You used to think you might marry Markus Mayer when you grew up, but now you want to peel every freckle off his face and prove he’s a liar.
“I’m not scared of ghosts,” you say when he tells you Mr. Gower’s field is haunted, that the ghost of a woman searches the heather at night for her missing baby.
“The baby was eaten by wolves,” Markus says, licking his chapped lips. “Even the bones.”
He drags his leg behind him, showing you how the lady walks—“Tha-thump, tha-thump,”—ever since wolves nearly tore her leg off and left it hanging by a tendinous thread.
You make a mental tick, evidence that Markus is lying:
1. There’ve been no wolves in this part of the country for fifty years.
“Course they’re no wolves now,” he says. “They were chased off by the Lady of the Field. All but maybe one. Some nights you can hear it howling.”
You roll your eyes, but you don’t back down when he dares you to camp out in Mr. Gower’s field. You say Hell, yes. Even though you’re not supposed to swear. Even though it’s a new moon, sky black as black, too dark to see your shoes. Even though your mother will have a conniption if she finds you snuck out. It will be worth it to prove ghosts don’t exist and Markus is an idiot for saying otherwise.
When you get to the field, Markus has already set out a circle of stones and lit a small fire. The flames flicker orange on Markus’s face and make the darkness of the field even darker. Above, in the cloud-shrouded sky, the stars have gone missing.
“Scared yet?” Markus asks, waggling his eyebrows.
“I told you, I don’t believe in ghosts.”
2. If ghosts were real, wouldn’t your dad have visited by now?
It’s been six months.
You unroll your sleeping bag next to the fire, figure at first light you’ll sneak back to the house before your mother wakes and finds you missing. You’re already yawning and night dew brings chill bumps to your arms, but Markus promises there’s a way to beckon the Lady of the Field. He tosses sage into the flames, sending sweet smoke rising up, and mimics the strangled cry of a baby.
“Well that’ll stir the dead,” you say, just like your dad used to when you practiced the violin.
Markus feeds more herbs into the fire, and you join in on the second part of the stupid ritual when he starts howling.
It feels good, the noise filling your belly, bursting out. You’d tried to make yourself so small while your mother grieved. But now you can’t help yourself. You are louder than Markus. You tip your head back and howl louder than any wolf ever.
Markus goes quiet though. His eyes widen.
“Do you hear it?”
“That oooo-ing sound,” he says.
You tilt your head like a dog, trying to pick out the noise, but all you hear is wind scraping over the hillside.
3. When wind hits an object just right, it creates vibrational sound waves, loops forming whistles and wails.
“It’s not the wind,” Markus says. “It’s her. The lady.”
4. When you were eight, Markus told you the school librarian found a man’s big toe buried in her backyard. When she died suddenly, Markus said the toe’s ghost killed her. Later, you heard it was a heart attack.
“Don’t turn around,” he says.
“There’s something behind you. I saw it move.”
“Liar,” you say, staring into the darkness. You can’t spot the far stand of trees, you can’t even see the heather.
When you turn to face Markus, his eyes are rolled so far back only the whites are showing.
“You’re a dick.” It’s the first time you’ve used that word, but it seems fitting.
Markus shakes his eyes back into shape, but before he can laugh, you both hear it.
5. Dogs howl, don’t they?
“Probably Mr. Gower’s sheepdog,” you say. “It’s the only one near enough.”
“Nah, Mr. Gower’s dog died last week. Got its leg caught in a trap and had to be put down.”
You don’t argue. You don’t know jack about Mr. Gower’s dog. But you hear the sound, clear as anything, coming closer.
You scramble over to Markus’s side of the fire and stare into the dark field.
“Is this another toe story?” you ask, and he shakes his head. Markus points his flashlight but, finding nothing to land on, the light splinters.
There’s a whoosh in the high grass, and Markus grabs your arm. “What was that?”
6. A low pocket of wind?
7. Rabbits? Foxes?
And then you hear it, not a howl this time, but a woman’s shrill cry.
“Fuck!” Markus says, scrambling onto his feet. “We should go.”
Your heart is beating in your throat and you need to put out the fire, but you can’t move. You can’t breathe. Is that a thumping noise?
You wish your dad were here. Your mother. Daylight.
8. Ghosts aren’t real.
“C’mon!” Markus whisper-yells, pulling your arm. And a high shriek wails in your ear.
All at once, you hear your dad’s voice. Unmistakable. Urgent. Loud. “Run!”
And you’re off, speeding through the dark heather, the high weeds. You’re the whoosh, the thumping, Markus’s fractured light bouncing ahead of you. Your breath breaking in your gut, sides squeezing.
You don’t stop till you reach the creek.
Was it really your dad? Is he here?
Holding your sides, you turn back. There’s a figure near the fire.
He crouches, feeding the flames, and your eyes blur. You swear you can smell him, Lifebuoy soap and tanned leather, as if he’s all around you.
As you step out from the creek line, he turns towards you.
You gulp air, blink, and he’s gone.
SARA HILLS — Sara is the author of The Evolution of Birds, a full-length flash collection from Ad Hoc Fiction. Her stories have featured in SmokeLong Quarterly, Cheap Pop, X-R-A-Y Literary, Cease Cows, Reckon Review, Fractured Lit, and others. She’s had work included in both the Wigleaf Top 50 and the BIFFY 50, commended in the Bath Flash Fiction Award, and nominated for various award anthologies. Originally from the Sonoran Desert where she’s seen her fair share of ghosts, Sara lives in Warwickshire, UK and tweets from @sarahillswrites.
Art by AARON BURCH — Aaron is the author of the memoir/literary analysis Stephen King’s The Body; the short story collection, Backswing; and the novella, How to Predict the Weather. He is the Founding Editor of Hobart and HAD. His first novel, YEAR OF THE BUFFALO, will be released in 2022. Find him online at www.aaronburch.net or on Twitter @Aaron_Burch.