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"Switchblade Swanson"
a short story

Part 1: The Dare


            Billy, my longtime friend pushed me and yelled, “You’re a chicken shit, Peter!”

            My brother, Chris, shoved Billy into the brick wall of the general store. “Get off him!”

            Chris was always defending me. He felt like he had to, being the older one by two years. He was sixteen and I was fourteen. Billy and the other two kids were my age.

            We were in the alley between Sam’s General and the thrift store called “Ingleside Finds and Rarities”. An argument had started when Billy dared Chris and me. We thought it was stupid. We didn’t have to prove ourselves to him or his two buddies.

            “Kick his ass, Billy!” one of the other boys hollered.

            He snickered. “You two are a bunch of wussies and you guys know it. The house ain’t haunted. Shit. All that’s inside there is ‘Switchblade’, and you two are too scared to face him. I know you boys won’t grab his knife! I told ya ... You bring it back here and I’ll give you each twenty dollars and my skin mag.”

            “We don’t want your crusty old porn,” my brother replied.

            “You and your brother are just afraid,” Billy kept going. “You’re afraid of ‘Switchblade’.”

            Word amongst us young people in the little quiet town of Ingleside was that Mr. Swanson, affectionately known as “Switchblade Swanson”, killed his wife, got away with it, and now lives in his home alone in the dark and waits for children to enter so he can kill them too with his stiletto knife.

            I wasn’t afraid of Billy. I didn’t even know why I considered myself his friend with all of his bullying. It wasn’t the first time he had tried to get me into trouble. Once, he dared me to take a whiz on the principal’s new sedan. All of his pushing and name-calling got me to do it, and while I was doing so, principal Callahan caught me taking a piss on his front tire. I got a week’s worth of detention for that.

            But in the small town of Ingleside, way down in South Texas, there wasn’t much else going on. “Switchblade” was the most exciting happening for a kid; the adults raved about the new steel mill, however; I guess that was it in our little piece of Heaven. We didn’t have much, but we had each other. I would have taken nothing over Billy any day.

            I knew if we broke into Swanson’s house, he would either call the police on us and we would get into deep trouble, or he’d kill us with his stiletto switchblade, that supposedly came straight from Italy, handcrafted by a Satanic cult leader or witch doctor or possessed priest of the Vatican, whichever you preferred. I had enough trouble with my parents after they learned I needed to attend summer school. They were so upset at me. My mother almost about cried, and my father had to restrain himself from bringing out his leather belt to whip me for not passing with higher grades.

            My older brother Chris couldn’t afford the trouble either. He had just gotten a job at the grocery store. His grades were slipping too from the late evenings, but at least he had money in his pockets, unlike myself. I admired him for his hard work. I just wish Chris wasn’t gone most nights stocking shelves and bagging groceries; I missed my older brother.

            “You go into Swanson’s,” Billy said. “And you two pussies grab the old man’s knife. Bring it back to me here, same time tomorrow afternoon. If you don’t, I’ll tell the whole school you and your little brother, Peter, are nothing but scared little girls.”

            Chris lowered his head and put a hand on the back of his neck. One thing my brother didn’t like was another kid talking bad about him. My older brother was fearless, and liked people to know that. He didn’t want to be known as the “town coward”.

            “Fine,” Chris said. “We’ll do it. But you better pony up with the twenty bucks!”

            I had a bad feeling about all of this.

            “You bet,” Billy agreed. “I’ll see you guys here tomorrow about three o’clock. Don’t be late.” He and his two buddies walked off down Main Street.

            “Chris, I don’t think none of this is a good idea.”

            My brother looked down at me. He was tall for a sixteen-year-old.

            “Pete, me too, but we’ll just go in and out. We won’t even be inside long.”

            “But what if we can’t find the knife?” I replied.

            “We’ll find it. I’m sure old man Swanson has it just lying around somewhere visible and we’ll just grab it and go.”

            “I hope so, Chris. I don’t like the idea of any of this, and I don’t know why you let Billy push you into a stupid dare. I know he gets to me, but you’re older and brave. I don’t think we have to do anything for him or his two goons. Why can’t we just go home?”

            My brother sighed and looked passed me.

            “Peter, you know the general store has a new stock of baseballs in and with these twenty dollars I can get a couple new ones so we can play out by the high school with the other kids Saturday.”

            “I just don’t think it’s worth it,” I said.

