a dozen folding chairs lined up and a table with freshly-poured apple cider. The moms are into neither the cider nor the sitting idea.
“Have a seat,” Bernard insists, apparently unable to read a room.
“What have you done with our kids’ ears?” A mom calls out, holding up a photo of her earless daughter. “What is the meaning of this?”
“Does this have to do with voodoo?” asks another.
“Voodoo?” Bernard answers. “No. No, it has nothing to do with voodoo. Please, sit.”
Some parents sit reluctantly, hoping it will help to get the show on the road.
“We don’t have time for this. We have stuffing to make and pies to prepare,” Hillary says.
“My pumpkin pie! Ah! I left my pumpkin pie in the oven!” someone in the back yells before exiting.
Hillary continues. “We need our kids’ ears back, now.”
“I know your time is valuable, and I must seem like a crazy person, but I have no choice but to hold your kids’ photos hostage. How else can I get anyone to listen to me?” Bernard explains. “I need your help. Something potentially dangerous is here in Middletown, and nobody is talking about it. I asked the police. I asked the mayor. They wouldn’t help me, so you must.”
“Okay, spill it,” Mrs. Johnson yells, paying no attention to her son watching from the window behind her.
“Something is eating all the ducks and geese at Middletown Lake. I go there to take pictures and have done for years,” Bernard says. “Normally, there are hundreds of birds. It’s a migrating destination, but not anymore. They’ve gone missing. I needed to know what was afoot, so I went down before dawn. That’s when I saw it. That’s when I first saw Unktomi.”
“Unktomi?” Hillary questions. “You’re saying it like we know what that means.”
The kids watching and listening outside repeat the word Unktomi.
“Unktomi is a beast the Lakota describe as a giant spider. A trickster. A human in spider form,” Bernard says. “It’s mostly spider, but it’s massive.”
“I hate spiders,” one mom calls out, bored with the conversation. “You know what I don’t hate? Pictures of my wonderful kids with their ears.”
“You want pictures?” Bernard says with a sigh. He walks over to a table and picks up a stack of photos as thick as the phone book and throws it into the air. The photos separate and flutter all around them, but they are not photos of the kids.
“Unktomi has eaten all the geese and almost all the ducks,” Bernard protests. “What happens when it runs out of food at the lake? It’s gonna wander into town, looking for food. Cats. Dogs. Kids. What then? Then all you’ll have left are those stupid pictures of your kids. Get it?”
The kids listening outside get it. Jenny and Jason share a horrified look.
One of the photos slides under the garage door and lands right at Jenny’s feet. She picks it up. It’s a photo of the Middletown Lake on a beautiful morning, but the focus of the image is a giant spider with two human legs in white sneakers and a nasty black and yellow torso. The remaining six legs are all spider. In the photo, the car-sized beast carries a whole goose in its mouth.
“That lives in our town?” a girl squeals behind them. Suddenly, the kids get loud, yelling and jostling for a better look. Inside, the same thing is happening as the adults finally see what Unktomi is.
Bernard once again yells out the old Lakota poem, “‘Look ye, look ye, Unktomi will destroy us all. Look ye, look ye. Unktomi lives among us.’ Only the PTA can protect us.”
A mom in the back says. “It has sneakers. Reeboks.”
Bernard says, collecting the photos. “It’s running out of food.”
“I hate spiders,” Mrs. Johnson comments. “If you think I’m gonna go after a giant spider, you’re crazy. Why don’t you kill it, Bernard?”
“It’s partially human,” Bernard says. “I didn’t say kill it.”
“Oh my God, Bernard, don’t complicate things,” Mrs. Johnson rolls her eyes. “I just want my son’s photo with his ear.”
“Yeah! What she said!” yelled another parent.
Bernard eventually relents and gives back the photos, murmuring the same poem. “Look ye look ye…” under his breath.
Outside, Jenny puts the photo of the human spider in her pocket.
They go back home. Mom doesn’t say one word about Unktomi. All she talks about is how wonderful both her kids look in the new photos.
The following day is Thanksgiving. Jenny and Jason, fearing the beast’s hunger, sneak what is left of the turkey and its carcass into a backpack. Together, they ride their bikes up Old Bridge Road until they reach the lake. Before yesterday, the lake’s greatest distinction was the 1950s-era passenger jet hidden under its murky depths.
The kids are surprised to find a brand new, tall chain-link fence completely surrounding the lake and the encircling woods. A sign is posted:
By direction of the Middletown PTA, the Middletown Lake is closed to public use until further notice.
Jason removes the backpack, now reeking of Thanksgiving dinner. He takes out the turkey carcass and tosses it over the fence. He and Jenny are stunned to find their offering is not the only one. On the other side, half a dozen turkeys lie on the ground: raw ones, frozen ones, and some reduced to bones. Some side dishes and a burnt pumpkin pie are even lying about.
Since that Thanksgiving, Middletown’s children have taken responsibility to ensure that Unktomi is fed and happy, to prevent it from destroying them all.