The Old Rag Picker Man, by Charles Mercer
Every place has one. Why should Inwood be any different? He is only spoken about in whispers. There, see, in the shadows of that darkened corner. Yes, that’s him. The old folks say he looked just as old when they were kids. No one remembers a time when he wasn’t seen hanging around. Adults say he’s harmless, just a homeless bum. The children say he’s scary; they throw rocks at him and tease him with sharp sticks. They call him “The Old Rag Picker Man.”
He wears so many layers of clothing that he looks like a large pile of somebody’s dirty laundry and smells much worse. He wears a dark ski mask over his head and a worn, floppy, brown, felt hat he pulls down over his eyes. He’s always there, alone in the dark shadows, among the trash cans, watching, always watching.
Sherry tossed her head and her short, blonde curls bounced around her shoulders, her smooth porcelain complexion reflecting the bright sunlight of the clear autumn morning, enhancing her deep, blue eyes. “So,” she said, glancing sideways at the girl beside her, “who are you going to the fall dance with?”
Her friend Cathy a bit of a shy, skinny slip of a girl with straight, long, brown hair and large round brown eyes answered, “I don’t know, so many options, you know.”
Sherry laughed and exclaimed, “Are you saying nobody asked you yet? Not even that new boy from up north? I saw how he looked at you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Cathy said. “He’s not interested in me.”
“I’ll bet he is,” Sherry added, “I saw that look in his eyes, I’m telling you that boy wants to get in your pants.”
“Fat chance of that,” Cathy said. Both girls laughed at the thought until Cathy interrupted. “Wait, let’s cross over, that old rag picker man is sitting in the alley and he makes me nervous. You know Judy from home eck? Well, she said that old rag picker man tried to follow her home last week.”
“Wow, really? What did she do?” asked Sherry.
Cathy answered, “She ran home and told her parents; her dad came out, but by that time he was gone. Her dad said it was probably just her imagination, but she said she knows what she saw.”
“Well–” Sherry said, “better safe than sorry.” The two girls crossed the street before they reached the alleyway.”
Cathy said, “My father says he’s harmless, but he makes the hair on my neck stand up every time I see him. He’s a real spook.”
A tall slender teenage boy, with dark, piercing eyes and jet black hair rounded the corner and headed in their direction. “Well”, Sherry laughed, “–here comes your knight in shining armor now.”
“Stop that–” Cathy giggled, “–I hardly know him.”
As the boy approached the girls, he smiled brightly and called out, “Hi, Cathy, I was hoping I’d run into you. I have something I want to ask you.” He slowly eyed Sherry from head to toe and added, “Say, who’s your friend?”
Cathy felt a slight twinge of jealousy at the flirtatious way Sherry was looking back at the boy. She was conscious of the fact that the breast fairy had recently visited Sherry, and had been very generous with her, while she herself had yet to receive that outward symbol of the coming of womanhood. Sherry was always receiving attention from the boys at school, while she seldom got a second glance from any of them.
She said, “Um… Robert this is my friend Sherry Todd; Sherry, this is Robert Miller, he’s from up north.” Trying to change the subject she asked, “Now, Robert, what was it you wanted to ask me?”
Sherry interrupted in a sugary voice and said, “Pleased to meet you, Robert.” She extended her hand daintily. “So you’re from up north? Are you from up around South Bend?”
Cathy could feel a warm flush crawl across her face; did she need to conquer every boy she met? Why was Sherry trying so hard to flirt with him and right in front of her too.
“What? South Bend?” Robert asked as if he didn’t quite understand the question, “Oh, yes, South Bend, yes that’s where I’m from.” He grinned at her and added, “And call me Rob everybody does.”
“O.K., Rob, welcome to Inwood.” Sherry cooed.
“Well”, Rob said, “what I really wanted was to ask Cathy if she would go to the dance with me. How about it, Cathy? Will you go with me?” He turned to Cathy, smiling. “Please say yes”, he implored her.
Cathy looked at her friend with a satisfied smirk, then answered, “Of course, I’d be thrilled to go with you Robert, I mean Rob.”
“Great”, Rob replied. “Well, I’ve gotta go, I need to talk to the principal before class. Don’t want to miss the bus to Bourbon the next one after this would make me late for first period.” He turned and disappeared around the corner headed toward the bus stop for the five mile trip to Triton High School in nearby Bourbon.
