M. K. Theodoratus, Fantasy Writer

Excerpt:

The Ghostcrow


 
The family car prowled the parking lot of the state park as Herfather searched for an open space. He muttered curses under his breath. Other kids called their male parent “dad” or “pop”, but Dumdie Swartz never could remember doing that. The words had never made any sense to her in reference to the cold man before her. He had been Herfather to her for since forever.

Dumdie clutched her arms tight to her body, holding back a scream when he drove through a group of ghostly soldiers standing at attention, wishing he could see the specters as plain as she did.

Please. Let the ghost guts stay on the outside of the car.

Ghosts turned her blood cold. She didn’t understand them, and she knew no one to ask about them. She was the only person she knew who saw the remains of people floating around or acting like wispy people, who sometime could grab you if you weren’t careful. She gave up long ago trying to explain why she twitched and cringed when she saw cold misty people no one else could see. The others in Herfamily thought she was crazy or pretending or seeking unwarranted attention.

The sharp scent of pine needles, spicing the air of the state park, entered the open window, giving Dumdie a hint of normalcy. She clenched her fists in her lap and closed her eyes. She couldn’t remember ever being like the other kids at school or anywhere.

More ghosts appeared in the parking lot. Wide-eyed, Dumdie Swartz recoiled against the seat. She’d never seen so many ghosts at one time. Her panic rose like sour bile in her throat. Everything was changing. The specters were becoming sharper and harder to ignore.

“Hah!”

The big family sedan darted forward, stopping just inches from the bumper of a car pulling out of a space. Herfather waited patiently as it maneuvered among the people walking towards the reenactment ceremonies. Dumdie huffed for air, waiting for more ghosts to appear in the empty spot. Luckily, this time everyone in the car ignored her in their excitement. Herfather followed the car closely so no other car could steal the space.

How can they like going to strange places?

Sue, her new older sister and worst tormenter, pinched her arm. “Don’t you go all weird on us. I saw all sorts of kids I know from school here,” she whispered. “I don’t want them to see me with you drooling like an idiot.”

Pulling her arm away, Dumdie hunkered down as a ghost floated across the hood. The trip was supposed to be fun. Herfather said it would be fun. It wasn’t supposed to be a ghost convention. Dumdie could feel the terror rise in her throat, but knew her male parent wouldn’t help her. I should have stayed home, where I’m safe.

But that morning at breakfast, Hergrandma had coaxed her to join the family outing when Herfather had thrown his hands in the air as she refused to go on the outing.

For once, Herfather’s muttering was clear. “Why can’t we do something like a normal family? Half the town’ll be there.”

“Please, child. Keep peace in the family,” Hergrandma had said.

Hermother, who loved to sew, added, “You might enjoy it. All the enactors’ll be wearing authentic period costumes.”

Hergrandma reached across the kitchen table to pat her hand. “You like history. You’ve read two history books since I’ve been here.”

Dumdie had given in. Now wished she hadn’t joined Herfamily. I’m going step through one of the cold, clammy things. My own innards’ll freeze. There’s way too many ghosts to avoid all of them, especially if I walk with my family. They always barge right through the ghosts.

The doors of her car popped open as soon as the engine stopped. Sue and Lizzy, her nicer sister, bounded away. To prove her reasoning, Sue and Lizzy plowed through a group of three misty soldiers. Dumdie stopped at the side of the path.

“Dum – dieeeeee!”

Hermother’s shriek rose like an opera singer’s, but Dumdie’s feet refused to move. She wanted Dumdie act normal, like her sisters. Dumdie’s avoidance tics made Hermother nervous. She glanced at her parents as they whispered together and glanced at her.

Words drifted towards her. “Crazy”. “Can’t you control her?” “People are looking at us.”

Dumdie wondered what their reactions would be if she didn’t move from the parking lot. If she just stayed in the car.

I should’ve stayed home. Why wouldn’t Myfather let me stay home?

Her feet shuffled forward but came to a halt at the path to the fort’s grounds and stopped. Ghosts in hooped skirts and military uniforms crowded the path ahead of her. Dumdie’s toes wanted to dig into the ground like roots. Her breath came in sharp gasps. Hermother yanked her arm, but Dumdie didn’t move. More transparent people roamed around the entrance to the enactment. Ghosts infested the parade grounds, chatting in groups or standing alone staring at nothing Dumdie could see.

“Dumdie, get a move on, for goodness sake,” grumbled Herfather. We’ll miss the re-enactment of Fort Bonnet’s fall to the Tejanos.”

Hermother yanked harder on her arm as Herfather strode ahead of them without looking back. A pat on her shoulder from Hergrandma encouraged Dumdie to lumber forward. She closed her eyes to a slit and stared at the ground immediately at her feet, hoping none of the ghost guts would stick to her.

Shrieks and proddings from Hermother had lost their power to scare her into action long ago. Ghosts were more terrifying than her parents ever could be, and Dumdie’s feet dug deeper into the ground. You never knew when a ghastly specter would reach out with its clammy hands and try to squeeze your heart, like the Stalkerghost back home. Her shoulders wriggled as the memory rose in her mind from where it hid. She shivered, remembering the last time its cold hand dug into her chest before she could escape.

