“See ya later, Mom!” she called as she leapt down the back steps and headed for the back of the lot.
She adjusted the pack on her back, which she had filled with the necessary odds and ends that she liked to keep handy, ‘in case of an emergency’. She had been a Girl Guide for three years and could appreciate their motto, ‘Be Prepared’. Things she liked to bring on her weekend hikes usually included an extra sweater, a fold-up umbrella, a small first aid kit in case she got scratched by a twig or something, and usually a book to read if she found a nice secluded spot to curl up in. Oh, yes. She also made sure she raided the pantry for a snack to tide her over until dinner. Today, she also included a flashlight.
Danalee smiled as the leaves scrunched underfoot and she savoured the acrid tang of wood smoke in the air. The cool October breeze brought a pink glow to her tanned cheeks and danced with the ends of her sun-bleached hair. The fourteen year-old was on the trail of a mystery, tramping through the woods near her father’s forty-acre hobby farm, anticipation bringing a spring to each step.
A strange unearthly wailing had awakened her in the middle of last night and when she had pressed her face to the cold glass of her window, she had seen a glow above the treetops in the direction of the abandoned farmhouse a few miles away. When she had questioned her family about it this morning, no one had admitted to hearing or seeing anything, looking at her as if she were crazy. She knew it had not been a dream.
By now, she had reached the nearly dry creek bed that meandered through their woods, her wellies slurping as the muddy bottom grabbed at the rubber soles. A haunting honk caused Danalee to raise her eyes skyward to see the familiar V of the Canada geese heading south for the winter. Following them, she finally cleared the bushes and brambles, glancing across the stubble of grain left on the neighbour’s field.
She could see her destination near the horizon. The gray clapboards of the three-story structure presented a distant silhouette near a grove of pine, the rich green needles a stark contrast against the golden foliage of the birch and poplars. In the early afternoon sun, the farmhouse did not appear different than any other run-down building, but as she drew nearer, the sound of rustling leaves diminished and birds ceased their singing. Everything became still and silent, as though frightened by something, which Danalee could not imagine. Her heart beat a little faster as she stepped cautiously onto the long, unkempt lawn. It was browning, bitten by last night’s frost.
A light flashed in a third floor window.
“It’s just reflecting the sun,” she thought, in an effort to gain courage.
Then a shadow passed by the same window. Danalee stopped in her tracks. She looked around her, but except for the depressions in the waist high grass where she had just tread, there was no evidence that anyone had been there in a long time. She stared back at the window, one of the few unbroken panes, shielding her eyes from the sun. Seeing nothing else, she shook her head.
“I must be imagining things,” she decided and headed for the door.
She tested the rotting boards of the front porch, ensuring that they would hold her weight. She had heard how dangerous old buildings could be and was taking no chances. They groaned their protest, but seemed solid enough. Placing a shaking hand on the doorknob, she twisted it slowly, finding to her surprise, that it turned easily. She peered into the dim interior as the door creaked open. Tossing her knapsack on the floor, she rummaged through until she found her flashlight.
Although it was bright outside, most of the windows on the main floor had been boarded up, allowing only a few streaks of sunshine to filter through the cracks. Spiders had gleefully spent their time spinning webs throughout the house, unhindered by humans, the silvery strands shimmering as the beam from Danalee’s flashlight hit them. She brushed them aside as she entered. Dust particles were whirled into pirouettes by the wind eddies kicked up by Danalee’s feet.
All was deathly quiet in these empty ruins, conjuring up all sorts of images in Danalee’s mind. She remembered what her father had told her of the rumours about the previous occupants of the house and the presumed reasons it had been left unattended for so many years. Fifty years ago, a young girl about Danalee’s age had met a tragic fate. Beth, an only child, had been a bit of a tomboy, climbing the tallest tree in the yard. She had fallen to her death. Her parents had been devastated. They cut down the sturdy oak, sold the farm and moved to the city.
Since then, the house had had many owners, but very few stayed more than a year or two, leaving without explanation. Of course, rumours perpetuated a story about poltergeists and spirits, but until last night Danalee had dismissed the whole thing as ridiculous nonsense. Now, she was not so sure. No one had lived in the house for ten years or so. The last owners, unable to find a buyer, proclaimed the property a total write-off.
Her flashlight struck the shadowy outlines of the cloth-covered furniture that still stood along the perimeters of the living room. The cloth made the shapes appear ghostly, but Danalee was too level-headed to let her imagination get the better of her.
“Nothing much to see here,” Danalee decided.
She scanned for the exit to the hallway and followed the hardwood floor to the narrow stars. Grabbing the dusty ball of the banister, she wished she’d thought to bring gloves with her, but carried on, gingerly testing each step. She counted thirteen creaking steps to reach the second level and gave an involuntary shiver as she thought of all the superstitions revolving around the unlucky number.
Panning her flashlight ahead of her, she walked slowly through the halls, peeking into each room. There were five doors on this floor, marking four bedrooms and a bathroom. At the far end was an even narrower set of stairs, winding up to the attic, presumably. At the top was a single door with light shining from the crack beneath it. Danalee tried the knob. It turned, but the door would not open. It had been bolted shut from the inside.
With a shrug, she turned away. Suddenly, she stopped. The sound of sobbing appeared to be coming from the locked room. She ran back and knocked.
“Who’s in there?” she called. “Are you alright?”
The sobbing ceased. The light that had shown under the door was extinguished. All became eerily silent and dark. Fearing the worst, Danalee turned on her heels and fled, not bothering to shut the front door behind her.
“Mom!” she gasped as she burst into the kitchen. “You’ll never guess what happened!”
Her mother turned from the sink, a luncheon plate in one hand suspended over the rinse water, dripping soapy bubbles. Wiping her other hand on her apron, she studied the flushed, expectant expression on her daughter’s face.
“You know that old deserted farmhouse down the road? I was just there and I heard someone crying! When I called out to offer my help, it stopped and the light went out.”
“You were wandering through that rickety building? That’s very dangerous!” her mom scolded.
“I was careful, but you’re missing the point. Someone else was there too. I think it was a ghost!”
“Ghosts aren’t real, but they sure are a great subject for overactive imaginations.”
“I wasn’t imagining it, Mom. I really heard crying and I saw a light under a locked door. When I spoke, the light went out and the crying stopped.”
“I’m sure there’s a logical explanation for what you saw and heard, but I’m certain it has nothing to do with ghosts. Maybe another kid was playing a prank or a vagrant is living in there.”
“I didn’t see anyone else walking to the house, and it took me a long time to get there. No one else knew I was going over there except me, so I really don’t think it was anyone fooling around. And what about that noise I heard last night?”
“I’m sure that was just the wind, or a stray dog howling at the moon, or something.”
“You never believe me!” Danalee cried and stormed up to her room.
She plopped down on the bed, then flung herself back against the pillow in frustration. She thought about what she should do now, then thought of her friend Jay. She picked up the receiver of the princess phone she got on her twelfth birthday and dialled his number. Excitedly, barely taking time to take a breath in between sentences, she blurted out her afternoon’s adventure.
“What do you think?” she asked when she’d finished her tale.
“That’s real cool. You think there really is a ghost living in the farmhouse?”
“Seems that way. Want to come with me next time?”
“You’re going back there?”
“Only if you come too. I’m sure I won’t be as scared, then.”
“Sure. Sounds great. When do you want to go?”
“How about now?”
“Wish I could, but my Dad’s got me mowin’ the grass.”
“What a drag. What about tomorrow, first thing?”
“Ok. I’ll call on you as soon as I’ve finished breakfast.”
“Knock quietly, in case Mom and Dad are still asleep. They like to do that on Sundays.”
“Sure, I’ll be careful not to wake them. See ya then.”
As she got ready for bed that night, Danalee peered through her window trying to catch a glimmer of light that might indicate that something unusual was going on, but the only light she saw was the glow of the harvest moon. She slid beneath the cool covers and tried to sleep, but her mind kept returning to the run-down farmhouse down the road. It was some time later before the Sandman succeeded in sending her off to dreamland.
