This story originally appeared more than a decade ago on my old blog as part of an online writing group called #FictionFriday. The prompt was “a character gets three wishes,” and this was one of those stories that just flowed from the first line to the last, without me knowing really what was going to happen next. With Halloween approaching, a ghost story seems appropriate to resurrect.
Her mama called it ghost breath, this late September fog that lifted from the nearby pond and swirled slowly around Clara’s ankles and calves. It was thicker over near the old, wooden bridge where the stream came down from Parker’s Hill and fed the marsh that became Braden’s Pond. A ghost breath night, Mama used to say, was a sure omen of death. Soon the ghost breath would swell until Clara couldn’t see the stooped, stubby trees across the old gravel access road. Already the bridge had been swallowed up by the silent mist as darkness gradually defeated a reluctant twilight.
Clara sat on the embankment, the train tracks a few feet behind her, and watched the pond disappear into the darkness. Gravel poked through her thin skirt, but the night was warm and she didn’t mind the mist seeping through her threadbare school shirt. The moisture gathered and made the shirt cling like a second skin to her shoulders and breasts. Clara closed her eyes and imagined Mama out there gliding across the pond, floating above it in the air like a graceful dancer, pale and white and glowing. Maybe Mama was the lonely soul bringing the ghost breath with her tonight, back to visit the living. Maybe she’d come to take Clara away with her.
Clara opened her eyes and was startled to see the fog glaring bright-white at her from the direction of the old bridge. The brightness was moving, slowly, creeping closer and growing. Her heart jumped and thumped as she held her breath and barely dared to think of Mama coming to her as she’d just envisioned. The feeling lasted only a moment, though, as the brightness clarified into two burning white dots ringed with rainbow coronas: headlights. And now she could feel the vibration of its motor not far off, now sense the rumble of its tires on the gravel road, coming nearer.
For a moment, she hoped the car would drive on by and not see her. Her white shirt might blend in with the fog, her gray skirt with the gravel. But it was Friday night, and as the car lurched to a halt only ten yards away, Clara knew it was already too late to try to run away. She watched the driver’s door open, saw Charlie step out and say something. Nick popped out from the other side, laughing with his evil-looking sneer. Finally, Bill slid out from the back, pushing his greasy, black hair back and slouching behind Charlie. The three boys sauntered toward her.
Sometimes, Clara knew, her deafness could be an asset. Now she tried not to imagine all the things the boys were saying to each other. Even ten feet away the stink of bourbon flaked off them and melted into the mist swirling around them all. Maybe she could run after all. Maybe she could make it to the marsh and they’d let her go.
Without hesitating more, Clara pushed off the embankment and drove hard past Charlie, straight into a pounding run aiming for the bridge. They would catch her if she didn’t get a good head start into the darkness, into the ghost breath. She passed Charlie, but Bill lashed out with his foot. Pain seared into Clara’s shin, and she fell, her hands ripped open by the sharp gravel of the road, her knees ground into the dirt. Then they were on top of her, before she knew what was happening, and they hit her, hard in the legs, or maybe they were kicking. The pain in her leg and now a new wet pain on the side of her head dazed her, and she was only partially aware of the skirt being torn from her amid the stench of new sweat and stale cigarettes and bourbon. She was pushed and rolled and yanked like a rag doll, and every inch of her hurt so much.
Mama, she thought, Mama please come help me. Please come take me away with you.
She closed her eyes and retreated inside herself, clinging to the vision of Mama gliding across the pond, a shimmering vision of death, vengeance–salvation. Unable to hear, choosing not to see, Clara shut out the outside world and ignored her body and what was being done to it. She imagined Mama coming to her, kneeling beside her, hugging her like she used to. She felt Mama’s arms around her, felt Mama’s heartbeat, Mama’s warmth.
“Mama,” Clara whispered to the vision, “Mama take me with you. I wish I was dead. I wish to be with you.”
Her mama looked her in the eye with sad calm. “Hush, Clara. Don’t say that. Why, you’re just fourteen. You’ve got so much good ahead. Don’t wish that. Wish something else.” The vision embraced Clara again, this time with strength and solidity.
“Then Mama,” Clara whispered, “I wish Charlie would die. I wish Nick would die. And I especially wish Bill would die.”
Mama pulled back from Clara and looked into her eyes again, sadness now mixed with that look she used to give when she was very proud of Clara. Mama nodded slowly and began drifting away, backwards so they kept looking into each other’s eyes, until the bright figure merged into the mist and faded into the brightness that now was all around Clara.
Later. How much later, Clara had no idea. She had fallen asleep. No, she had passed out. She knew because she felt the pain growing as she became aware, as she floated up out of the depths of unconsciousness. The pain, everywhere, so intense she could barely gasp in enough breath.
Then, a familiar rumble began building in the ground under her. The gravel vibrated beneath her, and she opened her eyes. In less than a minute, the freight train would barrel past. All was darkness around her. The mist still loitered, now still as a frightened rabbit, waiting for something. The train would stir up the mist good, Clara thought.
In the distance, she saw the glimmer of the train’s headlamp glowing small and orange-white, a little sun in the dark mist. It was going fast tonight, Clara could feel it in the vibration of the gravel. She pulled herself to her knees, then stood up. The car was no longer next to her, but the stench of bourbon still lingered. She felt her head, found the blood still sticky in her hair.
Fifteen seconds, perhaps. The train was heavy, too. It was an insistent rumble, an unstoppable determination. She looked at the tracks on top of the embankment, their rails black as onyx, almost sucking what little light there was around her. Then she saw it. The car. Parked on the tracks. She could see the boys’ heads through the windows. They looked asleep, maybe.
As the train bore down on the car, Clara realized it was too late to save the boys. She felt a shudder through her chest that must have been an urgent blast on the train’s whistle, then a grating grinding as sparks leapt from underneath the engine. In the bright white of the train’s headlamp, the car became a brilliant centerpiece in the black surroundings. Charlie in the driver’s seat, asleep. Nick in the passenger seat, asleep. Bill in the back, lifting his head, his eyes growing wide as he watched his million-pound death pour down upon him at eighty miles an hour…
Clara did not close her eyes at the impact. She did not flinch. She watched in vague curiosity as the car first buckled and shrank, then sprang away from the train like a bead of oil off a hot griddle, up and away, off the tracks into the night beyond.
Limping, she turned to the gravel road and began slowly trudging toward the bridge where the ghost breath still lay thicker than anywhere. Away in the distance, over the pond, she thought she saw a shimmer of pale white gliding away from her and disappearing into the mist.