Haunted Spring

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic
Three friends in rural South Carolina in Spring, 1970 work together to solve the mystery of the ghost that keeps appearing in the backyard of one of them.

Submitted: February 20, 2017

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Submitted: February 20, 2017

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Haunted Spring

by

Mike Roberts

 

©2016 Michael K. Roberts.  All rights reserved.  An original work of fiction.

I still drive by our old place sometimes.  The house is still there, although it is empty and crumbling.  There are still no close neighbors.  Whoever the owners are now don’t mow, so the lot is overgrown with weeds and grass.  I’ll pull up in the driveway and get out of the car, but I don’t usually go farther.  I cannot tell you exactly why.  Maybe it’s out of respect for their privacy, their aloneness. 

The back corner of the lot is the entrance to the path.  It too is overgrown, almost closed off.  If you look above the trees behind the lot you can see the spindly, skeleton-like branches of the ancient oak in the distance.  It has been many years since I visited the tree, situated in its forgotten clearing like a tired old king holding court.  It’s not that I’m scared to enter the lot, walk down the path, or visit the old oak.  It’s not that I’m scared.  It just doesn’t feel right.  I have no regrets, no qualms about what we did for them that spring.  It’s just that now that it’s done, they deserve to be left alone.  They are together in their solitude.  It’s what they would have wanted.

One of these days, developers will come as they always do.  They’ll knock down the old house, cart it away.  They’ll raze the woods behind the house, clear the land, grade the ground, put in roads and buildings.  The old home place and the surrounding woods will become a subdivision or a shopping mall, or maybe a trailer park.  The old things, the tree, the path, will all vanish.  Whether they will vanish remains to be seen.  Perhaps, they will walk the streets of a modern day community, barely noticed on spring and summer evenings.  But I doubt it.  Most likely they’ll simply go away, disappear like so many things from our past.  They belong to a bygone era, like we all will eventually.  That I want their story to be told is the reason I’m writing this down.  This is the story of the spring of 1970, when I and my two friends encountered a pair of ghosts.

***

In April, 1970, I was twelve years old.  It had already been a memorable year.  The previous month, there had been a total solar eclipse and I had been able to witness it.  That April, Paul McCartney announced that he was leaving the Beatles, to the disappointment of millions of fans worldwide.  Also during that April, the Apollo 13 spacecraft, on its way to visit the Moon, had suffered a crippling rupture in one of its liquid oxygen tanks.The crew been forced to abandon the Moon mission and devote all their energies to returning to Earth alive.

In a boy’s life, twelve is the age between childhood and young adulthood.  It is the age of campouts with friends, BB guns, bicycles, and baseball.  You’re too old for tricycles and toy dump trucks, and too young for cars.  What girls you hang out with are just friends, no more.  Twelve years old is a special time.

My family—my father, my mother, and me—lived in a rented house in rural Leesville County, South Carolina.  My father had been in the Air Force but had recently retired.  He, like so many other military retirees, now worked at the Post Office.  After living on or near Air Force bases his whole career, he had announced one day that we were going to live in the country like his folks had.  When he left the service, we rented this house while saving money for a house of our own.

I liked it out in the country.  I rode my bike on the two-lane black top and explored the woods around my house.  I often saw deer, and once I even saw a bobcat.  I carried my BB gun on “patrols” and imagined I was a soldier in wartime.

The drawback to living in the country was that we had no close neighbors.  So, I had few friends.  This didn’t bother me too much; I was used to it.  But it would have been nicer to have someone who lived close by.

That was where Bobby Craddock came in.  Bobby was a stout, somewhat heavy kid with longish light brown hair.  He sat beside me in math class, and we had become friends in the past school year.  It had taken a while.  I don’t make friends easily and was initially put off by Bobby’s smart-aleck humor.  But gradually, through shared interests and sheer proximity, he grew on me.  The only thing was that Bobby lived in town.  He walked to school.  I lived out of town and my mom took me back and forth to school.  That made it a little harder for Bobby and me to get together, but we did the best we could.

We had begun planning an early April campout in my backyard in March.  We would use the pup tent I had earned by saving gold stamps, and sleep in sleeping bags.  We were going to cook hot dogs and s’mores on the campfire.  We would have chips and sodas.  And we would be armed with our BB guns in case we were menaced by predators.

On the Friday afternoon of the campout, Bobby came over about four-thirty.  We pitched the tent, circled rocks for our campfire, and spread out our sleeping bags.  Then we went out and gathered firewood.  When we had a nice pile, we set out into the woods on patrol, BB guns at the ready.

The weather was fine, the sun shining but settling lower in the west.  It promised to be a cool, clear night.  We tramped the woods for about an hour but, finding no enemy soldiers, decided to return to camp.  We opened two bottle of Coke, turned on the radio, and listened while Creedence Clearwater Revival sang “Who’ll Stop the Rain” and Santana sang about “Evil Ways.”  We talked about the things that boys talked about, sports and movies and fishing and guns.  This time, though, another topic entered the conversation:  girls.

“I noticed something about Louise Anderson the other day,” Bobby said, taking a swig of his drink.

“Oh yeah,” I said, “what?”

“She’s getting’ titties, man!” he said, with a knowing leer.

“What?  No way!” I said.  I hadn’t noticed anything, but I wasn’t as worldly as Bobby, apparently.

“Oh yes she is,” he said.  “Next time you see her, just look at the way her sweater wrinkles around her armpits.  You’ll see.”

“Hmph,” I said dubiously.  Then, “Hey Bobby, do you reckon the Lone Ranger really has silver bullets in his gun belt?”

And just as quickly as that, the conversation had changed to the question of whether the Lone Ranger really carried silver bullets or whether they were just lead.

An hour later, we had exhausted the subject, the consensus being that, if those bullets were indeed silver, it didn’t make a lot of financial sense.

“I mean,” I said, “just think of all you could buy with that silver.”

“Roy Barrett,” Bobby said, “you are a cheapskate.  The Lone Ranger has those bullets so people will know he was there.  To add to his no-tor-iety.  You can’t put a price on that.”

“Well, maybe he just carries a couple to show off,” I said, sort of conceding the point.

By this time, it was dusk.  My mom came out to check on us.  She made sure we had everything we needed, adequate blankets, and food and stuff.  My father had driven in an hour or so before.  He had waved to us as he wearily walked to the house and entered.

“Let’s start the fire,” I said.

For the next hour, while the sun sank below the horizon, Bobby and I struggled to make a fire.  We used at least ten matches, a mound of damp pine straw, and blew until we could blow no more.  Finally, I said, “Wait a minute.”  I walked to the garage, got a bottle of charcoal lighter fluid, and sprayed it on the smoldering pile of charred sticks.  Nothing happened except that smoke started to emanate from the pile.

“Throw another match on it,” Bobby said.

I did so and the pile, with a ‘puff’, burst into flames.  We both jumped back, not expecting that.

“Holy crap, didn’t see that coming,” I said.

The back door opened.  It was mom.  “Are you boys all right?” she asked.

“Fine, Mom,” I yelled.

“Okay,” she said uncertainly.

Luckily, no one was burned.  We piled wood on it until it was built up nicely, then skewered our hot dogs with sticks and held them over the fire until they were crispy brown on the outside.  We opened chips and drinks and ate until we were full.

Thirty minutes later, full of hot dogs and chips and soda, we lay around the fire with our sleeping bags as pillows and burped.  And farted.  Bobby won the farting contest with a long one that sounded like a mellow cornet note.

The sky grew dark. The wind picked up a little and the night became brisk.  The nearly full moon rose in the east.  My friend and I relaxed and talked and listened to the radio.  We talked about what we were going to do during the coming summer vacation.  We were hoping to go to summer camp together.  The night drew on.  After a while, we were both yawning, which was a disappointment because we had planned to stay up all night.  I looked at my watch.  Ten-thirty, still early.  But I was tired and my frequent yawns testified to that fact.

“Man,” I said, “I think I’m going to bed.”

“Yeah, I guess I will too,” said Bobby.

We crawled into our sleeping bags, fully clothed.  Bobby turned off the radio.  We talked for a few more minutes, but soon fell asleep.

I awoke a couple of hours later.  The night was quiet.  I could hear, in the distance, the leisurely call of a chuck will’s willow.  I lay wrapped in my bag for a few moments, fighting the urge to get up and go pee.  If I fell right back asleep, I’d probably sleep till morning and not have to leave my warm bag.  After a few minutes, though, it became clear that I was going to have to get up.

I unzipped the bag and crawled out.  The cool night air was a bit of a surprise.  Bobby mumbled something and rolled over.  I laboriously got up, stiff joints protesting, and walked on my stocking feet a little way from the tent to relieve myself.

The moon was practically overhead.  When Bobby and I had gone to bed, it had been high in the eastern sky.  At that time, there had been no clouds.  Now a large bank of broken cumulus moved across the moon and the night grew dark.  I unzipped and began taking care of business.  The Cokes I had drunk earlier now made their appearance.

The night grew even quieter.  The chuck will’s willow I had heard earlier became silent.  The only sound was the soughing of the wind in the trees.  I finished what I was doing and stood there, enjoying the coolness of the breeze.  I suddenly felt colder.  And then from the woods came a sound:  a low, soft whistle.  I peered into the darkness, but all I could see were the intermittent flashes of fireflies.  I thought the sound might have come from a bird, but I’d never heard a bird that sounded like that.  It came again, an eerie, undulating trill.  My heart began thudding in my chest.  The wind picked up slightly, causing the trees to sway.  The bank of cumulus moved on and silvery moonlight spread across the tops of the trees and along the ground.  Once again the whistle came, but this time it clearly emanated from the far corner of the yard.  I looked in that direction and watched fascinated as a cloud of fireflies coalesced into the shape of a soldier.  A Confederate soldier.

My mouth went dry and I swallowed.  The image was clear, though it seemed to be surrounded by a faint glow of spectral light.  I wanted to turn away and wake Bobby, but something made me keep watching.

As I said, he was young, very young.  I knew he was a rebel soldier from the gray slouch hat and butternut jacket.  But what impressed me the most were his eyes.  He stared at me with a piercing, sorrowful gaze.  It was as if he was trying to tell me something, to convey some message.  My knees grew weak and I felt myself start to sway.  I was truly frightened.  I tried to call to Bobby, but all that came out was a croak.

Then, the apparition nodded at me and in the direction of an overgrown path that led into the woods.  He looked at me with his pleading eyes, turned, and disappeared down the path into the woods.  I could see his glow faintly though the underbrush, then it faded away.

I fell to my hands and knees, suddenly too weak to stand.  I nearly threw up right there.  I crawled over to Bobby and started to wake him, then thought better of it.  He would never believe me.  Besides, this might all just be a dream.  I sat down on the ground and looked around.  The cool breeze sprang up again now, drying the sweat on my brow.  The chuck will’s willow started her mournful song again.  The bright moon floated in a cloudless sky.  I saw a light go on in the bathroom window of my house.  Probably my dad taking a leak in the middle of the night.  Things seemed normal again.

The fire had burned down to embers hours earlier.  I stirred it with a stick but didn’t add more wood.  I looked back over at the corner of the yard.  Nothing.  Maybe it had been a dream.  After a while, my eyelids began to droop.  I was a little cold.  I decided to lie down.  I crawled back into my sleeping bag and zipped up.  Delicious warmth flowed over me.  My eyes closed and I feel asleep.

***

The sun hitting my face woke me up.  I opened my eyes to see it clearing the trees on the opposite side of the road.  Bobby was up.  He looked tired and disheveled.  He was fooling with the fire, trying to get it started.  He saw me and said, “Hey man, get up and help me with this.”

I groaned.  I was comfortable and warm, but I also needed to pee.  “Can’t you get it started?” I asked.

“Of course I can,” he said.  “You’re just better at it.”

I threw my sleeping bag off and crawled painfully out of the tent, stiff joints aching.  “Hold on a minute,” I mumbled, stumbling off to take a leak.

When I got back there was lots of smoke, but no fire.  Bobby had tried using damp pine needles once again and it had only made matters worse.  This time I remembered my Boy Scout training.  I scraped the hot coals clean, then carefully put dry needles on them.  They smoked at first, but then caught.  To these I added small sticks, pencil-thin, until they caught.  No lighter fluid this time.  Then I gradually added bigger sticks until I had a small but respectable fire going.  Bobby spread his hands close to the fire, rubbing them together.  “That’s more like it, Barrett,” he said.

We sat by the fire getting warm and waiting for my mom to call us in to eat breakfast.  I thought about what had happened the night before.  Had it been a dream?  I looked over to the corner of the yard.  Sure enough, there was the opening to the path.  I decided that I would tell Bobby.

“Man, guess what happened last night,” I said.

“What?” he said, poking the fire with a stick.

“I think I saw a ghost,” I replied.

“What?” he said again, a grin spreading over his face.

I looked at the house.  I didn’t know how long I had before Mom came, so I said quickly, “Last night I got up to take a leak and there he was, standing in the corner of the yard.”

“You were dreaming, man,” Bobby said.  “There ain’t no such things as ghosts.  You musta been sleepwalkin’ or somethin’.”

I grew annoyed that he didn’t believe me.  “Man, I’m telling you I saw something.  A man, or a boy maybe, in the corner of the yard.”

Bobby looked unconvinced.  “Okay then, what did he do?”

“Nothing, really.  Just nodded at me,” I said defiantly.

“That’s all?  Just nodded at you?  He didn’t go ‘woo’ and come floatin’ at you?”

“No,” I said.  “I think he was trying to tell me something.”

“Like what?” Bobby said.

“Damn if I know.  He nodded in the direction of the path.”

Bobby looked at me, grinning uncertainly, apparently trying to decide whether to believe me or not.

“I know,” I said.  “Let’s patrol down the path after breakfast and take a look.”

“After cartoons and Three Stooges,” Bobby said.

“Okay,” I said a little reluctantly.  I wanted to get started, but Saturday morning cartoons and Stooges were a sacred ritual on our sleepovers.

The back door opened and my mom appeared.  “Come to breakfast, boys,” she said and closed the door.

She had cooked pancakes and sausage.  We also had orange juice and chocolate milk.  She sat down at the table with us while we ate.  My mother’s name was Blanche.  She was a slim, business-like woman with dark hair and cat’s eye glasses.  She worked part-time at a dry cleaners.  She loved me and her husband, went to church but not Sunday school and gave affection only rarely.  My father and I accepted her for who she was:the driving force in the family.

“So how was the campout?” she asked, drinking coffee.

“It was fine,” I spoke up.  Bobby looked like he was about to say something about the ghost.  I have him a look.  He just grinned.

“Did you get cold?” she asked.

“No ma’am,” we both said.

“We heard a whippoorwill,” Bobby said.

“Hmm,” Mom said.

She got up to sneak a cigarette.  My mom smoked.  My Dad didn’t.  She usually only smoked when he was gone or asleep.  This was Saturday morning, and he’d slept in.  Of course he knew.  After all, they did kiss (although I seldom saw it), but he never made an issue of it.