All too soon, soft music drifted into her consciousness. She stirred and stretched her limbs like a cat, before reaching over and shutting off the clock radio. The sun had not yet risen, but the gray sky did seem a shade lighter as dawn approached. It was chilly in her room so Danalee dressed quickly and tiptoed past her brother’s room. He was a real grump if he awoke too early, so she did not want to disturb him. He would probably create such a fuss, he’d wake up their parents, who would demand to know why she was sneaking around the house at six thirty in the morning.
Creeping down the narrow staircase to the kitchen, she avoided the squeaky spots. She prided herself on knowing every loose board in the house that might rub and give her away when she wanted to watch the late movie after her parents went to bed. She went to the pantry and fixed a light breakfast, which she ate hastily, leaving her dirty dishes in the sink. After stashing an apple, a bag full of crackers and a couple of juice boxes in her backpack, she scribbled a hasty note to her parents so they wouldn’t worry, clipping it to the fridge with a magnet shaped like a slice of watermelon. She grabbed her jacket off a hook by the back door and went to sit on the back porch to wait for Jay.
Soon she saw him jogging up the driveway, his large dog Boomer bounding at his side. The huge, brown and black sheepdog started to wiggle with excitement when he recognized Danalee. She braced herself for his greeting, which usually consisted of having him place his enormous paws on her shoulders and washing her face with his tongue. She allowed him one slurp before stepping away and telling him to get down. Then she scratched him behind the ears.
“Hey, Boomer!” she said. “How come you’re out on this adventure with us?”
“Mom says I need to take him for walks more,” Jay answered for his pet. “I thought this would be a good time to take him. If anything unusual happens, he can protect us.”
“Right!” Danalee laughed. “He’ll slobber them to death!”
“That’s not fair. You know he wouldn’t let anything bad happen to us.”
“I know. I was just teasing!”
They proceeded on their way, Boomer racing ahead. He would pause, glance back at the two young teens, then continue on his way, gleefully snapping at birds in the air or the occasional bug. When they arrived at the abandoned farmhouse, Danalee found that little had changed. They followed the trail of crushed and broken grass that Danalee had smashed down when she walked through the yard yesterday. Before stepping through the front door, Danalee took out her flashlight, handing a second one to Jay.
“You’ll need this,” she told him. “It’s pretty dark in there.”
Turning to his pooch, Jay ordered Boomer to stay. The Briard whined a complaint, but obeyed his master and plunked down on the porch. Head on his paws, brows rising alternately as he looked from Jay to Danalee and back again, he hoped they would change their minds and let him come in with them, but he was disappointed.
The teens flicked on their lights, flashing them around the musty interior. They could still see Danalee’s footprints in the dust on the floor and broken cobwebs that had now been repaired in places by their arachnid builders. Jay was a little awed by the quiet of this place with its possible ghostly inhabitant and did not want to disturb it.
“Lead on,” he whispered.
Danalee nodded and showed him the way to the stairs. Creeping up to the third floor, they noticed that the attic door was still closed. She tried the knob as before. However, this time the door swung open easily. Startled, she pulled her hand back, expecting something to grab it or jump out at her, but all was still. She pushed the door wider and peered curiously inside. It was brighter than she expected and shut off her flashlight. Stepping into the room, she motioned Jay to follow.
They glanced about, taking in all the details. Beneath the sloped roof, they found a myriad of antique items, from Tiffany-style lamps to an old gramophone, its horn aimed into the centre of the room, waiting patiently for someone to give it a crank so it could fill the air with the scratching music of its ancient records. A brass-framed day bed complete with a frilly cover and pillows had been pushed against one wall. A mahogany wardrobe stood at the opposite end beside a standing mirror in an elegant frame with carved roses and vines trailing along the edges down to its feet.
It was a typical attic used for storing keepsakes and other things that the occupants no longer needed on the main levels. The only difference between the attic and the rest of the old house was the fact that it had recently been cleaned; the floor swept, the furniture dusted, the windows polished. Through the crystal clear panes, they could see the second floor windows of Danalee’s home, far across the fields.
“So where’s your ghost?” Jay asked, his voice still a little hushed.
“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “Maybe she’s out in the yard or something.”
“If anything – even a ghost – was out in the yard, Boomer’d be yapping like crazy! Besides, I don’t think a ghost would be practicing good housekeeping skills, especially the ghost of a little girl!”
“She wasn’t all that little. She was supposed to be about our age. And besides, why haven’t we seen any other footsteps besides mine? If it was a living person, they would leave some trace, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know what to think. All I know is that there’s nothing more to see here. We may as well go home.”
“There really was someone, or something, here yesterday,” she insisted.
“I believe you. Judging by the way the furniture has been arranged, it appears that someone has been living here, so you probably disturbed them. Maybe they decided to leave. But whatever you saw and heard, I doubt it was anything otherworldly.”
Disappointed at not being able to convince her friend that she had experienced something extraordinary, Danalee turned sadly and led the way out. Boomer picked up his head at their approach and his tail wagged so fast they could scarcely see the movement, just a blur.
“Come on, boy,” Jay called. “Let’s go home.”
Danalee’s shoulders sagged as she turned and eased down the stairs after Jay. They talked little on the way home. Danalee was embarrassed that they had seen nothing and that Jay might think she was crazy. She gave her friend a sidelong glance and sighed. Sunlight glistened off his light brown hair and the freckles that dotted his nose. He swatted a fly that buzzed around his face, unaware that Danalee was watching.
The two had been friends since they were four. They had done everything together, not only because they were the closest neighbours, but also because they enjoyed many of the same things. They played baseball in a mixed league during the summer and in the winters they played hockey. Danalee had managed to become one of the first female players in the region because of her skill and determination. Lately however, Danalee had been entertaining romantic thoughts about the boy but did not have the courage to reveal her changing feelings for him. She was afraid of ruining their friendship and she really did value his opinion on most things. That’s why it was rather humiliating to lead him on what was supposed to be a thrilling adventure that had fizzled into nothing at all.
Jay looked down at her suddenly, catching her stare, making her blush.
“What’s the matter with you?” he asked. “You were looking at me all weird, like that Darcy in Math class.”
“Sorry,” she mumbled. “I was just sort of lost in thought. Know what I mean?”
“I guess,” he shrugged. “Hey, I’m sorry nothing happened at the house, but don’t let it bug you, ok?”
“Sure. It’s just that I really wanted you to see what I had seen. After all, we share most of our experiences, right?”
Jay grinned, dimples creasing his cheeks and laughter lighting up his green eyes.
“Wanna get our bikes and ride into Beausejour for an ice cream?”
“I’ll have to check with Mom first, but yeah, I’d like that.”
“Great! I’ll meet you at my house in fifteen minutes.”
At the crossroads, he waved at her as he headed off in the opposite direction to his house, Boomer bouncing through the tall grass ahead of him. Danalee stood and watched his back for a moment before turning towards her driveway, shielded by trees.
That night, as Danalee slipped under the covers, she no longer thought about the abandoned farmhouse, but her pleasant afternoon with Jay. It had been fun racing down the gravel roads on their bikes, which had jarred them through to the bone, but even better was when they sat at a booth in the diner in the nearest small town, sipping frothy malted milk shakes from tall frosty glasses. Jay didn’t seem the least bit disturbed by their lack of excitement that morning, simply enjoying her company as they chatted about school and sports. She drifted off to sleep with memories of the day still floating through her mind.
Suddenly, she was wide awake. Something had roused her from her slumber, but she could not place what that something had been. Her ears strained to hear a noise to give her a clue. Then she heard the howling. Throwing back the bedcovers, she raced to the window, peering into the moonlit night, across the treetops, over the fields to the abandoned farmhouse. Dark shadows prowled around the side of the building. Then, a light appeared in the attic window.
