by Mary Reed
& Eric Mayer
Here is another fun Halloween short story! This one has never been published before.
You might have passed by the pool without noticing it below the stone bridge where Black Creek cuts under the paved footpath leading through Pinewoods Park to High Street. When we were kids we called it “Bottomless Pool.” We were sure it was haunted.
One evening in late August, Joe and I took the shortcut to the creek through Zeke Halleck’s backyard. Lady, the old man’s Irish Setter, started barking. Then Zeke, who’d been invisible to us, kneeling down weeding a bed of phlox, struggled to his feet and waved his trowel.
“You ought’nt be going down there,” he yelled after us as we ran. “See you’re away by dark.”
I suppose he had reason for concern. I’m not sure if the pool actually is bottomless, but it was treacherous. Our parents warned that more than one careless child had drowned there, but we figured they were just saying that to scare us.
We dodged through a gap in the straggling blackberry bushes at the back of Zeke’s yard and half slid down the springy, pine-needled slope to the pool. The air was cooler under the trees. We hunkered down on the bank and looked into the clear water.
“Look at that ‘skipper’ down there,” said Joe.
I could see the flat stone he was pointing to, on the underwater ledge by the shore. The pool looked shallow enough for me to reach in and pick the stone up.
I laid down so the pine needles scratched my arms, stretched out over the bank, and plunged my skinny arm in as far as I could reach. When I closed my hand there was nothing there but icy water. Seen through the distorting water, my arm appeared crooked and shortened.
“It’s a mirage.” I was remembering the diagrams of mirrors I’d seen in my fifth grade science book. “The water bends the light rays.”
“Naw,” said Joe. “There’s no bottom. There’s nothing down there at all. Nothing!”
We could only imagine how deep the pool became beyond the ledge. As darkness began to dull the surface so it no longer reflected the surrounding trees, we could see fish moving in those depths—big pale shapes, the color of the moon behind clouds.
“What do you think?” Joe asked. “Are they rainbows or bullheads?”
I pushed my thick-lensed glasses up off my nose and squinted into the water. I couldn’t make out any details.
“Must be a foot long,” I guessed.
“Bigger,” said Joe. “Lots and lots bigger, if they’re really there!”
There weren’t any ‘skippers’ near the pool’s edge, but we found a heavy stone at the base of the bridge. It was greasy with moss, but Joe, who was huskier than me, managed to fling it into the water. The pool swallowed it with a deep, hollow gulp.
“Do you think that’s how it sounded when the ‘Girl in White’ jumped off the bridge?” wondered Joe.
“Yeah,” I said, “but louder.”
I’m not sure where I first heard about the ‘Girl in White.’ All the kids in town knew about her, just like we knew that there was something awful buried in the mound at the base of the birch in the corner of the field behind the Browns’ barn, and that there were rattlers under the cliff where the railroad ran past the cemetery.
“Maybe we should stay and see her,” Joe suggested.
Fireflies blinked in the bushes. I looked up toward the bridge. There was nothing to be seen from our angle except a dark, humped mass outlined against paler sky. Then the top half of a figure appeared, shoulders hunched, moving laboriously across the bridge. A soft short whistle carried down to us.
“It’s Zeke,” I said.
He was walking Lady. The old man had trained the big Irish Setter to obey him so perfectly, the soft whistling commands he gave linked the two of them as surely as a chain.
“You think he decided to check on us?”
“No, he always walks Lady in the park.”
But we remained motionless, in the shadows, where he wouldn’t be able to see us if he decided to look down toward the pool.
It took him a long time to make his way over the bridge and when he had passed the park had darkened.
“So,” said Joe, ”are we staying to see her?”
“She doesn’t appear until they close the park gates.” It was said her ghost floated in the air beside the bridge.
“Why would a ghost care if the gates are closed?”
I didn’t have an answer. In the darkness the smell of pines was very strong. Then something pale moved at the top of the deserted bridge.
Joe and I didn’t wait to find out if there was a mundane explanation. We took off, scrambled up the slope, and burst through the blackberry bushes, only stopping when we reached Zeke’s backyard.
“Just some newspaper in the wind,” my heart was racing. I was scared and thrilled at the same time.
Joe didn’t bother to point out how still the air was. We stood in front of the bushes, catching our breath. My glasses had steamed up with my exertion and the humidity. I took them off and wiped the lenses with my shirt-tail. Away from the trees it wasn’t completely dark and in a moment our fears had vanished, so potent is the power of light.
As we headed to the street, we saw Zeke resting on his back porch. My dad said Zeke sat on the porch too much. But we liked Zeke. He lived alone, as he had ever since I could remember. Sometimes he asked us into his kitchen, where he still kept a coal stove, and showed us fossilized shark teeth and the slick ball he’d made from the hair Lady shed when he groomed her. His callused hands pulled half dollars from behind our ears. He put the half dollars into the pockets of his own gray trousers—never into our hands.