After breakfast, we settled in front of the TV with more chocolate milk and watched cartoons and the Three Stooges for an hour and a half.  Then we told Mom that we were going back outside and left the house.

We stopped at the campsite and picked up our BB guns.  Then we walked to the corner of the yard.  An overgrown path led into the woods.  We had never explored this path before, preferring the more open woods on the other side of the house.  This one had seemed a little forbidding.  And yet, overgrown as it was, it was clearly a passageway.  It led into a large stand of pine and oak trees that shaded the forest floor.

“Well, what do you think?” I asked Bobby.

“I don’t know, Roy.  This is your deal,” Bobby said.

“Do you think it’s safe?” I asked.

“How would I know?  I’ve never been here before.  But we’ll never find out if we don’t go.”

I was suddenly seized by fear.  “But what if he’s waiting for us, Bobby?  What if he’s waiting to …” I swallowed hard.

“Shut up, Roy!” Bobby said.  “Now are we going or not?  It’s broad daylight.  Everybody knows ghosts don’t come out in daylight.  That is, if there’s even a ghost.  In any case, we won’t know unless we check it out.”  He looked at me slyly.  “That is, unless you’re chicken.”

Chicken.  The word hit me like a hammer.  I looked at him, wounded and angry.  “I’m not chicken, Bobby!  Let’s go!” I said and took off down the trail.

The sun shone down on us as we walked through the underbrush, but when we entered the trees, it got darker.  There were patches of sunlight on the forest floor, but also large areas of shadow.  The path, though somewhat overgrown, was still passable.  We walked quickly, BB guns at the ready.  I looked behind us.  The sunlit portion of the path receded further and further.  I told myself to just stay on the path and everything would be all right, but in truth I half expected a ghostly rebel soldier to appear out of the shadows.  My heart was beating hard in my chest. 

After walking for about ten minutes, we could see sunlight ahead.  Bobby looked at me and pointed.  I grunted and we picked up the pace.

Presently we emerged into an open space a little over three acres in size.  There was grass, but it was stunted and brown.  It looked poorly.  Around the space was a fringe of underbrush, and then the woods started right up again.  It seemed that we were in the middle of nowhere, but then I heard a truck passing by in the distance.  I looked around at the clearing.  On the other side was what appeared to be another path, also overgrown, but this path was wide enough to admit an automobile.  But that was not the most interesting or arresting feature in the space.  That would be the enormous, half-dead oak three that grew right in the center.

“Whoa,” I heard Bobby whisper.

“Yeah,” I said.

The tree was at least thirty feet tall, gnarled, and about twelve feet or so around.  Though it had some green leaves on it, it was mostly dead and skeletal, with thick brown boughs reaching out vertically and horizontally from the massive trunk.  The trunk, despite being so thick, was not completely solid.  There was a large opening in it.

“That is one big tree,” Bobby said.

“Look at that opening in the trunk,” I said.

“Must have been hit by lightning,” Bobby said.  “Let’s go take a look inside.”

“Uh, okay,” I said, not wanting to appear cowardly.

We walked up to the tree.  Bobby glanced into the opening.  “Can’t really see anything,” he said.  “You look.”

I walked up to the opening and peered inside.  At first there was nothing but darkness.  But gradually two things came into view.  One was a metal box about four inches square, wedged into a fissure in the wood.  The other thing was a huge paper wasp nest.  It was the size of a basketball, gray, with an opening in the bottom through which large orange and yellow stinging insects entered and exited.  I jumped back.

“What is it?” Bobby asked.

“A big-ass wasp nest,” I said.

“No kiddin’?” Bobby said.

“No kiddin’,” I said, “and something else.”

“What else?” Bobby asked.

“A box.”

“A box?  What kind of box?” Bobby asked.

“I don’t know.  A metal box about this big,” I said, measuring with my hands a rectangle about four inches on a side.

“What do you reckon is in it?” Bobby asked.

“How would I know?” I said.

“Maybe there’s money inside.  Or gold,” Bobby said, eyes glowing.  “We have to get it.”

“I’m not gonna get it,” I said.  “That’s a big-ass wasp nest in there.”

“Well, I’m not gonna get it,” Bobby said.  “’Sides, it was your idea to come down here anyway.

“Oh, and if I get it, you’ll want to share in what’s inside,” I said.

“Well, I did come along.  I’m here to offer moral support,” Bobby said, grinning.  “Anyway, I’m scared of wasps.  They sting.”

“No shit, Sherlock,” I said sarcastically.

Suddenly Bobby appeared hurt.  “Fine then, Barrett,” he said, turning and starting to walk away.  “Get it your damn self.”

“Wait,” I said quickly.  “Sorry, Bobby.  I didn’t mean anything.  Bobby was one of my few friends.  I didn’t want an argument with him.  “I’ll get the box.”

“And we can share?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said, “why not?”

“Okay,” he said, coming back.

I cautiously walked up to the trunk and looked into the opening.  Yep, the nest was still there.  So was the box, wedged a little below and behind it.  I would have to reach in and behind the nest in order to get the box.  Hopefully, the box wasn’t wedged in too tightly.  If I could get in and out without disturbing the nest, I would be fine.  If not, well, I didn’t want to think about it.  About this time, I became acutely conscious of the low buzzing coming from the nest.

The opening in the tree was about two feet wide and about three feet tall, an elongated vertical slash.  From what I could see, the wood inside was not rotten, just hardened and scarred from years of exposure.  The wasp nest itself hung from the top of the opening.  It was long enough to reach down about half way into the opening, and wide enough that I couldn’t get a hand on either side.  The box itself was below the nest, wedged into the wood, about eight inches from the opening at the bottom of the nest.

Luckily, the wasps didn’t seem particularly aware of me.  They were going about their business, entering and leaving the nest, paying me little mind.  However, I knew that if I jostled the nest, that would all change.

Swallowing hard, I stepped up to the tree.  I could see the glint of metal in the darkness.  I said a little prayer, then carefully stuck my hand into the opening.  From inside the nest I could hear a low continuous buzzing.  I leaned in further, inching my way towards the box.  A solitary wasp began flying around my head.  He didn’t land on me, he just buzzed around my face.  It was as if he was inspecting me, checking to see if I was a threat.

The buzzing from inside the nest seemed to get a little louder.  Was there more activity around the mouth?  I couldn’t be sure.  I felt sweat running down my face and my back.  I reached farther in.  The box was just outside my grasp.  Closing my eyes and taking a deep breath, I leaned in a little farther.  I felt the hard, cool metal beneath my fingers.  I got four fingers and my thumb on the box, and pulled gently.  It was stuck.  The wasps were buzzing louder now.  It seemed that they had become aware of my presence.  More of them were flying around, inspecting me.  I tugged on the box and felt it give.  An insect landed on my arm but did not sting.  I had to stifle the urge to scream as it walked on me.  I tugged again and the box came free.  So far, I had not touched the nest.  I slowly withdrew my hand with the box in it.  Sweat clouded my eyes and I blinked to clear them.

And then the wasp stung me.

I saw him do it.  It was as if he looked at me, cocked his bulbous abdomen, and plunged down on my arm, injecting me with searing, poisonous venom.

“Shit!  He stung me,” I yelled.

I jerked my arm out of the opening, knocking the wasp off.  As I did so, I bumped the damn nest.

Wasps came boiling out, hundreds of them, it seemed.  They were all around us.  I could feel myself get stung a couple more times.  Bobby and I were both yelling.  We grabbed our guns and began running as fast as we could back down the path.  The wasps followed us.  I had my BB gun in one hand and the box in the other, and I was waving my arms wildly to keep the enraged insects off.  We ran as fast as we could down the path.  Eventually, we outran them.  That is, except for one.  He kept buzzing around me.  I swatted at him, but he wouldn’t leave.  He made no move to sting, he just kept following me.  As we left the path and entered my back yard, the lone wasp circled one more time and flew back the way we had come.

We ran panting to the house.  I had been stung four or five times.  Bobby said he’d been stung three times.  None of my stings were on my face; they were all on my arms, except for one on the back of my hand.  Bobby had been stung on his ear, and it was swelling and turning white.

He was cursing, “Man, that stings like hell!” he said.

I agreed completely.  My hand and arms were swelling.  We decided to go inside.  My mom would know what to do.

When she saw us, her eyes widened.  “My lord, boys, what got you?”

“We got into a wasp nest,” I said sheepishly.

“By accident,” Bobby added quickly.

“Well, come in the kitchen.  I’ll make you a poultice of ammonia.  That’ll help.  What’s that?” she asked, nodding at the tin box I still clutched in my hand.

“Nothing,” I said.  “Just something we picked up in the woods.”

“Well, just be careful there’s not something in there to bite you,” she said.

For the next half hour my mother bathed our stings in ammonia water.  Gradually, the stinging stopped, replaced by an annoying itching.

“I don’t see any stingers,” my mom said after inspecting us.  “I guess you’ll be okay.”

“Thanks, Mom,” I said.

“Thanks, Mrs. Barrett,” Bobby said.

We went to my room and closed the door.  We inspected the box carefully.  It appeared to be made of tin, because it hadn’t rusted.  It was oxidized on the outside though, making it impossible to make out what had once been painted on it.

“Wonder what it held?” Bobby said.

“Heck if I know.  Bullets maybe, or fishing stuff,” I said.

“Shake it,” Bobby said.

I shook it gently.  Something rattled inside, something that was not metal.  Paper, possibly.

“Feels like paper,” I said.

“Open it,” Bobby said.  “Maybe it’s paper money.”

The corrosion made it difficult to open, but I worked my fingernails around it until I had purchase.  Carefully I pried the lid off the box.

Inside the box was a folded piece of paper.  I carefully took the paper out and unfolded it.  The sheet was brittle and yellowed with age, and covered with handwriting.  It was obviously a letter of some sort.

“Can you read it?” Bobby asked.

“I don’t know.  It’s pretty faded.  Hey, wait a minute.”

I handed the letter to Bobby and rummaged in my desk.  I found my magnifying glass.  We turned on my desk lamp and carefully laid the letter flat on my desk.  I held the glass to the letter and began to read:

April 8, 1865

My Dearest Lucy,

I am writing this letter to you in hopes that it will be delivered to you by

one of my comrades if I am unable to deliver it myself.  My friends and I

are busy preparing for what will be for most of us our first battle.  There

is much horseplay and joshing, but most of us are pretty nervous about our

upcoming encounter with the Yankees.  We all fervently hope to give a

good accounting of ourselves.

Please be assured of my continued love and devotion.  Even though

our families are at odds, I firmly believe that our love can win them over.

My dearest wish is to marry you so that I may gaze upon your sweet

countenance for the rest of my days.

With Love and Devotion,

Everett

 

“A love letter?  That’s it?” Bobby asked.  He picked up the box and looked inside.  “What good is it?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Hey, what if the ghost I saw is Everett?  What if he’s trying to tell me something?”

“He could be, I suppose,” said Bobby.  “But what’s in it for us?” he asked.

“Maybe a chance to solve a mystery,” I said.

I folded the letter carefully and placed it back in its box.  For the rest of the morning, we hung out in my room or watched TV, while our stings itched.

At about noon, my mother came to the door and said, “Bobby, your father’s here to pick you up.”

“Holy crap!” Bobby said, jumping to his feet.  “I haven’t gotten anything ready.  My Dad will be pissed.”

We ran outside and hastily gathered Bobby’s backpack, sleeping bag and other stuff.  We quickly rolled up his bag and stuffed things into his backpack.  Then we lugged everything around to where his father waited, leaning on a station wagon.

Bobby’s father was talking to my mom.  He was leaning against the car, smoking a cigarette.  He eyed us as we walked around the house and said, “Told you I’d be here at noon, son.  We need to get going if we’re going to make it to your grandparents’ by one.”

Bobby didn’t say anything.  He just threw his stuff in the back seat and climbed in.

“See you in school,” I said.

“Okay,” he said.  He was looking at his father.  I wasn’t sure, but I thought Bobby sometimes got hit at home.

Mr. Craddock drove off with Bobby silently in the back.  My mom looked at me and said, “Well, what are you going to do for the rest of the day?”

“I don’t know,” I said, shrugging.  “Guess I’ll clean up the campsite and read in my room.”

“Well, I’ve got a couple of errands to run in town.” she said.  “Want to come along?”

“Sure,” I said.  There was nothing else to do.  My dad was off seeing his friends, it being Saturday.  Sometimes my dad and I did stuff on Saturday, sometimes not.  Today it was not.

I made sure the campfire was out and began breaking down the tent.  It was easy enough because it was just a pup tent.  I kept thinking about the letter.  Who were Everett and Lucy?  They must have been in love.  Were they engaged without their families’ approval?  I meant to find out, but wasn’t quite sure where to start.  I rolled up the tent and sleeping bag, threw my trash away, and hauled my gear into the house.  Then I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while my mom got ready to go into town.

I didn’t carry the letter with me.  I just made a note of the date, April 8, 1865, and the names.  When we got into town, my mother went to the grocery store and I went to the library.  I knew my way around as I was frequent visitor.  I asked the librarian for permission to use the South Carolina collection and she said go on in the door’s unlocked.  When I got into the room, I went over to the section containing Civil War histories.

There were quite a few books about the Civil War in South Carolina, but only a few about the war in Leesville County, where I lived.  I picked out a slim old volume titled The Defense of Leesville County by a man named Abraham Redhill.  I took the book to a table and began leafing through it.  There were chapters on the contributions of Leesville County to the war effort, the Confederate units formed there, the commanding officers, and even a chapter (albeit a short one) on a small group of disaffected Southerners who’d hid out in the local swamp and carried on small-scale guerilla attacks on the local authorities.  (They were rounded up and their leaders imprisoned.)  The last chapter was entitled “The War Comes to Leesville.”  It described the heroic stand of a small contingent of local militia against a sizable raiding party of Yankees on April 8, 1865.

The militia consisted of twenty four local boys and men commanded by Captain James Field.  The Yankee raiding party consisted of about fifty men on horseback.  They were part of General Edward Potter’s command and had been actively engaged in laying waste to the South Carolina countryside.  The skirmish, long forgotten, had taken place near “Scarlet Hill” in the county.  There was no map to show where.  In the battle, all of the Southerners save one had died.  He had been the scout and messenger and had not taken part in the fighting.  His name was Jacob Brand.  He had survived the war, only to die in 1868 of pneumonia.  With him died almost all recollection of the skirmish to protect Leesville County, South Carolina.

I closed the book and sat thinking.  Just down the road from our house was a sign that said “Scarlet Hill.”  The battle must have taken place near our house, maybe even in the clearing where we found the box.  But the question remained:  who were Everett and Lucy?  It was apparent that Everett had been one of the militiamen fighting the Yankees, but what was his family name?  About that time I looked up and saw my mother standing in the library looking for me.  I quickly put the book up and went to her.

“Ready to go, son?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

As we drove home, we passed by a brick building with a sign out front that said, “Leesville County Museum and Historical Society.”  On the front lawn of the building stood a bronze figure of a Confederate soldier, rifle in hand, looking vigilantly into the distance.  I almost asked my mom to stop, but decided against it.  I would go by later, when I had more time.