Why are there so many misty people? There’ve never been this many of them before. They’re easier to avoid when there’s just one or two at one time.

Hermother’s pull and Hergrandma’s push prodded Dumdie into motion. Why am I the only one who sees things? Life was simpler before, when I was little.

Dumdie had started seeing dim transparent people back when she was practically a baby, in kindergarten. Today they swarmed among the clumps of real people, back in the parking lot and along the path before her. Everywhere Dumdie looked ghosts milled, many going about their business in strange repetitive patterns that never made any sense. Dumdie wished she were three-years-old instead of thirteen so she could jam her thumb into her mouth.

Among the tall trees on either side of the gravel path and in the meadow ahead, the state park crawled with ghosts, parading as if they had come for the reenactment, too. Two groups of real people pushed around Dumdie’s family onto the path to the fort. They passed through the entities without a cringe or shiver. Dumdie had never really seen ghost guts attached to any one, not even herself, but new things were always happening.

Hermother grabbed Dumdie’s arm. “This is not the time to go all goofy, girl. I’m tired of your hysterics. Dumdie, why can’t you be normal for once? We’re in public. Please don’t be strange. Please?”

Clenching her teeth, Dumdie swallowed the saliva slithering down the back of her throat. My name is Dolores. You named me Dolores. Dumdie kept the protest to herself. She’d given up on her name long ago. Teachers might call her Dolores or Dorry, but the kids called her Dumdie.

An unintelligible grumble rolled in Hergrandma’s throat. Hermother’s fingernails dug into her arm. Dumdie’s eyes opened wider. Hermother was pulling her forward to where a group of ghosts stood, two soldiers flirting with a lady in a wide skirt. As Hermother yanked her forward, Dumdie closed her eyes, preparing for the sharp cold to pierce her. Her stomach churned. She swallowed, ready to run to a tree and scrape off ghosts’ guts if she passed through them. Before Hermother could shout at her, Hergrandma grabbed her arm.

“Oh, thank you,” she said. “I could use a little help on this loose gravel, Dumdie.”

Hergrandma limped besides her. When Dumdie’s muscle’s tensed Hergrandma moved in the direction Dumdie wanted to jump. “Come along, child. We’ll miss the enactment if you don’t hurry.” Her grip on Dumdie’s arm was warm and encouraging.

Wishing she could be normal like her sisters, Dumdie willed herself to ignore the ghosts. She closed her eyes. When she opened them, the haunts still milled about.

Dumdie looked at the semi-circle of faces focused on her, making her cringe. Hermother looked exasperated like always. Hergrandma’s face was filled with concern but still frowning. Herfather glanced from side to side to see if anyone was looking at them and their strange daughter. For once, her two older sisters were not in sight. They had run ahead to watch a squad of enactors march across the meadow to the sound of snare drums. The pageant had started. Dumdie dropped her gaze to stare at her toes. As usual a lace was untied, but Hermother gave her no time to tie it. Just jerked her forward.

Hermother’s sharp nails dug into Dumdie’s hand as she yanked both Hergrandma and Dumdie down the path. “Come along. This is not the time to dawdle.” The shoelace caught under her foot, and Dumdie stumbled.

Herfather’s bass rumbled. “You’re getting too old to behave like a baby, girl. You’re going into high school this year.”

Closing her eyes, Dumdie did her best to walk normally. Behind her the soft voice of her sister Sue, who had circled around and appeared from the pines, began to chant, “Dum-di-dum-de-dum” over and over again to tease her. Dumdie pulled a hand free and balled it into a fist. She wished she dared smash Sue’s face in. Dumdie’d given up singing to herself long ago. She hunched her shoulders, wishing they could cover her ears.

Shut up. Shut up.

But hitting Sue was stupid. When her sisters decided to tease her, she had to bear it. If she lashed out, her sisters would just find a sneakier way to make her look in the wrong. Herfather would take their side. Not hers.

“The rest of you go ahead,” said Hergrandma. “We will join you when we find you.”

Dumdie stumbled forward, the thumb of her free hand touching each finger in turn, counting her slow steps. One. Two. Three.

Hermother didn’t leave Dumdie and Hergrandma to find their own way to the parade grounds.

Dumdie scrunched her eyes tighter. She refused to see the cold darkness when she passed through a ghost. She didn’t care if she stumbled over a rock or skinned her knee. The transparent people made the hair on her neck and arms twitch. Dumdie wished they would go away or that she could have stayed home, where wispy nasties didn’t prowl among real people.

Why do ghosts have to torment me? Ten. Eleven. Twelve…

“Come on, slow poke,” smirked Sue, her second oldest, more pudgy sister. “Lizzy’s saving us some of the extra chairs they’re putting out. The ushers let her because of Grandma being old.”

