In my home town we have a legend.
In the 1890s, a man called Butcher (this was back when people got their name from their trades) had a butcher shop that was doing well. From what I can tell, he was a large man but cowardly at heart. He was well respected and well liked. He always did good business. But he wasn’t a person you’d look twice at.Then the depression hit. Livestock was harder to come by and many other shops were going out of business. Butcher had good connections and he was getting by. But he had to raise prices, much to the annoyance of his customers. He was losing business.
One day a shipment of beef came in. Butcher told his apprentice to carry the load to the basement meat locker. The boy followed his orders, but like most kids, he tried to rush and took too much down at once. The boy tripped on the stairs and broke his neck at the bottom. He died, I assume, instantly. Butcher heard the noise and soon found the body. The law was pretty scary in these times. Death sentences were still a viable option and Butcher thought this looked like murder. He could die because of this accident. They might kill him. He panicked and hid the body in his meat freezer.
When the boy’s parents came, he lied. When the boy’s father called the police and he got investigated, Butcher lied harder. The police let him go for the time being but Butcher was terrified. Hiding the body made what could have been an accident look like real murder. He could lose everything. He could die. He had to get rid of the body. That’s when he had an idea… he was a butcher. If he could cut the boy up and sell him as meat, who would be the wiser? No one, that’s who. No one. So in the dead of night he took his knife to the body and wrapped it like any other cut of meat. The next day he sold it with a nervous smile and no one questioned it.
In fact people seemed to like it. I suppose compared to the livestock of the time, human meat was clean and healthy. People liked it so much that they started asking for more. Now Butcher was a nervous man. Though he was nearly out of hot water he couldn’t help but think that people would wonder why his prime meat wasn’t as good as this one batch. If they kept asking… if they kept digging, they would make the connection. They would find out his crime. It was definitely a crime now, he couldn’t deny that. But, no, Butcher wouldn’t get caught. He would just have to find more meat.
He started with hobos. He would offer them food and lure them to his shop, then he’d kill them. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that he had gone completely insane. As far as Butcher was concerned, not one was going to miss the vagabonds so it wasn’t much of a crime. To make matters worse real beef was getting even harder to come by. He needed these people or he would go out of business. It was necessary.
But Butcher’s luck seemed against him. The rail-riders realized that Palos Park wasn’t a safe place to get off and they stopped coming. Butcher was again out of meat.
When the first child disappeared people were worried but no one thought there could be a killer among them. When more disappeared, someone remembered who went missing first; Butcher’s apprentice. And wasn’t it odd how he still had meat when everyone else was out of business? And wasn’t it odd the way homeless men used to wonder into his store and never come out? And wasn’t it strange the way he would sometimes stare at the children who entered his store? Nothing makes an angry mob form faster than a child killer. This man had taken people, taken children, and dissected them like cattle. He had turned the town into cannibals. Oh, god, had parents unknowingly eaten their own children? How many people had died for this man’s business? How many people had they eaten? The proof was there on the hooks when they broke into his shop. A child skinned and hanging. No one could tell who it was but they could only assume that it was the child who went missing the most recently. This man didn’t leave survivors. This man didn’t hesitate to kill them.
Butcher was afraid. Perhaps more afraid then he had ever been. They were gathering outside his house now with knifes and axes and fire. Butcher stayed away from the windows even as they were broken by bricks and pavement stones. Butcher stayed near the wall and closed his eyes. There was a pounding on the front door and then there was a sickening crack as it broke.
The people pulled him out onto the yard. Butcher screamed. Everyone came at him at once. The knives bit his skin, the hammers broke his bones and the police stood back and watched as the citizens punished him. Everything happened quickly but for Butcher it must have been a life time. Finally they ended it, ended him, with a swift axe to the neck, decapitating him before he could close his eyes for the last time
The Butcher had been butchered.
This is a true story. I know, Palos Park had its own little Sweeny Todd, what a rip off! But you can easily verify my story with a web search. I’ll admit that as a longtime resident of this town, I may have embellished the story a bit, but all the facts are there. Heck I even threw in that ‘think about it from the killer’s perspective’, Johnny likes so much. Okay, I’ll admit I’m the one who’s a bit weird about psychology.
But I guess I should explain…
I’m writing this because of Johnny. I’m not sure I really want to believe that these things are connected but there is such a thing as too many coincidences. I tend to be pretty skeptical, but I know when something isn’t right. I know when I need to speak out.