Joe and I flung ourselves on to the porch steps. “Hey, Zeke, we need to make some kind of fishing pole to get those big fish down in Bottomless Pool,” said Joe. “Can you help?”
Zeke patted Lady, curled up beside his cane-backed rocking chair. “They’re just suckers is all. Not fit to eat.”
“Aw, come on, Zeke,” Joe cajoled.
The old man pulled at his salt and pepper mustache. It struck us an exotic adornment back in the fifties.”You little buggers better stay away from that pool, ‘specially tonight. Tonight’s a full moon.”
“You afraid the ‘Girl in White’s’ gonna get us?” asked Joe.
“Oh, sure. We’ve just seen her.”
Zeke frowned. “You wouldn’t have, yet.”
“So, what do you know about her?” asked Joe.
Zeke was quiet for a few minutes. Lady stirred at his side. “Mind, girl.” He reached down to give her a pat.
“It’s a powerful sad story,” Zeke went on. “It was a long time ago. Forty years, maybe. The milk man still had a horse-drawn wagon, as I remember. There was a girl lived on High Street.”
“Her name was Lila. An old-fashioned name. But she was a wild kind of girl, anyway. Redheads are like that. You’ll find out soon enough.”
“Lila was full of life as anyone you’d like to meet. Tall and beautiful. She fell in love with a young man, as girls do. She was sure he was the one she wanted to spend her life with. ‘We’ll have a big family,’ she told him.”
“You see, Lila was an only child, and lonely.”
“But she was a banker’s daughter and her father was outraged. ‘A common laborer,’ he called the young man.’A layabout.’ He wouldn’t have it.”
“So what’d he do—kill her?” interrupted Joe.
“That’s a hard question. But, you ‘uns don’t want to hear about hard questions or about all the love stuff either. Not right yet, anyhow. But you have to know some of it to know about her ghost.”
“You see, Lila and her friend tried to meet in secret, but her father found out.”
“So he sent her away,” Joe broke in again. Annoyed, I gave him a nudge. Zeke didn’t seem to mind.
“Might have sent her away, only Lila didn’t wait to find out what he intended on doing. The red hair, you see.”
“The whole life she’d dreamed up—her young man, their big family—seemed impossible. She was what they call distraught. Or so the newspaper said. She told her young man that if they couldn’t spend their lives together they’d still spend eternity together. Those were her words.”
“They should’ve sounded silly, but to the young man they didn’t. Wasn’t anything she could’ve said he wouldn’t have took serious.”
“Anyway, some of the most important things people ever say sound silly when they’re repeated by someone else.”
“He tried arguing with her, but she had her mind set.”
“Finally he agreed to meet her on the bridge that crosses Black Creek. Just to make sure she didn’t hurt herself.”
“There was a full moon when he got to the bridge. The shadows cast by the trees were black as pitch, but where the moonlight hit, the road was bright. He didn’t see her ‘til she stepped out of a shadow. Then her dress glowed in the moonlight, so it blurred his eyes. She weren’t wearing a wedding dress, like in the tales, just her white Sunday dress with lace at the neck.”
“He saw right away she was in a state.”
“‘Do you love me?’ she asked him. ‘Are you ready to come with me now?’ She stood against the stone parapet and held her hand out to him.”
“He took the slim fingers in his callused hand. The night was so bright he could see the pulse beating at the base of her neck, above the lace. Just where he’d kissed her, once.”
“And there was something wild in her eyes he’d never seen before. For years after, thinking about those eyes, he wondered if maybe she wouldn’t have gone and done the same thing, some other time, for some other reason.”
“‘Come home,’ he told her. ‘We’ll make your father understand.’”
“But she just shook her head, setting the long red hair to swinging, as if to say, ‘you know better’ and leaned back against the stone parapet.”
“Now the young man was afraid. He said, ‘I’d come with you, but what about our children. Powerful hard to have children once you’re dead.’”
“Maybe that was the wrong thing to say. He felt her fingers tighten around his hand. And then she threw herself over the edge. Just like that.”
“She pulled him off the bridge with her?” asked Joe.
“No,” said Zeke. “He…tried to hold her. He did try. But her hand slipped out of his.”
Lady whimpered quietly in the dark, and Zeke made a hushing noise. Then he said, “All the way down her eyes seemed to be locked on his face, though that weren’t really possible, I suppose. Her arms reached up towards him, not to save herself, but beckoning him to follow.”
“Now it should have been easy enough to pull her out and having got a good soaking she’d be able to see things sensibly. He ran down to the pool and jumped in. But all he got his hands on was water. It was like ice, even in midsummer. He dove again and again. It isn’t a big pool. They never did find her body.”
“That’s ’cause the pool is bottomless,” said Joe.
“That may be,” agreed Zeke. “But her ghost still haunts the bridge, every night.”