On the meadow parade grounds, the clumps of ghosts grew thicker. The adults pushed forward. Hermother let go of her hand just as she stepped through a misty soldier. Dumdie jumped back from the clammy air. She opened her eyes just wide enough so she could step around it and all the other specters walking on the path to the bleachers. Sue scowled at her as she and Hergrandma wobbled her way to the gate leading into the open-air theatre.

Sue stopped as Hermother and Herfather pressed forward. “Oh look, there’s that geekie Brody who used to come over and work on that project last year. He’s with Kyle, my friend from the football team.”

Dumdie glanced up and thought Brody, who lived a few blocks away from Herfamily, looked like a midget next to the other, more massive guy.

“Kyle.” Sue waved as the two teens climbed the bleachers with their family. “Hey, Kyle.”

The two boys ignored Sue like Dumdie wished she could.

“They ignored me.” Sue pinched her before Dumdie could jump out of the way. “If you weren’t so strange, Kyle wouldn’t have given me the cold shoulder.”

“Don’t be silly, Sue,” said Hergrandma. “The boys probably couldn’t hear you over all the noise.”

Lizzy stood and waved from seats near the bleachers. Dumdie let Hergrandma lean on her. She was comfortable to be around. Her hair was light-colored, though darker than Dumdie’s light brown shade, and she moved carefully, unlike the rest of Dumdie’s bouncy, black-haired family. Dumdie wished the rest of her family were as restful. Hergrandma never surprised her by acting in incomprehensible ways. Her family thought Dumdie strange, but most of the time she never understood why the others did the things they did.

I wish she visited more often. And stayed longer.

Attendants were adding rows of folding chairs on either side of the bleachers while people milled around them nervously waiting. Herfamily picked up speed to claim the seats. Sue pushed right through a wispy soldier in a cavalry uniform without slowing down. Dumdie helped Hergrandma sit down and scooted into the chair beside hers.

“Fantastic, you got here before the play actually started.” Lizzy, her older sister, leaned over to pull on Hergrandma’s hand. “People were trying to get me to sit on the ground. I had to fight to save your seat.”

 

#

 

On the trip home after touring the fort, the car turned into a torture chamber in the late afternoon heat. Everyone yapped like dogs at a pound. Dumdie shivered, remembering the terrible day last week when they’d taken Mr. Mufftuff, her aged pet dog, to be put down when he started wetting on the floors. Herfamily made as much sense as the dogs had. While everyone criticized her, Dumdie hung her head to avoid the stabbing scowls from the adults in the front seat. Dumdie hunkered down but knew better than to mention the ghosts. Her sisters’ complaints were the worst.

Lizzy, a senior in high school, was the loudest. “Why can’t you be normal? You looked disgusting the way you bobbed around with your eyes closed.”

“Yeah,” hissed Sue, the middle sister. “You act creepy just once when school starts, and I’m going to disown you. High school’s no place to go weird.” She tossed a dangling curl away from her eyes.

Dumdie didn’t answer. She had given up trying to explain.

When Herfather parked the car in their driveway, he turned to frown over the front seat. As soon as Sue opened the door, Dumdie dove over Sue’s lap and ran around the garage. She disappeared into the large vegetable garden along the nature trail that the Swartzes shared with Mr. Carson, their next-door neighbor. She didn’t stop until she had jumped over the low broken fence and narrow irrigation ditch into the scrub beyond. Dumdie hid under a willow thicket by the cottonwoods, not even answering when Hermother called her to come to dinner. She definitely didn’t answer when Sue whistled.

Wincing, Dumdie hunkered down in spite of her growling stomach. I won’t let her tease me like I’m a dog.

A little later, Dumdie’s empty stomach pulled her through the darkness to her own back yard. She could see her family through the open window, still eating, highlighted by the hanging lamp over the kitchen table. She crept to the back porch and leaned against the railing on the top step in the dark, trying to gather her courage to go inside. The family conversation came through the screen loud and clear.

Sue giggled. “Dumdie skitters faster than a scared rabbit.”

“Now, Sue. That’s not nice,” said Hergrandma, buttering a chunk of cornbread.

“I swear I don’t know what to do with that girl,” said Hermother. Her hands flapped, as they often did. “She just gets stranger and stranger.”

Lizzy shrugged. “That vacant stare she gets gives me the willies.”

“Yeah,” said Sue. “Her eyes go so large and black it’s like the dark rings around them eat the brown. Spooky. Worse, creepy.”

“I wish you girls wouldn’t pick on Dumdie so,” said Hermother in her soft voice.

Hergrandma cleared her throat. “Yes. Dumdie could use a little more kindness from you girls.”

“What she needs is to grow up.” Herfather’s rumble sharpened into distinct words. His half-lidded stare bored into Hermother, who hung her head. “People need to stop pampering her. It’s bad enough she’s got that relationship problem. She doesn’t have to call attention to the fact.”

Sue smirked down at her plate as Herfather’s words became indistinct again, too deep in his throat to be understood. Everyone ate in silence. Dumdie’s stomach contracted, but her feet refused to join them. Dumdie crawled under the back porch instead, swallowing hard so no one would hear her sobs. Safe, she let the tears flow. Her shirttail was wet from her quiet nose blows when Hermother came out onto the back porch. The heels of her shoes made clippy-clop noises on the planks above her.

