by Cleo Brinkman
It was a dark night. The moon had gone behind a cloud when one of the scouts said, “Let’s tell ghost stories.”
Rock had just finished one of those stupid stories that make the rounds. We all laughed and one of the kids yelled, “Way to go, Rock!” We called him Rock because his mother said he has rocks in his head. Sometimes we were almost convinced ourselves. We were getting restless and our fire was dying out when our Scout Master, Mr. Deedon—or Ray, as we called him—said, in a scary voice, “Would you boys like to hear a real ghost story?” We looked at each other, eyes glassy, faces flickering in shadow and nodded and tried to act like we weren’t already spooked.
Here’s what he told us:
One Saturday, the neighborhood boys and I were swimming down at the old swimming hole. It was getting late, about sunset, and we all had to be home for supper or we’d be grounded for a week. We yelled our goodbyes and Fats waited for me. I don’t know why we called him Fats. He was the skinniest guy we knew. But he liked the name so Fats it was. I discovered my pocket knife was gone so I ran back to the beach where I left my shirt while we swam. There it was. I bent to pick it up when I saw something on the water. At first, I couldn’t make out what it was. Then I could see it was a girl! Floating face up in the water. I yelled for Fats and took off my shoes and swam out, clothes and all. I towed her to shore. Checked for signs of life. She was dead! I was sure. I called after Fats again and he finally came running.
“What are you doing?’
“I turned to meet him as he climbed the hill.
“I found this girl in the water and she’s dead-”
“What girl?’ he asked.
“This girl—are you blind?!” I turned around and there was no girl.
“She was here a second ago!”
“Yeah, yeah. Some dead girl you found got up and left,” Fats laughed and then got mad. “I’ll probably get grounded thanks to you and your stupid joke.”
By now, he had reached his bike and off he rode.
I was grounded that night. My mother tried to explain away what I’d seen. It was a reflection on the water or shadows, I was tired.
“At sunset you see strange things that don’t exist.”
I was convinced I knew what I’d seen and felt.
Sunday, after church, I snuck out and rode to the swimming hole. When I got there, well, there she was again, sitting in the sand. I approached, steadying my knees, swallowed deep for courage and asked her point-blank, “You’re a ghost, aren’t you?”
She nodded her head. Now we were getting somewhere!
“You want my help?”
Another nod yes.
“We were on a roll. Now, let’s see, ghosts are earthbound due to sudden death and unfinished business—or they were murdered! Ha! Good thing I watched that television show last winter when I was sick and had to miss school.
“Do you have some unfinished business you need help with?’ I asked.
She nodded yes again.
“You need your folks to know you love them?”
NO, a violent shake of the head.
“You were… murdered?”
Yes, a vigorous nod.
“And you want me to find your killer?”
“Can’t you talk?”
She shook her head.
“How can I find your killer? I don’t even know who you are.”
She got very excited now and began writing on the sand with my stick.
“E L I S H A—I could barely make out the scratches.
“Hey, you got worse handwriting than I do!” I began to wonder what I was doing talking to a dead girl. But I think I saw her smile.
“So does whoever killed you live in our town?”
“Was it a man?”
“Can you write his name?”
“Why? You wrote yours.”
She shook her shoulders.
“You aren’t sure of his name?”
She began scratching in the sand. M M M. I knew it was someone whose name began with the letter “M.” I thought of all the men in town.
“Martin the butcher?” I asked.
“Mike at the Food for Less?”
“Milburn, our only homeless person?” He recycled and lived in an empty house down by the tracks, but seemed harmless enough even though he was a little strange.
No. Now she was getting impatient.
“Well, so long! I’m the wrong one to help you ‘cause I’m fresh out of M’s.”
No! No! No! She shook her head so hard I was afraid it would snap off.
I paused, scratched my head. “Well, the only other M I can think of is Mo, our Sheriff.”
She began shaking her head yes!
“No! No! No!” now it was my turn. “His name isn’t even Mo. His mother nicknamed him Motor Mouth and Mo it became. His real name is, Clarence, I think.”
“No! He’s our Scout Master and one of the nicest guys!”
