Let's Just Say I've Heard it Before


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1. Let's Just Say I've Heard it Before

          The old boards of the nearby bridge creak suddenly.  I jump.  My witches’ hat falls off, landing in front of me.  I stand motionless, staring into the dark to see if my friends or something worse are hidden among the shadows.  “Kendra? Jake?” I call out.  My voice shakes in the still air.  There is no answer.  I reach down to pick up my hat, but a sudden gust of wind snatches it away into the air and deposits it on the bridge.  The wood creaks again, a wailing cry that echoes in the night, as if on cue.
          I can’t lose that hat – my parents will never let me go out on Halloween night without them ever again.  They think I’m not old enough, but they finally agreed to give me a chance this year.  If I go back home without the hat, they’ll freak out, saying stuff like, “If you can’t even manage to keep track of a hat, then you are not ready to go anywhere on your own!”  I have to get that hat, which means I have to go onto the bridge.  The bridge where the shadows are so deep it’s as if the world has disappeared, as if everything beyond the light of the failing streetlamp has simply ceased to exist.  I wrap my arms around myself and shudder.  I inch closer until my toes are almost touching the old wood.  My hat is only four or five steps onto the bridge.  I could get it and be back in the streetlamp’s safe glow in less than thirty seconds.  Still, maybe if I wait a while longer, the wind will blow it back to me.
          I stand there in silence, straining to see what might be hidden in the misty gloom of the air.  It could be anything – something as harmless as a stray cat, or something fit for a nightmare.  Oh, why didn’t I bring a flashlight with me?  Darkness can make the simplest things look terrifying.  If I had a flashlight, even just a small one, I could get my hat without fearing anything.  But I don’t have one.  I’m just going to have to get my hat anyway, fear or no fear.  If my friends show up and find out I was too frightened to walk four steps and pick up a hat, I’ll never hear the end of it.  Don’t get me wrong – I know there’s probably nothing on the bridge.  I’m not an idiot.  It’s just that it’s too easy to imagine scary things when you can’t see what’s actually around you.
          I can do it.  Just four little steps, grab the hat, and then maybe twenty more steps and I’ll be back under the streetlamp.  Before I can lose my courage, I move.  One, two, three, four.  There, now I have the hat.  I spin around, heading for the safety of the light – and an icy hand grabs my shoulder.
          I shriek and bolt for the streetlamp.  Footsteps sound behind me, not running, but still following.  Who – or what – is it?  What would it do to me if it caught me?  My breath comes in short gasps.  I have to make it to the lamp.  But what am I going to do once I’m there?
          Before I can decide I’m there.  I fling myself around to the other side, putting the thick metal pole in between me and my pursuer.  Despite the harsh sounds of my heaving breaths, I can still hear steady footsteps coming ever closer.  A dim shape gradually emerges from the darkness, as though the streetlamp’s unwavering light is peeling back shadowy layer after shadowy layer.  A girl appears before me, a girl about my age.  I sag with relief, leaning against the cool metal of the lamp.
          What a strange costume choice.  I don’t know why I’m noticing this, of all things, but I do.  The girl is wearing one of those old-fashioned dresses, the kind that women wore a long time ago.  That’s hardly what most girls would choose as their Halloween costume.  But who really cares?  A moment ago I was thinking of all the horrifying things that could have been after me: a ghost, a murderer, or some kind of monster.  Thankfully, now I know it was just a girl.
          She steps hesitantly closer, and the small circle of light provided by the streetlamp illuminates the surprised look on her face.  “Did I startle you?” she asks.  Her voice is soft and quiet.  Feeling foolish, I try to calm my still-racing heart.
          “No. No, you didn’t. It’s okay. I was just waiting for my friends so we could go trick-or-treating and I thought I heard something so I thought something was after me and I was afraid of what it could do to me and…”
A puzzled look crosses the girl’s face.  She probably thinks I’m insane.  I take a deep breath and force a smile.  “Anyway, I’m Jenny.”  She smiles and holds out her hand.
          “My name is Claire. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”  Tentatively I take her hand and we shake.  Instantly I’m reminded of when she touched my shoulder.  Her hand is freezing!  I don’t see how someone can be that cold.  It’s also strange that we shook hands in the first place.  I mean, who does that anymore?
          “Jenny, can you help me?”  At this I freeze.  I don’t want to become one of those children who disappear and are never found, just for helping some stranger, even if that stranger is a 12-year-old girl that looks anything but scary.  Claire continues talking, oblivious to my overactive thoughts.  “My older brother thought that because I was a girl I would be too scared to walk across that bridge.”  She points behind me at the creaking wood, a note of anger creeping into her voice.  “I didn’t want him to think I was like all those other girls with their fancy dresses that are afraid of everything, so I did it. When I came back across, though, he wasn’t here, and I can’t remember how to get home. If I don’t get back soon, Mother will surely find out and I’ll be in trouble. Could you show me where Forest Street is?”  She looks at me hopefully, a picture of innocence.  I sigh.
          “Sure, I’ll help you. It’s not far. But it’s only ‘cause I know what it’s like to have a guy think girls can’t do anything.”
          “Oh, thank you!” she squeals, clasping her hands together in delight. “You’re such a good friend!”  I just nod.  I’m too afraid to say no because of what might happen if I refuse to show her the way, but by now I wish I could be rid of her.  Her strange way of talking is starting to unnerve me.  Something just doesn’t feel right.


~~~~~


          In a few minutes time we arrive at Forest Street.  “Well, we’re here,” I say awkwardly, breaking the eerie silence that had been our walk.  “There it is!” she cries suddenly, pointing to a nearby house.  That surprises me.  She’s pointing to a house that has been empty for as long as I can remember.  I’m not completely sure why; something about an accident where the family living there moved away after, and how no one wanted it since.  Like I said before, maybe her family is just different.
 She runs up to the steps and opens the door.  Just before entering, she turns back and waves enthusiastically.  “Goodbye, Jenny!” she calls.  I give a short wave and then turn to leave.  Just before she’s out of my sight, as the moon temporarily sheds the lining of clouds blanketing it, I notice that she’s wet.  Soaking wet, actually, enough that water is practically pouring off her clothes and hair.  Why hadn’t I noticed that before?  I glance back to make sure I had seen that right, but the door is already closed.  Claire is gone.  All of a sudden complete silence falls over the area and I realize I’m all alone, in the dark, and no one else knows where I am.  If something were to happen to me, right here, right now, no one would ever know.  Wasting no more time, I run flat-out back to the bridge, never stopping once.