One…two…three…four… Pause.

“Dumdie.” She called so loud the whole block could hear. “Dumdie, I know you’re out there. Come here this minute. We’re going for ice cream at McDougal’s. You can eat your dinner afterwards, while we do the dishes.”

Dumdie stayed put and curled into a tighter ball in spite of the chance to eat dessert first.

After the car had been gone a long while, Mr. Carson, the neighbor who she helped in the garden, came out of his back door, carrying a plate. Dumdie could see him walk along his solar-lamp-lined walkway towards her house. She crawled deeper underneath her porch until her back touched the foundation.

“I saw you go under the porch, Dorry-girl,” said Mr. Carson. “I brought you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and some carrot sticks from the garden. From the ones you pulled this morning.”

Dumdie didn’t move or speak.

“I made your sandwich special with some of the last of Tildie’s strawberry jam. Come on out, now, and eat.”

Silence.

Mr. Carson sighed, and Dumdie wished she had the nerve to face him. “Well, when you get hungry, it’s here by the gap behind the bushes.”

The shrub branches in front of the hole in the porch curtain moved. Too dark under the porch to see if he left the plate or not, Dumdie hid against the wall until she heard his back door close. Only then did she creep forward. Dumdie smiled when she saw the apple quarters on the plate, too.

Before she bit into the sandwich, Dumdie whispered, “Thank you, Mr. Carson.”

Herfamily left while she munched on the apple pieces day-dreaming a story where she saved people from ghosts. She fell asleep as she tried to think of a way to be brave and strong instead of a wimp. She woke to a cool lump against her side. Her eyes blinked rapidly. The ghostly form of Mr. Mufftuff lay besides her, his tail thumping. A cold slimy tongue swiped her arm.

 Her heart sunk. Oh, Mr. Mufftuff, why do you have to be a ghost too? I hate ghosts. Tears gathered at the edges of her eyes.

His betrayal made Dumdie want to shrink away, but she couldn’t move because her back was already against the wall. She struggled to sit up in the cramped space. Gulping, she fought to calm herself. Her index finger reached out to pet him.

The cold tongue licked it before the dog laid its head on her lap. Habit took over. Her hand tugged through the skewed tuff of hair on top of his head. When he had been alive, Mr. Mufftuff liked her to tug his tuff. Soon Dumdie drew her hand along his body as she had petted him when he was alive. His tail thumped in a comforting beat.

Dumdie struggled to keep her eyes open, but her mind raced. Why is Mr. Mufftuff comfortable when all the other ghosts are so terrible? I wish I understood.

The puzzle jolted Dumdie awake. Everything around her was changing.

 

~#~

 

After Hergrandma returned to her own home on the coast, Dumdie spent more time in the garden, helping Mr. Carson hoe the weeds, pick vegetables, helping Hermother can veggies for the winter, and taking wagon loads of the surplus to the nearby food bank. The scarecrow above her, hung on a tall pole, cast a bit of shade in the late summer sun, not that it ever scared the raiding deer and raccoons. Mr. Carson had dressed the scarecrow in his wife’s old garden shirt and jeans. He’d even put a lopsided head on the top with big round eyes and a smile, like the one Mrs. Carson had worn when she brought lemonade out to the garden.

At first, the scarecrow had bothered Dumdie, sending tingles of fear through her. She half-expected to see Mrs. Carson’s ghost jump out of the ragged clothes or walk along the raised vegetable beds. But she never had. Each day, when she looked up at the scarecrow, Dumdie waved to the slumping manikin before she went to work among the plants.

Her high school classes hadn’t turned out so badly. Her sisters ignored her whenever they saw her in the halls, but several girls from her grade school still talked to her. Dumdie liked her classes, especially Algebra II, where the sneaky numbers hid from you. Each day, she scurried through the halls with her backpack bumping on her back, head down but her eyes searching ahead, to her next class. Best of all, not one ghost lingered in the hallways or on the sports fields where the gym classes were held.

Still, Dumdie was happiest when she retreated to the garden after school. She lost herself among the rows of sprawling plants, trying to keep them neat and orderly. The garden was a joint effort. Hermother helped by watering and picked the produce she could use. Dumdie hoed water furrows free of weeds so the water bill wasn’t too high. Mr. Carson gathered what vegetables he could use, and Dumdie took the rest to the food bank.

No longer afraid of the scarecrow, Dumdie greeted it the first thing when she entered the garden. “Hallo, Mrs. Carson. Hope you aren’t too hot today.” She liked to imagine the scarecrow waved back, even though she knew it was just a wiff of breeze moving the dangling pieces of shirt.

Dumdie threw out the comment to be sociable because she thought that’s what people did. In spite of her sisters teasing her about being strange, Dumdie did try to understand people and act more normal--only people were so confusing. Dumdie got on her knees to search under the leaves for any zucchini plotting to grow into giants. Not even the food bank would take giant zucchini.