It being Saturday, I spent the rest of the afternoon in my room, reading and looking up the Civil War in my encyclopedias.  It was true.  As the war ground down, General Sherman’s troops did indeed pass through this area.  General Potter’s detachment was part of his command.  Most of the Southern boys were off fighting the Yankees at the battle front as part of organized armies.  The only ones left to defend the small towns and settlements in the countryside were often poorly trained and equipped militias consisting of boys too young to fight, old men, and wounded veterans.  They didn’t do too well against the well-trained and experienced northern troops.  In isolated skirmishes all over the South, Southern men and boys fought and died protecting their homes.

After a while, my dad came to my door and asked if I wanted to play some catch.  “Sure,” I said and grabbed my ball and glove.  We threw the ball for about an hour, then Dad went in to read the paper while my mother fixed supper.  I went back to my room and watched it get slowly darker outside.  I wondered if Everett, if that was his name, would appear again.  A slow tendril of fear began encircling my heart.

Saturday was pot roast night, Sunday was fried chicken.  It was Saturday, and mom’s pot roast was, as always, delicious.  We also had mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, biscuits, and iced tea.  For his dessert, my Dad always poured a pool of molasses into his plate, dropped butter into it, mixed it around some, then scooped the mixture onto biscuits or wiped the plate with them.

After supper, my father and I went into the living room to watch TV.  My mom usually stayed behind to clean up.  My dad watched “Hee Haw” and “Gunsmoke” every Saturday night.  Mom usually came in and sat on the couch with me during “Hee Haw.”  After “Gunsmoke” went off, my parents usually went to bed, leaving me to my own devices.  I either went to my room and read, or stayed up to watch the late night horror movies.  Tonight, I was apprehensive about going to my room alone.  My window looked out into the backyard, and I was afraid that if I looked outside, I would see something I didn’t want to see, or that the spectre might actually approach my window and look in.

So this night I stayed in the living room, putting off going into my room as long as possible.  At one a.m., I was tired and sleepy.  I knew I had to go to bed.  Sleeping on the couch was not an option.  It would cause questions.  So I went back to my room.  I turned on my bedside lamp.  My window was open, and a cool breeze meandered in.  Outside, the crickets chirped peacefully.  Nothing to worry about, I said to myself.  Still, I would close the window because I didn’t want to get cold.

I put my hands on the sash and began to pull down, but curiosity mixed with dread got the better of me.  I had to look, had to know.  Outside, the moon had risen and cast its eerie glow over the back yard.  I put my head through the window and turned to look at the corner of the yard.  Was that fog congregating over there?  Strange, there was no fog anywhere else.  As I watched, the vapor slowly began to assume a shape.  A breeze caressed my face, but this breeze was cold, not just cool. The night became quiet as the crickets ceased their chirping.I watched the fog begin to coalesce into something.  A figure.  First the head, then the shoulders, then…  I heard it then, the same as the night before, a long low eerie whistle.

I pulled back into the window, banging my head in the process.  I closed the sash and pulled the drapes shut.  My heart was pounding, my hands trembling.  I was dripping sweat.  Was it going to be like this, then?  Was I going to be haunted?  I crawled into bed.  Not daring to put out the light, I closed my eyes and prayed fervently to be saved from the apparition that lived outside my window.  At length, I did sleep.

The next morning, after having slept, and with the sun shining outside, I was less scared.  After all, I rationalized; the ghost hadn’t seemed to want to hurt me.  Maybe it wanted me to do something for it.

It being Sunday, we went to church and then, afterward, had our usual fried chicken dinner.  My father usually took a nap on Sunday afternoons.  My mother read or watched TV, and I usually hung out in my room.  That afternoon, I found my mother in the living room, reading a book.

“Hey Mom,” I said

She looked up and said, “Hi, Son.  What‘s up?”

“Nothing,” I said.  “I’ve got a favor to ask.”

“Oh?  What is it?”

At this point, I lied to my mother, even though I didn’t really want to.  I just knew that if I told her the truth, she would accuse me of doing drugs or something of that sort.

“I need to go to the historical society in town after school tomorrow.  I’ve got a report to work on.”  I looked down, not wanting to meet her eyes.

She had put her book down.  “Oh?  What kind of report?”

“A report about a Civil War battle that happened not far from here.  I’ve got to research it and write a report on it,” I said.

“What do you need me to do, Roy?” she asked.

“Just pick me up an hour later than usual at the society.  That’s all.”

I was lucky.  My mom only worked part time at the dry cleaners.  Monday wasn’t one of her work days.

“Okay,” she said.  “I guess I can do that.  But you had better be ready when I get there.”

“I will, Mom,” I said.  “Thanks.”

That afternoon, I thought up a plan of sorts.  I would go to the historical society and talk to someone there.  Maybe they could tell me who Everett and Lucy were.

I laughed it off at school the next day when Bobby teased me about seeing the ghost and kept trying to sneak up on me to scare me.  When I asked him if he wanted to go over to the historical society after school, he said, “No thanks pal.  That’s not my thing.  Let me know if you’re going after your so-called ghost, and I’ll be with you.  But poking around in dusty old books is not for me.” I was disappointed, but not too much.  I was the bookish one.  Bobby was the man of action.

After school I walked over to the historical society.  A brass plaque on the door said:

Leesville County Museum and Historical Society

Opened 1924

Hours:  Monday-Friday 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.

Closed Sunday

Donations accepted

I pushed opened the door into a cool quiet room that smelled of books and furniture polish and dust.  At the desk in the middle sat a middle-aged woman with half-glasses perched on her nose and a beehive hairdo.  She looked up at me, not smiling, and said, ‘Can I help you, young man?”

“Yes ma’am,” I replied, somewhat haltingly.  “I need some information.”

“Information about what?” she asked.  She acted a bit as if I were disturbing her.

“I’ve got a report for school,” I said, continuing the lie I had told my mother.

“A report about what?” she asked, pursing her lips.

I took a deep breath and mustered my courage.  I wasn’t going to let this woman intimidate me.  “A report about a battle late in the war that took place not far from my home between some Confederate militia and some Yankee raiders.”

“Hmm,” she said.  “You’re talking about the Scarlet Hill Skirmish.”

“Yes ma’am,” I said.

That battle has practically been forgotten, especially since we did so poorly.  All those young men killed.”

“Is there any way I could find out who was in the battle?  I mean, who was in the militia?” I asked.

“You’re the second one to ask about that battle and that group of militia,” she said.

“Oh?  Who else asked?” I said.

“A young girl about your age asked about it just last week.”

“Uh, okay.  Can I look at the records now?”

“Yes you may,” she said.

She left her desk and want over to a bookcase.  Underneath the book case were drawers.  She opened a drawer and pulled out a package, wrapped in plastic.  She brought the package to a table.  She removed the plastic wrapper from an old, worn ledger book.  It was covered in aged green canvas with leather bindings.  One the cover was a single word:  RECORD.

She carefully opened the book to the first page.  Across the top, in arcane though legible handwriting, was the heading:  “Roster of 1st Company Leesville Militia, Formed July 4, 1864, Captain James Field, CSA, Commanding.”  Below the heading were columns labeled “Name,” “Rank,” “Age,” “Date of Enlistment,” “Place of Enlistment,” “Enlisted By,” Date and Place of Discharge,” and “Reason for Discharge.”

They were a small company.  I counted twenty-five men, including Captain Field, one lieutenant, two sergeants, and twenty-one privates.

‘What exactly are you looking for, young man?” the lady asked.

“I’m looking for a particular soldier, but I only have a first name,” I said.

“Oh?  What is the name?”

“His name was Everett,” I replied.

“You don’t say,” she said.  “That’s the name the girl was looking for as well.”

“Is he on the roster?” I asked.

“Yes, he’s right here,” she said.  She slid her finger down the column of names until she came to the last entry.  It read:  Caldicott, Everett, Private, 18 years, Leesville Courthouse, January 17, 1865, Enl. by Capt Field.  The discharge columns were empty.  As a matter of fact, all the discharge columns were empty.

“Excuse me, ma’am, but why is there no discharge information?” I asked.

“Because, young man, the Leesville Militia was wiped out in the battle.  Every last one.”

“Why is Everett Caldicott the last one on the list?”

She pursed her lips again.  “Probably because he wasn’t old enough to enlist when the militia was formed in 1864.  The Conscription Act of 1862 specified males of 18 years and older.

I looked down at the names carefully written in the ledger.  ‘So he joined in January when he was old enough and was killed in April.”

“The Scarlet Hill Skirmish was the one and only battle the Leesville Militia fought.  They were mostly young boys with little training or experience in fighting.  They went up against trained Union soldiers.  They were outnumbered two to one at least.  They probably saw that they were going to die as soon as they saw those blue uniforms.  According to the legend, our boys got off one volley.  But then the Union boys laid into them, and in a few minutes it was over.”

I swallowed.  “Ma’am, what happened to our boys’ bodies?”

Tears came to her eyes.  “The damn Yankees buried all of them in a common grave.  All 25 of them.  No, I take that back.  There were 24 bodies in that grave.”

“Excuse me, Ma’am, but how do you know?”

Her face became hard, her tone sharp.  “Because the day after the battle, a party of men from this town went up there to that battle site and exhumed the bodies.  All of them that they could find, that is.  Like I said, there were only 24 bodies in that grave.  We weren’t going to leave our boys and men all alone up there in the woods.  No, they were brought back to town and buried in the town cemetery.  They’re there today, 24 bodies, all accounted for.  Except for one.”

“So they never found one body?’ I asked.  “Who was it?”

“The Caldicott boy,” she said.  “Everett Caldicott.  The same one you’re asking after.”  She turned and went back to her desk.

I made notes of everything I had learned and closed the book, leaving it on the table.  I had already been there an hour, and it was time for my mother to pick me up.  As I walked past the reception desk, the lady spoke once more. 

“Young man, please sign the guest book on your way out,” she said.  “And, if you’d like, you can leave a donation.”

I went over to a large book lying open on a pedestal.  Beside it, on a table, was a large glass jar with a slot in its top.  Inside the jar was a small collection of paper money, but mostly change.  I reached into my pocket.  I had thirty-five cents for my lunch tomorrow at school.  I decided that this trip had been worth my lunch money.  Besides, I could carry a sandwich.  I dropped the quarter and dime into the jar, and then looked at the guest book.

Apparently, the historical society had few visitors.  This was a Monday, and I had been the only one.  There were a few names written in the book during the previous week.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” I said.

She looked up, slightly annoyed, from the book she was reading and said, “Yes?”

“The girl who came and looked at the ledger.  What day did she come?”

“Let me see,” she said, pursing her lips once again.  “I believe it was last Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon.  She left a dollar donation.”  This was an apparent reference to my paltry thirty-five cent offering.

“Thank you,” I said.  She went back to her reading.

I looked at the book more carefully.  I counted back the days to the previous Tuesday and Wednesday.  On those days, there had been a total of four visitors.  Two were from out of town, just tourists passing through.  One was a barely literate scrawl, probably a male.  But one signature was neat and precise, written in purple ink.  It looked feminine, and the name bore it out.  She had come in on Wednesday, and she listed her home as “Leesville, SC.”  Her name was Rikki Chesterfield.

I signed my name “R. Barrett” and walked outside to the steps just as my mother pulled up.  As I got into the car, she said “Well, did you find what you were looking for?”

“I’m getting there,” I said.

***

That night, after I finished my homework, I laid on my bed trying to remember anyone in my classes named “Rikki.”  I was in the seventh grade, my first year of junior high—and we went to different classrooms, under different teachers, for our various subjects.  I didn’t know everyone in my class because I hadn’t grown up in the area.  We had stayed after my father left the Air Force.  My only real friend was Bobby.  Try as I might, I couldn’t place Rikki.

It got dark outside, and as it did so, I noticed a chill creep into the room.  After several fairly warm days, this seemed a little strange.  I got up to go to the bathroom and noticed that the rest of the house seemed comfortable.  Then I had an idea.  I went to my window, opened it, and looked out.  Everything seemed fine.  Then my insides froze as I heard it:  the same eerie whistle I’d heard on Friday and Saturday nights.  I looked to the corner of the yard and saw a bank of swirling mist.  For just a few seconds, I watched as it seemed to assume a definite form.  And then I pulled my head in, closed the window, and pulled the curtains.

I sat there on my bed, shaking.  Well, there it was.  I was being haunted.  By a ghost.  I didn’t really sense any malevolence from the spirit, but I was still scared.  And then I noticed something else.  The room had suddenly gotten warmer.  Mustering my courage, I opened my window again and peeked outside.  All was normal again. The crickets chirped, the air was only slightly cool, there was no spectral fog bank at the corner.

But I had to face the fact that I was known to the spirit now.  And I had to assume that what I was experiencing was the ghost of Everett Caldicott, the young soldier whose body was never found when the men of the town retrieved the bodies of the other fallen soldiers. What did the ghost want?  What was he trying to tell me?  I did not know, but I could guess that his appearance that night was a reminder that he knew that I had his long-lost love letter, and that I had better ascertain his purpose in showing himself to me.

The next day at school, I asked Bobby if he knew a girl named Rikki.

To my surprise, he said, “Sure, I know her.  I mean I don’t ‘know’ her, but I know who she is.”

I had asked him this while we sat at lunch in the cafeteria.  “Is she in here now?”

He ate a piece of fish stick, drank some chocolate milk, burped loudly and said, “No.  I don’t see her.  I think she’s in second lunch.”

“What does she look like?” I asked.

“What?  Are you going to ask her out on a date?” he said teasingly.

“No,” I said defensively.  “I’m just curious, is all.”

I didn’t want to tell him, yet, what I had been doing, mainly because I didn’t want to be teased about it.  But I needed to talk to Rikki Chesterfield.

“Well, what does she look like?” I repeated.

“First of all, she’s in the eighth grade,” Bobby said, “and the she’s way out of your league.”

“What the heck does that mean?” I asked.

“Rikki Chesterfield is a fox.  Long blonde hair, pretty, smart.  In short, she wouldn’t look twice at you.  Me, on the other hand…” he said, grinning.

I punched him in the arm.  He cackled and punched me back.

“Anything else?” I pressed.

“How would I know?” he said, exasperated.  “I think she has Mrs. Ellison for homeroom.”

Okay, I could work with that. Mrs. Ellison’s room was right across the hall from my homeroom.  If I hung out in the hall, I would see Rikki as she entered.  Then I’d catch her alone sometime and talk to her.

“Thanks, man,” I said.

“Now don’t get all dreamy-eyed, Barrett,” Bobby said as we picked up our trays.  “Like I said, she’s an eighth grader and way out of your league.”

I let the comment pass.  I wasn’t interested in Rikki romantically.  I wanted to find out what she was researching at the historical society.

That night in my room was uneventful.  No coldness, no vapor. I did look outside once, but could see nothing through light misting rain.

