Joyland

New York |

Stull

by Steph Grossman

edited by Amy Shearn


With flashlights and trail mix, Raymond and his mom were on their way to visit an abandoned graveyard in Stull, Kansas.

They traveled less than ten miles from the neighboring town of Lawrence, where Raymond had grown up hearing stories of Stull, stories that were told at sleepovers or during the quiet days in class just before school let out for the summer. Someone, usually Raymond, would begin talking about weird things, and soon tales of Stull would surface. They always did.

The story was that Stull was a sickly place. It never really lived. The moment its founding family arrived, birthing the town on a few acres of open prairie, Stull began to die. The family tried to nurture it. They plowed a road and called it Main Street. They built a post office, a church, and a few stores. They had plans to construct a bank. They did everything they thought they should do, but Stull never became the bustling destination they'd dreamed of. The name itself might have been the problem. Maybe it sounded too much like “Skull.”

After decades, Stull was still around—but only in name. The downtown had never been much of anything other than a maze of abandoned buildings, though there was that one time someone tried to open a bookshop. The rent was cheap, but it didn’t matter. There weren't enough people in Stull to keep the shop alive, and Lawrence residents never came by either. The bookshop closed within a year, leaving Stull with only one attraction: an abandoned graveyard that may or may not house a neverending underground staircase.

For his entire life, Raymond had heard people talk about the staircase. Kids around him would brag, over and over again, that their teenage siblings had gone down it while playing truth-or-dare in the cemetery. They’d claim that no matter how far their siblings walked, they’d never reached the bottom. And they’d say that while going down seemed to take forever, going up took only a few minutes.

Each time he heard these stories, Raymond would swear to himself that he would be the first in his class to go to Stull. He’d be the one to find out the truth. When he told his mom about this, she took to calling him Lawrence’s resident Sherlock. He liked that better than her other nickname for him, the one she’d been using since he was born, “Syrup.” He’d given her gestational diabetes that never went away, even after he was out of her.

“It’s because your blood is so sweet,” she’d always said.

Stull came up in conversation less often as he got older, but anytime it did, Raymond was reminded of his longing to go there, to go beyond the vague stories and recycled rumors and see what was really going on. It both terrified and intrigued him in the same way that looking at the shadowed silhouette of a man on The Exorcist jacket at the video store terrified and intrigued him. The same way that paging through his mom's copy of The Haunting of Hill House and catching the phrase “God! Whose hand was I holding?” first terrified and intrigued him. The same way that masturbating first terrified and intrigued him.

By the time Raymond was fourteen, he'd read all the books in his tiny school library on “Weird Kansas” lore and paranormal investigations. He was ready for the real thing. But when he finally tried to plan a trip to Stull that fall, no one else wanted to go.

“They're all flaking,” he said one night to his mom in their kitchen. “People think they'll get in trouble with the police. Or the devil.”

“Not one?” She opened the cupboard above the sink and took out a vial of insulin and a new syringe.

“None,” he said. Arthur would have gone though, Raymond thought. If he hadn't disappeared.

“Maybe I'll do it,” she said. She drew the insulin from the vial into the syringe, then tapped at it with a fingernail to get rid of the air bubbles.

“What? No way,” he said, as she kept tapping. “Who goes with their mom? Nobody does that.”

“Come on, Syrup,” she said.

“Mom...” He shook his head. She handed him the syringe and rolled up her sleeve.

Raymond had to give her insulin injections every day. She used to take care of it herself, of course, but sometimes she would just forget. Last year, after one of those times, Raymond had come home from school to find her lying unconscious on the living room floor. He’d screamed and called 911 and forced a cup of orange juice down her throat just in case. She’d come to after that.

Later, the doctor in the E.R. told her to set a daily reminder on her cell phone so she wouldn’t forget the insulin again. Raymond watched her nod, watched her not disclose that she in fact didn’t have a cell phone, and that she wouldn’t allow Raymond to have one either until he was 16. Once home from the hospital, she’d come up with this solution instead.