~~~~~

          “Hey Jenny, where were you?” Jake yells as I approach.  I gulp in air, trying to get my breath back, as Jake waits for an answer.
          “Oh, um, I…my parents kept me back,” I lie once I can talk. “You know how parents are.”  I shrug, trying to look nonchalant.  For some reason I don’t want to tell anyone about Claire.
          “That sucks,” Kendra says, looking sympathetic.  Jake nods, and then grins.
          “Why’d you run? Didn’t get scared walking here in the dark, did you?” he taunts.  I force a laugh.
          “As if!” I lie again, nervously shifting my weight from one foot to the other. I’ve never been a good liar.  “I just didn’t want you guys to think I was chickening out and leave without me.”  I don’t wait for him to reply.  “Let’s go already, or there won’t be any candy left for us!”  Jake just stares at me with a knowing grin, unconvinced, but Kendra nods in agreement.
          “Come on, Jake,” she says. “Jenny already said she wasn’t scared, and I believe her! We should go. Or are you the one who’s too scared to walk in the dark?”  The smile on Jake’s face vanishes.  I shoot Kendra a grateful look.
          “No way!” Jake grumbles.  He abruptly changes the subject.  “You guys wanna hear a ghost story?”  He continues on without waiting for an answer.  “Legend has it that, years ago, on a Halloween night, a girl and her brother were out here at this…very…bridge. He was older, and dared her to cross it.”  He pauses dramatically, his eyes flicking from me to Kendra, but there is no need.  I’m listening.
          “She didn’t want to seem chicken, so she agreed. But what neither of them knew was that the wooden boards were rotten. She made it across the first time, but she wasn’t as lucky on the way back. She was halfway across the bridge when the boards broke, sending her into the river. Her brother ran home to get help, but it was too late. She was already dead when they arrived. It’s said now that every year on Halloween night, she appears, trying to find someone to help her get home.”
          He grins suddenly, breaking the serious mood.  “Spooky, huh?”
          Kendra yawns.  “Bor-ing.”  He ignores her, still excited.
          “I bet you guys can’t guess what her name was.”
          “Claire,” I whisper softly, a shiver crawling its way up my spine.  His grin fades.
          “Aw, how’d you know?” he whines.
          “Let’s just say I’ve heard it before.”

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