            I was worried. I didn’t want to go into that creepy old house on Drew Lane where we might see “Switchblade Swanson”, the old man that killed his wife. He was said to be a dreadful man, although I had never met or seen him. All the talk suggested that he was frightful, mean, and ugly; that he would slice a kid’s throat from ear to ear for just looking at him the wrong way. I believed the hype. I believed that if we entered his house tonight, we would never make it out alive. We would just end up rotting in his basement, or maybe he’d keep us on ice in his bathtub. There were a thousand things he could do to us this evening and the different scenarios cartwheeled through my mind, but if we entered his home one thing was sure, he would have us tonight at the end of his switchblade knife.



Part 2: The “Swanson House”


            Chris and I stood outside “Switchblade” Swanson’s house. We were at the sidewalk and the sun was just beginning to set. Everything was yellow, burnt orange, with a hint of purple thrown in the horizon. I felt like I was shaking in my shoes, but not apparent enough for Chris to notice. I wanted to leave. I wanted to run home and hug my mother. I never cared for what Billy said, but I knew if we didn’t go through with tonight that he would tell all of our classmates that we were cowards. Chris and I would never live that down. We would be branded chickens for the rest of our days in small town Ingleside.

            He put a hand on my shoulder.

            “We’ll be in and out, Peter. Okay? I’ll grab the knife. You don’t even have to go into the house if you don’t want to. I just need you to keep look-out.”

            “No. I want to go in.”

            I don’t know why I told him that. I was petrified. I only wanted to go home.

            We approached the side of the house and found a window. There was a bush underneath. Chris checked the window to see if it was open. His hands lay flat on the glass, and he gave it a little push. I hoped it was locked, but it gave and cracked wide open.

            Shit, I thought.

            I was really hoping we would have an excuse to give Billy when we saw him again tomorrow afternoon. But the stupid window opened, and my heart dropped into my stomach.

            “I’ll boost you up first, Pete,” Chris said as he crouched down and locked his fingers together in front of me.

            I put my foot in his hands and heaved forward grabbing onto the window seal. It was hard to get through, but I made it inside. I stood up. It was dark. I could smell the house though. It had a musty, sour scent. I didn’t like it and it almost burned my eyes.

            “Pete, do you see anything?” my brother whispered.

            I turned around and said, “Not really, Chris. It’s dark in here, but it smells like cat piss.”

            “I’m coming in,” he replied while laughing.

            I moved out of his way and watched him crawl inside. I was still scared, but at least the hard part was done and over with.

            “You’re right,” he said. “It does smell like cat piss.”

            My brother walked past me into Switchblade’s home. I looked around as best as I could. There was a throw rug on the room floor, a bed with old sheets, a chest of drawers, and an ugly antique mirror hanging above those drawers.

            “Where do you think he keeps the knife?” I asked Chris as he made his way to the bedroom door.

            “I don’t think it’s in here, Pete. I think this is like a guest bedroom or something.”

            Chris put his hand on the doorknob. I was shaking once again in my shoes. I followed behind though as he opened the door. The smell of cat urine only got stronger as we entered the hallway of the Swanson house.

            The wooden floors groaned as we walked down the hallway.

            “I bet it’s in his room,” Chris whispered to me as we made our slow journey through the house.

            It was dark with little light. It seemed that the only room to be lit was the living area.

            I hope Switchblade isn’t in there, I thought to myself as I followed behind my brother. If he finds us, Chris better kick his ass.

            “Stop,” Chris said and held me back with his arm. “There’s light coming from under that door, Pete. Switchblade might be in there. It might be his room.”

            I nodded, and as soon as we started moving again was when I had the urge to sneeze.

            No, no, no, I thought. Hold it in!

            I put my palm to my nostrils.

            Don’t sneeze, you chicken shit!

            But as much as day turns to night, I gave in to the sensation and sneezed a gob of mucus into my hand. Chris turned and looked at me with wide eyes. He knew we were made.

            “Go!” he yelled.

            I turned and ran for the guest bedroom with the open window. I hurried as fast as I could down the hall while wiping my hand on my shirt.

            But before I could enter that guest room, a dark figure came out in front of the room’s entrance, and I stopped. My brother ran into me, and we both tumbled to the floor. For a moment, I forgot we were in Switchblade’s house. I looked all around and tried to gather myself.

            “Pete, he’s found us,” my brother said.