Peace settled over Dumdie as she worked. No specters would dare invade Mr. Carson’s garden. Chuckling to herself, she daydreamed about the critters scurrying in the soil instead of worrying about some specter grabbing her. She imagined an animal bug eating up all the plant pests so the humans could enjoy perfect vegetables like those in the store.

If only veggies grew no bigger than people wanted them to. Dumdie snorted as she made another impossible wish. Then she remembered she hadn’t greeted Mr. Carson, who was hoeing at the other end of the garden. Turning to him, Dumdie took a deep breath and waved to him too. “Hallo, Mr. Carson.”

Mr. Carson stopped to mop his face with his handkerchief. “Mighty hot for the middle of October.”

Dumdie didn’t mind the heat. The more time she spent in the garden, the less time spent listening to her sisters obsessing over clothes, make-up, and their Pumpkin Festival costumes. She worked in ragbag clothes her sisters wouldn’t touch, but she loved helping Mr. Carson since his joints were so stiff he couldn’t bend to do much picking. Like now, as she searched the bottoms of the bean plant leaves for sneaky beans while Mr. Carson hoed the pigweed from the paths between the rows. Mr. Carson put a few clumps in his gather basket because he liked to eat the sour things with olive oil and garlic.

Dumdie made a face. She thought pigweed was a zombie plant because, no matter how much you thought you’d killed it, it always returned from the dead, alive and growing more yellow flowers. Green beans were her favorites. They played games with her as they hid among the leaves to see how fat and long they could grow without her finding them. Mr. Carson said she was good enough at finding veggies to be a detective.

A bean detective. Dumdie liked the word and smiled. Apprehending errant beans.

The term ‘apprehend’ tickled her fancy. Dumdie pictured the word spread across a line of print on the green leaves a whole nine letters long as she searched for green beans. Her mind searched for other nine letter words she might find in a mystery book by Dorothy Sayers or P. D. James when giggling and rumbles from wagon wheels interrupted her daydreaming.

“We can get more pumpkins for our catapult here. I’ve seen ‘em.” Someone whispered from the trail on the other side of the bean plants. “The old geezer grows lots of them. More than he’ll ever need.”

The voice sounded a lot like Brody, one of the boys who constantly disrupted the couple of classes they shared with bad jokes. He lived several blocks over, beyond the Treeindian that haunted a huge oak at the entrance to the nature path. Glancing across the garden, Dumdie saw Mr. Carson resting in the grape arbor, fanning his face with his hat. He’d glanced in the direction of the noise on the other side of the split-rail fence, too. He jumped to his feet when two teen-aged boys vaulted over the fence.

Raising his hoe, Mr. Carson yelled. “You boys, get out of here. I’ve had enough of your raids on my garden. The pumpkins are for the little kids at the food bank.”

Brody wore a school sweatshirt with a hood pulled down over his face in spite of the heat. In a quick movement, he stepped on the nearest pumpkin vine and pulled a pumpkin free.

The taller boy with heavier shoulders, Kyle who Sue liked, crowded Dumdie with the larger pumpkin he had picked. She stepped back, wondering why Sue wanted him to notice her. He jeered back. “We have a better use for them than you do. Going to use them for practice in our pumpkin catapult.”

Dumdie wrinkled her nose at the musty smell surrounding him as if he hadn’t bathed in a while. Dumdie leapt away from the beans into his path

“Hey, leave our pumpkins alone. Those are for jack-o-lanterns, not smashing.”

“Go buy your own pumpkins,” Mr. Carson shouted as he hobbled towards the pumpkin patch.

“Come on, Kyle. Let’s get out of here,” said Brody to the larger guy.

Clutching his pumpkin to his belly, Brody vaulted back over the low fence railing, escaping just before Mr. Carson blocked the bigger teen’s way. Kyle, a mean-tempered jock, had taken the time to find the largest pumpkin, and then held up the squash like a basketball. Mr. Carson reached to grab it away from him. Kyle dodged him, and the old man fell to the ground. When he started running for the fence, he tripped over the rake Mr. Carson shoved between the raider’s legs. He fell to his knees with a thud.

Dumdie pressed her hands to her cheeks. A scream fought for air, but she only squeaked.

After he jumped to his feet, Kyle stopped in front of Dumdie, who cowered against the green bean stakes, the leaves partially covering her body. The teen loomed over her and shook his fist in her face. Dumdie blinked, and she thought she imagined flickers of light in his narrowed eyes. The hair on Dumdie’s arms rose, and she shrank further back into the plants, fearing he’d punch her.

“See this?” Kyle rubbed his fist against her nose. “I can turn your ugly face into a mess of bruises. Breathe a word about seeing us or telling our names, mudface, and I’ll make your life a torment at school.”

The world shifted around Dumdie. Not the cold like when a ghost was about to appear. Heat warmer than the sun flared before her, and the sweat trickled from Dumdie’s forehead. She forgot the fist in her face. Red flames filled Kyle’s eyes as if something else lived behind them and had noticed her. A picture of a flat face, licking its lips, flashed into her mind. Shivers crept up her spine.

