The beginning of an unfinished story by my friend Lola and me, rated PG for crude language. Lola and I co-authored stories online for several years.
Part 1 of 2: Carl
Carl Goodman coasted his 12-speed bicycle across the blacktop sidewalk through Hillwood Park until he came to the city’s oldest oak tree. He stopped at an empty park bench, jumped off his bike, and picked up the un-smoked cigarette someone had dropped. He dusted off the dirt before he took off his backpack and put his latest find inside one of the side pockets. He looked around to see if he was being watched. Although he was at the backside of the park and away from downtown, people tended to migrate to this shady area on hot days like today. However — and probably because of the steamy weather, the park was nearly vacated, except for two impish girls pestering an old man at a bench less than thirty feet away. They were barely ten, by their looks, and both wore extremely short blue denim skirts, the colors faded by design. Carl almost ignored them until one of the girls flashed her bright red underwear at the man.
Carl recognized Fiona Ramsey, the blonde doing the flashing. She and her parents attended his father’s church almost every Sunday. The other girl, the redhead who giggled and snorted at Fiona, was Libby Garr. She jumped and twirled as Fiona placed her hands on her knees and wiggled her bottom in front of the man who kicked and slapped at the air and was now shooing them loudly. The girls ignored him and giggled, which prompted a long string of profanity from him.
“Go on,” he yelled, “before I call the cops on you.”
The girls laughed and waved and merrily skipped down the sidewalk away from Carl and the old man.
“Damn little pissers,” the man yelled after them. “Someone oughtta smack your smart little asses.” He dabbed at the corners of his mouth where white whiskers formed two thin bridges of a salt-and-pepper mustache and beard. Carl wondered if his faded green Army jacket had been service issued or bought at the Salvation Army’s thrift store two blocks away.
Then, as though answering Carl’s thought, the man said, “Didn’t get my nuts nearly blown off in ’Nam just to have some little shits tease me like a couple of Asian whores.” He pushed himself up into a stoop and grunted. “The whole fuckin’ world’s gone to hell.” Then he shuffled toward Carl who pretended to inspect his bike’s rear tire. When the man passed, he jumped on his bike and raced to catch up to the girls.
Fiona and Libby were heading into a grove of maple trees when a bad feeling came over him. His vision of sharing the cigarette and maybe some pot with the girls vanished. He stopped his bike and stared at where the two girls disappeared into the dark green foliage.
“Don’t go in there,” the voice in his head warned. “Not safe.”
“Why not?” He looked around. No one was there to see him talk to the voice only he could hear.
“What part of ‘not safe’ don’t you get?” the voice asked.
With a sweaty palm, Carl rubbed the back of his greasy neck. “You’re not always right.”
The voice in his head — that irritating voice that was always right — was silent.
“Are Fiona and Libby okay?” Carl asked.
“For now,” the voice said. “But you’ll wanna get outta here.”
Carl’s cell phone vibrated in a front pocket of his blue jeans. “Home,” the screen said as it revealed a text message from his mom. “Aunt Donna and your cousin are here.”
He stared at the place where Fiona and Libby had gone, then put away the phone and turned his bike around. He craned his neck and took one more look at the trees. “How bad is it?” he asked.
The voice was silent. Chills ran across his back and sent him racing back toward town and the long way that would take him home.
Part 2 of 2: Emily
It was summer in southwestern New York. A glaring July sun and a storm to the north over Lake Erie had turned the afternoon humid. Inside the air-conditioned U-Haul truck filled with their belongings, Emily Bronwyn rode with her mother, Donna, to Hillwood. The thought of living in a new state, a new town and a new neighborhood filled with strangers pestered at Emily. She didn’t want to make new friends; it had taken her fifteen years to make the best of the ones she had left behind that morning.
She complained at the intersection next to a discolored brick tavern called Joe’s Pub. The pub’s grungy windows sported neon signs that advertised a variety of beer inside. An old, sickly man in a greasy Army jacket stood below one of the windows and urinated on the wall. His urine ran down and pooled along the gray and chipped sidewalk. Emily stopped complaining in midsentence. She watched the man finish peeing, zip up, and then turn and grin a toothless smile before hitching his pants closer to his chest. Emily sat motionless. She seemed unable to move her body except for her eyes. She watched the man stagger away along a street of shabby looking stores and houses.
When the U-Haul began to move, she did too. She shook her head. “Did you see that?” she asked, not looking at her mother.
“See what?” her mother said before she slowed for five sets of bone jarring railroad tracks.
“Nothing.” Emily braced herself during the bumpy ride without a complaint. Past the tracks, they wound past three blocks of defunct steel making factories with broken windows. Names and obscenities that had been spray-painted on the walls were now painted over with lines of black. It was a sudden colorful mess that reminded her of the finger paintings she had done at Brookfield Elementary back home.
Emily shuddered and said, “This town is so ugly.”
“Every town has its black eye,” Donna said. “Our new place is on the better side of town.”
Emily’s cell phone alerted her to a new goodbye message from her best friend Anna Jacobs. Then Anna was gone after a “GG” and a quick “ILU.”
“I love you too,” Emily whispered as she answered back with her own “<3.”
Homesickness tugged her into tears, which she turned from her mother.
Donna now drove through uptown Hillwood, a rolling conglomeration of sand-colored brick and cement stores better looking than the previous block. The stores here nestled lovingly against each other, selling everything from fast food to dusty antiques. Thrift shops and discount stores were busy with browsers on both sides of the street.
