“No one ever really noticed Tony Wilcox,” Dakota began. “He never played any sports, he never joined any clubs, and he never made any friends. Every day, he would walk to school by himself, eat lunch by himself, and walk back home by himself. He was the definition of a loner.”
I was getting pretty tired of hearing this story. Everyone in Capo, Texas knew the story of Tony Wilcox and this was probably the hundredth time I’d heard it. I guess every small town needs their ghost stories. How else would salacious gossip persist for generations?
But Dakota loved the story and Ashlee had never heard it. I was willing to sit through it one more time for the sake of our new friend.
“One day as the sun was just starting to set, Tony walked himself to a cliff overhanging the Rio Grande. It’s actually not too far from here, just over that ridge,” Dakota said, pointing towards my family’s farm. “He stood at the edge of the cliff for hours, thinking about how no one ever cared about him. He thought about all the resentment he had for his classmates. He thought of never being picked first in gym class, never being asked to homecoming, and no one ever asking him how he was feeling.”
I could see hints of sympathy on Ashlee’s face. She was a great audience.
“He took all that pain and he let it out,” Dakota continued. “He screamed out into the river. People say they could hear his scream all the way into town. Some say he screamed for ten straight minutes without taking a breath.”
That doesn’t sound likely, but sometimes legends sound pretty implausible. No one would notice if they were ordinary.
“Well, as you know, a person can’t maintain that kind of scream without losing something. People came to check on Tony and they couldn’t find him. Finally, the town was paying attention to Tony Wilcox. They called the police, they organized search parties and they got bloodhounds to go sniffing around for him. But for that whole week, nobody was able to turn up anything,” Dakota said.
“That’s awful,” Ashlee gasped. She was right where Dakota wanted her.
“Finally, one day, Tony’s body washed up on the shores in town. As much as anyone could figure, he must have screamed himself to death. He ran out of breath and tumbled off the edge of the cliff, straight into the river. No one could find him because he’d been floating around the river all that time,” Dakota narrated.
“What happened then?” Ashlee asked.
“Well, the town turned his body over to his family and they had a small service for him. Only immediate family were invited to his funeral. Before too long, everyone went back to ignoring poor Tony Wilcox,” Dakota finished.
The silence filled the air, as he paused for dramatic effect. All we could hear was the rustling of the fresh summer leaves in the breeze.
“They say that if you go to that cliff, just around sunset, you can still hear the screams of Tony Wilcox echoing off the rocks,” Dakota continued. “People say that if you call out to Tony, he calms down, because all he ever wanted was to be noticed. But if you don’t say anything, if you try to ignore him, he pulls you down into the river with him.”
“We have to go there,” Ashlee declared. “Have you ever been? Have you heard him scream?”
“Are you sure you want to go?” Dakota foreshadowed. “Since the death of Tony Wilcox, three more boys have died in the same way as Tony, falling down into the river. They say it’s Tony making the town pay attention to him. And it worked. Here we are, fifty years later, still talking about him.”
“I still want to go there,” Ashlee demanded. “I want to see if I can hear it! I was worried this town would be boring, but this sounds exciting!”
“It’s really not that dangerous,” I retorted. “I go up there all the time. The views are beautiful though, you really should see it.”
“Don’t be such a buzzkill, Caden,” Dakota complained. “It’s more fun if we think it’s scary.”
“You’re right,” I chided. “It’s terrifying. When the wind blows through the valley it sounds sorta kinda like a scream. It’s sooo scary!”
Ashlee laughed at my sarcasm. Dakota didn’t think it was so funny.
“This is real,” Dakota pleaded. “I swear I’ve heard it. He’s up there and we have to respect his wishes.”
“His wishes?” I asked incredulously, “We don’t really even know if Tony was real. It could just be a story some kids made up fifty years ago because they thought the wind sounded like a scream.”
“He was real. I found his obituary in the library. It says his body was found washed up on shore and that he had a private service with only immediate family. If those details are true, the rest of them must be too. The story wouldn’t have spread through town if they didn’t actually hear the screams. C’mon man,” Dakota said, begging me with his eyes to stop ruining his fun.
