Seconds stretched into days and minutes into millennia. The uncomfortable desk and chair combo didn’t allow enough room for my knee to bounce. I fidgeted in place, trying to avoid distracting everyone around me. I didn’t want to cause people to lose concentration on the tests that were sitting on the damnable desks. A bunch of my friends took the college entrance exam that day with me. I understood the importance of the test for everyone else, but it meant nothing to me. I took it at the insistence of my grandparents, who raised me after my parents’ divorce.
Just a month prior I took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, my scores qualified me to do anything in the military. The Army and Air Force offered me everything in the world except for what I wanted. I wanted to be a lawyer, a JAG lawyer. Their gifts came much appreciated and I accepted with gusto. But they didn’t stand a chance from the beginning.
The proctor stood up and signaled that time was finished for the final part of the exam. The faceless entity, whose name I couldn’t recall, gathered up the test booklets and dismissed us from the room. I stretched my legs, relieved from the release of being cramped under the tiny desk, and made a beeline for the door.
“Yo! Duuuuude! Slow down!” I heard the call come from behind me. The voice belonged to Jackson Adkins. Jackson, or Jackie, as he preferred to be called, aggravated the hell out of me. Jackie and I shared a love/hate relationship. He got on my nerves, but damned if I didn’t keep him around anyway.
Annoyed at some girls who gathered around the exit door, slowing the flood out of the room to a trickle, I spoke up, “For Christ’s sake! Make a hole!” I’d heard my navy recruiter use that phrase. I loved it and used it every chance I could find.
The girls looked at me, drones if I’d ever seen them. They rolled their eyes and various sounds of displeasure issued forth. How dare I interrupt their ever important discussion of a test that ended all of three minutes prior? They moved, however begrudgingly, and allowed the flood to recommence. Too late for my escape, though. Jackie tapped me on the shoulder just as I exited.
“Dude, slow down,” he sounded like a surfer. Or maybe he thought he was a ninja turtle.
“What’s up, Jackie? I’m in a hurry,” I didn’t slow down while I talked to him. I hoped he would take the hint.
“I need a ride, man,” he hung on to his vowels when he spoke. That phrase came out sounding like “I need a riiiide, maaan.”
I chuckled, “You always need a ride, man.” Jackie didn’t have his driver license yet, despite turning eighteen a few months prior. A driving under the influence charge at the age of fourteen put a damper on the whole driving thing.
He smiled a contagious smile, “Yeah, I do. Damn cops.”
“I have to work in an hour; still have to get home and change,” I said after I laughed at him. I couldn’t turn Jackie down. I owed him.
“Ok, it’s on the way, dude. Can drop me at Mickey Dee’s. I’ll walk from there.”
“Fine, but you’re staying in the car. My grandparents don’t like you, and I have zero desire to hear about how bad an influence you are again.”
Jackie grinned and followed me out to my little white, decade-old Dodge. He babbled and yammered and yacked, never shutting his mouth the entire way to the car. He reminded me of my three year-old sister with the way he always talked. Silence, it seemed, frightened him.
My a/c didn’t work, and Jackie said something that I couldn’t quite hear over the din of open windows and my radio, which worked quite well, “… ghost at the gorge.”
“What are you babbling about?”
“You know, man. Out by the gorge? The old mansion. There’s a ghost. My brother went out there a few years ago. He totally saw…” Jackie kept talking, but I tuned him out. I knew about the house by the gorge. I’d always wanted to go check out the old mansion, but never had bothered to go.
Before I thought about it, I asked, “You want to go check it out?”
Jackie did a double take mid-babble, “Uh, dude, don’t you have to work?”
“Meh, I’m leaving for boot camp in June, what are they going to do? Fire me?” I grinned as the idea drew up in my head. “I’ll call in from a pay phone, grab my uniform from home, and go. My grandparents will never even know.”
Jackie started nodding, “Hell yeah, man. I want to see the ghost.”
That’s why I loved Jackie. Never once did he turn down the opportunity to see something new. He possessed an unquenchable optimism and an insatiable curiosity. Two traits which I couldn’t help but enjoy and, on occasion, take advantage of.
All the tools we needed lived in my trunk: a flashlight and a tire iron. Hey, everyone knows that ghosts are vulnerable to a tire iron blow to the head, right? Being a teenager brings with it an invulnerability fueled by ignorance. Wondrous time of life, the teenage years.