Danalee’s heart began racing. There was someone in the house. She had to find out who it was. As she pulled on her jeans, tucking her nightshirt into the waistband, she pushed aside disturbing thoughts of dangerous vagrants who may be using the place as a temporary home before moving on to another location, or hideous poltergeists bent on avenging their deaths. She grabbed a sweater and tiptoed down the creaky stairs as quietly as she could. Slipping her feet into her wellies, shrugging into a jacket and grabbing her backpack, she headed out.
She ran most of the way, arriving at the deserted property, huffing and puffing. At the rickety fence encircling the yard, she leaned over, hands on her knees, trying to catch her breath. That’s when she heard the snarls. She raised her head slowly, eyes meeting two pairs of glowing orbs sunk into the faces of two wild-looking dogs, teeth bared. One was a Doberman with a bobbed tail, the other a German Shepherd, both known for their guard dog abilities and unstable dispositions. Danalee dared not move, frozen in place by pure fear.
She remembered the injuries her friend Michelle had received when she had taken in an apparently mild-mannered stray that turned up in their yard one day. Months after taking in the strange dog, she went to feed it and the animal attacked her, ripping her face open, leaving nasty, jagged scars that took a long time to heal and a lot of surgery to remove the gruesome traces of the dog’s bites. Danalee hated to think what two vicious animals could do, if only one could cause so much damage.
The dogs started to advance, then stopped in their tracks, tasting the air. A faint glow appeared behind them, floating towards them, halting between them and Danalee. The glow brightened and took on the shape of a young girl in pigtails. She wore boy’s dungarees and a checkered shirt that seemed too big for her. Standing with one hand on her hip, she shook her other fist at the animals.
“Bad dogs!” she scolded. “Go home!”
Startled, they just stared at the girl, unsure what to make of the strange apparition. The hair on the backs of their necks seemed to be standing on end and they lost a bit of their fierceness, until the girl took a step closer. They resumed their growling. The ghostly girl reached out and slapped the Shepherd on the nose, her hand passing through its snout as though it were made of thin air. The animal shivered as if suddenly chilled to the bone, then backed away. Sensing its partner’s fear, the Doberman attempted to protect its friend by leaping at the unusual girl. Instead of knocking the girl to the ground, it fell through her, tumbling on the ground behind her. The animal scrambled to its feet and, together with its companion, turned tail and sped out of the yard.
It took a moment for Danalee to find her voice.
“Thank-you,” she managed, finally.
“You’re very welcome, I’m sure,” the girl replied cheerfully. “My name’s Beth. What’s yours?”
“Danalee,” she replied.
Beth held out her hand. Danalee reached out to shake it, but her hand passed right through it, sending an icy chill up her arm. Beth’s smile turned into a frown and the tears in her eyes reflected the moonlight. Then, as suddenly as she had appeared, Beth vanished.
“Wait!” Danalee called. “I want to talk to you!”
The only response was the wind rustling the long grass. Danalee looked up at the house, but the attic light suddenly winked out. She ran to the house, slid the backpack off her back and found her flashlight. She made her way to the top floor and tried the knob, but the door was locked again.
“Beth!” she called, knocking on the door. “Please come back! I want to talk with you! Please!”
There was no answer. With a sigh, she sat on the top step, her back against the door.
“Jay’s never gonna believe this,” she muttered to herself.
In frustration, she stood and started to make her way back down the stairs. A crack of light appeared under the door. Slowly, it grew wider as Beth hesitantly opened it and peered around the frame.
“You’re not afraid of me?” she asked in a meek little voice.
“Actually, I’ve been wanting to meet you for a few days now, but you keep disappearing.”
“Why have you been looking for me?”
“To prove to myself that you were real.”
“As real as I’ll ever be, I suppose,” she sighed. “Would you like to come in?”
Beth held the door wide for her.
“How can you do that?” Danalee asked, curiously.
“Make solid things move, when you’re . . . ” she hated to say ‘a ghost’ in case it offended her.
“It took a bit of practice, but I finally figured out that if I really concentrate, I can materialize enough to move things. I can’t do it for long, though. Afterwards I have to take a really long nap and I can’t appear to anyone for quite some time.”
“Are you getting tired now?” Danalee asked, noticing the faint glow around her outline growing fuzzy.
“A little,” she admitted. “Would you mind if I fade for awhile? We can still talk, but you won’t be able to see me.”‘
“I guess,” Danalee said. “As long as no one sees me and thinks I’m talking to myself. They’ll send me to the loony bin.”
Danalee watched as Beth’s image wavered and faded until there was no longer any sign of her existence. Then she heard Beth’s voice, apparently suspended in the air in front of her.
“You said you wanted to talk to me. What did you want to talk about?”
“I was just curious about you. Why have you stayed here all this time?”
“I don’t know. I miss my parents terribly. I was so hurt when they went away. Then the others came. At first I was mad and did everything I could think of to make them go away. Now, I miss having people around. It’s been so lonely. I wish Mother and Father would come back.”
“To be honest Beth, I’m not entirely sure they’d still be alive. Your accident happened a very long time ago.”
“It did? Funny. I have no concept of time. Except for the dark of the night, and the light of the day, I have no way of measuring how long it’s been.”
“What is the last date you remember?”
“I remember on the last day I went to school, we had to write the date on our slates. It was April 7th, 1936.”
“That’s over sixty years ago!”
“Then you are right. My parents would be very old, if not dead, by now.”
Danalee could hear faint sobbing nearby and wished she could comfort the lonely spirit.
“What were your parents’ names?” Danalee asked her, on a hunch.
“Margaret and Bill Honcharik,” she replied, sniffling. “Why?”
“Do you remember where your parents might have been going after you died?”
“Probably Winnipeg. They said they didn’t want to live out in the country any more. They wanted to be around people, not stuck out in the middle of nowhere. I think my Uncle Arthur had a store in the city. They might have gone to live with him for a while. Why are you asking about them?”
“I wondered if I might be able to track them down, find out what happened to them for you?”
Beth’s voice brightened. “You would do that for me?”
“Sure.” Danalee stifled a yawn. “Right now though, I think I’d better head home and get some sleep. I’ll start my search tomorrow.”
Morning came far to early for Danalee. She had to drag herself from her bed and get ready for school. She closed her eyes, leaning up against the small shelter her dad had built at the end of the driveway to protect her and her brother from harsh weather as they waited for the school bus. She heard it rumble down the gravel road, stirring up dust as it skidded to a stop to pick her and Dean up. At the next stop, Jay hopped up and found his usual spot beside Danalee.
“What’s the matter with you?” he asked. “You look like you’ve been up all night!”
“Almost was,” she muttered in his ear. “But I can’t talk about it here, not with ‘Big Ears’ sitting right behind us.”
She was referring to her brother, who was always looking for a way to bug his little sister.
“No problem,” Jay told her. “We can talk during our spare, this afternoon.”
Later that day, Danalee told him of her meeting the previous night. She could not tell by his expression whether he believed her or not. His brow was turned into a frown as he stared at her.
“Don’t you think you’re carrying this a bit too far?”
“It wasn’t a dream!” he insisted.
“Well, I find it too hard to believe. Why didn’t we see her before?”
“She was too afraid, I guess. No one had been around the place for such a long time. Anyway, I told her I’d try and find her parents. They’re probably pretty old by now, though, maybe even dead, but I have to try. She’s so lonely, being stuck out there all by herself. Besides, she saved me from those wild dogs. I feel I owe her a favour.”
Jay shrugged and sighed.
“How are you going to start?” he asked.
“The Winnipeg phone book. Honcharik can’t be too common a name. I’m sure we’ll be able to find someone who may know what happened to Beth’s parents.”
They headed for the school office and asked to look at the phone book, copying out the numbers of the two families listed.
“Told you there wouldn’t be too many,” Danalee gloated. “When we get home, I’ll give them a call.”