“O.K. detective, I believe you,” I conceded, “Tony Wilcox screamed himself to death on the cliff behind my house and he still haunts the place.”
“Thank you,” Dakota said.
“So when are we going?” Ashlee asked.
“I’ll probably head over there after school,” I said, “I go up there just about every evening. It’s really peaceful. You can come too, if you want.”
“I want to go,” Ashlee stated. “Are you coming, Dakota?”
“I’ll go,” Dakota said, “Someone has to be there to talk Tony down if he tries to get one of you to jump off the cliff.”
“I hope he does!” Ashlee exclaimed, “This is so exciting!”
I walked home by myself after school that day. The whole way home, I couldn’t help but think about Tony Wilcox.
I never really believed he was mad at everyone in town. I always thought he just felt like he didn’t fit in. I know, because I’ve always felt that way.
I remember when I was a kid, a high schooler named Nate Baldwin came out as gay. It was quite literally the talk of the town. I’m sure there have been other queer people in Capo, but Nate was the first who was really open about it. People couldn’t stop talking about him.
That month, my preacher did a sermon on how gay marriage was wrong. I had already heard about Nate from school, but my mom made a point to tell me about him.
“It means he likes to kiss other boys,” she said, “Isn’t that disgusting?”
She didn’t say it like a question. She said it as though it was an objective fact.
So about five years later when I saw Guardians of the Galaxy in theaters and couldn’t stop thinking about Chris Pratt’s abs, I didn’t tell anyone. In T.V. shows they talk about how important it is to come out to your family, because you never know how they’re going to react. I never came out to my family because they’d already told me what they thought about it. If you know you’re not going to be accepted, why put yourself through it?
So I always empathized with Tony Wilcox. If he felt different, he probably wasn’t mad at everyone in town. He was just lonely.
I know, because I’ve always felt lonely.
I have people who care about me, but no one really knows me. Sometimes I feel like screaming for ten minutes straight, but I don’t because I know it won’t change anything.
After a quick check-in with my grandma and a change of clothes, Ashlee and Dakota had arrived.
“What’s with all those guys outside?” Ashlee asked.
“Oh right, you’re not from a farm town,” Dakota remembered.
“Those are the migrant workers that handle our farm,” I said. “Since my mom and grandpa passed away, they do pretty much everything.”
“Yeah, there are more of them at Caden’s place, but you see ‘em all over Capo in the spring and summer,” Dakota explained.
“Oh, cool!” Ashlee exclaimed. “It’s like you get an influx of diversity every Spring.”
“I guess it is,” I said. “I never really thought about it that way.”
I guess that’s not entirely true. As we walked passed them, I couldn’t help staring at one of the guys. He didn’t look much older than me and he was wearing a tank top and jeans. His tanned, muscular arms were glistening in the sunlight.
“Do you like him?” Ashlee asked.
“Are you serious? Come on, Ash, Caden just stares at people sometimes,” Dakota interpreted.
I was nervous. Everyone around town had started justifying my gayness as other things. But Ashlee was new. She shot me a knowing glance.
“Why don’t we ask him to come with us?” Ashlee asked. “It looks like they’re packing up for the day.”
“No, let’s not bother them,” I said urgently. “They work really hard for us.”
“All the more reason to invite him,” she declared. “You said the cliff is beautiful. Don’t you think he deserves to see it?”
“Do you really want to hang out with this random guy?” Dakota asked.
“Sure, why not,” Ashlee responded.
She began to wave her arms over her head in his direction.
“Hey, you wanna go see the sights with us?” She yelled to him.
He pointed to himself.
“Yes, you! Come over here,” she called.
He began to walk towards us. I could feel my heart beating through my chest.
“Si?” He asked.
“Hi,” Ashlee said, “Would you want to come with us to see something beautiful?”
“Beautiful?” He said with a heavy Mexican accent, “O.K.”
“Great!” Ashlee said. “What’s your name?”
“Luis,” he replied.
“Nice to meet you Luis,” she exclaimed. “Let’s go!”
And she started walking in front of us. She took four confident strides before she stopped and turned around.
“Which way are we going?” She asked.
I led our small group past the wheat fields and up the mountainside that led to the cliff. It was a small comfort that I’d already agreed to take the lead. It gave me an excuse to walk in front, which meant it wasn’t weird that I was avoiding Luis.
