The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Bernie Blythe

Bernie Blythe, oh Bernie Blythe
has blistered hands and sewed-up eyes
lives in the swamp where you don’t dare tread
’cause the ones that do, they end up dead

Bernie Blythe, oh Bernie Blythe
was once a kid like you or I
’til one black night he fell and drowned,
his teeth the only things they found

Bernie Blythe, oh Bernie Blythe
a lonely boy with a half-dead mind
If he finds you, he’ll never let go
He’ll drag you screaming down below

*

 

“Shhh!”

“I can’t help it. This is so incredibly stupid.”

“Stop it!”

“Oh my god, seriously. Stop laughing.”

“Why am I even friends with you guys? You’re a bunch of infants.”

“Lucas, shut up right now.”

“He’ll hear you.”

But Lucas didn’t want to shut up. He wanted everyone to understand how brave he was for coming to the Grasshook Swamp—on Halloween, no less. After sundown, too—and not being scared, not even a little bit.

He especially wanted Rhonda to understand. Her Queen of the Undead costume was nothing short of mind-blowing, what with that crown and that ratty ballgown and the zombie make-up and the fake blood. She even had the lurching zombie walk down, and just the right amount of slobbering, groaning noises to be authentic but not obnoxious.

Rhonda was cool, is what it came down to. So cool that Lucas wasn’t sure how he and his friends had ended up trick-or-treating with her and her friends, but he wasn’t going to complain about it or anything.

No, he was going to march right into Grasshook Swamp with his head held high, and not be afraid even a little bit.

Well. Maybe a little bit. But he wasn’t going to show it.

“So how’d he drown again?” said one of Rhonda’s friends, Amy, who was dressed up like a cat. How original.

“Who?” said Lucas, breezily, like he didn’t know who she was talking about. Like he hadn’t been surreptitiously scanning the swamp this whole time for signs of him.
“Bernie,” Amy said. “Bernie Blythe. Don’t be dumb, Lucas.”

Bernie Blythe, oh Bernie Blythe, has blistered hands and sewed-up eyes,” Rhonda sang cheerfully.

“Oh. That.” Lucas waved his hand. “That’s just a story.”

“No way, man,” said Sam, who had been compulsively eating candy since they stepped over the bridge onto the swamp path. “I’ve heard him.”

Amy and Rhonda’s other friend, Carrie, squealed.

Rhonda just laughed. Lucas laughed, too, even though he didn’t think anything was funny.

“You’ve heard him?” said Dean. He was shuffling along the path, kicking pebbles into the murky water. At each impact, the water gurgled and shifted, like it was this huge beast disguised as water, and the pebbles were in danger of waking it up.

Lucas wished Dean would stop doing that, but he wasn’t going to say so.

He also wished Dean would take off his scarecrow mask. It was this burlap sack contraption with the grinning face scribbled on in black marker, and it was unnerving. Dean’s hands were gloved in ratty gloves, and he was wearing crusty farmer’s clothes and had his neck wrapped in cloth strips stained red.

It was a great costume, really. Lucas wished he’d thought of something like that, because Rhonda had been gushing over how creepy Dean’s costume was all night. Lucas’s debonair vampire costume seemed beyond lame in comparison. As Carrie had scornfully pointed out earlier that night, vampires were so over.

“Yeah, I’ve heard him,” Sam was saying. “I live right on Cedar Crest, you know?

And out my window I can see the swamp, and some nights . . . some nights, I hear him.”

Rhonda was wide-eyed, breathless. “What does he sound like?”

Sam swallowed a particularly large mouthful of chocolate. “He cries.”

“He cries?”

“He cries, and sometimes he howls like he’s hurting.”

Lucas rolled his eyes. “How do you even know it’s him? That could be anyone.”

“Oh,” said Amy, “because people hang out in the swamp all the time.”

“To trick people into thinking they’re Bernie Blythe, they might.”

“I know it’s him,” Sam continued, “because he yells, too. He screams. He says, ‘Not my teeth, don’t take my teeth, stop, stop!’” Then Sam jumped at the girls and shouted, wiggling his fingers.

Carrie and Amy screamed and giggled, and Sam looked pretty pleased with himself, but Rhonda just crossed her arms and stared out at the swamp.

“Poor kid,” she said quietly. “I wonder what happened to him.”

That was when Lucas noticed they’d reached the bridge. The bridge.

He stepped closer to Rhonda. Together they stood at the bridge’s railing.

“This is where they say it happened,” Lucas whispered. “Where he drowned.”

Rhonda nodded.