            I looked up at the dark figure. It was tall and cast in shadow. I was sure it was hungry for blood. A fear I had never known before swept over me. I was struck. I was in shock. I couldn’t move a muscle even if my mind was willing. My body was tranced, and I sat on the floor hopeless and caught by Switchblade himself. We were dead meat. I knew the twenty dollars and a skin mag wasn’t worth it. I knew right from the start. I wanted to kill Billy for getting us into this mess. But I guess “Switchblade Swanson” would kill us first.

            I heard a deep voice come from the shadow.

            The voice said, “What are you two boys doing in my home?”

            I was still struck with fear and couldn’t find the words to reply.

            Chris was the first to speak to the shadow. I sat silent.



Part 3: Stiletto


            The hallway light came on and a man stood there. He had long gray hair that was disheveled and a full beard to match. His clothes, however, were neat and pressed.

            “You two shouldn’t be in here,” he said. “You aren’t welcomed. How did you get in?”

            I got up off the ground. I was more at ease now that the light was on.

            Chris was able to speak.

            “We’re sorry, sir. It was a mistake. We weren’t trying to disturb you,” my brother said.

            “We were just looking for Mr. Swanson and his stiletto knife,” I blurted.

            Chris punched me in the arm.

            The man looked puzzled.

            “Why would you want my knife? I should call the police on you two.”

            I looked up at the gray man and pleaded, “Don’t! We didn’t do anything! Swanson is the one you want. He’s the killer!”

            The man laughed at me then turned to close the guest bedroom door.

            “You two, come with me!”

            He started down the hall and we followed close behind. In the light now, I saw photos of his family all along the walls--- pictures of old ladies, children, and a family dog I guessed.

            We made our way into the living area. The old man sat and sighed.

            “You have made your way into the Swanson residence. I’m Mr. Swanson, the man you seek. But I’m no killer.” He laughed. “I’m just a lonely old man, kids.”

            I took a step forward.

            “So, you didn’t kill your wife with your prized switchblade knife?”

            Chris punched my arm again.

            “Peter,” my brother muttered, “that’s not polite.”

            I know my brother was curious too, even though he wouldn’t admit it. I wanted to know--- did or didn’t he kill his wife?

            The gray man, Mr. Swanson, laughed harder this time.

            “Son, I would never do such a thing. I loved my wife,” Swanson said. “I know her and I weren’t too involved with the community, and I didn’t think her cancer was necessary to talk about amongst the town folk. She died a difficult death, kid. No one killed my beloved; only God took her.”

            Chris spoke up and apologized.

            “We’re sorry for your loss, mister. We didn’t mean nothing by it. It’s just talk. Just what the other kids have said about you and this place. They say you carry a special knife and that you used it on her is all. We’re sorry. We’ll leave now if you don’t mind? We were just trying to get a glimpse at your pocketknife; maybe even take it back with us--- it was all over a dare from some stupid kid in our neighborhood. I’m sorry to disturb you, sir.”

            The gray man leaned forward in his cushioned seat. His eyes were dim and sharp--- they were gray too in the room with poor lighting.

            “A dare. Huh?”

            “Yes,” I managed to get out.

            “Is this what you two and the other kids are talking about?”

            The old man picked out of his pocket a long silver and black stiletto switchblade knife. He waived it around then clicked the button for the blade to shoot out. Although afraid, I was memorized at its simple beauty. The blade was shiny. I bet I could see myself in it, if close enough.

            He continued, “My father gave me this knife. He was stationed in Italy soon after WWII. He brought this home to me when I was a kid, a little younger than you, son. It has been a prize to me my entire life. And no, you two can’t steal it or have it but you can say you saw the old scary man and his knife, if you wish.”

            “We’re sorry,” I said.

            He pointed his shiny, silver knife at the front door.

            “You two can leave now. I won’t call your mother. It’ll stay between us. No harm, no foul.”

            I was relieved.

            My brother said, “Thank you so much, sir,” and headed for the door.

            We made our way backwards.

            “You’ll never see us again,” I said.

            My brother swung open the door and we bolted out of Switchblade’s house.

            We ran down the street. I was almost in tears. But what I realized was that Swanson wasn’t a killer, or a madman, or even a psycho--  he was just a grieving old man who had lost his wife that remained private--- kept to himself--- and wanted nothing more than to live out his days in silence and peace; I could respect that.

            Years later, after I had grown up and graduated high school, I would sometimes drive past old man Swanson’s and think, “I escaped Switchblade’s without a cut or stab. I was a lucky one. I was one of the few to know the truth; he was just a man confined to a myth, an urban legend. He was just Swanson.”

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