20 Apr The Legend of Grinning Greg
“The Legend of Grinning Greg”Written by Kyle Harrison Edited by Craig Groshek and Seth Paul Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by Otis Jiry
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 16 minutes
Some said it was the moon’s glow that would hit the aged broken glass of the church’s upper lofts on certain nights. Others claimed it was merely their imagination… and a few like me said that they actually saw the mysterious floating smile of Grinning Greg. But my experience is a little different than the others, as you will soon see…
* * * * * *
I grew up in Saint Lancaster, just beyond the lake, on a cattle ranch my grandfather operated.
Like most small boys my age, I would grow bored with chores and run off to find trouble amid the woods.
In this area, everyone knew of the cursed church of Saint Gregory Falcress, buried deep within the Lancaster Forest. Tales of lamented spirits and tortured souls were as common as any other.
But on a clear summer day with the sun at my back, I didn’t think I had anything to worry about. I ran and leapt over the broken down cemetery walls to reach the church grounds, wickedly kicking over ancient headstones without a care in the world. I imagine if there were any ghosts there, the entire lot of them would’ve cursed me a million times over.
Once I was tired of that, I turned my attention to the church itself. It was a grand spectacle of destructive beauty.
It looked like an earthquake had caused the entire steeple to split in two, leaving nothing but a mishmash of stairs and pillars winding their way up toward the lofts. Bits and pieces of broken glass cascaded in every direction around the main entrance, warning all to stay away.
That was where the ghost was said to live, and like any devil-may-care boy, that was where I was going.
It took me less than five minutes to reach the peak and peer out toward the farm. I imagined Pa calling up my Uncle Lou, complaining that I had gallivanted off again, and it made me snicker.
There was nothing to be scared of here.
* * * * * *
The next day at the schoolhouse I bragged to my friends about my bravery, but they didn’t seem that impressed.
“Everyone knows you have to go to the lofts at night, that’s when ol’ Greg will appear,” Lawson jeered.
“An’ at a full moon at that!” Connor added.
“You seriously think we’re gonna applaud you? That wasn’t nothin’,” Vince remarked.
It made me a little red to imagine that they thought I was just blowing smoke out my ass, so I challenged them all to join me in a week or so, right after the spring dance. I figured that they would chicken out.
“You think you’re so smart. Come and face the ghost with me,” I told them both.
But I had forgotten that these three had never backed down from a dare, and there were a few young girls standing nearby, giggling at our boyish tirade. Their only option, they thought, was to accept the bet if they wanted to impress these girls and win a date.
I remember Susie Graftire warning me to be careful, and I thought that meant she liked me. Her freckled cheeks were tainted pink with embarrassment as she got close. I remember thinking she smelled good and tried to listen to her warning.
She said she knew a girl that saw Grinning Greg back in ‘66. “Remember Hannah Presley? It was when we were both in 5th grade or so,” she said. The name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place a face in my mind.
“Didn’t she move away?” I asked.
“That’s what her family told everyone. But I went to go see her before they shipped off. I had to climb up a tree and break into her house ‘cause they kept her like a prisoner. Told everyone she had the fever. It was probably a better lie than what had really happened,” Susie told me.
“And what did? Was she possessed?” I asked.
“Driven mad. She was rambling about the moment Greg smiled at her; she lost all of her senses. Her body was like a puppet on a string. She was there talking to me, but hardly coherent. It was like nothin’ I ever seen, that’s for sure,” my friend told me. I could tell that she was scared when she retold this story, and that she meant well by telling me.
Despite the warnings, though, I thought I could be brave and tackle this ghost. Prove once and for all that our town and a hundred others like it were not haunted.
My grandpa always taught me the only thing to be scared of in this world was what stood on two feet and spoke to one another as if they were civil.
So when the full moon did rise, I kept my word and met up with Connor, Vince and Lawson just beyond my grandfather’s property line.
“You three ready to go shit your pants?” I teased.
I remember thinking Connor did actually look scared.