More changes. Why are things becoming different?

Twisting her nose between his sap-covered thumb and index finger, Kyle shoved Dumdie down and vaulted over the fence to join Brody on the path. Both teens took off running, their wagon clattering behind. Dumdie’s eyes smarted as she rubbed her nose.

Mr. Carson groaned as he struggled to sit up, and Dumdie turned her attention to her friend. He rubbed his arm as he sat up. Dumdie jumped over the rows of veggies to get to him.

“Are you okay?” she asked as she helped him stand.

“Don’t think so,” he said between gasps of air. “My arm’s hurting bad.”

Leaning heavily against her shoulder, Mr. Carson hobbled to the lounge chair on his back patio. Dumdie ran into his kitchen for a glass of water. When she returned to the porch, Mr. Carson had flopped back at an odd angle, his eyes closed and his face twisted in pain. Putting the glass on the table, she ran back into the house and called 911.

Dumdie returned outside to drape the sofa afghan across Mr. Carson and yelled for Hermother. Confusion soon reigned. Dumdie watched Hermother running around, flapping her arms and blabbering nonsense in a tone Dumdie had never heard her use before. She was relieved when the paramedics arrived. Dumdie squeezed in a corner as she watched the EMTs swarm around her friend.

Long after the ambulance went to the hospital, Dumdie remembered the vegetables in her own wagon. A quick glance at the clock told her that she could still deliver the veggies and get them into the food bank’s refrigerators for Monday if she hurried. Dumdie raced out to grab her loaded wagon and ran, the wheels bouncing over every bump in the sidewalk. Mr. Carson hated to waste food. Dumdie could at least get his vegetables to people who needed them.

Halfway there, Dumdie slowed as she neared the huge oak marking the public entrance to the nature trail that ran along her back yard. The Treeindian walked back and forth, his hand over his forehead as if searching the far distances, like he always did. Dumdie checked him out to see to make sure his path didn’t change. For once shivers didn’t slither down her back. Her rising panic relaxed.

Her eyes squinted as she considered. Maybe some ghosts aren’t so bad? Dumdie considered the idea.

In the other direction the alley, a short cut to the food bank, beckoned her. The short cut would get her to the food bank before closing for sure. Dumdie shifted her feet and wondered if she dared take it. The snarling Stalkerghost lurked there, three houses in, ready to jump through anyone traveling down the alley. Once, when she had dawdled, the ghost had reached out and grabbed her, its clammy hands digging into her arms. Its claws so cold she felt freezer-burned.

So, run through the alley. You’re late.

After dithering, Dumdie gathered her courage. Just as approached the third garage, the air turn colder. A glance to her right revealed a misty pillar condensing in the overgrown yard. Dumdie ran, the furious howls of the Stalkerghost echoing behind her. She scampered through the alley until she only heard the wagon rattling behind her.

Dumdie reached the cross street out of breath. She rested her hands on her knees as she panted, not quite believing she had escaped. The food bank doors were in sight. When she reached the corner of the parking lot, Kyle and Brody skidded their bikes to a halt in front of her.

“Why did the ambulance show up after we left?” asked Brody, looking rather pale.

Tilting her head, Dumdie stopped. Brody looks like a skinned rabbit next to Kyle.

Kyle glared at her, his eyes growing paler until the brown almost looked yellow.

Dumdie gulped. “Mr. Carson g-got hurt when he fell down.” Quaking inside, she managed to meet Kyle’s stare even though she was too scared to accuse him directly. “They t-took him to the hospital.”

“Well, you better not tell anyone you saw us.” Kyle smirked as Brody cowered behind him. “It might not be good for your health.”

“I’m not a sick old man.” Dumdie wanted to say, “You don’t scare me”. But Kyle did, and she bit her lip so she wouldn’t.

“You don’t look like you’d put up much of a fight to me.” Kyle looked her up and down.“ I could flatten you with one punch.”

“The door’s opening. Kyle, I don’t think …” Brody shut his mouth when Kyle snarled at him.

Only hard breathing broke the moment of silence.

“Hey, Dorry,” called a voice across the narrow parking lot. “Don’t stand there talking to your friends. We’re closing soon.”

The food bank doorman was tall and burly, more than a match for the football- playing Kyle. Taking a deep breath and not looking back, Dumdie turned into the driveway and trotted across the lot towards the building, her wagon bumping behind her. It took her thirty-five steps to reach the door and safety.

Mr. Sticktring, the doorman, smiled at her. “Made it in time, but I don’t see any pumpkins.”

“Mr. Carson said they were still growing in this heat. I’ll be bringing them in next week.” If there’re any left.

Dumdie glanced back towards the two boys, straddling their bikes. Brody hung his head and started pedaling away first. Kyle glared at her, not moving. She imagined his strange piss-colored eyes burning through her. Dumdie shivered.

No wonder my sisters flinch away from my hazel eyes so much. Yellowish eyes look weird.

“Well, hope you bring some next time. The pumpkins were a big hit last year, and kids are asking for them.”