“But it’ll be long distance. Won’t your folks get a little upset when they get their next phone bill?”
“They always take off what I owe from my allowance. No big deal.”
The ride home that afternoon seemed to take forever. The teens’ impatience grew with every kilometre the bus travelled. Finally, they reached the crossroads and Jay got out with Danalee and Dean.
“I’ll call from your place and let Mom know where I am,” he told her. “She never objects unless there’s work at home for me to do.”
After Jay phoned home, Danalee tried the first number on the list. There was no answer. She tried the other one. Three rings later, a woman answered.
“Hello,” Danalee began, trying to sound as professional as possible. “My name is Danalee Pescitelli. I’m looking for an elderly couple, Margaret and William Honcharik. They’d probably be in their eighties. Do you know them?”
“My husband had a great uncle called Bill. His wife was Margaret. Bill died several years ago, but Aunt Margaret is living in a nursing home. Why are you looking for them?”
“It’s in regards to their daughter, Beth, and the old farmhouse near Beausejour.”
“I don’t want you disturbing her by bringing back painful memories. They never had any more children after Beth. They just wanted to forget about the whole thing. What business is this of yours, anyway?”
“It’s kind of hard to explain,” Danalee said, trying to decide how much to tell her. “I was doing a bit of research on the local history for a school project and thought they could help.”
“Margaret has had a difficult life. I don’t want you dredging up ghosts from the past. She’s too old and feeble to cope with all of that again. I’m sorry I cannot help you further.”
“Well, thank-you for your time.”
Danalee was disappointed.
“Let’s try the other number again,” Jay suggested. “Maybe they will tell you where to find Beth’s mom.”
“Alright. I guess it can’t really hurt.”
She dialled and waited as it rang once, twice, three times.
“Hello?” a quavery voice answered.
“Yes, who’s speaking please?”
“My name is Danalee. I live on a farm near Beausejour. Do you know anything about a family of Honchariks that had a farm out here a long time ago?”
“Why, yes! My husband and I lived out there for several years until an accident drove us to the city. Why do you want to know?”
“I have a message from Beth,” Danalee ventured hesitantly.
“Is this some kind of a joke?!”
“No, Ma’am. I swear I speak the truth. I was at the farmhouse last night and I spoke with her. At least, I spoke with a being who claimed to be her.”
“Yes, like a spirit, or something. She says she’s lonely. I thought you might be interested.”
“This is a very bad thing you’re doing, young lady, lying to a grieving old woman.”
“I am not lying to you. You have to believe me. Beth needs you. Couldn’t you at least try to get out here to see her?”
There was a click, and the line went dead. Danalee stared at the phone for a long time before replacing the receiver.
“She hung up,” she said to Jay.
“Can you blame her? Did you really think she would believe a story like that?”
“I suppose it does sound pretty crazy. What should we do now?”
“Maybe you could find out something from Beth that you could tell her mother, that only Beth could possibly know. When you phone her back, you could tell her. Then, maybe she’d believe you.”
“That’s a possibility. Do you think we should go over there now?”
“No time like the present. Mom said dinner won’t be until six. We still have some time before then.”
Danalee was relieved that Jay was still going along with all of this, even though she was certain that he had his doubts that the ghost was real. They hurried off across the field. The sun was already low in the sky, setting the clouds afire with pink and orange hues. The sunlight glinted off the windows of the ancient farmhouse like flames licking the glass.
“Beth! It’s Danalee!” she called. “I found your mother, but I need to talk with you again.”
“Who’s with you?” Beth answered, her voice a mere whisper on the breeze.
Jay looked around, trying to locate the speaker. All he saw was the wind rustling the long grass.
“This is my friend, Jay,” Danalee responded. “It’s alright. You can trust him. Can we come up to your room?”
“Be my guest,” she sighed. “I’ll meet you there.”
The attic door was open when they arrived at the top of the narrow stairs. From the west window they could see the sun setting.
“What a lovely view!” Danalee exclaimed.
“That’s why I like it here,” Beth said, appearing before her.
Her face was slightly flushed and held an expectant expression.
“So, you found my mother? Is she coming to see me?”
“She didn’t believe that I had been talking to you.”
“Most people don’t think the spirit world exists. And generally when they come face to face with me, they run away screaming.”
“Understandable, I guess.”
Danalee studied Jay’s expression as he wandered around Beth, taking in every detail. It was weird to see his body blurred behind Beth’s, but still distinguishable through the apparition’s figure. He reached out to touch her, and his hand passed through her. Danalee could see it perfectly on her side of Beth’s stomach. He pulled it back quickly and shivered.
“You are so cold!” he exclaimed.
He wandered to the day bed and plunked down on it, amazement and disbelief written all over his face.
“Back to the point,” Danalee said. “Beth, I need you to tell me something – a secret that was only known to you and your mother. If I tell her that, then maybe she’ll believe me and come for a visit.”
Beth chewed her lip thoughtfully for a while. Danalee went over and sat beside Jay, awaiting her answer.
“There are a few things that I remember that might be helpful,” she said finally. “When I was three, I stepped on a nail in the barn. My mother had to pull it out, but she was afraid to. She looked me straight in the face and said, ‘I can’t lie to you. This is going to hurt, so brace yourself.’ She gave me a chunk of dried beef to bite on, and then she yanked it out. I nearly choked on the beef from the sudden pain, but Mother hugged me tight and wiped away my tears. Then she bandaged up my foot. She gave Father a real talking to about safety in the barn and made him go out and check it to make sure no other accidents would happen.”
She paused, then continued.
“When I was eight, she gave me a locket. It had been her mother’s. She told me to take very good care of it, but one day as I was drawing water from the well, the clasp broke and it fell in. I felt awful and was sure she’d be furious with me so I didn’t tell her for the longest time. After awhile, I couldn’t stand the guilt of keeping the secret and finally confessed. She had been very sad, but she said that it had been an accident and that she forgave me. We tried to fish it out, but never did find it.”
Beth became silent for a moment, as if the weight of her memories was too much to bear. Suddenly, she brightened.
“I know! Something only she would know about. After the accident things were pretty blurry for a while, but I recall standing in the yard watching as my father chopped down the old tree. He attacked it with a fierceness I had never seen in him before. When the huge oak fell, he chopped it into little pieces and placed them in a pile. Then he set fire to them. You could see the flames for miles. When there was nothing left but embers, he went inside. Mother stayed, staring into the coals. After a long while, she started humming a song, very quietly. It was a lullaby that she used to sing to me when I was little. Her voice cracked and she started sobbing. She called my name over and over again. I tried to answer, but I couldn’t. My voice only sounded like the breeze. Finally, she stopped crying and began to speak to me as if I were standing right in front of her.
“‘I’ll never forgive your father for treating you like the son we could never have,’ she’d said. ‘He put all those wild ideas in your head and you were acting more like a boy than the lovely young lady you could have become. If he hadn’t put all those ideas in your head, you never would have climbed that tree, and you’d still be here with us.’ I wonder if she ever did forgive him?” Beth mused.
Silence immersed the room once more and the shadows lengthened. Soon they could no longer see Beth, but they could still hear her voice as though from a great distance.
“I am tired,” she told them. “Please leave, now.”
“Of course,” Danalee replied. “Thanks for talking to us. See you tomorrow?”
“If I feel up to it,” she said faintly. “Goodbye.”
It was dark when the teens got home and well past six.
“My mom’s gonna kill me!” Jay said as he glanced at the luminescent numbers on his watch. “See ya later!”
Danalee got a scolding when she got home and was told she had lost her privileges for a day. That meant no visitors or visiting, no television, no Nintendo, no telephone. She couldn’t really blame her parents for being mad at her. They had just been worried and with good reason, so she stayed clear of them as much as possible, secluding herself in her room doing homework and reading. When she got bored with that, she went to the phone to call Beth’s mother, then remembered the plug had been pulled until Wednesday. How was she going to contact the woman and tell her about Beth?