The next day I hung around outside my homeroom as long as I could, waiting for Rikki.  The bell rang, giving me five minutes before the tardy bell.  People started crowding into their rooms.  I saw her in a group of about five or six girls coming down the hall.  She was blonde, like Bobby said.  She was wearing a flannel shirt, jeans and a jeans jacket.  I couldn’t tell much else from a distance, except that she was a little taller than her friends.

“Mr. Barrett,” said Mr. Peterson, my homeroom teacher behind me, “time to take your seat.” 

“Okay, sir,” I said and went to my desk.

We didn’t spend much time in homeroom.  Mainly it was to take attendance and listen to school announcements.  I spent the time planning what to say to Rikki.  I had to get to her quickly, because I didn’t know when I’d see her again during the day.  So when the bell rang I bolted out the door and waited outside her homeroom for her to come out.  When she did, I walked over to her and got beside her, which got me a few mean stares from her friends.

“Hey,” I said.  “Are you Rikki?”

She looked at me suspiciously.  “Do I know you?” she asked.

“No,” I said quickly, aware that the time was ticking down fast.  “My name’s Roy Barrett, and I think we’re researching the same thing.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“The historical society.  I was there the other day and so were you.  I think we’re looking for the same thing.”

“Look, I’ve got to get to class…” she started to say, but I interrupted her.

“Can I call you tonight?  I need to talk to you.”

She looked wary, then took out a pen and scribbled a number on a scrap of paper.

“Not till after eight,” she said, turned and left.

“So what happened?” Bobby asked after school.  We were out in front of the building.  Bobby walked home because he lived in town.  I rode with my mom every day because we lived a few miles out.

“Nothing, really, “I said.  “I got her number.”

“No way!” he said, punching me in the shoulder.  “When are you going to call her?”

“Tonight after eight,” I said.

“Gonna ask her out?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said evasively, “maybe.”

“You better tell me everything tomorrow,” Bobby said.  He left me, walking down the street toward his house.

In truth, I wasn’t sure what I was going to ask her about.  I could see myself stupidly telling her that I’d seen a ghost in the woods behind my house and now he was communicating with me.  She would think I was crazy for sure.  Most likely, she was researching a report.  It was April, and I knew that some of the eighth grade teachers assigned a big report late in the year.  Probably she was just working on that.  I was still pondering that when my mother drove up and tooted the horn. 

“Didn’t you see me drive up?” she asked as I got in.

“Sorry, I was daydreaming,” I replied.

“Hmph,” she said, and drove off.

After supper that night I went to my room and hurried through my homework.  It seemed to take forever.  By the time I finished, it was five minutes to eight.  My bedtime was ten, so I had two hours to talk to Rikki, though I doubted it would take that long.

At five past eight, the phone rang.  My mom picked it up and said, “It’s for you, Ted,” my mom said.

I groaned inside.  Depending on who it was, my dad could be on the phone for an hour.  It turned out to be his brother Melvyn, who lived in North Carolina.  Melvyn wasn’t a long-winded phone talker, thankfully, and he and my dad ended their conversation in about fifteen minutes.  As soon as Dad put the phone in the hook, I was there to take it.

“Well, sport, you’re awfully anxious to get to the phone.  Calling a girl?” he said, winking.

I stared at him dumbly.  I didn’t know what to say.

“Not very talkative tonight, are you?” he said.

“Uh, no sir.”

“Okay, just don’t tie it up too long,” he said and walked back into the living room.  I heard the easy chair squeak as he settled into it.

We had one phone at our house.  It was mounted on the wall in the hall.  Beside the phone was a table where we kept the phone book, along with a pad of paper and a pencil for taking messages.  What we didn’t have was a chair to sit on.  Luckily, the bathroom was right by the phone, so I quickly dialed the number Rikki had given me, and went into the bathroom to sit down on the toilet.  I closed the door.

The phone rang five or six times before being picked up.  A girl’s voice said, “Hello?”

I swallowed hard and said, “H-hello, is this Rikki?”

“Yes, it’s Rikki.  Is this Roy?”

“Yeah, it’s me.”

“I’ve been waiting for you to call.  What took you so long?”

“My dad was on the phone,” I said sheepishly.

“Oh.  Oh well.  What did you want to talk about?”

At first, I was going to tell her that I thought I’d seen and been haunted by a ghost.  But then I thought better of it.  I would make up some story about a report we could work together on, then gradually break the ghost story to her.

“Well,” I said, “I was over at the county historical society the other day doing research for a report, and the lady there told me you had been there earlier checking out the same stuff I was.  I thought we could maybe work together.  That is, if you’re doing a report, too.”

And then she told me:  “I’m not researching a report.  It’s, it’s something else.”

“What?” I asked.

“I don’t want to tell you over the phone,” she said, almost whispering.  “What lunch do you have?”

“I have first lunch,” I said.

“I have second.  How do you get home?” she asked.

“My mother picks me up,” I said.

I thought a moment.  “I’ve usually got a few minutes in the afternoon before my mom comes to pick me up.  Can you meet me in front of the school tomorrow?  We should have a couple of minutes to talk.”

“Okay,” she said.  “I’ll try.”

“Sure you don’t want to give me a hint?” I said.

“Not now,” she said, “maybe tomorrow.  See you then.”

“Okay,” I said.  “’Bye.”

I left the bathroom, hung up the phone and went back to my room.  As soon as I walked in the door, I noticed the coldness.  I felt the fear wash over me, but then took a deep breath, closed my eyes and said to whoever was out there, “Be patient.  I’m working on it.”

My mother was walking past my door.  She stopped and said, “Who are you talking to, Roy?”

“Nobody, Mom, just going over some test questions,” I said.

“Hmph,” she said.  “Say, I’m going outside for a moment.  Come with me.”

I didn’t really want to go, but I went anyway.  I knew she was going outside to smoke, but she usually went alone.  I wondered what she wanted.

We sat on the back steps.  She lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply.  I worried about Mom because I could hear her cough sometimes.

“You should quit those,” I said, indicating her cigarette.

“Tell me something I don’t know,” she said drily.  She took another puff and said, “So how are things going, Roy?”

“All right, I guess,” I said.

“Any plans for the summer?”

“Find a job.  Hang out with Bobby.”

“Is there a girl?”

“Mom!” I said.  “No, not right now.”

“Who was that with you on the phone tonight?  It was a girl, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, but I hardly know her.  We may we working on a report together.”

“Umm hmm,” she said.  Then she looked around and said, “I’m not sure about living out here, Roy.”

“How so?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  Sometimes I get the notion that these woods have something in them.”  She put the cigarette out.

“Well, according to the history books, a Civil War battle took place not far from here.  Maybe you’re sensing something.”

“I don’t know.  It’s just that lately, I’ve been having cold flashes.  They just come on suddenly out of nowhere.  And then they go away.  It’s weird.  How about you?”

“No,” I lied.(This was getting to be a habit.)  “I haven’t felt anything.”

My mother rubbed her arms.  “I’m getting a little chilly.  Let’s go inside.”

As I held the door for her, I looked over to the corner of the yard.  A tendril of fog was starting to creep out of the path, along with a dim glow.  The pit of my stomach clenched.  Through gritted teeth I muttered, “Leave us alone.  I’m working on it.”  I followed my mom inside.

The next morning, at school, I waited as long as I could outside my homeroom for a glimpse of Rikki.  I ducked inside at the last minute without having seen her.  All day long I kept looking for her, but the eighth graders’ classes were in a different part of the school, so I didn’t see her.  At the end of the day, I said goodbye to Bobby, then waited in front of the school for Mom.

“Hi,” said a voice behind me.

I turned around and Rikki was walking up.  She was carrying a heavy book bag and looked tired.

“Hi,” I said.

She put her book bag down and asked, “So what are we doing here?”

“Well, you said you wanted to tell me something,” I said.

“You go first.”

I wasn’t sure how to begin, so I just started talking.  “The other day, I was at the historical society trying to find out some information about the Leesville Militia from the Civil War.  I was checking out this guy name Everett Caldicott.  The lady there said you’d been looking at the same book as I had.”

“Yeah,” Rikki said, “so?”

“So were you looking up Everett Caldicott too?”

She appeared to think for a moment.  “So what if I was?”

“So this,” I said, and told her about finding the letter in the oak tree.  I told her what the letter said, and the two names on the letter:  Lucy and Everett.

“I think they were in love.  I mean, it sounds like they were in love.  I’m just trying to find out who they were.  I was hoping you would know.”

Rikki was watching me closely.  She may have been deciding if she could trust me, or if this was some kind of trick.

“Roy,” she said quietly, “if you’re messing with me, or if this is some kind of prank, I’m going to kick your ass.”

I was shocked that a girl would say such a thing.  At first I was mad.  I was going to tell her to kiss my butt and walk away, but then I remembered the mist, and the dim glow, and I decided that I needed to get to the bottom of this if I was going to have any peace.  So I said, “No, this is no trick, I promise you.  Listen, if I tell you something, will you try not to think I’m crazy?”

“Uh, okay,” she said.  Then she looked over my shoulder and said, “Is that your mom?”

I heard a horn toot behind me and turned around.  Sure enough, there was my mother waiting for me.  “Well, crap,” I said.  “I gotta go.  Can I call you tonight?’

Rikki sighed and said, “Okay.  After eight.”

I was curious about something.  “Hey,” I said, “why always after eight?”

“Because,” she replied, “by that time my grandmother has gone into her room for the night and we can talk in private.”

“Oh.  Okay.  I’ll talk to you tonight,” I said, and ran to my mother waiting in the car.

“What’s her name?” Mom asked when I got in.

“Rikki,” I said.  “She’s just a friend.”

“Is she the one you’re working on the report with?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

“She’s pretty,” my mom said appraisingly.  “She has pretty blonde hair.”

“I guess,” I said.

Once again, I hurried through my homework.  At seven-thirty, I was finished, and I couldn’t make the call for thirty minutes, so I watched TV with my parents.  At eight on the dot, I dialed Rikki’s number and took the receiver into the bathroom.  The phone rang six times before she picked up.

“Hello,” she said.

“Rikki?” I said.  “It’s Roy.”

“Oh, hi,” she said.  She sounded almost glad to hear me.

“So,” I started, “I need to tell you something.  It’s actually kind of weird.”

“Okay, so what is it?” she asked.

So I told her about the camping trip, about finding the letter from Everett in the tree and about what I thought it meant.  I did not tell her about the ghost.  “So they must have been in love,” I said, “but I don’t know who Lucy is.  Do you?”

The line went silent for several seconds.  I asked, “Are you still there?”

“Yeah, I’m still here, Roy.  Okay, I found a letter too,” Rikki said.

“You did?  Where?” I asked excitedly.

“I found it in a chest of old clothes, in a tin box, in the attic of the house I live in.”

“What did the letter say?” I asked.

“It was a love letter,” she said.

“Who was it from?” I asked.

“It was from Lucy Chesterfield addressed to Everett Caldicott,” Rikki said.  “It was in an unopened envelope.”

“So they must have written letters to each other before he went off to battle, but neither letter made it to the person it was meant for,” I said.

“But that’s not everything,” Rikki said quietly.

“What else is there?” I asked.

“I don’t want to tell you over the phone,” she said.  “Say, can you come over one day this weekend, maybe Friday night or Saturday?”

“Probably.  I’ll have to ask my parents.  Hey, how about if I ask my parents if I can spend Friday night at my friend Bobby’s house?  Then we’ll both come over to your house in the evening.”

“I don’t know,” she said.  “What kind of guy is Bobby?”

“He’s full of crap a lot of the time, but he’s okay,” I said.  “Besides, he’ll want to hear the story.”

“Okay, I guess.”  She sounded doubtful.

“Good.  I’ll call Thursday night to confirm.”

“Okay,” Rikki said.  “Goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” I said, and hung up.

I went ahead and asked my parents if I could camp out at Bobby’s house that Friday night.  My father raised his eyebrows and mumbled something about two weekends in a row, then returned his attention to the TV.  My mom said she was okay with it.  The next day at school, I asked Bobby about camping out in his back yard and he said, “Sure, my parents won’t care.”  Then I told him the real reason for my coming over and his eyes got wide.

“We’re going to see her at her house!  Holy cow!  Why?” he asked.

“She’s got some information about the letter we found.  She may have some info about the girl Lucy in the letter,” I replied.

“Plus, you get a chance to get in good with her,” Bobby said with a wink.

“It’s not like that, man.  She’s barely a friend,” I said, my ears burning.  All the same, Bobby wasn’t entirely wrong.

“If you say so,” he said.

On Thursday night I called Rikki and told her I would be camping out over at Bobby’s house on Friday night and would be over to see her about eight.

“Be sure to bring the letter and the box,” she said.

“I will,” I said.

The next day, I took my backpack with some extra clothes and my camping gear to school.  At the end of the day, I went home with Bobby.  I had seen Rikki during homeroom and told her we would walk over that night.

After school, Bobby and I walked to his house together.  When we got there, his house was empty.  Both his parents were still at work.  We pitched the tent and set up camp, then spent the afternoon watching Superman and the Lone Ranger.  At about six, his mom came home.  She greeted us, then went into the kitchen to start supper.  A little later his father came in, turned the TV to the news, and sat down with a beer.  Bobby and I left and went to his room until supper.

Bobby’s room was a typical teenaged boy’s room, except that it was very neat and tidy.  Bobby’s father had been a marine, and he made sure that Bobby kept his room squared away.  My room was a mess by comparison.

At six-thirty, Bobby’s mom called us down to supper.  We had hamburgers, fries, and baked beans, which Bobby said was usual for Friday night.  After supper, Bobby asked his father if we could walk downtown to the Tastee Freeze for some ice cream.  His father, engrossed in the TV, said okay, just don’t stay out too late.  We said we wouldn’t and that we would just come back to our camp when we got back.  Bobby kissed his mother goodnight, and we went out.

The first place we went, true to our word, was the Tastee Freeze.  We each bought a cone of soft serve.

“Hey! I just remembered something,” I said.

“What?” Bobby asked.

“I don’t know where Rikki lives,” I replied.

“Don’t worry, I know where,” Bobby said, licking his cone.

“How do you know?” I asked suspiciously.

“I followed her home one day,” he said.

“You followed her home?” I asked.  “Why?”

“Because, dummy, I wanted to see where she lived.”

“Well, where does she live?” I asked.

“She lives over on Lee Street, right around the corner,” he said.

“Well, let’s get over there,” I said.  I was anxious to see her.

Bobby looked at his watch.  It was seven forty-five.  “We’ve got plenty of time,” he said.

We waited another five minutes and finished our ice cream.  Then we got up and walked down the street to Rikki’s house.

Rikki lived in an old two-story wooden house at the end of the street.  One side of her fairly sizable yard bordered on an old, unused field.  On the other side was her neighbor’s house, another old wooden structure, but only one story.  Rikki’s yard had a waist-high hedge, poorly tended, all the way around.  Her house had a covered porch that stretched around three sides of the building, including the side of the house that bordered on her neighbor.  On the porch was a swing that hung from two chains secured to hooks in the ceiling.  There were also several rocking chairs and a wooden bench.  Though the house looked in good repair, some of the white paint was peeling.  The front door was in the middle of the porch, and there were two windows on each side.  The porch light was on.