Dumdie followed the doorman into the food bank, without looking back. She crossed her fingers. With any luck, Kyle’ll get tired of waiting and disappear before I leave.

 

#

 

Later, after supper, while Dumdie filled the dishwasher, Hermother harrumphed as she fanned her face, waiting for her steaming coffee mug to cool. Often she stayed in the kitchen while “the girls” did the chores. Dumdie figured the routine soothed her nerves. Tonight, Hermother’s presence soothed Dumdie after her encounters with Kyle. Sue seldom said something really nasty when she was watched.

“Well, that was quite a to-do this afternoon with the ambulance and all.” Hermother’s voice quavered in the quiet. “Poor Mr. Carson. You say some boys were stealing pumpkins?”

“Yes’m. Mr. Carson fell down trying to stop them.”

“Which boys?” asked Sue, who was sweeping up.

Dumdie wished she were sweeping. The alternating black and white squares cheered her. The floor was perfect for playing her own version of hopscotch on when she was alone. Once she had alternated 147 sets of squares before she stepped out of bounds. Sue had grabbed the broom from Dumdie, pleading her nails were still tacky from a new coat of pink polish, and now Dumdie was washing dishes. Sue always made things complicated or managed to make things go her way.

“Enough, Sue. We don’t need you upsetting things.” Hermother cleared her throat. “Well, we don’t need to stick our noses in Mr. Carson’s problems. We don’t want no trouble with the neighbors after that dustup over the trail-gardens. If anyone asks, say you don’t know. You too, Dumdie.”

“But…” Dumdie wanted to object. Her lower jaw jutted out as she stared at Hermother. The woman was always concerned about appearances. Stealing pumpkins isn’t fair. You should grow or buy your own.

“Mr. Carson is an adult. If he wants to raise a ruckus when he returns from the hospital, he can.”

“But Kyle tripped over him while he was on the ground.” Dumdie protested. Her jaw jutted out like it did when she was upset with Herfamily. “People should know. Even if it was an accident.”

Hermother shifted in her chair, looking towards Dumdie’s sisters for support. “Accidents are accidents. They’re mistakes, not crimes. We don’t need to shine a spotlight on them. Less said, the sooner people will forget.”

Lizzie shook her head. “Yeah, it’s best to stay out of it, Dumdie. You don’t know what you’re messing with. Leave Kyle alone. He’s changed since last year.”

“It’s still not right...”

With a sigh, Lizzy said, “He’s always had a temper, but it’s gotten worse. Even the guys on the football team are scared of him now. You don’t want him to notice you.”

“She’s right,” said Sue. “He’ll make your life more miserable than it already is.” She took a deep breath, watching her audience. “The refs benched him for a tackle after the whistle, and the coach said Kyle couldn’t play the next game. That night the coach fell down his porch stairs.”

With a look of concern, Hermother asked, “Kids picking on you at school, Dumdie?”

Dumdie hung her head. “Not really, Mama.”

Sue brushed a curl away from her eye. “Then why don’t I ever see you with anyone, pariah girl?”

“I talk to kids all the time,” said Dumdie. “You just don’t think they’re important enough to notice.”

Hermother glanced at Lizzy. “Don’t look at me, Mom. I never see her. She’s like a ghost in the halls. I’m a senior.” Lizzy shrugged. “Our classes are in different parts of the building. Don’t see you in the cafeteria though. Where do you go for lunch?”

“I eat my sandwich and go to the library,” said Dumdie, blushing.

“Better not let the monitors catch you eating in the halls. Guess old Reynolds’ll keep you safe from bullies in the library unless she catches you eating.” Sue giggled. “Then, you got a choice. Wear armor in the cafeteria or starve.”

“Don’t be silly, Sue.” Hermother peered over her coffee at Dumdie, her eyes filled with worry. “But you tell me if someone bullies you, child. You hear me?”

Dumdie shrugged. She was good at hiding in plain sight. But I’m nothing like a ghost. I talk to people…sometimes. The ones that make sense.

 

#

 

Three days later, the family was sitting on the front porch, drinking lemonade, when a police car drove up to the house. Herfather had insisted that Dumdie join them, to get some fresh air instead of hiding in her room with a book. Dumdie leaned by the front door, wearing faded jeans and a sky blue tee. She watched a couple cops emerge from the unmarked car stopping at their house. Dumdie’s lips tightened as her brain raced.

Maybe I can use them to escape to my room.

Dumdie had just discovered the author Heather Graham and found the relationships between the men and women in her books interesting. Still, she couldn’t see why Sue went all gooey eyes over Kyle when she talked about him. Dumdie thought he was a scary jerk, even if he was a football star. The two cops lumbered up the walkway with their heavy, device-laden belts slung low on their hips.

Gee, one tubby cop and one skinny one. Guess one doesn’t eat donuts.

Herfather greeted the cops as they sauntered up the walk. “Hello, officers. Anything we can do for you?”

The skinny cop spoke. “We have some questions about your neighbor who died at the hospital this morning.” He paused to flip through his notebook. “I believe someone in your family called 911?”

