On a recent trip to Manchester, New Hampshire, on the way to the airport, my daughter pointed out a road that led to an old cemetery. She told us there used to also be an amusement park next to it. My friend commented that wherever there was a cemetery, there always seemed to be a playground nearby, and wasn’t that odd?
The same friend had asked me earlier where I get story ideas. I tried to explain it could be from anywhere. A snatch of overheard conversation; a newspaper article; a scene in a mall or an airport. Little did my friend know that her comment about cemeteries and playgrounds gave me an idea for a ghost story. I hope you enjoy it and have a Happy Halloween. BOO!
Sierra let the swing drift to a stop. Slower and slower it went until she could stub the toe of her sneaker in the dirt. Casually she twisted around, crossing the chains, and scanned the playground. She knew she was the only one there. The few other kids had been called home by short-tempered mothers, or had left of their own accord.
Probably, they were programmed on a pre-set schedule to expect dinner on the table, followed by baths and TV time. Then beddy-bye, tucked in with forehead kisses and whispers of sweet dreams.
Sierra had no such expectations. If she wanted to eat, she’d scrounge the nearly bare cupboards and cold, lifeless refrigerator. The house specialty was peanut butter on the finger. Her mother would drag in whenever. Exhausted from a day turning tricks or working the pole. Some days there would be money or the surprise of takeout Chinese or chicken. But Sierra had learned not to count on those times.
She let the chains uncross and pretended nonchalance as she eyed the cemetery. Everywhere they’d lived, and Sierra had long ago lost count of the series of rundown residences, the playgrounds were always near cemeteries. Was that because the dead would have no objection to the hoots, hollers, and squeals of energetic children? It would make more sense to put playgrounds near hospitals. Stitches and x-rays conveniently located nearby.
Sierra looked over her shoulder once more before she stepped off the swing. Silly. No one watched her. No one cared that she was here. That she was alone.
She heard him call. It was more than the whisper of the wind through the trees. She knew that it was.
It wasn’t her imagination.
Sierra stuck her hands in her pockets and strolled toward the cemetery gate. She whistled tunelessly. She had not a care in the world. Just out walking.
Dusk was her favorite time of day. The best time to visit her friends. The trees made shadows against the stones. The cool green grass became scented with the packed mud underneath.
She lifted the hasp on the gate, wincing as it squeaked. It was like ringing the doorbell, letting the dead know she’d arrived and they could start the party.
She eased the hasp back down after she closed the gate.
The leaves overhead flapped against each other in the breeze. A few dead ones drifted down in welcome.
Sierra ignored the whispers calling from the other graves. The voices that wanted to tell her their stories. My husband beat me to death. I was shot by a rebel soldier. Diphtheria. Smallpox. Influenza. Thrown by a horse. Drowned in the river during the flood of 1890.
She wound her way through the rows of stones touching them lightly to offer what comfort she could.
She picked up her pace, bee-lining for the far corner.
His stone was small, less than two feet high. Flat. Oval at the top. The etching barely readable.
Sierra dropped to her knees and touched it, running her fingers over the rough granite, tracing the outline of letters and numbers.
His voice was less urgent. More relieved. She heard him sigh as the breeze died. The trees quieted.
September 12, 1898 – September 12, 1908.
Unlike the others, Johnny hadn’t told her what happened to him. Either he didn’t know, or he didn’t want to say.
He told her other things, though. She knew he had blue eyes. Brown hair. A few freckles. And a gap between his front teeth.
He’d died on his tenth birthday.
Sierra shivered. Her birthday was the same day as Johnny’s. She’d be ten tomorrow. A hundred and ten years after Johnny.
“What’s it like to be dead?” she asked him, her voice barely above a whisper.
When he didn’t respond, she tried to imagine it. She thought it would be cold. Lonely. Much like her life now. She rubbed her arms as the breeze became a cold wind, gusting against her. She fell against Johnny’s stone, hugging it to keep herself upright.
She heard laughter.
You’ll find out.
See you tomorrow, Sierra.
Sierra retraced her steps through the now silent cemetery. She let the squeaky hasp fall, not caring who heard. Not caring who saw.
The streetlights offered pools of welcome in the settling dark.
“There’s chicken,” her mother said through a haze of smoke. She gestured at the box on the counter with her cigarette.
Sierra glanced at the bottle of whiskey on the table next to a cloudy half-filled glass.
Her mother took a drink and followed it with another drag on her extra-long filter tip.
There were two drumsticks and a single biscuit in the box. Sierra wolfed them down standing over the sink tossing the bones back in the box.
She carried the box down the back stairs to the dumpster. Otherwise there’d be a convention of roaches on the counter in the morning. Sierra hated roaches even more than she hated rats.
She showered under the meager dribble of water, sparingly using what was left of a motel-sized bar of soap.
She lay down on the worn, stained sofa hoping her mother didn’t have a date tonight. She fell asleep dreaming of Johnny.
“Sierra,” please come up here,” Mrs. McGowan said.
Sierra looked up from her reading assignment. The other kids gave her curious glances. She hoped they wouldn’t notice the peanut butter stain on her shirt, or that her socks didn’t match.
“Sierra,” Mrs. McGowan said when she arrived at the front of the classroom, “we have a new student starting today. I thought, since you’re also new to the school, you could help him learn his way around. Explain the routines to him. Perhaps sit with him at lunch?”
“Not exactly the kind of enthusiasm I was hoping for,” Mrs. McGowan said. “Here he is now.”
The classroom door opened, and Mrs. McGowan steered the newcomer in Sierra’s direction. Sierra stared. Blue eyes. Freckles. Gap between his teeth.
“Class,” Mrs. M. said, “we have a new student joining us today. This is Johnny Ryder. I know you’ll all welcome him.” She turned to Sierra. “Are you all right, dear? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”