Sherry looked at her wristwatch and said, “We better get a rush on too, if we miss the bus we’ll be late as well.” She grabbed her friend by the hand and started off at a brisk walk. As they left Cathy glanced over her shoulder and was relieved to see that the old rag picker man had vanished from the shadows.
Monday afternoon, last period, Cathy rushed to her science class; she had spent too long in the hall talking to Rob. She slipped into her seat at the desk next to Sherry’s, just as the bell rang. At the front of the room, the teacher Miss Fish, who looked much like her name, with thick glasses that made her eyes appear like huge fisheyes, and a head of wild, red hair that stuck straight out and bounced up and down as she walked giving her the appearance of fins around her long narrow face– the result caused her head to look very much like a fish.
She addressed the class in a high, scratchy voice, turning her head slightly from side to side as she spoke, adding to the swimming fish effect. Cathy had to stifle a giggle as she watched Miss Fish swim across the room. Miss Fish said, “Good afternoon class, I want to remind you that your project papers are due the day after tomorrow. Of those who turned in papers today I have picked out one by Miss Sherry Todd.” She turned and taped the report to the top edge of the chalk board, then turning back to face the class. she said, “Her work on the molecule array of heavy metals shows a great deal of research. I hope more of you will follow her example, and in that vein I have decided to end class early today so that you may apply your time to your various project papers. That’s all I have for now. Class is dismissed.”
Cathy caught up with Sherry at the door and grabbed her by the arm. She kept her voice low in order to avoid making an embarrassing scene, but the anger still came through fully as, she said, “I can’t believe you did that, I thought you were my best friend, and now I can’t even trust you.” She narrowed her eyes and said, “I hate you.” She stomped off down the hall leaving her friend in shock with her mouth hanging open before she could say a word.
Cathy spent the rest of the last period in the library pacing back and forth between the narrow aisles and fuming to herself. She thought, How could Sherry be so brazen? What gave her the right to copy my science paper and turn it in as her own? Now what am I supposed to do? I should just go to Miss Fish and expose her to the whole class. She pulled out a book at random and sat at one of the small tables pretending to read. The bell sounded and she jerked her head upright. I must have fallen asleep, she thought. She hurried down the hall towards her locker; she didn’t want to run into Sherry, she was still too mad to deal with her right now. She opened her locker and saw a single folded piece of paper taped to the inside of the door. On the front her friend had written, “Sorry Cath.” She ripped the note off the locker door and pushed it into her jacket pocket without reading it. She was in no mood for one of Sherry’s lame excuses. She grabbed her coat and scarf and slammed the locker door as she turned to leave.
The next morning Cathy waited for Sherry at the bus stop. She was still upset with her, but not as mad as she had been the previous day. After all friendship must count for something, she thought. If she apologizes to me and she agrees to help me write a new paper, well, I guess I’ll get over it. They had been friends since grade school; she didn’t want to break up that friendship now. Cathy watched as the first bus came and went with no sign of Sherry. When the last bus arrived she reluctantly climbed onboard; it wasn’t like Sherry to be late for school and Cathy wondered where she could be. Cathy sat staring out the bus window, suddenly her eyes widened and a rush of fear passed through her… There, on the side street near the corner, the old rag picker man stood, looking directly at her. She pulled her scarf around her face and tried not to look at him, but she couldn’t stop staring at him until the bus pulled away and left him behind out of sight.
The entire day Cathy kept an eye out for her friend, but by lunch period she had resigned herself to the fact that Sherry was not coming to school today. Last period she slipped into her seat next to Sherry’s empty desk. She barely heard Miss Fish’s high scratchy voice droning on about the string theory and how the universe worked. She was too preoccupied with wondering what had happened to her friend.
The P.A. system in the classroom crackled to life and, as he cleared his throat, the deep voice of the vice principal startled her back to the present. He said, “It is my sad duty to inform you that one of our students, Miss Sherry Todd, was found early this morning by the Inwood sheriff’s department. A spokesman for the department said that it appeared she had been attacked in an alley in Inwood and has died as a result of her injuries. A memorial service will be held on Friday, last period, and any student wishing to attend will be excused from class at that time. Thank you.”