“Two people remembering is better than one,” she’d said.

When Raymond hesitated, she’d added, “I’m scared I’ll forget again. And scared that you’ll forget too, if all you do is watch. But I bet that if you give me the shot, we’ll both remember better.” So far, neither of them had forgotten.

In the kitchen, he touched the needle to her left bicep. “You think I have no friends, don’t you?”

“You know that's not true, Ray,” she said, wincing as the needle pierced her.

Raymond pushed his thumb down on the syringe’s clear plastic plunger. He looked away as she absorbed the insulin.

“You'd be too scared anyway, Mom.”

But eventually Raymond accepted her offer.

***

They parked the car on Stull’s abandoned Main Street and walked along cracked sidewalks to the cemetery. Its borders were walled off by a chain link fence—a “Rent-a-Fence,” according to the red and white sign posted to a padlocked gate. Another sign below it pled, “Forgive those who have Trespassed against us. Forgive.” For a second, it reminded Raymond of the last time he’d seen Arthur.

“You know, I saw on one of those paranormal websites that some people came out here from Topeka last month,” Raymond said, examining the padlock. “They found the staircase and they walked down it for an hour, and they still didn't get to the bottom. And when they came back up, it only took ten minutes.”

“That's the legend, right?” his mom asked. “That time is weird here?”

“Yeah. And supposedly the stairs go on for forever.”

“I don't think I want to get that far,” she said.

“Mom, you promised.”

Through the fence, Raymond saw that the cemetery was very different from how he’d always imagined it. Instead of tall, majestic monuments, the gravestones were skinny and flimsy, yellowed. Some were buried almost entirely by earth that had risen over the years like yeasted bread. Instead of green, manicured grass like any other cemetery he'd seen, Stull’s was covered in decaying leaves from what seemed like decades of lonely falls. And instead of the abandoned remains of a church that the legend had promised, there was only a pile of faded red bricks.

He felt a tap on his shoulder and turned to see his mom pointing at a hole in the fence.

“You wanna go first?” she asked.

As Raymond led her through the opening, she took hold of his hand. He almost pulled it away, cringing at the embarrassment that bubbled up in him as her palm touched his. He wasn’t a baby; she wasn’t his girlfriend. But he let her hold on anyway, his fingers limp.

Once inside, Raymond said “the church is gone.”

“The church?”

“None of the message boards said anything about that.”

“What church?”

“This one.” Raymond pulled her toward the pile of bricks. “The roof caved in a while ago, but they say—well, they said—you could go in it and it’d still magically shield you from rain.”

“We have some creative people around here.”

Raymond let go of her hand, then made his way around the church’s remains, looking for the staircase. He didn't really know what to expect, but assumed it would be obvious once he saw it. His sneakers crunched on the dried, overgrown grass poking up through the leaves. Sometimes he’d stop to examine the headstones, though the engravings had become so decayed and shallow that he couldn't make out a single name. Just an R or an S here or there. No one would ever know who these people had been. Raymond scratched his arm and thought about how pissed he'd be if that happened to him.

“Here,” his mom shouted from the far end of the cemetery. As Raymond got closer, she pointed to a rectangular opening in the ground that looked like an empty grave.

“I was hoping I wouldn't find it,” she said.

Raymond shined his flashlight into the hole, and there they were: the stairs. Stone, smeared with cracked mud.

“You’re the one who wanted to come with me,” Raymond said, stepping onto the top step. “Don’t chicken out, please?”

They made their way down, moving slowly and carefully. Raymond shined his flashlight on the walls and ceiling around them, which as far as he could tell were made of nothing but compacted earth. Plant roots creeped down them like blood vessels. He couldn’t help but be a little disappointed in himself when he shuddered at the sight of the roots. They were just roots.

“Hey mom,” Raymond said, trying to make his voice sound deep and relaxed. “That sign we saw earlier made me think of something. About Arthur.”

“What sign?”

“The trespassing one.”