An idea popped into her head. Getting out the pink notepaper she’d received for her birthday, she began writing down everything she could remember about what Beth had said. She described every detail she had noticed about Beth’s appearance. Then she attempted to draw a picture of her, although she had trouble getting the face just right. When she was finished, she copied the address from the phone book onto the envelope, slipped in the note, sealed it and slapped on a stamp.
She stepped into the den where her parents were watching TV.
“Could you drop this off at the post office tomorrow. It’s kind of important.”
After reading the name and address, her mother glanced up at her quizzically.
“Who is Mrs. Honcharik? One of your teachers?”
“She was one of the original owners of the farmhouse down the road.”
“Why are you writing to her?”
“You still have an hour before bed and I have nothing pressing to do.”
“You’ll never believe it.”
Danalee shrugged and took a deep breath. Her dad looked up from his program, his curiosity piqued. She hesitantly told her tale, expecting interruptions, but her parents patiently held their tongues. When her story was completed, she looked from her mother to her father. They were a little stunned, as though they didn’t quite know what to say.
“And Jay can confirm what you just told us?” her dad asked finally.
“He was with me this afternoon. He saw her and heard her. I just have to convince Beth’s mother to come and see for herself.”
“That won’t be easy,” her mother said.
“You’re telling me!”
“I’ll mail your letter first thing in the morning so there will be little delay.”
She gave each of her parents a hug of appreciation for their support.
“Am I still grounded?”
“Of course! You weren’t home on time for dinner and I don’t care if you were conversing with a ghost!”
“Well, it was worth a try!” she sighed.
When her punishment was over, she returned to the old farm. There was an odd feeling of desolation she had not noticed before. She called for Beth, but she never appeared. She went up to the attic. The door was locked. There was no reply to her knocking. Danalee sat on the top step as she had before, hoping Beth would return. She waited a long time, and still Beth did not appear.
When she could wait no longer, Danalee left the rotting building with a heavy heart. She was afraid that even if her letter had convinced Beth’s mother to come all the way out here, there would be nothing for her to see when she arrived.
Danalee returned the next day after school, and the day after that, but there was still no sign of Beth. By Friday, she was getting really worried. What had happened to her? She sat by the attic door, hoping Beth would return. Instead, she heard a car drive slowly past the house. She ran down to the main level and peeked through a crack in the boarded up window in the living room. A gray sedan backed up and stopped in front of the house, parking on a slant near the ditch.
A middle-aged man stepped from behind the wheel and opened the passenger door for an elderly woman. She peered at the old farmhouse through wire-rimmed glasses. The man took her gnarled hand and eased her from the seat. She hooked her arm into his and he helped her to the front porch.
When Danalee saw them approach, she scurried to the back of the house, afraid of what might happen should she be caught trespassing. She cringed as the screen door creaked open. Creeping along the side, ducking low around the windows, she made her way to the front without being seen. She paused at the front corner of the house and listened.
“Are you sure you want to do this, Auntie?” the man asked.
“Yes, Sam. There was an urgency about the girl’s letter. And the way she had described Beth, I am certain she has seen her. I can’t pass up the opportunity to see my baby again.”
“It could just be an elaborate hoax.”
“What has that girl got to gain? She never asked for money. She seemed genuinely concerned with my daughter’s state of mind. If she has been roaming the area all these years perhaps something needs to be done to put her to rest.”
“Auntie,” the man said in exasperation.
It was obvious to Danalee that the man thought the old lady was senile, and that he was just humouring her, bringing her to the old homestead for one last look before she died. She wished Beth would show herself and prove to him that she really existed.
As if in answer to her prayer, she felt icy fingers on her shoulder. She whirled around.
“Beth! Am I glad you’re here! You have visitors.”
“I know. Thank-you.”
She smiled, then vanished.
Inside the house, she could hear the slow steady steps of the old woman, assisted by her grandnephew, as she climbed the stairs. Danalee had told her about the attic in her letter, so they knew exactly where to go. She climbed onto the porch and through the door, following the older couple, but keeping out of sight. She did not want to miss the reunion she had helped organize.
She paused at the top of the stairs.
“I had forgotten about these old things!” the woman exclaimed to Sam as she wandered around the attic. “We left in such a hurry, we didn’t bother to take everything with us. I had assumed that subsequent owners would have disposed of them by now.”
“Auntie, now that you’ve seen the old place, we should go. It’s not safe to be rambling about abandoned buildings.”
“Samuel! This used to be my home. I haven’t seen it in over sixty years. Please be patient with me!”
As Danalee crouched on the stairs, she felt a chill wind pass through her. A minute later, the old woman screamed. She peered above the top step into the attic. The man was holding Beth’s mother, who had collapsed in his arms. Sam was staring at the glowing image of Beth standing before him, sunlight seeping through her to illuminate the wardrobe behind her. His face was frozen with shock and he looked about ready to faint, himself.
Danalee stepped into the room.
“Don’t be alarmed,” she told them. “It’s alright.”
Sam forced his wide blue eyes away from the spirit to stare blankly at Danalee.
“Really, it’s ok,” she insisted. “Beth, say hello to your great grandnephew – I think.”
“Hello great grandnephew – I think,” she replied, eyes twinkling with merriment. “It has been a long time since I’ve spoken to any relatives. Will Mother be alright?”
Sam looked down at the elderly woman in his arms. He tapped her cheeks lightly.
“Aunt Margaret? Are you ok?”
Her creased eyelids fluttered open and she glanced up at her nephew.
“Sam! Did I really see . . .?”
He nodded and pointed. She followed his outstretched hand to Beth’s wavering image.
“Yes, Mother. How are you?”
“Not as well as I’d like to be. How have you been?”
“Very sad when you went away. Why did you go?”
“Your father and I could not live in this house without you. It was too painful. If I had known your spirit had remained, we would most definitely have stayed, too. I wish I could hug you one last time.”
Tears trailed along the crevices in her face. Beth went to her and, with a very determined expression, glowed brighter, her features becoming more distinct. She wrapped her arms around her mother, who felt the chill but did not pull away. The effort visibly drained Beth who faded fast.
“Come back, Beth!” her mother called. “Please!”
“I am still here, Mother. I am just too tired to appear to you again today.”
“I understand, dear. I am rather drained myself.”
Sam led his great aunt to the day bed to conserve her strength.
“I want to come back here to live,” Margaret said suddenly.
“But Auntie!” Sam protested. “This place is falling apart and it isn’t worth repairing.”
“I don’t need much,” she retorted. “Just one room tidied would be sufficient. Besides, it would only be for a short while. The doctors have said I don’t have long to live, anyway. At least I can live the last remaining days with my daughter, who I abandoned unknowingly, so many years ago. Would you like that, Beth?”
“Yes,” she replied, her voice soft as butterfly wings. “But not if your health is at risk.”
“There’s nothing anyone can do at this point, my dear. Sam?”
“Would you please find out how I could purchase this property and see to the renovations?”
“It really isn’t worth it!” he argued.
“It’s worth it to me!” she snapped. “If you won’t do it for me, I’ll find someone who will. And speaking of wills, you’ll be cut out of mine if you don’t co-operate!”
“Yes, Auntie,” he said meekly.
He glared at Danalee, who had been standing off to the side observing the heated exchange. He seemed to blame her for stirring up this hornets’ nest. Danalee was sure he was seeing dollar bills with wings flying into the distance at the thought of Margaret spending his inheritance on the renovations of a dilapidated old ruin.
Beth’s mother held out her hand to her.
“Come here, my dear. I want to thank you for sending that letter. You have brightened up an old lady’s life. I thought I would have to die before seeing Beth again, but you’ve shown me otherwise. Is there anything I can do for you?”
“No, thanks. I’m just happy to have been able to help.”
“Well, let me give you a hug, at least.”
