A. LaFaye loves a good ghost story, especially one with a twist. That was her approach in this short story for readers 9-12 and The Keening (2011). She’s published a handful of books for young readers and is happy to announce that she has two picture books coming out in 2018, No Frogs in School (Sterling) and Follow Me Down to Nicodemus Town (Albert Whitman). She teaches Creative Writing at Greenville University and the low residency MFA program in writing for children at Hollins University. You can find her online at www.alafaye.com or www.facebook.com/alafayeauthor or @artlafaye on Instagram or Twitter.
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My best friend, Becky Lacen loved anything haunty, creepy, and scary until she became a ghost.
For Becky, a “keep out” sign might as well be a welcome mat. The old hospital on Route 127 practically called to her in her sleep.
Actually, a sleepover was the lie that got us there in the first place. The old sleepover double cross—“Mom, I’m, sleeping over at Gabi’s house” (Gabi, that’s me). And I told mi madre, “I’m sleeping at Becky’s,” even though the guilt filled my muscles with sand and made the ten-mile bike ride four times as hard.
And I still went anyway, even though, all of Becky’s planning and a little bad luck had really stacked things up against us. Rain made it twice as hard with the slick roads and the drenching spray from passing cars that stole my breath. The backpacks made it three times as hard—covered by garbage bags, we’d filled them with dry clothes, flashlights, extra batteries, water, meal bars, and salt, plus a crow bar for the ghosts we’d capture on our phones.
With the rain and the packs weighing us down, I didn’t need the extra baggage of guilt, but Becky’d packed the tent, so I carried the weight of guilt.
“You know what they say, everything built on a lie is bound to fall apart!” I yelled as we pulled out of the gas station on Miller Road to make the final leg of the journey.
“Buck up, Buttercup!”
If I had a candy bar for every time she yelled that while we trained to make this trip fast enough to reach the hospital before dark, I’d be in a diabetic coma instead of worrying about detached tendons on the nose-bleeder hill leading to 127.
All that training didn’t matter in the heavy downpour, it was gray the whole way. So much for reaching the hospital before dark. Windy roads, tall trees couching overhead, and the dark sky had me shivering and only half from the rain.
When we pulled onto the overgrown drive of the old tuberculosis hospital that had been shut down when my great-grandparents went to high school, the hollowed-out windows, black in the fading light, made the place look like a skull perched on a hill.
“Shake a leg, Gabi.”
Nodding to the hospital, I said, “That place leaks like a strainer, we won’t be dry all night.”
“We’ll be ghost hunting. Too busy to care how wet we are.”
Dismounting to climb the hill, I said, “Speak for yourself.”
Why’d I let her drag me into this?
If I had a book for every time I asked myself that question, I wouldn’t need to go to the library ever again.
But I knew the answer.
Becky’d pulled my foot free when it slipped between the ties on the railroad bridge, with a train shaking the bridge closer and closer. She’d even retrieved my shoe from the rocks below and sat with me until I stopped shaking.
Mami would be quick to point out that I wouldn’t have been on that bridge in the first place if I hadn’t followed Becky up there. That is if I ever told Mami. I refused to do that because I’d finally answered her question: “If Becky Lacen jumped off a bridge, would you follow her?”
Yes. Yes, I did. That very day I’d almost met a train head-on. Who wouldn’t have jumped?
And that night, I stood staring up at a building so old and menacing I half-believed it could eat me alive.
Becky stood there, neck craned, smiling away like those doors led straight into a wizarding school. Turning to me, her eyes electric, she said, “Tonight, we find out.”
Find out if any of the what-happened-next great ghost stories she’d told me about this place were true.
I’d sat on the edge of my seat with my heart doing backflips at years’ worth of sleepovers to get to this night, and the side door behind the boiler room that we’d worked open on each of our trail runs over the summer that had allowed us to plan our entry point, learn the pattern of the night guard, Garrett Reston, from the path of his flashlight along the walls inside.
His job was to keep out squatters, drug users, party-goers, pranksters, and ghost hunters like us.
“I wouldn’t mind if he found me,” Becky said as we watched from behind bushes when he stepped into the guard room just feet from our faces, all college kid lean and scruffy. He looked like one of those final frontier reality show guys who ate grubs and tracked bears, but Becky was sure they’d be going steady by the time she graduated from high school. Never mind that we hadn’t even finished middle school yet.