We raced to the cemetery under the dead of night, using the stars in the cloudless sky to guide us. My grandpa had always warned me that the forest was dangerous at night because of coyotes and foxes. But in this darkness, nothing dared get close to the church. Nothing dared to even stir the air.
“Help me over,” Connor told his friend as we found the broken wall of the sacred grounds. I looked up toward the lofts where the ghost was supposed to be. I didn’t see anything, but I have to admit something did feel different being there than it had before.
I shrugged it off as just nerves and led the group toward the broken steps that wound their way up to the lofts.
Behind me, Connor was reciting the legend of Greg as though we didn’t know it by heart.
“They said he was a priest that denounced God, and that’s what split the church. He managed to convince his whole congregation that the Almighty did not exist and then killed them all as proof that God would not save them,” he said, his voice echoing in the still night.
We were there at the stained window where the ghost’s mysterious smile was said to appear and made ourselves comfortable. According to most renditions of the tale, the ghost did not appear until it was least expected.
To pass the time I brought up what Susie had told me about Hannah Presley. “Did any of you ever hear that story?” I asked.
“Yeah but I’m pretty sure that family is gone. Their house is abandoned,” Vince said.
“I don’t think so. Sometimes I’m walking my dog at night and I see a light go on. Upstairs there’s at least one person that still lives there,” Connor answered.
“Maybe she became a ghost too!” Lawson chuckled. But the rest of us were too nervous to make a retort back.
Everything felt very wrong up there in that loft, and I swear to you that we did not feel alone even though there was no smile appearing. It was just this awkward sense of being watched.
“So if the preacher killed ‘em all, did the bodies get buried when the steeple fell apart?” Lawson asked looking down at the empty congregation below us.
“It was ages ago; they’re probably dust and bones by now,” I suggested.
“Would be cool if we found something though,” he replied.
Since it seemed like the ghost we were expecting wasn’t coming, we distracted ourselves by coming down to the pews below.
Suddenly all inhibition went out the window when we thought we were safe and we were feeling rambunctious again.
As we got to the floor below, Lawson and Vince started to kick at the flimsy termite riddled floors to search for pockets of space beneath us. There was this low groan throughout the church which made me pause in concern. Could it be that the church itself was about to collapse on top of itself and bury us alive?
“Please hurry,” I begged them. It was easy to imagine a hundred terrible things happening to us there on what was supposed to be sacred ground and here we were, disturbing it out of idle curiosity.
But even the most gruesome ideas my boyish mind conjured you were nothing compared to what we found under those floorboards.
Vince pushed them all aside to give us a clearer view and my mouth literally dropped open. There, almost six feet under us, was what appeared to be half a dozen coffins.
“We need to get out of here,” Lawson said, quickly climbing out of the pit.
“It’s true, this place is haunted!” Connor squealed as he started to hightail it out of there, nearly stumbling over his own feet.
None of us had to be prompted to follow him. In fact, I don’t think any of us have ever run faster than we did that day.
We got back to my grandfather’s in record time and stayed up all night in the barn, watching the church, imagining ghouls would come to chase us.
None of us really knew what to do about the coffins we found.
“We should call the cops!” Connor suggested.
“And get our asses in trouble for trespassing? No thanks,” Vince muttered.
“We have to tell someone though,” I agreed, my mind struggling to calm down and access the situation.
Then I remembered Susie’s warning and realized that maybe the answers could come from Hannah Presley. If anyone knew more about that creepy place, it was her.
I didn’t tell my friends this, though; instead, the chill in the air and the adrenaline died down and we all got to sleep there in the hay bales. They were more than happy to let the whole thing go and forget about the church, about Greg and the coffins as well. It was best to be left alone, they said.
I waited a few days, of course, to wait and see if maybe some curious cruel curse might settle upon me, and once I was sure that I was safe I found an afternoon to sneak over to Hannah’s.
Hannah lived over in the rich part of town, a place that a country boy like me felt more awkward in than a haunted graveyard.
