(A story by Rick Baldwin for the 2016 Life In A Kilt Podcast “Kilt of Horrors” episode.)
For as long as I can remember, the name “Fergus MacDuff” has been a part of my consciousness. When I was a child, my parents used the name as a threat or motivation for correction. “If you don’t clean your plate, Fergus MacDuff will get you.” “Clean your room or Fergus MacDuff will find you in the night.” As kids, we imagined Fergus MacDuff lived under our beds, his long, dirty fingers grasping for our ankles every time we went to turn in for the night. Most of the time we would run to our beds and take a long dive onto the safety of the mattress, relieved we avoided another murderous grasping attempt by old Fergus MacDuff.
The reality was that Fergus MacDuff didn’t live under our beds but rather in an old shack a block from the abandon gas station a quarter of a mile from our house. Or at least that’s what all the kids at school said. We were all very aware of the dilapidated Fergus MacDuff house that sat it the middle of the overgrown plot of land we had to pass when we walked down to the ball field. People would tell stories about seeing Fergus MacDuff standing in the shadows of his porch, watching all of us kids playing across the street. Some people said they saw him clutching a butcher knife. Ginny Blair said she saw him holding a chain saw. Troy Bolin claimed he once crept up the weedy pathway to Fergus MacDuff’s door, only to find him sitting on his porch pulling feathers off of a bloody chicken. No matter the variety of stories, one detail was always consistent. Everyone claimed they saw old Fergus MacDuff wearing a dress. Why that old man would wear a dress, I couldn’t imagine and I don’t know why but that was the thing about him the creeped me out the most.
In sixth grade my best friend was Dewey Milk. Yes, that was his real name and no, you couldn’t come up with a new name joke that Dewey hadn’t heard a million times before. For three or four years Dewey Milk and I were inseparable. We always pretended we were Mulder and Scully, only in our fantasy world, I was Mulder and Dewey always wanted to be Agent Scully. He would always say it was because of his red hair but I knew he had more personal reasons. Dewey Milk and I would travel the neighborhood investigating all rumors of paranormal activity. It was usually just blowing the lid off of crazy tales we heard around town like Mrs. Stallings’ possessed cat or the space alien someone said the Berrier’s were hiding in their dairy barn. We never really found anything, of course, but we thought we were making some sort of difference in the safety of the neighborhood and it was all just innocent fun. Innocent, that is, until one day when Dewey Milk suggested we climb the back fence of the abandon gas station, crawl through the weeds and get our own view of Fergus MacDuff.
Sometimes in life you do things that you would normally find so terrifying, you just have to shut your mind off and do it. Like pulling off an old band-aid. Don’t think about it, just do it. That’s how I felt about Dewey Milk’s suggestion. I said “yes” without thinking much about it and I told him we should do it immediately since it was starting to get dark and I knew in a few more minutes my mom would be calling me in for dinner. But, really, I wanted to get moving before I talked myself out of it.
We quickly scaled the gas station fence and soon found ourselves on our stomachs in five foot weeds. The sky was that deep indigo glow which happens right before everything goes completely black dark. Dewey Milk was right next to me and I was sure he would be able to hear the thumping of my heart if it wasn’t for the pulsing screams of the cicadas. We laid there for what seemed like two hours. I wasn’t exactly sure what we were looking for as we stared at the silhouette of the old shack.
“I think I see him,” Dewey Milk said in a low whisper that still scared the shit out of me.
“Where?” I asked. I couldn’t see anything but black.
“Right there in the middle,” Dewey Milk said. “See, it’s a window. You can see a little orange glow coming from it.”
I stared at the scraggly black building for a few moments. I had been looking at the remaining light from the sky but when I let my eyes adjust to the blackness of the old shack, I too could see a glow coming from what looked like a window. It was the first time I really thought about what were were doing and at that moment I realized I didn’t want to do it.
“We gotta go back, Dewey,” I said. “My mom’s gonna bust my ass.”
“It’s too late, Mulder” Dewey said. “We’re in this too deep.”