When I pointed that out, she’d just wave the idea away. “What’s a few years between soul mates?”
That one just made me cross my eyes.
On the night we finally went inside, we stood at the side door, waiting for Garrett to leave the guard room right above us, so he wouldn’t hear the door when it creaked open like a rusted hatch of a scrapyard battleship.
As he headed down the hall, Becky said, “Good evening to you, Mr. Montague.”
When he entered the stairwell leading to the second floor, I shoved her through the crack in the door, saying, “Move it, Juliet.”
She opened her mouth, but I raised my flashlight, saying, “If you start quoting Shakespeare, I’m going to make you eat this.”
“You could try,” she said, stepping into the building. A crash, shout, and stumble, pushed me forward, calling for Becky.
“Chill, chica,” I saw Becky wave me down, her bleeding knee, and a metal box only half attached to the wall that sparked.
“Did you get electrocuted?”
“Nope, just tripped.”
“Don’t touch it.”
“Not planning on it.”
“That is a total fire hazard. We should call 911.”
Becky grabbed me. “Are you crazy? How long have we been trying to get in here?”
“That could start a fire!”
Becky stepped into the boiler room, her beam of light flashing over the walls. She came back lugging a fire extinguisher—new enough to carry an inspection sticker. They probably feared exactly what I did—a fire would burn the place to the ground and start the woods around it on fire. Okay, so maybe not in this rain.
Becky sprayed the box until the sparking stopped. “Happy now?”
“Ecstatic.” I leered at her.
She put the extinguisher back and we headed down the basement hallway, the haunting grounds of Archie Tuttle, the boiler tender. Think of a furnace that needed to be feed coal in order to work and you’d understand poor Archie’s job. Grace Harper, a feverishly delusional patient on the third floor became convinced that Archie had killed Alice, her only child, because he’d been standing there, hat in hand, when they wheeled Alice’s body out of their shared room. The heart-broken mother had killed him with the shovel he used to tend the boiler when he fell asleep at his post. Story goes that his spirit has walked that lower hallway for decades, asking folks if they’ve seen his shovel.
When I heard footsteps in the distance, I froze in place and covered my head, whispering, “I don’t have it.”
“Relax,” Becky gave me a push. “That’s just Garrett doubling back on the first floor.”
Right. Garrett did a switch-back pattern on every two floors until he walked through each level twice, then checked the roof and the basement. I would be glad to get out of that basement.
Garrett always started by going up the east stairwell, so while he headed to the west side of the building, we went the opposite direction, heading for the infamous third floor.
“Good night, Archie,” said Becky eased the stairwell door closed. “See you next time.”
Shivering, I thought, No way would I be here on her next trip.
I’d had a hard enough time forcing myself to go up those stairs with the black hole darkness that seemed to suck up the light from our flashlights, the nose-burning smell of rot and mold, and the creaky sag of the steps beneath our feet. Testing the sturdiness of each board before I put my full weight on it, we inched up to the third floor—the site of enough deaths to fill four rows in the cemetery behind the hospital. This was not only the floor for the most critical patients, but it was also the ward where Dr. Derrick Dangle practiced his own deadly brand of medicine. No longer able to watch his patients struggle for their final breaths, he dispatched them in their sleep with a double dose of morphine. Rumor has it that he killed thirty-seven patients before a nurse turned him in to the authorities who arrived at his third-floor office to find that he had killed himself with the very medicine that had turned him from a doctor to a murderer.
Doomed to walk the halls of the ward for eternity, people say his ghostly image could be seen from the road below on the anniversary of his final night of life. That’s why we’d chosen August 17th to come to the hospital. That, and we started seventh grade the next day. I was not thrilled about having mi mami as my science teacher. I just knew I’d screw up and call her ‘Mami’ instead of Mrs. Mendez.
I did the sign of the cross just as we opened the door to the third floor a crack and waited, knowing Garrett would enter from the other end soon enough.
Met by a silence that seemed to push us back, we stared at each other, then Becky rushed into the hallway, saying, “Come on, we can hide in the janitor’s closet until he heads to the fourth floor.”
Mami, who spends far too much of her time explaining cause-and-effect to seventh grade science students would say, if you don’t want to die of fright, then stay off the most haunted floor in the building, but Becky snarled, “Come on, Chicken Liver!”
