Ashley's Ghost Story
I stared at the back of Renita’s skinny blond braid, sunshine warm on my face and a spring breeze tickling my ears through the open classroom window.
With a yawn I looked up at the clock. Grandma was picking us up from school today and coming to our house. Maybe I’d let her read my latest story, the one about Nosy, the curious fox. Now, if I were a fox I’d be outside, nosing around for mysteries.
I pictured it so easily. My best friend Lexi and I — and maybe Renita, if she was feeling super brave — as wily foxes with Terrible Tony as a clumsy possum, getting in our way. I glanced over at the fifth graders. Normally I’d have let Tony’s sister Ashley and her friend April be foxes with us, but lately they’d been acting so stuck up. They moved to the end of the middle-grade girls’ table so they could whisper during lunch and Ashley brought lotion and candy to share with April and refused to let us see it, even.
“Ahem.” Miss Miller cleared her throat and jerked me back to class. Sitting by the window often got me in trouble.
I had three division problems left when Miss Miller called fourth grade reading.
“Today we’re reading poems.” Miss Miller propped her reading book on her desk.
Yay, I said to myself. Since poems were short, I might have time to finish math before school let out. Besides, I liked poetry. Poems gave me a deliciously lonely, sad-happy feeling, like wind in the trees or crickets chirping.
“Turn to page 67. Our first poem is by Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s called “My Shadow.” Miss Miller looked over the fourth graders. “Tony, you may start reading.”
Tony? Oh, sauerkraut. He’d mangle his part of the poem, like always. I flipped through the book, found the page, and stopped. My heart jumped a little. The illustration beside the poem showed a big-eyed child tiptoeing up the stairs in a white nightgown. A candle glowed on a small red shelf, and behind the child a dim greyish figure crept along. Creepy!
Tony stood to read his stanza.
"I have a little shadow
That goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him
Is more than I can see."
He ruined it, exactly like I expected. There was no point in reading a poem if you spoke in a monotone, like a chainsaw.
Lexi read next and then it was my turn. I read the last stanza with as much expression as possible. Turns out, the poem wasn’t scary at all but that picture gave me the willies. We went on to read about “The Arrow and the Song,” but I kept sneaking peeks at the shadow picture. Across the aisle, it looked as though Lexi was doing the same.
I finished my last division problem before the cleanup bell, then got the sweeper from the back of the room and pushed it up and down the aisles and between the desks.
The bell rang.
“You’re dismissed,” Miss Miller said, and we all hurried out row-by-row.
Lexi and I took the stairs two at a time.
“That was one freaky picture in our reading book,” I said.
“Yeah, I liked it.” Lexi faked a shiver.
We reached the lunchroom and I fumbled for my lunchbox on the shelf below the counter. “It totally looked like a ghost.”
Ashley turned to face us, braids swinging almost in my face. “A ghost? What do you know about ghosts?”
“Not much,” I muttered.
Lately she and April made me feel young and silly, no matter how many times I said I didn’t care what they thought.
“I know some totally creeeeepy ghost stories.” Ashley winked at April. “My brother Darrel saw a ghost once.”
She opened her eyes wide and made her hands into claws.
Lexi laughed. “He did not. I absolutely don’t believe you.”
“Did too. You can ask him if you want.” Ashley tossed her braids. “He was home alone, reading, um, Treasure Island on the couch in the living room. And then...and then suddenly the front door slammed shut. Bang! Then the light went out. Click! Then there was this awful, choky moaning sound. Woo-oo-oo.”
Her wail faded into silence. Loud breathing sounded in my ear and I turned. Renita stood behind me, wide-eyed, gazing at Ashley.
“Then what?” Lexi asked, her eyes narrowed like she didn’t believe a thing.
“Well, then this...um...this shimmery thing that was sorta white and sorta gray — you know — floated into the room. Big as a man, and floaty, and kinda see-through, with...with red eyes. My brother about died of terror.”
Renita clutched my arm.
Ashley threw out her hands in a floating movement. “And then. Well, then the phone rang. And the floaty, see-through white thing disappeared up into the corner.”
Renita gulped like she’d swallowed pool water.
“Didn’t you tell me your brother heard it crying when it left?” April asked. “Sort of like it didn’t want to go?”