Her heart leaping to her throat, Dumdie froze. Her brain froze worse than when a ghost touched her. Her lemonade glass slipped through her limp fingers. While she saw Herfather’s frown, fear didn’t stab her.

“How sad,” said Hermother. “But poor Mr. Carson was getting clumsier and clumsier, the poor man. I guess it was to be expected, him being so old.” Hermother wrung her hands. “I’ll miss him. Mr. Carson was a good neighbor.”

“Our families have shared a garden along the nature trail since we moved here,” said Herfather.

“We take the extra produce to the food bank,” added Lizzy.

Maybe a million years ago you did, Lizzy. I take it. It’d rot for all you care.

Watching the scene play out like a movie, Dumdie’s feet pushed her hard against the wall on the hinge-side of the screen door. Anger and fear churned her insides. Hermother nodded, but Sue piped up. “Dumdie saw the whole thing.”

Both cops turned towards Dumdie, making her wish she could run around them and hide under the back porch, anything but having their burning gaze bore into her. Herfather’s scowl rooted her feet to the flooring. Dumdie braced against the wall.

Their eyes are scarier than the Stalkerghost’s. I bet they don’t miss a twitch.

Sue preened and pointed at her. “That’s Dumdie. She’s always wasting time in the garden.”

“It’s ours, too.” Dumdie pushed away from the wall as she protested. Everyone stared at her and Dumdie hunched back against the wall again. “We g-get our vegetables from the g-garden too.”

“I’m sure they’re delicious.” Tubbycop smiled. “Don’t worry. We just have a couple of questions.”

Dumdie’s feet pushed her back harder against the wall until the siding dug into her back. The other cop smiled too, but his smile stopped at the corner of his lips. Both sets of eyes looked like black stones.

The thinner guy’s predatory gaze sent heat rushing to Dumdie’s face as he flipped through his notebook. “So, you had the good sense to call 911 when Mr. Carson had problems. Can you tell us what happened?” His stare swept across her family and stopped at Herfather. “In your own words.”

Remembering Kyle’s fist in her face, Dumdie stared, unable to close her mouth until she had to swallow the accumulating spit. “I w-w-work in the g-garden helping Mr. Carson after school. He said he f-fell down when he chased some boys. He said he didn’t feel s-so g-g-good. When he passed out, I c-called 911.”

Dumdie felt safer when she didn’t mention the boys’ names. Skinnycop raised both of his eyebrows, but Dumdie said nothing more. To calm herself, Dumdie counted the people on the porch, but there weren’t enough of them to soothe her, not even when she added the neighbors who had appeared on their porches. She ticked off items hanging from the cops’ belts. The muscles in her back wound tighter and tighter. “You called 911 because of a fall?” asked Tubbycop.

“I c-called b-because Mr. Carson p-passed out wh-when I got him a g-glass of w-water.”

Dumdie closed her eyes. She hated it when she stuttered. It made her sound goofy and as dumb as Sue thought her.

Skinnycop asked the next question. “Anything else you want to say?”

After a long pause while she gripped her knees so they wouldn’t shake, Dumdie said, “Mr. Carson, p-p-passed out, and I c-c-called 9-1-1. His lips were turning blue. I r-r-read th-that was a b-bad sign.”

The policeman shifted his legs further apart, and his voice rose. “That all?”

Dumdie hunkered her shoulders and stared at the cop’s belt buckle.

Glancing from the cop to Dumdie, Herfather cleared his throat as he glanced across the street. “You’re distressing my whole family, not to mention Dumdie. She only stutters when she’s upset.”

Herfather spoke with such force, Skinnycop stepped back. Both cops frowned.

“My wife saw most of what happened and told me the whole story.” When both cops raised their eyebrows, he drew to his full height. “Our kitchen window looks out over much of the garden. Mr. Carson was an old man who had a heart condition. It’s sad, but nothing untoward.”

“The situation is more serious than you think, sir,” said Skinnycop. “It’s more than petty theft. Vandalism in this neighborhood has increased, and we think it’s all related because of some things the old man said.”

When Herfather’s scowl hardened, the cop added, “Now a pet has been tortured. A hulking figure was seen fleeing when the dog’s howls drew attention. If the incidents are related, this may be a manslaughter case.”

“None of my daughters would associate with such a despicable person.”

“I’m not saying they do. But they might have heard some gossip at school.”

Her father glared at the thin policemen, who tightened his lips but remained silent. Tubbycop stared down at his feet. Dumdie wished she had the strength to cow people like Herfather did. Sue’d have to leave her alone. The cops’ visit had turned her insides to mush.

After taking a deep breath, Skinnycop said, “Just a formality.” He snapped the notebook closed. “Guess this will do for now.” He smiled, but his hard black eyes didn’t soften. “If we have any more questions, we’ll be back.”Her father’s voice was as stern as if he were scolding the paperboy for throwing the paper on the porch roof. “See you call ahead next time.”

Dumdie Swartz has always feared the ghostsshe sees, but as she enters high school she learns there's something worse -- a demon with plans for her special talents.


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The Ghostcrow: A Tale of Andor