“Oh.”

“And Arthur.”

“Hm,” was all she said.

Raymond remembered looking down at Arthur that day, lying there on the ground. He remembered the paramedics arriving and telling him to head home. He remembered finding his mom sitting in the living room, and how her placid summer smile reduced with terror as he told her what had happened to Arthur.

***

Arthur called it “moonlighting,” though everyone else would have just called it “mooning.” At Arthur’s signal, Raymond and Jon would expose their butts and surprise whoever was near. They mooned each other, their parents, and one time the lunch monitors. Some people thought it was funny, even a little poetic in that boyhood friendship kind of way. Most people didn't.

The last time they ever moonlighted was a late-July day, cool in the wake of a morning storm. Jon had said that maybe the best way to get lots of people at once would be to moon one of the trains that passed through the woods behind his house. After lunch, the boys had pushed through the pine trees at the edge of John’s backyard and stepped onto the steep hillside beyond. Arthur and Jon walked right by the large white sign stuck to a nearby tree, but Raymond, who was always curious to read everything, stopped and said, “Trespassers will be prosecuted.”

“Hey!” he added. “We aren’t supposed to be here.”

Arthur kept going, stomping through garbage and slippery leaves, but Jon ran back. “What?”

Earlier Raymond had been excited to explore the woods behind Jon’s house. But that sign—that sign worried him. And the railroad tracks. His mom always warned him that if he got too close to railroad tracks, he’d get squished.

Raymond pointed to the sign. “I don't want to go to jail.”

“You're so dumb,” Jon said. “I come here all the time. It’s part of my yard anyway.”

“I don't know.”

“Come on,” Jon said, pulling Raymond's arm. “My mom’s gonna look out the window and see you. She doesn't want us going back here.”

“That's what I mean,” Raymond said.

“Shut up.”

Halfway down the hill, they found Arthur waiting for them, leaning against a white Sycamore tree. He'd been ripping bark off of the trunk, and strips of it lay at his feet like pieces of notebook paper.

Arthur kicked at a big black garbage bag. The sound of glass on glass jingled. “There’s so much shit down here,” he said. “Is it all from your house?”

“No,” Jon said. “It's from trespassers.”

“We’re those,” Raymond said.

Arthur crossed his arms. “Ray, how’re we gonna go to Stull if you can’t even do this?”

Raymond stared at the ground. “I guess.”

“Anyway since I was waiting so long, I got an awesome idea,” Arthur said. He led them to an old yellow refrigerator half-buried in the hillside. “We can stand on that and do it. The train people will definitely see us.”

The boys climbed onto the refrigerator and balanced there, jostling, swaying.

Arthur said, “I spy, with my little eye, something round and black.” This was a game they were always playing.

“Oh come on. It's the tire, I know it's the tire,” Jon answered. “I swear we didn't throw that back here.” They laughed.

“I spy with my little, teeny, squishy eye,” Arthur said. “Something shriveled.”

“Jon's dick,” Raymond said.

Arthur laughed even louder than before and Raymond smiled, relieved that Jon was the butt of the joke for once. He knew it wouldn’t last though. Jon always found a way to make Arthur laugh at Raymond by the end of the day, especially by the end of long summer days. Raymond didn't really care whether Jon actually liked him though—it was Arthur’s opinion that mattered.

“When's the train coming?” Arthur asked.

“There's one every hour,” Jon said. “We always hear it in my house. The T.V. even shakes.”

They waited impatiently for the train to come. Raymond noticed a Poland Spring bottle poking out of a plastic bag nearby and realized he was thirsty. It looked like nobody had opened it. Before he could make up his mind about whether to climb down from the refrigerator and take a sip, Jon interrupted.

“It's coming,” he said.

Raymond looked back at the tracks. “I don't see anything.”

“Duh,” Jon said. “I hear it though.”

Raymond listened.

***

The stairwell was so quiet that Raymond could hear his mom’s breathing. But not only that. He thought he could also hear her heart beating. Her stomach rumbling.