Bobby and I climbed the porch steps, pulled open the screen door and knocked on the wooden front door.  We waited for a few seconds, and then I knocked again.  A few seconds later the door opened and there stood Rikki, dressed as she had been at school:  tee shirt and blue jeans.

From inside the house, a querulous voice called out, “Who is at the door, Rikki?”

“Just some friends, Grandma,” Rikki said over her shoulder.

Rikki let us in.  We were standing in an entryway.  In front of us was a staircase that led up to the second floor.  Behind the stairway was a hall that stretched to the back of the house.  To the right was the large living room.  It was dimly lit by one table lamp.  In the room, sitting on the couch, a book in her hands, was an elderly woman.

“It’s a little late for visitors, isn’t it, dear?” the lady said

“They won’t be long, Grandma.  It’s about school,” Rikki said.

“Well, all right then,” the old lady said.  She bent her head to her book.

Rikki led us upstairs to her room.  Her room was the last one on the right, near the back of the house.  We went in and she closed the door.

We all looked at each other, unsure of how to start.  Finally I said, “This is my friend Bobby Craddock.” 

“Pleased to meetcha,” Bobby said and held out his hand.

Rikki shook it and then stood there, looking at us expectantly.

“Okay,” I said, “what do you have to show us?”

Rikki turned and rummaged under her bed.  She pulled out a tin box similar to the one I’d found.  She opened the box and took out a yellowed, faded envelope with spidery handwriting on it.

“I found this one day when I was here alone poking around in the attic.  It was in a chest up there with a bunch of old clothes.”

“Let’s look at it, Bobby said.  “Does it say anything about money?”

Rikki gave him a look.  We took the letter over to her desk and turned on the lamp.  She carefully extracted the letter from the envelope and spread it flat on the surface of her desk.  “It’s a little hard to read,” she said, “but you can make it out if you look closely.”

Here is what the letter said:

April 8, 1865

My Dearest Everett,

I am not sure whether this letter will find you before you go into battle, but I am going to write you, nonetheless.  I know that by necessity you live among rough men, but do not forget your upbringing.

Although our families are not in agreement regarding our affection for each other, I am certain that if we pray, and keep faith with each other, all will be well.  Almost every day I look at the simple dress of white muslin I have purchased and dream of wearing it for you at our wedding, wherever that may be.

In the meantime, my darling, please know that there is at least one woman back home who is devoted to you and our life together.

Please, please be careful, my love.  If anything were to happen to you, I simply do not know what I would do.  Come home to me.  I shall be waiting.

All My Love,

Lucy

I pulled out my letter and spread it on the desk beside Rikki’s.  The paper looked to be the same age, although the writing was entirely different.

“Wow,” I said quietly.

“He must have gotten killed in the battle,” Bobby said.  “I wonder what happened to her.”

“I think I know,” Rikki said.

“Well?” I said.

“I think she died of pneumonia that winter of 1865,” Rikki said.  “At least, that’s what Grandma said when I asked about her.  We pulled out an old Bible that had a family tree in it.  Grandma opened it and found a girl named Lucy Chesterfield who was born in 1846 and died in 1865 when she was eighteen or nineteen.

“So they were in love, but their families didn’t get along.  Then he died in battle at the end of the war and she died of pneumonia that winter.”

“So there you go,” Bobby said.  “Mystery solved.”

“Not quite,” Rikki said.  “I’ve seen her.”

“Seen who?” Bobby asked.

“I’ve seen Lucy.”

For a few seconds, we were all silent.  Then Bobby said, with a bit of sneer, “You too?  Roy here says he’s seen a ghost too, right in his own back yard!”

Rikki turned to me and said, “You’ve really seen something?  What did you see?”

“I don’t know for sure, but it may have been Everett’s ghost.” I said.  And then I told her about waking up to go to the bathroom and seeing what must have been Everett’s ghost in the corner of my yard.

“And the next day,” Bobby said, ‘we went down the path to the clearing and…”

“I snatched the box with letter in it out of a hole in the tree, but I got stung and so we…”

“Hightailed it outta there.” Bobby interjected.  “Man!  You should’ve seen Roy run!  I didn’t know he could move so fast!”

“Well, were being chased by wasps,” I said.  “But that’s not all.”  I looked at Rikki.  “I’ve seen him and felt him a couple of times since then.”

“Hey!  Why didn’t you tell me, you jerk!” Bobby said, punching me in the arm.

“Because I knew you’d probably make fun of me,” I said defensively.

“Yeah,” Bobby said, a slow grin spreading across his face, “you’re probably right.”  He punched me again.

“What do you mean you’ve seen and felt him since that night?” Rikki said.

I told her about the times my room had been cold.  How I’d opened up my window and seen the mist, glowing in the moonlight and beginning to form the shape of a man.

“But wait a minute,” Bobby said to Rikki, “You said you’d seen Lucy.  What do you mean?”

“Last weekend, I was here in my room alone.  Grandma had gone to sleep and the house was quiet…” she started.

“By the way,” Bobby broke in, “where are your mom and dad?”

Rikki looked at him as if she didn’t want to say anything, but then she said quietly,” My parents are divorced.  My dad lives in North Carolina with his new wife, and my mom is a photojournalist.  She travels around a lot.  Right now she’s somewhere in Asia shooting photographs for a magazine or something.  Anyway…”

“Sounds cool,” Bobby said.

“Bobby, will you be quiet and let her talk?” I said, exasperated.

He looked sheepish, and kept quiet.

“Anyway,” Rikki said, “I was alone and the house was quiet.  Then I felt the cold, and heard someone moving around downstairs.  You know, steps, floors creaking, things like that.  I thought it must be Grandma, since her bedroom is on the first floor.  I went to the top of the stairs and looked down.  It was then I saw the light under the door of the room at the bottom right of the stairs.  It was yellow-white, and it flickered.  I called out softly ‘Grandma, is that you?’ but got no answer.  At the same time, I could barely hear a soft moan or sob coming from the room.  I stood there a watched the light under the door for several minutes and then…”  Rikki closed her eyes and swallowed.  “She passed through the door.”

Rikki had gone white, as if she was reliving the encounter.

“What do you mean she passed through the door?” I asked.

“I mean one second there was just the light under the door, and the next second she was standing outside the door, at the stairway landing.  And then, and then…” Rikki said, tears coming to her eyes.

“What? Darn it!” I said.

With haunted eyes, Rikki said, “She looked right at me.  And I was so scared.”  She hid her face in her hands and gave a sob.

“Holy shit,” Bobby whispered.

I took a deep breath.  “Did she seem mean?  Or angry?” I asked.

“No,” Rikki said.  “Just kind of sad.  But suddenly I was sad, and cold, too.”

“What did she do next?” I asked.

“She turned and passed through the front door onto the porch.  I went down the stairs and looked through the window at her.  I could see her standing at the corner.  She stood there for about fifteen minutes, and then she vanished.”

“Have you seen her since then?” I asked.

“No, but I’ve felt the cold a couple of times.  I’m just too scared to leave my room.”

“Bet that makes for a problem if you have to, you know, pee during the night,” Bobby said, chuckling.

“You are so gross,” Rikki said disgustedly.

About that time, we heard, “Rikki?” from below.

“That’s my Grandma,” Rikki said.  She left the room.  I could hear her talking to the old lady.  At one point, I heard the old lady say clearly, “It’s time for your friends to go home.”

Rikki came through the door.  “You guys have got to go,” she said.

Bobby and I both nodded, and then I had an idea.  “What time did you see her, I mean Lucy?” I asked.

“It was between twelve midnight and one,” she replied.

“How about if Bobby and I come back at twelve.  You sneak out the back door and meet us at the corner of the porch.  We’ll wait for her together.  Maybe she’ll come out tonight.”

She looked doubtful, then nodded her head yes.  “Okay.  I’ll wait for you guys by the side of the house.”

“Rikki!  Tell your friends good night,” came the voice from downstairs.

Then Rikki looked at me and grabbed my shirt.  She pulled me close, looked me in the eye, and said, very seriously, “If you stand me up, I’m going to kick your ass, Roy Barrett.”

I was a little shocked, but I stammered, “Don’t worry, we’ll be here at twelve.”

As we left, Bobby looked at his watch, a Timex with a luminous dial.  “It’s eight-thirty.  We have three and a half hours to kill.  What do you want to do?”

“I say we go to your house, build a campfire, listen to the radio, and make some s’mores,” I replied.

“Sounds good to me,” he said.

We set off down the street toward his house.  Once there, we listened to the radio and made s’mores over the campfire.  The news was still about Paul McCartney leaving the Beatles and Apollo 13’s successful return to Earth.  Bobby’s mother checked on us once, and his father wandered out at about ten.  He was smoking a cigarette and swigging a beer.  He didn’t say a lot, except, “You boys keep it quiet out here,” and then walked back to the house.

Around us, the night grew steadily quiet.  Bobby lived in an older, settled neighborhood and the houses along his street were usually dark by ten or a little after.  The moon, past full the previous weekend, had not risen yet.  At about ten-thirty or so, the lights in Bobby’s house went out, a sign that his parents had gone to bed.  A little later, a police cruiser glided slowly by.

I must have dozed off, because the next thing I knew Bobby was shaking me and saying, “Hey Barrett, it’s time to get up.”

“Wha?” I said groggily, still half asleep.

“Time to head back over to Rikki’s.”

My head cleared with the mention of her name.  “Rikki,” I said, “yeah.”

I got up, went to the corner of his yard away from the street, peed, and came back.  We each got our flashlights and began walking.  “I doubt we can be out at night like this,” Bobby said, “so watch out for that patrol car.”

It took about fifteen minutes to get to Rikki’s house.  As we approached it, nothing looked untoward.  The house was dark and quiet, except there was a light in a window on the second floor.  I realized that would be Rikki’s room.

As we approached the house quietly, a dark figure detached itself from the shadows along the side.  My heard jumped and I turned on my flashlight for a moment.

“Turn that thing off!” Rikki hissed from the darkness.  She walked to us and said, “Hi guys.  I haven’t seen anything yet, but earlier I thought I heard something.”

“Where do you want to wait?” I asked.

“Let’s hide in the bushes between my house and the neighbors.  That way we can see the porch.”

There was a line of waist-high, untrimmed bushes between Rikki’s house and the one next door.  We stationed ourselves on the neighbor’s side of the hedge, and settled in to wait.

Rikki had told us that the spectre, or whatever it was, had always before left her room on the ground floor of the house, passed through the doorway, and walked to the corner of the porch, where she stood as if waiting or looking for someone.  That corner was the one we were at now.  The ghost should be no more than thirty feet or so from us.

The night grew quiet.  Rikki’s house was at the end of the street.  Although we had her neighbor’s house at our backs, on the other side of her house was a large unused field.  We could see the field from our vantage point.  The moon had risen, washing the field with bright silvery light.  I looked at Bobby and tapped my wrist.  “Twelve-forty,” he whispered.

We continued to wait.  After about ten more minutes, I asked Rikki quietly, “Are you sure she’s gonna show?”

“Not absolutely sure,” she whispered.  But she’s come every night this week so far.”

“I hope something happens soon,” Bobby said.  “My butt hurts.”  He had sat down on the ground.

That brought a snicker from me, and a stern look from Rikki.  I looked away, embarrassed.

It was then that I felt it, the familiar but unwelcome coldness.  The same cold I had felt previously when Everett had appeared at my house.  Rikki looked at me.

“Do you feel that?” she whispered.

I nodded yes, and looked again at the porch.  An icy tendril of fear wormed itself into my belly.  There was a thin waterfall of faintly luminous fog spilling off the end of the porch.

“There she is,” Rikki said quietly.

I heard Bobby scramble to his knees.  I glanced at Rikki beside me.  Her mouth was partly open, her breath escaping as a thin fog.  Her eyes were wide open and keenly alert.  Her blonde hair fell straight down to her shoulder.  For just a moment, she reminded me of a young, female deer, alert and unafraid.

The first thing I heard was the humming.  The humming of a song.  A song I didn’t recognize.  I looked at the porch, A greenish-white shape, dim and amorphous, appeared in front of the door.  It lingered for a moment, then slowly began moving along the porch to the corner closest to us.  As it moved closer, it took on the form of a young woman in a long dress, her hair put up in a bun.  The figure glowed eerily in the shaded darkness of the porch. 

“What do you guys see?” Bobby whispered.

I looked at him.  “Can’t you see that?” I asked, pointing at the figure of the young woman.

“All I can see is a white blob,” Bobby said.

“Will you two be quiet?” Rikki said.  “She’s saying something.”

Bobby and I became silent.  Then I heard it, floating on the night air, a low moan, a soft cry.  “Everett…” repeated several times.  The figure buried her fact in her hands.  I could hear her sobbing quietly.  I looked beside me.  Rikki, her attention fixed on the scene before us, was barely breathing.

As I watched, I saw the ghost start to waver and become less distinct.  But then, she did something wholly unexpected.  She looked right at us, and said, very quietly and clearly, “Help me.”

Rikki looked at me and whispered, “Did you hear that?” she asked.

I nodded yes.  Bobby said, “Hear what?”

I looked up at Lucy.  She was still looking at us.  I could see her eyes, so hollow and sad.  What was she asking for help with?  Then, she quickly faded away.

We waited for a few minutes to see if she would reappear.  She didn’t.  We turned on our flashlights and walked up to the porch then sat down on the steps.  Bobby said, “What just happened, guys?”

“Didn’t you see it?” I asked incredulously.

“All I saw was some sort of white blob on the corner of the porch,” he said.

Rikki and I looked at each other.  Bobby had not seen the ghost of Lucy.

“What?” Bobby said, looking from me to Rikki.

“Well,” Rikki said, “Roy and I saw a figure standing on the porch.  We think it was Lucy.”

“Well, all I saw was a blob of light.  It was weird, but it didn’t look like a woman,” Bobby said.

“Did you feel cold?” I asked.

“A little.  Not very much,” Bobby said.

“She spoke to us,” I said.  “Did you hear anything?”

“No.  Nothing.  What did she say?” Bobby asked.

“She said ‘Help me,’” Rikki said.

“Well, I didn’t hear nothing,” Bobby said.

“I wonder why he didn’t hear of see the same as us,” I said to Rikki.

“I don’t know,” she replied.  “Maybe he’s not sensitive…in the same way as us, I mean,” she hastily added when the saw Bobby’s face.

“Well, I think you guys are crazy,” Bobby snorted.

“Well, what do you think it was, smarty pants?” Rikki asked.

“I don’t know what it was.  I mean, maybe it was a ghost or somethin’, but it didn’t speak to me,” Bobby said.

“Well, I’m tired.  What time is it?” I asked Bobby.

“Ten after one,” he said.

“Let’s walk back, Bobby, and go to bed.”

I looked at Rikki.  “Are you going to be all right?” I asked.  “I mean, if you’re afraid…”

“I’m not afraid!” she cut me off.  “I mean, I never see her after she disappears.  It’s over for the night, I think.”

“Okay,” I said.