I dropped him off a few blocks from my house and ran inside to get my uniform. The empty house caught me off-guard. My grandparents never left together. A note let me know that Papaw went to a friend’s house to trade chickens, and Gran left in search of groceries. Feeling lucky, I grabbed my uniform and called in to work. I told them I couldn’t come to work because of “the crud”. A disinterested manager took my message, and off I went to pick Jackie back up and head out to the gorge.
My mood improved drastically when I realized I would not have to go to work that night. The Marine Corps recruiter liked to come and try to recruit me while I worked. That fact alone forced my choice to join the Navy. I couldn’t reward his obnoxious persistence. Before he came to my job and pulled me out to talk, I had been leaning toward the Marine Corps; he fixed that problem.
Jackie sat on a tiny bridge that crossed an even tinier creek waiting for me to come back. Whenever boredom or nerves overtook him, he played with a copper-colored Zippo lighter that had belonged to his great-grandfather. The fact that he and boredom shared constant companionship meant the lighter saw a lot of use. He flipped it open and lit the flame all in one motion. That trick took him weeks to master and resulted in a three-day suspension when he showed it to me in chemistry, junior year.
I pulled up, and he jumped into the car, “Dude, you know there’s little fish in that creek?”
“Yeah, Jackie. I know,” I laughed at him. “We trap them to use for bait when we go fishing.”
“Really, man?” He thought for a second. “That seems cruel.”
I shrugged as we headed off into the late morning. We drove on toward the gorge and the alleged haunted house. Located at the top of Greasy Ridge, the gorge housed a small creek and a lot of trees. I don’t know why people called it a gorge. To me, it looked more like a valley with sharp inclines to the hills on either side. Hunting the deer that wandered into the gorge to drink from the creek made a popular past time. The steep slopes made it so that the deer had no escape except further into the gorge, which made tracking the wounded animals easier.
Jackie, lost in thought, played with his lighter while I sang along with the radio. AC/DC’s Bon Scott screamed his way through Highway to Hell, and I did my best to match him note-for-note. Jackie didn’t even notice the screaming.
“Dude, what if we run into the ghost?” The lighter opened.
“Don’t be a dumbass. There’s no such thing,” I assured him.
The lighter clicked shut with a sharp arm movement, “I know, man. But what if? We could be famous if we caught it.” He snapped the lighter open again.
I laughed at the thought, “You want to catch a ghost? Dude, you have lost your mind.”
“That’s not funny, dude. My aunt…” Off to the races again, Jackie told a story I’d heard at least a hundred times before.
We pulled onto a gravel road that everyone knew about, but no one used. The road used to lead to an area that most people called Lover’s Peak. That lasted until some girl’s dad caught her and her boyfriend in the back seat. The boy ended up at the bottom of the gorge, the dad ended up in prison, and the girl committed suicide later. That’s how the story went, anyway. I never bothered to verify the rumor.
The road seemed to fit the story. Despite the noontime sun, shadows covered everything. The hills that surrounded the alcove blocked the majority of the sunlight after the early morning sun moved on toward noon. A corner appeared up ahead. Just around the corner stood the house.
We parked on the road in front of the ancient-looking structure. Huge, old, ragged, and beat down, the structure seemed to hang together out of habit. Grass stood a full two feet high in the yard around the house. The beams sagged on the porch, giving it the look of a lopsided grin. About half of the windows contained no glass except for broken pieces that hung in the frame. Cracked paint waved in a slight breeze, where it hadn’t already peeled off in sheets.
“Looks like it came out of a movie, man.” Jackie stared slack-jawed at the dilapidated old home.
I reached over and punched him on the shoulder, “Pfft, just looks like an old house to me. Come on.”
Faking bravado, I took the first couple of paces toward the house. I knew what Jackie felt; I felt it, too. I didn’t want him to think the house unnerved me. It did, though; the house felt wrong to me. In my hurry to prove my bravery the flashlight and tire iron never left the trunk of the dodge. I couldn’t even explain to myself what it was about the place that unsettled me. I brushed my worry to the side and pushed through the grass toward the porch.
I reached the steps to the front porch before he started after me. My weight caused them to creak loudly enough to make me pause. I looked back at Jackie to see if he heard the sound. He shrugged at me and motioned for me to go on. Three steps later, I stood at the front door peering into the dusty entrance. Jackie, being much smaller than me, caused the old wood less distress as he climbed.