“Poor kid,” Lucas added, a little too eagerly. He glanced at Rhonda to gauge her reaction. “It’s terrible. Just terrible. Tragic.”

“That’s what I don’t get, though,” said Rhonda, frowning at the water. “The railing here is pretty high. He couldn’t have just tripped and fallen in. The railing would have stopped him.”

Dean walked over to stand beside them. Instead of looking out at the water, he looked right at them. Right at Lucas, it felt like, but of course it was impossible to tell, what with that mask on. That smiling, uneven, sack-and-marker mask; those blood-stained strips of cloth around Dean’s neck.

Lucas looked away, irritated. What gave Dean the idea for such a costume, anyway? Didn’t Dean know Lucas liked Rhonda? Didn’t Dean know that Rhonda liked scary things? Why would he have tried to out-scary Lucas’s costume? Dean didn’t even like Halloween. He scared too easy.

“They say,” Dean said, “that he was pushed. Or dragged under, maybe.”

“Ooo.” Carrie grabbed Amy’s hand. “Who pushed him? Who dragged him? And why?

“Don’t know why. Some people say his friends did it, that it was some trick they were playing that went wrong. Some people say it was this hermit living in the swamp who collected human bones, except for teeth. He didn’t like teeth.”

Amy shivered. Sam ran his tongue along his teeth as if to make sure they were still intact.

“And some people say that there are just places in the world where bad things happen. Places darkness is drawn to. Darkness lives there and snatches people away, and makes them into terrible things.”

“Whatever.” Lucas tapped his fingers on the railing. “I’m so sick of these made-up stories.” He was getting tired of this whole situation. The air in this swamp was heavy and quiet, and had gotten more so since they’d entered it. At the edge of the swamp, they’d heard crickets and airplanes overhead and other people out trick-or-treating—kids laughing and parents talking and the high schoolers on Pine Drive rolling the Johnson house with toilet paper.

Now, he couldn’t hear anything. Nothing except Dean talking, and a sense of something in the air that felt like a great presence holding its breath, waiting.

It made Lucas nervous.

“Bernie Blythe.” Lucas wiped his palms on his vampire cape, trying not to freak out. “What kind of a loser name is that, anyway?”

“You shouldn’t say things like that,” Rhonda admonished him. “It’s disrespectful.”

“Dispectful toward . . .?”

“The dead.” Dean was watching Lucas, his head tilted to the side. “Or the mostly dead. Or the kind of dead.” Then Dean laughed—quickly, quietly. Then he stopped and was silent again.

Sam shook his head and popped another chocolate into his mouth. “Dude, Dean, you’re taking the creepy scarecrow thing a little too seriously.”

“The half-dead,” whispered Rhonda. “That’s what the song says. A lonely boy with a half-dead mind. Can you imagine being stuck in this swamp, half-alive, with no one to talk to?”

“Ew, Rhonda, stop being so weird,” said Carrie. “No one wants to imagine that.”

“I can,” said Dean. He stepped toward Rhonda and took her hand in his. “I can imagine it.”

Something overcame Lucas then, as everyone stared at Dean and Rhonda, and Carrie and Amy laughed nervously, and Sam looked at Lucas and then away, because he knew Lucas wanted to ask Rhonda to the seventh grade social next month, and now Dean was holding Rhonda’s hand in this weird way, and the air on the bridge suddenly reeked of awkward.

“Hey,” Lucas bit out, and marched toward Dean. “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know—”

And that’s when it happened. Because Lucas grabbed Dean’s hand and pulled it away from Rhonda’s, and the glove got caught on Lucas’s long pointy vampire fingernails, and the glove came away—to reveal a hand bloated with swamp water and covered in puckered old blisters.

A hand that was not Dean’s hand.

A hand attached to a Dean that wasn’t Dean.

Amy and Carrie shrieked. Sam dropped his bag of candy, and it rolled down the sloping bridge into the mud.

Rhonda stared.

And Lucas . . . Lucas wanted to know. So he ignored the screaming instinct to run—and fast—and ripped the mask off of whatever not-Dean face lay beneath.

What Lucas saw shouldn’t have surprised him. Not after how strange Dean had been acting, not after considering the new meaning of the weird, sweet-sour stench that had been coming from Dean’s mask all evening, and certainly not after seeing the hand—Bernie Blythe, oh Bernie Blythe has blistered hands and sewed-up eyes—but it surprised him anyway. No amount of strangeness could have prepared Lucas for this sight:

A scalp, dotted with chunks of matted hair and skin sloughing off in slimy chunks.

A toothless mouth, leaking sludge and blood and swamp water.