Even this late in the day, our little town was still bustling with people going about their daily lives, unaware of the burden that I carried.
The townhouse was just across from the east side of the river, looking as empty and abandoned as it had a year ago, and I truly wondered if the story Susie had told was true.
No one paid attention to it ‘cause everyone thought that they were gone, so getting in seemed like a simple task.
Steeling my nerves, I found some loose vines to climb up the side of the house and found out for myself.
I pressed my hand against the dirty glass, trying to peer inside and see Hannah, only to have the window abruptly slide open and I fell in.
I went stiff the way a cat might when caught off guard and studied the darkness to see if my sudden arrival had been noticed. There were shapes and figures that covered the walls and it took me a moment to recognize that these were mannequins and dolls. Had Hannah’s mother been a seamstress? I never had paid attention.
Slowly getting to my feet, I dared to take a step closer to the models and searched for Hannah, curious as to the locked-up life she now led. Why were her parents telling lies if the urban legend meant no harm? What had happened to my friend that had driven her insane, like Susie had said?
Outside the room, I heard the shuffling of feet and it made me freeze up. The voices were older and I recognized one as Hannah’s mother.
“I brought some more cosmetics for the scarring, I’m sorry it’s taken a long time. Things are hectic at work,” she said softly.
“It’s fine. Hannah is a patient girl. She knows we are doing what is best for her to fully recover,” a man’s voice said. It didn’t remind me of the way her father had spoken, but I had never really known him that well.
Then I realized they were about to come into the room I was hiding in so I rushed to the nearest closet and shut myself inside.
My mind was racing to understand what her parents were discussing. What did the man mean by a recovery? Was Hannah sick?
I saw the answer a moment later as the light came into the room and I realized that one of the mannequins I had stumbled past was actually Presley herself.
She had lost nearly all of her pigmentation, looking like a living doll, a hollow shell of her former self. She was sitting on the edge of her bed looking toward the man and her mother with dead eyes, as though what they were doing her had been done a hundred times before.
The white coat and tie the man wore told me he was some kind of medical doctor, and a moment later he took out a syringe from his supplies and administered it to Hannah without even batting an eye.
“Nothing we do is working. How long will she be this way?” her mom lamented.
“I’m afraid we still don’t know what is afflicting her. We are trying different methods, but until then you must be patient. Isn’t that right, Hannah?” the doctor asked.
My friend nodded, too weak for words. Was it cancer? Starvation? Some kind of tuberculosis? I was scared for her now more so than I ever was. Had the ghost cursed her?
“But I hate that we can’t even leave our homes! This isn’t a life for her!” her mom said.
“We’ve been through this before. The risk of infection is too great. We need to be cautious here; it’s been a whole year, I know…but we can’t let others get hurt because of Hannah’s mistakes,” the doctor told her.
What did that mean? I had so much I wanted to ask, but still I waited until the adults had left and turned the lights off before sneaking out to visit Hannah.
“Hannah? It’s me, Dylan from school,” I whispered.
At first, she didn’t say anything and I thought perhaps the experiences she had gone through had traumatized her to the point of being mute.
Then, at last, she opened her mouth and said, “Did you come to look at the freak?”
Her voice was raspy, as though she were only allowed to speak on certain occasions. Whatever affliction she had, it was ridiculous to see her parents treating her this badly.
“No… no, it’s not like that at all,” I told her.
“Then why… are you here?” Hannah asked.
I looked down at my feet sheepishly. I felt ashamed to think that I had come here for selfish reasons. But maybe what I needed to find out could also help her too?
“I went to the church… the one in the woods,” I said.
“I know the one. That’s where this whole mess started for me,” she said.
“Was it because of the coffins?” I whispered.
Her eyes widened and she got her off her bed to get closer to me. “You saw them? Did you open them?”
“No. I got out of there as fast as–”
“Don’t. Whatever you do, don’t open those coffins!” Hannah said, her voice pleading.
“What was in there? What did you find?” I asked.