He joined me at the front door window. “Dude, are we going in there?” His voice trembled a bit at the thought. I couldn’t tell if fear or excitement caused the tremble.
“Well, it wouldn’t make sense to come all the way out here just to look at the front room, would it?”
I reached down, twisted the rusty knob, and pushed the door. To my surprise, the door swung in with only a minor protest from the hinges, opening into what once had been a gorgeous foyer. Tapestries hung in tatters around the room, and from the ceiling a broken chandelier swung. An ornately carved table stood against one wall; I could imagine a bowl with fruit once sat there, waiting for visitors to eat of its contents. The back of the foyer featured a double spiral stairway leading to the second floor. The multitude of windows, both broken and still intact, let in ample light for us to see everything, if not as much as I preferred.
“See? Just a house,” I walked toward the stairs.
“Whoa! Dude, didn’t you hear that outside? No way will those things hold you,” Jackie grabbed my arm.
“Did you see that?” I asked. “A flash up there.” I saw something just as he pulled back on my arm.
“Man, don’t mess with me. I am nervous as hell, right now.”
“I’m not messing with anyone. There’s something up there.”
“Nope, we are not going up there, man,” Jackie kept a firm grip on my arm.
“We can’t catch a ghost down here, come on,” I owed my stubborn resistance more to not wanting to appear afraid than the desire to discover.
I pulled Jackie along with me toward the stairs. He followed, but not without protesting. I wasn’t going to be dissuaded, no matter how much he protested. He gave me an out without the appearance of fear, but I refused to take it. Big Bad Navy Guys don’t run from flashes.
I almost changed my mind when I stepped up onto the first stair. The wood screamed at my weight, and I felt it sag under me. Jackie let go of my arm as I moved up toward the second stair. The protestations of the wood continued, though they did not give way. I hurried my pace, figuring that the less time I spent on each, the better. I started taking the stairs two at a time, reaching the second floor in a matter of seconds. Jackie watched me until I reached the top before creeping his way up to join me.
I looked down the hallway, where the flash had originated. Paintings hung on the wall between the windows and at the end of the hall hung a mirror. I could see Jackie and myself in it. Jackie’s wild hair stood out in every direction, a stark contrast to my short and smooth military spec cut. A branch outside the window closest to the mirror moved with the wind, allowing sunlight to hit the mirror and send a beam of light down the hallway.
Jackie started laughing, “Dude, that’s what you saw. The light in the mirror is all…” Jackie’s words trailed off into the distance.
Behind us stood a beautiful, exotic woman. A face with an olive complexion framed by long, black hair showed in the mirror between us. Short, her head stopped right about where Jackie’s nose started, and he stood a full six inches shorter than me. She didn’t move, didn’t even seem to breathe. She stood, mere inches behind us staring down the hallway at the mirror.
I froze, unable to bring myself to turn and see if the mirror showed reality. Through the mirror, I saw Jackie start to turn toward me. Seeing him find the courage to move forced me into action, and I turned, as well. What we saw behind us did not match the gorgeous and exotic woman in the mirror.
Beauty had long since fled the flesh of the monster behind us. She still only stood maybe five feet tall, but her presence felt much larger. Desiccated flesh stretched across the bones and tendons. Her lips pulled back revealing green and black teeth.
Her rheumy eyes stared at us. Hatred poured from those eyes. She stood stock still, as though some insane artist carved her from flesh, standing in that spot, then left her to rot.
Jackie and I stood, afraid to move a muscle. An eternity passed as the thing that stood before us turned her head, first toward Jackie, then toward me. Sickening pops and cracks emanated from her neck as it stretched and turned. Those cold, dead orbs looked into my soul. They ripped secrets free.
She did not look upon me for longer than a few seconds, but in that span she learned everything about me. She knew about how I faked crying at my one grandmother’s funeral because I didn’t want people to force me to the coffin; the body scared me. She saw every lie I ever told, every moment of cowardice, every single shameful experience. She saw my false bravado for the posturing it was.
Jackie fell to the ground, crying and shaking. The movement drew my eyes away from the mesmerizing gaze of the walking corpse before me. I realized in that moment that I had to do something before I lost the ability to think and act. A glint came from Jackie’s hand.
The lighter! An idea popped into my head. The woman stared at me still, her lips curled up into the semblance of a smile. Did she know my plan even as I thought of it? It didn’t matter; no choice presented itself other than to try. I took a deep breath and drove my shoulder into the specter’s chest.
