Each quarter we write 700 words that tell a tale. We enjoy the challenge of writing short stories in such a small framework.
October—Halloween approaches. Samhein, the ancient festival that marks the end of harvest and the beginning of winter, is held on November 1, with celebrations beginning the night of October 31. It’s a time when people dressed in costume and went from door to door, reciting verse and seeking food. That lives on in our trick-or-treat tradition. It was also a time when people believed that the boundary between this world and the otherworld thinned, allowing the spirits to go through.
From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggety beasties and things that go bump in the night— Or day.
D. Z. Church takes us to a day when the people on the other side of the boundary are all too visible.
Janet Dawson takes us to a night of unexpected encounters aboard a ship.
D. Z. Church
No one had used the back parlor of Countryman House since the official government letter arrived twelve years earlier notifying Edith Countryman of her husband’s death at Chickamauga. The letter affirming it was on the small table before the settee, held in place by a crystal vase of long wilted daisies.
As Cora Countryman entered the room, sunlight glissaded through two six-over-six windows with red brocade drapes tied back to keep them from fading. The soft clucks of chickens invaded the still of the sitting parlor through an open window. Shelves of books lined the interior wall, some behind glass, waiting to be read as when a girl Cora had done, seated at the carved mahogany reading table, her feet dangling off the chair, her tongue between her lips while drawing pictures of sailboats, strange pyramids, and darkly clothed men from stories. Of course, that was when her father lived, before his loss forced her mother to take in boarders.
Twelve years was ample time to mourn, especially with her mother as gone as her father, though not as dead, well, not dead at all if the rumors that Edith was gambling on the Mississippi riverboats were true. Cora leaned over, touching the note’s brittle paper. The room shook under the thunder of horses so real she pivoted to face them, horses leaped over a stonewall onto pikes, men shouted as others fell, screamed, lay motionless. She removed her hand from the note, the room ceased shaking, the sounds and images vanished.
She sat at the settee, staring into the marble fireplace with its walnut mantle, her right hand spread across her chest, her breathing rapid. She lowered her hand to her side, afraid to touch the vase of dead daisies, lecturing herself on her ridiculousness.
When convinced, Cora wrapped her fingers around the vase, a withered petal fell from a long dead stem, floating to the ancient letter. Laughter erupted and swirled around the room. A young woman, a daisy chain wreathing her brow, threw her arms out, twirling until she bobbled, a dark-haired youth of near her age easing her fall. They lay together in the tall grass; he brushed a single daisy petal across her lips, until the marching of heavy footfalls brought them to their elbows.
Cora admonished herself, she was a modern woman, this was fantasy, or wishful-ness. She lifted the yellowed paper between two fingers, it wilted along a long-rotted fold.
“He is not dead, he is not,” a man in a blood-spattered coat said, his hands at the wrist of the body set before him. “Take him elsewhere, he belongs with the living.”
Another, his blue uniform filthy, positioned the dead man’s arms on his chest and with another lifted the stretcher. The two ducked out the tent flaps into cannon smoke, horses rearing in terror, and the whistle of bullets tearing by. They dropped the stretcher and ran for cover as men in gray on wild-eyed horses breached the position.
Cora’s father lay before her. Blood coursing from his wounds. A smile eked across his handsome face, a sly one. He opened one eye.
“He is not dead,” Edith Countryman said months later, the letter of notification in her right hand, she sank to the settee, placing the letter on the table. When a breeze ruffled the edges, she added the vase of daisies to hold it. “He is not dead, I have seen him, I have seen his smile.”
As Cora smoothed the skirt she wore left behind by her thieving mother, a couple appeared seated on the open deck of a paddle-wheeler. They laughed over a card trick, she looking pleased and he looking hardened, a daisy in his buttonhole.
The vase in one hand, the yellowed notification in the other, Cora set them within the glassed section of the bookcase, rattling the glass as she slammed the door, then holding it closed while turning the key. She leaned there as the wind howled down the fireplace flue and across the floor, swirling over and about the table.
Her hands on her hips at the mess created, Cora got on with the practicality of cleaning day and her boarders’ needs.
“Spooky spaces? What does that mean?”
I was on my patio, relaxing and sharing a bottle of wine with my next-door neighbors Steve and Nita.
Steve grinned. “The USS Hornet, at the Alameda Naval Air Station. You’ve heard of that.”
I nodded. “Old aircraft carrier from World War Two. Tied up at one of the piers. It’s a museum.”
“Full of spooky spaces,” Nita said. “It’s supposed to be haunted. All kinds of reports from people claiming to see ghosts on the ship.”
I rolled my eyes, swirling chardonnay in my glass. “I don’t believe in ghosts.”
Nita laughed. “I don’t either. But every year they have this fundraiser called the Monster Bash, the Saturday before Halloween. It’s for grownups and kids. Dancing, bars, food, a dance contest and a costume contest. Two or three bands plus a DJ. It should be a blast. Come with us. You’ll have fun.”
Which is why, against my better judgment, I found myself on the USS Hornet that Saturday night before Halloween. I wore a Rosie the Riveter outfit, with the blue coveralls and a red bandana with white polka dots tied over my hair. Steve and Nita opted for a Fifties look, him channeling Elvis and her rocking a poodle skirt.
I’d already been up to the fo’c’sle, which I learned was nautical shorthand for forecastle. That was one of the spooky spaces that was supposed to be haunted. At least according to the people who were gathered there swapping tall tales.
The sick bay on the second deck was also one of those spaces. I’d toured the medical area but I hadn’t seen any ghosts. I wasn’t counting the partygoers who were dressed as spirits. Or zombies or werewolves. Then there was the guy costumed as a Klingon who wanted to dance. I’d already rebuffed him, but he was making another attempt to beam in. Fortunately, Steve and Nita swooped me off to accompany them on the haunted corridors tour. We went up and down ladders—Navy speak for stairs—and trailed along passageways.
I was straggling at the end of the group when I felt a sudden chilly breeze. Down here in the bowels of the ship? The bandana slipped off my head. I leaned down to retrieve it. When I straightened, the passageway was empty.
Where did everyone go? They were just here.
The breeze again, then a thump, somewhere behind me. I whirled, looking for the source of the noise. Nothing there. Okay, that’s enough. Back to the hanger deck for me, safety in numbers with all the partygoers. But which way?
Someone pushed me in the back. I stumbled forward. Steve and Nita, playing a joke? I turned again. No one there.
Then I heard a voice. “. . . standing watch on the next deck.”
Where did that come from?
A flash of white at the end of the passageway. Someone was there after all. It was a man wearing a Navy officer’s dress white uniform. He stood for a moment, looking toward me.
“Hey,” I called, my voice tremulous. “How do I get back to the hanger deck?”
No reply. Just a stare.
“Hello?” I waved a hand.
No reaction. The figure began to move, walking toward me. An icy finger drew a line down my backbone. The face approaching me was as pale as the uniform, devoid of expression.
My logical mind said, okay, this is part of the entertainment, some guy dressed up, pretending to be a ghost, to scare me. But—
He turned and entered a compartment. I should have run the other way. Instead, I rushed to the door and looked in at empty space. Did I imagine it? I wasn’t imagining the feeling of fingers closing on my arms, holding tight. Another push and I was shoved into the compartment. I stumbled, righted myself and saw a sailor sitting on a bunk that wasn’t there before, cradling an injured arm. He wasn’t there, I thought, but the blood that ran down the arm looked red and real.
He stared at me. “. . . standing watch. That’s when it happened.”
Then he vanished.
I ran. I was a believer now.