“How do you know? Have you seen it?” asked Joe.
“I don’t need to.”
“They say she falls, every night, without ever reaching the bottom,” I put in. “Like you do in a bad dream.”
“Maybe,” said Zeke. “But when the moon is full… Well, just don’t you go down there after dark.”
We sat and listened to the crickets and peepers and watched the bats zig zagging through the dim, ragged patch of sky above the trees. A night breeze carried to us the sweet smell of the flower beds. Joe and I looked at each other. We didn’t have to speak. We knew what we intended to do.
After a while, Zeke pushed himself up from his rocker. He whistled to Lady that it was time to go inside. “You ‘uns get on home.”
The moon had risen. Joe and I lingered on the sidewalk in front of Zeke’s house until we saw the light go on in his bedroom, then we ran quietly back across his yard and through the gap in the blackberry bushes. The moonlit slope beside the pool was crisscrossed with dense shadows of overhanging limbs, so black it looked as if you might trip over them.
We slid down to the edge of the water. The pool was a pit. The moonlight didn’t penetrate far enough to show the big fish swimming in its depths. But I thought I could feel them down there.
“You see anything?” whispered Joe.
We waited, hunkered down. The sound of the peepers was a pulse. We craned our necks to watch the bridge, each stone clearly visible in the moonlight.
Something appeared. Seemed to condense out of the heavy air at the top of the bridge.
Like your breath when you exhale on a starlit winter’s night.
My breath stopped short.
As I watched, the patch of mist became a hazy figure. It didn’t expand in the normal sense but rather appeared to approach and become recognizable.
The ragged edges of the figure—long hair or gauzy fabric—seemed continually to be plucked away as if in a high wind, dissipating at the edges, as it fell, slowly, toward the black surface of the pool.
It hit the water with a splash that reverberated through the pines with the hollow echoes of forty years.
And for the second time that night Joe and I fled.
As I scrambled up the slope I heard a crash. Joe yelled.
I turned my head, and as I did, my glasses flew off into the darkness.
In a blur I saw Joe sliding backwards toward the pool. He must have slipped on the pine needles. He grabbed hold of something—a sapling maybe—at the last second and hung on, one sneaker dangling over the bank.
And then I saw, or thought I saw, something big and pale as moonlight moving beneath the surface of the water.
One of the fish, I thought.
Nearsighted and deprived of my eyeglasses, I can’t swear to what I seemed to see next. A hand formed of writhing mist appeared to break the pool’s surface without a sound, reached and folded skeletal fingers around Joe’s ankle.
Then it began to pull him into the water.
Joe screamed and kicked. He was strong for his age, or else he might’ve gone in right away.
There was a whimper from the top of the slope.
“Hush, Lady. Stay, girl. Stay.”
Pine needles crunched as Zeke made his way down the slope.
“Wait,” he said. I knew he wasn’t speaking to me.
The ghostly hand let go of Joe’s leg, and my friend crawled away.
Zeke’s footing seemed surer than usual and he stood straighter. I couldn’t make out what he had clutched in his right hand, but as he passed by me, I smelled phlox.
Zeke stopped at the brink.
Above the water hovered a mist, forming and dissipating, giving a momentary impression of dark eyes, full lips, a slim neck, leaving the mind to pull together the fragmentary glimpses. I’m not sure I would have seen it any more clearly even if I’d been wearing my glasses.
The arms of the ‘Girl in White’ stretched out toward old Zeke. And for a second I thought the moonlight struck a spark of red from the phantasm’s hair, but that can hardly be because ghosts have no color.
“I know it weren’t right to keep you waiting,” Zeke said.
The shimmering mist flowed toward him, and he began to sink, with a peculiar slowness the ghostly figure sinking with him—until he had vanished beneath the water, leaving not a ripple. Strange, because I would’ve supposed that, optical illusion or not, the water near the edge shouldn’t have been deep enough to go over a grown man’s head.
There was a scrabbling noise from Lady beside me. She pranced from side to side and whined as she looked into the black water. Her haunches tensed, as she prepared to jump.
“Stay,” I said, echoing her master. And she stayed, as Zeke had trained her.
I don’t remember much more of that night, or the days that followed.
Joe claims to remember nothing at all.
I told my story, but everyone said it was a product of fright and my glasses being broken.
Zeke’s body was never found.
I learned later there had indeed been children drowned in the pool, though the deaths ceased once Zeke had joined his girl. Maybe it was her young man she was after all along. Maybe from down there, you just can’t see this world, their other side, any better than you can see deep into the pool from our side.
Or maybe she still wanted that big family.
My dad grudgingly let me keep Lady. In the autumn I got up the courage to take her walking across the bridge at twilight. I forced myself to look down into the pool and saw big, pale shapes moving through the deep water.
I haven’t passed that way since.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories (including more Halloween ones) in our mystery section and watch for many more Halloween short stories this month.