Dewey Milk was right. We were engaged. It was too late to abort the mission. And before I could agree with him I heard a whimper come from him and then a low, gurgling choking sound. And before I could ask if he was okay, I felt cold, leathery fingers grab the shirt at t he back of my neck and pull tight. I couldn’t tell what was happening but I could feel my entire body being lifted from the ground. I looked over at Dewey and could barely see his face as he looked behind me. I knew from the panic on his face, the bony fingers that had me in their grasp belonged to none other than Fergus McDuff.
The next few minutes moved super fast. I don’t remember moving from the cover of the weeds to inside the old shack but in the blink of an eye, there we were sitting in front of a small, soot-covered fireplace in what I assumed was the living room of Fergus McDuff. It was difficult to really determine where we were though. In every inch of the house was piled boxes and books and paper and trash and mounds and mounds of shit. How anyone could live in that environment, I don’t know. It smelled like old water, old food and dead animals. No telling how many bodies of mice, rats, possums, raccoons, and who knows what else were rotting under the piles of garbage. It was sometimes difficult to tell if we were indoors or out doors. I guess I’m still not sure. I looked at Dewey Milk sitting next to me and noticed he too was scanning the contents of the room while at the same time trying to figure out if there might be some miracle way of darting out of the room.
I could see the silhouette of Fergus MacDuff sitting in a chair in the dark. I could hear the clunking of metal which I eventually recognized as the sound of a spoon in a can. Was Fergus MacDuff eating while holding us prisoner? After a few minutes an empty can of corned beef hash flung out of the darkness and hit me on the bottom of my shoe. I heard a hacking cough in the middle of the blackness, the crinkling of paper and chewing noises. Dewey Milk reached over and touched me on the knee and pointed at the fireplace. On the mantle I could see twenty or thirty little handmade dolls lined up in a raw. They were crudely made but each one had it’s own distinctive look. Skinny dolls, fat dolls, boys with glasses, girls with braces, one doll in a wheelchair, just a lot of different dolls. I looked at Dewey Milk and he shrugged. I knew what he was thinking. What would this creepy old man be doing with all of these dolls? I was thinking something else. Why did Fergus MacDuff bring us here and what was he going to do with us?
After about forty five minutes sitting on the dirt floor in front of the fireplace I had had enough. “Can we go home,” I asked. My mom and dad are going to worried and they’re going to start looking for me.” I waited for a response from the dark and heard only a guttural noise which I couldn’t make out to be Fergus MacDuff clearing his throat or laughing at me. “Ginny!” Dewey Milk whispered. “Ginny?” I whispered back. Dewey Milk pointed at one of the dolls on the mantle. It was a doll with curly brown hair and big wire glasses, almost as big as her entire face. He was right. The doll looked like Ginny Blair. In fact, I suddenly recognized another doll. The one with braces has to be Carol Thornton. And there was Ray Beale. Johnny Brooks was there, Renee Kincaid and the wheelchair doll was definitely Kimmy Morgan. Dewey and I looked at each other with wide eyes. We both recognized our entire class there on top of Fergus MacDuff’s fireplace. I could feel tears pooling in my eyes. I was terrified and I wanted to get out of that creepy house. I scanned the room for an exit opportunity. I was hard to see anything through the piles of trash but I noticed an open door in the room across from the living room. That was my chance. I caught Dewey Milk’s eyes and subtly ran a pointed finger across the floor toward the open door. I counted in my mind, ready to dash toward freedom. Five… four… three… two… one…
Suddenly a large pile of trash moved in front of me and blocked the open door. No. It wasn’t a pile of trash after all. It was Fergus MacDuff. The glow from the fire let me see Fergus for the first time. He was like a mountain. His hair and beard looked like the weeds we hid in out side his house. His face was wrinkled and looked like it was made of an old horse saddle. A wet stream of tobacco juice ran down the corner of his mouth. He reached over my head and for the first time I noticed the dress everyone talked about was an old kilt like the one I saw in a book about Scotland at the school library. Only, this one looked like it hadn’t been washed in 100 years. I looked up at Fergus MacDuff as he grasped for a doll on the mantle. Holding his arm at a 90 degree angle he danced the doll over his arm and made squeaky noises. The doll was chubby with bright red curly hair. I immediately recognized it as the doll version of Dewey Milk. Fergus MacDuff cackled with a phlegmy laugh. He was obviously highly entertained at his puppet show. He slowly handed the doll to Dewey Milk but when Dewey reached out to take it, Fergus MacDuff quickly tossed it into the fire where it instantly ignited into a ball of flame. Again, Fergus MacDuff laughed with an even bigger cackle of phlegm.