Danalee grinned and wrapped her arms around the old woman’s frail shoulders.
“Now, Samuel. I’d like you to take me home. I think I’ve had about enough excitement for one day. I want to come back every day to visit. Is that ok with you?” she asked, loud enough for Beth to hear.
“Of course!” her daughter answered.
“And we’ll get started on the renovations as soon as we can.”
“Goodbye, Mother,” Beth whispered.
“Goodbye, dear. See you tomorrow.”
Within a week, Danalee noticed a flurry of activity at the Honcharik farm. Carpenters and painters were out in force to complete the required work as soon as possible. Just after the first snowfall in November, Margaret Honcharik moved back into the homestead along with a full-time nurse/housekeeper to attend to her daily needs. Danalee presented Margaret with a bouquet of flowers provided by her parents as a homecoming present.
“You will always be welcome to visit,” Margaret told her. “And I know Beth enjoys your company, too.”
Danalee found it was a pleasant way to spend chilly winter weekends, sitting in front of Mrs. Honcharik’s blazing fireplace, chatting with Beth and her mother when the nurse was busy elsewhere.
“She’s a nasty old biddy,” Margaret confided, referring to her nurse. “But she does an efficient job around here. Beth can’t stand her, and never appears when she’s around. Can’t say I really blame her. But when she leaves for the day, Beth and I reminisce about old times.”
The brisk winter flew by quickly for Danalee and soon the snow was melting to nurture the new green of spring. It was especially bright the Sunday morning that Danalee wandered down the gravel road to see an ambulance parked in front of the old homestead. She broke into a run, galloping as fast as her wiry legs would take her. She arrived at the door as Margaret was carried out on a stretcher, a white sheet covering her face. The nurse walked along behind, her usually stern expression cracking as tears formed in her eyes.
Danalee pushed past her into the house and called, “Beth!”
“There’s no one else left,” the nurse assured her. “Oh! Before I go, I want to thank you for the time you spent with old Mrs. Honcharik. I think it really brightened her days, although I have the feeling she was quite mad, always talking to herself and responding as though there was actually someone else in the room! Strange.”
“I’ll lock up, if you like,” Danalee offered.
“Thanks. Here are the keys. I’ll tell Sam you have them. He’ll get them from you when he has the chance.”
Danalee watched the nurse get into her car and follow the ambulance down the road, kicking up a cloud of dust behind her. When they were out of sight, Danalee rushed up to the attic. She found the door ajar, and heard muted sobs coming from within. She entered and found Beth sitting in the middle of the floor, face in her hands. Danalee didn’t know what to say.
Beth’s tears finally ebbed and she looked over at her friend.
“You probably think it’s silly for a ghost to cry when someone dies.”
“Now that you mention it . . . ”
“Well, you’re right. It’s just that . . . It was so nice to have her around and now she’s gone again.”
“She’s not really gone, you know. I’ll bet her spirit returns here, just like you did.”
“You really think so?”
“If you’d asked me a year ago, I’d have said it was a crazy idea. Now . . . ” she shrugged. “You’ll see. It’ll be alright.”
Danalee’s mother cut out the obituary in the paper, stating the place and time that Margaret Honcharik was to be laid to rest. She accompanied her daughter to the service where Danalee introduced her to Sam, who in turn, introduced them to his wife Kathy. They both appeared very distraught.
“Don’t be sad,” Danalee told them. “You may miss her terribly, but her spirit has now been reunited with her daughter’s and probably her husband’s. I’m sure they are a family once more.”
Danalee sat in the chapel, listening to the minister’s words about Margaret’s life, greeted grieving family and friends after the service, then joined the long procession of cars following the hearse to the cemetery.
It was a warm spring afternoon. Birds chirruped overhead. The sun was warm on her face as she stood by the gravesite. The coffin lay suspended over the hole and as the minister threw the first handful of earth onto it, the winch slowly lowered it into the ground. Everyone in turn followed the minister’s action, tossing dirt onto the coffin, then walked to their cars to return to their lives. Danalee stayed with her mother, waiting. For what, she wasn’t sure. All she knew was that she needed confirmation that death was not final, just a transition.
“Funny how I never really thought about any of this before,” she thought. “It’s reassuring to know that the spirit lives on in some form or another and that when we die, we join others we have lost.”
As if to prove that this was so, movement between the trees drew her attention. There, standing in the shade of an old oak tree, stood Beth and her mother. Behind them, hands on their shoulders, was an elderly man she could only assume was Beth’s father. Danalee smiled at the family as Beth mouthed the words, ‘thank-you’.
“You’re welcome,” she replied out loud.
Her mother was startled by her daughter’s voice and gazed down at her, while Danalee stared off into the distance as if witnessing a miracle. In a way, she actually was.
THE GIRL IN THE CLOCK
It happened during my twelfth summer spent with my family at my grandparents’ cottage on the southeast shore of Lake Winnipeg. One night there was a tremendous thunderstorm – the kind where the wind howled through the trees like angry wolves and the waves crashed to the shore with the roar of a mighty beast. Lightning flashed bright against my closed eyelids, followed closely by the crack of thunder. I prayed that no trees would blow over onto the cottage and that no lightning set fire to dry timbers.
Fortunately, it was over by morning but the day was cool. Still, I wanted to go bike riding – alone. Right after breakfast, I rushed outside. As the screen door slammed shut behind me, I heard Mom call, “I don’t want you going off by yourself! Bring your brothers with you!”
“But Mom!” I argued, “They’re slow and I can’t go as far when they tag along.”
“All the better,” Mom said. Her smile was barely concealed by the dark mesh in the screen door.
I sighed, tired of having to bring my younger brothers everywhere I went. Sometimes I wished I was an only child, so I could explore the nooks and crannies of the beach community on my own. While I waited impatiently for my brothers, the sun chased away the clouds. It seemed like hours had passed by the time they had unlocked their bikes and joined me on the sandy front street.
“Finally!” I said.
I led my brothers to the trail that wound along the edge of the cliffs overlooking the water. We came to a spot on the path where the sand was too soft to ride through, so we got off our bikes and pushed them. Through the tall evergreens, we caught glimpses of Lake Winnipeg far below. The water was still quite rough. White-capped waves crashed against the shore. Warning signs were posted along the beach, warning swimmers of the dangerously strong undertow near those rocky places.
Half an hour later, we reached a point in the path that led away from the cliff. Tall pines closed in around us. Their needled branches intertwined with the broad leaves of the poplars to form a tight canopy overhead, blocking out the sun. It suddenly grew cold and silent. There was no breeze. The air was damp. Even the roar of the waves was muffled, there. I shivered and struggled to pedal faster through the sandy trail.
“Susie, wait up!” Steve whined.
I ignored him.
An ancient wooden fence came into view. It had been built with long, hand-stripped tree branches notched into upright stumps. It was covered with green moss. Some of the rails had rotted and fallen to the ground. Beyond the fence was a tiny cabin with darkly stained logs and a large stone fireplace. Each tiny square pane of the glass in the windows reflected the images of the trees around it. No lights shone from within.
I paused, waiting for my slowpoke brothers to catch up. Doug pulled up alongside me. He followed my gaze into the yard to the old brown cottage.
“I wonder who lives there?” Doug asked in a hushed, reverent voice.
“I remember Gran talking about this old guy, some kind of recluse . . .” I began.
“What’s a recluse?” little Stevie interrupted, finally arriving at our side.
“You know, a hermit. Someone who lives alone and doesn’t want to talk with anyone, or be with anyone else.”
“Sounds like a real grouch.”
“Yeah,” Doug added. “Maybe he’s hiding something.”
“Maybe he lures children into his house and murders them!” I teased, grinning as the boys’ eyes grew round with fear.
They peered into the yard, nervously.
“It’s real creepy in there,” Doug said. “Let’s go.”
“Gladly,” Steve agreed, pushing his bike to get it started.
