by Chris W
Short story written for the Writer's Cramp. Mildly scary for young'uns.
| While sucking on a peach pit, Fae relaxed against the trunk of her favorite willow tree. The long drooping leaves encompassed and comforted her. She felt safe there. Much safer than she felt anywhere else.
It was her refuge. Her stepfather and mother rarely left the house to go look for her, so long as she’d completed her chores. The haunts didn’t bother her there, either. She didn’t know why, but it was just so. Sometimes she would see one drift by, maybe glance her way, but inevitably it would drift on, uninterested. It was not so in her house. The haunts there would stalk her incessantly, sometimes staring down at her when she woke.
Her stepfather called them her “imaginary friends” and said that she would outgrow them. They weren’t friends, she argued, they were scary and she didn’t like them. Well, most of them. Arbuckle was okay. Sometimes he sat under the willow with her, the only one that would, or could. He was a young boy, or had been. He didn’t say much, but he was the most pleasant of the haunts, she was sure of that. He would try his best to play hopscotch with her, with that same half smile plastered on his pale white face.
She liked playing with Bucky because when she was playing with him, the other haunts mostly kept their distance. When he wasn’t around, they would nearly assault her, waving frantically and mouthing unintelligible words. Their stringy hair and pale, translucent features frightened her. She would shy away and try to focus on one of her dirty old books until they left her alone, at least for a while. Then she would wipe away her tears and try her best to go about her chores.
“The girl is crying again,” she would hear her stepfather say.
“She’s fine,” her mother would reply.
But at this moment, right now, the peach pit and the willow tree had secured her a measure of peace and quiet. She looked longingly at the hills that lay beyond their rolling, unkempt land that had once been a thriving farm, when less neglectful tenants had occupied the homestead. Her eyes roamed lazily over the property, when they settled on the old, unused barn on the far corner of the property. It was not quite falling apart, but time had not been kind to the old structure. With no farmer to mend it, Fae doubted it would last much longer.
She saw movement at the old barn. A figure had moved across the doorway, from the inside. Since when was the door open? Her stepfather had barely mowed the grass once this summer, and he had parked the mower in the small shed near the house. As far as Fae knew, he had never even walked out as far as the old barn.
She saw it again.
Puzzled, Fae turned the possibilities over and over in her head. She wouldn’t be able to see a haunt from this distance. Maybe it was an animal. A cow, lost from a nearby farm. Or… a horse? A Horse! Fae would dearly love to see a horse up close.
The last thought was enough to motivate Fae to spit out the peach pit and venture forth from her haven. She had not ventured far in the direction of the barn when the haunts descended on her.
This time the ghostly creatures were more adamant than ever. They did not fade away as she tried to walk past them. They mouthed their words, their faces contorted in silent pain, their limbs gesturing frantically. Fae stifled a sob, closing her eyes and blindly running towards the barn through the knee deep grass.
The haunts relinquished their silent assault as she neared the old barn, refusing to follow. Fae noted that they seemed sad, almost resigned as she cleared the tall grass and into the muddy, gravelly yard directly in front of the barn. Their gesturing ceased, and they blinked out of the sunlight one at a time, heads sagging, staring dejectedly at the ground.
Fae had hardly processed the odd occurrence when Bucky appeared near the barn door, smiling wider than ever before. Fae half smiled back, not expecting his arrival, and still wondering about the horse.
Fae had been walking past Bucky, peeking into the barn when she heard the word. Bucky had never audibly spoken before. It couldn’t have been him.
“Play.” Fae saw his mouth move, slightly out of sync with his voice. It was soft and childlike, but carried a haunting echo that made the hair on Fae’s arms stand up.
Fae looked about. The other haunts were still gone. She shrugged and nodded. “Okay.”
It was just Bucky, after all. They would find out what was in the barn together.
She entered the barn, following close behind Bucky. He pointed at a hatch on the barn floor, just inside the doorway, and gestured an opening motion to her. Fae examined it. It looked like an old storm cellar door. What would they find inside? All thoughts of the horse had fled. Now lost treasure was a certain thing. Who knew how long it had been since someone had gone down into that cellar?
She was smiling as she stepped down into the darkness.
The cellar door slammed shut violently before she even reached the bottom of the steps. The already meager light fled instantly.
“Bucky, we n-need a light.”
As if in answer, a pair of red eyes flashed in front of her, revealing a familiar face wearing a wicked smile, if only for a split second.
Fae realized far too late what the other haunts had wanted.
The wordless pantomime.
It was Bucky. They were afraid of him. They thought that she should be afraid too.
Now she was.