We said our goodbyes after agreeing to come back over in the morning to talk to Rikki’s grandmother.  As Bobby and I walked home, we were both quiet.  The streets were dark; most of the houses were, too.  Occasionally, we passed a house through the window of which we could see the flickering blue light of a television.  Once we passed a house where we could hear angry, raised voices.  I looked at Bobby questioningly.  ‘Those are the Savages,” he said.  “They both drink.  Then they fight, and the neighbors call the cops.  Happens about once a month.”

“Oh,” I said.

We arrived at his yard.  His house was dark.  I was suddenly beat.  I took off my shoes and my jacket and crawled into my sleeping bag.  I was asleep in minutes.

 ***

The next morning Bobby woke me up.  “Get up,” he said, “it’s time for breakfast.”  I crawled out, stiff as a board, and stumbled into the bathroom.  I peed, washed my face, and brushed my teeth.  Breakfast was scrambled eggs, grits, bacon, toast, and coffee with a lot of milk.  Bobby’s mother raised her eyebrows when I asked for coffee, but she poured me a cup anyway.  I felt grown up when I drank coffee.

After breakfast, it being Saturday, we engaged in our weekend ritual of watching cartoons and the Stooges.  I asked if I could use the phone.  Bobby’s mother said yes.  I called my mom and told her I was fine and to pick me up about one.  Then I called Rikki.  I asked if Bobby and I could come over and talk to her grandmother.  She hesitated and said, “Well, we can try.”

After telling Bobby’s mom that we were walking into town again, we started out.  In daylight, the street looked like any normal suburban street:  well-kept lawns, tidy houses, shiny cars.  It all seemed ordinary, quite different from the dark shadowy street of secrets we passed through the previous night.

We got to Rikki’s house and knocked on the door.  I heard her running down the stairs inside.  She opened the door.  “Hi,” she said.

“Hi,” we both said.

“Come on in,” she said, opening the door for us.

We stood in the entryway.  “Well, what do you want to do?” I asked her.

“I’m not sure,” Rikki said.

“I guess we just ask her about Lucy,” I said.

Rikki looked doubtful, but said, “I don’t see any other way, if we’re going to find out anything.”

The old lady was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee and reading the paper.  She looked up as we entered the room.

“Grandma,” Rikki said, “I’d like you to meet my friends, Roy and Bobby.  Guys, this is my Grandma, Stella Chesterfield.”

We shook hands.  The old lady’s grip was firm, but dry and a little cold.  She had white hair piled up in a bun on top of her head.  I suspected it was rather long.  Her eyes were sharp and blue behind silver cat’s-eye glasses.  She wore her morning coat and bedroom slippers.  As she shook our hands she looked at Bobby and said, ‘You’re Tom Craddock’s boy, aren’t you?  He was quite a ballplayer, once.”

Bobby glanced at me as if to say, “What does that mean?”  I shrugged.

“Grandma,” Rikki said, “we wanted to ask you some questions, if that’s all right.”

Mrs. Chesterfield placed her hands in her lap.  “About what?” she asked.

“Well,” Rikki said, “we wanted to know more about Lucy Chesterfield.”

The old lady went a little pale.  “Why do you need to know more?”

Rikki looked at us.  I nodded slightly.

“Well, a while ago I found a letter from a girl named Lucy to a young man named Everett.”

“Where did you find the letter, Lucy?” Mrs. Chesterfield’s tone was slightly sharp.

Rikki blushed and said, “I found it in the attic.”

“Hmm.  Well, you had no business up there, pawing through our private things.”

“I know Grandma, but I didn’t mean any harm.  I was just bored and, well, interested in the family’s history.”

“Do you have the letter?” the old lady asked.  “Let me see it.”  She held out her hand.  Lucy produced the letter and gave it to her.  Mrs. Chesterfield read the letter silently.  “Where in the attic did you find this?” she asked.

“In an old chest of clothes,” Rikki said.

“The big one, black with brass corners and straps?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“That’s odd,” the old lady said.  “I’ve looked for this letter in that chest at least ten times over the years.  Funny you should find it.  Where in the chest was it?”

“It was folded into a bolt of cloth,” Rikki replied.

“I’ve taken that bolt out several times, and nothing’s ever fallen out of it,” the old lady mused.

“What does it mean, Grandma?” Rikki asked.

Mrs. Chesterfield sighed.  “I may as well tell you the story,” she said.  “To begin with, Lucy Chesterfield, I believe, was your great, great, great aunt.  She was a young woman of eighteen during the last year of the War Between the States.  Her father, Josiah, was a merchant, a storeowner, in town.  He wasn’t rich, but he was well-respected.  Josiah didn’t believe in slavery, but he was a South Carolinian, and when we seceded, he supported it like everyone else.”

“Lucy was an attractive young woman.  She had good prospects and was well educated in the womanly arts.  Although not part of the gentry, she still attracted her share of suitors from among the upper classes in the county.”  The old lady paused and drank from her coffee cup.  “Well, along came the war, and conscription, and most of the young men in the county went off to fight.  As the war dragged on, more and more young men reached the age of conscription and were drafted into the army.  There was one family in town, the Caldicotts, who had one son.  He had been fourteen years old in 1861.  The years went by, and the draft took more and more of the young men as they reached the age of eighteen.  The Caldicotts were hoping that the war would end before their son was called.  But they ran out of luck, and time.  In January, 1865, young Everett Caldicott was drafted into the local militia.”

“Why was that so bad, Grandma?  Wouldn’t he be able to stay here?” Rikki asked.

“Ordinarily, I would agree with you, child,” Mrs. Chesterfield said,” but by the time Everett got drafted, the Yankees were breathing down our necks.  Instead of Everett serving out his time in the barracks or on sentry duty somewhere, he was going to have to fight.  And not only that, the militia was small, and poorly trained and disciplined.They didn’t stand much chance against trained Yankees soldiers.”

“Where does Lucy come in?” Rikki asked.

“It seems that Lucy and Everett had met at her father’s store while she was working there.  There was an immediate attraction.  They began seeing each other, but when Everett asked permission to court Lucy formally, old man Chesterfield refused.”

“Why?  It seems they were meant for each other,” Rikki said.

“Because old man Chesterfield was ambitious and he wanted Lucy to marry up, not down.  You see, Everett came from a family of farmers.  They farmed tobacco, some cotton, and they had a herd of cows.  They sold butter and milk.  They were prosperous, owned the land they farmed, paid their taxes.  But they weren’t quite good enough for Josiah Chesterfield.”

“Well, even though it was forbidden, they continued to see each other.  If Josiah had found out, likely he would have sent Lucy away.  But he never found out, that is, until he died.”

“What happened?” I asked, totally caught up in the story.

“Well, in January, 1865, Everett got called up.  He left for training and was gone several weeks.  During that time, Lucy waited patiently, often going out onto the porch and looking down the street for him to return.  Those kids had an idea that if Everett could distinguish himself in battle, Josiah would agree to their union.  Now, as part of the Leesville Militia, Everett spent lots of time in various parts of the county.  But sometimes they passed through town.  When they did, Lucy and Everett would exchange letters and, I’m sure, heartfelt glances.  Things went like that for several months.  And then, early in April, 1865, the month the war ended, we heard that the Yankees, part of Sherman’s army, was headed this way, and that they were right close.  The Leesville Militia was called up to meet them and defend the county.  Lucy wrote her final letter to Everett but was unable to deliver it.  The people in this family have looked for that letter for years, and you, Rikki, were the one to find it.”

“Ma’am,” I said, “We know what happened to Everett.  He was killed in battle.  What happened to Lucy?”

The old woman took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes.  “Lucy never got over Everett’s death, especially since she couldn’t see his body one last time.  You see, when the towns folk went to the battle site and recovered our men, Everett was not among them.  They searched the battle field and the area around it, but they never found him.  Lucy never got over it.  She hoped that since they’d never found the body of her beloved, that he hadn’t been killed.  But he never returned.  So many days and nights she spent on that porch, watching and waiting, for naught.”

“Whatever happened to Lucy?” Rikki asked quietly.

“You’ll find her gravestone in the cemetery of the Methodist church, in the Chesterfield family plot.  She died less than a year later, in January, 1866, of pneumonia.”

Rikki and Bobby and I looked at each other.  Finally, Rikki spoke.  “Grandma,” she began haltingly, “have you ever, um, seen or felt anything in this house?” Anything unusual?’

“What do you mean, child?” the old lady asked, looking sharply at Rikki.

“I don’t know.  It’s just that sometimes, I think I hear stuff.  Like footsteps.  Or I’ll feel cold.  Stuff like that.”

“That’s just your imagination, and an old house,” the old lady said.  ‘I’ve lived in this house my whole life and sure, I’ve heard things, but it’s just the creaking of an old structure.  Nothing more.  This house was built in 1858.  It has withstood storms and tornadoes and ice and snow, and it’s drafty, with a few squeaks and groans.  Nothing more.”

“Okay,” Rikki said.

“That’s a very sad story,” I commented.

“Yes, young man, very sad.”  The old lady paused, then said, “You know, when Lucy died, she died calling for Everett.  It upset her father greatly.  It’s said that from that day onward, he regretted not letting them be together.  You see, Lucy was his only daughter, and he loved her very much, but he became convinced his misplaced ambition was what sickened and ultimately killed her.  He died ten years later, a saddened man despite the prosperity of his business.”  Mrs. Chesterfield rubbed her eyes again tiredly.  “Now young people, that’s all I have to say.  I’m tired.  I believe I’ll go rest in my room.”  She got up and left the kitchen.  Rikki picked up Lucy’s letter, folded it back into the envelope, and put it in her pocket.

Bobby looked at his watch.  “It’s past twelve, Roy.  Isn’t your mom coming over at one to pick you up?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’d better go.”  I turned to Rikki.  “Can I call you tomorrow night?” I asked.  “I’ve got an idea.”

“Sure,” she said, “call after eight, as usual.”

Bobby and I left.  When we got to his house, I quickly packed my stuff.  My mom came right on time.

The next day was Sunday, and all through the day, I thought about what I was going to say to Rikki.  It seemed now that both spirits had messages for us, and I think I knew what they were.

We followed our normal Sunday routine:  church, Sunday dinner, quiet afternoon.  I called at seven-thirty because I couldn’t wait any longer.  The phone rang once and Rikki picked up.

“Hello,” she said.

“Hi, it’s me, Roy,” I said.

“Oh hey.  I knew it would be you,” she said.

“How did you know?” I asked.

“I knew you wouldn’t be able to wait, which is good, ‘cause I have something to tell you,” she said.

My heart kind of jumped.  Suddenly all I could think of was her blue eyes and blonde hair.

“Are you still there, Roy?” she asked.

“Oh.  Yeah.  So what did you have to tell me?” I asked.

“Okay, so last night when my grandmother and I were in the living room watching Hee Haw, I kind of casually asked again if she had ever heard or seen anything unusual in the house.”

“So what did she say?” I asked.

“Grandma said that she had occasionally heard things, knocks and bumps and stuff, but had always thought it was just the house settling.  But then she said she used to have a cousin named Sapphire who would visit.  Sapphire stayed in my bedroom.  Grandma said Sapphire was nice but a little ‘touched in the head’.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It means Sapphire was sort of special.  She didn’t go to the same classes as the other kids.  She was kind of a simple-minded person.  But Sapphire had something the other kids didn’t.”

“What?” I asked.

“Sapphire could see and hear things the other kids couldn’t.  Sapphire claimed to see the ghosts of people walking around in the graveyard at night.  Most folks said that was just to scare the little kids.  But once, Sapphire said something that had the grownups believing.

“What was it?  Did she see something?” I asked impatiently.

“Well, one of our uncles had an old hound dog that used to follow him everywhere he went.  The dog walked with him, rode with him in his truck, I mean went everywhere.  The dog’s name was Tick, and he was a big coon hound.  Well, Tick was an old dog, and so was the uncle, and one day Tick died.  The old man was pretty heartsick about it.  He even buried the old dog in the family plot, right beside his own.  It seems the old uncle’s wife had died a few years earlier, and Tick was his only companion.  Some said Tick was the only reason the old man stayed alive.  Well, one warm August evening, this old uncle came strolling down the street to sit on the porch of Grandma’s house, take a little air, and talk.  Sapphire was there sitting on the porch.  Now this is after Tick had died, you see.  But Sapphire, as soon as she saw the uncle, started making a fuss, pointing and saying the dog’s name over and over.  When they asked her what she saw, she said she saw Tick walking beside the uncle.  The uncle, as usual, came up on the porch and sat down in a rocking chair.  Sapphire claimed Tick laid down right beside him, as was his habit.”

“Sapphire made such a fuss that they took her inside.  She never changed her story.  She always maintained afterward that she had seen Tick with the uncle.  Now apparently, the uncle mentioned that he was feeling a mite poorly that evening when he came to sit on the porch.”

“Okay, so what happened?” I asked.

“The uncle died in his sleep two nights later,” Rikki said.

“So what does that have to do with Lucy Chesterfield?” I asked.

“I’m getting to that.  One spring, Sapphire was visiting, and she told my Grandma that she could tell someone was up and walking in the house after everyone else went to bed.  She said that she had seen a ‘white lady’ leave the house and stand on the porch and cry.  This had happened several times.  Sapphire wanted to help the ‘white lady’ but had not known what to do.  After a while, she faded away and Sapphire didn’t see her anymore.”

“So you think the white lady Sapphire saw is Lucy?” I said.

“Yeah,” Rikki said.  “I think she saw Lucy, just like we did.”

“But your grandma wouldn’t admit to seeing her,” I said.

“No,” Rikki replied.

“You know, it’s a little funny that of the three of us, only you and I have seen any real, um, apparitions.  Bobby hasn’t seen anything, only blobs or blurs of white,” I said.

At the time I was having this conversation, I was standing in the hall talking in hushed tones.  I didn’t want my parents to overhear.  Right about that time, my mother walked past muttering something like, “Why has this house suddenly gotten so cold?”

And then I felt it too. A coldness seeping into my body, along with a vague feeling of fear.

“Roy?  Are you still there?” Rikki asked.

“Yeah.  Hey, I’ve got to go check something out,” I said.

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m not sure,” I said.  “Let’s talk on Monday at school and try to figure out what to do next.”

“Okay,” she said, sounding annoyed, “’bye.”

I said goodbye and hung up, then went to my room.  The coldness had increased.  It was freezing in there.  I went to my window and looked out but couldn’t see anything because the light was on.  I turned off the light and looked out again and there he was, standing not thirty feet away, in my back yard.  Everett Caldicott.

Despite my fear, despite the cold, I looked at him.  He glowed with a faint greenish light.  I could clearly see his youthful but sad face.  He looked right at me.  His eyes were locked on mine and burned with a plea for help.  His clothes were less distinct, but seemed in disarray.  As I watched, he opened his mouth and said something, but I couldn’t make it out at first.  He helped me by saying it several times, and gradually it grew louder.  He was saying, “Lucy.”

Then he started walking toward me.