I waited until they had rounded the bend. I wanted to really scare them. Then maybe they’d go home and leave me alone. When I could no longer see them, I screamed – a quick screech that faded as though I was being choked. Their bikes crashed to the ground as they both ran to my side.
“What’s the matter?!” they called in panicked unison.
I laughed at the panic on their faces.
“Just wanted to see your expressions when you thought the old hermit had caught me!” I giggled. “It was great! You’re both white as ghosts!”
“That wasn’t very funny,” Doug frowned. “We were really worried!”
“So glad to know you care,” I replied rudely.
“Next time you scream,” Steve pouted, “don’t expect us to come to your rescue.”
“As if you would be much help!” I laughed.
I straddled my bike and rode around the bend.
“Hey! Wait for us!” Doug cried. I overheard him mutter to Stevie, “I almost wish that guy had got her. Sure would be easier than having her bug us all the time.”
“Yeah,” Steve agreed. “We’ll have to think of a way to get her back for this.”
When I reached the spot where they had dropped their bikes, I waited for them with a huge smirk on my face. We started off again. I was in the lead. The path soon widened a bit. It seemed fairly hard-packed, so I sped ahead.
The race was on.
Doug, at my side, tried to keep up with me. Steve struggled behind, but finally pulled up between us. He put his hand out and slapped my arm, knocking me off balance. I toppled over, crashing into the brush.
“No fair!” I shouted angrily.
I stood up quickly, glancing at the ground to make sure I had not landed in poison ivy. Although I saw no sign of the three-leafed plant, I was still angry. I pedaled madly to catch up to my brothers.
I found them standing at the edge of a steep decline. Their bikes lay at the side of the path. I joined them at the cliff’s edge, staring down at the remains of the trail that had been washed away by last night’s storm.
I suddenly regretted all the nasty things I’d been thinking.
“Geez! You guys are lucky you didn’t ride right over the edge!”
“We would have,” Doug replied slowly, “if it hadn’t been for that little girl.”
His face held an amazed look, the same expression as Stevie’s.
I was puzzled. “What little girl?”
“Well,” Steve began.
“We were just riding along, minding our own business . . .” Doug interrupted.
“When suddenly a little girl was standing in the middle of the path,” Steve said, finishing the sentence.
“She was dressed real weird, like the old photo of Gran with lace-up boots and white leotards,” Doug continued.
“We almost ran her over,” Steve added. “When we stopped, she pointed around the corner at the path that was washed away. If it wasn’t for her, we’d have fallen over the edge,” Steve concluded.
“Where is she now?” I asked.
“She just disappeared!”
“That’s impossible. She must have gone somewhere,” I said.
Both boys shook their heads.
“A soft glow appeared all around her. She got real blurry, then she was gone.”
“Right,” I said, sarcastically. “Are you trying to tell me she was a ghost that just vanished into thin air? Nice try, but I’m not falling for it.”
“But it’s true!” Steve insisted.
“Sure, sure,” I replied. “You’re paying me back for scaring you before.”
“We’re not making it up, Susie,” Doug said quietly. “We really did see a little girl in old-fashioned clothes who just seemed to disappear.”
“Whatever.” I wasn’t buying a word of it. “Since we can’t go any farther, we may as well head home.”
I turned my bike around and started back the other way. When they didn’t follow, I stopped and said, “You guys coming or do you plan to stay here with your ghost?”
Doug looked at Steve, then back into the bushes. Steve nodded – a silent plea to get away from that place – and the two of them followed me back to the cottage in silence.
Back home, they each tried to tell Mom their version of the tale until she held her hands up in surrender.
“Wait a minute! I can’t understand anything with you both talking at once! One at a time. Doug, you first.”
“Awww!” whined Steve.
Doug started the story. I sat in the armchair in the corner of the living room, listening to their version of the tale. Mom glanced at me crossly when they told how I tried to frighten them. I just shrugged, but said nothing. When they began their lies about the strange little girl, I had to say something.
“Mom, they’re just paying me back for scaring them. There was no little girl. They made up the whole thing.”
“No, we didn’t!” Doug shouted. “It really happened.”
“Well,” Mom began, in an effort to smooth things over. “If a little girl really did warn you about the washed-out path, we should see if we can find her so that we can thank her. Maybe your Gran has some idea which family she belongs to. We’ll ask her when she returns from her walk.”
Grandma arrived home just as Mom headed to the kitchen to prepare supper. The boys rushed to Gran excitedly, anxious to tell their tale again. She set her basket of berries on the counter.
“Please wait until I put away my sweater,” she smiled.
The boys gathered on either side of the wicker rocker as Gran settled her sagging figure into the green plaid cushion. Gran listened quietly as they took turns telling about their odd meeting in the woods. While they told their story again, I built a card house on the dining table.
When the boys described the girl in old-fashioned clothes, Gran didn’t speak for some time. She rocked slowly, staring straight ahead. Finally, she stopped and leaned forward as though to tell them a secret.
“When I was little, there was a tragic accident. A little girl, about six years old or so, was struck by lightning near the old clock tower. Some say they can see her image in the clock’s glass, even today. Others say they’ve seen her every once in awhile, usually warning people of danger.”
“You mean, she really was a . . . ghost?” Steve shivered. “That’s too spooky, Gran! There’s got to be another explanation.”
“Mary had always been a thoughtful child and I guess, because she was taken at so young an age, she wasn’t ready to leave this life. I think that’s why she stayed – to help others whenever she was needed. You children were very fortunate.”
“But she couldn’t have been a ghost, could she?” Doug asked. “I mean, she seemed as real as you or me. She just dressed weird.”
“I can’t explain it dear,” Gran replied. “Just accept it as a miracle and leave it as that.”
I still didn’t believe my brothers. I angrily swept the cards into a pile, shouting, “Gran, they’re just making the whole thing up because they’re mad at me. They didn’t really see a little girl!”
With that, I stomped out of the cottage, slamming the door behind me.
“Susie!” Mom scolded, but I ignored her.
I hopped along the stones of the path that led to the bunk house behind the cottage. Dad and Grandpa had built the extra building when the family outgrew the two bedrooms in the main cottage. The bunk house had two small rooms, one with a double bed where I slept. The boys shared bunk beds in the other room. An intercom connected our rooms with our parents’ bedroom in the cottage, so our parents could hear if we were sleeping or not.
I grabbed a book off the night stand and flung myself on the bed. I hoped the story would take my mind off the day’s events, but I couldn’t concentrate. My mind kept thinking of my brother’s claims.
“They’re playing this joke a bit too far,” I thought. “Mom’s mad at me for scaring them and they’re getting all the attention because they claim to have seen a ghost. It isn’t fair!”
When Mom called me for supper, I was still mad. It didn’t get any better. The dinner conversation revolved around Mary’s ghost. Gran’s insistence that she was real only fueled the boys’ excitement. Mom scoffed at the possibility that they had actually seen a spirit. I tried to ignore their chatter, rearranging the peas on my plate with my fork. Finally, I pushed away from the table.
“I’m not hungry,” I announced and went back to the bunk house.
About nine o’clock the boys ran in.
“Mom said it’s time for bed,” Doug called through the flowered curtain that covered the doorway to my room.
My only reply was, “Hrmpfh!”
The boys could not settle down to sleep that night. I heard them rustling in their beds and whispering to each other.
“Hey, Doug?” I heard Steve call in a hoarse whisper.
“What?” Doug answered.
“Why don’t we go check out the old clock tower tomorrow. Ok?”
“Sounds good to me. What about you, Susie?” Doug called to me. “You gonna come, too?”
“As if I’d have a choice. Mom wouldn’t let you go alone. I still don’t believe any of this, you know. I don’t know why you keep going on and on about it.”
“Because it really happened, whether you believe us or not.”
Mom’s staticy voice burst through the intercom speaker, “You guys stop yackking and get to sleep!”
“Yes, Mom,” we chorused.