I scanned the fireplace for my doll. I knew I was the next star of Fergus MacDuff’s show. I was a lanky girl with a short, bob hair style and tomboy clothes. But none of the dolls looked anything close to me. It didn’t make sense to me. Why would everyone else in our class be there on his fireplace mantle in doll form but not me? I turned to look at Fergus MacDuff and he started down at me like he knew what I was thinking. His bony fingers moved down between his legs. He fondled around on the old leather pouch on the front of his kilt until he opened it. He reached inside and pulled out a crushed, misshapen doll. He ran his fingers over the doll a bit until it smoothed out some and then he handed the doll to me. He started laughing the biggest laugh yet and turned and walked into the dark part of his house and closed a door. Dewey Milk and I immediately ran to the door and kept running as fast as we could toward my house, the laughter of Fergus MacDuff fading into a soft echo behind us.
When morning came I found myself questioning whether my experience with Fergus MacDuff the night before was real or a dream. I wanted to ask Dewey Milk, but his mom said he went with his grandparents to a church function. My dad was sitting at the breakfast table reading the paper and drinking a cup of coffee. I asked him what he knew about Fergus MacDuff. “Fergus MacDuff?” He asked, surprised. “Well, honey, I think you’re old enough to know the truth about Fergus MacDuff. There’s no real Fergus MacDuff. I mean, there was a Fergus MacDuff. A long time ago. He was a custodian at the school you go to but somebody said he was inappropriately… well, having communications with some of the kids. He was fired and he just went away by himself. Everyone started using his name as a kind of boogie man, you know? “Last one to the porch will be killed by Fergus MacDuff!” It started out as something funny but I guess it just became silly. Your mom and I always did it in a joking way. I don’t know, maybe it went too far. Anyway old Fergus MacDuff died ten years before you were born so there’s no way he’s ever going to get you.”
I never talked to my parents about the night Dewey Milk and I spent in Fergus MacDuff’s creepy living room. It was a secret Dewey and I locked away in our own minds. We never even discussed it ourselves. Even though we were so close, eventually we drifted apart. Dewey’s parents moved to Montana and we wrote each other letters for a year but that stopped eventually. There was no email or Facebook then so it was easy to just gradually lose touch. The last time I heard from Dewey Milk was five years ago after my husband Alan and our son Daniel drown in a boat accident while on a fishing trip. Dewey heard about it from his sister and he called me to tell me how sorry he was. We both cried together on the phone and promised we would soon get together again. But we never did. Then I heard last week that Dewey Milk was on a business trip in Los Angeles and along with twenty two other people, was killed in a hotel fire. I was devastated. But I was also haunted by that night when Fergus MacDuff tossed Dewey’s doll into the fire place. I couldn’t stop thinking that maybe that had something to do with Dewey’s death. And it made me wonder the whereabouts of the doll Fergus gave to me. I hadn’t seen it in thirty years or so. Last I can remember, I put it in a cigar box my dad once gave me and I stored it in my attic.
I decided to dig out that cigar box and take a look at that creepy old doll. I went into the attic and moved piles of boxes and other stored items. For a second it reminded me of the piles of junk in Fergus MacDuff’s living room. I found an old box of toys and mementos from my elementary school days and I pulled off the tape. It was mostly dusty plush toys, softball shirts and gloves and sports cards. I cleared away the layers of memories until I finally located the wood cigar box. I remember wrapping the box with rubber bands, ribbons and strings which I pulled and cut off. I opened the box expecting to see the crude, straw doll, but I was horrified. My god, the doll was not there. But what was there were two dolls I’d never in my life seen before. A doll that looked exactly like my husband Alan and a smaller doll which… Oh, my god, how could that be? Who put these other dolls in this old box? And where… where was the old doll… of me…?
© Rick Baldwin. All rights reserved.