The entire room was silent even Miss Fish appeared to be in shock. Cathy heard the words, but for a minute they didn’t register in her brain. When the news filtered through to her senses she grabbed her head between her hands, tears flooded her eyes and she screamed at the top of her lungs, “No! No! No, not Sherry!” She looked wild eyed around the room, waiting for someone to tell her it wasn’t true. In her mind she still screamed, No, not Sherry, it can’t be true, it can’t be Sherry.
Back in Inwood Cathy wandered aimlessly along the streets. She was still fighting back tears and could not as yet accept the fact that her best friend was gone. As she stumbled through the small town square she came to an alleyway that was taped closed with police crime tape. She stopped and stared blankly, thinking, This must be where it happened. She felt unnaturally drawn to the spot. Looking around she saw that no one was near; she ducked and slipped under the warning tapes and walked slowly towards the spot where Sherry had lain on the ground next to the dumpster. There was dried blood smeared over the end of the dumpster. She could almost see her body as it lay on the cold concrete.
Cathy’s eyes filled with tears. What’s that on the side of the bin? It looks like a message written in blood, she thought. Cathy bent down and read the chilling note Sherry had written in her own blood as she lay dying. Cathy’s teary eyes could barely make out the words, “The rag picker man k”. The rest had been smeared out by Sherry’s hand as she lost consciousness. Her mind racing, Cathy thought, the rag picker man k. She ran the words over and over in her mind. What was she trying to tell us? What’s it mean? The rag picker man k…
A wave of dizziness swept over her. As she looked up she saw the old rag picker man, he was just standing there looking at her. She stood, staggering backwards as fear gripped her insides like a giant hand squeezing her lungs making it hard to breathe; she turned and stumbled under the crime tapes and hurried down the street.
At the corner a car came to a screeching halt in front of her. The car window rolled down and her father called out to her, “There you are, I’ve been looking everywhere for you. Get in.”
Still in a daze, Cathy climbed in beside her father; in a voice barely above a whisper she asked, “Where are we going?”
Her father replied “To the sheriff’s office. The sheriff wants to ask you a few questions about Sherry.”
“Why me?” Cathy asked
Her father answered, “Well, you were her best friend; maybe you saw something or heard something that might be of help.”
Cathy’s hands were still shaking; she stared at the floor of the car and mumbled, “Oh, O.K.”
A few minutes later, they pulled into the drive in front of the sheriff’s office, and Cathy slowly made her way up the stairs and into the reception area. Her father told the receptionist, “Tell the sheriff that Mr. Engis and his daughter are here.”
“Yes,” she replied, “he’s expecting you, go right in.” She indicated a door to the left of the area.
Mr. Engis took his daughter by the arm. “It’ll be all right”, he said.
They entered the sheriff’s office and sat in the chairs placed in front of the desk and waited. A minute later, the sheriff entered carrying a large packet of papers,
“Thank you for coming in”, he said with a forced smile as he sat down behind the desk. “I wanted to ask you about a note we discovered”, he pushed the folded piece of paper toward Cathy.
Cathy asked in a shaky voice, “What’s that?” although she recognized it immediately as the note from Sherry, and wondered how the sheriff came to have it.
“Have you read it?” he asked, looking hard into Cathy’s eyes.
“No.” Cathy said, “I don’t think so.”
The sheriff replied, “I think you need to read it, go ahead’, and pushed the paper closer to Cathy’s hand.
She recoiled at the touch of the paper as if she had been hit by a lightning bolt, “No, please”, she pleaded. “I can’t”
“I insist”, the sheriff said.
Cathy felt light headed; her vision blurred as things she didn’t want to remember came flooding back to her memory.
She was at her locker; she reached for her science book and noticed the note taped to the inside of the door; she reached up with her free hand and unfolded it. In her mind she could see it clearly it said, “Sorry Cath, I know you like Rob and I didn’t mean for this to happen, but Rob and I just seemed to hit it off immediately and we’ve decided we’re going to start dating. I’m so sorry if we hurt you, but the right guy for you will come along some day, I hope we can still be best friends.” It was signed, “Your BBF Sherry.”
