On her deathbed, my grandmother devoted the last of her energy to tell me a story very similar to this one. When she was done she made a final request of me. The steel in her eyes convinced me that what I was about to do was right. If my job is done correctly, I can convince you.
My dad’s family is from a small rural area. Once, it had a very Leave it to Beaver vibe. Neighbours sat around talking on the porch. People waved to each other on the street. Everyone knew everyone.
Not much is left of that town anymore. Economies happen. Farms go under. Town just die. Towns can be forgotten.
In this town of Murray, there is cemetery. It is not large, ritzy, or particularly impressive. Mostly, it’s just surrounded by cornfields that have long since stopped being owned by the locals. No one goes there anymore. There aren’t even many funerals there, as there are not many people left around to bury. The first time I was there, pervasive loneliness crept into my pores. Anyone would be lonely there, even the dead.
You must go there, tonight. If you fail to go, the only hope of it working again is to retun every night until it eventually works. Missing the correct night could spell disaster for you. Thankfully, I am certain that tonight it will work.
When you get there, find the tombstone with the toys scattered around. Then, settle in and prepare for a long wait. When it begins to turn dusk, close your eyes. I cannot stress this enough – Keep them closed. Even if the spinning darkness threatens to induce a blind vertigo – keep them closed. You may only open them when you hear the voice of a young boy say, “Hello.”
When you open your eyes, do not scream. Water can be unkind to a corpse and the river that overran many years ago was not kind to Harley. Do not dwell on his appearance. Do not scream. Instead, say “Hello, Harley.”
He’s bound to ask about me. When he does inquire please inform him I cannot make it this year. I expect there will be a great look of knowing sadness on his face. Tell him that everything will be okay. I have arranged for a surprise for him so he shouldn’t be have to worry. Then, hand him this box and tell him that I will be moving in soon. I hope he likes the last part.
In the box is just a cheap train I found at the dollar store. Trust me though, he loves trains and couldn’t even imagine what he would do with a whole dollar. Money was different in his time.
As he is opening it, he will probably ask you, “Will you be my friend?” If you refuse, nothing will happen to you. Harley isn’t the type to display unwarranted anger or cruelty, though you will carry around his look of eternal disappointment and melancholy for the rest of your days. I beg you to say, “Yes.” However, only do this if you mean it. He will know if you are lying and that will make him angry.
My grandmother spoke of the one before her. The first to strike this pact with Harley was the town’s elderly miser who had dedicated his life to his own advancement. Surprisingly, he must have genuinely cared for Harley in the beginning. My grandmother suspected, but could never prove, that they had played together as children. Perhaps the miser started this simply because he missed his old friend. In the end, he lied and he paid dearly for his behavior.
I apologize. I am getting a bit ahead of myself, so let me get back to the important part. Once you have agreed to be his friend he will play with you. Kick the can, stick ball, and a host of other games that I had only read about in Mark Twain or John Dennis Fitzgerald. He will play with whatever toys you bring him. I don’t recommend videogames or anything highly electronic. He doesn't care for them. Spend the night this way. Do not sleep. Do not leave. Do not shy away.
Just before sunrise he will stop and say, “My mother’s calling me. It’s time to go home. Will you come back later?” Agree to return and he will tell you a date. Be there every year on the exact day he tell you. Sometimes, he might ask for you to come back twice in a year. When he does this is it extremely important that you do come back. Never break your promise to him and the years will pass peacefully. Even as you age and settle down, he will remain the same. And he will always ask you back.
Eventually there will be a year where your body does not want you to go anymore. Your joints will ache. Your heart will clog. And if should be unlucky, your cells will turn against you. When this happens, it is okay to not visit him. Your promise to Harley was to be his friend, and believe it or not he has been a better friend than most people are able to be.
Every year, there is a day where death will look for you. Most of the time it will not find you, but it will still look every year. Harley knows death's movents and when it will begin its’ search. The days he asks you to play are always the days when it would be your turn to be hunted by death. And, Harley knows that death cannot find you when you are among the dead.
Knowing Harley can prolong your life by many years, but never abuse his friendship. The miser made that mistake. At some point, the miser made the connection that Harley was helping him. And once he did understand how the process worked whatever last shreds of generosity and kindness the miser allowed himself to display towards poor, lonely Harley died within him. The miser only made the visits for his own benefit, and eventually Harley played a trick on him.
Harley invited the miser to return, as usual, however when the miser performed the ritual that year, he was greeted not by Harley but by death. Startled the miser fell back over a nearby tombstone. Barely able collect his thoughts he scrambled to town, screaming for assistance. The first person he stumbled on was a little girl and in a fit of pleading, terrified remorse he told his story to her. Before long the townsfolk had subdued him and took him to the closest thing they had to a doctor. The miser languished in bed for almost a week. Fevered, contorted, and never once experiencing anything other than stark terror he laid there. When he died, the townsfolk silently acknowledged a sense of relief at no longer having to witness his suffering. Personally, I suspect his suffering never ended.
Eventually, the little girl was able to meet Harley herself and she carried on the tradition until she could no longer. And now, it is your turn. My only real request is: Please, be a good friend.