I shut my drapes and turned my room light back on.  I sat there in my room, cowering, frozen in fear, while the room got colder and colder, and finally, warmer.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  This can’t go on much longer, I thought to myself.

Outside my door, I could hear my parents discussing the temperature of the house.

“What are you talking about?” my father asked.  “The house is fine.”

“I’m telling you, this house is freezing,” my mother replied, a little peevishly.

“Well, it’s a little late in the year to still be running the furnace,” my father said.  “Just wrap up in a sweater.”

“You’re such a cheapskate Ted,” my mother said.

Eventually, the temperature seemed to return to normal.  I turned off the light in my room and hesitantly looked out my window through the crack in the curtains.  No one was there.

That night I slept uneasily.  It seemed that Everett Caldicott was becoming bolder.  He was moving closer to my house with every appearance.  How long before he was just outside my window?  And then, maybe, even in my room with me?  While he didn’t seem particularly menacing, I certainly didn’t want haunting my home.

There was another thing, too.  So far, only Rikki and I (and cousin Sapphire) had seen actual apparitions, no one else had.  Bobby had not seen anything that night in the yard, and my mother had felt the cold, but not seen anything.  The old lady had heard things, but they must have been pretty tame.  My father had never seen, heard, or felt anything, as far as I knew.  That meant that Rikki and I must be sensitive to the energy of the spirits we were encountering.  But not just that.  Not only could we see them, but they could see us as well.  And they seemed to become more active when we were around.  It was like we could see them and feel them, and they in turn fed off our energy.  Rikki and I were the catalysts making this thing happen.  “We’ve got to do something or they’ll never leave us alone,” I said into the darkness before falling into a troubled sleep.

The next morning at school, I caught Rikki just before homeroom.

“Can you meet me and Bobby outside for a few minutes this afternoon after school?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said.  “I’ve got something to tell you.”

“Hey, you don’t look good.  Are you sleeping all right” I asked.

“Thanks,” she said with a wry grin.  “You don’t look so good yourself.  And no, I haven’t been sleeping.”

It was true.  Her hair was a little messy.  There were dark smudges under her eyes, and her clothes were wrinkled.  I wondered if she was having the same problems with Lucy as I was having with Everett.

The tardy bell rang, and Rikki darted inside, but not before saying, “This afternoon.”

“Okay,” I said, and went into my homeroom.

Bobby and I usually had lunch together.  I told him what was happening, and about the plan to meet Rikki after school.

“Barrett,” he said, “I don’t know, man.  I’ll admit there’s something going on, but two ghosts that were once boyfriend and girlfriend?  It seems a little out there to me.”

“Well, you haven’t seen or felt the same things Rikki and I have,” I said defensively.

“How do you know these are the same people as in the letters?  I mean, they could just be random spirits.”

“I know because I just know.  Anyway, are you in this thing until we finish it?”

“I guess,” he said.  “What are you and Rikki gonna do?”

“I don’t know, exactly,” I replied.  “We’re going to talk about it this afternoon after school.”

“Well, count me in, I guess.  Someone’s got to be around to pull you out of trouble,” he said.

“Thanks, man,” I said.  I was relieved.  I wasn’t sure we wouldn’t need Bobby’s size and strength at some point.

That afternoon I waited after school for Rikki.  I hoped she would come soon, because my mom would be there soon.  For once I hoped she would run a little late.

I had been waiting a couple of minutes when Rikki and Bobby came walking up together.  Rikki looked better.  Not exactly more rested, but her blonde hair was back in a neat pony tail and the dark smudges were gone from her eyes.  I thought she looked great.

“Hi guys,” I said as they walked up.

Rikki said, “Hey, I’ve got some stuff to tell you guys.”

“Me too,” I said.  “You go first.”

“Well, ever since you guys came over Friday night, Lucy has been very active.  I can hear her pacing around downstairs, and a couple of time I swear I could sense her outside my door.  I didn’t open the door, but there was a light through the crack at the bottom.  And the room got really cold.  She was muttering something, too, but I couldn’t tell what it was.  She’s really restless now.”

“Same here,” I said.  “Everett has been getting closer and closer to my house.  The other night, I know he was standing just outside my window.  Pretty soon, he’ll be in my room with me.”

“We’ve got to do something,” Rikki said.

“But what?  What can we do?  We’ve stirred these spirits up and now they won’t leave us alone.  I don’t want to be haunted for the rest of my life,” I said.

Bobby was looking at each of us.  “Do you guys know how crazy this sounds?  Stirring up ghosts?  Haunting you two?  I’ll admit something’s happening, but this is really far-fetched, at least to me.”

“Bobby, listen,” Rikki said, exasperated.  “What Roy and I are going through is real, even if you’re not feeling the same thing.  You don’t have to believe us, but try to respect what’s happening to us.”

He looked at her for just a moment and said, “Sure.  Why not?  I might as well go crazy with you two.”

“Good.  I hoped you’d say that,” Rikki said.

About that time my mom pulled up and honked the horn.  Rikki looked at me and said, “Call me tonight.  I have an idea.”

“Okay,” I said, and trotted off toward the car.

As we pulled away, I saw Rikki and Bobby start off down the street.  I wondered what her idea was.

At eight that night I called her. She picked up on the third ring.

“Hi,” I said.

“Oh hey,” Rikki replied.

“So what was your idea?”

“Well,” she said, “what we know, what we’ve learned, is that Lucy and Everett loved each other and wanted to be together, but her father disapproved of their relationship.”

“Like Romeo and Juliet,” I said.

“Not exactly,” Rikki replied, “but not far off, either.  I’m thinking that they would have run away and gotten married by themselves, if the war hadn’t prevented them.”

“So what do you propose?” I asked.

“I say let’s marry them,” Rikki said.

“How are we going to do that?” I asked.

“Well, I went up into the attic again this afternoon,” Rikki said, “and I went through the old chest where I found the letter.”

“Okay,” I said, not sure where she was going.

“And I don’t know how I missed it the first time,” Rikki said.  “I know it wasn’t there.”

“What?” I asked, a little exasperated.

“Roy, I believe I found Lucy’s wedding dress,” Rikki said quietly.

“How do you know?” I asked.  “I mean, is it a wedding dress for real?”

“No.  It’s a plain white dress, not too fancy, of very good quality, wrapped in paper.  I’m sure it’s never been worn.”

“Couldn’t it just be one of her nicer dresses?” I asked.

“I don’t think so,” Rikki said, a little testily, “for two reasons.”

“Okay, what?”

“Well, in the first place, I’m getting a feeling from the dress, that this is the one,” Rikki said earnestly.

“Okay, I’ll buy that.  What’s the second reason?” I said.

“Well,” she said, “I found two wedding bands sewn into a piece of material in the dress.”

“Really?” I said.  “You found their wedding bands?”

“Yes,” Rikki said.  “I don’t think they’re gold.  They may be copper.  They were probably all he could afford, at least right then.  Maybe he was going to buy her a real gold one later.”

“Well I’ll be darned,” I said.  “So what do you think we should do?”

“I believe we should put the two letters and the rings together in the box you found, wrap the box up in the dress, and put it back in the tree.  Maybe she can somehow follow her dress, the rings, and the letters back to where he died.  Maybe then they could find each other again after all these years and finally be together.  Wouldn’t that be romantic?”

“Yeah, I guess,” I said.  I didn’t want to say too much.  The fact was that I liked, and I mean liked, Rikki.  But I didn’t want to go all mushy on her.

“So the next step is to convince our parents to let us have a sleepover,” Rikki said.

“Yeah, and it will have to be at my house,” I said.  “My dad and mom will have a few questions about it,” I said.  “They’ll want to make sure there’s no ‘hanky-panky’.”

“No chance of that,” Rikki said quickly.  (I was a little disappointed.)

“No, of course not,” I said quickly as well.  “What about your grandma?”

“I don’t think it will be a problem.  She barely keeps up with me.  She trusts me.”

“Okay, I’ll get with Bobby tomorrow,” I said.

“Are you sure he has to come along?” Rikki asked.

“Sure, why not?” I asked.

“Well,” she said, “I mean, I like him and all, but he’s not, you know, the same as us.  He’s not sensitive like you and me.”

I thought for a moment.  Given the way that I felt about Rikki, it was certainly tempting to exclude Bobby from our adventure.  I almost gave in, but then thought better of it.  Bobby had been there when I first saw the ghost of Everett.  He deserved to be there when we resolved this thing.

“I think Bobby should be there, too,” I said.

“Okay,” Rikki said.

“So the plan is to get everything together and put them back into the tree, then hope it’s enough to bring Lucy and Everett together,” I said.

“Yeah.  That’s the plan.  I hope it works,” she said.

“Me, too,” I said.

We hung up after agreeing to talk again on Thursday night to finalize plans for the sleepover.  When I talked to Bobby the next day, he said he didn’t see any problem getting away on Friday night.  His mom would probably run him and Rikki out to my house.  If not, I could probably convince my mom to go get them.

My parents were a little harder to convince.  “What do you mean a sleepover?” my mother said.  “I’m not sure I like the sound of that.”

“It’s nothing like that, Mom,” I said.  “We’re just friends.  And Bobby’s going to be here, too.  We’re just going to hang out in my room, and then watch a horror move on TV when you and Dad go to bed.  Look, Bobby and I will sleep in the living room and Rikki can sleep in my room.”

“Though still doubtful, my mom agreed.  When she did, so did Dad, although he grumbled a bit.

On Thursday night, I called Rikki and told her that everything was set.  She said that her grandma had agreed to let her spend the night.  I had talked to Bobby that day.  His mom was going to pick Rikki up at her house and bring them both out to mine.  Rikki was going to bring the rings, the dress, and Lucy’s letter.  I would have Everett’s letter.

It was then, after I’d hung up the phone that I began to get scared.  It didn’t help that I felt the strange coldness in my room.  I closed the door behind me and walked to my window.  I pulled back my curtains and, standing not ten feet away from my window, was Everett Caldicott.  He stood there, bathed in eerie greenish light, wavering slightly.  We was trying to say something, mouthing the words, but I couldn’t make them out.  And then I looked at his eyes, his sad eyes.  As I looked, his words came to me.

“Please help me,” he said.

It wasn’t like I was hearing them.  It was more like they were in my head.  And then, my fear subsided a little, and I said to him, “I know.  We are working on it.  Now go away, Everett.  Tomorrow night, we’ll bring Lucy to you.  Go away now.”

He seemed to understand.  He nodded, turned, and walked back up to the corner of my yard.  Before entering the woods, he turned to me one last time, and disappeared.

I hardly slept at all that night.

The next day at school, I saw Bobby and Rikki.  Everything was still a go.  When my mother picked me up, she asked, “Will Bobby and Rikki be in time for supper?”

“I think so,” I said.

At five-thirty, Mrs. Craddock drove into our driveway with Bobby and Rikki.  The sun was already fairly low in the sky, but it would be up for a while yet.  Daylight savings time had started the previous Saturday night.  I introduced Rikki to my mom and dad.

“I hope you don’t mind sleeping in Roy’s bedroom tonight,” Mom said.  “I cleaned it and changed the sheets on his bed.”

“Thanks, Mrs. Barrett,” Rikki said.  “I’m sure it will be fine.”

If Saturday night was pot roast, and Sunday was chicken, Friday night was usually either chili or hamburgers.  Tonight it was burgers.  As we ate, I kept looking at the window.  The sun was steadily setting behind the woods behind my house.  My mother and Rikki were having a wonderful time talking girl talk, but I caught Rikki’s eye and cut my eyes to the window.  She took the hint and quickly finished her meal.

We excused ourselves and went up to my room.

“Well, let’s see the dress,” I said.

Rikki reached into her backpack and brought out a bundle wrapped in tissue paper.  She carefully unfolded the paper and lifted the dress up for us to see.

I was disappointed.  What she held up was a rather plain white muslin dress.  To be sure, it was nicely appointed with a bit of lace at the neck and a row of pearl buttons, but it was not the elaborate garment I expected to see.  The dress was slightly yellowed with age, but it was apparent that it had never been worn.

“Not a very fancy dress, is it?” Bobby remarked.

“Well, it’s not like they were going to have a big expensive wedding, you jerk,” Rikki said.  “They were probably going to marry in private, or even run away.  She couldn’t be seen buying a real wedding dress.  On the other hand, she could buy a white dress like this and spruce it up a little.”

“I didn’t mean anything by it,” Bobby said contritely.

“It’s all right, Bobby.  You’re just thinking like a man.  I think the whole idea of Lucy and Everett running away together is quite romantic.  They were probably going to be married by a justice of the peace, or maybe a preacher from another town.”

“Let’s see the rings,” I said.

Rikki reached into her backpack and brought out a little cloth drawstring bag.  She opened it and poured two rings into my hand.  They were plain bands, probably made of copper because of the greenish patina.  I handed them to Bobby, who looked at them and handed them back to Rikki.

I looked out the window.  It was nearly dark.  “We’d better get this over with,” I said.

“You’re right,” Rikki said.  “Let’s get this done.”

“I hope we don’t live to regret this,” Bobby said.

“Well, it’s either do something, or have to live with the ghosts of Everett and Lucy for the rest of our lives.  Let’s just hope this is the right thing,” I said.

We gathered both letters and the rings and put them into the original tin box I had retrieved from the tree.  Then we wrapped the box in the dress, covered it back in the tissue paper, and put a couple of rubber bands on it to hold it together.  Then we each got our flashlights and headed downstairs.

My parents were in the living room watching TV.  Much of the news was still about either the Apollo 13 debacle or Paul McCartney splitting from the Beatles.  I went into the living room.

“Mom and Dad?  Hey, I think we’re gonna go out on an owl prowl.” I said.  (I was tired of lying to my parents.  It was taking its toll on me.  On the other hand, I couldn’t tell them the truth.  And we had to go out in the woods that night.)

“A what?” my dad said.

“An owl prowl.  It’s where you go out and look for owls.”

“Owls?” Mom said.  “Why would you want to do that?”

“I dunno.  It’s just something to do until the late movie comes on.  We won’t be long.”

“I don’t know,” Mom said.

“Let’em go, Blanche,” my dad said.“You kids watch out for snakes.  You got flashlights?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.  “We’ll be careful.”

“Don’t go far, son,” my mom said.

“We won’t,” I said, and left.

Bobby and Rikki were waiting by the back door.  It was nearly eight o’clock, and nearly completely dark.  Bobby and I each had our flashlights, and Rikki had her flashlight and the bundle.  Before we left, we stood in a circle for a moment.

“Okay guys, we’re doing this thing, right?” I said.

They both nodded yes.

“The most important thing is to stay together,” Rikki said.  “We don’t know what we’re going to see tonight, but we have to keep each other in sight.  Agreed?”

“Agreed,” Bobby and I said.

“Okay, let’s get this thing over with,” Bobby said.

We headed into the woods.

***

We walked to the corner of my yard and turned down the path to the clearing.  As soon as we did, something changed.  It’s difficult to describe, but suddenly the air seemed changed.  There was a kind of energy about.  We stopped.

“Do you feel that?” I asked Rikki.