“It’s not what I found. It’s who put it there. For your own safety, you need to stay away,” Hannah demanded.
“Who? What do you mean?”
Outside her room, I heard noises as if someone was coming back to check on her again.
She went to her window and pushed it open, turning to me and adding, “You should leave before you’re found. If you stay you could wind up like me, even faster. The doctor will see to that,” Hannah told me.
I hesitated for a moment, thinking that I should take her with me. She deserved a life better than this. But I knew that what I was planning could save us both, so I needed to listen to her warning and I left.
“I’m sorry…I will come back when I have a solution for you,” I whispered to her as I hastily climbed down. I heard the doctor explaining that they would be trying a new treatment soon for her, something that would require Hannah to be taken away. I held onto the edge of her windowsill for a moment to try and get details.
Then I heard a few passing townsfolk muttering about what I might have been up to. And then the doctor leaned out the window and shouted down at me. “What do you think you’re doing, pervert?” he shouted.
I started to run, grabbing my raggedy pants up and not looking back. I felt guilty for likely getting Hannah in more trouble, but the questions burning in my mind about the church had led me this far, so I refused to just let it go.
That night I ate supper with my grandparents and got a tongue lashing for sneaking into a neighbor’s house. I was told I would be grounded for a week. I worried that with what the doctor might have planned for Hannah, waiting a week would be too late for her, so I made a compromise and offered to do chores instead for a full day. Everything that they normally did was thrust into my hands. It was hard work, exhausting and humiliating.
But worth it when my grandparents agreed to let me have the next day off.
At last, I was going to see for myself what these coffins held.
As I ran through the fields to that abandoned church, a new purpose filled my heart and soul. I wasn’t just doing this for myself anymore. I wanted to free Hannah from her prison. And whatever was below had to hold the answers I was sure of it.
A gentle mist fell upon me as I approached the same broken stones that helped me and my friends get in only a few days before. This time, more than any others, I felt there was evil here.
Carefully I climbed and peered toward the chapel, the storm suddenly raging harder as though the Good Lord himself didn’t want me to be there.
I disregarded all of this and went to the panels we had pried apart to look at the coffins below. Even in this twilight, I could see that some of them were now opened, and I wondered if they had always been that way.
I did not have to wonder for long. Something grabbed at my feet and hoisted me up into the air. I tried in vain to jostle with the unseen foe, but their deep laugh only made me feel more concerned. Had I been followed?
“What have we here? Another curious youth from the village?” a voice said. It sounded familiar somehow, but in the darkness, I couldn’t make out much except the outlines of this man’s face. He did not have the face of a friend.
“Did you come here to meet the ghost of Grinning Greg?” he sneered as his smile spread across his face I realized why I recognized him. Too often had I seen artistic renditions of the ghost to ignore the similarities between them and this stranger.
Except he was no apparition at all, but a full-grown man with skin as pale as the moon. It reminded me of Hannah somehow, and the mysterious stranger explained to me what it all meant.
“For years I was ridiculed and cursed in that god-forsaken place you call home, treated differently for a condition I had no control over. They cast me out, thinking I was a walking curse…” he laughed wildly as he climbed into the hidden basement of the church. “And so that is what I became. I started the legend of Grinning Greg because I believed that God smote me and I deserved it…and I wanted to take revenge on the people that had taken everything from me.”
He showed me that in the coffins there were children just like me, their lifeless corpses also suffering from the same affliction that had taken him over. Some were so decayed they were hardly noticeable as humans. All of them smelled of waste and decay.
“What I have is often called a biblical plague. Modern medicine can supposedly treat it, but not in our corner of the world. Not here in this backwater town where class distinction is all too apparent. You know nothing of this because you were born of privilege, but there are those less fortunate who scrounge for meals, beg for treatment. I was born with it due to my poverty, and thus I give it to any who dare to trespass here. It is always the prideful who come, and children are often the easiest. They come curious to find ghouls and never once think for a moment a real one might exist,” Greg told me.