“Hey you know what I was just thinking about?” he said.

“Hm?”

“Arthur.”

His mom sighed. “Him again?”

“What?” Raymond said, stopping. He aimed his flashlight at her. “What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing,” she said. “Nothing.”

Raymond noticed she sounded muffled, like he had headphones pressing over his ears.

“How far down are we?” she asked. “It’s warmer here than I thought. Isn’t that weird, Ray?”

She was right. The air in the tunnel was still and stale, but also warm. Humid.

Her stomach rumbled again.

***

After a few more seconds, Raymond did sense something approaching—something stirring the air off to his right. A bellow of wind. A shriek of steel.

“See?” Jon said again.

They got ready, pulling down their pants. Goosebumps prickled on Raymond’s behind. Arthur yelled, “This is gonna be better than when we got Miss Grell and she almost cried!”

The train raced by on the tracks below, roaring and screeching. Raymond didn't like any of it, but he laughed and shook his butt because the others were doing it.

Then Arthur glanced back at the tracks. He groaned and straightened up.

“What?” Raymond said, tugging at Arthur’s sleeve. Jon continued to laugh.

“There’s no one there,” Arthur shouted above the shrieking steel. He spun around to face the train. “It's just a stupid freight—”

And then he was falling, rolling down the hill. Trash tumbled after him—a milk carton, a traffic cone, a wrinkled green tarp. He missed an old vacuum cleaner, but slammed his head against a large red brick. He moaned and rolled over, and blood gushed from his head more quickly than Raymond had thought possible.

Raymond and Jon leapt off the refrigerator and ran to Arthur, who was now turned away from them, still and silent. Bright red blood slathered the chalky brick like a layer of frosting.

The train continued on, undisturbed. The graffiti sprayed on its grimy orange boxcars blurred as it passed.

Arthur didn’t move for a while, but he also didn’t die.

***

Even though he was there to watch the fall, even though he’d run up the hill and was sure he’d banged on Jon’s kitchen window in time—screaming “he's down! he's down!”—Raymond never actually saw Arthur get up. It was actually the last time he or anyone he knew had seen Arthur. Raymond’s mom had told him that Arthur's family had moved away to a farm in Florida. “He goes to Disney World every weekend,” she’d said.

Raymond said to her, “Tell me again what Arthur’s doing?”

“Ray—”

“I haven’t asked in a while.”

He heard her feet scrape on the uneven stairs, heard her take in a deep, deep breath. “Oh, well… you know… last I heard, he was doing great in school. Straight A’s without even trying. Florida schools are pretty behind ours, you know? He’s taking tests on things he already learned. And he has so many friends. He’s the most popular kid in school. He gets invited to birthday parties all the time, so he’s pretty busy. He goes fishing on his dad’s boat every weekend.”

“I thought you said he goes to Disney World every weekend?”

“Oh,” she said. “Well that’s only in the summer. He goes fishing during the school year.”

Raymond stopped again. “Mom, tell me the truth.”

“Huh?”

“Arthur’s not doing that stuff.”

“Syrup, of course he is,” she said.

He shook his head. “All that blood. I remember it. You really think I’m going to believe he was fine?”

“When I was a little girl, I hit my head once and bled a lot. And I’m fine.”

She’s lying, Raymond thought. He couldn’t understand why she’d lied to him this whole time. Practically his whole life. “Mom, tell me what happened.”

“I told you, he’s in Florida,” she said. “He’s fishing.”

“You don’t have to tell me he went to live on a farm. He’s not a fucking golden retriever.”

He turned and started walking again. Down, away from her.

She called after him: “Ray. Ray, stop.”

He kept walking.

“Ray, I don’t feel so good.”

“It's a graveyard,” he called back. “It's not supposed to feel good.”

“No, really not good, Ray,” she said as he kept descending. “I’m shaky. Something’s wrong.”

“You’re just scared,” he said. “Come on.”