I hate chicken liver—eating it, smelling it, and being it—so I pushed the crouching fear filling my lungs down into the pit of my stomach and rushed across the hall to join Becky in the closet.
The cramped room smelled of bleach and stagnant water.
“It’s only, Garrett, it’s only Garrett,” I started the chant inside my head before I even heard him because I knew his arrival on the floor would startle me. When the door popped and his footfalls echoed down the hallway, Becky clung to me so hard I had no chance to jump.
As soon as we heard Garrett’s voice, we both let out a nervous laugh and backed away from each other.
“Evening, Dr. Dangle. How go your rounds?”
Becky took the risk and turned on her light, to show her lips mouthing the words, “He talks to Dangle?”
I shrugged, even though Becky couldn’t see me. We leaned into the door, waiting for an answer.
“Oh, I understand. Doctor-patient confidentiality and all. I’m just making small talk.”
“With yourself,” I whispered.
“Shush,” Becky gave me a push, then like a quick wind that blows out a candle, we heard a low whispered pfft of sound.
Even Garrett stopped in his tracks.
Then came the famous line. “Who’s there?”
Garrett said, “Now look what you made me do, Doc. You’ve got me talking like an extra in a horror flick.” He laughed. “Next thing you know I’ll be walking into a dark room and come face to face with…okay.”
Suddenly, his voice dropped.
Becky whispered, “I don’t want to see a ghost anymore.”
“I never did.”
“Then why’d you come?”
“If I had a dollar…”
“Keep your wits, Garrett. It’s an old building with a lot of noises.” He started walking forward. “Nothing here can hurt you.”
We heard him come around the corner and right then. Right there. White light seeped around the closet door in a blinding flash, a voice shouting, “Get out! Get out!”
We all ran so fast and furious, doors flung open, screams went up, arms and legs collided, I got slammed into a wall, a wave of coldness washing over me, as Becky let out a scream so loud, my ears nearly burst, but it was a fading scream.
No. Not fading. Falling. I heard her falling and flailing in the walls, then silence.
An absence of sound so deep, I nearly fell in.
I set to praying as Garrett yelled, “What the hell just happened?”
A low distant rumble explained the flash of light. A storm had just rolled in.
But what had happened to Becky?
Garrett and I scanned the hallway with our flashlights. Nothing.
He shined his beam on me. “Who…are you Nico Mendez’s little sister?”
I nodded. Who cared whose sister I was? Becky was gone! “Mi amiga. We have to find her.”
“Agreed. But where did she go?”
We searched the walls for hidden shoots. We tested the floor for weak boards. We checked the stairwell. The surrounding rooms. No sign of Becky.
As we stared at another wall, we looked at each other in confusion, pointing, then asked,
“Did you shout ‘get out?’”
“What are we, twelve?” He asked.
“Right.” He raised an eyebrow. “So it wasn’t you?”
I shook my head.
“Okay, so we have a prankster.”
“Ghosts only shout ‘get out’ in the movies, kid.”
Leaning against the wall, I heard the pfft sound again.
“What the hell is that?” Garret asked.
“It’s like it came from inside the wall,” I leaned against the wall between the closet and the stairwell.
I knocked to check for a hollow space, it echoed back, then rebounded with a low moaning.
That from within the grave sound sent me reeling backwards.
Garrett slapped the wall, yelling, “Cut it out, you creep. There are kids in here!”
“It’s hollow,” I said, tapping across the wall. Praying those idiots, whoever they were would just leave us alone.
My flashlight went right through a rotted piece of wood. “Shine your light over here.”
And we both saw a piece of plywood that had caved in at the bottom, the wall below it crumbling from water damage. Shining my beam into the hole, I saw it was nearly three feet across and twice as wide, but so deep, the beam of my flashlight only went a few feet down to rest on a slash of red along the wall.
Becky. Madre de dios. Please protect her.
Garrett pulled me back. “Watch out. That’s the old linen shaft.”
“Yeah, they sent sheets down to be burned in the incinerator.”
Even though he’d just mentioned a stove hot enough to turn just about anything to ash, I shivered. “Becky fell down there!”
I yelled her name.
Moaning that seemed to echo from the walls around us.