“Oh yeah, I almost forgot that part.” Ashley picked up her lunchbox, linked arms with April, and left the lunchroom.
Lexi, Renita, and I stood rooted to the spot.
“I—I’m scared,” Renita said, still gripping my arm.
“She made that up.” I turned to Lexi. “Right?”
“Right?” Renita echoed pitifully. “Right?”
Lexi shrugged. “She did make it sound real and scary. But nah, I don’t believe it.”
I threw back my shoulders. Ghosts creeped me out, but if Lexi wasn’t scared I wouldn’t be either. “She’s gonna be in serious trouble if her mom finds out she lied,” I declared as we headed outside.
In the sunshine Renita took a shaky breath of spring air. “I’ll have nightmares tonight,” she said.
Renita would believe anything. I didn’t believe in ghosts, of course. Fourth graders were too old for that. I ran off to where Grandma waited for my sisters and me.
When Grandma came over, she always brought good stuff. Today she carried in a bag of grapes, animal crackers, and chocolate milk. She sat at the table with Farrah, Karolyn and I while we snacked.
“So what did my girls do in school today?”
Farrah told her about the pictures they colored during story hour. Karolyn crawled up in Grandma’s lap and dunked animal crackers in milk until they got all soggy.
Finally Grandma turned to me. “How about you, Celeste?”
I finished skinning a grape with my teeth before I answered. “Well, I got all my work done before cleanup time, and we read poems for reading class.”
“Oooh. Good poems?” Grandma asked. She had a thick green book of poems that she sometimes read aloud to us.
“One of them for sure.” I told her about the shadow poem and the scary picture beside it. “After school Ashley told us a really freaky ghost story.”
Farrah set down her cup, hard.
“You’ve got a huge milk mustache,” I told her.
“Celeste,” Mom called from the other room, “don’t you be telling ghost stories to your sisters.”
Farrah still hadn’t wiped her mouth. “Grandma, are there really ghosts?”
“I’ve never seen one.” Grandma handed her a napkin.
I thought about it. Ashley could be lying, but her brother was a lot older and should know about things like this.
Grandma patted Farrah on the head. “And if there are ghosts, they sure wouldn’t bother a nice little girl like you.”
If there were ghosts? Ah-ha! So there was a chance.
After Grandma left we folded laundry. As usual I did the bath towels and Farrah folded the hand towels. Karolyn was supposed to fold the washcloths but I usually had to redo them all.
After supper dishes Farrah and Karolyn ran for their jackets.
“Wanna go swing?” Farrah asked. “Daddy said he’d give us under-ducks.”
I peered out the window. The sun had almost disappeared. At the end of the driveway, the white mailbox
stood spooky and pale against the dimming sky.
“Nah, I don’t really feel like it,” I said.
I went to the bedroom and browsed through my bookshelf. Our room seemed too empty and quiet so I took Mandie and the Charleston Phantom to the living room and curled up in the recliner. Halfway into the second chapter I stopped. What was that tapping sound at the window? The cover of my book — all blue with a white floaty thing — stared up from my lap so I turned it over. Was that something white, floating out by the evergreen tree? The front door slammed and I jumped. Footsteps came toward the living room.
“Girls,” Mom called, “time for bed.”
My sisters’ giggles and chatter sounded hollow to my ears. Book clutched to my chest, I scurried to our bedroom and got into my red-plaid pajamas. We knelt by our beds and Karolyn prayed first. “Now I lay me down to sleep” didn’t take long.
Farrah and I were too big for memorized prayers. As usual Farrah thanked God for all her dolls and toys and all the cats we’d ever had and for every friend at school.
“And keep us through this night and Jesus’ name amen,” she said, all in one breath.
Like always, I thanked God for food, clothes, and our house, then asked Him to keep Grandpa and Grandma safe. Tonight I added a silent line.
“Dear God, please, please don’t let a ghost get me.”
My sisters hopped into their double bed and Mom tucked everybody in, then turned off the light. Tonight I was glad Karolyn insisted on a nightlight.
Farrah started the nighttime routine. “Night-night, Tammy,” she said to her doll.
“Night-night, Mommy,” Karolyn answered, using a babyish voice.
“Night-night, Spicy,” Farrah said to my cat.
“Night-night, Aunty Farrah,” Karolyn answered, using our special, high-pitched kitty-voice.