“Feel what?” Bobby asked.  “I don’t feel nothing.”

“Yeah.  I feel it,” Rikki said.  “There’s something happening.  I’m feeling something from the dress, like a low vibration.”

“Let’s keep going,” I said.

We began walking again.  As we moved deeper into the woods, I noticed something.  It was getting light.  We could see the path clearly without our flashlights.  We looked up into the sky.  The stars were still there, but much dimmer than before.

“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” Rikki said.

“Yes,” I said, my voice a little shaky.

“Whoa,” Bobby said.  “Is it me, or is it less dark than before?”

“It’s less dark,” I said.

“What do you think is happening?” Rikki asked.

I was about to answer when a gray-clad soldier carrying a rifle marched past me on the path, followed by several others in a ragged line.

I looked at Rikki.  She could obviously see them as well.  The line of men moved past us, their rifles at shoulder arms.  And then we heard hoof beats.  A man, also in gray, sword in hand, rode up beside the line of marching men.  He slapped his thigh with his sword and said, ‘Close it up, boys.  Keep it moving.  We need to get to the clearing before the Yankees do.  We’ll be ready for them, by heaven!”  The men gave a weak cheer.

“Holy crap guys!  Do you see what I’m seein’?” Bobby croaked.

Not taking my eyes off the line of men as they marched farther along the path into the woods, I asked, “What are you seeing, Bobby?”

“A…a line of men.  And a guy on horseback,” Bobby whispered.

“That’s what we’re seeing,” Rikki said.  “Hey Roy, did they act like they saw or heard us?”

“No.  It was like we weren’t even here,” I said.

“Let’s keep moving,” Bobby said.

Rikki and I looked at him.  “What?” he said.  “I want to see what happens, that is unless you two are too scared…”

“We’re not scared,” Rikki said hotly.  “Let’s go,” she said, walking off down the path.

Bobby and I followed, hurrying to catch up.  As we walked along, the woods got steadily lighter, until, as we neared the clearing, it became light enough to see clearly for quite a ways.  However, it wasn’t like natural sunlight, it was different.  It was like seeing one of those old black and white films, or looking at a vintage photograph with its sepia tones.  Some colors were visible, like the red of the Confederate flag carried by one of the soldiers, or the green of the trees in the background, but overall the scene had a washed-out tonal quality.

We reached the clearing.  In the center stood the oak tree.  It looked slightly smaller and greener than it did nowadays, but it still had the large opening in the trunk.  Something, a lightning bolt perhaps, had struck that tree earlier in its life.
The men had arranged themselves into a line.  One of the sergeants called the men to attention, and then he, the other sergeant, and the lieutenant went down the line of men.  They inspected each man’s weapon, spoke briefly to him, and moved on.  One young man, near the end, stepped out of line and vomited on the ground before quickly resuming his place.  The senior officer, dismounted and standing beside his horse, walked over to the soldier.  He put his hand on the young man’s shoulder and spoke quietly to him.  The soldier nodded and smiled, then saluted his superior.  When the inspection was complete, the sergeants and the lieutenant marched out in front of the troops.  The lieutenant said something to the senior officer we couldn’t quite hear.  The senior officer replied.  The lieutenant about-faced, barked a clearly heard “At ease!” to the soldiers, and they relaxed.  Some squatted on the ground.  A couple pulled out pipes and began smoking.  A couple more went into the bushes.

It was that way for about five or ten minutes.  The senior officer paced uneasily, still holding his sword, still slapping it against his thigh.  One of the young soldiers began clowning around, drawing laughter from his comrades.  Another said, “What if they don’t come, sir?”

“Oh they’ll come, soldier.  Count on it.” the officer said.

I felt a nudge.  Rikki was pointing at one young man, sitting apart from the rest.  He held a piece of paper in his hand, which he carefully folded and place in a small box.  He stood up and looked around.  After a moment he walked over to the oak tree.

“Mind the wasps, Ev,” one of the young men said.

Apparently the tree had been a home for wasp nests one hundred and five years ago as well.  The young man carefully put the box into the tree, apparently without disturbing the wasp nest, and walked back to his comrades.  He sat down on the ground and placed his rile across his lap.  At one point, we watched him close his eyes, his lips moving.

Shortly after that, we heard hoof beats again.  A single rider entered the clearing from the path we had just walked.  He rode past without noticing us and halted in front of the senior officer.  There were salutes, a conversation, more salutes, and then the rider galloped off.

“Get up, boys,” the officer said to the young soldiers.  “They’re coming.”

For the next few minutes the officer positioned his twenty-four men as best he could.  He gave them instructions, had them check their weapons, then spoke loudly and clearly, “Give’em hell, boys, for your home and your country!”

It was then that we again heard hoof beats.  Many of them.  We could feel the vibration though the ground.  The young men in the line looked scared.  One fell to his knees, but was quickly helped up by his comrades.

“Steady, men,” the officer said.

Out of the corner of my eye, at the opposite end of the clearing, a rider appeared, then two, then more.  The riders, all dressed in blue, on good mounts, formed themselves into a line.  There must have been fifty of them.  They all carried short carbine rifles.  One had the Stars and Stripes.  One had a regimental flag.  An officer left the blue line and walked his house out a little into the clearing.

“Surrender your arms,” the officer in blue said.  “There’s no need for bloodshed, sir.”

“You know I can’t do that, sir,” the officer in gray replied.

“One last chance,” the blue-clad officer said.

“You go to hell, Yankees!” one of the young soldiers in the gray line yelled.

The Union officer turned his horse around and went back to his line.  He spoke briefly to another officer, who spoke to a sergeant.  The sergeant pulled his pistol and said, “Ready arms!”  The blue line bristled with drawn swords and cocked carbines.

On the Confederate side, the officer rode back and shouted “Ready!  Fix bayonets!”  There was the swish and clank of steel on steel as the gray-clad soldiers unsheathed their bayonets and fixed them to the muzzles of their rifles.  “On my command!  Aim!”  The gray-clad line bristled with aimed rifles.

The Union officer raised his sword, pointed it at the gray line and shouted “Charge!”  The line of blue horsemen started off across the clearing.

The Confederates held their ground, even though some could be seen visibly shaking.  The Union line went from a trot to a gallop.  The Confederate officer shouted, “Steady boys!”  The horse soldiers were very close now.  Too close, I realized.  The Confederate officer had waited too long to order his men to fire.  When he hastily shouted the command, the resulting volley knocked a number of Union soldiers out of their saddles, but the rest were on top of the rebels before they could reload. 

The Confederate line broke after their first and only volley.

After that, the Union horseman rode down the fleeing Confederates, shooting and stabbing them from the saddle.  A small group of rebels formed a circle and got off another volley, but several Union cavalry charged the group and broke the circle, sending the Confederates running.  A couple of young rebels tried to surrender but were killed with their hands raised. 

It was over in a few minutes.  All of the young men in gray had been hunted down and shot.  I saw Everett running without his rife into a clump of bushes.  a Yankee rider followed him in.  There a single shot and the Yankee emerged from the bushes alone.

A few minutes later, it was quiet except for an occasional gunshot as the Yankees finished off the wounded rebel soldiers.  One of the Yankee sergeants rode up to the officer and asked, “What’ll we do with them, sir?”

“Dig one big hole and throw them in it,” said the officer.

“And their officer?” the soldier asked.

“Put him with his men.  Dig the hole shallow and make it quick.  We’ve got to keep moving.”

The blue clad sergeant went away hollering to his men to form a burial party.

At that, the scene began to fade.  A couple of minutes later, it was dark again.  The sky was clear above us, the stars twinkled brightly.  A cool wind rustled in the trees.

“Holy crap,” Bobby said.  “Did you guys see that?”

Rikki and I both nodded.

“Well,” I said, “We know what happened to Everett.”  I shone the flashlight into the clump of bushes on the other side of the clearing.  “He’s down there somewhere.”

“We should go see,” said Rikki.

“Are you guys crazy?” Bobby asked.  “Haven’t we seen enough?”

“Yeah, we should go see if he’s down there,” I said.

Rikki and I began walking across the clearing, Bobby following reluctantly.  When we got to the other side of the clearing, we entered the brush and were surprised by a four-foot drop-off.  We all nearly walked over it but stopped just in time.  We shone our flashlights over the edge and saw an old depression or sinkhole at the bottom of the drop.  Carefully, we climbed down until we stood around the old sinkhole.  We shined our lights down into the darkness of the hole.  It was about six feet deep.  Rocks and tree roots were visible.  Gradually, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness and the light, I saw something at the bottom of the hole.  I looked at Rikki and asked, “Do you see what I see?”

“Yeah,” she said quietly.

At the bottom of the hole, mostly covered with mud and roots, but with enough of the bones visible to identify it, was a human body.  It was little more than an outline, with only knobs and edges of once-intact bones left, but it was a body, nonetheless.  Part of the skull and one eye socket was visible, along with a few teeth.

“Poor Everett,” Rikki said.

“They must not have looked that carefully for him,” I said.

“Maybe there was more vegetation or something back then,” Rikki said.

“I guess he was shot as he was standing on the drop-off, then fell backward into the sinkhole,” I said.

“Can we go now?” Bobby asked.  “I’m getting creeped out.”

“Yeah, we should finish what we came to do,” I said.

I looked at Rikki.  “Are you ready?” I said.

She nodded yes.

On the way back across the clearing, Bobby walked ahead of us.  He went past the tree, stopped, and looked back at us.  “Come on guys, let’s get it done.”

Rikki and I walked together towards the oak tree.  As we approached closer, we began to hear a low, constant buzzing.  Rikki looked at me and said, “Are wasps active at night?”

“I don’t think so,” I answered.

‘Then why are they buzzing?” she asked.

“I don’t know, maybe to keep the nest cool.  Look, do you want me to…” I asked.

“No Roy.  I’ll do it.  You just keep the lights on that nest while I put the bundle in the tree.  I’ll need to see what I’m doing.

I nodded okay.

We walked carefully up to the tree.  Rikki handed me her flashlight.  I shone both lights into the opening.  There it was, all right, my old friend the wasp nest.  I didn’t see any actual wasps outside of the nest, but it was definitely buzzing.

I saw Rikki take a deep breath and walk to the tree.  She had the bundle in her hands.  She gingerly lifted the bundle up and began placing it into the hole.  I could feel the sweat running down my back.  The flashlights’ beams were wavering because I was shaking.  If she touched that nest, those wasps would come out and be on us in seconds.  I might have been shaking, but Rikki appeared totally calm, very steady.  She placed the wrapped bundle containing the letters, the rings, and the dress into the tree.  I saw it disappear inside.

And then she screamed.

“I’ve been stung!” she cried.

She jerked her hands out of the hole and I instantly heard an angry buzzing coming from the tree.  Suddenly I heard and felt at least a dozen vengeful animals on me.  I was stung twice in quick succession.  My instinct was to run, but in the flashlights’ beams I saw Rikki on the ground.  She had several wasps on her hand and on her neck.  She must have stumbled trying to get away.

“Shit, you guys!” Bobby said.  “Run!”

“I’ve got to go get Rikki,” I yelled, starting back.  I was frantically brushing wasps off of me, waving my arms around.  I reached Rikki, and knelt down beside her.

“Come on, Rikki!” I yelled.  She looked up at me.  There were tears in her eyes.  Her face was swollen.  I heard her sob.  I tried to pick her up.  She got to her knees and I tried lifting her.  The wasps were continuing their attack.  The pain of the stings I had received was becoming unbearable.  Rikki tried to help, but she was having trouble getting to her feet.

That was when a big, solid body shoved between us, put arms around both Rikki and me, picked us up, and began carrying us quickly out of the clearing.

It was Bobby.  He had come back to get us.

“Move your feet, guys,” he panted.  “We’ve got to get out of here.”

Together, all three of us limped as quickly as we could out of the clearing and down the trail.  Luckily, the wasps didn’t follow us as far as on the first day.  Once we were about thirty feet down the path, they left us alone.

We stopped for a moment and collapsed to our knees, panting.  Rikki was bent over.  I could hear her breathing heavily.  I went over to her.

“Rikki, are you all right?” I asked.

She looked at me.  I shone the flashlights at her face.  (I don’t know how I kept them all this time.)

She’d been stung, all right, but it could have been worse.  Her upper lip, her jaw line, and her right eye were all swollen.  She had a couple of stings on her arms and one on her hand.

“Are you okay?” I repeated.

“Yeah, yeah.  I’m okay.  I guess I stumbled and couldn’t get up,” she said.  She looked at Bobby.

“Bobby got us out of there,” I said.  “He came back for us.”

“Thank you, Bobby,” she said.

“Tweren’t nothin’,” he said.

“No really, thanks man.” I said.  “You saved both our butts.”

“Okay okay,” he said.  “Can we go home now?”

“What time is it anyway?” Rikki asked.

I looked at my watch.  “Nine forty-five,” I said.

“Good,” she said.  “Not too late.  We can still catch the movie.”

“Are you crazy?” Bobby exclaimed.  “You still want to watch a horror movie after what we’ve seen tonight?’

“Sure, why not?” I asked.  “It can’t be any scarier.”

“Whatever,” Bobby said.

We began walking home.  Around us, the night was cool and dark.  Crickets chirped in the bushes.  At one point, we heard an owl hoot.

“Well, there’s our owl,” Rikki said.

We all laughed.

We had all been stung, all of us several times, but gradually the pain subsided, and we felt better.  When we reached my yard, Bobby said, “Wonder if we could get some Jiffy Pop and a Coke.”

“I think so,” I said.  We headed toward the house.

The light was on over the back door.  As we stepped into the circle of illumination, I felt it.

The cold.  I felt the cold.

“Do you feel that?” I asked Rikki.

“Yeah,” she said.

We all stopped.  Slowly we turned around.

The corner of the yard was lit by a faint but brightening greenish light.  Fog crept along the ground from the direction of the path.  Lit from within by the greenish light, it swirled and eddied.  Finally it began to coalesce.

Two figures emerged from the fog.  A man and a woman.

The man was young, dressed in gray, a young Confederate soldier.  He wore a slouch hat and appeared to be smiling.

Beside him, in a simple white dress, stood a young woman, her hair done up in braids, a bonnet on her head.

On their left hands could clearly be seen wedding bands, made of copper.

The young man saluted, then waved.  The young woman nodded and curtsied.  Then both of them walked back down the path to the clearing.  The greenish fog slowly dissipated, leaving the night as it had been.

“Well, I guess we got it right,” Rikki said.

“Yeah, I guess we did,” I said.

“We did a good thing tonight, you guys,” Bobby said.

We never saw Everett or Lucy again.  We never told our parents either.  This was our thing, the three of us.  When questioned about the stings the next morning, we told the truth:  we had disturbed a nest by accident.

The stings soon faded.  But the memory didn’t.  That’s why I still drive out to the old place from time to time.  From the road, you can just barely see the top of the old oak tree.  Every now and then, people will say they’ve “seen stuff” around there.  But I always dismiss it out of hand.

There’s no such thing as ghosts.



© Copyright 2018 Mike Roberts. All rights reserved.

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