That’s not to say we didn’t talk to him. Ashlee was asking him loads of questions and he’d respond with one- or two-word answers. It wasn’t his fault, of course; English was almost certainly not his first language.
Presuming he understood the questions she asked him, Luis did sound like a fascinating guy. He started crossing the border to work the Texas farms when he was sixteen years old. He lived in Mexico with his mother and younger brother. Much of the money he’d made here went back to support them.
“So do you want to work the farms all your life?” Ashlee asked.
That made him chuckle.
“No, No,” He said, “Draw.”
That made me turn around. He was holding his hand like it was holding a pencil. He caught my eye and smiled at me.
“Have you always wanted to be an artist?” I asked, in spite of myself.
“Si, yes,” he said excitedly.
“That’s cool,” I replied. “I’ve always wanted to write. Maybe we could make a comic together.”
“Yes, yes,” he said, actively nodding his head.
The excited look on his face would look goofy on anyone else, but on him, it looked cute. My lips curled up into a grin.
“That’d be awesome, bro,” Dakota agreed. “You should do it. That’s probably why you were staring at him. It was fate.”
“Staring,” Luis said, nodding at me.
I darted my eyes forward.
“We should be at the cliff any minute now,” I said, hurriedly changing the subject, as we started to ascend the last few feet of the incline.
“Exciting!” Ashlee roared. She turned to Luis and asked, “Have you heard the story of Tony Wilcox?”
“Yes, yes,” He replied. “Ahhhh!” he yelled, miming a scream by holding his hands up to either side of his face.
“This is where it happened,” Ashlee stated.
“Oh, o.k.,” he said, nodding.
As we reached the edge of the cliff, I took a moment to look around. It truly was a beautiful view. From here, I could see the Rio Grande and over into Mexico. There were mountains as far as the eye could see. Various shades of purples and oranges mixed in the evening sky, almost like someone had painted it.
“Oh, Caden,”Ashlee awed, “This is amazing.”
“Yeah,” I agreed.
The wind started to pick up and I could start to hear a faint scream-like whistle in the valley below.
“Is that it?” Ashlee asked.
“Yeah, that’s the scream I always hear,” I explained. “It’s just the wind, right?”
“Yeah, probably,” Ashlee resigned, “That’s disappointing.”
As her face began to form a grimace, the screaming started getting louder. The sound of the wind moving through the mountains began to twist and change into what sounded like a painful, guttural scream.
“Are you sure that’s just the wind?” Ashlee asked.
“Aha! I told you guys. It’s Tony! He is here!” Dakota exclaimed.
“Que?” Luis asked, he pointed around us, “What is?”
“That’s Tony Wilcox!” Dakota clarified. “He’s real!”
The screaming started getting more intense. The pressure of the sound began pushing down on us. Ashlee fell to one knee and the rest of us were starting to slump down.
“Not natural,” Luis said.
“We hear you Tony,” Ashlee yelled into the river below. “Isn’t that what you said? That if we acknowledge him, he’ll stop.”
“That’s what the story says,” Dakota explained over the scream.
We waited there for a moment as the screaming continued to bear down on us. My knees buckled and I also fell to my knees.
“It’s not working,” I yelled to Dakota.
“Could this be something else? Does the wind up here ever cause this kind of pressure?” Ashlee asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said, as fear began to creep down my spine.
“Tony, we hear you. You have been acknowledged,” Dakota proclaimed.
The screaming persisted. Something was wrong. Why was this any different? Why was Tony targeting us? All the stories said he went for loners. He went for people like him.
He targeted people like him.
That was it.
“I understand,” I called back at the scream as I forced myself to stand, “I’ll tell them. I’ll let them in. I’ll stop carrying this by myself.”
Gradually, the screaming began to subside. The pressure lifted off of us and we began to stand back up. As the screaming returned to whistling sound, I swear I heard a male voice whisper in my ear, “Live for me.”
“I’ve got something to tell you guys later,” I said, as I led us back home.
These stories serve as inspiration for the upcoming short story collection, Tyranny of the Fey. The collection will be released in Fall 2023. You can get a $1 preview now!