“Stop that, you creeps!” I stomped my foot. Tears welling up. “We have to call 911.”
I spun to face, Garrett who raised his phone in the air as lightning struck again. “The storm knocked out the signal.”
“We have to get to the bottom of this shaft and find her.”
And seconds later we were tearing down the stairs, thunder booming overhead as if to say hurry up.
The moaning rose again through the walls. What if Becky didn’t answer me because she couldn’t? My mind slipped a gear. What if that moaning was her answer?
Becky had fallen and not survived.
Becky Lacen, the girl who loved everything haunted, had become a ghost.
The very idea locked up my joints.
Garrett turned and shined his light in my face. “You okay?”
“What if she’s dead?”
His silence told me too much.
“She’s not dead.” He didn’t even believe those words. She’d fallen three stories. We’d both seen the blood.
“Gaaabi,” my name floated up through the walls like a sigh.
Garrett and I both shouted. In a second, he stood beside me, hand on my shoulder, saying, “It’ll be all right.”
If I had a dollar for every time Becky told me that, I could pay Nico’s college tuition. And that night, those words never sounded so hollow.
We reached the bottom of the stairwell and stepped into water pooling on the floor. I willed myself not think about what might be floating around in that ink-dark water.
Garrett yanked on the door. “Stupid thing’s warped shut again. I’ve told them they’ve got flooding problems. Do they listen to me?” he set to kicking it and throwing his shoulder into it until it popped open with a sickening crack, sending Garrett flying into the hallway beyond it, a voice shouting, “Get out!”
“Who are you?” he shouted.
A light flickered in the distance.
A moan filled the hallway and rose up around us.
I hugged Garrett. But his shaking arms didn’t make me feel that much safer.
I was never going to follow Becky Lacen again.
Oh God. I prayed I would have a chance to turn her down.
Garrett, went to the left. “The shoot bottoms out over here.” He ran that direction. I followed. We passed through a doorway.
Echoing moan. Like a twisted pair of thunder and lightning to match the real thing outside.
“We will. Just get off your pranking butt and help us find this girl. She’s hurt!”
Then I saw her.
Becky, on a pile of graying sheets, face nearly as sickly pale as the fabric under her.
Racing ahead, I could see that her arm wasn’t lying right. But the rise and fall of her back told me she was still breathing.
“Gracias de Dios.”
My thanks echoed through the walls around us.
Moaning explained. Becky had landed in an echo chamber.
Rushing to help her, I said, “Help me roll her over. Watch her arm.”
Becky screamed herself awake. “My arm! My arm!”
Garrett fumbled to find something. “Why didn’t I stay in Scouts with Nico?”
He may have bailed out of Scouts, but I’d sat through every badge Nico earned. What was good for the boy was good for the girl. And that was fine with me. Especially with Becky squirming in pain and begging for help.
Grabbing an old broom leaning against the wall, I handed it to Garrett asking, “How good’s your knee?”
“Not as good as my foot.” He held up the broom and pulled up as he stomped down to break it in half.
“Can I have your belt?”
He swiped it off and I had a splint faster than Nico could tie a hitch knot.
Becky kept saying, “It hurts. It hurts so bad.”
“Let’s get her to the car,” Garrett said.
“Think the sheets would hold if we tripled them?”
“We got to try.”
And with a little trial and error and a lot of screaming on Becky’s part, we hauled her out of the room using the old sheets as a makeshift gurney.
The water in the hallway was spreading towards the west end of the building and I could hear a faint crackling that made me nervous, then Garrett backed through a doorway.
A “Get Out” faded into a popping gurgle as water sluiced past our feet.
“Crap,” he cursed. We’ve been shouting at a stupid electronic warning system.
“Are you serious?”
He kicked the box Becky had tripped over coming in. “Here’s an old junction for it! They’re all over the building.”
As we shuffled out to Garrett’s car, I kept seeing the red Alarm letters on that box that we tripped over on the way in, thinking we’d missed all the signs and got trapped by our own stupidity. I should’ve never followed Becky Lacen into that building with an eerie glow from the third floor, that I was just going to ignore.
What I should’ve done was turn my bike around and insisted she follow me home.
And after a trip to the hospital, a neon green cast, and a lecture that lasted nearly as long as the punishment—a month’s grounding—Becky Lacen might just start listening to me.