Farrah went on and on. Then it was Karolyn’s turn. “Night-night, Vaseline.”
Now Farrah answered for Karolyn’s doll. “Night-night, Mommy.”
Karolyn went through the whole list too but she threw in Snowball, the neighbors’ white poodle and Pee-wee, Miss Priss’s canary. Even the striped cat we’d found squished on our road spoke from the dead with a sad goodnight. It took forever but the good nights and giggling stopped at last.
Instantly, I wished they’d be noisy again. The walls creaked. A sly little wind blew around our trailer house. A vehicle roared past on the road. Its headlights swept across our bedroom and threw weird shadows on the wall.
Grandma had said if there were ghosts, they wouldn’t bother Farrah. If! And in the Bible, people came back from the dead all the time. The bed squeaked as I turned over and I wondered if there was someone underneath. Or something. I pushed my back against the wall so nothing could creep up on me from behind. I flipped my pillow to the cool side and closed my eyes tight. Would I ever get to sleep? The last thing I remembered were April’s words whispering in my head. “Crying like it didn’t want to go.”
The phone rang at breakfast time but I didn’t look up from my cereal. My head ached and I wondered if I’d slept at all.
“Who on earth?” Mom went to answer it with a piece of cinnamon toast in her hand.
“Hello? Yes, she is.” Mom handed the phone to me.
Nobody called me in the morning. Not even Lexi. I raised my eyebrows at Mom but she shrugged.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hi, it’s Ashley.”
My mouth dropped open. Ashley, who was suddenly so grown-up, calling me? Then my groggy brain cleared. Ah-ha. So Ashley had lied yesterday. Somebody — probably Renita — must’ve tattled.
Ashley’s voice on the other end of the line sounded like it was being squeezed out of her. “Hey, um, Mom made me call. That ghost story, you know? I made it all up.”
A voice spoke in the background — it sounded like her mom — and Ashley sighed into the phone. “Okay, I’m sorry I lied.”
“It’s all right,” I said.
I hung up and stirred my cereal. So. Ashley’s ghost was a lie. All ghosts were lies.
Ashley kept out of the way all day. Both Lexi and Renita had gotten a breakfast phone call too. Renita admitted she’d tattled and she’d heard her mom call Ashley’s.
“Her mom was really mad,” Renita said, her hands clasped tightly under her chin. “And now I bet Ashley’s double mad at me. But I was so scared.”
Lexi rolled her eyes. “I told you and told you I didn’t believe a word of it.”
“I didn’t believe her either.” I shook my head. “Not really. But last night I kept thinking about that story. It sounded even scarier after dark.”
Renita shivered. “Me too. I cried so hard Mom heard and came to my room. That’s when I told.”
I was glad it wasn’t me who tattled but I was happy Ashley was found out for lying. Every time she skittered out of our way in the hall or gym, we could hardly hold back our giggles.
“She used to be fun, last year,” Lexi said.
“Let’s be really nice to her,” I added. “Maybe that way she won’t try to get revenge.”
When Ashley’s mom drove up, we all three said, “Bye, Ashley,” and waved. She stopped, narrowed her eyes at us, and then gave a tiny wave as she got in the van.
“We’ll have to watch those Abominable A’s from now on,” Lexi said.
“Abomb...a bomb what?” Renita asked.
“Abominable means bad. Awful.” Lexi grinned. “Get it? Ashley and April? The Abominable A’s?”
The van with Ashley in it disappeared down the highway but I could still see the mad look on her face.
At home, I read more of Mandie and the Charleston Phantom. It didn’t seem half as freaky as last night, just the good, safe kind of scary. Farrah and I rode bike until bedtime while Karolyn played with sidewalk chalk near the house.
When my sisters went inside, I stayed behind on the porch for a minute. The mailbox still made a white blob at the end of the dusky driveway but tonight I knew it was just a piece of tin on a wooden stick. The wind whined around the house but it always did that in spring in Kansas. Lights glowed from the windows of Miss Priss and Mr. Burroughs’ houses and my Siamese cat Spicy felt warm and plump in my arms. Her purrs rumbled against my chest.
Grandma said there were no ghosts. Ashley had made up the whole white-thing-with-red-eyes story. I went to bed to the sound of the creaking trailer house, snug under the green star quilt from Grandma.
© Vila Gingerich 2018