Raymond,” she said, in a voice loud enough to echo up and down the stairs, and yet it didn’t. To him, she still sounded hushed, like they were descending in an airplane.

“It’s my sugar,” she said. “I know it’s my sugar.”

“That’s convenient,” he said. Even his own voice sounded strangely muffled now.

“Raymond, I could have a seizure,” she said. “I could fall.”

He turned to face her but angled his flashlight at her feet so he wouldn’t have to make eye contact just yet. She was wearing the same sneakers as when he’d found her on the floor in that diabetic shock. Navy blue Converse knock-offs. He remembered because after he’d called the ambulance, after he’d poured the orange juice into her mouth, he didn’t know what else to do. So he’d used his t-shirt to wipe the pieces of orange pulp freckling her lips and chin, and then he’d taken off her shoes.

Even if she was exaggerating, it wasn’t worth the risk.

“Fine,” he said. “Let’s go.”

They ascended the stairs in silence, and when they reached the top, Raymond’s mom said, “That was quick.”

Raymond looked at his watch. “Shit,” he said. “I forgot to track the time.”

“Huh?”

“To tell us how long we've been walking.” He hurled his flashlight against the ground. “Fuck!”

“Well, it definitely felt shorter,” she said.

“We don't have any proof!” Raymond shouted. “We'd have to go down again and time it.”

His mom shook her head and walked away. “You go if you want. I'll be in the car.”

“Fine, I will,” he said, though instead of returning to the stairs he ran to catch up with her. They walked together in silence.

When they reached the car, his mom said, “I don't like how you were cursing before. I’m your mom. Not your friend.”

“You lied to me.”

“No I didn't, Ray.”

They settled into the car. Raymond sat in the passenger seat without begging to drive like he usually did.

His mom put her flashlight and trail mix into the cup holder between them. “Put your seatbelt on.”

“I know,” he said, yanking at the nylon belt so fast it instantly locked in place. He pulled at it again, slower this time, and clicked it into the buckle.

“You know, you… you shouldn't have even come,” he said. “You just made me leave earlier than I wanted to.”

“I wanted to spend time with you, that’s all.” She started up the car. “Now I regret it.”

“Oh you regret it?” he said.

“That's not what I meant.”

She was right. She wasn’t his friend. No one was.

He folded his arms and glared out the windshield as she put the car in drive. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed her hands. They were shaking as she turned the wheel.

She turned on the radio and sang along to the oldies station playing “La Bamba” as if they weren’t in the middle of something. He couldn’t tell if she was just trying to piss him off, or if this was a sign that she was getting loopy from the first stages of hypoglycemia.

“Mom,” he said. “Don’t you need sugar?” He checked her bag of trail mix, searching for M&Ms, but all that was left were salty peanuts and cashews.

She didn’t answer. Raymond watched her sing “La Bamba,” watched her stomach rise and fall as she breathed between lyrics. It was weird to him that he’d once grown in there. That they’d once been attached. That somehow this had led to her pancreas breaking. And that somehow this didn’t prevent him from hating her sometimes.

I’m not sweet at all, he thought.

“I'm sorry,” he said, looking at his mom. “But you can tell me about Arthur. Just tell me, Mom.” The music was so loud he didn’t know if she even heard him. He reached out his hand to help steady hers on the steering wheel and kept it there.

At the end of the song, she lowered the radio.

“Arthur’s in Florida,” she said, calmly. “Now, just give me my shot when we get home, and all is forgiven. Okay, Syrup?”

Raymond didn't answer. Instead he studied the passenger side mirror, its reminder that "objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear.” The mirror's shifting reflection under the text showed him they were leaving. He watched the cemetery shrink, first. Then, one after the other, the abandoned bookstore, the vacant post office, the unfinished bank. Main Street became Route 442. Cracked sidewalks and overgrown grass gave way to open prairie. Behind them, the entire town shrank, and Raymond watched as a little black dot—a single crow, closer than it appeared—settled onto the telephone wire above Stull's only road.