Here's another ghost story for October. I wrote this a few years ago, and it won an Honorable Mention in a contest for Writers' Journal Magazine. The contest required the story begin with the prompt, "Hey, what are you...". This story grew from that prompt.
My friends in Beaver will probably recognize the town in this story, including the gazebo, the river, and the bakery (I was thinking of Kretchmar's - yum!). Nutsy Bob was also a real person, or at least that was what my Nunny called him. I can remember sitting on her front porch on warm summer evenings in Beaver Falls when I was very small. She'd see him walking down the street, roll her eyes and say, "Oh, great. Here comes Nutsy Bob." I didn't realize that wasn't his actual name until I was nearly eight years old. She had a name for everyone in the neighborhood, and most of them were hilarious.
I strongly encourage anyone interested in writing to enter contests, and also to stretch their writing skills by attempting things outside of their own chosen genre. Any practice is good practice, and the results may surprise you!
“Hey, what are you doing here?” I asked the little girl standing next to me on the doorstep.
“I think you know, Maggie,” she answered in a singsong voice, a small smile playing on the corners of her lips. Her eyes, as blue as the sky on a cloudless summer day, were focused on the horizon as if she could see the sun about to rise. “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning.”
“Lucy, what are you trying to tell me?” I asked, kneeling down so that my dark head was level with her small blonde one.
“I’m not trying to tell you anything,” she said, her voice completely devoid of emotion. “I’m trying to warn you.”
I reached out to touch her, but before my hand could make contact with her skin, she disappeared, like fog evaporating in the morning light. I sighed, sitting down on the damp cement. The cold entered my body through my thin running pants, but I didn’t get up. I rubbed my face with my hands, wishing I could begin this day again. Seeing the ghost of my dead little sister before I’d even had my morning coffee was not a good start.
I looked up and watched a bright fuchsia color stain the eastern sky as the sun slowly began its ascent. It had been nearly twenty years since Lucy had died, but I still couldn’t seem to move on with my life.
My parents had forgiven me long ago. They blamed themselves for allowing a teenager to watch an eight year old on the crowded shores of a lake. Grief had eventually made them hate each other, but not me. It made me feel even worse, because I knew the truth. I was to blame.
“Are you going to sit there all day or are we going to run?” asked my best friend, Christie, taking me out of my reverie. Her pale hair was pulled into a tight ponytail, and she jogged in place as she waited for me. I stood up and joined her, the cold moisture from the step still clinging to my skin.
We ran slowly through the town, down tree-lined streets and past rows of elegant Victorian houses. My thoughts were still on Lucy, but soon the rhythmic sound of our feet hitting the pavement calmed me. People were just beginning to wake up, and several called out a greeting to us as we passed. We were fixtures in this place, as regular as clockwork. Christie and I had lived here our whole lives, except for brief attempts to live in the city right after college. We were known here, and we were as much a part of this town as the river that ran along its border. We couldn’t escape it, and, at this point, we really didn’t want to.
We stopped, as we always did, at the bakery for coffee and a donut, completely negating the efforts of our run. As we walked back, warm coffees clutched in our hands and the sugary feel of the donuts still on our tongues, we saw Nutsy Bob out walking his dog, Clementine.
Nutsy Bob was another fixture in our town, like the bell over the courthouse or the gazebo in the park. Something had happened to him during the war, and he wasn’t quite right in the head, but he was harmless and sweet. Clementine, on the other hand, was another story. She was a nasty little Yorkie who liked to chomp on my ankles whenever she had a chance.
Nutsy greeted us as he always did. “Howdy do, howdy do,” he said, a giant smile plastered on his face and a completely vacant look in his eyes. His dark hair was slicked back with some sort of cream and his black, horn-rimmed glasses were wider than his face. He wore a plaid shirt, impeccably ironed, as always, and jeans that had been ironed as well. I looked down at my wrinkled and stained t-shirt. I hadn’t come close to an iron in years.
Clementine snarled and moved to attack me. I jumped away, nearly tripping on her leash. I heard Christie smother a giggle and I glared at her. Nutsy Bob reached down to soothe the irate little dog.
“It’s okay, Miss Clementine,” he murmured, and the vicious demon dog licked his hand lovingly. I moved to apologize, but the dog immediately started to growl so I backed off.
“That dog really hates you,” said Christie, taking a sip of her coffee as we walked away. I could hear the smile in her voice. She was enjoying this too much.
“The feeling is mutual, trust me,” I said. “She almost got my ankle this time. Maybe that was what the warning was about.”
“What warning?” asked Christie.
“It was nothing,” I said, feeling my cheeks get hot. Christie stopped in her tracks, her eyes huge in her face.
“It was Lucy again, wasn’t it?” she asked. I didn’t say anything and she groaned. “Maggie, you have to start taking this seriously. You need to talk to someone.”
“If I tell anyone, they’ll think I’m crazy,” I said, “and they would probably be right.”
“You aren’t crazy, Maggie,” Christie said softly. “We have to figure this out. Every time she has come to you, it’s been for a reason.”
“I know,” I said, throwing my empty coffee cup into a garbage can. I pictured Lucy’s face from this morning, her sweet little eight-year-old face, and sighed. “I don’t know why she would try to help me. I don’t deserve it.”
Christie touched my arm, but didn’t say anything. She knew how I felt. Two minutes of distraction and selfishness had cost the life of my sister and my family as well. The last words I’d said to Lucy were to tell her to stop bugging me so that I could hang out with my friends. I wasn’t paying attention when she waded into the lake, leaving her little pink bucket in the sand, and, because of me, she’d died.
I walked Christie to her house, and tried to ignore the look of concern on her face as I waved goodbye. I shoved my hands in the pockets of my jacket and walked aimlessly, not realizing where my feet were taking me until I reached the banks of the river. I sank down onto a wooden bench and watched the dark, muddy water flow past me. The river, swollen because of recent rain, looked powerful and threatening. Usually this was my favorite place to relax, but somehow the force and speed of the water made me anxious today and unsettled. I got up to leave, just as a dark cloud covered up the sun and the morning suddenly felt like the edge of night.
I shivered. A prickly sensation on the back of my neck made me think someone was watching me, but no one was near. It looked like it was about to rain, and sensible people were safe inside their houses, not out wandering next to dangerously high rivers. I shook my head, getting annoyed with myself, and decided to be sensible as well. I took one last glance at the river as I left, and that is when I saw it.
Something was in the river. At first I thought it was a log, but then I realized it was a person, clinging to a fallen tree in the water and waving feebly. I ran down to the side of the river, and saw Nutsy Bob, holding Clementine and trying to keep her head above water. She looked like a bedraggled rat and he didn’t look much better. I could tell he didn’t have much time. His face was pale and gray and he seemed to be losing his grip.
I dug into my pocket for my cell phone, calling for help as I grabbed a long tree branch that had washed ashore and waded into the river as far as I dared. The icy water pounded against my legs, and the thick mud pulled at my shoes, making each step difficult. After a few terrifying moments, I got the branch out far enough that Nutsy could reach it and pulled him slowly to shore. Clementine, shivering in his arms, growled at me halfheartedly as the skies opened and it began to rain.
The ambulance and firemen arrived moments later and put Nutsy on a stretcher. “He must have slipped off the path and fallen in,” said one of the paramedics, wrapping a blanket around my shoulders. “It’s a good thing you were here.”
Nutsy was mumbling something through chattering teeth, and when I leaned down to hear him, his words made my heart stop in my chest. “Red sky at morning, sailors take warning,” he said, over and over again as they wheeled him slowly away.