Two eyes, sewn shut.

Lucas tried to scream—his friends, all around him, were screaming—but he couldn’t. Maybe what he was looking at was a mask. Maybe it was legitimate, high-quality movie make-up.

The others tried to run—Carrie, Amy, Sam—but the swamp took them. There was no other way to describe it. Lucas watched, frozen, as something—something, how was this possible?—reached up to grab their ankles and drag them under. Something in the shape of hands. Something in the shape of claws. Something dark.

Darkness lives there and snatches people away, and makes them into terrible things.

If he finds you, he’ll never let go
He’ll drag you screaming down below

Lucas stood crying, listening to his friends scream, watching them dragged under by a greedy, gurgling force that made his skin crawl and grated against his bones like a knife would have—scrape and scratch, bone dust flaking away with the wind.

“Lucas,” Rhonda cried, from behind him.

He turned, even though he didn’t want to. And he saw Bernie Blythe, his arms around Rhonda, dragging her down into the swamp.

Bernie Blythe, oh Bernie Blythe,” sang Bernie, his voice now distinctly not Dean’s, and rattling in his chest like teeth in a bowl, “has blistered hands and sewed-up eyes. Lives in the swamp where you don’t dare tread, ’cause the ones that do, they end up dead.

“Rhonda!” Lucas threw himself down on the bridge and reached for her. She clutched the railing with all her might, her fingernails scraping, her palms bloody and splintered. He grabbed her arms.

“I’m not letting go,” he cried, but she was sinking down anyway, into the water. Darkness crawled up her legs like vines, and where it touched her skin, it sent up thin curls of smoke. Lucas heard something sizzling, and Rhonda’s choked screams, and even though Bernie’s head was underwater now, Lucas could still hear his song.

He would always hear Bernie’s song. He would never be able to block it out.

Rhonda was almost gone, she was nearly submerged. “Go,” she gasped, crying. Her crown fell back into the water. In an instant, it burned down to thin lines of ash. Queen of the Undead. It was terribly, awfully funny. Lucas wanted to laugh. He was becoming hysterical.

“Go, Lucas,” Rhonda gasped, “while he’s distracted. And tell them it’s true. Tell everyone. Make them stay away.”

“It’s not made up,” Lucas whispered. He was crying. How had everything gone so wrong? There was a social next month in the cafeteria. He was going to ask Rhonda. They would go out for ice cream afterward. Maybe he could even convince his parents to sit at the other end of the restaurant.

“Run, Lucas,” Rhonda screamed, and then her body jerked because Bernie was pulling, pulling, and her arms were slipping, slipping from Lucas’s hands, and then she was up to her chin in the black, black swamp.

And Lucas did. He ran. He hated himself, and he hated Rhonda for getting caught instead of him, and he hated Bernie for doing this. Why? Why?

And some people say that there are just places in the world where bad things happen. Places where darkness is drawn to. Darkness lives there and snatches people away, and makes them into terrible things.

And the trees were laughing at Lucas, he was sure of it—as were the creatures of the swamp, and the water of the swamp, and whatever lay within it. Bernie was laughing too, and his fingers wrapped around Rhonda’s mouth, silencing her voice, and the last thing Lucas saw was Rhonda’s head slipping into darkness.

He ran, and Bernie’s song rang in his head. It would always ring.

And he would tell them. He would tell everyone, even if they didn’t listen. Especially when they wouldn’t listen. He would tell them and they would laugh, and eventually they’d stop laughing and start whispering:

Have you heard about the weird kid who went into Grasshook Swamp with five friends and came out with none?

Yeah, that crazy old man who thinks Bernie Blythe is real. He has for years. They say he lost his mind.

Seriously—Bernie Blythe! You know, that stupid Halloween campfire tale?

*

Bernie Blythe, oh Bernie Blythe
has blistered hands and sewed-up eyes
lives in the swamp where you don’t dare tread
’cause the ones that do, they end up dead

Bernie Blythe, oh Bernie Blythe
was once a kid like you or I
’til one black night he fell and drowned,
his teeth the only things they found

Bernie Blythe, oh Bernie Blythe
a lonely boy with a half-dead mind
If he finds you, he’ll never let go
He’ll drag you screaming down below

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4 Responses to “Bernie Blythe”

  1. Lucia says:

    Wow, that tale was perfect for the upcoming holiday!

  2. Lucia says:

    I agree with you on that! And of course, Happy Halloween to you and the other curators!

  3. mindy says:

    Most excellent. One of the creepiest shorts I’ve ever read. “Bernie Blythe, Bernie Blythe…”

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