No, no, no, her mind screamed. Her brain clouded and spun. She was in Miss Fish’s class; Sherry wouldn’t even look at her. As everybody was leaving, she grabbed Sherry by the arm, and cried, “I can’t believe you did that, I thought you were my best friend, and now I can’t even trust you.” She frowned angrily at Sherry. “I hate you!” she yelled. “You’ll be sorry.”
The fog cleared again and she could see herself in the library, she sat at a small table, and fell asleep. The bell woke her; she went to her locker; she saw Sherry and Rob leaving together. She grabbed her coat and scarf, tore the note from the locker door and followed them.
She sat in the front of the bus with the scarf pulled over her face, they passed by her so engrossed with each other that they didn’t notice her. She followed them down the street and at the corner they stopped and talked. Hiding behind some bushes, Cathy could just make out their conversation; she heard Sherry say, “Until tomorrow.” She saw them kiss as they parted. Rob disappeared around the corner and Sherry hurried towards her home.
Cathy jumped out from her hiding place and pushed Sherry as hard as she could. Sherry stumbled into the alleyway and fell to one knee against the end of the dumpster. As she tried to stand, she cried “Cathy, wait!” Cathy pushed her again, and screamed, “No! Not this time. There’s not going to be any tomorrow.” Sherry fell back losing her balance; her head struck the edge of the dumpster causing a large gash in the side of her head; blood gushed out and ran down the side of her face in a flood of red. Sherry’s eyes rolled back in her head and she said, “I’m sorry,” as she collapsed to the ground.
Cathy ran to her, lifting her head in her arms. There was a lot of blood, it smeared on Cathy’s arms and on her clothes dyeing her blouse with the deep red overflow. Cathy tried to stem the bleeding with her hands as she cried, “Please, Sherry, I didn’t mean it, I didn’t mean to hurt you, it was an accident, I was angry about you and Rob. I’m sorry, you’ll be O.K., please don’t die.” She laid Sherry back on the ground. She pulled herself up, smearing Sherry’s blood over the end of the dumpster as she stood. She saw the rag picker man watching her from the other end of the dumpster. Cathy screamed and ran. A blanket of fog covered her mind.
The next morning Cathy woke up remembering nothing of the night before.
“Cathy, Cathy, are you all right?” It was the voice of the Sheriff returning her to the present.
Her mind still in a fog-filled trance, Cathy answered, “It was an accident, I didn’t mean it, I would never hurt Sherry, she’s my best friend.”
Cathy’s mind seemed to be lost in the nightmare she so desperately wanted to forget. The sheriff buzzed for the female deputy to come in. “Take her to holding, and have someone keep an eye on her.” He said.
As he watched them leave, he turned to Cathy’s father and said, “You did the right thing, sir.”
Mr. Engis replied, “I hope so, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but when I found the bloody clothes and the note in her bathroom, and then I heard about Sherry Todd on the news, I knew I had to do something. What will happen to her now?
The sheriff let out a long sigh. “We’ll keep her overnight,” he said, “and tomorrow we’ll send her to South Bend for observation.”
“What about the boy?” Mr. Engis asked.
“You mean Robert Fuller? Turns out his real name is Robert Martin, he’s a runaway from Dayton; his parents will be down to get him in the morning”, the Sheriff replied. Mr. Engis nodded; he thanked the sheriff and turned and left the building, leaving Cathy, his daughter, the girl he no longer knew, behind to an uncertain fate…
On the nearly deserted streets of Inwood, a lone figure shuffles down a darkened alleyway; he stops at the end of a bloodstained dumpster. There, on the ground, at his feet lays Cathy’s scarf. He picks it up and lays it lightly across his shoulders; a green glow flows through the cloth as it fuses itself to him– another bit of rag, another story, everybody has one. He sits alone in the shadows watching the citizens of Inwood and their stories pass by.
Whose story will the old rag picker man collect next?
Charles Mercer, Born in Ohio in 1943, Raised in Fort Wayne Indiana, a rising star in the vast expanse of new and not so new writers. Author of “Old Charles Corner” and “Something Shinning.” Recently published in DM Publications. Fiction with a twist of humor and a touch of the strange and unusual. I hope you will enjoy this old man’s view on the new world issues with a twist.You can write it best if you lived it.
0 Click to show the author some love!
Tags: Charles Mercer, friendship, horror, relationships