I half expected to meet no resistance and fall to the floor behind the thing. My expectation, though didn’t match reality. My shoulder met flesh and bone much stronger than it had a right to be. I assumed that my mass alone would be enough to shove her away; I was wrong. She reached up and shoved me back, forcing me to windmill in an attempt not to land on the floor.
I dropped my head and charged blindly toward her, hoping that I could bull rush her past Jackie. I saw Jackie on the floor and used her shadow to approximate her location. Her shadow never moved, but I missed her. Momentum had carried me several steps past Jackie before I realized that she had moved.
I stopped and turned around, trying to find my tormentor. I couldn’t see anything except Jackie still in the middle of a hysterical fit. Had I imagined the whole thing? No, that didn’t make sense. I hurried to Jackie’s side and shook his shoulder.
“Jackie, get up. We need to get the hell out of here!” I whispered to him.
“Get away from me! You can’t have it!” he didn’t recognize me.
I slapped his face; I don’t know why I did it. It worked in movies all the time, so I tried it. His eyes refocused a bit at the shock of pain.
“Where did she go?” he sounded like a child.
“Doesn’t matter, get up!”
I pulled him to his feet, and we started toward the stairs. I had to support Jackie; his legs didn’t seem to work the right way. His entire body trembled like a Chihuahua puppy in a cold breeze.
“Can you get down the steps without me?” I didn’t think they would support my weight and Jackie’s together.
Jackie nodded to me, “I’ll try. You go first.”
I leaned him up against the handrail and raced down the stairs as fast as comfort allowed. I reached the bottom and turned around to watch my friend make his descent. She reappeared behind him just as he took the first halting step. I watched in horror as she reached out and pushed Jackie, sending him tumbling down the spiral stairs.
I screamed his name as he hit the handrail a little over halfway down. He crashed through the rotten wood, falling the rest of the way to the floor. He thudded to the ground a few feet to my right. Blood trickled from his nose and mouth, and he groaned in pain. I rushed to his side as the woman laughed. I could see her climbing down the stairs while I attempted to pull Jackie to his feet.
“Dude, leave me. My ribs are broken.” His breath came in short gasps, and blood sprayed from between his lips.
She reached the break in the handrail where Jackie fell through, “Yes, coward, leave him. Just like you did when he got arrested.”
I froze in fear. Jackie’s DUI should have belonged to me. I was driving that night and wrecked the car. He told me to run, and had taken responsibility for the accident. He told me I was too smart to ruin my chances. According to him, he was a pothead and didn’t have a chance with his horrible family life. I did what he said that night. We had never mentioned it again.
She was right, I was a coward. I considered leaving Jackie there with her. He wouldn’t blame me. He never judged me, though if anyone in the world possessed the right, he did.
“Take this,” he pressed his prized possession into my hands. “Get out. Don’t let her have it.”
The cold metal of the Zippo reminded me of the thought I had upstairs. I clenched it in my hand and looked up. I needed to get to the tapestries by the front door. They would catch fire and burn quickly. The woman reached the last step and stared with lifeless eyes at the two of us.
I stood up and sprinted toward the front door that still stood open. I refused to leave Jackson in there with her, but I couldn’t physically fight her. I reached the tapestries and tried to light the Zippo. I could feel her approaching me. Just as I got the flame lit, I heard a screech from just outside the door. The noise drew my eyes away from the husk of a woman that was promising to torture my very soul.
A giant owl perched on the handrail on the steps. The tapestry smoldered as I heard a voice from my left, “Onus, its lunch time.”
I watched the owl launch off the handrail and fly straight into my chest. A giant ball of feathers, claws, and a nasty beak ripped at my face. I swung wildly at the animal that tried to rip my eyes from their sockets, my fist clenched around the lighter. Eerie melodic laughter filled my mind as I fought to get the beast off of me.
I blacked out and woke up in a basement of some sort. Bodies littered the floor around me, including Jackson “Jackie” Adkins’. I don’t remember how long I sat in the cold, dank basement. I still carried the Zippo, though the fluid ran out soon after I woke up. Not that it mattered, I didn’t want to see the bodies around me.
I sat against the wall, Zippo clenched in my fist, waiting for the opportunity to pay Jackie back for his sacrifices.
I still sit against that wall, waiting for my chance at vengeance. She will pay.