Johnny is missing and the Butcher is responsible. There’s this game we play in town, ‘Find the Head’. I suppose the name’s kind of self-explanatory. When they cut off Butcher’s head they buried it on Indian Hill. Legend says that they kept his body separate so he wouldn’t be able to rise from the grave and continue his massacre. The problem being Butcher wanted his head back. Everyone pretty much knows that this is a lame add on to make it seem like the story is still going even though Butcher died two hundred years ago. Something to make kids behave or to scare tourists. But as brave sixteen year olds, we knew better.
On days when the internet signal was particularly bad and we were all bored we would go up to Indian hill and start digging. Most of the time our efforts were useless. We half expected that the skull had already been found and moved elsewhere but then Johnny won the game. He was digging at the bottom of the hill by a half-dead pine tree when he uncovered it.
He called us over immediately. He needed help uncovering it and at first it just looked like a yellow rock. But it was cool to the touch and seemed somewhat softer and lighter than real rock. Slowly we uncovered the shape of the skull and some of my classmates drew back in fear. No one had ever expected to really find it.
It was smaller than I had expected and darker in color. I was so used to the white bones I saw on TV that this dark yellow dirt encrusted thing seemed even more real to me. The skull was cracked in many places I noticed and stained brown and green in places. The textures was rough and porous from the years that had eaten away at it. I was fascinated by it. So was Johnny.
After ten minutes of arguing our group decided rather than calling the police or reburying it, Johnny should decide what to do with it because he was the one who found it. I remember the strange look he got when he got to hold the skull again. His cheeks were pale but his eyes shone brightly. “I’m keeping it,” he finally answered.
He called me at five o’clock in the morning the next day. I thought it was going to be something dumb but instead I got a panicked whisper. “I haven’t slept. Someone’s been slicing at my windowsill with a cleaver all night. I think it’s the Butcher.”
I laughed tiredly. I could tell from his voice that he wasn’t messing with me. He was definitely terrified but, I mean, another add on to the myth was that you could sometimes hear the Butcher’s cleaver ringing against his grave stone. As a result cleavers are a popular part of Halloween decorations and pranks in our neighborhood. So, I just tried to shrug it off. “It was probably just mike or someone playing a trick.”
Johnny paused for a long moment, “…yeah… maybe.”
He sounded a little relieved like he hadn’t thought of that but to tell the truth I wasn’t all that convinced myself. Someone beating the side of your house with a cleaver wasn’t what I’d call a funny joke. But some people are stupid like that. It was probably just a coincidence that Johnny found the skull the same day or even more likely, one of the kids who was with us was being mean.
It had to be a prank, though. There are no such things as ghosts and even if there were they wouldn’t be able to wield butcher knives. At least that’s what I tried to tell myself. Then the cleaver incident happened again the next night and again the night after that. Johnny was really panicking now. The police had been called twice but they haven’t found a thing. No footprints, no fingerprints no cigarette buds or food wrappers, just the cleaver marks.
“Why is he just waiting out there?” he told me anxiously the fourth day. “Why doesn’t he just attack? If he attacks I can at least fight back. If he attacks at least it will be over. But all he’s doing is breaking my windowsill and stealing my sleep.”
“I don’t know,” I couldn’t deny that it was weird. I was worried. “Maybe they don’t want to attack while your dad’s home?”
“But why?” Johnny said exasperated. “If he’s afraid of my dad why does he come at all? If dad weren’t such a heavy sleeper he could have been out there with a shotgun by now. Wouldn’t it be easier to just wait until my dad is out and then terrorize me then? Why does he have to do this to me?”
I shrugged again still having no answers but thinking about something else anyway. “You’re staying at my house tonight.”
Johnny continued pacing as though he hadn’t heard me. “And why me? What did I do to deserve this? I mean it can’t be a coincidence that we found a human skull the day he first showed up but come on. My research says the skull is over two-hundred years old. It’s not like we discovered a recent murder. And none of you guys are getting stalked!”
“Johnny,” I tried to interrupt. He was working himself into a frenzy. I needed to calm him down. “Johnny.”
“…I’m too young to die. I only turned sixteen last month and suddenly the Demon Butcher of Palos is coming after me? How is that fair? I don’t even have a license yet. What kind of freak does stuff like this? I mean, I know you get the whole ‘he’s a coward’ thing in your weird psych analysis but how do you know? He lived hundreds of years ago and now he’s back. It isn’t fair that some ghost monster can just rise from the grave and attack me for no reason. All I did was find a skull. It’s not like he needs it anymore.”
“Johnny,” I said loud enough that my friend flinched. “You’re staying here tonight. If some guy is after you, it’s better you’re not in a place he can find you.”
“Really?” he seemed shocked by the offer. I guess he thought I’d be too afraid of attracting trouble. But I was better than that. Friends came first.
“Really,” I confirmed. Some tension eased from his shoulders. “Besides you look like you need some proper sleep.”
