This was originally written for the HWA Anthology New Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, but wasn’t selected for the book (there were only a couple of slots available and hundreds of submissions, so competition was stiff!) So I decided to share the story with my newsletter subscribers in September 2018. I’ve subsequently put the story here.
by Alan Baxter (c) 2018
Joe Martin was a good kid. He looked forward to high school next year, and knew he would make good grades, because he studied hard. He planned to put more effort into sport, maybe try out for the basketball team if he grew tall enough. And he respected his family and his elders, like all good kids should, which is why he sat politely at the kitchen table in his grandfather’s house, waiting while the old man made a pot of tea.
“You got time for some cake?” Grandpa asked.
Joe glanced at the kitchen clock. It was just before 5.30 pm. He had to be home at 6.00, but Grandpa’s house was only two blocks from his own. At a jog, it took exactly four minutes to make the journey. “Yes, please.”
“It’s getting dark earlier,” Grandpa said, setting a slice of chocolate cake on a floral plate on the table. “Better eat up. You don’t want to the Whistleman to get you.”
Joe frowned. “The what?”
Grandpa smiled. “You never heard of the Whistleman?”
Joe shook his head, cheek distended with cake.
“I shouldn’t tell you. I don’t want to scare you.”
“Aww, come on!” Joe said. “I’m not a little kid.”
Grandpa laughed. “Well, okay. The Whistleman is very tall, over seven feet, maybe even eight if you include his hat. And he’s thin as a garden hose. He wears a suit of patchwork leather, all different shades of pink and tan and brown. Because it’s made from the skin of the children he eats.”
Joe stopped chewing. “What!?”
“He catches children and skins them, then he eats their meat and carries their bones around in a sack that rattles and clacks as he walks. His bag is patchwork skin like his suit, and no one knows why he keeps the bones, but he must have a plan for them. Perhaps he’s waiting until he has enough.”
“Enough for what?”
Joe tried to smile, but his Grandpa seemed deadly serious. “You said he was called the Whistleman. Why?”
Grandpa nodded, sipped his tea. “First you hear the rattle of all those bones, but if that’s all you hear, you’ll be okay. It means he’s following someone else. But if you hear him whistling, that means he’s on your trail. It’s always the same tune, only the first line, over and over.”
Grandpa tapped his fingers slowly on the table and sang in a quiet voice, “Rock-a-bye, baaa-by. But you can’t tell where it’s coming from, like it’s all around you. Then it gets quieter, as though he’s moving further away. But don’t be fooled! The quieter he gets, the closer he is. You’ll never know when he’s right behind you until he grabs you!”
Joe watched Grandpa’s gently tapping fingers as the old man started to whistle, Rock-a-bye, baaa-by, just those five notes again and again. His fingers, wrinkled and bent, rose and fell as he whistled. Rock-a-bye, baaa-by, getting softer and softer. Then Grandpa’s hand shot forward and closed over Joe’s arm. Joe cried out in surprise, cake crumbs flying, his plate skidding across the old wood. Quick as a flash Grandpa caught the plate before it could smash on the floor, laughing like he’d told the best joke ever.
“Holy cow, Grandpa! You nearly gave me a heart attack.”
“You don’t need to worry if you’re a good boy,” Grandpa said.
“The Whistleman only eats bad kids?” Joe asked, relieved.
Grandpa nodded. “Only kids who are late home, staying out past when their parents told them to.”
Joe drew in a deep breath and looked up at the kitchen clock again. Just before 5.30 pm. He frowned. Wasn’t that what it said before?
Grandpa glanced around to see what Joe was looking at. “Oh, that old thing’s been broken for months. It’s right twice a day, I guess.”
Joe’s heart began to hammer. He was expected home at six. “What time is it?”
“You don’t wear a watch?” Grandpa looked at his own. “Five fifty-eight.”
“I gotta go!”
Joe jumped up and grabbed his bag, then ran from the house. It was only four minutes, maybe three if he really pushed it. He tried his best not to think about anything as his feet slapped the sidewalk, his bag bouncing on his back.
Then he heard a sound. A kind of clattering noise, like hundreds of dice rattling in a bag. He slowed, looking all around, but there was nothing in the inky shadows between the houses. The street ahead and behind was empty of people, just parked cars, dark and quiet. He heard it again, rattle and click.
Under a street light up ahead on the corner, a tall, stick-thin figure stepped into view. The man wore a suit that looked like giant autumn leaves all stitched together, shades of pink and tan and brown and black. It glistened in the artificial light. Like skin. His top hat made him taller than the fences, and over his shoulder he held a huge bag of similar patches. It was swollen with contents that moved and shifted as he walked, clatter and clack. The figure was facing away, looking in the wrong direction to see Joe. He remembered Grandpa’s words, First you hear the rattle of all those bones, but if that’s all you hear, you’ll be okay. It means he’s following someone else. But if you hear him whistling, that means he’s on your trail. Joe sidestepped into deep shadows under a tree, holding his breath while his heart slammed into his ribs.
The streetlight flickered, strobing for a moment, making Joe blink. He rubbed his eyes, blinked again, and saw there was no one there. He blew out the breath he had been holding. Grandpa’s stupid story making him see things. He should hurry, only one more block to home and it must be after six. He broke into a jog again, licking dry lips, trying to think only of his bright house and the dinner his mother would have waiting for him.
As he jogged under the streetlight, he heard the sound again, rattle and clack. And then a tune, whistled, that seemed to come from all around him at once. Rock-a-bye, baaa-by. Then again, slightly quieter than before. Then again, softer still.