The U-Haul crossed a cement bridge so perfectly made it looked like it came pressed from a Play-Doh mold. They crossed a wide, shallow fording called Pine Creek. On the other side, the rosy homes and property belonged to teachers, storeowners, doctors and lawyers. Mother and daughter passed expensive cars and people wearing expensive clothes. They drove past an expensive looking elementary school with a sprawling playground filled with happy children on plastic entertainment. Next door was the proud looking high school where Emily would begin Junior High classes in August.
“I’m so excited,” Donna said. “It’s so beautiful here.” She beamed and Emily heard again how happy her mother was to be teaching here. Donna Bronwyn had worked hard to become a teacher after her divorce five years ago. And now she was moving to a community neither her husband nor her parents back at Brookfield, Vermont had ever been able to afford to live.
“This is what diligence and hard work can get you,” Donna said as she pulled into the paved driveway of 197 Franklin Street. The Victorian stone house was smaller than the older houses in the neighborhood, but it looked as beautiful.
A longhaired, red-haired woman called from the front porch as Donna and Emily stumbled from the U-Haul truck. “Together again,” Aunt Shirley cried. She met Donna with open arms at the step. Emily stayed next to the U-Haul and watched from the paved driveway. Shirley Goodman had been the driving force behind their move to Hillwood. Aunt Shirley, her mother’s younger sister, had married a wealthy minister and was now one of their many plenteous neighbors. Emily spat away a foul taste in her mouth and watched the house swallow her mother and aunt via a dark doorway that looked like a gaping mouth.
Sticky afternoon air sat upon Emily like a stone and made her thirsty. She was about to spit again when a female voice trumpeted in her right ear and caused her to jump. The smell of peppermint gum assaulted her nose when she turned.
“Weather’s been nasty,” the teenage girl with no tan whatsoever said. “Much too humid for July, don’tcha think?” She snapped her gum and tilted her head at the silver sky. Her silky black hair flowed long and dark down her back like a single brushstroke of India ink, which made her pale face look ghostlike. She was tall and thin like Emily, but had enormous breasts. Emily’s had just begun to develop — a late bloomer. She steeled her eyes from the girl’s short, tight-fitting top that matched the color of her hair. Silver rings and studs decorated her face in a kind of punk-look explosion, and she wore bright red lipstick and fingernail polish. A black leather micro miniskirt showed too much of her upper thighs, and her long legs ended in a pair of black platform sandals that revealed red polished toenails and silver rings on her toes.
Emily brought her gaze back from the ground and the girl snapped her gum and continued to stare at the sky. “Where ya from?”
“Brookfield,” Emily said. “Vermont.”
The girl stopped chewing for a second. “Ain’t that the town that passed a resolution endorsing the impeachment of President George W. Bush?”
Emily lowered her head. “You know about that?”
“Uh-hum. Civics class.” Then, “It’s awful to sweat like this all the time,” she murmured.
“I suppose,” Emily said. She saw no perspiration anywhere on the girl’s skin. She stood up straight and held out her right hand. “I’m Emily.”
The girl looked her up and down with ice blue eyes, and then pointed at the driveway’s edge. “The neighbor’s dog puked there because of the heat,” she said. “Next rain’ll clean it up, though, unless he comes back and eats it first.” She emitted a short laugh. “I mean unless the dog eats it, not the neighbor.”
Emily stared at the yellow vomit, uncertain of how to reply to the girl’s odd statement. “Of course,” she managed. “I knew what you meant.”
The girl looked again at Emily. “I hit you with a tennis ball three years ago.”
Emily stiffened as she recalled a tennis ball striking the back of her head while she was at her mom’s car, putting one of Aunt Samantha’s apple pies in the back seat.
“Me and your cousin Carl were out here whacking balls with my dad’s old rackets,” the girl said. “You and your mom were here for a Sunday dinner. Carl said he’d give me five bucks if I nailed you in the head with the ball.”
Emily scowled at the girl. “You hit me on purpose?”
“Nothing personal, Emily. It’s just that Carl said I had a lousy throwing arm and I needed to prove him wrong. Plus, I needed the cash.”
Emily’s cheeks burned. “Carl’s a jerk. He’s nothing but trouble.”
The girl nodded in agreement. Then she said, “I’m Kennedy Killbourn. I live across the street.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder. Emily glanced at the yellow house peeking from between maple trees and knew she would always associate the house with dog vomit from now on.
“Moving in, I see,” Kennedy said. She nodded at the U-Haul next to them.
Emily shrugged. “Not by choice.”
“It’s nice place,” Kennedy said. “My best friend Lucinda Nelson lived there. I used to play here all the time until…” Her voice dropped and she looked again at the sky. “Her parents were out when she died. They found her body when they got home that evening. Lucinda had hit her head on the bathtub faucet and bled to death.”
Emily sucked in a breath. Her throat tightened and her voice squeaked. “Omigod-I’m-so-sorry.”
“It sucks to lose a best friend.” Kennedy sighed. “Mrs. Nelson went crazy afterwards. She started seeing Lucinda’s ghost inside the house, so Mr. Nelson took her away … to Pennsylvania, or maybe Ohio … wherever she came from.”
The back of Emily’s neck prickled. “That’s awful.” She stifled a yelp when Kennedy placed a cold hand on her shoulder.
“I’ve seen her, too,” Kennedy said. “A few times this summer … late at night … standing on the porch and looking out at the street.”
Emily shivered as she looked at the porch and the house’s large door waiting for her.
“Ghosts don’t bother you if you don’t believe in them.” Kennedy turned and walked past the driveway, past the yellow vomit. Emily brushed at the goose bumps on her forearm and watched the girl leave without saying goodbye.
When Kennedy had crossed the street, Emily started toward the house and the awaiting porch. She stopped, changed course, and returned to the U-Haul. Safe inside the truck’s cab, she told herself that ghosts weren’t real. But she knew otherwise.