I turned my back to the wall separating me from my brothers and closed my eyes.
Next morning, right after breakfast, we grabbed our bikes and left the cottage. We headed for the township where the train used to drop off cottagers before heading back to the city. A segment of the tracks still stood in the middle of the square along with a steam engine from that historic era. Also in the centre of the township, adjoining the small station which had been turned into a general store, was the ‘clock tower’. We had seen it many times but paid it little attention. This time we stared up at it, shifting positions to catch a glimpse of Mary’s image.
The tower was narrow and only about two stories tall. Its walls were covered with cedar slats. The clock had a square black face with large white Roman numerals and white hands with spade-like points. At the top of the tower, above the clock, was a bell that could be rung in an emergency, calling all cottagers to the township for further instructions. It was reserved mostly to warn of forest fires, but every Sunday at noon, it rang to call worshipers to the nearby chapel.
I soon got tired of my brother’s charade and stood against the wall of the general store. I watched in disgust as they continued to gaze intently up at the clock. Doug stepped sideways, cocking his head back and forth. He finally motioned Steve closer.
“Come here!” he whispered. “Look!”
Steve’s eyes followed Doug’s arm that pointed to the glass covering the clock.
“Can you see it?” Doug asked. “There’s a faint outline of a little girl in a long dress. It’s as though the glass was melted to form the outline. You can even make out the trail of long braids and lace-up boots. She seems to be smiling down at us.”
“This is too freaky,” Steve said quietly. “How come we never noticed that before? Susie, come here!”
I hesitated, then slowly walked to his side. I stared up at the clock. It looked no different than the thousand of other times I’d seen it.
“There’s nothing there,” I grumbled. “I really wish you’d stop this stupid game. I’m getting so tired of it!”
Suddenly, I heard a strange, raspy voice behind me, “Only those who have actually met Mary can see her in the clock.”
I whirled around to stare into the cloudy eyes of an old man. I quickly stepped away from him. I studied him, suspiciously.
His back was stooped from age. Wrinkles cut deep cracks in his face. Wild white hair flowed to his shoulders. He adjusted the wire-framed glasses on his nose to get a better look at us. Afraid he was the hermit from the woods, I wrapped my arms around my brothers protectively and tried to hustle them away.
“Wait, please,” the old man pleaded. “I have to know. Where did you see her?”
Doug found his voice first and said rather shakily, “On the Sunset Path near the old boat house. The path had washed away. She stopped us before we rode our bikes off the edge onto the rocks.”
“Sounds like something she would do,” the old man chuckled. His eyes twinkled. “My sister and I used to climb the rocks by the boat house often. Our cottage is near there. We’d sit watching the sailboats racing, waiting for the waves to splash up and wash our toes.”
“Come on, Doug,” I called through clenched teeth. “We’re not supposed to talk to strangers, remember?”
Undaunted, Doug pulled away from my grasp.
“Mary was your sister?” Doug asked, curiously.
The old man nodded. “Tragic what happened. Funny. Sometimes it’s like she’s still here. People tell me they’ve seen her, looking as pretty as a picture, still six years old. Here I am, ancient and wrinkled.”
We were silent, unsure what to make of him.
“I was eight when it happened,” he continued. “We were waiting on the platform. Father was coming in on the evening train. A storm blew up suddenly. I went inside for a minute to ask the ticket master for an umbrella. When I stepped back out in the wind, a flash of light knocked me on my backside. I looked for Mary. She was screaming. Her dress had caught fire. I did what I could, but it wasn’t enough. You can still see the scorch marks on the platform.”
The old man removed his glasses and, after wiping the dampness from his eyes, asked, “Can you show me where you saw her?”
“Sure,” Doug said, enthusiastically.
“No, Doug, we have to go now,” I insisted.
“I understand why you’d be afraid,” the old man said to her. “I promise I won’t hurt him. I just want to see the spot where he saw my sister. You know, I haven’t seen Mary since she died. I go back to the places where people have seen her. I just want to get a glimpse of her. I need to say I’m sorry that I couldn’t save her.”
“I’m sure she knows, sir,” Doug reassured him. “But we’ll take you anyway.”
I glared at him.
“I’ll go alone,” Doug insisted, “And Mom’ll be mad that you didn’t come with me to keep me safe.”
“I’m coming, too,” Steve spoke up. “I’ll protect you, Doug.”
Doug grinned at our youngest brother, then turned back to me.
“Two against one. You coming?”
“Don’t have much of a choice, do I?” I grumbled.
We set off walking, pushing our bikes so the old man could keep up. We followed the same route as the day before, taking Sunset Path along the top of the sandy cliffs. At times the trees and bushes grew thick, shielding the view of the lake. At others, their branches leaned precariously out over the cliff, their roots exposed by weather.
Finally, we came to the spot where the path had completely fallen away.
The old man peered through the brush and called, “Mary!”
The only response was the squawk of startled birds and the angry chatter of squirrels.
“Mary, I need to speak with you!”
The boys glanced about nervously. They weren’t sure they wanted another encounter with a ghost. I still didn’t believe them.
The old man slowly sat on a large rock beside the path. He put his face in his hands. He looked so lost and unhappy that my fears began to slip away. I stepped closer and put my hand on his shoulder. He looked up with a smile, thinking it was his sister. When he saw that it was only me, his face fell.
“Hey, mister. I think we should go now,” I said.
“You can go,” he replied. “If I wait long enough, maybe she’ll return.”
“You gonna to be alright?”
He nodded slowly. We turned to go. Something made me stop and glance back at the old man. What I saw made me gasp in disbelief. I gripped Doug’s shoulder who, in turn, tapped Steve. We stared in amazement as a glowing figure glided through the trees towards us.
“It’s her!” Doug said, his voice barely a whisper.
The old man followed our gaze. The ghostly shape formed into a young girl. Mary stood before the old man. She held out her hand to him. The old man grew quite excited by the sight of her. His breath became ragged and irregular. Concerned, I rushed to his side. Suddenly, the old man gulped for air and clutched his chest as pain stabbed his heart.
“Hey, mister! Are you alright?”
I knew Mary’s brother must be having a heart attack, but I felt helpless to prevent it. In a panic, I called to Doug, “Go for help! I think he’s dying!”
“Right!” he answered. He swung his leg over the bike saddle and hurried off, motioning for Steve to follow.
“Mister, lie down,” I ordered.
I took his arm and slid him off the rock onto the mossy ground. Slipping out of my jacket, I rolled it up and placed it under the man’s head. I glanced up. The phantom was still there, watching us. The girl smiled and beckoned to the old man, who held his frail hand towards her. I could scarcely believe my eyes, dismayed that my brothers had been right all along. I promised to make it up to them, later.
The old man took several more gulps of air. His body relaxed. He let out a final long, slow breath and his hand dropped to his side. I leaned closer, trying to hear if the old man was still breathing, but heard nothing. I felt his wrist for a pulse, as I had learned in first aid, but found none.
“Oh, no!” I cried, tears misting my eyes.
I sat back on my heels, away from the old man. To my amazement, his body began to glow and the image of a young boy slowly formed. He was about eight years old, wearing a sailor shirt, knickers and buckled shoes. He floated above the old man’s body for a second or two before placing his feet on the ground. He walked towards Mary and hugged her. As I stared in shock, the two waved at me, then turned and walked towards the lake.
I followed them, watching as they climbed down to the rocks below and sat. They removed their stockings and shoes, then stretched their legs out on the rocks, waiting for the water to wash over their feet. A large white-capped wave rose from the lake, reflecting bright sunlight into my eyes. I was momentarily blinded. I blinked and looked back at the ghostly couple, but they had vanished into the foam.
That was the last time anyone saw Mary. No other sightings were reported after that. The experience made me believe in the supernatural. I am sure that Mary is finally where she belongs – reunited with her brother, whose guilt and longing had kept her tied to this earth until his soul joined hers.