Mo was my personal hero; no way he killed her. But she went on yessing me and it was getting late. I was through arguing with a ghost. I got up and headed home. It was already late in the day, almost sunset. I knew I had to hurry ‘cause if I got caught, there’d be hell to pay. Remember, I was raised in the days of dad’s belt and if I was sore the next day, everyone would know why.
I didn’t eat much supper that night. I was thinking Mo, a murderer, and a child murderer at that? No way! This ghost was mixed up. Maybe there was another Mo back then. I mean, something wasn’t right.
Next morning, my mother asked me if I was sick since I hadn’t touched my breakfast; eating was usually my favorite thing. But I had no interest in food.
“Mom, is it possible for someone to do something unspeakable and then change and become a nice person?”
“Oh, Son. You haven’t done anything wrong, have you?” She looked concerned.
I decided I had better get to school and, afterward, I climbed the hill and let my eyes scan the water. Nothing… but there!: on the beach was the girl, right where I’d left her. She wasn’t a ghost no more, just a body, but I felt like someone was watching me from behind. I had this feeling like I should be somewhere else, anywhere else but here. But I couldn’t help myself. I crept down to the beach, slowly approached the body. I pushed it with my toe. Nothing.
“You’re dead, alright,” I told her. “Maybe this time, Missy, you’ll still be here when I return with the police.” I found a stick and pierced her calico dress, right between her legs just so she’d stay put. Then I ran up the hill to pick up my bike and pedaled as fast as I could the whole way home.
I came clean, told my parents everything. And after my mom and dad yelled at me, dad went to call the sheriff.
“Not Mo,” I said. “Don’t call Mo.”
Dad looked like he was going to hit me and about an hour later Mo came out and took the report.
“Took you long enough,” my dad said.
“Sorry, we had another call.”
We followed him to the swimming hole in the car. Of course, wouldn’t you know it, there was nothing there once we arrived—no trace at all of the girl—and Mo gave me a stern lecture on how unsafe the swimming hole was. But then I remembered the stick. Everyone was already walking down the hill when I found it. On the other end was a piece of cloth! A perfect match for that little girl’s torn calico dress.
I didn’t say anything more. My dad talked to me all the way home about fantasies and stuff. My mom just looked sorry for me but I knew now something was out there and I was going to have to find out what.
The following night was Scout Meeting. I’d just ask Mo straight out. “Hey, Mo,” I’d say, “do you know some girl named Elisha?” He’d say, “No” and it would all be over.
So, after the meeting, I hid my bike and said, “Mo, can you give me a lift home? I got a flat.”
“Sure,” he said. “Hop in the car. I’ll be right out.”
He had his police car. We were a small town and the police took their cars home at night. Once he got inside the car, he began asking me about school. I didn’t hear the question because my mind was already forming a question of my own: Mo, do you know a girl named Elisha?
I couldn’t believe I’d asked him out loud!
He didn’t reply right away but suddenly he turned to look at me. His face was white as stone. He said, “Where did you hear that name?”
I noticed we’d gone past my house. “Mo, you missed my house.”
Now I was becoming nervous. He was headed out to the old swamp and no one messed with the old swamp. There was quicksand and snakes and all sorts of terrible stuff out there. Once we’d reached that miserable place, he stopped and told me to get out of the car. I didn’t at first but when he unbuckled his gun holster and made a move for his pistol, I moved and right quick.
“You don’t want to do this, Mo! Whatever happened to that girl, no one else knows.”
“You know,” was all he said.
He was pushing me toward the swamp when suddenly he stopped. His face went pale again and he began making all sorts of terrible noises. He seemed to be fighting something only he could see. He fired his gun in the air a few times and fell to the ground. He looked terrible. His face was ashen and still.
“Mo,” I said, and I tapped him with my toe. I knew he was dead. I hightailed home like the devil himself was after me.
Next morning, I looked so bad; Mom said I should stay home from school. It seemed like a bad B-movie but that night in the news there it was: our Sheriff Clarence “Mo” Smith had died at the old swamp. He was chasing someone, it was believed, and he’d suffered a stroke. The suspect got away.
Oh, there is one more thing: when they dried up that old swamp for that new shopping mall a few years ago, among the other things they found out there was the skeleton of a twelve year old girl.
Cleo Brinkman is the grandmother of the Samizdat Literary Journal’s editor, Jeff Von Ward.
photo by mike love.