I never dreamed that the man, the human copycat, would find my house too. I was taking a risk but I didn’t really believe he would come. Our day went on as normal, I got permission from my dad for Johnny to stay over and we messed around until midnight. My bed was right next to the window and Johnny slept and the floor beside it. The moment he closed his eyes he was out and I thought it was funny. I, too, quickly fell asleep.
Until the knocking started. I flinched awake, my back to the window when I heard the heavy thunk of metal into wood. I blinked my eyes adjusting to the dark and I saw Johnny’s eyes wide and scared in the dark, the dim light from the window reflecting off of them. He saw me move and the look he gave me pleaded with me to stay still.
Thunk! The noise came again, then a sliding scrap as the cleaver was pulled from the wood. Thunk! Thunk! Oh god, the man was feet from me. His face must have been visible in the darkness outside because Johnny’s eyes never moved from that spot. Thunk! I didn’t dare turn or move or he would no doubt break the window and kill me.
Thunk! I could imagine the weapon slicing through my skin as easily as butter. Thunk! That noise punctuating ever cut. Thunk! The man laughed suddenly and my chest clenched. I closed my eyes tightly and waited for him to finally break the window but all that came was another dull thunk. My beating heart calmed some but the tension never left it. He was just playing with us, mocking us until he could finally move in for the kill. Thunk!
I could see why Johnny hadn’t thought this was a joke. It wasn’t funny. Thunk! And then the noise stopped. I waited for a long time but it didn’t come again. I almost relaxed but for a small headshake Johnny gave from the floor. He was still there. I tried closing my eyes again. Tried to block the man’s presence from my mind.
Then suddenly there was a screeching sound of metal against glass, so sharp that I flinched and gasped in my bed. The man laughed again and he returned to the steady thunk of cleaver to wood again. At this point it was almost soothing compared to the laughter.
Johnny and I did our best to block out the noise. We did our best close our eyes and sleep but whenever we actually got close to sleep the man would change up his routine and scare us anew. It wasn’t until four or so in the morning that he finally stopped for good. We had a few wane hours to shut down from our exhaustion before my mother came and woke us up.
We were both pale and my mom was quick to notice. When my dad saw the window he was pissed but obviously scared. “Why didn’t you call me?” he yelled. He was ex-military and could easily handle any opponent. “We were right upstairs you could have called me for help.”
He didn’t seem to understand how very close this would-be killer was. He hadn’t heard a thing.
The fact that someone could stand at my window for hours, that someone could have easily killed me in the night upset him and mom more deeply then I imagined possible. My parents made Johnny leave and called me into school. The rest of the day was spent moving me into the guest bedroom on the top floor and talking to the police. I love my parents. I tried my best not to think about it. A killer wasn’t going to break into my house and kill me. He hadn’t stood at my window for six hours threatening me with his probably sharp cleaver. I was just dreaming. I was just being paranoid, except I wasn’t because the physical proof was there and being in denial wasn’t helping.
I… I could handle this. Dad has taught me basic survival and self-defense. Plus I was on the second floor now. He wouldn’t be able to get me so easily up there. I had to stay calm. The secret to surviving is staying calm. No panicking for me.
Another night passed and for me it was in silence. I still had trouble sleeping waiting for the tell-tale thunks, but they never came and eventually I collapsed into exhaustion. Johnny wasn’t as lucky. When I saw him the next day his skin had a sickly grey tint to it and the bags under his eyes were as dark as bruises. He seemed to be at the end of his rope.
“We have to get rid of it,” he said during passing period. “I can’t do this anymore. I need sleep!”
I blinked and it took me a moment to realize what it he was talking about. “You mean the skull? You still have it?”
“You…” he was breathing heavily and closed his eyes as though he resisting hurting me. “I… I haven’t been thinking strait. You understand, Derek, I haven’t slept in days… Even during the day I’m not safe. I keep hearing him. I keep hearing that damn knocking. It won’t leave me alone. You have to help me. You have to help me get rid of it.”
I had taken a few steps back because he kind of looked crazy and people were staring. But he quickly moved back into my personal space a pleading look on his face. “Please…”
I had somehow walked into an ultimatum. Either I could sacrifice our friendship and do the smart think, where I avoided going to a secluded place when we knew there was someone stalking us, or I could have his back and do something obviously stupid. Sometimes loyalty sucked.
“Fine,” I sighed. This was stupid. I knew it was stupid but he was my friend and we were safer as a group. Friends have to be stupid together I guess. We met up after school, dropped by his house and rode our bikes out towards the edge of town. We made a deep trek into the ‘For Sale’ property and got scratched up by trees and bushes nearly every step. My patience was running thin but whenever I asked why we couldn’t just bury the thing already, Johnny said we weren’t deep enough. “It has to be somewhere no one will ever find.” “At this point no one will ever find us,” I scowled. This was stupid. This was so dangerously stupid. “Let’s finish this.”