Then he opened another coffin and I shuddered as I realized it was empty, reserved for someone like me who dared to intrude on his land.
“Because this simple town did not dare to even question what had befallen me, I will become a blight on them and strike down their legacy one by one.”
Then he shoved me into that wooden box. I heard him cackle. It was neither mad nor sane. I couldn’t explain to you what it was other than sheer evil. This was the origin of a twisted tale, a sick man that was once prominent in our little town.
He kept this up as he sealed me in with rusty nails, haphazardly making me stuck inside this tiny piece of hell.
“You’ll stay here until the sickness is in you. Or till you die… whichever comes first,” he said, smiling more and more.
Eventually his manic laughter faded and I was alone trying not to panic as I scraped away at darkness.
I was underground for the next few hours, but it felt like days. There is so much that can be said about the things I felt and thought of in that box. It likely will take all my life to sort out the trauma and the hopelessness that overcame me.
My body went numb and I prayed to God it was all a dream. I begged that maybe death would take me… Instead, worms and dirt were the only comforts I had in that dire hour. No salvation was coming, just as Greg had predicted.
Sometime in that blackness, I lost consciousness and I dreamed. I thought of Greg when he had been a young man, full of vigor and eager to change the world. What a cruel twist of fate that had taken him from the bright world he once loved.
I understood his anger toward others, and all the while I wondered if when he was cast out had this man turned into a savage, without a soul?
If the other coffins around me were any indication, I knew he had lost all decency. To slaughter children simply for the crimes of their parents was inhuman.
The dream seemed to answer the other question I had about who would come to save me. I saw the rain flood the church, and I saw myself still buried inside.
It was this portent that inspired me to dig for my life once more. I awoke with a thunderclap and used every last bit of my energy to kick and scrape the coffin apart.
I do not know how long it took, but at last, the frail material of the wooden box gave way and I took a gasp of fresh air.
I used what little energy I had left to climb from the depths of hell back to the solid earth, and then a burst of adrenaline shot through my veins and I ran to my grandparents.
By this time they had already informed the police I was missing and two squad cars from town were at my front porch. Explaining to these uniformed officers the harrowing experience I had just gone through was almost as bad as the living nightmare itself.
Somehow Grandma managed to convince them that they should listen.
“I remember Gregory, before the legends circulated. He was a good man, a brilliant theologian. His family came from the New Hampshire area, I believe,” she said softly.
“Always felt there was some thin’ evil about that church, I must admit. Whether it was a ghost or not, though, I can’t say. Left that to more experienced minds than I. Just wanted to raise a family,” she told me.
The police went to the church grounds that same night with a warrant and dig up the coffins.
There were twenty-six of them altogether, with bodies spanning an entire decade.
“This son of a bitch has been killing and dumping them here for ages!” one Sergeant shouted. Grandpa let me stay up just to make a final statement, one I demanded that I give alone.
A lieutenant took me into our small washroom and got down to face me eye-to-eye. “What is it, son? It seems like something worse than all of this has followed you for a while now,” they said.
I gulped some more air.
“There’s a girl. Has the same affliction that hit Greg. Her family has kept her locked away for ‘bout a year. The house seems abandoned but there is a doctor that comes and goes and helps them,” I told them.
I told them all about Hannah and they jotted down every detail. The next day, they told me they had gone to check the house but it was as empty as everyone had claimed.
“We couldn’t find much, except old knickknacks,” one officer told me.
My friends at school told me I made the whole thing up, about seeing Hannah and confronting Grinning Greg.
The police never disclosed what they made of the bodies, and Greg never resurfaced. They took my word that it was a man out there rather than a ghost and put in a court order to tear the church down.
I never saw Hannah again, and eventually those boys I thought I was friends with drifted away.
But sometimes on full moons, I still hear that laughter. I see his smile painted on the shadows. And I hear of children that still go missing, daring to find out the truth of the ghost, like I did.
And I know that makes Grinning Greg smile even wider.