Johnny stopped. All I could see was his back but in his voice I heard a kind of… resolve.
“You’re right,” he said calmly. “Let’s finish this.”
Then he turned around and I saw a glint of silver in his hand. I flinched backwards in shock. A knife! Johnny was holding a knife. “What the fuck!?” My friends face was drawn. He seemed old and tired but he was looking at me with this hungry look. “Please understand,” he sounded guilty. “I have to do this, Derek. I have to do this. It’s the only way I’m going to get sleep. He won’t leave alone. He wants blood, Derek, and I have to give it to him.” I backed up into a tree my heart beating fast, my mind reeling for answers. “I don’t understand. Who needs blood? What are you talking about?”
“The Butcher,” he sighed sadly. “The Butcher is hunting me. He’s the one that’s been knocking at my window. He the one making me do this. If…” he choked up and his eyes filled with tears, “if I don’t do this he’ll kill me.” Suddenly he lashed out with the blade. I managed to duck out of the way purely on instinct. I fell to the ground hard and the steel of the blade lodged itself in the tree where I had been standing moments ago. I stumbled quickly to my feet and tried to put as much distance between us as I could.
“Johnny,” I gasped, trying to reason with him, kind of panicking. “This is crazy. You don’t have to do this. Killing me won’t change anything. Come on, we’re friends.”
He stared at me through tears now, “don’t make this harder than it needs to be, Derek.”
“Johnny…” and for a moment I was angry. He was acting crazy. He was going to kill me just so he could get some sleep. And I had trusted him. I had come out here at my own risk to help him. And he was going to kill me for that. He swung the knife again and I blocked it with my arm, pushing his knife hand wide. Pain seared across the limb but I was grateful for the self-defense my dad had given me. Johnny’s eyes widened for a moment, like he hadn’t expected me to fight. It was enough of an opening. I shouldered into his chest, knocking him off balance and we both fell backwards onto the ground, our landing punctuated by a dull thunk
I fell off him and quickly scrambled away, breathless and bleeding and ready to fight. But Johnny didn’t move. I caught my breath and waited, my heart pounding in my ears. But Johnny didn’t move. I stared my mind trying to make sense of the situation as my anger faded away.
I… was he was sleeping? His eyes were wide open. But he had been so tired. That had to be it. He was sleeping. That was all. That was why he wasn’t moving. He… he needed sleep.
Somewhere in the woods I heard the distinct snap of a twig breaking. I saw a distant shadow of a man. He was coming. Shit! My adrenaline addled brain rushed through the possibilities; the Butcher, the police, and Johnny was… Fear got the better of me and I ran. There isn’t a moment I don’t regret running. But what could I do? He was… he was sleeping and we were in danger. Loyalty had lost and now my friend was gone.
I had gotten lost until well after dark in those thick woods, my fear never leaving me. By the time I got out, the police were looking for us. I must have looked like a mess and was hauled off to the town station by the first cop I came across. A doctor was called in, cleaned me up, and said I was dealing with shock. My parents nearly strangled me with their worried hugs and all I could think was that there was a strange ringing in my ears.
I spent a couple of hours in the police station, wrapped in warm blankets and answering questions. I lied and said that Johnny and I were attack by a large man with a cleaver. I didn’t want to get my friend in trouble over a sleepy mistake. Beyond that I told the truth. We were in the woods on the edge of town. We were trying to get rid of the Butcher’s skull. Johnny fell down. My story seemed to fit with the window stalker thing we had called them about, so they didn’t probe much deeper.
No one blamed me, not even Johnny’s parents. People kept looking at me like I was some kind of victim. It was weird and it put a sick feeling in my gut. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear. They all acted like they understood what had happened. They thought I was lucky to have gotten away.
But they were wrong. I was a coward. I had run when my friend was hurt. I had run when he had needed my help. Maybe that was why I kept seeing his face in my head. His green eyes wide and glassy. His eyes… empty… but I couldn’t have killed him. I hadn’t pushed him that hard. He wouldn’t have died from that. I was wasting time thinking about it.
No, it had to be the Butcher. This wasn’t my fault. This man had come knocking at our window with a meat cleaver. This man had driven Johnny crazy. This man was in the woods that night. He was the one who took Johnny. He was the one who killed him… he… they… they never found the body.
I had just… I had… I…
I miss him and I’m sorry that I left him there alone.
Johnny is missing.
The Butcher was responsible for it.